What I am learning: Tenacity

(Reposted from my post to the National Young Farmers Bootstrap Blogger Series, here: http://www.youngfarmers.org/news/2012/06/07/what-i-am-learning-tenacity/)


I was so busy with spring farming tasks, I didn’t notice that it was May until May 19th.  That day I realized it was considerably past time to flip to the next page on my Nikki McClure calendar.  This local artist (she’s from Olympia, Washington) pairs each lovely paper-cutting image in her calendars with a single word.  Sometimes the word is clearly related to the picture; sometimes it takes a little bit of thinking to make the connection.

On May 19, seeing this word and this image made me stop and catch my breath.

“Persist” is a good word to keep in mind as a new farmer.  My mid-May had been full of ups and downs with our new multi-plot urban farming business, City Grown Seattle.  Half of the time I was on cloud nine, wallowing in the beauty of healthy growing plants and a new farm enterprise with a high potential for success.  But the other half of the time I was feeling extraordinarily stressed out by things going wrong, and by the feeling that I was making many mistakes.

For example, the summer squash starts I had so lovingly raised from seed got transplanted out at exactly the right moment: just when the weather was ready for them to be planted out, they had reached that perfect stage of two true leaves and a root system that was visible but not overgrown when I popped one out of the tray to take a peek.  My heart felt happy as I nestled them into newly-tilled soil and looked back over the straight rows.

When I returned to the plot a couple days later, I was dismayed to find the squash plants wilted and dying.  I had left them under a blanket of floating row cover, thinking it would provide them a comfortable enclosure for their first few days.  Instead I had left my carefully tended seedlings to bake and smother in the captured heat of a too-insulated environment.

That same week of unexpectedly hot, dry weather (where’s the Seattle rain this year?), combined with our inability to get around to all of our plots to water often enough, resulted in poor germination on the spinach, carrot, and lettuce seeds we had sown at the beginning of May.  Arriving at a plot to discover that seeds are sprouting is a glorious thing.  Arriving to find a bed only half-germinated and spotted with weeds where spinach should be leads to dismal thoughts of lost sales and missing items in the expected farmstand offerings next month.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the negative.  Instead of seeing all the plants that are growing beautifully with no problems, I can focus only on the bits that are struggling.

Who was it that said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”?  There is always going to be something less than perfect; on the farm there are so many ways that things can go wrong.  But it turns out that there are many ways that things can go right, and many ways to make things right.  This is what we have to do as new farmers: learn to make lemonade of lemons and persist in finding ways to overcome mistakes, failures, acts of God, surprises, and challenges.  It is important to have a good plan, but it may be more important to be able to accept and adapt to divergences from that plan.

We replanted the fried squash (only maybe seven out of the 36 actually died).  Luckily we had sown more seed than the number of transplants we actually needed, so we had extras to plant in their place.  As I poked more spinach seed into the ground to fill in the gaps in those beds, I realized that now I am doing two successions in one, and perhaps this staggered sowing will enable me to get a longer harvest from the same bed.  Since we are farming on such a small scale, with space at a premium, this seems like a fairly smart way to make the best out of it.

So let us persist in overcoming each challenge as it arrives, and also let us persist in an ability to see the bigger picture and all the good that is happening in spite of the challenges.

June second will mark our first day of farmstand for City Grown’s 2012 season.  June sixth will be our first farmers’ market.  I am feeling excited, and also nervous, worrying about all the little details and hoping that our first day goes well.  But as I finished up writing this post and realized that it is almost June, I peeked forward one more page in the Nikki McClure calendar to get a little preview of what next month has in store:

Planting squash at our Community Center plot
My farm partner Noe harvesting salad

Vegetables make me smile

Two years ago (really only two years?  Seems like longer), I was this happy about harvesting vegetables on Brian’s farm:

Feeling very lucky that two years later I can repeat the photo op with first harvests from my own farm:

Check the City Grown blog for more on what we’ve been up to.   Keeping very busy & very happy.   It’s going to be a good season.

Farming and intimacy

Well that’s a titilating title.

What I want to talk about is intimacy with place — familiarity with a piece of the world and the systems that go into its use.  Becoming a farmer has made me more aware of and attuned to this intimacy.  It has also made me want to explore how we could harness this innate human ability to become experts on our particular daily surroundings and use it to stop destroying the world and instead change it for the better.

Have you ever driven the same commute so many times that you can instinctively avoid the potholes in the road and you know a slightly different route to take for  maximum efficiency by turning right at a particular light if it is red when you get to it?  Have you ever walked the same route so frequently that when a certain front yard gets mowed it stands out to you as clearly as if your significant other came home with a buzz cut?  Have you lived in the same home for enough seasons that you can predict what week the crocuses are going to come up?  Then you know what I’m talking about, and you can imagine that farming a piece of ground leads to a familiarity even more heightened than any of these.

Farmers know their land and their systems like the proverbial backs of their hands.  That low spot over there holds moisture, that slight South-facing slope heats up more, one field has sandier soil than the others.  Because of the work they do, these individuals have observed, stood upon, sat on, and literally stuck their hands into, most every square foot of their 5 or 40 or 100 acre farms.  It has been a joy to me working on farms alongside the farmers that have worked them for many seasons, absorbing that delicious awareness of contour, vegetation, fertility, and overall feel of the place.

Wendell Berry, the quintessential farmer-author, conveys this sense all the time in his fiction.  His characters are farming families who move about their land in a way that implicitly portrays this intimacy.  Berry writes about it more explicitly in his non-fiction.  I found a passage from Berry’s 1992 book Conservation is Good Work where he writes about understanding the natural world as real places and not an abstract “The Environment.”  The passage begins:

No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.”  The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people. “

Becoming  familiar with the farm places the way I did made me realize that I can extrapolate this over to other arenas.   I am noticing and enjoying an increasing familiarity that comes with time spent in many types of situations.  I love the feeling of “owning” new places and feeling competent with the new tasks that come along with each of them.  The passage I quoted from Wendell Berry continues on to say,

The real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is “work.”

Generally our work, the way we make our living, is an area in which we display our expertise and familiarity.  When I worked computers, I now realize I had an intimacy with the online “place” where our code lived and worked.  Knowing the directory structure and where to find a particular function that made the device do a certain thing was an intimacy.  Now, after a couple months at Trader Joe’s I have gotten to a level of competency and understanding of the systems that make the store run.  In farming, it is a familiarity with land and how things grow.  Lately it’s been hitting me forcefully how many little centers of intimacy there are in the world.  As I rode my bike home from work, I was thinking about how familiar I am with this trail now.  And then I noticed Dunn Lumber off to my right and realized, there are people for whom that lumberyard is their sphere of expertise.  And suddenly the whole world become populated with people and their unique intimacies.  Wendell Berry even mentions this next:

We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another.”

Expertise is a wonderful phenomenon: I have my thing and you have yours, and we can help each other out.  If I find myself needing <lumber/seafood/auto repair> I can visit my <lumberyard/fishmonger/mechanic> and benefit from their intimacy with their own bit of the system instead of having to <cut down a tree/cast a line into the ocean/I don’t even know> on my own.  But even within a particular area of expertise, real intimacy means that I understand my exact individual system inside and out and do my best to make it run exactly as perfectly as it can.

The name of our proper connection to the earth is “good work.” It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing.  Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places.  Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.”

The thing about intimacy with place is that no two places are exactly the same.  The closest you could probably get is two McDonalds’ or two Wal-Marts, and those types of places have worked hard for uniformity.  But no two Trader Joe’s are the same, no two houses are the same, and, way down at the opposite and of the similarity spectrum, no two farms are even remotely the same.

The problem is that America’s idealizing of mass production and “understanding via uniformity” has led to a desire for farms to become business- or science-type entities that can be treated as all being the same.  Everybody should till with the same tractor on the same date and plant the same genetically engineered corn seed and spray it with the same pesticides and harvest it on the same day and get the same number of bushels per acre, and that will be a failsafe way to grow corn.  And then we’ll  just take corn and modify it to become everything we need to eat and then all we’ll need to grow is all this same corn.  No more need for messing around with various types of crops (not to mention varieties within types), or different cultivation techniques — it’s not an improvement to our perfect system unless it will help us grow more corn off the same amount of land.

It turns out, of course, that this does not work.  This system is failing us, in ways too numerous to detail.  America’s system of agriculture needs to be radically changed and getting bigger and more uniform is NOT the direction it needs to go.

“But how will we feed the world?”  This is invariably what comes up if you breathe a word against conventional agriculture.  “If the farmers quit growing Monsanto corn and start futzing around with specialty crops and heirloom this-and-that, what about the starving children?  We should just follow what Monsanto tells us about how to grow — they have the science around these things figured out so that we can maximize crop production.”  Well, do they?

Last fall at the Tilth Producers conference, I was lucky enough to attend a very inspirational keynote presentation by Dr. Miguel Altieri from U.C. Berkley, about his study of Agroecology in Latin America.  “Agroecology” was a new term for me, and his presentation was powerful because it addressed the above question in a new way.  I gained some new insight into how the world somehow survived during all those thousands of years before non-Monsanto agriculture.

From Wikipedia: “Agroecology is the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals and the management of agroecosystems.  It is a multidisciplinary study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment within agricultural systems. Agroecology is not defined by certain management practices, nor do agroecologists unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture but instead assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with natural, social and human assets. Agroecology proposes a context- or site-specific manner of studying agroecosystems, and as such, it recognizes that there is no universal formula or recipe for the success and maximum well-being of an agroecosystem.”

Agroecology, among other things, talks about farming with a sense of place.

What I gained out of Dr. Altieri’s talk is: there is research showing that peasant farmers in Latin America are growing crops with production levels matching or beating the yields that can be produced by American megafarms.  And these small farmers have been doing this on their land through the generations for hundreds of years.  Whereas America’s cornfield is unarguably depleting the soil and toxifying our environment, these native farming practices exemplify true sustainability AND let me repeat that the evidence shows they are high enough yielding per acre to feed people equally as well.  How are they doing it?  By maximizing their intimacy with their place.   Dr. Altieri’s talk went into some fascinating specifics of locales that have developed new crop varieties over generations, or have determined that it’s best to inter-plant two specific types of crops together, or have placed different crops at different altitudes on their steep, terraced slopes.  But the basic summary was that these farmers know their land and grow according to their specific micro-ecosystem.  Additionally, they create RESILIENCY in their farming systems by increasing DIVERSITY so that if weather wipes out one crop, they have another to fall back on.  This is the opposite of what American farming has come to.  Mono-cropping corn and soy has CREATED the need for increasingly terrifying pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  Wendell Berry says,

The name of our present society’s connection to the earth is “bad work” – work that is only generally and crudely defined, that enacts a dependence that is ill understood, that enacts no affection and gives no honor.”

The question is, have we completely lost our connection to our place?  The Native Americans had it, and we revere the story of Squanto et al saving the settlers from starvation because they knew the proper techniques to make things grow in this place that the Europeans didn’t understand yet.  But we quickly overrode those native traditions.  Modern farmers are still in touch with the quirks of their tracts of land.  But modern agriculture teaches them to ignore their site-specifics and just follow formulas, or at best to use that familiarity to work the situation their superficial current advantage.  Can we instead use agroecological principles work our situation to actually *be* better, for others, for the land, and for the long-term future?  Wendell, take us out:

Every one of us is to some extent guilty of this bad work. This guilt does not mean that we must indulge in a lot of breast-beating and confession; it means only that there is much good work to be done by every one of us and that we must begin to do it.”

Mission, Vision, and Goals. And Construction.

Here’s a little of the stuff that has been keeping me occupied since we started our new urban farming business at the beginning of 2012.

On the business development side, I have now signed an L.L.C. Operating Agreement,  used my U.B.I. to open a bank account, bought fertilizer using an Agrigultural Reseller Permit, ordered business cards, and learned that I have absolutely no idea how to do accounting.

On the physical labor and general ruggedness side: I have been using the heck out of that drill my Grandfather gave me (hey Grampa)!  I now know to ask for self-tapping screws at the hardware store.  I am getting comfortable using a miter saw.  Oh, and I drive a truck now.  That’s a new thing.  I used my new truck to drive 500 lbs of ground limestone, 250 lbs of organic chicken manure fertilizer, and 10 cubic feet of potting soil home from the agricultural supply store in Snohomish.

On the actual farming side, I don’t really have that much to brag about yet.  Haven’t grown anything yet.  But I have been digging around in the dirt a lot, and at this point I can at least fake it that I know what I’m talking about when examining soil as to whether it has a high proportion of sand or clay as opposed to being a silty loam!

Overall, I’ve been learning how to be my own boss.  It’s about finding the right balance between talk and action.  My business partners Noe and Scott and I have been having plenty of three-hour planning meetings where we talk about all the myriad of things that need to happen for our business to move forward into a moneymaking phase.   There are lots of pieces that need to come together, and they all need to be talked through, but if you spend too much time talking about them, you won’t have enough time to actually get them done.  At some point you need to follow up on your planning, turn your talk into action, and then be ready to adjust if/when realities don’t match up with your hypotheticals.

For one example, take a single crop of the 25 or so that we’ve decided we want to grow this year.  Onions – if we want to harvest them in September, we need to start them from seed in February.  Oh wait, it is February.  Good thing we bought those seeds back in January.  But  we need to have a place to plant those seeds where they will germinate and thrive even in the February cold.  We need a greenhouse.  Then it’s about tracing that need back through all the steps that need to happen to get us there and mapping out a plan.  First decide on dimensions and design.  Then source and buy materials and recruit extra hands to help build.  Then go outside and actually build, navigating little hurdles like not enough screws and drills running out of batteries.  Take an extra few days to finish up the greenhouse end walls and create a table for the plant starts to sit on.  And then finally, plant the seeds.  And then follow up!  You’re not done as soon as the seeds are in the ground.  It’s only after planting that you might realize that the greenhouse is not actually warm enough to germinate seeds right now, so now you’re buying heat mats and insulation to add some extra degrees F.  The reward is now, 7 days after planting, the seeds are up and growing.   Yay!  Quick pause to smile and celebrate with Noe as we check on them and see the green needles poking up out of the soil in the trays.  Then it’s on to the next step, keeping those little sprouts healthy.  And starting the next round of crops – tomatoes in a week, brassicas and lettuce a few weeks after that.  And simultaneously prepping the ground that they will eventually be transplanted into so that it’s ready and waiting at the proper time.  We have time to add compost to the plots right now, but Noe and Scott tell me that it’s too early from a fertility perspective — the winter rains will just wash the nutrients down and out into the Puget Sound, nullifying our work and expense and potentially polluting at the same time.  So I, the eager beaver, have to wait until Noe gives me the go-ahead that the ground is warm enough that those little soil microbes will wake up out of their winter slumber and be ready to chew up our added compost and lock its nutrients into the ground for our plants’ exclusive usage.  Or at least that’s what I envision them doing.  This is what’s great about having a team of three.   Each of us contributes a different skill set and background, so although none of us is an experienced farmer, by sharing the little bits of proper management that we each know, as a whole we hopefully have enough smarts to get enough of this farming thing right.

For me it’s super great to be able to draw on both of my prior two years of apprenticeship experience as I feel my way through each farming decision as it comes up.   I am constantly thinking back and remembering, How did Brian do this particular thing?  How did Betsey?  How did the dudes at Oxbow?  Sometimes I go with one mentor’s system and sometimes another; sometimes neither works for our particular situation, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to realize that both past farms did the same thing so I can be pretty sure that way is right 🙂  I am also lucky to have those former mentors to ask questions that come up.   For example I mentioned driving my truck to the agricultural supply store.  A month ago we were wondering, where do farmers go shopping?  A quick email to Betsey revealed that all farmers in the Puget Sound region shop at this one store in Snohomish.  They don’t have a website, only a catalog from 2009, and you have to know what to ask for when you walk in the door or else they will look down upon you as a pesky home gardener.   But they will have your greenhouse plastic in stock and very cheap prices on the best quality potting soil.   So now we know.

But I can’t ask Betsey about every little thing.   Making decisions all by myself about things like crop varieties to grow, planting dates, application rates for amendments, etc, is scary the first time through.  But it’s what I wanted.  It’s that step out of the safety net of following a boss’ instructions into the unknown of living with the consequences of your own choices.  I am not good at making quick decisions — my Libra nature can always see both sides! — and I usually spend far too long over-analyzing and deliberating on even the smallest choice between two options.  But the need to move things along with this business is helping me work on that.  I feel good each time I am able to make myself just say “okay, let’s go for it,” even if I am just saying that out loud to Noe and Scott while inside my head is saying “oh but wait, what if we did this other thing instead, would that be better in any way?”   I think working with Scott is helping me with this.  He has a “just get it done” attitude that is a good balance with my and Noe’s general attitude of detail-oriented pre-planning.

As if it were not enough to take on starting a new business, I am also newly elected to my first ever board of directors this year.   I grew up with my Dad always being on one Board or another, and I’m glad to be following his example of volunteering some time out of my life to go “do the people’s business” as he would say.  But it feels like a lot — with a more than half time “real job,” a more than half time farming job, a couple of volunteer organizations to keep up with, and trying to be a contributing roommate/animal husbander at this awesome house I live in, my social life is sure to suffer 😉

But it’s going to be an exciting year for City Grown and for me personally.   So far it has been continually challenging and fun.  I hope to keep finding time to blog about it although I may soon move some of my writing over to a potential blog on the City Grown site itself.  Thanks, blog readers, for reading and commenting.  The point of the City Grown venture is to grow food for our community, so if you’re reading this I hope to see you at the farm!

On being a software engineer / farmer

I recently started at a new job.  The existential crisis I experienced upon accepting this new position, although brief, was a bit enlightening for me regarding how I see myself and how societal stereotypes about career and class influence us all.

Going back in time a bit, I had a quite reasonable phase of career-change related insecurity at the start of my first apprenticeship on Bainbridge.  I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted into that farming community, coming to it as I did as a complete outsider from the completely different world of software development.  I worried that my car was too nice, I didn’t know the farming terminology, I wouldn’t know how to relate to the types of people I might meet.

It turned out that yes, my car was too nice.  🙂  But the other worries were groundless — the types of people I met at the farms on Bainbridge were without exception wonderful, caring, and completely accepting of who I was at that moment.  Who I was was a young person in transition into finding myself.  I wasn’t a farmer and I didn’t have to pretend to be one.  I was interested in learning about farming and that was perfectly fine.  This contrasted with how I had often felt about myself while working software – that I wasn’t truly an engineer at heart and I was kind of pretending to be one.

The next thing that happened was I got more comfortable being a farm worker, but I didn’t know if this was a real transition or just a temporary thing.  I remember going to the dentist sometime in the middle of the Bainbridge experience and having to fill out that sheet that asks you your occupation.  I didn’t know what to put.  And then I started thinking about how they might judge me depending on what I wrote.  If I put “computer programmer” versus “farm apprentice,” would they treat me a certain way?

All of a sudden I was noticing a class divide that I had never really given much thought to before.  A person’s occupation, and the various things that come along with that, are a huge influence in the person’s own life but also in how that person is viewed by strangers.  Insurance or lack thereof, personal appearance, and regularity/dependability of cashflow are some of the pieces that can become apparent to outsiders and can lead them to judge your intellegence, ability, importance, etc. without really knowing anything about you.

Take personal appearance.   I grew up in a quite middle of the road, middle-class family in the midwest, and I have never been a super sleek, manicured and groomed, professional type.  But I got pretty used to being able to blend right in at a nice restaurant, for instance.  As a farmer, (or carpenter, or auto mechanic), your work clothes can tell an outsider exactly what kind of labor you do for a living.  In one example, I go pick up my prescription at Costco in my grubby farm clothes after work.  I don’t have insurance to pay for the medicine, and as I get my cash out I imagine I feel the cashier perceiving me as poor – which I am, I guess.  I want to tell her, “you can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m actually capable of being way above you, you’re cashiering at Costco for crying out loud.”  But there I go, doing exactly what I don’t want her to do.  In my prior life, when software developer Becky went to pick up her prescription for a $10 copay with her insurance card, she didn’t think about these things because there was an intrinsic assumption that I was well off and the lady behind the pharmacy counter was some nameless person with no college education who ate McDonalds for every meal.  Obviously I didn’t think or care about the unconscious classism I was guilty of, until I felt myself on the other side of the equation.

A couple weeks ago my housemates and I had a breakfast table discussion about these exact issues.  Why is it that a certain type of knowledege is being valued so highly above so many other types in our world?   Roomie Lauren’s dad has a PhD in some kind of sciencey thing but has worked his whole life as a contractor builder and a fishing boat captain.  People who meet him based on his line of work are surprised at his level of intelligence and scholarship.   We all do it — make assumptions about peoples’ IQ or level of education based on their job.  An electrician, builder, or plumber is assumed to be less smart than an engineering type.   But would those of us who make these judgements know how to construct, wire, or plumb a house or public building?  These “skilled trades,” like farming, are critical elements of our world, but they are no longer being valued or emphasized in schools or by society.  We view a college degree as being hugely important, and of course I am glad I have one, but maybe you don’t need one if one of these trades is your passion.  These jobs take physical ability and real-world understanding rather than (or in addition to) book-learning.  They are the kinds of things you have to learn at least partially by apprenticeship, watching a mentor, and by doing.

I now feel certain that what I want is to make my living by growing vegetables.  But since I’m not there yet, I have to do other work in the meantime.  I tried to fit software back in as a part-time money-earner, but it’s not feeling right.  I have to give too much of myself to that type of work, and at this point I’m far too rusty at it to be asking a company to give me a special custom-made part-time position.  So instead I started looking to find jobs within the food system, the area that I’m now much more comfortable working in.  I got an interview and immediately got hired at Trader Joe’s.  I should have been thrilled, and I kind of was, but I was also kind of appalled at the hourly rate that was offered – about 1/3 or 1/4 of what I could make at a software contract.  I realized I have this sense of entitlement regarding what I “deserve” to be making.  Another thing I felt was worry about telling my engineer type friends about the new work and having them look down on me.   What kind of stigma would come along with working retail?  This is the kind of job I used to get when I was home from college over summer break.  I have a college degree now; I could be doing way better for myself.  I’m over these feelings now, but they were real and intense when I got the phone call with the job offer.

When I started farming I was afraid that I would seem too white-collar.  Now I have the opposite concern.   As I meet all the new colleagues at Trader Joe’s and they ask me what I did before, I hear myself making sure to mention the software work in addition to the farming.  My ego clings to wanting to project that I am smart enough to do something else but that I am blue-collar “by choice” right now.  It’s silly.  And as it turns out, many of these folks at TJ’s are in the same boat.  Todd is a former psychiatrist.  Robert has a degree in biochemistry.  Many of them have been at Trader Joe’s for 3 or 5 or 7 years because it’s flexible, fun, has great healthcare benefits, and doesn’t consume your life outside of work.

Then there is the related issue of actually living and managing my money in all of these various job personas.  I think my years in the ultra high paying software industry had warped my view of how much money one needs to earn to make one’s way in the world.  I couldn’t have imagined living on a low hourly wage based on my living expenses back then.  I couldn’t have imagined giving up some of the nice things and expensive hobbies that were then easy to pay for.  Then my two years of farm apprenticeship swung me in the opposite direction: my lower-than-minimum wage stipend made every $5 purchase worthy of deep consideration and honed my bargain-hunting and freebie-nabbing skills.  It was really good for me to learn how to live frugally.  Now it’s time to find the balance between those two extremes.  I don’t want to have to postpone going to the dentist until I have more money because it costs $150. But I also don’t want to be unaware of how  much going to the dentist costs because I’ve never had to actually pay for it before.

It is a really good thing for me if I don’t/can’t solve every problem by just throwing money at it.   It makes me engage with life more and live more deliberately.  (Biggest example here is riding my bike to get places in the city instead of driving everywhere.  I LOVE it.  But the price of gas is a big factor in reminding me to ride even when the weather’s not perfect or there is a hill involved.)  Having less money may be the only way to force myself to live more frugally and thoughtfully and creatively.  But on the other side of the coin, it’s nice having some cushion — you’ve gotta have enough money to solve major problems when needed.  I was definitely walking the fine line here when my car got broken into this fall; I was feeling pretty tight at the end of my intern season and to have to unexpectedly replace several even moderately costly items hit hard just then.  It made me realize that so many people in the world live right on this brink all the time.  All those folks working minimum wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, maybe with credit card debt, maybe with kids to take care of — one or two little things go wrong and their whole life can fall apart very quickly.  Meanwhile there are software engineers and investment bankers, some fresh out of college, making six figures and spending it on giant big screen TV’s.  And I mean, they earn their money.  They can spend it how they want.  I’m not sure what my point is here.  It’s just things I’ve been noticing as I straddle these different career/job worlds.

Unveiling my new farm adventure

Now that I have a whole two seasons of apprenticeship under my belt, I’m obviously ready to start my very own farm!

I bought a truck, now I’m ready to go, right?

Well, ready or not it’s happening in 2012.  I’ve been neglecting my blog lately because I’ve been busy scheming and dreaming about next season.  I wanted to fill you in a little about my thoughts, but in lieu of a blog post I added this page to the “My Farms” section of this website that is basically a blog post about my new farm, City Grown Seattle.  Click this link to go read it!

Why organic?

I’ve been learning Organic growing practices on my farms these last two seasons.  I thought I should go into Organic a little bit and explain why I think  it’s important.  Many people I talk to seem to have a poor opinion of organic or don’t understand why one would want to use organic practices.  I want to explain why I value organic and would prefer to see organic practices, both at a home gardening level and at a commercial farming level.

First of all, what does organic really mean?  Organic food is that which has been grown without the use of chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.  It is also not genetically modified – more about that later.  Fertilizers can be used on organic farms (in fact they are a highly critical ingredient), but they are made of things like ground up mineral rocks, composted animal manure, bone meal, kelp, and etc.  They cannot be petroleum-based or man-made compounds.  There are some organic pesticide sprays as well, made from things like dried flowers or elemental Sulfur.  However, even though these are technically classified as organic, many (most?) organic growers choose not to employ them and instead rely on techniques like crop rotation, trap crops, cover cropping, and fostering beneficial insects as predators, as ways to reduce pest outbreaks.

Organic practices, when used correctly, make the soil richer and a more hospitable place for growth.  The soils are more likely to be balanced, contain micronutrients, trace elements, and healthy bacteria and fungi.  Non-organic chemical pest control tends to kill off all the healthy soil life in addition to the targeted pests.  Therefore land that has been hit with chemical pesticides repeatedly tends to develop *more* harmful outbreaks because there are no beneficials there to protect against them.   Non-organic chemical fertilizers tend to be a heavy-handed dose of Nitrogen to give plants a short-lived growth spurt but they *imbalance* the soil and over time make it a less hospitable and diverse environment.  This is basically what people mean when they use the word “sustainable.”  A blanket statment with lots of room for qualifications is that good organic practices are more likely to be sustainable indefinitely, whereas conventional practices get you good crop once or twice and then require more and more inputs as the soil gets worse and worse.  Think about the meaning of the word sustainable.  Why would we want to do something unsustainable if a sustainable option is there?  Well, because the sustainable option requires more work and the unsustainable option is easy.  Easy, though, for now.  Eventually, following unsustainable practices is going to make for an awful lot of work.  Can we not think ahead and realize that unsustainable literally means it’s not going to work forever.  Can we not buckle down and do the work required to do it right the first time?

Back to organics, though.  The place where fertilizers and pesticides and other growing practices are classified as organic is within the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Organic Standards.  Farms that wish to call themselves Certified Organic must be certified annually by one of several approved certification groups.  They must show various forms of documentation and pay a fee for this certification.

As I mentioned before, many organic farmers choose to follow their own sense of best practices instead of doing everything allowable by the organic standards.  Similarly, many (most?) of the farms that I know of that are following organic practices are not Certified Organic.  These farmers are not willing to pay the money and jump through the hoops required to gain the USDA certification.  They prefer to make their good farming practices transparent to their consumers in the hope that those consumers will buy from them without the official stamp of approval.

On the other side of the coin, much of the organic produce you can buy in the grocery store comes from “Big Organic” suppliers.  These are huge farms, mainly in California, who, in my opinion at least, follow the letter of the Organic law instead of the spirit.  Although I haven’t worked on a farm like this, it is my understanding that the produce may not be all that different from conventional.  It is still industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture.  Grocery store organic, therefore, is good in a pinch but is not the produce I would generally choose to buy.  “Real organic” (again, my opinion), comes from the farmers market *or* your local food co-op type store.  In Seattle, PCC and Madison Market are the go-to places.  Any store that indicates the name of the farm where items were grown, rather than just the region, is going to be your supplier of the real goods.  I would recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food for a more eloquent description of Big Organic.

Let me take a little tangent now and relate something interesting I noticed when I was home in Michigan last August.  Of course the agriculture there is all corn and soy just like the rest of the midwest.  These are the two giants of the industrial crops – produced for animal feed as well as to be broken down into their biological components and made into food additives like lecithin, mono- and di-glycerides, and xanthan gum.  Yes, these are all corn or soy — I looked them up.   Anyway, I was intimately familiar with Michigan’s corn/soy landscape from my childhood, and I remember being aware that the fields surrounding our neighborhood were sometimes corn and sometimes soybeans.  Crop rotation was being practiced, at least on a very minimal level.  But this time, I noticed something funny – all the soybean fields had scattered cornstalks poking out of them.

Why is this funny?  It’s just last year’s corn coming back as a weed in this year’s soybean field.  Well, the funny – or scary – part is that there were no other weeds there.  The soybeans were growing out of bare ground except for the cornstalks popping up here and there.  I might not have noticed this except for the fact that I am now familiar with how the fields look on the organic vegetable farms I’ve been working at.  There are weeds everywhere.  Nature abhors a blank space, and everywhere vegetables are not, there are “natural” plants (i.e. weeds) coming in to compete.  As farmers it is our job to keep the weeds to a minimum at critical times for the vegetable to germinate and grow.  We do this using hoes, our hands, and sometimes the tractor.  Other times it is our job to make peace with the fact that the weeds are there — as long as they are not outcompeting our vegetables, the presence of these plants shows that our soil is fertile.

In conventional Ag, however, weeding is done with herbicides.  These chemicals kill off the weed plants so the farmer doesn’t have to do it by hand.  How come the chemicals kill only the weeds and not the vegetables?  You might well ask.  They’re both plants, aren’t they?  Well in some cases, the chemicals can be targeted to kill only seeds that have emerged and not unsprouted ones, so these could be applied when the vegetable seeds are first planted and before they have emerged.  In other cases, as with the soybean fields I noticed, the vegetable plants are made to be resistant to the chemicals so the chemicals can be applied while the vegetables are fully grown and will kill only the weeds.   The way they are made resistant is by genetic modification — insertion or deletion of genes from their DNA.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) is a term that I’d like you to learn if you haven’t already.

Monsanto produces “Roundup-Ready” GMO corn and soybeans.  This means that the DNA of these plants has been genetically modified — in this particular case it has had a gene from a bacterium inserted — in such a way that it becomes resistant to Roundup (Monsanto’s trademarked name for its potent herbicide composed mainly of the chemical glyphosate).  Are you tracking with me here?  You can now spray your soybean field with this toxic chemical that will kill every type of plant growing there except for the soybeans.   You can buy the chemical, and the seed that resists it, only from Monsanto which has patented both.

Seeing the stray corn plants in the otherwise weed-free soybean fields all across Michigan freaked me out because I was unmistakeably seeing Monsanto’s takeover with my own eyes.  These farmers had grown Roundup-Ready corn the year before in the fields that they were now using for Roundup-Ready soybeans.  When they doused their fields with Roundup this spring, it killed all the weeds and made the soil an inhospitable place for more weeds to grow.  There’s nothing there except soybeans — except for those corn plants that sprouted from last year’s fallen seed and are now growing there as weeds.  They’re GMO’s with the Roundup Ready gene too.

Doesn’t this just seem wrong at a very basic level?  I’m sure there are scientific studies on both sides (and how many of the studies showing Roundup does no harm are funded by Monsanto?) But isn’t it just common sense to think that 1) spraying large quantities of a chemical that kills things onto farmland is probably not good for the land or the people spraying it, and 2) vegetables that have been made able to withstand the spraying of this killer chemical and then doused with it multiple times might be a strange and unnatural thing to eat?

GMO food crops were first planted in the United States in 1996. In 2010 in the US, 93% of the planted area of soybeans, 93% of cotton, 86% of corn and 95% of the sugar beet were genetically modified varieties. (Wikipedia).

Zero in 1995.  Ninety percent in  2010.  Isn’t this unrestrained skyrocket to complete dominance of a never-before-seen organism a little scary, too?  I feel pretty sure that we were growing a hell of a lot of corn pretty darn well before 1996.  The rest of the world is taking a more measured approach to GMO’s.  Other countries, most notably the European Union,  whose governments are not controlled by Monsanto (sorry, perhaps this is the leftist propaganda getting to me), have banned various types of GMO seeds or have banned importation of GMO crops or require labelling, etc.

Not so the US.  If you’re in America eating a non-organic product containing corn or soy, or restaurant food that was cooked in corn or soybean or canola oil, you’re almost assuredly eating genetically modified food.  However, something important that I learned recently is, Organic (basically) Equals GMO-free.  I’m sure there are trace amounts or exceptions or whatever, but the organic standards say that organics can’t contain GMO’s.  These days I really do only buy organic corn chips and tofu because I really have decided that GMO crops is a practice I don’t want to support.

Everything about it just seems wrong — what about the patenting of seeds?  What about the fact that repeated applications of Roundup has now been shown to be creating weeds that have evolved resistance to this killer chemical?  These are whole big issues in themselves.  You can find plenty of information on GMO’s that will make it much clearer than anything I can explain here.   This statement from The Non-GMO Project is a good one to start with.  I like this bullet point from that document:

The scientifically demonstrated risks and clear absence of real benefits have led experts to see GM as a clumsy, outdated technology. They present risks that we need not incur, given the availability of effective, scientifically proven,
energy-efficient and safe ways of meeting current and future global food needs.

I believe that we as a society know what good farming and good food looks like.   We just choose to try to find ways to get around the fact that farming is hard and requires knowledge and skill.  We choose instead to attempt to outsmart nature by using heavy handed agricultural practices like thousand-acre monocultures, government subsidized commodity crops, GMOs and chemical controls.  These practices are not sustainable; they are a shameful mismanagement and misuse of our land and our farmers’ hard work;  and they result in a strange and off-balance food system that has totally perverted what we recognize as food and is making us fat and unhealthy.

Non-organic agriculture has only been widely practiced from the 20th century on.  It’s pure propaganda that calls non-organic “conventional” as it has only been conventionally done that way in the last 100 years.   My grandmother remembers the milkman and butcher coming around with deliveries, for goodness sake.  There’s local, small-scale, organic for you- but it didn’t have to call itself that.  It was just food.  Imagine how different that milk and meat was from what passes for the same items today.  I believe that we need to rescue our food system, not by bringing it back exactly to the way it used to be, but by bringing back a lot of the old time-tested elements and doing our best to ensure that we use our great amount of knowledge and technology wisely.

I believe that changes can happen as more and more people are currently recognizing the problems and making themselves knowledgeable about how to fix them.  I also believe that individual consumers who don’t care to get involved in food politics can still make small changes to their food-buying habits that will begin to have a big influence on restoring sanity to America’s food problem.  See if you can make some small steps; you don’t have to go “whole hog” (as it were) right off the bat.  Here’s what I would say about what to eat, starting with the best options:

1. Food you grow and raise (organically) yourself

2. Food you buy from producers you know and whose farms you have seen

3. Food you buy from any vendor at your farmers market (I believe it’s safe to assume the market management has some knowledge about the producers’ practices, and I support small and local over and above Certified Organic,  so I buy from market vendors even if they’re not Certified Organic)

4. Food you buy from a local co-op type grocery store (These tend to carry a lot of “real” organics and thoughtfully-chosen non-organics, plus are fun to shop at once you get used to them)

5. Food you buy from a restaurant that cooks from scratch and lists local/organic sources of meat and produce

6. Organic food you buy from a supermarket or food you buy from a restaurant that’s listed on the menu as organic (unusual)

7. (If you care about GMO’s): Non-organic food from a supermarket that doesn’t contain any corn, soy, or sugarbeet-derived ingredients.  Food you buy in a restaurant that hasn’t been cooked in corn, soybean, or canola oil.

Whew.  Okay.  Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts, and happy eating.