for SARE New Voices Contest
I didn’t grow up on a farm. When I was young, I never learned how to fix a screen door let alone a tractor. I didn’t know which end of a seed to plant in the ground. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would own the farthest north certified organic farm in the country, I would have told you that you must be crazy.
I come from a long line of Jewish tailors who never ventured too far from the city. My connections with agriculture were like many kids growing up in suburban America – with the pictures of fields of grain on cereal boxes or occasional trips to the “country” to visit an apple orchard or to see goats and rabbits at a petting zoo. But my parents always had a garden we always liked to eat and we liked to eat good fresh food. This is how I came to agriculture – through gardening. Through getting back to that connection with where your food comes from and acting on it. I wanted that feeling of looking down a row of crops and feeling that connection with the plants and soil and the thousands of years of farmers and gardeners before me – food growers.
It took me a while to get into farming. It didn’t come until my mid-thirties, when after many years of having a garden, I quit my day job and followed the dream of many back-to-the land folks before me. I had no idea of what I was doing, but I expanded the garden, bought a rototiller and Elliot Coleman’s “The New Organic Grower”, and started to make a go of it as a market farmer. It certainly hasn’t been easy, especially since we live in interior Alaska square in the middle of agricultural zone 1. There is very little historical farmland where we live. Our farm was literally carved out of the Alaska wilderness with a chainsaw and bulldozer – hardly a soft footprint on the land. But we justified the destruction of 10 acres of our forest with the belief that having a farm and feeding people was, in the end, a good thing for the community. After all, wasn’t that what all farmers had originally done? Also by farming organically, we hoped we were insuring a healthy environment for any wildlife that used the farm, for ourselves and our workers, and for those who ate our produce. The demand for quality local produce is high, and despite our growing pains as a farm, we are still able to stay afloat with a lot of hard work, and all of our savings. After 10 years, we have a healthy farm and an increasingly successful business.
Since I come from this new movement of market gardeners turned farmer, my models for success and role models to seek advice from have been organic farmers many with similar experience as I but with more years under their belt. We have learned the appropriate models for ecologically sound agriculture and the goals for our farm are the same as the goals for many farms like ours across the country – to minimize off-farm inputs while maintaining high soil fertility, to produce high quality and healthy produce, and maintain a profitable business.
We think about sustainability a lot in Alaska, however most of the discussion focuses on natural fish and wildlife populations and their relation to subsistence versus commercial harvest. There is little talk about sustainable agriculture, but there should be. Although one’s vision of Alaska might be one of a hunter alone on the tundra, we get most of our food like the rest of America – from large supermarkets run by huge corporations. If the average piece of food travels approximately 1500 miles from producer to consumer in the rest of the country, it travels much farther to us in Alaska. For this reason, and many others, we should be concerned about sustainability on a local and community scale.
If our state seems extreme, it is but a microcosm of the country as a whole. We need to look within our own communities for inputs to agriculture and other resources. Our model for farming does follow a community approach. Eating locally is not just a buzzword for marketing – although that is very effective – but it also should be the way we do business. “Thinking globally and acting locally” is not only the right thing to do for the earth, it is the only economical thing to do. With the cost of fuel rising ever higher coupled with high shipping costs, we have to think very carefully what it is we import. Looking at ways to improve the soil, create energy, and market crops must be local in order for us to make a living and feel as though we’re living our lives for the betterment of our community.
Small-scale and locally marketed agriculture should not be just a fringe or niche economy. By showing that we can make a living while growing healthy crops by ecologically sound methods we will make ourselves assets in our local economies by encouraging both new farmers and intelligent agriculture. It will continue to cost more for food, but we cannot keep going down the path of large scale commodity agriculture transported huge distances or we will be paying a higher and higher price for the wrong reasons.
I can now fix a screen door, sometimes fix my tractor and plant seeds right side up. If the son of a long line of Jewish tailors can carve out a niche in small scale agriculture, then I’m optimistic that this growing movement of community-centered agriculture can keep gaining momentum. We need to invest in community agriculture – it is at the core of sustainability.
Rosie Creek Farm