23 October 2009

Conversation with a local farmer

by (the elusive) Beringian Fritillary

This week we helped a local farmer with his carrot harvest. He practices Integrated Pest Management, and I asked a few questions about his transition over the last 10 years, away from the high levels of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides recommended in spray programs. On the carrot crop we were harvesting, he had used a post-emergent herbicide when the carrots were about 2" high to control the grass coming up in the crop, (we had very wet cold spring and mechanical cultivation was not possible, even on his sandy loam soils). The crop had moderate grass and weed pressure, and minimal pest or disease pressure. I asked what kind of crop loss he tolerates in his Integrated Pest Management program before spraying a crop, he answered between 15%-20%, I would have expected between 5-10%. I was surprised at this level of crop loss, on a cost-based analysis. I was curious whether his rational for this kind of practice was ideological, economic or consumer driven demand. His answer was short, it was basically an economically based decision that evolved into his farm management approach over the last 10 years. He started out wholesaling carrots at 3 cents a pound (less cost), and now gets about $1-$1.50 pound at the farmers market by transitioning to a direct-sales model, growing less volume, and keeping his machinery/labor costs down. He has noticed in the last few years, a lot more younger families are demanding better quality produce, in particular local produce.

To add some background, his model of farming is viable because he has inherited land and farming machinery, and has access to low-interest loans and government funding because of his established status in the region. He has seen his share of young start-up farmers collapse under the debt load of building a farm from the ground up. He also has access to hundreds of acres of traditionally farmed land for crop rotation, which contributes to his success with IPM. He also has access to quality seed from the best European plant breeders and seed producers.

To contrast, on the home front we had a 60% crop loss (based on a 25 tonne/acre carrot yield) in our carrot crop, using our saved seed and no sprays, organic or chemical, grown in poor soil improved with composted horse manure. Our ground is very poor and run down, with little hummus or soil depth. We had a infestation of cut worms which contributed the majority of crop loss. We are still going though the science of it all, studying soil sciences and the relationship between pests and soil nutrients, to sort out the probabilities and causes. We have enough crop to get though the year, with adjustments in the pantry, and a late planting of carrots left in the ground to overwinter, and harvest in the spring.

The feeling I have about backyard/small homesteading gardens is that you can look after yourself in good times, and possibly survive the bad, but what about the times when most of these methods of growing food fail? Here's the rub: local organic and conventional farmers will profit greatly from this, in fact they are speculating on this outcome. A classic scenario that Naomi Klein, in her book Disaster Capitalism, outlines. The unofficial farming conversations that I hear going on over the last 15 years, is that they are waiting for the full impacts of climate change, and protective farming practices to bring greater profits to agro-business, survival of the fittest or the chosen. I think its an old struggle between profit, self interest and cultural tradition.

So what started out as a good news story, which it is and no malice on behalf of the farmer, but the forces that are driving his decision are market based. I would go on to say that he provides a large quantity of produce to the local food bank, and has helped us out greatly as many local farmers do. This is the hard part, it's not personal in so far as it is a social/political culture that demands market opportunity and welfare support. What I find interesting is the interplay between doing something good, and yet the temptation to profit from unequal distribution of land and resources.

So if you are a farmer/homesteader/backyard gardener, what is the food growing future you see?

1 comment:

Robbyn said...

We're not sure what the future holds, but we are sure we need to keep on growing, experimenting with, and eating under-utilized foods that are less familiar in modern America, but are traditional food crops with natural resistance typically used in underdeveloped nations. Maybe I'm not saying that all PC enough, but what I mean is that there are so many foods that grow here but that we aren't used to eating. The leaves of many plants can be eaten, and Jack and I were discussing just a few days ago that if we deliberately "unspoiled" our tastebuds, we could subsist very well on a variety of foods and their leaves...LOTS of greens, tubers, squashes/pumpkins...supplementing them only with some modest reserves of dried legumes and grains. We began wondering if in fact we simply don't utilize what's available at our fingertips but we're unaware we can eat...