Archive for October, 2009

October 28, 2009

>New kids on the farm scene: Succession and the future of food

>Over the past couple of millennia that agriculture has been around, it’s overcome some major hurdles. Be it disease, drought or pestilence, our species has so far managed to invent our way out of trouble, keeping the food supply just ahead of the human population. Lately, though, it seems we’ve hit quite a number of limiting factors: the availability of land, water, and new variations on the genetic code that fool the pests for another generation of crops. But while we might have expected to eventually run out of space and technological fixes, another looming shortage involves a different kind of resource: manpower. Farmers are aging, and there doesn’t seem to be a new crop of them to take over the job of growing our food.
This fact was illustrated for me a couple of weekends ago, when Bob, Ann and I climbed into the old farm truck to rattle down to the Shannon farm and pick up some plastic sheeting. The Shannons run a dairy farm – the only one left in the valley, actually – and use the plastic to wrap the feed for the cows. They can’t reuse it, but the Collins find it great to lay down in the garden and keep the weeds at bay.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The sun doesn’t seem to want to succumb to the typical fall gloom here on the island, and was out warming the golden leaves of the maples lining the Shannon driveway. We pulled up to the house and knocked on the door.
The Shannons are old friends of the Collins. Before Bob and Ann quit the dairy business, they and a small cohort of other farmers constantly relied on each other for equipment parts, emergency help and moral support. Old bonds die hard, and so this visit was just as much about catching up with each other as it was about recycling plastic.
Terry answered the door and his wife, Donna joined us in the kitchen to sip Earl Grey and discuss the state of agriculture in the valley. After a bit, the conversation turned to the upcoming Christmas party organized by the Farmers’ Institute, a group that advocates for farmers and serves as a sort of social catalyst for those who often have a limited off-farm life. But neither the Collins nor the Shannons were too excited about the party this year, actually, considering last year’s disappointment. The ladies who planned the event had decided that since nobody usually danced at the party, they wouldn’t have music, either. They also put a ban on alcohol and shut it down at 9 pm.
“The good thing was, you were done early enough to get drunk at home and not have to worry about who was driving!” Donna noted.
“Maybe there’ll be more young people this year,” somebody said. Terry laughed.
“Last year, we were the young people.”
There was a time, apparently, when the Farmers’ Institute Christmas party was quite the event. Everybody came down and had a good time. Ann used to be the one in charge of planning them, and one year, she even hired a belly dancer. That was about the time some of the older folk decided she wouldn’t be the one to plan them anymore. The problem was not that everyone suddenly got conservative. It was simply that there were so few farmers remaining in the area, and most of those who did remain couldn’t handle more excitement than a hip replacement.

Lots of reports come out about the “succession” problem in agriculture, reducing the facts to dry figures. The average age of a farmer in the United States is 57. One-third of all farmers in Canada will retire before 2035. Seventy percent of US farmland – most of it owned by family farms – will be changing hands in the next 20 years. Behind those numbers, the human face of the problem was made clear to me in that conversation at the Shannons’: No more parties. No more young people. No more farmers once those who remain sell off their land – whether to developers or to agribusiness – and retire. If the land is paved over, food will have to come from elsewhere. If the land goes to a corporate farm, the control of our food supply is consolidated even further. There just doesn’t appear to be enough people stepping up to the plate. Although the whole local food trend is on the up and up, farming still isn’t quite “sexy” enough to be considered a career option by most people my age. In the popular eye, agriculture doesn’t have the prestige of law or the heroism of medicine. Not to mention what usually is cited as the most important factor: There’s no money in it. I’m not sure which of these reasons is actually causing the profession of farming to die off with my parents’ generation. But the results are immediate and self-perpetuating. Universities all over North America are shutting down agriculture programs because of a lack of interest, taking with them valuable extension offices and other services to the agricultural community. As farmers retire, they are more likely to give up their land to urban sprawl or sell it to the nearest mega agribusiness operation than pass it on to their children, who are understandably reluctant to consign themselves to a lifetime of earning less than the minimum wage (one farmer at a recent meeting here said that, all told, he earns about $5.00 an hour at his job). Because of constantly rising real estate prices and the sad truth that farmland is worth more when the crop is condos, if a young person does happen to decide on a career in agriculture, they have a hard time finding a place to do it anymore.
When the world’s population increases by a third in the next 40 years, I imagine that a lot more of us will be rushing to what’s left of our agricultural land to try to crank out some more food. We’ll probably not want to wreak further environmental havoc, so organic methods will be in demand. But who will teach us how to do it? Unless we cryogenically freeze the farmers we have today and find some way to harvest their knowledge in the future, we could be up a creek, and the brown stuff in the water will probably be more chemical than animal.

I don’t want to preach gloom and doom here. While most children of farmers go off to find employment that actually pays a salary, there are the few that hang on. In fact, the Shannon farm will soon see a fourth generation of the family take the reins. Terry and Donna’s son Josh is the next in line, and he’s committed to making the farm work for another few decades. Since Terry’s grandfather came out from the dust-choked plains of Alberta in the 1930s, the farm has weathered economic ups and downs in the region, survived the mad cow outbreak of 2006 that did in other dairy farms, and managed to expand to over 500 acres. But their story is not typical. In fact, as far as the Collins can tell, the Shannons are currently the only farmers in the region with a successor. Their position of relative financial security probably has a lot to do with that.
Still, one way or another, those who want sustainable livelihoods based on producing food are finding their way into farming. And the new generation of farmers – even if they’re smaller in number– are doing things a bit differently this time. They understand the difference between growth for growth’s sake and sustainably managing land for the long term. Today, farmers can look at historical disasters like the dust bowl and modern-day tragedies like the droughts in Australia and think twice before over-plowing and freely sucking rivers dry. Not that all farms that started before our current problems – climate change, peak oil, water shortages – started spiraling out of control were operating unsustainably. Most just didn’t know better, and when squeezed by low commodity prices, were forced to try to pump higher and higher yields out of each acre. In comparison, for farmers starting out today, it’s almost impossible not to take environmental and social equity concerns into consideration in the business plan. This new ethic is reflected in the “manifesto” of a (highly inspiring) website dedicated to cataloging young farmers in the United States, Serve Your Country Food: “[We are] motivated by a force of intention that cannot be rationalized economically, with lives driven by an instinct for direct action and stewardship that honors the planet, people, and place, we are the allies of every American.”

So there are young farmers out there, and some of them are quite radically committed to making up for agriculture’s previous errors and energizing their peers into joining the cause. This leads me to another way to view the “succession problem”: by recognizing that farming itself is changing. While farms will always be an important source of food and other agricultural products, the conventional agriculture model that requires trading hard-earned cash for food sometimes isn’t the best option. It doesn’t work, for example, for those who don’t have much cash to spare but still want – and have a right to – fresh, non-polluted food. Instead, more people are planting their own gardens, working agriculture into the urban infrastructure and finding other ways to grow food other than on traditional farms. They are farmers in their own right, although the census will never count this as their primary occupation. On the other hand, farmers are seeing more income coming from agritourism (combining tourist accommodations with farming), educational programs and value-added food production. They still produce food on the side, but perhaps they, too, are not considered “farmers” under the black and white definitions of labor statistics. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean farmers will ever be obsolete. Not every city or region is suited for agriculture, and for the majority of communities, a completely local food economy is simply impossible or impractical. For example, places like Pheonix, Arizona will probably always be better off importing their food from elsewhere rather than trying to bargain for some of its water so they can grow their own tomatoes. After all, we sustainability-pushers have to be realistic: Not everyone is going to move to a lush river valley so they can grow their own food and trade with other farmers. In fact, that would be impossible. It’s the 21st century. Compromise is key. And so is hope. Those who can’t run out and take over for aging farmers are at least becoming aware and supportive of family farms. Others, like those listed on Serve Your Country Food, are working on filling in the gaps. I, for one, plan to do my best to make the annual Farmers Institute of Port Alberni Christmas party as raucous as possible.
Update: Yes! magazine has an excellent photoessay on young farmers across America. 

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October 21, 2009

>Summing it all up

>I don’t normally post other people’s writing/research, but this piece is fairly straightforward, somewhat frightening and hopefully, inspiring. The source is CommonDreams.org, a great source for humanitarian and environmental news.

On World Food Day: Crunching the Numbers

by Roger Doiron

  • 1: number of new kitchen gardens planted at the White House this year AP
  • 1943: the last time food was grown at the White House White House
  • 20 million: the number of new gardens planted in 1943 LA Times
  • 40%: percentage of nation’s produce coming from gardens in 1943 LA Times
  • 7 million: estimated number of new food gardens planted in the US in 2009 NGA
  • $2000: amount of savings possible per year from a 40′ x 40′ garden KGI
  • 90%: percentage of fruit/vegetable varieties lost in the US the last 100 years CNN
  • 3500: number of vegetable varieties owned by Monsanto Monsanto
  • 18,467: number of new small farms counted in the last agricultural census USDA
  • 4,685: number of farmers markets nationwide USDA
  • 4,100: number of Wal-mart stores and clubs in the US Wal-mart
  • 187,000 ft2 : average area of a Wal-mart superstore Wal-mart
  • 60,112 ft2: average area of a farmers’ market USDA
  • 9.5 million: number of imported food shipments arriving in the US each year Huffington Post
  • 226,377: number of establishments registered to export food to the US Huffington Post
  • 200: number of on-site inspections of these establishments conducted by the FDA last year Huffington Post
  • 76 million: number of people who fall ill each year due to food poisoning CDC
  • 50 gallons: volume of sugared beverages consumed per person in the US each year LA Times
  • 22,727: number of Olympic-sized swimming pools those beverages would fill Answers.com
  • $15 billion: annual estimated revenue of a penny-per-ounce tax on soda LA Times
  • $20.5 billion: Coca-Cola’s gross profit in 2008 Coca-Cola
  • 72 million: number of American adults considered obese CDC
  • 33%: percentage of US children likely to develop obesity or Type 2 diabetes CDC
  • 10-15 years: average number of years their lives will be shortened as a result CDC
  • 57 years: average age of the American farmer USDA
  • 25 days: average shelf-life of a Twinkie Snopes
  • 350 parts per million: sustainable level of CO2 in atmosphere 350.org
  • 390 parts per million: current level of CO2 in the atmosphere NOAA
  • 31%: percentage of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food and agriculture IPCC
  • 2020: year by which many geologists feel the world will have reached “peak oil” production UK Research Centre
  • 10 calories: average amount of fossil fuel energy required to produce 1 calorie of food energy in industrialized food systems Cornell
  • 29,100 calories: estimated fossil fuel calories required to produce one order of Outback Steakhouse Aussie Cheese Fries Men’s Health
  • 1 billion: number of hungry people in the world in 2009 FAO
  • 9.1 billion: projected world population in the year 2050 US Census
  • 70%: percentage increase in global food production required to feed that projected population FAO
  • 70%: percentage of world’s fresh water used for agricultural purposes UNESCO
  • 1.8 billion: number of people expected to experience “water scarcity” in the year 2025 UNEP
  • 0: number of new, oil-rich, water-rich, fertile and inhabitable planets we are likely to discover in the next 40 years
  • 1: number of people needed to make a positive difference in any of the above: you!
Roger Doiron is Founding Director of Kitchen Gardeners International, an IATP Food and Society Fellow, and, if you believe the folks at Huffington Post, one of the top Green Game Changers of 2009. After the heartbreaking sweep of the Red Sox Sunday, he recently changed his own game from baseball to football.
October 8, 2009

>Blight Fright: Wheat’s precarious position in the food supply

>Your average aspiring self-sufficient, food-conscious home or community will likely contain a few staple ingredients or food sources that are local and sustainably produced (or at least as close to sustainable as mere mortals can achieve). You’ve got your farmers-market veggies, free-range eggs, organic dairy products, perhaps even some meat from a local grower if you’re so (gastronomically and financially) inclined.
But there’s one key ingredient missing from this happy pie of wholesome foodery. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to make any sort of pie without it. It’s grain – more specifically, wheat. In most parts of the world, its production is still stuck in the industrial, grossly unsustainable way of doing things, which is unfortunate because it’s such a central part of the Western diet. Had any bread, shredded wheat, crackers, pasta, or doughnuts today? Then you’ll see my point – wheat is everywhere. And while it may not seem to be in short supply, any person on a low income will tell you that the price of all of the above items has risen sharply in the last year or so. That’s because wheat is facing some serious global problems – disease, drought and heightened demand – that is causing the price to skyrocket on the global commodity market.
Clearly, wheat is another example of a food staple that is vitally important to re-localize. Having grains nearby, in the hands of hundreds of small farmers (or better yet, individual consumers with backyard gardens), instead of under the lock and key of four or five global conglomerates, makes their availability a surer bet. Only problem is, if you’re trying to be a locavore, bread and wheat products are one area in which you’re likely to break the local-food diet on a regular basis. Farmers growing for a local market tend to stick to vegetables, meat and eggs. Because of the processing (grinding into flour and other products) needed, wheat and other grains have managed to stay centralized, distributed from regional mills.
Let’s follow a typical pound of flour from the field to your morning pancakes. Once the grain is harvested (whether that farm is organic or conventional) it goes to a regional collection point. In Oregon, for example, all the wheat grown by farmers in the Willamette Valley (the main agricultural part of the state) gets trucked up to temporary storage somewhere near Portland. From there, it goes onto containers headed for Asia. That’s right. For all the millions of acres of grain produced close to home, only a tiny percentage of it makes it to the state’s only commercial grain milling facility in Eugene, and an even smaller percentage is actually consumed in the state. So those pancakes you ate this morning were more likely to be made from grain from the Midwest than from close to home. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure, thanks to centralized distribution.
Sounds crazy, you say? Sorry, it’s all economics. The lowest price can only be obtained by controlling the supply through a limited number of processing facilities and shipping it out to retailers as needed. Do you like your cheap box of pancake mix? Do you? Well, then don’t ask so many questions.

In the meantime, local-food advocates keep harping on the need to circumvent this consolidated system – which applies not only to wheat but also just about any food product you can think of – and reestablish direct producer-to-consumer relationships. But why? Put simply, it’s a matter of food security. This means two things: the safety of the food we actually consume, and our ability to obtain it in the first place.
Let’s go back to the bag of mix you used to make your pancakes. Contamination in centralized processing plants (which is what recently compromised the safety of peanuts), isn’t the only problem. Black stem rust, a fungus that attacks wheat plants, is a looming but under-reported threat to wheat harvests around the world. It’s been around a long time – probably as long as wheat has been domesticated – but modern-day strains have been bred to resist the fungus. Now, as if it’s starring in its own terrible sci-fi flick, it’s back – with a vengeance. The fungus has finally evolved the genetic upper hand to destroy previously immune plants. Scientists are calling the new strain Ug99, for the country, Uganda, where it has hit the hardest, leaving behind acre upon acre of ashen, inedible wheat. It seems to be getting more virulent as it progresses, and is so immediately devastating to crops that the US (who else?) once bred it as a biological weapon.
We shouldn’t have bothered – Ug99 is wreaking havoc all on its own, causing famine and strife all over Africa and the Middle East. We’re not hearing much about it now, but as soon as it spreads to developed countries, I imagine that we will hear more.
Ironically, even Norman Bourlag, the much-lauded father of the “green revolution” and industrial agriculture, had to admit that the Ug99 problem is an unintended side-effect of the way conventional agriculture seeks to extract the most production out of a given piece of land. According to this article in NewScientist:

Ug99 will find agriculture has changed to its liking in the decades stem rust has been away. “Forty years ago most wheat wasn’t irrigated and heavily fertilised,” says Borlaug. Now, thanks to the Green Revolution he helped bring about, it is. That means modern wheat fields are a damper, denser thicket of stems, where dew can linger till noon – just right for fungus.

What Borlaug fails to mention is that not only do wheat plants grow closer together now than ever before, those plants are genetically identical thanks to hybridization. Farmers don’t save their own wheat for replanting, they buy it from a seed company (ie, Monsanto), which has developed wheat genetically programmed to produce the highest yield possible. So when a disease or fungus like Ug99 hits the genetic jackpot that allows it to destroy a wheat plant, it can destroy virtually all wheat plants, because there are only a few varieties grown in the world.
Ug99 isn’t the only threat to the world’s food supply, either. Since the beginning of the year, farmers in Canada and the Midwest have noticed a sharp increase in cases of Fusarium head blight, another fungus that affects wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn and grasses used to feed livestock. This one is sneakier: it doesn’t destroy plants right away but makes their grain toxic to consume. That means any slip-up in our notoriously shaky food-safety inspection system could poison hundreds or thousands of innocent pancake-eaters.
The most frustrating part about all of this is that there’s not much the average consumer can do to voice his or her protest against the way wheat is grown and distributed. Sure, we can buy organic, but organic grain is no more resistant to the diseases bred by conventional agriculture than its chemically nurtured counterparts. And “big organic” uses centralized distribution systems that, like any centralized system, erase the connections between producer and consumer until it’s impossible to tell where any given bag of flour was grown.
Still, one thing organic growers can’t do is spray their fields down with fungicide at the slightest hint of black stem rust, which is what conventional growers will surely do. And there is one way to ensure both the supply and safety of your wheat: grow and mill it yourself. I’m not being facetious. It takes surprisingly little grain to feed a family (ten families can live off one measly acre, according to an anonymous informational signboard at the Port Alberni fair last month), and there are actually super-compact mills built today that you can squeeze under your kitchen sink. Unless you live next door to a giant commercial wheat farm, there’s little chance of any global wheat pandemics affecting your plants.
Unfortunately, I have no personal experience with wheat cultivation, so I won’t instruct you on it here (perhaps in a future blog!) Instead, I’ll post yet another recipe, one that I’ve become quite familiar with since becoming the designated baker of Collins Farm. I’ve been making bread practically since I could reach the kitchen counter, but only started making yeast-free bread this summer. It has a unique flavor and texture but a dedicated fan base at our farm market. I’m a bit conflicted about selling it since bread is so deliciously simple to make, so I’m hoping making the recipe public will make kitchen revolutionaries out of a few of you.
The most important step is to find some local flour. If you live in Oregon, the local grain I discussed above is sold under the name Bob’s Red Mill. You can probably also find local farmers that grow grains if you ask around (try Willamette Farm and Food Coalition’s directory) If you live in Port Alberni, find Wayne Smith at the Farmer’s Market at the Harbor Quay – he sources his own organic grain and grinds it up fresh. It’s incredible stuff.

Tuula’s Whole Grain Bread
Makes 2 loaves

To make from starter:
Starter takes about 48 hours to ferment, but it makes awesome bread and eliminates the need for yeast. I start in the morning two days before I want to make bread. Combine a cup of water and a cup of whole wheat flour in an airtight container. Keep it in a warm place where it won’t be disturbed (in the oven with the light on is good). The next morning, “feed” it by adding another cup of flour and another cup of water. It should be bubbly and smell “yeasty”. Set it aside again until you make your bread (that evening or the next morning). You can keep the starter going for as long as you like but it will turn into sourdough starter after about a week (you can find lots of instructionals online for making sourdough bread this way).

To make from yeast:
Use active dry yeast (not instant) or fresh yeast, which is available from bakeries.
In a large bowl, dissolve 2 tablespoons molasses or honey* in 2 cups lukewarm water (no hotter than 115 degrees). Sprinkle in 1 ½ tablespoons yeast and allow to sit for ten minutes, or until it looks bubbly.

*Molasses gives a nice dark color to the bread but some prefer the flavor of honey, so use both if you like.

Bread recipe
2 cups starter or 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
1 ½ cups water (in addition to water used in yeast method)
2 tablespoons molasses or honey*
2 tablespoons oil (vegetable or olive work fine)
½ teaspoon salt
7 cups whole wheat flour
½ cup dry 7-grain cereal
½ cup cooked brown rice (or substitute more cereal)
½ cup any combination flax seeds, sunflower seeds and/or pumpkin seeds

1. Add 1 cup hot water to the 7-grain cereal, set aside to soak.
2. Prepare yeast mixture as above or pour starter into a large bowl. Add molasses (if using starter), oil, salt and 2 cups of the flour. Mix well (lumps are ok) and add soaked cereal, rice and seeds.
3. Continue adding flour until a dough forms. Turn onto a floured counter and knead for 10 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic.
4. Place dough in a clean and oiled bowl, flip to coat both sides. Allow to rise two hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
5. When dough has risen (it will not double in volume but perhaps get close depending on the strength of your yeast/starter), punch it down. Divide it into two loaves and place in bread pans or on baking sheets. Brush the loaves with a beaten egg and sprinkle on some extra seeds (this is optional but makes the loaves look prettier). Make a ½ inch deep cut lengthwise along the top of the loaf.
6. If dough was refrigerated, allow to rise an additional hour in the pans. If not, half an hour or so should do the trick. Again, the dough will not rise significantly but should grow a bit.
7. Bake at 375 for about an hour. Bread will brown on top and sound hollow when tapped. Allow to cool in pans for a few minutes, then turn onto racks to cool. Do not bag until completely cooled.