Farmers and Consumers
On his sixtieth birthday, Wink Davis gave himself a present. He and his wife, Max Eisele, bought a farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado. Today, Wink and Max raise certified organic peaches, apples, wine grapes, table grapes and Babydoll Southdown sheep. And there’s the winery.
Mesa Winds Farms & Winery rests in the North Fork Valley, north of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and south of Grand Mesa National Forest. In late April, the air smells of blooming apples, peaches and wild plums. Bees bounce blossom to blossom.
“I've been a lifetime organic consumer,” Wink said. “I've always been interested in the process of growing healthy food and what that means and what it takes.”
Wink credits his interest in growing food to his mother. “My mom was a very early organic gardener back in the fifties. She was a follower of the Rodales and of Helen and Scott Nearing. "She raised most of our foods because she had some environmental sensitivities, I guess you might say nowadays. She really knew that in the post-war era the quality of food that we were getting in the supermarket was deteriorating. So I was raised with an appreciation and understanding of the connection between food and health and food and vitality.”
Wink’s mother had another influence on him. “My mom was also an activist and so she raised us with a strong social conscience and a sense of our ability to affect change,” he said. That influence helped guide him throughout his life. “After a career as an environmental lawyer, solar energy advocate and a passive solar home builder, I followed my kids back to Colorado and married my second wife. We were both interested in farming, so we bought this farm out in Hotchkiss.”
“Our intention upon coming to the farm was motivated by deepening our understanding of agricultural ecology and what it takes to grow good food in harmony with the natural world. Being able to accomplish that is fundamental to farming sustainably.”
“I hold that the relationship between the farmer and an eater is one of trust; really, a sacred trust. We have to be able to trust that the person who grows the food we put into our bodies is motivated by concern for our health and well being; a desire to provide us with the most delicious, nutritious food of which she or he is capable. The corporate food companies have proved that profit, market share, and shareholder value are what drive them. Food should support our health, vitality, and well-being. This is my pledge to those who trust me to provide them food.”
Selling directly to consumers has enabled Wink to bypass the industrial agricultural model. “Most farmers and ranchers willingly forego the life of luxury in favor of the life: individuality, self employment, working outside and hard with your body. But with food prices as low as they are and Big Ag and retailers seizing the available margins, farmers feel forced into industrial practices. Growing and selling to the direct market have been our way out of that syndrome. Our customers value quality over quantity. They are willing to pay more because they know us, trust our farming practices, and want us to earn a reasonable return for our labors. And we are rewarded to see them happy and to have earned their loyalty. The rewards are measured in more holistic terms than just cash.”
“Profit was never a driving motivation. Our kids are launched and we lead pretty simple lives. The farm provides a lot of what we need. The corporate profit motive is, in my opinion, the wrong attitude to take in raising food. It will always drive you to externalize costs and cut expenses. One exploits the environment and labor. Big Ag corporations push the farmer to seek higher yields by pushing the capacity of the land. It's a downward spiral.”
“The combination of consolidation in agribiz, unrestrained monopolistic practices by, for instance, the Big Four meat packers or Monsanto, trade agreements that benefit only the corporations, and the expectation that food should be cheap have held prices at the farm gate at all-time lows,” he said. “Farmers are compelled to seek higher yields in order to survive. They get sucked into the maw of Big Ag, hybrid seeds for higher yields but can’t save your seeds, GMOs and glyphosate to reduce weed competition and the need to buy more chemicals, soils deteriorate so you need more fertilizer. It’s not long before the farmers are being farmed by the corporations.”
Grapes were a crop Wink knew he wanted to grow from the very beginning. “There was about an acre of grapes planted here when we came. We kind of cut our teeth on making wine from them and we planted a bunch more acres of grapes. Then we realized pretty quickly that if we were going to make any money from grapes that we had to make wine from them. It was regarded as a added value product. It was really about farm income.”
“We tried various value-added preserves and other ways to use our culled peaches and apples. There’s no premium for organic grapes around here, but there’s a lot of interest in wine made with organic grapes. The fresh fruit is highly perishable. Peaches last maybe a couple of weeks, picked ripe and in our walk-in cooler at thirty-three degrees. And the apples will maybe keep to Christmas. but the wine just gets better with age. So it’s much more shelf stable and it has a higher value. It’s a way to really put value on the crop. And it’s kind of fun to make.”
“My wife and I are fortunate to have the freedom to explore these ideas and it’s been an eye-opener for me. I feel for my young-farmer friends: sincere, motivated, hard-working, young people who are striving to raise food in ethical ways that are good for people and for the planet, who are also trying to raise a family and provide for their children's future. I am very aware of the challenge they face of meeting the high cost of productive land, and the cost of credit, while operating in the world of cheap food. What’s wrong with this picture where these young people carry the burden and the money-lenders laugh all the way to the bank? It’s just plain wrong.”
Keeping up with the orchards, sheep, and wine-making has not dampened Wink’s activism. He is a leader on agricultural and trade issues in both the Western Colorado Congress and Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). He is part of WORC’s grassroots effort to change the North American Free Trade Agreement as the U.S., Mexico and Canada renegotiate the trade deal.
“We want an open and transparent process,” he said of the renegotiations. “It has to support living wages and working conditions for agricultural workers and workers in industry. It should protect the environment, not undermine it. All of those are, of course, in competition with interests big business and transnational corporations. It’s time for our trade agreements to support the interests of the people and not the corporations.”