In 2009, the USDA launched its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your food” initiative as part of the Obama Administration’s efforts to strengthen local and regional food systems. Through the program, the government has conducted economic research to identify barriers to local food market expansion and worked to link consumers with local producers through farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs via the Know Your Farmer website.
Like many initiatives connected to President Obama, Know Your Farmer has come under attack by Republicans—but this blog post isn't meant to delve into the murky waters of agriculture politics. Rather, I'd like to explore why a recent trip to the Bay Area has me convinced that USDA is on to something with its Know Your Farmer campaign.
While traveling in California two weeks ago, I met Tara and Craig Smith, who run Tara Firma Farms, a “beyond organic” farm near Petaluma, California. On the 300-acre farm, the couple grows a wide range of vegetables and raises pastured meats, which they sell via a popular CSA program. While visiting Tara Firma Farms, I was able to see first hand the benefits of small-scale open pasture farming for the farmers, the animals and the people who will ultimately eat the food that is produced in this environment.
Although my grandparents and great grandparents were all farmers, my trip to Tara Firma Farms represented my first opportunity to experience a working organic farm—and it completely reinforced my commitment to organic, local, and the humane and sustainable treatment of animals.
Aside from the stunning beauty of its locale, what makes Tara Firma Farms stand out is its commitment to educating people—particularly kids—on how real food is grown. Tara and Craig give free tours of farm on Saturdays and Sundays, put on community dinners and other events at the farm, and host as many school visits as possible. Turns out that getting people to the farm is a great way to sell memberships to Tara Firma Farms’ CSA program; but more importantly, as Tara told me: It's also vital to changing the way people think about food and how it should be produced.
Tara Firma Farms attracts people from all over the Bay Area, including from San Francisco and Oakland. Still, the farm is relatively small and can reach only so many people on its own. That’s why Tara Firma Farms’ other focus is on training and helping create other successful small-scale farmers.
Tara and Craig are relatively new to farming. In fact, they never considered going into farming until they read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma a few years and realized they wanted to be catalysts for the change Pollan advocates. The couple learned what they know about growing vegetables and raising animals on pasture from the work of Joel Salatin, the farmer and author prominently featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the documentary film Food, Inc.
Now, after several years of honing their own farming craft and adapting Salatin’s farming practices to the hilly countryside of Sonoma County, Tara and Craig are building a non-profit farming institute that provides hands-on education and training for young farmers and then financial support to help those people secure land and launch their own “beyond organic” farms. As Tara told me, the goal is not only to show people how to farm organically and in harmony with nature but to also prove that small-scale and family farming can provide a viable living.
Visiting Tara Firma Farms made for one of my best and most educational moments of 2011—and all because I had the opportunity to meet two super cool and passionate farmers.