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kissing pigsBy Tracy Sweely

As Joni Mitchell reminded us so long ago, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone…" But, at what has seemed like the 11th hour of the demise of the small family farm, consumers are finding their way back to wholesome, great tasting produce grown by their local farmers. Farmers, for their part, are reaching beyond direct-to-consumer marketing into the “experience economy” and discovering new areas of lucrative offerings at their fingertips. This happy coincidence demonstrates that the recently rekindled romance between small farmers and consumers may be on its way to a lasting love... the second time around.

According to agricultural censuses conducted by the USDA, direct to consumer sales of produce increased 60% between 2002 and 2012. (NSCA, 2014). Between 2007 and 2012 such growth had slowed to 5% (ibid.). It has been suggested that such a slowing may have been due to a plateau in consumer interest or to non-direct sales growth (USDA, 2015:1). But other indications demonstrate continued growth in direct-to-consumer food demand. For example, between 2006 and 2014 farmers markets grew 180%, food hubs grew 288% and farm to school programs grew 430% (USDA 2015:1).

Rather than a waning interest in local food by consumers, the slowdown may have been in part due to the economic downturn that began in 2008 (Runyon, 2015), as well as erratic climate conditions that have touched virtually every region of the country. Goodwin and Goldthorpe (2013) found that instability in the economy and climate were the primary self-reported challenges by small farmers in Florida. Since these factors have affected the nation as a whole, they may have inhibited a majority of small farms, those with annual income less than $350,000, from expanding their direct-to-consumer operations. An unstable economy and climate may have prevented farmers from risking their operations and loyal customer bases until the economy improved and they could incorporate methods to better buffer climate. Consumer demand does not appear to have declined at all. But how are small farms managing risks while meeting continued growth in demand?

Farms that rely on direct marketing to consumers have higher survival rates than those accessing intermediated markets, regardless of whether they are new or established farms (USDA, 2015:13). Within the classification system of local food business models, direct marketing of produce to individuals via a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program provides the most advantages to the farmer. The CSA model allows farmers to capture the greatest amount of value and marketing margin for their products (Bauman et. al., 2015:3-4). In addition, the personal relationship inherent in the CSA model can generate a level of customer loyalty that increases the pricing-power leverage these farmers have (Bauman et. al., 2015:3).

Disadvantages consist of the relatively low share of consumer dollars spent in agriculture markets versus other types of markets, low sales volumes and potential size-, location- and seasonality-based limitations on the ability to scale up efficiently, not to mention the need for implementing new Federal food safety rules. New food safety regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will likely result in increased costs to small farmers. Associated costs are primarily for implementing new product labeling requirements and for increased labor spent on documentation requirements for manure-based fertilization processing and application.

One response to mitigating risks has been the development of multi-farm CSAs, where risks for small and new farmers are spread among several farms. In early 2010, the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education organization funded a multi-farm CSA handbook (Perry and Franzblau 2010) and a model for multi-farm CSAs has been developed at the University of Florida (Nistler n.d). While this model overcomes some disadvantages to small farmers, FMSA rules could possibly inhibit the multi-farm CSA opportunity because of specific “facility” determinations and rules.

Other strategic directions that local farms are taking advantage of include branching into "agri-tourism," "agri-tainment" and "agri-cational" activities. Such activities include u-pick, corn mazes, farm dinners, tours, classes and workshops, and farm camps for kids. Farmers markets are also beginning to go beyond simply providing a venue for farmers to sell their produce by also providing live musical performances and food courts where customers can get a quick meal while they shop for local produce.

Agri-tourist, agri-tainment and agri-cational activities comprise additional income streams that allow farmers to meet their bottom lines by meeting consumer interest in farms and farming and consumer desires for social, entertainment and educational opportunities. Such activities can have a wider profit margin than does vegetable production alone because they provide opportunities to move products up a progression of economic value (White 2012). Beyond this, even though society has become more information- and technology- (and thus "virtually-") oriented, a surprising effect has been for people to desire more hands-on experiences (ibid; Ghosh 2015). Fabian Rigell of Secret Cinemas, as quoted by Ghosh (2015), states:

"People are absolutely desperate to connect, and to feel experiences in this age where we’re constantly bombarded with information on what’s cool and what’s happening. They want an adventure, so the things that remind people of their childhood.... People want to have experiences with integrity, in which they feel connected."

In fact, a recent study by the Journal of Consumer Science found that "nostalgia marketing" makes consumers spend more (Billig, 2014). Researches of the study pointed out that advertising campaigns were especially successful for products such as food (ibid). Farmers are ideally positioned to take advantage of this "experience economy" by tapping into nostalgic desires, especially of Baby-Boomers, for a bygone, pre-technological way of life (White 2012).

Wondering how to get started working consumer "experiences" into your farming operation? Just Google “agri-tainment,” “agri-tourism” or “agri-cation” and let the fun begin!

References

Bauman, Allie, David Shideler, Dawn Thilmany, Merrit Taylor and Blake Angelo. January 3, 2015. “An Evoloving Classification Scheme of Local Food Business Models.” Extension: Issues, Innovation, Impact. http://articles.extension.org/pages/70544/an-evolving-classification-scheme-of-local-food-business-models

Billig, Aubrielle. "Nostalgia Makes people Spend More, Study Finds. Small Business Trends." August 19, 2014. http://smallbiztrends.com/2014/08/nostalgia-marketing.html

Goodwin, Joy N. and Jessica L. Gouldthorpe. “Small Farmers, Big Challenges: A Needs Assessment Of Florida Small-Scale Farmers’ Production Challenges And Training Needs.” 2013. Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 28(1), 2013, pp. 54–79. http://www.ag.auburn.edu/auxiliary/srsa/pages/Articles/JRSS%202013%2028/1/JRSS%202013%2028%201%2054-79.pdf

Ghosh, Shona. "The New Nostalgia Trend: it's all in the reference." Marketing. February 9, 2015. http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/article/1332972/new-nostalgia-trend-its-reference

National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition, “2012 Census Drilldown: Organic and Local Food,” May 16, 2014, http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/2012-census-organic-local/

Nistler, D. B. “Expanding Your Market: The Multi-Farm Community Supported Agriculture Model,” n.c. University of Florida, IFAS, Extension, Clay County, Green Cove Springs, Fl, USA. http://conference.ifas.ufl.edu/smallfarms11/poster_abs/PDF%20of%20Actual%20Posters/Expanding%20Your%20Market_The%20Multi-Farm%20Community%20Supported%20Agriculture%20Model.pdf

Perry, Jill and Scott, Franzblau, Local Harvest: A Multi-Farm CSA Handbook. 2010, North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education. http://www.caes.uga.edu/topics/sustainag/documents/LocalHarvest-CSA.pdf

Runyon, Luke. “Are Farmers Markets Peaking? That Might be Good for Farmers. February 5, 2015. NPR. The Salt: What’s on your plate. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/02/05/384058943/are-farmer-market-sales-peaking-that-might-be-good-for-farmers

USDA, “Trends in US local and regional food Systems: A report to Congress.” January 2015, http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1763057/ap068.pdf

White, Randy, “Defining Agritainment as the 4th Level of Economic Value.” August 4, 2012. White Hutchinson: Leisure and Learning Group. https://www.whitehutchinson.com/leisure/articles/agritainment.shtml

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Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Cost?

Comin croppedBy Tracy Sweely

In my previous post “Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take?” I reviewed the labor requirements for a minimally-mechanized, micro-farming operation such as what we have at our pilot study farm, HeartEye Village CSA. This post explores the labor-related issues for financial sustainability given the labor requirements of using minimally- mechanized farming methods typical of urban farming operations.

Drawing upon production and financial planning tools to simulate operations in the Small Farm Financial Sustainability Study that we conducted in 2011, I realized that a minimum set of attributes were required for such a farm to be financially viable. These requirements were a minimum of ¼ acre (10,890 sq ft) of cultivation space with intensive intercropping to maximize yields, with half of the cultivation space (5445 sq ft) under winter production using high tunnels.

The labor projections used in the study were based on a limited sample. Labor from two growing seasons were used: from a previous season, when labor tracking was less rigorous and from the season in which the study was conducted. Meticulous labor records were kept during the study period and in the 3 years since the study began, providing a better sample and allowing more dependable labor projections to be made.

In the previous post, I reported that an average of 53 person-hours per workweek during the main season for our 4800 sq ft operation have been necessary during post-start-up operations. Scaling up, the hypothetical micro-farm using ¼ acre of cultivable space from March through September would require 2.27 times more labor (10890/4800), or an average of 120 person-hours (53 x 2.27) per workweek. While winter production at HeartEye requires only 11 hours per work-week for 595 sq ft of cultivation space under the tunnel, the ¼-acre farm would require 9.1 times more labor (5445/595) or an average of 101 person-hours per week from October through December.

If 40 hours per week attributed to the farm manager is deducted from the total person-hours needed per week, 80 adjunct person-hours per week would be needed from March through September and 61 adjunct person hours per week from October through December. The total adjunct labor for the entire 10-month growing season would be 3334 person hours ((80 x 31 wks) + (61 x 14 wks)), or an average of 74 person-hours per week (3334/45). This translates into two full-time assistants to the farm manager or a combination of paid assistant and many working shareholders.

Integrating the updated labor figures into the original study and assuming that adjunct labor would be paid at the minimum wage of $7.64/hour, financial projections for this model are financially sustainable only when the farm manager is paid 10.04/hour. Part of the adjunct labor could potentially be bartered out by using working shareholders. If a combination of one full-time paid assistant and about 20 working shareholders (working approximately 2 hours/week) is used, compensation rates would be:

Paid Farm manager at $11.17/hour

Paid assistant at $7.64/hour

Barter working shareholders at $6.32/hour

While this projection sheds light on the wages a financially conservative micro-farming operation may be able to afford to pay, it certainly does not reflect the true value of such labor. When it comes down to it, a good farm manager is worth their weight in gold and they should be paid a living wage, but larger forces determine what can realistically be paid in any given micro-farming operation. Economic forces like the wages laborers require in order to sustain their lifestyles or what rate working shareholders are willing to barter out, not to mention what prices produce can be sold for, are some important limiting factors. These forces will vary regionally, and in many cases substantially from the model I have outlined here.

In addition, yield projections in the original study have been conservative based on beginner farmer skill level as well as the challenging climatic conditions for the location of the pilot study farm. Certainly if a farm is located in a more hospitable climate, which many are, yields and thus potential income could be significantly greater than what is modeled in these projections.

For our purposes it is important to be conservative in our estimates so that we can model the most challenging conditions a new micro-farmer might face. Given that we have little control over larger economic forces and climate conditions, the question becomes how must  methods be altered to increase the income potential at the minimally-mechanized micro-farm so that it is possible to pay a living wage to those who labor upon it?

Our next stage of experimentation at the pilot study farm will go beyond the use of intercropping to achieve increased yields without increasing cultivation space or labor needs. The method we will be testing in the upcoming season goes beyond intercropping by “stacking” cultivation space.  Last year one of my readers e-mailed me about a type of soil tower that is a larger version of the clay “strawberry pot,” (thank you Peter!).  These towers save water and have an internal composting system that stimulates soil microbe activity. Our calculations indicate that these towers increase cultivation space between 2 and 3 times depending on layout and scale of operation. Although harvest and CSA box prep labor would clearly increase with scale, very little commensurate increase in labor would be necessary for annual soil preparation since no tilling would be required and weeding would be minimal.

Click here to see the results of our 2014-15 research examining this tower growing system's benefits and limitations. For anyone interested in more information or purchasing the system click on the ad link in our sidebar to the right.  

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Micro-Farm Labor: What’s it Take?

Labor_woodcut_flat_cropBy Tracy Sweely

I hold the unique and curious position of being a Working Share Farm Manager at our ¼ acre pilot study CSA farm, HeartEye Village CSA, handily operating in the challenging climatic conditions of the Colorado Front Range. We try to be creative in modeling the sweet spot of financial sustainability. I trade my CSA share for 72 hours of farm manager labor, but this does often increase depending upon the skill level of the farm intern and the availability of working share labor. Our internship program is, shall we say, an advanced-level “immersion” program. In addition, we literally could not operate the farm without additional working shareholder labor. So we piece our labor picture together and we keep really excellent labor records. I recently looked over these records and thought I’d share some important figures so that you prospective, small-acreage farmers can get an idea about how much time it takes to conduct annual operations of an established micro-farm. These figures would not be applicable to a start-up, where labor would likely be far greater.

First, here is a little background about our farm. While we have a ¼ acre plot, our cultivatable space is only about 4800 sq ft.  Our climate is generally dry, with summers being very hot and with a relatively short growing season from April through September. During the summer season, we provide produce to about 28 CSA members with some produce to spare for sale at our roadside farm stand. We have a high tunnel covering 595 sq ft of cultivatable space in which we conduct winter cultivation for an 8-member winter CSA. We use non-certified organic, bio-intensive methods where we do a lot of soil-nutrient building, intensive succession planting and intercropping. We have a couple of 6’ by 8’ greenhouses in which we raise our bedding plants. Our soil has high clay content so we must use the roto-tiller, but we generally use it only once a year because of all the intercropping that we do. We have a sprinkler system for germination of direct seeded crops and a drip irrigation system on a timer. Everything else from seeding to transplanting to harvesting to box preparation is done by hand.

In our 5 years of operation annual labor averages 1632 person-hours for the 7-month main season, from March through September, and 128 person-hours for our 3-month winter season from October through December. Despite the changing nature of the tasks throughout the season, this averages about 233 person-hours per month during the main season and 43 person-hours per month during the winter.

Different farms, of course, have different labor requirements depending on size, production methods and markets, among other things. But for a minimally mechanized, bio-intensive, micro-farming operation such as ours, the labor requirement I’ve described distills down to an average of 53 person-hours per workweek from March through September and 11 person-hours per workweek from October through December. The main season labor requirement could translate into one full-time farm manager and either a part-time paid assistant or several working shareholders. The winter requirement could be a very part-time farm manager.

For our operation, the intern performs the lion’s share of the labor but we make every effort to schedule adjunct labor so that the intern doesn’t work more than an average of 40 hours per week very often. Our working shareholders perform any adjunct labor needed during the main season. Non-management, working shareholder labor needed in 2013 averaged 58 person-hours per month from March through June and about 32 person-hours per month from July through September. Due to the decreased workload during the winter, adjunct labor is unnecessary.

This gives you an idea of the labor requirements of a minimally mechanized, bio-intensive, micro-farming operation. In my mind, farm labor should be financially sustainable for everyone involved, meaning the compensation for laborers, including the farm manager/owner should translate into a livable wage or at least minimum wage. But is this even possible to do on a minimally-mechanized, micro-farming operation in our current economy? In my next blog (which I hope to post in a few weeks…) I will try to answer this question by closely examining the key underlying factors.

 

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Growing Season Busy-ness

Hey All, just an apology for neglecting this blog... Our growing season is in full swing and the season's busy-ness has, of course, taken a priority. I'm hoping that at some point soon I'll catch a break and be able to post a relevant blog for you all. Until then, here is to a productive growing season!

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By Tracy Sweely

As consumers of food in the US we’re spoiled. There is just no ifs, ands or buts about it… The industrial food system has been subsidized for so long keeping prices so low, most people don’t have a clue about the real costs of producing it. But the situation is even worse than that. We have been able to buy food for so cheap, for so long (this goes back a generation or two…) that not only do consumers expect to pay very little for produce but as new farmers, we think “Well damn, how hard can it be to grow a pound of beans if they only cost $1.00 to buy…?” Fact is, even if you’ve been farming for a while it’s damn hard.

I don’t mean to scare anyone or put anybody off. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs you’ll know I love farming and most farmers do, or they wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve always felt that if you want to do something bad enough, don’t let anyone tell you no you can’t do it, or any of that kind of nonsense. You can do it, but be prepared. It’s going to be a lot harder than you thought it would be.

Even though I’m childless and don’t have any plans to change that, I’ve had exposure to people who have gone that route. And from my careful observations, starting a farm has got to be lot like having a baby and raising a kid. There are just things you aren’t going to “get” about doing it, until you do it yourself. It’s going to be harder work than you imagined, and it’s going to cost more than you thought, and completely unexpected things are going to happen, and many of those things are going to make you feel powerless and like you don’t know what you're doing. But if it boiled down to only that, nobody would have kids or be farmers and we’d clearly die out as a species… Kids and farms bring indescribable beauty and joy into our lives and that’s why we keep on going.

So why do I bring this up? The reason is this: figuring out all the in’s and out’s as new parents and as new farmers, is not quite as “natural” as one might at first think. Who doesn’t know a new parent who has said “Oh, were going to figure it out as we go,” only to hear them later frantically say “Why didn’t anyone tell me about a, b, c and d…?!!”  Not only have I been guilty of this as a new farmer, but I’ve met many other new farmers who’ve had the same experience. There are a lot of safety nets in place when it comes to raising kids: extended family, friends, teachers, social programs, and kids are pretty darn resilient so the chances of “losing” the kid are fairly low. In the case of agricultural production though, it’s really, really easy to lose the farm. This quote speaks volumes:

“Regarding small farm survival, analysts at USDA’s Economic Research Service, report that small farms, like all small businesses, have a relatively high exit rate of 9 – 10% per year. Two primary factors affect the failure rate of agricultural enterprises: the size of the farm and the age of the operator…exit rates are lower for both producers between 45 and 54 years of age and for those with prior business experience.” (http://www.beginfarmingohio.org/)

The bottom line is that you just can’t be too prepared.

The new farmers that I have interacted with are excited, enthusiastic, intelligent and ambitious. They know at a core level that farming is critical to a sustainable world and they want to participate in creating that. But very few beginner farmers I know, myself included, knew how complex and difficult starting a farm could be. Farming is not just throwing some seeds out there and letting Mother Nature do her thing. Farming is a business and businesses succeed because they have a marketable product, sufficient capital and well-laid business plans. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you don’t have time to do careful research and make a thorough business and production plan before you start farming, you don’t have time to farm.

When we started our pilot study CSA farm in 2009, there was not a lot of “how to” information to go on. We pretty much farmed by the seat of our pants, but we were sufficiently capitalized, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it into our second year.  Now going into year five, we are hopeful that we might eventually become financially sustainable after all. Unless of course the drought takes us out at the knees…

In the meantime, we are hanging in there, and we are holding up a light for others to choose to follow, or not… We have documented our entire farming experience and with the Small Farm Financial Sustainability Study we’ve tried to model what works and what doesn’t work. Part of being prepared is studying what others before have done right and what they’ve done wrong. Take the time to read our studies. Take the time to make a production plan and a financially sustainable business plan, either from our tool suite or whatever else you can find out there that works for you.

Only four years after we set up our farm, the available online “how to” information on starting a farm has exploded, there are more workshop-type programs on how to start farming now than ever in recorded history. Avail yourselves of these assets. Now that the USDA Farm Service Agency is miraculously making loans to small vegetable farmers, capital is WAY easier to get than it has been for decades. The local food movement is in full swing and consumer demand for local produce is skyrocketing. Ironically, there have actually never been better economic conditions for starting a farming business…

But, for crying out loud, don’t think that makes it a walk in the park. These market, informational and capital resources simply provide you with tools and opportunities, you as the beginner farmer still have to do all the work. Go ahead and take the bull by the horns, it will be worth it. Don’t think that bull isn’t going to throw you around a bit, but if you prepare by doing thorough research and planning, you’ll have an idea how to roll with it and land on your feet. Beginner farmer beware, but then do it anyway!

See previous blog posts at the bottom of this page.

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THIS JUST IN!

USDA Finalizes New Microloan Program

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a new microloan program today that will expand access to credit for small farmers and ranchers and beginning and socially disadvantaged producers.

The microloan application process is simpler and requires less paperwork than traditional operating loans. Additionally, the requirement for managerial experience and loan security has been modified to ensure that small family operations and beginning farmers and ranchers can obtain the credit needed to start and continue an agricultural operation. This loan program will also be useful to specialty crop producers and operators of community supported agriculture (CSA).

Eligible applicants can apply for a maximum amount of $35,000 to pay for initial start-up expenses such as hoop houses to extend the growing season, essential tools, irrigation, delivery vehicles, and annual expenses such as seed, fertilizer, utilities, land rents, marketing, and distribution expenses. As financing needs increase, applicants can apply for an operating loan up to the maximum amount of $300,000 or obtain financing from a commercial lender under FSA’s Guaranteed Loan Program.

Small farmers often rely on credit cards or personal loans, which carry high interest rates and have less flexible payment schedules, to finance their operations. The microloan program will expand access to credit and provide a simple and flexible loan process for small operators.

The current interest rate for Microloans is 1.25 percent.

In addition to microloans, FSA offers several farm loan programs that provide funding to purchase land, livestock, equipment, feed, seed, and supplies, or can be used to construct buildings or make farm improvements.

Producers interested in applying for a microloan or other FSA farm loan program should contact their local Farm Service Agency office.

Before you borrow:

At Fantastic Farm Enterprises we encourage you to make a financial plan before you get credit! You may want to sign up for our Grow Your Own CSA program where you will have access to a Financial Projections spreadsheet to help you make a 7-year plan.

 

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Posted by Tracy Sweely

Maybe it's just because I don't know enough about this subject, but even in its cheery cartoon format this scares the bejesus out of me.

Clearly, the up close and personal reason is that as a farmer in Colorado, I've suffered drought conditions in the last several years. But I've been suffering through with the express hope that these conditions are an anomaly that are sure to pass. I mean, I remember when I first moved to Colorado in 1993 we had thundershowers every afternoon in the summer. Not so much anymore... But the history summarized in this video brings into sharp focus something I've been only vaguely aware of, that water has ALWAYS been an issue here.

Ok, yeah, that's one thing... But another thing is the fact that the population in Colorado has been and continues to grow. And this along with intense pressures from the energy sector for gas development through fracking, which can potentially contaminate groundwater, does not bode well for the future of our water supply. Colorado can't be the only place where we find ourselves in a precarious relationship with water, and I can't be the only one worried... Please comment and let us know the situation in your area.

Thank you Grace Hood for bringing this to my attention!

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By Tracy Sweely

Remember the Wish Book? You know, long before the Internet, Sears and Montgomery Wards used to come out with a special Christmas edition of their catalogue, and us kids would be SOOO excited. We’d circle in big bold marker all the things we knew that we literally couldn’t live without. I don’t recall ever actually getting something from the Wish Book though…. Instead of the Easy Bake Oven that I swooned over, I got an Easy Bake Oven Cake Mix that we bought at a toy store and cooked in our regular oven (which somehow wasn’t quite the same thing…). But in the end it didn’t matter. Before Christmas we experienced the dreamy hopefulness of all possibility with all the shiny things in the wish book, but Christmas morning those things were all but forgotten as we tore off the wrapping paper thrilled with the surprises we found inside. As an adult not many things compare to that pre-Christmas childhood sense of wondrous hope and magic. But I’ve discovered as a farmer that one thing actually kind of tops it.

Along about the middle of October I start getting really worn out from farming, especially since we’ve been doing a winter CSA. But then they suddenly start arriving one by one in the mail… and as the weeks go by more and more start arriving in earnest every day: seed catalogues!!!  With their high resolution, glossy pictures and multitude of varieties, they shamelessly cross that line from childhood wish book to “adult entertainment.” Yep, in the matter of a few short weeks I start getting excited about next year’s growing season like a kid feeling that pre-Christmas hope and magic all over again. I can’t imaging that the designers of seed catalogues know that besides taunting us with images that make us want to buy far more varieties than we need, they are actually reviving the entire exhausted farmer community into saying “Well, yeah, maybe I’ll go ahead and give it another try again next year after all.”

The frenzy is about to begin! The planning is of course first, and every one of you new farmers reading this, remember to do that step first. No matter how excited you are to order the seeds, plan first, order next. But then… where to start? Which seed catalogues have the most variety, the best germination rates and the best PRICES?  Because when you are starting out, especially if you have a small operation, experimenting with varieties is key to finding out which ones grow best under the conditions of your farm. Testing out varieties can get kind of expensive since you are generally buying small quantities, and the price of all those little packets can quickly add up. These important short-term goals aside, in the long-term, price actually has to take a back seat to one other thing... Like honeybees and glaciers, our worldwide seed stock is in a bit of a crisis.

Since we started our farm in 2009, I’ve only vaguely been aware of the extent of the crisis, but this year I had a sudden wake-up call. Among the huge number of incoming seed catalogues one caught my eye. It was slick and colorful and I could tell right away that the prices were super low. Hmm, attractive… I hadn’t quite seen anything like it before, and not that I’m a suspicious person by nature, but something about it didn’t quite feel right. I guess it just seemed too good… So, I drew upon a little policy I employ, for better or worse, when I meet a guy on an online dating site who seems like he might have some potential, I Googled them. Jackpot! Turns out this seed company was recently purchased by a real big, and real bad, multi-national conglomerate that I’m sure you’ve heard of. I refuse to electronically utter this company’s name here to avoid invoking evil, but also simply because I don’t want to possibly contribute to their web traffic statistics. I digitally thumb my nose at “The Big M” who is no friend of the farmer.

Ranting aside, the authors of the article Organic Vegetables Start Out as Seed, report that not only does The Big M own 40% of the US vegetable seed market it also owns one of the top vegetable breeders in the world. The Big M and a few of their industry buddies like to tinker with DNA, moving genetic material between species to “improve” on seed characteristics. Never mind that through selection Nature has just spent millions of years, and our ancestral farmers the last 12,000 years, doing just that. The genetic material of the “improved” seeds can contaminate surrounding crops with unknown consequences. In addition, the hybrids produced by these companies are either sterile or the characteristics eventually revert back to their parent species.

It’s true that humans like to select seed for specific characteristics and our ancestor farmers were no exception.  But companies like The Big M are actually limiting our access to, and breeding out, the very seed diversity that Nature and our ancestors have bestowed upon us. Our seed heritage is disappearing.  In a period of erratic climatic conditions we need more seed diversity not less in order to meet possible long-term changes to the regional environments we find ourselves farming in. With both wild lands and farmland shrinking because of human population pressure, edible plants are far less capable of seeding themselves through the natural processes of selection that have been effective for millions of years. The edible plants that get propagated are the ones that we farmers choose to sow. So we are in a powerful position. Do we just take the limited types of seed that the seed conglomerates are forcing upon us? Do we allow ourselves to be seduced by their glossy pictures and cheap prices? Not only is it within our power to demand more diversity from seed companies it is also our responsibility. Who else besides today’s farmer is in the position to foster seed diversity for us and for the future?

Given that The Big M produces so much of the seed stock available in the marketplace, buying organic, heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties is the best way to avoid having our choices limited to a standard set of genetically-modified and hybrid varieties. At the end of the article I mentioned above there is a list of reputable seed companies. I buy from several different companies when I put the seed order together for our farm and I’ll admit I do buy a few hybrid varieties along with many heirlooms, as part of an effort to hedge my bets during a given season on certain crops that are vulnerable in my region. But while navigating the list for my own seed order I stumbled across a company that I was really pleased to buy from, www.edenbrothers.com. They sell many heirloom and organic varieties, along with a few hybrids, and they have really great prices right now on 1 oz packages compared to other seed companies.

One ounce of seed for many crops is a lot more than I usually buy, but the price made it doable and I’ve got seed for next year and possibly the year after that too, if I store it properly. I haven’t yet planted any of the seed so I don’t know about germination rates, but the seed looks to be good quality, for example there are not a lot of broken seeds.  The main thing though is that Eden Brothers has made it easy for me to do my part to foster seed diversity by providing a wide selection of heirloom, open pollinated and organic seed at prices my farm can afford.

If you’d like to support the effort to get the word out about the seed stock crisis click here.

Update 1/13/13: Just stumbled across this handy looking tool for locating organic seed: The Organic Seed Finder.

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It’s Not Thanksgetting

By Tracy Sweely

I LOVE Thanksgiving. It is by far my favorite holiday and always has been. Even during my identity-experimenting youth, during that super-skinny period of my life when I was a vegetarian, I never passed up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner... That is how fundamental the holiday is to me.

Clearly, one reason is because I absolutely love turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauce and gravy…lots of gravy. Yum! I’m sure I’m not the only one who will eat Thanksgiving leftovers for every single meal (even breakfast) after the holiday proper until they are gone, completely gone… I do save a little bit of the turkey and cook the carcass down for broth and freeze it all for soup for later. But it is usually not much later, maybe a month or two. Thanksgiving will never outrun me.

The completely carnal aspect of the holiday aside, I do also love the sentiment. The coming together of people in the act of sharing. The ritual acknowledgement of blessing and abundance in our lives.  The mythico-historical idea that the “first” Thanksgiving in America was some kind of love-fest between Pilgrims and Native Americans… yeah, not so much really, but it’s a nice idea… Certainly the awareness of reaping the harvest after the hard physical and personal work we have done. The last couple of years have been different though, the idea I’ve always held, that Thanksgiving draws our attention to the appreciation of what we have, has changed for me.

I’m a farmer now. You can’t get much closer to the true significance of harvest than that. Farming is the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’ve worked pretty darn hard before. Seventy- and eighty-hour weeks doing archaeological survey in the steamy, snake- and spider-infested jungles of Belize were a piece of cake compared to farming. Farming is a wholly physical and mental act of devotion…weekly, daily, hourly. It is the labor of harnessing the body to the yoke... the yoke that coaxes the life-force from the earth that then sustains the body… but not just the body of the farmer, also the bodies of all those dependent upon her.

Truly though, the satisfaction that I get from farming is completely and utterly worth the effort. Yes, I have grown this food. Well, really, I have only prostrated myself in order to help. Nature Impartial is the one who really makes it happen. If she’s in a good mood I just have the intention and then clear the way, and add a bit of support here and there.  And then make a huge effort to get out of the way and let it happen, no need to micro-manage. But when she’s in a bad mood, look out. That is how it’s been in the last couple years with the wind, the drought and the heat. It has become all about mitigation, constant mediation, ceaseless coaxing to reach the harvest. No matter how hard I work though, it is Nature that doles out the blessings.

But this hard work of farming in an unpredictable climate has never been about sustaining myself. I don’t grow food simply to have abundance for me. It doesn’t just end there. How boring would that be? Farming has been a metaphor for my life. Yes, I am thankful that I have had a privileged socio-economic position in the world (Culture in a good mood) and that I have had the support of generous souls along the way. And yes, I am thankful that I have been capable of doing what it takes, made the choices and worked hard to take care of myself, to bring security and abundance into my life. But, to have done all that work and then to be able to turn around and provide some of the bounty to others, that is where the gold lies. To have worked hard to arrive at a level of self-sustenance, and to then know (and also choose) to not worry whether there will be enough is a beautiful thing. But to be in that place and also be able to give to others, to give them the opportunity to make their own steps towards this experience, that is true and deep satisfaction. It is not called Thanksgetting. It is called Thanksgiving, and aligning my life so that I can be a means for Nature to dole out her blessings has changed me forever.

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