World Trade Organization Tells U.S. Consumers They Aren't Allowed to Know Food's Country of Origin

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2sgaO44_1c]

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. 

Shepherd's Grain Wheat Co-op Still Stirring National Food Conversations

Steptoe4
I write about Fred Fleming and the Shepherd's Grain wheat co-op in Year of Plenty. I wish I could claim to have made them famous but the truth is that national media outlets have been doing stories on them for years. When they are interested sustainable wheat farming, Shepherd's Grain and their no-till farming methods have been a go-to source of information. They have even been featured on CNN

The latest story comes from Helene York and the Atlantic Monthly. She is intrigued by SG's partnership with ADM, a company usually touted as the arch-enemy in conversations about sustainable food. York sounds a little conflicted as she writes:

I came away from my weekend with some complicated questions. Can locally baked bread be called "artisanal" if the wheat is from cooperatively farmed wheat fields that end up processed by ADM? What if the opposite were true: if the wheat were milled in an employee-run facility but came from the commodity markets? 

Perhaps the lesson is that there's no one path that can suit every region, especially now, with consolidation having left producers with only a few scalable choices. ADM may have bought up most large-scale mills over the last century, giving groups like Shepherd's Grain nowhere else to turn. But if a plant manager takes a political and operational risk, and makes it possible for a co-op that grows wheat responsibly to survive, is that bad? 

Re-regionalizing our food system will surely mean creating new alliances, some with small entities wishing to grow bigger, some with large entities whose ways we often (rightly) criticize. Perhaps the most sustainable solutions will be those forged by individuals who need each other's support and resources, at interim steps along the way, regardless of the size of the entities they represent. 

I wrote in a previous post about the nature of this unusual partnership between an "artisanal" co-op and a mega-corporation. My post was sparked by a conversation with Fred Fleming and his words, "Hello, my name is Fred and I'm a recovering conventional farmer." I wrote:

I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder’s basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint - Shepherd’s Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn’t understand in his critique is that it’s not ADM that has Shepherd’s Grain in its tractor beam, it’s Shepherd’s Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.

According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd’s Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM’s management and as a result Spokane’s mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It’s actually quite remarkable and it’s all happening right here in Spokane.

In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it’s going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, “Hello, I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” But it’s also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.

Picture: Palouse wheat fields as seen from Steptoe Butte.

Consumers and Retailers Wrangle Over the Definition of "Local Food"

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?

Top Ten Posts of 2010 at Year of Plenty

According to Google Analytics these were the most popular blog posts on Year of Plenty in 2010.

1. Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy - What's So Controversial About That?

This post created quite a stir. It got picked up by the president of Dairy Management Corp. and was emailed to all of his contacts. The folks at Domino's Pizza linked it all over the internet. James McWilliams at the Atlantic Monthly credited Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder with being the first to grasp the way this story was being misreported, but I think I was the first one on the story. My first official big scoop.

2. World Comparison: Fresh vs. Processed Food Consumption

Google placed this high on their search criteria, so it has received a steady flow of clickers all year and also got picked up in some online communities.

3. How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

This was my follow up to the Newflash post about Dairy Management.

4. Roast House Coffee Newest Roaster on the Spokane Scene

This year I actually started doing some in-the-field reporting, visiting local businesses and writing up short narratives. Roast House was one of the first.

5. What Would You Do If You Had One Year to Live?

This was my first and only blog post to get "Dished," meaning Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish linked to it as one of his "Quotes of the Day". 

6. Wendell Berry: Gardening as Health Regimen and Holy Sacrament

This post got picked up a couple different places on the web.

7. American Farm Bureau President Declares War on "self-appointed and self promoting food experts" 

Unlike the post on Dairy Management where large ag interests were eager to see my blog as an asset, this post led to quite a push back from folks at the AFB and the conventional farming community. The AFB PR took issue with my characterization that the AFB president had declared war on consumers concerned with large ag. practices. 

8. Why You Shouldn't Rototill Your Garden

I did a whole series of gardening posts last Spring and this was the most popular of the bunch. Other popular gardening posts include; How to Turn Your Lawn Into a Vegetable Garden, Planning Your Garden Plot (Companion Planning, Rotation, and Location)How to Make Your Own Professional Seed Starting Soil Mix, Tips for Planting the Garden

9. How to Get Started Raising Chickens in Your Backyard: Choosing You Chickens

This was part of a series of posts on raising backyard chickens. The other posts included one on building and designing a chicken coop and another on convincing your spouse it's a good idea.

10. Year of Plenty | The Book

I'm told the book goes to print on January 15 and will be released on March 1, 2011.

Thanks for everyone who has contributed and commented on the blog in the last year. If you want to follow along in 2011 you can sign up for the RSS Feed here, you can follow the blog on Twitter here, or click the Like button below to follow on Facebook.

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Study: Buy Local = 73% $$ Stays Local | Buy National Chain = 43% $$ Stays Local

Buylocal

It makes sense intuitively that when we buy from a locally owned store, that more money would stay in the local economy. Well, it turns out there is hard empirical evidence to support that intuition. A study commissioned by Michigan's Local First showed quite a contrast:

A 2008 study of Kent County by Civic Economics — commissioned by Local First — determined that just a 10% shift in consumer spending toward locally owned businesses would result in an estimated $140 million in new economic activity, 1,600 new jobs, and $50 million in new wages. 

According to Civic Economics, when West Michigan consumers choose a locally owned business over a non-local alternative, $73 of every $100 spent stays in the community. By contrast, only $43 of every $100 spent at a non-locally owned business remains in the community.

Click on the above chart to enlarge and see more detail.

Washington State Artisan Cheesemaker's Battle with FDA a Case Study in Food Safety Debate

image from estrellafamilycreamery.com The New York Times has done a great service by writing a story on the Estrella Family Creamery in Washington State, as an example of how the current national debates about small farms and food safety land in the real world. (Go here, here, and here for background)

The Estrella family, pictured to the right, left the city to make world-class artisanal cheeses. Here's how Kelli tells their story:

In 2001 we left home and business for an abandoned dairy on 164 acres. They laughed at our young family and said it couldn't be done, and I'll admit I had my fears! My faith was put to the test during the blood, sweat and tears of the early years. But we started with three cheeses and now have a list of 18, and at last the farm even feels like home.

Sometime last year I noticed that there was a lot of food on our table and some empty chairs, so we adopted 3 more kids from Liberia. Together the kids are learning that hard work won't kill them, and that the pursuit of excellence in our craft and careful nurturing of the creatures placed in our care yield a tremendous reward. Over and over at our farmers markets and in our emails they say thank you, thank you!! And they tell us stories of some of the finest moments of their lives that were enriched by our cheese. We are so blessed.

We hope you enjoy the fruit of our labors as well, and thank you. 

Since establishing their cheesemaking operation with 36 cows and 40 goats they have gone on to win a a series of awards that would make any cheese-maker jealous, and a loyal base of customers at farmers' markets and Manhattan restaurants.

But according to the Times, recent actions of the FDA threaten to shut down the whole operation after they found the presence of listeria in her cheese and in the building where the cheese is aged. They did a thorough clean-up of the facility but the FDA found the bacteria again:

Last month, the F.D.A., which does not have the power to order a recall (the food safety bill in the Senate would give it that authority), went to court, saying the “persistent presence” of listeria meant all of Ms. Estrella’s cheese should be considered contaminated. In response, a federal judge sent marshals to effectively impound the cheese, preventing her from doing business.

No one is arguing that the Estrella's shouldn't have a safe product, but there is a debate about the role of the FDA in overseeing small artisinal operations vs. the large industrial cheesemakers.

“If the F.D.A. wanted to shut down the U.S. artisan cheese industry, all they’d have to do is do this environmental surveillance and the odds of finding a pathogen would be pretty great,” said Catherine W. Donnelly, co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese of the University of Vermont, referring to the listeria testing at cheese plants. “Is our role to shut these places down or help them?”

Kurt Beecher Dammeier, owner of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker and retailer in Seattle, said the F.D.A. needed to work harder to understand artisans like Ms. Estrella. “The F.D.A. comes from an industrial, zero-defect, highly processed, repeatable perspective, and she comes from a more ancient time of creating with what she gets,” he said. “I’m not sure they can really even have a conversation.”

The key question is, do we want a food system where there is room for artisanal operators, or do we want a system where only industrial, highly processed foods are legal? There is concern that without the small farms amendments in the Food Safety Modernization Act, the American food system will be so inflexible, small farmers will be unable to comply. Just as the American food landscape is beginning to localize and diversify, the Food Safety act could undo the progress that has been made in recent years.

The Bill that passed cloture was essentially tabled this week when big ag lobbyists rallied legislators to halt the passage of the bill because of the small farms' amendments.

h/t Northwest Food News

UPDATE: For another, less sympathetic, take on the situation go here and here.

New Report: Local Food Could Be the Savior for Struggling Local Economies

Cherry blossoms Picture: Cherry blossoms from the last remaining orchard on Orchard Prairie in Spokane, WA.

Not every region and foodshed is capable of producing most of its own food for local consumption, but a new report on the Treasure Valley of southwest Idaho begs the question why regions that are capable of producing a majority of their own food don't even come close. Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Institute was hired by the Treasure Valley Food Coalition to assess their local food system and in a recent presentation he explained;

Idaho is one of the nation’s top producers of wheat, milk, cheese, onions, potatoes and dry beans. Nationally, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, we rank in the top 10 for production of 26 different crops and livestock. Yet most of that food leaves the state and we receive about 98 percent of the foods we consume here from outside sources...

Treasure Valley consumers spend $1.87 billion on food each year, yet $1.7 billion worth of that food comes from outside our region. According to Meter, if consumers bought just 15 percent of their fresh produce from a local farm or at a farmers market, it would be enough to produce $165 million in new farm income per year. Imagine what could happen if we all bought 50-75 percent of our produce, meat and dairy from local sources. “If you don’t invest in local production it won’t grow any higher,” Meter said.

He concludes;

...the current food production system removes wealth from rural producers and communities instead of leaving it where it is needed most: the local economy.

This sounds straightforward until you get to the part about farmers making an economic decision to grow fresh produce which is labor intensive, climate sensitive, with a short shelf life and few guarantees from local wholesalers that they will purchase locally instead of from California or Florida. Growing fresh produce has to be one of the most challenging ways to make a living.

Almost all of the subsidies that provide some stability for farmers go towards commodity crops, so farmers, who are putting their livelihood on the line (and often their life savings) every time a seed goes into the ground, generally choose commodity crops. 

Like Meter suggests, it will take some kind of "investment" in local production, whether it's from government or elsewhere, to shift the percentages. It will also take consumers of a particular region demanding local produce not only at the Farmers' Market but at Albertsons and Wal Mart. It would also help if we all ate more fresh seasonal produce instead of processed foods.

Check out C&S Hydrohuts for the kind of local food production experiment that may pave the way for more local food consumption in northern climates like Spokane.

h/t @NWFoodNews

Grinding Your Own Flour

I've had a couple of inquiries lately about people interested in either promoting their products or wanting to know about products for grinding your own wheat to make flour so I thought I would combine the two interests on this post.

When we set out to eat locally for a year in the one of the richest grain producing regions in the world we planned on grinding our own flour for the year. We bought a used Magic Mill grinder on Ebay that had been recommended to us by some friends, acquired some whole wheat berries from a farmer, and then never got around to grinding our own flour. Making butter and ice cream and yogurt among other things was all we could handle I guess. We also lost a little steam when we found out that almost all the flour for sale in the stores nears us is not only local but it's actually the same flour no matter which brand you buy. 

But I did investigate enough to know that it's difficult to find the whole grains to grind. They aren't readily available in stores. I was pleased to find out recently about Joseph's Grainery in Colfax Washington, about 45 minutes south of Spokane. They are selling barley, hard red wheat, lentils and soft white wheat. We ought to figure out a way to sell their products at the Farmers' Markets. 

Local Harvest is also a good place to investigate places nearby that sell whole grains. 

The wheat you grind at home is likely almost identical to the product that is ground at the ADM Mill down the street from my house, but there are some advantages to grinding your own wheat. It will be fresher and be free of preservatives and additives that may be in store bought flour. When we asked the folks at the ADM mill if they added preservatives they denied it, but explained that they do add nutritional supplements.

Home ground flour is also free from the industrial environment of a modern flour mill. When we visited the ADM Mill during our year it was a little disconcerting to find out that on that particular day they weren't grinding any flour because they were fumigating the whole mill. Even though they do this in a safe way that ensures safe flour on our store shelves, it is empowering to oversee the production of the flour.

All this has got me thinking I need to break out our old Magic Mill and give it a shot.

When it comes to flour grinders the highly rated Magic Mill that we purchased is discontinued. How about you flour grinding veterans out there. Do you have a machine to recommend to those interested in grinding their own flour?

Great Potential to "Green" Spokane at New Barr-Tech Composting Facility

 Someone tipped me off to the new Barr-Tech composting facility southwest of Spokane in Lincoln County. I spoke with Ted Condon yesterday, one of the project leaders, and he filled in some of the details. The facility is just starting to come on line after getting all the infrastructure in place. Initially it will create compost from organic waste, but plans are in the works to also process food wastes via an Andgar high solids anaerobic digester to create energy. There is also the potential in the future for single stream recycling at the location.

I asked him about the potential of residential food waste composting and he described what could be the future of recycling in the Spokane Region. This new facility opens up the possibility of residences having three cans in front of their home; a large single stream recycling container ( a huge improvement over our current system), a large organic and green waste container full of garden waste and compostable bags filled with food waste, and the what would be a much smaller garbage can.

We're pulling together plans for the Millwood Community Garden on Inland Empire Paper land (more on this tomorrow) and I asked him if they might have some compost for us this summer. He explained that they won't have compost available for farmers, gardeners and landscapers until next Spring, but that they'd love to help in the future. He commented that they actually take spent wood chips from the Paper Mill and compost them. He also met with Second Harvest food bank yesterday to sort through the potential of composting their sizable amount of food waste. I don't usually have epiphanies while talking about waste management but I had one at this point in my conversation with Ted.

Imagine this; the Paper Mill and Second Harvest both provide inputs to Barr-Tech for composting, saving them money and keeping organic waste out of the garbage. Barr-Tech provides rich compost to the Millwood Community Garden on land owned by and directly across the river from the Paper Mill, to help grow food for Second Harvest Food Bank. It makes me want to sing Disney's "The Circle of Life," or Jack Johnsons, "Reduce, reuse and party on." 

So party on Spokane. Your composting future looks bright, or should I say dark, as in rich dark soil.

If you'd like to advocate for Spokane moving towards this kind of future in recycling call Spokane Regional Waste at 625-6580.

Could Walmart Be the Savior of the Local Small Farm?

There is a must read article at the Atlantic Monthly describing Walmart's little known "Heritage Agriculture" program;

The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, willencourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California. In many cases the crops once flourished in the places where Walmart is encouraging their revival, but vanished because of Big Agriculture competition.

Ron McCormick, the senior director of local and sustainable sourcing for Walmart, told me that about three years ago he came upon pictures from the 1920s of thriving apple orchards in Rogers, Arkansas, eight miles from the company’s headquarters. Apples were once shipped from northwest Arkansas by railroad to St. Louis and Chicago. After Washington state and California took over the apple market, hardly any orchards remained. Cabbage, greens, and melons were also once staples of the local farming economy. But for decades, Arkansas’s cash crops have been tomatoes and grapes. A new initiative could diversify crops and give consumers fresher produce.

"Could" is the operative word in that sentence. It sounds like it's more an idea than a reality at this point. As much as I hate to admit it, it's going to take the Walmarts of the world to substantially transform certain aspects of local food systems. Our Farmers' Markets, food co-ops and specialty grocers have such a small share of the market that their impact is limited.

On the other hand the farmers' markets have something on offer that Walmart can never compete with; relationships. The markets facilitate relationships between farmers and customers and neighbors with neighbors. These interactions are too inefficient for the machinery of a bottom line business like Walmart.

Wendell Berry: Without Prosperous Local Economies, the People Have No Power and the Land No Voice

Sunflowerweb
OK, it's official. Wendell Berry is the Patron Saint of Year of Plenty. His writings resonate with me and our consumption experiences in the deepest ways. I wouldn't hire him as an economist or an accountant, but when I need a poet and prophet, Mr. Berry is the man.

His 2001 article for Orion magazine titled "The Idea of a Local Economy," describes the need to become aware of our consumer ignorance. He says;

...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance andvulnerability 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.

It wasn't until our family lived in the confines of our rules of consuming everything local, used, homegrown, or homemade that we realized just how ignorant and in the dark we are about the sources of our consumer goods. I remember the first week of our year, spending an hour in a grocery store going down the aisles piled high with thousands of products asking. "Where did this come from?" We quickly discovered that the problem isn't so much finding locally produced items, the core problem is that the vast majority of products have no significant markers indicating the product's origins or the practices that brought the product to market.  It takes the skills of an investigative reporter just to figure out where the cheddar cheese and milk comes from.

Berry get's to the core crisis of this arrangement when he observes that a consequence is that we are cut off from the land, and the land is cut off from us. This doesn't mean there aren't responsible stewards in the supply chain, it just means that we as consumers are made totally passive and totally dependent. In exchange for convenience and price we have deferred stewardly practice to others. 

Berry's prescription for this unhealthy arrangement is the development of local economies, especially local food economies. He concludes,

Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.

Small Planet Tofu Moving Operations to Seattle Area

Tofu-phil
I received word yesterday that TOFU Phil and his Small Planet Tofu operation will be moving from Pend Oreille County to the Seattle area. I'm sure his tasty tofu dips and flavored organic tofu will still be available in grocery stores in the Spokane area but he will no longer be a fixture at Inland Northwest Farmers' Markets.

This is bad news for those of us interested in nurturing local food systems in the Spokane area. The economies of scale are not in our favor when it comes to small food business models. The population and relative wealth of the Seattle area make it a much more viable home base for niche foods like organic tofu.

I've always been intrigued by Phil's call sign, "Tofu Phil." It seems like everyone at the Farmers' Markets has a food name. There is Chukkar Dave, Tofu Phil and Susie David Beef. I guess I'm jealous. Maybe I could be "Compost Craig" or "Kohl Rabi Craig" or "Canner Craig." I'll keep working on it.

If you're curious how an engineer like Phil became Tofu Phil, here's the story from his web site:

Tofu Phil had been intrigued by the idea of launching a tofu company ever since he read The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff in the early 1980s. Working full-time as an engineer, "I felt I was at the mercy of others when I was somebody else's employee," he recalls. "From January to June 1992, I dove into the tofu business while I still had my full-time engineer job. I made tofu at night. I would work at the engineering job from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and then two or three nights a week I made tofu from 5 to midnight. I was often working 16 plus hours a day. In 1993, got laid off for good and then did tofu and PC consulting. In 1994, I began working on tofu full-time. Jim and Sherry Brewster, the owners of Penrith Farms, inspired me to not give up and to continue to build it and pursue it and grow it by giving me the opportunity to move my shop onto their farm land, a much better location. They were the catalysts in helping me grow to the next level."

Godspeed Tofu Phil. May the curds be with you.

Wendell Berry: Orientation of Agriculture to Local Needs, Possibilities, and Limits Indispensable

Hay
In "Another Turn of the Crank" Wendell Berry argues that the place tobegin the work of restoring communities strung out on the global economy is the development of local food systems.

...In many places, the obvious way to begin the work I am talking about is with the development of a local food economy. Such a start is attractive because it does not have to be big or costly, it requires nobody's permission, and it can ultimately involve everybody...By "local food economy" I mean simply an economy in which local consumers buy as much of their food as possible from local producers and in which local producers produce as much as they can for the local market.

...Of course, no food economy can be, or ought to be, only local. But the orientation of agriculture to local needs, local possibilities, and local limits is indispensable to the health of both land an people, and undoubtedly to the health of democratic liberties as well.

He gives some specific recommendations worth considering. I wonder how we're doing in the Spokane region in these areas of development.

If the members of a local community want their community to cohere, to flourish, and to last, these are some things they would do:

...Develop small scale industries and business to support the local farm and/or forest economy.

...Strive to produce as much of the community's own energy as possible.

...Make sure that money paid into the local economy circulates within the community for as long as possible before it is paid out.

...A sustainable rural economy will be dependent on urban consumers loyal to local products. Therefore, we are talking about an economy that will always be more cooperative than competitive.

...It's an economy whose aim is generosity and a well-distributed and safeguarded abundance.

...Develop properly scaled value-adding industries for local products to ensure that the community does not become merely a colony of the national or global economy.

A Shout Out to Spokane's Creative Class

Quailfeather

Picture: Quail feather caught on some brush on a hillside in Spokane Valley.

I came across this article in the Ottawa Citizen about the way the "creative class" is leading the charge in the economic growth of more rural areas, as opposed to traditional manufacturing and construction sectors. I couldn't help but think of Spokane and our Inland Northwest Region.

The article references a study;

Canada's Creative Corridor shows that job growth in rural EasternOntario between 1996 and 2006 was led by far by Creative Class workers, at over 25 per cent -- ahead of the working class (manufacturing and construction) at 13 per cent, the service class (retail, food, personal services) at 10 per cent and the agricultural and resource class, where jobs actually fell by 21 per cent.

He defines the Creative Class as "teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and programmers as well as our artists, musicians and designers."

Here's the part that really grabbed my attention:

The report identifies several assets that have contributed to the success of the creative economy in rural Eastern Ontario.

These include an educated work force, a significant base of educational institutions, an ethos of innovation that has been demonstrated across numerous domains (for example, food, agriculture, health care, manufacturing), recreational and other amenities that contribute to a high quality of life, a culture of environmental sustainability (green agriculture, renewable energy, local food and local business support) and a regionally focused economic development strategy that includes the creative economy.

What about Spokane?

  • Educated work force and significant base of educational institutions? Check.
  • Recreational and other amenities that contribute to a high quality of life? Check.
  • An ethos of innovation? There are pockets of innovation but I'm not sure it adds up to an ethos.
  • A culture of environmental sustainability? There are some good things going on in this area but I'd hate to think about where we'd be if not for Jim Sheehan and his efforts downtown. One person does not a culture make.
  • Regionally focused economic development strategy? I see the Buy Local signs around but beyond the marketing strategy I'm not aware of a comprehensive economic development strategy for our region.

I don't agree with the class distinctions assumed in the article. For example, farmers are among the most creative and innovative folks I know. But I do agree that it's the creatives of Spokane, in all their wonderful varieties, that will lead the charge in Spokane of cultivating a more vital future.

But where are you? Where are the cultural creatives of Spokane? Where are the craftsmen of culture? Where are the excavators of ethos? Spokane needs you.

Arbor Crest Tasting Room and Gift Shop Open Today Despite Riblet Mansion Fire

I was up at the Arbor Crest Riblet Mansion this morning as part of my role as Spokane Valley Fire Chaplain. This is a real tragedy for the family that owns and runs Arbor Crest and for the Valley where historic landmarks are few and far between. They have done a fantastic job of updating the mansion over the last 25 years so it’s heart wrenching to see all the damage the fire did.

I wanted to pass along the word that the Tasting Room and Gift Shop are unaffected by the fire and are open today for shopping. One way to support this great local business would be to go out of your way to make the trek up Fruit Hill Rd. and get a couple of bottles of wine. They also have a location near the food court at River Park Square.Let the folks are Arbor Crest know how much you appreciate their work of preserving this Inland Northwest Landmark.

Below is a picture of the mansion from this past summer. And below that from this time last year.

Riblet manion 3 

Riblett mansion

Take Heart Cougs - You Can't Sell Out Football Games But You Can Sell Out Your Cheese

Cougar gold Who needs a football team when you have the WSU Creamery kicking but in the world of cheese making. They have apparently sold out of their 3 year old extra aged Cougar Gold cheese. You might still be able to get some from area Costco stores. Much respect to the creamery from this UW Husky. Go here for our field trip report to the Creamery from awhile back.

Rocket Bakery Expanding and Thriving in Tough Economic Times

I recently sat down with Jeff Postlewait, who started the RocketBakery in Millwood in 1992 with his wife Julia, and since then have opened 6 additional locations including the Rocket Market on the South Hill. A little over a year ago they diversified by opening Bottles right next to the original Bakery location where they offer killer deals on a great selection of wine and beer and also have regular tastings in the evenings. They also have a large wholesale operation for baked goods.

Jeff explained that they just purchased a new facility in the Valley on Trent near Sullivan to expand and move their baking operation and administrative offices. This will allow them to open up more seating at the Millwood site and even more at the Bottles location.

It's no secret that the Rocket is a great Spokane success story. They are the perennial choice for "Best Bakery" and "Best Locally Owned Coffee House" in local publications. There aren't too many home grown Spokane brands, but "the Rocket" stands up there as one of the most recognizable and well regarded. But what intrigues me most about the Rocket is that in this down economy when coffee shops are dropping like flies around town the Rocket is expanding.

Based on my experience with Jeff and Julia their key to success seems to be a focus on nurturing relationships. I don't think Jeff does much with computers but he's one of the best social networkers I know, the face to face kind of networker that Twitter will never rival. This shows in customer loyalty and their staff. And they also obviously have a good handle on the business side of things.

I reported earlier in the week on the 4x greater economic benefit of locally owned stores as compared with nationally owned chains. It would be a great case study to compare the economic impact of the Rocket compared to Starbucks in Spokane. I'm guessing in their case it may even be more than 4x. Jeff said that they've always taken the approach of putting money back into the business instead of cashing in assets, which means they're putting the capital proceeds from the business back into the community.

Go here for the ever expanding list of locally owned stores to purchase from this Christmas season and let me know if you know a good one to add.

Spokane's Family Farm a "Revolutionary Dairy" In Our Own Backyard

Back in April I noted the opening of Spokane's Family Farm, a local independent Dairy. In the midst of the worst dairy market in recent history they are still plugging away, carving out a market niche in Spokane area grocery stores and beyond.

There's an interesting transcript of a radio show over at Our Northwest Economy that offers an update after 7 months of operation. Here are some highlights from the conversation with Trish and Mike Vieira, formerly part of the Darigold cooperative of dairy farmers.

While they want to make a living, the Vieiras are more concerned withthe integrity and health of their product. One of the reasons they became independent is because they couldn’t stand the idea of their milk being pooled with milk from farmers who weren’t as clean:

Trish Vieira: It’s really hard when you do a really good job and you work really hard at it to see it just get dumped with the rest of it so that’s one of the reasons. [and] The other reason is the processing and what happens to the milk before it gets back to the consumer – it changes the milk components so much that it’s no longer healthy, nor is it hardly any longer milk.

I was most intrigued by their comments on the cleanliness of the cows and the relationship of cleanliness to bacteria in the milk:

Hawkins: Much of today’s milk has a very long shelf life because it is so sterile. It’s a commodity that is shipped over long distances and can last for months. Dairies don’t have to be as fastidious as the Vieras’ because their milk is highly processed anyway.

Viera: You get good shelf life for two reasons: low bacteria and refrigeration. You also get quality with low bacteria. So if you got a lot of bacteria you GOTTA boil the heck out of it to make sure it sticks. You watch your bacteria counts then you have quality and you have long shelf life. Ours is three weeks, and that is an excellent shelf life – I mean our raw milk would last that long. Our raw milk is very clean.

I also found it interesting that they have no plans to be organic certified because they want to be able to use antibiotics on the rare occasions when one of their cows is very sick and needing the help. For them it's about caring for the animals. It's important to note that this doesn't mean antibiotics end up in the milk. 

So if you live in the Spokane area and want local, clean, fresh milk Spokane's Family Farm is the sure fire bet. Since Darigold bought out Inland Northwest Dairies last year the supply lines of Spokane milk aren't quite as clear as when I reported on it in 2008.

Here's the scoop on where to get the milk from their website:

All the local Spokane Yoke's Fresh Markets and all the local Rosauers and Huckleberrys carry our milk. Some carry it in the conventional dairy case and some in the natural living sections.

Milk is always available at the farm for $3.50 per gallon and 3 gallons for $10.00. We are booking farm tours daily for milking at 5:00 pm and bottling at 11:00 am all tours end with a tasting of Spokane's Family Farm milk and home made cookies, or ice cream made fresh with Spokane's Family Farm Milk. Milk and cookies tours are $1.00 per person and ice cream tours are $3.00 per person.

Hello, My Name Is Craig and I'm a Recovering Conventional Consumer

I enjoyed being a part of the Food & Faith Forum this past Saturday put on by the Faith and Environment Network. One of the highlights for me was meeting one of my heroes, Fred Fleming of Shepherd’s Grain renown. Fred co-founded the co-op that markets grains grown using no-till practices, and a wholistic approach to agriculture they call Sustainable Agriculture, which falls somewhere between Organic and Conventional farming.

I got a kick out of Fred’s introduction. He said, “Hi my name is Fred and I’m a recovering conventional farmer. I’m 10 years into my program.” He echoed the sentiments of the other farmers who are in recovery mode, having been driven by the rapid rise in technology into unsustainable practices that erode the land and make them reliant on expensive and harmful chemicals. They are stepping back and experimenting with a more holistic approach. I admire Fred’s efforts because not only are they innovating sustainable practices they are also innovating a sustainable business model.

I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder’s basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint - Shepherd’s Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn’t understand in his critique is that it’s not ADM that has Shepherd’s Grain in its tractor beam, it’s Shepherd’s Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.

According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd’s Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM’s management and as a result Spokane’s mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It’s actually quite remarkable and it’s all happening right here in Spokane.

In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it’s going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, “Hello, I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” But it’s also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.

I’m reminded of what Vincent Miller says, “Consumer culture seems endlessly capable of turning critique into a marketing hook.” The flour we buy from the store is essentially all the same, just marketed in different ways. For example, Bob’s Red Mill is milled in Spokane with all the other flour (Western Family, Stone Buhr, Gold Medal, etc.) and then shipped to Portland and run through their stone grinders so they can capture our consumer imagination with the phrase, “Stone Ground”. If we want more than good feelings that come from marketing hooks, actual different food in the package, we should celebrate when an ADM executive makes his first visit to a wheat field. Fred Fleming gets that and we’re all better for it.

What About "Inland Northwest Local First"?

Lowcountry

I am back from our family vacation in Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It was interesting to be cut loose from the womb of the Inland Northwest that has sustained us for the last six months. We took a mini vacation from our rules but enjoyed attending the local farmers' market, where they had southern specialties like okra. I was impressed at the level of awareness around local foods. I didn't expect that in South Carolina. One of the reasons for this may be organizations like Low Country Local First. Here is their mission statement:

Lowcountry Local First advocates the benefits of a local living economy by strengthening community support for independent locally owned businesses and farmers.

We are an alliance that educates the public on the importance of supporting the local economy, and encourages businesses and consumers to be environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. We are one of 52 chapters of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE)

We envision a sustainable global economy as a network of Local Living Economies, building long-term economic empowerment and prosperity in communities through local business ownership, economic justice, cultural diversity and a healthy natural environment. Independent businesses create wealth by engaging local people in the production, marketing, and consumption of goods, they pay taxes, and reinvest in our communities.

We educate the public to:

• Reduce material and energy costs

• Recycle and reuse waste

• Buy and sell locally.

• Support local agriculture

One of the things that impresses me is that the organization is sponsored by grocery stores like Piggly Wiggly and other local businesses. I think too often the sustainability/locavore movement has rejected local businesses in favor of a more independent operation, free from the influence of large wholesalers. But let's face it. The only way to innovate substantial change in a community's consumption, that is more than a small niche economy in church parking lots, is to reform and enlist the current supply lines.

For example, I noticed that Yoke's just rolled out a large organic foods section at the Argonne location, and it's full of items from New Zealand and other far off places. What if they incorporated into that a local foods section?

I get excited about the prospect of an Inland Northwest Local First organization. Anyone interested? Yoke's, are you listening? How about The Inlander? Or Mountain Gear? Or the Rocket Bakery? Or URM? Or Avista? Or Waste Management? Holler if you hear me.