First season as a farmer: why are we working this hard, part 1

Last fall's hay, the last baling before planting the Stray Arrow orchard

This post is not about photography. I have been getting a lot of questions on why we have started growing hard cider apples that I thought it was time to answer. My reasons* lead heavily into food policy. There will be more about making pretty pictures, just not today.

This last year would have been a lot easier if all we had wanted to do was hike. Plenty of people move to Torrey to do just that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that we fell in love with a parcel of agricultural land that came with water. We just didn’t realize how strongly its potential imposed (at least on me) a moral responsibility for stewardship.

I grew up among the orange groves of southern California, productive agricultural lands that were bulldozed for an unending wave of cookie cutter subdivisions in five HOA permissible boring shades of beige. I remember smelling the orange blossoms on the evening breeze even when I was in high school. I also remember wondering what America would eat if we continued to destroy our farmlands.

I was right to worry then, and we should all be worrying now. The American Farmland Trust says that “Between 1982 and 2007, 41,324,800 acres of rural land agricultural lands were converted to developed uses. This represents and area about the size of Illinois and New Jersey combined.”

If you consider dependency on foreign oil to be a national security issue, how about food dependency as a risk? Almost 17% of the food we eat is imported, including about half of our fresh fruit. We import 85% of our apple juice; two-thirds of that from China. I am (barely) old enough to remember the oil embargoes, and history convinces me that food is as potent an economic weapon as fuel.

Then consider the lax regulation and enforcement of toxic chemicals in foreign food production. How do you feel about arsenic in your children’s morning juice glass? We can’t even keep the salmonella and other pathogens out of our domestic food supply; do you want to rely on food inspections at our borders?

The industrialization of our food system since World War II has been driven on the assumption that larger farms are more productive. We have traded family farms and the rural communities they supported for multinational corporate control of seeds and fertilizers and output, further concentrated control through GMO seeds, pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables accumulating in our bodies, less nutritious meat , and depletion of our topsoil for more efficient production, and of what? Corn for soda pop. And what if that assumption was just plain wrong, that small farms are more productive?

Our food supply is at risk, and small sustainable farms are part of the solution. We don’t have any more land to lose. Every acre counts. As the inspiring One Straw Rob has shown at his suburban home, we can be the change, even with just our few acres. What do we want to do with our little piece of heaven? And in our climate, with our skills and interests, what can we do? More on that soon here.

*R and I have discussed many of these issues at length, and even though we are working on this apple ranch together, what I write here is my own opinion.


  1. I find the issues of national security and food policy to be amazingly compelling. We are missing a domestic/foreign policy discussion on that as globalization has swung a bit too far in that direction.

  2. Robert E. Marc

    The arsenic issue is far from trivial for several reasons.
    1. Until glyphos was introduced, herbicides for commercial grass suppression (the commercial apple model was: Kill all grass) and for spray edging every lawn in the US (as I did) contained dimethyl arsenate or some similar organic arsenical.
    2. After glyphos was introduced (70s) the organic arsenicals remained available until stocks were sold out (I bought arsenicals in the ’80s).
    3. Agricultural use probably continued much longer due to bulk purchases … and there is no disposal method. Use it or lose it ($).
    4. Arsenic stays and stays, and bioaccumulates.
    5. Most troubling, the fiscal (largely GOP) policy of the US continues to impoverish the EPA, USDA and FDA to the point where they can’t test your food, ground or water. They do once in a while, but probably miss 90% of contamination events.

One Trackback

  • By First season as a farmer: what got done on December 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    […] is the third post in a series on how we started growing apples. The first post explained why I felt compelled to raise food and the second traced the thinking on why we chose to raise cider […]