– 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 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
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.