Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Keep in mind how the CSA farmer is competing for “principled dollars” and that the competition is the large supermarket chain.
The recent growth of Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a modern revolution in the agriculture sector. What exactly are the benefits of Urban and Community Farming? How is this better for the environment or our health? What are the drawbacks? How can one get involved? To address these questions, we are talking to leaders of Urban and Community Agriculture who can share insights based on their experience.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Laurie Hollman.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Living in a semi-rural area, I have the good fortune of knowing a farmer, Bee Tolman, who has made her career around livestock agriculture, working as a farm worker, farm owner, or farm manager for 40 years. It is her career path that I will speak about. Together we will both be interviewed with Bee as the primary source.
Together Bee and I discuss the future of farming and food production a great deal. Given her expertise and significant history over time in this industry, it is fascinating for me to discuss with her the multiple variables involved not only in the actual farming but also in the availability and distribution of food products to the American population.
Modern agricultural methods impact what foods become available, and to whom, which is a societal issue. That is, while modern methods increase efficiency and reduce the amount of natural resources needed to meet the world’s food demands, it’s imperative to question if these ever-changing approaches create any downsides or further any disparities, and for whom.
Keeping in mind that farming always tracks socio-political norms — -whether it is limitations on using chemicals or antibiotics, or a shifting acceptance of women in this industry — these factors surely merit open discussion.
As a writer about powerful women, I’m also intrigued how this highly intelligent woman has a backstory of juggling personal life and relationships, motherhood, and work relationships in a male-dominated industry. Her first farm job was in 1982. She now has 40 years of work in livestock and agriculture and will share her life lessons in this inspiring career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
Having farmed in many countries, Bee Tolman has been in her present locale since 1988 currently co- managing a sheep dairy producing and selling milk to people who make cheese and yogurt. Lambs are also raised and sold. 2/3 of her income comes from the milk, dairy farm. She now does most of the business end rarely doing the milking and other physical work. She makes sure there is a market and focuses on the logistics of staffing getting the farm approved for the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program.
Bee notes that Americans “are blissfully ignorant that 95% of dairy is produced by undocumented people.” For example, fruits and vegetables are often grown and harvested by temporary VISA workers who are documented and undocumented. She finds that many people don’t want to do manual labor such as milking a cow, planting, or picking apples and lettuce which is thus done by the VISA workers. 2018, for example, was a difficult year for staffing because she had to hire 50% more people than needed because the dynamics between the workers proved to be difficult and the weather was unpredictable. As a result, Bee did a lot of the physical work that year until she applied to get into the VISA program which took eleven months including an appeal. This meant documenting three years of labor data broken down into full and part-time workers as well as other categories.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I learned the following from Bee Tolman:
- Perseverance in applying for the VISA program was essential.
- It’s crucial for a manager to not need personal “ego building” or it will come before results. She explains that she may run the farm and find the workers, but they do the work. In other words, her position or authority can’t be managed alone. As a leader, “You can’t delude yourself into thinking your ego is a consideration.”
- Excellent business skills need to be successful including marketing and meeting labor needs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As a leader Bee learned this lesson: “We’re not going to fail on my watch. Don’t take failure personally. Determine that while you’re in charge nothing fails because of something you’ve done.” This conviction has proven essential for Bee.
In the past she understood that life was “a chain of links. If you remove one critical link it changes the course of your life. In my first farm job in Ireland, Jimmy Ironside said, ‘If you’re here to learn lass, I’m here to teach you.’ That was a life lesson. I now believe if anyone wants to work with me if their intention is to learn, I’m delighted to work with them.”
An example Bee offered was “When I had a Mirk border collie to train. I was so self-conscious of failing with this out-of-control dog that Jimmy advised me with another life lesson: ‘You have to learn to roar.’”
“If you’re afraid of your own shadow that’s hard to do especially as a female if you always cede the business floor to those less proficient in operating new machinery or contacting buyers for the first time.”
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
“The farm I’m on now until recently had one of the best genetically dairy sheep flocks in the US if not North America. It was recently eclipsed by selling our genetics to others in order to improve genetics for the next generation. I’m very proud of the high genetic value of the flock or group of animals we have. You can’t buy it; you can only develop it. That includes going with a drama free farm meaning the dynamics of the working crew get along.”
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. Can you help explain to our readers what Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture is?
Community Supported Farming consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm organization so that the farm becomes legally or spiritually the community’s farm with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing both the risks and benefits of food production. An example of a CSA is in Madison County, New York “where there just isn’t the population to support them like in NYC.”
However, Bee explains that it’s about the nonfarming public’s need to interact with food production that can be key. “The nonagricultural public often have a need to have some contact with food production. They don’t want to produce their food or live next door to a farm, but some projects work well because of their growing interest.”
20 years ago, for example, Bee started a program establishing “Open Farm Day” in Madison County, New York. About 40 farms opened their doors to give tours. An Agricultural Development Program was established in 2005. Insurance was covered for the open farm day. 1000 people came to a single farm. “Lambing morning” began in 1999 when lambs were being born bringing out 350 people from neighborhoods with their kids.
This nonfarming public may have had no understanding of what was behind food production, but they really wanted to understand it and participate even if it was only for one day with their kids involvement. “It was somewhat of a romantic view at first, but it became apparent that people wanted this connection.”
Small produce and vegetable farmers sell shares in their production. But they are competing with Wegmans and other large supermarkets who have a vast empire that, according to Bee, purport to buy meat and dairy from local farms but it’s “not even 1 % actually locally sourced.” In contrast, when local community folks buy a share and pick it up once a week they get 1/50th of what is produced that particular week regardless of it being a bonanza week or not. Produce varies weekly and shareholders accept that. “It doesn’t matter if don’t like kohlrabi, you’ll get it in your box!” There is fabulous community support and spirit.
Urban Farming generally refers to the cultivation, processing, and distribution of food in urban and suburban areas. Small areas such as roof tops, community gardens, verges, balconies, and other containers within the city raise crops. It is mostly for home consumption and educational purposes. Bee and I discussed that the need for the psychological reward of feeling part of a community is as essential as sustaining actual production.
Can you help articulate a few reasons why Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture is better for the environment?
An urban farm betters the environment. A small farm CSA may be better for the environment, as well, but we must ask better than what? Is it better than massive agricultural production where the bigger agriculture has many rules about how to farm? According to Bee, “It’s hard to answer this question because it has a political agenda that doesn’t acknowledge the realities of food production. We produce really cheap food in the US and particularly cheap protein. The result is that even the poorest can afford a hamburger at MacDonalds. Cheap food production is due to massive efficiencies of scale that come with modern agriculture.”
So, CSA’s and urban farming have their place and it would be great if there were a lot more but Bee questions if it is necessarily better for the environment in the long run when most people need mass produced food economically? This is a tough question. Almost all CSAs are vegetarian. “This means you need someone to bend over and pick the eggplant and the lettuce which doesn’t take mechanization. But only a small subset of the population can afford to pay those prices. In contrast, you drive a tractor with fossil fuels for massive food production. If that were eliminated the price of food would go up considerably. In minor cities there are ‘food desserts meaning those people do not have the means to get quality food because they can’t walk to the market and there is no public transportation, so you may only get what is available without a car. Feeding the population at a price they can afford takes precedence in this country, so we produce massive efficiency.”
This is the massive trade off. Or is it?
Can you help articulate a few reasons why Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture is better for our health?
By in large CSA’s and urban agriculture don’t use herbicides and pesticides. But in fact, it’s a tiny percent of the farming. We use less of these chemicals than 30 years ago, but they still exist because the public prefers a non- spotted apple over a spotted one.
In Idaho, for example, there is a weed or a grass that is in any plant growing out of place. You see grass in flower boxes. That’s a particular problem in Idaho because the root of this grass will grow into a potato. When you cut into the potato at the supermarket and the root looks like a worm (which it isn’t) that look can’t be included in the massive food supplies because it won’t be bought if it looks as if it were bad. Only one way people will eat the potato crop in that case is pesticides. Although farmers have gotten clever about pest management with combinations of mechanical and chemical applications, every time you drive a tractor it uses fossil fuels and packs the soil. Only if you spray it once will you prevent the root in the potato. “So, you can’t have it both ways,” according to Tolman.
It seems unlikely that our culture has changed very much. So, it will take generations to disabuse people of these notions. Perhaps replacing fossil fuels with wind power for example to provide the electricity needed for tractors may become one of the very long-term solutions.
A dramatic example of the change needed is to consider other cultures. After the Bosnian civil war when people came here from that country, they sold about 300 lambs a year between March and November on Saturday mornings. They’d kill and dress their own lambs. These people were from communist Yugoslavia where there was 100% employment of skilled people. Americans, in contrast, may not be wiling to process and eat food in this way. “The Bosnians threw away the pelt and feet but would keep the carcass, head, and major internal organs including some intestines. They wasted nothing. They worked 2 shifts every day and lived in small apartments with little to no money. Under those conditions, if you have no monetary resources you won’t throw a potato away that has a root that looks like a worm. How can Americans learn from this?” Bee Tolman asks.
Thus, need drives a different course. You remove discrimination against a potato with a mar if you’re in dire need. But again, can Americans learn this?
So urban agriculture and CSA’s are great, yet farmers ask, “Can they be the reality?” Sidehill farmers in a local township like Manlius, New York for example began a local food shop in 2013. Sourced meat and products from local community markets and locally produced salsa were offered but the local people complained it was too expensive. So, only if the populous can either afford premium prices and/or have a “principled decision” to do so can the CSA work without economic support.
Keeping the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, you can see potential drawbacks about Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture that people need to think about more deeply. We must ask what can be done to address that when the current drawback is it won’t feed many people.
Should we federally subsidize this type of farming for health and environmental needs? Will that happen? Is it unlikely? To subsidize really small-scale farming so it is economically competitive we would need huge subsidies for major commodities. Who would approve this? The senate? Thinking of two senators per state, only those from Iowa or Colorado or Texas, Missouri, Alabama, the Carolinas, Montana, and Ohio where huge amounts of corn are produced might consider this. But today even in a major corn state, there are only about 200 CSA’s.
It’s easier to sign off on a bill that keeps those businesses profitable and growing when they are the largest as compared to the GDP CSAs produce. If our value system supports going to the big supermarket and not the CSA, community subsidization is unlikely.
While community subsidization is part of what brings cheap food, we must ask if voters and political donors want that. If we relate food scarcity to unrest then politically a subsidy program for small farmers won’t result unless we change this perspective. The political instability that comes with food shortages won’t change unless we opt for restructuring the subsidy program providing for CSAs over large chain supermarkets.
A hope offered by some is that as climate change dramatically changes food production, only then might the subsidy programs shift very slowly over time because the need will change.
Can you please share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Got Involved With Urban Farming and Community Supported Agriculture”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
My primary source, Bee Tolman, has been focusing on CSA’s that she’s watched come and go. The five things that came to mind for her were as follows:
1. Keep in mind how the CSA farmer is competing for “principled dollars” and that the competition is the large supermarket chain.
2. It’s hard to find people to do the physical work.
3. There is no system to consolidate the product from small scale local produce to get it to the urban markets. Food hubs try but it’s very tough.
4. The reality is the contradiction — the best places to produce small scale agriculture are rural areas but that market is hours away from dense urban areas. That is a conflict for small scale food producers who want to produce for more viable markets. They will have to go where the value of land is very high resulting in charging higher prices to pay for labor and taxes. For example, it costs more in downstate New York than upstate New York.
There is another side of this picture which is psychological (which is where my expertise comes in). People who like a sense of community in small rural villages are multiplied exponentially in urban areas. They feel the social and emotional desire to produce cooperatively. In a small village in New Hampshire where everyone has a back yard for small scale farming, they still created a community center for cooperative farming, according to Bee Tolman, because even though they can produce on their own in isolation they felt the need to be part of a cooperative community. If this is so in rural America, it is even more evident in urban areas where people may feel more isolated.
5. Community gardens have a social feel that people gravitate to. For example, in semi-rural areas for years there have been “shearing days” where folks are invited to come and pack wool. Hundreds of people show up “cold and dirty loving it.”
“Yes they are happy to go home to shower and watch TV” but the next “sheering day” there they are again. If we capitalize on this psychological need rather than the political need maybe new options will open up.
Marie Yovanovitch, our famously successful career foreign service award winner, offers advice from her diplomacy experiences explained beautifully in her new book, “Lessons from the Edge,” that may apply:
“The secret in diplomacy — perhaps any business — is knowing how hard to push…reform is always difficult and that transformational change takes time. What is the right balance between pushing and patience?…[it’s important] not to give up or get cynical just because we [don’t] see systematic change on our timeline…change at some future point [is] when the country is ready for it…diplomacy…is the art of the possible.”
When I took on this pioneering interview I did not know the extent to which my awareness would be raised not only to the scope of the socio-political conflicts inherent in these interview questions but also the psychology of those with special interests and potential corruption that could undermine equal protection of the health and welfare of all American citizens.
The need to feed all Americans in a healthy way and also to provide them with changes responding to climate change (preventing damage caused by fossil fuels, for example) may seem at odds. Creating a policy to meet those needs that would protect the future health of Americans requires state and national policy changes to provide for the welfare of our children and their children.
Humanitarian measures that eliminate starvation, poor nutrition, and corruption are needed while also taking into account the development of a labor force and machinery that meet these needs. I am a psychoanalyst not a farmer or politician but am conversant with personalities in leadership roles that could thwart such negotiations. Thus, there is a crucial role for high-ranking diplomats with the courage to negotiate these humanitarian priorities.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Bee’s first response was, “I like people who make me laugh.” But more seriously she said, “The people I enormously respect I already speak with and have access to. These are the people in my business whose understandings are impressive. They are very creative agri-business people who are generous. These are people who share their time and creativity which I admire.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Please go to Bee Tolman’s website: meadowoodfarms.com/
Please go to Laurie Hollman’s website for more articles on this subject: lauriehollmanphd.com/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.
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