Category Archives: Farming

On our way to a “nation of farmers” in Amherst, MA

Michelle Chandler and one of her backyard meat rabbits

Michelle Chandler made a decision shortly after September 11, 2001 – she was going to be less dependent on fossil fuels and begin to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  The result is 100 rabbits, dozens of laying hens and a couple of milk goats in her suburban yard in South Amherst, MA.  Chandler quotes John 21:17, when Peter was asked by Jesus, “Do you love me?” Upon answering, “Yes,” Peter is instructed to “feed my sheep.”

Chandler’s “sheep” are her four children, ages 8 to 13, as well as neighbors and friends who enjoy the results of her bounty produced at Blessed Acre Farm and Rabbitry, where she raises several rare and heritage rabbit breeds – Cinnamons, Thriantas, Californians, Cremes d’Argent, Palominos, and American Blues.

According to an article in her local newspaper, those interested in raising rabbits should start with three, which would cost about $60 to get started. “For someone who wants rabbit on the table once a week for a family of four, you could realistically get by with one buck and two does,” she said. Then there’s the cost of building or buying hutches, at around $50 to $75 apiece, and providing the feed. A 50-pound bag costs $14.

Although her own property was far enough from the center of town to be exempt, Chandler was instrumental in helping to pass a new bylaw that allows up to 12 chickens or rabbits by right anywhere in Amherst.

“I feel strongly that Amherst will be better served by being able to feed itself,” said Chandler. “People are always going to be hungry, and if people have another food source, that’s a good thing.”

 One of Michelle Chandler’s close friends, Sharon Astyk, has written a book called “A Nation of Farmers” in which she claims raising your own food in the backyard must become a more common feature of the American landscape if we are to adjust to Peak Oil.  Chandler’s backyard has become a living example of this trend.

 

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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.

According to SFF grad “farming is cool now”

Farming is growing in popularity among recent college graduates, fed by concerns over nutrition and a weak job market.

The 24-year-old new owner of Full Heart Farm in Ledyard is one of them.

Allyson Angelini, who graduated from the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming program, last week took over the 6.25-acre property at 193 Iron St. She plans to get married on the farm in about a year.

“It doesn’t take much to fall in love with farming,” said Angelini, who gave up a desire to be a magazine journalist and instead got an agricultural education degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. “And farming is really cool now, and that feeling is growing.”

Erin Pirro, who supervises the Outstanding Young Farmer program in Connecticut, agreed.

“Farming is becoming sexy again,” she said. “Americans have become out of touch with their food supplies. There’s a lot of passion for locally grown food.”

Farming still has a predominately older demographic, according to the U.S. Agriculture Census. For every farmer under 35, there are six over 65, the latest census said.

Angelini’s age enabled her to be considered “disadvantaged” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, making her eligible for the agency’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers loan program.

Angelini has traveled in 5.5 years of researching farming, including working at a Stonington educational facility known as Terra Firma Farm and on a pork farm in Italy. She left her job at Jones Family Farms in Shelton in September to try to secure a farm in New London County.

Encouragement and assistance from elders is encouraging more 20-somethings to go into farming, Angelini said. Bob Burns, owner of Aiki Farms in Ledyard, was recently at Full Heart Farm, using his John Deere tractor to plow and harrow a portion of the land.

“(Angelini) is a delightful person, and Aiki Farms will support them as neighbors and fellow farmers,” said Burns, who is manager of the Ledyard Farmers Market, where Angelini plans to sell some her crops including beans, carrots, potatoes, squash and tomatoes.

Her parents, Greg and Sally Angelini, have been coming to Full Heart to help. Brother Ryan Angelini, who works at Electric Boat Corp., has also been assisting with repair projects. Keith Padin, Allyson Angelini’s fiancé, is a full partner in Full Heart, and his parents recently made their first visit to the farm.

“It’s hard to start a family farm without family around,” Allyson said.

Allyson and Keith are promoting that family feeling by giving names to each of their chickens and pigs.

Locally raised meat and produce strengthens family ties, Angelini said. And — on pure taste alone — local farming competes strongly, she said.

“Once you have farm-fresh eggs and homemade bacon, you never go back,” Angelini said.
Love of animals and land is not enough for a farmer these days, Angelini said.

“Young farmers need a wide skill set,” Angelini said. “There is so much diversity in the farm habitat.”

The demise of the family farm

NOTE:  This story isn’t over.  If you buy directly from local farms, you support a neighbor and a quality of life that many of us value.  In Western Massachusetts, the amount of food purchased directly from local farms is 10 times the national average.
If you buy from a big box store…… you are responsible for the following story.
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Andersen family farm

The photo above is of the Andersen family farm in Chatfield, Minnesota. It’s a farm that only exists in the memories of my brother, sister, and my cousins, as it had ceased

Continue reading The demise of the family farm

Industrial Agriculture is about to “bust”

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The Wall Street Journal is predicting a farm bust on the horizon, as America’s role in the global grain market shrinks, and the price for corn continues to drop. Reporters Jesse Newman and Patrick McGroarty write

The Farm Belt is hurtling toward a milestone: Soon there will be fewer than two million farms in America for the first time since pioneers moved westward after the Louisiana Purchase.

This number definitely reflects a growing decline in farming. But what the Wall Street Journal doesn’t note is that the nation’s largest farms are only growing more powerful and large. We have fewer farms, yes, but largely because we have a greater share of larger, industrialized farms.

 The WSJ interviewed a specific type of farmer for this article: the commodity crop farmer. Yes, they represent the greatest portion of farms in the American heartland. But many are also beginning to realize that government subsidies and cushy crop insurance premiums can’t save them forever: when their supply is abundantly overstepping demand, eventually reality is going to hit. And if this WSJ piece is any indication, reality is indeed about to strike.

How America’s Heartland Farms Are Hurting

As you read through the Wall Street Journal’s article, a general outline of the farmers interviewed falls into place: 50-plus years of age, farming more than 1,000 acres, dotted across America’s flyover country in states like Iowa and Kansas. They’re all struggling to make ends meet:

Across the heartland, a multiyear slump in prices for corn, wheat and other farm commodities brought on by a glut of grain world-wide is pushing many farmers further into debt. Some are shutting down, raising concerns that the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.

The U.S. share of the global grain market is less than half what it was in the 1970s. American farmers’ incomes will drop 9% in 2017, the Agriculture Department estimates, extending the steepest slide since the Great Depression into a fourth year.

Many of these farmers need a second career in order to keep their businesses afloat.

‘No one just grain farms anymore,’ said Deb Stout, whose sons Mason and Spencer farm the family’s 2,000 acres in Sterling, Kan., 120 miles east of Ransom. Spencer also works as a mechanic, and Mason is a substitute mailman. ‘Having a side job seems like the only way to make it work,’ she said.

The History Of American Agriculture’s Decline

How did we get to this point? The WSJ gives a mini history lesson midway through their article:

From the early 1800s until the Great Depression, the number of U.S. farms grew steadily as pioneers spread west of the Mississippi River. Families typically raised a mix of crops and livestock on a few hundred acres of land at most. After World War II, high-horsepower tractors and combines enabled farmers to cover more ground. Two decades ago, genetically engineered seeds helped farmers grow more.

Farms grew bigger and more specialized. Large-scale operations now account for half of U.S. agricultural production. Most farms, even some of the biggest, are still run by families. As farm sizes jumped, their numbers fell, from six million in 1945 to just over two million in 2015, nearing a threshold last seen in the mid-1800s. Total acres farmed in the U.S. have dropped 24% to 912 million acres.

This short account of the jump from subsistence-style farming to today’s industrialized farming could easily fill thousands of pages (and indeed has—from John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” to Wendell Berry’s novels).

Today’s Farms Still Follow an ‘Industrial Paradigm’

The Industrial Revolution shaped and transformed farming in seismic ways. As I wrote for Comment Magazine last year, “farming in the new, industrialized era began to favor quantity and specialization—because new machines worked most efficiently when farmers chose to harvest large, homogenous acreages instead of the small, diversified crops of the past. Farmers sought bigger and bigger swaths of land, seeing in them the promise of greater funds in the bank.”

American farms are still stuck in this “industrial paradigm,” says sustainable farmer Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms. “Just like the agrarian economy gave way to the industrial, and the industrial to the information, and now the information is giving way to the regenerative economy, agriculture is changing. Because farmers tend to be conservative, agriculture is the slowest of all economic sectors to embrace the new economy.”

When Salatin’s father bought their family-operated farm in Swoope, Virginia, the land was severely eroded, and soil health was poor. “When my dad, in the early 1960s, asked agricultural advisors to tell him how to make a living on this farm, they all encouraged him to abuse the land more aggressively,” remembers Salatin. “He eschewed that counsel and did the opposite of everything they said. Today, we are healthy and profitable. Every person must decide whose advice to follow.”

Incentivizing Farmers to Destroy Neighbors’ Businesses

The WSJ piece goes on, “For some, the slump is an opportunity. Farmers with low debts and enough scale to profit from last year’s record harvests could be in a position to rent or buy up land from struggling neighbors.” In other words, large (most likely government-subsidized) farms can use this opportunity to buy out their smaller counterparts. Sounds like a great thing for the economy long-term, doesn’t it?

One chilly afternoon in October, Mr. Scheufler steered his combine across the first field he bought. The machine’s giant claw spun through rows of golden soybeans. A hawk circled the combine’s wake, hunting for exposed field mice. He recalled farmers whose land he has taken over: Ted Hartwick ’s, the Matthews’, the Profits’, his father’s.

Yes, building a large and profitable business is usually seen as an integral part of free market economics. We don’t want to prevent successful farms from getting larger. But it’s crucial to ask a few questions here: first, are these farms growing via their own merits—or via the support of the federal government? (Often, the answer is the latter.) Is their business model truly sustainable (and therefore, “successful” long term)?

Too often, the growth of a commodity farm means taking diversity, sustainability, and community, and turning these goods into homogeneity, depreciation, and solitude. This may not be Scheufler’s story. But it is, increasingly, the story of America’s heartland.  As another interviewee tells the WSJ,

There were 28 students in Mr. Scott’s graduating class at Ransom’s high school nearly four decades ago. Most were farmers’ children. This year there are nine students in the school’s senior class. ‘Farms got bigger to be more efficient, but it’s caused these towns to die a slow death,’ Mr. Scott said.

It’s not just farm towns that are ill-served by the way agriculture currently works. Land erosion, water contamination, and soil pollution are just a few of the ecological consequences of bad farming practices. “The current debacle has been coming for a long time,” says Salatin. And, he adds, “It will not end quickly. Rectifying our decades of abuse will not be easy. Healing will be disturbing.”

Farmers Aren’t Encouraged to Diversify Their Operations

Part of the problem here is that farmers, rather than diversifying their farms to protect against commodity price drops, have been encouraged (largely by subsidies, sometimes by the market) to always produce more of the same.

“Rather than studying how nature works, the informational component of the agriculture sector tends to throw out historic templates and remake life in a mechanical hubris of fatter, faster, bigger, cheaper,” says Salatin.

Many farmers who’ve expanded their enterprises have continued to grow the same exact crops on all that land. Now, writes Newman and McGroarty, “Corn and wheat output has never been higher, and never has so much grain been bunkered away.” So when the price of corn, soybeans, and wheat drops—as it is now—farmers don’t have another crop to fall back on.

In the short term, diversifying your farm operation can be more expensive, time-consuming, and physically demanding. But it also creates job security. Long-term, it protects both your farm and soil health.

When we focus on producing a few commodity crops, any country can beat us at our own game. We produce a glut of grain that global markets are no longer buying. Meanwhile, Americans living in the heartland of Iowa buy their tomatoes and peppers from South America. It seems strange, doesn’t it?

How Can Farmers Adopt to a Changing Market?

“I am concerned about the trend of making farms bigger and bigger, and more impersonal,” Maury Johnson, owner of Blue River Hybrids, told me in an email.  “American consumers have more interest in how their food is grown and produced, and the impact our conventional food system has on the environment. I personally am troubled when I drive by the feedyards and confinement buildings, and have found it difficult to eat the products coming from those environments.”

Promoting a different farming model could prove salutary for farmers. But it requires a drastically different way of thinking, and many are deeply (albeit understandably) opposed to it.

Interestingly, though, a younger generation is increasingly embracing new farming trends, seeking to build smaller, diversified, and local farming operations. As Philanthropy Daily reported last week, “All around the United States, young men and women are joining the ‘new food economy’ of small farmers and food producers. Since 2006, local food marketing channels have seen substantial growth: Farmers’ markets have grown by 180%, reaching 8,200 nationwide. 7.8% of farms in the U.S. are marketing locally, and local food sales have reached $6.1 billion.”

What Might Rebuilding a Local Food Economy Look Like?

These younger farmers, however, are struggling against the orthodoxies of their elders in the agricultural community.As author and farmer Forrest Pritchard noted in an email,  “it’s no accident that the youngest farmer cited in this article is 56; the U.S. average age for a farmer is 58 and rising.”

He adds, “It defies explanation that our nation’s food security receives such low priority in our culture. The aging of our American farmers reveals a crisis of neglect—a neglect of training young farmers, a neglect of overhauling our education system to promote alternatives to commodity-dependent agriculture, and a neglect of investing appropriate research and development for alternative types of agricultural models.”

Eduardo Andino’s article in Philanthropy Daily considers a promising shift in farming support, however. He profiles a farm loan business founded by Silicon Valley businessmen. These businessmen decided to leave the world of international business to go local. Their story, which directly addresses the plight of American’s grain farmers, is worth quoting at length:

… Sam and Scott are interested in helping Maine rebuild a local food infrastructure: By giving farmers loans to build grain mills, slaughter houses, distribution plants, and more.

Scott, who some years ago formed a social investing strategies division at TIAA-CREF’s investment department, says that infrastructure is key. ‘100 years ago, you would’ve had local financial institutions that understood how local farming worked,’ and who could help build up local processors and distributors. Today, however, everything has gravitated up to the level of big ads and ‘big food.’

… Based on their international experience, Scott and Sam have concluded that the best thing they can do for agriculture worldwide is to go local. Scott describes his desire to transition ‘from a very top down high level job to a very bottom up job’ as being partially motivated by seeing the work of Rockefeller impact investing in Africa. While observing their work on a sustainable agriculture program in Africa, Scott realized ‘the best thing anyone could do for agriculture all over the world, from poor peasant farmers in Bangladesh to anywhere else, is to fix American agriculture.’

To Survive, American FarmsNeed To Change

Farming in America is undergoing a series of shifts—hopefully for the better. But the challenges today’s farmers face should not be taken lightly. Salatin urges his fellow farmers to consider making some changes in the way they do business—not just for their bottom line, but for the sake of the next generation, and the long-term wellbeing of the land.

“I know change is difficult for everyone, but I think conventional farmers have to take a hard look at breaking out of the conventional farming scene,” Johnson says. “I understand there’s limitations … but the future does not look good for medium to small conventional farmers, and help will likely not be coming from the government and its farm programs.”

“The regenerative economy is now knocking on the door of agriculture, but nobody is listening,” Salatin says. “The soil does not enjoy being mechanized and industrialized. The agricultural orthodoxy has not asked how ecology works. … Now, nature is batting last. And all the cleverness in Wall Street ultimately can’t prevail against nature’s balance sheet.”

Original Post

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

Ground-Breaking Animal Welfare Organic Rules Moving Forward

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Buying certified organic meat doesn’t guarantee the animals were treated humanely. And while there’s no cure-all for an industry that often prioritizes economy over animal welfare, things may be looking up for all animals raised on organic farms in the U.S.

That’s because a set of rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) won last-minute approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and could make it onto the Federal Register to become law within the week. The OLPP enacts comprehensive animal welfare standards covering living conditions (particularly for poultry), healthcare, slaughter, and transport.

The proposed rules are the product of decades-long conversations involving the Organic Trade Association (OTA), animal welfare and consumer groups and they’re based on formal recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the 15-member public advisory group to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Organic Program comprised of organic producers, environmentalists, and consumer advocates, among others.

The rules aren’t as extensive as some advocates had hoped for, but they are a significant step. “We didn’t get all that we wanted. It was adequate given the state of animal welfare in the organic program,” says Dena Jones, the farm animal program director at the American Welfare Institute. “You can’t go from 0 to 100 miles an hour in five feet.”

Some are more optimistic, like John Brunnquell, President, Egg Innovations and Organic Egg Farmers of America. “Our customers support and expect organic farmers to uphold a higher standard of animal treatment. The value and integrity of the organic seal depend on meeting these expectations. By restoring that integrity, these rules will benefit producers who adhere to the true spirit of organic production. We commend USDA and look forward to the implementation of these rules,” Brunnquell said in a statement released by the

Continue reading Ground-Breaking Animal Welfare Organic Rules Moving Forward

Valley crops fall victim to water-mold blight

Even in the risky world of farming, a particularly nasty risk is Phytophthora, whose very name sounds scary.

A water-mold blight that can kill entire crops of pumpkins, cucumbers or peppers, Phytophthora capsici is especially problematic because once its spores get into soil, they remain there for years, dormant until the next heavy rains. (Unlike its more common cousin, late blight, capsici’s spores are transmitted by water, not wind.)

“It can take out 100 percent of their crop,” said Katie Campbell-Nelson, UMass Extension vegetable specialist. “There’s a few farmers around here who really specialize in butternut squash, and they’re at particular risk. This is a really big problem for them.”

watermoldBy all accounts, relatively dry conditions this spring and summer kept it from being a particularly bad Phytophthora year around the Pioneer Valley, but farmers such as Mike Wissemann in Sunderland and Peter Melnick in Deerfield reported losses this year.

“We’re running out of places. If you have the right weather conditions, it can rear its ugly head,” even a decade after a field was infected, said Melnick, who said his Bar-Way Farm lost about four of 10 acres planted in butternut squash, after the low-lying field got 4 or 5 inches during one warm September spell. “It’s getting to be a real challenge.”

That challenge is likely to become more intense, with good cropland limited and New England projected to become more susceptible to heavy rain events, with warmer temperatures because of climate change, according to Campbell-Nelson.

But one ray of hope could come from Campbell-Nelson’s test planting of “Caliente” brown mustard as a bio-fumigant cover crop at the UMass Crop Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield.

The brown mustard, chopped up and worked into the soil at the proper time, got the same reaction that Wasabi might draw from someone whose nose was “burned” by the release of the gas it generates, the researcher said with a laugh.

Her test this year of Brassica juncea mustard, measured against control plots of oats on infected soil in the greenhouse, showed it suppressed the disease.

“I got samples of Phytophthora that had been taken from fields around here,” she said. “There are several mating types, so I wanted to make sure we got a good sample of the disease we have in this area.”

Then she inoculated each pot with active “zoospores, which were swimming. If they had a host, they were going to find it. I was creating a disease triangle perfect for the disease: I flooded those peppers, I soaked them, I put the disease in there. I really wanted to see if I could kill those plants.”

The peppers eventually had fewer symptoms of the blight and lived longer, but Campbell-Nelson acknowledged that since it is harder under natural conditions to be certain the mustard is incorporated into the soil during active zoospore, or even semi-active sporangia cycles, it’s probably important to do repeated plantings.

Because the mustard cover — which has no commercial value, especially because it’s chopped into the soil — is from the same Brassica family as kale, it is unlikely to be used by diversified Pioneer Valley growers who want to rotate their fields to other kinds of crops.

And even with repeat cover-crop plantings, mustard is not likely to work wonders by itself, but should be seen as part of what Campbell-Nelson calls a “holistic solution” that also includes reduced tilling, well-drained soils, raised beds and rotating the Phytophthora-susceptible hosts with other crops.

“You should do everything,” she said. “This should be part of integrated management rather than relying on any one method. Never rely on any one method.”

‘No silver bullet’

Wissemann, one of a handful of area farmers who has tried using mustard as a bio-fumigant, reported after losing a pumpkin crop at his Warner Farm to the blight, “There’s no silver bullet, but it helps.”

He added, “We started swapping land with other farmers to prevent monoculture, but part of the risk of that was that Phytophthora ended up being transferred (by equipment moving from field to field.) This is all before we knew what we know now.”

And yet, he added, on a low-lying field that had once been used for growing peppers before it was inundated by the adjacent Connecticut River years ago, “We haven’t had susceptible crops on that field for, gosh, 15 years, and I put some pumpkin out there last year. And sure enough, they had a problem.”

Another recent UMass Extension research project, by plant pathologist Nicholas Brazee, tested for Phytophthora spores in the Connecticut, but found that no samples of that variety, leading to the conclusion that it only spreads the blight if it carries water over already infected soil onto another field.

In some cases, Wissemann and Melnick agreed, the pumpkins had been harvested several days before they showed signs of the disease.

Angela Madeiras, a diagnostician at the UMass Plant Diagnostic Laboratory, said that in addition to flooding of infected fields with poorly draining soil, a leading way Phytophthora spreads is by workers carrying infected soil on their boots, or on farm equipment.

But she added that it is unclear where the problem, which exists in other parts of the world, came from, or how much of Pioneer Valley farmland is affected.

“It’s hard to know how widespread it really is,” Campbell-Nelson said. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, because it only presents itself when there’s a flood … condition.”

She added, “Farmers who have had trouble with this disease have gone as far as suggesting they grow cucumbers on trellises, even though that’s on acres and acres, because they’re so at a loss for what to do.”

Even then, added Madeiras, the spores can be splashed up onto the crop by rain. Chemical fumigants exist, but they tend to be expensive and harder and harder to find.

The good news is that practices like using mustard as a cover crop, rotating crops, increasing soil drainage, and reducing tillage can help somewhat, Campbell-Nelson said.


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