Children should have the option of farming as a career

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In our CSA newsletter this week, we included an excerpt from an article in the Huffington Post.  The link to that complete article is here.

That article is a response to a August 10 article in the New York Times.  The link to the original article is here.

The individuals on the SkyRoot team had different responses to these articles, though we were all content to put a few inspirational paragraphs from Jenna Woginrich’s article in the newsletter.  Arwen felt compelled to go off and write a response to the articles, which she then forced her farm partners to read.  Their response was to encourage me to put it on the website, so here goes — another contribution to the raging controversy ignited by that first article…

I love being a farmer.  This is the 6th season that I have chosen to grow food as my full-time job.  Half of those seasons were spent in internships on other people’s farms, and this is the third season that I have been the owner of a farm business.  There is nothing that I would rather be doing, no other combination of vocation and avocation that that I can think of that could combine the diversity of tasks that go into a week on the farm, the challenges of managing systems on a variety of scales, my love of putting seeds into dirt and being surrounded by growing things, and my entrepreneurial tendencies the way managing a farm does.  Farming isn’t easy for a lot of reasons, one of which is that I also am not making a living doing it, though I’m confident that this will be the best year yet.

My initial reaction to both of the articles I read in the argument of whether or not we should discourage children from becoming farmers was negative.  Sure, both articles made good points, and certainly the rebuttal to the original article tugged at my heartstrings.  But the ideas the authors left out and our points of disagreement stood out more to me.  As I re-read the articles this evening in preparation for writing an energetic yet reasoned criticism of both articles, I found myself asking the question of whether it’s actually useful for me to prolong this disagreement among essentially like-minded people.  I’m confident that I’m a “good” farmer by the definition of both authors, and I’m confident that I support the farming work that both of them are doing.  So I should be banding with them as the author of the NYT piece suggests in order to fight for a better food system.

So instead of the point-by-point criticism I was itching to write, I’ll content myself with pointing out that farmers are unlikely to effectively band together as long as we continually create strict definitions of “good” farming and “bad” farming as both of these authors do.  That farm isn’t small enough.  Those farmers are too old.  You’re not a “real” farmer if you come to it later in life on land you’ve bought with money from an earlier career.  Obviously there are farms employing practices that clearly damage the environment and exploit powerless workers, and we need to fight to stop them.  But there are a lot of different ways for people to try to farm using practices that improve soils, eliminate pollution, enhance habitat for native birds and bugs and plants, provide fair (and fun!) working conditions, and are otherwise sustainable or restorative.  Common goals, demonstrated effort, and hopefully a dash of idealism should be all that are required to be in the “good farm” club.  And once we’re there together to work for a better future for farmers and eaters, maybe we can also remember that putting our work on a pedestal from which we look down at the deprived people who have to work in offices (many of whom will never want to be farmers and actually like their current jobs) is unlikely to win us additional support from the wider world.

Glorious Summer

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Behold the greenness of June.  It’s hard to keep up with the vegetables and the weeds and mowing the grass once the days are long and the temperatures mild.  Look at how the garlic has grown, filling the straw-mulched space at the front of the field with green.  Behind them, this year’s potato crop has leaped out of the ground.

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The quilt of red and green in this picture is a block of lettuce beds — lettuce is one of the most beautiful crops to grow.

Get more lettuce and potatoes in your life by signing up for one of our fall CSA shares!  The first delivery is at the end of August.  Get more information and sign up here.

Early March

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The farm train really begins to pick up speed in March — the greenhouse fills up with plants, we get antsy about the soil drying out so we can till, the first farmers market suddenly seems much too soon… We rejoice in warmer days and longer days and the flowering plum trees.

In this picture, the beds closest to the camera are this year’s garlic, though you’ll have to take my word for it that there are lots of vigorous green spears poking through the mulch.  Two farmers are weeding the strawberry beds.  And the first seeds of the season are sown under row cover!  The word this morning is that the peas are already sprouting!

Newsletter Wk 4

This week on the farm we went on a field trip to Sequim to see Noahs’ Farm. Noah is a good friend of ours who has recently bought a 70 acre farm and already has two draft horses and two (soon to be trained) Oxen.  We were inspired by the vision that he and his farm partners have for the future of the land and re-inspired for our own relationship with this land and the work we are doing here on Whidbey Island.   After all- we are all working toward the same goal of re-localizing our food system and providing the opportunity for good people to be supported by good farmers who are caring thoughtfully for the precious thin layer of dirt on earth that ultimately feeds us all.

Noah is moving forward in engaging in relationship with animals to help him care for his soil.   We are also working with animals in relationship to our farm.    And last week we promised to begin the story of our most special chicken….

The Legend of Truffala” (part 1) as written by Sarah Gillett

When someone comes to the farm for the first time, they almost always point to the Long thin sandy colored hen with blue legs and a great tuft of feathers on her head and say, “What’s THAT?” That, my friends, is Truffula

Truffula arrived at our farm, a Seattle transplant among a flock of five. She was at the bottom of the social ladder (and social ladders matter in chicken circles) amongst her original flock and when she moved in with our larger flock of 11, she moved right to the bottom. She was nervous, flighty and always being chased away from the food. The other hens began to pull her feathers out and she developed a bald spot on her back. It was harder for her to see the world through her great shaggy mop of feathers and she was constantly peering and jerking and darting her head around in the effort to avoid these attacks. But Truffula was destined for greatness and she just wouldn’t take this hen pecked life laying down. Nope, not Truffula. She up and flew the coop. See, she is a slender bird and is more able to fly than the other heavier hens so when she discovered that she didn’t have to put up with this misery, she didn’t.

So where did she go? Well after wandering around the farm for a few weeks she found her way into the. . .turkey pen. Find out what happened then, next week….Stay Tuned!

Truffula

Truffula

Spring Reading Group

The farm is hosting a spring reading group for some south end folks – this past evening we reflected on what has brought us to farming.   Lots of things bring me here, but here is a poem that I wrote about why I farm – at least why I’m farming today!

Why I Farm…

Because onetime, backpacking with teens,
I saw one look forward, unknowningly at the curtain of green.
She found it fearful, unyielding, closed.
Today i watched a cormorant poop and dive.
Most birds poop before flying.
Are the mechanics of diving down perhaps like flying Up?
The cormorant returned to the surface
with a juvenile salmon flashing against the grey waterscape.

Its simple then – in this light.

I farm because I’m not a good fisherman
Because at the end of a long struggle
I confess I am lousy with math.
Now, dogged and desprite
I have a lot – riding – on vegetables.

I farm because in an age of too much, too soon, too fast
with an ethic of buy now. pay later
dirt, sunshine, fungus
Too much (dirt)
Too little (sun)
Too complex (fungus)

Beckons me – slow down, play, touch, smell… pay attention. Be present.
Right here. Breath deep – right now.

I farm because – it seems to me – it matters.
Otherwise I live the grand distraction
Of a career in which I know all the wrong things do.

That is it. It matters
I farm because it it is the only way I know
to be honest in confronting epic global change.
It is the best way I know how to alive and humble.

Fall

The advent of our CSA deliveries has corresponded with my return to the classroom at UW.   This quarter I am again taking up my post within the Program on the Environment – UW’s interdisciplinary undergraduate environmental studies program.   This fall I am teaching Environment 100: Environmental Foundations.   Sometimes on the tractor I am planning for a lecture, and sometimes when I am working in my office reading for class I find myself thinking about new tools for soil conservation.  Nonetheless, I find synergy in the combination of tasks associated with these two jobs.

 

This past week we have been talking in class about humanity’s impact on the planet.   In general, we can summarize the impact humans have by considering that our environmental impact (I) is equal to our population size (P) times the resources we consume (C). It is a broad stroke for sure, but one curious thing is how food (and consequently farming) is intimately linked to I.   Farming both enables human population growth and contributes to our current resource consumption rates.

 

As growers at SkyRoot farm (our favorite term for what we do) we have an impact on the planet greater in some respects than we did before we grew food as a business.   Daily we struggle with the big questions associated with our farm – efficiency, sustainability (both environmental and personal) and restoration of ecological function.  We want both to grow our farm and use less fossil fuel.  We want to feed people and reduce the big I of our equation.   Running a farm while struggling with food production in the context of the big environmental issues of our time is part of what our farm is about. Ultimately, when more people engage in agriculture the consumption component of the equation can be reduced.    Instead of 1 farmer in 50 people, I hope someday that we will see the number closer to 1 in 10.   This shift could reduce the I in many ways – but perhaps the biggest is that small, ecologically managed farms can be more productive than their large monoculture counterparts (Alteri 2011).    Ecologically managed farms improve efficiency by reducing external inputs (fossil fuels, pesticides, fertilizers), building interdependent farm systems, and consequently increasing the per unit area productivity of the farm.  The shift to more farmers farming smaller areas more efficiently will be a significant piece of the next “green revolution.”

 

How does having more farmers impact consumption?  My own relationship with food and consumption has changed significantly in the last year.  Now I eat what I grow – which means, the fields, not the grocer determine my family’s diet.   We are engaged in farming as a life choice.  Instead of going to market we are harvesting and preserving food.  Instead of thinking only of the market efficiency of our farm, we think of our farm system.   We have animals on our farm that do not directly support the market goals or create marketable products.   We have animals because they help us build a farm that functions like an ecosystem.   We trade our farm products and time with our neighbors for things we don’t grow on the farm.  Operating outside the cash economy is refreshing – lettuce can become goat cheese and building fences can become fresh milk.     We consume less because we grow more, trade more, and have less time to respond to the constant hum of our buy more culture.

 

Should everyone be a farmer?   No!  We need you, the other 9 out of 10 people the lawyers, doctors, economists, plumbers, political scientists, teachers, engineers who care to make a commitment daily – just as we do on the farm –  to think about our contributions to the I of the equation and work to reduce its largese.

 

The developing organism

I like to think of the farm as an organism.   Thinking about the earth and its ecosystems as an organism was one of the first ways that ecologists approached an understanding of how the living and non-living parts of a system work.   Most ecologists no longer think of systems as organisms, but there is a part of me that wishes the organism philosophy of ecology was better represented in my graduate training.   For one thing I think it might have helped me as I work to apply ecosystem theory to our working farm!

How does our farm begin to function as an organism?    Well, the most honest answer is: it doesn’t – YET.    But as the chickens, bees, goats, worms, bacteria, plants, and fungus we are cultivating begin to work in concert to support our goal of farm production (measured best in terms of food production and soil improvements?)  then I think our farm will begin to function as an organism.

What will that mean?    One of our hopes is that as we improve in our approach to farming and the efficiencies with which we do things, our systems will (with care and nurture from us) move toward the goal of having our farm produce the things we need to keep our farm running.   Some folks call this a closed loop farm.

Some short term goals for the continued development of our closed loop farm system.

  • Improving our micro-livestock production (soldier flies and mealy worms for chickens)
  • Continuing to develop creative, but efficient and functional intercropping strategies
    • Current projects include:
      • radish and parsnips (working well)
      • potatoes and radish (a total disaster)
      • zuchinni and clover (functioning, but could be improved)
      • lettuce and tomatoes (yeah, coming along)
      • carrots and cauliflower (worked better before I accidently weeded all the carrots out!)
  • Increasing worm compost production
  • Building more mobile chicken coops to increase the variety of ways in which the chickens can be incorporated on the farm.

Already our farm is functioning as a system in some important ways.   Chickens and worms eat excess produce that comes home from market.   Goats are eating up the blackberry and clearing land for future projects.   Our neighbor is grazing horses on the pasture and in exchange we get composted horse manure.    Thus – facilitated by great compost from our neighbor’s horses  – the vegetable beds are being rotated in and out of production. The bees are pollinating the cucurbits, raspberries, and host of other fruits on the farm.   We have planted flowers on the farm edges to welcome a diversity of pollinators into the farm production space.

What are the long term goals?   Well, a big one is planning and planting an orchard that will mimic a functional forest ecosystem.   It isn’t a closed loop yet,but some elements of the system are beginning to feed back on themselves and over time we hope that these will continue to develop and flourish.   These are the hallmarks of a farm that functions as a healthy organism.

 

 

Beez

 

 

Hey, we have beez!!! Thousands of them! Can you see the Queen? 

 

 

But we still really love all the other animals we have. Especially these two, which are having a wonderful April day just haning out on top of the bathtub.

Breaking Ground

When the sun comes out the to-do list grows as quick as the grass, which is really exciting.  Beth and I just got into the lower fields for the first time today and it felt SO good. The potential becomes so much more real once the ground has been broken. To break ground we used our NEW Kabota tractor (!!!!) to run a chisel plow and a really nice set of discs that we found on the property. They work really well, but are pretty rusty and will need a little TLC, a few cans of WD-40 and some new bolts if we want them to keep working after this season. The quackgrass made it pretty difficult for the chisel Plow and the discs, but nothin a little repetition can’t fix. 🙂

We’ve also put in a ton of hours building our greenhouse and there are a ton of little lettuces that are really happy to be in the ground. Soon it will be full with the 8 types of Tomatoes we’ve started in the greenhouse!

sowing the farm

Everyone needs a big brother.   My younger brother and I think we have got one of the best.    There is so much about starting this farm that involves the support of family both near and far from the farm.   For me, most of my family is pretty far away.    I miss them and I know I miss the mark they would make on the start of this project if they were here, but the fact that they aren’t means that they provide an important counterpoint for me in the balance of ideas and suggestions of how to move forward with what at times seems an overwhelming endeavor.

This evening I had the chance to talk to my big brother on the phone.   There is so much happening right now at the farm.  It isn’t a discouraging feeling, but it is a big feeling.  Here, at the start of this farm project and with so many visions for the future, at moments it can feel hard to know how or in what direction to proceed.  For instance as I pause in my grading to write this blog post I am thinking about:

  • our 27 growing chicks (where they will go how we will move them and where they will eventually live),
  • the mama Alder Rose and her two daughter goats who are arriving at the farm shortly after Easter and for whom we are yet to build a goat pen,
  • the greenhouse which is sitting in almost, but not quite done splendor,
  • the little starts – who are desperately waiting for a home to land,
  • the fence we have to choose, purchase and install…and those are the small things  – the big ones? – well I won’t go there this evening! 🙂

Tonight my brother told me a story of my father and our 1950’s era tractor that I had never heard before.  It made me laugh to think of my father (who I generally think of as cautious, wise, and capable of all but the most difficult miracles) learning, or put in another light, making mistakes….   The story reminded me that learning, no matter where it takes place, is a humbling activity.  I delight at the developing stories of our farm enterprise and the work of living with the land.   It is filling me with great joy even as I am humbled by the daily learning involved in the sowing of a farm.

My brother shared this poem with me:

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
-Robert Frost

Sarah has had a similar problem when calling me into dinner.   Only Annie has yet to discover the unending miracle of seed.