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Archive for the ‘In The Field’ Category

This past week Denver.Eater asked “How Denver’s Restaurant Industry Would Change the World Through Food.” They asked food editors, the governor, chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs, coffee roasters, and restaurant critics. I enjoyed reading the answers and shared many of the sentiments. It was no surprise to me that there were no farmers listed with these other “restaurant industry” folks. I see this all the time across the national conversation about food; it’s not unique to Denver, but why aren’t we asking farmers and ranchers these questions? Hell, why aren’t we asking dishwashers, prep cooks, or the countless other invisible positions that complete the restaurant industry? Maybe it’s because these aren’t positions of power and we assume that the people at the top of the chain will have a better answer than the folks who are in the trenches every day. Maybe “How Dishwashers Would Change the World through Food” wouldn’t provide the necessary click-bait. But if we really cared about this question then maybe we should be asking everyone along the chain.

So here’s my answer to the question, “how would I change the world through food” even though no one asked me.

I think education is the foundation to lasting change and if we are going to instill systemic change we need to reeducate ourselves about what food is. Food, at it’s most basic level should nourish us. It should provide the necessary vitamins,  minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, etc. for our existence. There are certainly “foods” that we consume that don’t meet this need and I think we’ve lost the ability to discern between foods that nourish and foods that don’t. My goal as a farmer is to grow the highest quality food I can. But the quality I’m striving for isn’t simply the physical appearance, it’s the nutritional quality of the produce. Nationally we have dropped the concept of nutrition from our language of food except for that often cringe-worthy term “health food.” We have documented science that shows that most of our nation’s produce has lower nutritional content than it did 60 years ago. This is largely due to our farming practices that focus on yield (pounds and bushels) and not nutrition. There is no incentive in the market to grow a healthier carrot because we have erroneously convinced ourselves that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot. But a carrot’s nutritional content will differ based on where and how it’s grown. Imagine if you had the information to choose which carrot to buy based on the nutritional content of those specific carrots. Would you ever choose a carrot that was less healthy for you? Our food system incentivizes  growing cheap food with no regard to the health of the consumer. We can blame this on the “food system,” but we are all participating in this. Until we as eaters start to show that we care about the health of the food that we are eating there wont be change.

So how am I changing the world through food? I’m starting with my community and the 60 CSA members that pick up produce for 20 weeks of the year from the farm. I’m taking opportunities to explain why and how growing nutrient-dense food is our priority. I’m might not change the world, but I am working to educate my community on why food is important and that it’s their job to do the same.

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What’s in a Name?

When gearing up to start Clear Creek Organics, my wife and I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what to name the farm. We knew the importance of the farm’s name as a first impression to future customers, so we made lists and asked for input from other people. Should we have a name that is playful that reflects our own personalities? Should we simply name the farm after our last name and call it the __ Family Farm. What words did we want to use to convey what we are doing? Farm? Acres? Organic? Family? We hope to work with a few high end restaurants, so should the name be one that would look good on a fancy menu? We went round in circles for what seemed like months trying to come up with the perfect name for the farm.

During one of our “let’s try to come up with the farm name” conversations, Lauren was calling out names, hoping that one would stick. We were walking along a greenbelt trail that journeys along the banks of Clear Creek. At one point she said, “What about Clear Creek?” We live a block from the trail, and we can walk a few miles along it to come within blocks of the farm. Also, the irrigation ditch that will water the fields at the farm is drawn from Clear Creek. I was recognizing more and more how significant this creek is for us. The concept of “place” has become increasingly important to me over the last decade as I’ve been influenced by the writing of Wendell Berry. Berry writes, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” And a more lengthy quote, but one that gets the the heart of the idea of community being rooted in a particular place:

“Community, then, is an indispensable term in any discussion of the connection between people and land. A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland but also between human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included.”

As we walked along the Clear Creek trail, the notion of “place” in my mind, I felt drawn to the idea of a name that centers around the place in which we live.

I was drawn to the name Clear Creek Organics after that. Adding the word “Organics” gave a distinction to what we are doing. My entry into agriculture was through organic production. The first farm I worked for was a certified organic farm. Organic production is what I know and believe in. The basics of organic production are restoring biodiversity, utilizing biological controls for pests and weeds, avoiding GMOs and the use of biosolids, and improving the soil. Some folks don’t like the fact that the USDA controls the use of the word by deciding the rules for who is “certified organic” and who is not. I like the fact that the word Organic has a specific meaning and that it’s a great way for people to recognize our farming practices as it lines up with their beliefs. We are hoping to be certified through the Colorado Department of Agriculture this year.

Our farm’s name holds a lot of significance for me. I hope you find significance in it, too.

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Off Season?

With the temps below freezing and snow on the ground it’s easy to assume that the winter season is an “off season” for a farmer, but that’s not quite the case. For most farmers the winter season far from the 2 month hibernation that we wish it could be. The to-do list can often be just as long as it is during the summer season. And for us, starting Clear Creek Organics adds another list of things to accomplish.

It’s true that we don’t have weeding or harvesting that commands our attention. But the winter season is all about planning. And while we aren’t in the field physically, we are there mentally. In a just over a month we will be starting seeds in the greenhouse. By mid March, peas and root crops will go in the ground. June 3 is our first CSA pick up. That might sound like 6 months away to you, but to a farmer it’s right around the corner.

They way I plan out a farm season begins at the end. I start with the crops I hope to have available each week throughout the season. From there I count backwards, based on the vegetable, to determine when that crop needs to go in the ground. If it’s a crop that will be transplanted, like tomatoes, I need to account for the 6-8 weeks it will be in the greenhouse. But some crops, like the tomatoes, need support to grow, so I need to make sure to order tomato stakes and twine to trellis them. All the beds need irrigation, so I better make sure to add that to my shopping list.

I’ve also been working on tearing down a building on the farm to make way for a Home Occupation Kitchen. This will give us a legal space to process food and host farm dinners. Tomorrow I’m going to start putting the greenhouse up so that we can start seeding out transplants in a few weeks. Oh yeah, I need to build a small shed for some dairy goats. And I start teaching the spring semester of Urban Farm Management in two weeks. Yikes!

Off season? Hardly. But all the busyness of the winter months points to the food that my family will be able to provide for yours. And that is a beautiful thing.

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This morning I found a great blog post, written by a farmer in the UP of Michigan, that resonated with thoughts I’ve been having about the price disparity between local food systems and institutional food systems. Find the full post here. Head over to the Wintergreen Farm blog and leave a comment for her.

“But for all the excitement about local food and enthusiasm for farming, there is another wave that small farmers cannot help but notice: the wave of consumers gritting their teeth and quietly asking their farmers to bring down the price. We charge two dollars for 12 stems of kale and in our community (an especially low income area) that is considered exorbitantly expensive. What is that about? Why have Americans come to expect high quality food for unreasonably low prices, and what – if anything – can the current crop of small farmers do about it?”

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I’ve always had a pretty high standard for the produce that comes off of our farm. My boss at my previous farm was meticulous in his expectations of the farm’s produce that we delivered to our CSA members. I expected clean and fresh produce when I was working and cooking in restaurant kitchens. So now that I have my own operation, my standard remains pretty high. We triple wash our greens. We soak our roots. We cool everything as soon as possible. I assumed that other farms had the same goals. But this morning as I was scanning my twitter feed I found this post about making a DIY produce wash. I encourage our members to wash their produce before they use it not because I don’t think our produce is clean, but because I think that it’s an important practice to do consistently when preparing produce.

But what caught my attention was AJ’s opening paragrah: “My CSA share is getting bigger and bigger by the week, which means lots and lots of produce washing. It’s funny, you’d think that straight from the farm would mean less cleaning, since everything’s local, organic, blah blah blah. But that’s really not the case. I find more dirt and critters in my CSA fruits and vegetables than I’ve ever seen in any produce at the grocery store. You don’t even want to know what I found in one of my peaches this past week… seriously.”

So I’m left wondering, do people associate “straight-from-the-farm produce to be covered in dirt and insects?” What do you think?

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More words from Trace at Cricket Bread.  His language is poetic.  Enjoy

Many of us never meant to become farmers.  We had our ambitions to enter the world as accountants or lawyers or teachers or some other clean, respectable professional.  We never really thought about the origins of our food; we always knew that the supermarket shelves would fill themselves, food came in boxes or cans ready to serve and farmers were simply one dimensional photographs in the mix of a hot new marketing campaign.

Farming was at best some idyllic retirement scheme, never a seriously considered career possibility.

But then something happened.  In the previously steady route of our lives, a shift occurred.  The soil moved under us somehow, got stuck in the creases of our pants, in the ridges of our shoes, in the lines of our palms.  Suddenly white picket fences, situation comedies and mutual fund returns didn’t seem so interesting anymore.  The big ball game and the driving range became distractions from the reality of a new love affair.  We got hooked on the possibilities of growing our own food and also providing that food to others.

The epiphany was likely different for many of us.  Maybe a friend took us to a farmers market.  Maybe someone had a plate of local hamburgers or collards at a picnic.  Maybe the news of some global food disaster made us question the monocultures piled high on our plates.  Maybe a real life farmer entered our life.

For a few of us, those with farming in our past – a childhood spent in the fields of the big farms or the family plots, throwing rocks into the hedgerows for little or no pay or watching over milking machines in the stench of industrial sized barns – there was no love, no kind of encouragement, no appreciation for our part in the dynamics of food production.  We were simply limbs and calluses then, small gears in a giant cranking clock.  We left the farm to pursue something else only to be pulled back hard when it became apparent that we could abandon everything that farming once meant to us.  We could make it ours.

Still others came to farming from DIY and anti-authoritarian backgrounds, building urban community gardens or putting up food in anarchist collectives.  Gardening always had a community aspect to it, but we wanted something more.  We knew that we could do the work, that we had the right vision and skills.  We just needed the access and the resources to get started.

Regardless of how we arrived at this point, here we are; we will call ourselves farmers from now on.

Our new loves – with their sharp hooves and unfamiliar odors, bright green leaves and bee covered flowers – give all the confidence to continue and pursue every goal we can imagine.  Our new hates – hail, crop failures and rain on market days – fully test our tolerance and keep those same goals in the territory of attainability.  Throughout all the highs and lows we can look at ourselves over and over again knowing that, if we stick to our ideals, we can do noble and appropriate work no matter what happens.

Local and sustainable farmers are our peers and our heroes, the most supportive, loving and steadfast community we could ever hope for.

We young and new farmers have the opportunity to change the features of the agricultural systems we have come to inherit.  Through the way we speak, act and work we can change the old infrastructure, market by market and county by county.  We have the time and ability to influence extension agents, educational systems and other institutions to make them function the way we need them to function in order to attain a sane and purposeful community based food system.

We are the new blood in the old body.

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For nearly a year and a half I’ve been following a blog called Sustainable Food Jobs. The blog started as a very simple idea: post job listings that relate to sustainable food. In the beginning, things started pretty slowly. One post every few days, but now it seems to be averaging about five to seven listings a day. The job postings offer positions ranging everything from short term fellowship opportunities to assistant farmer/CSA manager to Executive Director for non-profit, sustainable food organizations. Even though I have a farm for myself, I’ve enjoyed reading the posts each day to get a sense for the types of positions that are out there.

This morning as I was skimming the posts, I saw a post for a position for a company that promotes sustainable agricultural practices seeking to fill a full time position with a salary around $45,000. (I would like to be clear on something before I move on. I am not being critical of this company or the salary that it is offering; I’m just using it as an example.) A few posts down from this one I started seeing posts for apprentice positions that, if they were year-round positions, would amount to $15,000. Certainly, there is a difference between the level of experience that the office position was seeking compared to the farming apprenticeship, but this reminded me of other discrepancies that I have seen before. It is a near-impossible thing to try to compare the value of two different positions, but it does make me wonder about how the positions are valued.

Last month, the USDA released a publication entitled, “A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series: A Better Understanding of Our Food Costs,” and in the publication they have a few graphic representations of the breakdown of each dollar spent on food. Here is a simple graphic expressing the percent of a dollar that goes directly to the farmer/rancher.

This graphic represents the difference between the farms share and the marketers share of the average dollar spent on food. This graphic is more representative of a bag of Dole’s baby spinach than of a bunch of spinach purchased from a farmer at a farmer’s market. It’s amazing to see that the people that are growing the food receive 5x less the amount of money than the company that is telling you to buy the food.

Seeing this graphic and reading through the publication reminded me about a podcast called Deconstructing Dinner. I remember listening to an episode a while back about a grain co-op that was getting started. The host was listening in on a meeting between the grain farmers and other co-founders of the grain co-op. They were discussing the possibility of hiring a CSA coordinator at the salary of $20/hour for 1-2 days of work a week. The discussion that followed was poignant. Here sat the grain farmers, who would be growing the grain for the co-op/CSA and would not be making $20/hour, trying to express how that felt. (Click the link above and skip to the 29th minute mark to hear the discussion.)

The people in the interview mentioned several times that the salary disparity between the grower and promoter of the food was “just apart of how things are now,” and I’m afraid they are correct. It seems to be the reality that those that produce the food will always retain a minor percentage of the money spent on food, and even organization that support, encourage, and champion small sustainable farmers will receive a larger paycheck then the farmers, themselves. What do you think about this? or perhaps a better question would be, do you think about this?

So what can we do to correct this financial disparity?

  • Go out of your way to purchase directly from the farmer/rancher/fisher.
  • Reduce the amount of prepackaged foods your family purchased.
  • Find a CSA to participate in.
  • Look for a restaurant in your area that is purchasing a significant amount of it’s food from local farms and ranches.

What else could we add to this list?

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