Thursday, March 26, 2015

Winter Pastimes

It's been over five months since I've written a blog entry!  I feel as if I've been in hibernation, but looking back over my photo record of the winter, I realize that I've been all over:

1. Land Searching!
2. Big Picture Learning & Practicing
3. Civic Duty in DC
4. Visits to Faraway Friends

This land search deal has lasted for 6 years, as my patient real estate agent knows well.  However, since I sold my farm business and moved out of town, and then through life's unexpected twists and turns, moved BACK to Rochester, the search has intensified.  I know I want to farm, I know where I want to farm, I know how to farm, and I know that I don't want to farm on leased land anymore.

I've been looking high and low, far and wide, for the right place to plant my roots for the rest of this lifetime.  Land-searching in the wintertime lets me flex my creative-visioning muscles, dreaming up colorful abundance in monotone landscapes that often look more like the surface of the moon than an organic fruit or vegetable farm.  But I enjoy walking through fields, and I enjoy dreaming and planning.  Here is a sampling of the landscapes I've seen this winter, some candidates for my lifelong stewardship:

And oh, the soil maps!  I may have the glacially-formed landscape of all arable topsoil less than 30 miles south of Rochester memorized by the time I'm finished with this search.

And the barns.  I have always been in love with these pastoral dinosaurs.  Unfortunately, many of them are falling down because we have collectively turned our backs on these relics that were once so central to our thriving rural communities and economies.  Now we often just store junk until the whole thing collapses.

But, other than prancing around in collapsing barns and across tundras of blowing snow, I've filled my time with learning, in its various forms-- from gatherings to farm visits.  Also, practicing meditation, at Blue Cliff Monastery as well as on my own.

I was blessed to be invited to a lovely meeting of the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast (PINE) at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck.  These committed folks are thinking really long-term:  how we will be growing our food in a not only organic and sustainable way, but absolutely regenerative, restorative, and resilient!  We brainstormed, networked, shared experiences and project ideas.  I am excited to learn more and more about how agriculture can change and adapt beautifully to a changing climate.

I spent a few days with Sean Dembrosky in Trumansburg, who is becoming a serious expert at extreme backyard food production-- he is experimenting with locally-adapted fruit and nut tree varieties, shittake mushrooms, and bio-char production.  We stayed up tending neat pit-fires of recently felled pine trees, then poured water on them when they were all red-hot as hell.  What remains is not ash but a dark stable form of carbon which can stay in the soil for thousands of years, adding fertility to garden beds for the long-term.  This is a practice that indigenous people used for many years in the tropics, but we are just starting to learn now, and it could be an important tool for our atmospheric-carbon problem.


I have been hanging out with my favorite farmer-mentor, Elizabeth Henderson.  She and I both live in the city of Rochester now, so we like to get out to farms on field-trips and stuff: 

This is our field-trip to see Doug Mason's hundreds of acres of produce, and high-tech warehouse:

I swear we are not a Carhart ad.  And yes, those are robots x-raying and sorting apples for size, color, and defects.

Another field trip:  I couldn't pass up a visit with my favorite kids in the world, Felix and Zola, who just moved to Cooperstown with their omelette-providing buddies.

And it was a good fall for gathering wild mushrooms!  My housemate Emily and I found a 50-pound Chicken-of-the-Woods while walking the dog along the Genesee River, eating it for many meals for several weeks, and freezing some for the winter months.  And these Maitake were abundant and delicious in a woods which will remain anonymous!


I got to tour the apple orchards of Ontario and Williamson, up by the lake where the weather is moderate for fruit growing and the landscape almost looks like Napa Valley.  New apple production is all on a trellis system like grape vines, except 10 feet tall!  "Trees" are planted as dense as two feet apart and pruned aggressively.  I understand the practical reasons for this change in techniques, and appreciate the skill and beauty that goes into it all.  But I still have questions about the long-term resilience of a system like this, which currently is dependent on a lot of chemical sprays.

Winter is also for dancing -- I learned that a local grange hall hosts a monthly Cajun Zydeco band, a sign out in front claiming that it is the largest grange in the USA!  It is a beautiful building, and as I get down on that lovely wood floor, I feel connected to all my ancestral booty-shakin' agrarian folks.

Oh, also berry pies.  I like to perfect my pie crust practice in the winter.  We all need more butter in our lives when the temperatures go below freezing.  These were made from wild grapes!

Can't say enough about Blue Cliff Monastery, in the Catskills, and the life-changing lessons I've experienced there.   Sitting on a cushion in silence, I learn again and again that peace and happiness are not something to be sought after but are actually present and accessible at all moments when we just wake up to the fact that we are alive right now!


I got the wonderful chance to lobby in DC as an organic farmer concerned with the fact that so much of our food in the US comes from genetically modified crops which were designed by the big-ag industry to tolerate vast spraying of herbicides.  I was joined by a dozen other organic farmers from around the country, as well as top scientists researching these herbicides and "super-weed" resistance, which requires farmers to spray more and more chemicals in order to kill weeds, a toxic treadmill which poisons our land, our water, and our bodies, and only benefits the companies selling the chemicals.


An important report just came out from the World Health Organization that the world's most popular herbicide, glyphosate (Round-Up), probably causes cancer.  Over 80 million acres in the US are sprayed with this stuff each year, so this is a bid deal.

I have been disappointed by all the US mainstream press coverage on this report, which across the board seems to defend Monsanto's claim that this science, done by French researchers working for the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is faulty and not to be listened to.  I hope that people can read between the lines to see that of course a gigantic multinational company like Monsanto, and others in the industry, will spend millions to try to convince us that its toxic chemical business is safe!  They have a lot at stake!  But so do we...

In DC I got to see it from the inside, hear it direct from the mouths of our legislators:  the agribusiness industry has lobbyists in there all the time, telling them about studies that their (paid by Monsanto) scientists have come up with to prove that the chemicals are absolutely safe.  The Senate and House staffers asked us to show them science which proves the hazards of glyphosate-saturated GMO crop production -- they honestly do want a clear and true view.  We left them with a few facts, a few stories, (I may have shed a few tears), but really, we do lack a lot of solid scientific evidence.  That's because there's no money to fund these kinds of studies.  It seems like science is no longer a noble effort for truth; results you are looking for can be easily bought.

The two scientists I spent the day with in the Senate confirmed this story:  the research they are doing at Penn State and Washington State University (which highlight the potential hazards of escalating herbicide use, and dire warnings about cancer and birth defects) is consistently squelched, accused, questioned, and called "junk science" by the industry.  These are intelligent men with PhD's, with genuine concern for people's health and the future health of our land and our planet.  They have volunteered their time, like me, to fly to DC to try to help our law-makers understand the situation we are in.

Monsanto's lobbyists are probably not volunteering.  What an eye-opener for me to understand how things function in this country.  Big corporations have money to be able to basically make laws as friendly to their purposes as possible.  Their purposes being: making more money.  They may claim to be feeding the world through technology-enhanced crops, but I'm sorry, the world can feed itself in a much better way.  It's just that no one is making much money as a small organic farmer growing for their local community.  So our ability to change laws is limited.

But we try!  Below, my new friends Matthew Raiford, 6th-generation veteran-farmer from Georgia, and Kara Boyd, president of the Association of American Indian Farmers!  I feel so honored to be a part of this hopeful effort.  I truly believe that our hearts are stronger, in the long run, than the dollars that are currently turning the wheels of our "democracy." 

After this intense civic effort, I turned west-ward, to my heart's longing for sun, green, ocean, and old friends in California.  Goodbye, winter storm warnings, hello Half-Moon Bay.  Everyone needs a little splurge once in a while.

Now it's March, back to a shades-of-grey landscape, invisibly lined with the hopefulness of flowing sap, buds preparing themselves for another season's growth, farmers preparing themselves for long days of work.

I am taking soil samples through a foot of snow.  I am as eager as those buds.  I am a seed almost bursting with its desire to put roots into the ground.  

I am turning my new hatchback into a truck again, filling it with rusty farm equipment and a fine layer of dirt.  (My old hatchback didn't make it through the winter.)

My soil samples are drying out on plates, awaiting their journey to a laboratory which will decide, through science as honest as possible, if old orchard pesticide contamination will prevent me from making an offer on a piece of land that I've fallen in love with.

I am dreaming of summer, of blueberries, and of a bright future of good hard work powered by the heart.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Small Potatoes and Industrial Food Economics

I decided to write about this subject because of a New York Times opinion piece that came out in August titled, "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers".  While it may have hit some of us a little close to home, with its photo of three straw-hat-plaid-shirt-wearing lads, bending to pick up rocks in a dry dusty field, it made some good points.  The author, himself a young farmer, argued that for all the hullabaloo of the foodie movement, small-scale farmers are just not making ends meet.  Taking a look at the statistics, he might be right.  US median farm income in 2012 was negative $1,453.  This article got my parents concerned.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, over 75 percent of all farms in the US had annual sales of less than $50,000 ("small farms"), but together they produced only 3 percent of the total value of agricultural products sold.  In contrast, less than half of one percent of farms had agricultural sales of more than $5,000,000 ("big farms"), but these few farms produced 32 percent of the total value of all agricultural products sold.  Farms with sales of $1,000,000 or more -- 4 percent of all farms -- produced 66 percent of the total value.

So there are a few big farms out there, making most of the money, and there are a lot of little farms out there, barely making anything.  And the gap is widening.  Between 2007 and 2012, the number of "mid-sized farms" has steadily declined, while large farms (over 1,000 acres) and small farms (under 10 acres) didn't change.

If you look up "Economies of Scale" on Wikipedia, you'll see a simple graph explaining that as quantity of production increases, cost of each unit decreases.  This principle, with the help of US farm policies over the years, has led to bigger and bigger farm operations in this country.  Big farms just make sense (economically).

A quick walk through the produce section of a Rochester, NY grocery store illustrates how vegetables from all over the country, even from all over the world, find themselves on our local shelves.  And you can bet that most of these don't come from small farms.  Supermarkets rely on producers that can offer quantity and consistency.  HUGE quantity.  And year-round growing consistency.  Cal-Organic grows organic produce on more than 28,000 acres; Earthbound Organics, 50,000 acres.   Earthbound's slogan is "Scaling Organic for Consumers Everywhere."  And certainly, having this many acres converted to chemical-free production is a great thing, as is the benefit of making more organic food available to more people.  But lets look at some of the other realities of big and small.

In the early 1970s, the US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, famously promoted the mantra "Get Big or Get Out" to farmers across the country.  The policy shifts that he helped set in motion coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.  The agribusiness lobby today is nearly $60 million a year, with the interests of agricultural corporations highly represented.  Thus US policies stay kind to big farms, because big farms can afford to hire big lobbyists and lawyers. 

(Side note: if you're wondering about subsidies, the US gives out about $14 billion a year to farmers who grow things like corn, wheat, and soybeans, but nothing to "specialty crops," otherwise known as fruits and vegetables.  Yep, that's $14 billion of taxpayers' dollars going mainly to help make cheap factory meat, soda pop, and processed foods that make us sick.  This helps the pharmaceutical industry thrive but not so much our local vegetable growers.)
But things could be changing.  Our current Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, in a very recent NY Times article, spoke about his plans to "revitalize the rural economy," by supporting local and regional food distribution systems with $52 million from the USDA.  "Small and medium-sized operations end up helping to generate more employment than commercial operations because of their different distribution systems and their local natures," Vilsack said.  "If you can connect local produce with markets that are local, money gets rolled around in the local community more directly compared to commercial agriculture where products get shipped in large quantities somewhere else, helping the economy there." 

Tom Vilsack brings up two good points about the small farm vs. large farm debate:  employment & local economy.  Almost three quarters of all agricultural workers in this country are not US citizens; half are unauthorized immigrants.  Small local farms often employ local residents instead of migrants, keeping them around for longer and taking better care of them because they depend on them (and they might be neighbors!) 

Working on a small farm could be more appealing to locals, because of the diversity of tasks, chance to understand the bigger picture, satisfaction in feeding their local community, and potential for management responsibilities.  Working on a large farm is likely to be repetitive, specialized, more similar to factory work, and disconnected from the end product and customer.  So larger farms import their workers, who then export our money.  Pay a crew of Mexican workers and they will send the money home to Mexico; pay a crew of local kids, and they spend the money locally.  Small farms really do help revitalize the local economy, albeit in their small-potato ways.

Mud Creek Farm
Earthbound Farms
It seems like the food production industry's natural drive toward higher production, the "Industrial Growth" model that our economic system seems to inevitably follow, often leaves out the local.  Global trade has allowed for multi-national corporations to thrive, for big businesses to benefit, while small farmers all over the world are forced by economic conditions to "Get Out."

But the thing that a 28,000 acre farm misses, and consistently tries to convince customers through marketing campaigns, is the heart and soul.  The human.  The place.

People who work the land they call "home," care about how it is treated.  They may have had grandparents who put everything they had into the farm, into the family, into the community.  They may have grandchildren who will depend on the health of the land, who will breathe the air and drink the water.  A large farm might have a difficult time caring about more than just bottom line, but care comes easy when it's your own backyard. 

Betsy (MCF 2013 crew) is a third-generation on her land, living on a country road bearing her family's name.
Environmentally responsible management is one of the values that small farms offer, a value that doesn't often end up translating into grocery store prices.  Yet it is vital for the future of our soil, water, and ecosystems.

Big farms often have a traditional corporate labor structure, with CEOs and professional managers who rarely step foot in a field.  These people make decisions which get passed down through the hierarchy of people in charge, to folks actually working on the ground.  Farmworkers are given tasks to carry out as fast as possible, with little understanding of the bigger picture, or concern for anything other than keeping their jobs.  Where is the care in this kind of structure?  The executive may claim benevolent motives, a spirit of goodness toward the land, the people, the health of the customer, but at the end of the day, the big house where they live is probably far from the fields that grow their profits.  Bottom line is bottom line.  Big farms are big business, run by people in suits and not Carharts.

Small-scale farmers live in the communities they feed.  They are held accountable in a real way for any negative actions that might harm the community, whether that's mismanagement of the land, people, or product.  Knowing your local farmer establishes a trust-based relationship with the people providing your daily bread.

Small farms can protect diversity of crop varieties, which is important as we move into uncertain climate times.  Large farms often streamline their operations by selecting a few proven varieties with high yield, but more local farm operations can help preserve genetics adapted specifically to certain regions.

Local farms often produce food that tastes better and has higher nutritional content, due to the fact that it's not shipped across the country and moved through distributors' warehouses.  Efficiency often sacrifices quality for the sake of quantity -- are we just trying to survive or do we actually want to thrive?  Is our ultimate goal to be able to eat cheaply, or to feel healthy?

And, last but not least, small farms give urban and suburban dwellers the chance to connect to the land, to our rich agricultural history.  They offer a place for kids to learn about the miracle of turning dirt into food with just a tiny seed.  And to understand everything that goes into that process, learning patience in the natural pace of the seasons, nurturing in the caring hands of the planter and harvester, interdependency with the sun, the rain, the living ecosystem, and gratitude for the planet which sustains them, three meals a day.

Maybe it's time to redefine our food system in terms of values beyond the economic principles that drive us toward more and more efficiency.  Values of a life-sustaining civilization based on love, care, and connection to a place we call home.  And connection to each other.

So, in answer to the dilemma of small farm viability, a Saturday Evening Post article puts it well: 
"This is how organic family farms will survive: by bypassing long supply chains and dealing instead with the people who eat their food."
Farmer Jim Riddle says: "It's a personal relationship: 'If you buy from me, I'll be here tomorrow.  I'll be here next year.  I'll respond to your needs.  We're in this together.'"

(Harvesting small potatoes at Mud Creek Farm)