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(aka “Revenge of the SMURF”)

My family spent last Christmas at Gleneden Beach along the Oregon coast. The day after Christmas, my brother Ethan and I went for a run along the beach towards the sand spit to the north. As often happens during beach runs, we began collecting pieces of trash we encountered during the run. Although the Oregon coast has strong community participation in seasonal beach clean-ups and is kept relatively clean, it is still connected to the mid-Pacific garbage path via the North Pacific Gyre, and is perched along the margins of the world’s most wasteful consumer economy, the United States of America. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean basin, one long ocean current ride away, is the world’s most wasteful producer economy, China. Consequently, beach trash is unavoidable. It is really fascinating to see pieces of food packaging with Japanese and Chinese characters marking their point of origin, bringing into sharp relief the large-scale connectivity among the earth’s oceans and landmasses.

Whenever in the company of my younger brother, our conversations inevitably turn into philosophical debates. In this particular case, our habitual endeavor to collect beach trash provoked a discussion about the futility of this behavior within the context of our throw-away culture. We had some ingrained notion that we were “doing good” by collecting non-biodegradable plastics, batteries, and cigarette lighters from the beach and preventing them from killing or harming marine life. But now, all of the trash we collected will merely end up in a landfill, where it will continue to leach dioxins, BPA’s, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals into the surrounding soils and watersheds. These chemicals will eventually end up in the oceans in an altered form anyways. So what was the point? By picking up trash from “our” public beach, weren’t we just manifesting a “Not in my backyard” egotism? How is it acceptable to pollute everyone’s soils and terrestrial landscapes with massive landfills that are out of sight and out of mind, but somehow reprehensible to litter a public beach in plain view?

Nonetheless, there we were, merrily jogging along the scenic, “wild” Oregon coast, picking up trash, debating the meaning of life, feeling marginally good about ourselves (i.e., assuaging our consumer guilt) while despairing the trajectory of human civilization, and meditatively watching huge 20-foot waves curl and crash in chaotic break lines. Meanwhile, brown pelicans gracefully surfed the air rising from the wave crests, harbor seals poked their heads out of the surf to inspect the beach, and flocks of sandpipers chased the sea foam back and forth in pursuit of buried crustaceans.

Suddenly, I stopped. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Half buried in the sand, far up the beach above the high tide line, an unmistakable object caught my eye: a green cylinder of plastic mesh fencing held closed with black zip ties, about 1 meter long by 30 cm diameter. I couldn’t believe it (did I already say that?). I did a double take. Looked again. It was still there. I walked over, and with a hard, steady tug, I freed the object from the sand and shook it out, staring at it, my breath held, turning it over in my hands, inspecting it carefully. It was a SMURF1: a Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fish, in contemporary marine biologist vernacular. A SMURF is a device consisting of bundles of black plastic garden fencing stuffed inside a burrito-like cylinder of green plastic mesh and deployed on a mooring line in the ocean to mimic kelp and attract juvenile fish (i.e., “recruits”) in order to monitor their populations.

The hypocritical legacy of the marine ecologist.

A Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fish, filled with other plastic trash and debris found on the Oregon coast. This SMURF was deployed nearly a decade ago by yours truly, subsequently lost in a storm, and now ironically a conspicuous component of the plastic pollution littering the ocean.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2002, I spearheaded a research project at Oregon State University as part of my honors thesis. I was charged with monitoring the recruitment of young fish to reefs and kelp forests off the central Oregon coast. So I deployed a dozen or so of these SMURFs to mimic kelp fronds and attract young fish in order to monitor their activity. Within a week of setting the SMURFs out on their mooring lines, a large storm struck, tearing apart the mooring lines and scattering the SMURFs into the Pacific. In a misguided effort to understand how nature was working, I had inadvertently polluted the oceans with plastic flotsam, destined to scour the seas like abandoned “ghost” fishing gear for thousands of years.

Ten years later, the harsh and tragic hypocrisy of this reality was now staring me in the face from the surface of the very beach I was trying to clean. I suddenly realized that the oceans not only connect us to each other across vast distances of space; they also connect us to ourselves across time, echoing hollow reminders from our past washing ashore with the crashing waves. Whatever we put into the ocean will come back to us in time.

Alas, it was revealed that the Emperor has no clothes. And the environmentalist has been exposed as the polluter. In a twist of irony, I realized that I was as much a part of the problem as anybody else. Try as I might to create a solution by recovering trash and reducing my consumption, I am still deeply embedded within the materialistic throw-away culture that is responsible for creating the ocean garbage patches and ever expanding landfills. I could not cover my involvement in this problem with any invisible or imaginary fabric of environmental egotism, no matter how many pieces of trash I collect and divert from the oceans and rivers to a landfill (and thus ultimately to the soils and watersheds anyways).

When I was living in the mountains of Costa Rica, in the small coffee and dairy farming community of San Luis de Monteverde, I was at first appalled to discover that the people there dealt with their garbage by burning it. “Don’t they realize that burning plastics releases harmful toxins into the atmosphere?” I thought to myself in my hubris of perceived scientific enlightenment. But my academic elitism gradually gave way to a recognition that, in fact, theirs was a far more sustainable practice than the average American. For one, they produced an order of magnitude less trash than the average American. Second, they only burned the trash out of necessity due to a lack of municipal garbage collection services. And third, any garbage collection service, during the act of collecting and transporting the trash, would be spewing its own harmful toxins into the atmosphere, while merely moving the trash from location A, where it was “consumed”, to location B, where it could sit in a landfill for generations. Out of sight and out of mind unfortunately does not mean “rendered harmless.” Ultimately, the residents of San Luis were, inadvertently, making a decision of profound personal accountability by assuming some of the direct costs of their consumption (in the form of toxic gases released by burning plastics) rather than externalizing all of these costs and imposing them upon future generations or distant ecosystems and communities.

So, in honor of my dear friends and family in San Luis, I am writing to offer perhaps another solution to this problem. Let us end our “Not in my backyard” mentality. Let us cease throwing away our trash, forgetting or ignoring its fate the moment it leaves our private property in the back of an exhaust-spewing, taxpayer-subsidized, garbage collection truck.

For one year, anything that we cannot recycle2 or compost3, we will keep, in our house, in our own backyard, to fully recognize and acknowledge the costs of our consumption. This will be the Year of Atonement for Trash; the revenge of the SMURF. Since January 1, 2012, we have not thrown away a single item of trash, although we have regrettably recycled many. Thus far, four and a half months later, we have yet to fill a single compacted 6-Gallon garbage bin with the non-recyclable trash that we have accumulated.

1Marine biologists are very fond of their acronyms; at one point as a research diver, I was working for PISCO* on a CRANE project using BINCKEs and SMURFs.

2Recycling itself is not a perfect solution to the trash crisis and throw-away culture. Many experts correctly have relabeled recycling as “down-cycling” because it merely prolongs a product’s inevitable trip to the landfill by converting it to a lower grade product. Every recycled product will eventually end up either in the ocean or on the land as disposable trash. Another problem with recycling are the sheer quantities of energy and infrastructure required to power and run recycling facilities. Although the amount of fossil fuel energy required to recycle a product are generally substantially less than the amount used to manufacture the product de novo from newly mined materials, the fact that recycling demands considerable inputs of non-renewable resources should cause us all to question its long-term efficacy and sustainability. The sustainability mantra of the 1980’s – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – was written specifically in that order to emphasize the order of positive environmental impact for the three behaviors, from best to worst alternatives. Of the three, only reducing our resource consumption has a true lasting effect on global and intergenerational scales.

3The municipal composting of kitchen scraps and yard waste within the city is also a problematic issue, as the waste must be trucked miles away and managed in large piles using heavy, oil-powered machinery, with a commensurately large greenhouse gas footprint. It is then repackaged and sold back to the producer/consumer in plastic-wrapped bundles of compost. The only truly sustainable compost pile is the one sitting in your own backyard that you mix and turn by hand. At Orizaba Farm in Maine, we were able to recycle kitchen and yard waste from soil, to kitchen, to compost pile, and back to the soil all within a few hundred meters total distance. As renters in Seattle, this is not currently an option. Soon enough, we will once again have the privilege of tending the Holy Compost Pile.

*PISCO. Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans; a colorless or amber-yellow grape brandy produced in winemaking regions of Chile and Peru; a port city on the Pacific Ocean in southwest Peru.

CRANE. Cooperative Research and Assessment of Nearshore Ecosystems; a large, long-legged, long-necked, migratory bird of the family Gruidae.

BINCKE. Benthic Icthyofaunal Net for Coral and Kelp Environments; a small rubber nipple-shaped device, usually fitted with a plastic collar and handle, designed to pacify a young child by mimicking the feel of its mother’s teet; a colloquial term describing a baby’s pacifier.

SMURF. Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fishes; a diminutive, mythological, blue-skinned, forest-dwelling creature of popular animation culture.

(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?

About a month ago, I contacted the executive director of a local farming organization to inquire about options for low-income and temporary housing on Bainbridge Island.  I was interested in renting a room in a house that had recently been renovated by her organization for the purpose of housing new farmers and interns.  The woman I spoke with seemed genuinely interested in my involvement with Day Road Farms and the Bainbridge Island Vineyards.

She asked me what my background was, what my housing needs were, what my prospective future in farming looked like, how long I had been working on the island, where I currently lived, how I was commuting, etc.  I told her that I was an ecologist and marine biologist by training but had been farming for five years, that my wife and I ran our own organic farm in Maine for three years before moving to Seattle last summer, and that I had worked for several different organic farms over the past few years.  I felt that the conversation was going rather well and that I had made a positive impression on her.

 

Then she said this:

“So, what’s your day job?”

 

What?  How was I supposed to respond to this question?  “Oh, my day job!  I’m so glad you asked!  Well, during the day I’m an investment banker and a lawyer, which helps to fund this absurdly expensive recreational pursuit, which I only practice at night when there’s a waxing full moon and Jupiter is ascending in Scorpio, of course.”

Last time I checked, farmers do indeed work during the day!  It’s not too often that you can find me out in the fields in the middle of the night (although I admittedly do work by headlamp once in a while).

This episode reminded me painfully of the time that a very close family member stated that my farming was merely a “hobby.”  Pardon me, but I have never known anybody else to practice a hobby for 10-18 hours per day, every day, and to be able to feed their family (and friends) and heat their house with the products of said “hobby,” thereby allowing a rather comfortable, warm, and well-fed lifestyle on an income well below the official “poverty level.”

What’s my day job?  What is that supposed to mean, anyways?  Is that some sort of thinly-veiled insinuation that organic farming is not a legitimate career choice or a respectable, full-time profession?  Was she implying that it is impossible to make an actual living by farming?

Frankly, I was embarrassed, humiliated, and insulted by her question.  I didn’t really know how to answer.  So I balked, and babbled… “Well, I have a Master’s degree in ecology, and my wife is a marine biologist who works for NOAA at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.  I taught high school for the past two years while running our own farm.”  I was getting nowhere with my explanation.  It was pointless drivel that only served to confirm what she had implied.

Clearly, I had taken the bait.  She caught me in a trap; by answering her question I was admitting to her that I also believed, perhaps subconsciously, that organic farming was not a viable profession.  I had bought into the rhetoric and ideology of our technocratic society, which espouses the notion that if you don’t spend your days either behind a desk and a computer in a sterile office environment, or toiling along an industrial assembly line at a manufacturing plant, or spend your nights serving those who spend their days in the corporate boardrooms, then you are not producing anything of real economic value.

 

Getting off the phone, I felt disheartened and defeated.  What message did it send about American culture if the executive director of a farming organization apparently did not believe that farming constituted a viable career choice?  I told Alia what she had said, and she responded firmly to me, with every ounce of confidence she could muster,

 

“Thom, you are an organic farmer.  That is who you are.  Your day job is organic farming!”

 

Alia was absolutely right.  I knew it immediately and had known it all along, but for some reason I could not bring myself to say it to the woman on the phone.  I am not farming as a lark.  It is not a “hobby” or a recreational pursuit.

I farm to feed my family, to heat our home, to clothe and to shelter us.  I farm to protect the soil, water, and air that sustains our lives, and to conserve the wildlife that adds depth, beauty, and a spiritual connection to the planet we inhabit.  I do not spend my daylight hours praising Gaia in drum circles, making hippie jewelry out of flowers, or doing rain dances.  I farm outside in the sweltering sun, in the pounding rain, the silent snow, and the biting wind.  I farm from dawn to dusk, until my hands crack, blister, and bleed, until my back cramps and my fingers go numb, until my body aches in fatigue or shivers from the cold.  And then I farm some more.

I farm until the daylight dwindles, the crickets chirp, the coyotes sing, and the bats emerge in the sky.  Most days, I farm until I can no longer see the soil beneath my feet.  And then I exhaustedly turn the nighttime over to the owls, raccoons, and skunks, and I crawl, covered in dirt, into bed to dream of seeds, soil, and fruit, before I wake up the next morning at dawn to do it all over again.

That is organic farming.

That is my day job.

And I love it.

 

A month later, I spoke to this woman on the phone again.  Remarkably, after discussing the housing situation once more, she asked me:

“So, what’s your day job?”

 

This time, I answered without hesitation:

“I am an organic farmer.  I have been farming for five years.  I am now farming on Bainbridge Island.”

The grass-powered internal combustion engine. There are alternatives to fossil fuels...

A report was recently released detailing the types and sources of chemicals that contaminate the Puget Sound, one of the nation’s most polluted bodies of water. A separate study surveyed the citizens of Western Washington to gauge their concerns and sentiments about the Puget Sound. What was truly remarkable about the study was that, although the majority of people surveyed listed the pollution of the Puget Sound as one of their top environmental concerns, most of these people mistakenly assumed that large industries were the primary culprit. However, analyses of the chemical pollutants found that most of the contaminants came from non-point sources: notably, from our own personal vehicles, households, and yards.

Jon Erskine of High Ground Shires, a draft horse breeding and training outfit in Sequim, WA, is fond of saying, “Whenever you drive your horses, be sure to keep a mirror in your pocket. That way, if something goes wrong, you can always pull out the mirror and yell at it.” His message is a simple one: be accountable for your own actions. If there is a problem, always take responsibility for your own involvement. These are words that I think we can all learn from and would do well to live by. It makes no sense to complain about rampant pollution, uncontrolled climate change, poverty, war, habitat destruction, overfishing, the species extinction crisis – you name it – without pulling out the mirror, looking ourselves in the face, and recognizing that we are the ones we should be yelling at. It is our own personal daily choices that we must change if we are ever to find a lasting solution to these problems. We must move past the denial of personal responsibility and take action in the only realm we each truly have control over: our own personal lives.

The results of the aforementioned study should not surprise anybody who stops to note the abundance of oil slicks marking our roads, driveways, and parking lots, or the quantity of household detergents and lawn care products that ultimately make their way into our soils, watersheds, and oceans. At the ferry parking lot during a downpour, a veritable stream of petroleum products was flowing down the asphalt straight towards the sound. Since most farms in the Puget Sound irrigate from the same watersheds that we are dumping these chemicals into, they cannot possibly avoid all soil and food contamination.

The ability of humans in our modern society to deny their daily and habitual involvement in obvious environmental and social problems amounts to a large scale cultural abdication of personal responsibility for the costs of our daily choices. Despite being strongly concerned about the health of the Puget Sound, people were unable to see or admit that it is in fact our own daily habits, lifestyles, and consumer choices that pose the greatest threat to this ecosystem. This pattern of chronic denial was demonstrated by another survey following the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the wake of this environmental disaster, the vast majority of citizens surveyed at the gas pump, refueling their personal vehicles, accepted absolutely no personal responsibility for the oil spill. Instead, they overwhelmingly pointed their fingers at the private corporations extracting the resource they were using, or the government’s failure to properly regulate this industry. The fact that their own daily resource consumption habits created the demand which made offshore drilling profitable, despite its safety concerns, did not register in their responses.

Remember: drug wars are as much a fault of the addict as they are of the dealers and cartels. As long as the demand for drugs exists, the social ills they create will remain. Likewise, our civilization’s addiction to fossil fuels and the resultant social, geopolitical, and environmental costs cannot be dissociated from the everyday demand fueled by us, the oil addicts. We will not find a long term solution for these problems of air, water, and soil pollution until we get at the root cause: the unwaivering demand for fossil fuels in every aspect of our daily lives.

It may be convenient and easy to blame large industries whose activities are out of the control of the average citizen. It is always easy to externalize guilt and point our fingers at a scapegoat. But the realization that our own daily choices and lifestyles are the bigger problem is a hard pill to swallow, because it requires us to reexamine our own priorities, and ultimately pits the health of our children against the creature comforts and modern conveniences that we take for granted. But swallow it we must if we are ever to progress to a cleaner and healthier world.

As David Suzuki points out, our bodies are comprised entirely of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soils and oceans that grow the food we consume. As he puts it, “We are air, water, and earth”. So when we treat our atmosphere, watersheds, and soils as toxic waste dumps, we are in essence treating our own bodies as toxic waste dumps by extension. Every time we fire up an internal combustion engine, spray our lawns with chemicals, or discard a piece of plastic, we are making a choice to pollute our bodies, and to contaminate the air, water, and soils that will transform into the bodies of future generations.

I am personally guilty of making these choices in my own life. For instance, just last month I took a plane trip – one of the most polluting forms of transportation – to visit my three best friends in Arizona. I was making a very conscious choice to pollute in order to maintain some very valuable interpersonal relationships. Not to mention the much more mundane choices I make on a daily basis that contribute to my fossil fuel addiction and pollution. For example, is it even possible to set up a composting toilet in a rental house without getting evicted? And where can I store a sea kayak so that I can paddle across the sound instead of taking the ferry? How do I wrestle with these decisions and their compromises? (Answer: not very easily). But despite the inherent difficulties in these choices, we must overcome the denial about the costs that they entail. We are all ultimately responsible for what happens to our environment and for what type of world is left for future generations to inherit. Until we collectively move past this chronic pattern of denial, blame, and finger pointing, we will be unable to progress towards a sane, sober, and more sustainable culture.

So, the next time you notice something wrong in the world around you, pull out that mirror, look yourself in the face, and ask, “What can I do in my own life to change this?”

The Vineyard Ecosystem


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.

 

 

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.

The Bainbridge Island Winery

The Legacy of Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn

“Uncommon Wines for Thoughtful Minds”

“The Food You Eat, and the Wine You Drink

Is the Landscape You Create.”

As I stepped into Gerard and Jo Ann’s house, Gerard called over his shoulder, “Don’t mind the mess.  The house is an absolute disaster.”  Having just visited another farm run by a woman with a serious hoarding problem, making the place look more like a junkyard than a home, I was prepared for the worst.  However, as I entered Gerard’s domain, I was struck by how similar to a 19th century lord’s manor the decorative interior was.  Gerard’s warning was clearly the overstatement of the decade.

The front entryway was floored with a polished slab of marble, inlaid with ammonite fossils.  Various other fossils and geological specimens lined countertops in tasteful, if somewhat haphazard, arrangements.  Antique guns, swords, and duck hunting decoys hung over the 10 foot towering bookshelf, lined with all manner of horticultural and botanical references.  A flintlock pistol of Gerard’s own making was carefully displayed over the mantle.  A full-sized replica of an early penny-farthing high wheel bicycle graced the living room, where wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling windows looked out upon a neighboring farm’s apricot orchard and corn field.  Gerard later explained to me that he had fashioned the bicycle himself as a fully functioning, exact replica of the original models.

I was floored.  This guy was the new Renaissance Man:  organic farmer, vintner (winemaker), entrepreneur, pioneer of Puget Sound viticulture, fossil collector, and engineer all wrapped in one diminutive man.  I imagined him to be a bundle of compact energy in his youth, balancing the physical demands of a growing vineyard and winemaking business with the idealism of the back-to-land movement that drove him and his wife, Jo Ann, to settle on Bainbridge Island.

30 years ago, Gerard and Jo Ann moved to the Seattle area from Germany, where they studied viticulture for many years.  They brought with them cuttings of various northern latitude wine grapes that the couple had grown to love for their clean, floral notes and ability to ripen in cool maritime and alpine climates.  Names like Müller-Thurgau, Siegerrebe, and Madeleine Angevine are now hallmark varietals of the Puget Sound AVA (American Viticultural Area) that began with the Bainbridge Island Vineyards.

But the past two years have been demanding for Gerard and Jo Ann.  While a cool, wet La Niña wreaked havoc on Puget Sound vineyards, destroying grape crops with outbreaks of powdery mildew, Botrytis rot, and a failure to ripen for two consecutive years (2010-2011), Gerard and Jo Ann were simultaneously fighting battles against cancer.  Although he now moves much more slowly along the paths of his vineyards, and a tone of cynicism towards the economy and industrial agriculture cuts across his dialogue, Gerard’s voice still echoes with a resolute adherence to the ideals of sustainable, local food that brought him to Bainbridge Island.

In this vein, Gerard and Jo Ann have made an unwavering, lifelong commitment to producing estate grown, non-irrigated wines as a true expression of the Puget Sound’s unique terroir.  As one of their mottos boldly asserts, the Bentryns refer to their business as “Washington’s most authentic winery,” offering a not-so-subtle hint as to their sentiments regarding the sudden onslaught of garage wineries appearing in Seattle’s bedroom communities.  According to Gerard, “95% of the work that goes into producing a quality wine happens out in the vineyard.  All of these wealthy retirees who are buying grapes from huge vineyards east of the Cascades and then selling their wines under their own label are creating a disingenuous product.”  Indeed, this is a feeling I have heard echoed strongly by many other estate-grown vintners.

As Washington State’s first certified Salmon Safe vineyard, Gerard deplores the manner in which Stewardship Partners has been certifying as “Salmon Safe” vineyards that regularly irrigate with water from the Columbia River and associated watersheds, putting their agricultural practices at odds with salmon conservation efforts.  Meanwhile, Gerard’s outspoken criticism of local conservation organizations and other wineries and vineyards puts him at odds with many who believe that any and all efforts to conserve wildlife habitat and support Washington State farmers should be heralded, despite obvious shortcomings and challenges.  Gerard’s political opinions even ruffle the feathers of many liberals in the area.  For instance, he strongly opposes the use of undocumented workers in agriculture, as their employment drives down wages for small, self-employed farmers and those that hire U.S. citizens or legal migrants.

As the 2011 growing season winds to a close, the Bentryns have already sold the last bottles of wine from their tasting room, two full tanks of wine from 2009 are waiting in the winery to be bottled, and flocks of crows dive into the vineyards to pick the neglected grapes from the vines.  In an email, Gerard confided to me his concern and aspirations for the future of his vineyards:  “If this farm is to be saved it needs young, moral, and intellectual people.”

But amidst the crisis that the Bainbridge Island Vineyards & Winery appears to be facing, nobody can deny the perennial influence that Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn have had upon the rapidly expanding community of organic vineyards and estate-grown wineries in the Puget Sound.  As I visit the newly planted Alli-Lanphear Vineyards on neighboring Vashon Island, one of the farmers expresses the pivotal role that the Bentryns have played in inspiring and mentoring them with their own winegrowing venture.  I see their young, neatly trellised grape vines thriving despite the poor weather, and hear them talk with enthusiasm and purpose about plans for next year’s harvest and fermentation.  Somehow, whatever the fate of the Bainbridge Island Vineyards & Winery, I feel that the legacy of the Bentryns will live on, as much a part of the terroir of the Puget Sound as its unique climate and soils.