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Interview with Mark Kimball of Essex Farm (Part One of Two)

December 27, 2014

 

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 3.30.57 PMLast month, I had the opportunity to talk to Mark Kimball of Essex Farm and ask him about his practices and philosophies. Mark, his wife Kristen, and a shifting crew of farmers and workers together run Essex Farm on 850 acres in Essex New York. They produce about 50 different types of vegetables, several different types of grain depending on the year, hay, meat, dairy, and eggs.

One of the things that makes Essex Farm unique and well known is their full diet CSA sales model, a twist on the typical CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). In a CSA, consumers purchase a share at the beginning of the growing season and receive a weekly mixed basket of whatever is growing on the farm at that moment, rather than buying individual products. In Essex’s full diet, all-you-can-eat CSA, families pay for membership on a per-person basis, and then visit the farm every Friday to pick up whatever food they might need for the following week, and however much they need. Customers therefore get nearly all of their dietary needs met at one place. The share includes different meats, dairy, flour, herbs, a huge variety of veggies, and maple syrup.

I have visited Essex Farm a few times and have really enjoyed being there, talking with Mark, and learning about their operation. I wanted to interview Mark to hear more about his philosophy and thought behind the farm.

With this basic introduction to Essex covered, I will provide my interview with Mark, below. Because of the length of the interview, parts have been removed or edited. However, I have maintained the meaning and integrity of Mark’s ideas. Also, it helps to know that I attend Middlebury College, which is why Mark brings Middlebury up in a few instances.

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Simon Willig: Can you talk a little bit about the reasoning behind your full-diet CSA?

Mark Kimball: It just seems to me that it meets a lot of my needs as a consumer to have a full diet from one place. And then the model also makes sense for a producer to have, given that waste streams from grain production become bedding for animals. Integrating these processes on both sides seems like a pretty good direction to head.

SW: What is at the core of your philosophy on farming? How do your broader philosophies about things such as the environment play into this?

MK: I think the first thing is: can I live in a way that does more good than harm? I want to derive my life philosophy from that. I think that’s still an open question, and I think there are some sort of obvious answers and some answers that I think are hard to pin down. As it translates into farming, I see farming fairly broadly defined as the production that goes into meeting human needs and inherently using the land as the substrate for that. So, then, farming is combining sunlight, soil, geothermal, wind, and whatever it takes to meet human needs in the most creative way. And to me that involves going way beyond food production, although here we haven’t done much of that besides firewood for the members and for ourselves. And I guess we’ve also met human needs in terms of a place where people can socially commit to each other and to a landscape.

I think the first step for me in redefining how I want to measure my success as a farmer or failure (and I think it’s probably likely to have failure before success) is: can I set up a way to see how much sunlight I can capture, maybe even through wind and photovoltaics, but primarily through plants, to meet those human needs in a long- and short-term strategy? So one of the equations I say (in sort of faux chemistry geekdom) is: who can catch the most photosynthate, keep it where you caught it, and still provide the most benefits for society?

So those are all very high in the sky ideas and I think the reality is we are much more constrained by fiscal and social constraints than we are by environmental ones at this point because we’re not having to pay the cost of our negative environmental impacts. I have a much harder time figuring out how to pay my bills and train my labor force, so I don’t really have time to address some of those more fundamental questions. Just on a financial or employer/employee relationship, I’ve got a lifetime of work ahead of me. So it’s interesting to have all three metrics (the fiscal, personnel, and environmental) running around inside.

And I think the challenge for me as a leader here is: can I make meaningful steps (that can get assessed, revisited and improved upon) toward these broader goals as a farm? So the other philosophy I’m working towards is how do you make day-to-day decisions given these lofty goals. And I think that’s another fun part of the human condition that I get to play with here.

SW: How does your philosophy on something like climate change fit into your philosophy on farming?

MK: That’s a good question because I think everybody is now in the kind of progressive environmentalist camp. Everyone is thinking and talking about ways to do that. So I guess there’s sort of a two-part answer.

One is at a very economic level: what are the best, most economically viable practices agriculturally to regenerate soil, air, and water? While air is the most directly tied to climate change, obviously water and soil are still hugely important. So if we’re going to sequester x tons of carbon in the soil, what does that do and who feels it? I think there are the broad economic questions that I have seen very few satisfying answers to. For example, you shared earlier that grass-fed cows might produce more methane. So how would we adjust that production if that is true? And do we go down that road and look at that? So I think there are tons of granular details that I need to understand to make wise production decisions.

And then I think there’s another side, as a way to meet a short-term sort of hopeful goal. And that is: is what we’re doing socially in this community with our members, and in New York City with our New York City members a constructive step towards mitigating climate change? In that by enlisting members to cook whole foods we’re changing their buying patterns to support what they ingest, at a sort of crass way to say it. But by that they’re actually changing where their atoms come from, and becoming more connected to the fact that the atoms they ingest are land-based in a way that every food is, but this way at least they’re conscious of it.

So is there a way to address climate change by increasing individual consciousness to the food we eat? I think that’s a question not a statement. It may be that we’re just convincing ourselves that small, diversified farms are somehow more sustainable and by eating that food we’re becoming better more responsible human beings. And those could all be false assumptions, but I think on some level that may be the most that we’re doing right now. That is: children and families, now some of them have gotten 50% of all of their food-borne atoms coming from this little piece of dirt, and the farmers here that are tending it.

So maybe we look at that one of the ways that people can get reconnected to some of these questions at least and sort of pass the questions forward to the next generation and we say “Okay, we created a template, a palette, a springboard for you to make way better decisions than we’re able to make because we don’t have the time, information, or societal commitment to these goals yet.”

But I think individual health is, if nothing else, good for itself and I think individual health might be a microcosm of creating planetary health. So looking at your own body as an organism maximizing its health, I think is a nice starting place for looking at the health of the biosphere.

SW: You touched on this a bit, but within this philosophy what are the goals that you are constantly striving for?

MK: I think that is a separate question in some ways and if we get down to how to you take philosophy and wake up and live it, having looked at the last five years of production here, where I’m heading in the next short-term is: let’s start measuring things that are easy to measure. It may be the kind of thing where I talk to people at Middlebury and say, “Hey can we get some undergrads and grads to help us measure simple things? If you’re here for a year do you want to measure all of our fossil fuel inputs?” And that depends on how much diesel, how much grease, how much motor oil, how much electricity, how much whatever. So starting to measure whatever baseline inputs that we’re bringing on to the farm seems like a good starting place for a goal agriculturally for me.

And I think more than that, a good thing to measure is how many horse hours we put into the farm, and for the short-term coming up with a way to measure how many hours we hitched this year and how much we did during those hitches. Maybe then the second part of that is: how much would that have taken with tractors? And maybe even going further, deriving some of the pros and cons of the two different systems we have going on at the farm here. So I think the short-term goals would be: can we increase our solar (which we have here) and horse-based production per gross dollar of income? And we can create a fraction and figure out horse hours per dollar and go forward and say “Okay, we did 0.2 horse hours per dollar this year and we’re aiming for 0.25 next year.”

The other short-term goal is––looking at Wal-Mart as maybe the most successful one-stop shopping to meet human needs in the light of consumer demand thereof––how many of those goods can we create in a regional way that allow consumers the same sense of “Wow I just got all my stuff and it was cheap and it met my needs”? How do we add a higher value than what Wal-Mart does? That could involve asking: should we or could we get high-efficiency European [wood] stoves imported into this region so that we can burn firewood cleanly? Looking again at the needs of food, shelter, water, entertainment, which is the lowest-hanging fruit, both for the farm and as a bunch of consumers? And we should have the goal be to ask that question honestly and say “Alright, what are we good at? What can we provide reasonably? Who’s going to do it? And then what’s our short-term goal for that?”

So I think that’s the bigger question in agriculture: can agriculture move beyond the food movement to look at fiber and fuel needs and shelter needs? And what are reasonable ways to do that in a really economically efficient, global market place? How do we deal with economic inefficiency if it’s more environmentally efficient? So that wanders a little bit from your question, but I think it’s important to be aware that within that goal of doing more good than harm, there may be alternatives to just growing carrots.

So maybe we say, “If you’d like a firewood share, you have to buy one of these high-efficiency stoves and if you do that then firewood will be included in your share price.” So then there’s sort of a buy-in. But trying to figure out specific examples that work on all levels would be great. And I’m not saying it’s firewood and stoves. It could be drive-in movies and then we have local entertainment instead of people having to drive to Plattsburgh. That’s a ridiculous example maybe, but looking broadly at what humans are consuming and figuring out which of those things could be tied to a piece of land is a really exciting proposition that usually leads to more complexity and intrigue, which I think may be part of the solution to the bigger human problems.

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Due to the length of the interview, I have split it into two more manageable posts. The second part will include more about Mark’s philosophy and practices as well as the fascinating topic of labor and what powers Essex farm. You can now find the second part here. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the second part, which will come in about a week.

Simon

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