- written by Grant
Is small-scale, local, organic, sustainable farming actually sustainable?
By which I mean, can they stay in business?
If you’re like me, you’ve believed up to now that surely the values that drive such small farms will carry them through; that small farms are “good”, ergo, they must inherently be able to succeed.
But on a farm this fall, I overheard this exchange between two farmers who run small operations:
Visiting farmer: So what keeps you in business?
Huh? (picture me cartoonishly wagging my head side-to-side and looking flabbergasted)
Weddings and special events on farms are wonderful for sure, at the very least because they are expanding awareness of the foods and farming practices they offer. But to think that, for this farm at least, staying in business as a farm means needing another revenue stream outside of what we all would consider a farm’s core business – growing food – is surprising to me.
Color me naïve.
And color me as one who’s overtly ignored this reality for a while. I say this because I’ve seen a farm fail before but apparently have chosen not to make much of it. Back a few years, a much-loved dairy farm in our area had an inspection from regulators that indicated a possible problem. The agency did not prove any actual danger, but the milk was pulled from shelves. No illnesses were reported and again, there was no proof shown. In the end though, the farm could not weather the public relations fallout and shuttered. I got fairly involved with the farmer and did what I could to help him address some cash flow issues and try to get back on his feet, but it never worked.
Here was a farm professing local, sustainable values and practices … but it failed.
I heard recently that Tiny Greens, a small Illinois farm that had been in business for 20 years and even had strong wholesale accounts has closed as well. It was a farm professing local, sustainable values and practices … but it failed.
This week in Chicago, a favorite local deli that was a staunch supporter of all things local and thoughtfully raised, City Provisions, closed and the theme of the owner’s public letter was that “sustainability is not sustainable.”
Another business professing local, sustainable values and practices … that failed.
Color me a little less naïve.
Now I finally get that there is nothing about a farm with sustainable farming practices that inherently makes it “bound to succeed.” It is a business like any other (or perhaps folks will argue, tougher even) and it has to have capital, pricing, distribution and damage control ducks all in a row. (Not having an MBA, I’m sure I’m missing some items, but you get the point.) There will be bad turns of weather. There will be crop failure. There will be safety concerns that lead to publicity problems. There will be lots of bad times a farm has to weather. Just the fact that they have sustainable growing practices will not carry them through.
Wanting to learn more about the business of small-farming from a farmer, we had dinner recently with my friends Jenny and Bob Borchardt of Harvest Moon Farms. Jenny runs the on-farm operations at their Viroqua, WI, farm, and Bob manages marketing and distribution matters. They define themselves as “new generation” farmers — they did not grow up as farmers but recently left professional jobs to pursue a rural, agricultural lifestyle. Jenny worked 18 years in textbook and educational technology sales and Bob ran Cuisine Populaire, a new media company focused on the food, wine and travel sector. They went through a beginning farmer training program, befriended an experienced organic farmer in their area who mentors them, and took the plunge, just as many new, young farmers around the country are doing.
To be clear, their farm has NOT failed, but it has struggled to find a way to make organic farming a successful business. They find themselves too far from Chicago to make the farmers market and CSA model work for them — there is too much time and effort in the piece-meal delivery process and they don’t earn enough to pay themselves well. As Bob put it, “We’d just like to earn as much as our average customer.”
They are compelled to scale up so they can be delivering pallets of produce rather than boxes. They’re convinced selling large loads in the wholesale market is where the profit margin is best for them … and where they can finally earn a living wage.
Of course farms of any size face struggles to stay in business. They’re impacted by weather, by government regulations, by the degree to which crop insurance helps them and of course by the marketplace — you, the consumer, and the price you’re willing to pay.
Perhaps it’s just time that we the consumer realize that hanging one’s shingle out that reads, “sustainable farm” is not a free ride to monetary success. Given the consumer’s general unwillingness to pay more for foods, the case is likely the opposite. Sustainable farming may be lovely, but it is also more difficult.
And it is not inherently sustainable as a business.
So maybe next time you’re at the farmer’s market working on “knowing your farmer” you should ask him or her about something other than growing practices and cooking methods.
Try asking, “Are you earning enough by farming to stay in business?”
I think then you’ll find that suddenly you really do know your farmer.
And you’ll learn something more about the term “sustainable”.
• • • • •
On top of producing beautiful organic produce, Jenny is a terrific cook! Dinner started with delicata squash soup followed by red wattle pork shanks and cassoulet beans from the farm’s kitchen garden. On the side were creamed curly kale and home-baked bread with Westby Creamery butter. We also scored some homebrew courtesy of their farm chef this past summer – One Hundred Meals may be developing a side theme of drawing out the homemade beers – a trend we will not argue with!
- written by Grant
I mentioned to a chef friend that we’d gone to Monsanto.
He looked incredulous.
And he asked in a rather shocked way, “WHY?!” He went on to say, “I could never spend the day with those people.”
So why did we go to Monsanto? Surely we did not expect them to roll over and say, “You know, you’re right that our company practices are not fair and do not have the greater good in mind. We should change.”
We did not expect them to change by talking with us, although I will say they were very genuinely interested in our viewpoints as part of the “disturbed consumer group” out there that dislikes, ok, the word is hates, Monsanto. They listened a LOT to us because after all, they are trying to figure out how to communicate better with unhappy consumers. Most people in the room with us were public relations people after all. Communicators.
Nor did we go because we were thirsty for Kool-Aid. We are thirsty for genuine, civil conversation about our food system, whatever that means.
Briefly, the day went like this: we were met at the Chesterfield Campus by Gary Barton who is one of their regular tour guides and a former Monsanto public affairs employee. He and Janice Person showed farmers Mike Haley and Ray Prock and Ellen and me around the facility – growing rooms, greenhouses, DNA testing equipment and such. Leaving aside any biases you may have, man’s ability to invent stuff and push technology forward is amazing. Our space program is amazing; car manufacturing plants are amazing; Monsanto’s technology is amazing.
We talked about Monsanto’s history and their move from being a chemical company to being a seed company. Yes, one-third of their revenue comes from chemicals like Roundup, but 95% of their research budget is now devoted to seeds (GM and non-GM seeds) and trait selection. We then drove to their corporate headquarters and had lunch in a boardroom with a bunch of additional employees: Rick a food scientist, Wendy a dietitian, Paulette a plant breeder and Carly in public affairs. Lunch was a catered-looking affair set out just for our group and there were also a few items that featured use of their new Vistive Gold® soybean oil that you’ll read about below.
I began to see Monsanto as what it is, a large corporation. Leave aside the question of their being in the food business for a minute and name one mega-corporation in this country that has a triple bottom line approach to running their business. Name one for whom things like social justice and general good citizenship is truly a big part of what they do. Let’s face it, our (supposed) free-market economy encourages and rewards big, successful businesses and they get that way thanks to government regulations going their way and consumers buying what they’re selling.
In the case of food, we’ve bought into the ideas of low cost and convenience. We apparently like flavorless tomato slices on our sandwich in January and we like a meal that costs a dollar. That is a paradigm that big business has marketed to us – and that is their job, after all – and we’ve bought the bill of goods. We let this happen. I am not sure we can blame big business like we tend to do. I’m not saying I like it, but I am hesitating to place blame. There is nothing about our market economy that requires or even much encourages triple bottom line business. Read David Katz on the subject! At best, we have government dietary guidelines – more on that in a minute.
Let’s look at a new food product that is trying to get approval for sale in the US – the non-browning Arctic Apple. The genetically modified non-browning apple. A lot of folks on the big ag side like to say that they offer choice and that it is the consumer demand that drives this choice. In the case of this new apple, I’m not so sure I’ve heard a lot of consumers speaking out and demanding a non-browning apple. I think it is more accurate to say that big food producers look for new marketable food items and suggest and convince the consumer that they have value. The demand does NOT precede the supply. Marketing creates demand for what the producer is supplying. The question worth considering is, in what way could ethics influence the supply?
Enter dietary guidelines.
One major thing I learned at Monsanto is the degree to which governmental dietary guidelines drive new food products. Here is Wendy:
“Dietary guidelines significantly affect what food companies do.”
And as Rick spoke, he kept coming back to the word guidelines. Look at trans fats as an example. Government guidelines recommended we remove trans fats from our diets. Our fast food chains used to fry in trans fat laden oils. If guidelines restrict that, food companies need to develop new oils that are stable at high temperatures and don’t have trans fats. Enter products like Monsanto’s Vistive Gold® – a low-saturated, hi-oleic GM soy oil. Check out this bullet point from their promotional postcard for Vistive Gold®. It is telling:
“When used in food, Vistive Gold® has the ability to reduce saturated fat intake, helping food companies meet dietary guidelines to reduce solid fat in the diet.”
I underscore, guidelines drive food innovation.
Now you could say, “Hey, our model is broken. We do not need “healthier” oil to fry in. We need to fry less.”
True. If you believe that, eat less fried food and convince your friends of the same. I am right there with you, but at the end of the day, there is a HUGE market in this country for french fries and companies like Monsanto are in business to be in business and they are going to supply that product. They are even doing what they can to make the oil healthier than it used to be.
I am beginning to think that barking at Monsanto will not change our food supply because it is not in their financial interest to do so. Business is about money.
The GMO labeling initiative on the November ballot in California, Proposition 37, brings up an interesting question I have for Monsanto and big food though. If you argue that business responds to consumer demand and aims to MEET that consumer demand, why are the big food companies spending millions to defeat the mandatory labeling initiative? (As of this writing, Monsanto has invested over $7 Million to defeat the measure.) You would think they’d see this as market analysis they did not need to pay for. Go back to that non-browning apple. Suppose you’re developing that product. You’d do some focus groups and check in with consumers to see if enough of them would buy it to make it worth your while, wouldn’t you? You’d do extensive market testing and analysis to determine demand, right? Well, in the case of this labeling initiative, and combine it with consumer interest in Vermont that was squashed, I’d propose to big food that there is some major market analysis right under their noses and they’re trying to defeat it rather than learn from it.
Why defeat it? At Monsanto we asked and got these responses:
- We are confident that the science is clear and GM foods are safe.
- If labeling were being suggested for a health reason, then perhaps we’d support it.
- Monsanto does not control the labeling on foods in the grocery store, food companies do. We are a seed company and we DO label our seeds as GM when we sell them to farmers.
If millions of moms in focus groups said, no, we’re not interested in a non-browning apple, would that food company proceed with the product? No. So why proceed with GM crops and fight GMO labeling when millions are standing up against it? You in big food may be right. Perhaps it is safe, but you are ignoring free market research to the contrary. I guess the consumer is always right … unless he or she is wrong.
These moms I am imagining in focus groups brings up my last point. Surely we can all agree that consumers are engaged with their food and its source in huge numbers right now. Farmers market shopping is on the rise; new farmers markets are opening; an unprecedented number of young farmers are stepping up to be farmers; more and more local organic foods are available; terms like Know Your Food, Farm-to-Table, Farm-to-Bar and Whole-Animal are ubiquitous. People are engaged with their food! That seems wonderful of course. But unfortunately, like in politics, these two very different food systems, local and organic on the one hand and large commodity farming on the other are in tension.
Ellen and I admire our friend Mike Haley, a conventional farmer from Ohio who is working hard to diffuse this tension. He wrote recently about defining sustainability and his point was largely that of course farmers of all stripes must work to achieve sustainability. All farmers take care of their land and animals – it is their livelihood, after all. And Janice from Monsanto put it like this:
“We think we have similar definitions of sustainability but we have different ways to get there.”
I believe we are all dancing around this word sustainability and given that we as a country have one environment to protect and probably should have one set of animal rights to uphold and one set of farm worker rights to uphold, I wonder if it is right and fair for us all to be pursuing sustainability in widely divergent manners.
I think it would be worth saving.
What did I learn at Monsanto? Keep asking questions.
- written by Grant
People are complicated.
Take Janice Person in Monsanto Public Affairs. She has reached out and engaged the One Hundred Meals project and invited us to St. Louis for tours of their corporate headquarters and growing facilities. Now, you could view us as a thorn in her side, but she engaged us in a friendly way, so off we went!
So she has this job. Monsanto PR. Yikes! But she also has a brother and a nephew who are organic farmers. Huh? Yup.
And we had dinner with her at Niche in St. Louis – Meal Five: Janice Person and Friends. The food from Gerard Craft was amazing, by the way. Never mind all this annoying food policy talk; get thee to Niche for dinner!
Janice’s friends at dinner are also ours – Mike Haley and Ray Prock, conventional farmers who have this way of listening to us. They want to engage and learn and share so much that it is disarming. And don’t we all have our weapons drawn these days? Yeah, we all could use some disarming. Read their content at Just Farmers if you don’t believe me.
So anyway, the point of this post is to tell you that in a few short months I have been able to go from a person who would have said – “Heck no! No way I’m sitting down to a civilized dinner at a fancypants restaurant with Monsanto and be able to enjoy my meal!” to a person who, to use my previous language, had dinner with the enemy and thoroughly enjoyed both the food and the company.
After all, meals are more than food. They are community-building and best shared with friends and family.
When you sit down to a friendly dinner with people you are learning to respect, not agree with, but respect, you find that you have things in common. We both garden, enjoy good food and drink (uh, thank you Paul Virant for inventing that incredible chocolatey-habanero-bourbon-barrel-aged beer!) And you differ on things – Janice is considering spraying Roundup on the irritating mint taking over her garden. Does not compute! But to each his own, I guess.
And you find that although someone like Janice works for Monsanto, she is not Monsanto.
Janice is a person.
Corporations are not people.
But they are made up of people.
And people are complicated.
Which might all be to say:
Our food system is complicated.
As I learned the next day.
- written by Grant
Living in a big city sometimes makes your opinions on agriculture suspect. What do you know about farming?
Enter Darryl Coates, keeper of bees, skinner of rabbits and wildlife biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Meal Four with Darryl was in Gibson City, Illinois – pop. 3300 ish. To underscore that we were city folk in the country, as we walked in to meet Darryl at the Country Kettle, Ellen joked to me: “Bet you’re the only man with a purse here.” (Yes, I carry a small shoulder bag!)
Which is all to say, Darryl brings a rural viewpoint to the conversation.
And he brings the perspective of someone who’s spent over 17 years working to manage Illinois wildlife and tree populations. He has a field scientist’s perspective on natural systems and applies that thinking to his analysis of agriculture. As he puts it, his science is “adaptive management”.
He notes that wild animal populations live outside, they have exposure to a varied diet of their choosing and they are exposed to the elements and illness. Barring unregulated hunting pressure, this creates a resilient system and healthy animals. Of course farming and agriculture is an artificial system man creates, but in Darryl’s mind, we would be better served learning from and more closely imitating nature’s systems.
It’s interesting that as we learned from Kris Travis at Spence Farm, everyone has their own definition of sustainable. For Darryl, it includes:
- Control amount of waste.
- Use waste in positive manner.
- The herd is not kept all together (and sick animals are separated).
- You don’t need hormones and inoculations.
When these get out of balance, in nature or on farms, you have population corrections of animals, plants or soil through disease, pollution and starvation.
Speaking of balance, one of nature’s pillars of success that Darryl fears we are most ignoring, is diversity.
Large scale agriculture often purports to offer us “choice”, but Darryl doesn’t see it. We grow one corn type in this country: “yellow dent #2”. How is that choice? How is that diversity? To the naturalist’s mind, this is life on a knife edge because we are only fostering one crop, one species. If blight or drought or a yellow-dent-#2-loving pest hits that crop, we may be sorry to have all our eggs in one basket.
And Darryl recalled the steak taste-test we did together at Spence Farm chef camp (see Meal Two posts for more on Spence Farm). We grilled six steaks, some pastured, some grain-fed, some grain finished and also from a variety of species, Angus, Holstein and more, including an anonymous commodity steak from the grocery store. Did they taste different? Oh YES! Does agriculture foster that sort of choice? No, it raises one beef cattle, feeds it the same across the country and it tastes the same everywhere. Is that consumer choice? Is that an environmentally safe move from the perspective of a wildlife biologist who values diversity? No.
I read a terrific essay recently by Seth Teter that compared monoculture farming to monoculture thinking. He essentially challenges us to be broad thinkers and avoid the dogma that is monoculture ideology. If you are a proponent of biological diversity, he says, you should also be a proponent of thought diversity. I fully agree. I think Darryl brings us some diversity thinking. He acknowledges that agriculture, all agriculture, is a better steward of the land than it’s ever been. But he fears the monoculture planting, the monoculture thinking that ag is chasing now too. In economics terms, you could see on his face and read in his tone that he fears a “correction”.
When the correction hits, will we see it as nature’s response to our widespread use of single crops and single species?
- written by Grant
The debate rages in this country about whether we should have mandatory GMO labeling or not. It comes up for a public vote in California this fall and much attention is focused on that outcome. In fact, here is an indicator of the attention Big Food is focusing on labeling:
“In a recent speech to the American Soybean Association (most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified), Grocery Manufacturers Association President Pamela Bailey said that defeating the initiative ‘is the single-highest priority for GMA this year.’” [from Huffington Post article]
I’ve been challenged by folks like geneticmaize and noteasy2begreen to explain the reasoning for labeling and oddly, it’s been difficult. In my gut, labeling seemed right. Then when I think about it, I realize it would be very expensive to implement and monitor in a way that would be trustworthy. Another common argument against labeling is that a consumer who wants to avoid GMOs simply has to do a quick Google search on it and take two minutes to learn – you can avoid GMOs by avoiding a short list of foods, especially most packaged and processed foods and be sure to choose things labeled Certified Organic as they do NOT contain GMOs.
These arguments have been hard for me to debate. I found myself relying mostly on emotion and saying things like, “It doesn’t matter whether labeling is a good idea or not, consumers want it.”
I’m surprised to find the answer in a book about slaughter.
I just finished reading Timothy Pachirat’s book, Every Twelve Seconds – Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Pachirat is a political scientist who surreptitiously took a job in a slaughter house in order to research and write a book about conditions there. This was in a time when there was no “ag gag” law against such things. His was a risky move to be sure, but not an illegal one, as it is now in many states.
He describes systemic food safety infractions and animal abuse, yes, but the real thrust of his book is his explanation of the ‘politics of sight’, and it now helps me understand GMO labeling.
We want to “know” our food. Ag gag laws, pink slime, meat glue, animal cages, e. coli on spinach, rBST etc are hidden from us, both literally and figuratively. As Pachirat describes, “hiddenness” and lack of clear “sight” and knowing is power. It is power held over us by the person, the company, the industry that is doing the hiding. The call for labeling is the populace in our country seeking transparency. We seek transparency because not having it, as we feel is the case now, means we are powerless.
The suggestion that we should simply buy organically labeled foods to avoid GMOs does not satisfy. It does not address this power struggle. In fact, it is a concession to it because we are then offered only a very limited choice of foods and most importantly, we are being offered those because all the others are hidden from us. Organically labeled foods are fine, but the problem we have is with the power held in the other mysterious foods. We seek transparency of those foods too.
We look around at our populace’s health issues, our environment’s health issues, our farm workers’ health issues and focus our anger on Big Food. Labeling is the line in the sand we can draw that says we want food manufacturers to tell us “What’s in there?” “What are you feeding us?” Stop hiding.
This was interesting to hear on NPR - Jeff Leitner and Howell J. Malhalm Jr. of Insight Labs were talking not about food but about voting and democracy. They made the point that the newer generations have different viewpoints and different paradigms than generations past:
“Personal agency is paramount in a democracy simply because people want the feeling that they have control over their own destinies. Voting was the ultimate symbol of agency in the United States for many years, but now that the very nature of agency is changing in light of technological advances that give us an unprecedentedly high degree of personalization and freedom over our own lives, voting seems quite antiquated. Why would the younger generation buy into designating leaders by proxy when their lives are ruled by themselves?”
Younger generations want “agency” or control and power in their own lives in a very different way than generations past. And the internet and social media tools empower them. Upset? Launch an online petition. Want to be a filmmaker? Shoot a video with your phone and put it on youtube. Although I have a great deal of respect for farmers and their knowledge base, they often fall into the trap of insisting that the ill-informed public should stay out of farming decisions. Take gestation crates as one example – the backbone of most arguments in favor of crates often seems to hinge on the ranchers saying they “know what’s best” for their animals and we outsiders can’t know and shouldn’t be meddling.
This stance won’t fly with a generation who wants, no, who is taking agency and power.
It is a bigger question than GMOs – we want more transparency in our food system. We want to feel like we are part of our food system. That we have some power and control over our food system. Being on the receiving end is not enough; purchasing power is not enough – we want to have joint control of the food system.
Small farms and small local food producers offer transparency. They are simple, open and have short ingredient lists. They share power.
Big Food needs to learn from that. Be transparent. Cede some power.
We will still need to eat – done right, ceding power will not mean ceding profit.
written by Grant
A long day visiting a farm is supposed to end with a campfire. The guitar comes out, maybe a harmonica (hey, I packed mine!) and you sing a verse or two of every song you know into the wee hours watching flames turn to embers.
The first day of Chef Camp at Spence Farm ended with a walk in the woods.
In the dark.
We donned headlamps and carried flashlights, following Marty, Kris and Will into their 40 acres of woods. Diverse farms often have woods and in this case the woods, nearly as wild as when the Kickapoo Indians lived in it, represents twenty-five percent of their farmstead. They carefully harvest from it – paw paws, stinging nettles, maple sap and more.
On this night, we all harvested from it; we harvested a peacefulness and knowledge.
Deep into the woods, we stopped in a clearing and Kris asked us to turn off our flashlights and listen. The sliver of moon offered little light. Fireflies darted about. And it was beautiful to just listen to the world. The sounds were magical, and they opened a door for Kris to speak softly to us about the aesthetic of their farm. Spence Farm has been in the family for 182 years and is the oldest farm in Livingston County. It is scattered with small buildings that each speak to their purpose – a chicken coop, a duck coop, an old schoolhouse for teaching visitors, a rescued smokehouse, a sugar house Will uses to make maple syrup. There are fields of course, but to the Spences, the woods are also a vital part of their farm, part of their aesthetic vision of a sustainable farm and lifestyle for the three of them.
Who stands in the woods in the dark and describes their farm as having an aesthetic!? Kris, Marty and Will do.
And how did such talk affect me?
It gave me this to think about – I get worked up in my effort to promote change in our food system. I go easily into argue and debate mode, trying to convince farmers they should farm differently, that pesticides and herbicides and GMOs and heavy antibiotic use are wrong. That we need labeling. And this activism is both energizing and sapping sometimes. And there’s a certain amount of angriness and negativism in it too.
But there could be another way to affect change. You could form community of like-minded people and gently, quietly do what you feel is right.
Can small farms feed the world?
Kris: “I don’t care – I’m feeding my community.”
Marty: “It’s not natural – animals, given the choice, would choose non-GMO from two piles of field leavings.”
Does the science support Farm Practice X?
Kris: “No science required. Our experience and that of others supports it.”
Driving home late the next night, I caught an interview with literary critic Northrop Frye on the radio. It’s interesting how my mindset from the farm tuned me in to catch this thought from him:
“I detest arguments because you’re going to lose any argument with an ideologue because you can only argue on the basis of a counter-ideology and I’m not doing that. […] The actual technique of argumentative writing is something I avoid as far as possible because when you argue you are selecting points to emphasize and there can never be anything definitively right or wrong about an emphasis, it’s simply a choice among possibilities, and consequently an argument is always a half truth.”
No arguing. No debate. No Science A versus Science B. No Kumbaya around the campfire. You just stand in the dark woods and choose the outcome you want.
written by Grant
Ellen and I were privileged recently to attend Chef Camp at Spence Farm in central Illinois and it was the coolest two days ever!
Spence is a small, diversified farm – 110 tillable acres and 40 acres of woods – selling heirloom and heritage products to Chicago restaurants and they want to reach more chefs and spread the word about the kind of farming they do. Twice a year The Spence Farm Foundation invites a dozen or so chefs, sous chefs and other restaurant people down for a couple days of farm work, cooking and learning – all in the capable hands of presenters Marty and Kris Travis. The chefs are eager to learn. I was impressed by their questions and motivation. Asked what they hoped to get out of the experience, they said things like:
- I want tips and knowledge to educate others – my staff, my diners, the community, my kids.
- I want to know how your product gets to my door.
- I want to develop a stronger appreciation of your product.
- I just want to be on a farm.
It is good to know that the chefs who feed us when we eat out are thoughtful about their sourcing and working hard to make good choices. And Marty was direct with the chefs, telling them that it’s important for them to ask tough questions of the farms they buy from and to make it clear what expectations they have.
We sat under a tent most of the first day, learning from Marty and Kris Travis and their twenty year-old son Will about their farm and the methods they use. My big takeaways? Sustainability and GMOs.
They used the term sustainability a lot and I asked them to define it. The most important thing about their definition was that every farm is different and each must produce its own working definition of sustainable. For their part, they think the crucial components are:
- environmental – is the farm treating the environment in a healthy way that can continue over time?
- physical – how big is it and how diversified?
- financial – is the farmer earning enough to stay in business?
- community – is the farm a welcome and contributing part of its community?
- soil and animal – given that piece of soil, how many animals will it support and will they be healthy?
How does Spence measure itself against these metrics? Well, they farm an extremely diverse group of crops and livestock in a carefully planned rotation. They farm “beyond organic”, meaning they are not certified but feel they exceed organic standards (and their soil biologist Bob Boehle backs them on this). They use no herbicides, pesticides or GM crops. They maintain 40 acres of woods. They earn a comfortable living and it is a lifestyle they love. It is clear they are a very tight-knit family team and it was impressive to see the responsibility and ease their son Will showed. He built his own sugaring house at age 14 and sells out of all his maple syrup each year even before he starts! When asked how big they felt was comfortable, they were emphatic that they don’t want their farm to be anything the three of them can’t handle. They do all the work now and expect to keep it that way – that is a very conscious part of their definition of sustainable.
Regarding the farm’s contribution to the community, they are very careful not to simply be a niche farm that is selling to Chicago and not in tune with their neighbors. They are currently organizing a local shared garden initiative for the small town they’re near; they started the Stewards of the Land group years ago that works to help young farmers (10, 14, 17 year-olds!) get started and supports them with a farming community knowledge base; and they formed the Spence Farm Foundation which organizes on-farm trips for families, school groups and chefs to learn about farming and food.
With the push to have mandatory GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) labeling in California this fall, lots of questions regarding GMOs are on peoples’ minds recently. Ellen’s been thinking and writing about them after our Meal One. Our friends at Just Farmers are blogging about whether the labeling is a good idea or not. A lengthy report from genetic engineers and scientists at Earth Open Source just came out which questions all aspects of GM safety, research and regulation. So my GMO antennae were up at Spence Farm and I have their perspective to share.
Kris and Marty are extremely thoughtful and direct. They described two piles of plant residue sitting in fields, one GM corn, say, and the other, non-GM corn. Animals would eat the non-GMO. They also say that soil microbes do not recognize GM plant residue as natural food. So why should we recognize it as food? Lastly they made the point that they do not have bug and disease issues on their farm. So GMOs don’t strike them as natural nor necessary.
They told another interesting story. There was a point years back when their land, owned by Marty’s mother, was being farmed by someone else. The family insisted that this contract farmer use non-GM crops. He resisted but had to concede since it was their land. So he farmed their land and also other property in the area. Yields on the Spence Farm were higher and they spent less money on seed. We were all incredulous to learn that despite this experiential information, the farmer was not convinced and did not implement non-GM crops elsewhere.
The Travis family and their soil consultant Bob Boehle all agreed – the answer was convenience. In their opinion, it takes less work to farm GM crops.
• • •
So a small, diversified, beyond organic farm can be financially viable; it can be energizing and rewarding to the farmers; it can give back immensely to its community; it can care for the land, raise its animals on pasture and provide large quantities of nutrient-dense produce and meats to the nearby marketplace. All with a drizzle of maple syrup on top! Spence Farm, it was a pleasure to meet you!
written by Grant
We’ve been thinking and writing about scientific research relating to foods we eat. And here’s something interesting that happened to me in the last couple days.
As much as we’ve talked about bias when we think about which body of research we choose to believe, one thing that hasn’t come up is timing. We all understand the phenomenon where we prefer the version of a song we heard first as a teenager. Play some other artist’s version to us now and it’s just not the same, right? We have a strong bias for the first-heard.
Up to now I must admit I have done very little reading on the topic of pesticide residue on foods we eat. Why? Well, again, my defense mechanism against a complex food world is simplicity…or just dodge the issue. I buy organic, locally grown, integrated pest management fruits and vegetables and figure that’s the safest thing I can do.
So I’m telling you I have very little bias on the matter of grocery store produce and whether there is pesticide residue on it or not.
Then along comes this article from Steve Savage, a plant pathologist, on his Applied Mythology blog, shared with me by a thoughtful big ag farmer:
Savage makes these three points in the article:
- “…the data (ed: from the Agricultural Marketing Service arm of the USDA) demonstrates […] that pesticide residues are only present at very low levels, usually dramatically below the conservative “tolerances” set during the risk analysis by the EPA.”
- The press and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) who publish the Dirty Dozen list each year proclaim loudly that our fruits and produce are pesticide-laden. No comment given in these announcements that the USDA research shows extremely low levels of pesticide residue.
- And how is the USDA partially to blame for this spread of misinformation? Savage says, “What USDA does not do is provide a summary version of the data that is easily digestible by ordinary readers, including typical members of the press.”
So here you have my first and primary exposure to the pesticide residue controversy. I don’t know much about Steve yet, but I have to say he makes very clear and believable points. And I’m almost with him on the idea that, hey, maybe extremely low quantities of pesticide are not harmful. The USDA studies this and deems it so. If I can believe the USDA, I can shop at the grocery store.
Next, I find this in my inbox from a thoughtful small ag farmer who writes for a big ag journal:
The article is written by Henry Miller and Jeff Stier. Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division. Miller’s bio reads, in part: “biomedical scientist; FDA drug regulator; and scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution” and he is a self-proclaimed debunker of the misunderstandings of science and research.
Their points, though presented in a slightly more strident tone than Savage’s, are clear and easy for me to get. Primarily they argue that the amounts of pesticide residue being found are too low to be concerned with and they are exaggerated by the EWG and others:
“EWG’s 2010 list involved levels of pesticides 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose (the level of daily exposure likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime of chronic exposure)”
So three scientific minds reach me in these two articles and I have to say, I’m fairly persuaded. I understand there is pesticide residue, but that it is extremely low. There is even some natural pesticide that the plants themselves produce and some of these may be more harmful. The early exposure bias, like that favorite song I talked about earlier, is creeping in on me and I’m about ready to allow pesticide residues at USDA approved levels. It is very interesting for me to see this process in action in my mind.
So what does the EWG say about dosage? Nothing:
“The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure. Since researchers are constantly developing new insights into how pesticides act on living organisms, no one can say that concentrations of pesticides assumed today to be safe are, in fact, harmless.”
Hmmm. Emotional argument I would have taken hook, line and sinker before. Gotta say, not too convincing for the scientific-y mind, and this is found on their press release, a good place to be convincing if you ask me. Seems like the EWG needs to address the dosage question directly and that’s basically what Jon Hamilton reports on NPR: Why You Shouldn’t Panic About Pesticide In Produce.
There are nagging questions though:
- Are the USDA’s standards, their “conservative tolerances”, low enough? How do we know?
- What about accumulation or interaction of these pesticides in our bodies?
- What about the effects of these pesticides on our environment? Although the EWG’s efforts with their Dirty Dozen list are clearly focused on consumer consumption, you can’t remove our planet’s health from the equation.
- What about the effects of these pesticides on our farmworkers?
- Is the USDA testing only applicable for average weight adults? If so, what about the impact on smaller body sizes, like, say, kids?
So you see the trajectory of my learning on this topic. Now I need your help. Chime in. What do you know about pesticides in our farming that would add to my learning? How do you feel reading this? Are you convinced one way or the other? Speak up!
written by Grant
Sitting down to dinner at Meal One I realized there is a wonderful construct in our approach – sharing a meal with someone is powerful.
Natasha Godard has followed our burgeoning project with interest and when she read my post about research confusion and saw our list of intended meals, she thought we might like to talk with her because she is a scientific-thinking person with a biology degree. Hoping we could get some clarification about how scientists think, how they’re funded and how to choose trustworthy science from someone who’s actually done scientific research, we of course invited ourselves to dinner!
Hailing from New Mexico, she and her husband Bill served huevos rancheros – a tortilla topped with refried black beans, then a delicious layer of carne adovada and topped with a fried egg. Natasha bought pork shoulder from Rob over at the Butcher + Larder, which means it was from Slagel Family Farm and slowly simmered it in red chili sauce. (Here’s her recipe.) And because Ellen has a ready supply of “city eggs” to take as hostess gifts wherever she goes, the eggs we enjoyed were from our own birds! All that plus a delicious homebrew made for a fantastic meal that was thoughtfully sourced and prepared from scratch. For me, that alone is a powerful thing to sit down to with new friends. Add intense conversation delving into food and the science of food and you have a great learning experience as well.
So what the heck did I learn?
I read a lot about food and some of the apparent problems with our food system. Over time, my brain has decided that because it is difficult to sort out what is good, nutritious and safe from what is not, I need some simple mechanism. For me and Ellen, that mechanism is to rely on finding foods that seem “natural” and “caveman-like”. Simpler, whole foods that are grown fairly close to the way they’d grow in nature make sense to us. Complicated, processed foods do not. Our friend Seedling Pete is an example of someone who offers a value-added, processed food product – apple cider. When you read the ingredient list though, it says: apples. Yes, it has a short shelf life, but it is food I can understand. Simple.
So inherently I count GMOs in the “complicated” and “unnatural” category.
But I learned, from this scientific mind and eater I trust and respect that casting all GMOs in the same light may not be fair. There can be good science that leads to healthy GMO plants that we may want to consider eating after all – as Natasha puts it, she is not inherently suspicious of GMOs. She trusts the process but doesn’t always trust the intent of companies putting the science to work.
I am beginning to realize that I may not be able to discount all “science-y” food just because it is lab-derived. I am not sure of this yet, but Natasha is asking me to consider it in a compelling way. Perhaps some GM crops like nutrient-enhanced golden rice are ok but others may not be. In any case, it is now important to me to understand the GMO process better and consider whether it’s fair to apply such a broad, dismissive brush stroke to them all.
The topic of rBGH came up too and we were shocked to learn that Natasha has no objection to drinking milk from cows given the growth hormone. SHOCKED! She had reasons:
- Because she is given to understand that growth hormones are species-specific, her scientific mind tells her it is not going to impact her…or even impact kids. She thinks the early puberty happening these days is likely caused by various endocrine disruptors, including BPA in cash register receipts, baby bottles and canned goods but possibly also by childhood obesity itself.
- She also understands, scientifically, that rBGH does not necessarily enter the cow’s milk.
All that said, she and Bill drink Kilgus milk which is rBGH-free. Why? Tastes great! And because they have environmental concerns and concerns for animal welfare that they feel Kilgus addresses.
I admit I have not read a lot about rBGH so I am ill-prepared to debate it with her. Again, our food system is so incredibly complex that I apply my “close to nature” filter on milk. Cows should eat grass and produce milk. Anything else is too much science for me. Yes, it may be safe, but I don’t always have time to read every white paper out there, so as a consumer, I choose simple.
Which brings us generally speaking around to research, the topic we most hoped to cover with Natasha. If you happen to be a crazy food person who wants to know more about what you’re eating, how do you suss out which research is trustworthy? Is land-grant university research trustworthy even with all the recent reports showing how much of that research is funded by big ag businesses? Can we trust research from Pew? Who is Pew anyway? What can we trust?
Natasha was pretty clear in her response to these questions. First off, scientists inherently try to be objective. Secondly, it is incumbent on anyone who is interested that one read from a lot of sources. In particular, Natasha stresses that peer-reviewed journal articles are going to be the most fact-based source of information. Use these to form your own synthesis of the preponderance of evidence. In her own words:
“That said, these articles are written for other experts, not laymen. This is why we all (myself included for many fields, ag being one of them) end up needing someone to “translate” it for us. Unfortunately, “translation” potentially comes, intentionally or otherwise, with bias.
This is why I say, don’t just pick one source and stick with it. It’s vital to read multiple sources, especially once you’re into magazines, blogs and what have you, because of that potential for bias.
Please note, though, “bias” doesn’t in this case mean, “having an active agenda”. It simply refers to the honest fact that we all have our lenses through which we view the world, and that will always influence our interpretation of what we read. Going to multiple “interpretive” sources will help a person understand the facts of a study better, and allow them to make their own judgment calls. Hopefully, recognizing their own bias.”
And lastly Natasha would caution, there are researchers who publish results that are NOT in the interest of their funding sources – it does happen. Here’s an example: Dr. Richard Dick at Ohio State University, a land-grant school, used soybean check-off funding (check-off funds are monies set aside by soybean farmers as a group to fund research and marketing) to research the negative effects of glyphosate (herbicide) on soil health.
As for Pew, she is still forming her own opinion of them so she had little to say. We are too and we’ll be working to learn more!
Meal One did two things – it gave Ellen and me a new lens with which to look at scientific literature. We’re not experts now, but we’re better than we used to be!
And secondly, I was touched to learn also that the meal impacted Natasha and Bill too. In an email afterwards Natasha wrote:
“Interestingly, our conversation and my noticing this [rBGH/rBST labels] on our milk has inspired several conversations between Bill and me about labeling. And we’re both curiously noticing them a lot. For example, we noticed last night at Target that Dean’s milk proudly displays that they also do not use rBST on the label. The potential results of labeling, either required or otherwise, has been a topic of endless fascination in this household. So I must thank you two for bringing it out for us. It’s been a truly interesting set of discussions.”
Proof that One Hundred Meals will be a rewarding process for everyone at the table – both because we all got to eat huevos rancheros and because we are all now thinking outside of our previous mindsets!
• • • • •
read Ellen’s post in response to Meal One: Gettin’ Sciencey
written by Grant
And so wanting to really dig into an actual meal for this One Hundred Meals project. But we need to start with some information first. We need to get informed a wee bit more neutrally before we just jump in. We need to do the homework before we arrive at the first test.
So, Ellen and I have given ourselves this task of understanding and respecting the viewpoint of big, industrial farmers. Check.
One topic comes to the fore which seems pivotal to understanding – research. We ask our new Big Ag friends, for example, what they think of the recent FDA decision to reduce antibiotic use in livestock. The response is both from the gut and experience (which we honor and respect) as well as to cite organizations and research they trust – FDA, USDA, land-grant university studies. If I’m doing my job right, I hear them out and guess what? I get that if that were the body of knowledge I had always known and was the bulk of what I’d heard for years, and I was in the business of earning a living following those principles — sure enough, I’d reach the same conclusions the Big Ag folks have reached. I would be comfortable with the current antibiotic use in animals. I would be comfortable with GMOs in our food system. So there you go – I can understand and respect Big Ag (Agvocates*) where they stand.
Turning it around, I hope they feel the same.
So are we done?
Well, if we were, contention about our food system would not exist. So, no.
Now imagine this. In my effort to internalize and understand Agvocates’ viewpoint (kinda like running a second operating system on your computer!) I read a bunch of literature and research coming from their “camp”. As I do, I am careful to note who funded the literature, what the biases are. And there are lots and lots of biases.
But here’s the thing: When I turn the mirror inward, I see, sure enough, that you find biases and questionable funding of “my” literature also.
That is where my brain is right now. Stuck. Ellen, for her part, is just getting depressed.
And it gets worse: There is no arbiter for this.
You’d like for it to be the FDA and the USDA, because that is actually supposed to be their purpose for existing. But recently, if you are following along, you’ll know that the FDA is just now getting around to acting on its findings from 35 years ago. And they are only doing so because a judge forced them to. So I am hard-pressed to trust the FDA as the reliable arbiter of truth we’re looking for on these tricky questions!
Look, I do NOT come from a long history of conspiracy theory, but the more I research, the more I start to sound like such a person.
In some weird way, I am starting to distrust that a research duel will help us. I may find some research I trust. I’m not saying I can’t find that, but I am not sure pitting one body of research against another will lead us anywhere because even if the greater percentage of society or a government agency like the FDA finally chooses one body of evidence over another, does that matter? Will it lead to anything when the “other side” is still going to stay entrenched in their beliefs regardless?
If you’d like to disagree with all this gloominess, then answer one of these two simple questions:
- If you currently disagree with antibiotic use in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?
- If you currently agree with the use of antibiotics in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?
They’re rhetorical questions.
I will say, even being confused and depressed is better than not thinking about our food at all.
And Ellen and I are certainly thinking about things! We’re getting familiar with all the entities and interests on the Agvocate side of things. We’re learning the acronyms like GRAS, FOIA and CSPI. We’re learning how to spot influence and bias (ProTip: follow the money, which is often only barely hidden by a public service-style organization with a clever name). We’re reading the data from the Farm Bill. All in the hopes of having some solid background information before we start.
We have been busy brainstorming a starter list of Meals We Hope To Eat and we’ve posted them here for you to look over.
And we hope, soon, to sit down and eat with someone so we can get this show on the road!
*Agvocates — for the sake of clarity, from here on out, we’ll refer to Big Ag folks as Agvocates, which is what they are calling themselves these days. We’ll call the other side — the sustainable, local, Slow Food side — Agripreneurs.