I’d like to start out by thanking Eugene Imai for inviting me here and to help further the goals of Shinji Shumekai of America. Let’s start with a little bit about myself.
I grew up on a farm, the child of farmers. It’s in my blood. My father was a city kid with a drive to be a farmer who achieved his goals, not without struggle. I grew up with an awareness of a natural system because I grew up within the natural system.
My father, Lester, was an inspiration who modeled to me his by his excited interest in new ideas and his respect for old ones. From the garden he grew in the back of our house, he would drive up and down the Hudson Valley, delivering to vacationers from the city. My grandmother would process jams and other goods, and my dad would sell them along with his other farm products. The vacationers from New York City were excited by the access to good quality foods.
My dad bought me my first beehive when I was thirteen years old. Years later, I worked on a kibbutz in Israel as a commercial beekeeper. After returning home, I became a commercial beekeeper again. Hence the name of my company, Wild Hive Farm. My vision broadened as I worked closely with bees. I started to understand more about sustainability, natural systems, and the parallels with human society and culture.
Wild Hive Farm grew to having 450 beehives in the Hudson River Valley, I offered bees for pollination to farms and orchards. I processed the raw honey and bee’s wax and brought them to sell in the farmers’ markets in New York City. While raising a young family, I started to realize that the quality of food that I experienced when I was growing up was becoming less accessible. It was a constant challenge and in order to sustain my young family, I began to created value added products with a line of honey-based baked goods which I brought to the markets. Scones, biscuits, simple breads followed. In hindsight, it seems obvious that I gravitated towards grains and flour.
It was around this time that I first heard about a local grain grower that was producing organic chicken feed. I met him and he offered me some cookies made from his first crop of wheat. Soft White Winter Wheat. “Here’s a bag of flour, you’re a baker, maybe you can use it,” he said. I took it home, touched it, tasted it, and knew immediately there was a new world. Shortly, the local wheat was incorporated into all of my recipes. All my products had some of this flour. You could taste the difference even just by introducing a percentage of local flour. I needed more and slowly began to work with farmers to get more acreage, more diversity of seeds. In 6 short years, I had convinced enough farmers to grow that I could transition to 100% local flour. It was the total opposite of everything that the baking industry was offering.
What most people believe to be the way of farming is only 100 years old. As recently as the early 1900’s, grains and produce were predominantly locally sourced. Fresh food was available. My interests at the time revolved mainly around grains and flour. The ubiquitous flour of today, so-called white flour, is less than 100 years old. But its dominance in the minds of bakers is so strong that the memory of good tasting, nutritious bread products were nearly non-existent.
Even the farmers laughed at the idea at first. “Nobody grows wheat here,” they told me as I tried to source grains for my mill. I knew my history. Before the middle of America became the bread basket, the Northeast grew the grains. We grew the best grains. Some farmers accepted my challenge to varying degrees of success. Success was tied to their willingness to reevaluate “standard” farming methods. Many quit after a single season, but those who stuck to it quickly found how possible, and satisfying, it could be.
As the foundation expanded for regional grains, I began to appreciate the cultural difference between freshly milled, nutrient dense flour and rancid, old, modified commercial flour. What made it significantly better was the absolute freshness, the comparative simplicity of the genetics in the heirloom grains, and the nutrients gained from the way it was grown. I began to understand the that growth in gluten intolerance may be resulting from people’s systems rejecting the compromised poor quality flour.
Since nobody made the flour I wanted, I became a miller. I experienced a huge learning curve. While learning how to mill a quality product, I learned about heirloom grains, and about the natural baking characteristics specific to each grain.
I was able to apply this knowledge to my own evolving bakery production.
The grain I first milled was in fact the first grain grown for human consumption in the Hudson Valley in almost 89 years.
One farmer’s concept is not necessarily understood by another farmer. Sustainability does not necessary mean maximized profits. But by communicating with the farmers, we developed a movement built upon the values of responsibility and care. Out of this grew a network of people who were committed to working together to improve the food system.
Natural farmers are stewards of their land and we believe that change is possible. We’ve so far proven that it’s possible. In order for society to be repair itself, repair its nutrition, and repair its agricultural methods, it has to change to Natural Agriculture. The produce resulting from Natural Agriculture is nutrient dense and energizes body, mind and spirit.
Just look at the distance between the contemporary chemically based farming culture and Natural Agriculture. The distance is great.
Although the smallest of agricultural concepts, I believe that Shumei Natural Agriculture is the seed that we have to plant, because the fundamentals are the most basic and have the most respect given to the natural world. The result of Shumei Natural Agriculture is a grounded food system, free of the intrusions from the unnatural. The footprint is small, the connection between food and producer is great.
I’ve been out in the world telling my story, describing my model and I have talked to organic farmers in America, to artisan bakers, to chefs to African food producers, to Terra Madre, the world slow food conference. Given the nature of my path and the parallel path of Shumei Natural Agriculture perhaps it was inevitable that we should become connected.
The more I study Shumei Natural Agriculture the more it helps to expand my vision. I hope that from this relationship that I can help to contribute to the current growth of SNA as a solution to improve the diet and health of society everywhere.