Nathan Harkleroad, Incubator Program Manager, with Pablo Perez of J & P Organics
Every since I learned about the ALBA farm model, I haven't been able to stop talking about it. At least once a week, I find occasion to preach it's gospel. It definitely deserves a re-post. I visited ALBA while I was taking a 2-week Agroecology course at UC Santa Cruz this past summer. The post originally aired on July 16, 2011.

I want to hand a blue ribbon to all the programs and initiatives I've been learning about this past week but my  favorite so far is where we visited today, ALBA! The ALBA growing and education center is in the fertile valley of Salinas, CA. Bottom line, we need more of these centers all over the country, the world in fact! ALBA stands for "Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association."

Here's the skinny...ALBA not only trains people how to farm organically but helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. The biggest risk in starting to farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if you can afford to buy land, you have a huge learning curve in developing best practices. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training then lease .5 acre at 20% its market value. After five years, you are paying 100% of the market value but may have increased your capacity to 5 or 7 acres. It is an "incubator" for small farms. The model is brilliant! But that's not all...ALBA also has a distribution component, ALBA Organics, to help their farmers get their food to market since marketing can be the toughest hurdle of all - you may be a good farmer but not a very good sales person. ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

Many of the graduates who lease land from ALBA opt out of ALBA Organics. With the help of ALBA staff, they develop their own economically, viable businesses with CSA's and farmer's markets...like Pablo Perez of J & P Organics . We had the fortune of meeting Pablo in the fields and hearing his story...Pablo had started out working in a chemically, dependent nursery years ago later leasing .5 acre and then 7 acres where he grew flowers conventionally. When his irrigation pump broke, the landowners refused to help fix it. $70K in lost income later and Pablo had also lost his lease and was back working in a nursery. His American dream crumbled. A couple years later, Pablo's son, Juan, was on field trip to ALBA and saw an opportunity for his family. He encouraged his dad to take the bi-lingual course offered at ALBA. Together five years ago, they formed J & P Organics. Juan handles the marketing and Pablo farms their now 5 acre plot which supports 500 CSA shareholders. It's enough to bring a tear to your eye. But not to Pablo. He is all smiles and full of stories. Including this story, or is it a parable...

A man asked Pablo, "Why are your strawberries $1 more than that guy's strawberries over there?" Pablo replied, "Because mine are organic and I don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides." "I don't care about that," the man responded and proceeded to buy the cheaper, poison laced strawberries. A few days later, than man came back to ask Pablo why the strawberries he bought were dry and tasteless. Pablo explained, "because the chemicals take out all the nutrients and flavor." And with that, Pablo cut one of his strawberries open and handed it to the man. It was juicy and exploding with taste. The man never bought a conventionally grown strawberry again. The End!

The last few weeks have been a crash course in Northern Nevada's growing food movement. I've had the great fortune to meet many of the people involved in helping to protect and facilitate the agricultural potential of the area.

I've interviewed local compost experts for an article in Edible Reno-Tahoe, got wind of the dirty business of Waste Management Inc., spoke at a town council meeting opposing the the rezoning of agricultural land to light-industrial and most recently, attended a one-day workshop to learn more about subscription farming for small farms, aka community supported agriculture (CSA). Here are a couple of those stories...

Craig Witt of Full Circle Compost checking the core temperature of the compost windrow.
For the magazine article, I interviewed two fascinating characters. Each own and operate their own regional, composting facility in Northern Nevada. With every master composter I meet, one thing is clear...they intoxicate others with their knowledge. Soil is their caffeine driving them to share the secret they hold, that compost can transform our depleted soils naturally. They understand the innumerable ecological benefits that compost can have not only on our soil but the environment. They root tirelessly in hopes that their theories become accepted and embraced by the mainstream. With my affinity for the stuff and aspirations to understand as much as I can, I'm like a disciple in their presence; listening to every word like a child hinged on the tale of a bedtime story. See Craig' vermicomposting video at the bottom of this post.

Craig Witt of Full Circle Compost in Minden has been composting professionally for over 20-years and farming since he was old enough to walk. He is the Joel Salatin of Soil. Energetic and evangelic in his passion for soil's biology. We easily blew six hours one afternoon talking about compost recipes, books on the subject, philosophies and more. When I left, he loaded me up with his homemade jalapeno jelly and zucchini relish. Yum! His composting site is located at the Carson City Correctional Facility where inmates on good behavior learn the trade and basically run the compost operation. I was equally impressed with the prison itself. I had never been to one before. As we checked in at the guard house, a prisoner who was in the yard just outside the building, came up to a drive-thru type window asking the guard about the "big dude" who had arrived the day before with seven others. Eegh! It was quite exciting.

Burlap coffee sacks from ALL the Starbucks in Northern Nevada. Whoa!
Alongside the compost site is the prison's organic dairy which feeds all the prisons in Northern Nevada and next to that is the Saddle Training Program. Here, 600 Wild Mustangs captured by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), wait to be gentled and later adopted by regular citizens. It serves as a rehabilitation program for the inmates who are assigned a mustang to break and make ready for adoption. Prison is sounding pretty good these days. Wonder if they are taking applications? Just kidding ;)

Tom Donovan with RT Donovan Landscape in Sparks on the other hand has only been composting for 2-years. Tom carries a Clint Eastwood-cowboy quality and speaks with a subtle, western drawl. His no-nonsense approach to composting wrangles all my loose-ends on the subject. He speaks compost in terms that a layman can understand and I appreciate.

In an effort to diversify their family's 50-year old sand and gravel company, they repurposed a portion of their property for collections and composting of organic material. Sand & gravel was a multi-million dollar business for RTD but it has whittled down significantly over the past few years due to the housing crash. Composting is proving to be promising business.

As I entered the conference room on the Western Nevada College campus in Fallon, I was delighted to see a packed room of 65-participants for the CSA workshop. Only a handful currently ran a CSA meaning the majority where there to learn the basic steps to incorporate a subscription program into their farming business. Phenomenal!! More farmers!

A subscription program, or CSA, is where people pay a farmer up-front for food grown and in return, receive a box of veggies every week from Spring to Fall. CSA's are happening all across the United States. They are the easiest way to become better connected to  where our food comes from while at the same time giving farmers a fair price for their hard work but cutting out the middleman.

All the speakers were fantastic but Wendy Baroli with Girl Farm really sent people home with something to think about. Unscripted, she commanded the room with a presentation from the heart. Whether one implemented her alternative CSA model or not, she provided excellent take-away's for everyone; namely, know your customer! Her customers are working owners meaning they are not just members and they are more than volunteers. Each pay $2500/year for 14-months to be part owner in Girl Farm. In return, they get loads of vegetables plus eggs, lamb, pork, chicken and turkey. As owners, they are required to work one day every two weeks. It may seem like a lot of time and money but it would cost a lot more to own your own farm. As Wendy puts it, "You don't have to own you own farm, you can get together with your neighbors and own a farm together." That is in essence what they are doing. In its purest form, a CSA member shares in the risk with his/her farmer. But until you are part owner, is that risk tangible. Their co-owners are invested!

Craig Witt with Full Circle Compost of Minden, NV explains Vermicomposting!
Me sailing to my blue sky dreams for a new food future :)
As I've moved through this food journey, I've called upon my blog to help me clarify my thoughts and work through perplexing questions. Now that I'm back in Tahoe and building a career around food, I find myself calling upon my dear friend "sustainability" way too much in order to explain what it is I'm doing. I know it's an overused word and in the moment before I say it, I'm hopeful that I will think of a new word or phrase. But alas, out it comes.

Regardless, it's a great word and I believe in what it means! In its solitary form, sustainability represents "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (as coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development). Toss in food and my favorite definition for sustainable agriculture is...and I admit, I forget where I got this from..."land management practices which balance food production with the conservation of ecosystems through soil biology and biodiversity." Therefore, I conclude that the sustainable food systems we build today will create an equitable supply chain from grower to consumer both now and in the future. Equitable being the operative word!

Let me develop that a little further...If the land, the farmers, the workforce and the consumers are treated fairly and with respect to their needs and services there will be equity in the marketplace. When there is justice in the food system everyone wins! The soil can sustain itself and support a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. And the marketplace can take care of its workers and customers because the economy will realize we are all customers. And it is in our valued interest to meet the needs of the people first before profit. By taking care of our ecosystem services, the return on investment will be a thriving community not a dividend.

My vision for a new food paradigm
I want to build food-focused communities. Communities that are invested in their food security. It begins with how and where the food was grown. To be food secure, you first must know the land can provide indefinitely. Only sustainable agricultural practices can provide that. Once we secure the food and the land is happy, we need to make it accessible by creating an equitable marketplace for farmers to sell their food at a fair price and at a price the community can afford. Food access includes educating people about diet, scratch cooking skills as well as food buying decisions at the home, school and institutional level. An informed eater will realize the positive impacts that buying local can provide and that sustainable agriculture is as much about sustainable, economic development. Food sovereignty is when food security and food access coalesce. It results in communities that are engaged in food policy. They come together to design a system that works for them ecologically, culturally and economically.

When I hear, "How are we going to feed the world?". I say, "We first need to think in terms of building self-reliant communities that can feed themselves." If ever community did that, we will have fed the world. Start by evaluating all available land resources to see how each region can grow as much of their own food as possible. It will require saving farmland from development, creating more urban gardens, using greenhouses to extend the growing season and establishing vertical gardens in re-purposed vacant buildings. In the process, it will have created jobs for new farmers, new specialty food producers and all the people along the supply chain. Trade with other areas will of course still exist but local economies will be stronger and more resilient if able to provide more for themselves.

In my community, I want to leverage all available food services in the Sierra Nevada in order to build a regional food system that can support the majority of our food needs. It will increase trade regionally between communities bolstering local economies. Money will circulate in the region encouraging more, small farms and area food producers but it w will also spark job growth and new business in other industries because that's what happens when money stays local. Economic drivers that promote a 25% shift to buying local will be implemented. By keeping money in the region, it will stoke the fire to ensure the model's longevity. I've quoted Mother Jones magazine on this one before and I'll do it again..."Fix the food...fix the country."

That's my BHAG: Big-Hairy-Audacious Goals! Gotta have'em!

Farm Abbondonza...Rich, & Shanan and family in front with me. The crew sitting behind!
I'm feeling a little reflective and decided to repost one of my very, first blogs. The following rerun originally aired on July 1st when I finished my first farm internship. It was entitled, "Graduation Day!"

160 hours and four weeks later and I have graduated from the School of Abbondonza. Yesterday marked my last day. I can't believe how hard and fast I fell for this place. I slipped into a special time on this farm and could easily see myself never leaving. My departure is bittersweet, however, because I'm excited to see what my next experience brings. Thanks to Abbo, I'm even more committed to this project and know I've made the right decision to take this food journey to the next level.

The day started like any other day gathering in the nursery outside the greenhouse to get our action plan for the day. As a team of eight, we descended upon the onion field to rescue the crop from pig weed and Purslane - a day or two more and we could have lost the whole thing. We moved down each row wrapping up one side and down the other in smooth efficiency looking back on a clean row of onion greens which reached toward the sun with stems in the air. The weeds pulled gratifyingly sweet from the soft soil which uplifted the morale encouraging a vibrant conversation of life stories and deep philosophies. Rich (farm owner) recalled the epic year of 1999 down on a a farm in New Mexico. He was adding 5 acres of 15-year old pasture land to an already 20-acre farm. The sod was a foot deep of tightly woven grasses. They tilled it five times and still the field was not ready for planting. Rich stood up from his place in our chain gang and reenacted the process of watering the land intensely to loosen the grassy weave. We listened like we were watching an episode of "The Greatest Catch" as his arms waved and his peppered hair sprouted up from his visor. Rich animated the mud bog which the water created and how they were up to their knees hurling large sections of sod in an attempt to break the soil for seeding. It was a beautiful moment and will forever stand vividly in my memory. The whole day was in technicolor. I was very present, living in each moment and archiving everything with mental snapshots.

In the afternoon, dark clouds moved in and it began to rain lightly. Lightening threatened to close in but stayed on the horizon for an impressive light show. A farm field is even prettier when mixed with stormy, afternoon light and a warm breeze which carries the scent of wet earth, distant lilacs and peonies. It makes you stop, sit up and breath deep. At the start of our last project, Rich gathered the crew. Shifting skies lingered and we circled together at the head of a new row. Standing in the green grass between fields, Rich made a small presentation to recognize the farm's deep appreciation for my service over the last month. He was holding a cut-off sleeve of an old Carhart jacket. Wrapped inside was my own personal trowel and clipping shears. The enclosed note which I read aloud left my voice waffling on the verge of tears. Hugs all around! I wasn't expecting to become so emotionally attached to these people and this land. I'm so glad it did, because my internship was much richer as a result. It is truly one of the most powerful and transformative experiences of my life.

As the clock struck 5:30pm, I stood up from my position in the planting line signaling the time for my departure. All the guys rose. I put my newly, initiated trowel to my forehead and gave a trowel salute. They returned the gesture and we smiled at its symbolism. One last hug and I made my way down the furrow one last time.

There are over 230 chickens on the farm. Together they produce over 80 dozen eggs each week. Some 20+ breeds cluck openly around the barn yard each day...Booted, Catalana, Dominique, Rhode Island Red, Sussex and my personal favorite...the White-Crested Black Polish (pictured here). They look like a showgirl in Vegas with their feather boa infused head dress. Learn more about different breeds of chickens here. And take a virtual tour of our hen house with Shanan and the incubation period of baby chicks and the relationship with their mom.

And without whom none of this would have been possible...the simply fabulous, Mel and Mark Glen of Conscious Coffees, connected me with Rich and Shanan at Abbondonza. Love you guys! Pictured here on my last day when they came out for my bon voyage lunch and some pea picking.

Continued from the previous post on December 2nd...

What soil biology tells us is…conventional agriculture kills soil. If we need soil to grow plants, then eventually conventional agriculture is going to farm itself out of business and unable to “feed the world.” If we want to feed the world, we need to farm using biology. Soils farmed conventionally cannot store nutrients, retain water or sequester carbon because all the mechanics that enable these functions have been eliminated. When no organic matter remains, you have dirt. By enabling soil to store nutrients, we can reduce fertilizer run-off. Being able to retain water, soil can weather floods and survive droughts. By keeping carbon stored in the root structures of the plant, we can mitigate climate change.

Much of the “feed the world” discussion, however, surrounds yields. The Rodale Institute has proven yields are higher in organics. But some contest that the Rodale study can’t be extrapolated to large-scale farms. Perhaps they should look at the yields of Fred Kirschenmann who owns and operates a 3,500 acre certified organic farm in North Dakota. They employ many of Rodale’s farming principles. Fred’s success with large-scale organics is well supported and backed by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agricluture where he is a distinguished fellow. When asked the question about feeding the world in his book Cultivating an Ecological Consciousness, he said, “As our population increases, we have to use fewer of our ecosystem resources and services to restore and retain the health of our ecological neighborhoods. The only kind of agriculture that can hope to keep the world fed is an ecologically oriented agriculture that mirrors and maintains the natural ecology in which it is located.”

In large-scale ranching, there is a movement afoot in South Dakota called the Brown Revolution. It is setting out to prove the viability of organic, pasture-raised livestock. While still in the grassroots stages, rancher and lead spokesperson, Jim Howell calls the Brown Revolution, “a spin on the Green Revolution of the early 20th century.”  In an article by Lisa Hamilton (author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness), she explained, “The Green Revolution greatly increased agricultural productivity in developing countries to meet the demands of a growing world population.” She continued by saying, “Howell and his group aim to increase agricultural productivity around the world as a way of addressing one of the great challenges of our time, climate change. But while the Green Revolution hinged on implementing new technology, the Brown Revolution relies on restoring natural systems.” Jim and his partners’ holistic management style was developed by Allan Savory. Historically, grassland ecology was managed by the herding behaviors of wild, grazing herbivores. By mimicking this interdependent relationship, Savory and now Howell can facilitate these natural, regenerative cycles. In Lisa’s interview, she asked Jim, “How big can we expect the revolution to get?” He replied, "It has to be done on a freaking massive scale." He continued, “We need enough land to impact climate change, but also provide a model that becomes the standard for grassland management.” His passion and vision resonates with Mark Smallwood’s “massive awakening.”

While it is good to think big, feeding the world will need to come in many sizes. Small to medium sized farms offer the best opportunity. And the Rodale Institute’s farming trials provide the research. By keeping farms smaller, we can get more people farming. It empowers local communities to secure their own food and puts people to work. Smaller farms can service a regional food system more efficiently making a local economy more resilient and adaptable to economic and climate fluctuations. A regional system shortens the supply chain driving down price. With more organic farms, overall supply increases driving down price as well. And Rodale is helping people to start farming with their newly launched “Your $.02” campaign. The program collectively pulls money from like-minded businesses and awards grants to aspiring, organic farmers.

When we look at soil biology, we need to see it through the lens of an ecosystem; something we need to protect. Like the critical habitat zones of polar bears and whales, we need to respect soil as a wilderness. In many ways, it is an endangered species. Rodale, Kirschenmann and Howell all take a whole systems approach placing humans in that same ecosystem. The soil is not separate. It is part of the human ecosystem.

Where do we go from here? Pay attention to the soil science in organic articles. Glean as much as you can. Absorb it, challenge it and share it. Don’t dismiss it as just some interesting facts. It’s the meat and potatoes of the whole issue.

Ever heard of a noble lie? This regal term dates back to Socrates and Plato’s time. By definition, it’s a myth told by the elite to keep social harmony. As an example, Plato was criticized for calling religion a noble lie.

In a recent Huffington Post article, organics was called a “noble lie.” The author, Joe Satran, concluded by saying that "overblown health claims" may be a noble lie to justify the ecological benefits of organic agriculture. His otherwise glowing report did a fabulous job of explaining the Rodale Institute’s 30-year study comparing organic to conventional farming methods. It also addressed many of the arguments that organic encounters such as price, supply and access. Instead of using the facts of his articles to endorse organics, a “noble lie” left it up to the reader to weigh the evidence and decide for themselves. Was he insinuating his true belief? Or challenging his readers?

Challenging readers with a list of persuasions implies that organics is an alternative. Ironically, organic was the original. But the green revolution of the 1940’s made conventional the standard leaving organics picketing on the sidewalk. Many articles use the list technique to compare organics to conventional, i.e. healthier, more nutritious, tastes better, supports local, more ecological and ethical. Instead of trying to convince people with lists, how about we teach people the science behind organics and end the debate once and for all. Science doesn’t lie.

In reading the public comments that followed the Huffington Post article, a thread lingered over the integrity of the organic name. Some argued that the organic certification has been diluted by the infiltration of large food corporations trying to capitalize on the rise of organics’ popularity. One post reminded the other post that the organic product market is not the same as the organic farming practice. Rodale uses science to study the organic practice. They are not responsible for how the open market decides to lessen its meaning. Rodale's Executive Director, Mark Smallwood, wants to use the science to create what he calls a "massive awakening.”

The Rodale Institute is located just outside of Allentown, PA. They are the nation’s premier research station for organic farming. I immersed myself there for a 3-day course about soil science back in October..

And what I learned is…people can handle the science. Yes, in science there are a lot of complex ratios and talk about parts per million. But if you skim just the common sense off the top, it doesn’t have to be complicated. People don’t need to be a scientist to understand how conventional agriculture defies the laws of soil science. The law boils down to this…we need soil to grow plants. Pure and simple! Conventional agriculture treats soil as merely something to hold plants up. They may as well go into hydroponics which doesn’t use soil at all. The fundamental difference between organic and conventional is that if soil is in the game, it has to be treated like soil. Soil provides an environment for millions of microbes not just to live but to actually make the nutrients for the plants. What matters is the biology in the soil. Rodale’s chief scientist, Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD, sums up the science this way, “To build soil structure and build healthy plants, we need to let biology do its thing!” To learn more about the biology of soil, read two earlier posts on October 9th and 12th.

Stay tuned for Part II of the article...