Students Say It Best

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Students Say It Best

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. 


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No Time for Questions - Which is Why We Ask Them

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No Time for Questions - Which is Why We Ask Them

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 working?

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. 

 

 

 

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Picnic Potluck - Coming Soon!

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Community Potluck!

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.

Schedule

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

Logistics

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.

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Frustration is a Mighty Teacher

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Frustration is a Mighty Teacher

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…

 

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There Is The Field....and Then There Is The Classroom

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). 

 

 

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Considering the GF (Guilt-Free) Plate

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Considering the GF (Guilt-Free) Plate

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.

 

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On-Going Projects for 2018

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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. 

 

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First Year Infrastructure

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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....

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The Question of Boots

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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? 

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