Sunday, June 29, 2014

Farmer Jeremy's Sunday Morning Speech

Ever wonder why Jeremy became a farmer? Read on!
Farmer Jeremy's Sunday Morning Speech
Originally presented at the NACF fundraiser brunch 22 June 2014

Here we are on Sunday morning, and while I’m not here to deliver a sermon, I do have some things to tell you about my religious background.  My Grandfather on one side was a Methodist minister and he and my Grandmother built a vibrant community around their church.  My grandparents on the other side were second-generation Russian Jewish immigrants living in a very tight community in the Bronx.   My parents, children of the sixties, became Quakers around the time I was born.  I always had the strong sense growing up in their household that I should find work doing something cool that would make the world a better place.    

In high school, I volunteered at soup kitchens in New York City and fantasized about traveling to the Third World to volunteer to improve people’s lives.  My sister, in fact, traveled to Africa as a teenager, and now does public health work there.  I’ve chosen to find my life’s work of community service much closer to home.  One year in college, I worked at a farm in Virginia that trucked vegetables in to farmer’s market.  It was a lot of fun.  I had previously been involved in outdoor education, and while it was something cool—it was immensely satisfying to be part of a group of people who heroically scaled a mountain or paddled across the lake in a windstorm, or whatever the challenge of the day was, I was having trouble seeing the part of that work that was making the world a better place.  

Farm work was a revelation for me.  We had a group of energetic people working as a team to accomplish herculean tasks, but the outcome here was much more tangible: healthy food that improved people’s lives.  The farmers there had been college professors before they started farming, and they employed maybe 20 college students per season.  They would often have little lectures about various aspects of farming.  The message of one of those lectures that really struck me was that running a business could be an effective way to accomplish larger societal goals—you put forward what you do, and ask people to support that work by buying your products. This is in a way more direct than something like political work where you try to change people’s minds with persuasive language.  A farm business in particular can be a real slice of making the world a better place, by trying to create a little piece of the world we want to live in.

So I see my work here at Simple Gifts Farm as a community service in a very real way.  I enjoy running a business and existing in a marketplace.  We have the incentive to produce really fantastic food so that people will want to buy it.  But the reason we do things the way we do is really more about what we feel is right than purely about the profit motive.  We have a piece of land that is being used to produce healthy food in an ecological system.  This land serves as open space for our neighbors who walk their dogs and baby joggers through it.  Our CSA members are connected to their food supply in a very real way.  When we have a cold spring like the one we’ve had, or a new strain of tomato blight comes through, or when we have a fantastic crop of carrots or strawberries, people get to learn about how these kinds of things effect what we all get to eat.  And through our apprentice program, we are training up our next generation of farmers.  We try to empower them to take on some management of the farm effort, and hope that they will go out and find their own farms to work in their own version of the right way to do things.  

The name of the farm, Simple Gifts Farm, is taken from the hymn “’Tis a gift to be simple”.  As it turns out, there is nothing simple about what we do.  Every connection, from soil fertility to pest management to maintenance of equipment, and maintenance of crew morale, from harvest management and storage to community relationships and financial planning, are immensely complicated.  But the reasons we do it, the gifts on which we depend, are still simple, and they are all about connecting these pieces together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In the past eight years, we have built a tremendous community asset.  In many ways it surpasses my dreams, and I am in wonder at how it is that we have come so far.  There is no way that I could have done this alone, and I will always be grateful to everybody who has contributed along the way.  

Our current fundraising effort supports the continuation of the most mission-driven parts of our work—both the apprentice program and our interface with the local community are dependent on the preservation of the front parcel on North Pleasant Street.  Please help us to support the continuation of this work so that this farm can remain a community asset for us all and for future generations.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Save the Apprenticeship Program

Dear CSA members,

Thank you so much for being part of our farm this year. What a great year it is – the field crops are growing well after a cold spring, and we’re enjoying an incredible strawberry crop. Depending on which field you pick from, the strawberries you pile into your quart containers were planted by either last year’s apprentices (Ana, Chris, Avril, Zan, Emily and Matt) or the year before (Willie, Mike, Emily, Matt, and me). The farm’s apprenticeship crew (this year, Hilary, Sam, Jerahmy, Sue and myself) is a critical part of this community farm, and a significant part of what the North Amherst Community Farm’s (NACF) capital campaign aims to sustain. The campaign, now entering its final stages, is to raise the funds needed to retire NACF’s mortgage loan and complete the purchase of the farm. This mortgage is secured by the critical 2-acre farmstead area, which includes the farmhouse, some barns, and the community interface with North Pleasant Street.

This campaign is especially meaningful to me as an apprentice, since the future of the farm house hinges on the campaign’s success. The house (located next to the entrance of the farm) has been occupied by the farm’s apprentice crew for almost 10 years. I lived here when I first started farming. After a season at another farm I’m back, living with a whole new crew. I love this house. We eat lunch here together every day, and stumble out to work together each morning at 6am. Living here is an integral part of the learning experience; from my kitchen I can see our herbs and early flowers. From my bedroom window I can see the fence charger that keeps our livestock safe. If a cow gets out after hours and the farmers need help, we put our boots back on and go out into the night to help. Early in the morning (before first light in the spring and fall) we walk out to meet Dave and Jeremy with our hot coffee or tea still in hand, and finish our cups as we discuss the day ahead. After hot summer Fridays in the field we collapse on the couch on our porch behind our trellised hops vines, and someone brings out the cold beers.

We work six days a week in the main season. The days are long and someone is always on chores, going out onto the farm several times a day—every day—to take care of the greenhouses and animals, keeping an eye on things. We notice things, because we’re right here. If we had to commute to the farm, we could not engage as deeply with the land and its complex working as we do now. Without being able to offer us housing, Dave and Jeremy could not afford to take on beginning farmers who want to learn from them. Instead, they would have to hire fewer, more experienced crew and pay them by the hour. Living here makes the apprentice program possible.

This is critical to the future of the farm – now, and even more so to the next generation of farmers who will someday work this land. Perhaps they will have learned their craft from a farm apprenticeship. The farm land itself is permanently preserved. It is my hope that the farm house and apprenticeship program will be permanent too.

You can help us. Find out more at, or ask any of us . Any contribution you can make toward this fund will ensure that others will be able to come after me and learn and live and grow here.

-Caro  (Second-Year Apprentice)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Continuing Saga of the Four-Bottom Plow

What happens when you play a country song backwards?  The truck gets fixed, the dog comes back to life, and the woman comes home.  Here at Simple Gifts Farm, our list of problems sometimes seems like a country song.  We like to play our country song backwards by celebrating our challenges, and having a laugh at just how completely things can go wrong.  Somehow it all works out in the end, but we certainly end up shaking our heads sometimes at the utter truth of Murphy’s Law.  A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my trials with fixing our plow.  There have been a couple more chapters that I thought you might enjoy.
When we last left the story of the plow, our hero (that’s me) had completely melted a bolt on the plow, in the course of trying to loosen it with the heat of an oxy-acetylene torch.  Of course it turned out that the bolt didn’t have to be removed at all.  After this, we sent Caro back out to the rocky field that made the plow trip in the first place.  After a few passes, she came back.  The third plow bottom (one back from the second bottom that had given us trouble before) had hit a rock, and the roller on the trip mechanism had completely broken off and been lost in the dirt.  We were clearly going to need to take the plow bottom all apart now.  When we talked to any of our local parts dealers, we had gone through a long ritual of looking all over the plow for parts numbers to try and track down the model number of the plow.  On a hunch, I called a place in Pennsylvania that had gotten us some other parts for the plow.  Within a couple of sentences, the guy there knew exactly which part we needed, and said that he would ship out the whole top part.  A few days later (during which time we looked longingly at the still uncompleted plow job), a box showed up on our porch with the whole top half of a plow bottom.  All we needed was one little part from inside it.  We were faced with the choice of either taking apart the top parts of both plow bottoms and replacing the broken part, or swapping in the whole new top half.  After some struggling with rusty old bolts, we determined that it would be easier to swap out the whole top half.  Since this was a matter of undoing the same big bolt that I had melted before, I was relieved of the pleasure of this task, and Dave and his nephew Ian got to spend the better part of a day getting this job done.  It wasn’t until Caro was back out in the field, bravely plowing (and bravely leaving the rocky field for last), that we noticed that our new top half must have come from a different model plow, because it was a good two inches shorter than the old one.  At that point, we just threw up our hands and let Caro keep plowing.  It left the field a little lumpy, and would require some extra disking to get things levelled out, but it just needed to get done. 
This is starting to sound like a country song played forwards, and we haven’t even gotten to the part where after the plowing was done, the hydraulic system on the tractor stopped working.  Luckily, our newer, smaller tractor can do all of the other jobs to get fields ready for planting, but it just takes a little longer when you have only one tractor.  Suffice it to say, in the end we got new plantings of tomatoes, cukes, summer squash, and sweet potatoes in the ground and are ready to roll with lettuce, kale, celeriac, broccoli and cabbage next week.  And the plow is now put back together the right way, and we made a connection with a farm mechanic who took our big tractor away to fix it.  Hopefully we will get it back by the time we need to plow again.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A New England Food Vision & Simple Gifts Farm

Brian Donahue is a farmer-scholar, and is one of our mentors. He keeps our work of farming this particular place connected to big ideas and aspirations in agriculture and sustainability. Farmers Jeremy and Dave met Brian at The Land Institute in Kansas. Brian, a New Englander through and through, served as Education Director there for three years, as he’d promised, although he kept a case of Sam Adams beer in his closet, and never quite got used to the wide-open wheatfields and prairies.  Now Brian, who is on the environmental studies faculty at Brandeis and studies New England agriculture past and present, is the lead author of a collaborative report recently released by Food Solutions New England. The report looks to the future and envisions a food system in which our region produces at least 50% of clean, fair, just and accessible food for all New Englanders by 2060.

Right now, New England produces about 12% of its food for the 14.5 million people who live in the region, while 88% is grown on farmland acres outside of the region. What would it take to substantially – and sustainably – increase that capacity? “A New England Food Vision” provides a bold vision. It proposes tripling our current farmland acreage from 2 million acres to 6 million acres – similar to the amount of farmland in production in the first half of the 20th century. It envisions a shift toward healthier eating patterns while retaining choice and diversity of diet among our diverse population. And it urges policy shifts to support food justice, so that an adequate healthy diet is in reach of all. If the vision sounds ambitious to you, you’re right! Sometimes thinking big is the best way to show us how to direct our energy.

The report isn’t a prescription, but outlines in detail what our region’s land and climate could support in two scenarios: “The Omnivore’s Delight” in which 50% of the region’s food is produced here, and an alternative “Regional Reliance,” which explores maximizing New England’s food production to almost 70%. The Omnivore’s Delight scenario calls for New England to grow all of our vegetables and about half of the fruits. We’d produce all of the region’s dairy and much of the other livestock, using land suited best for pasture. A smaller percentage of the region’s grain, bean and oil needs would be produced regionally, as these calorie-dense foods are more efficient to import than produce, dairy and meat. You can delve into these scenarios by exploring the report.

Where does Simple Gifts Farm fit into this vision? For New England to produce all of its own vegetables, we would need to increase vegetable acreage five-fold. And since freshness is paramount for produce, a large amount of this production would be in urban and suburban areas. Our location at the North Amherst Community Farm, in the heart of our town and accessible by foot, bus and bike, fits this piece of the vision perfectly. Simple Gifts Farm, together with many other farms, community and school gardens, and thriving local markets, are part of making the vision a reality. In addition, our and other farmer’s work to extend the season so that fresh produce is available year-round is part of a trend that needs to continue and expand.  Local food processing hubs for farmers and community members are also a key piece to preserving local food for year-round eating. And the shared ownership model of the Simple Gifts farmer’s business on land leased from the North Amherst Community Farm land trust is one that makes food production in-town – where high land values are a great challenge but the community access is a great asset – feasible.

Together, we can do this. Thank you for being part of making this vision a sustainable reality.