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Defining one's foodshed can mean different things to different people.

I recently became a member of our fabulous, local food co-op in Reno, The Great Basin Community Food Co-op. As a working member, you volunteer to support the paid-staff on duty. A new customer drawn by the colorful exterior of the building came in asking if we sold ONLY local products. I replied, "If there is a local food producer, we sell their products but we do sell other organic and natural items to provide a diverse product offering. And in winter, we pull from the larger foodshed that extends into California." She quickly replied, "I want local, not something from California."

She was making a fantastic first step to become better connected to her food and I didn't want to squelch her enthusiasm by having a debate over what defines local so we focused on finding Northern Nevadan products.

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The beautiful, veggie cooler at the the Co-op
The encountered intrigued me...Here are two people with similar aspirations for our food but our different perspectives could put us at odds. We are obvious teammates but with a different game plan. You see this a lot in politics. A political party could be a fragment of several camps each with their own agenda. If we all work independently, we'll never get anywhere. The food movement is no different. In order to move the ball further, we need to come together in solidarity and find common ground on the issues which define the movement.

We've all found ourselves in a situation where your passion for something goes too far to prove a point driving an even bigger wedge between you and the person you are trying to have a conversation with. The intention was good but the delivery was wrong. What is the best way to facilitate healthy, productive and supportive dialogue that is inclusive of each other's opinions? I think listening has a lot to do with it! I get so excited about food stuff sometimes that I practically throw up all over people with my organicy, regional, sustainability. I'm trying to get better...at first taking a deep breath, asking some questions and listening. This is especially handy when talking with people who are total newbies at making conscious food decisions. Too quick to convert, and we may lose them so we need to be respectful and play to their food interests.

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The question for the woman I met may have been, "Where do you get things that aren't local?" Even that has a twinge of condescension but it's a good question. And it begs us to look to the larger foodshed we are either apart of or connected too. I live in Tahoe. Tahoe straddles the Sierra Nevada range. The Truckee River drops east into Reno and The South Yuba River drops west to the Pacific Ocean flowing through Sacramento. It provides a unique opportunity, one denied to most people in the United Sates, the ability to eat year-round within 150-200 miles of our home. We are blessed!

Last week, I attended an invigorating meeting with the Local Food Network of Reno. I was so impressed by the amount of work that has already been done to map out the region and identify key initiatives for the volunteer-based organization. I was in dynamic company. We looked at food production, distribution, education, outreach and available  resources in the area. We examined each category on three scales...neighborhood, metropolitan and regional foodshed. It was brilliant! And a perfect visual to demonstrate how to procure your food when trying to shop local...Start by fulfilling food needs as close to home as possible. When needs can no longer be meet within your neighborhood, evaluate their importance and move to the next ring for options, the greater metropolitan area. As more needs arise, you'll explore the entire region for availability and discover the connection to the larger foodshed. Along the way, you'll reach thresholds as well as make exceptions for goods purchased further away. But hopefully not too far ;)

Tahoe is a high food security risk with its short growing season. We rely heavily on our Reno, Sierra Foothill and Sacramento partners to feed us. The rivers which flow east to west from Tahoe connect us. Watershed like foodshed! My foodshed!

 
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Over coffee the other day, my friend, Dan Smith with the Genesa Living Foundation, posed the question, "How do we create more farmers?" It was like throwing me a ball of catnip.

First, let's define what having more farmers will provide the United Sates...a low unemployment rate and smaller farms. Because the more people we have farming, the more farms there will be. We won't need as many large-scale farms because farmers will have been brought back onto the land. We'll have put people to work and begun repairing the acres of land devastated by conventional practices. It's a trifecta...social, economic and environmental success! As Barbara Damrosch of the Washington Post said in an article advocating for small farms, "We feed the world, fight poverty and address climate change!

But how do we get more farmers? I immediately think of the phrase, "If we build it, they will come." In other words, create an environment that supports farmers and small-scale production. Just like plants, farmers need the right conditions to grow. We need to make it conducive to farm. In doing so, farming will be more attractive and less of an alternative but more of legitimate option. It's not surprising that the environment is lacking. Less than 1% of the population is farming and big ag lobbyists keep whittling it down further. Just as chemical toxins kill plants in the fields, toxic energy in the business is killing the agricultural field. In the early 20th Century, nearly half the workforce in the US were in agriculture. It was not only a way to make a living but to provide for your family. People want the same two, basic things today.. .    

The biggest barrier to more people farming is the lack of infrastructure. If there was a legitimate support network for small-scale farming like we have in other careers and public works projects such as utilities, roads, law enforcement and health care, farming would be considered a viable career and job opportunity. 

To build that infrastructure, we need a jobs program to train new farmers coupled with a grants system and a land bank. In a survey of 1,000 US farmers by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, "access to capital, access to land and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginners." USDA grants exist but it is hard to qualify and bottom line there just aren't enough grants. Owning land is expensive and leasing land can be hard to find. Organizations like Farm Link and Farmland Trust do a great job of connecting farmers with available land but there is still lots of available land that could be acquired or repurposed to get more farmers farming.

Until that dream state arrives, there are grassroots efforts available that we can leverage to get more people farming...mentoring programs and public education. One is a short-term goal and the other a long-term goal. Apprenticeships, workshops and incubator programs exist around the country. ALBA Organics in Salinas, CA is an example. It's a 100 acre farm where graduates can lease land on a sliding scale. They pay 20% the market value for 1/2-acre and over time will pay 100% for up to 7 acres. Farmers work side-by-side learning from each other with continued education from ALBA's trainers. Business support is available for small entrepreneurs or farmers can sell produce to the organization's private label brand which is sells to Whole Foods and other grocers. Land trusts could help establish more programs like ALBA or regular people with land of their own or capital to buy, could create a center like ALBA that supports farmers through the entire process.

Public education on the other hand sets us up for the long term. At the elementary school level, class-based curriculum and from-scratch lunch programs will plant the seed for tomorrow in younger generations instilling a value for food and the hard work it takes to produce it. Food has become so convenient that we are not only disconnected from where it comes from but almost how to feed ourselves. At higher-levels of education, land-grant universities all need to embrace sustainable agriculture programs making it not just a degree but a school of thought. The later has a bit more red tape to get through which is why our youth are our best hope for change. Concerned parents can pressure school districts and integrate lunch plans that are healthy and made from whole foods ideally from local sources.

In an interview with Michael Pollan, he said government driven agricultural reform will not happen till there is stronger leadership and a national organization for the food movement. But in places like Venezuela, the government under President Hugo Chávez, are helping the people acquire farm land. Venezuela realizes that their people not only have an ancestral right to work the land but that economic prosperity and food security are result of an equitable society. A society where people take pride in being able to provide and be a contributing member of the community. It's a reminder that  food justice is a social movement. If the US government saw food through a larger lens they would realize too that the groundswell they are waiting for already exists.

The current political climate doesn't indicate that change will be happening anytime soon especially with $15 billion in cuts to the USDA budget for the 2012 Farm Bill. Progressive, conservation bills are at stake like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Act. And whatever happened to Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack's, 2010 proposal for 100,000 new farmers in the next few years? His plan outlined the infrastructure necessary to make it happen. Guess that's my next assignment!

Parting thought from Barbara Damrosch's earlier mentioned article, "let's bring a livelihood to the farmers, not just to the companies selling them products or trying to commandeer their lands."

Here is a short 4min video from one of my favorite filmmakers, Joaquin Baldwin. Whimsical in nature but hopeful in its message, the video demonstrators the power of farmers to provide whether it be food or in this case...renewable energy! Enjoy!

 
Before I left for Boulder last June to embark upon my food project at the Abbondonza Farm, I got pocket dialed by an old friend, Iain Paterson. It been a while so I called to catch up and found out he was living in Boulder. It was serendipity. Otherwise, I would have never known. We are old mountain biking buddies from Ventura days. He was in Boulder working as a filmmaker. He liked the story of Foodust and offered to come out to the farm and make a mini-mentary. Here is the world premier:

Foodlust from blue eyes and a hat on Vimeo.

 
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A common misconception is that chemical based fertilizers and pesticides didn’t exist till after WWII when Monsanto wanted to unload their reserve of biological arms on American farmlands in an effort to access cheap fertilizers and increase yields for a growing global population. The debate between conventional vs. organic, however, began many years before. In the book, Organic, Inc. by Samuel Fromartz, he talks about German chemist, Justus von Liebeg, who praised the ability of chemicals to replace manure as far back as 1840.

It was the Green Revolution of the 1940’s, one hundred years later, that opened the door for chemical fertilizers and pesticides to become the behemoth that is today. That door was opened even wider in 1971 when then secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, embraced modern technology as being able to out smart nature and the slogan for farmers was, “Go Big or Get Out!"

Justus touted, “If nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous were fed to a plant in proper amounts, even in depleted soils, the plant would grow." Instead of feeding the soil, it was feed the plant. Even then, in an effort to make a buck, the environment was seen as expendable and simply a means to an end versus a partner in food production.

Around the turn of the century, Sir Albert Howard of Britain started to be recognized for his research in organics at the Institute of Plant Industry in India. He pioneered the early research which debunked the growing belief that chemical versus natural farming was superior. His claim was simple...composted soil improved plant health. Howard is often considered the father of composting. He developed the systems that we still use today. By the time he left India in 1931, he was producing tons of compost. So prolific were his techniques that they could be conducted at any scale. He had no choice. He knew he was waging a war against the approaching Green Revolution. His methods had to out perform chemical-based fertilizers. He published his findings in the 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament.

Then along came J.I. Rodale. He brought the work of Howard, and others in the organic movement, to the people. Rodale launched Organic Farming magazine in 1942 (currently known as Organic Gardening). While one war was raging over seas, another was taking place on American soil, literally. It was a race to make organic not an alternative but the norm. His publications became a target of the food and the medical industry for making false health claims against conventional. Despite published reports by the USDA in 1938 which attributed the Dust Bowl to the soil degrading practices of conventional agricultural, the government was still persuaded to allow agricultural mega-corporations to take control of the food system.

The rest is history as they say. We've seen success and failures over the years for the now "alternative," organic movement. My hope is...the trend towards ecological and socially oriented framing methods will continue to grow and the work of our fore fathers will be honored in a greener tomorrow.

 
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In the wake of Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, resigning and a new Italian government on the horizon, it makes you wonder, "is it really that easy?" Out with the old government and in with the new? All of a sudden, some of my more radical ideas started to seem not so extreme. So I dug through my archives and pulled out a piece that I wrote a couple years ago when I first started dabbling in food thought. I had this idea for a farmer led food revolution. It is pretty idealistic. But sometimes you just have to ask, "What If?"


THE UPRISING
Change in the food system can come from consumers voting with their fork or government passing progressive policy. Neither is moving very fast. What if the change came from farmers? After all, they grow the food! Without them, we would have no food. From that perspective, they hold a lot of power. The number of organic farmers is growing but we need more. Could we get enough conventional farms to transition to sustainable methods before consumer demand and government support turn the tide?

How many conventional farmers would it take to create a farm revolution in Big Ag? If that number banned together in solidarity for better farm practices, it could create a tipping point leading to a cascade of agricultural reforms. But how do we convince this critical mass?

Big Ag has lobbied government to consolidate and centralize taking the farmer out of the equation. It has driven the percentage of registered career farmers down from 20% seventy years ago to just 1%. 1% leaves the agricultural industry vulnerable. A significant disruption like a flood, drought or plight could paralyze the food economy. An organized guerilla effort could give that 1% a lot of power.

THE MOVEMENT
I like to believe that all farmers have an innate love for the land. And if given the chance, conventional farmers would unanimously return to a management style that built integrity not only back into the soil but into their craft. In the root cellars of these tradesmen exist basic guiding principles of land stewardship. Farmers are in many ways the first conservationists; learning from nature on how to grow food and provide. If food insurgents help them recover this lost art, we can reclaim the land and reestablish a sensible, food system.

How about a movement that paid farmers to quit farming conventionally? Farmers would participate in a program where they would be paid from private funds to transition their farms over to organic. Contracts with Monsanto, Cargill and the like would need to be cancelled. Land would begin to heal and diverse farming ecosystems would once again populate the country. A training program would assist farmers in the conversion process giving them the necessary skills as well as a business plan for marketing their products.

If enough farmers participated in the program, the supply of organic food would eventually surpass the supply of conventionally grown food or at least give organic a competitive edge.

THE EFFORT
To convince conventional farmers, a coalition of organic growers would launch a ground effort to talk farmer to farmer. With enough farmers on board, conventional farming would begin to wane and perhaps be extinguished altogether.

The money to fund this project would come from individual donors - celebrities, business men/women, private parties, foundations, etc. Basically, anyone interested in seeing a change. It would require huge capitol. Billions of dollars would be needed to cover all costs associated with the project from paying farmers and training programs to the project’s steering team made up of fundraisers, farmers and administrators.

The proposed revolution would focus on large-scale producers. To truly fix our food economy, we need address the large tracts of land designated for industrial farming and ranching namely the Central Valley and the Bread Basket. The question then becomes...Do we help these farmers improve their practice at their current size or do we encourage them to down-size dividing their land into smaller plots to be bought and sold to new farmers? Smaller farms create jobs and smaller farms can more readily mimic natural ecosystems. Better for the land, better for the economy, better for the community.

Farming is an untapped job market which could significantly reduce unemployment. If we could get just 5% of the population farming again, it would make a huge impact economically, culturally and environmentally. It would help achieve Food Sovereignty where by "the people" define their food system and agricultural policy. Now is the time! The average age of farmers is getting older. We need young, enthusiastic farmers entering the market. If we don't get more people farming now, the ag giants will only get bigger as the gobble up the land of these aging farmers. Rise your scythe!

 
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Where has our democracy gone? Perhaps our government is playing a game of neener-neener-neener in retaliation to the Occupy movement...The house and senate agriculture committees have been tasked with fast tracking the 2012 Farm Bill which isn't set for its five-year renewal till September 30, 2012.

Let your congressman know how you feel, CLICK HERE

Why the rush? It comes as a mandate from a super committee of six senators and six house members who are cutting $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit over the next ten years. The super committee was formed to address the deficit crisis. The USDA's $300 billion budget (aka, Farm Bill) is responsible for cutting $23 billion. $15 billion is set to come from subsidies, $4 billion from conservation programs, like "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," and even $4 billion from nutrition programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The $15 billion is aimed at reducing some of the wasteful direct payments made to farmers. These were payments not for the losses they incur, low yields they produce or even land that was in operation. No, these were payments just because these farmers had land available for commodity crops. Good riddance, right? Well, not if big ag lobbyists have anything to say. Instead, new subsidies with fancy new names are being proposed that essentially do the same thing to cushion commodity farmers when prices drop. If grassroots lobbyists had the same power and money to persuade politicians, perhaps a face lift for their programs would have the same effect.

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Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) have submitted a petition from 26 congressman opposing the "secret farm bill" calling it undemocratic to push such critical legislation along so swiftly without public comment or debate. The ag committee's recommendation is due this week. The super committee will then make a final decision on November 23rd. All the other cuts working to whittle down the $1.2 trillion are due as well. If the ag committee fails to come to an agreement in time, the super committee will start to make cuts of their own. If the situation could get worse, it most certainly will.

Rushing things does not help the case for progressive new programs like The Beginning Farmer and Rancher opportunity Act. Those will be the first to get hit. The frenetic pace to close a deal does not create an environment for evaluation and reform. Under pressure to meet the deadline, these closed-door meetings will probably vote in favor to keep the commodity and crop insurance programs relatively in tact. The Farm Bill is intended to support the entire agricultural system and build equity through the entire supply chain from grower to consumer. The very essence of the Farm Bill is undermined by the super committee's mandate. How can a good job be done and the best interests of all be considered with this kind of pressure? As Daniel Imhoff said in his October 3rd Farm Bill article in The Nation, "At its worst, the Farm Bill perpetuates the counterproductive policies and priorities of American agriculture." Looking like another bad year.

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The Farm Bill represents 2% of total federal spending compared to the 42% for the military which could go as high as 59% in 2012. It seems if the government wants to save money, they are barking up the wrong tree. The Agriculture department needs to be reformed and money reallocated towards  conservation efforts which are helping to expand and support a more sustainable food system.

In this economy, the Farm Bill should be seen as a jobs bill. If allowed to reach its full potential, the Farm Bill could pay for itself with the economic stimulus it provides the food movement. In Daniel Imhoff's The Nation article, he pointed to The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's plan to create 100,000 NEW farmers. And programs like the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative could be leveraged to help conventional farms transition to organic. Now we're cooking....create new farmers and help transition conventional farmers with loans, education and marketing support!

If given the time it deserves, the Farm Bill would hear from nonprofit organizations like The Environmental Working Group on their recommendations for 2012:
  1. Eliminate direct payments to farmers.
  2. Provide EVERY farmer free crop insurance for losses of 30% or more
  3. Insurance companies should have to bid the federal government in order to service farmers.
  4. Require conventional farmers adhere to a basic set of conservation guidelines.
  5. Full transparency by the USDA as to who and how much each farmer receives in subsidies and crop insurance. 

The Ag committee was meant to have their recommendation by Monday, November 7th. Hopefully, enough pressure has mounted to give the Farm Bill not just an extension but the time it rightly deserves...September 30, 2012.

 
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After two and a half months in Ohio, I return to Tahoe to get boots on the ground. It's time to take what I've learned over the past five months and start working within my community to build a more sustainable food future.

From a farm in Boulder and an agroecology course in Santa Cruz to farm in Oberlin and a whole bunch in between, I'm ready to see what this ole'girl can do. All the information I've gathered is simmering in my brain waiting to be unleashed. I'm inspired by the opportunities I see in front of me and the different directions my work could take me...I may work with a food co-op to build farmer relations boosting local, food production and aggregating it through a regional distribution hub. I may work with a food bank to increase programs which address food access in rural areas. I may work with local business and town councils to stimulate local economy with new food businesses and pursue incentives which actively shift 20% of a community's purchases to local enterprise. I may work with local food-related organizations looking to expand their mission and help them harness the bubbling energy and interest that surrounds sustainably produced food. Or...I may just get a plot of land and start farming. Only tomorrow will tell. Either way, the adventure has only begun!

 
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A global map of Occupy movements on 10/15: http://map.15october.net/
Whether you are still uncertain about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations or you want to better understand it's scope and share its message, read this article by Chip Ward on TomDispatch.com. It does a great job of drawing the parallels between the economic and the environmental concerns of the 99% campaign. Here's a synopsis...

The Occupy Movement  has the potential to embody any issue where the needs of markets and corporations are put above the needs of the people and the planet. Chip's article shows how  "environmental quality and economic inequality are joined at the hip." He points to our economy's "bottom-line, quarterly-report fixation on profitability." "When there's money to be made, both workers and the environment are expendable," he exclaims! He describes the consequential ecological and social injustices that are encountered as "the price of doing business." Perhaps if "the barons of the chemical and nuclear industries lived next to the radioactive or toxic-waste dumps that their corporations create," things would be different. Chip goes on to say, "Polluters routinely walk away from the ground they poison and expect taxpayers to clean up after them. By 'externalizing' such costs, profits are increased."

Our capitalistic society can be both a blessing and a curse. Chip talks about the underpin of our economy, growth..."The fundamental contradiction of our time is this: We have built an all-encompassing economic engine that requires unending growth." He concludes by saying, "It's hard to imagine how we'll address our converging ecological crises without first addressing the way accumulating wealth and power has captured the political system."

Thanks Chip for your voice!