the irresistible fleet of bicycles


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a market for mutton “would change everything”

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by Sophie Mendelson

My grandfather likes to tell a story about a family gathering during my early childhood. It’s somebody’s birthday, and my extended family is gathered around a long table in the dim mid-afternoon light of a Baltimore tavern. The waitress comes to the table to take our orders. The adults ask for straightforward fare: hamburgers, club sandwiches, caesar salads. Then the waitress turns to four-year-old me and asks what I’d like. “And you, in your piping voice, say: the rack of lamb, please!” He chortles. “That waitress could hardly believe her ears!”

Growing up, I thought people ate beef because they couldn’t find any lamb. Why else, I figured, would someone choose a boring steak over the heat-crisped exterior, rosy interior—tender and juicy and with a flavor actually particular—of a lamb chop?

My parents weren’t from Greece or Lebanon or anywhere else known for its affinity for sheep meat, but somehow they had discovered lamb, and so we ate lamb. We ordered it at restaurants. We served it to guests. It wasn’t a mundane meal for us, still a treat, but not an unusual one.

As it turns out, this is not the typical American relationship with lamb. Continue reading


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the seed we need: there’s not enough

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Outside right now, in central Massachusetts, it’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a thin crust of fresh snow on the ground, and the trees are brown and bare. But in the flood of seed catalogues that have been flowing into the farmhouse mailbox over the past few months, it’s summer. Peas are fat in the pod, the lettuce is in full flush, and eggplants hang heavy, shiny, and purple. All the grass is green. There are flowers everywhere.

It’s into this imagination land of color and warmth that we’ve been burrowing throughout the coldest season as we attempt to tease out a concrete organic crop plan from this fantasy of perfect bounty. But as with any fantasy, there are limitations to this one’s ability to deliver on it’s promise: our land is not perfect land, our soils are not perfect soils, we are not perfect growers, and the weather, inevitably, will not behave perfectly for our purposes.

Even more than the obvious disparities, however, these catalogues are limited in that they bely the true nature of their industry. Abundance, diversity, and choice: this is what we hope to achieve in the crop plan for this farm’s organic vegetable CSA, and that is what the seed catalogues are selling us. But the reality of the seed industry is not that. The reality of the seed industry is this:

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Consolidation is the name of the game when it comes to seed, and nothing suppresses abundant diversity and choice like the concentration of research funding and intellectual property rights into the hands of just a few. Despite the existence of a select number of seed companies that cater to the needs of small-scale, diversified, and/or organic farmers, and despite the considerable (and still growing) market for organic seed, the actual supply of attainable organic genetics is quite small. And without sufficient organic seed, the hardiness of organic agriculture starts to look—well, considerably less hardy.

According to the Organic Seed Alliance’s 2016 report, most organic farmers still rely on conventional seed because they can’t find organic versions of the varieties they need […] The result for farmers is not simply compromised principles and reliance on regulatory exemptions, but a reservoir of organic germplasm whose quality, in addition to scale, is inadequate to their needs.

The reasoning here is partly ideological, partly regulatory, and partly (the biggest part) due to the nature of seed, explains Tyson Neukirch, former head grower at the Farm School. Growing with organic seed means supporting the growth of the organic seed industry—an act of solidarity as well as self-interest. Increased demand ought to lead to increased supply of organic seed, and increased supply enables organic farmers to better comply with organic certifiers who are becoming more stringent with their requirement that organic-certified farmers use organic seed unless, as the USDA National Organic Program puts it, “an equivalent organically produced variety is not commercially available.”

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greenhorns feature: resilient farming in a changing new england

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by Bonnie Rubrecht

Concord, Massachusetts might be known primarily for its ties to the Revolutionary War, but today it’s a thriving and affluent Boston suburb of a population of nearly 20,000. In the midst of historic mansions and some of the most valuable property outside of Boston, Hutchins Farm has been cultivating 65 acres of organic fruit and vegetables since the early 1970s. Greenhorns had the opportunity to talk to Liza Bemis, the great-great granddaughter of Charles Hutchins, who originally purchased the land that became Hutchins Farm in 1895 for his New England dairy. Liza didn’t envision herself working on the farm she grew up on, but after six years working in an office, she was ready for a change.

“The bigger question,” Liza explained, “is how do we deal with more severe weather events? Whether it’s plant breeding, cover cropping to keep the soil in place … just this past year we had a tornado [in Concord]. What does that mean for us?”

When Liza returned to Hutchins, she began helping out with farmer’s markets and now manages all of the farm’s sales, overseeing select wholesale accounts with local restaurants, dealing with their accounting and managing their farm stand on Monument Street. Family-owned for five generations, Hutchins was originally a dairy called Punkatasset Farm. “But in our grandparents’ era, dairy in New England was dying,” Liza explained. “More than half of the land was sold off, leaving just the original homestead—about 65 acres.” The remaining land was leased out to other farmers, or used for growing hay.

Despite his parents prodding to go into a different career, Liza’s father, Gordon Bemis, was smitten with farming.
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know your abattoir: there’s a shortage of local slaughterhouses, and it’s kind of a big problem

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The following cross-post comes from Field Notes from Maggie’s Farm, the blog from the Learn to Farm Program at the Farm School, and serves as an announcement of an exciting ongoing future partnership between this program and the Greenhorns Blog. Today, Farm School student Sophie Mendelson gives us a compelling run-down of the current quiet bottleneck crisis in sustainable meat– and what to do about it. 

Now in its 28th year, the Farm School in Athol, MA provides comprehensive educational programming in agriculture for youth, visiting schools, and adults. (Read more on their programming here!) Watch for more original posts on this blog from Sophie Mendelson, a student in their Learn to Farm Program, talented writer, and past and future farmer.

Know Your Abattoir: How to Keep Sustainable Meat Sustainable
by Sophie Mendelson

If consumers want local meat, they need to go to bat for local slaughterhouses.

At Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol, MA, they play classical music on the kill floor. Cattle carcasses—seemingly as big as dinosaurs—hang by the hock from metal hooks fitted to a track in the ceiling that winds around the perimeter of the cathedral-like room. As the carcasses move along the track, they are divested of their blood, their skins, their internal organs, their heads, their hooves, and ultimately their integrity as a saw divides the animals neatly down their line of symmetry. This is how a “side” of beef is made.

The door to the holding pen opens and there is a great rattling as a cow enters the first segment of the indoor chute. A worker steps forward to urge the animal into the final compartment of the stunning pen, but this is a smaller cow, and instead of proceeding smoothly through the Temple Grandin-designed system, it begins to turn in the chute—an option not available to a larger animal. The worker attempts to redirect by prodding the cow from behind; metal clangs as the animal presses against the bars in resistance. The worker prods again, with little luck.

Noticing the commotion, another worker makes his way over to the chute. Instead of pushing from the rear, this man approaches the cow’s head. He reaches through the bars and strokes the cow’s chin. The animal stills. The man leans forward and appears to whisper something to the cow. Then, gently, he takes the cow by the ear and guides it into the stunning pen.

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radio interview with draft-horse vegetable farmer

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Farmer David Fisher with his draft horses. Photo by David Charles/NPR.

The GH radio is still on break, so if you need to satiate your weekly hunger for radio stories about farming, let me suggest this great piece by NPR’s the Salt about Natural Roots Farm, a CSA farm in western Massachusetts that uses smart systems, ecological growing techniques, and draft power to create self-reliant farm systems that rely as little on fossil fuels as possible.

Though short, the interview with farmers David Fisher and Anna Maclay touches on the discontent with consumer society that drives many of us into the fields, the idea of right work, and the emotional tolls that perfectionism can have on a farmer’s relationships. In fact, we can’t help but wish that the interview could somehow open up to explore these topics in more depth.

Oh, and breaking news! NPR reports that small-scale vegetable farmers are perfection-seeking idealists.