From the Road Trip that Started It All...
Introduction: What Actually Matters, America?
Wherever you get your information about the world, problems seem to be occurring at such a rate and intensity by an alarmist media these days that ‘news breaks’ are now recommended by mental health professionals periodically in order to recoup one’s sanity. The interests of Big Money, politics and those seeking a captive audience have much incentive to pit people against each other, and tend not to discuss the actual problems we face across this country, and in the world. However, the one problem we universally share and need to have happen today and tomorrow is the ability to obtain food. No other problems matter tomorrow if people cannot find food to eat today.
I find there are generally two ways of responding to large-scale and complex problems; despair or ignorance. In despair, the problem is thoroughly acknowledged and in ignorance, refusal of acknowledgement is key. However, they both effectively end in the same result; nothing. No action is taken either because the complexity and scale of the solution is so great it is deemed impractical to even consider (ignorance), or impossible to mobilize a solution (despair). In each chase, the problem continues, and in many cases, grows even more large-scale and complex.
So what does one do to deal with any of these issues? What can one person do to address some, let alone ONE of the overwhelming societal, moral, economic, environmental and/or health crises humanity is facing? And who can we trust to do it?
Half-ass solutions are handed out by politicians. Academics and scientists continue to write more papers and publish more studies but find their power is limited to inside the Ivory Tower. Industry, beholden to shareholders and providing jobs to the masses, is trapped in an financial prison of greed that only allows for minute changes. In a world of ever increasing global competition and decreasing concern for people’s rights and freedoms, America can be the shining light in the darkness. And you and I need not move mountains to directly contribute to fixing so many of the issues this country and the world face. We only need to go back to our roots. We need to save our country’s real farmers from extinction.
What large-scale, complex problems can helping America’s real farmers actually address? Climate change. Food security. National divisions. Rural area support & ecological development. Biodiversity conservation. More thorough and practical scientific research. Crony capitalism. Community development. A sense of meaning. Real healthcare. Preservation of our American heritage. Overspecialization of the workforce. Overreach of government. Those are just to name a few…
This is not a political or divisive issue. Every person in this country eats food, and every ethnicity’s cultural origin includes farming. Farming has been performed in this country on the many backs of white, black and brown people. We are all indebted to and dependent on the current, conventional ‘Big Ag’ farms that feed the millions of people here and across the world, but the ability to ‘easily’ feed so many people comes at a price. Because of the widespread use of agricultural chemicals and methods of ecological destruction conventional farmers have been forced to perform in order to meet the gluttonous demands of the Big Ag economy, we will be completely devoid of crop-growing (arable) topsoil in 60 years. The UN projects 90% of all the earth’s soils will be degraded by 2050. If we continue this type of large-scale, corporate farming we practice today (‘conventional’ farming), we can look forward to food prices soaring, restaurants and small businesses closing, more government regulations and control, and even deeper entrenchment of the debt-slave economy in the next thirty odd years.
The Next Greenwashing Wave: Fat, Starving & Stupid
Big Ag realizes this and is starting to push for food using hydroponics; plants being grown in trays, stacked on top of one another, using irrigation tubes instead of soil. It is called ‘vertical farming’, and they even dare to call it organic. It is a step in the right direction for conventional farmers, and we will need to depend on vertical farming to feed the millions of people in our country. Compared to current conventional farming, vertical farming dramatically cuts fresh water and land use, does not require pesticides, and results in less crop failure.
This is because the food is being grown in a lab-like environment, contained in a massive warehouse. It is quite literally ‘factory food’. Scientists have known about the rampant, negative health and environmental effects of plastic for decades. In vertical farming, plastic encases the roots of each vegetable. The vegetables we will eat will be born not of the soil, but of toxin-loaded, hormonally destructive, synthetic plastic. Hydroponics direct injects liquid fertilizers and ‘nutrients’ into the constant water supply cycling in the plastic irrigation tubes, with Styrofoam encasing the floating plant roots.
Try talking in depth to a farmer or soil scientist about how soil works, or even what exactly it is. Nobody on the planet, no matter how long one has farmed or done research, understands soil exactly. As scientists are just beginning to realize (and real farmers have always known), there are many components to soil. Some of the components that make up soil are: underground mycelium networks, bedrock materials that vary by locale, anaerobic & aerobic bacteria, type and amount of leaf litter (trees) and plant matter return, above & underground insects and worms, rainwater & seasonal water impacts, animal disturbance and population presence, not to mention varying temperatures and climates across the world. I mention all of that to you, the reader, because that vast array of interactions present in nature is how we are able to get the nutrients that allow us to live. The soil is fundamental in how we are able to obtain the basic amount of vitamins and minerals the USDA recommends every human intake to survive.
Hydroponics cannot replicate these interactions that have developed of hundreds of thousands of years, designed by the infinite widom of God and evolution, by injecting IV-‘nutrients’ chemical feeds into a closed system. Scientists still don’t fully understand human health, let alone soil dynamics, so can we really trust hydroponic food to be equally nourishing? Is it wise to use more technology to even further widen the gap between ourselves and our earth?
But go ahead and google ‘vertical farming’- all your results for the next three pages will be filled with links bursting with glowing and enthusiastic reviews. It is next, big Greenwashing scam that Big Ag is pushing with fervor. Although it definitely is better for the environment, it is definitely not better for human health. A dwindling amount of ‘real farmers’ are the only people left on the planet that know how to grow real food in a way that can continue for generations. Especially in America, I worry that allowing these humble experts to quietly go extinct while transitioning to soil-barren food factories will destroy the true roots of our people. As Thomas Jefferson put it
“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”
Real Farm Road Trip Across the Southeast
I recently went on road trip to visit small to medium sized, chemical-free farms around the Southeast for research on of my company’s upcoming projects. Before I embarked on this two week, mind-warping journey, I would have told you I was a permaculture designer. My definition of permaculture is analyzing a landscape’s inherent features and using them, with the aid of appropriate technology, to create a biologically synchronous system that meets the needs of the land, and the needs of the client; be it crop production, wildlife habitat, livestock management, fruit orchards, etc…. If we put the needs of the land first before the simple needs of a human, we find that the end result will yield more food, less work, and decreasing annual costs. However, after meeting with many small chemical-free farmers, beekeepers, livestock managers and meat producers, as well as heads of institutes and restaurant professionals, I very soon realized permaculture alone would never cut it in regards to growing food sustainably or regeneratively, anywhere. In fact almost ALL the indigenous & ancient cultural practices, as well as the relatively modern systems like the various organic movements, biodynamics, holistic systems, permaculture, etc… won’t cut it alone. Every farmer I visited, from temperate jungles to sandy coasts, used drastically different methods with sound reasoning behind the decisions they had made on their farm. In fact, every chemical-free/sustainable/regenerative farmer and small producer I met with was farming or producing the ‘right way’, even though the ways they managed their farms were drastically different.
In order to avoid debate of infinite length, we shall assume the ‘right way’ of farming is that which tries to best mimic the inputs, interactions and behaviors of a self-sustaining, natural ecosystem. All of the nutrients taken from the soil in every head of lettuce or pumpkin harvested must be replaced, and all of the conditions changed (like compacting the soil with a tractor, introducing different microbes by growing different vegetable species, etc…) must be accounted for or remediated. At a minimum, the methods utilized to consider these many elements are environmentally sustainable, and ideally in some cases, are regenerative. It’s nothing new; it’s a lot like the kind of farming the poorer parts of this country practiced successfully for hundreds of years.
If you think the farmers I visited are a bunch of hippies living off the land (and government), you would be dead wrong. The people I interviewed ranged from soft-spoken fathers to doctorate-holding grandmothers, from radical & educated hillbillies to computer engineers with young families. The political spectrum ranged from Trump-forever’s to Biden-Amen’s and even one former Obama campaigner who currently converted to a Trump supporter. Personally I am not a loyal Republican or Democrat, and I harbor no guilt in switching sides if a candidate provides support to real farmers. ‘Real farmers’ are the individuals who run small to medium sized farms and livestock operations, as well as beekeepers. They practice agriculture in a way that best harmonizes with nature and produce ‘real’ food that actually nourishes are bodies with the nutrients they are ‘supposed’ to. Besides producing proper food that God & evolution designed for us, they do so while increasing biodiversity and building rural communities by utilizing specialized skills requiring broad knowledge domains.
I showed up on Ernie’s farm without notice. NEVER just ‘show up’ on a farm without giving a farmer a head’s up - there are many reasons for this (including your own safety) but mostly it has to do with the farmer being extremely busy during daylight hours. I waited on Ernie’s beautiful TN mountain hilltop orchard, surveying the vallies of peach and apple trees below. A large mess of dogs approached me and started growling. The rumbling of an UTV began to grow louder as Ernie came over the apex of the hill. I could see Ernie looked to be in his 80’s, but I could really see Ernie was not at all happy a stranger had just showed up on his property. Before I could introduce myself and explain why I was there, he grabbed a peach from the back of his UTV and said ‘Do you see that? Look at that!’ The peach had crescent moon shaped imprints all over it, like someone had dug their fingernails in all over the peach. Before I could ask why the peaches were in such a state he yelled ‘What do you want?’ I quickly yelled, over the loud UTV engine, that I was interviewing small, chemical-free farmers from around the South. He looked at me and started laughing and said ‘Honey, you ain’t gonna grow no peaches or apples worth a damn in the South without chemicals’.
I cringed because I had read the description of the orchards in a local newsletter of being a ‘sustainable orchard’. I didn’t want to get into a heated, philosophical debate about the use of chemicals in agriculture and suddenly I noticed a Conservative flag waiving in the wind on his home from the corner of my eye. He then abruptly asked me, ‘Child, you know what is going on right now in California?’ Intrigued, I gambled with ‘You mean, the fires?’ He responded, ‘60% of all the produce in this great country of ours comes from San Joaquin Valley. That fire ain’t gonna stop. It’s coming here. I give it 10-15 years before all hell breaks loose.’
Obviously, I had to press on. ‘What do you think the solution is?’ He paused, looked me dead in the eye, and said ‘We have got to vote out every single Republican in the Senate. And take ‘em out of the Congress too! They refuse to do anything to deal with climate and it is gonna be the end of us’.
My mind literally exploded. Here I was assuming a whole bunch of characteristics about this man that fit the hateful stereotype the media associates with the Conservative flag, and trying to fit him into a certain category. Turns out he was a highly educated man, whom had a college degree in landscape architecture, and was only using chemicals in the smallest quantities possible in order to even churn out a meager living. But chemicals are not what ruined his peach crop. That was climate.
I met with another TN farmer, John, in North Florida. He watched his father introduce chemicals onto parts of their family farm. When he was a young man he developed a successful nursery business selling plants he grew in a potting mix he was able to make using farm by-products and compost. After lots of hard work, he was finally making a bit of money selling his beautiful and vibrant plants. But then TN passed a law requiring him to spend money on potting soil chemicals that he did not need. It changed the entire system he had developed and that is when he ‘woke up’ to the damage the government, in conjunction with Big Money interests, can wreak on the small business owner. He began to explore the organic movement more and came to realize the methods conventional, Big Ag farms were using were unethical. He then met his wife, Sheila, a garden designer from Oregon, and they pooled their retirement money together to create a ‘real farm experience’ by managing a U-pick blueberry farm in Florida.
But the dream of the U-pick blueberry patch quickly turned sour for completely unexpected reasons. They were hesitant to discuss it at first but the pain just poured out of them after I pried a little. ‘We asked on our website that parents please visit before bringing their children so that we could go over some of the ground rules…we began receiving nasty emails and phone calls from parents, whom had never visited our farm, about our supposed anti-child policy. We aren’t anti-child! We just don’t know how to ask them to please not destroy our farm…’. I was a bit confused so I asked her to elaborate. John had no problem discussing the past occurrences.
John felt as if parents dumped their kids onto their U-pick blueberry farm as some kind of outdoor daycare center. Many children were wonderful and respectful, but many also damaged equipment, killed new crop seedlings and broke things in their office-home when they let them use their toilet. A pair of 17 year old boys bashed in a row of productive, healthy blueberry bushes with their empty buckets as the parents watched, completely un-phased, their children destroying and disrespecting the means of someone’s living. How can you ask children to behave well if their parents do not know even recognize when they are behaving poorly? Many of their customers would visit multiple times throughout the year, so Shiela thought that much of the drama with first-time families could be avoided by educating the parents beforehand on the ground rules. John seemed to lean more towards shotgun scare tactics. She politely posted the request on her website for a couple weeks and for that they received ugly and hateful emails and phone calls for months.
John and Ernie are at polar-opposite ends of the political spectrum. But both the staunch Democrat and avid Republican agree that American agriculture is in a state of crisis. They both have had the standards of government and Big Industry force them into situations where they are forced to use unnatural products or methods that end up resulting in a more poisoned, less nutrient-rich and overall, poorer, product. The lack of financial and government support for real farmers is almost as shocking as some people’s lack of respect for their farms.
Societal shifts and changes in technology introduced in 1920’s and amplified by the introduction of the tractor in 1940’s led to a severe decline in America’s farming population(3). Hundreds of thousands of family farms, which had been using sustainable and self-sufficient methods and whose success was mainly regulated by Mother Nature, were forced to compete by using tractors, agricultural chemicals, and genetically modified crops or get out of the game. These new technologies created substantially larger yields, which put American farmers into a type of arms race, with the remaining farmers becoming dependent on buying more agricultural chemicals and heavy machinery to manage their ever-expanding large tracts of farmland, pushing small and poor farmers out. These technological ‘cheats’, used over the short span of the past 70-80 years, have resulted in 7.5% of all American farmers now controlling 80% of total American agricultural value(3). These ‘cheats’ have led humans to expect large crop yields, and in response food prices have fallen so that now, it is economic suicide to return to the type of farming that supported human civilization for thousands of years.
The South was still heavily rural up until WWII, and could not provide career options in industry or business for citizens(4). Many pre-WWII Southerners were poor white and black farmers, renting land or sharecropping via wealthy, white landowners. By the 1950’s, the majority of Southern farmers could not afford to keep up with the massive transition to large-scale agriculture that had been taking place for decades. It was impossible for most to even purchase a tractor, let alone meet the new market conditions. Wealthy landowners welcomed the introduction of large-scale mechanization and chemical fertilizers, leaving thousands of farmers that had been making a living by renting land or sharecropping with no land to farm, or nothing at all.
Real farmers watched as the wealthy business men, backed by government programs and an army of early Big Ag’s research scientists, bought up their land and forced them out of the market. And the valuable skill sets that a farmer develops, as well as specialized knowledge passed down for generations, were looked down upon by those in the cities and universities. Excluding a small minority of wealthy, white landowners, as recently as sixty years ago, thousands of black and white Southern families were robbed of both their financial and cultural wealth-unable to pass down anything to future generations. Accordingly, the USDA’s Economic Research Service, recently found non-metro counties with the highest incidences of poverty to be mainly concentrated in the South2. It is easy to see how Sothern, rural Americans began to build a deep distrust of government due to these complex factors being played out over a relatively rapid time period.
Mary actually prefers to live on the lower-income side of her community. She is a master beekeeper, and sells honey and medicinal salves/tinctures she grows and produces herself. She lit up when discussing her neighbors. ‘Most of them are older, but everyone’s yard is FULL of different, native plants that my bees just LOVE! Nobody around here wants to waste money on those boring, landscaping ‘stock’ plants you see in everywhere nowadays. So people have taken care of and continued to propagate plants native to this region that are now considered unique but require the least amount of maintenance.’
She has been featured in magazines and taught classes due to her incredibly vast knowledge of beekeeping. But beekeeping is very time intensive and can get expensive, so her costs and time spent beekeeping don’t allow her to produce enough items to sell to save up for more equipment or land. She told me that if only she was able to get her hands on $5000 for some equipment last year, she would have been able to pursue a profitable opportunity that was offered to her, allowing her to make enough money to expand her backyard operation. Her backyard operation didn’t generate enough profit for her to feel comfortable approaching a bank for a loan, so she tried to sell some things and made some calls to family and friends, but couldn’t raise enough in time.
Assuming that most people are aware of the dire decline of honeybees around the world, and how important honeybees are to produce food, it seems the government should be interested in creating a program to financially support honeybee keepers and real farmers who don’t use bee-killing chemicals on their fields. But real farmers don’t have lobbyists from Big Ag industry because they aren’t reliant on corporate chemicals like conventional farmers are, so they don’t get a seat at the Big Boys table.
Bluffington County, GA used to be one of the poorest counties in the nation. CHERYL’S, one of the daughters running White Oak Pastures, recounted her family’s evolving relationship with the land in Bluffington over many generations. She starts the story of the ranch around the Civil War era, acknowledges the use of chemicals and poisons by her grandfather during the 1960’s, and ends with her father’s realization that conventional methods and products were killing the land. Now she and her sister, along with their husbands, are starting a new chapter for the ranch.
Today her family’s farm is the biggest employer in the county, made of a happy, diverse mix of people who are paid well, respected & recognized for their hard work. White Oak Pastures trained the locals in an incredibly diverse set of skills- from artisan butchery methods, to using hides for leather processing, and even has a wonderful line of tallow-based skin products. They use every part of the animals they raise for slaughter and are 100% transparent in all their operations. I was surprised and pleased that she showed my tour group the ‘butcher cam’, where we witness the process of butchering the animal. I asked if tour groups ever got upset when watching the death of a cow, and she replied ‘Most people understand that is how meat gets to the plate. Only a few folks have ever gotten so upset about it that they had to leave the room. Funny thing is, they walk straight into the farm store and start loading up on ribeyes and hamburger meat.’
For meat they raise pasture-raised cows, pork, lamb, goats, turkeys, duck, chickens and geese, and sell dairy products and organic vegetables from their operation as well as a host of other small farmers they support in the local area. They manage their animals using rotational grazing. Rotational grazing tries to mimic the migration patterns of ‘wild’ grazers, like how the buffalo used to roam across vast expanses of North America. Holistic, rotational grazing allows more livestock on smaller lots of land and when managed correctly, can dramatically regenerate and improve the landscape. Contrary to extremist pro-vegan documentaries and basic common sense, correctly using animals in brittle environments is the best method to restore fertility and battle our world’s growing desertification.
The success of the methodology used on her family’s farm (led by her father) has led academics and researchers to come to their farm in order to study the effects rotational grazing has on the land and livestock health. Livestock raised in a system that allows for their natural instincts and behaviors, and one that provides the fodder that their body is designed for, is the only humane way to raise livestock. It also results in healthier meat. Grandma said ‘You are what you eat’. Conventional ranching confines livestock to small & unhealthy spaces, while also forcing them to get fat on feed NOT designed for their biology, which results in them becoming fatter and earning the rancher more money per additional pound of weight. Using Grandma’s wisdom, if people are eating lots of beef from obese and unhealthy cows, then those people risk becoming….
Speaking of Grandma’s, Genine is probably one of the world’s coolest grandmas. We began chatting and the Covid pandemic came up. The Covid pandemic caused a lot of supply chain disruptions, including food distribution. However during these disruptions, many of the real farmers I spoke with reported their highest number of sales ever. Genine said she actually sold out of all the products she had at one point! She saw the Covid pandemic as an opportunity to create relationships between herself and new customers, as well as a way to educate her new customers about their relationship to food. And those types of relationships will last far beyond Covid.
Genine is not who you think she is. A single mother at 16, she continued to pursue her education, earning a Master’s degrees and then a doctorate, and is now teaching as an adjunct professor at four universities. Her Goat Farm was featured on an advertising campaign by Facebook to promote American small businesses. She had traveled the world doing development work for years and then after losing a nonprofit she started in New Orleans (due to Hurricane Katrina), decided to finish her PhD at Florida State University. While in Florida she came across what was supposed to be a temporary property, but ended up building The Goat Farm.
I have never been in such a harmonious and loving farm environment in my life. All of the animals, even the Guinea birds, famous for their shy temperaments, were greeting me with joy and good humor. The cats where frolicking with the chickens, and the chickens hanging out with the goats. A beautiful, wild and highly productive permaculture vegetable garden took the place of a front lawn, and the scent of goat cheese and fruit wafted through the air.
Genine had lived the hard life of a teenage, single mother, yet dedicated herself to making the world better first through academia and non-profit work, and then through animal welfare education and food production. She welcomes all people with open arms. She has had interns that ranged from young teenagers being violently persecuted for their sexuality, to older people that were experiencing some hard and bad luck. She had essentially created a refuge and safe haven for all people from all walks of life, and even though she was barely able to keep it all going financially, asked the people she harbored in return to provide whatever their means allowed them- be it labor, small favors or just good ole company.
After evening chores were completed, Genine and I had fascinating discussions until well after dark. I was struck and inspired by Genine’s commitment to compassion for all people, and her continual dedication to being a champion for the world’s underdogs. I brought up my frustration with watching people make decisions about a future they know they will not be around to see. I hesitantly asked if younger Americans might be justified in considering alternative actions outside of nonviolent protests, endless conferences and weak agreements to enforce the actions that are needed now to secure our country’s future. I paused and waited for a rebuke from this highly educated person that had immersed herself in human rights for decades, warranted by suggesting something politically incorrect. She replied instead, ‘Radical actions have always had to be taken in extreme situations.’
She believes the modern, historical narrative that exemplifies past nonviolent protests as a very effective means of causing government change is half-baked and disrespectful to the true heroes and realities different people have lived through. When the stakes are high, desperate times can rightfully call for desperate measures. She likes to ask her students, ‘By indoctrinating American students in our educational system to believe that the only acceptable and most effective means in causing governmental change is through nonviolent protest, whose interests do you think that serves?’
Joe’s worldviews were shifted at university, but only after discovering permaculture after he decided to major in Nutrition. He learned about the severely declining vitamin and mineral content in vegetables that has been occurring over the past fifty years, (this includes organic labels). The USDA still lists the nutrient content of vegetables analyzed 80 years ago, even though the zinc content has declined 60% on average in U.S. vegetables since 1940. I spoke with a field officer in the TN Organic Growers Association, and she told me that although organic certification is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of avoiding more poison, it doesn’t do much to address the nutrient content of the food being produced. Nutrient deficiencies are linked to the development of many diseases and mental health conditions. According to the CDC and USDA1, a vast majority of Americans are deficient in multiple nutrients required for basic good health. Americans are struggling with overeating and obesity, but it’s no wonder our bodies continue to starve and cry out for real nourishment when we are deceived into purchasing nutrient-depleted stuff sold as ‘food’.
Joe was in college and working part-time, but could not afford to buy the real food at his local farmer’s market, let alone find the time to attend the once-a-week market. So he and his wife saved up money for a few years and bought 6 acres in the Sylva, NC. They decided to focus on managing birds and vegetables. They raised geese, ducks, guineas, hens, roosters, and ostriches and sold ‘baby birds’ and eggs at their local farmers market while they both worked full time in Asheville. They were finally able to set up a small garden for produce but managing the birds full time was a larger task than they had assumed.
Ostriches, Joe kept reminding me, are very stupid birds. Ostriches weigh between 200-350 lbs, and have been known to kill lions with their dinosaur-looking, 2-claw feet. As I looked down a very steep slope of their property where 3 underground springs meet, JOE told me they had once had 100 ostriches here. Imagining 100 of these giant Velociraptor creatures running in droves up and down through Appalachia jungle was surreal and oddly hilarious. Apparently it is well known in the ostrich raising community to keep the large birds away from creeks, because they will begin fanatically eating river stones and continue gleefully swallowing rocks until the mass of stones creates a blockage in the airway of their snake-like throats, so they end up dying from a lack of oxygen. He said the most stressful moments of his life occurred when he and his wife, working an hour away in Asheville, started receiving phone calls from neighbors notifying them that their insanely stupid and lion-killing ostriches were chasing their vehicle down the road or roaming about a neighbor’s front lawn.
Henry and Pete are beginning farmers as well. They told me they had never actually set a foot on a farm before they started their own. They had become close friends after working together for years. They got married around the same time and started betting on who would have kids first. As they planned for how to put more food on the table, they started paying attention to what kind of food they would they would put on the table. Their shock and horror at realizing they would not be able to feed their children (and now-pregnant wives) food that would nourish their children’s body and brain development, no matter how much money they earned, led them to dive head on into regenerative farming research and education. After 3 years of intense study, they started farming in their front yards, while both working full time jobs and caring for young families.
Pete and Henry like Elliot Coleman’s market-gardening techniques, and have set up their system to be managed mostly by very intelligently designed, but low tech, hand tools. After only 3 years, they are moving to a larger property and now HENRY is able to devote himself full time to the farm. When I asked them what the most surprising thing they had learned about their farming journey so far was, HENRY replied “How much people like radishes. We sell a lot of radishes.” They attribute a large portion of their success to a Knoxville non-profit organization, Nourish, that manages four farmer’s markets throughout the Knoxville area. Pete added, “I can’t imagine how we would have been able to sell our produce otherwise.”
Terri of Lady Bug Farms in North GA didn’t start farming because of children, but has found she is inspired by and continues to farm mostly because of kids. She described her past experience of giving farm tours for adults, and found that adults didn’t really appreciate or care to understand what real farming entails, and had many reservations about getting dirty. ‘But kids just get it. They are so excited and amazed by the interactions happening in nature and the abundance it provides. I get excited about it too! ‘Grown-ups’ just tend to nod their head and check their phones a lot…So now I do a bi-annual farm camp for the people who instantly get it, Ladybug Farm’s Kid Camp.” ,
Terri leaves some of her property ‘wild’ to provide wildlife corridors. Many animals have evolved to migrate across hundreds of miles or require large tracts of undeveloped land to exist. Many species move south to escape cold winters that would kill them, or have annual mating periods that they must travel to. In order to survive or continue the species, at the very least, they need a safe place they can briefly rest. Even when we spray poisons in on our own front yards so that we feel it looks ‘tidier’, we are making our world a less diverse and ultimately uglier, place.
In addition to growing a beautiful diversity of vegetables and flowers that she sells at the Rabun County Farmer’s Market she spearheaded, Terry has created a haven for the Monarch Butterfly. She told
me that only four, out of the seven species of milkweed are used by, and critical for, the Monarch Butterfly. Early this year she grew the four species from seed and in early summer, transplanted the seedlings into an area that she hopes that Monarchs will use on their long journey ending in central Mexico.
Terri told me earlier this year she had made $800 total for one month of selling at the farmer’s market and to local restaurants, and that month was supposed to be one of her most profitable of the year. She told me that if it wasn’t renting the tiny house that she won from a UGA sustainability raffle, she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet. She sadly conjectured that if the market conditions Big Ag has created, in conjunction the public’s ignorance of real agriculture and inability of many to obtain it continue to exist, that it will be impossible for normal folks to make an honest living in real agriculture. A world without farmers is a world where humans do not care to cultivate life.
The ‘Barefoot Farmer’ slammed his fist on the table and blurted out “Money had destroyed agriculture! I hate making people pay for real food!” Jeff Poppens is a celebrity, rockstar, academic and hillbilly all rolled into one. He blew my mind with some information he shared with me that I had never come across in all my time studying, working on and installing farms. He has written many books (I highly recommend his excellent new book on Amazon titled ‘BLAH BLAH BLAH’) and has spoken at many conferences, so I was a bit intimidated starting the interview. By the end of the night, my father and I, as well as some other random people who stopped by the farm, ended up picking four large basket of squash, getting a truck-bed tour of the farm and sharing a dinner over lots of laughter. Jeff is able to genuinely enjoy every person who comes to his farm with good intentions, and is infinitely enthusiastic to teach about how plants grow. When I asked him, ‘What question do you wish people would ask you more?’ He started pondering and a suddenly a grin came over his face and he answered, “I’d love it if I heard ‘You wanna get laid?’ more…”
Seeds, weeds and feeds. He discussed how in his first year of growing butternut squash, the squash were decimated by pests. Squash are annual plants, which means their life cycle only lasts one year. They cannot develop traits for resistance in such a short time frame, so instead they pass what they have learned onto their offspring (seeds). So he saved the seeds from the few squash that had produced and the next year he used those squash seeds to plant. That year the squash faired a bit better because their parent seed squash and changed their DNA to better prepare them for the environment (his farm) they were being grown in. The cycle repeats and after many years of saving seeds, I walked out onto a large patch of beautiful, almost Jurassic, pest and disease-free squash. The genetics from many squash generations before resulted in a plant that was completely tailored to that particular environment.
Weeds. Jeff told me that weeds were not allowed on his farm, even though clover and fescue could be seen in the garden beds, as well as a couple other various species. ‘Those are all good guys’ he said. He explained how clover feeds his plants Nitrogen for free, and how the silica fescue grass brings lines tunnels of vast mycelium networks underground. Mycelium networks effectively transport a vast majority of the micronutrients plants need, sometimes over a span of many miles. What about the other weeds, then? Jeff thanks every weed for telling him what his soil needs. Each plant requires certain conditions to grow, and when plant weeds outcompete your vegetable plants, its because the soil is not suited for your vegetable. Some weeds love potassium-depleted soils or grow well only in boggy areas, so by figuring out the conditions that weed grows in, you can figure out how to improve your soil so that it will no longer thrive there.
Feeds. Jeff feeds his soil cow manure and compost he makes on the farm. However he doesn’t use the cow manure to ‘feed’ the soil nutrients it needs to replace the ones taken from the prior crop, he uses it for increasing humus. Humus is the ‘spongy’ component of soil that allows soil to absorb water long enough for the plant to absorb it, but not so long as to cause root rot. Conventional farmers use mass amounts fertilizers mostly made of nitrogen, the most important nutrient for crop production, which runs off the farm and poisons river and creek life.
“Nitrogen? Nitrogen is everywhere, it’s in the air. Why would I have to add nitrogen?”, he asks me. Oh yeah, the air we breathe consists of 70% nitrogen…He notes that is why it is so important to have non-compacted soils, so the plant roots and soil aerobic bacteria have access to air. His TN soil composition is rocky with clay, and he does till. But when he spoke with local old farmers, they told him to be very gentle, ‘to turn the soil over like you were turning a baby’. The key with tilling is to not disturb the vast mycelium network that runs below the soil and helps feed nutrients to plants. I stuck my hand in the soils and it was perfect, crumbly and cool. He tills his soils maybe twice a year, turning in the diverse mix of compost and cow manure with a tractor.
Jeff was one of the older farmers I interviewed, maybe in his early 60’s, and he told me his experience of starting the farm way in an age before the internet, and when there wasn’t a plethora of books on ‘organic’ farming. He gives a lot credit to his father, who was both a farmer and mathematics professor, for shaping how he approaches learning about agriculture. Jeff chatted with old farmers and began studying old agricultural texts, articles and books, anything written he could find before the ‘Green Revolution’, when post-WWI chemicals were introduced to agriculture in the 1920’s, which has led to conventional farming. Every farmer before the 1920’s knew that growing just one crop (monocropping) at a time, as conventional farms do today, was plain stupid. And back then, even fools knew it was pointless to have a farm that grew vegetables every year without the manure, labor and additional benefits of livestock. Animals, plants and soil belong together, but humans rip apart the seams of the fabric that nature is made of so that a few can pocket millions, forcing millions to subsist on a lifetime of fake food. In fact, the greater the diversity of soil microorganisms, plants and animals on a farm, the healthier and more resilient a farm becomes. But Big Ag has become experts in discriminating and creating obstacles for diversity at every level of the industry.
Every single real farmer and producer I visited with, ranging from tiny novice farmers to relatively well-known and larger scale farmers are seriously struggling or happy to just be barely getting by. Two of the real farmers I interviewed actually have deadlines toward the end of this year where they will have to decide if they should call it quits.
Jamie is one of these farmers. He is actually a farmer, a rancher and runs a multi-livestock abbatoir. He does all that in addition to working as a computer engineer, and raising 3 young, beautiful children with his wife Deb. After college Jamie and a few buddies went back to their hometown to start vegetable farming. After a few successful years, they decided to expand their operation to include animal meats and products. They wanted to raise the livestock and poultry in a sustainable manner, allowing animals to roam on the lush Alabama pastures freely. Jamie had studied permaculture and decided to manage the geese, chickens, lamb, and pigs in a rotational manner using what he had learned. And the big money maker, grass fed beef, was being run by one of the friends he had started the vegetable market with. He spoke with his local government agriculture officer about how to process his livestock, the guy convinced him that he needed to take out a loan to build a $500,000 USDA processing facility. Jamie didn’t have anyone else to consult with on this, so he and his new wife invested all their time and money, into trying to provide real meat for their local community and built the processing facility.
A little background about livestock processing is required here. The USDA requires any farm or ranch that butchers meat on the farm, to build an expensive USDA-approved processing facility if they desire to sell the meat outside of the farm’s property lines (e.g.; groery stores, online sales, etc…) Additionally, each type of animal that is processed has different government regulations and requires different equipment, so most processors only specialize in one type of meat (red meat, poultry, game, etc…). We know that by using multiple species of livestock on a farm, a farm increases its diversity, leading to a healthier and more sustainable system. If a real farmer where to raise multiple species of livestock, then she must drive to multiple processors, sometimes hundreds of miles away from each other, just to get each species of livestock processed at its appropriate facility. The costs of driving, individual processing and loss of time are not worth the money made by selling cuts from two goats, one cow and three rabbits a year.
Some Purdue chicken processing plants process 1,000,000 chickens an hour. And no matter how large a processing facility is and how many chickens run through it, only one USDA inspector is required on the site. Jamie’s facility, which covers around 150,000 sq ft for multiple species of livestock allows the inspector to do his job well, but it is not possible for the inspector to do so at the Purdue plant. That is one of the reasons why corporate meat processing plants are a breeding ground for infectious disease (in conjunction with the fact that they are processing sick, unhealthy birds to begin with).
So we have discussed using multiple species of livestock makes farming more sustainable and healthy by better mimicking an ecosystem. And we have discussed that it is more profitable, environmentally-necessary and ethical for farmers to take livestock for processing when their numbers exceed the carrying capacity of the farm. To encourage farmers to set up ecologically-sound farms, we need multi-livestock processors to be available.
Jamie told me he is one of only four multi-livestock and humane meat processors east of the Mississippi. He told me that things were going well the first year but then his partner, the guy running the beef they depended on to turn a profit, had an accident. His partner’s wife found him unconscious in the field, he apparently had slipped and cracked his noggin on a large rock. It took months for his partner to recover and could not find a knowledgeable replacement to manage the cattle properly. Jamie showed me an Indeed posting for a dishwasher in a local town 10 miles away. ‘It is paying $15/hr. I cannot afford to pay someone $15/hr to clean the processing facility, let alone manage the cattle properly!’ Only established businesses and corporations can afford to pay their staff $15/hr. As a small business owner myself, who had to pay off student loans and did begin with thousands of dollars of working capital in my bank account, I can relate. How has this country allowed the odds to be stacked so high against 99% of hard-working Americans?
Jamie and his wife, like every real farmer and producer I met with, live in a modest house that they worked on themselves. They jokingly recalled pulling the tar paper up from their kitchen floors as Deb swirled around, dancing and picking up babies, fixing dinner, and checking on the fermented whey beverage she was experimenting with. JAMIE kept telling me to write down ‘DO NOT EVER BUILD A $500,000 MEAT PROCESSING PLANT.’ He’s a very smart guy, but he literally could not find any experienced person in his region to guide him on his initial set up decisions. This last year his partner hit his head (making the high-profit beef go kaput) and the local labor market he could afford vanished in a couple weeks, so his costs keep getting higher while overall sales are lower. His wife and him, both proud Alabamans, are worried about the future of their children and frustrated by the bad advice the government essentially sold them, and the lack of support they receive versus subsidy-fueled Purdue farms. On November 1st, they have to decide whether to sell the farm or not. Jamie also told me, out the four multi-livestock processors on the East Coast, another owner of one of those processors thinks he will be closing by the end of this year as well.