Thursday, February 25, 2010

Small Farm Aims To Produce Sustainable Community


We're concluding the podcast series from Fairview Gardens Organic Farm, near Santa Barbara, CA. I visited the farm on January 25 to conduct interviews and take pictures.  If you missed the earlier posts and podcasts, I hope you'll have a look back.  Fairview is a 12 acre remnant of farmland in a suburban tract. The farm also works an additional 11 acres on another site.

   Suburban tractors do tillage, turn compost and form planting beds (Click to enlarge)
Fairview is on a coastal plain below the Santa Ynez Mountains near Santa Barbara. The area was developed with houses in the 1960's and 70's.  In that era, the farm was already organic.  It is now one of the oldest organic farm operations in California.

Even in January, the farm greenhouse is active with starts for the next rotation.  Year round cropping is a challenge for the crew and the management of production. And there is no freeze to kill weeds or pests.

Jen and Toby in the greenhouse.  In the podcast you'll hear Jen talk about her experience on the farm as an aspiring farmer and what she learns from walking the farm.  Farm manager Toby talks about working with a crew that has been farming the same small acreage for 20 years.  The crew at this farm knows the soil and growing conditions in every "micro zone" of the farm.  This intimate connection with the soil is re-enforced in every day, hands-on operation.

Toby McPartland talked to me about his ideas for operating Fairview Gardens as a small farm business. His thinking includes ways to establish an economic niche for small farms in local communities.  He's also looking at ways to involve the community in feeding itself. 

I really appreciated having a talk with this young farmer who is finding innovative ways to re-integrate small agriculture into our community.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

PEI Eggs: Part of a Regional Game of Chicken

I have been trying to understand the decision taken by PEI egg producers to lobby for a severe restriction on the number of hens which can be kept in production on small farms like ours in eastern PEI. I've noticed that the issue has stirred serious conversations across the province. And in fact, this is part of a larger conversation about food production which is now taking place across the continent.  

As I posted on Rob Paterson's blog, voters in the State of California passed Proposition 2 over the objection of California's Egg Producers, which hold 20 million hens producing 5 billion eggs per year. 

From Wikipedia:
Proposition 2 was a California ballot proposition in that state's general election on November 4, 2008. It passed with 63% of the votes in favor and 37% against. Submitted to the Secretary of State as the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, the initiative's name (as with others such as Proposition 8) was amended to officially be known as the Standards for Confining Farm Animals initiative. The official title of the statute enacted by the proposition is the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.

I learned today that Canada has managed to stave off a cross border flood of cheap eggs in part by using regional quotas to ensure Canadian production. So it seems to me that the issue in PEI isn't really about dangerous organic eggs or nightmare factory farms. It's about the current supply management system and the possibility that it may no longer support "small" commercial operations in the province.
I reached that conclusion when I looked beyond PEI. There is a regional chicken war in eastern Canada. Read more in The New Brunswick Business Journal article titled:

The Trouble With Processing Chicken

Industry: The feud between New Brunswick supplier and processor is threatening the stability of the supply-management system for poultry in Central and Eastern Canada

The Canadian Competition Tribunal, in ruling on the Nadeau case last year, examined the chicken industry's supply management system and declared "the poultry sector is likely the most highly regulated industry in the Canadian economy."
Under the supply-management system, provinces are assigned quotas by a national body and then provincial marketing boards set quotas for individual producers in their boundaries. The provincial boards also set minimum prices within each province.
Quotas can be expensive. The quota cost for an average-size chicken farm in Canada in 2007 climbed to $2.25 million, according to the competition tribunal.
The quotas are enforced by provincial marketing board bureaucrats, or "the chicken police," to employ the term used by people such as Patrick Langston, a small chicken producer near Navan, Ont.
There is so much paperwork involved in the whole process that processors are sometimes reluctant to deal with small producers, says Langston. Only deals with the big guys, apparently, make the onerous paperwork worthwhile. The squeeze on small producers gets even tighter as companies, such as Westco, become more vertically integrated, aiming to control every aspect of the industry from hatcheries to processing or, in the industry parlance, from egg-to-plate.

In the big picture, the PEI Egg Board represents "small producers" who are caught in the squeeze.  The big producers would be happy to see them pushed out.  Sound familiar? It looks to me as though the system designed to support local production is failing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's A Good Business - Fairview Gardens Tour Part 3


The blog continues with our visit to Fairview Gardens Farm in Goleta, California, just a few minutes away from our home in Santa Barbara.   

I visited the farm several weeks ago, so yes, these are pictures of the farm in the current season.  These strawberries were threatened by heavy rain and hail last week, but careful harvesting and good luck saved the farm from losing much of this valuable crop.  

For this podcast I interviewed farm manager Toby McPartland.  Don't miss it if you are pondering small farming on your own.  Toby explains that he plans for profit.  Value added products and business links in the community are ways in which he is growing the farm as a small business.

These honey bees are at work on the farm in this very informal hive set up.  The bees work in a grove of avocado trees, adjacent to a fruit orchard.

We use Fairview Gardens as a way to see farming differently. A lot of current organic methods are in practice here and this was an opportunity to learn on a farm which stays in production year round.  In fact, the challenge here is that there is no significant period of down time for farmers, managers and marketing workers on this farm.

But they are imagining  new possibilities. Even as North America continues to produce massive amounts of food for processing and export, kids in farm country don't get fresh local food in their school lunch meals.  In many places, local food culture and traditions are disappearing under a wave of yogurt in plastic tubes and mass produced pizza.  In another generation, grandmother's home made mustard pickles could be a delicacy that their children don't even recognize.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Before I wanted to be a Farmer...


I turned 50 in July. When I was a teenager that seemed impossibly old.  When I was 5 years old I used to swipe a hair curler from my mom and use it the way an announcer uses a microphone.  So it was that I followed my ambition and became a radio disc jockey when I was 20.

In 1980, I left Santa Barbara and moved to Hollywood, California. I went to the KiiS Broadcast workshop. And in the spring of '81 I used the aircheck tape I made at the workshop to land a job in radio. I was a part-time DJ. I worked overnight on Sunday and Monday mornings at 1440 KUHL AM, in Santa Maria, Ca. That job was everything to me but eventually I got fired by the program director for breaking format. I was re-hired to work full time as an FM DJ at the "album rock" station owned by the same company - 99 KXFM.  I eventually became a program director for a group of stations in Santa Barbara.  When AT&T took over as corporate owners, I quit radio in 1995 and went to work in my own studio/production business.

Since then, I've worked for big Hollywood stars, major studios, cable networks, important films, and national advertising campaigns. I'm proud of that. But what you don't know is that all those projects involve lots of ordinary people like me doing unglamorous work for little pay.  The star talents work hard and make a fortune but people like me carry the burden of making sure our tiny fraction of a multi-million dollar project works perfectly.  And at age 50 I really don't care to serve what Joni Mitchell called "The Star Maker Machinery" any more. 
And I never wanted to be a studio engineer anyway.  I always wanted to be a creative talent. Maybe that's why I'm so attracted to farming. Sound weird?  Well, you'll just have to keep visiting this blog and see if you can understand how that works.

For now I'm sorting and packing the relics of a lifetime, preparing to leave the past behind and move to PEI. Among my relics are boxes of cassettes and reel to reel tapes of a life gone by.  I've forgotten most of the details of my past, but unlike most people, I have many hours of my life backed up on tape and digital media.  And recently, I put a tape on the deck and heard a few minutes of my life from July of 1981. It's a recording of a live broadcast on KUHL, just 3 weeks after my 21st birthday and just a few weeks after my first time on the air.  

So before I share more about our move ahead, I invite you to hear a few minutes from the past I leave behind:

UPDATE / PHOTO 02.08.10
 That's me on the right in June of '82 - Mr. open shirt.  Thank God I didn't have disco chains.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Visit to an Urban Farm - The Fairview Gardens Story Part II

We are continuing our tour of Fairview Gardens Farm and the Center for Urban Agriculture just north of Santa Barbara - which is about 90 miles (about 145 km) north of Los Angeles, California.

We live on a semi-desert  coastal plain below mountains that reach about 3,000 feet.  In the winter, we get a dusting of snow on the mountain tops and seasonal rain in the rocky canyons.  Over time, the result has been that  our  heavy clay topsoil is up to 20 feet deep! 
So this is January in Santa Barbara.  At the top you see see Broccoli plants and below are fruit trees. In the centers between rows, the farmers plant crops that create a market profit, keep the soil biologically active, conserve irrigation water and fix beneficial nutrients for the fruit crops on the trees and the row crops to come. They work to produce as much as they can from every square yard of this farm, saving soil, labor, fuel and water.

The farmers on the crew work in the greenhouse to start the next rotations of cash crops.  High yields on small acreage requires lots of hand work in tight rotations. Though temperatures only dip below freezing for a few nights at a time each winter, concentrating light, water, heat and hand planting keeps crops ready for rotation  in all seasons.  We are studying this intensive method for our farm in PEI.  We think that concentrating production, even in our shallower soil and shorter season, should allow us to get higher than conventional yields. We think we can benefit from concentrating our inputs and relying on biological soil activity, moderation of water needs, managing weed pressure and focusing  labor and machines in a smaller area to give greater returns over time.