Willits man's ‘Farming for the Long Haul' looks to past for farm lessons

Michael Foley explains how the lessons of the small, family farms in the past can help in the face of the economic, political and climatic shock waves.|

In his new book, “Farming for the Long Haul,” Willits author Michael Foley hopes that what's old can be new again for a new crop of farmers who may feel they are facing an uphill battle.

Farming for the Long Haul by Michael Foley of Willits
Farming for the Long Haul by Michael Foley of Willits

He tells the story of the small farmer's inventiveness throughout history in an effort to help guide modern farmers through the uncertainties of the 21st century, with its expected onslaught of dwindling energy, water and topsoil.

A native of California who attended Santa Clara University as an undergraduate, Foley got his masters and PhD in political science from UC Davis and worked for 20 years in academia in Washington, D.C.

In 2007, Foley and his wife followed their daughters back to California, settling in Willits, where they operate Green Uprising Farm with their oldest daughter. The farm grows vegetables and fruits for market.

Drawing upon his life as both a scholar and a farmer, Foley decided to get serious about writing “Farming for the Long Haul” in 2017. It was published in February by Chelsea Green Publishing, which specializes in books on sustainable living and progressive politics.

Although it took him 18 months to write, the book grew out of a half century of reading and research on agriculture, history and anthropology as well as Foley's own experience as a teacher at the School of Adaptive Agriculture at Ridgewood Ranch south of Willits, which he co-founded in 2015.

“The school has a residential program for people who are thinking about farming, a workshop program for people who are farming and an internship program that helps farmers and interns make an internship into an educational experience,” he said. “The book really grew out of trying to teach some of this stuff at the school.”

In Foreword Reviews, book reviewer Barry Silverstein praises Foley's tome for its well-sourced research, insightful observations and eloquent reasoning based on real life.

“ It tells the story of the small farmer through the eyes of a farmer, and is supplemented with stories of other farmers,” Silverstein writes. “Foley believes nothing less than a ‘profound reversal of course' will be necessary for farming to survive long-term. Still, the book is grounded in cautious optimism, based primarily on local farmers helping themselves.”

Here is an edited version of our mid-March interview with Foley, who manages his local farmers market and has served as president of Little Lake Grange and vice president of the Mendocino County Farmers' Market Association.


The book paints a vivid picture of what drives a farmer to farm. What do farmers usually share in common?

We farm not as a business. We farm because we love it, but we also typically have certain traits: a fierce independence, a willingness to try things out and invent things, an ability to fix things, a love of working with plants and animals and a willingness to let nature do most of the work.

And there's a talent for nurturing both plants and animals ... and people as well.

What kind of reader is the book aimed at?

The audience for the book are farmers, but especially people who like the word ‘sustainable' or are small farmers and want to stay small. There is a larger audience of farmers who are going to be facing various crises in the future and need to figure out how to stay in farming. I also feature some ranch farmers, such as Gabe Brown of North Dakota.

He does livestock, but he does cover cropping. He's part of regenerative ag - he's mostly organic but not all, but he's really intent on rebuilding the soil through livestock management, diverse cover crops and no plowing.

I'd like to see environmentalists read the book, because a lot of them are suspicious of farming, and it's good to see the good things ag has done on the face of the earth, and can do.

What North Coast farms inspire you with their sustainable practices?

Singing Frogs (in Sebastopol) has been a pioneer in no-till market gardening. Magruder Ranch in Mendocino's Potter Valley has always been really self-conscious about stewardship of the land. They do mostly beef. And the beef cattle operation at Ridgewood Ranch is a model for holistic grazing. They're very careful to move their cattle into smaller (moveable) paddocks for a short period of time, so they graze down all of the grasses evenly ... Stimulating the regrowth of all kinds of plants, not just the delicious stuff, is what regenerates the soil.

There are also lots of market gardeners doing good things. Nye Ranch near Fort Bragg has three-quarters of an acre, and they produce enough to support themselves by growing flowers and vegetables. Another one is Fortunate Farm in Caspar - Gowan Batist is another young farmer who is doing wonderful things. She works closely with North Coast Brewing and uses brewery waste in her farm.

Bob Cannard of Green String Farm is famous for his weeds. Certain weeds are good for the soil, and you leave them in your field and let them grow with your crops.

What is the biggest lesson that modern farmers can learn from the past?

The top one for me is this idea of subsistence first. You have to provide for yourself as much as possible before you provide for a market. Because markets aren't necessarily going to be there for us. We have crop and market failures, and prices fluctuate ... that means a diversified farm with barnyard animals because they provide for the family; having wild resources such as trees and herbs and mushrooms.

And it's not a matter of pure independence. Those subsistence farmers lived in villages that shared their produce and their meats with others, so that kind of community interdependence is another lesson that allowed those cultures to survive for thousands of years.

Farmers through the centuries have been tremendously inventive. They've invented the crops, ways to preserve water and irrigate and all sorts of techniques to enhance their livelihoods. We should use some of their inventions and not be dependent on the experts.

You quote British Petroleum's report that the world's oil supply will run out in 30 years. How will farmers address that?

Even if we don't run out of it in 30 years, we're trying to curtail its use because of greenhouse gas emissions. But either way, that's a resource we can't continue to rely on for long. So we have to think about how are we going to manage without oil?

No-till is attractive, both because it addresses the oil issue and it addresses the terrible issue of erosion and soil. We know it works, but that means vegetable production is probably going to be very small scale, and that's going to take many more farms than we have today.

The ‘Big Farm' slogan is ‘We Feed the World.' It's not true: 70 to 80 percent of the world's population are being fed from small farms. We've been doing it, and we can do it again.

You also talk about the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's prediction that at current rates of soil loss, the world only has 60 more years of harvests and continued soil productivity.

There has been widespread concern in the USDA for 100 years about soil erosion. We had some very good programs to set land aside in the '50s and '60s, but those were abandoned in the rush to feed the Soviet Union and other big countries that wanted American grain, above all.

It's a real issue. We've lost 60 percent of the topsoil in the country. Tilling in particular has always been associated with soil loss. If you till it, you're destroying the vegetable matter that held it in place, then it washes away into the rivers and, for example, the Gulf of Mexico. We have the same thing in the Sacramento Delta.

Farmers are trying to boost their plants with nitrogen fertilizer, which breaks down the ability of the soil to form soil aggregates ... if you destroy those and drive out the microbes, the soil structure breaks down, so it will erode from water or wind. One of the reasons we use cover crops is because they can rebuild the soil without using chemicals. ... At our farm, we use vetch and bell beans and oats, which are very good for the soil.

How will future farmers adapt to unknowns like climate change and water availability?

One way is by having really diverse crops, including a number of different varieties of the same crop. So some are going to be more suited for drought, some for wet conditions, some for a long, hot season, others for a short, cool season. Having that arsenal of seeds to choose from allows you to do that.

Another one is having good soil, and soils that are regenerating constantly, so they can withstand drought and hold water.

You also talk about the importance of farmers finding a balance in their life. How do they do that?

The first thing is that you have to have it as an aim, so you can have a life. It's particularly important for young farmers, because they tend to wear themselves out really quickly. They're strong and they want to work 17 hours a day, and pretty soon they have bad backs or they get to the end of the season and have to take a break. But if they plan to farm year round, they could spread the work and the money around and build in some breaks.

The other thing is farming smarter, not harder. That's kind of a movement, and it's explained in the book, “The Lean Farm” by Ben Hartman ... when Ben started adopting these techniques, he and his wife could take weekends off and take vacations, and they could make more money.

In the book, you point out that 70 percent of the farmland here is in the hands of farmers 65 and older. How will we attract more young farmers to the profession?

There's a lot of people coming into farming, but statistics show they don't necessarily stay. So I think we need more farmer training, more consciousness among young farmers about what we've talked about and more farmer-to-farmer interactions so they get the support they need.

And frankly, we need the regulatory system to get out of the way of farmers. We have regulations made for the big guys that don't apply to the little guys and beginners. One size does not fit all, and we have to find a way to make it easier to make a living.

What can farmers learn from the natural disasters - floods, hurricanes, wildfires - that have occurred recently?

Ultimately, we don't have any control over our fate. It's up to forces bigger than us.

But on the other hand, we can be prepared to respond by building community resources, building community ties, being more resilient ourselves on our own farms so that a natural disaster is not going to destroy us.

A big movement in Sonoma and here in Mendocino is being fire-safe and fire-wise. A lot of people are adopting fire-wise strategies for their homes to protect from getting embers up under the eaves and leaving a 100-yard safety zone around the house, which doesn't mean cutting down trees but does mean providing fewer ladders for fires to climb up - trimming trees, spacing bushes better, keeping the grasses down.

There's a big experiment here along Highway 101, with ranchers ... taking preventative measures using sheep. Letting them graze down to the fences makes sense.

A lot of this is the realization that there's not going to be a lot of help from the outside, especially immediately. One woman who raises goats in Redwood Valley and is a member of the grange there moved really, really quickly. She had been involved in helping after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, so she turned the grange into a community center that eventually became headquarters for federal agencies like FEMA. It became a place for donations of food, for people to meet people. One stranger gave a man who had lost everything a truck.

In the book's conclusion, you talk about how the peasants of the Soviet Union and China returned to their small farms, which emerged as the dominant form of production in the wake of those countries' economic reforms. Can that ever happen in the U.S.?

It's more difficult in the U.S. We've lost those traditions, and a lot of those communities have disappeared. As farmers got bigger or got out, a lot of them moved away, and the communities no longer have many farmers to serve ... then WalMart came along and destroyed what was left.

So recovering all of that, especially in the Midwest, is going to be difficult. But there is a small farm renaissance in this country, as in many others, and farmers are finding places to farm. On the edges of those communities, land is very, very cheap. If they are close enough to an urban area of any size at all, they will be welcomed because we're not producing enough of our own food. Mendocino County still imports probably 95 percent of its food, so there's lots of opportunities here.

Our town, Willits, just got $6 million to build a trail for three or four miles. Think of how many small farms you could set up for $6 million ... if we can put it into trails, we can put it into acquiring land that could feed the community.

I would like to see small, rural communities buy land around themselves and lease it out on a long-term basis to people who will grow orchards and fruits and vegetables and even animals for the town.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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