by Melinda Hemmelgarn
From epidemic childhood obesity and rising rates of autism and food allergies to the growing risks of pesticides and climate change, we have many reasons to be concerned about the American food system. Fortunately, many heroes among us—family farmers, community gardeners, visionaries and activists—are striving to create a safer and healthier environment now that will benefit future generations.
Recognizing and celebrating their stellar Earth stewardship in this 2014 International Year of Family Farmers, Natural Awakenings is spotlighting examples of the current crop of heroes providing inspiration and hope. They are changing America’s landscape and the way we think about the ability of good food to feed the future well.
Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, of Vilicus Farms, in Havre, Montana, are reviving crop biodiversity and pollinator habitat on their organic farm in northern Montana. “We strive to farm in a manner that works in concert with nature,” Doug explains.
The couple’s actions live up to their farm’s Latin name, which means “steward.” They grow 15 nourishing crops on 1,200 acres, including flax, buckwheat, sunflower, safflower, spelt, oats, barley and lentils, without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. By imitating natural systems, planting diverse crops and avoiding damaging chemical inputs, they are attracting diverse native pollinators, he notes. Their approach to farming helps protect area groundwater, streams, rivers and even oceans for future generations.
Dick and Diana Dyer, of Dyer Family Organic Farm, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, finally realized their lifelong dream to farm in 2009, each at the age of 59. The couple grows more than 40 varieties of garlic on 15 acres; they also grow hops and care for honeybees. In addition, they provide hands-in-the-soil training to a new generation of dietetic interns across the country through their School to Farm program, in association with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Diana, a registered dietitian, teaches her students to take the, “We are what we eat” adage a step further. She believes, we are what we grow.
“Like nearly everyone else, most dietetic students are disconnected from Mother Earth, the source of the food they eat. They don’t learn the vital connections between soil, food and health,” says Diana. During a stay on the Dyer farm, she explains, “The students begin to understand how their food and nutrition recommendations to others can help drive an entire agricultural system that promotes and protects our soil and water, natural resources and public health.” It all aligns with practicing their family farm motto: Shaping our future from the ground up.
Mary Jo and Luverne Forbord, of Prairie Horizons Farm, in Starbuck, Minnesota, raise Black Angus cattle, grazed on certified organic, restored, native prairie pastures. Mary Jo, a registered dietitian, welcomes dietetic students to the 480-acre farm to learn where food comes from and how to grow it without the pesticides that contribute to farmers’ higher risk for certain cancers. “We must know the true cost of cheap food,” she insists.
Most recently, they planted an organic orchard in memory of their son, Joraan, who died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 23. Joraan’s orchard is home to thriving, health-supporting apple, apricot, cherry and plum trees, plus native aronia berries. It also injects fresh life into the community. Each spring, the Forbords celebrate their son’s birthday by “waking up” his orchard. His mother explains: “People of all ages gather— an assortment of our friends, Joraan’s friends and their growing families, neighbors, relatives, co-workers, students and others—to keep his legacy growing. The incredible community support keeps us going.”
Tarrant Lanier, of the Center for Family and Community Development (CFCD) and Victory Teaching Farm, in Mobile, Alabama, wants all children to grow up in safe communities with access to plenty of wholesome food. After working for nearly two decades with some of South Alabama’s most vulnerable families, Lanier wanted to “provide more than a crutch.” In 2009, she established the nonprofit CFCD organization, dedicated to healthy living. Within five years, she had assembled a small, but hard-working staff that began building community and school gardens and creating collaborative partnerships.
Recently, the group established the Victory Teaching Farm, the region’s first urban teaching farm and community resource center. “The farm will serve as an onsite experience for children to learn where their food comes from and the reasons fresh, organically grown food really matters to our health,” says Lanier. However, “This is just the tip of the iceberg for us. Ultimately, we’d like to be a chemical-free community through advocating for reduction and elimination of pesticide and chemical use in schools, hospitals, households and local parks and ball fields.”
Lanier aims to help improve on Alabama’s low national ranking in the health of its residents. “I love our little piece of the world, and I want future generations to enjoy it without fearing that it’s making us sick,” she says. “We are intent on having a school garden in every school, and we want to see area hospitals establish organic food gardens that support efforts to make people healthier without the use of heavy medications.”
Lanier further explains: “We see our victory as reducing hunger and increasing health and wellness, environmental sustainability and repair, community development and beautification, economic development and access to locally grown food, by promoting and creating a local food system.”
Don Lareau and Daphne Yannakakis, of Zephyros Farm and Garden, in Paonia, Colorado, grow exquisite organic flowers and vegetables for farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture members in Telluride and the Roaring Fork Valley. Recently, the couple decided to take fewer trips away from their children and homestead, and instead bring more people to their 35-acre family farm to learn from the land and develop a refreshed sense of community.
From earthy farm dinners and elegant weddings to creative exploration camps for children and adults and an educational internship program, these family farmers are raising a new crop of consumers that value the land, their food and the people producing it. The couple hopes to help people learn how to grow and prepare their own food, plus gain a greater appreciation for organic farming.
“The people that come here fall into a farming lifestyle in tune with the sun and moon, the seasons and their inner clock—something valuable that has been lost in modern lifestyles,” notes Lareau, who especially loves sharing the magic of their farm with children. “Kids are shocked when they learn that carrots grow underground and surprised that milk comes from an udder, not a store shelf.”
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, of Lakeview Organic Grain, in Penn Yan, New York, grow a variety of grains, including wheat, spelt, barley, oats and triticale, plus peas, dark red kidney beans and edamame soybeans, along with raising livestock on about 1,400 acres. Their family farm philosophy entails looking at the world through a lens of abundance, rather than scarcity, and working in cooperation with their neighbors instead of in competition. The result has been a groundswell of thriving organic farmers and a renewed sense of community and economic strength throughout their region.
The Martens switched to organic farming after Klaas experienced partial paralysis due to exposure to pesticides, compounded by concern for the health of their three children. Because the Martens work in alliance with nature, they’ve learned to ask a unique set of questions. For example, when Klaas sees a weed, he doesn’t ask, “What can we spray to kill it?” but, “What was the environment that allowed the weed to grow?”
Anne Mosness, in Bellingham, Washington, began fishing for wild salmon with her father during one summer after college. The experience ignited a sense of adventure that led her back to Alaska for nearly three decades, as a crew member and then a captain in the Copper River and Bristol Bay fisheries. During that time, Mosness became a passionate advocate for protecting coastal communities and ecosystems. “Like farm families on land, fishing families face many risks and uncertainties,” but she believes, “political forces may be even more damaging to our livelihoods and wild fish.”
For example, “We are replicating some of the worst practices of factory farming on land in our marine environment with diseases, parasites and voluminous amounts of pollution flushing into our coastal waters,” explains Mosness. She’s also concerned about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s potential approval of genetically engineered (GMO) fish without adequate health and environmental assessments, and she works to support GMO labeling so consumers can make informed choices in the marketplace.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, aka the “food sleuth,” is a registered dietitian and award-winning writer and radio host at KOPN.org, in Columbia, MO (FoodSleuth@gmail.com). She advocates for organic farmers at Enduring-Image.blogspot.com.