Archive for ‘farmers’

December 1, 2013

Buying the Farm

My windowsill garden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve wanted to have my own farm since I was a little girl. I planted a peach pit in our back yard near a big Doug fir and dug it up nearly every day to see if it was turning into a tree yet. I baked my own bread and painted my face with blackberry juice.
I didn’t really know about farms then, or where my food came from, really, but eventually I would figure it out. Where I started was with an insatiable love of the outdoors, of things that grow. Although I had no idea what was actually edible out there – and neither did my city-born parents – I pretended it all was anyway. When I grew up to learn that humans were expected to spend most of their lives indoors, I followed along with the plan briefly but soon found myself joyously yanking weeds in the mud of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.

I’m 27 years old now. Recently, I received an email from a young woman named Erin. She’s about to graduate from engineering school and was seeking advice on entering the field of sustainable agriculture. She felt that she could make a positive contribution.
I sent a couple of links to apprenticeship programs but she pressed for more information: What path had I taken, she wanted to know. What mistakes had I made, and what experiences were invaluable?
I think what she really wanted to know was, is this really possible? Can an idealistic young person really go into the crusty world of tractors, almanacs, fruit fly breeding cycles, pressure canning, agricultural zoning rules and Carharts and make it as sexy as designing green buildings or a more fuel-efficient car?
There is a huge chasm in agriculture today, but maybe it’s always been there. It’s the difference between our romantic view of cuddling baby lambs, and hosting potlucks in our rustic farmhouses and the reality of growing enough food for the planet’s 7.5 billion people and making it as cheap as possible. Today, the romantic view of farm life has grown to include an expectation that changing the way we grow, distribute and consume food can actually save the planet. So, can it?

I have to admit that I lied a bit in my responses to Erin. I didn’t tell her that no farmer I’ve ever met has actually recommended that I follow in their footsteps, go into debt for a large piece of land, and spend the rest of my life tied down to it. I didn’t tell her that most of the early 20-somethings I met just out of college who, like me, worked a variety of low-paying but highly satisfying farm-related jobs, are now settling down to earn real money and buy their food from the grocery store like everyone else. I failed to mention how incredibly thankless it is to be a farmer, that no matter how much people in your community seem to embrace the idea of buying locally and building regional food security, you will still meet people at the farmer’s market who will fail to understand why your apples are more expensive than those at Safeway. That’s when you smile and try to be nice, and you don’t try to explain that the old expression “he bought the farm” means he died, because when you try to live off the land that’s the only way you do live.

I left these things out because I still believe that the baby goats are worth it, and that, as Alice Waters said, we really do vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what we eat. Maybe this is why there are still farmers in the world, why there continue to be young farmers even though the average age of a farmer in America is now upwards of 60 years old. The trend of college grads going back to the land may have hit its peak at the height of the recession in 2009, when I graduated from college, but there are still Erins out there, and there are still people like me and Hannah, who just can’t seem to settle for a nine-to-five job under the protective roof of a building in town. There’s a smidgen of boldness and a bit of stupidity there, too – no matter how many farmers we’ve met who barely scrape by, we seem to think we can do better. Maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.

Now that we’ve settled in Southern Oregon, we’re taking a look around, feeling the soil and watching the weather. We have friends who want to invest here, too, noting the influx of Californians and the popularity of local vineyards. Land isn’t cheap, but it is only getting more expensive. The farmer’s market is a busy place here. Perhaps there’s room for one more pair of crazy young people with a table full of the ripened labors of their love. Once we get it going, I fantasize, we’ll let the local college know that we’re seeking interns. We won’t pay much, but they’ll never be the same once they go for a walk through the fields in the early morning, taste the first ripe tomato of summer, and see a baby goat take its first shaky steps into life.

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April 3, 2012

Going Nuts: Restoring a Community Food Source

A desire to beautify our open spaces, restore a community-managed resource and secure a uniquely local food supply brought at least 30 volunteers to the hazelnut grove off River Road this Saturday, March 31.

Volunteers cut blackberries and grass from around the hazelnut trees.

It’s been a rough spring, both for Eugenians and for the trees we treasure. A freak snowstorm felled branches around the city and dampened our spirits in advance of a solid two weeks of rain. But Saturday, like a lottery ball with our number on it tumbling down the chute, the sun beat the odds and managed to send down a few warming rays that kept the rain at bay for the afternoon.  I like to think the volunteers would have shown up anyway, but they were especially energetic with the unexpected Vitamin D boost.

Lorna and Oliver from the City of Eugene provided tools – loppers, saws, rakes – and refreshments – coffee, tea, lemonade, Newman’s cookies – to make the job easy. Neighborhood permaculture guru Jan Spencer and a few other well-connected folks brought the man- and woman-power. Some worked in teams, pulling down blackberry vines from top while cutting down tall grass in the middle and digging up invasive root systems from the base of the trees. Unlike some invasive-plant eradication projects I’ve undertaken (as an Oregonian, I have taken a personal oath to destroy unwanted blackberries wherever they may lurk), this one had a distinct and attainable finish. Once we remove all the vines of blackberry and English ivy that are strangling the trees in the grove, we can keep them out with regular pruning and care for the trees themselves.

How does one care for a hazelnut tree? They really don’t require much attention for the bounty they can provide. The trees in this grove will need a healthy initial investment of “sweat equity” to produce a good crop of nuts next fall. Linda Perrine, who grows organic hazelnuts at her Honor Earth Farm and volunteered her expertise in this project, told us that hazelnut trees run on an 18-month cycle. They flower in February (one of the reasons they thrive in our temperate climate), and those flowers don’t grow into nuts until the next summer. That means if we prune and fertilize now, next spring’s flowers will see the benefit, and we’ll have an improved crop of nuts that fall.

The good news is that these 100 or so trees have been producing nuts with little or no human assistance each year for the past 25-30 years, according to Linda’s estimation of the age of the grove. Since the grove is on city land, next to the bike path that runs along the Willamette River, anyone is welcome to harvest the nuts, and they do. Thanks to nature’s aggressive reproductive strategies, the trees are at least producing something, even though they haven’t been cared for since the last work party five years ago.

This fall, I was the lucky recipient of some of those hazelnuts. A friend said she’d picked them up along the bike path, and I didn’t ask for their credentials. If I had, I would have learned about the grove sooner.

The bowl of unshelled hazelnuts (which some people call filberts) has been sitting on my table for the past six months, refilled regularly from our stash. The nut bowl has been a source of nourishment at those moments of hunger but no culinary inspiration or motivation. Hazelnuts are sweet, meaty and satisfyingly crunchy, not to mention a great source of protein. Cracking them with the elegant silver nutcracker is a way to keep our hands busy when we sit around the table in the evening, talking and drinking wine. It’s a source of entertainment when our kitten, Silvia, reaches across the table, hooks a nut out of the bowl with her paw, and careens after it as it flies across the room.

Being new to the neighborhood, I knew we had a depressing deficit of grocery stores, but I never imagined the hazelnut grove where my friend had found these cat toys/treats was so close to home. Turns out I bike by it every week on the way to my goat-milking job, but the city’s only public hazelnut farm was hiding itself amongst a tangle of grass and blackberries. I finally put two and two together when I met Jan Spencer at a neighborhood meeting. We connected about our aspirations for food security in the region, and he told me about the work party happening at the grove.
Pruning just happens to be one of my favorite things to do, and of course I wanted to cultivate this great source of protein as a food source for myself and my neighbors, so there I was this Saturday. After meeting Lorna and some of the crew, I picked a tree and set to work. I lopped. I hacked. I sawed. I yanked blackberry vines like bull whips from tall branches. I did the elbow-crawl through the exposed dirt to follow endless root systems. I met some more neighbors. We received a light sprinkling of rain like a blessing of holy water and then a bit more sunshine. I went home with twigs in my hair and a smile on my face.
About two-thirds of the trees in the grove were released from the under (and over) growth by the end of the day. Before we packed it up, Linda showed us how to prune a tree, picking one to serve as a model for the next work party. We removed about a dozen thin shoots (which she called “suckers”) to leave behind only four straight, strong and healthy trunks. This will put all the tree’s energy into producing nuts on those branches, producing a higher quality and even more bountiful harvest from the next set of flowers.
Pruned hazelnut tree.

Next time, the volunteers hope to finish cleaning up around the trees and work on pruning them. Some of the old trees still have the rotted-out skeleton of the original trunk standing in the middle of the sideshoots. When you cut away enough of those shoots and blackberries to reach the center, you get the satisfying experience of pushing it over. It feels like a food desert falling away, and a multitude of nutritious, home-grown options sprouting up in its place.

To see the rest of Jan’s photos and learn about Suburban Permaculture, go to http://www.suburbanpermaculture.org/

October 28, 2009

>New kids on the farm scene: Succession and the future of food

>Over the past couple of millennia that agriculture has been around, it’s overcome some major hurdles. Be it disease, drought or pestilence, our species has so far managed to invent our way out of trouble, keeping the food supply just ahead of the human population. Lately, though, it seems we’ve hit quite a number of limiting factors: the availability of land, water, and new variations on the genetic code that fool the pests for another generation of crops. But while we might have expected to eventually run out of space and technological fixes, another looming shortage involves a different kind of resource: manpower. Farmers are aging, and there doesn’t seem to be a new crop of them to take over the job of growing our food.
This fact was illustrated for me a couple of weekends ago, when Bob, Ann and I climbed into the old farm truck to rattle down to the Shannon farm and pick up some plastic sheeting. The Shannons run a dairy farm – the only one left in the valley, actually – and use the plastic to wrap the feed for the cows. They can’t reuse it, but the Collins find it great to lay down in the garden and keep the weeds at bay.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The sun doesn’t seem to want to succumb to the typical fall gloom here on the island, and was out warming the golden leaves of the maples lining the Shannon driveway. We pulled up to the house and knocked on the door.
The Shannons are old friends of the Collins. Before Bob and Ann quit the dairy business, they and a small cohort of other farmers constantly relied on each other for equipment parts, emergency help and moral support. Old bonds die hard, and so this visit was just as much about catching up with each other as it was about recycling plastic.
Terry answered the door and his wife, Donna joined us in the kitchen to sip Earl Grey and discuss the state of agriculture in the valley. After a bit, the conversation turned to the upcoming Christmas party organized by the Farmers’ Institute, a group that advocates for farmers and serves as a sort of social catalyst for those who often have a limited off-farm life. But neither the Collins nor the Shannons were too excited about the party this year, actually, considering last year’s disappointment. The ladies who planned the event had decided that since nobody usually danced at the party, they wouldn’t have music, either. They also put a ban on alcohol and shut it down at 9 pm.
“The good thing was, you were done early enough to get drunk at home and not have to worry about who was driving!” Donna noted.
“Maybe there’ll be more young people this year,” somebody said. Terry laughed.
“Last year, we were the young people.”
There was a time, apparently, when the Farmers’ Institute Christmas party was quite the event. Everybody came down and had a good time. Ann used to be the one in charge of planning them, and one year, she even hired a belly dancer. That was about the time some of the older folk decided she wouldn’t be the one to plan them anymore. The problem was not that everyone suddenly got conservative. It was simply that there were so few farmers remaining in the area, and most of those who did remain couldn’t handle more excitement than a hip replacement.

Lots of reports come out about the “succession” problem in agriculture, reducing the facts to dry figures. The average age of a farmer in the United States is 57. One-third of all farmers in Canada will retire before 2035. Seventy percent of US farmland – most of it owned by family farms – will be changing hands in the next 20 years. Behind those numbers, the human face of the problem was made clear to me in that conversation at the Shannons’: No more parties. No more young people. No more farmers once those who remain sell off their land – whether to developers or to agribusiness – and retire. If the land is paved over, food will have to come from elsewhere. If the land goes to a corporate farm, the control of our food supply is consolidated even further. There just doesn’t appear to be enough people stepping up to the plate. Although the whole local food trend is on the up and up, farming still isn’t quite “sexy” enough to be considered a career option by most people my age. In the popular eye, agriculture doesn’t have the prestige of law or the heroism of medicine. Not to mention what usually is cited as the most important factor: There’s no money in it. I’m not sure which of these reasons is actually causing the profession of farming to die off with my parents’ generation. But the results are immediate and self-perpetuating. Universities all over North America are shutting down agriculture programs because of a lack of interest, taking with them valuable extension offices and other services to the agricultural community. As farmers retire, they are more likely to give up their land to urban sprawl or sell it to the nearest mega agribusiness operation than pass it on to their children, who are understandably reluctant to consign themselves to a lifetime of earning less than the minimum wage (one farmer at a recent meeting here said that, all told, he earns about $5.00 an hour at his job). Because of constantly rising real estate prices and the sad truth that farmland is worth more when the crop is condos, if a young person does happen to decide on a career in agriculture, they have a hard time finding a place to do it anymore.
When the world’s population increases by a third in the next 40 years, I imagine that a lot more of us will be rushing to what’s left of our agricultural land to try to crank out some more food. We’ll probably not want to wreak further environmental havoc, so organic methods will be in demand. But who will teach us how to do it? Unless we cryogenically freeze the farmers we have today and find some way to harvest their knowledge in the future, we could be up a creek, and the brown stuff in the water will probably be more chemical than animal.

I don’t want to preach gloom and doom here. While most children of farmers go off to find employment that actually pays a salary, there are the few that hang on. In fact, the Shannon farm will soon see a fourth generation of the family take the reins. Terry and Donna’s son Josh is the next in line, and he’s committed to making the farm work for another few decades. Since Terry’s grandfather came out from the dust-choked plains of Alberta in the 1930s, the farm has weathered economic ups and downs in the region, survived the mad cow outbreak of 2006 that did in other dairy farms, and managed to expand to over 500 acres. But their story is not typical. In fact, as far as the Collins can tell, the Shannons are currently the only farmers in the region with a successor. Their position of relative financial security probably has a lot to do with that.
Still, one way or another, those who want sustainable livelihoods based on producing food are finding their way into farming. And the new generation of farmers – even if they’re smaller in number– are doing things a bit differently this time. They understand the difference between growth for growth’s sake and sustainably managing land for the long term. Today, farmers can look at historical disasters like the dust bowl and modern-day tragedies like the droughts in Australia and think twice before over-plowing and freely sucking rivers dry. Not that all farms that started before our current problems – climate change, peak oil, water shortages – started spiraling out of control were operating unsustainably. Most just didn’t know better, and when squeezed by low commodity prices, were forced to try to pump higher and higher yields out of each acre. In comparison, for farmers starting out today, it’s almost impossible not to take environmental and social equity concerns into consideration in the business plan. This new ethic is reflected in the “manifesto” of a (highly inspiring) website dedicated to cataloging young farmers in the United States, Serve Your Country Food: “[We are] motivated by a force of intention that cannot be rationalized economically, with lives driven by an instinct for direct action and stewardship that honors the planet, people, and place, we are the allies of every American.”

So there are young farmers out there, and some of them are quite radically committed to making up for agriculture’s previous errors and energizing their peers into joining the cause. This leads me to another way to view the “succession problem”: by recognizing that farming itself is changing. While farms will always be an important source of food and other agricultural products, the conventional agriculture model that requires trading hard-earned cash for food sometimes isn’t the best option. It doesn’t work, for example, for those who don’t have much cash to spare but still want – and have a right to – fresh, non-polluted food. Instead, more people are planting their own gardens, working agriculture into the urban infrastructure and finding other ways to grow food other than on traditional farms. They are farmers in their own right, although the census will never count this as their primary occupation. On the other hand, farmers are seeing more income coming from agritourism (combining tourist accommodations with farming), educational programs and value-added food production. They still produce food on the side, but perhaps they, too, are not considered “farmers” under the black and white definitions of labor statistics. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean farmers will ever be obsolete. Not every city or region is suited for agriculture, and for the majority of communities, a completely local food economy is simply impossible or impractical. For example, places like Pheonix, Arizona will probably always be better off importing their food from elsewhere rather than trying to bargain for some of its water so they can grow their own tomatoes. After all, we sustainability-pushers have to be realistic: Not everyone is going to move to a lush river valley so they can grow their own food and trade with other farmers. In fact, that would be impossible. It’s the 21st century. Compromise is key. And so is hope. Those who can’t run out and take over for aging farmers are at least becoming aware and supportive of family farms. Others, like those listed on Serve Your Country Food, are working on filling in the gaps. I, for one, plan to do my best to make the annual Farmers Institute of Port Alberni Christmas party as raucous as possible.
Update: Yes! magazine has an excellent photoessay on young farmers across America.