The Local Food Movement Is Flourishing And Shows No Signs Of Stopping

Joseph Erbentraut Senior Reporter, The Huffington Post- February 2, 2017
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For a long time, the prevailing mantra of farming in America has been simple: “Get big or get out.”

That mantra traces its roots back to the late Earl Butz, who President Richard Nixon appointed as U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1971. He held the position for five years.

Under Butz’s watch, domestic farm policies shifted to favor large, industrial operations planting mostly corn and soy and shun smaller farms that favored organic, locally sold crops. That legacy has continued to this day, as evidenced by U.S. farms’ dwindling crop diversity and the massive environmental footprint — like degraded soil, excessive water use, and heavy use of pesticides and herbicides — such approaches to farming leave behind.

Despite this, alternative approaches have continued to survive — and even thrive. A growing number of Americans want to know where their food comes from, connect with the families producing it and buy products at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

But how, exactly, can small farms capitalize on that interest and earn a living? Can farmers markets and CSA boxes really sustain a farm, especially at a time when the incoming administration has signaled a push to fight the local food movement’s recent gains?

Josh Volk thinks so. He’s the owner of Slow Hand Farm in Portland, Oregon, and he has a lot of evidence to back up his argument.

In a new book titled Compact Farms, out this week, Volk highlights 15 different farms across the country ― all of which are located on no more than 5 acres ― and the hard-working people who run them.

Volk details how each farm grows and sells its products, even offering advice to aspiring farmers who are interested in taking up the trade themselves. And through telling their stories, Volk pushes back against the “get big or get out” narrative, making a strong case for how smaller farms can, and do, contribute to our nation and planet’s health and livelihood — and will continue to do so regardless of the current political climate.

The Huffington Post recently spoke with Volk about farming and the future of food policy under President Donald Trump.

What inspired you to write this book that’s a how-to guide for small farmers?

I wanted to create a dialogue around how these things work and how can we make them better. I wanted to look at this smaller scale of agriculture and find out from the people what they are doing that is making them so successful, to put those ideas out into the world and try to generate more discussion around the topic.

How did you select the farms you highlight? What made them unique?

Narrowing it down was a little bit tricky. I was looking for a cross-section of farms. I wanted to have urban examples and rural examples in all different parts of the country. I ended up with more of a mid-northern tier and didn’t get farms further south, but I had so many good examples from farmers in the northern tier that just ended up being the way it was.

I was also looking for diversity in markets and to have a good gender balance. What I didn’t end up with, which I wish I had found more examples of, was a more racially diverse audience. It would have been interesting to find more examples of those farms ― they are out there, but that just wasn’t where my connections were.

You’ve been in this business for some time. You know your stuff. What surprises did you encountered along the way of working on this? 

The most surprising thing to me was how many examples of these farms there were. And some of these examples went back 15, 20, 30 or more years. There are many people who have been doing this for a significant amount of time. This is something that’s out there. It’s not new. I knew that to some extent but was surprised at how easy it was, in some ways, to find examples of that.

This all pushes back against the “get big or get out” idea — do you think that idea is dying out? Is there momentum here, or still a long way to go?

We always need more education about how successful these [small] farms can be. These examples of folks doing it for 20 or 30 years show you can maintain this. That this is sustainable in the environmental sense, in the social sense and in the business sense. I also included some examples of farms in their third or fourth or fifth year to show that it looks like when you’re first starting this. I don’t know if those farms will continue to succeed, but so far they have. But I think this is getting easier and there is a lot more information out there, and a lot more acceptance. I think it is gaining momentum.

I also don’t think that means that “small” is the only way. There needs to be a place for the mid-sized farms and even the bigger farms. But I think the landscape needs to be more open and more accepting of all of it. I hope this book will help make this more of an option of people who don’t want farming to just be the one way.

Farm policy has been in the spotlight recently thanks to Trump’s late nomination of a U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary. There have been reports of some farm groups being anxious about Trump. How are you feeling about the future of small farms, given the current political climate and incoming administration?

From what I’ve seen over my last 15 to 20 years in small-scale agriculture, the organic farming movement operated without any help — and, really, antagonism — from the USDA and government entities and it still successfully grew. There’s no question in my mind that when the USDA took over the organic label and started the National Organic Program that that really kickstarted a lot of help from universities and other organizations and things have been much better. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be better than they are right now, but they are better than they ever were.

I think it’s almost impossible to think there won’t be a major step backwards [under the Trump administration], but I don’t think that step backwards will be particularly problematic. Certainly, with the very minimal subsidies there are and the kind of momentum there is in terms of interest in research, I think we’re still on solid ground. But we’re going to have to make major efforts to continue to move things forward now more than ever.

It sounds like you’re feeling more optimistic than many people might guess you would be. Why is that?

I live in a bit of a bubble here in Portland. We’re so progressive in some ways and there is so much support at the local level, not just in terms of local government, but with the customers — the people at the farmers markets and the support for the CSA growers and restaurateurs using local produce and buying from local farmers. It doesn’t feel like any of that is going to change. If anything, I think in some ways, there’s more of an excuse than ever for that core group to put their support behind these small farms, to double down on that.

I’m optimistic, too, because I do travel and visit farms in other parts of the country. And over the past five to 10 years doing that, I’ve always been impressed when I go see these places. I grew up on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and it was not like that when I lived there 30 years ago. The food scene is changing. Maybe it doesn’t look the same as it looks in Portland, but there are a lot of the same aspects of support for local farms. I meet a lot of farmers who are making it work because restaurants are buying from them and people want their produce at farmers markets. I don’t just see that in this bubble in Portland. I see it everywhere I go.

What are other indications of this movement that you’re seeing?

When I first moved to Portland in 2001, I think there were maybe 15 CSAs serving the area. Now I think it’s at least five or six times that. There were no training programs for new farmers starting out, unless you consider the on-farm jobs, which were limited at the time. Now you have formalized training programs at community colleges and private organizations, as well as through farms. And all of those programs exist because people are interested in getting involved at this scale in this type of agriculture. It’s a huge leap forward. If you track it year to year, it doesn’t seem like much, but if you compare it to 20 or 30 years ago, it’s a leap forward. I don’t see that slowing down. I see it accelerating.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Slow Hand Farm CSA, Sauvie Island, Portland, Oregon.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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Urban farmers find success leads to eviction

It’s a prickly chore Clark loathes but one she can’t avoid as her Big Muddy Farm has had to move from one vacant lot to another even though the business was thriving.

Urban farms like Clark’s are being evicted from center cities across the nation where they’ve become a much-remarked-on driver of urban revival in recent years, having brought healthy food, commerce and eye-pleasing greenery to dreary neighborhoods. During the recession, downtown landowners and leaders offered up plots for free to get new vitality on empty streets.

Now the thriving farms are being routed by another urban phenomenon: the hordes of people moving back downtown to live, which is turning green spaces into prime real estate. Plots where low-income residents raised vegetables, where community groups trained at-risk youth and where small garden businesses took root are being snapped up for construction of new apartments and townhouses.

“You have to plant as if you’re going to be there 10 years, even if you know it probably won’t work that way,” said Clark, a co-founder of Big Muddy Farm. She added, “It stinks to put in the time in an investment that doesn’t last.”

The evictions are sad but inevitable, said Amy Brendmoen, a City Council member in St. Paul, Minnesota, which recently booted an urban farm from city land to make way for housing construction. Even the most robust farms can’t earn enough to compete with a real estate development.

“You couldn’t help but smile when you went by,” she said of the ousted Stones Throw farm. “They were working so hard. You could see the harvest. It was incredible.”

No estimates exist on the number of urban farms, but their popularity soared in the past seven or eight years. Many started as community projects.

It’s unclear how many will survive. Big Muddy’s partners are hoping to hold onto their main farm, a series of raised beds and unheated greenhouses on three empty lots between a nonprofit theater and houses dating to the early 1900s.

But in Denver, Lisa Rogers last month closed her Feed Denver organization, which promoted urban farming in the booming city. The fact that the farms’ beautifying effect actually helps endanger them is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Developers will call and say, ‘We have a piece of land, can you pretty it up for two years?’ Rogers said. “As available land gets squeezed and prices go through the roof, like in Denver, it’s nearly impossible to find land and stay there.”

Even public property isn’t safe. Recently, a 6,000-square-foot nonprofit farm called GreenLeaf was evicted by the Denver Housing Authority so the land could be sold to a private housing developer. At-risk high school students worked at the farm, which is now moving next to a middle school.

“We’re going to have to look for new customers, and our old ones are going to have to look for a new produce source,” said Cody Meinhardt, the nonprofit group’s executive director.

In many center cities, residents are lamenting the disappearance of the farms, or their move to the suburbs.

Laura Staugaitis regularly bought produce-filled boxes from a local farmer near Denver, but said she can’t justify the 45-minute trip the purchase now requires.

“The drive made it a negative experience rather than an enriching experience,” she said.

The pressure for urban land is especially intense in the fastest growing cities like Houston.

In 2008, neighbors in a financially and racially mixed area just southwest of downtown signed a $1 a year lease with a property owner to turn an overgrown lot into the Midtown Community Garden.

“My goal was to get people out of their homes and apartments so they could relate to each other, and we did that,” said resident Scott Harbers, who helped set it up.

But attempts to get local government to acquire the site as a public space failed, and last year it was sold for nearly $1 million to a housing developer.

Some urban farm promoters are pushing local officials to begin setting aside plots for urban agriculture because of the health and community benefits. In the Seattle area, officials have designated portions of parks and other public land. In Los Angeles, community groups are working to encourage developers to have farming and green space designed into housing projects, including on rooftops.

“The vacant lot story is cool, but it’s also short term,” said Jesse Dubois, a leader in the Los Angeles urban farming effort.

———

Follow Scott McFetridge at: https://twitter.com/smcfetridge .


Source URL:http://www.gazettenet.com/businessmoney/19693746-95/urban-farmers-find-success-leads-to-eviction

Valley crops fall victim to water-mold blight

Even in the risky world of farming, a particularly nasty risk is Phytophthora, whose very name sounds scary.

A water-mold blight that can kill entire crops of pumpkins, cucumbers or peppers, Phytophthora capsici is especially problematic because once its spores get into soil, they remain there for years, dormant until the next heavy rains. (Unlike its more common cousin, late blight, capsici’s spores are transmitted by water, not wind.)

“It can take out 100 percent of their crop,” said Katie Campbell-Nelson, UMass Extension vegetable specialist. “There’s a few farmers around here who really specialize in butternut squash, and they’re at particular risk. This is a really big problem for them.”

watermoldBy all accounts, relatively dry conditions this spring and summer kept it from being a particularly bad Phytophthora year around the Pioneer Valley, but farmers such as Mike Wissemann in Sunderland and Peter Melnick in Deerfield reported losses this year.

“We’re running out of places. If you have the right weather conditions, it can rear its ugly head,” even a decade after a field was infected, said Melnick, who said his Bar-Way Farm lost about four of 10 acres planted in butternut squash, after the low-lying field got 4 or 5 inches during one warm September spell. “It’s getting to be a real challenge.”

That challenge is likely to become more intense, with good cropland limited and New England projected to become more susceptible to heavy rain events, with warmer temperatures because of climate change, according to Campbell-Nelson.

But one ray of hope could come from Campbell-Nelson’s test planting of “Caliente” brown mustard as a bio-fumigant cover crop at the UMass Crop Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield.

The brown mustard, chopped up and worked into the soil at the proper time, got the same reaction that Wasabi might draw from someone whose nose was “burned” by the release of the gas it generates, the researcher said with a laugh.

Her test this year of Brassica juncea mustard, measured against control plots of oats on infected soil in the greenhouse, showed it suppressed the disease.

“I got samples of Phytophthora that had been taken from fields around here,” she said. “There are several mating types, so I wanted to make sure we got a good sample of the disease we have in this area.”

Then she inoculated each pot with active “zoospores, which were swimming. If they had a host, they were going to find it. I was creating a disease triangle perfect for the disease: I flooded those peppers, I soaked them, I put the disease in there. I really wanted to see if I could kill those plants.”

The peppers eventually had fewer symptoms of the blight and lived longer, but Campbell-Nelson acknowledged that since it is harder under natural conditions to be certain the mustard is incorporated into the soil during active zoospore, or even semi-active sporangia cycles, it’s probably important to do repeated plantings.

Because the mustard cover — which has no commercial value, especially because it’s chopped into the soil — is from the same Brassica family as kale, it is unlikely to be used by diversified Pioneer Valley growers who want to rotate their fields to other kinds of crops.

And even with repeat cover-crop plantings, mustard is not likely to work wonders by itself, but should be seen as part of what Campbell-Nelson calls a “holistic solution” that also includes reduced tilling, well-drained soils, raised beds and rotating the Phytophthora-susceptible hosts with other crops.

“You should do everything,” she said. “This should be part of integrated management rather than relying on any one method. Never rely on any one method.”

‘No silver bullet’

Wissemann, one of a handful of area farmers who has tried using mustard as a bio-fumigant, reported after losing a pumpkin crop at his Warner Farm to the blight, “There’s no silver bullet, but it helps.”

He added, “We started swapping land with other farmers to prevent monoculture, but part of the risk of that was that Phytophthora ended up being transferred (by equipment moving from field to field.) This is all before we knew what we know now.”

And yet, he added, on a low-lying field that had once been used for growing peppers before it was inundated by the adjacent Connecticut River years ago, “We haven’t had susceptible crops on that field for, gosh, 15 years, and I put some pumpkin out there last year. And sure enough, they had a problem.”

Another recent UMass Extension research project, by plant pathologist Nicholas Brazee, tested for Phytophthora spores in the Connecticut, but found that no samples of that variety, leading to the conclusion that it only spreads the blight if it carries water over already infected soil onto another field.

In some cases, Wissemann and Melnick agreed, the pumpkins had been harvested several days before they showed signs of the disease.

Angela Madeiras, a diagnostician at the UMass Plant Diagnostic Laboratory, said that in addition to flooding of infected fields with poorly draining soil, a leading way Phytophthora spreads is by workers carrying infected soil on their boots, or on farm equipment.

But she added that it is unclear where the problem, which exists in other parts of the world, came from, or how much of Pioneer Valley farmland is affected.

“It’s hard to know how widespread it really is,” Campbell-Nelson said. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, because it only presents itself when there’s a flood … condition.”

She added, “Farmers who have had trouble with this disease have gone as far as suggesting they grow cucumbers on trellises, even though that’s on acres and acres, because they’re so at a loss for what to do.”

Even then, added Madeiras, the spores can be splashed up onto the crop by rain. Chemical fumigants exist, but they tend to be expensive and harder and harder to find.

The good news is that practices like using mustard as a cover crop, rotating crops, increasing soil drainage, and reducing tillage can help somewhat, Campbell-Nelson said.


Source URL:http://www.gazettenet.com/home/19439500-95/some-valley-crops-fall-victim-to-water-mold-blight-phytophthora

PRODUCER INTERVIEW – Gabor’s Eggs

The following is an interview with one of the producer/vendors at the All Things Local Cooperative Market.

Gabor Lukacs of Gabor’s Eggs

Egg Shaped Gold – by Caroline Seymour

It’s so easy to separate the grocery store from the farm.  Eggs come from chickens, obviously, but on a weekly trip to Stop and Shop it’s hard to remember that eggs don’t just come from cardboard cartons.  What’s more, we’re even made to believe that all eggs are created equal.  You might feel good about buying cage-free eggs, but if there’s really no difference between the eggs then it’s not worth worrying about, right?

eggsWrong!  The color of an egg’s shell doesn’t really matter, but what’s inside can vary widely based on the life of the chicken it came from, and the difference is big enough to see.  Try putting one supermarket egg in a bowl next to Gabor’s Eggs from All Things Local, and the difference is clear. Gabor’s eggs have a richer, more brightly colored yolk.  The yolks stand taller, they’re stronger, and they even taste better.  And as you might expect, the difference doesn’t come from chemicals and hormones, but from something even more unusual: treating chickens like chickens.

It turns out, letting chickens do what chickens like to do causes them to produce better eggs.  This means letting them out of the little cages (commonly called battery cages) that commercially raised chickens live in and letting them outside.  Gabor Lukacs, an Amherst resident who raises chickens of his own, knows exactly what this means.  His chickens live in a wide area around his garden, picking at bugs and grass and choosing whether they want to stand in the shade of their summer enclosure or their more sheltered winter enclosure.  He knows they have enough space, because “Some space in their area is still covered in grass, which means they haven’t had time to get to it all – it means they have plenty of room.”  Letting chickens act like chickens means their stress levels are at a minimum; they don’t have to fight each other for space, they have a variety of food to eat, and they can focus on living happy chicken lives.

gabor1It may sound surprising to hear that Gabor’s eggs aren’t certified organic.  They’re free to live in the open, and aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics.  But Gabor raises his chickens in an environment that’s about something even more important: he focuses on living locally.  In his own words, “Local creates community.  Organic doesn’t.”  Today, the term ‘organic’ is regulated by the government, which unfortunately means that it’s expensive to become certified, and the term doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is produced in a sustainable, humane way.  Gabor’s chickens and gardens are designed to be sustainable; he doesn’t have to buy commercial chicken food or fertilizers, but relies on the resources in and around Amherst.  This includes recycling food waste from the All Things Local café; chickens eat grains, of course, and they love the vegetable leftovers like carrot peels.  So even though they’re not certified organic, they are local, sustainable, and produce delicious eggs!

The benefits of these eggs go even deeper than taste.  All eggs provide some level of vitamin D, an essential nutrient that plays an important role in bone health and digestion.  One study found that free range chickens living outdoors produced eggs with four times more vitamin D than chickens living in battery cages[1].  Imagine eating four supermarket eggs to get the amount of vitamin D in just one of Gabor’s eggs!  It’s important to note that just because eggs are labeled ‘free range’ doesn’t mean they have all the space they need; commercial free range chickens can still be packed together, which makes them stressed out and more likely to fight.  Another study found that chickens treated similarly to Gabor’s had twice as much carotenoids than commercially produced eggs[2].  Carotenoids are precursors to vitamin A, which is essential for vision, and can also act as antioxidants, which protect the body from damaging chemicals.  Carotenoids give foods a yellow or orange color, which is why Gabor’s eggs are so much brighter than those bought from the grocery store.

Why don’t all eggs just get these benefits?  It’s simple – chicken farms don’t know how to manipulate hormones and nutrition to produce eggs as good as Gabor’s.  The simple truth is that there’s no substitute for chickens’ natural diet and habits when it comes to producing good eggs.  This is food that you can feel good about buying, and really enjoy eating!  If you haven’t already tried them, pick up some of Gabor’s Eggs next time you’re in All Things Local and see the difference for yourself.

To support Gabor and other producers like him, please become a member and buy your food at the All Things Local Cooperative Market!

atlSources:

[1] Kuhn J, Schutkowski A, Kluge H, Hirche F, Stangl, G. Free-range farming: a natural alternative to produce vitamin D-enriched eggs. Nutrition. 2014;30(4):481-4.

[2] Hesterberg K, Schanzer S, Patzelt A, et al. Raman spectroscopic analysis of the carotenoid concentration in egg yolks depending on the feeding and housing conditions of the laying hens. Journal of Piophotonics. 2012;5:33-39.

Original Post was in the All Things Local Newsletter

Mother Nature’s Daughters: meet the new urban farmer

Wait a sec. Nick, Caspar and Jared: Are those unconventional girls’ names now, like Kennedy and Reagan? Because if you’re looking for a farm-fresh tomato in the city this summer, you’re likely to find a woman growing it.

In recent years, chefs, writers, academics, politicians, funders, activists and entrepreneurs have jumped on the hay wagon for urban agriculture. New York now counts some 900 food gardens and farms, by the reckoning of Five Borough Farm, a research and advocacy project.

Deborah Greig, the agriculture director of East New York Farms in Brooklyn. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

Yet city farmers will tell you that the green-collar work on these small holdings is the province of a largely pink-collar labor force. Cecilia, not Caspar. And they’ll provide the staffing numbers to show it.

This is where the speculation begins — and, inevitably, the stereotypes. Are women more willing to nurture their communities (and also their beet greens)? Are men preoccupied with techie farm toys like aquaponics? Is gender the reason the radio at the Queens Farm washing station is always stuck on Beyoncé and Alicia Keys?

More significant, if urban ag work comes to be seen as women’s work, what will that mean for the movement’s farming model, mission and pay?

Counting New York’s urban farmers and market food gardeners can seem like a parlor game: part math, part make-believe. Data on gender is scarce to nonexistent.

The federal 2012 Census of Agriculture isn’t much help. It suggested 42 farm “operators” in New York were men and 31 were women. But the census published data from just 31 city farms. (Under confidentiality rules, it doesn’t reveal which farms participated.) And its definitions fail to capture New York’s unique abundance of nonprofit farms and community gardens.

A “farm,” by census standards, is any place that grew and sold (or normally would have sold) $1,000 worth of agricultural products in a year. Yet surveys from the parks department’s GreenThumb program suggest that some 45 percent of the city’s hundreds of community food gardens donate their harvest to neighborhood sources and food pantries. Blair Smith, who compiles New York’s data for the U.S.D.A., explained, “Those are not farm businesses, at least from our standpoint.”

New York’s urban farmers — the people who actually work in the field — offer a sharply different head count of what you might call bulls and cows. Of the 19 farms and farm programs that contributed information for this article, 15 reported having a majority of women among their leadership, staff, youth workers, students, apprentices and volunteers. (Of the remaining four, one claimed gender parity and another hired two men this summer from a seasonal applicant pool of 18 men and 30 women.)

It’s a snapshot, not a statistically rigorous poll. Still, the farms, from all five boroughs, represent a broad sample of New York’s particular growing models: a commercial rooftop farm; community gardens; and farms attached to schools, restaurants, parks, churches, housing developments and community organizations. The sample included two city-based farmer-training programs and two out-of-state sustainable farm-education schools and fellowships. These are the types of programs that mold future urban farmers.

Describing their own farms and gardens, managers suggested that women make up 60 to 80 percent of field workers, organizers and educators. Applicant pools are similarly unbalanced for summer postings, internships and certification programs.

Farm School NYC, an affiliate of the food-access nonprofit Just Food, “is 100 percent female-run,” said its director, Onika Abraham. But then, she added, “I’m the only staff person.”

More important, Farm School NYC receives 150 to 200 applicants annually for professional agriculture instruction. For this year’s entering 30-person class, Ms. Abraham said, “the breakdown for applicants was 76 percent women and 24 percent male.” (Applications for next year are open through Sept. 15.)

The gender divide appears to exist in salaried posts and volunteer work alike. For 18 years, Steve Frillmann has led Green Guerillas, which provides support and materials to more than 200 community garden groups. Most of these sites lie in central Brooklyn, Harlem and the South Bronx, and three-quarters of their volunteer leaders, he estimates, are women. So, too, women typically represent 75 to 80 percent of the applicants who want to join Green Guerillas on an AmeriCorps stipend.

It’s challenging work, and Mr. Frillmann, 49, is happy to hire whoever wants to do it. “To be honest with you, we’ve never really lifted and looked under the hood and tried to figure out why,” he said.

At the extreme, Edible Schoolyard NYC runs a food and garden-teaching program with two growing plots and a staff of 16. Sixteen of these employees are women.

Kate Brashares, 40, who is the group’s executive director, said: “It’s a little unusual we don’t have any men on staff at the moment. There are usually one or two.”

Ms. Brashares believes that the diversity of her employees should reflect the low-income communities where they work. That diversity includes gender. “We talk about wanting to get a few more men in the place,” she said. “It’s funny, we haven’t talked about it that much, though. It’s one of those things that just sort of happened. As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s gotten more obvious.”

Less obvious is why the discrepancy exists. Ms. Brashares speculated about the prevalence of women in education and nonprofit careers. But ultimately, she concluded, “I honestly don’t know.”

Onika Abraham, right, the director of Farm School NYC, at the Governors Island Urban Farm with Katherine Chin. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times

Karen Washington has been observing the community garden scene for more than 25 years from her plot in the Garden of Happiness, a couple of blocks from the Bronx Zoo. She also organizes the Black Urban Growers conference and a long list of other food and neighborhood initiatives. This roster may explain why Ms. Washington, 60, is prone to make work calls at 10 o’clock at night, say, after teaching a class on season-extending hoop houses, or on the way home from running La Familia Verde farmers’ market.

Nowadays, she sees a cohort in her gardens that she gauges to be 80 percent women. “It was more 60/40 back in the early days,” Ms. Washington said. “Mostly Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans. They were in their 40s and they’re in their 80s now.”

Explaining the gender gap on a community garden level, she said, “a lot of it, from my point of view, had to do with the fact women lived longer than men.”

The stereotypical image of an American farmer may be a white man of late middle age captaining a $450,000 combine in an air-conditioned cockpit, high above a flokati of corn. But this profile is a poor match for farmers in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa — that is, the groups that often predominate in New York’s community food gardens. Nevin Cohen, 52, an assistant professor at the New School and an expert on urban food issues, points to a telling statistic from a United Nations special rapporteur: “Women are 80 percent of the global agricultural labor force.”

Many of the women who farm in Bushwick with Maggie Cheney possess experience in small-scale agriculture. They’ve long fed their families out of extensive kitchen gardens (as Colonial-era immigrant women did in New England). Ms. Cheney, 30, is the director of farming and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY. And on the group’s two growing sites, she said: “I tend to work with a lot of recent immigrants from Africa, Mexico, Ecuador. And the islands: Jamaica and Haiti, the Dominican Republic.”

Ms. Cheney’s youth interns (five boys and nine girls) include the children of some of those immigrants. Yet wherever they were born, the youth growers at the Bushwick Campus Farm do not approach New York gardens as virgin soil.

Their fathers may have experienced farm labor as a harsh and exploitative activity, Ms. Cheney said. These men are not necessarily the easiest people to recruit for a hot afternoon of unearthing potatoes. By contrast, “I see a lot of girls interested because they may have that positive relationship to being the ones who cook in the family and buy the food in the market.”

She added, “The ones that I see, their roles at home are very gendered.” The politics of the New York “food justice” movement start at progressive and run to radical. But the connection between women and urban farming can appear traditional and even conservative.

Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Ms. Abraham, 40, recalls visiting her family’s black farmstead in Alabama. She said: “My grandfather grew row crops: cotton, soybeans and corn. He worked the fields. My grandma was home with a large vegetable garden and chickens.”

Put another way: “My grandmother grew the food; he grew the money. And I think maybe the scale of what we do in the city relates more to this kitchen garden.”

 Maggie Cheney, center, the director of farms and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY, at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn with Kristina Erskine, left, and Iyeshima Harris, garden managers. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

Maggie Cheney, center, the director of farms and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY, at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn with Kristina Erskine, left, and Iyeshima Harris, garden managers. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

The Five Borough Farm project identified three commercial farms in New York, all of them sophisticated rooftop operations. Gotham Greens, for example, runs two (and soon three) climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses in Gowanus and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Next stop: Jamaica, Queens.)

Of the company’s 50-odd employees, more than two-thirds are men, said the company’s 33-year-old co-founder, Viraj Puri. “At Gotham Greens, our approach is more plant-science and engineering focused and less ‘gardening’ focused,” Mr. Puri wrote in an email. He posited that this orientation may account for the different gender skew.

Beyond these few enterprises, the city’s farms exist not just to grow okra, but to advance a shopping list of social goals. These include recreation, nutrition, public health, environmental stewardship, ecological services, food access and security, community development, neighborhood cohesion, job training, senior engagement and education. We ask a lot of our gardens.

Mara Gittleman, who jointly runs the Kingsborough Community College farm program, at the end of Manhattan Beach, often sees urban farming likened in the news media to “the new social work, or this thing you do for poor people.” In response, Ms. Gittleman, 26, founded the research project Farming Concrete to record and publicize the surprising yield raised in community gardens. These are vegetables that come not from the glittering glass on high, but from the ground up.

Be that as it may, if you’re trying to account for why so many college-educated women are attracted to urban agriculture, nearly everyone agrees that a social calling is the place to start. “Definitely, the most visible influx is young white people, and I’m one of them,” Ms. Gittleman said.

Kristina Erskine, a garden manager at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

If urban farming were just about the crops, it would be cheaper and easier to do it 50 miles north. Urban farming, however, is not a solitary or single-minded activity. Along with the weeding and pruning, the job description includes sowing community interest and reaping grants.

Kennon Kay, the 31-year-old director of agriculture at Queens Farm, said: “What makes this farm different is the element of public interaction. We have over half a million visitors a year.”

The farm staff currently numbers two men and five women, which is actually a bumper crop of gents. And Ms. Kay takes pains to say: “I don’t want to knock the guys. They’re great.”

That said, in her experience, “Women have been extremely effective in multitasking, planning, communicating and being the representatives of this public organization.”

Inevitably, there’s an inverse to saying that women are attracted to work that involves children and the elderly, caring and social justice. In short, you’re implying that men don’t care, or care a lot less.

This is what you might call the men-as-sociopaths hypothesis (M.A.S.H.), and Nick Storrs, 29, who manages the Randalls Island Park Alliance Urban Farm, does not buy it. “I would refute the claim that guys are sociopaths,” he said.

Having cheerfully dispensed with that libel, he struggled to explain why men seem less interested in the social goals of community agriculture. “I don’t know, because I am interested in it,” Mr. Storrs said.

So where are the men?

“Wall Street,” Ms. Washington said (a theory that may not be inconsistent with M.A.S.H.).

The Bronx’s vegetable plots, she will tell you, are not insulated from what goes on outside the garden gates. “A lot of our men of color are incarcerated,” she said. “Huge problem. If you tell a 21-year-old man just out of jail to go into farming, he’s going to look at you as if you have two heads.”

Or in the words of Esther Liu, 25, a rooftop farmer at the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project: “Men? Perhaps they want a living wage.”

The time has arrived, as it always does, to talk about money. The pay for community-based agriculture starts low and climbs over time to not much higher.

Ms. Cheney endeavors to pay her youth interns $8.30 to $9.30 an hour and the Bushwick farm managers $17 an hour. Farmers with longer tenure may earn $20. These are decent wages in agriculture, Ms. Cheney said. Yet they’re hardly enough to keep up with the climbing rents in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Deborah Greig, 32, oversees the crowded market at East New York Farms, leads the gardener-education program, manages dozens of youth workers, and cultivates specialty crops like dasheen and bitter melon. (And some 65 to 70 percent of her farm staff, apprentices and youth interns are women.) “I get paid $37,000 a year,” Ms. Greig said. “I started at $28,000 or $29,000, which was huge at the time. And I have insurance included.”

The permanence of the job, which she has held for seven years, is a boon to Ms. Greig and to the community where she works. Ultimately, Ms. Abraham, of Farm School NYC, argues that only stable employment will make urban farming viable for neighborhood women — and men — who lack the safety net of a college degree and family support.

For her part, Ms. Greig is probably underpaid. Don’t tell anyone, but she would do the job for less. “People don’t expect to be paid very much doing this work,” she said. “It’s a labor of love to a certain extent. I don’t think we’ve come up with a hard and fast model to pay people exceedingly well for doing nonprofit urban-farming work.”

Sounds like a job for the guys on Wall Street.

========================================================================

 

One-third of beginning farmers are over 55 years old

nytl

A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds – New York Times – JUNE 20, 2014

 Charles Nobel, a retired school administrator turned rancher, produces grass-fed beef in Stone Ridge, N.Y., for direct sale to customers. Credit Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

Charles Nobel, a retired school administrator turned rancher, produces grass-fed beef in Stone Ridge, N.Y., for direct sale to customers. Credit Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

 When Mr. Noble, a retired actuary and school administrator, started Movable Beast Farm with his wife in 2006, he would “get totally freaked out and have a battle of wills with the cows.” Now he reacts with calm and temporarily stops herding to avoid upsetting the animals.

“Stress is the worst thing you can do for them in terms of quality” of meat, said Mr. Noble, a trim, tanned man with a white goatee. He sells grass-fed beef primarily by word of mouth. “In order to make any money in agriculture at this scale, you really need to be direct marketing,” said Mr. Noble, whose company earned a profit for the first time last year.

But money is not his primary motivation. Mr. Noble waited much of his life to realize his cowboy dreams. “When I was younger,” he said, “I never wanted to work inside at a desk,” so, of course, he said, he spent “30 years working inside, at a desk.”

 

After her position at Cisco Systems was eliminated, Debra Sloane started a one-woman farm in Washington, Conn., for which she is seeking organic certification. Credit Wendy Carlson for The NYT.

Though new agricultural enterprises typically demand long hours and physical stamina, many retirees turn to farming as a way to keep active and earn an income — or, like Mr. Noble, to at least supplement Social Security. The White House’s 2013 Economic Report of the President notes that “the average age of U.S. farmers and ranchers has been increasing over time.” One-third of beginning farmers — defined by the federal government as having been in business fewer than 10 years — “are over age 55, indicating that many farmers move into agriculture only after retiring from a different career.”

Brett Olson, co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, has noticed more gray hair at the New Farmer Summit, a conference for aspiring agrarians. Mr. Olson’s organization offers a workshop at the annual event that it used to call Young Organic Stewards but renamed New Organic Stewards in 2012 to “be more inclusive,” he said.

Local, state and federal programs devote considerable resources to promoting agricultural start-ups. Many states offer preferential tax treatment of farmland. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., compiles the various tax breaks on its online database.

The Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency recently reduced the paperwork required to apply for its microloan program, which provides recipients with low-interest loans of up to $35,000.

The federally financed Cooperative Extension System provides farmers and others with access to advisers, classes and research, often free.

Age, suggests Krysta Harden, deputy secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, can be a benefit rather than a barrier. She says she believes new farmers can use business skills, like management and marketing, developed during other careers. “My mother always told me we’re a family business, but we’re a business,” Ms. Harden said.

Lisa Kivirist, who coaches novice farmers as coordinator of the Rural Women’s Project at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, notes that many of her older students are poised for success. “When they come into farming at midlife or early retirement, they know there’s only so many years left,” Ms. Kivirist said. “There’s a stronger focus and a more realistic sense of a plan.”

Saundra C. Winokur, 74, acknowledges that she lacked a formal plan when she founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Tex., in 1997. “I just threw myself into it and learned on the job, though I probably would have not made as many mistakes as I did had I written a business plan,” Ms. Winokur said. If she had written a business plan, however, she might have become discouraged. “There were no olive orchards at the time in Texas,” she said. “It was thought that it couldn’t be done.”

Ms. Winokur, a native Texan who worked as an elementary-school teacher and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology, traveled extensively to research olive production. She noticed that renowned olive-producing regions — southern Spain, southern Italy and Egypt — “looked a lot like Texas.” In 1997, she bought 276 acres of sandy land, which she describes as “oceanfront property without the ocean.”

She planted 450 trees, but lost about half in the first winter because she had yet to master irrigation. Despite that setback, her business has flourished. In addition to producing olive oil, she owns a nursery and a restaurant. Ms. Winokur has had considerable help along the way. Experienced farmers in the area served as mentors. One neighbor briefed her on the history of her land, which had long been fallow when she bought it.

She later received a $98,000 Agriculture Department Value-Added Producer Grant, which helps farmers create derivative products from crops. Ms. Winokur used the money to market her olive-leaf jelly and hire a chef. The grant “gave me that kick-start I needed to move the business to the next level,” she said.

When she started her orchard, Ms. Winokur could hoist 80-pound bags on her own, but she now must rely on employees to handle strenuous chores. She estimates that it took her 13 years to recruit a “first rate” team and advises new farmers to pay well but hire carefully: “Don’t hire because you’re desperate, the first person who comes through the door. Really take your time.”

Ms. Winokur considers her teaching background a training ground for farming. When she encountered confused children, “I could see that they were looking at me with a blank look,” she said, “then I would have to shift gears, another avenue to explain a concept to them. And I think that’s what you have to do in farming: If something doesn’t work, you have to be willing to shift.”

That lesson is not lost on Debra Sloane, who recently started a backyard farm in Washington, Conn. She suffered a blow to her self-esteem last year when Cisco Systems eliminated her position as director of global health care. “I went through a grieving process,” said Ms. Sloane, who still uses corporate jargon like “customer interface” when discussing farming. After Cisco, she planned to grow exotic mushrooms, having received encouragement from several farm market managers. She then took two seminars for “mushroom nerds” and scrapped the idea because of the capital investment required and her desire to work outdoors. “You need a lab,” Ms. Sloane said of mushroom production. “You need to have a grow room with the right temperature, humidity, air circulation, and I said, ‘Uh-uh.’ ”

Instead, Ms. Sloane, a petite woman in a gray long-sleeve T-shirt, jeans and bright blue plastic shoes covered in grass clippings, decided to sell produce at several farmers’ markets, manufacture a vegan cereal and start a C.S.A. — a community-supported agriculture program. Her 11 customers pay in advance for weekly allotments of fruit and vegetables, easing her company’s cash flow.

Ms. Sloane, who declined to give her age, also started working out more, because while she once managed a small staff, she now must count on herself to plant, weed and harvest. She runs twice a week and trains at a nearby CrossFit gym four times a week. Her biggest challenge, she predicts, “is actually not physical but mental. It’s really figuring out how to be exact enough to know that I’m going to have enough to fill 11 bags all summer.”

She forecasts a “four-figure” profit in her first year and, like most farmers, will supplement her agricultural income with a second job; she is working part time as a consultant for Avizia Inc., a telemedicine technology company.

She acknowledges that working for a giant multinational corporation was “ego satisfying,” but she finds that life on the farm is “soul satisfying” — and humbling, especially when she must ask for help from more experienced colleagues. “I can tell you this,” she said near her raised beds of asparagus and strawberries. “I wasn’t humble at Cisco. My daughters have said, ‘You are so much nicer now.’ ”

Original Post

NOTE:   many of our 200 students in the ONLINE Sustainable Food and Farming Certificate Program at UMass are second-career farmers.  For information on the courses being offered for new farmers see: http://sustfoodfarm.org/online-classes/.

 

Four young Valley farmers start Stone Soup Farm Co-op

By REBECCA EVERETT – Staff Writer – Daily Hampshire Gazette  – April 14, 2014

ERREY ROBERTS Stone Soup Farm Co-op founders Jarrett Man, from left, Susanna Harro, Amanda Barnett and David DiLorenzo Tuesday at their farm in Hadley.

JERREY ROBERTS
Stone Soup Farm Co-op founders Jarrett Man, from left, Susanna Harro, Amanda Barnett and David DiLorenzo Tuesday at their farm in Hadley.

But at Stone Soup Farm Cooperative in Hadley, cooperation is everything.

Four young farmers formed the worker-owned farm collective last fall and they have been working together to grow greenhouse vegetables and raise chickens since. Susanna Harro, 24, David DiLorenzo, 26, Amanda Barnett, 29, and Jarrett Man, 30, are owners as well as employees at the 81 Rocky Hill Road co-op.

Stone Soup Farm Cooperative is probably the first worker-owned farm co-op in the state, said Lynda Brushett, of the Shelburne Falls-based Cooperative Development Institute, who advises people in the agricultural, fisheries and food industries on starting cooperatives.

“It’s a beautiful model. You need more than one person to run a vegetable farm,” she said.

“We’re sharing the risk and the rewards,” DiLorenzo said while the four talked and munched on spinach leaves in one of their greenhouses Wednesday. “That’s just a good way to live.”

They decided to start the co-op for numerous reasons, including the lure of owning instead of just working on a farm and the dream of forming an equitable business with good friends.

After five years of working and managing area farms, Man bought the Rocky Hill Road farmland and started working it three years ago. He said the communal nature of farming is what drew him to it in the first place, and a co-op reinforces those values. He approached DiLorenzo and Barnett, who are married, and Harro last summer with the co-op idea.

JERREY ROBERTS Amanda Barnett and David DiLorenzo pull out spinach plants in a greenhouse at Stone Soup Farm Co-op in Hadley

JERREY ROBERTS
Amanda Barnett and David DiLorenzo pull out spinach plants in a greenhouse at Stone Soup Farm Co-op in Hadley

“I thought it would be a more meaningful way of farming, and these are the people I felt best about farming with,” he said. “So I went to them and invited them to come research and implement a co-op together.” The group officially organized as a co-op in November and is selling community supported agriculture, or CSA, shares for the summer.

There have historically been many co-ops in the agricultural industry, mostly those made up of member farms that join forces to better market and sell their products — think Cabot Creamery or the Pioneer Valley Growers Association.

Brushett expects that more and more farmers, especially young ones, will be following the lead of Stone Soup and the few other worker-owned farms in Vermont, California and Quebec.

“Recently, young people that are wanting to farm, wanting to farm with each other, and wanting access to land are looking at the co-op model as a way to do that,” she said. “We’re definitely seeing that trend around our area.”

Brushett is helping them get started. She worked with lead author Faith Gilbert to create a free guide to cooperative farming. It was downloaded over 1,000 times in the first two weeks after it was released Feb. 26 on TheGreenhorns.net, a nonprofit that supports young farmers.

JERREY ROBERTS David DiLorenzo holds a chicken Tuesday at Stone Soup Farm Co-op

JERREY ROBERTS
David DiLorenzo holds a chicken Tuesday at Stone Soup Farm Co-op

All kinds of co-ops are on the rise now, Brushett said. The Cooperative Development Institute fields several calls per week from people interested in starting market and cafe co-ops, child care co-ops, arts co-ops and others.

She credited the trend to a growing interest in socially responsible business ownership and workers’ urge to be “more than just a cog” in a company.

“It might be a consequence of the big recession,” she said. “People were losing jobs and deciding to be more in control of their lives and wanting to create more democratic businesses.”

And when people have a stake in the business, they often make better workers, Brushett said.

“They’re invested and everyone’s equal. You have colleagues you can trust to close the gate before they leave for the day,” she said.

That’s how it is at the Hadley farm cooperative, DiLorenzo said — and why the four friends chose the name Stone Soup Farm, which Man had used for his previous farm business.

In the folk story “Stone Soup,” a stranger with nothing comes to a town and pretends to make soup from just water and a stone, and convinces residents to contribute vegetables and other ingredients until it is a real soup.

“We’re each bringing a little piece to this,” DiLorenzo said.

JERREY ROBERTS Eliza Murphy washes carrots

JERREY ROBERTS
Eliza Murphy washes carrots

Building a co-op

The foursome started working together to build their co-op last summer, while simultaneously working out the formal structure of the co-op. They started an LLC, established an official path to membership for future worker-owners, and made the co-op the owner of equipment.

DiLorenzo said the co-op model and Man sharing his farmland has made it possible for himself, Barnett and Harro to own a farm. “The three of us wouldn’t be owners without this, and it’s allowed us to pool our resources and talent to make this possible,” he said.

They come from different places and backgrounds, but all their stories share a common thread: none of them studied agriculture at college, but started toiling on farms after graduation and fell in love with working the land.

Man, from central Massachusetts, came to the area to attend Hampshire College. He worked on several farms before buying the Rocky Hill Road property and starting his own small farm.

Barnett, from Sharon, said she was always interested in agriculture because her mother grew up on a farm. She met DiLorenzo, a University of Massaschusetts Amherst graduate from New Hampshire, while the two worked at local farms. He apprenticed at the Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland.

Harro, from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., came here to apprentice at the Kitchen Garden. “I didn’t think I’d stick around long,” she said. “I definitely never thought I’d be owning a farm.”

Of course, owning a farm is not all upside. “We’re sharing the benefits of the work and also the stress of owning a business,” Barnett said.

They have divided up management responsibilities and had countless meetings to make decisions collectively. “At all times, you’re trying to strike a balance between the efficiency of one person just making a decision and having a group decision with input from everyone,” DiLorenzo said.

Each person manages a specific part of the farm. Barnett is in charge of the harvest and what gets included in the CSA shares, as well as some aspects of crop production such as irrigation. DiLorenzo does the bookkeeping, office work, and creates daily and weekly plans to make sure production is on track. Harro oversees the greenhouse production and seeding, and Man takes care of the chickens, maintains the equipment and oversees the apprentices.

The four worker-owners, who all live in Hadley, receive equal monthly stipends as pay and if there are any profits at the end of the year, they will get dividends. They declined to say how much their stipends are.

Over the winter and spring, they produced vegetables for 170 CSA shares, plus eggs for people who want them. The cold spring has delayed planting about two weeks, Man said, but they are now plowing the 15 acres that they farm around Hadley and starting plants in their greenhouses in preparation for their summer CSA. They offer CSAs in Hadley, Amherst, Northampton and Boston, but do not have any plans to sell at farmers markets. They aim to sell between 300 and 400 CSA shares for the summer season.

“We go well beyond what’s required to be certified organic,” DiLorenzo said. They try to avoid spraying at all, he said, even organic sprays.

The farm usually has three paid apprentices, Man said, and they make up a big part of the farm’s work force and identity. While they imagine future apprentices could become member-owners as well, Man said the current scale of the farm cannot support more owners now.

“We would have to have more land and sell more shares,” he said. “But we would be happy to have more owners.”

For more information, visit http://www.stonesoupfarmcoop.com.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com. And for photo reprints see: http://gazettenet.mycapture.com/mycapture/enlarge_remote.asp?source=&remoteimageid=10833263


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