Farming for more than Food

Making a Difference

By Laura Binks

Farming is no easy task. I once heard that, in order to be a farmer, you have to know a little about everything.

Image courtesy of Karen McVay

It’s mechanics, engineering, accounting, and biology all rolled into one job. It’s also a huge gamble tending to an investment with no guarantee of generating an income. Farmers everywhere are at the mercy of a very unpredictable and sometimes devastating force—Mother Nature. It makes you wonder, Why would anyone want to be a farmer? I interviewed three women farmers to find out.

Alison, Karen, and Lorraine, who farm in distinctly different parts of the United States, pursue farming to improve their personal wellbeing, the environment’s health, and their communities. From the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast, they are plowing, weeding, planting, watering, and harvesting. None of them took over the family farming business or could ever have predicted they’d be farming one day. All of them do, however, have noble reasons for farming.

Alison Gannett’s Holy Terror Farm sits on 75 acres near Paonia, Colorado, in Delta County along Holy Terror Creek. Her farm is nestled in the North Fork Valley on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. At 5,674 feet, the valley is known for its produce, including cherries, apricots, grapes, peaches, plums, pears, nectarines, and apples. Paonia even dedicates three days each July to cherries, with the Paonia Cherry Days festival. Alison calls the valley, “The fruit basket of Colorado.”

Alison shows off a rainbow of farm-grown carrots.

Alison’s mission is, “To work to make the world a better place.” Along with farming, her Rippin Chix Camps, and her professional extreme skiing career, she runs three nonprofit organizations: The Save Our Snow Foundation, the Office for Resource Efficiency, and LocalFarmsFirst.com, which is an online farmer’s market. Alison also spends much of her time traveling to lecture about combating climate change (even riding her bike between cities where she’ll speak) and to educate people on reducing their carbon footprints. “The biggest way I lower my carbon footprint is avoiding petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and energy-intensive GMO’s for our livestock feed,” says Alison.

Alison, who grew up in rural New Hampshire, says that when it comes to life on the farm, “Every day is a learning experience.” Holy Terror Farm hosts two acres of gardens and five of orchards, which leaves plenty of room for chickens, pigs, cows, and two livestock dogs, Blue and Hank. Even with the usual farm routines of weeding and feeding, Alison says, “There is no such thing as a typical day.” There are animals that escape and need to be rounded up, and predators, such as raccoons and bears, that need to be chased off the property.

“We are always busy, and there really are no days off,” says Alison. She and her partner, Jason, start everything from seed and harvest year-round—growing carrots, kale, lettuce, and spinach in the snowy winter by using cold-frames, small hoops, and mulch. Their limes and lemons are raised indoors. There’s also the work of canning and preserving food for the off-season. They grow or raise almost everything they eat except for coffee, chocolate, and salt. “I like that tangible feeling of security. I know if anything were to happen, we’d have everything that we need.”

The farm also gives Alison an opportunity to educate the people who visit, including apprentices who come and stay three to six months, usually between March and October. She also hosts moun-tain bike clinics for women, educational farm tours, and sustainability camps for kids. “While here, they do everything from animal feeding, planting, har vesting, preserving, and cheese making,” says Alison. Colorado Senator Gail Schwartz has also recently stopped by the farm with the Western Colorado Food and Ag Council. “The goal is inspiration—not preaching—and teaching people how to grow their own food.” Alison likes to focus on what people can do, no matter where they live. “Earthboxes or growing containers are a simple way to start growing, especially if you have bad soil,” says Alison. She points out that people can grow produce, such as lettuce, kale, and herbs, all winter long. In addition to making sense environmentally, growing your own food benefits your per-sonal health, too. “Food grown in healthy soil and animals raised on pastures have a higher nutritional content and are healthier for you,” says Alison, who, herself, is a pretty perfect picture of health.

Like Alison, Karen McVay was concerned about what she saw happening to the world around her. “I wanted to give something back to the Earth,” says Karen. Karen moved back to her home state of Kansas in 2005 after working as a traveling speech pathologist. After living in both Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, she saw what happens when the land isn’t cared for properly. “I would ride my bike through beautiful orchid fields and see all this trash, people just dumping things off the side of the road,” Karen says. “I also learned that if the soil is not nourished after growing taxing crops like sugar cane and corn, it becomes depleted of nutrients over time,” she says. So Karen started to volunteer on an organic farm in the Virgin Islands. During this time, she became more aware of the importance of sustainability. “I realized that I wanted to nurture the soil, not damage it. Soil that is over-farmed will produce far less yield, have more insects and diseases, and what is grown has fewer micronutrients so it is less nourishing.”

Karen’s latest batch of okra

“I didn’t grow up on a farm and never even considered living on a farm until after my ‘island’ days,” says Karen. Today, she lives on 15 acres outside of Pomona, Kansas, in Franklin County. In a plains state typically known for its crops of sunflowers and wheat, Karen manages to grow everything that she eats. She harvests an array of fruits and vegetables, from pears to asparagus, blackberries to garlic, and kale to figs. According to Karen, it’s all about trial and error. “I keep a journal, and I’m always fine-tuning.” Karen also looks to other sources for information about farming and gardening, such as a tome by garden expert Ruth Stout, or The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, a book about common sense sustainable farming. One would think that, to successfully grow everything you eat, you would need a lot of land. But Karen disagrees. She doesn’t use her entire 15 acres for farming, “I only use about an acre to grow all my own food.”

For Karen, life on the farm does come with its challenges, such as dealing with broken farm equipment or having to do heavy lifting. “I hate when I can’t fix or do things myself,” says Karen. One thing she can’t fix or change: drought. And she’s had to deal with it this year. It’s so severe that 40 counties in Kansas are considered in emergency status. Franklin County is not only under a drought warning, it’s a federally designated agricultural disaster due to the drought. Karen usually relies on the rain to water her produce. She also irrigates her crops with well water and waters her orchard from her rain barrels and rain collectors. “It’s a miracle I kept anything alive this year,” Karen says. “It’s scary to see the places that are normally filled with water all dried up.”

In addition to her garden and orchard duties, Karen maintains the rest of her land that includes a softball field, walking paths, and a windmill. Plus she cares for her chickens, ducks, and two goats. But her day job as a school speech pathologist keeps her busy, too. During the summer, she spends six hours a day on farm work—weeding, mulching, harvesting, and canning. “The chores change with the seasons, but the animals are a daily chore,” she says. Karen doesn’t sell her produce anywhere now, but hopes to soon peddle it in a local farmer’s market or sell it to a restaurant. “I would love to have a farm stand,” says Karen. “I love all the food I can make and the creative aspect of canning and preserving the food I grow. It is sort of a lost art.”

Lorraine with seedlings

Far from the wide open spaces of Colorado and Kansas, Lorraine Gibbons farms in an unlikely locale: New Jersey. Not typically associated with farming, the Garden State is better known for its industrial diversity and Atlantic City. However, productive farmland covers about 790,000 acres of New Jersey. The state—with more than eight million people on only 7,836 square miles—produces cranberries and blueberries, as well as potatoes, corn, tomatoes, and asparagus. Unfortunately, today much of New Jersey’s farmland is being taken over by commercial and residential expansion. But urban farmer Lorraine Gibbons won’t let expansion stand in her way.

“I want to provide low-cost, healthy food in urban areas,” she said, and Lorraine is well on her way. She worked with New Jersey schools and organizations to help develop gardens and accompanying curriculum. In 2008, she obtained a lease on a half-acre lot in Newark and planted a garden. Due to the garden’s success and with the support of the community, she started the nonprofit organization Garden State Urban Farms (GSUF) in the spring of 2009. Today, GSUF utilizes spaces such as abandoned lots and rooftops in Newark and Jersey City, and a hydroponic greenhouse to grow produce.

To accomplish farming in such a limited amount of space, Lorraine uses small plot-intensive farming and earthboxes at GSUF’s sites in Newark and Jersey City. “Earthboxes are nice because it is like having a farm but you can move it around if needed.” At the greenhouse, Lorraine says, “In 800 square feet, we can grow two to three acres worth of food. We grow a variety of everything according to what people in the community want.” Another advan-tage of a hydroponic greenhouse is that GSUF can grow all year round and have a quick turnaround.

GSUF members also run a farmer’s market every Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. “The space is great because we were looking for a place in the community that people frequent and that is a transportation hub,” says Lorraine. GSUF members also plant and grow specially requested produce for a number of restaurants in New York and New Jersey. To expand its involvement in the community, GSUF collaborates with schools, other nonprofit organizations, and government groups to provide employment and educational programming. In the future, GSUF hopes to continue to grow while still remaining financially viable in a costly urban environment. “Land is very expensive and right now we don’t have enough production for the demand. We hope to get more property and scale it up,” Lorraine remarks.

The Scottish Highland cows on Holy Terror Farm

Farming, a challenge that few voluntarily undertake, requires round-the-clock work without sick days or paid time off. There are no benefits, such as medical or dental insurance, and the majority of farmers never really retire. Their days usually coincide with sunrise and sunset and there is no punch clock. Problems are not solved in meetings with co-workers but with hard labor in the field. So, why would anyone want to be a farmer? It must be a labor of love because, at the end of the day, farming is more a way of life than an occupation.

Last modified: June 24, 2013

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