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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.”
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?
“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.”
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.’
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.”
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
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.”
By 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.
NORTHAMPTON — Three local businesses start the 2015 growing season as heroes of local agriculture. At a gathering in Northampton, the nonprofit Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture bestowed “Local Hero” awards on Squash Inc. of Belchertown, Maple Corner Farm of Granville and Adams Farm of Athol.
The awards were presented Friday at CISA’s annual meeting at the Northampton Senior Center. “We give our ‘Local Hero’ award to individuals, organizations and businesses that are fulfilling our mission of strengthening local food and supporting the community in the growth of the local economy,” Margaret Christie, the nonprofit’s special projects director, told the audience.
While some might associate the local food movement with family businesses, Christie said that’s not always the case. Squash Inc. is owned by unrelated business partners Eric Stocker and Marge Levenson. Founded in 1973, the trucking company links farmers, food producers and the retailers, restaurants and institutions that serve their foods, Christie said.
Squash “demonstrates the long-lasting ties that can be developed in businesses that are not family businesses,” she said. The trucking company brings produce, cheese, butter, eggs and specialty foods to clients all over the state, including Amherst College, Trader Joe’s and Cooper’s Corner in Florence, according to Christie.
“It’s a really essential role in the local food system,” she said. Christie told the audience that Squash received multiple nominations for the award by area farmers, something that is unusual. She said in their nominations, farmers praised the company’s integrity and loyalty and called it essential to their own businesses.
Leon and Joyce Ripley own Maple Corner Farm in Granville. The farm has been family-owned since it was founded over 200 years ago.
After accepting the award, Leon Ripley said his grandfather and father used the land for beet farming, but over the years he’s expanded beyond produce. “We’ve worked very hard as a diversified farm,” he said.
In the winter, Ripley, his wife and their children operate a maple sugarhouse where they serve pancakes with their own maple syrup. Their 600 acres of land boasts over 12 miles of cross-country ski trails, some of which they light for nighttime skiing.
In the summer, they produce hay and have pick-your-own blueberry fields. “It’s a pretty impressive example of a family that’s figured out how to be flexible, how to be innovative, how to try new things, how to stick with it and do the hard work that it takes to build an economically viable business over generations,” Christie said.
Leon Ripley said he also sells produce and specialty jams at farmers markets in Springfield, Otis, Blandford and Lenox.
State Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux, who attended Friday, credited the “value-added” products like Ripley’s jams as an important factor in an increase in the number of farms in the Valley in recent years. “The Massachusetts farmer has to be pretty clever and innovative,” he said.
The other recipient of the “Local Hero” award was Adams Farm, a slaughterhouse in Athol. The slaughterhouse has been in the Adams family since 1919. It is owned and operated by Beverly Mundell and her children, Richard Adams and Noreen Heath. Ten of Mundell’s grandchildren also work in the business, according to its website.
The number of family members running Adams Farm “demonstrates how this family has made a very broad and deep commitment to this business,” Christie said.
Christie told the audience that meat cutting is specialized, and as the largest slaughterhouse in New England, Adams Farm makes a big difference in the local food economy of Massachusetts.
“They need to train their workforce to do skilled and tricky work,” she said. “Local meat production in our area would be much, much more difficult if they were not here doing the work that they’re doing.”
Chris Lindahl can be reached at email@example.com.
Egg Shaped Gold – by Caroline Seymour
It’s so easy to separate the grocery store from the farm. Eggs come from chickens, obviously, but on a weekly trip to Stop and Shop it’s hard to remember that eggs don’t just come from cardboard cartons. What’s more, we’re even made to believe that all eggs are created equal. You might feel good about buying cage-free eggs, but if there’s really no difference between the eggs then it’s not worth worrying about, right?
Wrong! The color of an egg’s shell doesn’t really matter, but what’s inside can vary widely based on the life of the chicken it came from, and the difference is big enough to see. Try putting one supermarket egg in a bowl next to Gabor’s Eggs from All Things Local, and the difference is clear. Gabor’s eggs have a richer, more brightly colored yolk. The yolks stand taller, they’re stronger, and they even taste better. And as you might expect, the difference doesn’t come from chemicals and hormones, but from something even more unusual: treating chickens like chickens.
It turns out, letting chickens do what chickens like to do causes them to produce better eggs. This means letting them out of the little cages (commonly called battery cages) that commercially raised chickens live in and letting them outside. Gabor Lukacs, an Amherst resident who raises chickens of his own, knows exactly what this means. His chickens live in a wide area around his garden, picking at bugs and grass and choosing whether they want to stand in the shade of their summer enclosure or their more sheltered winter enclosure. He knows they have enough space, because “Some space in their area is still covered in grass, which means they haven’t had time to get to it all – it means they have plenty of room.” Letting chickens act like chickens means their stress levels are at a minimum; they don’t have to fight each other for space, they have a variety of food to eat, and they can focus on living happy chicken lives.
It may sound surprising to hear that Gabor’s eggs aren’t certified organic. They’re free to live in the open, and aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics. But Gabor raises his chickens in an environment that’s about something even more important: he focuses on living locally. In his own words, “Local creates community. Organic doesn’t.” Today, the term ‘organic’ is regulated by the government, which unfortunately means that it’s expensive to become certified, and the term doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is produced in a sustainable, humane way. Gabor’s chickens and gardens are designed to be sustainable; he doesn’t have to buy commercial chicken food or fertilizers, but relies on the resources in and around Amherst. This includes recycling food waste from the All Things Local café; chickens eat grains, of course, and they love the vegetable leftovers like carrot peels. So even though they’re not certified organic, they are local, sustainable, and produce delicious eggs!
The benefits of these eggs go even deeper than taste. All eggs provide some level of vitamin D, an essential nutrient that plays an important role in bone health and digestion. One study found that free range chickens living outdoors produced eggs with four times more vitamin D than chickens living in battery cages. Imagine eating four supermarket eggs to get the amount of vitamin D in just one of Gabor’s eggs! It’s important to note that just because eggs are labeled ‘free range’ doesn’t mean they have all the space they need; commercial free range chickens can still be packed together, which makes them stressed out and more likely to fight. Another study found that chickens treated similarly to Gabor’s had twice as much carotenoids than commercially produced eggs. Carotenoids are precursors to vitamin A, which is essential for vision, and can also act as antioxidants, which protect the body from damaging chemicals. Carotenoids give foods a yellow or orange color, which is why Gabor’s eggs are so much brighter than those bought from the grocery store.
Why don’t all eggs just get these benefits? It’s simple – chicken farms don’t know how to manipulate hormones and nutrition to produce eggs as good as Gabor’s. The simple truth is that there’s no substitute for chickens’ natural diet and habits when it comes to producing good eggs. This is food that you can feel good about buying, and really enjoy eating! If you haven’t already tried them, pick up some of Gabor’s Eggs next time you’re in All Things Local and see the difference for yourself.
 Kuhn J, Schutkowski A, Kluge H, Hirche F, Stangl, G. Free-range farming: a natural alternative to produce vitamin D-enriched eggs. Nutrition. 2014;30(4):481-4.
 Hesterberg K, Schanzer S, Patzelt A, et al. Raman spectroscopic analysis of the carotenoid concentration in egg yolks depending on the feeding and housing conditions of the laying hens. Journal of Piophotonics. 2012;5:33-39.
Wait a sec. Nick, Caspar and Jared: Are those unconventional girls’ names now, like Kennedy and Reagan? Because if you’re looking for a farm-fresh tomato in the city this summer, you’re likely to find a woman growing it.
In recent years, chefs, writers, academics, politicians, funders, activists and entrepreneurs have jumped on the hay wagon for urban agriculture. New York now counts some 900 food gardens and farms, by the reckoning of Five Borough Farm, a research and advocacy project.
Yet city farmers will tell you that the green-collar work on these small holdings is the province of a largely pink-collar labor force. Cecilia, not Caspar. And they’ll provide the staffing numbers to show it.
This is where the speculation begins — and, inevitably, the stereotypes. Are women more willing to nurture their communities (and also their beet greens)? Are men preoccupied with techie farm toys like aquaponics? Is gender the reason the radio at the Queens Farm washing station is always stuck on Beyoncé and Alicia Keys?
More significant, if urban ag work comes to be seen as women’s work, what will that mean for the movement’s farming model, mission and pay?
Counting New York’s urban farmers and market food gardeners can seem like a parlor game: part math, part make-believe. Data on gender is scarce to nonexistent.
The federal 2012 Census of Agriculture isn’t much help. It suggested 42 farm “operators” in New York were men and 31 were women. But the census published data from just 31 city farms. (Under confidentiality rules, it doesn’t reveal which farms participated.) And its definitions fail to capture New York’s unique abundance of nonprofit farms and community gardens.
A “farm,” by census standards, is any place that grew and sold (or normally would have sold) $1,000 worth of agricultural products in a year. Yet surveys from the parks department’s GreenThumb program suggest that some 45 percent of the city’s hundreds of community food gardens donate their harvest to neighborhood sources and food pantries. Blair Smith, who compiles New York’s data for the U.S.D.A., explained, “Those are not farm businesses, at least from our standpoint.”
New York’s urban farmers — the people who actually work in the field — offer a sharply different head count of what you might call bulls and cows. Of the 19 farms and farm programs that contributed information for this article, 15 reported having a majority of women among their leadership, staff, youth workers, students, apprentices and volunteers. (Of the remaining four, one claimed gender parity and another hired two men this summer from a seasonal applicant pool of 18 men and 30 women.)
It’s a snapshot, not a statistically rigorous poll. Still, the farms, from all five boroughs, represent a broad sample of New York’s particular growing models: a commercial rooftop farm; community gardens; and farms attached to schools, restaurants, parks, churches, housing developments and community organizations. The sample included two city-based farmer-training programs and two out-of-state sustainable farm-education schools and fellowships. These are the types of programs that mold future urban farmers.
Describing their own farms and gardens, managers suggested that women make up 60 to 80 percent of field workers, organizers and educators. Applicant pools are similarly unbalanced for summer postings, internships and certification programs.
Farm School NYC, an affiliate of the food-access nonprofit Just Food, “is 100 percent female-run,” said its director, Onika Abraham. But then, she added, “I’m the only staff person.”
More important, Farm School NYC receives 150 to 200 applicants annually for professional agriculture instruction. For this year’s entering 30-person class, Ms. Abraham said, “the breakdown for applicants was 76 percent women and 24 percent male.” (Applications for next year are open through Sept. 15.)
The gender divide appears to exist in salaried posts and volunteer work alike. For 18 years, Steve Frillmann has led Green Guerillas, which provides support and materials to more than 200 community garden groups. Most of these sites lie in central Brooklyn, Harlem and the South Bronx, and three-quarters of their volunteer leaders, he estimates, are women. So, too, women typically represent 75 to 80 percent of the applicants who want to join Green Guerillas on an AmeriCorps stipend.
It’s challenging work, and Mr. Frillmann, 49, is happy to hire whoever wants to do it. “To be honest with you, we’ve never really lifted and looked under the hood and tried to figure out why,” he said.
At the extreme, Edible Schoolyard NYC runs a food and garden-teaching program with two growing plots and a staff of 16. Sixteen of these employees are women.
Kate Brashares, 40, who is the group’s executive director, said: “It’s a little unusual we don’t have any men on staff at the moment. There are usually one or two.”
Ms. Brashares believes that the diversity of her employees should reflect the low-income communities where they work. That diversity includes gender. “We talk about wanting to get a few more men in the place,” she said. “It’s funny, we haven’t talked about it that much, though. It’s one of those things that just sort of happened. As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s gotten more obvious.”
Less obvious is why the discrepancy exists. Ms. Brashares speculated about the prevalence of women in education and nonprofit careers. But ultimately, she concluded, “I honestly don’t know.”
Karen Washington has been observing the community garden scene for more than 25 years from her plot in the Garden of Happiness, a couple of blocks from the Bronx Zoo. She also organizes the Black Urban Growers conference and a long list of other food and neighborhood initiatives. This roster may explain why Ms. Washington, 60, is prone to make work calls at 10 o’clock at night, say, after teaching a class on season-extending hoop houses, or on the way home from running La Familia Verde farmers’ market.
Nowadays, she sees a cohort in her gardens that she gauges to be 80 percent women. “It was more 60/40 back in the early days,” Ms. Washington said. “Mostly Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans. They were in their 40s and they’re in their 80s now.”
Explaining the gender gap on a community garden level, she said, “a lot of it, from my point of view, had to do with the fact women lived longer than men.”
The stereotypical image of an American farmer may be a white man of late middle age captaining a $450,000 combine in an air-conditioned cockpit, high above a flokati of corn. But this profile is a poor match for farmers in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa — that is, the groups that often predominate in New York’s community food gardens. Nevin Cohen, 52, an assistant professor at the New School and an expert on urban food issues, points to a telling statistic from a United Nations special rapporteur: “Women are 80 percent of the global agricultural labor force.”
Many of the women who farm in Bushwick with Maggie Cheney possess experience in small-scale agriculture. They’ve long fed their families out of extensive kitchen gardens (as Colonial-era immigrant women did in New England). Ms. Cheney, 30, is the director of farming and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY. And on the group’s two growing sites, she said: “I tend to work with a lot of recent immigrants from Africa, Mexico, Ecuador. And the islands: Jamaica and Haiti, the Dominican Republic.”
Ms. Cheney’s youth interns (five boys and nine girls) include the children of some of those immigrants. Yet wherever they were born, the youth growers at the Bushwick Campus Farm do not approach New York gardens as virgin soil.
Their fathers may have experienced farm labor as a harsh and exploitative activity, Ms. Cheney said. These men are not necessarily the easiest people to recruit for a hot afternoon of unearthing potatoes. By contrast, “I see a lot of girls interested because they may have that positive relationship to being the ones who cook in the family and buy the food in the market.”
She added, “The ones that I see, their roles at home are very gendered.” The politics of the New York “food justice” movement start at progressive and run to radical. But the connection between women and urban farming can appear traditional and even conservative.
Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Ms. Abraham, 40, recalls visiting her family’s black farmstead in Alabama. She said: “My grandfather grew row crops: cotton, soybeans and corn. He worked the fields. My grandma was home with a large vegetable garden and chickens.”
Put another way: “My grandmother grew the food; he grew the money. And I think maybe the scale of what we do in the city relates more to this kitchen garden.”
The Five Borough Farm project identified three commercial farms in New York, all of them sophisticated rooftop operations. Gotham Greens, for example, runs two (and soon three) climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses in Gowanus and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Next stop: Jamaica, Queens.)
Of the company’s 50-odd employees, more than two-thirds are men, said the company’s 33-year-old co-founder, Viraj Puri. “At Gotham Greens, our approach is more plant-science and engineering focused and less ‘gardening’ focused,” Mr. Puri wrote in an email. He posited that this orientation may account for the different gender skew.
Beyond these few enterprises, the city’s farms exist not just to grow okra, but to advance a shopping list of social goals. These include recreation, nutrition, public health, environmental stewardship, ecological services, food access and security, community development, neighborhood cohesion, job training, senior engagement and education. We ask a lot of our gardens.
Mara Gittleman, who jointly runs the Kingsborough Community College farm program, at the end of Manhattan Beach, often sees urban farming likened in the news media to “the new social work, or this thing you do for poor people.” In response, Ms. Gittleman, 26, founded the research project Farming Concrete to record and publicize the surprising yield raised in community gardens. These are vegetables that come not from the glittering glass on high, but from the ground up.
Be that as it may, if you’re trying to account for why so many college-educated women are attracted to urban agriculture, nearly everyone agrees that a social calling is the place to start. “Definitely, the most visible influx is young white people, and I’m one of them,” Ms. Gittleman said.
If urban farming were just about the crops, it would be cheaper and easier to do it 50 miles north. Urban farming, however, is not a solitary or single-minded activity. Along with the weeding and pruning, the job description includes sowing community interest and reaping grants.
Kennon Kay, the 31-year-old director of agriculture at Queens Farm, said: “What makes this farm different is the element of public interaction. We have over half a million visitors a year.”
The farm staff currently numbers two men and five women, which is actually a bumper crop of gents. And Ms. Kay takes pains to say: “I don’t want to knock the guys. They’re great.”
That said, in her experience, “Women have been extremely effective in multitasking, planning, communicating and being the representatives of this public organization.”
Inevitably, there’s an inverse to saying that women are attracted to work that involves children and the elderly, caring and social justice. In short, you’re implying that men don’t care, or care a lot less.
This is what you might call the men-as-sociopaths hypothesis (M.A.S.H.), and Nick Storrs, 29, who manages the Randalls Island Park Alliance Urban Farm, does not buy it. “I would refute the claim that guys are sociopaths,” he said.
Having cheerfully dispensed with that libel, he struggled to explain why men seem less interested in the social goals of community agriculture. “I don’t know, because I am interested in it,” Mr. Storrs said.
So where are the men?
“Wall Street,” Ms. Washington said (a theory that may not be inconsistent with M.A.S.H.).
The Bronx’s vegetable plots, she will tell you, are not insulated from what goes on outside the garden gates. “A lot of our men of color are incarcerated,” she said. “Huge problem. If you tell a 21-year-old man just out of jail to go into farming, he’s going to look at you as if you have two heads.”
Or in the words of Esther Liu, 25, a rooftop farmer at the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project: “Men? Perhaps they want a living wage.”
The time has arrived, as it always does, to talk about money. The pay for community-based agriculture starts low and climbs over time to not much higher.
Ms. Cheney endeavors to pay her youth interns $8.30 to $9.30 an hour and the Bushwick farm managers $17 an hour. Farmers with longer tenure may earn $20. These are decent wages in agriculture, Ms. Cheney said. Yet they’re hardly enough to keep up with the climbing rents in a gentrifying neighborhood.
Deborah Greig, 32, oversees the crowded market at East New York Farms, leads the gardener-education program, manages dozens of youth workers, and cultivates specialty crops like dasheen and bitter melon. (And some 65 to 70 percent of her farm staff, apprentices and youth interns are women.) “I get paid $37,000 a year,” Ms. Greig said. “I started at $28,000 or $29,000, which was huge at the time. And I have insurance included.”
The permanence of the job, which she has held for seven years, is a boon to Ms. Greig and to the community where she works. Ultimately, Ms. Abraham, of Farm School NYC, argues that only stable employment will make urban farming viable for neighborhood women — and men — who lack the safety net of a college degree and family support.
For her part, Ms. Greig is probably underpaid. Don’t tell anyone, but she would do the job for less. “People don’t expect to be paid very much doing this work,” she said. “It’s a labor of love to a certain extent. I don’t think we’ve come up with a hard and fast model to pay people exceedingly well for doing nonprofit urban-farming work.”
Sounds like a job for the guys on Wall Street.