What does farming mean in today's world, and where is it headed?

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By: Mitchel Yaciw

Sara Stewart/Flavor 574

Growing up in the country but not being a farmer has given me a healthy dose of respect for farmers in the U.S.

On occasion I would throw some bales of hay or clean a chicken coop for some spending cash, but I never experienced the real farm life.

So fast-forward to today: I am 53 and an “urban farmer,” growing free food with Unity Gardens for our community and also growing food for market to support the free food model.

There are no big tractors and no real farm animals (though we do have chickens at the garden). What I do have is an aching back, lots of garden pests and weeds.

Don’t get me wrong — I love it! I feel so grounded to our earth and what is real. Every day I get cold, wet and dirty, or hot, wet and dirty. I haul dirt, mulch and food waste. I shovel chicken poop almost daily … and I still love it!

When I see people on a soapbox saying industrial farms are bad and recommending we all need to eat local, it angers me a little. Those farmers are working hard to make a living growing just what we asked them to as we evolved and changed our demands as consumers.

Some great resources if you want to become a farmer too:

However, I think a big part of the future of food production is small farms and urban farms. The big farms with the large combines and fields of corn serve a need, but we need a little less of that and a lot more local little guys serving local needs. 

Turning back is not that simple, but it can be done. It starts with young farmers finding a new path while learning from the old path.

Our country started as an agrarian society. The book “Founding Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf suggests that the first presidents of the United States – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – were revolutionary farmers as much as they were politicians.

As we look forward, we should also remember to look back.

Are greenhouses the future of food? Mitch Yaciw stands in one of the Unity Gardens greenhouses, where the organization grows produce year round. (Photo supplied/Unity Gardens)

Why is making the change to fresh, naturally grown local food so hard?

Avocados.

Yes, I blame avocados. We love guacamole with fresh tomatoes in January, or fresh lettuce in Arizona in August. How do we become reacquainted with parsnip and potato soup all winter?

Eating seasonally — that is hurdle No. 1.

Hurdle No. 2 is finding those farmers to grow a variety of fresh produce. The proliferation of crop insurance, government subsidies and mono crop farming is a system of growing that farmers have become accustomed to.

According start2farm.gov the average age of a farmer in this country is 57. Just five years ago, it was 55. The number of farmers younger than 25 has decreased by 20 percent in the last five years, while the number of those older than 75 has increased by 30 percent.

What this reveals is that we need to grow farmers. 

Of course there are challenges to that. Farming is rewarding, but it is not easy. And what about the land? We are losing good land to grow on, healthy topsoil and ample acreage at a steady clip. 

A 2006 Cornell University study reported that worldwide, erosion destroys crop land the size of Indiana every year. “Erosion is a slow and insidious process,” said Pimentel, a Cornell ecology professor. “Yet, controlling soil erosion is really quite simple: The soil can be protected with cover crops when the land is not being used to grow crops.”

Other ways to reduce erosion include reducing the need for people in developing countries to clear forests for agriculture, overgraze their cattle and remove crop residues for cooking fuel.

So how do we grow farmers that care about growing healthy food locally, while preserving the land they are growing on? How do we maximize the use of land we have? All very good questions. 

At Unity Gardens I have made it part of my mission to address a few of these questions. We have a 15,000-square-foot outdoor lab of sorts at our LaSalle Square Unity Garden, where we grow food to sell at market. There are two greenhouses for four-season growing; the rest of the space is for summer growing.

The goal is to grow enough food to support one employee while having some extra money to support the free gardens. It has been an interesting learning experience on how and what to grow in such a small space.

I hope we will pique the interest of younger people who may want to have their own small farm one day.

This truly is a community gathering place where people remember how satisfying it is to connect to each other.

When I started writing this piece about local farming and farmers, I was thinking about the South Bend Farmers Market. I have seen markets all over the country and have always considered the one in South Bend one of the best. It has a deep sense of community and all the romance of a 100-plus-year-old market.

Recently we felt ready to take Unity Gardens produce from our greenhouse to South Bend Farmers Market. At 5 a.m. on market day, Marie had us pulling numbers for the booth lottery. Because Unity Gardens has local produce, we moved to the front of the line.

It is busy in those early hours with the noise of farmers loading produce. It is the hum of a community within a community. Seasoned vendors welcome new vendors and connect with old friends.

The customers are also great, wanting to talk about the food or items they are purchasing. Everyone is friendly! This truly is a community gathering place where people remember how satisfying it is to connect to each other.

I would be remiss if I did not mention breakfast at the Farmers Café, where so many farmers, customers and people from the community enjoy a good, old-fashioned meal.

Our first Unity Gardens day, many of the farmers market board members welcomed us, and customers were surprised and happy to see us there. It was clear that we were a valued addition to their community. That kind of welcome made for a great day.

The South Bend Farmers Market is going through some changes. Up until the ’70s, the market was almost exclusively local produce from small farms. Then, just like farming, that changed over time.

But over the past five years, there have been more small organic farmers like Ridge Lane Farms out of New Paris working right next to the old-timers like Hiatt’s Poultry. This gives me hope for our future. It’s a slow, steady evolution to change the way we grow food and our community.

In the true spirit of a young farmer, I will sign off #Ilovetofarm.

For more tips and stories about backyard gardening from Mitchel Yaciw, subscribe to the Growing With Unity email newsletter.
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