Archive for ‘farmers market’

February 16, 2012

Redefining Convenience at the Organic Corner Market

The Organic Corner Market on River RoadDown the street from my house, next to the auto body shop and across the road from what my neighbor coyly refers to as the “naughty bookstore” is a small corner market. Now, you may be envisioning a 7-11 or similar joint, a reliable place to find chips, candy, cheap beer, and maybe a jug of milk, but this is a different sort of bodega.

My neighborhood lies between the center and the outskirts of Eugene – sort of a petticoat layer. It’s cut off from the center of town by the railroad tracks and bisected by the busy commercial corridor of River Road, which eventually leads you out of the city and into picturesque farmland where goats may roam. If it weren’t for our corner store, it could probably be called a food desert, especially for the many in the neighborhood who don’t drive.

In this very mixed residential zone, where one neighbor is building his own greenhouse and another distributes literature on the Second Coming, a run to corner market will not yield any kind of processed foods, unless you count locally milled flour. The friendly green building only offers fresh, antioxidant-loaded treats – all locally grown. That’s because this market is supplied by a handful of local food producers, chiefly Sweet Leaf Farm’s Penny Tyrell.

Fresh produce is the ultimate snack food, meal food, and survival food, and it seems that people in my neighborhood agree. Here, Penny literally found a niche in the market to peddle everything from pumpkins to flowers. The Organic Corner Market, as it’s officially known, has also become something of a community gathering spot, a place to carve pumpkins and run into your neighbor when fetching a last-minute item for dinner.

Detroit Fresh Healthy Bodega

Detroit Fresh - Urban convenience store offering fresh produce

While Penny has been building her market in my neighborhood, a Healthy Corner Market movement has been gaining speed across North America. Convenience store owners are tapping into the new market of health-conscious shoppers by offering fresh produce alongside Doritos and Pepsi. It’s hard to tell how many stores are doing it, but the industry is definitely catching on, with a little help from community grants and government programs like WIC, which offers food assistance to low-income mothers.

In Eugene, one organization, the Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth, convinced a branch of the local convenience store chain Dari Mart to park a produce truck with fresh veggies in front of one of its stores once a week all summer long. Customers lined up around the corner. Another mini martoff the freeway has been offering fresh, local and organic versions of the typical truck-stop options, to go with its plant-based ethanol and bio-diesel fuel.

The Organic Corner Market isn’t associated with the Healthy Corner Market initiative or any traditional convenience store, but seems to be approaching the quick-stop retail model from the opposite direction. Starting with fresh fruits and vegetables, it grew to offer a selection of locally produced foods like tuna, grain products and bread, plus flowers, seeds, and seedlings. It’s more than a farm stand, but not a place to find condoms and cigarettes, either.

The Organic Corner Market in February

The Organic Corner Market in February

I got hooked on the Corner Market this summer when I first moved to the neighborhood. Having the best quality organic produce a two minutes’ walk from my kitchen was a luxury I’d never experienced before, and I dreaded the onset of winter more than usual. When October rolled around, I casually asked the guy behind the counter when the market would close for the season. With kind matter-of-factness, he informed me, “We don’t really close.”

“What?” I said. “How will you keep this up?” I indicated the bins of fresh salad greens, ripe tomatoes, crisp apples and bright flowers.
He just smiled mysteriously. “We’ll be closed for the holidays, but we plan to open back up in January.”

Honestly, I didn’t really believe him. Come December, the market looked as deserted as my garden beds. I settled myself in for a long winter of trekking downtown or up River Road to the chain supermarket for groceries.

I wasn’t giving local farmers enough credit. In mid-January, I spotted the Corner Market’s colorfully hand-painted sandwich board sign out by the road. I went in immediately, not sure what to expect. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the garage-like structure, I started seeing food, and a decent amount of it. Greens, leeks, carrots, squash, garlic, potatoes, and the locally milled grains they started carrying this summer. Penny was behind the counter.
“This your first week back?” I asked.
“Nope. Third.”
“Wow,” was all I could say. Then I started picking out some thick, gorgeous leeks to take home.

I came back the next week to chat with Penny more (they’re just open on Wednesdays for now, more days as the season progresses). Penny sorts winter squash as I chat with her. Very moldy ones go in a box for compost. Slightly moldy in a different box for the cook at the local Mission, who is a big fan of her produce.
“Last summer, he took an entire box of wilted basil, pureed it, and put it in his freezer,” she says. “I asked him if he could use any more; he said he’d take all I’ve got.”

That’s the general neighborhood attitude toward the market, now in its fourth year. The fact that they’re out here in the middle of winter selling whatever they can grow speaks both to the strength of the local market and Penny’s dedication to her customers.

“I live here. I’m into it.” In fact, Penny lives right around the corner from the Market. Her 40-acre farm is a few miles up River Road. Although Sweet Leaf Farm sells produce at several farmers’ markets in the region, she has an obvious preference for selling at the Corner Market.

It all started, she tells me, with pumpkins.

Organic Corner Market pumpkins

Organic Corner Market pumpkins. It takes a neighborhood to carve an army of disembodied gourd-heads.

Pumpkins are a challenge for truck farmers like Penny. They’re big, difficult to move, and people don’t pay a lot of money for them. But Penny’s a pumpkin fan, especially when it comes to carving them. One day in the fall of 2008, she pulled a truck full of pumpkins into the empty parking lot across from the adult shop, and people began buying them. The owners of the lot eventually allowed her to store some produce on site, which eliminated the hassle of moving the heavy squash to and fro. Penny decided to move in for good.

“The people who run the adult shop were my first customers,” Penny says with a smile. She traded with other neighbors for most of the work on her building. The window installer, the concrete pourer, the painter – they all got fresh produce, and she now has an eye-catching green building that has become a local landmark.

On a summer evening, it’s easy to find friends and neighbors shopping at the Corner Market, and she stays open late around Halloween for people to stop by and carve a pumpkin, building the massive display in the parking lot.

Penny’s plans include building a stage in the lot for summer concerts and to and expand her selection to better cater to “produce emergencies”.
“What’s that?” I ask, envisioning a soup flood or carrot in the eye.
“You know, when you run out of garlic or something.”

Regional suppliers are ready to meet the demand for fresh food, emergency or otherwise. Already, Penny offers tuna from a fish processor on the Oregon coast, seeds from Peace Seeds, grains from Camas Country Mill, and specialty produce from various growers. The bread is made at Sweetwater Farm and has been such a big hit that I’ve never seen it on the shelf – it sells out within the hour.

Supply has been matching demand. Penny doesn’t do any marketing because word of mouth is enough.
“The people that want it, know about it,” she says with a smile. “The people who stumble upon it, love it.”

About two miles up River Road, Dari Mart sells malt liquor at $1.39 per 22 oz bottle, and though they do stock local milk (not hard to do in Oregon), produce hasn’t yet made it onto the shelves. On the Healthy Corner Market website, convenience store owners in several case studies cited customer demand as a key reason they began stocking fresh produce. In an urban – or suburban – food desert, even a few apples or salad greens can make a big difference to those with limited shopping options. For me, it’s great comfort to know I’ll never be out of garlic as long as Penny and her fellow growers are down the street.

December 29, 2010

>Oh, SNAP: Do food stamps make you fat?


I have a confession to make. For the last six months, I have been using food stamps. It’s easy, and I like it. I get $200 added to a little blue card every month, which I use like a debit card at any convenience store, supermarket, health food store, Asian market, or even farmer’s market within the state of Oregon that I please. Basically, I eat for free, so long as I don’t want to go to a restaurant or the hot food bar at the grocery store.  

This might not seem like much of a confession. After all, about 20% of Oregon residents receive food benefits, and along with unemployment checks and the occasional visit to the food bank, it’s how a lot of Americans are scraping by these days. I took an Americorps job in June, and under this government-funded program, participation in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the title that has replaced the phrase “food stamps” in government-speak) is all but expected. With my initial paperwork, I was given a letter addressed to the local branch of the Department of Human Services, which administers food benefits. To paraphrase, it said “Tuula works for Americorps now. We don’t actually pay her a living wage. Sign her up for food stamps, stat.” Everyone I worked with got the same form, and one-by-one, we trudged down to the DHS office, answered a couple of basic questions about our living expenses, and were handed the magical blue cards.

I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot outside the building, trying to adjust my frame of mind enough to allow myself to go in. Like a lot of people in this country, especially those with immigrant families who lived out some version of the American Dream, I considered accepting any form of federal welfare to be right down there with begging on the street corner. As I sat watching the rain dripping down my windshield, contemplating the course of my life, I started feeling very sorry for myself. Don’t I have a college degree? I wondered. How did I get here? What have I done wrong? Then I remembered: I wanted this. I wanted to do the low-paying, environmental, non-profit, social-service work. It makes me feel good. Besides, the economy is falling apart. I’m lucky to have a job of any kind, and it’s not like I’ll be a welfare bum forever. I pulled my jacket hood over my head, grabbed my letter, and went out into the rain.

That was six months ago. My Americorps term of service up, but I’m still on SNAP as I job search and try to avoid moving in with my parents. As difficult as it was to take the dink to my pride, I’m glad I did it. Not only did having my food bill taken care of allow me to save money while earning less than minimum wage from Americorps (another valuable experience), it also gave me some insights into the economics and geography of how we eat.

Because the SNAP card works exactly like a debit card would, it took me a while to notice any changes in my food buying habits. In fact, using EBT is quite discrete – at the store, they ring up your groceries, you swipe your card, selecting “EBT” instead of “debit/credit”, enter your PIN, take your receipt (which gives you the balance left for that month) and you’re on your way. As someone with a lot of initial guilt and shame surrounding the use of food stamps, I was grateful for this hassle-free process. I didn’t stand out.

That was the grocery store. The farmers market was a different story. After I found out that I could use my EBT card at the Lane County Farmers Market (for some reason, they don’t really advertise this feature), I took the next beautiful Saturday afternoon to stroll downtown with my grocery bag and pick out some fresh, organic veggies. I met my friend Tara, a fellow Americorps member, there. First, we had to visit a little booth, crammed between tables overflowing with produce, where a woman ran $10 off the balance of our cards (they do it in $5 increments) and gave us each ten wooden tokens that she said could be exchanged dollar-for-dollar at any of the farmer’s stands. Unfortunately, she told us, we couldn’t receive change in cash, so if we bought something for 50 cents, we would have to hand over a whole token. We started elbowing our way through the market throngs, and I found some carrots and a basket of strawberries, handed over five tokens, and didn’t get hassled. Tara, on the other hand, just wanted strawberries, and went to a different farmer for them. When she tried to pay, though, the woman behind the table frowned.
“Can you pay with something else?” she asked. “We get charged a fee to exchange those.” In the busy scuffle of the market, Tara didn’t feel like putting up a fight and holding up the line, so we dug through our pockets to produce some change. The woman didn’t seem much happier about the pile of nickles, dimes and quarters she provided, but what did she expect? As Tara pointed out on the walk home, if we had the option to pay some other way, we wouldn’t be on food stamps.

The more I thought about it, the more it irritated me. The whole point of SNAP is to reduce some of the inequity in our food system and give low-income people such as ourselves the option to eat fresh and nutritious food. If farmer’s markets charge their vendors a fee to accept their version of EBT, and farmers are reluctant to sell to individuals using the system, the whole point of the program is lost. I stuck the other five tokens in my purse, where they are still, because the next time I went to the farmers market I forgot to bring them. Clearly, this system needs some work.

But I didn’t shop much at the farmers market this summer anyway. I tried to keep from using my own cash for food and keep my monthly grocery bill within the allotted $200, which was easy as long as I didn’t spring for such items as $3.50 baskets of local strawberries (or meat, which I don’t normally eat anyway). I still bought mostly organic, but local foods were out of my price range. I also found myself cooking a lot more. I couldn’t justify the expense of eating out when I had free food at home, and I also knew that if I spent my food benefits on frozen pizzas and prepared deli items, my account would be empty a lot sooner than if I bought the raw ingredients. Without kids to take care of and clean up after, or a second job to pay a mortgage or whatever, I had the time for this (although, living alone, I got pretty tired spending every evening at home in front of the stove). Of course, if I did have other responsibilities in my life, the quality of what I was eating wouldn’t be nearly as good as it was. Also, I would need more than $200 per person, especially if there were meat-eaters in the family.

So if you’re busy, and you don’t earn much money, participating in the SNAP program makes a lot of sense. Only problem is, most people are much more likely to use food stamps to buy fattening, unhealthy foods that are cheap and easy to prepare. The result? People on SNAP are much more likely to be overweight or obese than those who aren’t, according to some scientists.

Thinking more about grocery transactions recently has also helped me notice where various food outlets are placed. I usually shop at small natural-foods stores, which are concentrated around the center of town where housing and businesses cater to those in the upper income levels. Head toward the outskirts of the city, and you won’t find those cozy shops stuffed with bulk foods, fresh veggies and organic cheese. In fact, even the large grocery chains start dropping off, and for every Albertson’s or Safeway you’ll find three or four Dari-Marts, 7-11s, or Circle-Ks, all variations on the convenience store theme. I notice them because the changeable-letter signs often advertise “We take EBT”. For what, though? Doritos, candy, soft drinks, maybe some milk, eggs or boxed mac-and-cheese. So if you live in one of those neighborhoods, and maybe you don’t have a car, or the ability to bus into town to visit another store, what are your options?

I’m not the first person to notice this phenomenon, and much has been said about the problem of “food deserts” in both rural and urban areas. One proposal that keeps coming up is to not allow the purchase of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods under SNAP. As it currently stands, you can buy pretty much any food item in the grocery or convenience store using your food benefits. The federal SNAP website details what does and does not apply as “food” under the program. Among the things that don’t count: Alcohol, personal care items, vitamins, and live animals (No buying a catfish to fatten up in your living room, sorry). Twinkies, Velveeta and Kool-Aid do count, although most people would probably agree that they have few nutritional differences from toothpaste. The problem is, as SNAP argues in a report, that there would simply be too much administration involved in fine-tuning the definition of “food” to exclude “junk food”. And you know that food processors would find ways around the law if they did, fortifying their products until they met the minimum nutritional requirements.

In the interest of balancing out the junk food eligible for purchase under SNAP, the USDA implemented a program in 2007 that allows farmers markets to accept food stamps. Of course, this doesn’t address the underlying issue of the cost of fresh, locally produced food, so, in some states, other organizations have stepped in to offer subsidies to low-income farmers market shoppers. Still, less than 0.01% of all federal SNAP dollars were spent at farmers markets last year.

Another little-known fact about SNAP is you can also use food benefits to buy seeds for your garden. It’s another nice thought, but one that probably hasn’t been very popular. A lot of the low-income kids I met through the Americorps job this summer hadn’t ever eaten a fresh tomato before. If their parents aren’t buying this kind of stuff, the chances are even lower than they’ll want to grow it themselves.

So SNAP isn’t doing much to improve the health of low-income people in this country, but it probably isn’t the root of the problem, either. Regardless of how you pay for it, cheap, processed, and unhealthy food will always be an option, and more so if you live in a low-income neighborhood. It would be senseless to force stores in these areas to carry fresh produce that would probably just rot in the coolers. There’s an underlying issue here that needs to be addressed: the cycle of poverty and poor diet. If people didn’t grow up eating something, they aren’t usually going to start eating it as adults, and since poverty tends to persists through generations, it also defines the dietary habits of a large segment of the population. So you can make good food affordable, but that doesn’t mean it will replace bad food pound for pound. There’s also the issue of convenience. After working a double shift, your average single mother will probably be more willing to microwave a hot pocket than chop a salad.

Can we ever take fresh, local fruit and vegetables out of the domain of the well-off and align American food values along the lines of apples, not apple pie? Sure. I forgot to mention the steady, free source of local and organic vegetables that I relied on through my summer and fall of being on SNAP: the farm where I worked. When growing food is part of what you do for a living, you’re guaranteed nothing but to eat fairly decently. In fact, for most of human history, people made their living as farmers, and poor folks like me lived off potatoes, greens, fresh eggs, and fruit from the trees. We grew it ourselves. The rich gorged on lard, sugar and beef, got fat, and died of heart disease. Now the tables have turned. Over 70% of Americans are overweight or obese, and I would bet that most of them are currently on or have been on food stamps.

What we need is re-education, and the beginnings of it already exist. The best example I can think of is Farm to School, which takes kids on field trips out of the classroom to farms and also brings fresh food to them in the cafeteria. There’s also the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, similar to SNAP except with much stricter rules about what can be purchased, and it’s only available to mothers with children under five. It also has a fairly decent website with nutrition information and cooking tips, although it gets a bit patronizing (“Did you know that fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories?” No waaay…)

As for me, I look forward to one day having the financial freedom to put my toothpaste, beer and bananas on the same piece of plastic. Maybe the fact that I have successfully used food stamps without packing on a layer of winter fat says something, but I think the average person on SNAP has a lot more hurdles to jump than I on the way to healthy living. Let’s fix our food system first, the one that pushed high-calorie diets on low-income people, and maybe we can all eat a bit fresher.

Find a farmer’s market that accepts SNAP or WIC here.

July 25, 2009


>We start early, before the temperature begins to creep up and everything – the harvest and those who pick it – starts to fade in the midday sun. Vancouver Island is at a high latitude, so the sun comes up around 5 AM and doesn’t go down until about 9 in the evening. Luckily, the light doesn’t keep me from sleeping all the way till 7, when I wake up to CBC (the Canadian version of BBC) on the radio and stiffly move myself out of bed. The going is slow because I started learning to ride horses on Wednesday. It feels like somebody’s taken a rake to the muscles of my inner legs. (As far as my progress in riding goes, my instructor summed it up nicely after the first lesson: “You did good today,” he said. “You showed up.”)
Aftermath of my extracurricular activities aside, harvest day is probably my favorite time around the farm. So I stretch carefully, shower, and head up to the campground office to make myself some breakfast. Because the office is open from 8 in the morning till 9 at night, we hardly do anything at the house but sleep (and write!). I savor my berries and yogurt as I sit with Ann and Andrea, who are already laying out the game plan for market this week. Market is on Saturday, and instead of hauling our produce all the way into Port Alberni, we simply hold it here, where we have a somewhat captive customer base (campers) and the space to make it an event. We hold a pancake breakfast and hayride; the kids play with the goats while their parents take a stroll by the river.
But that will all take place tomorrow. The produce is the main act, and it’s still waiting in the garden for us to retrieve it. We finish our coffee, gather up some buckets, and head down the hill, border collies herding us along.
Crystal is already in the garden and Connie arrives shortly after. We are an all-girl vegetable-picking machine. Andrea heads to the potato patch – she loves digging around in the dirt. I grab scissors and start on the kale and swiss chard. Connie hits up the greenhouse for cucumbers and tomatoes, and Crystal pulls the netting off the long rows of carrots. Half an hour later, I’m still lost in the brilliant red stems of the chard, feeling slightly overwhelmed and mentally full. Every time I pick vegetables my mind moves immediately to washing, chopping and cooking them, in any way I know how and a few I don’t think are possible (chard muffins?). After thirty or so chard plants, I get the dizzying feeling of there simply being too much food here for any one person to eat. I guess that’s the only way I can part with it come morning. As I fill my last bucket with greens and throw up my hands, Crystal comes walking down the row, a bright orange, freshly washed, perfect carrot in her outstretched hand.
“Second breakfast?” Indeed.

It’s getting late in the summer, and the garden is in full production mode now. This is only the Collins’ second year growing produce for a local market, but there is certainly no lack of variety. By the end of the morning we have the truck loaded up with greens, potatoes, turnips, beets, carrots, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, peas, rhubarb, strawberries and flowers. We unload in the office – which also houses a small commercial kitchen – and start washing and bagging. The unfortunate side of the local market is nobody seems to want to buy anything that’s not in a bag. If we do leave it in baskets or buckets, they’ll bag it themselves before they buy it.
I excuse myself from this somewhat depressing process to start making lunch. I have a little challenge going with myself to use the most vegetables in one meal as possible. With a little storebought ginger and soy sauce, I squeeze seven into a giant stir fry (record: eight veggies). We take a bit of a break and eat outside on the deck in the last bit of shade. It’s getting hot – the thermometer reads 30 Celsius. Up until a week or so ago this meant nothing to me, and it actually made the heat easier to bear. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. In India, nobody ever really knew what temperature it was, so there was no complaining. Well, my mother was kind enough to email me a handy conversion chart and I now know that when it’s 30, it’s not just below freezing but in fact 86 in the clunky old Fahrenheit system. And when it’s 30 at noon and just getting started, it’s going to be a hot day.
Back inside, it’s time to switch the A/C on. With the freezers, refrigerators and oven going all day, it can get hotter inside than outside without the aid of this wonderful little invention. Feeling more comfortable now, I start on the bread and spend the afternoon registering campers with floury hands. Breads are my experimental addition to the farmers’ market, and so far, it’s been a mild success. The best part is, we keep the ugly loaves and whatever doesn’t sell. Contrary to popular belief, breadmaking isn’t actually that difficult or time consuming. You just have to be able to hang around the kitchen for a few hours, so campground management actually is a good side activity.
Campers are an interesting lot. They fall into three main categories: those who are on vacation and so are determined not to fuss about anything so that they can have a good time; those who are on vacation and so are determined to be completely picky about everything so that they can have a good time; and teenagers who come from town to throw parties at the campground. Any afternoon will produce any combination of these types. I had the good fortune to be eating dinner while some partying teenagers came and rented a couple sites. We’re all pretty tired of the loud music, piles of trash and general obnoxiousness that comes along with these customers, but Ann and Bob were ready this time. They raised three kids and can be pretty scary. Sitting in the corner, absorbed in my bread and cucumber salad, I even felt a little shaky in my boots as the two of them loom over the group of would-be rabble-rousers.
“Now, you’re not going to have a large group of people down there, are you?” Ann asks, though it’s more of a statement than a question. The kids are wide-eyed and innocent.
“Oh, no.” Having been in their shoes more than once only a few years ago, I know that deceptive tone all too well. I can almost see the thought bubbles resting above their heads, and they don’t contain words but pictures of beer and thumping stereos. Bob sees them too and walks over to the counter.
“No music down there,” he tells them.
“None at all?” they whine.
“Absolutely not. You don’t want us to come down there at three in the morning to tell you to shut it off, got it?” A mafia contract killer could not have sounded more threatening. They’ve got it. They shuffle out. Yet another crisis averted – we hope.

I finish eating and walk down to the house to read a bit. Before bed, I help Bob move the “chicken tractor”. This ingenious little pen, which holds all our meat birds, is open at the bottom so the chickens can scratch at the grass. It gets moved once or twice a day, so they can fertilize a new patch of soil while getting some fresh grubs to eat – a win-win situation.
After the moving is done, Bob heads out to the pasture to move irrigation pipes. I walk up the hill, worn out and not sure where my farming mentors get the energy to work the 15-hour or more days that they do (Ann is still up at the office). As I pass the barn, I hear a friendly but demanding “meiow!” It’s Buster, the friendly black-and-white barn cat. He proves irresistible. Instead of going inside, I sit with him on an old picnic table that overlooks the farm. From here, we can see the garden, the pasture with the horses and cows grazing, the forest beyond and Mount Arrowsmith towering above it all. It’s a view that takes my breath away still after almost a month living here. I watch the sun turn the mountainside pink and gold, the cool evening air taking away some of my fatigue. Buster relaxes on my lap, his purr rumbling against my fingers. It’s one of those perfect moments that seem to arise so easily in this place. Despite all the work that goes into planting, watering, weeding and harvesting produce, I still can’t help but find it miraculous that so many good things come out of the simple inputs of soil, manure, seeds and water. As long as that formula continues to work, we’ll never go hungry here. And that’s a pretty good feeling.

October 21, 2008

>Food fights in Bangalore


[This post is from two weeks ago, when I set off for Bangalore for some travels in the area. Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka, home to at minimum 7 million people and growing. It also hosts number of NGOs and other groups working directly and indirectly on sustainable agriculture and development issues. My first stop is a two-day seminar on small-scale agriculture in the city itself.]
The journey from Sirsi to Bangalore – despite taking ten hours over bumpy roads – was actually quite comfortable thanks to the wonder of sleeper busses. Like sleeper cars in trains, these public transportation marvels feature narrow bunks surrounded by thick curtains, behind which the traveler may pass out for the duration of the trip. Within an hour of boarding, the financial news (which I have a sick fascination with, like a car accident) coming through my ipod lulled me into dreams of credit default swaps and naked short sellers.
The only unnerving part of the trip was the “rest stop” at 2 AM– most of the travelers were men, forcing me and my full bladder to dash across the darkened highway alone, flashlight in hand, to find a bush, all the time trying not to imagine the many ways I might die or, worse, miss the bus as it pulled away. In record time, I took care of business and climbed back into my bunk, none the worse for the wear.
When we reach Bangalore, it’s the tail end of a ten-day long holiday, so traffic isn’t bad. It’s raining, though, making the sight of the abject poverty – families living under tarps, mothers with young babies begging for change, streetside vendor after vendor selling the same unwanted wares – all the more depressing. It’s my first real encounter with a major Indian city, and the Malnad region where I work is by comparison very well off. I’ve come across probably two beggars in Sirsi. To the best of my ability, I put up a mental wall and worried instead about how I would locate Sunita in this enormous place.
Luckily, the conductor had assumed correctly that I would not recognize my stop name when he called it out, and jabs a finger in my direction when I am to get off. I stumble down the aisle with my overstuffed backpack and Sunita is waiting just outside, as promised (she’s already been here in Bangalore a couple of days). We get in the rick and zoom off to the NIAS campus.
On the way, Sunita explains that NIAS stands for the National Institute of Advanced Studies, one of the more prestigious universities in the country. It was actually founded by the same man who created the Tata empire, India’s largest corporation. Tata is similar to GE in the states, with holdings in auto manufacturing, housing, media and just about anything else they can think of. The seminar Sunita and I are attending is entitled “Farmers, Livelihood and Trade” and is focused primarily on increasing the market share of small organic farmers. It’s actually being put on by GREEN (Genetic Resource Ecology Energy Nutrition) Foundation, one of the major agricultural NGOs in the area.
On arrival, we are given one of the guest rooms that NAIS has set aside for conferences such as these. In the walled-off campus with security guards at the gates, I can almost pretend I’m back in Sirsi. The biggest difference is nobody stares at me here – they’re all used to foreigners.
At the elaborate breakfast provided, I meet Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, the surprisingly approachable and grandmotherly director of Green Foundation, who has been dedicated to improving the livelihoods of farmers for decades. An hour later (only half an hour behind schedule!) the conference kicks off with a lecture by Devinda Sharma, a journalist and expert on genetically modified crops and agro-politics. I’ve been given the intern’s honor of taking notes for the next two days, but I would have been riveted anyway: this guy is pretty incensed about the state of agriculture and India’s farmers.
Most of Sharma’s talk relates to the WTO and its liberalization of international markets. Pre-WTO, India’s GDP was 25% of the world total. It was a net exporter of food, meaning it shipped out more spices, grains and produce than it bought from other nations, and it didn’t rely on any of them to feed its population. 80% of Indians were employed in the agricultural sector.
Under the WTO, however, the balance began to shift. Heavily subsidized grains from the US began flooding the market, and all the nations who couldn’t compete were told to focus their agricultural production on exports to keep up.
The result was predictable. As Sharma put it, “Importing food is importing unemployment.” Today, India is headed down a path to attain a similar socioeconomic profile to the US, where less than 1% of the population (and dropping) grow agricultural products and a farmer living in Iowa would starve if his local grocery store suddenly ran out of supplies (due to, say, a fuel shortage) because he’s surrounded by a thousand miles of inedible corn and soybeans. The only difference is, there are simply too many people and not enough land for this system to work in India. Somewhere, something or somebody has to give, and I saw those somebodies outside my bus window on the way here. Most of those millions of homeless people are refugees from villages, where they’ve given up on the agricultural life because they can’t afford it (and because it doesn’t provide the glitzy lifestyle they’ve been watching on TV). People in the cities prefer cheap white rice and imported wheat, and crops grown for export must meet standards only attained through chemical inputs (large size, consistent color and texture, perfect skins). Farming using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides requires economies of scale unattainable by the average small land owner.
As Sharma and the other speakers at the seminar explained, organic farming is supposed to be the antidote to all this mess, but it lacks the government backing to really make it work. Commercial, “conventional” agriculture (using chemical inputs) is, of course, subsidized ever since the WTO arrived, which makes it very competitive in domestic and international markets. Organic farmers receive no such help. In fact, they have to pay for organic certification by often-sketchy certification boards, who in classic Indian style create a tangled network of bureaucratic procedures and paperwork. The farmers, on the other hand, are usually not the corporate-world dropouts who usually take up organic farming in the States. They’re simply trying to sell produce that has been grown the only way they’ve known how for centuries – without outside inputs and with minimal impact on the land.
Although I’ve been studying this stuff for a while, hearing it again and talking to the people who are running against these problems in real life left me feeling disheartened. The second day involved more group discussions with farmers and other interested parties, including one incident that was sort of the highlight for me: an organic farmers vs. biochemical company representative throwdown. This fellow actually had the gall to get up in front of the entire room of 100-some organic farmers and declare that organic food doesn’t taste as good as conventional. In true Indian fashion, he was quite straightforwardly told to shove it. We didn’t see him the rest of the conference.
Despite that happy episode, I left the conference feeling frustrated and a bit hopeless, not only because of what I’d heard, but also because of what I hadn’t heard – an actual solution or at least a plan. Sure, in our air-conditioned haven with meals provided every four hours, we’d come up with a list of “policy recommendations” for the Indian government. But after witnessing during the last few weeks the clumsiness of India’s bureaucracy and the ease with which it is ignored by most citizens, I have my doubts that policy recommendations will have any impact at all. In fact, many of the policies we’d recommended – like setting up farmer-owned organic brands and providing subsidies to organic farmers – already exist, they just aren’t working. While it’s nice to have neat summations of the problems, their solutions, I suspect, are hiding somewhere else.
Next stop: Navadarshanam, a collective just outside Bangalore that’s too natural for organics, where I’ll learn how to find the best ants for eating and become part of the best International Team since the Special Olympics.