Reconnecting with Our Food: Growing America’s Organic Farms
I am a 25-year-old organic farmer. I do not have my own farm, but I work full-time on an organic farm in Austin, Texas. My dream is to own a farm with my fiancée, Travis, and provide organic produce directly to our community.
I have been reading Mrs. Q’s blog since she began it, and I am fascinated and excited by how it is resonating. Mrs. Q’s blog is making us think about what we consume. She is joining with figures like Jamie Oliver, Michael Pollan, and even the First Lady who are encouraging a change in the way Americans eat. The takeaway message is clear: it’s time to move from processed, synthetic food to whole foods. This means fruit, vegetables, grains, and naturally-raised animal products. As a future organic farmer, I’m overjoyed by the rising interest in eating fresh food. But I have to ask one question: where will this food come from?
The average American farmer is pushing 60 years old. Only 1% of farms in this country are organic. Instead of gaining farmland, American farms are disappearing at a rate of roughly 1 million acres a year. As more farmers reach retirement age and have no one to pass their land to, perfectly good farmland lies fallow on the countryside.
The reality of America’s farmers is that over the last few decades, farms have been conglomerated into the hands a few large corporations. They have developed a symbiotic relationship with multinational food producers, which have made food cheap and abundant by making it synthetic and unhealthy. What we have now is a smattering of giant farms that grow a few items, then ship those items around the country and around the world. More often, these food items are not produced for direct human consumption, but for ingredients in processed food products.
The most notorious of these is corn, which makes its way into almost all of our processed food. If we are interested in eating fresh food grown in America, we must either fall madly in love with genetically modified corn, or create new local food chains that hinge on diversified organic farms.
Before I was interested in farming, I never thought about where my food came from beyond Stop n’ Shop down the street. But food does not come from the grocery store; it comes from farms. And being able to see the path from farm to table is invaluable for understanding and appreciating the food we eat. America’s connection with our food has been dilapidated by the rise of mono-cropping and mass-produced food products. How many reading this know the farmers in their community? How many have ever been to a farm? How many know the growing practices that produce the food they are eating?
Choosing organic food from local farms is the surest way to reestablish that connection to our food. This national discussion about food provides us not only an opportunity to begin eating better, but also a chance to seek out the people growing our food and build a relationship with them.
Is it enough to simply eat more fruits and vegetables? It’s certainly a great place to start. But my point is that if we all just begin eating more fruits and vegetables but keep the same food-buying habits, that is, buying from nameless food producers with little connection to our communities and even less accountability to them, not much will change for our understanding of food, the health of our environment, or even our personal well-being.
If we want to keep the factory, mono-cropping farm model, then as we begin to eat more vegetables, I’m sure these farms will change to meet our demands. But that won’t really give us anything different from our current system. They will still use the chemicals that pollute our environment and stay on our food; they will still consume petroleum at an alarming rate; they will still exhaust the land they farm, rather than stewarding it, and they will still choose to grow varieties for shelf-life and water weight, rather than nutrition and flavor. Even if the current mega farms manage to satisfy USDA organic standards, it still will not give us the kind of change we need. Government-approved organic standards strike me as having about the same usefulness as government-mandated nutrition guidelines. If the lunches Mrs. Q is eating every day satisfies some USDA standard, then something clearly isn’t working. This change should not just be about eating “organic” as a feel-good label, but about building relationships with the people who are feeding us and our families.
I’m 25 and I want to farm. I want to provide my community with fresh produce grown without chemicals. I’ve even thought that a good way to start would be to make a connection with a local elementary school and provide the produce for the school lunches. Wouldn’t that be something. I moved from my life in the city a year and a half ago and I’ve been trying to figure out how to farm on my own ever since. The path to get there is not easy. But if everyone is serious about eating better, it ought to be. There is a small, but passionate population of young people in this country who want to go into farming. It’s up to everyone in this country to decide if they want to support us. Go to farmers markets, support your local farms within your means, join a CSA, encourage legislation and organizations that support start-up farmers and train new ones for the future, and cheer on incentives that help conventional farmers transition to organic. Heck, start by finding the farms in your area, if there are any. There are seedlings of these efforts in certain parts of the country; I hope that we can grow them.
Last Spring, Neysa King left a History PhD program in Boston to pursue a career in organic farming with her fiancée, Travis. They first moved to Brewster, New York, just north of New York City, for an internship on a 3-acre organic farm. In November, they moved to Austin, Texas for another internship, where they were recently hired full-time. Their goal is to own a farm of their own, and they’re not sure where they’ll go from here. To read more about Travis’ and Neysa’s pursuit of organic farming, click over to Dissertation to Dirt.