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Should Hydroponic Farming Be Eligible for Organic Certification?

By Dan Nosowitz

Last month, the National Organic Standards Board met in Denver, Colorado, to discuss what might be the most hotly-debated subject in all of eco-agriculture: What, exactly, does "organic" mean?

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Bluebird Hill Farm

This 13-Acre Organic Farm Can Be Yours for Just 200 Words

By Dan Nosowitz

It is, we assume, the dream of many readers (and writers and artists and gardeners and ... well ... just about everyone who's reading this site probably) to someday own a little organic farm of their own. But the costs of acquiring one—and the difficulties of certification—can all make that dream seem impossible.

Norma Burns, an architect-turned-farmer, has owned and operated Bluebird Hill Farm in North Carolina for nearly 18 years. After all that time, she's decided she's ready to pass it on to someone new—but her selection process isn't limited to, say, kids or employees. She's holding an essay contest to determine who'll be Bluebird Hill's next owner.

Bluebird Hill Farm is located about three hours east of Asheville. It is a USDA-certified 13-acre organic farm on which she grows lavender, specialty vegetables, herbs and native plants and the pictures make it look absolutely gorgeous: rolling hills, fields of lavender, picturesque barns. Our State has some more information on Burns and her farm, if you're interested.

Bluebird Hill Farm viewed from the pond.Bluebird Hill Farm

The contest is simple or as simple as giving away a farm valued at $450,000 can be: a 200-word essay laying out why you and your partner want to own the farm. Yep, partner: "Experience has shown that Bluebird Hill Farm can't be operated successfully by a single individual," she writes. Aspirants must commit to keeping the farm organic, at least one of the partners must be between the ages of 25 and 50 ("to ensure that the winning couple has the life experience and physical stamina that active farming requires"), will pay the closing taxes and fees and must chip in a $300 entry fee.

That's about it, really. Oh, and the application is extremely clear that anyone entering the contest should not, under any circumstances, attempt to contact Burns via any method besides Facebook. ("Entrants who attempt to contact Bluebird Hill Farm directly will be DISQUALIFIED and your entry fee will NOT BE REFUNDED," she writes. Caps lock is hers.)

The deadline to enter is June 1, so you can while away the winter hours hammering out your 200-word essay. Make sure each one of those words is perfect. Your future might depend on it.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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Is There Such a Thing as Humane Wool?

By Brian Barth

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights organization, has a reputation for employing the oldest marketing trick in the book: selling their message with sex.

The latest example? Their campaign to raise awareness of animal abuse in the wool industry, which features a poster of Alicia Silverstone walking naked into a meadow, her head turned over her shoulder, looking back at you with seductive, pleading eyes. The caption reads, "I'd rather go naked than wear wool."

Pamela Anderson, the singer Pink and a handful of other celebrities have also bared all for the cause.

The PETA creed is that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way." In other words, keeping livestock for purposes of human consumption, whether in a factory-farming setting or a small organic farm, is ethically reprehensible. PETA is well known for popularizing veganism and exposing animal rights abuses around the world. But livestock farmers, unsurprisingly, have long despised their shock and awe tactics, which have a tendency to paint all farmers as evil animal abusers.

PETA's current sheep campaign—typically broadcast with the tagline, "there is no such thing as humane wool"—was launched in 2014 after the organization released footage of sheep being cut, manhandled and mangled at wool-shearing operations in the U.S. and Australia. The effort got major press coverage around the world and led to the prosecution of several of the Australian shearers who were depicted in the footage on animal abuse charges. Now that Alicia Silverstone has put her skin in the game (pun intended), PETA's wool campaign is back in the media once again.

Wool producers, along with a number of large agriculture organizations, have fought back. In Australia, the Victoria Farming Federation filed a formal complaint when a locally popular vegan musician was featured in PETA ads holding a bloodied lamb carcass with the caption, "here's the rest of your wool coat." It turned out the carcass was made of Styrofoam. PETA admitted to using a prop, but maintains that it was a realistic illustration of the horrors of shearing.

Animal abuse is far too common an occurrence with pets kept by demented individuals everywhere. And as PETA's undercover sheep investigation clearly shows, along with many others that have preceded it, some abusive individuals (unfortunately) make their living handling livestock on farms throughout the world. The question is, is abuse the norm? Are examples of abuse at a few sheep ranches enough to indict an entire industry?

We thought it would be worth asking a wool producer who claims to raise their sheep in a sustainable, humane manner how their practices differ from what PETA ascribes to all wool producers. Becky Weed, owner of Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company in southwestern Montana, was a little reluctant to take the call from Modern Farmer, as she's been caught in the crosshairs of the animal cruelty debate before and has better things to do than argue with activists about whether or not raising sheep is inherently evil.

"I am wary of PETA," said Weed, right off the bat. "I don't think it's a particularly rational organization … I think animal welfare is important, but I don't believe that raising sheep is by definition cruel."

What Is A Crop Mob, And Should I Join One?

By Dan Nosowitz

Across the country, at key times in the agricultural year, teams of people—usually young—alight on farms at which they do not work. They are crop mobs and they seem fun.

Here's the basics: A crop mob is an organized group of volunteers that descends on a farm to perform agriculture work, typically without pay. There's also usually an educational or outreach element in attempt to get more people involved and invested in agricultural work. The farms chosen are small, sustainable and non-commodity (meaning you're not likely to see a crop mob working a 5,000-acre soy field). The farmers will provide a meal.

Screenshot of a thorough but not necessarily comprehensive list of crop mobs.

Back in 2008, the phrase and concept of a crop mob was started as a monthly newsletter run by North Carolinian Rob Jones. But today, crop mobs aren't centralized; disparate, unconnected groups typically form in specific areas, covering specific farms. Facebook turns out to be ideal for organizing crop mob events and so many mobs find their home there. Individual organizations take on the task of organizing for their area, so you'll see groups with names like Green Mountain Crop Mob (Vermont), High Desert Crop Mob (Oregon), Keys Crop Mob (Florida Keys) and many more. The original group maintains a Google Maps map listing dozens of mobs all around the country.

The jobs performed vary, ranging from harvesting to packing to moving to construction. For the farms, the benefits are obvious; it can be very difficult for a small farm to make ends meet and volunteers lighten that load. For the volunteers, it's a chance to head out to the country, get their hands dirty and make a difference for sustainable food production.

Raleigh City Farm

What's so enticing about the concept is how it hearkens back to an earlier structure, before mega-farms and agribusiness. In recent history, and still taking place in many other countries, big jobs like harvesting and construction were too much for the operators of a small farm to manage. So communities would (or do) work cooperatively, joining to help each other with the knowledge that when your own farm needs a hand, it'll be there.

Without those community structures, the basic work of farming can seem impossible—but crop mobs are doing their best to make it possible again.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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Find Out Why This Guy Is Going to Paddle an 800-Pound Pumpkin for 8 Miles

By Lynne Palazzi

A few weeks from now, on Sept. 3, a massive hollowed-out pumpkin will be lowered via crane into the Taunton River near Dighton, Massachusetts. Local farmer Todd Sandstrum, 43, will climb inside it, then attempt to skipper the squash 8 miles south until he reaches two things: the town of Fall River and a Guinness World Record.

Todd Sandstrum in the Taunton River during last year's pumpkin paddle attempt, during which he traveled 3.5 miles.Todd Sandstrum

Insert your own "out of his gourd" joke here.

In fact, the kooky stunt is part of a deeper mission: Sandstrum is passionate about "getting kids out in the dirt and growing something and to understand where food comes from," he said. The father of two works as a consultant for Crave Food Services, an online marketplace that connects restaurant chefs with local farmers. Five years ago, Sandstrum and his wife, Genevieve, co-founded the South Shore Great Pumpkin Challenge, which distributes pumpkin seeds (the Atlantic Giant variety) to schools throughout Massachusetts. The school that grows the heaviest pumpkin wins a $1,000 grant that must be spent to further agricultural education.

Problem is, a noble mission doesn't always make for a juicy story. Sandstrum was having trouble capturing media attention and decided he needed to stage a spectacle. (Hey, it worked on us!) And while turning giant pumpkins into seaworthy vessels is nothing new, no one had ever attempted a world-record pumpkin sail. The category—"Longest Journey in a Pumpkin Boat (paddling)"—didn't even exist, so Sandstrum lobbied (successfully) the Guinness World Record folks to create it.

So, last September, Sandstrum made his first world-record attempt, but it proved to be riddled with problems. Shallow tide, a foot injury that Sandstrum sustained less than a week before the event and video equipment that crapped out before he did all conspired against him. In the end, he'd traveled 3.5 miles, half the distance he'd aimed for.

"There's actually quite a bit of room inside the pumpkin," says Sandstrum, shown here with his cousin (and right-hand river support man) Jimmy Souza.Todd Sandstrum

The pumpkins were emblazoned, NASCAR-style, with sponsors' logos.Todd Sandstrum

Last year's pumpkin boat, which weighed almost 800 pounds, was lowered into the river via crane.Todd Sandstrum

But last year was a learning curve, Sandstrum said. No more rookie mistakes.

This time, there will be complete and flawless documentation, GPS tracking and the Massachusetts' Assistant Commissioner for Agriculture will be on hand to complete the journal log that Guinness requires. The community has pledged its support, too: A local yacht club offered to serve a breakfast buffet and the harbor master said he'd light the way should night fall before Sandstrum reaches his destination. (Unlikely, since he plans to launch in the morning and wrap it up in three hours, max).

The only thing that's not yet ready? The pumpkin. It's still growing. Sandstrum is following the progress of a few contenders on social media and will choose two winners on Aug. 20 during a weigh-off at the Marshfield Fair in Marshfield, Massachusetts. The largest one will become Sandstrum's ride. "Ideally I want something around 800 pounds because then it becomes like a nice Cadillac," he explained. "I've used pumpkins as small as 400 pounds, but I can't [go eight miles] in that."

Sandstrum says scooping out all the pumpkins' guts only takes about 20 minutes and none of it is wasted.Todd Sandstrum

Hollowing out one of the orange beasts requires a limbing saw, a giant spoon and only about 20 minutes of scooping, Sandstrum said and no part of the pumpkin is wasted: The seeds are saved for next season, chickens feast on the slimy innards (which last year weighed in at about 30 pounds) and the shell eventually hits the compost bin. The second-largest gourd will be reserved for Sandstrum's pal Josh Peach, who'll paddle alongside him "for moral support … and comic relief," he said, "If he falls out, he falls out. I have to actually stay in it and go the distance." For more info on Sandstrum's world-record attempt, head to his website.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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