Monday, April 21, 2014

GMO Labeling Update

Just last week on Civil Eats I posted this article about the latest industry attempt to keep us in the dark about whether or not we're eating genetically modified organisms (better known as GMOs). Since this posting Vermont has passed their GMO labeling bill and over 30 states have legislation in the works including California.

As a person who prioritizes organic foods whenever I eat and shop, I'm dismayed to know that GMOs are still finding their way into my home and body via prepared foods and especially gluten-free choices. Are they in yours? Probably: The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, Big Ag's latest group created to squash GMO labeling efforts (among other things), says that GMOs are in 80% of the foods found in our stores. Only 7% of the population in this country doesn't care about whether or not they are labelled. It's time that our voices - the voices of the 93% - are heard.

Please join me in telling the FDA that you agree that we have the right to know what's in our food by signing two online petitions both here and here. Thank you for taking action!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Rural Chicks Mob the CA Small Farm Conference

Marissa Thornton of Thornton Dairy. Photo John Burgess.
If you're in Northern California, join me and the Rural Chicks on Tuesday, March 11th at the California Small Farm Conference in Rohnert Park, CA from 9:15 AM - 10:30 PM.

I can't wait to hear what these rowdy, talented, whip-smart ladies share. Farmer-panelists include Andrea Davis-Cetina of Quarter Acre Farm, Samantha Gilweit a former pig farmer, Lynda Hopkins of Foggy River Farm and Marissa Thornton of Thornton Dairy, with yours truly as moderator. I'll have some copies of "Farmer Jane" on hand for anyone interested.

About the Rural Chicks
The Rural Chicks is a 75-member group of farming women in Northern California that get together monthly for local dinners and dishing about the field of food and farming.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shifting Gears

 We believe we have a lot to learn from women food producers about how to foster true resilience, how to live on a finite planet, how to consume less and share more, how to foster compassion and courage, and finally, how to wake up and engage with present daunting realities. 

What do women farmers, sustainable food, the next generation and bikes have in common? A project called Shifting Gears.

Led by Caitrin Hall and Lake Buckley, Shifting Gears is an inspiring feat that took the motivations of “Farmer Jane” – exploring and celebrating women’s contributions to sustainable agriculture - on the road. It bodes well for the next generation of women changemakers that these two twenty-somethings designed a project that would bring them closer to women in their fields while utilizing the most benign form of transportation, the bicycle.

Caitrin Hall
From New York to California, nearly 4,000 miles, Caitrin and Lake visited urban and rural women-led farming operations alike. Call it an extensive informational interview of sorts, they rode to achieve “layers of dialogue, the documentation of alternative food systems, the female perspective, and bicycle transportation as inter-related mechanisms for change towards a more just and compassionate food system.” I call it - pure inspiration.

While the interrelationship between agriculture and bicycling may seem obscure, sustainable food advocates realize that the reduction of the externalities caused by the distribution of our food presents one of the biggest challenges in making our food system truly sustainable. Namely, that to achieve our desired carbon-neutral, environment-enhancing food system, we inherently need to tackle not only off-farm inputs and biodiversity, but also the mode in which we get food on peoples' tables. Despite this desire bicycles still play a minor role in farm delivery systems despite the creation of farms such as the women-led Ten Speed Greens in Florida. Caitrin and Lake didn't cover any such farms but they did successfully bring distribution into the project's dialogue by simply riding to each destination. 


Lake Buckley
Along their trip Lake and Caitrin got some serious road miles on their legs and their visits opened their eyes to the realities of farming as a woman in the U.S.; they discovered how women are successful and learned about the disparities that women still face; and ultimately, they found hope in meeting some of the members of the fastest growing demographic to own and operate farms in the U.S. 

Inspired all to heck by the Shifting Gears trip, I caught up with these young, enthusiastic cyclists on the last leg of their journey close to my home in California to glean what they learned. Here's what they had to say:
FJ: What did you learn about women farmers that surprised you most? 
Lake: The amount of discrimination out there surprised me. We knew about the lawsuits [against the USDA] and that discrimination was present, but we hadn’t experienced the telling first hand. That was really eye-opening.

Caitrin: For example, one farmer in Fairfield Idaho can’t get her compost delivered to her farm unless it’s ordered on behalf of her husband. They refused delivery to a woman. And since she doesn’t have a confrontational personality, she continues calling in the orders on behalf of her husband even though she’s the farmer and her husband is not.

Also, when we were in Iowa we learned about the challenges of women who have inherited land but have never been asked what they want to do on the land. Generally speaking what they want is in opposition to what the extended family wants. Women tend to want food, family and conservation land which goes against more conservative family’s farming ideals. There have been circumstances when extended family will sue or put a restraining order on the woman to take control of the land. We found that in Iowa there is a super rigid cultural definition of what it means to farm there. Women don’t have a place in farming even if they own it!
FJ: What were some of the most memorable farms stops? 
Lake: Denise [O’Brien] of Rolling Acres Farm in Iowa was one of them. It was amazing to learn about the formation and activities of the Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN). I loved listening to her speak and was blown away by her ability to empower women and to farm holistically while being completely surrounded by a male-dominated farming culture concerned primarily with the bottom line. When we were biking to her farm, we saw it from afar as an oasis. It was the first time we had seen trees and butterflies since entering Iowa. Everything else was fence row to fence row corn. 

Caitrin: She’s pretty much taking care of the biodiversity of the state!

Lake: Beth Rasgorshek who runs Canyon Bounty Farm and Janie Burns of Meadow Lark Farm were inspiring too in that they are working together to rebuild local grain infrastructure in addition to managing their own farms. 
Janie and Lake buck hay in Idaho.
They learned that research isn't meeting smaller-scale grower's needs when Beth realized that she couldn’t get enough nitrogen in her soil. When she reached out to land grant universities to see if they were researching heirloom wheat varietals, they wouldn’t take her seriously because her operation is so small. The research that is being carried out in our land grants tends to focus on conventional seed for industrial farms making the seed and research generated unserviceable for a farmer like Beth as conventional wheat-berry protein levels are dependent on excessive nitrogen inputs. 

So, on top of running a farm, Beth is doing the market and varietal grain research and breeding herself to further understand how cross breeding will impact protein levels and flavor.  In addition, she's partnered up with Janie to try to figure out if it’s viable to build a local mill. At every step of the food chain there’s a link missing, so they’re farming and trying to piece the fabric back together.
Caitrin: Maisie Ganz of the Soil Sisters in Nevada City, CA was really memorable! She’s built sustainability into their ethos. Not just about the land and production but on an energetic level. I think we have an illness of overworking in our society. Farmers especially are overworked, and especially on diversified farms doing all that hard work. The workhorse, drive, drive, drive mentality is in place for farming as a career despite not making very much money. Meeting women who are dedicated to taking care of themselves as much as they take care of the land and their flowers was so refreshing. This is something that we need to keep in mind and an aspect of feminine wisdom what we need to hold and perpetuate. 

FJ: Were there any common needs between the women farmers you visited? 
Lake: We would often have the amazing opportunity of having a potluck and all the women would talk about how they needed more get togethers.  Isolation, or just being a farmer that works very hard in this unique lifestyle, makes it hard to have a social life and the social piece is so important.

Other needs included needing a better economic model that makes farming a viable occupation, appropriate technologies for the small scale and outreach, and networks, like WFAN. Not to mention the personal sustainability piece – it’s hard to take care of yourself and the farm. 

FJ: How has this trek changed your view of farming as a woman? 
Lake: I have so much faith in women farmers. There’s an element of nurturing, holistic seeing and long-term vision that are crucial in the farming sphere and the women we met have that view. I have so much faith and hope that this demographic of farmers will continue to grow. There’s a certain way of doing things with feminine qualities that have so much potential for real progress.

Caitrin: I just have a huge respect for women farmers. It’s incredibly hard work, an incredibly hard market and culture to participate in yet they perservere while nourishing themselves. They are generally making the world a better place. They are enlivening the world and making it better.

Details of the women farmers that Caitrin and Lake’s visited and their road adventure can be checked out on their website at http://www.shifting--gears.com.





Friday, June 14, 2013

‘Farms with a Future’ Decodes Farm Success


Farmer Rebecca Thistlethwaite and her family never anticipated that they would start a family farm, scale it 430%, and then close it all within six years.  But then, who would? Despite their farm's closing, the light at the end of their 80-hour farming workweek tunnel turned out to be enlightenment. She, her husband and daughter took a year off of farming not to rest, but to search for the most innovative and successful farming models across the U.S. Their time off-farm allowed Rebecca to manifest the essential handbook for starting and running a sustainable farm business, Farms with a Future.

Thistlethwaite’s book is a literal farm-business boot camp for greenhorns and aficionados alike. Read it as a new farmer and you’ll avoid many of the pitfalls that new farms make. Read it as an established farm seeking to transition to local markets, and you’ll reap the benefits of starting your journey to becoming a truly community-supported farm. 

Not only does Farms with a Future get real honest, like Rebecca’s blog, but the book divulges farm dos and don’ts from a variety of farm types. Farms such as Bluebird Grain Farms in Washington, which grow and market heirloom grain varietals, share their discoveries over the years. And the dairy, Butterwork Farm, which is touted as “one of the most successful organic farmstead creameries in the nation,” is featured as a prosperous model despite the volatility of the dairy industry.

If you want to serve your community food, you will need to get business savvy to do so. This is one of the main take aways of Farms with a Future. Each chapter will get you started on various considerations such as accounting and infrastructure, but clearly each chapter could have been its own book. Just know going in that you’ll have to go elsewhere for additional reading on the chapters’ themes, but as it turns out, this isn’t a bad thing. Creating the right foundation for your farm is an essential beginning to your business and this book covers it all.

Rebecca opens by recounting how she and her family closed the farm to explore what successful farm businesses look like all over the country but is far from dreary – by the end of the book she and her family are taking what they learned to start a new farm. And this is great news. After all, we need more farmers to grow our country food, to be equally connected to community and land, and that can revel in the slightly-controlled chaos that is farming.

I caught up with Rebecca to learn more about her book and to hear about the next iteration of farm that she and her family are in the process of starting.  

FJ: After reading your book, sustainability really takes on a new dimension as you include the farmer, local community, environment and economic viability in your definition. How have your thoughts of sustainability changed throughout your journey as a farmer and writer? 

RT: I first viewed sustainability just through an environmental lens until I had the opportunity to study abroad in Belize and do extensive traveling throughout Latin America in the 1990’s. Developing countries teach you that there is no separation of 'man' and 'nature', and that you can't have environmental conservation without addressing issues of power, poverty, land distribution, access to education, and other social issues. I also came back realizing that new models must be created here because sadly, most of the world tries to emulate First World consumerism and industrialization. The planet is doomed if everybody tries to live like a suburban soccer mom, to use the euphemism. We need more sustainable models- those are what I hope the rest of the world will emulate. Not our opulence, consumerism, and complacency.

FJ: You’ve spent a few years researching some of the more successful sustainable farming operations out there. Are you seeing predominately new farmers making it work, or are multi-generational farms also making the transition to more direct markets and achieving greater economic viability at the same time?

RT: I have seen both ­– I have seen many new farmers get started with a lot of enthusiasm, media attention, and high ideals only to succumb to economic realities a few years into it (my own farm in California was probably an example of that), and I have seen multi-generation farms try new growing practices and marketing techniques that are likely going to 'save their farms.’ And I have seen the opposite too ­– new farms who are smart and business oriented that will probably last and family-farms that keep repeating the same mistakes.

I would say, overall, that trying to farm without any familial help is extremely difficult. If somebody plans to do that, they should at least have a strong network of friends who can help pitch in (labor & capital). In our own lives, we have moved to a place where we have stronger familial and social networks, giving us a fighting chance to get a new farming operation off the ground. We just did not have that in California (probably because we were working to hard to cultivate relationships well). Writing this book reinforced the idea of social capital – that is, the value of your social networks.

FJ: Have you seen any parallels of things that don't seem to work? What are they and how can new farmers avoid these pitfalls? 
"There are more pitfalls to fall into than there are potholes in a farm road. The biggest one is probably not seeking out advice from other farmers and feeling like you have to make all your own mistakes."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ten Reasons to Make a Call for the 2013 Farm Bill


You care about farmers and ensuring future access to local, sustainable food, right?! So here's your chance to make a difference. With just two calls, and perhaps a few clicks on online petitions, you can weigh in how our tax dollars are going to be spent on our food system.

Right now, our senators are deliberating the 2013 Farm Bill - the single most important piece of legislation that can help create a more sustainable food future for our country. Will our tax dollars continue supporting Big Ag, subsidies, pollution, junk-food companies and other private interests? Or, will amendments be passed to cap subsidies, preserve conservation programs, label GMOs, save food stamp funding, support public seed research, and bolster local food systems? The answer is: it's up to us. So here's what we've all got to do:

     Step 1: Select your talking points from the list below.

     Step 2: Call your senators. Click here to find them.

     Step 3: Thank them for representing your interests!

Below you'll find not just ten reasons to make the call, but ten amendments that our senators need to hear from us on. You can also check out the recommendations of these organizations too: Live Real, Center for Food Safety, and the Organic Trade Association, but whatever you do, you've got to do something for a more sustainable and equitable food system for all!

Ten 2013 Farm Bill Talking Points 


In addition to these, you may want to consider voicing your support for Senator Boxer's amendment #1027 to protect honey bees and native pollinators, which, according to the Center for Food Safety, have declined by over 45% since last winter due to pesticides and Big Ag. 

Thank you for all that you do for our farmers and local food!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

One Less Lady in the House: Kathleen Merrigan Leaves USDA



With Kathleen Merrigan's abrupt departure from the USDA early last month, sustainable food advocates and women backers of this power house are left wondering if she was forced to resign as the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for the USDA, or, if she truly left of her own accord. 


Merrigan is perhaps most well known for being an outspoken advocate for local and sustainable foods and for creating and managing the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign. This hallmark program was touted by Tom Philpott of Mother Jones as the "most high-profile acknowledgement [of the government] since the post-war rise of industrial agriculture that alternative food systems exist, matter, and deserve support." It efficiently bundled sustainable food programs under one roof at the USDA and brought a fresh voice to sustainable food programming everywhere. Merrigan not only weathered criticism by Big Ag supporters in the government, despite the fact that these programs receive peanuts in comparison with commodity crop growers subsidy payouts, but she'll be remembered as a strong voice of opposition and for convincing commodity-crop-centric states that the local and regional food movement isn't just a coastal phenomenon. 

But Merrigan's support of regional and local food systems didn't start with her most recent post, nor as head of USDA's Marketing Services under the Clinton administration. Her involvement goes back for decades.

As a faculty member and director of the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at Tufts University Kathleen made Tufts a leading institution in sustainable agriculture. She also helped write the 1990 Organic Foods Act, a document that worked to ensure the integrity of organic foods when the USDA announced their dangerous organic certification program in 1998. Before that, she was a strong advocate for farmers' markets and local food production, a stance that she maintained throughout her time with both the Clinton and Obama administrations. 

As a woman of power at the USDA, Merrigan will always be an inspiration for women that aspire to climb into the higher tiers of government. A difficult task since most positions are appointed by male-counterparts that have historically held down such posts. Merrigan also managed to tactfully bring issues and concerns to the USDA table emblematic of a more feminine approach such as her genuine care for communities, for the environment and for future generations. 

We need more women in the government, like Kathleen, that will re-direct our tax monies and government spending to invest in the types of programs that are necessary for a healthy future. Kathleen will be sorely missed as an advocate and change-maker in our food system. For women, she will always represent the potential of women's leadership to steer the boat even in this historically male-dominated space. As Denise O'Brien said in Farmer Jane, "It's important for women to be involved in decision-making from a family level to the highest levels of government." Kathleen really exemplified the potential of this statement. 

Upon receipt of the news of her so-called resignation, sustainable food leaders around the country wrote a letter to Merrigan thanking her for her service. The letter, signed by more than 100 food and farm leaders, can be viewed here. While the next appointee has not yet been announced, advocates sincerely hope that her legacy will continue. And back to the original question of this post: did she resign or was she forced to quit? This Farmer Jane believes that the latter is true.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Thoughts On 'God Made a Farmer'

The new Dodge Ram commercial sure is getting a lot of play for its tribute to farmers. Apparently, the company has plans to make 2013 the "Year of the Farmer." Certainly we don't need a truck company to tell us that the work ethics and integrity of farmers are to be admired. Yet, I have to admit, a little highly produced media to sway the public in caring about people that produce their food for a few minutes certainly isn't a terrible thing. 


Regardless, Dodge missed a great opportunity to provide a contemporary view of the American farm.  They were going for nostalgia and heart strings here - and they nailed it. Even so, they could have been more accurate by showing more farmworkers, more women, more minorities, and any one of the emerging young farmers featured on this site. Yes, old white men make up the majority of primary farm owners in this country, but that's only because the Ag Census, only started counting secondary farm operators - such as women - in 2002. (Here's where you guffaw.) For all intents and purposes, this revised iteration of the commercial does a better job in the inclusion of farmworkers, yet still misses out on representing other farmer demographics. After all, it's going to take more than just 2.2 million farmers in this country to grow this country local and sustainable food. 

The beauty of this piece did silence the room I was sitting in when it aired. So, all the criticism flailing around should be taken with a grain of corn. After all, it is a commercial designed to sell more trucks. And with the power of this trope over our hearts and minds, this could make this year Dodge Ram's best year. Ever. 

God Made a Farmer
 By Paul Harvey
And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, "I need a caretaker." So God made a farmer. 
God said, "I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the field, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board." So God made a farmer. 
God said, "I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt and watch it die, then dry his eyes and say,'Maybe next year,' I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from an ash tree, shoe a horse with hunk of car tire, who can make a harness out hay wire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. Who, during planting time and harvest season will finish his 40-hour week by Tuesday noon and then, paining from tractor back, put in another 72 hours." So God made the farmer.
God said, "I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to yean lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-comb pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the leg of a meadowlark."
It had to be somebody who'd plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed, and brake, and disk, and plow, and plant, and tie the fleece and strain the milk, . Somebody who'd bale a family together with the soft, strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh, and then sigh and then reply with smiling eyes when his son says that he wants to spend his life doing what Dad does. "So God made a farmer."