Poisoned fields & consumer choice

As a household that grows most of its food and rarely eats out, it’s easy to lose track of larger-scale dynamics in the food system. I tend to be fairly cynical about the national food supply, but this story stopped me cold.

Given the recent outbreaks in contaminated greens and other produce rippling through the national food system, it’s understandable that demands would be made to clean up the system and make it safer. However, the methods now being used to achieve that goal are horrifying. For example,

“…some farmers are taking gun-safety classes to learn how to shoot animals that could carry the bacteria. Others are uprooting native trees and plants and erecting fences to make their land inhospitable to wildlife…Spinach grower Bob Martin has even poisoned ponds with copper sulfate to kill frogs that might get caught in harvesting machinery or carry salmonella on their webbed feet.”

I’ll let the rest of the article speak for itself, and not attempt to summarize it further. This does speak to something I feel strongly about, however, which is the larger ethics of food and consumption. In America, we tend not to think about the full production chain of what we buy, although that’s changing with concepts such as fair trade growing. We regulate the actual safety of products (i.e. is that toy or shirt safe for human use) but otherwise don’t really look into what the 2nd and 3rd hand effects of production are (which shirt company pollutes less, which toy manufacturer pays better, etc.).

Food is the same way. We attempt to regulate whether the food is safe to eat, but not whether or how its production affects other issues (other than organic, which is still a fraction of the national food system). The practices in the linked article don’t make the lettuce unfit for human consumption, but ought to make us all question whether we want food from a system that has to poison the land in order to produce. It’s a practical and ethical question, not a health question.

When we choose not to buy food from a grocery store, or eat at a restaurant sourced by Sysco, it’s not really because we think the food is dangerous. It’s because we don’t want to support the system that makes that food possible. Americans vote with their dollars even more than their ballots, and every purchase we make (or don’t make) either supports or discourages different practices in the system. The more of us that focus our purchases on small farmers, local sources, and fully ethical suppliers, the more effectively we can begin the shift back to a reasonable, independant farm system that benefits everyone involved.

Personally, I think economics are far more powerful than politics. All the regulations in the world can’t fully change a system that people support, and attempting to legislate behavior tends to be counterproductive. But shifting behaviors and demands will effect changes far more quickly, cleanly, and acceptably than government regulation. Just look at how Walmart has become one of the nation’s largest suppliers of green items and foods. Not so much in response to any specific government action (which would have caused an outcry and backlash), but in response to free customer demand and the company’s perception of the market. Keep that in mind when you shop and eat food; your wallet is your most effective ballot.

Visualizing consumption

This diverges slightly from our food/farming focus, but is too fascinating NOT to pass along.

There are many folks who are deeply worried about the level of consumption, and trash generation, in the modern world. To me, it seems completely unsustainable in sorts of ways, and deeply offends my instinctive need for efficiency and conservation. On a very deep level, it just doesn’t make sense to me to waste things, and I cannot put myself, mentally, in the position of people who can just throw things away without a second thought.

That being said, it’s very difficult to actually visualize or understand the scale of modern consumption, and I think that’s part of the barrier to changing habits. Lots of numbers are thrown out there, but what does 2 million bottles every five minutes really mean? I can’t hold that image in my head.

Via The Ethicurean, artist Chris Jordan has come up with a novel, fascinating, and utterly compelling way to visually represent consumption. His work Running the Numbers is a twist on the old “make a big picture with lots of little pictures” form of art. Jordan takes a statistic, such as the “2 million bottles used every 5 minutes” quoted above, and uses those two million bottles to develop a larger patterned image of what that might look like. The website linked to above presents a long series of these images, many of them originally large-scale art installations (people are provided for scale). Scrolling down through this page absolutely riveted me, and I hope you as well.

The series generally focuses on consumption and waste, though it takes detours into more controversial territory such as Abu Ghraib. All in all, Running the Numbers is the most fascinating art installation I’ve seen in a long time, which means all the more coming from someone who is generally very much NOT a modern art person. Take a look, and post a comment letting me know what you think.

Building a Better Market, Part II

(Photos by Dory Colbert)

On July 26, the Columbia Farmers Market hosted a major public event officially kicking off the fundraising campaign for a permanent structure to house the market. I wrote about this effort, and the reasons for it, in a previous post.

The event itself was a smashing success. A core group of volunteers worked all day Saturday (and for weeks in advance) to set up an event that would interest, enthrall, and excite the community about the possibilities. Relying on conceptual architectural plans, we laid out the future footprint of the market structure using farmers’ market tents, strung together with lights. Thirteen local chefs prepared food samples sourced entirely from local market farmers, which were presented under a large tent along with local wines and beers.


We also screened a new documentary on local farms & food, called “Tableland”, which had never before been shown in the Midwest. Rough estimates are that over 2,000 folks showed up that evening, and lines for food stretched across the lawn for the entire night. The weather was perfect, and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset:


All in all, everyone involved was thrilled with the event, the turnout, and the community excitement it generated. Now, of course, the real work is to continue developing that interest into active fundraising. The price of construction materials continues to skyrocket, and the longer our effort takes, the higher our price tag goes.

The need is so strong, however. For the last month, the market has been so crowded with vendors that we (and others) have actually been sharing tent space with other farms in an effort to fit everyone in. Our market manager is making heroic efforts to include all the members that want to sell while offering fair locations for them, but we’ve just thoroughly outgrown the space we’re in. I suspect it hurts the business of vendors who have to be tucked away on the fringes of the market, and it makes it harder for customers to navigate the chaotic crowds of shoppers. And, of course, a single morning of bad weather can mean big losses for farmers when people don’t want to walk through wind, rain, or brutal sun to shop. We need this structure, and I hope the successful kickoff event helps moves everyone in the right direction.

Read more about the Columbia Farmers Market Pavilion, and donate online.

Building a Better Market

The Columbia Farmers Market is working to build a permanent home. Currently the Market meets on an open lot in the city, which means any inclement weather (rain, high wind, excessive heat, snow, etc.) has a severe impact on attendance and sales. We’re hoping to build a permanent structure that can protect vendors and shoppers from the weather while expanding the possibilities of the market to more vendors, longer seasons, and wider offerings.

Permanent market structures are on the rise around the country, and we hope Columbia follows that trend. I’m on the board of both the Farmers Market itself and another non-profit group, Sustainable Farms & Communities, that’s closely tied to the Market and is leading the current fundraising drive to build the new pavilion. We’ve recently launched a new web site that serves as the public face of the capital campaign, and is the place to go to learn more about the project. Visit http://www.farmersmarketpavilion.org/ to learn more.

This project affects us in many ways. In the long term, a stronger, more attractive market will be key to our financial success as market farmers. One of my favorite aspects of market farming is the interaction with consumers, and it’s been exciting to see the rapid growth in customer counts at CFM over the last few years (from averages around 1,500 a few years ago to 4,500 in 2008). In the short term, taking an active role in this campaign and on both boards draws a great deal of my time, and limits the amount of actual farming that we do. We look at it as an investment in the future; in 3 years, when the new pavilion is built and the market is humming, we’ll be in a very strong place to really focus on our own farm. We think it’ll take that long for us to really develop the plans, infrastructure, and local knowledge we need to be succesful at this. In the meantime, we’ll keep growing and selling at a smaller scale, building familiarity with the community and customers while laying the groundwork for a full-time operation down the road.

If you’re reading this in the mid-Missouri area, please consider coming to the big campaign kick-off event being held Saturday July 26 at the Market. This event will present the new Market plans to the community, by laying out the new pavilion’s footprint in lights on-site and offering a wide variety of local foods and music. We’re also offering a premier screening of a new film on local foods and agriculture that’s only been seen a few places around the country so far. Read more about the event at the official campaign website. Helping plan and execute this event has been a great deal of work, but we think it’s worth it in the long run.

Microbes, Medicine, and Agriculture

“It’s time for a new, conservation-minded view of the microbial communities that live on and in us”

With this tagline, an article in the current issue of American Scientist nicely captures an argument that is fundamental to organic farming, though the authors never directly make the connection to agriculture. The piece describes the complex interactions of microbial activity within the human body, a system medical science is only beginning to really understand. A series of fascinating details emerges through the piece, discussing the incredibly specialized microbial communities (“The skin on our right forearm, for example, harbors a different microbial community than that of our left forearm”) that work together to produce a functioning whole.

Once establishing the importance of these communities, the authors go on to discuss their fragility, and how easily the human body’s functions can be disrupted if the microbial community is disturbed. Naturally, this leads to a discussion of the role antibiotics play:

“Because antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately, collateral damage far exceeds target destruction, and our microbial supporting cast is decimated in pursuit of the pathogen. Under the old view of human-microbe interactions, we accepted this collateral damage as a small cost to pay for ridding ourselves of bacteria. Under our proposed ecological model, however, we can understand that we no longer need to destroy the village in order to save it. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are properly seen as agents of major perturbation. Recent studies make clear that antibiotic exposure reduces the diversity of resident microbial communities and makes it easier for pathogens to invade.”

The basic argument being made here is very applicable to agriculture as well. Soil, too, is a very complex chemical and biological system, hosting an incredible diversity of microbial life that is integral to balancing and maintaining soil health. At the core of organic agricultural methods is the principle that nature has created a very dynamic, stable system that we are best off supporting rather than replacing. Instead of reducing soil and plant nutrition to just a few key elements (N-K-P), organic agriculture seeks to maintain the soil as close to a natural condition as possible. Instead of relying on herbicides and pesticides to eliminate all problems, organic agriculture seeks to maintain a healthy balance of pest and predator. In the same way that it’s worth being sick now and then to strengthen the immune system, it’s worth having some pests and weeds because they’re integral to the larger health of the soil and the ecosystem. I’ve seen many reports that medical researchers feel people are weakening their immune systems due to over-reliance on drugs; the same dynamic happens in soil that is regularly disturbed, sterilized, and chemically imbalanced by artificial inputs and treatments.

In addition, the over-use of artificial substances (whether antibiotics or farm chemicals) can actually be directly counter-productive by encouraging the development of resistant strains of bacteria, weeds, or pests. No spray can kill 100% of all pests or weeds, just as no drug can destroy 100% of harmful bacteria. The inevitable result is the survival of the few individuals whose genetics gave them more resistance, and over time these strains can become far more problematic than the original concern. This is actively happening in both the medical and agricultural worlds.

The author notes that “In much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we appear determined to make the planet microbe-free. The advertising, pharmaceutical and home-products industries have tried to persuade the public that every microbe is the enemy. But the more we learn about the biological world, the less this perspective makes sense.” The same dynamic is present in agriculture, and the result is ever-more reliance on artificial inputs as the natural ability of the soil and ecosystem to maintain a healthy balance is undercut.

I could go on for pages (I haven’t even touched on the obvious implications for antibiotic use in industrial meat production), but hopefully this demonstrates the underlying connections that can be made across the board. Organic farming is often characterized as an unscientific, pseudo-pagan, Earth-Mother belief system characterized by mythology rather than science, and this reputation is earned in some circles. However, the perspective we take is that true organic farming is deeply rational and scientific when approached with the philosophy outlined in this article; that we are best off understanding and working with the complex natural systems already available, rather than attempting to engineer a new reality without understanding what we’re replacing.

Pleasures and Perils of Poultry

The population of Chert Hollow Farm just went up by 28, as our first chicks arrived early this morning. We intend these to form the base of our egg flock, and they should start producing some time in late summer. These chicks are unsexed, so we will learn over time what ratio of roosters/hens we have. The former will be raised as meat birds, and the latter maintained as layers.

These chicks came from SandHill Preservation Center, a wonderful small farm in Iowa that specializes in maintaining rare heritage breeds of fowl. These birds may not gain weight quite as fast or lay quite as many eggs as a commercial hybrid, but they’re real chickens, the kind any real farmer around the world would recognize. They will be an integral part of our farm’s landscape, eating insects and excess produce while fertilizing the ground and supplying us with eggs and meat. Visit SandHill’s site to learn more about the value of heritage breeds.

Unfortunately, starting these chicks also exposes us to a danger facing many small farmers: the Federal Government. For years the USDA has been pushing for something called the National Animal Identification System, which is fine in concept and truly frightening in practice. In short, the government wants to require that every animal (livestock or fowl) in the country be fitted with a Radio Frequency ID tag, and that any change in that animal’s status be reported to the USDA within 24 hours (death, slaughter, movement to a different location, exposure to other animals, etc.). This is intended as a food safety measure to allow the USDA to track back disease outbreaks and contain them. That is a noble goal, but in practice it will be devastating for small farmers and independent animal owners, who have neither the time nor the money to put up with such an intrusive and bureaucratic system. It is a one-size-fits-all system, meaning a backyard flock is treated the same as a 10,000 bird Tyson feedlot, despite the fact that the latter can far more easily afford the time and expense of such tags and tracking requirements than a small independent farmer.

It’s an unfortunate situation. There are real food safety and disease concerns out there, such as bird flu, that require some form of attention. Also, small farmers and backyard raisers can certainly follow poor practices that might increase the chances of a disease outbreak or other problem in the food supply. But the reality of this approach to the problem is really dangerous; do we want to encourage a safer food supply by driving small farms out of business, and by making it prohibitive for individuals to keep their own animals? In my opinion, most of the dangers from disease and food safety come from the large industrial operations, and we should be focusing our regulatory efforts there rather than persecuting small farmers who sell their goods locally and are not part of the national/international industrial food system that makes disease outbreaks so frightening.

I strongly encourage you to read more about the NAIS; it may be the single largest threat to the small farm/slow food/local food movement yet. This really could drive many farms out of business, or prevent many more from attempting to raise animals. We’re taking our chances, hoping that sanity will prevail and enough farmers and consumers will revolt against this well-meaning but effectively horrible system.
Read more at:

http://www.farmandranchfreedom.org/content/what-is-nais
http://www.showmefreedom.org/2007/July/NAISUpdate.shtml

or just use Google.

“Restaurant mouth”

We don’t eat out much. After years of eating meals made at home, scratch-made from fresh, quality ingredients (there are few canned or processed ingredients in our kitchen), our taste buds have become exceedingly sensitive to the taste and presence of preservatives, salt, and other chemicals in most prepared food. Every now and then we’ll try a new place that claims to use “only the freshest ingredients”, with a chef on hand cooking real meals, only to come home with “restaurant mouth”.

This is the term we’ve coined for the dry, brackish, basically nasty aftertaste invariably left in our mouths after a restaurant meal. I’m not talking about fast food or chain establishments here, I’m talking about supposedly real restaurants with kitchens and “chefs”. We’ve reached the point where we can taste the canned ingredients, low-quality spices, or processed sauces in the dish with the first bite; the preservatives and over-salting are obvious. This pattern is proven by the consistent high quality and lack of restaurant mouth in the few regional establishments that we know for a fact use nothing but real, clean ingredients and have real, skilled chefs and cooks. These consistent winners always prove to us that (a) it’s possible to cook real food from real ingredients in a restaurant, and (b) that we’re not imagining our negative reactions to other establishments.

Speaking of negative reactions, “restaurant mouth” is often accompanied by “restaurant stomach”. We’ve found that our digestive systems as well as our mouths have become really sensitive to over-salting, preservatives, chemical flavors, and other signs of poor ingredients, because a visit to an unknown establishment tends to produce several days of upset stomachs or worse. We recently had an especially bad reaction to a supposedly high-end place that turned out to be one of the worst meals we’ve had in years, revealing abundant signs of kitchen laziness, incompetence, and poor ingredient quality. It doesn’t matter that your menu offers fancy entrees if they’re made with generic ingredients and little skill.

In our experience, restaurant quality is only tangentially related to the “fanciness” of the place or the menu; our safe bets range from higher-end establishments to simple cafes. A better yardstick for restaurant quality is the presence or lack of good vegetarian entrees on the menu (by good, I mean something more creative or skilled than a veggie burger). While we’re not vegetarian (at least at home), we’ve found that the presence of real vegetarian entrees tends to mean that (a) the chef is skilled, creative, and able to use raw ingredients well, and (b) the restaurant is aware enough of food and dietary trends to make that option available to its diners. All it takes is one good vegetarian entree in a menu of 10-15 meat entrees to please the vegetarian in a group, yet so many restaurants don’t even bother to learn how to make the myriad interesting, quality vegetarian dishes that are easily within their grasp. And to reiterate the point, I don’t mean the standard sops like veggie/mushroom burgers, canned tomato sauce on pasta, or tofu. A chef or cook with the confidence and insight to offer real vegetarian meals is far more likely to know what (s)he’s doing with everything else, too. The common thread is real, clean, fresh ingredients, cooks/chefs who know how to use them without the crutches of salt, chemical flavorings, and processed sauces, and an understanding of dietary culture that accomodates broad interests and needs. It’s a rule that’s rarely failed us in predicting or avoiding restaurant mouth.

A real pain in the neck

Not long ago, I apparently re-aggravated an old neck injury from several years ago. I’m still not quite sure what happened this time, but coming home from the MOSES conference, my neck and upper back started to get stiff and painful, and it slowly grew through the week. I rested a lot and cut back on my normal work to try and let it heal, but it kept getting worse until I woke up one night in excruciating pain, so stiff that Joanna had to help me roll over in bed.

I went to the doctor the next morning and was given some muscle relaxants and therapeutic exercises. These worked very well, such that within a few days I was back to just a dull roar of stiffness and soreness. In another week I should be able to ease back into my normal routine, though I’m under strict orders not to even look at a chainsaw or shovel for a while. I wasn’t able to help at all with the lumber operations last weekend; we’re grateful for a neighbor who spent the day helping Joanna haul logs and lumber around.

Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time resting and going stir-crazy, watching days go by in which I could be making progress on the myriad tasks, chores, and projects that are looming with spring almost here. At this point, I’m at least allowed/able to cook, clean, and walk around again.

There are some things you just don’t think about much until they happen, especially when you’re young. Health and injuries are one of them; there are almost 14 million young adults in the US who don’t have health insurance. I’ve never been one of them, having paid for my own coverage since college. I was very grateful for this when my initial injury happened in Virgnia, which cost thousands of dollars in medical bills and left me bedridden for three months. We’re now on Joanna’s insurance through work, which makes a big difference in cost and quality compared to covering yourself while self-employed.

Experiences like this really help crystallize what’s wrong with health care in the US. I’m sympathetic to concerns that universal health care would be an expensive bureacratic nightmare, and my experiences with large government agencies don’t give me much hope that such a system would work very well. But right now, with insurance tied so strongly to employment, our system effectively punishes independance and entrepreneurship, particularly in the agricultural world where injuries and health risks are very real. How are young people supposed to start or join farms when doing so means that they’ll either have to go without insurance they can’t afford, or have a partner with an off-farm job?

Someday, we’d like this farm to be a full-time job for both of us, but the single biggest barrier we see is health care/insurance. Farming is strenuous enough that not having insurance is not an option for us; something like this latest “injury” could wipe us out with the double whammy of cost and lost labor. And I haven’t even brought up the issue of hiring employees and providing benefits to them, which is completely unrealistic for most small farms right now. So we, and many like us, are stuck under a hard glass ceiling of outside jobs and no employees, keeping our businesses forever small and limited. If we want a stronger economy, society, and food supply, we have GOT to find a way to spread the costs and availability of insurance/health care over a wider area, to support the small businesses and entrepreneurs (farm or otherwise) who are the backbone of our economy.

I’m fortunate to be in very good health; both the last time and this time, doctors were impressed with how fast I healed, likely due to the fact that I take very good care of myself. But precautions only go so far, and we badly need a system that gives us a fighting chance to live our lives free from fear that a freak incident could put us out of business. Let’s hope that 2009 is the year in which that starts to happen.

MOSES organic conference – recap

I spent part of last week at a large organic agriculture conference in La Crosse, WI, organized and hosted by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. Over 2,000 people attended the three days of workshops, talks, research presentations, and more. The event captured so much of the energy, initiative, philosophy, and value of the local and organic agriculture movement that I think it’s a proper place to kick off this blog.

It’s hard to know where to begin when raving about this conference. First, unique among conferences I’ve been to, they put their money where their mouth is. MOSES provided three meals a day and constant drinks and snacks, all sourced from organic and local ingredients, mostly served on real glass and dishware. It’s rare to find an organization that actually practices what it preaches, especially in the details. It’s the first travel in a long time where I haven’t wished I’d brought my own food. From a culinary perspective, not all the food was that special, but there are limits to culinary achievement when feeding that many people, and the value of the food’s sourcing more than made up for any drawbacks.

Second, the conference draws and serves a very large constituency that made it fascinating and inspiring for everyone involved. I was able to interact with everyone from small homestead types to mid-size dairy operators to thousand-acre-plus grain farmers. The latter were particularly worth talking to, as over and over they told the same story: they’d grown up and starting farming in the chemical/GMO era, were seeing that it just wasn’t working any more, and wanted to find a new way that let them preserve their land, lessen their dependancy on corporate interests, and return their farms to the values they remembered or found worthwhile.

Although much of the energy and public face of the local/organic movement is focused on small farmers, it’s these big grain farmers that will really drive changes. They’re the ones that governments and corporations listen to; they have the clout to really change things on the market side. When they start to revolt in large numbers, it will make waves that no amount of small market growers can achieve on their own. There are those in the small farm/organic/slow food community who seem to see grain farmers as inherently evil or corrupt, forgetting that a lot of these folks are trapped in a system they didn’t create, and are only now seeing a way out.

It was truly inspiring to hear their stories, and thank them for taking on risks in switching to organic that we small farmers may not truly appreciate. Organic and conventional market growers can often market their products in the same places and use the same infrastructure; the differences are as much philosophical as they are economic or cultural. But talking to these larger grain farmers really helped me understand what an undertaking it is to go organic in a field dominated by corporate, industrial agriculture. You have to find your own market for your crops; the local elevator won’t touch you. You have little support, since the local dealers and suppliers don’t know or value organic methods and supplies, and most of your neighbors think you’re crazy. You have to survive through the 2-3 years of transitional status, when you can’t get the higher organic price but you’re doing the extra, risky work to maintain organic status. It’s just a different world from small market farming, and I appreciated the value of a conference that helped such different folks come together and understand one another better.

Finally, (though I could go on for much longer), the conference really captured the overall energy, growth, and value of local food production. Although it’s billed as an “organic” conference, it generally took a broader view toward the value of local food systems and supporting small family farmers than on hammering home organic methods. There was plenty of opportunity to learn more about organic farming, but not in a pushy or exclusive way. When I spoke up in a forum on local foods to argue that such initiatives should NOT be exclusively organic, and should include all types of small farmers so that the consumer can decide, it was met with much agreement and no argument. It was nice to be involved with so many folks whose philosophy was broad and inclusive, not narrow and partisan. Most small, conventional growers would have felt comfortable, and that’s important.

The conference was really focused on the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa), where small farm and local food support networks and culture are far stronger, but there were some of us from others areas that have farther to go. Next year I’d really like to arrange a larger Missouri contingent to attend together, so that we can all be inspired and educated by the example of these pioneering states and communities.