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Starting a Successful Front Yard Garden and Avoiding Legal Trouble: Interview with Linda Jackson of Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Original design for Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Six years ago, I shared about Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a front-yard garden located in the Detroit metro area. When I shared this post, Linda was in her first year of gardening in this new location, and was regularly selling her produce at a local farmer’s market and engaging with her community.  Here are links to my first two posts about her incredible garden that discusses the original process, design: Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm and Return to Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.

A few weeks ago, when I was visiting Linda, I shared some photos of her garden to my social media, and many people responded by saying “she must not have a homeowners association”, “ how did she not get in legal trouble?”, or “my township would make me tear that down!” The questions and comments of this nature just kept rolling in. In fact, Linda is now in her sixth year of her front yard garden with no issues or complaints from neighbors, etc. Thus, I thought it would be useful to interview Linda and learn from her about how she was able to have this incredible front-yard garden in a suburban area, explore some strategies that she used, and share those strategies with others.  If more of us can do the kind of thing Linda is doing—converting lawns that consume resources to gardens that provide food for people and wildlife, nectary sources for insects, and so much more, we can really begin to make positive change in this world and vision a brighter future.

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm – August 2021

Dana: Tell me about your vision for Nature’s Permauclture Urban Farm.

Linda: As I’m seeing it evolve, the word permaculture plays an integral role.  Because we need to build community, protect the environment, and people can also learn how to make a sustainable future, sustainable income, and way of sharing knowledge with others.  That’s why I wanted to convert my lawn.  I wasn’t only about food but about cultivating good habits and activities.

Dana:  You were originally an organic farmer farming 10 acres, right?

Linda:  Yes, so when I moved here, I moved from 10 acres to a 50×50 growing space. I brought a lot of what I knew but here, because it was so visible, I wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing.  I wanted to make it “landscapey” but not a traditional landscape.  But I knew it had to be very visually appealing to the eye.

Dana:  You are on the edge of a small town in suburbia, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  And you have this front yard garden that everybody can see.  So, tell me about your garden.

Linda:  When I came to the place, I was just thinking that I needed a place to put my hands in the soil. I stood out in the middle of the road and I said, what can I do with this? Its only 50×50.  So I said to myself, “Ok, I’m going to create a garden. But it can’t be a boring square garden.”  I’m not into lines, I’m into curves.  The earth isn’t straight, its curvy.  So, it was something where I said—I need food, my community needs food, I want wildlife comfortable here: insects, frogs, snakes, dragonflies, etc. So when I created the garden, I was thinking about both wildlife and people and their needs. And really, I wanted to be happy in nature when I walked out of my front door, rather than seeing the lawn.

Dana: So you essentially transformed this lawn, plain grass, into this amazing garden.  Do you have a sense of how much food you are producing?

Linda:  On average, enough to feed 20 or 30 people from the greens each week, thousands of pounds of produce per year. So for the first five years, every week, I was going to the farmer’s market.  And I had more than enough for that capability out of this garden. Now, I’m doing the market every other week.

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Dana: So you are literally able to go to the farmer’s market each week and sell just from this 50×50 square foot space?  This really tells readers just how much you are able to produce here.

 

Linda:  I do French intensive agriculture methods, which includes succession planting and companion planting.  While I can’t be certified organic here, I use all natural methods for pest control.  These include using yellow and blue sticky plates for bug control, neem oil, cayenne pepper for slugs, dog hair to keep out rabbits, and much more.

We do have 4000 acres of wild lands behind this neighborhood, but the protocols that I use here keep the deer away.  I use onions lining every bed and herbs (sage, thyme, and lavender) lining the garden.  I don’t have any fencing, because that would detract from the beauty of it. I can sell and give the herbs away too, and they keep away the deer, and they also provide food for pollinators.

Dana: Obviously there’s a lot of people out there in similar circumstances to what you are in: they live in suburbia. They have a very small space, maybe 50×50 or even smaller.  And they are looking at this lawn and saying “this isn’t sustainable” and they are looking to grow some food and cultivate some habitat. But at the same time, in this region, we have several examples of families that have put in a front yard garden only to have their township make them bulldoze it.  Can you talk us through the steps that you did to come to this place where you had a very successful front yard garden that is welcomed by your community?  Specifically, how did you navigate the laws, ordinances, and neighborhood requirements?

Linda:  This garden is now six years old and I’ve never had a problem with neighbors complaining or the township.  Basically, when I stood out and looked at my new home, I had about a month to get everything in the ground before winter came.  I realized that I was the new person on the block, so I had to introduce myself to the neighbors.  And some way or another, I had to tell them what I was planning on doing. I had the vision in my mind, and I knew what it was, but I needed them on board. So I took them cookies. I took them lavender lemon shortbread cookies and I opened up a conversation with them.  I told them I was planning on making a garden in my front yard.

Bean arch in front pathway

Bean arch in front pathway

I also drove around the town to see if there was anyone who was doing something similar in my town.  I saw 2 or 3 places where someone was doing something like this in their front yard, but more landscaped. But I noticed that these didn’t have a focal point, or a flow. It wasn’t beautiful enough. It was choppy. I had to think about the long term: the shade, the rain, the sun, the water, the wind, but also the people and how they perceive it in all of the different seasons.

I next went to the township and I asked them, I’m thinking of putting an edible garden landscape in my front yard.  I didn’t call it a garden, I called it an “edible landscape” which may have helped. I spoke to the head guy in zoning, he says,  you can do that as long as there are no weeds growing. He gave me a piece of paper with the ordinances and I took it home and read it. It said anytime you put more than 5 yards of soil down, you have to have approval.  But soil is not compost. Soil has rock that’s broken down, minerals, etc. Compost is leaves, plants, and brush that is all organic matter.  So, if I put compost down and not soil, I can get away with it.

Dana:  So it was kind of a technicality but it worked.

Linda:  It was a technicality but I could win on it if anyone wanted to challenge me. So once I got the OK from the neighbors (because they could turn me in anytime they wanted) and I got the OK from the township, I went for it.

When I moved in, the front yard had one large and two small ornamental trees. I had these taken down and mulched so I could use the mulch in the gardens and in the paths. In other words, all of that organic matter was put right back on the property.

But back to the landscape. I knew that if this was going to be successful, I had to make something extremely visually pleasing so that the neighbors won’t complain. I decided against raised beds like I did in the past because that’s too constrictive and it’s something they are used to seeing and it may look too much like a garden. I saw how my elevation mattered. The two houses on either side of me were higher, so I was in a low area. And so I had to make it contour.  I did a combination of curves and wood chips, that way if I had heavy rains, I wouldn’t have any issues and the water would be able to soak right in.

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

But when things started happening, people were walking by. They would stand and stare.  Little kids would come, and they wanted to play. The paths were like an energy run for them.  They just wanted to run thorough those curvy paths.

 

What I have found out is that people think its work.  But little children see it a form of play, they want to play and help.  So that makes it fun for them.

 

Dana:  I want to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects because these seem to be one of the key aspects that can really help you do this.  It’s not just about growing vegetables and replacing the lawn.  It’s about inhabiting a space in a way that makes it truly beautiful. When people stop, rather than say “look at this garden that looks like an eyesore” they say “wow!”  Can you say more about that?  How do you create that?

Linda:  It’s a good question, because in my previous farm, I had 10 acres that was far from neighbors.  And my farm there was very constricted.  They were square with lines. And I realized that that’s easy because its farming. A lot of arms are really functional, but not necessary aesthetically pleasing.

And so I drew upon some of the things that people would do to a typical lawn and typical front yard.  But to not have it visually dead with lines.  I needed something that would come alive, that the eye would move through the space, just like a nice piece of artwork.   There’s something about the eye enjoying flow, the curve.

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

For example, my feeling was, to have flowers in the front, so when I looked out my window I could see insects and bugs and they would be beautiful next to the house. Flowers with long bloom times so that something was always blooming during the summer.

Dana:  Yeah, you really can see that when you walk up to your garden—your Yarden.  It does take you in.  The waves and the curves really take you in.

Linda:  Yeah! I kept playing around with these designs and the garden evolved.  I tried different angles, to figure out how it would look good from the side, from behind, from within it. The goal was to make it good from all of these different angles and offer a visual experience.

Dana:  That’s really important to people. Because for your neighbors, they don’t want to feel like their home values are being degraded because of someone’s front yard garden or an unruly yard. So, from what you are saying, if you are going to do this work, you have to do it in a way that is very visually appealing to people.

Linda: Yes.  You are right because one of my siblings, when I was planning this, she said to me ‘Linda you are going to have to tear this apart because nobody is going to like it.” So she was a naysayer before I started it. Once it was done, and the curves were there, dark black compost flowing around, and the contrast of the paths, then she said “Well, we’ll see what happens in the spring.”  And then, my neighbors were asking, what’s going to happen in the spring?  And the lady across the street said, “Just watch.”

So the overall design is this: the flowers next to the house are the accent point. The greens are flowing with the paths. You get a lot of eye entertainment.  And I don’t have your typical landscape flowers: there are no lilies, Hostas, etc. That seems to be the go-around for everyone’s yard around here.  I said, Hollyhock! The old-fashioned stuff, pollinator friendly, things that they haven’t seen before.

Dana:  How do you continue to engage in a dialogue with your neighbors about this garden?  We were out there just a little while ago and one of your neighbors stopped by, and talked to you when we were out there!

View from driveway

View from driveway

Linda:  I’ll tell you what.  That was the part I didn’t mentally think about when I started doing this. I started doing this for my own gratification, to keep my energy flowing, and to get my hands in the soil, for my exercise and health. But then the neighbors started asking, “hey, can I have some of your produce?”  For example, one of my neighbors stopped by last night for kale and salad greens. My other neighbor is pregnant and loves cucumbers; I make sure she gets them.  The neighbor girls on the other side here love eating raw cucumbers. So, it was a just a matter of putting it out there. Recently I had some organic farming students from Oakland University come to learn here. East River Organics wanted a design done, which I worked on, and they brought the person who was going to implement the design out to take a look at my garden, because this is what they wanted to do for a new project to do garden outreach to differently abled people.

So I’m at that step now, where, after five years, I know it’s happening and its ok.  And it’s starting to really bring people in! Someone asked me, why am I not in the newspaper? I don’t know! I’m not quite ready for that.

Dana: Well at this point, if you were going to get in trouble for the garden, it would have already happened. And, I think what’s key here, is that you engaged in a dialogue with the right people early on, and you continued to have a positive relationship with your neighbors.  But it sounds like if you want to be successful at doing this, it’s about doing that ongoing engagement work first and foremost, rather than just doing it on your own. You live in a community and you have to engage in that community as you are planning and implementing your garden.

Linda:  Yes exactly.  One the big comments I get is about how much work it is. A lot of my neighbors work and say “I don’t have the time to do this.”  It’s hard, the word “work”.  I don’t really see this as work.

Dana:  Can you talk a bit about the backyard? I know you have a food forest going back there.

Linda:  I have a space about 25×50 back there and its evolving.  I have a sugar maple overstory.  I have three paw paw trees, raspberries, black cohosh, strawberry, sweetgrass, other understory plants.  I have ramps, from you, thank you.  I share how to harvest them with the kids—just take a piece of the leaf.  These are things you don’t see at the store.  When the pawpaw come into fruit, which should be next year, it will be a wonderful chance to educate the kids.

Dana:  It sounds like you have more annual sun agriculture in the front and shaded perennial agriculture in the backyard.  And you’ve gotten rid of almost all of the lawn.

Linda:  Yes, just enough to have some paths or for someone to park their car if necessary.  But there’s no reason for more lawn—I am converting every bit of it into something that benefits nature and the community.

Dana: I know you are transitioning away from the farmer’s market and working to make this more of an educational space in the future. Can you share more about that?

Dana and Linda

Dana and Linda

Linda:  Yes, that’s where I will be needing to do more promotion.  I’ve already connected with many people in my area who are interested in organic practices. The garden is also a big draw to children; children see vegetables in the grocery store, but I’m growing some different things that are really exciting to them. Like the Asian long bean, it’s over a foot long. The kids come up, I give them a bean, and they walk away happy. It’s like candy to them!

So for me, the next step is working less on the market gardening and more on educating, promoting, teaching others how to do this.  If someone wants to break up their landscape, there are so many things that they can do that will still look visually appealing and move them away from the lawn.  For example, blueberries.

Dana:  Let’s return to this idea of work and a garden being “too much work.” So tell me about the work of this?

Linda:  Well, you don’t have to mow your lawn if there is no lawn to mow! And I get plenty of exercise and have no need for a gym membership. This garden is my workout.  It is physical, but rather than lifting weights, I’m lifting soil or compost! Mulch! Especially as I get older, it’s also a way for me to stay healthy and strong.  I also see it as meditation.  I am out in the sun and getting my Vitamin D.  I am keeping myself moving, I’m not rickety or creaky. I can move 10 yards of compost, even in my late 60s!

Dana:  It does seem like there are so many benefits: food you are producing,  an income, the exercise, educating people, not having a consumptive lawn, meditation, health benefits,  providing a vision for the future.  Showing all of this in a way that demonstrates that it can be sustaining, and joyful!  There just seems like there are no reasons not to do this!

Linda:  Yeah! I love the way you presented that thought. That’s what it is all about for me.  I am so happy that this garden is such a place for joy. I have a tendency to be modest, but I do think that the front yard garden speaks for itself. I am speaking through the language of my garden.

Dana:  Well, thank you so much for your time and expertise, Linda!

To conclude, Linda’s garden is really a source of joy for all who visit it.  And somehow, she has found a “magical formula” to living in a suburban area with hosing restrictions, codes, and township laws—through cookies, through making it visually appealing, and through always thinking about the needs of her community.

A Guide to Farmer’s Markets: Avoiding Fraudulent Farmers, Building Relationships, and How to Buy from the Best

A trip to the local farmer’s market has become one of my very favorite activities.  Here you can sample a variety of locally-produced, high quality goods, meet interesting people, and come home with bags and bags of fresh veggies, meat, eggs, and more. But, not all farms are created equal, and its really important to have a critical awareness of who is selling what–and when–at a farmer’s market.  This post is meant as an introduction to how to support the *right* vendors at the farmer’s market and avoid people selling industrialized food who are masquerading as farmers.

 

I write this blog post based on my regular attendance at over a dozen farmer’s markets in three states as well as my experience in vending at our local area farmer’s market for the last two seasons, where I happened to get stuck next to what I eventually realized was a “Fraudulent Farmer” most weeks at the market (so I was able to covertly observe his shady activities). Its also based on conversations I’ve had with several friends who are local certified organic and naturally grown farmers and my own various experiences in homesteading over the last six years.

 

A beautiful display of homegrown veggies and herbs from my dear friend, Nature's Harvest Organic Farm!  Photo by Sarah Angelini

A beautiful display of homegrown veggies and herbs from my dear friend, Nature’s Harvest Organic Farm! Photo used with permission (Taken by Sarah Angelini)

Going in with the right expectations

A farmer’s market focuses on locally grown and handmade products–fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads, various prepared foods, meats, eggs, handcrafted goods (like jams), honey, local art, and much more.  Even small towns can boast impressive farmer’s markets, with a wide variety of produce and locally made goods. A farmer’s market promises a different experience from the grocery store–everything there should be produced or grown locally, which means that your local farmer’s market is the antithesis to the grocery store.  It also means that the face of the farmer’s market changes as the season progresses.

 

Beware of Fraudulent Farmers

The biggest thing to watch out for at farmer’s markets is what I call “Fraudulent Farmers” — practically every farmer’s market I’ve been at has them, although some markets have them more than others (I have found them to be much more prevalent in larger city markets, like Detroit’s Eastern Market or Flint’s Farmer’s Market than in small markets, but even my local market has one–who I will describe below). Purchasing from a fraudulent farmer is no different than purchasing from the grocery store–this is because Fraudulent farmers aren’t farmers at all, they are distributors.  Better fraudulent farmers at least go to local farms and buy their stuff, serving as a middle man.  The worst of the bunch go to larger distributors (like Gordon Foods) or port areas where stuff is brought in (like Detroit’s Eastern Market) and buy produce wholesale.  Then they go to your nearby farmer’s market, set themselves up a booth, and sell with everyone else. You end up getting one thing (industrialized, GMO, pesticide-laden food) when you are expecting another (fresh, local, chemical free food).

 

How can you tell if a farmer is a fraudulent farmer? Let’s start with a story, which will illustrate many of the tell-tale signs you can look out for. “Farmer Fred” (this is also the name of his booth, name changed for the purposes of this post) is a farmer who vends regularly at my local farmer’s market. When I first started going there and didn’t know about fraudulent farmers, I often bought things from him because he had beautiful looking fruit and vegetables, a very wide selection, and fantastic prices. In fact, Farmer Fred routinely undersold everyone else at the market. If the going rate for nice, plump red pepper was $1.00, Farmer Fred would be selling them for 75 cents. He also never made claims about the organic nature of his vegetables but he did list things like “Farm Fresh Vegetables” (which is really kind of meaningless). When I started asking Farmer Fred questions about his produce, I got really vague answers. I asked, “Do you grow your own vegetables?” and he would say, “No, my family does.” I responded, “Where is their farm?” His response, “Up north.” I said, “What’s the name of their farm?” He responded, “They don’t have a name. Do you want to buy something?”  Then, when I started looking at his vegetables–what was he doing with cantaloupes, tomatoes, and watermelons in early June in Michigan? These plants are seedlings in the ground then–not even more than a few inches high. And I noticed something else–he was opening boxes that had been sealed, full of vegetables. I started asking around, and sure enough, among the other vendors, Farmer Fred had quite the reputation.

We are looking for the REAL thing!

We are looking for the REAL thing!

 

One of my dear friends who also vends at this market had been a farmer for thirty years. She was a one-woman operation–certified organic, all biointensive farming methods. Her vegetables were beautiful. She grew her plants with love and care–but could never charge so cheap a price as Farmer Fred. In fact, in the five years that she had been selling her produce seriously at this market, she had yet to turn a profit. But, she loved what she was doing, she loved educating others, and so she kept on doing it. But here was Fraudulent Farmer Fred, underselling her at every step…and he wasn’t even a farmer at all.

 

Spotting Fraudulent Farmers

So, what do we learn from this tale? Don’t give one’s business to Fraudulent Farmer Fred’s…give it to real, hardworking farmers. You can spot fraudulent farmers with observation and tact:

 

1) Out of season veggies and fruits. You want to learn what fruits and veggies should be in season and buy from people who clearly are offering veggies in season. Note that if a farmer has a hoop house or poly tunnel, he or she may be a full month or more ahead of the growing season (this shelters the plants from extreme temperatures, so I’m taking that into account in my list below). In my bioregion (Zone 6 Michigan), here’s what you can expect at the different points in the year.

  • Year round (with a hoop house or cold storage): spinach, lettuce, arugula, minzua, kale, various other leafy greens, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, cabbage, potatoes, apples, onions, winter squash, microgreens, garlic, sprouts.
  • Spring and early summer crops: primarily leafy greens and peas, chives, some wild edibles.
  • Mid summer: garlic, garlic scapes, herbs, green onions, strawberries, some early berry varieties
  • Late Summer (July – August): corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, watermelon, cantaloupe, raspberries, blackberries, plums, pears
  • Fall (October – November): Greens, cabbage, onions potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, squashes, apples

    A typical mid-July harvest!

    A typical mid-July harvest in my bioregion!

 

2) Out of region veggies and fruits: Under no circumstances can people grow bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, pineapples, coconuts, papayas, and so on in my bioregion. The only citrus that can be grown outside here is hardy kiwi and paw paw (that I am aware of); hardly anyone grows hardy kiwi, and paw paw I’ve only seen at the market twice because it goes bad very quickly. If you see bananas or oranges, you know they are outsourcing their veggies.

 

3) Boxes that appear like wholesale boxes, especially if they are sealed. Note that some real farmers buy such boxes for moving produce, so this in and of itself shouldn’t be the only sign. Its a good idea to sneak around the back of their booth and see how they are unpacking their veg. A lot of the farmers at our market use plastic coolers, plastic tubs, or wooden boxes that are reusable for many seasons.

 

4) Veggies that have stickers on them (or that Farmer Fred tries to skillfully remove). Yeah, that’s not from a real farmer.

 

5) Prices that don’t reflect the real cost of locally farmed food. This is the fraudulent farmers underselling all other farmers at the market–if its cheaper than everyone else, its probably too good to be true.

 

6) Lack of other farm goods. Many farmers make ends meet by selling additional farm products: wool or yarn, homemade jams, baked goods, infused vinegars, honey, beeswax candles, salves and creams, even smudge sticks! A fraudulent farmer has no farm, so wouldn’t take the time to handcraft other goods (but certainly could buy and sell stuff from national companies that offer these kinds of products). Not all farmers do this, but a lot do!

 

7) No dirt on the veggies. Veggies straight from the field often take a bit of the field with them (especially squash, cukes, potatoes, carrots). Some farmers will wash their veggies (although a lot will not due to the extra work involved). If there is not a lick of dirt on the veggies, it might be a sign that you have a fraudulent farmer!

Farmer's market booth--the dirt is real, folks!  (Photo by Sarah Angelini)

Farmer’s market booth–the dirt is real, folks! (Photo by Sarah Angelini)

 

8) No dirt under Farmer Fred’s fingernails, no calluses on his hands. This is pretty self explanatory–if you aren’t farming, you aren’t going to have dirty hands and calluses. Try shaking the Fraudulent Farmer’s hand and see what happens.

 

8) When questioned, give vague answers about their produce or where it comes from. “Area farms” “The Mennonites” or “My family” are all kinda abstract.

 

Speaking of questions….What’s really fun to do with Fraudulent Farmers is to ask them really specific questions about farming that a farmer would innately know, but that a Farmer Fred would not. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “What’s your soil PH like on your farm?”  (every area has a unique soil profile, and if the farmer doesn’t know that, he or she has no business growing veggies. So this can give you a VERY good indication as to whether or not they are fraudulent. My own Farmer Fred failed this question miserably when asked, telling me he had “perfect soil with a perfect PH” when he got to his farm, even though everyone else’s soil around here is Alkali. BUSTED!).
  • “Who do you source your seeds from?” (Good farmers will have favorite seed sources, especially GMO free ones like Victory Seeds, Seed Saver’s Exchange, or Baker Creek).
  • “What varieties are you growing this year? Which are working out the best?” (Good farmers know what they are growing and how its doing).
  • “Wow, these watermelons are really early for Michigan.  How did you grow them?” (Really, even with a hoop house, you can’t have a ripe watermelon in May or June).
  • “How did you get your cabbages to get so uniform?” (Uniformity can be a result of chemical sprays and GMO crops; but some farmers are better than others at achieving uniformity, and they know its an expectation from consumers, so this question may lead to mixed results).
  • What’s your favorite thing to grow? (Fraudulent farmers will give some lame response to this question!)

Ask away and watch them squirm.

 

Another shot of my local farmer's market!

My local farmer’s market!

Getting to Know Your Real Farmers

Most real farmers love what they do and are excited and eager to talk about their farm, their growing processes, and so on. Its a great idea to develop close relationships with a few of your farmers at the market, especially if you want to do some canning and bulk buying or off-season buying. Its also nice to get to know your farmers so you know who you can trust and avoid the fraudulent farmers.

When getting to know your farmer, here are some good questions to ask:

  • What are your growing practices? (e.g. do you use chemicals?)
  • Where are you located?
  • How long have you been farming?
  • Are you certified organic or certified naturally grown?
  • How large is your farm?
  • Do you offer produce in the off-season? (Some offer local pickup services)
  • What’s your favorite thing to grow?

These kinds of questions provide really helpful insight into your farmers. It bears mentioning that some farmers may do more than one market at a time, and may hire people to sell their vegetables at other markets. This isn’t necessarily cause for immediate concern, but it is really nice to talk to the person themselves who grew the vegetables.

 

Certified Organic, Naturally Grown, and Chemical Free

The certifications that farmers can get also bear some mentioning here. Getting “certified organic” is a legal designation that ensures only that crops are grown without pesticides or chemicals (they can still be grown on an industrialized scale). Certified Organic is really a certification that benefits large growers, not small family farms, and the USDA designed it so. This is because it requires what I feel is ludicrous amounts of record-keeping (literally down to what tools were used in what field on what day and every input to the farm). It also costs about $1500 or more per year. It takes a typical farmer 2-3 months do to the initial preparation for certification and immaculate record-keeping in the years that follow. Because of this, and given the already tiny profit margin on most small family farms, you won’t find a ton of farmers at the market with organic certification. A few of my farmer friends who have had this certification in the past are instead opting

Awesome organic lettuce!

Awesome organic lettuce!

Some farmers may opt for another certification called “Naturally grown.” This is a much more reasonable option for small family farmers–its a peer-review system where farmers who are Certified Naturally Grown visit other farmers and ensure their practices meet the standards. Naturally grown uses the same practices as organic, but without the price tag (in other words, no chemicals, no sprays, etc.)  It also doesn’t require the extensive paperwork or intensive record keeping or financial burden. Either Certified Organic or Certified Naturally grown are excellent indications that your farmer is engaging in good farming practices.

The final thing that can happen, which is the case with a lot of new farms, is that they may opt for no certification and say they are “chemical free” or “no sprays or pesticides” and you have to take their word for it. If they seem trustworthy and passionate about what they are doing, that’s really not an issue. And you can use the other methods in this guide (like understanding what is in season when) to visually evaluate their produce. Apples and fruits are something to watch out for–a lot of organic integrated pest management systems are harder with orcharding, so I would be especially careful about apples and fruit.

 

The Look and Feel of the Booth

Another thing I pay attention to to evaluate a potential farmer is the name of the farm and how the booth looks and feels. The name of the farm can sometimes give you great insights into the mind of the farmer. “Peace Farms” for example gives a much different vibe (sounds like a farming collective or intentional community) than “Jackson Farm” (which sounds like a family farm). Its also nice to take a look at the care and creativity put into a farmer’s market booth.  Is it clean?  Do they display their veggies with pride?

Sodas and Sundries Booth I shared with a friend.  Good times!

Sodas and Sundries Booth I shared the last two years. Good times!

 

Appreciate Your Farmer!

I’ll conclude by mentioning that these farmers are growing your food–the food you put in your body for sustenance and survival–and they are doing it with the love and affection that only a small family farmer can. So thank them for their hard work, respect their efforts, and be grateful to them that you aren’t stuck shopping at the grocery store for produce that comes from who knows where and has who knows what chemicals sprayed on it.  They are regenerating the landscape as they grow, providing ecosystems and habitats, and growing food in a system that has the decks stacked in the opposite direction.  Small family farming is a thankless job and a difficult one to make ends meet due to the unreasonably low cost of industrialized agriculture–so let’s show them some love!

Six Principles for Local Eating

A little dirt on veggies suggests less processing and more freshness!

A little dirt on veggies suggests less processing and more freshness!

Our eating practices can be incredibly environmentally and personally destructive.  In the typical food system in America, we ship food from all corners of the earth burning fossil fuels, we exploit workers and growers, we depend upon multinational corporate food systems who care more about profits than good heath or environmental stewardship, and we eat foods pumped full of pesticides, chemicals, and other things that slowly degrade our lands and bodies.  Food is a big issue, and recently, alternative models, including locally-based diets, have become a central part of the sustainability movement.  People who eat locally call themselves “localvores”, although definitions of what is local are based on the area’s climate, resources, etc.  For example, I try to keep my diet to 150 miles, but someone living in Alaska might have a local diet of far greater due to that region’s scarcity.

 

For the last five years, I’ve been slowly working to shift my family’s diet to 100% local eating.  I’m not sure if that’s a reality while working a full time job, but in the summers, I’m pleased to say we are usually upwards of 70-80% local.  In the winters, this is closer to 40-50%.  A lot of people ask me about how to go about doing this because the task seems overwhelming, so I wanted to blog about it.

 

First and foremost, when making any lifestyle shift from the mundane to the radical, you might see this shift as similar to climbing up a mountain.  A mountain climb can be difficult, yes, but you don’t do it all at once and you don’t do it without preparation.   I suggest the following six principles to making a lifestyle transition to local foods:

 

  1. Recognize your resources and challenges.  This is critical to making the transition to local foods.  You want to see what is available to you already–do you have land for growing your own food? An excellent CSA? Good farmer’s markets?  Local farmers who sell produce from their land?   You also want to identify any challenges you have: time, a limited budget, harsh winters with no fresh veggies, no good growing space, etc.
  2. Educate yourself & your family. As you are staring to formulate your plan, you want to spend a lot of time educating yourself about food, in general. You might do some reading on how to tell a good organic food from a bad one, the higher ecological footprint of foods, and above all, understanding what is in season and able to be grown locally, and when.  If you plan on growing your own food, you’ll also want to educate yourself on various preservation methods: canning, root cellaring, dehydrating, fermenting, etc.
  3. Observe your current eating habits.  One of the other things I did early in this process was to spend time documenting and observing my family’s eating habits.  This allowed me to formulate a plan that targeted certain kinds of foods.  For example, we eat a lot of tomato products, so we began canning our own tomatoes.  We also ate a lot of cereal products, so we worked to find alternatives (like getting local oats and making our own granola).
  4. Create a plan. Having a plan in mind is good to set goals and to think about your targets.  In making the transition to local foods, you are making a pretty substantial lifestyle change, and this change takes time and patience to enact.  You may also have to deal with family members who aren’t as committed to the change as you are, and find good alternatives.
  5. Take one small step at a time. Mountains are not climbed in a day; nor will you make the transition to local foods in one day!  Be realistic with your goals, and remember that a small, lasting change is better than a drastic one that you are unable to continue.  You should also think about the changes you are making and how they impact your other family members.  The key is to get them on board and agreeing to the changes–so slow changes over time might work better for you.
  6. Be determined and stay focused on your goal.  I really believe that success is 99% determination, so keep that in mind!  If you fall, get yourself back up and keep going.

What has really assisted me in this process is by making slow, dedicated shifts over time.  Each year, I take on a “project’ that assists my family in making the transition from heavy super-market reliance a local, sustainable approach.

 

My first big shift was seeking out any local sources of easily accessible food.  I rejoiced when I found a year-round farmer’s market with online ordering that offered veggies, fruits, locally-grown and milled flour, cheese, vinegar, eggs, teas, local meats, herbal remedies, garden supplies, and assorted other wonderful things.  The online local market combined with Farmer’s Market shopping immediately allowed us to shift close to 30% of our eating.   The online market really gave us a jump start on this process.  We did have to learn how to cook differently with different ingredients available seasonally, but that part wasn’t too difficult (although there is no doubt that by March we are totally sick of winter squash, apples, carrots, and potatoes, lol!)

 

A second big shift was declaring tomato independence.  After observing my family’s eating habits and recognizing how many tomatoes we consumed,  I aimed, last summer, to be 100% tomato independent.  This meant that, in August and September, I would have to spend time canning and drying tomatoes.  I am pleased to say that in this last year, we purchased no tomato products–all came from our own garden.

 

Preserves and Jellies were another easy early step–they are easy to can and, in my area, wild berries are abundant.

 

Canned Rhubarb (Jam and BBQ sauce)

Canned Rhubarb (Jam and BBQ sauce)

Snacks and convenience foods are rarely local, and so you’ll really have to think about shifting your eating behavior in this way.  I cut out a lot of the junk food, which is great for my health.  I usually, now, snack on local popcorn (some of which I grow myself and some of which is grown nearby) or on dehydrated or fresh fruits and veggies.  I still do a lot of baked goods (especially with access to great locally milled flour). My husband has been a more difficult case.  He is very set in his ways, and wants to eat Life cereal for breakfast every morning and Lean Cuisines for lunch every day.  Since we both work full time, this has been an ongoing challenge.

 

Our focus for this year is dairy.  I love dairy, and I’m not going to give it up.  Local dairy has been more tricky, mainly because of a lack of time to seek it out.  Our CSA offers some raw cheeses and eggs (which can also be found at my local farmer’s market), but butter has been a real problem. I stopped drinking milk entirely because I wasn’t willing to buy it at the supermarket (I switched to rice milk for cereal, but that’s not local, so I’m still working on this).  I’m currently researching goat milk shares, cow milk shares, and educating myself on butter and cheese making.  We also recently began raising 4 chickens, which should provide our family with all of the eggs that we need.

 

The peeps will be laying fresh eggs in a few months!

The peeps will be laying fresh eggs in a few months!