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

January 2, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 10.40.16 AMThis post is a continuation of the first part of my interview with Mark Kimball of Essex Farm, which you can check out here if you haven’t had a chance yet. In the first part of the interview, I talked with Mark about the philosophy and practices he employs on his farm in Essex, New York. You can also find a short introduction to the incredible Essex Farm in that post. Here, you will find more about Mark’s philosophy on farming, as well as some fascinating thoughts surrounding the issue of labor on the farm.

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Simon Willig: How has your philosophy and thinking about farming changed over time, as you have done more farming or done more faming in this specific place?

Mark Kimball: I think that my life has been a series of both deeper philosophical questions––deeper than let’s say, “what am I having for breakfast?”––and then practices. I think for me philosophically it has only been through time and farming that I have distilled the idea that agriculture can be more broadly defined than it is usually, and that it’s basically the foundation for culture, and that we can look at agriculture and industry united on landscapes to meet human needs.

I think when I started out I wanted to see, on my practical goal set, it was: can I make a living growing vegetables? I think now the shift is: can I, with a team of people, meet our human needs with a given landscape or landscapes and do more good than harm? I think there are echoes of that in my early thinking and writing, but I don’t think I really touched and tasted that until I learned how to build barns and homes and learned how much gas I go through every year using car to visit family and relatives or taking a plane somewhere.

I think what’s changed philosophically is that as I get more skilled in the physical world, I understand cause and effect a little bit more. So while it’s incredibly convenient to have UPS drop off our next day supplies to the farm or go to the hardware store, I also understand a little bit more of the global infrastructure necessary to do that. And I think every time you do something in the physical world you get more connected to those pathways just by understanding that, for example, to move a ton of something across the farmyard takes as much tractor or horsepower as you’re talking about what it took to move a ton of seed from another farm to here, or what it took to move a ton of food to Plattsburg from Killy [two nearby towns].

So I think flip Middlebury’s no vo/tech [vocational/technical training] here policy on its head and I would say, “Let’s not just limit ourselves to who can make a weld waterproof” but look more at what tools welding is conferring on our bigger relationship to society and the environment. And so for me there is a great excitement in trying to bring to higher education an integration of visceral, physical world experience and highfalutin philosophical and scientific thought, because I think that without one the other becomes less feasible. Without understanding metallurgy, it’s not as fun to join two pieces of metal, but you can still just do it. You can just learn “Here’s how you strike the welder, here’s how you make this weld, go home” but it’s also really fun to think about how the metal influx is lining up, etc. That’s a little tangent to where you were going, but I think that I really have come to see that if I were in charge, if I could play god with higher education, it would start out with very physically grounded questions of what makes things work.

SW: So I think I’m hearing that over time you have had your physical, on-the-ground experiences contribute to your larger philosophies. Do you feel that it’s also gone the other way and that over time your larger philosophies have contributed more to your on-the-ground experiences and practices?

MK: As a short answer, I think that contextualizing your physical world activities and tying them to goals and philosophy brings more meaning to them. So in other words when I milk a cow, knowing a little teeny bit about cow digestion and pasture management, thinking of it in relationship to dairy product, and the whole raw milk debate, adds some sort of sub-conscious or conscious benefits of milking. And I think connecting consumers to their product and the philosophy of the farm makes it so that when I’m milking cows I’m not just creating a commodity that disappears, I’m creating something that within a day or two is going into people’s mouths and that’s connected to the process of digestion and human effort and food.

So yes, I think it does go both ways in that some of the deeper goals of the farm end up really giving you a reason to take a deep breath while you’re milking the cow and not feel like a vo/tech welder who is just going to try to make a pay check for the rest of your life, but instead say “Oh, this was in line with our bigger goals because it does this and this and here’s where it’s not in line.” So yeah I think it does work both ways for me, but because I don’t get to do as much of the routine work on the farm I think it becomes all the more poignant and fulfilling to be able to do that stuff.

SW: Going back to what you were saying earlier about trying to do more work with horses, who performs the work on your farm (animals, humans, tractors, etc.) and how do you approach and look at that?

MK: It’s a question to which we’ve failed to create the answer we looked for in the beginning. Our goal was to find a group of people who would work along side us over time and get better at this practice here on this piece of land with these goals. And what we’ve become more known for is that we’ve trained dozens of young people and given them experience to go off and start their own operation.

But on a more sort of “how do we do it?” level, we use horses, tractors, underpaid labor, paid labor, volunteers, visitors, by any means necessary to get the job done. I think when we first started the farm, more farmers spent more time on horses, which left a lot of the work to these other farmers using fuel [to grow the feed and bedding for our horses]. So at first, we sub-contracted a lot more purchase of hay, grain, and bedding then we do now, and now we’re doing most of that in house so we are using a lot more fuel as a business but before we were hiring other people to use fuel.

And we hired migrant labor this year for two weeks to help us with fall harvest. But I think the other way we get it done is that we spend a lot of time asking people to help us, so we call people up and say “Hey, can you help with this? Are you willing to do this?” Recruitment and enlistment are essential, whether it’s the Middlebury team that comes over and knocks it out of the park with squash sorting and clean up or summer kids who come for a summer and basically destroy their bodies and laugh while they’re doing it. It’s a mixed crew, but what are missing mostly, what we look at building next year, are skilled farmers.

It’s much easier to find post-production people than it is to find skilled farmers, so we’re consistently finding people who can solve the recipe for making sausage and do that well. It’s maybe not so much that they’re a professional butcher, but these kind of “front of the house” people are easy to find. I think it’s much more challenging to enlist people who really understand how to farm. For example, we had two pigs farrow [give birth to a litter of piglets] this fall and somehow our animal team, which has done farrowing before, didn’t provide them with enough shelter so we lost two batches of piglets to mismanagement and lack of communication. And Kristen and I look at each other and we raise eyebrows every time it happens. And we just say, “What part of this didn’t we go over? Why didn’t we know that this was close? Where did we mess up? And that’s always a challenge.

SW: How do you approach pest and disease management?

MK: I think we balance the idea of animal-positive and plant-positive solutions with more direct pest control. In other words, improve animals’ feed quality, improve their fertility and if something becomes a major economic or health concern then start looking at disease control and pathogen control. I come about it with a philosophy of “Just grow more, let’s grow it better each year, yeah we’re going to have losses, go forward.” So I think we’re walking pretty nicely through a balance of: on the big picture let’s create healthy systems, and on the small picture, when we screw things up, let’s look at short-term solutions for killing rats, and improving our farrowing rate, for example. Kristen and I are now talking about for next year, “How do we do better pig farrowing? If we have beginners doing it, what are the systems we need in place to really get people better at that and how do we do that?”

SW: You’re always talking about trying to get people on the farm and getting people excited about farming. Additionally, farming and getting back to the land are becoming increasingly attractive to young people. In light of these things, can you share some thoughts on this increased interest, the perspective these young people bring to your farm, as well as the possibility of people romanticizing or idealizing the farm life?

MK: It’s a perennially challenging workplace as an employer and an employee. There are people out there, typically migrant workers, who are used to repetitive agricultural tasks like milking, harvesting, and sitting in tractors. Then there’s a group of other people who are looking at it more from a philosophical, environmental angle and don’t have skills and don’t have the patience to just do the same things their whole life. And being able to juxtapose both of those at the farm is always great because it sort of leads to excitement.

And I think that the key is, if you have an inclination toward agriculture, follow it at all costs, but realize that as of yet, there’s not a road to you’re physical or fiscal security. You’re in a high-risk physical job; your body could get hurt; you’re doing a lot of work. And fiscally there’s no bottom line yet to farming. It tends to lose money wherever it’s practiced. Our government has created ways to keep farms alive, but just barely. So when you go into it you have to be aware that both your body and your bottom line can fail.

I fully support people that are walking down the farm road. And I think that you owe it to yourself as somebody in a country where we are, entirely subsidized by larger socioeconomic and environmental choices to go bravely into it. In other words, don’t listen to other people and if your gut sense is to go into farming, go into it. So I highly recommend it, with the cautionary tales that are concomitant with farming: be careful, make sure you have people that can help you out if you make economically or otherwise stupid decisions. Make sure you’ve got some people around you to help you get out of those consequences.

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I hope you enjoyed reading about Essex Farm and all the ideas and practices behind it. You can learn some more about Essex at their website and their Facebook page. Thanks for reading!

Simon

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