This past weekend, January 22-24, was a whirlwind of learning, networking, and celebrating for me. A young aspiring organic farmer, I attended the NOFA-NY Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY. The conference title, Circles of Caring, was a fitting description of the atmosphere there. The farmers attending were the type of people who care about their neighbors and the community. They realize that the quality of their product (whether vegetables, dairy, meat, maple syrup, or something else) affects the wellbeing and health of their customers. They are aware of the daunting forces of the industrial food system, and they work hard to bring an alternative to their community. It was a pleasure to meet, listen to, and talk with many of them.
I left my house in Tonawanda at 4am on Friday, making it just in time for the start of an all day workshop tailored for beginning farmers. Walking in I was curious to see who these beginning farmers would be. It turned out that many people in the room had similar stories to share. There were those with no prior agricultural experience, who had decided that it was time for a career change. There were many who had grown up on a family farm, and were now feeling drawn back to help or reinvent their family’s operations. There were a good number of people who had been apprenticing on farms for a number of years, and felt it was time to start something of their own. These farmers were from all walks of life; some young, middle-aged, with land, money, without land, experienced, inexperienced, single, or with families. Discontent with the industrial food system, and eager to make a better life in a nurturing community, we attended this conference. For me in particular it was great to be back around like-minded young people pursing sustainable farming.
In the beginning farmers workshop we met four different farming couples and spent the day talking about their successes, failures, ideas, and wisdom to share. That evening I heard Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, give a keynote address. She spoke of organic farming as the solution to a history of abuse from agricultural chemicals. Sandra and many of the people in her community have felt the direct impacts of toxins in their environment though various cancers and birth defects. She spoke against the idea that the “dose makes the poison”. There is no safe threshold for a toxic chemical. It may not out rightly kill you at low levels, but that does not mean it isn’t damaging your body. Furthermore a chemical, such as an insecticide, will alter in the environment, mix with other chemicals, and cause unforeseen damage. Certain people are genetically predisposed to be more responsive to toxins than others, and will be affected more often. Sandra talked of the importance of the timing of chemical exposure. Humans are especially vulnerable before and right after birth. Many children are born prematurely or with defects due to agricultural chemicals in their blood. Besides the environmental costs, the health care costs of agricultural toxin exposure are enormous. Sandra prompted that we can reclaim safe living environments, and cease using those chemicals by farming organically.
The workshops that I attended on Saturday were eye opening for me. At 8am I attended a workshop on permaculture that was geared toward farmers. I have to admit that permaculture tends to get me rather excited. For those of you who haven’t heard of permaculture, unfortunately it is rather challenging to define. I like to think of it as a way of using the landscape to meet human needs while at the same time increasing ecosystem health. In permaculture you look at and analyze the systems on your land (such as vegetation patterns, water systems, and soil), and look to see how they can better meet your needs, and improve the overall functioning of the entire landscape. Ethan Roland, of Appleseed Permaculture, spoke about various ways that farmers can utilize permaculture principles. Ethan spoke of increasing soil organic matter through rotational grazing. He explained a method to restore functioning in compacted soils through keyline plowing. The keyline plow tears a slit a couple feet into the ground allowing for water penetration, and root growth into the soil and subsoil. With the aid of oxygen this process jumpstarts microbial activity. Ethan talked of managing water systems in ways that maximize groundwater retention through ponds, wetlands, and rainwater catchments. One thing that I really appreciate is that permaculture principles are mindful of climate instability, and potential crop failure. Relying on a few types of crops leaves you more vulnerable to scarcity if one crop fails. You can plan for increased food security by planting a myriad of crops, trees, berries, annuals, shrubs, fiber crops, fuel crops, and grains. I came away from the talk having made an incredible new friend, Emma Brinkman (fellow aspiring farmer and permaculture enthusiast), and excited to put some of these ideas into action.