Farmers are Matchmakers

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From my National Young Farmers Coalition Heart and Grain post:

I keep searching for ground to grow on. Literally. I drive up and down California looking for a place to plant my grain, hoping to someday find a long-term lease or even purchase land. This past February, two farmers in Sonoma County offered to let me farm their fallow land, one six-acre plot and one three-acre plot. While I was excited for the opportunity, I was limited by my seed supply.

The seeds I need aren’t readily available. I grow heritage wheat and barley—Sonora, Spanish Spelt, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer, and Wit Wolkering. These varieties have done well for thousands of years in regions with conditions similar to where I farm, but they aren’t available through commercial seed companies.

Commercial seeds are grown in controlled conditions to ensure their production, quality, and viability. They’re cultivated in arid landscapes and managed with herbicides, pesticides, and irrigation. That doesn’t match how I farm. I dry farm on the California coast, and I don’t apply any chemicals. A seed carries the memory of its upbringing, so it needs to be matched with the conditions it adapted to. Since I can’t rely on seed companies, I purchase seeds from a network of nearby farmers who grow with similar practices.

Farmers are matchmakers between land and seed. Each have their idiosyncrasies: land with its hot/cold temperament, weather systems, and dirt; seed with its hard exterior encasing a complex interior, rich with history. Sometimes there might not be a good match within the existing pool. There aren’t plenty of fish in the sea of heritage grain, so I started growing out and scaling up the varieties I need. To start, I requested a batch of seed from the USDA germplasm, and they gave me 25 seeds. I have one chance each year to grow them out.

Finding seed is only the first hurdle. It’s difficult to save pure seed stock because basic seed cleaning equipment doesn’t quite get it clean enough. The equipment separates seeds by size and shape, but sometimes unwanted weed seeds are the same size and shape. Another machine separates by density, and it costs $30,000. The most successful is the color sorter, which has an optic laser to identify color differences. Those machines are $300,000.

These costs are high for me and for many beginning farmers, but they’re essential for getting product to market. Seeing this common need, a few farmers and I began seeking and cooperatively acquiring equipment together. We scour Craigslist, inquire with equipment repair mechanics, and coordinate the transportation of equipment halfway across the country. So far, we still don’t have the right equipment to sort pure seed. I’m currently in search of a well-functioning, three- or four-screen air screen cleaner—let me know if you have one!

All this seed production takes time—years—and I need seed now. I hit up all my friends. “All I’ve got left is for seeding my field,” they said, understandably. I called friends outside California with different planting times and heard the same thing. It felt like begging for change to get fare for the last train!

I turned to someone who keeps some verified seed, and they said they’d get it to me, but their major reaction over a minor misunderstanding soured the deal. But what was my alternative? I looked at the UC Davis list and the Washington State list and found that most of their offerings were bred for regions unlike where I’m growing and were patented with limitations on seed saving and seed sales. I looked at longer lists from bigger companies, but all those were owned by Monsanto. I was stuck between doing business with a difficult person or with a megacorporation that is buying up the world’s genetics. I couldn’t believe I stood at this juncture, not just as a farmer, but as a member of the human race. How did we get to the point where our staple crops are in the hands of so few?

We know how, we know it’s a global problem, and we know we must undo the monopolization of life by re-democratizing seed. That requires collaboration, sharing, and reliance on each other. In that vein, I got back on the phone and called up friends and neighbors, asking for any bits that could be spared with the promise of returning seed to replenish their stock.

After much agonizing, driving between counties, and speed seed cleaning, I’m happy to say that all the fields are seeded, and this match-making season is closed.

Come again another day

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When I tell people I’m a farmer, they say, “You must be glad for all this rain!” I can see the delight in their face, and the Californian in me shares this gladness. I hold onto that feeling as I tell them, “No.”

It’s been shitty. Fall planted crops got flooded and the ground is still too wet to work for spring and soon to be unheard of summer plantings. What little spring planting has been done was so far delayed that we might not have much to harvest in the summer.

“But the fruit growers must be glad,” they say to get some optimistic news. Strawberry roots rotted, and the fruit trees carry little fruit. Rain interferes with the pollinators, pollinated, and trees. Bees can’t fly with wet wings, and if they made it to a flower the rain might have washed away the pollen. The residual moisture on the petals lead to rot that penetrates into the branches. My friend’s plum trees bare a few green orbs amidst softened, rotting branches.

The rain has been a relief for our ground water systems, which we’ll need when the heat returns. But we need the regularity and moderation that plants adapted to such that we might have grain, blossoms, and food. It should be dry by now and fields ready for harvest. Rain, rain, go away, please. Come again another day.

First AB 1348 Win

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signal-2017-04-26-154018I’ve been working with farmers of color and farmer advocacy organizations to write and pass a bill in California to acknowledge the distinct experiences of minority farmers, or “socially disadvantaged farmers.” There’s a federal distinction, but with the new administration and their cutting of resources for farmers and people of color, we wanted to create a state definition.

The definition will hopefully make it easier in the future for California resources to be reserved for socially disadvantaged farmers. It won’t undo the violence, theft, and marginalization inflicted on farmers of color, but this is a start towards equity.

Today was a big first step in that direction. Assembly member Aguiar-Curry, Beth Smoker of PANNA, Javier Zamora of JSM Organics, and I stated our support for the bill to the California Assembly Agricultural Commission. They unanimously passed it!

Next step:  Assembly Appropriations Committee. San Diego friends, if you can spare the time, please call San Diego Assembly member Gonzalez Fletcher’s office to express your support. She’s the Chair of Appropriations, so our local voices have a state impact.

CUESA Talk: Cooperatives: Democratizing thr Food System

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Why are cooperatives relevant to the food system? Cooperatives exist based on the principle that if you are impacted by something and are affected by it, that you should have a say about it. Food impacts all of us. We need transparency, accountability, and shared ownership of our food.

Come hear about cooperatives in the food system On Monday, April 25th at the SF Ferry Building. Find out more by clicking the image.


Mise en Place

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The winter rains set the stage for bountiful wild harvests this spring. 

Sage, lemonade berry, and pineapple flowers

I stirred the lemonade berry in water and sprinkled sage flowers on top. The pineapple flowers made a nice topping on vanilla ice cream for a tropical and herbaceous flavor. Yum yum yum!

Before becoming a farmer, I was much more interested in harvesting from nature’s provisions. This fascination was incited during a walk with my mom when I was 5 years old. As we passed by a neighbor’s house, my mom stopped next to their front hedge. It looked like any old hedge, and only upon closer examination did I notice its green and red leaves, and clusters of tiny fuchsia-colored, apple-shaped berries. My mom plucked a few, wiped them, and handed one to me. “Watch out for the seed in the middle,” as she demonstrated biting into the fruit. The audible crunch from such a small fruit and pink juice on my mom’s lips made this berry every more mesmerizing. I slowly sliced off a piece with my front teeth to take note of minute developments of this curious encounter. Tangy, sweet, bright, yet followed by a slight astringency, this berry was not only delicious but MIND BLOWING. I suddenly realized that my surroundings are more complicated, more delicious than I thought, and I just needed to pay attention. Move aside, Willy Wonka, the whole world is edible!

From that point on, I viewed the world in a dichotomy: Food / Not Food. The obvious food items are in grocery stores, but then there’s everything else — flowers, leaves, berries, and delicate forms that don’t make it into formal establishments. I wanted to try everything, to  and figure out how to do it in a way that didn’t cause pain or death.

Well, the last part of that goal was added after a summer of living off of purely what the Sierra Nevada offers. I was 20 years old and at the height of militant environmental activism. I wanted to shed off industrial comforts, eat from nature, drink from streams, and live with minimal resources. I brought a knife, pot, tarp, rope, flashlight, Nalgene bottle, flint, and a Western Sierra Guide to Edible Plants. I was going to hike and forage through the mountains.

The feeling of being in the mountains
Is a dream of self-negation
To see the world without us
How it churns and blossoms
Without anyone looking on

The lakes in the deep back country are still, blue almost black, and engulf you in an otherworldly abyss when you dive in from the granite boulders above. Surfing on continuous thickets of manzanita bushes feels like walking in a world with weaker gravity, every step giving you a bounce. Berries and roots tasted dense with flavors and burst in flavor as though they were building up all these complexities for a moment to explode in your mouth. I fell in love with spring Douglas fir tips that taste like tropical makrut lime and the Sierras had a baby. Camas roots brought a sweetness to my diet of otherwise vegetal flavors. It seemed miraculous to me that these plants could find a perfect confluence of conditions to survive. It is a miracle, but one that slowly unfolds over time, life cycles, adaptations. Plants have come, gone, crossed with the intervention of geology, animals, humans. Some of my favorite things to eat weren’t endemic, but introduced by waves of different groups of people. Take that pineapple flower up top for example. It’s from South Africa when laborers were brought over during the Gold Rush. The mustard is an introduced annual. And so I came to understand the landscape as an interplay of nature and humans, or rather that we are one. My escape to nature turned out to be a lesson in human history.

I related to the plants as something from out of place but also adaptable and fitting, as humans have done. I hiked and harvested for weeks, enjoying new vistas, smelling new profiles, and tasted flavors wholly new to me. I felt my senses and thoughts fully engaged, but also my energy dwindling. My diet, while diverse, was not enough in quantity. I spent more and more time meditating so I could pass through times of hunger and would eat loads of miner’s lettuce. Then, I began to behave the way animals did: raid the camp sites. Sunday afternoons were smorgasborgs when campers emptied their bear tins and cabinets. They threw away many half-eaten protein and energy dense bars and camping specialty items that lasted me until the next set of weekend campers came. Feasting time!

It was in these moments of examining edibility of cucumbers and carrots that I came to appreciate human intervention in food production, aka farming. I understood why people traded the diversity of wild, yet rarer finds for a secure bounty of a narrower selection of foods. But along the way we’ve traded complex, sustainable ecosystems for controlled, homogeneous landscapes to grow a few foods owned by a few companies. It doesn’t need to be a trade off. We can still forage and feast. As stewards who are part of nature we can keep our diversity of food in a diversity of hands across a diversity of landscapes, be it in our forests, farms, or neighbors’ yards. 

Happy spring, happy harvesting!

Cooperatives at Risk

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A rainy day affords me time to catch up on bills, bookkeeping, and news articles and not just headlines. I noticed a pattern of responses to various items in the White House budget, so I figured I may as well read the budget itself. Closing off one section is a simple bullet point:

Reduces duplicative and underperforming programs by eliminating discretionary activities of the
Rural Business and Cooperative Service, a savings of $95 million from the 2017 annualized CR
This is concerning for three reasons:
  1. Rural cooperatives are the foundation and remain integral to the US agricultural economy.
  2. Cooperatives provide services and job opportunities in remote areas and among marginalized populations.
  3. The Rural Cooperative Service houses the only federal grant for people of color, the Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant.

Let’s take a look at our history. African and African-American slaves who built American agriculture cooperatively pooled money to buy each others’ freedom. With the abolition of slavery, former slaves created cooperatives to own farm land, access credit, and engage in a democratic process to create livelihoods for themselves with lasting impacts until today. The Grange movement in the late 1800s mobilized rural Americans, mostly farmers, to create cooperatives that aggregated food and supplies, while distributing profits equitably. This model enabled people to acquire needs and sell goods, and created the foundation for rural and farming economies. As the need for electricity, banking, and housing increased in rural areas, where developers and investors did not see reason to invest, people formed cooperatives to meet these demands. Cooperatives permeated many aspects of rural life to meet necessary services.

The formation of cooperatives to meet needs in rural America translated into serving the rest of the country. We enjoy the rural cooperative efforts of TreeTop and Organic Valley when we enjoy a glass of apple juice or milk. In California, our Sunkist and Sunmaid cooperatives provide people with a taste of our sunshine in orange juice and raisins. Co-op farmers provide more than 190,000 jobs and annual wages of $8 billion.

These jobs that uphold rural lives and businesses that affect all of us are under threat in the White House budget. The Rural Business and Cooperative Services programs provide assistance to beginning and existing cooperatives, from writing incorporation documents, understanding tax and financial management, and navigating group decision-making. This kind of support enables people to create jobs, gain financing, and secure housing.

In my case, I gained affordable housing in the Bay Area during school thanks to cooperative housing. This meant I could eat and sleep somewhere secure and comfortable while also gaining an incredibly valuable world-class education. As a grain farmer, cooperative ownership of necessary harvesting and cleaning equipment enables me to get grain to market. Not only me, but my fellow co-operators, so we can collectively bolster regional food supply.

Us small scale grain farmers a minority in the agricultural system. Cooperatives are a means for minorities to gain strength in numbers to address common needs, pursue shared dreams. Take the Hi Desert Jujube Cooperative.

Amidst the stretch of the sandy hard-pan flatlands of California’s high desert, star-shaped flowers of lemondrop yellow can be seen annually. These aren’t part of the widely anticipated wildflower super bloom, but it’s a moment awaited by the farmers who read these flowers for signs of their harvest. These are the jujube farmers. The arid conditions lead to exceptionally sweet and flavorful jujubes with a crisp crunch when ripe, and give way to a subtle smoky and raisin flavor when sun-dried and transformed into a marshmallow-like texture.

Jujubes are enjoyed and cherished in many cultures from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. They may not be part of the Anglo-American mainstream, but are in high demand. Beginning about fifteen years ago, farmers of Korean descent began growing them in Lucerne Valley, California. At first there were a few farmers, then more came and learned to plant, nurture, and harvest these fruits. They shared growing practices, introduced each other to customers, and eventually turned their cooperation into an official agricultural cooperative business. Through this cooperative, farmers have increased their market power, skill base, and farm viability and collectively produce on nearly 1,000 acres to serve an ever increasing market demand.

Being rural and selling fruit that mainstream markets and their associated distributors and brokers are unfamiliar with necessitates cooperation. Collaboration among farmers helped them create solutions to shared problems, and cooperatives provided a structure to anchor their connection.

I get to work with many cooperatives across the state. One of the businesses I’m very excited about is Yolo Eco-Clean Cooperative, which is a group of Latinas who run a home and business cleaning business. They make all their own products from scratch for the sake of personal, client, and environmental health. They determine their schedules so they can be with their children, they decide about wages and business investment, and this is a job they have full ownership of. Isn’t that what we all want — self-determination and time with those we love?

The White House budget is being negotiated and must be approved by April 28th, 2017 for this fiscal year. We ask Congress and readers who will contact their representatives to keep in mind that cooperatives employ over 2.1 million people in the US and generated over $220 billion in revenue in 2015. Cooperatives create rural jobs and sustain a vibrant food economy. Let’s cooperate to keep them.

Spring Planting

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I am not a spring planter. There’s too much risk involved: can you get into the field when it’s dry enough, but will it be wet enough for seed to germinate? Will there be enough rain at the right time afterwards for the plants to grow? The advantages for spring wheat, though, is that you can fit a cover crop in the same field beforehand and mechanically rid of weeds and the cover crop before planting. Depending on where you are, winter planting may also water log seeds or foster diseases in the roots and plants. Diseased crop or no crop? Take your pick.

This back and forth of whether to winter or spring plant has gone on for centuries. The passage above comes from a book written in the 1940s. Same story.

What’s tricky for California farmers seeking winter and spring wheat is that those names don’t really apply to us. You know that an East Coast winter is very different from a West Coast winter. Winter wheat refers to an East Coast-style winter. The wheat needs cold in order to germinate well, and we don’t get that cold on the California coast. It means we should probably winter plant spring wheat.

But here I am trying to plant spring wheat in April…without irrigation. I’m planting in Petaluma where it rains through April and has experienced slightly more predictable weather timing than other places I’ve farmed. Note that I said timing and not intensity. This year’s been pretty intense rain wise, with houses shifted from their foundation. I hope it’s saved some of that for April!

Right now it’s all about field prep. Getting everything mowed and ready at the right time. Again, you want to be able to get into the field when it’s dry enough, seed when the ground is still moist enough, and do this before a good rain to help with soil contact and settling. This may in some ways be like being pregnant. You know generally when to expect, but the exact timing is unexpected and no matter how much preparation went in you still end up scrambling.