From a Young Farmer

January 29, 2010

The following is excerpted from a speech Thaddeus Barsotti made as part of the Successful Farmer plenary at this year’s EcoFarm Conference. In 2000, Thaddeus and his brothers, Freeman Barsotti and Noah Barnes, inherited Capay Fruits & Vegetables from their mother, Kathleen, who had farmed the land since 1976. At the time, Thaddeus was a college student; he is now responsible for the growing, packing, and harvesting of the farm’s products.

sites/default/files/barsotti_0.jpgMy debut into farming was [the summer of] 2000. My mother had just ended her battle with breast cancer and we were left with a 90-acre farm, a CSA that delivered 350 boxes a week, one wholesale contact, a few farmers markets, and an empty checking account.

While I did grow up on the farm watching my parents run the operation, I really didn’t learn that much. The summer crops were not ready to harvest but they were healthy. It was a long summer filled with hard lessons. I have a vivid memory: it was late summer and the fig crop looked terrible. As I put more water onto the fig orchard, the trees continued to turn yellow and dry up, eventually falling off the trees. Yes: this was how I learned that figs lose their leaves in the fall…I began to ask myself if I had paid attention to anything as a child.

This is how my skill set as a farmer developed. These lessons were being learned all over the farm by all of us. We went though our growing lessons, our harvesting lessons, our packing lessons, our cooling lessons, our trucking lessons, our wholesaling lessons, our CSA lessons, etc. And now, after ten years of lessons, we’re willing to hint at the possibility that just maybe we have a legitimate produce company. But we don’t want to jinx it.

thadeus barsottiIt was difficult, but the reality is: we took the easy path. In contrast I often think about that crazy group of people who, in the 1970s, saw a problem with their food system and set out to change it. My parents’ generation, many of whom are in this room, deserve the credit for significantly reshaping our food system. Hats off to all of you.

My generation was lucky. We received a developed food movement, the knowledge of more sustainable farming techniques, and the confidence that the public is willing and eager to support better ways of producing and distributing food. With this gift comes the challenge of continuing the food revolution that many have toiled for so long to develop.

A major challenge I see is getting new farmers into farming careers…I routinely speak with people who want to farm for a living but can’t find a way in. Unfortunately it’s easier to become a doctor or a lawyer than it is to become a farmer earning a decent living.

I also see a major demand from the general public to see a food system broken into smaller more localized units that manage food from the field to the table. I’ve never understood why the term food “safety” has been attached to huge factory farms and processing facilities. While these operations have mastered the ability to make cheap food, their impacts on the health of the local environment, local economy, and a consumer’s ability to make decisions about the food they buy, can be described as nothing less than food danger.

One of our CSA customers called me with a question. She was a new mom who wanted to make baby food with the carrots in her CSA box, and she wanted to know if the carrots were grown in a field that was high in nitrates. I explained to her the fertility history of the field, we chatted for a while and we both agreed that the carrots would be fine to feed to her baby. Most of the produce sold in the US does not give the consumer this level of knowledge of the product, but I believe that consumers are ready to receive this kind of information.

Our generation has a tool that we’re only beginning to see the power of; we’re able to manage massive amounts of information and communication more efficiently and effectively than anyone had ever imagined. We are challenged with the task of convincing consumers to support a food system that goes beyond the definition of organic.    

As more consumers realize that the Internet will allow them to pinpoint their power as a consumer to individual farms, the demand for these types of farms will increase. It will not be easy; it will not happen over night, but I believe that our society with ultimately succeed in the task of connecting local farms to local consumers.

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