Category Archives: Work and Internships

The Future of Food Is Sustainable and Locally Sourced

wsjBy Alice Waters  – July 7, 2014 – Wall Street Journal
Ms. Waters is a chef, author and founder of Chez Panisse restaurant and the Edible Schoolyard Project.

Over the past half-century, the fast-food industry, aided by government subsidies, has come to dominate the food marketplace. That development has given us an obesity epidemic and, with the growth of so-called factory farms, has degraded the environment.

More recently, in a reaction against fast food and Big Ag, the sustainable-food movement, with a focus on local food networks and healthy eating, has gained a foothold in restaurants and farms across the country. What began as an underground movement has now gone mainstream.

Looking forward, I believe that ever-growing numbers of Americans—led by passionate chefs, farmers and activists—will choose the latter of these two paths: a sustainable food future. Let me describe how I believe, ideally, that future will look.

Farmers’ Markets

The number of farmers’ markets and young people taking up farming will multiply geometrically. As such, we will see at least one farmers’ market in every town in the country and, in turn, the revitalization of many areas.

At the same time, small mom-and-pop restaurants will enjoy a resurgence. These owners—with little enthusiasm for franchises—will be interested primarily in quality of life and in building a community around their businesses. These restaurants will build relationships directly with farms and will want to increase the quality and variety of their produce. As a result, I expect to see a greater variety of fruits and vegetables becoming available in the market.

Growing demand will push farmers to be innovative, as will climate change. That will mean more greenhouses in the colder parts of the country, growing food in urban areas and choosing crops that can withstand extreme weather.

This movement poses a threat to fast-food businesses and industrial food companies, both of which I predict will continue to shape-shift and co-opt their values for profit. As long as their products continue to be supported by government subsidies, they will be successful. The reality is that the sustainable-food movement’s reach will grow only to a point and ultimately will be limited to those with access, means and education—unless legislators dramatically change food and agriculture policy.

I think that those in government will come back to their senses in the coming years and begin to subsidize farms instead of factories. As access to real food becomes increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots, food security will become even more of a social-justice issue.

Back to School

I am confident that we will see a growing consensus about the most effective way to transform food in America: building a real, sustainable and free school-lunch program. Decision makers will agree that the most sensible place to reach every child and to have the most lasting impact is with a program of “edible education.” Having worked in that field for more than 20 years via the Edible Schoolyard Project, I know what’s possible: Providing children with delicious meals made from organic ingredients transforms their attitudes about, and behavior toward, food for life.

Beyond the individual nutrition outcome of each child, an institutional food program with principled buying criteria (food that is locally sourced and organic) becomes a subsidy system for real food—a subsidy system that sees schools become the engine for sustainability.

I know that those on both sides of the political aisle finally realize that in food we find the root problem of many of our nation’s ills. I am not sure yet that they realize that food has the solution.

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NOFA Interviews Stockbridge Grad Ben Barkan

By Julie Rawson, NOFA/Mass Executive and Education Director

NOFA April Newsletter

NOFA/Mass in the beginning stages of creating a program to focus efforts on our more suburban members. Initially we will focus on Middlesex County and do some serious and in depth research with our NOFA/Mass members, NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professionals, and activist organizations to get the lay of the land with respect to personal and public organic farming and gardening projects.

With this information we hope to shed light on and educate about best practices regarding organic matter development and carbon sequestration in the soil with food production as the vehicle. We want to highlight innovative gardening practices, progressive public organic land management and enhance the connection between service providers and those interested in organic gardening and land care. Hopefully the inspiring successes of those innovators who are on the ground can be spread across the region to those who are hoping to heighten local organic food production. This article is the first in a series.

Expanding (sub)urban edible gardens

benbarkenIn mid March when spring still seemed very far away, it was nice to speak with Ben Barkan. Ben is exemplary of the surge of young folks who have entered farming and are quickly finding successful niches in the market place. Ben founded his Arlington based business, Home Harvest, in 2008. He and his staff provide services that include design and installation of edible gardens, raised beds, landscaping, stone masonry, chicken coops, and greenhouses.

I am always curious about what kind of personality, or perhaps upbringing, allows a person to strike fearlessly out into the world to do what he or she is passionate about. It really started for Ben when he was 15 and got a summer job with Dennis Busa at Lexington Community Farm (formerly known as Busa Farm).

Here is the story, according to Ben:

benb“I fell in love with the physical labor of farming while working at Busa Farm… Dennis Busa was my mentor and manager while in high school. He was really supportive. I continued to work on Dennis’s farm part time while starting my edible gardening business. I grew up in Arlington and working at Busa Farm was sort of a spontaneous summer job. It was challenging. I had autonomy, and I really enjoyed it. I found out quickly that it would be hard to make a living at farming, and I looked at landscaping as an alternative.” After graduating from high school, Ben worked on over 30 organic farms in Massachusetts, Oregon, California, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. “Inspired by meeting so many awesome people, I decided to start an edible gardening company in Boston,” said Ben.

“While I was traveling in Hawaii, I got a job setting up a vegetable garden. Back home, I got my first client from a connection through Busa Farm. I started the company at 18 and am now 23.”  “Organic farming seems to be an emerging trend and a lot of young people are starting to see farming as a career path. Farming offers a lot of self worth,” observes Ben. “Younger people are starting to realize that we 10358799_10102006873596112_626887403_oneed more small-scale, local, and bio-diverse farms. I am currently learning so much in my last semester at Stockbridge School of Agriculture in the Sustainable Food and Farming program. With the proper ethics, I think farming can be a way to save the planet. The most sustainable option of all however is to grow food for yourself. All of our gardens attempt to mimic nature’s efficiency–biodiversity is an important part of sustainability.”

Knowing that growing in cities often means dealing with lead in soil, I asked Ben about contamination issues. “First we take multiple soil tests and find out where the contamination is the worst,” said Ben. “Reducing the bioavailability of lead is crucial. Liming and adding compost can reduce plants’ ability to uptake lead, and a heavy-duty barrier is necessary sometimes. We can also take tissue samples to confirm that the produce is safe. Too much of the wrong type of compost can have negative impacts. Our compost is primarily made from leaves and grass; it’s well rotted and not too rich. When growing in compost made solely from food crops, you can have too many nutrients, which causes adverse effects. Our compost is a custom mix and with all our gardens, we are relying on microbial activity and mineralization. We are letting the microbes do the work.” Ben does not use foliar nutrition sprays. He feels they are not necessary because plants absorb nutrients most efficiently through their roots. He also believes that micronutrients are rarely deficient in Northeast soils and is concerned that some organic growers use copper sulfate sprays for disease control, which can cause toxic levels of copper to accumulate in the soil. Ben is planning to graduate from The Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass in the spring.

Additionally, he took a 5-week permaculture design course in Oregon. He has attended numerous NOFA events. “I remember when I was at the 2009, 2010, and 2011 NOFA conferences and took workshops on soil chemistry; now I have been studying it in school and appreciate having the base foundation I acquired from NOFA,” says Ben. “I remember hearing Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms and how they can save the world. NOFA was great at introducing me to a lot of topics. Will Allen was another real inspiration.” Ben also hopes to learn more about herbalism.

I asked Ben what is remarkable about him and/or his business model. “Every garden we design and install is different. Harmonizing each garden to suit each landscape makes a lot of sense. I think the one-size fits all approach is not a good idea because each site is different. The design process takes a little longer with our methods, however our resulting gardens are more holistic and take the entire property into consideration. We try to engage our clients with our work. We want to teach them so they can maintain their own gardens. We try to listen to their goals, and we work with a wide variety of materials when building our gardens. Some customers want to maintain their own garden, and some hire us year after year to maintain [their garden]. Often, a few years after the installation, customers are confident enough to plant and tend to their own gardens. Education is a part of sustainability. Knowing how to generate your own fertility and grow your own food is important.”

Our conversation shifted to climate change. Ben shared his thoughts: “I think encouraging more localized and bio-diverse systems will help ameliorate climate change. There will be less carbon in the atmosphere. Tillage is a part of the problem, and we generally don’t till. We are huge fans of sheet mulching and mulching in general which mimics the forest. You can go into Hadley in the spring and see dust particles in the air from all the farmers plowing up their fields. That is carbon and soil I want to keep in the soil by minimizing soil disturbance. Our sheet mulch consists of cardboard, newspaper, compost, wood chips from local arborists, and local leaf mulch, especially for use with perennials. We don’t use peat moss or cocoa fiber. We try to keep all of our materials locally sourced.”

Lastly we discussed how we must move forward to promote more local agriculture in the urban/suburban setting. Said Ben: “Education is going to play a huge role. During World War II, 20 million Americans grew 40% of the nation’s vegetables. We did it before and we can do it again. Growing your own produce is empowering and the positivity is contagious. I think the movement toward local food systems is already happening. It just has to do with showing people what is possible. So much organic and nutrient dense produce can be grown in a relatively small space. A lot of people don’t know where to start. We teach folks how to take soil tests and work with lead contamination and provide a maintenance manual, discussing how to maintain gardens organically and sustainably. Getting this movement to spread is about sharing the knowledge.”

And here are Ben’s closing words: “I get really excited when I see people growing their own food. I think it is one of the most positive things we can do for our environment and for ourselves. There is such immense satisfaction in tending to your plants, watching them thrive and mature, harvesting the bounty and sharing the harvest with friends and family. This is really what humans evolved to do. Reconnecting with where our food comes from is profound and in need.”


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Continue reading NOFA Interviews Stockbridge Grad Ben Barkan

More women in sustainable farming these days!

logoThe following segment is from an article on women in farming featured in Yes Magazine (4/17/14).

What the numbers show

The number of women who were named as the principal operator of an American farm or ranch increased by nearly 30 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Women composed about 14 percent of principal farm operators in 2007, and that percentage has held steady since then, according to the preliminary 2012 census released in February. Continue reading More women in sustainable farming these days!

Millenials Suit Up as Next-generation Farmers

With aging farmers retiring, a bumper crop of new workers is stepping up to tend the land and feed their souls.
December 28, 2012
 Millennials Suit Up as Next-Generation Farmers

America’s farmers are, on average, pushing 60, and after years of backbreaking labor, considering retirement. More often than not, their children aren’t taking over the family business.

That puts the future of countless acres of fertile, family-farmed land into question. Farm bureaus across the country are working to ensure the future of that land by helping a younger generation enter the agriculture profession.

Take, for instance, the Maine Farmland Trust, which works with Maine FarmLink to connect would-be young farmers with untended land. To date, the trust has completed 56 “links,” representing 4,987 acres in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties.

“Because the majority of Maine farmers are now of retirement age, getting new farmers onto the land is imperative,” says Maine FarmLink on their site. “Farmers who wish to retire do not have anyone to take over the farm. Likewise, many people who want to farm do not have the family or resources they need to get started.”

FarmLink is just one of many collaborative endeavors connecting next-generation farmers to the land and resources they need in order to help keep U.S. farms viable now and into the future. From farm apprenticeships to leases and full-out land purchases, younger farmers are working with and for agriculture veterans in their twilight years to continue tradition and preserve farming history.

Sometimes these stories are so good, they draw the attention of filmmakers.

When Christine Anthony and Owen Masterson moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles in 2005, they initially had a hard time finding farmers markets where they could buy farm-fresh food. But as they worked their way into the market community, they got to know a number of farmers, and were inspired to create a film called GROW!

The farmers featured in GROW! range in age from 23 to 38. Twelve are Georgia natives, and while most of the others are from the South, a few have migrated from Northern states. Most of the farmers are college educated and hold degrees in such varied subjects as accounting, chemistry, physics, English literature, photography, theology, horticulture, political science, business, history, education, BioSystems Engineering and computer science.

Not all who wander are lost; this is an interested, passionate, educated and very creative group of individuals.

Of the 12 farms, four are managed, two are on traditional family land, two are renting or leasing, three are borrowing land, and one farm is owned in partnership with one of the couple’s parents. All work on their farms full time and are able to make a living by farming.

“The ability to grow food is an art and a skill,” says GROW! filmmaker Owen Masterson. “Eating well is a choice. When you factor mono crop farm subsidies, antibiotic and pesticide overuse, environmental damage and health concerns into the equation, organic is not more expensive or elitist.”

“Sometimes at screenings there are the ‘doubters’ who ask, ‘But can this kind of agriculture feed the planet?’ What’s more important to think about is that these young farmers are feeding their communities by producing better, healthier food using practices that preserve the land without the use of synthetic, petro-chemical based fertilizers and pesticides,” Masterson adds.

Colin McCrate and Brad Halm of the Seattle Urban Farm Company are part of the urban farm movement. The two went in the opposite direction of their Georgia colleagues, moving to Seattle after working on large farms. In addition to recently releasing the book Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard, the two work designing, installing, and maintaining urban-food production systems in the Puget Sound Area.

Halm tells TakePart that he’s known a handful of people who started their first urban garden, fell in love with it, dropped everything and moved to the country to start a new farming career—all in the course of just a few years,

“This is obviously a big decision and usually means walking away from high-paying corporate jobs and changing school systems—in addition to buying flannel shirts and mud boots,” Halm says. “I remember one client in particular who started with a small raspberry patch and a single raised bed. Three years later she was farming four acres with vegetable crops, 150 fruit trees, a couple of sheep and a huge flock of chickens.”

He adds that urban farming is no different than country farming other than the amount of space one has to work with.

“The good news is that, to create a healthy, functioning food system we need a lot more urban farms and a lot of local, small rural farms. As perspectives about the food system continue to change, I hope that more people will have the motivation and opportunity to find their place in sustainable agriculture—wherever that may be,” Halm says of the growing organic farming movement.

For Masterson, shedding a light on these new, younger farmers has been as fulfilling for him as the audiences he is educating.

“Over and over we hear the refrain: Thank you for making this film. At festival screenings and Q+A’s we are happily surprised by the number of people that, after watching GROW!, want to know where they can find young, beginning farmers like those in the film for their unused land. For many it was as if someone turned on a light in a room they didn’t realize was dark.”

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For anyone who wishes to study Sustainable Food and Farming, please consider our UMass Bachelor of Sciences degree or our 15 Credit Certificate Program.


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs in Sustainable Food and Farming

This is the time of year students planning on graduating from our Sustainable Food and Farming major in May are busy looking for employment opportunities.  I’ve posted some general advice on finding good work, including some links to useful jobs sites.

I also post jobs and internships on occasion to my Just Food Now blog page if they are in Western Massachusetts.

To see what some of our recent graduates are up to , check out the “graduates” link above.

Students in the major generally focus on growing good food, farm education, advocacy and public policy. They study topics from permaculture and organic farming to medicinal herbs and community food systems.

Our Sustainable Food and Farming major helps to prepare students for careers with small, organic and community farms, non-profit advocacy and policy agencies, government organizations, and food and farm related educational institutions.  SF&F offers students flexibility in choice of courses and therefore requires a close working relationship with an academic advisor.

For a few thoughts on employment in this area, please see; Yes, but are there jobs?