Saturday, March 17, 2007

Land Ho!

I have been farming since the summer of 1984—almost 24 years now. And although somewhat ironically I didn’t grow up on a farm or with farming parents, I was never too far from farming growing up. My grandparents—my mom’s parents—had settled many years ago on “little” 600 acre farm in south-central Kansas where they grew corn, wheat, alfalfa, and raised cattle. From the day I was born, in May 1963, that farm was a part of my life and, even though it is long gone, that farm continues to be a part of who I am. Long gone because the same government that created the massive problems with our current agricultural system invoked a claim of eminent domain, stole that farm from my grandparents, and made it into a huge fishing pond—all in the name of flood control.

My grandfather was born in Kansas, my grandmother in Arkansas. They came together to create that farm into the source of boyhood memories in the early decades of the twentieth century. They survived the dustbowl, World War II, and numerous farming hardships (weather, locusts, tornados, hail, etc). They were a part of that great transition from manual to mechanized agriculture. They were survivors in every sense. They were local.

They were able to get what they needed to subsist either by growing it or getting it from other local farmers or merchants. There wasn’t ever a thought about buying local or imported; organic or conventional. It was just local because that’s all there really was. Even by the time the government stole their farm, the US had just begun shipping grain overseas and planting the seeds for a global food system. We had yet to understand what a global food system or corporatized farm policy would do to us a nation. Today, we’re an obese nation eating vast quantities of overprocessed foods grown god knows where. But back then local was all there was.

The recent discussions over the virtues of local versus whatever else made me realize that there were times when local was all there was. Local is not some grand new idea or food trend, but rather the way it simply should be and was. Organic isn’t a new idea either. Prior to the beginning of industrial revolution and the development of pesticides, organic was just the way that people grew food. And they grew it locally, as well. Local, organic food—a so-called gold standard—imagine that. The only differences between then and now are mired in details of methodology, packaging, and promotion. And I use the word mired purposefully because to look at it any differently is to lose sight of the fact that all this discussion about “local” is really just a rediscovery of our roots and who we are as a culture and a nation.

There are many countries that have forgotten far less of their roots than us. They know and understand their roots. We’re rediscovering ours. And hopefully it is not just another food trend, because local—our history—is going to define who we become as country and culture over the next few decades. Microwaves and TV dinners are also a part of our roots. So you have to look deeper and further back to discover the true essence of what local and roots constitute. I encourage people to put down that copy of Time and rediscover the monumental writings of folks like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. In order to Know Your Roots we must first rediscover them. And in order to rediscover them you have to find those connecting pieces whether they be a farmer, author, farmers market, or relative. My connection is my grandparent’s now flooded farm in southeast Kansas and the memories I have of such simpler times when local was our collective roots. There wasn’t anything else.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Organic vs Local: Which Is it?

Despite what some people think, I’m actually not against organic farming. In fact, I am a huge fan and have been for a long time. Unfortunately, since organic has become a global commodity, smaller organic farmers must run their businesses differently—compared to 15 or more years ago—in order to compete with the glut of globally-produced organic products. What we’re really battling is GLOBAL organic and not LOCAL organic. In the recent Time cover story about organic vs. local, the author declares locally produced organic a sort of “gold standard.” That’s why in the short term, as a very viable alternative, consumers must begin to accept local, ecologically grown produce instead of the global organic food. Food produced a long way away has a far higher environmental impact (BTUIQ) than local, ecologically grown food. Plus, this way you have the opportunity to know your farmer.

Most globally produced organic produce is possible because of huge capital investments by large companies in countries with cheap land, cheap labor, and malleable business laws. Locally grown organic products, however, are infinitely more difficult to come by because of expensive land, expensive labor, volatile climate, biological imperatives, and not-so malleable business laws (aka bureaucracy). Even the federal regulations regarding the labeling of certified organic produce favor the largest growers and work against the smaller more diversified growers. With all of this working against small regional farmers, why, you might ask, attempt farming in this region at all? Well, primarily, because we enjoy what we do. “Like” is probably not a good starting point for making a living in an industry with a history of tortured souls and bankruptcies. Farmers don’t bring anything if not passion to what they do. In this case, farming is also an important part of our history and culture. And, people are demanding to know where their food is coming from, who grew it, and how it was grown; witness the meteoric rise is prevalence of farmer markets. But most of all local produce tastes better than anything grown anywhere else in the world, and consumers are tired of cardboard tasting produce.

My fear is that like anything else in this fast paced world is that our ability to produce locally grown food may succumb to some greater force, like a real estate developers, lack of labor, climate change, or the next great food trend. Worse, it’s very likely that bureaucrats and policy wonks may get the bright idea that we need to define what local actual means. Once that happens, it’s all over with. The large companies and their lobbyists will make sure the definition includes some loophole so they include their products. Local pineapple, anyone? But the biggest hurdle is keeping consumers interested long enough to make farming a viable enterprise over the long term.

The future of farming in New York’s Hudson Valley goes a long way beyond a Time article trumpeting the virtues of local farms and the food produced there. If you read some of the monumental works of literature written during the past 100 years, you’ll find that many of the conditions that caused the great dustbowl, or the mass human migration to cities, or unfair distribution of America’s food dollar still exist today. There was a time when more people lived on farms than not, and they understood where their food came from. Today, you’re hard pressed to convince people that milk comes from cows; that apples start developing over a year before they’re harvested; and of the price someone pays for their food, very little actually gets back to the grower. Then of course we have failed farm policy and how it supports corporations, rather than farmers.

I commend Time for making the debate over organic vs local a cover story. I really do. But like an onion, we need to continue peeling and exposing the myriad other issues the impact the viability of local farms, farmers, and their families. I understand why farming in the Hudson Valley has declined so dramatically. It is because these greater-than-thou forces that affect us today, affected “them’ back then, too, so they either retired, sold out, or went bankrupt. There are a few stalwarts left, some younger growers like myself, and others who are still giving farming the ol’ college try, but we’re still battling the same uncaring forces that have been working against farmers for decades.

Locally grown, organic produce may be the gold standard, but are you willing to pay for it? Growing organic produce in our local climate is possible, but often yields are lower and expenses higher. And despite the generally higher prices, profitability is unpredictable and declining. Once our love affair with organic and everything local has cooled off, we’ll need some new, truly sustainable method of farming to grow and market our products successfully. But we also need sane, rational change to our laws and policies that not encourage farming, but ensure his survival. There is simply no way farming can survive the onslaught of rising property taxes, reduced labor supply, increased expenses, and I could go on and on. This is what drove large corporations overseas in the first place. This is what’s pushing the next generation in most farming families to do something else with their lives. Without stable, profitable businesses what enterprising person would WANT to get into farming? Well, me for one and not because I have the answer, but instead because I THINK I have an answer.

I farm for a living. Yet farming goes beyond being able to turn soil and plant trees. I have to also be a business manager, a writer, a mechanic, and salesman. And when I am done with those things, I farm again. A of mine passion is trying to answer the “what’s next” question: If today’s gold standard is locally produced organic food, then what is tomorrow’s? For me, it means creating a business model that includes a production method that’s “beyond organic,” green building methods, plant derived fuels to run our tractors, solar panels to power our coolers and packing lines, and a way to attract the best and brightest back into farming.

This game of farming is about survival and perpetual motion, like riding a bike. You have to keep pedaling or you’ll fall off. Everything we do has the questions of “what’s next” wrapped around it. For the next 5 years or so, organics will continue to grow, conventional grown produce will shrink; Locally grown produce will eat away at market share of both. But the demand for locally grown produce doesn’t mean that consumers will just start eating food grown any which way. No, they’ll still want their organics, and they’ll want it grown close to home. But what’s after that?

For now, I’m moving forward with plans to certify some of our production organic. We’ll use a variety of new technologies to help ameliorate the effects of weather and then use some innovative, hot packaging to bring our products to the consumer. Then this season, watch out for some of the best tasting, most sustainably grown produce around. Know Your Roots. Taste Ours!

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Real Food, Right Now!

Generally speaking a commodity is a homogeneous product offered for sale without any significant element of differentiation from its closest cousin. In the world of apples, until about thirty years ago, there were red and yellow apples in your average grocery store. There was very little different about them beyond color and very few consumers that actually cared. Ironically, decades before that (say the mid-30s or 40s) provincial culture and local food systems gave people their local ‘favorites’ in terms of tomatoes or apples. We lost that when big business stepped in after World War II and streamlined the food world into a one-size-fits-all recipe. Then in the 70s, pioneering apple growers introduced the Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji from around the world. These introductions set the apple world on its ear and blazed the path for many more new, exciting varieties to be commonly found on supermarket shelves. This trend has led to resurgence in interest in heirloom varieties of apples, tomatoes, melons, and more. But this interest, if unmonitored, is a threat to long-term value if uncaring interests get involved and commodify these wonderful culinary creatures for a quick, and big, buck.

I have to be careful here because the root word commodity has very specific meanings to very specific disciplines. For the sake of this blog, commodity means the lowest common denominator; a market level without value except as applies to volume and price. Bordeaux wines are not a commodity; jug wines are. Even though each commands a certain price and exists in certain volumes in the marketplace, the ones with the true value are the Bordeauxs. And this value goes directly to the artisanal—and non-homogeneous—qualities of the product. Even here the threat of commodification is real; witness the fraudlent and criminal production and/or relabeling of cheap wines as high priced Bordeaux gems. What's one to do?

Very few recent debates surrounding issues of organic vs. conventional, fair trade vs. sustainable; local vs. global; organic vs. local provide robust discussions of culinary and artisanal qualities of the food we’re all talking about. Even fewer tell you what to do about it. Yet, without asking writers beg the reader (aka consumer) to dig deeper. Peel back that onion. In other words, do you know who’s growing your food? Where they’re growing or producing it? Or even how they’re growing it?

There are many scrupulous global producers and traders of farm products all around the world. Equally, there are numerous local producers just waiting to take advantage of recent trends even though they (i.e., the producers) have no ethical or moral direction. The only way to retain sanity and meaning for terms like local, organic and fair trade is to reconnect the consumer with the producer. Introduce them to the artisan, their products, and farm. And the only way to do that is to put real value back into our food system and decommodify (or elevate from commodity levels) our food to a place in people’s hearts and minds that means something positive, and real, and truthful. So what if you grow Red Delicious? Grow it right, make it yours, and let people know about it. The real value is in the producer’s effort and imagination to bring you real food, right now!

Labels: , , , ,