Farming is not for everybody; increasingly, it’s hardly for anybody. Over the last decade our country has lost an average of 300 farms a week. Large or small, each of those was the life’s work of a real person or family, people who built their lives around a promise and watched it break.
Wherever farms are still living, it’s due to some combination of luck, courage and adaptability. In my home state, Kentucky, our agriculture is known for two nonedible commodities: tobacco and race horses. The latter is a highly capitalized industry that spreads little of its wealth into the small family farm; the former was the small farm’s bottom dollar, until the bottom dropped out. In my lifetime Kentucky farmers have mostly had the options of going broke, or going six ways to Sunday for the sake of staying solvent. On the bluegrass that famously nourished Man o’ War and Secretariat, more modest enterprises with names like “Hard Times Farm” and “Mother Hubbard’s” are now raising pasture-fed beef, pork, lamb and turkeys. Kentucky farms produce flowers, garlic, organic berries and vegetables, emu and ostrich products, catfish and rainbow trout. Right off the Paris Pike, a country lane I drove a hundred times in my teenage years, a farmer named Sue now grows freshwater shrimp.
Among other obstacles, these farmers have to contend with a national press that is quick to pronounce them dead. Diversified food-producing farms on the outskirts of cities are actually the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture. The small farm is at the moment very busy thinking its way out of a box, working like mad to protect the goodness and food security of a largely ungrateful nation.
These producers can’t survive by catering only to the upscale market, either. The majority of farmers market customers are people of ordinary means, and low-income households are not necessarily excluded. An urban area in eastern Tennessee has a vegetable equivalent of a bookmobile, allowing regional farmers to get produce into neighborhoods whose only other food-purchasing option might be a liquor store. The U.S. assistance program for women with infant children (WIC) gives coupons redeemable at farmers markets to more than 2.5 million participants in 44 states. Citizen-led programs from California to New York are linking small farmers with school lunch programs and food banks.
Even so, a perception of organic food as an elite privilege is a considerable obstacle to the farmer growing food for middle-income customers whose highest food-shopping priority is the lowest price. Raising food without polluting the field or the product will always cost more than the conventional mode that externalizes costs to taxpayers and the future. To farm sustainably and also stay in business, these market gardeners have to bridge the psychological gap between what consumers could pay, and what we will actually shell out.
What Cheap Food Really Costs
Grocery money is an odd sticking point for U.S. citizens, who on average spend a lower proportion of our income on food than people in any other country, or any time heretofore in history. En masse, even in school lunches, we broadly justify consumption of tallow-fried animal pulp on the grounds that it’s cheaper than whole grains, fresh vegetables, hormone-free dairy and such. Whether on school boards or in families, budget keepers may be aware of the health trade-off but still feel compelled to economize on food — in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement.
It’s interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains. At any income level, we can be relied upon for categorically unnecessary purchases: portable-earplug music instead of the radio; extra-fast Internet for leisure use; heavy vehicles to transport light loads; name-brand clothing instead of plainer gear. “Economizing,” as applied to clothing, generally means looking for discount name brands instead of wearing last year’s clothes again. The dread of rearing unfashionable children is understandable. But as a priority, “makes me look cool” has passed up “keeps arteries functional” and left the kids huffing and puffing in the dust.
Nobody should need science to prove the obvious, but plenty of studies do show that regularly eating cheaply produced fast food and processed snack foods slaps on extra pounds that increase the risks of diabetes, cardiovascular harm, joint problems and many cancers. As a country we’re officially over the top: the majority of our food dollars buy those cheap calories, and two-thirds of our citizens are medically compromised by weight. The incidence of obesity-associated diabetes has doubled since 1990, with children the fastest growing class of victims. One out of every $7 we spend on health care pays to assuage (but not cure) the multiple heartbreaks of diabetes — kidney failure, strokes, blindness, amputated limbs.
An embarrassing but arguable point is that we’re applying deadly priorities to our food budgets because we believe the commercials. Industrial agriculture can promote its products on a supersized scale. Eighty percent of the beef-packing industry is controlled by four companies; the consolidation is exactly the same for soybean processing. With such vast corporate budgets weighing in on the side of beef and added fats, it’s no surprise that billions of dollars a year go into advertising fast food. The surprise is how handsomely marketers recoup that investment: how successfully they convince us that cheap food will make us happy, and maybe even thin.
How delusional are we, exactly? Insisting to farmers that our food has to be cheap is like commanding a 10-year-old to choose a profession and move out of the house now. It violates the spirit of the enterprise. It guarantees bad results. The economy of the arrangement will come around to haunt you. Anyone with a working knowledge of children would get that. Similarly, it takes a farmer to understand the analogous truth about food production — that time and care yield quality that matters — and explain that to the rest of us. Industry will not, but individual market growers can communicate concern that they’re growing food in a way that’s healthy and safe, for people and place. They can educate consumers about a supply chain that’s as healthy or unhealthy as we choose to make it.
That information doesn’t fit in a five-syllable jingle. And those growers will never win a price war either. The best they can hope for is a marketing tactic known as friendship, or something like it. Their task is to communicate the consumer value of their care, and how it benefits the neighborhood. This may seem like a losing battle. But the “Buy Cheap Eats” crusade is assisting the deaths of our compatriots at the rate of about 820 a day; somebody’s bound to notice that. We are a social animal. The cost-benefit ratios of neighborliness are as old as our species, and probably inescapable in the end.
Fresh, Flavorful Food
Ashfield, Mass., is as cute as it gets, even by the standards of small town New England. Downtown is anchored by a hardware store with rocking chairs on the front porch. The big local social event where folks catch up with their neighbors is the weekly farmers market.
I didn’t know this when we arrived there to stay at a friend’s house. We brought our cooler in with the luggage, planning to give our hostess some of our little fist-sized tomatoes. These carefully June-ripened treasures would wow the New Englanders, I thought. Oops. As I started to pull them out of the cooler I spied half a dozen huge red tomatoes, languidly sunning their shapely shoulders in our friend’s kitchen window. These bodacious babes made our ‘Early Siberians’ look like Miss Congeniality. I pulled out some blackheart cherries instead, presenting them along with an offhand question: um, so, where did those tomatoes come from?
“Oh, from Amy at the farmers market,” she said. “Aren’t they nice?”
Nice, I thought. In the third week of June, in western Mass, if they taste as good as they look they’re a doggone miracle. I was extremely curious. Our host promised that during our visit she would take us to see Amy, the tomato magician.
On the appointed morning we took a narrow road that led from Ashfield up through wooded hills to a farm where Amy grows vegetables and her partner Paul works as a consultant in the design and construction of innovative housing. Their own house is pretty much the definition of innovative: a little round, mushroom-shaped structure whose sod-and-moss roof was covered in a summer pelt of jewelweeds. It was the kind of setting that leads you to expect an elf, maybe, but Paul and Amy stepped out instead. They invited us up to the roof where we could sit on a little bench. Ulan the dog followed us up the ladder stairs and sat panting happily as we took in the view of the creek valley below. Part of Paul’s work in dynamic housing design is to encourage people to think more broadly about both construction materials (walls of stacked straw bales are his specialty), and how to use space creatively (e.g., dog on the roof). I couldn’t wait to see the gardens.
First, though, we had to eat the breakfast they’d made in their tiny, efficient kitchen. Everything locally produced: yogurt and strawberries, eggs, salsa made with Amy’s enviable tomatoes. We lingered, talking farming and housing, but the day called us out to the fields where rows of produce were already gulping morning sun. Amy, a self-described perfectionist, apologized for the state of what looked to me like the tidiest rows imaginable — more weedless than our garden on the best of days. Part-time interns sometimes help out, but the farm runs on Amy’s full-time dedication.
A mid-June New England garden, two weeks past the last frost, is predominantly green: lacy bouquets of salad greens, Chinese cabbage, cilantro, broccoli and peas. A tomato of any type seemed out of the question, until we crested a hill and came upon two long greenhouses. These are the sturdy workhorses of the farm, with heavy-duty plastic skins supported by wooden trusses. Amy no longer grows tomatoes anywhere except in a greenhouse. Cool spring soil, late frosts and iffy New England weather make the season too short for noteworthy harvests of outdoor-planted tomatoes. But she doesn’t grow them hydroponically, as is the norm for large-scale tomato houses. Her greenhouses are built over garden soil, her tomatoes grow in the ground.
“They taste better,” she said. “It’s probably the micronutrients and microfauna in the soil that give them that garden taste. So many components of soil just aren’t present in a more sterile environment.”
Heating greenhouses through the Massachusetts winter didn’t appeal to Paul and Amy either. After a few years of experiments, they’ve found it most cost-effective to heat with a combination of propane and woodstoves — or not at all. One of the houses is exclusively a cold frame, extending the season for salad greens, spinach and other crops that can survive temperatures down to the mid-20s. Amy’s greens will sell all winter for about $7 a pound.
Her second greenhouse is heated, she said, but only in spring. As we approached it I peered in the door and actually gasped. Holy tomato. I’ve never seen healthier, more content-looking plants: 10 feet tall, leafy, rising toward heaven on strings stretched from the ground to the rafters. If there were an Angel Choir of tomatoes, these would be singing. The breed she grows is one meant especially for greenhouses, a variety (perfectly enough) called ‘Trust.’
Amy was inspiring to watch, a knowledgeable farmer in her element as she narrowed her eyes for signs of pests, pausing to finger a leaf and study its color. We walked among the tall plants admiring the clusters of fruits hanging from bottom to top in a color gradient from mature red fruits below to the new, greenish-white ones overhead. The support-strings were rolled around spindles up above that could be cranked to lower the plant down gradually, as the top continues to climb. Tomato plants habitually lose their lower leaves as they grow; the point of this system is to coil the leafless stems on the ground and let the healthy growing part keep twining upward. But these plants were so healthy they refused to lose any lower leaves. Our daughter Lily played hide-and-seek in the tomato wilderness while Amy showed me her growing system.
She fine-tunes it a little more each year, but already her operation is an obvious success. The last time she had soil tests, the technicians who came to evaluate her compost-built organic dirt had never seen such high nutrient values. The greatest limitation here is temperature; she could keep tomatoes growing all winter, but the cost of fuel would pass her profit margin. In early spring, when she’s starting the plants, she economizes by heating the soil under the seedlings (woodstove-heated water runs through underground pipes) while letting air temperatures drop fairly low. Pushing the season early is more important than late, she says. People will pay more for a June tomato than one in October, when tomatoes are old hat, dropping off the vines in gardens everywhere. By starting in the spring, she can bring bushels of ‘Trust’ out of her greenhouse to thrilled customers long before anything red is coming out of local gardens.
I observed that in the first week of June, she could charge anything she wanted for these. She laughed. “I could. But I don’t. I belong to this community, people know me. I wouldn’t want to take advantage.”
She is more than just part of the community — she was a co-founder of the hugely successful Ashfield farmers market. She sells to individuals and restaurants, and enjoys a local diet by relying on other producers for the things she doesn’t grow. “We don’t have chickens, for example, because so many other people do. We trade vegetables for eggs and meat.” Their favorite local restaurant buys Amy’s produce all summer, the last two months for credit, so that in winter she and Paul can eat there whenever they want. He deems the arrangement “a great substitute for canning.”
Food You Can Trust
Like many small farms, this perfectly organic operation is not certified organic. Amy estimates certification would cost her $700 a year, and she wouldn’t gain that much value from it. Virtually everyone who buys her food knows Amy personally; many have visited the farm. They know she is committed to chemical-free farming because she values her health, her products, the safety of her interns and customers, and the profoundly viable soil of her fields and greenhouses.
Farmers like Amy generally agree that organic standards are a good thing on principle. When consumers purchase food at a distance from where it’s grown, certification lets them know it was grown in conditions that are clearly codified and enforced. Farmers who sell directly to their customers, on the other hand, generally don’t need watchdogs — their livelihood tends to be a mission as well as a business. Amy’s customers trust her methods. No federal bureaucracy can replace that relationship.
Furthermore, the paper trail of organic standards offers only limited guarantees to the consumer. Specifically, it certifies that vegetables were grown without genetic engineering or broadly toxic chemical herbicides or pesticides; animals were not given growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics. “Certified organic” does not mean sustainably grown, worker-friendly, fuel-efficient, cruelty-free or many other virtues a consumer might wish for.
The rising consumer interest in organic food has inspired most of the country’s giant food conglomerates to cash in, at some level. These big players have successfully moved the likes of bagged salads and hormone-free milk from boutique to mainstream markets and even big-box stores.
But low price has its costs. In order to meet federal organic standards as cheaply as possible and maximize profits, some industrial-scale organic producers (though not all) cut every corner that’s allowed, and are lobbying the government to loosen organic rules further. Some synthetic additives are now permitted, thanks to pressure from industrial organics. So is animal confinement. A chicken may be sold as “free range” if the house in which it’s confined (with 20,000 others) has a doorway leading out to a tiny yard, even though that doorway remains shut for so much of the chickens’ lives they never learn to go outside. This is not a theoretical example. The larger the corporation, the more distant its motives are apt to be from the original spirit of organic farming — and the farther the products will likely be shipped to buyers who will smile at the happy farm picture on the package, and never be the wiser.
The original stated purpose of organic agriculture was not just to protect the quality of foods, but also to safeguard farm environments and communities through diversified, biologically natural practices that remain healthy over time. This was outlined by J.I. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour and all other significant contributors to the theory and practice of modern organic agriculture. Implicitly, these are values that many consumers still think they’re supporting with their purchase of organic products. Increasingly, small-scale food farmers like Amy feel corporate organics are betraying that confidence, extracting too much in the short term from their biotic and human communities, stealing the heart of a movement.
The best and only defense, for both growers and the consumers who care, is a commitment to more local food economies. It may not be possible to prevent the corruption of codified organic standards when they are so broadly applied. A process as complex as sustainable agriculture can’t be fully mandated or controlled; the government might as well try to legislate happy marriage. Corporate growers, if their only motive is profit, will find ways to follow the letter of organic regulations while violating their spirit.
But “Locally Grown” is a denomination whose meaning is incorruptible. Sparing the transportation fuel, packaging and unhealthy additives is a compelling part of the story, but the plot goes well beyond that. Local food is a handshake deal in a community gathering place. It involves farmers with first names, who show up week after week. It means an open door policy on the fields, where neighborhood buyers are welcome to come have a look, and pick their food from the vine. Local is farmers growing trust.