So you wanna be a farmer?

Have you ever thought how a farmer decides what to grow? My guess is probably not. So many of us never think where our food comes from, so why would we spend any time asking this question. Wondering where our food comes from is a long standing blind spot in our United States culture. We just expect food to show up. As with any business, a farmer has to make a decision on how to run the business and therefore, on what to grow.

Round Barn in Eastern Washington

So, how do farmers decide what to grow? A successful farmer is a multi-faceted business person.  A farmer must know how and where to grow food, how to market the food directly to consumers and institutions or through wholesalers, how to be a bookkeeper (or hire one), to understand land use regulations and water law, how to make sure the food raised is safe from harmful pathogens, and so many more skills and talents that a non-farmer cannot even begin to fathom. Farming can be the ultimate entrepreneurial success story or nightmare, depending on the outcome.

Have you Ever Thought of Being a Farmer?

I grow food. Thirty square feet of garden area in two raised beds on the south and west side of my 5,000 square foot city lot. Rhubarb, green beans, arugula, garlic, a few trellised cucumber plants, a zucchini plant or two, and of course, several types of tomatoes are my main crops. Three hedge-like blueberry bushes, one 8-foot tall Italian prune plum tree, and a pot of basil complete my yard’s agricultural abundance. Not being dependent on my farming acumen is key for my survival. I just get to enjoy whatever I grow. There is no fretting on whether it grows! Tomato and basil bruschetta from my yard is yummy. Bruschetta with red cherry, yellow grape, and green zebra tomatoes mixed together–oh my! Tantalizing my senses with awesome food flavors!

Even with these awesome food flavors, I will never be a farmer–someone who has to make a living from farming. Thankfully, there are men and women who want to farm! So, how does a farmer decide what to grow?

The Commodity Farmer

There are so many different kinds of farmers–farmers that grow commodity crops for corporations, farmers that sell at farmers markets, farmers that sell to packing houses, juicers, or canners, farmers that sell on-site, grain farmers, meat farmers, egg farmers, dairy farmers, grape farmers, wool farmers, and more. There are so many different types of farmers, because there are so many different types of food and food products! There is no one size fits all farmer!

Old Fashioned Round Barn in New York

To keep it simple, perhaps there are two umbrella categories of farmers: the inertia farmer and the entrepreneurial diversified farmer. Inertia farming is the way it’s been done for the past 50 years. Farmers were lulled into inertia farming as the profession was made easier during the 1950’s to 60’s with the Green Revolution by adoption of new technologies in agriculture. Hybridized high-yielding crop varieties, mechanized irrigation, and the creation of fruits and vegetables for long distance refrigerated truck transport rather than taste became the norm. Packaged, processed, predictable food products became the standard. The benefit, guaranteed and commoditized markets for farmers to sell their products to the corporation often through a middleman. It made farming easier as the farmer had guaranteed purchasers and could concentrate on just food growing.

Even so as it became easier, it also became harder because power was taken away from the farmer. Running a farm business became a lot more difficult as corporate behemoths began dictating pricing, pitting one farmer against another to lower commodity prices and consequently farmer livelihoods. This is not the farm story we are taught as children. Urbanites never think about commodity farming as it is not the bucolic farming of childhood story books! It’s important to know that large scale, multi-acreage, single crop commodity farming is the main farm paradigm in this country.

The commodity farmer grows the crop that is always grown. If corn is grown, you are a corn farmer. If soybeans are grown, you are a soybean farmer. There is no variety or change, maybe some rotation between two or three crops, but not anymore diversification.

The Entrepreneurial Diversified Farmer

The entrepreneurial diversified farmer has been the typical farmer since the dawn of the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago. This farmer would experiment and expand or change the produce grown or animals husbanded based on rainfall, soil type, seed robustness, taste, pests, plant diseases, and a myriad of other reasons. With 12,000 years of farming experience we now know that if we grow the same product in the same soil all the time, that eventually the soil gets tired because all of the soil’s nutrients have been expended. Further, if you never rotate crops, the bad bugs learn where you grow your carrots and set up house. Commodity farmers address these issues with artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Organic farmers know a different way. According to Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Product in Sequim, Washington, “I rotate where I grow my carrots every year and they are never in the same dirt for seven years.” If you have never had Nash’s carrots, give them a try. They are off the charts sweet, crispy, and delicious.

Stokesberry Sustainable Farm moving the chicken tractor

For eons, the diversified farmer was the only type of farmer. Now it is the exception. Many diversified farmers grow produce and fruits and combine their farm business with raising animals whether chickens, pigs, cows, or goats. Chickens are easy to add to a produce farm, as the chickens can be housed in chicken tractors, two foot high structures with ample space to move around and peck for seeds or bugs. The structure and chickens are moved as needed to fresh ground. The chickens leave almost, clean bare ground behind has they move along but it is filled with nutrients from their eating and excrement activity. The chicken tractor can be slid between produce rows or placed on fallow ground all while recycling the nutrients of the circle of life of agriculture.

Not being a farmer, but a gardener, my draw to agriculture is strong even though my ancestors were coppersmiths, ship captains, engineers, house painters, bankers, and ministers. There is not one farmer in my known familial history. Even so, the desire to grow food and to eat good, locally- grown, in-season food is visceral from my ancestral heritage. As a child, my Dad helped cultivate my own 5-foot square vegetable garden with green beans, tomatoes and zucchini. June-bearing strawberry picking with my Grandpa and then jam making with my Grandma are memorable. June-bearing strawberries are so much sweeter than the more common ever-bearing berries. Picking lush high bush blueberries in the soggy mosquito infested wetlands was a yearly excursion with my Opa and Oma.

Purchasing food whether at a restaurant, store or farmers market, I do ponder where the food comes from. Eating ethically produced, pesticide free, and organically grown is the best for my health and the planet.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Do Organics Get the Respect They Deserve?

“I get no respect!” Are organics the Rodney Dangerfield of food? Organics should be celebrated and touted as the best food for all. Instead organics are like Rodney Dangerfield, the iconic stand-up comedian, who never got the recognition he deserved until he played the self-deprecating respect card.  Do organic foods and growing methods get the respect they deserve?

Organic Growing System

Nash’s Best Carrots

The organic food growing system has been around for eternity. It builds the coveted nutrient-rich, dark brown, friable, moist, growing medium in which food is grown. Organic farming is the art of yearly rotating crops from one field to the next, so the bad bugs don’t have the opportunity to destroy a harvest by becoming fruitful and multiplying. Rotating different crops in sequential years from one field to the next is not only good for pest management, but also it also increases soil fertility and crop yields.  

Composting on-farm crop wastes recycles and returns beneficial organisms and humus back to the soil to replenish and nourish the ground for every years’ crops. Resting and rejuvenating the soil for a season with a nitrogen fixing (often low monetary but high soil and ultimately food nutrient value) cover crop replenishes and rejuvenates the soil. Companion planting, another method to ward off bad bug invasions, increases pollination possibilities, and creates habitat for beneficial bugs. [My own experiment with companion planting is growing bush beans with tomatoes in a large pot on my deck. Planting garlic with bush beans is a big companion planting “no-no.”] With all these benefits of the organic growing system, why is organic production only four percent of the total U.S. food sales?

Farmers have been growing organically since the beginning of farming. With the advent of chemical farming after World War II and the dependency on single crop farms managed with synthetically made fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, our agricultural system is vastly changed from its original agrarian roots. 

Our Current Food System

Top Ingredient Corn Munchies

Before the post World War II Green Revolution, organic farming was the tried, true and only way to grow food. The Green Revolution transformed everything. Its noble goal was to feed the world and it excelled at that objective. It succeeded in reducing worldwide hunger, but at what cost? The Green Revolution fostered an industrial food system that is still the predominant food growing, processing, and delivery structure to this day. Crop conformity with hybridized seeds benefiting from extensive irrigation systems and the application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to increase yields is the dominant agricultural paradigm. Agricultural scientists developed seeds that took some of the uncertainty out of food growing. Farmers were given guidelines, instructions, and research from the Land Grant Universities on when to apply synthetic chemicals to the fields or crops throughout the year to boost yields. Granted, the farmer still had to worry about too much or not enough rain, too much or not enough heat and a myriad of other concerns. Even so, by making each type of crop a commodity–more similar than dissimilar so that a crop such as corn could be generic and interchangeable–eaters lost variety, flavor, health benefits, and a relationship with their farmer and where the food came from. Of course, the big food processors and grocery chains favored the industrialized system with uniform, predictable crops as it made it easy to purchase and create food products that could be sold to the masses.  

The outcome of this agricultural system is that mainstream, conventional food stores’ products now offer multiple concoctions of products with corn, soybeans and wheat–the top three agricultural revenue generators and crops that cover our farmland in the United States.

Organics Market Share

Those that either demanded or mourned the loss of quality, healthy, and tasty foods of days gone by, worked to develop a nationwide organic standard. The National Organic Program was established in 1990 with its rules enacted in 2002. Since the organic rules were published, nationwide organic food consumption has increased by double digits each year which sounds impressive. What is unimpressive is that organic sales are only four percent of the total U.S. food sales. In any other industry, a four percent market share after 16 years is considered paltry.

So, why don’t organics get the respect they deserve? My quest is to find out. I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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