The Small Farm Crisis in America.

My mom texted me a few months ago.  “Dave’s selling his cattle.  He’s going beef now – can’t make money anymore in dairy.”  That hit me hard on two levels.  First of all, I always grew up with dairy.  Grandma had the beef farm.  Seeing brown cows every day at the property line instead of spotted ones and Oreos (who are sometimes also for beef) was regular at home and I could tell already it would feel strange to me.  No milking stalls.  No “Got Milk?” sign.  Just cows awaiting slaughter, staring blankly towards my house all day then going home to be fed.

But that’s not all that hit me hard.  The second part – and by far the worst – is hearing someone say they “can’t make money anymore in dairy”.

We live in Pennsylvania, for God’s sake!  Milk is our STATE DRINK!  We are rolling hills and mountains lined with crooked, topographically-tilled cattle corn fields and littered with silos and milking barns.  Sun-up, to sun-down, to late night, with electrical bulb-lit barns, farmers are out there growing the crop, tending to the herd, then milking them away.  How can we be losing money like this?

I don’t think there is a simple answer, but I’ll spell out what I see: 1. Government regulations, 2. Consumer persuasion, and 3. Industrialization of the farm.

1. GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS
Not long ago, one of my neighbors sold his farm.  He was older, it was too costly, and no one would inherit it.  It was sold and developed and I now can see houses on a hillside across the valley from us.  What a shame.  My mom around the same time explained to me how someone had come in and drained the reservoir behind Dave’s because they want to drive a superhighway through our valley.  In response to this, and with concern that no grandson wanted to inherit his farm, Dave signed into the Pennsylvania farmland protection program so as to preserve his land from development.  Soon after, his partner left him and he was forced to downsize.  I think everyone thought he was crazy for keeping the farm running at such profit levels and in his advanced years.  That’s when EPA rolled in and threatened him for violating standards with watershed pollution.  He was forced to make changes in his practices and to plant trees and lay fence through the creeks to keep cows out of direct contact with the water.

Ain’t nobody got the money to do that.  I respect the EPA and it is part of my job to make sure projects are up to spec with the regulations, but how can you expect people with 200-year-old farms and old buildings to suddenly change their ways?  When they already have no profit?  When they’re in fact being environmentally-friendly to an extent by maintaining old materials instead of tearing things down and building new ones. Of this exact vein, a clipping my mom mailed to me in Ohio that she found in the Tribune-Review addresses these small farmer concerns, saying they’re “weary of new regulations” in Pennsylvania.  It talks about just what I have pointed out, how farmers use old barns, old methods, old wooden tools that may face tough laws soon that restrict how they handle their produce, meat, and dairy.  They cry, What can we do?  If we want local, organic, small family farms to operate, we cannot be so god-awfully stringent like this.

I understand the need to monitor health of food, but at what cost?  Everything we eat is to be controlled?  Our foods supplemented like our water without our consent because someone decided it’s better for us?  When we are constantly learning we were wrong about our previous health-related insights?  We say we need to support America, but aren’t we tearing it down from the inside out and encouraging imports and cheap labor and poverty?  Why are we letting the American Dream die?  Sometimes I feel like government regulations will soon leave us feeling like we’re living in (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT FROM THE HUNGER GAMES SERIES IF YOU HAVE NOT READ MOCKINGJAY) District 13 of the Hunger Games, where food is regulated down to the last calorie and you can’t take more than your share or act outside of your daily schedule.

(SPOILER OVER)

2. CONSUMER PERSUASION
So why do we buy the things we buy?  How is Dave going out of business with dairy?  What is causing this?  I think back to his “Got Milk?” billboard and realize how silly these nutritional notions Americans have are.  The lead of a “Save Your Bones” program discusses how milk actually depletes calcium and argues that countries that drink more milk have higher levels of osteoporosis.  Not only that, but modern milk is a processed food.  Think of Asians who, like me due to my Indian blood, cannot drink lactose.  Their cultures didn’t have milk outside of infancy/young childhood because they didn’t raise crops and drink the milk of other animals yet look at their health ratings, some of the best if not the best in the world.  Finally, like so much of our food, milk is almost always fortified.  You are better off telling your children to eat more dark greens!  No cholesterol, cheap, fresh, unprocessed, low fat, natural…

Then why does the government do these things?  I couldn’t tell you.  There must be some kind of profit in it for them.  Meanwhile, the other problem is that these small farms are selling their milk to large collectors who mix the milks regionally and mass-produce cartons.  These small farms are selling at minimum prices because everywhere you go in Pennsylvania you see signs like “Milk sold at state minimum!”  Who benefits from that?  The collector and the cheap customer is who, leaving people like Dave to break their backs for far-too-less money with inflation, regulation, and every other crisis knocking on their doors – not to mention global warming causing late frosts and draughts and wreaking all kinds of havoc on crops.

Why do we get so riled up about big chains like Wal-Mart who take over small businesses, but we let the same things happen to our farmers?  Why do we allow ourselves to be brain-washed by lower prices?  Higher prices don’t always mean the better choice, but a little research can tell you you’re making a lot of poor choices in the grocer’s.  Why do we fill our buggies with these “fillers” and products that undermine small-farming to keep your budget comfortable?  And, honestly, you can’t blame these big guys.  I mean, they’re just doing their job.  The only ones we can blame are ourselves for submitting to this monopolizing behavior and supporting it through purchases.  Think about what you’re doing.  The consumer has all of the power.  The producers just provide what will fit the demand in the most profitable way possible.

3. INDUSTRIALIZATION OF THE FARM
That is my lead-in into the final point I’m making: High demand of cheap, lower-quality goods is causing farms to become industrialized, thus defeating the whole concept of small, local, and healthy.  Instead, America wants fast, cheap, and easy.  Since animal farms might be hard to imagine as well, picture the huge agricultural farms in the Plains states.  Endless rows of soybeans and corn stalks.  Huge combines and plows combing and tearing up the land.  We are in a topsoil crisis, yet we continue to destroy the ground with machinery, chemicals, and high-yielding but genetically washed-out crops.  Why are we doing this?

Farmers just cannot compete on a small farm using traditional equipment.  We’ve already upgraded to tractors from horse-drawn plows, but it keeps getting worse.  Without an incredibly expensive combine and other contraption, famers cannot possibly meet the demand to yield enough produce for a solid profit.  They have to get big-scale and possibly hire some hands to get them there.  It’s not longer a family business but an industry.  And do you have any clue how environmentally-bad single-crop farming is?  How it destroys the land?  An intriguing prairie study I read in Biomimicry addresses that along with many other concerns.  (I wrote about that here, on my Cleveland blog.)

What’s worse is we are corrupting the God-given (literally or for emphasis) genetics that were evolved to be on this planet.  There are reasons things are here, whether godly or naturally.  Natural Selection.  There are ecosystems in existence.  We, as humans, were borne out of its byproducts, in the same environment, eating its literal fruits.  And now we have big-scale company monopolizing the system and destroying the beauty that was here, companies like DuPont Pioneer (to whom my company sadly caters in projects).  DuPont Pioneer is developing genetically-modified seeds and playing god, encouraging farmers to coerce, and dominating fields with single, unnatural crop types.  Sure, some benefits seem obvious (outside of profit, of course), but is that really helping the farmer?  Is it really helping us?  The planet?  How is making a crop withstand one disease going to prevent it from the next?  Similarly, I don’t support getting flu shots.  Let nature take its course.  That’s what it’s meant to do.  A resistance will build.  We will be better for it.  Nature will find its way to destroy what it wants to destroy regardless of a stupid, genetically-messed up seed.

Phew.

And so my rant concludes – for now.

But, in sum, I say support your local, organic, small farms, don’t support industry, low prices, or genetically-modified food, and keep in mind that the government has reasons for regulations, but some of the things it does are not necessarily worthy of worship.

The Hypocrisy in Cleveland’s Local Food System

I have been closely involved in the local food system in Cleveland for the last three or more years and I can’t help but continuously noticing the hypocrisy in it.  I’ve brought some of these topics up before at Brews + Prose local food panels in Ohio City and been backed up by the experts, so I don’t feel at all out of place for calling it “hypocrisy”.  I’ll just break down some of my observations to give you an idea of what I’m seeing:

1. LOCAL FOOD AS A LUXURY:
This is my favorite point at panel discussions.  I’ve written several locavore restaurant reviews on my Cleveland blog and always conclude the same thing: Local food is presented as a privilege, not as a way of life.  Why is it that I can visit these “local” ingredient restaurants and spend exorbitant amounts of money on tiny, decorated dishes of vegetables?  Why do fancy chefs have to run these “locavore” joints?  Why is the trend in Cleveland to make eating local a showy, classy, exclusive trend for those with money?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  The one explanation I got was simple: perhaps the demand is much higher than the resources due to population density.  So isn’t the next logical step to educate the public and make serious strides in adding green spaces and gardens to Cleveland?  Some co-workers just this week commented on Cleveland’s lack of attractive parks within the downtown area.  If these concepts weren’t so foreign, maybe people wouldn’t be so in awe by them and remember that local eating is not a newfangled trend but rather a way of life – the only way there should be!

2. WASTEFULNESS:
I worked on a farm on the outskirts of Cleveland as an intern where we grew organic food to deliver to our clients within the city.  Sometimes these deliveries were whole plants, but it was usually produce.  We grew ridiculous quantities of squash and cabbage as the weather started to cool – so much, in fact, that we started giving it away —— and NO ONE WOULD TAKE IT.   Does that make any sense???

3. ENERGY CONSUMPTION:
On the same farm, we also used greenhouses to start nearly every plant and to grow a lot of our basil and winter our plants.  We were looking at getting a solar panel array to supply the operation.  It was a lot of energy to grow local food.  I thought about this again at the North Union Farmer’s Market at Shaker Square.  My mom and I were walking around looking at produce and she asked me what they could possibly sell in quantity during the winter months.  She’s accustomed to canning and not fighting the Pennsylvania snow once the first frost threatens our orchard.  She made the point that a lot of the farmers at the market would probably use green houses to grow crops for profit.  I started to think about these two situations – my farm and the farmers at the market – and began questioning how this was a better solution.  How is asking all of this produce to be grown in a green house outside of the city then driven to the public in personal cars any better than just bringing a large shipment to an urban store?  It’s not like you can buy all of your needs at a farmer’s market like you can buy your food, clothes, and supplies at one Wal-Mart.  It’s like how it’s more energy efficient and green for England to import its tomatoes from Spain than to grow them in English green houses…

4. PLASTIC BAGS:
If you try to buy something at the market, the vendors don’t even ask but try to shove your produce into a plastic bag.  You have to stop them and tell them you brought a bag.  They sometimes seem surprised…but why?

5. DRIVING:
For all of the cars that are parked around the market each Saturday, I have to wonder how many people actually walk to the Square on market day.  That makes me wonder how many people here don’t take advantage of the market and why they don’t.  Then I start to wonder where the other people must be coming from…and I wonder if they come from the same towns as the farmers who drive here weekly.  I would love to do a statistical analysis on the gas consumption caused by market day for this reason.

6. PROMOTION:
Why eat local?  The idea is it’s better for the environment.  My mom points out it’s also better for the farmers, thinking about the dairy farms in our area that are broke because the milk prices are kept at statewide lows.  However, I investigated what the promoted reasons for attending are.  They consist primarily as “educational experiences” or as ways to get the “freshest” food.  How is it educational?  Because apparently people don’t realize that apples don’t grow in Region 6 Decembers.  It’s been hard for me to realize how little people really know about growing – and cooking – food, especially in urban areas.  Even so, I would be promoting how it benefits the environment and the local farmers…because it does, right?

7. FARM SHARE:
The market at Shaker also promotes a “farm share” program…which I absolutely think is hypocritical.  Can you believe there are people who live within a block of the market who will not leave the house to buy produce on Saturday mornings?  What better things do you have to do on a Saturday morning?  No, instead they sign up for “farm shares” so they can have someone do the shopping for them, then deliver a PLASTIC bag of goods each week to their DOOR.  Imagine all of the driving that must be done for these personal deliveries.  I told my mom this as we walked around the Square and she was absolutely disgusted.  Then she looked up to see a woman teetering on a bike whose baskets were overflowing with produce.  “Look at that lady in the dress – on a bike!”  I thought my mom was going to insult her for wearing a dress, but instead she was making a point.  “Even a classy lady like her, at her age, is real enough to take her bike to the market each week to buy her produce.  Anyone who could live here and get a farm share… it must just be for show.  Those people don’t really care about what they’re doing at all, just what other people think about them doing it.”

That is why I have vowed to do my shopping every week at the market.  I’m going to start buying extra and canning it for the winter.  I only walk to the market, I only buy on Saturdays, I only use my reusable bags, I freeze extra food that isn’t canned or dried, and I keep as many live plants as I can to grow my own food.  I try to pick from the stands that have the most honest practices.  In one case, I bought peaches from a stand of senior citizens because I witnessed them breaking their backs to lift, sort, and sell their produce and I knew that they were hard workers.

Is there any hope for the local food “scene”?  Is it not full of hypocrisy?

Urban Gardening

I’m from the country.  My family, like most, rarely buys a lot of produce from the grocery stores.  Most of use grow our own produce.  When we are short on something – or if we simply don’t grow it – we trade with surrounding farms.  For example, my land grows a lot of blackberries, but this old man down the lane has his own cherry tree.  We swap fruits to make pies quite often.  Right next to that man is a sweet corn farm with the best corn I have ever had – much better than our own grown-in-poor-top-soil, small corn.  That we pay for with cash and there is always a crowd.  And the farmer’s market?  Biggest event I’ve ever seen.  It’s more of a trading post than a market.  But at home, even meats and eggs are obtained differently.  A lot of people have their own chickens and their own eggs; my family can’t keep chickens with our coyote problem, so we sometimes swap hot peppers or pattypan squash – our best crops – in exchange for a dozen.  In the fall, our swap becomes homemade applesauce or pear dumplings from our orchard.  Meats?  Well, most everything we have is venison, pheasant, or salmon – things we hunted and cleaned ourselves.

That’s what I grew up to know.  Now that I live in Cleveland, my world is has been flipped completely upside-down.  The people beside me grow tomatoes in pots.  They bought the tomatoes at a store.  I just don’t get it!!!  At home, we start everything from seed in our greenhouse then transplant things.  And it’s not uncommon for us to haul buckets of water when the well goes dry or when our only hose is tangled over a few acres in the other direction.  No, in Cleveland, I got in trouble for planting corn.  I planted some flowers and the groundskeeper ripped them out.  I was made fun of for growing plants.  I was beside myself.  Other people had flowers, but apparently my grow-yourself-dinner concept was some taboo “hippie” notion to the man next door.  Unbelievable.

Looking at Cleveland – or any city at all – makes me a little sick inside.  I think of all that asphalt, all the buildings which have destroyed greenspace and plastered it with an impenetrable cover.  In fact, it is this exact disgust that got me into Civil/Environmental Engineering.  It started in 9th grade when my friend made a speech about her grandmother being an architect.  Apparently she designs a lot of green roofs.  Green roofs!  The perfect solution to replacing what a building has destroyed, assuming that your building doesn’t taper and that your roof is the same surface area as your foundation.  Green roofs are simply roofs made into gardens.  They can be somewhat complex, however, because you have to plan for soil depths and how to deal with drainage and root penetration on your roof materials.  Here are some pictures of green roofs in existence today:

Chicago

Portland

Dearborn

When I was on a design team last year, my group got to redesign a building on campus in Cleveland.  I submitted a design for the roof that included greenspace, walkways, and even a greenhouse!  The building is very close to our campus wind turbine, so I included anemometers and other weather testing equipment that would be useful for scientific study.  I also proposed that the greenhouse be used for biological and pharmaceudical research, and that tests be done on growing different kinds of plants under different roof conditions.  Here is a shot of my roof:

But back to the guy next door who reported my corn-growing to my landlord: I decided he had no business calling me out, but that maybe I wouldn’t plant in the front yard anymore.  Instead, I took a look at the back of the building.  There is no grass at the back – it is completely asphalt.  We park on it, but there is a section behind the garage that is completely useless.  No car can go in and out of it, yet it’s paved over.  Gross.

I found the solution, though.  Why not make raised beds?  It’s the same idea as a green roof, but on the ground.  So I went and bought several planks of wood, nails, and tools.  I decided to do it the hard way and used handtools only.  I used a hand saw to cut through several boards, then nailed the boards to form two rectangular frames.  My brother suggested that I line them to trap the soil, so I bought landscaping mesh, hand-stitched pieces to form a wide enough swath, then used pushpins to tack in the lining.  I filled the boxes with a mix of peat moss, top soil, and manure, then added some moisture beads (because being over asphalt would make the beds a lot hotter and drier).

I started a lot of seeds inside during March, April, and May.  It was a tough year to start this experiment because we had snow and frost clear into May.  Nonetheless, I got a lot of things to come up from seed.  When it was time to transplant or directly sow the seeds, I took them outside.  Here is what managed to survive the weather on my first attempts…

This is my backyard garden, cleverly utilizing the useless asphalt space:

This is the left garden up-close:

This is the right garden up-close (with some basil plants on a salvaged milk crate):

Here are some storage blocks I salvaged from the trash, anchored with zipties, and used to hold some of my basil plants:

I planted broccoli and brussel sprouts together, but the rain off the roof blasted the seeds out of the ground.  I think only the broccoli took seed – and it’s kind of scattered.  But the cabbage moth likes it!:

I love portulacas, so I planted them and some poppies (which bloomed out already):

Marigolds have natural pesticidal properties.  We used to use them on the organic farm I worked for last year (Squire Valleevue, CWRU).  I planted seeds throughout my garden:

The sunflowers in the back will give nice blooms and then seeds in a short time:

They also provide stalks for my green beans, planted in a pot balanced on the frame, to grow up on:

My peas are taking over the ground of the right bed:

I planted cucumbers in two hanging baskets, then hung them on the fence behind the garden to vine:

My tomatoes didn’t do very well and only one plant survived, but here it is in a pot:

My peppers most certainly did the best.  I started bell and a hot variety pack from seed, and I’m just now learning which ones I have.  Look like anaheim, cayenne, and… we will see!:

Yesterday, I harvested three anaheim peppers and some fresh basil.  I bought a few more ingredients from the local market and made vegan (and gluten-free) stuffed peppers.  ( For more on my recipe, read my post at http://heartsmartandpennywise.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/vegan-stuffed-peppers )

I had tried to grow a lot of herbs and was going to barter with them.  Sadly, they didn’t do very well.  It’s difficult to keep everything watered.  Obviously, the plants in my asphalt garden need to like full sun… but I still planted things that prefer shade.  Those I put on my porch.  Check it out:

My hanging baskets are just for looks.  I planted some begonias and salvia.  The salvia are doing especially well:

Unfortunately, I went on vacation for about a week and my plants didn’t get watered.  When I left, they were thriving.  I came back to find most of them dead (like my parsley and lavender) or almost dead (like my vegetables).  My beets are doing okay:

But my radishes are clinging on to life:

And my carrots are… well they grew so well and now they’re all dried up and dead:

My lettuce has been very frustrating… I planted seeds about three times now.  I see the problem, though.  There are bugs eating them!  The devils were crawling over the soil when I took the picture:

I love bleeding hearts, but my plant only had one flower this year.  It’s not doing the best.  Hard to keep them watered enough:

These are the cute little pots I tried growing my lavender seeds in:

I put up a string of lights for atmosphere to go along with my windchimes, unvisited hummingbird feeder, and solar-powered butterfly light (which you can see in the picture of my porch above):

Not a complete success… but certainly not a failure!  This project gives me something to do and makes me feel good about living in a city.  More people should get involved in urban gardening!!!  Soon I hope to dedicate a page or whole blog to Cleveland: restaurant reviews, farmers markets, and green projects.  Speaking of which…

There are more ways to be chic in the city than just urban gardening.  For example, check out http://www.freshwatercleveland.com/features/furniture111110.aspx to read more about this chopping block I have:

This block is made from recycled wood!  I was given this by a Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) studen who lived with me last summer.  I’ll have to write about recycling efforts in Cleveland with another entry.  Cool stuff!

Hope you enjoyed this.