Tilling the Soil in 2012, part 2

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Farmers everywhere are finding new (old) ways to farm with integrity and sustainability. Image: Somos La Llave del Futuro

It’s hard to keep track of the number of ways the United States continues to find to shoot itself in the foot.

For instance, did you know that US meat and milk exports failed to pass European standards for drug residues last year? There oughta be a law, and in the EU, there is.

Since when do Americans fit the definition of international law breakers? It would appear since we began dosing farm animals with more drugs than we can keep track of. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine admits the violations of EU law involved scores of drugs. You, carnivorous reader, can bet your bottom dollar that some of those illegal drugs reside inside your very own self. If there were a contest to determine the worst offenders, you’d probably end up asking the residents of Wisconsin how they’ve been feeling lately.

Okay, everybody makes mistakes. After all, that’s why the FDA exists – to protect us from the lawbreakers, and keep consumers well informed about the threat.

If only.

Not only has the FDA taken nary a step in the direction of exacting penalties from, or threatening prosecution of, the Big Ag perpetrators. They, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with assorted state agencies, have decided that now would be a good time to criminalize family farmers who sell raw milk. Or sell food and milk without a license. Or slaughter meat outside a factory.

Pick your poison: Big Ag or Big Brother

None of the targeted farmers involved ship food across state lines. Multiple studies have shown that contamination takes place when food has been stringently processed and/or shipped the farthest. These family farmers farm, and sell, what they grow, locally. One participant involved in the alleged crime sprees is being sued by the state of Maine for selling the milk from his one cow without a license.

That’s right. One.

This just might be why, in March of last year, the tiny town of Sedgwick, Maine became the first in the nation to declare its own food sovereignty. The resulting ordinance declares,

Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.

Residents go on to elaborate

It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.

Thank goodness the citizens of towns in California, Vermont and Massachusetts have shown comparable common sense in devising similar laws. We owe them a debt of thanks for leading the way.

Climate what?

Leading the way toward recognition of climate change as the problem to end all problems has not been easy. Few of those who have long heralded its disastrous effects could have forecast the recalcitrance of Republicans in refusing to acknowledge the terrible dangers of a warming planet.

Over the years, as growing numbers of scientific organizations have agreed, not only that climate disruption is caused by human activity, but also that we ignore it at our peril, those who spend their lives in contact with the natural world have seen its accumulating effects. Family farmers definitely constitute part of the front lines that will meet the approaching calamity head-on.

The new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is a case in point. Two-thirds of the contiguous 48 states now lie in Zone 6 or warmer. Huge swaths of the Midwest and Great Plains have experienced increases in temperature great enough to cause them to have advanced one full zone, as this arbor day map shows. The Arbor Day Foundation map preceded the USDA’s by 6 years, but the two are virtually identical. The higher the zone number, the higher the temperature.

What does this mean for gardeners and farmers?

According to David W. Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University, the revised map

…gives us a clear picture of the ‘new normal’ and will be an essential tool for gardeners, farmers, and natural resource managers as they begin to cope with rapid climate change.

For the many who work or play as a part of one of those three groups, this news is, in fact, pretty stale. The evidence has long since been in, and they will simply nod their heads in agreement. During these times of constant variability in the weather, a crystal ball would be of far more use.

… Nor any drop to drink

For instance, how would Texas farmers and ranchers have benefited, had they known in advance the duration and locations of the state’s worst drought in history, in many places still ongoing?

Knowing that a La Nina weather pattern is still in control is probably of more use to farmers than the plant hardiness map. After all, it was a La Nina that caused last year’s catastrophic fires, consuming 3.7 million acres of the Lone Star state. Water conservation coupled with drought-tolerant plantings will most likely be the new game in town.

Water, water everywhere …

Meanwhile, farmers in the Northeast deal with floods and hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is capable of seeing as far ahead as the current month, with La Nina and the occasional Arctic Oscillation in charge of the weather. Their predictions for spring and summer will undoubtedly be closely watched.

Even then, how exactly does a farmer or gardener plan for having their crops washed away? Insurance, if available and affordable, can help. Staying abreast of the latest developments within the farming/gardening communities is essential these days.

Let’s finish up by exploring one particularly notable development.

Hey, dude

Back in the days of the Old West, dudes (visitors from back East) were frequently referred to as greenhorns — to be “green” meant inexperienced.

Fast forward 130 years, and look what young American farmers have organized. Treating their lack of expertise with a healthy dose of humor, The Greenhorns is a non-profit made up of young farmers and their supporters. Their mission is “to recruit, promote and support young farmers in America.”

Begun in Berkeley in 2007, Severine von Tscharner Fleming began filming the trials and triumphs of America’s young farmers, attracting soil enthusiasts, filmmakers, graphic designers, and cartographers to the project along the way. By 2008-9, Greenhorns was based in New York’s Hudson Valley, growing organic vegetables and raising ducks, chickens, rabbits and pigs.

Serve your country food

The Greenhorns mission is accomplished in a number of ways.

For those land-based entrepreneurs seeking persons with a similar bent, Greenhorns maps are an invaluable resource. This portion of the website, called “Serve Your Country Food,” is described thusly:

It’s a website, it’s a portal, it’s a map, it’s a database. It’s an expression of profound patriotism. Here, represented by little dots on this map, we are the young farmers of America. United in our commitment to soil fertility, local nutrition, national health and a yummy hereafter. Land. Liberty. Stamina. Sunshine. These are the natural ingredients for an edible future.

Their blog, bearing the unlikely moniker of The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles, exists for the purpose of matching up erstwhile farmers with land to farm. Other types of information, like where a Sustainable Farming Certificate can be earned, are also made available.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, these stewards of the land want nothing to do with industrial agriculture.

The future of farming

Beginning farmers will also find recommended reading, a calendar of events (I’d love to go to all of them!), The Greenhorns Radio program, and the organization’s journal, The Greenhorns Circular, at the website.

Over 3,000 young farmers belong to this network because it speaks to them and for them. Be sure to catch the film The Greenhorns (three years in the making) when it comes to your area. If you want to know what the future of farming looks like, this is a great place to start.

–Vicki Lipski, Transition Voice

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