Notes from Plowbreak Farm in Hector, NY

Plowbreak farm bio picWalking into the field in Hector, New York, I find two farmers cheerfully harvesting basil and hot peppers. Meet Aaron Munzer and Kara Cusolito, founders of Plowbreak Farm

Plowbreak Farm began in 2012 when Aaron and Kara leased three acres of loamy soil in the agriculturally rich Finger Lakes region. Their farming philosophy is simple: they grow good food because they like doing it, and they want to bring good food to other people. 2013 is only their second season in Hector, but they’ve already built a 50-member vegetable CSA. As we harvest green beans, Aaron decides that it’s time to pull the plants up by their roots and strip them of their fruit. “This is my favorite way to pick beans. We’re like individual green bean picking machines!” he laughs.

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Introducing Sparkplug Farm of Vinalhaven Island, ME

Sara John Vinalhaven Sparkplug Farm

Farmers John Wright and Sara Hodges
Courtesy of Sparkplug Farm

Sparkplug Farm is a 30-acre diversified vegetable farm on Vinalhaven Island, located off the coast of Maine. Farmers Sara Hodges and John Wright began the farm in 2012 after earning Bachelors degrees from Warren Wilson College and apprenticing through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). John and Sara currently hold a five year lease on 30 acres with 5 acres currently in production. They follow organic practices, but are not certified as such. 

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Let’s Go Farm, Santa Rosa, CA

Lets Go Farm pic 1Joey Smith started Let’s Go Farm in 2011 on the land he grew up on in Santa Rosa, CA. On their 1-acre parcel, Joey and his farming partner Max grow a wide variety of vegetables, flowers, and some fruits and berries. They sell their produce on Sundays at the Windsor Farmer’s Market, and have a 20 member CSA.

Joey and Max met in 2010 while apprenticing at Hidden Villa Farm and Wilderness Preserve in Los Altos Hills, CA. While working at Hidden Villa, they learned a variety of techniques for building soil and growing top quality produce without the use of pesticides. When Joey decided to start his own farm, he considered a number of locations, but ultimately decided to return to his family’s property, on which his mother has grazed sheep for the past 36 years.

One of the goals of Let’s Go Farm is to demonstrate that it’s possible to grow food on any scale. Another is to show that farmers can bring positive changes to ecosystems, rather than the negative changes often associated with farming, such as soil depletion. Joey and Max plant flowers throughout the rows and keep a few beehives around the property to attract beneficial insects and increase pollination. “A farm is a part of the ecosystem, not separate from it, and should be a habitat to lots of birds, insects and other wildlife,” notes Joey.

Lets Go Farm pic 2To increase biodiversity and attract pollinators, Joey and Max are working with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to plant a hedgerow of native and drought tolerant plants around the circumference of the farm. “A lot of people think that the government provides no help for small farmers, but that’s just not true,” says Joey. “NRCS has funding to help small farmers with conservation projects and we should be using those resources and demanding more programs that support beginning farmers.”

Community and CSA member engagement is a critical part of the mission of Let’s Go Farm. Joey and Max send out detailed newsletters to shareholders with their weekly baskets detailing farm happenings and exciting food and ag related events around Sonoma County. They encourage shareholders and their families to visit the farm, and donate extra produce to the local food bank. “This type of farming is about more than just food, argues Joey “we want everyone who eats our food to know why its important to farm in way that is mindful of the future.”

Introducing Truck Farm Omaha – an edible education project

While traveling across the country for their documentary film about urban agriculture, Growing Cities, Dan and Andrew came across Truck Farms from Portland, OR to Washington, D.C.  From the first sight, they knew they wanted to start a Truck Farm in their hometown of Omaha, NE.  

Truck Farm Omaha logoTruck Farm Omaha is an edible education project focused on teaching area youth how-to grow food in the city and to recognize the environmental, social, and health benefits involved in urban farming. Currently, TFO is the only education program offering food and sustainable agriculture education for youth in the area.

With some local funding including the Mayor of Omaha, Jim Suttle, Dan and Andrew were able to bring Chelsea into the project to purchase and plant Truck Farm Omaha. Watch a video of the initial construction here.

Truck Farm Omaha taps into the potential of urban youth by engaging them in growing food and paving the way for a new generation of healthy eaters, educated consumers and sustainable farmers.  The project impact students by bringing the mobile mini-farm directly into the classroom. TFO makes food production more accessible to inner-city youth and introduces them to sustainable farming, healthy foods, and plant science in a fun and hands-on way.

Kids learning with Truck Farm OmahaBy showing youth that caring for and consuming fruits and vegetables is not only healthy, but also delicious and enjoyable, the team hopes to address the childhood health epidemic at its source. Older students are at an age when they understand choice.  They may be able to walk home from school alone and stop at the convenient store for a candy bar.  TFO wants them to feel empowered to make healthier food choices and incorporate these choices into a healthy lifestyle.  The group’s long-term goal is to be a part of developing a healthier, happier and more sustainable future for our community.

truckfarmomaha.com  *  Facebook: Truck Farm Omaha  * @truckfarmomaha

Introducing Johnson Hill Farm of Ceresco Nebraska.

 Johnson Hill farm 1Eric and Gina Lanik live outside of Ceresco Nebraska on the original homestead of Eric’s Great, Great grandparents Otto and Hulda Johnson and have owned the land continuously since 1892.  Today they grow their pastured chicken, natural beef, pastured pork, grass fed lamb, free range eggs and veggies the same way they did then, without chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones and we are striving toward holistic management, closed herds and complete sustainability. 

Their journey started in 2002 when Eric and Gina acquired the farm and went to work cleaning it up.  They got a few goats and started a CSA garden, the goats proved difficult to keep in as goat normally are so they moved to sheep and a couple of calves to butcher for themselves and family. Their original goal was to help their two children grow up with farming values of nurturing, hard work, a sense of independence and ownership as well as a tie to the land and community.  They produced their own good quality food and enough extra to pay for their trouble. People liked the beef so much more than they could get in the store that they started expanding slowly adding chickens then pigs and dropping the vegetable CSA.  They found that their passion was in livestock in every aspect from breeding to finishing.

Johnson Hill Farm’s pastured pork is a purebred heritage breed hog called Hereford, it is called that due to its red white markings which are similar to the cow of the same name.  It is a recovering breed and Johnson Hill is proud to be stewards of this old breed that was developed in Nebraska and Iowa.  It is a moderate framed pig that finishes with just the right amount fat for what they think is the tastiest pork you will ever eat.  This is the perfect pig for their pasture based system. They are hardier and more docile and are the most raved about item on the farm.  “Even our butcher bought a bred gilt from us because he liked the way they cut so much, we think that was the ultimate vote of confidence.”

Johnson Hill farm 2Their Beef is a composite of Scottish Highlander and Belted Galloway. They are using these breeds to develop their base herd, then will add a Irish Black bull to proceed with the genetic base.  They focus on moderate frame, easy calving, early maturity, easy fleshing, and longevity.  While the farm still currently uses grain to finish for 90 days, these cattle are the kind that finish excellent on grass. Eric has attended several seminars on rotational and high stock density grazing and is focused on improving grazing lands and increasing carrying capacity, because as one of his favorite authors Wendell Berry says, it’s not about what you can take from the land but how much can it produce dependably for an indefinite time.

The Lanik’s raise broilers in the Salatin method, in tractors with daily moves on grass and fresh air.  They still have heritage Blue Swedish ducks for self-consumption, and heritage chickens for eggs but have stopped selling eggs and vegetables to the public. Johnson Hill Farm will offer meat shares in a CSA model for 2013 to include beef, pork, chicken, and lamb.  Their goal is to offer concerned families an affordable opportunity to buy local meats that are raised with care and with sustainable practices, all the while supporting their farm family. You can contact them through their website at www.johnsonhillfarm.com, email johnsonhillfarm@yahoo.com  or find them on Facebook.

Introducing Goat Song Farm of Sheridan, OR

Goat Song Farm goatsGoat Song Farm is an integrated livestock farm that sits on only slightly more than 1 acre of land, but the centerpiece to everything is the dairy. I run a raw milk herdshare program with both dairy cows and dairy goats, and while I have been doing this with the goats for 3 years, this will be my first full year with cows. My herd numbers this year are currently nine goats that will be milking, and at the moment I have one Jersey cow, one Jersey/Guernsey heifer, and the hope of acquiring one more milking cow by summertime.

To some, it may sound like madness to have this many animals on roughly 1 acre of pasture; the secret to success though, is intensive rotational grazing. And while I can make no claim to be an expert on doing this, it has worked so far, and I think this year will be the ultimate test. I currently have 20-25 herdshare members, and hope to increase to 40-50 before the year is over.

I started dairying six years ago, just providing raw milk for my family. Dairying quickly became a passion, and in 2011 I began offering raw goat milk to local consumers. The learning curve has been steep, but the joy of doing this has kept me going and made me want to take the next step in adding cows. In 2012 I became a member of the Oregon Raw Milk Producers Association, and am working on not only building a proper, Grade A dairy parlor, but also beginning to test my raw milk on a monthly basis, and striving to produce the cleanest, healthiest raw milk for people.

Goat Song Farm cowIn 2012 I had the rare opportunity to visit Joel Salatin’s extremely well known Polyface Farm, and stayed with the Salatin family for four days, experiencing a crash course in how they run their enormously successful farm. My knowledge learned from that trip has fueled a fire in me to farm in a way that heals my land, my animals, and my customers, and I will be heavily implementing many of Joel’s methods on my farm this year to benefit the dairy operation.

Some 2013 goals this year are building the dairy parlor, acquiring a third cow, re-mineralizing the pastures in an organic manner, rotating the grazing grounds in the most intensive manner yet, and I suppose “trying to stay sane” might be considered a goal, seeing as I run the farm by myself… At any rate, it should be a grand year filled with adventures.

You can read more about my farm by visiting my website at: http://goatsongfarm.weebly.com/index.html

What’s Growing in Oregon

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Jeff and Kasey of Lonesome Whistle Farm

It’s the height of conference season, and I was delighted to travel this week to Oregon for the Organicology Conference, a three-day gathering of folks from all across the organic food chain in Portland, OR. The event seeks to bring all stakeholder groups to the table to not only develop skills in their own areas of activity but to gain exposure to the challenges and accomplishments of those in other areas of the organic movement. The great takeaway? There are many different opinions on what organic should look like, but the more united we become, the stronger our movement will be. And without supporting the next generation of organic farmers, the organic movement cannot continue!

Excited to meet the brilliant and innovative young farmers of the beaver state, I rented a car and started touring. I met with Leah and Nellie of Oregon’s FarmON!, a one-year old coalition of young and beginning farmers in the state and a proud affiliate of NYFC.  I had a drink with Megan Fehrman of the Rogue Farm Corps which has a beginning farmer training program down in Ashland, OR and Dan Bravin from the Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship (BUFA.) BUFA is a partnership between Multnomah County and Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Service and trains 20 urban farmers each year. 

Rowan Steele, who co-owns Fiddlehead Farm with his wife Katie Coppoletta, is starting a brand new incubator program- Headwaters Farm Incubator- on land leased by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. I joined in for a tour of the land, and was inspired by the excitement of the potential incubatees.

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Danny Percich and his 16-month old daughter Ramona showed me around Full Plate Farm, their Winter CSA farm 30 min. north of Portland in Ridgefield, Wa. I was thrilled to eat delicious, fresh carrots in February. Danny is hoping to expand his operation by renting parcels of neighbors’ land.  photo(3)

Evan and Rachel of Boondockers Farm in Beavercreek, OR are pioneers in breeding rare heritage poultry. The breeds they focus on raising are listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The couple told me about how conventional hatcheries often kill male babies when they’re not needed. They believe anyone raising pasture-based birds shouldn’t ignore the inhumane practices of the commercial hatchery! They also grow and sell heirloom seeds, breed heritage turkeys, and raise Great Pyrenees dogs to protect their flocks.

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My last stop was Lonesome Whistle Farm down in Junction City, OR where Jeff and Kasey are working to preserve and promote rare and unique dry bean and grain varieties through a bean and grain CSA. Starting out as veggie farmers, Jeff and Kasey quickly taught themselves bean and grain growing, and are happy to be producing quality product not easily found locally. They grow: Dakota Black Popcorn, Red Fife Wheat Flour, Purple Harless Barley, Emmer Berries, a diverse array of heirloom beans, polenta, and more!

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Kasey and the mill

Farmers in Oregon are busy fighting plantings of Roundup Ready GM Canola in the Willamette Valley which threatens its lively organic seed industry. And GM sugarbeets are grown just up the road from Lonesome Whistle Farm. There’s certainly plenty to organize around here, but the state’s supportive policies and markets for local food make Oregon a great place to be a young farmer.

 

Introducing Firefly Meadows of Fairfield, NE

Firefly profile pic 1Mike and Rita Brhel’s just over five acres might be small in size but it’s big in dreams. Firefly Meadows features a farm-fresh chicken and duck egg business, a pasture-based sheep operation, and a vegetable garden with spring, summer, and fall plantings. There are plans to add meat goats, pigeons, and an orchard.

Both Mike and Rita grew up on farms – Mike on a diversified livestock and crop operation southwest of Lincoln, NE, and Rita on a sheep ranch south of Hastings, NE. Mike was involved in FFA. Rita was also active in 4-H and FFA, expanding the ranch’s enterprises to poultry and beef cattle. Mike and Rita met in college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where they both earned Bachelor of Science degrees in the agricultural sciences. While in college, Rita completed a two-year internship with the North Central Region SARE program, where she was introduced to sustainable agriculture. After graduating, Mike and Rita moved to Northeast Nebraska where they became involved in the Northeast Nebraska RC&D Council’s rural development efforts. Rita worked as a farm journalist, further studying differences between conventional and sustainable farming methods. When the couple began having children, they decided to move back to South Central Nebraska. It took eight years for Mike and Rita to find the property on the edge of Fairfield, NE, but only days to decide to buy it. They moved in on Halloween of 2009.

Firefly profile pic 2The property was fitted for horses, so it took some work to convert fencing and facilities for small livestock. Mike and Rita started with a small flock of sheep, laying hens, and a few dairy goats. The goat herd was sold to ease pressure on the droughty pastures. The pasture is managed with a rotational grazing system. The goal is to graze livestock year-round with minimal grain and purchased hay. The hens and ducks are free range and fed vegetable scraps from the kitchen. In addition to eggs, the poultry provide excellent bug control. Mike’s passion is in gardening where he uses organic principles and grows heritage varieties.

Firefly profile pic 3The goal is for the farm to pay for itself in food as well as provide a country lifestyle for the family. Mike works off-farm building houses. Rita works mostly from home as a parenting magazine editor and part-time at a local clinic as a breastfeeding counselor, allowing her to watch the farm during the day and be a stay-at-home mom to their three kids.

Mike and Rita are passionate about their sustainable lifestyle. Rita serves on the Board of Directors for the Nebraska Sustainable Agricultural Society and helps with the organization’s bimonthly newsletter. They have extended their sustainable philosophy from farming into other areas of life through such practices as Attachment Parenting, frugal living, and eating whole foods.

The name of the farm, Firefly Meadows, comes from the early summertime evenings when millions of fireflies light up the grass pasture – it is the most brilliant display of fireflies from the back porch swing.

Young Farmers Offer Pasture-Raised, Happy Turkeys this Thanksgiving

Eleanor Kane and Theodore Wiegand are finishing up their successful first season on Brasen Hill Farm, a 21-acre diversified farm in Dudley, Ma, where they raise lambs, goats, chicken, pigs, ducks and most importantly this thanksgiving, 51 beautiful turkeys. Bourbon reds, Broad-Breasted Bronze, and Great Whites make up their flock, though Eleanor says next year they plan to raise 100% heritage breeds.

Eleanor and Theo are ideologically committed to transitioning to heritage breeds, as keeping these breeds in production helps to maintain their popularity. “The Bourbon Reds are smarter, and there’s a bigger market for them,” she explains.  “It’s a more pleasant experience on a small farm. They do really well on pasture.” Plus, Eleanor says people really get excited when you tell them you’re doing heritage turkeys.

Theo’s agricultural roots run deep– he grew up on a thousand acre wheat farm, whereas Eleanor more recently decided to pursue farming to get more involved in the food system and her community through farming. After the pair completed the yearlong Practical Farm Training Program at the Farm School in Orange, Ma they found land to lease from an old dairy farm.

A Great White Turkey back in May

Of course there are some challenges. The Bourbon Reds didn’t get as big as the pair hoped. The birds are not as aggressive of foragers, so Eleanor and Theo needed to separate out the breed to make sure they got enough to eat. 

FARMERS’ POLL:

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE TURKEY BREED

Click here to vote for your favorite breed!

Since Brasen Hill doesn’t yet have an established customer base, many orders came in for turkeys very late. Even though they began taking orders in May, they are still adding to a waiting list! Luckily, Eleanor and Theo are tapping into a relatively new market. Many community members interested in this kind of product have been driving far to get it. Brasen Hill now offers conveniently located, top quality, pasture-raised meat. This thanksgiving, that’s 51 thankful families.

 

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Ranching for Conservation along the U.S./Mexico Border

Thirty-eight miles from the Arizona/Sonora border lies a fourth-generation ranch managed by two young ranchers, Sarah and Joe King. The ranch spreads over 55,000 acres of private and state land, rising up over the Baboquivari Mountains. Sarah and Joe raise 450 head of grass-fed cattle to sell at auction, slaughtering only a few due to the lack of local processing options.

Ranching in the borderlands, with little forage and water, is no easy task. Sarah and Joe have unique struggles and impressive triumphs.

Located just an arm’s stretch from the border between Mexico and the United States, Sarah and Joe navigate and cultivate a host of relationships with U.S. Border Patrol and migrants.  This reality, for the most part, is unheard of and unknown to suburban neighborhoods in nearby towns and cities.

Many border-crossers begin their journey in Nogales, Mexico, either alone, in groups or in a group led by a coyote.  Migrants are often told that they won’t need much food, water or special clothing because they’ll arrive in Phoenix, Arizona (the capital) three days after they begin their journey.  But that journey is more than 180 miles. While a person may be able to walk 10 or 20 miles in a day, depending on age and ability, this terrain includes the steep mountain crags in the Baboquivari’s.  According to Sarah, climbing five miles in a given day over the mountains would be a reasonable estimation. A few months ago, one woman crossing the border arrived at the K.A. Ranch wearing stiletto shoes; her son was barefoot. 

Sarah sees border-crossers approximately twice a month, but sometimes more frequently. By the time migrants arrive at the King’s Anvil Ranch, they’ve often run out of water and food and suffer from heat exhaustion. These conditions by themselves are enough to induce desperation or belligerence in an otherwise non-violent person.  Last year, Joe came across a dead man.  But not all border-crossers are seeking a new life in the States.  Sarah and Joe also live in a drug-smuggling corridor. 

Ranching on the border grows more complicated still.  Migrant trails result in changes to geomorphology: Water flow is altered, increasing run-off and erosion.  Furthermore, border-crossers leave trash in their wake.  A few miles from the King’s Anvil Ranch there is a trash pile as big as a house.  And because migrants primarily eat packaged or tin foods with long shelf lives, this trash becomes problematic for cattle, too.  For instance, if a cow steps on a tuna can, its skin will literally grow around the can and become infected.

Finally, Sarah and Joe understand the necessity of having a working relationship with the United States Border Patrol, which includes sharing with them the importance of ranch etiquette, such as closing fences so the cattle don’t escape to another pasture.  The Border Patrol’s new ranch liaison has been a huge help to Sarah and Joe.

But despite these hardships and challenges, the King family has worked this land for generations.  Nestled in the heart of the Altar Valley, this ecosystem is host to some of the most biologically rich and ecologically threatened biotic communities in the entire world. Sarah and Joe ranch side-by-side with other, multi-generation ranches that, apart from the Tohono O’odham Nation to the west, make up the largest unfragmented watershed in Pima County.  These families have come together in the last 17 years to form a collaborative group called the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance.  Along with other organizations and citizens, the Alliance enhances the watershed through science and restoration projects. 

Even before the Alliance came into existence, the King family was actively working their landscape to restore the land and maintain its longevity for generations to come.  Joe’s grandfather started working with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) back in the 1950s.  The King family planted crops for livestock forage and erosion prevention.  They removed invasive mesquites that deprived native grasses of sunlight and necessary moisture.  They implemented cross-fencing and pasture rotation.  Some pastures lacked water, so they built water infrastructure–pipelines to wells and aquifers–so that animals didn’t need to walk the long distances to rehydrate.  With increased water access across the ranch, cattle could move seasonally, giving pastures a chance to rest (reducing soil compaction and erosion) and regenerate.

Today Sarah and Joe look out across their landscape and study what native grasses are blooming.  They do NRCS monitoring at different sites.  They’ve reintroduced fires.  They’re using solar technology to pump water.  Earlier this year they hosted a watershed restoration project, inviting Bill Zeedyk and Steve Carson to install rock structures that harvest upland rainwater to reestablish vegetation and prevent erosion.  The Border Patrol came out to help, too. 

In the coming months, Sarah and Joe will begin to prepare for Fall Round Up.  They’ll wean mama cows in pens by the big hay barn and sell calves at auction, on the internet or to private buyers.  They’ll navigate with and around Border Patrol in one of the most active border-crossing corridors in the United States. They will put the cows out with the bulls in the lower pasture and herd on horseback to the road and fence lines. Sarah and Joe will look for ways to reduce erosion and watch for blooms of native grasses.