Bill Kelly w/ Joel Salatin inside the Growing Dome at the Truckee Community Farm.
Last month, the Tahoe Food Hub had the fortune of co-hosting a lecture with the famed farmer, Joel Salatin. Joel was featured in Michael Pollan's book, Omnivore's Dilemma and in documentaries like FRESH and Food, Inc. Joel came to North Lake Tahoe as part of Squaw Valley Institute's "Uncommon Speaker Series."
Prior to his evening lecture to a SOLD-OUT crowd of 500 people, the Tahoe Food Hub held its first fundraiser with a lunch for 40 people at PlumpJack Cafe in Squaw Valley. I had the honor of getting to introduce Joel. Most everyone in attendance was familiar with Joel's efforts to help people think more clearly about our food system. So a formal introduction was not really necessary. But as I told our guests, "I will probably never going to get a chance like this again to introduce Mr. Salatin so I was going for it." I was pretty happy with how it turned out and thought I would share an excerpt below...
"Joel Salatin is a 3rd generation farmer and self-proclaimed grass farmer meaning Joel works with his livestock, or teammates as he calls them, to build healthy soil which grows nutrient rich grass which feeds the animals. Its the cultivating of the grass which drives the whole orchestra.
Joel hails from Polyface Farms outside Charlottesville, VA in the Shenandoah Valley. Joel is known as much for his sustainable farming practices as his unique mastery of the English language that has captured the ears, minds and hearts of America. When Joel speaks, it's almost like Spoken Word, language-based performance art. He blends honesty & humor for a common sense approach to understanding our agricultural industry and food system. Because Joel realizes that when we are smiling and happy, we are more prone to listen allowing the words to seep deeper and take root. His back porch style breeds an environment of cooperation and collaboration helping unlikely allies realize we all basically want the same thing...a healthy future for our children and our children's children's children! So how are we going to get there? Well Joel is here to tell us how. Please join me in welcoming...Joel Salatin!" (applause)
1. "It's all a symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models. And it's all aromatically and aesthetically romantic."
2. "Plants and animals should be provided habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig and the chickenness of the chicken is the foundation for societal health."
Photo courtesy of Jamie Kingham
The winter edition of "edible Reno-Tahoe" just hit newsstands and pasted below is the beginning of an article I wrote about some fascinating farmers along the East Side of the Sierra...a portion of the story had to be cut from the print version in order to make word count so I've included it here. The omitted section shares how the farmers, Dan and Rachel McClure, met and got started farming. Knowing the background and history of a farmer is just as important as knowing what they grow and how. Because really...how can you know your farmer if you don't know their "story"? And often, it is the best part as you will find out below. For the complete story, go to the edible Reno Tahoe" website.
As we walked through the greenhouse, clipping and sampling leaves and flowers, it felt a little like a scene out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
, where everything seemed edible. It was magical as licorice exploded from the French Tarragon and the taste of cucumber from the Starflower made my eyes widen in surprise.
I wasn’t on a movie set; rather, this was the small, specialty-crop farm of Dan and Rachel McClure with Sierra Edibles and Nevada’s Own. On 10 acres of land below the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains in Wellington, Nevada, the McClures produce more than just edible flowers but also a variety of herbs, hardy perennials, native berries, heirloom tomatoes, free-range eggs, and one unique variety of mushrooms.
Dan and Rachel first met in Palm Desert, California in 1996 and moved to San Luis Obispo a year later to attend Cal Poly. There, they sealed their fate together...Upon graduation in 2000, they stood on life’s frontier. With youthful enthusiasm, they wrote their mutual goal together and displayed it on a sign in their backyard greenhouse. The sign read: “In five years, we will be growing food for market.”
Dan’s love for plants and flowers, however, began long before, when visiting a sick relative who was on an extended stay
in the hospital.
“I noticed that people only smiled two times when in the hospital … when they heard a baby was born and when they received flowers,” Dan recalled. “I knew then, I wanted to be in the garden business and make people happy.”
Dan’s horticulture science degree took them to Oklahoma after graduation where he pursued a career in commercial greenhouse production. But a conversation that began at Cal Poly itched at them through their early profession...A college lecture discussed the threshold of pesticide
use in the field. Dan and Rachel struggled with this industry practice, knowing it was not how they planned to fulfill their goal. And when they had their first son, Roark, with brother Atlas following six years later, they knew the game had changed; they wanted to pursue a type of farming that was good both for their family and the earth. By 2005, it was time to move and start their own more ecologically sound practice.
Dan had grown up in the Sierra, so it was a natural choice to return home and settle in a place that was both scenic and in close proximity to several consumer markets where the McClures could sell their food. As they unpacked, they discovered the sign they had made five years earlier in San Luis Obispo...something to be said for the power of intention.Read the rest of the story at edible Reno-Tahoe magazine!
Last month, I traveled just southwest of Chico, CA to Hamilton City. I was on assignment for the Rodale Institute
and an article about organic rice farmer, Greg Massa
. You can read the interview in its entirety by visiting the Rodale Institute's website, click here
! To peak your appetite, here is a taste...Dragonflies swarmed above a rice field under a hazy morning sun. With an orchestral maneuver, they darted into the sky then nose dived back to the water, occasionally swooping to the left or right as if trying to throw off the police in a chase. As my gaze was transfixed upon this dance, organic rice farmer Greg Massa informed me that dragonflies have an aquatic life stage in the beginning. When they dip and dive to the water, they are actually laying eggs. I had never made the correlation between rice fields and dragonflies before, but it made sense. I guess it’s no coincidence they are often depicted together.
Greg and his wife, Raquel Krach, along with their five children, own and operate Massa Organics, a brown rice and almond farm outside of Chico, CA. Greg is a fourth-generation rice farmer, and the 225-acres he farms have been in the Massa family since 1970. But it wasn’t until 1997 when Greg and Raquel returned from five years in Costa Rica as tropical ecologists that they began to transition the land to organics. “Rice farming offered an opportunity to do real conservation work on our own land rather than the theoretical work of university-based ecology,” says Greg. “Stewardship of the air, water and land are our primary concerns.” Read the entire article by visiting the Rodale website
Cody watching over his flock of sheep who graze the almond orchard to keep the understory clean.
Nothing gets me more fired up then a farm tour. Yesterday I traveled to North San Juan outside of Nevada City, CA to pick-up veggies from Mountain Bounty Farm
for our annual Slow Food Lake Tahoe
Mountain Bounty Farm is Tahoe's largest CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture) with close to 400 veggie shares. Owner, John Tecklin, is also a big supporter of all things Slow Food managing a 15-acre, organic farm.
For a budding farmer, I soaked up everything John was saying as we toured the rolling fields inquiring about planting tips, trellising ideas and crop suggestions. I was enamored by the abundance. Acres and acres of food popping out of the ground. It was glorious! No better time to be on a farm than late Spring...everything is so green and a cool breeze still lingers in the air before the dog days of summer settle in. As we passed by a row of lettuces, John volunteered the role a food hub could play in his business. I was delighted to hear his interest...John is a successful direct-to-consumer farmer not needing to depend on
other retail markets to make a living. As much as I want a farmer like John to participate in the food hub, a part of me thought he may not have the need. On the contrary!
John Tecklin - Mountain Bounty Farm, North San Juan Ridge, CA
He may not need a food hub to make a living but it is not to say he doesn't have food to contribute or that he doesn't see an opportunity to make a little more money...He points to the row of lettuce and says, " See this crop here, we will harvest it tomorrow but we only need 2/3 of it. The rest will get turned under as green manure. My first priority is my obligation to deliver quality, on-time produce to my customers not to manage the wasted food. But it kills me to see it go uneaten,"
John plants six successions of crops in a summer. That way he has a new crop to harvest every two weeks. He has to plant enough in each succession to factor in crop failure, low yields and last minute orders. But when the crop comes in full and healthy, what do you do with the surplus?
He doesn't have orders lined up for surplus. Nor is it cost effective to call around trying to sell a few heads here and a few heads there to area restaurants. But one call to a food hub and that's 1000 more heads of lettuce in the regional food system and $750 more in the bank account of a small farmer. It affirmed even more the necessity of a food hub...to rescue the food that goes unharvested.
When we talk about feeding the world, we don't need to look much further than the amount of food wasted in this country. The average hovers around 40%. As we just saw, the waste starts on the farm. Once at market and after it pasts its sell-by-date, it gets thrown away. What makes it home, often times doesn't get eaten and spoils. If we just learned to manage our food better, we could feed a lot more people. And organic farmers like John Tecklin are proving you can grow strong yields sustainably. Combined with a food hub to help move food through a community more equitably and we've solved a lot more than one farmer's dilemma!
Billy McCullough - owner/chef, Dragonfly Restaurant
A COUPLE SIDE STORIES...Side Story #1:
On the drive home, NPR's Neil Cohen was interviewing first lady, Michelle Obama on Talk of the Nation
. It couldn't have been more timely. Until listening to her, I was starting to think her backyard garden, school lunch and Let's Move campaigns were little more than green washing. But hearing her speak, helped me see how genuine she is in her quest. She talked about the initial transition that she made with her family from processed foods to whole, natural and real foods. It wasn't easy but they did it together. They worked in the garden together, went to farmer's markets together and experimented in the kitchen together. By including her kids in the process and not just making them eat their broccoli, they transformed.
Kids are adaptable! They aren't callused with years of poor diets like adults whose eating habits are hard to breakdown. They can change and they can help lead the change. With the parents involved, the kids will change and they will be hardwired to lead healthier lifestyles. "It starts with the kids," Michelle commented.
My favorite part of the interview was an anecdote she shared from a garden class she had at the White House, "I asked the kids, would you water your plants with soda? And they all crinkled their noses, shook their heads and said no! I reminded them, we are living organisms too just like those plants. What you feed the plants, like our own bodies, affects how it grows." Hearing her retell the story, gave me goose pimples just thinking about all the light bulbs that were going off in the brains of those little kids standing in that garden on the front lawn.Side Story #2:
To bring the conversation full circle, and then I will close...tonight at the Slow Food event mentioned earlier, "Cooking Outside the Box, "Chef Billy McCullough of Dragonfly Restaurant
in Truckee, CA, took the veggies of Mountain Bounty Farm's CSA box and created the most delicious and simple recipes."Many of my recipes include just five, whole ingredients. I like to keep it basic and let the flavors shine," he said.
Six tastings were paired with local wines for people to savor. He blew everyone away with samples of scalloped turnips and curried carrot salad but the showstopper of the night was the thin slivers of golden beets stuffed like raviolis with herbed, goat, cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar and dressed with fresh arugula! Oh my goodness!
As he addressed the crowd during his cooking demo, he advocated for the importance of good, clean and fair food. "We are co-producers of our food! The choices we make drives what is produced. Safeway didn't start carrying organic because they wanted to save the world. They did it because they saw a business opportunity. There was a demand for better, healthier, more ecologically grown. By embracing our role in the produce what we eat, we can change the way food is grown.
I just had a series of articles come out in the most recent issue of "Edible Reno-Tahoe" magazine. Here is the first in that series! It is a profile that I did of an organic farm just west of Reno, in Fallon, NV. The entire article can be found online or in print if you live in the Reno-Tahoe area. Otherwise, click here!
“I’m worried we don’t have a good story,” Terri Marsh says modestly as we get acquainted and walk across the drive to meet the chickens. “Every farm has a story,” I say. It quickly became evident that Rise and Shine Farms most certainly did have a story.
Driven by a changing economy and a desire to be self-sustaining, Terri and Mike Marsh decided to supplement their professional careers with a market farm on their property just west of Fallon. The Marshes started with a small, 14-person egg community-supported agriculture program (CSA) in 2006. By the next year, they had expanded to a 78-person egg and vegetable CSA. With that, Rise and Shine Farms was born...Read the rest of the article in the Spring 2012 issue of Edible Reno-Tahoe, click here!
Eliot Coleman and his wife Barbara Damrosch on their farm in Harborside, Maine.
The only thing holding Tahoe back from being like its food abundant cousins down the hill, are its winters. Tahoe gets the same amount of sun - nearly 300 days of it - but has cold temperatures. We just need to harness the sun's heat and were golden, literally! Fortunately, there are g
ood people like Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm
. He has been perfecting his 4-season growing techniques for the past forty years. He gleaned most of his information by visiting and studying the traditions of French and British farmers. He would come back to his farm in Maine adapting what he learned and further refining the skill of year-round farming.
Reno, Nevada had the fortune of a 2-day workshop this past weekend with the father of cold-hardy vegetables. As a budding farmer myself, I was eager to hear the voice behind the words in the books I had been reading.
Row covers inside an unheated greenhouse
"Simplicity! That's our motto," preached Eliot. "Low-tech and high quality "real" food are our guiding principles." He wants his systems to be replicable. If they are complicated, they will never gain traction. And he's succeeded! To get in the game, however, you have to be okay with cold weather and hard work. But the systems he has designed aren't elaborate or overly expensive. Here are a few basic winter gardening concepts:
- The cornerstone of Eliot's process is the "double-cover." Take an unheated greenhouse which serves as the first cover. And then place a lightweight row-cover over the crop. The insulating layer is the double-cover. it can increase the temperature near the plant by 25+ degrees!
- Focus on growing cold-hardy vegetables like salad greens and root crops. The matriarchs of the bunch are spinach and arugula. But leafy greens in general are the mainstay: mache, claytonia, endive, escarole, minutina, lettuces, watercress, parsley, raddichio, sorrel, mizuna, Asian greens, as well as chard, collards and kale. Other go-to winter crops include carrots, leeks, broccoli, garlic, radishes, turnips, beets, potatoes and kohlrabi.
- Strict planting schedules and crop rotations play an intregal role. Seeds must be planted well in advance of the first frost so plants can get established and keep producing throughout the winter. The bewitching hour is 10-hours of daylight. Once we fall below 10-hours/day, plant growth slows down. But by the time the last of the winter crops have been harvested in February, the clock has turned and we've rounded the corner and have started to exceed 10-hours of daylight. Crop rotations ensure that what comes out goes back in by enriching the depleted soil with nutrients from a different crop family each planting. There are 13 crop families!
Inexpensive low-tunnels can still utilize double-covers
Eliot reminded the audience of a scene in the movie, The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman, "My hope is that one day, a respected elder will take a promising young graduate aside and say, son...I've got one word for you, farming!" He believes in what he is selling and the future that small-scale farming can offer our communities, economy and environment through 4-season growing!
Aunt Dororthy in front of her house in Salem, Ohio
When I was younger, my siblings and I would each get to spend solo weekends with my Aunt Dorothy. We cherished the one-on-one time. It was an experience of our very own away from the chaos of home. Those are special times in a kid's life. We'd do cool crafts, play dress-up, get a bubble bath and eat popcorn in bed. It was the best! We are both now much older but I recently spent a couple days with my aunt. While I can't relive the past, I can appreciate the experience just the same.
As a kid, I would stir the blueberry, pie mixture in hopes of sneaking a taste, now I'm writing down her secret recipe. Wandering through her elaborate gardens, I write down the name of flowers versus pretending to be a princess in a flowering courtyard. In place of her fantastical, bedtime stories, I question her about days gone by, life as a young girl on the farm and her days as a career woman.
We spent a glorious, deciduous-tree, fall day planting daffodils and tulips around her 4-acre property tucking them like hidden gnomes at the base of trees and woody nooks. Her simple but dynamic life has always fascinated me. Like the many books that adorn her library, she's a good read.
Heritage Lane Farm - Salem, Ohio
Earlier in the day, I had left a message for a local rancher in the area raising organic buffalo, Jeff and Sarah Swope of Heritage Lane Farms. Jeff called to say he had time to meet and invited me and my aunt over for a visit. Jeff and Sarah raise 40-50 buffalo rotating them between paddocks on 50 acres of grassland. I had read about Jeff in a newspaper article
. His knowledge about soil biology peaked my interest. Located just down the road from the non-organic dairy I had visited the weekend before, I was curious to understand what his conventional neighbors thought about his approach to farm management. "Pure and simple, most don't understand what's happening in their soil." said Jeff. "They don't understand the science so they don't bother to learn more about it," he continued. Conventional farmers rely on their soil tester who comes out regularly to take samples and prescribe chemical nutrients. The understanding stops there. "My neighbors think what I'm doing is a nice but not really farming as a business," Jeff remarked. I asked Jeff,
"What will it take to change the mindset?" Without hesitation, he replied, "Change the approach at land grant universities
." Awe-struck, I shook my ahead in agreement as my brain started firing. While not a silver bullet to fixing the agricultural economy, it has huge merit. The research and methodology that comes out of universities, drives the school of thought in most fields. It is not to say that land grant universities do not study sustainable farming practices. They do. However, it is offered as an extension
to the school's primary teaching model. In a paper
by the North Dakota Sustainable Agriculture Society, "Colleges of agriculture need to become less institutionalized and more revitalized - that is, less focused on purchased chemical inputs and mammoth-scale production which marginalize other areas of inquiry, including smaller scale and more environmentally appropriate farming techniques such as organic practices."
Jeff Swope with his buffalo herd
University of Minnesota student, Claire Stanford
, quoted the prolific agrarian, Wendell Berry
as saying, "Land-grant schools have departed too far from their mandate, emphasizing research to the detriment of teaching and land stewardship. What's more, when big agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Cargill are supplying grant money and donations to those same land-grant schools, there is the question of how objective that research can be."
Changing the mindset of land grant universities might be as difficult as untying the Half-Nelson that agribusiness has on our legislative system but it is good to know we have yet another area to apply pressure. In the meantime, Jeff has sent his kids to smaller colleges which focus on small-scale farming and sustainable agriculture.
"Whoa Becky! That's a lot of milk you got there!" (her name really is Becky)
My Sundays are starting to become synonymous with farm tours. But today's tour was of a slightly different variety...a non-organic dairy. To understand the food movement, we have to look at all sides. Within organic practices there are many disparities and the same goes for non-organic. It drives home the point even more, "You have to know where your food comes from!"It was a 380-cow dairy farm. T
hey use no growth hormones (rBST
) and only use antibiotics but once or twice a year for vaccinations. The cows still eat primarily a diet of silage
(moistened corn and hay) but their environment and treatment is way better than most confined feeding operations. While not pasture-raised, they are put out to graze between daily milkings. One, 20-acre field is made available during summer and fall months which provides exercise and a natural, grass diet. The barns are very spacious and airy with screen-sided walls to the outside. Rubber floors make it nicer for the cows to stand. Alleyways are cleaned out twice a day and sandy beds get freshened up frequently with new sand. It may not be a day at the beach but the cows are clean and not stressed. The sand is used in place of straw because it doesn't harbor bacteria like straw. Hay is still used as seen in the picture above but usually for pregnant cows and young calves who need to stay warm.
Shiny new milking parlor
Today was open house for their new state-of-the-art milking parlor (see photo right). All the farmers in the area were streaming through - lots of wranglers and roper boots. You could tell the farm is customarily spic-n-span but the milking room was especially shiny. Keeping it clean is built into the design with grated floors to make it easy to hose down.
185 cows are in production at one time. The other 205 are either too young or too close to giving birth. They are kept in a separate barn with alternating access to the same pasture. Cows don't go into milk production until they are 2-years old and when they have their first calf and pregnant cows are pulled from production when they are 3-months from delivery in order to let them rest. With the new facility, they can milk all 185 cows in 2.5 hours including the time spent bringing them into the parlor. The room accommodates 24 stations. That's about 5-7 minutes per cow. Compared to the old parlor with only 14 stations, it took over 4 hours to do the same job. Keeping cows pregnant is a daily task, a veterinarian visits the farm every day to monitor the ladies' health and schedule the artificial inseminations.
Tucked out back was the manure pond. While contained in a concrete structure with no possibility of leakage, it was in stark contrast to the practices of an organic dairy. Yes, organic dairies have manure and save waste for compost. But most of the dung on pasture dairies is naturally spread by the cows as they rotate fields not collected in a lagoon. In this scenario, the nitrogen-rich water is later sprayed on the fields as fertilizer. Since it is straight manure, the soils have to be tested for other nutrient deficiencies and treated with artificial amendments versus using a compost tea which would carry all the nutrients necessary (see post 10/12/11). If pasture-raised, the farmer wouldn't have to grow as much feed leaving fields to develop mature, carbon-sequestering grasses upon which the cows would graze eating primarily a diet for which their digestive tract was intended.
The farm family was delightful and their farm a picture of Americana. It represented a lot of good things in our agricultural system and perhaps they are the lowest lying fruits to later transition to organic. In the meantime, their co-op only accepts milk from dairies who share the same husbandry practices. Only problem is, there is no label for this type of product. So unless you do some research to find out what's in your area, you won't know the story of the milk on the shelf. And by the time you do that research, you'll have discovered a local, organic dairy and probably decide to just go with them. In the case of this dairy, their milk gets trucked across state line to be bottled three hours away. So much for local.
My next stop is an organic dairy. I had hoped to do the visits in reverse and go to the organic dairy first but you take'em as they come. Stay tuned!
View of the Rodale Institute and farm from the orchard
Last Thursday afternoon, I headed to Kutztown, PA and a 3-day soil class at "the" Rodale Institute
. For years, I've revered Rodale for their contributions to the advancement of ecological growing techniques. My trip felt more like a pilgrimage to a world heritage site. While the farm's idyllic landscape could be mistaken for a landmark or park, the 300-acre demonstration like-garden is hard at work setting the standard on what is possible in biological farming. Rodale has been doing side-by-side trials in organic agricultural for three decades comparing yields, energy consumption, soil fertility and profitability between organic and conventional farming practices. Their results speak for themselves proving organic's ability to out compete conventional in every category. Don't believe me, read their 30th anniversary report on their Farming Systems Trial
They are the oldest research station of its kind in North America and the same age as the one started in Switzerland the same year, 1981. They know a thing or two!During the seven hour drive to Kutztown, I had lots of time to imagine what my my impending experience would be like. And I had lots of co-pilots to help me soar with ideas...I wasn't in the car more than 10-minutes when NPR aired Steve Job's
entire 2005 Stanford commencement speech
. If that speech doesn't get you inspired and fired up, I don't know what will. Wow! He was as powerful a speaker as he was a pioneer. Loved his story about quitting college to audit the classes that most interested him. It renewed my faith in the ad-hoc curriculum I've created for myself in learning about our food system. Later, when I grew tired of music and the NPR stations were fading in and out of reception, I started streaming podcasts from the Dirtbag Diaries
. They are a collection of stories by outdoor enthusiasts whose life is defined not by what happens during work but what happens before and after. One particular episode was by filmmaker, Allie Bombach. Her film, 23 Feet
, is about the community which binds the tribe of people who not only follow the road but live on the road in route to their next adventure. Having rented my house for a year in order to take this eco-quest, I could relate to this liberating, nomadic lifestyle. Guess you could say, I'm "staying hungry and staying foolish!"
Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD demonstrating the use of a compost temperature probe.
Landing in my hotel bed at 10pm, anticipation filled me like the night before Christmas.The next morning, I drove down a country road and through the gates of Rodale's 280-year old estate. I was here! It really exists. But unlike a fairy tale, it was most certainly real. And in Rodale style, we were to be trained by the best, the Jane Goodall of Soil, Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD - founder of the Soil Foodweb
and Rodale's NEW Chief Scientist. The course content
delivered. It was packed full of all the science, ratios and explanations I needed to answer the questions which perplexed me most. I'm now in even more awe at the dynamics of soil. Soil is as simple as it is complex. Complex for the million of interactions occurring below ground but simple in its message...biology! Conventional agriculture primarily uses chemistry to fix imbalances and organic agriculture uses biology (life) to keep the chemistry in balance. Biology teaches how to introduce and encourage nutrients naturally in the soil versus relying just on a pH test to prescribe nutrients and then apply them.
Let me explain...If plants only needed roots to stand up, we could just inject their stems with chemical nutrients. But plants need their roots to get nutrients. And roots have a certain way of absorbing these nutrients from the soil. Conventional agriculture, however, overrides the biological processes that roots use to absorb these nutrients. How? Synthetic fertilizers are delivered in a ready-made form that the roots can absorb without the soil microbes having to do anything. Sounds like we are doing the plants and roots a favor. Quite the contrary...surrounding each root is a universe of fungi and bacteria working in unison to get soil nutrients ready for the plant to absorb. These fungi and bacteria as well as worms, insects and other microbes perform a nutrient cycling dance eating and being eaten by each other to create these nutrients (nitrogen, calcium, phosphorous, etc.). Toss down a bunch of ready-made chemical nutrients for the roots to absorb and we disrupt the biological process of the root community. The fungi are like the soil's respirator breathing life into the soil so the plant can get its nutrients. Take their job away and they stop working. Your left with bacteria who have nothing better to do than to multiple literally sucking the life out of the soil. Respecting the biology between the plant and the roots, the roots and the soil and the fungi and the bacteria keeps things in balance. To build soil structure and build healthy plants, we need to let biology do its thing! That's the quick skinny, check back for more on how to get this balance in your soil...
Carol and Gene Logsdon
In 1974, a book of poems came across Gene Logsdon’s
while working for the Farm Journal
in Philadelphia. He read four poems and closed the book. He got up from his desk and marched straight into his editor's office and said, "I'm going on a trip." "Where?" replied his editor.“ “To interview Wendell Berry
!” The two have been good friends ever since. They are kindred, agrarian spirits. In Gene's living room is a shelf of Wendell's books. Below is a shelf of Gene's books. "We have a friendly competition going." says Gene with a smile.
I can relate to Gene’s affinity for Wendell’s writing. After reading an essay by Gene Logsdon in the book, "The New Agrarianism
," I knew I wanted to meet Gene. In no way, can I compare to his and Wendell's literary excellence nor years of dedication to a pastoral life but his writing struck a chord with my food system aspirations and I knew I had to meet him. And that wish came true this past weekend.
Gene is one of farming’s most prolific writers with over 25 books, countless essays and now a thriving blog, The Contrary Farmer
. In 1975, he moved with his family from Philadelphia back to his home of Upper Sandusky, Ohio and purchased a small 22-acre farm. As a longtime lover of art, his farm became his canvas. And like an artist, he would use his landscape to experiment with growing techniques and farming designs that mimicked nature’s biological processes. He wrote about his practical experience sharing his wisdom and pastoral philosophy with others. His writing had a symbiotic relationship with the farm just like the interdependent relationships observed in nature between plants and soil, livestock and grass, etc. One feeds the other.
Me and Gene
We fireside chatted for over 3 hours. The rain drizzled outside and there were concerns of a first frost and the impact it may have on a small test plot of maturing, field corn. We talked about his long-ago plans to have a raspberry business. His love for paintings by Andrew Wyeth
. His neighbors...most of whom are conventional growers with scheduled chemical applications and monocultures but who are also his friends. They have a mutual respect for the each other. Each has been at it a long time and are good at what they do. We talked about crop rotations, tillage, pest management and his passion for pasture farming. He bred lamb for years. In 2008, he mated his ewes for the last time. The fifteen, lucky gals who remain will live out their lives and assist Gene in his life’s work, studying the benefits of his rotational grazing techniques.
We spoke at length about “How to get BIG ag interested in being more sustainable?” For a long time, I’ve wanted to believe that conventional farmers were just hog-tied to a system - caught in a viscous cycle with government subsidies and Monsanto contracts. Otherwise, I felt they were stewards of the land and saw the destruction their farming practices had and would change if given the financial incentive. Quite the contrary Gene says, “most think they are helping to feed the world.” My idealism was set back by this fundamental difference. But as the afternoon progressed, I started to understand Gene’s approach to this question. It’s not so much about transitioning to organic certified as it is about transitioning away from industrial agriculture. But how do we get there? Storming the castle with pitchforks and torches is not an effective form of persuasion. Nor is pushing a hard line of organics on conventional growers. But if we can get larger farms to downsize into small and mid-sized farms, we could break the current commercial model. Smaller farms can adopt sustainable farming practices easier than larger ones because they can accommodate biodiversity better thus requiring fewer outside inputs to control pests and weeds. Food will not have to travel as far because the farms will be supporting a local economy as part of a more, regional, food system.
Gene offers a great suggestion in a recent blog post on September 14th entitled, “Small Farms Creates More Jobs
.” Here’s the skinny…many of the big-daddy corn producers have anywhere between 4,000-6,000 acres. It takes only one farmer and one to two ranch-hands to farm these mega-farms because of the ginormous equipment available today. What if just a fraction of the 90 million acres of corn fields nationwide (and remember we are just talking corn, doesn’t include other commodity and specialty crops) were broken down into smaller 150-300 acre family farms? Each could employ 2-4 people and their families. Many farmers are getting older. They may not have next of kin to take over the farm or their children may not want to continue farming. The opportunity awaits these families. But we have to reach them before Monsanto or a developer does and prove the economic benefits for them, the immediate future of their community and future of their grandchildren.
Flash, the farm cat
We looked at the time, it was after 4:30pm. I was honored Gene had taken so much time to speak with me. Before I left, there was one last thing on my list…a farm tour. The 2-acre vegetable garden and orchard provided an edible, front yard landscape. Behind the house, a short path lead through the forest to the barns and pasture. How lovely to have this contemplative stroll each day under the canopy of a mature woodland. As we emerged on the other side, I could see the sheep sunning themselves in the field. The clouds had broken providing a temporary thaw to the otherwise, chilly, fall air. Underfoot, you could feel the structural health of the grass hummocky from years of succession. We picked at different threads of green poking out of the field discussing the variety of the mix available to the sheep. One of the farm cats, Flash, joined us for the whole tour rubbing up against my pant leg whenever we stopped. We looked out over the eight pastures he uses to rotate the sheep. Well, seven because one will be returned to a forest - forests are the subject of his new book, “Sanctuary of Trees,” due out in early 2012.
We found our way over to the small test plot of open-pollinated corn, aka field corn. He had been telling me about the 16” ears he was finding in the crop. We sifted through the stalks first finding a 12”, then a 14” and finally a 16” long ear of corn. Gene thinks it may be the longest ear of field corn he has ever heard of. For the past 35 years, he’s been selecting seeds from the biggest ears each harvest saving them and planting them the next year. That is dedication and thoughtfulness. It gave me pause to realize more than ever, I was in the presence of a great man, a great farmer. He will mill the crop for cornmeal and for supplementing the otherwise, natural diet of the sheep and chickens.
We sank bank into the woods connecting the pastures to the house. At the entrance to the backyard, two, deep rubber bins were buried in the ground up to their lids. “Outdoor root cellars
right?” “Yes, exactly! We keep potatoes in them,” replied Gene. “I love simple ideas like that,” I commented. “Not enough money in simple ideas,” said Gene. It was subtle but profound. Conventional agriculture is far from simple. But it's where it is today because industrialization is considered profitable and the way to make money. Ironically, it’s those simple ideas that are going to bring equity back into our food system. Parting Note: When I was preparing for my meeting with Gene, I came across a 2009 podcast on www.beginningfarmers.org. It’s a great interview and I highly recommend it. Plus, it describes our parallel to the Mayan culture and how agricultural mistakes can be attributed to many of the collapses throughout cultural history. The Mayan’s relied too heavily on corn. Sound familiar?