A passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture David Stern writes about his experiences of meeting first-generation farmers, exploring some of the challenges and rewards of independent organic farming in the U.S.
State Route 79 can be taken southeast from the small rural college-town of Ithaca all the way to New York City. Along that long winding road, cars and trucks speed by – often with little recognition of the natural beauty surrounding them. Far too often people try to qualify the picturesque: some say shines through an ocean sunset, others claim it was painted on a piece of canvas – the dramatic changes of autumn along Rt. 79 is just as beautiful as any sunset or famous painting.
As I near King Bird Farm, the road curves around a long bend and throws me into the middle of a seemingly endless clearing. On my right the lush green fields of grass flow in waves up the hillside, while on my left the fields stretch out flat for miles until reaching another wave of rolling hills to the north. The soil here seems rich, I think, as I pull my car to the side of the road and step out so as to take in the landscape.
I might not be wrong about the soil. The farming industry in New York contributes more than $4.5 billion to the state economy in agricultural production alone. There are more than 30,000 people living and working on farms in the state, another testament to the fertility of the land. Around 1,000 of these farms are certified organic. In order to receive certification, farmers have to meet the federal regulations enforced by the National Organic Program and pass inspections from an independent third party. The core of organic farming is maintaining the health of the soil, using natural fertiliser, and growing healthy crops without additives or harmful pesticides.
In 2012, the Organic Trade Association reported that organic food sales increased by 10.2 percent, with conventional food sales growing only 3.7 percent. New York is third on the USDA list of states with the most certified organic farms, accounting for 13 percent of the country’s organic dairy farms and 8 percent of the country’s organic milk. Around the world, organic farming continues to reach new heights, with 43 million hectares of land devoted to organic agriculture, which amounts to a global market worth of 72 billion dollars, according to a report released in February by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture.
Ben was the first person I met when I pulled my car up the long gravel driveway. His skinny arms thrust a large shovel into the dirt of the flowerbed as he looked up at me. He has been working at King Bird since the season began in April. It’s now November and he will soon be heading back to his hometown in western Pennsylvania. During the winter, most people in Ben’s position look for whatever odd jobs they can find that will last them until the next farming season.
Ben is part of the uncounted mass of young men and women working and volunteering on small farms around the world. Many of them are college-educated, but a different type of learning has called them to the fields. Ben started volunteering on farms when he was studying American History at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I did the WWOOF thing – if you’ve heard of that – it’s like volunteering,” he explained.
WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, and it is an organisation that matches people interested in doing seasonal farm work with independent farmers around the globe.
Ben and one of his friends from college volunteered at a vegetable farm that they found through WWOOF, and since then Ben has continued to do seasonal work on other vegetable farms in Pennsylvania. This complete change in lifestyle, from college-student to farmer, sits at the core of what WWOOF hopes to accomplish. WWOOF’s website claims that these volunteer farming opportunities have “opened the door to a way of living that continues to fundamentally change people’s lives.” The volunteers themselves have great things to say about the organisation as well.
Natalie Dionne worked on a small vegetable farm in Nivillac, France for three weeks this past summer. Though she is set to graduate from Ithaca College this coming spring, Dionne was out in the fields getting her hands dirty like a true farmer – and she loved it. “I am very thankful to have found La Ferme de Bovenant, it was an incredible place,” Dionne told me, using the French name of the vegetable farm.
Dionne thoroughly enjoyed her time volunteering in France, but her experience also taught her about the amount of work that goes into successfully running an organic farm. The host farmers, Virginie and Alec, did not have any other staff so when Dionne showed up she became the only employee. Work started at sunrise with watering and weeding, and continued throughout the day. “Spending time on the farm was certainly a reality check in how demanding owning a farm is, especially an organic farm,” Dionne explained.
La Ferme de Bovenant is a permaculture based organic farm, meaning that Virginie uses time-tested sustainable practices to allow for a more successful crop yield. This meant doing things like leaving horses in the field to ward of hungry deer, or planting certain flowers to attract bees towards plants that weren’t being fertilised. Whatever the problem was, Virginie was able to find a sustainable and effective solution. “She was a really powerful woman and I certainly look up to her,” Dionne said.
Learning what it really takes to get food from the dirt to the table motivated Dionne to pursue her dream of living in France, and thanks to WWOOF and her own courage she was able to see this dream realised. The sustainable and inventive farming methods, as well as the tremendous connections made with Virginie and Alec, have provided Dionne with an invaluable experience that she will not soon forget
On a fateful night in the fall of 2013, Ryan Bince booked a one-way ticket to Australia and decided to take the following semester off from school. Bince had made arrangements with a WWOOF farm in Goulburn and he was ready to work, but also ready for an adventure. With nearly empty pockets and a heart full of courage, Bince travelled from one farm to another as a way to finance his journey and build personal connections. “The farms were a good option because most of them afforded free housing, and many offered free food,” Bince explained.
In Goulburn, Bince worked on a cattle and sheep farm owned by a man fittingly named Mike Shepherd. Besides Bince, there were four other volunteer workers from around the world staying on the farm. One woman was from France, two men were from Japan, and for a short time there was a couple from Brazil. “Everyone enjoyed sharing cultures and learning about each other,” Bince said after telling me the story of how Koichi and Umi, the two Japanese men, taught everyone the Japanese version of saying grace – “Itadaki Mas.”
Despite their diverse ethnic and educational backgrounds, farming had brought these people together. Differences seemed slight when bound by a common goal and simple work ethic. Soon they were spending almost every hour of the day with each other. Everyone spoke good English except for Kiochi, so Bince quickly started helping him learn. “He called me ‘professor’ after a while,” Bince wrote to me. “It was nice.”
For people looking to learn about a healthier way of living, explore a simpler lifestyle, or simply travel and build friendships, independent farms provide all of those things and more. The potential, as the WWOOF website proudly conveys, is to be opened to an experience that will fundamentally change your life.
This type of transformative experience resonates with Ben who never had a garden or worked in the dirt until he started volunteering. “I love working seasonally on farms, and this is my fourth season doing this.” He said he is 27 years old, but the work has made him look older. He talked through a thick black beard while noisily transferring a rusty pile of old pig feeders into the back of his red pick-up truck. His skinny arms somehow tossed the heavy pig feeders with ease. “So yea I’ve done it for a few seasons but at first it was just a summer job,” he continued.
Ben continued to work on vegetable farms in Pennsylvania until he came to King Bird in April. Here is able to gain experience working with a wide variety of livestock instead of just vegetables. The farm raises chickens, pigs, cows, and horses while also growing a variety of vegetables and flowers. Ben is the only employee here and the job has provided him with a lot of experience that he hopes to utilise on his own property one day. “I plan on having my own thing,” he said. “That’s kind of the idea behind it all.”
That was always the idea for Karma and her husband Mike, the owners of King Bird Farm, Karma explained as she led me into the barn where she returned to brushing one of her horses. Her long brown hair hung in thick braids and bounced off her back as she walked to pick up the comb hanging from the wall. Barely taller than the horse’s legs, Karma is strong and stocky, with healthy arms hardened by years of hard work.
The investment necessary to build up a farm from scratch would turn away a lot of less passionate, or more practical, entrepreneurs. Yet, when asked if the farm has been successful after all these years, Karma smiles and is happy to tell me. “It has been successful, yes,” she said.
“We’re very diverse so I think that’s a part of our success, if one thing doesn’t work out we’ll try something else.”
Maintaining diversity on a farm is essential to success. Rotating crops and closely monitoring the state of the soil hits at the core of all farming, but especially small organic operations where there is very limited space and available nutrients. “You, know, if it’s too dry for the vegetable field maybe something else will work better, so we’ve always got something going on,” Karma explained.
Though ancient in its method, this practice of sustainable agriculture has been mostly abandoned due to the financial pursuits of large conventional farmers. Instead of recycling their waste, many conventional farmers simply let it be taken by the rain and into the waterways. Nitrogen from animal waste and toxic chemicals from pesticides are carried by rainwater into streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean. Run-off farm waste is currently one of the leading causes of water pollution and land-degradation in the world.
Instead of scorching the earth with manufactured nitrogen, Karma uses the natural waste produced from her animals to make organic fertiliser. “We have no chemical inputs,” Karma says proudly. Manure from their horses and cattle provide the fertiliser – no additional nitrogen necessary. Almost no pesticides are used, helping to protect the thriving insect and bird populations on the farm.
After hearing about the effectiveness of this type of sustainable farming, I wondered why these practices are not more commonly utilised. If more people bought into this mentality, the tremendous environmental burden of the global farming industry could be greatly reduced. “Have you always been organic?” I asked. A poorly phrased question but nonetheless she understands. “I didn’t think there was any other way to farm,” she said before bursting into laughter.
Perhaps the work is what deters people. Natalie Dionne saw firsthand how much time and effort goes into successfully managing an organic farm when she volunteered at La Ferme de Bovenant. Karma sees this everyday at King Bird as she takes endless steps to improve the productivity and sustainability of her land. “It’s low input,” she said. “But it’s high labor – it’s high thinking.”
There is nothing easy about the life of an independent organic farmer – except maybe the drive to keep going. When someone decides to become an organic farmer, they do it knowing that there will be countless obstacles ahead. “Organic agriculture takes more thinking, and planning, and action,” Karma said with confidence, her sweet but powerful voice resonating in the small dirty barn.
Nobody is doing it for a financial gain. “A major obstacle is always the market, the market, the market,” Karma repeated with a hint of frustration, as if she was already tired of talking about it. “Even in Ithaca, that’s got a really good organic market, prices are still generally hard to make a living wage from.” But she accepts this, knowing that her financial sacrifice has been well worth it.
The wealth that these farmers pursue is a kind that refuses to be monetised. Those who choose to make less money in order to provide safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly food are making a moral decision. Yet, to many of them, it was the simplest decision they ever made.