Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Changing Role of American Farmers

The other night was one of those nights that remind me why I love living in New York City so much. Somewhere in my internet travels I came across a mention for an event at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in Soho. The store was holding a panel discussion called “The Changing Role of American Farmers”. The moderator was Lisa Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness and the panelists were Fred Kirschenmann, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Mary-Howell Martens. I bet you’re saying “Who?” so let me introduce you, which will in turn explain why I was surprised to hear such a distinguished group would be gathering at a little bookstore downtown, sitting on folding chairs with the rest of us, for free.

The first time I heard of Fred Kirschenmann was back when President Obama was gathering names for the new Secretary of Agriculture. Kirschenmann was said to be on the short list. While he didn’t get the job (that went to Tom Vilsack), he certainly doesn’t lack for ways to fill his days. He is a farmer who oversees 3,500 organic acres of land in North Dakota. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The Leopold Center, named after famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, is a “research and educational center with statewide programs to develop sustainable agriculture practices that are both profitable and conserve nature”. And if that weren’t enough, Kirschenmann is also president of one of my favorite local places, Stone Barns.

I must confess the real reason I check the New York Times editorial page faithfully everyday is in the hope that one of Verlyn Klingenborg’s essays will be there. Run under the heading "The Rural Life" (which is also the title of his most recent book), his short essays are magical, poetic observations of living a country life. He lives his country life on a small farm in upstate New York. The juxtaposition of his column against the others that appear on the same newspaper page is striking. While the news of the day -- especially nowadays -- can be unsettling and frustratingly grim, his reflections on nature help give me pause as well as provide solace and perspective.

I wasn’t familiar with Mary-Howell Martens but as someone who has attended many of these panels, I can tell you the farmers asked to speak at these events are always articulate, smart, and forward thinking. If your idea of a farmer is a hick from the sticks, you haven’t met a sustainable farmer lately. Mary and her husband, Klaas, farm 1,300 acres in Penn Yan, NY. They turned their acreage over to organic in 1992 and have become leaders in an impassioned effort to provide New York residents and livestock (their farm produces organic wheat and grains) with New York-grown food.

The evening’s discussion covered a range of topics, often coming back to the debate over local vs. organic vs. industrial agriculture and what can be done to change the current fragmentation of the three into one system that provides nutritious, delicious food while building up our local communities socially and economically.

A conversation on farming in the middle of New York City (Soho no less!) may seem out of place. One of the panelists, in fact, marveled at the turnout for the event -- it was standing room only, with 50 or 60 people crowded into the space. But when you realize it’s our urban centers, with their vast number of mouths to feed and dollars to spend, that influence what and how many farmers grow their food, it begins to make sense. Farming is about much more than tractors, feed, and crop rotation. At its essence it’s about food; where it comes from, how it’s grown, the quality of its nutrients, and how good it tastes.

For any of you out there with even a mild interest in the local/sustainable/organic food movement I have this to say to you: now is the time to get involved. Do it while it’s still possible to hear the giants of the movement -- Wendell Berry, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Joan Gussow, Joel Salatin, Will Allen (as well as Fred Kirschenmann, Verlyn Klinkenborg and Mary-Howell Martens) -- speak, many times to small groups of people, often for free. It’s my exposure to such intelligent, thoughtful people that has helped fuel my passion for the movement towards good food. Trust me, once you start going down this road and learn the difference between food grown by organic farmers versus “chemical” farmers (to use a Mary-Howell Martens term for industrial farmers), there’s no turning back.

On my recent trip to North Carolina I was shopping for food with my dad, lamenting the quality of what I was finding. He said to me, “If you’re not careful, eating is going to become a chore.” I thought about it a second and responded, “Actually, knowing exactly where my food comes from has made every bite much more meaningful.” This isn’t a chore -- this is fun!

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