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Composting windrows at Full Circle Compost in Minden, NV
I wrote this article for the Rodale Institute. Start it here but finishing reading it there. It just got posted to their website today!

In an effort to overcome the economic downturn and scarcity of available jobs, many Americans are seeking opportunities in ecologically-minded businesses. Green tech and organic farming are two communities that have experienced continued growth in this era of corporate belt-tightening. Another industry is on the rise, albeit a less visible one: Regional composting facilities.

More than 600 compost facilities are registered with the US Composting Council. According to a 2010 report by BioCycle, a national composting and renewable energy magazine, there were more than 2,000 composting facilities in just the thirty states it polled. With stats like that, estimates could well exceed 4,000 nationwide. Some are fledgling businesses, while others are established businesses. But, if we are going to wean ourselves off synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, we are going to need a lot more compost to apply to our crops and fields. Regional composting facilities provide the answer.

...Read the rest of the article on the Rodale Institute website: Click Here!


 
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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!

 
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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.