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Posts Tagged ‘farming’

farming_soul-fire-farms-group-portrait_july2018

Photo: Soul Fire Farm
Run by a collective of black, brown, and Jewish people, Soul Fire Farm works to end injustice within the food system and offers trainings for people of color to learn essential agricultural skills,

I’ve been reading a sad book by Sarah Smarsh called Heartland. It’s about generations of her family on a small Kansas farm, and the subtitle tells it all : “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” So far she hasn’t said anything about today’s young people returning to the land with enthusiasm, which blog followers know is one of my interests. I’m into the chapter about giant agribusiness taking everything over.

But I know there are more stories out there offering hope for small, sustainable farming. Today’s story is about an upstate New York farm that focuses on helping black and brown people learn agricultural skills and fight food injustice.

From the radio show Living on Earth: “Leah Penniman is the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and joins host Steve Curwood to discuss her new book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, and her journey as a woman of color reclaiming her space in the agricultural world. …

“CURWOOD: Tell me a little bit about your journey falling in love with nature and farming, and how it has led you to create your book, Farming While Black.

“PENNIMAN: Well, nature was my only solace and friends growing up in a rural white town. … In absence of peer connection, I went to the forest and found a lot of support and love in nature. And so, when I became old enough to get a summer job, I [was] able to land a position at the Food Project in Boston, Massachusetts, where we grew vegetables to serve to folks without houses, to people experiencing domestic violence. And there was something so good about that elegant simplicity of planting, and harvesting, and providing for the community. That was the antidote I needed to all the confusion of the teenage years. …

“I feel connected to the whole ecosystem, but the plants are incredible. They have these secret lives that we can’t see, or even imagine. So take, for example, the trees of the forest, right? There’s a underground network of mycelium that connects their roots, and they’re able to pass messages and warnings. They pass sugars and minerals to each other through this underground network. And they collaborate across species, across family. And so, when we tune into that, I think we learn something about what it is to be a human being and how to live in community with each other in a way that if we’re not connected to nature, we sort of lose that deeper sense of who we are, who were meant to be.

“CURWOOD: Now, your book is not only a how-to guide for folks who are interested in pursuing a path similar to yours, but it also, well, it has some history, sociology, environmental lessons all wrapped up in this package. Why did you add those additional stories and information in with your guide, rather than it, well, having it be strictly a manual?

“PENNIMAN: Well, I wrote this book for my younger self. So, after a few years of farming, I would go to these organic farming conferences, and all the presenters were white. … In putting together this book, I was really thinking about myself as a 16-year-old and, all the other returning generation of black and brown farmers who need to see that we have a rightful place in the sustainable farming movement that isn’t circumscribed by slavery, sharecropping, and land-based oppression, that we have a many, many thousand-year noble history of innovation and dignity on the land. …

“The raised beds of the Ovambo and the terraces of Kenya, and the community-supported agriculture of Dr. Whatley, those are to remind us that, you know, we’ve been doing this all along, and we belong. …

“CURWOOD: You have a waiting list of people who want to come to Soul Fire Farm and learn how to do this? …

“PENNIMAN: This was something that just surprised me because I thought I was just a weirdo out here, I was going to start this farm with my family, grow food, provide it to those who need it most in the community. And that was going to be it. And I got a call our first year from this woman, Kafi Dixon in Boston who said, you know, through tears, I just needed to hear your voice to know that it was possible for a woman like me to farm, and that I wasn’t crazy, and that there’s hope. Right? And that was the first of thousands and thousands of phone calls and emails to come of folks saying, ‘I need to learn to farm, I want to do it in a culturally relevant, safe, space. I want to learn from people who look like me.’ …

“We’re living under a system that my mentor Karen Washington calls food apartheid. So, in contrast to a food desert as defined by the US Department of Agriculture, which is a high poverty zip code without supermarkets, right, a food apartheid is a human created system, not a natural system like a desert. … There are consequences to that. We see in black and brown communities a very high disproportionate incidence of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, even some learning disabilities, and poor eyesight. …

“CURWOOD: One of the most intriguing sections of your book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land is this explanation of how you can clean up lead-contaminated soil, which you find in so many places in the urban environment. You have a very practical guide as to how you can use natural plants to chelate, that is, to remove lead from the soil, so that it’s safe to grow food there. I don’t think I’ve seen that anywhere else. …

“PENNIMAN: There’s an incredible plant, it’s an African origin plant called Pelargonium or scented geranium, and it’s a hyper accumulator. So, you can plant it, you acidify the soil, you plant it and it will suck the lead out and store the lead in its body. So, then you can dispose of that plant in a safe place. …

“CURWOOD: And what do you think people of color lost when we lost contact with the land?

“PENNIMAN: Certainly not all folks of color, right? Right now, about 85 percent of our food in this country is grown by brown skinned people who speak Spanish. And … it’s a belief in West African cosmology that our ancestors exist below the earth and below the waters, and by having contact with the earth we’ve received their wisdom and guidance. And with the layers of pavement, and steel, and glass, and the skyscrapers, it’s harder to feel that contact. … When folks come to Soul Fire and get their feet back on the earth, what I hear time and again is, I’m remembering things I didn’t know that I forgot.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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Photo: Thomas Newman
Jennifer Sharrock, left, is a beginning farmer in Palmer, Alaska. When she needed land to expand, she was matched with land owner Jan Newman through the Alaska Farmland Trust.

I’ve posted a few times about beginning farmers and, in particular, Letterbox Farm in rural Hudson, New York (here). Sandra’s niece and her partners at Letterbox Farm are perfect examples of a hopeful trend in farming: young people getting serious about agriculture and bringing in new and sustainable approaches. It’s incredibly hard work, but they love it.

Today’s post is also about young people getting into farming and is part of a Christian Science Monitor series on the topic. Reporter Sarah Matusek addresses young farmers’ need for land and creative ways older farmers can provide it.

“Jan Newman became an accidental alpaca farmer. She took up knitting in the 1990s at home in Palmer, Alaska, to supply her first child with natural-fiber clothing, and one thing led to another. She innovated again in 2013 when she founded Grow Palmer, a public food program that plants edible gardens around town. These days, Ms. Newman is pondering retirement. …

“Jennifer T. Sharrock is just starting out. She left an insurance career this year to pursue market farming and permaculture full time through her Seeds and Soil Farm. The beginning farmer began teaching permaculture design three years ago, but her popular classes quickly outgrew her space. Buying more land wasn’t financially feasible.

“So she placed an ad in Alaska Farmland Trust’s FarmLink program, a kind of ‘dating service’ for land seekers and owners. When Ms. Sharrock received an answer to her ad, her heart skipped a beat. She saw it was from Ms. Newman, whom she’d met through Grow Palmer. They also turned out to be neighbors.

“ ‘It’s a match made in heaven,’ said Ms. Sharrock, who has started on four acres of Ms. Newman’s property.”

The two women’s agreement is unlike other FarmLink arrangements.

” ‘There’s actually no money changing hands,’ says Ms. Newman, who calls the younger farmer’s regenerative agriculture plan ‘the best stewardship possible.’ …

“Land-link pairings like the one in Palmer represent one possible step toward solving a nationwide puzzle – how to help experienced farmers exit out of agriculture while building an on-ramp for new producers.

” ‘I get a sense there are more young people who don’t necessarily have farm backgrounds, who are taking agriculture entrepreneur courses, and they are starting to jump into farming,’ says Jim MacDonald, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Along with access to capital, access to land is one of the greatest hurdles faced by beginning producers in the United States. One sign of the barriers to entry: The average U.S. farmer’s age has taken a long-term climb over the past several decades, now reaching 57.5, according to the USDA’s latest census figures. While there has been some increase in the number of producers under age 35 – partly due to how the census now defines them – this group remains vastly outnumbered. …

” ‘As someone retires, that’s an opportunity for two or three other young people. There’s no shortage of people that want to farm,’ says Michael Langemeier, an agricultural economics professor at Purdue University in Indiana. …

“In Alaska, 46% of the state’s producers are beginners – the largest share of any state. Amy Pettit, executive director of Alaska Farmland Trust, says the demand for more locally grown food is one of the factors pulling new farmers north. …

“But buying land for many new farmers remains out of reach. … Land availability is another concern. ..

“ ‘There is a sense of urgency,’ says Tim Biello, who coordinates the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network in New York. ‘The history of our use of agricultural lands suggests that we’re not getting more.’ …

“Launched by the American Farmland Trust, Hudson Valley Farmlink Network is among the most active, with 175 matches since 2014. Mr. Biello, the network’s coordinator, attributes the success to individual attention and relying on the localized expertise of 17 partner organizations. …

“Mr. Biello says that matches shouldn’t be the only metric for measuring a land-link program’s impact. He points instead to the trainings, events, and one-on-one assistance that have reached more than 10,000 farmers and farmland owners. …

“Ms. Newman hopes the new farmer will remain on the land long term.

“ ‘I just can’t wait to see this evolve,’ says Ms. Newman. ‘It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened on the property since our alpacas left.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Sean Powers
Karen refugee Moo Paw shows the vegetables she’s grown at the Neighbor’s Field in North Carolina.

I’m always interested in what Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) are doing as they adjust to new lives in the United States — especially as I know Mia, a Karen woman in one of the Rhode Island English classes where I volunteer.

At the radio show Living on Earth (LOE), there’s an interesting Karen farming story from producer Sean Powers of Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Bitter Southerner podcast.

“BOBBY BASCOMB [LOE managing producer]: The United States has long been a place for political refugees to seek safety and put down roots, in some cases literally. In Comer, Georgia, a community garden called the Neighbor’s Field is helping refugees work through their trauma by working the land. …

“POWERS: It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in Comer, Georgia. Moo Paw is feeding her chickens, hens, goats, and ducks. There’s even a donkey. You could say they’re kind of like her babies. She is one of the many refugees at the Neighbor’s Field, who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar. That’s the country formerly known as Burma. …

“She says Burmese soldiers kidnapped her father, and used him as a porter to carry food for them. After leaving Myanmar, Moo Paw lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the United States with her husband and children. They relocated to the Atlanta area, before settling here in Comer. Her son, Tahay Than, says moving to Comer was to satisfy Moo Paw’s green thumb.

“TAHAY: My mom, where she lived in Burma or Thailand, she always liked to plant. You know, working the farm. So, when she farms, that makes her feel like she is home or something, like in a home country, mother country or something. So that’s why she moved to Comer. …

“PAW: My garden. Here vegetables. Here grass. Me planted the cucumbers this year. Here sweet potato. Very beautiful.

“POWERS: It’s that beauty that takes Moo Paw back to memories of her family. She and her son Tahay say in Myanmar, farming for their family was a way of life.

“PAW: My grandmother planted rice, peanuts. Chili, corn.

“TAHAY: Most of the time, everybody who lived in Burma, they would plant in order to survive.

“POWERS: And that makes this garden all the more meaningful. The vegetables growing here, they don’t look like your typical produce that you would find at most supermarkets in the United States. That’s because the seeds come from Myanmar and Thailand. …

“POWERS: The flavors growing in Moo Paw’s soil are just a small part of the pie. There are two-dozen plots of land at the Neighbor’s Field that are being rented by refugees from Myanmar. For a large plot, it’s a hundred dollars a year. Rebecca Smith [who versees the day-to-day operations at the Neighbor’s Field], says it’s been incredible to see how working the farm helps build community. …

“SMITH: They’re just amazing foragers, they can figure out how to cook everything and make it taste good, and it’s just stuff that we think are weeds. Like sometimes people will be out here just butchering a pig for a celebration or Moo Paw’s out here feeding her chickens and people in the garden and you just feel like you’re in a different world, not Comer, Georgia.”

More at Living on Earth, here. In North Carolina, too, there are Karen refugees working on farms. Read this at Transplanting Traditions.

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Photo: Tom Banse/Northwest News Network
This laser unit is one of six that repel thieving birds from the blueberry fields of Meduri Farms near Jefferson, Oregon.

Are you familiar with the arch-criminal Moriarity, featured in Sherlock Holmes stories? “Moriarity” is what my husband called every devious catbird that got through his garden defenses last summer, eating many of the best berries. No sooner had my husband patched a piece of netting that the birds had sneaked through than they collaborated with one another to extend some tiny opening. And then they would get all tangled up and have to be rescued. (As Kim says, “Catbirds have such disorganized feathers.”)

Suzanne suggested the Scare-Eye Bird Chaser she had seen at a Rhode Island farm, but New Shoreham is too windy for a balloon defense.

A plastic hawk interested the grandchildren, but Moriarity was bored.

Next year it might be necessary to think about lasers.

Tom Banse writes at NPR, “During every berry-picking season in the Pacific Northwest, blueberry and raspberry growers fight to prevent birds from gobbling up the crop before harvest. This year, some farmers are trying something new to scare away the thieving birds: lasers.

“Justin Meduri manages a large blueberry farm and cherry orchard outside Jefferson, Ore. Birds like both fruits.

” ‘Flocks can move in of up to 2,000 to 3,000 starling birds,’ Meduri says. The starlings gorge themselves and knock down berries right as the crop is ready to pick. When he didn’t take countermeasures, Meduri says the damage was ‘inconceivable, huge. We had almost a 20 to 25 percent, maybe even 30 percent damage loss.’

“Meduri says he previously hired a falconer to protect his fields. But the falcons were expensive, temperamental and sometimes flew away. Then last year, he became one of the first farmers in the U.S. to install automated lasers. … Meduri is thrilled with the results.

” ‘[The lasers are] running right now as we speak. You’re out here in over 175 acres of blueberries,’ he says, punctuating the observation with a staccato of hand claps. ‘There’s not one bird that you see flying around.’ Meduri says that had any birds been in the bushes, the clapping would have made them come out. …

“[Laser maker] Bird Control Group started out in Europe, for the most part using lasers to shoo pesky birds away from industrial sites and airports. In the U.S. market, the agricultural industry appears to be the most promising.

“[Director of North American business development is Wayne] Ackermann says some of his initial sales have come from farmers trying to appease neighbors. …

“The silent lasers proved a friendlier — and sometimes better — bird repellent than traditional tools such as propane cannons or squawk boxes. The lasers are also friendlier than using poison or a 12-gauge shotgun.”

On second thought, the price is prohibitive for a backyard gardener, and not enough is known about whether the lasers are harmful to the birds. Researchers at Purdue University are studying that very question. So stay tuned for that — and for more on the misadventures of Moriarity.

The story is originally from the Northwest News Network. You can read the rest of it here.

Photo: Scare-Eye Bird Chaser
Another possible bird-control option if you don’t live in a windy region.

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Fishers Island is located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound. Long a summer enclave for the wealthy, it may soon become known for a seaweed farm in Fishers Island Sound.

When my three-year-old grandchild was upset because the seaweed snacks were all gone, I knew the world had changed. Seaweed snacks? Yes, indeed. Seaweed has become big in the US. It’s not considered an exotic food anymore.

At the Connecticut newspaper the Day, Joe Wojtas wrote recently about one of the many entrepreneurs moving into seaweed.

“A local man is seeking approval from state and local agencies to run a sugar kelp farm in Fishers Island Sound about one mile southeast of Enders Island.

“Thomas Cooke of LionMind Ventures LLC is seeking a permit from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to install up to 10 long lines, each 500 feet long and anchored at each end and in the middle. The kelp seeds are embedded in the ropes when they are put out in the water and then harvested six months later after the plants have grown to 12 feet or more. Cooke said the work will begin in late October and end in May, which means it will not occur during the busy recreational boating season in Fishers Island Sound. …

“Cooke, who now lives on Masons Island and is an attorney, director for a professional choral group and the former Simsbury town administrator, … said he learned about kelp farming a few years ago, when he heard a program on the popular TED Talks series about a New Haven-based organization called Greenwave and its executive director, Bren Smith, who farms kelp in the Sound.

“ ‘It’s really good for the Sound,’ Cooke said about kelp farming. ‘It removes nitrogen and carbon dioxide and leaves a much healthier body of water.’ …

“The uses for nutrient-filled kelp include food — growers like to call it sea greens and not seaweed — cosmetics and fertilizers, just to name a few. Cooke said Greenwave works with kelp farmers to provide seed, find buyers and provide technical advice.

Everyone says it’s the new kale but I think it tastes better,’ he said.

More at the Day, here. I blogged about a Rhode Island kelp farmer here.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries
Here’s what sugar kelp looks like. There are different kinds of kelp, but this is the kind mentioned in the story.

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Illustration: Ben Kirchner
Raduan Nassar was 48 and at the height of his literary fame when, in 1984, he announced his retirement. He wanted to become a farmer.

I liked a recent article in the New Yorker about a Brazilian who left the writing life to become a farmer. Did literary perfectionism stress him out too much, or did farming just seem more real?

Alejandro Chacoff has the story.

“In 1973, the Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar quit his job. After six years as editor-in-chief at the Jornal do Bairro, an influential left-wing newspaper that opposed Brazil’s military regime, [he left] and spent a year in his São Paulo apartment, working twelve hours a day on a book, ‘crying the whole time.’ In ‘Ancient Tillage,’ the strange, short novel he wrote, a young man flees his rural home and family, only to return, chastened and a little humiliated, to the place of his childhood.

“ ‘Ancient Tillage’ was published in 1975, to immediate critical acclaim. … In 1978, a second novel appeared in print; Nassar had written the first draft of ‘A Cup of Rage’ in 1970, while living in Granja Viana, a bucolic neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. It, too, was received euphorically, winning the São Paulo Art Critics’ Association Prize (ACPA). …

Last year, Nassar’s two novels were translated into English for the first time, for the Penguin Modern Classics Series. …

“Nassar was forty-eight and at the height of his literary fame when, in 1984, he gave an interview with Folha de São Paulo, the country’s biggest daily newspaper, in which he announced his retirement. He wanted to become a farmer. … The following year, he bought a property of roughly sixteen hundred acres and began to plant soy, corn, beans, and wheat. …

“Nassar said that farming had always been his main occupation, whereas writing had ‘just been another activity.’ But his life in agriculture did not begin smoothly.

“ ‘For the first six years, we got killed; there were only losses.’ … Like his characters, he appears to have found solace in manual labor. ‘My life now is about doing, doing, doing,’ he told an interviewer, in 1996, when asked how he was faring after his literary retirement. …

“Both [Luiz Schwarcz, the editor-in-chief of Companhia das Letras, the country’s main publishing house,] and [Antonio Fernando de Franceschi, a poet and critic who became a close friend of Nassar’s,] believe that Nassar’s decision to quit came not from a waning of interest but from literary perfectionism. ‘He’s a guy who devotes himself so much to the craft that I think it’s hard for him to feel rewarded,’ Schwarcz said.” More here.

I intend to track down his books.

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When I was at the magazine, I often sought out authors from different regions who could write about the benefits of community gardens to low-income neighborhoods. Kai remembered that and tagged me on Facebook when he posted an article yesterday about a comprehensive farming initiative in inner-city Detroit.

Robin Runyan writes at the website Curbed Detroit, “This week, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) revealed its plans for the first Sustainable Urban Agrihood in the North End.

“Wait, an agrihood? It’s an alternative neighborhood growth model, positioning agriculture as the centerpiece of a mixed-use development. There are some agrihoods around the country, but in rural areas. This is the first within a city.

“MUFI’s agrihood spans three acres on Brush Street, a few blocks up from East Grand Boulevard. MUFI runs a successful two-acre garden, a 200-tree fruit orchard, and a children’s sensory garden. They provide free produce to the neighborhood, churches, food pantries, and more.

“The big part of the announcement was the plan to renovate a three-story, 3,200-square-foot vacant building that MUFI had bought at auction years back. …

“The Community Resource Center will include office space for MUFI, event and meeting space, and two commercial kitchens on the first floor. A healthy cafe will be located on vacant land next to the CRC.

“Tyson Gersh, MUFI President and co-founder, said at the announcement that they want to be the first LEED certified platinum building in Detroit.”

The article credits Sustainable Brands, BASF, GM, and Herman Miller and Integrity Building Group for providing much-needed help on the project.

More here.

Photo: Michelle & Chris Gerard
The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.

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