"Beyond Organic" Farming in Yellow Springs, Ohio (Part One)

I just got back from a beautiful (and borderline sunstroke-inducing) bike ride to Orion Organics, an organic farm located just outside Yellow Springs, Ohio, at 400 North Enon road. For a full account of the farm and the inspiring vision of its owners, the Yellow Springs News has a great article here and a more recent piece on some of the tough little CSAs springing up around town. The trip out to the farm was a powerful reminder of why sustainable, ethical agriculture (certified or otherwise) is so important. While the soybean and corn fields that dominate the land have a pastoral beauty to them, they're not so pretty when considered up-close.

Each field is branded with a sign next to it, identifying the GMO company that sold the seed, and the patented variety being grown. These signs reminded me of Percy Schmeiser's battle with Monsanto over transgenic contamination of his fields and seemed out of place on roads that only see a handful of cars everyday (what's their purpose?).

Then there's the purpose of the fields themselves - mainly to supply calories and protein for factory farming and unhealthy food products: Corn for cows that can't digest it properly and high-fructose corn syrup for humans who can't digest it well either. Soybeans for pigs and chickens crammed into confinement operations with cement floors and fouled air. I biked past one of these operations on my way to the farm and the smell made me sick to my stomach, a stark contrast to the fresh air and monarch butterflies at Orion Organics.

Spotting an oasis of trees and natural vegetation, I turned-in and coasted down a long driveway to discover a large hay bale house nearing completion and a giant hay bale greenhouse behind an older barn. Inside the barn I found Jonathan, the farm manager at Orion Organics. Jonathan was busy trying to find a charitable home for a couple hundred pounds of tomatoes that would soon spoil in the hot Ohio air (his cold storage was out of commission). "I hate wasting food," he said.

In addition to being super friendly and inviting me to tour the farm, Jonathan told me about his own economic rationale for learning to farm and that while he had thought about going back to school to get a masters in teaching (he's in his early 30's), he thought farming was a surer bet, providing a more physical, higher quality of life and the greatest sense of security one can have in uncertain times: being able to feed oneself. This sense of freedom and security was echoed by Andrew and Terry at Heartbeat Community Farm, (another farm I visited - more on that experience in Part Two), and I'm sure it was felt by the other local young people I found picking beans in the lower fields.

After admiring the farm's bean, tomato, zucchini, watermelon and popcorn crops, as well as their neat and tidy herb garden, I biked back to the Vale , a beautiful intentional community where we've been staying with my girlfriend's family. On the way back I passed through more of the same soybean and cornfields with large, plain farm houses spaced out every few miles. I reflected on how every aspect of these conventional operations is dependent on cheap, plentiful oil (chemicals, fertilizers, heavy machinery to plant, till, harvest as well as industrial driers to dry the crops, not to mention transportation).

Biking amidst a giant sea of conventional crops and baking in the hot sun among lonely farm houses (I was also out of water), I felt vulnerable and fragile, but not as fragile, I thought, as the giant monoculture crops that will someday be an impossibility in their present scale and form (not unless we find fertilizer and fuel substitutes that aren't derived from fossil fuels). I was also cheered by the fact that I was heading back to Yellow Springs - a small, strong community with a significant movement afoot to grow food locally and sustainably.

Viewed as an oddity in otherwise conservative, white bread south Western Ohio, Yellow Springs and other like-minded communities are doing the heavy and fulfilling work of moving towards more sustainable local food systems, and that's tasty stuff!