Farmers (market) in many ways


I’ve decided to celebrate National Farmers Market Week, (Aug. 7-13) not just by thinking of all the local markets I’ve had the opportunity to visit, to meet the vendors, and to help tell their stories. Instead, I’ll examine the different ways in which farmers take their products to market.

Recently, the New York Times published an article about aggregators and distributors more clearly defined as food hubs calling themselves CSAs. The upshot of the Times article was that, like many terms heard where farmers are directly marketing to consumers, the term Community Supported Agriculture is unregulated (except in California, no surprise), and there is no clear definition. To be fair though, and for the purposes of this article, as well as the information you’ll read on these pages in general, let’s look more closely at these terms.

The National Food Hub Collaboration defines a food hub as follows: “A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”  Locally, the entity that most closely meets this definition is Green BEAN Delivery.

Contrast this with the definition of a CSA from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.”

Clearly, the heart of a CSA is a farm, and farms come with farmers. According to the Times, a company called Farmigo that was delivering boxes of produce in New York, New Jersey, northern California, and Seattle, abruptly shut down that operation in the middle of the 2016 growing season, to return to its core business: the food distribution platform software that the company’s founder, Benzi Ronen, says will eventually and completely replace the supermarket. The Times article calls this delivery service a CSA. I’m reminded of the Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the Big Bad Wolf blows down Bugs’ house, and shoving Bugs aside, rummages through the rubble, disappointed. “No pigs here,” says the wolf. Well, no farmers, either.

Farmers are competing with these other services by acting as aggregators, as well. Locally, Rice Family Harvest, and Our Harvest, are farms that are delivering their own produce, and delivering other foodstuffs that they buy in, or simply distribute for other farmers.
Green BEAN Delivery started out as a food hub, doing distribution. They have added processing their own private-label products, and bought a couple of farms, one of them in Mason. In my opinion, farming is not their primary business. Not everyone will agree. Once again, in the space where farmers directly market to consumers, many terms are not clearly defined.

While it’s helpful to understand these things, there is good news. Defining these terms is not important. A recent University of California study indicates that buying local really does help the local economy. The study looked at producers engaged in direct marketing, and those who were not. It was acknowledged that direct marketers used other channels to do business. On average, they generated 44 % of revenue through direct marketing.
The study concluded that direct marketers purchased 89% of inputs (broadly, labor and materials) in the local marketplace, while the others purchased 45%. The total economic output factor was 1.86 for direct marketers, 1.42 for the others.

There are many ways for farmers to bring their produce to market. The local farmers market is primary for many, but by no means all.


Beginning with Benedict, faith works for sustainable food production in our local community

St. BenedictThe recent passing of the feast of St. Benedict on July 11 has brought up the contributions of Benedictine monks to agriculture. Considering St. Benedict of Nursia was born in the fifth century of the Common Era, and was dead by the middle of the sixth, you might think his work to restore the land is well chronicled, but such is not the case. This is more stunning when you consider he is also called “the father of modern monasticism“. His “Rule of St. Benedict” is a thorough guide for monastic life that is followed to this day. I’m working from limited sources today, so please forgive any inaccuracy.

Benedictine monasteries both contained and surrounded gardens. Cloister gardens were areas where monks could read, meditate, and pray. The sacristan’s garden provided flowers for the alter. In some cases the sacristan’s garden doubled as the paradise, at the altar end of the sanctuary, though in larger abbeys this could have been separate. The paradise was established to remind viewers of the lost Garden of Eden. Vegetables were grown in another area, and sometimes, medicinal herbs.

The Benedictine relationship to the land was one of restoration and nurture, something we could learn from in modern times. One source speaks of friars restoring estates where soil had been depleted by Roman practices which sought maximum economic gain. Others say Benedictines established themselves in swamps and marshes, draining and reclaiming land which was formerly considered useless. Given the prevalence of superstition in early times, I suspect these areas were also dark, scary sources of evil. Benedictines accepted them as equal in God’s creation, thus making a contribution not only to agriculture, but to sociological culture as well.

Another order came along that sought to follow the rule of St. Benedict, the Cistercians. Perhaps the Cistercians were more like farmers than gardeners, however, their contribution to this legacy can not be ignored. One early twentieth century observer, Henry Goodell, president of the then Massachusetts Agricultural College, was impressed by “the work of these grand old monks during a period of fifteen hundred years. They saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practiced it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it.”

We still need to work to restore land that has been exploited. We still need to expand our definition of arable land. We still need to remember the entirety of God’s creation. Locally, a religious community called Grailville does this work. Located in Loveland, Grailville is the headquarters of The Grail in the USA. The Grail is an international movement of women of faith working for peace, justice, and renewal of the earth.

The Grail is seeking new partnerships to make use of Grailville’s facilities. Although Grailville’s retreat center recently closed, they are pledged to continue Grailville’s mission to support sustainable agriculture and local food. 79 of Grailville’s 315 acres are certified organic. Six acres are leased to the Earth-Shares CSA, and 75 acres are pasture leased to other local farmers. These arrangements are expected to continue through the end of 2015. An announcement about the future of Grailville is also expected by the end of 2015.

Pig Tales: an omnivore’s quest for sustainable meat

Pig Tales cover

I’ve been reading and enjoying a new book. Pig Tales: an omnivore’s quest for sustainable meat, was just published this past Monday. In the book, author and James Beard award-winner Barry Estabrook explores the the fate of three types of hog: feral hogs, free ranging farm-raised hogs, and those in confined animal feeding operations. More importantly, he discovers the consequences of the human relationship with each of these animals.

The first porkers may have been domesticated almost 10,000 years ago. Estabrook talks with Richard Redding, a University of Michigan anthropologist who found, during excavations in Turkey, that humans there abandoned nomadic life and domesticated hogs as a means of sustenance around that time. Previously, it had been believed that when we evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, grains had been cultivated first, and animals second. However, Estabrook points out, pigs were the perfect partners for the change in lifestyle. They’ll eat what-have-you, and supplement their diet by fending for themselves. They’re able to defend themselves from predators. A sow can be bred every eight months or so, produces six to ten piglets, and those pigs are ready to eat in six months or so. Other meat animals are remarkably less prolific, and more dependent.

What happened? Redding suspects that hogs were destructive to cultivated grain fields when they came along. Pigs were now for the lower classes, those who didn’t have access to the land that grain requires. This was one subject of my conversation with Estabrook.

“There are half a dozen theories,” he said, on the origin of dietary laws restricting pork consumption for Jews and Muslims. “However, the well-to-do ate beef, goats, and sheep, and poor people ate pigs. It could have been a way to control the masses.” Pork was important as cities grew in the Middle Ages, he noted. Even in an urban environment, pigs owned by people without means could be left to fend for themselves.

After the discovery of the New World, Spanish conquistadors would leave hogs behind to ensure a food source when settlers arrived. The Ossabaw heritage breed was alone on a Georgia island for three or four hundred years, Estabrook said. “They developed a fat profile and fine muscle cells that chefs love, the opposite of very fast growing commercial hogs.”

Heritage breeds like this are often kept in a way they have been for centuries, allowed to roam about small farms. Large industrial farms employ the aforementioned fast growing breeds, where they’re kept in a confined space. Farming is inherently risky, as bad weather, pest, and disease problems are always in play, but industrial farming magnifies that risk. Industrial hog operations are no different.

“Every ten to fifteen years, an epidemic sweeps the entire industry,” Estabrook said. “When you have 1000 or more genetically similar animals in a confined space, it’s a perfect breeding ground for diseases to come out of nowhere.” Manure disposal is problematic as well, and Estabrook chronicles many legal battles that arose from the stench and health hazards that came from this. I asked him if he thought any progress had come from the light shed on industrial hog farming in courts of law.

“No, I don’t think we’ve made much progress. The biggest threat is the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, which hasn’t changed.” Antibiotics are given in industrial pork production to prevent disease, but they only cause more resistant bacteria to evolve. As in the case of the swine flu, diseases jump from hogs to humans rather easily, and super bugs are a threat to human populations.

“They have hog production in Denmark that’s every bit as industrial as ours,” Estabrook said. “But they don’t use antibiotics.”

Interactive online mapping tool helps PA farmers

PA barn

Most of us are only a few generations removed from the farm. And even if that’s not the case, most of us have seen life on the farm portrayed as a daily rhythm of repetitive chores timed to nearly coincide with sunrise and sunset. That’s an early start, and a late end, to each day. When farmers keep livestock, this portrayal is not far off, but it’s only part of the picture.

In my case, my mother’s parents were dairy farmers in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, a mountainous area 30 miles northeast of Scranton. Much of the land there is too steep for any use besides pasture, so dairy farming was a common choice. The Dairymen’s League, a cooperative which was active in the area in the early part of the 20th century, controlled most of the milk sold in New York City. In other words, with membership in this co-op came a guaranteed market, and a guaranteed price. My grandfather drove a truck which collected milk for such a co-op, while my grandmother and her parents ran the farm.

However, this area is prone to erosion and runoff because of the topography, and this is an even more sensitive issue because it lies in the Susquehanna River basin. At 464 miles long, the Susquehanna is the longest river draining into the Atlantic Ocean in the U.S. What if, in addition to milking cows every day, you had to submit a digital map to move manure around the farm, or to spread it on fields over at your neighbor’s place? Phosphorous, nitrogen, sediment, fertilizers and pesticides are all farm substances which can pollute waterways, and farmers are required to mitigate such risk. Nutrient balance sheets, nutrient management plans, and soil erosion and sedimentation plans are all required submissions to the government. Farmers can hand draw maps, or hire a consultant to do them, but the cost of mapping could add up to millions for all farmers across the state combined.

Pennsylvania has created a resource to help farmers with these tasks. PAOneStop is an interactive online mapping tool created by Rick Day, associate professor of soil science and environmental information systems at Penn State. It imports required aerial photography, topographic images and soil information from state and federal databases. It also calculates field acreage and allows farmers to add field boundaries and mark streams, ponds, wells, and sinkholes.

“We’re like any other family dairy farm: the day’s as full as you can make it,” Pennsylvania dairy farmer Dean Patches told PSU’s website. “PAOneStop is nice because it gives me a complete set of maps and saves me the effort of having to use another computer program or flip back and forth among multiple sets of data — it’s been a real help.”

Worksongs, a life’s work

BakingPowder_horsford-3_0001_605“You can be a worksonger. It just means letting go whatever fears you’ve got and erupting into a joyful noise.” Words that are found at the top of one of the pages at Bennett Konesni’s Bennett is a farmer and musician and his love for the particular musical tradition of worksongs is “a strange and wonderful coincidence”, he says.

He sang while he worked as a teen and young man, working on schooners plying the Penobscot Bay in his native state of Maine. He learned about the “mchakamchaka” chant of distance runners from a native Tanzanian. And he joined his uncle, Eben Fiske Ostby, in establishing Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, where the mission is preservation: of farmland, of the historic plantation, and of music.

“My love of worksongs grows out of my wish to understand and enliven the culture of food,” Bennett said in a recent interview. He was asked about the significance of the common call-and-response construction of the worksong.  “Before modern technology (recording and radio) caused a psychological drift, music was more participatory,” he said. The call-and-response song not only invites participation, it requires it, he noted. In the case of worksongs, their purpose is to satisfy the singer, and pass the hours. In other words, they’re solely for the entertainment of the participant.

The Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island, New York, is an organic farm, historic preservation, archaeological dig, and music festival site. Until this year, when the transition to a non-profit was completed, it had been continuously owned by the same family of European settlers since 1652, when it was founded as a provisioning plantation, importing sugar from Barbados. Slave labor was used in this endeavor. Later, it was the home of Eben Norton Horsford, inventor of baking powder and gilded age industrialist (he’s pictured above), and previously, it was a Native American hunting ground. In addition to the other work, the farm sponsors a group of worksongers.

Remaining connected to this history is part of the “chain of arts” that Bennett sees connected to food. “Farming, connected to eating, as well as preparing. Singing, planting, and growing. Bringing together groups for the sheer fun and joy of sharing. Barn dances,” he said, enumerating links in that chain. Work songs are both a beginning and an end to to this chain.

Here’s a list of Bennett Konesni’s upcoming appearances:

Feb 7 – Concert & Workshops w/Gawler Family, Walton Public Schools, Walton, NY

Feb 8 – Concert w/Gawler Family, Mettabee Farm, Hillsdale, NY

Feb 10 – Mchakamchaka Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Feb 11 – Mchakamchaka Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Feb 12 – Mchakamchaka Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Feb 13 – Kickoff Worksong, NOFA-VT Conference, Burlington, VT

Feb 14 – Worksong Workshop, NOFA-VT Conference, Burlington, VT

Feb 15 – Music w/Edith&Bennett for NOFA-VT Conference, Burlington, VT

Feb 15 – Concert as Edith&Bennett, Signature Sound’s Parlor Room, Northampton, MA

Feb 16 – Worksong Workshop & Music at NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx, NY

Feb 17 – Worksong Workshop & Music at NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx, NY

Feb 18 – Worksong Workshop & Music at NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx, NY

Feb 20 – Workshop and Talk at Bio4Climate Conference, Arlington, MA

Feb 21 – Concert w/Edith&Bennett, Youth Trad Song Showcase, Folksong Society of Greater Boston, Somerville, MA

Feb 22 – Day-long Worksong Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Mar 27 – Elsiepalooza – Art Opening at Belfast Co-op w/Gawler Sisters, Belfast, ME

Mar 27 – Concert w/Waldo County Ramblers, Camden Opera House, Camden, ME

Mar 28 – Concert w/Gawler Sisters, Benefit Concert for Ashwood Waldorf, Rockport Opera House, Rockport, ME