Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Below is a reprint of a well written and instructive article by a young, college-educated woman who is finishing graduate school so she can become a farmer. In fact, her story is kind of inspiring, at least for fans of local farming.

The article appears in Edible Portland, one of the many "Edible" magazines.


Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture conducts something called the Agricultural Census. And every five years, once all the results are tallied—the irrigated acres summed, the number of women farmers counted, the gross revenues from hog production totaled (and much more)—without fail, an alarm bell sounds.
With no offense intended to my spunky, fiftysomething parents and their baby boomer friends, U.S. farmers are getting old. The national average has climbed to 55.3 years as of the last agricultural census in 2002 (the 2007 census is currently underway), and the trend is ever upward.
Well, big whoop, my parents are muttering as they read this. Fifty is the new 30 anyway....
Though that may be true, the sirens are clanging not only because farmers are getting older (in fact, more than a quarter of U.S. farmers are older than 65), but because young farmers are getting scarcer. A mere 5.8% of farmers are now under 35, compared to 16% in 1982.
If you’re digesting these numbers over breakfast, you might stop to wonder who’s going to milk the cows and grow the grain for your morning bowl of corn flakes.
“Africa!” hollers Steven Blank, author of the controversial book, The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, which insists that agriculture is heaving its last and final breath in America. He argues that food production sits at the bottom of the “economic food chain,” and as nations develop and land becomes valuable for other uses (like manufacturing, houses, golf courses, and high-tech industries), it makes “natural” economic sense to farm out food production to less developed countries which sit lower on the economic food chain and whose land and labor carry a cheaper price tag. Food safety, food security, and the end of cheap energy are topics notably absent from the book.
But for reasons cultural, ecological, gastronomic, and economic, there are plenty among us who balk at the notion that agriculture should ever disappear from our landscapes, or farmers from our ranks. Given America’s roots in agriculture, it’s fair to wonder how we’ve moved from the Jeffersonian ideal of independent family farmers forming the backbone of our society, to a time when federal prison inmates outnumber farmers—an occupation that has now been removed as a category from the U.S. Population Census.
Of the many headlines that attempt to explain the simultaneous industrialization and senescence of American agriculture, these are but a few:
• The combustion engine headline from the early 1900s: “Tractors & cheap energy make draft animals, people, obsolete”• The post-WWII headline: “Nerve gas & bombs reincarnated as pesticides, fertilizer: Technology replaces farmers”• The still-relevant 1970s Farm Bill headline: “Government to pay farmers to overproduce commodity crops: Prices plummet, farms forced to get big or get out”• The 1980s farm crisis headline: “Interest rates skyrocket, farmers default on debt, suicide rates surge”• The ongoing corporate agribusiness concentration headline: “Four companies control 80% of U.S. meatpacking: Monopoly control takes its toll on family farmers”• The ubiquitous credit headline: “Farming seen as high risk, lenders balk at making farm loans”• And, of course, the real estate headline: “Land prices through the roof due to development pressure”
There’s a joke that asks, “What do you call a dairy farm willed to the kids?” And the reply: “Child abuse.” Which, in addition to all of the structural, economic, political, and technological forces headlined above, points to a cultural element in this saga of farmer aging and attrition. It’s the mainstream stereotype that has come to haunt agriculture in our ever-urbanizing world—that farmers are dullards, geezers, and hicks, and that farming is what you do when you’re not savvy enough to do something—anything—else.
As often as I get a surprised, slightly perturbed look when I tell people I’m going back to farming in a few months, I am reminded of how deeply rooted that stereotype has become in various corners of our society, and how far removed most of America has gotten from the notion of farming as a viable occupation. (I’d be curious to know when a high school guidance counselor last suggested farming to an impressionable senior.)
In the urban mainstream, the connection to agriculture has boiled down to tidy, iconic, disembodied exposure: corn on the cob at county fairs, glossy images at the grocery store, and cowboy boots on the retail shelf at Ross Dress for Less. So much so that the person I’m sitting next to on the airplane has to strain to understand why a young, college-educated woman would make such an unglamorous, low-paid career choice over, say, investment banking. As obvious as it may be to me, it’s not always easy to explain to someone who hasn’t seen and smelled the mercury shatter of dew on a field of broccoli at dawn, or tended a tomato all the way from seed to sauce.
But there is also a cadre of people who do get it, and still others who are working to both break down the multiple barriers to entry for emerging farmers and increase the chance of success for newly established farms. Studies have shown that new farm businesses experience high turnover—thousands enter and exit each year—and that the most critical variable to success is experience. The handful of government and non-profit programs that target beginning farmers runs the gamut from technical production assistance to financial planning, market entry to land acquisition. And apprenticeship programs on working farms provide an opportunity for people to try their hands at farming and gain production skills.
At the same time, the agricultural renaissance sparked by the sustainable food movement, and the widespread celebration of local, seasonal, storied food, has shifted the economics to create new opportunity for farmers. For instance, Country Natural Beef, a cooperative made up of over 100 Food Alliance certified cattle ranches throughout the West, has effectively breathed new life into member ranchers’ bottom lines, and subsequently attracted 11 ranch kids back to carry on their family cattle tradition. The wisdom behind their founding motto, “Decommodify or Die!,” has gained traction among all kinds of farmers who, more and more, are finding their survival tightly bound to direct markets, value-added products, and the loyalty of conscientious eaters (like you).
There are some signs that the next generation of U.S. farmers may be gravitating more towards sustainable agriculture, with 18% of organic farmers under the age of 35, compared to 5.8% in conventional agriculture. In Oregon, where we are faced with the unnerving prospect of 25% of our farmers retiring within the next decade, numbers like these help to remind us that opportunity always attends change.
Perhaps our next generation of farmers will be known as “Gen O,” as is the goal of a recently-launched Organic Valley “Generation Organic” new farmer campaign. Given that Organic Valley farmers earn 40 to 60 percent more for their milk than conventional producers, I’d suggest that you consider joining their co-op if you’ve just inherited the much-maligned family dairy farm.
It’s possible that these new farmer programs and market forces might be related to a unique and beautiful little statistic here at home: Oregon, bucking the national trend, grew 58 new farms between 1997 and 2002, from 39,975 to 40,033. Though it’s a humble figure and causality is difficult to tease out, it’s hard to repress hope in the presence of a counter-current number like that.
One thing I can promise: Come 2008, there’ll be at least one more new farm to add to that Census tally, and not a gray hair on my head—yet.
Zoë Bradbury grew up on a farm in southwestern Oregon and farmed with Sauvie Island Organics for three years. She is now working with Ecotrust’s Food & Farms program while she completes her Masters in Rural Development & Food Systems.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

This op-ed in the September 22 issue of the New York Times is intriguing and exciting, particularly for local food enthusiasts.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Is eating local the best? the debate continues on grist.org

Strengthening community is an important benefit of eating locally
Posted by David Morris at 1:05 PM on 12 Sep 2007

"...Buying and using local food creates a tight-knit interconnection between producers and consumers. It makes us more intimately aware of the impact of our buying and producing decisions on our neighbors....

"A local food economy enables accountability; distance disables accountability. As we have recently discovered, food shipped across the planet, from jurisdictions and by corporations that do not view safety as their highest priority, is virtually untraceable. Or it requires global inspection agencies that themselves become unaccountable.

"Still, a growing number of voices, especially from southern countries, criticize advocates of local food on equity grounds. Many developing countries rely on agricultural exports to generate foreign currency to buy products and services essential to their survival and growth, they argue. If the developed world suddenly stopped importing its food, southern farmers would be further impoverished. This could have profound environmental consequences. Poverty is the single biggest factor driving problems like deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and the endangerment of wildlife. Export earnings -- from food flown to Europe and the United States -- allow southern farmers to invest in more environmentally friendly agriculture.

"I find the equity argument more compelling than the environmental argument against local foods. Yet the equity argument also ignores the dynamics of dependence.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Growing into a Farmer

Check out “Growing into a farmer” in the September 14 edition of ethicurean.com. It’s an excellent article by a young farmer in the Pioneer Valley and well worth the few minutes it takes to read.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Where's the Beef?

Here's an excellent article by a San Diego chef who specializes in local food, particularly meat. Here Jay provides insightful commentary on what differentiates commodity meat from locally bred meat. You can visit his restaurant's blog at porterx.com.blog

The World of Meat, Commodity and Otherwise by Jay, Thursday August 30, 2007
Recently we’ve found ourselves fielding a lot of questions about what it means that we don’t serve commodity meat, or just what the difference is in general between one kind of meat — be it in a steak, a burger, a roast, or whatnot — and another. This is stuff we’re only beginning to understand, largely through visits to farmers and producers. Sometimes we forget to clearly explain everything we’re learning.
So it seemed like a good time to do a recap.
The way I think of it, there are basically three types of meat we eat in America: commodity meat, branded meat, and pastured or traditional meat. I’ll discuss them by category.
1. Commodity Meat
This category includes virtually all of the meat available in the US, including almost all the meat distributed in supermarkets and corner stores. It also includes the vast majority of meat available in restaurants, which principally buy from either warehouses like Restaurant Depot or Costco, or from broadline distributors such as Sysco or US Foodservice.
Commodity meat has a very low price in the marketplace, and sets expectations that meat is inherently inexpensive. In fact, the reason the price is so low is that the commodity meat producers offset many of the costs of meat production by relying on subsidized processes (such as government subsidized corn and interstate transportation) and transferring costs to others (such as the environment, the property of their neighbors, and the health of their consumers).
Typically, commodity animals are packed in buildings as close together as possible, and are usually mutilated in some way (tails or beaks removed) in order to prevent them from eating/harming each other under the natural stress of crowding. The animals are fed a combination of the cheapest subsidized grains and also “rendered” animals, which means other animals, often of the same species, which were unfit for human consumption and have been sort of melted into fat or protein. The animals’ waste may be partially treated but ultimately contaminates waterways and soil.
The farmers and corporations who raise these animals are faceless and nameless to the marketplace, and are paid based on how many pounds of the animal they bring to the processor. The buyers assume that each animal is exactly the same (thus, a “commodity”). Therefore the farmers are rewarded for any measure that results in growing more pounds of animal in the same space, preferably with the cheapest food possible.
This leads to all the animals receiving continuous amounts of antibiotics (to reduce disease under intense crowding), and cattle and poultry receiving growth hormones to accelerate their yield. Both the hormones and antibiotics of course reach the end eater, as well.
Remember, commodity meat is almost all the meat available to us in San Diego in stores or restaurants.
2. Branded Meat
Stepping away from the troubling facts of commodity meat, a few farmers and co-ops have built niche markets in “branded” meat, usually in a market I call “thoughtful industrial”. These operations, usually independent farmers but sometimes units of big corporations, use the basic framework of factory meat but avoid the unsavory abuses of the commodity industry, and take care to raise healthful, delicious animals.
Usually the animals are thoughtfully bred for flavor and tenderness. Most of these operations have strict diet specifications (usually vegetarian only) and a policy regarding anitbiotics (usually either none, or none in the final “x” months, to allow the meat to be free of anitbiotics at slaughter). Sometimes they are organic. While not usually pastured, these farms usually treat the animals better than commodity farms — Niman Ranch and Eden Natural guarantee at least 12 square feet per pig rather than the standard 8; Fulton Valley chickens live somewhat crowded together in a big barn rather than in tight cages.Oftentimes these operations are sensitive about land stewardship and the environment, as well.
The farmers and companies raising this kind of meat are building a brand, and have a lot at stake. They pay attention to quality and wholesomeness, while also paying attention to the bottom line.
This method of farming usually provides much more delicious and much less scary meat. While still relying on subsidized architectures such as commodity corn, and transportation infrastructure, the farms don’t externalize nearly as many costs to the environment or to community health.
As a result, these producers charge a substantial premium, hopefully justified by taste quality, and through that premium offset the higher costs of running a factory that doesn’t directly destroy the environment or the health of their consumers.
This kind of meat can be branded by the producer (such as Niman Ranch), by the diet of the animal (“Pure Lamb”), and sometimes by a combination of breed and method (American Kobe Beef, Jidori Chickens).
In San Diego you can buy meat like this at some niche grocers like Whole Foods and possibly at some farmer’s markets. Some local restuarants serve this kind of meat, a couple favorites that come to mind instantly are Mama Testa Taqueria in Hillcrest (all their meats are branded) and Starlite Lounge in Middletown (Brandt burgers and steaks) though there are actually quite a few others that have at least one branded meat on their menu.
While we highlight pastured/sustainable meat at the Linkery, we also offer branded meat such as Brandt beef, Eden Natural pork and Vande Rose pork.
3. Pastured or Sustainable Meat
Note that, while the branded meats eschew the patent abuses of the commodity system, they still use modern industrial infrastructure to keep their costs down, and they still are raising animals in feedlots. This leaves two areas for improvement: 1) much of their costs are still being externalized to our society as a whole, and 2) We lose whatever benefits to our health and the environment have evolved as part of our historical tradition of raising animals outside as part of an integrated ecosystem we share with them.
In other words, our species is built to eat animals that roam and eat what’s on the ground. It seems likely that when we pen the animals and feed them corn that we’re missing something we’re bred to need. And of course we’re still destroying our own ecosystem by building a corn based economy — through such mechanisms as fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms creating a large “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Long term, the obvious way to restore balance to both ourselves and ecosystem is to return to raising and eating pastured meats near where we live — the way our species has raised and eaten meat for thousands of years. We won’t be externalizing any costs to the environment or to our community. And, as Michael Pollan says, there is a free lunch, and it’s called the sun. The sun grows pasture naturally, which we can’t eat but the animals we eat can.
Unfortunately, the course to returning to traditional agriculture is really hard — pasture means real estate, and an acre in San Diego costs 50,000 times more than 8 square feet in Iowa. So a lot of traditional farmers have to rely on a combination of novelty (raising rare breeds that can’t be experienced through mainstream providers), passion (providing a means for people reconnect to their land and community in a way they can’t through a feedlot), and shared spirit (recruiting people who want to eat in a sustainable way).