Mark and Kristin Kimball, owners and operators of Essex Farm, in Essex, NY, visited Hamilton on March 10 to give a presentation titled “Food Ethics: A Farmer's Perspective” on the subject of sustainable farming. Far from being limited simply to a standard talk, the event was accompanied by free food and drink produced on the Essex Farm, a variety of demonstrations such as the cooking of meats on a portable burner, and other excitement including the arrival of a live calf in the Taylor Science Center’s Kennedy Auditorium.
The lecture was divided into three sections, each outlining the production process of one of the Essex Farm’s major outputs: carrots, butter and beef. Running throughout each of these sections, however, was the common theme of what the Kimballs call “triple bottom line sustainability.” This principle, one which informs every activity on the Essex Farm, is a fleshing out of the standard concept of sustainability as it applies to farming into three key categories: monetary, environmental and societal sustainability.
Monetary sustainability refers to the overall economic viability of a farm, and as Mark Kimball says “is the one that businesses in America are doing just fine with at the moment.” The other two aspects of triple bottom line sustainability, however, societal sustainability and environmental sustainability are less often considered by the mainstream farming industry in the United States. Environmental sustainability is a concept often given lip service in the media and within academic circles, but is often not an issue tackled by many companies for fear of the fiscal ramifications.
At the Essex Farm, says Mark, a real effort is being made toward the production of foods that generate as minimal an environmental impact as possible. This is achieved through the incorporation of a variety of policies and techniques including the lack of GMO’s in the farm’s foods, the use of crop rotation to increase efficiency and avoid the depletion of natural nutrients in the soil, a rejection of herbicides, and the use of a large amount of animal labor in order to cut down on motorized vehicle use. “When it comes to the bottom line environmentally, you can actually do worse than bad,” says Kristin Kimball. Comparing the concept to a one-to-10 scale as would be used in certain events at the Olympics, Kristin claims that many companies would be receiving negative marks if graded on their approaches to balancing economic and environmental sustainability.
These environmentally responsible practices do not mean that the Essex Farm is unable to produce food efficiently or on a large scale. To the contrary, the farm produces a full diet year-round for the over 200 people who pay into the local food program. These individuals arrive once a week for a “communal pick up” where they may choose any combination and quantity of anything produced on the farm, whether it is chicken, beef, pork, vegetables or fruits, at one consistent membership price. Essex Farm will be among food providers to Hamilton's Program in the Adirondacks this fall and is also one of the program's local partners.
This program is an outgrowth of the Kimballs’ approach to the third “bottom line” of sustainability, societal sustainability. Societal sustainability is the meeting of human needs while maintaining good will within the community, as well as towards the animals involved in farming practices and the land upon which farmers work. The Kimballs have employed over 100 individuals since the founding of their farm, both from the community and from schools across the area, and value tremendously the support of employees and community members alike.
When asked about the possibility of the farm becoming a “closed system,” or one that produces everything that it needs to operate internally and has a relatively small environmental impact, Mark Kimball replied, “Part of the reason we come out to places like Hamilton is to recruit you guys to come help us do it, because we think we can achieve that.”
But to the Kimballs, it’s not just about farming. The ideal of achieving a balance of the three aspects of sustainability applies to all sectors of life. “Let’s go beyond food to look at transportation, energy, entertainment. We need to be asking that question, we need to be asking how we can do this everywhere, not just on the farm.” Mark had the last word with a direct address to students in the audience, “we need you. You’re lucky to have such a big issue facing your generation, and to live in a country where you can throw yourself at the problem and make a real difference.”