The article referenced other studies demonstrating Americans’ agricultural ignorance. Apparently 1 in 5 adults do not know hamburgers come from beef, according to one study from the US Department of Agriculture. While that 1990s study may be showing some age, more recent USDA data from 2014 reveals the most popular “fruit” in America is orange juice. The most popular vegetable is potatoes, about half of which are consumed in processed form such as french fries or chips.We don’t really need this data to vindicate the common knowledge that Americans mostly consume industrial, processed food-like products bearing little resemblance to actual food - i.e., plants and animals. Indeed, the past few generations of Americans have grown up believing food comes from a grocery store.
With only about 3 million farmers in the US, it’s also safe to say many Americans have never stepped foot on a farm. Many of those who have stepped foot on one have probably done so as participants in the agritourism industry. In the U.S. this includes a wide variety of activities. There are corn mazes and wagon rides for your kindergartner’s birthday party. Pick-your-own pumpkins in the fall or fruits in the spring and summer can get you in a seasonal mood. Horseback riding at the ranch can really lend some authenticity to a western vacation. And wine tasting along the regional wine trail is a wonderful alternative to Saturday-afternoon yard work.
All these agritourist endeavors should be a step in the right direction - by connecting people to the land where food is grown. But in many cases they are not, since consumers tend to treat them like any other recreation, which means blithely ignoring what it really takes to make things happen in this world. I sometimes wonder if it’s the fresh donuts that lures so many people out to pick apples in the fall.
To really understand what it takes to make food happen - real farmed food - consumers must go to go to a farm seeking information, not donuts. The good news is, there are a growing number of opportunities to do this very thing. On a recent warm spring day, about 20 people trekked out to Radical Roots Farm seeking nothing but information (although admittedly they were offered some delicious lemonade too!).is located Keezletown, Virginia, just northeast of Harrisonburg, scenically nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Living on and running the farm are husband-and-wife team Dave and Lee O’Neill who have lots of help from their two children (the lemonade purveyors!) and a small staff.
On the farm, they grow an amazing variety of vegetables and herbs, along with some fruits and nuts. They use organic, regenerative practices to grow their crops. The words “organic” and “regenerative” mean essentially the same thing. They describe how food is grown in accordance with the rhythms and balance of nature, the way all food was grown when it was just called “food,” prior to the onslaught of chemicals in the mid-20th century.
Using chemicals became the more accepted or “conventional” approach, so we now need a certification to help consumers know which producers are growing real food, the way nature intended. It’s crazy, but that’s the way it works. The USDA’s organic certification program officially went into effect in 2002. The government owns the word “organic” so for farms like Radical Roots, which is certified organic, it’s ok to use it. But many small family farms choose not to certify due to the cost and record-keeping involved, so the word regenerative is more inclusive of all farms using ecological practices to grow and produce food.
The backbone of those practices is developing rich, healthy soil. On the recent farm tour of Radical Roots, healthy soil was the recurring theme in Dave O’Neill’s presentation to his group of visitors. He led us around the sloping 5-acre property, as we all tiptoed among the snaking terraced rows of vegetables, some in full-growth mode, others just sprouting from the ground.
Most of these vegetable crops - like the peppers, tomatoes, chard, and lettuce - are annuals, meaning they grow and die within a season. While they’re growing, they help feed life in the soil… the worms and millions of microbes that thrive there. But when annuals die, soil life can suffer along with it, so planting cover crops is essential. Cover crops keep soil kicking through non-producing months, including winter. Common cover crops include buckwheat, radish, and nitrogen-fixing legumes such as crimson clover and field peas.
Soil is further enhanced at Radical Roots through the use of natural fertilizers, such as compost tea, which they make on the farm by steeping compost in water. Radical Roots also keeps a few farm animals around, such as geese and pigs which help further fertilize the soil through natural means.
Since no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides are allowed on organic farms, they must keep pests and weeds under control using more natural methods. Usually small, family farms like Radical Roots avoid sprays altogether, even those deemed “organic” by the certification process. Instead, they rely on strategies like row covers to keep pests at bay, and mulch film to reduce weeds. But perhaps most importantly, Radical Roots lets nature take over to achieve balance. The O’Neills foster this balance by planting perennial hedgerows of fruit and nut trees along the border of the annual crops. These perennials create biodiversity and attract beneficial insects that keep pests to a manageable level. When necessary, the farm staff will pick pests off plants by hand.
Sound like a lot of work? Words can’t even do it justice. And the work in the field is only part of the equation. Getting the food into the hands of customers is whole other story. Suffice to say, many small family farmers don’t have much time to give tours and entertain visitors. But many of them participate at least once a year in local farm tours. These tours, often organized by local or regional advocacy groups, are growing in popularity. Keep an eye out for one near you.
A growing number of local organic, regenerative farms do host tours more frequently than once a year. Radical Roots offers regular tours, mostly to school groups.Polyface Farms, also located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, schedules regular tours for those wishing to learn about regenerative livestock farming. Polyface is run by Joel Salatin, who is world-renown for his advocacy of sustainable agriculture. Foodwaze.com can connect you to other farms that have regular tours, or other on-farm events that educate the public about growing food using natural, ecological practices.
It might be a stretch to believe every American can get out to a farm and learn how real food is grown as nature intended… without shortcuts, without chemicals. But we need to strive for this goal and make it part of our culture. It’s not about correcting people’s understanding of how chocolate milk is made. It’s about safeguarding the future health of our Earth community.