Monday, February 23, 2009

The Corners of Our Fields

Last night Malena and I watched the second half of Masterpiece Theater's excellent production of Dickens', "Oliver Twist" and, because of some ideas that have been floating around in my head quite a bit of late, it really did strike home. Watching it reminded me of a line from the book, not featured in the film,"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread". The story is, of course, set in motion by Oliver's attempt to get enough to eat after suffering from hunger for months and I have been thinking quite a bit about hunger recently.
As a child, when I was first exposed to the somewhat silly (and overly cheerful) musical of Oliver, while I enjoyed the antics of the Dodger and Fagin's boys, the point that their thievery, which seemed, somehow, excusable, was the result of poverty and hunger, was completely lost on me. Like many Americans, true HUNGER is something that I have been fortunate enough to have never known personally, and to have witnessed, first hand, only once or twice. Although I have had a fair amount of contact with poverty through several non-profits I have worked with, I have not really seen very much hunger. Over the course of my lifetime, as flawed as many of our social safety nets have been, it seems that exceptionally low food prices and food shelves have kept the most dire cases of hunger very low. Certainly, millions of people have gone to bed hungry countless times, but hunger, within the United States, has been dispersed enough that most of us do not come into contact with it on a day to day basis. Unfortunately, it appears that hunger, and the circumstances that lead to it, are on the rise.
Recently I was having a conversation with an acquaintance of mine, who works at a food shelf, and she was telling me that while they have seen an marked increase in the number of families coming in for help, donations are down. A recent New York Times article also bears this out; According to the article, studies indicate that food shelf usage is up as much as 30% as more and more families, formerly members of the "middle-class", fall victim the many effects of our current economic crisis. The timing couldn't be worse considering that, many of the foundations and individuals who have contributed to the shelves are, themselves, feeling the pinch. To make matters worse, the 3 year drought, which has plagued the Central Valley of CA, is also beginning to have an affect on our country's food supply.
For a variety of reasons, the majority of the fruits and vegetables grown within the United States are grown in the Central Valley. With water supplies in the region at historic lows, the Federal Government is looking at severely limiting the amount of water that will be available to Central Valley farmers this summer. Without water the farmers cannot raise many of their crops. Last year 100, 000 acres were left unplanted and it looks as though up to 800,000 acres will be fallowed this year. This will likely lead to higher food costs and shorter supplies and it has already contributed to an alarming unemployment rate in the areas affected, putting even more low income people in need; up to 80,000 agricultural jobs have already been lost according to another article in the Times ( This problem is yet another reason why our current, overly centralized, industrial ag model, while it has provided us with cheap food in the past, leaves us remarkably prone to disaster under a variety of changing conditions.
As a farmer I feel an especially acute relationship to the idea of hunger; it is my job to try and feed people and, in most years, I am witness to the abundance that our earth can provide. I also know that the yield is really not all mine to take; it is my responsibilty to make sure that some of the bounty is shared with those in need. Over the years we donated extra produce to foodshelves and from time to time, "underwritten" shares for low income families. Last summer, Steve Share, who, with his wife Rona, hosts our drop-off site in Linden Hills, made sure that all of the extra boxes that members forgot to pick up, often 2-3 boxes/week, went to the Harriet Tubman Center in Minneapolis. This year, with the need for food donations growing, we are going to try and expand our donations and use our CSA as a way to get more fresh food into the hands and, more importantly, the stomachs, of those in need. Our members from Synogogue Adath Jeshrun have purchased shares, at a discount, to donate to ICA foodshelf and I am working on setting up a system so that our members can do the same both with ICA and with the Harriet Tubman center. If you are intersted in helping with this, please do contact me at We who have will be judged by how we treat those without.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


While the cold weather of the last few days seems to indicate that winter is not nearly done with Minnesota, for me, it is rapidly approaching its final days. Twelve mornings from now I will wake up, knock back a few cups of high-test coffee, and commit my first act of farming for the 2009 season; I will plant our first successions of leeks, onions, celeriac and some herbs, in one of our greenhouses. By late March I will be the only guy in Milan sporting a serious "natural" tan. In truth, the beginning of my farming season began in early January but, until now, mostly it has involved phone calls, spread sheets, and speaking engagements. Not nearly as thrilling as planting but vitally important.
Like many people who did not grow up on a farm, when I first entertained the idea of farming thirteen years ago, my sense of it mostly involved planting and harvesting. The idea that farming was, in addition to being a lovely lifestyle filled with reaping and sowing, a business that would require a variety of non-horticultural skills really did not occur to me. My vision was terribly pastoral and involved a great deal of communing with nature, living off the fat of the land and not overly much reality. While farming does afford me ample opportunity to witness the "goings-on" of the natural world, the soils teaming with life, the cycles of the seasons, the amassing of dark tumult in the sky, it, like all vocations, is also filled with things far more mundane. In order for our season to run smoothly I have found that it will not suffice to just plant when feeling inspired to do so. With 18 weeks of boxes to fill for 275 shareholders a great deal of planning is necessary. In early January, once I have determined the budget for the year and how many shares we will be selling, my first job is to develop our greenhouse planting schedule. A majority of our crops begin their lives in one of our greenhouses and spend between 4 and 8 weeks growing before they are transplanted out into our fields. This allows us to get a jump on the season and harvest many things over a longer period. Additionally, many of our crops require multiple plantings in order to have a steady supply of them over the course of the season. Broccoli, for instance, gets planted 7 times during the season; five times in the spring/summer and twice in the fall. In order to accomplish this, we must start around 1000 plants in flats every two weeks in the late winter/spring. Suffice to say, over the years, creating a greenhouse schedule has required me to put together a fairly serious set of spreadsheets filled with little macros to help extrapolate how much seed we will need, when the plants will need to be transplanted, and what sort of yield we should expect. This has involved spending quite a bit of time in front of the computer... not exactly part of that farming dream of yesteryear! Additionally, there is marketing work, book keeping, maintaining machinery, purchasing supplies, hiring workers... like any small business, the list is extensive. The funny thing is that, at least some of these tasks, I have discovered, I enjoy as much as the plowing, cultivating, planting, etc... There are few things I enjoy more than conversing with our many members and the challenges posed by developing field rotations and planting schedules or fixing the occasional busted piece of machinery keep my mind feeling nimble. While I do not really enjoy many of the tasks involved in keeping our farm's books, I do enjoy thinking about the economics of what we do and comparing them to the way conventional agricultural systems work (perhaps i will blog about this in the future).
While much of the last month has been spent in the office developing the plan for this year, and visons of perfect fields inhabit my dreams, twelve days from now will commence the enactment of those plans and, truth be told, I am unbelievably anxious to get started, to smell the moist earthy air of the greenhouses, and plant that first seed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Recipe For Success

6H2O + 6CO2 ----> C6H12O6+ 6O2
Last night I happened to turn on MPR and was fortunate enough to hear a great interview Terri Gross did with Michael Pollan. If you get a chance, look for it on the internet and give it a listen. In any case, what really struck me about the conversation was his idea that we must "resolarize" our agricultural systems. This is something that has, as we, in the northern hemisphere, daily tilt closer to the sun, causing the days to lengthen, been on my mind quite a bit recently. By the end of February there will be about twice as much solar energy hitting the suface of the earth, here in Minnesota, as there was on January 31st. That solar energy will create changes in the weather patterns and, as some of it is radiated off of the various surfaces it hits, things will begin to warm. This warming, and the winds it creates, will change our weather and allow us to trade our snow boots for flip-flops and will melt the snow, exposing the ground, allowing us to begin planting. So, what's the deal with the oversimplified reaction in green above? Well, that's the foundation of my job and that is the "miracle" that you can thank for all of your favorite (and least favorite) meals; without photosynthesis, not much would be happening on this big rock of ours. While we are busy debating our shift to a new "solar" economy, the truth is, it always has been, and always will be solar, whether we like it or not! All that oil (a hydrocarbon...loaded with carbon atoms which, when combusted, joins with oxygen to form CO2) that we are pumping out of the ground... it too was, at least partially, created by solar energy! So what's the problem then? Well, it took gazillions of life forms billions of years to pull all of that Carbon out of the atmosphere (the 6CO2 on the front side of the reaction) in order that we "higher" organisms could have an earth that would support our biology. Actually, that statement is backwards. Our biology could only exist AFTER the CO2 was sequestered below the surface of the earth through a mixture of photosynthesis and other geological events. In any case, the main point is that this "simple" reaction deserves far more respect than it gets.
So, what does the reaction mean? Simply, it means that, through the photosynthetic process, 6 molecules of water and 6 molecules of carbon dioxide are combined to form one molecule of sugar and 6 molecules of atmospheric Oxygen. Why is this a big deal? Well, if you like either breathing or eating, two of my favorite things to do, without photosynthesis you would be out of luck!
Have you ever wondered why most plants are green? If asked, most of us will answer, "because they are filled with chlorophyll." Well, why is chlorophyll green? Its green because the wavelengths of light that make up "green" to our eyes are not being absorbed. So what?!? Well, the rest of the spectrum that managed to travel through space and strike our earth IS absorbed. What happens then? Some of that energy is used by reactions in plants' chloroplasts (the organelle that contains, among other things, chlorophyll) to split the Hydrogen from that water molecule (H2O), mentioned in the reaction above, and combine it with the carbon dioxide (CO2) to form simple sugars (C6H1206). Notice that, in combining water and carbon dioxide, we began with 12 Hydrogen atoms,18 Oxygen atoms, and a 6 Carbon atoms. The sugar has 6 Carbon, 12 hydrogen, and 6 oxygen atoms. That leaves the 12 remaining oxygen atoms to form 6 O2 molecules. The plant doesn't "need" this O2 and releases it. O2 is the plant's WASTE! Breathe deeply and smile at the nearest plant! If only our factories were as clean! Plants are able to take these two simple and abundant molecules and use them to store the energy from the sun, which they cannot directly use, as C-C bond energy in the sugars they produce. This energy can then be released through glycolosis and other metabolic processes used by plants and animals. Yippee! The sun could hit our skin all day long and we would still not be able to do this. We are very efficient at breaking these sugars down in order to run, or breathe, or dance the cha-cha, but we cannot make them ourselves and all life depends on their existence.
Agriculture, then, is all about organizing the plants to function in a way that puts their photosynthesis to use in order to feed ourselves. It is about harnessing solar energy. Michael Pollan made the point that modern "industrial" agriculture has been about not being content to just use the energy that is entering the system on a daily basis from the sun. It is about adding to the system the "ancient" solar energy, which is embodied in oil, to get even more out of our fields. We use oil not only for agricultural machinery and transportation, but also to create fertlizers to boost the amount of energy entering our agricultural system. While this has given us an abundant supply of cheap food, it is a little like squandering an inheritance. It is living beyond one's means and science is telling us that it is causing a whole host of problems that we cannot delay dealing with. So, if you are on the lookout for a miracle, and the virgin of Guadalupe appeaping on a piece of toast won't cut it, head over to your nearest potted ficus or spider plant and say, "Amen!"