This is more of a travelogue than a proper reportback, but we hope it will capture the spirit of our trip better that way. We did dutifully take minutes at these meetings, but we won't be posting those here. What we really wanted was to cull a variety of impressions from farmers we met across the state. Although it can't possibly stand in for the multiple interactions and discussions, in the end we did find a good deal of consensus.
Here's how it went:
We started our tour in early February's polar vortex with a meeting in Oneonta, followed by stops in Albany, Rosendale, Montour Falls, Ithaca, Roscoe, Callicoon, and the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) conference in Auburn (nearly Canada).
In Oneonta, our local organizer warned us that folks around there were reticent, under pressure from neighbors who've leased, a barrage of "Friends of Natural Gas" lawn signs, pro-gas town boards, and decades of poor economic prospects. We expected a standoffish, hesitant crowd, and wondered if people would speak to us at all. We began by tentatively asking how a program like Food Not Fracking might be helpful, or would it alienate local people? Would farmers go so far as to post a sticker on their truck or farm market stall?
So we were a bit surprised by the icebreaker that came back: "F*** yeah! I'll put it on my truck, on my table–I'll paint it on the side of my barn!" (Barns have been offered in more than one case–artists please be at the ready!)
Some admitted that there might be short-term alienation, but that the long term was so much more important. Most felt that the larger farms were unlikely to come around and were leased. There was another dichotomy between those large farms and the smaller farmers who attended our meetings: the way they grew food and where they sold it. None were factory farms or using GMO seed, many were certified or beyond organic, most sold locally to CSAs (community supported agriculture) or at farm markets. Many ran "pick your own" farms. They grew heirloom produce and raised grass-fed livestock.
Another common thread surprised us: The number of transplants and retirees who were now living out their dream of raising their own food. Again and again, we met people who'd started farming at age 60 or older! This is physically demanding, exhausting, relentless work. Yet these people were in heaven. One woman who'd been a realtor in Manhattan beamed as she described 3 a.m. trips carrying nearly-frozen newborn lambs from the barn to her kitchen sink, dunking them in hot water to revive them. Chilling under a palm tree this was not.
It may be that those who attended these meetings are self-selecting in other ways, too; though some are 5th generation on their land, these are farmers who use email, who have websites, who speak with deep knowledge of marketing and distribution systems–this is a plugged-in bunch. We thought this might also account for their relative success. They are the innovators, the ones willing to adapt.
But no farmer we met was coasting. Beneath their enthusiasm for the work was a clear undercurrent of nerves familiar to anyone who lives by their own means. Margins are so slim, circumstances so unpredictable–an illness or a flood can be the breaking point–many feel they are hanging by a thread. We work hard; we've always put in long hours, but we'll tell you this: no one works harder than these people.
Farmers universally expressed a desire and a need for appreciative shoppers. The local food movement is sustaining them, and they need to know consumers care about their food. They want urban "foodies" to understand what their life is like. They wanted more food coops to issue statements like that of the Park Slope Food Coop. They want consumers to be better educated about both fracking and how their food is grown. But they may lack the time to do the educating themselves.
One common frustration was fielding this same question over and over at a farm market: "Do you spray?" One farmer said he never sprays unless it's a last resort, and then only using the least toxic formula; that with certain crops, it's nearly impossible to grow organic fruit in this climate. But he doesn't have time to explain that to every customer, and he doesn't have time to give farm tours to educate his buyers. We asked how we could help, and it may be that farm listings on the Food Not Fracking website can dispense that kind of information for them. Developing trust and an actual relationship between those who grow food and those who buy it could be key.
In Rosendale, farmers may be in a more mellow, community-supported, communally-minded place already. The town seemed like Nirvana on earth: Local activists volunteered their homes, cooked us food, stayed late for wine; every store on main street seemed to offer local and slow food, sustainable goods and practices. Antifracking signs were in abundance. One of our local organizers is setting up a green community; another runs a creative community center, the third is the sustainability chair at a food coop. Our host kept bees and gorgeous, naturally-formed honeycombs glinted in a sunny window. There was even a local puppet group. It was some perfect balance between Williamsburg's too-hipness and Woodstock's too-hippyness.
In this setting, creative solutions seem to germinate easily: One farmer doesn't just invite buyers to pick-your-own, he runs sing-alongs in his fields, teaching traditional farm songs and hosting pot luck dinners from the pickings (we are planning a summer festival at his farm in July; stay tuned!).
Perhaps the most eye-opening conversation was on our last day, at a very small meeting, where we were graced by the presence of a sun-cured farmer who'd helped to craft the organic rules, and now rails against their acceptance of lower standards. This affirmed a certain pass-the-buck attitude we'd witnessed at the NOFA conference, when we asked various camps why they were not doing more to look into fracking. A well-known dairy distributor said "If NOFA certifies our farmers, we're fine." But NOFA is not testing for fracking toxins or even many other toxins. They pass the buck to the USDA, and we know the USDA isn't looking into fracking as a food risk. Basically, no one at the moment is. Except perhaps us? We aim to change that.
One subject there was wide consensus on was the question of labeling. While everyone we met gave an enthusiastic two thumbs up to Food Not Fracking as an educational campaign, no one endorsed labeling. This is clearly a hornet's nest we won't be tackling in the near term. Given the current GMO labeling battles, where it's very clear when something is GMO or isn't, we don't see labeling for fracking happening any time soon. (What would one test for anyway, given the multitude of unidentified chemicals?)
One solution we can build on with farmers who want to be listed on Food Not Fracking is to survey their practices and add more descriptive text to their listings. (We will be making a separate listings page for farmers shortly.) One goal of this program is to highlight farmers who are conscientious, who are working sustainably, who are not using GMOs, are organic or low-pesticide. If they have a wind turbine or solar panels on their farms too, we'll make sure consumers know about that, too.
Meanwhile, we'd like to encourage anyone who cares where their food comes from to get familiar with the life of a farmer. We'll recommend this blog, by farmer Alanna Rose, as a great place to start.
On our tour we received many gifts of time, wisdom, patience, food and generosity. One of the gifts that touched us the most was an article about Food Not Fracking that Alanna wrote for the New Franklin Register. The paper ran the story on the front page of its Spring issue. We wish to live up to Alanna's high hopes for this program, and invite you to join us! Love & thanks to all –Clare & Kim