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‘Growing Food Naturally’ panel highlights joy, difficulties of small farming

Beloit College students and faculty forfeited time outside in Tuesday, Feb. 21’s unseasonably warm weather to hear from local organic farmers during a panel titled “Growing Food Naturally: Challenges and Opportunities for Small Farms.”

The event was organized by Assistant Professor of Economics Dr. Darlington Sabasi in collaboration with the Office of International Education’s Landscapes in Transition Program and with Beloit Urban Garden. It arose as an extension of a class Dr. Sabasi is teaching this semester on sustainable agricultural management. He hoped to let his students “learn from the pros,” and the panel’s coordinators decided to make the discussion available to the rest of the campus and the surrounding community.

The panel featured five representatives of small organic farms in the Beloit-Janesville area. Janet Kassel and her son Chris Blakeney of Amazing Grace Family Farm, David Cleverdon of Kinnikinnick Farm, Tim Kopp of Kopp’s Krops, and Beloit alumnus Matthew Walthius’12 of The Wright Way Farm arrived on campus to address the event’s theme; “what it means to grow food naturally” in 2017. They were asked to explain what they did as organic farmers and why they chose to work this way. Next they discussed the challenges and opportunities faced by small organic farms and recounted significant experiences. Finally, the farmers told the audience where their work is headed.

Amazing Grace Family Farm has belonged to Janet Kassel’s family since 1854, and her grandchildren will be the seventh generation to farm it. “It’s cool, but it’s also a burden,” she said of the property’s legacy. “You can’t be the generation that lets it fail.”

Kassel’s uncle owned the farm when she was growing up, and she would visit on weekends. When she and her husband took it over with inspiration from the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, they chose to stop using chemicals entirely. Kassel said that this initially upset the property’s ecosystem because the soil wasn’t used to it. Today, however, the 300-acre farm supports livestock as well as up to 70 acres of produce, including 100,000 lbs of broccoli for local school districts. Amazing Grace Family Farm still works hard to keep to its original goals: to be a friend to the earth and to be a part of the local culture.

These goals were heavily influenced by Wendell Berry, the American writer, farmer, and environmental activist. When Kassel spoke about what drives her work at Amazing Grace, she cited a line by Berry―“You cannot save the land apart from the people, or the people apart from the land.” David Cleverdon from Kinnikinnick Farm agreed about the writer’s inspiration for small organic farmers. “The spirit of Wendell Berry is in this room,” he said. “I blame him for my farm.”

Cleverdon and his wife have been farming for 24 years, having begun with a half-acre garden. Now Kinnikinnick Farm’s three profit centers are its organic produce, its livestock, and its Farm Stay program, which allows those interested in organic farming to book time in a canvas tent on the farm’s property and help out with daily duties while living there.

Kopp’s Krops was represented at the panel by Tim Kopp. His family-owned farm has been in operation for about 50 years and produces vegetables, fruits and nuts. Like Amazing Grace Family Farm, Kopp’s Krops is not certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture. Many small-scale farmers are obstructed from obtaining organic certification because of the increased costs and paperwork involved, and many others are uncomfortable with the bureaucratic associations of seeking certification. However, Kopp’s Krops holds peer-review certification from the organization Certified Naturally Grown. One of the farm’s primary goals is to create and maintain a network among local farmers.

Matthew Walthius’12 told the audience that The Wright Way Farm was established in 2005 through Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA, an alternative food distribution model. CSA subscribers periodically receive shares of a farm’s produce during harvest season; The Wright Way Farm currently serves about 200 families. It also sells its products at eight farmers’ markets in the region.

The panelists first discussed difficulties in turning a profit when asked about the challenges their farms face. “Profit is always the hope, but it’s not always the reality,” Janet Kassel said. Her farm recently invested in a very expensive new wash facility so that it could continue distributing its produce in public schools. David Cleverdon added that the success of their class of farms―organic food sales have nearly doubled in the past decade―has led to increased competition that is taking the edge away from more established organic farms.

A number of other shifts in the industry are forcing small farmers to rethink their business models. For example, younger generations buy less food and shop more often than their parents did, and prefer snacks throughout the day to three large meals. Restaurant trends are changing, too. Brands and distributors are trying to adapt to these emerging habits and tendencies, and requesting that their growers adapt with them.

The panelists also struggle with finding places to sell their products. Farmers’ markets are an expensive method of distribution, Cleverdon explained. Small organic farmers are very happy to find a steady buyer, like the farm-to-school company distributing Amazing Grace’s broccoli.

Another topic that surfaced several times at the panel was agribusiness, the large-scale, government-sponsored business of agricultural production. Kassel feels that agribusiness has unsettled America, and Tim Kopp said that there’s little need for the “industrial agriculture model” and that the public would be better served by a larger portion of smaller farms. He said that he feels he’s competing with large agricultural corporations that can afford advertising, and not with his fellow small organic farmers.

The farmers featured on Tuesday’s panel are always seeking solutions to the challenges they listed. Cleverdon suggested working to steer the focus from organic food to organic farms. He also said that some farmers make the mistake of equating profit with size, and decide to scale up. But once a farm passes seven acres in size, “capital costs skyrocket.” Managing a small farm is intellectually challenging, he said. “That’s why I like to do it.”

The farmers took questions from the audience about the week’s unseasonable weather and how it threatens them. “It’s huge,” said Cleverdon. Such extreme weather can take out an entire crop in a weekend. “You can’t farm like that.”

In spite of their concerns, the panelists were hopeful for the future of organic farming. They’ve found an uptick in interest from the public in working for them through programs like Farm Stay, and the fraction of money from produce sales that returns to the farmers is increasing. “It looks bright,” said Kopp.

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