6 Innovative Farmers That Will Change Your Perception of What It Means to Grow Food
By Tracie McMillan
Today's American farmers are less white. They're also increasingly experimental. Even as our biggest farms get bigger, small producers are innovating in countless ways as they grapple with the serious questions that face our food system. Some prioritize making high-quality food affordable to folks on minimum wage and accessible in places where fresh produce is scarce; others are learning how to farm with far less water on drought-prone fields. They may be discovering hidden super fruits, reinvigorating coal country or bringing urban farming to the mountains. Here are six who will change your mind about what it means to farm.
Fish Farming on Dry Land
Aquaponic farmers Jessica Patton and Ken Armstrong at Ouroboros's farm stand.
Half Moon Bay, California
When the recent six-year drought hit California, most farmers were screaming for water. Here's one who wasn't: Ken Armstrong, owner of Ouroboros Farms in the Bay Area. And that is more than a little strange—because for Armstrong, water is actually a growing medium. He specializes in aquaponics, a system of raising fish and vegetables in tandem.
Armstrong founded the farm in 2012 after watching a YouTube video about Will Allen, a MacArthur Grant-winning urban farmer in Milwaukee. Inspired, he gathered some potential partners and attended a four-day workshop in Florida, then went home and got to work. Today, Ouroboros's greenhouses sit on a sliver of land, just one-third of an acre. Nutrient-rich water from the farm's 9,000 gallons of fish tanks circulates out through neighboring "raft beds," which hold floating frames with sprouting greens whose roots are suspended in water, and through "medium beds," which use clay pebbles to filter and disperse water for the vegetables. The roots take up the nitrogen from the fish, and clean water circulates back into the tanks.
The system, said Armstrong, produces mature lettuce more quickly than soil planting and uses less water, too. The monthly output of 12,500 heads of lettuce requires about 8,000 gallons of water—a little less than two-thirds a gallon per head, as opposed to 12 gallons on traditional California farms. And output is constant, allowing his fraction of an acre to match the annual production of five acres of soil.
Armstrong said he launched Ouroboros to prove that the method could work commercially. He sells greens and other vegetables to local restaurants, and an on-site farm stand offers direct sales, with salad mix going for $4 to $5 for an 8-ounce bag. He also hosts training programs and farm tours and consults with new growers looking to run commercial aquaponics operations.
"Being able to bring high-quality, nutritious food closer to urban areas is going to be one of the agricultural paradigm shifts for the future," he said. "I think more and more it's going to be popping up."
Mountainside Urban Farming
Tassinong Farm utilizes a hydroponic system housed in repurposed shipping containers to grow vegetables year-round in the harsh Colorado climate.
Crested Butte, Colorado
Local food in Crested Butte, Colorado, has long been a summer-only affair. For residents, there has been little choice in the matter: tucked into the Rocky Mountains at 8,900 feet, Crested Butte doesn't exactly offer optimal growing conditions. Its night temperatures drop below freezing nine months of the year. But Kate Haverkampf saw a way around this obstacle. She launched Tassinong Farms, a year-round hydroponic facility housed in repurposed shipping containers, in December 2015.
"It was such a difficult task to get fresh local food year-round," said the former tech consultant. When her husband, who works in logistics, ran across a story about farming in containers, she was sold: "I just decided to make that my job."
Inside four containers, which Haverkampf bought from a supplier aptly known as Freight Farms, LED lights illuminate shelves of plants rooted in a growing medium made from recycled plastic bottles. With a smartphone-enabled tracking system, Haverkampf can monitor her crops closely. If the nutrient mix gets out of balance in the irrigation water, she can swipe and tap to fix it, even from across the country. Because there is no soil, there is no need for herbicides to control weeds. There's little need for pesticides, either, in this tightly controlled indoor growing space. Haverkampf's biggest cost is electricity—the lights run 18 hours a day—so this year she's exploring her options for solar.
Perhaps most important for an arid place like Colorado, water usage is minimal. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water usage in the U.S., and a typical pound of lettuce requires 34 gallons of water. At Tassinong, said Haverkampf, each container uses about 15 gallons a day—roughly equivalent to a quick shower―or 105 gallons weekly. At peak, this turns into about 60 pounds of greens a week—less than two gallons per pound.
Today the shipping containers churn out greens ranging from lacinato kale and purple spinach to romaine lettuces and lemony sorrel. They end up in salads and atop burgers at five local restaurants and are sold at a local food co-op. Haverkampf also takes individual online orders, and later this summer she's opening a farm stand.
"I'm trying to prevent all of these miles and miles of driven produce," Haverkampf said. With the new shop, "I like to think that people will come more often and know they can get their greens when they need them."
Superfruit in the Heartland
Aronia berry bush.
Emma Cooper / Flickr
Missouri Valley, Iowa
If you think about the typical Iowa farm, you might picture rows of corn and soy; the state leads the nation in both. But Andrew Pittz, a sixth-generation Iowa farmer, is not typical. At his family's Sawmill Hollow Farm, the fields are covered with certified organic aronia berries.
The project began in the 1990s, when Pittz's mom and dad decided to branch out from the corn and soy both their parents had grown and began cultivating a berry farm. When Andrew graduated from Texas A&M with an agricultural degree and a passion for organic farming, he returned to the family homestead on the rolling hills of the Missouri Valley with a vision: he wanted to be part of "a rural renaissance, and create more farmers," he says. To do that, he knew, he'd need to grow crops that both yield income and preserve land.
The key to specializing in aronia, said Pittz, has been figuring out how to market the berries, which are highly astringent and bitter when fresh. The farm sells aronia jelly and syrup, aronia salsa, and even a spiced meat marinade, sold online and during on-site events like an annual Aronia Berry Festival. The berries also have one of the highest antioxidant ratings of any fruit, according to the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, making them desirable to consumers enthusiastic about so-called superfoods (a designation, it must be noted, met with less enthusiasm by health experts).
But above all, Pittz said, he's chosen to stick with aronia because it makes sense for the environment. The plant is native to Iowa and grows readily on his farm without irrigation. Between the bushes, a carpet of native grasses fixes nitrogen in the soil and boosts yield, limiting the need for chemicals. It's a winning combination for the local turf, which is made of fertile but highly erodible soil called loess. Pittz pointed out that farmers planting annual grain crops like corn inadvertently increase erosion each time they pull out plants, turn over fields and replant. Aronia berries, on the other hand, are perennials, so both the roots and the soil around them stay put.
And that, said Pittz, sums up his favorite trait of the aronia berry: "It is meant to grow here."
Participants in Black Latinx Farmers Immersion harvest cilantro at Soul Fire Farm.
Soul Fire Farm
Soul Fire Farm
Grafton, New York
Rocky hillsides don't get much play in agricultural daydreams. But when Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff laid their eyes on the thin, rock-strewn soil of Grafton, just outside Albany, New York, they decided to go all in. They applied soil remediation methods they had learned on urban farms and began contouring the hillside, removing rocks, planting crop rows, and even building a house. Five years later, in 2011, they opened shop at Soul Fire Farm, a CSA-only family farm focusing on environmental justice and supporting Albany's low-income communities of color. They look beyond Albany, too, and run an agricultural training workshop, the Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion, which draws aspiring farmers of color from around the country.
Soul Fire's CSA offers its 100 customers weekly one-bushel boxes selected from the farm's 70 crops, which include beets, cucumbers, squash, corn, tomatoes and peppers, among other veggies. All are grown without synthetic chemicals, and the farmers rely on compost to boost productivity, said Penniman. At the heart of the program is a careful sliding fee scale that can drop as low as zero for struggling families, and a doorstep delivery service to make sure everyone has easy access.
That focus on accessibility comes in part from personal experience. When Leah and Jonah's two children were very small, the family lived in a neighborhood where getting high-quality, fresh food meant walking to a farm CSA a couple of miles away. It was, said Leah, "really unfair as an expectation [of what was necessary] to feed families well." So when the time came to start their own CSA, Penniman and Vitale-Wolff made access a priority.
Many of the couple's customers share that concern. Francine Godgart, a married mother of two who works at the local hospital, chooses to pay extra every week to keep the costs down for low-income members. "It's very expensive to eat organically," she said. "I think it's important for people who don't have those resources to be able to be included."
Re-energizing Coal Country
A customer chooses Kentucky-grown kenaf.
Jdeg Video & Photo
Fiber Flame / Pumpkin Vine Creek Farm
Paint Lick, Kentucky
The hilltops of Kentucky have seen some tough times. More than 500 mountaintop removal sites dot the state's Appalachian landscape, bringing with them a host of environmental problems: increased dust and toxins, contaminated water, and buried streams. And now that coal is on its way out, questions arise: How do you deal with all that degraded land? And is there a way for residents to make a living off it?
One entrepreneurial farmer, Robin Richmond Mason, has an answer: kenaf, a relative of hemp, okra and cotton. Native to Africa, the plant has long been used for its fibers and is already cultivated in several states. Moreover, Mason said, it's unlikely to spread, kudzu-like, since a shorter growing season means that it is harvested, or dies, before it goes to seed.
Working with researchers at a local commercial lab, Mason discovered kenaf is a potent source of fuel, burning longer and hotter than conventional firewood—a bonus in rural areas, where wood heat is common. (In 23 Kentucky counties, more than 10 percent of homes rely on wood heat, according to statistics from the state's Energy and Environment Cabinet.) One log of firewood tops out at 4,800 BTUs and burns for two or three hours, but a log made of compressed kenaf silage, Mason said, can provide 7,500 BTUs and will burn for four hours. The firewood alternative also helps ease the pressure on standing forests wrought by the harmful biomass industry.
Mason wants the mountaintop removal sites "to be restored to Eden" and sees kenaf as an initial way to boost plant life there. "Let's work toward the very best possible remediation plan. But unless there is economic motivation, I don't see those developing."
Last year's initial run—farmed on an ex-miner's land and hauled out by a trucker who worked for years with coal—was so successful that this year Mason has expanded to four growing sites across Kentucky. The biggest is at a former tobacco farm in the central part of the state that has dedicated 100 acres to kenaf. Judging by the yield from prior test plantings, Mason expects about five tons per acre. All of it will feed into Mason's line of Fiber Flame products, including a sextet of logs sold with matches and instructions. She calls it a Pit Kit, and it's currently being sold in local Whole Foods stores.
Old Farm, New Tricks
Don Bustos, organic farmer and owner of Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses.
Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses
Española, New Mexico
There aren't many farmers in the U.S. who can lay claim to their land the way Don Bustos can. His family's been farming a patch of New Mexico for three centuries, and today he and his nephew still use the ancient community system of water ditches, called acequias, to feed their crops. And just as his parents did before him, much of what Bustos grows is sold within a 25-mile radius of his farm. But those traditions are only a foundation for this most modern of family farmers.
When Bustos left a construction career to return to the farm in the 1980s, the easy choice was to grow the staples that his parents had grown: crops like corn, potatoes, chilies and squash. Instead he decided to try something different and set his sights on high-value organic crops, aimed at farmer's markets and public schools. He began transforming his humble inheritance—three and a half acres across the road from a desolate stretch of federal public land—into something not just environmentally, but also financially, sustainable.
Today Bustos grows nearly six dozen varieties of fruits and vegetables year-round using a series of low-tech greenhouse structures, known as hoop houses, and a solar water heater. In any given month, it might be arugula or strawberries, salad mix or green chilies. Going solar, he says, made a huge difference in his livelihood. Not only did his energy costs plummet, from $750 a month to seven cents a day, but the hoop houses "let us create income 12 months a year instead of trying to risk everything for three or four months."
His market savvy has helped earn Bustos wide acclaim, including a 2015 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. He's also been recognized for his passionate activism on behalf of small and sustainable farmers who fall outside the conventional image of American growers. Bustos has advocated for female farmers and farmers of color in both Washington, DC, and New Mexico; created a farmer training program that also connects small growers with public school cafeterias; and supported the state's acequia system, which dates from the 1600s.
That history, said Bustos, is part of what makes New Mexico, where nearly one-third of farmers are Hispanic, special. "We're not inventing anything new," he said, with regard to his growing practices and local base of customers. "That's all been done by our ancestors."
This article was made possible by a grant from the Jonathan & Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism. Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Karen Charman
When President Donald Trump visited California on September 14 and dismissed the state Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot's plea to recognize the role of climate change in the midst of the Golden State's worst and most dangerous recorded fire season to date, he gaslighted the tens of millions of West Coast residents suffering through the ordeal.
Foxes Guarding the Henhouse<p>Before he assumed power, Trump attacked regulations as unnecessary barriers to freedom and economic prosperity. Since taking office, he has targeted anything enacted by the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and taken steps to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, the international effort to combat climate change. He has also staffed heads of key agencies with climate deniers of various stripes, forced out career public servants and created a hostile work environment for those who don't profess loyalty to his deregulatory agenda.</p><p>Like Trump himself, some of his cabinet choices displayed an audacious penchant for <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/27/us/donald-trump-taxes.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage" target="_blank">self-dealing</a> and abusing their positions of authority. One example is Trump's first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who aggressively worked to overturn Obama's climate regulations, spent most of his time in <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-epa-head-steps-down-after-wave-of-ethics-management-scandals/2018/07/05/39f4251a-6813-11e8-bea7-c8eb28bc52b1_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">private meetings</a> with fossil fuel and chemical company executives, sidelined career EPA staff and reconfigured independent scientific advisory boards to make them more supportive of the industries EPA is charged with regulating. Dubbed "<a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-pruitt-leaves-20180705-story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history</a>," Pruitt resigned in disgrace after revelations about his multiple brazen abuses, including using the agency as his personal concierge service and piggy bank.</p><p>Pruitt's deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/andrew-wheeler-acting-epa-administrator-former-number-two-before-scott-pruitt-resignation/" target="_blank">former coal industry lobbyist</a> and longtime Republican Washington insider, took over and has continued Trump's deregulatory agenda apace.</p><p>At the Department of Interior (DOI), a sprawling agency that oversees 75 percent of the country's public federal lands and includes the U.S. Geological Survey, which is tasked with evaluating natural hazards that threaten life and the health of our ecosystems, Trump installed another flamboyant anti-environmentalist to head the agency. Like Pruitt, Trump's first Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke aggressively attacked environmental regulations, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/05/07/epa-dismisses-half-of-its-scientific-advisers-on-key-board-citing-clean-break-with-obama-administration/" target="_blank">ditched more than 200 advisory panels</a>, and pushed to open up vast swaths of public land to oil and gas drilling. Described by one environmental group as "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/interior-secretary-zinke-resigns-amid-investigations/2018/12/15/481f9104-0077-11e9-ad40-cdfd0e0dd65a_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation's history</a>," Zinke was forced out after numerous highly publicized conflict-of-interest scandals.</p><p>The DOI is now run by Zinke's deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, another longtime Republican Washington insider and former oil industry lobbyist who has also been the subject of <a href="https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/this-is-still-happening-david-bernhardt-trump-lincoln.html" target="_blank">several government ethics complaints</a> for various violations favoring polluting industries.</p><p>More recently, longtime climate change denier David Legates, a climatologist at the University of Delaware previously <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19032015/u-delaware-refuses-disclose-funding-sources-its-climate-contrarian" target="_blank">funded by fossil fuel interests</a>, was hired for a <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/12/912301325/longtime-climate-science-denier-hired-at-noaa" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">top job</a> advancing weather modeling and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Legates has called for <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/9/18/noaa_david_legates_climate_crisis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">increasing carbon emissions</a>.</p><p>The Trump administration has done much more than stack government agencies with fossil fuel industry proponents. It has removed or diluted discussion of climate change from as many government platforms as it can and decimated independent scientific advisory boards that provide unbiased, fact-based information the government needs to enact policies that protect the public. It has also <a href="https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/482352-trump-budget-slashes-funding-for-epa-environmental-programs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slashed environmental agency staffing and budgets</a>.</p>
The Damage So Far<p>A September 17 <a href="https://rhg.com/research/the-rollback-of-us-climate-policy/" target="_blank">report</a> by the Rhodium Group calculates that 1.8 billion tons more greenhouse gases will be released over the next 15 years as a result of climate change rollbacks the Trump administration has achieved so far. These include repealing Obama's main climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which was intended to reduce dirty emissions from power plants; increasing pollution from cars by rolling back fuel economy standards and challenging California's longtime authority to set stricter emissions standards; targeting controls on hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases used mainly in refrigerators and air conditioners that also destroy the Earth's protective ozone layer; and allowing unreported and unregulated emissions of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, by oil and gas companies.</p><p>Besides these measures, Trump is also trying to gut core environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which were enacted to protect human health and preserve a livable world.</p><p>The Paris agreement aims to keep the rise in average global temperatures at less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and hopefully cap it at 1.5 degrees C or lower. We are now at approximately 1.2 degrees C and counting.</p>
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By Jan Ellen Spiegel
It wasn't so long ago that the issue of climate change was poised to play a huge – possibly even a decisive – role in the 2020 election, especially in the race for control of the U.S. Senate. Many people supporting Democratic candidates saw a possible Democratic majority as a hedge against a potential Trump re-election … a way to plug the firehose spray of more than 100 environmental regulation rollbacks and new anti-climate initiatives by the administration over its first term.
Potential Climate Voters<p>In a September 1 memo on climate and the election, Andrew Baumann, vice president of the consultants Global Strategy Group, wrote: "Few issues have seen as dramatic a shift in public opinion as climate change has over the last few years. Only marriage equality and the recent shift in views around racial justice outpace the rapid growth in the salience of climate change as an issue."</p><p>Calling it a "winning political issue" the memo says: "First, it is clearly a motivator for both younger and Latinx voters. Second, it has the power to move swing voters, particularly center-right white women."</p><p>Baumann points to a finding that when a group of such women were asked generic ballot questions, Democrats trailed by nine percentage points. But when the question was revised as a choice between:</p><p>"A Democrat who supports taking strong government action to combat climate change.<br>A Republican who opposes taking strong government action to combat climate change."</p><p>… the result was a 29 percentage point shift, putting Democrats ahead by 20 percentage points among that same group.</p><p>"I think it is playing a role," says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, a longtime outspoken climate activist who is on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and also on the Senate Democrats' Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. If Democrats win back the Senate, he stands to play an even more pivotal climate role as part of the majority. He is not up for re-election this year.</p><p><span></span>"I think from the Democratic side it's playing a role in generating enthusiasm – particularly making younger voters feel that they have a real stake in this election. On the Republican side, I think things have moved enough that candidates can no longer get away with simply scoffing about climate change."</p>
Climate a Top Concern for Youths, Latinx<p>So who's still thinking climate? Mostly young voters – 18 to 25 or 29 and Latinx voters.</p><p>Climate and the environment are the top concern among young voters, just above racism and healthcare according to <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">CIRCLE</a>, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which focuses on the political life of young people in the U.S. For Latinx youth, it drops a bit but remains in the top three.</p><p>The issues young people care about have an impact on how they volunteer their time, says Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at CIRCLE. He says that's played out most notably through the Sunrise Movement, which focuses on climate change and the environment along with other key activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.</p><p>He points to polling this summer that showed that 83% of 18-to-29-year-olds felt they had the power to change things. "Young people feel much more empowerment than in 2016 and 2018," Lundberg says. "It's intentional these movements are carving out space for young people. It's an important strategy."</p><p>In positions of power in these organizations, young people have developed peer-to-peer outreach on activism. And Lundberg says young people have made the leap that connects activism to voting as a lever for change. "In the past in very close races, young people breaking heavily have provided the margin of victory," he says.</p><p>CIRCLE is highlighting 10 U.S. Senate races as ones in which young voters can be decisive. Several of them have notable climate or environmental components – most prominently the Colorado and Montana races.</p><p>The Republican incumbents in each state – Cory Gardner in Colorado and Steve Daines in Montana – are running against a popular Democratic governor – John Hickenlooper in Colorado, now out of office — and Steve Bullock, still the governor of Montana. Both governors have had to balance their state's fossil fuel economic interests with supporting climate change solutions.</p>
Tying Climate Change to the Economy<p>In August, Data for Progress, a progressive research think tank, released polling on climate change – including in the battleground Senate elections in Arizona, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina – showing voters back a Senate candidate supporting strong climate action.</p><blockquote>Climate change as 'mobilizing issue … key persuasion issue.'<br></blockquote><p>It also showed that linking climate change to the economy may be key. That means talking about clean energy and jobs together, says Danielle Deiseroth, climate data analyst for <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank">Data for Progress</a>. She says that in addition to jobs, climate change issues include climate justice and economic equality – both of heightened interest because of fallout from western wildfires.</p><p>"Climate change, we've observed over the last year or so, is a key mobilizing issue and a key persuasion issue," she says. "Climate issues can only grow support for Democratic candidates.</p><p>"I think it's pretty naive to say climate is the key issue for voters. For a lot of voters it really exemplifies so many things that are wrong with the Trump presidency," Deiseroth says.</p><p>So a factor among others. Helpful, but pivotal only in narrow circumstances.</p><p>At the League of Conservations Voters, a progressive environmentalist organization putting a lot of money and effort into the 2020 races, Senior Director of Political Affairs Craig Auster says: "I'll push back that climate change doesn't matter or isn't registering."</p><p>"It's still showing up in several Senate races. It's been playing a role in almost all of them."</p><p>Candidates are still talking about it, he says, pointing to Colorado, Montana, Iowa, and other states where ads are addressing climate and environmental issues. That shows the candidates believe their opponent is vulnerable on the issue or they're strong on it, he says.</p><p>Like others, Auster calls climate a motivator.</p><p>"Climate change matters," he says. "We have proof point after proof point about what's happening, whether it's a hurricane, a superstorm, derechos in Iowa, or wildfires out west.</p><p>"Pre-COVID it was top tier for Democratic voters along with healthcare. If COVID didn't happen I think climate would be a big deal."</p>
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