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Small Farmers Uproot Agribiz
by A.K. Gupta Thursday August 29, 2002 at 02:20 PM

When the average American makes the journey from couch to fridge, she opens a door to the world: apples from New Zealand, coffee from Vietnam, cheese from Europe, chocolate from Africa, bananas from Ecuador, tomatoes from California. Despite this, we may still imagine our food as coming from some midwestern breadbasket, grown by hardworking farmers straight out of American Gothic.

In reality, dinner was probably harvested by a peasant family, children included, being paid starvation wages and in the yoke of a plantation owner feeding products to some global enterprise. Even in this country, when the harvest isn’t the work of some giant combine, it’s probably being plucked, cut, raked or uprooted by migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.

But some farmers have a different vision. Nestled in the Taconic Hills in the upstate New York town of Harlemville, Hawthorne Valley Farm has been at the forefront of a trend to make farms a part of their local communities.

Rachel Schneider, who helps to manage the vegetable gardens at the 400-acre farm, explains that since its founding in 1972, the mission of the non-profit Hawthorne Valley Association, which includes the farm, a 300-student school, and a visiting students’ program and camp, is to "integrate agriculture and the arts." "Our main goal at the farm," explains Schneider, "is to farm sustainably and as ecologically sound as possible." Schneider sees most consumers as "out of touch with farming, because they get their produce from the supermarket. They need to get in touch with how much food costs and how it’s produced."

According to government statistics, farmers received 41 cents of every dollar consumers spent on food in 1950; today, they get barely half of that. To be economically sustainable, says Schneider, Hawthorne Valley "surrounds our farm with value-added and direct-marketed products" like processed vegetables (sauerkraut, pickles), dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan, community supported agriculture (CSA) and an extensive store.

By filling the role of not just the farmer, says Schneider, but also "the processor, the distributor and the retailer," Hawthorne Valley is able to avoid "being industrial or having a huge farm."

A walk around the farm bears that out. This is what a farm should look - and smell - like. The odors of wet hay, manure and motor oil mingle near the garage bearing fire-engine-red tractors. Sparrows careen about after a cooling summer downpour, ignoring a lone chicken scratching the moist earth by a moldy, dull-silver silo.

Next to the 50-foot-tall silo, bright-eyed calves with clean, almost shiny, fur lounge under an open-air metal and wood shed, three to a pen. Piglets snuffle in the back half of the shed as a monstrous mama pig digs into the cooling mud. Hundreds of yards in the distance, the backs of roaming cows bob above the brush as they forage by the waterside. Turnip, another calf, seems oblivious to it all. She’s only interested in gnawing on a shirtsleeve.

Turnip will one day join Hawthorne Valley’s herd of 60 dairy cows. Because it doesn’t use industrial methods, like penicillin injections or bovine growth hormones, Hawthorne Valley "produces half the amount of milk of a conventional dairy farmer," says Schneider. "One cow produces on average 18 to 20,000 pounds of milk on a conventional dairy farm. Our average is 10 to 11,000." But while "conventional milk sells for $10-$13 per ‘hundredweight,’" explains Schneider, "organic milk sells for $20-$22 per hundredweight."

Schneider says, "We’ve determined with our 250 acres we can support 60 cows. They produce milk, but more importantly, from a biological point of view, they produce manure that we compost for the crop lands, pasture land and vegetable gardens." The use of manure on fields that grow hay for the cows, which produce more manure for the vegetable gardens, scraps from which feed the pigs, underlies the concept of "biodynamic farming." Hawthorne Valley Farm is one of dozens of biodynamic farms scattered across the country. The role of manure and composting is critical to biodynamic farming, explains Aaron Hulme of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. In biodynamic farming, says Hulme, "all of the inputs are supposed to come from one’s farm. The farm is a self-contained unit."

"Biodynamic farming," says Hulme, "came from a series of eight lectures given by Austrian Rudolf Steiner to a circle of farmers in 1924. They worried that the mechanization of the other aspects of human life would obliterate farming." Peter Brady, the head farmer at Phillies Bridge Farm in the Hudson Valley town of New Paltz, says biodynamic farming "is an attempt to make the farm more inclusive, with less inputs, less fertilizer and more diversity." Phillies Bridge, says Brady, practices organic farming and "plans to go biodynamic eventually," in part by bringing in cows, goats and expanding its flock of 33 chickens. Like Hawthorne Valley, Phillies Bridge is a non-profit, has an educational aspect and runs a CSA. The Phillies Bridge CSA currently has 75 local members, at $500 for a full share. Hawthorne Valley has 220 shares and distributes its produce to members in the local area, Long Island and the Bronx. What’s especially impressive is the small amount of land used to feed so many people. Hawthorne Valley has 12 acres of vegetable gardens, while Phillies Bridge has five. Both make weekly deliveries to their members from June to November. Brady says Phillies Bridge "can grow more per acre than conventional, large-scale farmers, partly because we aren’t growing 3,000 acres."

Yet these two farms raise a nagging question: How viable are they as models? Both of them are non-profit, unusual among farms, which gives them tax advantages. Brady says for Phillies Bridge, "agriculture brings in 75 percent of the revenue and education 25 percent." Brady admits, "We’re a non-profit. We’re competing with other CSAs. We get Americorp volunteers. Other farmers feel it may not be a level playing field." Hawthorne Valley expects to generate $3 million in revenue this year, two-thirds of that from its bountiful store. But Schneider says it nets only at most $20,000 a year in profits — not even one percent.

One couple in New Paltz, Ron and Kate Khosla, are trying to go the commercial route while maintaining high agricultural standards. Dominated by the Shawanagunk Mountains, the 77-acre Hugenot farm was purchased by the Khoslas almost four years ago. Ron says, "Farming is a lot of gambling. For instance, if you put out your crops by May 19, you’re 90 percent assured they won’t die from frost. This year, though, a lot of people lost crops" due to an unusual cold snap in late May. "We lost $20,000 worth of organic strawberries, and we’ll never make it up," he notes.

Because of the economic pressures, the Khoslas live in decidedly Spartan conditions. "We’ve been camping out for four years. The first year, we lived in the greenhouse. We don’t even have indoor plumbing."

Their hard work is paying off, slowly. They’re now in the process of building a house after turning a profit of $18,000 last year, explains Ron. But "we made less than $3 an hour."

The couple says their farming goes beyond organic, in large part because of federal guidelines that have watered down what organic means. Organic food is no longer the work of some idealistic back-to-the-landers, but a $6 billion a year business that is becoming dominated by agribusinesses. And they have an interest in making "organic" compatible with their industrial scale.

While the U..S. Department of Agriculture backed off guidelines two years ago that would have allowed genetic engineering, sewage sludge and radioactive waste used in the production of "organic" food, it still allows controversial practices. It allows manure and waste from conventional factory farms to be used on organic farms; it essentially allows factory farm crowding for organic livestock; and it has imposed an inspection system that is often cost-prohibitive for the small, organic farmers.

"Organic is not the same as it used to be," says Ron. "The process is so time-consuming, so expensive, that the small farmers, the ones who’ve been doing it since the 1970s, can’t call themselves organic anymore." What gets Ron particularly incensed is the waste issue. "You can use chicken carcasses, diseased parts, and waste" from conventional factory farms. As a result, "there are measurable levels of herbicides, steroids, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides in the soil" of farms that are ostensibly organic.

In response, the Khoslas have started to use the term "Certified Naturally Grown (CNG)" and are trying to establish a new trend. "We just went public at the beginning of July. We already have 50 applicants from all over the country," says Ron.

"Organic is now being administered by people who don’t know anything about organic. With CNG, it’s farmers inspecting farmers," he explains. All the farmers interviewed agree that some of the biggest problems facing non-industrial farming is consumer ignorance and apathy. Peter Brady says he gets kids at Phillies Bridge who "don’t know the difference between a horse and a cow."

Ron Khosla says, "As much as I want to complain about subsidies, the biggest problem is consumer apathy. All they want is cheap vegetables."

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