Happy Thanksgiving and or Hybrid Hanukkah. Here is one of my earlier Hanukkah posts, from when this blog was still a baby. I hope you spend the day with lots of loved ones today!
When I was in middle school, there was a group of farm kids who wore letterman jackets with the word “Farmer” on the back instead of “Football”. I remember them all leaning against the brick building at recess in their matching jackets looking intimidating. They were all boys. I thought the farm kids were a little scary, tough, and course. In hindsight I cheer for these kids, proud to grow up on farms way back in the 80’s long before farmer was equated with hipster or anything remotely cool. But at the time, I had nothing to do with the farm kids.
Actually, there is one exception. I remember that there was one farm kid, who everyone thought was the biggest, meanest and toughest of them all. But it was probably just that he was the biggest, an eighth grader already the size of a grown man. And I was a new shy and small sixth grader who stepped in front of him in the hall one day and tripped him.
He came down hard, notebooks splaying, and pens rolling away. I was terrified, and expected him to exact immediate, violent and humiliating revenge. Instead, he rose next to me like a giant and then reached down to give me a gentle pat on the head. “That’s ok,” he said before gathering his stuff. After that he would smile at me in the halls. But I kept right on fearing the farm kids.
But by my first year in college, I was transformed into a farmer myself growing food for a food bank and falling in love with all of it. And now that I am raising my own little future farmers, I want to make sure they don’t absorb the same tired ideas about farmers I had as a kid. I am sensitive to it and weed out plenty of children’s books where the farmers are too simple, too gritty or too much the punch line.
Last week, my first grader brought home an assignment from school to disguise paper cut out of a turkey so it could fool the farmer and not become thanksgiving dinner. I get that the point of this story is the plucky, heroic turkey but the farmer comes off looking pretty silly since he is supposed to believe a turkey in a tiara is a princess and a turkey in a football helmet is an NFL player.
I don’t want to exaggerate my reaction, I get that this is mild and we are still having fun with the assignment. I just think that in the big picture we should be moving past these kinds of images of farmers as fools. I suggested to my son that we need to remember that farmers are not easily fooled, especially by their own animals and plants. He has been working on camouflaging his turkey with autumn leaves rather than trying to turn it into a ninja, or superhero, or whatever. I realize it is not earth shattering either way, but I still think we should be careful of passing on old tired stereotypes like the old, simple farmer to the next generation.
Others are working to broaden ideas farmers beyond Old McDonald. I just learned about a photographer who is capturing images of women farmers to help broaden ideas about who can be a farmer. We still more of this, new songs, children’s books, and school assignments to ensure we are moving forward. In the meantime, let’s remember to teach our children that there are all kinds of farmers in the world.
The rushed Jewish holidays and fall chill make this November feel much more like December. For anyone who has missed the excitement, the first night of Chanukah is the same as thanksgiving this year. It will not happen again for about seventy thousand years, so there has been lots of hype and strange recipes floating around. Hard frosts have made instant memories out of so many plants, cosmos and basil, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. We are still pulling off the last tomatoes (from another hoophouse), but they are mealy and sad now.
But look, hope grows in our new hoophouse (auto-correct keeps insisting I change hoophouse to flophouse so I am going to cave on this one). This morning we pulled baby radishes, sprigs of parsley and some spicy arugula from the ground. We even found a few cabbage loopers, a nasty pest that is almost cute on this scale. They seemed drunk and slow but still found their way to the kale. On this scale we could flick them off like we used to do in our tiny front yard garden in Takoma Park and drown them in a cup of dish soap. That was before we decided to jump in with both feet and become (deep breath) “farmers”, such a small but all encompassing and intimidating word for us. It has taken a decade to own it. Or maybe a generation because our son wrote the words, “I am a Farmer” with zero irony right in the center of his first grade “about me” poster last week, awesome.
This winter our farm will shrink into what can fit into our own little
hoopflophouse. Harvests will fill salad bowls instead of bushels and crates. I am pretty excited about it! Happy first frost and near full moon. Thanks for reading!
The FDA is accepting public comments through November 15th on a draft set of regulations based on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Shining a spotlight on food safety is a great idea and something that consumer advocates have been working toward for a long time. Clearly there are safety problems with our nation’s food system, and we have seen what happens when unsafe food gets into the marketplace. Unfortunately, the draft rules have some real problems and could undermine small vegetable farms like my own. Please take action by hopping over to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s website where they do a great job of explaining what is at stake and make it easy for growers or consumers to make a difference by sending comments to the FDA.
Fear the Turtle – Really?
The FSMA issue first grabbed my attention when I attended my Maryland state organic farmers meeting last winter and listened to a presentation about the draft rules. To my surprise, the presenter showed a slide of a box turtle under a tomato plant and described the turtle as a “dangerous intruder” because it could carry pathogens. Other red flags in an operation included farming near waterways and wooded areas where wildlife abound and including animals in your farm operation.
My husband and I run a small CSA based farm raising vegetables and flowers in Maryland just 20 miles from Washington, DC. We have been growing vegetables for more than 10 years for people who live around our farm and in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington DC. We always considered the natural landscape around our farm an asset. The wooded areas and small streams that surround our farm help ensure that our farm remains relatively free of chemical pollution and runoff. We even have a few natural predators like foxes, owls, snakes and bats that reduce pressure from insects and groundhogs.
When you look at food safety entirely through the lens of biological threats, wildlife like birds and turtles are perceived as dangerous invaders. On the other extreme a farm near polluting industry might appear “safe” because it is already free of wildlife. We cannot grow healthy food in a landscape scrubbed of natural elements or sterilized by chemicals. Consumers are clamoring for natural, organic food that is free of chemical pollution. We need rules that encourage farming with nature.
We need to take a broad and comprehensive approach to food safety. Addressing food safety by focusing on biological pathogens without consideration of the impacts of chemical agriculture on workers, consumers and the environment is a lost opportunity. We need to broaden the scope to include the dangers of chemical pesticides, overuse of antibiotics, threats from genetically modified crops and other critical issues. An effort like this would need to involve multiple agencies beyond the FDA and include input from the EPA, the USDA, state agricultural agencies, farmers, environmental groups, consumers and others.
Farming with Neighbors
There is another piece of the proposed FSMA rules which may have negative unintended consequences for rural life. The rule seems to discourage farmers from working together by classifying a farm as a “facility” if the farmer buys fresh produce from another farm. Facilities are regulated by another new set of draft rules which can be expensive and time consuming to understand and follow.
In our experience one of the best ways farmers can support each other is by buying or swapping from one another. It can take the edge off a horrible crop loss, provide support to neighbors and build real rural partnerships. When farmers buy from each other they also stop and talk, sometimes share supplies and basically start knitting together rural community. But since that simple act could magically transform your farm in to a facility, the new rules could discourage farmers from working together.
On our farm we have made a conscious effort over the years to support other farms. I believe the results have been positive for our community. My husband convinced a Mennonite farmer to try organics; another nearby farmer has emerged from retirement to farm alongside us. We trade produce all the time to fill each other’s CSA boxes, we share fields, equipment and most importantly friendship. Sometimes it is only another farmer that would understand what it feels like to see your apple orchard nibbled down to stubs because starving deer broke the fence. We need each other and we are so busy that sometimes buying and selling is what brings us together.
Everybody knows how fragile rural communities are today. But thanks to the local food movement we are finally seeing some signs of recovery especially in the organic sector and local food movements. We should be coming up with ideas to support rural community, not unravel it further.
FDA Need to Rework these Regulations with an Eye on Small Farms
When I first learned about FSMA in a presentation I saw last winter, I left disheartened and feeling like we should give up vegetable farming or fall back on non-food crops like flowers. But there are only so many sunflowers and zinnias the local market can absorb before saturation. And people want okra, tomatoes, kale, arugula and lettuce. In fact they need these vegetables, because these foods are healthy and that is really the whole point of farming anyway.
The FDA should take a much closer look at how these regulations could harm small growers or cast doubt over the safety of local food. The rules need to be rewritten with farmers at the table to ensure justice and continued viability for small farmers. Each component of the rule needs to be based on the best available science and have clear grounding in the realities of farming in diverse environments across the country. The FDA should find ways to encourage farmers to continue raising healthy vegetables for their communities.
The FDA should listen to the comments coming in from farmers, consumers and sustainable farming advocates and go back to the drawing boards. They need to consider the big picture of food safety including threats from GMOs, antibiotic use and conventional pesticides to workers, consumers and the environment. Each aspect of these regulations needs to be discussed with a broad group of farmers from across the country to ensure that responsible growers can continue to grow food in compliance with the rules. Now is our chance to craft rules that make logical sense and address all of the threats to our food supply from chemical pollution to biological pathogens. Together we can make our entire food system safer for everyone and nurture rural communities.
Please join me in sending comments to the FDA on this issue though the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s website which includes lots more information.