Farming and Family

Abbie Corse is a 6th generation farmer in Whitingham, Vermont. However, while growing up, she insisted that she would never return to take over the family farm. This video explores that journey, a journey of self discovery, following your dreams and finding out that what fulfills you is sometimes unexpected.

I’d like to thank the Corse family for allowing me into their lives to film this story. I wish you the best of luck as you continue to be stewards of the earth!

Abbie on the Farm from Samantha Laine on Vimeo.

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Raw Milk: Yay or Nay?

As a kid, I lived off of raw milk. There are nine people in my family, and we all had a serious milk-drinking problem. I remember my little brother Eric standing in the kitchen: feet apart, jug to his lips, sucking down the milk like there was no tomorrow. My family went through about a gallon of milk a day. The general rule was that whoever drank the last of the milk had to go up to the barn to refill the jug, but we’d all get around this by leaving a splash on the bottom for the next unlucky soul. Gotta love deferred responsibility.

When I first found out people were adamantly opposed to raw milk, I was quite surprised. Raw milk is the unpasteurized, un-homogenized  milk that comes straight from the cow, the kind that you have to shake before you drink because the cream rises to the top. I found it strange that states had gone as far as making it illegal. To me, it was just natural milk. Raw milk advocates believe it’s a sort of superfood. Milk is filled with amino acids and proteins that are good for the body, but when it is pasteurized these proteins are killed along with the bacteria. On the other side of the argument, raw milk is at risk for harboring dangerous bacteria. Recent E. Coli breakouts have given anti-raw milk advocates quite a few I-told-you-so moments in the media.

My take? No one in my family ever got sick from raw milk, and I think people should be able to drink it if they want. But I think an important point to be made is that my family is a special case. We drink raw milk because it’s free. Why would we sell our milk for next to nothing and then buy it back from the store at a way higher price? But if I was given the choice between purified and raw milk, I would go for the milk without the dangerous bacteria. We know that pasteurizing milk kills the bacteria, so why take that risk? Yes, there are proteins and other good stuff in milk that may get destroyed, but milk isn’t our only source of protein.  There are other protein-rich foods that don’t ask you to risk an E. Coli breakout.


The CSA Controversy

NPR’s Food Blog published an article on their website last week that talked about the rising controversy within Community Supported Agriculture. CSA shares allow individuals to purchase a share in a local farm, which results in a weekly box of produce from the farmer. The original spirit behind CSAs revolved around consumers developing a relationship with the people who grow their food.

However, as CSA popularity has risen, some farmers have forged a new model for CSAs to meet the consumer’s increasing expectations. This new model has farmers working together to offer their consumers a wider variety of products. Because of this collaboration, some traditionalists are left huffing and puffing. Mr. Balliett, the farmer in NPR’s article, even started a Facebook group whose mission is to identify “fake CSAs.” Yes. It boggles my mind too. I liken it to hating on “fake Red Sox fans”: Aren’t you still cheering for the same team? Sorry, random tangent for another time.

Anyways, there are quite a few CSA farms in Massachusetts, so I called around to get some insight from local farmers. Geneveve Stillman from Stillman’s Farm in New Braintree said her and her husband’s farm is mostly traditional, CSA-wise.

“I feel really good when I can look someone in the face and say, ‘Everything we give you we grew ourselves, and we can personally vouch for everything,'” Geneveve said. However, one of the challenges of one farm growing everything is that the farmer has a limited supply.

Restored pasture walls on Stillman's Farm. Photo from stillmansfarm.com.

Geneveve said that when Stillman’s Farm started selling CSAs, most of their time was spent educating consumers on the different growing seasons. We laughed, because in both the Midwest and New England  there’s the ongoing joke that if you leave your car unlocked during zucchini season, you’re going to find a box of zucchinis in the back seat. Farmers can’t get rid of the zucchinis as fast as they’re growing, and consumers get zucchinied-out fairly quickly.

Geneveve said that the concept of a growing season is hard to understand because consumers have been “so incredibly spoiled”: In the grocery store, seasons don’t exist.

“The consumer tends to support and rationalize what they want because they want it. If you like the idea of being part of a CSA, but you really want bananas, you find a CSA that says, ‘Yeah, we have bananas, and we get them from Banana Bobs down in Key West. It’s the east coast, so you’re still supporting local farmers.’ Do I personally think that when I’m buying bananas from Banana Bobs I’m supporting local farming? No. I’m not.” If there’s a demand for bananas, farmers are going to try to fill that demand. This is why the CSA has evolved.

Andy Pollock from Silverbrook Farm in Dartmouth represents the other, less traditional side. A few years ago, Andy’s customer satisfaction surveys revealed the common complaint was too little variety. Silverbrook Farm now collaborates with other Massachusetts farms to provide a diverse CSA. The collaboration also provides farms with security , another consumer expectation.

Silverbrook Farm. Photo from silverbrookdartmouth.com.

“Originally, when CSAs started, if the crop was lost, then it was lost. We said we were sorry. But I don’t think that would fly that much anymore. You would be expected to source it from another farm.” Andy reminded me that a farm is a competitive business like any other, and as such they are in danger of losing dissatisfied customers. If the consumer prioritizes convenience and variety, that is what the farm will provide. Andy said this results in a disconnect between the farmer and the consumer, something CSAs originally tried to avoid.

The farm just gives consumers what they want.

“The only thing we don’t have is dancing bears,” Andy said with a laugh. “But what comes first? Education of consumer or consumer desire?”

Andy said that similarly to Stillman’s, Silverbrook Farm tries to educate the consumer on the different harvest seasons. He doesn’t see collaboration as a bad thing. To him, it’s a financially-wise decision that enables farmers to give consumers what they want. Sometimes consumers just expect too much.

“It’s like asking a factory to make everything… I think sometimes there is an idealistic view of the farmer being this magic person who is able to produce everything easily, without chemicals and without any problems.”

Consumer disconnect seems to lie at the heart of this controversy. They enjoy the idea of a CSA, and feel good when they support local farming. The thing is, to truly support local farming you have to eat according to the seasons. Strawberries in June. Corn from July to October. Potatoes and onions in the fall. It’s time to retrain ourselves and relearn the reality of our food. But is the consumer ready for that? I’m not so sure.


Fun Facts about Farm Animals

Who doesn’t love fun facts? They’re so great! You never know when you’re going to be on a trivia show, or when you’re desperately going to need to impress someone with your random knowledge. Maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it. Anyways, here’s a few fun facts I’ve come across. So smartin’ up, farm style:

-Cows, sheep and goats only have front teeth on the bottom of their mouths, but have molars on the top and bottom.

-Benjamin Franklin wanted the national bird to be a turkey (if this is the only link you ever click on, do it, it’s worth it).

-A mother hen turns her egg about 50 times each day to prevent the yoke from sticking to the egg shell.

-Male cows, known as bulls, do not have udders. This is why the movie Barnyard really annoys me.

-Pigs have no sweat glands and, therefore, do not sweat. They roll in mud to cool themselves off. So, “sweating like a pig” should actually mean someone who does not sweat at all. Or someone who has a sudden urge to roll in the mud, I could see it both ways.

-Farm-raised turkeys cannot fly, but wild turkeys can fly for short distances at up to 55 miles per hour. Wild turkeys are also fast on the ground, running at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

-Cows can daily urinate about 30 pounds of water and poop about 60 pounds of feces. Maybe poop can power the planet.

-Pigs are smarter than dogs.

-Goats have rectangular pupils, which give them excellent night vision.

-There are more chickens than people that live on this earth.

-Cows have four teats, but goats only have two.

-Male turkeys also have what is called a beard located in the chest area. Upon sight, the beard appears to be hair, but is actually a mass of thin feathers. The beard is what hunters keep as a trophy; the longer the beard, the older the turkey.

-Goat’s discovered coffee beans. For this, I may owe them my life.

Organic Dairy Farming: Is it worth it?

Even though consumers pay nearly twice as much for organic milk, the profit margins for New England organic dairy production are just as razor-thin as nonorganic dairy production. Is there any hope for organic dairy farmers? Listen and find out!

RadioFINAL


From Farm to Farmstore: Siena Farms

I took the trek to Siena Farms South End farmstore because I was curious to see what farms sell when they are on their off season. I was also itching to meet the manager of a store I had heard so much about! The store, located on Waltham Street in the South End, consists of one room. The walls are burnt orange, and the wood floor creaks and groans with every step. So this is where the consumer and the farmer meet.

Trevor Sieck, 28, is the manager of this quaint farmstore. He sits behind the cash register, greeting customers bagging farm-grown carrots that have been sitting in winter storage from last season. He graciously took time from intense carrot-bagging to give me the low-down on his life with Siena Farms.

Q: Do you have a strong background in farming? How did you wind up working for Chris Kurth at Siena Farms?

A: I grew up in Sudbury, and we always had gardens and stuff. I worked with Chris in high school; it was the same farm, (Siena Farms) but it was called Meadow Brook Farm.

Q: Where did you go to school, and did you get an agriculture degree?

A: I went to UMass for Social Thought and Political Economy. I also did some work in the plant and science department. This guy I worked with at Meadow Brook was my TA there, and he gave me a really shitty grade.

Q: Why did you wind up back at Siena Farms after going to college?

A: I missed a lot of the aspects of being on the farm and doing that kind of stuff. As I got back into it, I discovered things I didn’t even know, like our connection to the food industry. My major motivation to come back was to be outside, but there’s so much more—like the community at large—that I hadn’t really considered.

Q: So, this store is pretty new. How have you been doing?

A: It’s only the eighth week, so I think we’ll have a different perspective in awhile. I don’t think any business in the food industry has that high of a profit, even restaurants, even the really good restaurants. The trick is not to kill yourself working too hard. We lost half of our customer base when we moved three blocks. That’s how it is in the city. It’ll just take time, hopefully.

Q: I know Siena Farms considers themselves “non-certified organic.” If you use all organic methods, why not get the certification?

A: It’s expensive. It’s a lot of paperwork. Inspectors come out and shit like that. It’s political in a way. It’s political in that organic isn’t made a high priority. Just because something’s organically grown doesn’t mean it’s good for you or it tastes good. The customers respect us, and we wouldn’t buy from a provider that’s dishonest.

Q: I thought the general consensus was that organic is always better. For what reason would organic not always be good for you?

A: Sulfur-based sprays are natural. It’s a chemical that’s fine in low doses (to the consumer), but it’s toxic to the farmer. It’ll burn your skin. Corn and tree fruits are difficult to harvest without conventional spraying. Otherwise you have to spray every time it rains, and it’s toxic shit.

Q: Random question: Do you have any funny farm memories? I’m sure people wonder what goes on around the farm.

A: They usually involve alcohol (laughs). When we first started, we drove around in a four-door Volvo. We came back one time and some of the farmhands had set it on fire. They had too much rum I guess. There was duct tape on the seat, like the idea was to hide it with duct tape. All-in-all though, it’s a lot of good hardworking people.

Q: I believe it! So what’s your favorite part of the work?

A: It’s collaborating with the community. We have many layers, and one is working close with people. Our customers are awesome. It’s a pretty unfriendly city, but our community makes it feel like a small town.


Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Here’s a video in honor of St. Patrick’s Day!

Is it funny? Yes. Is the guy Irish? I don’t think so. Is it in Ireland? Probably not. Does it have anything to do with St. Patrick’s Day? Not really. However, the guy kind of looks like a leprechaun, and I’ve wanted an excuse to share this video for quite some time:

Brilliant. Have a great St. Paddy’s Day! Go green, and be safe.