wendell berry's radical pessimism
The celebrated farmer and poet shares a message of love in a time of unrest.
December 15, 2016
“My personal response to the election is, ‘Well, I’m still on the losing side.’ And that’s where I’ve taken up my residence.”
Wendell Berry is many things: celebrated writer, farmer, environmentalist, agrarian, an elder statesman of the local food movement. But as he sat down in front of a sold-out audience at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, there was a palpable sense in the crowd of folks searching for some sort of wisdom in this particularly fraught national moment. The event was a public conversation with Eric Schlosser, investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation, held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the school’s Center for a Livable Future. And anyone interested in the work of the Center to study the intersections between food systems, the environment, and human health was surely sitting there on December 7th, 2016 worried about the fate of the issues about which they care deeply.
“And I’m going to be on the losing side, I’m not going to live a day on the winning side,” Berry went on to say. “If Hillary Clinton had won, I would still be on the losing side. And I would just have to go to work.”
Pessimism is rarely a celebrated trait, even more rarely something that someone proudly claims. I would certainly not call Wendell Berry a pessimist. But implied within his worldview is a deep pessimism about American and Western beliefs in the inevitability of progress, in the power of science and industry to solve every problem. And in that way, being pessimistic about core ideals of the society in which you’re a part can give one the freedom to focus on more important work, to find hope and solace in more genuine places. It can put in perspective something even as truly devastating as the election that was held on November 8th, 2016.
“I wasn’t surprised. The conditions for this election and the Trump triumph have been building up in rural America ever since VJ Day in 1945,” Berry went on to explain. “These people out there in the country that have been dismissed as dispensable, unneeded, redundant – the economy has told them that there’s no need for them, and so a certain resentment has understandably built up.”
Berry talked about “this very curious thing” where economic logic has led to dairy people sending their milk to town only to have to buy it back in the grocery store, and that to have an economy where people can actually do things for themselves “has an economic value, an economic worth, and it underwrites a kind of dignity that people ought not be caught without.”
The radical nature of Berry’s pessimism allows him to see a problem for what it is, to not separate out issues, but rather to speak to whole people and whole communities about what’s going on. “You can’t start from a little community, as I do, and then become a specialist in problems,” he said. “I can’t think about climate change and look away from the ruining land and the ruining communities and the ruining towns and the ruining lives that are around me. All that has to do with climate change. A lot of climate change starts right there.”
He spoke about the “great mistake” of separating the land and the people, in that it “permits people to treat the land as an inert material quantity” to be safely exploited. He told the story of the first time he saw strip mining, saying, “It never occurred to me that people could do a thing like that.”
“We’ve been burning the world up, literally, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Coal is the earth. Petroleum is the earth.” The World-Ending Fire is the title of Berry’s forthcoming collection of essays, and in shockingly frank, dark, and likely true imagery, he said that “if you want to be desperate about it, you can say that the World-Ending Fire is burning in every internal combustion engine every day.” As someone reliant on an inefficient old pickup, he said that this implicated him as well.
But his most provocative statements were saved for the movement to put that fire out. “I think that the climate change issue is a big distraction. I’m not denying it,” he said, “But you mustn’t look away from the other things that are wrong.”
“One thing I dislike about the climate movement is its almost exclusive appeal to guilt, anger, and fear. I just don’t think the answer’s going to come from there.” Wendell Berry’s radical pessimism often leads to a more holistic clarity and a more profound optimism, and nowhere was that more obvious than when he went on to say, “I think it’s going to come from love. I think it’ll come from people finding work that they love, and loving one another.”
He called for “a broad fronted movement – and it would be economic – to protect everything that’s worth protecting, to stop permanent damage to everything that’s worth keeping. This is not something that I think can be enacted very soon, but that’s what I’m for.”
“A whole program of that kind has to be carried on by whole people,” he went on to say. “People who are not ashamed to say that they love something, or that they have reverence, who are not ashamed of the upper branches of our language.”
As the conversation went along, the wisdom seemed to wash over the audience, transforming the restless anxiety into a sense of joyous resolve in the face of all challenges. At least, it did for this young farmer.
Responding to a question from the audience, he said, “I can’t give anybody hope. Hope has to come up out of you. It’s been a struggle for me to be hopeful, and all I can do is invite other people to take up the same struggle.”
“Hope is a virtue,” he went on to say. “You have to have it, you have to choose it.
With the event coming to a close, he shared a recent story of civil disobedience where he was part of a sit-in protest against mountaintop removal coal mining at the Capitol Building in his home state of Kentucky. It was futile, and he and everyone else knew it. “The score between conservationists and the coal industry is 100 to nothing… we haven’t got a chance.” And yet, they did it anyway, living out their ideals in how they interacted with each other, in how they interacted with the building staff. It was one of the best weekends of his life.
“I think that’s the way you get on. You’re up against it, you’re hard up against it, you do what you can, and you have a good time. You love your allies, the people you’re doing it with.”
And then the event ended, and we all went back out into the world, now with a little bit more clarity and perspective than with which we entered.
Dirt Eaters - Brian Massey
This is the original version of an article published by Civil Eats on December 20, 2016. Please check it out, and support the rest of their vital food- and farm-based journalism.
making connections, taking risks
eco practicum nyc empowers the next wave of food activists
April 23, 2016
“We feel a real sense of urgency to get more people acting on very serious issues,” Tal Beery explained to me. “We don’t have the luxury of moving slowly.” Tal is, along with his wife, Eugenia Manwelya, the co-founder of Eco Practicum and the co-facilitator of the third edition of their 2016 spring break program, developed in partnership with Our Name Is Farm, held from March 16th – 20th, and titled Eco Practicum NYC – Effective Advocacy for a Better Food System.
“We have to get as many people as possible engaged in these issues. We are really interested in asking people to take meaningful and tangible action.”
For anyone within the broader environmental movement, or even the more narrowly defined food movement, such sentiments seem unremarkable. But after hanging out with Tal and Eugenia and the 20 strivers and dreamers and career changers participating in the program, I came to realize that they were engaged in something unique and necessary, something remarkable indeed.
I read the motto found at the top of Eco Practicum’s website, “We make idealism practical,” as saying that idealism is pointless unless it is translated into action on a daily basis by a real human being with real human needs and limitations. Tal and Eugenia have made it their work to help those real humans do just that.
“My idealism is about a deep recognition that your life matters, and what you choose to do with your life matters,” Eugenia said. She designed Eco Practicum NYC to take its participants to “a more empowered and connected stage in their process to engage with this work, to manifest their passions, to do the work they want to do.”
I was chatting with Tal and Eugenia as the program’s participants were spread out around us in the lobby of the hostel in Queens that served as our home base. They were college students looking to find a passion, they were in their mid-20s looking to find a career, and they were in their mid-30s looking to change a career. They had traveled from Oklahoma and California and Florida and Long Island. They had applied for scholarships and self-fundraised to cover the $880 tuition. They had forgone other more conventional ways of spending their spring breaks to instead tromp around the five boroughs, receiving an introduction to the vibrant, growing, messy, and contradictory local food system found in our country’s biggest city.
Now, they were all working on their final collaborative projects, engaged in deep conversation and contemplation, trying to make sense of all they’d experienced during these five days.
That final project is one of four core components – along with “Encountering Experts,” “Farming & Land Stewardship,” and “Learning Together” – of every Eco Practicum program. The programs are designed to be experiential and intensive, forging a deep connection among the participants and between them and the experts with whom they engage.
“Food and agriculture are always core themes in our programs because everything is connected to soil,” Tal told me. “In our summer Practicum, participants spend mornings working on our on-site educational farm, growing and harvesting produce, and caring for chickens, sheep, and ducks. This spring was the first time, however, we chose to make a program specifically about food.”
The itinerary for this year’s Eco Practicum NYC included visits to urban farms and composting facilities and aquaponics demonstration sites. The participants spoke to experts about green roofs and local food investment, about farmers markets and food advocacy through social media, about food waste and dumpster diving on the Upper East Side. Throughout it all, they shared meals and personal stories and ideas and dreams.
“By the [end of the] first day, all of us were so close,” Jasmine Michel, a participant by way of Miami and New York, said while working on her final project.
For Veronica Legarreta, a participant from Los Angeles, the visit to an urban farm run by the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger was a particularly profound experience. “It was like a light bulb went off,” she told me. “I was like, ‘Wow, those are all of the things that I’ve been wanting to do with food and my identity.’”
“I think people are leaving from here with a much better sense of how the different aspects of our food system interact with each other,” Tal said, “and what they can choose to do moving forward.”
Eugenia and Tal have a vision for how they want to see the food movement evolve. They started Eco Practicum out of a desire to bridge environmentalism and local food and social justice, to produce folks who can make those links, who can think systematically, who can help nudge our food culture in a just and sustainable direction. They want to, in the Tal’s words, create “a generation of skilled land stewards.”
But they also want to break down the divide for participants between thought and action. They want to make folks comfortable with the contradictions inherent to our food system, with the compromised nature of any action in the real world. They want to complicate things in a way that empowers folks to act and get involved. “We’re trying to bridge the gap between learning and doing,” Eugenia said.
“The closer I have gotten to the people and organizations doing the most effective work in the environmental movement right now,” Tal told me, “the more I see how important it is to embrace complexity and contradiction, to keep an open and non-judgmental mind, and to recognize that we can’t, and shouldn’t, expect people to be pure.” He then emphasized that, “it’s especially important to have this patience with yourself, because that [leads] to a more sustainable engagement in the movement.”
On the second day of the training, the group met with an executive from Slow Money NYC, an organization that helps drive investment into sustainable food projects. Tal found the experience to be a perfect example of what they’re trying to show their participants.
“Derek [Denckla] really understood how compromised the system was, and how difficult it would be within that system to create a more equitable paradigm. But he operated within it nonetheless, and saw major gains in the last 10 years,” Tal said. “It was an example of someone who was really in the trenches, really trying to make major changes in mindset. It’s promising and inspiring that someone would choose to take that challenge on.”
For a movement to grow and evolve and find any form of success over the long haul, it must allow for the individuals that make it up to make a living, to have some semblance of financial security. That’s one of many reasons why Eco Practicum puts so much focus on meeting with people who are engaged in solving difficult social and environmental issues on a daily basis.
“It's important for young folks at the beginning of their careers, or slightly older folks who are looking to make a career transition, to see that you can sustain a good life and fight for a better world at the same time,” Tal said.
But the founders of Eco Practicum know that forging a new path toward justice and sustainability – be it as a society, as a city, or as an individual – is emotionally daunting as well, and more likely to be done when supported and encouraged by a connected community.
“Working in the environmental movement, fighting to transform in the way we live, we tend to be up against major obstacles,” Tal told me. “Despite the fact that the movement is vibrant and growing, the scale of the issues can sometimes make the work feel lonely and can easily make anyone feel disheartened. That’s why we’ve found it so important to strengthen our alumni network… a community of shared purpose that alumni can draw on for support throughout their careers.”
Alumni of Eco Practicum programs are actively engaged now in journalism, engineering, visual arts, business, social work, and yes, farming too. One past participant is known as the “compost king of Connecticut,” and another is a whole-animal butcher.
“We often hear from alumni that Eco Practicum gives them a renewed sense of possibility, that they are inspired by all the exciting and practical ways to engage in the environmental movement,” Tal told me later. “So many of our alumni are now on the path of establishing careers in this sector, and through Eco Practicum, they also have a supportive community of peers who can help them when they need it.”
As our conversation ended, Tal and Eugenia rushed off to prepare the site for the closing night’s presentations, and the buzz and energy of an intense, transformative experience permeated throughout the hostel’s bar and lobby. These participants arrived in Queens thinking about the future, only now finding themselves immersed in the present.
But the future would come roaring back the next day, after the program ended, a future that’s for many young idealistic folks too often full of risk aversion and social isolation, of vocational confusion and professional frustration.
At Eco Practicum, they want you to know that “whatever path you choose to take, you can engage with these urgent issues. And we want you to have a community where that is supported.”
Dirt Eaters - Brian Massey
This is the original version of an article published in Civil Eats on May 6, 2016. Please check it out, and support the rest of their vital food- and farm-based journalism.
a movement in transition
snapshots from the young farmers conference
December 22, 2015
When the days turn cold and dark, farmers celebrate. After months of unrelenting labor, they’re finally able to sit down and relax, to spend time with family and friends, and to travel far and wide to connect and commiserate with their colleagues in this rapidly evolving industry.
Farming conferences small and large dot the landscape throughout the winter months. One of the most popular and high-profile gatherings in recent years has been the Young Farmers Conference, hosted by the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture as a key part of their Growing Farmers Initiative. The conference has sold out for many years running, with the 250+ attendees selected through applications and a lottery system, and it routinely attracts big names from the farming world and beyond, such as Wendell Berry in 2013 and Mark Bittman this year.
“The community, first and foremost,” Alexis Barbalinardo told me, explaining what makes the Young Farmers Conference important. As the co-manager at Back 40 Farm in NW Connecticut, she acutely feels that need for connection. “You’re head is down, your pedal’s to the metal, and it’s hot and it’s hard and you sort of forget every once in a while to check in and say, ‘Hey, why am I doing this? What’s the bigger picture of this movement?’ And when you’re in a room with 200 other young farmers who have been in the same boat, it’s a special thing.”
On December 2nd – 4th, 2015, I attended the 8th annual Young Farmers Conference and had the chance to witness that special thing in person. I spoke with many young farmers and workshop presenters and industry leaders, and what I found was a local food movement in transition, justifiably celebrating all that it has accomplished, but unsure of exactly where it’s going next, unsure of exactly how it’ll get there. Amidst the revelry, there was a bit of discontent, a palpable sense of restlessness. The opportunities for young farmers are plentiful right now, but so are the pitfalls.
Sitting next to me at a small roundtable discussion, Jered Lawson, co-Founder and co-Director of Pie Ranch, captured the mood succinctly when he said, “We can’t let the food movement stop at the glorification of local food.”
Pie Ranch is an educational farm, founded by Jered and his wife Nancy Vail in 2004, north of Santa Cruz on the California coast. It is currently in the middle of a large expansion of both land and mission, pioneering new partnerships with Bay Area institutions like Google and Stanford, while also launching an incubator program designed to offer training in sustainable agriculture to the local, mostly-Latino, population. The response has been supportive, but not enthusiastic.
“How is it that we build a more desirable farming system that does pay a living wage and is a way that people can send their kids to college?” Nancy asked me. “We need more farmers more than ever right now,” she went on to say, but we need to make sure “that we’re not falsely growing new farmers without any new place for them to go.”
In response to the burgeoning demand from young folks interested in sustainable agriculture, new farmer training and apprenticeship programs are sprouting up every year all over the country. But compared to the opportunities available for those interested in other career tracks, there are still too few of these programs, and they tend to be concentrated only in certain regions.
“There aren’t a lot of farms [in Georgia] that have apprenticeship programs,” said Ashley Rodgers of Serenbe Farms, one of a growing number of suburban “agrihoods” centered around small farms. “Learning how to farm [down here] can be a little difficult. There’s no interim step between intern and farm manager.”
“I think those [opportunities] need to increase,” Alexis of Back 40 Farms told me. “It’s a matter of making sure the public feels that farming is a legitimate profession.”
And yet, once leaving these programs, many young farmers are finding core business models centered around foundational ideas like the Farmers Market and the CSA to be unsustainable. In one recent study of CSA farmers in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, 81 percent responded that their full-time activities were not producing a living wage. Perversely, that may be the best option available to many folks, as the number of CSA farms continues to grow at rapid rate.
“I think we are at this point where we’re in need of innovation, and it’s coming up slowly and bubbling to the top, but it’s not coming up quite as quickly as our young farmers are coming up,” Angela Roell of Yard Birds Farm told me. “I feel like we’ve gotten to a point where the old models don’t work. And we haven’t quite gotten to a point where we can figure out other ways for us to insert ourselves into the food system as small farms.”
In thinking about where the movement has been and where it needs to go, the emotional reality of modern-day farmers was heavy on the mind of Jill Isenbarger, the Executive Director of Stone Barns.
“The next phase is having many more farmers who can make a living in a way that is emotionally sustainable,” she told me. “What I’m interested in seeing is if you look at the 300 people here this week, how many of them are practicing agriculture in 10 years? How many of them feel that they’re able to do that?”
Talk to most any young or beginning farmer, and you’re likely to hear stories of the emotional exhaustion and financial stress that too often come along with Farmers Markets and CSAs. “I don’t see [Farmers Markets] as a financially viable and sustainable way for farmers to get their product out there. There’s too much loss and too much time invested,” Angela of Yard Birds Farm said. “I feel like everyone I talk to has the same problem, and we don’t yet have a viable solution.”
“There’s such a small percentage of the population that wants to purchase food that way, and there are so many people out there,” Nancy of Pie Ranch pointed out. “Where is that connection?”
Private-sector food companies like Blue Apron, which in 2015 served three million pounds of locally sourced produce in their meal kits from small- and medium-sized farms, are increasingly trying to make that connection. Matt Wadiak, founder and COO of Blue Apron, told me that in the grand scheme of US agriculture he knows that’s but a drop in the bucket. But, as Matt said, “If that grows by 20 times, and there are other people doing that, and public institutions are doing that, all of a sudden you’re talking about a lot of land.” You’re talking about a lot of farmers, too. "From our perspective," he went on to say, "we don't have enough small growers growing for us, and we would like more."
Wadiak says that Blue Apron has “a lot of experience getting people to a point where they can support an actual commercial-size harvest.” It also has a full-time agro-ecologist on staff, and a farm-sourcing team that consults and builds relationships with farmers.
He then ended our conversation by issuing a direct plea to the conference attendees, to anyone interested in potentially growing for them: “Call me, please. We need more farmers.”
Institutions like Stone Barns, and companies like Blue Apron, seem to be increasingly lining up to help support young farmers grow beyond the CSA and farmers market models, so that their food can reach more people, and so that the economy as a whole can support more folks growing food in a sustainable, resilient way.
Jill says that Stone Barns “can help make progress to develop food hubs and creative solutions for transportation to get goods from small farms aggregated and into different markets.”
But while there is clear excitement around the opportunities emerging through the hard work of building new business models and new food distribution systems, several folks mentioned the importance – from both an idealistic and practical perspective – of ensuring that the food movement did not limit itself to a small and unrepresentative slice of the overall population.
“People talk about organic food and high-quality food as something for yuppies or middle-class white America,” Maya Kosok of Hillen Homestead told me. “But I was surprised – probably wrongfully so – at how many people living in really poor neighborhoods in Baltimore would walk by our farm stand or our mobile market and ask ‘What chemicals are on this? Is this getting sprayed?’” She said that the idea that those with money are the only consumers that are educated about food issues “is really wrong and really unfair. I think that there’s a much higher demand and interest [in local and sustainable food] than a lot of people will give urban areas credit for.”
“As the food movement matures, my hope is that some of the discussions about inequality and structural racism will make their way more centrally” into everything we do, she said. Beyond just broadening consumer awareness and building a new food infrastructure, internal notions of who the food movement is, and who it’s for, need to be shifted.
“We’re constantly learning more about our history,” Nancy of Pie Ranch told me. We’re “working through feelings of defensiveness and guilt as white people. There’s a lot of opportunity in that in working with the soil and with plants and with communities.”
Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff, the founders of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, view their work as much of a cultural healing project for youth of color who might strongly associate farming and oppression, as it is a farmer training program. Doing that work “looks like being together and being loving with each other,” co-founder Jonah Vitale-Wolff said, “but being fierce with each other and challenging each other. Truly changing our food system doesn’t always look pretty.”
As a movement changes and grows and tries to become both what it always aimed for and something it never imagined, tweaking one’s guiding principals is both fraught and fundamental.
Jonah has some advice for how to navigate those choppy waters. “It involves a kind of radical listening,” he said. “It involves being open to things that we weren’t expecting or don’t necessarily want to hear.”
Where that radical listening will take the food movement, we’re yet to find out. The days are getting longer again, and spring’s on its way. It’s time to get to work.
Dirt Eaters - Brian Massey
This is the original version of an article published by Civil Eats on December 29, 2015. Please check it out, and support the rest of their vital food- and farm-based journalism.
Connection and Convenience in Rural America
Whole-Diet CSAs Try to Have it All
August 6, 2015
Sarah Bernardi never goes to the grocery store.
Well, okay, that’s not quite true, she says, revising her statement: “The CSA provides 90% of my food. I buy crackers, pasta, oils, and nut butters. All those things I could live without, if I really wanted to.” She thinks some more, searching for something simple and declarative that’ll hold up under scrutiny. She finds it.
“I have not bought a vegetable since joining the CSA.”
Sarah is a member is the Whole-Diet CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program offered by Moutoux Orchard, a farm in Purcellville, Virginia, an hour west of the Capital Beltway. It aims to provide, as the name suggests, all of the food that an individual or family needs, all year round. Sarah and other members drive to the farm every Tuesday or Friday afternoon to pick up their vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, grains, and milk for the week. They take as much as they’ll use, with no quotas or limits or money changing hands.
Sarah acknowledges that it’s not the most convenient option available, even within the growing local food marketplace. But, she says, “to make up for that, they set it up so it’s like a grocery store, and you go and you take whatever you want. There’s something really nice about that, because you pick it yourself. You’re choosing what you want and what you know you'll eat, you’re not just getting a box of stuff that someone’s put together for you.”
“This idea of a whole-diet CSA is a relatively new concept,” says Maureen Moutoux, co-manager of Moutoux Orchard. She mostly goes by Mo. “There just aren’t that many of them in the country.”
As with most unregulated terms, it’s hard to determine exactly how many Whole-Diet CSAs exist, but the best estimates say that there are a few dozen, at most. Essex Farm, one of the first and most well-known Whole-Diet CSAs, started back in 2003. And while Moutoux Orchard has been a working farm for over fifty years, this is only its fifth season running a Whole-Diet CSA.
“But while I say it’s a relatively new thing, it is essentially just a big homestead,” Mo goes on to explain. “We want to homestead, we want to be self-sufficient people, and to do that we expanded it to provide for a bunch of other families. We’re just glorified homesteaders, and our ‘kids’ happen to be our paid staff. We’re doing what people used to do all the time.”
Mike Kwasniewski started The Charm Farm’s Whole-Diet CSA in Beverly, WV for a slightly different reason: born and raised in West Virginia, he wanted to find a viable way of doing sustainable farming in a less-affluent rural economy. “I didn’t have that urban market where I could get a premium, so if I could supply more to fewer clients, and if I could structure the farm in a way that it could do all of that,” he says, “then I’d be better off by focusing on serving the local population instead of shipping [my food] off to the closest metro area.”
Mike describes his Whole-Diet CSA as a “one-farm local food economy,” and he sees the business model as one that would work for other folks in places that aren’t yet saturated with farmers markets and veggie CSAs. “It’s really a way to trailblaze for the local food economy in areas where there hasn’t been decades of work done, and the critical mass hasn’t happened,” he says. “One farmer or a couple farmers can go out and pretty much create a local food economy when it wasn’t necessarily there.”
The “brain drain” affecting rural America, and the corresponding aging of the nation’s farmers, have been well-documented for decades. Policymakers and academics continuously ask: “How do we get young people to go into farming? How do we get them to re-invest in small towns and rural communities?”
Mike and Mo and other farmers with Whole-Diet CSAs aren’t providing a simple and universal solution to that problem, but they are offering a rural-centric business model that works, a way to be financially and environmentally sustainable while also avoiding the isolation that can so often come along with rural and small town life.
“There’s definitely a strong sense of community, and I’m their household farmer,” Mike says about The Charm Farm. “I get invited to any wedding or event that happens. It’s a more intimate relationship than a veggie box, for sure. You try to know each family, and each kid in the family. People have a much stronger connection to the farm.”
For Mo and Moutoux Orchard, it’s a similar story. “I’m way into these people’s lives, in a good way,” she says. “And them in ours.”
“Some people want to reconnect to land,” she says, “some people want their kids to know where their food is coming from, some are battling cancer and believe that raw milk and whole nutritious food is important to their health. Everybody is a member for a different reason, but across the board, there’s something about coming to the place where their food is coming from, and seeing us every week, that [makes them] so invested in our lives. You’re just not going to get that anywhere else.”
Not every Whole-Diet CSA asks their members to come to the farm to pick up food, but many do. In the crowded local food marketplace of suburban Washington, DC, that differentiation is crucial for Moutoux Orchard. And by providing an intimate relationship as part of their CSA, they’re tapping into a large unmet demand: Moutoux Orchard has between 80-85 members, with no desire to expand, very little annual turnover, and over 150 people on their waiting list.
The Charm Farm doesn’t quite have that level of demand in West Virginia, but Mike’s building it. “It’s hard to gauge demand when folks aren’t exactly aware of it,” he says. “I think it is more of a void than a demand.”
Mike says he often has to explain what a CSA is, before getting into the even-more-novel concept of a Whole-Diet CSA. But for him, it’s worth it, and it’s work that’ll pay off. “There’s a lot to be said for coming back to the place that made you what you are, to reversing the youth and brain drain of rural America. People are excited to see something new and innovative in the area, they’re more than happy to support you, which makes marketing all that much easier.”
Connection or not, every farmer who has a Whole-Diet CSA will say that their success is ultimately based upon providing healthy, delicious, whole foods. Because when you ask folks to pay upfront for the majority of their caloric intake, there can be sticker-shock.
“We initially felt like it was too expensive,” says Heather Vogt, a member of the Moutoux CSA, which costs $250 per adult per month. “But then we tried the milk, and we were hooked. It changed our life, and this is how we eat now. The kids occasionally want things like cereal, but I’d say the farm provides 75-80% of our diet.”
To avoid pricing out his local community in the mountains of West Virginia, Mike set The Charm Farm’s CSA membership at 10% of the median annual income for his and the surrounding counties. Since that median income is $24,000/year, The Charm Farm’s Whole Diet CSA costs $2400/year, or $200/month.
“I’ve got a few single moms that aren’t rolling in the dough but want to do it for their kids, and [$200] was a good round number,” Mike told Chris Blanchard on the Farmer to Farmer Podcast. “I didn’t feel bad about asking folks to pay $50 a week for the farm’s production.”
Such prices are quite affordable, if the farm actually provides the vast majority of your food. That’s a big “if”, because eatingsolely from one farm requires a level of seasonality in one’s diet that would seem radical to most Americans. So while these farmers rely a bit on consumer education and building anticipation, they primarily rely on having an incredible product.
“I do try to communicate with them on a weekly basis about how things are going, about what crops are coming out,” Mike says. But, “eating with the ebb and flow of the seasons is easier when things just taste better.”
“I used to see the world broken up into seasons,” Moutoux Orchard CSA member Sarah says, “and now I see the world broken up into fruits and vegetables. First it’s blueberries, then blackberries, then squash. Everything has it’s little time, and that’s how I move through my life now.”
Mike says that, in terms of how much of each member’s caloric intake The Charm Farm is truly providing, it varies. “Some folks are probably at 50-60%, others are at 80-85%.” He uses himself as a test subject, seeing how much of his diet comes solely from his farm. He’s currently at 95%.
“It just depends on how many avocados you want to eat,” he says.
This level of connection to one place surely isn’t for every consumer, and the level of complexity and diversity required to provide it surely isn’t for every farmer. But for those for whom it does work, the connection is both deep and meaningful.
“I see it as that they’re feeding me,” Sarah says of Moutoux Orchard. “They’re keeping me alive, and I really appreciate it.”
Dirt Eaters - Brian Massey
Postscript: This is the original version of an article that would go on to be published by Civil Eats on September 17th, and then by The Atlantic on September 26th. That was pretty cool for me, so please go check those out as well.
“Chase the dream, catch it, and grind it out.”
The Farm on Cragged Mountain at the start
March 1, 2015
When I met Nicholas Phillip Utter, it was our first night at The Farm School, and we were chatting with a quirky local mycologist about the carcinogenic effects of uncooked mushrooms. You know, the kind you find on every salad bar and in every veggie-and-dip platter in the country. I looked across the table to this young dude with long blonde hair that I didn’t know, and I think I actually saw his mind being blown. After a moment to compose himself, he re-engaged in the conversation with a fiery look of curiosity and excitement.
It was a look I got quite used to during our twelve months together in central Massachusetts.
I had come to The Farm School with years of thought and discernment behind me, and with a clear-eyed sense of what I wanted to get from the place and where I wanted to go. Nick, as he’ll tell you below, had stumbled into the place through some combination of persuasion and openness to the serendipity of the universe. He wasn’t sure what he was getting into, but he was going to dive into it with his full self. That much I could tell from the start.
Twelve months later, after endless sessions in the classroom and forest and field, Nick had a look of hardened clarity to him. The fire and curiosity weren’t gone, of course, but they had become trained on one incredible, daunting, life-defining task: starting a farm on the property of a beloved summer camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
One of the many unexpected joys of The Farm School was watching people embrace and embark on journeys that were both similar and different from your own, watching them develop and refine the passions around which they’d structure their existence.
"I’m from Exeter, NH. You don’t grow up in Exeter and own hogs at age 25 unless you follow some sort of dream, however wayward."
I had the pleasure of driving to New Hampshire last May to visit Cragged Mountain and help Nick (and Will and Alicia and everyone else involved in this project) take some first baby steps toward transforming a property that carries so much meaning for him and many others. It was a special place, and a special piece of land, and you could feel the care and connection immediately upon your arrival. It was beautiful, and had undeniable potential.
It also wasn’t a farm, not even close.
Ideas have a serpentine but unrelenting way of going from abstract to real, so that one day you’re brainstorming in the local pub with your cousins, and then another day you’re waking up in a frozen landscape to go feed the pigs. What a terrifying and incredible transformation that can be.
I wanted to catch Nick and The Farm on Cragged Mountain at the start, after he’d jumped in with his whole being, but before it became whatever it’ll become. I also wanted an excuse to chat with him and hear how it was all going, because he’s a great guy and a good friend with a fascinating mind who was starting a farm, who was “living the dream,” whatever that meant.
The following is a lightly edited conversation between Nick and me, conducted through email, over the course of a few months.
Brian: So, why farming?
Nick: I love the pertinence of farming. We, as humans, eat food. There are so many of us because of the Neolithic Revolution 10,000 years ago, when people started farming, and the domestication of large quantities of animals 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians, and hence the available proteins and disease tolerance for more of us to live and to live in proximity, and the utilization of winds and sails…
And I’m here in New Hampshire due to the wild successes of Eurasian agriculture in the temperate zones across the oceans and far from the ‘Old World.’ I love connecting with how we got to this point, for better and worse, and considering where and how we go from here. I feel an undeniable sense of importance, genuine interest, and purpose in considering the sustainable creation of food on a daily basis. That’s my macro-reasoning.
On a micro-scale, I love that it’s complicated and the decisions are constant. To grow food, there is a manic balance of knowledge, wisdom, grunt work, and timing, and the difficulty of the balancing act exponentializes when considering the financial side of things and the undeniably unpredictable ‘people’ side of things.
“I feel an undeniable sense of importance, genuine interest, and purpose in considering the sustainable creation of food on a daily basis.”
Brian: What is The Farm on Cragged Mountain?
Nick: The Farm on Cragged Mountain is a Limited Liability Company registered in the state of New Hampshire. Just kidding. Well, not really, but it’s much more than that. I promise. It’s the dream I developed over this past year with my cousin, Will Nissen, while studying sustainable agriculture and community at The Farm School.
I ended up in Athol seemingly randomly after meeting Ben Holmes, the founder, at a cousin’s wedding and, long story short, I’d been struck by lightning the previous weekend - literally, via a lightning strike outside of the building where I was washing dishes, which shocked me through the current traveling up the plumbing to the sink where I was scrubbing away - and knew the stars were aligning for a change.
Upon being recommended the idea of studying at The Farm School, I went for it and maintained a mandate of non-committal enthusiasm through February. After February I got committal. My family owns a 180 acre property in the foothills of the White Mountains in Freedom, New Hampshire where we run a sleepaway co-ed summer camp that focuses on hiking and canoeing. It’s called Cragged Mountain Farm. My great-grandfather bought the land in 1927 and planted the majority of the open farmland to white and red pine trees in the early 1930s.
Like many classic summer camps, Cragged is struggling to make the financial numbers work in the modern day. Difficult issues include the need to market in a modern way to differentiate from the trend of shorter-term specialized summer camps. Parents are becoming reluctant to send their child away for four weeks at a time given the norms of being in constant contact with one’s child.
I come from a family with seven cousins who very much love Cragged Mountain Farm and want it to continue. We have been talking for years about the need to revitalize and remarket our wonderful place in the world, but without anyone taking action. My idea had been a vague one that involved adding a working farm to the landscape of the place - inspired by my cousin, Charlie. By the end of February it became obvious that I had the opportunity to take action and that I needed to commit. So commit I did and here I am.
Utilizing the skills, knowledge, and large skills/knowledge resource bank that exists at The Farm School, Will and I came up with an outline for our vision of a ‘farm on Cragged Mountain.’ Our mission is to run a farm on the Cragged Mountain property that is environmentally, financially, and socially sustainable and which partners with the summer camp operation. Small-scale and diversified are two adjectives that best describe the sort of farm enterprises we are pursuing to keep in accord with our mission.
"TO GROW FOOD, THERE IS A MANIC BALANCE OF KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, GRUNT WORK, AND TIMING."
Brian: What have you learned from the beginning of this journey? What has attending The Farm School and starting The Farm on Cragged Mountain taught you so far?
Nick: The best thing The Farm School taught me was the process of assessing a project and believing in my capacity to understand what needs to be done and executing it, regardless of whether there are new skills that must be learned to execute said project. I am far less constrained by fear than ever before.
Brian: Starting any small business seems to me like a semi-crazy decision, and starting a small farm business might just be fully crazy. And yet, many succeed and thrive, doing great work. What about The Farm on Cragged Mountain makes you believe that it can survive and thrive? What will be its biggest challenges to surviving and becoming a thriving socially- and ethically-minded business? What are you most excited about, and what are you most worried about?
Nick: I think about this one all the time. I actually started a small landscaping business with a couple of high school buddies when we were 19, which did pretty well. We had as much work as we could want, and I remember realizing that we could probably drop out of college, expand our scale and abilities, and make a living at it for the rest of our lives. This was a mildly frightening realization.
It is frightening, no matter the perspective, to start a business and live in the time before said business makes any money. My brain works somewhat logically. There’s a reason people talk about the ‘death of the family farm,’ and that’s because we don’t live in a decentralized agrarian society of self-sustaining local communities anymore. Such communities are now a choice for people to make, and none of us live in the same reality, with the same information, relatively, as people used to live.
The success of The Farm on Cragged Mountain depends on our ability to sell ourselves. We can create great products, but lots of people can create great products. Food is a product with inelastic demand, which indicates a low-risk industry to enter. But local, ethical, organic, whatever-you-label-it food is an elastic product with more and more suppliers for The Farm on Cragged Mountain to compete with each year. I think about how we can differentiate ourselves from the competition and what we can produce that people will want to buy from us. I think about this sort of thing all of the time.
I hope the partnership with the much-loved summer camp helps us to connect with an initially larger network of supporters than if we were to begin a farm on a property with no apparent historical and contemporary culture. The biggest challenges will be creating outstanding products and then selling them. It’s happening. We’re starting a farm.
"WINTER IN A WOOD-HEATED AND MOSTLY-INSULATED CABIN IN THE WOODS STARTING A FARM CAN BE ROMANTICIZED, AND I'VE CERTAINLY BEEN GUILTY OF IT. THERE WAS NOTHING ROMANTIC ABOUT THOSE THREE DAYS. I COULD HARDLY EVEN EAT!"
Brian: I can imagine a million tasks big and small involved in the early days of a farm enterprise. What have you focused on since moving to Cragged Mountain in October of 2014? Where have you invested your time?
Nick: Issue number one upon moving to Cragged was the fact that no person had wintered on the property since my Uncle Ben in the early 90s, over twenty years ago. To start a farm, you have to be able to live on, or very near, said farm. It gets cold up here and issues like a winter water system, a wood stove, lots of dry wood to burn, and insulation needed to be figured out.
We, my partner Alicia and I, spent a good quantity of time, energy, and resources making the building we live in livable. We insulated various ceilings and walls with fiberglass and siding, put an insulated stove pipe through the roof and connected it to my uncle’s old wood stove, and hired a plumber to connect a pressure tank to a well and to an underground pipe intake system. Hiring a plumber is more of a pain in the ass than I would have thought.
Because I didn’t cut my firewood - our primary heat source - last winter and let it cure for the year, I cut some live trees throughout the summer for late winter use and after I arrived in September, I began consistently felling large snags – almost entirely dead large ash trees. Ash has low BTUs relative to most hardwoods, but it’s what was available, so I went for it. I’ve felled, cut and stacked something like five or six cords (with much help from loved ones) for this winter’s home heating use. Certainly not a sustainable method of heating one’s home, and not great for the biodiversity that thrives in the snags, but it was a necessity to make this dream a day-to-day reality. Establishing the actual farm is the genesis of all of the work to create a reasonable winter living space.
"As usual the hardest part is starting. Just gotta make a reasonable design, buy the materials, and get to grinding. Then you can do fun stuff like buy piglets on the internet and transport them in the back of a van."
I’ve spent a good amount of time on the Craigslist. A mostly new thing for me, but that site was the source of half a dozen purchases I’ve made over the last two and a half months. Want to buy heritage breed piglets? Craigslist. Want to buy the primary asset in your maple syrup operation, a 2’ x 8’ evaporator and all the goodies that come with it? Craigslist. Want to get lost in the rabbit hole of the non-existent 2 5/8” trailer ball hitch? Craigslist. How about a truck? You get the idea.
It’s a great way for a newcomer to the business of small-scale agriculture to get access to the market at something close to market rates with no real professional network. It’s been great and, as always, the opportunity to remember that strangers are nearly uniformly kind and reasonable people is good medicine.
I built more things and pushed my comfort zone on construction more in the first two months than in my entire year at The Farm School: building a door with a fiberglass window, chicken roosts/boxes, a self feeder for hogs on a platform, a hog house, and the interior ceilings and siding on my house among other things I’m forgetting. As usual the hardest part is starting. Just gotta make a reasonable design, buy the materials, and get to grinding. Then you can do fun stuff like buy piglets on the internet and transport them in the back of a van.
Additionally, I’ve been continuing the process of working with a forester, and now a logging company, to organize the opening up of 25 acres or so of old agricultural land here on the mountain. All is progressing, and it looks like we’ll have some real pasture to work with this summer with some vegetable acreage being ready to go in spring 2016.
Brian: All career choices are lifestyle choices, but farming maybe more so than most. What about the lifestyle so far makes it all worth it, and what makes you question what the heck you're doing?
Nick: The most challenging thing is convincing myself to get the hell out of bed and go kick ass at 7am when the first cash inflows won’t be happening until the end of March at the earliest.
Waking up and kicking ass is easiest when people other than yourself are counting on yourself to do said waking and kicking. The farm is not floundering due to my sloth, but I’ll admit that it’s common to be hitting a stride on a project in the last couple hours of daylight and to rue the early sunsets of these northern latitudes with a beer or three when more could’ve been accomplished with more motivation. Again, it’s hard to pressure myself when there’s no immediate pressure.
I love that each of my days begins with thirty minutes of work before my first coffee and that my first coffee is in front of a fire burning wood that I felled, bucked, and split - with help from sundry friends and relatives, of course - that is heating my dwelling, and that I get to care for animals on a piece of land that I treasured throughout my childhood and adolescence right through to where I am now. I know it’s worth it because I never sit down and think “gee, I wish I was doing this or that” or “if only I could start doing this or that I’d be on the right path.” I’m living my own hero story in this precious life.
Brian: Crazily enough, the current farm school students have reached the point in their year where you (last year) decided to commit to this life, to this project. Looking back on that, what advice would you give to those students thinking about what to commit to? What advice would you have for any young-ish person thinking about diving into a farming life?
Nick: I have similar advice for both groups. If there’s an opportunity that is apparent and honestly fits into their dreams and goals for lifestyle and career then they ought to go for it. Farming or otherwise. Don’t fight the contextual events that will be there no matter what and which can be creatively used to make a dream a reality. If those events are moving you towards a story that involves farming, go for it, chase the story down! Also, as far as fear goes, I figure it’ll always be there in some form, so we’ve gotta have a little faith and just commit at some point. You can only accomplish so much without really committing, farming or otherwise. I’m just another 25 year old who doesn’t really know how to process all of the madness that is life and don’t have anything amounting to wisdom, but those are my two cents on the ‘advice’ subject.
"BY THE END OF FEBRUARY IT BECAME OBVIOUS THAT I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE ACTION AND THAT I NEEDED TO COMMIT. SO COMMIT I DID AND HERE I AM."
Brian: The early days of chasing a dream can be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. There's so much possibility and potential, and so much work. What has made you most excited these past several months, what has helped you push through all the hard work?
Nick: It is overwhelming thinking about the process of turning a property on the side of a mountain, on back roads in rural New Hampshire, that is covered in trees, which I don’t even own, into a working and financially self-sustainable farm. The key thing is being supported by my family.
They are willing to let me exist and create on a property that is very much special to each of them. Realizing the opportunity that I, as a 25 year old in this modern world, have to be a primary driver in the creation of a farm ecosystem on a beautiful expanse of property quickly puts in perspective whatever holdup I’m dealing with in the process of making The Farm on Cragged Mountain a reality.
Brian: So, you’re farming on a mountain in New Hampshire, where the winters get quite cold. This one seems particularly brutal. Anyone whom I tell about your enterprise laughs and shakes their head, as the snow pounding that New England has received is now national news. How is it going? How did the winterization hold up?
Nick: The low-expectations-good-times corollary is helpful in the winter. The big low of winter was in the first week of January when it got wicked cold. Our woodstove could not handle the real cold and I was having to wake up a couple times each night to stoke the fire, and then it got down to below -20 and when I went to run the cold water at 4am it was frozen, as was our cat's water dish. This led to a physically and emotionally draining three days where I learned to fix frozen pipes in freezing temperatures and kept the animals and my house watered by carrying five gallon buckets of water from the well house, which thankfully wasn't the source of the water freeze.
Needless to say I thought all my dreams were ending, or at the very least required drastic alterations. That was dramatic thinking, but was part of the process involved with facing up to the situation into which I'd put myself, Alicia and the farm. Winter in a wood-heated and mostly-insulated cabin in the woods starting a farm can be romanticized, and I've certainly been guilty of it. There was nothing romantic about those three days. I could hardly even eat!
Looking back, owning the situation and getting the plumbing back on line seems an easy thing, though at the time it was probably the realest moment of my entire existence on earth. Ten days later we were offered an old wood stove by Alicia's uncle, and thankfully it was exactly what we needed, it fits right on the slate in our living room centered under the stove pipe I installed last fall and keeps us in beach attire anytime we want, regardless of outside temperatures. So it goes, eh?
Brian: February is a funny time, because you have to plan for and imagine the spring and summer, while your lived reality could never be more different. How are those plans and imaginings going?
Nick: February is a funny time. It’s already half way over. Definitely an objectively fast month, all things considered! The land clearing project that was, and is, the crux of the farm plan is just now finishing up with the feller buncher opening up the lower five acre clearing. It all looks better than I expected, which is great, and it is also now very real.
The overall farm layout and design are the big items on my mind, at this point. I want to figure out a solid plan of action to implement large amounts of long-term perennial plantings, while still preparing some of the best land to go into a rotated annual vegetable system starting summer 2016. The more I look at the land and actively consider possibilities the more inspired I get, and the more I realize that designing 25+ acres of farmland for the future is a serious task to undertake.
"I AM FAR LESS CONSTRAINED BY FEAR THAN EVER BEFORE."
The true specifics need to be hashed out and they need to be hashed out in the next three months in order to intentionally manage the stumping/grading/liming/seeding processes which will be happening in May. That’s both plenty of time and not nearly enough time.
I think about things like growing organic hops on trellis wires on the main stems of hedgerow oak trees that used to be in a forest and are now just hanging out, long straight stems and all! I think about applying concepts highlighted in Mark Sheperd’s Restoration Agriculture such as a keyline water management system to more effectively distribute water on the property.
It’s similar to determining your portfolio management strategy and then picking out the stocks that you can afford and that you believe will pay out in the shorter term, while making a budget for ones you’d like to purchase in the future, ideally with cash flow created from the first stocks you buy. The caveat being that I will get to grow things rather than provide mystery capital to publicly traded corporations. All the fun and more with less negative externalities!
Brian: Speaking of investments, you got a tractor! How did that feel? Was that scary and/or exciting? What risks does a purchase like that involve? What possibilities has it opened up?
Nick: As far as risk, it has less than 200 hours and is a 2011 model, purchased from a guy whom I considered level-headed and honest. Those factors combined to hopefully limit my relative risk exposure. As long as it isn’t a lemon and we take care of it, we can sell it for good money into the foreseeable future. The lemon risk exposure is the big risk in my opinion. So far, so good on that front. I can now do things like install the maple syrup evaporator (we did that already), pull lengths of logs out of the woods, plow my large driveway area and roads for maple syrup season, pick up pallets of grain along with various other tasks which were much slower or impossible prior to the end of December.
Future possibilities are even more exciting. The backhoe is going to make perennial plantings, like a 2’x3’x2’ blueberry planting hole, much more efficient and thus more possible and hopefully profitable. We will be able to manage our farm roads with a grader implement. We are going to be able to seed and lime our fields with the spreading implement. The guy I bought the tractor from also sold me those implements. We are already empowered by the presence of the tractor, and will only continue to be as summer approaches.
Brian: Okay, this may be cruel, but you brought it up, so: Imagine summer for a moment. What are your hopes for that time? What do you hope to be doing? What do you hope to have done?
Nick: I will be grinding it out, day in and day out, laying down the foundation of this farm.
I hope we (Will and me and the landowners) have agreed upon a farm design with corresponding goals that inspire me. I hope to erect two separate barn structures, one pole barn style for storage and one timber frame style for animals - we’re getting the structure built by this year’s Farm School students. I hope to include interested friends and family in farm projects to get that much more done and to connect that many more people to this place and the land in general. I hope I’m inoculating mushrooms on oak logs, planting blueberry bushes, and working towards other long-term perennial planting goals which are reasonable to get in the ground the first summer. I hope people really enjoy the new look up here on Cragged Mountain and that they are excited to try out our quality products. Maple syrup and heritage pork will be available starting this April! I hope I’ve successfully seeded all the land that will need seeding. I hope to successfully raise pastured chickens, turkeys, grass-fed lamb (?!), and pastured tamworth/berkshire pork for a small meat CSA next fall/winter – currently thinking 25 member with 10-12lb product/month. I also plan to market that CSA! I hope I’m loving it all summer.
"I know it’s worth it because I never sit down and think 'gee, I wish I was doing this or that' or 'if only I could start doing this or that I’d be on the right path.' I’m living my own hero story in this precious life."
Brian: It's been a few months now since we started sending these questions and answers back and forth. How is that waking up and kicking ass going? Is the ever-closer nature of your first enterprise yielding a return helpful? Basically, how's your momentum as spring (theoretically) starts to come into view?
Nick: Waking up and kicking ass is great. I can feel the increasing light each day and that’s some powerful stuff, sunlight. Been locking in on the maple syrup operation for the past couple weeks, and I’ve had the coincidental timing of a great buddy from high school leaving his job as an engineer in the Gulf of Mexico at the exact moment when he could be incredibly helpful in getting the maple syrup operation off the ground here on Cragged Mountain. Since Mark got up here a week ago, my ambitions for the season have increased a good amount and we should be up around 400 taps rather than the 275 or so I originally forecast. I’m feeling great about syrup season right around the corner. Sugar fever, you might even say. I’ll be sure to send along some pictures of the sap lines and various other items for syrup production that I’ve gotten sorted out!
After syrup season it’s basically hiking up Mt. Washington to ski a handful of times, designing and putting up a pole barn, designing a farm that I will be subject to for the foreseeable future, purchasing livestock, marketing a CSA, being a good partner to the summer camp, and the various other sundry tasks of maintaining the farm and looking to the future. So it goes!
Brian: What does "living the dream" mean to you?
Nick: “Living the Dream.” What a great thing. A paradox? I’m pursuing the current version of my dreams, while still creating new dreams to work towards. I own hogs. They are awesome.
They party in the woods and eat as much food as they want – which is lots. I’m from Exeter, NH. You don’t grow up in Exeter and own hogs at age 25 unless you follow some sort of dream, however wayward.
Chase the dream, catch it, and grind it out. Our mission is to run a farm on the Cragged Mountain property that is environmentally, financially, and socially sustainable and which partners with the summer camp operation. There’s plenty of room on this mountain to see the dreams and catch the dreams. The living part sets in when you wake up every day and grind in the reality of a captured dream. It’s a process. It’s happening.
Dirt Eaters - Brian Massey