Monday, August 30, 2010

Cookeville, Tennessee: Jim Garrison, Heartland Apicultural Society president

One of our favorite ways to bond on this trip has been to get a morning cup of coffee and try to do the daily crossword together (I get the Bible ones and the entertainment ones and Trav gets all the rest). The paper in Cookeville had an announcement in it about the beekeepers convention that was happening this very weekend at Tennessee Tech (The Heartland Apicultural Society, specifically), so Trav gave them a ring and got us two passes to learn about bees. The convention itself was a fantastic learning experience (bees are such complex creatures!) and we got to meet with the president of the HAS, Jim Garrison.
When we arrived at the conference, an auction was taking place; this beautiful quilt featuring bees and an outline of the state of Tennessee was up for grabs. It yielded several thousand dollars, and the winner then announced that he wanted to give it to Jim and his wife as a gift for all of their work.
Jim and his wife have their own apiary and sell honey, and they are sought out among the beekeepers gathered at the conference. Jim told us about the bee business of pollination; some beekeepers have huge collections of hives of bees that they contract out to pollinate those crops that can only be pollinated by bees (California almonds are the poster-child reference for large-scale hive usage). Changing locations so dramatically in these operations can be hard on the bees, and many die from the stress of moving. There is question about the oft-talked-about colony collapse disorder and whether it is a problem of bees in general or a result of those industrial operations.
His advice is to encourage anyone who is able to have a hive of bees- it’s a wonderful hobby that yields a delicious byproduct and provides a necessary function.
The rest of the day we went from class to class regarding beginners' beekeeping and the technical side of bee reproductive systems and filled our heads with dreams and knowledge.

Livingston, Tennessee: Jim Ligon, Tennessee Tech farm manager

Trav and I drove a half hour out of town to Tennessee Tech's farm to meet with Jim Ligon, farm director. The University has three different farms; one is close to the University, about 2 miles away. Within that farm is a smaller organic operation. The one we are visiting is the beef cattle farm, about 20 miles away in Livingston.
Before arriving we go by miles of black fencing on the rolling green hills that the hay is grown on and the cattle sometimes graze. The farm is too large to tour on foot, so Jim offered to take us around in his pickup. This property was entrusted to the university by an elderly rancher who wanted to make sure that it would always be used as farmland.
Jim has an onsite farm manager, a former student of his who supervises the daily operation so that he can split his time between all three sites (he also has his own farm to tend to). Though he trusts her implicitly, Jim spoke about the evolution he’s witnessed in students in his tenure. So many agriculture students come from urban, nonagricultural backgrounds these days and Jim finds he has to modify his lessons to deal with the most basic farm knowledge; like how to approach a cow safely.
Besides not having the fundamental knowledge that farm kids do, Jim has also noticed that recent students lack work ethic. Students he has had aren’t willing to deal with the all-hours, extremely tough work that farming requires, and the drop out rate is high.
One of the things Jim loves best about his job is that his income does not hang in the balance of the University farm’s success. Unlike his own farm, if the University farm doesn’t make money, Jim won’t suffer a direct income loss. That being said, part of Jim’s job is to make sure that the University farm does make money each year, and he assured us that it operates in the black. It must operate almost entirely on the funds it generates itself.
The puppy is just being trained to work with cattle, and we watched its puppy-attempts to herd the cattle from the cool pond to the feeding trough with a lot of laughter. The cattle it was herding are the highest quality show cattle on the farm and they are kept separate from the other cattle.

The mentor dog. She knows her way around cattle.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Knoxville, Tennessee: Calvin Copeland

Calvin Copeland is nearing his 90’s but his eyes twinkle brightly and his voice rings with slow laughter as he tells us story after story about growing up farming. I become the source of his laughter at one point when he realizes I’ve never “scalded” a pig, part of the butchering process.

Calvin grew up here in Tennessee and remembers when the farming was done with men and mules and hand implements; now it is done with driverless tractors operating on a GPS system. Calvin’s farm was a community hang-out place ("headquarters" he called it several times). When his kids were in high school the football team would spend the day working and the evening jumping in the lake and picnicking and having fun.
Beef is mainly what Calvin raises, though he has another farm in Nebraska he raises milo on (milo is also known as grain sorghum). He and his wife split their year between the two states. While we visit, his daughter and family stop by. She weedwhacks around the pond and her little girls get their suits and swimmies on and plunge in on this incredibly hot day. “Baloney” (Calvin’s affectionate nickname for his wife) gets everyone cold drinks and from the happy sounds all around I can imagine what this place used to sound like when the football team worked and played here.
Calvin and Baloney insist on doing things themselves. It's great to have the kids around and his daughter and son-in-law are taking over the primary farm activities, but for many decades the two of them have driven their own tractors, bucked their own hay (with the footballers of course), and fixed all of their own mechanics, striving for a simple life on the rural outskirts of Knoxville. Across the homemade lake ("we always wanted a pond. We made one."), near the grape vines, stands a homemade gazebo. In the past he has had a business in town selling truck canopies (back when they were a new trend). As a young man he took a job as a salesman, but the owner of the business wasn't making ends meet. Calvin bought the business outright and turned it into a profitable operation within a year. His sons still run it.
Calvin sent us on our way with a bottle of his homemade wine, made from the grapes across the pond. (We drank it a few weeks later on a special occasion in Missouri, and it was spectacular). One of the things I enjoyed most about this interview was how good it feels to be in the presence of someone so very happy- Calvin just radiated joy. What a beautiful asset at almost 90 years old.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Louisville, TN: Dr. Bill Backus, retired animal science professor

The first words out of Dr. Bill Backus's mouth were"Well, you're damn yankees!" upon spying my Connecticut license plates. That aside, Dr. Backus spent the next couple of hours talking farming with us. He is a retired animal husbandry/meat science professor at the University of Tennessee and he thinks genetics in animal rearing has been a boon for livestock farmers.

Geneticists have figured out how to breed meat animals that have more muscle and less fat, and that grow incredibly fast. While a lot of consumers don't think they appreciate their meat being scientifically controlled, some of the changes are simply selective breeding, a process that has taken place since agriculture began. When farmers began having to increase their farm sizes in order to survive, they ran out of room in the southeast and many of the feedlots and slaughterhouses moved to states like Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, etc. It made sense to move the animals closer to the areas where grain production was highest.

Livestock farmers in the southeast could no longer afford to ship their animals out west unless they were huge operations, and many of them started diversifying and farming row crops. My favorite part of the interview was when Trav asked one of our standard questions; "what is the role of the farmer in society?" and Dr. Backus looked at us a bit incredulously and after a pause asked "did you eat breakfast today? Will you eat lunch and dinner? There you go, then."

Asheville, NC: Mike Fortune, Green Hills Urban Farm

Though he seems to be a spectacular farmer, Mike Fortune prefers to think of himself as a pirate. He looks the part, a handsome young man in his early thirties with long hair and a thin, short beard that suggests he’s a few days away from his last shave. He has a beaming grin and welcomes us right away onto his property. Mike has two separate operations; one is a larger-scale farm fair drive outside of Asheville, and then there’s Green Hill Farm, the urban farm we are visiting.
When we walk behind Mike’s house it’s easy to forget that there’s a city all around. The land Mike uses for growing is all behind the houses on this street in West Asheville; he is basically farming people’s backyards. Mike started with his own backyard and his neighbor gave him permission to use his as well. Pretty soon another neighbor moved away and Mike persuaded a friend of his to move into the vacant house and help expand the farm. Cumulatively Mike has about 2 acres in yards to farm and we walked around the gentle slopes to each plot. Most farms we have seen have a certain order; plots are often designed in squares and rectangles but Mike’s design is more haphazard and spontaneous.
He doesn’t actually own any of the land, though he is fairly confident that his relationships with the landlords are solid and he won’t be moving the farm any time soon. When he takes us up to the hill where the berry bushes are we can see one of Asheville’s busiest streets through the trees only a few hundred yards away. The 4 lanes are bumper-to-bumper cars; as they pass the visible Domino's Pizza I wonder how many of those people know that this farm is even here, and they could easily have access to its bounty.
The lettuces, berries, squash, herbs, melons, carrots, beets, etc. are all used to fill weekly CSA boxes and to stock a fridge up in front of the house that folks can pick up and pay for by leaving their money in a coffee can.
When Mike has an extra big harvest he has an outlet with many of Asheville’s high-quality restaurants interested in local and organic foods. He offers his excess to them and it’s a win-win; there is a big demand in Asheville for local fresh organic food that the restaurants can then offer, and Mike gets paid for his work instead of taking a loss.
He has let local artists come and add color to his walls (in a style you'd rarely find on a rural farm) and seems very supported by his community. A favorite piece of the farm was the ducks he is raising around the side of the house, with their homemade house complete with Tibetan prayer flags.

Mike seems truly happy with the present, and believes that what the future has in store will be pretty spectacular. His coffee cup never left his hand during the interview and tour, and he seemed he'd truly be comfortable in the city or on the farm...or both.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sylva, NC: Steven Beltram, Balsam Gardens

Trav and I stayed a night in mountainous Sylva, North Carolina, home of Western College where Edward Abbey was a literature professor briefly before he moved west to fall in love with the deserts of Utah and write about them. Kerri Rayburn (who is the mother of my best friend, Allison) welcomed us in and over dinner she mentioned a local farmer by the name of Steven Beltram who is a new and young farmer whose plants at market always look huge and capable of bearing delicious tomatoes.
Steven agreed to show us his farm the next morning and we found him on top of his barn, working the roof. The house and farm sit on a beautiful, fertile slope, surrounded by gentle curves on all sides; the house itself is an architectural glory. It is one hundred years old with the charm and sturdiness that really only belong to one-hundred-year-old houses. Steven is a builder by trade, so in whatever spare time he may have he works on restoring the house.
We sat on a pile of lumber to the side of the new barn and took in everything around us; the chickens have a lovely homemade tractor, there are rows of crops out in the open and a couple of big greenhouses Steven built, based upon his readings in Eliot Coleman's books on the subject.

He is a thoughtful intentional farmer, and a great host. Before we take off he shows us his potting mix (the reason his tomato plants get so gargantuan for market) and the machine he uses to form the dirt into the actual pot . Instead of buying disposable plastic pots Steven just makes his own using his press and his good good dirt.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Asheville, NC: Calvin Robinson, beekeeper

Albert Einstein is credited with the quote " If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would have only 4 years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Some crops (like almonds and many of our favorite fruits) depend exclusively on bees for pollination. Calvin is a man whom I think it's safe to say, is devoted to bees. He told us about the first time he had sourwood honey when he was a little boy and his grandpa had been the one to harvest it. How surprised he was when, as a young man, years after his grandfather's death, he bought honey and tasted it and it was not nearly as good as his memory of grandpa's sourwood. Calvin had us fascinated for hours with his knowledge about bees- they are so complex!

For example, bees emit pheremones just like we do, and Calvin can tell what a bee is communicating by what he is smelling from them. If a bee is welcoming another bee back to the hive, it smells like banana but watch out if you smell lemon; that implies you are headed straight for a stinging.
After Calvin's less than satisfactory experience with store bought honey he decided to tend the bees that would make him his own sourwood honey. Calvin has built up a business (Bee Blessed Apiary) and sells his honey in Tennessee and North Carolina. He mentors a lot of beginning beekeepers and encourages anyone to join their local bee keepers club (most counties have them). Like many of the farmers we've spoken to Calvin works another job to earn a stable living. He is nearing retirement with the UPS though, and is getting ready to go full time with his bees. He probably won't ever retire from that passion.

Swannanoa, NC: Warren Wilson College Farm

Warren Wilson College is a well known liberal arts school near Asheville that began as an agricultural school in the 19th century. There is still a large agricultural component and we were lucky enough to meet the student farm crew who is running the CSA as well as the market operation this season. It appears as though we have arrived at some kind of farm utopia; everyone is young and beautiful and farm chores in bikini tops is the norm here. Jenn, our main host told us about the origins of Warren Wilson. Agriculture was top priority from the foundation of the school, and in the original mission statement there is even a line about city boys with their "diseases and attitudes" not being welcome on campus.

The farm is divided into 2 distinct operations; the garden/vegetable production section and the livestock production. We toured around the garden which has an extensive herb section that students harvest to make teas and tinctures for personal use and to sell at the bookstore. The drying shed for the herbs was a small and beautiful log cabin with a kitchen in the downstairs and an attic that had an abundance of different herbs hanging from the rafters. The sweet smell that wafted over us was a mixture of lavender and licorice. Besides the herb shed there is another bigger log cabin with a wide front porch complete with a hammock (that someone was napping in as we strolled up) that serves as the eating area and meeting house. There is an old barn that serves as headquarters in the morning to decide what needs to be accomplished for the day and houses farm equipment and tractors.
Most of the students who do the work do not have agricultural backgrounds but really enjoy the peace and fresh air that comes along with working on the farm. Warren Wilson has a booth at the local farmers market in Asheville and plenty of Ashevillens support them there. Jenn says that she likes to scope out the market before she sets the prices for the WW farm in order to give local farmers some advantage. Jenn will set the prices of her produce just a little bit higher than the rest of the vendors so that people will be more willing to buy produce from a farmer who may be solely relying on his or her farms income to pay the bills.

Before leaving we sat in the barn to speak with some of the rest of the crew and noticed the whiteboard with the day's duties listed on it. Underneath "hoe the squash" was the last objective on the list which our friend in the hammock was getting a jump start on: nap.

Celo, NC: Ben McCann and Cedar Johnson, Goldfinch Gardens

We sat on Cedar and Ben's back porch looking at the goldeny purple mountains and they told us about their new small farm. Their property is nestled in an intentional community that Cedar was raised in; many of the community decisions are made by consensus here. There is a small but abundant plot that we can see and a greenhouse further away. The main outlet that Ben and Cedar are working on is an online market where anyone can log onto the site and see what produce is available, then place an order. That way Ben and Cedar can harvest exactly what they need, and the customer gets exactly what they want instead of a CSA box setup where you may get eggplant when you really want radishes. They are an excellent example of creative farmers finding a market so they can do what they love and their customers are pleased. Like many farmers, they mentioned the immense difficulty of starting a farm and investing in property; luckily, coming from this community, they have the support of their neighbors, family, and history.

A surprise perk is that they both attended Evergreen State College and Cedar completed the same Eco-Ag program as Trav, but a few years earlier!

Burnsville, NC: Nicole DelCogliano, Green Toe Ground Biodynamic Farm

Friday we headed toward Celo, an artistic community about an hour away from Asheville. The Toe River runs through these mountains and we followed it to Nicole and Galen's biodynamic farm. As we pulled over onto the shoulder by their barn, lines of people walked down their drive with towels slung over their shoulders and coolers in tow. We have already heard about the swimming hole on the property, and I am so impressed that the people are so welcome to stream onto the property. Nicole and Galen seem to really welcome the community; a dying art when there's private property involved.
It's CSA pickup day so we talk to Nicole as she does the chores she needs to do. The farm is beautiful, there are kids running around, and I see a puppy being chased by a toddler. The plots are long rectangles bordered by the river, and a cow looks down contentedly on us from her hilly pasture. I feel like we are in the middle of nowhere, but there is an obvious community around them. Nicole and Galen have a thriving farm and lots of supporters.
Nicole summarizes the biodynamic concept and speaks of the difficulties of starting a new farm as a young couple. They have toyed with different ways of distributing their produce, and the CSA model seems to work best when up in the mountains, a fair drive from an urban center.
Nicole invited us to stick around to help stir a biodynamic tea that evening, but we are on our way to Hannh Levin's (a friend of our friend Jenna, and another incredible musician) cabin nearby.