PictureHappy cows grazing at Baker Ranch - Doyle, NV
Raise your hand if you use grass-finished as one of your main criteria for buying meat. Raise your hand if you truly understand what it means.

This is not a trick question. Grass-finished is what it says...animals finished solely on grass and not fed supplemental grain. But does grain have a place at all in a cow or steers diet? The easy answer is to say no. Cows are bovines...large, domesticated ungulates, with a complex, 5-stomach, digestive system that is not intended to process grain but rather a robust variety of grasses and alfalfa. But in large commercial feeding operations, grain is pretty much all cattle receive because it is cheap and grows big beef fast. As a result, the cattle have to be injected with antibiotics frequently to keep from getting sick from their inappropriate diet.

Let's first understand the terminology around "cows"...Bulls are uncast rated males, steers are castrated males, and heifers are female cows who have not had a baby. And a cow is a female who has had a baby. Not sure how we came to classify them all as cows but that's the course history has taken. And another interesting fact...it is mostly steers that we eat.

A grain diet helps to marble the meat and make it tender. Grass-finished beef will be very lean, perhaps a little tough and for some, will have a very distinct, almost gamey, flavor. So how can we get the best of both worlds? I like to call it "farm finished."

When an animal is "farm finished," the animal stays on-farm all the way up to the day of slaughter. If you are fortunate like Northern Nevada, you have Wolf Pack Meats in Reno. It is one of the most well-respected, independent, USDA slaughter houses in the country where a rancher can slaughter but also have their meat cut and packed. The last part is what makes Wolf Pack Meats really unique. All the processing is done under one roof versus slaughtering in one facility and having to take the carcass to another facility to get it cut & packed.

When an animal is "farm finished," it means they finished out their life on the same ranch they were born. They are well-cared for, may have a name, have enjoyed a busy life of rotational grazing and have not received any hormones, antibiotics or steroids. Many cows start out their lives on pasture eating grass but then spend the final three quarters of their life at a feed-lot eating grain because there are few options for ranchers to "finish" their animals on farm and still make a living.

When an animal is "farm finished," the rancher has an intimate and personal relationship with their livestock. So if the rancher decides to add sustainably-sourced grain to an already grass-based diet at the end of an animal's life, is it so bad? The portions are monitored and only in the last month, does the animal get a larger feeding of grain in order to marble and tenderize the meat. The animals are still on "their" farm, with "their" rancher and in happy and healthy conditions. If I had one month to live, I would problem break some dietary rules as well and eat a few extra sweets and things.

At Baker Ranch in Doyle, NV, Karl Baker rotates 55 cows and their offspring around his family's 1200 acre ranch. After six months, the steers are separated from their mothers and graze for another 8-12 months on a 40-acre pasture where they graze, get fresh organic hay that is grown on site and receive a supplement of "brewery mash." Brewery mash is spent barley grain and a by-product of beer making. Karl is the former beer master at Great Basin Brewery in Sparks and saw an opportunity to recycle this duffy, oatmeal-looking mixture as a way to finish his cows and tenderize the meat naturally.

Scott and Karen Stone of Yolo Land & Cattle in Winters, CA raise grass-finished beef. You’d think they would be the first to bash any grain in a cow’s diet. Quite the contrary. Karen explained, “Grain is like sugar to cows. They love it!”

Another way to look at it is…Grass-finished is a style of farm finished. The only other style of farm finished is a supplement of sustainably-sourced grain at the end of an animal’s life. Both describe animals that are raised humanely, in small herds, and who have lived on the same farm their whole life. They are cows with a story!   

The take-away is…feeding well-sourced grain to a cow in the last part of its life can be done sustainably and in a manner that is not harmful to the animal and does not require other inputs like hormones, antibiotics or steroids.

For foodies, we've got grain on the brain and think that grass-finished is the only way to judge the well-being of a cow and how it was raised. It precludes us from other good options. There is definitely more to the story. Basically, we need to know our food and ask questions. So the next time you are out for a meal; ask for farm finished and if they say grass finished then you know that is just as good!

 
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Photo courtesy of Daphne Hougard
The story of the Tahoe Food Hub has a lot of moving parts and can be hard to capture in a press interview but Laura Brown with the "The Union" in Nevada City/Grass Valley, CA nailed it! We so appreciate her thoughtful reporting and comprehensive coverage of who we are and what we want to do. Below is an excerpt but for the full story, click here.

An emerging nonprofit group called the Tahoe Food Hub is reaching out to foothill farmers in Western Nevada County in an effort to supply restaurants and natural food stores in the Truckee-Tahoe region with fresh, locally grown produce.

If done well, the project has the potential to reduce the headache of marketing and distribution while securing a steady stream of revenue for local agriculture, say some local farmers.  A food hub aggregates food from regional producers, stores it, markets it and distributes it within a local area, according to the Tahoe Food Hub’s website.

“We’re mirroring a national food system but doing it on a regional level,” said Susie Sutphin, co-executive director of the Tahoe Food Hub.

Food hubs help small-scale producers find new markets, provide local communities with healthy, ecologically grown food and educates consumers about the importance of sustainable agriculture and the positive ripple effect of buying local. Read the whole story here...


 
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I attended Nevada County's Sustainable Food & Farm Conference this past weekend in Grass Valley, CA and enjoyed an all-star line-up of keynote speakers...Temra Costa - author of Farmer Jane, Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee, topped of with a little Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, a.k.a. poster boy for sustainable farming practices...otherwise known as the farmer made famous in Michael Pollan's book, Omnivore's Dilemma and the Oscar nominated film, Food, Inc.

Getting to see Joel was just a warm-up for his upcoming lecture at Olympic Valley Lodge in Squaw Valley on Wednesday, February 13th; hosted by Squaw Valley Institute and in support of the Tahoe Food Hub and Slow Food Lake Tahoe. If you live nearby, reserve your tickets today at squawvalleyinstitute.org.

Knowing he was speaking to a choir of sustainable farmers and foodies, Joel handcrafted a new lecture on the fly for his audience of 300. I thought that was pretty thoughtful and it brought everyone to an even more alerted attention when he announced he had new material. He wanted to speak about people's "Fear of Success" and that people are actually less fearful of failure because so many people fail and "what's the harm in trying?" His request was for radical thinkers to take a chance on a passionate idea. As his Dad use to say, "We'll know more in 30-minutes that we do right now." In other words, you won't know if you'll succeed unless you try and trying is the fountain of youth.

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Joel Salatin and his kids: Daniel and Sheri.
Joel outlined the FIVE R's of being an entrepreneur:
1. Risk...gotta be willing to take a chance
2. Renegade...be an original thinker
3. Reliant...reliant on oneself and not dependent
4. Ruckus...get rowdy and stir things up
5. Rigorous...its going to be hard work but stay focused and unwavering.

Putting the "FIVE R's" in the context of agriculture, Joel made it seem pretty cut and dry, "If you want to become a farmer...be a farmer." And proceeded to discuss the 5 WAYS TO SCALE-UP TO SUCCESS and "be a farmer."

1. How do I get land?...Joel expressed there is a lot of land out there and you don't need to necessarily own it encouraging aspiring farmers to approach landowners with farmable land which can be leased. And with 50% of the farmers about to retire, the market is about to become flooded with food producing acres so we need to connect young farmers with aging farmers.

2. Be a people person!...Being a farmer is a pastoral life but it doesn't mean necessarily an introverted, unsocial life. To be a successful farmer, you can't be afraid of people because growing food is about growing community and you need to cultivate the relationships with your neighbors just as much as your crops because they are your market.

3. Management...Not everyone is the best manager but to be successful, you can't be afraid to try. The only way to be successful is to become a manager so you can grow your business but also so you can have a "life" and do other things versus never leaving your farm because you have no one else to do it. Joel's suggestion, "Hire your first person right after you go crazy!" I think we all know what he's talking about there, haha!

4. Regulations!...With success comes regulations whether it be workmen's comp or grower certifications. They can seem daunting but resources are available to make it easier. Don't let regulations be an impediment to success because it's just another hurdle like learning to farm.

5. Business...You're in business to be successful so get set up for success. Have an action plan no matter how simple it is and strive for those goals.

From the mouth of Joel!

 
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Photo courtesy of Jamie Kingham
The winter edition of "edible Reno-Tahoe" just hit newsstands and pasted below is the beginning of an article I wrote about some fascinating farmers along the East Side of the Sierra...a portion of the story had to be cut from the print version in order to make word count so I've included it here. The omitted section shares how the farmers, Dan and Rachel McClure, met and got started farming. Knowing the background and history of a farmer is just as important as knowing what they grow and how. Because really...how can you know your farmer if you don't know their "story"? And often, it is the best part as you will find out below. For the complete story, go to the edible Reno Tahoe" website.

As we walked through the greenhouse, clipping and sampling leaves and flowers, it felt a little like a scene out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where everything seemed edible. It was magical as licorice exploded from the French Tarragon and the taste of cucumber from the Starflower made my eyes widen in surprise. 

I wasn’t on a movie set; rather, this was the small, specialty-crop farm of Dan and Rachel McClure with Sierra Edibles and Nevada’s Own. On 10 acres of land below the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains in Wellington, Nevada, the McClures produce more than just edible flowers but also a variety of herbs, hardy perennials, native berries, heirloom tomatoes, free-range eggs, and one unique variety of mushrooms.

Dan and Rachel first met in Palm Desert, California in 1996 and moved to San Luis Obispo a year later to attend Cal Poly. There, they sealed their fate together...Upon graduation in 2000, they stood on life’s frontier. With youthful enthusiasm, they wrote their mutual goal together and displayed it on a sign in their backyard greenhouse. The sign read: “In five years, we will be growing food for market.”

Dan’s love for plants and flowers, however, began long before, when visiting a sick relative who was on an extended stay in the hospital.

“I noticed that people only smiled two times when in the hospital … when they heard a baby was born and when they received flowers,” Dan recalled. “I knew then, I wanted to be in the garden business and make people happy.”

Dan’s horticulture science degree took them to Oklahoma after graduation where he pursued a career in commercial greenhouse production. But a conversation that began at Cal Poly itched at them through their early profession...A college lecture discussed the threshold of pesticide use in the field. Dan and Rachel struggled with this industry practice, knowing it was not how they planned to fulfill their goal. And when they had their first son, Roark, with brother Atlas following six years later, they knew the game had changed; they wanted to pursue a type of farming that was good both for their family and the earth. By 2005, it was time to move and start their own more ecologically sound practice.

Dan had grown up in the Sierra, so it was a natural choice to return home and settle in a place that was both scenic and in close proximity to several consumer markets where the McClures could sell their food. As they unpacked, they discovered the sign they had made five years earlier in San Luis Obispo...something to be said for the power of intention.

Read the rest of the story at edible Reno-Tahoe magazine!


 
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The debate between organic and conventional agriculture is not nearly as polarized as the news would have you think. There is a large gray area in the middle where conventional farmers are transitioning to more sustainable practices but not necessarily organic, at least yet.

I've often thought (and blogged about it. Click here for article 1 and article 2) that real change in the way we grow food is going to come from the farmers. They see first hand the devastating impact that chemical fertilizers and pesticides have on their land. They are also starting to see the money they could save in synthetic inputs by farming more ecologically and still have the same, if not better, yields.

Massive and sweeping change in the agricultural industry is probably never going to happen at the scale we would like. And for sure, the change is not going to be driven from the deep pockets of Monsanto. Rather, it's going to start at a grassroots level.But it isn't going to require that farmers convert cold turkey, however, and go organic overnight. It starts with baby steps like utilizing cover crops and crop rotations to better manage soil. Twilight Greenaway wrote a great article for Grist.org entitled, "Feed your soil - and the rest will follow." Here's my summary...

Instead of leaving a field fallow or bare over winter, a cover crop keeps roots in the ground feeding the soil food web 365 days year. Combined with a crop rotation, a field won't see the same summer crop for 2-3 years rotating a crop like corn with, oats, alfalfa and soy. Combined, cover crops and crop rotations reduce soil erosion, replenish lost nutrients, minimize pest outbreaks and grows stronger, more resilient plants. The secret behind these two simple strategies is how they build organic matter in the soil! Organic matter is the living part of the soil like microbes and fungi. Without organic matter soil is just dirt...clay, sand and silt (the inorganic bits). And dirt is what we are left with when land is farmed strictly conventionally because not enough organic matter is added to the soil and the little that is gets killed by the synthetic applications.

Non-organic farmers like David Brandt have been employing these practices for years and have the results to prove it. "This past summer, despite the drought, Brandt harvested 120-150 bushels of corn per acre compared to his neighbors who averaged 40-50 bushels. Plus, he is only using 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel per acre for applications compared to 30-40 gallons." You don't have to be a rocket science to realize that "$10 to farm an acre is much more economical than $120 per acre. The fastest way to a greener agricultural system is through a farmer's wallet!

Why the drastic difference? Soil rich in organic matter and living organisms can retain water better enabling it to weather drought years. And cover crops and crop rotations grow healthier plants which require fewer synthetic inputs. The fewer fertilizers and pesticides and less diesel fuel is needed to power tractors to apply it.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) manages $27 million/year in funding for agricultural programs which promote soil health. But its up to the farmer to opt in. The funding is already low so the NCRS waits for farmers to come to them. With the farm bill in jeopardy of not getting passed, the agency may have even fewer funds to work with next year. Let your voice be heard and ask congress to not shelf the farm bill but to reform this very important piece of legislation. SIgn the petition by clicking here.

 
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Adam & Laura - graduates of Organic Field School
I participate in a working group helping a land-grant university (name withheld) evaluate the best way to use their 1,000 acre field station. A 100-acre portion is in jeopardy of being rezoned commercial and sold-off. The sale would put much needed money in the pockets of the university but they would fail in their commitment as a land-grant institution.by taking prime farmland from the community. In a time when communities need to be focused on food security and realizing agriculture's green job potential for economic development, farmland needs to be preserved not removed. Below is my proposal outlining one of the ways to repurpose the 100-acres and make a little bit of money while educating new farmers of tomorrow...a farm incubator!

INTRODUCTION
A farm incubator trains people how to farm ecologically and subsidizes their start-up costs with the primary intent of generating new farmers.

The biggest risk in starting a farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if someone can afford to buy land, they have a huge learning curve in developing best farming practices. In a 2011 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 beginning farmers." A farm incubator addresses these concerns and starts to build the infrastructure necessary to educate and support new farmers.  

With less than 1% of the population farming and 70% of today’s farmers about to retire, the United States is in desperate need of more farmers; farmers who can keep land in agricultural production and if necessary, rehabilitate the land away from conventional farming through regenerative, organic, farming practices.

Land-grant universities have an opportunity to open up the next green, job market by helping put people back to work as farmers and in the process create economic prosperity and healthy food for their community.

A farm incubator program is the agricultural degree for the 21st Century. A traditional agriculture degree leaves graduates with few options in today’s job market. And to train young farmers to be conventional, mega-farm operators is not progressive or ecological. But teaching farmers to be self-reliant, small-scale farmers creates jobs, ownership and environmental responsibility. Students learn sustainable, farming techniques and how to build a business plan. Upon graduation, they are provided further training opportunities as well as access to grants and subsidized land. University X has the opportunity to be a center for creating small-scale farmers and be a model for other land-grant universities to follow.

UNIVERSITY X MODEL
University X is primed to offer its community the opportunity of a farm incubator. With Cooperative Extension for classes, College of Ag for supplemental courses and available land at the adjacent field station, the foundation is in place. Unlike many incubators, the classrooms are already built, the land is available and there is access to qualified instructors of the university. Developing a farm incubator at University X is more about coordinating resources within the existing infrastructure than having to build one from the ground up.

A farm incubator compliments and cooperates with existing and proposed research plans for University X filed labs.  A farm incubator diversifies University X’s product offerings attracting students who are not targeting a 4-year degree but want more in-depth training than a community college can offer. To promote the program, an outreach campaign can be launched to area high schools in order to raise awareness for the career possibilities in agriculture and improve the perception of farming as a viable career opportunity.

A farm incubator provides University X’s development office an exciting, new fundraising opportunity and a “fresh” way to engage potential and current donors. The farm incubator will generate revenue from the tuition and fees collected but capital will still need to be raised over the life of the incubator in order to purchase equipment and supplies. Donors will be attracted by the innovative approach of the farm incubator. It enriches a donors gift  by being able to do more than just support education but also support the environment as well as social and economic stimulus to the community….with more people farming, more people have jobs; local food production increases; and money stays local fostering a more resilient and equitable economy.

All told, a farmer incubator is a good story and PR opportunity for the university. A farm incubator is an inspiring demonstration for modern education and an admirable way for the university to help increase city x’s food security by fostering new farmers.

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Sarita Schaffer - Viva Farms in WA
THE PROPOSAL
 A farm incubator is a revenue generating, academic opportunity. It is an alternative education model and positions University X as a cutting edge land-grant university committed to supporting and preparing farmers of tomorrow.

University X, however, should consider a variety of small farmer programs to diversify their course offerings. In addition to a farm incubator program, other traditional, but innovative, models can be developed such as a 2yr small-farmer certificate program and a small farm training series. By offering three programs, University X can leverage the classes designed, teachers hired and materials required over three programs. The 2-year program and the training series would utilize a 5-acre, demonstration garden to fulfill their course work. The 5-acres would be located on the University X’s adjacent field station property and ideally right along TBD Blvd where the public would have an aesthetic view of a working farm. Below is a recap of the three “small farmer” programs that University X should consider as a way to utilize a portion of the field station:                            

1.      2yr small farm certificate – a certificate-based program with an emphasis on business

2.      Small Farm Training Series – 6-month training program ONLY

3.      Farmer Incubator Program – 6-month training program with access to subsidized land and equipment after graduation.

SAMPLE: Economies of a Farm Incubator

·        80-acres @ $600/acre for year lease = $48,000

·        12 students @ $1200/6-month course = $14,400 every six months ($28,800/year)

·        12 students @ $150 annually for continued education and marketing support

·        40 farmers paying grounds fee, irrigation & equipment rental (not including gas) = $10,000

        Total = $86,800/year*

*$45,000 would pay a full-time farm incubator manager who oversees the program as well as the
5-acre, demonstration parcel.

CASE STUDY: ALBA Organics – Salinas, CA
ALBA stands for Agriculture Land Based Training Association. ALBA trains people how to farm organically and helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training on a sliding scale that ranges from $250-$2500. After graduation, farmers/students pay 20% the market value for their initial 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, ALBA Organics, which is sells to Whole Foods and other grocers. In addition to the lease payments, ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

CASE STUDY: Viva Farms in association w/ WSU – Mount Vernon, WA 
The Viva Farms Incubator Program was launched in June 2009 to provide new farmers affordable access to education, training and technical assistance; capital and credit; land and markets. Approximately, half of the thirty students who participated in the first year are Latino. Each completed Skagit County’s first bilingual “Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching” course and thirty-six students completed the first bilingual “Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning” course. The Port of Skagit has leased Viva Farms 33 acres for an incubator farm where course graduates may sublease plots on which to launch and grow their farm businesses. Access to shared infrastructure, equipment and low-interest “educational loans” minimizes participants’ start-up costs. Core areas of support include organic production practices, marketing, sales, distribution, record keeping and liability management. The farm incubator at Viva Farms is not an end point for farmers. It is a starting point to transition them to farm ownership and secure long-term tenure. Once farmers establish stable agricultural enterprises at the incubator, Viva Farms will help them relocate to new land and continue growing their operations. They will need capital to acquire land, equipment, seeds, livestock and other farm inputs so Viva Farm established the New Farmer Reserve Fund along with Slow Money NW and a local credit union. The fund acts as a microloan program to provide affordable start-up and growth capital to new farmers.
       

 
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When I first came up with the "foodlust" concept, I tried to visualize what it might look like in a logo. I kept visioning this debonair, swashbuckling gentleman dipping a leek raptured by its earthly wonder. Foodlust is after all "a deep respect for food" and if consumed with foodlust, we would cradle the bounty of mother nature in awe and amazement at what she provides. We would not take our food for granted, expect it to be cheap, super-size everything, and let it go to waste.

I had a friend draw up this picture in my mind and I've included it here along with my interpretive tribute to foodlust.

This past week, I harvested my first leeks! It took five months but who's counting. It was worth the wait! They weren't the fattest leeks I'd ever seen but they had lovely, long white shanks! I learned this trick of long-white shanks from 4-season gardener, Eliot Coleman...when your leek seedlings are 10" tall, you loosen them from the ground trimming roots and tops and then transplant them into 9" holes. In his book, Winter Harvest Handbook, he says, " If you have never grown leeks this way before, you may find it hard to believe that it will work - but it does!" And it did!

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Volunteers and clients from Project Mana's food distribution in Truckee, CA.
Along with the leeks, was a whopping 56lb. harvest! It was our biggest yet. Like most of our harvests, 70% or more is donated to our local hunger relief agency, Project Mana. It was an incredible day and a big celebration! Over the past month, a traveler named Terry from Wyoming, had come out to the growing dome every week to volunteer. For his hard work, I would load him up with an arm full of veggies to share with his fellow travelers at the local hostel. He humored me by taking the photos of me with the leeks.

The following is a photo essay over the last week. My friend Daphne Hougard, who is a professional photographer, came down for the 56lb pickin'. She took the one of me with the carrots and the gorgeous one of the dome's interior at sunrise! Enjoy the harvest!

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Daphne Hougard Collection
 
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Last month, I traveled just southwest of Chico, CA to Hamilton City. I was on assignment for the Rodale Institute and an article about organic rice farmer, Greg Massa. You can read the interview in its entirety by visiting the Rodale Institute's website, click here! To peak your appetite, here is a taste...

Dragonflies swarmed above a rice field under a hazy morning sun. With an orchestral maneuver, they darted into the sky then nose dived back to the water, occasionally swooping to the left or right as if trying to throw off the police in a chase. As my gaze was transfixed upon this dance, organic rice farmer Greg Massa informed me that dragonflies have an aquatic life stage in the beginning. When they dip and dive to the water, they are actually laying eggs. I had never made the correlation between rice fields and dragonflies before, but it made sense. I guess it’s no coincidence they are often depicted together.

Greg and his wife, Raquel Krach, along with their five children, own and operate Massa Organics, a brown rice and almond farm outside of Chico, CA. Greg is a fourth-generation rice farmer, and the 225-acres he farms have been in the Massa family since 1970. But it wasn’t until 1997 when Greg and Raquel returned from five years in Costa Rica as tropical ecologists that they began to transition the land to organics. “Rice farming offered an opportunity to do real conservation work on our own land rather than the theoretical work of university-based ecology,” says Greg. “Stewardship of the air, water and land are our primary concerns.”
Read the entire article by visiting the Rodale website.

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Cody watching over his flock of sheep who graze the almond orchard to keep the understory clean.
 
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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.