Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Interview with Fountain Valley School of Colorado

This is the complete text of the interview given by Farmer Figgins to Fountain Valley School of Colorado for their 2016 Winter Alumni Bulletin, which can be found here: http://www.fvs.edu/Page/Alumni

I grew up in the suburbs of Denver and the McMansion-dotted forests of Monument, Colorado. My parents had a large ornamental garden which I would grudgingly work in, but I didn’t plant my first tomato until I was 18. I suppose I am rather representative of those who are interested in the local/slow food movement and sustainable small scale agriculture. I am of middle class origin, college educated background, and a woman, like the majority of small farm owners in America today. Like many in the middle class, I lived near totally divorced from food, where it was grown, how it was grown, and how far it travelled before arriving on my plate. This is not unexpected, Americans have been drifting away from the land for some time. In 1900, 41% of Americans were employed on farms and in 2000 only 1.9% of employed labor force worked in agriculture. Like many Americans, I didn’t know what most vegetable plants, whose fruits, roots, or leaves I ate every day, actually looked like until I started working at Venetucci Farm in Colorado Springs during college.

After graduating Fountain Valley I went to Smith College in Massachusetts where I was introduced to writers such as Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, and Michael Pollan. This was 2006, right after An Inconvenient Truth was released in theatres as well. Now understand, I grew up in a conservative, evangelical christian household--a background which I regularly challenged as some of my old teachers can attest--but the science of climate change had never really been presented to me before. One of my biggest regrets from Fountain Valley was not taking Anne Carson’s AP Environmental Science course. Once you have the facts, anyone can see that climate change is a clear moral issue, and one of the biggest challenges we face. We can no longer live our lives as we have, we must live lighter. Americans make up 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy and produce a quarter of the world’s waste. The math is easy, we just don’t like the results. The reality it confronts us with is not easy. We cannot spread the American dream and the American lifestyle across the globe, we cannot sustain the ideas of infinite growth based on fossil fuels and consumption. We can already see their incompatibility by looking at the accelerated widespread extinctions currently happening worldwide, what is being called the Sixth Extinction.

Had I to do it again, I would not go to college, but would have pursued my own self-education through openly available information at libraries and on the internet as well as experiential education working on various farms. Working with and talking to other farmers is the best way to learn about what methods have worked in the various areas of a farming enterprise. While the CSU Intercollegiate Organic Horticulture Program I transferred to tried to cover this complexity, I found, once compared with the actual work on other farms and my own, how short it really came to the mark of educating me as a farmer. Glaring absences on such foundational parts of farming such as plowing and cultivating a field, growing any grain besides corn, how to set up a drip irrigation system, and animal husbandry and incorporating animal use on the farm. These are simply not concerns of “conventional” agriculture which are primarily heavily plowed monocultures without any animals on the farm. On the business side, just as important if not more so as the survival of farmers today, consisted of a single course and was similarly lacking. Dissatisfied with my courses, I changed my major three years in and studied English and creative writing for which I earned my degree.

Before starting the Shire Farm I worked seasonally on small farms and in garden stores throughout the Front Range and often worked odd jobs, from the CSU library and one of their dining halls, to an independent bookstore and a Safeway store. Working in a large grocery store and dining hall, I saw firsthand the wastefulness of our food system. Dump trucks full of food past their sell by date, trash cans full of leftover food from a meal at the dining hall to be thrown away. As much as 40% of all the food produced in the United States is never eaten. Americans throw away 20 lbs a month of food on average, while some 50 million Americans are simultaneously food insecure. Sadly almost none of this food is donated, businesses often claiming that it is a “health and safety issue” and that they could be sued. I recently learned that this has not ever happened nor could it, since donations of food are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The real reason they don’t donate this food is because it is cheaper to throw it away then to package and transport it to donation centers.

The most rewarding aspect of the farm has been the process of learning new skills and continuing my education. Learning to cook, to preserve the harvest, to build, to grow dozens of different kinds of plants and to raise our own animals and birth new life through our own efforts. Every day is something different, though every season has its rhythms and its recurring duties; they also have their own flavor, their own particular harvest or bounty. It’s said a farmer that has farmed 20 years has only grown his crop 20 times. He’s only had 20 times to refine his land, experiment with different varieties and amendments. Every year is a new try, another round in many on-going experiments. Farming is a constant process of learning, a life of learning and experimentation. For instance, we will soon be “processing” our first beef cow. His was the first birth, besides barn cats, we had on the farm, who I helped guide with my thumb as a meager substitute to find and suck his mother’s teat when he was still wet and steaming. Wanting to make the most of him, we will be keeping many organs and bones for dog food and I will be attempting to render his fat into tallow for soap, candles and cooking.

The most difficult challenge as a farmer has been coming to terms with the fact that we are quite productive--able to provide full diet CSA shares of eggs, pork, chicken, and produce within our first year of operation--that the farm pays for itself and produces most of its inputs, but it cannot pay for our labors. And yes, we do all the work ourselves. The hard truth is, farmers still can’t make a living in America today.

Before starting my own farm in Michigan, I worked at Venetucci Farm in Colorado Springs, at CSU’s Speciality Crop Research Farm in Fort Collins, and Sol Y Sombra Farm in Longmont. All of these were primarily organic (in practice if not name) produce CSA operations, with some selling to restaurants and with some animals such as egg laying chickens, dairy goats, and pigs. Our farm most resembles Venetucci Farm out of the three, though on a smaller scale and less acreage, with a diverse farm ecology of perennial, annual, vegetable, herb, fruit, as well as pigs, cows, chickens and recently sheep. All of these farms used sustainable practices and their soils were very productive. Studies have shown that organic soils, given the time and improvement of amending with manure, compost, and other organic material, can be just as productive and even more productive than even the most chemically drenched and enhanced of soils. Every farm I worked on seemed to produce an untold, unforeseen bounty. And yet, none of these farms were really “sustainable” in the economic sense. They were supported by external businesses or institutions that helped pay their employees wages and provide support in lean times of the year.

The sad fact is that according to USDA data from 2012, 90% of our country’s farmers have to rely on an outside job, or a spouse’s job, or some independent form of wealth, for their primary income. Most farmers work outside jobs to keep their farms above water, others skirt by on an income less than minimum wage, and most depend on interns, volunteers, WWOOFers or family for cheap labor. Small and intermediate size farms obtain only 10% of their household income from the farm, and 90% from off-farm sources. Smaller farms actually lost money farming and earned 109% of their household income from off-farm sources. Only the largest farms, just 10% of farming households in this country and most of which receive large government subsidies, earned the majority of their income from farm sources.The largest farms are also the most mechanized and the most dependent on fossil fuels for fertility, cultivation, and harvest. While the demand for local, sustainably produced food is growing, it seems that those growing the food aren’t necessarily reaping the benefits. There is a limit to how many people are interested in CSAs and can keep up with the amount of produce they receive from them, you know what I mean if you’ve been in a CSA. For small scale growers, the difficulty lies in bridging the gap between providing the kind of produce consumers crave at the Farmers’ Market and the lower prices and convenience they find at a supermarket. To bridge that gap, most farmers find they have increase their farm size, their debt, their reliance on machinery, and their economy of scale. It would seem that “get big or get out” operates still today, inevitably sacrificing environmental sustainability and diversity for economic survival.

One of the more promising developments in recent years has been the growth of Food Hubs and Multi-Farm Cooperatives and CSAs which provide support and the quantity and scale that small scale farmers cannot achieve sustainably on their own. Farming requires a lot of upfront investment and the seasonal returns with high risk for failure make this a risky business. By working cooperatively together however, we can share the upfront costs and equipment necessary, share the risk inherent in relying on nature’s whims for your product and share the bounty of our farms to reach a larger customer base. This is something we are going to be actively pursuing and promoting ourselves in our own area starting next year.

My partner Farmer Don attended CSU as well, earning a Bachelor’s in History. He was first my roommate and my friend. We learned to cook together, how to build and cobble things together, how not to freak out when the pigs escape and lure them back in their pens together. He has been most involved with building projects and the animals, of which we have many. Currently, we have 6 cats, 2 dogs, 2 cows, 2 pigs, 50-odd chickens, and 4 sheep, with puppies, lambs, a calf, and piglets on the way in the next 6 months. He’s also been my go-to-guy for machinery, he’s incredibly handy and does our drafting and building for farm projects. Like many other farmers, we cannot survive economically without outside income. I have worked during the off season in retail and will be substitute teaching locally soon, while Farmer Don has worked in a large hardware and home building store to support us and the farm.

We do not live in a Hobbit Hole, sadly, though that is the dream and has been for a long time for me. I wrote in my entrance essay to FVS actually about my desire to live in a Hobbit Hole, so that’s been there a long time. While I attended FVS I remember seeing a presentation or documentary on Earthships, a kind of off-grid passive solar house made of both natural and recycled materials. In the years since then, I’ve looked into cob homes, straw bales construction and earth sheltered homes, but unfortunately our country’s building codes and lending institutions keep tight control on the type of housing that is available or possible based on what it deemed resellable. People are getting around these restrictions with tiny homes now, another promising recent development.

I named the farm after the hobbit-settled region called the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings because it had always been a symbol for me of a healthy rural culture. Sadly I did not take Shelia Griffith’s Lord of the Rings course while at FVS, and I am still kicking myself for that and for the many other classes I valued a free period over. I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy, how it can create and people a world with enough difference and distance from our own to give a new perspective, a new insight, and imagine how our world or others could be different. It’s said that the Shire was based on the West Midlands region of England that Tolkien frequently visited and witnessed undergo industrialization and the blighting of the countryside by the spread of heavy industry as he grew up. The desolation of Mordor and the Dead Marshes could be seen as directly inspired from the landscapes of the trenches and no-man’s land of WWI, in which he served. When the hobbits return to the Shire after their great deeds, Frodo a bit shell-shocked, they find their home invaded by Saruman and his forces who have enslaved the people of the Shire. The four hobbits, having grown up on their travels, raise a rebellion and overthrow him, with the war of the ring ending with Saruman’s death literally at Frodo’s very doorstep by the hands of his number two, Grima Wormtongue. When I read Tolkien I see the problems of modern society that Tolkien was facing playing out in another fantastic world, where great men and small men, and men who feel as small and unimportant as hobbits, are having to face the big questions of their time--rising industrialization, imperialism and militarization that led to devastating world wars. But these forces also came to England, healthy rural communities were invaded and occupied and changed by these same larger forces and the ideologies behind them. In the books, the Hobbits raise a rebellion, overthrow the invading forces, and return the Shire back to its previous rural state. Tolkien seems to prescribe voluntary simplicity as a remedy to the problems of modern society. Having lived around the Amish for a few years now, I’ve learned that each Amish community decides what level of technology they want to allow in their community, from solar panels to cars to cell phones, and I have come to see the wisdom in placing limits. As Albert Camus wrote, “when a machine demonstrates, by the way it functions, the necessity of moderation...either we have to realize the value of limitation, or contemporary excesses will only find their principle and peace in universal destruction.”

While at Fountain Valley I was influenced by scores of intelligent and passionate people and teachers, but there was no one influence there that really got me into farming. Isolated on campus, I didn’t really interact with the local economy and food movement of Colorado Springs. It wasn’t until college that I really got introduced to parts of the local food movement, from farm to fork restaurants to farmers markets. I remember Dave Reynolds showing our sophomore English class the short film The Meatrix about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs) that produce most of our meat. After learning about the abuse, the overuse of steroids, hormones and medication, and the overcrowding and unnatural and inefficient diet, I swore to not eat meat until I could produce it myself. I lasted almost a decade until I couldn’t resist bacon one Christmas morning, and then I was hooked again. 

I remember Mr. Maher telling us a Hemingway quote that greatly inspired me, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not yet stood up to live.” I always loved reading, and had aspirations of becoming a writer but was unsure what I wanted to write about, what really mattered to me. You find the answer to these questions by living, by learning not just what you’re against, but what you’re for. The paths you take and what passions you take up. For me, that was farming. There is risk and experimentation, there is heartbreak and affection, there is hardship and adversity, there is life and there is death. There is everything you need to become a writer.

Paul Kim taught me, in one of my first classes as a freshman, that the word economy is from the Greek word for household management, or manager, and that this definition focused on the management of household or private affairs and especially expenses. I remember this affected me a lot, because it seemed so divorced from the contemporary definition and enaction of economy in our country and time. The economy seemed to be everything but the home, and to provide everything for an automated home that had largely been abandoned by both men and women except as a temporary retreat from the larger world. Looking at the average American household, it has become a unit of consumption, of expenses to be paid by exchanging time and labor for money to pay for the expenses of living. The household is no longer a place of production and skill and creation. Before the Industrial Revolution, men and women who owned their own homes and worked off their land were called husbands and housewives. Hus being an old spelling for house, and band as in bonded. Husbands were bonded to their households, rather than to lords. While there was a division of labor among the sexes, there was also an equal distribution of domestic work. After industrialization, men left the household to work for wages which were then used to purchase the goods and services that they no longer were home to provide, such as butchering, sewing and tanning leather, chopping firewood, etc. Men and women eventually stopped working together in the home and they developed separate spheres. Once factories could fabricate products to supplant housewives’ duties as well, her primary function was reduced even further until she left to pursue validation in the workplace as well. Our definition of economy has shifted away from household management as a means of local production and sustenance with little of what we would call “consumption” to something that is outside the home. Outside the home, we are faced with a world full of resources waiting to be extracted and shaped and sold to markets and niches that have been properly primed to consume them, a world that is largely an extractive and exploitative process of accumulating wealth as a means to security and renown in the race to the bottom for progress.  

Paul Kim spoke much about globalization as well while I was at FVS and its impact on our lives, and he spoke in our class’s graduation ceremony about the need for a change in paradigm. We’ve seen the increased dissemination of knowledge through the internet and mobile phones, movement of capital and investment as well as movement of people to follow that investment and the jobs they took with them. And we’ve seen the devastating result of our trade and transactions becoming globally interdependent. Yes, economic globalization has brought huge benefits, though arguably inequitably distributed ones, yet its primary ingredient and flaw is its reliance on cheap labor and energy, and this model can only “economically” continue if energy and labor remains cheap. That which made us great can also make us vulnerable. Calls for change have come on many fronts--the climate, our energy policy, our income inequality--but these problems have not and will continue to not be adequately addressed or solved by the current system. It’s simply too profitable for too many for any incentive or demonstration or protest or politician to change.

By contrast, I think we are seeing a shift in response from below, a change in paradigm in response to the rapid changes in our lives and the lack of response from above, a shift toward localization and local resilience. Toward developing and empowering local communities and individuals through collective action and self management to shape their local spheres and to take part in shaping change. This strategy focuses on building societies based on local production of food, energy, and goods and the local development of currency, governance and culture. We’re see it manifesting in Farmers Markets, Food Hubs, cooperatives, collectives local currency, intentional communities and Transition Towns.The rebuilding of local economies offers a response we can all take part in and one that can have an impact in daily lives that is more than just sorting the trash and recyclables, a mostly empty secular ritual of guilt. Localization is a response to the challenges presented by climate change and peak energy as well as an opportunity to rethink and reinvent local economies within our communities and within our homes. It is about meeting needs that can be met locally, locally, in order to live lighter on the earth.

The top three things I’ve learned from farming:
  1. Connect with your community, they are your greatest asset. A lot of people get into farming because of the romance of the independent self-sufficient farmer. But the reality is, the costs of farming is extremely high, both the investment and the knowledge and labor required. Whether rural or urban, your community is your home, your best source of local knowledge and support and collaboration. There is always more to learn in farming, the people that know your area best are your best source of what has worked there in the past and for services available in the area. Moreover, small farms require huge up-front investment, for land, implements, equipment, livestock, infrastructure and more. To limit these costs you can develop relationships with your neighbors to borrow or rent equipment, or even start an equipment collective of small farmers who all need periodic use of large and costly equipment. You can also collaborate to open new markets (restaurants, hospitals, schools) that you wouldn’t be able to supply before, or to save and share seeds to reduce costs and promote local food security.    
  2. Things will go wrong, and it will cost you. Farming is, after all, a risky and dangerous business. Often we learn things on the farm the hard way, when a plant dies or a chicken gets killed, or a pig escapes. But you can learn something from that. Why did it happen, and how can I stop it from happening again? Expect for things to go wrong, and try to build in safety nets for yourself. Don’t take failure personally, instead take it as a challenge and opportunity to learn. Because there is always more to learn.
  3. Expect that you or your partner will have to work another job to be able to afford a farm and to pay for much of its costs. Access to land is the biggest challenge facing young American farmers today, and once they have land, paying for it and the farm is no easy feat. This is no failure of yourself or your farm, but a sad reality of farming today in America. Unfortunately, much of this cannot be properly addressed without large scale policy changes.

How to get the most out of your CSA:
To get the most out of your CSA share every week requires some extra prep work upfront, as soon as you get the box. Learn how to best store your produce for optimum freshness and make the effort to prep your produce every week as soon as you get home. I could go into it here but there are so many crops, so i’ll just give a few examples. Treat warm-loving annual herbs like basil and cilantro like cut flowers, put them in water, put a plastic bag over them and a rubber band around the base, and store in the door of your refrigerator, they’ll last much longer. Trim the leaves off of your root crops, you can wash and eat most of them raw or sauteed, or make into a pesto. Don’t store apples and potatoes together, don’t store ripe tomatoes in the fridge but on the counter. It’s basic information that most of us are sorely lacking on how produce is best stored to preserve its edibility, but easily available on the internet.

The other step I would suggest to make the most out of your CSA is to preserve as you go. Have extra of something and don’t think you’ll get to it? Blanche and freeze it for winter. Make extra large dishes and freeze half of it to be enjoyed in the winter. Make dishes that can be flexible with their ingredients and use up lots of vegetables like quiches, salads, stir frys and soups.

As for favorite winter dishes, this is the time of year when we get to enjoy all the preserved goodies from the summer and the meat we raised during the growing season. We’re usually eating homemade apple sauce, salsa, bruschetta, enjoying the thawed pleasures of green beans and cauliflower in January. During the winter we like to use the extra time to try more time consuming and complex dishes, for instance our recipe for goat cheese and spinach ravioli made from scratch. And it you really to make it from scratch, I know a good cheese making recipe we use to make a similar cheese to goat cheese out of cow’s milk. Let me know if you want that recipe too! Here is our recipe for the ravioli: http://www.wearehobbits.com/2013/01/goat-cheese-and-spinach-ravioli-from.html