Author: RICHIE DAVIS Hampshire Gazette Contributing Writer Date: January 23, 2012 Section: Business
GILL - Brian Donahue has done the talk, he's done the walk, and now he's doing the math. And for him, it all adds up: his work as an associate professor at Brandeis University, his three decades of working on a community farm in Weston and now, the 170-acre farm he recently bought off Bascom Road where he's begun putting down roots with friends.
Fortunately, it's a sabbatical year for the 56-year-old history and American studies professor, so he has time to build a house on the property where he is also establishing a farm, as well as completing a study of the Eastern woodlands. That's in addition to collaborating on a vision for sustainable agriculture in New England that says that the region can probably provide at least half of its total food supply by 2060. (The current level, he guesses, may be around 10 percent).
"It's a balancing act," said the curly-haired, bearded hands-on academic, who's just driven nearly two hours from his home in suburban Boston to oversee the construction of the post-and-beam house being built with native hemlock, cherry and white oak from the property along the Fall River. "I combine my teaching, my research and the farming I do as much as I can. It sort of lends something extra to each of them."
Donahue, who teaches courses on environmental history, sustainable farming and forestry and early American culture, was involved in developing Harvard Forest's 2005 "Wildlands and Woodlands" document, which called for protecting half of the forests in Massachusetts by 2050 primarily through sustainable management practices and also collaborated on a similar 2010 vision for protecting 70 percent of the New England's forests by 2060.
But Donahue, who dropped out of Brandeis as an undergraduate in the 1970s so he could work full-time on a farm in neighboring Weston, but then returned there in the 1980s to get his bachelor's, master's and doctorate there, is also knee-deep in drafting a "New England Good Food Vision 2060."
In it, he maintains that even conserving 50 percent of southern New England in sustainably harvested "working" forest would still allow for farmland around the six-state region to be expanded threefold from 2 million acres to about 6 million acres. That would translate to about 15 percent of the region to active farming by 2060, about the same as it was in 1945.
With that kind of acreage, Donahue's preliminary estimates show, New England could produce most of its own vegetables and about half its fruit, as well as "the great bulk" of its own dairy products and most of its own grass-fed beef assuming that our beef consumption is reduced to about one-third of what it is today. And that would leave about half a million acres for grain for human consumption and livestock feed, with the region raising the bulk of its own pork, chicken, turkey and eggs.
Donahue, who is already raising chickens and pigs on the Gill farm, and also hopes to raise beef cattle and sheep as well, says there are limits to this "Good Food Vision" he's developing in collaboration with scholars at University of New Hampshire as well as other people actively working on sustainable food and agricultural issues around the region.
It's not quite a "road map" or an action plan for how to reach that goal he says, nor does it suggest that we could ever grow all of our own food, or that we'd do away with importing our citrus, teas, coffees and chocolates and most of our grains, vegetable oil and sugar.
"It's good to put a goal out there: Here's what could be accomplished," Donahue said. "We could produce something like half our food, and more than that if really pushed to it. It's ambitious, but it's within the realm of reasonable possibility."
Donahue, who's not even clear how he's going to balance running a farm in Gill with his teaching responsibilities in Waltham, two hours away, doesn't sweat the details, since there are ways to rent space for a caretaker or arrange his own schedule. As for imagining how the larger agricultural vision will play out, he says, "It's clear what you have to do in the next couple of years, sort of, and where we want to get in the next 50 years. Everything in between is kind of murky and unpredictable."
Donahue, whose book, "Reclaiming the Commons," describes his own work at the nonprofit Green Power Farm beginning in 1975 and developing a 25-acre community-based working farm with a sugaring operation run with the help of middle-school students, finds it "amazing" that suburban communities like Concord, Weston and Lincoln, but even towns like Greenfield, Northampton, and others have reclaimed agricultural land and town forests or established community garden space to help ensure food security in the future.
"There's a role for these educational community farms to play, but there's also a role for other family farms, and for hobby farms," said Donahue, whose 2004 book, "The Great Meadow," describes farming practices in colonial Concord. "I think in this agricultural revival, there's a whole spectrum of kinds of land ownership and management. To me it's all good, basically."
There are a few "givens" and several side benefits to the vision for a more sustainable farming future, says Donahue, who grew up in western Pennsylvania and recalls first becoming intensely interested in the landscape around the time of the first Earth Day, when he was 15.
In the first place, for New England to produce a greater share of its dairy products means turning to a more grass-based system and more economically viable alternatives than the tightly regulated commodity dairy industry that exists today.
Secondly, he believes the growing demand for locally grown farm products reflects a desire for more healthful foods, and that the country has to move away from a policy of low-cost commodity foods toward subsidizing "healthier food and healthier farming I think the health industry is really going to step up to the plate here. We're paying a huge social cost for the way we're eating."
Finally, climate change, along with the rising cost of fossil fuels on which conventional farming has been largely dependent will play a role in shaping the future of New England agriculture one way or another.
"It's so imponderable, it's hard to predict," Donahue says, although the projections seem to point to a longer growing season and a longer grazing season livestock, combined with more major rain events and more pest and disease problems together with a moister climate.
There are plenty of other imponderables as well, says Donahue especially how to restore a healthy fishery that would be "another critical building block of a sustainable New England food system.
But now that Donahue's realizing a goal he and his wife have had since the 1970s setting up a farm where they can raise their kids and grow their own livestock and produce putting a lot of his "good food vision" to work may be more down to earth than ever.
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