Guest Blogger: Farming perspective

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.
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36 Responses to Guest Blogger: Farming perspective

  1. Treva April 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    You just reignited my excitement of this summer's farmers market and the CSA I'll be shopping from. I can't wait to see all the variety. Last summer my daughter discovered yellow tomatoes. It's a treat she's really looking forward to having again.

    I applaud your efforts and the wonderful work you are doing! Your future will be so exciting!

  2. Lmoor April 29, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

    Beautiful!

  3. Mrs. Q April 29, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    What does CSA stand for? It's a share in a farm correct?

  4. Ima Baglady April 29, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Bravo – well said!

  5. Joy April 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    Excellent blog! Good luck for the future!

  6. Angie April 29, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    Excellent guest post- Thanks for sharing an important perspective!

  7. Jess April 29, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    CSA=Community Supported Agriculture
    You buy a "share" in a farm before the season begins. It's a fantastic way to eat fresh, in season and local vegetables. On top of that, you know you're money is going directly to support the farm, not big grocery chains or big agribusinesses.
    http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

  8. Stephanie Nguyen April 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    Very well written. This is one of the tragedies of modernity; the weaning of both land and individuals such as yourself who are dedicated to improving the quality of people's lives through nutrition. I applaud you!

  9. Susan April 29, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog. This subject is poping up all over and it seems like it has been more prevalent in the last month. I blogged about this very thing myself and I frequently talk about the overly processed food that seems to run rampant here in the beautiful USA.
    I'm particularly interested in participating in the "School Lunch Revolutiuon" introduced by Jaime Oliver. I'm sure you already know about it, but if not just google it. It would be an awesome message to send to school districts, etc…

  10. Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    Well said! I look forward to checking out your blog as well.

    I always thought there were still little farms with a farmer and his wife, milking the cows in the morning and tending the crops in the afternoon. Only in the last few years did I think about it more and realize that couldn't still be going on. Once I found out more, I realized that my nostalgic view had little to do with reality.

    Now when I see those Monsanto commercials that claim they are supporting American farmers I gag at their propaganda.

    Yeah for you for making a difference. I hope you realize your dream of owning your own organic farm.

  11. Mrs. C April 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    I love these posts–and other stories of urgent and emergent change in our precepts on food and its production. In my local paper thise week is another inspiring story of a young man engaged in powerful urban farming–of vegetables and fish!–in a green house here in Buffalo, NY. What currently cleanly provides a harvest that includes 2,000 tilapia will soon become much, much bigger–including as many as 30,000 fish (yum! catfish, too!). The project provides a much-needed source of wholesome and inexpensive food in a neighborhood in real need.

    Here's a link to the story:
    http://www.buffalonews.com/2010/04/27/1-31877/working-to-change-the-food-system.html

  12. Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Rock ON!

  13. Merrilee Morse April 29, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    We must join forces and lobby against evil conglomerates like Monsanto Corporation. For more info on this, do yourselves a favour and watch the film Food Inc. on PBS. Scary stuff. I only buy produce locally and organically grown now from people I know.

  14. Kathy April 29, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

    As a farmer's daughter, I was initially skeptical of the 'pushing 60' average age of farmers. Then I realized that in my own immediate family, the average age is actually 57.

    I'm still not sure that figure isn't skewed in some way, either due to farmers who won't retire, or perhaps that even after they do, they still own the ground and still consider themselves farmers. I know a lot of younger (20-40) farmers, but almost all of them work with or for older farmers. Farming is an expensive proposition and it's hard to get a start. A saying around here is that if you want to make a small fortune farming, you should start with a large one.

    It's interesting to read your perspective, which is so different from what prevails around here. We have a lot of farmer's markets, but mainly this area grows grain (although my grandfather did experiment with an alternative crop for awhile: http://farmhousefling.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/cash-crop/). I don't know of any corporations that do the farming around here, it's all individual farm families making it work.

    We also don't see the ground here lie fallow for lack of farmers. If someone can't or won't plant there is always someone who will rent the ground to farm.

    I wish the best in your farming endeavors. I'll be reading your blog to see how things are the same for both us, yet completely different!

  15. AnselsMom April 29, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    What an inspirational post! Thank you so much for your efforts and insights and especially for suggestions where and how to start. Here in West Harlem, NYC we support our local farmer's markets, volunteer at in our local community garden and applaud your vision for the future.

  16. Kristen April 29, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    Amazing post!!! I hope your farming dreams come true and I will continue to support people like you! Thank you for pointing out the easy ways for people to support you and change 🙂

  17. VKT April 29, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    Dear Mrs. Q,

    Elizabeth told me about your blog. I posted about a particularly unappealing lunch in public school and she recommended I visit your blog. I am so glad. This is a very inspirational post. It certainly changed my opinion of the Monsanto corporation.

  18. Megan April 29, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    Wonderful post! I've met Neysa and my CSA share comes from the farm she works at. In Austin we are lucky to have a thriving community centered on local eating. I hope the movement continues to spread!

  19. Mama Badger April 29, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    I love this post. As a family, we're trying to get our kids more interested in eating locally grown stuff.

  20. heather t April 29, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    There is a small movement to turn some of Detroit's vacant lots into small community supported farms. I would love to see Neysa and Travis working here. We need their passion, and the people of Detroit need something like this to give them meaningful work and wholesome food.

    Thank you for posting this article!

  21. Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    This reminds me again of why I am so greatful to live in the Pacific NW. We have an amazing Farmer's Market which includes meats & sustainably harvest seafood. We also have many organic CSA's. Here's a link to the Olympia, WA Farmers Market http://www.olympiafarmersmarket.com/

  22. Kara Hadley April 29, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    This is a topic that is not discussed nearly enough.
    I completely agree that it's more than just eating more produce; it's about knowing who and how that produce is produced,it's about knowing who is feeding you and your family.
    I wish I had the guts to leave a traditional career field for something off the beaten path. Instead, I planted a few vegetable plants in my backyard.

  23. WordVixen April 29, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    I am so lucky where I live- I'm in a small city that's surrounded by, not only farmland, but Amish and plain Mennonite farmland. We have roadside stands with fresh produce during the growing seasons, which is much cheaper and much, much fresher than what you can find in the store (except for one grocery chain, which mostly sources local, farm fresh produce- they started as a kind of farmer's market).

    The downside? I work second shift, and find it very difficult to get to any of these stands.

    I'm about to tell you something that will probably make you very angry, or at least a little sad. I found out from my mother a few years ago that someone in our family actually owns a farm. Owns it, but doesn't farm it. Because the government pays him to not farm it. Because apparently they pay a lot of farmers to not farm, in order to keep the price of produce high enough to make farming profitable for those who do farm. Much like the widespread destruction of strawberry fields in Florida this year because to reap the berries would cause the farmers to LOSE money.

    It all just makes you sick- and yet, the farmers have to make money…

    Bravo to you! I love the idea of organic farming- I'm just allergic to physical labor. 🙂

  24. WordVixen April 29, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    Mrs. C- if you like tilapia and catfish, you should check out portablefarms.com It's a personal sized greenhouse (looks like they average about the size of a small-ish deck, but also seem to be available in other sizes) that uses aquaponics to grow your own fish and vegetables. Self sustaining. There are other companies (if you Google things like "portable greenhouse" "portable farm" "personal greenhouse" and such you'll find others), but this is the only website that I spent a lot of time on. A great idea if you have room and don't mind cleaning your own fish. 🙂

  25. Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    I must say, in addition to the community benefits of buying local produce, I cannot begin to praise how much more affordable it often is! I pride myself on being able to buy good quality food on a very, very tight budget, and one of my secrets is the weekly farmer's market. Fruits and vegetables are not only locally grown and better tasting, but the prices are often very, very hard to beat (especially when you're buying only what's in season–cabbages in the winter, tomatoes in the summer… you know, the way people USED to eat).

    I don't understand how people can pay SO MUCH MONEY for the disturbingly uniformed, waxy, mealy, tasteless apples at the grocery store, when there's beautiful, wonky-looking, crunchy, juicy apples at a farmer's market that are so fresh you can smell them before you can see them. And don't even get me started on the tomatoes! haha

  26. Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 11:52 pm #

    A great resource for learning more about communities who are feeding themselves is The Town That Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt. It's about the a town in northern Vermont (Hardwick) that has developed a new model for local food production and distribution in a regional area. I am lucky enough to live close enough that I am benefiting from the availability of high quality produce and other foods year round.

  27. zahirah.com April 30, 2010 at 3:43 am #

    Excellent post! Thanks so much. I can't wait to start reading your blog.

  28. Kate Dombach April 30, 2010 at 6:18 am #

    This is one good thing about living in Amish country there are farm stands EVERYWHERE, and my family used to be part of a CSA but couldn't afford it this year 🙁

  29. Anonymous April 30, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    Nice post, love your blog, which I found off Mrs. Q's a few weeks ago. Your "Product of the week" is always great fun! I think a push for home gardening should be made as well. I'm never going to be a Barbara Kingsover, but I like to plant tomatoes and basil. What's more, it makes me feel connected to my food, and much more appreciative of the farmers and produce at my local farmer's market. I think everyone reading this blog should make a pledge to grow one thing this spring, even if it's just a pot of basil in your windowsill. Especially if you have children! They really need to know the miracle of growth and discover first hand where food comes from. What say you????

  30. kris April 30, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    there's nothing better than eating healthy and organic vegetables

  31. Neysa April 30, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Wow thanks so much everyone for all your wonderful comments. It's really inspiring.

  32. Anonymous May 1, 2010 at 1:51 am #

    My 1/4 grass fed beef came from a local farmer, as well as the dozen pastured chickens in my freezer. My raw milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, pastured eggs, and various other groceries come from a local organic delivery service that sources local farms. My weekly organic veggie and fruit CSA boxes come from yet another local farm.

    I know where my food comes from, and I do not shop in grocery stores anymore. My family has never been healthier, and the food is awesome!

  33. Galex May 1, 2010 at 4:01 am #

    Our family is on a similar path, and it's so encouraging to read your post and realize the revolution toward real food is gaining momentum!
    To anyone who needs some encouragement to get out there and grow some food, I recommend Joel Salatin's insightful books, especially "You Can Farm" and "Family Friendly Farming."

  34. Sarah May 1, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    Wow Neysa! Great to see you over here. Wonderful piece!

  35. Anonymous May 1, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    Well said! We belong to a CSA and purchase our meat and eggs from local farmers. But in many of our social circles, this is a novel and strange concept, something that only the "granola crowd" does. (Even though I find it to actually be more economical, tastier and more convenient than the grocery store.) How do we shift this way of thinking?

  36. Anonymous May 2, 2010 at 12:18 am #

    Are you guys at Telecote Farms? (If so,) I buy your goodies every week! I cannot imagine having to go back to grocery store veggies. There is a huge difference in taste and quality. I have even been getting garlic the last few weeks and the taste far surpasses what I was getting at the store (and I didn't really think I would taste the difference in something like garlic.

    I teach near the newest FM, and would absolutely love to see some farm goodies at my school.

    Mrs. Q, God love you! I cannot stomach one day of cafeteria food. My kindergarteners and co-workers are always teasing me about it. I, for one, am truly grateful for your strength (and that of your stomach)!

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