Essex Farm founder shares insights into the role small farms play in building a sustainable food system
By Tim Rowland
A member of the Lake Placid audience voiced vindication at the forces that have driven the cost of a dozen eggs to $6, because it gives American grocery shoppers a taste of the true cost of food.
It’s unlikely to last. Once industrial flocks of hens decimated by avian flu are restored, families will once again have access to an egg that costs less than a dime. This is the great triumph and tragedy of American agriculture, said Kristin Kimball, an author who with her husband Mark owns Essex Farm, which each year provides 300 families with everything they need to eat.
Speaking Sunday at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World Conference: Save Winter program on sustainability, Kimball said that the planet and the living things that call it home are best served by farms that raise a soil-building and carbon sequestering cross-section of products. “Agricultural diversity is the key,” she said. “The more types of plants and animals you have … the better and healthier it is.”
But not cheaper. Cheap is accomplished by massive economies of scale where industrial farms focus on a single commodity. Four industrial giants produce 80% of the food consumed in America, and their relentless efficiencies make it difficult for traditional growers to find a market. “Sometimes I think we’re the last generation that will be able to farm at a family scale,” Kimball said.
The staggering amount of work it takes to keep a small farm going means there is little if any time to market products or teach the public the truth about food. For her own children, strawberry season is a “second Christmas,” but a visiting child refused to even try a berry fresh off the vine because it wasn’t how she was accustomed to seeing food presented. After the girl refused to eat anything natural, her mother drove her 40 miles to a McDonald’s. “What people see as ‘normal food’ arrives from the factory in packages,” Kimball said.
Even as industry has changed the public perception of food, it quickly co-ops terminology that might help people understand and appreciate consciously grown products. It has jumped on words like “organic,” “green” and “natural” to hype foods that are anything but.
Kimball said she’s searching for another word for what she and Mark do at Essex Farm, because it’s only a matter of time before the corporations latch onto and corrupt “sustainable.”
Industry benefits from the tailwinds of massive lobbying efforts and subsidies, and even when well-meaning interests try to fight back, small farms get caught in the crossfire, Kimball said, noting the vilification in some circles of animal proteins.
“It’s not the cow, it’s the how,” she said, noting that naturally raised pigs, cows, sheep and chickens all play a restorative and fostering role in building soil capable of nurturing the billions of organisms within.
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Changing public perception of food involves better education and communications, but often all it takes is getting people to sample the farm’s fare. “If we can get people to taste the food and see how much better they feel, we can get them hooked for life,” she said.
Annie Scavo and Rob Farkas said they became believers after moving to the Adirondacks from Brooklyn. “We eat as much as we can from the farm,” said Farkas. “Eating vegetables that fresh must be experienced.”
When their friends visit from the city, “they take a bite and you can see their eyes open,” Scavo said.
But getting enough people hooked to make a profit is a constant battle. Kimball said she and Mark set out to prove that they could feed families year-around with good food and do so profitably, but that ideal survives on slim margins.
“I love what we do with my whole being. (But) it hasn’t gotten easier in 20 years.”— Kristin Kimbell
It is, however, just as rewarding to connect people with their food and with each other. “Community is the tool that offers authenticity, love and satisfaction,” she said. “We need to remember that food is precious.”