It’s not often a high school class goes on a field trip to a local farm. It’s even less often that the field trip is on a Saturday. But that’s what our AP Environmental Science class did on a cold, foggy, December morning.
Even though fewer people than expected came, we were all excited to begin our adventure. We piled into cars and headed to Jubilee Farm in Carnation, Washington.
Jubilee Farm is a small 10 acre farm where many teachers at my school get their vegetables from. The farm practices Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) . This is a relationship between a farmer who grows organic fruits and vegetables, and local members of the public who want to support that farmer. (But wait, then why is this post called “Better than Organic”? An explanation will come later) The farm has five Sessions throughout each year. Members sign up for any or all of the sessions. They can pick up their produce directly from the farm or at a pick-up site.
When we arrived, the owner and manager of Jubilee Farm, Erick Haakenson, was waiting for us. He is tall and strong, with a head of thick, blonde hair. Erick led us to an empty greenhouse to provide temporary relief from the cold. Immediately, the pungent smell of compost (which he insisted was not poop) filled our noses. I noticed Erick was holding a book in his hand, Citizenship Papers by Wendell Berry. It turns out, this was not unusual of him.
Erick defies what most people think of as the stereotypical farmer – someone who only knows how to work with his hands and is out of the loop from the rest of society. In fact, Erick emphasized the importance of using one’s mind while working with one’s hands. “I like agriculture because there is always so much more to learn,” he said. Several times during his twenty minute introduction, Erick cited from memory quotations of Gandhi, Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful), and Berry to explain his philosophy.
The main difference between mass-production, industrial farming and Erick’s way of farming (which he calls biodynamic farming), is that industrial farming always wants “more, more, more” while biodynamic farming wants “this much, and not more.”
So now we come to the question of why Erick uses the term biodynamic instead of organic. Is he or is he not an organic farmer? In practice? Yes. Officially and legally? No. But Erick gave two good reasons for this.
His farm used to be certified organic. But in order to be certified organic by the government, farms have to pay a special tax based on gross sales. After polling CSA members a couple years ago, Erick decided to drop the certification. He still practices the same farming methods he did when he was certified, and members know that. They don’t need an official federal stamp for verification.
Erick also decided to drop the certification because he felt the meaning of the word “organic” was moving further and further away from that of “sustainable.” Farmers can practice monoculture (planting only one crop, greatly decreasing biodiversity) and still be considered organic, as long as they don’t use chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Also, the organic produce found in many supermarkets often have to be shipped from far away, so the amount of pollution created just from transporting the produce lessens the environmental benefits of growing food without pesticides. But Erick strives to be truly sustainable by using cover crops and compost, practicing crop rotation, planting a variety of plant species, and practicing integrated pest management. Plus, he’s local (for the Seattle area at least).
Erick admitted that when he first started farming about twenty years ago, he, like many others, thought it would be impossible for him to grow enough crops and make a profit without using chemical products. But he gradually learned that many of the problems big industrial farmers face are solved just by using sustainable farming methods. For example, Erick claims he seldom has problems with pests. In monoculture, crops of the same species are planted in neat rows, making it very easy for pests to find them. But in polyculture, many species of plants are planted together in complex patterns, making it harder for pests to find their target crop.
After the introduction, Erick gave us a brief tour of the farm. He brought us to the cattle barn. In the summer, the cows are free the graze in the pastures. But come wintertime, Erick keeps them in the barn so they can stay warmer. The cows eat grass, unlike in the meat industry feed lots where the cows are forced-fed grain. The floor of the barn was layered with piles of hay. Eventually this hay (and whatever the cows generously deposited in it) will be turned into compost.
Several times during the tour, we bumped into some of Erick’s workshare members. These people work four hours a week on the farm in exchange for a CSA membership. We actually got to help the workshare members after the tour. Some of us worked in the greenhouse spreading compost while the rest of us (including me) helped harvest rutabaga. A young women we worked with said that she loved working on the farm because of all the new friends she has made.
Harvesting rutabaga was an interesting experience. We went down the row pulling the vegetables out, and breaking the stems and roots off. One of my friends pulled out a rutabaga that looked like a mandrake. The task of pulling the vegetables out wasn’t too difficult, though my hands at one point got so cold and painful that I had to stop.
When I took a break to wiggle my fingers in attempts to regain some heat, I looked around at the other rows of vegetables. I could see that Erick was truly maintaining biodiversity. Surrounding us were rows of cabbage, cauliflower, artichoke, carrots and broccoli.
“Name anything that is grown in this region, and I guarantee we plant it,” Erick claimed. Someone called out “Pineapple,” prompting one of Erick’s hearty chuckles.
After about an hour, we reconvened to exchange our last words with Erick. It was clear to me from the way Erick enthusiastically answered our questions that he loved his job. He ended the visit by saying, “Every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of future you want.”
And its true. We can take the easy route and buy cheap food grown with chemical fertilizers and shipped from the other side of the country or world. Or we can support our local farmers.
My vote is with the farmers.
For more information on Jubilee Farm, visit http://www.jubileefarm.org
For more pictures, visit http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2032380&id=1456290485&l=bc3e5a67f4