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.

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