New England Dairy Examined in Friedman School Screening of “Forgotten Farms”

by Laura Barley

To examine the contemporary trends affecting the dairy industry, on March 27th, the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy hosted a screening of the film “Forgotten Farms”, a documentary featuring some of the longest-standing dairy farmers in New England.

Photo: Sam Whittier, Whittier Farms

Misconceptions exist to be clarified. Complexities exist to be reduced. Myths exist to be busted.

In a world that produces new food media and science every day, thousands of different opinions exist for any given food product. As far as most dairy farmers are concerned, their products are certainly not immune to the cultural and scientific dissection of what is considered “healthy”. In New England dairy farms have persisted for decades, and in some cases centuries, without gaining much cultural or ecological recognition in today’s food economy.

The film, directed by Dave Simonds and produced by Sarah Gardner, was an apt fit for the Friedman school, whose students regularly deconstruct the complexities of food systems. For many, dairy has become a symbol of the most controversial aspects of American food production – animal rights, environmental health, and adequate nutrition. These controversies haven’t left the industry unscathed, and declining demand has precipitated the departure of thousands of dairy farmers across the country. With “Forgotten Farms”, Simonds and Gardner wanted to spotlight the humanity of farmers who continue to brave the economic contraction, doing all that they can to keep the farm on the land.

A multitude of factors share responsibility for declining milk sales in the U.S, including dietary shifts towards veganism and a growing awareness of lactose-intolerance. However, there is a whole host of other factors unique to New England agriculture that makes it especially difficult to operate a dairy farm. The film’s producer, Sarah Gardner, acknowledges that “New England has really high land values, high property taxes, and high development pressures on the land. There aren’t many thriving rural economies in New England.” Consequently, the number of dairy farms in New England has dropped from roughly 40,000 in 1930 to less than 2,000 in 2012. In Massachusetts, only 117 dairy operations remain in operation today.

The film intends to shed light upon those remaining farmers – to include their voices in the broader narrative of food justice and sovereignty. Farmers like Louis Escobar, Win Chenail, Darryl Williams explain how they have endured the struggle to remain competitive in a rapidly shifting food economy. Many rely on the second jobs of spouses to supplement their incomes, and all continue to watch their milk checks shrink as they dread the day they might have to shut their doors. Unfortunately, selling the farm no longer constitutes rock bottom. NPR has recently reported on a string of dairy farmer suicides that have occurred throughout the Northeast, reflecting the demoralizing and tragic consequences of the loss of dairy livelihoods.

Samantha Whittier, a fifth-generation Massachusetts dairy farmer and co-host of Tuesday’s film screening, has worked alongside her family to weather the volatility of the dairy industry. “For my family, dairying is about constantly diversifying to ensure we are as prepared as we can be for the highs and lows of the changing markets.” As a response, Whittier Farms added a storefront retail operation to supplement their milk sales with Cabot Creamery, a cooperative that collectively supports over a thousand dairy farms across New England and upstate New York. These farmers have proven agile and resourceful in protecting their livelihoods, and are willing to adapt to keep their land in the business for as long as possible.

“What really stood out to me was the pride that dairy farmers have in their farms and their love for their jobs,” notes Friedman Ph.D student Ilana Cliffer. “The view they gave of dairy farmers in the Northeast ran contrary to what you often hear in the media about big bad industrial farms, and I think it was a very important perspective to hear.”

Gardner is quick to acknowledge the often negative perceptions of commercial dairy farming, citing this cultural wariness associated with large-scale industrial operations. “Once they scale up, they get slammed for being commercial. They’re not going to stay in business unless they scale up,” she notes. “We need to expand our definition of local agriculture to commercial agriculture.”

While the profiles of earnest dairy farmers serve as the soul of the film, Forgotten Farms also addresses important questions about what constitutes a local food system and who has a stake in deciding what that system looks like. The term ‘local’ can connote a range of ideas of a food system – food miles, quaint family farms, everything made by hand – but for most dairy farmers, this scale simply isn’t efficient to run an profitable enterprise. In recent years academic and collaborative networks have popped up across the country to examine what efficient regional food systems could look like. According to Christian Peters, a professor in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at the Friedman school, incorporating commercial agriculture makes particular sense when considering dairy as part of an efficient regional food system. “Fluid milk is a relatively regional food product already. Localizing it actually makes it less environmentally efficient.”

For their part, dairy farmers have served as economic lynchpins in New England. A typical dairy cow contributes roughly $14,000 to the economy each year, and the New England dairy industry as a whole generates over $1 billion annually. While absolute revenue is important, dairy farms also exhibit a multiplier effect, where their products generate revenue for the local community beyond their own operations. Their feed and equipment purchases, veterinarian needs, and labor demand all prop up a local economy that could easily disappear without them.

Dairy farmers manage nearly one million acres of cropland, pasture, and woodland for their operations. This accounts for roughly half of all farmland in New England. Given a report like the New England Food Vision, which sets a goal for the region to produce 50% of the food it consumes by 2050, local demand must align with foods especially suited for local production. In so many words, for regional self-reliance to strengthen, New England consumers would need to shift their diets to foods already produced here, like dairy, seafood, and certain fruits and vegetables like blueberries or cabbage. Purchasing these products becomes what it means to support a regional food system, which in essence will save as much agricultural land from development as possible.

In this context, Gardner maintains, Without dairy, we lose our food security and our farmland.”

There are some political maneuvers that could help dairy maintain its foothold in New England agriculture. In its 2019 budget, the Massachusetts state legislature has the option to renew the Dairy Tax Credit, which Gardner notes that virtually every dairy farmer uses as insurance in times of low milk prices. But in most cases, the biggest difference between breaking even and breaking down will be determined by the choices made by consumers at the grocery store.

“Understanding the companies that process and sell the local milk is essential to making sure your consumer dollars are returned to the farmers; support farmer-owned brands whenever possible,” says Sam Whittier. And though they may not connote the same appeal as a glass bottle of artisan milk, labels like Hood, Garelick, and Cabot all reflect the efforts of local New England dairy farmers.

“Because of the complexity, you have to be willing to sit in this uncomfortable place where you’re listening and learning before you make any decisions,” advises Peters. Embracing the complexity has become a de facto mantra of the Friedman school, and the nexus of food, environment, and culture will certainly bring plenty more to . “Forgotten Farms” has revealed what’s at stake in New England’s shifting agricultural economy, and has ultimately brought meaning and human connection to the abstract concepts of our curriculum.

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment student about to graduate to greener pastures. She’s developed a love for dairy farming throughout her tenure at Tufts, and hopes to support the industry any way she can throughout her career.

Trump’s Trade Wars: How Steel and Aluminum Might Harm Hog Farmers

by Sam Jones

President Trump has been waging a trade war since early March, with China as his greatest adversary. Steel and aluminum manufacturing stood to benefit from these protectionist measures, but the U.S. agricultural sector is actually getting the raw end of the deal in this tit-for-tat dispute.

In the beginning of March, President Trump announced plans to place a 25% import tariff on all steel and a 10% import tariff on all aluminum. To follow through on his campaign promise of U.S. trade protectionism, the U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturing industry is the first group of intended beneficiaries. President Trump claims that unfair trade practices in other countries, namely China, have flooded the global market with these products, effectively lowering prices to uncompetitive levels.

The steel and aluminum manufacturing industry in the U.S. has seen a significant decline in jobs, with 135,000 people employed in the industry in 2000 compared to just over 83,000 in 2016, according to one source. However, industries that purchase steel and aluminum and rely on the current low prices actually employ far more people—6.5 million—than are employed on the manufacturing side. These industries include car manufacturers, beer companies, and the construction industry, to name a few. As a result, while these tariffs may be good news for a few tens of thousands of steel and aluminum manufacturers, over six million people employed by steel and aluminum buyers would likely be negatively impacted and possibly lose their jobs if production costs rise.

However, this only would have been the outcome if President Trump’s original plan to tax all steel and aluminum imports entering U.S. borders had become reality. The tariffs did go into effect at the beginning of April, but Canada and Mexico were immediately exempted from these trade restrictions. Before the tariffs had officially taken effect, the EU, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and South Korea were granted temporary exemptions from the tariffs as well.

These trade exemptions are essentially being granted to political allies of the United States who threatened strict and politically targeted tariffs of their own in retaliation. These tariffs would have been imposed on quintessential American products, like Wisconsin cheese and Kentucky bourbon, that are produced in red majority regions (Wisconsin is Paul Ryan’s home state).

Politically, exempting these countries is a good idea because of this potential backlash, but these exemptions also severely undermine the original intention of the steel and aluminum tariffs. Canada, the EU, South Korea, Mexico, and Brazil are the top five sources of steel and aluminum imports for the U.S., with over $900 million-worth of imports coming from Canada and the EU alone. So which steel and aluminum exporters are affected by this policy? In one word: China.

Just like the retaliatory measures threatened by the exempted countries, China has its own punitive measures in mind. The potential targets of China’s tariffs are major U.S. agricultural export commodities like pork, soybeans, sorghum, tobacco, wine, and nuts. These products are chosen for specific, political reasons. The international community is well-aware of how the structure of our government impacts elections results. They know which districts voted red and which ones swung blue, which means they know that to impact the voters in red districts, they can target the industries that fuel their livelihoods. For instance, China is the largest consumer of both the pork and tobacco that is produced in North Carolina. As it happens, North Carolina went to Trump in the 2016 election. Not only is China retaliating against protectionist trade measures, but it also seemingly intends to aim their retaliation at President Trump and the Republican party directly.

The same can be said for taxing soybeans, most of which come from the Heartland that overwhelming votes Republican each election cycle. As for putting tariffs on wine and nuts, most of the nut exports come from California, which is a tried-and-true blue state. However, the Central Valley of California swings red and is the largest region of tree nut production in the country.

Hogs at Jodar Farms in Fort Collins, CO

Photo credit: Sam Jones

These politically-rooted trade tariffs may also help to explain why President Trump and his staff decided to exempt the countries they did. A reduced export market, or even a reduction in prices due to speculation, for Wisconsin cheese and Kentucky bourbon would not have been good for the political representatives of those districts. Such repercussions, however, seem unavoidable. When pork producers in North Carolina feel the repercussions of fewer sales and lower prices, they will tie their struggle directly back to President Trump’s decision to start a trade war with China.

As history continues to prove, the losers of trade wars almost always outnumber the winners. From the initial tariffs, the companies and their employees that rely on cheap steel and aluminum imports will suffer as production costs rise. Consumers of steel and aluminum products—like your thirst-quenching 12oz. can of PBR or a shiny Ford F-150—will suffer as higher production costs are pushed onto them. From China’s retaliatory measures, the U.S. farmers who produce the taxed goods will also suffer. Likewise, consumers in China will suffer from higher prices of these taxed U.S. agricultural products.

American farmers of competing products will also suffer because excess pork that cannot be exported will flood the domestic market, and consumers might switch from beef or chicken to the now-cheaper pork. With less beef and chicken consumption, corn and soy producers will also feel a hit. And with everyone’s prices falling, non-farm agricultural input industries will feel the trickle-down effect on top of revenue loss from rising steel and aluminum prices.

Because the steel and aluminum tariffs don’t even apply to the five largest exporters, the U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturing industry is not likely to experience a significant economic boost. In the end, Trump’s trade war managed to single out an openly hostile political adversary that was already facing steel and aluminum tariffs due to its unfair dumping practices. As a major importer of U.S. agricultural products, a disgruntled China ends up straining American farmers more than anyone else. And if it ends up hurting them so badly that they decide to release their frustration at the polls, there just might be a blue majority in the house this fall.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with an interest in sustainable agriculture and food journalism. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine and will be working on a flower farm this summer. You can read more of her work at culturecheesemag.com.

Growing a Regional Grain Economy

by Nayla Bezares, Claire Loudis, Tetyana Pecherska, and Alexandra Stern

Over spring break, four AFE students had the opportunity to visit Dr. Stephen Jones and his team at the WSU Bread Lab and explore the regional grain economy that has grown in the Skagit Valley as a result of their work.

The Bread Lab and Tufts Food Lab

The Team!

Nestled between the snowcapped Cascade Range and the Pacific Ocean, lies the lush and surprisingly sunny Skagit Valley. A bright sea of daffodils flanked long country roads and friendly bovines nodded hello as we made our way to meet with plant breeder Dr. Stephen Jones and his team at the Washington State University (WSU) Bread Lab. The Bread Lab is a special place where plant breeders, growers, and bakers have been pioneering new wheat and barley lines while simultaneously growing a robust local grain economy. In the commodity grain market where yield and uniformity are king, the Bread Lab is breaking rank by pursuing varieties based on flavor, function, and nutrition. Their efforts have reinvigorated fields in the valley that generally grew grains in rotation either as cover crops or for livestock feed. Instead, they now produce a valuable and local whole grain product that bakers, millers and maltsters now covet across the country.

Daffodils in Skagit Valley, WA

Daffodil frolicking (from left: Claire Loudis, Alex Stern, Nayla Bezares, Tetyana Pecherska)

Upon arrival, we received a warm welcome and an action-packed agenda for our visit. Our first order of business of course was to taste the famous whole-wheat croissant that Dr. Jones had taunted us with during the Friedman seminar last semester. Without a moment to spare, we dove into a series of visits with local farmers, millers, bakers, maltsters, brewers, economic developers, and food access advocates. During our meetings, we were inundated with insight and inspiration. We scrambled to take down every morsel of wisdom in our notebooks to be decoded later in brainstorming sessions on ways we can ourselves redefine the food system to be more resilient and equitable. Before too long, we found ourselves breaking experimental bread with our Bread Lab colleagues where we reflected together on our transformative experience. We left galvanized to bring back lessons learned to share with our community at Friedman and beyond. Below are a few of our stories from the week:

Skagit Valley Malting

Skagit Valley Malting

“Our visit to the Skagit Valley was much more than a walk through daffodil fields. It was more than walking through a library of wheat berries and choosing the perfect one to mill and bake a unique whole grain cupcake. Even more than a tasting of malted barley products (read: beer!) that had been harvested and processed in the very fields we drove by. Our visit to the Skagit Valley was a firsthand experience in organized food systems development. As we interviewed key players in this community development process, it was evident that Steve Jones’ proposition of covering fallow fields with wheat was successful because he was able to approach both farmers and developers to promote successful crops AND a local industry that could inject resources back into the system.”
-Nayla Bezares, AFE ‘19

Cairnspring Mills in Skagit Valley, WA

Cairnspring Mills

“ ‘You cannot affect a system unless you understand the process.’ Sitting in the Washington Bulb boardroom, we learned from owner, John Roozen, how tulips grow. Mr. Roozen described how his family came to the Skagit Valley from Holland generations before with just a briefcase full of tulip bulbs. Today, Washington Bulb is one of the largest flower producers in the US with 70 million blooms per year and the most impressive tulip and daffodil operation I have ever seen. Mr. Roozen walked us through massive coolers of varied temperatures that he used to manipulate the lifecycle of flower bulbs and enhance his operation. Similarly, we learned that the entire Skagit Valley grain economy was developed by manipulating an existing system. For years, farmers had been growing “bad” wheat in rotation to support their more profitable seed crops. That was, until Steve Jones and the WSU Bread Lab began working with farmers and chefs to develop and grow improved wheat varieties in the valley. One of the farmers was John Roozen who, along with an extraordinary flower operation, now grows 600 acres of wheat. On our trip to Skagit Valley, not only did we learn about the process a tulip bulb goes through to bloom, but we also learned about the process that the Skagit Valley went through to self-organize and create a thriving grain economy.”
-Claire Loudis, AFE ‘18

Bread Lab baking with Julia Berstein

Baking with Bread Lab experimental baker Julia Berstein

“What impressed me most is the ingenuity and synergistic relationships that helped cultivate a resilient grain economy in the Skagit Valley. Sparking a new movement in the food system takes innovation and whole lot of grit. The lack of infrastructure in the US fit for small and mid-scale processing and production is a common limitation. The maltsters described to us in detail how they designed and built a revolutionary all-inclusive system that allows them to wash, steep, germinate, and kiln grains all in one tank – in other words, gain complete control over the malting process. The local mill also had to get creative in outfitting their operation by sourcing equipment from several different countries such as Poland, Denmark, and Ethiopia. Kevin Morse from Cairnspring Mill likened the process to a ‘barn raising,’ which is an apt description for the cultivation of the grain economy in Skagit as a whole.”
-Tetyana Pecherska, AFE ‘19

Plant breeding at The Bread Lab with Steve Lyon

Plant breeding 101 with Steve Lyon

“Visiting the Bread Lab at WSU was transformative. It was one of the first times that I was able to see a local food system functioning on such a small scale. Almost all of the stakeholders were situated within a 30-mile radius. It was clearly a community; a group of people with differing ideas, but common goals. What was striking about this community and this trip was the diversity of the stakeholders. Each felt strongly about transforming grains into something more positive for Washington. What was interesting, is that each player had a different set of morals and values by which they lived and worked. They worked together almost every day, but their motivations were not necessarily the same. For example, the miller felt strongly about the environmental impact of agriculture while the maltsters were dedicated to developing new technologies and products in their field. Currently grain is just a commodity, often grown for feed, but these stakeholders consider it to be more. They had high hopes for transforming the wheat that they grow into a product that would invigorate the economy and fuel a movement in which consumers care more about the foods they eat.”
-Alexandra Stern, AFE PhD

 

It’s safe to say, we left with both our minds and bellies full. The synergy among us was boundless – so much so that we essentially developed a full-fledged proposal for a consulting group called ‘The Bread Girls.’ One of our key takeaways was what a role just one person in a community can play in cultivating a lasting impact in the food system. The catalyst in the Skagit Valley was the ever-humble Steve Jones. His ability to gain trust and inspire a diversity of stakeholders was integral in cultivating a resilient regional economy. Inspired by the work of Dr. Jones and his team, we have teamed up with faculty at Friedman to establish the Tufts Food Lab – a space where not only research and practice intersect, but where we can foster intention to improve nutrition, sustainability, diversity, and regional economies. Students should stay tuned for ways they can get involved in the near future. To support our efforts, please consider contributing and sharing our crowdfunding campaign. The funds raised will support our time in the field where we hope to actively dig into our grain research directly alongside our partners.

The Tufts Food Lab is a new initiative established by Friedman graduate students and faculty as a place to advance nutrition research and education by tapping into the expertise of diverse food system developers and stakeholders. The goal is to prepare students for future careers through research opportunities and hands-on field experience.

The Transformative Power of Urban Food Systems

by Sam Jones

Last month, the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference came to Boston for its sixth year. Topics ranged from bee colonies and school gardens to hydroponics and the farm bill. A synopsis of issues relating to food access to youth incarceration can be found here, while the entire list of topics and more event information can be found online.

“The price of democracy is eternal vigilance,” says Karen Voci, the president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. At a time when the outcomes of political debates are as predictable as a roll of the dice, the acuity of civil society is of the utmost importance. For the sanctity of democracy and its ability to serve the people, that philosophy is relevant in every aspect of life, particularly in food systems. Food systems have the ability to both enhance egality and take it away.

The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference presented a slice of the world of which our eternal vigilance is both crucial and progressing. It was hosted by the Urban Farming Institute in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on March 16th and 17th at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA. Each day of the conference included four sessions and one or two keynote speeches. For each session, attendees selected one of five or six topics to be a part of. This event synopsis is based on my experience from the sessions I chose to attend on the first day of the conference.

During the first session, titled “A New Approach to Food Access: Best Practices to Shift Systems,” the first question asked by the moderator, Raheem Baraka of Baraka Community Wellness, was “What is your vision for a New England Food System?” In founding the Three River Farmers Alliance, a farm product aggregation business in New Hampshire, Andre Cantelmo hopes to achieve community-level food sovereignty in New England. As a farmer himself, he recognized that small farms lack the clout to push through the local food system on their own. In response, his Alliance fills a role that allows farms to specialize, which lowers prices for consumers and increases demand for locally farmed produce.

Cantelmo and Shawn Cooney, of Cornerstalk Farm, both admitted that their business models currently cater to “the middle-class white woman” who can afford fresh local produce at the farmers market. Cooney hopes these “early adopters” can act as funders that help their businesses grow and become more affordable and accessible in the long run. They hope to expand the New England local food system from one that includes their farm’s name on a  farm-to-table restaurant’s menu, to serving their carrots in school cafeterias anonymously, because “that’s just how it should be,” according to Cantelmo.

The topic of commodity crop subsidies soon came up in the discussion. Instead of hoping the subsidy structure will change, Cantelmo accepts it but intends to build a system through local food aggregation that can effectively compete with commodity crop subsidies. On the other hand, Voci argued that there is room for democratization in the food system, adding that the more people who familiarize themselves with the system, the more educated voters our society will have. Perhaps a more educated voter base will be able to demand change to the subsidy structure that disadvantages many small farmers.

On the topic of federal policy intervention, both Cantelmo and Cooney noticed that Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) and SNAP recipients make up a notable proportion of their customer base. However, there is a visible access problem. Cooney noted that customers using HIP and SNAP typically come to his farm store in large groups by bus or van, indicating that significant coordination unrelated to his business must go into providing people access to fresh local produce. Voci, while encouraged by the use of HIP and SNAP, voiced her concern about the future of these programs under the current administration.

When asked if local produce can be integrated into the current large-scale distribution system, the major concern of the panelists was “greenwashing”. According to both Cooney and Cantelmo, large distributors like Sysco have approached them for fresh produce, which puts their names on a list of producers that sell to the distributor. After a while, however, these large distributors stopped sourcing from them, yet their names and the sustainable methods associated with them remained likewise associated with the large distributors. This greenwashing dilemma is one reason why Cantelmo has taken food aggregation and distribution into his own hands. It is also an example of how self-organization can circumvent a much larger problem.

Another session I attended was called “Job Skills and Agriculture: Models for At-Risk and Formerly Incarcerated Youth.” Captain David Granese from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department talked about a different kind of urban farm—one within the walls of a prison. This working farm is completely run by the prisoners themselves, who can earn time off their sentence in exchange for hard work, learning marketable job skills along the way.

UTEC, also represented on the panel, aims to reduce recidivism in Lowell, MA by teaching formerly incarcerated youth specific food-related job skills, while also offering valuable certificates that employers look for. This organization partners with the unemployment office, the division of labor, and employers in the community to identify where people with a criminal record who go through UTEC’s program are welcome to apply for jobs. UTEC also has an arrangement with the community college to get its members on a path to higher education that does not lead them back behind bars. UTEC is effective at achieving its goals—two years after the program, 78% of UTEC graduates are employed compared to just 40% or formerly incarcerated youth nationwide.  

Across every session, I was reminded why I want to study food systems in the first place. Food and farming have the ability to address seemingly unrelated issues, like crime and gentrification, in ways that can be uniquely tailored to each place and situation. Urban agriculture can breathe life back into a community. Food can make a success story out of a kid going nowhere fast. Food and farming are approachable avenues through which we can democratize our system as we see fit. Urban agriculture has the ability to actually create a more equal society while outside forces attempt to divide us. The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference illustrated the potential for food systems to act as a vehicle for positive self-organization that puts a person’s health and well-being at the forefront of progress.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine and hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Farmer Profile: Visions for a New Sustainable Vegetable Farm in Putnam, CT

by Nako Kobayashi

Farmer Yoko Takemura hopes to incorporate aspects of her Japanese heritage as well as her academic background in environmental sustainability into her new farm business.

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

While farmers represent an increasingly aging demographic group, a growing number of young farmers in New England and across the country are working to change the food system. Many of these new farmers, like Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm in Putnam, Connecticut, do not have farming backgrounds but instead have experiences that bring different perspectives and ideas into their farming practices. Yoko, who I was introduced to through my former boss at Cloverleigh Farm, is drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural practices in her effort to make her new farm a truly sustainable operation.

Growing up around the world due to her father’s occupation, Yoko always had a passion for the environment. She never thought, however, that she would end up becoming a farmer. After graduating from a university in Tokyo, she briefly worked in investment banking so that she could save money for graduate school. She eventually quit her job and moved to New York City to study environmental sustainability in graduate school. Living in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, she became a member of a community garden and started developing a passion for growing vegetables and the way growing food can bring people together. It wasn’t until she joined her first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group while working for a consulting firm in NYC, however, that she really started to think about starting her own farm. Yoko’s “a-ha!” moment came to her when she visited Windflower Farm in upstate New York for the annual CSA member’s potluck. “On the ride back to NYC,” she reminisces, “I couldn’t stop visualizing myself as a farmer!” She then applied for apprenticeships on vegetable farms outside of NYC and eventually found Riverbank Farm in Western Connecticut, where she worked for 3 years.

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

To start their own farm business, Yoko and her husband Alex bought 22 acres of land in Putnam, Connecticut in 2016. Because the land had been previously used to farm hay for decades, Yoko and Alex had to build all of their own farm infrastructure from scratch. However, this actually works to their advantage as they now have the freedom to design their infrastructure with their specific sustainability goals in mind. For example, they were able to build their greenhouse in a way that accommodates SolaWrap, a durable greenhouse cover that lasts much longer than many other plastic films used in greenhouses.

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm's new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm’s new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex take a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural methods in order to achieve their sustainability goals. The couple spent some time travelling around Japan and visiting many farms and learning about the various ways in which some Japanese farmers have cultivated a harmonious relationship with the natural environment. While organic agriculture can often be heavily dependent on inputs from fossil fuels, Yoko hopes to take her greenhouse off the grid by incorporating the Japanese practice of fumikomi-onsho, which involves mixing a large amount of leaves with some rice bran and chicken manure, applying water to it, and stomping on the mixture in order to generate heat. This variation of composting creates a fairly steady level of heat for weeks. This allows farmers to start their seedlings as well as have heat in the greenhouse without the use of electricity.

Building a relationship with the forest is another aspect of traditional Japanese agriculture that Yoko became enamored with when visiting farms in Japan. “The forest gave the farmers mulch, wood, bamboo, inoculant, etc. and the farmers gave back by maintaining and taking care of the forest through selective cutting, cleaning up, etc.” In comparison, Yoko explains that “the health of our forests around here” is “terrifyingly bad”. Yoko hopes to actively help better the condition of the forests that encompass her land in the coming years “because the forest is as much part of our farm as is our field.” One way Yoko and Alex want to give back to the forest is by applying “humanure” from composting toilets to the neighboring forests, after a two year composting period. For various health-related reasons, the “humanure” will not be used for their actual farming operation, but it is one way Yoko and Alex can create a more harmonious relationship with the forests that surround their land.

Yoko and Alex's DIY composting toilet. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex’s DIY composting toilet that will help them give back to their forests. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

For Yoko, the terms organic and sustainable are not one and the same. While Assawaga Farm has applied for organic certification, there are some additional practices that Yoko and her husband want to incorporate in order to reduce as much waste associated with and inputs required for their farm as possible. In addition to some of the Japanese practices they want to try out on their farm, there are many other sustainable practices not included in the certification that Yoko and Alex hope to take on. For example, they hope to use minimal amounts of plastic by not using any one-time drip tapes or plastic mulch, often used by organic farmers to help suppress weeds. They also plan to eventually create all of their own fertilizer, compost, and potting mix using the Japanese bokashi method of inoculating fertilizer with local culture taken from the nearby forests.

Believing that “organic originates in soil”, Yoko wants to take special care of the soil on their farm by using minimal tilling and eventually transitioning into no-till agriculture. This will help them “keep the delicate web of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi intact,” in addition to preserving the soil structure, maintaining carbon in the soil and keeping a steady release of nutrients in the soil “rather than short bursts of it.” They plan to have at least one field in their farm dedicated to cover crops year-round which will help prevent the depletion of nutrients and accumulate biomass. The couple also hope to save their own seeds and breed seeds that are adapted to their local environment.

In addition to using Japanese farming practices, Yoko also plans to grow many Japanese varieties of vegetables on her farm. When asked why she wanted to grow Japanese varieties, she responded simply that she just wanted to grow vegetables that she craved from home and that she wanted to eat herself! In addition, growing Japanese varieties helps Yoko target a niche market within the oversaturated market for organic produce in the Boston area. She is particularly excited about growing edamame, as “it’s just not summer without edamames!”

Alex seeing Assawaga Farm's first crop - garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Alex seeding Assawaga Farm’s first crop – garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

In the next few months, Yoko and Alex will be busy getting ready for their first growing season and transitioning into the full-time farming lifestyle. They start seeding in three weeks! Look for Yoko and Alex in farmers markets in the Boston area this coming season (locations yet to be decided). They also have some CSA shares available through their website.

Update, March 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the composted humanure would be used on Assawaga’s surrounding forest land only, and not on the farm itself. This has been updated for clarity, and we apologize if our omission was misleading to our readers.
-Editors

Nako Kobayashi is a first year AFE student from Japan who has experience working on a small organic farm, a biodynamic vineyard, for the agricultural sector of a Japanese municipal government, and on a food hub development project. Having a B.A. in anthropology, she loves talking directly with farmers from various backgrounds and hearing about their unique perspectives of the food system. 

My Summer as an Inferior Species

by Sam Jones

Farming is hard, especially when animals are involved. Sam Jones recounts her time working on a chicken and pig farm in Colorado where only the fearless survive.

I am a white female, five-feet-three-inches tall, weighing in at a whopping 115 pounds. I spent my summer wrangling hogs and killing chickens. The following is a harrowing account of my survival.

My first day of work at Jodar Farms in Fort Collins, Colorado involved kicking a rooster in the chest, learning how to drive a manual truck with the back window blown out, and navigating 50-mile-an-hour winds while trying to fill five-gallon buckets with pig feed. It was everything I could have hoped for as a job-seeking college graduate.

While the demands of the job remained the same throughout my five-month stint, they did become less taxing over time. Upon arriving at the farm around sunrise, I would immediately open the doors to the five chicken coops scattered across the farm. Releasing thousands of chickens into the great outdoors with a buffet of chicken feed waiting was how I pictured Black Friday. That is, thousands of hungry consumers bottlenecking at the doors to paradise, some of whom are inevitably trampled in the scuffle.

It was this first duty of the day that already indicated to me that chickens are stupid creatures. All of you animal-rights activists out there—bear with me. Every day, with the rising of the sun, chickens are prompted to wake up and find food. On a free-range chicken farm like Jodar, these chickens knew, at the very least, that food laid just on the other side of those wooden doors. What they were repeatedly unaware of was that piling on top of one another was not a good solution to their problem. Alas, human intervention was all that could spare them from suffocating one another to death. For those that didn’t make it, I merely tossed their sad souls into the dumpster—and on an empty stomach no less.

Next, I would check on the brooders. These are essentially stacked metal cages attached to a source of heat that give young chicks being raised for meat a better chance of survival during their most fragile life stage. Refilling the feed and water trays and verifying that the heat was set at the right temperature would have been my favorite job had it not been for the poop trays. That’s right: six massive cookie-sheet-like trays onto each of which the feces of roughly 86 chicks collected. As I mentioned before, I am only 5′ 3”, which was incidentally shorter than the top two trays. Slowly and methodically, I would slide one poop tray out with both hands over my head, carefully lower it to a trash bin, and fold the underlying newspaper in a way that prevented the poop from breaking through the paper and onto either the tray or my hands. Finally, and with much satisfaction, I would roll the steaming wad of poop into the bin. I repeated this glamorous task five more times, every day.

Now, about kicking a rooster in the chest. If you have ever been exposed to the wrath of the rooster, you might sympathize with my aggression. The chickens were fed twice each day, which I accomplished most efficiently by carrying one five-gallon bucket of feed in each hand and dumping them into the feed troughs. Perhaps due to my size or the scent of fear emanating from my pores, these roosters went into full-on Kill Bill mode every time they saw me. They chased me and trapped me in the back of the coop while I collected eggs. And at feeding time, while my hands were filled with buckets of feed, the two black and white speckled roosters (whom I affectionately named Umbridge and Voldemort) would stand up straight, flare their neck feathers, and charge at me from behind. Despite kicking Umbridge (out of self-defense) so hard that he developed a limp, I still sustained many above-the-knee bruises in the shape of a chicken’s foot—farming is dangerous business. To add to my bruised legs and ego, I learned that I was the first and only employee at Jodar to be attacked by these roosters. The problem became so cumbersome that my boss and coworkers rounded up all the roosters on my day off and gave them to a neighbor just so they would stop karate-chopping my kneecaps. I am eternally grateful.

 

Another of my glamorous duties included collecting the eggs of roughly 2,000 laying hens, which amounted to 1,600 eggs daily, give or take a few hundred. This was my favorite job (once the roosters were voted off the island) because I always felt like a toddler on Easter Sunday. Some eggs were blue, pink, brown, or white. Some were massive double-yolkers while others were the size of a gumball. The only downsides to egg collecting were the incessant screeching of thousands of chickens, the occasional chicken jumping on my back while I was bent over, and the necessity of yanking three or four chickens out of a lay box by the neck just to see if there were eggs to collect. Otherwise, this duty was by far the most enjoyable.

Compared to the hens and roosters, about whom I had unwavering opinions, I developed a complicated love-hate relationship with the pigs on par with the one between Americans and democracy. First, Jodar’s pigs lived outside in the mud and pasture, so the smell typically associated with pigs was not a factor in our love story. I loved these pigs because they were smart.  I lost count of the number of times the pigs got out of their pens by busting through weak wire or finding a malfunctioning section of electric fence. Rounding up pigs at 9 o’clock at night is maybe the most frustrating thing I have ever done. At the same time, the ridiculousness and humor of the situation reminded me how lucky I was to work outside with cute animals every day. On hot days, I would use the hoses to spray them down and create cold wallows—it was the closest thing to a wet t-shirt contest I’d ever seen.

The hate part of this love-hate relationship can actually be blamed on the poor infrastructure that was set up for feeding. Most farms have one large trough or automatic gravity feeder for their pigs, but not at Jodar. Not even close. I filled five-gallon buckets with feed and beer byproducts (which we called brew), lifted the buckets over to the outside of the pigs’ fence, set them down, climbed over the fence, bent down to lift the buckets into the pen, then proceeded to walk to all of the small feeders scattered around the large encampment. All the while, the pigs became unbelievably and unmanageably excited that it was breakfast or lunch time. And there I was in the mud with them—a small, helpless, feed-hauling mammal. It should impress you to know that they only knocked me to the ground once in my five months of feeding them. I’m pretty proud of that.

Lastly, the most memorable job was the weekly chicken slaughter. Every Tuesday, the person with the closing shift would accompany our boss, Aaron, in rounding up the fattest 250 broilers from the oldest of the four chicken houses, each containing 500 broilers (give or take the few temperamental birds that lost their will to live at some point in their 10-week journey to slaughter). My wrists would be so sore the next morning from repeatedly grabbing three chickens by the legs in each hand (the guys could lift five), that the only way to drink my coffee was to perform a graceful tipping bird motion of my face onto the rim of my mug, and slurp.

On Wednesdays, we hung the birds by their ankles on metal hooks that closely resembled the large paddle attachments for an electric stand-up mixing bowl. They became rather calm and limp as they lay upside down, blood rushing to their heads as they glimpsed the ominous black bins below, with the sun beaming off their white feathers.

First, one of my coworkers would painlessly zap each chicken in the neck with a stun knife that essentially put them to sleep. Then, my other coworker (both of them men—actually all of them men except for me) would follow by slitting their throats with a knife, allowing the blood to spill into the black bins underneath. Once enough blood had been spilt, the chickens were placed 10 at a time into a hot water bath and rotated on a timed cycle until they were properly sanitized.

This is where I came in. First, I removed the steaming chickens from their bath and placed them breast-side up on the plucking machine. Then, I would lock the door of the plucker and slide the birds into a cylindrical basin fitted with black rubber fingers that spun the birds at high speed before the machine automatically unlocked and flung the chickens onto a metal catch. My sexy job in this process was to pluck the few remaining feathers off the chickens’ armpits and butts. Lastly, several Hispanic women processed the chickens until they eventually resembled the whole chicken you buy in the store and roast with a salt-brine and a few sprigs of rosemary. From start to finish, including cleaning, it took 10 people about three hours to slaughter 250 chickens.

Not too shabby for a hard day’s work.

Sam Jones is a first year student in the AFE program who worked on farms for two years after graduating from the University of Puget Sound. Her interest in agriculture began in the summer of 2012 when she WWOOFed in France and Scotland. She likes to cook, be outside, drink wine, and dreams of one day living in Italy.