What’s the “right way” to eat? Local? Organic? Vegan? Paleo? What’s the Climate Change Diet all about? How do we decide what’s best for our communities, for our planet? It’s a big discussion! Join us on Thursday, July 25, from 11:15 - 1:30 to jump into the conversation. Led by Sharon Betcher, PhD.
That’s what the Picnic Potlucks at the Organic Farm School look and feel like! Co-hosted by the Organic Farm School, Whidbey Institute, Aldermarsh, and Whidbey Island Waldorf School, the location, tables, and chairs were provided. Everything else was made possible by the energy and generosity of those who “saved the date.”
Last night, more than 175 people from the island and beyond came out simply to enjoy a beautiful place with nice people. Just a few announcements. A LOT of food. Some friendly competition at the corn hole boards. And tours of the vegetable fields.
Life gets so full, and true conversations can be rare. But a potluck creates space to breathe, look around, eat foods you might not otherwise try, celebrate each other, and talk. Really talk.
No particular agenda, just neighbors coming together to recognize how lucky they are to have each other and to be able to eat good food in these crazy times. We are so genuinely grateful to be in the middle of it all here in the Maxwelton Valley!
Judy Feldman, Executive Director of the Organic Farm School
I am a grower of farmers. For the sake of small scale farmers everywhere, I ask you to eat regular heaping platefuls of colorful lettuce leaves. Frilly pale green friseé, purple and lime green butter heads, bitter dark green chicory, countless shades of green and purple loose leaf lettuce, and more.
For beginning farmers especially, they provide a significant amount of income. No one goes into farming to get rich, but all farmers need to generate a profit or they don’t remain farmers for long. Lettuce crops grow quickly, they tend to sell quickly too. At the community level, they are in steady demand. In fact, there are farmers who not only paint their fields in the startling diversity of lettuce heads, but specialize in custom salad mixes. They combine spicy leaves with sweet, green with purple and spotted, add in a few herb sprigs or spinach or kale. They change up these offerings throughout the season, along the way developing the sophistication of their eaters’ taste buds and in the best examples talking with them about the process.
This lettuce stuff is also good for you. With very few calories, it subtly goes about adding micronutrients to your blood and bones. But you should probably know that I kind of don’t like it - but I’m working on it.
It’s amazing to watch grow in the field, beginning as tiny, almost weightless seeds, valiantly pushing two bright leaves up through the soil and then in time-lapse fashion adding round and round of thin yet textured photosynthetic wings around a center. They are perhaps the most elegant example of sunlight made edible, and especially in the spring, after a long winter of starchy cooked vegetables, a soul satisfying change of pace to your menu. Especially the varieties with a bit of crunch.
But I’ve yet to find one that has much flavor. They are more a blank canvas upon which salad dressings serve as the taste equivalent of color. If you’re lucky, they have enough flesh to make your fork useful. Otherwise, you end up trying to slip your utensil under them and awkwardly balance the leaves up to your mouth, or proclaim foodie privilege and pick them up with your fingers.
Shy of a salad, they become the green layer on a sandwich to keep the cheese from sticking to the roof of your mouth. Or the wrapper to hold the meat when a diet says you can’t have bread.
However I encounter them, lettuce leaves are just not my favorite food. That said, I do not find them dangerous. The USDA, the FDA, and insurance companies across the country now do. They are especially worried about your consumption of romaine.
For those of you who were anticipating the theatrical production of a caesar salad during last year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas, you might have felt pinched. You were hoping to see the eggs beaten, the olive oil dripped, the salt added, the anchovy paste blended in, the lemon squeezed, and the concoction poured over the torn leaves of this majestic upright green — tossed and decorated by savory croutons and shredded parmesan cheese. You looked forward to the bite, the zing, the texture and chew. And it was taken away from many of you.
Hear me when I say it was made available…but in that offering there was hidden the unintended consequence associated with how we have come to grow food and THAT is what we should all be talking about right now.
We have asked farmers to do what we didn’t want to do. We asked them to invest in crops that weather, markets, palates, and/or economies might not ultimately support. We asked them to work in the cold, the wet, the windy, the hot, the dry, the bright and the dark.
We also asked them to grow a lot, but then only bring us the perfect. We asked them to grow it quickly, and in every season and every region so we’d always have the freshest of whatever we decided we wanted on the morning we got up.
But in asking them to do all of this for us, we didn’t want to actually pay very much, so we asked them to find cheap water, cheap seed, cheap fertilizer, cheap labor, cheap land.
We didn’t want to have to go to them, so we asked them to bring goods to us. They were too busy doing all that we asked, so a second layer of commerce was introduced. Distributors.
The distributors gathered the food we asked to have grown, mingled it all together, hired advertisers to think up logos and commercials. They packaged up bags, boxes, crates and cargo containers. They scheduled routes and drivers, boats, and trains. Weeks, sometimes months later, food arrived at our grocers from farms barely remembered. After sitting in warehouses, parking lots, freeways and on loading docks, our food was unpacked, handled again, and set out for more hands to touch, examine, and select.
When lettuce made someone sick, the warning alarm was quickly sounded. This is logical. We should know when something we are about to make a part of our bodies is tainted in any way. We should be able to work from good information about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy and strong. The thing is…it’s a bit late to assume we can really have such knowledge and information.
Robbed of our romaine, maybe it’s time we begin asking for different things.
Did you know that lettuce is a cool weather plant? Once the sun’s stroll across the sky slows, building up heat over the course of long days and raising temperatures above 75 degrees fahrenheit, lettuce changes. Like many of us who don’t like to be hot, it grows bitter and tough. However it is that plants know their time is coming to an end, so the lettuce knows and it begins the race to procreate. It bolts. It changes from a tender set of concentric leaves to stems that reach up toward that hot sun as if on a dare. The stems pop with small yellow flowers, adding yet more color to the field, and more dining options for non-human eaters. Ultimately, these flies, bees, and other pollinating insects barter with the plant, exchanging DNA delivery services for meals so that seeds can be born as the lettuce plants die.
But most farmers don’t see this miracle of life because their livelihood comes from the sweetness of lettuce youth rather than the bitterness of lettuce death. Unless they are seed farmers, which by the way is an entirely different kind of farming, their focus is on timing their crops to fit within the confines of the cooler weather days.
Lettuce is 95% water. Lettuce requires a lot of water in the field. To produce the salad you had for lunch probably took over 20 gallons of water to grow. To grow, not to grow and wash and keep cool in the produce aisle — 20 gallons of water to grow not the full head but the 1-2 cups of lettuce leaves you put on your plate. Fortunately, water is more abundant in the cooler weather days of spring and fall. You could almost believe that nature is a wise and functional farmer. Hmm.
So how is it that 90% of the lettuce eaten from November to March in the US comes from Yuma, Arizona?
Just in case you need a little context, Yuma, Arizona is in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, near the Mexican border.
Temperatures in Yuma rarely dip below 40 degrees. For 8 months out of the year, their high temp runs from 80-108 and for six of those months, the total of the high and low temp adds up to more than 150 (Romaine tends to suffer beyond that 150 mark). This means they need heat tolerant varieties and still, it matures quickly. (E. coli can live in the tissues of plants for up to 65 days.) Annual precipitation in Yuma is 3 inches per year. In terms of water per acre, this pencils out to about 80,000 gallons. An acre of lettuce can need more than 900,000 gallons per planting .
Without getting that from the sky, their irrigation water must come from wells or the reservoirs made available via huge dams on the Colorado River, which is interesting from the perspective of sovereign rights/water rights. To whom does that river belong? The National Reclamation Act of 1902 (reclamation?) set into motion a host of projects that fundamentally made agriculture possible over more than 300,000 acres in Yuma County, Arizona and Imperial County, California.
So again, how is it that so much of our lettuce* in this country is grown in Yuma, Arizona, 100,000 acres of it?
Because we eaters, in very real albeit indirect ways asked that it be grown there. Because land is flat and inexpensive, labor is cheap and anxious for the work, water is subsidized, and the weather is not ideal but it’s consistent and stolen water makes up for the heat. These things keep the price of our beloved romaine down under $2 per head. The farm owner gets about .87 of that. The laborer? We won’t go there just yet.
Arizona is a fine state, and the farmers there are fine farmers doing what we have asked them to do. The E. coli that has grown into the tissues of the lettuce leaves did not do so from anyone’s intention. It did so because of our disconnect with the fullness of life and the diversity of organisms on this planet, our disrespect for the pathways of water and waste, the enormity of the food web in which we are both diner and dinner.
Scientists have yet to identify the specific point of origin for the E. coli that has caused harm to the humans who ingested it**. They assume it started in Yuma because so much of our lettuce starts in Yuma. Experienced researchers, pathologists, physicians, regulators, attorneys and judges will be tasked to find “who’s responsible,” but chances are that in ultimate fact we all are. And the sooner we settle our hearts and minds with that stunning judgment, the sooner we can set about moving back closer to the farmers doing what we ask them to do - not to micro manage and question their practices, but to be in relationship with them.
I don’t know who the earliest farmers were, but I carry a sense that they were the ones in a community who had the deepest affinity for caring both for the plants their fellows needed to sustain their bodies and for the Earth that offered up such gifts. Not quite shamans but perhaps very close, I imagine they were the ones who on some unknowable level felt the exchange of energy between rock and belly and because of this, they were called to the role of farmer steward.
This in contrast with our contemporary culture, where we say food is “produced,” as if by our own ingenuity, and where invisible farmers are assumed to be laborers at our calling not theirs.
Among activists, there is a term heard more frequently with each passing food scare…re-localization. It’s a concept of pulling back our work order with mono-cropping, multi-national, corporate food systems, and instead investing in local or at least regional networks of farmers with faces. Not only is this concept loaded with a tangled mess of challenges across issues of economics, health and safety, hunger, human resources, cultural diets, and more — it won’t solve all of our problems. There are some careless farmers out there. There are some misguided, uninformed, damaging practices in use. There are hazards and really tangled screw ups to be addressed. But relocalization/regionalization might bring daylight to them along a timeline we have a chance to interrupt before traumatic injury becomes national threat.
What’s more, it might bring the eater in closer proximity to the eaten. It could remind us that our lives depend on the calling of wise and compassionate, hard working farmers. And it has a chance to remind farmers that they are asked to feed us well from the gifts of the Earth, which are not to be taken for granted.
Idealistic? Hell yes. Impossible? As a complete shift, probably. Insane? Not as insane as continuing down a path that seems to be making us afraid to eat.
The day of the latest Romaine Recall, most of my friends still sat down to salad with their dinner. Their romaine leaves dressed with rowdy and robust concoctions of who knows what delectable ingredients from their cupboards. They didn’t have a death wish, they were farmers. Or they knew their farmers. And they weren’t in Yuma, in the middle of 50,000 acres of romaine. They knew the soil from which the lettuce was grown, they knew who shared contact with that soil, where the water for the field came from, and how the heads were handled as they were cut from their roots, washed, and offered. If they didn’t know directly, they had trust in those who did. Funny how trust generates confidence.
Across all of the crazy social media platforms, posts and reposts about the announcement from the USDA and FDA pushed aside previous debates about the history of Thanksgiving, arguments about whether or not there is a war on Christmas, memes referencing the Mueller investigation, and countless pictures of kittens and puppies. Facebook friends noted that while a few people have been made quite ill from this pathogen, which is an awful thing, the health of those few people has generated a broad scale ban of a vegetable - while guns kill tens of thousands of people but to speak of a ban of those things is to beg for rioting by gun owners. No, let’s not go there. But let’s think about why there is such an exaggerated response to one threat and not to another.
Perhaps it’s because even though we have outsourced our responsibility for fueling our bodies, we know in the most visceral of ways that we must be fueled. We will die without food. Yes, some of us will die because of food, but that is why we want to trust those who do the work involved in feeding us. Most of us don’t know what E. coli looks like. We don’t know that it’s full name is Escherichia coli O157:H7, or that it is part of a huge family of bacteria with most being harmless or actually important members of our human intestinal communities. We don’t even know how to pronounce it which is why we shorten it to E. coli. But we know this particular E. coli is bad and we don’t want it in our food, and the fact that it’s there is making us lose trust.
What we would be wise to remember is that trust only persists between mutually engaged and invested parties. When we chose to price our food rather than value it, we may have generated a paradigm shift we haven’t fully articulated. We shifted “farmer” from a role to which one is called to a job for which one is hired.
We eaters made that choice somewhere along the line. We can blame a host of others…advertisers, peer pressure, the economy, “the man,” but we each and all put food to mouth on our own. Depending on your view of the course of human history, you might see the path as short or long, but either way it has been one of incremental shifts away from connection with the larger source of our food. It looks like our reconnecting path might need to be shorter and faster. Again, it is our choice.
I am not a farmer, but I have chosen to cultivate farmers because when I look around at the world and how quickly big changes are happening, my stomach still growls. E. coli, Salmonella, Mad Cow Disease, botulism…these are real and formidable neighbors we live among, and my stomach still growls.
I want to trust that there are people called to quiet that rumbling in me, called not as laborers, but as stewards of the source of what keeps our bodies alive. I want to trust that there are strong backs with healthy souls out there who at some point in their lives sat down on the Earth and just knew…. that every thing that has lived or is living or will ever live on this planet is fueled by a very real and yet complex flow of energy from the sun in the middle of our solar system.
That’s a big calling. And one not likely to be heard by many when it comes flanked by the question, not spiritually asked, “why on earth would anyone ever want to be a farmer?”
We are a nation that has a twisted relationship with eating. We pay way too much for things that do us harm and not nearly enough for things that make us strong. We think of farmers as dirty and ignorant and yet we put what they grow on our tongues. We incentivize production of “commodity crops” that more often than not go to animal feed, fuel, or geo-political chess games rather than to food for communities. Or when they do go to communities, the calories arrive in highly processed and preserved fashion, in brightly colored boxes, purchased with clipped coupons, and sporting a list of ingredients in 4 point font that few can make any sense of and probably should not be in the boxes or in our bodies.
As we use precious water, land, habitat, and human resources to grow all of this material we put into our mouths, we have astronomical rates of cancer, chronic disease, obesity, hunger and malnutrition all co-existing in a network of solid waste facilities overflowing with rotting food.
Are we really asking young people to become farmers and solve all of these problems?
No. Or we shouldn’t. Instead, we should be helping to inspire them, recommitting ourselves to make better choices with them.
The farmers in your community that are growing lettuce? Buy it from them. I buy it from them and remember, I don’t even like it. But I buy it because I trust them to feed me and they trust me to support their efforts. And I know that I really am healthier if some of it ends up in my bones. If you are fortunate enough to have a farmer near you, get to know them. Ask them questions. Observe what they offer. Tell them they are your heroes, your lifeline. Expand your meals to include things you’ve never tried, like kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, and heaven help us, six different kinds of kale. Create a relationship. Grow some trust together.
That young child you notice sitting in the sun, playing in the dirt? Sit with them. Ask them what they feel, what they smell, what they see. Encourage them to look at bugs, water the plants, taste the sweetness of a pulled honeysuckle stamen. Give them nasturtium seeds and delight in their laughter when you show them how to eat the flowers and swallow the peppery bite of their bright yellowness. Plant carrots and show them the crazy satisfaction of pulling the dayglo cylinders from the hug of the Earth. Sing The Farmer In the Dell, maybe update it for the 21st century, but sing it all the same. Sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm and talk about how grass is powered by the sun, and how the cows are powered by the grass, and how the cows give us milk and cheese that because of the grass and because of the sun puts calcium into our bones as we grow.
As they get older, conversations can shift to balance, vegetarianism, veganism, and more, but first, instill in them the magic and mystery of how a star creates bodies. Later, it will draw them into the additional mysteries of how different seeds grow into such different plants, each pulling up from the soil a different conglomeration of vitamins, minerals, sugars and proteins.
Growing all of our vegetables, and all our eggs, and meats, nuts and fruits takes hard physical labor coupled with innate curiosity, knowledge, planning, bookkeeping, patience and stubbornness. For a long time now, we eaters have paid those who do the work for the product we take rather than for the planetary and terrestrial processes they tend.
Let’s change that. Buy some lettuce***.
*not all lettuce grown in Yuma is romaine
**it is now believed the point of origin was Santa Barbara, CA
***from a farmer you trust
Ultimately, the E. coli outbreak from romaine was traced to a farm in Santa Barbara, CA. A farm that shifts its production between Yuma, AZ and Santa Barbara, CA as the heat shifts. Same concerns around water and mono-cropping, same concerns around temperature and labor. Same call to eaters to pay more attention to the importance of food, the importance of water and place, and the importance of those who grow what we eat.
The Organic Farm School Adapts
Community Supported Agriculture 2.0 and Community Classes
CSA’s have been around since the 80’s; operated by local farmers. CSA’s create a closer and more visible relationship between those growing food and those eating it. Customers take a more active role in the process of growing their meals by “investing” in the season — pre-paying for a share of what happens in the field. This reciprocal relationship allows the community to assist with early season costs, like buying seeds, and then in turn the farmer provides an abundance from the field during the growing season.
This year, the Organic Farm School is rolling out a “Flex CSA” model. Flex CSA provides eaters with more choice than the traditional model – choice in the time and location of pick-up as well as choice in the kind and amount of produce. Just as you would shop at the farmers market, you can use your membership card on the vegies you need and want. This model accommodates for the changes in your schedule and appetite throughout the season which will also cut down on food waste.
Production manager, Raelani Kessler (born and raised on Whidbey Island), says “consider our CSA membership like a “gift card” that you use until it’s spent - one that benefits the training of new farmers as much as it improves the variety and flavor of your meals.”
Buy a Farm Card at our website: https://organicfarmschool.org/csa
$100 card provides up to $105 in value (includes a special farm tour, first notice of chicken sales, seeds at the end of the season and a class with Chef Jess Dowdell using OFS organic produce)
$250 card provides up to $267.50 in value (includes a special farm tour, first notice of chicken sales, seeds at the end of the season and a class with Chef Jess Dowdell using OFS organic produce)
$500 card provides up to $550 in value (includes all the above and an invitation to a twilight Field Walk with a beverage and appetizers)
Use your Farm Card at the following places May 1-October 26:
Island Athletic Club - Wednesdays from 9am to noon and 4pm to 7pm
Our Farm Stand in Maxwelton Valley - Thursdays & Fridays from 10am to 5pm
Redmond Market on Saturdays - 9am to 3pm
Another adaptation is the opening up of select classes to the local community. A good example is the short-course track on poultry, taught by local farmer, Kevin Dunham. You can join OFS students to learn how to prepare and care for broilers, as well as how to harvest them.
Broiler Poultry 4 Courses $120
Friday April 19th 2:45pm – 4:45pm
Friday June 14th 2:45 – 4:45pm
Wed. July 10th 1:00pm to 3:00pm
Thursday July 11th Harvesting All Day
For more information, email email@example.com
By Kevin Dunham, guest instructor
It’s early morning; the sun has yet to rise over the trees on the eastern hill. The coffee is ground, the kettle is on, my not-yet-two year old daughter is at my feet crying, “Daddy, Daddy, up, up!” “I can’t pick you up right now honey, Daddy needs to make his coffee,” I reply. She’s been up all night with a cold, coughing and rolling around in her half-sleep, which means I’ve been up as well. “It’s almost time for chores,” I tell her. She runs away. I look at the clock: 7:30. The goats need to be milked, the sheep need to be moved, the chickens and ducks need to be let out, the turkeys need to be fed and moved to new pasture. Time to catch this kid, suit her up, and get to it.
Every day. Rain, shine, snow, frost, holiday, sick, tired, sore, weekends, at home, or not even here; it has to happen…twice a day. I have chosen this. I have assumed full responsibility for somewhere between 25 and 125 creatures (depending on time of year). Why do it? “Sounds like a lot of work,” people say when I tell them I have a small farm. It feels more like they’re saying, “You know you don’t have to do that right?” And it’s true; I really don’t have to do it. I could easily go to the store and not directly participate in the provisioning my own life’s energy source. But there are so many reasons why I’ve chosen to live this way and engage in this work. Three main themes come to mind: connection, ethics, and ecology.
Raising my own staple foods (meat, milk, and eggs) has both created and deepened my connections to nature, to food, and to my community. When you’re outside everyday at the same time in the same place you start to notice things. You notice where exactly the sun is rising, and how fast the angle is changing. You notice when the first wasps come out of hibernation. You notice which birds leave for a season and when, and you notice their return. You watch a plum blossom swell and open over the course of a week. Nature is slow. The unveiling of it’s delicate intricacies require a certain patience and attentiveness earned from much more than just a summer drive through a national park.
My relationship to my animals is an intimate one. I’m there for breeding, for birthing, for growing, for harvesting, for cooking, and for eating. There are no questions. I know how my food lived; what it ate, how it was treated, how it impacted its environment. I also know how it died, how old it was, how long the meat was aged. Full participation. Every step. Cooking has become an intense responsibility. When you know everything about your food you treat it with absolute care.
It was knowledge that brought me here and my own ignorance that keeps me engaged. A gain in understanding often requires a shift in one’s ethics. A surge of food documentaries, books, and first hand experiences pulled back the curtain on what had previously been a seemingly benign act: eating food. What do you do when you find out how most food animals are raised in our industrial system? Some ignore, some try to explain, some abstain, and some change. I changed, not instantly, but inevitably. Is there a way that’s better for the animals and the land? That’s the question I ask every day.
How do we grow food in a more ecologically conscious way? How do we restrain ourselves from taking more than nature is willing to give? I believe livestock play a fundamental role in sustainability. Ruminant animals (sheep, cows, goats, etc.), for example, are able to utilize marginal lands unsuited for intense cropping in a symbiotically harmonious way. When managed responsibly, their act of eating improves soil and plant communities. That’s how I want to feed my family. When I hand my daughter a glass of goat milk and a lamb chop, I want to know not only that her food is clean, healthy, and from animals that are/were well cared for, but that her act of eating is contributing to the betterment of her future.
There are many more reasons why I choose to live with livestock, but I’ll conclude with just one more. I truly love these animals. I love sheep, and goats, and chickens, and turkeys. I want them to be well and I want them to thrive. Not just my own, who are akin to family, but more generally, on a species level. I want to continue to learn from them, to try to understand them, and to improve how I raise and work with them. And finally, I want to continue to advocate for them as a critical piece in a sustainable food future.
At the Organic Farm School, our goal is very clear — to train a new generation of farmers for financial, environmental and cultural success in this rapidly changing world. We believe that the fastest way there is through our full-time, intense, integrated program. If you are looking for an investment that will position you to begin your farming career while proactively building your professional network and helping you avoid costly mistakes, we are here for you! Yes, it costs $6500. We are able to keep tuition at this level only because we sell the produce you will grow while you are with us (meaning that your work is part of the deal and a significant part of your learning). The time/money you spend will quickly return to you in clearer goals, stronger skills, employment prospects, and/or farming opportunities.
However, we also know that the future we all want requires more people to be involved in food production on many levels, and we are masters of the multiple perspective approach!
If you are on island, perhaps interning at a farm or tending to family responsibilities in ways that make full-time instruction and field work a non-starter, consider applying for our “Class Only” option. This gives you access to our weekly classroom instruction (60 classes), but doesn’t attach you to our field instruction, field trips, or harvest/market schedule. Limited spots available, $3500.
For those who already have some farm experience and are looking for a specific focus, you should consider one of our four “Short Course” tracks, each with 15 classes (Farm Operations; Farm Planning; Farm Business; Skills & Livestock; $900 each)
Throughout the season, there will also be special workshops on tractor repair/maintenance, seed development and small-scale grain production. These will be advertised as details get tightened up.
If you are someone who needs access to whole, fresh food, but doesn’t have want to devote resources to purchase same from the local grocery stores or markets, you might consider our “Work Trade”option. We evaluate your needs and availability, and train accepted individuals in harvest methods and basic field observation. In exchange for working a harvest shift, you are given fresh veggies to take home with you. (the fee is your labor)
And if you’re interested in what we’re doing, but not looking for a learning opportunity, we offer walking tours of the Farm every Friday from May 3 - September 27, from 3-5pm. We also host a community Picnic Potluck in July that is free!
For those looking to purchase from us, we’ll be hosting a pop up farm stand at the Island Athletic Club every Wednesday morning and evening, a farm stand at the Farm on Thursdays and Fridays, and we go to the Redmond Market on Saturdays from May - October.
No matter how you engage with us, our hope is that you’ll get to know us better and learn something about growing food along the way. No matter what happens in this world, everyone gets hungry.
We are often asked why someone might need to pay for a training program in order to become a farmer…and if it’s not just as educational to work as an intern or apprentice. These are reasonable questions, and we’ve thought about them a great deal. Before we jump into why we think that, for some, a training program is a solid option, here are a few things to consider…things successful farmers do in real time, all the time, with their livelihood on the line.
To square up a new field, farmers need a working understanding of geometry. To schedule their crops for a long season, they need a functional relationship with Excel as well as a mathematical familiarity with the various levels of productivity for each of their crops. To appropriately and economically add soil amendments and fertilizers to their fields, they need an understanding of plant physiology and basic chemistry. To engage customers and manage employees, they need skill and practice with communication, social justice, group dynamics and market trends. To maintain their ability to function as a business, they must keep up with politics, policy, regulations, and insurance concerns. Farmers need to possess the mechanical skills required to design and maintain irrigation systems (plumbing), maintain and repair tractors (combustion engines), fabricate shelter, storage, and processing structures (carpentry/construction). They need a strong practices of financial planning, record keeping, and evaluation. They need tight and yet flexible time management muscles. While theirs is a livelihood related to the natural systems of geology, botany, biology, chemistry, climatology, and meteorology, they must also be able to set up websites, post on social media, use on-line financial apps, respond to emails, distribute fresh sheets, create newsletters, and juggle the ever-growing assortment of potential mobile marketplaces (or hire these things out).
Surrounded by all of this work, they also need to possess a solid proficiency with plant propagation, direct seeding, transplanting, cultivating, weed management, pest management, good harvest and processing procedures, crop variety selection, vegetable storage systems, and human ergonomics. Given how quickly our world is changing, they need to recognize and address pests they have never seen before, diseases that have not been a problem before, and weeds that have not shown up before. They need to adjust their planting dates based on weather trends that have changed first and last frost dates and precipitation profiles.
In other words, farming is a skilled vocation, an honorable profession, a critical-thinking and adaptive management enterprise, and a hard-won livelihood.
Perhaps it is because we take food so for granted in this society? Perhaps it is because we have disconnected ourselves to such a large degree from what it takes to grow food? I don’t know, but there are quiet yet powerful assumptions being made these days about what it takes to learn how to farm.
“Why should anyone have to pay to learn how to farm?” “There are so many opportunities to intern on a farm and get paid…why should I pay tuition?” “Farming is just growing plants, what’s so difficult about that?”
To be clear, a person can learn to farm in ways other than attending a university or a focused training program. There are You Tube videos. There are internships and apprenticeships. There are on-line and weekly lecture series. There are workshops and incubator programs. And you can grow up on a farm in the shadow of farmers. All of these are functional ways to enter the profession of growing food for other people - and at the Organic Farm School, we encourage all those interested in the profession to consider them all, find a trail and get started down it!
But we also encourage both eaters and potential farmers to consider a few things. What farmers grow ends up in our bodies. The end result of their labors is food, packages of nutrients that we need in order to live healthy lives. Growing food for people is serious work even as it is filled with beauty and satisfaction (and long hours and hard work). And to become a farmer, as with just about any vocation, there is a continuum of opportunities that create a path from beginner to practitioner.
Want to be a baker? Look at the culinary training options out there. Dream of being an airplane mechanic? You’ll need more than You Tube, but it can get you started and then pointed in the direction of a trade school. Passionate about computer science? Yes, you can learn a LOT on your own, but more than likely you’re going to need some formal training along the way as you get specific with the industries you want to support. Want to make people beautiful? You’re going to need a program to prepare you for the licensing you need to become a stylist or esthetician.
So why is there an assumption that to become a farmer, you just need to get dirt under your nails?
It feels like this assumption is actually more of a myth. And perhaps a disrespectful one at that.
The diversity and complexity of skills and expertise required to farm successfully for the long-term mandates training that is equally diverse and complex. No matter how you receive the training, you will be trading something for it.
What a focused training program offers (like ours, or that offered at UCSanta Cruz or University of Vermont) is a fast-track through the basics…a running start that quickly leads to employment opportunities and the potential for farm ownership. Internships are powerful but it’s likely to take 3-5 years of interning to gain the knowledge and skills a training program can offer in 6-8 months.
If you have the time and want to support other small farm owners, an internship might be the perfect route for you. Working for an existing farmer is itself a good and honorable endeavor, if you are patient enough to learn through the osmosis of the work week rather than in classrooms focused on your learning process and your business plan.
But if you want to kick start your farming career, a focused training program is more likely what you need. And if you’re serious about managing and/or owning a farm, you might want to make sure it’s a training program that pairs ag skills with financial planning and marketing.
Ultimately your choice, as a future farmer, is whether you want to exchange more of your time or more of your money for the life you want? Do you want to leap frog over beginners’ mistakes, or plan on making them all on your own and seeing them as “learning opportunities?”
You have options, and we encourage you to figure out which one best suits your needs, learning style, and professional goals. But don’t be fooled. To become a farmer in the deepest sense of the word, you’re going to need to learn a lot more than how to plant a seed or pick a tomato, and that learning will require that you trade something for it. Respect the food and the people who eat it. Respect the process, respect the vocation.
Back when I worked with WSU Island County Extension, I had the happy opportunity to work with some talented engineers in the Public Works Department. At the time, they were dealing with the closure of a road that had been partially washed out when a beaver dam broke and released a flood of water in the middle of an already wet season. I was asked to facilitate a series of public meetings as the county and the community grappled with whether or not to rebuild the road.
In a conversation I'll never forget, one of the engineers spoke to the power of roads. "They can be such an obvious symbol of connection, of making it easier for folks to get from point A on the west side to point B on the east side...but no one thinks about how they can also divide if you happen to be on the north or south side of that road." While it didn’t have direct bearing on the decision facing the participants, ever since then, I try to think about how efforts to connect some elements can oftentimes create barriers for others.
In much the same way, the above image is from the driveway to the Organic Farm School. For whatever reason, I always think of it as a road TO, but at this time of year it becomes clear that it's also a road AWAY FROM.
You all are part of this process. We recruit, orient, welcome, and train a new group of prospective farmers every year. We laugh with them, share skills with them, enjoy their questions and curiosities, relish their passion for food and soil and seed, sympathize with their struggles, and commiserate on ways to their success. Our focus is on getting them TO the Organic Farm School and THROUGH the instruction and mentoring. We're so busy being excited and focused and grounding, that we don't stop to think about the day we have to bid them farewell.
But that driveway does go both ways, and this is the week they will use it to drive back out into the big, wide world, away from us. I find myself an odd emotional mess, part proud mama bear, part nervous mama bird, part terrified mama human...so sure they will be alright, but not so sure I will be in their leaving.
They bring so much to us! They bring their dreams for a healthier world, their ideas for how to make our work better, their questions for what we might have forgotten, and their concerns for how quickly or not they can turn this world around. They test our knowledge as well as our patience. They stoke our excitement about the possible and our fears of the inevitable. They bring laughter and song to the fields! They bring love to the livestock and attention to the soil. Even as they take what we offer, they are in every sense of the word giving to us...to this place and to this community and to this planet.
Their biggest gift to us is in what they do next. Whether they use their knowledge of food production to start an urban permaculture farm, reclaim a cultural heritage, create a rural farm experience to balance out the lives of busy urbanites, kick off a regenerative farm and livestock rescue operation in the middle of Iowa, chart a path to place via the palate, learn how to be a restauranteur, or maybe for a season just grow a pot of lettuce on their deck - they leave us to do something.
Note the double meaning there and imagine a pause here, because that's what I took. I hope you do the same.
They leave us in order to do something they probably would not have done before their time with us. And we celebrate that this Thursday.
But they also leave us without them, encouraging us to ourselves do something we might not have done before their time with us. I encourage you to come up with your own list, but here's mine.
Corbin has reminded me to not separate my heart from my back...to instead use them both to maybe not make the work easier, but give the work more meaning and impact.
Parker has challenged me to pay attention to how I learn....to stop when I struggle and remember how creative I can be in overcoming obstacles.
Jodi has dared me to embrace the details even as I swear they are of the devil, to instead see them as buffers against the crazy swings of life's pendulum.
Ovini has lit a path for me to use more thoughtful language, more graceful yet clear and timely responses to ignorant patterns, and a practice of holding strong reactions for 24 hours before letting them fly out into the world.
Emily has reframed work for me as a lifelong practice of tending in contrast to an Olympic deadlift of twice my weight.
And Pauline has confirmed for me that presence, love of place, and respect for flavor may well be the secret of happiness.
OK, they are driving away from the Farm, but we're happy about that, right? That was the goal. And as they take that drive, our gift to them is to recognize that they may have just provided us a more vibrant driveway in for next year's class.
As staff and instructors, we think we are pretty good with our observations, descriptions, and explanations of the Organic Farm School. But really, if you want to know about the student experience, you need to hear it from a student. So here is a blog post from one of those wonderful souls…Corbin.
"Eating is an agricultural act." -Wendell Berry
As I finally have a moment to slow down and process my life during the past 5 months, I realize that this blog is only going to be about farming. I apologize if it's uninteresting to you, but it means so much to me so I will try to make it semi-interesting. I will start where I left off. I departed Iowa City and drove 28 hours to Washington state. It was a very refreshing drive. I listened to the Farmer to Farmer podcast the whole way and got myself stupid excited (and nervous) for farm school to start! I'd been waiting SO long for this!!
I rolled into Seattle late Sunday morning (March 18, 2018) and got bottomless mimosas with my friend Daniel and then headed to Whidbey Island slightly buzzed and excited for orientation. When I arrived, I met the following people:
Ovini- Educated. From New York City. A returned peace corps volunteer, was a social worker, and has worked a lot with children. Learning to farm so she can take over her family's farm in North Carolina.
Jodi- 41 years old. Educated. From Phoenix, Arizona. Worked as a archaeologist. Wants to buy land with her husband for agritourism. Guests can stay, airbnb style and have access to farm fresh foods. She will also have a large presence (I presume) at a local farmers market.
Pauline (my roomie)- 25 years old. Yale graduate. From San Francisco. Interested in farming based around no tilling and using inputs straight from the farm or very locally.
Emily- 42 years old. Physicians Assistant. From Oakland, California. Very interested in carbon farming. Wants to have a commune with her closest friends.
Parker- 20 years old. High School grad. From Pittsburg, PA. Wants to own a farm to table cafe.
Corbin- you know.
+3 guys who have dropped out of the program. Who runs the world? (girls)
The program started slow, as the weather was still chilly and rainy. We started getting comfortable with each other (barely) and ended up spending the first, what seemed like 2 months, playing ice breakers. Which is interesting given the age range and variety of life experiences among the students.
Once the weather warmed up, it all began. 40+ hour school weeks, milking in the morning before school for the neighbor, and working after school for a couple, Brent and Abby, who are from Iowa! (hi.)
This program is, what I like to tell people, organic farming 101. Well, intensive* organic farming 101. We are learning/doing so many things; vegetables, seed production, reduced tillage trials, livestock, business models, marketing methods, field trips, etc. From here, students will be able to figure out how their farm will function and what they will focus on.
How many times does an average person need a doctor? 2-3 times a year.
Need a lawyer? A couple times in a lifetime.
Need a teacher? Everyday for 2/3 of the year.
Need a police officer? Everyday (giving the benefit of doubt)
Need a farmer? Three times EVERY day!
It's so easy to fall into the mindset that society has set for us. That high status and high income jobs are most important. But what about the things we take for granted every single day; Your mechanic? Most people have no idea how to deal with their car if it breaks down. What about your farmer? The person who puts food on your plate 3 times a day. Teachers? The ones who inspire and teach our younger generations to grow into active members of society. We need not forget how hard these people have to work and how little they are appreciated, and especially paid.
It took me about a year to finally be comfortable with telling people "I want to be a farmer" when they ask what I want to do with my life. I was embarrassed because being a farmer means I will work 60 hour work weeks, have no social life during the growing season, and only make enough money to get by. Why would anyone want that? I WANT THAT! I want to be able to educate people about soil health, tell them why it's so important to compost, and why to shop locally. I want people to be able to come see my biodynamic farm and watch how all the parts work together to create a beautifully working system. I want to have children come out on field trips and plant their own lettuce so when you ask them where lettuce comes from they don't say "the grocery store." My heart is so happy be able to be outside everyday and I love love LOVE seeing the difference I can make in my community.
Although I have chosen to farm, one thing that I am constantly working on is my competitiveness. I feel as though my past life has negatively set me up for my current lifestyle in a strange way. It's great to be competitive in a way that allows you to succeed. I have been in those situations playing soccer growing up, competing with my siblings (subconsciously,) and in college where everything is graded on a curve. I have constantly been in awe at the community aspect of farming. Especially other small scale farmers who are always willing to give good advice and help out when needed. Wasn't that the competition? Aren't we suppose to be keeping our ways a secret so that we can out preform other farmers? NOPE! And why the hell would we? We all have a common goal of feeding the community healthy, local food. I feel that my level of competitiveness is restricting at some points. I work too intensely and that often comes across as intimidating or even that I'm in a bad mood. I feel it is unpleasant for others around me and I usually have to take a step back when I get frustrated at the lack of speed or commitment of others and remember that we are all in this together. I have recently discovered how to convert the competitiveness from trying to be better than others to being the best that I can be. I don't need to be the best, I just need to learn all that I want to learn, and preform at 100% for myself. To push myself to be the best farmer that I am able to be.
One quick side story that I think you'll enjoy... We have been going on field trips to nearby farms. One farm we went to told us they have had club root in recent years, which is a disease plants get that makes their roots swell and distorts them. It's very contagious and can be carried from farm to farm on the soles of our shoes. Very worried, our instructor made us all stop at the local grocery store on the way home to get bleach and we all look turns disinfecting our shoes in the parking lot. As if that wasn't enough excitement for the people of south Whidbey to witness... as I was pulling out of the parking lot, a guy waved me down and started walking to my car. He had 10-12 loaves of bread in his hands. I rolled down my window and he just starts throwing the bread, loaf by loaf, into my car. He didn't say anything and neither did I. When he was done, he just walks away. I drove home and shared the bread with the other students. Still to this day, unsure what the fuck that was about.
Anyway, my life has been nothing but busy; I work, go to school, do farmers markets, and sleep. I miss my family, friends, and cats daily but I know this a career building year, so that keeps me going. Brent and Abby, who I work for after school, are amazing. They treat me like family and make me 110% less homesick than I would be without them. Brent is always wearing his Hawkeye hat, which feels so homey. We laugh so hard and get along so well. Abby can read me like a book and always cooks vegan food for me. I'm SO excited to get to spend the rest of my time in Washington working for them, and spending the rest of my life being friends with them!!
During my trip to Iowa, which is where I am right now, I offered to visit Brent's mom in a nearby town. I have no idea what she looks like, how she acts, or if she's actually even interested in meeting with me, but I am down to clown. I emailed JoLynne and let her know I was coming, and she sent her address with a description of the house: pink surrounded by a white picket fence. Easy enough. I rolled up, parked and started walking up to this house. Rap music is LOUDLY blowing out the partially open windows, so I stop... Baffled for a moment, I take out my phone and re-read the email. This was indeed the pink house with the white picket fence on the correct street with the correct address numbers pasted next to the door. Hmmmmm. I knock on the door and this sweet older lady answers, says "CORBIN!" and gives me a big hug. I have arrived. She was amazingly sweet and we enjoyed each others company. We had good conversations, and listened to the words "ass and titties" play softly in the background the whole time.
I also met with my friend, Katherine, at a coffee shop in Iowa City. I am always excited to see her because 3 years ago we were sitting in my room and I was telling her how I didn't know if I wanted to be a doctor and maybe I wanted to do Environmental Science or something along those lines. She kept telling me to follow my heart and do whatever I want, despite what my parents or society thinks. So, thank you, Katherine, for initiating my change of heart! Two weeks ago, she graduated with her masters from Iowa State University in Sustainable Agriculture. We had SO much to talk about! We talked about soil health, crop rotation, industrialized and mechanized agriculture, water quality, young farmers, and of course other things, like everyone from our high school getting married. Anyway, we didn't realize how passionately... and extremely loudly... we were talking until Katherine asked me how pig shit is suppose to look. I said "kind of like dog shit," and she told me that industrialized farms make their pigs have diarrhea so its easier to clean out of the barns... Then we noticed that the whole coffee shop could hear our conversation and probably didn't want to listen to our opinions on pig diarrhea... oops.
I went to the Iowa City Farmers Market with my mom on Saturday morning and was completely in my element. I stopped at every stand and started a conversation with the farmer. I asked about special processing licenses, how a pig farmer selects for breeding, what kind of amendments an organic farmer puts on their fields, how they make money in the winter, and asked how much money they make on an average Saturday at this specific market. My mom was so embarrassed at all my questions. But I was in heaven!!
Being home, in Iowa City, I am reminded how lucky I am to have all the amazing people in my life who support me and love me through whatever I choose to do. I am overwhelmed with happiness here and I am excited to be back in November. You've all made it very hard to go back to Washington. Thank you.
Farming has opened my eyes to such a beautiful world and I can't wait to be able to spread that to others throughout the rest of my life!
And for you: Continue to follow your heart. If something doesn't work out, it wasn't meant to be. When people throw shit at you, you don't have to catch it. LET IT FLY BY! (Thanks, Lisa, for that analogy.) Be the best you can be, and forget the standards that society has set. We are all here to love ourselves and our lives. Don't get stuck doing something you don't truly enjoy. Bring out your inner farmer. But most importantly, do something that makes you smile everyday.
I love you all.
At the Organic Farm School, actually at any farm this time of year, there is no time to waste, no time for new things, no time for things to break, no time to get them fixed…with so much in progress there just is no time for one more thing.
Which is precisely the time to be asking questions like:
What’s NOT working?
What can we stop doing?
What do we have to, absolutely have to, start doing right now?
What can we do differently?
Who do we need to be talking to?
Who needs to know what we’re doing and how do we connect with them?
What do we need to change for next year?
Because if we don’t ask such questions right now, we might be missing opportunities, making life harder than it needs to be, losing money on ventures that are poorly timed, etc.
Such reflective practice may seem more appropriate for businesses with doors that close, phones that can be put on mute, and staff that can take notes. Can small scale farms really afford such a luxury?
Only if they want to continue to be in the business of growing food!
Which is why last week, when our students were showing signs of frustration, overwhelm, and fatigue we sat down to ask all of those questions. From a farming perspective, the conversation was rock solid. From a teaching perspective, it was nothing short of phenomenal.
Students were able to identify time sinks, consider possible alternatives, question if such changes would be fair to customers, ask if they would genuinely free up time for other work or just make tasks harder. They were able to daylight problems without blame, instead focusing of the diversity of solutions. They kept the conversation going and yet on track. They decided on a couple of experimental changes in how we get CSA shares to Seattle, worked through possibilities for covering gaps in the Redmond market schedule, brainstormed thoughts on expanding our work with local restaurants, and more. They balanced the diversity of thoughts with the demands of planned work, noting what might be negatively impacted in pursuit of improvement. They also decided to leave some things alone and just keep on keepin’ on.
These same students started their farming career track just about 4 months ago! It’s not that we tossed them out in the field without instruction, as they spend 10 hours a week on average in the classroom as well as with instruction in the midst of the crops — but it is that we don’t teach the easy stuff at the OFS. We teach to and with the complexities of growing food as a livelihood. We acknowledge that there are some hurdles that routinely and persistently arise, and others that may come up once in a farming lifetime. To succeed over the long term, you need to be ready to wrestle with both kinds and everything in between. Sometimes you’ll have help, other times you’ll face the moments on your own. Four months in, they’re getting it.
As frustrating as it can be at times to engage in experiential learning, when there are few clear answers and even fewer absolutes, our students have taken on the robust spectrum of critical thinking exercises involved in managing a farm. Last month, they successfully ran production and harvest without supervision. This month, they are taking on more responsibility for equipment and site management. They’re also jumping head first into the creation of their personal business plans.
They are learning that when you don’t have time to ask questions, that is precisely when you need to ask them.
Tuesday, July 10, 5-8pm. RSVP strongly encouraged (so we can set up enough tables!)
The Organic Farm School, Whidbey Institute, Whidbey Island Waldorf School, and Aldermarsh Retreat Center invite you to come see how much progress the students at the Organic Farm School have made and revel in a sense of community! Hang out with Farm students and wander the Farm site. Learn something new about the network of small scale farming on Whidbey Island. And enjoy the laughter and meaty conversations that always go with a community potluck!
Please RSVP by clicking and sending us an email with an indication of how many there might be in your party so we know how to best handle parking and table set ups. We’ll do our best to have adequate tables and chairs but if you have a couple of lawn chairs, or a nice blanket for old-school picnicking, please think about bringing such things. The RSVP is also helpful so we can send additional info/directions to you as the event gets closer.
Tour of the Farm available at 5. Wear comfortable walking shoes.
Place dishes out on community table at 5:30
Come and Get It at 6pm
Short Program at 6:45
more eating, conversation & wandering 7:30-8pm
Bring a dish that travels well and can serve 8-10 or more (with a card that identifies its ingredients, for the safety of those who food allergies). Also, bring your own serving utensils, plates and silverware.
The OFS will provide iced tea and lemonade. You are welcome to BYOB, but drink responsibly knowing this is a family friendly event.
Can’t join us right at 5:30 or 6?…come when you can, just know the “menu” will change as folks move through the line.
When you look at a farm, our Farm in this instance, it can look peaceful, beautiful, balanced, and oh-so-green. You can tell yourself a story about how wonderful it is to be a farmer, and how in sync farmers are with life. You can imagine the sense of satisfaction that comes from working with the land, with your hands, feeding your neighbors, and making a life.
All of this is true…but what you might not realize by simply looking in is that these things are true intermittently, sporadically, and they are dotted with moments of total frustration.
Maybe not our best marketing tagline, but frustration is probably one of the most compelling teachers at the Organic Farm School. And we are grateful to host this instructor so that our students can learn the harder lessons while supported by us.
Farming is an honorable profession, and one that can net farmers a living wage if they know how to plan and make do within their means. It is a profession in which your business partners are the soil, the weather, your neighbors. And it is a profession disrupted regularly by our rapidly changing world.
This year, for instance, to achieve the goals of a USDA grant we were awarded, we planned to raise 600 chickens over the course of the season, harvesting 200 at a time using the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU). This unit certainly had expenses associated with it, but it provided a particular kind of WSDA permit that allowed us to not only sell fresh chicken on the day of harvest, but also frozen chicken throughout the year. And while students were involved in the process, they had a lot of help. But that MPPU didn’t meet the financial expectations of the organization that offered it, and so they sold it to a university on the other side of the country.
Without the MPPU, we were faced with students doing ALL of the harvest/processing work. We were faced with significant concerns on the part of our insurance company. We were faced with a new permit that now requires us to sell ALL of the chicken on the day of harvest. And we were faced with a class, half of whom are vegan. So we adjusted. At the end of this month, we will harvest 95 birds ourselves, under the watchful eye of our WSDA inspector, selling all of them on that one day. On that day, we will be done with chickens for the year, and we will have to figure out a way to catch up on our projected revenue with additional sales in other categories.
All along the way, we made good and reasonable decisions. It’s just that all along the way, the context in which our Farm operated was changing.
Another example. We work hard to model practices as an individual farmer would incorporate them. This means that even though we have 8 students and two instructors, we do our best to act as if we have one farmer when it comes to decisions around time off the Farm. Farming on an island however, means that sometimes your “inputs” come from the mainland, and as you factor in the ferry, ferry lines, and mainland traffic (tourist season overlaps farming season, by the way), picking up the lambs and pigs you want for your soil development plan and operating budget turns into hours of time NOT farming. By sending an instructor and a student with the van to pick up lambs, we lost almost a full day of their time in the field. Today, sending that instructor with another student to pick up pigs will cost us the better part of another day.
OK, so we "lose" a couple of days. But a couple of days in which students don’t have as much instructor support (well, maybe more support from Professor Frustration). And factor that in with a day a week at the farmers market, a day a week harvesting for that market, a day a week distributing CSA shares, a day a week harvesting those shares, and your impression of a farmer’s peaceful life begins to shift. While students are balancing all of this time off the Farm and time getting ready to be off the Farm, they are also balancing a never ending list of infrastructure maintenance and repair tasks (that irrigation line is leaking again…the zippered door in the hoop house has lost it’s zipper…the lawnmower is broken again…the basket weeder needs adjustment on the tractor…compost is being delivered and there’s no clear path for the truck to get from here to there…). We haven't even talked about the time needed to propagate, transplant, and weed the 140 one-hundred foot long beds of vegetable crops.
In the meantime, a hawk got into the chickens yesterday evening and the flock is down another bird. Today’s the day to move the lambs to new pasture and yet between where they are and where you want them to be is a soon to be harvested bed of leafy greens — organic standards say you can’t move the lambs through that bed. We just received a donation of 150 lbs. of potato seed that needs to get planted in the next 5 days. The weather is supposed to turn tomorrow, meaning you need to get that cover crop seed in the ground before the rains begin so you don’t have to irrigate it just yet - which buys you time to get the irrigation line set up for when you do eventually need it.
It never stops. And it's frustrating. It's frustrating to us, trying to fit everything into a cohesive package of instruction. And it's frustrating to our students, who are trying to learn the totality of farm management even as that huge task twists and turns and runs upside down.
Here’s the counterintuitive thing. While students rail against the onslaught of chores and frustrations, by the end of the season they will be ready to do it all again. And so will we. The life is a good one, it’s just a little more real than many other occupations. The consequences are closer to hand, heart, and bank account. So are the joys. Frustration is a mighty teacher, but one that gives a lot of feedback and oddly phrased encouragement. Frustration teaches us to look wider, consider options more deeply, think farther down the line before taking that first step, breathe more often, remember and occasionally re-order priorities.
Now, to talk to our marketing advisor about how to say this in a more attractive way…
Have you ever wondered exactly what students at the Organic Farm School do? You see a lot of photos of their work in the field, but it can be tougher to show you what their classroom experience is like. So, we thought we'd give you a glimpse, via a list of just the classes for April and May. It's impressive.
April 3rd - Crop Planning II: Space. Understand the dynamics at play – both in markets and in climate - in creating your crop plan to best utilize the space you have available.
April 4th - Farm Soils with Ron Hallbauer. Take an interactive field walk with a local soil scientist. Explore the different horizons of the OFS farm soil and how the valley’s geology and geography impact our farming
April 5th - Equipment Introduction Workshop. Get a tour of the OFS equipment and learn the functions they perform. Get hands-on experience changing fluids, filters, and performing other routine maintenance.
April 6th Business Planning Overview. Explore the various components involved when constructing a business plan. Become familiar with the OFS business plan. Get feedback on your ideas from the rest of the group.
April 10th - Crop Rotation. Gain understanding of why crop rotation is practiced. Learn about the benefits and challenges of crop rotation systems. Explore different models of crop rotation systems.
April 11th - Propagation. Learn about the various methods for propagating crops, both field and greenhouse. Get to know the various types of containers and media. Understand temperature and light differences required for germination and growth.
April 13 - Organic Certification. A brief history of the organic movement. Learn the scope of practices involved in organic compliance. Find out what information a farm needs to keep. Learn about the events of the inspection.
April 17 - Crop Planning III: Time. Gain an understanding of the many considerations in timing a crop plan. Comprehend how the available field space interacts with time. Learn how succession planting can be utilized.
April 18th - Enterprise Budgets I. Learn what enterprise budgets are and why they are a valuable tool in managing a farm’s profitability. Get familiar with the types of information that should be gathered and how to most effectively capture it. Choose your crop to complete and enterprise budget for and begin formulating a plan.
April 19th - Mechanics I with Van. Become familiar with various components of tractors. Understand tractor operation and safety. Learn to perform basic operation checks, servicing, and trouble-shooting.
April 20th - Market Feasibility with Jeff Voltz of NABC. Learn the different components and considerations for conducting a market feasibility study, including: Consumer and product trends; Demographics; Brand development; Competition analysis.
April 24th - Tillage I. Review what tillage can accomplish, both positive and negative. Become familiar with the various types of tillage and the equipment used. Learn about the various functions tillage equipment can perform. Explore which tools are the most suited for which jobs.
April 25th - Animal Production Systems. Learn the various financial, production and marketing components of the OFS animal production. Go over chores and timelines for chickens, lamb, and pigs. Explore the benefits and challenges of integrating livestock into a vegetable system.
April 26th - Soil Biology with Gabe Garms. Learn about the elaborate ecosystem within the soil. Learn the various types of soil biota and their effects on crops. Collect soil samples from the farm and look at the soil biology under a projecting microscope.
April 27th - Brand Development and Outreach with Jeff Voltz of NABC. Explore the important components of brand development, including logo, selling proposition, and product positioning.
May 1st - Pastured Poultry Production with Melissa Barker of Oyster Bay Farm. Explore the financial and marketing considerations for pastured poultry. Learn about the various production scenarios, including housing, pasture, feed, and slaughter. Become familiar with the various levels of permitting.
May 2nd - Pastured Sheep Production with Linda Neunzig of Ninety Farms. Explore the various start-up considerations for pastured lamb. Gain an understanding of production operations, including reproduction, grazing, and feed. Get insight into the financial, marketing, and processing aspects of pastured lamb.
May 3rd - Greenhouse Management. Learn about techniques to control the greenhouse environment for optimum plant growth. Get familiar with various ways to both heat and cool greenhouses. Explore different systems for watering, heating, and cooling. Review the OFS greenhouse system.
May 4th - On-farm R&D Basics. Learn how to identify the need for a trial. Explore the practical considerations for designing a trial. Get familiar with various ways of reliably capturing the information you’re looking for.
May 8th - Nutrient Budgeting. Learn what a nutrient budget is and its benefits. Explore ways to calculate the nutrients required. Learn how to calculate the fertilizer contribution of cover crops. Learn how to plan a nutrient budget.
May 9th - Mechanics II with Van. Understand the design and processes of each major tractor system. Get familiar with common failures of each system. Understand how to diagnose common failures. Become familiar with common repair processes.
May 10th - Pastured Pork with Lucia Wyss of Hidden River Farm. Explore business and market feasibility of pastured pork. Learn about start-up costs. Go over production planning and operation considerations. Learn about marketing and procession aspects. Gain understanding into breeding programs and feed operations.
May 11th - Business Feasibility with Jeff Voltz of NABC. Become familiar with the concepts of technical, economic, financial, and management feasibility. Learn how to employ exercises of these concepts to create a successful business model.
May 15th - Farmers Markets and Roadside Stands. Become familiar with the rationale behind direct-marketing. Get a brief history of farmers markets. Learn about the organizational and financial structures of farmers markets. Explore the benefits and challenges of farmers markets. Learn some practical techniques for having a successful market. Get an overview of the OFS farmers market operation.
May 16th - Harvest and Post-harvest/Food safety. Get introduced to appropriate harvest techniques for each type of vegetable. Get acquainted with various washing and cooling options and strategies. Understand harvest priorities and the effects of outside factors. Get introduced to food safety principles and procedures. Understand what GAP certification is, why it exists, where it’s applicable, and what is required.
May 17th - Carpentry I with Hunter Black. Learn what a basic inventory of farm tools should be. Get to know what each tool is capable of and the best safety practices. Participate in hands-on carpentry activity.
May 22nd - Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Learn a brief history of CSA and why and how it was originally conceived. Explore the various CSA models. Discover the opportunities and challenges of running a CSA. Learn about CSA operations. Get a detailed overview of the OFS CSA program.
May 23rd - Irrigation Theory and Practice I. Understand the role of water in farm systems. Learn water cycling terms and units of measurement. Explore how soil moisture impacts crop productivity.
May 29th - Pest Management I: Intro and Weeds. Learn about basic weed biology and identification. Explore different cultural weed management practices, including stale seed-bedding, flaming, and bare fallowing. Become familiar with both manual and mechanical weed control techniques.
May 31st - Carpentry II with Hunter Black. Learn about the different types of wood building materials and their various applications. Participate in the planning and drafting of a farm carpentry project (picnic table and arbor).
by Dr. Sharon V. Betcher
(Everything we eat has a story about where it came from and how it came to be on our plate. This post is to be considered a conversation starter, as it has become quite a robust discussion amongst our students this year...please engage, with respect for the wide and wild diversity of thought on this topic.)
Considering the ethical currency of the human plate is one way concerned citizens are trying to work towards a thriving planet. Not only is the sourcing of our food and its miles traveled becoming an intimate way in which we attempt to assume responsibility for planetary ecosystems, but persons increasingly sort our sense of obligation into dietary tribes—from vegans to freegans, including vegetarians, flexitarians, pescatarians and omnivores. Hosting a banquet becomes an all new challenge as we attempt to please not just the palettes, but also ease the conscience of all gathered. Even omnivores may differentially distill the politics of the plate to commitments such as eating only animal flesh that has been grass-fed, free-ranged or humanely, even locally raised by small-scale farmers. So does any plate in the end warrant the stamp “GF”—that is, “guilt free?”
Some scientists working between climate change and the human diet suggest not just reducing the load of meat in our diet, but, if we are to feed 10 billion humans, cutting it out completely. Two critical questions seem to branch out from this proposal: Is the vegetarian diet free of the use of animals and animal products? And what then happens to the lives of domesticated animals?
Intensive vegetable production often replenishes soil fertility by the additions of blood meal, bone meal and feather meal to provide nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium. True to their common labels, these are the by-products of the slaughter of animals. Vegetable proteins cannot be grown in all bioregions. The increased scale of soybean production has been eating away at the equatorial Rain Forest and its’ biodiverse canopy of creatures. And almonds, that basis of the heart-healthy diet, not only relies upon intense irrigation (amidst increasing water scarcity), but the cross-continental transport of “livestock.” The vast majority of all honeybees in the U.S. are shipped, by truck and rail, to the almond fields of California in early spring, every spring, before being routed back through fields in central Washington, Georgia, Florida and the Dakotas. While the goal of vegetarian diets is often to reduce animal suffering, such suffering may be simply off the plate but still in the bigger picture.
Further, the scenario advocated by scientists who are worried about feeding the expanding human population simply jettisons from concern a huge swath of animal life that the human community has domesticated. Yes, humans did over centuries colonize animal life as we also colonized vegetables—from the potatoes and tomatoes first developed in the Andes, then “discovered” and shipped to Europe, to today’s quinoa. Around 80% of the remaining planetary megafauna are found among domesticated species. Removing them from our plate, could, given their domestic status, effectively occasion their mass extinction. That possibility would be no more guilt free in terms of animal suffering than the omnivore’s diet.
Most small scale farmers rely on the services of animals for compost and soil fertility, if not also—as in the case of poultry--pest control. Intense rotational grazing of large animals can actually benefit the soil community upon which every human diet is dependent. Animals raised in industrial scale hog or steer operations do often meet up against human callousness, and human suffering itself is often an unnamed concomitant of the industrial scale (Meat production is physically and psychically hard on meat packers). If we want small scale farmers to be the keepers of the land, then livestock are sometimes the fiscal formula for sustainable small-scale agriculture. Further, if we are concerned about human-scale hunger, the “fruits” of animals, like eggs, are amazingly palatable and affordable without necessarily becoming co-opted by the “cheap” methods of the industrial food system.
So how does human responsibility for domesticated animals, concern about their suffering as well as their futures, enter into the politics of the plate and care of the land amidst climate change? Perhaps the first step in decolonizing our relations to “livestock” is to consider not purchasing meat produced at an industrial scale, where and when that is affordable. The second step could well be “Meatless Mondays” and other comparable strategies for building menus with less emphasis on the centrality of animal protein. But as we all struggle towards ethical integrity in what we eat, the presumption that there is some GF (“guilt free”) plate may not at this time sufficiently engage with the 21st century challenge of making sure everyone has safe and affordable food to eat, the complexities of fertile soil, or the well-being and futures of domesticated animals.
At the Organic Farm School, we focus on giving new farmers a solid foundation in small scale farm planning and management. To do this, we engage students in the full spectrum of tasks they can expect to encounter as a farmer. We also work from a model where time and space are always given to exploration of new ideas and techniques, because this is how thoughtful farmers incorporate positive changes without placing their farm at risk. Here are the projects we're working on this year.
Reduced-Tillage Trials with Washington State University (WSU):In partnership with Doug Collins, PhD, from WSU’s Food Systems Program, the Organic Farm School is participating in our second year of reduced tillage trials for vegetable production. Tillage of farm soils not only harms the beneficial soil microbe that reside there, but also releases much of the carbon present in the soil into the atmosphere, contributing to the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which are a major contributor to global climate change. By trialing and discovering new systems of reduced tillage that drastically reduce the amount of soil carbon released into the atmosphere, these trials are working toward developing a functional system for organic vegetable farmers to sequester in the soil more of the atmosphere's excessive carbon, and to help make organic farming an even more ecologically friendly enterprise. In 2017 we did a trial planting winter squash into narrow strips tilled into a mowed rye grain crop, and for 2018 we'll be planting broccoli into a terminated stand of vetch cover crop.
Long-term Soil Carbon Testing: Because we at OFS are concerned (but optimistic) about how organic farming relates to global climate change, in 2017 we began a long-term study on our farm's soil carbon. We've identified two exact locations in our field to take annual samples from: one site will be tilled in a way that many organic farmers typically use (with spring tillage, summer cultivation for weeds, and fall tillage to establish cover crops), while the other site will continuously be the location of a years-long reduced tillage experiment. By having the soil carbon from those two sites tested every October, we'll over time have good information on not only how tillage practices can impact soil carbon, but will simultaneously be gaining insights into how we can adapt our tillage systems to better serve our soil life, and the planet.
Olympic Sweet Corn Breeding Project with Organic Seed Alliance and the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Working with our good friends from the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), with help from corn breeders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Olympic Sweet Corn project is working to breed an open-pollinated sweet corn that grows well in the northern Puget Sound, meaning that it can germinate in our cool spring soils and ripen reliably in our relatively cool and short growing season. Much of the sweet corn seed available to organic growers is bred for non-organic systems, has to be started here in the greenhouse, and needs more heat than we typically get here to mature a good crop. This multi-partner breeding project is well on its way to developing a strong organic sweet corn variety bred by organic farmers, for organic farmers.
Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) Trials with the Organic Seed Alliance: The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) joins researchers and farmers in Northern U.S. states to address organic farmers’ seed and plant breeding needs. We at OFS are working directly with the Organic Seed Alliance, but the nation-wide collaborative includes researchers and educators from Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Washington State University, and the USDA. These institutions, and the farmers working with them, are growing many of the same varieties of vegetables across the country to see how they perform in different organic systems. For 2018 we at OFS will be doing the second year of a winter squash trial, and will also be trialing sweet peppers to see which varieties perform best outdoors in the mild PNW.
Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) with the Organic Seed Alliance: CIOA is a long-term breeding project that addresses the critical needs of organic carrot farmers by developing orange and novel colored carrots with improved disease and nematode resistance, improved weed competitiveness, and improved nutritional value and flavor. For the 2018 season, we at OFS will be partnering with the Organic Seed Alliance to grow a seed crop for a strain of red carrot that they're in the process of breeding. The CIOA project includes field trials not only in Washington but also in California, Indiana, and Wisconsin to evaluate the performance of 36 diverse carrot cultivars and breeding stocks for field performance (yield, appearance, leaf blight, nematode resistance) and consumer quality (flavor and nutrient content).
OFS On-farm Variety Trialing and Breeding Projects: In an effort to find the varieties that work best for us, while also giving our students hands-on experience in the plant breeding process, this year at OFS we'll be starting several breeding projects for crops that are particularly important to us – lettuce, salad turnips, and cherry tomatoes. All good breeding projects start with a variety trial, and so for 2018 we'll be evaluating several varieties within each crop that might best meet our needs. Based on those results, we'll begin a years-long process of selecting individual plants from within the best variety to save seed from, or possibly cross-pollinate plants from a couple varieties in order to create the variety we want. It can be a long and winding road, but we're excited to get started.
Enterprise Budget Studies: As much as we love farming, the hard reality is that we can't do it if it doesn't make us any money. To that end, 2018 will be the first year of many for each of our students to produce an enterprise budget for a single crop. An enterprise budget is a management tool that helps farmers figure out how much money they make (or not) off a specific crop. By tracking and calculating every single expense incurred to produce a crop (from the cost of seed, fertilizer, tractor fuel, and field labor, to packaging material and marketing costs), and then comparing that to the price they sell the crop for, students will be gaining a very detailed and informed view of what it takes to keep a farm financially viable. This set of financial skills will not only provide us at OFS with better decision-making tools, but will be invaluable to our graduates as they start their own farms.
Cover Crop Phenology Trials with Washington State University: As part of a multi-farm study led by WSU's Doug Collins, we've planted four different types of cover crops (winter wheat, Aroostook rye, hairy vetch, and common vetch) that Dr. Collins hopes to gain valuable insight from about when to plant and when to incorporate into the soil to maximize the soil benefits from cover crops for organic growers. As in many other aspects of farming, timing is everything, and knowing how much biomass a cover crop variety produces and when in the season it's at its most fertile will be a great tool to help organic farmers enrich their soil.
So, you graduated from the OFS (or you started cold turkey) and you set about farming. Did you have access to a hoop house in your first season? Did you put it up, or was it already there? If you didn't use a full fledged hoop house, how did you propagate seedlings? How did you prepare for early markets? Looking for advice for our most recent grads here....
As the Class of 2018 begins to create their packing list, many are asking "what kind of boots do I need?" So, we're turning to you! As grads of the Organic Farm School (or as a farmer), what kind of boots do YOU suggest for students? What kind did you start with? Did you shift to a different kind as you learned more about the work?