All Paths Lead to The Black Dirt
I like to say that I’m a 200th generation farmer. And I believe it’s actually true. That’s assuming a generous lifespan of 50 years for my ancestors for the past 10,000 years which is when we transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society to agriculture.
Both of my parents grew up on small farms in Northern Illinois. My father, who worked as an engineer, returned to his agricultural roots when I was 10 years old when he and my mother bought a 160-acre homestead farm
My father was ahead of his time and raised “grass-fed” beef years before trend began. I, of course, promptly became a vegetarian. I resisted working on the farm and reluctantly learned how to drive a tractor, bale hay and castrate a bull, more or less. One time we weren’t completely successful and nicknamed the cow “half nuts.”
When I graduated from my rural high school of 76 kids and from Southern Illinois University with a degree in journalism, I packed my bags, loaded up my car and headed east happy to leave behind my small-town life and the Future Farmers of America club.
So, what am I doing here? Farming?
I’m surprised as my old high school friends are. And I blame it all on James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency, a book about surviving the converging catastrophes of peak oil, peak credit and climate change. It shifted my world view.
Just a few simple facts:
It takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of food;
It takes 400 gallons of oil per person each year to feed every American;
150 years ago 70 percent of the population worked on farms, today less than 1 percent of the American population is involved in agriculture;
Fruits and vegetables have lost more than 50 percent of their vitamins and minerals since World War 2. In other words, you would have to eat 4 zucchinis today to get the same nutrition as eating one zucchini in 1942;
There used to be 10,000 varieties of apples grown in the United States;
100 years ago, most farmers saved their own seed; today three companies, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta own and control 50% of the seeds market.
And what struck me most was the fact that one gallon of gas contains the equivalent amount of energy as 500 hours of physical labor. Let me repeat that, just one gallon of gas which currently sells for about $3.50 a gallon contains the same amount of energy as 500 hours of physical labor.
That means I must spend 500 hours on my hands and knees planting, weeding, picking, washing and packing vegetables to equal one gallon of gas. Three dollars and fifty cents.
And that doesn’t include the next two gallons of gas it takes to transport those vegetables to New Jersey. It’s no wonder we’re eating fossil fuels.
And so my journey began as I continued to research, read and contemplate our options as a civilization. It was a very depressing time for me. I got tired of reading and worrying and decided I better get busy. I figured that after air and water, food is our most basic need. We all need to eat. Every day. And sometimes we like to eat more than once a day. And growing food. That is something I can do.
I had already begun gardening in earnest. A few tomato plants had turned into 10 raised beds growing 30 different vegetables. I built a root cellar in the basement, planted apple trees and blueberry bushes, taught myself how to can and preserve vegetables, learned how to make yogurt and mozzarella cheese from fresh milk and made Sauerkraut the old-fashioned way: in a crock with fermentation. I tried raising chickens three different times but lost them all too wild predators. I even got a hunting license and gun but never got the courage to shoot a deer.
But it still wasn’t enough. If I’m going to grow 10 tomato plants, why not grow 100 or 200 or 300 tomato plants? How much more work can it be?
And the black dirt was beckoning me.
We moved from Hawthorne, NJ to Warwick, NY in 1998. I must have driven through the black dirt region hundreds of times without realizing the significance of the soil. The Black Dirt. It’s black. And it’s beautiful. It’s a gift really from the last ice age formed before the advent of agriculture. Just sitting there untouched, slowly decomposing, building organic matter. Until 100 years ago when the immigrants from Poland recognized its value and began digging ditches by hand to drain what they called “The Drowned Lands” and began growing – onions mostly. At one point nearly all of the onions grown in the country were grown in the Black Dirt region.
I had volunteered on a large, organic non-profit farm until some black dirt was put up for sale and we bought our first 8 acres of black dirt and a barn and a well. And I was well on my way, or so I thought.
I had a romantic vision and high ideals. Of farming. Of vegetables. Of organic. I believed in it all. I had used cloth diapers for my kids and had organic vegetables delivered to my house in the early 1990s. Just like I was the perfect parent before I had my children, I was the perfect organic farmer until I planted my first row of kale. That was when my neighbor farmer walked over, looked at my fields and casually said to me, “Hey, you’ve got flea beetles there.”
What? Where? The plants weren’t even a quarter of an inch high. I never had this problem in my garden. But sure enough, on closer inspection, there they were, flea beetles, happily hopping and munching on my kale.
I received a lot of other “helpful” advice from other farmers:
“You paid how much per acre?”
“I think you rows are too close together. How are you ever going to cultivate?”
“Your rows are way too far apart. You’re never going to make any money that way.”
“You need to keep those ditches clean.”
“You better take care of those weeds so the seeds don’t blow on my land.”
I knew I was in way over my head.
The first year I planted 200 pounds of potatoes, 2000 transplants and hundreds of dollars of seed. I gave it all away. 8,000 pounds of vegetables to food banks and homeless shelters. It’s a long story. This was definitely the most challenging thing I had ever done in my life.
The second year, I was a lot more realistic and began a small CSA with 12 people. For those who aren’t familiar with a CSA, it stands for Community Supported Agriculture and is where people join a farm for the season and receive a weekly share of freshly harvested vegetables. I was very happy with 12 members but more and more wanted to join and it quickly grew to 40 people.
I knew I couldn’t do it this alone. My husband was happy to help as long as he didn’t have to get off the tractor. My son was willing to pack the vegetables and deliver then to New Jersey. I really didn’t want to employ people, most of whom would be illegal and I didn’t want to deal with worker’s comp, unemployment insurance or worker housing. I wanted to be in the fields. Planting and picking.
So, I started reaching out to other like-minded farmers for help. The first one I started working with was from Bangladesh. He grew the most awesome greens and reds which turned pink when cooked. He smuggled the seed in from his own country and when he couldn’t get it, he would save his own seed and trash it using traditional methods. And I found another farmer who had the most amazing piece of equipment: a potato washer. His mother used to wash hundreds and hundreds of pounds of potatoes by hand, outside in a stainless steel sink until he bought this machine. Another neighbor, a Chinese farmer, borrowed our tiller and introduced me to a new vegetable, You choy, which is now one of my favorite vegetables. And I found another farmer with a vegetable washer and walk-in cooler who helped me wash and store the vegetables.
And I realized that I was creating my own little community of farmers. None of these farmers were “certified” organic. They were too busy tending to their land and growing the most flavorful vegetables for their families and customers.
And in working with and talking small family farmers, I came to realize that I had merely been a “consumer” blinding consuming what was sold to me as organic. I used to think it was organic or it wasn’t. I really thought it was that simple. That black and white. But once I started farming, I came to realize that what had started as a small movement of people wanting to grow food in a sustainable way with a minimum of outside inputs had been co-opted by major corporations now that there was some money to be made. And so, in 2002 the organic movement was hijacked by big-business and legislated by the government. The USDA now “owns” the word “organic” and it’s illegal for me or for you to use the term to sell a vegetable unless pay for it.
Just to give you one example of the organic standards, composting is one of the cornerstones of organic agriculture and the rules for composting are well thought out in terms of what can be composted, how often to turn the pile, what temperature the compost should reach, etc. Meanwhile, in the same legislation, it’s legal to use the manure from Perdue chicken factory farms and be “certified” organic. You can be sure that Foxy “organic” lettuce doesn’t bother with compost. How can they with 18,000 acres? No, they just spread the chicken litter, as it is affectionately called, from Frank Perdue’s chicken farms.
So, I, along with most other up and coming small farmers dedicated to sustainable farming practices are choosing NOT to be certified.
Even for farmers who do practice conventional agriculture, there is a big difference in the degree of how much and what is sprayed. Take these two potatoes, one is from a large industrial farm in Idaho and one is from a local farmer. This Idaho potato has been sprayed with a cocktail of chemicals and fertilizers 14 times during the growing season. The fields are so toxic after spraying that if a piece of equipment breaks down, the farmer won’t even go into the field to fix it. And this potato had to sit for 6 months to off gas the pesticides before it can be sold and eaten. And the farmers, who grow these potatoes, won’t even eat them. They grow a small patch by their homes for their own families. This potato from my neighbor was sprayed once in the spring to knock back the potato beetles. Neither is organic, but which one would you rather eat?
The question “Are you organic?” is too simplistic.
So, what should you ask? What is the right question? I don’t know the question, but the simple answer is:
Don’t buy food from a stranger!
And there is nothing stranger than a typical American grocery store. The middle twelve isles are nothing but junk – processed food. Just pick up any box and look at the ingredients. 90 percent of the food in Shop Rite is “owned” by major corporations – even in the so-called “health food” section. And the same goes for Whole Foods. It’s corporate, industrial agriculture through and through.
And now, they are trying to co-opt the latest trend in food: The Local Food movement. Here’s an ad from Whole Foods in the latest edition of The Natural Farmer publication looking for farmers who grow organic broccoli, garlic, blueberries and strawberries (of course, they don’t want the easy things to grow like zucchini, they can get those from their Foxy friends). And they proudly advertise that they purchase “local produce and flowers.” In 2010 they spent $15 million on local produce which sounds impressive until you realize it’s less than 1 percent of their total sales.
Heck, even Frito-Lay wants to get on the local bandwagon as they try to sell their potato chips in Idaho as “a local product.” But the very nature of the corporate, industrial agri-business model is the antithesis of small-scale, sustainable farming, local production and strong interdependent communities.
What is unsustainable won’t be sustained. As Jared Diamond so eloquently wrote in the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, we can willingly make the choice to live in a sustainable way or the choice will be made for us.
So, what can we, as individuals, do?
First, grow your own food. It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s in your DNA. Plant an apple or pear tree in your yard. Or replace an ornamental bush with a blueberry bush. It’s both pretty and tasty. Plant a small raised-bed garden. Just put up the bed and start using it to dump your compost in each week with a layer of straw or the Sunday New York Times. It’ll be ready to plant in a year or two. Even if you plant nothing besides one tomato plant, it’s worth it. There is nothing better than eating a tomato picked right off the vine warmed by the sun. It’s the way they were meant to be eaten.
At the very least, plant an herb garden. Herbs are easy to grow, the pests and chipmunks won’t bother them and they don’t require a lot of fertilizer. In fact, herbs will be more flavorful if you don’t coddle them and they have to work a bit to grow. If your backyard has no sun, put the herbs in pots and bring them in during the winter for fresh herbs all year long.
Eat seasonally and learn to preserve the harvest:
Build a root cellar in a corner of your basement or use your garage to store onions, potatoes and winter squash;
Buy a dehydrator or use your oven and use it for drying fruits, vegetables and herbs;
Buy a chest freezer and buy ½ cow or pig or 10 chickens from a local farmer;
Use the freezer for sweet corn, tomatoes, chopped peppers, and cooked pumpkins;
Buy a crock or use the one from your slow-food cooker to make sauerkraut.
Shop at the farmer’s markets which are sprouting up all over and support small family farms and local food producers.
Buy locally as much as possible. It’s easy now to buy local vegetables, fruit, honey, grass-fed meat, pastured poultry, eggs and maple syrup
And last but not least, join a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture. Because so many people are too busy to grow their own food or don’t have the space for a garden, joining a CSA is a great way to have a connection to a local farm and receive freshly harvested vegetables each week. I like to say that it’s the next best thing to growing your own, and a lot less work.
As a farmer, I particularly like this model because it makes planning for the season much easier and more efficient. I know exactly how many plants and seeds to order depending on the total number of members. And also, unlike a farmer’s market, once the vegetables are packed and the truck is loaded, I know that all the vegetables are accounted and I don’t have to bring back crates of unsold vegetables.
I also love to experiment with new vegetables and new varieties of vegetables which can be difficult to sell at a farmer’s markets. I have had many of the members say that is one of their favorite aspects of the CSA; learning to eat and enjoy new vegetables like callaloo, purslane and fuzzy melon. It can be challenging however, to have 100 heads of broccoli all the same size ready to be picked for Tuesday.
And the CSA model is not for everyone. Members have to be willing to wash and cook. And also be a little adventuresome and flexible. It’s much different to get a box of vegetables each week and figure out what some of them are and how to cook them as opposed to taking a menu for the week and going the grocery store with a list.
The main complaint with a CSA is that there are often too many vegetables and people feel that they are “wasting” food. But the truth is that there is a tremendous amount of waste in our food system, most of it behind the scenes in terms of sorting and sizing vegetables, discarding vegetables that don’t look right, throwing away truck loads of food because the temperature wasn’t maintained and just because perishables perish – and fast, especially in the summer heat. It’s one of the reasons that I like composting so much; it takes away the guilt: it’s not throwing away vegetables, it’s creating topsoil!
But the main reason to join a CSA is for the taste! I’ve had many members tell me:
“I love the lettuce. You’ve spoiled me. I can never eat lettuce out of a bag again.”
“That’s the most flavorful garlic I’ve ever had.”
“That butternut squash was so good. I didn’t even need to use any butter or seasoning.”
“Those were some of the best tomatoes that I’ve ever eaten.”
“The CSA has changed the way I eat. I can’t wait until Tuesday to pick up my veggies and start cooking.”
This year in particular has taught me the true value of the CSA model for a farmer in being able to share the risk of farming with the members. In good years, members will receive extra potatoes and winter squash. And in some years, it might mean no tomatoes due to late blight disease. But this year, members experienced how risky farming can be when we, along with hundreds of other farmers, lost our entire crop from Hurricane Irene’s catastrophic flooding. I know of several new farmers who may not be able to continue farming next year because the loss was so great.
But for my farm and other CSA farms, because of the support of the community, we will once again order the seeds and begin planting in the spring with hopes for a full harvest. And this is what community is all about.