On Overwhelming Scope (and MOSES 2015)

Exhibit Hall at MOSES 2015

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the 26th Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference. It was my second trip to this specific conference. In 2013, it was during conversations with other young conference attendees that I decided to make this website/blog. I skipped last year’s conference in favor of a few others, which meant that my experience two years ago was thrown in greater relief this time around. Two years ago, I was a former WWOOFer about to start my first full-season apprenticeship. It was my first conference, and it couldn’t have been much more overwhelming. Over three thousand people gathered in one place with at least one basic principle in common, a dozen workshops to choose from every hour, a floor full of people who would love to give you piles of information, and a dining hall packed with tables of people having a thousand interesting conversations. From the moment I walked into the La Crosse Center, was certain I was missing something. Sure, this conversation over lunch is interesting, but I bet those people over there are even more awesome. I’m learning tons in this workshop, but could I be learning more in that other one? It sounds like that contra dance is really fun, but I’m too busy drinking beer and getting to know these young farmers. The sheer magnitude of the conference meant that every moment, no matter how completely engaged I was in what I was doing there was a little voice in the back of my head that suspected I might be missing something.

Contra Dance at MOSES 2015

This year’s conference was equally large and potentially overwhelming, but I experienced a drastic reduction in FOMO (fear of missing out) this time around. I think it was partially explained by the return visit and the other conferences I have under my belt, but that only explains away about half of the anxiety. I was talking about this with a friend at the conference, and our conversation brought up a key difference between MOSES 2013 me and MOSES 2015 me: my scope has narrowed considerably. In 2013, I was very new to farming, and everything was incredibly compelling. My experience working on farms so far had been exhilarating and (purposefully) diverse. My farm dreams were grand - I couldn’t imagine giving up any facet of them. So when presented with a list of workshop choices, it all seemed essential! I couldn’t imagine sacrificing the chance to learn about stone fruit production while someone else could be telling me how to farm without fossil fuels! I remain curious about the vast majority of topics covered at MOSES, but my reason for being there has shifted slightly since 2013. In the intervening years I have gotten closer to those “farm dreams” and they come into sharper focus the closer they get. While I still have some possibly outlandish long-term farming goals, my short-term plan is increasingly pared down to the bare bones. It’s not that I find any facet of that initial sprawling plan less intriguing, but practicality has dictated a more measured approach to starting a small business. So when I opened the schedule last weekend to plan my attack, I was able to limit myself to workshops that might be useful to me in the narrow scope of my near future without any dread creeping in that I was making horrible choices.  

Planning!

I’ve spent the better part of the past week sifting (mentally and physically) through everything I’ve brought back from MOSES 2015. While I wasn’t necessarily as overwhelmed at the conference itself as I was two years ago, it remains equally exhausting and invigorating. Very rarely am I called upon to be completely engaged for such a sustained period, and it made for a physically and mentally exhausting few days. So when I took a moment to sit down after dinner on Friday night, it seemed inconceivable that I’d find myself shedding layers to swing and bounce around for three hours at the annual contra dance. As I sit down these days to get down to the nitty gritty of planning the course of my next year approaching my own farm start-up, I am alternatively exhausted and invigorated. I can’t wait to get down to it, and I can’t really imagine that it will be possible. Two years from now, I hope I’ll be reflecting on MOSES 2017 as a farmer having made it through her first season on her own, probably exhausted, probably invigorated, but always willing to dig deep for the energy for another turn around the dance floor. 

On Learning With and Learning From

I’m not sure if this is true wherever you are, but here in Wisconsin, it’s February. It’s a many-splendored month, full of snow and sleet and cold and flu and all things grey. It’s also the month of seed orders, day lengthening, and the pre-season farmer huddle. It takes a herculean feat of imagination to look out at the greyscale landscape at this moment and paint the rows green, but the seeds are in the mail and attention must be paid! Next season is still a nebulous haze of future colors and smells and sounds and tastes ready to be corralled into a mixed metaphorical bag of tables, calendars, charts, drawings, etc. Danielle and I have started to talk about what next year is going to look like at Boerson Farm, and these ongoing conversations have prompted me to reflect on the idea of the apprenticeship and the different ways one chooses how to learn a trade. We were discussing their decision to scale down their pork production over the next few years, and she made an off-hand comment about my being able to learn from their mistakes. Over the last year and going into the next season, I am constantly thankful that Mat and Danielle take the attitude that they have more to learn than they have to teach. That’s not to say I don’t have lots to learn from them - they’re both whip-smart, well-read, and wise beyond their years. They’ve got an extra ten years of life experience and seven years farming experience on me, but their attitude is always closer to the student than the teacher. So as I prepare for my last season as their girl Friday, I’ve been reflecting on what makes for a good learning experience, and how my time at the Boersons’ compares to other apprenticeships available to aspiring farmers. 

When I was looking into learning opportunities the first (and second) time, I noticed that there seemed to be two possible directions to take when choosing a farmer-mentor: someone who has been farming for years and has everything figured out or someone who is building up their farm and is still figuring things out. There are certainly more people in the latter camp than the former, but there are for sure a few established farmers who attract lots of young acolytes hoping to learn at the feet of masters. More often than not, these masters are published, oft-cited men who have a model to deliver. Almost across the board, apprentices are paid little for their labor, entering into a mutually-beneficial arrangement to learn what they can before striking out on their own. Many of these farmers understandably regard educating the next generation of farmers part of their commitment to sustainability, and take on the burden of training and retraining a rotating cast of enthusiastic young people and sending them on their way after a season or two of hard work. Others, seemingly fewer but no less committed, seek to attract and retain hard workers with the promise of a living wage, benefits, and the satisfaction of working hard with lofty principles. These farmers see their sustainability in a more specific sense. focusing on building a farm community that can sustain itself, not just ecologically but financially. As a few widely-circulated articles have recently pointed out, many successful farms are barely profitable and rely heavily on volunteer or un-/under-paid labor. Of course, these two approaches are not diametrically opposed, and fairness is possible in both scenarios. The issues come up, I think, when the two parties aren’t on the same page. In many conversations with mentors and mentees alike, I’ve come across examples of people feeling exploited in both positions - farmers who invest time and money training what they regard as long-term staff only to have them leave after two seasons to start their own enterprise, or apprentices who work very hard for very little money and end up feeling taken advantage of by a less-than-enriching experience. Circling back to my initial point, it seems that many of these “master farmers” have well-established and well-oiled apprenticeship programs, where they communicate their expectations clearly and attract applicants who sign up with the intention of working hard while learning from someone who knows what they’re doing.

So why didn’t I choose to go the “master” route? I did, after all, choose to attend what is arguably the most famous college in the world, which I don’t regret in the least but which could be seen in retrospect as not necessarily working towards my current goals. It might follow that I would choose to take the same approach in my current (re)education, seeking out equally shiny names in my chosen field. Truthfully, I did initially look into some of these “big name” farms, going so far as to interview at one before encountering an example of the difference in goals I referred to above. In hindsight, there are a few reasons I ended up where I did. First, I wanted to be closer geographically to Future Farm to prepare for my impending transition to start-up mode. While the greater Midwest certainly has some well-established sustainable farms and a few luminaries, the apprenticeship culture isn’t as developed as it is on both coasts, where most of these “masters” farm. The other main reason I didn’t go the “master” route is not a flattering one: I am not suited, personality-wise, to learning from any one person. I am genetically predisposed to be a know-it-all, and I haven’t necessarily worked very hard to curb this less-than-ideal tendency. I’m afraid I bristle at the notion that anyone could tell me the “right” way to do something, to be honest, and the idea of going to learn from someone who has perfected a system might be more than my fragile ego could bear. I’m sure I didn’t acknowledge this reasoning the last two winters during my search for farmer-mentors, but in hindsight this might have been the primary (if subconscious) reason I ended up at the Boersons. Over the past year, I have been included (for better or worse) in planning, decision-making, troubleshooting, brainstorming. I have felt like an integral part of something that, at the end of the day, is not mine. I have worked hard for very little money, but I have gained in other tangible and intangible ways and felt perhaps over-appreciated while doing it. I am consciously trying to become a better receiver of knowledge, but in the meantime I am so happy to be where I am: learning with the best, peering forward together from February to the promises of the season to come. 

On Good Intentions and Land Use

While home for the holidays this year, I was lucky enough to spend some time with my little sister, who I hadn’t seen in over a year. She lives out in Washington, and I have yet to make it out west to visit the area of the country she has called home for almost three years now. She’s a botanist, combating invasive species and restoring salmon habitat for the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula. She’s spent her years since college working on native species conservation in various places, and she’s been trying to encourage the local conservation efforts to include more native plants in utilitarian roles. When we walk in the local forest preserve or drive by wooded lots, her trained eye sees which plants belong in the restored prairie, how drastically they are thinning oak stands, and how many invasive grasses went to seed last year. The rest of us just see brown stuff poking through the snow. Spending time outside with my favorite botanist makes me think about how differently the two of us might approach the same piece of land if given the chance. 

It reminded me of a book I read a few months ago, Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Apfelbaum is an ecologist who bought a farm in Wisconsin as a young man and spent the next few decades restoring it to a non-agricultural oasis of native plants and animal habitats. He touts his farm as an example of how a little hard work and ingenuity can take a piece of land out of the destructive treadmill of conventional annual agriculture while still supporting a family economically.  He grows food for his family on a small garden plot, sells native plant seeds harvested from his land, and the ecological consulting company he started back in the 70s when he moved to Brodhead has grown enough to employ dozens of people in five offices across the country. They provide ecological consultations to people and companies faced with land-use decisions, backed by highly educated scientists and dedicated to mitigating the harm caused by development and other changes to the landscape. His book, while interesting in its own right, seems to discount any need for agriculture at all. He rightly despairs at the chemical farming of his neighbors, but somehow seems to think that his quarter acre vegetable plot is the answer. I’m not one to begrudge anyone a garden, but restoring prairies and wetlands across the rolling hills of Wisconsin is not going to feed anyone but the birds.

On the other end of the same side of the spectrum (and about two hours northwest) lies another Wisconsin evangelist I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard. Just like my sister and I, these two men are united in their hatred of conventional chemical agriculture, but divided in how to address it. Shepard advocates going cold-turkey on monocultures of all kinds - beans, grains, fruit, vegetables, conventional and organic. In his estimation, the only responsible way to feed the world is through diversified perennial ecosystems using a permaculture model. Permaculturists, among other things, advocate for mixed plantings of edible and otherwise useful plants, minimizing soil disturbance while maximizing layers of food production. Permaculture in general, and Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture in particular often advocates using exotic edible plants. Shepard aims to recreate the oak savannas of the pre-historic midwest more by analogy than by strict restoration. The American Chestnut has all but succumbed to blight, so why not breed a new American chestnut using genetics from Asian varieties? Sounds perfectly reasonable. What worries me about permaculture (in my relatively uneducated view) is the fine line between “hardy perennial” and “wildly invasive species.” There is a long history of well-intentioned people introducing species for utilitarian reasons that end up becoming out of control invasives. My sister specifically mentioned reed canarygrass as an example of a plant used widely by the Department of Transportation and other government agencies to control erosion that is now choking out biodiversity in wetlands across the country. Permaculture is not definitionally dedicated to native species, but to mimicking natural systems to produce as much food, fuel, and fiber with the least disruption of the soil structure and the maximum use of water and other natural resources. Rather than preserving individually threatened species, permaculture seeks to preserve regenerative landscapes that feed people and the soil. At what cost? Why should we worry about saving native plants? If a plant is useful, who cares if it spreads rapidly? 

I’m not well-versed enough in either ecology or permaculture to answer these questions with much authority, but it seems to be that these two approaches don’t necessarily need to be opposing forces. Right now, practitioners of both approaches  to sustainability have so far to go against the destructive mainstream that no breath need be wasted on in-fighting. I think we can all agree that any loss to genetic diversity is a loss to us all. Similarly, even the most small-scale gardener will concede that care must be taken in planting the hardiest of perennials (e.g. nobody has a “little bit” of mint for long). Conservationists are doing us all a great service in preserving as much genetic diversity as possible, and as long as we food-growers don’t actively negate their work by irresponsible use of quick-spreading exotics, there is not reason that we can’t all work together to push back the destructive forces of large-scale chemical agriculture inch by inch and acre by acre. 

On Liminality in Food and Life

Last week, as I made caramels for the first time, I found myself bent almost double over the stove, eyes glued to the mercury in the candy thermometer, utterly concentrated on watching the blue line rise to exactly the right number. Too hot, and the caramels would turn out tooth-wrenchingly hard; not hot enough and they’d stick to the wrappers and be impossible to eat. Turn away for a minute, I was warned, and you might return to find a pan full of scorched sugar. The stakes are high. The sugar bubbles and browns, my brow furrows. I add the butter and cream, the mixture froths and boils, my stomach clenches. 135 . . .140 . . . 145 . . . I rock back on my heels, grope for the bunched kitchen towels from the counter, grasp the hot handles through uneven layers of cotton, hold firmly while the golden brown cascade spreads to fill the papered and oiled pan. I exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I am grinning, absurdly proud of myself for performing this amazing feat of alchemy, skirting pitfalls galore to turn plain cream and butter and sugar into something perfect. Something you can cut into pieces, wrap into little squares of wax paper, and give away to mail carriers, co-workers, family, bring to holiday parties, tuck in a padded envelope and send to friends scattered around far coasts. 

Two days after I made my first (double) batch, I made my second, this time stirring in ground ginger, cinnamon, and garam masala for a warming gingerbread flavor. I’m addicted. This afternoon I’m going to the grocery store for supplies for a few more batches. It’s not that I can’t stop eating them. It’s that I can’t stop making them. There’s something arresting about making this simple candy that comes into being between raw and burnt. Caramels are the delicious incarnation of a liminal state. Thrilling, dangerous, delicious. Liminality (excuse the $10 word), in fact, seems to be the path to my heart/stomach. All of my favorite food are consumed somewhere on the path to rot and decay: stinky, gooey, moldy cheeses, dry-cured meats, fermented vegetables, wine and beer, etc. I could even make the case that in baking bread, you arrest the water+flour+yeast in the perfect moment on the way to yeast+goo+hooch. In fact, every time cook using the Maillard reaction (the most delicious of all chemical reactions), I am looking for a perfectly liminal state. Post-raw, pre-burnt. The broiler is the ultimate weapon in this dance with destruction, a tool to be used as often but attentively as possible. 

Maybe I lean towards hyperbole in these descriptions of everyday kitchen procedures. I should be glad to get my thrills from courting disaster in the kitchen instead of on a motorcycle or jumping out of airplanes. On the other hand, it is hard to deny that in some ways I have been living in a prolonged liminal state for quite a few years now - always on my way, but never there. Becoming a responsible adult, becoming a farmer, keeping myself from swinging too close to the precarious cliffs of insolvency, uninsured ill health, or simple failure in my crazy endeavors. I’m forever looking forward, planning, dreaming, scheming. Sometimes, this translates to energy, momentum, and the general feeling that my own mundane life is somehow dangerous and exciting. And sometimes I’m just sitting in my kitchen, smiling to myself, wrapping caramels, going nowhere, just being. 

On the Allure of Specialization

Maximize efficiency! Maximize profits! Get big or get out! For decades, those first two exhortations led directly to the third, made famous by bumbling 70s USDA boss Earl Butz. Bigger farms, bigger machinery, bigger subsidy checks, bigger debt. Economy of scale! We’ve got to fed the world, and industrial agriculture was the answer. Industrial agriculture is at its core based on one simple principle: to maximize efficiency (and therefore profits), you have to get very good at once specific step in the assembly line that is out modern food system. One farm to birth the calves, another to feed them, another to finish them. Whole swaths of the country planted in alternating corn and soy. Buildings as big as city blocks stuffed with chickens, animals bred and fed to produce meat as quickly and cheaply as possible. You also get forty thousand acres of organic lettuce, millions of overgrazed acres from grass-fed beef, and more huge buildings full of “all-natural” chicken. You find your part of the chain, buy what you need and sell it for pennies more, relying on scale to maximize those pennies into a living. You build your buildings, buy your tractors, and hope you’ll be able to pay off those loans eventually. Maybe you always wanted to grow up to drive a gleaming green tractor, or maybe it’s just a job you fell into because that’s what you do when you’re rich in land and little else. It’s not hard to see how our food system became what it is today, and it’s hard to point fingers at individuals who made these types of decisions along the way. 

The CSA vegetable farmer of today positions herself as a diametric opposite to this industrial model. She knows her customers by name, and they know exactly where their food comes from and how it was grown. She packs her waxed cardboard boxes each week in the summer and fall, and each week her members unpack the box, challenging themselves to use another cabbage, or a whole daikon, or to try and like mustard green this year. She specializes not in one small task, but in a whole experience. She doesn’t grow one thing, she grows 40! But at what cost? At the small scale that most CSAs operate (and too often, fail to operate), this means efficiency goes straight out the window. She’s trying to be an expert in everything - from the actual planting, cultivation, harvest, and processing of dozens of different plants with different needs to marketing and customer service and delivery, and sometimes even accounting and grant writing. She tries to instill a sense of efficiency in herself and her employees, but in the end she’s stuck using a blunt tool for every job. She can’t buy that specialized potato digger when potatoes are just one small piece of her pie, and a relatively low-grossing one at that. She never gets the timing quite right on her greens in the spring, because she’s busy juggling twenty other hot irons. Maybe someday, after fifteen or twenty years of hard work and lessons learned, she’ll have hundreds (or thousands!) of satisfied CSA members, dozens of well-trained employees, a tractor for every job, and a system for every crop. She’ll still be a sparkling alternative to industrial agriculture, working against the odds to create her own well-oiled machine out of whole cloth and cannibalized parts. For some people, this is the goal when they start out with a few dozen shares and a box full of seed packets. In some ways, it certainly is appealing. For others, including myself, this model leaves something to be desired.

As crazy as this might sound, that CSA farmer hasn’t eschewed specialization enough. She grows dozens of different vegetables, but she’s only growing vegetables. Her systems, while edging towards efficiency, are all high-input. Not just in knowledge and labor, but in resources and nutrients. She might be certified organic, but she is in all likelihood relying on composted manure from outside livestock operations, whose practices may or may not align with her ethics. She tries her best to feed the soil, but at the end of the day, she tills her fields at least once per season (more likely three or four times). She delivers waxed-boxed bounty, but her share amounts to less than half a family’s meals for less than half a year. So what’s the alternative to the alternative? An even further step from the common-sense efficiency of industrial agriculture: the diversified farm. 

The most ambitious version of the diversified farm is the year-round whole diet CSA, the very antithesis of the industrial model. In this case, a farm attempts to grow everything a family eats for the entire year: vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, dairy, etc. There are a few examples of whole diet CSAs, the most familiar of which might be Essex Farm in Essex, NY, which was the subject of Kristin Kimball’s memoir The Dirty Life. I was lucky enough last fall to spend a week volunteering at Essex, where I learned the most I’ve ever learned in a week. Most importantly, I learned that growing all the food eaten by 80 families takes a gargantuan effort by a large and dedicated crew week after week. Mark Kimball said himself that by choosing to grow everything, they were never going to be experts in growing any one thing. They have a dedicated crew of young farmers who each head up one aspect of the farm for the season, but with high employee turnover and the obstacles each new season brings, the learning curve is steep. As Kristin writes on the farm’s blog, “the difficult part, as always, is keeping the whole complex machine running without going broke or burning out.” That is bound to be the complication that arises when the inputs that keep a farm running are not chemical, but human. Whether you’re one farmer feeding twenty people on a quarter acre or fifteen feeding five hundred on ninety, the threat of burning out is always nearby, in the foreground or the background. Every CSA farmer works the hardest they’ve ever worked for six months out of the year. On a diversified farm, your livestock have year-round demands, meaning that your winter never tapers off to the comparative hibernation of the vegetable farmer in winter. If you’re trying to supply your members food all year round, you’re always trying to extend your season, perfect your storage, get the scale just right. Nobody wants to spend February eating nothing but cabbage, and there’s no customer that doesn’t require some level of education, whether that’s someone who’s never canned tomatoes or an old-timer who just doesn’t get the appeal of boc choi. 

It sounds so far like I’m advocating for a return to the hard lives that our grandparents worked so hard to supposedly save us from enduring. In a way, that is entirely possible. There’s no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, the sustainable farm endures. I use the word sustainable here not in the buzzy way. I use it to mean the farm (and farmer) that can support itself ecology-wise, nutrient-wise, labor-wise; a farm that can support the farmers, meet the nutritional needs of the customers, all while sustaining a level of animal welfare and soil health that keep everyone on the right side of history. It’s a tall order, and there doesn’t yet seem to be a right way to do it. I think the folks over at Essex have a great thing going, but I’m wondering whether the same thing might be attempted on a much smaller scale. What if you could convince fifteen a dozen or two families to rely on you to supply everything they eat for a year? It’s an intoxicating thought. I think that somewhere in that range is a sweet spot, a scale that would enable one family to live a good (if hardworking) life while feeding a small community the best food one could ask for. Playing with the numbers to find that sweet spot is the grand puzzle, and where you’ll be able to find me all winter, squinting at spreadsheets and multiplying enterprise budgets to come up with a solid business plan. I’ll let you know when I figure out exactly what kind of puzzle I’m trying to solve.

 

Farm Week: October 13, 2014

This was a great rebound week on the farm. The weather held, and we peeled away a few more layers. We sent out the second to last boxes of the season, and we harvested lots of late fall goodies for a local festival this weekend. From the Land is a folk arts, crafts, and agricultural festival held on a nearby farm that draws a loyal crowd from central Wisconsin and beyond. Just as at Harvest Fest, the big hit this weekend were the Brussels sprouts. At least a few dozen people commented that they had no idea sprouts grew on a stalk like that, and even more people were tickled that we were charging by the foot instead of by the pound or by the stalk. On Saturday, we sold so many stalks of Brussels sprouts that our customers were walking billboards walking around the festival. It just goes to show that novelty sometimes does pay off. Even if that novelty is just a desire not to have to take all those sprouts off all those stalks. Sometimes marketing isn’t just about online buzz - a good old-fashioned word of mouth ground-swell does the trick just as well.

Thinking about: branding, clean slates, the “better next year” list

Eating: more arugula salads, more homemade pasta dishes, that thing they do at the fair where they shave a potato into one big pile of ribbons and fry it into a giant pile of chips

Reading: John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, MOSES’s Guidebook for Organic Certification

Farm Week: October 6, 2014

The light is different. I’m no longer turning away from the sun. It’s lower in the sky, and I’m turning my face up to meet it. This week was further along the countdown to the end of the season. We have two boxes left, and Friday was the last outdoor market in the park in Green Lake. We are slowly peeling off layers just as we’re starting to put them back on. We did the first round of our chicken harvest, and seeing even thirty fewer chickens in the field is a good feeling. Our last pregnant sow of the year (Dot), has been big as a house for weeks. Every day I would go out and do chores and she was bigger and lower and fuller than ever. Every day, it was with disbelief that I reported that no, there was no little pile of pigs out there. Along with the creeping frost and the falling leaves, the ever-ballooning sow contributed to a strange week where time simultaneously sped by and stood still. This week more than most, we had to stop to think about what day it was. Thursday brought the annual organic certification inspection, a five hour process that also contributed to the smearing of the time-space continuum on the farm. The peppers and the tomatoes in the field are wilted and dead. The greenhouse is half empty, planted with some lettuce and awaiting the winter spinach. The sow finally farrowed on Sunday (pictures to come), large enough to feed all eight pigs for years. Time passes. Frost falls, and the sun comes to save us. One of these days, the sun will be too low and the frost will stay. Until then, we’ve got some more harvesting to do. 

Thinking about: paperwork, processes, socks

Eating: homemade Indian eggplant and potatoes and cauliflower with rice; arugula with grated carrot, daikon radish, and apples tossed in a creamy lime sriracha dressing; lentil soup with homemade wheat oregano breadsticks

Reading: Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, MOSES’s Guidebook for Organic Certification