Archive for ‘farming’

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.

January 27, 2012

Can’t Buy Me Local: Worktrading for a food revolution

Back in 2006, Michael Pollan wrote a little book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a movement was born. Everyone wanted to eat local and organic food, and those who could afford it, did. In the past few years, farmers’ markets have taken off, kids started to dream about being farmers when they grew up, and a certain segment of the populace bought “Eat Local” tote bags and started shelling out $5 for a bunch of carrots.

On the backs of that movement rode the do-it-yourself locavores, the victory gardeners, the Michelle Obama crowd of herb pots and backyard chickens. Meanwhile, the trust fund kids started taking unpaid positions on farms on their summer breaks, reveling in fresh air, barn dances, and home made sauerkraut. Then most of them graduated, realized that there’s still no money in farming despite our nationwide romanticism for the lifestyle, and found jobs as fry cooks.

I’ll admit to being privileged enough to have spent time in both groups. Then I graduated, and after working a few seasonal jobs, was thankful to find regular work as an institutional cook. I’m very glad I have a job, but being part-time excludes me from the $5 carrot group these days. I’ve always rented and move too often to have a very productive garden. Luckily, I landed on a viable scheme to eat well without paying for it, and get my farming kicks in, too. Since, in the past three years, both the tote-baggers and college grads are finding the locavore dream more and more difficult to carry out, it may be a scheme to consider.

This Thursday found me, like most Thursdays do, squeezing the goats out at NettleEdge Farm. Since last spring, I’ve been coming to this sprawling homestead about once a week to do a few hours of work in exchange for goat milk, eggs, veggies, seeds and whatever else comes out of the earth or animals.

The farm is kept by Rachel and Keith Debuse, their son Keagan, and resident garlic expert George with help from a few others. Located just north of town in that nether region between suburb and country – an estate home on one lot, a Christmas tree farm on the next – the place is chaotic but comfortable. Decades of accumulated farm equipment, inherited from Keith’s family, rusts in nests of blackberry vines. Compost heaps dot the farmyard, protected from the destructive claws of chickens with makeshift fences held together with baling twine. Goats destroy everything, so their sheds are practically coming apart at the seams despite constant repair.

In other words, it’s a paradise, greener and quieter than the busy street I live on. Dogs and poultry run free. Nobody cares where you throw your apple core or park your wheelbarrow. And there’s nothing more beautiful than the family’s army-feeding garden and trees laden with pears, figs, plums and nuts from summer through fall.

My Thursday morning routine at NettlEdge is simple and rejuvenating – clean up after the goats, feed ‘em, milk ‘em, scratch ‘em behind the ears, find more food for them to eat. In the summer, it’s sweet-smelling grass that we cut by hand from the field, or blackberry vines, a goat delicacy. In the winter, it’s chopped up squash, garlic tops, cabbage greens, and hay, all grown on site. (In addition to goat food, the farm produces an excellent garlic crop, which they sell at the Kiva market in Eugene.)

What’s in it for me? I can never decide if the sanity or the sustenance is more valuable. I frequently bike the six miles to the farm along the Willamette River, my head full of worries and confusion on the way there, singing a song and plotting an elaborate lunch for myself on the way back. Although the goat-caretaking routine is easy on the surface, every day I learn something new about their diet and personalities under the watchful eye of Rachel, the unequivocal Goat Mistress.

Of course, there are more tangible forms of payment involved, and it’s a good thing, too. Even though I’m always glad when I get there, it would be hard a lot of days for me to drag myself out of bed and out into the rain without that literal carrot dangling in front of my nose. Instead of a taxed-to-death pay check, I participate in a form of bartering known as a worktrade – trading work for farm product.

At first, Rachel and I were fairly exacting when we measured out my time for her goods. Raw, fresh, organic goat milk goes for about $15/gallon in these parts. It was mine for an hour and half’s work. Another half hour, a carton of eggs. Etcetera. After we got to know each other, however, the employer/employee dynamic slowly shifted toward that between trusted friends, and the things we offer each other have become more elemental than work and food.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to come up with this scheme. Bartering (the exchange of a good or service for another good or service) predates currency; it probably even predates language and culture. A few hundred years ago, taxes were paid in sheaves of wheat; a hundred years ago, doctors and accountants would accept a few chickens or a share of a pig in exchange for their services. Those people were probably smarter than us. Every time a tangible good or service is converted to cash, some of its intrinsic value is lost, pocketed by the trader. Cash traded for goods also drops a bit of that value. Sure, cash is more convenient. But convenience is a luxury that fewer people can afford these days.

Food, especially good food, is expensive. It’s expensive because a whole lot of time and energy go into producing it. Right now in this country, unemployment hovers around 9% of the population (nationally, it’s 8%).  In other words, 9% of the population, and probably more, has an excess of energy and time. Granted, a good chunk of those people, for one reason or another, don’t have the capacity to convert that time and energy into work, but if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you do. I’m also guessing that most of the farmers in your area are starving for time and energy. You can put it together from here.

There are plenty of reasons to worktrade, and the more I do it, the more I find. First off, thanks to the connective power of the internet, good arrangements are easier to locate. I found Rachael and her goats by posting an ad on craigslist one day, lonesome for the goats I left behind at my first farming job. I posted my request to worktrade for milk in the “barter” section, and a friend of Rachel’s spotted it and emailed me. After interviewing each other, we went to work, and we haven’t looked back.

After spending some time trading this way, I began to see the act of the barter unfolding constantly around me – needs and wants implicitly stated and filled. The goats, in exchange for food, shelter and backscratches, give us milk, meat and manure, which is traded in on the field for vegetables, which in turn shared amongst the human and non-human herds on the premises. Plants need the opportunity to propagate themselves; we want their seeds, fruits, leaves and roots. When I first began worktrading, replacing cash with other items of value felt strange to me. Now it’s the social construction of money that seems unnatural.

Bartering is the only economic exchange that enables both parties involved to feel like they’re getting a good deal. It’s not always practical, but when it is, it’s possible to trade one good for another and for both of you to walk away better for the exchange. When cash is involved, intrinsic value is lost. The value of money itself is completely reliant on your ability to get a good deal on something else. Standard retail markup is 60%.

So for the individual with a wealth of time and talent but few “job” opportunities, what options exist to begin converting that energy into sustenance?

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a loose organization of farmers and farm workers around the world. WWOOFers receive housing and/or food at farms in exchange for a few hours’ work per day. Farms are listed online, but you must first pay a membership fee to see what sites are available in your area. It’s usually used by people traveling through, not locals in search of an ongoing worktrade relationship.

I worked under a similar program in British Columbia the summer after graduating college. At Collins Farm, I worked for food, housing, and education – a crash-course in organic farming and making a small family farm survive. Here in Eugene, I’ve worktraded for workshops, rent, and art, doing everything from painting walls to writing. A local organization called Emerald Valley Time Exchange helps people connect to others for trading services (you mow my lawn, I’ll walk your dog). I’ve never used it, but it sounds like a good resource.

It’s not just here in progressivesville that worktrading is accepted practice. The site BarterQuest allows you to trade your skills for items, or items for items, or skills for skills. I couldn’t find any farmers on there, and most people seem to do things remotely (across the US), but it could be a good model for a more local resource. I just joined BarterQuest, and will post if anything exciting happens.

Recently, I brought my friend Cynthia with me on a Thursday morning. A “recovering” vegan, she tried her first sip of real milk and swooned. We spent the trip back to town brainstorming ways to help her find a similar worktrade arrangement. Like me, she works part time, and she isn’t already part of the farming community. She doesn’t have farming experience, but is willing to learn.

What resources exist for people like Cynthia? Unfortunately, there’s no one stop shop, and maybe there should be. An online resource that connects farmers to people willing to commit themselves to a steady worktrade, for free, could do a lot to empower disadvantaged people in our community and relieve the food insecurity that faces a third of the population here (according to Food for Lane County). Farmers would benefit from having one or two committed laborers who are invested in the land for reasons beyond dollar bills or this year’s trend in summer jobs.

A wider adoption of farming worktrades could be an effective way to buck agrobusiness and make real food part of our lives again. Working for food does have its limitations, for individuals and for businesses, but long before the word “locavore” was invented, everyone was one. In times of economic instability, barter was trusted over the going currency. What do we have to lose?

Had a great experience WWOOFing or worktrading for food or anything else? Want to launch a foodtrade site? Let me know via the comments section or email. Thanks!

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October 29, 2011

Rotting Piles of Garbage: How to compost the low-impact way

I’ll be the first to admit it: I love compost. I love not throwing things in the trash, I love bugs and things that eat rotting food, and I love being able to put that food back into my garden. I even love how it smells – after it’s fully composted, that is.

My thing for compost goes back to college, where I was introduced to the wonders of growing your own food through a course in urban farming. Since then, I’ve gone out of my way to keep my vegetable scraps out of the landfill.

Out of my way is putting it lightly, actually. My little fetish for decomposition has been a smelly problem, one that I never really found an easy solution to. In my apartment existence, I’ve been known to do a bit of “guerrilla composting” by tossing my food scraps into the neighbor’s bushes. Usually, I just stored them in stinky, leaky plastic bags until I remember to bring them to the farm. I’ve even started a couple mini worm farms under the kitchen sink, but never with much success.

If I happened to live in a bigger, more progressive city, my compost problems would be solved – actually, hauled away every week in a big truck. In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen, but in Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Minneapolis, and around 3,000 other US cities, you can place your compostable kitchen scraps in your yard waste bin. In San Francisco, composting is actually mandatory. The movement is part of a larger effort to reduce the waste stream – all the consumables we send to our landfills. Landfills are designed to do the opposite of a compost heap, preventing decomposition to avoid the release of climate-altering methane gas (composting, on the other hand, is an aerobic process, which produces small amounts of less potent carbon dioxide). They’re very effective at this – a newspaper placed in a landfill will still be readable 35 years later.

Most of us tend to worry about the land-based impacts of landfills, but a more pressing concern associated with piling all our waste in a central location is the energy used and carbon dioxide produced in the process of picking up and delivering it. In my town, there are at least three major sanitation companies offering weekly pickup for trash and every-other-week pickup for yard waste and recycling. In Portland, the recently introduced yard waste/compost pickup service is offered every week, and I can’t imagine this being less frequent due to the smell factor. That means at least two trucks a week stopping by every home, and three on recycling weeks. Four if a separate truck is required for glass recycling, as it is in my neighborhood. Guess what the fuel economy is for the average diesel-fueled garbage truck. Nope, lower. Lower. Lower. Three miles per gallon. Seriously. To make matters worse, nobody wants a smelly, ugly, potentially flammable municipal compost facility near their home or farm, so trucks must sometimes travel farther to get to those locations than they do to get to landfills.

So is separating food waste from other household trash and sending it off to be composted really an idea we should get behind? Maybe if we replaced the yard waste trucks with a fleet of bicycles. Or maybe there’s another solution, one that addresses the other side of the problem – not what we’re throwing out, but what we choose to save.

In the lifetime of, say, a carrot, the part where it gets thrown away (either as a whole or as peelings and greens) is a pretty small part. It grew in soil, absorbing minerals, converting sunlight into energy and soaking up water. In a way, that carrot was like a battery, storing energy for future use by whomever ate it. It also stored some vitamins and minerals, part of which are absorbed by the eater’s digestive system. (Our habit of depositing what we’ve digested into sewer systems that don’t recycle nutrients is unfortunate in this light, but that’s another discussion.) The part of the carrot that doesn’t get eaten can go down two paths. On the landfill route, its nutrients and potential energy are locked away virtually forever. If composted, the energy goes into millions of microscopic creatures, and the nutrients are reused if that compost gets put on a new vegetable garden.

Nutrients are valuable, and although veggies are a renewable resource, the minerals that make them desirable in the first place are not. Like gold and silver, there is a limited amount of phosphorus, calcium, iodine, etc., in the thin crust around the core of molten rock that together make a planet we call home. When crops are grown in fertile soil, which has been enriched over billions of years with minerals from volcanic ash and disintegrated rock, those plants absorb the minerals and pass them along to whomever eats them.

After 10,000 years of agriculture on this planet, the store of minerals in the soil has all but been depleted. Comparing soils today with those tested just 100 years ago, there’s been an 85% loss in mineral content, a loss that is reflected in the nutritional value of the crops we grow. According to the Nutrition Security Institute, “Our food system is rapidly losing its ability to produce food with nutrient levels sufficient to maintain health.” Thirty trace minerals are essential to life, and some scientists say we need every element on earth in minute amounts for optimum health. Minerals are essential to everything from bone growth (think calcium) to DNA coding, the firing of neurons, energy transfer and metabolism, cell structure, and much more.

So maybe I was on the right track with trying to keep my vegetable scraps in my neighborhood to be recycled. Curbside compost programs, which haul nutrients away never to be seen again, don’t seem to make much sense, but composting at home does. It’s a bit like opening a savings account. When you stash your cash at the bank (provided it doesn’t fail), it can be loaned out to someone else while you’re not using it. Under the mattress, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Throwing food scraps in the landfill is a bit like putting your money in your bed. In landfills, food scraps only break down very slowly because of the lack of oxygen, and when they do, they release methane gas, which contributes to global warming. Second, like saving money in an interest-earning account, you’re actually increasing the benefit to yourself. You can spread your compost on your garden beds to increase soil fertility and grow strong plants that are resistant to disease. Third, unlike saving money, it’s fun.

Well, I think it’s fun. This summer I moved into a house with a real yard, and the first thing I did was build a fascinating – yet admittedly messy-looking – compost pile under the tree in the back yard. In just a couple feet of food scraps, mixed in with a little newspaper, it’s incredible the varieties of life that can unfold. I turned the pile every few weeks and marveled at the centipedes, grubs, worms, potato bugs and fly larvae crawling just underneath the top layer of banana peels. But Hannah, my domestic co-habitator, called it “the rotting pile of garbage”, and although she is a seasoned farmer herself, she somehow didn’t want the final stage of life for untold numbers of vegetables to unfold just off the patio.

The fall season finally provided the two of us with enough overlapping time off to do something about my DIY landfill. Our goal: Create a complete and attractive home compost system with minimum financial input. She’s a barista and I work at a non-profit – neither of us are overpaid.

To start, Hannah and I took a trip to BRING Recycling to rummage up some materials to build a tidy backyard compost bin in which to corral the creepy-crawlies and their food. BRING accepts donations of used building materials and organizes them in a huge warehouse full of old doors, pipes, wood scraps, random tiles and bricks, metal filing cabinets and desks, light fixtures, and anything else that may have a second life as an art project or functional element in someone’s house. It’s like Home Depot meets Goodwill. In the wood section, we found a whole pile of cedar panels that were perfect for the sides of our bin. We also found an old window, the front of a wooden cabinet, even hinges and screws. Total cost: $40. Price of a plastic composter for home use: $150. We win.

Step two: Bribing the neighbor with coffee beans to borrow his power drill. Done.

We assemble our materials in the backyard. We’re not expert builders, but all we need is a box without a bottom, so we go for it. The cedar panels form the back and two sides of the box. The third side will be a door to release the finished compost, and for this we use the window. It doesn’t come quite to the top of the box, which is perfect to allow air to flow over the top. We put an extra 4×4 we had laying around on the back of the box before screwing on the lid, to give the top an angle that will help the rain flow off. Oh, the lid is actually that cabinet front we found.

Homemade compost bin.

Step four: The kitchen compost receptacle. We were using a plastic bucket to catch our coffee grounds and onion peels, but that soon began smelling like civet cat vomit. Metal is the ticket when storing compost temporarily, because it doesn’t absorb or hang on to odors. The only problem was, a nice steel bucket with a vented lid and carbon filter will set you back at least 30 bucks.
Strolling the isles at Jerry’s, our local home improvement mega-store, I spotted a metal canister that looked about perfect. Removable lid, handle, large enough to fit a couple days’ worth of coffee grounds and garlic peels, and only $4. An empty paint can. Beautiful. Dirty. Rich. A little acrylic paint to personalize, and we’re set. Best of all, we found a way to keep it off our valuable kitchen counter space.

The final step: The material in our lovely new bin outside is about ¾ of the way composted. At this stage, adding new vegetable scraps to the top doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In most composting systems, you end up with three bins: an “active” one to add to until its full, a “composting” bin that’s full and breaking down, and a “finished” bin that contains fully composted material, which you can take out and use as needed.
Although my partner in composting has proclaimed a willingness to build bins around the entire house to ensure my happiness, I’m not that into the idea. I’d rather use my tiny yard space for actually growing things. Besides, now that fall is here, I don’t anticipate having as much yard waste to deal with (fallen leaves make lovely mulch and don’t need to be composted first).

Enter the worm bin. I’m always telling people who live in apartments to build a worm bin to quickly and non-odiferously turn food scraps into compost. I haven’t actually done this myself, though. (Like I said, putting worms in a paper bag full of food scraps under the sink just doesn’t cut it.) A worm bin is basically split-level condo for worms, which can be created by stacking plastic storage bins and poking holes in the top one for air. Since all worms want to do is eat and poop, it’s perfect for them because the top floor holds food scraps and shredded newspaper, and the bottom floor holds their poop – your compost. I’m thinking this will be a good solution for my household compost. I’ll post the results as they come in, including any funny things Hannah has to say about it. In the meantime, directions are here.

Maybe composting isn’t for everyone. In this culture, there is a certain “ick” factor to overcome. For me, anything that involves recycling and improves our chances of not just surviving but thriving with 7 billion plus on one planet, is good. Now that we’re out of $100 bills to light on fire, it might be time to start cultivating a new kind of wealth. All I know is, when I die, you can just throw me on the compost pile.

September 6, 2011

The War on Raw: Your nanny state boils the milk, but you don’t have to drink it

It’s banned in Canada and 18 US states, but it’s legal in Europe and always has been. Three in California were recently arrested for selling it. In other states, everyone from local police to the FDA take it upon themselves to eradicate it, even where laws permit its production and sale.

What is this substance, and why is the subject of so much kerfufflery? It’s raw, unpasteurized milk – from cows, goats, sheep, and anything else with four legs and an udder. The source of the controversy can only be seen under a microscope. It’s the wriggling bacteria that colonize everything from skin to the vacuum of space.

Is raw milk really the pathogen-loaded drink of insanity that the mainstream media has made it out to be? Of course not. Is there any reason to prefer it over pasteurized milk? Well, people wouldn’t be going to jail in their determination to consume and sell it if there wasn’t.

We tend to think of pasteurized milk as the norm, but really, it’s only a recent phenomenon. The practice of pasteurization began around the period of industrialization in the US – the late 1900s and early 20th century. Around this time, farmers quit their livelihoods in mass numbers to take jobs in the cities. The reasons for this are complex, but the result was that the farms that remained got bigger. Food preservation – canning, pasteurizing, freeze-drying, etc. – went from a home practice to a factory process. This made food more suitable for long-distance transit and less time consuming for people to prepare, while coincidentally (or not) multiplying the profit margin for the corporations running the whole thing.

Dairy animals also got the shaft in this transition. Because people no longer owned their own cows, goats or sheep, milk had to come from somewhere, and the first mega-dairies were born in the 1920s, with cows the new dairy standard. Sanitation was poor at first, and the USDA was still a small government department. It didn’t have the funding to keep up with inspections or the power to limit dairies to a reasonable size. Also, modern-day methods of testing for pathogens, or bad bacteria, did not exist, so pasteurization was proposed as a way of guaranteeing the safety of the milk supply. Today, despite advances in testing and the potential to track a given jug of milk back to the dairy at which it was produced with barcodes and microchips, not much has changed. We’re still using the outdated technology of heating milk to near-boiling temperatures for 15-20 seconds, just to be on the safe side.

What does pasteurization do, other than kill anything that might be living in the milk? Actually, the bacteria-annihilation thing is part of the problem. In the human gut, there are millions of varieties of bacteria, known as the “gut flora”. Obviously, they’re harmless, or else we’d be sick all the time, and many of them are beneficial. Our bodies have evolved along with them to enhance our ability to digest certain substances and absorb nutrients. Ever bought “probiotic” yogurt? It’s just pasteurized milk that’s had bacteria added back in and left to ferment.

One of these bacteria is Lactobacilli, which eats and digests lactose. Many lactose-intolerant individuals find that they can digest raw milk, but not pasteurized milk, because pasteurization destroys Lactobacilli. Scientists haven’t even begun to identify the trillions of bacteria in our environments and our bodies, so I’m guessing Lactobacilli has a few million relatives present in raw milk. Just because we haven’t studied them doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from them.

In addition to micro-flora, milk carries hundreds nutrients and enzymes. Pasteurization cooks the life from these as well, another side-effect that scientists don’t really know the impacts of. We do know that extreme heat denatures, or modifies beyond recognition, certain molecules that build enzymes, proteins other necessary building blocks present in milk. As a result, David Gumpert, author of Raw Milk Revolution, calls pasteurized milk nutritionally inferior to raw milk.

Look at it this way: many of us were raised on unpasteurized milk. It came from our mothers. Personally, I just don’t like the idea of drinking anything with dead stuff in it.

But is it safe? Yes, we have an obsession with safety these days, so here are the quick and no-so-dirty numbers: Illnesses from raw milk consumption average about 42 per year. In 2010, 9.4 million people reported having consumed raw milk. Around fifty million suffered from a food-borne illness. There are only four pathogens commonly found in raw milk that lead to illness in humans, and all of them can be eliminated with proper handling of the milk. If animals are healthy and clean, the milk is not exposed to outside contaminants, and it is refrigerated right away, chances of it ever making you sick are close to none. (Source: The Weston A. Price Foundation)

Raw-milk enthusiasts, and I guess now I’ve admitted to being one, have other reasons to seek out milk straight from the udder. Usually, farms that produce raw milk are small-scale, close by, and practice good farming methods. Compare that to a mega-dairy with 30,000 cows who never set hoof outside the barn. Most raw milk producers pasture-feed their animals, which has a thousand benefits for that animal’s health, translating to healthier milk for us to drink.

So the cows (or goats, camels, sheep, etc) benefit, the consumer benefits, and farmers benefit also from being able to sell raw milk. Raw milk represents a market niche for small farmers – it’s a product they are uniquely suited to produce, and consumers are willing to pay top dollar for it. Around Eugene, it’s anywhere from $7 to $15 a gallon for goat or cows’ milk (pasteurized cow milk in the store is about $3 a gallon). Some farmers will tell you this price barely matches their cost of production, while others will admit raw milk sales are the literal “cash cow” of their operation, allowing them to take on less profitable ventures, like growing vegetables or saving seed. Many also keep rare heirloom livestock breeds, milking animals like Guernsey cows and Nigerian Dwarf goats that fell out of favor when the demand for machine-ready cows covered the landscape with Jerseys and Holsteins. Either way, no one can argue that farmers are an asset to the community, and any way they can earn money to keep themselves afloat should not be discouraged.

Unfortunately, it is discouraged, and mightily. In Oregon, raw milk sales are legal, but most people who sell it are probably doing so illegally. That’s because they don’t have expensive USDA approval of their facilities. It doesn’t make a difference to customers, who usually pick milk up at the farm itself and can perform visual inspections at will. Recently, though, raw milk has also started appearing on the shelves of our local natural foods stores, presumably produced by slightly larger farms with USDA licenses.

Those store owners may still have to watch their back, however. In California this month, three owners of the natural foods co-op Rawsome Foods were arrested in a SWAT team raid and pressed with criminal charges of conspiracy to sell unpasteurized milk. Law enforcement seized and destroyed $10,000 worth of raw milk. The officers, from the LA County Sheriff’s Office, the FDA, the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control, contended that the owners did not have proper business licenses and the farm producing the milk did not have permits to do so. The owners hold that they weren’t actually selling milk but facilitating a “cow share” agreement, in which individuals share ownership of a cow and pay the farmer to board it, milk it, and deliver the milk. The case is currently in the courts.

Meanwhile, cow share agreements, while causing unknown confusion to the cows, have been a successful tactic for Canadians to circumvent the legal system to obtain raw milk. An Ontario farmer named Michael Schmidt, whose fight to sell raw milk has made him a hero for real-foodies, pioneered the movement. Legally, farmers can produce raw milk for themselves, so cow shares simply create a way for people who live in the city to own a cow and drink its milk. On the surface, it works the same – farmers keep the cows together in the barn, milk them, care for them, and make the milk available to the cows’ real owners. Cow shares have the added benefit of circumventing Canada’s restrictive milk quota system, which gives the government total power over the milk market and prices. British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia are all home to cow shares, and farmers are battling in the courts for the right to sell raw milk in a simpler way, without having to arrange shared ownership. Maybe they should get the animal rights activists involved – this has got to be causing some emotionally taxing identity crises for the poor bovines.

Here in Eugene, I’ve found a slightly easier way to obtain raw milk without denting my pocketbook. Pining for the goats I left behind in Canada, this spring I began work trading at a local goat farm. I bike out into the countryside once a week, spend the morning petting goats, picking up their poop, milking them (after thoroughly washing hands, of course), and cutting grass for them to eat. In return, I go home with two or three gallons of creamy, fresh, delicious and – gasp! – raw goat milk. It’s a fun way to spend my day off and my cheese-making skills have developed to new heights. (I’ve also been enjoying kefir, especially the reaction I get to the phrase “fermented goat milk”.) I found the farm through craigslist, where I find everything else that is wonderful, and would encourage anyone living in vicinity of a farm with extra time on their hands to look for a similar arrangement.

The raw milk movement is at the stage the organic movement was in the US thirty years ago. For those who fear microbes in all forms and prefer a standardized product, pasteurized milk will probably always be there. For the survivalists, though, there’s always a way to get your hands on the world’s most nutritious illegal substance.

The blog The Bovine does an excellent job tracking developments in raw milk and other real-food movements. Go to RealMilk.com for short, succinct articles on why raw milk is better. They also have very useful listings of where to find raw milk in most US states and some other countries.

If you’re a farmer considering or already selling raw milk in various stages of legality, the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers assistance to farmers under legal fire for selling or otherwise distributing raw milk.

December 21, 2009

>Farming Apprenticeships: Pitchfork Pastoralism

>Imagine an afternoon in mid-June sprinkled with late-arriving spring rains. Graduation rituals are being held all over the country, including here, at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The Environmental Studies program ceremony is held outside, and everyone’s too jubilant and excited to mind a few light showers. As the proceedings wind to a close and the distribution of diplomas is about to begin, the program head announces that graduates will be asked to state their post-graduation plans into the microphone as they cross the stage. In unison, the few dozen black-robed young adults in the audience gulp.

I quickly maneuver my way to the back of the line to give myself time to think. My immediate plans after graduation are to embark on a six-month apprenticeship on an organic farm. This is surely not what the esteemed administrators of my program want to hear about. I can almost hear my parents’ doubts about my unconventional career launch ringing in my ears. Why couldn’t I have a promising job as a wind power engineer or parks manager lined up? For the first time, I question my decision to postpone my entrance into the “real world” by following my passion for food and gardening to one of the lowest-paying professions in the world.

Luckily, unbeknownst to me, many of my colleagues had the same idea about their futures. After four or five graduates made their announcements (“Get a job”; “Live I my parents’ basement”; “Save the world”), somebody said something about going to work on a farm. He said it quietly, into his collar, but I heard it. A few others also made this admission. As I looked out into the audience, nobody was gasping with horror, fainting or weeping – just the typical “I’m so proud” sniffles.
By the time my turn finally came around, I hiked the stairs confidently, accepted the coveted slip of paper, and faced the audience. “Work on an organic farm,” I said, “Write. Save the world.” I could hear my father wincing, but I didn’t care. Suddenly, I was part of a movement.
The University of Oregon, apparently, is not the only postsecondary institution pumping out graduates who refuse to let a little higher education get in between themselves at a fulfilling back-to-the-land lifestyle. According to the New York Times, more and more students are spending their summers on farms, with  the goal of either being farmers or otherwise participating in organic food production. Those without immediate connections to the farming community – like me six months ago – can find positions relatively easily using online databases. One site has over 1500 entry-level, mostly unpaid farm work positions listed, and claimed to have nearly as many applicants in 2009 (for a complete list of farm internship databases, see the end of this post). If trends continue, the number of people wanting to learn about organic practices at the ground level will soon outpace the number of farms who are able to accommodate them.

The New York Times’ reporter on this story is downright cynical about the whole phenomena. “During a recession,” she says, “a summer on the farm provides respite from grim job hunts and as much bohemian cachet as backpacking through Europe.” Sure, organic food is extremely trendy, and in this job market, most are lucky to find any work at all. Still, I think the fact that all of these educated, idealistic people are choosing to throw their energy and bright-eyed enthusiasm into farming – instead of, say, construction work – speaks less of our need for hipster credibility and more toward a fundamental change that is taking place in our society.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of these newly converted farmers have any idea what they’re getting into. Many seem to hold farming in some golden light, summoning up clichés of the value of working with your hands and getting in touch with nature. This attitude has deep cultural roots. Ever since the invention of agriculture – and its evil stepchild, civilization – agrarian lifestyles have been painted as the antidote to the moral corruption brought about by technology and urbanization. In endless lyrical passages about the beautifully simplistic lives of rural shepherds, the ancient Greek poet Virgil fantasized about life in the countryside. His characters spent a lot of time singing praises to nature and gathering wildflowers in May.

Of course, if Virgil had taken the time for a saunter into the countryside, he would have found an abundance of sheep but a severe shortage of the innocence and merriment he portrayed in his writing. Like modern people in urban and rural contexts, those blessed folk would have likely been struggling for survival on too little land under the burden of too many taxes, all the while quarreling with their spouses, neglecting their sheep and bumming food off their neighbors. They were human, after all, just as sheep herders are today, no less or more morally pure than those who make a career out of car repair or accounting.

Still, the idea that the pastoral lifestyle elevates standards for human interactions has stuck now for millennia, with hundreds more poets and artists adding to the grand illusion. Modern-day writers make the whole situation worse by proposing a “return” to our agrarian roots as an antidote to the confusion and complication of modern society. If only we could all live off the land, in harmony with mother nature, all our problems would be solved – or so the rhetoric goes. Enter the wave of agricultural internships, apprenticeships and volunteer programs.

The basic idea is this: Farm volunteers can work just a couple of days or up to a full season. An internship implies at least part of a season’s commitment, while apprenticeships can last even longer. Room (ranging from a tent pitched in the fields to private cabins) and board (meals with the family or free access to farm produce) is almost always provided. Apprentices sometimes receive pay – one article I read described a farm that provided “a salary of a $1000/month, room, board, a $50/month bonus for working until the end of the season, $30 extra for every farmers market they attend, and a performance bonus of up to $2000”. That right there is enough to activate the salivary glands of any liberal-arts graduate who has spent weeks unsuccessfully trolling Craigslist for work. (The farm ended the program after being sued for back wages – the hazy legislation around agricultural apprenticeships is one of the challenges its participants must deal with.) What kind of work is involved? Well, some farmers consider inexperienced but enthusiastic volunteers to be an easily exploitable source of free labor. Others expect a little self-direction and leave the worker to find his or her own work around the farm. Some apprenticeships, like mine, can include tasks like food preservation or even community outreach to build support for local foods. Although the words can often mean different things, for convenience’s sake, I’ll refer to volunteer, internship and apprenticeship program as “apprenticeships” here.

Other than a lack of standardization (and, let’s face it, standardizing things usually ends up making them boring and predictable) and sometimes bloated expectations on behalf of the apprentices, I believe apprenticeships are one of the most effective tools we have in revitalizing farming, its role in the economy, and people’s approach to food. The current generation of farmers is aging – in twenty years or so, they won’t be able to produce food for us anymore. Meanwhile, we import most of what we consume anyway, and our agricultural land is being gobbled up by subdivisions and freeways. But the realities of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse are making it abundantly clear that this is not the direction we want to be heading. We can’t all be farmers, but we can certainly do a better job of feeding ourselves, stop flooding the global market with agricultural surpluses, and clean up the planet a bit by transitioning to organic practices. A key step in this transition is training the new farmers. While traditional agricultural colleges are stuck in the old paradigm of industrial methods and bigger is better, organic farmers know better. When they open their farms up to apprenticeships, they have the opportunity to share their knowledge with clueless city kids in an environment that is unmatched in the world of public education. With the low student-to-instructor ratio (usually one or two apprentices per family farm), absence of tests, and abundance of real-world experience, learning in an apprenticeship is not simply an end result but a process that allows for personal as well as “professional” growth.
Granted, apprenticeships won’t work for every farmer or idealistic, world-saving graduate. As for my own experience in the trenches of hands-on agricultural learning, well, it was enlightening. Do I now aspire to possess my own ten acres, a cow and a pile of debt? Will the dirt ever come out from under my fingernails?
Stay tuned for next time.
In the meantime, you know you want to abandon whatever it is you’re doing to grow some vegetables, so check out the following sites:

Field Guide for Beginning Farmers  – This is a great place to start; it gives an overview of farming apprenticeships available in North America and what to expect.

Oh, and I now have a semi-professional blogging gig with Conducive Magazine. Read my posts here (and if you ever come across an ad on the site, by all means, click the heck out of that thing).

November 9, 2009

>The Sun Always Shines in Farmville: A critical analysis of FB’s most popular game

>I realize I’ve been a bit negligent in updating my blog lately. Over the past few days, my time off has been absorbed by two practically useless but hopelessly addictive activities: TvDuck.com and Farmville.
The first allows me to catch up with favorite shows that I had previously believed were only available “south of the border” in the good ol’ USA. Where else can you experience the petty depravity of Desperate Housewives and the brilliant awkwardness of The Office, all conveniently on your laptop screen? When I arrived in the great frozen north, I was saddened and disillusioned to find a message on both ABC and NBC’s websites informing me that these cultural gems were “not yet available” for viewing in Canada. Looking back, I should have known there was a way around this, but I embraced the opportunity to wean myself of TV without questioning it too much. I have sort of a love-hate relationship with the boob tube since it entered my life about five years ago (we never watched it when I was growing up). It always ends up leaving my brain feeling like jello, but at the same time, I feel like it’s very important to learn about the delicacy of extramarital affairs and just how insane life in the corporate world can be. So when TvDuck, which allows you to watch pretty much any TV show you want up here in the great frozen north, arrived on the scene, I waved goodbye to my grand schemes to learn German and read a dozen books now that the busy summer is over. Soon, any sense of cognitive strength I thought I’d gained since exiting the formalized educational system has completely dissolved. Woe is me.
That’s not what I’m here to discuss, however. While I’m waiting for my shows to buffer, I’ve been toying around with the Facebook sensation Farmville. As with most trend-driven activities that give participants a sense of social accomplishment among their peers, I’m sadly behind on this one. I try to be sort of a curmudgeon about technology and time-wasting activities (I may waste entire evenings watching TV online, but I am appropriately resentful while I’m doing it), and on the rare occasion I do attend that must-see film or buy a hot new album, I do it weeks if not months behind the pop culture schedule. Farmville only was released in June, but in just a few weeks it had become the most popular game ever to hit Facebook. and as of the end of October had 63 million users. As one news article put it, that means in the US, Farmville users outnumber real farmers 60 to 1.
Farmville annoyed me even before I knew these disheartening statistics, so I think it came as a bit of a surprise a few days ago when I appeared on my friends’ Facebook news feeds as the latest convert. Sure, my disdain still creeps under the surface, but so far, Farmville just fascinates me. For the Facebook-less (faceless?), I’ll just say that Farmville is an “application” that you add to your profile that allows you to play a game with friends that simulates the business of farming. You start off with a couple of “fields” and a limited selection of seeds. Your friends on Facebook that also play the game are your “neighbors”, and they help out by giving gifts of livestock, fruit trees and infrastructure. You can “visit” your neighbors’ farms and help out by dumping bags of fertilizer on their partially grown crops. There always seems to be things to do on the farm – one aspect in which this game actually mimics reality quite well. The crops take anywhere between four hours to a few days to ripen, and must be harvested before they wither. You harvest by clicking on the “harvesting tool” and then clicking on the finished crop. Follow a similar procedure to plow and replant the field. When you harvest, you earn “coins”, which you can then use to expand your farm and buy more stuff for it.
The first time I logged on to Farmville, I was greeted by hokey ragtime music that was probably intended to make me feel more agrarian. I chose an avatar, which defaulted to something looking like a wide-eyed blonde five-year-old in purple overalls. Everything in the game appears in this cartoonish, colorful style, a bit curious for a site mostly used by teens and adults. After I planted some strawberries and eggplants, I visited a neighbor’s farm. I did this by clicking on her avatar, which looked cooler with a purple Mohawk. When her farm loaded on my screen, though, I noticed that the farmer was nowhere to be found. Odd. On a virtual farm with no visible escape routes (not even a road or driveway), where does an avatar hide?
Despite the absence of the farmer, the farm looked quite spiffy. In fact, it made my strawberries and eggplants look like a weed patch. Fruit trees of every kind (banana growing with cherry), a bicycle, daffodils, a well, and something called a “horse topiary”. Herds of cattle and sheep stood around staring blankly into space and blinking occasionally (with an effect that was overall a little creepy, actually). My friend had clearly been at this a while. I briefly wondered if my little farm would ever attain this level of opulence.
The next morning, I checked my email to find a note from my sister, who I’d also added as a Farmville neighbor. Like the rest of the tech-enabled world, she’s already been playing this for a while. “Quick, go harvest your strawberries!” the email read. There was a sight note of panic to it. I clicked over to my virtual farm, where there were now withered stalks where my young strawberry plants had been the day before. I looked back at the email – it was sent before I’d even gotten out of bed. Apparently, the berries ripen in four hours, and the game expects you to sit in front of your computer watching this take place lest you miss the event. After all, avatars don’t take part in unnecessary outside activities like sleeping or going to work, so why should you?
Later, I called my sister up, and she explained to me the central rule of the game: “The sun always shines in Farmville.” I thought she was relaying a nugget of wisdom through some sort of cryptic metaphor, but then I realized it was actually quite straightforward. In a virtual world, there’s no reason for cloudy days or even night time. And without the physical restrictions of the berry ripening process, there’s no reason strawberries shouldn’t be ready in four hours. Or four seconds, for that matter.
I wonder if some Monsanto engineer didn’t create this game as an extension of some sort of genetically engineered, chemically controlled agricultural fantasy. After all, it’s the perfect, predictable environment for growing crops – the type of environment agricultural scientists are working hard to perfect. With hydroponics, you can deliver exactly what plants need to the root system without the inconvenient medium of soil. Animals bred to a robot-like level of complacency and stupidity perform the duties of looking cute and growing meat without the worry of pasture and fences. Of course, rather than standing and blinking on a flat green surface, those real-life animals are kept in decidedly un-pastoral pens and cages in enormous barns. But that would be the dark side of Farmville that we don’t see.
But maybe I’m looking too far into this. After all, the game clearly wasn’t structured to stand up to critical analysis; in fact, its profit motives are rather thinly concealed. This evening, as I explored the game a bit farther, I clicked on the “market”, where you buy the seeds, animals and infrastructure you want. Under the “homes” tab, I found manors, villas and a variety of other domiciles for my avatar to occupy. I clicked on the “homestead,” the most basic option, but was informed I didn’t have enough coins to buy the place. But I didn’t have to worry! I was redirected to a page where, using my Visa or Paypal account, I could simply buy more coins. Suddenly, I was the federal reserve of my own farm nation, churning out my own money as I needed it. If I didn’t want to fork over my hard-earned dollars, I could also participate in a carefully selected variety of online scams that only required my personal information to load me up on enough farm coin to purchase the homestead of my avatar’s dreams. This particular feature has generated some ire on the interwebs – apparently quite a few people have fallen for the scams and aren’t happy about it.
So Farmville’s not the perfect model for real-time agriculture, and I don’t think anything but a physical piece of land ever will be. I’m curious what this newest gaming trend – which is unique in its lack of guns, fast cars, or any of the usual computer game fare – indicates about our evolving culture. Is the appeal here, as one Zynga (the software company that developed Farmville) VP told BusinessWire, in “people’s instinct to nurture”? Are we collectively so desperate to go back to our agricultural roots that we must turn to virtual reality to fill that need? Or is Farmville just another iteration of the standard monopoly-style game, where the player must make smart economic decisions to win? If so, I wonder how good this is for the situation of real farmers – if farming’s just a matter of harvesting your strawberries on time and picking the best place for your horse topiary, why can’t these hayseeds pull it together and make some money at it?
Farmville will probably go the way of Donkey Kong, Neopets and Lemonade Stand, but it is an interesting stop on the internet train and a fun diversion for my down time between cooking giant batches of tomato sauce and shoveling goat manure. In case some Farmville game creator happens to be reading this, though, I’ll offer a few suggestions to make it more realistic. Make a mortgage payment due daily, and if the player doesn’t fork it over, take a square of ripening eggplants and magically place a condo on it (you were forced to subdivide and sell). Send a crop blight through every so often just to liven things up a bit, or announce at random intervals that the twenty squares of soybeans you planted are now worth a third of what they were yesterday. Allow the cute, blinking animals to reproduce so that there can be even cuter baby animals running around. And when an avatar goes to visit a “neighbor’s” farm, make that other player’s avatar be there to offer a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. It’s things like that, after all, that make this whole farming game worthwhile.