Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015


  For the sake of helping our customers and especially prospective CSA members understand what our farm is about we want to talk this week about one very important aspect of our approach to farming, specifically how we approach all the many foods that the local-organic food movement has generally decided are better just to outsource or ignore (at least for the foreseeable future.) As we detailed about a month ago, there are several huge holes in the local-organic food movement (in terms of what foods are grown and sold), holes that invariably account for most of the acreage that even the most dedicated farmers' market consumers have farmed on their behalf (i.e. most of their agricultural footprints), as well as most of their calories.  We believe too much in the value of local-organic ways of farming and eating to be content with such a marginal role for local-organic agriculture.  Of course, it's easy to focus on colorful things like fresh vegetables and ignore background things like staple dry goods or the feed that makes animal products (especially if the animals are raised on small local farms, just on feed purchased from a very different system of agriculture), but we wouldn't continue to go to the trouble to grow hardly anything ourselves unless we had some real hope in a broad system of food and farming that's truly distinct from what's become the modern norm in our part of the world.  Perhaps one might be content with some colorful changes at the margins for a while if one avoided asking too many questions, but for us as farmers the questions have been too hard to avoid, and so we're not content to wait for the economics of local-organic farming to redefine itself before we make real efforts toward comprehensive changes.
  What we're talking about here is efficiency and labor cost.  The biggest holes in the local-organic food movement aren't there because there aren't local-organic ways to fill the holes (i.e. produce the food); the biggest holes are there because the local-organic food movement has been waiting to develop modern efficient methods for filling the holes, methods that haven't been developed, particularly not on a scale consistent with local-organic markets.  So, for example, we're talking about whether it makes sense to hand hoe/weed corn (in our case primarily for cornmeal/grits/hominy/tortillas and secondarily for animal feed) even when there are herbicides (either selective herbicides or broad spectrum herbicides in conjunction with herbicide-resistant GMO corn) that with the right machinery could be sprayed on over a thousand acres in the time it would take us to hand hoe one acre (even as a follow-up to tractor cultivating.)  Even apart from the direct conflicts with organic principles, there are often indirect conflicts: machinery that can yield big gains in efficiency often comes at a huge cost, which requires a huge scale of production, which creates organic impasses in other places.  For example, one might be able to realize much greater efficiency with modern harvesting equipment but only on a scale at which organic methods for weed and pest control and local-organic marketing were no longer feasible.
  So what should we do?  Obviously, cost matters, but in more or less the materially richest nation in the world at the materially richest time in history, surely for almost all of us our long-term choices aren't dictated so much by the necessities of survival.  So is there enough value in local-organic food and farming to accept significant trade-offs in superficial dollar efficiency?  Or should we just abandon ideas of local-organic production for all those foods that can't be produced according to modern ideas of efficiency?  When the only way to produce a given food local-organically involves lots of old-fashioned hand labor -- and in the present reality (and foreseeable future) that's often the only available choice -- we don't immediately infer a reason to jump the local-organic ship. Obviously, we want to find the most efficient ways to do things that we can, but our definition of efficiency isn't the narrow definition of efficiency that rules commodity markets, so local-organic values are critical to our accounting.
  We also don't care so much how local-organic farming costs compare to conventional costs.  In other words, no matter how cheap high fructose corn syrup gets, we're still going to want to eat honey. If local-organic honey is too expensive for us we may eat less honey and more local-organic sorghum syrup or we may have to cut back on sweeteners altogether, but the cost of corn syrup sweetened supermarket food doesn't really factor into our accounting at all. This same kind of thinking about how we want to eat as a family plays a heavy role in determining what we have to offer to our customers.
  What does this mean for the CSA members for whom (after ourselves) we're primarily growing?  For one thing, to put a positive spin on it, it means our CSA members have access to a lot of foods for which there aren't hardly any local-organic options (e.g. dry beans/peas, peanuts, wheat/flour/bread, storage onions, English shelling peas...), or to put a negative spin on it, it means we're focusing heavily on foods that a lot of organically inclined farmers' market customers would rather buy more cheaply at the supermarket (and without having to shell peanuts or peas themselves, and with more convenient options like ready-to-use canned beans instead of dry beans, multiple types of ready-made bread available any day of the week...)  From another positive angle, we also believe that there's value in recovering, developing, and preserving the locally adapted genetics, the seed stock, and the knowledge that go into producing all the foods that the local-organic movement has mostly abandoned. We hope our CSA members will find value in supporting those efforts.

9 LOCAL-ORGANIC THINGS FARMERS LIKE US GROW FOR THEMSELVES THAT YOU CAN'T BUY (even if you're a local-food-super-hero consumer)

  If you believe, like we do, that there are lots of important questions -- important enough that they deserve meaningful attention -- that go into growing food and bringing it to the table, and that the cheapest way (with or without any set of rules like those of the National Organic Standards Board) isn't automatically and always the best way (subjects we've previously discussed in more detail here and here), then you may have come to the same conclusion we have: that real power to make meaningful choices in these questions comes by connecting much more closely to the source of your food.  And in that case, if you've considered all the different parts of your diet, you've probably found a very substantial list of food categories for which there just aren't any real options for sale anywhere in our broader area.  In other words, if you live in this area (or pretty much any other area in the industrialized world), there are lots of foods/food categories you just can't buy except from the supermarket system of agriculture.  Obviously some foods, like tropical fruits or new foods like margarine are by their very nature not foods one should expect to be able to source from local farms, but our list below is a list of foods that, although challenging and complicated in various ways, we're fully able to grow for our own use, foods which also were mostly commonly available from local sources until just the last couple generations.  So, first the list of 9 things we're able to grow to the full extent of our own family's needs but which can't be bought from any comparable local-organic sources:

1. Buckwheat (particularly in contrast to rice...)
2. Dry peas/beans
3. Cow's milk, yogurt, butter, ice cream, mozzarella...
4. Goat's milk cheese and goat's milk (and goat meat)
5. A full assortment of local-organic fruits
6. Bread (and pancakes, biscuits, cakes, pasta, pizza, etc.)
7. Pork (and lard, bacon, ham...)
8. Nuts (so far: peanuts, black walnuts, chestnuts, and American hazelnuts, besides pecans we get from friends)
9. Corn tortillas

  This would get too lengthy for our newsletter if we gave even a brief explanation of each category on our list, but there are lots of details to consider.  If you have questions about why we say none of these things is available to purchase from local-organic sources, please talk to us about it further, but we'll summarize by saying that those items which are available locally mostly either involve substantial organic compromises (especially with animals raised on non-local, non-organic feeds and often conventionally medicated as well) or aren't complete enough that we would consider them full substitutes (as with the limited supply of local-organic fruits and nuts.)  We'd also note that we're attempting with our new-this-year Full Farm CSA plan to offer some of the above products to our Full Farm CSA members, but our point is that even though these foods can be grown, none of them is actually being grown for sale to the general public.
  We place buckwheat at the top of our list because, although for most people and for us as well it's not a major staple, it played a leading role in motivating us to more carefully consider the whole range of foods that we had previously contented ourselves to buy from more convenient sources.  A few years ago we had decided that if we were going to buy any foods from the supermarket system of agriculture that we would at least buy USDA organic, but when we ordered a bulk bag of organic buckwheat our bag of USDA organic buckwheat came labeled "Product of China."  For a number of fairly obvious reasons this made it clear to us that the challenges and costs of growing crops like buckwheat, dry beans and peas, a full assortment of grain crops, the feed for our animals... were worth taking on, and for the first time last year, although we failed to harvest as much as we hoped, we did harvest enough buckwheat to meet all our own family's needs.  We hope to learn from some of last year's failures and harvest enough to supply all our Full Farm CSA members this year, but in any case, buckwheat represents many of the common grains and grain products (rice, oatmeal, boxed breakfast cereals...) that as a category are simply left out of the whole local-organic food movement.
  We'd like you all to especially consider that while things like buckwheat and tortillas and the wheat that goes into making bread and the feed that goes into making pork... are things that are easy to overlook when there are lots of exciting local foods to focus on instead, the crops on the list above (and their conventional counterparts) represent a huge part, probably a majority, of the calories we consume and the acreage of farmland we use by proxy.  They certainly represent a majority, probably a very heavy majority, of what practically everyone in the industrialized world eats (regardless of diet preferences) if you add in the foods that our family would like to grow for ourselves but so far haven't yet fully managed, things (and more common counterparts) we've mostly either done without or continued to buy from the supermarket system: very substantial amounts of feed for our poultry and eggs, salad oil, cider, beer, soy sauce, millet, oats, mustard seed, fermented sausages like salami, hard cheese...) [2017 update: we're now growing a full supply for our family of oats and mustard seed, still working to varying degrees on most of the others, except still basically just dreaming about fermented sausages.] In other words, even a local-food-super-hero consumer with unlimited time and money still couldn't eat even half of any kind of normal diet from local-organic sources, particularly not counting by calories or by one's farm acreage footprint.  We also don't see that any notable changes are likely to be made with any of the categories on our list above in the foreseeable future.
  As farmers that likely think about these issues more and understand them more deeply than most of our customers this leads us to think that if we can't do more than the local food movement is currently doing and get beyond the trajectory that the local food movement is currently on and find some realistic hope of tackling the bulk of our diet and the bulk of our farming footprint -- gradually and with time but with some kind of reasonable plan for accomplishing more than minor token changes -- then we might as well give up now.  And that's what a lot of farmers do when they content themselves with selling just profitable niche foods to rich people -- things that make a plate or a menu look good and feel local but that replace very few conventional calories or acres -- or when they resign themselves to quit farming for a living and just grow what they can for themselves.  But we really want to find hope in a real alternative; we just think hope depends on a deepening of cooperation between farmers and consumers.  If we can grow for our family and eat the foods on the above list, even if it's not feasible to sell them to the general public, we (and other small farmers that would eat a full spectrum of the same kind of food they would grow) should be able to find ways to grow a pretty full diet for those customers that share our values enough to want to cooperate deeply with us and let our way of farming re-define how they eat in the same way it has defined what our family eats and our agricultural footprint.  Increasingly this goal is the focus of what we're growing and how we're selling.