Here are two things that happened to me last week.

First: I sent a message on my old condo’s listserv letting the residents know that I’ve set up a farm hub there, and that they can order fresh/local/etc. produce and meat directly from a farmer who’s not only local, but one that literally owns a unit in the building. A few days later, a non-profit CSA aggregator (a 501c3 non-profit) who apparently has a rep in the building, sent a nearly identical email out on the same listserv advertising a 10% early bird special on their CSA shares.

Second: I’m driving around Charlottesville delivering food and running errands, and everywhere I go, I see the delivery truck for an increasingly popular online grocery store whose name rhymes with “we lay crudes.” They weren’t following me of course; it was just sheer coincidence. But seeing that gigantic shiny green truck in the rearview of my 100,000-mile, farm-dusted F-150 for two hours was quite the visual metaphor for what local farmers determined to remain independent are up against.

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

Independent farmers committed to sustainable agriculture turned their backs on the ConAgras and Cargills of the world, determined to free themselves from poverty, debt, commodity pricing, and a litany of other unhealthy farming realities. Using farmers markets and door-to-door sales, they blazed a trail leading back to independence – they determined to take as close to100% of the food dollar as possible to secure the financial stability that’s necessary to steward the land properly without relying on government grants and other forms of ecological charity.

The rest of the world is understanding that this is a good thing. Dollars are quickly flowing into local/organic/sustainable and, just as quickly, well-intentioned organizations are springing up that threaten to erode the foundations of the Local movement. Here are three good reasons why you, as a consumer, should take the time to cultivate relationships with farmers and buy directly from them… and here’s why we, as farmers, need to do a much better job of direct marketing our products:

1. Centralization in agriculture is bad.

Modern agriculture is a hot mess. Giant corporations pay next to nothing for agricultural commodities produced by farmers whose financial incentive is to produce as much as possible at all costs. The corporations consolidate the commodities, process them, and then distribute them across the country and around the world. This system leaves the environment degraded, the farmer in poverty, and the consumer with an outrageously unhealthy diet and the manifold consequences thereof. Why are things this way?

Consolidators have investors to consider, so they must grow profits. To grow profits, they must reduce their costs. Consolidators – whether it’s Walmart or ConAgra – reduce their costs, and thus their prices, by squeezing their suppliers. The ability to do this comes, ironically enough, by enlisting more and more suppliers to service more and more customers. As these customers pile into the consolidators’ stores, they create an ever-strengthening vise that the consolidators use to squeeze their suppliers.

Sometimes.

Sometimes.

Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the consolidators have enough customers and suppliers to offer prices so low that suppliers can’t survive on their own. At this point, the consolidator owns the supplier, and the supplier begins making tradeoffs to meet the price set by the consolidator. For Walmart’s suppliers, this might mean closing American factories and sourcing the work to Asia to reduce labor costs. For ConAgra’s suppliers, this might mean using genetically modified seed and contracting to feedlots to reduce unit costs.

Online grocery stores, even the Local-oriented ones with the big green truck, are consolidators with investors to consider (that’s how they got the big green truck). Right now they’re fairly small and don’t have enough customers to force farmers to take their prices, but one day and with enough customers, they will. Perhaps they won’t apply the squeeze when they’re able, but capitalism’s record of self-restraint is not encouraging.

2. Government subsidies in agriculture are bad

Some CSA consolidators, like the one that’s more or less competing with me in my condo, are non-profits that operate with government grants, tax-deductible donations (another kind of government grant), and self-generated revenue.  On its face, that may seem like a good thing: people like to think of sustainable agriculture as an enterprise too pure to be stained by the pursuit of profit, so going the non-profit route presents a pleasing image of donation-funded hippie farmers sitting above the earthly fray of markets. So what’s the problem?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Here are two things that the giant 1,000-acre GMO corn farmer and the 501c3 non-profit local CSA have in common: they are utterly dependent on government largesse. The corn farmer would be out of business tomorrow without the commodity payment and insurance programs in the Farm Bill, and the non-profit CSA would be out of business tomorrow without the tax-deductions allowed its donors and the ability to receive municipal/state/federal grants. This dependence has consequences.

The first consequence is volatility. Remember all the talk of milk prices doubling if the latest Farm BIll remained stalled in Congress? And if that non-profit CSA loses 50% of its government funding, they’re going to have to either fold the business or make up the difference at the register, either option promising to spike the prices of your CSA shares.

The second consequence is the artificial lowering of the price of food. Many non-profits use their donations and grants to reduce food costs at the register, usually to service low-income customers. While I absolutely agree that low-income individuals should have affordable access to food that’s fit to eat, I also believe that artificially lowering the price through subsidies is not the way to do it. If SNAP, WIC, or CSA grants get cut, low income folks are back to poisoning themselves with ramen noodles and Hot Pockets. Farmers should instead be working to lower the real price of food with things like multistory and closed-loop agriculture, perennial and locally-adapted systems, and a refusal to take on debt. That way, good food remains affordable no matter who’s in Congress. Government subsidies, however, remove the financial incentive to pursue these innovations, which leads to the third consequence, which is…

Opportunity cost. It’s very difficult for market-oriented, innovative, socially/economically/ecologically-sustainable, independent farms to get off the ground when their competitors are “juicing” on government funding. We know these utopian farms are possible – Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm being prime examples – but we’re going to see a lot fewer of them if we continue to believe that government money belongs in agriculture.

3. The solution is so much better

Consolidators, whether they’re government funded CSAs or investor funded online grocery stores, are not evil. They simply exist because they’re filling a niche that farmers have failed to fill ourselves. Local food is not as accessible as it should be, the farms producing the food are few and far between, and many of them aren’t oriented toward direct marketing off the farm itself. Any farmer knows that a bare patch of earth, left alone, will sprout a giant tap-rooted weed that will become almost impossible to deal with if it’s ignored for too long. Likewise, the need for convenience and accessibility in Local food is much like that patch of exposed earth; instead of nature filling it with pokeweed, capitalism is filling it with consolidators.

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck...

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck…

Changing this would require a massive proliferation of small farms, and the creation of farmer-owned cooperatives that could handle distribution beyond the farm – especially into cities. The reasoning is simple: if there are lots of farms everywhere then they are more accessible; farmers don’t have to take commodity prices and become slaves to the distributors if the farmers are the distributors.

Getting more farmers into the field and organizing cooperatives is going to take some work, and will become a focus of Sylvanaqua once our production is established, we’ve turned a small profit, and we’ve thuys demonstrated that this model of ours can, in fact, work. Stay tuned, stay positive, and buy direct from your local farmer!

Chris Newman
Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms

Our farm is dedicated not just to responsible, healthy, accessible food, but also to changing the very model that our country uses to produce and consume food. We’ve said before that being certified organic doesn’t go far enough to affect this change; in this article we take a look at a few more reasons that eating local beats both organic and conventional. And at the end, we give you a sneak preview of what our “dream” food model looks like.

1. Local really is more nutritious

An organic controversy exploded in 2012 when a Stanford University study asserted that there’s no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventionally raised foods. Stanford, along with many other food scientists and supporting institutions, make the claim that the only substantial drivers of nutritional content in food are genetics and freshness. If you take two seeds from an identical heirloom plant, raise one on a conventional farm, the other on an organic farm, and harvest and eat them at the same time, there will be virtually no difference between the two.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Supporters of organics naturally (hehe) fired back, citing everything from the university’s relationship with agro-giant Cargill to alleged technical flaws in the study itself. Importantly, however, critics of the study did not attack its underlying premise: that genetics and freshness are what really matters when it comes to nutritional content.

When you make the decision to ignore the labels, buy local, and source all your food from a nearby ecological farm, this controversy immediately loses meaning for you. If you’re buying heirloom produce from a farm less than an hour away, you’re pretty much guaranteed two things: 1.) you’re getting plant genetics at least as good as what you’d find in an organic market, and 2.) you’re getting your produce at the peak of freshness, especially if you visit the type of farm that lets you pick produce yourself. The only way to get fresher food would be to disguise yourself as a cow during the day, graze the fields with the rest of the herd, and hope the farmer doesn’t notice.

Soon.

Soon.

2. Local really does taste better

It’s not hard to find people – especially those who patronize expensive restaurants – that will insist that organic food tastes hands-down better than conventionally raised food. Unfortunately, those people would be proven wrong by a slew of blind taste tests in which people truly can’t tell the difference between stuff that’s grown in a chemical-bound psedo-soil and compost-pampered supersoil.

Much like nutrition, taste is largely the effect of freshness and genetics. For eggs, meat, and dairy, the inputs that create them are also a very significant factor… but one whose positive effect on the taste of the food is correlated with freshness.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

As great as organic farming is compared to its conventional counterpart regarding environmental impact, it gleefully shares conventional ag’s most glaring structural problem: centralized distribution. This model of distribution underlies the efficiency that some would argue is modern agriculture’s biggest strength, but it also underlies its biggest weaknesses: the ecological compromises demanded by farming for economies of scale, and products whose nutrition and taste suffer from shipping (to distribution facilities and markets) and waiting (in markets to be bought).

Do you find it strange that you can buy organic sweet corn and vine tomatoes at health food markets in January? If you don’t, then you should. That sweet corn and that big red ‘mater, being more than six months out of season, are both going to taste like hot-house garbage. If you buy from an ecological farm, however, this isn’t going to be a problem because an eco-farmer worth her salt will not grow things out of season, even in a greenhouse. Shopping for groceries at such a farm ensures that you’re buying food in season and at the peak of freshness, which is the ONLY way to guarantee your food is at the height of its nutritional content and taste.

3. Local really is best for the environment

Conventional and organic farming have something else in common besides centralized distribution: they’re founded on the idea that you have to fight nature to produce enough food for civilized society. The only difference between the two is that organic farmers are following the rules of gentlemanly warfare, while the conventional farmers are whipping out the nukes and mustard gas.

To be sure, organic farming is much gentler on the environment than conventional farming. The “Three Cs” of organic farming are compost, cover crops, and crop rotation; together, these are intended to minimize the effects of farming on the environment and reduce risks to public health. The first “C”, compost, provides natural soil fertility without frying soil life the way synthetic fertilizers do. The second, cover crops, prevents soil erosion and runoff pollution while improving soil structure and nutrient content after cash crops are harvested. The third, crop rotation, interrupts cycles of pests and diseases by taking away their food sources.

So... what do they eat?

So… what do they eat?

The Three C’s, unfortunately, do not address organic agriculture’s reliance on monocultures. A monoculture is what you get when you have a whole bunch of the same plant (or animal) covering a large area. This is something you almost never see in nature because, in nature, such a state can’t persist for very long. If a 50 acre field were to spontaneously sprout nothing but corn, then the beetles and armyworms would soon follow. With a gigantic food source and no habitat for their predators, these pests would reproduce explosively until all the corn was gone, at which point the they would starve to death. Their decaying bodies and rotting corn husks would cover the soil with new organic matter while the occasional breeze or four-legged creature would deposit various seeds from elsewhere. Over time, a new and balanced ecosystem would develop – one that would invariably be a polyculture rather than a monoculture. I won’t say that monocultures aren’t “natural” since “natural” is such a slippery term. But I will say that we’re swimming against nature’s current when we use monocultures, and that’s a dangerous proposition when we’re relying on them to stay alive.

If there’s one thing your small, local family farm probably doesn’t have, it’s a 50 acre cornfield. These little farms generally use hoophouses and/or raised garden beds to produce plants in polycultures that are much more environmentally sound. And while these fruits and veggies don’t provide the staples we rely on from corn and soy, there are permaculture farms coming online using tree guilds to replace them both affordably and with ecological soundness. Most of these operations are small family farms that need your patronage in order to succeed.

4. It’s the only way to make responsible food affordable

America’s food model is broken because it demands an interface between the consumer and the producer in the name of efficiency and centralized profit.* Proponents of this model will argue that such ruthless efficiency is necessary in order to meet demand; a dubious claim considering that America trashes nearly half it’s food.

"Smashes" rhymes with "trashes."

“Smashes” rhymes with “trashes.”

The organic movement, God bless it, does not address the structural flaw in this model. It instead funnels food into the same broken system as its conventional adversary (or parent company) using a production method that’s much less efficient. With its misguided focus on markets and monocultures, organic farms fight a relentlessly uphill battle against the efficiency of conventional farming’s chemical marvels and the inertia of mother nature’s ecological inclinations. The result? The most difficult, expensive food on planet Earth.

But in spite of the cost, farmers markets and agritourism are booming at the same time unprecedented public outrage is being directed at GMO, feedlots, and big agribusiness. The enormous demand for organic, relative to its supply, is one of the drivers of its high price. If we could only lower the price of responsible food to make it accessible to the average person, the sustainable food movement would be on its way to fulfilling its mission of saving the world by feeding it. This is where your local permaculture farm comes in.

Permaculture farms are those that intensively mimic natural systems to produce food that’s both ecologically sound and affordable. The affordability stems from a number of things: reliance on perennials that only need to be planted once; emphasis on forage rather than feed for livestock; selection of locally-adapted plants and animals that require minimum human intervention; focus on a hyperlocal customer base that does most of the harvesting; adoption of multistory agriculture (fungi, ground covers, tall annuals, bushes, and trees occupying the same space) to improve efficiency; providing the diversity of products that allows the farm to replace the supermarket.

Taking central Virginia as an example, the new agricultural model here would have 1,400 small (20 – 30 acres) plantations set up near population centers, each providing food for the 160 or so people living with the immediate vicinity of that farm. People would go to these farms to do most of their food shopping; the Whole Foodses and Harris Teeters would be for the things you can’t get locally – coffee, spices, citrus, etc. The time a farmer would ordinarily spend every year planting, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, shipping, etc. would instead be spent on value adding (e.g. milling wheat into flour, grinding corn into hominy, smoking bacon, baking bread) and surveying the neighborhood to see what products her customers want more or less of.

"Coming right up!"

“Coming right up!”

This model doesn’t exist yet, but it can in your lifetime. All you have to do is make a commitment to cultivate a relationship with a local farmer, make a commitment to buy from her as often as you can, and of course stay tuned to our website as we work to make this model a reality for everyone.

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

*Before my more conservative readers accuse me of Marxism, please know that I’m not a proponent of socializing or nationalizing food production (notwithstanding charity). Farmers and those who own farms should enjoy comfortable lives financially to the extent their talents will allow them to steward the land responsibly. It is another matter entirely for Monsanto to advocate for market-divorced commodity subsidies, soil-killing chemicals, seed patents, and a factory farm system that brutalizes both farmer and animal… all in the name of its stock price and at the expense of literally everyone in the world.

Thinking about raising hens to provide your home with fresh eggs? Or maybe you’re a farmer and want to get a larger-scale egg operation going. Here are a few tips we’ve learned to keep your girls happy, healthy, and laying.

1. Skip the vaccinations only if you’re breeding

Some people might come after my head for saying this, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with vaccinating your chicks if you’re raising a small flock just for home egg production and don’t intend to breed them.

Skipping the vaccinations to rely on deep bedding and natural immunity is appropriate if you’re a farmer looking to improve the breed over time by allowing birds without good natural resistance to be culled. Farmers have the space for deep bedding and free ranging/pasturing that makes such a thing possible. But if you’re raising these girls in small space available in your home and yard, you’re simply not likely to have the room you need to do things all-natural.

Having all of your tiny flock of birds die of Mareks after carefully raising them to the 20 -25 weeks required to get them to laying age is devastating, and it would be horrible to have to start over. Farmers, on the other hand, with a flock of 200+ birds withstand the loss of a half-dozen animals – in fact it’s a good sign that the culling and breed improvement process is working. So ahead and get your girls treated for Mareks and Cocci if you’re raising birds from chicks for home use – it won’t kill you, and if you’re not breeding them, then you don’t risk weakening the breed.

2. Give them light all day and night when they’re young

Birds are highly prone to suffocating if they a.) get cold, and b.) have corners to pile up into. On a cold night in a dark hen house, your girls will more than likely find a corner, pile up into it and, if the circumstances are just right, promptly suffocate whoever’s unfortunate enough to be on the bottom. This seems to become less of a problem as they mature, but in our hoophouse in winter we still leave a single brood lamp on to provide light so they can see exactly what they’re doing.

Some folks will install boards to reduce the sharpness of corners, but I’ve found it’s less troublesome to avoid pileups by just providing a little light.

3. Don’t bother with starter feeds

When the arrival of our Rhode Island Red chicks was imminent, we were at a loss for what to feed them. Layer mash isn’t appropriate until 16 weeks of age and, as usual, the henmasters of the Internet offered no shortage of advice, all of which contained the addendum that if you didn’t do it their way, all your chicks would die and you’d be audited by the IRS.

We started the girls on broiler feed because it’s fairly high protein, and because we had plenty of it left over from the broiler season. They did just fine on it, and I’m grateful to this day we didn’t go through the trouble and expense of purchasing some Cadillac starter feed.

4. Avoid crowding and roosts

Because of a series of mishaps with our hoophouse (the cover blew off in a windstorm, among other things), all 140 of our hens wound up boarding in our 480 sqft brooder until they were about 14 weeks old. Some might say that 3.4 square feet per bird is more than adequate, but I’ll tell you right now that for us, it wasn’t.

Pale combs, large variations in bird size, pulled tail feathers, and restlessness are among the more obvious signs of crowding stress, and these girls had it in spades. Once 2/3 of the girls were finally moved to the 960 sqft hoophouse, their performance went through the roof: tails grew back, sleep was easier, and combs turned ruby red.

One more thing that I’ve heard: when the birds are too young to lay eggs, don’t introduce roosts. Apparently that’ll accelerate the formation of pecking orders and your girls will be fighting a lot more than if they’re all sharing the same level ground. Once they’re of laying age and you introduce nests, you’ll need to put in roosts to keep them from sleeping in the nests.

5. Don’t let them get comfortable with you

If you’re planning to introduce your mature birds to a pasture or free-range situation, then don’t let them get comfortable with you when they’re chicks. You want your girls skittish and terrified of anything that might even be close to a predator, so if they wind up getting comfortable with something as large as a human, then they won’t learn that shaking hands with a fox or raccoon is a bad idea until it’s way too late.

This may sound… mean… but when you enter the brooder to feed, keep the girls away from you. If they approach, lunge at them. Don’t hit or abuse them, but give them the impression that big things are after them and aren’t to be trusted.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for a free-range/pasture situation, stay away from docile, friendly breeds. If they’re going to survive out in the elements with predators all around, you want birds with aggressive roosters, flighty/skittish single hens, and broody mothers. This will, of course, make the harvesting of henfruit more difficult, but it’s a worthy sacrifice in the name of undoing the damage done to breeds adapted to unnatural confinement environments.

With the coming of the new year, we’ve reflected on the things that have gone well and not so well in these first six months of farming. It important for us to share what we’ve learned in order to reduce the learning curve for new farmers, so here are a few of the most important lessons we’ve learned since we received our first animal in August.

1. Don’t be a Tough Guy

My friends and family members often come to the farm for a couple of days to get fresh air and exercise by helping with chores and building projects. They’ve helped build practically everything on the farm, from the pastures to the hoophouse to the brooder, and they’ve all had two things in common: their help was indispensable, and they’ve tried to be tougher than necessary.

People, especially men (which is why this point says Guy instead of Girl; women know better), arrive on the farm from the city thinking they need to prove a certain degree of hardiness. They often go about it the wrong way, usually by doing one of two things: 1.) refusing to use basic safety equipment like work gloves and eye/ear protection, and 2.) doing things the hard way.*

hard_way

When people did this on my farm (including me, in the early days), the results were predictable: I nearly chainsawed into my own leg going one-handed after high log that didn’t even need to be cut (and I have the hole in my jeans to prove it); one friend aggravated an existing fracture in his hand driving hoophouse posts; another friend got a splinter in his eye using a handsaw to cut plywood; another threw out his back carrying a gigantic tree stump that he could have simply rolled down a hill; and a cousin spent a weekend as an invalid after getting a wood shank through his un-gloved hand while splitting firewood.

This is all fine if you’re only working a holiday in the country, but it’ll kill you if you’re planning to farm for a living. A professional farmer’s most important asset is his or her body, and injuring it is just as bad as blowing a piston in a tractor. Breaking a hand, losing an eye, getting unnecessarily sore, or slowly going deaf by refusing to wear earmuffs when working with power equipment will cost you money in terms of lost or slowed productivity, if not medical bills.

So wear the safety gear and learn to do things the smart way. After a year, you’ll still be tougher than 90% of the population anyway.

*The only two things required to prove you’re tough enough for farm work: 1.) Don’t whine, 2.) Don’t drag your ass.

2. Don’t be Perfect

Ecological farming is not a unified discipline. The Big Organic people differ significantly from the Small Organic people, both of whom are reviled by the Beyond Organic people, who share an uneasy alliance with the Slow Food and/or Pasture Systems people, who themselves are often seen as myopic and non-holistic by the Permaculture People.

It's just like this. The beards especially.

It’s just like this. The beards especially.

The world of ecological farming is full of tribes united in their hatred of conventional agriculture and divided in practically every other way.  If you’re coming into farming as a total neophyte, as I did, then you’re probably going to start with research. The information coming from that research will quickly turn into a firehose that knocks you in every imaginable direction before pinning you to a wall, paralyzing you with indecision as to exactly what kind of farmer you want to be.

Here’s the onion of the matter: doing ANY kind of ecological farming is better than NOT farming ecologically, and you always have the option to change your operation in the future. This is why, even though I’m in love with Permaculture, I’m starting out with pastured systems. Corn-fed pastured broilers aren’t as sustainable as heritage free-rangers, but they’re infinitely more sustainable than conventional pasture operations and give me a source of income that will allow me to convert to permaculture in the near future. And, of course, both options are much better than doing nothing.

Decide whatever. Staying off the boat is the only way to screw this up.*

Decide whatever. Staying off the boat is the only way to screw this up.*

Of course, not all of the confusion will surround the big questions like “what kind of farmer do I want to be?”  The real devil is in the small decisions you have to make much more often: opaque or translucent greenhouse plastic? RIR or Barred Rock laying hens? 12 ga or 14 ga aluminum wire for the pigs? Organic compost or raw milk on the pastures? Overseed in Spring, Fall, or both… or not at all? Get the birds vaccinated for Marek’s, or no? Nipple waterers, game waterers, or make something by hand? Do I really need the nestboxes with the special plastic lining? Water the animals with ponds or an intricate system of interconnected rain barrels? Burn the brush pile or bury it for raised beds?

Again: do SOMETHING. You’ll get some decisions right, and you’ll get some decisions wrong. Your experience will lead you in the right direction over time.

*Ladies, I recognize the sexist nature of this image. So… uh… here.

3. Don’t be a loner

Farming is like any other business. There are skills you have to develop that are particular to your chosen field – e.g. animal husbandry, botany, carpentry – and there are more general skills that you’ll need to make sure you can actually sell your products/services and stay out of trouble with the law –  e.g. social media marketing, basic accounting, public relations, salesmanship. Each of these things has to be kept in balance in order to achieve stasis in your business.

Entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship.

Many a middling, struggling* entrepreneur at once boasts and laments about “doing it all”, “wearing lots of hats”, etc.  while the story of every lasting (e.g. 50+ years) and successful business I’ve studied involved an entrepreneur that surrounded him/herself with other talented people. Farmers tend not to be this second kind of person. In fact we tend not to be either person. We don’t enter farming to collaborate with people and start a business… we enter farming to escape people, enjoy the beauty of pastoral solitude, and maybe write the millionth freaking city-to-farm memoir wherein the author waxes redundant about “OMG I fell in cow poop!” and “OMG the rooster crowed!”

In one of the few books of this type worth reading, Joel Salatin makes an important point that there are “people that farm with money, and people that farm for money.” The former are hobby farmers and, while I wish them well, this article isn’t for them. This article is for people who, like me, want to make a comfortable living from ecological farming and JUST ecological farming. To that end, I’ll say that farming is just like any other business, and the more successful among us will be those that surround ourselves with talented people. The more good people you surround yourself with, the more surface area fortune has to latch onto.

I don't know what fortune looks like.

I don’t know what fortune looks like.

In my own operation, my wife and in-laws are everything. My wife is the empress of regulatory compliance, PR, and value-added products. My mother in law is the expert in horticulture and customer networking. My father in law is a general contractor and the reason nothing I’ve built has yet fallen down. My brother in law is something of an expert in avant garde methods of fundraising and crowdsourcing. So while my own talents lie in animal and pasture/forest production and strategic planning… they’d mean nothing if we couldn’t comply with state food regulations (my wife), secure loyal and repeat customers (mother in law), build facilities that didn’t fall down (father in law), or obtain seed funding through Kickstarter (brother in law).

Beyond that, I frequently rely on the help of friends and other family members to lighten the load or speed things up on physical tasks. When you’re accustomed to working by yourself, you’ll be amazed at how incredibly easy things seem to get when you add just one more person. When you get farming, be aggressive about getting help and complementing your weaknesses. You’ll be the better for it.

*Being financially successful does not mean you’re not struggling. If you’re working 60+ hour weeks, can’t take a vacation (without working), and don’t seem to have time for anything that isn’t work or materially-oriented play… your soul is undergoing atrophy, and you will pay the price sooner or later.

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

Click here for the second article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part II: The Renegade Generation

*     *     *

Here’s one great thing about Millennials: they don’t want to live in traditional suburbs. The sterile, cookie-cutter, vinyl-sided planned developments filling the space immediately surrounding cities are arguably among the most poisonous, least productive, wholly-uninspried landscapes on the planet. Suburban landscaping says little more than “at least I’m not concrete.”

Cities themselves, however, are generally too expensive to offer Millennials the space they’ll need to raise the families that, though they’re doing it later than their parents, they still very much want to have. And so this generation will move to the area outside the cities, and reinvent them completely. In fact it’s already begun; next time you’re driving through the closest-in suburbs of a major city, take a good hard look at the kind of development taking place. Real estate developers are finding higher demand and profits in mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods where all necessary amenities are located within walking distance of the residential units, lawns are replaced with common areas, room are smaller, hallways shorter, and bathrooms/kitchens more chic than grand.

This applies, of course, mostly to new development. There are countless suburbs of the old “white picket fence” model that will wind up coming on the market sooner or later, and it’s in these wasteful spaces that the Millennial’s appetite for change and transformation could revolutionize the way we live… and especially the way we eat.

Next time you’re taking a walk through a suburban neighborhood, take a look at all the lawns. The medians. The park and recreation areas. While you’re looking at them, think about this: a mature permaculture food forest can produce six million food calories on an acre, in a year. That’s the equivalent of 4,000 lbs of beef and enough food to feed eight people for an entire year. Assuming I’m off by half since we’re not raising any animals in the suburbs, that’s still enough to feed four people for a year.

Now imagine your typical suburban development with a 200 units sporting 0.2 acre lawns. That’s 40 acres without counting all the medians, common areas, and woodlots – and it’s enough space to easily provide a free organic lunch every single day to each and every person in the neighborhood. Imagine the amount of money households would save! The average worker spends about $2,000 a year on lunch. Doubling this figure to account for most suburban households having two workers (but leaving the estimate conservative since we’re not accounting for children) means the food forest would save the entire 200 household neighborhood close to $1 million annually. That’s going to be important as adult Millennials are predicted to enjoy lower inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents.

The environmental and aesthetic benefits are manifold. Food forests are polycultures that don’t have to be mowed, weeded, or artificially fertilized. Car-averse Millennials could narrow the roads in the neighborhood to encourage bicycles and more space for planting. Less impervious surface area coupled with a multi-story food forest means less runoff, flooding, and pollution. Finally, tree guilds are quite beautiful as they rely on a dozen or more different species planted together. The boring tree-mulch-grass trio common in suburbs today would be replaced by guilds of apples, comfrey, lupins, clover, daffodils, dill, fennel, chives, and chicory growing on every non-concrete surface in the neighborhood.

These benefits also wind up in your pocketbook as your HOA doesn’t have to spend money on lawnmowing, trimming, pruning, mulching, and annual ornamentals. The runoff reduction, if the food forest model were adopted among enough neighborhoods, would curtail runoff to the point where stormwater taxes could be halved, the costs of treating water quartered, and the price of environmental cleanup transferred to the corporations and factory farms doing most of the polluting.

You get all this just by changing the way we “decorate” the suburbs, and the seeds of that change are already being planted. Many universities and regional parks are already adopting the concept of “edible landscapes,” and it’s only a matter of time before a critical mass of individuals decides that it’s silly not to grow food right where they live. And there’s no reason this revolution couldn’t happen in workspaces either, as office parks suffer the same uninspired landscaping as most suburbs. Office food forests could save employees money and save the employer lost productivity as workers no longer need to take time to drive to lunch. Supporting all this could be an entire new industry of farming-as-a-service rising from the ashes of the landscaping industry, as the latter trades in its lawnmowers and hedge trimmers for greenhouses and harvesting tools.

The possibilities of this new model of sustainable food production are positively endless.

*          *          *

Part IV of this series will be released on December 23, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

*     *     *

Go to reuters.com, nytimes.com, npr.org, wsj.com or the website of just about any other major news outlet. On each of those sites, check out their major topics. Then drill down into those one or two levels and check out the subtopics. Notice what you haven’t found in a single one of them? The topics of sustainability and the environment.

The lack of primacy and general visibility afforded to sustainability is a glaring indicator of our general attitude toward the subject: It’s someone else’s problem. To be sure, you can find environmental writings on any of these websites if you search for them… but you do have to search for them, which means you have to already have an interest in the topic.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to search for the latest nonsense Kim Kardashian was involved in, the launch of the next Apple product, the latest unfortunate thing said or done by some politician, or what the stock market did today. These things wind up front and center under the main media topics of Style, Fashion, Politics, and Business, shoved into our faces whether we want to know about them or not.

What we see, and don’t see, on these websites reflects a striking public dissonance on the environment. Most people seem to believe that climate change and environmental degradation a.) are occurring, and b.) pose existential threats to humanity, yet these problems are afforded a measure of practical seriousness so small that critical environmental problems literally starving millions of people require a search feature, while the score of an NFL game involving two teams that aren’t even in playoff contention (I’m looking at you, NFC East) finds itself on the front page above the fold. How can we explain this? I pose the following:

  1. People in developed nations are, by and large, not yet directly and materially affected by environmental issues. As explained in part I, environmental problems are the kind that will hurt our great-grandchildren, not us. The problems are important but not urgent, and therefore are not afforded gravity in a culture obsessed with short-term-everything.
  2. People in developed nations believe that technology and financial wealth will either curtail environmental degradation or, failing that, insulate them and future generations from the consequences.

There isn’t much that can be done about the first item. Self-destructive short-term thinking is the inevitable long-term result of a society whose culture promotes material wealth as its highest calling, and over the past few centuries has systematically exterminated cultures offering appealing alternatives.

Regarding the second item, a good friend of mine once told me, “I tell my kids to go to school to get good jobs and make as much money as they can. If you have money, you don’t have to worry about how stuff works.” He wasn’t being completely serious, but there’s a kernel of truth to the statement that underlies our rationale for not taking environmental issues seriously: we regard money as the Great Insulator. Whether it’s conscious or not, an awful lot of us believe that a healthy bank account will somehow protect us when the air is too poisonous to breathe, the water too filthy to drink, and food impossible to grow.

We don’t ignore the environment entirely, of course. We toss our soda cans into special recycling bins, drive Volts and Priuses and Leafs, become vegetarians, and shut off the lights when we leave a room. These little things constitute “doing our part,” but ultimately we’re hoping for some magic bullet(s) to do the heavy lifting and spare us any substantial changes in lifestyle. So we look to innovations in technology (e.g. offshore wind farms, hydroelectric cars), policy (e.g. cap and trade, farm bills), or some combination of the two (e.g. municipal composting), only to watch in horror as even these limited solutions are ripped to shreds by interests possessing no concerns beyond the next quarterly earnings call. It’s at that point, I suppose, that we tell our children to accumulate lots of money so they can eat it once there’s no more food, potable water, or clean air for that money to buy. Or maybe we think the money will secure a berth on Elysium.

Interestingly, however, it seems that a lot of kids aren’t buying what the parents are selling. Millennials will be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents, and the first generation to be denied the American Dream since its inception. As dreadful as that may sound, I believe this is where the best hope for a sustainable future lies. Millennials and the generations that come after them are going to redefine the American Dream, because they’ll have no other choice. And the characteristics of this generation that will define a new social, cultural, and economic order are looking rather promising.

Unlike the previous few generations, most Millennials won’t scoff at the notion of homesteading, being organic farmers, working in skilled trades, or creating technology to be offered to the world for free. They prioritize relationships over careers and wealth, probably because the latter feel hopelessly out of reach. They love modern technology, but not to the exclusion of the value of ancestral knowledge. It’s a generation that wants to travel, meet people, share ideas, and volunteer for reasons not related to their resumes. It’s the first generation in recent history searching for meaning beyond the context-free pursuit of profit, accumulation of wealth, and advancement of technology.

In adopting these values, Millennials are balking at the prospect of adopting a socio-economic model, created by Gen X and the Boomers, that doesn’t include a mechanism to thrive beyond its creators. They’re the Renegade Generation that just might save us all by turning their backs on the traditional notion of the American Dream, and the traditional tools for achieving it.

*     *     *

Part III of this series will be released on December 16, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Sustainability Rant is a multipart series from Sylvanaqua Farms about the need for sustainability to become a ubiquitous concern in American life.

Part I: Canaries in Camouflage

Environmentalists aren’t going to save us. Neither will America’s wealth or power.

Let’s examine a few facts:

  • Air quality is decreasing
  • The planet is warming (regardless of the cause, yes, it’s happening)
  • The rivers are polluted and starved of oxygen
  • The oceans are filthy and being precipitously depopulated
  • Land is desertifying at a terrifying clip
  • Storms are intensifying
  • Soil is becoming sterile, then eroding
  • Pollinators are dying
  • Species diversity in plants and animals is vanishing.
  • “Pests” that attack our food supply are getting harder to kill

Take a minute to re-read the list when you’ve slowed down for a moment. When you’re not commuting to work, or arranging play dates, or picking the kids up from soccer practice, or worrying about a deadline, or checking Facebook statuses and Twitter updates, or sending text messages. Read this list after you’ve had five minutes to unplug, to sit down, and to do absolutely nothing. Find a moment in which the stillness lets you hear nothing but the passing of air through your lungs and the beating of your heart – the simple, unconscious things without which your life, as busy and important as it is, would cease in an instant.

Done? Found your center? Good, let’s continue the discussion with some better news.

Here are some things that probably won’t happen in your lifetime:

  • The air gets too poisonous to breathe without machines
  • The planet warms to the extent that few regions are able to grow food
  • The rivers become undrinkable
  • The oceans rise and warm to an extent that changes weather patterns permanently and catastrophically
  • Hurricanes are the size of continents and routinely kill thousands of people, even in developed countries

That’s good news! The bad news, however, is that it’s well within the realm of possibility that these things will happen within the lifetimes of our great grandchildren. If you’re 30 years old and have a child today, the lives of your grandchildren would, more or less, span 60 to 140 years from now. It’s not crazy to think the Earth, even (and perhaps especially) in the developed world, could be utterly uninhabitable in the next century and a half.

Why isn’t that a crazy thought? Because I asked old people.

In the 1940s, my grandfather Ernest could walk into the Potomac River with a big net, scoop it in a long circle around him, and come up with a net full of blue crabs. Oysters and clams were similarly bountiful. And we’re not talking about some idyllic location in the rural upper reaches of the Potomac. My grandfather pulled this stunt in southern Prince George’s County, MD within eyesight of the nation’s capital, where his and my ancestors had similarly fed themselves for at least a thousand years prior.

Seventy years later, the crabs my grandfather ate all summer long for free are now $140 a bushel at the Wharf. The oysters he harvested on God’s dime to accompany pre-hipster PBR while he and his friends played Tonk now sell for nearly $30 a dozen at Hank’s Oyster Bar. It took just seven decades of overfishing and environmental degradation to turn what was once a staple meat along the Potomac into a delicacy that even bespoke-suited K Street lobbyists can’t afford eat everyday.

You don’t have to go back to World War II to see this kind of difference. Ten years ago, my father-in-law’s fishing trip on the lower Potomac yielded an unbelievable catch of stripers, croaker, spot, and perch. Last month’s fishing trip yielded literally nothing that could be kept. Vegans and animal rights activists bemoan the existence of hunters and fishermen, but the former would do well to recognize the latter as a very useful component of the sustainability machine: they are the camouflaged canaries in the coalmine of environmental sustainability. And they’re not singing.

If you ask any seasoned hunter of fisher(wo)man how their last outing was compared with a decade or two ago, it’ll probably elicit a despondent grunt. Unless, of course, that person is a deer hunter. Deer populations are exploding in the east as the animals enjoy an environment utterly devoid of predators, unless you count Toyotas. Couple that with habitat being continually compressed by urban sprawl, and you wind up with deer hunts that are like turkey shoots, while the actual turkey shoots turn up nothing.

Moral concerns about game sports aside, what is not debatable is that “sportsmen” are the first people to really notice when something is off in the natural world. They notice it even before farmers because, unlike farmers, sportsmen harvest their food from animals whose fate is directly pegged to that of their immediate environment. As that environment thrives or degrades, so too does the animal live or die, and that right soon.

In farming – even pasture-based farming – things aren’t so elastic. The pastured poultry farmer brags about his phalanx of corn-fed broilers injecting organic nutrients and building topsoil while staying mum on the 500 acre monocrop corn field that feeds those chickens while decimating the organic life in, on, and above the soil which, incidentally, is eroding. It’ll take awhile, perhaps centuries, but ultimately the corn monocrop will fail (either by refusing to grow or becoming impossibly expensive) and thereby starve the chickens on that pasture.*

Whereas the Rockfish succumbs to environmental degradation almost immediately, the pastured chicken endures for a hundred years, but only by transferring the environmental damage to a slowly-dying cornfield. Thus will environmental degradation spare us, only to starve our great-grandchildren. Toby Keith has the luxury to wax myopic about “both ends of the ozone burnin’, funny how the world keeps turnin’,” but his great-granddaughter won’t. She’ll be too busy battling skin cancer because her great -granddaddy didn’t give a shit.

Over the next 140 years and through the lives of your great-grandkids, as the population and demand for resources increase at a greater-than-linear pace, we can only expect the stories of my grandfather and father-in-law to accelerate in severity. We can also expect the stories to bleed out of the realm of outdoor recreation and into the Earthly Trinity that keeps us alive: air, water, and food. And be warned, America: neither our money, nor our power, nor an elite cadre of environmentalists, will save us.

Unless, of course, we change the way we use our money, power, and environmentalists…

*Incidentally, this is why Sylvanaqua made the strategic decision to move from pasture systems to permaculture systems.

Part II of this series will be released on December 9, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms