Pt. II – Local Food, CSA and the Business of Farming

We live in a world where half of the food produced literally ends up in the garbage: a tragedy, but also ironic, because that’s where a lot of it belongs in the first place. It is a tragedy, because there are hungry people in the world -and in the meanwhile- we are not only over feeding ourselves, our livestock, and our crops, but in doing so, destroying ourselves and the thin skin of this earth that makes our lives all possible in the first place. The staff of life has been pieced out to the lowest bidder, and we’ve gotten what we’ve paid for.

We throw food away because there is so much of it, because it’s disposable, because it’s just more stuff. We don’t look at food as something special, something someone cared to make, or something that we ought to be discerning or appreciative about, let alone involved with. Food has become an industrial commodity, but we can also see food as something crafted.klpage6_blog_entry214-a-farm042

I always laugh to myself when I see bucolic etchings of wagons and pastures on industrial food, or in the case below, milk cans: which I can guarantee you, 0% of the milk in that cheese was ever stored in. But that’s what those marketers are going for: they’re trying to trick you into thinking you can buy crafted food at the Superstore. PCOrganicsMediumCheddarCheeseEN500x500.jpg.thumb.420.420.marginNow, so although the state of the world is lamentable in many ways, I’m going to stop complaining about it: if you’ve found your way to this website you know full well that the food system is a mess. But, as messy as it is, we are still very blessed, and the world is still a great place, because we have the option and opportunity to do things differently, better, nicer, and more beautiful than is conventionally offered to us.

I had a wonderful encounter with a family who has signed up for our Farm Shares, the Footes. They graced me with a visit to the farm. They are a family of the million dollar variety: not in terms of cash, but a lovely couple with a pair of cute little kids, a boy and a girl. The Footes folks are not granola muchers, not radical, no dredlocks, no Volvo 740. Not your stereotypical organic food enthusiasts. They live in the ‘burbs, run a business: completely and beautifully ‘normal’ by every standard. But they are abnormal insofar as the awareness that not only something is wrong with the status quo, but that we have the power and choice to create something special has reached their lives. And they are excited, positive, eager and willing to change not only what they put into themselves, but also what they are going to put themselves into.

Talk about encouraging: as a young farmer I cannot overstate how inspired I am by people who want to see, and earnestly discuss, and invest in sane farming. Their interest is not ideological or political. It’s practical, the incentive is their lives: their health, their children’s understanding of food, and the coherency of their family – good local food makes sense and there is something profoundly grounding and relieving about that in this time and place.

Chatting with the pater familias, Rob, he paused and looked at his children: they were sprawled out in their snowsuits on the remains of a round bale of hay, on the other side of the gate from our draft horses. The horses were curious about the little humans, and appreciated the choice bits of hay they were feeding them. The children just basked in the size and gentleness of the big dappled grey beasts.

He paused, and noticed: “What has happened to my children!?!” He and his wife started heartily chuckling. I’m sure Rob and Tara have very nice children – but peacefully blissed out kids are not the norm in 2014… And that’s it right there: the peace of participating in something sane, sound and reasonable in a frenetic, overdriven and senseless world. A five year old can pick up on it.

The gulf between these two choices is giant. Just gaping, and the proof is in the decline, and near elimination of the mixed family farm. Traditional, multi-generational farm families, going with the flow of conventional agriculture and economics have either gotten with industrial program -specializing in a commodity, gearing up, and absorbing their neighbours’ land as they fold- or done the folding. The 160 acre farm, with pigs, cows, an orchard, row crops and grass is no longer a viable entity when the products need to be vertically integrated, produced year-round, or sold at the lowest global market price. So they’re disappearing.klthe-stable-1906(1)

Which is a shame. The “family farm” -in the literal sense of a farm being owned by a family- is not going anywhere: 90%+ of Canadian farms are still family owned (corporations are smart enough to not own farms – such as in the case down in Leamington, when Heinz closed down, it was family farms who are left with millions of dollars of overhead, and no market for their crop). However, the “family farm”, in the sense of a place where a family is raised, and works together, is in decline: the average age of Canadian farmers is 54 – and the children that were raised on those farms are off to greener pastures.

Somehow farming lost its allure, it lost it’s magic, it lost whatever it is that’s drawn me to it and you to it – the thing that those designers were trying to get at when they put the picture of milk cans on a package of cheese that doesn’t have anything to do with milk cans. That certain something is the element of craft.

The small scale, local model of agriculture is the traditional model: in a world of human and animal powered transportation, there wasn’t really much choice – it was a matter of survival, and really the only historical exception to that rule was when imperialism and urbanization joined hands to feed big cities from far off lands (think Rome, or England, or us). Railroads made it all a lot easier, and today grocery stores and slaughterhouses are fed by transport trucks, while railcars and boats still haul most of the grain. A great deal of our imported fruit even got to ride on an airplane! Isn’t that something?

And what is most peculiar about the whole globalized food market is that somehow it all pencils out! At least in the mean time. Somehow, it’s cheaper to buy a bin of apples (about 700 lbs) from China, than it is to pay Canadians to pick them (and that doesn’t include the cost of growing them)! Of course, there are economic reasons for this: including government subsides, wage disparities, currency exchanges, trade deals, corporate control yada yada yada. But ultimately, it has been consumer demand and compliance that’s actually brought it into being. We want all the things, all the time, and we want them cheap.

Which is why the old order of the countryside -farmers who have been tilling the earth in an uninterrupted lineage since the Iron Age- are so often perplexed by urbanites… The thinking being: “You want fresh food that’s healthy – understandable. But you also want all of it year round, and you want it cheap…” This is where the perplexity sets in: “But something has to give! It is more expensive to fatten a beef in the winter! We cannot grow greenhouse tomatoes all winter for $2 a lb! This is not the natural order of things – and yet you want them, but you also want nature to be preserved!!!”

Carl-Larsson-Harvesting-The-Rye

So, perhaps the first obstacle to overcome, when transitioning our mindset about food from commodity to craft, is limited availability. If we want a thriving local agriculture, a stewarded environment, and a functional community, then we need to learn that we shan’t necessarily be able to go the grocery store, and get whatever we want 364 days a years. Why? Because that’s just not how nature works, and if we keep forcing it, we’re actually going to wear it out – and we’ll be the first thing to go.

It’s funny: sometimes we say things like “We’re destroying the environment!!!” Good luck – we’re giving ourselves a bit too much credit in that assumption. Nature isn’t going anywhere: we might throw it off kilter for a minute, and proverbially shit our beds by upsetting the incomprehensibly complex biological systems that support us… But when push comes to shove, it’s going to mankind that gets knocked off the snowbank. We’re destroying ourselves. Nature will happily keep on growing and breathing and dying and renewing herself after we are long gone.

That being said, the second thing we need to wrap our minds around if we want to promote a regenerative agriculture is: non-uniformity. McDonald’s is the master of consistent product: go anywhere in the world, and a Big Mac is a Big Mac. People love the comfort and security of it. Peradventure, we desire local food, we need to take a step into the great unknown, and the possibility that the bread, meat, tomaters, etc. we purchase might not be exactly the same as all of the ones we’ve had before it. We actually have to be brave, and adventuresome: because every soil, every farm, every climate, every farmer, every variety has a distinct Terroir. That is, the culinary signature of a region’s food.

pepperWhen we go to the Superstore, and buy the same fresh “PC Sweet Long Peppers” in December as in July, you can be assured that there are great lengths being taken to provide growers -in a number of different seasonal locales- with specific genetics, fertilizers, cultural directives, and so on -as well as stringent cosmetic requirements and heavy culling- in order to make such an unlikely thing possible. In every way, shape and form, the Superstore’s consistency of product is set-up to eliminate Terroir. Or, as in the case of their ‘Normandy Style’ butter: shamelessly bastardize it (the butter is Canadian, and note once again the dairying utensils which were not in any way employed in the making of this product…).

normandy

So, let’s get used to the fact that in a local food economy there is going to be a wide variety of products, appearances, flavours, textures -many of which may be unfamiliar to us- and that rather than be revolted by them, we need to embrace them, and challenge ourselves to understand and appreciate what our farms have to offer. So, and so’s melons are sweetest around: he’s got hot sandy soil and south facing break… What’shisface’s potatoes taste incredible: he’s been applying manure and minerals for years… That pork is different: it’s red and lean and because the thing ran around and got full of iron from all the dirt it ate…

I have a fond memory of a friend of mine who, back in Nova Scotia, was drinking some milk from a cow I kept (raw milk from a little Jersey – we were probably breaking a law). Enjoying the milk, she remarked: “I can taste kale…” It was early winter, and I’d been feeding the thing kale – a super food for cows too. And she could taste it. That’s seasonal terroir.

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Know what the milk from the grocery store tastes like? Corn silage, and like it’s been boiled (the pasteurization). Go from drinking raw milk to cooked milk (all legal milk is cooked) and you’ll get a flashback of your mother nuking milk for you, trying to get your whiny little butt to bed. And if you know what a dairy barn smells like -not a bad odour (I like it…), just manure and silage – you’ll also taste that too. And so, while that is what supply management milk tastes like, it’s not necessarily what Milk has to taste like. And the same goes for everything else under the sun. You up for that?

doritos-cool-ranchThe last thing that need be accepted is that we have to do this ourselves. The government is not going to make it happen – local food is something they pay lip service to, but pretty much every legal and regulatory agricultural statute on the books works against small scale producers. The big players in food will try to cash in on it – but don’t expect them to actually participate. Dealing with as few different producers as possible makes Loblaws and Sobey’s and Wal Mart’s centralized distribution models that much more efficient. They will just put pictures of family farms on their mass produced SKUs: or as the Frito-Lay plant in New Minas, NS advocates: “Eat Local – Eat Doritos!” (Could someone tell me what ‘Cool Ranch’ is even supposed to taste like???)

So, that is why people like Mr. Foote, and his totally chilled out children are so inspiring to me: we are not alone. People are awake to this. We’re even reaching a critical mass. What’s more, as people find out about our little farm, and all the other little farms out there trying to change the world, they’re actually putting their money where their heart is, and investing in the tangible and intangible benefits of a sane and healthy agriculture.

If you have signed up for our Farm Shares, and sent us a cheque, or e-mail transfer, I thank you deeply. We are a little baby farm, and you have invested in that vision, and your funds are actually making it happen. And there’s not really another way….

We cannot get a loan from the FCC to buy a dozen pigs (this I actually tried at 21 years of age!), or a handful of cows, $3000 worth of seed, a dog to shoo deer, a team of horses, 99 hens, or a sulky plough. They will literally laugh at you. We could get half a million dollars in financing to set up an “agri-business”, but they are not in the mode of growing farms.

So, these days, I get with a snap at 5am – not necessarily nervous or scared, but distinctly serious and aware that I am now handling other peoples money, and other people’s hope and trust. And so, every choice, and purchase, and move I make needs to work towards honouring that, and to make the vision we share a reality. It’s inspiring – a bit scary – but inspiring, because I know how deeply everyone that’s working with us feels about this. I know that what I am applying myself to is part of a bigger dream – a deliberately hopeful move – with an underlying sense that health, and bounty, and harmony, and beauty are our right, our inheritance, and within our reach.

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So, as much as we are producing healthy calories, and vitamins, and protein, I hope we can all also recognize that what Salt of the Earth, all the other CSAs (yes, I am still using that word…) and all the Little Small Farms out there are -just as importantly- providing is an opportunity to develop relationships. Relationships with the land, relationships with the craftspeople called farmers, and relationships with other individuals and families who care about what they put into themselves, and what they put themselves into.

Thanks to everyone that’s signed up already. You blow my mind.

Pt. I – Local Food, CSA and the Business of Farming

I loathe the expression “Community Supported Agriculture”. And I say that as a grower who is doing it. It’s just that it sounds like a welfare program for farmers. The title is not necessarily that far from the truth, but I think that it significantly undervalues what small farmers produce, as well as what we (farmers and consumers together) are trying to accomplish.

It’s not that far from the truth because, yes, members of the community are supporting small scale agriculture in one form or another by giving their money to farmers in exchange for food of some kind… The same could also be said about our local Loblaws or Food Basics. The community is supporting another form of agriculture, just perhaps not local, healthy, organic, responsible, or really anything other than industrial and highly efficient (in a very narrow sense). All agriculture is community supported because all people eat food, and all people live in some community or another. So other than being technically correct, the CSA moniker does very little to describe what small farmers and informed consumers are trying to do when they deliberately work together to produce and direct market high quality food.

klSommar,_målning_av_Carl_Larsson*If you haven’t heard the expression before, CSA refers to co-operative arrangements whereby consumers invest in a farm early in the growing season and receive as their dividend regular shares of vegetables, meat, apples, eggs, raw milk, foi gras, emu grease, or whatever.

So when families, individuals, and groups of friends decide: “Hey, I want to eat really good, really fresh food that reflects the land around us, and the seasons we experience,” They aren’t really deciding to “support agriculture”, but they’re deciding: Let us be nourished, let us fully enjoy what the creation around us can yield, let us have health, let us savour, and relish and celebrate the fat of the land.

Or when consumers take a little look at the frightening world of the global food economy and decide to buy shares in a local farm instead of shopping at the grocery store, they are really saying: Let’s invest our hard earned money with people in our community, who will spend it here and employ people here, rather than sending our food budget away through big box stores to agribusiness multinationals.

klPOT464Or when a person realizes that they are ACTUALLY MADE OUT OF FOOD (’tis true, the you that is sitting on that chair is made out of everything you every put in your mouth), and because one is ACTUALLY MADE OUT OF FOOD, that rather than being made out of mass production, industrial chemistry and a ruthless drive for profit, decide that I would rather be a person made out of holistic integrity, and craft, and love, and healthy biology, and a sensitivity to the world around us.

What I am trying to articulate here (you tell me if I am or not), is that when eaters and growers work together to do things in a vibrant, diversified, mutually beneficial way they are engaging in something WAY more profound than “Community Supported Agriculture”. CSA doesn’t even scratch the surface of the values, or levels of intent, or amazing potential for growth and change that happens when people work together to generate a sound and sustainable, healthy and beautiful, accessible and responsible, neat and interesting, economically sensible food system.

kl52d8751e41387ec03b59194b0c168e65So, for now our working title for our farm’s CSA programs is “Farm Share“. It will have to do for now, but I think we’ve needed a new name for CSA for a while. Not that this blog post is going to change anything, but for the sake of it, let’s look at what that could be…

The CSA Model has been around for a goodly length of time now, in a number of different forms. In Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, (Bible of the new generation of small-scale market gardeners) he breaks down all of the different global permutations of the system – and this was back in 1988. What he called his CSA was a ‘Food Guild’. I think that’s a more fitting title (if not vague), because it emphasize 1) the craft of farming, and 2) the special relationship between growers and consumers the arrangement entails. I like it better… but still not there yet.

So, CSA is worldwide, let’s look at the titles of some of the different systems (with help from Wiki and Google Translate).

  • France: AMAP “Association for the maintenance of peasant agriculture”. Kinda cool. I’m not really interested in being a peasant, though I believe the context is again one of craft – and the maintenance of small holdings.
  • Japan: 提携 “Alliance”. I like it. Simple, yet boldly suggestive of the profound and powerful possibilities of the arrangement. It might be a while before the Stockwell Day taint wears off that word, however…
  • Germany: Solidarische Landwirtschaft “Solidarity Agriculture”. Oooh. Very political sounding. Very provocative. I appreciate the emphasis on unity, and the political overtones are very suggestive of the movement’s potential to bring about change.
  • Norway: Andelslandbruk “Share of Agriculture”. I always thought the Norweigans did everything better… Maybe that’s the Swedes. Anyway, let’s keep looking.
  • Italy: Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale “Fair Trade Groups”. Hmmm. Don’t you think it’s funny how the emphasis on Fair Trade products has always been on imported luxury goods, like coffee and chocolate, while every year here in Canada there are fewer and fewer farms? Think the Italians might be onto something with this, but it doesn’t capture what we’re going for either.
  • Bulgaria: Съпричастно земеделие “Participatory Agriculture”. Now we’re getting somewhere! That’s getting much closer to what we’re aiming at – and really, I think, why consumers are drawn to the CSA model. The culture has become so completely disconnected from our food and the land around us (and the deep meaning inherent to it) that what we want now -as much as healthy food- is to PARTICIPATE, to be a part of something real, and challenging, and beautiful. To see it, smell it, feel it, eat it, and ultimately make it a part of ourselves. SALT OF THE EARTH Съпричастно земеделие PROGRAM…!
  • Croatia: Grupa solidarne razmjene “Group Solidarity Exchange”. BAM! Now there’s a title. We’ve got the heaviness of solidarity in there. The group element. The notion of exchange (ie: two way benefits). What are we exchanging again…?

My notions for new titles for CSA aren’t any better, and don’t lend themselves to acronyms…

SUPER AWESOME FOOD FROM SUPER AWESOME FARMERS FOR SUPER AWESOME CUSTOMERS. SAFFSAFFSAC. “Hey did you sign up for a saff saff sack this year? They’re great!” Sadly, this might be my best one.

A TOTALLY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO EATING, FARMING AND ECONOMY. TDAEFE. Dammit, I can’t even pronounce that.

ENVIRONMENTALISM AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN ACTION. ESJA. Less of a mouthful at least.

The I DON’T WANT MY KIDS TO GET CANCER OR WANT MY FAMILY TO STARVE WHEN THE FOOD SYSTEM COLLAPSES program. Emphasizing the health, and food security aspects of CSA. noCANCnoSTARVprog. Maybe not focussing enough on the positives?

Ok. My ideas are awful. What is missing is the essential reason I am drawn to farming. It’s the hardest part to articulate, it’s impossible to pencil out, and it’s always changing… I can’t speak for other farmers, or you (whoever you are), or anyone else, but the reason I love farming -enough to pursue it like this- is because I find it utterly amazing and magical.

klAPP783Yes, just plain magical. Absolutely amazing. Mind blowing. It speaks to a wondrous providence that seeds want to grow, and animals want to reproduce, and that we can hitch things behind horses to drag through the ground, and somehow food emerges. Not only that, but that we have the power to orchestrate and harness these forces. It’s never gotten boring. It is truly endlessly interesting. Every crop, every year, every plant, every birth, every death is a story; our lives get woven into it. Every year the farmer’s eye gets more subtle, new details emerge, lessons are learned: accumulated experience becomes wisdom.

At one point in my life, I wanted to try to change the world. What idealistic person hasn’t? Every now and then it actually happens. For me at least, farming has become that outlet. I literally get to change the face of the earth -just a little bit of it. What a strange privilege. 400 acres to bring into productivity. To establish order in chaos, productivity in waste, beauty in neglect.

klwoodcutters-in-the-forest-1906(1)Not just a woodlot: a managed forest, producing maple syrup, edible mushrooms, nuts for hogs to fatten on, lumber, warmth for people’s homes…

klFER762Not just an old hayfield: intensive gardens that grow richer and more productive every year. Producing fruit and vegetables that nourish our community, that entertain and excite us, that challenge our culinary skills and imagination.

klcowgirl-in-the-meadow-1906(1)Not just some growed up bush: rotationally grazed pastures, that go from scrub land to green fields. That produce meat and eggs, multiplying herds, leather, wool, horse power to work the land.

How can I condense that into a three letter acronym? How do I articulate the profundity of our role as stewards, beneficiaries, and humble inhabitants of this earth? It is all just so beautiful.

Thanks for reading. More on the business side of small scale agriculture coming soon.

klon-the-farm-1905(1)Paintings by the Swedisn illustrator Carl Larsson, from his beautiful, 100 year old book of watercolours, “A Farm”