Archive for ‘kids these days’

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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June 4, 2011

The Carrot Connection: Childhood Nutrition and School Gardens

If you’re under 30 and went through the US public school system, you would not be at fault for believing that sex and illegal drugs, out of all earthly hazards, are the most dire threats to public health and safety.

You remember those 12 years of rigorous training and its slogans: “just say no”, “abstinence before marriage”, etc. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid left thinking that teenager- and adulthood was some sort of dangerous maze in which shady characters would be trying to bed me or jab me with needles full of corruption at every turn. I assumed that as long as I avoided these two evils, a long and healthy life was pretty much assured. 

Well, turns out I was wrong, and so was the war on drugs. The number one killer of adults in America is heart disease. Close runners-up are diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. Why is it then that the only place I learned about nutrition in school was from the USDA food pyramid poster slapped up in the corner of the lunch room?

A couple decades later, not much has changed. Even though the USDA invested $2 to change the food pyramid to a plate, its healthier-eating message is hardly making it to the younger generation. If the substance-abuse and  anti-sex programs are still as fear-based as I remember them, kids today are probably  more concerned about STDs and gateway drugs than diabetes and thyroid conditions. Meanwhile, subsidies to agribusiness are higher than ever, and physical education is being cut from school budgets.

Is there hope? Heck yes there is. Even though the Department of Education and the USDA haven’t made it a priority, parents and community leaders are stepping up to change the way kids are fed and taught about nutrition in public schools. Or at least, they are in Eugene. Since last fall, I’ve been volunteering with the School Garden Project of Lane County, which facilitates hands-on education in school gardens. Recently, I attended a discussion on childhood nutrition hosted by two other great organizations, Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth and Eugene Coalition for Better School Food (if there’s anything we do well around here, it’s coalition-forming).

The discussion was held in a small elementary school cafeteria in town. Lured by the promise of refreshments, I arrived early and was not disappointed. Tables overflowing with raw nuts, fresh berries, organic granola, locally produced hummus, bread, salsa and tortilla chips lined one wall. Although it was a warm spring evening, the room slowly filled with people, mostly parents, and the sounds of snacking blended with their chatter, in which intentions were voiced in measured tones. They had notepads on their knees and questions prepared.

A stage was set up near the “Pizza Window” at the front of the cafeteria, and the introducer took the stage at exactly the scheduled time and politely asked the audience to quiet down. They did. Suddenly, it hit me that this was no disorganized hippie rally. These people do not just have a cause, they have a mission. This event was not another outlet for disgruntled souls to complain about corporate power or government malfeasance. It was about gathering the facts.

They’d picked just the man to deliver them, too. The highlighting speaker was Dr. Daniel Marks, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of the Oregon Child Health Research Center at Oregon Health & Sciences University. He’s one of those guys who can take a lot of complicated information and make it easy to understand, without losing sight of the bigger picture.

The big picture, in this case, is literal. Thirty percent of kids today are overweight or obese. There are a number of factors contributing to this problem, starting with genetics, exacerbated by family, and made all the more complex by advertising. For most of our history as a species, 2.5 million years or so, we lived as hunter-gatherers and food was scarce. Our bodies evolved to store the calories from animal fat and sugars, which were eaten rarely, by readily creating its own fat stores to be used up in the lean times. To this day, neurotransmitters reward us with good feelings when we eat anything sweet or fatty. Evolution hasn’t had the opportunity to remove that incentive. Agriculture was only invented 10,000 years ago, and since then, food has become more abundant for most societies. As Dr. Marks put it, our bodies are very good at dealing with food scarcity, but very bad at dealing with its opposite. In a time of plenty, our bodies still won’t allow a single calorie to ever go to waste.

Not only do we have genetics making us fat, there’s the family factor as well. It’s obvious that parents teach their kids how to eat once they’re old enough to learn, but one of the most interesting parts of Dr. Mark’s lecture was about a study done on breastfeeding mothers. Before each feeding, one group of mothers drank a glass of carrot juice. The other group just drank water. Once the babies of the carrot-juice group grew old enough to eat solid food, they preferred the food with carrot puree mixed in. The babies who didn’t receive carrot juice through their mothers’ milk didn’t have a preference for carrots. It’s easy to see the potential for teaching good dietary habits – or bad ones – that mothers posses even before babies are conscious of what food is.

Beyond family, the community in which a child is raised plays a big role. All cultures place special significance on food, but in ours, eating is almost a religion. So is losing weight – but not in the sense of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Most of the time, dieting is framed as a way to look better while enjoying the same eating habits that caused the weight gain.

That brings me to advertising. The companies making processed food know very well that we’re genetically programmed to get off on sugary and fatty foods. They seek to hook kids young and succeed at it. Kids see an average of three ads a day for fast food alone. If they happen to go in a grocery store, they’ll find friendly cartoon characters beckoning from boxes of sugar-loaded cereal. Candy bars are placed conveniently at kid-height. School programs funded by Pizza Hut reward kids for reading with a free 750-calorie “personal” pizza. Product placement in TV and movies makes drinking a Coke as second-nature as smoking a cigarette did in the entertainment of the 50’s.

Again, all of this would be relatively harmless if getting fat wasn’t so easy. According to Dr. Marks, kids consuming just 50 calories a day beyond what they need for normal growth are on the path to being overweight in just a few years. Fifty calories – that’s one Oreo. 100 calories extra calories a day – a DoubleStuf Oreo – will lead to obesity. It’s no wonder 30% of kids today are overweight or obese.

Because school is where kids spend most of their time, people concerned about this epidemic have been putting their energy there to try to turn things around. But despite many years of programs that build gardens in schools, bring kids to farms, and deliver farm produce to schools, school lunch menus haven’t change a whole lot. On the other hand, community awareness of healthy vs unhealthy food, where food comes from, and what it should actually taste like has taken off. Putting pressure on the decision-makers to improve the quality of school food has definitely gone from a fringe cause to an organized movement.

This spring, I’ve been volunteering with School Garden Project of Lane County. Through this program, kids get to spend an hour out of the classroom twice a month, doing hands-on activities in the garden at their school. In this hour, they all become little hunter-gatherers and dirt excavators. Give them the opportunity to use a shovel and sample some lettuce, kale, broccoli, nasturtium flowers or swiss chard out of the garden, and they’re happy as chickens on a compost pile. Their preconceptions of hating vegetables disappear in the excitement of eating something right out of the garden. I’ve watched many a kid stick a broccoli floret in his mouth, even after I’ve warned him that the plant’s a little old and covered with aphids, and make a disgusted face while assuring me that it’s “delicious”.

So why don’t the school cafeterias reflect the fact that kids do like to eat fresh fruits and veggies and are capable of making good choices when it comes to nutrition? Cafeterias today are pretty similar to those I remember as a kid – unfriendly, uncomfortable, and a better space for DARE assemblies than for eating. In Eugene’s 4J school district, they all now have salad bars, but the salad must be purchased as part of a meal and doesn’t contain enough substance to stand alone. Even if they do opt for the salad bar, many kids never get around to eating it all. Lunch periods are short, lunch lines are long, and recess often comes directly afterward. When you’re a kid, all you want to do is get out to that playground, and if lunchtime is cutting into the time you can spend kicking other kids off the top of the jungle gym, you’re not going to bother with more than a few bites.

To encourage kids to eat, maybe school cafeterias could take a few hints from their competitors at the fast food chains. The interior of a fast food joint is always yellow or orange –colors that stimulate hunger. They are well lit, with lots of windows. Ads on every wall persuade customers to consume even more with drool-worthy pictures and targeted messages. The tables and chairs are arranged in such a way to make customers feel more like guests and less like inmates.

 

Of course, there are bigger-picture questions in this debate. In the panel discussion following Dr. Marks’ talk, we heard from the Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for the school district. Actually, as her title was written, the term “Nutrition Services” came with a slash after it, and the word “Sodexco”. When I got home, I looked that word up. Turns out that instead of having its own Nutrition Services department, the school district contracts it out to a food supplier – Sodexo. Here’s a gem from their/the school district’s website: “Most think of them as just kids. We see them as valued customers… That’s the Sodexo difference.” After the panel discussion, parents brought up lots of concerns, but nobody addressed the glaring problem: In every other room of the school, kids are students. In the cafeteria, they’re customers – consumers, in marketing-speak. Should publicly funded schools even be allowed to have such a relationship with a private business? How can local farms ever have a chance at supplying the school district if “nutrition services” employees all work for the current supplier? Does Sodexo offer choices like organic foods? I doubt it.

Then there’s the matter of school budgets. Eugene’s schools, like most others in this country, are probably in their biggest budget crisis ever. The amount they have budgeted for each kid’s lunch is around $1. Because quality food is not the highest priority in the budget, this amount will probably go down soon. Maybe the bigger issue that needs to be addressed here is that of school funding.

In response to public meetings like the one I attended, school lunches are evolving, slowly. The Sodexo representative present at the panel discussion said she was phasing out chocolate milk (twice the calories as regular milk) and “Cookie Fridays”. Still, she was on a stage next to the Pizza Window, and claimed that menu items like these are necessary to get kids to eat in the first place.

More activity is taking place on the parents’ side: More and more are sending their kids to school with sack lunches. They’re not just forming coalitions, they’re volunteering their time to School Garden Project and Farm to School programs and taking nutrition education into their own hands. Thanks to this effort, kids are finally learning what real food is and why they should seek it out. I had a reminder of that today at an elementary school, when one of the girls in the garden session turned to me and asked, “Why do you wear glasses?” I told her it was so I could see. She frowned at me. “You need to eat more carrots.”

I’ll bring up it up with my mother.

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.

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.