Sunday, November 21, 2010

Frosty Reflections

Cold weather has been threatening to show up in Oregon for a while now. Last weekend was supposed to bring us chilly rain with possible snow in the Coast Range, but instead Saturday turned out to be one of those crisp autumn days that are all the more precious for being so rare. Lots of blue sky, fluffy white clouds and sunshine. As long as you kept moving, it was fairly warm.

After a hearty breakfast in our uninsulated old farmhouse, we kept moving, and thus got a lot done: greenhouse clearing out, dead plant tossing, final grass mowing of the season, and a number of other late season chores that are always much more pleasant to do when it's sunny outside. A huge moon was rising between the trees as we walked back up to the house in the late afternoon twilight, the clear sky telling us what the next morning was likely to bring: the first hard frost of the season. We were not disappointed.

It's always a bit disconcerting to wake up to a frosty white landscape, even when it's expected. I keep thinking of all the things we still have to get done outside: harvest the last of the tomatoes in the greenhouse, dig up the dahlias that we really don't want to risk loosing, weed and mulch the lavender and other perennial herbs, board up the broken windows in the barn and old chicken house, and keep our fingers crossed that this winter will be reasonably free of severe storms and deep freezes, knowing we need to prepare for them just in case.

I'm sure we will get most of those things done, eventually. Hopefully before it's too late.

Time Sure Does Fly...

I'm not sure where the time goes these days. It just seems to vanish in great chunks, leaving me wondering if I'm suffering from some form of selective amnesia. I could swear that yesterday it was mid-October, and we were just getting back from our fun adventure in the Big City of Portland at the Friends of Family Farmers inFARMation event. Which went great, by the way, and thanks to everyone who turned out for it. I was deeply nervous, and it was tremendously disconcerting to see our little slide show movie thing projected on a huge wall, with my voice booming out over Holocene's way too good sound system, but it ended up being quite fun. The next day we managed to find our way across town to the always wonderful Naomi's Organic Farm Supply shop, where we picked up yet more cover crop seed and chatted with Naomi and Neil, Naomi's charming mother, and with some inspiring young farmers, one of whom was in a tragic rental situation that made us both shudder at the remembered stress of those uncertain farming conditions. My heart really went out to her. We were both reminded of how fortunate we have been to purchase a bit of land we might actually be able to call our own in thirty years or so.

Maybe it's because of our own struggle to buy land, but this issue resonates with me like no other, and I want to live to see the day when aspiring to buy land to farm is a reasonable goal for a young farmer, not a seemingly impossible pipe dream.

What do Farming and Mardi Gras Beads have in common?

Meanwhile, an amazing opportunity had fallen on my head. I, along with two other young farmers from Oregon, had been given scholarships (made possible by the Risk Management Agency of the USDA) to attend the Community Food Security Coalition's national conference in mid-October. Shelly Bowe from Food Roots in Tillamook made the scholarship connections for us, and I cannot thank her enough for putting me on this path to such a great experience.

My fellow travelers were Ginger, of R-evolution Gardens in Nehalem, (on the right) and Kim, from Gales Meadow Farm in Forest Grove (on the left). This year's event took place in New Orleans, which meant cross country red-eye journeys for all of us. Can I just say that trying to find the way to my departure gate at the Los Angeles airport was one of the most confusing, surreal and frustrating travel experiences of my life? And I have been through some weird airports in my time. If Dante's vision of Hell had included bad fluorescent lighting, complete lack of informational signage, deeply unhelpful staff, freezing cold air conditioning and a disconcerting array of processed food meal options, scholars would claim he had been visited by futuristic visions of LAX.

I don't think it was just bleary-eyed exhaustion that gave New Orleans such an otherworldly glow for me- it is unlike any place I have ever been to. It makes me realize what a vast and diverse country this is. The culture there is so unique that it hardly feels like you are in the United States at all, although I'm sure a native of New Orleans would feel much the same way if they were dropped down in Astoria, Oregon. For me, New Orleans was all a blur of warm air, lively music and slow talk, colorful old buildings, smog and noise, way too much fried food, and the sense that I left not really having seen the place at all, especially as I sadly didn't arrive early enough to go on any of the tours that went to the parts of the city still recovering from the disaster of the hurricane.

I was able to attend the closing reception, which I have to say the host committee put on in great style. They arranged for a brass band to lead all of the conference attendees (draped in a startling assortment of colorful Mardi Gras beads) in what I believe is called a Second Line parade down some of the main streets of the city to the French Market, where a very tasty assortment of Cajun food was available to sample. It was definitely one of the more surreal experiences of my life, and gives me great respect for the exuberance and high spirits of the citizens of New Orleans. Those people are crazy in the best possible way. I'm curious to see what the city of Oakland, CA (next year's hosts) can do to top that reception.

Although so much of what I did see was unforgettable, such as the above nighttime tour of a local community garden reached by ferry and a stroll through some fascinating old neighborhoods, for the most part we could have been virtually anywhere and I would have had a phenomenal time. I was one of almost a thousand people all gathered together to talk about Food: local food, food security, farms and farmers, farm to schools and institutions, community food, urban farms, rural farms, local food economics, farmers markets, food sovereignty, access to food, food safety, food policy, and how to make any and all of the above work better for all of us. It was a bit overwhelming, but in a good way.

The weirdest part for me was being one of not very many farmers present. Weird because so much of the discussion was about the production of food and how to make fresh, safe food more available to more people, yet there were times when I was the only actual farmer in the room. In one memorable workshop, the first speaker was asking the group about themselves:

"Raise your hands if you are with a community food system organization. NGOs? Farmers market associations? Urban farm organizations? If you work with farmers?" and so on down the list. I kept waiting for him to say "Farmers?" so that I could raise my hand, but he never did. He just launched straight into the discussion, all about 'Credit and Capital for a Just and Sustainable Food System'. A great panel of people explored the seemingly insurmountable problems facing farmers and fishermen when they try to get loans or other funding for land acquisition, fishing permits, equipment purchases and operating loans. Example after example of the problems were given. Although it was inspiring to hear about the work of groups like the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and Food for Maine's Future, no one seemed to have a practical answer to the question that came up over and over again throughout the conference, one that I was well familiar with:

"How do we get more young farmers onto farmable land, producing fresh, healthy food for local communities?"

I have to say, for me one of the best parts of that particular workshop came from Scott Marlow, of Rural Advancement Foundation International, whose comments finally helped me understand just why we could not get a loan from a bank as long as we put ourselves forward as farmers. Banks, he informed us, really only care about assured income, and what they can get out of you if you fail. You can have the best business plan in the world, loads of experience, lots of customers and countless plans for how you are going to make it all work, but if you have no assured income- which for a bank looks pretty much like a paycheck- then they won't be interested in funding you.

"The best thing a beginning farmer who wants to buy land can do," Mr. Marlow observed, "is go out and get a job."

Finally, we got something right! How you're supposed to run the farm and work the full time paycheck jobs that pay your mortgage is still mysterious and elusive though.

However, he went on to say that the two best ways for a start up farm to fail are to finance things on credit cards and not not have health insurance, so actually we're only one out of three in the smart young farmer stakes. We do recognize the wisdom of what he says, and are working to address both those issues, but it is a challenge when start up costs are fierce, agricultural loans are near impossible to obtain and health insurance rates... well let's just not go there.

"What does it say about a system when it contains no margin for ownership costs?" Mr. Marlow asked, and what I think it says is that we as a society do not appreciate or understand the real costs that go in to producing our food, nor do we factor in what it costs us to pay for the health consequences of our current food system. Until we do, we are doomed to depend upon the incredibly broken system we have right now, one that makes it cheaper to eat processed, sugar and additive filled foods that travel thousands of miles to get to us and end up making us ill rather than eat fresh food from the farm down the road.

There were so many inspiring speakers at this conference, and so many amazing people that I met in the hallways in between talks, or chatting to over breakfast. I came away sobered at the challenges that we face in this country (and in the world, really) to try and find new, healthier ways to feed ourselves and keep our communities strong. But I also left with a great sense of hope- there are so many creative ideas out there, so many people working on the problems, so much determination to change our broken systems and replace them with healthy farms, strong local food systems, robust local economies and respect- for the land, for ourselves, and for each other.

It's easy to get tired and discouraged about trying to bring our farm to life and figure out how to make it all work, but experiences like this help to revive me, and keep me going. I am more excited than ever about our future, even if I don't exactly know where we are going, or how we will get there.

My proofreader Packy tells me that this blog entry is a "rather serious" one, and I know it's a long one as well. So if you've stuck with me this far, I promise to do a couple of 'heavy on the pictures and amusing stories' posts very soon. It's mighty cold in the Oregon countryside right now, and outside work is not very tempting anyway.

I'm glad I got some garlic planted earlier before all this super cold weather really kicked in. . I know, I know, it's really mostly just been hail with a smattering of ice, but if you squint, it looks sort of like snow... I really wish I'd gotten my dahlias dug up before all this hit. Oh Well.

A lot of farming is learning to accept what the weather throws at you, adapt and figure out how to keep moving forwards, hopefully without sliding off the road first.

One nice thing about frosty weather, it gives me the best excuse to stay inside by the fire with the new seed catalogs, making lists and planning for spring.