TALKING SHOP: New Mexico Organic Farming & Gardening Expo, Albuquerque, Feb. 13 - 14, 2004

Paradigms and plain hard work
Keynoters at New Mexico’s 15th annual organic conference urge southwestern farmers to change the world one animal, one farm, one customer at a time.

By Dan Brannen Jr.

Conference organizers Lynda Prim of The Farm Connection and Joanie Quinn of the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission share a smile during a break.

 

 

 

 

S p o n s o r B o x
The Farm Connection & New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission

The New Mexico Organic Farming & Gardening Expo 2004 was organized by Lynda Prim of The Farm Connection and Joanie Quinn of the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission (NMOCC). Major sponsors were Isis Medicine/Eros, La Montañita Food Co-op, Leah Morton and Bruce Gollub, New Mexico Department of Agriculture, Seeds of Change, Southwest Marketing Network, and the Western Center for Risk Management Education.

The Farm Connection provides a forum for New Mexico farmers to exchange information for an environmentally sound, economically workable, and socially just agriculture.

Contact info:
Lynda Prim, who also works as Head Seed Cleaner at Seeds of Change, can be reached at:
505-579-4386
lunalsfc@la-tierra.com

NMOCC provides certification services and marketing assistance for organic producers, processors, and retailers in New Mexico.

Contact info:
Phase One of its website is at: http://nmocc.state.nm.us
More content will be added throughout the year. Joanie Quinn can be reached at:
505-841-9070, ext. 4
joan.quinn@state.nm.us

“My time is best spent explaining to my customers that nothing in Wal-Mart was grown within 200 miles of our community. When consumers find out that a USDA-certified organic free-range chicken came from a 10,000-bird facility with a ten foot by thirty foot dirt apron, they get mad!”

“I used to think what we were doing was pretty simple, just growing food for our neighborhoods and for our communities. But now I see that it is so much more. This movement has the power not only to nourish our bodies and the body of the earth, it is inspiring a level of creativity and positive action that extends well beyond our fields and orchards. It is what I like to call the quiet revolution.”

“I require our apprentices to take a notebook and walk the farm several times a week recording what they see. I want them to develop what I consider to be the most important agricultural skill: observation. I want them to discover for themselves that biological systems never stay the same. And I really believe that whatever success I have had, has come when I approach my farm with a beginner’s mind.”

“It is difficult to describe the sense of deep satisfaction and fulfillment it is to have [my son] working next to me in the fields. To watch him patiently explain the quality of fresh-dug potatoes, or green garlic, to customers at the farmers’ market. To discover that, after all these years, he really had been paying attention. And I remembered that another form of activism is in how we raise our children.”

Posted April 6, 2004: Betsy Mitchell cover crops a 2-1/4-acre plot with her husband in Dixon, New Mexico, dreaming of the day when her two children are older so she can find time to produce rhubarb, asparagus, peaches, cherries, and raspberries from the land for market.

Dill grower Fran Lipsey wonders how to nurture a viable local food system in Moriarty in one of the poorest counties in New Mexico.

Speaking to fellow attendees at a workshop on natural habitats, a third farmer admits that he sprays chemicals on his crops.

“But I know I don’t want to,” he says.

These and other farmers, gardeners, and consumers gathered in the Student Union Building at the University of New Mexico recently for the two-day New Mexico Organic Farming & Gardening Expo 2004. Addressing a crowd that has grown from 50 in 1989 to 500 today, Expo organizer Lynda Prim of The Farm Connection opened Saturday morning’s Plenary Session with poignant thoughts on the challenges of organic farming.

“How do we encourage people to keep farming or return to the land to farm,” Prim wondered, “when they can’t afford to buy land, when they have no access to long term credit, when they can’t earn equity in rented land, when they have to work sixteen hour days, all for little money and no health or retirement benefits?”

Prim also mentioned the obstacles presented by globalization, by a world in which farmers have to pay money to use the word organic, but don’t have to pay to poison the land or pollute the pool of food genes.

Quoting author J. Russell Smith from Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (1929), Prim called on Americans to take a close look at their agricultural priorities:

“If there were danger that a foreign country might get possession of some little island on the coast of Maine, Florida, or Texas, thousands of American would jump to their feet, willingly to fight and perhaps to die that this speck of land should not pass to the possession of another nation. . . . [Y]et these same men who would fight to prevent change in national government of a piece of land have little compunction about destroying land in their own country. By neglect, they will destroy an acre or two in a season. Thousands of them are doing it yearly, now. In a single generation, each of them— thousands of Americans—destroys enough land to support a European farm family for unknown generations of time. These land-wasters think they are patriotic citizens. We need a new definition of patriotism and a new definition of treason!”

Joel Salatin: East meets West in Albuquerque

In speeches chock full of personal observations and inspirational vignettes, keynoters Joel Salatin and Michael Ableman explored the new patriotism taking root in the circles of regenerative agriculture.

Hailing from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where he farms and writes of farming, Joel Salatin greeted conference attendees Saturday morning with a challenge: to alter the agricultural paradigms pressed by the purveyors of industrial agriculture.

“A paradigm is a subconscious roadmap, a worldview so much a part of us that we don’t even realize it,” explained Salatin. “A paradigm defines what we see as impossible or possible. Our twenty-first century American culture is a product of decidedly western paradigms: Greco-Roman, linear, reductionist, compartmentalized, segregated, systematized, individualistic, and disconnected.”

Looking to the east, Salatin sees another, “equally valid worldview: holism, sum-oriented, community, relatives, we, and connection.”

The trick, he says, is to harness both paradigms rather than ride through life firmly behind one or the other.

Strict adherence to the western paradigm has had severe consequences for agriculture, observed Salatin. It has turned American farmers into technicians, and maligned them as the simpletons of society. It has created a mindset in which factory farmers can accuse regenerative farmers of bioterrorism for raising chickens on grassy pastures, where they commune with redwings, blackbirds, sparrows, and starlings that can carry disease to the unnaturally immune-deficient confinement fowl. A mindset in which a woman drinking a 75¢ soda can complain that $2 for a dozen eggs is too expensive.

“Make no mistake,” said Salatin, “alternative agriculture specifically and the environmental movement generally grew out of a more eastern approach to the world. Those of us who embraced it early became the new Native Americans versus the United States Cavalry.”

Just as Native Americans wanted the freedom to embrace the technology of lever-action repeaters for hunting buffalo while keeping their teepees and medicinal herbs, Salatin says Americans today should have the freedom to use technology wisely without having to embrace the government-backed ag paradigm.

“The right to opt-out of the industrial food system ought to be as fundamental as the right to bear arms, or to worship as we choose,” urged Salatin. “A government that can’t be trusted to pick our religion, can’t be trusted to pick our food.”

People are opting-out in droves, Salatin noted hopefully. Over 70,000 vendors sell at farmers’ markets nationwide today. Organizations such as Slow Food (www.slowfood.com), Chefs Collaborative 2000 (www.chefscollaborative.org), and EatWild.com are thriving. The key to continued success: education in an information-based food system that reveres what we know, and enjoys the mystery of what we do not.

“I’m opposed to globalization, but I can’t fight it at every level. My time is best spent explaining to my customers that nothing in Wal-Mart was grown within 200 miles of our community. When consumers find out that a USDA-certified organic free-range chicken came from a 10,000-bird facility with a ten foot by thirty foot dirt apron, they get mad!”

Salatin concluded with his vision for a healthier ag paradigm:

“Folks, we don’t need to picket the WTO. We don’t need to picket McDonald’s or Tysons. All we need is the entrepreneurial freedom for community-based food systems to access our neighborhoods with honest food and we will topple the globalists in a minute. Our food is more nutritious, more tasty, and more beautiful. Those of us who marry the eastern paradigm of soul and connectedness, ethics and morality to the western paradigm of technology, parts, and invention enjoy a symbiotic, synergistic food production and marketing system that makes all parties winners.”

2004 Benefactor of Sustainability Award

Lynda Prim took the podium again for the closing Plenary Session on Saturday afternoon to announce the Expo’s 2004 Benefactor of Sustainability Award for Dr. Connie Falk, a farm researcher and agriculture economist at New Mexico State University (NMSU).

Dating back to her authorship of “The Potential of Organic Farming in New Mexico” in the mid-1980s, Dr. Falk has been an academic pioneer of the organic movement in the state, according to Prim. Falk worked in the early-1990s to develop a plan for local, small-scale organic meat processing. In the late-1990s along with the Agricultural Science Center in northern New Mexico, she made plans for growing, processing, and marketing medicinal herbs from that region. Today Dr. Falk helps Oasis CSA, a farm operating on the campus at NMSU.

Prim said Dr. Falk (who was absent for health reasons) has taught and promoted sustainable organic production often at the risk of her own career advancement. The award to her served as a big thank you to all those in the nation’s land grant universities, extension services, NRCS offices, and other research facilities who are breaking with convention to help organic farmers.

Michael Ableman: Farming just outside paradise

Following the award ceremony, closing keynote speaker Michael Ableman took Prim’s spot at the podium, quickly threw off his sports jacket after surveying the casual crowd, and launched into an hour-long tour of the possibilities of what he calls the new agriculture, the quiet revolution.

Ableman got his start in farming thirty years ago as a member of an agriculture commune in southern California. At the age of eighteen, just four months after joining the community, he found himself in charge of the hundred-acre apple and pear orchard, one of the few commercial orchards managed organically at the time, its branches so intertwined it was tough to discern the alleys down the rows. The orchard manager of fifteen years had quit in frustration.

Remembers Ableman, “I had a copy of Goethe’s famous quote—‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it’—attached to the door of my twenty-foot, unheated trailer.”

So instead of quitting too, ending up in a high-rise office somewhere for the rest of his life, Ableman dug in and learned the magic of working with comrades, working, real hard, sharing dreams, eating lunch together in the shade, ending the day with a backache and a real sense of accomplishment. In this way the apples and pears grew greatly in reputation, and Abelman fell in love with the farming way of life.

In 1981, Ableman moved to Goleta, California, to begin Fairview Gardens, a 12-1/2-acre market farm that is the subject of his book On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm. There he learned the importance of letting go of the control mentality, the notion that a farm should have only what we put in it and nothing else.

“I require our apprentices to take a notebook and walk the farm several times a week recording what they see,” shared Ableman. “I want them to develop what I consider to be the most important agricultural skill: observation. I want them to discover for themselves that biological systems never stay the same. And I really believe that whatever success I have had, has come when I approach my farm with a beginner’s mind.”

In spring 2001, tired of the public land use and property rights battles that accompany farming in an urban neighborhood, Ableman moved to a farm on Salzburg Island, British Colombia, for what was to be a one-year sabbatical. There he found himself “making and spreading compost, mowing and turning in new fields; planting asparagus, mulching; and starting transplants in flats in the greenhouse. The chicken coops were two-feet deep in manure, the fences needed repair, and I was starting over, again. For the first time in many years, I worked alone in the fields.”

For a while the experience was pure bliss. Then Ableman began to wonder what gave him the right to be farming on his own land, doing what he wanted to do.

“I realized that I was carrying around a very common misconception—that activism is only manifested in street protests, political challenges, or public campaigns. Those five months on the land rebuilding soils, engaging in community life, providing food for my neighborhood, were as political and as powerful as all of my years of more frantic public activity.”

Abelman also discovered purpose in his 22-year-old son Aaron, who lives the life of a Beatnik in Montreal yet returns home summers to work on the farm.

“It is difficult to describe the sense of deep satisfaction and fulfillment it is to have him working next to me in the fields. To watch him patiently explain the quality of fresh-dug potatoes, or green garlic, to customers at the farmers’ market. To discover that, after all these years, he really had been paying attention. And I remembered that another form of activism is in how we raise our children.”

Yet Ableman was again drawn into public life when a Norwegian-owned pulp mill on neighboring Vancouver Island applied for a permit to burn railroad ties, coal, and tires, leading Ableman to observe: “There is no paradise.” Indeed, Ableman feels we are living in the darkest of times agriculturally, and that we desperately need articulable solutions.

“The new agrarian movement that is sweeping this country to me represents the greatest sense of hope and possibility,” shared Ableman. “It embodies many of the most critical elements of a healthy society: reverence, mystery, humility, ecology in its wider sense, community.

“I used to think what we were doing was pretty simple, just growing food for our neighborhoods and for our communities. But now I see that it is so much more. This movement has the power not only to nourish our bodies and the body of the earth, it is inspiring a level of creativity and positive action that extends well beyond our fields and orchards. It is what I like to call the quiet revolution.”

Late this past fall Ableman and son Aaron set out on a 2-1/2-month tour across America to document, in words and photographs, the quiet revolution. Conference attendees got a sneak preview of these stories and images, which will be the subject of Ableman’s next book, to be published in 2005.

In a slide show complete with his own harmonica accompaniment, Ableman provided thumbnail sketches of farmers John and Ida in the poorest township in Illinois, Richard DeWilde and Linda Halley from Madison, Wisconsin, and other farmers who are “going beyond organic, redefining that movement, and using their farms as platforms for education for social and ecological change. They are demonstrating that farming is not just some lowly form of drudgery, but that it is an art, and a craft, and an honorable profession.”

In conclusion, Ableman urged attendees “to deal with the constant struggle between hope and despair” by focusing “on the small successes, and on local and on incremental change. And we’ve got to replace the harangue, the constant drumbeat of all that is wrong, with positive models, and place those models firmly into people’s minds. Put your work out there for people to see. It’s the only way we’re going to turn this thing around.”