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