Friday, April 24, 2009

Thoughts that keep me up at Night

Last month, I traveled to a farm in search of a water tank. An older farmer who inherited the family farm many years ago owned the farm. A couple at the farm buying hay asked the owner, “What inspiration could an older farmer,” a farmer who has worked the land since his father taught him as his father’s father before him, “lend to our young 22 year old son just getting into farming?” The farmer replied with a weathered smirk, “Your son better not expect to be rich.” My ears perked up with anticipation of what would be said next. He wiped his brow on this very warm March afternoon as he broke it all down. First and foremost, the farmer discussed the price of the land. Fifty acres with a house was set as the average for a small farmer. The average person can maintain about an acre without machinery. Based on this, a need for tractor and other implements is created. The equipment then has a requirement to be maintained along with a constant supply of fuel. From the initial start, this adventurous lad would be in debt about $250,000. He has not even paid for insurance: vehicle, farm, mortgage, liability, life and health if he is lucky. Let alone seed and fertilizer bills. It seems already that this is going to be an uphill battle.

I started to think about other farmers that I know similar to the man in this encounter. Most of this breed is usually older and the farm has been in the family for generations. Those that are middle-aged farmers are unsure if the next generation will even have the ambition to continue. One thing is also true for every seasoned farmer, they know how to take their time. They understand that it is not the notion of coming in first, but that they finish the race. Planting itches are a constant characteristic the wife’s always bring up every spring.

I have heard farmers telling their children to go to school so you can do something better than this, but if farming is in the blood it is in the blood. One of my favorite memories as a child was sitting on the heater with my dad in his old Gleaner combine. I would always fall asleep, as he would harvest soybeans burning the midnight oil. I would only wake if the heater would burn my bottom or we would hit a hole and my head would whack the windshield. There was just something mesmerizing about the reels going around pulling the soybeans in. Having these memories convinces me that most of the startup costs that the old farmer was talking about could be eliminated if your previous generations were farmers.

I have seen a total renovation in the style of the common American farmer in my lifetime. The farmer is looking for improved methods to produce more crop while using less fuel and time. In walks Monsanto. Now the farmer can buy all their seed from one company, but they can never keep their harvested seed for the next year. At planting time inoculants, most harmful to humans, and fertilizers, made from excess bomb compounds, are applied. Now instead of cultivating for weeds you can simply spray to kill them. Amazingly enough the “roundup ready” plants live. What happens to the ground water after the spray is applied? How long will it take for the weeds to adapt to the spray and become immune? The process of making GMO seed is very scary. The cheap commodity crops are processed into millions of different items; some are fed to animals and some we directly eat, which in turn can be found in the aisles of supermarkets across the land and are found in every soft drink out there.

The only word that I would say to a person getting into farming right now is sustainable. You are a steward of the land. You must protect the ecosystem of the soil because the soil is the most important tool on the farm. Let other people struggle to put in commodity crops. Find a market for a specialty crop of yours before you break ground. Use all of the resources of the land to create for your own needs. And then once you get comfortable on your land, go into politics! There is only one farmer in Congress today. We need to stop allowing members of major agricultural corporations to jump back and forth from government positions regulating the small farmer before there ceases to be a small farmer.

About the Author

Matt and Angie Starline grow 7 acres of certified organic produce on their 50 acre farm near Guysville, in Athens County. Matt grew up on a Farm in Adams County, where he spent his High School years growing and selling his own acre of peppers. He is on his fourth year with his own operation. Matt spent five years working at Shade River Farm before starting his own operation.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Athens area organic farmer Stewardship Award winner

Rich Tomsu of Rich Gardens Organic Farm—a certified organic farm in Athens County--is the winner of the 2009 Stewardship Award from the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). This award is given in recognition of outstanding contributions to the sustainable agriculture community and was presented at the 30th annual OEFFA conference.

During his characteristically passionate acceptance speech, Rich recognized Mick Luber, a previous OEFFA Stewardship award winner for introducing Rich and other Athens area growers to the organic movement. Rich harkened back to 1975 when he and his wife Ann Fugate made the “life-changing decision” to buy their farm near Shade, Ohio in southern Athens County. Ann related that the move to the farm was a political decision coming from their desire to feed themselves and others, in reaction to their distrust of the political system at the time.

While accepting his award, Rich framed his work in organic farming as being a part of a “revolution,” that is increasingly becoming a mainstream movement. Rich and Ann trace their farming methods back to the Victory Gardens of World War II. “We never knew any other way to farm but organic,” said Ann.

Rich has been a vendor at the Athens Farmers market since the early 80s and, along with his wife—who is the Athens Farmers Market Association President—has been instrumental in its growth and recognition as one of the top 10 farmers markets in the country (Audubon Magazine, 2006).

Sarah Conley, Athens Farmers Market Manager calls Rich “one of the most impactful farmers on me personally.” From 2002-2003 Sarah worked at his farm, and recalls it as a turning point in her life. “Working for Rich gave me a deep appreciation of organic agriculture. Rich is an asset to the community,” said Conley.

She is one of many Athens area residents who have gained insights into organic agriculture through Rich’s openness and mentoring. Athens OEFFA chapter president Ed Perkins remarked on Rich’s dedication to the organic movement: “Rich has always put his time in to building OEFFA, and to organic agriculture, he shares his knowledge every chance he gets.”

The annual OEFFA conference is the largest gathering of organic farmers, gardeners, agriculture educators, retailers and consumers in the state. More than 700 people attended this year’s conference, The Changing Climate of Agriculture, held February 21 & 22 in Granville, and featured nationally recognized keynote speakers Melinda Hemmelgarn and Fred Kirschenmann, more than 50 workshops, a pre-conference workshop on soil fertility, a kids’ conference, on-site childcare, and Saturday evening entertainment.

OEFFA was formed in 1979 and is a membership-based, grassroots organization dedicated to promoting and supporting sustainable, ecological, and healthful food systems.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chesterhill Produce Auction Buyers and Sellers Orientation

On Thursday April 16 at 1:00 pm, the Chesterhill Produce Auction (CPA) will be hosting a Buyer/Sellers Orientation. Anyone interested in participating in the auction this year is invited to attend.

2009 marks the 5th anniversary of the CPA, and after the success of last year, excitement is growing. The steering committee has been meeting regularly this winter to streamline the event, and several changes and improvements will be unveiled.

In response to requests from our larger buyers, this years sales will feature larger lots, that is five or more cases, going to auction first. This will allow us to better serve the buyers who are often coming from the furthest distance, and will hopefully increase volume sales for our growers.

For buyers interested in retail purchases, our new on site “store” will be unveiled. With the help of steering committee member Warren Fussner and several other community members, an actual walk in store was constructed inside the auction, allowing for increased shopping convenience. This structure was constructed from locally milled woods, much of it also donated.

Food safety expert Hal Kneen, OSU Extension Educator from Meigs County, will be on hand to discuss food safety issues, relevant to both the buyers and sellers. With food safety very much in the news this winter we are all reminded of the important role that Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP plays in the protection of our food system.

May 14th is the opening day for this years Produce Auction, and as always all Auctions will be at 4:00 pm. CPA founders Jean and Marvin Konkle are expecting another straight year of growth, and along with the steering committee invite everyone to participate in what is rapidly becoming a Morgan County Landmark.

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