How Small Farmers Are Saving the World (And How You Can Help)
By Julia Moulden | The Huffington Post
Driving through farm country this week - lush green fields, huge blue skies, produce stands filled to bursting - I was listening to a piece on the radio about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. They played Joni's song, of course, and I sang along at the top of my alone-in-the-car lungs. "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
In the 1970s, hippies like me "went back to the land", taking up residence on small farms across the continent. Refugees from cities and suburbs, we had visions of Arcadia. Only we were going to do it our way - friends called their cow Hamburger, on the theory that it would make it easier when it came time to turn her into meat.
Now, for reasons the same and new - but with more urgency - people of all ages are looking for ways to get back to the garden. Or at least be able to eat from one. And this time, we have pioneers like Tim Wightman to help lead us.
Tim's family were farmers in Wisconsin, where his childhood intersected with the low point in the history of family farms. While his father lost interest in the whole business and moved on, Tim was bitten. As a student and young man, he worked freelance on farms across the state, heading west to take part in the wheat harvest each fall. By the fall of 1979, when he was ready to try farming on his own, the economics had changed so dramatically that it just wasn't possible. "Money was being handed out to consolidate the industry. Family farms were dying left and right."
Over the next decade, Tim started a horse transportation company, drove truck, and did what he had to do to support his family. But the pull of farming was strong. In the early 90s, he heard about community-supported agriculture (CSA), where a community of individuals pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. He knew it was time to make his move.
Tim reasoned he could make it work with a small farm like the one he'd been raised on. Even better, his family's farm was in an ideal location - Hayward County, in northern Wisconsin, is a major tourist area, a land of lakes and forests. He figured there would be a market for whatever he grew. But every hero's journey comes with obstacles - although he'd been told that he would inherit the farm, that didn't happen. So Tim bought his own piece of property, planted a huge garden, and started the first CSA in the area.
One success led to another, and Tim's business flourished. When Fortune magazine named Hayward County one of the best places to live in the US, more people came. Tim and his partners opened a bakery. An organics store. And a restaurant. "We were doing what Alice Waters had done in California with local, seasonal cuisine, without ever having heard of her. It just made sense to us to use great-tasting ingredients - grown right here - in everything we made."
"The way our grandmothers would have cooked?" I asked.
"Exactly! Our pecan pie recipe, for instance, was researched back to 1878. We didn't use corn syrup. I can tell you that Southerners on holiday in Wisconsin quickly learned about the pies and drove for miles to get them."
Alongside all of this, Tim was fighting an epic battle. He and his dairy farm partner, Clearview Acres, wanted to provide raw milk to local consumers. But the state had other ideas.
A paragraph can't possibly do justice to a legal battle that went on for a decade and took a huge toll on Tim and his partners. "We kept asking the government of Wisconsin - 'Look, we've got all these people who want raw milk, since you say it's illegal, tell us how we can do this.' Finally, they gave us a way to move forward, by selling the animals instead of the milk, and building separate buildings and introducing protocols." Tim and his partners were ultimately successful, and people can now get raw milk in Wisconsin. "We started with 40 families, quickly went to 80, and before long were providing raw milk to 365 families." For more about the legal battle, see realmilk.com [http://realmilk.com/] and farmtoconsumer.org. And if you're interested in safety protocols for clean, safe raw milk, read Tim's Raw Milk Handbook.
Today, Tim is helping others nudge government into the new millennium (and fend off the multinational food producers operating behind the scenes). He's working with a farm consumer legal defence fund. [http://www.farmtoconsumer.org/]
A few years back, he sold the business, and thought about retiring. Instead, and in addition to advocacy, he's helping people who want to be part of the burgeoning locavore movement realize their dreams. "People think that you have to have a big property, because that's the only way to fit into the food system," he told me. "But that's not true."
"So, what would you say to emerging New Radicals?" I asked.
Here are his top three tips.
1. Think small.
"People think they can't be economically sound on 15 or 20 acres, but I say different. If you have a passion for growing things, if you want to feed people, it can be done on very small acreages, even in urban gardens. Plus, the science is there now about how to grow excellent crops and build the soil the same time."
2. Find the choir.
"There's a much bigger movement out there than many people realize. You just need to find them. And not just farmers or producers. I'm talking about alternative health care practitioners and trainers in gyms. People who know that what people put in their mouths is important." (For resources, keep reading.)
3. You are what you eat.
"You can make a radical change right now by deciding where you'll get your food - supporting local farmers and feeling better for it in every way. You can do something three times a day that improves your health and changes the face of the earth."
For baby boomers like me, Woodstock was a powerful event - we saw just how big our tribe was. If you're dreaming about going back to the land, you might want to see just how many people there are who share your vision. Check out this extraordinary site, Organic Nation TV, founded by the delightful Dorothee Royal-Hedinger. [http://www.organicnation.tv/] And Tim also highly recommends Acres USA [http://www.acresusa.com]. "It's probably the best library for understanding locally-produced food - they've been cataloguing this stuff for 35 years."
Please share your experiences - including with urban farming! - by posting a comment below, or by emailing me directly. I'm taking a page out of fellow HuffPo blogger Gretchen Rubin's book, and looking for new ways to share my email address (too much spam!). The first part is julia (then that familiar symbol). The second part is wearethenewradicals (then a period, then a com). (If anyone knows a simpler way to express this - please share it with me!)
Julia Moulden's new book is We Are The New Radicals: A Manifesto for Reinventing Yourself and Saving the World. [http://www.wearethenewradicals.com] She gives speeches [http://www.speakers.ca], and writes them for the world's most visionary leaders. [http://www.juliamoulden.com]