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

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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. 

The Other GDP - Gardening Domestic Product Worth Over 21 Billion In Homegrown Food

This week saw the final harvest of our garden. There is a small mountain of potatoes, tomatillos, green tomatoes, cucumbers, and spaghetti squash in the garage. It got me thinking about what the dollar value of this year's harvest and I came across this infographic at Mother Nature Network that puts the dollar value of home food gardening in perspective. 

The statistic that jumped out to me the most is that $2.5 billion invested in home gardening resulted in $21 billion worth of fruit and vegetables. To put it more simply, for every $2.50 invested in home gardening we harvest over $20 worth of food. They calculate it more precisely and estimate that on a per household basis, the average home garden translates into $530 worth of fresh goodness.

image from www.mnn.com


"Project Hope" in Spokane Teaching At-Risk Youth Urban Gardening & Life Skills

Project Hope is a great model program in Spokane teaching at-risk teens life skills through urban gardening, backyard chickens, farmers' markets, and landscaping. Project Hope was initiated by a group in the west central neighborhood, with Salem Lutheran Church as a key sponsor. It's yet another example of how churches are leading the way in these kinds of earthy outreach endeavors. Here's a recent TV report

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Time to Sign Up for a Winter CSA with Rocky Ridge Ranch

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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.

Portable raised bed farm made from milk crates takes root in New York

image from images.fastcompany.com
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.

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

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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.

"Peak Herbicide" - What Happens When Weeds Acquire Weed-killer Resistant GM Traits?

New Scientist is reporting that oil-seed rape (aka canola) has escaped cultivated land and become a tenacious weed. The battle against weeds is an age-old story, but this new problem comes with a twist. These "feral" canola plants have acquired a resistance to two of the most common herbicides - glysophosphate (Roundup) and glufosinate (Liberty Link). 

Several scenarios could explain how this happened, says Schafer, who conducted the project with her superviser, Cynthia Sagers. "It could have happened if one farmer planted glyphosate-resistant canola, and his neighbour planted glufosinate-resistant canola, for example." Canola plants escaped as weeds from one field could have been fertilised by pollen from the other, leading to a doubly resistant weed.

In case you're not familiar with how modern GM crops work let me explain. Modern crops have been genetically designed to resist the effects of certain herbicides so farmers can blanket their crops with herbicides that kill the weeds but not the crop. Seeds and herbicides are sold in tandem which is more expensive for the farmer, but the ability to kill off all the weeds leads to higher yields.

The scientists say this is not cause to freak out yet, but:

...there's a risk that genes for weedkiller resistance will spread to wild relatives. In 2002, two separate teams showed in controlled studies that wild sunflower and sugar beet could swap genes with genetically modified relatives and become fitter in the process. The latest findings in canola confirm that this is happening. 

The emerging resistance of weeds to herbicides is a ticking time bomb in American agriculture as reported earlier in July by St. Louis Today:

The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is getting worse: Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to Monsanto's Roundup, sold generically as glyphosate, forcing farmers to use other herbicides or "multiple modes of action." But during this season especially farmers are finding that these other modes of action aren't working either — and there appears to be little relief on the horizon. In Missouri, herbicide dealers have sold out of Cobra, one of the herbicides most widely used in tandem with glyphosate.

"Are they running out of options?" asked Aaron Hager, a weed scientist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The simple answer is yes."

One way to describe the cycle is that we've reached "peak herbicide." If we soak our land in these chemicals over an extended period of time, weeds will eventually find a way around our toxic firewall and there will be diminishing returns. The answer right now is to add more chemicals, and to resurrect older more toxic varieties to use in combination with their modern replacements. This also means that farmer costs are going through the roof and food and other commodities are going to continue to get more expensive. 

Some voices are decrying the "fear mongers" who are questioning GM crops developments. A recent article reflects this:

"Fear mongering is easy to do," said Dr. Frank Shotkoski, Director of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII) based in Cornell University, describing a sustained campaign against crops that have been genetically altered to bring resistance to insects and environmental stress.

"We are reaching a phase when the campaign against agricultural biotechnology is at a high peak," he said.

The key line in the article for me is this one:

"Not a single food safety issue has been verified, there is no evidence of a safety issue in the 15 years and so many million hectares of Bt crops planted," said Dr. Randy A. Hautea, Global Coordinator for ISAAA.

If a consequence of GM crops is a huge spike in the use of more toxic chemicals, isn't that a safety issue? It's take us 15 years to get to that point, but isn't it likely that this will endanger ag workers and degrade land? And isn't it possible that we won't be able to "verify" these consequences until it's too late? Before we hand over the fate of our entire food system GM crops and their chemical antecedents, I'd like to see a lot more research into the consequences to the health of people, land, and economies. I'm not anti-science but for now count me among the fear mongers.

UC Santa Barbara Study: Local Food Consumption Doesn't Reduce Carbon Footprint

All the locavore haters will be dancing with joy at the results of a new study done by UC Santa Barbara. The premise of the study is that if any place can pull off a truly local food economy it should be Santa Barbara County that ranks as one of the top vegetable producing counties in the country. A professor and students set out to see how local Santa Barbara County's food system is, and to understand the carbon impacts of local food vs. non-local food. The results are surprising.

The researchers found that more than 99 percent of the produce grown in Santa Barbara County is exported, and more than 95 percent of the produce consumed in the county is imported, some of it from as far away as Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. The study also found that, surprisingly, if all produce consumed here was grown in the county, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions less than 1 percent of total agrifood system emissions, and it would not necessarily affect nutrition.

"Most of what's grown here is shipped out," Cleveland said while standing in a tomato field about a mile from the UCSB campus. "And most of what's eaten here is shipped in. That just seems crazy."

This is the same kind of craziness we discovered during out year of local consumption. Our biggest "that just seems crazy" moment was when we were told that we couldn't get local Darigold cheddar cheese because most of it was shipped to Wisconsin.

Here's another interesting tidbit:

"I talked to a manager who was very excited about his local fruit, Santa Maria strawberries," Radka said. "But he said he got all of his strawberries from the warehouse. I asked him where the warehouse was, and he said that it's not in the county. Turns out it's in the Bay Area. So strawberries from Santa Maria are transported by truck to a warehouse in the Bay Area and then trucked back here to be sold in stores."

The authors of the study still advocate for local food systems, despite the CO2 findings, but they say that local food systems should not be the goal but the means toward the end of improved nutrition and sustainability.

Greenhouse gas savings has never been the primse motivator for my advocacy of local food systems and these findings don't come as a surprise to me. I've heard them before. I think it's important to note in this conversation that the current far-flung food system is highly dependent on cheap and abundant supplies of oil. From fertilizer, to pesticides, to diesel fuel for semi-trucks and tractors. The main reason the transport of food is only 1% of total agrifood emissions is that there is so much fuel used in the rest of the system. When oil prices spike there are a lot of food companies that would love to shave 1% of their fuel expenses off the bottomline.

Here are some of my arguments for a local food system:

1. It helps develop relationships between farmer and consumer.

2. It helps build connections between consumers and land and farming practices.

3. It educates people, especially children, about where their food comes from.

4. It promotes seasonal eating.

5. It disrupts our assumptions that we can have whatever we want, and we can have it now.

6. It connects us with the seasons.

7. It connects us with a place and the story of a place, helping us shape a hopeful future community story.

What about you? What are your reasons for supporting local food.

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?

CSA Vegetable Box Programs Growing and Evolving

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. 

KFC, Jack in the Box, and Other Fast Food Restaurants to Accept Food Stamps

The California Restaurant Association is lobbying San Diego County supervisors to allow participants in the CalFresh Food Benefits program to use their federally funded debit cards to receive hot, prepared meals at restaurants. North County Times reports:

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved early plans to allow elderly, disabled and homeless recipients to redeem their county-administered benefits at local restaurants. With the vote, county staff is charged with crafting a way to put the plan in place, and presenting it to the board in three months.

Supporters say restaurants should be an option for food stamp recipients because many have no way to cook or store the food they receive at grocery stores. About 10 percent of the county's 213,000 food stamp recipients would be eligible for the program, county officials said.

"A lot of the elderly and the homeless don't have kitchens," said Andrew Casana, a lobbyist for the California Restaurant Association, speaking to the board at its downtown chambers.

The association brought the idea to board members last year, saying it would boost business and fill a community need. The number of people receiving food stamps countywide has spiked by 79 percent in two years, according to the county.

At first blush this seems like a terrible idea to me, but I can see why they are taking the proposal seriously. The option would only be open to the 10% who are homeless or don't have access to a kitchen. The menu items would be limited to supposedly healthy options, but the list of participating restaurants doesn't inspire confidence -  Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut, Jack In The Box, KFC, and Carl's Jr.. I am thinking of one homeless person I'm working with lately who doesn't have access to a kitchen and he mostly just wants peanut butter from our food pantry. The worst fast food would be a better option for him than just peanut butter. So for him, and people like him I would support something like this.

What concerns me is that this is the beginning of a shift in the way federal dollars are used to help the poor. This door has already been opened in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I'm wondering how long it will take the lobbyists to suggest that the program has been so successful that they need to open it up to people who have kitchens but who don't know how to cook. That is a major problem for many people in poverty. In working with the EBT program in Spokane County at the farmers' market, I know there is hard fast rule that benefits cannot be, in any circumstance, used for hot, prepared foods. I think that's a good thing, but I'd like to see more resources go into helping people in need develop skills for preparing healthy meals with low cost fresh foods subsidized by the government. Another helpful direction would be to help people learn to grow their own foods and preserve them. Ironically, the local food movement that is much maligned as elitist, is the cultural resource that is best able to help people poverty develop these skills. 

The Food Sense program in Spokane County is a doing some of this important work.

As Agribusiness Grows, Farmers Get Less and Consumers Pay More

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.

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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Sante Restaurant in Downtown Spokane Offers Healthy Mix of Local Food

Sante1 Sante is the French word for health. Jeremy Hansen, owner and chef of Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie exemplifies a holistic health in the way he runs his pioneering establishment next to Auntie's Bookstore in Downtown Spokane.

Jeremy grew up in Spokane and has been in the restaurant business since he was a young teenager, cutting his teeth at the Mustard Seed and other area kitchens. He eventually attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland where he not only honed his skills as a chef, but formed a philosophy of food and community that eventually gave birth to Sante.

Sante is remarkable for the way it sources foods locally. Hansen is pictured above processing the half of a steer that was just delivered that morning by Gary Angel of Rocky Ridge Ranch. Most of the beef and other meat at Sante comes from this nearby farm. Jeremy points out that not only is Gary's beef superior in quality because of the feed and care Gary provides, processing beef in this way also makes good business sense. By cutting out the middle-men he makes a good profit, Gary get's a good price and a reliable market for his beef, and the consumer gets a choice meal at a reasonable price. This is a great example of Jeremy's uncompromising pursuit of holistic health. Everyone wins, including his employees who apparently are paid well above average for Spokane area restaurants.

Sante2 Sante is not only a restaurant, it is a Charcuterie, which is the area of cooking that involves preparing meats like the sausages, bacon, and prosciutto ham pictured to the left in the restaurant's display case. Jeremy was telling me that he really had trouble making good prosciutto with the pork that was available through commercial channels. He said, "When I used Gary's Berkshire pigs it came out comparable to the finest hams available in Europe. The quality really is dependent on what the animals eat. When we eat animals we're really eating what they ate." All of the items in the displays case are not only used in meals for diners, they are available for bulk purchase. They even make their own mustard which I saw being prepared in the kitchen. I imagine the steady stream of income from these items is the envy of every restaurant in Spokane.

There is one other unique aspect to Sante that was a great surprise to me. While it is in many respects a fine-dining establishment, the space they've created is warm and welcoming, even to a guy like me who wants to plug in a computer and do some work while he eats. They have a counter with outlets and stools that connects the restaurant with the book store and free wifi. I had the toasted-cheese sandwhich that included an egg and a couple of slices of their house bacon. It was fantastic and was in the Red Robin range of prices.

Needless to say I'm impressed. While many talk about the virtues of local and sustainable food, Jeremy and his wife took their life savings and are turning those virtues into a sustainable business. Spokane is a healthier city because of their efforts. If you're giving a gift certificate for Christmas this year, Sante should be high on your list of candidates. They are open for breakfast and lunch, 8am to 5pm, 7 days a week. They are open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday till 9pm.

 

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.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article, While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn't going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn't seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino's marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino's for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberal Huffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.” 

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.” Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying "Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas," adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I've done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn't sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss, "ace New York Times Reporter" didn't do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that's been done on the story, I'm the only "reporter" that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn't have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn't speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I'm baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn't.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I'm flattered that the "So Good" food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I'll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn't take the "tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza" bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don't believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don't believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That's why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don't follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It's actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus' commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Wal-Mart ramps up efforts to buy local food

Wal-Mart continues to make larger bets on going local and more sustainable as reported this morning;

In the United States, Wal-Mart will double the percentage of locally sourced produce it uses, to 9 percent, the company said. Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state. Still, the program is far less ambitious than in some other countries — in Canada, for instance, where Wal-mart expects to buy 30 percent of produce locally by the end of 2013, and, when local produce is available, increase that to 100 percent.

In emerging markets, Wal-mart has pledged to sell $1 billion of food from small and medium farmers (which it defines as farmers with fewer than 20 hectares or about 50 acres). It will also provide training for the farmers and their laborers on how to choose crops that are in demand as well as the proper application of water and pesticides.

Go here, here and here for previous posts on Walmarts efforts to go local.

Spokane Area Farm to Offer Winter CSA Meat and Vegetable Subscription

image from www.rockyridgeranchspokane.com Living in a northern climate means short growing seasons and extra challenges finding local sources of food during the winter. This year Rocky Ridge Ranch, a farm small sustainable farm in Reardan, WA, is going where no other Spokane area farm has gone in helping consumers with this dilemma. They are offering a winter CSA program.

CSA's are a wonderful innovation in local food but it's likely you have no idea what a CSA is. They are basically subscriptions for a weekly supply of fresh local fruits, veggies and meats. Go here for previous posts that will help bring you up to speed and go here for a first hand account of someone's experience with a CSA. CSA's are a win-win for farmers who need steady reliable cash flow and consumers who are often too busy to hunt down local sources for food.

Rocky Ridge Ranch produces some of the areas best meat, eggs and produce so this is a great opportunity.

Here's the description they give of a typical weekly delivery;

Meat
Chicken or Roast (beef or pork or lamb.)
Beef Steak, or Pork or Lamb Chops, or Beef, or Pork Cutlets
Sausage, Bacon or Links
Ground Beef or Beef Stew Meat or Ground Pork or Ribs
Soup Bones, etc. as available
(Substitutes of comparable value may have to be made from time to time.)

Produce
Salad Mix or Spring Mix or Spinach
Salad onions or radishes
Lettuce, or Winter Greens
Beets,or Carrots or Potatoes (Stored or fresh)
Squash or Cabbage ( Brassicas we succeed with.)
Herbs (dried or Fresh.)

Go here for the full run-down.

Battle Brewing Over the "Farmers' Market" Brand In Washington State

Safeway fm photo: Nick Wingfield/The Wall Street Journal

I first got wind of a brewing controversy from Jack, a commenter on the blog, who heard a radio ad to the effect of - No need to go to the Farmers' Market when you can come to the Albertson's produce market. Apparently Safeway has been taking a similar approach, promoting their in-store produce experience as a farmers' market.

Yesterday I received notice from the Washington State Farmers' Market Association that they are forming a task force "to review the use of the term "farmers' market" by non-WSFMA-member groups." I didn't immediately make the connections between the Albertson's ad and the formation of the task force but then I came across this WSJ article explaining the controversey;

Farmers and their supporters have spent several decades building "farmers' market" into a brand that signifies something specific to consumers, namely, locally grown produce fresh off the farm. Now, to the dismay of farmers' market representatives, two large grocery chains in the Northwest recently began posting store banners advertising displays of tomatoes, corn and other items as farmers' markets.

In June, several Safeway Inc. stores in the Seattle area posted signs with the term "Farmers Market" above produce displays in front of their stores. When local farmers' market groups complained—the offerings included mangos, which aren't suited to Washington's climate—Safeway changed the signs to say "Outdoor Market." A Safeway spokeswoman said the chain has no plans to call its outdoor events "farmers' markets" in the future.

But then, over the Labor Day weekend, about 200 Albertsons stores in Washington, Oregon and Idaho put up their own "Farmers Market" signs next to their produce stands. The same groups complained to local Albertsons managers about the promotions, but a spokesman for the chain's owner, Supervalu Inc., said the Albertson stores may repeat them in the future if the chain deems them effective. These "farmers' supermarkets" have popped up from time to time in other regions as well.

In Washington State the rules for state association member markets are very clearly defined and enforced, so it does create a dilemma when you have a highly regulated use of the term "farmers' market" alongside a fast-and-loose use of the term, strictly for marketing purposes. I'll be interested to see how this shakes out. I think a good argument could be made that the state association, through its work, has established and nurtured the term "farmers' market" as a valuable brand in the state of Washington, and therefore they should have some authority to regulate the use of the brand.

This is yet one more example of how the rapidly growing interest in local food has large retailers scrambling to get on board. I'm not sure if they are seeing a decline in sales or if their marketing departments simply see an opportunity.

I did an interview yesterday for an upcoming show on NPR about the growing backlash against the local food movement, and I was asked about the critique by some that farmers' market and the like are nothing more than elaborate marketing schemes. My response is that there is actually something very real and substantial going on in our culture around food, and there are some that are responding by turning that into a marketing scheme. But as the flimsy marketing banners go up around town, let's not forget the substantial shifts that are taking place in the relationship between consumers, food, farmers and land. The marketplace is responding to consumer interest, but let's not then equate the marketplace's response to the thing itself.