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Archive for the ‘Food Politics’ Category

This past week Denver.Eater asked “How Denver’s Restaurant Industry Would Change the World Through Food.” They asked food editors, the governor, chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs, coffee roasters, and restaurant critics. I enjoyed reading the answers and shared many of the sentiments. It was no surprise to me that there were no farmers listed with these other “restaurant industry” folks. I see this all the time across the national conversation about food; it’s not unique to Denver, but why aren’t we asking farmers and ranchers these questions? Hell, why aren’t we asking dishwashers, prep cooks, or the countless other invisible positions that complete the restaurant industry? Maybe it’s because these aren’t positions of power and we assume that the people at the top of the chain will have a better answer than the folks who are in the trenches every day. Maybe “How Dishwashers Would Change the World through Food” wouldn’t provide the necessary click-bait. But if we really cared about this question then maybe we should be asking everyone along the chain.

So here’s my answer to the question, “how would I change the world through food” even though no one asked me.

I think education is the foundation to lasting change and if we are going to instill systemic change we need to reeducate ourselves about what food is. Food, at it’s most basic level should nourish us. It should provide the necessary vitamins,  minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, etc. for our existence. There are certainly “foods” that we consume that don’t meet this need and I think we’ve lost the ability to discern between foods that nourish and foods that don’t. My goal as a farmer is to grow the highest quality food I can. But the quality I’m striving for isn’t simply the physical appearance, it’s the nutritional quality of the produce. Nationally we have dropped the concept of nutrition from our language of food except for that often cringe-worthy term “health food.” We have documented science that shows that most of our nation’s produce has lower nutritional content than it did 60 years ago. This is largely due to our farming practices that focus on yield (pounds and bushels) and not nutrition. There is no incentive in the market to grow a healthier carrot because we have erroneously convinced ourselves that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot. But a carrot’s nutritional content will differ based on where and how it’s grown. Imagine if you had the information to choose which carrot to buy based on the nutritional content of those specific carrots. Would you ever choose a carrot that was less healthy for you? Our food system incentivizes  growing cheap food with no regard to the health of the consumer. We can blame this on the “food system,” but we are all participating in this. Until we as eaters start to show that we care about the health of the food that we are eating there wont be change.

So how am I changing the world through food? I’m starting with my community and the 60 CSA members that pick up produce for 20 weeks of the year from the farm. I’m taking opportunities to explain why and how growing nutrient-dense food is our priority. I’m might not change the world, but I am working to educate my community on why food is important and that it’s their job to do the same.

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This morning I found a great blog post, written by a farmer in the UP of Michigan, that resonated with thoughts I’ve been having about the price disparity between local food systems and institutional food systems. Find the full post here. Head over to the Wintergreen Farm blog and leave a comment for her.

“But for all the excitement about local food and enthusiasm for farming, there is another wave that small farmers cannot help but notice: the wave of consumers gritting their teeth and quietly asking their farmers to bring down the price. We charge two dollars for 12 stems of kale and in our community (an especially low income area) that is considered exorbitantly expensive. What is that about? Why have Americans come to expect high quality food for unreasonably low prices, and what – if anything – can the current crop of small farmers do about it?”

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This morning I was checking my twitter stream and found this tweet: “But You Don’t Look Like a Farmer! http://bit.ly/obay0h #agchat” The tweet was from @agblogfeed and to be clear, agblogfeed is simply an aggregate account to promote all sorts of blog posts relating to agriculture.

The post is about farm wife (her phrase) that is meeting with some other women in or near Chicago to discuss perceptions about agriculture. The “city moms” are taken aback by how the farm wife is dressed, hence the title of the post, “But you don’t look like a farmer.” I think it’s great that this lady had the opportunity to explain more about what her family is doing and what American agriculture means to them, but as I read the post I couldn’t help stumble each time she referred to the other women as “city moms.” I couldn’t help but thing that the same prejudice that the farm wife was having to confront is the same sort of prejudice that allowed her to see the other women as “city moms.”

I used this lady’s blog post as a specific example of what I’ve seen happening a lot within the agriculture/city folk dichotomy. As issues of food security, agriculture sustainability, and the aging farming population continue to rise into mainstream conversations, those of us involved in producing food will continue to share about what we are doing. It is really easy to turn this sort of conversation into an us vs. them position. But if food provider’s continue to refer to other people in stereotypes then why should we expect others to do the same for us?

What do you think? Am I reading too much into this? Do you see examples of this in your relationships?

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For nearly a year and a half I’ve been following a blog called Sustainable Food Jobs. The blog started as a very simple idea: post job listings that relate to sustainable food. In the beginning, things started pretty slowly. One post every few days, but now it seems to be averaging about five to seven listings a day. The job postings offer positions ranging everything from short term fellowship opportunities to assistant farmer/CSA manager to Executive Director for non-profit, sustainable food organizations. Even though I have a farm for myself, I’ve enjoyed reading the posts each day to get a sense for the types of positions that are out there.

This morning as I was skimming the posts, I saw a post for a position for a company that promotes sustainable agricultural practices seeking to fill a full time position with a salary around $45,000. (I would like to be clear on something before I move on. I am not being critical of this company or the salary that it is offering; I’m just using it as an example.) A few posts down from this one I started seeing posts for apprentice positions that, if they were year-round positions, would amount to $15,000. Certainly, there is a difference between the level of experience that the office position was seeking compared to the farming apprenticeship, but this reminded me of other discrepancies that I have seen before. It is a near-impossible thing to try to compare the value of two different positions, but it does make me wonder about how the positions are valued.

Last month, the USDA released a publication entitled, “A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series: A Better Understanding of Our Food Costs,” and in the publication they have a few graphic representations of the breakdown of each dollar spent on food. Here is a simple graphic expressing the percent of a dollar that goes directly to the farmer/rancher.

This graphic represents the difference between the farms share and the marketers share of the average dollar spent on food. This graphic is more representative of a bag of Dole’s baby spinach than of a bunch of spinach purchased from a farmer at a farmer’s market. It’s amazing to see that the people that are growing the food receive 5x less the amount of money than the company that is telling you to buy the food.

Seeing this graphic and reading through the publication reminded me about a podcast called Deconstructing Dinner. I remember listening to an episode a while back about a grain co-op that was getting started. The host was listening in on a meeting between the grain farmers and other co-founders of the grain co-op. They were discussing the possibility of hiring a CSA coordinator at the salary of $20/hour for 1-2 days of work a week. The discussion that followed was poignant. Here sat the grain farmers, who would be growing the grain for the co-op/CSA and would not be making $20/hour, trying to express how that felt. (Click the link above and skip to the 29th minute mark to hear the discussion.)

The people in the interview mentioned several times that the salary disparity between the grower and promoter of the food was “just apart of how things are now,” and I’m afraid they are correct. It seems to be the reality that those that produce the food will always retain a minor percentage of the money spent on food, and even organization that support, encourage, and champion small sustainable farmers will receive a larger paycheck then the farmers, themselves. What do you think about this? or perhaps a better question would be, do you think about this?

So what can we do to correct this financial disparity?

  • Go out of your way to purchase directly from the farmer/rancher/fisher.
  • Reduce the amount of prepackaged foods your family purchased.
  • Find a CSA to participate in.
  • Look for a restaurant in your area that is purchasing a significant amount of it’s food from local farms and ranches.

What else could we add to this list?

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Over the past few years Thanksgiving has taken on a new meaning for me.  My time on the farm and studying food crop production has shifted the way that I think and talk about food.  I’ve seen the effects of soil properties when harvesting crooked and twisted carrots from a clay-loam soil.   I’ve seen the incredible damage that the tiny Potato Psyllid can do to a field of potatoes.  I’ve had two consecutive years of Brussels Sprout crop failures.  Throughout this time I’ve been engaging myself in more of the policy and politics that affect our food.  I’ve watched as dozens of food recalls have taken place because of food contaminated with E. Coli. I’ve watched from a distance as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have fought for years to be paid $0.024 per pound of tomatoes they harvest (1000 pounds x 2.4 cents = $24).  I’ve watched as political parties cry out against “illegals,” yet continue to support policy that drives down the wages for farm workers to a place that most US citizens are not willing to work for.  It’s hard to look at the food on my table in the same way as I used to.

I stumbled across a Wendel Berry quote the other day, and I think it’s a great thought for the Thanksgiving season.

“A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.”

There is so much that goes into the food that we eat: growing conditions where the plant/animal is grown, working conditions for the farmers and processors, policy that determines what food is going to be subsidized.  All of these things play out before we set our dinning table.  I didn’t intend to write such a depressing post this morning, but these thoughts have been swirling though my mind during the past week.

I am very grateful for the food that I have in my home.  I am grateful for the labor of the farm workers.  I am grateful for the policy makers who are trying to make healthy food more available to everyone, especially the poor and “the least of these” in society.

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About two months ago an opportunity came up for me to have a farm of my own next year.  I haven’t made too many of the detail public yet, so you might have to wait for another post for some more specific aspects of the farm.  I’ve been spending a lot of time creating a business plan and hashing through big picture details that I’d like to figure out before I get into the nitty-gritty of shopping for equipment and seeds.  One of the components that I’m struggling to decide on is whether or not to become a Certified Organic farm.  I will be starting to farm next season on just over a half acre (the uniqueness of the farm will require a small amount of land to start) with the potential to add another acre if I want to expand.

I’ve spent the last two year working at a Certified Organic farm, and this past year I was involved in the certification audit.  I believe in organic agriculture.  Whether or not I get certified I’ll be farming using organic practices, so it’s not that I’m concerned about non-organic practices that I could use if I wasn’t certified.  I’m hoping to be able to have 20 CSA as well as selling at a farmer’s market, so most of the sales will be through a direct relationship with the people who will be eating the veggies.

What do you think?  Is being Certified Organic designed for the small, relationship driven farmer?  As a shopper at a farmer’s market, does it matter to you if the farm is Certified Organic?  Would you become a member of a CSA based on it’s organic certification?  Feel like the USDA has deluded the meaning of the word “Organic?”

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Yesterday I had the chance to attend a Gardening Network Meeting at the Gardens on Spring Creek.  This was the first of these meetings that I’ve attended, but I got the impression that they have been going on for some time.  The particular focus of this meeting was to discuss growing food to alleviate hunger in collaboration with the Food Bank for Larimer County.  The room was filled with nearly 40 people, who are involved with gardening/growing food on some level.  There were people from a few hospitals in the area, which are using gardening as a means of horticultural therapy as well as the nutritional aspects of what they are growing.  There were a few people that are working with the school district to incorporate a “Farm to School” program.  There were people there that work with various community gardens throughout the city, as well as people from The Growing Project and Home Grown Food.  There was a lot of great energy in the room.

The meeting started with Kristin Bieri, from the Food Bank explaining some of what they do.  At the most basic level, they get food to people who need it.  This should seem pretty instinctual, however I was surprised at the ways they go about doing that.  They are much more “just” a pick-up location for people to come to and take food.  They have 3 different programs for how they give food to people.  One program is called Food Share.  This is the type of program that we often associate with a food bank.  Food Share is an on-site food pantry.  Another program is called Food Link.  This program works in partnership with other organizations that are assisting folks in need.  The third program is called Kids Cafe.  This program focuses on the needs of children 3-18 years of age.  There are 6 Kids Cafe drop locations, which are located within 1 mile of a school that has a population of over 50% free/reduced cost meals.  To get an idea for the capacity that the Food Bank serves at consider this: Last year the Food Bank served 27,000 people, 53% of those are children!

Kristin explained that 35% of the food that they are able to give away is fresh produce.  This is an incredible thing.  However, much of the produce is trucked in from other states and the Food Bank has to pay for it to be brought to them.  So, they may get a phone call from an orchard in Washington letting them know that they have a truck full of apples to deliver, but those “free” apples might end up costing #3000 in transportation and other fees.  This is an area in which the Food Bank really would like to find more local produce.  If there was produce available to them from within the state or surrounding regions, they would not have to pay so much for the donations they receive.

This was a great transition to the next presenter, Karen McManus who farms at Wolf Moon Farms.  Karen decided to grow 15 rows of “kid friendly” veggies for the Food Bank last year.  This is an incredible thing.  It’s not uncommon for farmers to donate produce that they don’t sell at a Farmer’s Market or if they have a bumper crop, but Karen was choosing to donate her time and resources and her “first fruits.”  This is extremely generous thing to do when the profit margins for a farmer are so tight.  One of the ways that Karen was able to offset some of these costs was by asking her CSA members to pay a little extra.  This is a great example of a community working toward a greater good.

I’m grateful for being invited to the meeting.  I got the impression that the group meets once a month, and I would love to join them again.  It was really encouraging to join a group of people in town who recognize that there are some in our community who are struggling to put food on the table, but more importantly, that we can do something about it.

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