Getting Your Hands Dirty

By Patrick Cummings

Bay End Farm has been around since 1906, a collection of small houses and fields abutting two hundred acres of conservation land just north of the Cape Cod canal. Located in the small town of Buzzards Bay, the farm has been certified organic since 2001.

I'm sitting in the open kitchen of one of the houses, the one rented by Nicole Cormier and Jim Lough. I found the young couple on Facebook, after an early morning, coffee-aided virtual walkabout. We share some mutual friends and graduated from the same high school a few years apart, though we don't seem to remember each other.   

Nicole brings me a glass of tap water in a small mason jar. There are three rabbits tucked into cages in the far corner beside the fridge, and at some point during our interview she lets one out and it scurries across the floor and I don't see it again.

Jim is a farmer here and Nicole works as a dietician and nutritional consultant. They're in their mid-twenties, and Nicole has a charming habit of catching herself when she feels she's talked too much, asking Jim if he wants to continue whatever story she's started. Jim always obliges.

I'm here to talk with them about a trip they've just taken, one that took them from Massachusetts to California and back again, making stops at 24 organic farms in 24 states. I ask them first about why they wanted to make such a trip:

Jim and Nicole tell me stories from the road, about the organic citrus farmer in New Orleans who put them on the back of his ATV and raced through his orange orchard; of the Montessori school in New Mexico, where the kids plant and harvest their own organic produce, where they're taught the science behind genetically modified crops and where the math and biology problems are applicable to issues that arise on the farm.

They tell me it was only after the first stop in Lodi, New York, visting the Blue Heron Farm, that they realized they want to make a documentary of the project, despite never having produced anything like it before. "The messages that were coming from the farmers were just so powerful," Nicole says, "and so meaningful to us, we felt we really needed to be able to share it." Jim chimes in, "And the video looked really good."

According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, there are almost 15,000 certified organic farms in the United States, with a projected market demand on their goods likely to warrant nearly triple that by 2015. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, and one that doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Yet, when I talk to Jim and Nicole, I don't get the sense of optimism one might expect by looking at the numbers. While few probably believe running a small, organic farm is the path to riches, the demand must at least be promising. The interest must give them hope.

It's hard to resist the tempation to run down the rabbit hole of food politics, to not spend a few hours online searching for evidence of conspiracy or greed. The simple fact is the USDA co-opted the term "organic" in what I imagine was an attempt to protect consumers while satisfying the mission of furthering the reach and breadth of the American conventional farming industry. Unfortunately, at least according the Jim, Nicole and the farmers they met on the road, it's to the detriment of the individual farmer trying to eek out an existence by growing and bringing to market genuinely organic foods.

Politics and perceived injustice aside, it led me for the first time to distinguish between "organic" and "local". If "organic" has become the new "all natural"--a marketing term that sounds attractive but means little--then as a consumer looking for the highest quality food, my attention should be on what is produced in my proverbial neighborhood.  

Spending time with Nicole and Jim, I begin to think about how we live concurrently in a seemingly immovable agribusiness culture and at a time where the potential of our self-responsibility to move beyond it has never been so strong. The supermarket is not our only option, it's just perhaps our most convenient. With our keyboards to lead the way, we're able to find alternative sources of food as easy as Nicole and Jim managed to find twenty-four small farms in eigteen days and as easily as I found them.
Add to it the facts that in the past fifteen years, farmer's markets in the US have tripled to over 7,000, and almost every stop along Nicole and Jim's journey offered interested consumers the option of sponsoring the year's harvest by taking part in a CSA (community supported agriculture). Both methods allow the farmer to sell direct to market and both remain the most reliable way of knowing just what it is you're buying.

It's not hard to hear some fatigue in Jim's voice when he talks about CSAs, and though he doesn't come out and say it, I'd guess it has most to do with people's expectations of what they'll be getting when they decide to sign up. The issue, of course, is we've become somewhat conditioned and rewarded by modern day convenience to expect something that doesn't exist without the aide of technology. If we're making the choice and putting in the effort to find our local farmers and find food that hasn't been scientifically altered, we need to also rejigger our expectations of what they're going to give us.

In light of existing in a system almost actively working against them, I ask Nicole and Jim what keeps them and the farmers they met going. The hours are long and the pay is poor, but by all accounts passion and resolve remain high, even if frustration persists in equal measure.

Jim tells me it's often a mix of reasons, some political, some for health reasons, some simply for the automony that comes with the sun and the weather as your only boss. 

Jim LoughNicole Cormier

Jim Lough and Nicole Cormier. Photos courtesy of Organic Farms are Everywhere. You can see footage from the trip and help them complete the documentary by visiting their Kickstarter page.

Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-Chief of Again Faster. He now wants to learn how to grow cucumbers, or at least find somebody who already knows how and trade money for some.

Photographs of the Runaway Farm CSA courtesy of David Foster.