Sad Face: A Brief Note to My Readers Intended to Fill the Void

So this adjustment out of farming is going to be harder on me than I thought.  My grand plan was to wait it out until I was inspired to write about ag and ag issues again, but in the meantime that meant a crushing silence on Dissertation to Dirt.

I started to feel uncomfortable with that, so I just wanted to let everyone know what’s going on with me.  I’m bummed.  I’ll probably remain bummed for a little while.  Just give me some time to refocus, and I’ll be back.  Thank you all for all the support, sympathy, and hope you have given me during this time.

see more Lolcats and funny pictures, and check out our Socially Awkward Penguin lolz!

Life Off The Farm

I am currently settling into a farm-less life.  We have both found non-ag jobs, and Round Table Farm is closed.  Travis has been hired by a functional landscaping business called Yard Farm. It’s close enough to agriculture that Travis’ abilities transfer easily, but different enough that he has the opportunity to learn new, concrete skills like construction and design and not lopping the tops off overhanging trees.

As for me, thankfully after my contract ended at Urban Roots my stint of unemployment was negligible. An Austin startup company called Key Ingredient found me through this blog and hired me to help them with blogging, social media, and outreach.  Key Ingredient runs a recipe-sharing web site of the same name, and also sells the Demy, the first kitchen-safe recipe reader. It’s a small miracle that I found an opportunity to stay involved with Austin’s food community, who are so supportive of Travis and me. I hope you all will come visit me from time to time on Key Ingredient’s blog, The Back Burner, especially while I make my first introductions to the community there. 

As you know, after a busy first season Round Table farm is on hiatus until we can find a piece of land of our own.  And just like that, farming went from completely occupying the territory of our lives to pitching a flimsy tent along the northernmost border.  Meanwhile, I’m readjusting to office work, washing my hair instead of shoving it under a Callahan’s cap, and wearing kitten heels instead of work boots. Three years ago, I was making that transition in the opposite direction.  Now, coming home in the evening clean instead of sweaty and tired feels odd (I fixed that problem, though, when I realized I could ride my bike to and from the office every day).

Of course I miss the farm work.  I miss the excitement of the new harvest.  I miss business relationships with the great chefs and restaurants in town.  I miss being part of the day.  But I am steeled in our decision.  Our new jobs are providing us the ability to be self-sufficient in the present and to save for the future.  In three years, that was not something farming ever gave us. And after three years, that had to be something we considered. Of course we needed a lot of tools that were not so much farming tools, more like easily recognisable garden tools. We put our life on hold in order to learn how to farm.  Now that we have the skills, we need to take care of ourselves while we look for land. It’s nice to be able to relax occasionally and do something simple but satisfying like mowing the lawn.

Where does that leave this blog? And more importantly, where does it leave our future in farming? Obviously, I’ll be posting fewer personal stories. But I’ll keep bringing you my perspectives on agriculture, especially as it affects new farmers.  My Young Farmer Profiles will be continuing, and I hope to branch out and profile other Austin figures central to the food movement.
Ironically, the path we have followed in pursuit of farming has led us away from agriculture altogether.  I’ve chosen to trust it and hope that if we keep putting ourselves out there, the right opportunity will come along.  Still, we have always said that if farming can’t provide us with a good life, then we just won’t do it.  Removing ourselves from farming has made us have to admit to ourselves that there is a possibility it may not work.  In the end, whatever happens, I hope our story can serve as a springboard for substantive discussions about the state of American agriculture today.

The USDA Loves Subsidies: Do Small Farms Deserve Help Too?

Gene Logsdon, my unspoken mentor (so unspoken that he, in fact, doesn’t know), recently posted an articlepointing to small farming as one answer to the jobs crisis in the US.  If the government would get out of the way of small farms, Logsdon says, we’d all be in a much better spot.
As of now, America’s farms leave room for few employees, and even fewer career seekers.  There is one farmer for every 155 of us, and current farm technology allows for a farmer to grow 5,000 acres of corn with one employee.  On top of that, the farmer will be subsidized heavily by the USDA for doing so.  But the way Logsdon figures it, if one 5,000 acre farm were divided into smaller farms of 300 acres, each run by a family farmer with three employees, these farms could be employing close to 100 people.  And they would be polluting less and supplying their communities with better food.  Multiply that out to the total amount of corn grown in the country this year–90 million acres–and you’re talking about a million new jobs:All government really has to do is provide a level playing field where small intensive farming can compete fairly with large, heavily-subsidized, industrial farming and then stand back. A revolution will take place in new job creation and it will be in the right direction: more good food and a more stable society at a lesser overall cost.
Logsdon’s post begged the question, what would a level playing field for large commodity farms and small farms look like?  Given current rates of subsidy, the farmer growing 5,000 acres of corn has the potential to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government.  Could the USDA eliminate these subsidies and then stand back and let small farms and large farms compete in a fair market?  Given that corn and soy are the foundation of our food system, good or bad, would removing subsidies result in more loss than gain?

Regardless of subsidies, the Organic Farming Research Foundation thinks the government owes small farms more than that.  It recently released this new report for steps the federal government can take to actively support small organic farms, which include an organic farm transition program (though they fail to mention new farmer education).

So what should the government’s role in recreating the food system be?  Should it just get out of the way, or try to fix the problems it has helped create?  To me, it seems that America has deliberately been destroying its farming industry for the last half century.  And if we are serious about reconsidering how American farming does business, it will take significant effort to piece it back together.

Young Farmer Profile #2: Lorig Hawkins at Tecolote

The land east of Austin is a monochrome pallete in the off-yellows of dying plants.  Nowhere was it more stark than when I rounded the curve of pasture that separates Tecolote Farm from Highway 969.  Tecolote is east of downtown Austin, not too far from the fires ravaging Bastrop.  It was obvious; I felt that if I just scuffed my shoes on the grass it might throw off a spark.  At my apartment in the city, we got an hour of rain on Saturday.  As I approached Tecolote’s conjoined fields I called out to Lorig Hawkins, who was pushing a wheel hoe down a bed of newly-seeded beets, asking if they saw any of it.  Not a drop.

Lorig, 27, is the new farm manager at Tecolote Farm, the oldest running CSA farm in Austin.  David Pitre and Katie Kraemer have been farming there since 1994–currently about 10 acres.  Lorig came on as a seasonal employee in March of 2011 with a lot of enthusiasm, but little more than a few months of farm volunteer experience.  By April, David was ready to make her his manager.  Despite being green, Lorig is convinced she was built for farming.  And given the rate at which she’s excelling, it looks like she’s right.

Since graduating from the University of Texas with a double major in RTF and kenesiology, Lorig knew she needed to be working outdoors.  She bounced through a few random jobs–washing windows, working in a coffee shop, dog sitting–until she landed at The Expedition School, where she was charged with guiding hikes through rural Costa Rica a few times a year.  In the spring of 2010, Lorig took a permaculture class in Austin with Dick Pierce, a notable figure in Austin.  During one class they visited several farms in and around Austin, and there Lorig thought she had found her calling.  In proper millenial generation style, she decided to go back to school for agriculture.

Her first season of farm work was everything she wanted.  She sold top-quality vegetables at the downtown farmers market, she learned methods for CSA management, she felt connected to a community with food at the center, and she had work.  Lots of hard, hard work.  “Just doing the work is so rewarding for me.  I really like to push myself and get tired.  Like really, truly, slobbering and falling over kind of tired.”

Aside from physical fatigue, Lorig’s biggest priority in farming is community. She loves the CSA model and the farmers market because it provides a space for interaction around food.  She tells me that she looks forward to being “real” about situations that arise on farms, “like, we don’t have kale this week because of the freeze, or we don’t have beets because of the heat.”  It’s this honesty and personal connection that Lorig admires in her new employers. “Farms have a way of building a community,” she insists,  “I notice how much care Tecolote takes of its members, how much thought goes into their shares, and how honest and passionate they are about their work, and I want to emulate that someday on my own land.” 

Since graduating from the University of Texas with a double major in RTF and kenesiology, Lorig knew she needed to be working outdoors.  She bounced through a few random jobs–washing windows, working in a coffee shop, dog sitting–until she landed at The Expedition School, where she was charged with guiding hikes through rural Costa Rica a few times a year.  In the spring of 2010, Lorig took a permaculture class in Austin with Dick Pierce, a notable figure in Austin.  During one class they visited several farms in and around Austin, and there Lorig thought she had found her calling.  In proper millenial generation style, she decided to go back to school for agriculture.

Lorig doesn’t stop working as she relates her history to me, even though the temperature is approaching triple digits and she is struggling to cut through clay soil with a dull hoe with a wheel attached to it.  “The more I read about it the more I realized that apprenticing on a farm was probably the better way to go.  School is based in research, so I could be researching how this cover crop is better than that one, or how effective CSAs are as a business model, but then you’re not actually farming.”

So while she submitted her applications to graduate schools, she began volunteering at farms and taking some plant biology courses at The University of Texas. It didn’t take her long to realize that she was learning more outside of the classroom than in, and so she began looking for work on a farm in town. That was when she found Tecolote.

Her first season of farm work was everything she wanted.  She sold top-quality vegetables at the downtown farmers market, she learned methods for CSA management, she felt connected to a community with food at the center, and she had work.  Lots of hard, hard work.  “Just doing the work is so rewarding for me.  I really like to push myself and get tired.  Like really, truly, slobbering and falling over kind of tired.”

Aside from physical fatigue, Lorig’s biggest priority in farming is community. She loves the CSA model and the farmers market because it provides a space for interaction around food.  She tells me that she looks forward to being “real” about situations that arise on farms, “like, we don’t have kale this week because of the freeze, or we don’t have beets because of the heat.”  It’s this honesty and personal connection that Lorig admires in her new employers. “Farms have a way of building a community,” she insists,  “I notice how much care Tecolote takes of its members, how much thought goes into their shares, and how honest and passionate they are about their work, and I want to emulate that someday on my own land.” 

Finally pausing to take a drink of water and say hello to her dog, Theo, Lorig quickly picks up a stirrup hoe and begins weeding again.  Having just landed her first fulltime farming job, purchasing her own farm is still a distant dream.  Lorig tells me she’s comfortable staying with Tecalote for as long as she can.  As for where or when she might begin looking for land, she has a hard time saying.  “Farm loans are intimidating, because what if you can’t make it work?  Let’s say you got a loan and started farming this year, during the worst drought in a century!” She shrugs, smiling, “It’s like you’re either all in, or you have nothing.  There’s no one to catch you in that middle part.”  In spite of the inherent risks, though, Lorig is convinced that determination, hard work, and positive thinking will see her through.  “Okay,” she starts, “so I’m not a normal 20-something with a steady job.  And I don’t have a lot of stamina for other pursuits.  And if I ever lose a farming job, I’m not going to be super employable in the normal workforce.  But this is the life I’ve chosen, I love it, and I’m going to find a way to see it through.”

That’s not to say that Lorig would mind seeing the path made a little easier.  At the moment, her biggest challenge is the wide gap she sees between those growing food and those purchasing and consuming it.  Most people don’t know about farms, she says as she turns on water for some thirsty seedlings.  At the same time, farmers are usually too busy and tired to do a lot of education.  One frustration in particular for Lorig is the lack of proper agricultural land available for farmers, especially beginning farmers.  “There’s so much energy put into community gardens and urban green space,” she says, “which are great.  But that’s not food production, not enough to feed a city.  For food production, you need a lot of land.  Right now new farmers have to look for land far outside city limits, but close to the city is the best place for these things to start.  That’s where you really can breed a farming community.  I’d like to see Austin putting some thought into that.”

She pauses for a moment, then continues, as if summing up her feelings, “Farming is often seen as a fad for young people.  Like we’re just riding out a bad economy until we can get a real job.  But this is what I really want to do.  The systems involved in farming, the organization, the constant thinking ahead, how I work physically … there is nothing better for me than farming.” 

Lorig’s excitement as she said this was a lush contrast to the scorched and miserable pasture in which she was standing.  Fully aware of the obstacles in her future and facing a desolating Texas drought in her first year of farming, Lorig stays positively exuberant about her future.  As I walk beside her and talk, she rarely lifts her head as she responds.  She just keeps working.  Even with her physical capacity and intellectual aptitude for agriculture, it’s this determination that may prove to be Lorig’s biggest asset in her new career.

Austin Bakes for Bastrop

Wildfires have burned an area the size of Connecticut around central Texas, nearly 4 million acres.  30,000 acres have been burned in Bastrop alone, just southeast of Austin.  Thousands of people have been affected, and many have lost their homes.  Food bloggers in Austin are getting together to raise funds for the Austin Community Foundation’s Central Texas Wildfire Fund in order to provide some relief to the victims of this disaster.  They’re doing what they do best: making and sharing food.

The event will feature baked goods from local bloggers, with proceeds going to the Wildfire Fund.  It will take place next Saturday, October 1st at these locations.  If you can’t be there in person, consider making a donation online.

Ongoing information at Austin Bakes for Bastrop.  The Austin food blogging community is a great group of people, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.  

For Young Farmers: Our Next Best Step

It’s coming to the end of the summer harvest in Texas.  The time of year when you only have okra and cayenne peppers to eat. It’s earlier than normal this year because of the drought.  As far as the plants are concerned, it’s August, not July, 15th.  At Round Table Farm, Travis and I have collected our hoses, taken down our greenhouse, and stopped producing for the year.  For farmers who continue to produce through the hottest part of the summer, I think this final stretch is the hardest.  Everything, from body temperatures to electricity bills to tempers, flares up now, and fatigue sets in as you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  The first autumn cold front is so close, yet so far away.

This month, Travis and I will both be looking for new, non-farming jobs.  It’s an awkward space we’re trying to fill–pursuing farming while deliberately not farming.  But we’ve come to the conclusion that that’s the next best step for us.  Once the lease is up on our apartment at the end of the year, we’re hoping to find a new home with a space for a large garden, so we can continue our gradual ascent (or descent, if it’s August) into farming.  Having jobs that won’t drain us physically will give us the chance to put some energy into our own farming projects.

As I help Travis tailor his resume to submit to jobs like the one he had in Boston–administration and management–I have to smile as we downplay his farm experience.  There’s some irony here.  Working on farms doesn’t necessarily provide a path to becoming a farmer.  Why not? With all the talk about creating new farmers, the best path to get there should be part of the conversation.

The farmers Travis and I have known fit into one of two categories: they had land in their families or they switched careers later in life.  Travis and I were hoping that we would find some sort of replicable path for those who wanted to farm but fit into neither of those categories.Working on farms seemed like the most logical path to take, and it has certainly provided us with lessons about running a business.  So maybe this isthe most replicable path for now–work or intern on farms to gain skills and perspective (viewing a farm’s business model as an outsider is one of the most invaluable experiences you will have), then hunt for space to start something small on your own.  While it’s unconventional, vague, and pretty dependent on chance, that’s what we have right now.

Sometimes I get criticism that my perspective on starting to farm is negative.  That if I want to farm, why don’t I just go do it?  There is nothing in my way but me.  My response in the moment is usually, “Okay, thank you for the advice,” but I can respond more thoughtfully here:

If Travis and I were to find a perfect piece of land tomorrow, and the owner offered to finance it and everything worked out perfectly, my attitude would not bloom into something like, starting to farm is easy, all you have to do is try.  Instead, I would say what I’ve always said: that a career path in farming is insecure and unclear, and the fact that I found a way does not diminish that.  New farmers have few resources or instruction at their disposal, and the personal sacrifices one must make are high–low pay, seasonal work, few legal protections, to name a few.  I won’t forget that Travis and I were essentially homeless for one year in order to pursue farming.  The fact that we had the means, the drive, and the familial support to make that kind of sacrifice does not make me feel proud, it makes me feel lucky.  And luck, when it comes to our food supply, is probably not what we should rely on.

The best recommendations I have for really making farming a viable option for young people are formalized incubator programs and more public or private land specifically allocated for new farmers.  Revisiting farm labor regulations will also encourage more young, talented people to go into and stay in farming.  Obstacles for young farmers exist.  Are they insurmountable?  No.  But they are large and looming enough that they ought to be a part of a national conversation.  Anything less, and our calls for a healthier, localized food system remain incomplete. 

Wisdom of the Radish Book Giveaway!

Several months ago, I asked for input from my readers on how to make this blog better.  One of the suggestions I got was to create a book list — what I’m reading and what I find useful.  Easy Shmeasy, I thought.  I’ll do it! And like most of my well-intentioned resolutions, it never happened …until now! 

Recently, I was given a copy of The Wisdom of the Radish by Lynda Hopkins, who co-runs Foggy River Farm in California.  Lynda and her husband Emmett, just like Travis and me, are young farmers.  They began on just a few acres given to them by Emmett’s grandfather, and in her book Lynda tells the story of her farm’s birth.  From flea beetles to foxes to pasty butt, Lynda and Emmett battle a number of foes the first year on their farm, and it was especially useful for me not only to see how they learned to work on the farm, but how to work together.

I must add that, given all the grief Travis and I are going through just to get land to farm, Lynda and Emmett cheated by having land in their family.  Still, it’s no easy task starting a farm, and I wish them the best of luck over in California.  I highly recommend people read The Wisdom of the Radish for a glimpse into the life of a young farmer.  And what’s more, this week you can win your own copy!

I thought long and hard about how to give away my copy of The Wisdom of the Radish.  I was fretting about it one morning over breakfast, flipping through a New Yorker when it came to me: a New-Yorker style caption contest!  If you’re not familiar with New Yorker cartoon caption contests, here’s how it works:

The New Yorker provides a picture like this:

The readers then submit captions that fit the picture.  Like this one’s winner, submitted by Roger Ebert:

“I’m not going to say the word I’m thinking of”

The picture posted below is one of Travis and me at the farm, and it needs a caption.  Provide a caption for it by posting in the comments or tweeting me @farmerneysa.  Make me laugh, because I’ll choose my favorite one on Friday and you’ll receive your own copy of The Wisdom of the Radish. Good luck!

Photos: Sasquatch Books, Newyorker.com, Austin Prince