Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sanborn Mills Farm: Young Farmers Hard at Work

by Shane Smith, Outreach Coordinator & Perimeter Manager

I have been incredibly impressed by the quality and variety of vegetables coming into our produce department this year from Sanborn Mills Farm. This year has been a challenge for our produce manager Lloyd. Many of our regular farmers have had difficulty supplying us with the sufficient quantities of produce for our local-loving customers, pulled by the demand of farm stand sales, CSAs, and farmers markets, compounded by a tough farming year and reduced yields. We’ve been extremely grateful to our emerging young farmers who have helped fill in the gaps. Alina Harris and Nick Reppun have provided us impeccable vegetables and unique varieties, which fly off the shelves as soon as they arrive. The farmers use organic farming methods and anticipate receiving certification shortly. Keep your eye out for winter squashes, decorative corn, gourds, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts this fall.

Although the farm is new to the Co-op  and Alina and Nick only began farming it last year, the farm itself is more than a century old. Back then, Sanborn Mills Farm was a bustling center of agricultural activities that supported extended family and served the community. Today the farm incorporates farmers, instructors, craftspeople, and historians. They rely on old-fashioned methods of farming and use draft horses and oxen instead of tractors and plows. I recently had an opportunity to visit the scenic farm and get to know these young farmers better...

How long have you been farming?
Alina: I’ve been farming for 5 years, since I was 18 years old. I began my relationship with farming through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. I was originally interested in the program because it was a cheap way to travel through Sweden and I didn’t mind putting in a days work in exchange for a roof over my head, food on my plate, and wonderful friendships. Throughout my six-week stint in Sweden “WWOOFing,” I got to learn the ins and outs of living on small family farms. From the first days of chasing sheep to the last days of picking raspberries, I had fallen in love with farming. It just seems like the right thing for a human to be doing - growing food - the thing we depend on for survival.
Nick:  I grew up on my family’s farm on Oahu, Hawaiic so I’ve always been around farming and working on farms. I really got into it after I graduated from college in ’09. I moved home after college and began working on my family’s farm as a partner with my dad and his brother, I also started my own business growing and selling potted plants for a garden store. For a while I worked at an education center designing and developing their agricultural systems which were used for teaching children about traditional Hawaiian farming methods. In 2012 I had the opportunity to broaden my horizons and move to New Hampshire and to work here at Sanborn Mills Farm, so I went for it. This is my second season farming here in New Hampshire.

What/who are some of your influences that inspired you to want to farm?
Alina: Small scale agriculture is what the world needs right now. Knowing that I am bringing myself and others wholesome, organic food while trying my best to not disrupt the ecosystems around us.  Most large scale commercial agriculture (even organic) is centered around using fossil fuels.  Lots of our finite resources are used to power tractors and  refrigerated trucks that ship our food thousands of miles before getting to us.  Even the large scale organic farms are really just monocultures, meaning that they are depleting the land of its nutrients and its natural micro ecosystems. I deeply wanted to change that.  I wanted people to have access to fresh food that was picked that day, with care. It's amazing that people get tricked into thinking their produce is “fresh” when it has  been in travel for a week or so.
Nick:  My family has been a big inspiration for me. Growing up we had a very minimalist lifestyle and there was never a huge cash flow, but we always ate well and never went hungry. I think one of the most important things in life is to be able to provide food for yourself. I’m not talking about having enough money to go buy your food, I’m talking about being able to take a piece of land or a pot of soil and put seeds down and bring forth fruit (figuratively and literally). Teaching other people to do this is another huge inspiration. I have worked with kids in schools before and seeing their faces when they harvest and taste something they grew is priceless. I also feel like in some way I have an obligation to farm and to share both the products and the experience with people. I consider myself blessed to have grown up on a working farm, an experience that is unfortunately fading from our society. It worries me to think that the majority of people do not know what good food is or how it is produced. As a society we are so out of touch with our food production, our lack of awareness has allowed farming to become an industry when really it should be a direct part of every person’s life, even if it is just a few potted vegetable plants on your apartment window sill.

What kinds of challenges have you faced as a farmer?  
What are some of the surprises that have come up as a farmer?
When you work a 19-hour day to prepare to go to market and you get only 3 hours of sleep before going to market, it gets very very tiring. There is only so much that is humanly possible, and I am always pushing the boundaries of labor and lack of sleep on my body. Then you still have to smile, look nice, do math, and more physical labor at market.  At the end of the week, you don’t just get a paycheck. You make what you make. When you do the math, it usually comes out to your wage being at least 50% less than minimum wage. To me, it is very frustrating and degrading that society expects low prices after you have given everything that you can give. When you’ve stayed up until 2 a.m. bunching and washing produce and someone makes a snooty comment about pricing, you just have to take a punch on the chin. It's been really disappointing that people seem to under-appreciate local agriculture and the work that it takes.  To be a farmer you really need to understand soil science, biology, entomology, pathology, animal husbandry, horticulture.... etc. You also must be a business (wo)man, a marketer, an accountant, a mechanic, a builder.... etc. These challenges are what make farming remain interesting even after years of doing it. I don’t mind working hard - there are just never enough hours in the day and you never stop learning!
Nick:  Farming for profit holds a lot more challenges than farming to feed yourself. One of the biggest challenges I have come up against is education, or lack thereof in consumers. I feel like I have to constantly educate people about how the food is produced, what goes into it, why it costs what it costs, the list goes on. As I mentioned before, the societal disconnect from farming has come at a huge cost. Reconnecting people with their food is a big challenge, especially when for the consumer it is cheaper out of pocket to remain disconnected and buy “cheap” food. Many people simply are not aware of the other costs of “cheap” food: health issues, environmental issues, and abuse of farm labor, to name a few. Another challenge has been increasing regulatory action towards farmers by our government. This is very apparent today with the passage of the “Food Safety and Modernization Act” (FSMA). If you haven't heard about this get online and do some research, NOFA-NH has some good resources and there are many other organizations trying to help farmers to submit comments on this legislation to the FDA. The basic idea of this legislation is to impose regulations and record keeping on farmers that will create accountability in the event of a food-borne illness. I understand that we need to assure the safety of our food supply not only health wise but economically too, but more often then not the regulations that are imposed do not reflect the diversity of farm operations, especially here in New England where small farms are abundant. Some of the proposed rules under the FSMA will make production farming cost prohibitive on a small scale due to required infrastructures and food testing procedures. Maybe its not so surprising that farming is so regulated, but I have really learned a lot about this in the past two years which has been eye-opening for sure. It also frightens me because the regulations definitely tip the scales in favor of large-scale agriculture.

How long have you been selling your product to the Co-op?  
What kinds of products do you bring or specialize in?

We began selling produce to the Co-op last summer. We are thrilled to be Certified Organic this year! This year we have been focusing on producing "mixed bunches" of various crops. In the early part of spring we were bringing in our “Spring Mix” bagged greens. You can also find our Rainbow Chard, Mixed Kale, and Rainbow Carrots on the shelves. We also have other things like cucumbers and onions as well. We planted a lot of fall harvest crops, which will likely make their way to the Co-op, too. Keep an eye out for winter squashes, decorative ‘Painted Mountain’ corn, gourds, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts ,and more!

How do you see your farm growing/diversifying in the future?
We would like to learn more about meat production and how we can incorporate that into our program.  We are also looking to figure out ways to shift away from fossil fuels where possible and minimizing off-farm inputs.  We were able to use a decent amount of draft power this year, which we are happy about. The farm has a pair of Percheron draft horses which did most of our harrowing for field preparation. We used a pair of milking short-horn oxen to create long raised beds for some of our crops like carrots. The oxen were used to plant our potatoes as well.  If you are interested in seeing us plant potatoes with the help of the oxen, try watching Sanborn Mills Farm on Chronicle.  The vegetables are in the last part of the segment. The draft horses also helped us collect the sap for the maple syrup that we produced this year. We are elated that our maple syrup is made the old fashioned way: draft-powered and wood-fired. The pine wood slabs that we use are byproducts of the water-powered sawmill here.

What other things would you like to say about farming?
Alina: This year our neighbor Bruce Yeaton was nice enough to give us a big bag of dry bean seeds that he has been growing here and saving for fifteen years. We feel so lucky to be able to plant seeds that are a “land race” and have been adapted to our microclimate and soil here at  Sanborn Mills Farm. We are excited to be growing some protein in the form of plants and be able to sell and eat it all winter long!
Nick: Small-scale agriculture is a tough business. Right now there is a trend towards small-scale agriculture, especially among younger people. My hope is that as more people are drawn to farming, they come into it with open hearts and minds and fist full of determination. What the farming community needs is to shift the focus away from making money and strive to be closer to the ideals of ethical production, respect and regeneration of the land and simply producing food that maximizes the health of the people and the health of the land. I hope that consumers take some time to get to know their farmers, I think this alone will create a wonderful change in their experience of food.

Learn more about Sanborn Mills Farm at www.sanbornmills.org and find Alina and Nick on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sanbornmills.

Photography by Brad Turgeon (except photo of Alina with root veggies, courtesy of the farmers).