Monday, January 30, 2012

Looking Ahead

2011 was a year of change for me, and it seems that 2012 is continuing the trend. 

A lot has been happening, to put it mildly.* Two main occurrences deserve particular attention. First, my grandfather has been living with us since early December as we wait for a room to open up for him at an assisted living facility. Second, my mom started a new job in Atlanta today.

The fact that my parents will be leaving the house they've had for the last 18 years has brushing on the edges of my consciousness for the last couple months, when it became clear that my mom would be taking this new job. But the arrival of my grandpa put that in the back of my mind. As his departure looms closer, though, I'm starting to think more about what this change means for me.

Now, I haven't technically lived in Indiana for the last three years. That being said, my parents' house has been my permanent address, it's where I've kept all my belongings, and it's where I've returned in between my gigs with AmeriCorps and the farm. And although I haven't been here full-time for a while, I've always assumed that I'd eventually end up in Indianapolis, whenever that far-away concept of "settling down" becomes a reality. My friends are here, after all, and until recently, my family was as well. It's home.

But now I have to face the notion that, when my job at Clear Spring Creamery ends in August and I have only a few weeks before the start of grad school, I will have to return here and do the impossible. To wit: decide what I have that's worth keeping and somehow get it to my new digs in Pittsburgh. Sever my ties to a home that has been with me since I was eight. Realize that I don't get any more "summer breaks" where I can just come home for a month or two and rest on my laurels until I figure out what comes next. Not in Indianapolis, anyways.

*Hence the long break between posts. My bad.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Economy and Agriculture: The Present

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average farmer is 57 years old, which is a pretty scary number when you think about it. The average farmer is less than a decade from retirement? Yikes.

But there were also some surprising - and exciting - statistics to be found as well. The 2007 Ag Census found an increase in the number of farms for the first time since World War II. These new farms tend to be smaller - an average of 201 acres and $71,000 in sales, compared to a nationwide average of 413 acres and $135,000 in sales. But here's the kicker - the operators of these new farms are younger as well, averaging 48 years old, nearly a decade younger than the typical farmer.

These statistics reflect a growing movement in what is known as "Generation Organic", the new infusion of young people into the farming world through organic agriculture. Organic food, which has been growing 20% annually since 1990, is the fastest growing sector in agriculture, which puts these young farmers into a very influential position.

But despite these encouraging numbers, the road has not been easy for them.

A 2011 survey by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, released in November, questioned 1000 young, primarily organic farmers from across the country to discover their biggest concerns.

The study found that "lack of capital" ranked first and foremost among young farmers' problems, with 78% of farmers listing it as an enormous hurdle. Another 40% of the responders listed "access to credit" as their number one challenge. Access to land is another problematic area, with 68% naming it as the biggest issue for beginning farmers. (Reflecting this, the study showed that 70% of farmers under 30 were renting their land, as compared to 37% of farmers over 30.) Third on the list was healthcare, clocking in at 47%.

On the more uplifting side of things, the study discovered that apprenticeships and internships on farm are considered the most valuable resource for new farmers, followed by local partnerships (e.g. creating local farmers markets) and CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture). Also considered important were land-linking programs and non-profit training and education.

The study goes on to look at what we should be doing to encourage and support beginning farmers. Many of the recommendations focus on policy at the federal, state and local levels. They include continuing and improving credit opportunities for new farmers, addressing land access problems, and expanding training and education for beginners, among others. (Many of these issues could be addressed in the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill.)

On a community/individual level, the study recommends starting or joining a CSA, shopping at local farmers markets, sourcing food at institutions like schools and hospitals from local farms, and selling or renting your land to a beginning farmer.

Although it's easy to be disheartened when thinking about all the obstacles, it's important to remember that there are options out there for this new wave of young farmers. These resources take time and effort to dig up, and often you need to figure out where you want to live before you can take advantage of them. But they are there, and they're available... and in my experience, the best way to find them is to start talking to other farmers, who have experience and contacts they can provide.

I've compiled a list (ever-changing, of course) of resources under my Helpful Links page. If there is anything you would like to see there that is not yet listed, drop me a comment.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Economy and Agriculture: The Future

As I explained previously, the number of farmers and folks who live on farms is at an all time low in this country, having dropped from 90% in 1790 to less than 1% today. Why is that, exactly?

Well, the way conventional farming works these days makes it very hard to make a living just by being a farmer. According to the EPA, 40% of farmers list another occupation other than farming, and another 14% of farmers are retired. The implication is that farming is just not that lucrative.

Au contraire, says the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. According to a 2010 study of theirs, farming can have quite the economic impact for a region... but you have to do it right. 

The study analyzed the impact of expanding fruit and vegetable production in six states in the upper Midwest (IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, WI). The study looked at 28 different fruits and vegetables, but did not include crops that are already being grown in ample quantities (e.g. sweet potatoes, corn and apples). The study examined two different scenarios. The first looked at the economic impact of increased production on the farm level; the second scenario at the impact of increased production for 28 metro areas in and around the six states.

In the first scenario, the study found:
  • Increasing production of 28 fruits and vegetables in the six states could mean $882 million in sales on the farm level, more than 9300 jobs and $395 million in labor income. 
  • If half the increased production were sold in producer-owned stores, this would mean 1405 establishments, 9652 employees, and over $287 million in labor income.
  • Only 270,025 acres would be needed to grow the needed produce, roughly the same as the cropland in just one of Iowa's 99 counties.
  • The job gains would be significantly higher than the number of jobs produced by the same number of acres under conventional production. For example, increased fruit and vegetable production in Iowa would result in 657 farm-level jobs, compared to just 131 jobs currently available with the same land under corn and soybean production.

In the second scenario, the study found:
  • Increased fruit and vegetable production for the 28 metro markets would result in more than $637 million in farm-level sales and 6694 farm-level jobs - there are currently only 1892 jobs available under corn and soybean production in the area.
  •  An additional 6021 jobs would be created due to the farmer-retail direct economic impact of the increased production.

Here's what I take away from this study: there is no substitute for diversified farming. Growing a large number of different crops not only makes a farm more marketable to consumers (who wants to just buy corn all the time?), but insures that if you have one crop fail due to a poor year, you have a back-up with your remaining crops.

Also, diversified farming is far better for soil health - growing the same crop in the same area will deplete the soil of necessary nutrients. Not to mention, the deer will know exactly where to find your green beans. Tricky devils.

So now we can agree: farming can, in fact, be enough to make a living. But there are still obstacles for those who are trying to make it in the farming business. So stay tuned in the days ahead for Part III!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Economy and Agriculture: The Past

It seems like every day I hear yet another story about the recession, the unemployment rate, or the number of jobs created or lost. Understandably, I suppose... given the tenacity of our country's economic lows, and the failure of the "good times" to show so much as the tip of its nose, it is not surprising that the story of America's economy is on the front page more often than not.

Dean (of Dean and Susan Vidal, owners of Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, where I spent much of 2011) was fond of talking about how sustainable agriculture - specifically, small family farms with a local focus - could be instrumental in turning our economy around.

History agrees with him. One theory I've heard (although one I can't cite because I don't remember where I read it... sorry, I know you're probably really upset about that) is that one reason the Great Depression hit so hard was that, up until that point, the majority of American citizens lived on farms. Their needs as consumers were fairly low because they grew and made most of what they needed, so recessions never seemed to have as much of an impact or last for too long.*

Interesting. Let's examine this idea further.

By the 1930s, there had been a significant exodus from the countryside to the cities, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. In 1790, farmers were 90% of the labor force. By 1860, it was 58%; by 1900, 38%; and by 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression, farmers were 21% of the labor force. According to the USDA, the number of people living on farms declined from around 40% in 1900 to around 27% in 1930. While the Great Depression would have been devastating regardless, it's likely that having the lowest percentage of people to date living on farms worsened the situation. (And the Dust Bowl probably didn't help.)

So back to the present.

Today, less than 1% of Americans say they are farmers, and only 2% live on farms. The number of farms has decreased from 6000 in 1900 to around 2000 today, with the average farm nearly doubled in size. But perhaps most telling: the average number of commodities per farm has decreased from more than five in 1900 to less than two. And as Michael Pollan famously investigated in The Omnivore's Dilemma, many of these farms are only surviving thanks to government subsidies for crops of soybeans and corn.

Although most people probably don't think the state of agriculture in our country has much, if anything, to do with the ongoing recession, I think the opposite. If more people grew their own food instead of shelling out their increasingly scarce dollars to purchase it, would this recession have been so bad, or lasted so long? History says no.

Frankly, I think updating our food system to one that focuses on diverse production, a local focus, and an interest in the environmental conservation of their land and soil health can have enormous economic benefits.

And if you come back soon, I'll talk about how that works in Part II.

*Incidentally, who knew there were so many recessions in American history?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Clear Spring Creamery: The Deets

So as I may have mentioned , I was hired by Clear Spring Creamery as a farm apprentice for 2012. All to the good, but what does that actually mean?

I had a phone conversation with Clare the other day, which answered some of my questions.

When do I start?
February 27, most likely.

Who works at the farm?
Mark and Clare Seibert own and run Clear Spring Creamery - the land has been in Mark's family for a long time. They have two kids, a few part-time (and I think one full-time) workers around the farm and in the creamery, and volunteers who help staff the Dupont Circle Farmers Market in DC. I will be the only intern, however. 

What will I be doing?
The day will be divided more or less in half. We start at 7 AM with bringing in the cows for milking, and then moving them to their new acre of pasture for the day. After cleaning up (Clare assures me that I should reserve a few items of clothing only for milking, because they will apparently be unfit for anything else) and having an early lunch, I'll work in the creamery for the rest of the day, where I'll learn the ins and outs of pasteurizing milk, making cheese, bottling yogurt, and wearing a hairnet. My dad got me an artisinal cheese-making book the other day, and I'm excited to try out a few things.

I will also be working at least one farmers market, possibly two - if I remember correctly, there is one on Saturday and possibly one on Thursday.

I'll get two days off a week. They're flexible with those, but it will most likely be Sunday and Monday. 

Where will I live?
In a private camper on the farm that has its own bed, bathroom with shower, kitchen (including a fridge, stove and sink, although no working oven - there will be a large toaster oven, though), A/C and heat. I'll need to bring along my own linens and towels. Clare said that there's a smattering of cooking equipment there, but I'll probably bring along some of my own.

The farm itself is located in Clear Spring, Maryland, about two hours north of DC. The town of Clear Spring isn't all that great, honestly - it seemed like a pretty depressed area to me - but the Appalachian Trail is about twenty miles away, Frederick is about the same distance, and there are other parks and so forth within driving distance. Besides which, I'm pretty good at entertaining myself... usually with books.

Additionally, there is wireless internet at the house. My cell phone coverage may be spotty, but if I need to, I have access to their land line. Meals can either be on my own or with the family. 

What's the pay?
I'll be getting the same deal I had at Brightwood Vineyard and Farm this last year - room and board (I'll have a food stipend to use at the farmers market, as well as access some of their own products), and a stipend of $200 per week - much of which I hope to stick safely away into my savings.

In case you can't tell, I am doltishly excited about this opportunity, and in no way insensible to my good luck in landing it. Because I'll probably be leaving in August to start grad school (assuming I'm accepted), I know I wasn't Mark and Clare's first pick. They were honest with me about that, which I appreciate. In the end, the guy they offered the job to took another job, and - lucky me! - I was still available.

Even when I was looking at other farms, Clear Spring Creamery was my first choice of those I visited back in November. Mark and Clare are extremely personable people, and I felt very comfortable around them. They didn't mind my millions of questions, which is always a good sign. Additionally, they have no off-farm income, which means I'll be able to see how a successful, sustainable farm business operates - a big draw for me. And let's be honest... the housing is phenomenal.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

So long, 2011. Hello, 2012!

Ah, January 1. The beginning of brand-spanking-new year. I broke open 2012 by sleeping in until 11 and then spending all day in my pajamas, drinking tea and reading terrible fantasy novels. An auspicious beginning, to be sure.

I'd feel more guilty about my hedonistic indulgence, except that I got some wonderful news yesterday that makes me feel as though it's perfectly okay to spend all day without so much as even looking at a pair of pants.

To wit: I got a job!

Remember the folks at Clear Spring Creamery? Well, a few weeks after visiting them back in November, I got a message from them that said, more or less, "We'd love to hire you, but you're leaving in August and we need someone for the full season" - an attitude I completely understood. Undaunted, I launched into a job search that focused more on internships with non-profits around DC. I had a few interviews in the last few weeks - most notably with Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). While both were paid internships, I wouldn't have made enough money to actually support myself. Despite that, I was really hopeful for the OFRF position, where I would have been doing lobbying work for the Farm Bill, and learned a ton about both nonprofit work and the legislative process.

Then yesterday, I got an email from Clare from Clear Spring Creamery, asking if I was still interested in the paid internship position with them.

Um... yes please.

Although working with a nonprofit and lobbying for the Farm Bill would have been highly educational, and living in DC would be wonderful for many reasons, I must admit that working in an office has never been one of my favorite things. Not that I can't do it, or hate it beyond measure, but if I'm being honest with myself, I just don't enjoy it nearly as much as working on a farm.

And also, being in a position to have room and board covered and put some of what I'm making into savings isn't too shabby a proposition either.

I'll be talking with Clare tomorrow to hammer out some of the details, so I'll post more about the internship itself later.

All I have to say for now is that if this year continues the way it's going, then I have absolutely nothing to fear. Let's kick some ass, 2012!