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Sustainable Farming

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Farm-connected CSAs should offer more than just ‘veggie subscriptions’

Photo by Mswine.

I was recently struck by a promotion I saw on the site Local Harvest, which lists organic and locally grown food around the country. The site reads, “Many farms offer subscriptions for weekly baskets of produce, flowers and other farm products. Try a CSA this year!”

“A subscription to local farm products?” I thought. “Is that all community-supported agriculture has become?"

As the local food movement has gone from a trickle to a sweeping current, and sales of local farm products have grown, it seems that many community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers may have lost touch with the original intention behind the term. As a farmer, and one who’s researched and written about the history of CSAs in the U.S. and abroad, I find this trend deeply troubling. It seems many urban residents now see the CSA as just another form of “retail farming” rather than a model for civic agriculture, a site-specific form of solidarity, or associative economics that can transform relationships.

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A young farmer’s meditation: Time on the farm

The following is excerpted from the new anthology, Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers' Movement, which was edited by Zoe Ida Bradbury, Paula Manalo, and Severine von Tscharner Fleming.

Photo by Geecha.

I didn’t notice the marks on the John Deere until I’d had the tractor for maybe a month. A couple of spots of brown, corroded metal etched into the green enamel on the top surface of the right fender. No big deal -- a decades-old tractor should have all sorts of dents and dings if it’s been used for anything worthwhile -- but the placement of these marks was interesting. Again and again, the times I noticed the marks was when I turned around to see the row behind me and placed my hand exactly upon them, the base of my palm on the larger spot, the tips of my fingers on the smaller. I can’t remember the moment now, but at some point while driving the length of one or another 300-foot row I finally got it: The marks were made by the hand of the previous owner. Every time he’d turned around to check his depth or adjust his steering or see the work he’d accomplished, he’d placed his palm on this same section of fender -- an unconscious action that he must have repeated several hundred thousand times -- and gradually his sweat had eaten through the paint and begun to corrode the metal.

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Wendell Berry: This old farmer is still full of piss and vinegar

Cross-posted from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In a time when we’ve seen global economic crisis, societal unrest, and ecological deterioration, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) could not have picked a more potent speaker than Wendell Berry for this year's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In his remarks in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the essayist, novelist, and poet -- a Kentuckian long known for his advocacy for family farming, community relationships, and sustainability -- delivered a characteristically eloquent yet scathing critique of the industrial economy and its toll on humanity.

"The two great aims of industrialism -- replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy -- seem close to fulfillment," Berry told the crowd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "At the same time, the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good."

The Jefferson Lecture "is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities," according to the NEH, which sponsors it every year.

Before the speech, Berry wryly commended the NEH's courage in inviting him without first reading his remarks. At the end of the event, NEH Chair Jim Leach humorously added: "The views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government."

Berry's reputation and strident prose must have promised fireworks: An official with the NEH said that Berry's lecture was sold out three days after it was announced (although some seats were unclaimed on a cold, rainy night in Washington). Samuel Alito, the conservative Supreme Court justice, was rumored to be there.

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Texas college turns football field into awesome urban farm

If your football team can’t hack it on the field, perhaps they can grow some kick-ass kale.

At least that’s the sentiment from Dallas’ Paul Quinn College. After the university cut its football program, President Michael Sorrell decided to transform the unused field into a working farm.

The WE Over Me Farm, which covers 57,000 square feet, was a response to the lack of healthy food options in the economically depressed area. Highland Hills, the neighborhood where Paul Quinn is located, is a designated food desert.

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Poop dreams: A farmer on why we should care about manure

This shit matters. (Photo by David Jones.)

From time to time a book merits its title. Published in 2010, Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind may just be the No. 1 book on the No. 2 business. In it, Gene Logsdon manages to be both funny and educational as he advocates for overcoming our aversion to excrement for the sake of healthy soil.

According to Logsdon, we need manure and lots of it. He contends we should follow our nose for practical and elegant solutions to improving soil fertility, and turn waste into compost fit for crops and gardens.

We spoke to Logsdon recently to get the straight poop.

Q. You've had a long career in journalism. What inspired you to write a book on manure?

Gene Logsdon. (Photo by Ben Barnes.)

A. I was hearing from lots of readers who were getting into backyard farm animals, especially chickens. They did not seem to have any appreciation for the rude fact that animals defecate and urinate and no realization that they would have to deal with that manure. Since I really hoped that small-scale animal husbandry would become a fact of American life, and having memories of when it was, even in towns, I knew that without proper manure handling, the new movement was going to get into trouble with neighbors. And lead to all the silly rules that previous generations used to keep farm animals far from their noses.

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Milk Not Jails: Building a new urban-rural alliance in New York

Photo by Stromness Dundee.

What do dairy and drug policy reform have in common? Working together, the two could fuel renewal that mutually benefits urban and rural communities -- or so think the folks at Milk Not Jails, a “volunteer-run, grassroots campaign working to build a new urban-rural alliance in New York State.” The group’s founders have made the connection between urban blight -- particularly the massive numbers of low-level drug arrests that create cycles of recidivism, unemployment, and crime in already-impoverished minority communities -- and rural blight tied to the struggle of family farms to stay afloat as agriculture is consolidated and corporatized and farmland is gobbled up by sprawl. For down-on-their-heels communities in upstate New York -- like for rural towns in every state -- the war on drugs has been an economic boon, as the need for more prisons to contain skyrocketing numbers of nonviolent drug offenders brings vital jobs to areas once supported by agriculture.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Milk Not Jails. Why should the survival of rural, mostly white communities be dependent on the devastation of urban, mostly minority communities? The group wants to bring New York back to the days when small dairy farmers could make a living by selling their products to urban eaters. “We want New York’s urban residents to support its rural residents by buying their milk, not going to their prisons,” Milk Not Jails cofounder Brenden Beck told GOOD magazine recently.

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Joel Salatin responds to New York Times’ ‘Myth of Sustainable Meat’

The following post originally appeared on the Polyface Farms Facebook page.

Cows at Polyface Farm. Photo by Amber Karnes.

The recent editorial by James McWilliams, titled "The Myth of Sustainable Meat," contains enough factual errors and skewed assumptions to fill a book, and normally I would dismiss this out of hand as too much nonsense to merit a response. But since it specifically mentioned Polyface, a rebuttal is appropriate. For a more comprehensive rebuttal, read the book Folks, This Ain't Normal.

Let's go point by point. First, that grass-grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed ones. This is factually false. Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside. Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical. Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration. Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands. Quick, or we'll all perish. I assume he's figuring that since it takes longer to grow a beef on grass than on grain, the difference in time adds days to the emissions. But grain production carries a host of maladies far worse than methane. This is simply cherry-picking one negative out of many positives to smear the foundation of how soil builds: herbivore pruning, perennial disturbance-rest cycles, solar-grown biomass, and decomposition. This is like demonizing marriage because a good one will include some arguments.

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Farm-in-a-truck teaches kids about sustainability

Compass Green is a mobile greenhouse built into a truck, which runs on vegetable oil (natch). Handsome hipsters Nick Runkle and Justin Cutter retooled the truck, which was already fitted with Plexiglas display panels, to turn it into a biofuel-powered educational farm on wheels.

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Farm Bill 2012: ‘It’s a mess, but it’s our mess’

Daniel Imhoff began writing about the farm bill before today’s so-called Good Food Movement took hold. In 2007, in an effort to make accessible the giant piece of legislation that touches on everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, Imhoff wrote Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill. Then last year (after editing the influential CAFO Reader), Imhoff revised the book just in time for Congress to craft the 2012 Farm Bill, which narrowly escaped getting passed behind closed doors last fall but is nonetheless shaping up to be “the worst ever.”

Imhoff spoke with Grist recently about democracy, debate, and the multiple ways the farm bill resembles the Olympic Games.

Q. What is the most important thing you hope your readers will get from this edition of Food Fight?

A. That the farm bill is a really great privilege and opportunity. It’s our chance as a democracy to try to make things better in the food system -- to help people get something to eat, to help farmers get through the season, and to try to help protect the land and the resource base.

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New Orleans school cultivates a generation of forward-thinking farmers

Nat Turner (third from left, white shirt) stands on a new compost pile with a group of OSBG interns, Americorps employees, and volunteers.

Nat Turner, a former New York City public-school teacher, moved to New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. He didn’t know anything about gardening -- “I could barely keep a cactus alive” -- but he had a vision to start an urban farm that would be a vehicle for educating and empowering the neighborhood’s youth. He’d been making service trips to the Big Easy with students, but he wanted an opportunity to dig deeper, literally and figuratively, into the city’s revitalization.

His first goal, Turner says, “is to figure out how to make the Lower Ninth food secure.” It seems fitting, then, that in a neighborhood with no supermarket, Turner set up shop in a falling-down building that had once housed a black-owned family business called the B&G Grocery. He filled a pink bathtub in the backyard with soil and planted scallions, which floated away when the bathtub flooded in a rainstorm. That was the beginning of Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG).