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So far Elizabeth Tobey has created 8 blog entries.

Catching up on the Farm Bill in Gordon’s Policy Corner

As you might have noticed, this Congress has already made some history, taking 15 ballots to elect Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House.  As that dust settles, the rules of the House have been agreed upon, and committee membership gets finalized, we at OFRF and our partners are getting a clearer picture of the Farm Bill landscape.  One thing remains abundantly clear, that agricultural research continues to be a bright spot for bipartisan legislation, and we are excited to leverage that fact this Farm Bill cycle.

If you missed it, we published a piece in the Organic Farmer Association’s Organic Voice, “Stepping Up To The Organic Research Challenge: The 2023 Farm Bill Must Grow Investments to Meet Growing Demand.”  In it, we lay out our three priorities for organic research for the 2023 Farm Bill. First, increase the organic research funding at the Agricultural Research Service to represent its market share, producing environmentally and economically sound management systems for all producers. Second, continue to support and develop the investments the National Institute for Food and Agriculture has been making in organic agriculture research. Lastly, fully fund and expand the Organic Market and Data Initiative.

By |2023-01-15T15:47:07+00:00January 13th, 2023|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Farmers on the Frontlines: Climate Change and the Farm Bill

2023 Farm Bill Presents Opportunities for Farmers and Ranchers on the Frontlines of Climate Change

Farmers and ranchers, the people who produce our food, are often on the frontlines of challenges facing our society. Among the most pressing of those issues is the changing climate and an industrial food system that prioritizes profits over the health and wellbeing of people and the planet. Combined with the unprecedented loss of biodiversity, these three issues have even been called a triple threat to humanity.

Image from Frontiers article “Narrow and Brittle or Broad and Nimble? Comparing Adaptive Capacity in Simplifying and Diversifying Farming Systems”

These challenges are interrelated. The current standard methods of conventional food production are an outgrowth of the technological and chemical advancements of the mid 20th century, which resulted in a rapid increase in the ability to export calories in the form of commodity crops, such as corn and soy. This production depends on the ubiquitous use of cheap agri-chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and continued expansion of farmer-debt (as discussed in this article and this article) to increase scale and maintain technological relevancy. This ‘get big or get out’, petroleum-dependent production system decreases biodiversity and weakens the landscape’s capacity to be resilient and adapt to our changing climate. It also makes our food system vulnerable to even slight shifts in things like crop production or labor availability. 

Farmers often keenly feel the challenges presented by warmer temperatures, increased flooding, and other extreme weather events. Caroline Baptist is the owner of the River Valley Country Club, a small farm in Washington state. “Farming on a floodplain and a floodway can be a challenge, and changes in climate over the years have only exacerbated this issue,” Baptist says. “The property owner from whom I lease land remembers experiencing 1-2 major floods a year when he first began farming in the area in 1993. More recently, we’ve seen these numbers double and triple.” Describing a recent flooding event Baptist says, “Some areas of the farm were under water by 15 feet and accessible only by canoe. This flood and every flood since is a sobering experience, illustrating clearly that the climate crisis is real, and it affects farmers firsthand.”

Past farm policies that favored the ‘get big or get out’ model led to increases in monocultures. The resulting abundance of commodity crops in the food system correlates with increases in processed foods, and associated adverse health effects in low-income and systemically underserved communities (more on that here).  

SCF Organics brings fresh produce to people experiencing food deserts.

Shaheed Harris is the farm manager at Sumpter Cooperative Farms (SCF) in South Carolina. Among many other endeavors, SCF runs the Midlands Organic Mobile Markets, which are a suite of vans that directly distribute locally grown organic foods to the food deserts in the Midlands region of South Carolina. This project aims to address the need for equitable food access in communities in nearby metro areas with limited access to healthy foods. “Those places are areas … where they don’t have a grocery store,” Harris explains. “A lot of people don’t have vehicles to drive and they’re basically living on the nearest equivalent of a gas station. So they’re eating out of a gas station and getting chips and all types of processed foods that don’t really have a lot of nutrition.” Through the Midlands program, Harris says SCF aims to serve the people in these areas who would not otherwise have access to fresh healthy foods.

The farm bill is a package of legislation, updated once every five years, that sets the stage for our food and farming systems. The current farm bill expires in October of 2023, and a new suite of legislation will be developed and put into action. This farm bill cycle is a ripe opportunity to make solid advances towards a just transition to a new type of production that both mitigates and adapts to our changing climate, supports the health of the land and the people producing our food, and can help prevent food insecurity by increasing the amount of organic, nutritious food on American’s dinner plates.

Because of their place on the front lines of these challenges, farmers and ranchers represent a vibrant space of innovation and creativity to meet them. Our farmers and ranchers answering these challenges should be sources of inspiration on policy tools and instruments for the 2023 farm bill. 

Clover cover crop, to be tilled back into the soil.

Jesse Buie is the president of Ole Brook Organics in Mississippi. One of the main environmental factors that Buie deals with is a lot of rain which can cause leaching of nutrients from the soil. To combat this he focuses on building healthy soil by making sure that he is constantly adding organic matter. At Ole Brook Organics they do this primarily by incorporating all the plant matter back into the soil. Any grasses or crop residue left after a crop is harvested are chopped up and tilled back into the fields, forming a closed-loop of nutrient cycling.

At SCF Harris is dealing with the opposite environmental concern: too little water. They have addressed this challenge by implementing Dry Farming practices that he learned from his family’s farming heritage. This style of farming, which combines unirrigated crop production with shallow cultivation offers a promising alternative in times of uncertain water resources. 

Building resilience to economic disruptions has led some farmers to increase their use of local inputs, processors, and distributors, avoiding or lessening the impacts of supply chain disruptions in global markets. And as an added benefit this localization increases the access to nutritious, culturally appropriate, and tasty food that can connect communities. 

Rotational grazing can be a tool for healthy pasture management.

Dayna Burtness is a farmer at Nettle Valley Farm in Spring Grove, Minnesota, raising pastured pigs. “We’ve been able to build community while building land resiliency,” she explains. “We’re able to work with nearby farmers and fruit growers to take non-marketable produce and turn it into delicious pork, which is benefiting everyone! It reduces the amount of food waste and helps other farmers put what they grow to good use. We are working hard to help create a different type of food system, we just wish there was more public support to really kick this change into overdrive.”

Federal research, conservation, and market development programs created and funded in the Farm Bill make all of these things possible, but expanded support is necessary to continue to support farmers and create a healthier future for people and the planet. If you want to get involved in advocating for a better food system, Ariana Taylor-Stanley (ariana@sustainableagriculture.net) at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition or Gordon Merrick (gordon@ofrf.org) at the Organic Farming Research Foundation!

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Narrow and Brittle or Broad and Nimble? Comparing Adaptive Capacity in Simplifying and Diversifying Farming Systems, Frontiers

Green Revolution: History, Impact and Future, by H.K. Jain, available through most book suppliers

Chicken farmers say processors treat them like servants, AP News 

Farmers and animal rights activists are coming together to fight big factory farms, Vox 

2021 Tied for 6th Warmest Year in Continued Trend, NASA Analysis Shows, NASA 

The 2010s Were the Hottest Decade on Record. What Happens Next?, Smithsonian Magazine 

Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods, Science Daily

Ultra-processed foods and adverse health outcomes, The BMJ

Examining the Impact of Structural Racism on Food Insecurity: Implications for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities, National Library of Medicine

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Community at Disproportionate Risk from Pesticides, Study Finds, Beyond Pesticides

Equitable Access to Organic Foods: Why it matters, Bread for the World

What is the Farm Bill, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Hunger and Food Insecurity, Feeding America

By |2023-01-15T15:48:48+00:00January 9th, 2023|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Latino Farmer Conference & New Spanish-language course

OFRF Attends Latino Farmer Conference and Announces Spanish-language Soil Health Course – Coming Summer 2023!

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered to host the 8th annual Latino Farmer Conference on November 17th and 18th at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. This was a two day conference meant to bring together sustainable agriculture professionals for a special all Spanish-language event.

While at the conference, OFRF’s Deputy Director, Dominica Navarro, was able to witness first-hand the unique networking and learning opportunities presented for Latino farmers, as well as spread the word about a new Spanish-language Soil Health Course OFRF will be releasing in Summer 2023. 

The conference was a much needed opportunity for Latino farmers and other service providers to convene. “With such strong Latino/a/x representation in agriculture, this conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet other Latino/a’s doing similar work and with like values,” said Dominica. “As a Latina in agriculture myself, I would love to see more opportunities like this for historically underserved farmers everywhere.”  Topics covered at the conference included: sustainable farming practices, technical assistance, business management, health and wellness, land access and even included a session on how to transition to organic!  

OFRF Spanish-language Soil Health Course

In OFRF’s free online Spanish-language course, coming Summer 2023, we delve into the world of soil and explain how you can promote soil health as part of a healthy ecosystem for humans, plants and other organisms that live within the soil. We discuss the basics of soil health, practices like nutrient management, cover cropping, crop rotation, and also provide tools to help you decide which management practices are best for you and your farm. Our goal is to provide up-to-date science, as well as culturally relevant information for farmers from diverse backgrounds. This course is being developed with the help of partners at UC Davis’s Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (UC SAREP), the Agriculture and Land-based Training Association (ALBA), and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). 

Are you a Spanish-speaking farmer in California? Would you like to help us review the course? If so, please contact Research & Education Director, Thelma Velez at thelma@ofrf.org

By |2022-12-13T18:54:08+00:00December 13th, 2022|News|

Senate Farm Bill Hearing on Ag Research Programs Features Former OFRF Board President Steve Ela

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a hearing on the “Farm Bill 2023: Research Programs” on December 6th. The only farmer testifying was Steve Ela, a fourth-generation farmer who has been farming organically for nearly thirty years at Ela Family Farms, his family’s farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado. As well as his farming experience, Ela also served on the National Organic Standards Board as Board Chair, as well as the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) Board as Board President. As one of five panelists invited to share their expertise, Ela spoke to the importance of organic systems research and extension programs to all farmers.

“It is significant that an organic producer was invited to testify and share their experiences with research and extension programs before the Senate Committee that writes the Farm Bill.  Steve made a compelling case for the need for more public investment in organic agricultural research,” said Brise Tencer, Executive Director of OFRF. She continued, “Steve has had the experience of both a participant and a consumer of organic research, and it is crucial that we hear more from farmers like him that depend on these research programs.”

To begin the hearing, Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Undersecretary for the USDA Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young provided a general overview of REE programs and stressed the importance of meaningful investment into these programs.  Dr. Jacobs-Young provided three main calls to action for the Committee: 1) increase investment into public research programs; 2) invest in the revitalization of our nation’s agriculture research infrastructure; and 3) expand the tracks of research available to young and beginning researchers from diverse backgrounds.

Former OFRF Board President, Steve Ela of Ela Family Farms in the apple orchard

In his testimony, Ela highlighted how USDA funded organic research programs help all farmers, not just those certified organic, giving examples such as codling moth management through pheromone disruption, or the use of cover crops for pest and weed control. Ela also discussed how complex organic agricultural management can be, and why that’s so important to both its resilience and the importance of organic research: “The longer I farm, the more I realize how complex the ecosystem is that I am working with. It is imperative that rather than heavily investing into basic, single issue agricultural research, like specific chemicals or gene transfers, we embrace systems management and action-oriented research that not only enhances our understanding of complex ecosystems but helps farmers work with rather than against natural systems.”

To make sure that this type of research is continued to be supported, and expanded, at the USDA, Ela’s testimony called on Congress to:

  • Increase funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) to $100 million by end of the 2023 Farm Bill;
  • Formally authorize the existing NIFA Organic Transition Program at $20 million by the end of the 2023 Farm Bill, with a name change and program mission updates to avoid confusion and improve program operation;
  • Continue to support the work of other NIFA programs that should expand their organic portfolio, like SARE, SCRI, and AFRI-SAS;
  • Require USDA to direct ARS to increase investments into organic agriculture research, both through coordinating the ongoing and planned research while also increasing the amount of organically certified acreage ARS is operating;
  • Reauthorize the Organic Data Initiative (ODI) to expand segregated organic data collection and analysis by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Agricultural Marketing Service, and the Economic Research Service and require an economic impact analysis of the organic agriculture market on rural communities;
  • Require USDA to dedicate funds annually to fund the development of cultivars and animal breeds that are regionally adapted using conventional breeding methods to address farmers’ unique soils, farming systems, market needs, and changing climates; and
  • Require USDA to appoint a Public Cultivar and Breed Research Coordinator reporting to the Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics to oversee collaboration between existing USDA competitive grant research programs regarding regionally adapted cultivar and breed development activities.

This list of policies align with OFRF’s priorities this 2023 Farm Bill season, and we believe represent an increasingly-rare opportunity for bipartisan legislation. Investing in public agricultural research has historically enjoyed broad support in the Farm Bill. Not only does this research answer the questions farmers need answers to, but it also has a significant economic payoff of $20 for every dollar spent.

“We at OFRF are looking forward to working with a diverse, bipartisan group of legislators this Farm Bill cycle to make sure farmers like Steve have access to the research and technical expertise necessary to be a successful agricultural business managing their land organically,” said Gordon Merrick, Policy & Programs Manager at OFRF.

OFRF supports actionable research that focuses on the wide adoption of organic systems of production and the climate resiliency services it offers. OFRF has led organic farming and research initiatives since its inception in 1993 and has advocated for federal policy supporting integrated research, education, and outreach to farmers who build healthy resilient farming systems that withstand climate change and steward the land for future generations.

###

About Organic Farming Research Foundation

Organic Farming Research Foundation works to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems. OFRF cultivates organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production. http://www.ofrf.org/

Policy Contact

Gordon N. Merrick, Policy & Programs Manager, gordon@ofrf.org

By |2022-12-13T18:19:37+00:00December 13th, 2022|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Lola’s Organic Farm

Dr. Jennifer Taylor and her husband started Lola’s Organic Farm in 2009, but Taylor’s family has been working the land there for much longer. Her grandmother, Lola, who the farm is named after, was a sharecropper in rural Georgia who was given the opportunity to buy her own farmland. She became a successful independent farmer, on the land where Lola’s Organic Farm (LOF) is located today. 

“We grow many of the same crops my grandmother grew, such as unique varieties of delicious colorful vegetables, fruit, and herbs,” says Taylor. And while today the farming practices at LOF differentiate it from nearby farms (LOF is one of the only certified organic farms in the surrounding counties), growing organically is not new to the family’s farming practices. “When my grandmother was farming,” explains Taylor, “she used organic farming practices before organic certification even existed. For us, organic farming and agroecology not only builds healthy soil and healthy environments, but also supports access to healthy foods in our communities. I believe organic farming systems can, and should, be enjoyed by all farmers and consumers – in all communities.” LOF has been certified organic since 2011, and the label has helped them access markets. “It speaks to the customers,” Taylor says. 

For us, organic farming and agroecology not only builds healthy soil and healthy environments, but also supports access to healthy foods in our communities. – Dr. Jennifer Taylor

In addition to providing organic food for local markets, Taylor and LOF recognize that small and BIPOC farmers have something else of value that benefits local communities: knowledge, or, as Taylor calls it, more specifically, traditional agroecology knowledge. LOF has been described as a kind of “mecca” for people learning about organic agriculture and furthering the organic movement. The farm hosts many types of educational tours and events, and Dr. Taylor, through her work at Florida A&M University, is a celebrated small farm specialist who connects farmers to researchers and vice versa. Winner of the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Woman of the Year in Agriculture Award in 2019, Taylor is head of a farmer-led research project (partially supported by OFRF) designed to identify needs, hindrances, and barriers of small and BIPOC farmers and works with farmers to develop solutions and resources through relevant learning sessions that provide education, hands-on training, and technical assistance. 

Taylor’s work engages researchers with farmers on the ground and works to amplify farmers’ voices and knowledge. “This project, and on-farm research in general, enables relationship-building with the farmer, the community, and researchers. It builds a unique opportunity to support the specific needs of that farmer and says to the world that farmers have important knowledge to share,” said Taylor. “This is particularly true for BIPOC farmers and communities because it gives us hope and empowerment that our voice matters. It brings our voices to the forefront of this movement.”

Small and traditionally-underrepresented farmers make up a farming majority in this (and other) areas of the country. As President of Florida A&M University, Larry Robinson, PhD, points out, “Somewhere around 90% of the farms are small farms, right? So although you might drive through these vast acreages of farmland in Florida, the vast majority of farmers (the people) are small farmers, underrepresented farmers, low-resource farmers, etc. But as a nation and as a state, we really have to be concerned about their existence, because it’s really those small farmers that make us whole.” 

To learn more about Dr. Taylor and her work, watch this video by the Florida Department of Agriculture from 2019, when Dr. Taylor was awarded “Woman of the Year in Agriculture”. 

By |2023-01-09T15:01:03+00:00December 13th, 2022|Farmer Stories|

Ole Brook Organics

The Organic Farming Research Foundation is honored to share this farmer story, featuring Jesse Buie, president of Ole Brook Organics. The following article is based off of an interview with Jesse that was conducted earlier this year by Thelma Velez, OFRF’s Research and Education Program Manager. You can also press play below to listen to an edited version of the interview, or click this link to download it to listen later! 

Jesse Buie, president Ole Brook Organics

Jesse Buie is one of those farmers who has been farming most of his life. “People always say ‘all their life’,” he jokes, “but yeah, that’s basically it.” Jesse grew up exposed to farming, with a father and grandfather who farmed. He explains that his interest in organic farming stemmed from his family’s history with farming, because “organic farming today is so similar to the farming practices they used back then. It was a continuation of the way I farmed my entire life,” he says.

Now Jesse is the president of Ole Brook Organics, a three acre mixed vegetable farm, situated within a larger 64 acre property in Lincoln County, Mississippi. The farm focuses on growing radishes, melons, ginger, turmeric, wheatgrass, and microgreens, and Jesse also has a handling license which allows him to process private label products, such as turmeric powder. In addition to growing food, Jesse works hard to help other farmers learn about what it means to be certified organic. He has served on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and regularly teams up with the local agricultural Extension Service, National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and Farm Services Agency (FSA) to offer info sessions about becoming organic. “For the past five years I’ve hosted workshops on the farm,” Jesse says. “We’d had as many as 100 participants,” he explains, of these sessions where farm support agencies gave presentations on the services that they have available for farmers. 

Jesse Buie enjoys teaching other farmers about the benefits of organic agriculture

Farming is “tremendously rewarding,” Jesse says. “We in the business need to be all about getting others involved. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but we need to figure it out.” That’s part of why Jesse is so committed to helping educate other farmers about what it means to be organic. To this end, in addition to hosting workshops Jesse has also assisted in getting the word out to other farmers across the south about what support may be available for them from these organizations.

Climate & Soil Health

As a farmer in the southern region, one of the main environmental factors that Jesse deals with is a lot of rain. Excessive rain can cause leaching of nutrients from the soil, and specifically loss of nitrogen which is critical for plant growth. Jesse relies on soil tests to help him understand and monitor his soil health. “Each year I start with a soil test of the whole area,” he explains. The farm is divided up into 8 separate square areas, each with a different field name. “Even though it’s a small farm there are different soils throughout those areas,” he says. He collects a representative sample from each area to send in for analysis, then uses the results to see how best to improve the soil in a specific area, depending on what crops he is planning to grow there that season. The soil testing laboratories provide specific recommendations for amendments depending on crop.

Adding amendments to the whole farm for a crop could be very expensive, but by testing smaller plots, Jesse can add amendments to smaller areas specific to what they are going to grow there. With organic agriculture he explains that it’s common for soil health to stabilize over time, so that fewer amendments are necessary. “I’ll still have to add some,” he says, “but it won’t be as much.” He is looking forward to reaching that point with his fields. As he works towards that, one of the main ways that Jesse focuses on building healthy soil is by making sure that he is constantly adding organic matter to the soil. At Ole Brook Organics they do this primarily by incorporating all the plant matter back into the soil. It’s extra important to keep everything in the field that he can. Any grasses or crop residue are chopped up and tilled back into the fields after a crop is finished.

But high soil organic matter can be a double-edged sword in a wet region. “Soil with high organic matter content holds moisture,” Jesse says, “which is what it’s supposed to do. But then  I get bogged down and can’t get out there with the big equipment.” When fields are too wet to work with a tractor Jesse adapts by switching to using hand tillers, or other lighter weight soil cultivation tools. These let him work the soil when it might be too wet to access with heavier equipment. 

The heat is also an issue for farmers in the south. Jesse uses a drip irrigation system, and has come to understand that if he can manage the irrigation properly, most crops are happy with the warmer weather. “The heat is just bad on me,” he says, chuckling. The crops are most sensitive at the time that they are transplanted out, so Jesse focuses on growing strong transplants, and hardening them off so they’re adjusted to the heat, and then keeping the soil moist until the plant roots can get established in the ground. 

Season Extension

Turmeric grown at Ole Brook

Ole Brook Organics utilizes a 30 x 100’ high tunnel. Jesse primarily uses the high tunnel for his ginger and turmeric production, which take 9 months to reach maturity. Each year half of the high tunnel is planted in ginger and turmeric, and the other half is a mix of shorter season annual vegetables like tomatoes, that benefit from the extra heat and season extension of a high tunnel. The following year, those crops switch sides. “It’s not the most efficient,” Jesse admits, “because with ginger and turmeric, when you harvest, you could just be breaking off a piece and dropping it back in the same place to replant as you go. But if you need to rotate, you can’t do that, you have to pull everything and replant on the other side.” 

With the abundant rains in their region, an unexpected side effect of the high tunnel has been that they get a lot of rain running off the sides of the tunnel. That moisture travels laterally through the soil, and ends up saturating the inside of the tunnel. To address this issue, Jesse is considering finding a way to divert the water off the tunnel, such as creating a drainage ditch around the perimeter of the tunnel. Generally though, he is able to manage the conditions inside the tunnel just by airing things out. Both sides of the high tunnel roll all the way up, which allows Jesse to manage both the temperature inside the tunnel as well as the soil moisture. “You can open it up really well,” Jesse says, “and it will dry out in there, as long as it’s not raining.” 

Pest Management

One of the crops that Jesse enjoys growing at Ole Brook is straight neck organic squash. “They’re beautiful,” he says.” But he’s not the only one who appreciates them. “I guarantee that squash bugs will find it,” he says, shaking his head. The key to pest control that he’s found is to not let it get out of hand. “There are some organic approved substances for pest control,” Jesse explains, “but it’s not effective on the squash bugs.” Instead, the method he prefers is to physically patrol for the bugs by inspecting the plants for the first few days after they get transplanted out. “I walk those rows and look under the plants for any eggs and kill them right away,” he says. This is one example of how organic farming can be a labor intensive process. “But if you keep up with it from the start,” he says, “that’s the best.” Other organic methods for pest management include row cover to exclude bugs from a crop that they like to eat, or introducing beneficial insects who predate on the pest bug.

That’s the thing about organic, it complements diversity, and that’s what we need to make this whole process successful.

Jesse also grows edible flowers which attract beneficial insects and pollinators to the farm. He has observed a difference in pollination rates when he has flowers in bloom on the property. ”Production drops when the flowers aren’t present and the pollinators aren’t present,” he says, which is another reason to diversify the crops he grows, and to try to have something blooming on the farm at all times. “That’s the thing about organic,” he says. “It complements diversity, and that’s what we need to make this whole process successful.”

Microgreens from Ole Brook

Why Organic?

It really came down to three things for Jesse, when deciding to become certified organic. For one, he says “it really was a continuation of the way I’d been farming most of my life.” Second, Jesse has a background in hospice work, and through his experience in that field he knew that the physicians he worked with were often “very serious about no pesticides, and no synthetics in the foods for the patients, because of their compromised immune systems.” He understands that there is a health benefit. “Being in healthcare,” he says, “so much is about prevention, and that’s what organic is. You eat quality food and you may prevent some health problems.” And the third reason, he says, “was a numbers thing.” The price was higher for organic produce than conventional, so there was an economic incentive to farm that way.

In Jesse’s experience most customers who want organic are willing to pay the price for it, because they understand what went into it. “They see that USDA organic symbol,” Jesse explains, “I’m proud to put that on my products… It shows adherence to standards.” 

Jesse Buie, farming

When he was starting Ole Brook Organics, Jesse was able to choose a site that had been dormant for the past 15-20 years, which allowed him to work with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to become certified organic “right out of the gate.”

The area surrounding the farm includes timber, ponds, and other wildlife and pollinator habitat, which he had worked with the extension service and NRCS to develop and manage. “I’m gonna be honest,” he says, “environmental concerns were not part of the reason [for organic certification] at the beginning.” But, he explains, Ole Brook had been “all about the environment all the way,” in terms of the management of the timberland, ponds, and wildlife habitat surrounding the organic farm plot. He saw the organic certification as a continuation of that holistic way of taking care of the land. The organic label is a quality standard that Jesse appreciates because it is a way to prove that the food you’re producing is clean and coming out of healthy soils. “I’m so confident with the radish I grow that I will go out in the field and pull it up and just eat it right there, because I know the standards that I grow by” he says, proudly. 

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Ole Brook Organics

Video of Jesse Buie from Real Organics Project

National Organic Standards Board

National Resource Conservation Service

Farm Services Agency

California Certified Organic Farmers

NRCS high tunnel initiative

BACK to Farmer Stories
By |2022-12-07T22:39:17+00:00November 22nd, 2022|Farmer Stories|

Mayday Farm

Approaching the Starting Line

There’s always been something romantic about a farm in New England, through colorful images of red barns, silos, and grazing cows against a quintessential autumnal landscape. Yet, over the past 50 years, the region has lost more than 10,000 dairy farms. Less than 2,000 remain; and Mayday Farm is one of the fortunate few.  

Located in Leeds, Maine, Mayday Farm owners Katie Gualtieri and Haden Gooch are part of a young farmers’ movement to regenerate what was once conventional farmland with the goal of building a sustainable, community-based business. They are not from farming families, but they share a love for agriculture. Katie left a 10-year career in international development, working on issues ranging from land rights to food security in Africa. Instead of making funding decisions from an office desk in Washington, DC, she decided to become directly involved in farming as a living in order to preserve the land and build back small farming communities here at home. 

After working together on a direct-market livestock farm in Virginia, they moved to Maine, where Haden worked for two years in a Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) with the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport, a non-profit organic dairy program that provides immersive training in regenerative practices and farm management. Meanwhile, Katie worked on small organic dairies with  value-added operations. After years of hands-on learning, Katie and Haden were ready to start their own farming operation.

Land Access and Farm Transfer

Accessibility of land and financial resources present challenges for young farmers. “Finding a farm and land that was suitable for dairy was really challenging,” says Katie. “So much land is commercialized at this point that farmland is dwindling and what does exist is really, really expensive.” Especially in Virginia, which is why they set their sights on Maine where land is more affordable. Fortunately, by completing the DGA program, Haden automatically met the qualifications for a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan.  

Formerly Sander-Lou Farm, Mayday had previously been a 350-acre conventional dairy farm in the same family since the 1940s. By the turn of the century, the owners were looking to retire, and they began leasing about 100 acres of open land on the old farm to neighboring farmers. Then, in 2020, the non-profit Maine Farmland Trust purchased the property. Haden and Katie were able to lease a portion of the farm for a year while they were going through the FSA loan process. They closed on their dream purchase in 2021. By the end of the year, Maine Farmland Trust had protected at least 20 farms, preserving more than 2,000 acres as “forever farmland.” Mayday Farm was a part of that.

Dairy Farm Transfers: click to listen to this 3 minute audio clip where Katie speaks to OFRF about experiences with farm transfer as young dairy farmers.

Pasture and Soil Restoration

One of the priorities for Haden and Katie was to restore nutrients to the land to enhance the soil on their farm. “The land had sat fallow for a period of time and also had been rented off and on for about a decade. A hay crop was taken off, for example, and no nutrients were put back. A couple of parcels had been farmed in corn continuously for five or six years, and we were having trouble with those areas. We wanted to get it back into perennial grass and grazing annual production in other areas,” says Katie.

Haden had already launched a pasture-raised poultry operation in 2020 on leased land. Through a contract with a New England based meat company, the chickens consume only non-GMO feed and are antibiotic free. Mayday Farm now does about 24,000 broiler chickens from April through November. “They are great little fertilizer tools,” Katie says. “We rotate them once a day to a different pasture on the farm that we thought really needed help. Now we get the benefit of all of the poultry manure going right onto the fields, and we’re really excited to see the impact of that.”  

Even though this portion of Mayday’s farm operation is not certified organic, this management-intensive approach to grazing helps to restore microbiota in the soil and reflects Mayday’s commitment to environmental stewardship best practices.   

Organic Certification

The poultry operation adds diversity to Mayday’s revenue stream, and alongside the certified organic dairy operation, helped secure the FSA loan. After the farm purchase was finalized, Haden immediately had the land certified in mid-2021 and applied for a provisional application to certify the cows through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which is Maine’s USDA Accredited Organic Certifier. The cows arrived in January 2022, and they began shipping organic milk that month.  

Fortunately, there were very few bumps in the road to certification because Haden had made contacts during the DGA program that connected him to Stonyfield Organic. Katie also credits MOFGA for being a helpful and supportive certifier, which enabled Haden and Katie to recertify dairy cows they were purchasing from a New Hampshire organic dairy farmer who needed to liquidate because he had reenlisted for active duty in the military. The cows were already producers for Stonyfield. Still, to ease the purchasing and transition process, Katie advises others to get to know the land and its history concretely in the transition from conventional to organic farmland.  

Monitoring Pasture Management with Apps

A little more than a year later, Mayday enjoys a thriving wholesale certified organic dairy enterprise through the direct supply program with Stonyfield Organic. And now that Haden and Katie are doing rotational grazing with poultry and close to 40 cows, they’re using tech to help them stay on top of things.  

“We do all of our grazing management in an app called Pasture Maps. We can track all of our moves in real time and how long we were on a specific piece of pasture,” says Katie. “And that’s really great for recordkeeping. We rotate the cows every 12 hours and really want to pay attention to how we graze the land, how much residue we leave, and how much rest we give to each pasture.”  

Mayday’s intention is to build back the soil and forage species and to find balance in their conservation practices. “We did a whole batch of soil samples just to get a baseline for where we’re at with organic matter and to get an idea of where there might be mineral deficiencies on the farm,” says Katie. “We spread our stored manure from the cows on our hay fields, but we’ve also been using organic wood ash as a minimal supplement where we need to change the soil pH.” They are also in the early phases of working with the USDA National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and submitted an application in 2022 for infrastructure to help mitigate manure run-off and provide better outdoor access for the dairy herd during the winter months.

Diversifying Markets and Local Community Food Security

In the future, they would love to add some balance to how they sell their products. Right now, they’re appreciative of the steady wholesale market that the poultry and organic milk contracts provide. But Haden and Katie hope to try a little bit of direct marketing of some of their chicken and maybe some raw milk so that they can interface more with their local community. 

“We’d like to maybe set up a little farm store here or tag along with some friends who are already in farmers markets so that we can sell some chicken there,” says Katie. “It bothers us that everything we grow is leaving the farm for the most part.”

Part of the reason Haden and Katie both love farming is for the community impact and effect they can have on the local economy. “We have a milk truck driver that’s keeping their job; and we have our grain supplier, and we have a local mechanic, and we have a Maine-based company that does all of our servicing for our milking equipment. This is why it’s so important to keep farms in business,” Katie says. “Aside from the direct impact we can have with our own products, we are also supporting other activity within the community that strengthens our local economy.”

 “When you have a highly industrialized food system, you can see what happens when something comes along like COVID, which took out a major meat slaughtering facility and then the system starts to fall apart. This needs to be addressed, and we need to start moving toward growing a more equitable and safe food system with a multi-faceted approach.”

“Leeds is a strong farming community,” says Katie, “but there are pockets of food insecurity. You have to drive out of Leeds in order to get anything. There is no downtown area, no grocery store, no gas station.”  

A new generation of farmers wants to make organic food access much more community-centric. Mayday has long-term goals, for example, of providing community-based meals for locals. “We need to change accessibility so that food is a more democratic thing than it is right now,” says Katie. “I think it’s important what the future generation of farmers looks like and how we make food more resilient within communities.”

Moving Forward into the Future

If this is what the young farming movement is all about, then the future of food and farming in this country is in good hands. In Maine, and elsewhere in the country, there are farmers who are aging out of the system and young people who are stepping in to take over those roles. The transition isn’t always easy when it comes to giving up something a farming family has done for generations. Like Haden and Katie, many people in this fresh generation of farmers did not grow up on farms. Yet they see themselves as stewards of the land and of the animals.

Through their intentional approach to grazing, Mayday hopes it can become part of the solution rather than the problem when it comes to issues like food security and climate change. “We are conscious of how we as small farmers have the opportunity to make choices in terms of soil building and carbon sequestration, and we want to be aware of our overall impact when it comes to climate change,” says Katie. “We want to approach farming in the most responsible way possible within the organic framework. But even if there wasn’t an organic label, this is the way we would choose to farm anyway.” 

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment

Maine Farmland Trust

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Pasture Maps

National Resources Conservation Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

BACK to Farmer Stories
By |2022-11-22T17:06:38+00:00November 22nd, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Sumpter Cooperative Farms

The Organic Farming Research Foundation is honored to share this farmer story, featuring Shaheed Harris, farm manager at Sumpter Cooperative Farms. The following article is based off of an interview with Shaheed that was conducted earlier this year by OFRF’s staff. You can also press play below to hear Shaheed Harris tell the story of Sumpter Cooperative Farm in his own words, or click here to download it and listen later.

SCF founders, Fathiyyah and Azeez Mustafa

Based in Sumter, South Carolina, Sumpter Cooperative Farms (SCF) is a cooperative of organic farmers founded by Azeez and Fathiyyah Mustafa who, in 2003, became the first certified organic farmers in the state.  At a time when Black people represent only 1.4% of farmers in the United States and make up just half of a percent of certified organic producers, the SCF-Organic Farms LTD are trail blazers among these “one percenters.”

In addition to growing kale, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and even lemongrass tea, to name just a few of their crops, SCF’s mission is to mentor farmers and educate consumers about the benefits of vegetables and fruits grown with organic and heritage dry-farming methods and also to address food deserts (or areas suffering from food apartheid) in South Carolina and beyond. At a time when most farming focus group participants report that certified organic farmers are the most valuable resource for information, SCF provides a critical service and helps BIPOC producers to transition into the organic sector.

Shaheed Harris, the farming manager for SCF, describes the 60-member cooperative of organic farmers as an incubator for bringing people, young and old, back into farming. The roots and challenges of farming run deep in Harris’ ancestry and, he says, are part of the history in this country.   

“Specifically with black people, they have a history of relating farming to slavery. But in this current time, farming should be related to freedom.”

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a vibrant Black farmers movement that emphasized organic and sustainable methods, as well as democratically managed farming cooperatives (National Organic Research Agenda, 2022). The movement was so empowering that the percentage of farms and farm acreage in Black management roughly reflected the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population (White, M. 2018. Freedom Farmers: agricultural resistance and the Black freedom movement. University of North Carolina Press, 189 pp.) These farmers practiced many of the organic farming principles that align with today’s National Organic Program (NOP) standards. “They were organic before the word organic was ever used,” says Harris.

But Jim Crow era dispossession of Black-owned farmland and structural racism in U.S. agriculture set Black farmers back by a century, making it difficult for them to secure the capital and financial resources necessary to support a successful farming operation.

“They couldn’t afford irrigation. They couldn’t afford the big equipment,” says Harris when talking about previous generations of farmers in his family. “So, they had to rely on nature to survive. You have to adjust to nature and what nature offers.” In the process, Harris says, “You’re also adjusting your plants to be better, and you’ll be healthier for it.” 

“Farming is an ongoing learning experience”

Shaheed Harris

One approach toward helping disadvantaged farmers deal with challenges may be through SCF’s vision for transforming communities into self-sustaining micro food economies by using low cost, forgotten skills practiced by previous generations in order to thrive.

Then and now, Harris describes farming as a community building tool. To that end, SCF Cooperative conducts educational workshops, seminars, and presentations about sustainable agriculture and organic farming for the benefit of farmers and their families in the community. They even offer YouTube training videos to help farmers, for example, become certified organic producers. 

SCF has participated in Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), using the program to extend their growing season. A high tunnel and a hoop house allow SCF to start plants early for transplants and to provide protection over the winter for certain crops. SCF also helps new farmers navigate NRCS conservation programs—helping them find the right program and guiding them through the application process. 

“People come through, they learn, and they go on to greatness. That’s what we want them to do.”

Still, affordability problems, in the way of operational costs and lack of capital, continue to challenge BIPOC farmers like Harris even now. Half of those surveyed for the 2022 National Organic Research Agenda (NORA) report indicated that access to financing to support their farming operation is an institutional obstacle, which is why cost-share programs such as EQIP are particularly helpful in aiding transitions to organic farming.  

One of the most significant SCF initiatives is the Midlands Organic Mobile Markets, vans that directly distribute locally grown organic foods to the food deserts and other communities in the Midlands region of South Carolina. Established in 2012 through the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Farmers’ Market Promotional Program, the project aims to address the interrelated problems of limited access to healthy foods and diet-related disease.

Harris says the mobile markets serve the “in between” and beyond the metro areas, such as Columbia, South Carolina, which is 45 minutes from the 22-acre farm he manages.

“Those places are areas like Eastover and Rembert, for example, where they don’t have a grocery store. A lot of people don’t have vehicles to drive and they’re basically living on the nearest equivalent of a gas station. So they’re eating out of a gas station and getting chips and all types of processed foods that don’t really have a lot of nutrition.” Through the Midlands program, Harris says SCF aims to serve the people in these areas who would not otherwise have access to fresh healthy foods.

Clover cover crop at SCF

As part of its conservation efforts, SCF works with the soil to build a natural ecology. Through cover crops, such as peas, legumes, oats, and winter rye, SCF helps build organic matter in the soil. “Some people use chicken manure or fertilizers, but we try to build our soil the natural way—through crops that absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere,” says Harris. “We do a lot of companion planting and crop rotation, and very little tilling.”

SCF also practices and teaches the art of Heritage Organic Dry Farming, described as a way to grow food in a manner that does not have an adverse effect on the environment and is better for the land by utilizing residual moisture in the soil from the rainy season. On its 10 acres that are dedicated to certified organic produce, SCF grows melons and squash, for example, during the dry season with no supplemental irrigation in the heat of the South Carolina summers. This method offers a promising alternative in times of uncertain water resources.

Dry farmed melons and squash at SCF

So how does dry farming work?  In short, the farmer or gardener starts to work the soil soon after the last rain of the season. By disking and using a roller, the goal is to create three to four inches of dry, even soil when cultivation is done. This “dust mulch” or “dust blanket” traps the moisture in the soil. This technique requires a minimum of 10-12 inches of rain during the rainy season, and the soil must have good water holding capability for this technique to work. Sandy soils don’t qualify.

Organic farming and organic practices, according to Harris, are basically “old school,” valuable hand-me-downs from his farming heritage. That’s why, he says, the water-conserving practice during the dry season is called “Heritage Organic Dry Farming.” 

Dry Farming helps to address a problem that three-fourths of the BIPOC survey respondents in the 2022 NORA report identified as the most pressing challenge for organic farmers: weeds. Dry Farming produces very few of them because the “dust mulch” layer is dry enough to prevent weed growth, which makes herbicides unnecessary. 

Fields of veggies at Sumpter Cooperative Farm

To Shaheed Harris and his daughter Asya, farming represents freedom. “If you can get a piece of land or even if you have a yard, a backyard, or just a balcony, everybody should be doing farming whatever your profession or passion may be whether you’re an actor, a rapper, singer, doctor, plumber, or janitor,” says Harris. “Farming should be a part of your life, just like eating or cooking a meal. That’s how we look at farming. It’s a way of life for survival and for community stability.”

Just as it was with his ancestors. 

. . . 

Learn more:

SCF Organic Farms

Understanding Food Deserts and Food Apartheid

Freedom Farmers: agricultural resistance and the Black freedom movement

How the Government Helped White Americans Steal Black Farmland 

Natural Resources Conservation Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

National Organic Research Agenda report 

What is Dry Farming? The Dry Farming Institute

Agricultural Marketing Service, Sound and Sensible Program

. . . 

OFRF would like to thank Shaheed Harris and everyone at SCF for sharing their story. This interview was created with funding from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Organic Valley’s “Farmers Advocating for Organics” program, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. OFRF thanks these and other funders for their support. 

BACK to Farmer Stories
By |2023-01-18T17:02:03+00:00October 26th, 2022|Farmer Stories|
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