No two weeks are the same on our farm - not on any farm. However, the thing that will differentiate last week from the rest is particularly noteworthy. In case you didn't catch it (on this Facebook post), Mom and I were special guests at a National Endowment for the Humanites event at the White House which included a preview of the new Ken Burns documentary "The Dust Bowl", followed by a great panel discussion! My mother and I, a daughter and grandson, respectively, of a Dust Bowl survivor will remember this unique opportunity for a long time to come.
My maternal grandmother, Dorothy Hiestand Cogley, rarely talked about her youth growing up in Ayr, Nebraska - a tiny farming town South of Omaha. It was certainly an impactful beginning to the amazing life she's led, the remainder of which will have to wait for a future blog entry. However, when I sit down to visit with my grandmother, still with us and healthy at 92, she shys away from her agricultural upbringing - her father's farm in Dust Bowl era Nebraska where she lived until 15 years old. It was at that age the family pulled up their roots and moved back east with family to Lancaster County PA - fleeing the dust clouds, like so many other Dust Bowl refugees. After viewing the excerpts from the stirring Ken Burns documentary, set to air this November, I'm learning more about her apprehension - more than she was willing to share with me or her children.
Fast forward another 75 odd years to once upon a time called right now!
They say that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.
As the demands on agriculture mount in the face of worldwide meteoric population growth and other nations with less oversight become bigger players, the timing of the new Ken Burns Documentary "The Dust Bowl" couldn't be more appropriate. Moreso, the airing date of this documentary, November 18th and 19th on PBS, should be right about the time our country's current drought situation (the worst since the 1950's) should begin to affect food prices.
By in large, the US has learned the lesson of the Dust Bowl, but it's no time to be resting on our laurels - much still needs to be done to increase soil conservation in our country. The point that rang truest in the terrific panel discussion after the screening was how important it is to acknowledge that the decision to plow all that badland ground to feed our soldiers was, at the time, made with altruistic goals and what was thought to be sound reasoning at the time. We can't become so haughty as to assume we've got mother nature figured out and we can use her for our own devices.
So you're here reading the blog of a small family fruit farm in Central Pennsylvania, so it's safe for me to assume you've already recognized how important agriculture is to this nation. Also, how important GOOD agriculture is to this nation - how important it is that we, as farmers, do right by the lands that we proudly nurture. I've struggled with the thought of me, as an American Farmer, being responsible for feeding the world. I'd prefer to feed you guys - my friends and neighbors. But to hear our excellent panel (author Timothy Egan, genius Lester Brown (he truly is), farmer/conservationalist Clay Pope; moderated by FRESHFarm's Ann Yonkers) speak about the short-sightedness exhibited by the agriculture of other nations (not to keep singling you out, China)... I've been reinvigorated by this notion. Don't expect us to double our acreage or anything like that; if anything, we'll likely get smaller as we go along. But! The world needs America to keep farming, not just our friends and neighbors. And while much of our food remains in our friendly 100 mile radius, great vision is needed to balance future food demands with proper soil health and water conservation, especially in consideration of energy and fossil fuel demands. It's a hefty task, but someone's got to do it.
It was the worst man made natural disaster in the world's history. It was the biggest real estate scam in our country's history. It killed children and displaced families all over the midwest, almost turning the entire region into an uninhabitable desert. It also served (in my opinion) as the impetus for the first great agricultural reform, the formation of what would be the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), thank you Hugh Hammond Bennett, in The New Deal. If you find this compelling (as well you should) or you desire the kind of inspiration this topic provided me, Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl" airs on PBS November 18th and 19th.
That's right, we're talking family 'Apidae' on the blog today. The whole food system breaks down without bees and their closest relatives out there spreading pollen and getting fruits and veggies blossoms pollinated. It's a tale of human-subhuman symbosis with a sweet payout for the whole human race. Let's learn about honey,
pollination, CCD, and native bees and remind ourselves that we humans aren't so keen and evolved to overcome our reliance on a bunch of trained, eusocial insects.
Without getting into the nitty gritty horticultural details, all varieties of apples, many sweet cherries, many plums, and many pears all need a second pollen source to be fruitful. That is to say a whole block of Jonagold apples will hardly yield any fruit at all without a second (and compatable) pollen source planted in proximity and, of course, our friendly bees for effective pollen
When I was a youth and our farm was smaller and nearly entirely apples, we rented a lot of bee hives from our local apiary. I can remember these days well, since Dad would always meet the "bee man" after dark when the bees were docile and less active to strategically place them where they'd most effectively pollinate our orchards. As our farm progression continued over the years and our crops became more diversified, the peaches, apricots, cherries, and more recently berries, veggies, plums etc. are blooming earlier than the apples. By planting more diverse crops that bloom over a longer period of time, we saw more pollination occuring from native and feral bee populations because we were were providing more food for them over a longer period of time.
And about this time was when Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) became a national
problem effecting Honeybees. Fortunately, our bees were raised locally and these
beekeepers (or at least ours) had little problem with CCD - these bees never travelled far enough to contract the effects from other populations and since we
never spray insecticides during bloom, they weren't exposed to anything harmful. So while the rental prices went up, as they should, we had been building native
pollinator populations, rented less bees and continued to have pollinator success.
So when my former boss and Penn State Entomology Department researcher Dr. David Biddinger (see video) at the local Fruit Research and Extension Center needed somewhere to establish a trial to assess different structures that might attract native pollinators, we leapt at the chance. Now our orchards are being graced by a multitude of different pollinators. Our veggie patch - the same! And, as part of our commitment to continual improvement of
practices with the Food Alliance, we have established plantings of wildflowers to further increase these native bee populations. We'll also be maintaining our own bumble bee populations to help pollinate our sweet cherries.
So as you can see, there's more to the bee than that sweet, local, allergy-fighting, biscuit-sweetening honey that we all know and love. And I hope I've impressed upon everyone just what a treasure we have in bees. They are out there every year helping our silly human race feed ourselves and sustain ourselves for another day. So small, so vital, so grossly underappreciated - three cheers for
check out more on Three Springs Fruit Farm Growing Practices or for further, in depth topics:
Growing Greener Blog Series:
This blog is the sixth entry in our "Growing Greener" series - a collection of blog entries focused on educating our customers about our growing practices and other things about our farm that make us a unique farming operation. This is a follow-up to August's "Food Alliance Certified" and is intended to address what our certification means in more specific terms - think Food Alliance, ver 2.1.
I hear what you're saying and I can understand your confusion. "I'm glad you guys are Food Alliance certified... I don't know what it means."
We introduced the topic on our blog last year with the big announcement in August but we want you to know just exactly what this means. Food Alliance certification, you might recall, encompasses four general principles, as laid out in their certification standards. These areas of concentration are growing practices, soil and water conservation, wildlife inhabitation on the farm, and fair and responsibile employment practices. There are also baseline, "whole farm" conditions that must be met before we can become certified. We also have to commit to continual improvement of practices on our farm and its in these last two areas that we'll begin our Food Alliance 2.1 analysis today.
So what does it mean to be a Food Alliance certified producer? There are guidelines for nearly any type of farm out there, I'm going to stick to what I know best - what it takes for us to be a Food Alliance certified producer.
1) produce Food Alliance certified products - this is to say we've passed our crop-specific audit and the food we produce complies with those standards specific to sustainable production of apples, peaches, pears, and cherries in our case.
2) provide safe and fair working conditions - in our case this covers everything from the obvious farm worker safety issues to our more progressive practices such as negotiating wages, providing opportunities for promotion, and providing health insurance for our workers.
3) practicing IPM to minimize pesticide use and toxicity - this is perhaps the effort you know most about on our farm. If not, catch up on how we scout for problems, mating disruption practices, lower toxicity materials, and this video on our practices.
4) soil and nutrient management - At our farm, this includes a long term rotational strategy between orchard plantings - often with minimal tillage. Hopefully soon, I'll include a blog with pictures of my father's very effective new erosion preventative no till sod establishment in orchards - it's a sweet system.
5) protect biodiversity and wildlife habitat - As part of our continuing improvement of practices for Food Alliance, we've established wild flower plantings to increase our biodiversity, specifically the population of native, feral pollinators. We also effort to increase populations of insect eaters like bats and barn swallows while also leaving standing deadwood for raptors, aiding in mouse control in our orchards.
Continually improving practices - here's where Food Alliance really sets themselves apart from other certifications. Some certifications have a standard "bar" that's raised and periodically, every few years, you have to prove that you're getting your chin above the bar for another review cycle. In the case of the Food Alliance, the onus is on us, the producer, to continually raise our own bar. Farming is a constant progression - you'll see evidence of it in every good farm I can think of. For the Food Alliance, they embrace this concept by requiring certified producers to commit to continual improvement in each of the four stated areas of concentration, insuring Food Alliance certified farms maintain the leading edge of progress and innovation in sustainable agriculture. These goals are specifically named and tackled over a one, three, and five year time frame.
We were just certified in August and they already want updated on our progress in completing these goals. I'm proud to say these goals are already being met around our farm. In additional to the wild flower plantings referenced above, we are having all of our employee manuals and training materials expertly translated into Spanish. We will have bat boxes around out around all of our farm ponds in another year and are working towards 100% mating disruption in our acreage. Are they ambitious and difficult? In many ways, yes they certainly are. But I've said from the beginning, if this certification wasn't a little difficult, it wouldn't be worth anything to anyone.
Read more about Three Springs Fruit Farm Growing Practices
or more "Growing Greener"
Here we are in August, the busiest harvest time of the season. We're picking peaches, plums, pluots, apples, pears, blackberries, tomatoes (need I continue)... but! Despite all of this, my lack of willingness to be inside when the sun is out, and the general rigors or late summer/early fall, I'm writing this blog entry to inform everyone about something very important. Three Springs Fruit Farm is Food Alliance Certified.
I know what you're thinking - "fancy words, what do they mean"? That's a great place to start! Food Alliance is a nonprofit organization, established so that producers such as ourselves who effort every day to be on the forefront of what it means to be a sustainable farm can have our practices verified through an independent third party inspection.
Food Alliance certification standards set a high bar for agricultural and food industry sustainability. These standards are available for anyone to view on their website. When you see the Food Alliance Certified seal on your food, you can be certain those who grew it practice intensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM), reduce their use of pesticides, and chose pesticides with low toxicities. You can be sure that the farm on which this food was grown preserves topsoil, conserves water, and doesn't allow excesses of soil, water, or nutrients to leave cropped areas and enter wild areas. You can rest assured a Food Alliance Certified producer maintains and promotes wildlife habitat on his or her acreage, that the employees of this farm are highly valued and treated as such, and that we are committed to continually improving our sustainability practices. The Food Alliance Certified seal denotes the most comprehensive third party certification in North America.
Why did we pursue such an intensive undertaking? The answer was two-fold. First, we thought we deserved recognition for going the extra mile to grow our fruit in this way. While we always will think of our growing practices as "doing the right thing" and that's good in and of itself, it was worth it to have someone verify these things because, two, others have made claims all the time. The second reason we sought certification is because our word against someone else's is only so valid. When an uncertified grower makes a claim about growing practices or water conservation, each customer can assign as much truth to that claim as he or she would like. Now that we are a Food Alliance Certified producer, and our apples, peaches, pears, and cherries are Food Alliance Certified products, we can make these claims and customers can accept them with full confidence. It's not my word against the word of someone else - it's an independently verified fact.
In a lot of respects, this is our way of rewarding our farmers market customers for their confidence in the past. You've met us, got to know us, and you've looked me and my friends and family in the eye at market and believed us when we told you that we're doing our best to grow your food in the most sustainable way we can. So here's the validation of what our farm has been telling you when you come to market. It's something we're passionate about and something we don't take lightly. Thank you for relying on our farm in the past and thanks for supporting your only local Food Alliance certified fruit growers in the future!
here's a link to our press release (link) - thank you, PASA!
more Three Springs Growing Practices, or
- Growing Greener: Pheromone Mating Disruption
- Growing Greener: Scouting & Monitoring
- Growing Greener: Low Toxicity Materials
- Growing Greener: Advanced IPM (video)
- Growing Greener: In Depth Food Alliance Standards