Saturday, March 21, 2009

Time to (re)Organize!

At last the real "farm" work of the season has begun! The last week has found us sowing our first seeds of the 2009 growing season and, by Tuesday morning, the first sprouts poked through the soil and began their climb towards the sky. It has now been 13 years since I planted my first seeds as a farmer and while, in some years, the act of planting those first tiny seeds has felt weighty, in others it has felt, especially as the years roll by, a bit ho-hum. Like many things in life, where repetition can take away some of the "magic", seeding flats in the greenhouse, while always fun, can also feel a bit mundane. However, this year, while I was holding a bag of broccoli seed in my hand, my mind began to hum and I was reminded of how much of a "miracle" these simple little seeds are.
Beginning work on my second day of planting I picked up my broccoli seeds and, for some reason, the fact that, in my one hand, I held enough seed to plant something on the order of 15,000 broccoli plants, set my mind to contemplating seeds. Fifteen Thousand plants could yield around fifteen thousand heads of broccoli. That is enough broccoli to feed a lot of people and yet, there it was, in a little plastic bag, weighing just a few ounces and costing, perhaps, $40. Each one of those seeds was filled with potential, some more than others, and nearly all of them COULD, given the right conditions, grow roots, stems, leaves and even the immature flower clusters that we eat. Each would be planted into the soil, some in richer soil than others, and each would contend with a mixture of the conditions that mother nature provides and the extra care we are able to provide for it. Some will fall prey to wind or insects or rabbits but many of them will, quite likely, flourish and end up in your CSA box sometime later this summer. At the moment of planting, much like each of us at birth, they are pure potential, the most recent product of one of a multiplicity of lines extending back to that first single celled organism that did whatever it did in that much discussed "primordial ooze". To be sure, that broccoli seed can't be a beet, a melon, or a tomato but, with a little love and a whole lot of luck, it might be the best head of broccoli you've ever tasted. Only time will tell.
This thought, of course, got me to thinking further about seeds; what is it that seeds really do? As a small child I thought that seeds were filled with a tiny version of the future plant and that, somehow, magically, with a little water and sun, it would expand. This is obviously not exactly the case. Seeds are, like all living things, patterns for reorganizing the world of which they are a part. What do I mean by this? A seed begins with very little aside from the plan encoded in its DNA; just some simple cells differentiated in just a few ways. Seeds have an "seed coat" (Testa), cells that will become the leaves and act as food for the emerging plant (cotyledon), cells that will become the roots (radicle) and cells that will become the stem (plumule). All of this, in the case of a broccoli seed, fits into a package no larger than the head of a pin! What makes each seed special is, of course, the instructions it contains for interacting with the world around it. We tend to think of plants as exceptionally passive things but, like all living organisms, from the first moment of growth, they begin to remake the world. The plants' cells "grab" molecules from the air, soil, and water and reshape them into new molecules to build the structures that the plant needs to fulfill its potential. Each plant's very existence leaves the world changed and each and every seed is a slightly new approach to remaking the world.
This thought is, of course, not merely applicable to seeds! It is about all of life and it is about all of the work that we do. It is inescapable; with each breathe, each step, each action we are reorganizing the universe playing out countless permutations. The thought really struck home when I began to tie it to one of my other passions, restorative justice. For the past 2 years, in addition to my agricultural exploits, I have been involved in a program called "Circle Sentencing". Circle Sentencing is an alternative, for juveniles who have committed crimes, to incarceration. Rather than put them away for a while, surrounded by other offenders, often far from the community in which they committed their crime and will, likely have to return to, we attempt a different approach. The goal of this is the idea of "resorative justice", a process in which the person who has harmed takes responsibility for their actions and the person who has been harmed may take a central role in the process, in many instances receiving an apology and reparation directly or indirectly from the person who has caused them harm. Additionally, our goal is not only to have the youth understand/pay for their crime but also to leave them with stronger and positive connections to/with the community in which they live and better skills for being constructive members of society.
So, you are probably wondering what the heck this has to do with seeds? Each of the kids in our program is just like each of those seeds I plant each spring. Each of them is, at birth, filled with potential and, while each is distinct, some might make great artists, others doctors, teachers or mechanics, the greatest factor for their outcome seems to be the soil into which they are planted and yet, for good or bad, they WILL reorganize their world. Unfortunately, many of them are born into fairly thin soils and it is a struggle for them to get what they need to thrive. Unsurprisingly, they are, for the most part, the children of families that are struggling to get by, more often than not, with at least one parent that either is, or has been, incarcerated. As these children begin their work of reorganizing their world, their potential is, too often, limited by the "field" in which they have been planted. It occurs to me that we must, each of us, be, as one of our own acts of reorganization, "organic" gardeners to one another; working to improve the fertility and tilth of the "soils" not just of our own fields, but also our neighbors both for now and for future generations.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Good Month for Farming

While we, in the frigid north, might not know it, the past few weeks have been, in my opinion, some great weeks for agriculture or, at least, the vision of agriculture that I hold. While our fields have lain dormant beneath the ice and snow, the fields of agricultural legislation seem fertile and ready for renewal.
The first bit of good news involves President Obama's proposed budget and the administration's apparent desire to begin fixing some of the worst bits of our nation's farm policy, namely, the Direct Payments issued to farmers through the last Farm Bill. Direct Payments are "subsidies" payed to farmers based on the number of eligible acres they have enrolled in the federal farm program and they are a fairly recent addition (1996) to our federal farm policy. Here is how it works:
Under the "old" farm bill, farmers were paid for the commodity crops that they grew (corn, soybeans, wheat, sugarbeets, rice, cotton) with the idea that this would help stabilize the price of those crops and, in doing so, keep the prices low for the "consumers". The federal money given to farmers, whatever the intended "benefits" for them, really worked as a way to cushion the banks that extend massive operating loans to farmers each spring. Since the money was tied to production, it encouraged farmers to grow more and more of these commodity crops, increasing the average size of farms, increasing the yearly operating debt that farms took on, and bloating the U.S.'s share of cheap grain to be dumped on the world market. Since ever-increasing supplies kept prices low for 40 years, small acre farms found it increasingly difficult to survive and the percentage of Americans involved in agriculture dropped from around 20% to less than 2%. This system, which was purportedly designed to insulate farmers from the massive fluctuations in crop value, actually was driving prices down and made almost all farms completely reliant on subsidies. As a way to get around this, policy makers decided that it would be best not to tie subsidies to the actual production of crops. Farmers would get payments based on the cropping history of the acres they farmed, not the crop planted. This "freedom to farm" idea, somehow, was meant to ween farmers off of crop subsidies. Here is the USDA on direct payments:
"Fixed direct payments are not tied to current production or prices and do not require any commodity production on the land. With planting flexibility, farmers are not confined to growing the historically produced crops for which they are receiving direct payments"
WHAT!?! Farmers were to be paid a lump sum each year regardless of crop prices or the crop they planted on their acres! Actually, this is not quite true; if you planted fruits or vegetables on those acres then you would be disqualified from the program. Direct payments, of course, really encouraged people to farm ever expanding acreages of land and it allows the largest 10% of farms to reap over 75% of crop subsidies (AKA your tax dollars). This means that farms that earned $750,000 last year were still able to collect money (up to $80,000) from the federal government. The environmental Working Group has an interesting website where you can check, by county, how many federal dollars were given to the largest 10 "farmers". I put the word farmers in quotation marks because many of these people are not even actively engaged in their farming operations.
For example, the largest farm in my county received $82,000 last year. This was during a year where crop values hit historically high levels.
In the new budget plan the administration recommends cutting direct payments to all farms with over $500,000 in annual sales. This would eliminate 9.2 million dollars from the subsidy program, about 1/5th of the total yearly farm subsidies, and would affect around 90,000 "farmers". This money, then, would be redirected to USDA programs that aid in alleviating childhood hunger. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put it," 30 million children, 90,000 farmers. It is a tough choice, but it's a choice that folks are going to have to make." Opponents to this change are, of course, already beginning to dig in and spin this in the usual ways. Our own Congressman Colin Peterson, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is jumping into the fray, as expected, to defend the status quo. Since the beneficiaries of keeping things as they are represent a fairly small, though powerful, lobby, if we can keep them from successfully pretending that this is about protecting the "family farm", we should be able to win this. I encourage you to contact Colin and let him know how you feel.
The second great bit of news involves the EU's decision to ban 20 of the most harmful agricultural chemicals and to set up much more rigorous guidelines for approving the use of new ones. Specifically, this ban will target pesticides linked with cancer, mutation, reproductive toxicity, and hormonal disruption The decision, which still must be ratified by member governments, in addition to banning several chemicals, puts severe restriction on the methods of application and bans the use of many pesticides near schools, hospitals, and waterways. While opponents are attempting to undermine this by linking it to the silly fears of environmentalists, this policy is, in fact, based on fairly sound science.
In the United States, the FDA regulates chemicals not based on actual toxicity, but based on assumed levels of exposure. This, of course, does not take into account the exposure levels of farm workers, the exposure rates of young children (most acceptable levels are set for healthy adults) and fetuses, or for their interactions with other farm chemicals. It assumes that actual exposure mimics that which occurs in a lab. Hence, scores of harmful chemicals are used on our foods and enter both the environment and our bodies. While advocates of these chemicals like to point out how few ppm (parts per million) of these hazardous substances are found as residue on our food, in fact, this is a bit of a bamboozle. Many of our most efficatious drugs are delivered to our bodies in doses that approximate the levels that certain pesticides are found in our blood and urine. Huh!?! Here is an interesting study pertaining to this:
On September 1, 2005, Chensheng Lu at School of Public Health at Emory University, along with colleagues at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and at the University of Washington, released an important study that will soon appear in the NIH journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. At the beginning, every child in the study was found to have pesticides in the urine everyday, in every urine sample. The children were healthy American, suburban, elementary school kids. The pesticides were organophosphorus pesticides commonly used in food production – malathion and chlorpyrifos (Dursban) – both known to cause neurologic problems in animals and in humans. After establishing the baseline pesticide exposure, the researchers made the simplest of changes: the kids were switched to organic versions of the foods they were eating anyway. They didn’t make any changes in the types of foods they enjoyed. They didn’t make any other changes, such as in home gardening or insect control. With this simple diet change alone, the pesticides virtually disappeared from every child’s urine – within 24 hours! They enjoyed a pesticide-free holiday for 5 days, and then went back to their ‘normal’ diets. Within 24 hours the pesticides returned. They were again seen in 100% of urine samples, twice a day, in 100% of the children. Health outcomes were not followed in this study, but the authors believe intuitively that, “children whose diets consist of organic food items would have a lower probability of neurological health risks,” a known toxicity of these pesticides.
While the last sentence might be a little bit of a jump, since acceptable levels of exposure are calculated using a 155lb adult, it does seem likely. In any case, the EU ban is certainly based on far more than unsubstantiated fear mongering! Perhaps some day, the health of our people and environment will trump the desire for low-cost food.