Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Illuminating the Small Farms' Struggle for Survival

Slowed Food Revolution

Obama seeks to boost demand for organic food but doesn't offer meaningful support for the people who grow it.

Morse Pitts has been cultivating the same land in New York's Hudson Valley for 30 years. His operation, Windfall Farms, is the very picture of local, sustainable agriculture. From early spring to late fall, the farm's 15 acres are luxuriant with snap peas, squash, mint, kale, and Swiss chard. Its greenhouses burst with sun gold tomatoes and an array of baby greens. Pitts, who is in his 50s and is tall with gray hair, doesn't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any genetically modified seeds. He cultivates biodiversity, not just vegetables.

Twice a week, he hauls his produce 65 miles south to Manhattan to sell at the lucrative Union Square farmers market. His converted school bus runs on biodiesel he makes from used vegetable oil, which he is also trying to use to power his greenhouses. Pitts does a brisk trade; demand for his produce is high, and the way he farms is increasingly valued. Since the mid-1990s the number of farmers markets has shot up 300 percent, and the organic sector has seen annual double-digit expansion.

But despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that's not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can't afford to.

Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure -- bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market -- holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who've gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.

Read the complete article

Heather Rogers is the author of Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution and a senior fellow at Demos.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hindsight is Twenty-Twenty

Our research on the comparison between till and no till farming continues here at Windfall. Much has been learned so far. First of all, don’t assume that just because you have some grand plan in mind it will unfold as you expect. Second, try to anticipate obstacles before they happen. Third, things somehow seem to work out.

As you may know, timing is key in life. If you don’t get something done at the right time, you may lose your opportunity to make it work. That is especially true in the world of farming. Things need to happen when they need to happen. Of course there’s wiggle room, but you don’t want to push it. So when a key piece of equipment (a roller/crimper) for our research plots decided that it didn’t want to work when we needed it, or when the pepper plants that were specifically for the research got planted in another area by mistake, or when we didn’t have any irrigation set up to water the newly planted plants my initial reaction wasn’t exactly optimistic. We probably should have tested out the roller/crimper before we needed to use it. The pepper plants should have had a sign on them explaining they were set aside for a specific use. Relying on the weather forecast that promised rain but didn’t deliver might have been a bit hopeful. Should have, could have, would have.

Fortunately, equipment was repaired, more pepper plants were found, and make shift irrigation was arranged. Big sigh of relief. Even though some things didn't work out as planned, many things did - like Hubert flame weeding one of the rows. Check it out.

Now we are past the initial implementation stages and dealing with maintenance. There will continue to be setbacks, but somehow it will all work out.