Because I am interested in eating healthy food, I am also interested in farming. This may seem odd, since I personally have no intention to farm, but the reason is very simple: To the degree that we don't raise our own food, we are dependent on the efforts of the farmers who raise it for us.
I want to understand what their lives are like because they farm, what techniques they use and why, and if there's anything I can do (politically or otherwise) to make their farm lives easier.
I recently found a book in the "Hot Picks" section of the library that helped me gain some insight into farm living. Called "Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers," the book is a collection of 50 short essays by young farmers, most of whom have been farming for three years or less. These rookie farmers are attempting to figure out how to make a living on small farms producing organic food and using sustainable, earth-friendly techniques.
Divided into eight chapters, the essays explore some of the main commonalities most farmers deal with: the physicality and plain hard work of farming, money issues, difficulties and methods of obtaining land, reasons for choosing to farm, roles of animals in farming, machinery (and ingenuity), weather and climate issues, and the importance of connections with neighbors and community. While each farmer tells a unique story, these themes identify challenges that every farmer faces.
One thing is clear - small organic farming is not for the faint of heart. Months of physically demanding work, long hours of planning, and money spent before the growing season begins can all be for naught if the weather delivers a late freeze or flooding. Insects attack crops, gophers can decimate a field, and neighbor dogs or coyotes can wreak sudden havoc by breaking into a chicken coop. Farming is a risky endeavor at best.
Even before ground is broken, a new farmer faces many challenges. First there's the task of learning the necessary skills. As older farmers are retiring (the average age of American farmers is 57), people who remember skills for running small family farms are disappearing. Most of the young farmers in the book started by doing internships on other organic farms. A few were able to find mentors who helped them get started.
Finding land is perhaps the biggest hurdle. New farmers are often competing with commercial and residential developers to buy land, and development drives up prices. Many new farmers have to begin by leasing land from other farmers. That in itself is risky, because the work farmers do today to improve soil and build infrastructure (barns, cold rooms for storage, etc.) often does not pay off for several years. Those improvements are tied to the land being worked, and if a farmer doesn't own that land they may not be there long enough to reap those future rewards from their labor.
In fact, one of the most fundamental aspects of farming, one that I knew but had never really grasped before reading this book, is how farming is - more than anything else - the willingness to make a lifetime commitment to a particular piece of land in a particular geographic location near a particular community. In a technological world where more and more jobs are becoming independent of location, newer sustainable farming is an anachronism. It is a long-term, constantly renewed commitment to one very specific place. It's the reason, I think, why communities based on rural farms are so strong and supportive. Farming neighbors expect to be living next to each other for life. Relationships, both with neighbors and with the land itself, become the highest value.
"Greenhorns" also makes it clear that farming, especially sustainable organic farming, is all about ingenuity and trying to do the right thing in terms of earth stewardship. It's about combining old style farming skills with new scientific knowledge of biological systems. It's about how farming affects the health of people, and the health of the planet. As one young Whatcom farmer once told me, "No one goes into farming these days for the money. You do it because you feel it's the right thing to do."
6 English muffins (I used Alton Brown's recipe made with flour from Fairhaven Organic Mills, Burlington: www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/english-muffins-recipe/index.html)
6 large eggs (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
2 tablespoons butter
3 metal rings, about 3 to 4 inches in diameter (can use tuna cans with both ends removed)
Optional: thin slice of any local cheese (gouda works well from Appel Farms, Ferndale)
1 pound ground beef (Second Wind Farm, Everson)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
1 tiny pinch habanero pepper (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
1/2 teaspoon fresh sage, minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
1/4 teaspoon basil, dried (dehydrated from home garden, Lummi Island)
1/4 teaspoon oregano, dried (dehydrated from home garden, Lummi Island)
Optional: 1 large egg (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
Mix sausage ingredients thoroughly and form into 6 small patties. (Optional: Add 1 raw egg, if needed, to get the sausage to stick together enough to form patties.) Fry the patties in a skillet over medium-high heat until well-browned on both sides, about 3 minutes for each side. Set aside on a plate with a paper towel to absorb grease.
Put butter in a clean skillet over medium heat. When melted, place metal rings in the skillet and break one egg into each ring. Once the egg has solidified and the white isn't runny anymore, remove the rings and flip the eggs. Cook for one more minute, then remove from the pan and set aside.
Assemble the sandwiches by splitting open the English muffins with a fork or serrated knife. Put one sausage patty and one fried egg on half of an English muffin. (Optional: add a slice of cheese, if desired.) Top with the other half of the English muffin.
Makes 6 sandwiches. These can be frozen for later use.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Reach NANCY GING at 360-758-2529 or email@example.com. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, "like" Whatcom Locavore on Facebook (facebook.com/whatcomlocavore) and "follow" on Twitter, @WhatcomLocavore. For locavore menus, recipes, and more resources, read her blog at at whatcomlocavore.com.