Thursday, July 11, 2019

Where your local food is connected to your waste stream

Our little farm gets gardening waste from a local gated community, and a surprising amount of plastic waste comes along for the ride. Dog poop, cat litter— all things that can’t be composted safely in a small farm system (and also can’t be composted at the local dump). I wonder how this came to be. As I pull bits of plastic and dog poop out of the pile while I’m building it, I feel tired, sad and worried.

It got me thinking about where our food comes from, and how things are connected in surprising ways. When we try to buy local food, these connections are all the more apparent. I’d argue even when we’re eating non-local food, the connections are there in significant ways.

The primary different between organic and non-organic farming, relates to the soil, and thus to the scale of the farm. If a farm is using inorganic fertilizers, it’s a lot easier to scale up because you can calculate and purchase the exact number of kilograms of N-P-K you need for your farm, and it’s basically infinitely scalable until your soil is destroyed or gets blown away. That is, while fossil fuels are cheap and plentiful: so not forever. The quality of that fertilizer, and the food chain in general, is important-- we have fairly good evidence to say that food that is grown on poor quality soil is not as nutritious.

Attention to soil health and to the circular nature of all our existences is a central driver for farming and a central driver for small scale farming. Soil health is what keeps organic farms small, if labor is valued correctly.

So when it comes to organic operations, it’s not simply that we don’t use pesticides (often the focus of people’s interest.). It's all about the soil: we require fairly vast quantities of compost. For example, our small 1 acre (probably only ½ acre actively cultivated) farm makes 15- 20 tons of various kinds of compost a year.

Getting this compost adds either a very significant cost or a tremendous amount of labor, depending on one’s circumstances, and I wanted to talk a bit about this process, and how it relates to the cost of vegetables and fruit, as I think organic produce is still hugely undervalued and unsustainable at the prices you often see— at least in the sense that it is impossible to adequately value the labor of workers at the current costs. 

Right now people are willing to pay more to avoid pesticides— which has reached the public consciousness as important. That is, I am not sure we have not necessarily made the connection back to soil health, or to hugely increased labor costs, or to relatively smaller farm sizes, and the ways these are valuable and important, but not accounted for in a free market economy.

When I think of leveraging for change at the local level, I feel it may be valuable to keep picturing, imagining, enacting a different economy. This is what we do, to an extent, when we sell our produce for the same price as the supermarket: we say, perhaps we are the ones who have been given much and so are also the ones who can sacrifice a little. Or maybe we are simply going along with market economics where consumers are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries: you get to have your organic cake and eat it too.

Anyway, back to the compost story:

Firstly, in a highly specialized farm there is more likely to be waste. In a family farm with a little of everything, all the parts can stand a reasonable chance of working together. For example, waste from the kitchen can be cycled through the small number of chickens, whose waste is an asset, not a toxic waste. Tree branches and leaves are similarly an asset, not a waste product. In a family scale farm, the family is eating what you are eating- we have every incentive to grow the best possible food we can. In a smaller scale business, the success of the staff are up close and personal, not distanced from our reality.

There are a few ways to get the quantity of compost we need to grow food:
1)    Buying it in: Here, the cost of the compost will be part of the cost of the vegetables. The advantage of this is that the quality of the compost is not your responsibility in the same way. But the more I compost, the more I feel that large scale operations are either using a lot of fossil fuels to produce their compost (e.g. through large chippers or turners), or are having to pay people poor wages to go through and try to remove plastic and poop. There are simpler possibilities for compost out there (particularly in more rural areas): horse or cow manure. While these are great sources of compost, it’s unlikely that most sources can vouch for the horses or cows’ own feed, at least in South Africa, where most farms are informally organic rather than certified as such. The challenge with buying in compost is not only that the quality is often quite poor, it is that it also means you have to grow much more intensively to make sure you recoup your costs.
2)    Make your own compost using farm waste (I.e. cycling back kitchen scraps, humanure, animal manure): I think this works as long as you are not exporting any food off site— ie it only works your soil is starting from a relatively good place, and if you aren’t selling anything to anyone.) The advantage to this is that you can vouch for the quality of the compost based not only on making it, but also based on knowing the quality of the individual components (e.g. you know the chickens and humans were healthy and not fed anything that would impact their manure).
3)    I think most organic farmers try to make their own compost in order to try to price their produce more competitively. I make lots of different kinds of compost, and I think ultimately this will contribute to much better produce than if I just used horse manure, for example. 

This is where it comes back to the gated community I mentioned at the beginning: either the families or their gardeners do not think it is a big deal to put plastic or dog poop into landscape waste, but when they do, a few things might happen: 
1) I might pay someone to set up the compost pile for me, because I can’t afford a higher wage given low prices. I cannot expect that that person will carefully remove plastic and paint chips etc, no matter how much I pay them: it is simply very undignified work.
2) I might make the compost pile myself, carefully removing the plastic, because I’m not quite sure how to navigate talking to a worker about encountering dog poop etc. When selling the produce, I’d either have to vastly undervalue my own time, or increase the cost of the produce still more “artisanal” comes to mind. 

The easier option: For the resident of the gated community to realize that their landscaping waste comes back as their organic, local produce, and they have choices that will help enable the organic farmers’ work. That is: it truly is a circle, whether a small local one, or a huge global one: what you do matters. How you pay your workers matter, but honestly no worker, however well paid, will remove small pieces of plastic chucked into your waste stream. How attentive you are to issues of plastic waste matters, matters for a long time.

I struggle with concepts of artisanal food, because sometimes it seems like shorthand for paying hipsters more than farm workers, for the same product. At the same time, I want to suggest that in a family farm, the level of skill required to farm in an ecological way is extraordinarily high. I think there is value to farmers laboring on their own land, and selling the same food they eat and labour for, even though they could produce food more cheaply if they paid someone else to do the labour for them.  I have read as much about permaculture and about small-scale farming as I read for my PhD, and still farming challenges me in significant ways. So while I don’t expect an academic salary as a farmer, there’s no way minimum wage will work for new urban farmers, even frugal ones. So it’s something I’m pondering— not necessarily with clear answers. Perhaps there is something in there for finding ways to respect all work?

In practical terms, I dream of using our farm, and the Good Food Club Valley, as a place to experiment with a wellness economy. To grapple with our needs and wants as farmers with skin in the game, while thinking practically about what it means to access nourishing food. Perhaps it looks like bartering, perhaps it looks like something else. But definitely, imagining a future in which food is nutritious and sustainable involves some fundamental shifts in how we relate to one another. Maybe it involves getting into uncomfortable situations— I know I am in the midst of this as we grapple with how to pay our staff when we are not yet making any money at our nursery. 

No farm is an island— even the most holistic family farm needs inputs, and a network of supporting structures. We all specialize a little bit: for example it is impractical to simultaneously grow seed, seedlings, trees, full grown vegetables and fruit, eggs, and meat (I don’t even consider grains here, as I think on an urban scale grain is largely impractical) compost, and then market and sell all of these directly. .

The immediate issues of how we pay an individual farmer for a set of goods may seem like a very tiny set of questions in a world of Takealot, Amazon and the free-market. I’m not sure I have the answer for that, but I convinced that if we pay attention to small, daily, actions related to food: where we’re willing to change both our taste buds and our buying patterns, that this can make significant local (though scary) changes.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Reflections on learning to farm in the shadow of Big Ag

As a mom, I’ve been trying so hard to do things differently from the punishment/coercion/reward model that was passed down. I’ve been thinking a little about how that relates to experiences of food systems: 

I want to be kind and gentle and responsive etc with our kids— but when I first started focusing on kindness, on explicitly "doing things differently" it was…. problematic. Partly because it dismissed the strengths of my own upbringing, and the fact that it was not all about punishment or rewards-- it was about living as a helpful member of a community and lots of other things. But also, where I departed from what I had grown up with, there were worlds I knew not of. I could not simply be consistently kind and gentle using willpower alone. Nor would those actions— taken alone— be helpful to my kids. Kind words— for example, were not necessarily their core need in times of crisis. They needed kindness backed up with deep empathy, good listening, a squishy welcoming belly: these things take time and effort! My kids needed to be individually known and for me to respond to them as a person, not because I was being gentle for my own self-edification.

To live out ideals in a deeper way, I needed an extensive supporting structure to help me: practice with genuine empathy, some of my own needs being met, prayer, lots of childhood development books, a good night’s sleep, feelings of support and encouragement around me, and so on. Otherwise I waver(ed) between a confusing mix of beliefs and ideals.

Fruit trees are camouflaged next to the proteas and sourfig-- but they're in there. It has taken a long time to get systems up and running to the point where we may, in the forseeable future, have surplus. I have no idea how we would measure the value of our labour and the thousands of hours of studying. 
I feel a parallel between this experience and the food system. We are trying to break away from the system we have inherited; how we currently farm and eat, and it is deeply necessary. There are important ideals that we should be striving for, but these ideals cannot be effective, sustainable, or fully realized without a full cohort of support structures. I would even argue that some of the health motivations of eating local or organic are more tentative…less robust… when it is only the exclusive few who get to eat that way. 

In the Good Food Clubs, we try to support small farmers, small businesses, and in general our goal is towards organic, local, biodynamic, permaculture. The challenge is— we live in a world where for the most part, none of the supports are there. The odds are weighted against small, organic, biodynamic, farmers.

When I see a farm that is touted as perfect, I get nervous for several reasons:
  • They have nowhere to go but down.
  • It can make others farmers look bad, as it implies perfection is doable and doesn't seek to understand the contexts in which we farm.
  • I am worried I’m missing part of the picture: are we the only people for which farming is difficult?
  • I am worried that capital came from somewhere else, and that that makes it difficult for other similar businesses (who did not arrive with that capital) to make the case for why their products are much more expensive, or why they are not following the same practices. I.e. it conceals the inner workings of capitalism.
  • I am worried this desire for perfection encourages farmers or businesses to lie, rather than explain their logic and for us as consumers to explain our priorities— i.e. it encourages box-ticking rather than listening and complexity.
  • The idea of “perfect” food can make good food more exclusive, or create ever higher standards for “good” food, or even a level of competitiveness around eating, which seems anachronous to the core values of nourishment and togetherness. 
  • To extend that thought: It can raise our standards for food to the point of obsession, and ignore the tremendous luck and privilege we have in being born at a time where so many of us are much taller than our grandparents, because of better nutrition. 
  • In raising our standards so high, our constant striving leaves little room for gratitude and a sense of peace. Without margin we are too busy to notice that many people (our neighbours, in fact) are eating much, much worse than their grandparents did, and we can get a bit stuck in a cycle of alarm and scarcity about risks that pale in comparison to the very real risks of profound economic inequity in South Africa, climate change, corporate greed, or even our own personal greed.
  • It can lock us in as conscious consumers, where I don’t think this is necessarily a good end point, though it’s a great start. 
  • All to say, I dream of compassion and grace towards consumers and producers, as we muddle our way towards a better food system.
This is NOT my trying to argue that we should not support awesome organic local biodynamic or permaculture farmers. We are fully invested in the dream. Support us and those like us! Please! But don't put us on a pedestal, and don't discount the importance of any and all family farmers, all small business owners operating in an environment that is incredibly difficult for small food based businesses. 

It is just to say: let us not assume to know a farm’s story, given that we are starting from a tremendously skewed: Big business, Big Ag, Big Food world. To jump out right into organic, local, biodynamic, permaculture, without examining all the support structures? It’s like when I try to be kind to my kids without considering all the things I needed— well beyond willpower— to do so. It's very difficult (and in our case absolutely not profitable).

The desire to farm in a particular way does not make that approach sustainable or uniquely helpful, in the absence of infrastructure.

The desire to eat local and organic often seems to be have a uniquely urban character— almost like we are entitled to literally have our cake and eat it too. Urban artisanal production sometimes also has that flavor of the teenage know-it-all coming to set us right, not realising they are in fact joining in on the traditions of their grandparents. And as we’ve dived into farming, I’m amazed by the depth of knowledge conveyed by old farmers, more so each time I lose a crop because I thought I knew better than my dad. 

So as we reach out to farmers and small business owners, I do so wanting to learn, not to criticize or tick off boxes of all the things I consider important. I want to hear their story, and see if we can support them in doing even better.

A view of our annual garden-- again, things are growing pretty well and we have quite a lot of food, but it has been a long journey
I’m conscious that this may have a weird tone (almost pro some romanticized past— which in the South African case is particularly problematic), and I feel like I have to explicitly state I’m not talking about recreating a romanticized past. I’m talking about the need to build strong infrastructure that supports better consumption practices, and build on existing farming knowledge, particularly small-medium sized farms, because while most farmers are imperfect, the very real alternative is essentially corporations running very large farms. 

I’m shocked by the challenges of being a small farmer, well beyond actually producing food sustainably. Farmers have to be consistently productive, grow the right things at the right time to market specifications, have the right market, know how to get it to that market affordably with an intact cold chain. You can’t be too expensive, but you have to be expensive enough that you make a living and so do your workers. If you want to farm animals— the deck is even more strongly stacked against you if you’re a small-scale operation. To do so organically adds another layer of complexity and labour: getting nutrients from manure or vermicompost is orders of magnitude more complex than grabbing a bag of fertilizer; harvesting a permaculture food forest can be like walking through a maze. The farmers— the old farmers— who somehow succeeded in doing this, have so much knowledge to share. Importantly: the networks through which they did all these things are dying because these farmers are leaving farming and not being replaced, and young farmers like myself have none of these networks.

Front of the house: we killed about 10 granadillas before we managed to get some going. It took ages to learn how to grow in our conditions.
I also want to raise the issue of casual labour. Increasingly, labour on farms is casual and seasonal. Which often sucks if you are the casual worker. I interview former farm workers (who lived on farms) sometimes, and I notice the responsibility farmers had towards their workers, far more responsibility than I would feel comfortable taking on. Those are treacherous waters, I know, so I do NOT mean to romanticize deeply unequal and often racist relationships, but only to highlight depth of responsibility, which highlights my own state of privilege, and how little I want to have my livelihoods so intertwined with others. How nervous I feel when I am responsible for others' standard of living.

There is a need for many more people who know (and do) the basics of farming in their context. We need to build robust networks for all the crazy steps needed to survive and thrive as a farmer. It may be ok to valorize seemingly perfect farm practices. But unless the system changes fundamentally, we will simply be raising up (and bankrupting/destroying) waves of young farmers or their workers, to the benefit of the consumer. Right now, it feels like the consumer holds most of the power, and I think this should change.

There are currently very few ways for a farm to be organic, profitable, responsible to their workers (by that I mean a true living wage), and sustainable long-term in South Africa (and elsewhere), without grants from department of agriculture to offset infrastructure costs and a supportive consumer base.

If you can afford to eat local and organic for every meal, there is a strong possibility that your work/brain is overvalued (I know mine is, at least until I am farming full time) and that overvaluing is intertwined with the very same Big Food, Big Ag, etc that concentrates profits and shares them with people who are actually taking the least risk. So we should be careful about casting ourselves as the heroes of our stories.

A while ago I went to the funeral of an old farmer, and all the members of the local organic soil association attended. I was struck that very few of them still had family on the land they’d previously farmed on. I was struck by this because they had, between them, many decades of experience of organic farming, which was set to be lost— the new (artisanal) farmers on the block, to my knowledge, are not connected to this older generation. I was also reminded that organic farming has been around for a really long time— thousands of years, even-- organic farming has historically fed the world, and is just as efficient and productive, if you start to actually measure all the toxic externalities of Big Ag (in particular, the use of fossil fuels in place of labour). I dream of ways for that knowledge to become intuitive to a new generation of farmers— to a diverse group— that more people could be farmers.

Our first known edible mushrooms, Ascaris. We've been strewing mushoom spores since we moved into the farm, and finally have a reasonable shot at getting quite a few mushroom meals.

I think of farming like certain types of cooking. You know all the cooking that doesn’t use recipes, that is just passed down, and known, in a deep way? We’re trying to farm with none of that knowledge, and hoping that over time, we will be the ones to pass that knowledge on. Our knowledge is new, unproven, tentative. It will get stronger, more robust, able to stand on its own two feet. But in the meantime, I look to farmers with more experience, I look for the quiet eye roll while we’re describing our plans, and I learn.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Adventures in Seoul, and adjusting back...

This trip to Korea was the first where we had to buy 5 seats (and 5 entries to most things). So we took advantage of borrowed bicycles... Bikes really helped to keep the kids in their comfort zone. Though we didn't go to many museums or eat too much unfamiliar food, they still absorbed a lot from being in a different environment. 

Our kids are all at different stages and we had to figure out how to meet everyone's needs-- Eli likes to know what to expect and loves to bike everywhere, Hana wants adventure, preferably in the form of playgrounds. Noah doesn't want to feel that someone is trying to coerce him (who does-- but a lot of museums in Korea geared towards kids are explicitly "educational"). We are really lucky to be able to travel and see family, and we don't take such a trip lightly-- we are not relaxed flexible travelers. Everyone did very well, and it is amazing for them to be able to spend time understanding different perspectives on the world, and spend time with Eugene's family.  

Noah turned 9 and got an ice cream cake.

Flower market. We were really inspired by the careful and beautiful layouts.

Even though it's not that easy to find nature in Seoul, we loved the park by the flower market, where there was a fountain, a stream, and this frog.

We stayed at Eugene's Mom and brothers flat, where they live on the 14th floor. 

The miracle of escalators.

We stayed at a hotel for a couple of nights, for the indoor pool. The kids were delighted. 



children's museum!

The fountains in Bundang hadn't been turned on yet, but in Seoul we got to spend time in 2 fountains-- our kids were the most enthusiastic and wild-- enough that Vietnamese monks kept wanting to take photos of/with them.

We were so grateful to my parents for holding the fort while were away. And back home, we were back to business faster than you could say hot compost...
Back to life: hot composting.

Roasting coffee

Terrifying acrobranch: Noah leveled up to terrifying heights.

Hana is still on Level one, but it's pretty intense for a 3 year old.