Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Posts Tagged ‘organic’

A Beginning Farmer Goes To A Farming Conference

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Kat is Farm Aid’s Program Assistant. In the fall of 2011, she transplanted from an organic vegetable farm in Kansas to the Northeast. She enjoys a full-on life as a yogini and graduate student in agricultural policy at Tufts University

I’m still high from gleaning little tastes of that farm life I dearly miss. I am a beginning farmer who is spending two seasons in graduate school … without a farm. I don’t need an M.S. to farm, but a wise farmer once told me that everything I do makes me a better farmer. Earlier in January, I attended the NOFA-NY Winter Conference, which included a workshop track specifically for beginning farmers.

My experience began with the full day intensive session Get Your Boot in the Door: Defining, Planning and Starting Up Your Farm on the Path to Long-Term Success. Most folks in the room planned to start farming in one to two years. We heard the presenters’ stories of how to make goals, plans and mistakes; of how to find the right land, restore unhealthy soil and convert historically conventional farms into diversified, organic farms.

Melissa Madden and Garrett Miller of The Good Life Farm shared a comparison of two actual farm situations in the Finger Lakes region. Farm A had little farm training before starting a small farm with low debt. Farm B had significant farm experience before starting a large farm with high debt. Yet both farms have similar net incomes, great farmers and reliable markets. At The Farmer’s Calendar workshop on Saturday, Mark Kimball of Essex Farm recommended 12 years of education on diversified farms before starting a farm. If I follow that prescription, by the time I complete graduate school and the rest of my farm-based education (I have two seasons of experience to date), I will be 37 years old. Ugh.

The point is the importance of gaining enough experience to feel confident going into debt later. But I am not patient, and from my experience, farmers are not patient. We get this itch to dive in—to jump off the cliff. Mark and Kristin Kimball did it (they started 11 enterprises their first year). Melissa and Garrett did it, too. Although they sat and observed their land for a year and planned diligently, they still moved quickly and made mistakes. Isn’t this process valuable in a profession of lifelong learning? Mark’s answer: we need to figure out how to farm bigger and better rather than recreate the wheel. For Essex Farm, I think this means sustainably providing a high quality, full diet—grown on 600 acres, and powered by draft horses and solar panels—for as many people as possible.

The Kimballs apply a lens to farm planning that considers how everything on the farm has peaks and valleys (the seasons, the budget, the stress, the physical labor, etc.). The higher the peak, the deeper the valley you will need for restoring balance. Being reminded of this reality helped me finally accept the difference between building a farm and farming. These workshops asked mostly first-generation farmers to be honest with our goals and missions. For many, community is part of the dream. We want and need relationships to start sustainable farm enterprises, and the theme of this year’s conference, The Cooperative Economy, echoed this value.

Hearing the personal stories of struggle and resilience on farms in New York state reminded me of the bigger picture, and the irony in my worries about how, when, where and with whom to farm. The stresses we impose on ourselves prevent us from enjoying life. For beginning farmers, the key is to know where we are now, where we are going in the long haul and to have faith through the peaks and valleys. I know what little steps I can achieve this year—even off the farm.

HOMEGROWN Life: The state of sustainable agriculture in the United States

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011






That’s a hefty headline.  Let’s see if I’m qualified to write about it.

The state of sustainable agriculture is strong.  The very fact that it exists at all is a huge step forward compared to fifteen years ago.  We have an engaged customer base that understands the need for a change in the way food is produced in this country — largely due to the proliferation of documentaries like “Food Inc”, “Fast Food Nation”, “King Corn”, and “Super Size Me”.  Those are the films that broke through the American collective consciousness and propelled many consumers to change the way that they eat, the way they shop, and the way they think about food.  The books that led to the movies were “Fast Food Nation”, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and “In Defense of Food”.

Those were the biggies, but there were many others and we have had a lot of credible folks from around the world weighing in on the subject like Jane Goodall,  Prince Charles from the U.K., Alice Waters – our own top chef from Berkeley,  the rockers from Farm Aid – we especially remember Neil Young leading the chant about No Factory Farms – in response to the amount of C.A.F.O.s flooding our countryside.  We were even lucky enough to have Paul and Nell Newman giving early credence to the subject further solidifying organic agriculture in the American consciousness.   We had our own pioneering organic gurus who never gave up from the sixties and seventies like Elliot Coleman, the folks at The Rodale Institute and Mother Earth News.   I may have missed some crucial components here, but the point is made.  Without the commitment of early pioneers in the U.S. we would never have been where we are now.

Ramping up production is always the hard part.  In the industrial agriculture world, we have a system in place in the U.S. that is probably the largest in the world to help support and maintain agriculture in this country:

  • We have land grant universities in every state that are chartered by the government to do agricultural research and development.
  • We have an extensive agriculture extension service that is designed to take that knowledge and give instruction in our counties and towns and to educate farmers and producers about new methods of agriculture.
  • We have agricultural co-ops in place across the farm belt to help farmers receive lower prices for commodities and where they also have access to less expensive equipment and services that they otherwise would have to pay more for.
  • In the Farm Bill legislation, we have direct payments made to farmers to encourage them to produce the most commonly used crops in this country, and we (the tax payer) even help them have less expensive crop insurance so that they can all afford it and to ensure they will buy it.
  • With all of these programs in place it’s still not easy.  Producers in the areas of agriculture not directly supported by the farm bill have it especially tough.  These producers are locked into the commodities market and have the hardest row to hoe due to unpredictable and wildly fluctuating prices.

So imagine, in the world of sustainable agriculture, how hard it is to build a new system in this country from the ground up with none of the supports listed above.  Not only do we not have those structures in place for sustainable agriculture, but we also have to compete against the above system in the market place.  The prices of “conventional” foods seem to be less expensive, although the savvy consumers understand that they’re paying for the price difference through their tax dollars.

It is amazing that even with the deck stacked against it, organic production and purchasing is still growing in this country.   To me, that means the future looks bright.  If we could get some more programs in place to help encourage sustainable agriculture in this country, the same way we encourage industrial agriculture, or if we just level the playing field so that sustainable and industrial can compete  on fair terms, it seems obvious that you will see sustainable agriculture thrive.   The very nature of sustainability means that it is more cost efficient.   The “closed loop” systems that we use where fewer off-farm inputs are purchased will allow us to thrive and compete and win the market share in today’s more educated consumer marketplace.


Dave Ring along with his wife Sara owns a small organic vegetable and egg farm in East Central Indiana.  In May of 2007 they opened the Downtown Farm Stand, a local organic grocery store.  The store has grown to include a “made from scratch” deli restaurant, and a full grocery store selection.  They are active in the community and have founded a local Slow Food Chapter, and are constantly looking for ways to advance a local, sustainable, and organic food system.

HOMEGROWN Road Trip Part 2: Green String Farm

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

On the road out of Petaluma, amidst tasting rooms and grape vines of Sonoma County, is Green String Farm. As you pull in, you’ll see nothing fancy, a rustic farm stand with a bunch of talkative chickens in the coop out back, but their philosophy is dazzling:

Green String is a 140 acre farm, with 50-60 acres in cultivation, in Petaluma, CA. The farm produces vegetables and fruits for a number of restaurants in the Bay Area, and maintains a farm store year-round. While the farm is not certified organic, we hold ourselves to sustainability standards that we believe well exceed organic standards.

Green String is the act of farming sustainably and naturally so that we provide a healthy future for generations to enjoy. Sustainability in the farming context is defined as healthy, local, socially responsible, simple living and control. We make every effort to reduce soil erosion, pesticide dependency, loss of biodiversity, resistance to natural predators, and other harmful ecological impact. We create a self-nourishing system where less human intervention yields better quality crops.

The Green String Institute is a “beyond organic” advocacy organization founded in 2000 by Fred Cline and Bob Cannard. They also provide a certification to participating farmers called “Green String Certified”.

The Institute, and the idea of green string farming, was born when Cline and Cannard noticed that the concept of organic agriculture, as it rose in popularity, became bleached of its meaning. To Cannard, one of the instigators of the organic movement in California, the term organic meant that produce should be locally grown, with respect for the environment and the planet. It meant that food should not travel across countries or continents from farm to table. It meant the use of compost and cover cropping and crop rotation and other practices that enrich the soil so that the fields become richer and more fertile year after year. Now, however, with the advent of USDA Organic certification, organic production is beyond the means of many small farmers who do not have the means or cannot afford the time and trouble required to obtain certification. Moreover, once obtained, the certification means very little.

It’s so good to see boundaries being pushed and definitions being questioned – keeps us all honest and on our toes! There is so much to learn from these careful, thoughtful farmers, and with statements like “Green String farms do not recognize adversity with nature”, how can you go wrong?

Next up: Organic, super-premium ice cream in Humbolt County.