Community Farm Alliance (CFA), a long-time Farm Aid funded group, is bringing local food back to Kentucky. Working with farmer and consumer members, the organization seeks to build local food systems and help local farmers thrive. From farm to school programs to on-farm education, farmers are building local food systems that are designed to last. As a CFA board member and young farmer, Adam Barr offers a lot of hope for the movement.
Farm Aid talked with Adam about being a seventh generation family farmer, the environmental impacts of eating beef and whether or not farmers really wear overalls.
Q: Tell us a little about the history of your farm.
A: The Barr family has farmed this land for seven generations now. In January, I purchased the home that my grandfather built in 1952. My father owns the home his great-grandfather built 120 years ago, and just down the road the original Barr home from 1835 is still standing.
Q: What do you grow or raise these days?
A: We have been primarily a three family beef cattle operation for just over 20 years. We run a mixed herd of Red and Black Angus. My dad and his brothers own a total of 275 acres of woods, pasture and hay fields, and I just bought 2.5 acres from them. That’s why it’s called Barr Farms because everyone in the family has some ownership of the land, but we all farm together. When it’s time to move or work cattle it’s a family ordeal. When he was alive, my grandfather raised tobacco and sprayed tobacco for just about everyone in the county. But we’ve been out of tobacco for some years now. This year will be the first year for vegetable production. I’ll be growing a large variety of mixed vegetables on 1.25 acres to market at Smoketown Farmer’s Market in Louisville, KY. An 11-member CSA provides the backbone of farm income for me, and again it’s the first year for that. We’re also inoculating about 400 logs for gourmet and medicinal mushroom production to begin next year. Varieties will include shitake, maitake, oyster, wine cap strophoria and others. Also, I plan to slaughter several cattle this year to sell at Smoketown Market and through my CSA.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a farmer?
A: I was born in Lexington, but spent a lot of time on the farm as a kid growing up. Despite being born in the city, I got the farming gene. My desire to farm manifested itself during what I call my quarter-century crisis when I was a 24 year old college graduate with a degree in Biomedical Engineering. Basically, my values and concept of health did not match with the career I’d chosen. Then my real education in health began to take shape as the ideas of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Mansobu Fukuoka and my new “alternative” farmer friends really began to speak to me. The discovery that all health comes from the soil blew me away, and it may sound quaint, but I’ve never been the same.
Q: How did you start farming?
A: I spent two years as an intern on CSA-based farms in Alabama and Kentucky, including my neighbor’s farm here in Meade County. My family had such a strong history in agriculture, and I discovered there is nothing more gratifying than cultivating the land with nature as a teacher. Now 3 years after that revelation I’m 27, just bought into the family farm and started my CSA. Despite the current state of crisis that our agricultural system is in, I firmly believe starting to farm full time is the best decision I have ever made.
Q: What advice would you give to young or beginning farmers?
A: My advice to someone who wants to start farming is know your market. Spend some time working on other folks’ farms so you can see what it’s really like to do the work before you buy any land. Then if you can, BUY LAND. There is a lot of real-estate pressure going on these days, and the farmer replacement rate is below 50%. That means for every two farmers that get out, there is only one coming in. It’s a simple concept really: In order to have a healthy prosperous agricultural economy we need more people living on and working the land-not fewer people. So be sure to own your land. Average day? I get up when the sun does. Go to the greenhouse and make sure my plants are all in good shape. Do some watering, do some cultivating, do some planting. Whatever the garden requires. When the garden is taken care of, then I turn my attention to the larger farm: planning and planting hayfields; cutting, raking and baling hay in the summer. The list is long. Basically, there is always a job on the list. That’s the best and worst part of farming: you are never bored and always busy.
Q: We often hear people discussing the environmental impact of raising, shipping and eating meat. Do you have any advice for consumers who are concerned about this issue?
A: Meat can be very costly to the environment when raised using the industrial method of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Although the meat is cheap, the costs are multiple: 1) to land to raise all the corn to feed these animals, 2) to the watershed to deal with the large quantities of manure, 3) to the people who eat unhealthy meat. And these are just a few of the problems…not to mention the corporate control of meat production.
But, and this is a big but… To borrow a concept from Joel Salatin: Grazing animals is the most efficient way to turn sunlight into usable energy for humans. Grass is by far the most abundant plant on the planet, but unfortunately we humans cannot consume grass (beyond juicing sprouts) because we don’t digest cellulose. On the other hand, cattle were born to digest cellulose, i.e. grass, not the grain they’re fed in CAFOs. Cattle raised on healthy grass actually improve the growth of the pasture and they’re healthier too. So for those people concerned about eating meat, I would advise: KNOW YOUR FARMER. Eat animals raised on pasture and not on grain. Eat animals that come from your “foodshed”. Avoid meat raised in CAFOs and shipped across the country.
Q: Do you ever wear overalls?
A: Hell yes I wear overalls! There is nothing more comfortable to work in while it’s hot outside. Also, I wear coveralls during the winter because nothing keeps you as warm when you’re working. And I wear a wide-brimmed straw hat to protect from the sun. There’s a reason farmers wear these “funny-looking” clothes–they are functional and comfortable.
Q: Do you have a favorite chore?
A: My favorite thing to do is go rouging or scouting a field. Checking plants, looking out for insects in the garden, just generally observing what things are happening in nature. Everything a farmer needs to know is already taking place in nature. As a young farmer I’ve found that the closer I imitate nature, the more she rewards with a bountiful crop and healthy animals.
Q: How has Community Farm Alliance helped you, as a young farmer?
A: Well, to protect the family farm lifestyle, I needed to help organize and push for a more local and just food system. So now I serve on the Board of Community Farm Alliance, which organizes and promotes cooperation between farmers, rural and urban citizens to promote a place for healthy, family-scale agriculture in Kentucky. We believe in a concept we call LIFE, a local independent food economy. CFA is a multitalented organization that works on everything from issues like tobacco and the National Animal ID System to projects like our Louisville Community Food Assessment and the Bath County farm-to-school program. I’m quite proud to be a part of the organization. See www.communityfarmalliance.org…..Become a member!
Q: How can people buy food from Barr Farm?
A: In June I begin selling produce and meat at the Smoketown Farmers Market. It’s a CFA sponsored market in downtown Louisville where there is very little access to healthy, fresh local produce. My CSA is full for the spring season, but I will take on some more members for the fall season. See my web site contact information to see about a share. Also, I plan to sell my products through Grasshoppers, a local food distribution center in Louisville. This is another CFA project started by farmers to market local produce to restaurants and make a better connection between farmers and consumers.