Wednesday, July 11, 2012

New Neighbors

     There are two times of the day that are my favorite.  Early morning - I wake around 4 a.m. - and early evening.  At 3 a.m. I am awakened by the pack of coyotes cackling to one another.  It's frightening at first.  Any large amassing of animals that prefer the cover of night, yet throw off that cover to converse is unsettling.  I picture the pack surrounding a rabbit or one of the many feral cats, taunting it with bellicose barks prior to dispatching it.  But, at the same time, it is comforting to know they are there.  That they too are living here on much less than I have.  Perhaps one morning I'll bark with them in solidarity.
     I drift back off to sleep till 4.  It's still dark out but the roosters are crowing.  I lay in the dark and my eyes adjust.  A horse next door clears its throat.  Bleu doesn't move a muscle.  I have the farm to myself for another 45 minutes.  I hesitate to turn on a light or start moving.  The quiet of the still air is mesmerizing.
     Early evening is nice as well.  The day's heat has subsided.  The camper still has some of the heat stored.  This is the time of rituals.  Make dinner, wash dishes, cup of coffee.  I turn off the whirring of the fan.  I can here the low grumble of traffic on the I-5.  A continuous avalanche rumbling of noise.  Outside song birds are chirping.  Feeding on the evening insects that take flight.  They'll be turning in soon and so shall I.  My showers are cold these days.  You would think that would force me to fix the water heater.  But I haven't.  I feel there's something to gain by learning to take a cold shower.  So far I have learned I don't like it.
     It's interesting how quickly my life is taking on the cycles of the days.  I wake up early and go to bed early.  My heart is on east coast time but my existence is on the west coast.
     I feel I'm becoming in tuned with the land here.  Not because I'm mastering it or what it has to say.  But because I am realizing how much I don't know about it.  What wild plants grow here, what wild trees grow here, what wildlife lives here, insects, fish, amphibians?
     The land around the river is especially green and I know there are secrets locked away.  Use this plant for pain, use this one for stomach issues, insect repellant, and many more.  And each one of them has names.  Many names in fact.  The common name which shows its relationship to humanity and its Latin taxonomy to show its relation within the kingdom of Plantae.  I want to learn these names.  I want them to roll off my tongue and through my lips as easily as if I were talking to old friends.  I want to know these neighbors of my new home intimately.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A few thoughts on the "food movement"

I received a comment about one of the posts I made on why Tierra Miguel Farm closed.  The commenter made some salient points.  But they got me to thinking about the food movement at large.  Here's my response since I believe those thoughts are worth sharing.

I. Chang,

Thank you for taking the time to not only read what I wrote, but to leave a comment as well.  It may be too late but let me offer you an apology.  I can assure you that not making a public announcement was not the direction the management wanted to go.  In the end it wasn't the management's choice.  There is always "more to a story" and some things may never be resolved.  But at this point they will all seem like excuses for past actions.  I can only say I empathize with you deeply.  My faith in the "food movement" has changed as well.

I've read and re-read your comment.  Something in it just isn't sitting right.  It's not the criticism but much deeper than that. 

I always renewed my CSA membership with the maximum dollar amount, both to get maximum discount (we are of modest means, and the produce at TM was expensive) and to show my support of the farm. I did so early this year again as usual, despite feeling that the quality and quantity of the boxes of late had been suffering.

I agree with you that the quality of the boxes had suffered, and by quality I mean variety.  But I disagree that quantity and price was lacking.  In fact we undercharged for our produce while the costs of delivering to LA kept going up.  This brings up an interesting point about the "food movement."

To be certified organic a farmer must be certified by a certifying agent.  A certifying agent is someone the USDA has certified.  So the USDA doesn't do the actual certifications.  Sounds like typical bureaucracy doesn't it?  What this means is that farmers are dealing with private business to get their certification.  These certs are usually based off a percentage of the sales.  Typically starting around $2,000 and they sky rocket up from there.  Then the state of CA imposes an organic certification of around $300.  Now along comes Demeter for the Bio-dynamic certification which is another couple of thousand dollars.  These are only the certifications.  But these aren't costs that a chemical farmer has to deal with.

Additionally, the majority of the labor is hand-labor on an organic farm, not mechanical.  We do use tractors but much of the weeding and harvesting is by hand.  All those beautiful heirloom varieties aren't uniform enough to pick with machinery.  So by the time we pay our workers a living wage, the worker's comp taxes, and the payroll taxes, our labor costs are at least double a chemical farmers.

I only mention these to show the disparity between a chemical farmer and an organic farmer.  Here's where I have a problem with the "food movement."  Why does providing food that protects the environment, protects us, and is how we produced food prior to the 50's cost more than coating it with poisons?  Why do I, as an organic farmer, need to map out my watershed, and keep detailed records of everything I use, and pay for all of these upfront certifications?  It's not me poisoning the water systems.  It's not me making the air unfit.  It's not me depleting the nutritious density of food so that it is expressing itself in our children's health - diabetes, obesity, autism to name a few.  Yet if I were to go and spray my produce with toxins I don't have to do any of that and incur any of those costs.  I wouldn't have to show were my chemicals run off to. 

Organic produce costs more because we've allowed the system to be set up backwards. We've allowed the system to be set up backwards because we all (myself included) look to the "food movement" as something to be a part of; just another cog.  In fact WE are the "food movement."

Wendell Berry, in one of his essays, makes the point that we have become specialists.  We have chiropractors, optometrists, dry cleaners, and mechanics.  Along with giving them the work we also give them our responsibility for our backs, our eye sight, our clothes and our vehicles.  Don't get me wrong, I want to be your farmer.  I want to be responsible for the land I use.  I want to be responsible for growing the best food possible.  But I don't want to be solely responsible for your health.  When you make a choice to buy organic that choice should be driven first and foremost because you want to ensure perfect health for yourself and your family.  Then it should be because you want to protect the environment for yourself and your family.  Lastly, it should be to protect your community for yourself and your family.

Just purchasing a CSA share from an organic farm is an important step.  But it is only the beginning.  WE each need to be responsible for our food.  Why are we leaving it up to Michael Pollan to tell us are food system is screwed up?  Why are we leaving it up to Eric Schlosser to tell us fast food is bad?

The fact is that only those who farm care to read the farm bill.  Yet the farm bill lays out who is going to get subsidized, how the food stamp program is going to work, and who is going to get aid to take farming in new directions.  These are issues that are important to all of us.  I'm not trying to single anyone out because I've done exactly the same thing.  I thought that just buying organic was all I had to do when I first got started.  Then it morphed into all I had to do is grow organically.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  There are a lot of huge companies now going organic.  That is good but they still aren't doing the best for their workers, they aren't taking care of the soil, they aren't caring about much other than the bottom line.

Only buying organic food is going to continue to keep organic food pricey.  What we need to do is not just support our farmers but become their allies.  Help them fight the fights that need to be fought.  Why is it illegal to sell raw milk?  Have you heard about the CA Leafy Green Handler's Marketing Agreement; the LGMA?  Look at the restrictions they are trying to impose on farmers in the name of food safety.  And now the USDA wants to make it a national policy.  You think organic is pricey now?  We are having laws and regulations put into place by people who don't know squat about farming.  Nor do they know squat about a healthy environment or producing food that is meant to keep us healthy.

I understand the frustration with feeling like you have to compromise ethics with competence.  The sad truth is that most people who feel driven to grow food for others don't possess the skills required for business.  In fact they seem polar opposites. Most of the businessmen work for Monsanto and Tyson and Cargill.  There are those who are successful - Joel Salatin for example.  But, and I love what he does, he's a business man who farms.  However, if we ally ourselves with those who produce our food and really become invested in our health, together we can create the relationships we both want. 

Having the food that provides us with the nutrients we need to build our bodies and to have perfect children is our birthright.  It's being taken away from us in the name of profits.  But to only have a few stalwarts guarding over our health is ridiculous and it will fail and our children will be the ones who lose.

I appreciate greatly the fact that you commented.  I appreciate your dedication to TMF.  I am sorry for how that relationship transpired.  I am not trying to shift blame nor am I trying to call anyone out.  As I have said before I am to blame to.  What I want to do is make organic food the cheapest food out there. I, and all the organic farmers out there, can't do it alone.

My deepest regards and respect,

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Simply Beautiful

     "There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art, for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination, and the sense of structure, as on knowledge.  It is a practical art.
     But it is also a practical religion, a practice of religion, a rite.  By farming we enact our fundamental connection with energy and matter, light, and darkness.  In the cycles of farming, which carry the elemental energy again and again through the seasons and the bodies of living things, we recognize the only infinitude within reach of the imagination.  How long this cycling of energy will continue we do not know; it will have to end, at least here on this planet, sometime within the remaining life of the sun.  But by aligning ourselves with it here, in our little time within the unimaginable time of the sun's burning, we touch infinity; we align ourselves with the universal law that brought the cycles into being and that will survive them."

Wendell Berry "The Use of Energy" from "The Unsettling of America"

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I need more than 24 hours in a day!!!

So it has been weeks since I wrote anything for the blog.  I need to get to it today but all I can say is I have been busy with setting up SoCal Shrooms.  Not an excuse for slacking but definitely a time consumer.  If you get a chance check it out on FB.  It's in its infancy so there's not much going on but building.  However it's mission is a great one so check it out!

What is SoCal Shrooms?  It's a for-profit business based at Wild Willow Farm & Education Center, a non-profit teaching farm whose mission is to teach the next generation of farmers. 50% of SoCal Shrooms’ profits will directly fund their educational programs, while also providing their interns valuable experience and employment learning to run a small independent business.

We will be providing gourmet oyster mushrooms to the San Diego area; farmer's markets, restaurants, and maybe a CSA! 

Our slogan - "A Gourmet Trip."

This is a very exciting opportunity that has presented itself and one I couldn't pass up. There will be many chances for me to blog about the intricacies of running a farming business, so stay tuned. Needless to say there is only 24 hours in a day. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Work/Life Balance is Bull$@#!

If you don't love your job then quit!  Because if you don't love your job then you are on the losing end of a bad relationship.  In fact if you are constantly upset, worried, bitching and unhappy - you are wasting your time.  I'm not talking clinically here.  I'm talking you're worried about finances, you don't like your job, you don't like the way you look, you're constantly angry, you never have enough time to do X, and the list goes on.

The problem with being upset, worried, bitching, unhappy and a whole slew of other crappy words, is that they give the illusion of doing something about it.  It lulls us into a false sense of "since I feel this way I am doing something about it."  The worst part about that situation is that eventually feeling bad becomes the norm.

I say that is BS! Feeling good is the norm.  Being happy is the norm.  Life is for living.  Sure we'll all have those off days.  Of course we all will have times to worry - we're only human.  But if they become regular then there is a problem that needs to be fixed!

The solution to being happy... is YOU.  Crazy, I know.  But only you can make you happy.  That totally sounds like fortune cookie BS.  So what's the alternative?  To pin your happiness to other people, your job, your clothes, your car, your bank account.  I don't know about you but the only thing I have control over on that list is ME.

How do you find the happiness that is inside of you?  Do something!  Action.  If you are tired of worrying about bills then make a budget and stick to it.   If you are tired of the way you look then go for a 5 minute walk.  Just do something.  That something will lead to more somethings.  Just make it small at first and measurable.  However, don't put it off.  We're only human and delaying gratification isn't one of our strong suits.  

What caused this wild hair up my...?  It's the fact that I feel like I know some great secret and I'm not telling anyone.  It's the fact that I see great people every day who aren't where they want to be.  It's the fact that for a lot of things I may have accomplished, there are still areas of my life were I sit back and bitch and get jealous and unhappy about (talking about writing and publishing a book here.)  And this is the crux of the problem.  We segregate our lives into these lanes - be damned if these lanes happen to cross!  Some overlap for sure but it is more like a highway overpass for the majority of us.  What lanes am I talking about?  All of them.  Every single label you can think to give yourself.  Dr, lawyer, mother, brother, father, son, boyfriend, starving artist, chef, farmer, surfer, employee, writer - can I stop the list?

The point is that when we create these multiple lanes we are trying to multi-task our lives.  We've set up a system that facilitates adult ADD and guarantees us failure.  But failure is not bad.  Failure is good.  Failure is ONLY bad if we don't learn from it and keep doing it over and over and over.  Sounds like most of our days.  Well how mine used to sound. 

Every aspect of our lives should be moving us closer to our dreams.  Is your dream to have an incredibly tight and close family?  Then your job should help you achieve it not something you need to balance against.  Is your dream to cure blindness in Nepal?  Then your monthly gym membership should be getting you ready to be in Nepal.  If it isn't cut it and apply that money to moving to Nepal earlier. 

How you are as a sibling or a parent should be how you are in your business, at the gym, hiking, sailing, whatever.  The underlying principal here is character.  That is who you truly are; not some kind of label.  Don't identify with those labels because if at some point - hopefully not - they go away you'll lose yourself with it.  I know, I've been there and it took me nearly a year to get out of my depression.  I didn't even know I was depressed till I started to feel better again and realized life shouldn't be so damn hard.

There is nothing wrong with singular focus.  In fact, multi-tasking doesn't work anyways.  As long as we try and create a work/life balance we'll be forever stuck trying to balance our life instead of living it.  And that, unfortunately, is good thing for companies.  They need customers and employees.  We can't have everyone gallivanting off to live out their dreams.  I say it one last time the idea of a work/life balance is bull$@#!.  Do Something!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The new Turkeys & Guinea Fowl at the Farm

These little turkeys look like chocolate bananas with their little yellow heads.  The turkeys have also begun postering.  Meaning they will drop their wings and raise what little tail feathers they have to show off. 

Here we have everyone together.  Mostly these are guinea fowl - gray, white, dark brown.  The guineas have stripes on their heads and the turkeys have a little ridge at the meeting of their beaks and foreheads.  The little all yellow turkeys run up, jump into your hands, and fall asleep. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Capital vs Income: An Economics Argument for No-till and Beyond.

     Economists and businessmen understand the difference between capital and income very well.  However, the predominant actions of business over the last few decades would tend to suggest they don't - like the majority of us.  This is from not having a complete picture of the production cycle or rather the omission of certain parts of the production cycle.  

     Let's draw the distinction of capital from income.  Income is what the majority of us receive for doing work.  Income is an operating cost to the production cycle.  Capital is what is invested into the production cycle to get it started.  Income to a business is synonymous with profit after all operating costs are paid, and capital investments are recouped.  Income has a bit of flexibility to it and so it is able to fluctuate.  Capital is more rigid and is a fixed cost.  Technically, income could go away and the business would still operate (basically a non-profit model) but if capital goes away the business will shut down.

     Wendell Berry, if you don't know of him you need to, is one of the smartest men we have alive.  In his essays, he makes the point that we do not consider Nature as part of our economic equation.  More specifically the process in which Nature uses to create the assets that we use.  So I'm going to borrow a term coined by E.F. Schumacher in his book "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered," called "natural capital" to combine their similar points of view.

     The easiest example of "natural capital" is to talk about fossil fuels.  Schumacher states, "No one, I am sure, will deny that we are treating them as income items although they are undeniably capital items.  If we treated them as capital items, we should be concerned with conservation: we should do everything in our power to try and minimize their current rate of use; we might be saying, for instance, that the money obtained from the realisation of these assets - these irreplaceable assets - must be placed into a special fund to be devoted exclusively to the evolution of production methods and patterns of living which do not depend on fossil fuels at all or depend on them only to a very slight extent."[1]

     Students of permaculture will be familiar with David Holmgren's book, "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability."  For those not familiar with the idea of permaculture it comes from the joining of several words:  permanent culture and permanent agriculture.  In his book he makes the statement that we have squandered the first half of our fossil fuel supply.  Essentially treating it like income.  When we should have been using it to build solar panels and wind turbines and such.  The idea is that it takes a great deal of fossil fuel to produce the energy to produce these sustainable items.  That's the catch 22.  So waiting till we run out of fossil fuels to start building them is not going to work.

     Using fossil fuels as the example I'd like to look at another "natural capital" that we have overlooked - top soil.   1/32 of the earth is suitable for growing food.  Of that 1/32 only the top 3-4 inches of that land is considered top soil.  Check out this link at the American Farmland Trust. It views the world as an apple as it divides it - very poignant.  Each year we lose billions of tons of topsoil due to erosion from chemical and mechanical cultivation.  Even organic farming practices uses mechanical cultivation to turn the soil for planting and weed management.  This exposing of the soil allows for it to dry out and it then becomes vulnerable to wind and water erosion.  Not to mention it is nearly void of microbiological activity which has been proven to enhance plant growth.

     This happens because soil is seen as an input into the production process and not as part of the capital investment.  Therefore we "spend" our topsoil as if it were income in the process.  Relying on amending the soil with fertilizers and compost, which becomes part of the operating costs, rather than figuring out how to conserve our capital asset.  The fable of the "Goose who lays the Golden Eggs," is very apt here. This process's only rational ability to continue is to continuously increase the amount of compost and fertilizer that is applied to maintain a sense of fertility.  Thereby increasing operating costs which will be translated to the consumer in the price of food.  Not to mention this has minimal effect on the erosion that is occurring because the field will soon be tilled in again and exposed to heat, wind and water.  Take into consideration that it has taken thousands of years and the movements of glaciers to create our current top soil and you can see that, even with the addition of compost, we won't be replacing the lost top soil anytime soon. 

     The first step in solving this crisis is to minimize the erosion and even try and stop it.  This is done in several ways.  First the soil needs to remain covered at all times.  The vegetative growth will act as a protective layer against wind and the harsh rays of the sun.  The vegetative cover will provide a layer that reduces evaporation as well.  The soil being cool, shaded, moist, and protected from the wind will promote microbiological activity in the soil which will translate into healthier soil and therefore healthier plants.  The root structure of the vegetation holds the soil in place from water erosion.  The stalks of the vegetation will also slow down the movement of the water preventing it from gaining the momentum to cause wide-scale damage.  The slowing down of the water also allows the water time to percolate into the surrounding soil.  This not only feeds the vegetation and keeps the soil moist it also recharges the groundwater systems.

     The second step, and much harder to convince in modern agriculture, is the planting of perennials.  I've always had trouble with the words annuals and perennials when it comes to plants.  Think of annuals as having to be planted annually or every year.  Where as perennials are planted once and live for many years.  This allows for a sophisticated and complex system of root structures to develop.  Even perennial plants will have roots that die and when they do they decompose deep into the soil supplying much needed nutrients.  Additionally the deep root systems can transport nutrients to the soil's surface from many feet down. Nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to shallow rooted annuals.  Lastly, the deep and complex root system creates a natural and complete irrigation system to water the soil and recharge the ground water supply the most effectively.

     So how can modern agriculture produce food and conserve it's topsoil.  Ideally the best way would be to inter crop vegetable and grain crops in between the best perennials of all - trees.  This is called forest farming.  However, forest farming is not compatible with modern harvesting techniques which make it inefficient on a commercial scale.  At least for now.  Another solution is to plant only perennials.  Wes Jackson at the Land Institute is developing a perennial wheat.  You plant it once, harvest it, and it grows back again.  Very similar to mowing your lawn.  But we don't have perennial   everything and with  most of the vegetables we eat the very act of harvesting kills the plant.  Enter no-till.

     No-till, in my opinion, is still at best a transition process.  It is a very good process and one we need to switch to now but it is only a bridge to the ultimate solution of forest farming.  In no-till the crop is planted without tilling and in between the crop is planted a cover crop.  A cover crop acts like a living mulch - choking out weeds and helping to retain moisture in the soil.  A cover crop will also add nutrients to the soil.  Ideally what one plants for harvesting should have a symbiotic relationship with its cover crop.  When it comes time to harvest, the crop is cut and the waste is left in the field.  Then the cover crop is cut and also allowed to decompose in the field.  After a certain amount of time of being left fallow, the field will be planted again without tilling the soil.  The previous crop and cover crop provides a mulch/compost into which the new crop will grow.  This is vaguely simulating how Nature would rebuild soil.  The only problem, and hence why I only consider it a transition process, is the cutting of the cover crop still opens the soil up to some erosion.  Albeit a minimum amount.  However until the agricultural industry can make the mental shift from concentrating on efficiencies to concentrating on effectiveness, this is what needs to happen.

     Once we start treating the top soil like a capital investment and begin conserving this limited resource, we will see considerable savings in operating costs.  No longer will we have to import compost and fertilizer into the fields.  (This brings up another interesting subject of nutrient loss.  When we here in California expend our dwindling water resource and our compost and fertilizer to create nutrient rich food, then ship it to New York where it is consumed and disposed of, we have effectively shipped off our water and nutrients as well.  Requiring us to import more nutrients and water which drives up the costs for everyone.)  The amount of water usage can be, by my estimates and they are only based on experience not empirical data, effectively cut in half.   In areas of good rainfall I believe irrigating fields could be stopped all together and reserved for cases of severe drought.  Interestingly enough if we were to plant more trees we could effectively alter the weather pattern preventing such droughts.

     The ultimate goal is to produce nutrient dense food sustainably that is the most affordable and available to all.  This can only happen when we start taking into account the "natural capital" into our production process.  By conserving our soil we can eliminate most operating costs and thereby increasing profits.  Profits that then should be translated to the customer in the form of cheap, healthy food.  Effectively creating a sustainable solution to the food justice issue. Such an economic model would also make chemically grown food too expensive to produce and usher back traditional organic farming.  Not to mention it would make our world a better place.

[1]  E.F, Schumacher. "Small is Beautiful:  Economics as if People Mattered," 1973.  Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.