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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Farmers markets flourish almost every day of the week in western Massachusetts. Community-supported farms offer the chance to buy a share of a crop. And lots of farm stands and retail stores trumpet the sale of local produce.
The value of a “local” perspective is even rubbing off on other parts of the Pioneer Valley’s economy, including financial investing. In our series, A New Kind of Local, we look at the growth and the challenges of the movement, starting with a history of local food.
Local as a movement
The idea that consumers can help preserve farms by choosing to buy locally-grown food first began to take root more than 40 years ago.
“A lot of us thought we could change the world,” Rich Pascale says.
Pascale, 65, started farming in Franklin County in 1974. It was a time when young people moved to rural areas to build self sufficient lives.
“Live simply, grow your own food,” he says. “And from that point it was like, ‘We have to make some money,’ so we have to sell our own food.”
He’s been selling at the Greenfield Farmers Market for four decades.
“So these are $3.50 for the six packs,” he says of his goods. “And these are $2.75 for tomato plants.”
A way to stabilize prices
In the mid 1970s, as more young people, like Pascale, were choosing to farm, the state was losing farms. Nearly half of them went out of business between 1964 and 1974
“The Massachusetts agricultural economy was on the downward skids,” says Greg Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources. “We were losing about 10,000 acres of farmland a year. And I think a lot of people had just given up.”
But not everyone.
“It was the summer of 1973 and Governor Sargent called me,” recalls Ray Goldberg, a professor emeritus from Harvard Business School.
Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent asked Goldberg to head up an emergency food commission.
“We had crop failure around the world,” he says. “Food prices were rising faster than general inflation.”
And the OPEC oil embargo forced up petroleum prices. Goldberg says the commission found Massachusetts was highly dependent on food from distant places.
“We were a high-cost food area compared to any other state in the nation,” says Goldberg. “So there was a great deal of encouragement to get more locally grown production.”
The commission’s work led to new policies. One program allows farmers to sell their development rights to the state, preserving more than 70,000 acres. The state launched an advertising campaign, with the slogan: “Massachusetts Grown and Fresher.” And it helped expand the number of farmers markets.
From farm field to parking lot
Agriculture Commissioner Greg Watson was a young man in 1978 when he was hired by the state to launch markets in poor areas of Boston. Watson says, at first, neither African-American residents nor the white farmers trusted each other.
“The first reaction of farmers to come into the city was ‘I won’t come out alive!’” Watson recalled. “And the residents were saying ‘Why should we go to the trouble of making the parking lot in the South End available for rich farmers to come in and get richer?’ So there were these really solid stereotypes, both of them really far from reality.”
Watson was able to sign up 20 farmers to come to the grand opening of the Dorchester market. It was a big deal. The lieutenant governor was there, and a bunch of television cameras.
“Opened up at 9 o’clock, not a single farmer,” he says. “About 9:20, people were getting impatient, they were nervous, a pickup truck comes down the street.”
That was the only farmer to show up. But Watson says that night on the news, instead of pictures of an empty street, the cameras had zoomed in.
“All you saw was the farmer, his wife and his daughter,” he says. “They couldn’t get the food off the truck fast enough. People were clamoring. Next week we had 20 farmers.”
Back then, there were fewer than 10 farmers markets statewide. Today, there are nearly 300.
Although the middleman is cut out, in some cases the food at farmers markets costs more than at supermarkets. Watson remembers one customer who explained why she was willing to pay more.
“‘Because my kids eat it,’” Watson recalls her saying. “They were eating raw peas. ‘If I pay a little less and half of it gets scraped into the garbage is that economical?’”
Today, many farmers markets take food stamps. Watson says perhaps farms could become more efficient to lower the price of food.
“Are there things we can do to help make this not just accessible, but also affordable? And those are challenges,” he says.
A face on the food
The state has gained back many of the farms it lost 40 years ago. But they’re smaller now – about half the size.
“Eggplant, cherry tomatoes, okra, tomatillos. We have about 30 varieties of hot peppers here,” says Allison Landale, as she points out neatly tended rows of crops she and her husband Dean cultivate on 15 acres in Deerfield.
The farm has been in her mother’s family since the 1800s. Her father farmed it. Allison says when she first started working with him in the early 1990s, at times it was tough.
“Local wasn’t anywhere near what it is today,” she says.
The farm’s sales have tripled in the past five years. The Landales say the nonprofit CISA, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture gives them a lot of support. CISA first developed the Local Hero advertising campaign in 1999.
Back in Deerfield, Dean Landale is pounding stakes for tomato plants. For him, the concept of “local” makes farming more personal.
“We see our customers,” Landale says. “We don’t ship to a supermarket someplace. So our face is basically attached to what we sell.”
That connection between farmer and consumer is strong today. But local food advocates are still hard at work.
There’s a push to bring more processing facilities, including slaughterhouses. One group says by 2060, New England farmers could produce half of the food consumed here.
ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER – Daily Hampshire Gazette – July 15, 2014
SOUTH DEERFIELD — What if you could use open space to generate solar electricity and farm it at the same time?
Stephen Herbert, a professor of agronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture, says this is more than a pipedream.
A demonstration plot at a research station in South Deerfield is doing just that.
“We have shown that we can get 90 percent of the yield of a pasture with solar panels compared with not having them as long as we leave enough space between clusters of panels,” he said.
Cattle and sheep graze beneath them. The animals also benefit from the shady spots the panels create.
The initial installation was 70 panels, which generate 26 kilowatts of electricity on less than a quarter acre. They are seven feet off the ground and are mounted on individual posts. The wiring connecting them is above ground.
Herbert said the demonstration plot experiments with spacing and configuration to find the sweet spot that allows maximum sun to reach the ground so the vegetation gets what it needs while the rest is captured for generating electricity. He also experiments with ways of driving poles into the ground to support the panels while minimally disturbing the soil.
“It’s a simple thing, but nobody is doing it,” according to Herbert, who said the demonstration plot, which has been up for almost four years, is the only one of its kind in the country.
Herbert believes that ideas like this one will get more attention in the years ahead as dilemmas around the balance between using land to grow food while generating significant amounts of alternative energy become more acute.
“My position is that we should make solar panels compatible with agriculture,” said Herbert. He thinks that in the future we will see dual use solar installations that can also be used for growing vegetables.
According to a description of this work on Herbert’s website, “only solar has the potential to substantially power the state while only using a reasonable amount of the state’s landmass.”
Herbert said he understands the benefits to farmers of leasing out land for a couple of decades to host solar arrays on fields they might otherwise sell to developers.
But he doesn’t think growing crops and generating electricity should be mutually exclusive.
“We don’t have 20 years to waste,” he said.
A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds – New York Times – JUNE 20, 2014
When Mr. Noble, a retired actuary and school administrator, started Movable Beast Farm with his wife in 2006, he would “get totally freaked out and have a battle of wills with the cows.” Now he reacts with calm and temporarily stops herding to avoid upsetting the animals.
“Stress is the worst thing you can do for them in terms of quality” of meat, said Mr. Noble, a trim, tanned man with a white goatee. He sells grass-fed beef primarily by word of mouth. “In order to make any money in agriculture at this scale, you really need to be direct marketing,” said Mr. Noble, whose company earned a profit for the first time last year.
But money is not his primary motivation. Mr. Noble waited much of his life to realize his cowboy dreams. “When I was younger,” he said, “I never wanted to work inside at a desk,” so, of course, he said, he spent “30 years working inside, at a desk.”
Though new agricultural enterprises typically demand long hours and physical stamina, many retirees turn to farming as a way to keep active and earn an income — or, like Mr. Noble, to at least supplement Social Security. The White House’s 2013 Economic Report of the President notes that “the average age of U.S. farmers and ranchers has been increasing over time.” One-third of beginning farmers — defined by the federal government as having been in business fewer than 10 years — “are over age 55, indicating that many farmers move into agriculture only after retiring from a different career.”
Brett Olson, co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, has noticed more gray hair at the New Farmer Summit, a conference for aspiring agrarians. Mr. Olson’s organization offers a workshop at the annual event that it used to call Young Organic Stewards but renamed New Organic Stewards in 2012 to “be more inclusive,” he said.
Local, state and federal programs devote considerable resources to promoting agricultural start-ups. Many states offer preferential tax treatment of farmland. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., compiles the various tax breaks on its online database.
The Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency recently reduced the paperwork required to apply for its microloan program, which provides recipients with low-interest loans of up to $35,000.
The federally financed Cooperative Extension System provides farmers and others with access to advisers, classes and research, often free.
Age, suggests Krysta Harden, deputy secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, can be a benefit rather than a barrier. She says she believes new farmers can use business skills, like management and marketing, developed during other careers. “My mother always told me we’re a family business, but we’re a business,” Ms. Harden said.
Lisa Kivirist, who coaches novice farmers as coordinator of the Rural Women’s Project at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, notes that many of her older students are poised for success. “When they come into farming at midlife or early retirement, they know there’s only so many years left,” Ms. Kivirist said. “There’s a stronger focus and a more realistic sense of a plan.”
Saundra C. Winokur, 74, acknowledges that she lacked a formal plan when she founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Tex., in 1997. “I just threw myself into it and learned on the job, though I probably would have not made as many mistakes as I did had I written a business plan,” Ms. Winokur said. If she had written a business plan, however, she might have become discouraged. “There were no olive orchards at the time in Texas,” she said. “It was thought that it couldn’t be done.”
Ms. Winokur, a native Texan who worked as an elementary-school teacher and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology, traveled extensively to research olive production. She noticed that renowned olive-producing regions — southern Spain, southern Italy and Egypt — “looked a lot like Texas.” In 1997, she bought 276 acres of sandy land, which she describes as “oceanfront property without the ocean.”
She planted 450 trees, but lost about half in the first winter because she had yet to master irrigation. Despite that setback, her business has flourished. In addition to producing olive oil, she owns a nursery and a restaurant. Ms. Winokur has had considerable help along the way. Experienced farmers in the area served as mentors. One neighbor briefed her on the history of her land, which had long been fallow when she bought it.
She later received a $98,000 Agriculture Department Value-Added Producer Grant, which helps farmers create derivative products from crops. Ms. Winokur used the money to market her olive-leaf jelly and hire a chef. The grant “gave me that kick-start I needed to move the business to the next level,” she said.
When she started her orchard, Ms. Winokur could hoist 80-pound bags on her own, but she now must rely on employees to handle strenuous chores. She estimates that it took her 13 years to recruit a “first rate” team and advises new farmers to pay well but hire carefully: “Don’t hire because you’re desperate, the first person who comes through the door. Really take your time.”
Ms. Winokur considers her teaching background a training ground for farming. When she encountered confused children, “I could see that they were looking at me with a blank look,” she said, “then I would have to shift gears, another avenue to explain a concept to them. And I think that’s what you have to do in farming: If something doesn’t work, you have to be willing to shift.”
That lesson is not lost on Debra Sloane, who recently started a backyard farm in Washington, Conn. She suffered a blow to her self-esteem last year when Cisco Systems eliminated her position as director of global health care. “I went through a grieving process,” said Ms. Sloane, who still uses corporate jargon like “customer interface” when discussing farming. After Cisco, she planned to grow exotic mushrooms, having received encouragement from several farm market managers. She then took two seminars for “mushroom nerds” and scrapped the idea because of the capital investment required and her desire to work outdoors. “You need a lab,” Ms. Sloane said of mushroom production. “You need to have a grow room with the right temperature, humidity, air circulation, and I said, ‘Uh-uh.’ ”
Instead, Ms. Sloane, a petite woman in a gray long-sleeve T-shirt, jeans and bright blue plastic shoes covered in grass clippings, decided to sell produce at several farmers’ markets, manufacture a vegan cereal and start a C.S.A. — a community-supported agriculture program. Her 11 customers pay in advance for weekly allotments of fruit and vegetables, easing her company’s cash flow.
Ms. Sloane, who declined to give her age, also started working out more, because while she once managed a small staff, she now must count on herself to plant, weed and harvest. She runs twice a week and trains at a nearby CrossFit gym four times a week. Her biggest challenge, she predicts, “is actually not physical but mental. It’s really figuring out how to be exact enough to know that I’m going to have enough to fill 11 bags all summer.”
She forecasts a “four-figure” profit in her first year and, like most farmers, will supplement her agricultural income with a second job; she is working part time as a consultant for Avizia Inc., a telemedicine technology company.
She acknowledges that working for a giant multinational corporation was “ego satisfying,” but she finds that life on the farm is “soul satisfying” — and humbling, especially when she must ask for help from more experienced colleagues. “I can tell you this,” she said near her raised beds of asparagus and strawberries. “I wasn’t humble at Cisco. My daughters have said, ‘You are so much nicer now.’ ”
NOTE: many of our 200 students in the ONLINE Sustainable Food and Farming Certificate Program at UMass are second-career farmers. For information on the courses being offered for new farmers see: https://sustfoodfarm.org/online-classes/.