My friend Dan Mays is a farmer. In 2010, just a year out of grad school, he bought 14 acres of land and a run-down farmhouse in Scarborough, Maine (just south of me here in Portland), and got to work. The land had been used for haying and was tired and depleted of nutrients from so many years of exploitative harvesting. The farmhouse was old and badly in need of repair. He spent his first winter living in a single sealed-off room in the farmhouse, equipped with a wood stove and not much else. In the few short years since that first winter, he's made amazing progress in bringing both the soil and the farmhouse back to life. Today, Frith Farm is a thriving organic farm producing a wide variety of vegetables, flowers, eggs and meat. He sells his products at local farmers markets and through a popular CSA program (of which I am a member). The farmhouse has been restored to proper order.
Dan grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Waldorf and Quaker schools before studying math and physics at Wesleyan University. After teaching those same subjects to high school students for a couple of years, he took an extended bicycle trip through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, volunteering on farms throughout his journey. He jumped back into academia to get a graduate degree in environmental engineering at Stanford and began looking for the right plot of land to start his own farm.
One of Dan's driving philosophies as a farmer is building and restoring healthy soil. The stated mission of Frith Farm is "… to build soil, biodiversity, and community through the growing of wholesome food." Besides spreading supplemental organic compost on his fields, he rotates his chickens, pigs, and sheep pens throughout his land so that their poop adds to the nutritive mix. He's a big fan of biomimicry.
Dan is one of the hardest-working people I know and regularly puts in 14-hour+ days during the summer season, so I appreciate his taking the time to answer some questions. Enjoy!
MNN: When and how did you make the decision to become a farmer?
Daniel Mays: I’d say I made the decision gradually. Volunteering on the local farm where I grew up, working on several farms in Mexico while traveling, and helping run a small community-supported vegetable operation in Massachusetts were all nails in the coffin of my potential office-bound career. Graduate school solidified the decision, as I became clear that my happiness depended on doing work that was tangible and grounded, where you could see the fruits of your labor at the end of a hard day’s work. I wanted to have a positive impact on the environment and my local community, and sustainable, direct-market farming was the way I came up with to do both at once.
Frith Farm chickens and their movable chicken hut.
What's the most surprising thing about farming?
Farming is full of surprises, but perhaps one of the best is the sense I get that everybody is secretly (or openly) jealous of their farmer. Even people who cringe at the sight of dirt on their shoes seem to feel that ancestral call to cultivate; to produce food from the land. Though often overly romanticized, the farming life seems to have a draw to a surprising number and breadth of people. I find this refreshing, and particularly satisfying to observe in the variety of folks who come out to the farm.
Dan with a pig
Why is organic food important?
Organic food is important at the consumer level because it allows peace of mind about the levels of residual synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that arrive on your dinner table. At an environmental level, I believe the USDA’s definition of organic does not represent the perfect state of farming, but it certainly provides some basic guidelines that can improve the environmental impact of farms, especially large farms transitioning from conventional methods. At a cultural level, organic (or at least what the word meant 50 years ago) is important because it helps keep alive the art of eating by maintaining flavor, texture and uniqueness as qualities in food.
Can we feed the entire world with organic food?
I think the more relevant question is, can we afford not to? Conventional farming relies heavily on non-renewable synthetic inputs and often leads to erosion, chemical leaching, decreased soil fertility, etc. These practices are unsustainable for obvious reasons, so the fact that they can feed the world in the short term does not make them an attractive or even viable option in the long term. Practices that are truly organic, at least in the original sense of the word before it was owned by the USDA, do not rely on non-renewable inputs and do not decrease the soil’s ability to produce for future generations. People say organic farms cannot match the production of conventional ones, but I believe this is untrue, especially in the long run. So yes, we can – and must – feed the world with sustainable farming practices.
Chickens love pecking around the grass for tasty bugs.
Does the world need saving?
Of course it does. I believe a fatalistic approach to our problems is neither elegant nor honorable. We may have already bequeathed posterity an ugly situation, but that does not mean we should give up our current efforts, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Perhaps rather than saving the entire world (and getting lost in the smallness of our efforts), let us simply try to improve the social and environmental community we live in.
What's the difference between green and greener?
Green is ultimate environmental sustainability – having nothing but beneficial impact on all areas of the environment. Greener is simply a step closer to green from wherever we currently are (“greener” is what people usually mean when they say “green.”) Agriculture is one of the few occupations in the world that has the potential to be truly green. A good farm recycles all potential wastes, sequesters atmospheric carbon in the soil thereby building fertility, provides habitat for a diversity of macro- and micro-organisms and acts as a biological filter for pollutants of air and water.
[Note:: I invited Dan to come up with and answer his own question here.]
Why don’t more people farm?
The economics of farming are challenging, though not insurmountable. There are many creative options out there to start farming immediately, and there seems to be a shift underway toward a larger number of smaller farms. This defies the trend of decades, but there is change in the air as young farmers are realizing how far we have strayed from the small-scale, locally marketed farms of several generations ago. I think many people feel the urge to work the soil, produce something necessary and nourishing, and end each day hungry, exhausted and utterly happy. And more people, young folks especially, are recognizing that it’s okay to follow this urge.
Related farm files on MNN:
- Farms of America: Historic images taken from 1939-1943
- World's largest vertical farm opens in Chicago
- 40 farmers under 40