Here is a taste of what we learned over the course of the ride. It is derived from our notes, video, and e-mail correspondence with our hosts. For anybody out there interested in growing their own food, here are some useful tips.
Day: 2 Monday 6/28/2010 White Salmon, WA – Small-I Farm
Role in the Food System: This area is near White Salmon, Washington, near the Hood River County. It is an area in relatively high elevation near the top of the Gorge hills. The main crops of the area are fruit trees and wheat crops. Less than 1% of the pears produced in this region are consumed locally. Supposedly, there are so many pears grown in this region that if you are eating an American pear during winter there is a 50% chance it came from the Hood River County. The wheat grown closer to the river is shipped to Asia to make noodles then shipped back for consumption.
Ben grew up in the city, having no farm experience, and four years ago decided to dabble in the agriculture lifestyle. His reasons were related to the concept of an intentional community, and the great issue of food security. He is now focused on farming because he wants to help create a sustainable local food system.
Ben diversified is plot to strengthen the resiliency & consistency of yearly harvests. With this came smaller yields per crop. A hefty challenge for him is finding nearby buying locations that are transportation cost effective. Moving away from monoculture farms is a difficult because yield reductions exclude him from selling to large buyers. He hedges the market by selling directly to restaurants and farmer’s markets.
Opportunity: Ben is a fortunate farmer, in one way, due to his socio-geographical location. Gorge Grown is an agricultural umbrella organization. A well-organized network allows small yields get to where they’re needed. The group shares this info and much more with producers, consumers and everybody within the five Gorge counties of Oregon and Washington. Ben’s liaison with Gorge Grown, Sarah, tells us that he has a really opportunity as a mid-sized farm to make this his only occupation. We say it can’t be done without participating in the plethora of resources that a strong network has to offer.
Day: 4 Wednesday 6/30/2010 Grandview, WA – Heavenly Hills Harvest
Role in the food system: A young transition farm that is slowly expanding from a test garden and has just recently started to offer “garden shares” through a CSA model. Heavenly Hills Harvest grows root crops, herbs, greens, squash, and a few types of melons. She now offers 30 garden shares a season. She told us that she wants to keep it small because that way she can get to know all of her customers and vis versa. In the valley, other large-scale farmers are catching on to the CSA model, some offering 200 shares a season. But most of her land is leased to a man who owns an organic beef company. The fields are filled with organic oats that are sold as hay. In 2011, 25 acres of he will be converted to organic butternut squash.
Home to the greatest concentration of Washington’s wineries and vineyards and gets bragging rights as the first established viticulture area in the state. And for those who think beer and wine can’t coexist- Yakima Valley also grows 80% of hops in the U.S. Latinos account for about 40 percent of the population in Yakima County. Merritt’s land sits across from the Yakima Native Reservation and the Yakima River where coyotes cackle like party-goers late into the night.
Challenge: Merritt is not certified organic by the USDA. Her farm sits in the middle of a sea of industrial hop & fruit fields. When they spray, the chemicals get on her food but it’s OK as long as they notify her of a spray on especially windy days. She is partnering with USDA to install pollinator borders and other habitat enhancement activities. However, they do not experience measurable drift. This lack of certification is major challenge that disrupts the integrity of her organic farm. However, she anticipates certification with the State of Washington by October 2010. In the future she hopes to partner with a local university to offer credit courses.
At the local farmers market she is one of two organic farmers. But the trend may catch on. Some farmers in the area have started their own CSA box. They not organic but they are reconnecting the community with their farmer and producing food for local consumption. They may serve as many as 200 customers per farmer. Merritt thinks that once people start learning about where their food comes from a shift towards organics will take place. While her CSA is not the biggest, she has the niche market cornered and is in position to push the envelope.
Day: 5 Thursday 7/1/2010 Pasco, WA – Puddle Ducks Herb Farm
Role in the food system: Lisa gave us a tour of her 3 acre backyard which was converted to landscaped masterpiece of edible and decorative plants. A backroom of her home serves as a classroom for locals interested in anything poultry or plant or insect. Puddle Ducks grows a variety of herbs that can be used to cook, make crafts, and brew tea. They also grow and sell flowers and have a cutting garden where customers can harvest their own flowers, herbs, fruit, or vegetables.
Challenge: Communicating their message is a difficult task in the Pasco area. For one, Roger & Lisa enjoy having their backyard used a pit-stop on a migratory flyway for birds. It is an essential stop for the birds in a river-banks area affected by habitat loss due to urban sprawl. The birds leave decent fertilizer and mow the lawn. Bu for many, this is seen as a nuisance. It is key to explain the benefits of providing ecosystem services in a personalized and anthropocentric terms. Lisa is rising to this challenge by offering educational classes to adults and youth of Pasco.
Opportunity: Puddle Duck Farm plays a dynamic role in the Pasco community. Hosting youth groups, selling herbs & teas, raising poultry, offering wildlife refuge and landscape consulting are most of the farm’s realized services. More wait for a spark of creativity in the realm of possibilities. A diverse farm means more than ecological services but also educational, experiential, political, economic, sociological and artistic services are needed in order to be truly sustainable. Laura’s chicken raising classes, gardening class and consulting services are a great asset to the community. To us, her place embodies food sovereignty, not for the food production volume but for the various ways she branches the farm into the city of Pasco.
Day: 6 Friday 7/2/2010 Dayton, WA – Montelliet Fromagerie
Role in the Food System: We rolled into Monteillet Fromagerie, owned by Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet (pronounced mon-tee-ay) close to Dayton, WA. Fromagerie translates to “cheeserie” in French. “Monteillet Fromagerie is the first artisan-farmstead cheese maker in the lush wine country of Walla Walla Valley. Featuring a Grade A dairy and cheese making facility, the Monteillets have been producing traditional hand-ladled chevres (goat) and brebis (sheep) milk cheese since 2002. In addition to pasture-grazed American Alpine Goats and East Freisan-Lacaunne sheep, the farm raises chickens and ducks for egg production, as well as whey fed pigs.” The cheeserie included a large garden, camping space, two goat fields, a swank timber-frame-and-tile outdoor shelter built for family-style meals and doubles as cleaning and processing space for vegetables.
A sign on their bathroom wall gave us an indication of their perspective. “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime therefore, we are saved by HOPE. Nothing true or beautiful or makes complete sense in any immediate context of history therefore we are saved by FAITH. Nothing we do however virtuous can accomplished alone therefore we saved by LOVE.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
Challenge: The cheeserie now features a Grade A dairy and cheese making facility. They saved for years to complete the upgrade and cleaned every tooth and nail to prove to the State that their facility is up to par. One of the challenges with cheeseries is the cost of cleaniness. Whether small-scale or industrial the investment cost is similar. Economies of scale reign supreme in the cheese world. Thus a major challenge is getting access to local market because of the high cheese price coupled with a lack of governmental incentives for educational school tours and the producers.
Opportunity: The great aspect of the Montelliet Fromagerie is it educational outreach. The cheeserie offers 2-day cheese making courses for adults interested in sustainable food production. It is coupled with a fine evening of dinning and wine on their new outdoor kitchen and patio. They also are involved with interns to help ‘students of life, cultural exchange, and to foster respect for agrarian lifestyle contrary to urban and vice versa’. The educational component is a necessity to promoting the Slow Food Movement. They are working on capitalizing on ‘educational rewards for local children to visit a small sustainable dairy farm by creating a venue for understanding our food production systems’.
Day: 7 Saturday 7/3/2010 Clarkston, WA – Wilson-Banner Ranch
Keri & Derek work in low altitude conditions near the Idaho border. The land is irrigated by Alpowa Creek in an area that gets around 9 inches of rainfall. Joe and Annetta Wilson own the Ranch , and their daughters Keri and Colleen manage different areas of the farming operation. They have a vegetable farm and grow ground fruits as well. Over half of the acreage is reserved for the orchard in which they Sustainably grow apples, pears, apricots, cherries and peaches. A rather new addition to the land is the Iris Test Garden. The aim is to bring “hardy, drought tolerant, pet friendly plants to the valley.”
Challenge: Keri and Derek want to sell their food locally. “It’s not about the big guys versus the little guys,” says Derek “And it doesn’t matter where you shop, it matters where their food is from.” In the past Wilson Banner Ranch sold to Safeway. Joe Wilson drove their sweet corn 3 hours north to Spokane, thinking it would be sold in the Spokane area. As the farm truck was unloaded he discovered that it was to shipped back to Lewiston, 20 minutes from their farm. The store manager explained that it is company policy to buy only from the corporate warehouse in Spokane.
Recently, it has also become policy to NOT buy directly from producers. Albertson’s Save On Foods and Safeway do not buy local produce, though they both use to. People regularly inquire about the location of the store’s produce sources. So much so, that the Clarkston Alberton’s manager wants to source locally and directly from producers. Keri & Derek advocate for more transparency in the food system. Every individual farm has the freedom to grow how ever they see fit, provided their choices are in compliance with standard safety practices, but their biggest challenge is making our food system accessible and transparent for consumers. Buy fresh, buy local!
As Keri says, “We have maintained a great relationship with Rosauers(employee owned), Winco(wholesale type store with local management), and our local Food Co-Op, we also did 4 farmers markets per week for the summer in a 40 mile radius of our farm as well as our on farm stand. We have been moving around a thousand gallons of cider a week through our supporting local stores. Wilson Banner Ranchs’ goal is to pick, pack and deliver same day fresh to all markets. This ensures the highest nutrient content and flavor in the produce.
“Our observations and conversations at the markets where we talked to the customers directly suggests we are on the right track and the trends in corporate organic are not promising. Corporate organic has usurped the grass roots movement to the point that only one of the produce vendors at the markets we attend is certified (they are also the largest grower) and they are driving in from over four hours away. The cost of certification drives up the cost of the food thus forcing growers to require premium money for the produce. This also requires that they spray more to get the perfect unblemished ‘organically certified’ fruit you see in the grocery store.
“Most spray applications in a half conventional/half organic orchard are going on the organic side (if you use less viable products they often require higher frequency which means more exposure to the applicator and possibly to the consumer). The Washington State Horticultural Show last week presented alarming numbers. Organic growers are not making the same margin they were just two years ago and it has become less profitable (to barely breaking even) for them to apply the triple to quadruple rates of organic chemicals necessary to produce the product that consumers demand.
“Due to this our current system here at the Banner Ranch of using only absolutely necessary products (to the point of wasting and damaging some crops because we refuse to be chained to the organic system of overspraying certified chemicals that they have not yet proven to be safe long term) we have no residual buildup in our soils or any chemical runoff in our stream. Our excessive caution has rewarded us with customers from all walks of life, including those with damaged immune systems, allergies and health concerns about the organic certification process and all chemicals.
“Transparency just doesn’t sum it up. We are vociferous about being honest. I can list on one hand all of the applications we did to all of the orchards in the last two seasons. I would wager no other commercial grower could do that, especially not one tied to the organic process.
“Small local farmers who are tied to their water source and tied to their land are far more motivated to maintain the earths health than those tied to their shipper docket and a government controlled system.
Every year we watch the market fill with concerned customers and we talk to them about our practices. We invite people onto our farm. We give tours. In October alone we had more than 12,000 people come onto our property to do tours and to be educated about agricuture. Farming is an enormous responsiblity. I always recommend that people look at the U.S. goverment site for organic certification and it’s practices. Know what you are eating. If you buy something shipped in, know that the likihood that they followed U.S. protocol is virtually nonexistent.
“So all that said, buy the farmer first. If you don’t trust the farm, don’t eat the food. (as an aside our family drinks spring water that pours out of the side of our hill – not far from our orchard for over 120 years, I have lots more at stake than any silly little customer, if I don’t personally trust the product why would I risk drinking it?! “
Opportunity: Derek has a full-time off-the-farm job selling agriculture conservation equipment. The decision was made to use the the till-free or sustainable label instead of going for organically certified which the family felt unneccessary. Soil can be used to sequester carbon when it is no tilled, however defining exactly how much CO2 output saved is hard to define. For Derek and Keri, climate change is a more important battle to fight than synthetic nutrient application. Plus Derek comes from a family that pioneers no-till technology. This equipment has the power to drastically change the agricultural industry. They also use a bare minimum of chemical inputs, most of which are organically certified, including mulch and compost on field crops.
Day: 12 Thursday 7/8/2010 Missoula, MT – Clark Fork Organics
Role in the food system: An urban family farm with nearly twenty years of experience with greens, vegetables, and cut flowers. Josh and Kim’s family were our hosts. “I have been farming in Missoula for 20 years ago. I co-founded Clark Fork Organics in 2000 with my wife and a partner,” Josh congenially explained. 10 years ago, when he bought the place he didn’t even look past the kitchen. “You can’t make quality soil” but you sure can make a kitchen nice. His partner Kim Murchison is the current director of operations.
The land their farm sits on also happens to be above a giant mobile aquifer. She uses the well to irrigate crops in a region where the rainfall average is 13 inches a year. What makes Kim’s farm so productive is that it sits on a lake-bed that is over a millennium old. Rich sediment deposits from glaciers left an unbelievable valley ripe for farming. Currently, their place is 2 acres (owned) plus 6 acres (rented) and includes rotating chicken coops. The small size may be deceiving but the yield per acre was probably the highest we saw on the entire trip.
Challenge: Kim’s cash crop is salad greens also known as mesclun. They harvest every four days on Clark Fork Organics. Most Fridays they harvest over 100 pounds of leafy greens for the Farmer’s Market. In Missoula there are now three Farmer’s Markets a week, minus winter. They sell to two farmers markets plus 7 restaurants and one independent grocery store. As Josh says “the money is in the leaf”. This is a difficult position for him because he needs to make money but knows that diversity is essential. He does not want a monoculture. So finding the balance between cash crops and other products is difficult. However, they do grow a myriad of vegetable varieties in smaller quantities. We tried to balance his scale by weeding a neglected onion patch. His main challenge is finding ways to get people buying less-popular vegetables.
Opportunity: “In the fall of 1996, I was able to work closely with a small group of UM faculty, City staff and some of Missoula’s non-profiteers to start the Garden City Harvest project, the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society. PEAS works closely with two Missoula non-profits who specialize in, respectively, hunger prevention and food security: The Missoula Food Bank and Garden City Harvest. In the 2001 growing season the PEAS farm grew more than 52,000 pounds of produce for distribution to low-income families. Josh’s place is great because we learned that pairing organic farming with university education is a great way to get organic farming some stable ground.
Josh is an instigator. He used to be USDA certified organic. After years and years of dealing with USDA’s non-transparent ways, he helped found an organic farmers coalition. The Missoula-area farmers created the “Homegrown” label as a replacement to the national organic certification program. They founded their label with an aim of higher quality and helping customers recognize local products. Their efforts are described in an Orion article. They all took a pledge to stay organic and share acquired farm knowledge. One of the key problems with the USDA, for Josh, was that when they came once a year and made everyone nervous with their sterile swabs then mentioned that they saw other farmers were practicing the same farming methods. When he asked for details they couldn’t elaborate due to confidentiality. Now Home-Grown Missoula has bucked the USDA system and sells their organic produce to local stores. Their local, organic produce sells out the nearby grocery store before the USDA produce every summer.
Day: 17 Tuesday 7/13/2010 Two Dot, MT – McFarlane White Ranch
Role in the Food System: The McFarlaed-White Ranch is a third (about to be fourth) generation family ranch. Nestled next to the the Crazy Mountains and running down to the Musselshell River Valley, the ranch is 108 years old. Snuggled up against the Crazy Mountains and sweeping down into the Musselshell River Valley, the McFarlane-White Ranch is a three generation family operation. “As legend has it, this was a rather shady place, an outlaw stop on a rustling trail. Today, Mac White operates McFarlane-White Ranch. Under his direction the ranch uses all of its own resources in supplying hay, barley and grass to feed the commercial cattle herd. Mac has steadily guided the ranch, building a profitable commercial operation while carefully preserving some of the most pristine land in the western United States.” Recent addition to the ranch is the Crazy Mountain Lodge where visitors can come explore the wilderness of the mountains while still having an enjoying place to relax on vacation.
Challenge: When the McFarlane-White Ranch was in its early days Mac’s grandpa straightened out a stream for irrigation purposes. He unknowingly disrupted fish habitat for years to come. But today the family is working to restore the stream. They want to add sinuosity back to the stream channel. This will improve the habitat for fish rearing by adding in curves to the stream. The current project involves digging out new sections of the riverbanks and adding stability to other parts of the banks. Instead of taking government handouts available through a state granting agency they are doing 100% themselves. They believe that returning the stream to a more natural state is the right thing to do because they know it was altered by their family.
Opportunity: Since the McFarlane own the entire side of a small mountain range they capitalize on making their meat as sustainable as possible. Their herd is over 5,000 heads strong. The animal essentially live on their own. They eat grasses found on the ground plus hay and barley collected from other parts of the McFarland property. They spent most of their lives outside, toughing it through high winds, bitter winters and hot summers. The only thing that makes them non-organic is that they are sent to a feedlot to be fattened before going to the slaughterhouse. In a rare case, Mac will give a cow a shot of antibiotics in order save an sick cows life. The cattle on the ranch are free-range and organically grown. This means they make top quality beef for Americans to enjoy across the country. The ranch is nearly self-sufficient in a hard, cold land.
Day: 18 Wednesday 7/14/2010 Roundup, MT – Badger Rock Farm
Role in the food system: This is a small farm in eastern Montana. They specialize in chickens raised on pasture and Montana grains in addition to naturally grown herbs, vegetables, and salad mix. Badger Rock sells eggs and produce at a farmer’s market and on-site at the farm. It is 1 mile south of Roundup, located in central Montana’s Musselshell County. Badger Rock is one of very few organic farms in the area. This winter they begin the formal organic certification process. “Our laying hens eat bugs galore, growing plants, fresh garden greens and certified organic feed that is non-GMO and created from Montana-grown grains. They have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Raised on pasture, the chickens are moved to new ground almost every day. They are helping nourish the land while producing food to supply us.”
Challenge: Erin and Jim have had great success on a farm only 2 seasons old. The pair has their work cut out for them though because the soil type is characteristically difficult. The soil is in a semi-arid region where annual precipitation is less than 13 inches a year. In this area they rely on two on-site wells for water. Erin tilled her soil last season. It is tough sandy soil that is not loamy. There is very little organic matter. The largest challenge for Badger Rock is working the earth into quality farming soil.
Opportunity: Erin seems to have struck a chord in her locale community. It is area that values true independence and has a do-it-yourself mentality. It recent rise of farmer’s markets has helped Erin’s business and she had a big part to do in creating them. She sells directly from her farm and and at the Yellowstone Valley Farmer’s Market in Billings. The long-term plausibility of her farm seems realistic because of the community interest and big-city proximity.
Day: 24 Tuesday 7/20/2010 Lemmon, SD – Southwest Grain Elevator Tour
Role in the Food System: In Lemmon, South Dakota we met with the local journalist who connected us with an impromptu tour of the nearby Southwest Grain elevators. South Dakota grows tons of grain (particularly wheat) so elevators are scattered throughout the area. Tanner, LaQuita’s son, gave us some background on market fluctuations between high and low protein grain for different sectors of the food industry before walking us through the facility, which is over 100 years old. Some of the original wood infrastructure is still in working order. A grain elevator is often the first place a farmer ships his or her grain once it’s ready to leave the farm. At the elevator, the grain is graded into different qualities (based on nutritional content as well as how much chaff is mixed in) and stored in giant silos until enough can be accumulated from other farmers to merit a train stop. Then the grain is shipped away to for the next phase. It’s most likely that they supply the Northeast and Midwest with breakfast cereal.
Challenge: In a sea of wheat fields the area has hardly any local grains for sale. Due to economies of scale, wheat is especially difficult to produce profitably on a small-scale. Harvesting grain is usually done with large machinery. The shift towards local is totally feasible, from an agro-ecological perspective, but supplying the area in an economical manner is the key challenge. For Southwest Grain, their real challenge will be their ability to move product should an energy crisis occur. There entire enterprise is based on increasingly costly petro. The shift to keeping some of wheat local is the first step.
Opportunity: Tanner estimates that about 70% of the grain that comes through his elevator is bought by General Mills. This is huge opportunity for local growers who need to sell their product. The operators provide a service by buying small quantities of grain year-round from farmers and packaging it into big enough shipments to make it worth the time (and train fuel) of large purchasers like General Mills. In addition Southwest Grain has improved its loading capacity. The company installed new truck weights thus allowing shorter wait times for truckers. This means that Southwest Grain can handle more trucks. It’s good news for small farmers who want to sell product the local grain elevator and keep some of the profits in the Lemmon community. It’s also good because they can send less than full trucks to the elevator when the price is especially good.
Day: 28 Saturday 7/24/2010 Selby, SD – Rosin Organics
Role in the Food System: Rosin Organics is a certified small grain farm and cattle ranch. They also have goats, chickens, geese, ducks, and a cow used to produce a variety of food products. Their garden is a lush 0.12 acres. On the 1,100 acres outside the garden they grow wheat, millet, and raise some cattle.Julie personally ferments and pickles many of the vegetables to be eaten year-round. She makes her own cheese, milk and ice cream as well. They are one of very few organic farmers based in permaculture techniques to reside in the Dakotas.
Challenge: Though Bill and Julie have astounding productivity with their produce and animals, they do not have a market outlet. They are truly a bio-diverse oasis in the midst of mono-cropping corn, soybean, and wheat. Bill told us that there is nearly no demand for their organic products. One way the couple can improve their sovereignty is to continually host cultural exchange events in nearby cities. The culture of South Dakota does not yet see the importance of local, organic foods. They’re knowledge of the land is quite extensive and sharing it with neighbors will be key to passing the farm onto the next generation of farmers.
Opportunity: As far as we can tell, Rosin Organics is one of 3 farms that puts perma-culture into practice. Essentially perma-culture requires ‘going wild’ and tweaking natural ecosystems to produce more than they would without modifications. On their free-range homestead they allow different species to keep others in check. For example, the chickens eat the bugs that would otherwise make the cows sick. For two people to manage a 1,100 acre farm is incredibly efficient. Perma-culture concepts are their strength. One technique they may try soon is to spray raw milk on their fields. This adds living bacteria into soil microbiota and reuses resources they already have to increase productivity.
Day: 29 Sunday 7/25/2010 Groton, SD – Dakota Carding and Wool
Role in the Food System: Kelly doesn’t grow food for sale. But she does harvest wool from her lamb and goats living on-site.
Challenge: Living close to Aberdeen helps her business but the biggest challenge is finding a strong local market. She ships a large portion of her product out-of-state via internet sales. As with Rosin Organics, people are generally not interested in sustainable lifestyles. For Kelly and family, the biggest challenge will be finding time to market effectively in her local area.
Opportunity: Kelly has a great amount of autonomy on her lamb carding and wool operation. She raises, sheers, shapes, dyes, spins and knits all her wool and fiber products on the farm. Just recently she was able to transport the carding machine up from Viroqua, Wisconsin. By doing everything on site, she is able to oversee nearly every step of her sustainable operation.
Day: 30 Monday 7/26/2010 Millbank, SD – Fonder Family Organic Dairy
Role in the Food System: The Fonder Family runs a large dairy operation with 80 heads of cattle. They recently converted to organic raising. The cows diet consists of home grown oat, barely, corn and kelp. They are the only dairy farm in the area.
Challenge: Over the course of the evening Janine and Bill expressed one of their concerns about the future of the farm. Bill comes from a large Christian family of farmers. For some of his sibling growing up on a farm was enough. They left the farm when they became old enough, leaving it up to the rest of the family. The couple is concerned that their children will not be interested in maintaining the farm as they grow older. If this is the case, then they may see their organic farm transition to an easier to maintain industrial farm field. “When I was growing up, all of these,” he said pointing to the expanse of fields that framed his property “were dairy farms.” Now their farm is cornered in by corn and soy crops.
Opportunity: The biggest opportunity recently is the Fonder Family was able to switch to organic. In the past they applied a very low about of chemicals on their field. Yearly application was so low that when they stopped they were able to get more for their milk. Afterwords, they had a value-added organic product. Now they work with Organic Valley and are South Dakota’s first certified-organic dairy producers. “Switching to organic was the best choice we’ve ever made. The cows are happier now,” Janine told us. “But Bill doesn’t like answering the USDA questions.”
Day: 38 Tuesday 8/3/2010 Dodgevile, WI – Greenspirit Farm
Role in the Food System: Green Spirit Farm sits on a 4 acre plot of beautiful soil. The family owns more acreage but uses 3 ½ acres for food production, ½ an acre remains fallow each season. This year they have a 120 member CSA box. It has grown steadily over the years, now plateauing at an ideal number. They work nearly full-time on the farm. However, Andrew is a speaker at the local Unitarian church. We asked him to explain a bit of his spiritual philosophy, “Terratheism teaches that we find our joy in life by feeling God’s enjoyment of the world. The God I am referring to is the God of the Land. It is the energy that moves through all matter. That is what farming boils down to for me-its where knowledge, experience and science intersect with one’s intuition and spirituality. To take it one step further, I think that sustainability is where science meets spirituality and farming.”
Challenge: One reoccurring theme of the ride was a distaste for industrial corn and soybean subsidies. This is an obvious challenge to small-scale organic farming. One person who articulated this well was Andrew. Currently, large-scale farmers who produce corn and soybeans receive the lions share of agricultural subsidies. This allows big-business to put a variation of corn or soy in nearly everything we eat. It allows the US government to buy up the surplus and sell it quickly on the international market below the world price. This is a practice called ‘dumping’. Monoculture farming continues because of these subsidies. This is a huge barrier for farmers like Andrew. These subsidies can could be relocated to farmers who are using ecological principles in their farming, he says. For many who wish to get involved in small-scale farming a subsidy to help with start-up overhead would go a long way.
Opportunity: On the bright side, subsidies do exist for those buying into community supported agriculture in the Madison area. Most Madison insurance companies offer a $200 check for buying into a local CSA box. This probably contributes to the success of Green Spirit’s membership. The biggest insurance companies in the metro offer this because it is seen as an investment. It keeps money in the local community. The long-term stability of a healthy food supply is ensured as well.
Day: 39 Wednesday 8/4/2010 Mineral Point, WI – Innovation Kitchen
Role in the Food System: The Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen is a state-inspected community access commercial kitchen. I’s a place where folks can take their food items to be processed or do-it-themselves (with the proper certification). The place was recently opened on July 11, 2010. It is an offshoot of the Hodan Center, an organization that acts as a work and rehabilitation center for adults with disabilities. The business is managed by a professional food processing staff supporting the employment needs of the adults with disabilities who work there. Innovation Kitchen is the fruition of a Hodan Center community kitchen project. The business now partners with Iowa County Area Economic Development Corporation. The latter aims to build a horizontally integrated food system in Iowa County, one that is not vertically integrated as most are in the US. Innovation Kitchen is horizontally integrated within the community. They sell 150 products to 700 markets. With a wet and dry line of products they demand is 320-360 working hours a week
Challenges: The next big challenge for Innovation Kitchen is to supply Chicago markets. Iowa County rests within 250 mile radius of the mega-city. The 100-mile diet is not practical for localivores in this sprawling metropolis. The Chicago Public School system feeds 400,000 meals a day. The students are upset over the “nasty nachos, mystery meats and oddly colored chicken patties” served in their cafeterias and they took their complaints to the Chicago Board of Education to push for healthier school meals. A major food provider, Chartwells, is reacting by seeking to source over 20% of its produce to local farmers. But what Innovation Kitchen seeks to do is break up those large contracts. They want to build selling power by networking small-scale farmers so that they have market power equal to big-box food service providers thus creating a wireless network similar to the human brain’s neural network. This is a tall order for the up-and-coming Innovation Kitchen but so was the unveiling of new facility in July; the energetic group of disabled food processors and professional people are set on the next horizon.
Opportunities: The Hodan Center was able to remodel their enterprise and convert it into the Innovation Kitchen with the help of a grant. They received a grant for $750,000 from Wisconsin Department of Commerce and raised another $750,000 from the community. This allowed them to upgrade to industrial-scale appliances like a dehydrator and a flash freezer. It has also given them the opportunity for their employees to gain professional certification in food processing skills. And now with a formal partnership with the Iowa County Area Economic Development Corporation, they can offer professional business advice to farmers.
Day: 40 Thursday 8/5/2010 Watertown, WI – Prarie Dock Farm
Role: Greg David owns 20 plus acres of old corn and soybean land which he is revitalizing. He tells us there are 3 ways to interact with the land. A negative way which is exploitative. It sees things natural gifts as resources which can be manipulated for capital gain. There is the balanced way, sustainability, which a current trend. But then there is the largely hidden way, a positive way to interact with the land through restoration. The transition to his farm was not easy, learning the ropes of permaculture techniques required years of experimentation. But the first thing he did was was plant 7,000 trees on 20 acres. Currently, he has 3 acres of prairie (one of the most devastated – and most plant biologically diverse – ecosystems). One grass plant can grow to be thousands of years old. He aims to make layers of product from one thing. For example, he uses fish feces as fertilizer, carcass as compost, and flesh as meat. However, he realizes that restoration is very hard for low to middle-class farmers. He explained that it’s difficult to recapitalize after investing in corn because a single combine can cost $200,000. For him, he took it one step at a time and now has a certified compost center and farms ½ acre for local food production.
Challenge: Greg David is a part of a 50 member network organized to create appropriate-scale technology. Together they have developed a biomass gasifyer that results in a carbon negative process. The device uses plants to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and the burning results in synthetic, or syn, gas. 50% of the burning gas is captured in the form of charcoal while the other 50% turns in carbon monoxide. The biomass David uses is cattails which he says produce 2,5000 gallons of biofuel per acre plus they offer natural sewage treatment capabilities. This number depends on a number of variables and the study source. He produces enough fuel for 12 people to drive a car per year, roughly 5,000 gallons a year. Corn is a low efficiency biomass but things like sugar beets, sweet sogum and kelp have much higher efficiency ratings. The challenge now is to get this device manufactured and to have more efficient crops grown for fuel.
Opportunity: The Wok-It-Stove is a unique twist on the Rocket-Stove. It is a re-purposed stove used as an outdoor stove-top. The device is 2 times more efficient than a regular wood-fire stove and 2-3 times more clean burning. The machine requires just a few sticks and twigs from the nearby ground and heats up to 2,000 degrees. It is a stratified gasifyer that vaporizes the twigs by limiting the oxygen. It can be used to cook with an Asian wok or modified to have a skillet with 3 different zones, high, medium, low heat. This is a great device that can replace a conventional stove-top or barbeque.
Day: 43 Sunday 8/8/2010 Kent City, MI – Earthkeeper Farm
Role in the Food System: Andrew and Rachelle are growers of over fifty types of crops using natural methods. They list commitments to fair treatment of workers and biodiversity as part of their ‘growing practices’. This farm just finished its third season, this summer being the first time Rachelle worked full-time on the farm. The couple manages 3 ½ acres of certified ‘natural-grown’ fields with the help of WOOFERs. They have housing set aside for the farm apprentices. Together they sell to 25 CSA members, 3 farmers markets plus a few local restaurants. Each year they integrate better bio-dynamic practices and try to save their own seeds.
Challenges: Like many farmers, saving seeds is a challenge. Rachelle described the basics of seed saving to us. It starts by identifying the male and female plants, both create vegetables so it can be difficult. Next locating, separating and drying out the plant seed. Isolating the proper seeds is what makes seed saving an art. There are so many to choose from that is often difficult distinguishing the best one. Then you must store them in a cool and dry place. This is often a time-intensive project and difficult to begin for farming rookies. Plus it is much easier to go to the store and buy the seed. However, if food sovereignty is a concern then seed saving is crucial. If you have a strong community of box-share buyers then they rely on your ability to have seeds, Rachelle explained to us. It puts control of your own life in your own hands, or in your farmer’s hands if you’re a CSA box member. Ideally, she thinks this control belongs in the peoples hands not the companies. That is why they are trying to learn more about seed saving every year.
Opportunity: From our perspective, the biggest opportunity that we saw Earthkeeper Farm tackle was organization. As a third-year farm it was impressive how much product they produced as beginners. We think organization played a strong role in their success. The barn held an array of tools each with a labeled and designated place for storage. The crop cleaning area was well-kept as well as the cooler and shelves. The field itself was spatially organized and it was clear they put thought into where to plant, when to rotate and leave areas fallow. Organization is key to efficiency and these farmers saw greater success because of their ability to capitalize on the opportunity.
Day: 44 Monday 8/9/2010 St. Johns, MI – Phillips Orchard and Cider Mill
Role in the Food System: At Phillips Orchards & Cider Mill, we tried fresh apples that were actually fresh! There, at the 158-year-old orchard, the couple just finished a newly remodeled rustic-style storefront where they sell cider, apples, donuts and honey. The family owns a 175 acres of which 25-30 acres are consistently in production. They have, roughly, 10,000 trees that produce 10,000 to 12,000 bushels a year. There are 23 varieties of apple plus pears and peaches dot the landscape as well. Nowadays they are doing quite well but that hasn’t always been the case. Back in the 70′s and early 80’s they sold 70-90% of their apples at the wholesale market, to be made into apple juice. In the mid 80′s there was a huge influx of apple juice to the world markets, mostly coming from China and eastern European countries such as Poland. After this the world price bottomed-out. Brian’s father had to close down the orchard and lease the land. After the price rebounded, his father took back the farm and now Brian has made the decision to take his fathers place. He sells only his surplus to wholesale markets as they move into the seventh generation.
Challenges: Reducing product loss is difficult and requires capital investment. For instance, their land is now surrounded by state wildlife territory on three sides. Deer are a definite problem. Brian wants to start turning his orchard over to smaller tree varieties, an industry trend, so harvesting is easier. However, he knows that deer can jump fences as high as eight feet tall. Before he can buy into shorter trees he must first accumulate the capital for investing in a fence.
Insect pests are also a problem that he deals with by spraying pesticides. He claims it is nearly impossible to run a profitable orchard without the use of chemicals. The label ‘organic’ is often misleading because sprays come in such a variety of combinations, some as synthesized organic compounds others are an array of different chemical combinations. He says it is important to know what kind of spray is being used. He doesn’t like to use chemicals but he couldn’t keep the business afloat without spraying. And of course, chemicals are expensive so from an economic standpoint, less is more. He prefers to minimize sprays and use the least detrimental compounds without damaging the bottom-line.
Opportunities: Phillips Orchard is strategic in how to keep their food local. They want to expand in order to do more direct marketing. The two are aiming to open a second place just off US Highway 127. They think that selling their food directly to the consumers will ensure the long-term stability of the place. To make their products more appealing they want to sell more than just an apple. They plan to diversify their apple and fruit products. In addition, more value-added products are the goal. Ten years ago an E. Coli scare brought about a national movement for pasteurization. It is now illegal to wholesale unpasteurized apple juice. But the people of Michigan resisted the panic. The Phillips Orchard can benefit now by retailing, not wholesaling, their unpasteurized juice and sell it locally.
Day: 45 Tuesday 8/10/2010 Columbiaville, MI – Three Roods Farm
Role in the Food System: Three Roods Farm are producers of organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, poultry, lamb, and raw honey. They practice a combination of biodynamic and permaculture techniques. They also have a strong spiritual connection to their land, often praising through drumming and chanting. Recently, the family reforested 11 acres of their land out of concern for global warming. What makes their place unique is that it runs a CSA through as a ‘Subscription Garden’ in which shareholders visit the farm each week to help harvest. This contrast the typical model in which food is delivered to customers. The name Three Roods Farm comes from the Old English language that describes a rood as one quarter of an acre, the family has ¾ of an acre in production.
Challenge: The number of CSA members has dwindled over the past few years for Three Roods. Robin thinks it is because there are a lot more local organic farmers in the area than in the past. She must now compete with bigger operations. Theirs is a small farm that can handle 6 CSA boxes per season. For us it is surprising that even in the ‘niche’ market of local organic produce she must find a niche within a niche.
Opportunity: While their farm may not be directly connected to this opportunity they do have a direct connection to someone who helped create a big opportunity for the non-GMO movement. With the Center of Food Safety, their daughter, Sophia, worked on a lawsuit against Monsanto’s use of genetically modified Roundup Ready Alfalfa. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Center of Food Safety in June of 2010. The decision banned the growing or selling of Roundup Ready Alfalfa. This case sets a major precedent in the fight against genetically modified crops.
Day: 49 Saturday 8/14/2010 near Hamilton, ON – Plan B Organics
Role in the Food System: You wouldn’t recognize it from the road, but Plan B Organics is the biggest Community Supported Agiculture farm in Canada. They supply about 800 boxes to families year-round. The farm consists of two families, a few interns and a wily old farm hand named INSERT NAME HERE. The farm stands in sharp contrast to their neighbors who run a conventional commercial flower growing operation. Not only are the physical contours of the land and soil chemistry different but the ideological make-ups are divergent as well. Plan B organics operates on a pro-food sovereignty paradigm. Via Campensina is one group that they are networked with to help build an agrarian movement. They believe in autonomy from corporate chemical suppliers and aim to build direct relationships with their buyers. They want their food to sold and eaten locally. They do not want food dumped from the States, at government subsidized prices, so that it is virtually impossible for them to sell corn at the market. The farm believes in altruism and that a coordinated group effort is more powerful and beautiful than a top-down approach.
Challenge: One of the main barriers to success is convenience. Two generations of the super-market mentality makes it difficult for them to sell their non-processed food to the public. One way they overcome this challenge is by offering home delivery. That way a summer box of independent, local, organic produce can appear right at the door and all the costumer has to do is cook. They attack this barrier by offering education as well. Produce boxes come with a leaflet and farm tours are highly encouraged.
Opportunity: The business strategy that has been most helpful to their success is the idea of networking. Plan B buys produce from organic farmers all across North America. They figure that if people are going to buy fresh produce in the winter it might as well be organic and not from a corporate giant. Essentially, food is re-sold in the off-season. It creates a year-round income for their farm which is a challenge for most vegetable farmers. An extra 26 weeks of income is added to extend the typical 20-24 week season. But it also keep the food dollars in the hands of local farmers. Trades are also welcomed in the summertime through a multi-farm CSA model. At the beginning of the season the farmers get together and decide to trade their produce in order to increase their CSA box diversity. This works well to keep the money in the hands of the producers because it circumvents the middle men and retailers. Plan B networks very well to increase organic food numbers in the area, boost their yearly income and diverge from the factory food model in order to instill a greater degree of local food sovereignty.
Day: 57 Sunday 8/22/2010 Cummington, MA – Village Congregation Church
Role in the Food System: This small town of 800 humans is actively aiming to feed everyone with local food. The town has a sustainability group that mainly discusses food security and alternative energy. Kathy Harrison is an active member and author of Just In Case. In it, she describes the need to be prepared for unforeseen disaster. In Cummington, the community also has a permaculture group and they raise pigs, chickens and bees. The community groups are independent from one another and the Village Congregation Church but do recognize the need for cooperation and community while remaining autonomous.
Challenge: Obviously, this level of coordination does not come without a hiccup or two. A few years back, a rather large media organization wanted to do a story on the sustainability group and their work. So they at their meeting they discussed a media strategy and how they wanted to represent themselves to the public. As a result, the concensus was that no one person should speak on behalf of the group. They believe that one person can’t accurately represent an entire community. For weeks the pending interview was halted. There was lots of talks and disagreement about how to handle the newly found public fame. Finally, a new decision was made. An article was something everyone wanted written and a great opportunity to put their best face forward to the masses. A person was chosen to speak under the conditions that they not embellish any of their successes. The interview went well and the town was excited to shine in a positive light.
Opportunity: The biggest opportunity for the Village Congregation is its incredibly strong community. They share talents with their neighbors and tools and jobs is distributed as well. The village has a cooperatively-owned apple press for making cider. Everyone there has changed over their lightbulbs to reduce energy consumption. Plus the Bag-Share program allowed them to stop using paper bags entirely. And its spread to other places. They received some help from the inmates at the nearby prison who sewed bags. Share the Surplus is another successful program that is similar to a food bank. Food from the local farms often finds its way there. It seems that this community will be well prepared in case of an emergency because they are already used to working altruistically for everyone’s benefit.
Day: 59 Tuesday 8/24/2010 Jamacia Plains, MA – Bikes Not Bombs
Role in the Food System: Nestled in the Brewery Complex, near the Sam Adam’s Brewery, Bikes not Bombs supplies bikes to sustainable development projects across the world. We decided to learn about their project with Maya Pedal, an agricultural project. The aim of Bikes Not Bombs is to help build a worldwide movement for peace and responsible stewardship of the planet. The method for executing this mission is to redistribute resources in a sustainable and educational way. It is considered a solid alternative to over-consumption, militarism and inequality that create war and environmental destruction. Maya Pedal is an indigenous organization based in Guatemala. Pedal-powered machines do a variety of useful things for farmers who buy them from the manufacturer and distributor, Maya Pedal. A retail bicycle shop generates income to off-set the cost of building these pedal-powered technologies. Lastly, a little known fact is that Pedal Canada helped start Maya Pedal and they’re from our home-base, Vancouver, BC!
There are two challenges that come with bicimaquinas. One is cost. Selling the machines at cost plus profit is difficult when most farmers can’t afford it, despite the subsidized bike parts (coming from Bikes Not Bombs). So they overcome this barrier by refurbishing and selling bicycles in the retail shop in order to keep the bicimaquina price affordable. Currently, they are working on building the machines to require less material and labor, and thus less cost. The second challenge is in networking. They want to decentralize the knowledge and market the product to other rural areas. This is hard in regions with few electronic resources. Bikes Not Bombs is partnering with Working Bikes in Chicago to help Maya Pedal in business development. This way they can become a model for other areas to replicate. Disseminating the machines to become a rural movement is key to Maya Pedal and Bikes not Bombs success in building a stronger global movement toward peace and environmental sustainability.
Back in June 2009, 500 bikes were shipped to Maya Pedal. Many of these were re-purposed as bicimaquinas (pedal-powered machines) and are used by farmer’s cooperatives and families of the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala where electricity is rare and costly. These machines support agricultural autonomy and reduce the need for petroleum and coal. Another benefit is a reduction in manual labor, traditionally it would take a family a week to de-grain a load of corn but now it takes one person a single day. Carlos Marroquin is the inventor who connected a bicycle drive chain to an agricultural machine and is changing rural Guatemala and beyond.