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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Full Belly Farm Blazes Organic Trail

August 22, 2011 |

organic peaches full belly farmWhile organic is becoming more and more of a household term, it hasn’t always been that way. Back in 1985, when Guinda, CA-based Full Belly Farm started, very few people were even talking about organic. But times have changed, and with a combination of passion and innovation, Full Belly Farm has not only kept up with them, but continued to lead the way in organic agriculture.

Pioneering the Organic Movement

For those who weren’t paying attention to organic in 1985, you weren’t alone – there weren’t even national standards defining organic. It wasn’t until five years later, in 1990, that Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which required the USDA to develop national standards for organic produce. And it wasn’t until 1997 that the first draft of the National Organic Program (NOP) was released – a draft that still allowed irradiation, GMOs and sewage sludge in organic. The federal organic standards as we know them have only been in existence for the last 10 years.

So what inspired Andrew Brait, Judith Redmond, Paul Muller, and Dru Rivers to go the organic route and start Full Belly Farm, a now 300-acre certified organic farm that produces over 80 different crops?

“All of us were very interested in growing food organically even though back then, in 1985, there wasn’t that much of a market or much discussion about organic agriculture,” says one of the farm’s owners, Judith Redmond. She explains that on a personal level, she’s always appreciated the role that agriculture plays in our lives. “I think that agriculture can be looked to in response to many of the issues that we face today. Health issues for example. As a farmer, I feel so lucky that I get to have firsthand access to all of this wonderful food.”

Redmond notes that there’s significantly more interest in organic today than there used to be, and a much larger market for it. And while organic farmers today have a number of resources and organizations to guide them, when Full Belly Farm started they had to rely mainly on collaboration and experimentation.  

“Farmers talk to one another,” says Redmond. “We did a lot of experimenting. We certainly didn’t get help from any of the established institutions. But we just sort of figured it out, little by little. I think that’s what farmers do in general. Farmers are innovators and researchers and they talk to each other.”

Redmond says that one notable experiment gone right was their CSA program, which accounts for about a quarter of their business. They currently have weekly boxes going out to 1200 families.

“I think that starting a CSA in 1992 was something of a breakthrough,” says Redmond, “because it allowed us to build a community of people who connect with the farm, and care about the farm, and can learn more about the challenges.”

Going Forward

Having been in the organic sector for so long, Full Belly Farm has witnessed numerous changes in the movement. Looking forward, Redmond says that in addition to shifts in the physical environment, such as climate change, there are two main social issues she thinks will come to bear on organic agriculture in the coming years.

One is worker conditions, a conversation in which Full Belly Farm is particularly interested. Redmond says Full Belly Farm does its best to provide for their employees, but it can be a challenge because agriculture is a pretty low margin part of the economy.

“[One] challenge is the workforce. I hope that organic agriculture takes on those issues and tries to address them. We need a legal work force in agriculture and a workforce that’s well compensated,” she said. “It seems to me,” she adds, “from this side of the field that most people have no idea how hard and how long we have to work to get food to the table. It’s beyond what most people imagine in terms of making it all happen and getting these beautiful fruits and vegetables… I think all of us should really give thanks to the farmers and farmworkers.”

Another big challenge, in both conventional and sustainable agriculture, is getting new blood into the farming profession. Redmond says she hopes that becoming an organic farmer will be a viable option economically for young people in the future.

“I think that there’s a tremendous amount of young people interested in agriculture. The only way they’ll be able to get into it is if it’s financially stable,” she says. “The population of farmers is aging, farms are getting consolidated, so we need lots of innovators, new farmers.”

She adds that one of the most exciting things at Full Belly Farm recently is that three or four kids who grew up on the farm are now working there, creating new kinds of programming. She hopes they can help dispel the myth that farming is outdated.

“I feel like you always have to be a little bit ahead of things. Some people might imagine that farming’s rather straightforward and not that exciting and interesting, but that’s not true because nature and biological systems are always throwing curveballs at people. You always have to be trying new things,” she says. “There’s always something new to be thinking about and trying and experimenting with. I think especially if you consider how much is changing, both in our physical environment but also our social and economic environment, you can’t be complacent in agriculture. If you’re not open to change you’re going to have a hard time staying in business.”

With over 25 years of organic farming under their belt, it seems safe to say that Full Belly Farm knows a thing or two about staying in business.

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Want to see Full Belly Farm in action? Head to their Hoes Down Harvest Festival on October 1 and 2. It’s a unique opportunity to tour the farm, attend educational workshops, go on a hayride and enjoy abundant food and music. Redmond describes it as a “transformative experience in terms of farm tours and having a great ag experience.” For more details, go to the Hoes Down Festival website at http://www.hoesdown.org or http://www.facebook.com/hoesdown.

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