Organic Before It Was Cool

“Get big, or get out.” That’s the advice Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, gave farmers back in the 1970s—advice that has been predominantly followed over the past few decades.

But a growing number of farmers are defying that mantra, instead advocating through policy and practice for a sort of farming that many assumed was going extinct. These are what Forrest Pritchard calls “the unsung heroes of local, sustainable food”: the farmers who went organic before it was cool, who were “locavore” before the term existed.

A farmer himself, Forrest Pritchard runs a seventh-generation farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains outside Washington, D.C. In a farm tour and interview I did with him two years ago, he mentioned a book he was working on: in it, he said, he wanted to remind people that sustainable farming isn’t trendy, but rather, “ancient, multi-generational, and multi-ethnic.”

That vision shows in his finished book, Growing Tomorrow. The farmers Pritchard talks to hail from all corners of the U.S.—New Mexico and Massachusetts, Washington and Georgia. He interviews produce farmers, dairymen, bee keepers, and a fisherman. Some have roots in farming: like the fifth-generation berry farmer who’s taking over the farm from her father, or the produce farmer in New Mexico who works land along the Rio Grande that his grandfather bought nearly a century ago. But there are also the newcomers: a beekeeper who used to be a professional soccer player, an orchard farmer who moved here from Mexico, a transplant from England who’s built a mushroom habitat in the woods of Missouri.

InScreen Shot 2016-04-27 at 12.25.05 PMterspersed between the farmer profiles are a vast array of recipes, either shared or inspired by the different farmers interviewed. A (tested and true) recipe for egg noodles, fresh tomato sauce, homemade almond milk, chili con carne, mustard-braised pork shoulder, savory peach soup… there are enough recipes in here to keep me busy all summer. Many of the recipes, too, have the distinct flavor of the farmer’s regional roots: a South Carolinian shares with Pritchard the virtues of boiled peanuts, a New Mexico farmer describes the best way to prepare a traditional chili, a hog farmer from West Virginia shares the recipe for biscuits that Pritchard enjoyed when he visited the farm.

Some of these stories are as much about renewal and hope as they are about present success: Pritchard interviews Detroit-based produce, honey, and compost farmers who are cultivating an urban farm to fight the economic troubles that have plagued their city. Their goal is to fight the prevalence of food deserts throughout Detroit by providing a local alternative and offering “food self-reliance” to city natives. Their composting initiative is meant to build soil health back into abandoned city lots, many of which are “terribly polluted.”

Then there’s the Texas honeybee farmers who are striving to keep their bees alive—battling widespread fears of honeybee extinction and frustrations with the prevalence of insecticides and herbicides that kill bees, among other things. “There’s tremendous state pride here, you can see it everywhere you go,” notes Susan Pollard. “It’s just like the old saying: ‘Everything’s bigger in Texas.’ But when it comes to agriculture, we’re getting left behind. All the focus is on huge crops of monoculture: Corn, cotton, soybeans. But how can they ignore the pollinators, the ones that make most of our food possible?”

Many of the farmers in this book have succeeded by doing a few things well: by trial and error, studying their crops or animals, expanding acre by acre. But more than this, what emanates from the pages of Growing Tomorrow is a deep and contagious passion for the art of farming. These aren’t just farmers. They’re “husbandmen,” dedicated to their vocation despite all its frustrations and difficulties. And their time, dedication, and passion have slowly paid off. We see this in the story of a goat farm that’s also a correctional facility, a place that teaches vocational skills alongside the virtues of cleanliness, diligence, and gentle care. It’s reflected in the story of Iowa farmer Steve Paul who—unlike the vast majority of his peers—is growing organic grains such as buckwheat, rye, and spelt.

These farmers face some significant challenges in today’s economy. Farmers like Paul are competing in a market that’s geared toward the big—those who’ve walked in Earl Butz’s footsteps, expanding and corporatizing. This is where the money has been, at least for the past several decades. But as hog farmer and former A&T State University professor Chuck Talbott puts it, “If we spent the same amount of money on sustainable farming that we do on big agriculture, all the R&D, and subsidies, then we wouldn’t have half the food problems we’ve got.” These farmers are advocating for a different model: one that may be more expensive, at least for a time, but one that promises long-term goods to consumers.

Part of Growing Tomorrow‘s appeal gives is that it helps readers connect with agricultural producers in their area: if I want to get produce from Washington, DC’s Potomac Vegetable Farms, profiled in the first chapter of the book, an index in the back points me to their website, the farmer’s markets they frequent, and information on their CSA program. This book is about connecting locals to the farmers who are trying to do things differently: it gives them a face, a voice, and a simple means to connect.

It’s easy, Pritchard acknowledges, to be dissuaded from supporting such small local producers because of the cost—in time, money, and effort—to procure their goods. It’s not nearly as easy as going to the supermarket and picking up a package of conventionally-produced beef. We ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me? Doesn’t this just make everything harder?”

But this is asking the wrong question, argues Pritchard. These farmers, he notes, “are people who have looked skyward, earthward, and outward. In doing so, they guide us to greater, more important questions: What do we value? How can we participate? What more can we do? Questions like these must grow our tomorrows.”

Last Saturday, I went to the farmer’s market to purchase some eggs. Umbrella and baby in tow, I stopped by a vendor’s booth I’d seen the week before. He was having a special on eggs. I ducked under the tent canopy and grabbed a couple cartons, when I heard him tell another customer that they only accepted cash. I set the cartons down in disappointment, gathered up my things, and told him I’d need to go look for an ATM. He looked at me—wet hair, baby in one arm, purse and grocery bags stuffed under the other—and he said, “You could just pay me next week. It’s raining pretty hard out there.”

This is what the local farmer gives: a human connection, an opportunity to participate in a relationship that extends beyond dollars and profit margins, and slowly develops into a sense of community and belonging.

Farming is no easy task. Farming in a way that’s both sustainable and humane is even more challenging, especially in this economy. A farmer who is willing to defy his cultural voices and the legacy of Earl Butz—someone who’s willing to stay in, and stay small—is worth our notice, and our support.

This article was originally published in The American Conservative, where you can read more of Gracy’s writing.

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