Organic Farming From the Farmers' Point of View
Some readers know how difficult it is to be financially successful as a family farmer in the United States today. In many regions, farmers sell off their land to developers because the land is worth more than the value of the crops they can grow and sell. Often it is stated that organic farming is a more profitable way to go. Also, activists frequently say that everyone should be eating organic food because it is better for people's health and the environment. However, we wondered about organic farming from the farmers' point of view. The following article is based on interviews done with farmers living in different regions of the United States.
ONE STRAW FARM
White Hall, Maryland
On an absolutely gorgeous day, I visited One Straw Farm in White Hall, Maryland. This family-operated farm has been growing organic produce for approximately 25 years and is the largest organic vegetable farm in Maryland. Approximately 100 acres of organic produce are farmed, including 20 acres of tomatoes. Other products include cucumbers, eggplant, herbs, lettuce, onions, peppers, watermelon, and a variety of greens (such as chard, collards, and kale).
While exploring the lush acres of land, I asked owners Joan and Drew Norman a number of questions. First, they told me that, economically, the best crop varies from year to year; greens and tomatoes are generally a successful crop for them each year. One disaster was a crop of edamame (green soybeans) they planted. Right before the crop was ready to be picked, deer ate it all. Drew said he tried everything to scare the deer away, but they would not budge.
In recent years, the Normans have been growing strawberries. Joan told me that the biggest cost associated with growing strawberries without pesticides is weeding. To overcome this problem, Joan said they till under the old strawberry plants and plant new plants each year, which is less expensive than hiring people to do the weeding.
Then, I asked how they market their vegetables. For approximately 10 years, One Straw Farm has run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Families pay a set price each year and, in return, receive organic vegetables for several months. During the 2009 season, the Normans expected to reach close to 2,000 CSA members. Joan said interest was way up as more people forgo eating out in favor of cooking at home due to the poor economy.
One Straw Farm also has a booth at the Waverly Farmers' Market in Baltimore on Saturday mornings and at other Baltimore-area markets-including the Fresh Farm Market at Harbor East, the Mill Valley General Store, Kenilworth Farmers' Market, and the Whole Foods location in the Mt. Washington neighborhood-during the week. CSA members can pick up their vegetables at various locations, and local consumers can buy directly at these farmers' markets. One Straw Farm sells their organic produce to several restaurants around Baltimore, as well as to the Boordy Vineyards winery. In addition, the Normans are testing distributing food to nearby Goucher College through Bon Appetit, the school's catering company.
One Straw Farm wholesales their vegetables to Whole Foods in the Mid-Atlantic region and to some natural foods stores and restaurants in Maryland. They would like to be able to supply organic produce to independent natural foods stores; however, this is not financially feasible since a viable delivery system is not available. Both Joan and Drew mentioned that Whole Foods is fairly generous about the price they pay farmers for their vegetables. Also, Drew noted that Whole Foods factors in the cost of trucking when paying farmers.
Joan said that the vegetables they distribute to Whole Foods are USDA #1-graded produce. Vegetables that do not meet these high specifications are sold at the farmers' markets. All the vegetables are picked by hand. Tomatoes, for example, are boxed by color and size.
One of the major obstacles in the Normans achieving permanent financial success is the skyrocketing cost of boxes, stickers, and rubber bands needed to pack and deliver the vegetables through wholesale channels. This is a huge cost to them, yet they have no choice but to spend the money. In fact, that is one reason why they are having a difficult time paying down their outstanding debt. They do not have this type of expense with the CSA program since they can reuse crates and don't need the stem tags or stickers.
Another issue is escalating fuel costs. Joan would love to put up windmills on her farm and convert to wind-produced energy, but the initial cost to put up the windmills is quite high. However, they have recently launched a restaurant-to-farm biodiesel operation. A local restaurant provides them with used oil, and the farm converts it into energy to run their tractors.
Drew pointed out that, occasionally, the farm needs a certain type of organic nitrogen fertilizer that is only manufactured in California. The cost to ship it to the East Coast is high, and he worries about the negative environmental impact that comes with trucking it in from the West. Drew also mentioned that organic farmers use a broad spectrum spray when necessary, but this product kills off all bugs in the area sprayed. Conventional farmers have more, though not better, choices for sprays that do not necessarily kill all bugs. He wishes organic farmers had more options.
When I asked Drew what made him become an organic farmer, he replied, "I was naïve, young, and dumb." He pointed out that a lot of what he learned while studying agriculture in college made little sense: "One class would contradict what was stated in another class at the University of Maryland." He remembers thinking to himself, "Why kill off 99 percent of the positive with pesticides to get rid of 1 percent bad?"
Drew also said, "If farming were more predictable, it would be the best job in the world. European governments support farmers much more than they do in the United States. Food is not an important issue in this country."
|How We Can Help Organic Farmers|
Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at a local organic farm.
Remember to return boxes and other packaging materials to the CSA and other organic farmers so they can be reused. This will reduce costs and waste.
Buy organic produce directly from the growers at farmers' markets.
Buy from stores that treat organic farmers well and give them a fair price for their products.
Recognize delivery obstacles. Perhaps local entrepreneurs can assist in the distribution of organic produce to restaurants, schools, etc.
New and often young organic farmers (especially near urban areas) often have difficulty obtaining reasonably priced land on which to farm. Landowners and others who control land (including nonprofits) can discuss with organic farmers ways to make land available at a reasonable price so as to be economically viable for both parties.
Individuals and groups involved with government regulation and legislation can develop policies that encourage organic farming. This includes support of organic farming research, support of farmers' markets offering organic food, rewards for distributing organic food to schools and restaurants, and perhaps tax incentives to make land available to organic farmers.
Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to share solutions that have helped organic farmers in your area.
LICKING CREEK BEND FARM
Mike Tabor is a social activist and has been organic farming since 1972. Licking Creek Bend Farm consists of 60 acres in Needmore, Pennsylvania. Approximately 15 acres are devoted to produce, and three to four acres are devoted to growing Christmas trees. The farm also has organic apple and pear trees. Every other year, some land is set aside to sit for a year, and less produce is grown that year. Mike's largest crop is heirloom tomatoes. Other crops vary seasonally, such as beets, radishes, and lettuce, for example, in the fall.
When I asked Mike why he became an organic farmer, he replied that he "accidentally fell into it. I was an anti-war activist and owned the land that the farm is now situated on. In the early 1970s, I wanted to start up a Jewish political communal group having a kibbutz-like atmosphere. I quickly learned that I enjoyed working on the land combined with being a social activist."
Mike said that his most profitable crop is organic basil, which he grows from June through mid-October. He noted that weather can sometimes destroy a crop. For example, he lost most of his 2004 pumpkin crop to a flood.
Most of the produce grown at Licking Creek Bend Farm is distributed directly to consumers. Mike feels strongly that organic produce must be made available to low-income individuals, not just to the wealthy through high-priced establishments. To accomplish this, Mike sells his produce at farmers' markets, including the one in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C., where he's been selling produce since 1974. He also does several other farmers' markets and delivers to the University of Maryland's co-op and a few other select co-ops. A third of his customers are Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program recipients.
|Organic Seed Sources for Farmers|
Mike said that he uses electric fencing around his farm to keep deer away from his crops. He does have some problems with groundhogs and wild turkeys, but they're not major nuisances. Mike also shared that he has tried to be as environmentally sound as possible throughout his life, including when farming, and that not all organic farmers care about the environment as much as he does. For instance, most organic farmers use plastic around crops to cut back on weeds and then either burn the plastic or simply throw it out. Mike wants to recycle the plastic and has tried to get other organic farmers to do the same. He also mentioned that he has seen organic farmers drinking out of Styrofoam cups at farm meetings, and this annoys him.
When asked if his farm is profitable, Mike replied that he can pay his workers well but that he himself does not draw a salary. A few years ago, he started a CSA program with 16 families and now has a waiting list, despite never advertising the CSA. He said that his major obstacle is personally not being able to charge more money for his produce. For example, he could double the price he charges for his heirloom tomatoes but feels it is unethical since then it would make the cost prohibitive to lower-income consumers.
When I asked Mike if he would encourage others to become organic farmers today, he said yes. However, he warned that he's seen people fail at organic farming over and over because they're undercapitalized from the start and forget that it takes several years to become economically successful. He also noted that many people today are so out of shape physically that they could never do all the work necessary on a farm. In fact, his biggest problem has been finding able farm workers who are physically capable of doing the work and don't have personal problems.
In conclusion, Mike strongly urges organic farmers to think about whether it's ethical to raise organic food and then only make it available to the wealthy. All farmers should reach out to other income groups. Mike invites students from inner-city schools to his farm. He also feels that, with the obesity epidemic today, farmers need to get organic produce into schools.
HONEY BROOK ORGANIC FARM
Pennington, New Jersey
Honey Brook Organic Farm is one of the oldest operating organic farms in New Jersey. In 1991, farmer Jim Kinsel established a CSA system, now the oldest CSA in New Jersey. I had the pleasure of speaking to Jim's wife, Sherry Dudas, and she shared some thoughts.
Jim, who has a math degree from Rutgers University, worked at Prudential for a while, but Sherry said that job did not nourish his soul. Therefore, he went back to Rutgers and took some environmental courses. Jim apprenticed for three years on organic farms-including Farmer John's Organic Produce in Warren, New Jersey, and Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell, New Jersey-and then founded his own farm.
Sherry related how Jim now feels a real sense of obligation running their organic farm. Among the CSA members are many cancer survivors looking for organic food, homeschooling families who use the farm as an educational tool, city folk trying to eat healthy, local conservationists, and a melting pot of ethnic groups that includes Asians, Indians, and Russians.
Honey Brook Organic Farm consists of 60 acres that are entirely organic, where most of their produce is grown. The farm is also transitioning 200 acres to organic, and this is where pumpkins, watermelons, and winter squash are grown. The organic land is their oldest farm land and the location where they grow items such as arugula, berries, cabbages (all types, including purple and Chinese), herbs, onions, peppers, potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, and zucchini. Tomatoes are their largest crop, and they're renowned for them.
"In New Jersey, customers would expect all farms to grow tomatoes," Sherry said. "Members of our CSA continue to come from various ethnic backgrounds and will, from time to time, request we grow new foods. Ground cherries related to tomatillos are now grown. We get seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds. This is also our third year for pick-your-own eggplant. We offer several varieties of eggplant, including Thai and Chinese eggplant, to cater to the wide variety of people."
Early on, Honey Brook Organic Farm wholesaled some crops and sold at farmers' markets. When the CSA started in 1991, it had 50 members, and they were farming 3.5 acres. Farming became profitable for them when they reached 500 CSA members in the late 1990s. As a result, they were able to purchase their own farm land and were no longer tenant farmers. They can also provide their staff with benefits, pay a fair salary, and provide housing in some cases. In addition, they employ college students to staff their farmers' market where CSA members go to pick up their share of produce. By 2009, the CSA had 3,300 members sharing 2,500 memberships, and they distributed all of their produce through this program.
Honey Brook Organic Farm, in addition to farming their own land, leases some land from two environmental nonprofits. The relationship has worked well for them, but with the recent economic downturn, one of the nonprofits wanted to raise their rent by one-third. Sherry said that they strive to keep their CSA affordable and generally raise prices 3 percent per year. However, if land rental costs continue to go up rapidly, they would be forced to pass on this increase to their CSA members. Fuel costs are not a big issue for them since their farm is quite compact and they're not trucking their crops to other locations.
Sherry feels that the biggest challenge for organic farmers in New Jersey today is access to land and high rental costs. Most organic farmers in the state have not grown up on farms and, therefore, usually start off by having to rent land from others. It is very difficult for them to negotiate a long-term lease, which is absolutely necessary for organic farming. Landowners are reluctant to lease land to new organic growers since they tend to be young and may not realize what they are getting themselves into. In contrast, landowners are confident that experienced conventional farmers, who often have been farming on their land with pesticides, will pay their rent.
|Organic Farming References|
In addition, the cost of packaging items continues to go up. For example, Sherry pointed out that their bushel boxes now cost $2.50 each. Last year, they spent a lot of time educating their CSA members about the importance of recycling the boxes, and it has paid off. Members no longer damage boxes as much and often remember to return them for a new share of produce.
SUNIZONA FAMILY FARMS
Sunizona Family Farms was officially certified organic in March 2009. Previously, they did hydroponic farming without using pesticides.
Presently, 1 ½ acres of tomatoes and ½ acre of herbs, lettuces, and microgreens are grown in greenhouses. This year, they planted summer and winter squash (including pumpkins) on 5 acres outdoors. They also have some trial areas of corn, greens, melons, and potatoes to see how well they grow on the land. Much more acreage is available to them to expand into; however, their long-term goal is to grow a variety of foods and not simply large numbers of one or two crops.
Sunizona Family Farms uses veganic farming methods. That is, they only use plant-based materials, including the fertilizer. They are veganic primarily due to fear of disease from manure produced by animals. They make their own potting soil, as well as organic fertilizer. Janice Smith, who is one of the farm's owners, said, "It's really exciting to have control over everything we use." They haul tomato leaves and stems left after extensive pruning to keep the plants productive. This material is made into fertilizer, along with straw, alfalfa, and pinto beans that they get from other local farms. The whole plant material is then reused on their land.
Sunizona Family Farms distributes their produce locally in Arizona, primarily to AJ's Fine Foods, Basha's Supermarkets, New Frontiers, and Whole Foods Markets. "It's awesome dealing with Whole Foods and the other establishments," Janice explained. Once an account is approved and set up, the farm deals directly with produce managers in the stores, and they deliver to the stores. They do not have a middle person to go through. They are in contact with the produce managers twice a week.
One day, Sunizona Family Farms would like to make their crops available in farmers' markets; however, the closest large market to them right now is a 1 ½-hour drive. Janice stated that, once they have more crop variety, they will look into doing farmers' markets. She also disclosed that Whole Foods in effect told her that they will buy whatever crops she grows.
The paperwork for becoming organic is daunting, but Janice agreed that it is so worth it. She also mentioned that farmers always have to go through a learning curve. For example, crop yield can sometimes be lower than expected.
Janice said she's vegan and that farming is a wholesome way to raise a family. She homeschooled her children, and part of their education was working the land. Her kids are grown now, but they all remain involved in the farm. One daughter does the farm's website, while another is in charge of sales. One son heads up the farm's outdoor acreage, and the youngest son does the accounting.
When asked about expenses to do farming today, Janice said that energy costs are the next highest expense after labor costs. Last spring, they replaced the gas heat used in the greenhouses and instead now use a biomass boiler. They utilize local waste-pecan shells-to produce the heat. There are many pecan farmers in this area of Arizona, and they need to get rid of all the shells. By doing this, the farm has reduced their energy costs to less than half of what they were before. The ash that remains after burning the pecan shells, which is high in trace nutrients, is then used in their vegan fertilizer. They are also experimenting with using pecan shells as mulch instead of using sheets of plastic.
SANTA CRUZ FARM AND GREENHOUSES
Espanola, New Mexico
Located in northern New Mexico, Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses sits on land that has belonged to the Bustos family since the late 1600s. They are part of the Santa Cruz land grant. The king of Spain gave out land grants in New Mexico in the 1500s and 1600s to encourage settlers to travel to the new world and establish claims for Spain.
Serafina Youngdahl Lombardi, the programs director at Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses, said that the Bustos family began growing organic crops in 1993. The farm is now certified organic, and they are using veganic farming methods on 3 acres. Farming occurs year-round in 9,000 square feet of greenhouses. Don Bustos began organic farming after attending a conference and watching a video about how the animal industry treats livestock. He was appalled. In addition, he realized it made more ecological and economic sense to have a plant-based nutrient cycle at his farm. This made the produce safer for his family and customers because it eliminated the potential exposure to animal pathogens.
The Bustos family finds that the farming is going extremely well, often having better production than many non-vegan organic farms and their conventional farming cohorts. Santa Cruz Farm grows 76 varieties of crops. Their major and most profitable crops include asparagus, blackberries, green chilies, salad greens, and strawberries. "People claim we have the tastiest lettuce mix at the market, the biggest blackberries, the earliest asparagus," Serafina explained, "but much of this has to do with the overall management and long-term vision of the farm."
One problem that Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses faces is that being veganic still doesn't mean that much to a lot of people. "Individuals often don't get it, so we have no extra pricing benefit," Serafina said.
Another major challenge on the horizon is the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), which want to eliminate wildlife and their habitat. GAPs can refer to any collection of specific methods, which when applied to agriculture, produce results that are in harmony with the values of the proponents of those practices. GAP policies are not always in harmony with organic or veganic philosophies.