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2wk old pigs at Massa Organics in Chico, CA. Click the image to watch the video.
To change our food system, we can vote with our forks, support farmers who transition to organics and lobby government for agricultural reform. But a rogue wave is on the horizon which just may create a tsuanmi in BIG Ag...corporate responsibility.

On Monday of this week, food distribution giant, Sysco, announced, "We are committed to working with our pork suppliers to create a gestation crate-free supply system. We’re going to work with our pork suppliers to develop a timeline to achieve this goal.”

Gestation crates are metal cages just big enough to hold a pig and nothing more. Confinement systems are synonomous in factory farms or CAFO's (concentrated animal feeding operations)...Gestation crates disable pigs from moving from side-to-side let alone turn around. Their adorable noses which are intended for rooting around for food are rendered useless stripping them of their "piggyness" (in the words of Joel Salatin).

Sysco is not the first to make this type of pledge but they are the biggest player whose mandate could impact how pigs are raised in the US and hopefully other livestock. It demonstrates the power that corporate responsibility can play. It creates a "keeping up with the Jones" effect. When a industry leader makes a change of this magnitude, others will follow suit in order to be competitive. Likewise, a critical mass of smaller businesses can pressure bigger companies looking to improve their brand image. These motives to improve the lives of pigs and other livestock may not be altruistic but the result is the same...happier animals treated humanely and with respect.

Some staunch hold-outs like Domino's Pizza and Tyson Foods ridicule Sysco on their decision. But just like a politician, their marketing departments may have them singing a different tune if their sales or image starts to drop. Instead of pork, they may be eating crow.

We are already starting to see the impact that a critical mass can have on our food system. Schools and hospitals require huge volumes of food to service their students and clients. They are increasing the demand for healthier, local, sustainably grown food with Farm-to-School initiatives, scratching-cooking programs and Healthy Food in Health Care campaigns.

With Sysco's decision comes easier access for small food businesses looking to improve the food they serve. But this annoucnement does have its pitfalls...it will take 5-10 years to take full effect and "cage-free,"  like with chickens, does not mean grass-fed or free-range. But its a step in the right direction and one we need to recognize.

Read more on this topic by visiting a more detailed article written by Twilight Greenway at grist.org.

 
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Our first corn!
As I inspected our small crop of corn in the growing dome today, I found one lone ear infested with aphids. The crop is almost ready to harvest so I thought I would take a peak and make sure the little buggers hadn't damaged the corn. As I slowly peeled back the husk to reveal the ear, I felt a little like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory unwrapping to find the golden ticket. Would my hard work be rewarded with a healthy ear of corn??

Lucky for me, it was stellar! I'm a little biased but it was the most beautiful ear of corn I've ever seen. I felt a little guilty as I revered this work of art thinking of my comrades in the Midwest suffering from the drought and entire corn crop failures.

Conventional farmers with "big ag" contracts are protected with crop insurance. The same can't be said for small specialty-crop farms especially organic farms. They aren't eligible for these benefits leaving them to take the hit. For CSA farmers, they can at least lean on their members for a type of "crop insurance." In these desperate times, CSA members are learning firsthand what it means to share the risk with the men and women who grow their food.

As I've been following the drought, I couldn't help but wonder, "how are the organic farms holding up?" Are they doing better? And are conventional growers starting to see the pitfalls of their farming methods which deplete the soil making them more vulnerable to drought? I haven't been able to find a report documenting this just yet but I did find an article by one of my favorite food & farming writers, Tom Philpott. I was glad to see he was asking the same questions. And while the results aren't in for 2012, studies have been done which prove that organic crops have higher yields than conventional crops during times of drought and heavy rain. Why?

Organics fields are high in organic matter. The organic matter is a result of regular composting, diverse crop rotations and cover crops. It feeds the soil and in the process stores atmospheric carbon. Carbon rich soil is able to retain moisture helping soil to be more resilient during drought years. During heavy rains, carbon high soil can manage water better so it can filter through the soil versus not being able to penetrate hard, nutrient deficient soil which leads to flooded fields.

It isn't surprising then to learn that organically managed soil is a great way to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. When carbon is in the soil it is not in the atmosphere. Conventional crops can't say the same. The soil food web which creates the environment to sequester this carbon is destroyed when treated with synthetic chemicals.

My hope is that the 2012 drought will be taken into consideration during the final stages of the 2012 Farm Bill creating incentives to help conventional farms transition to organic and in the process transfer some of the crop insurance over to the farms making the switch in order to protect  their efforts.

 
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The Veg-heads Game: The blueberry, mushroom, cucumber, carrot and tomato
When talking to kids about fruits and veggies, you have to speak their language. Dressing up and  playing with silly props are always a good way to communicate a message but the activity is only as valuable as the impression it leaves on the child and the lessons they take home.

On Wednesday, July 11th...I traveled to Whole Foods Market in Folsom, CA to lead a kid's camp. The objective...teach kids about the nutritional value of their fruits and vegetables. If I went in spouting words like beta-carotene and antioxidants, I would have been met with blank stares. I needed something funny, hands-on, interactive and involved group participation.

The event was sponsored by Lisa's Organics and a promo event for their Gardens-to-Hospitals program. Lisa's Organics produces frozen, organic vegetables and their slogan is "Eat Your Veggies." Gardens-to-Hospitals' (G2H) parallel slogan is "Eat Your Colors!"

I start off asking the kids, "What are are your favorite colors to eat?" They quickly catch-on and start shouting out, "strawberries, snap peas, watermelon, pineapple, etc.." I explain that a colorful plate gives us a plateful of vitamins and minerals from different fruits and veggies.

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I ask for five volunteers to represent the five color groups: red, yellow/orange, green, blue/purple and white/brown. Hands go up! I select the first five promising that everyone will get a turn to participate. I pull out some simple, homemade costumes...colored, felt tunics with matching trucker hats that have a corresponding vegetable for each color group. I slip the tunic over their head and place the hat on their head. Giggles break out! The kids look as silly as I hoped they would. The make-shift costumes get them using their imagination like they would when playing at home and absent a stylie blueberry, mushroom, cucumber, carrot or tomato costume.

The audience members (the other children) take turns pulling a FRESH fruit or vegetable from a basket. Holding the vegetable, they are asked to identify the color and place it in the basket in front of the appropriate child/vegetable. As the items get selected, I get ready with my props...

Beets get pulled from the basket and is determined to be purplish. I say, "beets have magnesium which is good for muscles." I give the blue/purple child, water wings to represent BIG muscles. Laughter erupts!

A carrot gets selected! I follow-up, "carrots have stuff to keep our eyes healthy," and I give the yellow/orange kiddo some over-sized glasses.

Next, snap peas :) I tell the children, "Green veggies have fiber. Fiber keeps things moving through our bodies so stuff doesn't get stuck," and I hand the child a plunger.

Mushrooms get chosen! "Mushrooms have things to help clean our system and flush out the bad toxins. It's like an internal toilet brush." The child smirks as handed a toilet brush to hold.

The tomato child gets a tomato placed in their basket. I explain, "tomatoes have stuff to fight cancer. It's like having boxing gloves to ward off disease." The children laugh as oven mitts get slipped on the tomato kid.

By the end, the human fruits & veggies are holding and wearing a variety of props sometimes struggling to keep it all in balance. I ask the audience, "As you can see, we need all these colors to gives us what we need to stay healthy. You just can't eat the same thing everyday and hope to get everything you need to grow big and strong."

I ask, "How can we eat more fruits and veggies?" We talk about making fruit smoothies and juices. We have fun brainstorming the different pizzas, soups, and sandwiches we could make to get as many colors as we need each day. I encourage the kids to get their parents to take them to a farmers' market, perhaps start a garden, find some recipes they can make and basically get more involved in the foods they are being fed so they can have more fun.

 
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If you have followed this blog, you will know I am a BIG fan of the Rodale Institute. They are the foremost authorities on organic agriculture. The Rodale Institute has been doing side-by-side trials of organic to conventional crops for over 30 years; longer than anyone! They know their stuff!

I even accredit my foodlust to an article I read by the Rodale Institute in 2008 about mycorrhizal fungi. It rocked my world sending me on the journey I'm still fascinated by! Last fall I took a soils class at Rodale by the Jane Goodall of soil, Dr. Elaine Ingham. While there, the institute's new Executive Director, Mark "Coach" Smallwood, told me about their new grants program, Your Two Cents which supports aspiring organic farmers. At the time, I had no idea I would become an organic farmer. But when I did, I applied for the grant during their inaugural call for applications this past spring. And two weeks ago, Coach called to share the good news...The Truckee Community Farm had been awarded the grant and was one of the grants first two recipients. We were overjoyed! To be recognized by your hero affirms that the work you are doing matters. 

The Rodale Institute will be issuing a press release in the coming weeks. In preparation, they asked both myself (the farm manager) and the owner of the growing dome at Truckee Community Farm, Bill Kelly, to answer the following questions. Here's what I had to say...

What is your personal vision? What drives you – gets you out of bed every day? Learning more about ecological farming and helping to build a sustainable food community in Tahoe, are the two things that drive me. I’ve always liked to think big but I thought that meant you had to change things on a national scale. I’ve worked for a national magazine, ran a national film festival tour, managed athletes coast to coast, etc. But the real change comes at the local level where you can connect with people and see the change happening. Building community gives you something nothing else can…a sense of place!

What do you think is standing in the way of organic and sustainable being our primary agriculture system? I think the biggest thing standing in the way of organic agriculture becoming the norm is demand. The industrial, agricultural complex uses supply to keep a choker hold on our food system flooding the market with its refined, processed and corn-based foods. Sustainable, organic agriculture can win playing the other side of this economic model, demand! The concept is simple...if we increase demand for organics, supply will meet it.

Once people realize what they are doing to their bodies and the earth, demand will increase and the scales will tip. Media is one way to accomplish this goal…Instead of always making a comparison between conventional and organic as to which is better, demonstrate the science that soil dies when treated with chemicals. We dumb down the debate and as a result people don’t take it serious. But with the right knowledge, like with the labeling of GMO foods, media could help to turn the tides by creating a revolution.

Demand may come from an unlikely player...our healthcare system. People are treated for disease and  chronic pain with treatments, surgeries and prescriptions. Instead, diet and nutrition need to be an integral part of how we care for people. It is apparent the system is broken when you look at what patients are being served in hospitals. Just like we need to watch the pH of the soil we need to watch the pH of our bodies and ensure we are not too acidic from refined grains and sugars. With the help of organizations like Healthcare Without Harm, medical institutions are starting to connect the concept of "Eat well, be well!"  Their motives may not be all together altruistic. But no matter what the drive, change is coming…the medical industry does not want to flip the bill for the litany of food related diseases which are continuing to plague our country like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. The Healthcare system will be the ones to pressure "BIG Ag" to change their ways helping to transition conventional farms to more sustainable growing methods in order to keep up with the demand of healthy food being perscribed by people's doctors..

What tool couldn’t you live without? That’s a tough question because at present, I manage an 850sqft geodesic greenhouse with raised beds. I don’t use big equipment or even a hula-hoe. I have two hand tools, a trowel and shovel, and of course something to turn the compost. But because it is a greenhouse and we don’t get a lot of pollinators, I guess I would have to say my electric toothbrush is the tool I can’t live without. I use it for pollinating the tomatoes. I learned that trick from a friend who learned it from a friend. So far it is working. And every time I use it, I feel like a fairy spreading angel dust! Ahh, isn’t that sweet!

What do you see as the biggest hope for the next generation when it comes to food and farming? The biggest hope I see for the next generation is the potential for farming to be a green career with loads of  job opportunities. It may not be a return to full on agrarianism but the next generation of farmers will build hybrid careers around farming creating a lifestyle that reconnects them to the land and a way to feed themselves and their community good, clean and far food.