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Homing in on the Harvest: Casting About for Priority

Photo by Marvin Recino

Photo by Marvin Recinos, provided by author.

Social justice and attending to the planet proceed in parallel; the abuse of one entails the exploitation of the other. – Paul Hawken, “Blessed Unrest”

In a new year, a world stunned by crises remains shaken, its systems undone and notes scattered. It’s a time ripe for the reorganization of rooms and a rewriting of narratives.

Climate and migration: our treatment of the planet is linked to our treatment of the people, and to burn one is to scar the other. While doomsday scenarios are little help, biting depictions may be the jolt we need to snap out of our trance. So let’s drop one hand from our eyes, and fully realize the might of that big, burning star.

Looking out our window and opening the door.

The U.S.-Mexico border continues to coldly determine the fates of hundreds of thousands. While many cite violence as ignition for the migrations north, the one dictating who stays and goes may in fact be climate.

Extreme weather events are diminishing yields, livelihoods and food access throughout Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where such scenarios breed poverty and tempt corruption. Approaches like the “Remain in Mexico” policy abandon asylum-seekers to true vulnerability.
Refugees fleeing these crises ought to be as prioritized and protected as political asylum seekers, as “these phenomena interact and tend to exacerbate each other.” (Miranda Cady Hallett, The Conversation)

Exposed en route, exploited upon arrival.

The journey, the unlikeliness of a warm welcome and the conditions once settled are all ridden with threats to the health and safety of migrant families. Those trekking north travel light, insufficiently shielded from the elements. Others, who have managed to find work on U.S. farms, are subjected to the same.

The average agricultural worker experiences nearly a month’s worth of working amid unsafe temperatures per year. In the face of COVID-19 and wildfires, the fields this past summer were more menacing than ever before.

Global warming won’t be quelled within the week, but policy makers, commercial growers and pesticide companies can be held to greater scrutiny in the meantime. As consumers, we have power to question, hold accountable, and demand transparency.

Our treatment of the planet is linked to our treatment of the people, and to burn one is
to scar the other.

We have our own problems to deal with.
Don’t we?

The U.S. already has its own climate migrants – those uprooted as a result of natural disasters or unforgiving weather patterns. Along our coasts, communities are chased from their homes by relentless hurricanes, floods and fires.

By recognizing climate migration alongside climate variability – and furthermore its shared path with zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 – as causes for concern, we can begin to alter the algorithms of our deeply-rooted systems.

A pioneering piece of legislation, the pending Climate Displaced Persons Act, explicitly defines climate migrants and acknowledges our country’s legal responsibility to welcome them. This could mean up to 50,000 environmentally displaced people taken in by the U.S. each year.

Intriguingly, the bill also acknowledges the U.S.’s role in worsening the climate crisis. It aims to develop a resiliency strategy to help improve environments in other countries, thereby preventing mass migration.

This would set a significant example, offering up the baton to other wealthy countries.

“The land is turning against them.”

For those who struggle to accept weather crises as threats to be taken as seriously as gang violence, or who downplay the role farming has in making or breaking a region, we may need more instances of imperiled communities to be brought into light.

In Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, the rising frequency of El Niños are running families and livelihoods into the ground with an onslaught of drought and flooding, making it impossible to bring any crops to yield and rapidly draining finances. Half the children in this region are chronically malnourished; Indigenous peoples, largely dependent on the land, are thrust into poverty.

“Maybe a family member is sick. Maybe they are trying to make up for losses from the previous year. But in every situation,” insists Guatemalan forestry expert Yarsinio Palacios, “it has something to do with climate change.”

Unfurling a new map to chart our future.

In a novel, collaborative effort to model how migrations occur across borders, The New York Times Magazine, ProPublica and the Pulitzer Center were able to better observe the scale of and forces driving climate migration.

Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten emphasizes the need for food and the role of governments in shaping the outcomes of these movements. He echoes warnings by the UN that the nations being hit hardest by climate change “could topple as whole regions devolve into war.”

If governments respond even modestly in reducing emissions, the number of climate migrants between now and 2050 would be nearly halved. “The model shows that the political responses to both climate change and migration can lead to drastically different futures.”
Here’s hoping that more data, coupled with more first-hand accounts, help us to realize the links to be made between people, planet and the promise of better – if warmer – days ahead.

This is the third in an ongoing series by Bec Sloane, spotlighting experiences of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond; restlessleg.medium.com

Bec is a visual media professional and educator, bridging awareness gaps between the agricultural sector and general public through content creation and cross-sector collaboration. She is a contributing writer for IMM-Print, host to shareable resource hub botheredearth.com and can be reached at 0.becsloane@gmail.com

Resources and Links
Study: Rising temperatures will double the risk to farmworkers in the coming decades: grist.org
How Climate Change Is Fuelling the U.S. Border Crisis: newyorker.com
Migrant Workers Restricted to Farms Under OneGrower’s Virus Lockdown: nytimes.com




Curious Cultivars: New Cherry Ember tomato reveals striped charm, bright flavor

Cherry Ember tomatoes dazzle growers with their
metallic gold stripes and thick, crack-resistant
skin. Photo provided by Fruition Seeds.

Cherry tomatoes are a staple in home gardens, farm fields and local food markets, but growing them can be a challenging undertaking. Now, a new variety from Cornell AgriTech provides improved yield and shelf-life while enhancing both visual and culinary appeal.

A cross between heirloom tomato varieties, Cherry Ember was developed by Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The new tomato is now on sale through Fruition Seeds, an organic seed company based in Naples, New York.

“One of the problems with cherry tomatoes is that they tend to have thin skins, and so half of them crack on the plant, and the half that you pick crack after a few days,” Griffiths said. “Cherry Ember is a little firmer, with more of the post-harvest characteristics of a grape tomato”.

Its thicker skin and meatier flesh helps keep the fruit from cracking both in the field and after being harvested — even during high rainfall seasons, which pose problems for thinner skins.

“The increased shelf stability is a very important attribute of this variety,” Griffiths added, “especially when combined with high yield, desirable aesthetics and a smaller, single-bite size.” When Petra Page-Mann saw Cherry Ember at one Curious Cultivars: New Cherry Ember tomato reveals striped charm, bright flavor of Griffiths’ field trials in 2019, it stood out like a “luminescent gem.” As the co-owner of Fruition Seeds, she has seen increased grower interest in unique color and flavor combinations. With its metallic gold stripes, rich taste and ease to grow, Page-Mann was eager to add the new variety to their sales portfolio, but it still needed a name.

Last fall, she launched a naming contest on Fruition Seeds’ Instagram account with Griffiths’ support. They sorted through more than a thousand suggestions before holding the final runoff vote, where Cherry Ember emerged as a clear winner. “It’s a great introduction to life beyond the red tomato,” Page-Mann said. “It’s like a classic red tomato in terms of flavor, but there are brighter notes, especially if you let it sit on the vine. Then you get bright fruit flavors.”

Cherry Ember also gives growers something to look forward to as early as mid-July since it ripens just 65 days after being planted and continues to grow until the first frost. “We love Griff’s creativity with visuals and flavors, as well as his focus on regional adaptation,” Page- Mann said. “We’ve trialed dozens of his tomatoes over the past few years, and they are a dream to grow and sell in New York.” Erin Rodger is the senior manager of marketing and communications for Cornell AgriTech.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle 1.26. 2021 and was reprinted with persmission. Curious Cultivars is a new section of TNF, written in partnership with Fruition Seeds, highlights new seeds or forgotten heirloom and heritage varieties. In the heart of the Finger Lakes of western New York, Fruition Seeds shares organic, regionally adapted seeds as well as the tools, inspiration & insight for us all to thrive.
Links: Fruition Seeds: fruitionseeds.com




Unto Thyself Be True – A Whole Life Approach to Resilience at Rock Steady Farm

Rock Steady DRural areas in this country are not always welcoming of newcomers, especially if they are LGBTQIA or people of color. Salespeople at farm supply stores may greet feminine-presenting shoppers with demeaning questions like “what did he send you to buy?”

Defying deeply ingrained prejudices as well as the economic assumption that to pay the bills organic farms have to sell to high-end markets, Rock Steady has been able to create a successful farm and welcoming community space with over half of its sales going to low-income households. By responding to the pandemic quickly and skillfully, the Rock Steady farmers have even been able to increase community support. Let’s take a look at this remarkable farm to see what lessons about adaptation and resilience we can learn from the Rock Steady story.

Late in 2015, Maggie Cheney and D Rooney established Rock Steady Farm on twelve acres of leased open valley land next to the Watershed Center, “a retreat center for changemakers,” in Millerton, NY, a two hour drive north of NYC. From the start, Maggie and D and Angela DeFelice (a third partner who has since shifted roles to be a financial advisor to the farm) set out a complex social mission for Rock Steady as “an LGBTQIArun cooperative, rooted in social justice, growing sustainable vegetables and flowers.” People care is at the top of the Rock Steady priority list right next to soil health. Rather than hiding who they are, the partners proudly declare that they are “endlessly grateful to be who we are, and engaging in farming with both care for each other and the earth as best we can.” Creating a space where they themselves are comfortable and providing that sense of openness and acceptance to others is central to their effort. As D puts it, “Rock Steady is at a point where we are catching a groove of who we are that we never had before. There is a lot of knowledge that we believe we have that we can share about how to make it work.”

Attending Farm School NYC turned D onto farming. Experienced in carpentry and restaurant work, D speaks humbly about lacking a farming background, though by now, they have had a decade of experience working with youth at the Bushwick Campus Farm, with community gardeners, and a season as an apprentice at Sister’s Hill Farm, where Dave Hambleton provides some of the most solid training in organic CSA farming available anywhere on the planet. Maggie has spent their whole life in food and farming. They grew up on the Food Project Farm in Boston run by their dad, ran school gardens in Oakland, CA, and attended the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Farming Systems. Maggie’s dad is still farming full time and is a wonderful thought partner when talking about avoiding burn out or trouble shooting daily tractor work.

Before branching off to start Rock Steady, D and Maggie were among the founders of Rise and Root Farm with Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, Michaela Hayes and Karen Washington, and ties remain close. I made the acquaintance of this incredible group of movers and shakers when I slept on the bottom bunk of a double decker bed with Karen and Jane on top at the first Growing Power conference in Milwaukee in 2012. At that time, I wrote “The Color of Organic – Is Changing,” for the NOFA-NY newsletter – opening with these reflections – “If the “National and International Urban and Small Farm Conference – Growing the Good Food Movement” had been the first sustainable agriculture conference I ever attended, I would have a very different impression of the movement. At least half of the 1500 participants at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, September 7 – 9, 2012, were under 30 and more than half were people of color – African Americans, Central and South Americans, Asians, Native Americans.” I look forward to the day when everyone will take that diversity for granted.

“We want to tap into more diverse groups of people who are located within the local food movement.”

To get back to Rock Steady, their approach to creating a farm is the very opposite of the John Wayne go-it-aloners. D and Maggie are methodical planners who take advantage of their own years of experience, the wisdom of farming elders, and the counseling and advice available through their connections with the cooperative and social service communities. D and Maggie’s initial marketing plan was to develop a CSA with share payments on a sliding scale so that lower-income people could afford them, and to offset the lower prices of vegetables with sales of flowers that generate higher revenues. Rock Steady grew flowers for the first two years, but has put them on pause due to the rapid growth of the CSA propelled by the pandemic. Their Facebook page for April 7, 2021, declared, “CSA, we have actually SOLD Out! 500 members strong, it’s our largest CSA to date! Woah!”

To access the capital to start up Rock Steady, the partners were able to take out a loan of over a hundred thousand dollars from The Working World, which continues to provide them with a line of credit for working capital. The Working World practices “non-extractive finance,” distinguishing its operating principles from conventional lenders: “we never take a single dime from the people we work with that doesn’t come from income we’ve helped generate. No community will ever be made poorer by working with us.” Their website clarifies: “a business loan should be a tool to help you grow, not to rob you blind.” In its list of projects, The Working World gives a vote of confidence to Rock Steady, “Projections are lean but appear feasible, especially as the changes instituted during conversion take hold in the coming years.” Rock Steady has also received funding and business advice from Seed Commons, the Cooperative Development Initiative, Community Food Funders and the 2020 Food Movement Support Fund, with the Watershed Center acting as their fiscal sponsor along with a dozen other grants and private foundations. Each year, Rock Steady has been able to increase the percentage of their food that goes to low-income people from an initial 40% to 57% of the CSA shares in 2020. “We want to be able to feed people who don’t usually have the access to local, organic and nutritious food. That’s at the heart of what we do,” in D’s words. Funding for the lowest payments and free shares does not come out of the farmers’ pockets. The farm has a Food Access Fund and appeals repeatedly for contributions. In addition, the CSA uses a sliding scale modeled after Soul Fire Farm’s, but very similar to the scale my farm adopted as early as 1990. About 30% of their CSA members pay the baseline or market price point for shares. Another 18% pay at the top end of the sliding scale, thus subsidizing those who pay less. Many members pay with SNAP/EBT. CSAs have tended to cater to the white, middle-upper class and “we want to tap into more diverse groups of people who are located within the local food movement,” Cheney says. “Queer folks are often facing health problems like diabetes, obesity and other dietrelated illnesses which means their health is compromised. We want to see how we can bring healthy food into the queer-identified community in New York City.”

“Queer folks are often facing health problems like diabetes, obesity and other dietrelated illnesses which means their health is compromised. We want to see how we can bring healthy food into the queer-identified community.”

Community partnerships and energetic fundraising are key to share distribution. Maggie devotes a lot of time and energy to figuring out the mission alignment, share size and content or bulk order that best fit each partner program. An important connection for relations with Millerton locals has been providing shares for the North East Community Center that services low-income people in several towns near the farm. The farm has working relationships with programs that cater to the needs of low-income families and especially LGBTQIA people with health problems including Callen-Lorde, which serves 10,000 patients, Community Access, a NYC housing non-profit, and The Free People’s Market, serving low-income Latinx and people from the African diaspora. Callen-Lorde provides free shares to their most at-risk patients with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Each arrangement is individualized. In 2020, the farm raised enough to donate 90 free shares. Maggie gives generously of her time to collaborating with and building networks that provide support – the Queer Money Project, the Queer Farmer Network, the NE Queer Farmer Alliance, and the Sexual and Gender Diversity cohort of Via Campesina. Both Maggie and D present on their work at conferences around the country and abroad.

Rock Steady also provides incubation space for another remarkable project – Jalal Sabur’s Sweet Freedom Farm, which grows food for incarcerated people, their families and other food insecure people in the Hudson Valley. Sabur, a prison abolitionist, racial justice leader and member of the Soul Fire Farm Board, takes aim at the shamefully inadequate food in NY prisons, and raises funds to rent buses to bring families on prison visits.

To counter what Rock Steady calls “the intensity of capitalism, colonialism and the dehumanization of farm workers,” the farm classifies everyone who works there as farmers and potential members of their farmer-owned cooperative. Within a month, four more of the farmers will join Maggie and D as owners. A farm goal is to pay everyone a living wage – each year they get closer, sharing improved revenues among the whole crew. Everyone is on payroll, including Maggie and D, so that they get Workers Comp and Paid Family Leave, and if the farm makes a profit, owners will get to take a portion of it. They also get a CSA share and the farm provides a minimum of five days of paid vacation and five days of paid sick leave. The farm is applying for Food Justice Certification as a way to verify publicly that they are meeting their commitment to farmworker justice.

As the child of a farmer, Maggie is sensitive to the many ways that growing healthy vegetables can damage the health, both physical and mental, of those doing the growing. While intensely involved in the farm, she says she can walk away from it to get some work-life balance. The farm is scaled to allow for diversified work each day. Workers are trained in food and farm safety and urged to learn new skills. The employee handbook stresses building “efficiency, speed and quality” in the work, but limits the work day to eight hours. An hour lunch break and two mandatory 15-minute rest breaks. There are morning check-ins, three employee evaluations a season, and the whole crew makes the time to dedicate regular sessions to peer review and work with outside facilitators from Relational Uprising, which focus on building trusting relationships and honest communication. The farm also has a detailed grievance process that explicitly states that retaliation for bringing up a complaint is prohibited.

An extra benefit for Rock Steady farmers comes in the form of healthcare advice and treatments from some of the many healers who are supporters of the farm. This turned out to be especially important in 2017 when a surprise storm whipped through the farm injuring Maggie severely. They have spoken and written eloquently about how her community showed up for her with care and support that allowed her to recover from a brain injury.

Less unusual than the time Rock Steady devotes to social practices, but just as central to their goals, is their approach to soil care. Year by year, they are finding ways to disturb the soil less and cover crop more, with 90% of their land cover cropped in 2020. The website explains: “While not “Certified Organic”, we use only organic, holistic practices. These practices include IPM, using row-cover instead of spraying, organic low-spray techniques (a last resort), cover cropping, organic compost, organic greenhouse soil, organic granular fertilizer, increasing pollinators through planting natives and diverse plants and much more!” In 2021, they will plant flowering perennials to support pollination. Facebook photos of fields after an inundative rain show no standing water or signs of erosion.

***
In her book Resilient Agriculture, Laura Lengnick helps us understand the complexities of resilience and how to design farms that have the capacity to recover from setbacks, to respond quickly and bounce forward while contributing to the transformation of agriculture. She writes that “Diverse networks of equitable relationships build the foundation of resilience including all possible relationships – in soil, between soil, plants, animals and people, between people in community, and between communities within a region and beyond.” Rock Steady Farm is an outstanding example of a resilient farm, a farm with a vision for creating “a new paradigm in a deeply unjust food system.”




Black Farmers Embrace Practices of Climate Resiliency

SFF mulching

At Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC-centered community farm, farmers learn regenerative methods such as heavy mulching and intercropping. Photo provided by Soul Fire Farm.

Chief Zogli looked weary as he scratched a notch in his doorpost to record the weather. “Still no rain,” he says with resignation. The chickens pecked lazily in the dust and the goats foraged for the last of the dropped grains. In this rural community outside of Odumase-Krobo, Ghana, the farmers depend on rainfall as their only source of agricultural water. Zogli explains that the rainy season has been arriving later each year and ending sooner—and the thirsty crops struggle to mature.

From the African continent to the Americas and across the Caribbean, communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change. Record heat waves have caused injury and death among Latinx farmworkers and devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the U.S.

Meanwhile, several Alaskan Native communities struggle to hunt and fish in their traditional ways because rising temperatures are ravaging the wildlife. And sub-Saharan Africa, where Ghana is located, is among the regions projected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change. “If you’re not affected by climate change today, that itself is a privilege,” climate activist Andrea Manning says.

Communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change

But the same communities on the frontlines of climate impact are also on the frontlines of climate solutions. A new generation of Black farmers is using heritage farming practices to undo some of the damage brought on by decades of intense tillage by early European settlers.

Their practices drove around 50% of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Agriculture continues to have a profound impact on the climate, contributing 23% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Now Black farmers are finding ways to capture that carbon from the air and trap it in the soil. They are employing strategies included in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown, a guide to the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.

One practice, silvopasture, is an indigenous system that integrates nut and fruit trees, forage, and grasses to feed grazing livestock. Another, regenerative ag- riculture, a methodology first described by agricul- tural scientist and inventor Dr. George Washington Carver, involves minimal soil disturbance, the use of cover crops, and crop rotation. Both systems har- ness plants to capture greenhouse gases. “No other mechanism known to humankind is as effective in addressing global warming as the capturing of car- bon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis,” Hawken says.

Here are examples of how farmers are putting these practices to work.

Leonard Diggs, Pie Ranch Farm, Pescadero, California

After working in an auto parts store during high school, Leonard Diggs swore, “I will never have another job working inside.” True to his word, Diggs went on to manage sustainable farms in northern California for over 30 years.

Diggs is developing a 418-acre incubator farm at Pie Ranch, where beginning farmers will establish their own regenerative enterprises. In collaboration with the Amah Mutsun tribal band and nearby farmers, he is creating a landscape-level ecosystem plan that integrates forest, riparian corridor, native grasslands, and perennial and annual crops. The management practices that emit carbon, such as some annual crops, will be balanced out with perennial areas that sequester carbon, achieving carbon neutrality overall.

“We need to realize that working landscapes pro- vide not just products but also ecosystem services like carbon sinks, water recharge, and evolutionary potential,” Diggs explains. He envisions a food system where farmers derive 30% to 40% of their income from the value of ecosystem services and do not have to “mine” the soil to make a living. He is working with researchers to establish baseline data for the amount of carbon in the soil, and the com- position of bacterial and fungal communities. The goal is for the farm to capture more carbon than it releases over time.

Unlike many incubator farms that emphasize annual crops and allow farmers to stay for just a few years, Diggs is working with a longer horizon. “We need to plant orchards and perennials, get them established over 10 years, and hand new farmers a working landscape. Instead of making them leave as soon as their businesses get established, we will move the incubator to a new area, and the farmers can stay.”

“We need agriculture that does not lose our carbon, and does not deplete our people,” Diggs concluded.

Keisha Cameron, High Hog Farm, Grayson, Georgia

Not everyone in the Black farming community is as excited about fiber as Keisha Cameron. Given the prominent role of the cotton industry in the enslavement of African Americans, many farmers eschew cultivation of textiles. “We are largely absent from the industry on every scale,” she explains. “Yet these agrarian artways and lifeways are part of our heritage.”

At High Hog Farm, Cameron and her family raise heritage breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, horses and chickens in an integrated silvopasture system and sell fiber and meat. One of her favorite varieties is American Chinchillas, rabbits that consume a wider diversity of forage than goats and fertilize the pasture with their manure.

The family is also working to establish tree guilds, a system where fruit trees are surrounded by a variety of fiber crops such as indigo, cotton, and flax. Their goal is a “closed loop” where all the fertility the farm needs is created in place. They pack a lot of enterprises into a small space. “We have 5 acres,” she says playfully. “Just enough to be dangerous.”

In his book, the Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Toensmeier writes that silvopasture traps 42 tons of carbon per acre every year. This is because pasture stores carbon in the above- and below- ground biomass of grasses, shrubs, and trees. Also, animals that are raised on pasture have healthier digestive systems than those raised in confinement, and emit lower amounts of methane.

In addition to healing the climate, silvopasture is a joyful practice. “I get to play with sheep and bunnies. What could be better?” Cameron poses.

Germaine Jenkins, Fresh Future Farm, North Charleston, South Carolina

When Germaine Jenkins first moved to Charleston, she relied on SNAP and food pantries to feed her children. “I did not like that we couldn’t choose what we wanted to eat, and there were few healthy options. I was sick of standing in line and decided to grow my own stuff.”

Jenkins learned how to cultivate her own food through a master gardening course, a certificate program at Growing Power, and online videos. She promptly started growing food in her yard and teaching her food-insecure clients to do the same through her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank. In 2014, Jenkins won an innovation competition and earned seed money to create a community farm.

Today, Fresh Future Farm grows on 0.8 acres in the Chicora neighborhood and runs a full-service grocery store right on site. “We are living under food apartheid,” explains Jenkins. “So all of the food is distributed right here in the neighborhood on a sliding scale pay system.”
Jenkins relies on what she calls “ancestral muscle memory” to guide her regenerative farming practices. Fresh Future Farm integrates perennial crops such as banana, oregano, satsuma, and loquat together with annuals like collards and peanuts. The farm produces copious amounts of compost on site using waste products like crab shell, and they apply cardboard and wood chips in a thick layer of mulch. “We repurpose everything — old Christmas trees as trellises and branches as breathable cloche for frost-sensitive crops.” Jenkins explains. They even have grapes growing up the fence of the chicken yard so that the “chickens fertilize their own shade.”

“Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”

Jenkins’ farming methods have been so successful at increasing the organic matter in the soil that they no longer need irrigation. They are also less vulnerable to flooding. “Two winters ago, we had 4 feet of snow. Our soil absorbed all of it,” Jenkins says.

Toensmeier writes that for every 1% increase in soil organic matter, we sequester 8.5 tons per acre of atmospheric carbon. If all of us were to farm like Jenkins, Diggs, and Cameron, we could put 322 billion tons of carbon back in the soil where it belongs. That’s half of the carbon we need to capture to stabilize the climate.

As Larisa Jacobson, co-director of Soul Fire Farm explains, “Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”

Leah Penniman is a farmer, educator, soil steward, and food justice activist. She is the co-director and program manager of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, and the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. This article originally appeared in Yes! Magazine 12.18.2019 and was reprinted with persmission.

Resources & Links
To see photos of all the farmers listed in this article, visit yesmagazine.org.
Soul Fire Farm: soulfirefarm.org
Pie Ranch: pieranch.org
High Hog Farm: highhog.farm
Book: Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman
Book: Carbon Farming Solution, by Eric Toensmeier
Book: My Work Is That of Conservation
An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver, by Mark D. Hersey




Feed Supplements, Food Quality and Softening the Footprint of Agriculture

Methane produced by ruminants including cows, sheep and buffalo is responsible for approximately 3% of recent global warming, while agriculture as a whole is responsible for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. There are promising solutions on the horizon to the methane problem that are likely to be available by the end of the decade. These solutions include changing both the practices and theories of food production. Going forward,the problem of food on Earth is about quality, not quantity.

I grew up on the coast of New England, and have many familiar thoughts of the seaweed that season- ally washes up by the ton on our beaches each year. The smells, and slimes, the red and green and brown algal free-floating nomads, and the others holding

on tight to rocks and shells, staking out their posi- tions in the tidal flows. I don’t remember thinking of these aquatic plants as potential food for people or cows. However, there is a long history of New Eng- land farmers using seaweeds as fertilizer and live- stock fodder, and an even longer history on Earth of people eating the greens of the seas ourselves.

In January of 2016, Australian researchers reported on some in vitro experiments with the red alga, Asparagopsis taxiformis, that showed that as a supplement accounting for 2% by weight of a cow’s diet, the algae could reduce ruminant methane emissions by up to 99%. This exciting finding was followed up by reports coming out in September

that year, that in vivo, live sheep experiments showed similar promise, with up to 80% reductions in methane emissions in animals. The latest research published just this year again shows that 80% of methane emissions can similarly be eliminated from healthy beef steer in real farm settings, and that the steaks taste great.

What is the exact enzymatic mechanism inhibiting methane formation?

Bromoform (like chloroform, but with bromine in place of chlorine) produced by the alga inhibits methane formation in the ruminant gut. As a result, the cows produce more propionate, a larger mole- cule than methane, which animals can further digest and get more energy from. Some evidence suggests that cows can potentially grow more and faster on the same amount of feed when the alga is used as a supplement.

Over the past 20 years an explosion of research into enteric methane inhibition has included trials of vac- cines to eliminate methanogens from the gut, and

the development of food supplements that contain chemical inhibitors of methanogenesis that prevent methane formation even when methanogenic organ- isms are present.

The idea of a medicine, vaccine or food supplement that can lower or even eliminate methane production from ruminants is rapidly becoming a reality. For organic farmers, there is the possibility that wild harvested and farmed organic food supplements made from Asparagopsis taxiformis and other macro algae with natural antimicrobial properties and the ability to inhibit methane generation will soon be available to provide the same benefits.

Why is this big news?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Resources Institute, agriculture is responsible for 11 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. and around the globe. The methane released by ruminants including cows, sheep and buffalo is responsible for about a third of all of these agricultural GHG emissions, meaning that the methane from our animals is ultimately responsible for three to four percent of all global warming.

Your average cow belches 220 lb of methane into the atmosphere each year

To put things in perspective, your average cow belches 220 lb of methane into the atmosphere each year. Since methane is 25 to 28 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, this is the global warming equivalent of pumping

3 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per head per year. When you add it all up, you’re talking about gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

What ends up in the atmosphere also can’t become meat. If cows could digest that extra amount of energy instead of releasing it to the atmosphere, mass balance calculations suggest it could also mean gigatons of extra food produced each year – just by adding algae to animal feed.

Depending on who’s counting, there are something like one or one and a half billion cows on this planet, and a billion or so sheep. Further, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are 570 million farms in the world, most of them small family operations.

So, the ruminant methane issue is not a point-source pollution problem, and it is not an easy one to solve. If there is any solution to the problem of methane from animals on this planet, it is going to take a huge communications strategy among the world’s farmers. We would need to sell each other on this – try it out, share stories – and look for long-term health impacts in our herds.

My farm is on Tug Hill in Oneida County NY. I raise a small flock of sheep that I use for meat and wool. I also grow potatoes and garlic, and make cheese using milk from local organic dairy farms that raise cows. For Creative Shepherd Farm, and other farms of the Northeast, perhaps some global warming is actually a good thing. My fields are snow covered from mid November through the end of March, and I can easily store water for summer irrigation. As the years go by, productivity for us will likely go up as our Earth warms.

However, I also work with organic farmers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and growers in Ecuador in South America where the changing weather patterns precipitated by climate change are anything but helpful to them. As hurricanes strengthen, droughts lengthen and intensify and as seasonal rainfall patterns are becoming less predictable, farmers in these regions are having a harder time maintaining organic agricultural systems. It is clear that we can’t continue to do things in the manner of the past 100 years, driving global weather patterns to greater extremes, and expect national and global stability to result.

Many people have suggested that eating less meat, or no meat is the direction we need to go on this planet. Practically speaking this is neither a dominant consumer perspective, nor is it the direction the world is headed in terms of consumer demand. We are eating more animal protein on this planet than ever, with the gain coming mostly from an increase in poultry production and consumption.

However, the world is still asking valid questions: “Should we even be eating meat?”

“How is it ethical to raise animals for food?” “Can we grow meat in laboratories instead?” “How can we justify the continued use and expansion of live animals in our food system that causes so much harm to our ecosystems?”

Livestock farmers who love their herds and their way of life need answers to these questions that validate their continued existence. Organic farm- ers are particularly in need of solutions, because it

is grass-fed cows and sheep that produce the most methane. By some estimates, grass-fed animals on pasture and range can produce up to three times the methane of cows fed optimized corn and soy based diets in controlled feed systems.

For me, as a livestock farmer in particular, the responsibility to change my farming practice is one I can not overlook. A lot of us have gotten into the idea that local food systems can help us in this challenge; that if we just buy food from farms that are close to where we live, we can solve a big part of the problem with the food system, but it’s just not that simple.

Half of the Earth’s usable land is in agriculture right now, more than ever before, and it is mostly being used to grow animals. We use only 19% of our agricultural land to grow the vegetables and grains that people eat. The rest is grassland, and fodder crop land to support animal production, which you can see in figure 1. Not indicated in this diagram are the approximately 1% of the 12.6 billion total acres of land used for agriculture currently in production of biofuels.

Consider also, that only about eight percent of all the energy used to produce food and get it to consumers is in the transportation. Almost all of the energy and even more critically, the carbon footprint of agriculture is in the production. It

is in the fuel for tractors, the energy used to produce petrochemical herbicides and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers for use in conventional production systems, and in the methane coming from our ruminants as they eat and grow. So being a local food farmer who raises organic livestock doesn’t help solve the problem of global warming at all.

Peripherally, but important to think about at the same time, is that for 50 years the problem of hun- ger on Earth has been one of politics, not produc- tion. In 1999, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper called World Food Trends and Prospects to 2025, Tim Dyson worried hard that food might potentially be scarce on Earth by now. Granted, he came to the conclusion that we’d probably be ok, but look at what actually hap- pened. Less people on the planet are hungry today than in 1999, even though we have 1.6 billion more people than we did at the turn of the century.

What local and organic food does bring us is the opportunity to eat healthier, fresher, more flavorful foods and to build communities and circular economies. These things will help us be economically and socially sustainable going forward, but they will not bring us environmental sustainability.

Many organic farmers and their customers value the leaner meats, more healthy animals, and natural rotational grazing systems of our operations for their aesthetic and human health benefits, but we have to be honest about the external impacts of the decision to raise grass-fed animals on pasture and range. This organic practice, as it is now, is far from environ- mentally sustainable.

The dirty secret is that grass-fed cows produce more methane than cows eating corn and soy meal at feedlots. For all the instinctual revulsion we organic farmers have to those industrial processes and sys- tems, they are, just like when humans concentrate in cities and have smaller carbon footprints, more efficient, and better for the global carbon budget.

So what are we doing about the methane problem?

Well, the race is on in Australia, California, Vietnam and Portugal to find the best way to farm Aspara- gopsis taxiformis. It can be grown on ropes floating on the surface of open lagoons, but the alga requires a rapid flushing rate, so these lagoons need to be in the ocean, where tidal currents bathe the plant in constantly refreshed water. Ponds on land will not work. It can be grown in the lab, or industrially controlled facilities, but the expense of doing so is much greater than the potential value of the feedstock, even if there is a world price on carbon production, as there may be someday.

Perhaps the most promising source of the potential feed supplement will turn out to be the ocean itself. It was the worldwide weedy behavior of Asparagopsis taxiformis that first caught the world’s attention in the 1970’s, as warming oceans helped the red algae expand out of its historical tropical range north into the Mediterranean, and other waters where it had been a minor ecological player previously.

The dirty secret is that grass-fed cows produce more methane than cows eating corn and soy meal at feedlots

Earlier research into Asparagopsis taxiformis was focussed primarily on its role as an invasive species. But, in the 1990s, several different classes of active biochemical compounds produced by the alga were identified, and since then, the potential applications of this marine plant have been at the center of research on the organism.

There are three big questions when it comes to using natural nutritional food supplements like macroalgae with livestock. First, how will it be grown and harvested sustainably, economically (and organically)? Second, how can it be fed to grazing livestock in a way that makes it work effectively? Third, are these supplements safe for the long-term health of ruminants? If researchers work fast enough to answer these questions, it is likely that we will have broad access to these supplements for use by the end of the decade.

Over the coming decades, farmers have to figure out how to eliminate GHG emissions from their systems. This means we need to find alternative energy sources for fossil fuels and eliminate methane emissions from our livestock systems. Continued improvements in global farm productivity and shifts toward poultry and away from red meat mean that we are likely to never have to use more land on this planet for agriculture than we do today. From a geographic perspective, agriculture on Earth never has to be a net growth industry again. We could grow enough food calories and nutrients for 100 billion people on the agricultural lands we have now with current technologies and quantities of energy inputs.

So now, for all of us, the problem of food is not quantity but quality and distribution.

Once we recognize that food quantity is not the problem, we are left with nutrition and flavor to deal with, and making sure the practices are not adversely affecting our environment. In Maslow’s thinking, we have solved the problem of need, at least on a mass balance basis, so now we need to fulfill our wants.

What do we want? Food that prevents us from having to go to the doctor. Food that tastes good. Food that’s easy to cook. Variety. Rich countries have way more variety in their diets than impoverished nations. The next era in food will be about these things. Look at research over the last decade into tomatoes. The growth in research is off the charts. And it’s all about nutrition and flavor.

Sebastian Interlandi is an organic farmer who is interested in seeing the creation of a sustainable food system. He works with farmers all over the western hemisphere, and wants to be doing his own work without heating up and polluting the planet. He works in many ag sectors including business, not for profit and education. He is currently a Visiting Associate Professor Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He owns his own 85 acre farm in Oneida County, NY where he mainly raise sheep and grows potatoes.

Resource: Growing Seaweed Offers Opportunities, and Challenges for Coastal Growers, The Natural Farmer,




Organic farming does fight climate change — and more

In 2019, the journal Nature Communications published a study then shared widely with titles designed for shock factor, such as MIT Technology Review’s: “Sorry, organic farming is actually worse for climate change.” The study’s authors concluded that, “Organic practices … require more land to produce the same amount of food,” and that “Clearing additional grasslands or forests to grow enough food to make up for that difference would release

far more greenhouse gas than the practices initially reduce.” Articles about this study have been shared widely, and a good friend wrote to me plaintively, “Can this really be true?!”

As a farmer and organic farming advocate, I dove into the research, curious for unexpected facts or something that might actually challenge my direct experience and research. I found none. Instead, what surprised me most was the shockingly simplistic metrics the study employed, coupled with a lack of whole systems thinking, which underpins organic farming.

The study sought to answer the question, “Is organic farming worse or better for climate change?” with a single metric: the amount of food produced per acre in England and Wales. Despite acknowledging that organic production systems had higher yields

of crops such as potatoes, carrots and onions, and ignoring long-term research centers like Rodale Institute that show organic methods can match conventional grain yields, The Nature Communications study estimated that organic production produces 40% less food per acre on average. The study also assumed that consumers would demand the same agricultural commodity products produced currently, and that one-third to one-half of food produced globally would continue to be wasted in perpetuity.

The study acknowledged many ways in which organic practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions, citing that “Organic pig production results in lower Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions per unit of production […] organic dairy, beef and sheep production results in lower total GHG emissions per unit of production […] the direct emissions associated with organic crop and livestock production are smaller for organic farming compared with conventional.” It is only when the estimates of the amount of land that might be converted to crop production overseas were included that the scales began to tip. But this is not an inevitable outcome of converting more production to organic.

Why would we stick with the exact same crops, diets and distribution models? Why not explore the question of what makes most sense for farmers to grow in their region? Are these machinery, land, fossil-fuel-based, and resource- intensive commodity crops that are steadily more consolidated and corporately owned the most sensible choice for the future?

If there has been a clear pattern in consumer preferences over the past few decades, it has been away from conventionally produced commodity products and towards locally produced, organic products, as evidenced by the annual growth in organic product sales, the proliferation of farmers markets and the success of myriad “buy local” campaigns. Perhaps eaters are hungry for the interwoven benefits of organic agriculture: biodiversity supported, topsoil grown, water cleaned, communities made more resilient.

I find it quite possible to imagine my diet in the future being different from the one that I eat today.

When Cuba lost access to global food markets, their food production radically shifted to be one of and for the people of the land of Cuba, and regardless of how you might feel about the political reasons underlying that shift, the country demonstrated an illuminating example of a hyper-local food system. While the average Cuban did lose weight during that period, the country also pioneered innovative urban farming, soil-intensive practices, and regenerative agricultural practices that did not rely heavily on expensive, imported and polluting synthetic chemicals. In a future with less access to cheap (read: subsidized) fossil fuels to power up large

machines, and less desire to truck them thousands of miles, our consumption will shift to more regionally appropriate, seasonally available crops.

These crops don’t often grow in monoculture. An acre growing nuts, with an understory of vining berries, mushrooms, and ruminants, would not only provide more calories, but more nutrition than an acre of a single crop. The details of what a place- specific, seasonal diet would provide will vary

from region to region, based on climate, land base, population, and soil types. Staple foods could be sweet potatoes, pigs, and collards in the southeast, and sheep, apples, and squash in New England. Indigenous communities, who thrived for thousands of years until colonization forced them off their lands, all had regional, seasonal diets.

The study also completely overlooks the (delightfully tidy!) fact that even if the findings are correct, and organic agriculture produces 40% fewer calories per acre, that difference in production is equal to the percentage of food wasted annually in the U.S. This food waste hits again as a methane producer, adding to the climate crisis. Where I live in Vermont, Salvation Farms found that the major gleaning operations gleaned a combined 617,696 pounds of produce in 2015, and organizations of their ilk continue to work with farmers of all types to find ways to reduce food loss. Reducing food waste would nullify the need for more land, allowing us to reap all of the environmental benefits of organic farming.

As a mother of two small children, I imagine future possibilities all the time. Climate crisis is just one component of an ecological system in massive decline that threatens our food supply. Pollinator die-off, toxic waterways, lifeless oceans, depleted soils, nutrient-poor foods, a consolidated, and corporate-controlled food system all present major challenges to my toddler thriving into her old age. Simplifying the question to a measure of calories per acre represents a serious lack of understanding

about the ecological healing that is possible through the work of a farmer steward — or the complexities facing our food system today. While there are real inequalities to address in regards to who has access to land and resources – a topic for another essay – for those that do, organic farming presents a solution to all these threats, and a path to a viable, healed food system.

When we imagine a food system that will nourish our children for decades to come, we seek to understand the vastly complicated web of relationships that whole-systems farming supports. Organic farming can provide food while sponging up atmospheric carbon, reducing food waste, supporting biodiversity, and building relationships. Commodity calories produced at massive scale and owned with corporate profit will never build a healthy food system. Let’s work together for an organic, regenerative agriculture that can heal the earth and nourish people — our children’s lives depend on it.

Grace Oedel is an organic farmer and Executive

Director of NOFA-VT.

 

Resources:

Sorry—organic farming is actually worse for climate change, technologyreview.com/2019/10/22

 

 




No-till in Practice: Four Years’ Experience at Lovin’ Mama Farm

Photo provided by Lovin’ Mama.

When Corinne Hansch and her family were ready to start a new farm in upstate New York, they were also ready to try a new approach to farming. They arrived with five years of tillage farming under their belts, on four acres in Mendocino County, in California, but they had learned the hard way that that approach came with a major trade-off. “It was kind of a miracle, to be able to go out with the tiller and prepare an entire acre for planting,” Corinne says, no small benefit with three young children to care for. But the weed pressure kept getting worse and worse, and in our final year there, we lost many rounds of carrots, baby lettuce, and beets, because we couldn’t keep up with the weeds.”

So as they planned their new two-acre, intensive vegetable and cut-flower farm in Amsterdam, about 40 miles northwest of Albany, they resolved to try another way. “There was so little information on no-till farming five years ago,” she says, but she and her husband, Matthew, had seen online videos by Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser from Singing Frogs Farm, and met them at the NOFA/Mass winter conference in 2017. After that, “we decided to go for it.”

The system they decided on involves laying a thick layer of compost on growing beds to build soil life and bury weed seeds, and mulching paths with rye straw. “In the first year, we didn’t lay the compost on thick enough,” Corinne notes ruefully. “It was horrible—horrible weeds, horrible plant growth.”

They quickly increased the thickness of the compost layer, and added some organic fertilizer as well. “Suddenly we had a formula that was working wonders, and every year we are amazed at how great our crops are. We are constantly exclaiming, ‘We’ve never grown onions like these before!’”

Not tilling also reduced their need for irrigation. “Soil aggregates soak up insane amounts of water, so that it’s really only in the first few weeks that we need to irrigate to get the crop up and going. Once they send their roots down to the native soil layer, they seem to do really well.”

They mix their compost half and half with peat moss, ordered by the truckload from a company in Maine. The compost is made by the county where they live, “and is very woody and low in nutrition, but it is good for the fungal community, and is pretty affordable.” The underlying soil is quite clayish, and it benefits from the large input of organic matter.

The peat and compost are mixed with a skid steer. They also have a Kubota, which straddles their growing beds and makes easy work of spreading the mix by the bucketload. “We avoid wheelbarrow- ing at all costs!” Corinne says. New beds get four to six inches of the mix, older beds somewhat less; new compost is added at each replanting for most crops on most beds, but for beds that have been in production the longest, a once-a-year application is adequate. They also add some poultry compost from Kreher’s, which provides nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium.

In the paths, they lay down a thick layer of May-cut rye straw, “the most beautiful straw I’ve ever seen, cut by an old farmer near here,” Corinne exclaims. They also use the straw to mulch the garlic patch, “where there is not a single weed. This is a miracle to me, compared to tillage farming.”

All that organic material can be expensive, Corinne notes. In 2019, they had gross sales of $200,000, and spent about $15,000 on the peat/compost. “Some people might consider that expense really high, but I think it’s great. In the early years of building our farm, we have been spending every last dollar we can on our soil, and it has come back to us tenfold. It’s our investment. It can be terrifying at first, but when you see the result—when you see no weeds, and the labor savings and the yield increase, all of a sudden you see it is so worth it—every penny.”

A key advantage of converting to no-till is that, with less need to get a tractor through the field, there is less waiting for fields to dry in the spring before planting. And if you aren’t turning under a crop and waiting for it to decompose before replanting, beds can be replanted as soon as the first crop is done. “We can tear the old crop out and put the new one in the same day, and that really helps with production.” Roots from the old crop are left in the soil to feed the soil microbes.

There are some trade-offs, Corinne notes. When crops like brassicas are done, the large and woo roots interfere with a precision seeding system. Their Jang seeder and paperpot transplanter also get tangled up in any straw used on the bed as mulch. In response, they have devoted different sections of the farm to different types of rotations. Precision-seeded crops like salad greens are seeded after carrots or beets, for instance, which leave no root behind after harvest. “When the entire plant comes out, you are left with a clean bed, and it is very easy to flip!”

One question that every no-till, high-compost farm must eventually face is, “How much is too much?” When does the increase in organic matter stop increasing plant health and farm success? Lovin’ Mama isn’t there yet, Corinne says, but they have been making some adjustments as their soils im- prove. At Singing Frogs, the Kaisers found dimin- ishing returns on their own farm above about 12%, although they also recognize that on other farms higher might be even better.

Corinne hasn’t measured the organic content of their soil, preferring to rely on observation to determine management changes. “We are being intuitive about it, watching the weed pressure, and how the plants are doing. In our oldest beds, we are laying down compost only once or twice a year.”

The system on Lovin’ Mama Farm does require a lot of labor, “but that can be good, as long as the labor is efficient, and we are doing profitable jobs with the labor. Our labor is mostly spent on building beds, planting and harvesting. And we are providing jobs for community members. When people say, ‘But your system is so labor intensive,’ I say, ‘Yes, and that’s great!’”

Resources & Links

Lovin’ Mama Farm: lovinmamafarm.com

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser keynote speech, 2017
NOFA/Mass winter conference
youtube.com/watch?v=zAn5YxL1PbM

The Ecologist, “The Truth About Peat Moss” theecologist.org/2013/jan/25/truth-about-peat- moss

Richard Robinson practices no-till farming at Hopestill Farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts. You can reach him at farm@hopestill.com




The Rewording + Rewilding of Our Farms & Yards

In the past decade The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut has worked toward building a regional food system built on knowing where your food comes, supporting your local farms and knowing your farmers. CT NOFA is now championing the same principle in a new arena: knowing where your landscape plants come from and supporting your local seed savers and nursery growers. The rise of enthusiasm for native plants and pollinators has swept our state in the last few years, thanks to the hard work of organizations like The Pollinator Pathway Northeast and Aspetuck Land Trust. Rewilding our landscapes with native plants enhances our regional biodiversity in ways that make it possible for us all to thrive. What we have learned, however, is that to do this properly – to put the right plants in the right place – we collectively need to understand the language of provenance: where native seed is sourced and where it is being grown. In an effort to renew our commitment to the principles of regenerative conservation agriculture, a few concepts around seed need to be clarified and defined.

We collectively need to understand the language of provenance: where native seed is sourced and where it is being grown.

Ecoregions: When we plant native plants, it is important for us to put our bug eyes on and view the landscape the way our local pollinators see it. They do not see the man-made delineations of where one backyard, town or state ends, but rather interact within the boundaries of different types of habitats. In an effort to create a shared framework by scientists, farmers, conservationists and homeowners addressing the various facets of ecosystem health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created Ecoregions of the Continental United States maps (Figure 1). For our purposes in this article we will look at the Level III map that illustrates a broad-strokes mosaic of habitats and communities comprising Ecoregion 59, which covers most of Connecticut.

What Ecoregion 59 illustrates to us in terms of the native plant populations is, the genetics of the seed collected anywhere within Ecoregion 59 can be distributed throughout this area, with the confidence of knowing we are indeed putting the right plants in the right place. We do this in an effort to imbue our living seed banks, a.k.a our soils, with locally adapted species to fortify our wildlife corridors with the food sources and habitats our pollinators need to be successful.

Ecoregions of the Northeast

Figure 1: U.S. Environ- mental Protection Agency,
2013, Level III ecoregions of the continental United States: Corvallis, Oregon, U.S. EPA – National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, map scale 1:7,500,000, https:// www.epa.gov/eco-research/ level-iii-and-iv-ecoregions- continental-united-states..

Ochory: Seeds are dispersed in a number of ways known as “ochories”. The wind does it – anemochory; water does it – hydrochory, the birds assist with it – ornithochory; and even ants help do it – myrmecochory. When native plants are present on the landscape, nature is able to play its role by proliferating them and effectively rewilding the lands around us.

Wild Types: The regionally specific native plants that occur naturally on the landscape which are also known as straight species or ecotypes.
Ecotypes: Ecotypic plant material is genetically specific and co-evolved in the region in which it was grown. The collection of these truly local wild seeds or ecotypes is done by trained botanists who adhere to strict protocols to ensure that we are sustainably stewarding the natural populations. When we gather these placed-based genetics, we are aiding in the proliferation of these arcs of regionally adapted biodiversity. These entomological heirlooms are locally adapted to our climate, soils, and pollinators preferences and are also best adapted to deal with local pests and microclimate variances. As the author Doug Tallamy aptly titled his book, these are “Nature’s Best Hope”!

Most native seed utilized in the Connecticut (and other NOFA states) nursery trade today is sourced from seed growers in the Midwest. The challenge is that the plants grown from this stock may exhibit phenological variation such as bloom times that are maladapted to our pollinators migration, feeding and nesting timelines here in the Northeast. Another consideration is that a great number of native plants sold here are, in fact, native plant cultivars or nativars. Nativars are clonally propagated native

Seed collection of an Asclepias (milkweed)

Seed collection of an Asclepias (milkweed) ecotype with the fluffy “pappus” that aides in wind dispersal (anemochory). Image provided by author. plants selected for uniformity of various aspects of their visual appeal. These plants are often propagated from cuttings, which in essence, creates a monoculture on the landscape. The genetic diversity inherent to wild and truly native species can be lost as a result of native plant cultivars – a loss which lead them to be susceptible to changes in climate and new pest pressures.

When planting a native habitat, it is important to include species that have successional bloom times to ensure we are providing food throughout the sea- sons. For example, the inclusion of different trophic layers of an ecosystem guild (ground covers, shrubs, canopy trees, etc.) is a vital design element to pro- vide habitat for diverse fauna when biomimicking the pattern language of a forest. You will marvel at the entomological diversity you will observe on your landscape when incorporating an array of ecotypic species. Together we can help to safeguard and steward the wild genetics that have been adapting to our shared landscapes since time immemorial.

The Ecotype Project: This program at CT NOFA aims to increase the availability of ecotypic plant material for habitat restoration in the Northeast.

The Project is the table at which botanists, farmers, nursery growers, land trusts, landscapers, and gardeners come together to provide mutual support and education around the provenance and production of native plants for rewilding our landscapes. We work with organic farmers to amplify the production of local native seeds as the demand for this spe cialty crop far outweighs the supply. After we grow, collect, and clean the seeds, we distribute them to local nurseries who then make these plugs available to landscapers, municipalities and homeowners through local plant sales. With the help of all our stakeholders – and you – these plants can make their way back into the landscape where they belong.

Founders Plots
In an effort to amplify the amount of truly local native seed in our region in CT, we are working with organic farmers (as differentiated from “pollinator habitats,” on the home garden or homestead scale) to plant rows of 200 plants of at least three species to harvest the speciality crop – the seeds. As farmers, we only create a reciprocal relationship with our local pollinators when we, as caretakers of the land, provide the food and habitat they need. These actions contribute to ensuring local food security and ecosystem health for the landscapes we cultivate. The Ecotype Project has created a “Getting Started Toolkit,” to help educate and mentor founder plot farmers through the nuance of working with these perennials.

In Conclusion: The provenance of place in regards to seed becomes more and more important as natural wild landscapes are rapidly decreasing and becoming depauperate due to anthropocentric development. We are not just homeowners but also land stewards and as such, we must protect these place-based natural resources. When we collectively reword, reseed and rewild our shared living seed banks on an ecoregional scale with ecotypes, we are supporting regenerative restoration of living landscapes in the Northeast.

When you buy native plants, ask the questions: Where did the seeds of these plants originate from? What ecoregion are they best suited to grow in? Were they grown out locally?

Whichever ecoregion you find yourself in and whatever site you select to plant, implementing just a few of these ecotypic native plants will bring these landscapes back into symphonic resonance with the great ecologies that are humming all around us!

Sefra Alexandra is the Ecotype Project Coordinator + Seed Gatherer for CT NOFA. She can be reached at sefra@ctnofa.org.

This article first appeared in Connecticut Gardener Magazine May/June 2021 and was reprinted with permission.

Links & Resources:

The BOATanical Expedition
Join Sefra on a canoe journey to plant hundreds of native plants from the top of the Mass. border to the mouth of the Long Island Sound, September 2021: www.boatanical.org

The Ecotype Project: ctnofa.org/ecotypeproject/ The Wild Seed Project wildseedproject.net
The Native Plant Trust nativeplanttrust.org Planters’ Choice Nursery Gilbertie’s Organics Nursery




Grow More, Grow Better with No-Till

No-till is better for the soil, better for production, and better for the farmer. That was the message from three experienced no-till farmers who came together to share experiences and advice at the Farmer-to-Farmer intensive workshop, part of the NOFA-Mass Winter Conference held virtually in January.

Gaining pounds (and pounds and pounds) at Gaining Ground

The birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, in Concord, Mass., is the site of Gaining Ground, a three- acre nonprofit farm dedicated to feeding the hungry. Doug Wolcik managed Gaining Ground from 2013 to 2020, during which he spearheaded the farm’s transition to no-till, beginning in 2016. After five complete seasons of not tilling the soil, Doug’s conclusion: “No-till works!”

The first inkling that no-till could revolutionize production came when Doug stopped tilling in their hoop house. “It is scary to jump in, but we saw a big increase in production in the hoop house from just that change,” Doug said. “From there, it was a no-brainer, and we decided we had to roll this out to the fields,” which they did, converting one acre per year, parking the tractor and switching to hand work.

“Each year got significantly better,” he said, and the cumulative effect was nothing short of astonishing. Total farm production more than doubled, from 30 tons in 2016 to 65 tons in 2020. Part of that increase came from planting on more of their fields—with- out the large headlands for turning the tractor, they could use space much more efficiently—but most of it came from higher production within existing beds.

“We discovered the importance of working with living soil,” Doug said.

“Tilling is a like a giant eraser. It is all the natural disasters at once.”

“Tilling is a like a giant eraser,” he said, in that it can make problems, like overgrown beds of weeds, quickly disappear. But it creates many more prob- lems than it solves, bringing up new weed seeds and burning up organic matter—by some estimates, 2% of soil organic matter per tillage event. “It’s all the natural disasters for soil at once.”

Tilling “is all the natural disasters at once.”

“No till aligns with our farm goals—to grow healthy food for our community, and to expose our volunteers to what growing healthy food looks like. We show them that anyone can go home, without expensive tools, and grow in the back yard. You can make a difference in growing your own food.”

All of Gaining Ground’s production is donated to meal programs and food pantries around eastern Massachusetts. Most seasons, they put over 2500 volunteers of all ages and abilities to work composting, harvesting, and weeding their three acres of fields and hoop houses. “With COVID, that couldn’t happen,” Doug noted, so instead they hired three additional full-time farm staff, for a total of seven workers. “We didn’t skip a beat. Because we were in year five, we had our systems worked out and our soil functioning at a high level.”

Key features of the Gaining Ground no-till approach:

• Address soil structure, primarily through compost addition. They have added one to three inches to each bed every year, though the need is decreasing yearly.
• Disturb the soil as little as possible. They use a broadfork, but the tool “makes itself obsolete,” Doug said. “The more you use it, the less you need to,” and it is now used primarily before deep-rooted crops like carrots. “The soil performs as if it was tilled—it is light and airy, and holds water.”
• Use amendments to correct mineral imbalances, and fertilize to provide plants with proper nutrition through the season. Gaining Ground has benefited from adding potassium, manganese and sulfur, based on soil testing.
• Develop weed control strategies. “These are as important as your crop plan,” Doug said. Avoid just reacting to weed problems. Plan ahead. That includes tight succession planting, with one to seven days between harvest and replanting.
• “No bare soil, ever,” to keep weeds away and to keep life in the soil fed and healthy. For this, “cash crops are just as good as cover crops,” Doug noted.

Doug has moved on to start his own farm, in Craftsbury, Vermont. Breadseed Farm will begin with a half-acre of no-till vegetables.

Continuous improvements from no-till on Woven Roots Farm

Jen Salanetti and her partner have been farming Woven Roots Farm in Tyringham, Mass., for the past 15 years. They cultivate one and one-third acres, and have grown their CSA to 200 shares. Over the past five years, they have transitioned to no-till, “hand-scale” farming, while increasing their soil organic matter from its original 2% to close to 10%.

The difference in the soil has been striking, she said. Rainfall once collected in the aisles of her fields, unable to percolate in. Recently, a day-long downpour brought six inches of rain to her farm in less than 24 hours, two inches alone during a lunchbreak. “We went out after lunch and saw no water pooling in the fields at all—it had all been absorbed,” she said. By the same token, they use irrigation only at transplant time to help the seedlings get established. The prodigious water-holding capacity of the soil provides what they need after that.

“We are seeing continuing improvements as we continue with no-till,” Jen said, improvements that have made expanding their production possible. “We charge more than any farm in our area for wholesale, and we have customers who will pay it, because the shrinkage and loss is less, and they know it. People want to buy our food, because it is beautiful and long-lasting.”

Fundamental no-till principles for the farm include disturbing the soil as little as possible, and keeping the soil covered as much as possible. That means having new crops ready to transplant as soon as the old one is harvested, with only a few days’ turn- around between. “The more intensively we grow, the less weeding we need to do, and we also aren’t disturbing the soil and bringing up seed.”

Woven Roots encourages biodiversity on the farm, both on the field scale and the bed scale. Their rotation is based on plant families, with at least 4 cycles before the same family returns to the same bed. “We are also creating habitat for pollinators, and spaces for native animals. We are attracting more native wildlife to the farm.” Jen has also seen a reduction in pest and disease pressure over time, although flea beetles persist.

Check it out – Jen Salenetti will be leading a workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference this July! nofasummerconference.org

Draft animals power Alprilla Farm’s no-till approach

Noah and Sophie Courser-Kellerman grow hay, grains, and beef, along with four acres of winter- storage vegetables for the winter CSA, on Alprilla Farm in Essex, Mass.

“Our soil health has been a priority from the start,” Noah said. “That led us to draft power. A lot of the work I was doing with tractor was to undo the damage I was doing with the tractor, and that seemed pretty dumb.”

They still use a tractor, including for managing cover crops in their no-till vegetable fields. “We use biology to increase fertility rather than compost.” They practice a three-year rotation, with two years in vegetables followed by one in grain.

Time spent on cover crops in fall and winter saves a lot of time in summer Winter rye and Austrian winter pea is their go-to combination, planted by the third week of September. The peas fix nitrogen before dying off, which the rye can scavenge for its growth through the winter. The rye is rolled and crimped with a crimper Noah made in college. It is mounted on the front of the tractor, to allow the bucket hydraulics to in- crease down pressure for more effective crimping. Squash can be planted directly into the dead rye. Winter barley follows the squash.

“We put a lot of effort into establishing the cover crop, and spreading seaweed in the winter,” Noah said, “and that leads to needing a lot less time for summer maintenance. We do essentially nothing for our squashes from the middle June to harvest, except remove row cover. The same is true for our onions—except from a few sprays and a minimal amount of hand-weeding, we do almost nothing. With our no-till system, we front-load the work, which really spreads it out over the year.”

Resources and Links

  • Gaining Ground gainingground.org/
  • Breadseed Farm breadseedfarm.com/
  • Woven Roots Farm wovenrootsfarm.com/
  • Alprilla Farm alprillafarm.com/



Regreening an Earth on Hospice: Climate Care On-farm, Right Here

“Oh, the Amazon!” we say, when thinking of eco- systems and climate mitigation. 2020 was our 5th drought in 6 years in Belfast, Maine, with cumula- tive damage to soil fungi, who are now less able to retain moisture when rain does come. I am up in foliage to cut livestock fodder, and see that even the trees are losing health. How can I awaken people
in the Northeast to join with farmers and tend the living earth?

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is sifting new information on the full climate effects of plants and forests, yet this work is complex and slow, and “the window of opportunity, the period when significant change can be made, for limiting climate change within tolerable boundaries, is rapidly narrowing”. “A growing number of studies suggested that many processes important for interactions between land and climate were missing in the [Ecological Systems Models].”

The new science requires policy-makers to do a 180 degree turn from previous understandings, that:

• Atmospheric CO2 is the dominant causal factor of climate change (false). Anthropogenic land surface changes that reduce or remove plant life have had, and continue to have, a greater magnitude of effect
• Solar energy absorbed versus reflected by green leaves and needles primarily becomes heat, such that temperate and boreal forests make a neutral or negative contribution (by preventing reflectivity of bare snow) (false). We now know that plants with sufficient moisture use up to 70% of incoming solar infra-red energy to evaporate water, and transport most of that energy up and away, locked in the chemical bonds of the vapor – sometimes exporting over 400 watts per square meter. Such cooling transpiration of the boreal and temperate (our) forests more than compensates for the conifers’ warming winter green-ness (low albedo) – and other lifeforms may need that bit of carefully-timed winter warming.

• Trees and plants remove water making soil drier (false). Tree roots, with fungal associates, bring deeper moisture up with minerals and nutrients, benefiting top soil and ground plants. Plant-covered soil retains more water after a rain than bare soil, and water vapor from land-based evapotranspiration (evaporation plus transpiration) provides 60% of rain on terrestrial surfaces, rain that is especially important to continental interiors.
• Cooling effects of plants are locally limited (false). New studies are finding a global net of cross-continental evapotranspiration-related climate effects, a unified live system for global climate regulation.

Farming brings us in close contact with ecosystems; we have intuitive confirmation of the new science: Our farms and forests here in the Northeast matter, far above and beyond their carbon sequestration potential. Plants evaporate hundreds of kilograms of water to produce each kilogram of biomass (averaging 0.4 kg. carbon sequestered per 1 kg. biomass); such evaporative cooling has what the IPCC terms direct, biophysical climate effects, simultaneous to the indirect, biogeochemical effects of carbon sequestration.

John Norman, environmental biophysicist and ex- pert on broad remote monitoring of evapotranspira- tion, helped Walter Jehne, Australian soil microbiol- ogist, to compute an estimate of how much increase in plant and forest evapotranspiration is needed to
re-stabilize a livable climate: 11.6 % increase in plant evapotranspiration is needed on all livable land surfaces worldwide, or 23 % increase on just agricultural lands.

The Amazon jungle and every other green place, including right here, that we can protect, restore, moisten, make fertile, stimulate through rotational pruning and grazing, un-pave, shade with trees, cover-crop, or in any way foster soil/plant health and deepen foliage, are all needed.

Walter Jehne asserts that lifeforms (we) need this restoration of plant and tree cover in order to last beyond this decade, regardless of emissions reductions. Already in his Australian homeland farmers are having 4 out of every 5 crops fail.

Here in Maine farmers are immigrating as refugees from Africa and the Mid-East, where ecological and political conditions interact and are worse than here. Our woods and fields still look okay from a distance, excepting constant losses to “development.”

We don’t think very deeply about other ways we are decreasing plant growth and health locally:

• Gravel on winter roads comes from ever-widening pits for each snow storm. (Does anyone remember when snow on roads was rolled to pack it? Or when we all used studded tires or tire chains?) Even our lime and other mineral soil amendments leave a hole somewhere.
• Selling loam before selling real estate gives a double profit (I hope that folks in other states are seeing less of this than I am seeing). Purchase of such loam is an easy fix when we fail to retain the soil we had before (a common mistake when using large equipment).
• Bush-hogging fields once per season does not keep them in green growth, as does farmer attention through intensive grazing or haying, nor does it let trees and bushes move in, to increase leaf surface and evapotranspiration.
• Solar panels emit 90% of incoming infra-red sun energy as heat (pavement offers a similar 80 to
95%). Panels typically run 36F hotter than sur- rounding air.

Sheep can keep solar fields in green growth and enjoy shade and shelter, but evapotranspirational cooling (especially under cement anchors), remains diminished.

Putting solar panels on roofs, which are already heat emissive, reduces negative impact. Biomass harvest of woodlands leaves less mulch, less wildlife cover, more bare soil and hotter temperatures than logging that leaves branch wood to rot. Selective harvest of farm woodlots can leave more climate-resilient continuous-cover and multi-aged growth, with sig- nificant cooling effects.

Pollarding (drastically pruning then resting) woodlands for livestock fodder and branchwood adds storm resilience to tree forms, and canopy recovery is quicker than from log harvest. This pruning en- courages evapotranspiring browsable and grazable layers beneath; such increased foliage height diver- sity is often measured as a biodiversity indicator.

Heavily logged areas behind my farm seem to keep small rainstorms away; large areas of gravel, solar panels, bare soil, clearcut woodland, or other heat-emissive dryness can cause a high pressure ‘heat- dome’ effect which stops moist air from entering.

My goats initially led me to pollard edge trees, then woodlands. Pollarding makes trees greener, leafier, and tastier (versus coppiced trees, which use more antifeedant browse defenses). An archeological sign of similar Neolithic tree-based animal husbandry is the absence of soil erosion. This is a labor-intensive but climate-positive (and healthy!) way to eat.

Orchards, agroforestry, and silvopasture similarly benefit climate and soil. “Carbon farming” strategies that reduce bare soil, improve soil moisture retention, and integrate woody plants all increase plant evapotranspiration along with soil carbon. Farmers can intercrop vegetables with different heights and root habits, under-seed to overlap establishment of a cover-crop, and seed a new crop into previously crimped or tarped cover crops (crimping can be done with two people and a board that you step on with handles added).

We can retain hedgerows, tree lines and other messy edges, or go even further to add pollarded trees (with small moving shadows) into every field for soil and moisture benefit, as was done all over Europe for centuries. Grape arbors, by the way, used to be live pollarded trees.

Humans like open vistas, and our language reflects this bias: we “clear” a forest, or undergrowth, versus “remove” or “kill” it. Yet “overgrown” (another biased word) plant life may be our route back to environmental stability. Linaeus created our Latin plant classification system in Sweden in the 1700s; his list of plant species in a hay meadow included many trees and bushes, because these were pruned for fodder rather than removed, and were considered a primary source of fertility. Even “invasive” plants often participate positively in biodiverse communities; observation is important to our interactions with plants, as with our animals.

My goats started training me in 2010 (well, that’s when I noticed) by pointing their noses up toward aromatic white cedar trees. Now they have me with ropes in 60 foot high red maples, for a winter staple of blossom buds, twigs and bark. Our cow Tulip, newer here, has finally learned the command “Watch Out!,” and foregoes the sweet buds briefly to avoid the falling tree limb.

The trees re-sprout, rejuvenated. The roots die back, offering matter to the soil, then regrow; this has been called “pioneer” fertilization. The root turn- over improves soil resilience to both water-logging and drought.

Livestock poop leafy soil contributions, and I drink leafy milk, making my small contribution of MOFGA Fair-Grounds-style humanure, which cycles back to trees – we humans are becoming too numerous of a livestock group to be withholding soil-circle participation. We have lost 50% of the world’s topsoil since 1950, and currently “soil is be- ing lost from agricultural areas 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil formation”.

Our linear food system displaces consumers’ wastes away from the farm, and most local organic produc- ers (myself included) then receive fertility from some other farm. The disconnect between people and the environments from which we eat also de- prives us of a direct feedback loop of our impact, nor are we close enough nor involved enough to respond to the needs of other life-forms upon which we depend. I the farmer can only do so much, while providing for 11 milk-drinking families. The Circle of Life is not just conceptual – it is vital. Our attendance is now needed.

Also we must consider how much more land can be roofed, covered with solar panels, or gravel and tar for our cars, or even trampled by our feet. We can at least plant trees to shade our hot roofs and gravel yards in hope that we will achieve sufficient regreening for the trees to grow beyond 2030. We can also creatively divert water that runs off these less-than-ideal surfaces, for plants, livestock, and wildlife (including human children) to enjoy.

Light-heartedness is helpful when faced with the heavy work of something so challenging as weather out of kilter and the retreat of plant life on a planet. The new information requires us to re-think and re-design our culture, agriculture, and plant-scapes. Assertive clarity of mind is needed, to support policy-makers’ shifts toward global changes. Fresh perspective from young people, and experiencefrom old people will help us choose real tasks mean- ingfully (plus let’s pause and listen to our livestock).

Shana, of 3 Streams Farm, studies and practices pollarding of trees to feed livestock, and gets vicari- ous pleasure from their munching year-round. She has taken on climate concerns for the sake of her local ecosystem, studying and writing on long goat (and sometimes cow) wanders.




Celebrating 50 Years of NOFA – Looking Back

NOFA-VT Board-Staff meeting, Hardwick, VT-1986

NOFA-VT Board-Staff meeting, Hardwick, VT-1986: (l-r) Miranda Smith, Jack Cook, Meredith Leonard, Robert Houriet, Joey Klein, Amy Darly, Stewart Hoyt, Grace Gershuny. Photo provided by Al Johnson.

One morning in June 1979, Larry Karp walked on his hillside in Greensboro, Vermont. He wrote in that summer The Natural Farmer issue how, “a walk in my fields this time of year is my reward… the sounds of birds, the wind dusting the leaves of the trees and the warm summer sun playing with all the shades of green. … We’ve just finished our first cutting of hay and the thought comes to mind that

I am cutting and harvesting half a year’s worth of feed for my animals in four weeks of the year. Then I realize how wondrous it is. Here falls with every pass of my mower, every circuit of my tedder, every blade of my baler, the sustenance of winter …the forces of the sun captured in each bale to warm my cattle during those winter days far from the green mosaic of summer pasture.”

Fields are living beings, friends a farmer gets to know. And teachers.

Karp continues, “Haying is the time I get to become reacquainted with my fields and see how they have done since last year; to see what I’ve done for them. Fields are living beings, friends a farmer gets to know. And teachers. Our fields teach us the lesson of our actions. If the fields are not fed and cared for they will not yield up their harvest. One cannot take without giving back.”

Larry and Erika Karp were among the group of farmers, organizers, and activists who came together as NOFA, The Northeast Organic Farmers Association.

That next spring, I sat with Larry and Erika at their kitchen table planning a NOFA workshop on their farm on keeping bees. Their farm was beautiful — a mosaic of enterprises that fit together in a pattern: bees, cows, pigs, chickens, vegetables — all on a hillside in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. This is how life should be, I thought. Here is an example of the ingenious puzzle that is a diversified, small farm.

The topography of Vermont and New Hampshire, where NOFA began, with its hillsides, sometimes steep and sometimes gentle, and with its river valleys, sometimes narrow and sometimes wide, begs for small farms and diversified farming practices. And the times, with their desperate need for local, healthy food and with their planetary climate crisis, demand organic agriculture. And there’s something deeper: it’s about having an intimate relationship with the intelligence of the land and to know the fields as friends.

I am almost 80 years old and I’m looking back 50 years to NOFA’s beginning. NowI can say with conviction that NOFA i s the most extraordinary organization I have ever known. It is my privilege to have been a part of it.

Memory likes to gather things up in bundles like balls of hay or bins of carrots in the root cellar – the preserved harvest. These bundles become themes, which is the way history loves to organize itself.

The themes in my memory of NOFA are these:

1) The strong, pervasive sense of idealism that was shared. It was felt in each meeting in farmhouses around the state, tasted in the potluck before the meeting, felt at farmers markets, experienced in the conferences and the hearing rooms at the state-house, and was present in the mix of grit and high goals seen in the rural, hardscrabble way of life that people were willing to live.

2) The people gathering to work together in a robust volunteer spirit of collective action.

3) A commitment to care for the land, the soil; to nurture our places, our valleys, and hills.

My story with NOFA begins on January 2, 1980, when I took the job of State Coordinator, or Director, of the brand-new organization of Vermont- NOFA. (In those days NOFA loved the term “co-ordinator” in keeping with its non-hierarchical principles. One didn’t “direct,” one “coordinated.” Later the board changed my title to “Director” to better interface with organizations with whom we were networking). I was given the keys to the new office at 5 State Street in Montpelier, just two blocks from the Statehouse. I climbed the narrow stairs, and although there was no furniture yet, over along one wall, there was a collection of boxes of old files that had emerged from closets around the state. I sat on the floor and eagerly opened the first box. What would I learn here about what to do as the new director?

I had been told about the work of NOFA in its first nine years. NOFA was founded in 1971 by organic farmer and visionary, Samuel Kaymen. He gathered a group of 50 farmers from New Hampshire and Vermont on a hillside at Earthbridge Farm in

Westminster, Vermont. “We must come together,” he said, “and start a movement. And we will call it the Natural Organic Farmers’ Association.” (Two decades later it was renamed the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association). “It will be a revolutionary movement for a new society,” declared Samuel. “We will turn the revolution around and go back to the roots: people working together to change the landscape in each valley.”

NOFA became a network, a way to share information, a newsletter, a bulk order of seeds and soil amendments, an apprentice- ship program, and a gigantic 3-day conference each summer.

Soon I was to meet Samuel himself and delighted in his infectious enthusiasm; his childlike sense of wonder. “Have you ever really looked at the roots of a plant?” he passionately asked the assembled crowd at our Soil Management seminar one spring.

From that hillside in Westminster, NOFA spread out over the hills and into the valleys of New Hampshire and Vermont — a web of markets, growers’ coops, community canneries — which one by one popped out of NOFA’s seed pod into autonomous organizations.

Robert Houriet was one of the early organizers and had a strong hand in shaping the organization. He joined Samuel, trekking up and down the countryside, initially to get promises from growers to stock the NOFA delivery truck to the People’s Warehouse in New York City to disperse to co-ops and daycare centers. “It was the linkage of food radicals from New York and farm radicals from Vermont and New Hampshire,” Robert told me. When that project shifted after a few years, Robert traveled the back roads contacting farmers and talking up organic agriculture and regional self-reliance.

Out of this grew 17 farmers markets in Vermont and New Hampshire, wholesale marketing co-ops, a root crop storage co-op, and even a grain mill. NOFA became a network, a way to share information, a newsletter, a bulk order of seeds and soil amend- ments, an apprenticeship program, and a gigantic 3-day conference each summer. NOFA was a magnet bringing people together.

Newsletters of this period tell of so many people involved. I’ll mention just a few here: Samuel Kay- men was president, Olive McKenzie (now Olive Ylin) was vice-president, and Robert Houriet was the newsletter editor and the state coordinator.

NOFA women

Rear: Olive McKenzie (Ylin), Leslie Sproule, Grace Gershuny Front: Sara Norton, Janet Ryan, nameless friend. Photo provided by NOFA/Mass.

When Robert switched to writing grants, Jack Cook became the editor of The Natural Farmer and Grace Gershuny, the State Coordinator.

But this was January 1980, and Grace, my predecessor, had just resigned. She had dedicated five years to NOFA and her parting gesture was to persuade me to take her position. I was a complete newbie, having just arrived in Vermont from living 10 years in Europe and Asia. I had seen the destruction of the agrarian cultures there and took heart in the returnto the land movement in Vermont. Grace said, “Why don’t you apply for my job?”

She was upfront with me about how the finances of NOFA were worn bare and grant funding had dried up. My job as the only hired staff was part-time and paid $250 a month. It was clear that this was a low moment for NOFA. 1979 had been a challenging year. Rivalries had broken out along state lines. Grace put it like this, “Polarization emerged between the fiscally conservative Granite Staters and the grant-happy Green Mountaineers.” In the end, geography arbitrated and the wide Connecticut River separated the NOFAs. The new structure created two autonomous organi- zations with the possibility of adding neighboring states to the federation.

I opened a dusty box of newsletters. Here, editions of The Natural Farmer told a story of energy and multiplying projects. There were lists of coordi- nators of farmers markets, wholesale marketing cooperatives, and growers’ coops. Reading The Natural Farmer, it seemed like NOFA itself was a bustling farmers market. Then I opened another box and pulled out a file headed “Board Communica- tions.” Here, a letter to the board on July 13, 1979, from Grace, opened with “I’m still a bit demoralized after Tuesday night’s long drive and meager meeting turnout”. The November letter began with, “Only 3 board members were present at this meeting…” I turned to the December letter that was titled “A Farewell Message from the Coordinator.” It began, “Once again, alas and alack, there was no quorum at our December 12th board meeting…”

What was I getting myself into?

The organization was both young and old. The marketing and co-op organizing era had been spectacular. Farmers found it easier to grow vegetables than to sell them. NOFA’s marketing projects often made the difference for a farmer to make it or not. But now, many of these farmers had joined to become thriving independent market groups. So what now? We needed to claim a new identity and new direction as Vermont-NOFA while staying connected to our roots. We needed to decide what to let go of and what to become.

Working there in that empty office, I wrote out a survey to send to our members to find out who were these 300 or so households scattered all over our state. I worked on the finishing touches of the new by-laws, sent them to our members, and planned for the first annual meeting.

Four weeks later on January 31, 1980, people converged for Vermont-NOFA’s first annual meeting.

Old TNFWe met under the stage at the Vermont Farm Show in Barre. Suddenly, it all became clear to me that in the hub-hub of the farm show and the tightly packed Vermont-NOFA meeting, this new organization was a spit-fire group of people. A new board of directors was elected, by-laws were ratified, and old marketing projects and committees merged with new ideas. Vermont-NOFA had officially launched and my job was to somehow keep it glued together and focused.

Building a grassroots organization in a state like Vermont where the community comes together for festivals and fairs, where meetings are held in homes and church basements, was a face-to-face relationship with people and the tactile experience of the land. It was driving through winding back roads in all seasons — to a board meeting up on

Joey Klein’s windy hill in Williamstown, or down on Andy Snyder’s hillside in Rutland County, or on Konrad Kruesi’s sheep farm in Woodstock, or in Jane Dwinell’s barn in Randolph, or at Peter Betts’ strawberry farm in West Danville, and on Olive McKenzie’s homestead at Wolcott Hill with her free-range goats wandering about. Directions to places spoke of topography and landmarks, not co- ordinates. But one always could spot the farmhouse where the NOFA meeting was being held by the array of old Saabs and pick-ups lining the roadside. And inside, folks gathered with an abundant mixture of good cheer and seriousness.

NOFA was the energy of so many people pitching in together to build the organization. Many other people could weave their stories into this one. Mine is just one of the threads. “We had a spirit of camaraderie and sense of building community in a joyful way,” said Michael Levine, who coordinated NOFA’s 1979 summer conference. Even the task of sending out mailings – in the laborious pre-internet way that we did them then – gave occasions for a gathering of volunteers. NOFA was made of volunteers. It was the whole group that made things happen.

After that first spring and summer of organizing, it was clear that volunteers were the backbone of the organization and I wanted to strengthen our committee system. I wanted to get as many of our members as possible together in one room so we could see each other, talk about our direction, and set goals for the next three years. To do that, we planned a big meeting on November 8 in Rutland. This was 1980. Four days before our meeting, Ronald Reagan had been elected president.

The energy in that Rutland church basement that Saturday was defiant. Andy Snyder, Vermont-NOFA’s then-president, led the meeting with his warm enthusiasm. As a group, we talked about what made NOFA so important to us personally. Emphasis was placed on NOFA’s visionary aspect — its ability to look ahead, be radical, bring ideas into focus, and initiate things. People also spoke of the intangible rewards that working with NOFA still brings: that of sharing with others who hold the same concerns and beliefs. Then we divided into focus groups to set goals for marketing, consumer awareness, education, and political action. We feasted together afterward with a potluck supper and celebrated with a contra dance. What we sensed but didn’t know then was how devastating the Reagan years would be for small farms and non-profit organizations. In terms of federal programs and money for non-profits, the ever-expanding 70s became the shrinking 80s. We would feel the full force of the shift to Reagan eco- nomics in just a few years.

But that November, the Rutland meeting gave us focus. We needed to raise the consciousness of the public toward the vital importance of a local, sustainable agricultural system. For the larger population, these were new ideas then. In the next five years, our work spread out in all directions. To capture it all here is daunting. We had some ongoing projects and then there were the areas that specifi- cally Vermont-NOFA dug into: education, public outreach, and political advocacy.

Our marketing projects were funded by VISTA (now called AmeriCorps). Renee Patnaude drove the Upper Valley Vegetable Co-op truck up and down the Connecticut River valley, bringing pro

Jane Dwinell, Vermont farmer

Jane Dwinell, Vermont farmer, early NOFA Board Member. Provided by NOFA/Massduce from farms to 14 different institutions. In Burlington, Linda Holup sat down with city officials and businesspeople to negotiate for the farmers to set

up a market in the city.; Grace Gershuny started a Small Farm Advisory Service and began the state’s first Organic Certification Program; Robert Houriet, up at his farm in Hardwick, wrote grants on his kitchen table, trying to snag scarce funding; Fran Ecker-Racz in Glover pitched in to do membership drives and sell NOFA Books; and Jack Cook, The Natural Farmer editor, and NOFA bookkeeper held the finances together. Grower and long-time board member Joey Klein said, “Jack Cook was a brilliant man who could patch together our organization with the thinnest of threads.”

In what follows, I will talk specifically about Vermont-NOFA’s projects that we developed over the next five years, from 1980 – 1985 or thereabouts.

Education

One morning in late May, Robert Houriet was witchgrass,” he growled holding up a bunch of curling white rootlets for me to see. “Witchgrass is supposed to be a beginner farmer’s problem. By now I should have progressed onto more sophisticated weeds.” As we raked through the ground with our hands pulling out weeds, we talked about the early days of NOFA in the 1970s. “There was a lot of witchgrass,” he said. “First-year farmers go out and put on a lot of manure, attempting to go from sod land to productive vegetable land in just a year and witchgrass is the result. In those days we wanted to go from A to Z without going through all the letters in between.” These ‘letters in between’ meant a decade of learning, research, and sharing information. A great experiment had been taking place in the fields and greenhouses where organic farming practices had joined with a new understanding of soil science.

During this time NOFA had been the clearinghouse for these developments through its summer conference and its publication The Natural Farmer. Michael Levine, co-editor of The Natural Farmer from 1981-1983 told me, “My role was cheerleader, to encourage people to try organic farming. We filled the newspaper with shared experiences and that helped farmers out there in the fields know they were not alone.” Joey Klein, one of those farmers out in the fields told me, “It was urgent to start a network of organic farmers. We needed support because there wasn’t much support out there. We needed each other’s knowledge and we needed each other’s friendship. NOFA facilitated that.”

Now as NOFA-Vermont was launching and shaping its new identity, the experienced farmers up and down the Green Mountains had more sophisticated weeds and more sophisticated skills. They were ready to teach, to share their knowledge. So that winter of 1980 when Al Johnson from South Royal- ton came up the stairs to the office with a clipboard and a new plan for a series of on-farm workshops,

it was perfect. “We can call it ‘Small Farming: How we do it in Vermont,’” he said. Visiting farms in preparation for the workshops, Al and I found farm- ers very pleased to share knowledge. We published our first flyer for the spring series and waited to see what would happen. Taking registrations for the workshops in advance was not practical in those pre-internet days. So imagine our surprise when 60 people showed up for the first workshop on a cold, rainy April day. That spring we gave seven workshops followed by six more in the fall, and each year after that, our education committee organized an on-farm workshop series. The farmers were generous with their time and knowledge. We tapped the knowledge of experienced growers such as Paul and Susan Harlow, Howie Prussack, and Jake Guest in the Connecticut River valley where NOFA got its start. Up in Greensboro, I remember Rosie Oats’ bright green spring sheep pastures where she was “flushing her ewes.” We peered curiously into Jim Nolfi’s fish tanks in the greenhouses at Goddard College’s experimental farm. In Brookfield, the Hooper’s goats looked on skeptically as Don and Alice talked about how they managed them. Ann and Jack Lazor in Westfield showed us their new solar barn and yogurt-making facility. Adele Dawson led us up her steep hillside beside the Marshfield waterfall where we picked herbs and then crowded into her kitchen to make salve. Henry and Cornelia Swayze in Tunbridge showed us how their innovative, intensive sheep grazing methods created lush, nutritional pastures. And their young children proudly gave us a talk on how they set up their egg business. “Are you ready for the family cow?” was the premise of Ernst and Margret Daniel’s workshop on their homestead in Bethel. Nancy and Lewis Hill, who had grown fruits and berries since 1947 on their hillside in Greensboro, showed us how to prune and graft apples.

After the summer conference in 1981, we heard a lot of grumbling from growers that it was a challenge to come away from the farm for a conference in the middle of summer. A winter conference was the obvious solution. It would be a conference that focused on advanced farming skills, cutting-edge research, and issues that were right on the top of the minds of those who farm for a living. I remember clearly the first winter conference we organized. People just kept flooding into the church basement we rented for the day in Montpelier.

Political advocacy and grassroots organizing

NOFA Pie

“NOFA Pie”, by Sara Norton. Provided by Sara Norton

Who were the folks coming to learn from our conferences and our workshops? Some were experienced farmers who were curious about how others did things. Some were new on the land, honing their skills. Still, others wanted to start a farm – to buy land, make a farm plan and set up a new enterprise. And here was the biggest hurdle: what land? We heard this again and again from people. They had a great desire to become farmers. Maybe they had had a stint as a farmworker, had a clear idea of what they wanted to do, had enough savings to start up, but not enough money to buy land. In the early 80s land was beyond reach for many.

In Vermont, there had been a gradual shift in land accessibility, and by the early 1980s, it had become a crisis. Housing developments, shopping malls, and industrial parks accelerated their appearance on prime farmland. “More and more fields are starting to grow ranch houses instead of crops,” wrote Tom Slayton in the Times Argus (Nov. 21, 1982). The Reagan era saw how vulnerable farmland was compared to big economic forces. In the State House, there was an organized, powerful lobby of developers. Act 250, Vermont’s land use regulatory law, for example, was seen as standing in the way of “progress.” One view we often heard in hearings was that agriculture as an industry was dwindling in this state and that we didn’t need farmland.

It was obvious that a regional food system based on local, sustainable agriculture would never become a reality here in the Northeast without land. Yet, as NOFA people worked to open up marketing possibilities, educate aspiring farmers, and research organic farming techniques, the land was being pulled right out from under us. In Vermont, land was going out of agricultural use at the rate of 17,000 acres a year. For this reason, Vermont-NOFA’s political action program focused on farmland preservation. We had a large and energetic Legislative Committee. During the 1981 legislative session, the Senate Agriculture Committee was quite impressed when representatives from NOFA and the Vermont Northern Growers’ Cooperative trouped in to testify for S. 132 – the long-awaited institutional marketing bill. The Growers’ Cooperative brought for their testimony “exhibit A,” your typical organic farm family, the Gaillards from Walden. Luke Gaillard, age 2, was the youngest person they said to come before the committee. The House Agriculture Committee also seemed surprised to find so much interest in agriculture and was receptive to the ideas NOFA had to offer. This was Louise Giovanella’s experience when she went to the committee. She had just joined NOFA’s legislative committee as an intern from the University of Vermont (UVM) and it was her first day in the State House. She went to simply ‘listen in’ on the committee but found herself being the one to answer questions. Taking advantage of their interest, Louise quickly became a resource person for the House Agriculture Committee. They would ask her to bring in witnesses on various bills.

By the next year, we had moved the NOFA office down the block to 43 State Street, inching nearer to the State House and the Department of Agriculture building. Climbing three steep flights of stairs, you would have found yourself in a warren of offices. We shared an office suite with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance. Down the hall were the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Safe Energy Coalition, and the Central Vermont Peace Coalition. It made for a stimulating hall with good neighbors and helpful sharing of information, advice, and support. We shared a Xerox machine – no longer the dreaded chore of cranking out newsletters and petitions on the mimeograph machine. Our new Vermont newsletter started and edited by Andrea Chesman, “NOFA Notes,” flew out of that machine informing our members of our doings.

Over those years, we pushed hard for an Agriculture Impact Study, for the Family Farm Security Act, and joined the Agricultural Lands Task Force set up by the Commissioner of Agriculture. By the end of 1982, Tom Slayton, assistant editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald wrote, “There is considerable evidence that a quiet restructuring of agriculture is underway in the Green Mountains.” He goes on, “The Natural Organic Farmers Association has played a vital part and will continue to do so. The UVM Extension Service has lately begun promoting part-time and small-time farming. It will co-sponsor a series of farm workshops with NOFA next year. That development would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Now it seems logical.”

“You know,” mused Anthony Pollina, chair of the Legislative Committee, at one of our meetings, “If we had just one dollar for every acre of farmland lost each year in Vermont – that’s $17,000 – we could do a lot. We could gather data, print flyers, send lawyers to Act 250 hearings, hire lobbyists, send advisors to local planning commissions.”

“Well, why not?” said I. “Let’s start a campaign,” he answered, and that was how our “Adopt an Acre” campaign began. For a $1 contribution, we gave out a sticker: “I adopted an acre to help save Vermont farmland.” This went along with the “Save Vermont Farms” petition that NOFA members circulated all around the state. We collected over 10,000 signatures, but not $10,000.

1983 poster. Provided by Sara Norton.

In the days before the internet, petitions were circulated by hand around the state — set out on clipboards on cashiers’ counters in grocery stores or hung up on bulletin boards. Our members put the “Save Vermont Farms” petitions everywhere. This petition launched a public focus and brought legislators’ attention on the importance of agriculture and the preservation of farmlands – it shook public opinion loose from its single-mindedness about economic growth through commercial and industrial development. This was the beginning of our grassroots lobbying efforts. This was the kind of lobbying NOFA was made for.

Grassroots lobbying is an old political tool. We discovered that in Vermont it still makes a big difference to a legislator to get calls from constituents. They don’t get many so when they get three orfour calls on one issue, it’s like a whole movement. NOFA has an advantage in this kind of tactic. Weare spread out over the state. It was on the meat inspection issue that we next decided to use our grassroots power. In the 1982 session of the legislature, the state wanted to cut meat inspection from its budget – a move that would virtually kill smallmeat-raising operations. We called our members who raised meat and they either came to the hearing or called their representative. The result: the meat inspection program stayed in the budget.

One evening in September 1982, I got a desperate call from a member of the Environmental Board asking that NOFA intervene in an Act 250 hearing. No other environmental group asked was willing to take the time to participate in the process to block the conversion of prime farmland into an industrial and residential subdivision in South Burlington. Denis Sauer, then president of Vermont-NOFA, jumped to the task. He was a farmer in Essex on leased land. For him, the land issue in Chittenden County had a particular bite. He and I did a crash course on the law and testified on NOFA’s behalf. Around the table in the hearing room sat the developers, the real estate agent, the District Commissioners, and the representatives from the Department of Agriculture. The farmer who leased the land for his dairy operation, Dan Pillsbury, came in timidly and sat in the audience. No one thought to make room for him at the table. The hearing began. The developers wanted to push through the Act 250 regulations and obtain unprecedented advance approval to bypass the farmland criterion, before presenting specific plans for their South Burlington development on 320 acres of prime farmland. Their engineer presented ‘conceptual plans’ of industrial lots, right on top of where the corn was and housing lots on top of where the alfalfa was growing. The large amoeba-like squiggles on the map he called “building envelopes.” “In between the building envelopes,” he said with an air of reassurance, “we have left corridors for agriculture.”

“Why didn’t someone talk to me first, before you drew up those plans?” piped up Dan from the back of the room. “I can’t farm in a situation like that.” Had NOFA not been there, the case would not have had a contesting party. From consultations with Dan and in doing our research, Dennis and I built and presented a case that farming was economically viable on that piece of land in particular and in Chittenden County. Denis calculated hypothetical broc- coli yields. The developers produced a “conceptual” drawing of an industrial park; we countered with a “conceptual” map of the property as a diversified farm with orchards, row crops, pastures, barns, and a farm stand. The developers backed off. Usually, these hearings went ahead without contesting parties and the commissioners heard only opinions from de- velopment sympathizers that “farming in Vermont is dying” and should not be planned for as a significant part of the economy.

Our task – give a balanced view, to demonstrate that there are farmers who want to farm rather than sell their land, and to show that there are Vermonters who see that “progress” does not have to mean covering farmland with factories, second homes, and shopping malls. One instance that stands out in my memory took place on October 24, 1984, when eleven NOFA people including ten farmers, spoke at a hearing on Act 250 before the Senate Agriculture Committee.  “The development of ag land ismore or less a nickel and diming process,” said Will Gehr in his testimony, “and the bad guy cannot be identified. There is no bad guy: the enemy is us and nobody likes to tackle something of that nature. But certainly, it is a social issue and one which deserves a broad-base decision-making process.”

Our political work established NOFA’s reputation as a political force and it expanded the state policy makers’ image of the Vermont agricultural community. Though we learned to talk the language of lawmakers and build reasoned and substantiated arguments in land-use permit hearings and with the legislature, I often heard in my mind’s ear another language, another way of speaking. Here are the words of the leader of the Suquamish tribe, Chief Seattle, spoken one hundred and seventy years ago: “How can you buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”

I don’t know how far away we are from re-sacralizing our relationship to the land. Sometimes it seems very, very far. But I do know that no change will ever come without a grassroots movement. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Especially since we are talking about land. Of all the groups in the Northeast, it is logical that the people of NOFA would be the ones to spur such a movement.

This period of Vermont-NOFA’s history is but one of its chapters. My five-year term ended in the last months of 1984 when I was offered a position on the faculty of Goddard College – an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. NOFA’s next chapter relied on the energy of volunteers, particularly the dedication of Robert Houriet, Grace Gershuny, Joey Klein, and others. And then came the Enid era: three decades of expansion and new direction under the exceptional leadership of Enid Wonnacott. And now we are inthe present-day robust and exciting chapter.

Each era of NOFA has its unique story. Yet the deep story remains the same. It is a story of a vision for a different world than what conventional agriculture and economic systems offer us. It is a world of people working together to build something sustainable and just, and it is a story of people creating an intimate relationship with the land, with the fields. Just as Larry Karp wrote, “[the fields] are living beings, friends a farmer gets to know.” Samuel Kaymen said, “NOFA should have 200 million members. Everyone has to share in the care for the earth and the production of food. We are all members of the soil community.”

On September 17, 1983, NOFA held a Dawn Dance at Memorial Hall on the shore of Mirror Lake in North Calais. Five different bands kept the contra dances, polkas, and waltzes going all through the night. People came and went, but the dancing never stopped. At daybreak, breakfast was served. This is the energy of NOFA: to dance all through the night until the sun rises.

Sara Norton was the NOFA-VT Director from 1979 -1984. She was a founding member of NOFA and continues to be involved today.

 




Getting to Organic for the Agricultural Climate Crisis Solution

First, some Good News. After years of industrybacked climate change denial and misinformation strategies that included derailing legislation in the Obama era and further impeding advancements under the Trump administration – the federal government is finally stepping forward to address the existential threat of the planet’s irrefutable Climate Emergency. With climate change now set as a full governmental priority, the Biden Administration is also officially recognizing a major role for agriculture in removing displaced carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via soil carbon sequestration practices. And since building fertile, highly carbonaceous soil is at the heart of the holistic organic farming method, such acknowledgment would appear to highlight organics’ role as an important solution to the climate crisis.

But, on the negative side of the equation, many of the same industrial megacorporations responsible for longtime greenhouse gas emissions are still in place as the nation’s top policy power brokers and in place of denial, they are now politically pushing a self-serving public-private partnership version of carbon trading. These carbon market financial instruments are aimed at setting the prices paid to farmers who take on additional practices for capturing and storing CO2 in their soil. The adoption of cover cropping, reduced tillage, and other soil sequestration techniques by large-scale farmers then generates a monetized “credit” that can be purchased by companies to offset their continuing manufacturing discharges.

In past years big farmer organizations and corporations alike were very resistant to government-run cap and trade mechanisms. The popularity of this pro-business variation is that government takes on a monetarily supportive but non-regulatory role; the credit selling markets are run by private middlemen; participating farmers receive an additional revenue stream and the purchasing utilities, fossil fuel companies, and other polluters are free to continue releasing greenhouse gases as well as to proclaim their “net-zero” status in addressing the problem.

Meanwhile, there’s still a long road ahead for policymakers looking to take up organics’ proven potential as a powerful, scientifically validated greenhouse gas mitigator. While some Congressional supporters remain hard at work championing a sustainable-organic-soil health approach via several revitalized legislative initiatives, USDA remains firmly in Big Ag’s camp. However, after a budgetslashing blitz by conservatives during the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s now a resurgence of support for the climate-friendly working lands conservation programs via the existing programs that are also administered at USDA.

The Carbon Markets Gold Rush

Not surprisingly in this new day of climate crisis awareness, such shiny carbon trading proposals can be facile formulas for redeeming the dirty industry image, along with corporate greenwashing. In January 2021, for example, Occidental Petroleum sold a two million barrel shipload of ballyhooed 100% “carbon-neutral” crude oil to India – completely offset by green payments amounting to 65 cents per barrel on oil selling for more than $60 a barrel. With the oil industry under more pressure from climate change regulators, investors, and activists than ever before, their claims of removing an equal amount of greenhouse gases via sponsorship of typically unprofitable green projects are designed to build in clear-cut protections for their toxic business-as- usual model.

Agricultural corporations and their industrialized cohorts are facing a similar greenhouse gas/pollution cover-up problem. To this end, a well-organized group of big farming, environmental, and agribusiness organizations named the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA) has emerged as a major private sector player looking to get in on the action. Now with over 70 members, their ranks include American Farm Bureau, Bayer, Food Industry Association, Evangelical Environmental Network, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, McDonald’s, and The Nature Conservancy along with Syngenta, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland. As prime supporters of the Growing Climate Solutions Act in the Senate, they’ve put together a major legislative initiative with formidable bipartisan support, pushed by Debbie Stabenow (D, MI), the powerful Chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee.

With its 2021 version just launched on Earth Day, this bill provides governmental support for the privately initiated carbon credit markets approach by creating taxpayer-funded USDA certification programs for the increasing number of carbon credit market traders and farmer technical assistance providers as well as an increased advisory role for the farmers who voluntarily sign on to the corporatelyapproved soil carbon sequestration practices on a per-acre basis. A separate backup proposal in the works within USDA is to establish a new $30 billion Carbon Bank under the discretion of Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to provide further financial incentive payments for carbon sequestration on farms and forest lands.


This newly touted “anti-regulatory” role for government, designed to do away with federal jurisdiction over agricultural polluting practices in favor of unleashing marketplace cure-alls, is designed to appeal to oversight-averse farmers and marketers alike. Their “win-win solution” monetizes agricultural carbon sequestration by generating a cheap commodity price on carbon pollution that is emitted by U.S. companies, hypothetically incentivizing them to reduce their greenhouse emissions while creating an additional revenue stream for farmers who sign on to participate. However, there’s many a devil lurking in the details.

Elusive Solutions

A number of alternative agricultural organizations are cautious about directly going up against the Senate Ag Committee’s pet legislative agenda to retain a place at the bargaining table and are pushing legislation and USDA to greatly expand the existing conservation programs instead. Other organizations support the conservation agenda but are standing forthrightly against undertaking a false carbon markets approach. Since Carbon trading allows polluters to buy and sell permits to keep polluting instead of cutting greenhouse gas production at the source, detractors say these market scheme loopholes serve to benefit the industrial players and their governmental enablers who are looking to publicly position themselves as truly tackling the climate crisis. But detriments abound: Poor track record: the initial carbon markets, starting up in 2010, failed to benefit farmers or substantially change farming practices. Monetizing agricultural practices leads to further consolidation of the large farming operations that have the USDA credentials to participate. Private market middlemen traders take a percentage off the top.

Polluting companies are allowed to continue their polluting operations at a low carbon commodity price assessment that is much less expensive than cleaning up their industrial processes. Environmental Justice-wise these industrial operations are often located near vulnerable, Black, Indigenous, and communities of color who still receive the full brunt of the continued allowable toxic pollution.

To date there is no science in place to accurately measure soil carbon, leading to uncertain short-term and reversible gains that are difficult to quantify. With no reliable measurement tools for soil carbon permanence, how can we be sure that carbon markets will reward practices that are actually climatefriendly, and who decides how much carbon is being sequestered and for how long?

Since the carbon market companies will only pay for new carbon farming practices, early adopters and organic farmers who have been utilizing ongoing beneficial soil practices for years do not benefit.

Despite the moniker, “net-zero” does not cut emissions to zero. It trades indefinable carbon removal scenarios in exchange for the right to keep polluting. And “carbon neutral” falsely implies that carbon emissions and other greenhouse gas reductions can be met thru carbon trading and pricey technological geoengineering fixes.

Legislative Alternatives

A much more comprehensive bill that addresses multiple aspects of agriculture’s role in the climate crisis has also just been reintroduced for 2021 in the House and Senate: the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA) put forth by Representative (and former organic farmer) Chellie Pingree (D, ME) and

Senator Martin Heinrich (D, NM). This is designed as a “marker bill” – not intended to come up for a vote on its own, but a roadmap containing numerous provisions to be included in further legislative initiatives as well as the 2022 Appropriations packageand the Farm Bill negotiations coming up in 2023.

Overall the ARA offers a much more solid and verifiable grassroots-up approach that empowers farmers with the tools and resources needed to improve soil health, sequester carbon, reduce emissions, enhance their resilience, and tap into new market opportunities. It also significantly expands USDA’s farm conservation programs – providing financial and technical assistance for implementing conservation practices to address area-specific natural resource and land management concerns on active farm and ranch working lands.

Another newly filed bill, the American Jobs Act also meaningfully increases conservation programs funding, long overdue since the last increase in And Senator Booker (D, NJ), now on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has reintroduced the Climate Stewardship Act which greatly expands the acres to be covered under the conservation programs. It also greatly increases funding to the Rural Energy for America Program, which offers grants and loan guarantees to farmers and local businesses to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

The ORGANIC Solution

With Agribusiness still very much in the driver’s seat at USDA, Organic Agriculture continues to receive short shrift. For decades organic whole systems practices have proven to sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil while doing away with polluting fossil-fuel-based pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that also impact biodiversity and public health. Organic farming methods further contribute a host of ecological services including clean air and water, erosion control, soil health, and increased crop nutrient content.

Research has shown that if these standard organic practices were implemented globally, soil organic carbon pools would increase by an estimated 2 billion tons per year – the equivalent of 12% of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Pasture-based systems of livestock production and composting are also climate-friendly. And while all farms are increasingly vulnerable to increasing climate extremes, the data shows that organic soil building builds resilience to the disastrous effects of drought and flooding.

Further, organic production and handling practices have a commercially viable track record, unlike the negligent carbon market verification approach or

the nebulous “regenerative” and “soil health” labels that are proliferating these days. Proven climatefriendly practices are built into organic certification mandates that are already strictly verified by USDA third-party certifiers and annual on-site inspections. Under USDA’s regulations, organic farmers are required to use climate-friendly cover crops, rotate crops, and use other practices to foster soil fertility and build soil health. They must also adopt a verifiable Organic Systems Plan to detail the practices they use to protect and enhance natural resources.

It is high time for the federal government to fully recognize and support organic agriculture in its own right as well as the climate-enhancing way forward. They should not only incentivize the transition to organic but also create a paid farmer-to-farmer mentoring program to support that conversion. The National Organic Coalition, of which NOFA is a founding member, is also calling for the creation ofa new Organic Stewardship Program within USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to reward organic farmers for their use of climate-friendly farming practices – and thereby motivating other farmers to become certified as well. This program would provide annual payments to certified organic operations in recognition of the suite of climatefriendly practices that are required by the organic regulations and verified through the rigorous organic certification process.

Getting to Net Negative

There is no doubt we are surely involved in a profound planetary climate emergency. While agriculture can potentially put a dent in the atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup through bona fide carbon sequestration practices, CO2 content remains as an intractable long-lived greenhouse gas that persists in the atmosphere for millennia and our additional annual emissions keep contributing to a further cumulative load. We need to get to net negative – not to just stop adding more CO2 as a net-zero goal – but remove it from the atmosphere to keep the long-term persisting global warming levels from getting any higher and further impacting our planet, ourselves, and our descendants. Meanwhile other proprietary industry-proposed carbon capture and storage technology “solutions” are unrealistic, expensive, and energy-intensive.

 




Real Farmers Wear Sneakers

Photo by Jason Detzel.

Spring is wet and that means that I am blazing through multiple shoes, socks, and pants each day while completing my work at the ranch. It could be worse though-come late summer if I don’t get some areas mowed down, the goldenrod can reach up to my collarbone, soaking my shirt and underwear, and necessitating a full clothing change upon reaching my day job or before I settle in for dinner in the evening.

Typically, most of my ranching wardrobe is procured at second-hand shops. Those of you who know me understand that I do not put much stock
into expensive clothing. Footwear is one glaring exception to this rule and it seems as though I have as many pairs of shoes as there are days in the month. But let me assure you that each set of shoes has a specific purpose and job. Farm clothing is designed to protect the wearer and once you start asking your footwear to protect your feet in all types of weather, you will quickly recognize the strengths and weaknesses of certain footwear.

What follow are the different types of shoes that I wear and my opinions on each one and why I have them in my arsenal.

Muck boot type: These things keep my feet dry for a little while, but in their defense, no type of footwear can keep your feet 100 percent dry. Muck boots come pretty close for about the first three months, but then they begin to crack and wear and no amount of shoe glue, regular glue, industrial glue, or latex can patch them back to their original defenses. Once this stage has been reached they head to the back of the closest for the summer as they are heavy, clunky, and tend to slow me down

during chores. They will be welcomed back to the show when temps dip in late fall and we are reminded that the frost on matted grasses is a beautiful as the spring rains that made them grow so tall.

Slip-on boots: I have become a huge fan of this style of boot that has become beaucoup popular with cafe hipsters and cornfield farmers alike. I have no problem telling you that I wear Redback brand boots as they are my favorite boot I have ever owned. Tough, with synthetic toe protection, they are light enough to allow me to run yet tough enough to take the general day-to-day abuse that I
meter out to them while working under rusty trucks or working cattle in the corral. I consider the hard toes of these to be a tool that will allow me to drop or lift heavy objects on my feet while controlling their descent. The biggest downside with this style of boot is that they do not have very good ankle support and can be precarious on steep or uneven ground (like you find in cattle pastures).

Crocs type footwear: Yup, I’ve got em and don’t’ knock em until you have slogged at least 10 miles in your boots with wet feet. These things are great for post-farm or ranch work once you get home, or if you are really tired, for the drive back itself. This particular style of footwear allows your feet to dry out and breathe after a long day of work, and much like the grass in our pastures, your feet can only recover after enough rest and this style is a signal to say I am done for the day so leave me be! Putting these babies on with dry socks is one of life’s purest pleasures.

Running shoes: These are my summer favorites. I have eschewed the use of vehicles to take in what is usually the best part of my day
communing with the outdoors, the livestock, and the quiet. I average about 5 miles of walking each day while doing chores. Sneaks allow me to feel that I am part of the farm as opposed to just visiting it because I can feel what I’m walking on or thru. Oh, and did I mention that they can dry out in about one night on the windowsill. These things have great grip, but they’re absolutely, 100 percent not waterproof and I like them so much that I am considering investing in a boot dryer so that I can wear them every day instead of switching.

Galoshes: I am biased towards these ever since I jumped from a small incline on a construction site and thought I broke my ankle, it was sprained so badly. These things tend to be cheap, permeable, unbreathable, and lacking any integral support. These are the boots that I keep around for farm guests that visit us. There isn’t enough time for guests feet to get tired, blistered, or chaffed while wearing these during a short farm tour and I guarantee that everyone who gets to wear a pair will have a more authentic experience as they stomp through mud pies with impunity…that is if they don’t sprain an ankle.

Logger boots: These have been popular with the Hudson Valley ladies, high school boys, and actual loggers. These are not what I consider to be good farm wear. They take forever to take on and off, they are really heavy, have a heel that messes me up, and are as waterproof as the rest of our selections, which is not at all. These are great for heavyduty logging in high mud situations, but since I work hard to contain muddy areas of the farm to those spots around waterers or mineral feeders, I don’t need logging boots and I truly don’t understand why I see so many farmers wearing them.

So to sum this up, I have found that a variety of different tools for the job is the best way to ensure that you are covered and protected no matter what Mother Nature throws your way. So how do you separate the farmers from the wannabees and trends? Easy, just check out their shoes.

Please send hate mail regarding this piece to jasondetzel@gmail.com.




Tributes to Jack Kittredge & Julie Rawson

Jack and Julie Sep 2020

Jack & Julie, 2020. Photo provided by NOFA/Mass.

Jack and Julie attended their first NOFA/Mass meeting in the fall of 1984. For well more than three decades, the dynamic and dedicated duo has been integrally involved in NOFA, at the State and

regional level. With Julie’s nack for organizing and Jack’s fiscal savviness, they together ran the NOFA Summer Conference for 24 years! Among other roles, Julie served as Board member of NOFA/Mass until she became the Executive Director. She was treasurer of the NOFA Interstate Council (IC) until just last year. Jack was long-time Policy Director of the NOFA IC, he was on the NOFA/Mass certification committee for 12 years and, from 1988 until December of 2020, Jack was editor and publisher

of The Natural Farmer, expanding its readership and frequency from twice a year to quarterly. Jack and Julie retired from their NOFA roles last year and still own and operate Many Hands Organic

Farm in Massachusettes. The following tributes are just a snippet into how amazing these two people are and how much they’ve given to NOFA. From all of us at NOFA, Thank You!

Jack was the heart and soul and editor of TNF for decades.  His research into both sides of every topic, and non-biased approach, welcomed many diverse thoughts and voices a place in NOFA nation. TNF never preached, it informed, with facts and evidence.   Jack is irreplaceable, but we must move on.  This is on top of Julie retiring as ED of NOFA MA a month ago. In the last 2 years or so, we have seen every state chapter have leadership changes of one sort or another with new ED’s in every state chapter.  The message is clear to me

that the torch is being passed to a new generation of back-to-the landers or other like minded folks who see the tremendous value that organic food can have on a family, village, region, nation, world.  I see the new leaders as ones who have the same passion for organic practices and principles despite having grown up in a vastly different world than the one many of us 65+ folks grew up in. Jack

For many years Jack Kittredge has been the voice and public face of NOFA as the editor of The Natural Farmer. Every issue takes a deep dive into a timely issue for a thorough exploration of the topic from many viewpoints. The Natural Farmer is a marvelous educational tool for NOFA members and has also been used by agriculture students due to the depth and breadth of the articles. Thank you, Jack, for your long service to NOFA and your dedication to promoting organic farming and food. Your voice will be sorely missed! Stephanie

As an inspector who has worked over the years for about a dozen organic organizations, I have been on their mailing lists and have many of their periodic publications. The Natural Farmer is not the glossiest of these publications but in my opinion, it is the best. I rely on it to provide timely information on regional, national and sometimes international news that is relevant to the organic community. Its articles are always well written, informative and interesting. Its inserts are a valuable education resource for those of us growing or consuming organic food or other products. Al

I have known Jack and Julie since we started the NOFA chapter in MA in 1983. From that time on, I admired the way they built their homestead, ran their farm, participated in their community and raised their family of four children the many hands. My son gothis first experience that led to his career as a teacher watching the Rawson-Kittredge brood at NOFA gatherings. Jack could have made a lot more money at some other work.  He chose to live on the edge of the woods, in a small town, standing aside as the strong woman hehad chosen as a partner took the lead role in running their organic farm. Jack’s life is a wonderful demonstration of a principle that our society desperately needs to understand and embrace appreciating that what you have is enough and living that fully. Although (or maybe because) Jack is more of a libertarian than I, he has given me reign on the pages of TNF to write about political issues that he does not fully embrace food justice, food sovereignty. We quietly agree to disagree quite a contrast with the current style of public debate. Liz

Long before I joined the NOFA-NJ Staff, I enjoyed The Natural Farmer. It is truly a member benefit that supports organic farming. The themes havea wonderful depth of exploration that are deeply appreciated by the NOFA community. Thank you Jack, for leading this publication for many years.  I hope you enjoy a well-deserved retirement. Nagisa

I am so sad to learn of your resignation from NOFA. I cannot imagine a NOFA without you and Jack. You both have been the backbone of the organization for so long. I hope time will heal all wounds and we can be together again. Thank you both for your many years of dedicated service and all you have done to further our mission. All best wishes. Stephanie

At this late hour it is with great sadness that I read your letter, Julie. Ever since I’ve known you – when you and Jack rode in on White Chargers to literally save the NOFA Day by producing the 1st Massachusetts Summer Conference in Williamstown to heal the fiscal flounderings NOFA’s VT and NH found themselves in – and to go on to produce Glorious Conference after Conference; plus take on and take over and exalt NOFA/Mass and TNF and to organize and lead NOFA forward with your firm but light hearted wisdom.

We’re family, actually. We grew up with your kids at the Conferences. Our hands were joined with your Many Hands leadership that made NOFA move forward in wondrous ways. And Money? Wow, could you bring in deeply felt support and long term commitment. Policy, for one, owes a tremendous debt to your ministrations.

For so many years how can I not love you completely for all you are and all you do – and know that will never go away?

It’s so ironic that here at the dawn of NOFA’s50th -despite all of the illustrious bright light of our hard slogs and hard-fought campaigns, it’s always been the personal ties that bind us.

All I can say is there’s none of us that’s ever been above or beyond in-house criticism – and overall, once we take a deep breath, it has made us stronger and more resilient throughout all the years. For me, it is just something to deal with, to come out stronger, surely not to dwell upon the ever-present

negativities. Jack’s TNF history is incredible and all his – and yours, Julie – organizing achievements, which will stand long into the next 50 years….

As for your retirement as Treasurer – as one who deals with your function on at least a monthly basis, I’ve been in awe how you can handle farming fulltime while so admirably filling that key NOFA-IC function as a labor of love. Then I see that your email replies are usually posted at 4:15 AM, always making the time to serve our common good.

I Thank You and Jack most deeply, Julie – andWish You All the Best in what’s next, which I hope includes a NOFA presence -it would be too hard to bear going forward without you… XOX, Steve

I think a lot of us feel love, appreciation and admiration for Julie and Jack! As a team, and each one individually, they have served at the very heart of what I believe the organic movement is all about. A quality that no one has mentioned so far is that you two have never put your own egos at the center. We can all think of examples in organic agriculture of people who make inflated claims about their own special contributions, who self-aggrandize and sometimes also straight out aggrandize to add profit to their own brand.  Julie and Jack have never done that. They put NOFA and our community first.

Julie, you have such a wonderful no-nonsense way of sticking to your values, getting things done and helping others do the same. You do not fear conflict

you teach how to face it squarely. As a woman leader you have taught the rest of us so much. And Jack, you have been so creative over the years in digging up original, even idiosyncratic, farmers to interview so that TNF is worth reading cover to cover to catch the sometimes unorthodox contributions that can set one’s brain in motion with new discoveries and deeper understanding. With gratitude and love. Elizabeth

 

Aside from what Julie has given to NOFA Mass and to the IC, she has also given to all of the state chapters in times of need, transition, and sometimes turmoil. We had a situation several years ago on the NOFA NH board where Julie volunteered to come

to one of our board meetings and help mediate a serious dispute.  Her mediation allowed us to move on as a board and an organization.

 

It has been an utter joy to interact with you both, and I look forward to slower days to read those many esteemed TNF’s on my bookshelf, and to seeing you again. And so I send huge hugs of appreciation and care to you both. Jack

I want to echo the sadness we are all feeling in your choice to step away from the IC and for any hurt surrounding TNF. Julie, you have been so helpfulto me personally in my new role, always offering advice and taking the time to listen. I will forever be appreciative of your support. Jack and Julie, you have both contributed so much to the organic community NOFA would not be where it is today without your leadership. I truly hope we can find a path forward together. Best. Bethany

Links:

A video of Jack & Julie, Many Hands Farm realorganicproject.org/know-your-farmer-manyhands-farm-massachusetts/