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.
The next lecture I attended brought me hope. Many of the farmers that I know are in debt. They seem to have settled with the idea that unless you are independently wealthy, agriculture will pull you into debt at one point or another. It may take most of your life to pay it off. Many struggle with good reason due to things like crop failures and market failures. Most farmers have a second job. A personal goal of mine is to remain debt-free, and with my looming career choice in agriculture, many people tell me that that is unrealistic.
So when I heard vegetable growers, Mara and Spencer Welton of Half Pint Farm on the Intervale in Vermont speak of how they earned over $100,000 off of two acres this past year I regained my hope. Spencer opened the talk by saying that every farm has an unfair advantage, and financial success is all about exploiting your unfair advantages. Half Pint Farm’s advantages include being very close to a large market of eager customers in Burlington, Vermont. They have stone-free bottomland soil with good drainage. They are also part of a cooperative of farmers who share farm implements, and rent their land. As a result, their start-up costs were lower.
Besides these advantages, Half Pint Farm’s success comes from impeccable organization, attention to detail, and unrelenting marketing with attention to customer service. From the beginning, they treated their farm as a business venture, drafting a mission statement and keeping perfect records. Before every season they sit down and decide where everything will be planted. They have charts for seeding schedules, and approximate planting and harvest schedules. They set goals for how much money they would like to make for the year, and then break it down into how much they think they could make each week. Then every week of the season they check and see if they are on track or not. Spencer said that the greatest part about all of this planning is the stress relief. There is little on the fly decision making and they are not spending time wondering if they are doing okay. They know exactly what needs to be done and how they stand financially.
Farmers market sales are important business for Half Pint Farm, and they keep excellent records of what is selling. They have found that their customers prefer baby vegetables, colorful vegetables, unique vegetables, and Italian vegetables. They strive to make their displays visually appealing with alternating color, shape, and texture through angling and stacking of vegetables. Restaurants are also big business for them, and they make a point to dine at each of their accounts throughout the year to show their support. They furthermore promote their farm through onsite events. Half Pint Farm’s model with an emphasis on organization and marketing really hit home with me. I frequently see flaws in these areas as being the cause of other farms’ lack of financial success.
Saturday’s events continued with another keynote address. This was from Shannon Hayes, author of The Grassfed Gourmet and Radical Homemakers. Hayes spoke of how her lifestyle as a pasture-raised livestock farmer is quite different than how most of Americans live. Hayes’ family has acquired the skills to make them relatively self-sufficient. She grows and preserves much of her own food, and relies on bartering goods and services within her community to meet most of her needs. A recent intern of hers accused her of being out of touch with reality, saying she was living “in a parallel universe”. Hayes was not a part of the mainstream consumer culture driven by working to make money, and using the money to buy the goods needed. Hayes circumvents a lot of that through making her own goods, and bartering.
In particular Hayes is aware of the processes of life and death involved in bringing food to the plate. She has raised, harvested, and slaughtered much of what she eats. The mainstream consumer culture does its best to hide the fact that the steak you eat was once a cow. It does an even better job of hiding what sort of life the cow may have had. In the end Hayes admitted that she, as well as many farmers and homesteaders, do seem to live in a parallel universe, however it is the type of universe that she recommends we all start living in. According to Hayes the less we rely on money, and the more we can rely on ourselves and our community, the greater the joy and fulfillment we will have.
Echoing the sentiments of the other speakers before her, Liz Henderson gave the final speech, bringing the conference to a close. Liz Henderson, currently of Peacework Farm, was one of the pioneering people to use the CSA model in the United States. She is well known for her book, Sharing the Harvest. She spoke of her experiences transitioning from life in New York City to a farm in Massachusetts, and later to WNY. As she has gotten older she has taken a more active stance to change agricultural policies. Throughout her talk she spoke of her three goals for the future. The first is to promote a quality of life where people have adequate food and resources, and where they can create peaceful self-reliant communities. Her second goal is for regional small scale food production that can be traded at a fair cost to the producer and consumer. Lastly, she would like us all to live in healthy uncontaminated ecosystems, where we use the energy of the sun renewably. Listening to Liz speak I knew that many of us shared her vision. I certainly did. Knowing the challenges ahead, I left the NOFA conference reaffirmed in my decision to become an organic farmer. I am thrilled with the direction that my life is going, and I am going to make her vision.
posted by Caitlin Henzler, aspiring farmer