CFM Fall Roundup – highlights

Every fall, the Columbia Farmers Market holds a small conference/get-together for its vendors, featuring speakers, workshops, and locally-sourced food. This year’s was last Saturday from 1pm to around 8pm, and I think it was the best yet. I thought I’d share some of the highlights from the day.

I attended a talk by a researcher in meat science at MU, who did a nice job presenting a variety of research and information of use to small meat producers. One item I hadn’t thought about related to the need for proper freezer storage, as you can easily accelerate freezer burn with a small/bad freezer or through constant opening of the freezer, something many small producers/sellers may do. She also did a good job of pointing out a series of potential Federal rule changes regarding meat production, labelling, and marketing that small producers will want to comment on. There seems to be a lot of debate right now regarding just what words like “natural”, “free-range”, and so on mean. Most consumers would be mildly horrified to learn what is allowed under many of the sustainable-sounding labels. For example, “natural” only means that artificial substances aren’t used on the meat. It doesn’t restrict antibiotic or hormone use, since those are not synthetic. The Feds are considering some proposed rule changes that would weaken these terms even further. The speaker wasn’t familiar with poultry issues, but all this sounded very similar to me to the rules in which “free range poultry” really just means the birds aren’t in cages and have a small door to a small yard from an otherwise typically huge and nasty barn.

Sat through a talk on food safety from the local Health Department, which wasn’t particularly illuminating. I’ll be diplomatic here and say that they mean well, but don’t necessarily know a lot about the practicalities of farming or even the reality of what “safe” means. It’s not really their fault, our whole food system is set up on a screwy premise that if you follow certain regulated practices, the food will be safe, even though we don’t have clear definitions of what “safe” actually means in a scientific sense. This is a topic for another post, but we’re seeing more and more pressure coming from all levels of goverment to “make food safe” through all sorts of new restrictions, regulations, requirements, and other red-tape hoops that don’t really address the actual problems or propose useful solutions. I’d rather we set a clear and scientifically-based standard for what “safe” actually means (X bacterial count on a swab test, for example) and let the individual producers and sellers figure out the best way to get there for their operation. A lot more effective and cheaper than trying to force our farm into a Dole-shaped hole or vice-versa. I’ll get back to this another day.

The highlight of the day was a talk from guest speaker Dan Nagengast, Executive Director of the Kansas Rural Center, a farmer married to Lynn Byczynski, who produces the fantastic monthly magazine Growing For Market. In a wide-ranging talk, he covered lots of issues in market farming, discussed his recent trip to Japan as part of an exchange program between Japanese and Kansan small farmers, and presented some interesting data from studies on Kansas’ agricultural history. This last bit is something I want to talk more, based on the hasty notes I scribbled as he talked.

Dan presented some numbers from 10 eastern Kansas counties, based on agricultural census date from 1910 through 2002. In 1910, these counties had about 130,000 acres in vegetable production. By 2002, that was down to 6,647. In 1910, these counties had over 140,000 apple trees. By 1959, they were virtually gone. These numbers were presented to counteract the persistent argument that local foods aren’t practical, that they can’t feed the country, that only modern agribusiness can meet our needs. In answer, the same study looked at the modern Kansas population and its total vegetable consumption, and calculated that it would take around 66,000 acres for Kansas to be vegetable-independent. In other words, ten times what we have now, but 50% of what we had in 1910.

From what I’ve seen and read, these sorts of numbers are true all over the country. In the space of a few generations, we’ve gone from a country with a solid ability to feed itself regionally with a robust network of independent farmers, to a country where even breadbasket states import most of their food from elsewhere while taking large subsidies to prop up what’s left of agriculture. As I’ve said before, there’s no agricultural or climate reason we can’t become food-independent again. We’ve just chosen not to be, and that’s a shame.

Overall, the event was informative and enjoyable, with good time for vendors to meet and talk outside the normal constraints of market. Thanks to all who made it happen.

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