'Tis the season that small farms in the Midwest, such as ours, begin to feel the pressure that is building for the coming year. Seeds really do need to be started and supplies need to be acquired if we are actually going to grow good food once again.
Meanwhile, various local food and farming organizations fight for some of our attention before our season really gets going, and we have none to spare. There are usually 'local foods' events and promotions that feature our farms. Nice things will be said and implied promises will be made. But, I am concerned that all of these good intentions fail to become useful actions far too often. I worry that many fail to see the potential value of what we eat, leaving the stewards of these farms wondering what it will take for eaters to consider the real value of food.
We do not value food
We almost started to value our food, as the pandemic put some serious bumps in the road for our misguided and poorly designed food supply chain that we have allowed to develop over the past century. But, once the urgency spurred by the shortage of certain products died down, too many of us fell back to our old habits quickly. As our collective memories dim, I suspect we will return to business as usual and the burgeoning support for local, sustainably raised products will cycle downward once again.
One symptom of the problem is the amount of energy small, diversified farms need to spend to put on a successful and attractive face for public consumption. While there is nothing inherently wrong with agri-tourism and farm promotion, there is something not quite right about a farm that is working very hard to produce high quality food having to add entertainment value to get you to buy their products. You should not want to buy good, healthy food because the producer does a song and dance for you — you should want it because it is good, healthy food.
People jumped on the bandwagon this past Spring, filling up my farmer peers' subscription lists and raising their hopes that maybe things will really get moving for local foods. Maybe — just maybe — people will continue to support the production of healthy foods on farms that care about stewardship of the land and the community.
However, I have seen this before — this zeal and excitement. And, I have watched it fade rapidly. If past history is any indication, I predict that half of the new local foods purchasers that emerged this year will not return for 2021, and even more will disappear the following year.
I invite all of you who eat food to prove me wrong without needing a pandemic or other disaster to encourage you. Instead, I would like you to consider providing your consistent and enduring support for local food, diversified farms, and ecological farming practices.
Adding value through the diversity a farm brings to the table
This is a typical view of vegetable crops in one of our high tunnels for any given year at the Genuine Faux Farm. If you look carefully, you can see tomatoes, peppers, green beans and beets. Not visible would be melons, onions and maybe the stubble of lettuce that has been harvested. There are even some flowers interspersed that are not readily apparent from the photo.
We strongly believe that a healthy natural system is one that maintains a diversity of organisms. That is why we place importance on crop rotations, integrated pest management, natural areas, and interplanted crops — even in our high tunnels. We are continuously working to find ways to achieve diversity without forsaking too much efficiency — because we do need to produce healthy food and get it to those who will eat it, pay our bills, and live our lives.
When you devalue your food, you remove a farmer’s ability to add the benefits that come with caring for the land so it can continue to produce good food in the years, decades and centuries to come. If we place more emphasis on the value of food, and the work of the people who produce it, we will find that the farmscape will diversify and the land around us will heal and become vital once again.
We need more successful fields
This is one of my favorite pictures from our farm. I have told people that a successful field for a farmer is one they want to spend time in. This picture shows me a very successful field.
If you are a farmer that has more land than our fifteen acres, it might seem small, but the technique can be scaled up or down for different sizes of operations. The overall space shown here is about eight thousand square feet and it is one of many plots where we grow a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. This plot was dedicated to melon/watermelon production as our cash crops, and the amount of space used for those crops has been consistent from one year to the next.
We decided to intentionally reduce the number of melon plants put into the field space by 30% and use that space for more pollinator support plants. There are zinnia at the left and borage on the right. Not easily seen in the picture is buckwheat, sunn hemp, basil, calendula and, of course, more melons.
It looked great. There were all sorts of bees, toads, frogs, snakes, and other useful critters. It felt great to go out there. I was proud of that field and how it looked.
And I expected to harvest about one third fewer melons because we had that many fewer plants.
Instead, we harvested 30% MORE melons — and the average weight was higher than it had been in the past. Melons need pollinators. Pollinators need habitat. We provided habitat and the pollinators were present. Nature wins. Again.
The root of it all
I want more fields that I love being in — because those are successful fields.
We want healthy soil and a diverse system of organisms on our farm. Sometimes, we fantasize that the migrating birds and butterflies see our farm as an oasis in a vast desert of corn and soybeans. Other times, we despair that our little patch is not enough to support them as they pause, exhausted on their way north or south. But, we still reap rewards when Mr. Bunting sings, the Bull Snake slithers by and the Cucumber Frog jumps and startles us. We see the benefits when green beans taste fantastic and fresh spinach is heaped on our plates.
The best news is that we know we are not the only ones who want to grow food for you and be the best stewards of the land we can be. In fact, there are numerous other people who would like to join the ranks of land stewards that produce nutritious food. But, we need you to help us remove the hurdles that make it nearly impossible for us to succeed. One of those steps is for all of us to understand exactly how valuable food can be — and then support the efforts to reach that potential.
We’re out here. Farmers and future farmers who will grow food with value that goes beyond nutrition and we want to cultivate successful fields.
We do it for us.
And we do it for nature.
And we do it for you.
This post is a cross-post of an entry I provided for Pesticide Action Network's Ground Truth blog.