Last Thursday we picked up our first box of produce from Vermont Valley Community Farm, the CSA that J and I joined this year. The cold spring briefly delayed the start of our subscription, but as you can see in the photo, we’re off and running now. The box included spring greens, spinach, a beautiful and enormous head of butter lettuce, scallions, radishes, turnips, a whole lot of rhubarb, potatoes that had been stored at 38 degrees all winter, and even a small potted basil plant.
With the start of our CSA subscription, I thought I’d share a recent report from Luke Runyon of Harvest Public Media that considers the ways that running a CSA can be a tough business. As he describes,
Within the local food movement, the community supported agriculture model is praised. CSAs, as they’re commonly known, are often considered one of the best ways to restore a connection to the foods we eat.
The model is simple: Consumers buy a share of a farmer’s produce up front as a shareholder and then reap the rewards at harvest time. But running a CSA can bring with it some tricky business decisions.
Farmers, some of whom have limited business experience, must quickly learn how to market products, build customer loyalty, advertise, manage risk and diversify their revenue sources. CSAs, depending on their member involvement, often force farmers to turn a portion of their operation into a customer service business.
Yesterday, Peggy Lowe of Harvest Public Media reported for NPR on the wet conditions farmers in the Midwest are confronting this spring, in strong contrast to last summer. She describes,
As Chris Webber checked the 40 acres of muddy field he wanted to plant on a recent morning, he worried about getting more rain, even as he worried about the lack of it.
“The drought is over at the moment,” he says. “But in Missouri, we tend to say that in 10 days or two weeks, we can be in a drought again. That’s how fast it can get back to dry.”
Midwestern farmers like Webber, who has a family farm in central Missouri, are suffering from “weather whiplash,” according to meteorologist Jeff Masters. In the past three years, there’s been flooding, then record-setting drought, and now flooding again.
“It’s a term I’m going to be using a lot in the coming years, I think, because the jet stream patterns that we’re familiar with have changed in the last few years,” says Masters, who co-founded Weather Underground. “They’ve slowed down, exposing us to longer periods of extreme weather, and they’ve gotten more extreme.”
Find the full text and audio versions of the story here.
Earlier this year, scores of New York chefs urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to oppose hydraulic fracturing (AKA “fracking”), a controversial technique for releasing natural gas from underground deposits, like the Marcellus Shale Formation that spans parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
New York’s agricultural economy is strong and vast, and is an important economic driver for our state. We have the second-largest number of farmers’ markets in the country and the fourth-highest number of organic farms — and are the third-largest dairy-producing state. New York is second only to California in its wine production.
As more states pump natural gas from beneath the earth, the negative effects fracking poses to agriculture are more clearly emerging — and we believe they would be devastating for New York.
Across the country, water contamination from toxic fracking chemicals has sickened and killed livestock. Accidents have ruined cropland. Gas companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. And there are no conventional procedures for isolating livestock exposed to chemicals from the food chain.
Find their full piece here.
The Marcellus isn’t the only area of the country where this issue is getting attention. Some of California’s fertile agricultural land sits above the so-called Monterey Shale. As Norimitsu Onishi reported recently in The New York Times,
By all accounts, oilmen and farmers — often shortened to “oil and ag” here — have coexisted peacefully for decades in this conservative, business friendly part of California about 110 miles northwest of Los Angeles. But oil’s push into new areas and its increasing reliance on fracking, which uses vast amounts of water and chemicals that critics say could contaminate groundwater, are testing that relationship and complicating the continuing debate over how to regulate fracking in California.
“As farmers, we’re very aware of the first 1,000 feet beneath us and the groundwater that is our lifeblood,” said Tom Frantz, a fourth-generation farmer here and a retired high school math teacher who now cultivates almonds. “We look to the future, and we really do want to keep our land and soil and water in good condition.”
Finally, for more on fracking and our food supply, head to my earlier post on Elizabeth Royte’s great cover story several months ago in The Nation.
Caroline Abels at Humaneitarian recently posted about Pastured Poultry Week, which takes place next week in Georgia and NYC. Like Abels, I don’t live near either of those places, but the week is worth celebrating nonetheless. She writes,
[Georgia] raises more chickens than any other — 1.4 billion a year – so before I became a humaneitarian I’m sure I ate a lot of this industrial export. Who knew the peach and peanut state is also the poultry state?
“Probably most Georgians don’t know that, either,” said Leah Garces when I called to ask her about Pastured Poultry Week, happening June 6-14 in Georgia and New York City. Leah is the director of the USA branch of Compassion in World Farming, a UK-based nonprofit….
Compassion in World Farming and a handful of other groups organized Pastured Poultry Week to draw attention to the imbalance in Georgia’s poultry production and possibilities for the future. “We want to be the number one producer of pastured poultry in the world,” Leah said, adding that she believes this is possible because a lot of farmland in Georgia isn’t being used. The goal of being number one may sound ambitious, but it starts with awareness events like PPW.
For more, check out Abels’ full post and the website of Compassion in World Farming. As CIWF suggests, “If you are not based in the Georgia or New York area, you can help to support pastured poultry by asking any restaurant that you dine in where their chicken meat comes from. To ensure higher welfare, only eat chicken meat that is raised on pasture.”
Thanks to Civil Eats, I recently learned about efforts to return to production a delicious but fragile strawberry. Arielle Golden reports,
Five years ago, Slow Foods’ “Most Endangered Foods” list included the Marshall Strawberry. The fruit, known as the finest eating strawberry in America by the James Beard Foundation, is a deep, dark, red, with an exceptionally bold flavor. After World War II, the Marshall was devastated by viruses and has been left out of conventional supermarket supply chains due to its soil specifications and the delicate handling it requires.
The fruit is so soft, in fact, that it leaves a trail of juice when harvested and moved from the fields. This makes the Marshall difficult to ship and store, but oh-so-good to eat. But Indiana-based artist Leah Gauthier does not believe that the absence of the Marshall in grocery stores means we can’t enjoy it, and her strawberry project introduces a new philosophy of produce distribution.
[Gauthier's] series of works started with a nectarine in Spain: “I bit into a nectarine and it was like a religious experience. I thought, why do they have such great produce over there, and why is what I buy in the grocery store completely tasteless? It set a quest in my mind, to figure out why this was so. I did a lot of research; I found out about industrial agriculture and monocultures and food traveling 5,000 miles from farm to market. This is why it’s tasteless.” So she came back and started planting hardy heirloom fruits and vegetables from seed, not just for her own gustatorial pleasure, but also to be more self-sufficient.
For much of his 58 years, Matthew Buvala has been trying to come up with ways to make life a little less difficult….
When he retired from the Navy after a 20-year career and started raising chickens on his 17 acres in 2001, he began a love-hate relationship with the movable, woven electric fencing used to corral his feathered friends. Eight years later the idea came to him — a fence cart that would hold the fence, lay it out neatly and pick it up with a lot less hassle than trying to do it by hand.
“I just figured there has got to be a better way of doing it than picking it up and moving it,” Buvala said.
It’s a neat little story, so check out the full article here.
Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an interesting essay by JO Robinson. It examines the loss of nutritional compounds in farmed produce over the years thanks to ongoing selective breeding by humans:
Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers….
Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss, I’ve discovered, but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.
Robinson goes on to carefully examine the case study of corn. It’s a fascinating article and well worth a read; check out the full piece and accompanying infographic here.
Unlike sweet cherries, America’s tart cherries are too fragile to ship very far, so most people never get to taste a fresh one.They’re typically frozen, then baked into that iconic American dessert, the cherry pie — and cherry pies aren’t as popular as they used to be.
Yet the humble sour cherry is experiencing an unlikely renaissance — and the best may be yet to come….
[L]ast year was a disaster, perhaps the worst in memory. An early spring caused the trees to blossom, and then, on March 23, a blast of cold air arrived.
Mike Van Agtmael, a cherry farmer in the town of Hart, stayed up all night, watching the thermometer. “It got to about 3:30 a.m., and the temperature started dropping. It didn’t matter what we did, it just kept dropping and dropping,” he says.
The blossoms froze. The crop was ruined.
Now, there’s a reason why all those trees bloomed and froze in unison. The vast majority of tart cherry trees in the U.S. are genetically identical.
But they don’t have to be. And this is where we get to the second part of the tart cherry renaissance.
As a followup to yesterday’s post about how phosphorus and nitrogen (largely via farm runoff) contribute to aquatic dead zones, I thought I’d share a recent Mother Jones article from Tom Philpott. In it, he addresses an aspect of industrial agriculture I’d not previously considered. He writes,
Who cares about phosphorus? For starters, every living thing on Earth—including humans—since all the crops we eat depend on it to produce healthy cells. Until the mid-20th century, farmers maintained phosphorus levels in soil by composting plant waste or spreading phosphorus-rich manure. Then new mining and refining techniques gave rise to the modern phosphorus fertilizer industry—and farmers, particularly in the rich temperate zones of Europe and North America, quickly became hooked on quick, cheap, and easy phosphorus. Now the rest of the world is scrambling to catch up, and annual phosphorus demand is rising nearly twice as fast as the population….
[L]ike any mined material, phosphate rock is a finite resource, and there’s fierce debate about just how long our supply can last. “Peak phosphorus” doesn’t get a lot of buzz, but it should. In a recent essay in Nature, [Jeremy] Grantham, who also runs an environmental foundation, put the case bluntly: Our [phosphorus] use “must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve.”
For the full piece, which (as usual) has great embedded links and ends with additional links to related posts from Philpott, head here.
Earlier this month, the James Beard Foundation announced the winners of their Journalism Awards. In the category “Food Politics, Policy, and the Environment,” the award went to Tracie McMillan for her article “As Common as Dirt,” which I wrote about earlier this year. The piece was published as a collaboration between The American Prospect and the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). As FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz writes in a rightfully proud blog post,
Considered the Pulitzers of the food reporting world, the Beard Award was FERN’s first journalism prize, and also came within our first year of publishing.
The story revealed the systematic practice of cheating farm labor contract workers of their wages, to keep costs low. Outsourcing labor to contracting companies also allows farm businesses to distance themselves from the practice, which has prompted law suits as well as state and federal actions. McMillan told the story by focusing on 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos, who has been a farmworker his entire life and who is a plaintiff in one of these law suits.
The story took several months to report, requiring multiple trips to southern California and many hours of interviews with farmworkers, government and industry officials, and legal advocates. The project took patience and tenacity, qualities which are frequently lacking in a time of highly constrained resources and constant deadlines….
“The exploitation of farm labor has long been one of the great scandals of American society—it dates back at least to the beginning of the 20th century—and persists to this day,” said [American Prospect Editor-in-Chief Kit] Rachlis. “Tracie’s piece looks at one of its most insidious practices—institutionalized wage theft—and shows its devastating effect on people’s lives. At once intimate, authoritative, and moving, the article ranks as one of the best the Prospect has ever published.”