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Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann are deservedly regarded as the two living “philosopher kings” of our modern organic movement. Eliot borrowed heavily from the wisdom and practice of early nineteenth-century advocates of agricultural “improvement”, distant ancestors of our modern organic farming movement, and Europe’s intensive market gardeners who once fed cities like Paris, to create the exemplary farm he’s operated since 1968 on Maine’s rocky shores. It’s ironic that Coleman holds out and instructs from that now remote agricultural outpost, where forest has erased much of post-colonial agricultural history, from 1700s ‘stump farming’ days to domination of American potato production until the 1950s. Maine lost out when agricultural “improvers”, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, lost vociferous debates on the floors of Congress over corralling American populations east of the Appalachians, where they would necessarily develop proper soil husbandry skills to survive, versus unleashing them upon unexploited virgin soils “out West”. We are familiar with the outcome of that story. Soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt and Growing a Revolution, argues that “humans have been mining soils to feed ourselves for 12,000 years.”
Prior to the industrial revolution and Justus von Liebig’s unlocking chemical secrets of plant nutrition, all that soil mining, or “de-generating” as Eliot puts it, took place utilizing organic farming methods. Environmental historian Angus Wright, in Nature’s Matrix argues [Read more…]
“When people have a relationship to a farm, when they have a farm in their mind and in their heart, they’re engaged more as citizens of this planet,” Peterson said. “I can lament the declining sales and the struggles for farmers, but I really feel that the bigger issue is that the more people are cut off from the source of their food, the less able they are to deal with the issues of the world.” -‘Farmer John’ Peterson [Read more…]
The soil now gets a rumpling soft and damp,
And small regard to the future of any weed.
The final flat of the hoe’s approval stamp
Is reserved for the bed of a few selected seed.
There is seldom more than a man to a harrowed piece.
Men work alone, their lots plowed far apart,
One stringing a chain of seed in an open crease,
And another stumbling after a halting cart.
To the fresh and black of the squares of early mould
The leafless bloom of a plum is fresh and white;
Though there’s more than a doubt
if the weather is not too cold
For the bees to come and serve its beauty aright.
Wind goes from farm to farm in wave on wave,
But carries no cry of what is hoped to be.
There may be little or much beyond the grave,
But the strong are saying nothing until they see.
-Robert Frost, 1936
“Big Hugh” adopted theatrical antics of legend before congress while dramatizing America’s soil erosion crisis throughout Roosevelt’s era. Soil Conservation Service founder Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett spread a thick bath towel across one committee table over which he dumped a half-pitcher of water in demonstrating how well-covered, well-managed land could absorb heavy, washing rains. The chief then sloshed the remainder over a smooth tabletop, representing bare eroded land, [Read more…]
I did not set out forty-some years ago to be a hippy, organic or alternative farmer of any sort. Deeply disillusioned after a few years of striving to reform society’s miscreants in California’s prison and parole system, I ached to produce something of unquestioned value for myself and my community – growing food seemed to fit that bill. Though it’s been a jolly good ride, the journey proved to be not as simple as it looked either. Let me share a “thing or two about a thing or two” that I learned along the “way of the dirt farmer”. [Read more…]
My friend, Cecilia Sheeter, once described a moment of evening light when one feels as if its “thick golden sheen could be scooped out of the air.” To me, the spring air has that same feel, it is dense with all the promise of a new year. Bud break in grapes is my favorite week of this, my favorite season. A field of nascent green is suspended over the earth on a squat army of gnarled trunks. Years of past mistakes, misgivings, and missed opportunities are the wood of the vine, nourishing the tender young shoots. Their vigor holds so much enthusiasm; even our human losses seem diminished. This is Mr. Willey’s most stressful time of year. To him, all that spring potential is fraught with tension, danger and toil. With literally hundreds of tasks, for dozens of crops, to be completed in an ever-narrowing window of time and temperature, deciding each day’s priorities seems perilous. “Silty, sandy, muddy Earth, we savor God’s ardent endowment in you. Make us worthy stewards of your robust gifts, in wonderment and fright we witness life renew.” -denesse
Back in November, we laid another mentor from my early farming career to rest. Neophyte farmers often rivet sole attention on growing crops, only worrying about where and to whom they’ll sell produce when a harvest mountain overwhelms them. Distinguishing ourselves as marketers much sooner than we did as producers, Denesse and I cut our direct sales teeth at Arnett-Smith’s twice-weekly open air market behind Fresno’s old Chamber of Commerce building, over which Florence Smith reigned supreme. Her Arkansas Arnett clan had lit out for California at century’s turn, [Read more…]
Although I hardly know one end of a cow from another, Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (WODPA) invited me to deliver the keynote at their recent 10th Annual Conference and Trade Show in Corvallis, Oregon. Amongst a parade of tradesmen visiting the podium to hawk wares “indispensable” to any successful dairy farmer, came one waving a large square of what appeared to be AstroTurf. I sat dumbstruck as FodderWorks’ vendor rep claimed smart California dairy operators circumvent our mega-drought by growing pasture grass indoors. My first thought — “What sort of rubes does this guy take dairy farmers for?” — was followed by a recollection that Mario Daccarett, who milks sheep in Chowchilla, had invited me out to see some wacky pasture growing machine he was experimenting with over a year ago. Sure enough, visiting the FodderWorks booth, I learned Mario’s Golden Valley Farm is one of their star adopters. Familiarity with sprouted wheat grass found in every neighborhood health food store [Read more…]
W.T. Purkiser wrote, “Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.” To this end I would reply, “What greater holiday than a feast of unlimited vegetable side dishes!” By now, we have seen more than a few Canada Geese winging their way south. The leader has the hardest job, while the others in the V-line formation each gain a bit of a draft from the preceding bird. They call out to one another, hence the nick-name “Canadian Honkers”. I wonder about these aerial communications; are they gossiping about the tidiness of farms over which they pass or might they be words of encouragement for the flight leader? The sound is both exciting and forlorn, reminiscent of homecomings attendant with these winter holidays. I wish tender memories, and lingering conversation over a lovingly prepared meal for all of you. – denesse
Sibella Kraus’ sights are set on protecting the last seven-thousand-acre remnant of the ‘Valley of Heart’s Delight’ for open space and urban-edge agriculture. Known as the Santa Clara or Silicone Valley today, its 450 square miles of mild climate, well-drained fertile soils and artesian water once hosted the world’s largest tree fruit production region, delighting hearts with apricots and cherries. Some 98% of the Valley’s expanse now lies beneath San Jose’s pavement or sprouts Apples, the computer kind, on sprawling high-technology electronics research and manufacturing campuses. Lest you think Kraus’ notion of restoring its last few thousand unpaved acres to agrarian glory completely fanciful, first consider this remarkable woman’s track record of accomplishment in her San Francisco Bay Area’s local, organic and specialty crop food movements over three decades plus. Sibella and I [Read more…]
It was welcome news to read in today’s (10-29-15) Fresno Bee that momentum builds to employ winter-fallowed farmlands, including dormant orchards and vineyards for Valley aquifer recharge should anticipated El Nino flood flows materialize. My well and pump man Hollis Priest was on the farm last week tuning us up when I asked him what sort of water table declines he was observing over this irrigation season. Hollis reports the Clovis area remains stable, while other communities, like Raisin City, have experienced drops of greater than 50 feet. In our case, we’ll commission an official Pump Test soon, but our well’s yield decline, from 800 gallons per minute down to 650 GPM, over this summer indicates Madera’s water table has suffered significantly. Warmer than average high temperatures this fall have [Read more…]
It is great fun to host so many of you on our farm and if you missed the formal guided tours, we remind you that the farm is open for informal, self-guided, walking tours during our regular business hours for any CSA members who wish to see their food being grown. Whether you are from Mountain Meadow Farms, Abundant Harvest Organics or Ooooby, we ask that you give us just a day’s notice so we will know when to expect you and who is on the farm. We hope this opportunity will increase your sense of connectedness to your food shed and security in how it is being managed. –denesse
“The medical profession is only beginning to recognize that no amount of medical technology will enable us to have healthy humans on a sick planet.” ― Thomas Berry
Usually, I welcome the autumnal equinox with as much gratefulness as the vernal crossing brings trepidation. Even with last week’s light showers, our farm appears a bit dingy and dusty, despite running a water wagon over its roads six days a week. Cool nights are welcome to many of our fall seedings. The Autumn Farm Tour will feature beets, carrots, lettuce, kale, turnips, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, leeks, chilies, sweet peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, parsley, dill, baby bok choy, basil, fennel, parsnips, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts and spinach. Reservations are required, directions are on the “Farm Tour” page.
In May of this year, a group of five Certified Organic fruit and vegetable farmers, whose combined careers represent 147 years’ experience in biological agriculture, approached the nation’s largest USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certifier, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), for help in defending our Certified Organic label’s value in a volatile marketplace.
This appeal was prompted by the nation’s iconic retailer of Certified Organic produce, Whole Foods Market (WFM), recent rollout of their proprietary fruit, vegetable and flower “Responsibly Grown” rating system in its 400 stores. The stated purpose of this initiative, examining and rating Conventional and Certified Organic WFM produce suppliers on parameters of soil health, pesticide use, food safety, labor practices, greenhouse gases, water conservation, waste reduction and [Read more…]
Our three grown, college-educated children pursue careers other than cultivating the soil they’ve watched their parents tend for thirty-some seasons on several farms. The intimate, personal-farmer relationship we have enjoyed with thousands of local families through T&D Willey Farms‘ CSA program over the last dozen years is, without doubt, the most gratifying experience of our farming career. It is also the most exhausting. Desiring to perpetuate and further elaborate the local farm-to-family network our CSA initiated, we have begun collaboration with a new, visionary, community-based organization Read the rest of the story
I suffer a weakness for accumulating the written word, and to read it all during this waning lifetime is my ambition. My library’s most treasured volume is the large-format, visually stunning 1979 cartographic masterpiece The California Water Atlas, commissioned by Governor Brown’s previous administration during the 1976-1977 drought to enhance knowledge of our state’s hydraulic complexity. A brilliant mind behind that epic publication’s execution popped out of the woodwork last week. Project Director and Editor William L. Kahrl’s May 1st CSUF presentation to Friends of the Madden Library was provocatively titled: “Death in the Almond Orchard”. In an authoritative air, white- bearded Sebastian Cabot look-alike Kahrl lectured on principal differences between California’s then and now, and the adequacy of a water system whose infrastructure remains essentially unchanged. The Golden State’s nearly doubled [Read more…]
A few weeks back, I signed a refund of deposit check for one of our original CSA members from November 2002. “We want to take a break” was the reason for discontinuing service after 12 years. I whispered under my breath, “me too.” Those of you who read this column know my family suffered 3 deaths in 20 days last October, their average age was 67, the same as Mr. Willey’s. In January, one of our sons, by way of condemning capitalism, told us “In this country, we work too hard to make money.” The last time I only worked five days a week was in 1986; since then our three children have each earned college degrees and I’m beginning to learn a new perspective on work. We will still be farming Certified Organic vegetables up here on the southwest corner of Avenue 14 and Road 20, but we’re taking a break from administering the weekly boxes. – denesse
No air of anticipation, only resignation, imbued some 200 farmers attending Madera Irrigation District’s 2015 “Grower Meeting” last week as general manager Tommy Greci announced zero water will flow to our thirsty crops for a second consecutive year. Newly elected MID director and long-time Madera farmer Dave Loquaci delivered the day’s knockout punch: “The water use we are historically accustomed to in Madera Co. will never return, nothing will again be the same as it was before”. Australia National Water Commission member Jane Doolan, presenting recently to a Public Policy Institute of California audience, suggested a similar realization keyed revolutionary public policy response to her nation’s dozen-year Millennium Drought that commenced in 1997. [Read more…]
It is always a pleasure to show off the farm to CSA members who attend our spring tours. Invariably, these tours are punctuated with a heightened anticipation for all of summer’s bounty yet to come, coupled with the risk and uncertainty we face as producers of food. You, as eaters, are no less dependent on the generosity of our soil and climate than are we. Some of you have asked why we host tours for our members. We love to share with you, not only what you find in the box each week but, the awesome wonder a productive gardenscape can bestow on your soul. Beyond that, we feel a responsibility to raise your food by a fully transparent process in a welcoming environment. – denesse
Journalists of every stripe, in search of drought stories, have crawled this valley over several years in numbers reminiscent of Egypt’s Biblical locust plague. Farming friends and I have been dogged by the major TV network trio, New York Times reporters, plus
German, French and Norwegian film crews. If all voyeurs had brought an acre-foot of water each as tribute, we might have broken this epic dry spell. California’s inscrutable plumbing works, arguably the world’s most sophisticated, combining snow pack, river systems, reservoirs, canals and groundwater basins under myriad jurisdictions is difficult enough for local experts to get heads around. Senior and junior water rights, riparian vs. appropriative, pre and post-1914 entitlements, are a bewildering muddle for unlucky journalists sent here for a few days. [Read more…]