I love walking pastures and fields.
I especially love pasture in the springtime or early summer when things are green and growing, cows are freshening up after calving and really starting to show a little "bloom," again. Having grown up on a small cow/calf operation in southern Ohio, I am partial to farms like "home," with rolling hills, a few terraces, and plenty of woods around the perimeter of the homestead.
Traveling the countryside visiting farms in dozens of different states, I know they all don't look like mine.
We each have a certain mental image in mind when we think of a farm, and for the most part, that image is something like what we grew up with, or perhaps what we've romanticized in our minds' eye over the years of thinking about what we want our own farm to look like.
In a broader sense, this idea of what a farm "should" look like extends beyond just the aesthetics of field and fence. We grow a preconceived notion of who should own and operate a farm, what they should grow, and which production practices they should employ.
And, generally speaking, we shun most anything outside that closely guarded mental image of the ideal farm.
Go to any farmer meeting and you'll find disagreement over ideas in what I'll call "mainstream" agriculture: To no-till or conventional-till, to use cover crops or plow ahead with corn on corn, to rely heavily on artificial insemination or stick with the trusty herd bull… We all have an opinion (or two or three), and we generally think that opinion is the "right way" to farm.
My own preconceived notions were challenged last weekend as I visited a college farm in Eastern Pennsylvania. Dickinson College of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a small, private liberal arts school, hosted tours of its very own farm for alumni attending the annual reunion weekend. Visiting the campus with a friend, we decided we couldn't skip the farm visit.
"Dickinson College Farm Manager Jenn Halpin discusses the college's food waste composting program with alumni and guests in Pennsylvania."
Nestled on 180 acres in the rolling Pennsylvania hills, the farm "looked" a lot like what I grew up on… The pastures reminded me of home, the farm had a nice old bank barn, and there were plenty of trees and a little pond.
The "problem," however, is that the college's farm manager is about as far from my own idea of a "farmer" as it gets. Clad in flip flops, a tank top, big straw hat and rumpled cargo pants, Jenn Halpin looks more like the leader of a hippie commune than a professional farm manager. Leading our tour group through her fields, she waxed philosophical about the virtues of sustainable agriculture, composting, reducing food waste, and teaching students about where food comes from.
I was fascinated.
Feeding produce to the college dining halls, a local food bank and members of a CSA/cooperative supporting the farm, the operation raises acres upon acres of organic veggies. From the college website:
The Dickinson Farm integrates agroecological theories and practices to create an ecosystem that is self-supporting and is not dependent on synthetic inputs. Through well-organized crop rotations, green manures, and compost applications the soil on the Dickinson Farm is able to grow quality crops that require little to no human intervention.
The farm also raises a flock of sheep, a flock of laying hens, and a small herd of beef cattle. All grass-fed and free-range ("very free range," asserted college President William Durden), the animals are another key component of the operation.
I asked Halpin if the pastures or livestock products were certified organic, as were the veggies.
"No," she replied, "because I don't agree with the National Organic Program standards for meat."
When I queried as to the issue, she had the most plausible reason I have ever heard.
"If my animals are sick," she reasoned, "I want to be able to use antibiotics so they can be well."
I was extremely impressed with her logic.
I am admittedly given to skepticism when it comes to food marketing buzzwords like "organic," "sustainable," or "all natural," generally because I think they are misused, poorly understood by consumers, or used by marketers to denigrate commodity foods produced with conventional practices.
Listening to Halpin talk about her crop rotations, using cover crops to rejuvenate the soil, and needing the cows to have calves on their own and make gain on limited inputs, I am convinced that while she may not look the part, she "gets it" in many ways.
We may not agree on everything she does on her farm (her earthworm/fertilizer project with the school's biology project is a little sketchy, and her insistence on keeping plots out of production for three years at a time is a huge waste of resources), yet talking with her and walking her fields opened my eyes.
Agriculture is not a club or clique. It is a profession and lifestyle that is critically important to our national security. To feed an exponentially expanding population, we need conventional corn and soybean farmers in Illinois and Iowa, and we need hippie tomato and beef producers in Pennsylvania, too.