Stories from the Dirt: The Challenges and Rewards of Independent Organic Farming
Dirt — We walk on it, spit on it, kick it, abuse it and take it for granted. We can’t live without it and yet we consider it a symbol of failure, of death, of low class and ignorance. Is soil somehow a better word? Should there really be any distinction? Not all dirt is equal. Some dirt can’t grow grapes, some dirt can. But all dirt has the power to bring life and still we forget to take care of it. Does it make sense to neglect a pregnant mother? How will we survive if we keep sucking the dirt dry of all its life-giving nutrients? We won’t. It’s that simple, and yet we still don’t see the truth. Perhaps dirt is too dirty, or too lowly for us to care for it. The farmers know the dirt. They will tell you how desperate the situation is. But will you listen, or are the farmers too close to the dirt for you to hear them?
State Route 79 can be taken southeast from the small rural college-town of Ithaca all the way to New York City stretching into the Atlantic. Along that long winding road, cars and trucks speed by — often with little recognition of the natural beauty surrounding them. Far too often people try to qualify the “picturesque.” Some say it lives in an ocean sunset, others claim it was painted on a piece of canvas — but whatever you believe, Rt. 79 during the dramatic changes of autumn is just as beautiful as any sunset or famous painting.
Even though the sign on the road reads 50, I calmly cruise by at 30, looking in every direction at the landscape around me. I’m in the midst of something amazingly powerful and ancient, buzzing by in my awkward, unimportant hatchback. The air inside the car suddenly seems suffocating so I roll down all of the windows. Wet leaves and rotten sweet corn rushed into my nostrils and helped me to breathe again. Something about this weather and this country put me at ease.
My mind happily drifted from one site to another — withering cornfields, red-orange and yellow-green trees, and dilapidated barns silently decaying on the side of the road. One of these old, gray shacks leaned so strongly to the east from years of relentless wind that it now looked ready to blow over at any moment. Streets with names like Flat Iron and Creamery Road sprouted off the main drag and dug even deeper into the countryside.
The people who live here seem to be a proud, honest and independent bunch. “Assholes garage,” hung above the shed of a small roadside house. “Anderson’s Swamp” decorated the mysterious handmade wooden sign, marking a gravel driveway that spread off the main road and twisted around a corner of dense trees off into the imagination. Passing through the town of Berkshire, I saw dozens of signs telling me “Vote Adam Hilker — Town Council.” Shortly before arriving at King Bird Farm I read a sign that nearly convinced me to join the campaign. “Vote Adam Hilker — Younger and Better Looking,” the sign read. No messing around with this slogan. All elections are popularity contests. At least the people living here weren’t lying about it.
As I near King Bird, the road curved around a long bend and threw me into the middle of a seemingly endless clearing. On my right the lush green fields of grass flowed in waves up the hillside, while on my left the fields stretched out flat for miles until reaching another wave of rolling hills to the north. “The soil here seems rich,” I thought, as I pulled the car to the side of the road and got out so as to take in the landscape.
I might not be wrong about the soil. The farming industry in New York contributes more than $4.5 billion to the state economy in agricultural production alone. There are more than 30,000 people living and working on farms in the state, another testament to the fertility of the land. Around 1,000 of these farms are certified organic. To be ‘certified organic’ means a variety of things. In order to receive certification, farmers have to meet the federal regulations enforced by the National Organic Program and pass inspections from an independent third party. The core of organic farming is protecting the health of the soil, using natural fertilizer, and growing healthy crops without additives or harmful pesticides.
According to a survey conducted from November 2007 through February 2008 by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, among the New York farmers who do not identify as organic producers, “60 percent indicated that they had no interest in organic production, while the remaining 40 percent indicated some level of interest in transition to organic production.” The main concern expressed by the farmers who do not have an interest in organic production was the potential for disease-related loss of crops. Pesticides are a major part of conventional farming because they protect the crops from insects and disease. Yet, farmers still seem to be increasingly drawn towards the sustainability of organic practices. The 40 percent of reported farmers interested in transitioning to organic production may still be a minority, but the number of certified organic farms in New York and around the world continues to grow.
In 2012, the Organic Trade Association reported that organic food sales increased by 10.2 percent, with conventional food sales growing only 3.7 percent. New York is third on the USDA list of states with the most certified organic farms, accounting for 13 percent of the country’s organic dairy farms and 8 percent of the country’s organic milk. Around the world, organic farming continues to reach new heights, with 43 million hectares of land devoted to organic agriculture amounting to a global market worth of 72 billion dollars, according to a report released in February by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture. USDA records also show that the amount of acreage being used for organic farming in New York has continued to steadily increase, indicating that more farmers are going organic and that this type of farming has become more profitable. Though, profits seem to have little to do with the choice between organic and conventional.
“Nobody’s doing it for the money, I guess, cuz it doesn’t pay very well.” He paused, then added, “at all.” His face seemed tired from the sun and his eyes sunk behind the thickly framed glasses as he looked up from the dirt.
Ben is the first person I meet when I pull my car up the long gravel driveway. His skinny arms thrust a large shovel into the dirt of the flowerbed as he looks up at me. He has been working at King Bird since the season began in April. It’s now November and he will soon be heading back to his hometown in western Pennsylvania. During the winter, most people in Ben’s position look for whatever odd jobs they can find that will last them until the next farming season. “I’ve worked on this Christmas tree farm before for December so I might do that again,” he says with unexcited assurance. “I would like to be working on a farm next season but I’m waiting to see what my lady friend is doing.” Ben’s girlfriend is currently studying to get a degree in Soil Science, a rare but extremely important field of study.
Ben is part of the uncounted mass of young men and women working and volunteering on small farms around the world. Many of them are college-educated, but a different type of learning has called them to the fields. Ben started volunteering on farms when he was studying American History at the University of Pittsburgh. “I did the WWOOF thing — if you’ve heard of that — it’s like volunteering,” he explains. WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, and it is an organization that matches people interested in doing seasonal farm work with independent farmers around the globe. People without any farming experience can apply to volunteer and the farmers will cover their room and board.
The organization began in 1971 when an Englishwoman named Sue Coppard recognized the need to support local organic farmers. She saw that there was a vacuum between the people living in the cities who consumed the organic produce, and the farmers in the countryside working that food out of the ground. Coppard also knew of the need to educate people on the value of sustainable farming practices that protect the environment, the animals and the people. She decided to start volunteering on organic farms in England and soon was able to establish a relationship with the farmers that allowed WWOOF to blossom into an international cooperative.
Since its founding in 1971, the organization has expanded immensely and now provides volunteer opportunities in more than 50 countries. According to its website, “WWOOF is now recognized as having an important contribution to make in the wider organic world as it brings more and more people into direct contact with organic growers.”
“That’s how I started; just traveling and doing that, just for, like, something fun to do,” Ben says with a smile. Ben and one of his friends from college volunteered at a vegetable farm that they found through WWOOF, and since then Ben has continued to do seasonal work on other vegetable farms in Pennsylvania. This complete change in lifestyle, from college-student to farmer, sits at the core of what WWOOF hopes to accomplish. WWOOF’s website claims that these volunteer farming opportunities have “opened the door to a way of living that continues to fundamentally change people’s lives.” It’s not surprising, though, that the organization’s official website would boast about its own success. A better idea is to ask the volunteers themselves.
Natalie Dionne worked on a small vegetable farm in Nivillac, France for three weeks this past summer. Though she is set to graduate from Ithaca College this coming spring, Dionne was out in the fields getting her hands dirty like a true farmer — and she loved it. “I am very thankful to have found La Ferme de Bovenant, it was an incredible place,” Dionne told me, using the French name of the vegetable farm. Dionne has always found a certain charm in the farming and homestead lifestyle. Her father comes from a family of potato farmers in northern Maine and WWOOFing gave Natalie the perfect opportunity to explore that kind of life firsthand. “WWOOF was a really experiential and cheap way to do that through work exchange,” she explains.
By offering room and board to the volunteer workers, WWOOF host farmers provide all types of people with the affordable opportunity to travel and learn about sustainable farming. Being a college-student with a tight budget, Dionne knew that she would have to be smart about saving money when it came to pursuing her dream of living in the French countryside. WWOOF presented the ideal option, though it would require some courage to get there. “It takes a lot of trust to hop on a train in a foreign country, get off at a stop where a stranger says they will pick you up and then proceed to get into their van with them,” she tells me. “I guess you need to have faith in farming and kindness, and that I did!”
Dionne thoroughly enjoyed her time volunteering in France, but her experience also taught her about the amount of work that goes into successfully running an organic farm. The host farmers, Virginie and Alec, did not have any other staff so when Dionne showed up she became the only employee. Work started at sunrise with watering and weeding, and continued throughout the day. With only three people working on the farm, there was always something to be done. “Spending time on the farm was certainly a reality check in how demanding owning a farm is, especially an organic farm,” Dionne explained.
It is true that the demands of organic farming put an even greater workload on farmers than conventional farming methods. One of the greatest challenges of organic farming is the battle to protect crops from insects without using any dangerous pesticides. “The farmers I stayed with certainly had their work cut out for them in order to fight off pests without using harmful chemicals,” Dionne said. She added “I think it’s a shame that organic farming has to be its own separate category within the realm of food production and that it has become the norm to infuse our food with chemicals.”
Unfortunately, it is true that using chemical pesticides has become the norm among conventional farmers who hope to maximize profits. Farmers should not be blamed for wanting to use these preventative measures when considering how difficult it already is to turn a profit. It is only logical that a hardworking farmer struggling to make a living wage would look to increase profits by using industrial pesticides. Yet, what is largely forgotten, are the many ancient methods that have been successful in protecting crops for thousands of years. Dionne explained how these time-tested methods of permaculture were used on the farm she worked at.
“La Ferme de Bovenant was a permaculture based organic farm, meaning that Virginie used the principles and practices of permaculture to allow for a more successful crop yield,” she said. This meant doing things like leaving horses in the field to ward off hungry deer, or planting certain flowers to attract bees towards plants that weren’t being fertilized. Whatever the problem was, Virginie was able to find a sustainable and effective solution. “She was a really powerful woman and I certainly looked up to her,” Dionne said.
Understanding what it takes to get food from the dirt to the table motivated Dionne to pursue her dream of living in France, and thanks to WWOOF and her own courage she was able to see this dream realized. The sustainable and inventive farming methods, as well as the tremendous connections made with Virginie and Alec, have provided Dionne with an invaluable experience that she will not soon forget. Few people truly understand where their food comes from. Most farms are very isolated from the people who consume the vast majority of the produce. It takes initiative and hard work in order to fully comprehend what goes into growing and distributing the food we eat. Dionne took these steps in order to learn and they gifted her with a truly enlightening experience. Now, as she prepares to graduate from college, the opportunity to continue pursuing the farming lifestyle seems enticing. Dionne wisely admitted, “Working on this farm was a way to start to explore the journey of food.”
In fall of 2013, Ryan Bince was enrolled at Ithaca College and working as a Resident Assistant when one night he decided to book a one-way ticket to Australia. He took the next semester off from school and by spring he was hitchhiking his way from Sydney down to Goulburn. Bince had made arrangements with a WWOOF farm in Goulburn and he was ready to work, but also ready for an adventure. He arrived in Australia with only about $2,000 dollars to his name, meaning that he was able to spend no more than $20 a day for the four months that he was abroad. With nearly empty pockets and a heart full of courage, Bince traveled from one farm to another as a way to finance his journey and build personal connections. “The farms were a good option because most of them afforded free housing, and many offered free food,” Bince explained. “The more time I could spend on a farm, the more money I had left over for other things.”
In Goulburn, Bince worked on a cattle and sheep farm owned by a man fittingly named Mike Shepherd. Bince showed me a picture of Shepherd, his face pink from sunburn, his hair white and wispy, and his right eye missing from some unknown incident. Amazingly, Bince was able to describe the eccentric Mr. Shepherd and the other WWOOF volunteers on the farm as if he were still there working alongside them. Besides Bince, there were four other volunteer workers from around the world staying on the farm. One girl was from France, two guys were from Japan, and for a short time there was a Brazilian couple. “Everyone enjoyed sharing cultures and learning about each other,” Bince said after telling me the story of how Koichi and Umi, the two Japanese guys, taught everyone the Japanese version of saying grace — “Itadaki Mas.”
Australia has a policy that requires individuals looking to extend their visa to work on a farm for three months. This is what led Agathe, the girl from France, to Mr. Shepherd’s farm. Agathe was also college-educated, with a degree in Hospitality. “She was actually traveling the world working in hotels,” Bince said. Yet, farming had brought these people together, not their educational or ethnic background. Differences seemed slight when bound by a common goal and simple work ethic. Soon they were spending almost every hour of the day with each other. Everyone spoke good English except for Kiochi, so Bince quickly started helping him learn. “He called me ‘professor’ after a while,” Bince wrote to me. “It was nice.”
The strange but cheerful Mr. Shepherd was always eager to bring the workers together and make sure that everyone was happy. “Every afternoon, he liked to pull out his guitar and sing songs with us,” Bince recalled. “His favorite was “Take Me Home Country Road,” and Koichi, the Japanese guy who barely knew English, knew every word to that song.”
Despite his sunny personality, Mr. Shepherd had been struggling to make a living from his cattle and sheep. When Bince got to the farm, Mr. Shepherd was in the midst of thinking up new methods for making money in order to save the farm. The cattle and sheep were tended to while other projects also began to take shape. Bince worked extensively on building yurts, a portable round tent traditionally used by Central Asian nomads. These tents were being repurposed as lodging for tourists looking to spend time in the beautiful countryside. Mr. Shepherd also organized various camping sessions for kids from the nearby town of Goulburn. “His farm was going out of business, so he decided to innovate,” Bince said of Shepherd.
The need to find alternative creative sources of revenue is not uncommon among independent farmers. King Bird grows tropical flowers in their greenhouses and sells them locally, while other places like Stoughton Farm have built a corn maze and set up seasonal attractions like pumpkin cannons as a way to make a little more money. “The maze definitely helps,” said Sarah, a friendly cashier and field worker at Stoughton farm. “The Stoughton’s make enough money to live on, plus a little extra to keep building.” The farm sits right next to Rt. 79 and the tall gray corn maze is the first sign visible from the road. Mr. Stoughton inherited the land from his father, who received it from his father before him. Originally they used the land to raise chickens, but now it is a vegetable farm and a popular seasonal attraction. The success of the Stoughton’s is an example of how small farms can invent sustainable ways to make money outside of traditional farming.
When running an independent farm, especially one that is organic, it can be difficult to make a significant profit and that is why so many of these farmers turn to alternative sources of revenue. While the money being brought in by these side projects has proven extremely useful for small struggling farms, the direct interaction with members of the local community is also very important. The added attractions provided by these farms helps to showcase the tremendous benefits of supporting local independent farmers. Engaging the community, whether it is on a local or global scale, can be critical to the success of any small farm. Kids who have never even stepped foot in a garden now have the opportunity to appreciate the value of farming. For people looking to learn about a healthier way of living, explore a simpler lifestyle, or simply travel and build friendships, independent farms provide all of those things and more. The potential, as the WWOOF website proudly states, is to be opened to an experience that will fundamentally change your life.
This type of transformative experience clearly resonates with Ben who had never had a garden or worked in the dirt until he started volunteering. “I like — I love working seasonally on farms and this is my fourth season doing this.” He says he is 27 years old, but the work has made him look older. He talks through a thick black beard while noisily transferring a rusty pile of old pig feeders into the back of his red pick-up truck. His skinny arms somehow toss the heavy pig feeders with ease. “So yea I’ve done it for a few seasons but at first it was just a summer job,” he continues. Though he already had found his passion for farming, Ben chose to complete his degree in American History. Yet, as if finding a job wasn’t hard enough for history majors, five years ago the economic recession had made things even worse. “I graduated right when the job market was sort of tanking,” Ben says with an ironic grin. Luckily he already had experience farming and it quickly became a convenient alternative to aimlessly hunting for a job.
After saying this, Ben stopped to think for a moment while standing in front of me with two dirty pig feeders, one in each hand. “In some ways I wish I wouldn’t have gone to college, you know,” Ben said with a sigh. “It seemed like kind of a waste of money, but I don’t think I would be here doing this had I not, if that makes sense.” He paused and then added a frustrated “whatever, can’t change it anyway.” He walked over to his truck and threw in the pig feeders while I tried to think of something else to talk about.
Ben continued to work on vegetable farms in Pennsylvania until he came to King Bird in April. Here is able to gain experience working with a wide variety of livestock instead of just vegetables. The farm raises chickens, pigs, cows, and horses while also growing a variety of vegetables and flowers. Ben is the only employee here and the job has provided him with a lot of experience that he hopes to utilize on his own property one day. “I plan on having my own thing,” he said. “That’s kind of the idea behind it all.”
That was always the idea for Karma and her husband Mike, the owners of King Bird Farm. They both went to Green State College in Washington for the eco-agriculture program but neither got in because the program was already full. That’s when they decided to go into biology, still hoping to learn what they could about sustainable farming practices, Karma says as she leads me into the barn where she returns to brushing one of her horses. Her long brown hair hangs in thick braids and bounces off her back as she walks to pick up the comb hanging from the wall. Barely taller than the horse’s legs, Karma is strong and stocky, with healthy arms hardened by years of hard work.
“So you always had a passion for farming?” I ask Karma in a poor attempt to break the initial silence. For a moment, though, she stays focused on the long smooth shoulders of the giant horse. This is the biggest horse I’ve ever seen but it takes me a moment to notice because of its amazingly calm and gentle nature. It barely pays me any mind while standing calm and firmly still under the constant brushing from Karma. I knew little about the horse, having just met it, but seeing its size and well-trained manner I suddenly got the strong feeling that this horse played a major role on the farm. “Yep, there really wasn’t much of a question,” Karma said. “We both got jobs with the Forest Service after college as biologists but we just wanted to farm.”
Karma and Mike bought King Bird in 1996 when the real estate market in Upstate New York was decaying, like the abandoned barns that continue to wither on the side of the road. Mike is from Ithaca so Karma moved from the Washington homestead she grew up on and they started their search for the perfect farm. The hope was to find an old dairy farm that wouldn’t run them into debt, but most seemed too expensive. They had saved up a substantial “nest-egg” during and after college, but getting a bank loan was impossible because they weren’t employed. But then they stumbled upon King Farm — 100 acres of barren land with nothing left but a small, crumbling house.
No one had farmed on the property since the 1940s and the owner had passed away long ago. When Karma and Mike found this hidden gem, hiding just a mile off of Rt. 79, they purchased it for the more than reasonable price of $58,000. It’s a hundred acres of fertile farmland and Rt. 79 is covered with countless other vacant properties that used to be like this one. Upstate New York encompasses countless other long forgotten farms that owners have never been able to sell.
After buying the farm, Karma and Mike spent the first ten years steadily rebuilding the entire infrastructure. The farm was the right price but it required a new barn, new fencing, new sheds, and a much-improved house. “As we made money we could put more money into the farm, so you know the first ten years everything went into the farm to get it up and going,” Karma recollected with a clear memory. Now that the farm is up and running, Mike spends half of his time at Cornell doing biological research while Karma has remained full-time on the farm since they bought the place 20 years ago. “He likes to have his finger in the research pot and I like to have health insurance,” says Karma and we both laugh.
The investment necessary to build up a farm from scratch would turn away a lot of less passionate, or more practical, entrepreneurs. Yet, when asked if the farm has been successful after all these years, Karma smiles and is happy to tell me. “It has been successful, yes,” she says. “We’re very diverse so I think that’s a part of our success, if one thing doesn’t work out we’ll try something else.”
Maintaining diversity on a farm is essential to success. Rotating crops and closely monitoring the state of the soil hits at the core of all farming, but especially small organic operations where there is very limited space and available nutrients. “You, know, if it’s too dry for the vegetable field maybe something else will work better, so we’ve always got something going on,” Karma explains.
Though ancient in its method, this practice of sustainable agriculture has been mostly abandoned due to the financial pursuits of large conventional farmers. Instead of recycling their waste, many conventional farmers simply let it be taken by the rain and into the waterways. Nitrogen from animal waste and toxic chemicals from pesticides are carried by rainwater into streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean. Run-off farm waste is currently one of the leading causes of water pollution and land-degradation in the world.
Instead of scorching the earth with manufactured nitrogen, Karma uses the waste produced from her animals to make organic fertilizer. “We have no chemical inputs,” Karma says proudly. She now brushes the back legs of the giant horse and begins to explain all of the simple yet effective methods used to insure the sustainability of the farm. Manure from their horses and cattle provide the fertilizer — no additional nitrogen necessary. Almost no pesticides are used and Karma attributes this to the thriving insect and bird populations on the farm.
I ask her about run-off waste. She stops from her relentless brushing for a moment, either to look at me or to rest. “All of our land runs off into West Creek and so everything that we put on our land ends up in the Chesapeake Bay, just like every other waterway around here,” she says. The reality is that every farm has some run-off waste. No matter how hard the farmers may try to prevent this, Mother Nature marches forward. Nitrogen from the manure can still be collected by the rain and washed into the waterways. Yet, the recycling of manure as fertilizer keeps the cycle of chemicals at a sustainable level. By using this fertilization method and deciding not to buy additional nitrogen for the fields, farms like King Bird significantly reduce the impact of their run-off waste. “The manure’s not waste — the manure is fabulous,” Karma reminds me.
After hearing about the effectiveness of this type of sustainable farming, I wonder why these practices aren’t more commonly utilized. If more people bought into this mentality, the tremendous environmental burden of the global farming industry could be greatly reduced. “Have you always been organic?” I ask. A poorly phrased question but nonetheless she understands. “I didn’t think there was any other way to farm,” she says before bursting into laughter. I start to laugh as well but then I lock eyes with the silent horse. The deep, dark circles gaze intently back and I start to feel like he’s been watching me this whole time. After a moment I force myself to stop staring, thinking it might somehow be rude.
I noticed that Karma was now combing the thick sandy-brown mane of the patient horse, but her work had become more intensive. Her strong stout build doesn’t seem to tire as she vigorously yanked the brush through the stubborn hair. The determined efforts are to no effect though. “I can’t believe how silly you look,” she says to the horse, whose golden mane stands straight forward, ready for work despite its peculiar appearance.
Out in the yard he toils, led by her voice and her pull. The ground softens under his powerful legs and the load starts to drag forward. It isn’t easy. Sometimes he slips, other times he gets frustrated, but she always keeps him moving forward. Soon the job will be done, and after that, another will begin.
Perhaps it’s the actual work that deters people. Natalie Dionne saw firsthand how much time and effort goes into successfully managing an organic farm when she volunteered at La Ferme de Bovenant. Karma sees this everyday at King Bird as she takes endless steps to improve the productivity and sustainability of her land. “It’s low input,” she says. “But it’s high labor — it’s high thinking.” There is nothing easy about the life of an independent organic farmer — except maybe the drive to keep going. When someone decides to become an organic farmer, they do it knowing that there will be countless obstacles ahead. “Organic agriculture takes more thinking, and planning, and action,” Karma says with confidence, her sweet but powerful voice resonating in the small dirty barn.
Nobody is doing it for financial gain. “A major obstacle is always the market, the market, the market,” Karma repeats with a hint of frustration, as if she is already tired of talking about it. “Even in Ithaca, that’s got a really good organic market, prices are still generally hard to make a living wage from.” But she accepts this, knowing that her financial sacrifice has been well worth it. The wealth that these farmers pursue is a kind that refuses to be monetized. Those who choose to make less money in order to provide safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly food are making a moral decision. Yet, to many of them, it was the simplest decision they ever made.