Starting a Farm in a Pandemic: Reflections from Winter Street Farm

Jonathan Hayden and Abby Clarke at Winter Street

Jonathan Hayden and Abby Clarke at Winter Street
Farm. Photo by Caro Roszell

It had been dry—really dry—in the weeks leading up to my visit to Winter Street Farm in the late spring of 2020. As unusual as the drought was, it was one of the more quotidian concerns of that deeply unsettled season. Here in the northeastern U.S., uncertainty for farmers is now the norm. We see frosts a month late or early, and increasingly erratic precipitation patterns that are always surprising in the moment, but never in hindsight. Adding to that uncertainty was the novel coronavirus, which upended lives and broke food supply chains.

What would it be like to try to start a farm from scratch in the context of this global crisis?

This is what I was wondering as I navigated through the zigzag intersections of Claremont, New Hampshire. Suddenly, the light turned soft and moody grey, and the first fat raindrops streaked the pollen on my windshield.

The roads lifted up out of the town and into woodlands broken by pastures and homesteads. I passed through sheets of rain, until a sign advertising “CSA shares available” appeared at a country intersection. The rain cleared; across an open pasture was a yellow house with an attached greenhouse and barn.

Pulling into the driveway, I saw Abby and Jonathan, soaking wet and grinning in their camp chairs set in the entrance to the barn. Abby was barefoot in a blue summer dress and Jonathan in plaid shirt with suspenders, utility pants, toolbelt and boots.

A chance meeting, a love of the cold, and a farm on Winter Street
Abby Clarke and I met at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts; Abby lived and worked at the farm while studying Natural Resource Conservation at UMass, just a mile down the road. Younger than many of the apprentices and crew, Abby impressed everyone with her durability of spirit, endless energy and her jump-in-with-both-feet work ethic.

For the next few years, Abby returned to Simple Gifts Farm between adventures: sailing the world crewing tall ships, working at a truck stop in Coldfoot, Alaska, and getting certified as a wilderness Emergency Medical Technician in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Eventually, she stayed on at Simple Gifts as the Assistant Manager while I moved north to start a market garden.

The 3-week to-do list: close on the
purchase, winterize the house, lay
out silage tarps, head for Antarctica.

I met Jonathan Hayden in 2016 at a NOFA no-till farming workshop; we ran into each other again a few weeks later, as Abby and I walked together at the NOFA Summer Conference.

Originally from Colorado Springs, Jonathan began spending winters in Antarctica while studying Fire and Emergency Services Administration at Colorado State University. In the summer, he farmed: in Nice, France, and Parma, Italy, and in Connecticut and Massachusetts where he began attending NOFA events.

Introducing them, I mentioned Jonathan’s work in Antarctica and Abby’s experiences in Alaska. In the years since, I’ve often wondered if their mutual love of cold, remote places crystallized their connection, and if it in some way guided their path to a farm on a street called Winter.

Flash forward to the fall of 2019, and winter was fast approaching at the wilderness expedition base camp on the Yukon River in Alaska where Abby and Jonathan were working, when they learned that their offer on the New Hampshire farm had been accepted. Over the next three weeks, they headed to New Hampshire, closed on the property, laid out a quarter acre of silage tarps, and winterized the house before packing their gear and heading to the airport, bound for five months work at McMurdo base in Antarctica.

In February 2020, the two returned to New Hampshire and their brand-new farm—with little infrastructure and not even a farm name—and only four months until their first CSA distribution.

So much to do, and then, a really big wrench
Even before properly moving into their farmhouse, they got to work immediately on the tasks of starting a new farm. They had a home and a barn and 38 acres of (mostly wooded) land. They had some equipment (a tractor, a few implements and a converted washing machine greens dryer) stored at friends’ farms across the state, but they had a long list of purchases to make, plus all of the administrative work of starting a new business: branding, logos, signage, website creation, marketing, organic certification, meetings with the NRCS and setting up recordkeeping systems. They had to build a greenhouse, three caterpillar tunnels, a wash station, CSA distribution area and a walk-in cooler. And, of course, all the operational tasks, including ordering seeds and packing supplies and fertilizers, preparing beds, starting seeds, and planting crops.

“It felt manageable because we had a game plan,” explained Abby. “We made the plan for the month, the week, the day and just kept moving, even as wrenches got thrown into the system.”

Wrenches, for example, like a global pandemic.

Just a few days into their preparations for the season, the first news of coronavirus in the US began to circulate. “There was some uncertainty in the early season, when we were completely invested in our business and were taking loans. We were afraid that we wouldn’t get enough CSA members and it was unclear whether there would be farmers markets this year,” remembered Jonathan.

Yet the two pushed on, accomplishing every task on their list. “Honestly, If the pandemic hadn’t happened and we didn’t have so much help from family and friends, it might have been a different story. But what happened is that people just kept showing up. We had plenty of space in the farmhouse and in campsites we cleared for people to socially distance, and of course we never overlapped guests. Our family and friends came out and offered us free labor because the pandemic put their jobs on hold.”

“Our family and friends came out and
offered us free labor because the
pandemic put their jobs on hold.”

The main way that the crisis impacted Abby and Jonathan was through their off-farm jobs. According to the USDA, 85-95% of the income for farm households came from off-farm sources in 1999-2003, and new farm start-ups are especially reliant on off-farm income for startup cost. Abby and Jonathan have made a significant portion of their income from their work in Antarctica, but expeditions for the 2020-2021 winter were drastically cut. To keep off-farm income flowing, Jonathan took a part-time job at the nearby Home Depot, working till 11 pm several days each week after farming all day.

Their concerns over the immediate viability of the farm eased, however, when “it became clear that local agriculture would be heavily supported [during the pandemic],” explained Abby. “CSA membership exceeded our expectations –we have 60 members now.” Like most new farms and food businesses, startup costs are significant, and Winter Street Farm will not produce a viable living for Abby and Jonathan for its first few seasons. But rising CSA enrollment helped them weather the spring’s food supply-chain upheavals.

As their first crops approached harvest in late May, they adjusted their business and marketing plan. Jonathan explained, “we pulled back from other markets and instead expanded our CSA and did not open to the public as a walk-in farm stand. This really worked better for us anyway because the numbers are more uncertain with those markets.” Because of the unprecedented level of interest in CSAs in the spring of 2020, Winter Street Farm was able to increase their target membership level and focus on just that one sales outlet.

“We’re actually really lucky,” they explained. “Because we hadn’t yet set up our systems, we just built them with coronavirus safety measures in mind.”

To ensure that the CSA would be safe for members, they expanded their planned distribution hours and offered 3 pickup days, each with a 5-hour window, which, they say, was more than enough for the number of members that had to navigate the distribution barn with physical distancing. “Everyone wears a mask, we have one entrance and one exit, and tongs and pick-your-own tools are used once per member and then sanitized,” Abby explained.

“The support that local farms have received has been really amazing, but it also reflects on the way that we need more community institutions,” Abby said. “People are coming here and actually seeing and talking to each other—they feel more comfortable coming here than the grocery store, and it has a real community feeling.” Despite being transplants to the town, the farm became an instant and essential part of the community.

By mid-summer, they were already producing more than their CSA could consume, so Winter Street Farm donated surplus produce each week to local hunger relief efforts, such as the Claremont Soup Kitchen.

“We have seen the food chain falter and stumble. I think a lot of people are just starting to discover buying local,” Jonathan said. Asked whether he thought that people would continue to support local farms at the same levels after the pandemic becomes less dangerous, he pointed out that “if local sources produce good quality food, when they go back to grocery store they’ll be able to tell the difference. We already have people telling us that before our CSA, they went to the local big chain for their greens, which went bad in three days, but our greens last longer and taste so much better—this way is so much better.”

An update
I got back in touch with Abby and Jonathan in late winter 2021 to ask about their plans for the new year. Abby told me they will be doubling the size of their CSA this year in response to the high demand. They will also be spending part of the season setting up the infrastructure they will need to add laying hens to their farm in 2022. In addition, they are collaborating with local businesses and artists to grow more specialty crops including indigo (for textile dyes), flint corn, and herbs. They are working closely with their local NRCS soil conservationist to make improvements to the farm and to receive support for conservation practices, including cover cropping, mulching, and improvement of habitat for beneficial insects.

Winter Street Farm is a certified organic, tillage-reduced farm in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire on what was originally Pennacook and Sokoki lands. For more information on Winter Street Farm visit www.winterstreetfarm.com/, find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/winterstreetfarm, or Instagram:@winterstreetfarm

To read about the soil-health centered farming practices at Winter Street Farm, check out the August edition of the NOFA/Mass Newsletter.

Note: A version of this story also appeared in the NOFA/Mass Newsletter and in the magazine Growers & Co.

Caro Roszell is Education Director and Soil Health Specialist for NOFA/Mass.

Lightning-fast Pivots Kept Three Farms Thriving in the Face of the Pandemic

Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm

Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm

In spring 2020, just as they were hitting their stride at the start of the season, many farmers were suddenly faced with a market picture drastically changed by the arrival of COVID-19, and the subsequent shutdown of farmers markets and shuttering of restaurants. Many not only had to “build a new plane as they flew it,” they did so while flying into a hurricane with no radar. Three farmers at three very different scales talked about their challenges, successes, and lessons learned as they made their lightning-fast pivots to adapt to the pandemic. They spoke at the New York winter conference.

A small farm moves online over one weekend
Before the pandemic, 90% of sales from the 1.5-acre Lovin’ Mama Farm in Amsterdam, New York, were through farmers markets. “On March 13th, we found that all of our markets were cancelled,” said co-owner Corinne Hansch. But with hoop houses full of over-wintered greens, they had produce that couldn’t wait.

They developed new outlets selling through pop-up markets, and consignment sales at a local grocery market and food co-op. But the majority of their sales went online.

“We opened an online store the same weekend,” Corinne said, taking advantage of a bare-bones offering from GoDaddy, their web host. “Within three days, we had started making our first sales,” although not without stress. “We always messed up at least one order a week. If I had to do it again, I would upgrade to a more complete online store,” one that generated pick lists to reduce the errors of hand-transcribing each order. Nonetheless, 60% of the farm’s 2020 sales were from online orders, including some CSA payments. “This brought us through the pandemic.” (It also landed them on the cover of the May 2020 issue of Acres, “Standing Strong”.)

“If I had to do it again, I would upgrade to a more complete online store”

Early on, they offered free delivery, “but we found that was not sustainable for our small business.” They switched to requesting that customers only ask for delivery if they were homebound. Costs for packaging and extra labor for doing the packing also had an impact. “We still prefer market sales, where we put the produce right into the bag in front of the customer.”

Pivoting from market-style to home delivery, with a second truck
Fox Creek Farm in Schoharie, New York, grows 12 acres of vegetables and, in normal years, serves 400 CSA customers market-style at 11 sites. “When the pandemic hit, we thought for a brief moment about taking a sabbatical,” said farmer Raymond Luhrman, “but we had already sold half our CSA shares.”

Contents of a pre-set boxed order

Contents of a pre-set boxed order

“Instead we asked, How can we reduce exposure and maintain social distancing? We bid adieu to our market-style set-up, and instead went to pre-packed shares. But we were not set up for a pre-pack system.”

Raymond and partner Sarah also determined that home delivery was likely to be an important add-on, since so many people had reduced traveling to a minimum. “I had no clue about how this was going to work, though, in terms of logistics, capacity, reception on the part of customers, and price point. I lost a lot of sleep over this.”

Setting a fair price for delivery when you’ve never done it is a major concern. “We ballparked for extra labor, depreciation, fuel, et cetera, to determine how much deliveries were costing us.” The farm also needed a second truck, which itself was a challenge in those early days.

“Home deliveries were successful,” he said, “and we survived physically and mentally. We ended up estimating the cost of delivery pretty closely.” But, he added, “we way underestimated the time commitment for administration” for this new system. “And keep your trucks in good repair!”

From restaurants to CSA deliveries, with software and a new work crew

“When COVID hit, our markets all shut, our restaurant orders all got cancelled, and our crew in the city”—New York City—“all quit,” said Zaid Kurdieh, owner of the 200-acre Norwich Meadows Farm in Norwich, New York. “I had to drop everything and start driving trucks.”

In 2019, the farm was selling mainly to wholesale and restaurant customers in the city, so they needed a rapid change in their business. Because of their large volume and multiple customers, they had already developed a software system to track orders and schedule deliveries. “We had the infrastructure to sell.” So they pivoted to taking orders for home delivery in the city.

“The first week we opened up for home delivery, and by week two we were filling 80 orders a day.” They quickly realized that custom orders were taking too much time—“the bottleneck was packing, and we weren’t in the business of packing boxes”—so they switched to pre-set boxed orders. At the peak, they were filling 1500 orders per week (this tapered off as the season went along and some normalcy returned).

Build delivery costs into your price, “or it will eat you alive”

To break down and pack up boxes, they rented closed restaurants and hired many out-of-work restaurant staff, “some of the best people in the industry,” Zaid said. Delivery was based on distance from Union Square, their “home base” in the city. “I urge you not to get into free delivery. You can estimate the cost. Account for it, or it will eat you alive.”

Resources and Links
Lovin’ Mama Farm: www.lovinmamafarm.com
Fox Creek Farm: www.foxcreekfarmcsa.com
Norwich Meadows Farm: www.norwichmeadowsfarm.com

Massaro Community Farm in the Year of COVID-19

“Farming through a pandemic has been an exhausting, but exciting, endeavor. The hardest part has been the lack of social connection. Our community is one of the biggest parts of our CSA; it’s part of our mission statement: Keep farming, feed people, build community.”
– Alyssa DesRosier, Assistant Farm Manager

The COVID -19 crisis has exposed minor cracks and deep craters in the US food supply chain. Dairies that sold milk to processors that only supply restaurants and food services had the heartbreaking task of dumping millions of gallons of milk. When giant meat processing plants closed down because so many of the workers were infected, hog farmers had to “euthanize” thousands of hogs by drowning, shooting and suffocating. Ordered to reopen when the administration declared that it is essential to maintain the meat supply, at least 54,000 meatpacking workers have become sick and 270 have died as of early February 2021.

But the crisis has also revealed that family-scale farms that are deeply embedded in their communities have been able to pivot nimbly to make high-quality, locally grown and processed foods available while keeping everyone – farm family, farm workers and customers – safe.

Workers at the farm don PPE to bag up shares

Workers at the farm don PPE to bag up shares

By March 20, 2020, within days of the COVID-19 shut down, Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, Connecticut was taking orders via email, and a week later was running a new on-line store not only to sell winter greens from their own greenhouse, but to offer products from neighboring farms that had lost markets when restaurants and schools closed. To learn more about how the farm made this switch so quickly and what it cost them to do so, I called lead farmer Steve Munno to hear his story. We are both members of the NOFA Interstate Council policy committee, which has made extra efforts through this year to keep in touch with the needs of our farmer members so that we can advocate for them before state and federal governments

Steve has been the Farm Manager since the start of Massaro Community Farm 11 years ago when he answered the call for a farmer who could organize a CSA combined with hunger relief and educational programming. Having trained at UC Santa Cruz and then worked with the Food Project, Steve was excited to shape a farm that would combine organic farming with food justice. “The injustices of our world, my own privileges and the need to actively work for change were evident early on,” Steve said, “so these are the initial seeds” of his commitment to social justice. “From there, over the years I got to study and work with people and at organizations where social justice was a pertinent part of the conversation or integral to the mission.”

Alyssa DesRosier with Massaro Community Farm kale.

Alyssa DesRosier with Massaro Community Farm kale.

By 2020, the farm had an executive director and a staff of eight, including an education director, a CSA with 240 shares, and sales at local farmers’ markets and area restaurants. In addition to commercial sales, Massaro has made a commitment to donate 10% of all production to local hunger relief agencies. The farm has given away over 65,000 pounds of food since 2010, raising funds to pay for the donations and educational programs with such annual community-building events as an on-farm dinner and a bikeathon. Steve lives in the farm house with his wife and two children. Vivian is 3 and Miles had his first birthday in August, so farm safety also means family safety.

The farm takes its name from the Italian family that ran a small dairy with a flock of chickens from 1916 till the death of the last farming member in 2007, when the town of Woodbridge took ownership to protect the land. A group in town who wanted farming to continue established a non-profit that leases 57 acres from the town. The active board shapes the farm’s policies, supports educational programming and helps raise funds. Hundreds of people have volunteered to participate in the farm’s many activities.

More on-farm sales, goodbye (for now) to markets

When Connecticut became a pandemic hot spot in early March, 2020, there were two other staff people who had been working with Steve through the winter. Together, they had to figure out how to keep the farm open and keep themselves and customers safe. Lindsay Browning, who works in the farm office, had experience with Square (an on-line order program), so they used that system to set up a store with on-line ordering and pick-ups at the farm.

Since farmer friends had lost their sales outlets, Steve added their offerings to the list. Since the farm has a mailing list of 3000, it was not hard to attract customers. Within a week, the farm was providing once a week pick-up that continued weekly through the spring and summer, then stretched out to every other week for the winter of 2021.

Steve reports that they plan to keep the online store going as long as there is interest from customers and farm partners, and as long as winter harvesting from their high tunnels allows. From Massaro they’ve been offering kale, chard, arugula, lettuce, salad mix, carrots, radishes and jarred tomato products. From local partners they’ve offered eggs, milk, buttermilk, kefir, cheese, coffee, apple cider, mushrooms, pork/charcuterie, and butternut squash. They schedule customer arrivals at half hour intervals – safe spacing requirements and the time slots limit the orders to 150. It takes Steve and his staff all day to bundle the orders. Customers drive through the farm parking area, stopping at the barn where farm staff, gloved and masked, bring out the orders, placing them on a table for no-touch retrieval or pop them into the trunk.

Since farmer friends had lost their
sales outlets, Steve added their
offerings to the new online store

Steve talked about the other things that were different this year. To meet the big surge in requests for CSA shares, they expanded membership by 30% to 305 households. In previous seasons, CSA pick up at the farm has been “market style”, where subscribers select their produce from bins that the crew sets out for them. To ensure pandemic safety, the farm has had to bag or box the shares. The farm has had to spend over $1000 on BioBags for packing CSA shares, and at least $500 on disposable gloves and extra packaging materials, but no one on the farm or any of their immediate friends has gotten sick. Farm staff has clocked in 1500 hours more than in 2019. Customers are very appreciative of the service.

Packaging expenses went way up to ensure customer safety.

Changing to meet this moment was a big effort. Assistant Farm Manager Alyssa DesRosier is also a quilter so she made cloth masks for the crew. I asked her to reflect on her experience and she wrote: “Everyone who works at Massaro farms does so because we care about providing healthy food for our community. When I made masks for the staff, I sewed hearts on them to remind everyone that even though they couldn’t see our smiling faces, we were here for them and cared about them. I am so proud of our team for all of the extra work that went into creating the farm store and online ordering system. Steve has done an incredible job organizing all of this, and it’s an honor to work with him. The farm staff had to put in more hours earlier in the season and change our crop plans to ensure that we could provide food for our customers when they needed it the most.”

With COVID-19, the farmers’ markets changed their rules to require that all sales be ordered and paid for in advance, a system that does not work well for Massaro. It is a matter of logistics, Steve explained. Harvest for the CSA takes place on 3 to 5 days a week with what is extra going to sales for the farmers’ markets. In past years, Steve had a sense of what they would bring to market, but was able to make adjustments at the last minute to accommodate fluctuations in share numbers and production from week to week. With the new rules, he would have had to put the information online early in the week, confirm what they have, and receive and pack orders before going to market. Although he wanted to support the other vendors and going to market is a big social thing for the family, he and his staff made the hard decision not to participate. The farm also dropped restaurant sales for the year.

Priorities included hunger relief and youth employment

By contrast, Steve increased the amount of produce the farm donated for hunger relief. Demand was up from New Haven, the Naugatuck Valley and the Connecticut Food Bank. Requests also came in from new organizations like Semilla Collective, a mutual aid/food distribution group in New Haven created by community members (including a former Massaro farm staffer) in response to the pandemic. Massaro donated to FISH of Greater New Haven, Loaves and Fishes, Common Ground High School, the Salvation Army, Valley United Way and others.

While the CSA has usually had a few shares that are purchased for donation, most of the shares go to people who can pay. Farm income from those sales covers operating costs, including staff salaries. The farm’s initial capitalization and money to buy new equipment and make major repairs depend on donations, grants from private foundations and state and federal programs.

Like many not-for-profits, Massaro had to get creative this year to find substitutes for on-farm fundraisers – the spring plant sale with music, the Labor Day dinner that attracted 180 people last year, and the summer camp. Their on-line fundraisers and programs were successful, but raised significantly less than events in previous years. The farm applied for and received two rounds of Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funds and Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funds that were critical to fill the gap from lost revenue, allowing them to keep all staff and hire additional people as well.

Except for use of the nature trail, Massaro also had to cancel on-farm programs. For the first years of the farm, Steve ran the educational programs himself together with board members and a few retired teachers who formed an education committee. In 2019, they hired a full-time education director to service the school groups that come year-round for after-school programs, manage volunteers, and run the summer camp for children 5 to 9 and weekend programs for families. Also cancelled was an April field day on Food Justice Certification in partnership with the Agricultural Justice Project and NOFA. The farm did offer on-line programs for children. By fall, Massaro was able to bring back limited on-farm programming, with COVID safety protocols in place, which continued over the winter.

In 2018, Massaro began a Summer Youth Employment Program, hiring half a dozen area high school students to work alongside the farm staff in all aspects of the farm operation. The program provides weekly curriculum/skill-building lessons, and gives the youth the chance to be part of a team and build job experience while doing great work in the community. The intention was to build on this program in 2020, but Steve held off on advertising and hiring in the spring, not knowing what would be safe and feasible come summer. In late June, they hired four students, all graduating seniors, and had them work two to three days per week, from 8 AM to 12 PM. Their start time was staggered with the farm’s staff, who begin at 7:30, so that everyone could maintain distancing when arriving at the farm. By keeping the youth work day to the morning hours, potential exposure time for everyone was reduced and there were fewer people eating lunch at the farm. After a couple weeks it was clear this was working well, so they hired three more recent high school grads who worked from early July to mid-August.

To be sure of enough labor in case of illness, Steve hired two extra staffers. Seven of the current staff of eight had already worked at the farm, know one another and get along well. Steve’s policy is to avoid reliance on volunteers or apprenticeships of what he refers to as “hazy legality.” He calls the employees staff and pays hourly wages. Together they were able to figure out how to work safely. Steve prefers working as a group to get things done, but this year they broke into smaller teams, staggered lunchtime and ate at picnic tables spaced out under shade canopies. Only one person could be in the farm truck at a time. The break room was too small to use. Everyone wore a mask when they were together in the barn and they wore gloves for harvesting as an extra precaution, though it was not that different from their usual food safety protocols.

Overall, Steve says things went fairly smoothly. He feels grateful that his children were isolated on the farm with space to play and there was plenty of food. “I am grateful and privileged to be here at this moment,” Steve says. “I feel grateful that people are taking the safety protocols seriously. I don’t want to get sick – my kids, hundreds of people rely on us for food, and our staff for work. In farming, every year is different, but I am hoping for a particularly bountiful year. And looking forward – I hope the renewed interest in local produce will not be short lived, and that the CSA will be full by winter, and not wait till May.” When I checked back with him in February, 2021, things were looking hopeful – CSA sales were up about 33% from where they were in February, 2020.

Even before the pandemic, farm costs had been going up and all the new safety measures have added to the expenses. The higher price point Massaro Farm is able to charge for high-quality, certified organic produce is still not enough, Steve says, to pay his staff what they are worth – “I don’t think any of my team are compensated enough. We need to make larger changes so we can pay every one better.”

While mainstream supply chains suffered major snags in 2020, organic CSA farms like Massaro have been able to nimbly reorient marketing and production to serve the urgent needs of their communities. But these adjustments have come with a cost – the additional investments needed to buy protective equipment, packaging supplies, and to pay the fees for on-line services; and the emotional and physical wear and tear on the farmers and their crews. The first rounds of federal stimulus money followed the usual well-worn channels into the bank accounts of the biggest industrial farms. Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, NOFA and our many allied sustainable agriculture organizations lobbied hard in D.C. to persuade USDA to alter the requirements for stimulus funding to divert the flow into investments that support farms like Massaro. The challenge continues in the months and years ahead to build a big enough coalition of farmers, food workers and many others to create the localized, socially just, ecological and resilient farm and food system we want for our future.

Elizabeth Henderson farmed at Peacework Farm in Wayne County, NY, one of the first CSAs in the country, co-chairs the NOFA Policy Committee, and represents the NOFA Interstate Council on the Board of the Agricultural Justice Project. She is the lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007)

First-time Certification in the Year of COVID-19

Rolling Hills Farm sits on a plateau above the Delaware River Basin in west central New Jersey. This farm has provided the livelihood for John Squiccarino and Stephanie Spock since they took on a solid multi-year lease in 2014. The fields were not immediately certifiable, but they converted an outbuilding to produce organic mushrooms in 2015, certified by the New Jersey Department of Ag (NJDA). Certifying the whole farm was a long-term goal, but the idea took a back seat as the couple put their energies into developing their soil, their year-round production systems, and their local markets.

They stopped producing mushrooms in 2017, but by end of the 2019 season, as their wholesale markets grew, John and Stephanie saw the need for organic certification for the rest of the farm.

Erich Bremer heads the Organic Farm Certification Program for NJDA, and keeps an office in the Department of Ag building. In a normal year, Erich gives priority to new farms that are anxious to start their spring markets as Certified Organic. In 2020, Rolling Hills was one of these farms. John and Stephanie had markets lined up for which organic certification would be a requirement, so they were diligent in submitting a detailed and complete Organic System Plan (their application) in a timely manner.

Being warned it’s not always a quick process, John and Stephanie remained optimistic that the NJDA would certify them in time for their expanded spring markets. But then COVID-19 arrived. Soon, New Jersey was dealing with tens of thousands of cases and hundreds of fatalities. The State abruptly closed all agency buildings, including the Department of Agriculture. Erich continued to work from home, but he had little access to his computer files, and no access to the paper files left in the office when the building closed. Because NJDA organic certification is still largely a paper system, his ability to move ahead on farm certifications ground to a halt.

One month passed, and then two months, as Erich tried to keep phone contact with the handful of new clients. Eventually he made an “appointment” to visit his office; he downloaded files and left with boxes of papers that allowed him to continue the review process at home. As John and Stephanie related, Erich’s concern for his farmers was genuine, even sharing his personal cell phone number in order to continue communication.

Inspection—seeing the fields, looking into storage buildings, checking records—is an integral part of the certification process. Erich uses a handful of trained inspectors, including both private contractors and state employees responsible for other types of inspections for the NJDA. Although no longer early spring, Erich finished the review of Rolling Hills’ application and was ready to assign an inspector.

Meanwhile, as the public’s fear of human contact grew, demand for Rolling Hill’s produce, certified or not, skyrocketed. The couple expanded their CSA, and Stephanie put her on-line marketing skills to work building a web-site store, offering produce in pre-packed boxes. Regional governors declared farmers’ markets to be essential businesses, and the demand at the markets also grew. Wholesale markets clambered for whatever Rolling Hills could supply, just to keep their shelves stocked with local fresh produce. Everyone, including their three full-time employees, was working overtime. With all the work and all the demand for their produce, the immediate need for organic certification waned while John and Stephanie waited for their inspector.

IOIA, the International Organic Inspectors Association, has been training organic inspectors since 1993. Most inspections were halted in March and April. In response, IOIA’s Director, Margaret Scoles, quickly put together a team to develop completely new types of training, focusing on COVID-safe practices for inspections and for conducting remote virtual inspections with or without a safe on-site component. At the same time, ACA, the Accredited Certifiers Association, was working on similar goals and soon the two organizations combined their expertise to produce “Best Practice Guidelines”. Training programs followed, conducted by IOIA for its independent members and by certifiers who had their own dedicated inspectors. For many inspectors, this training included new software and new electronic and physical devices. The state of New Jersey was providing COVID guidance to its many inspectors, including the two trained for organic practices.

The National Organic Program (NOP) oversees organic certification in the USA. It “accredits” or licenses all certification agencies, whether private or government, to certify operations to the organic standards. This certification is necessary to use the word “organic” under the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. It’s also the NOP’s duty to provide guidance to certifiers on implementing the law. Virtual inspections had been unheard of, but with the danger posed to inspectors and farmers from site visits, the NOP approved the ACA/IOIA Best Practices Plan to allow virtual inspections.

For John and Stephanie, though, there was one problem – the federal regulation states that for operations being certified for the first time, “certifying agent must conduct an… on-site inspection”. Rolling Hills’ mushroom certification had lapsed, so the farm was considered new and had to be physically visited by an inspector. The NOP made it clear – no exceptions.

At the NJDA, Erich Bremer typically uses private contract inspectors, who can generally be more quickly available, early in the season for new clients anxious to meet the organic certification requirements of their spring markets. But because of the partial state shutdown, a moratorium was placed on hiring outside contractors. The organic inspectors who are state employees typically have many other agricultural inspection duties, ranging from food safety audits to preventing overseas pests from entering with imported food. With the pandemic raging, organic was likely not the top priority of the state inspectors.

Finally, in mid-summer, John and Stephanie were contacted by their state organic inspector. A virtual inspection of their “paperwork” was conducted using Zoom and its screen-sharing capabilities. An abbreviated and socially distanced on-site inspection followed, and by September, the process was complete. Ironically, the pandemic that forced them to delay their certification was the same pandemic that drove their sales expansion, allowing them to do without their organic certification for one more year.

With the spring rapidly approaching again, the 11 high tunnels on Rolling Hills Farm are lush with greens and reds of healthy lettuces and other crops. Seedlings abound in the greenhouse, soon to join direct-seeded crops in the fields.

This time last year, the world was in chaos. Although the chaos hasn’t gone away, adaptations made at Rolling Hills Farm have provided a resiliency which has allowed John and Stephanie to enter 2021 with confidence. They have worked long and hard for their organic certification and look forward to the rewards it will reap in their markets.

Al Johnson has been an organic inspector for 32 years. He ran a certified organic farm in the 1980s and the original NOFA-NJ Certification Standards were written around his kitchen table.

Links and Resources
Rolling Hills Farm: www.rollinghillsfarm.org

USDA Bookkeeping Snafu Leaves Certified Farms with Less Cash in Their Pockets

Many certified organic farmers and handlers received a rude and expensive shock last summer when they submitted their request for reimbursement on their certification fees. For many of us, that reimbursement—historically, 75% of the fee we paid—has helped keep the financial burden of certification manageable.

But in the summer of 2020, USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA), which administers the reimbursement program, cut reimbursement rates for 2020 certification costs to 50%, suddenly raising the costs of certification for most operations by hundreds of dollars.

“This action left organic operations burdened with an unplanned expense, in the midst of a period of higher costs and disrupted markets caused by the pandemic,” said Patty Lovera, Policy Director for the Organic Farmers Association. “The cost share program is particularly important to small and mid-sized organic farms, and those who are just starting out with organic certification.”

How did this happen?

As it has for many years, the most recent Farm Bill, passed in 2018, provided funds for certification reimbursement calculated at 75% of costs. The money to pay for that reimbursement is drawn from two pots—new money, and previous-year funds not spent and carried over. “The carryover funds appear to be the source of the problem,” Patty said. You might think that tracking those funds should be straightforward, and that one of the oldest and largest of federal departments wouldn’t find itself caught short, but that is in fact what happened.

The problem seems to be in the way the cost-share funds are handled at the state level, Patty continued. Some states disburse money through offices of the Farm Services Agency, a federal agency. Other states, for historical reasons, receive a lump sum from the federal government and disburse it through the state agriculture department or even the certifier.

Not every penny sent to the states is spent, and that unspent money is a significant source of the carryover funds that the federal cost-share program was relying on it in determining its budget. Unfortunately, the amount of unspent money left in those multiple state-level accounts was over-estimated, leading to a smaller-than-necessary request for new money. FSA was rather late in discovering its error; hence the mid-summer announcement.

The Organic Farmers Association is trying to get Congress to rectify the situation, and has written to the Biden administration to urge them to act. “While this is a relatively small amount in the scope of the USDA’s budget, restoring the reimbursement level could make a big difference to many small organic operations,” Patty said. While OFA has not yet heard of farms who have decided to forego certification this year because of the drop in reimbursement, “that is our fear.”

Want to help? You can urge your Senators and Representatives to take action to restore full funding for organic cost-share reimbursement. “They may need a little education to get them up to speed on the issue,” Patty noted. Those calls and letters may be especially helpful coming from constituents of Representatives Chellie Pingree of Maine, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, and Antonio Delgado, Sean Patrick Maloney, and Chris Jacobs of New York, who sit on the House Agriculture Committee, and Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

You can write your own letter, or use the form at OFA: https://organicfarmersassociation.org/take-action/

This takes about one minute, and will be delivered to your Representative and Senators. Do it today!

The Fight Against Fraud

“Organic integrity from farm to table, consumers trust the organic label” – Slogan of the USDA’s National Organic Program

fight against fraudThe organic market has enjoyed decades of growth, reaching $55 billion annually in U.S. sales in 2019. It is one of few labels that has a strong meaning and a system of federal oversight to provide a consistent definition, from farmers markets to grocery store aisles across the country. However, trust in the label has been shaken by recent high-profile, mass-volume fraudulent sales with malicious intent—a tragedy for the both the farmers and consumers who have relied on the organic label, for their livelihood and as an important choice of food and fiber for themselves and their families. Organic sales are booming, but unfortunately it seems, so is fraud.

It is no surprise that those willing to make a fast buck would seek to relabel conventional crops as organic, which fetch a higher price premium. Numerous cases of organic fraud have come to light in recent years, mostly centered on organic commodity crops like corn and soybeans, although produce and other sectors are not immune to phony organic products. Both domestic and imported grains have been found fraudulent. The scale and elaborate nature of the fraud over the past decade spans hundreds of truckloads, numerous large ocean-going vessels, and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Why has it been so difficult for the
National Organic Program and
USDA to find and stop fraud?

The vast majority of organic farmers are not fraudulent and view their organic certification as an achievement. There are many organic certificates framed on the wall next to the family pictures of children, graduations and weddings. Organic farming typically relies on more management, planning, and labor than growing the same crops conventionally. Maintaining documentation on activities, inputs, and rotations is necessary under the law. Sharing this information with certifiers and inspectors adds an extra burden, somewhat compensated by the higher organic price received in the marketplace. Both anger and sadness are felt by the organic community when nonorganic products are scammed as organic. Real organic producers have experienced large economic losses due to their legitimate crops being replaced by questionable grain at cheaper prices. Many share the sentiment of Dave Campbell, longtime organic farmer from Illinois; “I have been positive about the organic marketplace for the many decades I have been growing organic corn and soybeans, but the recent fraudulent organic sales by both domestic and foreign operators have lowered my optimism.”

Farmers and businesses have provided numerous tips to certifiers and to the National Organic Program (NOP), illustrating both domestic and import fraud activities. Why has it been so difficult for the National Organic Program and the USDA to find and stop this fraud? To many organic farmers, it does not appear the USDA has made protection of the organic label a top priority.

Fraud in the American heartland
The scale of one 2019 case of domestic fraud gives a sense of the potential scope of the problem. According to the Department of Justice in the Northern District of Iowa, a well-respected man in his community, Randy Constant, admitted to $142,433,475 of “organic” grain sales, the vast majority of which were fraudulent. During the years of 2010 to 2017, he sold over 11,500,000 bushels of grain (this volume is estimated to fill 3,600 rail cars or 14,375 semi-trailers), with more than 90% of it falsely marketed as organic.

How did this happen? David Glasgow, Associate Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, stated “people who commit this kind of fraud are often well-known and trusted in their community. It is hard for good people to believe bad things about someone they know, which can allow the criminal activity to go unseen for years.”

Glasgow preferred not to share the methods Constant used to gather and market his phony organic grains, as he does not want to provide “a roadmap for future offenders.” Members of the organic community did submit complaints to NOP about Constant over the years, including at least one from a competitor who was concerned by the volume of sales moving through Constant’s Ossian, Iowa-based brokerage, Jericho Solutions. Constant’s lower-than-standard prices gained him buyers, drove down prices, and stole sales from his legitimate organic competitors. Another complaint stated organic soybeans sold by Constant in 2007 were grown from genetically modified seed (prohibited in organic). Glasgow would not comment on these complaints, stating that the USDA, like all government agencies, will not discuss actions on specific complaints until they have been settled. However, Glasgow did confirm the “NOP has worked with other enforcement agencies with international reach to develop tools that help us identify higher risk activities in the marketplace and rapidly increase surveillance, build the case, and take action.”

NOP can issue fines, but cannot
bring criminal charges against
those committing fraud.

As a result of increasing pressure from the organic community, Congress, and these cases of fraud, Glasgow explained the USDA has strengthened “the partnership between the NOP and other law enforcement agencies including the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, Food Safety Inspection Service, and the Animal and Plant Inspection Service; as well as the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, and Customs and Border Protection.” These agencies have deeper resources for investigation, and the ability to charge an individual with criminal activity (which NOP does not). NOP can issue fines for mislabeling a product as organic, but “fining someone who is facing prison time and multimillion-dollar asset forfeiture is a much steeper penalty than NOP’s authority to issue a civil penalty.” Furthermore, NOP does not have the authority to “stop sale” of fraudulent products.

The U.S. justice system requires strong evidence to bring a case to criminal court. In the Constant case, even though there was covert surveillance of the illegal activities, until the government was able to get testimony of witnesses who were involved in the movement and false labeling of the organic grain, and they had a concrete false communication for a wire fraud charge, there was not a strong enough criminal case to bring Randy Constant to justice for his crimes.

Three additional farmers from Overton, Nebraska were also found guilty in the Constant crime. They admitted in court that they produced nonorganic grain and knew that Constant planned to fraudulently sell it as organic. These farmers received over 10 million dollars from Constant for their collaboration. It seems these farmers rationalized the dishonest dealings by believing they were not the person actually selling the crops as organic, yet the court proved otherwise. During the sentencing, their attorney asked for leniency because no one was hurt. United States District Court Judge C.J. Williams felt differently, calling their activity “massive fraud, perpetrated on consumers over a long period of time” that “caused incalculable damage.”

The Nebraska farmers received sentences, from 3 to 24 months in prison, and Constant was sentenced to 10 years. All were given stiff fines, totaling over $120 million. Three days after sentencing Constant committed suicide in his garage, bringing his case to a tragic end.

Organic fraud from abroad
This recent domestic fraud case comes on the heels of years of suspected international organic import fraud from ocean freighters carrying grain labeled as organic from high-risk foreign markets. Countries such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova and the Russian Federation were identified by the European Union in early 2018 as high-risk areas for organic fraud, and the E.U. limited imports from these countries. These shady businesses then focused on the lucrative U.S. organic market where there is less scrutiny at the border. In March 2018, a shipment of “organic” grain from these countries was found to be fraudulent and 25,000 metric tons of corn was refused entry into the U.S. However, this refusal was because it was whole seed and not cracked corn (only cracked corn is allowed from these countries), rather than its organic status.

Even though NOP issued a memo in July 2018 to organic certifiers to be wary of these high-risk countries for grain fraud, little was done at the border to ensure their grain was actually organic. “Although organic farmers were complaining to the USDA about suspected organic grain fraud from imports since 2015, it took a high-profile story in the Washington Post and a lot of pressure on Congress to get them to act, “said John Bobbe, former Executive Director of the Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM). “Organic farmers need more protections from the National Organic Program.” Bobbe is one of the world’s authorities on fake organic imports. The Strengthening Organic Enforcement Rule is one result of the action from Congress asking for more focus on this issue from NOP.

Where do we go from here?
With pressure from the press and organic community, NOP has responded with various efforts to improve their oversight of organic fraud. In 2018, they began facilitating a tighter working relationship with Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Since NOP does not have any authority to control commerce at the border, the first step was educating CBP about organic. There were some easy improvements to make, such as educating CBP employees about organic status. CBP also now knows to flag any incoming organic products that were fumigated with prohibited substances by APHIS at the border because of invasive pests. The CBP also knows to inform NOP and prevent those commodities from being sold as organic.

Customs and Border Patrol,
not NOP, has the authority to control cross-border commerce.

NOP has recognized that certifiers are on the front lines of protecting organic integrity. They are sharing their improved analytical tools that identify risky behavior with the certifiers and asking certifiers to implement more consistent complaint documentation and follow-through. NOP has the authority to take away a certifier’s accreditation, yet even with some questionable certifier actions this tool has been used sparingly. Instead, certifiers are told to improve when they are doing poorly in the oversight of the organic label, but have been allowed to continue in the organic certification business.

Additionally, NOP has improved its complaint review process and is now encouraging more complaints from producers and consumers to identify fraud (a link to the complaint form is in the Resources).

A new rule from USDA
The USDA published a proposed rule, Strengthening Organic Enforcement, in the Federal Register (Docket #AMS-NOP-17-0065) on August 4, 2020 to deal with many necessary changes to more effectively protect and enforce organic integrity.

To deal with fraud, this rule proposes that the U.S. implement an import certificate requirement, requiring the certifying agent to approve the specific import sale of an operator shipping a product into the U.S. This would provide tighter oversight on the volumes being imported, by providing certifiers the information they need to track sales in real time, rather than just once a year at the inspection. The European Union has used this system for numerous years, which has improved traceability and fraud detection.

The rule also requires organic inspectors and certification personnel to demonstrate the necessary knowledge and skill needed to perform their jobs through quantifiable requirements and ongoing continuing education. In addition, specific auditing activities will be required on every inspection to ensure the volumes of outgoing organic products match sufficient incoming organic products.

The rule requires certifiers to share compliance-related information with other certifiers. Certifiers will also be required to perform a percentage of unannounced inspections each year on operations considered “high risk.” High-risk spot inspections should shed light on suspicious activities and lessen the avenues for hiding illegal dealings.

Grain pouring on pileThe rule also proposes that all organic operations will have a uniform organic certificate generated through the NOP database to reduce inconsistencies, making it easier to understand if the operation has recently been certified, or is about to be reinspected for continued certification. Certifiers will be required to keep this publicly searchable database current, whereas now are only required to update it on an annual basis.

The NOP proposed rule appears to have included the suggestions both required by Congress and brought forward by many in the organic community. However, more needs to be done to boost the investigative and punitive capabilities of NOP. The system within NOP to scrutinize complaints and bring cheaters to justice must become more robust, with the capability to stop the sale and commerce of fraudulent products. The deterrent to criminal behavior relies not only on tight oversight from certifiers and inspectors, but also requires the quick hand of enforcement by government.

The great majority of U.S. organic farmers are doing an excellent job and uphold the integrity we all depend on for a successful organic market. It is very frustrating to see the integrity of the label damaged by bad actors and a lack of enforcement. While NOP is implementing some improvements, they continue to be under-resourced and are using 20th century tools for oversight of a 21st century organic supply chain. We must all continue to demand more protections of organic products from fraud. The National Organic Program must do better to live up to their slogan, “Organic integrity from farm to table, consumers trust the organic label.”

Links and Resources
NOP complaint form: https://organic-compliance.ams.usda.gov/

Note: This article was originally published in the 2020 issue of Rodale Institute’s New Farm magazine. Harriet Behar is on the Governing Council of Organic Farmers Association. Reprinted with permission.

Harriet Behar farms organically on Sweet Springs Farm in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, serves on the Organic Farmers Association Governing Council and Policy Committee, and recently served as Chair of the National Organic Standards Board. She has been an organic inspector since 1992 and has visited more than 2200 organic farms and processing facilities around the world.

Making a Living as an Urban Market Gardener

Groundwork Market Garden

Mayda Pozantides (in the hat) with neighbors at Groundwork Market Garden

A focus on goals, attention to planning, and a helping of luck got Mayda Pozantides off to a good start as a for-profit urban farmer in Buffalo. This despite no steady water source, ground so tough their BCS couldn’t break it up, and no clue what contaminants they might find in it when they did.

“I don’t know that I got into farming because I wanted to become a really savvy businesswoman, but doing a lot of this”—planning, prioritizing, balancing investment and income—”has helped me to be able to connect to the soil, connect people to the source of their food, and to make a living,” Mayda said.

Testing, sweat, and lots of organic matter
Along with her partner, Anders Gunnersen, Mayda owns and manages Groundwork Market Garden, one of 30 urban farms in Buffalo. They offer a wide variety of produce through their CSA, farmstand, and restaurant sales. “We focus on fast turnover and profitability, but also crowd-pleasers like our tomatoes.” Mayda spoke at the New York Winter Conference on “Making a living as an urban market gardener.”

A foreclosure auction made the land
affordable, but they couldn’t test
the soil before the sale

In 2014, they bought the land, two acres a few miles from the city center, for $1800 at a foreclosure auction. “Foreclosure is a very affordable option, although that affordability comes with the land not being ready for agriculture.”

They were not allowed to test the soil before the sale; luckily, once they could test, they didn’t find any significant contamination with lead, PCBs, or other toxic chemicals common in urban soils. Had they found any, Mayda said, their plan would have been to follow model guidelines from Boston (see Resources and Links), using geotextile fabric to cover the existing soil and bringing in clean soil to grow in. “We would have started smaller,” she said, but would still have proceeded.

soil preparation got underway

The farm site in year one, as soil preparation
got underway

They spent the next year organizing their business, planning, and building soil. They rented a tractor to break the ground, brought in many yards of compost and other organic matter—“whatever we could get”—and planted sorghum-sudan, whose roots will penetrate tight soils.

Urban gardens are all different, she stressed, and the success of every enterprise will depend on matching your efforts to your situation. Mayda recommends beginning planning by focusing on your major goals—why do you want to do what you are doing? The “how” and the “what” flow from those, she says. For Mayda and Anders, the goal was to provide healthy food (they are now certified organic) at a fair price while making a sustainable living. “And not just financially sustainable, but sustainable for our mental health and for avoiding burnout.”

“As urban farmers, we are in someone’s neighborhood,
and might not look like
our neighbors. We need to get buy in.”

And importantly, she added, they wanted to be rooted in their community, and to bring the neighborhood in to make the farm a resource for the community. “As urban farmers, we are in someone’s neighborhood, and might not look like our neighbors. We need to get buy in.”

Their first growing season was in 2016. That summer was marked by drought and high temperatures, and their only water source was a hose snaked through a broken window in an adjacent building.

“That was definitely a learning experience,” she deadpanned. They have since invested in a steadier water source. She also found that her crops were a salad bar for the local wildlife. “Naively, I thought when I moved to urban farming the pests might disappear, but we’ve got them all—groundhogs, deer, insects.”

Nonetheless, they persevered, and Mayda still treasures a picture from that year—of a modest but attractive array of vegetables, left from an early market—as an emblem of their farm.

A focus on goals, and numbers
The following years brought more success—“We’ve done some things right,” she said. Each year, she sets three to five “SMART” goals, an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, which helps focus all the activity on the farm.

“Surviving this past year was a major accomplishment.” At the beginning of the season, before the pandemic, they set out to increase their financial goals, and as many farmers found, the demand was there in spades. While they lost many of their restaurant customers, they increased their CSA shares, including by adding half-shares that kick in mid-summer, when production is in full swing. (Editor’s note: very cool idea—might try that myself!)

Mayda calculated their start-up costs at about $28,000, including the land, compost, tools, equipment, permits, tests, and seed. Their yearly expenses are $63,000, the lion’s share of which is payroll for Mayda and their one seasonal full-time employee. Thy are expanding again this year, adding a second high tunnel.

In addition to income from direct sales, Groundwork brings in money from corporate partners who sponsor some of their CSA shares for low-income customers. “They have the money, and they need to improve their image,” she noted.

Mayda said it can be a challenge to match the promises of six-figure sales on tiny urban lots that one might hear about on YouTube. “That may work if your customers are high-end restaurants in big cities, but you need to know who you are selling to.” Buffalo is not Manhattan, she pointed out. “As urban farmers we are expected to provide good jobs and good pay, and give food away for free, but those things don’t quite add up.

“But because we are urban, we have an opportunity to really bring people right to the farm. Doing that can build trust, and create a sense of being a resource for the neighborhood. Bringing people in can only make you stronger.”

One of the sad paradoxes of urban farming is that something as vital for communities as locally grown food can be fraught with uncertainty over whether the soil it grows in is toxic. Recently, urban growers in Buffalo, in cooperation with region’s Food Policy Council, came together to develop the Greater Buffalo Urban Growers Pledge to increase consumer trust in the health and safety of urban-grown produce. The pledge commits the grower to, among other things, regular testing of soil and compost, mulching to reduce dust and soil splash, and “avoidance of synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers, GMOs, chemically treated seeds, toxic materials, and sewage sludge.” The full pledge is available in the Resources and Links.

Resources and Links
Groundwork Market Garden: www.groundworkmg.com
Boston Urban Soil Guidelines: bit.ly/3bZWClu
Buffalo Urban Growers Pledge: bit.ly/2XYxzH1
Contact: groundworkmg@gmail.com

New Jersey School Garden Feeds, Connects, and Heals Students

Sonya Harris was a special education teacher at the Bullock School in Glassboro, New Jersey, when she decided her students needed a garden. “I had no experience, I never even wanted to touch dirt, but I knew that connecting kids to the natural world was really important,” Sonya said, in a roundtable discussion on urban growing, part of the New Jersey winter conference.

“I didn’t ask anyone for permission,” she noted. “It was for the kids.”

Starting the garden was transformational for Sonya; working in the garden was transformational for her students. She has written, “It became embedded in my soul, in my core, when I learned about the benefits of a garden and how gardening can help children. And how gardening can help children through who live with trauma. And how gardening can help bring out the gifts in children of special needs.”

The garden functions not only as an outdoor classroom, but also as a source of nutritious food for many families who otherwise struggle to find it. “What I learned is not only how critical and important it could be for reconnecting kids with nature. It is also important nutritionally. Urban growing isn’t just about creating beautiful outdoor spaces—it’s about feeding people. I knew this had to be a spot that our kids and families can come to harvest.”

Against advice, she did not fence the garden. “We had only once incident—someone grabbed a couple tomatoes and threw them at a window,” she said. The kids who loved the garden found out who it was, and they intervened. “And it’s never been vandalized again.”

As the garden thrived over the past five years, Sonya realized she had found a new calling. She retired from teaching and founded the Bullock Garden Project, fostering and advising school gardens across the state and the country. Her passion shifted, she has written, “to make sure that children who lived in these situations had food. And had a food source. And knew that you could put a seed in the ground and not only feed you, and your family, but then you can let that grow and you can take those seeds and package them and sell them. And you can learn how to work the soil and turn that into an empire. Turn that into your way out. That is my passion. That is why we do this.”

Too many school gardens fall into disrepair when the parents who organize it move along as their children age out of the school. Not at Bullock, Sonya said. “The ownership is with the kids, not the PTA, not the parents. If the garden belongs to the children, they will pass it along,” from older kids to younger ones. And as those older kids have moved up, they have started new gardens at their new schools. “If you want something to be successful, get them when they are little. They will keep it going.”

Link: https://www.bullockgardenproject.org/

“Perennialize Massachusetts Agriculture,”

eric ToensmeierPerennials belong in your garden and on your farm, according to Eric Toensmeier, keynote speaker at NOFA/Mass Winter Conference. “We need to increase the percentage of our food that comes from perennial crops,” he said. “We should be perennializing Massachusetts agriculture,” and home gardeners can play a key role in that process, not just in planting proven perennials, but in testing and developing new varieties that farmers can then scale up.

All the major crops we eat are annuals, from arugula to zucchini, from rice to wheat to corn to beans. “There are lots of ways to make annual agriculture better, and kudos to those who are practicing no-till, cover cropping, and species diversification. The question is not doing away with annuals—that’s not going to happen—but where can we perennialize?”

Non-prime land is perfect for perennials
Perennials are crops that live for 3 or more years, including trees, shrubs, vines, and some grasses. Oaks are perennials, and so is alfalfa; apples and asparagus and raspberries and rhubarb are perennial. Perennials can fix nitrogen, provide food for people and livestock, and hold the soil, all while sequestering carbon and providing beneficial habitat and microclimates.

Typically, the per-acre yield from perennials on prime farmland cannot match that of annuals, and for good physiologic reasons—the perennial builds and maintains non-harvested tissue, such as woody roots and stems, that annuals don’t bother with. But perennials can be grown on, and thrive on, land that isn’t suited for annuals, including rocky land, hillsides, and tree-shaded borderlands.

In its potential for transforming how we grow, “Perennials for agriculture is where organic for agriculture was 40 years ago.”

In precolonial Massachusetts, agriculture was widespread, diversified, and complex.

Eric’s current research, into the history of precolonial agriculture, has begun to uncover a significant contribution of perennials to sustenance. In precolonial Massachusetts, agriculture was widespread, diversified, and complex. In the Connecticut River valley, for instance, “All of the prime farm land was being farmed, or was fallow and about to return to farmland,” and the best land was then, as today, devoted to annual crops, with the three sisters—corn, beans, and squash—integral to the annual production system. “But very little of the other, non-prime land was in annual crops.”

Farming practices were perforce organic, with tilled planting hills dispersed across an otherwise untilled field. “The combination of all this meant that people could farm for 7 to 10 years without fertilizing, then go 10 to 15 years in fallow, before returning to production.”

Strawberries were often planted after annuals, followed by other berries, tubers, and other perennials in the fallow years. Vineyards were common. Periodic burning kept unwanted growth of trees at bay. “Much of the Pioneer Valley was an open grassland for game. Beavers were more common, so wetlands were more widespread, and wild rice was abundant.”

Shovel-ready ideas, and beyond
The same mixing of perennials with crop annuals is possible today, Eric said. Perennials already function as protective systems in hedgerows around fields, providing windbreaks, habitat for beneficial insects, and food sources for pollinators. “This is shovel-ready. We don’t need to learn any more to do this. It is ready for adoption.”

Farmers in South America, “a region from which we have so much to learn,” may employ “fertilizer shrubs.” Grown between crop plants, these nitrogen-fixing perennials, called senna (Senna hebecarpa), can be cut and laid down as mulch, or turned under. These specific plants “are not a great match for Massachusetts, because of our cold winters, but the model is nonetheless a valuable one for local adaptation.
“Multi-strata agroforests, often called perennial polycultures, are also shovel ready for gardens,” Eric said. Fruit trees are the classic top-story member of this system, although others are possible.

“I am excited by silvopasture,” in which trees are added to livestock grazing areas, providing shade and other benefits. “With the right kind of trees and spacing, we can actually see increases in livestock production.” Possibilities include pollarding, in which trees are repeatedly topped at 6-7’, with the branches providing fodder for grazing livestock; and oak acorns, which, gathered by machinery, are fed to pigs to improve flavor, a system used by Walden Hill Farm in Connecticut.

There are lots of great perennial vegetables for gardeners, beyond the asparagus and rhubarb that many of us already grow. Milkweed, for instance, has eight to nine times the vitamin C as an orange, on a weight-to-weight basis. “In my vision for the future of Massachusetts, there is a lot of milkweed everywhere,” Eric said.

Cutleaf toothwort has a pungent,
peppery tase, like wasabi.

Cutleaf toothwort

Cutleaf toothwort

One plant Eric has begun to promote widely is cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), a member of the mustard family whose leaves and roots are both edible, with a pungent, peppery taste, “like wasabi.”

Fireweed, mulberry leaf, bladder campion, and stinging nettle all have potential as perennial crops. “Marketability is a challenge,” and developing a wholesale market for most of these crops “is a long way out. But the garden can serve as a research and development center. As a gardener, I have the opportunity to try a lot of things, to work on developing good varieties, and then to pass the best onto farmers.”

Resources and Links
Eric’s website: www.perennialsolutions.org
Walden Hill Farm: www.waldenhill.co
Eric Toensmeier. Perennial Vegetables. Chelsea Green, 2007

From Fragility to Resilience:

Lengnick Headshot

NOFA-NY Winter Conference Keynote Speaker

As I prepared to speak to you today, I couldn’t help but see both the light and the dark of these times. The events of this past year offer us so many lessons, both large and small, about fragility and resilience, and about what it means to be healthy, as an individual, as a family, as a community, and as a nation.

Just about a year ago, while we were busy attending meetings, making seed orders, and putting the final touches on our spring plans, we didn’t know it, but the world was changing. The pandemic reached our shores in March and our “good life” began to tremble, to bend and finally to break under the stress of shutting down our communities and sending many of us home.

Soon after, we found ourselves living in the midst of the largest protest our country has ever experienced – a protest led by our youth demanding an end to systemic racism.

All spring and summer we watched as the virus made its way across our nation and climate change flattened millions of acres of corn across the Midwest. In the fall, while the West was burning, we were witness to unprecedented efforts to suppress the vote. And just last week the peaceful transfer of power that is a defining characteristic of our democracy was disrupted by an angry mob.

These unprecedented events have come together in our food system to reveal the fragility of a way of life built on the relentless exploitation of land, people and community. The evidence is clear and compelling – agriculture stands at the threshold of a paradigm shift.
This sense of the need for change is bubbling up all around us in the many silver-bullet solutions being promoted today. We all seem to understand that “business as usual” is no longer an option. The question is not about whether we change, but HOW we will change the way we eat. As I searched for answers to this question, I ran into resilience.

I want to share some resilience thinking ideas that I’ve found useful in my search for holistic solutions to the fragility of our agriculture and food systems.

The first is that resilience is about a whole lot more than simply bouncing back. Resilient farms and food systems actually have three complementary capacities:

Recovery capacity is the ability to return to normal function swiftly and at low cost in the event of a damaging disturbance. This is the idea of “bouncing back” that is usually what people mean when they talk about resilience, but I think it is actually the least valuable of these three capacities.

Response capacity is the ability to avoid or reduce damage from disturbance by making changes in system relationships so that there is no need to bounce back. When there is a damaging event, we can invest in improving response and recovery capacity rather than simply repairing the damage to the existing system. This is sometimes referred to as “bouncing forward” and it makes a lot of sense, particularly when the system needing repair does not serve us well.

When there is a damaging event, we can invest in improving response and recovery capacity rather than simply repairing
the damage to the existing system.

Transformation capacity is the ability to make fundamental changes in order to enhance response and recovery capacity. Managing for transformation capacity is uniquely valuable as we wake up to the need for a paradigm shift in agriculture and food systems.

Another useful idea is that resilient farm and food systems tend to follow three rules. First, they cultivate diverse networks of equitable relationship throughout the system – in soils, between soil, plants, animals and people, between people in community, and between communities within a region and beyond. Second, they cultivate regional self-reliance by reducing the need to import materials for production or consumption and discouraging the export of products or wastes. Finally, resilient farms and food systems promote the accumulation of local wealth, including natural and human resources, social and cultural resources, and financial and physical/technological resources.

Over the last decade I have listened to organic producers growing food all across the U.S. who have followed these rules to cultivate resilience on their farms and ranches – to climate change as well as a multitude of other disturbances and shocks, both expected and unexpected. All of these producers depend on three key strategies to cultivate healthy relationships on farm and in community: soil health, managing for functional and response biodiversity, and diversified, high value marketing. These strategies also cultivate regional self-reliance and the accumulation of community-based wealth.

I want to share two other big ideas that can help us shift from fragility to resilience.

The first one is the city region, a sustainable development idea that invites us to reimagine relationships between cities and the land and the people that support their well-being. We can use city region design principles to transform today’s extractive relationships into equitable relationships that cultivate the well-being of land, people and community in both urban and rural spaces.

We can use city region design principles to transform today’s extractive relationships into equitable relationships

The second useful idea invites us to imagine the potential sustainability and resilience benefits of a nationally-integrated network of metropolitan foodsheds designed to deliver food equity, nutrient-dense whole foods, and improved public health through regional production, processing, and distribution systems.

As I reflect on this last year, resilience thinking helps me understand the context of our times – our current way of life breaks every one of the rules of resilience. The rules of resilience also help me imagine the kinds of changes we must make to achieve the shift from fragility to resilience – to transform our way of life to a way of living that regenerates and sustains the health of land, people and community in changing times.

There seems to be a lot of evidence that we – as a people, as a nation – may be incapable of achieving this transition.

For too long, we have been living a story that feeds the dark side of human nature: the side that is greedy, that always wants more, the side that sees relentless competition as the path to success. It is human nature to discount the future, to favor our tribe over others, and to live in denial of the damage done. This story has pushed our planet to the threshold of collapse.



(continued on B-14)