“The farmer is the only person in our economy who buys everything retail, sells everything wholesale and pays the freight both ways” - JFK
For the second time, we attended the "Young Farmer’s Conference: Reviving the Culture of Agriculture" (YFC) held at Stone Barns Agricultural Center this year in Pocantico Hills, New York. This 2 day course was geared towards providing both the young and new farmer with tools and ideas to help ensure their success, to provide a place where these new farmers can network and exchange ideas, to learn the nuts and bolts of sustainable farming, and to discuss the obstacles, especially financial obstacles, of starting and maintaining your own farm. The New York Times reported earlier this year, on a wave of liberal arts students choosing their summer internships, not at Goldman Sachs, but at farms in search of work (usually unpaid or nominal wages) and also fostering the student's belief in the need for social change. This seemed to be reflected in the sea of 250 fresh young faces at the sold-out YFC this year.
With only 400,000 farmers in this country providing about 95% of the food we eat, the future of farming is dependant on a new generation of farmers that not only can farm, but are innovative and creative enough to face the new set of challenges that farming faces: energy, climate and water changes. We are facing the end of cheap energy, we'll need farming systems that will be resilient with climate change, and we’ll need to learn to grow food with 1/2 the amount of water we now use.
We started the first day with a beautiful breakfast provided by our favorite restaurant in the world, Blue Hill, in the context of a modern elegant setting with farmhouse nuances.
Charlie's first lecture was an extremely practical one for those farmers who want to grow through the winter season. It was given by the head farmer at Stone Barns, Jack Algiere. It was extremely informative and fun to watch Jack get a bed ready for the next planting. As is usual with farmers, and not in many other business models, their are no "trade secrets" Everyone is always available to help their neighbor or competing farm learn the latest technique or any modality that will increase yield. It is so refreshing to be around people like that. One can only imagine what the day would feel like in other businesses if everyone approached work and their "competition" in this manner.
I veered off to a lecture given by Benneth Phelps and Ethan Roland on Permaculture, which is a sustainable way of farming, gardening and landscaping where it provides design tools for those that grow biodynamically, organically or even conventionally. Everything is about increasing efficiency; tools and plants have multi-purposes, for example. Things are planted with the goal of the "least effort for the largest effect." I like that. The most common example is the Sunchoke, also known as the Jerusalem Artichoke. You plant this once and it not only yields a delicious root vegetable to be consumed, but it also grows tall providing ground cover that may act as a barrier to wind or provide shade, and also provides beautiful chocolate-scented flowers. The beauty here for me is that I’ll never have to replant this; it’s perennial! So I just got a food source, shade, wind protection and cut flowers in one plant! We planted these out last October.
The next lecture we went to was “Vegetables with Taste: Growing and Marketing Vegetables with a Culinary Focus” given by Tom Wilcox and Caroline Pam from The Kitchen Garden Farm in Massachusetts. They are a lovely couple with a food background (Caroline was a food critic and they both have been schooled in cooking) who now farm full time. It was very sobering to hear their financial data and how hard they work just to maintain a salary that is competitive to that they pay their workers. They gave some great insight into the personal relationships growers have with their clients and how important it is for business and also how rewarding it makes their day.
The next lecture we went to was given by Connor Stedman from Gaia University on Treecrops and Agroforestry. This was a subset and extension of the Permaculture lecture and we came away with ideas for nut and fruit trees and bushes. Next steps for HMG are currants, gooseberries, hardy kiwi and Paw Paw (a taste of the tropics in the Northeast!), American Persimmons, and hazelnut trees.
On Friday we were inundated with extremely practical information. The first was on soil nutrition given by Dave Llewellyn at the Glynwood Center in Cold Spring, New York. The Glynwood Center is an amazing non-profit center that promotes environmentally sustainable agriculture and the preservation of farmland in the Northeast. Dave spoke about nutrient density in vegetables citing a shocking example of the state of the present day quality of our food. In order to get the equivalent nutrients of 1 apple grown in the 1930’s, we’d have to eat 6 of our present day apples! Vegetables and fruits can be measured by a simple tool called the refractometer which tells you the “brix” content of the plant. We think of brix typically in the wine, orange juice and maple syrup industries. It's a measurement of sugar content but it also translates to a higher nutritional quantity of the plant. For me, this was an "aha" moment. I've been looking at various studies either supporting or refuting the idea that organic food is more nutritious. Recently, a review came out stating that organic foods are no more nutritious than those conventionally grown. The reason why we may be seeing these discrepancies is that organic doesn't necessarily mean higher nutritional quality as defined by brix measurements! Sure, I firmly believe that we should eat food that is free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides and still believe that organic certified foods are important; those health effects may not be measured in terms of nutrition but unmeasurable by the potential effects years or decades later. But, this is the reason why organic certification is not the be all and end all of what it means to be the perfect food. It's ultimately much more important to know specifically where your food comes from rather than looking for a label at a supermarket.
This was reinforced when we had our lunch time Q and A with Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Blue Hill NYC, and winner of the 2009 James Beard award for Outstanding Chef. (See Inside Dan Barber's Kitchen) This guy was such a charismatic, witty, and energetic speaker that I had a fleeting thought that his head might explode while talking. He told us about a great story of some Mokum carrots he served as one of the entrees at the Blue Hill tasting menu. A cantankerous customer called him up to complain about how embarrassed she was for her guests who were at the table because they were served some measly carrots at a meal that cost $90-125 per person excluding beverages. Mind you, the carrots were pulled fresh from the farm, marinated for 4 hours in a carrot stock and 5 other things I couldn’t imagine doing to some carrots to produce an intense carrot experience. The customer didn't feel she was getting what she paid for because carrots, in her mind, are a cheap produce item. In any case, we got around to the sobering stats of running a restaurant, the reality of buying locally, organically and realizing that the cost of food, even at Blue Hill, can even drive the buyers there to sometimes seek the lowest price. Mr. Barber had once tested the brix content of an organic carrot the restaurant received from California and that reading was a big fat ZERO!. Normally a good reading would be 8 or higher. A great example of how organic doesn’t mean everything.
Our last lecture of the day was on Small Scale Beekeeping by Padraic MacLeish, beekeeper at Stone Barns. We learned the biology of bees and the logistics of keeping bees on a small scale in New York including obtaining hive materials, equipment, approaching bees, and getting sweet honey. BTW, if you want bees for next year, start now! You need to start the process of buying and getting their hives set up now so that you will be ready by spring. The Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York will be giving a biodynamically-oriented intro course February 2010.
Closing remarks were given by Fred Kirschenmann, a leader of the organic/sustainable food movement, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and manager of a 3500 acre organic farm in North Dakota and president of the board at Stone Barns. This extremely uplifting speech was important especially to those young and aspiring farmers who understand the reality of running their own farm - low pay, long hours and inclement weather. He envisions that agriculture will change over to smaller operations with more knowledgeable farmers who can manage and intensively restore the biological health of the soil. More importantly, the new young farmers will fundamentally redesign a system where everything is bred for high yield (maximum production and short term return) to a resilient system that is about nutritional quality, not just yield. He gave us 6 suggestions for the young farmers in the room.
1. To recognize that challenges are always opportunities.
2. To accumulate a new capital other than money. A human capital can provide us with imagination, creatively and innovation. This will be critical to solving the problems. He referred to an essay by ecologist Richard Heinberg called “The 50 Million Farmers” who predicts that by the year 2040, there will be 50 million people growing food in their own gardens or in community gardens. This is the type of human capital that we need.
3. Creation of a caring economy: referred to a book by Riane Eisler: "The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics" whereby we create a system simply to help each other thrive and survive rather than the competitive one man/woman to him/herself kind of ethic that has predominated our economy. He gave the example of the company Shepherd’s Grain where grain farmers from Washington, Oregon and Idaho developed a relationship with local millers and bakers and together determined the price based on growing conditions and production costs. It’s not based on the usual lower marketplace price of grain. This business model is working. Sales have exploded and this is a model we should look at.
4. Reduction of transaction costs. Travelling 250 miles to a Bronx farmer's market in a pick up truck won’t be sustainable when oil eventually approaches $300/barrel. Places like Basis Foods in New York are committed to helping small and mid-sized farmers find a place for their products in restaurants and markets all while reducing transportation costs . For the consumer, all their food will be entirely traceable.
5. Create and pay attention to new sustainable models. One example is Will Allen who grows tilapia and perch in addition to veggies in his 3 acre urban farm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This is a closed cycle that feeds 10,000 people on 3 acres!
6. Engage governmental agencies. Yeah, we're really disappointed in some of Obama's appointments but there is hope in the new young blood in the USDA forming the resistance and trying to develop new policies.
This conference was such an inspiration for us that we plan to make big changes at our micro-farm. Bees next year, serious scientific inquiry into the real nutritional quality of the food we produce, more efficient techniques will be in place, permaculture design applied to the remaining parts of the property that have not been tapped into and maybe trying out some Aquaponics. That’s right - growing our own fish source! We’ll be sure to be at the conference next year and in the meantime, I hope everyone who reads this will continue to vote with their dollars in making the right food choices to both support their own health and their local farmers.