F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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Food Safety

Let's try a voluntary paradigm shift. Instead of assuming that the food we buy is safe, let's assume it is not 100% safe. In other words there is no certainty. [This is my old stat tutor persona coming to the fore, by the way.] Now, since we cannot say something is 100% - i.e. not certain - we can assign a probability value to the issue of food safety. Then it is a short leap to the idea of managing food safety risk. For example, if you grow your own food, you cannot be 100% certain that your food is safe. For example, your dog may be out in the garden chasing rabbits at night and then leave a little deposit on your salad greens. In the morning you may munch these same salad greens without even thinking about it. Admittedly, this kind of scenario has a low probability, say 1%, but I am sure you follow my line of reasoning.

Okay, if we are assigning probabilities, we don't even have to measure them; all we have to do is be in the ballpark or even just rank them. For example, if you grow your own vegetables, you have a greater probability of safety than if you buy them at the store or a farmers market. You even have a greater probability than if you buy from a certified organic grower. (Remember - the E. coli outbreak in 2006 was spread by certified organic spinach.) So now we are actively managing our risk by growing our own produce - even though it is not 100% safe. We can rank them in the following scale.
1) Grow your own - Best
2) Buy from a grower you trust - Better
3) Buy certified organic - Usually okay
4) Buy from a supermarket you trust - Usually okay
Notice how I rank certified organic in the same category as from a supermarket you trust. The third-party certification people will surely object to this assumption on my part, but I back it up with experiential evidence. I look at the nature of the corporation that sells food and this is a proxy for knowing the origin of the food. In other words, I would rather buy from a supermarket that is honest than from a crooked organically-certified grower. Business ethics are the operative deciding point in this case. Notice also that I don't use the category "farmers market." A farmers market is just a venue, not a supplier per se.

The bottom line is to reject certainty as a chimera. Then we can focus on managing risk. Effectively managing risk means making decisions about what we buy. The more active we are the better.


My Take on Permaculture

I first heard about permaculture back in the 70's, when it was thought of as permanent + agriculture. Now, a better view is to combine permanent + culture. A couple of years ago, I was looking to add some permaculture elements to my farming, so I did a little more research. I got a copy of Permaculture in a Nutshell, 4th ed. (2005), by Patrick Whitehead, and I also went to a workshop by Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia's Garden (2001). Upon reading Whitehead's book, I quickly realized my eclectic orientation was frowned upon in the permaculture world. Right in the first chapter Whitehead lumps modern chemical agriculture and conventional organic agriculture together as both heavily dependent on fossil fuels. He then mentions a second way, peasant agriculture, which is dependent on human and beast labor. This is my style of farming. However, Whitehead then makes a false dichotomy: ". . . our only choice is between a high-energy lifestyle and one of sheer drudgery (2005:1)." His next sentence is: "But there is a third choice, called permaculture (Ibid)." Right away, I knew I had stepped into a minefield. I don't recall drudgery being such a bad state of affairs - in fact, I don't even regard long hours weeding, planting, running a tiller, harvesting, sorting, packing, washing, etc. as even drudgery. I get tired, of course, but it is a good tired. Certainly not the all-consuming drop in both physical and mental acuity faced in an office around 3:00 pm. I rather like being a tired, sweaty peasant.

Later in the Whitehead book I came across the importance of design. For example, "Organics is a method of growing, while permaculture is a design system (Ibid:67)." This is a precise statement of why I am critical of permaculture. This focus on design leads to trying to envision every obstacle and trying to prevent it or deal with it before it even comes up. In my experience, this is a fruitless pursuit, as there always seems to be something that comes up for which we are unprepared. Flexibility is thus key to dealing with each new circumstance. Adherence to design thus becomes rigidity. Some people may think I am quibbling about small matters, but let's look at an example in Rob Hopkins' Transition Handbook. Hopkins was a permaculture teacher before proposing his Transition Initiative and he gives full credit to permaculture concepts. In talking about the importance of visioning, Hopkins writes, ". . . the Transition approach has, as a fundamental principle, the belief that we can only move towards something if we can imagine what it will be like when we get there (2008:141)." I see this as quite short-sighted.

My own take on this process is to do the right thing and see what comes up - then we deal with it by doing the right thing again. This is based on how evolution by natural selection works. Small incremental changes add up to species change. This is eclecticism in a nutshell and quite opposite to permaculture, with its emphasis on human-visioned design. Evolution by natural selection has no grand design, so it is no stretch to say that permaculture is essentially anti-evolutionary. Indeed let me postulate eclecticism = evolutionary AND design = anti-evolutionary.

I checked out these ideas when I went to a workshop with Toby Hemenway in Bellingham in 2006. I asked him two key questions, the first being, "Is permaculture more like Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Form follows function,' rather than Steven Jay Gould's 'Function follows form'?" He said it was. The next question was, "Do I have to buy into the whole design concept, rather than just pick and choose methods?" He said I have to accept the whole concept - no picking and choosing. This corroborated my view of permaculture. Since I don't want to buy into the whole human-visioned design, I have basically been rejected by the permaculture designers. However, I still find occasional methods, pieces of the whole, if you will, that I find useful. One of these is the idea of key-hole beds and another is to stack functions. I think permaculture provides another vision of the future, but it is still just another strategy in my quiver of strategies.


Introduction to F.A. Farm and the Dual Track Sustainable Model

OK - Here goes. Our farm is called F.A. Farm and the F.A. stands for Full Attention. It also stands for Fresh, Absolutely! or any of a dozen other phrases. We produce sustainably-grown fruits and vegetables for retail sale and are also moving into sustainable grain production. What I mean by sustainable is basically "beyond organic." All of us farmers are on the same continuum, since we are producing new wealth in the form of food. However, some of us use very little petroleum-based products, while others use massive amounts, whether it is in the form of embedded calories in equipment, massive quantities of diesel, or chemical fertilizers. Yet I also use petroleum products when I put gas in my tiller and drive my pickup to the farmers market to sell my produce. We can't be pure, but we can reduce our carbon calorie usage by a considerable amount. Thus, the idea of being on the same continuum. I am more sustainable than my neighbors, but it is not an either-or proposition.

As an example of the economics of sustainable agriculture, I don't sell dry beans because I would have to charge $30 a pound for what I actually do with them. However, with crops I am not selling I do a barter U-pick. I grow them, you pick them and I get half the yield. This has worked good so far on wheat, oats, and raspberries. So, if you want dry beans you can come out and pick a 75-foot row, split them with me and shuck your half yourself, while you are sitting about watching TV for instance. It will probably take you 1-2 hours per row to pick the pods. The yield for the whole row would be about 4 pounds but you would get half in the form of a bucket of bean pods to take home and shell. Once you shell them, you will have about 2 pounds of dried beans. So . . . 2 hours in the field and 2 more in front of the TV for 2 pounds of beans. You can see why I don't sell them. By the way, these numbers compare to an independent trial done here in Whatcom County in 2008 where the farmer got 3 cups of beans for 3 hours of labor on average. A cup of dried beans is roughly half a pound, so you are still looking at 2 hours labor for a 1 pound dried beans. If you factor in land rents, fuel costs, capital costs, etc., $30 a pound is in the ball park for the real price of a pound of beans.
You can probably see why I am so hyped on the peak oil problem. Beans are a necessary ingredient in responsible eating (whether it is low meat, vegetarian, or vegan). The only way to do beans economically is in the corporate model, which is dependent on fossil fuel and heavy equipment. In my sustainable model, I figure in the increased calories in dry beans (1500 per pound vs. 300 for green beans - a factor of 5) and the increase in soil fertility from the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but this cannot really be translated into a dollar value. As a ballpark estimate, I would still have to get $10-15 a pound compared to selling green beans at $3 a pound. However, putting a parallel track into my model allows me to "distribute" beans. The two track model is really what I am doing with informal workshares and barter U-pick. People work and get paid in food. This generates more food and the value of certain crops that build up the soil is part of the process. However, I need another track that brings in cash. Dry beans are on one track, green beans on the other. This dual track allows me to bridge into postmodern agriculture from a modern economy. Another bridge is the CSA share program. By getting money up front, I have operating capital for seeds, fuel, living expenses, etc. and I get an alternative distribution system that also allows me to use the other track for growing more food. I also get more time on the farm, rather than doing deliveries. This dual track model is integral to sustainable agriculture.

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