Archive for ‘small farms’

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. 

October 21, 2009

>Summing it all up

>I don’t normally post other people’s writing/research, but this piece is fairly straightforward, somewhat frightening and hopefully, inspiring. The source is, a great source for humanitarian and environmental news.

On World Food Day: Crunching the Numbers

by Roger Doiron

  • 1: number of new kitchen gardens planted at the White House this year AP
  • 1943: the last time food was grown at the White House White House
  • 20 million: the number of new gardens planted in 1943 LA Times
  • 40%: percentage of nation’s produce coming from gardens in 1943 LA Times
  • 7 million: estimated number of new food gardens planted in the US in 2009 NGA
  • $2000: amount of savings possible per year from a 40′ x 40′ garden KGI
  • 90%: percentage of fruit/vegetable varieties lost in the US the last 100 years CNN
  • 3500: number of vegetable varieties owned by Monsanto Monsanto
  • 18,467: number of new small farms counted in the last agricultural census USDA
  • 4,685: number of farmers markets nationwide USDA
  • 4,100: number of Wal-mart stores and clubs in the US Wal-mart
  • 187,000 ft2 : average area of a Wal-mart superstore Wal-mart
  • 60,112 ft2: average area of a farmers’ market USDA
  • 9.5 million: number of imported food shipments arriving in the US each year Huffington Post
  • 226,377: number of establishments registered to export food to the US Huffington Post
  • 200: number of on-site inspections of these establishments conducted by the FDA last year Huffington Post
  • 76 million: number of people who fall ill each year due to food poisoning CDC
  • 50 gallons: volume of sugared beverages consumed per person in the US each year LA Times
  • 22,727: number of Olympic-sized swimming pools those beverages would fill
  • $15 billion: annual estimated revenue of a penny-per-ounce tax on soda LA Times
  • $20.5 billion: Coca-Cola’s gross profit in 2008 Coca-Cola
  • 72 million: number of American adults considered obese CDC
  • 33%: percentage of US children likely to develop obesity or Type 2 diabetes CDC
  • 10-15 years: average number of years their lives will be shortened as a result CDC
  • 57 years: average age of the American farmer USDA
  • 25 days: average shelf-life of a Twinkie Snopes
  • 350 parts per million: sustainable level of CO2 in atmosphere
  • 390 parts per million: current level of CO2 in the atmosphere NOAA
  • 31%: percentage of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food and agriculture IPCC
  • 2020: year by which many geologists feel the world will have reached “peak oil” production UK Research Centre
  • 10 calories: average amount of fossil fuel energy required to produce 1 calorie of food energy in industrialized food systems Cornell
  • 29,100 calories: estimated fossil fuel calories required to produce one order of Outback Steakhouse Aussie Cheese Fries Men’s Health
  • 1 billion: number of hungry people in the world in 2009 FAO
  • 9.1 billion: projected world population in the year 2050 US Census
  • 70%: percentage increase in global food production required to feed that projected population FAO
  • 70%: percentage of world’s fresh water used for agricultural purposes UNESCO
  • 1.8 billion: number of people expected to experience “water scarcity” in the year 2025 UNEP
  • 0: number of new, oil-rich, water-rich, fertile and inhabitable planets we are likely to discover in the next 40 years
  • 1: number of people needed to make a positive difference in any of the above: you!
Roger Doiron is Founding Director of Kitchen Gardeners International, an IATP Food and Society Fellow, and, if you believe the folks at Huffington Post, one of the top Green Game Changers of 2009. After the heartbreaking sweep of the Red Sox Sunday, he recently changed his own game from baseball to football.
August 19, 2009

>A Virtual Farm Tour, part 1

>Collins Farm is in the full swing of summer now. Each morning we haul in a couple flats of strawberries, a bin of tomatoes and a bucket of lettuce, and we’re barely staying ahead of the harvest. Luckily, Port Albernians have also shown up with reinforcements to buy all the goodies at our Saturday markets and even during the week.
In the afternoons, we often take groups of curious campers to see what’s “down the hill”. Kids are fascinated with the chickens, piggies and horses, and the grownups usually walk back up to the campground full of plans for their own gardens. On Sunday, I took the afternoon off of kitchen duty and followed one of Ann’s farm tours with my camera.

First stop, the barn, home to the horses, donkeys, cows and one cat.

Buster the barn kitty. No, you can’t have him. He’s mine. I mean, he’s the farm’s. We need him to catch mice and keep the cobwebs off the top of that old milk tank.

It was an exciting morning a couple weeks ago when we went down to the barn to find one of our cows giving birth. She was the last of our herd to do so this year, and the only one I actually got to see in the act.

Well, sort of. We watched the feet hang out for a little while, then decided she probably wanted her privacy and went up for breakfast. When we came back, the little guy was already wobbling around under his mom.

This is the view of the farm up by the barn. We’ll look at the garden first, then the chickens (just outside the frame to the right) and stop in the strawberry patch between the two big fields. Then we’ll pay a visit to the cows and head through the hay field towards the three big trees in the distance. Hope you’re wearing your walking shoes.

Ripley, Phoxy and Paris, three of our Canadian horses out in the pasture for the evening.

In the garden, Ann picks some cucumbers for the tour group. Behind them, the corn has reached gargantuan heights.

Peeking under the giant squash leaves, we find these baby pumpkins – a sneak preview for Halloween.

Lettuce, carrots and beets. Behind them on the fence are the peas. We’ll get to the sun umbrellas in a minute when we visit the chickens.

Our laying hens (plus one watchful rooster) roam around in this pen, pecking at kitchen scraps and harassing their roommates, the three paranoid little ducks.

Although the ducks have their own little barn away from the chicken house, they never quite seem to feel safe and cling together like a gang of teenage girls, yakking away at each other in duck-ese. Of course, if they feel like going for a swim, they are capable of swallowing their fears and jumping in the water trough. This utterly disgusts the chickens, who would much rather take a dirt bath.

Sun umbrellas provide shade and protection from the eagles, who have been known to swoop down and steal the poultry.

The chickens share a laying box, which they enter through a door from the inside of their house.

The box has a little door on it that we open to gather the eggs.

This chicken has kindly modeled the laying process for us, but I think today she is just sitting on them. Once she leaves we peek into the hay and find…


Now we head out toward the strawberry patch and cow pasture, on the way checking up on the apple trees.

These sunflowers are “volunteers”, but they make great shade when picking strawberries out here. It takes two people about an hour each morning to pick just half of the patch.

Yum. These plants are the “ever-bearing” variety, which means they started putting out berries in June and won’t quit until the frost comes. In the meantime, we’re filling up our freezers and jam cupboards.

Bees are fun to photograph, and they actually don’t sting because they’re so focused on harvesting the pollen.

In the early morning when we’re picking sunflowers for market, the bees are sleeping on the flowers and refuse to be woken up. They hang onto the flowers no matter how much blowing, shaking and wiping you do. If we were braver, we could probably just remove them by hand, but usually we just leave them on and let them fly away later – hopefully not in somebody’s house!

We now interrupt this exclusive tour for lunch. Join us again tomorrow for more cute kids and animals, this blog’s first concession on its hard-nosed anti-flower position, and yet another pretty view of the farm.

July 9, 2009

>When Pigs Swim

>We crash through the thick forest in a single-file line: Andrea, Ann, Carmen and me. Carmen, the border collie, is sniffing out the bushes. Ann and I are shaking buckets of grain and calling in what we hope is a beckoning tone: “Heeere, piggy piggy piggies! Good piggies!”
Despite this effort, no soft oinking noises can be heard in the shrubbery. Ann suggests we make our way down to the river bank to look for tracks. The thought hadn’t yet occurred to me or Andrea, another woman who works on the Collins’ farm. We’re having a hard time comprehending how the pigs got themselves lost over here in the first place. Three weeks ago, they bolted from their pen at the Collins’ farm, which is just across the river. Granted, it’s not a huge river, but they’re not very big pigs, either. Still in disbelief that they actually swam over here, I gaze up into the tall branches of the cottonwoods surrounding us. You never know where a highly mobile pig might hide.

This Tuesday-afternoon swine hunt takes place on my second day as apprentice at Ann and Bob Collins’ farm on Vancouver Island. Because agriculture hasn’t been profitable here for many years, Ann and Bob also run a campground that provides extra income from tourists willing to pay to pitch a tent or park an RV on the farm’s non-agricultural land. What that means for me is that a typical day might have me running the register, preparing food, cleaning the two campground cottages, pulling weeds, feeding animals and of course harvesting the organic bounty. Pig hunting, on the other hand, was not in the job description. I considered it a bonus activity.

The two pigs came to the farm about three weeks ago, before I arrived. They were only in their pen a couple of days before they got spooked by the donkeys and took off through their electric fence. The last anybody saw of them, they were tearing through the woods toward the river. Thinking they couldn’t have gotten too far, Ann and Bob called all the neighbors (excepting those across the river), but nobody had seen them. Ann figured they were dead; Bob, a fiction writer, imagined them building a raft and setting off for an adventure, Huck Finn style.
Then, Monday night as I was washing up the dinner dishes, the phone rang. I picked up. It was Georgina, across the river, asking when somebody was going to come pick up the pigs that had been hanging around with her cows the past two days. I told her we would let her know and hung up, scratching my head.
When Bob and Ann returned, I told them about the call. They were thrilled. “Can pigs swim?” I asked. “Sure,” Bob said. I still wasn’t sure if I believed him. “We’ll go pig hunting tomorrow,” he added. Proof was on the way.

The next morning, we loaded up the buckets of grain in the back of the truck, attached a trailer to haul the pigs in, and drove through town and to the other side of the river. Bob stayed with the truck while Ann, Andrea (who once lived on this side of the river), Carmen the border collie and I started to comb the forest. As we looked, we discussed whether we should have brought a lasso or if it was even possible to catch a pig on the run. But Ann was confident: The pigs had to be hungry after their long adventure. Luring them into the trailer with a bucket of grain would be a piece of cake. We just had to find them first.
The river bank held no tracks. Using our tracking skills, we deduced that they had been borrowing through the forest underbrush, but not even Carmen, a professional animal herder, could sniff them out. I began to feel a little silly and hung back with Ann at the water’s edge, pulling thorns out of my shoes and trying to think like a pig. Then we heard Andrea yelling. She’d found the fugitive pigs!
We broke out into a trot and met up with her at the cattle pen. For some reason we hadn’t thought to check there, but there they were, darting around under the bellies of the cows, who were going crazy at the sight of the grain in our buckets. The four or so cows began leaping about, long strings of drool coming from their mouths. Finally, the little hairy black pigs got over their fear of us and slipped under the fence, heading nose-first for the grain buckets. We let them have a sample and then started heading back to the road, continuing to shake the buckets. The pigs followed, their minds no longer on escape but on food. Ann led them straight into the trailer and shut the door. Carmen and I brought up the rear, she more disappointed than I that we hadn’t actually needed to chase or herd anybody.

It didn’t strike me until later that what the Collins are trying to do here – preserve the farming community and build a market for local foods – is quite similar to catching pigs. I’m not comparing people to chubby livestock, but I have noticed over the years that food is a strong motivator for the human type of animal. Screaming kid at the grocery store? He just wants a candy bar. Squabbling family at the holidays? A tray of cookies does the trick. Angry drunken party getting out of control? Order a pizza. The same principle applies to getting people excited about things in a more positive way. Talk to them about agricultural subsidies, the Farm Bill or food miles traveled and their eyes will glaze over, but put that glaze on a fresh fruit tart or a roast ham and the whole issue becomes a lot more relevant. As Alice Waters said, “food is the one central thing about human experience that can open up both our senses and our conscience to our place in the world.” A person who experiences the freshness and flavor of a locally produced vegetable might not go out right away and plant a garden, but they might think a bit differently about food from then on.
Unlike Eugene, Oregon, Port Alberni, BC hasn’t quite been hit yet by the local foods craze. I see this as a good thing: There’s a lot of room for community education. This weekend, I showed a few campers – one mom and three little girls – around the farm after one of the little girls begged to see the horses. After stopping in at the barn, we walked around the pasture, garden and chicken coop. I’ll never forget the look of amazement in the girls’ eyes as they examined the three fresh eggs, one of them pale green, waiting in the laying box. I let them keep the green egg, object of much fascination, on promises that they would come back for market day the following weekend.
Most food in Port Alberni is purchased through major grocery chains, and most of the farmers have disappeared from the valley, unable to support their businesses. I don’t have illusions about seeing this trend turn around while I’m here, but I think one-on-one interactions that farm visitors get can help spark some sort of change. We don’t need to catch people, we just need to show them the better option. After all, if the bucket of grain is tasty enough, even wayward, river-swimming pigs can be led back home.