As we continue to work toward our goal of running a successful small farm, we’ve moved into a second stage of development: Divide and Conquer. While Christina is traveling around the US, charming butchers and market managers and scouting the surrounding area for livability and unmet demand for the products we want to produce, I’m learning how to produce these things at the kind of scale we’ll need to survive. It’s tough to be apart during this important phase in our lives (and right before we get married to boot), but we don’t want to spend years searching for a new home and we decided that this was the fastest way to make progress.
So until Thanksgiving I’m working as an apprentice at Fickle Creek Farm near Durham, North Carolina. While it’s still a small farm, Fickle Creek is pretty big. We’re nearly 300 acres spread across several properties, and active at five markets year round. But what’s best about Fickle Creek is that it’s so diversified. Similar to the way Christina and I have spread out the responsibility of our farm project, here at Fickle Creek we have a variety of products to minimize risk and spread out the workload. Everything here is dual purpose: the ducks lay eggs and eat slugs from dormant garden beds, the pigs eliminate invasive weeds while stuffing their snouts to make our bacon, and the sheep keep the grass at bay while pumping out a few lambs every spring. It’s one big organism.
It can be tempting to say that we want to just get really good at doing one or two things. But that’s not realistic for small farmers. We need to be good at ten things so that if one of them fails it doesn’t bring the ship down with it. And animals are very good at the few things they know how to do. If you provide them with a few basic things, they’ll work for you rather than you working for them. It takes a heckuva lot of planning and careful execution, but the reward is a life of pride in what you do.
It’s taken a lot of patience for us to get this far, but it finally feels like we’re moving forward on a plan that’s now been years in the making. Updates here will be less frequent than in the past, but stay tuned. Big things are happening.
“I eat local!”
“I don’t eat GMOs.”
“I only buy USDA organic!”
“I eat exclusively certified humane, grass fed, free range, no-spray, fresh and seasonal.”
I hear this stuff a lot. It’s great that people are thinking about their food, it’s just that all these labels can be misleading at best, and plain old criminal at worst. For example, did you know that meat from factory confinement farms (yes, the ones with the horrible conditions for animals) can be labeled USDA Organic? (Source: §205.239(b) and (c))
As we plan our farm venture we’re going to have to pick a path to follow regarding organic certification, and of course, it’s a tangled web of bureaucracy and paperwork. But the research has taught me a lot about the food that I buy and how easy it is for producers to misrepresent their food with labels. On the flip side, if you’re dogmatic about labels you’re going to miss out on a lot of great food because small farmers can’t or won’t jump through the hoops of the food police. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:
USDA Organic: The big one, you probably recognize it. Has a lot of good intentions, but a lot of loopholes. Given the choice of two products equal in every way but one labeled USDA Organic I’d buy it the organic one every time, but I don’t treat this designation as gospel because it’s difficult and expensive for small farmers to be USDA certified. I’d rather buy from a local producer that doesn’t abide by the letter of the organic law than a big monoculture farm that’s figured out how to evade the regulations.
Certified Naturally Grown: This is from a third-party, non-government organization, and the onus of policing is on the customer and other farmers. Its’ code is based on the USDA Organic regulations, but calls for a specific minimum number of days on pasture, while the USDA’s is full of loopholes. CNG certification is tailored for the small farmer that can’t afford USDA certification but still raises plants and animals responsibly: “To be granted the CNG certification, farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”
I treat CNG products as equal or better to USDA Organic products, simply because I’d rather buy from the little guys and take them at their word.
Animal Welfare Approved: The “gold standard” for meat and animal products according to their website, AWA is a great option if you can find their food at a reasonable price. Their slaughter standard is particularly stringent, as well as their free range requirement, but the big difference here is enforcement. While CNG is community-policed, AWA conducts regular audits.
Non-GMO Project Verified: This is a somewhat creative workaround to the “Label GMOs!” campaigns that have failed in the past few years, but again it doesn’t tell the whole story. Just because something doesn’t contain GMOs it doesn’t mean that the product is healthy or good. In fact, I just ate far too many GMO-free potato chips and now I’m feeling a little nauseous.
A somewhat obvious question is: why should the responsibility of labeling be on the producers that don’t include GMOs, rather than those that do? Should we accept food with GMOs as the norm? In this case, telling me what isn’t in a product is counter-productive.
I could go on all day, but you get the point. There are a lot of labels being thrown around in this arena and its tough to know who to trust. But! (There’s always a “but”) The answer is simple and easy: see for yourself. Buy directly from the farm or go to a market and talk to your farmer. Look her in the eye and ask the questions that matter to you. I think you’ll learn a lot, and find some really tasty, nutritious food.
I can’t believe we’ve been in Spain for a month already! With the help of very patient locals and the iPhone app, Duolingo, I’ve gone from being able to ask for a glass of wine to being able to talk about the pros and cons of NYC public schools, GMOs, and how to make cookies entirely in Spanish. Granted, I can only speak in the present tense and say things like “I much like it very.”
Our time in Spain has been split between cities that make my heart sing and rural towns where we have been climbing or working. We spent a long weekend in Barcelona, a few weeks climbing in central Spain, then up to San Sebastian in the Basque country where we ate everything in sight, and have spent the past two weeks on a farm outside of Segovia. Work, play, eat. Work, play, eat. In our opinion, that is the most satisfying way to travel.
In the last year I have:
Served as a guest judge in a lamb competition.
Delivered pizzas while loudly singing along to classic rock radio.
Learned a variety of food preservation techniques including fermentation, curing, dehydrating, and jarring.
Relaxed in natural, mud-bottomed hot pools after a seven-hour trek across treacherous swing bridges.
Learned how to make butter, cheese, bread, and whiskey (kind of).
Spent hundreds of hours climbing the schist cliffs around Wanaka and the limestone boulders of Castle Hill.
Failed (twice) to solve very simple problems with our van, which in my defense was of legal drinking age in the US.
Saw the sunrise on Mt. Cook/Aoraki with avalanches falling on peaks around me.
Harvested oysters, mussels, and red snapper from the ocean.
Learned how to skin, gut, and butcher poultry, small game, goats, and pigs for consumption.
Met dozens of new friends from all over the world (England, Australia, Argentina, Germany, France, Chile, Israel, New Zealand…) that I’ll share the rest of my life with. (But don’t worry, old friends, I still love you and miss you all.)
Got engaged to be married to the woman of my dreams.
It’s been a good year.
After a failure with container gardening in our NYC apartment, I’ve been itching to get some dirt under my fingernails and start a veggie patch for a while now. Yeah, I’ve worked on farms and in gardens all over NZ, but they haven’t been my veggies. It’s a bit different when you get to pick, plan and start your own plants. The former residents of our humble shack in Wanaka established a few garden beds over the summer, but since they moved on I inherited the garden manager position and all its heartbreak and triumph.
Our winter garden has been a nice project that required very little input and from which we’re already reaping rewards. We’ve gotten a few meals from the leafy stuff (kale, chard, pak choi), and the other things (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts) are ticking along nicely.
It’s been great working on my own little spot, however small it may be, and tasting the fruits of my labor. Oh jeez, another offal pun!
Last week I went to a talk by Joel Salatin, the influential, self-described “lunatic farmer” profiled in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and many other publications. Salatin has been an important part of my conversion to food activism, so I was excited to hear what he had to say. I bought my ticket in advance – actually, so far in advance that I had ticket #1. I convinced a few friends on the fence to come, insisting that Salatin was a dynamic and engaging guy, and that he would put on a good show. I was half right.
Salatin is far less well-known here in NZ than he is in the US, so I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as turn out. I arrived a few minutes early to get a decent seat, and was pleasantly surprised by the number of people in the crowd. I snuck up front and sat next to an older couple that were getting involved in the local and sustainable agriculture movement after careers as high country sheep farmers. The rest of the room appeared to be folks from similar backgrounds: small farmers, younger activists, a dread-locked woman with a “McShit” t-shirt; an easy audience for a seasoned speaker like Salatin.
After a short introduction he came out to a warm welcome and quickly launched into his brand of farmer schtick. He talked about the evils of concentrated animal feedlot operations and the health benefits of food produced naturally. “Great,” I thought, “here comes the big finish.” But there was no big finish. He didn’t delve into any information that isn’t already better explained in his books. In fact, many talking points were repeated word-for-word. This left little time for discussion, and after a few massive softballs a good question came from the audience: “What do you do to replace the biomass that leaves your farm?” This was acknowledged as an excellent question and then forgotten as he spun into a discussion of integrating systems at the farm. I’m still curious about the answer.
I left disappointed and a little upset that I recommended the event to friends. I expected an enlightening discussion of new ideas and a real dialogue with invested parties and their unique problems so that we could all learn from the specific set of challenges that farmers in New Zealand face, which are undoubtedly different that the problems Salatin faces in Virginia. Perhaps he’d even learn something from us. But instead I got preached to as a member of the slow-food choir and a thinly-veiled public stroking.
Furthermore, Salatin’s delivery comes off less as the nice neighborly guy and more as a condescending know-it-all. His jokes were cheesy and he mixed in advanced vocabulary that felt as if it were pulled from a thesaurus to make him sound more polished and professional. Unless you’re speaking to a room full of mathematicians, calling something a “sigmoid curve,” when “s-curve” will do undermines the message. He talked AT us instead of speaking TO us.
Of course this doesn’t change the fact that I still agree with a lot of what Salatin says (though definitely not all), and I think he’s done the world a lot of good by preaching his message. I suppose I’ll just need to find another farmer rock star’s poster to hang on my bedroom wall.
“What are you going to to when you go home?” is a question we hear with some frequency. It usually follows “are you ever going home?” Don’t worry, moms and dads, the answer is “yes.”
We do plan to return to the US, and our plans for when that time comes are still taking shape. Now we call on you, fair readers, to poke and prod and hopefully, make helpful suggestions to our plan.
A few months ago we publicly announced that we’re interested in starting a farm, but that’s pretty vague. Farms vary wildly in size and purpose; there’s everything from the small self-sufficiency holding to the massive corporate behemoth. Where do we want to fall on that spectrum? What do we want to grow?
We certainly want to be larger than the very small guys. We want to be as self-sufficient as possible, but we also want to live off this endeavor and buy things that we can’t produce: coffee, chocolate, entertainment. Maybe we’ll make our own honey and beer, but we want the flexibility to buy stuff: gadgets, books, or The Meaning of Life (with free shipping!) on eBay. We haven’t gone completely off the deep end.
And we definitely want to be smaller than the big guys. We don’t want row crops or a concentrated feeding operation. We don’t want to poison the earth with herbicides and suck the nutrients completely out of the ground.
So now that you’ve got a pretty good idea what we don’t want, maybe what we do want will make more sense. We want a diversity of vegetables, fruit trees, and animals. We love pork so pigs are pretty much guaranteed. Their ability to consume a lot of farm by-products is also a plus. These kiwis have taught me a lot about the value and ease of sheep, though they are “dumb as,” in the vernacular. The farm-raised lamb chops, which are probably the juiciest cut of meat I’ve ever tasted, didn’t hurt. Goats are smart and efficient at turning grass into milk, but cows cut down on the labor involved in harvesting that milk. So we’re still up in the air in the dairy department. Chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl are also very likely in our future. Geese and their midnight honking are definitely not. So we’re going to produce a lot of different stuff. What are we going to do with it all?
At first, we’ll sell at markets and add value with prepared foods: spreads, sauces, etc. We’ll need a licensed commercial kitchen to keep Johnny Law off our backs, but we’re hoping to rent a space for food preparation until we can build our own.
Ultimately, we want to open a full service restaurant on the property. We’ll operate as a casual cafe for breakfast and lunch, with wifi access and delicious coffee, baked goods, and a small menu of simple food. For the dinner service we’ll move up market to a slightly fancier version of the same. Our dining room will be a place you wouldn’t mind taking your kids at 6 o’clock or a date at 8. Prices will be accessible and again, the menu would be limited. And of course, we’ll supply as much of the food served as possible from the farm. We’ll welcome patrons to take a walk around and see where the pork chop that they’re about to eat rooted for nuts, or pick an apple off that tree with heavily laden branches for a snack before their meal. We’ll bring food to people and bring people to food. Our vision is for a welcoming place that inspires the community and makes people excited to spend time there, be it on a date or just to swing by for some eggs.
Further down the line, we’ll incorporate education. We’ll host a small army of WWOOFers, welcome school groups, and offer courses to the public. We’ll have an internship/apprentice program and bring our products to underserved markets.
Finding the right place for this will be difficult. We think that a 20-30 acre plot of land will be small enough to be manageable at first, while giving us room to grow as we get better at this farming thing. Climate and length of growing season are factors to consider, but we’re prepared to use greenhouses and tall tunnels to artificially lengthen the season. Annual precipitation and access to water are huge factors, and we’d rather consistent rain than committing to constantly moving irrigation around.
We need a community that would be excited about supporting a farm-to-table restaurant, but doesn’t already have lots of great options in that category. We need a location that’s accessible for the walk-up cafe crowd, but also a significant chunk of land to do our growing. For our own sanity, we need outdoor recreation close by; we’re avid rock climbers, hikers, and cyclists. We’d like to be within a few hours of an international airport, so we can get out and welcome visitors without too much hassle. We want the perfect spot, and, I think, this will be the most difficult part of this endeavor. Or at least the first most difficult part.
I hope you can see that we’ve thought about this a lot, and also that we’ve got a long way to go. We have a solid idea of what we want, but really don’t know anything at all about achieving it. So we need your help. Comment, email, text, Facebook, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon us your thoughts, advice, reservations, whatever.
A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation by The Localizing Food Tour, a group that puts on presentations and hands on workshops for communities to help them create a sustainable, local food supply. It was a super charged, energetic talk on food politics and issues like the upcoming food bill that is to be passed here in NZ, the possibility of a new trade agreement with the States and China, genetically engineered crops, and how these things affect us common folk. Their mission seems to be two fold: to educate people about food politics and to facilitate action in the community.
One would hope that the discussion around food would be about feeding and nurturing people, just as one would assume that decisions about education would be focused on educating students. Ultimately, food politics, like education politics, isn’t about how to support and strengthen people. It is about control and money. Shocker.
Jon Foote, the presenter, spoke about genetical engineered foods and how people’s eating habits have changed from whole, real foods, to packaged, processed foods and the corresponding rise in diseases and learning disabilities. I learned about irradiated fruits and vegetables, a process that keeps perishable foods from rotting and bruising, but kills the nutrients and puts radiation in your food. Irradiated foods do not have to be labeled.
Doesn’t that piss you off? That you make a point of eating healthy food, but you aren’t getting what you pay for? That you are trying to put something good in your body, but really you are consuming radiation, which we all know, treats cancer by killing cells. Killing nutrients. This is a legal practice. Why is this legal? Certainly not to provide healthy food to citizens, but simply to make money.
The solution is to learn about what you are eating, about what is in season and what grows well in your region. Support the community and good, honest people who specialize in growing good food. The presentation ended on a high note, imploring people to think about how you spend your dollar and what you do with your time. They also stressed that communities are stronger than individuals, so support one another and help your neighbors. I like that.
The Localizing Food Tour led a two day workshop developing an action plan to provide a sustainable, healthy food source for the people of Wanaka, just as they had done in Southland, Dunedin, Oamaru, and will do in almost every town in New Zealand over the next year. They emphasized community gardens, edible plants in public spaces, land sharing between farmers who may not use all of their land and those who want to grow food, but have no land. They brought attention to what Wanaka is already doing, to people who are saving seeds that grow well in this region, to the group who is developing a food forest outside of town, and to various community events.
Throughout the presentation, people referred to “what’s happening in America.” They talked about how large corporations, like Monsanto and the corn industry, influence government decisions regarding food and the health of the nation. They spoke about us like a bunch of uneducated fat kids, following a manipulative government that picks on all of the little guys. And for the most part, they were right, but it was uncomfortable to hear people who I respect talking about my country with so little respect.
Zach and I want to change that. We want to be a part of a community like Wanaka, but need to be that positive force in an American community. We’re not done traveling. We may never be done traveling, but that is what we plan to do when we get back.
Today’s headline from the New York Times: “F.D.A. Offers Broad New Rules to Fight Food Contamination.” Usually me and the NYT jive pretty well. We’re not a perfect match, but this time I’m the Red Sox to Stephanie Strom’s (and her editors’) Yankees. These new rules are a huge step back for small farmers and their future in the United States.
Basically, the new regulations will institute several policies designed to prevent pathogens from contaminating food. The rules call for things like installing bathrooms in fields for workers, irrigation requirements, and “ensuring that foods are cooked at temperatures high enough to kill bacteria.” The FDA, long reactionary instead of anticipatory, is trying to get ahead of the eight ball. How could anyone oppose a law that will make people safer and keep them from getting sick? Oh, easily. Here’s how:
I have three major problems with these rules. They’ll put small farmers out of business, destroy the nutritional value of the food they’re meant to protect, or both. These are serious threats to public health and, in fact, make us less safe. Job well done, FDA.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a small lettuce grower in California. You produce enough to make ends meet and keep food on the table. With a stroke of a pen, now you’ve got to rent and pay maintenance costs on toilets in your fields for your workers. Even if you’ve never had a problem with contamination and you know and trust your workers not to pee on the arugula, you must comply. This could be a crippling blow to you and your farm. At the very least, it will raise your costs and therefore prices. Who will feel the brunt of this? The small guys that can’t take advantage of economies of scale when it comes to renting port-o-johns. This is why lettuce at the farmers’ market is expensive! Frankly, this also screams of collusion between the FDA and larger producers. Land of opportunity, right?
If you’re still with me, I probably don’t have to explain why fewer small local farms is a bad thing. But just in case, the gist of it is: more fruits and veggies produced far away will be consumed, adding food miles by the truckload (pun very much intended) and more food will be treated with irradiation to keep it “fresh” for the journey. I’ll have the uranium on the side, thanks.
On the second point, cooking raw ingredients (like peanuts) to ever-higher temperatures destroys their nutritional value. We’ve been eating raw peanuts for much longer than this has been a problem. Continuing the sports analogy, how have we ever survived an entire baseball game? I know I’ve been to some that felt like they’d kill me, but that didn’t have anything to do with the peanuts.
But what’s most amazing is how obvious this should be. It says it right in the title! “Broad New Rules” just don’t work if we’re going to have many different sizes of farms. The small guys just can’t hang with the big ones when it comes to installing expensive infrastructure.
The FDA should be focused on accountability and transparency in the system for every size producer. Conveniently, a great system exists when you buy your lettuce directly from the gal who grew it. It’s the time-honored tradition of “looking her in the eye.”
Don’t make farmers jump through more hoops. Let consumers decide if they trust the lettuce from their farmer, or the bag that it comes in.