Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Why am I doing this?"

I've been talking with a lot of farmers these days. Mostly (I think) I've been doing a lot of listening. Except when topics like cooking, science fiction, or domestic healthcare policy (not to be confused with science fiction) come up, I like to let conversations drift and see where the farmers take them. One thing that has come up many times is a farmer wondering how -- and sometimes even if -- his or her work matters in the grand scheme of things. I mean, can a sustainably grown tomato change the world? "Why am I doing this?" This very point came up a few days ago when I stopped in for a spell at J. Faulkner Farm in Portville, NY, just ahead of storm number two (of three) that afternoon.

It was an unanticipated stop, for the most part. I'd been chatting with Elaine the postmistress (in I believe it was Bolivar, NY) as I bought yet another sheet of postcard stamps -- I may be single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business these days -- and she suggested that since I would be passing through Portville later that afternoon I might stop and chat with a man named James about his organic farm -- a pesticide-free oasis amid the surrounding farms with happy chemical trigger fingers. So I did.

Michael Pollan has Joel Salatin; I have J. Faulkner. A rare balance of patience and caution with enthusiasm and curiosity became evident pretty quickly as James showed me about. The farm is run by the thoughtful but softspoken farmer and his mother and boasts an amazing diversity for such a small area (4 acres, I think he said): at least 5 varieties of heirloom corn, rows of leeks, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, squash, carrots, lettuces, blueberries, beets, potatoes, broccoli, and several other crops he is tinkering with, all grown from seed. Oats, clover, and rye cover the other fields, enriching the soil and keeping them ready for planting if the farm expands one day. In spite of the two farmers markets he sells at locally, James admitted that the operation itself wasn't enough to support the family, that his wife had a regular job. And yet he feels compelled to grow things, and grow them the *right* way, enrich the soil, give people an option to buy good, local produce.

He quietly lamented the slow acceptance of his work. "People ask me why they should pay two dollars for a head of organic lettuce at the farmers market when they can get regular lettuce at the supermarket for a dollar fifty. Then they walk away. But I keep bringing it and slowly more people are buying it." He's thinking about a larger spinach crop, for sale rather than just personal consumption since a friend mentioned his wife had stopped eating supermarket greens after a series of national e. coli contamination scares. He's trying out a few longberry bushes to see how they fare in the area. Longberries, he'd heard, have an even higher concentration of beneficial antioxidants than blueberries and they're pretty hardy in colder climates. (Maybe they'll be the new pomegranate or acai berry craze in a few years.) Slowly, slowly he tests out new crops, new varieties, new ideas. He grows everything organically, but hasn't been certified, at least not yet. Instead, he told me, his produce is "certified naturally grown" -- an honor-system-based designation which has farmers (rather than some USDA employee) periodically checking up on each other's farming practices. Pretty cool, and in my humble opinion much more true to the spirit of local, organic farming in its purest form.

Ollie and I headed out soon after the storm subsided, bound for Allegany State Park. James insisted that I take a tomato and a bell pepper -- "You don't even need to cook 'em. Oh, but I wish it were a better season for tomatoes!" -- and conceded that I didn't really have space for a few squash. I tell you, after storm number three blew through about two hours later, I couldn't resist nibbling on the perfectly red, tantalizingly juicy tomato. Did I say nibble? It was amazing: I devoured it right there on the sidewalk in front of god and everybody. It may be a drop in the bucket, but I'll bet if more folks tasted tomatoes like that they won't deign to put one of the round, supermarket tomato-shaped imposters to their lips. Keep doing what you're doing, J. Faulkner, we'll catch on. A tomato may yet change the world.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. It seems like there isn't much money in being a small scale farmer. I guess food would have to be more expensive for them to be better off, which probably would require the end of the government subsidy system and replacing it with something that promoted a more "sustainable" approach. Wow, sounds hard.

    Have fun biking

  2. "round" supermarket tomatoes? I think they're now breeding them to be cuboid. I'm not kidding: the most important "tomato" feature for agribusiness is how well it ships, so they designed rock hard, thick skinned tomatoes that can be stacked together in a box--when I pry one loose to put in my cart, it looks disturbingly square.


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