The Unexpected Effect of Pigs

I have a lot to say about having pigs in the orchard and have been compiling my notes all summer long for a later, longer essay. Today, however, I want to talk about an unexpected happening of the pigs.

A couple weeks ago, I made the decision to move the pigs out of the orchard and into a new series of paddocks behind the one-day-soon Greenhorns headquarters. This decision came because the timing of harvest was getting difficult with pig rotation, so I figured it would be best to remove them from the orchard for a few weeks. Luckily, the Greenhorns HQ is only a pasture and a backyard away from the orchard so the move was about an eighth of a mile away.

Armed in running clothes with a quart Ball jar full of grain (for noise making), I had Shizue (the newest hire of Greenhorns!) lift up the gate of their old pen and I started to jog across the pasture. As expected, the pigs followed me and eventually fell into a hilarious single file line with Mortimer, the 8 month-old boar, leading the group. If ever I have felt like the pied piper, that was the day.

Before reaching the new paddocks, we ran through Doug and Yvonne Sears’ backyard, where they were standing on the back porch whooping with laughter and clapping as we passed. I guess its not everyday you see a line of little pigs run through your backyard.

eliza herding pigs

Over the course of this summer, I’ve gotten to know Doug (turns 90 this November) and Yvonne (age undisclosed) and they have been wonderful neighbors. They have been married for 65 years and are still so very in love that it makes my face melt to witness it. Ginger, my large French Mastiff, broke the ice with them early on by walking into their house uninvited and asking for a dog bone in her sad faced “I’m going to sit and shake my paw for you” manner. Ever since, Doug and Yvonne have welcomed me and the dog and whomever is accompanying me over for dinner, conversation, a vodka-tonic, or just a quick catch up on the day’s events. It has been really nice to become friends with them.

Doug, a faithful cutter of grass on his riding lawnmower, cuts our headquarters front lawn without asking because he wants to keep us out of the “You redneck; your grass is too long” judgement zone from passerby’s (a zone I really don’t care about, but that doesn’t matter). With that same riding lawnmower, Doug has also helped me to cut paddock lines to place my electric fence, saving me at least an hour of labor. I’m grateful for Doug.

Now to the unexpected outcome of the pigs…

After witnessing the pigs run through their backyard, Yvonne developed a burning interest in them. She told me a couple weeks ago that as soon as it’s light enough to go outside, she goes and says hello to them. She returns throughout the day, often with leftovers from breakfast, lunch or dinner to give them. The pigs, who I believe to be the happiest animals on earth, come bounding from wherever they are to tell Yvonne hello! and that SHE IS THE BEST THING EVER.

Yvonne adores those pigs. Yesterday she confided in me that she has had a bad back over the past year and with the rain and the cold weather that dominates this climate, she has not been able to do the walking necessary to heal. (She also confided in me that her lack of activity is built on excuses). Ever since I moved the pigs out of the orchard and to a place that is easily accessible for her to walk, she’s been walking more than ever and enjoying every minute of it because it involves seeing the pigs.

yvonne with pigs

Her back is feeling better. Doug says she spends more time with the pigs than she does with him.  And today she informed me that the pigs love radishes, lettuce, turnips, and mashed potatoes.

photo courtesy of Shizue!

I’m often guilty of getting wrapped up in the management aspects of farming. How can X benefit Y and Y benefit X without costing me more money? What are the yields? Etc. Today was a reminder that small scale farming can and should hold more than that. It can unexpectedly bring happiness and joy to those surrounding us and even give someone a reason to put on their shoes, grab their cane, and go for a walk as soon as the sun comes up.

Workshops in NY! Come one, come all (until spots fill up)

The Home Orchard: a series of workshops with Eliza Greenman

May 9th: Fruit Tree Topworking Workshop!

Imagine a single apple tree in the spring blooming with a bouquet of white, pink, red and purple flowers. Imagine that same singular tree with red, green, yellow and russeted apples in the fall. That tree is possible to obtain if you learn how to topwork. Come and learn the art and technique of adding different varieties to a tree. On Saturday, May 9th, heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman will walk you through the steps necessary to change an apple, pear, or hawthorne tree over to something you find more useful to your lifestyle. Whether you want to convert an abandoned orchard over to different varieties, or you are tight on space and want one of your trees to supply great pie apples for every month of the apple season…the learning starts with topworking.

When: May 9th, 3-5pm
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to bring: Loppers or hand pruners, sharp knife (a single bevel grafting knife is strongly preferred), gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot: egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 6th: Growing Low-Input/Low-Spray Apples for Hard Cider

Cider apples are different from your normal grocery store apples. Not just in variety, but also in management technique. Come take a walk through the orchard with heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman to learn the basics of good and bad when it comes to growing apples for hard cider. We’ll identify and discuss beneficial insects and cosmetic diseases, concerns and triumphs in the orchard, and tips/tricks to deal with these concerns. The goal of this workshop is to have the participant leave with motivation to experiment, make observations, and join a network of people working to supple and make quality products which do not harm local ecology or the consumer.

When: June 6th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 13th: Summer Pruning Workshop Summer

Pruning is a practice and art of addressing vigor in apple and pear trees. When practiced in combination with dormant winter pruning, a tree is able to produce more fruit and have less disease. Come learn the basics of tree vigor, how soils and winter pruning can interact with the vegetative growth of your apple trees, and how to bring the tree back into balance through summer pruning.
When: June 13th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to Bring: Hand pruners, loppers, gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com  with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

August 8th: Fruit Exploring and Summer Grafting

Learning from the landscape is one of our best tools in combating climate change and forming a more sustainable agricultural future. If you know where to look and what to look for, the landscape transforms itself into a realm of purposeful human legacies and thriving natural adaptations. Fruit Explorer/Orchardist Eliza Greenman will teach you how to track human legacy through trees, select for wild and thriving genetics, and how to propagate it all through summer bud grafting.
When: August 8th: 9-4
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $25 per person. 25 slots available.
What to Bring: Camera, notebook, single beveled knife (grafting knife preferred), footwear and clothing for walking outside, sun protection.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

September 19th: Hard Cider 101

This workshop will cover all the basics of making hard cider, from pressing to fermentation. Participants will take home a fermenting kit and a 5 gallon carboy of cider to ferment at home.
When: September 19th: 10-2
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $100 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

Recent essay about my trip to the national future farmers of america convention

A Report on the FFA 

by Eliza Greenman

Greenhorns, in partnership with Organic Consumers Association were in attendance last week at the national gathering of the FFA. The FFA National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, saw a sea of 60,000 students representing every nook and cranny of America (and its territories) gathered together for fellowship, belonging, education and scholarly competition. Between the ages of 13 and 18, many of these students are next-in-line to the family farm and occupy a strategically powerful position in the future of American Agriculture; they are kids with land. With a self-confidence rarely seen in teenagers and impeccable public speaking skills, these students in their blue corduroy jackets cut quite the impressive figure, particularly in a stadium context.

They are team-spirited, motivated and articulate, and most of them credit these qualities to the organization that brought them together, the FFA. The FFA is turning these next-in-line farmers, agriscientists, ag teachers and farm sympathizers into successful leaders, fierce entrepreneurs, and good Samaritans…for Big Ag.

 This polished youth constituency at the FFA sing the praises, almost exclusively, of Big Ag. How did this happen? Lets start with the obvious place, and let’s follow the money.

Based on the funding sources published in the 2012 National FFA Annual Report, corporate sponsorship represented 89% of total funding for the organization, or 18.6 million dollars (see page 17). This funding came from companies like:

  • Zoetis- World’s largest producer of medicine and vaccinations for pets and livestock under Pfizer

  • Cargill- Distributor of agricultural commodities such as the raising of livestock and production of feed

  • Monsanto- Leading producer of genetically engineered seed (GMO) and herbicides (Roundup)

  • Dow- 2nd largest chemical producer in the world

  • Syngenta– Biotechnology and genomic research, distribution of seeds

  • Elanco– Global animal pharmaceutical branch under Eli Lilly and Company

The corporate influence of the companies above and others were widely detected by all of the Greenhorns, as well as many of the parents and guardians in attendance at the convention. Throughout the expo, flashy, digital, draconian and utterly Orwellian interactive displays and mountains of corporate schwag beckoned students to answer the question: “Who will feed the world when it reaches 9 billion people by 2050?”

The “feed the world” sloganeering has been carefully crafted by “Big Ag” to make organic agriculture seem inadequate or even dangerous to the health of the world. The energy from the main stage resembled an arena playing Jock Jams more than an address by a CEO. Full of college football jeering, promises for thousands of future scholarships, and cheering for money (“Scream if you think money is neat-o”), students were all riled up. Tyson Foods, Elanco and Monsanto executives coached the students, with polished evangelical speeches, about the “grave risk” we face if we can’t use “technologies we have (including drought resistant seeds) to feed the world.”  Afterwards, FFA students approached the Greenhorns booth to [politely] ask us why biotechnology isn’t currently accepted by our organization. We were accused of not knowing the facts and dabbling in unethical, fear-mongering tactics (in league with Chipotle) giving consumers false and condemning information. Sweet, clean, well-meaning students explained to us why organic agriculture just isn’t realistically able to feed the world. It’s not innovative and technologically advanced enough, they said.

 Our retort: Without a return to restorative organic agriculture, our legacy won’t have a world to feed. But that’s almost besides the point. The goal is not for ‘we biotech’ to feed the world, but for the world to feed itself with foods appropriate to the culture and landscape – empowerment of communities with food sovereignty and seed sovereignty. The goal is to grow food in a way that respects the land and soil while building a biodiverse and environmentally resilient landscape that can provide us a well balanced diet, not just corn and its myriad of products. “Who will Feed the world in 2050” is a marketing tactic for big businesses that realize the destruction they are causing now, to our diets and our soil health, but don’t want to lose any market share. They don’t want to talk about feeding the world today.

To help transform the public conversation from questioning our diets and soil health towards being concerned with the future of feeding two-billion more people, companies like Monsanto are smartly investing their money to indoctrinate the FFA’s 610,000+ student member base, the next generation of agricultural leaders, their own young farmer lobby. For example, funding is being poured into extensive public speaking training for these students so their voices will stand out, even in the sensory-overloaded social-media generation. Just watch the extemporaneous public speaking finals from this year for proof of success, their stage presence is impressive to say the least.

It’s all about diversion. The keynote address from the CEO of Tyson Foods was delivered after first telling the young audience it was okay not to pay attention: don’t put your phones away, was the first thing Donnie Smith said, as he took a ‘selfie’ on stage. Instead, he ordered the young audience: “GET YOUR PHONES OUT! Let me see your phones, Louisville! Let me see them all! Light it up!” His main point, and the point of the phone gimmick was to ask the crowd to use social media to “take back” the “story of agriculture:” “These people are hijacking your story and you need to take it back!” Within hours of delivering this message with the hashtag of #myagstory, Donnie Smith’s message trended #1 on Twitter.

But, for those of us who were listening instead of tweeting, we want to know: take back the story of agriculture from whom?? Tyson Foods and others indict the organic industry, corporations like Chipotle, “basement dwelling loser bloggers,” presumably even our very own young farmers movement, have stolen the story of agriculture and distorted it with fear-mongering. These students are taught that the organic movement has co-opted the “story of agriculture” because we want to vilify and condemn America’s farmers. How unreasonable to question the farming practices of the most patriotic and hardworking of Americans. Watch these Amazing videos and see for yourself, learn the facts and know the issues, help us defend our work, help us insist on the truth.

Videos to watch from the 2014 National FFA Convention:

Tyson CEO Donnie Smith Delivers Keynote to 2014 FFA Conference

Monsanto President Brett Begemann speaks to 2014 FFA Conference

FFA introduction for Brett Begemann, Monsanto President

Extemporaneous Public Speaking Finals

 So why is Big Ag investing like this in the youth? These corporations are working towards rewriting America’s rural identity into one where hard work ethic, ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit and family values are based, not on real relationships with the soil, land and local communities, but on the use of high-cost and high-input biotechnological innovation. Students at FFA have bought into the fairytale of Big Ag: that the best way to farm is with bigger-better-newer equipment, leasing or buying ever-larger parcels, and cultivating with high-tech seed and synthetic chemicals to ensure high yields. As one student said: “Why should I farm 600 acres organically when I can farm 6000 acres with GM products? It just makes more business sense and the world’s gotta eat.”

These bright and charming kids are getting hooked on a narrative that undermines their autonomy as business people, and gives them a shortsighted picture of farmland and soil stewardship. It is no secret that chemical inputs for monoculture crops cause serious, long-term soil degradation. It is no secret that farmers, especially those under contract with Tyson Foods and Tyson’s subsidiaries, have little control over the fates of their small businesses, where they get big or are squeezed out with crushing debt. (Read: The Meat Racket).

Given the current political and economic landscape, it would appear to make a lot of sense for young entrepreneurial-minded rural farmers to grow crops like corn because the market is demanding it (ethanol, livestock feed and export) and tax payers are subsidizing it. As farmers and advocates of diversified and specialty crops, a monoculture largely supported by American tax dollars seems to have a precarious future, yet these FFA students don’t see it that way. One feisty young man swore on his family’s farm that if subsidies were taken away, his family’s corn and soybean business would still prosper like it has been, even with the recent purchase of a $380,000 harvester. This may or may not be the case for this young man, but according to David Griswold of the CATO institute in a 2007 debate with the Farm Bureau: “Subsidized farmers are selling out their future competitiveness in the market for the sake of federal handouts.” From 1980 to 2005, cash receipts for subsidy supported crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, sugar beets, etc rose 14 percent while cash receipts for non-supported crops like fruits, vegetables, and nuts, soared by 186 percent.

We have reached a moment where the mainstream American public has begun to question the contents, supply chain, ethics and health of their food supply, and wants it labelled. Big Ag is getting worried. Last fall the “Farmers and Ranchers Alliance” paid for and distributed a ‘documentary film about young farmers in America,’ called Farmland. This film was distributed to Farm Bureaus across America in order to hit their target audience of sons and daughters born into conventional agricultural families who feel squeezed and misunderstood by mass media depictions. Outside of the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s reach, this film was dismissed as an elaborate high-cost puff-piece (“more like a feature-length advertisement than like a documentary”). Many students we talked with asked if we had seen this film, which they felt was a fair portrayal of their lifestyle.

Through millions of dollars in donations, corporations have created a heroic strawman, an all-American, football loving narrative painting themselves as saviors of global hunger and harbingers of sustainable agriculture. This heroism gets piped into rural schools right alongside the pledge of allegiance, beckoning student farmers to join them in their effort to intensify production in order to meet growing food demands. The rewards are big and the conventional way of farming is seen as a sure thing for right now.

The national FFA conference was best summed up by Greenhorns teammate Katie Murray: “These corporations and FFA mindsets are in-put, output driven. These students aren’t being taught to think of the long-term effects. They are a rising generation of agricultural thinkers and actors who aren’t considering the whole system.” Feeding the growing population, 9 billion by 2050, is just a piece of the whole-system puzzle, including our diets and soil health today, in 2014. The FFA is built on camaraderie and relationship building, yet it seems to fall short when considering the ecological relationships needed to sustain this earth for centuries to come. This is a disservice to the members of the Future Farmers of America, who deserve to learn and be exposed to more than what the current educational constraints dictate.

Can we feed 9 billion using organic techniques? This UN report says its the only way forward. In order to further this train of thought and practice, we’re going to have to invest in relationships with the incoming generation. The FFA students are smart, friendly, respectful, hard-working, down to earth, and completely insulated by the FFA curriculum. It’s our job to help them to make more connections with a more diverse nature and expose them to the way of life we believe in. Reach out to your local FFA chapter and see what you can do to help. Volunteer, offer guided tours, be a guest speaker and get to know these students clad in blue corduroy jackets. They are good kids, and we’ll need them on the team.

In the words of William C. Gehrke, who as farmer-teacher-advocate in 1936 wrote a letter published in The Kansas Union Farmer about “a better way to get farmers to realize social problems“: If the common people would awaken, especially your farmers, shake off the shackles of ignorance and quit following blindly, you would become master of your own destinies. Let’s learn from this history and stop teaching ignorance.

(This essay has been taken out of the most recent Greenhorns Eblast, which can be found HERE)

This article was also helped and enhanced by the editing talents of Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, Ann Marie Rubin and Anna Isserow. .