When I installed a greenhouse five years ago, for the first time I had to ability to start a large number of plants early. I was so excited I started everything early in the greenhouse with the idea that it is always best to get a head start on the natural limits of cold weather and soil temperature. I've learned that this isn't true for every plant in the garden. Even if you don't have a greenhouse you will soon be faced with store shelves and farmers' market tables loaded with lush green plant starts that are hard to resist. The immediate satisfaction of a real plant is certainly more fun to buy than a pack of seeds but like most things in life, delayed gratification is one of the key lessons of gardening.
I recommend buying and growing plant starts for:
The James Beard Foundation has up a list of trends for the coming year from a chef's perspective. They include:
New Nordic Pantry
Chefs are hopping on the Noma-inspired New-Nordic-Cuisine train and are reaching for these ingredients: sea buckthorn (a tart orange berry), wood sorrel (a plant with heart-shaped leaves), bark flour (made from real trees), and evergreens (such as Douglas fir). To wit: a recent Douglas fir eau-de-vie sighting on the menu at GT Fish & Oyster in Chicago.
Taking his lead from the Cook it Raw crew, Charleston’s Sean Brock is striving to revive the cooking of the South’s antebellum period, teaming up with foragers and historians to rescue heirlooms from obscurity or extinction. We’re hopeful that his efforts will spark a similar curiosity in chefs working in other regions of this country.
Cooking with Douglas fir? Foraging? I like it.
Here are the 2012 food trends from Phil Lempert at Food and Nutrition Science that include higher costs, more male shoppers, and the ethnic food revolution. My favorite:
Trend #4: Increased emphasis on the “Farm to Fork” journey
Shoppers have become increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from, which is why 2012 will bring an added emphasis to a different kind of food celebrity – the farmer. Last year we saw sales flourish among grocery retailers who jumped on the movement among consumers to “buy local.” In this age of transparency, interest in the farm to fork journey has grown considerably, inspired in part by food safety scares and more importantly a desire to know how the food we are serving our families is being produced.
This year, we’re seeing more farmers get in on the action. A growing number of farmers are leading the conversation by using blogs and social media sites to bring the story of the American farmer to consumers. According to the American Farm Bureau’s 2010 Young Farmers and Ranchers Survey, nearly 99% of farmers and ranchers aged 18 to 35 have access to and use the Internet, and nearly three-quarters of those surveyed have a Facebook page. Additionally, 10% use Twitter and 12% post YouTube videos. In fact, 77% of those surveyed view this type of communication as an important part of their jobs as farmers and ranchers. In September of this year, the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) launched an annual $11 million program designed to open the dialogue with consumers. Expect to see more advertising and television programs starring these real food experts (versus actors pretending to know their food).
And according the big New York J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency this will be the year of food-waste consciousness. From their 2012 things to watch for slide show here is one of their meta trends:
Food as the new Eco-issue: The environmental impact of our food choices will become a bigger concern, driving greater brand and consumer awareness and action around Curbing Food Waste.
I predict that in 2012 we'll see a growing interest in food and food traditions from people of faith.
A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:
Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.
The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."
This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.
I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See "Most honey you buy at the store isn't honey"). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities.
Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing.
Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":
...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.
Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.
Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans.
I have an op-ed that will appear in tomorrow's Seattle Times titled, How the local food movement is helping solve the problem of world hunger. It was intended to be provocative so I expect/hope it will provoke some passionate responses from a variety of people in the food conversation. The gist of my argument is that it's inaccurate to say the local food movement is harming the world's vulnerable and hungry. (This seems to be the critique du jour of the locavore trend.) In fact, I argue, it is helping and holds great potential to address the issue of world hunger.
It was hard to say all I wanted to say on the issue in 650 words or less so consider the following post as an extended-cut version of the op-ed, with more focus on the unfairness of the emerging critique of all things locavore. It is an edited (less sarcastic) version of what I posted earlier in the week.
The local & sustainable food movement has been THE food phenomenon of recent years so it's not surprising that it has provoked a sizable backlash in defense of industrial food. What is surprising is the recent consensus among some that the local food movement is bad for poor people.
Charles Kenny got the ball rolling in last month's Foreign Policy Magazine. He calls the local and organic food movements "misguided, parochial Luddism" and is aghast that federal funds go to support farmers' markets. He writes:
...these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world's poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics über alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the "cosmovore" -- cosmopolitan consumers of the world's food.
The best way to help poor people eat well is to make healthy food cost less. But the more agricultural land we divert into lower-efficiency organic production, the higher the price of all food will climb.
Judith Warner at Time followed suit last week with an article titled, The Locavore’s Illusions: As charming as it sounds, growing kale in your backyard won't solve the nation's food ills. She pushes back against the counter-cultural impulse in the movement that is suspicious of "the Man." She quotes a Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who tries to pull back the reigns on those trouble-making community gardeners that just want everyone to give chard a chance:
Sometimes thinking small and local — without an eye to the systemic and political — paves the way toward rollbacks of progressive policies that really work. Sometimes “The Man” can do a great deal of good, for example,when funding programs that add incentive dollars to SNAP benefits at farmers markets.
Josh Ozersky at Time joined the fray a couple days ago with an article titled, "In Defense of Industrial Food." Josh writes:
There are now 300 million Americans or so, and less space. If the barons of agriculture hadn’t engineered the monstrous phalanxes of corn that everyone is so aghast at, food would be more expensive, and a lot of poor people would be dying from starvation instead of courting diabetes.
Instead of actually engaging legitimate questions about the sustainability and health of the current industrial system, the new tactic is akin to picketing the local food co-op with signs that read: "CSA Subscribers Are Hurting Poor People."
The big picture here is that it's time for Congress to write the next Farm Bill and many people are concerned with the way that local and sustainable food activists are going to shape the debate. Kenny acknowledges that the current Farm Bill only designates 0.00025 percent of its funds for farmers' markets, but he is obviously concerned that they will have a greater influence on the next version.
These latest criticisms are an evolution of the core argument in defense of industrial food over the last fifty years: There are billions of people in the world, and we can't feed them without intensive industrial agriculture. So the industrialists have for years promoted themselves as heroes of the poor, and given that logic, it's not surprising that those who oppose or question them are being characterized as enemies of the poor.
The truth of food, agriculture, and world poverty is more complicated than any of us probably want to admit. The champions of organic and sustainable agriculture are loathe to acknowledge that Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution have actually been instrumental in saving lives and feeding millions of hungry and vulnerable people around the world. And the industrial food complex is hesitant to acknowledge that its subsidies and intensive farming methods have destroyed land and markets, and as a result have trapped millions of people in poverty and made them dependent on handouts. For example, it may look like we are the models of compassion for shipping food aid to places like Haiti, but our cheap, heavily subsidized grains undercut local farmers' efforts to grow crops and sell them.
To his credit Ozersky hints at this complicated picture:
I’m not saying that our industrial system is ideal, nor even sane, but to conflate industrial with bad is to suggest that we should all just go back to the land. Which, of course, can never happen.
OK, I'll agree to not conflate industrial with bad if you'll agree not to suggest those that aspire toward an alternative are enemies of the poor.
Photo: Volunteers make preparations for our monthly Millwood food distribution with Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest.
I am working with another publication to publish an article with a similar theme so I'm pulling the plug on this post until that one is published. Sorry about that. Stay tuned
Gary and So Angell from Rocky Ridge Ranch are offering a 20-week winter CSA starting the first week of November and going up to Christmas. After a break it starts back up the first week of March and goes through the end of May. You can sign up for a produce & eggs program ($35/week) or a variety meats program ($65/week). Email Gary at info (at) rockyridgeranchspokane (dot) com for more info or call 509-953-0905. They will deliver weekly at Millwood on Wednesdays and at South Perry on Thursdays. Gary wrote a blog report about how the winter CSA growing season works.
I feature Gary and So in the book and highly recommend their program. You may have come across products from Rocky Ridge Ranch at Sante' restaurant and the Rocket Market.
Picture: So Angell tending to lettuce in the middle of winter last year.
An enterprising restaurant in New York has developed a farm to table garden on the dormant construction lot next to their location. According to a Fast Company article, "The farm now contains 7,400 milk crates and over 100 types of plants. Riverpark currently gets about 25% of its produce from the farm, but expects to get more soon."
It's a ingenious design created out of the necessity of not being able to dump large amounts of garden soil on the temporary site they had secured.
Ortuzar and Zurofsky presented their quandary to ORE Design and Technology Group, which proposed the milk crate idea: Staple a piece of landscaper fabric (a material that allows air and water to pass through) to each milk crate, and fill it with soil.
There is now truly no excuse for not growing some of your own food. All you need is a milk crate, a piece of landscape fabric, and a litle dirt. I love it. Now all we need is a design for a milk crate chicken coop.
CNN has the story of a growing, but still small urban farming movement in Hong Kong.
For just $15 per month, Lam rents out toolbox-sized planter boxes to businessmen, elderly couples and families alike, and even runs horticulture classes. He uses imported soil from Germany to fill his planters and lets the humid, subtropical climate do the rest.
Fifteen dollars a month seems pretty steep but Hong Kong does have some of the highest property values in the world.
I thought this comment regarding resistance to gardening was interesting:
Outside of convincing politicians, Chau said Hong Kongers themselves have historically been resistant to the idea of farming as a suitable pastime.
"It is the lowest of our traditional caste system. In traditional Chinese culture, if you're good at nothing else, you work on the farm," Chau said. "Also, Hong Kong is a very money-minded place... land is also very expensive in Hong Kong, so people don't spend time worrying about growing their own food."
America has its own version of this caste system story. The consensus opinion on the growth of the US economy is that advances in farming freed people up from working on the farm so they could apply themselves to other more GDP-enhancing activities. This chart tells the story of the movement out of farm work in the U.S.:
China has its own version of this chart but relative to the American move away from the farm they are in 1850. This chart compares farm employment stats around the world and puts China at 47% in 1999.
In countries that have moved dramatically away from the farm there are efforts in place to reconnect with land and food. My sense is that this, in large part, is what drives the local food movement, the interest in farmers' markets, CSAs, and rooftop gardens - even in Hong Kong. It's a kind of farming-deficit disorder. It may be awhile before perceptions in China change around farming but they are already shifting dramatically in North America.
Neighborhood farmers' markets are popping up across America. According to the USDA, there has been a 250% growth in the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. (1,755 in 1994 to a total of 6,132 in 2010). The growing popularity of farmers' markets is leading many cities to try and reestablish permanent public markets like the Pike Place Market in Seattle. After a ten year effort, locavore-passionate Portland is close to opening one of the most high profile market initiatives in the country. Their proposed James Beard Public Market is stirring up a debate that is helpful for other cities like Spokane as we look to the opening of our own public market on June 2.
The Oregonian reported this week that while most growers and advocates for local food support the market, there are some reservations and questions.
So what do local farmers and their backers at these markets have to say about a permanent public market? Is it a competitor, business booster, or something in between? That depends on whom you ask, but most seem to support the idea — with caveats.
The two main caveats mentioned in the Oregonian article have to do with the feasability of the business model and the what I'll call the "Pike-Place-Market-Envy Problem."
First, the business model:
Farmers market manager Eamon Molloy wonders whether a permanent market that’s costly to build will ultimately serve local farmers and food artisans’ needs. “I’m concerned that we’re going to build a shrine to food rather than a place where customers can go to buy it,” says Molloy, who runs the Hillsdale and Lloyd farmers markets. “People don’t make a ton of money at this. Food is by nature a low-margin business.
Second the Pike-Place problem:
Trevor Baird of Baird Family Orchards agrees, saying the regulars who buy his Dayton-grown peaches week in and week out will always be there. A public market along the lines of Pike Place Market in Seattle offers something altogether different. “I love Pike Place (Market) for the spectacle of it,” says Baird. “I’m not going to get strawberries there. The vendors there are wholesalers — they’ve got some nice produce, but they’re not farmers and they don’t pretend to be.”
Not all the vendors at Pike Place are "high stallers" as farmers' market purists call them, but in order to fill the shelves of a year-round market with the tourist cache' of Pike Place, many of the fruits and vegetables on offer at the Seattle market are imports from far-off places. Florida oranges and bananas from South America mingle with Washington grown items.
This is a very different approach from a neighborhood farmers' market. According to the rules of the Washington State Farmers' Market Association, markets like the one in Millwood that I help run cannot sell bananas and California strawberries. Everything must be from the region and while there are allowances for some wholesale selling, there are strict limits, and farmers impose a lot of pressure on market managers to keep wholesale product from competing with their direct-from-the-farm product.
A permanent public market with high overhead costs will have a difficult time in Spokane if they limit the produce and fruit to only what the regional climate has to offer. Its offerings will likely mirror what Full-Circle farm is doing with their fruit and veggie boxes. A mix of unique local offerings and wholesale goods that are similar to what is available in a grocery store. While Pike Place Market can maintain its aura even as they sell wholesale stuff, it remains to be seen whether something like the Spokane Public Market or the Portland market, for that matter, can pull that off. Others have tried and are trying with mixed results.
The folks in Portland are hoping for a hybrid model.
According to the James Beard Public Market website, the goal is a market with the “vitality” ofPike Place or Granville Island Market, but with “the primary focus on connecting local growers and food producers to local customers.”
Pike Place Market is a cultural and economic icon that is the envy of cities across America. Probably every city that looks to start a public market uses Pike Place as a reference point, but I cringe when I hear someone say that the new public market on Second and Browne will "one day rival the Pike Place Market." Spokane's psyche is scarred from years of finding itself on the short end of comparisons to Seattle, so in my opinion we are really setting ourselves up for problems when we build that into the vision for the new Market.
This story reported by GOOD about the other Portland's foray into Pike Place Market envy should serve as a cautionary tale:
After a visit to the bustling Pike Place Market in Seattle, a financial adviser for philanthropist Betty Noyce (the late, ex-wife of the Intel microchip founder) suggested that she fund a new public market in Portland, Maine, in order to revitalize the downtown. Noyce went on to finance the $9.4 million Portland Public Market, which opened in 1999 with 23 food vendors. Over the next seven years, farmers lodged complaints about poor access, the market struggled with a high vendor turnover rate, and two high-end restaurants there failed. In 2006, the market closed, after Noyce's foundation reported annual losses of about $1 million.
Several vendors launched a subsequent campaign to "Save the Market" and a year later, a new, slightly renamed, Portland Public Market House-a smaller, unsubsidized building filled with four permanent vendors (three of whom own the building) and a community kitchen-opened on a square adjacent to the city's once-a-week outdoor farmers' market.
I am hoping for the success of the new market. It would be a great addition to the local food scene, and best of all it would be a boon to the local farmers I know and support. It won't be a Pike Place Market, but hopefully it will be a unique and wonderful expression of the Inland Northwest's farms and food. The site currently shows the market opening this Thursday, June 2.
Rocky Ridge Ranch
Greenacres Grown (Organic Asparagus)
The Corner Door
Wild Boar Farm
Mo Bereiter (Wildcrafter)
Tonnemaker Hill Organic Farm
Tall Grass Farm
Pure Heart Soaps
The Rustic Mindmill Candles
Livity Botanicals (incl. Gluten Free Breads)
Miles Away Farm
Aichele Farm (Berries)
Sheila Mulkin Sewing
The Berry Farm
Roast House Coffee
Green Wave Gardens
Garden of Eden Nursery
Laurie's Lair Plants
City School Plants
Paul Kuhlman Metal Art
FYI - I placed about 50 $1 off $5-purchase-or-more coupons at the Rocket Bakery in Millwood good for opening day only.
In a fluke of this year's calendar, Earth Day and Good Friday both converge today. I wrote an article for CNN Belief Blog arguing that these two events aren't such a bad pairing. The wider context of the article is that the Christian church and the environmental movement in North America have often struggled to cooperate and find common ground. Maybe the experience of sharing this day will be a trial run at a new future of collaboration. Go here for one of my many posts on this disconnect.
It may not always be self-evident here on the blog, but I am a full-time Presbyterian pastor, and one of the motivations for this blog is to flesh out connections between faith and earth. Go here to see the "faith" thread on this blog. Year of Plenty is an extended exploration of the intersections of the environment and faith, especially the food movement. My experience with locavores, backyard farmers, and community gardeners makes me more hopeful than ever that despite past disconnects, the church may end up being the best friend of advocates for earth care.
Perhaps the greatest reason for a potential new future in this relaitonship is what some are calling the death of environmentalism and the rise of the food movement.
Bryan Walsh wrote a provocative article in February describing significant shifts in the Go-Green movement. He says:
These are dark days for the environmental movement. A year after being on the cusp of passing landmark legislation to cap greenhouse gases, greens are coming to accept the fact that the chance of national and international action on climate change has become more remote than ever. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack by newly empowered Republicans in Congress who argue that the very idea of environmental protection is unaffordable for our debt-ridden country. Accustomed to remaining optimistic in the face of long odds, the environmental movement all at once faces a challenge just to stay relevant in a hostile political climate....
He even evokes the "death of environmentalism" mantra coined in a controversial essay from a few years ago. This decline of the traditionally framed debates about the environment may provide a helpful opening for the church. One of the reasons environmentalists and church leaders have often been at odds is that the issues fall so easily into the well-worn ruts of our cultural and political divides. I don't like that the Christian faith in America is politicized and held captive by powerful interests, but that is the current reality. As long as the environmental movement is robustly allied with one side or the other of American politics, I fear that it will remain a niche issue in liberal mainline churches, and fail to make real headway in more conservative evangelical circles.
Walsh says this so-called death of environmentalism may turn out to be a re-birth in the form of a thriving food movement.
Even as traditional environmentalism struggles, another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat and the way they farm — away from industrialized, cheap calories and toward more organic, small-scale production, with plenty of fruits and vegetables — but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn't just about reform — it's about revolution.
This shift away from a politically entrenched environmental movement toward a vibrant food movement opens up a new opporunity for the church to enter the conversation and even take the lead in some cases.
Food is not so easily politicized. Not that the usual characters don't do their best to turn food into a political football, but the food movement is too complex and the interested parties too diverse to easily pigeon hole.
Here's how I put it in a previous post on politics, church, and food,
Concerns about food short-circuit political divides in some wonderfully mischevious ways. Farmers' Markets may be the most politically diverse gathering in the community, with Glenn Beck conspiracy theorists rubbing shoulders with neo-hippie peace activists. The recent Whole Foods CEO curfluffle highlights some of this diversity and forces the question, "Is it OK for conservatives and liberals, who disagree on so much, to agree on food and work together in that agreement?"
I sure hope so. In today's intense, hyped up political landscape, a good potluck with arugala and country style pork ribs (and of course grandma's jello salad) could do us a lot of good. There's something about gathering around food that makes us more human.
Not only does food allow for more diverse entry points, it plays to the church's strengths - theology, history, and practice. Here's how I put it in Year of Plenty:
The pattern in the Bible of forming community is surprisingly down to earth…The first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat.” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat.”
In the wilderness it was the manna, gathered daily in the dew of morning that forged the faith of Israel. Once the people were settled in the land, the warning loomed large from Joshua to serve the Lord alone and remember that God “gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). Joshua was telling them to nurture a deep connection between the harvest of the vineyard and the God who made them a people and gave them the land.
To a people disoriented by exile in Babylon, Jeremiah said, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jer. 29:5). In other words, they were to attend to necessary things and do necessary things for one another. In doing so, they would find their way to God.
This pattern continued with Jesus as he sent the disciples out among the people to proclaim the kingdom of God. He told them to enter the homes of the cities to which they were sent. “Stay there,” he said, “eating and drinking whatever they give you, for workers deserve their wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you” (Luke 10:7-8). The disciples had this grand vision of the kingdom of God to proclaim and live into, but the proclamation was always in the context of shared meals, working side by side with others, doing necessary things.
I think if you look closely, the shift in the American church is already evident. Churches are taking the lead in their communities starting community gardens, promoting Plant-A-Row for the Hungry, hosting farmers' markets, and teaching classes on food and health. Churches and Christians of all political stripes are becoming environmentalists, but be careful - some of them may not like the label. They'd prefer faithful foodie or sustainable backyard farmer or guerilla gardener, but those are just different ways of describing environmentalists. And this earthy move in church circles bodes well for the big debates about land, CO2, and going green.
As Walsh points out in his Time article, this emphasis on food leads us into the heart of issues dear to the traditional environmental movement.
As the food movement matures and grows, it could end up being the best vehicle available for achieving environmental goals. The industrialized way we farm today damages our land, our water and our climate. Reforming agriculture and promoting sustainability won't just help us get better and healthier food; it will also fight greenhouse-gas emissions and water pollution....
Environmentalists once thought that the only way to create lasting change in the U.S. and the rest of the world was by controlling our carbon emissions. Not quite. As Brian Halweil, a leading thinker on sustainable food, put it in Saturday's TED conference, "If the environmental movement is dead, then I say, 'Long live the food movement.'" Environmental and social changes are coming — and they will be served up on our dinner plates.
Not only will they be served up on dinner plates, but the church will say a prayer before the meal.
Here's the scoop from Gary and So at Rocky Ridge Ranch about the upcoming season of CSA offerings. They are my favorites. Go here for more background on CSA programs.
Just a reminder to let you know we are taking new applications for the CSA Programs for this Summer starting the first week of June. If you're interested please visit our web site and check out these programs.We still have 15 openings for the Produce/Eggs program "Cooler of TheBest" and about 5 openings for the Variety Meats program. Also we welcome our many prior customers for Beef, Pork and Poultry to contact us and place your Pre-Order for this year. It's agood idea to place your order now as demand has been high and we areoften sold out later in the year. We are looking forward to hearing from you again this year.
Gary and So are featured farmers in my book Year of Plenty. The Millwood Farmers' Market, that opens on May 18, is one of the pick-up spots for their CSA boxes. The Millwood Farmers' Market opens for the summer season on May 18 and is currently open on Wed. from 2-6pm for the winter season at the Crossing Youth Center.
The AP has a nice piece of reporting on the emergence of "local" as the newest hot commodity in food labeling and marketing.
The No. 2 official at the Agriculture Department recently got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries: "local."
Walking into her neighborhood grocery store in Washington, Kathleen Merrigan saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were local produce. But the package itself said they were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away.
The popularity of locally grown food — which many assume means the food is fresher, made with fewer chemicals and grown by smaller, less corporate farms — has led to an explosion in the use of the word "local" in food marketing. It's the latest big thing after the surge in food marketed as "organic," another subject of continuing labeling controversy.
But what does local mean? Lacking common agreement, sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some grocery stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.
The emerging debate is around how to define local, and whether there will be a consensus definition that guides the industry. Some states are proposing new rules for governing the use of the term "local" in marketing food, but it seems unlikely that there will be a federal standard. According to the article:
Whole Foods Market says a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Wal-Mart labels produce as local if it is from the same state where it is sold. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, Jewel-Osco and other supermarket chains, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers just leave it up to individual store managers.
How do you define "local" when it comes to food?
In a recent post I pointed out the growing popularity of CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) programs where consumers sign up with a farmer to receive a weekly "subscription" of food, usually a box of seasonal vegetables and fruits. They have grown in popularity because they are a boon to farmers, for whom cash flow is king, and they help consumers simplify the process of acquiring healthy, local, and in some cases, organic food. Go here to the LocalHarvest site for a more detailed rundown of how the programs typically work.
The rise in popularity has led to growing pains, with farmers and customers sorting out expectations and relationships (see previous post), but there is another notable development - the rise of the mega CSA. As the Spokesman Review pointed out in yesterday's food section, Full Circle Farm in Carnation, WA, is expanding their delivery footprint beyond their current Seattle and Alaska markets to include Spokane.
I spoke with Frank Paganelli, the Chief Operating Officer of Full Circle Farm, to get a better understanding of the business. The fact that they have a C.O.O. is the first clue that Full Circle is not a traditional CSA. In fact, as Frank explained, while they started as a traditional program, bound by the limits of the seasons and a single farm location, the business now delivers year-round, and no longer limits the food to local sources. So in the winter months boxes are filled with organic items from Mexico and California. Pagonelli explained that when summer rolls around, up to 90% of the food items are sourced from the Pacific Northwest region, but bananas and other non-local items are still in the mix.
The owners of the farm started moving in this direction because the traditional mode was a limited business model. They hated to send away workers and customers during the off season when local vegetables and fruits were in short supply. Paganelli said, "Customers want purpose all year round," when it comes to their food choices, so Full Circle has sought to bring that purpose to customers, one box at a time, 52 weeks a year. This has meant straining the definition of "purpose" usually attached to a CSA. In fact Full Circle has moved away from using the term "CSA" to define what they are doing.
The page on their web site that still comes up under the heading "CSA" on a Google search explains the shifting language:
Over time what was called the Full Circle Farm CSA program has evolved in response to the call from members new and old alike: more good food to your table. Our farm fresh produce delivery program networks with organic growers to provide members with a robust year-round offering to balance the crops from our own fields.
This changing language is also evident in the Spokesman article from yesterday describing their Spokane presence. It is described as a "farm-to-table delivery service" instead of a CSA. They are "Farm-to-Table boxes" instead of CSA boxes. They openly state that the boxes "include produce grown at Full Circle Farm as well as fruits and vegetables from an international network of other organic growers." Full Circle has shifted the definition of "purpose" to emphasize certified organic as the thread that holds it all together, and while they still seek to interpret the farmer relationships through printed materials that accompany the box, the connection to a local farm and farmers is no longer the defining center of what they are doing.
Paganelli explained that they don't see themselves competing with traditional CSA programs that keep a laser focus on the direct farmer relationship. He said, "We're competing with the QFC's and Albertsons." In Spokane that would include Huckleberries.
There has been some backlash to this shifting business model at Full Circle. A quick tour through their Yelp! page shows a steady stream of customers who were under the impression it was a more traditional CSA program sourcing exclusively from local farms. One commenter wrote, "Surprisingly little in the boxes is actually local. Strawberries from Mexico, fruits from California....We're not interested in supporting big farms from far away, even if they are organic." Another reviewer commented, " Everything delivered was stuff you'd find in a grocery store." From what Paganelli said, the company is working intentionally to move away from the CSA label, and more clearly set expectations, especially during the winter months when local supplies are limited. They still have a page at LocalHarvest listing their services as a CSA.
Despite the growing pains, business seems to be booming. Spokane already has 14 sites to pick up boxes. They are well staffed and appear to have some serious capital funding supporting their expansion efforts. And there are plenty of customers delighted with their service. One reviewer from Seattle on Yelp! wrote,
I have been a happy, satisfied customer of Full Circle for over two years. I love that I can customize my box when I am inclined (special recipes in mind, etc), and when I do not have time to go online and select each item, I still know that a beautiful box will arrive each week...I LOVE FULL CIRCLE!
I will admit that Full Circle Farm (FCF) does not conform to the "strictest" definition of a CSA. I will also admit that produce from Central America, even produce certified as organic, makes me nervous. But in defense of FCF, I recognize that they strive to provide the very best produce delivery service they can. Their customer service is bar-none and they have always been very helpful over the phone....I happily give my $35 to FCF, even if they're delivering produce from California, rather than to the grocery store where sourcing information is not as transparent.
Full Circle is a new breed of food marketing and delivery, somewhere between a CSA and a grocery delivery service. They are stretching the brand of farm-to-table, and I'll be interested to see how their emerging business model plays out in the coming years. Here are some words of advice to Full Circle that I think will be key for the success of their expansion efforts in Spokane:
- Do your best to integrate your offerings with unique items from farms near Spokane. I was told they are looking to do this in the future, but for now they are just working to get their delivery systems in place. There is a unique and growing local food movement in the Spokane area and efforts to enter the market should be aimed at not just luring customer dollars and establishing market share. In order to have credibility as something more than a grocery-delivery business in this community there needs to be investment in farmers and farms in this region. There needs to be capital investment to accompany market share.
- You say that you are not competing with existing CSA's but there is one CSA in Spokane that already follows a hybrid model very similar to yours. The CSA program through Fresh Abundance has a year-round vegetable box program that sources items locally when possible, and when not possible they include organic items. Both programs are around $35 per week. Fresh Abundance has been investing in the local food scene in Spokane for many years, so I hope that Full Circle won't undercut their efforts. I also think the marketing materials need to be as clear as possible that Full Circle is different from what someone like Gary Angell at Rocky Ridge Ranch offers. If you use the word local, make sure that you define that clearly. Most folks who use the phrase, "local food" around here have Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho in mind.
- Most farmers in Eastern Washington do not have the resources to get officially certified as organic, but they do follow organic practices. Given this reality I think you should be willing to flex on the "certified organic" label in order to embrace our local food system. For example, I don't see any reason why your boxes couldn't include lettuce from C&S Hydro Huts. Stewart is not certified organic, but is meticulous in the way he follows organic practices. I think this makes good marketing sense even if it does force you to compromise on your commitment to "certified organic" in some cases.
What Full Circle offers is not my cup of tea. I like direct relationships with local farmers. I like eating seasonally. The "certified organic" label is much less meaningful to me than having the food sourced from local farms and farmers. But I don't doubt that there is a market for them in Spokane and that there is room for their offerings in the Spokane food scene. I just hope that what's good for their western Washington business is good for local Spokane businesses and farmers.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an innovation in food selling and buying that has finally broken into the mainstream. These kinds of programs that usually involve a consumer signing up with a local farmer to get a weekly box of seasonal vegetables. In some cases the boxes are picked up at a farmers' market, on the farm, or they can be delivered at an extra cost. These innovative arrangement first emerged in Europe and Japan as a response to hardships experienced by local farms and farmers, and in an effort to bridge the relational gap between consumers and growers. As the interest in locally grown food has skyrocketed in recent years these programs have proliferated.
My favorite CSA in Spokane is the one from Rocky Ridge Ranch, located in Reardan. Gary and his wife So have summer, winter, and spring CSA subscriptions. They also have a meat CSA that's the best deal in town for locally, naturally raised beef, chicken, and pork. The Millwood Farmers' Market, that I help manage, is one of their two CSA pick-up sites.
As more farmers have offered these programs and they have grown in popularity there are some interesting growing pains and ethical dilemmas that are starting to emerge, both for shoppers and farmers. One regular reader of the blog lamented last summer that, after putting up big bucks for a summers' worth of vegetables, the offerings in the box were sometimes dissappointing compared to what the farmer had on display at their farmers' market booth. She discovered the uncomfortale tension that come with a direct relationship with a farmer. What do you do when you're unhappy? It's one thing to talk to the produce manager at the grocery store, which seems safe, but it's a whole other thing to file your complaints with the person who planted, nurtured, and plucked the plants out of the ground. To complicate matters, the skill-set required to be a great farmer does not necessarily lend itself to having good customer-service skills. CSA's make buying food a relational experience, which brings with it the mixed-bag of what we experience in human relationships. Here's how the unsettled CSA customer put it last summer:
But I’m wondering – here, finally, is my question – how you think we might navigate those imperfect relationships, with all of us imperfect ourselves, when we’re talking about non-negotiables, about food? In a local, relationship-based economy, there’s no room for mistakes. What happens if I have a bad day? Grocers, middlemen, long supply chains, all create room for me (and the growers) to be imperfect. How do we live without that when we’re, you know, human?
She makes a keen observation - that one of the hidden efficiencies of our long supply chains in the food system, is that they remove the human, relational element. They give the illusion of a transaction based only on price and quality, and erase the fingerprints of the farmers who grew the food. But this is only ever an illusion. CSA program that put us face-to-face with a farmer ultimately force us to give up our romantic notions, maybe the very notions that led us to sign up for a CSA, and encounter food, people, and land in new and responsible ways. In my mind, the purpose of CSA programs is the formation of community. It's an intentional complicating of life. Yes it's probably cheaper, easier, and more time-efficient to just go to Win-Co and load up your shopping cart on a weekly basis - but sometimes more expensive, more complicated, and less efficient is better.
Which brings me to my next observation about this fast-evolving market segment. I knew we were in new territory when I saw a "CSA" program show up on Groupon here in Spokane. Full Circle Farm was offering a deal on subscriptions to their CSA program. I was surprised, because I'd never heard of Full Circle Farm, and I take pride in having my finger on the pulse of our local food system. I did a little investigating and was intrigued by what I found. I have a call into Full Circle and will follow up on this post with more details and observations when I have to chance to talk to them.
Ragan Sutterfield's collection of essays, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, is a call for churches to start gardens and grow food. He introduces the essays by saying:
My hope is that Christians will come to see one of their tasks as staking out claims for God's Kingdom by redeeming land from the margins and using that land to create gardens that offer not only good food but also community development and hope.
True to his comments in the book about the need for patient preparation of soil, he aims with this small book, to prepare the topsoil of the church with amendments of biblical reflection, kingdom theology, and agrarian sensibilities.
He starts out with the assumption that before engaging the practice of farming we must first grapple with our understanding of creation, which is ultimately a question about how we see ourselves in the order of creation. He says:
Farming is essentially the practice of cultivating creation, and how we see farming depends entirely on how we see creation.
Sutterfield grounds his understanding of the human place in creation in a perichoretic, or social understanding of the trinity, with God inviting us into the "eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and into the task of widening that divine embrace of love. The author lifts up sustainable farming as a generative practice that anchors us in the humus of created order, and ultimately in the triune embrace of the creator God.
He makes a keen observation about our typical response to the wreckage of rapid industrialization and the burgeoning green movement. He says:
So far, the answer seem to be mostly, keep doing what you are doing, only do it "greener."
Again here, he points to farming as a path to not just tweaking what we're already doing, but shaping an alternative path. He says:
Humility and frugality are both practices born of accepting our creaturely limits. Farming, perhaps better than any other practice, brings us up against the realities of the creaturely life and forces us to live within the limits of our power, knowledge and resources.
The two main essays are followed by a sermon given to Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sutterfield argues that the church should "seek a foothold for Eden," as a way of looking ahead to the ultimate fulfillment of what God is doing in the world. He says that the best place to start is with places on the margins, on abandoned patches of earth that need resurrecting.
It's getting quite interesting reading all these 28 books in a condensed period of time. I'm learning that perspectives on environmentalism and faith are shaped significantly by the places where people are standing in the world. Scott Saban sees the movement from the missions field among the poor, Tri Robinson sees it from his role as an evangelical pastor and leader in the church, Jonathan Merritt, author of Green Like God, sees through the lens of being a Southern Baptist, and Ragan Sutterfield's perspectives are shaped primarily through his experience as a farmer. All four advocate for the church to embrace the care of creation.
Sutterfield offers a small critique of some of these other approaches. It wasn't a direct critique that he targets at others, but one that I can see in the middle of all of this reading. He says that there are two heresies founded on the idea that we, as humans, are not part of the created order. One of these heresies has been roundly rejected in all of my reading so far, which is a rejection of an extreme environmentalism that sees human impact on the earth in a wholly negative light, as if the creation would be better off without people. That's a bit of a straw man, but I understand what he is saying. The other heresy, he says, envisions "creation entirely in terms of human use and value...," which includes those that warn of global warming because of it's negative impact on humans.
Tri Robinson lists as one of his foundational assumptions, that the earth exists for human use. Saban's main observation is that caring for the environment is a way to care for people, especially poor people. I have often spoken of care of creation in the context of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Sutterfield's point is that there is something in the story of caring for creation which runs deeper than human use and valuation. I think he's arguing against a modern, reductionist view of the earth, but I'd like to hear more about what he means by this.
Farming as a Spiritual Discipline is a small book that packs a big punch. It's more like a fresh layer of compost than a flashy quick-release packet of NPK fertilizer. Sort of unassuming at first glance, it is packed full of health and a great contribution to the debates about faith and environment. Personally, it has re-sparked my imagination around my work with the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden and Millwood Farmers' Market and helped me see how those fit into God's unfolding kingdom.
The Globe and Mail had a story last week that caught my attention titled, "The Fat Cats of Agribusiness." The article references growing concerns about large corporations muscling their way into the food chain, but observes that not much is being said among effected nations because they have become so dependent on these mega-corps. There is one report from Siva Makki at the World Bank in 2008 that sounds the alarm.
The market share of the biggies is on the rise, leading to questions about the potential abuse of economic power. In 2004, the top four suppliers of agrochemicals had a 60% share of their market, up from 47% in 1997. In the seed market, the four biggest players had a 33% share in 2004, up from 23%. In some specialized sectors, concentration is much higher. Monsanto’s worldwide share of the market for transgenic soybean seeds, which are easy to protect against weeds, was 91% in 2004...
Is the concentration harming or helping farmers? Makki’s research suggests that farmers are getting ripped off. As sales and prices rise, agribusiness giants are capturing a disproportionate share of the profits. Take coffee. The proportion of the retail price received by the main coffee-producing countries (Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Vietnam) declined from one-third in the early 1990s to a mere 10% a decade later. Could this be because the top four coffee traders and roasters had 40% or more of the market? Producers of cocoa, tea and bananas are also getting relatively smaller financial hauls as agribusiness clout increases.
Makki’s conclusion is obvious: “The market power of international trading companies” is widening the spreads between what consumers pay for food and what farmers receive for their product.
So the trend is that farmers get a much smaller share of the consumer's dollars and even if consumers start paying more at grocery store, the corporations pocket the increase. In other words everyone loses except for the corporation. There are a whole series of other problems with this system including animal welfare, food quality, and food safety to name a few.
Over the Christmas break I read Michael Lewis' book, The Big Short, and was aghast at the inefficiencies and ineptitude in the financial markets. The recent trend has been for large corporations to treat food commodities like any other financial asset that is traded in the markets, only with food it's more than someone's 401k or home mortgage that's on the line. With food it's people's health and in some cases, ability to survive, that is at stake.
The best way I have found to respond to these troubling trends with food and agriculture is to buy local, and buy direct from farmers. They deserve a lot a much larger share of the consumers' food dollars than they are getting in the current system. Go to LocalHarvest.org to find a local farmer near you.
You might be wondering if that headline isn't an accidental repost from weeks ago when the FSMA passed the Senate the first time. It isn't a mistake. Unless you're a real food legislation geek you probably don't know that when the legislation originally passed the Senate with much fanfare (the bill passed the House long ago with ease), it contained an unintentional poison pill. The Post reports:
But the day after the Senate vote, House leaders flagged a problem - the Senate version appeared to violate a constitutional provision that requires new taxes to originate in the House rather than the Senate.
The section in question would have imposed fees on importers, farmers and food processors whose food is recalled because of contamination. The mistake essentially nullified the Senate vote.
Ultimately there were protections built into the bill to protect small farms from undue regulatory burden inconsistent with the size of their operations. Below is a list of protections for local farms and small producers built into the S. 510. (List provided by by Steve Breaux at WashPIRG.)
- On-farm processors who sell products only at farmers markets, roadside stands, and through community supported agriculture programs can operate as “retail food establishments” meaning they would only have to comply with normal good practices and the food safety laws of the State in which they operate.
- Very small businesses would only be required to adopt a simplified food safety plan or document their compliance with State or local food safety law to be exempt from S. 510’s more stringent federal safety program.
- Small businesses (up to $500,000 in food sales on average) could also adopt a simplified food safety plan or document compliance with State or local food safety laws and be treated like very small businesses, provided they sold the majority of their food directly to consumers, or to grocery stores and restaurants within a 275 mile radius.
- Small farms (up to $500,000 in food sales on average) would only have to comply with State or local food safety standards as long as they were selling the majority of the food they harvested directly to consumers, or to grocery stores and restaurants within a 275 mile radius.
- In addition to these provisions, S. 510 includes a provision that allows FDA to exempt on-farm processors from the bill’s requirements, provided the food they produce is low-risk. Also small and very small businesses have extra time to comply with any requirements under S. 510.
With protections in place for small farmers, the bill appears to be a huge step forward in food safety and accountability. I am most excited about provisions in the bill that require that imported foods will be held to the same safety standards as domestically produced foods. This may be a major blow to the Dollar Store food economy. Click through to the rest of the post to see what S. 510 means for our food system.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act will protect consumers by:
- Granting FDA a specific statutory mandate to prevent foodborne illness.
- Requiring food processors to identify where contamination may occur in the food production process, and then requiring them to take steps to prevent the contamination.
- Establishing a statutory minimum frequency for FDA inspections of domestic food processing facilities.
- Holding imported food to the same safety standards as food produced in the U.S.
- Implementing science-based minimum standards for safe agricultural production of fresh fruits and vegetables that pose the highest risk.
- Improving coordination across federal, state, and local governments and providing grants to build state and local capacity for foodborne illness detection, surveillance, testing, and response.
- Providing FDA, for the first time, with mandatory recall authority.
- Developing traceability requirements that strike the right balance between protecting public health and preventing any undue burden to small businesses.
List provided by by Steve Breaux at WashPIRG.
Obama Foodarama has the story:
The National Farmers Market Directory lists 898 Winter Farmers Markets across the US, which stay open from November through March. That's a brave 14 percent of the nation’s 6,132 Farmers Markets. (Above: The First Lady and Kass, during their historic Farmers Market visit in September 2009)
“Fresh, local, and healthful food isn’t just a good weather offering,” said David Shipman, Acting Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. “Even in states where the traditional growing season is short, the market season is long. This allows more small and local farmers to continue bringing in income for their families and their businesses, while also providing great, nutritious food to communities year round.”
There are plenty of Winter Markets to choose from, and the states with the highest number of winter markets are also some of the coldest: New York has 153 Winter Markets, Pennsylvania has 42, Ohio has 34, Massachusetts has 32, New Jersey has 24, Connecticut has 20, and Michigan manages to trump its lake effect snow and maintain 20.
The Millwood Farmers' Market has a small contingent of farmers that overwinter in the Crossing Youth Center in Millwood. You can get winter vegetables, meat, and other items from 2-6pm on Wednesdays through the winter.
The South Perry Farmers' Market also ventured into the cold months this year, but they have run into some snags locating a place to call home where they are protected from the elements. There is also a Thursday winter market at the Community Building in downtown Spokane in the early afternoon.
The Spokane Public Market folks are working to develop a space downtown for a permanent indoor location for local farmers that would run year-round. I stopped by the grand opening for Sun People Dry Goods, which is directly adjacent to the proposed space for the Public Market, and chatted with Wayne McMorris about their plans. I love the idea of it but am curious how it will fit in the matrix of summer outdoor markets and Eastern Washington farming community. I'm not sure how the Main Market Co-Op, the Spokane Public Market, and the Downtown Farmers' Market can all coexist within blocks of each other given limited consumer demand. Hopefully consumer demand will grow to meet the supply.