The MOF&G Online
Kafka Cultivates the Common Good in Keynote Speech
When Jason Kafka started his keynote speech at the 2004 Common Ground Country Fair with, "Mission Accomplished!" his announcement had substance: He held up a giant kohlrabi and massive onion that heíd grown on his Checkerberry Farm in Parkman. Kafka praised MOFGA as "fantastic organization, a breath of sanity in an insane time" and thanked staff and volunteers who give far more than expected for the common good. "I wish we could see more of that nationwide and worldwide," he observed.
The short history of Common Ground at Unity has already embedded memories in Kafkaís mind. "I have strong memories of kids rolling down the amphitheater berm over the hay that was meant to hold the seed down, and the kids just had a blast. So here we are in what some folks think a horrific time, and the kids are having a blast. Thatís what itís all about."
Reclaiming a Farm to Award-Winning Status
Kafka looked back on the 23 years that he and his wife, Barbara, have been on their farm. They began by looking for a place to raise animals and a family and found their "handyman special" in Parkman, with overgrown fields, a woodlot that had never seen a skidder, a house and barn that needed TLC. "Now, looking back at photos, itís hard to imagine whatís happened. Over the years we insulated, wired, plumbed, honed our homesteading skills, reclaimed fields, built gardens, planted fruit trees. We raised goats, rabbits, ducks, pigs, chickens and beef. We filled the freezer, did a lot of canning and had a good root cellar.
"We also raised Emma, now twenty. She has some great memories and skills from growing up on a farm and sometimes helping Dad."
Their home was completely exposed to the road, "so we planted trees, shrubs, flowers. Now, 23 years later, we have shade, privacy and beauty, and itís a function of time. Time is a factor we must take into account in farming. Often the fruit of our efforts is not seen until years later. Thatís where itís great to take pictures early on. Weíre always amazed at what it looks like after so many years."
Kafka acknowledged the several generations who opened the ground and built stonewalls. "As they left their legacy, weíre leaving ours: more stones on the walls."
Their 1870 barn is seeing better days. Nicknamed "Old Winkie" for its one boarded-over window in front and other wide open, "it was suffering the psoriasis of 130-year-old clapboards being whipped off [during] every windstorm." Now itís had a facelift, with a new roof and windows. "I needed the building; itís what we had; so I could justify fixing up the building."
Kafka thanked those who supported them along the way with planning, expertise and funds: family, friends, MOFGA, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Soil and Water Conservation Service, Farms for the Future. "I think thatís where our money ought to be going," he continued: to activities "that benefit the common good and not just the private gain."
Kafka noted that small farmers are often called on to do things they didnít expect. "Often weíll be harvesting something [and] Iíll tell the crew Iíll be right back." Heíll run to the shop, weld something, then get back to work. "That I expected, but stuff like business planning, financing, labor management... some things you have to learn along the way. It makes it real interesting."
Most organic farmers neither grew up on farms nor inherited a farm and farm equipment, he noted, "so weíre learning as we go... Weíre buying what we can afford, which tends to be abandoned, played out, overgrown [land]. Weíre starting from scratch on whatís not the best soils. Our practices are unconventional, because we donít know any better. We donít want to bust our backs just to see our soils wash away. Nor do we want to poison ourselves or our loved ones, or you for that matter." Thus he cover crops to keep organic matter up and weeds down; and contour crops and rotates crops to keep soils in place and maintain fertility.
"Not too many years ago, we were pooh-poohed by other farmers in the area for being Ďo-ganicí...the two-goat, marijuana thing. Now weíve actually received...Cooperator of the Year Award from Soil and Water Conservation, which is a nice little sign to tack up in the barn beside all the Common Ground Fair posters. Now weíre actually a resource for conventional growers. Itís funny how these things come around."
Kafka noted the continuum that began in the early 1800s as the "Improvement Movement" and continued in the 1900s as the "Conservation Movement" to maintain farmland and landscapes. "But there was also a political slant, as there is with organic now. I think now the stakes are even higher: GMOs, corporate control of everything. The organic idea is a political action as well as a human health action."
Quoting from Steven Stollís Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America about the early 1800s, "Our woods have disappeared and are succeeded too generally by exhausted fields and gullied hills. The land of our ancestors, which nourished our infancy and contains the bodies of our fathers, must be improved or abandoned."
Likewise, Virginians promoting agriculture in 1818 "saw a stable countryside as a place to maintain a stable society. Now," continued Kafka, "like them, we acknowledge the common sense idea that if our soils that weíre growing our food on are lacking, then we ourselves are lacking. So with our own farm, we are endeavoring to keep our soils alive and energized as well as our ledger balanced.
"This must be a place to plug the one-payer health care system, because weíre all prisoners of this economic system. Like it or not, farmers need health care, too. Actually we all need it and itís for the common good."
From Homesteading to Farming: It Takes Two
Checkerberry Farm was producing more and more crops and cover crops and was "experiencing the true abundance on earth" when, one year at the Fair, Barbara asked MOFGAís technical director Eric Sideman where they might market their surplus. Sideman suggested the Fair, and "thatís where it started. The first year we paid our taxes from the Fair proceedings. We thought, ĎWow!í and we just kept growing. Now the ag virus really has a hold on me, and Iíve got it bad. I feel really fortunate that I am able to do this."
In addition to farming, Checkerberry produces herbs, vegetables and a beautiful landscape for the Kafkas--the work of Barbara, mostly, when she isnít teaching in her elementary school classroom. "It takes both of us," Kafka explained. "Iím the farmer, sheís the gardener. Garrison Keillor talks about his Norwegian bachelor farmers. I suppose if I was alone, I wound do it, but it sure would be a lot more empty existence. So it takes two, and I thank Barbara for everything sheís done over the years."
Farming and gardening are different, Kafka noted. "Gardeners tend to harvest everything. Farmers harvest only whatís marketable. Why should I pay someone to pick up a cull, only to pay them later to toss it out? Farmers need to be aware of the cost of production. Gardeners give their produce away."
Although Kafka didnít plan to farm, events led him to the profession. "I grew up working in orchards, and after college I worked for a natural foods distributor. Thatís where Barbara and I met. After homesteading we got into farming. So weíre plopped into lifeís stream both by fate and by conscious decisions. Ultimately we donít have a choice about which stream weíre plopped into, but we have a choice of whether we want to paddle or not. So paddle everybody! Itís what we need to do!"
Kafka credited the Greek Gods for events. "Above Mount Olympus, the gods are up there, cavorting among each other. Periodically they part the clouds, set us wee mortals in a situation merely for their entertainment. Thatís why stuff happens, if you ever wondered. Weíre cheap entertainment, nothing more. I hope theyíre enjoying the show."
Last yearís bad weather provided plenty of entertainment. Other issues can include problems with machinery, weeds or labor, but by being part of a network of farmers, Kafka does not feel alone.
Kafka related an article from the Bangor Daily News that compared farmersí markets with a dinner theater. "If you think about it, it is," he said. "Itís presentation, and all that. But what I noted was the article didnít mention before market. Market is one thing, but there is the whole melodrama before. All the links in the chain need to line up. Workers need to show up, crops need to grow, the truck needs to work, hopefully the irrigation pump runs. Itís nice if the weatherís favorable. Customers need to show. Hopefully we didnít pick too much of what doesnít sell and [did pick] enough of what does. Customers expect us to be on time and have the freshest stuff possible. Sometimes it seems more like a Greek tragedy. Every year we gain more experience, wisdom and angst."
Toward what end?
"The high goal, ultimately, is to become an old fart. Thatís what it is. When we become old, when weíre on the proverbial rocking chair on the porch, we are sought out by young farmers for the wisdom of our experience. Thatís what I envision retirement as, and I hope Iím many decades from that, though there are other growers at the market who are 20 or 30 years younger than me. Thatís heartening, and I hope it just keeps growing. Currently weíre networking with other growers, organic and conventional; we all have more in common than not. Itís really nice getting feedback and being linked together in this network of information--where to get bags, how do you take care of this, where do I get rid of that?"
Checkerberry Farm even has an organic section at a conventional growerís farmstand. "It works for both of us. He wasnít keen on arugula; he thought it tasted skunky. But he loved our cantelopes. His enthusiasm was heartwarming, and checks are coming back from sales."
This grower is conventional because of economics. "They have to work all their ground because they canít afford to cover crop. We canít afford not to. Consequently there is a substantial difference between what our soils look like and what theirs look like. We certainly have more weeds, but we also have the life in the soil, a healthier earthworm population, and on and on."
Buyers also understand the variables of farming. "These folks support us and keep us alive and growing. I urge everyone to be aware of and support those businesses that support us. This includes locally owned, natural food stores, co-ops, farmersí markets, local enterprises that support local farmers. There are big systems now, but they just donít work well with small farmers. Wal-Mart canít deal with 100 pounds of broccoli, but someone like the Whole Grocer can. So go for the local, please. Ultimately, in supporting them, youíre supporting your local economy. My local hardware store people buy from me, and I buy from them. Keep the cycles small.
"What we are providing are whole, real foods, and we acknowledge that the industrial foods with food additives have led to such things as a juvenile diabetes outbreak, gastrointestinal diseases, obesity, allergies, cancer, etc.; we should know better. We keep learning along the way, attempting to make our systems efficient, let machines do the mundane so that people do the valuable work. Thatís the high ideal. Weíre actually the real conservatives in that we want to conserve our resources. Organic farming supports the earth and life itself, from microbes to humans, hopefully even larger critters.
"I tend to be an optimist," Kafka concluded. "Being a farmer, you have to be. Sometimes Iím pleased, sometimes I just wait till next year."
--Jean English. © 2005. For information about reproducing this article, please contact the author.
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