– 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 Ellen
I think a lot of us on the sustainable food side of the table are completely and utterly wrong about Monsanto. And even wronger about their responsibility in the GMO battles that are going on right now. Now, before you lose your shit, I have to ask you to calm the hell down and hear me out.
I am not saying Monsanto is all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, they have a long history of not awesome. But, thanks to Romney, of all people, that past is past. And, really, it is past. Their entire business model has changed from top to bottom. Bringing it up, still, as an argument for why we should all hate them is like condemning a smoker who quit cold turkey 10 years ago. You actually herald the smoker for changing his ways and yet Monsanto keeps on getting bashed for something they no longer do.
It may make you feel better to have yet another reason to hate them but it’s turned them into a straw man and hating them that actually contributes nothing to the discourse at hand. And I think it distracts us from the real problem.
Now, because I know you and know that you’ve decided I’ve been brainwashed, I’m gonna tell you this: I am not going to start eating GMOs. In fact, if anything, the trip to Monsanto has made me more committed to eating out of my backyard (which means, boo! no more Fresca for me, which I’ll explain later). What I am saying is that I think we’re all working off some outdated and occasionally out-of-whack ideas. And, frankly, I don’t think it is doing “our side” any good because, well, we sound a bit like the Fox News anchors sound to us: wrong to the point of sounding slightly insane to the other side.
Here’s what you need to know: the mainstream media reporting about GMOs and Monsanto is definitely biased and, in many cases, flat out wrong. My first experience with this was when CBS reported that GMO grass killed a herd of cows. It was actually hybrid grass, not GMO grass. WTF? Then there was the widely reported story about rats and cancer that exploded on Twitter because of the scaryass pictures of mice with gigantic tumors. The science of the study was bunk. Again, WTF? Then, horrifyingly to me because I thought they were a rigorous news outfit, Reuter’s reported on a paper that suggested pesticide use was increasing because of GMOs, without, apparently, doing any due diligence on the study, which again turned out to be drawn from bunk science.
It is beyond frustrating, really, if you are trying to honestly figure out what the hell is going on. And honestly, I am beginning to believe that I am never going to actually find out the truth. Because even truthful reporting is presented in such a ridiculously biased way that it can be hard to walk away with a clear understanding of what is really going on.
But here’s one thing I do now know: Monsanto isn’t out to “dominate the food supply” in any way different than Apple is out to “dominate the mobile phone market” or I, at RIA, am out to “dominate the restaurant marketing market.” Monsanto is a business and as a business their job is to make products people want to buy and then try and see how many people they can get to buy them. Like Apple, they’re doing a good job. Or I should say like Intel because the reason there is so much market penetration for GMOs is not because Monsanto is a colossus, but because Monsanto sells their technology to other seed companies in the same way Intel sells their technology to computer companies. GMO is like the microprocessor of seeds.
From a business perspective, it is bloody genius.
Does that mean you have to like what they are selling? No. But just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t really, really smart.
And here’s the thing: the farmers, their customers, do like it. That’s a key point we need to remember. People are happily buying Monsanto’s products (by the way, those products are proudly labeled GMOs). Monsanto just sells them. So, if you are keeping track here, at this point in the blog, it is the farmers that are “the problem” because they are creating the demand.
But I am not going to stop there. You likely already realized that the farmers are actually selling their (also labeled as GMOs) products to someone, too. And those buyers, by buying the GMO products, are telling the farmers that it is OK to plant GMOs. So, again, keeping track, the blame moves yet another step away from Monsanto. Right now, it is really PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé or Kraft Foods (etc.) that are next in line to shoulder the blame because they are creating the demand that let’s the farmers know GMOs are OK.
(And, if you are keeping track, you’ve already figured out that the point where the products lose the GMO label is when they leave PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods and travel to your food store. Which means, they’re the ones to whom you should be directing your label rage, folks. Don’t pack a lunch with Oreos in it if you are planning to attend your local, neighborhood Occupy Monsanto protest.)
Of course, and I think you already figured this out too, PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods all sell to someone, who is creating demand for their products. That someone is actually the end-use consumer. That someone is, well, me, for one. So, it follows that, as the originator of demand, me and others like me, actually are the epicenter of blame. By buying products, we are the ones who sends the demand notice that ripples up the supply chain to Monsanto’s seeds.
And if you think about it, you know this already, that means you, too.
Which brings me back to my Fresca.
I don’t have air conditioning in my house and I work at home so, this past summer I nearly melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. It was awful and somehow, even though I don’t drink soda as a rule, at some point during the summer, in the blisteringly muggy death-like atmosphere that was my house, I decided that it was Fresca that would be my salvation. And it was. Delightfully so. God knows how that came to pass but it did and, as the summer wore on, I drank what I believe might be a small ocean’s worth of Fresca. At least a large lake’s worth.
It seemed innocent enough — I was just trying to stay cool. But really, in buying that Fresca, what I was doing was perpetuating a food system I demand is horrendous. What a clueless idiot.
You see, every time I buy salad dressing because I am lazy or buy an apple fritter at Starbucks because I need some comfort, I am telling Monsanto, loud and clear, to sell more GMO seeds. We all do the same thing. The commodity milk in a latte, the soy everyone thinks is so good for them, the takeout Chinese and the fun “Boo!” cookies at the local bakery, the Doritos and Pirate’s Booty, the Powerbars and the Potbelly or Subway — it’s likely all GMOs.
You don’t need a label. You already know that 95+ percent of the corn grown in America is GMO. And you know that corn is in just about everything. So, screaming for a label is just noise because you are still buying the products you know, if you take two seconds to think about it, contain GMOs.
A label isn’t going to change anything. And fighting for a label when you’ve got a Starbucks in your hand is blaming someone/something else for a problem you help create.
You see, the problem is all crap you are buying that you actually don’t believe in but which tells the companies they’re selling the right thing.
You really don’t need a label. You need to start thinking.
And to be honest, I don’t think any of us are thinking. We’ve signed the petition and decried what we demand is “hidden from us,” without admitting that, frankly, unless we are buying organic, we actually know we are buying GMOs. We curse Monsanto for lobbying to kill the labeling law, even though it is within their rights and is best for their stockholders that they do so.
That’s right, lobbying to stop labeling is them doing their jobs. If you don’t like it, you need to work to change the lobbying laws, not get mad at a company taking legal advantage of them. That’s like getting mad at the gun makers when some whackjob goes postal.
And think about it: no amount of screaming is going to stop the folks at Monsanto from doing what they are supposed to do when they go to work each day — producing a product that you ultimately support, even if you say you don’t.
And this is the thing, we’re the ones who are doing the wrong thing: when we leave the Occupy Monsanto meeting, pumped up and ready for a fight, and we stop by Whole Foods to get a snack and we actively ignore the fact that it is likely laced with GMOs if it isn’t labeled organic. We fall for the “All Natural” label, which has no government oversight whatsoever and actually means nothing. We disconnect ourselves from the reality of the Frappuccino (you can make a delicious Frappucino-y thing with coffee, cold milk and honey — you don’t have to be deprived your frappufreakingcino!) and ignore the power of our own dollars to make a change.
It’s bloody well stupid.
And the first person with whom I lay blame is myself. I realize that what I really need to Occupy is my own kitchen — because I am a source of the problem.
Here’s the thing I learned from visiting Monsanto — they’re a bunch of people just doing their jobs and to be honest, they believe in what they are doing. They are excited by the possibilities and feel like they are contributing to the greater good of society. Really. They are super concerned about helping American’s reduce trans fats in their diets and have a nutritionist on-staff who seemed genuinely and sincerely concerned about how well-intentioned but wrong-headed food choices and policies end up distracting society from the end-game: more healthy food in more people’s bodies.
And before you wonder if they genetically modified our brains while we were there, I’ll be honest I was surprised at how little “persuading” they actually did do. As a point in fact, when I told our host, Gary Barton, that I thought the organics vs. gmo nutrient study was misleading because the statistical model was biased, he didn’t argue with me — he just looked sad. At no point did they try to change my opinion, on the contrary, they were eager to find out what it was. They were excited we were there and willing to talk and they wanted to understand why the hell everyone hates them so much. They believe what they are doing is good for us, good for the environment, and the right thing to do — why doesn’t everyone see that?
You may not agree with them. But you can’t go to their headquarters, spend a day all up in their faces, demanding answers, and walk away thinking they are all plotting to kill us with scary ass evil intentions.
No, you walk away thinking that maybe you only have half the story. You walk away and jump on your computer and start Googling “Monsanto Monarch Butterflies” and “Monsanto Chapati Wheat” and “Monsanto Cancer” and you begin to realize that the reporting is so conflicting and so biased and, often, so ridiculous that, likely, we’ll never know who is right.
But I do know who is wrong: it’s the folks who blame Monsanto for selling (labeled) seeds to farmers who grow crops which they sell (labeled) to food manufacturers who make products (not labeled) they are actually buying. The folks who are too clouded by their own ignorant rage about transparency (she wrote, pointing finger at self) that they fail to take a few moments to realize that nearly every single food product that is sold in any sort of package with any sort of label is 99% sure to be GMO, even if the label doesn’t say “yo, GMOs inside” — and that when they buy those products, they are creating demand for the very thing they think they are outraged about.
Me: I’ve got 18 more cans of Fresca in the house. In the last 24 hours, I’ve called upon my CostCo-size bottle of worchestershire, Kikkomen soy sauce and my beloved sriracha. I don’t think the Fresca has any GMOs, only because I don’t think there are any agricultural products in there whatsoever, it’s all a bunch of gross made-up chemicals, but the rest of it surely does.
I know this — I just need to make sure I remember it when I run out. And I need to choose to buy something different.
My next meal, I already decided, is in fact to Occupy My Own Kitchen. I want to come to terms with what I do to perpetuate a problem I think is gigantic and awful and wrong and thus worthy of the effort it will take in my life to right my actions so they line up with my beliefs.
Because the thing our trip to Monsanto taught me is that if I really do want the food supply to change, if I really want to make a difference in how our country feeds itself, feeds the world, I have to start with myself.
And you do too.
– 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 Ellen
This whole project began because of a breakfast held by a farmer and rancher group backed most noticeably by Monsanto (there were other Big Ag conglomerates, I didn’t much notice which because all my brain could process was M.O.N.S.A.N.T.O.). So, it’s a little odd, only on Meal Five, that Grant and I would find ourselves in St. Louis for a tour of Monsanto’s research facilities and, well, their home base.
Meal Five happened the night before this tour.
And, not strangely, we started talking about, well, farming. Specifically, the farm bill, which was in the news at the same time as the trip because Congress just wasn’t passing it (so out of character!). It’s in the news again today, as I write, because in fact Congress let it expire. Shameful.
Mike and I had a little history on the topic. Earlier this summer, we found we had completely different sets of information about the Farm Bill. Not just perspectives, actual information.
Mike had been busy and his information about the bill didn’t include the controversial points relating to SNAP. As in, when I brought up how much SNAP was getting cut from the Senate’s version of the budget, Mike hadn’t even heard the news. As an urban dweller, SNAP is on my mind a lot because it impacts my neighbors and, for all intents and purposes, many of the people who live in my general community. The news I read helps me stay informed about the things that impact my community. Hungry children are part of my community.
Mike had a different take. He was more focused on crop insurance, which makes sense because it impacts him directly. The news he reads helps him learn about things that will impact his farm. Things like crop insurance.
I was floored that we had such different information about the very same Farm Bill. More than anything else, the conversation was an introduction to what I am seeing as one of the foundational problems with our food supply — and it isn’t food or agriculture or lobbying.
It’s information. Actual honest, unbiased information.
And the fact that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t get your hands on it.
Are they an alarming cause for cancer? Not an alarming cause for cancer? Or possibly an alarming cause for cancer? Or just something in general we should be worried about because, well, we all know they’re bad, right?
Do I listen to the scientists? Do I believe the reporters? Which reporters? Which scientists? I at least do know I am not listening to the Twitters.
I frankly realized, in the weeks leading up to our Monsanto trip that I don’t know who to believe when it comes to just about anything about our food supply. It’s a ridiculous mess.
I also realized that the ridiculosity is one of the reasons we are all so angry with each other. We’ve stopped speaking the same language, it seems. We can’t even agree on what the term sustainability means, for the love of all things holy.
Here’s the thing: We used to all get information from essentially one source, say a Walter Cronkite. So, whether that news was right or wrong, we were all at least starting from the same place. And I’d say that back then the news was likely as right as it could have been; since back then, newsmen were interested in the respectability that came from honest-to-goodness, fourth-estate-inspired journalism.
Today, we are, increasingly, getting our news from sources we curate ourselves — like, say, whomever it is you don’t find too annoying to follow on Twitter or your friends’ collective Facebook stream. And when we do turn to the news, it’s more scaretainment than actual facts.
What that means, of course, is that we are likely learning from those who already agree with us. Which means, of course, that our ideas, no matter what they are, are continuously confirmed as right, and rightier, and even rightest. Which means, of course, that we get more invested in them. Which means, of course, that when we see more evidence that we were right, we get more entrenched in our opinions. Look at how right we are! My heavens! And on and on.
When (and if) we actually confront someone with ideas that are different than ours, they can seem like a complete wingnut. After all, we’ve read thousands of things that confirm every single thing we believe! How could they have missed all that!!!
(Hint: it is because they were too busy reading thousands of things that confirm their beliefs, even though they are diametrically opposed to yours.)
And at this point in the blog, I should propose a solution.
But I don’t have one.
Because the deeper I go on this quest to find answers, the more I realize how hard it is to try and get your hands on anything concrete. The more you try and get to the truth, the more you learn that the blogs you’ve been reading are shamefully biased and the experts you’ve been relying on are woefully unexperty and the organizations you’ve been wanting to trust are mired in so much red tape that there’s no way for anyone to even hope that we’re gonna untangle this food mess without some kind of extinction-level event.
But I can say this: by opening the door to a few folks, I am definitely starting to get a better grasp of the whole and not just a determined obsession with the part I believe in most. I am being led to more information and while some of it I believe and some of it I don’t, the more information I get my hands on, the better I can begin to frame my opinion. And the more solidly I can understand why others believe things differently, even if I don’t ultimately agree with their own take on things.
Which I guess leads me to the conclusion of this post: a recommendation.
I highly recommend taking the opportunity to discover, first hand, the shocking realization of just how detrimental it can be to intellectual thought in general when our citizenry can’t engage in discourse on a topic because we simply don’t access any kind of shared juried information. You have to step way outside your comfort zone to discover this. Say, if you are a die-hard Democrat, go seek out some Independents and Undecideds. Find a Republican who seems moderate and hang out with some Tea Partiers who don’t. And ask them all to tell you why they aren’t voting for Obama. Probe them to give you facts — they will. Don’t be judgey or interrupt or argue, just take it in. You’ll be amazed.
And maybe you’ll decide to do something about it, even just in your own life.
– 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 Ellen
We do a lot of talking to Ag folks of all stripes — and no matter what kind of agriculture you believe in, at its very core, it is the intersection of nature and man. In agriculture, man seeks to leverage nature to his advantage.
But there is another side to how nature and man interact, one of mutually sustainable coexistence, and Darryl Coates lives in that space. Darryl, District Wildlife Biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was the gracious star of Meal Four: Diversity, Sustainability and the Anthromorphizing Biologist.
I call him that because when you talk to Darryl about animals and nature, he tends to slide into feelings — his own, the environment’s, the animals’ — within a sentence or two of every paragraph.
For example, he himself owns a pig and believes his pig is really happy living a piggy life doing piggy things. In fact, he was sure his pig was especially happy on the day we met him for Meal Four as his pig was at “Sex Camp” with two sows. “Who,” he asked, “couldn’t imagine that any pig would love that?”
I was particularly fascinated by this biologist who talked about his pig’s feelings because, of course, biology is science. And I’ve heard a lot of folks who seem to use science as justification for, say, depigifying our pigs. In fact, I get a general feeling of derision and scorn, like I am an un-evolved human, when I dare to hint that pigs are happiest when they are doing piggy things.
So, Darryl’s ideas, frankly, felt like home to me. It was a relief to have a scientist confirm that pigs do have an essential pig nature and expressing that in their lives is vital. Which is why I was hoping that Darryl, since he was a scientist, could help me sort through the sciencification of agriculture.
It’s a big task, and I hope in time he will be up for the challenge, but for the purposes of our Meal, I myself decided to start with one question: “How does science define sustainability?”
For me, this is an essential conversational fulcrum if we are going to somehow bridge the gap between BigAg and LittleAg — it’s the piece those on “our side” won’t let go of and, I’d argue, the piece that BigAg can’t afford to ignore.
I am learning through this One Hundred Meals project that our culture, no matter how much it frightens me personally, seems destined to embed science into every nook and cranny of agriculture. And so, if agriculture is going to hinge upon science, then I feel we need a way to work a sane perspective of sustainability into the equation.
Sustainability, in my opinion, is ground zero of the divide between the Big Ag and Small Ag folks. And by that I am not saying that both sides don’t claim the vast superiority of their view of sustainability, they do — but they are so diametrically opposed in their idea of what the word means that the word itself is ineffectual in any discourse.
To Darryl, who I should note has not yet logged his official answer of what sustainability is, lack of sustainability results in disease, pollution and starvation. “Not human starvation, nutrient starvation.” And he focuses a lot of his conversation on how nature will ultimately weigh in if an ecosystem is unsustainable by the manifestation of disease, pollution and starvation.
Too many wolves in a wood — the herd gets culled naturally by lack of food. Planting the same type of vegetable in the same spot in your garden each year — the bugs and disease will concentrate in your soil and doom your crop before you can start thinking about dinner. Not enough diversity in the field corn grown in the United States — something will eventually give.
And the odd thing is, from the potato famine (in Ireland) to the potato blight (in America) to, say, Dutch Elm disease, we can see this pattern again and again. It is a pattern, really, that defies any idea of sustainability because nature delivers disease, pollution and starvation, it seems, every time it encounters an unsustainable lack of diversity.
Darryl talks a lot about diversity. In many ways his job is focused on the impacts of the lack thereof.
Take those Dutch Elm trees. They were densely planted in a community near him because it’s just plain ol’ easier for the community leaders to just buy one kind of tree and plant it in mass. Plus, it must be acknowledged, most communities like the symmetry of a stand of similar trees. Here’s the thing, though, The environment of those trees, densely planted with no diversity, was unsustainable and so they succumbed to disease and were replaced, essentially wholesale, with ash. Of course they ended up diseased and now the talk is replacing them, all of them, with maples. Darryl anticipates that in 50 years, maple blight will ravage the trees planted because no one seems interested in learning mother nature’s lesson just yet.
It’s hard to imagine why man doesn’t seem to ever learn this lesson.
And as Grant and I prepare to travel down to St. Louis to tour Monsanto, this idea of diversity — and the growing lack thereof — is what is weighing on my mind.
I think it is a first step to discussing how science and sustainability can intersect. After all, I am quite sure there is no argument against the idea that biodiversity is essential to human health and sustainability. This is scientific fact.
And yet from my perspective, the deeper a person bows to the altar of science-based agriculture, the more they seem to ignore the science of biodiversity. And no, I am not referring to the cursory nod to diversity in the form of rotating between corn and soybeans with a cover crop on the off-season. I’m talking actual thriving diversity — of seed, of crop, of fostering beneficial insects as well as allowing for the wild experimentation that comes from naturally occurring adaptation of breeds to environment one gets from heirlooms rather than hybrids.
And since the Monsantoization of agriculture seems, to me, the titillating height of anti-diversitism, I should be interested to hear how the scientists respond.
Is it the lure of productivity? The idea that, if you consider this year, growing one type of corn in the field is the most productive and thus the best? Will they ignore the question and divert the conversation to feeding starving folks, which tends to happen a lot. Or is there some bit of their argument, a valid point, I have yet to hear?
A part of me wishes that Darryl was coming with us to Monsanto, since he has access to his scientific background to inform his questions and comments. But, thankfully enough, Darryl’s ideas are blissfully simple, in the way mother nature is, at its core, quite incredibly simple — diversity works well and nature tends to ensure the sustainability of all species by keeping everything in check.
And when it gets out of whack, for whatever reason, the mother will react like a woman scorned.
– 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 Ellen
Recently, Grant and I enjoyed a late second dinner with two conventional diary farmers at Telegraph in Chicago. One farmer is from the Central Valley of California — he uses rBST. The other from the very northwest tip of Washington — he doesn’t use rBST because it is not legal where he farms. Their names, Ray Prock and Robert Smit.
Or, quite possibly Serious Joe and his sidekick, Sir Crack ’em Up.
Ray, along with his other sidekick, Mike Haley, is all about Big Ag — but he’s going a little rogue, though he refers it to as “bleeding edge.” Ray and Mike are the guys who reached out to me and Grant in the comments of a blog I wrote in reaction to experiencing the public relations stylins’ of the USFRA and, actually, those two amazing men were the catalyst for us starting One Hundred Meals.
Like most of Big Ag, Ray realizes that his side is hitting some rather critical points of total communication failure and that something needs to be done to stem the tide of fear that is raging through headlines.
Unlike most of Big Ag, Ray (and Mike!) tend to believe that what really needs to be done is not hitting talking points and managing a conversation — what really needs to be done is that Big Ag needs to start listening.
Having been on the receiving end of Ray’s listening, I have to say I agree. Which is why my Meal Three post is, really, an open letter to Big Ag on marketing, PR and effective spin.
Dear Big Ag:
“The science doesn’t support that.”
That’s the response, outta the box, by most Agvocates when peeps like me get scared about food.
If you’re curious, this is how it all looks from our side:
We suddenly discover the absolute grossness that is pink slime, overlay that with pictures of downed cows being pushed around by forklifts and we freak out about what the hell is going on in the beef industry in general — how can we believe the desperate-seeming corporate drone on the news who demands that it is scientifically safe and just go buy it, damn it or our plants will close! Really? Good! What the hell are you doing in that plant you don’t let anyone in, anyway? You seem scary!
You see, we get upset when we see pictures of cute little pigs in tiny filthy cages — how can we believe the monster who tells us it is better for the pig, scientifically, than roaming around outside? Wait, what? Pigs have the intelligence of a three year old, I wouldn’t make my dog live in a cage and my dog isn’t even close to that smart! Plus, I heard you want to regulate the farmers who do keep pigs outside, you’re obviously a greedy bastard! You seem scary!
And guess what — we don’t really believe the bunch of data tossed in our faces about how safe the American food supply is when we read reports of people dying from tainted cantaloupe. That cantaloupe was an edge case, you say — Tough Crap! It’s what is in the news and so that’s what I know. The big Ag messaging points mean nothing to me when People. Are. Dying.
Rational? Probably not. But reality? Yes. And that is the thing, you, dear Agvocates, need to start dealing with – reality. My reality. The science you try to shove down my throat may in fact be true — as a communication strategy, it ain’t working.
Let’s break it down: I assume the Agvocates are offering up their little science nugget because they want to respond to an emotional reaction with a proveable fact. “Oh,” I assume they are thinking, “if I just tell them that the science doesn’t support their fear and then point them to a source I know will support my statement, they’ll get it and we can all move on.”
Folks, this is the epitome of bad PR — no matter how fancyass your PR firm is that is writing up your talking points.
Here’s what that PR firm should be telling you, for all the money you are spending on them: effective communication isn’t just about getting your point across. Effective communication is about understanding what the other person is thinking so you can get your point understood.
I am sure this is really frustrating for Agvocates. They feel beat down. They feel attacked. Some even are attacked, really, their farms have been burned. Logic, it would seem, should win out, no? NO!
Natasha Godard, star of Meal One, boils it down to what she calls “The Plane Crash Problem.”
Scientifically, airline travel is statistically safer than car travel by an order of magnitude. And yet, far more people are afraid to fly than they are to hop in the car. I, for one, drive a scooter around busy urban streets I know are teeming with texting, tweeting drivers — embarrassingly without a helmet a lot of the time. And yet, I am near catatonic when it comes to flying. It’s a matter of familiarity and because, she commented, humans are not very good at assessing real risk.
So, to extrapolate this to farming, I am a big frightened wussie when it comes to milk. I buy my milk from a family farm down in Central Illinois that is committed to minimally processed milk. (In fact, I visited that farm recently at Chef Camp!). I buy it because it is deliciously good milk but I also buy it because rBGH frightens the hell out of me.
But during my meal with Natasha, I found out that, quite possibly, there is scientifically nothing to fear in rBGH. The hormones, apparently, are species specific so my body can not even absorb or deal with it — I’ll politely say it is basically treated like fiber by the body, if you get my drift. I’m still investigating and learning (and my feelings are starting to lean toward the fact that the real problem with milk is the intensive farming methods, but not at all the rGBH issue) but, and this is the important point, I still have this lingering sense of doom when I even look at a carton of commodity milk.
That’s right. Doom. I can not buy it, even if I am desperate. (I find coffee undrinkable without milk and I must have coffee every morning in order to achieve functioning human being status.)
Natasha offered up a telling statement, the idea that “people don’t know what they’re doing to that cow over there but it seems scary.”
So, what’s Big Ag to do?
- Shut. Up. and Start. Listening.
- Stop assuming every conversation is an opportunity to hear what I say just so you can know how to respond. Start assuming it is an opportunity to understand what I think and why.
- Start honoring the fact that I need to understand the world through my own prism (which is a rather complete lack of scientific knowledge) before I can make space in my head for even thinking about yours.
- Fire the old school PR firms that hand you talking points and beat messaging strategy into your heads. Give more work to the PR visionaries that craft a strategy of listening.
- And, finally, respect the fact that what you are doing to that cow over there seems scary to me — and that until you fully embrace my feelings about the matter as relevant, you are going to seem like the enemy.
Remember, at the end of the day we sustainable advocates don’t need to listen to you — really. We could just let the headlines dominate the conversation and, because all those headlines are so very scary sounding and will always be since that is what sells newspapers, slowly but surely conventional ag will have to make concessions to our side. Slowly but surely we’ll get rid of every speck of pink slime and every GE salmon and anything that might give our kids allergies. It doesn’t even matter if the reports are factual because the media will report it anyway and the real story will unravel under the onslaught of fear.
Really, I think you guys know this to be true and that is why you are all rushing around tossing sweet-looking farmers from Nebraska in our faces. Because you know you are facing a public relations nightmare that you might not be able to contain if you don’t do something significant now.
If you want a different outcome. If you want us to, at the end of the day, start understanding you — or possibly even supporting you — you need to back off with the proselytizing and start listening.
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 Ellen
The subject of GMOs came up at a friend’s house over the Fourth of July dinner table. I can’t recall the whole of the conversation, it was brief and fleeting. But I do remember the last exchange:
“… there’s a ton of scientific evidence proving that GMOs are really, really bad…” a friend at the table said.
“Actually, no there isn’t, necessarily,” I commented.
And with that, my friend picked up his plate and stormed off.
Now, I get that emotion. I was there once — not too long ago. And I’d frankly find it much easier to be there now. It is, in fact, infinitely easier to just believe what you want to believe and be done with it. To storm off. To ignore the other side. To be convinced that what you think about food is immutably right and if someone doesn’t agree then, well, who even wants to eat with that person?
But Meal Two taught me a bit about the nature of the fence and its two sides.
Let me explain.
Grant and I were lucky enough to go to Chef Camp at Spence Farm. Chef Camp is an intensive two-day immersion in the life and ideas of a sustainable farm in Central Illinois owned by Marty, Kris and Will Travis. Sustainable isn’t actually quite right — beyond sustainable is how they describe it. Or maybe a better way to describe it would be a bucolic Valhalla of a Farm in the eyes of me and Grant.
To the Travises, sustainable involves everything from the environment, to the lives of the animals, their lives, the community, financials, marketing — everything. They are striving to live a life they can enjoy and feel proud of, doing work they believe in, growing food they know is healthful in every way and as nutrient-dense as possible.
And they work hard in their community to support, foster and grow the ideas of sustainability they believe in. They foster young farmers who want to get into business selling “properly raised food” to Chicago’s chefs. One 14-year old boy in their “stable” runs a two-acre farm, Windy Knoll Produce, and sells to the likes of Rick Bayless, you should know. These people are doing good works. More than their share.
And this is the thing: While there were a lot of great speakers to hear and experiences to share (and delicious meals cooked by fellow campers who were chefs!), my biggest take-away was a talk Kris gave to kick off the weekend. I’ll call it “Fences and the Family Farm.”
This was my take-away: There is no right way or wrong way to farm — there is the way that each farmer chooses is right for him/her and his/her farm. That’s it. They farm their way. Across the fence, their neighbor farms another. Their goal is to try to work together.
In the world according to Kris, “We may not agree with the way they do things (on the industrial farm next door), but we care about them. They are our neighbors, a part of our community, and we’re all in this together.”
It is some pretty powerful thinking, when you consider that the Travis family are so sustainably pure as farmers that they could be held up as a model for all that could be right in farming in America — they do things like bring back into production Brownie beans from seeds the Kickapoo Indians gave to their own ancestors on the farm long ago and then, after growing the beans, bring a bag of them to the remaining members of the Kickapoo tribe that lives nearby.
I can’t even imagine the soul-fulfilling satisfaction of giving a piece of real heritage back to American Indians. I mean really, you’ve accomplished a lifetime of greatness with that gesture, no?
If you, dear reader, are a sustainably-minded, family farm-focused, localvorey type, The Travises are your holy grail.
And they want you to know that they really don’t judge those who choose another way of farming. I’ll toss in that maybe I shouldn’t either.
Especially when I don’t have all the facts — or worse, if all I have is skewed facts.
Know this: I am still not going to eat GMOs. I will still campaign against pesticides and antibiotics that are baked into the commodity food supply. I am confident I’ll start crying when I end up having to face an animal in confinement.
I am in no way on the fence about this stuff. But I am starting to realize that burning the fence just because I don’t like what is on the other side actually does no good.
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!