Saturday, May 31, 2014

How Sustainable is the Essex Farm Model?

Kristin Kimball's memoir, The Dirty Life, is a page turner. It is also so deep in insights about economic philosophy, culture and community, life transformations, and of course, farming, that it bears rereading over and over again. The most beautiful part of their story is the character of the relationships they forge in the community. Kristin refers to a "larger loving-kindness" at work in the center of their community, their farm, and their own lives.

Kristin and her husband Mark are deeply committed to making their farm truly sustainable. Mark asks passionately "who can catch the most sunlight and keep it?" "All life is fueled by the sun. How can we sustain seven billion people using available sunlight?  Can we do it here on this farm, for 100 people, or 200 people, or 8000 people? ... We capture the sun with plants and we let go of that sun with breath and fire.  All we need to do is make sure we are capturing more sun than we breathe or burn."
"We live on the sun’s savings account: fossil fuel. That’s sunlight in plants that just didn’t get to be breathed or burned when those crazy microbes and plants of the Cambrian and post Cambian eras died and went into the earth. We discover this coal and oil and it makes it so easy to be us.  A barrel of oil can do the work of ten years hard physical labor.  Only one drawback (just kidding, there’s lots of drawbacks): suddenly we’re letting all of that CO2 into the air...So back to the challenge: who can catch the most sunlight and keep it?  A farm has the ability not only to be carbon neutral – that is, catching as much carbon as we release – but to be a carbon sink, so our net energy capture exceeds our net energy release.  Net energy profit will live in the soil organic matter, which makes for healthier soil, which makes it easier for us to grow more plants and catch more energy."

How well has Essex Farm been doing in capturing the most sunlight and keeping it? How can we tell? Essex Farm, with its use of draft horses, seems to be mainly inspired by the Amish model. Is the Amish farming model good enough since it predates machinery powered by fossil fuel? How does it compare with the Permaculture design model?

The case of the Misato Rose:
In the book, Kristin describes their first planting of Misato Rose radish. They had a beautiful bountiful harvest. By 2012 week 45, in the Farm Blog, Kristin mentions that the Misato Rose was unusable, riddled with worm holes. Hmmm...this is a bad progression, a growing imbalance between predatory insects and their plant prey over time with the pests winning, an indication of a nonsustainable design.

The Soil and the Fields:
Kritstin notes that plowing is an act of violence, ripping into the Earth, disrupting whole communities of soil life. Planting annual crops in plowed rows means (1) lots of bare ground and (2) a maximum of only one or two crops per season. Permaculture on the other hand copies Nature in keeping the ground covered year round with sun catching, water retentive, nutrient building, plants. These plants stack in space and time to yield multiple crops.

The Water:
The Essex Farm fields are sometimes too wet and drainage was installed. Permaculturists like Sepp Holzer, in contrast, would use the excess water as a resource, building swales for water retention and seasonal ponds to raise fish. The fish in turn would feed on insects that would otherwise be pests.

The Farm Animals:
Kristin is refreshingly honest about their problems with farm animals. The prevalence of injuries among the cattle due to goring led to them to disbud (remove the horns) from young animals. Their chickens occasionally descended into cannibalism. These are signs of overcrowding. Sepp Holzer gives his animals sufficient space in rugged outdoor shelters and is able to leave their horns and beaks intact.

Kristin and Mark rotated their grazing but violated Joel Salatin's "Law of the Second Bite" by leaving thier animals too long on the same grass, a practice that damages pasture.

The Farm Membership:
Mark's vision of a whole diet, free choice CSA charged on a means-based sliding scale going down as low as zero depends on 100% mutual honesty, trust, and cooperation. (Can't see this working in NYC, lol!)Ten years later, has it proved to a sound idea? Kristin writes that almost everyone they knew thought the project would fail, although they continued to be helpful. The outstanding character demonstrated by all the parties involved, from the landowner Lars Kulleseid, the Essex community, the farm Members, the farm workers, even the farm animals in some instances, and of course Mark and Kristin, has been a fulfillment of Mark's "wingnut" ideal of human goodness and generosity. In many of Kristin's Blogs, she is extending thanks to someone or other for their helpfulness. Essex Farm grew from feeding 7 members in 2004 to over 200 members in 2014. 
Yet a nagging question remains...has the cost been consistent with sustainability?
2004 Full Price - $2700 per year for the first adult in a household.
2014 Full Price - $3700 per year for the first adult  in a household.

Kristen notes that they struggle to pay their workers and to cover their costs. If a farm is able to store "net energy profit" in the soil and improve fertility from year to year, shouldn't stable or lower prices be the trend?

The Energy Challenge:
From Kristen's Sept 19, 2012 Blog - "Our current conclusion is pretty simple. If we pay our employees a living wage with health insurance, and use draft horses for our work, then we need some sort of external subsidy. This is an issue, by the way, even on farms that are not powered by horses – so many small local producers are economically viable only because of free or cheap ‘intern’ labor; health insurance, which we began offering our employees this year, is almost unheard of. And certainly we are not alone in trying to find ways to pay for an environmental benefit that is usually externalized, invisibly, through the use of fossil fuel. To quote Bill McKibben’s striking statistic, one barrel of oil contains the same amount of energy as ten years of manual labor. The oil costs about a hundred bucks. Ten years of a living wage is somewhere between a quarter and half a million."
Can this energy challenge be surmounted? Permaculture's answer lies in letting Nature's wealth building processes be the subsidy...not robbing from the past in the form of fossil fuel and not borrowing from the future in the form of public and private debt.

Kristen writes "Farmers toil. Nature laughs. Farmers weep. That's your history of agriculture in a nutshell."
Does it need to stay this way? In future Blogs, we'll profile farms and gardens that are designed to cooperate with Nature.