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Why Do I Farm Organically?

By Jean Paul Courtens on Jul 13, 2006

Roxbury Farm CSA

My wife Jody Bolluyt and I operate Roxbury Farm.We raise 35 acres of cash crops on 70 acres of land that is part of the 250 acres under our stewardship. Our market is an 850 member CSA in an area stretching from Manhattan to Schenectady, NY. We farm organic/biodynamic, but are not certified, although we follow the standards closely and make sure we comply. We have signed the farmers pledge by NOFA NY. This is an effective tool for farmers like us who have chosen to opt out of the certification. We are interested in creating fair working conditions and providing fair wages to our workers as we feel this is as important as applying organic farming methods to our land.

It had never occurred to me before to wonder why I farm organically until I was invited to speak at the 2005 Advanced Training in Organic Crop Production conference sponsored by Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) of the USDA in Albany, NY last February. Trying to answer why I farm organically has a short and a long version. Why? I just do it that way. If you want to hear the short version I might say that organic farming provides me with meaningful work. If you want a longer answer you will need to find out more about who I am. The organic aspect of farming is a very personal issue, as it has become the ultimate expression of who I am. So let me begin by winding my way back to my years as a student.

I believe that a lot of important choices are made early in life so I will start at a time when agriculture seemed like a remote option to explain why I ended up farming organically. First of all, my professional career did not start out in agriculture.I grew up as a city kid in Amsterdam, which at that time was bubbling with anarchist energy. I joined the Provo’s protesting the world powers at large as I was enraged with the injustices in the world.

After high school I worked for elderly people cleaning their houses, and during breaks enjoyed listening to the stories of their lives. I grew fond of many of them and they taught me to appreciate the importance of a life lived well.

My focus at the time was on people, art, and politics so becoming an art therapist seemed to be a perfect fit with who I was. Strangely enough, this was a horrible experience for me. I disagreed with the approaches my teachers offered as I viewed psychology as a mechanistic approach reducing a human being to a thing. My memories of the elderly people clashed with an idea of viewing an individual through the prism of an illness. I wanted to hear about treatments that allowed our clients to remain unique individuals. I asked my teachers to draw me a picture of a healthy person, so we knew what we were aiming for. I became persistent in wanting an answer and the professors viewed me as a disruption. It was suggested I pick up a book by Rudolf Steiner, which I did. All the local library offered was "Cosmic Memory-Prehistory of the Earth and Man", and I wondered if the advice was some sort of joke.

Looking around the classroom I realized that most of us would graduate with the pretentious title of therapist at the age of 22 which seemed bizarre. I decided to leave college. I was eager to visit other countries, learn other languages, and to listen to stories of people who had already lived a life full of events. I loved the stories I had heard from my grandparents about their farm, about my grandfather’s horses, and about his dream to someday farm his own land. So my next choice was to work in agriculture. I also had good memories of the vegetable growers I worked for during my summer vacations. This was at the vegetable auction in Amsterdam where our task was to unload crates from the trucks of the growers. I liked the growers’ practicality and common sense. After working on homesteads in Wales and Ireland for six months I returned to Holland and rented a farm. I knew that agriculture was fascinating but I underestimated its complexity. I had no idea what I was doing and I needed to look for sources of information. I looked into schools and one option was training in biodynamic agriculture.

I spent four years at Warmonderhof. The school gives the students a thorough training based on traditional and ecological farming methods. The school has its own farm and a typical schedule is six weeks of classroom work alternated by three works of practical work on the farm. The farm was highly diversified with milking cows, row crops, vegetables, and fruit.Rudolf Steiner’s Biodynamic principles and anthroposophy receive a lot of attention in the classroom, and trials at the school functioned as physical displays on the work of the preparations. I remember one trial in particular that consisted of boxes filled with soil. They looked like a tall narrow box with the front of the box covered with a plate of glass instead of wood. Standing about eight feet tall, 18 inches wide and 12 inches deep, these were not just boxes full of soil but gave us a complete picture of the growth of the plant within the ground. It provided a great look at the soil profiles to be found on the farm. The boxes were placed so they slightly angled towards the glass plate.

As a crop was seeded in the top of the box, the roots of the plants touched the glass. We watched carrots grow in different soil types and with one of the trials we witnessed the difference between the ones grown with or without preparation 500. The soils treated with preparation 500 had a more differentiated root system. I think my love for soils came out of the emphasis our school had on soil science. Our soil science teachers had us dig many pits on our bus trip all over Holland.

In the vegetables we trialed spraying whey from the milk on the leeks to prevent rot (without success), and in the greenhouse we doused the tomatoes with a stinky garlic concoction to keep them healthy. I liked about this crazy attitude was the impulse to do something new. An organic biodynamic approach is fascinating because it is not limited to fixing problems. Organic and biodynamic methods have a nuance that hovers between right and wrong answers as it accepts that there are no simple solutions, except for gaining better understanding of plants and the soil. They taught us that our own observations are as important as the physical data that supported this. And that it was okay to have an observation that appeared to be in conflict with the physical data.

These days the farm is exciting to me when I start feeling a greater understanding of its intricacies. For example my rotations are somewhat flexible based on observations of a particular piece of land. Each field is treated individually and the rotation depends on the particular circumstances. I like to take walks on the farm and during each walk I find something I had not noticed before. In the winter, I spend time visualizing what the fields of the farm will look like in the next season, and I know that this practice contributes greatly to the success of a particular season.

One of the requirements of the school is apprenticeships at conventional farms.I appreciated learning from these farmers, their efficiency and productivity, but I had no desire to walk in their shoes. The lack of hope or enthusiasm at some of those places was a shrill contrast with my experience at the school or the biodynamic farms. I realized that coming back from these traditional farms I felt I had come home again. What ever the school represented it had become part of me.

My school had answered my need to view a problem in context. The exposure to anthroposophy challenged us to question our existing worldview. Besides its applications in agriculture, our teachers inspired us toward a paradigm shift in our understanding and relationship towards economics. It introduced me to new ideas about alternatives to ownership, and marketing as an expression of service rather than self interest. This last area was very dear to my heart as it offered holistic solutions in the political arena.

After I started Roxbury Farm I was approached in 1990 by Jonathan Hilton of the Center for Anthroposophy in NYC.Rod Shouldice, who at that time was the executive director of the BDA, and Jonathan had worked together on a study group on Community Sponsored Agriculture at the Center. The group had come to a point where they wanted to put their words into practice. Rod suggested they approach me. I had heard about CSA’s before but was not intrigued, as it did not seem to hold much potential for a large operation. I half heartedly took the invitation to the center, only to become very excited about participating, as it became clear that this group’s focus was on rethinking economic relationships. It did not take long before members Frank Scheib and Dick Shirey of the Committee for Peace and Justice (part of the Catholic Church) joined us for the same reasons and our CSA was off to an exciting start.

We struggled and succeeded to find the correct relationships between the farm, farmers, and the consumers. It was through these discussions that most of us educated ourselves and each other to alternatives of the present economic system that is abusive to both farmer and consumer. What particularly excited me about the process was that people with different disciplines were able to come to similar conclusions and solutions. Each season we would focus on what we would determine to be the weakest link within the farm organism. Through cooperation between the farmers and members we would resolve it.

One year we decided that in order to work towards the self sustaining component of the farm it was important to increase our beef herd. Many vegetarians were compelled to introduce meat in their diet after understanding the importance of having a diversified farm. Our ultimate resolve was the purchase of a new farm after it became clear that the location where we had been for ten years was not available anymore.To many this was a great stretch but a very productive transition was made in 2000. Roxbury Farm had become a concept in the social realm the people could visualize to the extent that they literally put their money where there mouths were. Many commented that they could not visualize their lives without Roxbury Farm. They were not talking about a physical place at this point but all the activities our relationship had generated.

I realized our CSA, and our successful transition to new land had been possible because I had learned to think outside the box at Warmonderhof. The paradigm of a business that operates out of service instead of self interest along with trust proved to be just as important as the organic farming methods.We just received a contract from an organization called Community Food Resource Center, in Manhattan, asking us to supply them with $30,000 worth of produce from June through December. Each week we will determine what we give them at what price, based on what it costs us to produce it. When I read the contract I realized how insane it was and how much trust the organization had in us. We have grown accustomed to this with our members but we had not seen this level of trust on an institutional level.

Let’s talk a little about farming here, although the choice of organic is as much about a love for the land as it is about the care for the people we feed. Farming is essentially about feeding people. It was suggested once by one of our members that I am a healer of the earth. I told her if she wanted me to heal the earth she needed to have me stop raising vegetables and start planting grass instead. I realize this is a bold statement but I mention it to point out that nourishing people and nourishing the earth is much like a tight rope balancing act. While research shows that organic farms have by far the healthiest soils, organic vegetable farming continues to be hard on the soil as it relies on aggressive cultivation. We need to find organic methods that allow the soil to remain covered. This will greatly improve the land and will avoid possible erosion. Tillage trials are very important.

In all the years that I have been farming I have done my own trials and errors at times with great expenses. When I started out hardly anyone in my immediate area was attempting to grow organic vegetables. There were Sam and Elizabeth Smith of Caretaker Farm, and Ian and Nicki Robb of Brookfield Farm. We would hear about someone in Europe using compost tea successfully and we would just try it without knowing what we were doing. A lot of equipment has been bought over the years and some had only modest rates of success. Those were costly decisions as we just didn’t have the correct information. I had to search for technology that would suit our particular needs and I still feel we have to continue to work on this. Appropriate technology is available in other parts of the world especially Europe and Japan. It needs to be demonstrated and cost effectiveness needs to be evaluated.

I think organic farmers are and have had to be kind of religious in their approach. This was not because they wanted to, but because besides anecdotal experiences we lacked the hard evidence on how much our practices actually contribute to soil and plant health. It did not help when the vegetables in a health food store were two weeks old and deprived of any substance. Distribution has become more effective and organic food looks a lot better these days. The last five years have seen a real turn around as the scientific community has finally reached out to us. We are getting support from our local Cornell Cooperative Extension agents and from many professors at the Ag department at Cornell University. It appears organic farming has earned some validity at the universities and with our colleagues in conventional agriculture.

Organic farming as a farming method is important but I hope that it will help us in changing our attitudes as well to our workers and our markets. I hope for an interest in organic farming from the economics department where they can show that if you take care of your customers and your workers it creates more sustainable businesses. I can not be excited about organic farming if this means that it is controlled by giant corporations. Our efforts in the next ten years should be focused on economic solutions for small organic farms in the Northeast. We are hampered by a short season and season extension both through winter storage and field covers have great practical and technical issues. It is my hope that the old paradigm of profit can be replaced with service and sustainability as part of an organic approach.

And with these suggestions I have come full circle with my long answer to the short one. Healing the land should include care for the people who are working the land. Our responsibility is to nourish people and land equally and to continue to explore new farming systems that are more than just sustainable.

(Printed with the kind permission of Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm. All photos by Jane Sherry, of fields, greens and farm photos on the new and current Roxbury Farm, and csa photo taken at Jane & Curtis' garage, the first Westchester County, NY drop off site in Pleasantville. That first season there were 25 members, and membership in Westchester County has now grown to over 80 members.)

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Since 1990, Roxbury Farm has been one of the pioneers of organic agriculture and Community Supported Agriculture in Columbia County, New York. In 1991, Roxbury became the first CSA farm to have a community in New York City. Roxbury continues to be a nationally recognized leader in organic, biodynamic, and CSA. Jody Bolluyt became a partner in 2001. She supervises the day to day farm work and is responsible for the harvest management, distribution, and does much of the administrative work of the CSA membership. Since 1992, Jean-Paul Courtens has led workshops for farmers in other parts of the country and in 1994, he helped to found CRAFT, an organization that trains organic farm apprentices. In 2000, Roxbury became a leader in the farmland protection movement, as a central component in a land acquisition and conservation effort that will not only secure the long term future of Roxbury's farmland, but will be a model for other farms in the Hudson Valley and all over the country. In 2004, Jean-Paul received the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).