Year in Review

It’s April, folks! That magical time of year devoted almost entirely to getting your shit together. For starters, it’s tax day today, the cornerstone of April togetherness. April is also for spring cleaning, to which I’ve devoted myself for these two weeks at my parents’ house. On the farm, April brings hours and hours in the greenhouse hunched over seed trays, and in the northern climes, a never-ending game of cat and mouse with the weather (case in point: yesterday’s snow showers). Anyways, as we all prepare for the real coming of spring, and gear up for the start of the farming season, I’d like to do a quick year in review here on the blog. Leaving aside the weekly “Farm Week” posts, here’s a look back at some of the things I’ve blabbed on about over the past year:

Farm-related musings:

Food-related musings:

Books I read, then wrote about:

Things other people wrote and I liked:

Random things I wrote:

  • A dramatic rendering of conversations with Argentine family about farming 
  • A special Farm Week post, consisting of a poem inspired by the soggy season 

Conferences I went to:

Other fun things I did:

New Farmer Summit, April 3-5, 2014

Nothing get you energized in the spring than spending three days with 150 other people who are also looking forward to getting their hands dirty as soon as possible. I was lucky enough to squeeze in another conference (read about the last one here) before the season starts again in earnest. Once again, the three days were packed with new information, though-provoking conversation, and lots of awesome people. There’s really nothing like knowing that you could walk up to any person in a room and almost instantly engage on a thoughtful and passionate level about any number of things. 

The summit was hosted by Primrose Valley Farm in Belleville, WI, whose amazing event space provided the perfect setting. A smaller group of farmers arrived a day early for a bus ride to three different farms in the area. We started out with a tour of Primrose Valley’s state of the art greenhouse and wash and pack area. A visit to Grassroots Farm provided the perfect counterpoint, with a smaller scale and a more bootstrap approach. We ended the tour at Inn Serendipity, a wind- and sun-powered bed and breakfast with a small intensive vegetable plot. 

We rounded out the day with a BYOB meet and greet in downtown New Glarus, one of the best towns in the world for B-ing your own Beer! There I met up with Dela and Tony Ends, who had generously offered to host a few of us at their farm, Scotch Hill Farm, over in Brodhead. Over the next few nights and mornings, we quickly realized that we had signed up for a supplemental ongoing workshop from two delightful and kind organic pioneers. Their CSA is going on 20 years!

Friday and Saturday were chock-full of great workshops, working lunches, panel discussions, amazing local food, and even a square dance with a live band and caller. Nobody wants me to go into detail on each and every workshop, so instead I offer you another little list of tidbits from the workshops I attended this weekend:

  • From Jackie Hoch of Hoch Orchard: a “value-added product” is hardly ever more valuable than direct-marketed fresh fruit, but are a valuable way to reduce loss from imperfect or imperfectly timed fruit.
  • Biologically active soil is the pest preventative measure for safer food, as manure gets broken down almost instantly. 
  • Special events like Christmas markets are especially good for value-added products, which have to be unique enough to stand out from the competition but not too crazy for people to want to buy.
  • “Chick-saws” are small-scale mobile coops for egg layers that can be moved by one person (like a rickshaw) instead of a tractor. 
  • Greenhouse heating is a high expense, so make sure you’re maximizing your use - you only need walkways when you need walkways, so rolling tables can be useful to use every possible square foot. 
  • The USDA’s NRCS and FSA offices have special incentives for beginning, women, and minority farmers (and a severe acronym addiction), including grants and cost-sharing, and low-interest loans. 
  • While record keeping may seem like a chore associated with organic certification, if you incorporate data logging into your workflow, you not only spend less time on paperwork, but you’ve created systems that can be helpful for you above all.
  • Most farmers’ online marketing headaches can be solved by getting listed for free on a few sites - even more important than having a fancy website or a Facebook page. 

A Postcard from Agricultural 1951

Last weekend when I was visiting a friend near Syracuse, an afternoon stroll in a small town resulted in yet another irresistible library book sale. I don't know what it is about these tiny libraries (not to mention the town dump's boxes and boxes of free books), but they just keep turning up the most amazing treasures. So not only do I have my usual tall stack of library books awaiting me, but a bulging shelf of books I now own, if only temporarily. Not having internet access in my trailer, and the slowly but increasingly noticeable longer and colder nights means that I am spending more time than ever with my nose in a book. If you've spent any length of time around me, you know that's saying something. Anyway, back in upstate NY, the roses and lawn maintenance guides of the gardening section gave way to a gem: A Practical Guide for the Beginning Farmer, by Herbert Jacobs, sold in 1951 by Harper & Brothers for three dollars. Marked down to $2 in 2013 money, it was really a steal!

Later, when I flipped to the back leaf to learn just who this Mr. Jacobs was, I discovered that he was a farmer and journalist, and native of Southwestern Wisconsin who attended Harvard. What are the chances?! (Higher in 1951 than today, I suppose...). Well, I've read the book cover to cover and I think in 1951 it was most definitely a good buy. In 2013, it's more an exercise in perspective: 1951 was smack in the middle of the beginning of the end, so to speak. Chemical and munitions companies that converted to agricultural "advancement" in the years following the Second World War were captivating farmers with promises of higher yields and bigger farms with less work. I can't blame farmers for going along with it - farming was indeed back-breaking work. Jacobs' repeated reference to the joys of the newly-improved wheelbarrow (pneumatic tire instead of iron wheel) are a vivid illustration of how much farmers in the beginning of the last century were doing with so little.

But not all of the great new innovations Jacobs' describes for the aspirant farmer are as beneficial as the easy-rolling wheelbarrow:

"One further method of raising chickens for meat has become popular in recent years, and that is the 'battery' way. The battery consists of four tiers of cages, one above the other. Because they live on wire entirely, the chickens are remarkably free from disease, are easy to keep clean, and are very tender because they don't get much exercise. The battery can also be used as a brooder, and should be considered by anyone wishing to raise birds for meat or market with a minimum of care, dirt, and space." (pp 86)

Anyone paying attention to the food industry today knows what this exciting new method turned into, and with what results for the small farmers that Jacobs is advising. Similarly, he heralds the invention of new hybrid and crossbred animals that fatten faster, produce more milk, or fit the tastes of meat-packers. New hybrid strains of corn, oats, and other forage promise higher yields, disease resistance, and almost fool-proof farming. The new tool called a "combine" will save the farmer even from the vagaries of weather! It is not hard to put yourself back in time sixty years and regard this agricultural revolution with the excitement of a man soon to be unburdened. Science won the war, and now science will deliver even the hardest-working farmer into a life of leisure and prosperity. From today's perspective, it is hard to look back and regard these farmers as anything but shortsighted. But how could they have known that the very tools they heralded as a new dawn in farming would instead result in the death knell of the human-scale family farm?

Jacobs' was indeed writing at the beginning of the end of successful family farms, and the book is full of both gleeful descriptions of the newest cure-all sprays and tools and old-fashioned injunctions to thrift. A family should be able to grow the majority of its food in the kitchen garden, put up supplies for winter, and run one or two profitable enterprises. Pigs, he informs us, will make good use of the 10% of grain that passes through a cow undigested. One of the most striking examples of this thrifty mentality seems out of place, either coming 20 years too late or 50 years too early:

"Grassland farming, in fact, could be describes as a greatly simplified, prosperous and permanent type of agriculture. Because it involves much use of machinery and elimination of drudgery, it is the type of agriculture that should attract and keep youths on the farm. Instead of relying heavily on corn and oats for his feeding ration, the grassland farmer emphasizes hay and pasture - in fact, he expects to get fully 80 per cent of his feed requirements from hay and pasture. This means more land in grasses more of the time, and some land in grass all of the time... One of the great beauties of grassland farming is that the agriculturalist is devoting himself to basically good farming practice. He uses longer crop rotations, and practices manuring, liming, fertilizing, strip cropping, and contour plowing. He uses cultivation and drainage only where necessary. Instead of considering pasture and forage as something reserved for marginal or poor lands, he recognizes that the best land is none too good for hay and pasture." (pp 136)

Photo 278.jpg

Reading A Practical Guide for the Beginning Farmer as just that over sixty years later was anachronistic in some ways and highly instructive in others. Thrift always has a place on the farm, as does the "good farming practices" described above. His advice on searching for the right land in the right community rings true as ever, as does his recommendation to avoid over-capitalization. But reading this book as a young farmer is a bit like watching a Hitchcock movie from the same era - you know the murderous madman is lurking behind the shower curtain, but no amount of screaming at the screen - or the page - will make anyone heed your warnings.

Herbert Jacobs, A Practical Guide for the Beginning Farmer (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951)

Fun With Farmers: The Greenhorns Solstice Mixer

This past weekend, I took the back roads up to Keeseville, NY, about 120 miles up the Hudson River right next to Lake Champlain in the beautiful Adirondacks. The occasion was a Solstice Mixer hosted by the Greenhorns, an awesome organization of and for young farmers. I had a great time, met a ton of awesome young farmers, toured three great new farms cooperating in really inspiring ways, and learned some great stuff. For once, I made myself take pictures so I would have something to show for the weekend. Click through the slideshow below for a blow-by-blow of the weekend!


Young farmers with an eye on the future

This is a long, meandering essay. Consider yourself forewarned.

Back in February at the MOSES conference, one topic that kept popping up in conversation after conversation was Climate Change. This is not exactly a surprising observation. Farming, after all, is one of the only remaining professions that is affected by the weather on a daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal basis. By extension, the longer-term fluctuations in climate are of vital importance to the farmer dependent on the elements to make her living. When we hear about climate change in the news these days, it is often being blamed for the latest in extreme weather patterns - hurricanes seem to devastate more often, one hundred year floods return way ahead of schedule, record highs and lows seem to be broken every year. More often in recent years, we are beginning to hear about the effects of this extreme weather on farmers: a severe drought wiped out the corn crop in many areas of the Midwest, and brought record low yield in the rest; fruit growers in Michigan and the rest of the country lost all or most of their harvest in May when a late hard frost literally nipped apples, peaches, and cherries in the bud. All this to say that it's no surprise that when you gather three thousand farmers in one place, the issue of climate change is bound to come up. Young farmers in particular, however, seem to have a unique point of view when it comes to climate change. On the most basic level, it makes sense that those of us with the most seasons of farming ahead of us have the greatest stake in a changing planet. Those of us who are just starting out can (and must) plan on farming in a different world than we're learning to farm in now. For some, that means choosing to start farming in a cooler climate now, knowing that a few more decades might mean farming in a whole different zone. For others, that means finding dependable sources of fresh water, or avoiding areas where rising sea levels or more frequent hurricanes might wipe out a farm after years of hard work and investment. After a few of these conversations, I realized that we had started to sound like those "Doomsday preppers" you hear about sometimes - the ones that stock an underground bunker with weeks or months worth of canned food and fresh water, not to mention weapons, ammunition, and paranoia.

Now, in order to really get at the kernel at the center of each one of these conversations I had with other young farmers, I'm going to call on my not-quite-forgotten anthropology studies here and go out on a limb to make broad generalizations about "my generation." It is my opinion that my generation has a unique outlook on the future formed in large part by when we have reached certain key stages in the last two decades. At first, none of this may seem related, but I promise to eventually bring it back around to young farmers facing climate change. I don't know what my generation is technically called, but I'm counting people born between 1984 and 1992, roughly speaking today's "twenty-somethings." We came into consciousness after the Cold War, not old enough to learn to "duck and cover" in the event of a nuclear attack, never in our young lives taking on that fear that the world could end quite suddenly and without warning. Into this peaceful and sheltered existence instead crashed national and international calamities, just when the media three-ring circus really came into its own. Into the void apparently created by ceasing to worry about imminent nuclear holocaust slipped a national fascination with the gory, the titillating, the tragic the macabre: JonBenet, O.J., Diana, Lewinskey, even Oklahoma City. To my generation, the ubiquitious news stories were in the adult realm, cover stories to be passed over at the supermarket checkout counter in favor of the possibility of a candy treat.

The first national news story that affected our daily lives was most likely the shooting at Columbine in the spring of 1999. While we may not have been old enough to watch the news coverage, to the standard school fire and tornado drills was added a new maneuver: the armed intruder lock-down. Instead of lining up outside or crouching in the hallways away from windows, we were instructed to lock the classroom door, turn off the lights, close the blinds, and gather against the wall closest to the door, out of view of a passing armed psychopath. By 2001, we were old enough to watch non-stop coverage of our next national tragedy. To the armed intruder was added a distant, faceless enemy to fear. Over the next decade, first friends' older siblings and then our friends left to fight wars it was all too easy to ignore day by day, and which lagged on with no discernible progress or end in sight. Natural disasters occurred in such quick succession it seemed that the Red Cross might be running a Nigerian Prince scam on the entire country. The media circus intensified, with 24-hour news networks churning through the dark undercurrent of war, unrest, and uncertainty to draw the nation's attention to the same mix of the gory, titillating, tragic, macabre stories that characterized the 1990s at a dizzying rate.

We came of age politically in a time when campaigns started the day after elections, and when one month's sure winner was "who again?" the next. The first election we followed was decided by the Supreme Court, the next improbably bungled. We were forced to choose between a qualified woman and an inspiring Black man, and rallied behind the latter. We raised our hopes impossibly high, and had them chipped away by the incompetence and polarity of the legislative branch. As my generation started to become adults, to emerge into the "real world," the bottom fell out of the financial market and we were left to find our first post-college jobs in one of the worst job markets since the Great Depression. Into the churning mix of "news" is added the steady hum of foreclosures, bank failures, and monthly numbers of all kinds above and below projections for the the worst. In the midst of all of this, we became the most adept users of a tool that came of age as we did: the internet. We emerged into the world hyperconnected, with anything we could want at our fingertips and yet seemingly devoid of marketable skills.

This unique set of circumstances has resulted in a unique set of people, for better or worse. On the one hand, this melange of dark uncertainty has caused many of my generation to step back and view the world through a lens of detached irony: never caring about anything enough that we would be affected by its demise, eschewing earnestness, distracting ourselves by becoming briefly "into" certain things until enough people come to agree with us that it becomes "ruined." Others try to counter the uncertainty and hopelessness by diving deep into internet-fueled rabbit holes of pop culture, technology, fandom, etc., essentially replacing any emotional investment in the problems real world with emotional investment in a fantasy world. Some, faced with a world increasingly impossible to understand and problems seemingly impossible to solve, instead turn inward and magnify and sometimes exacerbate their own problems (see HBO's "Girls" for a pop culture depiction of this route). Others choose to tackle the world head on from both inside and outside of the system, protesting, occupying, and signing up for national service programs in record numbers. Still others react to the uncertainty of the future and the intangibility of a digital world by reaching into the past for analog skills. This is where the current crop of young farmers comes in: we are essentially taking this impulse to the extreme. What has manifested itself in a spate of "DIY" crafts, canning, and urban butchering classes becomes in us a need to grow food for ourselves and others.

So, bringing it back around finally to our young farmers talking about climate change, let's look at what we have learned to expect from the world in the last two decades. First, the gradual, cumulative changes brought about by advances in technology have created a world drastically different from the one we were born into. Second, drastic sudden events have created a world different from the one we came to know as children. Third, constant background chatter of uncertainty and certain doom courtesy of current events churned through the media makes the scandals and culture wars of the 1990s look like quaint bedtime stories. Given these factors, there is no reason for today's twenty-somethings to expect the world to be at all recognizable twenty years from now. There is no specific enemy to fear, there is no specific event to prepare for, but there is a certainty that something is in store for us that we cannot fathom at this moment. From this perspective, climate change is certainly something for the young farmer to consider in planning for the future, but only one worry among many. In a way, like those doomsday preppers mentioned above, we are arming ourselves for a coming apocalypse. Instead of stockpiling, however, we are choosing to equip ourselves with the skills to provide nourishment for ourselves and others. We are working outside an industrial food system that we don't necessarily expect to see in that unknown world twenty years from now. We are choosing a location to farm with the knowledge that it will be a different place in twenty years. We are looking to create local economies again, in which a community can provide for itself not only nutritionally, but culturally, artistically, spiritually, medically, etc. We cannot hope to affect much change in the wider world, so we try our hand at creating a world on a small scale that we hope will be thriving twenty years from now, no matter what the world looks like then. We are choosing to beat back the underlying doom with optimistic realism on a miniscule scale, day by day. We plant a seed optimistic that it will germinate, grow strong under our care, and that we will still be around when it eventually bears us fruit in return for our labors. As a young farmer, that optimism will carry me into an uncertain future prepared to handle whatever the world has in store.

MOSES Conference, La Crosse, WI

The last weekend of February, I was lucky enough to attend the MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) Organic Farming Conference in beautiful, frigid La Crosse, Wisconsin. Along with over three thousand other attendees, I spent a glorious weekend meeting other farmers, encountering new ideas, and above all being reminded how much I still have to learn. I was able to attend the conference thanks to a scholarship through the New Organic Stewards program, which encourages young and  beginning farmers to attend the conference. At the conference, the New Organic Stewards also organized plenty of formal and informal ways to meet other young farmers from across the midwest.

It was at one such gathering where the idea for this website was born. First sprawled in an extra conference room in the convention center and later over beers and sandwiches at a local pub, we talked for hours about the farms we envision for our future selves. While I'll probably spend quite a few blog posts in the future parsing and rehashing many of our discussions that night (and that weekend), right now I'd just like to share how that conversation was the impetus for this site, and this blog. On the Planning the Farm section of this site, you can read about my vision for a future farm. One thing you will notice is integral to my future plans is unnamed other farmers. That's where this site comes in. "What if," I recall saying late that night, "I could just put up, like, a personal ad. You know, like in the newspaper? Instead of 'Single white male seeks younger woman for ballroom dancing, fun' I could be all like, "Young farmer seeks other young farmers to join her in a long-term adventure, whole diet food production.' " There were murmurs and nods of agreement around the circle. "Except," I continued, "I guess you would need a lot more information than a little personal ad. To find the right people, you would have to explain your whole idea, and it would have to reach the whole country. No newspaper can do that."

That's precisely when we remembered the one tool our generation of farmers has been able to harness that our forebears didn't have at their disposal: the World Wide Web! The Internet! The Interwebz! Somewhere, in the midst of the brambles of black market pharmaceuticals, pop-up ads, and porn, I could clear a patch and plant my little seed of an idea. I could wax poetical about that future farm all I wanted! Back in that bar in La Crosse, the idea took root (am I mixing my metaphors yet?): I could create a website for a farm that does not yet exist, using it as a way to find potential partners, and maybe even investors. As I embark on my first full season farming in one place, I could use the site to document my own growth and education as a young farmer. By the time I am farming land I can call (at least partially) my own, I will have left an internet trail that other young farmers can follow, perhaps emboldened by my example and wiser for my mistakes. In the next few weeks and months, no doubt my blog posts will be inspired by and make repeated reference to the MOSES Conference. Indeed, I have a complete mp3 set of all of the conference workshops burning a hole in my backpack! For now, I'm glad for the inspiration the conference provided, both to undertake this website and blog and as fuel for the farming season ahead. No matter where I find myself next winter, you can be sure that a trip to a regional conference like MOSES will feature prominently on my calendar.