The Northeast Organic Farming Assocation of New York had its winter meeting in my town of Saratoga Springs last weekend. Seems like a great organization. The meeting was focussed on helping new farmers. One of the resolutions they were voting on was whether "organic" chicken should mean chicken fed organic food–or chicken that was actually free to go outside, peck, scratch, eat insects, and behave like a chicken. I know which one I want to buy when I'm buying organic chicken.
Unfortunately, I had too many other obligations to spend three days there hanging out, as I would have liked, but I did make two talks: one by the lovely Kerry Trueman, food activist and food blogger for the Huffington Post, on planting fruit trees in small spaces. Another, the next morning, on urban beekeeping.
Notice the small-scale, urban nature of the workshops: word is that NOFA-NY was really trying to draw in gardeners this year as well as farmers.
But they are not the same audience. And the farmers–way too knowledgable and precise–kept interrupting the talks directed at gardeners.
I like farmers. I think that if I was born 20 years later, I might have become one. Alas, that was not what Yale graduates did in 1980. They went to work on Wall Street and looked like the anxious workaholic couple played by Diane Keaton and Harold Ramis in Baby Boom. Or they looked like me–ne'er do well waitresses with ambitions to write War and Peace, but secretly bored to death by their own juvenile ideas about love and war.
Today, a Harvard guy of another generation heads Slow Food USA. And I know dozens of young college-educated farmers doing their own sustainable thing. And amen to that, too. We're eating a lot better because of them, and maybe eventually, they will drive agribusiness out of business and save the planet.
But when I encounter farmers today, after pumping them for information, I generally feel no envy. I'm glad to be a gardener. I think farmers have to work very hard and be very serious to be successful at growing food, and I don't. I just have to scatter some seed on my excellent soil and smile.
Farmers have to be systematizers. You can't feed hundreds of people a year without a system. I get to be seat-of-the-pants about my crops. Farmers often have to compromise on soil management and use tractors, forgo mulches, and generally do what is efficient. My garden, on the other hand, gets to really mimic an ecosystem, and I get to be as unintrusive and no-till and lazy as I can be.
Farmers have to grow what will sell. I get to experiment with the truly weird crops. Farmers have to grow things in proven ways. Again, I get to experiment–to allow volunteers to inspire new thoughts about the timing of crops. To see if I can get away with no irrigation whatsoever just because I'm a minimalist and interested in the question.
Despite the clash of cultures, I did gather some interesting ideas at NOFA: pawpaws and persimmons from Kerry Trueman. And the beekeeper did answer the one question I really wanted answered. "Would you, " I asked him, "put a hive in a city yard if your neighbor told you she is allergic to bees?"
"No," he said.
Unfortunately, that's all I need to know about bee-keeping.