"Saving family farms" is something we often hear as a slogan for farmland activism. But what does it mean? And if farms need to be saved, how do we save them?
Slogans are almost always oversimplified statements about complex situations. For example, when imagining a "family farm," what do you see in your mind?
I see the 40-acre Midwest farm my grandparents had. The farmhouse was white, the old red barn leaned a little, and there were a few dairy cows, a couple of pigs and lots of chickens. The main field crop was corn.
None of their children were interested in farming, so when my grandparents passed away, the farm was sold. Someone still lives in the house, but they don't farm the land. The fields were sold long ago to other larger farms. Even then, as a child, I felt that something sad had happened. It was as if our family had lost its geographical center.
Since then, I've learned more about the complexity. A family farm isn't necessarily small, for instance, and global food economics may seem risky and daunting to younger family members who want better financial security for their own families.
Nevertheless, the average age of American farmers is approaching 70, and we all still need good, healthy food. Who will grow it?
One reason to support local family farms is that much of the innovation to create organic, sustainable methods to feed people is happening on those farms. A family trying to hold onto their farmland will sometimes be more willing to experiment with doing things differently.
I just finished a new book called "Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm," by Forrest Pritchard. It's a beautifully written book about one young man's experience with that very situation.
Pritchard was raised in rural Pennsylvania on a farm his family had operated for six generations, going back almost to the Revolutionary War. The farm had been successful until after his grandfather died, at which time it began going into debt. That was about the time a lot of farmers around the country were defaulting on loans, and the rallying cry of the U.S. secretary of agriculture was, "Get big or get out!"
His family tried to keep their farm by hiring managers, while Pritchard's parents worked full-time jobs in nearby Washington, D.C. They were getting by, but only by relying on credit cards.
Pritchard had wanted to farm since he was a boy, but teachers, his parents and even other farmers advised him against it. There was no future in farming, they said.
Pritchard returned to his dream after college, though, and the book is the story of how he learned to be a farmer raising grassfed meat. He now makes a profitable, though lean, living selling mostly at farmers markets.
After telling his fascinating personal story, Pritchard talks briefly about what people can actually do to help support family farms and local food production in a meaningful way. First of all, shop at farmers markets, he says. For him and many other small operations, farmers markets provide the best way to get his food to local customers.
Part of Pritchard's work is aimed at counteracting the anonymity of nonlocal food. That's why he has chosen not to ship food to customers out of his area via Internet sales. "(F)armers' markets," he realized, "thrived because of authentic human connections. Relationships like these transcended the simple pursuit of money and the dedication of my customers inspired me in ways that an online business never could."
When people can't find the kind of local food they want, such as organic or grassfed, he encourages them to form groups. Groups can approach farmers who currently use traditional growing methods and ask if they would be willing to grow food differently for them, if they knew they would have a market.
"So what you're saying is," said one of his customers, "we need to recruit our own farmers, tell them what we'd like them to grow for us, then buy it directly from them."
"Exactly," said Pritchard. "You're supporting another farm, promoting the type of food you'd like to see being grown, and staying local. Win, win, win."
He has other ideas, too, and the insights he offers from a farmer's perspective are well worth reading. Pritchard has a degree in English, so besides being an engaging story, his book is enjoyable to read.
WHATCOM LOCAVORE CHILI
2 cups dried beans (Alm Hill Gardens, Bellingham)
2 teaspoons hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1 pound grassfed ground beef (Second Wind Farm, Everson)
1 medium onion, chopped (Hopewell Farm, Everson)
2 quarts home-canned Roma tomatoes, 1 with liquid, 1 drained (Terra Verde, Everson)
1 5-inch piece of smoked cayenne pepper, finely minced (about 11/2 tsp) (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
2 teaspoons salt
Soak the dried beans in two quarts of water overnight. Alternatively, if you need to prepare the beans more quickly, put the beans and water on the stove and bring to a boil. Once it is boiling vigorously, remove from the heat and let soak for one hour.
Pour off the soaking water and rinse the soaked beans. Drain and add another two quarts of fresh water. Bring to a boil, then cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the beans are softened, 30-40 minutes or so. Drain and set aside.
In a Dutch oven, heat the hazelnut oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion and cook until softened and translucent. Add the ground beef, crumbling it into small chunks. Continue cooking until the beef is well-browned.
Add the cooked beans, tomatoes and smoked peppers. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for about 30 minutes to blend flavors. Stir occasionally, breaking up the tomatoes into smaller pieces with the spoon. If the chili seems too thick, add some water.
Finally, add salt to taste.
Makes 2 servings.
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, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or email@example.com. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.