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
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
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 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."