Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Good Food" focuses on local farms

When we first moved to Whatcom County, began homesteading, and got involved in Tilth, I had a conversation with Gretchen Hoyt of Alm Hill Gardens that I still remember 30 years later. Although I grew up in the country around gardens and animals, I knew basically nothing about farming, except that the migrant workers I met as a camp liaison for a summer education program (my summer job after freshman and sophomore years in college) were living in third world conditions in the Puyallup Valley.  

(It’s interesting in another light that at the time, the late 1960s, the workers in the camps I visited were First Nations people from a reserve on Vancouver Island. Their annual migration to pick berries and beans outside of Sumner was a continuation of the seasonal cycle of food gathering their tribe had followed, probably for millennia. Of course the significant difference was that instead of putting by their own stores for food and trade, they were now living in squalor while they harvested a product for someone else’s profit.)

What Gretchen said was how many skills you needed to be a successful farmer or farm worker, especially on a diversified small farm. She said if farming rewarded according to the knowledge and  management abilities it took to do it well, fieldworkers would be paid like lawyers. [Gretchen, if you ever read this—I’m sure those aren’t your exact words; it’s the gist that stayed with me]

I thought of that when talking with Gretchen and Ben’s son, Joshua Craft, this summer at the Bellingham Farmers Market. Josh is farming on his own now, at Nooksack Nine Fruits and Veggies. When I saw him in mid-June, and not a sunny June as we may remember, he already had glorious ripe heirloom tomatoes. Well, actually he didn’t have them, because he had just sold the last one, at $5 a pound.  In order to produce flavorful ripe tomatoes in a rainy Northwestern Washington spring, Josh had rigged up a wood-fired furnace and piped the water it heated under the soil of his greenhouse so he could plant tomatoes in January. By the time the little plants were up and in need of light, the days were getting long enough to provide it, with the actual heat still coming from below. That’s just one example of the skills he uses to grow market vegetables and find a way to make them profitable. 

I thought of it again last night when I watched “Good Food,” a documentary about sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest, mostly Washington state. Made by Bullfrog Films and featuring, along with a lot of gorgeous scenery, David Suzuki, Mark Musick of Tilth, Ben and Gretchen at Alm Hill Gardens, The Bellingham Farmers Market, Mallard Ice Cream, Rio Thomas (founder of the Small Potatoes gleaning project), Anne Schwartz of Blue Heron Farm near Rockport, and many more, it is that rare thing, a feel-good movie about our food system. 

In the movie Ben and Gretchen talk again about the mismatch between the service farm workers provide for us and the pay and respect they get. Ben says that growing and harvesting the food we depend on is the most necessary job there is, and deserves to be seen as such. “We pay our workers better than Walmart,” said Ben, discussing his and Gretchen’s priorities as business owners.  “That’s not saying much,” Gretchen responded. (Of course Ben and Gretchen themselves don’t make anything like what Sam Walton of Walmart did. He was the second richest man in the world when he died in 1992.)

Besides better food and less dependence on ever-scarcer oil, local sustainable agriculture provides benefits that may not be as obvious outside the small communities where more farmers live. Among them are increased control and increased satisfaction for the farmers themselves, something we all want from our jobs. Billy Allstot grew up outside Tonasket on a commercial apple orchard and now grows vegetables, herbs, and flowers for direct sales to farmers markets. In the film he said that when he was an apple grower for a wholesaler, he would truck his crop to the warehouse and that was that. Except for the check, he never heard another thing. No praise or critiques, he never saw a customer bite into an apple and smile, never even knew what continent his fruit went to. Now he can get to know his customers, answer their questions, and literally stand behind his product. If tastes and trends evolve, he knows it right away and can adapt to meet them.

As a high school teacher out in the county, I see yet another benefit. Many of my students are the children of farm workers (and work the fields themselves in the summer). When I started teaching there in the mid-1990s, it was rare for a child from a fieldworking family to graduate high school. Constant moves and the frequent need to stay home to help out thinned the ranks of children who could stay in school. Rarer still was a farmworker’s child who participated in extracurricular activities, which presupposes a degree of stability and some spare time. Now it’s different. Diversified sustainable farms, are labor intensive, and the skills they require mean that workers are less interchangeable. The children of the families working at Alm Hill Gardens have some stability, they can make plans, and they don’t always have to grab every possible chance to make another dollar for their families in the short run. Those kids are taking AP classes, they are heading to college, they turn out for sports, they head after-school clubs and run for ASB

You can get the movie from the Bellingham/Whatcom County Library. 

Some links: has a very interesting interview with Anne Schwartz

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