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Why Farming Is Important

Posted 5/13/2020 8:21am by Asgaard Farm.

Remarks by David Brunner to the Adirondack Council Annual Meeting, July 14, 2012
Asgaard Farm, Au Sable Forks, NY  

The kind of farming we do around here can go by a lot of different names these days: organic, natural, sustainable, local, family farming or farmsteading.  Some people simply call this kind of farming crazy!

The kind of farming I would like you to imagine is the farming of our grandparents; an earlier time when most everyone lived on a farm or knew someone who did; the kind of farming I was fortunate to see growing up in rural northeastern Ohio and Rhonda knew as a child in eastern Tennessee.

Rhonda and I settled in the Adirondacks almost 24 years ago. We’ve noticed change in the past decade or so. Small-scale farming seems to be making a comeback in this region.  And so it is at Asgaard! 

 

I always wanted to farm. I thought I made that perfectly clear when I ran away from the bus on my first day of school. My mother put me in her car and followed behind the bus all the way to an incredibly embarrassing school entrance! I felt I was unfairly taken away from an already well-established routine down the road early each morning to help Mr. B and my buddy Rich with chores. I started sweeping and cleaning pens and then worked my way up to handing out feed to the cows one by one as they were milked in their stanchions. To a 6-year old boy it seemed like important work. 

I never thought much about why farming is important. I knew it was, but I always struggled to explain it. Lately I have given this question some thought: Why is farming important? I can think of 3 good reasons.


1. You can make great food on a farm.
2. Farming can be an important contributor to our local economies.
3. Farming is great conservation.

1. You can make great food on a farm.
If it has been awhile since you’ve had farm fresh milk or cheese or eggs, pasture-raised chicken or pork or grass-fed beef, then you really should try it again. Once you do, it is hard to go back to mass-produced food.

The great chef and local food expert, Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns just north of New York City, makes the connection between farm fresh food and great taste. He claims that "without properly raised lamb and thoughtfully raised carrots you cannot prepare a delicious lamb and carrot dish – even the greatest chef cannot do that."

Beth Spaugh, a friend and local grower up here, expresses it slightly differently.  She says with farm fresh food you don’t need to be a good cook. 

In addition to taste, farm fresh food is good for you. There are many studies and statistics demonstrating the merits of farm fresh food: the omega 3 profile of grass-fed meat, the lower cholesterol in eggs from pastured chickens, the vitamins contained in freshly picked vegetables, and so on. A recent New York Times op-ed piece by Jeff Leach of the Human Food Project even suggests that putting some farm fresh dirt back in the human diet will bolster our immune systems that are compromised by the increasingly sterilized environment we have created for ourselves, somehow leading to a host of allergies.


Beyond good taste and nutrition, what about our connection to and responsibility for our own food? Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.” Now, farming is not for everyone. But have we lost sense of what good food really is and what it takes to make it? Can a new generation of local producers of fresh vegetables, meats and dairy products renew the essential connection between who we are and how we eat? I think so.



2. Farming can be an important contributor to our local economies.

I believe that every discussion on the development of our local economy must start with farming, food, and feeding those who live nearby. The area around these parts was once known as the Adirondack Crescent. Grain grew in abundance and grass flourished everywhere, feeding livestock from which artisans made cheese and other dairy products. This region hosted over 600 farmstead dairies at the turn of the century—the 20th century that is: producing cheese that fed us and was even shipped around the world. Essex County alone boasted annual production of nearly 100,000 pounds of cheese.

Today our food dollars largely leave our region to the makers of processed food elsewhere. If it is true that we can produce great food on small farms here and everybody is a potential customer (everybody eats), why isn’t the commercial potential obvious? There are a few commonly held myths about why it can't be done, which I will try to dispel.

Fresh food is difficult to produce. The work is too hard. No one will do it anymore.
Well, this appears to be changing. Yes, small-scale farming is difficult, the hours are long and unpredictable, and the work is hard. But we see today some of the most talented people you can imagine ready to farm. The new interest in farming came as a very pleasant surprise to Rhonda and me as we put Asgaard back into production. We have a great crew here: local talent and young people new to the area, some educated at schools in the region and others at universities across the country. We could not achieve what we are trying to accomplish at our farm without them. We are trying to provide a decent living with benefits, including housing, to encourage this new generation of farmers. Will the interest last? I hope so.


Small scale farming doesn't work in today’s climate. It cannot be profitable.
This is a good point. Small-scale farming is not a piece of cake. It is a huge challenge to make these businesses work, but there is growing evidence that sustainability can be achieved.

One key economic principle for small-scale farming, I believe, is what we called back home the “long dollar”. Simply stated, this means: straight from farm to consumer. This direct relationship enables farms to capture the entire margin.

It means the farmer can offer prices at which he or she can pursue a broad, local customer base.  It also means farms must excel in marketing and sales, as well as all the skills and abilities required of farming and adding yet another challenge.

With the creative skills of a new generation, new social media tools, and development of new concepts such as community supported agriculture (CSA), where loyal customers commit in advance and even share in the risk, I believe we can meet the marketing challenge and, on top of that, create an avenue to reconnect people with the source of their food.

The market is limited. Farm fresh food is for “people with means”.
This idea has always surprised me.   When I was growing up, it was the folks on a tight budget who grew a garden, raised a few chickens, and bought local.  This is certainly the vision we have for Asgaard: we aim to sell locally. Neighborhood first, community second, and then our region. We believe that appreciation of the real value of farm fresh food is returning. We are competing with the cheapest food in history, reduced by half in proportion to disposable income during our lifetime. We have great local support for our products. Through direct sales we think prices can be maintained at acceptable levels.

Artisanal cheese sales in New York City? Well, Rhonda gets the necessary American Cheese Society Awards and sales in the Big Apple may be good for the ego and may well be necessary, but we believe the focus should be local.

I have one last point on the impact that farming can have on local economies. Local economic development is driven both by producing and selling locally. We see also that farming can create related business opportunities thus recycling dollars over and over in our community.

Let me give an example. We’ve always taken the product of our annual winter pine logging harvest to Ward Lumber just 6 miles down the road. We also buy plenty of construction materials (sometimes getting our own logs back as pine siding boards—a Ward specialty). Ward Lumber, by the way, is a 4th generation local company. Jay Ward noticed the resurgence in local farming and, always with a keen eye for business opportunity, recently jumped onto the farming bandwagon. Ward Lumber now promotes a wide range of livestock growing and processing seminars to support a new feed business. Jay Ward knows about marketing. Ward has diversified its customer base. Business appears to be good. 


They have become one of the largest suppliers to Asgaard, selling us feed and supplies. Ward also sells us the sawdust we use for bedding from sawing up the logs we sent over there in the first place! The dollars they pay us for our pine logs come right back for boards, sawdust and feed. And then, Jay is often in the store at Asgaard! My point is that with enterprising local businesses, small-scale farming can create related opportunities and local dollars will re-circulate.  

 

 


3. Farming is great conservation.
On this point, in front of the membership of the Adirondack Council, I expect I am in knowledgeable company. But nonetheless, allow me to make an illustration of the conservation potential of small-scale farming. Often in business we deal with trade-offs, balancing short-term benefit against long-term costs. Evaluating such environmental cases is certainly the important province of the EPA who is honored here today. What is quite remarkable about small-scale farming is that we see many examples of alignment: cases where what is good in the short run is also good in the long run.

Let’s take the case of rotational grazing. The best thing you can possibly offer cows that are built to eat forage is a fresh patch of grass each day. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm calls the product of this practice ‘salad bar beef’.  Believe me, you can taste it in your steak. And how do you best promote the health of your soils and the growth of your grass in the long run? Well, you move cows though paddocks a day at a time, allowing the nutrition to settle and the grass to recover, extending roots deep into the soil. And fertilizer, well, 50 pounds of manure come out the back end of each of those smiling grazers each day, evenly spread and gently pressed into the ground.  Bill van Stockum, the greatest fence builder in the North Country, reminds us about our cattle operation: “Those cattle are managing your grass,” he tells me, “the beef is a by-product!” The best short-term practice to grazing our pastures for our cattle is the best long-term approach for our pastures. We expect to increase our pasture productivity by 2 or 3 times.

This is one of many such examples of the reinforcing nature of small-scale farming systems: frost seeding clover in grain crops for weed control and nitrogen fixation, cows as dead-end hosts for the parasites which threaten our goats, chickens spreading cow pies and feasting on bugs, discarded whey from cheese-making feeds the pigs, and so on. If farming is great conservation, then how do we preserve more of it? Well, this is a challenge.  Wendall Berry, the great thinker and farmer from Kentucky, expresses concern in his writing that when we preserve important lands we don’t often focus on farming.  He says, “Land that is used will be ruined unless it is properly cared for.” 

Fortunately for us, great work in this area is done by land trusts including our own Adirondack Land Trust with support from the Adirondack Council, and others. But in order to preserve farm landscape, we need farmers. We need to address the challenge of first stage forest growth where trees quickly emerge in unfarmed farmland. Farmland needs to be farmed, and it needs to be farmed properly. So much of the success in farmland conservation (in my mind) will largely rest with efforts to educate a new generation of farmers and connect them with important farmland. 
We see progress in getting new farmers on farm land; notably the Essex Farm example where Lars Kulleseid, a visionary landowner, supported the efforts of Mark and Kristen Kimball (a story beautifully told by Kristen in her book, The Dirty Life). Fledging Crow, an exciting local grower, is another example of a successful partnership between landowner and new farmers Ian Ater and Lucas Christianson, and I know there will be others.  

Conclusion: How You Can Get Involved

I trust it is by now apparent that I believe small-scale farming is important. For those who would like to participate, what would I suggest? 
 
1.  Get back in the kitchen. Here is another example of the alignment that I spoke of earlier.  The best thing you can do for farming is also one of the best things you can do for yourself! Buy fresh farm products—farmers need this support. Not just the occasional meal, but regularly. We need to change behavior. Make a commitment. (By the way, you’ll have to go seasonal.) Otherwise, get out to the growing list of restaurants around here supplied by local farms: Liquids & Solids, Generations, Eat 'n' Meet and Turtle Island Café (who is feeding us today). Do what we do when you sit down in a restaurant: ask where the meats, the vegetables, the cheeses are from. Those chefs working hard to promote local farms will be delighted that you asked.  

2.  If you’re a regulator or policy-maker, think small and practical. With the move toward higher productivity via large-scale farming over the past 50 years, it appears the rules as now written are difficult to apply to small-scale operations. We are seen to be more the exception rather than the rule these days. Joel Salatin wrote a whole book about the challenges to small-scale farming titled Everything I want To Do Is Illegal! Here at Asgaard we’re not on a mission to change the rules and we appreciate very much the challenging work of our dedicated public servants protecting our food supply. I want also to point out the tremendous support we got from NYS Ag and Markets as we set up our small-scale creamery. But we’ve had our issues too on the subject, and I believe some rules could be made more practical for small-scale farming.  

3.  If you’re a conservation group: Farming should be on the agenda of every conservation group. It certainly appears to be high on the priority list of the Adirondack Council. The good thing about promoting increased farming is that it is an issue upon which everyone seems to agree with potential for land protection, economic development, and good conservation. The work appears to be underway here in the Adirondacks. Beyond that, we need some success stories—we are trying to be amongst those success stories here at Asgaard.  

I am not here to argue that small-scale farming will solve the challenge of feeding a growing population in a world of 7 billion people. But I will argue that small-scale farming has a vital place in our region and in local communities around the world.  The resurgence of small-scale farming is welcome and long overdue.

You know, I think I am one of the luckiest people around because I was introduced to farming at a young age. It seemed like important work to me then, and it still does. 

 

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