Archive for the ‘local food’ Category

The Magic of Compost

Orizaba Farm's new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

Orizaba Farm’s new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

The green tarp crinkled as I pulled it back from the large pile of leaves, straw, and kitchen scraps.  Digging my hand into the moist pile, I moved aside the top layers until I reached a mat of coffee grinds.  An eruption of warm steam billowed from the center of the pile and a red wriggler worm squirmed out from beneath a coffee filter.  I tossed another bucket of kitchen scraps and coffee grinds into the hole I created and covered the pile back up with leaves and straw.  Creating a good compost pile is a bit like baking bread.  It needs the right mixture of ingredients; the right amount of moisture – not too wet or too dry; the right environment to foster rapid but controlled microbial growth and activity; and the right cooking time and temperature.  Like baking, the process may seem tedious to the eyes of the uninitiated.  But once the process is complete – and if done correctly – I knew that I would be rewarded with a bountiful garden harvest the following season, as rich and filling as the heartiest loaf of bread.

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

I had only been at our new home for two weeks and had already accumulated a massive pile of leaves from a nearby church, pine needles from a local school, wood chips from the Portland Urban Forestry Center, a tall stack of cardboard boxes from a local appliance store, pallets from an upholstery shop down the road, newsprint from a local printing press, coffee grinds from our neighborhood coffee shop, and 15 bales of oat straw from our community’s organic farm supply store.  We have a trunk full of seeds we saved from our last farm in Maine, two dozen raspberry plants that I had dug as sprouts from Suyematsu Farms on Bainbridge Island, a dozen blueberry bushes, and several grape and fig plants we propagated from cuttings last year.  My parents, grandmother, and our numerous green-thumbed neighbors hold in reserve for us countless varieties of perennials from which we will take cuttings to populate our urban farm:  figs, grapes, kiwis, raspberries, thornless blackberries, rhubarb, and huckleberries.  Our community is full of fruit trees from which we will collect scionwood for grafting onto rootstock.  Our half acre farm plot will be productive, and our plates will be full.

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

This is what it was all about.  Nutrient Cycling.  Feeding Life from Death.  Composting.  The continuous circle of matter and energy facilitated by that miracle of organization and defiance of entropy we call “Life.”  This is why I left academia to become an organic farmer.  This is why I forfeited nearly $100k in fellowship stipends:  to dig my hands into the soil and pull forth Life.  Because, as my best friend Josh Ellis puts it, “Cultivating Life is infinitely more rewarding than studying it.”  And Life begins – and ends – with compost.  So, in a word, compost is the reason that I left the nation’s top Ph.D. program in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.  Compost:  to create Life; to transform it; to become a true student of Life.  Not by experimentally manipulating and statistically analyzing it as a scientist would; rather, by observing, feeding, producing, and consuming it.  By becoming an organic farmer.


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Russell Libby, the Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), died three days ago after a long battle with cancer.  It is a tragic loss for the Maine sustainable agriculture community.  I don’t believe that I can effectively capture the importance and profundity of his influence in my own words.  So I will allow Russ to speak for himself as he did so eloquently in a portrait by Americans Who Tell the Truth.

We have to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in the modern world. Our bodies don´t have systems to process plastics or flame retardants or pesticides. If contamination is the price of modern society, modern society has failed us.

“We eat from the earth, the sky, the water.” (quoted from Robert P.T. Coffin)

It’s up to us—up to all of us—to change the world so every time we look around, we recognize those basic principles of life…I want to talk about our shared responsibility to leave this place better than we found it. Not better from a corporate, make-more-money mode, but a place of beauty, a place that gives us great pleasure throughout our days and throughout our lives. Because that sense of beauty, of pleasure in what we are doing each day, is what is going to carry us forward through the difficult times that we live in now, and the more difficult times that lie ahead.

Let’s work really hard at undermining the entire idea of corporate food. [We should] know who produced everything we eat. And how it was produced. That would be transformational. We know that we can grow the food we need to eat, and grow it with minimal energy inputs. Now we need to share with the public the knowledge that we’ve acquired and that we share with one another. We know we are addicted to oil. [But] each seed we plant this year is another way to capture sunlight and convert it to food. Let’s get growing!

Although Russ Libby’s life has passed, his truly inspirational words will remain with us as we take what we learned in Maine and apply it to our new home in Oregon.

One of our gardens in Bangor, Maine

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Photo by Joel Sackett

Three generations of agricultural excellence at Suyematsu Farms on Bainbridge Island.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

“I guess I’m not going to be farming anymore,” Akio told Mike after repeated health problems and a difficult trip to the hospital.

Akio Suyematsu is the 90-year old patriarch of Bainbridge Island and Suyematsu Farms.  His parents had moved to the island from Japan before he was born, and he had lived his entire life farming the land where I now work, minus the shameful interval in the 1940’s when his family was swept off the island and relocated to internment camps for the purpose of “national security,” followed by a stint serving in the U.S. Army in the European Theater.  After the war ended, the family returned to their land and resumed farming.  Of all the Suyematsu children, eventually only Akio remained to continue growing what some consider to be the best strawberries and raspberries in the Puget Sound.

But his health is declining and gone are the days of weeding, planting, cultivating, and fertilizing his beloved fields of strawberries, raspberries, and pumpkins.  Try as he might, he could not bring himself to return to the fields he has seen through nearly 80 years of production.  I had the privilege last winter of spending a brief moment in the raspberries with Akio as we removed clips from the trellis wires.  After an hour out in the cold, Akio was too exhausted to continue and, to my knowledge, has not worked outside in the fields since.  To say that the brief moment of farming I shared with Akio was inspirational would be an understatement.  The man lives, breathes, and sleeps farming.  He is the real deal, an archetypal farmer who understands that life comes not just from the soil, but from the blood, sweat, and tears that growers pour into their profession.  What, then, is life for a farmer who is no longer able to be present with the soil and his crops?

When I heard Mike recount to me what Akio said, my reaction was unexpected.  I became incensed.  I couldn’t believe what Akio had said.

“Not going to be farming anymore?”  Utter nonsense, I thought.  Mike and Karen, my current employer, wouldn’t be farming here if it weren’t for him!

Every good farmer knows that life does not simply end with death, or in Akio’s case, with convalescence.  Life feeds on life.  Life grows from life.  Death produces compost that feeds more life.  What does a radish become once it enters our digestive tract if not the manure that becomes the compost that feeds the soil that supports the next crop’s conversion of solar energy into biodegradable biomass?  The linear, western viewpoint of life – and farming – terminating in death ignores the reality of the hardworking farmers who are only in business because of Akio’s endless knowledge, experience, and generosity.

Bainbridge Island Farms, Paulson Farms, Laughing Crow Farm, Butler Green Farms:  these farms only exist because Akio had the keen foresight and generosity to offer his land, tools, experience, and knowledge at well below market prices in the hopes that his legacy would survive.  Akio is legendary at these farms for his work ethic and humility, his stoic perseverance in adversity, his high threshold for pain, and his meticulously weed-free fields. There is only one Akio Suyematsu. But every legend is still a mortal.  As Akio’s mortal body undergoes what all of ours eventually will, let us not forget that the farms on Bainbridge Island owe to Akio their very existence and will be farming in his image long after he departs.  Mike, Carol, Karen, Betsey, Brian:  these farmers are the repositories of Akio’s knowledge and experience, they are his hands by proxy upon the land he worked, issuing forth a new generation of agriculture.  They are, in essence, his agricultural children.  His grandchildren are alive and well, too, carrying on the proud tradition of growing food from the soil beneath their feet:  Dana and Aaron at Around the Table Farm, Becky Warner of City Grown Seattle, Renee and Luke in search of land, and myself.

Regardless of one’s beliefs about an afterlife, it is a truism that the cycle of energy and matter does not merely end with death.  Our bodies are filled with the very same atoms that coursed through and composed the bodies of prehistoric dinosaurs and pterodactyls, of woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers, of giant sharks and ancient ferns, of massive redwoods and hulking Neanderthals, of ammonites and trilobites, of algae, fungi, and bacteria that were living billions of years ago.  Once our consciousness is gone, a mere memory in the eyes of our descendants, our energy and atoms will continue to cycle through life forms as diverse as the most colorful coral reefs and rainforests, for eons to come until the Sun devours the Earth in a fiery ball of plasma, the Universe collapses back upon itself, and we return to the stardust from whence we originated.

Akio is still farming.  He is farming because Karen is still farming, carrying on Akio’s weed-free cultivation style while growing organic raspberries, strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, currants, pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet corn.  He is farming because Betsey is farming, plowing the earth with her draft horses to produce some of the finest potatoes, garlic, and onions in the Puget Sound.  He is farming because Brian is pumping out some of the greatest volume and diversity of organic vegetables in the county.  And he is farming because Mike and Carol of Paulson Farms are continuing Akio’s tradition of composting yard waste and maintaining the farm’s arsenal of tractors, while milling locally harvested lumber, producing handmade soaps, and growing organic vegetables, nursery plants, trees and shrubs, and eggs.

I think it’s high time we stopped viewing death and illness as an endpoint, but rather as a transitional state.  Akio has passed a formidable torch onto a new cadre of protégés, representing a small but significant transfer of knowledge and culture in an all but endless cycle of life and death, growing and composting.  Meanwhile, the pumpkins and corn are sprouting in the fields, the raspberries are flowering and buzzing vigorously with the activity of bees, and the first strawberry harvest of the season is upon us.  As Karen told me today while heading to the hospital to visit Akio, “The show must go on.”

Because of Akio’s deep commitment to the next generation of local farmers, the show will go on.

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What We Have

A recent Seattle Public Radio report highlighted the growing gap between “The Rich and The Rest of Us”, and referred to this division as one between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots”.


Small farmers are one of the lowest paid sectors of the American workforce. We are the green-collar working class. We are the over-educated, underpaid, landless “Greenhorns” without health insurance, retirement funds, or other benefits. We are part of the “99%”. But one thing we are not are “Have Nots.”


What we have is immeasurable. We have healthy food that we grow with our own hands. We have active, outdoor lifestyles, and diverse skillsets. We have frequent, inspirational interactions with wildlife. We have relationships with integrity, depth, and sincerity. We have strong bodies, bold minds, and calloused, dirty hands. We have starlit nights, beautiful views, and deep roots in our local ecosystem. We have sound ethical principles and practical products of our labor. We have daily periods of contemplative quiet and reflection alternating with intense, rapidly paced work. We have resilience and strength in community and self. We have the deep satisfaction of feeding our family, our friends, and our neighbors. We have the knowledge and confidence that we can thrive at incomes below the poverty line.


What we have cannot be captured or estimated by GDP, or taxable income, or any other quantifiable economic parameter. What we have defies measurement and transcends statistics.


We do not have nights out at restaurants or the cinema. We do not have second automobiles or personal watercraft. We do not have servants, maids, or nannies. We do not have “first class” plane tickets and cruise ship vacations. We do not have carefully manicured lawns and “mow and blow” landscapers. We do not have oil, or gold, or stock portfolios. Nor would we want any of those things if given the choice.


What we have can be neither bought, nor sold, nor traded on global markets. What we have makes life worth living.


We are not “Have Nots.”


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(Answer: It’s not really organic)

This is a long one, so here’s the executive summary:

  • “Organic” food is defined as not having “synthetic” inputs
  • “Synthetic” is defined as being derived from petroleum or natural gas (I.e., fossil fuels or petrochemicals)
  • Almost all organic farms use petrochemicals, although not as fertilizers or pesticides
  • Therefore, “organic” food is not truly organic, as it is still dependent on fossil fuels
  • Modern “organic” farming is nothing like traditional farming practiced prior to the discovery of fossil fuels
  • Many “local” foods are dependent on non-local inputs, such as animal feeds and petrochemicals
  • Some “local” and “organic” foods actually use more fossil fuels and produce more greenhouse gases than their conventional, non-local counterparts
  • Traditional farms were more energetically efficient than modern industrial agriculture, which wastes most of the energy used
  • Fossil fuels are non-renewable and heavily polluting, and therefore are inherently unsustainable
  • For organic and local to truly be sustainable, it must not pollute or depend on non-renewable resources
  • Only “fossil fuel free” food can be truly sustainable, by this definition
  • Alternatively, “sustainable” agriculture should be sufficiently diverse and adaptable to changing conditions

My best friend, Phil, and I have been engaged in an ongoing debate about whether “organic” food is merely a fad and a marketing gimmick. Phil and I are old buddies from the OSU Honors College, and have taken many science courses together, ranging from genetics to biochemistry. Phil, a pathologist, claims that all food is “organic” by definition because it contains organic molecules, or molecules constructed around a backbone of multiple carbon atoms (either in a ring or chain form). Therefore, according to this argument, the USDA “organic” label is essentially meaningless. Although I cannot argue with the textbook chemistry definition of “organic”, I like to point out that the word has multiple definitions, one of which is “a carbon-based compound”, and another of which is “any substance derived from living organisms”. In other words, “organic” can also mean “not synthetic.”

The current USDA standards for organic agriculture closely follow the latter definition, in that the standards prohibit farmers from using “synthetic” fertilizers or pesticides, but permit most pesticides and fertilizers derived from plant or animal sources, as well as some naturally occurring mined substances, such as copper (used as a fungicide), sulfur (used to lower soil pH), or lime (used to raise pH). So when most well informed people think of “organic” farming, they think of soil whose fertility is provided by cover crops, mulches, and compost composed of plant materials and animal wastes as opposed to fertilizers synthesized from natural gas. Or they envision crops sprayed with gentle compost teas and biodegradable plant oils to ward off pests and diseases instead of using toxic synthetic chemicals. The popular notion that “organic” farms do not use “chemicals” is a common misconception, as compost and animal manures themselves are complex soups of naturally occurring chemicals resulting from the breakdown of plant and animal materials, and USDA organic standards do permit the use of pesticides derived from “natural” sources.

However, the example of lime as an organic soil amendment illustrates a catch in this commonly accepted definition of “organic”. Lime (usually CaCO3 and MgCO3) is considered a natural and “organic” substance by USDA standards – even though it is technically an inorganic molecule – because it is mined, usually from limestone or chalk quarries, and not synthesized in a laboratory or factory. Lime also happens to originate from formerly living organisms, as most are the remains of shells from ancient fossilized coral reefs and single-celled marine algae (phytoplankton). Does this description sound at all familiar to you? It should. I’ll give you a hint: think of the most important, and perhaps the most volatile, commodity on the global market today.

If you guessed “oil”, give yourself a pat on your organic back. Here’s the problem: oil – or petroleum, to be more exact – is essentially no different than lime. Like limestone, petroleum is a mined substance that originated primarily from ancient fossilized marine algae and was not synthesized in a laboratory. So why is one considered “organic” and the other “synthetic”? Good question. Both are originally derived from living organisms. Both are effectively non-renewable, as they were formed millions of years ago through very slow fossilization and plate tectonic processes (as an aside, wood ash is another form of lime that is renewable).

It appears that the difference is largely one of semantics; “synthetic” effectively means “derived from petroleum”. Today, whenever you hear of something referred to as “synthetic,” this almost always means that it was manufactured using petroleum, or its cousin natural gas, as a major feedstock. For instance, synthetic fibers = petroleum derivatives. Synthetic wood = plastic wood = petroleum derivative. Synthetic fertilizers = natural gas derivative, and synthetic pesticides = petrochemicals. The issue is not that oil or natural gas are fundamentally different from “organic” substances. They are not. Many “organic” substances are also non-renewable, mined materials of natural origin. Delve deep enough into the philosophy of nature literature and you’ll find that the “natural” vs. “artificial/synthetic” divide is completely a human construct stemming from our western/modern desire to control nature and draw a distinction between what is “human” and what is “natural.” In reality, no such distinction exists. Petroleum is organic, humans are animals, and “artificial/synthetic” products are inherently natural, despite labeling them otherwise. Rather, the problem with The Great Organic Debate is that we have framed the definition of “organic” vs. “synthetic” to set petrochemicals apart from other “organic” substances, even though petroleum meets the classic definitions of “organic” on both accounts: carbon-based compounds of plant or animal origin.

So, in summary, “synthetic” means based on, derived from, or using fossil fuels, whereas “organic” should mean avoiding or prohibiting the use of fossil fuels. Here’s the problem: strictly speaking, there is virtually no organic farm nowadays that does not use “synthetic” petrochemicals in some manner. What was just 150 years ago an all but unknown substance is now, today, the cheapest and most readily available form of energy. With the exception of a few animal-powered farms that grow their own animal feed (e.g., some Amish communities), virtually every “organic” farm depends on petroleum to power tractors, harvest crops, weed their fields, and transport produce. Your “organic” food is just as dependent on petroleum and other fossil fuels as any “non-organic” food. The use of fossil fuels is currently the largest source of greenhouse gases and air and water pollution worldwide. Michael Pollan correctly pointed out the fact that many large organic farms actually use more petroleum and produce more greenhouse gases per calorie of food produced than their conventional counterparts, since they have to rely upon flame weeding or tractor cultivation to deal with weeds, rather than synthetic herbicides. Although the net greenhouse gas footprints of organic vs. conventional farming is a point of controversy, the fact that both systems heavily depend on fossil fuels makes the debate somewhat irrelevant:  both contribute heavily to climate change.

Similarly, many “local” foods are not, strictly speaking, “local.” Most “locally grown” organic vegetables rely upon animal manures that are often transported hundreds or thousands of miles to maintain soil fertility. Hence, the term “manure miles” has been coined to counter the popularized notion of “food miles” and highlight the fact that agricultural inputs are just as important for sustainability and health as the end product. Likewise, many “local” animal products, such as dairy, meats, and eggs, are produced using animal feeds that were grown thousands of miles away. Get this: if you buy a “locally grown” chicken in Washington and a “non-local” chicken, and both chickens were fed grains grown in the Midwest (a likely scenario), then the “non-local” chicken probably has a smaller greenhouse gas footprint if that chicken was raised nearby its food source. This is because it takes a lot more energy, and consequently more fossil fuels, to transport animal feed than to transport the animals themselves, since it takes about two pounds of grain to grow one pound of chicken (feed conversion ratio).

The two organic farms I am currently working for both use propane to power torches for flame weeding (which is a blast, but produces tremendous amounts of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions), and petroleum to power tractors for cultivation. One of them utilizes municipal compost for soil fertility, and the compost is managed and transported using heavy, diesel-powered, equipment. The other uses a combination of horse manure and pelleted chicken waste. In both cases, the animals that provide the manure were fed using crops grown, harvested, and/or transported using petrochemicals. It is exceedingly difficult nowadays to find a farm that provides both its necessary labor and soil fertility without relying upon fossil fuels. In essence, as a consequence, we are all completely addicted to these non-renewable, and heavily polluting, resources.

The difference between organic and conventional farms is that organic farmers are not allowed to apply petrochemicals directly to the crops or to the soil. I personally find this distinction to be a bit arbitrary, although I will concede that synthetic petrochemicals tend to be more toxic (although not always) and more persistent in the environment than “organic” chemicals, due to the inability of microbes to metabolize petrochemicals with which they did not co-evolve. The soil simply lacks the enzymatic and cellular machinery to biodegrade many (but not all) petrochemicals, which is why their use in agriculture is so insidious – many of them persist and accumulate in the environment, with often harmful effects, for years after their application. In contrast, most organic chemicals are derived from plants, animals, fungi, or bacteria and readily break down into harmless chemicals, like water and CO2, in a short period of time. But again, this is an arbitrary distinction. For instance, the controversial use of copper sulfate as an approved organic fungicide has the potential to pollute adjacent watersheds, since copper – being a heavy metal – cannot decompose.

As a society, we like to romanticize farming as a very traditional profession, steeped in ancient practices that are thousands of years old and deeply connected to a local land and resource base. For ten thousand years, farmers grew food using entirely locally sourced fertility and human and animal labor. They fed their animals with plant materials they grew themselves, on their own farm, and they recycled their animal wastes to maintain soil fertility. They drove their equipment with grass-powered internal combustion engines (i.e., draft horses and oxen), and used human labor for smaller tasks. To buy seeds or deliver produce to market, they traveled by foot or hoof. The notions of “local” and “organic” did not even exist because no alternative was possible; everything was by necessity local and organic in the truest sense as petrochemicals had not yet been discovered and long-distance transportation networks were rarely used due to the great risk and expense they entailed. In modern farming – organic and conventional alike – nothing could be further from the truth. If you suddenly were to take petrochemicals out of the equation, nearly every modern farming operation would rapidly grind to a halt. This should strike you immediately as a serious problem of global food insecurity, especially as concerns about peak oil or Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz loom large.

In reality, there is very little that is romantic about traditional agriculture. It was exceedingly hard and dangerous work, with intense physical labor from dawn to dusk, and the constant threat of catastrophic harvest failures that could not be buffered by crop insurance or mitigated by food transportation networks. To be certain, fossil fuels have alleviated many of these concerns by providing a cheap source of energy (and thus labor), opening up global markets (often at the cost of local ones), and facilitating the ease of importing diverse foods and agricultural inputs from distant regions. But let’s be clear: modern agriculture – both organic and conventional – is anything but sustainable. In fact, industrial agriculture produces vast inefficiencies in food production when compared to traditional farming methods. One estimate holds that industrial farming methods, regardless of whether conventional or organic, only produce about one calorie of food energy (i.e., output) for every ten calories of energy used (i.e., input). In other words, 90% of the energy in the system is wasted, mostly in the form of burning fossil fuels. In contrast, the output to input ratio for traditional farming methods, which are non-mechanized and labor intensive, is closer to one to four, so that four calories of biomass produce about one calorie of food. According to this estimate, traditional “fossil fuel free” farming is 2.5 times more efficient thermodynamically than modern industrial agriculture. If traditional farming were as inefficient as modern farms are today, then the farmers of the past, and their animals, would have probably starved.

Back to my friend, Phil. Phil is fond of rebutting arguments about the virtues of organic food by stating that “organic” is merely a marketing gimmick, an arbitrary label, and a short-lived fad, and that organic foods are not necessarily any more environmentally sustainable, economic, or energy efficient than conventional foods. I admit, I have to concede that he may have a point for all the reasons listed above, which may surprise you given that I am an organic farmer.

So, let’s reframe the debate in a more logically consistent fashion. Should organic foods be permitted to use fossil fuels for inputs other than fertilizers and pesticides? More to the point, is it even possible to grow food sustainably in a manner that uses fossil fuels? I submit that it is not. To be sustainable, farming should rely entirely on renewable resources and should not pollute the air, water, and soil that sustains our lives. It seems a contradiction in terms to claim that a cultural practice is sustainable when it depletes, or depends upon, a heavily polluting non-renewable resource. Sustainable, after all, means to provide for the needs of the present while not compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Only fossil fuel free farming can fit this bill, but virtually nobody today seems to be practicing this.

I’m sure Phil would have something to say about this conclusion, and as always his perspective would be a uniquely rational and moderate one. After all, why not use fossil fuels for food production while they’re readily available? As a medical doctor, I’m certain that Phil is aware of how tremendously medical research and technology have benefited from the cheap energy and diverse products, such as plastics, made possible by petrochemicals (remember the “Plastics Make It Possible” ad campaign sponsored by the plastics industry?). Certainly, countless lives have been saved through the wise application of medical science and technology enabled by fossil fuels. Likewise, petrochemical based food production and transportation has fed billions of people and staved numerous famines, although often at a great cost to the environment and to small traditional farmers.

Perhaps another reasonable response to the question of sustainability is that, to be sustainable, an agricultural system must simply be sufficiently diverse, adaptive, and flexible that it can easily revert from a dependence upon any particular resource or input when it becomes necessary to do so. I’ll buy that. We have seven billion people to feed on this planet, and if we are to be successful in providing for future generations as the Earth’s resources become increasingly strained, perhaps the best approach is to take as many different approaches as possible. Let’s try a little of everything and see what works as the economic, environmental, and geopolitical conditions on the ground change (and as the climate changes). Let’s provide farmers with the resources, support, and education necessary to adapt to changing markets and pressures, to changing supply and demand, and to a changing climate.

Phil – care for a rebuttal?

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We have begun the long process of pruning the grape vines at Bainbridge Island Vineyards. As we work among the rows, carefully selecting next year’s fruiting canes, I marvel at the diversity of life that abounds in the vineyards and surrounding habitats. Most conspicuous, of course, are the birds. Canada geese feed in the fields while widgeons flock overhead in the hundreds, filling the air with the whistle of wind through wings and their distinctly squeaky call, comically reminiscent of a rubber ducky bath toy.

The more elusive species, often heard but not seen, add another layer of complexity to the vineyard ecosystem. As I head out to the vineyard in the early morning, a song sparrow greets me from a nearby bush, warbling proudly, and the croak of a ring-necked pheasant echoes from the peach orchard beyond the ponds. Later in the afternoon, an Anna’s hummingbird chirps, unseen, from a nearby treetop, while a varied thrush issues its buzzing call at the edge of the pinot noir. The ponds themselves are inhabited by a variety of waterfowl behind a screen of vegetation, with predominantly widgeons, mallards, and geese by day, but hooded mergansers and scaups ducks by night.

Large predators, what ecologists often refer to as “indicator species”, also grace the vineyards with frequent visits. Bald eagles, osprey, and hawks soar overhead intermittently during the day in search of prey. At night, one can occasionally be woken by the chilling screech of a barn owl or the haunting cries of a pack of coyotes making their way across the farm.

Even more remarkable than the abundant birds and mammals are the microcosmic ecosystems that inhabit the vines themselves. Each vine is host to a menagerie of tiny flora and fauna. Perhaps because we use strictly organic practices in our vineyards, the vines are covered in a lush carpet of moss providing a home for mushrooms, snails, worms, and in the warmer months, a plethora of insects and spiders.

I’m not certain whether these creatures add to the quality and character of Bainbridge Island’s estate grown wines, but they most certainly add to the character of the vines and the unique personality of the vineyards.



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Betsey, Hailey, and Cassie planting garlic on Bainbridge Island

23 October 2011

As soon as I rolled onto Day Road Farms on Bainbridge Island, a deer immediately bounded past me, directly into a large market vegetable garden.  Further along the gravel road, a flock of fifty geese foraged for cover crop seeds and blueberries.  A cacophonous murder of crows, several hundred strong, dived into the rows of grapes, plucking forgotten fruit off the vines.

Day Road Farms is a rare example of a combined agricultural property, jointly owned by the city of Bainbridge and several farmers who manage separate parcels of land for various crops:  corn, pumpkins, raspberries, blueberries, nursery trees, wine grapes, storage crops, and fresh market vegetables.  However, the farm was also host to an abundance of wildlife, to the simultaneous delight and the bane of the organic farmers who worked there.

The crows were such ubiquitous and mischievous denizens that one of the farmers at Day Road Farms named her own farm after the crows’ habit of ostensibly laughing in mockery while pulling garden labels, seed garlic, and cover crop seeds out of the soil.  Like so many other farmers challenged by wildlife, Betsey Wittick of Laughing Crow Farm hired sheepdogs to chase the geese out of her fields, noted the tendency of people to leave the farm gates open, thereby rendering the deer fencing obsolete, and spoke of the challenges posed by the crows, who seemed nearly impossible to outwit.

But unlike most other farmers, who spend as much time talking about pests or their tractors as about their crops, Betsey waxed ecstatic about two other ungulates on the farm:  Red and Abby.  These were her farming partners responsible for the heavy lifting and hard pulling at Laughing Crow Farm.  The two Suffolk Punch draft horses were athletic, heavily muscled, frisky, and bursting with energy.  Although prone to frequent bouts of playful behavior when not harnessed, Red and Abby were gentle and curious around people, eager to approach and investigate new visitors at the farm.

As I listened to Betsey speak passionately about her two young horses, I began to develop a sense for the strong appeal of draft animals to some small farmers.  “Working with draft horses requires you to be completely, 100 percent, in the present.  You can’t be distracted, thinking about bills or next year’s garden, or the horses will know that you’re not in control of the situation and take advantage of it.  I learned this the hard way.  It’s not like driving a tractor where you can zone out and think about other things.  Tractors don’t have a mind of their own.  With horses, as soon as you let your concentration slip, you run the risk of a dangerous situation.”

The zen-like mindset required while driving a team of powerful draft animals, whether horses or oxen, seemed to harken from a simpler era, when soil fertility, water availability, and crop health took precedence over all; a connection between man and beast was forged out of necessity for mutual survival; and internal combustion engines or fossil fuels were as yet unheard of.

The use of draft animals on a farm was historically intended not only to ease the work load for a farmer, but also to increase their self-reliance by providing soil fertility in the form of animal manure, which nowadays is frequently purchased by farmers from distant locations, often in a packaged and pelleted form.  Some farmers even use their draft animals to grow and harvest their own animal feed, using a combination of pasture, hay, and minimal grains to “power” these living tractors, thereby completely severing their ties with the fossil fuel industry.  In addition to serving as a medium for recycling energy (in the form of labor), nutrients, and organic matter through the soil, draft animals also provide that additional perk of being able to reproduce.  As one farmer put it, “A tractor cannot produce another tractor.  But a horse can produce another horse.”

Although draft power had been rapidly pushed aside and largely forgotten in industrialized nations as agriculture became increasingly dependent on cheap petroleum and synthetic fertilizers, the use of draft horses and oxen has seen a resurgence in the past decade, particularly among small organic farms with direct marketing to consumers.  Drawing from the traditional knowledge of animal husbandry, training, and equipment from cultures such as the Amish as well as non-mechanized farmers in the Andes, Sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia, a handful of farms in the U.S. are returning to the roots of their agrarian past.

Some of these farmers are motivated to trade the tractor for the yoke by the economics of rapidly rising petroleum prices and the looming specter of “peak oil”, seeking to minimize their farming expenses through increased self-reliance.  Others recognize the need to ween agriculture from fossil fuels if we are ever to achieve local food security and climate stability, especially considering the volatility of oil politics and the fact that agriculture is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after transportation).  Many also contend correctly that truly sustainable food production, by definition, cannot rely upon non-renewable resources.  But most, in my experience, have sought primarily to preserve an intimate and ancient connection to the land that cannot be replicated behind the wheel of a tractor.

Betsey at Laughing Crow Farm resonates with all of the reasons listed above, but emphasizes that to be a successful teamster, you must first and foremost connect with the animal.  As another farmer once told me, “There are many great ethical and environmental reasons to work with draft animals, but in the end, none of these will help when it comes down to the actual work. You ultimately have to really want to work with the animal and step into their world.  It takes a huge daily commitment to another living being, and a willingness and ability to see the world through their eyes, to think like the horse or ox.”  One can see the vital importance of Betsey’s close relationship to her horses when she steps behind the reins or engages in a quick training session.

Although she considers herself a novice at working with draft horses, Betsey is an expert at growing root and storage crops.  Through over two decades of careful variety trials and selection, organic soil building, and seed saving, Betsey has carved out a niche in her local market by producing some of the largest, most diverse, and flavorful potatoes, onions, and garlic in the Puget Sound.

As we pushed 9,000 cloves of garlic seed into the soft, loamy soil, dozens of crows flocked to the nearby trees, laughing as they watched our planting routine.  Occasionally, one would drop down to the soil and pick at a label marking a row.  Betsey later expressed her admiration of the crows’ intelligence to me, despite their seemingly adversarial behaviors.  “I sometimes think of them as laughing because they have achieved a higher level of enlightenment, as I struggle with trying to do too much instead of enjoying the moment.”

In other words, as the ancient proverb says, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”  It struck me how relevant this sage advice may be for farmers today, especially as our means of waging chemical warfare against pests are met with the rapid evolution of resistance by weeds, insects, and diseases, while simultaneously threatening the safety of our food and the health of our environment.  As she dug furrows for garlic seed, Betsey explained to me how scientists discovered that some traditional cultures began to experience malnutrition following the introduction of pesticides to their farms, presumably because the people were no longer ingesting highly nutritious, protein-rich insects with their meals.

I raked the soil over the garlic cloves and listened to the crows communicating in their mysterious language amidst the treetops, watching and waiting.  I realized, as Betsey had suggested, that a greater challenge with organic farming than the myriad “pests” we encounter may be our own tendency to overwork and forget to be in the present, as equal participants in the ecological dance of life.  Although they may not always see eye-to-eye, the crows, the geese, the deer, Betsey and her horses are all integral and closely interacting members of the same ecosystem, cohabiting a common land, striving to eat and not be eaten, and trying to strike a balance between cooperation and competition upon a shared resource.

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