Dateline: 1 December 2007
|Aspiring small-scale farmers can learn a lot about how to make a living and a life on a relatively small section of land from Grant Gibbs' advice and example. (Grant is pictured on the far left)|
A couple blogs back, I made an offhand comment about the documentary film, Broken Limbs, and Grant Gibbs, a man who is featured in the film. Now I am going to tell you more.
I purchased a copy of Broken Limbs a few months ago. It is a low-budget but fine-quality independent film about the decline of small apple farms and traditional apple agriculture in Wenatchee, Washington.
Wenatchee’s once prosperous small-scale apple farmers have, in recent years, been hard hit by consolidation and globalization of agriculture. What small farm in America has not been negatively affected by consolidation and globalization?
This story of the decline of small apple farms in the Pacific Northwest is poignant and heart wrenching. It is an emotional experience to see a family lose their land, their home, and their way of life, as does one family featured in the movie.
But this is not a documentary of despair. It is one of hope and promise. After showing the dismal economic reality of debt-bound, small-farm agriculture that relies on the selling of its crops at commodity prices to survive, the movie offers a solution.
The solution is presented by professor John Ikerd, a learned man with an incredibly perspicacious grasp of the historical, political, economic, and social dynamics of agriculture. Ikerd also has the ability to speak clearly and compellingly about the problems and solutions.
Professor Ikerd makes it clear that industrial agriculture is rapacious and unsustainable. He repeatedly states throughout his vast body of writings (see link below) that in order to be sustainable, agriculture must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. He has termed this new vision of sustainable farming as New American Farming and those who pursue it are New American Farmers. Ikerd says:
“The kind of farming we’re talking about in terms of sustainability requires the creativity, it requires the imagination, it requires now determining what you can do in terms of recreating agriculture in a particular area.”
“There are literally thousands if not hundreds of thousands of farmers across this country and around the world that are thinking in different ways. They are working thinkers, thinking workers if you will. These are the New American farmers”
After introducing professor Ikerd and his ideas about New American Farming, the movie introduces some New American farmers, one of which is Grant Gibbs. Gibbs is the real deal—a successful, small-scale, diversified, organic farmer with 30 years of experience behind him.
From the movie and this internet article I learned that Gibbs owns 80 acres of land, 60 of which are wooded, in Chelan County, Washington, 100 miles east of Seattle. The Gibbs farm produces cattle, hogs, chickens, vegetables (2-1/2 acres), fruits (apples & pears), Christmas trees, and timber (he has his own sawmill). Gibbs markets his farm products direct to neighbors, through farmer’s markets, and to food co-ops, all within a 20-mile radius of his farm.
Here is an interview excerpt from Gibbs on the Broken Limbs DVD:
My main thing in farmin’ is to farm food for poor people. Organic food for poor people. I’m not trying to hit the higher end Microsoft spectrum of high end incomes. Let some other organic grower do that. I want to grow organic food that people in Chelan County can afford.”
From the documentary we learn that Gibbs does not abide by commodity pricing for his apple crop. He sets his own price and holds it. When the commodity price once dropped to $21 a box, Gibbs refused to sell his crop for less than $26 a box. That was what he needed and if he didn’t get it he figured he would just feed the crop to his hogs. Out of ten small-scale-store customers, eight stayed with Gibbs and paid him the $26. That kind of story underscores the value of relationship marketing.
Gibbs lives simply and debt-free. He says, I live within my means. I farm within my means. In an interview segment on the DVD titled, “Grant: On Living Simply,” Gibbs says:
“I’m not plugged into the mass media and all the pressure from the outside, say it be a chemical company or John Deere tractor company, or Monsanto, or whoever. It does not matter. I’m not plugged into any of that. I’m isolated from it. And if I want to drive a 1969 pickup ‘till I die, I’m gonna do it. There’s no pressure for me to go get an F350, 1999 Powerstroke Ford diesel. I don’t want it and I don’t need it. I don’t need the debt. I don’t need the higher license. I don’t need the higher insurance. All that would drag my farm profit down, right? We’re selling this whole apple crop out of a pickup that only cost $300.”
Gibbs built himself a solar log home with wood from his property, and no bank loan. It took him three years and cost $18,000. We get the impression that Grant is a multitalented and capable man, much like the yeoman farmers of old. Sitting at the kitchen table of his solar log home he tells the interviewer:
“I got the skills, mechanic skills, I could be down in Wenatchee diesel mechanicing for some truck shop down there. I could be a welder/fabricator over on the coast doing, you know, fabrication work. Or I could be a Wyerhauser forester. You know, I got all these different things I could do. But I’m not a money-driven person. I’m a happiness-driven person. And happiness to me comes from being on the land, and working with the land.”
Gibbs is an endearing example of the New American Farmer. His objective is to create a farm that suits his land and takes care of its own needs. He believes he is close to being completely self-sustaining on his property. The biggest threat to this is the rising cost of property taxes.
One of the greatest things about Grant Gibbs is his desire to teach others what he knows about sustainable agriculture. For the past twelve years he has hosted seasonal interns at his farm.
“I want to teach these kids how to grow a crop without going to the credit union to borrow the money. I want to teach them how to save the seeds if they want to and not have any money in growing it other than the fuel to turn the soil [and] make the seed bed.”
If I were a young man again, with my life ahead of me, and a desire to learn and establish myself on the land, I would find my way to Grant Gibbs’ farm and learn from this man. Such apprenticeships were not around when I was 18 years old and yearning to be a farmer, but not having any idea how I could possibly make it happen. Gibbs is doing something remarkable on his small piece of the planet. He appears to be a fine example of the pioneering New American Farmer
If you have an interest in New American Farming, I encourage you to read the internet writings of John Ikerd. One of the bonus features of the Broken Limbs DVD is a keynote address by professor Ikerd.