Tale of two farmers
Organic farming proponents reflect both capitalist and socialist sensibilities
As far as Robert Ramming is concerned,
“organic” is just a synonym for “survival” to today’s small farmer. But Bapu Vaitla thinks of “organic” more in terms of survival of our species.
These two Davis farmers embody two related but diametrically opposed philosophies that are driving today’s organic farming movement: One intent on saving the small farmer, another striving to save the planet.
Six years ago, when Ramming decided to stop building industrial robots to plant the first seeds of Pacific Star Gardens, he didn’t know he would be hand-pulling weeds rather than zapping them with chemical spray. In robotics, he didn’t mind zapping.
The choice to go organic came down to simple economics. Or as Ramming puts it, “no big political soapbox.” It was simply more practical and lucrative for him to help meet the growing demand for organic foods, rather than to compete with corporate-owned mega-farms that grow conventional crops.
Out on the flat, fertile fields between Woodland and Dixon, a prime stretch of farmland long-occupied by the giants of agribusiness, Ramming’s Pacific Star Gardens sticks out like a tiny green thumb among the mass-yield machinery that run the big farms.
Any small-scale farm would be hard-pressed to compete against the big boys, just like John Henry when he tried to outdo the steam engine. Yet the growing “organic” niche in the produce market gives family-powered farms like Pacific Star Gardens more of a fighting chance. That’s because pesticide-free farming requires more human attention than machine-powered mass production.
According to Holly Givens, communications director of the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic foods have increased at least 20 percent a year since 1990.
Ramming views the organic movement as a golden opportunity for small-scale farmers to cash in big on that increased demand; and that strongly held view has turned Ramming into a proselytizer for what he sees as the future of small-scale agriculture.
At Farm Bureau meetings, Ramming’s voice can regularly be heard advocating the economic potential of “high-value, fresh market produce” to farmers long-convinced that the conventional, chemically propelled method is the more efficient way to go.
Yet Vaitla, occupying the opposite pole to Ramming, is less concerned with market niche and economic potential than he is with the human niche in the world and the potential that organic farming has to create a more sustainable model for producing food well into the 21st century.
As a farmer, a longtime agricultural student at the University of California at Davis and a native of India, Vaitla aspires toward a world where we can “feed ourselves in a way that does not destroy the earth.”
His demeanor remains calm even as his words intensify, systematically breaking down the myth that industrial agriculture is efficient. According to Vaitla, not only do chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides pollute soil, air and water, but they also mask their destructive effects by forcing farmers into a chemical dependency that will eventually poison their land beyond productivity.
He witnessed this type of destruction in his native India as industrial farming practices overran the traditional subsistence farming that people had depended on for thousands of years. But Vaitla is fighting India’s corporate-driven fate, trying to promote a better model.
Through his “subsistence agriculture research project” at UC Davis, Vaitla is trying to determine the minimum amount of land space, energy and resources needed to grow his full nutritional intake by incorporating a diversity of crops.
With just a quarter-acre plot, seeds of all kinds and occasional help from his roommate, Vaitla tried to eat solely from his garden plot from early June through October.
“I would need very little land if I just wanted to eat potatoes, but that wouldn’t be a very tolerable diet,” Vaitla explained with a smirky grin.
What Vaitla is demonstrating on a small scale, he believes should serve as a worldwide model. And rather than subscribing to Ramming’s market motives, Vaitla thinks government should take a more active role in mandating better practices, taxing farm chemicals at a rate that would compensate for the damage they do to soil, water and air.
“If they were to tax that at its actual cost, organic foods wouldn’t have such a disadvantage on the market,” Vaitla said.
The Ramming-Bapu dichotomy is even being played out in plans to move the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) headquarters from Santa Cruz to the Sacramento area sometime this year.
“As an advocacy group, it makes sense to be where a lot of the other farming organizations are, and to be close to the capital to do our thing in the political arena,” said CCOF executive director Brian Leahy.
Whether the CCOF headquarters will locate in the traditional farming community of Woodland, or the more progressive, idealistic town of Davis is yet to be determined. Predictably, Ramming favors the former; Vaitla, the latter.
Ramming claims that many young farmers would be more open to the idea of organic farming if it weren’t preached at them from such a high-and-mighty political pedestal. If you want the support of the majority of farmers, you need to go to their taverns and talk directly with them about costs and benefits, Ramming says.
But to Vaitla, changing the world starts with good ideas and high-minded ideals. Perhaps it was a mindset he grew up with in India, or maybe something he acquired during the eight months he spent living on an organic farm and Buddhist monastery in Marin County.
Yet the undeniable need for community in small-scale farming is where farmers who are as politically split as Ramming and Vaitla start to agree.
Locally grown produce becomes a form of community self-empowerment. According to Vaitla, local organic farming gives people more control over their own communities, rather than being dependent upon “global market forces or multinational corporate forces.”
In the same vein, Ramming believes we owe it to ourselves to keep our money circulating through locally owned businesses, in order to ensure the well-being of our local economy.
Trial and error
Though they sit on opposite ends of the political spectrum, both Ramming and Vaitla have had to learn similar lessons about the vigilance required in organic farming, as well as its limitations.
For example, when the stinkbugs shredded one especially good-looking tomato crop, Ramming promptly invited two UCD entomologists onto the property. “We’re Stinkbug Club Med out here” Ramming added with his matter-of-fact humor about his tomato-field-turned-outdoor-laboratory.
The patchwork of small fields growing anything from tomato to squash to old tractor parts set in rows was a good site for an insect experiment, since it’s small enough to scrutinize—“a big garden” as Robert calls it—but varied enough in its plant life to resemble a tiny ecosystem.
When the UCD stinkbug scientists finally caught the buggers waking up from their hibernation, they watched them flock straight to the wild radish and cheeseweed. Next winter, Ramming plans to have all the cheeseweed cleared except for two enticing strips of trap crop, and when the stinkbugs start sinking in their teeth, he’ll start rototilling them under.
Apparently, Ramming’s blunders haven’t dragged him down yet, because he’s found ways to compost his mistakes, turning rotten mishaps into useful information. Similarly, Vaitla’s first foray into subsistence farming entailed some hard lessons.
Despite his best intentions and efforts, Vaitla wasn’t able to survive simply on what he grew during his five-month experiment. He discovered that the art of subsisting from the land would take much longer than just one growing season and one person to perfect.
Vaitla was one man attempting to gather agricultural knowledge traditionally passed down as cultural wisdom and fine-tuned through hundreds of generations. However, he soon learned that one man alone could not re-design a system of farming that had to account for a myriad of natural relationships, from climate to insects to plant-to-plant interactions.
So, next year he will be continuing the project, this time with friends in tow, and the revised goal will be for one community to meet its food needs.
Ramming, in his attempt to “live off the fat o’ the land,” also found that others were a big part of realizing his dream. One summer, Ramming and his wife let their five kids start up a roadside stand to sell the melons left over from the farmer’s market. They let them pocket the change until they realized they were beginning to ask the kids for allowance instead of vice versa.
As the organic produce market continues to expand and evolve, people like Ramming and people like Vaitla will increasingly find themselves having to come together to support the interests of small organic farmers, because corporate co-opting of the organic market threatens both of their primary interests.
Organic is becoming a more enticing proposition for everyone, local or not, now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a long-awaited standard for organic food. The shiny new “organic” labels and all the safeguards they represent may very well trigger an even bigger swing toward organic produce among shoppers who previously weren’t tuned in to the health benefits of pesticide-free greens.
While recognition of organic farming by the USDA may stimulate more support for the organic market, farming corporations will indubitably want their piece of the pie. Consolidation among industrial-sized organic farms is already growing.
However, Ramming’s farmhand, D.D. Levine, believes the integrity of organic produce tended in industrial-sized plots should be questioned, especially when it is grown alongside conventional, chemically treated crops.
In such a growing situation, Levine says it isn’t uncommon to see the plane swoop down, spray the conventional field, and watch the chemicals blow over to the “organic” side of the fence. If such practices become more widespread, Ramming could see his market share erode, while Vaitla watches the purity of “organic farming” diminish.
One way that small-scale farmers have already banded together against large-scale competitors is through locally established Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) markets, often known as farmer’s markets.
These open-air forums provide a viable livelihood for family-run farms like Pacific Star Gardens, and also give non-farmers a more tangible connection to their surrounding land and local community, simply by getting to know where and who their food comes from.
Vaitla calls the loss of community farming one of the “silent tragedies in America,” but he also sees that more and more folks are supporting their local economies through projects like CSA markets.
“Farming is one of the few things left in America that requires community,” Vaitla says, “and another part of being human is community.”