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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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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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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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Food Day was Monday October 24th. Schools, farms, communities and kitchens everywhere celebrated in a feastly fashion to recognize the need for more thoughtful consideration of the nation's food system. One of the founding fathers of the special day, Michael Pollan, was found in Cleveland. He was the special guest of Cuyahoga County Public Library's writers series at Playhouse Square. Interviewer and fellow journalist, Dan Moulthrop, guided the audience on an exploration of Michael's food journey and his current perspective on the food movement.

Opening the conversation, Michael and Dan polled the crowd for how many knew it was Food Day. A paltry number raised their hands but it didn't deny the fact that it was a sold-out crowd of 1000 people. Versus a lecture, the interview format served him well. It reminded the audience that while well-respected for his literary gift to the food movement, Michael does not claim to be a foremost authority on the subject. He isn't a preacher. He is a collector of information and a sharer of knowledge. He started by writing about what he loves, gardening. As depicted in his 1991 book, Second Nature: A Gardner's Education. The unexpected fame of his later books, Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, made him an accidental agtivist. Now a poster child for the food movement, he remains humble in his accomplishments making it easy for people to respect him for his fair, journalistic style. He may be a zealot but he is not an elitist. He's goal has always been to make people marvel at food's wonder and see it in a different light. Michael shared how his literary hero, George Plimpton, made people marvel at football in the book, Paper Lion.

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He's happiest when his writing can give people the tools necessary to make their own decision gleaning from his work what they feel is important and will make a difference. He described the reaction he received after Omnivore's Dilemma's release. Some people approached him saying, "Your book made me become a vegetarian." Others would say, "The book convinced me to start eating meat again." While Michael advocates the ecological importance of livestock to the natural cycles of a diversified farm, he recognizes that our nation's meat consumption is not sustainable. He reflects on a time when meat was a special occasion food not something served three times a day, seven days a week. "It's okay to eat meat, just not as much," he remarks. The less meat we eat, the better the meat can be raised. He reminded the crowd of what cows do for us, "Even though grass is good for humans, we can't eat it. We aren't ruminates. Cows are! They extract the grasses' nutrition and pass it on to us."

It didn't take long for the 2012 Farm Bill to get mentioned. Michael didn't get sidelined on a discussion about the particulars of recent downturns in the bill's construction. He shifted the attention instead to President Obama's failure to take a stand. He complimented the President, however, on his keen ability to connect the dots in any issue. The food issue was no different. Obama is fully aware of our food crisis. Then why is he not doing more? Why is he letting his wife go it alone? Michael Pollan's essay in The Nation's recent food issue summed up his response exactly, "President Obama has determined there is not yet enough political support to take on the hard work of food system reform, and the best thing to do in the meantime is for the first lady to build a broad constituency for change by speaking out about the importance of food."

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Michael's home garden
Needing a stronger movement to pressure Washington, Michael and others created Food Day. Food needed an event like Earth Day. Responding to a question from the audience, "The movement lacks leadership and a national organization." He encouraged supporters to not focus on eradicating conventional agriculture but to minimize it. "Realistically, there will always be two food economies...one that's organic and one that is not." It wasn't exactly the "I have a dream" speech but his pragmatism set targets on achievable goals.

Perhaps it won't be a movement at all that drives government to change the way we grow and distribute food. Michael may have made the flame flicker with his "two economies" comment but he made the fire roar when he pointed the finger at an unlikely ally to lead the charge, the health care industry. Michael Pollan's essay in The Nation again summed it up perfectly, "As soon as the health care industry begins to focus on the fact that the government is subsidizing precisely the sort of meal for which the industry (and the government) will have to pick up the long-term tab, eloquent advocates of food system reform will suddenly appear in the unlikeliest places—like the agriculture committees of Congress." During his interview, he pointed to the writing on the wall, "One in three children are predicted to conduct diabetes in their lifetime, a chronic disease." The choice is ours he continued, "What would you rather have? Expensive food or expensive health care?"

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On Sale Nov. 1, $23.95
Wrapping up, Michael discussed the blatant injustices which should not have to wait for a movement or health care. "90% of Americans polled want food labeled if it contains genetically modified ingredients (GMO). It is clearly undemocratic to deny this right when the public so obviously wants this conveyed." Government says we need more science to prove the negative health impacts but seed giants like Monsanto won't allow their seeds to be tested.

The evening had lots of laughter. Michael joked comfortably throughout the interview. Quoting from his new ,illustrated version of Food Rules, he enlightened the crowd by saying, "If you're not hungry enough for an apple, then you're probably not hungry." And when an audience member asked him the tired question, "What would your last meal be?" He graciously pondered with a smile and replied, "Roasted chicken!"

 
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What was a Friday lunch with the Director of City Fresh, Nick Swetye, rolled over into a Farm Bill roundtable with Ohio Senator, Sherrod Brown.That's pretty much how it happened...Nick had a 2pm engagement and asked if i would be interested in attending. It took me all of a split second to respond, "Yes!"

Senator Brown was fresh off the plane from Washington D.C. and President Obama's job speech the night before. In preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill, the Senator was here to get a better understanding of the food climate in NE Ohio. He wanted to hear first hand from his constituents what they wanted in a farm bill. Brown's office had gathered a diverse group of area representatives including institutional food buyers, area grocers, farmers' market coordinators, university ag extensions, growing co-ops and food policy coordinators. The Senator opened the conversation with, "I want to make a Farm Bill that works." He went on to explain that it is not just a bill for farms but a bill for "nutrition, health, food, energy and environment."

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Everyone had gone around the table giving the Senator their 1-2-3 pitch when he threw a curve ball, "why aren't there more African-Americans at this table?" He was right! Black residents represent the majority in Cleveland and many of its area suburbs. And one of Cleveland's biggest concerns is addressing access to healthy, quality food in the inner city. The picture above captures the moment when Senator Brown (middle, blue shirt) set the stage for farmer, Eric Hooper who was seated to his right (orange shirt). Up till know, the comments carried the usual, but accurate, food rhetoric, i.e. redesign the subsidy program, repurpose urban areas for farming, jobs, etc. Eric immediately gained the room's attention with his straight talk, "hire people within the system to build the system." Mr. Hooper was loaded with all kinds of great ideas like a Peace Corps type initiative that trained urban farm programs. He held the floor for about five minutes leaving a powerful energy floating in the room. He used the word, "tenacity," a few times to drive his point. I liked that! Here is a picture of Eric admiring the community garden outside the facility. You gotta love it...raised, straw-bale beds placed directly on the blacktop. Just another example that you can grow food anywhere. You just need "tenacity!"

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The location of the roundtable could not have been more appropriate....the newly acquired home of Communty Greenhouse Partners (CGP). It's the building and grounds of an old church on Cleveland's east side. About three years ago, the Cleveland diocese closed 40 Catholic churches. St. George's Lithuanian Church was one of them. It fell quickly into disrepair. But under new ownership there are huge plans for this 67,000 sq.ft. space including a commercial kitchen on the first floor, food co-op on the second and a community center on the third where the church parish congregated. CGP's ultimate dream is to become Cleveland's first food hub aggregating locally produced food and distributing it out into the community. Ideally, food suppliers would be a myriad of area farms, urban gardens as well as a place for backyard gardens to sell their produce and create a small business for themselves. The master plan (pictured below) shows the main building and surrounding grow areas with greenhouses, orchards and raised-garden beds. The project is the vision of Timothy Smith. Timothy was transformed by one of the very food films, FRESH, that encouraged me to purse a career in sustainable food systems. I'm very impressed with what he has been able to accomplish in just two years. I hope to be as successful. One of his staff members stood up during the meeting with a strong reminder, "Sustainability projects need one-time catalyst money to get off the ground but then they are true to their word and are, as the name implies, sustainable!"

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After the meeting adjourned, I asked the Senator's staff how they would glean key items for inclusion in Mr. Brown's Senate speech. I got a wishy-washy, political answer but I'm confident that the Senator had a few, solid take-away items which resonated with everyone's comment...small and mid-scale farms can not compete on price and volume in the traditional food model. But a regional food hub could aggregate local food so it could compete. The last to speak was City Fresh's own, Nick Swetye. He summed it up for the Senator in two simple bullets, 1) create food hubs and 2) generate consumer interest and demand.

 
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With unemployment rates fluctuating, there is one job ripe for the picking...organic farming. And many reputable news agencies think so too...Fast Company, E Magazine, MSN, etc... They all rated "organic farming" in their Top 10 Green Jobs report. And if organic farming isn't your bag, by just  supporting organic farming at farmers markets and CSA's, you will spark job growth. Studies show that when revenue stays local, it stimulates local economy which increases jobs overall.

Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, agrees. He tasked Congress with setting a goal in the 2012 Farm Bill which would help 100,000 Americans become farmers through grant support and training. Not only will it create green jobs but more farmers will strengthen regional food systems.

20% of Americans use to make their livelihood from farming. Now only 1% consider farming their main occupation. Let's get some of that back. It will create more job and build a more sustainable future. If you, or someone you know, wants to get into farming, check out these resources and training opportunities which connect you to subsidized land and lessens the learning curve through course work and continued education.
  1. Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
  2. Alba
  3. Greenhorns
  4. National Young Farmers Coalition
  5. Farm School
  6. Beginning Farmers
  7. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
  8. Talk to an area farm near you. Pretty sure there every area has a farm who offers 6-12 month apprenticeships like these: Full Belly Farms in Guinda, CA; Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, CO.; Northeast Organic Farming Assoc. in Massachusetts.

 
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A friend forwarded me an article from The New York Times this weekend by Mark Bittman entitled, "Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables." Then today, Grist.org's Tom Laskawy commented on the article in his blog post. Thought I would chime in with my two cents...

The title pretty much sums it up...tax junk food and use the money to subsidize "healthy" food, namely vegetables. We need more people thinking along these lines so we can have a serious discussion about all the ways we can get out of the food fight we're in. But...I've got a few questions for Mark and Tom. Let's start with the term, "healthy." Its meaning is pretty broad. Does it mean just more fruits and vegetables or does it mean fruits and vegetables grown sustainably? Big difference, because one uses the current industrial model of growing food conventionally and the other requires supporting more small-mid sized farms to grow food organically.

It seems that taxing and cutting taxes is the solution to just about every economics discussion. That's an arm-chair economists opinion but probably not too far off. And whenever the word "tax" gets thrown on the table, people freak out and start a tug-of-war...tax good, tax bad, tax good, etc... All I know is, the conversation to change how we grow and produce food should not start with "tax." It just gets everyone hot and bothered and they forget what it is we are really trying to do...make healthy, quality food accessible and available which will improve not only one's personal health but that of their community. Taxing could raise some serious coin for the food movement but it should be a tactic not a strategy. A tax discussion will just bring out the boxing gloves making it a political debate when it is really one of food justice and social justice otherwise known as food sovereignty. My other thought is...would the tax be charged to the consumer or would the manufacturer be taxed thus increase the price of the product to cover the tax? When consumers are asked to pay more, like with gas prices, there is an initial slump but after enough times goes by, people just get use to the new price and go about their business. We could tax the food but would it really change buying behavior?

Finally, by the time a bill was passed which allowed a tax on sugary and processed foods, we could have redesigned the entire food system and begun to be implement real change. Let's take a whole systems approach versus using old politics to solve the problem.

 
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The Farm Bill which governs subsides and appropriations to farmers and food programs is about to expire this fall. Big Ag is lobbying fiercely in their own best interest while sustainable ag struggles to get the funding necessary to fight this important battle for our food. My sister sent me this great link from the Environmental Working Group which gives a quick snapshot of the Farm Bill and what’s at stake for the 2012 Farm Bill. Get the facts!  .

In other news...today was HOT! 95 degrees hot. We took a long lunch extending well past two hours waiting for the heat of the day to pass so we could continue planting peppers - We were actually mixing the rows of peppers with garden flowers so the pepper varieties would not cross-pollinate as these pepper plants are for seed - Maybe it was the heat, but the conversation strayed in some pretty random directions as we took refuge in the open-air barn kitchen. One particular topic that caught my attention was the practice of Breatharianism. This is a belief that you only need water and sunlight to keep you alive. Yep, no food! It is a fully fledged practice. No surprise that some of the "End of Day" people practice this. There were mixed opinions amongst my compadres. Some felt we should not try to transcend the vessel we were given to experience life on earth. Others kept a more open-mind and suggested that each person's reality is different. Pretty amazing if people can and want to do this. But I have foodlust and Breatharianism is a total contradiction to that concept. Food not only sustains us but our communities. Breatharians need people who eat food to maintain society so they can keep doing what they are doing. Better we all work together in community and celebrate the rich abundance that the earth provides.