Heart and Grain: Farmers are matchmakers between land and seed

By Mai Nguyen

I keep searching for ground to grow on. Literally. I drive up and down California looking for a place to plant my grain, hoping to someday find a long-term lease or even purchase land. This past February, two farmers in Sonoma County offered to let me farm their fallow land, one six-acre plot and one three-acre plot. While I was excited for the opportunity, I was limited by my seed supply.

The seeds I need aren’t readily available. I grow heritage wheat and barley—Sonora, Spanish Spelt, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer, and Wit Wolkering. These varieties have done well for thousands of years in regions with conditions similar to where I farm, but they aren’t available through commercial seed companies. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Big farms require big equipment. And lots of money.

By Andrew Barsness

Along with blood, sweat, and tears, farming requires a significant financial investment, and grain farming is one of the most capital-intensive types of farming. To support a small family, a grain farmer typically needs hundreds of acres of land, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery and infrastructure, and an equally large amount of cash to cover annual costs like seed, fertilizer, fuel, and repairs. It is common for family grain farms to span more than 1,000 acres. Even at this seemingly large scale, most grain farmers need an additional, off-farm source of income just to make ends meet.

I’ve noticed that people unfamiliar with grain farming sometimes perceive these larger-scale farms as corporate or “factory farm” operations. However, when it comes to grain farming, that simply isn’t the case.

I have two neighbors, a father and son, who farm roughly 2,000 acres together. They don’t have any employees—it’s just the two of them. Their farm supports the father, the son, and his family. Yes, 2,000 acres is a substantial amount of land, but it’s the scale at which most grain farmers have to operate in order to make a living thanks to small profit margins. (more…)

From Direct Action to Direct Seeding

Dan Graeve on his urban farm in Denver, CO.

 

It’s the week of action leading up to the 2017 People’s Climate March. Farmers are on the front lines of our changing climate, and this week they’re raising their voices. Here is one farmer’s story.

 

By Dan Graeve, True Roots Farm.

During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, I set up shop in front of the main convention center and displayed a piece of artwork about climate change. I stood in front of it juggling and rattling off statements about the need for action. Despite getting a pat on the back from Ted Koppel, I can’t be sure how impactful it was.

Like a lot of people, I spent a lot of time as a young adult speaking out against an environmentally destructive economy. Also like a lot of people, when I found a job working on an organic farm, everything changed. (more…)

Heart and Grain: A not-so-restful winter

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

As anyone who has had a garden can attest, buying seed is one of the most exciting activities of the farming year. Seed-buying is always full of hope and promise—nothing has had the opportunity to go wrong… yet. But this winter was so busy, seed buying really got away from us.  (more…)

Heart and Grain: Meet John and Halee

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

In late January, a surprise calf was born on our farm. Out of context, this may seem like a happy accident, even a bonus. However, it was still mid-winter in Wisconsin, and we were unprepared. Calving is a regular event in a beef herd, and we had been looking forward to our first calving, but we weren’t expecting any births until late April, when the weather would be warmer and the cows would all be on good green grass. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Meet Mai

By Mai Nguyen

To celebrate the Vietnamese New Year, my family—aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, cousins once removed—gathers to exchange well-wishes for the year to come. I enjoy this tradition. We voice encouragement and best wishes to each person, imagining the happiest future for those we love.

The tradition is especially poignant for my family, as each year we also gather the week before New Year’s Day to commemorate the passing of my grandfather. In Buddhist Vietnamese culture, we hold a memorial for ancestors on the anniversary of their death. These memorials are occasions for us to honor the family members who have passed away. We set up an altar with their photos and favorite foods to feed their spirits—long tables filled with rice bowls, bamboo shoot soup, mushroom salad, tangerines, apples, and desserts. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Meet Andrew

By Andrew Barsness

Before the spring of 2011, the idea of becoming a farmer was completely foreign to me. Now I know that there is nothing that I would rather do for a living. I grew up in Central Minnesota, almost two hours north of my late grandparents’ 280-acre grain farm. During visits to the farm when I was young, I would occasionally help my grandfather with simple tasks that would otherwise take him a long time to do alone. This was the extent of my farming experience growing up. (more…)

Why would my small farm need a produce safety training?

In 2011, a law called the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the responsibility to regulate how food safety is managed on farms and in facilities that process food. At NYFC, we’re part of an alliance managed by the National Farmers Union called the Local Food Safety Collaborate that aims to give smaller producers who market locally a source for education and training on FSMA. NYFC is planning workshops across the South on the Produce Safety Rule and is writing a guidebook on these food safety regulations. Along the way, we’re talking with farmers to assess what tools, trainings, materials, or guidance will be most helpful for small, young, diversified growers to learn and comply with these new regulations.

We understand that many young farmers, ranchers, and food producers will be “qualified exempt” from this rule, meaning that they won’t have to follow ALL of the parts of the law due to size and marketing strategy.  Here’s a flowchart to help farms understand exemptions from the Produce Safety Rule. Here’s a link to understand Preventive Controls rule exemptions for facilities that manufacture, process, store, or pack food. We also want to be sure that even exempt growers understand the rules, what parts of the rules will still be important, and, ultimately, how to make their produce or food as safe as possible.

You might wonder, “I’m not a big farm, why would I take that workshop?” At NYFC, we think these food safety trainings are worthwhile for ALL farmers. Here are some reasons we think you might want to attend:

  • Your farm might expand. Perhaps you’re exempt now, but might not be as your business grows and evolves. Knowing these food safety rules will allow you to made infrastructure improvements that will comply with the rule as your business grows.
  • Learn how to make your food safer. All farms can be safer and cleaner. Some of these rules are onerous, but some of them seem practical. With a few tweaks, you could implement changes that make your produce safer. These changes could potentially increase the storage life of your crops, as taking steps to decrease bacteria can make it last longer and look better.
  • Exempt from the law, but not the marketplace. You might be qualified exempt from the rule as per the FDA. Yet, your buyers might begin to require compliance. When GAPs were introduced, even some farmers markets began to encourage associated farmers to become GAPs certified. We may see wholesale buyers, restaurants, or insurance companies begin to push otherwise exempt farmers toward compliance of the Produce Safety Rule.
  • Learn in an environment of your peers. Large produce growers are learning this same curriculum, but we hope that the conversation occurring between small, diversified growers will be helpful to beginning farmers. Also, the NYFC workshops are taught by farmers.
  • It’s affordable. We’re heavily subsidizing this workshop so that growers like you can ease into compliance and learn how to make their food safer and businesses stronger. The rules of FDA say that you only have to complete this course once a lifetime, so you could save money by taking it now. 
  • Learn more about the rule. Maybe you’ll be “qualified exempt.” You’ll still need to keep some records to prove the exemption. Additionally, you might be curious about how the rule works and why growers are so worked up. Come and learn the ins-and-outs of the rule so that you can be informed about these regulations that could greatly impact the agricultural community.
  • Give your feedback. We need to understand how and where this rule impacts farms most. NYFC can also advocate to changes in the rule or the curriculum if we know what challenges you find. We can only get that feedback from farmers who have attended the training and understand the rule.

Currently, we’re planning our workshops in the South and Southeast with our chapters in Missouri, Middle Georgia, and the West Virginia/Virginia Tri-State area. We’re hoping to plan many more. Our partners in the Local Food Safety Collaborate have other workshops planned around the country. Contact us if you want to host a food safety workshop or have feedback on this project!

National uncertainty, community hope, and pruning

By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

All winter I’ve been going to conferences, having potlucks, and generally reveling in the amazing farmer community we have here in Colorado. But now it’s time to start farming, which means the fun is over. Okay, that’s not true, but the rolling of the season brings us into a new cycle of long hours and hard work. Just as the buds are beginning to swell, so are the knots in my lower back and shoulders. Hello, spring.

Actually, this is the time of the year when I can’t contain my excitement for the growing season. Winter is a time of reflection and education. As a community organizer, I’ve been living my life one meeting at a time. We’ve been having great discussions about soil health and climate-smart agriculture with a broad spectrum of producers. Big operations and small ones are taking these conversations seriously and adopting practices that conserve water, build soil, and protect our environment. Most of my role models right now come from the world of traditional ag, which I think is a strong indicator of a more progressive attitude throughout agriculture. It makes me proud to be part of this industry and part of the system that sustains the people of this planet. (more…)

My climate change plan: foster community

Casey distributes CSA shares.

By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

Last season was different. A noticeable shift. And based on what I’ve heard from other farmers, they’ve noticed it too. A term that describes what’s happening is on our tongues: climate change. It is impacting our plans for next season as well as our outlook for the future. My plans will be based on which crops I’ve seen do the best last season with an awareness of what will build towards greater overall sustainability for the farm.

Casey and Fawn

All the beans but the Dragon’s Tongue did awful last year, so this year I’ll definitely grow the Dragon’s Tongue again as well as a solid green bean like the Provider and a new variety that hails from my region—perhaps a tepary bean. These beans are accustomed to dry heat and very little water, so with an eye toward the future, it would be wise for me to start learning how to grow them. Of course, even though I have hesitations, I’ll continue to grow tomatoes. But I won’t be growing all of the same types. With the heat and drought we have been experiencing, there are definitely varieties that simply won’t work. Instead we’ll try to find tomato varieties that grow in other desert regions and see how they do here. This is the same principal behind our own seed saving—farmers in other desert regions have bred similar desirable traits into their fruit, and hopefully that will give us a leg up. (more…)