Jason Silverman on his farming experience

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Jason is a graduate of the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at UMass Amherst

CONWAY — Aging farmers own a collective $1.8 billion in farming infrastructure and land throughout Massachusetts, according to Land For Good, a nonprofit promoting New England agriculture.

That combined with rising property values — which have increased steadily since 2006 based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics — pose problems for first-generation farmers who don’t already own land or have access to investment capital. Nationally, farm real estate averaged $3,020 per acre in 2015, up about $1,000 over 2006.

The conundrum has influenced aspiring farmers, some of whom studied agriculture in college, to give up altogether, said Jason Silverman, a 29-year-old hay farmer.

Silverman understands the problem well. Since he was a young boy, Silverman was “obsessed with hay, tractors.” But his parents weren’t farmers and didn’t own land. Discouraged, Silverman almost gave up his dream of farming to pursue computer science.

Lease agreements created a path into farming.

He still doesn’t own land. Instead, Silverman hays property throughout Conway leased from other property owners who want their land farmed and care about local agriculture. Starting with nine acres in 2012, “essentially keeping it mowed,” Silverman now owns and operates Windrow Farm, a small-scale business, haying 25 acres (much of which lay dormant for years before), storing the yield in three barns.

“It’s about a 20-minute car ride or a 40-minute tractor ride. I always call my operation a traveling circus because it’s field, to field, to field,” he joked.

Silverman, who grew up in Conway and studied plant, soil and insect science at UMass, is also a farm manager at the university’s student-run vegetable farm in South Deerfield, chairman of Conway’s Agriculture Commission and the state’s field agent at New Hampshire-based Land For Good.

And it’s through his work with Land For Good that helps provide guidance in the area for leasing farm land. Land For Good has helped dozens of New England farmers, as listed on the organization’s website.

As an alternative to ownership, lease agreements give young farmers a chance to break into the market, Silverman said. It is a win for everyone involved, allowing young farmers to start small and grow their operations, older farmers to keep their land in production and, most importantly, protecting agricultural space from unwanted development, he said.

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But there are potential pitfalls. Hand-shake agreements can deteriorate. Thus, strong legal paperwork is required to ensure financial safety. Further, many farmers are hesitant to invest in infrastructure on land they don’t own.

That’s where Land For Good steps in, creating preservation trusts, helping young farmers navigate land access through education, working with aging farmers to ensure their land remains in agricultural use and sometimes facilitating long-term usage agreements between the two demographics.

“It seems like there’s a new flush of farmers, especially in the hill towns. The land search is tough,” Silverman said. “There are a lot of older farmers, there are a lot of younger farmers.”

Bridging that age gap before it’s too late is imperative. Of 2,300 farmers older than 65 years old, eight percent have someone under age 45 working with them. And in the next decade, an estimated one-third of the state’s farmland is expected to change hands, according to findings by American Farmland Trust, Land For Good and U.S. Census of Agriculture data.

“What these farmers do with their land and other farm assets as they exit farming will shape Massachusetts’ agricultural landscape for generations to come,” said Lisa Luciani, spokeswoman at Land For Good.

Stories of shuttered farming operations abound, as evidenced by decaying barns and overgrown fields speckled throughout the region. New England has lost more than 10,000 dairy farms in the past 50 years, with about 2,000 remaining. Franklin County once had more than 125 about 40 years ago. Today, they number fewer than 35.

But there are also tales of success. Land For Good helped Mark and Jeannette Fellows sell their family’s 264-acre Warwick dairy farm, Chase Hill Farms, to Ben and Laura Wells-Tolley, a younger couple who shared their farming principles.

Another example is Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, which Silverman said has “long term secure tenure” on rented land.

Lease agreements — per month, per year, flat rate, yield percentage, maintenance agreements — “can allow you to farm the way you want to farm,” Silverman said. “People don’t understand how flexible they can be. Leases can be viable.”

Eventually, Silverman intends to purchase livestock and expand his farming operation. And eventually, he’d like to buy land. But for now, he’s slowly building his operation for longevity.

“Starting a farm in your hometown, you get roadside assistance anywhere if your tractor breaks down,” Silverman said. “I hope I can pay it forward someday when I see a young farmer trying to start up.”

More information can be found at landforgood.org. Farm seekers and land owners can find property to lease, rent, sell, or buy at newenglandfarmlandfinder.org.

Original Post by Andy Castillo at: acastillo@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

 

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Climate Change and Organic Agriculture

By Bill Duesing…..

Many of us participated in the inspiring People’s Climate March on 9/21/2014 in New York City. Marchers represented a wide variety of religious, educational, environmental, energy, social justice, peace, health, labor, cultural and other organizations.  Though they all had their own agendas for solving problems and making the world a better place, they agreed that climate change is very serious and needs to be addressed.

From right, soil scientist, permaculturalist and CT NOFA founding Board member Cynthia Rabinowitz, CT NOFA Executive Director Eileen Hochberg and former executive director Bill Duesing at the beginning of the People’s Climate March.

Organic farmers and consumers marched with the “We Have Solutions” section. We’ve known for a long time that organic food and agriculture are an important part of the solution to many of our environmental problems.  Organic methods and systems are valuable tools for building health and biodiversity in the soil, in our communities and in our bodies.

Organic Solutions

We are just now understanding how organic agriculture not only slows down climate change and increases our resilience in the face of it, but also actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.  Organic agriculture even has a powerful potential to reverse some of the damage we’ve already done to the atmosphere.

The key organic methods which encourage carbon storage reduce or eliminate tillage and bare soil, keep the soil covered with a diversity of growing plants and eliminate synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.  Soil that is not disturbed encourages greater soil biodiversity, especially more fungal growth.  Fungi function as liquid carbon pathways, carrying energy-rich carbon compounds from plant roots to the billions of soil organisms surrounding the roots.  Between 30 and 60 percent of the carbon plants take out of the air flows out through the roots.  This carbon energizes nitrogen-fixing and other soil organisms which eventually turn it into long-lived humus, a safe carbon repository which greatly increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.

The Chemical Contrast

This organic advantage is nearly the opposite of what chemical agriculture does.  In many ways, from its production to its leaching into the environment, synthetic nitrogen damages our planet.

University of Illinois scientists studied the nitrogen fertilizer records and soil carbon levels at the Morrow plots, the nation’s oldest experiment field with records going back 100 years. Researchers found that chemical fertilizers deplete the soil’s organic carbon.  They discovered that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer had not only stimulated decomposition of all the organic residues (corn stalks, soy plants) that had been added to the soil over fifty years, but also had volatilized almost five tons per acre of carbon from the native soil.  Read the study HERE

All told they found that chemical nitrogen fertilizers had driven about 100 tons of carbon out of the soil, and into the air as carbon dioxide, from each acre of the experiment farm. Inorganic nitrogen, especially when combined with tillage, greatly damages the soil ecosystem.  It inhibits nitrogen-fixing organisms and the fungi that feed them with carbon exuded by plant roots.

In contrast, studies on four continents have shown that organic farming can store from just under a ton to over three tons of carbon, per acre, per year.  Multiply that by the number of crop acres world wide and you get a number close to the amount of excess carbon we need to remove from the atmosphere to stabilize the climate. Only the ocean can hold more carbon. Amazing!

The application of nitrogen fertilizer is also responsible for about three quarters of this country’s nitrous oxide emissions.  Nitrous oxide has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

All these greenhouse emissions are in addition to those released as inorganic nitrogen is taken from the atmosphere by the energy-intensive process to create nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas.  The whole process likely releases even more greenhouse gases if that natural gas is the result of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) which is becoming the norm these days. Read Tom Philpott’s explanation of how cheap gas from fracking and hefty subsidies from taxpayers are encouraging greater domestic production of this soil and climate destroying substance.

After all that pollution from its making and application, 60 to 90 percent of the applied nitrogen fertilizer is leached into water, volatilized into the air or immobilized in soil. Nitrogen pollution is responsible for dead zones on our coasts and undrinkable well water in the heartland. (See photo.)

Notice in a Kansas State Park, August 2014. Nitrates are from nitrogen fertilizer.

Look at the Summer and Fall issues of NOFA’s The Natural Farmer for more details on the soil, carbon and nitrogen connections.  Dr. Christine Jones’ articles are especially helpful.  (While you are looking at the Summer issue, be sure to read Connecticut “carbon farmer” Bryan O’Hara’s article, “No-Till Vegetables at Tobacco Road Farm.)

Put simply, chemical agriculture releases great quantities of greenhouse gases while organic agriculture sequesters them.

SLOW change

Despite the dismal reality, don’t expect a swift change away from chemical nitrogen to organic methods without a lot more activist pressure.

We’ve known about many of the advantages of organic agriculture for over 100 years. Knowledge alone won’t do it in the face of some giant corporations wanting to make and sell more chemical fertilizers (and pesticides and the seeds that need both). Other corporations demand access to low-cost feed for confined animal feeding operations, and to low-cost ingredients for soda, junk food and even beer.

Some rich and powerful entities are able to manipulate government programs and public opinion for their benefit while financially squeezing farmers and driving them off the land.

As a University of Minnesota ecologist notes in another Philpott article: …the problem lies not with farmers but with farm policy and the market/political power of agribusiness—a “behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government.”

Women in Agriculture Series at UMass

Women make up nearly half of the global agricultural workforce but receive much less funding, land, input, and training than men.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has spotlighted the gender gap in agriculture as a key obstacle to sustainable development – here’s a great infographic with statistics around this issue.
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We want to take these stats and turn them on their head. We’ve rallied women entrepreneurs in agriculture locally and regionally who have the capacity to inspire others to create a better food system.
We’re inviting the campus community and the public to join us to learn about the successes and challenges of their journeys.
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There are three lectures in the series, with one taking place each month this fall (click the title for details):
The series has been organized and coordinated by Stockbridge instructor Angela Roell and lecturer Sarah Berquist and the flyer was designed by SFF student Annalisa Flynn.
Each lecture has its own Facebook event (links are included above). Those interested in attending are encouraged to RSVP to individual events on Facebook.
We’d appreciate if you could pass along this information to anyone else you think may be interested. Questions and feedback can be directed via email (abthorpe@umass.edu).
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Learn about the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture! 

or…

How to Prepare for WHATEVER Comes Next

NOTE:  Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology.  I rely on her work when I teach STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking.  I had her permission to modify one of her essays and share it under the title of The Shambhala Worker.   Stockbridge instructor, Catherine Sands, sent me this interview.  If you think life looks pretty bleak right now…. read this!
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Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say ‘It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.’”

Joanna Macy on How to Prepare Internally for WHATEVER Comes Next

This is an interview with Joanna Macy published in Ecobuddhism.
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Ecobuddhism: How do you feel about the Sixth Mass Extinction?

Joanna Macy: It’s happening. It’s combined with so much else that promises wholesale collapse. How do we begin to deal with the plastic in the ocean that covers areas the size of countries? What are cell phones and microwaves doing to our biological rhythms? What exactly is in our food? How do we address genetic modification of crops? We are so hooked on all of this, on every level. How do we begin to contain it?

The most immediate level of crisis concerns the Earth’s carrying capacity. Many civilizations prior to ours, starting with Mesopotamia, could no longer support themselves because they exhausted their natural resources. Carrying capacity is the level most people talk about. It’s a defining aspect of the climate crisis. How will we grow the food we need given huge variations and extremities of weather? How will we handle the natural disasters and famines that will result from a chaotic climate?

DEEP DENIAL: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life

DENIAL

Join Gardening the Community and Undoing Racism Organizing Collective for a reading from DEEP DENIAL: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life by David Billings, Core Trainer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

 

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 13;  6:30 – 8:00 PM

Scibelli Enterprise Center, 1 Federal Street, Springfield, MA

Come learn, reflect and be inspired!

Now more than ever we need to address the root causes of the racism and racial superiority that permeate our country and institutions.

Refreshments will be served

Copies of the book will be for sale and all proceeds will benefit the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

Deep Denial focuses primarily on the deeply embedded notion of white supremacy, and tells us why we remain, in the words o the author, a nation hard-wired by race. Each chapter begins with an intimate and unsparingly personal account from the author’s own life. He then lays out the historical facts, while preserving the master storyteller’s connection with the reader.

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“No one speaks to racism and its cure better than David Billings, a white Southerner who has seen it all.   His is a voice that needs to be heard.  It is a voice with a perfect pitch.”  . . . .Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Emmy and Peabody Award winning journalist and civil rights pioneer.

Event sponsors:  UROC of Western MA, Arise for Social Justice, Gardening the community, PV Grows Racial Equity in the Food System Working Group

 

The Shambhala Worker Prophecy

As students return to universities around the world and I return to my role as a professor of Sustainable Food and Farming, I am thinking about how to maintain the freedom of thought and action that I experience during the summer months while returning to work within a hierarchical institution of power and control.  Students often wonder the same thing…….

I ask each fall – how do we maintain our sense of freedom and hope when we are faced with the sometimes oppressive  university hierarchy?  In 2003, I addressed this question during a graduation ceremony speech in which I claimed the key was compassion for all and knowledge of the connectedness of all things. I adapted an essay by Joanna Macy for this speech which I renamed “the Shambhala worker” (with the author’s permission of course).

I’ve posted it here for you

Namaste…..

Agriculture is a conversation with the divine

As I begin a year long sabbatical leave from my teaching job at UMass, I’ve been thinking once again about what agriculture means to me.  In preparation, I re-read an essay I wrote years ago called Agriculture is a business and a conversation with the divine.”

If you click on the title, you can find the essay…..


I think when I wrote this essay I was hesitant to use the word “divine”. Today, I find it easier talk about my relationship with the divine, whether that be God, the Buddha, the Tao, some “power greater than ourselves”, or whatever way we choose to think about the non-material.  Of course, agriculture has its very important “material” aspects, but it is the spiritual connection that I’m thinking about today.

In the essay I refer to Wendel Berry’s quote “eating is an agricultural act.” Berry presents a few ideas on how we may each connect with the universe or the divine through food and farming.

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He suggests that we:

  • participate in growing food to the extent that we can,

  • prepare our own food,

  • learn the origins of the food we buy,

  • deal directly with a local farmer, and;

  • learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden “wastes”, as a necessary means of reconnecting with the non-human part of the universe.

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I wonder if you agree?  Can you think of other ways in which we might renew and sustain our connection with “something bigger than ourselves” through food and farming?

If you are curious…. check it out here and offer our own comments.