An Ode to Farming

Oh, the joy of organic farming,
How sweetly it does call,
To cultivate the earth with care,
And nourish it for all.

The soil, rich and fertile,
Teeming with life and growth,
With seeds that sprout and flourish,
As if the land itself does boast.

No chemicals, no pesticides,
No harm to the land or bee,
But only love and stewardship,
To grow our crops so free.

From seed to sprout to harvest,
The cycle of life we see,
As we honor the earth’s bounty,
And embrace her majesty.

For every plant we nurture,
Every seed we sow with pride,
Brings us closer to nature’s rhythm,
And to the land we do abide.

Oh, the joy of organic farming,
How it fills our hearts with song,
As we work in harmony with nature,
And dance with her all day long.

This is what popped up in seconds after I inserted the prompt “write a poem about organic farming in the style of Walt Whitman” on OpenAI. Kind of crazy right? Now I’m no poet and I haven’t read much poetry since high school, so I can’t speak to the merits of what the bot created. But it seems to me that this can easily be mistaken for something a talented person wrote. 

Artificial intelligence has made remarkable strides since I was a child. I remember when former world chess champion Gary Kasparov defeated IBM’s Deep Blue in 1996. Today however no human chess player can even come close to defeating a robot. In fact the best chess players in the world use artificial intelligence to train. If they didn’t they simply wouldn’t be competitive. 

Even large scale agriculture has not escaped the conveniences that artificial intelligence offers. Drones fly over large crop fields gathering data on soil moisture levels, fertilizer levels, and sunlight and use that data to quite accurately predict yields even before planting; they can also monitor plant health to predict pest infestations before they occur (pest infestations are directly related to plant health which is related to soil health); and these drones can even find irrigation leaks. This is only scratching the surface. AI has revolutionized conventional agriculture, and it’s only going to make more of an impact as time goes on. It’ll result in less sprays, healthier plants, higher yields, and probably lower prices.

But it’s still conventional agriculture.

“Progress” has the tendency of solidifying problematic things in good ways: modern medicine often fights the symptoms of a poor diet; the labor movements of the 19th century fought the symptoms of a corporatist system; and AI ameliorates some of the excesses of conventional agriculture. These are all good developments no doubt, but they allow for the perseverance of structures that are inherently problematic. I think that much of the history of the modern world can be explained via the coalescing of the “good” and the “problematic” in contradictory, reinforcing ways.  

When former Go (a game popular in east Asia–a lot more complex than chess I think) champion Lee Se-Dol was defeated by Google’s AlphaGo in 2016, he retired and never played the game again. “Even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated,” he said.

How we live in the world in the face of contradictory progress need not be as grim as Se-Dol’s defeatism. I like Martin Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness:” we are thrown into the world beyond our control with all of its present-day frustrations, demands, sufferings, and I would add contradictions that emerge from progress. According to Heidegger this “thrownness” ironically leaves an opening for individual freedom. While a perfect utopia without this progress/contradiction dynamic will never exist on a societal level, I do think that we have the freedom to attempt to reach such a state within our own individual lives. It’s as if our lives can be thought of as a calculus limit function: they approach infinity but never actually reach it.

I’m not sure what this looks like in practice. This is all way too theoretical. Maybe eating local is a good place to start? 

Beyond Control

It’s going to be 70 degrees on Thursday. That’s weird for us. But it’s even weirder for peach and plum trees. Consistent warm weather makes fruit trees believe that it’s spring, so they start budding or even flowering way too early. Then when the temperature plumets shortly after, it does some serious damage to the delicate young buds. And if there are flowers, those flowers die before pollination can occur. That means no peaches or plums. It’s also the main reason why local apricots are hard to come by. Apricots are early bloomers in general. They’re not ideal for our area, but once every few years we get lucky.

On Sunday Nathan from Sharrah Orchard made a delivery of apples. We talked about all this. His peaches are showing signs that they’re going to start budding. In fact fruit trees have already started budding at orchards in Maryland. He seemed oddly calm. “Not much I can do about it,” he told me. 

When I had a farm I’d get anxious about things I couldn’t control: a forecast of rain during a farmers market; no rainfall when the crops desperately needed it; and the darn groundhog outsmarting me at every turn…all sources of much stress for me. I wanted the backyard farming experiment to be successful, after all, and these factors beyond my control often got in the way. So Nathan’s calm attitude toward the possibility that his entire crop could fail this year struck me enough to share it with you (without concluding it with a wise cliché anecdote).


We are entering probably the worst time of year for produce. By early February farmers have mostly sold out of a lot of their storage crops. Things like garlic, squash, and even potatoes are now hard to come by. I haven’t eaten garlic for a month, and I haven’t eaten a fresh tomato since October. It’s one of the apparent downsides of eating locally.

But really the more I think about it the less of a downside it becomes. When eating seasonally and locally I experience a special level of excitement for each fruit and vegetable. Strawberries simply aren’t that special when they’re available all year. But restrict them to 2-4 weeks in June and suddenly a strawberry becomes special and “enchanting.” I have never seen children so excited as  when they’d run into the strawberry patch on a farm that I was working at to pick their own. There’s something special about that.

I used the word “enchanting” above because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of “disenchantment,” a term that sociologist Max Weber used to describe the character of a modernized, bureaucratic, and secularized West. According to Weber, whereas modern society places higher value on scientific rationale, “the world was a great enchanted garden” in pre-modern society (I think these two often coexist and I don’t really buy Weber’s demarcation-but I’m still going with this). Of course industrialized agriculture is a product of the modern world, so I think by following Weber’s logic it makes sense to say that there may be some level of disenchantment associated with nonlocal food. Conventional strawberries simply don’t cause the level of joy and excitement that we see with a local strawberry in June that’s red all the way through. 

Every April I like to go to West Fairmount Park to see the cherry blossoms. They’re in bloom for two weeks at best. In Japan the viewing of the cherry blossoms is symbolic of the Buddhist idea of “wabi-sabi,” which finds beauty in transience. What makes the blossoms so memorable is the very fact that it felt like they ended too soon. 

While I don’t think another month of strawberry season would hurt, I think these are both interesting ideas worth thinking about within the context of local food. It’s nice that there is one type of excitement followed by another: radishes, then asparagus, then strawberries, then tomatoes, then peaches, then apples, etc…until February hits. Then the wheel starts turning anew in late March. 

I took this picture at the Shofuso Japanese House in Fairmount Park last April. Pretty. 

Please leave a Google review if you have a moment.

Local Food Accessibility

Last year around this time I wrote some reflections on 2021. You can check it out here. It was comical musings on whether or not I should open a second location. I guess I did that. But I cheated because the first location closed, so we’re back to square one. It’s way too soon to start thinking about a new second location, but it is time to start thinking about some other things for 2023. The immediate goals are to start offering more products: prepared foods with local ingredients are coming next week (more on that next newsletter); maybe sustainable paper products; maybe nuts/seeds/grains from good sources if those exist. Also I want to do more fun events like the grand opening and some fun collaborations with other small businesses around town. Finally a new website is coming since the current one is atrociously outdated. 

And then there are some bigger things that I’m starting to think about in more detail. What about a Costco style model where there is a membership fee and all the items are sold at cost? Would that be financially sustainable? It might be. It might also destroy the business. It addresses something that has been on my mind for a decade: how can local, organic food, without the economies of scale of artificially low-priced conventional food, be not just more but a lot more financially accessible. A membership structure I think is the only potentially feasible way to do it. I might go in this direction. I might not. But I’ve started to analyze it on spreadsheets. Which is hard. Because I can’t stand being on the computer for very long.

A significant decrease in food prices under a membership structure also brings about another interesting topic: the percentage of household income that was spent on food over 100 years ago versus now.  Take a look at the chart all the way below.

In 1900 the average percentage of household income spent on food was significantly higher than it is today. Back then food cost more simply because there were many more local farms (6-7 million farms for a population of 75 million compared to around 1 million farms for a population of 330 million today) that did not have the production efficiencies and low labor costs of the large industrial farms today. With the industrialization and consolidation of the food industry and widespread urbanization in the later half of the 20th century food prices went down considerably. The same sort of thing happened with clothing. Entertainment, eating out, healthcare, automobiles, travel, and especially housing and higher education make up the bulk of household spending today to meet the demands and pleasures of a modern lifestyle. 

A marketing firm that I’m working with, Milk Street Marketing (cool people-check them out if you need help with your business), asked me when we first met who my competitors are. I gave them a long winded, highly ideological, disconnected-from-reality, newsletter-esc spiel (amazing that they still took me on as a client) about how my competitors are not places like Whole Foods, Giant, and Acme. They are rather places like movie theaters, restaurants, travel agencies and airlines, universities, and hospitals and healthcare providers (this was all kind of a joke of course but not really?) Pretty much anything that gets in the way of increasing the percentage of household spending of food back to 1900 levels.

Well, for those for whom this food is less financially assessable, theaters etc are not by my choice but by default indeed competitors if I maintain the current business structure of buying local foods and marking them up by some percentage. Just to use the logical fallacy of appealing to extremes for fun, this would in its extreme form involve trying to unravel a hundred years of economic growth, urbanization, and modern conveniences so that everyone just spends most of their income on food (or supplies to grow food) and not much else. Of course that’s ridiculous. Fun to think about in a Little House on the Prairie sort of way, but let’s not go down that route (unless you wanna?) If however the business structure changes to something like Costco’s model, well, then, looks like places like Whole Foods, Acme, and Giant could actually be real competitors since the prices would be pretty close. 

I want local, organic food to be affordable to all. It’s a challenge that could take a long time to figure out. Politicians are not talking about it in any feasible way. We gotta do it ourselves. I hope to have a better answer in 2023.

My Trip To Germany

I just got back home from my trip to Deutschland. I’m doing my best to stay up till 10 so that the jetlag doesn’t ruin my sleep schedule. When I arrived in Germany I asked my friends to keep me up. Despite my protests, they successfully did so. Now I’m hoping that writing this email will keep me up. 

I had a great time! Saw old friends. Walked around Christmas markets. Explored the old fairytale towns of Idstadt and Rüdesheim. And drank some Riesling by the the Rheine river in the Rheingau wine region.

The special bread this Thursday and Saturday by the way is the German style Schwartzbrot. This is pure coincidence. I ate some while there. The one from Ursa Bakery is better. Tut mir Leid, aber tut mir Leid nicht, Deutschland. (“Sorry but not sorry, Germany”)

Throughout Germany commemorative plaques called Stolpersteine (literally stumble stones) eternalize the lives of those lost during the Holocaust. They are laid into streets and sidewalks in front of the last known addresses of victims before their deportation and eventual murder. It is always chilling to stumble across these stones while walking to a bus station or going for an after dinner walk. Despite how much I’ve studied the history of this region, how a crime of such magnitude occurred will never cease to perplex and horrify me.

I visited Germany in 2006. It was a spur of the moment decision to go. They were doing quite well in the World Cup, which was actually taking place in Germany at the time. After they they played a remarkable game in the quarter final, I realized that this may be the only time in my life when I could see Germany win the World Cup in Germany. I booked a flight immediately after they won the quarter final. Annnd they promptly lost the semi-final a couple days after. I still had a great time. Germany won the 3rd place match while I was there. And I celebrated with all the Italians around town after Italy won the final against France. It was all somewhat disappointing for Germany, but the excitement that soccer brought out in people made the atmosphere lively, fun, and exciting. 

The stark contrast between the 2006 trip and this trip reconfirmed for me that Germany has since the Holocaust become a bastion of human rights. Every single person I interacted with was protesting the World Cup, which is going on now. Not a single bar or restaurant had it televised. This is because Qatar, the country hosting the World Cup this year, imprisons anyone engaged in same-sex sexual activity. And if it is a Muslim, they face execution under Sharia law. While Germans have been the most outspoken against the Qatari government today, all of this is complicated by the fact that the German government just decided to buy gas from Qatar for the next 15 years as a way to reduce dependency on Russian gas. All very messy.

While the atrocities of the 20th century–the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Darfur, etc etc etc –are all in the history books (well, some history books), evil acts are not confined to history and they are not confined to distant places. They are widespread, under our very noses, twisted within the wild realm of geopolitics/international trade, and are often closer to home than is readily apparent. Even many of the foods stored in our kitchen pantries are produced via them.

Pictured below are stones down the street from my friend’s house in Wiesbaden.

On the left reads:

“Here lived Henrietta Leoni. Born 1870. Deported to Theresienstadt (this was a waystation to the extermination camps and also a “retirement settlement” for the elderly in German occupied Czechoslovakia) 1942. Died in Feb 21st. 1943.”

On the right reads:

“Here lived Heinrich Leoni. Born 1908. Deported to Lublin (a ghetto in Poland) 1942. Murdered August 4th 1942 in Majdanek (a concentration camp adjacent to Lublin).”

Holiday Hours

Come by to 2587 Huntingdon Pike, Huntingdon Valley 19006. Wednesday: 10:30-7:00
Thursday: 10:30-7:00
Friday: 10:30-7:00
Saturday: 9:30-3:30
Sunday: CLOSED

Hi everyone!

This week will be normal hours except that I’ll be closed on Sunday. And same thing next week.

The special bread this Thursday is a chocolate cranberry boule: Chocolate chips, cocoa powder, local honey, local cranberries and nocino (a walnut liquor, please be aware if you have a nut allergy) from locally foraged walnuts are blended into sourdough for a semisweet treat. This will only be available on Thursday since Ursa Bakery will be closed Saturday. On Saturday I’ll have bread from Spelt Berry Bakery instead.

This week billions of people across the world will be celebrating Hannukah and Christmas. It is amazing to me that out of what was considered by the most powerful people the world had seen to be an insignificant backwater emerged what over time became some of the most widely celebrated holidays in history. Not only was ancient Judea an “insignificant” region, but the people who inhabited it were persecuted for centuries: Hannukah, after all, is a commemoration of a Jewish revolt against the political and religious persecution committed by the Seleucid Empire; and the nativity story of Jesus revolves around King Herod’s massacre of infant males in and around Bethlehem. That such widespread religious traditions emerged from a mostly unknown territory from powerless people speaks to the pervasiveness of their ideas and the strength of the communities that were shaped by them. Granted these holidays are commercialized within the context of modernity, and genuine belief in their origins has dwindled over time, for the most part those of us who celebrate them still maintain the spirit of the season.

It is also striking to me that 90% of the population of ancient Judea was in some form directly involved with agriculture. Most of the local economy revolved around the production of wheat, barley, sheep milk/meat/wool, dates, figs, and grapes. It is no surprise, then, that much of the Old and New Testaments contain references to agriculture: the Jewish calendar is connected to agricultural cycles; Leviticus contains laws that are designed to improve soil health; and Jesus preached his parables within an agricultural framework. While the religious traditions that emerged out of ancient Near East have spread far and wide, the everyday agricultural lifestyle of those who inhabited it has mostly dwindled. How I would love to see its reemergence in some form. And besides, there is no need to go to the gym if your New Years resolution is to start farming 🙂

Happy holidays to you all!

Oh and thank you all for the kind Google reviews! I’ll leave the link here at the bottom on each email for those who haven’t gotten to it yet.

See you!

Ice Cream

Over the course of the last several weeks I had the arduous and painstaking task of sampling dozens of ice cream flavors from all of the ice cream makers in our locale. Fortunately I emerged from these trials unscathed and with a new product to hit the shelves next week.

The thing about ice cream is that most creameries purchase an “ice cream base” from a large-scale industrial operation. These bases are composed of dehydrated milk powder (coming from bad dairy farms), all sorts of preservatives, chemicals, and artificial sweeteners. They then mix this base with their own flavorings. There are not very many creameries that make their own base (it requires a hard to get USDA certification), let alone very many creameries that use local, seasonal fruit and pastured dairy. There are a couple in our area that fit the bill, but one stood out: Owowcow Creamery. After experiencing the hospitality that I was shown there, learning about their philosophy, and tasting all of the flavors, I realized that this was the ice cream that I wanted to offer. They source their milk and cream directly from Painterland Farm, a local organic dairy farm owned and run by two sisters. The cows graze on open pasture. Most of the other ingredients are local. And those that are not, like the vanilla and chocolate, are coming from good sources. The decision was pretty easy, honestly, and I’m grateful for a friend who recommended them to me.

Anyway I’ll be carrying 10 flavors in pints and 2 of their ice cream pops. I’m not getting them this week. They’ll arrive next week. But I was just too excited to wait till then to tell you. They’ll only be available at Huntingdon Valley. Elkins Park folks: it’s worth the drive. I do hope that the self sacrifices that I made to fill my belly with copious amounts of ice cream over the course of the past couple weeks prove to be worthy.

How to put on socks

It’s interesting to me how each farm that I’ve worked at has a different feel. There are farms where the pace of work is quite relaxed. Work often slows down or even stops when a farmhand tells a joke or an interesting story. These farms are probably closest to how I romanticized farming before I ever started doing it. Oh how that all crumbled upon my first days at some of the more intense farms. Speed and efficiency are paramount. I had to learn how to work quickly and socialize at the same time.

Farming is tedious. Farmhands do the same movement over and over again for hours. A normal day could comprise of harvesting and bunching kale from 7:00 till 12:00, an hour lunch break, and planting tomatoes from 1:00-6:00. What can at first glance appear to be a small inefficiency doing these tasks can over those several hours result in a serious setback for the entire operation. The crew must then work later to accomplish everything. It leads to burnout.

A good farmer will teach his or her farmhands how to work as efficiently as possible with each seemingly insignificant hand movement. I am fortunate to have had mentors who railed this into my head. I recall something that a fellow farmhand jokingly said to me once.

Man, I’m even getting more efficient at putting my socks on!

I’m finding that I need to reapply these principles now that there are two locations. This past week was – well – very difficult and taxing. It also didn’t help that the walk-in freezer at Creekside broke down (again)…had to move a half ton of meat to the chest freezers that I always have on standby for when this happens.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to most efficiently order for two stores and one farmer’s market. Vegetables are the most difficult item to figure out since they are the most perishable. I won’t bore you with the specifics. Just take my word that there is a lot to juggle. The vegetable quality/quantity at the Elkins Park location suffered last week because of all this. I apologize. It’ll get better as I relearn how to put on my socks.

As a first step I’ll be working back at Creekside on Fridays and Brigette will be working at Huntingdon Valley starting this week. At the second location I’m very much enjoying seeing people who used to come to my backyard years ago when I was farming in Huntingdon Valley. And I’m very much enjoying getting to know new people. Your excitement and words of encouragement mean the world to me. I’m grateful. I’m also missing faces at Elkins Park at the same time.

People often ask me if I miss farming. It’s a difficult question to answer. I think that the main thing that I miss about farming is the fellowship that I had with people while doing the tedious tasks that I mentioned above. There is something about doing such tasks alongside others that naturally gives rise to good conversation and light-hearted fun. When I started my own farm it was just me doing tedious tasks alone. It wasn’t the same. In fact it was rather lonely. So it’s not farming I miss as much as it is people. I think that my presence at both locations would lend itself to having comradery with as many of you as I can.

Meat or Plants?

This week let’s explore various diets within the context of agriculture alone. I am not going to make any health claims about a meat-based or plant-based diet. I’m no expert on nutrition. Experts always make opposite claims about cholesterol and saturated fat. Unfortunately they generally do not take into account how different forms of agriculture relate to human health. They treat both animal-based foods and plant-based foods homogeneously.

In today’s newsletter I’m going to argue that, first, it is not a great idea to treat human health independently from the nuances of agriculture. Diet and human health no matter what we each choose to eat is tied to the environment. In the long run they come back to effect politics, economics, and human health. Second, it is misleading to claim that a plant-based diet is what’s best for the environment. There’s a lot to consider.

I first want to discuss something that’s happening right now in the Netherlands. Tens of thousands of Dutch farmers are protesting, blocking roadways, intimidating governmental officials, and blocking supermarket distribution hubs across the country in response to legislation that requires them to cut emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonium by 50% by 2030.

The Netherlands is the largest meat exporter in the EU; 60% of its agricultural revenue comes from exports. It isn’t exactly one of the largest countries by land mass, either. So this means that their more than 100 million chickens, pigs, and cows are packed tightly in feedlots. Runoff from the animals’ waste goes into waterways (the Netherlands has got a lot of those), creating dead zones that negatively impact protected habitats, air quality, and water quality. After Dutch courts decided to halt construction and infrastructure projects due to fears that those projects would lead to excessive emissions, the legislature decided to take action on farmers knowing full well that “not all farmers will be able to continue their business.” The Netherland’s ambitious climate goals has had some far reaching implications.

While the pollution caused by industrial agriculture is noticeable and pronounced in the Netherlands since it’s a small, densely populated country, we have similar problems here. Please take a look at this map, which shows how much landmass is used for various purposes.





That huge block front and center for cow pasture looks alarming. So much land for animals that create so much pollution? The obvious solution is to eat less meat and dairy, right?

It’s not that simple. I’d like to divert your attention to the bottom right of that large block, to the smaller blocks labeled “livestock feed” and “feed exports” (and also “ethanol” and “corn syrup”). These smaller blocks are the problem and I believe that the “cow pasture” block could even be even larger.
Most beef cattle spend the first 10-14 months on that large block eating grass. Meanwhile on the “livestock feed” block conventional farmers grow GMO corn and soy. They put some bad synthetic fertilizer into the soil and they spray some bad chemicals on the plants and they purchase all that bad stuff from some bad companies. They till the soil twice a year, which is also bad. The harvested and processed corn and soy eventually meets those now older cattle in feedlots to be “finished” for the last 3-4 months before slaughter. Adding to the damage done by growing and processing the corn/soy, the feedlots result in waste runoff as I mentioned above. That’s the deal with beef cattle. Conventional dairy cattle never see pasture and never eat grass. This is because conventional dairy farmers would have to bring in the cows from pasture to milking barns twice a day. Not possible when you have an enormous herd.

Even though those 3-4 months are a small fraction of the bulls’ total lives, the finishing stage does immense environmental damage. It’s also psychologically and physically damaging to them. They can’t even properly digest grains so they immediately get sick and are thus pumped full of drugs.

Contrast this to 100% grass-fed cattle. The cows have plenty of space, are under the sun, and eat what their complex digestive systems and gut flora allow them to eat. Since they aren’t crowded in feedlots and since they don’t depend on high impact corn/soy, there are no detrimental environmental effects. In fact, it’s a net positive. The dung and urine that goes into the soil enhances a pasture’s microbial life, which sequesters carbon and traps it into the soil. A recent study showed that a 100% grass-fed operation has a carbon footprint 111% lower than conventional beef: that means that for every kilogram of beef produced, 3.5 kilograms of carbon is sequestered. That’s taking into account every aspect of the farm’s operations.

Now let’s compare ruminants (beef, bison, venison, elk, sheep, and goat) to poultry and pork. Chickens, turkeys, and pigs do not eat grass. They are still dependent on corn/soy feed. The chickens I get meat and eggs from are pastured, so there is the benefit of carbon sequestration, and they do eat bugs and worms as they naturally should. The pigs I get pork from are rotationally grazed in the woods, so there is also carbon sequestration and they eat plenty of tubers and nuts as they naturally should. But the diet of bugs, worms, tubers, and nuts is more of a bonus. The animals are still highly dependent on corn (less dependent on soy: the farmers use a feed that is low in soy): non-GMO corn and soy, but corn and soy nonetheless. That comes with the negative impacts of tillage and fertilizer. But this is A LOT better than feedlot poultry/pork that uses GMO corn/soy.

Next step: let’s compare and contrast livestock farming with produce farming. With produce farming we need to distinguish between annual foods (plants that live 1 year: most veggies) and perennial foods (plants that live longer: most fruit). For a deeper discussion of annual vs perennial agriculture, click on the link.

First annuals: vegetable growers generally till every year in order to incorporate fertilizer into the soil and also to get the ground into a workable state to allow for planting. Tillage is not a great thing. I discussed this in previous newsletters in depth so I won’t go into it, but just take my word for it for now. But the fertilizer used by organic vegetable farmers comes from factory farms with animals that eat corn/soy: feather meal, blood meal, bone char, liquid fish from fish farms, etc. There is a method of farming called “veganic” farming that uses leaf compost. In fact when I farmed I did so veganically. But this was only possible because I had access to Abington Township’s amazing leaf compost yard. Normally compost is not an ample source of nutrients. However if you add A LOT as I did it can be sufficient. But veganic farming is very rare. Most organic farmers use byproducts of feedlots (Biodyanmic farms are an exception too-too much to get into now). We can either choose organic produce with feedlot byproducts or conventional produce with synthetic fertilizers (also problematic) and sprays. Pick your poison. Veganic no-till or Biodynamic no-till are the crème de la crème for annual produce production. It requires municipalities to pick up leaves and compost them with sufficient aeration. Abington is incredible at this.

Now perennials: pretty simple here. Fruit trees do not require tillage and do not require fertilization. They’re pretty easy going. They are the ruminants of the plant kingdom. But the downside is the spray. It takes a lot to be an organic orchardist in this region. There aren’t many, and those who grow stone fruit and apples organically do not do so at any volume to wholesale. The fruit I offer is IPM (Integrated Pest Management) which means that the trees are monitored and sprayed only when necessary. I have also heard rumors that the organic fruit in grocery stores is coming from organic trees that are surrounded by conventional trees, creating a barrier. I haven’t been able to confirm this.

There are many things that I didn’t mention. The point that I’m trying to make is that the “eat less meat” argument from an environmental standpoint is somewhat simplistic. On the contrary out of each of the agricultural categories that I’ve discussed the only one that is without fault is grass-fed ruminants. Not only is it without fault but it’s the only category that’s a net positive for the environment when raised the right way. There are no external inputs needed: poultry and pork need externally grown corn/soy, annual produce needs tillage and externally produced fertilizer, and perennial produce needs sprays. Grass-fed ruminant farming is the least impactful form of agriculture today.

While a ruminant-based diet is the least impactful, I’m not advocating that we all eat nothing but rib eye and cheese. I’m only pointing out that any argument for or against a diet requires consideration of  different agricultural methods. Also, it seems to me that those who pose solutions to the climate crisis are doing so solely within a “do less harm” (less emissions) frame of mind rather than a “do more good” (carbon sequestration) frame of mind. So in the Netherlands legislators give more emphasis to “doing less harm” via reducing herds within the existing feedlot system rather than “doing more good” via assisting farmers to transition to a pasture-based system. I think that we need a combination of both of these mindsets because most forms of agricultural are inherently destructive. This will always be the case in a modern world where most people are not growing their own food. Unless we start growing food in test tubes (over my dead body, Bill Gates). For those forms of agriculture that are inherently destructive (pretty much most of them besides raising ruminants), I think we should focus on less harm: less tillage, less sprays, less animal-based fertilizer, less corn/soy reliance. And at the same time I think we should focus more on those forms of agriculture that are “doing more good:” pastured ruminants, oyster farming (they filter water), mushrooms (which break down organic matter into stable carbon), veganic no-till, and Biodynamics (Biodynamics is Pandora’s box and I’m not opening it today).

It’s a messy situation in the Netherlands. Many farmers want to transition to a pastured system but need more time and financial assistance to pay off debts. Other farmers don’t want to change. Legislators say it’s time to make a difference no matter what even if it means many farmers go out of business. What got the Netherlands into this mess to begin with was their conscious decision to feed the world. They accomplished it temporarily but sacrificed a lot. A global food system that pushes the boundaries of what the environment can sustain does not work in the long run. It never will. Many Dutch farmers are worried that the entire industry will collapse. It might. I hope that the rest of the world learns from their mistake.

Dave and the Chocolate Factory

Yesterday I visited the Moka Origins factory in the Poconos where they make their wonderful chocolate. Over the past year I’ve started offering some products that don’t grow anywhere around us: spices, chocolate, coffee, etc (actually I think that’s it?) I was always hesitant to carry these because generally speaking the further one gets away from the source of one’s food, the more likely it becomes to overlook the ills of an ethically broken system: forced child labor, unfair pay, lack of reinvestment, low grade ingredients, to name a few. Some large multinational, publicly traded food companies have a tendency of caving into Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) after mounting pressure from activists, retailers, customers, and politicians, but I have always found these efforts to be insincere and inadequate. I had a job in a past life where I worked for a socially conscious investment firm. A part of my job was to interview the CSR departments of publicly traded companies to see if their efforts were good enough for us to purchase shares. I never really thought that they were.

I checked out Moka’s website after one of my customers/friends told me about them. After a phone call conversation, it became clear to me that environmental stewardship and positive social impact is their raison d’etre. While many large companies have CSR departments as a side thing, Jeff, the founder and CEO, started Moka in order to do things like paying farmers a living wage, reinvesting in local infrastructure, combating poverty, and helping the environment. It’s why these chocolate bars cost $8.

For a while I’ve been wanting to address inflation on this newsletter, something we are constantly hearing and thinking about these days. Seems like the right time to do it now. There are exceptions, but for the most part I am finding that inflation mostly effects goods and services that are closely tied to global markets and long distribution chains. To borrow Thomas Aquinas’s idea of primary and secondary causation, I’d argue that monetary policy, fiscal policy, geopolitical conflicts, and pandemics, everything that we hear in the news that all too easily invites blame and outrage towards one or another political party, are all secondary causes that are not as significant as we are told. The primary cause of high levels of inflation, I think, is more likely the fact that the global economy is made up of long, complex web of producers and distributors. The components of a glass jar and lid, for instance, circumvents the globe several times before it hits a shelf somewhere. A rise in price of just one resource, like oil, compounds down the supply chain.

But this doesn’t really happen in a local economy. It also doesn’t happen with companies like Moka, which deals directly with farmers abroad instead of with distributors who deal with distributors who deal with distributors who deal with an auction house which deals with a distributor who finally deals with a farmer. Fewer degrees of separation mean fewer compounding price hikes. So despite the fact that we have over 8% inflation nationwide, only eggs have gone up in price here at Dave’s Backyard Farms (by 50 cents).

The thing is, a globalized system that has large companies acting within a complex distribution web brings with it efficiencies and economies of scale that allow for ARTIFICIALLY LOW prices. The very reason why these prices are artificially low subjects them to inflationary pressure. In the chocolate and spice industries, these low prices in turn are detrimental to farmers in Africa and Latin America. Contrast this to Moka: the price of $8 a bar is NORMAL; normal because it allows for a normal living wage; it allows for normal infrastructure investment; and it allows for normal environmental stewardship. The interpersonal relations and emotional exchange that occurs between farmers and Moka employees on a regular basis are absent in large, multinational companies. All too easy for business practices to consciously or unconsciously result in exploitation when that’s the case.

This type of sourcing is not only beneficial to people and the planet, but it also results in greater economic stability. When we hear about inflation in the news, I try to think less about the secondary, more fleeting causes that we hear about all the time. The primary cause is deeper, more hidden, and is connected to other problems.

Anyhow, I had a great time there. Moka’s factory is located on the beautiful Himalayan Institute, where I stayed for a night. It’s a yoga retreat with really nice hiking trails. I haven’t done much yoga, but I did some while there. And some silent meditation. It was a nice way to take a rejuvenating mini-vacation. I’m back now with a bit of caffeine withdrawal, full of chocolate and schnozberries, and I look forward to seeing your smiling faces this week.

How to help Ukraine

I want to talk a little about how the scars of century-year old national tragedies reopen during modern-day acts of aggression. Ukraine has for over a hundred years fought for her autonomy, and the most devastating event in her history was the Holodomor (literally “death by starvation”) that occurred under Joseph Stalin in 1931-1933.

In his First Five Year Plan Stalin’s goal was to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union to catch up with the West. A part of this plan was to integrate privately owned land into collectively-owned, state-controlled farms called kolkhozes (collectivization), to requester grain to support urban factory workers, and to deport/murder those who Stalin and his cronies considered to be “wealthy” peasants. They were called “kulaks,” and the deportation/murder of them was called dekulakization-close to 2 million people. The grain quotas placed upon the remaining farmers were unrealistic and the resulting removal of grain from the countryside let to the mass starvation of millions. Ukraine was hit the hardest, since Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and of Imperial Russia before it. Around 5 million Ukrainians died of starvation.

This is the official position of the Russian Federation and of some bad historians. While it’s partially accurate, it’s not even close to a complete description of the Holodomor. This description makes it seem as if the death of millions was the result of the Soviet Union’s economic policies taking precedence over individual human life. Certainly it was to some extent a result of this, but it is also the result of Stalin’s intentional strategy of crushing Ukrainian national aspirations, of consolidating his power, and of ushering in the socialist revolution. The famine was closely tied to the murder of Ukrainian nationalists, who just a couple decades prior had achieved a short lived independence. Correctly labeling the Holodomor has been a point of conjecture amongst governments and historians, and lots of this has to do with the limitations of the UN’s definition of “genocide” (guess why it’s so limited–Stalin petitioned the UN in the 1948 to limit it) but there is no question that the events that took place in 1931-33 Ukraine constitute genocide.

We see a lot of the same rhetoric in Russian state media involving the invasion of Ukraine today as we did in Soviet publications in 1931. Just as Putin calls Ukrainians “fascists and neo-Nazis” to justify his war, Stalin called Ukrainians “fascists and bourgeois nationalists” in 1933. Just as Putin is suppressing journalists today who tell the truth, Stalin suppressed knowledge of the famine within the wider Soviet Union and prevented outside journalists from coming in. Just as Putin is opposed to schools teaching Ukrainian and not Russian, Stalin engaged in a linguistic Russification campaign in the late 1920s. It’s a lot of the same thing.

In September 2020 when Azerbaijan invaded Nargono-Karabakh, majority occupied by Armenians for millennia, we feared that once they took the territory there would be an ethnic cleansing. That’s exactly what’s happening in the region: ancient churches and cemeteries have been destroyed and ethnic Armenians are being murdered and forced out of their homes. It reopened the historic scars of the genocide Armenians experienced in 1915. I believe that the Ukrainians are experiencing something similar. We both have genocides in our history that are not widely recognized and we are both the subject of aggression by tyrants. In fact I originally started studying history because of the Armenian Genocide. I later realized that there are other genocides in history that aren’t widely recognized, which ultimately led me to writing my undergraduate thesis on the Holodomor and Ukrainian history. What’s going on today hits home.

There are many ways to help Ukraine. Here are some links to donate :
Ukrainian National Women’s League
United Help Ukraine:

The Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center at 700 N Cedar Rd is accepting donations of non perishables Mon-Fri 9am-7pm which they ship over to Ukraine. Check out their website to see what they are in need of.

Please support Ukraine in any way that you can, and please keep them in your prays.

Permaculture, Nature, and the Torah

January is the time of year when farmers begin planning for the next season. They figure out how much to grow of each crop, they figure out where in the field to plant them based on complicated crop rotation patterns, and sometimes they plan to experiment with special methods that they may have read about somewhere or learned about at a winter conference. There are so many different types of agricultural methods, so much so that mentors of mine have said that there are as many ways to farm as there are farmers (so like, over a million different ways to farm).

Today I want to focus on one main agricultural method and how it differs from all other agricultural methods. It’s so different that it’s actually not agriculture at all. The term “agriculture” refers to something very specific, and basically 99.9999% of the world’s food supply is produced via it. What I mean by this will become clear below, but I am talking about the difference between “permaculture” and “agriculture.”

Before I get into permaculture, I want to say that agriculture – no matter if it’s organic or conventional – is inherently destructive and “unnatural” (more on this word later). Cutting down forests, turning soil every year, planting equidistantly in long, straight beds that are themselves spaced equidistantly, weeding, etc – all unique characteristics of agriculture- are relatively new in the 200,000 years of human history. It emerged about 10,000 years ago simultaneously in a couple specific locations – probably modern day Iraq and northern China- and spread from there across the world over time, fundamentally changing the surface of our planet and how we interacted with the animal and plant kingdoms.

The thing about agriculture is that it’s highly efficient at producing food. Agricultural farmers, throughout history, became more and more efficient over generations to the point that they were able to produce more than they needed for their own personal consumption. This meant that not everyone had to farm. It’s no coincidence that the rise of urban living, art, and culture coincided with the rise in agricultural efficiency. This is why we have cities, because someone somewhere thousands of years ago decided to turn some soil over, probably so that they could regularly get drunk off beer. Yea, I’d do the same.

Now permaculture is something different. While I’d say that agriculture is the result of human ingenuity “working against nature,” permaculture is the result of human ingenuity more closely “mimicking nature” (whatever these terms mean – again these are problematic ways of using these words-I’m just using them here for simplicity and I’ll clarify later). This is done in a number of different ways, but I’d like to highlight just one: how long the plants live. Agriculture relies almost entirely on annuals: plants that must be replanted every year. They don’t live long enough for their roots to develop; this means they can’t reach moisture and nutrients located deep in the soil, which further means that they have to be regularly irrigated and fertilized with external inputs. Then they are harvested, leaving bare soil, which is then turned again the next year. All of this is very invasive. Organic farmers do everything that they can to mitigate this invasiveness via various means. But still, agriculture is agriculture. Permaculture, on the other hand, focuses on perennials, long living plants that develop deep root systems. They don’t have to be irrigated or fertilized; the soil does not need to be turned every year, so vital fungal networks that are otherwise destroyed via tillage are free to fully develop, and they form stable ecosystems that resemble forests. So, maybe we should get drunk off perennial-derived hard cider instead of annual-derived beer? (Did you know that there is a cidery around us? Young American Hard Cider-check them out).

There is the question however of whether or not if permaculture efficiently produces as much food per acre as agriculture. The two schools of thought are often at odds with one another. I do think that both could benefit from adopting methods and philosophies from each other, and agriculturalists often do employ permacultural methods. In any event, I’m not writing all this to claim that one method is better than the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Rather, I’m mentioning all of this as an introduction to what I really want to convey: what do the differences between agriculture and permaculture tell us about our place and role in nature? And what in fact is nature, if that word has any meaning whatsoever? And finally, how should we live our lives?

The phrases “working against nature” and “mimicking nature” that I wrote above can all too easily lead one to the conclusion that humans are somehow separate from nature, that nature is some entity that humans either work with or against. This view, that humanity is separate from nature, emerged with Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon during the Scientific Revolution. Descartes, a rationalist, believed that humans are outside and above nature because he claimed that we are unique in our ability to use “reason.” Similarly, Bacon, an empiricist, believed that humans are outside and above nature because we are unique in our ability to use “sensory observation.” We probably know a lot more about plants and animals now compared to the 1600s, but animals are fully capable of “reasoning” and “sensory perception”, and plants have their own form of these.

The man/nature duality, as this came to be known, has led to two seemingly opposing outlooks, which I’d say are more or less two sides of the same coin. The first is what we see with many industrialists: that humans are meant to ruthlessly exploit nature so that it would yield to us. Well, this will always come back to bite us in the behind. The second is what we see with many modern-day environmentalists, that humans are a disease and nature will be at equilibrium if there were only less of us. Well, nature still will have blight, natural disasters, and that darn groundhog that destroys my kale plants. I think that both of these worldviews are problematic. They both stem from Descartes’s and Bacon’s separation of nature and humanity, which laid the framework from which they could emerge.

Truth is, we are very much a part of nature. At the same time though, I believe that humans do have a higher standing compared to everything else, but not because of Descartes’s and Bacon’s ideas that we are unique in our ability to rationalize and observe – these are both plainly false. Of all the modern philosophers I think that Martin Heidegger’s idea of “Dasein” might be a bit more convincing: he said that humans are unique because we are the only being that questions our own “beingness.” But not everyone asks that question, so maybe it doesn’t work. I don’t know. But anyway, prior to any of these dudes, most people maintained the worldview of the ancients. If I had to choose the single most influential book written in history, at least one that is still widely read, it would be the first book of the Torah, “Bereshit” in Hebrew (literally “in the beginning”), also known as the Book of Genesis. Descartes, Bacon, and others have responded to it in one way or another.

Whether or not one believes the Book of Genesis literally, metaphorically, or not at all, I think that the creation story in the first chapter has some very interesting things to say about humans and nature. At this point I’m going to switch away from the term “nature” because really, the connotation of this word presupposes the exclusion of humanity. On all the dating aps I’m on, so many people describe themselves as a “nature lover.” And I don’t really know why I don’t get responses after I keep asking, “so do you mean trees AND humanity or just trees?” Hopelessly romantic, I know. Maybe I should just copy and paste this entire newsletter next time to give some context. Anyway, I want to start using the word “creation.” This word more clearly includes humans. (just to be clear I’m not making any claims about creationism vs. evolution, another topic entirely. I’m using the word creation because it just fits better with what I’m talking about.

In the first chapter God creates plants and animals before humans. But he doesn’t only create them; he also ascribes the value of goodness to them: “And God saw that it was good.” We see an inherent “goodness” ascribed to plants and animals. He then goes on to create humans. But there is a difference between the creation of humans and the creation of plants and animals: while they are all ascribed as “good,” God creates humans in the image of himself. Hence humans have a higher standing than plants and animals. Right away we see here something completely different from what Descartes and Bacon were arguing. According to ancient thought, humans are IN creation alongside plants and animals: they all have the same source. At the same time, humans are HIGHER than the rest of creation. Yet this hierarchy does not imply exploitation. On the contrary, all of creation is valued as good. According to Descartes and Bacon, humans are separate from nature, and nature CANNOT be called “good” because they also constructed what’s called the fact/value opposition. The fact/value opposition claims that things cannot have inherent goodness. This was fundamental to the rise of science and to the exploitation of nature by man-it’s another important topic that I’m not going to get into. This is getting long enough, but you can read about it here).

Now, back to permaculture. I think that the most interesting part about Genesis is the fact that humans were created within a permacultural system: the Garden of Eden has nothing but perennials. Adam and Eve do not have to turn the soil. They just walk up to a tree and pluck the fruit. However, after the fall, God kicks them out of the garden and tells them that they have to now “work the ground” (sounds like tillage) and that the ground will “produce thorns and thistles” (sounds like weeds). There is an immediate switch from permaculture to agriculture. Interesting.

So let me bring this all together…There are some great questions that we discussed in my undergraduate courses at Ursinus College, and I enjoy revisiting them as I grow older, as I learn more, and as I write more. How should we produce food? What is our role in nature/creation as humans? And how should we live our lives? I think that we ought to produce food in such a way that captures a lot of the characteristics of the pre-fall permaculture within the context of the productive efficiencies of post-fall agriculture as best we can. I also think that we need to have a relationship with all fellow created beings in such a way that is respectful and loving of their intrinsic value. But we need to do so in such a way that also gives homage to our own, higher intrinsic value. What does this mean for you? For me, it means having the time to enjoy consuming and making art, music, poetry, and philosophy, and to get drunk off both annual-derived beer on Fridays and perennial-derived cider on Saturdays (you don’t wanna mix them) with friends and loved ones, with plants and pets present. All of the things that make life worth living.