As I was doing some routine tasks this morning on my computer for the online farmer's market we run (Ojai Farmstand), my mind wandered a bit, and I started reflecting on some of the deeper goals I had over 4 years ago when I started the Farmstand out of the back of my pickup with #2 peppers and tomatoes I gleaned from the organic farm at Farmer and the Cook. We've come a long way since then, but the underlying passion that gets me up every morning, and compels me to work through all the challenges of developing a rogue method of local food distribution remains the same.
In a nutshell: the proliferation of small family-run local farms, and customer networks that support them directly.
That's the goal.
It's simple, in essence. It came from this vision of society that takes all the amazing agricultural technology and innovation of the last century, AND at the same time preserves a communal-based structure that defined the American Food System as recently as the 1930s. In A Revolution Down on the Farm Paul B. Conkin describes what it was like to grow up in the 30s in Rural East Tennessee. He uses his boyhood community as an example of what the typical American community looked like from a food / farm perspective. As recently as less than one hundred years ago, it was normal to be surrounded by many family farms of various sizes, and to buy or trade a large portion of your food from them, either directly on the farm, or by supporting local shopkeepers where farmers and their families sold extra butter, eggs, fruit etc...
I don't need to tell anyone this is not the norm any longer. I am truly grateful to have technological innovations that drastically reduce farm labor, and improve quality of life (electricity being one of the main ones!). But the task of my generation is to regain cultural structures and communal ties that have been lost in the process. We don't have to become Amish to do this. I believe simply switching our food consumption habits to local farms would win us a large part of what has been lost.
When you buy from a local farm run by a family, or local individual, there are obvious economic benefits for the community. That money stays local. But that is not the greatest benefit in locally (or farmer-direct) made transactions. Every transaction has the opportunity to build relationships between the seller / buyer, and if those are kept local and/or personal, that relationship has the chance of blossoming into something more than merely a transaction. Transactions which have a personal stamp on them tend to be more conducive to understanding, gratitude and mutual support, which is easy to lose in a modern economy that transacts less personally.
I'm not saying there aren't benefits to modern economies. But let's make some distinctions here. Some things really are better massed produced and shipped far away. If our automobiles were produced by local firms, they probably could not reach the economy of scale needed to make them affordable for the average consumer. But food is different.
Food does not need to be mass produced on the same level as other commodities, and for most of history, it wasn't. In fact, it can often be better quality when it is not! Bio-intensive planting methods like the ones we use on our farm help reach micro-economies of scale that still allow us to remain embedded in our local community. I actually know many of my customers personally, and have had the privilege of helping them in times of need, and they have also done the same for me.
Food is the best commodity to produce and distribute locally, because everyone needs it, and and the factory is lying under our feet. The machinery required to grow top-quality local food is simple in comparison to an automobile factory. Any aspiring entrepreneur can start and run a successful farm on a fairly low capital investment. And if there is one product we should cultivate gratitude for, I would argue that food is a fundamental one. After all, it is what becomes flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones 3 times a day!
So, when I started the farmstand, I said to myself: “I want to see local farms thrive. Everyone in my community eats food. Let's just make it easy for them to shift their food purchases from conventional grocery stores to local farms! At least for the fresh items like produce!”
I'm not selling a new product! Everybody buys food! All I need to do is explain to people why they want to shift their food purchases from one source to another. In reality, it's a little more complex than that, but it helps to keep the perspective simple. My prayer is that every eater thinks every time he/she sits down to eat, and realizes that they are shaping community and culture with their eating and buying habits.
“Changing the Food System” sounds like a daunting task, but connecting one eater at a time with the few local famers that are still trying to stick it out (or just trying to get started, in our case!) makes it attainable. We don't have to wait for everyone to do this! Every baby step taken toward eating from local farms moves us closer to the kind of cultural fabric that held American communities together through struggles like the great depression. And generally, it was the rural communities that fared the best during the depression, because they were able to provide themselves with food.
That's the vision that keeps me going, and motivates me to expand our Online Farmstand to more families and more homes. When customers buy from us, more than half of that money goes straight to local farms. Compared to the 10% of the American food dollar that normally goes back to the farmer, that is a big difference!
If you live in our area, and want to be part of this positive communal change, I invite you to take advantage of our week-long sign-up incentive through Feb 22nd at Ojai Farmstand. The more customers we can find, the more of an impact we can make together. Come be part of the local food community! Your body will thank you, and your community will thank you. If you live elsewhere, I encourage you to join up with the thousands of other motivated folks around the country trying to rebuild communal food systems in their own localities.
We can do this, one grateful bite at a time! Bon Appetit! Cheers!
Less than two weeks after I made our last post, life took a dramatic turn not only for us, but for everyone in our local community. Dec 4th was a fairly normal Monday. We did have to make a short trip up to the Olive Mill at Figueroa Farm in Santa Ynez to drop off some food grade 5-gallon buckets for storing oil from our newest harvest batch. We were supposed to send them up with the hauler, but we forget to give them to him before he left. We decided to make the trip as a family, and enjoy the time together in the car.
The day before, we had just finished up a 2nd Olive harvest day. We improved our picking process, and had a bigger group of people, and managed to bring in 1.5 tons instead of only a half ton! It was a great day (see photos below) and great fun, although quite exhausting! By the time Monday rolled around, we were beat! Hence the decision to just all ride up to Santa Ynez and hang out together as a family on the way up there. A 4 hour round trip mini vacation to the mill (oh boy!! Can I come?!)
Driving on the same mountainous 2-lane highway just days before, Deirdre and I commented on the dryness of the hillside brush and trees on both sides of the road. We usually get rain starting in November here, but not this year. It was bone dry. We half-jokingly, half-seriously talked about being ready at any moment to turn around and drive the other way if it were to catch on fire somehow.
If you go drive that same road today, you won't see any brush. Or trees. They all burned in what became California's biggest wildfire on record. And it started just above our little valley, right next to the small Catholic college that most of our olive harvest volunteers attend. Dubbed "The Thomas Fire" after "Thomas Aquinas College", the blaze started Monday Dec 4th, and burned 281,893 acres and 1,063 buildings over the next 39 days.
We were eating dinner around 6:30 when the girl that stayed with us came home and said there was a fire somewhere East of us and the sky was glowing. Sure enough, we walked outside, and could see the pulsing red glow in the sky. Worst of all, it was a windy night, with seasonal Santa Ana winds throwing tree branches and debris around everywhere. I knew this fire was going to spread, but had no idea of just how far.
There is something about natural disasters that has a way of consuming your attention, and pushing all routines to the side. The mindset one gets into in the presence of pending danger is all-encompassing. It looked from the initial glow that the fire could be quite close to our farm and orchard, so I wanted to drive up and see if they were in danger. I didn't want the kids to feel worried though, so I told Deirdre I was sneaking out briefly to run over and take a look. I drove a couple miles past the farm, and could see now that it was further away than I thought. It appeared to be in a Canyon on the other side of the hills, and that turned out to be correct, but it was moving fast.
When I say fast, I mean driven by 60-70 MPH wind gusts. A good friend of ours is a local fire chief who happened to be on duty when the fire broke out, and he told us later about that first night in the Canyon. The scene he described was complete chaos, with people trying to evacuate, the only road out getting jammed, winds spreading fire everywhere, and unfortunately one woman died trying to escape when her car crashed.
When I got home, I checked the local news and twitter to see what we could learn. All we could learn was that the fire was being fueled by incredible winds, and the outer edges of nearby Ventura were under urgent mandatory evacuation. We put the kids to bed, and continued to check the news on my phone. I should have plugged my phone in, because an hour later, the power went out. I drove quickly to the farm to get our generator.
While there, I could see that the road leading up to the Orchard (one of only 4 small roads leading out of our valley) had just been closed by the police only 1/4 mile up from the farm. I grabbed the generator and gas can, and looked around in the light of the headlights at the farm. For a brief minute I indulged in the sobering thought that it could all burn, and I might come back to bare, charred land with debris strewn around. In that regard, we ended up being luckier than many neighbors, but I had no way of knowing that at the time.
Back at the house, we tried to go back to bed, but I could not sleep, and the news kept on... spreading fast, spreading faster, Ventura get out!! The nearest road out had closed, so we decided to go spend the night at Deirdre's parents, who live right off another road that leads out of the other side of the Valley. We brought the kids over around 11:00 pm, and shared the generator with the grandparents so we could all charge our phones, since the power was out everywhere.
I slept a total of 2 hours that night. I was worried about the speed the fire was spreading, and was ready to wake everyone up and leave in a moment's notice. I did not want to be at the back of a long string of frantic cars trying escape a narrow valley on 2-lane highways. By 5 am, I read that 150 buildings in Ventura had already burned, including a hospital where Deirdre's Dad used to work.
By mid-morning, we decided to drive north and get our of harms way. Flames had become visible on the hills around us. We drove briefly home with the truck to get clothes and supplies, and the few irreplaceable items we would miss if the house burned. Leaving the house, I felt a strange feeling of detachment and freedom, realizing that it all might burn. As we drove out of town, there were cars everywhere, and lines at the gas station going out into the street and around the corner! Fortunately, we had a full tank of gas, and we hit the road.
It was a slow drive due to the number of cars trying to leave, and everybody was slowing down further to watch the flames. Most people were heading for Santa Barbara, but we decided to drive further. Deirdre has a sister in San Jose, so we thought we might as well drive the extra 3 hours to go see her and spend the night there. We ended up staying 6 days, following the firefighter's progress all the while. After that point, although the fire was still active near our home, the imminent danger seemed to have passed, and we badly needed to get back and tend to the farm, and begin the olive harvest with our hired harvest crew.
The day after we got back was the day the pickers were supposed to begin picking. There were still 18 tons of olives left in the orchard after the 2 we had picked with volunteers right before the fire. The road to the orchard was still closed, and I was worried we wouldn't be able to pick. This was Dec 12th, and we were running out of time before Christmas, and the first frost. We had already pushed the harvest back several times, and I didn't want to risk waiting any longer.
The roads cleared up just in time. It looked like a barren wasteland with trees burnt everywhere, and ruined homes on both sides of the road. The orchard got scorched on the outside edges, and we lost all the harvest equipment we had purchased and were storing up there. But most of the olives were fine, and for the next 10 days we oversaw the harvest. We also spent a couple hours a day venturing onto the farm to cleanup the awful mess of ashes and things strewn everywhere in the 70 MPH winds. The smoke over the valley was so dense we had to wear masks. We stayed with my parents about 30 minutes away where the smoke was not so thick, and did not actually return to our house until the 22nd.
After picking up the final batch of oil from the mill in Santa Ynez, we set to work airing out our smoky house, and getting ready for Christmas! It was still a beautiful holiday despite the recent events, and we certainly remembered to pray for those who had lost their homes, and were forced to celebrate elsewhere. We had nothing to complain about in comparison with those who lost their homes!
We are still feeling the aftermath of the fire today. Being away from the farm for a week, and then having the harvest occupy most of our attention for the next 10 days put us far behind our planting schedule, and weeds and gophers moved in. We are beginning to feel back to normal there, and the disaster really forced us to adopt a rigorous work schedule that we plan to continue indefinitely, with the goal of making the farm better than ever before. I'll save the details of our cool new routines for another post. Until then, take care, keep safe, and offer a prayer for those less fortunate than we were!
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!