Web site sows support for White House farmer

By M.L. Johnson

MILWAUKEE – A central Illinois family is sowing support for a White House farmer with a Web site allowing people to nominate and vote for their favorite growers.

The nominees range from 10 teens in Alameda, Calif., who grow food for more than 500 formerly homeless people to former pro basketball player Will Allen, an urban farmer in Milwaukee. The election ends Saturday, when organizer Terra Brockman of Congerville, Ill., plans to forward the names of the top three vote-getters to the White House.

More than 100 farmers from 33 states and Washington, D.C., had been nominated by Thursday afternoon. More than 27,000 votes were cast.

Brockman’s family launched the Web site in mid-November after reading a New York Times Magazine article in which journalist Michael Pollan called for the appointment of a White House farmer to complement the White House chef. Pollan suggested replacing five acres of the White House’s South Lawn with an organic fruit and vegetable garden.

Nominations and votes trickled in at first, but then word spread among farming and foodie groups. In the past few weeks, “it’s kind of gone crazy,” said Brockman, 50.

The push has been embraced by people who favor small, family run, community-oriented, environmentally friendly farms. Most of the nominees are organic farmers, and many run community gardens or nonprofit farms.

The White House did not have an immediate comment on the effort. But many early presidents grew food there, including John Adams, who planted a vegetable garden shortly after moving in in 1800.

A top vote getter in the Brockmans’ contest has been Carrie Little, manager of Mother Earth Farm in Puyallup, Wash. Run by the Emergency Food Network, the farm supplies local food banks and hot meal programs.

Little, 48, of Tacoma, Wash., favors companion planting in which two plants, such as sunflowers and beans, are sown together because they foster each other’s growth.

“One of the things that I love to do is work with things that work so well together,” she said. “And companion planting is kind of symbolic of what we all need to be doing anyway.”

Little surveyed food bank clients to determine what to grow at Mother Earth Farm and said her first move as White House farmer would be to ask what vegetables President Barack Obama and his family prefer.

“You certainly don’t want to grow things that people won’t eat or enjoy,” she said.

Another nominee, David Perkins, said he sees the job as an opportunity to educate people about kohlrabi and other relatively unknown vegetables.

“What’s been part of the problem with agriculture is sort of the narrowing down of diversity and the lack of it,” said Perkins, 51, who runs a 35-acre farm in Vermont, Wis., with his wife, Barbara.

They serve about 2,000 families who buy shares of their harvest in a community-supported agriculture program. Perkins and other nominees said they see the White House farm as a way to show the public how small, environmentally friendly farms can feed people and create jobs worldwide.

“The key thing is that local people are producers,” he said. “Hopefully, the seeds and the inputs you need for farming have a local base.”

That’s why Allen doesn’t want the job. He grew up outside Washington, D.C., and said he feels strongly that the White House farmer should come from there, particularly when so many in the community need work.

Allen employs 35 people at six sites in the Milwaukee area and Chicago that produce vegetables and yellow perch, generating about $200,000 in sales per acre.

“Small scale farming operations become job-creating monsters,” said Allen, 59.

Still, he was excited about the idea of a White House farmer and said he would be happy to help train someone in green, urban farming techniques.

“What a great opportunity it would be to showcase and get people inspired to do this type of farming,” Allen said.

Another urban farmer and nominee, Tim Wilson, 26, runs City Farm in Chicago. The nonprofit teaches low-income adults and youth to grow vegetables at three sites, including one bordering the Cabrini-Green public housing development. The produce is sold to the public and restaurants.

Wilson envisions the White House farmer using compost materials from inner city Washington, much as City Farm uses food waste from Chicago restaurants. Workers would learn business and agriculture skills by raising produce for the White House, food pantries and for sale.

“A major part of small scale agriculture is that people need to be making a living off of it for it to be realistic,” Wilson said.

Pollan, 53, of Berkeley, Calif., said he would like to see the White House choose an organic farmer familiar with the challenges a hot, humid Washington summer could present. He might start by checking out the produce and farmers at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market.

“I would definitely look for a White House farmer who knows their way around a fungal disease,” he said.

The farmer also needs to be in tune with the Obamas and able to speak publicly about growing whole and local foods, Pollan said. Overall, he was heartened to see all the nominations.

“I’m very hopeful this will actually happen,” Pollan said. “And very encouraged that people around the country are giving it some thought.”