Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

The Pleasure Equation

“This whole idea that’s being put forth, that if you don’t buy locally, farmers will go out of business, makes people think they’re saving our farm by buying our milk. We want people to buy our milk because it’s good milk. I hate the ‘buy locally’ thing. Try local foods, and if they’re not better, then buy from California. I’d like to challenge the farmers of Vermont to make things that are world class, and for people to support that. I don’t want people to buy my stuff out of charity or out of some belief system. It’s the pleasure equation instead of the guilt equation.” - Amy Ransom, Strafford Organic Creamery

“You can say what you want about capitalism, but economics is just a great way of keeping score. If you’re a competitor in anything, you want to know whether you’re playing up to your potential.” - Eliot Coleman, Four Season Farm

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Every farm workshop, farm conference, or farm visit invariably becomes a business workshop, a business conference, a business visit. It’s not always super-obvious, sometimes you have to read between the lines, but capitalism is there, on everyone’s mind. Pay attention long enough, and any farming talk becomes money talk.

For most of my life on the far-left-hippie part of the political spectrum - where I still reside, mind you - this would’ve been disorienting, disheartening, discouraging. But not now. No, now I love it, I relish it, I crave the business talk as a breath of fresh air.

Yes, let’s have dreams and ideals and revolutionary aspirations. Yes, let’s make some damn money at the same time.

Yes, maybe those are all actually the same thing.

You see, my thoughts on what capitalism is, on what money itself is, have changed in a pretty dramatic way. But we’ll get back to that.

I started off this post with two quotes from well-known successful farmers profiled in Michael Ableman’s wonderful book Fields of Plenty, because that book - on the surface, a dreamy romanticization of the bucolic ideal if there ever was one - becomes, over and over again, a business book. It is full of stories of farms and farmers and how they make it.

Turns out, growing great food ain’t enough. You gotta know how to finance it, how to market it, how to efficiently produce it, how to balance the books with it.

Otherwise, the dreamy dreams don’t happen.

The newly opened Farm Store at Sawkill Farm in Red Hook, NY.

The newly opened Farm Store at Sawkill Farm in Red Hook, NY.

Two weeks ago, the business course that’s built into the Farm School curriculum culminated with us presenting our business plans to our classmates, teachers, and our business consultant/guru Ray Belanger. Every student in the program worked his/her butt off, visioning and brainstorming and researching and drafting and honing for the weeks that led up to presentation day. By its very nature, a business plan often feels like a life plan, like a profoundly existential document, which increased both the stress and the meaning of the exercise. You could feel it in the farmhouse, where late night study sessions made our dining room seem like a college library on exam week. We were getting the chance to put a dream of ours onto paper, to show it to everyone, and to prove to them that it can work. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time.

On presentation day, there were rabbit farms and pig farms and urban farms and wool farms and fish farms and medicinal herb farms and communal farms. There were dreams galore. Personally, I presented my vision for a Whole Diet CSA in North Carolina, one of approximately 836 different agricultural dreams I’ve had this year. There was feedback and affirmation and ideas for how to move forward. It was celebratory and wonderful.

Each of us had, to varying extents, wrestled with the question of how to make this thing we’d thought up actually work. Some had even started building out Profit & Loss spreadsheets, Cash Flow documents, telling a romantic story through hard numbers. But none of us actually know how to make these things happen. They’re still dreams, after all. You can’t simulate reality.

But it is good to practice.

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Two days after making those presentations, we visited Roxbury Farm in the Hudson Valley of New York State, one of the most successful and visionary farms in the region, if not the whole country. Jean-Paul Courtens and Jody Bolluyt are rock-star farmers, lauded for their systems and their openness and their sheer prowess at growing vegetables. It was a blast and an honor to see their farm and hang out in their presence, gleaning as much wisdom as possible.

There was a lot to take away, but what struck me most was the sense that radical visions and success in a capitalistic market are not only compatible, but maybe the most logical and necessary of bedfellows. Dreamy dreams are great and all, but as Eliot Coleman said, it is good to keep score and see if that vision, and your execution of that vision, is living up to its potential. The Locavore movement and changing consumer value systems are great and all, but as Amy Ransom implied, for any success to be sustainable it must be rooted in the delivery of a great product that truly improves a customer’s quality of life, not guilt or charity.

Jean-Paul Courtens chats with us about how cows improve the soil fertility at Roxbury Farm.

Jean-Paul Courtens chats with us about how cows improve the soil fertility at Roxbury Farm.

Jean-Paul and Jody talked a lot about Roxbury’s ideals, about being rooted in Biodynamic principles, about diversity and fertility cycling and honoring the farm ecosystem as a singular living organism. Then they talked about scale and investing in harvesting and packing technology, about debt and financing and market saturation, about building their brand and paying a living wage.

The poetic and the prosaic were intertwined at Roxbury, contradicting and complimenting each other at the same time, stretching our brains to envision what is possible, and how to make it so.

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Spring has finally come to central Massachusetts, making our work in the greenhouse feel less like a fanciful delusion, imbuing it with a dose of urgency. Here in the next week we’re going to (finally, knock on wood) be able to get onto our fields, plowing and disking and bed-shaping, getting them ready to grow food for hundreds of families to eat throughout the summer and fall.

The model of The Farm School is, like most businesses, unique. It is not fully non-profit, it is not fully for-profit. Its main product may well be an experience, for kids and adults alike, that is by nature quite difficult to quantify. And yet it also grows and sells several tons of food, all of which is very much quantifiable. The Farm School Vegetable CSA expects, and is expected to, make a profit.

As our greenhouse production ramps up, as we move from seeding onions and greens to seeding peppers and tomatoes, as we start to transplant those seedlings into the ground, that profit motive becomes clearer. We’re still learning, yes, but we’re also working. Our quality matters, our intelligence matters, our attention to detail matters, our pace and efficiency and stamina all matter too.

There are a million poetic reasons why I’m excited about spring finally being here - honestly, I counted yesterday - but the prosaic reasons maybe excite me even more so. Spring, if you haven’t noticed, is when things come back to life, when they start growing again. For us aspiring farmers, the growing season is upon us, the time when our dreams and visions get put to the test, when our businesses succeed or fail.

Sweet pepper seedlings get planted out in trays with 512 cells to boost germination rates.

Sweet pepper seedlings get planted out in trays with 512 cells to boost germination rates.

We’ve still got a bit of a cushion around us, being students, but it everyday feels a bit more real. We’re about to find out if we can put out a world-class product, if we can add to our customers’ quality of life, if we can increase their sense of pleasure and joy. We’re about to start keeping score.

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A decade ago, I thought capitalism and money were the root of all (or, at least, a lot) of the evil in the world. They distorted relationships, disconnected us from each other and the natural world, promoted selfishness and greed, undercut the social fabric. And yeah, I do kinda sorta still believe that. But it’s complicated, and it’s nuanced. Because what is capitalism, really? And what, at its root, is money?

Saying this skims over a great deal - like the distortionary power of oligarchy and monopoly and wealth stratification, like the violent power of state policy and prejudice and institutionalized inequality - but at some level, I believe that we get the economy we deserve.

Capitalism is, simplistically, a decentralized system of producing value, and money is our collective way of measuring and demarcating value. Production responds (imperfectly and inconsistently) to the value signals sent by those with money. It ain't a perfect analogy, but spending a dollar is akin to placing a vote, validating and affirming and supporting the production methods behind whatever product it is that we just bought.

One of the many things that gives me hope about the food movement that’s been rising these last 25 years is that it believes in financial sustainability alongside everything else. It doesn’t want to - and knows that it can’t - rely on grants or earmarks or charity or goodwill. It is a decentralized movement that wants to produce something of value, something that will increase the quality of life, that will increase the happiness, of its customers. It wants to create something that individual people and families value so much that they part with their hard-earned (and increasingly scarce) money. It wants to rely on, and encourage, broader changing notions of what we value, of what is valuable.

It wants to show that another world is possible, basically.

As you may have guessed, I’m all about that. I can’t wait to grab a digging fork and a seedling tray, to drive the tractor all day long, to spend hours in the washing and packing barn, to get sweaty and dirty and exhausted, in service of that goal. To produce value, to manifest values.

See? I knew that the idealist, radical, 19-year-old me was still in there somewhere. Now he just eats a lot better.

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To see pictures of lambing and pruning and seeding and the (for real this time) beginning of spring, click here...