Archive for the ‘farming’ Category

Vignettes from the work of rebuilding the Local Food Infrastructure in Maine.

This post is somewhat longer than my usual.   It is an essay I’ve been working on for awhile now.  I think of it as my TED talk should I ever be invited to deliver one.   Let me know what you think.

 

My grandpuppy visiting the farm.

 I grew up in a small town in Maine in the 1960’s. My mother was a farm girl from a nearby dairy farming community. As a teenager she had worked at the local canning factory in her hometown. Nearly every town with a stream that could produce hydropower had a canning factory.  

My mother was a great believer in good food. This is how I ate as a child. Every year my parents put a side of beef in the freezer. A grass-fed steer from a local dairy farm. Slaughtered at the local food locker. Best beef I ever ate. And we ate it frequently because as a single income family with four growing children a large percentage of the family budget was spent on food. By buying their beef this way my parents could feed us ribeye for the same price as hamburger. We had a milkman who delivered. An egg lady who delivered. My mom said she bought from her because she had a husband who wouldn’t work and she needed the money to feed her own kids. My godfather got us hand-churned butter from a woman in her 90’s who lived in his town. It was bright yellow and salty, creamy, melty delicious. We had a huge garden every year and my mother canned and froze a lot of fresh veggies during the summer, made pickles, canned applesauce and apple butter from our neighbors trees. They were summer folks and long gone by the time the apples on their ancient tree were ready to harvest. We ate very well in my childhood home.

The country around us, along with being dairy country, was also the last bastion of the poultry industry in Maine. Every year in the shire-town of our county they held the week long Broiler Festival. A celebration of the farmers growing and the plants processing broiler chickens in our county. As a 5 year old I was the “gift girl” at the Miss Broiler Pageant. I met my first politician there. John Reid the Governor of Maine at the time. 20 years later I was the last occupational health nurse and safety officer at the last poultry processing plant in Maine. The industry was moving south where it was warmer and the labor was cheaper. My county’s economy was devastated.

At approximately the same time the poultry industry was dying in Maine a couple called the Nearings, Helen and Scott, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, moved to a small farm out on a peninsula on the coast and started homesteading. Scott wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” which became a run away hit with the 60’s generation and lead a lot of folks to move back to the land. These back-to-the-landers started farming and homesteading using organic methods. Soon they asking the cooperative extension agents to help them improve their methods and yields. One of these agents, Charlie Gould, happens to be the father of a friend of mine. He told me years later that he had all these “dirty hippies” asking him about organic methods so he decided he needed to learn how the organic system worked. From this humble beginning, after a few meetings lead by Charlie and attended by Scott, Helen, Eliot Coleman and many others sprang the beginnings of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association or MOFGA. And the rest, as they say, is history. Having the largest and oldest organic farming association in our state leads to many advantages. We are the only state in the country where the average age of farmers is falling thanks to the apprenticeship and journey person programs that MOFGA runs. We also have the highest per capita number of female farm owners. I don’t know what to attribute that to except that the millennials are pretty gender neutral in most things this aspect included.

In the meanwhile the chicken barns were empty and deteriorating. But we have found some uses for them. One became the home for Fedco Seeds. A worker owned seed, tree, perennials, bulbs and farm supply company that has been expanding at a reasonable rate for 30 years now. A local company serving the seed, equipment and input needs of the revitalized farming culture in Maine. Other empty chicken barns, and there were lots of them, became warehouses or self storage units. One became an antiques mall and yet another became the largest used bookstore in the state.

So the work continued and the farms came back to life and the farmers grew more and more food that they needed to get to market. The holes in the local food infrastructure began to show. Since the 1960’s the local food locker had closed. There are currently only three USDA slaughter facilities in the state. Some farmers drive as much as three hours one way to take their stock to be slaughtered in a way that the government will then allow them to sell wholesale or retail in the public marketplace. The local canning plant closed int he 1950’s and as I said the poultry processing plant was gone. So we had a gap, we had farmers who wanted to grow the food and eaters who wanted to eat it but we needed to rebuild the processing and distribution system. We needed more than just CSAs and Farmers Markets.

We have over the last 10 to 20 years been slowly rebuilding the local food infrastructure. A thing that is made less difficult by the fact that we are only a generation, and sometimes less, away from a rural infrastructure that functioned quite well. My organization , Food for Maine’s Future/Local Food RULES, is one of the smaller non-profits guiding and aiding this rebuilding. Along with MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust and a few others we are trying to keep open land in farming and farmers on the land. Some of the other components that have had to be reinvented are distribution. We are fortunate to have Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative another worker cooperative that runs several truck routes around the state picking up produce from the farms and distributing it to wholesalers and retailers around the state and New England. Food hubs are opening up around the state where farmers can aggregate their crops and sell to wholesale and retail markets. The Maine Federation of Farmers Markets is a thriving organization that supports markets for farmers around the state who wish to sell directly to customers.   

Other pieces of the puzzle include the access to infrastructure needed to create value added products. Or, on the other hand, protection from onerous regulatory burdens that prohibit the processing of food on the farm for direct customer sales. The granges around the state are going a great job with the first piece. Several, formerly underutilized, Grange Halls around the state have installed licensed kitchens and rent them out on an hourly basis to local folks who want to make a product that they can sell at retail outlets. My friend Julie just recently gushed to me about how much easier it is to make her Happy Honey in the Halcyon Grange kitchen then it was to try to do it in her own cramped home kitchen. In other communities decommissioned schools are being brought back to life as community centers and the kitchens are being licensed and rented out to local folks for food production.

In 2006 we were having one of our Mud-season Dinners and I stood with a group of young farmers bemoaning the recently introduced animal identification law. A set of USDA regulations that was forcing all farmers large and small to keep a paper trail for every animal they ever owned and to spend money tagging or tattooing those animals. One small goat farmer plaintively asked “What are we going to do?” and my friend Tim Libby, a fine small farmer who feeds thousands of disadvantaged folks with his Veggies for All program, turned to her and said “We’re going to keep doing what we we’re doing….it’s just going to be illegal.” And that is the crux of the matter. Small farmers have been skirting the onerous regulations for years. But the more burdensome the regulations get the more likely these farmers are going to be forced to become outlaws. From this frustration along with the frustration of trying to get those regulations changed at the state level came the movement to pass Local Food Sovereignty Ordinances in municipalities around the state.

And speaking of retail outlets the locavore movement is alive and well in Maine. Over the last two years we have doubled the number of brick and mortar food co-ops in the state. These small local businesses are especially supportive of local farmers and producers. In fact they are so successful that the big chain stores in the state are trying to imitate them by having pictures of in state farmers up around their produce aisles. A nice niche market for the slightly bigger producers.

I have already spoken about transportation but I have to tell you about one of the coolest new transportation solutions in my coastal state. MaineSails a project of the Greenhorns, which is a national organization of young farmers, recently (August 2015) had its maiden voyage carrying farm produce with fairly stable shelf life from Portland Maine to Boston Massachusetts. The produce was then transported via bike to the Public Market in Boston. This project was meant to emphasis the need to think outside the box about solutions in the food system with lower carbon footprints.

In 2006 the Brookings Institute published a study about Maine’s economic future. One of the main findings in the study was that what Maine had that was unique and marketable was its pride of place and open lands. They suggested that one way to keep those fields open was to keep it in farming. 

The Maine Grain Alliance is working to restore Maine’s preeminence as the bread basket of the northeast. They have opened a mill in Skowhegan and are not only grinding grain for human consumption but have filled the need of organic livestock farmers for organic feed grains. Each year in August they sponsor the Maine Kneading Conference a multi day event that brings together bakers and grain growers from all over the state and the country.

For years during the back to the land movement many of the small farmers and homesteaders I knew were growing a small crop of marijuana as their cash crop. Recently Maine legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. Becoming “care providers” under this new law has become a nice little cottage industry for many folks around the state. On the November 2016 ballot in Maine there will be a referendum seeking to legalize recreational use of marijuana. There had been two completing referendums. One sponsored and supported by the big tobacco and other firms seeking to regulate marijuana like tobacco, gambling and alcohol and restrict the number of growers in the state to a few deep pocketed folks from away. The other seeking to keep marijuana cultivation int he hands of the small farmer and allow them to continue to use a small marijuana patch as their cash crop for the year. The small farmers won this one. Big tobacco folded their tents and slunked away in the night when they realized they could not get the required number of signatures. The people of Maine were on to them and the small farmer version of the bill won the day and will be on the ballot. 

And now it comes full circle. Last year my daughter-in-law asked me to teach her to can tomatoes and make pickles. This year, for the first time she and my son had their own big garden. The other night when I called they were making gravy fries for dinner out of the all blue potatoes from their garden. Last fall, it was a very good apple year, we had a cider pressing party at my place. We pressed over 50 gallons of cider and set it to ferment so that we would have our own hard cider for the winter. We gathered the community, added value to the local apple crop, prepared for the winter, and nurtured the local food traditions. Doing the work, legal or not, to feed our family, friends and neighbors.

A Week (or two) in the (good) Life

For the past two weeks I have been working a couple of days a week at Fedco Seeds. Pulling seed orders from all across the continent. I find this job a great joy. Seeing what other people, from those with obvious micro plots in a city to huge farm orders, want to plant in their gardens and fields. I pulled an order from Wassila, Alaska and some of us on the crew debated whether or not I should write a note. And, of course, about the content of that note. I wanted to write “say hi to Sarah for us.” Meg thought I should ask the customer if she could really see Russia from there. A few orders later there was one full of zinnias, my favorite flower, I wanted to write a note saying that it was nice to pull an order for someone who was obviously as big a fan of these little garden sunbursts as I am. In the end the only note I wrote was one to a farm couple I happen to be friends with and whose order I randomly picked from the stack of requests. Among the many, many things there are to love about my little solidarity co-op the personal touch we can add to our customer service is definitely right up there on the list.

On Saturday I attended the board retreat for the food co-op board on which I serve. The consultant who was running the meeting said something very profound. During a discussion of bylaws changes she said that the work we do is “a way to show we are a radical economic institution. Not just a nice store.” A powerful idea that I wish would resonate more with the board as a whole. I’m thinking about making it part of the opening business at each board meeting until it sinks in a bit.

Okay, so enough of my joys and frustrations. How about some fun facts? From the Maine Gardener column in the Maine Sunday Telegram 1/25/15 some interesting factoids he gleaned from the Agricultural Trade Show at the beginning of last month:

*Forage radishes make a great cover crop for a no-till planting system. (BTW we sell the seed at Fedco)
*Waldo County Maine (my home county) ranks sixth in the country in the percentage of crops sold through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture)
*Anyone who can manage to grow hops successfully in Maine (damn Japanese Beetles) can easily sell their entire crop to the abundant crop of micro-breweries springing up around the state.
*Nation-wide the percentage of farms owned and run by women is 14%. Here in Maine it is more than double that at 29%. There are so many comments I could make about this particular factoid but I will be quiet and just let that sink in for a bit.

There are times that I feel I live in the center of the progressive farming universe. I know there are folks in the midwest who would take umbrage with that statement but it sure feels good to live where I live. One of the many epicenters of the revolution.

Big White Envelope Redux

Finally got around to filling out my USDA 2014 Organic Survey today and had a very pleasant surprise:

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Yep, that’s right the USDA is now keeping statistics on GMO contamination of organic crops! It may not be new, I may just have not been paying close enough attention, but I think this would have jumped out at me in past years as it did today. This addition is a good thing. It may be a gamble on their part that not enough small organic farmers can afford the very expensive testing and therefore will not be able to report contamination. But, being a glass half full kind of gal, I want to think that this will give us stats that we can use to fight the proliferation of GMO crops in our farmlands.

One more of those small stones we need to move to change the course of this industrial agriculture river.

Big White Envelope

A big white envelope arrived in my mailbox this week. I have yet to open it. Just waiting for the right time. The little logo on the outside says “Agriculture Counts.” Too true. Inside is the USDA’s annual Organic Farming Survey for 2014.

Now, I am a very little farm, microscopic almost but I got on this mailing list a few years ago because I felt strongly that organic agriculture in the US was being woefully under-counted. I wanted to do my, albeit small, part to reverse that trend. On the fancy postcard they sent me a few weeks ago it says this: “Total organic sales by farms in the US increased by 83 percent between 2007 and 2012.” Well I would say that their counting of it increased, more likely.

As you, faithful reader, well know I am not a huge fan of the USDA. I am not a fan of their burdensome, one-size-fits-all regulatory structure that is for sure. But if they want to count and tout organic farming I am more than willing to help them out with that. To contribute my small bit to the growing pile of data about caring for the land and feeding the people in a safe, sustainable way.

Anyhow, here is what the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has to say about it:

“IMPORTANT ORGANIC SURVEY HITS FARM GATES
January 9, 2015

On January 5, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) mailed the much anticipated 2014 Organic Survey to organic farmers all across the country. This survey is a follow-on to the 2012 Census of Agriculture and focuses exclusively on issues and trends facing organic producers. This survey was mandated by a provision of the Fiscal Year 2014 omnibus funding bill that NSAC advocated for and supported, and continues the data collection efforts on the organic sector that began with the first-ever national organic survey conducted over six years ago.

This survey is critical to organic farmers and the organic industry as a whole, because it will provide important trend data on the growth, trends, challenges, and opportunities facing the organic industry within the United States. The last time this survey was conducted was 2008, and by conducting the survey again with the same list of questions, NASS, policymakers and other data users (including farmers themselves) will be able to better identify developments and opportunities for growth in organic production.

To read more about the importance of data to the organic sector, check out our previous blog post.

The types of questions asked by the 2014 Organic Survey include:

How much land is currently transitioning into organic production;
Information on specific production practices organic farmers are implementing on their farms to control pest, weeds, soil fertility, conserve water and manage livestock;
Primary production challenges facing organic farmers; and
Value and price data on organically produced crops and livestock products.
This information not only helps the organic industry identify trends that will inform planting and other decisions, but it also helps researchers and organizations representing organic producers identify where additional resources and research are needed. Without this important data, organic producers are at a disadvantage compared with their conventional counterparts.

The data collected by this survey will also help USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) as it seeks to develop more organic prices elections for federal crop insurance policies. Organic price elections on additional crops will allow organic producers to insure their crops at the full organic price, which is often well above the conventional price. RMA also needs organic production data in order to establish new crop insurance products that are specifically tailored to organic farmers.

The survey has been sent to all known organic producers, exempt organic producers and those transitioning to organic.

Farms are required by law to complete the survey and can either complete and return the paper version they will receive in the mail or they can fill out an online version using the ID number on the mailing label. If utilizing the paper version, producers must return the survey to NASS by February 13, 2015. Producers have until April 3, 2015 to complete the online version of the survey.

The results of the 2014 Organic Survey will be available in August 2015.

NSAC encourages organic producers to participate by filling out the survey or by responding through NASS’s online survey portal, to ensure that farmers, policymakers, and other organic stakeholders have access to the most comprehensive and timely information on the current state of our country’s organic sector.”

So, if you farm organically, even just a little bit, I urge you to add your voice to the growing chorus of farming the way it should be!

Home Again

I have such great respect for activists who do this all the time.   Leave home, sleep in strange beds, spend their days talking and talking and talking.   Networking, doing the work.  I want to do the work but I am so reluctant to leave my little homestead to do it.   I know how important it is to go and meet in person with other people trying to change the world but I just wish they would all come here.   Maybe I can figure out the Helen and Scott Nearing approach and get like-minded folks to make the pilgrimage to my little corner of the universe.   Maybe not.

But most importantly when I got home all of my baby chicks were thriving.   My non-farmer son who had been tending them for me said they had been eating like miniature vultures.   He had a hard time keeping their food troughs full.   How lucky am I to have this wonderful support system?   Very!

So home again, home again, riggety jig.   Back to the center of my universe and to a part of my life that is grounding and positive and, most importantly, here.    Oh, and my neighbor took care of the overly brazen fox who had eaten all my adult chickens and was starting in on his, in spite of his five dogs.

 

And Now Some Words of Wisdom and a Call to Action

I already (permanently) link to Civil Eats on this blog but just in case you never click that link you should click this one.   It is a piece written by my friend, mentor, partner in activism Bob St. Peter.   This Land is Our Land?   Here’s a quote:  “The American way of land has been this: conquest, enclosure, inheritance, foreclosure, and sale to the highest bidder. And that trend is likely only to get worse. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, at the bleeding edge of free-market thinking, has proposed that any corporation anywhere in the world be able to buy as much farm land in his state as it wants. At the moment, there are at least a few restrictions on the kinds of international investors allowed to dabble in Wisconsin farmland, with a 640-acre limit on purchases for firms designated foreign.”

Read all the way to the end.   Bob asks you to pull up a chair and enter the discussion about how we can keep land in the hands of those who will farm it.

At other places in the article it speaks about young people who do not come from a farming background who want to “get their hands dirty” and get back to the land as their parents and grandparents did, however briefly, in the 60’s.    Which brought to mind the newest edition of my own alumni magazine which was it’s “Thirty under 30” issue.  In this publicity rag from a school known for its schools of medicine, engineering and business there were TWO alums on the list who were doing work in the area of local food.   One was labeled a “Local Food Champion” and the other was someone who works for Slow Food in NYC.   Not bad odds.  Maybe, just maybe, the issues we care so much about are becoming mainstream.   As long as the interest is sincere and not just a co-opting of the “right” words then this is a good thing.

Home Grown Energy

It looked about the same when we saw it yesterday. Maybe a bit more complete.

Spent the last 36 hours in Vermont visiting with my extended family.   My god-daughter is a science professor at Vermont Technical College where they are doing all sorts of interesting things in the field of Agriculture.    The most notable of which is a very large anaerobic digester they are building to produce methane from food and animal waste.   The plan, as I understand it, is to generate electricity from the methane and use that to power the campus and sell back to the grid.   This project involves students from many different disciplines plus faculty and the manager of the on site farm.   It was all very exciting.  Real home-grown energy.

And it was nice to see the family, too.