Lessons in land access

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By Holly Rippon-Butler, Land Access Program Director

Forgive me if we’ve met in the past three months and I don’t remember your name—I’ve been on a bit of a whirlwind tour, talking about land access, hosting workshops, and listening to concerns from young farmers and ranchers. At the end of February I made my way from upstate New York to La Crosse, Wisconsin for the annual MOSES conference. In March, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Colorado. And at the end of March I hopped on a plane to Iowa.

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Holly Rippon-Butler

Although I may not remember the name of every individual I met, I remember their stories. There were stories of heartbreak—a third farm move in three years, off-farm jobs that don’t leave time for farming, organic certification negated by spray drift—as well as stories of success: land made available by benevolent neighbors, successful family partnership, invaluable mentorship, and support from dedicated non-profits.

Although acquiring a ranch with adequate water rights in Colorado may seem like an altogether different undertaking than finding a place to farm in the fertile dairyland of Wisconsin or amidst the uniformly plowed fields of Iowa, I was struck by the similar themes emerging in young farmers’ search for land:

1) Access to land is within reach; access to secure land is hard.
Most farmers I heard from seemed to agree – with some hard work and strategic networking (through Craigslist ads, friends of friends, or letters to landowners) finding land on which to farm was usually not too difficult. Sometimes, bartering for produce could be enough to secure a year’s lease. While none of these opportunities went unappreciated, they often did not provide the security needed to establish and grow a business. Farmers commonly struggled with the inability to invest in infrastructure and build soil quality; burnout from moving their business; and frustration from trying to maintain tenuous relationships with landowners. (more…)

I farm like I cook, always learning as I go

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

One of my absolute favorite pastimes is cooking. I recently realized that one of the reasons I like spending time in the kitchen is the continual experimentation and learning, as well as the satisfaction when I finally get a certain dish “just right.” I have become a much better cook than I was in my college days, and I often tell Will that my goal is to be an exceptional cook by the time I’m an older lady. Since it is a task I enjoy, I spend a lot of time thinking about it, looking up tips, trying new recipes, memorizing recipes I love, and learning patterns and methods so that I don’t always need a recipe to prepare a meal.

While washing the dishes the other night (and thinking fondly back to supper), it dawned on me that I love cooking for some of the same reasons I love farming. They both start out with trial and error and challenges that I can work through myself, at my own pace. I can gather information from experts, but then I get to try things on my own. I’ve become a better farmer over the past two years, and I know that I will do even better on the farm over time, just as I have become much better in the kitchen over the last ten years. Both activities also reward me with good food at the end! (more…)

Q&A with Mary Stuart Masterson and Jeremy Davidson

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On April 10, a group of farmers will take the stage at BAM in Brooklyn. Or rather, well-known actors will portray real farmers from the Hudson Valley, a circumstance even more improbable in the life of most farmers, who don’t usually experience fame beyond their own farmers market tables.

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The production, called GOOD DIRT, was created by Mary Stuart Masterson (At Close Range,Fried Green Tomatoes) and Jeremy Davidson (Tickling Leo, The Americans). They’re also the founders of Storyhorse Documentary Theater, which they started so they would have a platform to tell the stories of their neighbors in the Hudson Valley and elevate ideas and voices that are often marginalized.

For GOOD DIRT they interviewed farmers from Soul Fire Farm, Green Goats Farm, Northwind Farm, Tello’s Green Farm, Denison Family Farm and Hudson Valley Seed Library. The April 10 premiere is a benefit for the National Young Farmers Coalition, and all tickets include admission to an afterparty at BAM where guests can meet some of the farmers and their actor counterparts.

Edible Brooklyn chatted with Mary Stuart and Jeremy about their theater project, community storytelling and why farmers deserve more fans. Read the interview here.

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Looking back at our whirlwind first season

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By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

As we head into our second year as a farm, I am amazed at what we accomplished in just one short year. I remember back to our first few weeks on the farm, when our main field was just a cow pasture; we had yet to put up a deer fence, hoophouse, or wash station; and were thick in the process of starting up a business.

When we got started in January 2015, I was often overwhelmed by the amount of work we needed to put in to turn our leased property into a production farm. The list of tasks seemed endless, and I was dubious of our ability to get it all done, especially on top of working our off-farm jobs. But with the help of our friends and family, we created a productive 1.5-acre plot that successfully provided for a 15-member CSA, two farmers’ markets, and multiple wholesale accounts.

Looking forward through 2016, I am thrilled to not be putting up a deer fence and buying all of our tools— instead I can put more energy toward planning, advertising, and fostering business relationships and new possibilities. We can also focus on our relationship with our team of horses; our goal is to not have to rent our landlord’s tractor for any field work this year. (more…)

My first year farming: the highs, the lows, and the future

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

Preparing for this final Bootstrap Blogger post, I went back through my earlier posts and was immediately reminded of just how far we’ve come in a matter of months. The first few posts were all about digging fence postholes and scrounging for cash, and now we’re on to funny piglet stories and taking orders for grass-fed beef. When you’re down in the “day to day trenches,” it’s easy to get lost in the overwhelming list of farm chores and forget to celebrate the mini-successes along the way.

I encountered a few “oh god” moments over the past year:

  • A barn-building back injury turned into lots and lots of doctors visits and physical therapy.
  • Juggling off-farm professional opportunities (income producing) with farm responsibilities (not yet income producing).
  • Budget cuts meant the loss of a contract employment opportunity that had been covering my farm expenses (forcing us to dig deeper in our already empty pockets).
  • It turns out piglets are Houdini-like escape artists.

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And I made some wonderful memories:

  • Sharing our farming story with half-a-dozen community groups and agriculture publications.
  • Feeling the pride of owning a self-funded (and debt FREE!) farm for a full year.
  • Joining Kansas Farm Bureau’s Ag Advocacy SPEAK team.
  • Sleeping in the barn when the piglets arrived (I’m pretty pumped about my piggies!).

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The greatest crop I’ve ever grown

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By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

The winter in south Texas isn’t a time to take off or slow down. Thanks to a mild winter, we are lucky enough to grow all 12 months of the year. Take that, California! Our winter is pretty much like what I think the rest of the country experiences during spring. Thanks to the mild weather, farmers aren’t the only people in south Texas who grow food.

More and more I meet people at the market who come up to my table and tell me they are growing everything I have, discuss growing notes, and leave without a purchase. While at times this can feel like a low point, I have begun to understand that the more people try to grow their own food the more people will realize the amount of effort and time that goes into growing crops, especially on a larger scale.

As gardening and homesteading continue to rise in popularity, folks will concede that battling farmers over the small amount of money we charge isn’t unreasonable. Being haggled for $1 is frustrating.

I recall meeting a guy in Jamaica last year—while on what seems like the last vacation of my life—who said something that really stuck with me. He was selling cheap, beaded bracelets for $5, which was more than they were worth. But I was in the buying mood, so I offered him $3. Dejected he said, “Man I’m broke, I’ll take whatever.” It caught me off guard. (more…)

More Old McDonald than Superman? A Day in my life

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

A Day in My Life I get up early—6 a.m.— and go for a quick run. I also print off lecture handouts and skim Wall Street Journal over breakfast (the digital version—it takes days to get the printed version delivered out here). Then I don a suit (but don’t bother with makeup) and pack my satchel with the days’ necessities.

My university classes start at 8 a.m. As a student, I wasn’t all that fond of early morning classes, and I can certainly sympathize with the glazed, “don’t call on me” looks my students’ project at the podium. After class, I skedaddle out to faculty parking and crank up my 20+-year-old pickup truck (it’s the only one in the lot with a hay spear and mud flaps).

hannah_barn_ladder_cropI shift gears from business professor to marketing consultant and spend the next few hours pounding out social media strategy for a client. I work through lunch and start client calls at 1 p.m. The beginning of the year is big in my business, so I’m hoping to land three more retainer clients. Maybe then I can start putting a “dent” in my student loans and building a savings nest egg.

At 3:30 p.m I swap the business suit for Carharts and cowboy boots. Hooking up my peeling stock trailer, I drive out to a rural farming community west of Bushong, Kansas, a Depression-era ghost town with a Cold War missile silo perched above the desolate remnants of the town. It’s a fascinating and eerie place—oh, if only these Flint Hills could talk…. (more…)

Here’s what I need you to know about farming

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

As I begin my third year as a farmer, I find most of my thoughts divided between two major categories: farming is really hard, and farming is really rewarding. But it might help if I break those ideas down a little more. Here are the top five things I want you to know about being a farmer:

1) Local food advocates often tell people to get to know their farmer, but it is really nice for farmers to know their customers as well. As someone who is direct marketing the majority of my products, it is a joy to meet the folks who eat my food. It is heartwarming to hear what customers are cooking with food I’ve raised, to learn what their favorite vegetables or cuts of meat are, and to know that their toddler requested more okra after being offered ice cream. I love knowing that someone bought an extra dozen eggs because he recently bought a pasta maker, and that he has perfected is mother’s pasta sauce. I treasure these moments, and these relationships.

I believe that I am often more excited about my regular customers than they are about me (I’ve had to stop myself from trying to hug a few of them after not seeing them for a couple of weeks)! If you are someone who knows your farmer, just know this—your farmer values you too!Will planting apples_crop

2) Farming is physically, emotionally, and financially difficult. Farming means long days; hot days; cold days; wet days; and many, many muddy days. Hopefully I’ll get better at delegating and time management as I grow as a farmer, but right now farming means that the words “weekend” and “evening” are not in my vocabulary from April-October. Farming means that during the main growing season, I probably won’t be attending any cookouts, I will not be preparing supper until after the sun has set, and I will be responding to emails and doing record keeping after 10 p.m. (more…)

Dismantling injustice in the food system: An interview with Elizabeth Henderson

Liz_Henderson_tractorBy Sara Black, NYFC Development Coordinator and Organizer

Last year I had the privilege of chatting with Elizabeth Henderson, a pioneer of the CSA model in the United States and an agrarian leader committed to resisting the many injustices of a cheap food system with the power of cooperation!

Liz co-founded the Genesee Valley Organic CSA in Rochester, NY in 1989, and later Peacework Farm in Newark, NY in 1998. She’s the author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture*; the honorary president of the international CSA network, Urgenci; and a core leader behind the Agricultural Justice Project and its Food Justice Certification label.

From the outset of our conversation, Liz took me to school, sharing advice, concerns, history, and visions; we talked about her Food Justice Certification label, the need for “smashing racism” as we build a new food system, and the minimum wage.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Sara: It’s been nearly 20 years since Sharing the Harvest was first published, and quite a few food and farmer movement waves have unfolded since then. Where do you think farmers and activists have gained the best ground, and what challenges are most pressing?

Liz: Well, there’s been a huge increase in the number of CSAs. At the same time, as you’d expect in a competitive capitalist society, someone will find a way to commercialize it and cheapen it. So there’s also been a proliferation of CSA-like food services. Some of these are really nice cooperative ventures with farmers sharing resources and setting up websites, as a way of cooperating and sharing markets. But a lot of these are just aggregators who are using the CSA image to make some money. Those aggregators are making it harder for CSA’s that are based on farms.

They are providing a lot of competition, making farmers think “How can I make my project more convenient for people. Give them a choice every week? Ask for less of a time commitment? Deliver to people’s door?” That undermines the basic concept of CSA: sharing the risk. CSA’s are the only form where conscious consumers get to share the risk with their farmer or group of farmers. So, when farmers give up on that, they are giving up a lot.

In our food industry, the biggest direct sales markets have gotten up to maybe 10 percent of what people are buying, and that’s in places like Vermont. But that still means that 90 percent of the food people are eating is coming from stores, super markets, buying clubs, food services. Now all these food hubs are springing up. Someone had the bright idea, “Ah, yes, we can aggregate!” But food hubs don’t guarantee a price that covers farmers’ costs of production, and they don’t ensure that farmers are getting a living wage and paying living wages. We haven’t figured out a way of doing those larger sales with a price point that allows family scale farms to thrive. Economics are still very, very challenging. (more…)

New report on Western Water: Conservation Generation

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Across most of the arid West, drought has been the norm for the last 15 years. The majority of young farmers and ranchers in this region have never farmed in non-drought conditions, which means they are uniquely focused on creative solutions to water conservation. NYFC’s new report, Conservation Generation: How Young Farmers And Ranchers Are Essential to Tackling Water Scarcity in the Arid West, paints a picture of these young farmers, their approach to water, and the challenges they face.

To gather data for the report, NYFC surveyed 379 young farmers in the arid West and hosted eight focus groups (thank you to everyone who participated!). Survey respondents were asked questions about their chief agricultural concerns as well as their approach to water conservation and their engagement with and knowledge of water policy and government programs related to conservation.

ConservationGeneration_cover_Page_01Here are a few of the key findings:

  • Water, drought, and climate change are the top agricultural concerns of young farmers in the West. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents listed water availability/access as one of their concerns;
  • Young farmers prioritize water conservation, and the vast majority (94%) are already conserving water;
  • Building healthy soil is the most common on-farm water conservation strategy;
  • Federal cost-share programs are not reaching young farmers in the West;
  • Perceptions of “use it or lose it” discourage on-farm conservation.                       

Download the report here. 

Western agriculture and water scarcity are regional issues of national importance; the Colorado River, a focus area of this report, flows through the Rockies toward the Gulf of California while irrigating 15% of the nation’s crops and 85% of its winter produce. As much as 80% of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, so on-farm water conservation efforts are important in any conversation about water scarcity. (more…)