July 25, 2006

Think locally, grow locally

At A Place on Earth Farm in Campbellsburg, Carden Willis and Courtney Meade are thinking outside the agricultural boxPhoto by Ross Gordon: Carden Willis and Courtney Meade, both 25, followed varied routes to A Place on Earth, the Campbellsburg farm they now manage.Several years ago, in a PBS documentary about factory farming, a western tomato grower spilled some of the beans about the supermarket buying — and eating — experience. By this time in the show, the viewer had already toured the grower’s highly capitalized and mechanized operation, and understood that the grower’s relationship with his farm was as a kept man. Even if he had wanted to stop, he couldn’t. Profits per unit were slimmer than the tomato skins, and would aggregate into a meaningful sum only by the constant running of the tomato production line.It’s not surprising, then, how the grower described his job. Grow red orbs.Photo by Ross Gordon Harvest them. Package them. Get them to market. Get paid. How they tasted, including like nothing but pink water, was beyond the realm not just of his business, but his personal interest. If they happened to taste good, well, that was just a happy accident not relevant to growing red orbs.In Kentucky, Carden Willis and Courtney Meade are working hard to provide an alternative to that tomato grower’s point of view, and to industrial food production itself. As managers of A Place on Earth Farm in Campbellsburg, they’re part of the Community Supported Agriculture movement. CSA strives to build relationships between the growers and consumers of food, and to engender community within that relationship. Currently, there are at least 2,000 CSA farms across the United States, although there appears to be no reliable data about how many operate in Kentucky.A Place on Earth Farm is owned by Jim and Debbie Wayne. Jim is a state representative from the 38th district and president of Wayne Corp., which provides employee counseling to local businesses. The Waynes bought the farm in 2000. Although they were aware of the CSA movement at the time, their original intent was “to have a place for urbanites to go, to kind of restore their soul.”Photo by Ross Gordon“The main thing we wanted to do,” Jim Wayne says, “was to have a place set aside that was sacred and that we would work to nurture. That was the broad vision. We wanted to make sure the pastures were restored, the erosion was stopped. It was clear-cut, and so we started planting trees with a master plan to create a forested area, to protect the streams.” The farm became a CSA operation as the Waynes searched for an alternative to growing tobacco. CSA isn’t an official organization as such; it’s more of a socioeconomic model aimed at improving land and food quality. The movement had a worldwide presence for at least 35 years, including at least 25 in the United States.On the Saturday I visited A Place On Earth the farm, it looked at first glance like little more than a small, framePhoto by Ross Gordon country house and a barn at the end of a dirt road. Even with the weekday employees around, it’s not a place that would bustle, but then that’s sort of the point. At hand was a working illustration of the inherent simplicity of food-growing. Not to imply that hard work, both physical and imaginative, isn’t involved daily. Or that challenges don’t emerge one after the other. But it does show, directly and immediately, how much false economy stands between most of us and much of what we eat.The former tobacco barn is now a tractor shed and chicken house, and a temporary storage room for the knocked down walk-in cooler that Carden picked up at the old Westport Road Kroger. Beyond the barn, about five acres of the farm’s 116.5 acres are under cultivation; they supply the 60 families that have joined the venture. Ultimately, the Waynes hope to expand the operation to eight acres and 120 subscribers. The balance of the acreage is in pasture and hay for a beef operation run by another farmer, but still part of the CSA plan.The day I visited was well before the last frost. Hundreds of vegetable starts were emerging in cell packs on the plastic-sheeted porch and in one of the front rooms of the house. The greenish hue of grow lights leaked from both spaces. In a few weeks, these plants would be placed in the prepared soil to begin another season.By any measure, A Place On Earth farm is “organic,” but not officially so, which is of no concern to these farmers. As Carden and Courtney say in their brochure, “All are welcome and encouraged to come out to the farm and ‘certify’ for themselves.”Photo by Ross Gordon: Meade, 25, was a Navy brat. She first came to A Place on Earth in 2004, to help with the harvest.In fact, organic is in many ways old news. The Feds and state governments control the right to certify foods as organic, and that certification includes a mountain of paperwork and an endless succession of hoops and hurdles. And in somewhat the same way that GM and Ford, rather than compete with Swedish engineering and mystique, simply purchased Saab and Volvo, respectively, the giant food processors have already co-opted the concept of organic by requiring identity cards for food, as hollow as that designation ultimately is under that scenario. Wal-Mart is currently poised to become the nation’s largest retailer of organic food, just as it is now the largest retailer of organic milk. There’s little reason to think the mega-chain won’t pressure its food suppliers to conform to the Wal-Mart way — work the bait-and-switch with suppliers, bend the bounds of reasonable definitions, drive costs down at all costs — or that the definition of organic won’t become looser and grayer.In some ways, organic has gone the way of all natural as a description. All natural never meant much without qualification — sawdust, walnut husks and sand are all natural, after all, but you probably wouldn’t want any of it in your cereal. Currently, organic usually does mean just that, but there’s more to the idea than a provable lack of pesticides and antibiotics, or, in more recent news, high fructose corn syrup.A bag of apples might indeed be organic, meeting every formal or implied criteria of the term. But if the applesPhoto by Ross Gordon: The quest at A Place on Earth is synthesis — thought, imagination and intelligence, not just automatic responses. came from a 1,000-acre spread of complete monoculture, where a couple square miles are devoted entirely to a single crop, and if they were shipped 1,700 miles from Washington State to Louisville, well, hmm … suddenly that warm and fuzzy steward of the Earth, doin’ the right thing and feelin’ groovy glow becomes a little hard to embrace.And so Carden and Courtney are far more interested in a different adjective, namely local. Local, by its very meaning, is not and cannot be part of globalization. “I think something that’s meaningful to people who are in our CSA,” Carden begins, “is they get vegetables … that have dirt on them, or bug holes or whatever. It’s real food. The stuff that’s bought organic, the people might think they’re supporting something like what we’re doing. But it’s totally not. Somebody growing 1,000 acres of the same crop in the same place, you’re not walking through a real field, you’re walking through another mono crop industrial agricultural system.”Photo by Ross GordonGiven the financial stakes, it’s no surprise that the term organic was commodified by legislation at both the state and federal levels. This was lobbied for and seen to by the huge food processors, which managed to take something implicit and make it explicit. And it’s nothing new. In Kentucky, Jim Wayne helped support a successful 2003 bill, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Hoffman of Scott County, allowing farmers to sell home-processed foods directly to consumers. For decades, this most basic economy, and relationship, had been regulated into unfeasibility under the umbrella of health issues. These issues were legitimate, as with any food processing, but legislation had been too broad. Hoffman’s bill established exemptions from existing permit law for home-based operations, requires the Cabinet for Health Services to accommodate unique circumstances, and requires the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service to run a pilot microprocessing program.The benefit of a local economic relationship — or the drawback, from another viewpoint — is the elimination of middlemen. Commercial processors, container manufacturers, warehousing companies, transportation providers and big box retailers are removed from the loop of what’s grown locally. And if people see organic as something worthwhile and meaningful to purchase, then local takes the concept a step further. “Organic is a good step to take, for people to go to the store and find a label that says organic,” Carden concedes, explaining that official organic is better than nothing. But that’s just one piece. “If you’re buying something Photo by Ross Gordon travels two- or three-thousand miles in terms of oil … and you don’t know who grew it and you really don’t know the conditions it was grown under,” he says, then just organic begins to look like a one-legged stool.Photo by Ross GordonIn many ways, small farmers themselves have sawn off the other two legs over the last 50 years. “What small Kentucky farmers have done,” Wayne says, “is they’ve kind of merged with the dominant culture, which is to say, ‘OK, let’s all be corporate, let’s all get big, let’s all buy all this big equipment, let’s all go in debt and let’s pretend we’re ConAgra.’ And what happens is, this just does small farms in. Farmers have not trusted their own instincts enough, and their own history and heritage, to do it differently. And that’s what we want to show, that you can do it differently and it can be very profitable.”There’s a key word: profit. A Place On Earth Farm is a for-profit business. There’s a five-year business plan, which Wayne says will provide a comfortable middle-class living for Carden and Courtney. But it’s the sort of profit-making that’s far more akin to Jefferson than to ConAgra or Archer Daniels Midland, the sort of profits Jefferson most likely imagined as he envisioned America as a nation of small farmers. A profit that exists at the end of the day rather than at the beginning. In that sense, CSA is far more faceted than the weekly farmers’ market in the church parking lot — subscribers make a commitment to the growers. If a CSA farm has a bad harvest, people who’ve bought shares suffer too.A full share, for a family of four, provides seasonal vegetables from the middle of May to early November and costs $400. That’s $16 per week. Or, to put it another way, one large loaded pizza, or a basic haircut, or two movie tickets. Want to trade labor for food? Completely doable. You can buy a full share for $150 plus four hours of work per week.    This definition of commerce makes CSA a counterculture movement, but one countering the present dearth of culture and community, especially in agriculture. By that measure, Carden and Courtney shine impressively. Their lives are not the results of simply slapping a negative sign in front of whatever is. They are not latter-day renditions of Marlon Brando’s character in “The Wild Ones,” who responded to the question “What are you rebelling against?” with “What’ve you got?” The quest at A Place on Earth Farm is one of synthesis — thought, imagination and intelligence, not mere automatic reactions.Photo by Ross GordonIn that sense, Carden and Courtney — both are 25 years old — offer clear hope for the future. Their quiet enthusiasm is endemic to their characters and emerges as a soft but true force. Each lacks utterly the false and perky enthusiasm of the greeter at the funky-wannabe chain Mexican restaurant.Carden has a mop of curly blonde hair and glasses I have to work at noticing. He left behind a full scholarship at the University of Chicago after two quarters as an English lit major. From the beginning he was put off by most of those around him, who seemed to be majoring in resume as much as any subject, and who saw a degree from Chicago as a crown jewel.It would be easy to label Carden a drop-out, but he’s not. He’s no more of a drop-out than Bill Gates. In a nod to Escher, perhaps, he went from Chicago to the mountains of West Virginia to write a novel about a young man who leaves college to write a novel in isolation. It’s called “Love’s Scene and Masquerade.” He eventually had a few copies printed to give to friends.Carden did not come from a farming life. He graduated from Ballard, growing up nearby. After Chicago, he followed a girlfriend to Virginia, who took a farm job for lack of any other. Carden left and returned to that farm two or three times, then in 2004 found a job at a CSA farm in Colorado. About a year ago, his e-mails crossed paths with Wayne’s, who offered him the job of managing A Place On Earth.Courtney carries about her the same ascetic aura as Carden. She is without affectation, the diametric opposite of, say, Rosie O’Donnell. A graduate of Transylvania with a degree in Spanish, she went to Belize in 2002 as a Jesuit volunteer, working as a music teacher in a primary school. She was impressed by the simplicity of life in Belize, and sees a simpler life here — a smaller footprint — as a means of justice for others.As with Carden, she had not known a life of the land. A Navy brat in her younger years, she would come to havePhoto by Ross Gordon the same sort of suburban high school experience as Carden when her family settled in northern Kentucky.Courtney first came to A Place On Earth in 2004 to help with the harvest. She was quickly drawn in and moved into the house in the summer of 2005 to co-manage the farm with Carden. Like Carden, she sees herself on the farm for many years, living the change she seeks for our world.Which may be why A Place On Earth Farm is, above all, a hopeful place on Earth. Somehow it is a spot unsullied by the Jack Abramoffs of the world, a place where one is not so concerned in ways neurotic and Pavlovian about what Google is doing in China or what the NSA is doing here.“This is a wide open market, so to speak,” Wayne notes, “for people who are hungry in more ways than one for organic, chemical-free food.” People who change the world don’t ask permission to do so. Curiously, that description applies as equally to Adolph Hitler as it does to Martin Luther King, Jr. And that’s just the point. Both Hitler and King first got themselves out of the box. They had this feat in common. But then one set out to control people through fear and submission, while the other sought to free people by hope and action.Carden, Courtney and the Waynes are out of the box, to the extent they were ever in it. They’ve changed a piece of land physically and chemically, and for the better, and from that have created a small community. With a combination of tenacity and luck — that pesky little equation of history — this small community, and many others like it, just might spread a better way of life into the larger cultural scheme. “To be in a place and to call it your home,” Carden notes, “and to look at it as something forever. … It appeals to me to get to know a place, and I think that’s going to be an interesting experience.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com