From epidemic childhood obesity and rising rates of autism and food allergies to the growing risks of pesticides and climate change, we have many reasons to be concerned about the American food system. Fortunately, many heroes among us—family farmers, community gardeners, visionaries and activists—are striving to create a safer and healthier environment now that will benefit future generations.
Recognizing and celebrating their stellar Earth stewardship in this 2014 International Year of Family Farmers, Natural Awakenings is spotlighting examples of the current crop of heroes providing inspiration and hope. They are changing America’s landscape and the way we think about the ability of good food to feed the future well.
Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, of Vilicus Farms, in Havre, Montana, are reviving crop biodiversityand pollinator habitat on their organicfarm in northern Montana. “We strive tofarm in a manner that works in concertwith nature,” Doug explains. The couple’s actions live up to their farm’s Latin name, which means “steward”. They grow 15 nourishing crops on 1,200 acres, including flax, buckwheat, sunflower, safflower, spelt, oats, barley and lentils, without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. By imitating natural systems, planting diverse crops and avoiding damaging chemical inputs, they are attracting diverse native pollinators, he notes. Their approach to farming helps protect area groundwater, streams, rivers and even oceans for future generations.
Dick and Diana Dyer, of Dyer Family Organic Farm, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, finally realized their lifelongdream to farm in 2009, each at the age of 59. The couple grows more than 40varieties of garlic on 15 acres; they alsogrow hops and care for honeybees. Inaddition, they provide hands-in-the-soiltraining to a new generation of dieteticinterns across the country through theirSchool to Farm program, in associationwith the Academy of Nutrition andDietetics. Diana, a registered dietitian,teaches her students to take the, “We arewhat we eat” adage a step further. Shebelieves, we are what we grow.“Like nearly everyone else, mostdietetic students are disconnected fromMother Earth, the source of the foodthey eat. They don’t learn the vital connectionsbetween soil, food and health,”says Diana. During a stay on the Dyerfarm, she explains, “The students beginto understand how their food and nutritionrecommendations to others canhelp drive an entire agricultural systemthat promotes and protects our soil andwater, natural resources and publichealth.” It all aligns with practicing theirfamily farm motto: Shaping our futurefrom the ground up.
Mary Jo and Luverne Forbord, of Prairie Horizons Farm, in Starbuck, Minnesota, raise Black Angus cattle,grazed on certified organic, restored,native prairie pastures. Mary Jo, aregistered dietitian, welcomes dieteticstudents to the 480-acre farm to learnwhere food comes from and how togrow it without the pesticides that contributeto farmers’ higher risk for certaincancers. “We must know the true costof cheap food,” she insists.Most recently, they planted an organicorchard in memory of their son,Joraan, who died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 23. Joraan’sorchard is home to thriving,health-supportingapple, apricot, cherryand plum trees, plusnative aronia berries.It also injects fresh lifeinto the community.Each spring, the Forbordscelebrate theirson’s birthday by “wakingup” his orchard.His mother explains:“People of all agesgather—an assortmentof our friends, Joraan’s friends and theirgrowing families, neighbors, relatives,co-workers, students and others—tokeep his legacy growing. The incrediblecommunity support keeps us going.”
Tarrant Lanier, of the Center for Family and Community Development (CFCD) and Victory Teaching Farm, in Mobile, Alabama, wantsall children to grow up in safe communitieswith access to plenty ofwholesome food. After working fornearly two decades with some of SouthAlabama’s most vulnerable families,Lanier wanted to “provide more thana crutch.” In 2009, she establishedthe nonprofit CFCD organization,dedicated to healthy living. Within fiveyears, she had assembled a small, buthard-working staff that began buildingcommunity and school gardens andcreating collaborative partnerships.Recently, the group established theVictory Teaching Farm, the region’s firsturban teaching farm and communityresource center. “The farm will serveas an onsite experience for children to learnwhere theirfood comesfrom and thereasons fresh,organicallygrown foodreally mattersto our health,”says Lanier.However,“This is just thetip of the icebergfor us. Ultimately,we’dlike to be a chemical-free communitythrough advocating for reduction andelimination of pesticide and chemicaluse in schools, hospitals, householdsand local parks and ball fields.”Lanier aims to help improve onAlabama’s low nationalranking in thehealth of its residents.“I love our little pieceof the world, and Iwant future generationsto enjoy it withoutfearing that it’smaking us sick,” shesays. “We are intenton having a schoolgarden in everyschool, and we wantto see area hospitalsestablish organic foodgardens that support efforts to makepeople healthier without the use ofheavy medications.” Lanier further explains: “We seeour victory as reducing hunger and increasinghealth and wellness, environmentalsustainability and repair, communitydevelopment and beautification,economic development and access tolocally grown food, by promoting andcreating a local food system.”
Don Lareau and Daphne Yannakakis, of Zephyros Farm and Garden, in Paonia, Colorado, grow exquisite organicflowers and vegetables for farmers’markets and community supportedagriculture members in Telluride andthe Roaring Fork Valley. Recently, thecouple decided to take fewer tripsaway from their children and homestead,and instead bring more people to their 35-acre family farm to learnfrom the land and develop a refreshedsense of community.From earthy farm dinners and elegantweddings to creative explorationcamps for children and adults and aneducational internship program, thesefamily farmers are raising a new cropof consumers that value the land, theirfood and the people producing it. Thecouple hopes to help people learn howto grow and prepare their own food,plus gain a greater appreciation fororganic farming.“The people that come here fallinto a farming lifestyle in tune with thesun and moon, the seasons and their innerclock—something valuable that hasbeen lost in modern lifestyles,” notesLareau, who especially loves sharingthe magic of their farm with children.“Kids are shocked when they learn thatcarrots grow underground and surprisedthat milk comes from an udder, not astore shelf.”
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, of Lakeview Organic Grain, in Penn Yan, New York, grow a variety ofgrains, including wheat, spelt, barley,oats and triticale, plus peas, dark red kidney beans and edamame soybeans,along with raising livestock on about1,400 acres. Their family farm philosophyentails looking at the world througha lens of abundance, rather than scarcity,and working in cooperation with theirneighbors instead of in competition. Theresult has been a groundswell of thrivingorganic farmers and a renewed senseof community and economic strengththroughout their region.The Martens switched to organicfarming after Klaas experienced partialparalysis due to exposure to pesticides,compounded by concern for the healthof their three children. Because theMartens work in alliance with nature,they’ve learned to ask a unique set ofquestions. For example, when Klaassees a weed, he doesn’t ask, “Whatcan we spray to kill it?” but, “Whatwas the environment that allowed theweed to grow?”
Anne Mosness, in Bellingham, Washington, began fishing for wildsalmon with her father during one summerafter college. The experience igniteda sense of adventure that led her backto Alaska for nearly three decades, as a crew member and then a captain in theCopper River and Bristol Bay fisheries.During that time, Mosness became apassionate advocate for protecting coastalcommunities and ecosystems. “Likefarm families on land, fishing familiesface many risks and uncertainties,” butshe believes, “political forces may beeven more damaging to our livelihoodsand wild fish.” For example, “We are replicatingsome of the worst practices of factoryfarming on land in our marineenvironment with diseases, parasitesand voluminous amounts of pollutionflushing into our coastal waters,” explainsMosness. She’s also concernedabout the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’spotential approval of geneticallyengineered (GMO) fish withoutadequate health and environmentalassessments, and she works to supportGMO labeling so consumers can makeinformed choices in the marketplace.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, aka the “foodsleuth”, is a registered dietitian andaward-winning writer and radio host at KOPN.org, in Columbia, MO(FoodSleuth@gmail.com). Sheadvocates for organic farmers at Enduring-Image.blogspot.com.