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Looking back, looking forward – anticipating the next 50 years

NOFA’s role in the Evolution of Organic

OFAC convening board, Leavenworth, Kansas, December 1989. Front (l-r): Faye Jones (MOSES), Kate Havel (CFSA), Judy Gillan (OFPAaNA & NOFA), Tom Forster (Oregon Tilth), Patty Laboyteaux (CCOF). Rear (l-r) Fred Kirschenmann (Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society), Allan Moody (Ozark Organic Growers), Ron Gargasz (Biodynamic Assn.), Marc Ketchel (Florida Organic Growers)

NOFA has played a key role in the evolution of the organic movement and industry on practical, as well as philosophical and political levels from the beginning. We were among the earliest to establish an organic certification program in 1979, following models developed by Oregon Tilth (OTCO) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). In 1984 our program served as the basis for the development of the first pilot program of the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), today a large international USDA accredited certifying body. NOFA also participated in the founding of the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA), now known as the Organic Trade Association. In 1989 we helped organize the first gathering of US organic organizations, forming the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC).

As the founding coordinator of our certification program, I have served as a NOFA representative to each of these organizations, in each case basing my proposals on information developed in consultation with NOFA members and advisors. There were controversies and disagreements aplenty, including the perennial tension between the “purists” who wanted the strictest possible standards and the “pragmatists” who wanted flexibility for those facing practical obstacles and still learning how to overcome them. As co-author of the first attempt to codify guidelines for organic standards across North America on behalf of OFPANA, the balancing act and consultation with NOFA leadership continued. In 1989 the debate over fundamental organic principles came to a vote of OFPANA’s membership in deciding to base future standards on the origin of materials (i.e. synthetic versus natural) rather than “agronomic responsibility” (how a given practice affects soil life, water, and other ecological qualities).

“The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

Although the NOFA leadership and I strongly (not unanimously) supported the “agronomic responsibility” position, we accepted the vote with the compromise that exceptions to the “natural versus synthetic” requirement should be made based on the impact of the material in question on soil life and several other criteria. This compromise was later enshrined in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the law establishing the National Organic Program (NOP). The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a politically appointed federal advisory committee, was given the responsibility to evaluate and make recommendations about the organic acceptability of any substance deemed to be synthetic.

The passage of the law, which NOFA helped craft and then lobbied to support, was developed by Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy and has been called a legislative miracle. The full story of how this came about and its importance can be read in Chapter 4 of Organic Revolutionary.  When I was recruited to join the staff of the NOP to help write the regulations in 1994, it was largely my experience working with NOFA and representing our organization that won me the job. My determination to represent and consult with NOFA members and other grassroots organic farmers was never flagged and was valued by my colleagues.

The NOP and the True Organic Vision

“The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

This is a summary of the definition of organic agriculture that I crafted as a new staff member of USDA’s National Organic Program. It is still among my proudest written statements and has been copied by numerous organizations since then—few of which credit USDA. After having spent several years revisiting and refining the meaning of organic agriculture for NOFA and various collaborators leading up to the passage of the OFPA, the assignment seemed laughable. The final document, entitled “Prologue: Moving Towards Sustainability” included the definition and seven basic principles.

The “True Organic Vision” as I describe in Organic Revolutionary, is first and foremost based on ecological systems thinking. The principles of ecological thinking certainly formed the basis for all the definitions that were crafted and refined by NOFA and others in the 1980s and more recently boiled down by IFOAM to four basic principles. It was rather disconcerting to realize, however, that the OFPA contained no definition or principles of organic agriculture to guide the development of rules and regulations, only a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts. Most of it is based on the horrid dichotomy that declares all “synthetic substances” to be prohibited while anything deemed “natural” is mostly okay—with exceptions.

Health: Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is not simply the absence of illness, but the maintenance of physical, mental, social, and ecological well-being. Immunity, resilience, and regeneration are key characteristics of health.

Ecology: This principle roots organic agriculture within living ecological systems. It states that production is to be based on ecological processes, and recycling.

Fairness: Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice, and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

Care: Practitioners of organic agriculture can enhance efficiency and increase productivity, but this should not be at the risk of jeopardizing health and well-being. Consequently, new technologies need to be assessed and existing methods reviewed. Given the incomplete understanding of ecosystems and agriculture, care must be taken. This principle states that precaution and responsibility are the key concerns in management, development, and on the labor of Black and Brown people and that land ownership remains almost completely in the hands of white people.

The legacy of slavery and genocide of Indigenous peoples has baked racism into the [food] system. The institutionalization of organic at USDA…has been a key factor in awakening more of the public to the failures of our [this] system.

The organic movement played a central role in the food revolution, and many commentators, such as a recent Civil Eats opinion piece, note that the changes needed to support resilience in the face of a warming planet and cascading health and environmental disasters must begin with radical restructuring of the food system. While many dismiss the organic movement as having been co-opted by Big Ag, the ideas of relocalization and food sovereignty that are the basis for much of today’s rising food activism were integral to the early organic movement.

The institutionalization of organic at USDA, despite its limitations, has been a key factor in awakening more of the public to the failures of our food system, and by extension, the rest of our economy. The benefits of the advent of USDA Organic to farmers of all kinds include vastly increased access to information and resources to help implement organic practices, access to credit and crop insurance, marketing assistance, and of course, more wide social, economic, and political transformation are useful for any farmer wishing to reduce the use of toxic soil and water damaging inputs. And not so incidentally, organic farmers and acreage are now counted in periodic ag census data. A prime motivation for accepting the challenge of working for the NOP was my determination that never again would an organic farmer walk into an Extension office and be laughed at.

The little green or black USDA Organic seal on a massproduced and mass-marketed product, whether food or fiber, has been a successful mass public education project. Even if all shoppers understand is the claim of “no synthetic chemicals,” finding any kind of familiar food item they want on the shelf at Walmart or Target, alongside the identical looking and tasting stuff that lacksthis claim, is a powerful message. Why is it, they begin to wonder, that we need these toxic materials that endanger our health, farmworkers, the water, and the air in order to have enough food? What else are we being told that we should question?

That said, the organic label cannot solve all the problems of the food system, and as the organic industry surpasses annual sales of $60 billion, the limits of the marketplace strategy stare us in the face. A focus on the market and consumer concerns, along with any number of hot controversies about what should or should not be eligible for the organic label, misses the bigger picture.

The complaints often aired about consolidation and unfair competition in the organic sphere are beside the point.

The same problems plague every other market-based endeavor and won’t be solved by restricting access to the organic market to only “real” organic producers. Add-on labels are harmless at best, but we can’t hope to solve the systemic and existential problems of the food system with marketing campaigns and new labels. The root cause of the problems we face lies in the capitalist system that demands growth, waste, commodification of the necessities of life, and impoverishment of millions to enrich the few (as well as other atrocities). My oft-repeated slogan is “You can’t dismantle capitalism with a marketing plan.”

In the short term, we know that the more acres are converted to organic production – and better yet, regenerative, resilient, agroecological, biodynamic, and most any other term that requires organic friendly practices – the more likely are we to avert the worst of the worst catastrophic suffering that has already begun.

As we consider the next 50 years of NOFA, let’s stop casting stones at the big guys who want to get into organic for reasons that may not be so noble. Let us instead focus on making the food system and the larger society work for everyone.

Looking forward – The work for this time: Multiple movements for planetary health and human liberation are blossoming, not only among the privileged advocates of the True Organic Vision. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has become a catch-phrase of thesemovements. The most important work of our time is the patient laying of foundations and roadmaps for system-

The revolution needed is in progress, with no clear predictable outcome. What’s clear is that the old “normal” was leading us down a road of social and ecological breakdown and climate catastrophe. What’s increasingly clear to many is that as the disastrous impacts of our industrialized, centralized, global supply chain-dependent food system are more widely understood, the food system has become a crucial point of leverage to bring about the changes needed in society as a whole. Changing how we produce, distribute, and consume food is essential to restoring the health of people, communities, ecosystems, and climate.

So what is to be done? These are my best suggestions for where NOFA as an organization of organic farmers, educators, activists, and advocates needs to put our collective efforts to realize the potential for regeneration in this time of ongoing crisis, in no particular order:

Build and strengthen the social mycelium of organic advocates and practitioners– including the diversity of sizes and viewpoints represented. Work in coalition with those who share our interests, even if at times we disagree about strategies. Avoid the temptation to “other” anyone, even corporate agrichemical-GMO proponents. Keep the bigger picture in mind and refer back to fundamental principles rather than striving for purity.

 




Cabbage Re-Imagined: Remembering & Re-Imagining Our Food & Ourselves

New CabbageNew songs, new murals, new laws, new poems…

…why not new cabbages?!

And Friends, this cabbage is the (quite conical) tip of a delectable iceberg, a deep dive into community plant breeding community co-creation because we don’t exist in a vacuum. Together we’re remembering and reimagining the delectable diversity, the mutual aid & the joy that is the fact and dream of each seed.

With our roots deep in Eastern Europe, Matthew and I sing as we fill my grandmother’s 20-gallon crocks each fall with kraut; and Friends, our love of cabbage may only be surpassed by our love of the color purple. Several autumns back, we were among several thousand cabbages, vivid purple and cone-headed, fabulously large and luminous. “What would happen if we crossed a green cabbage with a purple one?” he asked.

We’ve been finding out ever since and we hope you’ll join us.

We’re co-creating this new cabbage together. ‘We’ includes YOU!

Let’s Dig In (and Dig it Up!)

Plant breeding is, as Irwin Goldman observes, the slowest of the performing arts and this is particularly true for biennials like cabbage, which have evolved to set seed in their second growing season. In the autumn of 2016, as we embarked on crossing a purple cone-headed cabbage with a green one, we dug the roots and be-headed the stalks of about 100 cabbages. Half were vividly purple cone-headed and the other half green cone-heads. After overwintering in our root cellar, we re-planted each stalk in spring and if you’ve never seen cabbage go to seed, it’s quite astonishing: Each darling cabbage down at your feet sprouts a dozen or so spires rising five feet or higher, bursting into hundreds of blooms, canary yellow and cabbage-y sweet. Pollinators flock to the ruckus with long, green pods emerging from each pollinated flower. The sea of green pods turn to gold as the seed matures and we harvest them just as the first pods begin to shatter.

As we sowed the seeds of that first cross the following season, that first generation was a thrill of wonder and the delectable emergence of diverse colors, shapes and sizes were astounding. Though 20% of the heads were green, the rest of the heads were an exquisite spectrum of leaves green and purple, light lime and emerald green, all with vivid veins of lilac-lavender and deep burgundy. In every generation since, we’ve resisted saving the seeds of the green heads as well as the round heads, continuing the co-evolution only with cabbage that invites the kaleidoscope of color.

What to do with all this diversity?

Modernity tells us to tame it, to make it uniform, to make it fit into a SKU at the grocery store, and then name it. Let’s not fall for these imperial charms, Friends.  If the foundation of resilience is diversity, and if we reap what we sow, then we know: It’s time we cultivate a culture of care and delectable technicolor, our plates reflecting the multiplicity that lives within, among and beyond us all.

With these principles at the core, we’re steering clear of certain hallmarks of ‘fixed trait’ agriculture, recognizing elements of othering and oppression that are hand-in-hand with incessant demand for ‘uniformity.’ Instead, we’re celebrating the pointy tips and the arching tops, the lavender and the burgundy, the lime and deep forest greens with a thousand shades between and beyond.

This isn’t to say we don’t make selections, because we do: Flavor and tenderness are essential, earliness we applaud, large heads on stout plants are handy and dense, well-wrapped heads make all the difference for sauerkraut as well as storability.

One of the antidotes of uniformity is to select not just one set of traits but many, in a range of concurrencies. In this way, we welcome vast genetic expression and honor the foundation of resilience that is diversity.

Collaborative Co-Creation:

None of us are alone in our work and world. Here at Fruition Seeds, we love to share organic, regionally adapted seeds as well as the inspiration and community we need to collectively nourish ourselves and each other. And we love to work as well as play with market growers like Nathaniel Thompson of Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg, New York.

Here’s the thing: As seed growers, at Fruition Seeds, we don’t need the head of cabbage –we only need the roots and stalk to re-grow in spring. And market growers like Nathaniel only need the cabbage head.

It’s a pretty delicious collaboration: Nathaniel grows thousands of heads of cabbage at Remembrance Farm and Fruition Seeds places flags adjacent to all the plants who will parent the next generation. After Nathaniel harvests the heads to share with the Full Plate Farm Collective, Fruition digs all the flagged plants to overwinter in our cellar. Re-planted in spring, we’re harvesting seed by July, just in time to seed the fall crop of cabbage at Remembrance. Three cabbage generations later, we’re over the moon to finally share seed with you! And the CSA members of Full Plate, who dreamt up the name ‘Mermaid’s Tale,’ have tasted the becoming of this cabbage from the first generation. And Friends, the simplicity and brilliance of this collaboration is nothing new.

Indeed, from ten thousand years to a century ago, to be a farmer was synonymous with being a seed grower, synonymous in turn with being a plant breeder. It’s only in this latest chapter of colonization that ‘specialization’ has succeeded

in roguing collective interest from our food system. Nonetheless, after millenniums of communities

co-adapting with cabbage (and a few generations of forgetting), returning to diversity, to decentralization, to deliciousness, is here. In our hands. In our fields. In our crocks. In our minds and hearts.  Like seeds (and so many small things), this is an invitation to imagine cabbage –and ourselves –just a little bit differently.

 

New cabbage beginnings

New cabbage beginnings. Photo provided by Fruition Seeds.

Though we’ve all been uprooted from our tenthousand-year legacy, co-adapting with the seeds as reciprocal kin, we are still deep in this nourishing relationship, with every bite.

Welcome to What’s Next! We’re co-creating this new cabbage together, Friends.

Yes, ‘we’ includes YOU!

Even if we never sow a single seed, everything we eat and each dollar we spend can leverage funds to nourish the next generation of seed growing, of plant breeding of everything.

Let’s choose delicious, decentralized diversity!

For 6000 years our ancestors have co-adapted with the tender, delectable leaves and stems of Brassica

Resources and Links:

Here are a few ways to become alongside this caboleracea on the shores of the Mediterranean. From this millennium-long co-creation, we now have broccoli and cauliflower, kale and brussels sprouts, collards and cabbage, each the imaginative brilliance of Indigenous resilience.

Delicious diversity, indeed.

Where will we go next?

We won’t know until we go. Thanks for joining us, Friends.

Resources and Links:

Here are a few ways to become alongside this cabbage, Friends:

First, follow along and share your seed stories! @fruition_seeds and www.fruitionseeds.com

Second, share your curiosity and care, about cabbages and beyond, with anyone and everyone. It’s easy to underestimate the power of connection sharing what you love with people you love and the incredible impact your joy, curiosity, critique and care can make. Share your questions and share your inspirations, Friends! The world comes alive with your breath.

Third, if you’re a farmer and would love to engage your farm and community more deeply in the iterative process, we’re in, don’t be shy! Especially if you’re a grower here in the Finger Lakes, we’d love to explore what collaboration might look like, for Mermaid’s Tale and beyond. Regional resilience and relationship is the fact and dream of each seed.

Finally, if you’d love to save your own seeds of Mermaid’s Tale, following your own nose of where to go next, a) we love you and b) you’ll find written and video tutorials on our website to accompany you!

 




Visions for the Next 50 Years of NOFA and the Global Movement for Farmer, Consumer, and Racial and Climate Justice

Compiled by Elizabeth Henderson from the August 6, 2021 Summer Conference Workshop

As the culminating workshop for the 2021 online NOFA Summer Conference, three of our movement’s elders, Joey Klein of Littlewood Farm in VT, Kevin Englebert of Engelbert Dairy Farm in NY, Mike Merner of Earth Care Farm in RI, and four from the next generation shared their visions for the future.

The following is a summary of the answers from the next generation to these questions from the elders:

How do you think you can leave things better than you found them?

What are you going to do to keep building NOFA as a way to build our community?

What are your visions for the next 50 years?

Jayne Senecal, NOFA Rhode Island, Earth Care Farm

Jayne Senecal, Earth Care Farm

Jayne Senecal, Earth Care Farm

Farming is not easy. Nothing meaningful seems to be easy, but there’s a deep satisfaction that comes in knowing your own sense of purpose.  Farming enabled me to recognize where I fit in the world. And that sense of purpose is what so many people are craving right now, so much so that we’re in a

resurgence of the back-to-the-land movement. I am particularly aware of this resurgence because the demand for our compost is through the roof in the last year and a half, with many of these being new customers, starting new farms. I believe the pandemic has pushed people to follow their hearts.

I envision a whole lot more children growing up like me, raised on small organic farms. Many won’t have a farming background so they’re going to really need NOFA, and its generous spirit of sharing knowledge and joyfully learning from each other. I can see NOFA’s momentum snowballing as we join with other groups such as the regenerative farming movement and the new no-till movement. The essence of all these movements is to grow healthy food and create a healthy society. Society is demanding healthy and more nutritious food and farmers are continually getting better at growing it. This is super exciting to me.

Jayne Senecal, Earth Care Farm

You have to be able to imagine something in order to manifest it. Just working with the land really

hones your imagination because you see what nature creates every day. I’m looking outside at the results of these seeds I saved from last year and there’s

12-foot sunflowers out our window! A tiny monarch butterfly will pollinate that flower and then fly 3,000 miles to its winter home in Mexico… In one handful of soil, there are billions of microscopic life forms. Imagine that!

Let’s continue to envision a better system, one that heals. Just like all these founding NOFA members, my dad embodies that imagination and all farms need it. He imagined a farm system that processed what society considers “waste” into something that enlivens soil and makes food more nutritious. At the same time this system created good jobs, places for wildlife to thrive, high production and beauty. And the system improves every year. I see it. I can measure it.

I envision myself continuing to honor our land and help other farmers improve their soils. I imagine raising my son to cherish all life. I imagine you all joining me in stubborn optimism. I know it can be done, because I grew up on a farm that grew from imagination.

Let’s continue in NOFA to support each other, to raise our children consciously, with consideration for the next generations. In 50 years, I’ll be 90. Let’s meet back here at this conference and celebrate our healed relationship with mother earth. Let’s give ourselves to this world so worthy of attention.

About Jayne, she/her: “I feel like I’ve just gotten it so easy. There’s so much groundwork that’s already been set … for a beautiful momentum to start happening.” Jayne was born and raised, and now runs Earth Care Farm where her “dad created heaven on earth. Earth Care Farm produces vegetables, raises cattle, and runs a large-scale operation making high-quality compost. NOFA has always been a strong part of our community.” Jayne grew up watching her dad prepare for NOFA speeches and attending children’s events at the conference as a kid, and learning different techniques from so many farmers as she got older.

Steve Munno, Connecticut NOFA board president and farm manager at Massaro Community Farm

Steve Munno

Steve Munno

My vision and hope for the future in a very broad way is that agriculture and the related food industries won’t participate in any way or be in any way reliant on the exploitation of humans, animals, land and ecosystems. That’s a big ask, but most of the farms and farmers we know are doing the right things. We know that it is possible. The folks who are exploiting humans, exploiting animals, exploiting the land and ecosystems can make changes and there are solutions. That gives me hope.

There have been calls for reparations by farmers of color and Native Americans. These need to be realized: the ownership of farmland should be returned and access to farmland made possible for those from whom that land has been unjustly taken. This needs to happen sooner rather than later. And my hope is that within 50 years, this has happened.

We need local and regional goals to manage the crises that we’re in right now the Covid pandemic, the climate crisis, and those that are in our future.

I’d like to see the breakup of large farms so that local and rural communities can thrive. I want to see the end of industrial extractive agriculture, the end of mono-crop systems and the end of fossil fuel use in agriculture. Climate change is one of our biggest threats and agriculture can be one of our best solutions. Agriculture can and needs to play a role so that we can weather the crises ahead. We need local and regional strategies for food, fiber and energy self-sufficiency.

There is no one solution for all. The farming methods and practices used in one place might not work  elsewhere. This is where agroecology comes in, understanding that wherever farming is happening, the methods and practices must respect the uniqueness of that place, and again recognize that humans are part of that place, and the farmers must be part of that ecosystem and protected and cared for as part of that system.

To the question of how we can leave things better than when we found them and what we’re going to do to keep building NOFA, I’d say that we have to keep doing what we’re doing and remain as persistent just as the founders did. And we need to remain hopeful and positive. We need to continue the discussion and press the issues in Congress, in our state, in our chapters, on our farms and in our communities.

My Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who’s a phenomenal advocate for farms, has helped secure federal funds that made my own farm possible. Earlier this summer, Cory Booker reintroduced the Farm System Reform Act to crackdown on monopolistic practices and invest billions into transitioning to a more resilient food system. UConn Extension has created a Farm to School program to help expand access to nutritious and delicious Connecticut grown food for students in schools and to help access markets for farmers. There are lots of reasons to be hopeful. We have had significant victories as our history shows, and I have no doubt there will be more victories in the next 50 years, hopefully so we can realize the just and resilient food system that we need.

About Steve Munno, he/him: Steve grew up in a suburb of Long Island without connection to farming or gardens, possibly without even knowing anyone who had a vegetable garden, but he always loved eating. Eventually, Steve was drawn to farming through that love of food and heightening interest in environmental protection, environmental education and wilderness exploration. Inspired by some friends, he ended up as an apprentice in Santa Cruz in ecological horticulture, followed by a role at The Food Project in Mass. After moving to Connecticut in 2009, NOFA was the first organization he reached out to and has been involved ever since. In 2010, he helped start Massaro Community Farm as a CSA and hungerrelief educational organization, where he lives with his family and works as farm manager today.

Onika Abraham, Executive Director of Farm School NYC, former NOFA NY Board member

Onika Abraham, Farm School NYC

Onika Abraham, Farm School NYC

I am so, so moved by this focus. Imagination is a critical resource. This movement and our vision that’s so beautiful and so true. Non-exploitation and non-extraction are so critical to this movement. It warms my heart and I’m glad to be in a community with you.

In addition to what’s already been said – I am speaking as a person of color on this panel, as a Black woman and really thinking about the deep ancestral knowledge and ancestral history that I carry with me in my blood. I am here as a representative in solidarity with a number of networks and a number of organizations that I’m in deep community with, and really wanting to lift up our collective vision.

Farm School NYC is one of five Black and Indigenous people of color-led organizations in the Northeast that have come together loosely to form what we call a Black Farmer Ecosystem in New York State. That includes the Black Farmer Fund which I am so blessed to serve on the Board of, Corbin Hill Food Project, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Soul Fire Farm Institute, and a number of other organizations that we organize with. We have collectively come together to explore ways that our work is intersecting. To bring more intention to our collaborations and synergies, we created what we call our North Star, which gives me an umbrella to operate under for the work that I do more on a local level in New York City. We envision Black and Brown folks on land in right relationship with the land, with each other and with all the support we/they need to thrive, shifting power and ownership in everything that we do. Our vision includes our practice of working together, interdependence, and collaboration, healing amongst our communi-ties between Black and Brown peoples and creating more possibility and choice for those around us and for those who come after us.

Our organizations are doing a number of different things to move this work forward. We’re freeing our people through nutrition, food and health, through economic development and agrarian knowledge transfer which is the sweet spot for Farm School NYC. That’s a big part of what we do.

We also look at land access for Black communities in the northeast, with an epicenter here in New York State. Our collective contributions around that Black liberation include creating a really coordinated, streamlined pathway for Black farmers to access land, supporting black farmers to own and operate successful farms in the state, facilitating financial capital and land and social networks. Educating policymakers and students is such a big part of the work that we need to do. We have created a collaboration called Black Farmers United New York State, and we are working with other organizations that

are working on similar justice issues from different standpoints. How that coalesces to really make our state, local and federal elected officials take notice is so important. Our united platform lifts up the work that we’re doing as a community with other organizations, other folks and we’re fostering collective governance. We’re even sharing decision-making around all of these financial instruments. Cooperative development is a way to hopefully correct some of the inequities that led people to be denied land ownership and to the power structures within our food system. We’re looking to connect black farmers to larger markets, which bolsters local food systems, and reduces our carbon footprint.

Lastly, we are looking at increasing Black farmers’ access to innovative and culturally relevant and climate-resilient training and technical access.

This is work that we’re trying to do at Farm School NYC in particular, and we’re so excited about the intersectionality of that with other communities of beginning farmer training programs and things of that nature. Looking at some of the ways that Black and Brown farmers have traditionally farmed, and looking back at our ancestral knowledge is a big part of the reclaiming that needs to happen. Those practices are the bedrock of how we’re going to do carbon sequestration and really make a difference in a lot of the work that we’re doing. What’s exciting to me now is that there’s a lot more intentionality to bringing the metrics and measurements that scientists and legislators value, and the scientific method values. We’re starting to see some really interesting grants and projects that measure some of the ways that these traditional methods are doing carbon sequestration and how that’s happening on these smallholder farms. This is getting me excited because I think that data is going to trickle up to start to change minds at the policy level to see the real importance of agroecology. Folks that are struggling around racial justice issues are leading the way.

I am deeply passionate about people being able to learn on farms and I love the idea of them being able to learn on farms that have people who reflect their own experience. That’s something that was sorely lacking for me when I learned to farm in Santa Cruz and that I’m trying to do something about here in New York State. Nonprofits and philanthropy have real roles to play trying to make up that gap because it’s really important for folks to feel safe in communities where they’re sorely underrepresented. In that vein, I’m also working with my compatriots at Rock Steady Farm on a pilot right now for LGBTQ farmers, going from the city to a much more rural space where there’s very few folks of that kind, creating a space that feels really welcoming and supportive for them with folks that understand that experience.

I think that there’s this beautiful kind of tsunami that we’re building together and the ways that all our efforts are intersecting.

About Onika Abraham, she/her: Onika is a parent, a partner, the executive director of Farm School

NYC based in New York City, and a NOFA-NY board member until last year.  Though Onika grew up in New York City, she is the grandchild of three farmers. Her grandmother farmed in rural Alabama and grew everything her family ate except flour. While her grandfather grew crops on a more commercial scale, it was her grandmother who fed everyone. There was a richness to what was happening in her grandmother’s yard that she fell in love with and she eventually found her way to Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) in California and then to Farm School NYC.  FarmSchool trains New York City residents in urban agriculture in order to build self-reliant communities, inspire positive local change, and increase food access, and social, economic, and racial justice. Farm School centers low-income Black and Brown folks who can’t necessarily take a year off to do a deep apprenticeship. No one’s ever turned away from Farm School’s programs for not being able to pay

Iris Fen Gillingham, Wild Roots Farm

Iris Fen Gillingham, Wild Roots Farm

Iris Fen Gillingham, Wild Roots Farm

All I can do is just agree with everything that everyone has said!

One of the things I’ve been studying in school, and something that I have learned from growing up on a farm is learning about emergence and resilience, and with climate change, we are seeing that communities need to have the ability to develop resilience to plan ahead to mitigate and adapt to grow in this changing world. I think many of us and the groups we’re all connected to are doing this. Farmers are constantly experiencing more erratic weather patterns and adapting. Farmers are a part of the solution and sharing that knowledge and practice in an emergent way, working with the land instead of against it.

I feel very tied to the land that I grew up on and I am a part of that land. I’m named after wild irises and the fen that grow on my family’s farm. So the vision I have for the next 50 years is more than NOFA, but expands to our whole country, our world. Thinking about how we can shift people’s relationships with the land through land reparations, reconnecting communities that have been removed from the land, acknowledging the skills and knowledge of Black farmers and Indigenous peoples. So I just feel like part of my vision for the future is to have a reciprocal relationship with the land, with the community and that we think of our farms and the land, the plants we cultivate, as part of this community, not as separate reciprocity.

I think we are on a path to leave things better than we found them, and every step that we take, we are doing so for future generations. Every step the older farmers have made to create NOFA has helped give me a community of fond memories, where everyone has dirt under their fingernails and a connection to place that is invaluable. To keep building NOFA, we need to remain on this path of creating an incredible environment for young people to have relationships with the land whether it’s creating art, activism, or whether it’s growing vegetables. There are so many ways that young people can build and develop relationships with intergenerational farmers and communities and I think that the future is right here, in all of the lands that we all work with.

About Iris Fen Gillingham, she/her: Iris is the great-granddaughter of a dairy farmer and greatgrandniece to dairy farmers and was raised at Wild Roots Farm in Upstate New York. She grew up going to NOFA conferences, joining contra dances, and being impacted by this beautiful, thriving organic farming community. Iris got involved in activism and climate justice at a young age and now studies human ecology at the College of the Atlantic and runs a nine-week farm immersion program for college students on Wild Roots Farm, sharing knowledge about sustainable living, farming offgrid, working with the land, rewilding, and adapting to climate change.

Resources & Links:

  • Earth Care Farm, earthcarefarm.com
  • Massaro Community Farm, massarofarm.org
  • Black Farmer Ecosystem, blackfarmersunited. org
  • Farm School NYC, farmschoolnyc.org
  • Wild Roots Farm, growwildroots.com

 




Time Traveling to the Roots of NOFA…

The original “Natural Organic Farmers Association” created in 1971 was a direct countercultural response to those times by an assorted group of Back to the Land, anti-war and social justice activists concerned with the industrialized food system. This handful of radicalized evolutionaries who came from diverse urban and rural backgrounds were

not only learning how to farm by digging into the longtime organic knowledge stream but were also creating an effective grassroots peer education organization to teach each other along with the rapidly growing number of new farmers, gardeners, homesteaders and eaters who were drawn to this NOFA upstart.

Those pioneers created many models and lasting attainments that are still an important part of NOFA today, including the creation of a publication called “The Natural Farmer”, the latest issue of which you now hold in your hands. To help inform our next

50 years it’s important to get a sense of the tribulations present at the time of our founding, as many of society’s intractable issues they were facing then are ones we are still dealing with today.

“From the social and political ferment of the 1960s bubbled up a desire for connection to the land as the basis for a saner society”

A Trip in the Time Machine

To get a feel for the motivations behind NOFA’s beginnings, I invite you to strap into the Time Machine and set the dial to 1971 for a brief ride to the roots of those formative times for activists coming of age in the ’50s, 60s and ’70s. However, you are reminded to leave your digital devices at home as they were not yet in existence. Although seemingly ever-present, the internet only handled 1% of twoway telecommunications traffic in 1993; 51% by 2000 and 97% by 2007.

On the radio, you might catch John Lennon’s “Imagine”, from his first solo recording after the breakup of the Beatles the year before – along with “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who“ Going to California” by Led Zeppelin, The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”, “Levon” from Elton John and John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”. You might settle into the new albums “Blue” from Joni Mitchell and “Tapestry” from Carole King on the stereo. Featured at the local cinema was “A Clockwork Orange”, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”, “The Andromeda Strain” or the latest James Bond thriller, “Diamonds are Forever.” New books on the shelf might include Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Lorax by Dr Seuss, and Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé.

Then there’s what’s on TV, an entertainment medium launched in the 1950s that brought about huge lifestyle changes and cultural socialization to American society. Popular programs in 1971 were Sesame Street, Laugh-In, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Johnny Carson and American Bandstand.

Meanwhile, the Nightly News was bringing grisly scenes of the Vietnam War – along with the accelerating antiwar protests – into living rooms across the country. TV was also a well-developed advertising medium for political campaigns. In 1971, when President Richard Nixon was running for his second term, he used it to play on fears of the accelerating civil rights and antiwar protests by announcing a governmental “War on Drugs” to target, disrupt and imprison large numbers of Blacks, Latinos and antiwar activists.

Overall the 60s and ’70s were a time of intense civil unrest punctuated by a series of political assassinations: John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy both in 1968. The country was polarized into extremes of leftist hippies and right-wing construction worker “hardhats”. During this time many activists and students caught up in the counterculture movement were arrested.

War and Anti-war

U.S. involvement in Vietnam greatly accelerated in the 1960s. In 1965 President Johnson called for 50,000 more ground troops and increased the draft to 35,000 each month. By 1967, U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam increased to 500,000 leading to huge protests all over the country. In 1968, facing voter backlash, President Johnson announced he would not seek reelection. As opposition grew, anti-war protests disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and Richard Nixon won the presidency on the campaign promise of restoring “law and order”.

The opposition continued to accelerate. In 1970, four students were killed when the National Guard opened fire on protestors at Kent State University. In 1971, the May Day protest drew the greatest number to date of demonstrators to Washington, DC, and a record 12,000 activists were thrown in jail. In June the publication of the Pentagon Papers revealed how government officials had repeatedly and secretly increased U.S. involvement in the war.

Thanks to years of massive public protests, public opinion finally turned against the war. The government response was to reduce ground troops, end the use of Agent Orange and expand and equip the South Vietnamese Army – all backed up by an accelerated bombing campaign. Direct U.S. involvement didn’t actually end until 1973 when President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords. Facing impeachment over the Watergate break-in and coverup, Nixon was forced to resign in 1974.

Growing up in the ’50s

For the generations brought up under the ultraconservative family values of the Postwar 1950s, this was a very intense period. As schoolkids living under the Cold War nuclear armament policies of mutually assured destruction, there were weekly “duck and cover” drills – hiding under their desks and covering their heads. Community-wide Air Raid sirens periodically warned citizens to stay indoors or head to fallout shelters.

The anti-communist precepts of the 1950s also furthered the rise of the right-wing in Congress. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others fueled the nation’s fears with smear tactics about communists, Soviet spies and sympathizers, an infiltrated state department.  In 1953, President Eisenhower formally banned gay and lesbian people from serving in the federal government or working with any private contractors doing government work – a ban that wouldn’t be officially lifted until 1995 by President Clinton.

In the 1950s, women were marginalized as secondclass citizens. Displaced from their critical role in the WW II workforce by returning soldiers, they were chafing under the socially enforced expectations to conform to assigned norms and gender roles as full-time housewives, relegated to taking care of their husbands and children while living in a sterilized version of domestic bliss in the rapidly expanding suburbs.

By the mid-1960s, however, the Women’s Liberation movement seeking equal rights, fair opportunities and greater personal freedom was rapidly accelerating. Coalitions of mainstream women’s organizations and radical feminist groups gained legalized equal access to jobs, liberalized divorce laws, protections from being fired while pregnant and the creation of women’s studies programs at colleges and universities. Still under threat today, the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision narrowly legalized abortion in 1973. Discrimination via higher health insurance rates wasn’t barred until 2010 and the Equal Rights Amendment still remains un-ratified by the necessary majority of state legislatures.

 

Righting some Civil Wrongs

The booming postwar economy of the ’50s was fueled by easy credit and low-cost bank loans brought about by the governmental programs that funded moves out of cities and towns into newly built houses in the suburbs. At the same time, racial minorities were barred from those neighborhoods as redlining practices took hold and other racist policies excluded African Americans from the economic gains and social privileges afforded to white middleclass families. These groups were and continue to be disproportionately poorer than white Americans, resulting in a racial wealth gap that continues to grow bigger today.

Industrial agriculture was clearly the wrong way; back-to-the-landers turned elsewhere to find the right way.

The returning African American combat veterans who served in segregated units during the war, fighting for democracy, liberty, justice and equality in other parts of the world were also generally excluded from GI housing and education benefits because of nationwide racism and “Jim Crow” discrimination policies that mandated that Blacks and whites could not use the same public facilities, ride the same buses, or attend the same schools.

All this added new impetus to the modern-day Civil Rights Movement when racial violence and lynchings were still a fact of life in the Deep South. Although the 14th Amendment guaranteed “equal protection” under the law to all people, a legalized “separate but equal” doctrine prevailed in southern states affirming racial segregation in services, housing, education, employment and transportation that was far from equal. In 1954 a Supreme Court ruling ordered the nation’s schools to desegregate in Brown v. Board of Education. Mississippi and other southern states refused to comply – leading to a Court reaffirmation in 1958 and a desegregation process that would take decades of struggle to bring about.

Utilizing upgraded tactics of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience that included boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides and marches, Martin LutherKing emerged as a primary leader in 1955. This was spearheaded by the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott set off by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white person and ended with a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.

After King’s massive “I Have a Dream” March on Washington in 1963, the greatly expanded Civil Rights protests encountered even more segregationist violence: police assaults on Blacks in Birmingham; murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi and vicious attacks on peaceful protesters during the “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery. Exacerbated by the antiwar protests, and again by the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis, riots erupted in Watts, Detroit, Newark and many other major cities throughout the mid-1960s.

With a long history of preventing Black Americans from voting through poll taxes and highly subjective literacy tests, voting rights became a primary Civil Rights focus. In 1964, the massive Mississippi voter registration “Freedom Summer” drive increased Black registered voters from 7% to 67%. Continued pressure led to Congress passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Also in 1965, Mexican American civil rights activist César Chávez led California grape-pickers in a five-year strike to demand higher wages, bringing national attention to the exploitation of migrant workers. In the early 1970s, the United Farm Workers organized strikes for higher wages for grape and lettuce growers along with a boycott in the 1980s to protest toxic pesticide use. The result was signed bargaining agreements that gave some protections though not enough to farmworkers.

These protracted struggles combined with intense social unrest in pursuit of justice, fairness and equality were a major part of the overall countercultural movement during the time of NOFA’s founding in the 70s – and are still a major part of society’s increasingly more polarized political dynamics today.

Hard-won voting rights are under fire today. In response to the record voter turnout in the 2020 election, 18 states have passed 30 new racially motivated laws that make it harder for People of Color to vote. At the same time, Republican-dominated state legislatures are creating laws giving themselves the power to override legitimate voter outcomes.

Ag Industrialization

The nation’s food system was also an ongoing corporate takeover target. In 1971, President Nixon appointed Agribusiness-friendly Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture, who worked to dismantle New Deal supply management policies – exhorting farmers to “Get Big or Get Out” and “plant fencepost to fencepost” instead. Farmers took on huge debt to buy more land, machinery, fertilizer and pesticides to produce as much as they could – leading directly to the farm overproduction bubble bursting in the

1980s that caused incomes to plunge and the worst farmer bankruptcies and rural crisis since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the surviving farmers ended up growing even bigger and the Butz policies persist to this day.

In this time of increasing corporate hegemony and acute social unrest, a spontaneous Back to the Land Movement emerged as an affirmative response

to the calamitous times. It prompted millions of people, urban and rural, to seek a connection with nature, longing for a meaningful and self-sufficient life on the land through growing their own food and building community.

Back-to-the-landers drew inspiration and practical knowledge from multiple sources, especially Rodale’s “Organic Gardening” magazine, first published in the 1940s, which contained a wealth of information from such organic leaders as Gene Logsdon and Ruth Stout; and classic works like An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howardand Farmers of Forty Centuries by FH King, all of which showed that growing food without exploitation was not only possible, but better than the alternative. Also, as a primary ‘how-to’ source, the Whole Earth Catalog “access to tools” publications were the Google of its time. Essays and articles packed with ecological and holistic awareness were side-by-side with a wide range of updated product reviews and listings of useful books, garden implements, carpentry tools, etc.

A handful of northeast rural and urban Back to the Land activists began to connect and organize in Vermont and New Hampshire with a prescient vision of working with Nature, protecting the Earth, learning how to grow healthy organic food and creating an alternative food system. Organizing was done knocking on doors person to person, with many miles of travel in between.

After establishing initial contacts, the fledgling growers distributed flyers widely through VT and NH announcing a gathering on a Vermont hillside on June 7, 1971, with the purpose of organizing a new Natural Organic Farmers Association based on teaching themselves and others how to farm. Such peer education is one of early NOFA’s great legacies that remains a hallmark today. Also handed down were templates for bulk orders; creating Farmers Markets; Summer and Winter Conferences, The Natural Farmer newspaper, volunteerism and consumer education along with grassroots policy advocacy and a spiritual connection to the earth.

This 50th Anniversary Celebration is an opportunity to revisit and learn from the vision, spark and spirit of the early NOFA founders. Many of the issues they were facing then are ones we are still dealing with today and can and should serve to inform the success of the organic movement into the future. Those formative times can also inspire and invigorate today’s members that are working diligently to take NOFA’s educational and advocacy mission forward.




Off to a Good Start on the Next 50 Years: NOFA’s Integrated Program for Transforming Food and Agriculture

“I would say this challenge to the supply chain adds to a number of concerns that have arisen about our current ag system, a system where nearly 90% of farms fail to generate a majority of income for those who own and operate the farm, a system that is currently leading to significant productivity gains but at the expense of an alarming rate of topsoil loss and soil health and water quality. A nutrition system that often provides food but can fail to provide adequate nourishment, and a system that has seen rapid consolidation and a lack of competition, and, finally, a system that has lacked equity for socially disadvantaged producers and a fair shot for small, mediumsized producers. This leads me to believe that what we really need is a transformational change in order to build back better our food system and our ag system.” Press Release from Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, Jun 9, 2021

The climate emergency is upon us. Wildfires are incinerating farms in Oregon while in Germany floods are sweeping others away. Newspaper headlines tell us that corporate capture of the global food system has cut payments to farmers and raised prices to consumers. With white landowners controlling 98% of the land and over half the workers on US farms undocumented, exploited and underpaid, systemic racism is firmly installed in the food system. As the quote above from Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack clearly shows, our sustainable agriculture movement’s message that a “transformational change” is urgently needed has made it to the top! Sliding back into the same old mess is not an option. But what kind of transformation will take place? Will smallholder farmers in this country and around the world survive? A lot depends on us and the alliances we are able to build. What role can a tiny grassroots organization like NOFA play as we enter our second fifty years?

“It takes edema out more quickly than anything else.” — Emily Pankratz

One thing is certain – the next decade is sure to be rocky. Change will not be smooth or easy. As an organization where the members are mainly white organic farmers, homesteaders and gardeners, we are confronted with the harsh truths of this country’s history: we are using violently stolen land and we are members of a society that accumulated wealth through slavery and exploitation. Not surprisingly, many NOFA members are tossing and turning over how to go forward. We thought we were the good guys. We believe in the Four Principles of Organic Agriculture that include fairness, justice and equity. How did this happen? And what can we do?

We must join the struggle to dismantle systemic racism by learning to be good allies to efforts led by people of color.

Racial Justice and Climate Justice Converge Our first step is to acknowledge the ugly reality of US history and the unavoidable complicity of anyone with white privilege. Each of us needs to look in and also look around. It helps to distinguish between being personally racist and having benefitted, even ever so slightly, from white supremacy. But we must join the struggle to dismantle systemic racism by learning to be good allies to efforts led by people of color, digging deep into our pockets for money and resources for outstanding organizations like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, who declare that to be regenerative, we must be reparative and describe themselves as “a hybrid model land trust, bringing together a community land trust model and a conservation land trust model to reimagine land access as well as conservation and stewardship of communities and ecosystems with the goal of manifesting a community vision that uplifts global Indigenous, Black, and POC (People of Color) relationships with land, skills, and lifeways.”

“Transformational change is urgently needed… One thing is certain…change will not be easy or smooth.”

For the sake of both justice and the climate, allying with and standing in solidarity with groups led by farmers of color must be central to our work. While small in number, almost all of the existing farms owned or managed by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farmers use agroecological systems, growing a diversity of crops and often integrating livestock as well. There are no BIPOC owned monocrop farms or CAFOs in NYS, nor is it likely that the enhanced access to technical assistance that may result from the planning underway to increase climate resilience in the state will entice BIPOC farmers to use systems that undermine the abundance that agroecology can bring. The climate resilience of agriculture would increase dramatically by returning land to tribal nations and enabling more people of color to have access to land and farming resources. One of the best explanations of the power of regenerative organic practices can be found in farmer and author Leah Penniman’s video “No-Till Beds.”

To fully live the values we espouse we need to start redesigning our mainly white organizations and enterprises. All of the NOFA chapters are committed to this work:  you can view Black Lives Matter or Equity Statements on most of the seven States chapters’ websites. There will be painful moments, we will mess up, but I predict that we will enjoy the cultural, social and spiritual riches that will result.

Two of the organizations NOFA belongs to are finding creative ways to put our money where our mouth is. The National Organic Coalition (NOC) has given small scholarships to five students at an 1890’s university who have expressed an interest in organic food and farming. And, under the leadership of Jennifer Wilkins, new co-president, IFOAM North America (NA) is launching “Organic for All,” an outreach program to offer targeted online training in organic agroecology systems, “adapting organic agricultural practices to the unique set of cultural standards of socially disadvantaged farmer groups in the American South.”

Nurture Community

For all 50 years, one of the most important functions of NOFA has been to provide a community of friends and co-thinkers for people who see the interconnections between nature and society and are dedicated to learning together to grow food and live more lightly on our planet. When I encountered NOFA, I was in full flight from life in the suburbs.

I hated the way I saw people around me living – all the stuff, the cars, houses, clothing the role of money and prestige. I was stunned at the idiocy of the outward appearance of order and cleanliness that was enabled by hundreds, no, thousands of toxic fertilizers, pesticides and fumigants, and dependent on the labor of disdained people, many of them people of color. In NOFA, I was no longer a lone and slightly crazed voice. At conferences and farm visits, I learned how to run a farm. Through my friendship with Robyn Van En, who started one of the first two CSAs in the US and spread the concept at many farmer conferences, I discovered Community Supported Agriculture. I have persisted in organic policy advocacy to a large degree due to the integrity and friendship of the people I have come to know through this work.

We must have the courage of our convictions.

We must have the courage of our convictions. Over our first 50 years, through sharing know-how and discoveries, our NOFA networks have built vibrant communities and made possible thousands of economically and socially viable farms and homesteads. Whatever its shortcomings, the National Organic Program (NOP) has provided a label that has been useful for many organic farms. NOFA is committed to maintaining the integrity of the NOP label, though many of our members are adopting the add-ons (Food Justice Certification, the Real Organic Program) in hopes of bringing NOP closer to authentic organic movement values. According to the most recent 2019 NASS Census of Agriculture, in the seven NOFA states, there were 2,340 certified organic farms on 551,746 acres, selling over $559 million in farm produce. The NOFA networks include most of these certified farms as well as about as many non-certified farms and gardens and many non-growers too. We have learned a lot about how to share a way of life grounded in real values. Public debates on agricultural policy are in a deep rut where only the largest farms count. In NOFAwe know that it would only take 600,000 farms like Woven Roots in Tyringham, MA, or Four Winds in Gardiner, NY,  to supply all the vegetables required by the entire US population. In the crises of climate, health and social hierarchy, we have so many of the answers people in this country need. around soil health, we can make the case for paying farmers for a broad array of ecosystem services.

Thanks to the persistence of IFOAM, Urgenci and La Via Campesina, the voice of civil society organizations like NOFA have shaped the guidelines that come from the International Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, the non-governmental members of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The thirteen principles for transforming food systems that they issued recently could have come from a NOFA conference program. They include recycling, input reduction, soil health, biodiversity, co-creation of knowledge, social values and diets, fairness, participation. The fight over control of FAO continues with the current struggle over the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. (For an introduction, see NOFA Summer Conference workshop, “Sustainable Development Goals and Organic Agriculture.”

In NOFA we know that it would only take 600,000 [small organic] farms to supply all the vegetables required by the entire US population.

The Principles of Organic Agriculture Advocating for organic policies, programs and legislation makes up an important slice of the NOFAs’ energies. NOFA is a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements – Organic International, and we welcome their current emphasis on Organic 3.0, moving beyond the squabbles over standards minutiae to building the broadest possible movement for regenerative and sustainable agriculture. IFOAM members are leaders in developing a framework for True Cost Accounting, to uncover the hidden externalities involved in food production. Some years ago, the seven state chapters agreed to base our advocacy on the Principles of Organic Agriculture. As the IFOAM website explains, “They express the contribution that organic agriculture can make to the world, and a vision to improve all agriculture in a global context. Composed as inter-connected ethical principles to inspire the organic movement — in its full diversity, they guide our development of positions, programs, and standards.

Through our participation as a founding member of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), NOFA has helped define what fairness should mean in organic food chains. Farmers and farmworkers alike need freedom of association to have the bargaining power necessary to get fair prices, fair and safe working conditions and living wages. While only a few farms have added Food Justice Certification to their organic certification, many farms are using AJP resources for improving labor policies and practices on their farms. These resources are available from the Farmer Toolkit on the AJP website. The standards for Food Justice have set a high bar for domestic fair trade in the US to which other programs must compare themselves.

Mainstream agribusiness is finally admitting that climate change is real and that agriculture can contribute to mitigating it. They would prefer a “market-based” approach, carbon markets with offset payments to farmers, but there are strong voices in Congress calling for significant increases in spending for the conservation programs that already have impressive records of success. Will government spending continue to prop up GMO/chemical monocropping? Or can we build a strong enough alalliance to redirect public investments to regenerative organic systems and agroecological transformation? That will be the central battle for the 2023 Farm Bill and beyond.

Fair Markets, Access to Land, Parity Pricing and Supply Management
The NOFAs and our many allies in BuyFreshBuyLocal have done a great job over these 50 years at making connections between organic farmers and the conscious eaters who want to buy from us. And while we have more to do to reach people who either cannot afford or access our food (too often in low-income, marginalized communities in urban and rural food apartheid neighborhoods), we have been able to build local markets and direct sales that in a few places amount to as much as 10% of the food that people buy. The number of farmers markets has grown from a few dozen in the 1970s to over 9000 today and there are more than 7500 Community Supported Agriculture farms (no one has the actual number). But that still leaves 90% of the food people eat coming through third parties of all kinds – grocery stores, food services, restaurants, etc.

Farmers, including organic, face a hyper-consolidated marketplace. Increasingly, farmers who produce “organic commodities” – milk, grains, corn, processing vegetables, beef, chickens – have few choices for selling as well as for purchasing equipment or inputs. Farmers are price takers and the contracts available to them have been written by corporate lawyers for the benefit of the buyers.

The NOFA Interstate Council Policy Committee recently decided to join the HEAL Food Alliance and to become more actively engaged with supporting farmers who sell to the big buyers. HEAL developed the Center for Good Food Purchasing (GFP) which guides institutions in ethical purchasing and has resulted in school systems in Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland and Chicago buying more of the food they serve from mid-sized and smaller farms, especially those headed by farmers of color. GFP recently formed Anchors in Action (AiA), a national cross-sector partnership with Health Care Without Harm, and the Real Food Challenge to leverage the collective influence of institutions like school systems and hospitals through the development of an aligned set of food purchasing standards. The three programs have already led to improvements in the food purchases of more than 850 hospitals, 7,800 elementary and secondary schools, 28 public institutions in 14 cities, and 100 plus colleges and universities representing food service budgets collectively in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Written by a working group with representatives from all over the world, including Brian Baker, founding president of IFOAM NA, the Principles stand up well and should continue to serve us as guiding touchstones in this changing world. The Principle of Health links human health with the health of the surrounding ecosystem in general and food and soil in particular. The Principle of Ecology states that organic agriculture should be grounded in ecological balance, resource conservation and biodiversity. The Principle of Fairness embraces all human relationships as well as relations between humans and all the other living creatures. The Principle of Care calls for the precautionary principle to protect this and all future generations and for equal respect for academic science, practical experience and Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. While Europeans have embraced the precautionary principle, the power of the chemical/seed transnationals forces us to fight over every toxic substance and GMO cultivar. There remains a lot of work ahead to realize these principles fully.

We have made important progress. The trauma of the Covid pandemic has convinced many new people of the connection between human and ecosystem health. In over half the states, NOFA and our allies have passed legislation to implement soil health programs. From being neglected in many universities, funding for soil science research is starting to flow to help us discover so much more about the frontier under our feet. You can track the progress of healthy soil policy on the crowd-sourced tracker map on the Nerds for Earth website. Building on the consensus organic systems and agroecological transformation? That will be the central battle for the 2023 Farm Bill and beyond. (See “Pitfalls of Parity Prices and What a Fair System Should Look Like ” by Klaas Martens on page A-8 in this issue.)

Scholar Garrett Graddy-Lovelace describes parity as a “suite of programs to curb overproduction and provide a price floor for farmers that allowed small and medium-size diversified farms to cover the costs of production and stay in business—without subsidies or direct aid payments.” Scholar Kathryn Anderson further explains: “Supply management and parity pricing directly mitigate environmental impacts by reducing the total volume of production. Importantly, supply management also indirectly improves agriculture’s ecological footprint by 1) allowing the small and mid-scale farms that are best suited for diverse and ecological farming to thrive and 2) providing sufficient income for farmers to invest in conservation and regenerative practices.” The 2023 Farm Bill could become the vehicle for overturning cheap food policies with parity and supply management as the replacement. The year-long protest by the farmers of India against ending a system similar to parity serves as an incredible model for inspiration and organizing for US farmers.

The future of human life on earth hangs in the balance. Despair dogs us and there is no guarantee that we will be successful. Things could go either way– towards the destructive triumph of short-sighted greed or towards a limitless blossoming of creativity, cooperation and democracy, a world of interdependent self-reliant communities where people grow their own food, live lightly and share generously. Let’s take the best from our first 50 years of NOFA and begin the next 50 with hope and commitment.

Resources and Links:

  • Northeast Farmer of Color Land Trust, nefoclandtrust.org
  • The Principles of Organic Agriculture,
  • IFOAM-OI www.ifoam.bio/why-organic/shaping-agriculture/four-principles-organic.
  • Making no-till beds video from the Soul Fire Farm: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4ne- EaxOgg&t=4s.
  • Soil health policies and state legislation, nerdsforearth.com/.
  • The Agriculture Justice Project, www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org/en/.
  • A comparison of the domestic fair trade programs, see the latest issue of For a Fairer World, e.issuu.com/embed.html?d=fbw-issue20-fallwinter-final&u=fairworldproject

As co-chair of the NOFA-NY chapter and Interstate Council Policy Committees, Elizabeth spends a lot of time imagining how to transform the food system. Please feel free to contact her: elizabethhenderson13@gmail.com.




Three Legume Cover Crops for Nitrogen, Better Tilth and More

Cover crops are the backbone of our soil-building strategy at Alprilla Farm in Essex, Mass. Most of our land is a heavy silt loam tending towards clay, laid down by the shallow sea that covered our area after the glaciers receded. While our soils can be quite fertile, they can also be challenging to work with. When wet, they are very prone to compaction. A tractor tire or foot traffic after a rainstorm is enough to squish the air out of the soil, closing off pores and suffocating the soil life below. In this state, our soil is more like concrete than something plants thrive in. Tillage, even when carefully timed and executed, tangibly degrades the soil’s structure after just a season or two.

Australian Winter Peas and Winter Rye

We learned pretty quickly that no amount of subsoiling or chisel plowing, adding compost, or balancing minerals will “repair” compacted, poorly structured soil. Because there is little sand or gravel in our soil, the only way to maintain good aeration is through biological forces.

No amount of subsoiling or chisel plowing, adding compost, or balancing minerals will “repair” compacted, poorly structured soil.

The only thing that has worked (and kept us in business) is the tenacious, opportunistic roots of cover crops. Their roots open new channels as they grow and decay, reinforcing the crumbly structure (aggregates) of the soil around them with exudates that feed friendly microbes and glue soil particles together like timbers shoring up a tunnel in a mine. Mycorrhizal fungi, fed by the plant roots in exchange for mineral nutrients, make their own long-lasting glues. Earthworms tunnel deeply, eating decaying plant material and depositing nutrient-rich castings loaded with good microbes on the soil’s surface.

The soil breathes again.

Life in the soil creates an environment that fosters more life.

As in human societies, diversity lends depth, stability, resilience, and beauty to our farms. Cover crop mixes or “cocktails” are an innovative way to achieve greater benefits for the soil than one or two species alone could provide. Too often, however, not enough attention is given to the individual species in a mix and what they need to thrive.

In my experience, the group of plants that is always included in a cover crop mix but does not always thrive is the Legume family. With a little forethought and attention to timing, these plants can be harnessed to fix all the nitrogen your cash crop needs, while improving your soil’s tilth andbreaking up compaction in ways that no other plant family can. Red clover, yellow sweet clover, and Austrian winter peas are indispensable on our farm.

Austrian winter pea Pisum sativum

Austrian winter peas are the same familiar species as garden peas and field peas, but with a key difference: When planted in the early fall, they will go dormant but survive the winter, growing up to six feet tall the following spring. Like hairy vetch,

Austrian winter pea benefits from planting with winter rye. The peas climb up the rye stalks, forming a dense thicket, head high, almost impossible to walk through, and studded with delicate violet flowers.

This kind of biomass is ideal for suppressing weeds in no-till farming. We have successfully killed this winter pea/rye mix with a roller-crimper and planted winter squash into the mulch. Tomatoes, peppers, corn, eggplant, melons and other main season crops would be ideal candidates for this cover crop-based no-till system. On a smaller scale, tarps (either opaque for occultation or clear for solarization) can be used after the crop is flattened by hand or other mechanical means. I have heard of rolling a cover crop using a flail mower with the PTO disengaged.

If tillage is used, consider incorporating before the crop gets too unmanageable, or shred with a flail mower first.

Rolling Crimping Australian Winter Pea

Rolling Crimping Australian Winter Pea and Winter Rye

We drill rye and Austrian winter pea in a 50/50 mix at 150 lb/acre (for smaller areas divide rate/acre by 43560 and multiply by the square footage of the area you intend to plant). If broadcasting, increase the rate a little and try to make sure there is decent soil or mulch coverage to ensure good germination. We had some luck this year sprinkling seed between rows of kale mulched with sweet clover residue and then irrigating heavily.

More than any other cover crop we grow, planting date is important for Austrian winter pea. If planted too early, winter peas will grow fast and resemble field peas. Like field peas, they will winter kill. Planted too late, your cover crop won’t be able to protect the soil and catch nutrients as effectively and may heave out of the ground if the soil repeatedly freezes and thaws. We find that a week on

In addition to being a superb cover crop, Austrian winter pea is delicious. Starting in late April or May, the rampant new growth of the peas is an early-season “bonus crop.” We have snapped off the growing tip of the vines for sweet, pea-flavored greens to fill CSA boxes in the lean early season. Chefs love the purple flowers, too!

Red Clover Trifolium pratense

Humble red clover is easily the most powerful soil conditioner I have seen. Compacted, brick-rubble soil can be turned into crumbly, rich chocolate cake in one season. Red clover has a deep penetrating taproot and fibrous lateral roots that break up plow pans and bust clods. The benefits of this plant are numerous: As livestock feed, bee forage, and plant medicine, it is invaluable. Farmers have appreciated red clover for a long time, using it as a forage and soil conditioner in the traditional American grain and forage rotation of Corn-Oats-Wheat-Sod (the latter being a mix of clover and timothy or orchard grass). We use clover in this

Red Clover in bloom

Red Clover in bloom

traditional way, frost seeding it into our winter wheat crop in March. Clover seedlings are more shade tolerant than most weeds. As the wheat grows, the tiny clover seeds germinate and get established. When the wheat dries down and is harvested in mid-July, the clover quickly covers the ground, forming a dense mat. In August, we mow it once to knock down any crabgrass or other weeds, then let it grow through the fall and into the next growing season.

Red clover is a weak perennial, meaning that it will grow for three or more seasons, but loses vigor after the second growing season. Because it is a perennial, it can be challenging to kill it without tillage. We have had some success with solarizing to kill the top growth, then mulching to smother regrowth from the roots. Usually, though, we shallowly plow it down. We typically plow down at the beginning of May for potatoes or wait till mid-June for fall brassicas. No nitrogen will be needed for crops following plowed-down clover if it was a decent stand and you have reasonably good organic matter. If you have the land base for it, a pasture mix of red clover and grasses for three seasons will do even more to restore land for vegetable farming.

Establishing red clover, in my experience, requires bare soil, which presents a challenge to tillage reduction. Frost seeding has not worked for me when I’ve tried it on no-till grain fields. I think this is because the residue from mulch or previous crops between the winter grain plants makes for poor seed to soil contact and habitat for slugs. Red clover seed is very small an inch of straw on the ground may be too deep for clover seedlings to germinate through. However, if you do have bare soil, either from tillage or prolonged tarping, or if you rake the soil clean before establishing a winter grain “nurse crop,” establishing clover is easy. Broadcast 20 lb/ acre in spring when the soil is regularly freezing and thawing. As the surface of the soil heaves and melts, the clover seed is incorporated just enough to germinate and get established. In a vegetable farming system, one could frost seed clover into winter rye, then mow the rye just after it heads out to use as straw. Be sure to inoculate the seed if you have not recently had clover growing there. Red clover can be planted later in the season, up until mid-August, but will have more competition from weeds.

Yellow Sweet Clover Melitotus officinalis

Yellow Sweet Clover is a versatile legume that can be established more easily at different times of the growing season than Austrian winter pea or red clover. It is a true biennial, like carrots or onions, in that it completes its life cycle in two seasons. The first season is spent storing food in a large, almost carrot-like taproot that penetrates compacted clay and plow pans, while fibrous lateral roots break up clods and re-aggregate the soil. The following spring, the sweet clover puts its energy into top growth and flowering, topping five feet by late May on our farm!  If left to grow, by the first week of June, the plants are covered in spikelets of yellow flowers resembling tiny lupines which are excellent bee fodder. As the flowers mature and set seed, the plant dries down and dies.

Sweet clover’s biennialism is key to successful management as a cover crop. Once flowering begins, the plant has committed its energy to above-ground growth. If its stems are severed or broken, it will be unable to regrow and will die. Like rye, vetch, and Austrian winter pea, sweet clover is ideal for organic, no-till farming. Mowing or rolling/crimping at the beginning of full bloom would be a great way to set up a field for main season vegetable crops. On our farm, we had great success by rotary mowing, then occulting for a few weeks before planting fall brassicas. A word of caution: I attempted to mow a stand of sweet clover with a flail mower this summer, and made it five feet before I had a giant ballof clover plants wrapped around the drum. Maybe a better flail mower, with sharp knives, with low ground speed and high rpm would do it. I think that for no-till systems, though, rolling followed by tarping is the way to go.

Red Clover growing up through wheat stubble

Red Clover growing up through wheat stubble

Establishing yellow sweet clover is relatively easy. Its seeds are much bigger than red clover, giving it a little more resilience to high residue conditions, drought and slugs. In bare ground (tillage) systems, sweet clover can be broadcast into main season crops like corn or squash at the last cultivation at 30 to 40 lb/acre. This will work even better if done just before a rainstorm or irrigation. Like red clover, sweet clover seedlings are shade tolerant to a degree, though they will be starved out by too dense of a canopy above them. Another way that I have established sweet clover successfully is by no-till drilling it in late July into grain stubble where red clover failed to establish by frost seeding. An equivalent situation in a market garden might be following garlic or onion harvest, or the removal of other early-season crops. Because sweet clover takes some time to cover the ground, I think it’s a good idea to add some other species to a cover crop mix. For an August seeding, I would add field peas, buckwheat, oats, and even sunflowers to the mix, at a light rate. Broadcasting sweet clover into thin mulch between vegetable rows would work as long as there were a few days of wet weather or irrigation to let them get their roots down into the soil.

If yellow sweet clover has an Achilles heel, it is frost heaving. Some springs, I notice sweet clover plants standing on their taproot stilts pushed up almost out of the ground.  Often, these plants recover and grow okay, but sometimes they die. I recommend broadcasting some rye into a pure stand of sweet clover in early or mid-September to help mitigate this problem. The rye roots form enough sod to hold the lateral roots of the clover in the ground.

Each of these cover crops have a place on all vegetable farms. Legumes are generous plants: when given the right conditions to get going, they give back much more than they take, harnessing the sun’s power to run the flywheel of soil fertility. They help our crops thrive, and we are grateful to them. I hope they find a home on your farms and gardens too. Noah grew up on Alprilla Farm. As a kid, he worked in the vegetable garden with his parents and helped out with haying. He got a job at Appleton Farms in Ipswich the summer after graduating high school and found himself hopelessly addicted to farming. After studying sustainable agriculture at Hampshire College, a season of solo market gardening and an apprenticeship at Butterworks Farm in Vermont, Noah started Alprilla Farm in its current form with his friend Ford Tucker Smith in

  1. 201 He’s the resident welder, grain nerd, and soil whisperer.

Seed Sources:

  • Alparilla Farm, alprillafarm.com
  • NOFA bulk order (Jan 1-31 annually), nofamass.org/bulk-order-program
  • Lakeview Organic Grain, lakevieworganicgrain.com
  • Organic Growers Supply, fedcoseeds.com
  • Progressive Grower, Progressivegrower.com
  •  Welter’s Seed and Honey, welterseed.com



Is the Food Movement A Spiritual Movement?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, as much about cultivating human consciousness as it is about cultivating food?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, as much about using gardening and traditional methods of farming, to connect with the consciousness deep within us, as it is about growing food?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, to reclaim our lives from the onslaught of a mechanized, impersonal, disjointed modern life which separates us from the deepest part of ourselves?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, humanity unconsciously working to reclaim its consciousness amidst the onslaught of human unconsciousness?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, as much about humanity reclaiming its divinity, its birthright to peace, wholeness, and its own completeness, as individual and collective beings as it is about humanity feeding ourselves sustainably, justly, and healthfully?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, as much about creating “the Kingdom of God,” “Nirvana,” consciousness here on Earth, rather than simply about growing healthy food in an environmentally sustainable and just way?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, an effort to save ourselves by reconnecting with the deepest wisdom, consciousness, intelligence, knowledge, and peace that lies within us, that is our birthright, our essence, who we are at our base, but from which we are becoming more and more disconnected?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, actually orchestrated by consciousness itself, rather than a movement constructed by humanity, to restore order, peace, and consciousness to the world?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement, orchestrated by consciousness itself, rather than by humanity out of touch with its own true nature?

Who is in charge, humanity or consciousness? What is consciousness?

How can we cultivate and harvest it? What is our true nature?

What is really going on in the food movement? What is it really?

Who are we really?

And what are we really doing?

Can we become conscious of the deepest reality, what is really going on with the food movement and all its connections and ramifications?

Is the food movement a spiritual movement?

Maria writes about the food movement as a catalyst for our own much-needed human transformation, healing, and spiritual growth as well as stories of “Spiritual Agroecology” with a focus on Cuba.




Napkin Notes of a Farmscape Ecologist: Meeting the Family

We tend to think linearly. In other words, beneficial A eats pest B and lives in habitat Y. Thus, more habitat Y, will mean more beneficial A, and fewer pest B. This can jive with some of our observations: watch a spider eat a grasshopper and that certainly seems to result in one less crop consumer. But ecology is often more complicated than that.

I have numerous photographs of spiders eating bees; spiders don’t check the agroecological passports of their prey. And even if they eat more pests than beneficial insects, the grasshopper population might be expanding much more rapidly than spider consumption can control it. Further, to say ‘pest’ or ‘beneficial’ is our own somewhat arbitrary classifications: the same species of ground beetle hailed as a weed-seed consumer in corn might hound the strawberry grower. Even the habitat piece of the equation is tricky – sure, planting lots of showy, nectar-bearing flowers will probably attract bees, but you may attract them so well that they lose interest in the adjacent crop flowers. We can suss out some details and qualify our generalities. We can study occurrence, diets, and demographics. Perhaps we’ll learn something useful or perhaps we’ll just reach the next level of perplexing complexity. Portraying those intricacies in a 30-minute talk that leaves growers less confused than when they arrived is not easy. The understandable urge is to simplify reality, to lie in a way. But what is the alternative?

Perhaps, as Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of theMuscogee Nation of Oklahoma, environmentalist & philosopher and many other Indigenous philosophies suggest, thinking about how to consider nature “family” and that non-human beings can be considered kin is admitting that spiders/bees/beetles, etc. ‘are people too’? Along the same vein, there’s relatively recent efforts to give legal personhood to bodies of water giving them the same legal rights as humans as a step to protect them. By these perspectives, speaking personally, I don’t mean a humanness that translates into having a cup of coffee with a caterpillar, but I do mean recognizing these creatures as complicated beings warranting observation and nuanced reaction. We don’t approach relationships with other humans in a linear way, instead, we approach these relationships with our senses open, our ‘feelers out’. You change the other person changes, at various time scales and for various reasons. A successful relationship seems to lie somewhere in the space of sensing one’s own dynamics, sensing the other’s dynamics, and then trying to navigate and guide the resulting dance. Perhaps it is the same with spiders, at least if one supposes that personality emerges at the species scale for some organisms. A flurry of bumblebee activity, a surprising patch of wild orchids, a pop-up fox den can all be thought of as conversations with nature. Does such a perspective mean anything for our actions vis-à-vis spiders or other species, or does it mean we dissolve into fuzziness and inaction?

Human relations are not all sweet wine and roses, likewise, it would be naïve to suppose that a philosophy such as this will magically eliminate the groundhogs in the lettuce or the flea beetles on the brassicas. It won’t. But as we interact with friends, relations, and complete strangers, we carry a level of innate human respect for the other, a realization that you are in them and they are in you; the ideal of co-existence, the wish that peace and joy come to you. Despite such desires, disagreement and violence occur, but it is not the ideal and society creates various structures to try to avoid it. So too with the rest of nature.

I have spent much time trying to document life in various on-farm habitats and to quantify wild nature’s interactions with farm production and management, but that can only go so far. I am coming to believe (as farmers have hinted to me before) that I can’t mathematically make the farmer-nature relationships work. That’s like supposing that were I to create the algorithm for the perfect dating app, conjugal bliss would thenceforth reign. Perhaps, one role for mislaid naturalists like myself is encouraging familiarization – facilitating farmers to see a little more of the nature around them; enabling them to pause when that hairstreak butterfly momentarily lands next to them and to think “Huh, haven’t seen that one before”, or helping them to note a new bird call from the fence row or mark a turtle track in a muddy wheel rut. That consciousness will not, in and of itself, change the bottom line or control pests, but it is vain of me to suppose that I could accomplish such monumental change anyway. Rather, by abandoning that linearity, perhaps I can help a few people become more familiar with the wild kith and kin around them and, by doing that, have the most profound effect I can hope for helping to facilitate an expanded empathy and informed compassion that encourages others as they apply their own heart and ingenuity to interacting with nature on their own particular farm, with their own particular tools, in their own particular time.

Conrad is a naturalist with the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program; he can be reached at conrad@hawthornevalleyfarm.org




Pitfalls of Parity Prices and What a Fair System Should Look Like

I know that this sounds like pie in the sky, but it is doable.

First, we need to identify and eliminate the perverse incentives in the farm bill. When we stop wasting money that produces negative outcomes, we gain twofold. It frees up money to fund positive incentives by stopping the negative incentives. Crop insurance subsidies for risky high-input monoculture crops need to be eliminated and replaced with reduced premiums for diverse farming systems and resilient practices. The ethanol subsidies and all fossil fuel subsidies need to be ended immediately. Nutrition programs need to be adjusted to encourage greater diversity in diets. Farmers should get reduced insurance rates for including more soilbuilding crops in their rotations. There should be a surcharge on fertilizers that impact water quality in degraded watersheds. Farmers who improve water quality, air quality, soil health, or who grow crops that attract tourism, should be compensated for their services and the reduced cost of mitigation. There should be a payment for topsoil generated by reducing soil loss below its replacement rate.

We need to increase our production of high-value food crops and reduce exports of grain for livestock feed. The sugar industry is heavily subsidized to produce things that make people sick. We must stop that subsidy. More expensive sugar might even reduce the amount of it that goes into manufactured products. High fructose corn sweetener causes diabetes. It should be taxed like tobacco. White flour could be taxed to reduce consumption and wholegrain flour use should be incentivized.

We could make a lot of progress if we integrated our nutrition programs with health care and ag policy. Think of the money we could save on national
health care costs if our USDA nutrition programs were designed to change eating habits and our ag programs subsidized growing healthy food crops rather than unhealthy ones.

Personally, I’d like to see the production of foodgrade crops be subsidized to give farmers an incentive to stop growing livestock feed and crops for ethanol.

(This is an an exerpt from the full essay, published on the Disparity to Parity website disparitytoparity.org/). Klaas Martens, together with his wife Mary-Howell and his son Peter, farm on over 1200 acres in Pen Yann, NY. They converted to organic systems in 1991. They have converted most of their neighbors so that there are over 6000 contiguous certified organic acres. Klaas is a frequent speaker at organic conferences and regularly advises other farmers on soil health and organic practices. kandmhfarm@lakevieworganicgrain.com.




Soil Health Round-Up

Health Soils Legislation MapEPA is banning one of the nastiest of synthetic pesticides! We have campaigned against these for decades – food crop uses of chlorpyrifos. We are also closing in on neonicotinoids. Soil health bills have been passed (or are close to passing) in all

the NOFA chapter states, though none of our state bills compare to the $5.35 million allocated for soil health in Minnesota! Much of this report comes from the regular updates that Steven Keleti sends

to the NOFA IC policy committee. Steven is the national healthy soils and ecosystems services angel who provides support and encouragement for groups like NOFA all over the country. Most of our chapters are members of the National Health Soils Policy Network, a group of farmer-centered organizations, where we exchange information, strategies and lessons learned, get small grants to assist in this work, and generally support and encourage one another in passing policies that incentivize agricultural practices with climate benefits, in particular, those that build healthy soils.

Connecticut: Two bills combine to establish a soil health program:

HB6496, An Act Concerning Certain Soil-related Initiatives; includes soil health as part of soil conservation — passed June 5th, became law on June 16th without the signature of the governor.  From state done on soil health. Additionally, it adds soil health to the erosion and sediment control statute, meaning that soil health measures can be required during construction and site stabilization. This is a major change.

HB6441, An Act Concerning Climate Change Adaptation; includes a definition of “ecosystem services” that includes “supporting services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling”, which should mean support for soil health — passed June 7th, became law on June 23rd without the signature of the governor.  From state stakeholders: Legislation adds

3 major sections: 1) enables the creation of stormwater authorities and includes language on naturebased solutions/ecosystem services; 2) updates the flood and erosion control statute to include similar language; 3) most importantly, expands the authority of the CT Green Bank beyond supporting clean energy to include carbon offsets, ecosystem services and environmental infrastructure. The CT Green Bank folks are talking about soils and soil health as fitting right into their programs.  So there is now a structure in place for funding of soil health initiatives as they relate to carbon offsets and ecosystem services as infrastructure and also to fund direct payments for such services. The CT Green Bank is now set up to take advantage of any program that USDA develops along these lines.

Massachusetts: Healthy Soils bill S.2404 was signed into law by Governor Baker in January 2021. The bill creates a Healthy Soils Program within the MA State Commission for Conservation of Soil, Water & Related Resources. NOFA/Mass, working with legislative allies, succeeded in getting supplemental funding of $150,000 for the program. The bill defines healthy soils, requires the development of a HS program, and establishes a HS fund (although does not provide dedicated funding for it).

New Hampshire: The New Hampshire Healthy Soils bill HB199 was signed into law by Gov. Sununu on July 30th.

The law includes changes to RSA 432:16 that essentially allow each of the 10 conservation districts

 




The ChickShaw 2.0 “A mobile chicken coop that ONE person can (easily) move A LOT of Birds”

Pros:

  • Easy to follow plans that make this coop relatively straightforward to build
  • Easy for one person to move daily
  • East to clean
  • Works for layers or agile meat bird breeds

Cons:

  • The roof design could use improvement
  • The interface between the handle and the door is awkward
  • More expensive as compared to some other tractors (but this is outweighed by the pros in my opinion) Not protective enough as is for overwintering birds in cold climates

For years, I’ve wanted to raise our own meat chickens. We’ve raised ducks for meat and eggs, but never chickens.

I love the taste of chicken. It’s easy to cook, extremely versatile to include in recipes chicken salad, on the grill in a stir-fry  and there’s always a carcass leftover that can be used to make stock. But, over the years, as I’ve learned more about meat production, the benefits of rotational grazing on soil and animal health, and the persistence of GMO corn and feed, we’ve grown more and more particular about the meat my family eats and have become more drawn to rotationally grazed ruminants because they eat grass.  Even on small-scale organic farms where animals are “free-range”, chickens (and pigs) are dependent on grain to fatten up enough to be worth slaughtering at a young age.  While those of us fortunate enough to be able to prioritize buying local can often inquire about how animals are raised and treated, it’s harder to get the details about what they are fed. Feeding animals grain leads to so many questions; Does the grain contain GMOs, is it organic, is it soy-free, is it corn-free, is it grown regionally or shipped from far away? There are probably a dozen more things one could consider or want to know.

We raise pastured sheep, we know several neighboring farmers who raise pastured cows and pigs, but it’s been much harder to find a source of chicken

that I was excited to buy that met both my particulars for animal care and feed. I used to trade peaches for chicken from King Bird Farm, whose approaches far surpassed my pickiness, but they were expensive (and rightfully so!) and they recently stopped raising them. Then, last year, a young beginning farmer couple raised meat birds at our farm as they experimented with starting their own enterprise. They moved them every day inside a tractor and fed them grain from Lakeview Organic Grain both activities I am in support of, and we bought a lot of their birds. They were delicious. But, the chickens were Cornish Cross. Though I had read about Cornish Cross, I had never witnessed firsthand their lack of interest and ultimately, their inability to walk.

Cornish Cross are the common breed of choice in a lucrative chicken business because they are economical to buy and they grow big quickly. So big, in fact, that their breasts weigh them down. Among other things, their excessive body size/weight ratio can cause broken legs and heart attacks. As we well know, there are dozens of factors a farmer considers when developing a successful enterprise and I can understand one’s decision to choose this breed. But for me, while I had thought (and formed opinions) about a lot of elements of the food my family consumes, I had never given much thought about what breed of animals our purchases were supporting.

This recognition also happened to land about the time I resigned from my full-time job as an Executive Director. For the first time since we’ve been on our land, we finally had some time and energy to add another species into our farm system.

Choosing the right breed and the best coop design

ChickShaw 2.0

ChickShaw 2.0 in the orchard at Wellspring Forest farm

I decided I wanted to raise a breed of chickens that would forage at least some of their diet and that would walk, peck, and poop around a fenced-in pen because this provides nitrogen and improves the pasture. After speaking to several farmers, doinga lot of research, and realizing what was available (hatcheries are a whole other level of animal welfare to consider, perhaps for another article…), I decided to raise Red Ranger chickens. Red, orange, and brown in color, these are a multi-purpose breed that can be raised for meat or as egg layers. Red Rangers are known to enjoy foraging, be tasty and succulent to eat, and be docile. While Cornish Cross are ready and need to be slaughtered at 6-8 weeks, Red Rangers take 11-13 weeks. Nearly double the time to be slaughter-ready could mean double the feed cost, but my hope is that the costs are less than that because this breed does forage some of their food.  Furthermore, I was not raising these birds as part of our farm business but rather, as part of our homestead. I wanted to raise meat birds to be able to produce organic, non-GMO, soy-free chicken for our (extended) family that was humanely raised and benefited the landscape. So, I ordered 102 Red Rangers, 51 per batch, and 1 ton of feed fromLakeview Organic Grain.

Next, I needed to determine what shelter I would provide for the chickens. Even though my partner was supportive of the new addition to our farm, this was my project and I knew I needed a coop or chicken tractor that I could move easily by myself and by hand every single day possibly with a toddler on my back or by my side.  The several designs I researched were not designed for the chickens to go in and out, which was important to me. Meat birds, even those that are moved daily, are typically housed in a chicken tractor, which has a mesh or wire floor, and although the tractor moves every day, the chickens stay inside. I wanted my chickens to feel sunshine, and to free-range (within the electric fence), just like egg-laying birds often do.

Cornish Cross are the common breed of choice in a lucrative chicken business because they are economical to buy and they grow big quickly. So big, in fact, that their breasts weigh them down. Among other things, their excessive body size/weight ratio can cause broken legs and heart attacks. As we well know, there are dozens of factors a farmer considers when developing a successful enterprise and I can understand one’s decision to choose this breed. But for me, while I had thought (and formed opinions) about a lot of elements of the food my family consumes, I had chickens, if you raise a breed that likes to walk. (I can’t speak to how it would work for Cornish Cross. You certainly wouldn’t expect them to go in and out for the aforementioned reasons, but they also might not be limber enough to walk over the “perches” more on that later). In fact, in our Northeast climate, this coop might be more practical for meat birds, because I don’t think egg layers would have enough wind protection and heat from bedding accumulation to make it through the winter in this coop.

Designed by Justin Rhodes, founder of Abundant Permaculture in North Carolina, the ChickShaw 2.0 plans are available from his website for free by signing up for his newsletter. Justin has put a ton of time and effort into providing incredibly detailed resources to others, mostly at no charge. The best thing about Justin’s resources is that they are used by him and he often provides both videos and written resources, as he does for the ChickShaw 2.0.

The Plans

Feeding the Red Rangers at Wellspring Forest farmBefore getting to the design and functionality of the ChickShaw 2.0, there’s a few points to mention about the plans. They provide direct links to Lowes to purchase the items for pick-up, which, for me, was super handy because it takes me hours to find tiny bolts and random pieces of hardware in that store. Also, as the plans say, start gathering your supplies at least a month before you want to build the coop. Especially in the midst of this Covid-era, the wait time on wood was 3-4 weeks and the 26” wheels were very hard to find.

Justin’s “Tools” list is accurate, although if you don’t have a table saw, you might consider adjusting your wood purchase and buy 2x2s instead of ripping the 2x4s with a circular saw, which would be tedious and not that safe. We also used a chop saw for the angled cuts, though the circular saw willdo fine.

The “Building Materials” list is accurate, although I was pleased to find that the whole thing cost me about half the amount he says it will cost, $400 vs. almost $800. This is in part because like you likely do we have a shed filled with screws of various sizes, but also because Justin recommends cedar for its “nontoxic and weather resistant” properties. In our area, cedar is hard to find and pricey, so I chose to go with rough-cut larch from a nearby Amish sawmill which I found for $3.50 per 2x4x8’ board. Larch, which is from the Tamarack tree, is also nontoxic and weather-resistant lumber. Another op

tion with similar properties is locust, but locust is so dense it’s hard to work with and it would add a lot of undesired weight to the coop. Since I’m raising meat birds, I didn’t purchase any of the items needed for the nesting or dusting boxes.  I will add that I recommend following Justin’s suggestion to use the PVC roof paneling. To save money and because we had metal roofing lying around, I installed this first. But, it’s a pain to cut and its weight negates the goals for this coop being so easy to move. At about $15/piece, it’s worth the ease and weight of the PVC panels.

Justin does a great job giving instructions on what and how to cut your materials, and the “Wood Recap” is super helpful to ensure you’ve got it all. One overall suggestion I have for Justin is, that because the coop is just as practical for layers as it is for meat birds, to put everything related to the nesting boxes (materials, instructions, etc.) in their own section and listed as “Optional.” Not realizing exactly what everything was for until we were building, we ended up with extra materials to return and wood that we didn’t need to cut.

The “Step by Step Build” section of the plans was complete with pictures and instructions and was almost clear and easy to follow for all 58 steps. There were, however, a couple of pieces of information missing that would have been helpful:

Step #7, make it clear the wire mesh is attached with staples

Step #9 requires you to flip your project over, which is not stated. Also in this step, I found it confusing which way to brace the corner posts, even with the “NOTE” Justin provides.

Step #15 and #16 are only needed for nesting boxes, and without these you could just repeat Step

#13 on the back wall as well. I didn’t realize this until after the fact and ended up just leaving it as is and covering up the large opening with roof paneling.

Step #33 was incorrect. Rather than connect the Front Posts at “two feet in”, they needed to be attached at 15” in.

Step #56 suggests using 2x2x12 corner braces, but this seemed weak. I used 2x4x12s instead, and actually, the picture shows 2×4’s so perhaps the 2×2 instruction is a typo.

Overall, the ChickShaw 2.0 was relatively easy to build. Even though the instructions had minor errors, they were clear enough to follow without much confusion. I highly recommend building the coop with another person. Luckily, my neighbor helped me with about half of it. It’s more fun to build with somebody else, it’s a lot of measuring and cuts right at the start, it’s super helpful to have somebody hold the wire mesh before you get the first few staples in, and you’ll definitely need a second person to flip the frame a couple of times as you build. It took us 2 full days to complete the whole thing.

The Functionality

Door & handle on the front of the coop.

Door & handle on the front of the coop.

Overall, the ChickShaw 2.0 works great, just as advertised!  It’s predator-proof.  It’s very easy to move on my own, very easy to clean, and accommodates a sizable flock. My daily routine is The chickens are closed inside at night so in the morning, I pick up the 8-panel electric PoultryNet fence that’s encircling the coop, roll the coop about 15’ to new pasture, set the fence back up, fill the food trough and water fount, stick the grounding rod in the ground, attach the energizer to the power source and let the chickens out for the day. The whole routine takes about 20 minutes, even with a toddler on my back.

There are, however, a few minor design elements that I would change if I were building this again, and hope to find time to adjust on my ChickShaw before next season.

Literally, the moment we started putting our first batch of 37 Red Rangers (the rest of the 51 had died in transit from the hatchery due to freezing spring temps) inside the coop at the end of May,

once the nights were warm enough so that the birds didn’t require heat lamps, the biggest design flaw of the ChickShaw 2.0, in my opinion, became obvious the interface between the handle and door is cumbersome. You have to step over the handle to open the door and there’s just not that much space for the door to swing down while you stand there, and I’m a petite person. As we transferred the birds from the brooder on the back of the truck, it was definitely awkward to pick up 2 or 3 birds, step over the handle and open the door to put them inside doable, but not pleasant. It was even more cumbersome to lift a heavy, 3-gallon fount over the handle and into the door since we provide water in the coop at night.  If I were building this again, I would put the door in the back, not the front. This wasn’t possible in Justin’s design, since he’s designed it with nesting boxes at the back, but in this case, perhaps the handle (and its accompanied braces) could be on the back.

Next, I realized that since I skipped Step #29, which was to install a flat plywood surface for a mineral feeder, we needed to install something for the 3-gallon water fount to sit on because it can’t fit between the 2×2 “Perches”.  I simply cut two square pieces of plywood that span the distance between the two perches and the fount sits level.

The use of barrel locks (Step #40 and 41) to secure the door shut could be improved. The design suggests using tiny pieces of plywood and “lock shims” to make these work properly, but they just don’t.

The plywood contracts and expands with weather changes and barrel locks need to be nearly perfectly lined up.  I’ve had much better success securing doors all year round with swivel hasps.

Given Justin’s attention to detail, I was surprisedby how flimsy the kickstand design is. A 2×2 piece is not substantial enough for the important role of keeping the coop from tilting to the ground, and the strap hinge is weak. It broke immediately. Instead, I’ve been using a wooden block which works fine. If I felt like spending the money, I’d consider a single-wheel side wind. This would be the easiest and most sturdy option, but a block is free.

When I first built my ChickShaw in the height of Covid with high supply shortages, 26” wheels were unavailable, even old bike tires this size were impossible to find, so I installed 20” wheels. While the coop was moveable, it wasn’t that easy, especially on the uneven ground of our orchard. The back of the coop would hit the ground when I lifted the front too high, and the wheels just didn’t seem strong enough to hold the weight.  I finally found

26” wheels, and once I installed them, it was easy to move on uneven terrain, even as the birds got near slaughter size.  I was surprised by how Justin suggests installing the wheels though because he doesn’t suggest drilling a hole for wheel axles to go through which would give them extra strength. I’m keeping an eye on mine, making sure they don’t bend or loosen, especially because, I’m definitely pushing the limits of his suggested capacity at 52 birds this round.

My last (constructive) criticism is about the roof. As I mentioned, some of the roof bracings seemed a little weak. It’s smart to design the roof on hinges so it’s possible to lift it up and reach inside the coop. The door is small and I wouldn’t want to have to crawl inside, but the design, doesn’t make sense.

The roof is big, and both the hinges and the 2x2s they are mounted on are so weak, there’s no way the roof could be lifted and lean open on its own without breaking. You either need to have at least one person hold the roof up while you reach inside or you can prop the roof up with wood braces on both sides, cut to a length that gives the roof some height. It would have been easy to design this concept into the plans with two of the extra 2x2s, and a screw for each so they swivel.

Overall, none of these negative elements are substantial enough to affect the overall usefulness and ease of the ChickShaw 2.0, and I highly recommend it. I plan to make some minor adjustments this winter and raise meat chickens again next year.

Resources & Links:

  • Abundant Permaculture, abundantpermaculture.lpages.co/chickshaw-2-0/
  • wellspringforestfarm.com

Elizabeth lives and farms in the Finger Lakes, on land originally stewarded by the Gayogo̱ hó:nǫ’ people of the Haudenosaunee confederacy. She runs Wellspring Forest Farm with her partner Steve and son Aydin.

Submit your Tool Hacks & Fails at

thenaturalfarmer.org.




Homing in on the Harvest: Punjabi Farmers in the Orchard, at the Border, in the Streets

“Injustice was the way of the world; what mattered was what one could accomplish between its cracks and fissures.” Rishi Reddi, Passage West

Amid the myriad undercurrents of immigrant livelihood coursing through this land, are the journeys of Punjabi farmers, truckers and migrants across our country and approaching its borders.

Though circumstances vary, there is a larger movement afoot gathering these loose threads as they culminate in two cohesive narratives: it’s time to know our people and to hear our farmers. Therefore, there is considerable cause for Americans to tune into India’s farmer protests, ignited several months ago and peaking at over 250 million participants. For perspective, the U.S. population is around 330 million. The sheer size of this strike, the largest in history, is not the sole reason to perk up but is worth absorbing.

“This is the moment to pay attention to who Punjabis are, their migration journeys and the skills they bring with them,” insists Jaya Padmanabhan, San Francisco Examiner.

“Handing over the keys of agriculture to corporations touches a deep and painful nerve for the community.” Mallika Kaur, U.C. Berkeley

The commotion: Last fall, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed three farming bills out the door without regard for India’s smallholder farmers, who comprise the vast majority of the agricultural sector. Pitched as bolstering the economy, many fear the bills will prevent farmers from competing with larger companies that would earn unlimited stockholding power.

“Left to the mercy of private players,” farmers and non-farmers alike stand to bear dire financial, environmental and health burdens. This, explains Kaur, is why ordinary people from all sectors are “standing up to the government handing over yet another sector to large corporate control.”

The connection: To American farming communities, this echoes a familiar tune. During the Depression-era New Deal, our government protected farmers by setting price floors for crops; by the 1960s, these protections were rolled back as the Green Revolution took hold, releasing large farming complexes into the arena. These factory farms, credited with exploiting surrounding communities, were “the culprits behind mass dumping of dangerous pollutants” into the air and water streams of those regions.

Beyond wreaking environmental and health havoc, explains Rohan Arora of The Hill, “the monopolies within the American farm industry have promoted environmental and financial ruin for family farms” leading to the closure of nearly fifty small farms every day.

A kid on top of a protester's shoulders

Farmer Protests in New Delhi, India. Source, Naveen Sharma, SOPA Images

“In the summer of 2017, Tamil farmers protested while we were swooning over Despacito and Bahubali. The Kisan Long March in 2018 saw 35,000 Maharashtrian farmers swarm into Mumbai […] They were marching again in 2019.” Manu Kaushik, Outlook India

Likewise, we find no shortage of distractions pulling our focus from the strife of our own communities.

The closure of small farms goes hand in hand with that of thousands of rural schools and support services. Farm bills must now set aside multi-million dollar budgets for mental health, as Farm Aid and others establish suicide prevention hotlines.

Meanwhile, India’s farmer protests coincide with the devastating crises of farmer suicides, further exacerbated by the pandemic. Tallied at dozens each day, these actions are not only personal but harmonize with a collective outcry, a final signal sent out from each forsaken farm.

The corruption: Already under international scrutiny, Modi’s move to “shove [the bills] down the throats of the people” lands as a final straw, leading to a rare ruling in January by India’s supreme court to suspend the laws.

“Modi has been seen as untouchable. But a lot of people are watching this,” notes Naindeep Singh of the youth-driven Jakara Movement, “Will it be the farmers that break Modi’s authoritarian streak?”

“Punjab or California or anywhere, Punjabis will never quit farming. It’s in our DNA.” Karmdeep Singh Bains, a 4th-generation farmer. As our country grew, in its early years, so too did the number

of immigrants arriving with generations’ worth of agricultural knowledge. By the late 1800s, just before Alien Land Laws set in, Punjabi farmers were building new lives on American soil and establishing California’s first Sikh communities.

In Yuba City, CA, “Little Punjab”, Punjabi immigrants account for as much as 95% of peach farming and fill a gaping shortage of truck drivers nationwide. Central Valley communities, where Punjabi is the third- most spoken language, have raised funds for billboards to draw attention to the movement, while across the sea thousands of tractors do their part to block further roads to injustice. Celebrities have spoken out, big rigs have stolen the road, and Punjabi-Americans in several states have rallied in support.  “Media corruption has led to the desperate cries of the farmers to be hidden from the mainstream narrative,” notes Arora from The Hill, “and thus, the onus to speak up falls on us as Americans.”

We can begin by tuning in to the struggles of our neighbors’ families abroad, just as Punjabi-American truckers tune in via radio during their long hauls trolleying our produce across the country.

“Homing in on the Harvest” is part of a series to take and share a closer look at what’s happening on the front lines of farming in the U.S. in hopes to bring everyone a little closer to the table and a little further into the field. The title and the series were sparked by stories and news that is missing from the mainstream, especially during Covid, and grew from taking deeper dives into the world of agriculture as an outsider: where our food is coming from, whose hands do the work, how lives are affected, what’s happening to the land, with cultures, how we got to where we are, where we’re headed as a country and society.

 

Bec Sloane is a visual media professional and educator, bridging awareness gaps between the agricultural sector and the general public through content creation and cross-sector collaboration. She can

be reached through her website at www.botheredearth.com.




Why Choose Local Organic?

NOFA-NH’s Education & Outreach Committee published a new brochure, flyer, and social media campaign called ‘Why Choose Local Organic?’ providing 9 in-depth explanations for why eaters should choose local organic whenever possible, such as getting to know the farmers who bring food to market, supporting practices that restore

biodiversity and conserve natural ecosystems, and helping create a vibrant, fair and resilient economy. Learn more at www.nofanh.org/why-choose-local-organic. Why Choose Local Organic?

  1. Discover Amazing Flavors, Heirloom Foods, and Regional Delicacies. You’ll eat in harmony with the seasons and perhaps even acquire new cooking skills.
  2. Keep Important Cultural Traditions Going! Farming, gardening, cooking, preserving, and eating local foods are parts of everyone’s heritage. Maybe you’ll get inspired to learn more about your ancestors’ recipes, methods and traditions and pass them on to the next generation.
  3. Help Create a Self-sufficient, Fair, and Resilient Local Economy. When you support farmers, small businesses, and artisans, you’re becoming a conscious co-producer of a more vibrant local economy! Your actions are benefiting your neighbors, yourself, and your family because you’re making sure that more money circulates in your hometown – rather than flowing off to distant, unaccountable corporations. You’re ensuring that interesting, creative, independent work abounds here. Numerous studies indicate that dollars channeled into locallyowned enterprises strengthen and reinvigorate communities in terms of increases in employment, taxes paid, and money going to other local businesses.
  4. Get to Know the Farmers / Farmworkers who Bring your Food to Market. And let them get to know you. You’re building real, face-to-face community. Through direct conversations, you can learn about growing and harvesting practices. You can inform yourself about the ways that food production is influenced by all sorts of factors – from weather to insects to human social structures such as types of land ownership, legislation, international commodity markets, or even the policies of financial institutions. Importantly, you can also let growers know what foods, growing methods, and human work settings you value and seek.
  5. Eat Fresher, More Nutrient-Dense, Foods. Local food is healthy for you, your family, and your neighbors. Ideally, it has been grown in biologically active living soil, open air, and sunshine conditions that generate maximum vigor and nutritional quality. Organic foods, by definition, are free from persistent toxic synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMO). Organic foods also come from animals who have been able to enjoy fresh pasture and organic feeds rather than being crowded into disease-causing Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s). Organic foods are not raised hydroponically.
  6. Local Organic Agriculture Strengthens biodiversity and Conserves Nature. Because synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and GMO’s are not used in organic production, natural populations of living beings (large and small) can continue their lives even as human food is being grown. Local, organic farming protects not only pollinators, amphibians, and aquatic life, but also the health of human eaters, farmworkers, food processors, and people living upwind and downstream. (After all, people are just one more part of biodiversity!) Regenerative, small-scale, organic farms increase biodiversity by deliberately raising animals and plants together (polyculture), and by growing not only annual crops but also long-lived perennial plants such as fruit or nut trees, as well as berry producing shrubs and vines. Note how very different this is from industrialized farming. The latter typically grows single crops on large swaths of land utilizing massive, automated capitaland fossil fuel-intensive equipment. This often results in soil degradation, compaction, and heavy water use. Significantly, small-scale, diversified organic farms also avoid the cruelty and disease-causing conditions associated with CAFO’s. That industrialized method of raising domesticated animals (for meat, dairy, and eggs) crowds the creatures into confined spaces. It often relies on GMO feeds, excessive antibiotics (which can lead to antibiotic resistant disease organisms), and herd densities that can transform potentially beneficial manure into concentrated toxic waste.

 

  1. Help Reduce Fossil Fuel Consumption, Waste, and Climate Change. Industrialized food supply chains depend upon fossil fuels and the capitalintensive mechanization of as many aspects of food production, processing, and distribution as possible. Presently, a ‘plate’ of typical, conventionally produced food in the U.S. is estimated to have traveled 1500 miles. All sorts of storage facilities, refrigeration, plastic packaging, chemical preservatives, trucking, shipping, and/or air transport are required to supply such food. Yet, along the way to our tables, 1/3 of the food is wasted. Perhaps it’s not surprising that 1/4 to 1/3 of climate-changing greenhouse gases are being generated by activities related to the industrialization of agriculture. A critical example of this is synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. This substance requires large amounts of fossil fuel for its initial manufacturing and distribution to croplands. Once used, it not only pollutes waterways, but frequently degrades into N2O, a molecule 300 times more heat trapping than carbon dioxide. Local, organic farming avoids many of these factors (and others) that add to global warming. It can provide our state and people with both healthy food and a resilient economy and environment.
  2. Local Organic Agriculture Helps Restore Soil Health, CO2 Levels, and Climate Resilience. When regenerative organic practices are employed, complex microbiomes are able to flourish beneath the layers of food plants and their complementary cover crops. These microbiomes support the health of the multicellular creatures (including us humans) who live on or near such farms or eat their products. In well-aerated, non-compacted layers of earth, tiny micro-organisms partner with plant roots, invertebrate animals, and fungi. The resulting biological networks recycle materials such as dead leaves, stems, and roots or manure and transform them all into humus. Additionally, the fungi (in exchange for plant sugars) help transport minerals into the crop plants from the deeper levels of subsoil and bedrock. Such interactions increase the nutrient density of the resulting food. Such biological webs further increase the water-absorbing capacity of the ground, leading to better aquifer recharge and greater resistance to flooding and erosion. All this leads to improved water quality in watersheds, estuaries, and even oceans. Organic, regenerative practices (such as biodynamic farming, permaculture, agroforestry, composting, and other agroecological methods) can even remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground in the form of that amazing organic substance mentioned earlier – humus. This process, today called carbon sequestration, has been the hallmark of many traditional, sustainable growing systems across the centuries. It allows farmers and gardeners to build their soil’s fertility. Carbon sequestration can help reverse the climate change that has been caused by burning fossil fuels during our species’ excessive industrialization over the past 250 years. To summarize: localized, organic, regenerative growing can provide healthy foods, reduce carbon dioxide levels, and improve land’s climate resiliency, even while it restores intricate and unpolluted habitats for both humans and other species.
  3. (combined with a modest amount of Fair Trade purchasing) is an act of solidarity with people across the planet, people whose lives and cultures are threatened by globalized, industrialized agriculture. On every continent, communities and cultures based upon centuries of food sufficiency achieved through small-scale agriculture, craftsmanship, and unique world-views are being threatened and disrupted. People often find it necessary to leave their homelands due to the related pressures of climate instability and industrialization. Both factors frequently make it impossible for traditional farmers to meet their own food needs, sell at fair prices, and / or hold onto their families’ land. This is particularly the case where extractive industries / land grabs have targeted a region’s gifts – such as its mineral, water, timber, soil, or even human resources. Young people in such areas often find it necessary to migrate to foreign lands and / or megacities that are ill equipped to provide them with employment. Once there, they often have little access to dignified, creative work, nourishing food, basic housing, or even clean water or functioning sanitation and social systems. The disruption of formerly selfreliant, agrarian communities occurs in part due to financial structures. These include prices, subsidies, taxes, and monetary returns that do not accurately account for the true costs externalized / inflicted upon the global commonwealth by conventional, industrialized agriculture – costs to the land, waters, atmosphere and ecosystems that are indispensable for a healthy, human-friendly biosphere. Given this situation, the UN recommends small-scale, agroecological production as an important path for keeping Earth’s people well-fed and resilient as we all move into the future. Agroecological methods (which foreground regenerative organic practices) provide food sovereignty while respecting the integrity of diverse ecosystems. Co-creating ecologically-sound food systems here in our region is simply a matterof us doing our part in this planetary effort.

 

Resources & Links:

  • NOFA NH’s brochure, www.nofanh.org/whychoose-local-organic.
  • Why Local Matters study, ilsr.org/key-studieswhy-local-matters/
  • Fossil Food Consuming Our Future, www. ecoliteracy.org/article/fossil-food-consumingour-future

 




There Is Enough Food, Just Not Enough Food Access

Jammella Anderson kneels beside a bright pink refrigerator on a sidewalk in Albany, New York, stocking its shelves with fresh loaves of bread and heads of lettuce—food that is free for the taking. A passerby stops to ask how to donate. She tells them where and how to sign up to give veggies, dairy, or prepared meals. They continue walking, then double back and ask Anderson whether they can donate the stale contents of their apartment fridge ahead of a move. The answer is an emphatic “no.”

To Anderson, the question epitomizes the problem she’s trying to solve as founder of Free Food Fridge Albany: A prevailing attitude that poor, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, as well as others who disproportionately face food insecurity, deserve only leftovers, day-old bread, or scraps. The Free Food Fridge flips that idea on its head.

“[Food] seemed so inaccessible to me because food insecurity is something that I dealt with, and because we live in a city, you don’t really see where the food is coming from,” Anderson says.

The problem is not only an economic one, or one of food scarcity, but also of food accessibility.

“This is all fresh food from the earth that people who are going food-insecure should be able to have.”

A community activist, yoga teacher, and doula, Anderson launched Free Food Fridge Albany last summer, at the height of the pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Black woman, she wanted to push herself, and White allies, to be less performative and more action-oriented when it came to addressing systemic inequities. That’s when she started thinking about food.

Food insecurity in the United States, defined by the USDA as the consistent lack of food on a household level, severely increased during the spring of 2020 when the coronavirus swept across the globe. The pandemic exposed the tremendous faults in our structural systems—specifically our economy.

Anderson knew the problem would only worsen as neighborhoods already cut off from resources were disproportionately harmed by the economic shutdown, and millions across the country lost their jobs. In the Albany metro area, more than 30,000 other people were without work compared to the previous year.

The problem is not only an economic one, or one of food scarcity, but also of food accessibility. Enough food is produced around the globe to feed every human, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, yet hundreds of millions go hungry every day.

“What can I do? What gap can I fill? How can I make something like food more accessible to people in the neighborhoods where there aren’t grocery stores?” Anderson recalls asking herself.

So she put out a call to her thousands of followers on Instagram, and someone suggested starting a free fridge. The concept is simple: In cities all over the country, vibrantly painted fridges sit on city sidewalks, stocked daily with donations of fresh food. Anyone is welcome to take as much as they need, no questions asked.

Within a few hours, Anderson had a contact at Lowe’s and a new fridge on her hands. A single location on Elm Street in Albany has since grown to a network of six fridges across the metro region. They’re stocked and supported by a local grocery store, nearby farms and restaurants, and individual volunteers—as well as more than 500 people who donate funds monthly via Patreon.

Fridge beneficiaries can retrieve anything from milk to veggies and prepared meals. It’s impossible to count just how many people have benefited—the system is anonymous by design—but Anderson says it’s been “extraordinary” to see the impact: residents enjoying fresh okra for the first time in decades because it’s been mostly unavailable in Albany; neighbors forming relationships with local farmers; even some folks who relied on the fridges earlier in the year now have the resources to donate to it.

“That’s been a really beautiful turnaround,” Anderson beams.

Anderson’s effort is only one of a global network of community fridges known as the Freedge movement that has expanded during the pandemic. Freedge, a database and resource provider for community fridge networks, counts hundreds of locations across the U.S., up from just 12 in March 2020. Many of these efforts sprung up to meet an acute need: increased levels of food insecurity during the pandemic. But the leaders in this movement see the fridges as part of a larger, long-term mutual aid effort that can solve systemic issues.

 

“A fridge by itself is just an individual action, but [with] many fridges, many projects, all of these other mutual aid groups together, that’s now a collective,” says Ernst Bertone Oehninger, a founder of Freedge.

Bertone Oehninger sees the fridges as a visible reminder that many people don’t have access to enough food, and also a gateway that could create enough food for all through larger efforts that include the people power of mutual aid projects.

“The fridge doesn’t solve food insecurity. What it does well is start a conversation about food insecurity,” Bertone Oehninger says. And that conversation can lead to a new urban farm, or more urban kitchens, or even systematic changes on a policy level.

 

A Global Problem

The world produces enough food to feed the entire population, but there are big problems in distribution, access, and waste, explains Nancy Roman, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America, and a “food systems champion” for the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021. In the U.S., a half-eaten hamburger might end up in the garbage can, while in other parts of the world, crops may be left rotting in the field because there’s no infrastructure to get them to market. And even in countries where food is plentiful, it can be unaffordable for some and difficult to access for others.

 

That leaves nearly 10% of the global population—746 million people—exposed to severe levels of food insecurity, according to 2019 data from the United Nations. In the U.S., that number was about 35 million in 2019, according to the USDA.

 

With hunger and undernutrition, we know exactly what we need to do. It’s simply a matter of making it a priority.

“It’s gotten much worse because of COVID-19, because the people who lost their jobs were disproportionately the lowest income,” says Roman. “People who were living on the margins got pushed into abject hunger.”

Permanently fixing these complicated barriers to food access—financial or otherwise—will come down to political will, Roman says.

“With hunger and undernutrition, we know exactly what we need to do. It’s simply a matter of making it a priority,” she says.

That’s why her organization is calling for a cabinetlevel position on food, and wants to see food infrastructure incorporated into President Joe Biden’s $2.6 trillion American Jobs Plan. But in the meantime, the nonprofit, which works to increase access to healthy food, has multiple programs distributing meal kits to families in need around the country, in an effort to build the habit of cooking at home with fresh foods.

A Grassroots Solution

The community fridge networks offer a more immediate solution. “The existence of mutual aid is an expression of that frustration with the system. We’re not getting the things that we need, therefore we must do it ourselves,” says Christine Tran, executive director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

Tran locates the need for community fridges in the same problem that Roman sees: A lack of equitable distribution of the abundance of food we already have.

“We grow food for the world but can’t feed ourselves. And that says so much about the disconnections that exist within and across our food system,” Tran says.

And so the community fridge networks take matters into their own hands, helping communities to help themselves and build systems of support.

Bertone Oehninger realized this back in 2014 as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. He was inspired by mutual aid efforts he saw while living and traveling in Europe. Concerned about food insecurity in his own community, he plopped a fridge in his front yard and started offering free food to his neighborhood.

It only lasted two months before the fridge was impounded by health inspectors. But Bertone Oehninger and his friends kept trying, moving the fridges around and eventually figuring out how to comply with health regulations. By 2016, the group had started fridges all over the U.S., some more successful than others.

“We realized that the fridges that really work well are the fridges that are started by the community, not by an outsider,” Bertone Oehninger says.

So the Freedge website was born as a resource center that could support a decentralized network of fridges started by folks in their own communities.

 

Tran, who was a “free lunch kid” growing up, didn’t start the L.A. community fridge network, but she quickly came to support it as part of her organization’s work “connecting the dots” of the local food system.

There is little evidence on the impact community fridges have had on food insecurity—in large part because the system is anonymous and decentralized—but Tran said it has had a positive impact locally.

“It really destigmatizes what support looks like,” Tran says of the fridges. Anyone in the community can come to grab free food, with no strings attached.

It is also shows there is enough healthy food available for those who are most in need.

Successes and Limitations

Anderson was not an expert in food policy when she started putting fridges around Albany. While she sees the benefits of the project, she also realizes it does not solve the problem entirely.

“We are taking away many barriers, and we’re putting it right in your face, but it’s still not enough,” Anderson says. “I shouldn’t have to put Band-Aids on things like food insecurity. It’s the systemic part of it. Yes, I am putting a Band-Aid on, but if you look at the whole wall, it’s all cracking. It’s about to come down.”

If we truly want everyone to have enough food, Anderson says, we need to look at the bigger picture, which includes making sure people have enough money to buy the food they need, making sure the abundance of food we already have is distributed effectively, and making sure young people are learning how to grow and cook their own food.

“It seems like a privilege to be able to grow your own food. And it’s not. It’s a human right. It’s a basic need, it’s a necessity to be able to grow your own food and eat it,” Anderson says.

Even as the pandemic ebbs and momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement slows, Anderson hopes communities can continue the cycle of exchange they developed during the past year.

“This is a wake-up call. We need to stop placing the blame on the people who need the things, and realize that we all are living in abundance,” Anderson says.

Mike De Socio is a freelance journalist and photographer based in upstate New York. His reporting focuses on cities, climate change, and the LGBTQ+ community.

This article first appeared in Yes! Magazine August

10, 2021, and is reprinted with persmission as according to the Creative Commons, (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)