Spring 2005

“Mission accomplished” referred to reality as Jason Kafka displayed his organic produce at the beginning of his keynote speech at the Common Ground Country Fair. English photo.

By Jean English

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 he’d 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 Kafka’s 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. That’s what it’s 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, it’s hard to imagine what’s 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 it’s 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. That’s where it’s great to take pictures early on. We’re 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, we’re 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 it’s had a facelift, with a new roof and windows. “I needed the building; it’s what we had; so I could justify fixing up the building.”

Jason credited his wife, Barbara, with beautifying Checkerberry Farm, raising vegetables and herbs for the family, and saving him from the lonely existence of Garrison Keillor’s “Norwegian bachelor farmers.” English photo.

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 that’s 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 didn’t expect. “Often we’ll be harvesting something [and] I’ll tell the crew I’ll be right back.” He’ll 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 we’re learning as we go … We’re buying what we can afford, which tends to be abandoned, played out, overgrown [land]. We’re starting from scratch on what’s not the best soils. Our practices are unconventional, because we don’t know any better. We don’t 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 ‘o-ganic’ … the two-goat, marijuana thing. Now we’ve 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 we’re actually a resource for conventional growers. It’s 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 Stoll’s 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 we’re 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 we’re all prisoners of this economic system. Like it or not, farmers need health care, too. Actually we all need it and it’s 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 MOFGA’s technical director Eric Sideman where they might market their surplus. Sideman suggested the Fair, and “that’s where it started. The first year we paid our taxes from the Fair proceedings. We thought, ‘Wow!’ and we just kept growing. Now the ag virus really has a hold on me, and I’ve 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 isn’t teaching in her elementary school classroom. “It takes both of us,” Kafka explained. “I’m the farmer, she’s the gardener. Garrison Keillor talks about his Norwegian bachelor farmers. I suppose if I was alone, I would do it, but it sure would be a lot more empty existence. So it takes two, and I thank Barbara for everything she’s done over the years.”

Farming and gardening are different, Kafka noted. “Gardeners tend to harvest everything. Farmers harvest only what’s 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 didn’t 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. That’s where Barbara and I met. After homesteading we got into farming. So we’re plopped into life’s stream both by fate and by conscious decisions. Ultimately we don’t have a choice about which stream we’re plopped into, but we have a choice of whether we want to paddle or not. So paddle everybody! It’s 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. That’s why stuff happens, if you ever wondered. We’re cheap entertainment, nothing more. I hope they’re enjoying the show.”

Last year’s 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 farmers’ markets with a dinner theater. “If you think about it, it is,” he said. “It’s presentation, and all that. But what I noted was the article didn’t 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. It’s nice if the weather’s favorable. Customers need to show. Hopefully we didn’t pick too much of what doesn’t 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. That’s what it is. When we become old, when we’re on the proverbial rocking chair on the porch, we are sought out by young farmers for the wisdom of our experience. That’s what I envision retirement as, and I hope I’m many decades from that, though there are other growers at the market who are 20 or 30 years younger than me. That’s heartening, and I hope it just keeps growing. Currently we’re networking with other growers, organic and conventional; we all have more in common than not. It’s 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 grower’s farmstand. “It works for both of us. He wasn’t 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 can’t afford to cover crop. We can’t 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, farmers’ markets, local enterprises that support local farmers. There are big systems now, but they just don’t work well with small farmers. WalMart can’t deal with 100 pounds of broccoli, but someone like the Whole Grocer can. So go for the local, please. Ultimately, in supporting them, you’re 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. That’s the high ideal. We’re 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 I’m pleased, sometimes I just wait till next year.”

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