Looking Back at My Experiences Volunteering at Foundation Farm in the Fall of 2014


In this post I’ll explore food and why not just organic, but sustainable food production is a key capstone to a sustainable life.

As we explore alternatives to conventional agricultural systems which are part of agribusiness, we need to consider that current economic social and technological frameworks of organizing resources in modern societies discourage real shifts towards sustainable healthy living.

However, neither organic or sustainable farming systems are realistically configured to replace the current grossly unsustainable agribusiness food production complex. So thus we need to consider this reality as we advocate more sustainable systems of food production.

I want to talk about my main experience with produce farming (other than working in the Arcosanti greenhouse from 2009-12). It involved spending several months volunteering at Patrice Gros’ Foundation Farm, in the winter of 2014/15.

Patrice has decided to take a break from farming and he is now working at a culinary school in Bentonville Arkansas. He’s working in procurement and in an effort to source supplies from local farms when possible. His long-term wish is to get back into farming at some point, focusing on highly compact and intensive farming practices.

Despite its small size, Eureka Springs, is a mecca for people seeking an alternative lifestyle nestled in the Ozark Highland Plateau. There are some unusual amenities for a town its size (pop 2100). This includes things like a health food store and not one but two farmer’s markets, several “Farm to Table” restaurants and several weekly newspapers.

Patrice told me as we got to know each other that he started out on the non-farm path working in corporate finance in San Francisco Bay Area. He gradually realized that his calling was farming, getting his hands dirty working the earth and making it fertile.

In 2007, he established Foundation Farm, his third farm, on 6 acres of land about 10 miles north of Eureka Springs. The Farm is located on a county road just off AR State Highway 23 right on the border with Missouri.

The farm included several open ended hoop greenhouses. These were used for much of the year, but especially needed in the cooler times of the year.

Patrice is a follower of several well known sustainable farmers including Eliot Coleman who pioneered cold weather farming techniques at his Four Season Farm in the Northern US. Joel Salatin is also an influence, popularizing the idea of introducing aquaculture principles into commercial agriculture.

Patrice practiced No Till Farming at Foundation Farm – which I knew very little about until I came across his farm. The benefits are that you do not disturb the soil. This of course this reduces the amount of energy needed to run the farm and need for large equipment to plow and till the soil. To address the weed problem he uses a lot of wheat straw for mulch. This has multiple benefits of not only fertilizing the soil but also reducing the weed problems.

Since we have been trained to see certain things like cultivation, the use of mechanized equipment as the necessary progress of modernization, its sometimes hard for us to consider no-till alternative farming techniques as practical or viable. No doubt its still hard for us to imagine producing a significant amount of food for the bulk of humanity in this way, but much of that is because so few people farm today not because the land is not available used for other things like parks, golf courses, lawns and cemeteries.

What this is really about is not just organic food but the building of healthy, sustainable, locally owned and oriented food systems:

  • Small human scale farming systems for communities to grow more of their own food rather than rely on supply chains and corporate systems that do not reflect their collective values
  • Putting power back in the communities that historically made up the backbone of societies
  • Feeling good about what you do
  • Eating healthy locally produced foods

This may not be for everyone but if we want to consider deeply what sustainability means we have to reexamine many of the assumption of modern agriculture and consider whether they are consistent with how a sustainable society might look like or operate.

Its a common sentiment in mainstream society that organics is a waste of money. One point is that the level of pesticide residues is so low in the produce that it has negligible impact on human health. I don’t reject this assertion with complete confidence but if I can avoid any chance or trace of toxins in my food supply, I will.

Supporting organics is not just about the health of the food supply though, it’s about the larger impact of the practices of conventional farming on the soil, the land, and the groundwater. The health of the workers and families involved in the farms also needs to be considered because many of the pesticides used are toxic to humans as well as pests.

The idea is that organics isn’t just a waste of money, its irrational consumerism. Its bad enough to waste money but to exhibit irrational consumerism – well lets be done with it then. Lets go back to default of allowing the same substances they put in yoga mats into our food supply – to make our bread look better and more fluffy. Because we’re not just talking about organics, we’re trying to encourage people to ask questions about where their food comes and whether these practices are ecologically, socially and even economically sustainable over the long term.

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