October 29, 2011

Rotting Piles of Garbage: How to compost the low-impact way

I’ll be the first to admit it: I love compost. I love not throwing things in the trash, I love bugs and things that eat rotting food, and I love being able to put that food back into my garden. I even love how it smells – after it’s fully composted, that is.

My thing for compost goes back to college, where I was introduced to the wonders of growing your own food through a course in urban farming. Since then, I’ve gone out of my way to keep my vegetable scraps out of the landfill.

Out of my way is putting it lightly, actually. My little fetish for decomposition has been a smelly problem, one that I never really found an easy solution to. In my apartment existence, I’ve been known to do a bit of “guerrilla composting” by tossing my food scraps into the neighbor’s bushes. Usually, I just stored them in stinky, leaky plastic bags until I remember to bring them to the farm. I’ve even started a couple mini worm farms under the kitchen sink, but never with much success.

If I happened to live in a bigger, more progressive city, my compost problems would be solved – actually, hauled away every week in a big truck. In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen, but in Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Minneapolis, and around 3,000 other US cities, you can place your compostable kitchen scraps in your yard waste bin. In San Francisco, composting is actually mandatory. The movement is part of a larger effort to reduce the waste stream – all the consumables we send to our landfills. Landfills are designed to do the opposite of a compost heap, preventing decomposition to avoid the release of climate-altering methane gas (composting, on the other hand, is an aerobic process, which produces small amounts of less potent carbon dioxide). They’re very effective at this – a newspaper placed in a landfill will still be readable 35 years later.

Most of us tend to worry about the land-based impacts of landfills, but a more pressing concern associated with piling all our waste in a central location is the energy used and carbon dioxide produced in the process of picking up and delivering it. In my town, there are at least three major sanitation companies offering weekly pickup for trash and every-other-week pickup for yard waste and recycling. In Portland, the recently introduced yard waste/compost pickup service is offered every week, and I can’t imagine this being less frequent due to the smell factor. That means at least two trucks a week stopping by every home, and three on recycling weeks. Four if a separate truck is required for glass recycling, as it is in my neighborhood. Guess what the fuel economy is for the average diesel-fueled garbage truck. Nope, lower. Lower. Lower. Three miles per gallon. Seriously. To make matters worse, nobody wants a smelly, ugly, potentially flammable municipal compost facility near their home or farm, so trucks must sometimes travel farther to get to those locations than they do to get to landfills.

So is separating food waste from other household trash and sending it off to be composted really an idea we should get behind? Maybe if we replaced the yard waste trucks with a fleet of bicycles. Or maybe there’s another solution, one that addresses the other side of the problem – not what we’re throwing out, but what we choose to save.

In the lifetime of, say, a carrot, the part where it gets thrown away (either as a whole or as peelings and greens) is a pretty small part. It grew in soil, absorbing minerals, converting sunlight into energy and soaking up water. In a way, that carrot was like a battery, storing energy for future use by whomever ate it. It also stored some vitamins and minerals, part of which are absorbed by the eater’s digestive system. (Our habit of depositing what we’ve digested into sewer systems that don’t recycle nutrients is unfortunate in this light, but that’s another discussion.) The part of the carrot that doesn’t get eaten can go down two paths. On the landfill route, its nutrients and potential energy are locked away virtually forever. If composted, the energy goes into millions of microscopic creatures, and the nutrients are reused if that compost gets put on a new vegetable garden.

Nutrients are valuable, and although veggies are a renewable resource, the minerals that make them desirable in the first place are not. Like gold and silver, there is a limited amount of phosphorus, calcium, iodine, etc., in the thin crust around the core of molten rock that together make a planet we call home. When crops are grown in fertile soil, which has been enriched over billions of years with minerals from volcanic ash and disintegrated rock, those plants absorb the minerals and pass them along to whomever eats them.

After 10,000 years of agriculture on this planet, the store of minerals in the soil has all but been depleted. Comparing soils today with those tested just 100 years ago, there’s been an 85% loss in mineral content, a loss that is reflected in the nutritional value of the crops we grow. According to the Nutrition Security Institute, “Our food system is rapidly losing its ability to produce food with nutrient levels sufficient to maintain health.” Thirty trace minerals are essential to life, and some scientists say we need every element on earth in minute amounts for optimum health. Minerals are essential to everything from bone growth (think calcium) to DNA coding, the firing of neurons, energy transfer and metabolism, cell structure, and much more.

So maybe I was on the right track with trying to keep my vegetable scraps in my neighborhood to be recycled. Curbside compost programs, which haul nutrients away never to be seen again, don’t seem to make much sense, but composting at home does. It’s a bit like opening a savings account. When you stash your cash at the bank (provided it doesn’t fail), it can be loaned out to someone else while you’re not using it. Under the mattress, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Throwing food scraps in the landfill is a bit like putting your money in your bed. In landfills, food scraps only break down very slowly because of the lack of oxygen, and when they do, they release methane gas, which contributes to global warming. Second, like saving money in an interest-earning account, you’re actually increasing the benefit to yourself. You can spread your compost on your garden beds to increase soil fertility and grow strong plants that are resistant to disease. Third, unlike saving money, it’s fun.

Well, I think it’s fun. This summer I moved into a house with a real yard, and the first thing I did was build a fascinating – yet admittedly messy-looking – compost pile under the tree in the back yard. In just a couple feet of food scraps, mixed in with a little newspaper, it’s incredible the varieties of life that can unfold. I turned the pile every few weeks and marveled at the centipedes, grubs, worms, potato bugs and fly larvae crawling just underneath the top layer of banana peels. But Hannah, my domestic co-habitator, called it “the rotting pile of garbage”, and although she is a seasoned farmer herself, she somehow didn’t want the final stage of life for untold numbers of vegetables to unfold just off the patio.

The fall season finally provided the two of us with enough overlapping time off to do something about my DIY landfill. Our goal: Create a complete and attractive home compost system with minimum financial input. She’s a barista and I work at a non-profit – neither of us are overpaid.

To start, Hannah and I took a trip to BRING Recycling to rummage up some materials to build a tidy backyard compost bin in which to corral the creepy-crawlies and their food. BRING accepts donations of used building materials and organizes them in a huge warehouse full of old doors, pipes, wood scraps, random tiles and bricks, metal filing cabinets and desks, light fixtures, and anything else that may have a second life as an art project or functional element in someone’s house. It’s like Home Depot meets Goodwill. In the wood section, we found a whole pile of cedar panels that were perfect for the sides of our bin. We also found an old window, the front of a wooden cabinet, even hinges and screws. Total cost: $40. Price of a plastic composter for home use: $150. We win.

Step two: Bribing the neighbor with coffee beans to borrow his power drill. Done.

We assemble our materials in the backyard. We’re not expert builders, but all we need is a box without a bottom, so we go for it. The cedar panels form the back and two sides of the box. The third side will be a door to release the finished compost, and for this we use the window. It doesn’t come quite to the top of the box, which is perfect to allow air to flow over the top. We put an extra 4×4 we had laying around on the back of the box before screwing on the lid, to give the top an angle that will help the rain flow off. Oh, the lid is actually that cabinet front we found.

Homemade compost bin.

Step four: The kitchen compost receptacle. We were using a plastic bucket to catch our coffee grounds and onion peels, but that soon began smelling like civet cat vomit. Metal is the ticket when storing compost temporarily, because it doesn’t absorb or hang on to odors. The only problem was, a nice steel bucket with a vented lid and carbon filter will set you back at least 30 bucks.
Strolling the isles at Jerry’s, our local home improvement mega-store, I spotted a metal canister that looked about perfect. Removable lid, handle, large enough to fit a couple days’ worth of coffee grounds and garlic peels, and only $4. An empty paint can. Beautiful. Dirty. Rich. A little acrylic paint to personalize, and we’re set. Best of all, we found a way to keep it off our valuable kitchen counter space.

The final step: The material in our lovely new bin outside is about ¾ of the way composted. At this stage, adding new vegetable scraps to the top doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In most composting systems, you end up with three bins: an “active” one to add to until its full, a “composting” bin that’s full and breaking down, and a “finished” bin that contains fully composted material, which you can take out and use as needed.
Although my partner in composting has proclaimed a willingness to build bins around the entire house to ensure my happiness, I’m not that into the idea. I’d rather use my tiny yard space for actually growing things. Besides, now that fall is here, I don’t anticipate having as much yard waste to deal with (fallen leaves make lovely mulch and don’t need to be composted first).

Enter the worm bin. I’m always telling people who live in apartments to build a worm bin to quickly and non-odiferously turn food scraps into compost. I haven’t actually done this myself, though. (Like I said, putting worms in a paper bag full of food scraps under the sink just doesn’t cut it.) A worm bin is basically split-level condo for worms, which can be created by stacking plastic storage bins and poking holes in the top one for air. Since all worms want to do is eat and poop, it’s perfect for them because the top floor holds food scraps and shredded newspaper, and the bottom floor holds their poop – your compost. I’m thinking this will be a good solution for my household compost. I’ll post the results as they come in, including any funny things Hannah has to say about it. In the meantime, directions are here.

Maybe composting isn’t for everyone. In this culture, there is a certain “ick” factor to overcome. For me, anything that involves recycling and improves our chances of not just surviving but thriving with 7 billion plus on one planet, is good. Now that we’re out of $100 bills to light on fire, it might be time to start cultivating a new kind of wealth. All I know is, when I die, you can just throw me on the compost pile.

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September 6, 2011

The War on Raw: Your nanny state boils the milk, but you don’t have to drink it

It’s banned in Canada and 18 US states, but it’s legal in Europe and always has been. Three in California were recently arrested for selling it. In other states, everyone from local police to the FDA take it upon themselves to eradicate it, even where laws permit its production and sale.

What is this substance, and why is the subject of so much kerfufflery? It’s raw, unpasteurized milk – from cows, goats, sheep, and anything else with four legs and an udder. The source of the controversy can only be seen under a microscope. It’s the wriggling bacteria that colonize everything from skin to the vacuum of space.

Is raw milk really the pathogen-loaded drink of insanity that the mainstream media has made it out to be? Of course not. Is there any reason to prefer it over pasteurized milk? Well, people wouldn’t be going to jail in their determination to consume and sell it if there wasn’t.

We tend to think of pasteurized milk as the norm, but really, it’s only a recent phenomenon. The practice of pasteurization began around the period of industrialization in the US – the late 1900s and early 20th century. Around this time, farmers quit their livelihoods in mass numbers to take jobs in the cities. The reasons for this are complex, but the result was that the farms that remained got bigger. Food preservation – canning, pasteurizing, freeze-drying, etc. – went from a home practice to a factory process. This made food more suitable for long-distance transit and less time consuming for people to prepare, while coincidentally (or not) multiplying the profit margin for the corporations running the whole thing.

Dairy animals also got the shaft in this transition. Because people no longer owned their own cows, goats or sheep, milk had to come from somewhere, and the first mega-dairies were born in the 1920s, with cows the new dairy standard. Sanitation was poor at first, and the USDA was still a small government department. It didn’t have the funding to keep up with inspections or the power to limit dairies to a reasonable size. Also, modern-day methods of testing for pathogens, or bad bacteria, did not exist, so pasteurization was proposed as a way of guaranteeing the safety of the milk supply. Today, despite advances in testing and the potential to track a given jug of milk back to the dairy at which it was produced with barcodes and microchips, not much has changed. We’re still using the outdated technology of heating milk to near-boiling temperatures for 15-20 seconds, just to be on the safe side.

What does pasteurization do, other than kill anything that might be living in the milk? Actually, the bacteria-annihilation thing is part of the problem. In the human gut, there are millions of varieties of bacteria, known as the “gut flora”. Obviously, they’re harmless, or else we’d be sick all the time, and many of them are beneficial. Our bodies have evolved along with them to enhance our ability to digest certain substances and absorb nutrients. Ever bought “probiotic” yogurt? It’s just pasteurized milk that’s had bacteria added back in and left to ferment.

One of these bacteria is Lactobacilli, which eats and digests lactose. Many lactose-intolerant individuals find that they can digest raw milk, but not pasteurized milk, because pasteurization destroys Lactobacilli. Scientists haven’t even begun to identify the trillions of bacteria in our environments and our bodies, so I’m guessing Lactobacilli has a few million relatives present in raw milk. Just because we haven’t studied them doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from them.

In addition to micro-flora, milk carries hundreds nutrients and enzymes. Pasteurization cooks the life from these as well, another side-effect that scientists don’t really know the impacts of. We do know that extreme heat denatures, or modifies beyond recognition, certain molecules that build enzymes, proteins other necessary building blocks present in milk. As a result, David Gumpert, author of Raw Milk Revolution, calls pasteurized milk nutritionally inferior to raw milk.

Look at it this way: many of us were raised on unpasteurized milk. It came from our mothers. Personally, I just don’t like the idea of drinking anything with dead stuff in it.

But is it safe? Yes, we have an obsession with safety these days, so here are the quick and no-so-dirty numbers: Illnesses from raw milk consumption average about 42 per year. In 2010, 9.4 million people reported having consumed raw milk. Around fifty million suffered from a food-borne illness. There are only four pathogens commonly found in raw milk that lead to illness in humans, and all of them can be eliminated with proper handling of the milk. If animals are healthy and clean, the milk is not exposed to outside contaminants, and it is refrigerated right away, chances of it ever making you sick are close to none. (Source: The Weston A. Price Foundation)

Raw-milk enthusiasts, and I guess now I’ve admitted to being one, have other reasons to seek out milk straight from the udder. Usually, farms that produce raw milk are small-scale, close by, and practice good farming methods. Compare that to a mega-dairy with 30,000 cows who never set hoof outside the barn. Most raw milk producers pasture-feed their animals, which has a thousand benefits for that animal’s health, translating to healthier milk for us to drink.

So the cows (or goats, camels, sheep, etc) benefit, the consumer benefits, and farmers benefit also from being able to sell raw milk. Raw milk represents a market niche for small farmers – it’s a product they are uniquely suited to produce, and consumers are willing to pay top dollar for it. Around Eugene, it’s anywhere from $7 to $15 a gallon for goat or cows’ milk (pasteurized cow milk in the store is about $3 a gallon). Some farmers will tell you this price barely matches their cost of production, while others will admit raw milk sales are the literal “cash cow” of their operation, allowing them to take on less profitable ventures, like growing vegetables or saving seed. Many also keep rare heirloom livestock breeds, milking animals like Guernsey cows and Nigerian Dwarf goats that fell out of favor when the demand for machine-ready cows covered the landscape with Jerseys and Holsteins. Either way, no one can argue that farmers are an asset to the community, and any way they can earn money to keep themselves afloat should not be discouraged.

Unfortunately, it is discouraged, and mightily. In Oregon, raw milk sales are legal, but most people who sell it are probably doing so illegally. That’s because they don’t have expensive USDA approval of their facilities. It doesn’t make a difference to customers, who usually pick milk up at the farm itself and can perform visual inspections at will. Recently, though, raw milk has also started appearing on the shelves of our local natural foods stores, presumably produced by slightly larger farms with USDA licenses.

Those store owners may still have to watch their back, however. In California this month, three owners of the natural foods co-op Rawsome Foods were arrested in a SWAT team raid and pressed with criminal charges of conspiracy to sell unpasteurized milk. Law enforcement seized and destroyed $10,000 worth of raw milk. The officers, from the LA County Sheriff’s Office, the FDA, the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control, contended that the owners did not have proper business licenses and the farm producing the milk did not have permits to do so. The owners hold that they weren’t actually selling milk but facilitating a “cow share” agreement, in which individuals share ownership of a cow and pay the farmer to board it, milk it, and deliver the milk. The case is currently in the courts.

Meanwhile, cow share agreements, while causing unknown confusion to the cows, have been a successful tactic for Canadians to circumvent the legal system to obtain raw milk. An Ontario farmer named Michael Schmidt, whose fight to sell raw milk has made him a hero for real-foodies, pioneered the movement. Legally, farmers can produce raw milk for themselves, so cow shares simply create a way for people who live in the city to own a cow and drink its milk. On the surface, it works the same – farmers keep the cows together in the barn, milk them, care for them, and make the milk available to the cows’ real owners. Cow shares have the added benefit of circumventing Canada’s restrictive milk quota system, which gives the government total power over the milk market and prices. British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia are all home to cow shares, and farmers are battling in the courts for the right to sell raw milk in a simpler way, without having to arrange shared ownership. Maybe they should get the animal rights activists involved – this has got to be causing some emotionally taxing identity crises for the poor bovines.

Here in Eugene, I’ve found a slightly easier way to obtain raw milk without denting my pocketbook. Pining for the goats I left behind in Canada, this spring I began work trading at a local goat farm. I bike out into the countryside once a week, spend the morning petting goats, picking up their poop, milking them (after thoroughly washing hands, of course), and cutting grass for them to eat. In return, I go home with two or three gallons of creamy, fresh, delicious and – gasp! – raw goat milk. It’s a fun way to spend my day off and my cheese-making skills have developed to new heights. (I’ve also been enjoying kefir, especially the reaction I get to the phrase “fermented goat milk”.) I found the farm through craigslist, where I find everything else that is wonderful, and would encourage anyone living in vicinity of a farm with extra time on their hands to look for a similar arrangement.

The raw milk movement is at the stage the organic movement was in the US thirty years ago. For those who fear microbes in all forms and prefer a standardized product, pasteurized milk will probably always be there. For the survivalists, though, there’s always a way to get your hands on the world’s most nutritious illegal substance.

The blog The Bovine does an excellent job tracking developments in raw milk and other real-food movements. Go to RealMilk.com for short, succinct articles on why raw milk is better. They also have very useful listings of where to find raw milk in most US states and some other countries.

If you’re a farmer considering or already selling raw milk in various stages of legality, the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers assistance to farmers under legal fire for selling or otherwise distributing raw milk.

June 14, 2011

The Crab Raider

[This is an essay I spent an inordinate amount of time working on for Oregon Quarterly‘s Northwest Perspectives essay contest. It didn’t win me fortune and fame, but it did land among the top ten finalists. That, I think, earns it a place somewhere on the internet. Like here.]



The Crab Raider: How a rookie fisherwoman learned her place on the food chain.

I hear the boat engine slow as we approach the floating buoys, my cue to lean over the rail and point the long, hook-ended stick toward the water. As I prepare to strike, I make a silent request for crab. The last two pots we ran came up empty; nothing but a few abandoned shells stacked like poker chips in the corner. In the 50 or so pots we already pulled today, we’d found at least a half-dozen purple-backed Dungeness each. That can only mean one thing: Something is robbing us of our catch. Each crab lost is money lost, but in a place as vast as the Pacific, there’s little chance of finding the culprit, be it human or animal.
I shake my head vigorously. This is not the time to lose focus; our pot is close. As soon as it drifts in reach, I snag the first buoy with the hook, grabbing the rope attached to it with one hand while the other tosses the buoy stick to Hannah, who’s right at position on the other side of the landing box. I yank the rope into the giant pulley, also known as the block, dangling from the hydraulic arm in front of me. Forty fathoms below us, the crab pot jerks away from the sea floor as the block begins to fly through the rope. Now I wait, one neoprene-sheathed hand gripping the controls, intently watching the diamond spray of water coming off the line. Hannah returns to filling bait jars.
It’s a beautiful, cloudless day. As the block does its work, a gentle swell rocks the boat from side to side. At its worst, Dungeness crab fishing off the Oregon coast in winter is a grueling, monotonous gamble. Often, commercial fishing boats don’t catch enough – or the price of live crab isn’t high enough – to make the whole dangerous endeavor worthwhile. But we go out anyway, perfecting the focused and purposeful dance of tossing crab, coiling rope, swinging pots, and coming home exhausted, seasick, ready to call it quits, mostly for the joy that is in it. Hannah and I, probably the only two women deckhands working the Dungeness crab fishery this season and certainly the youngest, move in synchrony. The one on block leads; the other follows her cues. Captain Dave is our fierce but fearless choreographer, manning the wheel and barking instructions from inside the cabin of his 36-foot boat, the Glass Slipper. We trust him with our lives and he trusts us with his livelihood – both the powerful equipment on board and the high-dollar crustaceans that we pile into the tank, weather permitting.
The rope rising out of the water is red now, signaling that our pot is close. I keep one hand on the controls – now, it’s all about timing. Seconds later, I catch the first glimpse of the pot, ten feet underwater and moving toward us like a soul heaven-bent. It breaches the surface with the sound of a wave crashing on shore, but does not lose speed until I slam the lever closed. The crab pot swings to a stop just above our heads off the side of the boat, 150 pounds of iron and knitted wire gushing sea water.
Now that it’s up there, I can see that this pot is certainly not empty like the last few. In fact, it’s about half full of a slimy, pink and orange substance. It looks like rumpled skin in a transparent bag, only it’s moving. Hannah and I both scream at once.
“OCT-TO-PUSSS!” We’ve caught the pot-raider red-handed, and we have no idea what to do next. An awkward, flabbergasted moment passes before Captain Dave’s voice, calm as ever, crackles over the loudspeaker.
“Land the goddamn pot.” Right. Muscle memory takes over; we grab the pot on either side and haul it toward us as I milk a little slack rope out of the block. It settles down on the landing box with a thump. Fumbling with the latches, we pop open the lid. The octopus is already shrinking down into the wire netting, attempting to send its glistening, suction-cupped body right through the mesh. Hannah is turbulent with excitement, but I can only stare goggle-eyed. Between the seasickness patch transmitting dope-like chemicals into my jugular and the hypnotic trance of our fast-paced work, interruptions normally barely register with either of us. We are running pots, and we are only running pots, and we will do it until we drop from exhaustion or Captain Dave turns the boat toward harbor. But with its bulbous head and graceful tentacles, orange on the back side and a deep, fleshy pink underneath, this animal has seized our attention. In any context it would seem alien, but at this moment, it is simply unfathomable.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dave pulling on his orange rain gear to come out on deck. I emerge from my stupor.
“Grab it!” he hollers. “It’s trying to get away!” I am not sure if I believe him – how could this huge creature just slide out of the bottom of the pot like some sort of sea Houdini? – but I reach down for it anyway, grabbing at the slippery flesh somewhat hopelessly. Hannah, still spewing expletives, runs for a bucket, and all together, we wrestle the octopus out of its never-ending crab buffet. Once it’s in the bucket, Dave explains that an octopus has no skeleton, so it can slip through any opening that will fit its sharp beak. The one-inch gaps in the wire netting pose it no challenge.
As if to prove its escape artistry, one suction-cupped octopus tentacle is already feeling around the rim of the bucket. I am not able to resist any longer. I pull off one glove and crouch on deck. Up close, the octopus’ skin looks a little iridescent, almost coppery. He shrinks back slightly at my touch, then relaxes. His head and the tops of his arms are smooth at first but reveal small bumps, as if he’s caught a chill out here in the open air. I move a finger to one of his many suction cups. It sticks to me slightly. Running the back of my hand along his tentacle is like receiving a dozen small kisses from a sticky-faced child.
“What do we do with him?” I ask after a moment. Throwing him back is obviously out of the question; he’ll only find the next pot in the string and continue his freeloading ways.
“Keep him,” Dave responds. “We’ll sell him to the aquarium. They pay by the pound. Good money.” Hannah and I don’t say anything. We’re accustomed to the eat-or-be-eaten logic of the fishing industry; in this line of work, you learn to look at the process of trapping and hauling in hundreds of creatures as harvest, not murder. One fewer common Pacific octopus won’t make a difference, I tell myself, and Captain Dave would know. He has studied this place, mysterious and foreign to us, for longer than we’ve been alive. He understands that the oceans are bountiful, but not limitless, and that upsetting the balance below the waves would destroy the industry that hundreds of fishermen like himself barely cling to as it is. If he has deemed this octopus to be a menace, who are we to ask questions?
My conscience temporarily at ease, I assist in pouring the octopus into a plastic bag. We insert a deck hose to provide him with fresh water, and secure it with a zip tie. We put the bag back in the bucket and stash it in a corner of the deck, confident that the raider will threaten our pots no more. Without pause, we return to work, hoping to finish this string of pots before the sun goes down. Once again, the sameness of those motions – hook the pot, pull it up, land it, remove the crab, put in new bait, dump it off the side – blends the hours together. At the end of the day, the whole incident has been forgotten. We dock the boat and go home without even peeking in the bucket.

The next morning, I arrive early to the Glass Slipper. Captain Dave, as usual, is already there, tinkering with the engine below the cabin floor. It’s our fourth straight day of crabbing in a streak of good weather, and I’m on autopilot as I ready the boat for another day at sea. It isn’t until Hannah arrives for work that I remember the passenger we’d brought on board the day before.
I abandon the boxes of bait I’d been stacking, find the octopus bucket and peer in. But like our raided pots, it’s empty. The bag hangs like a ghost in the water, the hose flowing uselessly out onto the deck. It doesn’t make sense – Dave hadn’t contacted any octopus buyers by the time we’d pulled into harbor the night before, and I doubted that he’d had a sudden craving for calamari. I shout down to him.
“Hey, where’s our octopus?”
“Gone,” he says without turning around.
“What?” we both yell back.
“He left,” he says, and from the evidence before me, I know he’s right. We’d obviously underestimated our prisoner and overestimated the power of plastic zip ties. I look at Hannah, knowing that she’s feeling the same unspoken surge of satisfaction.
The other fishing boats are pulling out from their moorings; Captain Dave has finished his repairs and is anxious to get out to sea. There’s always more crab to catch. As we chug out into open water, I take my usual seat on the back hatch of the boat, watching the wake spread out behind us like a highway that vanishes into the horizon. It’s my time to summon up the energy for the work ahead, to process the upheaval of my privileged existence that this job has wrought, and to stow away memories that I know will be with me long after my body is unable to haul in pots.
The experience I am attempting to record today is as slippery as its subject matter. I’d surprised myself by taking joy in the octopus’ escape. After all, he had been robbing us of our catch, shamelessly moving down the string of pots that we had worked so hard to set, and had consumed the trapped crabs as if they belonged to him. He’d cost us money, and beat us at our own game of exploiting the food chain. As a final humiliation, he defied our methods of containing him. In this business, it’s bad form to allow the catch to sneak away in the night.
Of course, I’m still glad the octopus escaped, and the insulting way in which he did it only reinforces my flawed logic. With only a slight twinge of guilt, I can take the life and freedom of a faceless crab bent on pinching my finger off, but a clever animal with eight legs, in my mind, cries to be free. As humans, we identify with creatures who we consider to be like us, and there will always be an instinctual cringe at the sight of one of them behind bars – or in the petting zoo section of the aquarium.
If I were captain of this boat, I’m not sure if I would have kept that octopus or let him go. There are surely more ruthless types on other boats who would have simply killed the creature on the spot. Anything that eats crab is the enemy, charismatic or not.
There’s no more time to ponder the matter further. We’re approaching our first string of pots already. As the boat rises up on a large swell, I catch a glimpse of the first few sets of buoys, spaced 500 feet apart with expert precision. Dave’s voice on the loudspeaker warns us to get ready. I take up my position at the block and reach for the buoy stick, sending a silent warning of my own to the crabs waiting down there at the bottom of the ocean. If the octopus hasn’t gotten them yet, we will.

***

Tuula Rebhahn is an Oregon coast native and graduated from the University of Oregon in 2009. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, gardening, finding rocks and daydreaming.

June 4, 2011

The Carrot Connection: Childhood Nutrition and School Gardens

If you’re under 30 and went through the US public school system, you would not be at fault for believing that sex and illegal drugs, out of all earthly hazards, are the most dire threats to public health and safety.

You remember those 12 years of rigorous training and its slogans: “just say no”, “abstinence before marriage”, etc. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid left thinking that teenager- and adulthood was some sort of dangerous maze in which shady characters would be trying to bed me or jab me with needles full of corruption at every turn. I assumed that as long as I avoided these two evils, a long and healthy life was pretty much assured. 

Well, turns out I was wrong, and so was the war on drugs. The number one killer of adults in America is heart disease. Close runners-up are diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. Why is it then that the only place I learned about nutrition in school was from the USDA food pyramid poster slapped up in the corner of the lunch room?

A couple decades later, not much has changed. Even though the USDA invested $2 to change the food pyramid to a plate, its healthier-eating message is hardly making it to the younger generation. If the substance-abuse and  anti-sex programs are still as fear-based as I remember them, kids today are probably  more concerned about STDs and gateway drugs than diabetes and thyroid conditions. Meanwhile, subsidies to agribusiness are higher than ever, and physical education is being cut from school budgets.

Is there hope? Heck yes there is. Even though the Department of Education and the USDA haven’t made it a priority, parents and community leaders are stepping up to change the way kids are fed and taught about nutrition in public schools. Or at least, they are in Eugene. Since last fall, I’ve been volunteering with the School Garden Project of Lane County, which facilitates hands-on education in school gardens. Recently, I attended a discussion on childhood nutrition hosted by two other great organizations, Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth and Eugene Coalition for Better School Food (if there’s anything we do well around here, it’s coalition-forming).

The discussion was held in a small elementary school cafeteria in town. Lured by the promise of refreshments, I arrived early and was not disappointed. Tables overflowing with raw nuts, fresh berries, organic granola, locally produced hummus, bread, salsa and tortilla chips lined one wall. Although it was a warm spring evening, the room slowly filled with people, mostly parents, and the sounds of snacking blended with their chatter, in which intentions were voiced in measured tones. They had notepads on their knees and questions prepared.

A stage was set up near the “Pizza Window” at the front of the cafeteria, and the introducer took the stage at exactly the scheduled time and politely asked the audience to quiet down. They did. Suddenly, it hit me that this was no disorganized hippie rally. These people do not just have a cause, they have a mission. This event was not another outlet for disgruntled souls to complain about corporate power or government malfeasance. It was about gathering the facts.

They’d picked just the man to deliver them, too. The highlighting speaker was Dr. Daniel Marks, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of the Oregon Child Health Research Center at Oregon Health & Sciences University. He’s one of those guys who can take a lot of complicated information and make it easy to understand, without losing sight of the bigger picture.

The big picture, in this case, is literal. Thirty percent of kids today are overweight or obese. There are a number of factors contributing to this problem, starting with genetics, exacerbated by family, and made all the more complex by advertising. For most of our history as a species, 2.5 million years or so, we lived as hunter-gatherers and food was scarce. Our bodies evolved to store the calories from animal fat and sugars, which were eaten rarely, by readily creating its own fat stores to be used up in the lean times. To this day, neurotransmitters reward us with good feelings when we eat anything sweet or fatty. Evolution hasn’t had the opportunity to remove that incentive. Agriculture was only invented 10,000 years ago, and since then, food has become more abundant for most societies. As Dr. Marks put it, our bodies are very good at dealing with food scarcity, but very bad at dealing with its opposite. In a time of plenty, our bodies still won’t allow a single calorie to ever go to waste.

Not only do we have genetics making us fat, there’s the family factor as well. It’s obvious that parents teach their kids how to eat once they’re old enough to learn, but one of the most interesting parts of Dr. Mark’s lecture was about a study done on breastfeeding mothers. Before each feeding, one group of mothers drank a glass of carrot juice. The other group just drank water. Once the babies of the carrot-juice group grew old enough to eat solid food, they preferred the food with carrot puree mixed in. The babies who didn’t receive carrot juice through their mothers’ milk didn’t have a preference for carrots. It’s easy to see the potential for teaching good dietary habits – or bad ones – that mothers posses even before babies are conscious of what food is.

Beyond family, the community in which a child is raised plays a big role. All cultures place special significance on food, but in ours, eating is almost a religion. So is losing weight – but not in the sense of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Most of the time, dieting is framed as a way to look better while enjoying the same eating habits that caused the weight gain.

That brings me to advertising. The companies making processed food know very well that we’re genetically programmed to get off on sugary and fatty foods. They seek to hook kids young and succeed at it. Kids see an average of three ads a day for fast food alone. If they happen to go in a grocery store, they’ll find friendly cartoon characters beckoning from boxes of sugar-loaded cereal. Candy bars are placed conveniently at kid-height. School programs funded by Pizza Hut reward kids for reading with a free 750-calorie “personal” pizza. Product placement in TV and movies makes drinking a Coke as second-nature as smoking a cigarette did in the entertainment of the 50’s.

Again, all of this would be relatively harmless if getting fat wasn’t so easy. According to Dr. Marks, kids consuming just 50 calories a day beyond what they need for normal growth are on the path to being overweight in just a few years. Fifty calories – that’s one Oreo. 100 calories extra calories a day – a DoubleStuf Oreo – will lead to obesity. It’s no wonder 30% of kids today are overweight or obese.

Because school is where kids spend most of their time, people concerned about this epidemic have been putting their energy there to try to turn things around. But despite many years of programs that build gardens in schools, bring kids to farms, and deliver farm produce to schools, school lunch menus haven’t change a whole lot. On the other hand, community awareness of healthy vs unhealthy food, where food comes from, and what it should actually taste like has taken off. Putting pressure on the decision-makers to improve the quality of school food has definitely gone from a fringe cause to an organized movement.

This spring, I’ve been volunteering with School Garden Project of Lane County. Through this program, kids get to spend an hour out of the classroom twice a month, doing hands-on activities in the garden at their school. In this hour, they all become little hunter-gatherers and dirt excavators. Give them the opportunity to use a shovel and sample some lettuce, kale, broccoli, nasturtium flowers or swiss chard out of the garden, and they’re happy as chickens on a compost pile. Their preconceptions of hating vegetables disappear in the excitement of eating something right out of the garden. I’ve watched many a kid stick a broccoli floret in his mouth, even after I’ve warned him that the plant’s a little old and covered with aphids, and make a disgusted face while assuring me that it’s “delicious”.

So why don’t the school cafeterias reflect the fact that kids do like to eat fresh fruits and veggies and are capable of making good choices when it comes to nutrition? Cafeterias today are pretty similar to those I remember as a kid – unfriendly, uncomfortable, and a better space for DARE assemblies than for eating. In Eugene’s 4J school district, they all now have salad bars, but the salad must be purchased as part of a meal and doesn’t contain enough substance to stand alone. Even if they do opt for the salad bar, many kids never get around to eating it all. Lunch periods are short, lunch lines are long, and recess often comes directly afterward. When you’re a kid, all you want to do is get out to that playground, and if lunchtime is cutting into the time you can spend kicking other kids off the top of the jungle gym, you’re not going to bother with more than a few bites.

To encourage kids to eat, maybe school cafeterias could take a few hints from their competitors at the fast food chains. The interior of a fast food joint is always yellow or orange –colors that stimulate hunger. They are well lit, with lots of windows. Ads on every wall persuade customers to consume even more with drool-worthy pictures and targeted messages. The tables and chairs are arranged in such a way to make customers feel more like guests and less like inmates.

 

Of course, there are bigger-picture questions in this debate. In the panel discussion following Dr. Marks’ talk, we heard from the Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for the school district. Actually, as her title was written, the term “Nutrition Services” came with a slash after it, and the word “Sodexco”. When I got home, I looked that word up. Turns out that instead of having its own Nutrition Services department, the school district contracts it out to a food supplier – Sodexo. Here’s a gem from their/the school district’s website: “Most think of them as just kids. We see them as valued customers… That’s the Sodexo difference.” After the panel discussion, parents brought up lots of concerns, but nobody addressed the glaring problem: In every other room of the school, kids are students. In the cafeteria, they’re customers – consumers, in marketing-speak. Should publicly funded schools even be allowed to have such a relationship with a private business? How can local farms ever have a chance at supplying the school district if “nutrition services” employees all work for the current supplier? Does Sodexo offer choices like organic foods? I doubt it.

Then there’s the matter of school budgets. Eugene’s schools, like most others in this country, are probably in their biggest budget crisis ever. The amount they have budgeted for each kid’s lunch is around $1. Because quality food is not the highest priority in the budget, this amount will probably go down soon. Maybe the bigger issue that needs to be addressed here is that of school funding.

In response to public meetings like the one I attended, school lunches are evolving, slowly. The Sodexo representative present at the panel discussion said she was phasing out chocolate milk (twice the calories as regular milk) and “Cookie Fridays”. Still, she was on a stage next to the Pizza Window, and claimed that menu items like these are necessary to get kids to eat in the first place.

More activity is taking place on the parents’ side: More and more are sending their kids to school with sack lunches. They’re not just forming coalitions, they’re volunteering their time to School Garden Project and Farm to School programs and taking nutrition education into their own hands. Thanks to this effort, kids are finally learning what real food is and why they should seek it out. I had a reminder of that today at an elementary school, when one of the girls in the garden session turned to me and asked, “Why do you wear glasses?” I told her it was so I could see. She frowned at me. “You need to eat more carrots.”

I’ll bring up it up with my mother.

March 12, 2011

Food (to the) Rescue

These days, everyone talks a lot about food production. Where was it grown? Is it free-range? Organic? Fair trade? How fresh is it? Who owns the genetic material? (Pause for satire.)

In the life span of food, like that of humans, everybody seems to coo and fret over the birthing process, but nobody pays much attention to what happens at the end. No, I’m not talking about poop, although poop is important. I’m talking about the food that doesn’t end up in someone’s stomach. According to the blog Wasted Food, 40% of food produced in America ends up in the landfill. Holy tamales. If you’ve ever visited your local dump, just seeing the endless piles of trash is enough to make you swear to never buy anything again. When you consider how much of that junk was once something edible, and how many people on earth are hungry and undernourished, (around 1 billion, according to the UN), it’s truly depressing.

Ahhh, gloom and doom. Got your attention now, don’t I? Actually, what I’m here to write about today wasn’t how sad it is that we throw so much out, but about the exciting phenomenon of food rescue. Recent experiences have shown me that there are superheroes living amongst us, posing as food bank operators, swooping in and snatching perfectly good food from the brink of the trash bin.

Food For Lane County, the major food bank for the Eugene area, is a hotspot of food rescue activity. Like most food banks, Food for Lane County collects provisions from a variety of sources – canned food drives, government commodities, and local growers, processors and retailers. It all comes first to its central warehouse in west Eugene, a place I’ve recently become very familiar with. Since enjoying a stretch of unemployment that allowed me to keep my need for food assistance below the radar via EBT, I found a job cooking for institutionalized teenagers. They eat a lot, and my employer is a non-profit, so I visit Food For Lane County on a weekly basis, collecting donated and rescued food on the behalf of my captive diners (and breakfast-ers, and lunch-ers, and snack-ers…). I say captive because they don’t have much of a choice but to eat whatever I cook for them, which makes it easy to incorporate the FFLC provisions into the menu.

Like thrift shopping or dumpster diving, “shopping” at the FFLC warehouse requires a finely tuned strategy. First, I arrive early, before they open the doors at 8:30. Trucks are coming in with deliveries all day, but the selection is best first thing in the morning. To picture the scene, imagine coupon day at your local grocery store, except that instead of housewives and pensioners, the people waiting in line to elbow their way to the bargains manage food banks all over the county, or run shelters and assistance centers for our many hungry residents. In other words, they’re on a mission. At precisely 8:30, we file in and scramble for the limited number of shopping carts. The best scores are on meat and produce, the most expensive items on my budget, so I start in the walk-in cooler, pulling my hat down around my ears. Three or four people are already in there, loading up their carts and occasionally notifying each other when they come across the good stuff. I join the friendly competition, starting with the dairy section. The first thing I find is a crate full of whipping cream from a local dairy that expires tomorrow. I throw a few into my cart. My mind wanders momentarily to fruit salad with whipped cream and delicious soup, but then I hear talk of deli meat on the other side of the cooler and scurry over. Packages of roasted turkey slices from Market of Choice, a gourmet grocery chain, join the whipping cream. Then I hit the stacks of organic yogurt, a common item here, and random packaged cheese. After taking everything I can use from the deli side of the cooler (and there’s still a lot left over), I move to the produce side. Here I find cabbage, carrots and root vegetables from the FFLC gardens. Assorted boxes from grocery stores carry grapes, avocados, mangos, lettuce and tomatoes. Because the cases of apples, oranges and bananas are stacked higher than me, I take as much as I think the kids will eat. Some of these specimens are too far gone to consume, but some are just perfectly ripe. I once scored a half-dozen containers of strawberries, each containing one moldy berry for ten good ones.

The incredible part of all of this is that, thanks to a new grant to Food For Lane County, it’s all free (it used to cost organizations like ours 14 cents a pound, which is still pretty amazing). The part that I like best, though, is that it’s also all part of that 40% of food that otherwise would be chucked in the trash heap.

Let’s look a little closer at that number. Unless you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or stocked the shelves at a grocery store, it might be a little hard to believe. If you have first-hand experience with the food industry, 40% might even seem low. Even when customers take home what they don’t finish, restaurant kitchens throw out a lot of what they cook, because they always have to make a little extra to avoid running out. Federal food-safety laws dictate how often food can be kept at certain temperatures, how many times it can be reheated, and how long prepared food can be stored before it has to be discarded (usually no longer than a week). When pre-packaged products hit their expiration dates in restaurants or in stores, they also get thrown out. Cafeterias and buffets are notorious for wasting more food than they serve. Kids are the worst food wasters (think about all those elementary school food fights), and they are the ones most often served in cafeterias. Excess food – and therefore wasted food – is also built right into our cultural sense of security. It’s not good enough, in this age of prosperity, to simply have enough. If we don’t have more than enough, we feel somehow cheated or even deprived. We all feel a right to not only eat good food, but to have as much of it as we can pay for.

But enough sociology. One of the coolest things about Food For Lane County is their Food Rescue Express program (sporting the best acronym in the food assistance world – FREX). FREX actually drives to various institutions – hospitals, the university, delis – in the city to pick up food that has been prepared but not served. It all makes its way to the warehouse, where I’ve found tubs of salad dressing, gallons of soup, baggies of peeled and halved bananas, even pre-assembled hot dogs fresh off the FREX trucks (see how they did that?). FREX is a unique model; the FFLC person I talked to said theirs is the only program like it she knows of. Since it’s excess food that they’re rescuing, it isn’t even close to being old or expired (it’s FREX! Ok, I’ll stop.)

FREX gleans a small part of the food that goes into FFLC’s warehouse. The rest comes from USDA commodities and donations from local growers and processors. Actually, three-quarters of he food donated to FFLC is locally grown or processed. That means the 63,000 county residents who received emergency food from FFLC last year ate more local food than the average American. And since this is Oregon, many of those local processors and growers are also organic. On my food budget, I can’t always afford to buy Nancy’s yogurt, Toby’s Tofu Pate, Fern Ridge Dairy goat cheese, and bread from Metropol Bakery, but the “underprivileged” kids I serve in my job eat this stuff on a regular basis. The donated products were either packaged wrong or just a little too close to the “sell-by” date (which seems more and more arbitrary to me all the time).

In a way, the work that FFLC does creates a silver lining to the modern world’s inequitable, appearance-obsessed, wasteful food system. If the average shopper wasn’t afraid of buying bruised apples or expired milk at the grocery store, there wouldn’t be much excess to flow over to food banks and those in need of food assistance. The annoying food-contaminant-paranoid FDA rules that make it difficult for small, local food processors to operate also forces a lot of food to be abandoned before it can even be served. The hungry aren’t so picky.

Rescued food not only keeps our landfills slightly more manageable, it also brings an element of variety and dignity to standard emergency food box or soup-kitchen fare. Most US food banks get by on government cheese, dented cans of peaches and stale bread. If you’re Lane County’s one in three who are eligible for food assistance, you may get to try an avocado for the first time, or even be faced with the enviable problem of using up a pound of locally made chevre.

Maybe “rescued” can be the new food label, like “local”, “natural”, and “organic” that everyone swoons for. After all, the food is here anyway, and if it’s going to the landfill, does it really matter if first came from Chile or New Zealand? Shouldn’t we try to eat that food first, before we worry about producing even more to feed our growing population? Better yet, maybe we can stop the problem at its source by avoiding places that tempt us to buy too much – like Costco and Trader Joe’s (I’m talking specifically about produce. Go ahead and buy container-loads of non-perishables if that’s what you like.) I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to facing the science projects in the back of the refrigerator, but ever since my roommates discovered a free leftover pickup service, our fridge has stayed nice and clean. It works like this: Pretend you’re getting rid of some old junk by placing it in a free box on the curb. Instead of ugly clothes or the Twilight series, just stick your (labeled and meat-free) leftovers out there. Because we live close to a park that homeless people frequent, the food is usually gone within hours. This isn’t a strategy that everyone will feel comfortable with, but all I’m saying is to be creative.


Organizations like Food For Lane County are putting a big dent in that 40% of wasted food, but they can’t rescue all the food. To be sure, some waste is inevitable, but hey – compost happens. The next time you’re out shopping, though, just try to think a little bit less about where your food came from, and pay attention to where it might be going, too. When the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is applied to the food system, we all eat a little bit better.

December 29, 2010

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

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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.

January 5, 2010

>Farming Apprenticeships (part two): The Verdict

>Note: This post is a continuation of last month’s, in which I gave an overview of farming apprenticeship programs and something of an explanation for their sudden popularity. This segment attempts to summarize my own experience as an apprentice for those considering doing it, parents of young people threatening to do it, and those otherwise interested.

… Do I now aspire to possess my own ten acres, a cow and a pile of debt? Will the dirt ever come out from under my fingernails?

I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to develop an objective analysis of the apprenticeship program that defined my life for six months. It would be like sending your parents a report card for their performance during your childhood. Looking back over the journals I kept while working with the Collins, I see rants, reflections, stories about the people I met and many, many attempts to describe the beauty and wonder of the place I found myself living. My formal goal in undertaking the apprenticeship was to learn about what it takes to sustain a small farm; the day-to-day tasks as well as the personal commitment involved. Informally, I was really trying to see if I was up for it, if all my romantic ideas around farming held up to the reality of the job itself.

I worked hard to keep maintain my lofty ideas about farming over the months I spent living and working with the Collins. As they will be the first to admit, Bob and Ann are a bit worn out by the whole job. Granted, things are better than when they were dairy farmers, waking up at 4 AM to milk cows that eventually started costing them more per year than they earned. Still, most visitors to the farm become overwhelmed simply by being told what goes on here. It’s a lot of work, and by the end of the apprenticeship, I understood why most long-time farmers don’t share the bright-eyed enthusiasm of young wannabes. It’s hard, often thankless work. But I also learned why they’re still there, doing it. The energetic, gung-ho attitude may not be immediately visible, but their passion for the lifestyle they chose is still there lying just beneath the surface. Just as some city kids wouldn’t touch a manure shovel with a ten-foot pole, Bob and Ann would last about three minutes in an office. The animals under their care, the river that skirts their property, the 69 acres that they call home are as much a part of them as their hair or skin.

After a few weeks at Collins Farm, I started to feel this way a bit, too – attached to the place in a way that made me wonder, when it came down to it, whether I would actually be able to leave. Maybe it’s the seductive beauty of Vancouver Island or the fact that every day was a chance to play outside. Sure, there were some long hours spent bent over pulling weeds and picking vegetables, but since most of those activities were new to me, they took a while to get dull and repetitive. In between, I gorged myself on blackberries and strawberries, climbed trees to pick apples, wandered the woods aimlessly to find mushrooms (or to walk the goats), and shoveled around piles of dirt and manure under the guise of creating compost. Honestly, sometimes I couldn’t believe I was being paid, however meagerly, for that level of enjoyment.

Second to finding out that work didn’t have to be a miserable activity, the most valuable aspect of being a farm apprentice turned out to be the mentoring relationships that I was able to develop with Bob, Ann and people like Andrea, Connie and Crystal who were a near-daily presence during the summer months. Without a lesson plan, a schedule or any sort of formal discussion, they managed to impart a ton of valuable information on how to grow food and turn it into a semblance of a livelihood: the economics of homemade pie and hungry tourists, the “joys of backyard cheese making,” how to pick a perfectly ripe strawberry and catch a pig on the run.

Farming apprenticeships are criticized for being a product of privilege; an option only available to those who can afford to work for little or no pay for an entire summer. One commenter on the New York Times article mentioned in the previous post calls such positions “a time-honored tradition for children of the wealthy” to fill the summer months. It’s an interesting point. Although my mom quit supporting me as soon as I graduated, the fact that I had no student loans to pay off allowed me complete freedom in choosing the route I would take next. I assessed my personal and financial needs, looked at the state of the world and, deciding it needs more farmers, jumped into the apprenticeship program with both feet. Did I feel privileged? Absolutely. I lived in a place that people from all over the world pay through the nose to visit, ate almost exclusively organic, home-cooked, local food, and learned how to feed myself and come a few steps closer to self-sufficiency. Those non-monetary forms of payment added up to be more than any “real” job could have provided me with, especially just coming out of college in a major recession. Meanwhile, many of my fellow graduates languished in their parents’ basements, looking for nonexistent jobs and wondering if they should go back for a Master’s in business administration. I came away with skills that I’m finding a new job market for – in managing community gardens and CSA programs, helping restaurants and stores source food locally, or assisting small farms in going organic.

My last few days at the Collins’ place were difficult. It didn’t seem fair that I was leaving; the Christmas season was just upon us and there was so much to do. I went through the motions anyway, and Ann and Bob made sure I got to do everything one last time – go for a ride on Jesse the big Belgian mare, eat all my favorite foods, see all of our friends from around the community at a fantastic Thanksgiving Day potluck. The day before I left turned out to be the first sunny day we’d had in weeks (after record rainfall all November), and Mount Arrowsmith, the towering face of granite that greeted me nearly every morning for two seasons, appeared dusted with snow just as it’d been when I first arrived in June.

Before I left, Ann and Bob gave me a painting of that mountain, gorgeously rendered in watercolor by an artist friend of theirs. I put it carefully in the back window of my fully stuffed car. Then I got in the car with it and drove down the driveway, watching the two of them growing smaller in my rearview mirror. They were the ones I hated to leave the most. They weren’t simply friends to me or even surrogate parents. Our relationship was more similar to that of close accomplices. Although the Collins are the ones responsible for creating what is now a diverse farm that feeds the close-knit community around it, I felt like that season – the second one that they had grown for the local market – had been a milestone. The worldwide craze around eating locally and knowing where food comes from had started to hit our little valley, and real progress began to be made toward making the entire island more self-sufficient. I’d come to experience some of the joy of working on the land and with people who understood the value of that, for the guiltlessness of laboring for ideas that I believe in completely. At Collins Farm I think I glimpsed an outcome that was greater than the whole, something right in a world that usually seems wrong. 

As far as my own desire to become a farmer, well, as much as I hate making long-term plans about my future, it’s definitely tempting. But first, I need a few more seasons’ experience under my belt and a small mountain of cash – it’s as difficult to get into farming as it is to get out, it seems. Now that winter’s set in, I’m simply biding my time (and honing my couch surfing skills) until I can once again turn my efforts toward the worthwhile goal of feeding people.

That dirt under my nails? Long gone. My itch to put it back there? Stronger than ever.

December 21, 2009

>Farming Apprenticeships: Pitchfork Pastoralism

>Imagine an afternoon in mid-June sprinkled with late-arriving spring rains. Graduation rituals are being held all over the country, including here, at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The Environmental Studies program ceremony is held outside, and everyone’s too jubilant and excited to mind a few light showers. As the proceedings wind to a close and the distribution of diplomas is about to begin, the program head announces that graduates will be asked to state their post-graduation plans into the microphone as they cross the stage. In unison, the few dozen black-robed young adults in the audience gulp.

I quickly maneuver my way to the back of the line to give myself time to think. My immediate plans after graduation are to embark on a six-month apprenticeship on an organic farm. This is surely not what the esteemed administrators of my program want to hear about. I can almost hear my parents’ doubts about my unconventional career launch ringing in my ears. Why couldn’t I have a promising job as a wind power engineer or parks manager lined up? For the first time, I question my decision to postpone my entrance into the “real world” by following my passion for food and gardening to one of the lowest-paying professions in the world.

Luckily, unbeknownst to me, many of my colleagues had the same idea about their futures. After four or five graduates made their announcements (“Get a job”; “Live I my parents’ basement”; “Save the world”), somebody said something about going to work on a farm. He said it quietly, into his collar, but I heard it. A few others also made this admission. As I looked out into the audience, nobody was gasping with horror, fainting or weeping – just the typical “I’m so proud” sniffles.
By the time my turn finally came around, I hiked the stairs confidently, accepted the coveted slip of paper, and faced the audience. “Work on an organic farm,” I said, “Write. Save the world.” I could hear my father wincing, but I didn’t care. Suddenly, I was part of a movement.
The University of Oregon, apparently, is not the only postsecondary institution pumping out graduates who refuse to let a little higher education get in between themselves at a fulfilling back-to-the-land lifestyle. According to the New York Times, more and more students are spending their summers on farms, with  the goal of either being farmers or otherwise participating in organic food production. Those without immediate connections to the farming community – like me six months ago – can find positions relatively easily using online databases. One site has over 1500 entry-level, mostly unpaid farm work positions listed, and claimed to have nearly as many applicants in 2009 (for a complete list of farm internship databases, see the end of this post). If trends continue, the number of people wanting to learn about organic practices at the ground level will soon outpace the number of farms who are able to accommodate them.

The New York Times’ reporter on this story is downright cynical about the whole phenomena. “During a recession,” she says, “a summer on the farm provides respite from grim job hunts and as much bohemian cachet as backpacking through Europe.” Sure, organic food is extremely trendy, and in this job market, most are lucky to find any work at all. Still, I think the fact that all of these educated, idealistic people are choosing to throw their energy and bright-eyed enthusiasm into farming – instead of, say, construction work – speaks less of our need for hipster credibility and more toward a fundamental change that is taking place in our society.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of these newly converted farmers have any idea what they’re getting into. Many seem to hold farming in some golden light, summoning up clichés of the value of working with your hands and getting in touch with nature. This attitude has deep cultural roots. Ever since the invention of agriculture – and its evil stepchild, civilization – agrarian lifestyles have been painted as the antidote to the moral corruption brought about by technology and urbanization. In endless lyrical passages about the beautifully simplistic lives of rural shepherds, the ancient Greek poet Virgil fantasized about life in the countryside. His characters spent a lot of time singing praises to nature and gathering wildflowers in May.

Of course, if Virgil had taken the time for a saunter into the countryside, he would have found an abundance of sheep but a severe shortage of the innocence and merriment he portrayed in his writing. Like modern people in urban and rural contexts, those blessed folk would have likely been struggling for survival on too little land under the burden of too many taxes, all the while quarreling with their spouses, neglecting their sheep and bumming food off their neighbors. They were human, after all, just as sheep herders are today, no less or more morally pure than those who make a career out of car repair or accounting.

Still, the idea that the pastoral lifestyle elevates standards for human interactions has stuck now for millennia, with hundreds more poets and artists adding to the grand illusion. Modern-day writers make the whole situation worse by proposing a “return” to our agrarian roots as an antidote to the confusion and complication of modern society. If only we could all live off the land, in harmony with mother nature, all our problems would be solved – or so the rhetoric goes. Enter the wave of agricultural internships, apprenticeships and volunteer programs.

The basic idea is this: Farm volunteers can work just a couple of days or up to a full season. An internship implies at least part of a season’s commitment, while apprenticeships can last even longer. Room (ranging from a tent pitched in the fields to private cabins) and board (meals with the family or free access to farm produce) is almost always provided. Apprentices sometimes receive pay – one article I read described a farm that provided “a salary of a $1000/month, room, board, a $50/month bonus for working until the end of the season, $30 extra for every farmers market they attend, and a performance bonus of up to $2000”. That right there is enough to activate the salivary glands of any liberal-arts graduate who has spent weeks unsuccessfully trolling Craigslist for work. (The farm ended the program after being sued for back wages – the hazy legislation around agricultural apprenticeships is one of the challenges its participants must deal with.) What kind of work is involved? Well, some farmers consider inexperienced but enthusiastic volunteers to be an easily exploitable source of free labor. Others expect a little self-direction and leave the worker to find his or her own work around the farm. Some apprenticeships, like mine, can include tasks like food preservation or even community outreach to build support for local foods. Although the words can often mean different things, for convenience’s sake, I’ll refer to volunteer, internship and apprenticeship program as “apprenticeships” here.

Other than a lack of standardization (and, let’s face it, standardizing things usually ends up making them boring and predictable) and sometimes bloated expectations on behalf of the apprentices, I believe apprenticeships are one of the most effective tools we have in revitalizing farming, its role in the economy, and people’s approach to food. The current generation of farmers is aging – in twenty years or so, they won’t be able to produce food for us anymore. Meanwhile, we import most of what we consume anyway, and our agricultural land is being gobbled up by subdivisions and freeways. But the realities of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse are making it abundantly clear that this is not the direction we want to be heading. We can’t all be farmers, but we can certainly do a better job of feeding ourselves, stop flooding the global market with agricultural surpluses, and clean up the planet a bit by transitioning to organic practices. A key step in this transition is training the new farmers. While traditional agricultural colleges are stuck in the old paradigm of industrial methods and bigger is better, organic farmers know better. When they open their farms up to apprenticeships, they have the opportunity to share their knowledge with clueless city kids in an environment that is unmatched in the world of public education. With the low student-to-instructor ratio (usually one or two apprentices per family farm), absence of tests, and abundance of real-world experience, learning in an apprenticeship is not simply an end result but a process that allows for personal as well as “professional” growth.
Granted, apprenticeships won’t work for every farmer or idealistic, world-saving graduate. As for my own experience in the trenches of hands-on agricultural learning, well, it was enlightening. Do I now aspire to possess my own ten acres, a cow and a pile of debt? Will the dirt ever come out from under my fingernails?
Stay tuned for next time.
In the meantime, you know you want to abandon whatever it is you’re doing to grow some vegetables, so check out the following sites:

Field Guide for Beginning Farmers  – This is a great place to start; it gives an overview of farming apprenticeships available in North America and what to expect.

Oh, and I now have a semi-professional blogging gig with Conducive Magazine. Read my posts here (and if you ever come across an ad on the site, by all means, click the heck out of that thing).

November 9, 2009

>The Sun Always Shines in Farmville: A critical analysis of FB’s most popular game

>I realize I’ve been a bit negligent in updating my blog lately. Over the past few days, my time off has been absorbed by two practically useless but hopelessly addictive activities: TvDuck.com and Farmville.
The first allows me to catch up with favorite shows that I had previously believed were only available “south of the border” in the good ol’ USA. Where else can you experience the petty depravity of Desperate Housewives and the brilliant awkwardness of The Office, all conveniently on your laptop screen? When I arrived in the great frozen north, I was saddened and disillusioned to find a message on both ABC and NBC’s websites informing me that these cultural gems were “not yet available” for viewing in Canada. Looking back, I should have known there was a way around this, but I embraced the opportunity to wean myself of TV without questioning it too much. I have sort of a love-hate relationship with the boob tube since it entered my life about five years ago (we never watched it when I was growing up). It always ends up leaving my brain feeling like jello, but at the same time, I feel like it’s very important to learn about the delicacy of extramarital affairs and just how insane life in the corporate world can be. So when TvDuck, which allows you to watch pretty much any TV show you want up here in the great frozen north, arrived on the scene, I waved goodbye to my grand schemes to learn German and read a dozen books now that the busy summer is over. Soon, any sense of cognitive strength I thought I’d gained since exiting the formalized educational system has completely dissolved. Woe is me.
That’s not what I’m here to discuss, however. While I’m waiting for my shows to buffer, I’ve been toying around with the Facebook sensation Farmville. As with most trend-driven activities that give participants a sense of social accomplishment among their peers, I’m sadly behind on this one. I try to be sort of a curmudgeon about technology and time-wasting activities (I may waste entire evenings watching TV online, but I am appropriately resentful while I’m doing it), and on the rare occasion I do attend that must-see film or buy a hot new album, I do it weeks if not months behind the pop culture schedule. Farmville only was released in June, but in just a few weeks it had become the most popular game ever to hit Facebook. and as of the end of October had 63 million users. As one news article put it, that means in the US, Farmville users outnumber real farmers 60 to 1.
Farmville annoyed me even before I knew these disheartening statistics, so I think it came as a bit of a surprise a few days ago when I appeared on my friends’ Facebook news feeds as the latest convert. Sure, my disdain still creeps under the surface, but so far, Farmville just fascinates me. For the Facebook-less (faceless?), I’ll just say that Farmville is an “application” that you add to your profile that allows you to play a game with friends that simulates the business of farming. You start off with a couple of “fields” and a limited selection of seeds. Your friends on Facebook that also play the game are your “neighbors”, and they help out by giving gifts of livestock, fruit trees and infrastructure. You can “visit” your neighbors’ farms and help out by dumping bags of fertilizer on their partially grown crops. There always seems to be things to do on the farm – one aspect in which this game actually mimics reality quite well. The crops take anywhere between four hours to a few days to ripen, and must be harvested before they wither. You harvest by clicking on the “harvesting tool” and then clicking on the finished crop. Follow a similar procedure to plow and replant the field. When you harvest, you earn “coins”, which you can then use to expand your farm and buy more stuff for it.
The first time I logged on to Farmville, I was greeted by hokey ragtime music that was probably intended to make me feel more agrarian. I chose an avatar, which defaulted to something looking like a wide-eyed blonde five-year-old in purple overalls. Everything in the game appears in this cartoonish, colorful style, a bit curious for a site mostly used by teens and adults. After I planted some strawberries and eggplants, I visited a neighbor’s farm. I did this by clicking on her avatar, which looked cooler with a purple Mohawk. When her farm loaded on my screen, though, I noticed that the farmer was nowhere to be found. Odd. On a virtual farm with no visible escape routes (not even a road or driveway), where does an avatar hide?
Despite the absence of the farmer, the farm looked quite spiffy. In fact, it made my strawberries and eggplants look like a weed patch. Fruit trees of every kind (banana growing with cherry), a bicycle, daffodils, a well, and something called a “horse topiary”. Herds of cattle and sheep stood around staring blankly into space and blinking occasionally (with an effect that was overall a little creepy, actually). My friend had clearly been at this a while. I briefly wondered if my little farm would ever attain this level of opulence.
The next morning, I checked my email to find a note from my sister, who I’d also added as a Farmville neighbor. Like the rest of the tech-enabled world, she’s already been playing this for a while. “Quick, go harvest your strawberries!” the email read. There was a sight note of panic to it. I clicked over to my virtual farm, where there were now withered stalks where my young strawberry plants had been the day before. I looked back at the email – it was sent before I’d even gotten out of bed. Apparently, the berries ripen in four hours, and the game expects you to sit in front of your computer watching this take place lest you miss the event. After all, avatars don’t take part in unnecessary outside activities like sleeping or going to work, so why should you?
Later, I called my sister up, and she explained to me the central rule of the game: “The sun always shines in Farmville.” I thought she was relaying a nugget of wisdom through some sort of cryptic metaphor, but then I realized it was actually quite straightforward. In a virtual world, there’s no reason for cloudy days or even night time. And without the physical restrictions of the berry ripening process, there’s no reason strawberries shouldn’t be ready in four hours. Or four seconds, for that matter.
I wonder if some Monsanto engineer didn’t create this game as an extension of some sort of genetically engineered, chemically controlled agricultural fantasy. After all, it’s the perfect, predictable environment for growing crops – the type of environment agricultural scientists are working hard to perfect. With hydroponics, you can deliver exactly what plants need to the root system without the inconvenient medium of soil. Animals bred to a robot-like level of complacency and stupidity perform the duties of looking cute and growing meat without the worry of pasture and fences. Of course, rather than standing and blinking on a flat green surface, those real-life animals are kept in decidedly un-pastoral pens and cages in enormous barns. But that would be the dark side of Farmville that we don’t see.
But maybe I’m looking too far into this. After all, the game clearly wasn’t structured to stand up to critical analysis; in fact, its profit motives are rather thinly concealed. This evening, as I explored the game a bit farther, I clicked on the “market”, where you buy the seeds, animals and infrastructure you want. Under the “homes” tab, I found manors, villas and a variety of other domiciles for my avatar to occupy. I clicked on the “homestead,” the most basic option, but was informed I didn’t have enough coins to buy the place. But I didn’t have to worry! I was redirected to a page where, using my Visa or Paypal account, I could simply buy more coins. Suddenly, I was the federal reserve of my own farm nation, churning out my own money as I needed it. If I didn’t want to fork over my hard-earned dollars, I could also participate in a carefully selected variety of online scams that only required my personal information to load me up on enough farm coin to purchase the homestead of my avatar’s dreams. This particular feature has generated some ire on the interwebs – apparently quite a few people have fallen for the scams and aren’t happy about it.
So Farmville’s not the perfect model for real-time agriculture, and I don’t think anything but a physical piece of land ever will be. I’m curious what this newest gaming trend – which is unique in its lack of guns, fast cars, or any of the usual computer game fare – indicates about our evolving culture. Is the appeal here, as one Zynga (the software company that developed Farmville) VP told BusinessWire, in “people’s instinct to nurture”? Are we collectively so desperate to go back to our agricultural roots that we must turn to virtual reality to fill that need? Or is Farmville just another iteration of the standard monopoly-style game, where the player must make smart economic decisions to win? If so, I wonder how good this is for the situation of real farmers – if farming’s just a matter of harvesting your strawberries on time and picking the best place for your horse topiary, why can’t these hayseeds pull it together and make some money at it?
Farmville will probably go the way of Donkey Kong, Neopets and Lemonade Stand, but it is an interesting stop on the internet train and a fun diversion for my down time between cooking giant batches of tomato sauce and shoveling goat manure. In case some Farmville game creator happens to be reading this, though, I’ll offer a few suggestions to make it more realistic. Make a mortgage payment due daily, and if the player doesn’t fork it over, take a square of ripening eggplants and magically place a condo on it (you were forced to subdivide and sell). Send a crop blight through every so often just to liven things up a bit, or announce at random intervals that the twenty squares of soybeans you planted are now worth a third of what they were yesterday. Allow the cute, blinking animals to reproduce so that there can be even cuter baby animals running around. And when an avatar goes to visit a “neighbor’s” farm, make that other player’s avatar be there to offer a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. It’s things like that, after all, that make this whole farming game worthwhile.

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.