Blame it on Brooklyn. Blame it on hipsters. Whoever’s at fault, it’s undeniable that “everything old is new again.” If nothing else, there’s one trendy throwback that we can definitely get behind: Home cooking. We’re not the only ones, though. Just ask the likes of a young farmer named Lucas Brownback.
At a Times Talk with author Michael Pollan and filmmaker Alex Gibney earlier this week, the subject of cooking was front and center. “Cooking,” Pollan said, “is a universal human activity,” not to mention, “a political act.” For others, it’s more economic, as was the case for Brownback, whose interest in home cooking really began, he says, “When I was broke.”
It’s a lofty statement, one that reverberates with issues pertaining to class, agriculture, and industry. And as second generation farmer of Loysville, Pennsylvania’s Spiral Path Farm, Brownback has become well-versed in all of those categories.
Brownback’s parents, Terra and Mike, have owned Spiral Path Farm since the 1970s, where Brownback was raised and, for most of his life, wanted nothing to do with farming. He wanted to go to college in the city and do something else as an adult. It wasn’t until roughly two years into his foray at Temple University -- around the same time he started cooking -- that something dawned on him: Maybe his parents were onto something with the whole farming thing.
“They know what they’re doing,” he says he realized. “I started to think...I really agree with it. I actually want to go home and learn as much as I can from them, and continue it on for them.”
Six years earlier, his brother, who is today Spiral Path’s farm fields manager, went through the same process. The experience has been a crash course for Brownback on not just farming, but also, certifications, CSA management, food waste, and public education.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, and certainly not supposed to get that far. “My parents and I never wanted to make profit off of this,” Brownback said. “They just wanted to have a garden so that we could feed ourselves and be left alone, self-sustainable.”
Then, people began to talk about organics. In 1993, Brownback’s father, Mike, was the president of Pennsylvania Certified Organics (PCO), which was once the only certification organization. After the USDA made organic certification a national accreditation in 1993, Spiral Path became certified organic in 1994, the first year that a farm could achieve such status, and has remained as such since then.
“And all of a sudden, our neighbors are like, ‘You have organics? Can we trade or buy from you?’ We said, ‘I guess,’" Brownback remembers. "And here we are. We’re the second-largest organic farm on the east coast, in sales. I feel a lot of pressure riding from that.”
A "hellacious" certification process
As a consumer, Brownback is thrilled with the intense steps required to become a USDA certified operation. As a farmer, however, who witnesses first-hand the $6,000 annual price tag that comes with it, he also understands how financially inaccessible the certification can be for new farmers.
With the present-day casual use of terms pertaining to natural foods, the extensive rigidity of the process is “worth it," he says, but creates a barricade to young farmers who want to start new agricultural operations.
That only aggravates the growing problem of a shrinking farmer population. Previous generations of farmers are retiring, with diminishing family interest in taking it over for them. It’s understandable; being a young farmer is tough.
“It’s rough to be our age and working this many hours,” Brownback explains. “You live in a really rural area, and I’ve given up my social life completely to do farming.”
It’s not just a dwindling interest in agriculture
Moreover, it correlates with a historical decline in knowledge or interest in tracing the source of real food. For many years now, perpetual commercial messaging has communicated to lower income populations that they simply cannot afford healthy food, or as Brownback says it has come to be incorrectly known, “high-end food.”
That impression is only reinforced by fast-food-like, nutrient-sparse school meals (which, for many lower income kids, is the only daily source of a hot meal), which has chronically altered American tastes.
What we’re faced with as a result, Brownback says, is a three-pronged crisis: Fast food is cheap, tasty, and already prepared. With that evolution, he notes, it’s not just about education about healthy food for such populations, especially children, but also, an “interest in the taste,” he notes. “Is it even what they want?”
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Education shouldn’t be completely disregarded, especially in younger populations. It goes back to the central importance of home cooking, and the underlying theme of Brownback’s experience, for example, of gaining interest in the kitchen at his poorest.
“It suddenly occurred to me to take advantage of everything around me and to make it last as long as possible, for my own bills and my own money management,” he says. “Every time I put a bag of chopped peppers in the freezer, it feels like I’m putting money in a savings account.”
That’s a lesson that can be taught fairly early in life, especially among young adults. “I think kids [around age] 18-21 can really start to learn and see what it’s like when you want to be on your own,” Brownback explains, “but you also want to be healthy. How can you make it last?”
There's much more to be done, and the farm can help
Brownback has been working to get in touch with local school districts, and already hosts high school environmental science students at Spiral Path once a year. He has bigger ideas, too, like helping to reduce his own food waste by partnering with a chef who can cook leftover produce in a way that kids would like.
“The sooner there can be some kind of financial aid for school districts to get local produce,” he says, “the more we can keep the ball rolling to keep kids interested in farming.”
Within the chaos, however, Brownback remains optimistic, and finds hope in daily signs of progress.
“I think we are in a food movement, for sure, and I think kids are being raised that way,” he says. “There are so many kids that come to the market every day who beg their parents for kale.”
He also notes that, while food policy can make for a hot-button political issue, he sees growing concern over it in unexpected places, like his hometown.
“Our farm is in the middle of a very Republican area … we still have a ton of CSA members there who really care about their food,” he points out. “I can’t speculate what else they care about, but regardless of political views in the area, the health of the food is starting to matter.”
With such an intense prevalence of issues, one might wonder how someone as dedicated as Brownback can sleep.
“I feel like I sleep very well,” he says. "I was not a flexible person for most of my life. Farming has taught me that things change constantly.”
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Image: Nora Frumento