Saturday, February 2, 2013

NOFA-NY 2013 I: Towards Becoming a Farmer

My excursion to the aforementioned NOFA-NY conference was motivated by the life-direction which I've been growing into for the last few years: I am going to be a farmer. While my interests and hopes for the future are many, farming has emerged as the path which ties them all together most cohesively. As self-labels go, however, "farmer" is certainly loaded with its fair share of preconceptions.

The version of "farmer" that I intend to be strays pretty far from the stereotypical image of the fellow astride a roaring tractor, a slow-flying shuttle passing endlessly over the warp of his fields weaving sun, soil, seed and Dow chemistry into the fabric of his harvest. What we see there is in the end a lonely miner, extracting nutrients crop by crop from the ground via short-lived roots to be ripped up, bundled, and sent somewhere else. In truth he has for decades been a secondary miner; with the soil already stripped, nitrogen-rich fossil fuels are mined elsewhere by a primary miner and then shipped to our secondary miner, that he might spread them on his fields and mine them back out again in the form of sunny sweet corn.

Not that driving a tractor around isn't fun and all, but my eventual farm is less likely to host sights like this:
Yes, that field has been mowed to say "USA"
And more like this:
This doesn't even look like a farm, right? But there's enough  food
in this photo, calorie-wise to feed you for a year or more.
This might be an edible oyster mushroom but I sure didn't eat it. 
Why? I've come to feel very connected to this hilly region of WNY. The soils, topography and climate of this region naturally give rise to a forest ecosystem with mixed patches of grassland and wetland. A method of agriculture that nurtures and gently manages such systems, rather than seeking to suppress them and impose an entirely foreign ecosystem, can yield rich harvests of food for humans while also restoring the land and preserving or increasing biodiversity. Biodiversity, of course, is critical to the robustness of a biological community (I'll write more on why in the future). Dependence on monoculture is already starting to show its vulnerability to even small changes in climate. Farming our native forests is an extremely viable path for society. Sadly, it's also foreign to our culture.

Coming back down to the present, of course, my pie-in-the-sky ambitions have a more immediate obstacle than the titanic trends of consumer culture: as a 22-year old with little money or material assets whose formal education ended at highschool graduation, there are a lot of resources I need to gather before I can begin to put together the farm I envision.

Fortunately, that was the focus of Friday's first workshop at NOFA. Called "Starting from Square One" and led by Erica Frenay of Shelterbelt Farms and Angela Nelson of Daily Harvest Farm, the workshop was focused on exploring and defining one's vision and goal as a farmer and translating that into real-world actions to bring that vision closer to fruition.

A resource assessment brought no real surprises but there was certainly value in putting it all together in one place. I am presently poor in material resources, having gotten by for the last year on almost no money (just enough to cover rent and food, for the most part) from odd jobs and an internship. I don't own a car, much less any workable land. And farming probably never will make me rich- almost every one of the farmers I admire in WNY has a non-farming "day job" to make ends meet.

I do feel well-off in terms of nonmaterial resources, however. I feel lucky to be plugged into a great community of those farmers I just mentioned. Going to the farmer's market is one of the highlights of my week. There's so much generosity, so many opportunities to connect and to learn. In this coming spring I have some land-access on offer from some of those farmers so that I can get started doing some self-directed cultivation. Some of the members of that community have through internships and work imbued me with further resources in the form of skills and knowledge. I've already got a solid grasp on small-scale organic produce gardening and grass-fed livestock management, among other things. As a good self-directed learner I also have an entire university of knowledge down the street here at fredonia state, with a well-stocked library and talkative professors.

A value assessment was next: without getting into the more abstract aspects which are always in expanding flux, I know that I wish to avoid debt wherever possible, have the opportunity to both do hard work and have times to relax, and to furnish the existence of a functional, integrated ecosystem in which I would be a part, as the farmer. In terms of land, I would ideally have a wooded hillside with a level clearing and some portion of wetland.

From the contrast of available resources and the desires elicited by those values, the generation of goals was the next and last part of the workshop. Clearly the primary resources I still need to acquire are a vehicle, capital for purchasing land, livestock, trees etc., and a good amount of further knowledge and skills. My brainstormed "to do" list for this coming year read:
1) get a job
2) get a car and, first, my driver's license
3) grow some crops in the spring
4) continue expanding my skills and knowledge through work and study.

I am pleased to announce that, with regards to this list, I already have some successes to share!

In the week since I returned I have gotten a job, worked two shifts already, and seem to be fitting in very well there. I have also begun self-directing studies at the college library, which I'll be talking about more here in the future. I'm excited to feel that I've got the process underway.

Returning to the NOFA conference, though, that last goal certainly was going to see some work, particularly in regards to the subject of forest farming. That'll be for next time, though, in NOFA-NY 2012 II: The Shroom Cult.

Do come back later.


  1. I can promise you that that isn't an Oyster. I am an occasional mushroom hunter and eater with 13 years behind me in that regard. I think I detect a hint of a volva at the base of the 'shroom in that pic, which marks it as a probable Amanita species. Good thing you didn't eat it!

    Good post though. I always like to see other young people interested in the land and in farming. I've seen too many old farms and chunks of forest chopped up into housing developments lately, especially out my way. Good luck.

    1. Thanks for the mushroom advice. Yeah, at the moment I'm not qualified to ID anything other than morels, but when I do, it's delicious!

      Thanks for the good luck wishes and I'd love to come see your farm sometime this summer.

  2. Eric, I enjoyed this. I am interested to read more on what you would cultivate in a wetland area. The analogy of a secondary miner is powerful, too. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks! The caption on the second photo gives a hint to the wetland bit, though there's certainly more flora and fauna than just cattails to be involved.