Several years ago, Todd Benson acted on a not-uncommon fantasy for a corporate-world employee. Casting aside a $60-per-hour job in the computer industry, he committed, in partnership with wife Oasis, to the lifestyle of a small-scale organic farmer. It was a risky leap, but although making the move was scary at the time, he hasn't had any regrets since.
But, he added, “it's not a completely simple life. Your business as a farmer is defined by your problems. It's incessant more than it's hard. People never stop eating, and the plants never stop growing.”
The genie's out of the bottle
The obsessions with food and entertainment modern Americans share with Juvenal's Rome is often accompanied by indifference about where those commodities originate-as long as they're plentiful, readily available and satisfy a particular longing.
However, groundbreaking research in genetic sciences has stirred up great cauldrons of debates in every arena they touch. That public dialogue has been inspired by events ranging from the risible to the deeply thought provoking-from the Raelian “Eve” to the euthanasia of Dolly the sheep to a Congressional vote on banning all human cloning to genetically engineered foods (called “biotech foods” by conglomerates such as Monsanto). And international political intensity regarding genetically modified foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has escalated during the past several months.
In February 2003, the Bush administration announced (in a move apparently aimed at diffusing tensions between the United States and its European allies already riled over the issue of war in Iraq) it would postpone filing a suit against 15 governments of the European Union. Since 1998, those EU states have banned the import or cultivation on their territories of all new GMO products. It has been estimated that as much as 75 percent of U.S. food products could contain GMO ingredients.
U.S. trade representative Robert B. Zoellick was quoted as saying the European GMO ban was “immoral” and “Luddite” for its contribution to starvation in developing countries. Critics also blasted the ban as an extreme financial blow to U.S. farmers.
How complicated it's all become was reflected in a recent report that last fall, both India and Zambia, where millions go hungry, turned down U.S. food-aid shipments of corn and soy. (“I'd rather die than eat something toxic,” Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa was quoted.)
Heated opposition also swirls around the idea of promoting laws that require labeling of GMO foods.
Nancy Casady, general manager of the Ocean Beach People's Co-Op, which promotes organically grown produce, said that labels used about two years ago to verify products as “GMO-free” are no longer used. The practice of transporting product in a truck container that had previously carried “altered” product brought up issues of contamination. The same could happen, she said, by processing a non-altered product through a mill or even just holding it in a bucket that hasn't been completely sanitized. Labels now read, “Grown from non-GMO engineered seeds.”
Also at play is the concept of drift, contamination that could theoretically occur if a GMO crop is grown next to a non-GMO field. The Co-Op can use its purchasing power to support what it considers safe practices, “but we can't guarantee in today's world that anything is GMO-free,” Casady said.
Mocking biotech industry claims that agriculture has practiced genetic engineering for eons, Casady said, “It's one thing to cross-pollinate daisies. Then there's actually altering DNA. The basic building blocks of life itself are being altered, and the people doing it have no idea what they're doing. No one's ever done it before.”
As evidence that much more information is needed before GMOs can be declared safe for consumers, those who question the prevalence of GMO products on U.S. supermarket shelves cite such studies as one conducted in 1999 by Cornell University researchers. They found that the pollen of a commercial, genetically engineered type of corn killed Monarch butterfly larvae.
Critics also refer to potential risks and conflicts posed to individuals with allergies or vegetarians when, say, a banana gets crossed with a nut or a tomato receives some fish genes. A common moniker opponents give to GMO products is “Frankenfood.” Getting right down to it, they maintain, organic is the only method that comes close to producing a non-GMO product.
State Department of Food & Agriculture statistics show California agriculture overall was a $27.6 billion industry, with San Diego ranking eighth among the top agricultural counties. Other statistics reveal agriculture follows the more high-profile industries of manufacturing, tourism and defense as the fourth largest in San Diego County, contributing upwards of $1 billion to the local economy. Of the 6,000 or so farmers making a living in this county, about 65 percent harvest nine acres or less.
Organic farming in California (defined by the California Organic Food Act of 1979 and regulated by the California Organic Foods Act of 1990) is an estimated $250 million industry. Organics have been called the fastest growing food market in North America, with fresh fruits and vegetables leading sales. An estimated 5,000 acres of organic crops are currently cultivated in San Diego County, which also hosts a significant number of certified organic farmers.
Committed not just to organic products but also to sustainable farming methods and the preservation of heirloom seed varieties-those that have not been tampered with-the Bensons face what even some of their supporters concede could be insurmountable obstacles for the scope of a project they currently envision.
The couple has leased and farmed three acres of a 10-acre plot, The Good Faith Organic Farm, located on a 180-acre ranch near Jamul, since 1998. They sell the resulting produce at local farmers' markets: three in the winter (Coronado, Hillcrest and La Mesa) and five in the summer. They also distribute some produce, primarily salad mix, to the co-op in Ocean Beach.
“We'd like to do more, but the truth of this farm is we aren't at the production level where we have enough to sell wholesale,” Todd said.
A little more than year ago, the Bensons created A Local Organic Farmland Trust (ALOFT), a project of the nonprofit corporation Back Country Land Trust (BCLT). ALOFT's avowed purpose is to secure “organic farmland in San Diego County to preserve and protect our local food supply.”
“The mission for all food co-ops is to try to have as many local sources as possible,” Casady said, “because we believe we can affect our food quality, variety and farming practices more effectively if it's in our neighborhood.”
However, the Bensons believe the greatest threat to their efforts is large-scale housing development in San Diego. And in South County in particular, the area's rich land, which grows a wide variety of the best produce found anywhere, happens to be the very same land where plans for the construction of tens of thousands of new homes has been mapped.
“[ALOFT] started meeting as a group of concerned citizens and neighbors here in our front room,” Todd said. “We were having trouble getting the nonprofit organization organized and created-not to mention all the bureaucracy that goes along with it. That's when we realized we'd be better off under somebody else's umbrella who has already done all that.” Once contacted, BCLT came out to Good Faith and evaluated the potential of the land and the Bensons' goal of sustainable agriculture-which is somewhat different than organic.
“Organic isn't necessarily sustainable,” Benson explained. “Organic means no chemical use. Sustainable is not only creating living soil, but is concerned with its entire ecosystem, including its natural habitat. Normal commercial, polluting, poisoning farming isn't conducive to the environment. It's slowly killing the ecosystem.”
BCLT determined that Good Faith's proximity to the ecological reserve Rancho Jamul, which was recently acquired by the California Department of Fish & Game, is consistent with “emerging ideas about ‘conservation agriculture'... that sustainable organic farming can coincide with wildlife habitat preservation.”
The vision for ALOFT is the eventual development of a collective of small farms, cultivating such items as “produce, orchards, bees, dairy and herbs.” While BCLT would hold title to the land, ALOFT would act as land manager. Two- to 20-acre plots would be leased to farmers at reasonable rates, which would in turn go back into the administration, operation and promotion of the trust.
“The Good Faith Farm's only benefit is we [would] have a secure land relationship; we can build for the future,” Benson said. “Land trusts are in perpetuity... an irreversible tax-shelter if nothing else. Federal and state grants are [also] available now for projects like this.” He explained that the federal government has appropriated roughly $1 billion over the next six years, with prime agricultural land in the path of urban sprawl defined as a target for the funds.
Benson said Good Faith is only one of many small San Diego county farms in jeopardy, and many farmers are just biding time, waiting for the land to be sold out from under them. “It forces them into the mode of temporary farming, which is usually destructive,” he said, adding that one ALOFT goal is to mobilize quickly and make a reasonable offer to Good Faith's landlord.
“It could take two years,” he said. “We had to put a realistic twist on that. We're not fundraisers. If we could come up with $1 million of the money we need, we'd be very grateful to the sponsors in the community.” So far, however, ALOFT has only one sponsor, the Ocean Beach People's Co-op.
While the co-op strongly supports ALOFT's goals, Casady described the plan for getting the entire 180-acre ranch put into an agricultural trust as “very ambitious...
“That's a lot of money, particularly with the expansion of the casinos and the players for land in San Diego County.”
In the past, the O.B. co-op had expressed interest in purchasing a 5- to 10-acre parcel near the farm, which could be used as a type of agricultural retreat. “[Then] Todd and Oasis had this opportunity,” Casady said. “When we're able to seriously look at purchasing, we'll confer again about whether or not [the trust] is actually in process or whether we should do something as an alternative.”
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance, more than 1,200 nonprofit land trusts (“organizations that operate independently of government”) exist today in the United States, helping landowners find means to protect their properties from the pressure of encroaching development. Land may be protected “through donation and purchase, by working with landowners who wish to donate or sell conservation easements [permanent deed restrictions that prevent harmful land uses], or by acquiring land outright to maintain as open space.”
BCLT broadened its mission statement to include agriculture specifically for ALOFT. Some of its other projects to preserve rural lands containing natural, scenic and cultural resources include Mesa del Arroz Preserve, Findel Ranch and Viejas West areas in Alpine; Crestwood Ecological Reserve in El Cajon; Fanita Ranch in Santee; and Roberts Ranch in Descanso.
Cherchez la femme
A 30-minute drive southeast of downtown San Diego, past the casinos and the last perfunctory strip mall, leads to a valley rimmed by ancient, low-lying hills and dotted with boulders. The setting is so pristine it's easy to imagine how similar how it all looked 80 years ago.
Turning off the main road and passing through an electronic, password-coded access gate, a single-lane country road leads over a rise to a modest, sequestered house. Just past the house and a barn lay rows of plants in various stages of growth were tended by a woman dressed in sturdy, mismatched clothing. She looked like someone who had been working all day in the dirt, yet her clear features reflected a robust, high-color of well-being.
Oasis Benson, a native of France (“I got raised as a bourgeois basically, but I was not happy with it”), came to the United States about 18 years ago. “Ever since I came to America, wherever I went, I started a little garden,” she said. “I started working with collectives-like health food stores... to learn about organics and things like that.”
The Bensons' life was set firmly on its present course when, in 1998, Oasis, who had been working at the co-op, was provided with information and a loan by Casady to attend a six-month, academic course based in part on the tenets of master organic farmer Alan Chadwick at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The program gave Oasis a background in a wide range of organic farming methods, as well as practical experience in the field and with selling produce in her class' own small farmer's market.
Prior to the course, the Bensons had already been on the lookout for some farm property for awhile. What they finally found was the plot on the 180-acre Jamul parcel, which they regard as “our own secluded valley.”
In the beginning, although the Co-Op had provided the couple with some startup money, Todd Benson held on to his computer job to support the farm while Oasis prepared, planted and harvested a half-acre of Good Faith with the help of one apprentice. At times, resources were a bit primitive; for six months, she had to rely on one hose for all her irrigation needs.
After a couple of years, Todd quit his job and started working full-time on the farm. Though they lost money the first two years, they broke even the third year and by the fourth year, had made a small profit, all of which went back into the farm.
The spartan routine of an average workday at Good Faith is a marked contrast to the complexities of land trusts and the politics of food.
During late winter, the surrounding landscape is a lush emerald, with horse ranches and modern, sprawling homes visible in the distance. Daily priorities revolve around putting freeze cloth on the crops at night and a live-and-let-live (but stay-off-the-crops) approach to warding off voracious sparrows, rabbits and gophers. In keeping with the goals of sustainable farming practices, the Bensons neither plow nor disk in order to conserve microbes living in the top four inches of the soil. Instead, they spade or harrow, a way of loosening the top four inches without turning it.
Discussing methods that don't rely on any chemical use whatsoever, Oasis explained, “If you have a sick plant, it will attract insects. If you have a strong plant, it's ready to fight the weather and also insects. The important thing is to make a rich soil. You put manure in there, and some worms. We try to keep our bed a good place for our worms to multiply and live in.”
Come high wind, hail storm, flood or unseasonable dryness, the couple said they relish what they call “a real life,” physically and directly dealing with the forces of nature and achieving tangible results that are necessary for survival. “It's a challenge to keep our goal of high standards, not to get too mechanized,” Oasis said.
Several times a year, Good Faith, again subsidized by the co-op, also serves as an educational farm for groups elementary and middle school children. Oasis said she had long been attracted to the idea of having children and young people come to a farm and use it as a learning tool for how to grow their own food, and to maybe even show them how to keep balance and make some sense of the world they live in, a benefit the Bensons firmly assert they reap from their current lifestyle.
Although more people, including apprentices and volunteers, help with the daily chores, Todd and Oasis still often find themselves on their own. Since neither has made a salary in several years, they don't always have the financial security to consistently offer to pay workers regularly. And farm income is seasonal-Good Faith makes most of its money during the summer.
“Sometimes it's hard, and I feel I should do something easier,” Oasis said. “But I can see when children, when grown-ups come here, they're happy. I don't need pills to go to sleep or because I'm depressed. I can communicate with people. It's rewarding.”
For the Bensons, if ALOFT fails, the loss certainly wouldn't be financial. If it turns out the dream eventually amounts to nothing more than chasing windmills, Todd hopes they can at least inspire other farmers in similar situations to try saving other local properties from the bulldozer.
As for the fairness of setting aside such large areas of land to be cultivated by a handful of individuals while a shortage of affordable housing exists in the county, for Todd the bottom line remains the same: local sustainable food systems are key to the future.
“You think you're foreign fuel-dependent now? Wait until you're foreign food-dependent,” he said. “It's coming. The average food [already] travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate. Who's the winner in that? Big business. Big government. Period.”