Circle of Sustainability

Summer 2012
Brian Snyder and U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in November 2011. English photo.

Local, sustainable food production is the way to feed our communities and the world, and we need fundamental change in U.S. farm policy to achieve that. So said two speakers at MOFGA’s 2011 Farmer to Farmer Conference.

Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), was a keynote speaker at the conference, and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree followed his speech with comments about the Farm Bill.

Snyder said that “PASA and MOFGA are perhaps the two most significant sustainable agriculture organizations in the country” and that to change the face of U.S. agriculture, “PASA and MOFGA are going to have to lead the way” and bring the message to a larger audience to complete the transformation that we envision.

But “significant money is being spent to assure our failure,” he said. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance [consisting primarily of Farm Bureau and agricultural commodity groups and businesses], for example, has pledged to spend $30 million per year to restore the good reputation of farmers – apparently conventional farmers. “I don’t think we have to restore the good reputations of farmers in this room, do we?” asked Snyder.

A healthy food system, he continued, is economically viable, protects the environment and is socially responsible. “Only where all three come together can we talk about what sustainable agriculture is.”

Diversity is key: diversity of crops, farms, markets, customers; diversity throughout the system helps manage risk.

Regeneration is also important: “You want to leave your land and your farm better than when you found it.”

Watersheds and Foodsheds

Local, too, is important in sustainable agriculture. Snyder pointed out that the Chesapeake Bay watershed covers seven states, including part of Pennsylvania. PASA keynote speaker Bern Sweeney of the Stroud Water Research Center asked at a conference, what if we think of our foodshed and watershed as one and the same?

There’s a natural structure to a watershed, said Snyder. A resource map shows heavily populated areas, like the beating heart of that watershed, with croplands farther out and forests even farther. The watershed map shows the importance of developing a cooperative of organic farmers who collect organic food from the farming areas and deliver it to the populated areas; and the map shows why people in New York must be concerned about people in Washington and Baltimore. “This is an organism that we need to care for,” said Snyder.

The watershed map also shows how some congressional districts are constructed to maintain the votes to stay in office, to connect different industries; i.e., they show what that person is representing.

“What if congressional districts were based on protecting the watershed and thereby also the foodshed where they come from?” asked Snyder. “All of us need to think about where our food is coming from and how it’s connected to the water.”

Food Safety

Regarding legislation aimed at food safety, Snyder said that MOFGA’s Russell Libby was the first organic representative to address that issue in Washington, then Libby recruited Snyder. “That food safety bill is drastically different because of Russell and a group from across the country,” said Snyder. “We cannot give up the concept of safe food on our farms … Everything that we do has to be directed toward providing healthy, nutritious, safe food for our customers. That is our natural strength, and something that the other side would love to be able to say is their natural strength, but it’s not. Safety is founded on the concepts of transparency, traceability and accountability, and that is what our movement represents.”

While Wendell Berry said that eating is an agricultural act, Snyder said it is also a political act. “Every bite you take, every meal matters. It affects the kind of country we have and the health of the people.”

Learning from Others

We need to learn from others who share our values, Snyder continued. For example, one neighborhood in Havana, Cuba, turned all its backyards into a cooperative farm, helping withstand the challenges the country faced. The Castro brothers provided policy and infrastructure to enable people to create such cooperatives and for farmers to have a higher standard of living. Those growing within 5 miles of the center of the city paid no income tax; within 10 miles, 5 percent tax; within 15 miles, 10 percent. This generated massive food production in the city.

At Earth University in Costa Rica, pigs graze on sugar cane, a source of energy for them. Mulberry trees are cut back annually, and the green shoots are ground into a feed containing 22 percent protein – good for hog production. The tree trunks also provide posts for single strand electric fencing.

“Maybe we don’t need any corn and soybeans,” Snyder conjectured. A perennial system like the one in Costa Rica would counter the massive soil loss associated with corn and soy.

Machu Picchu, once a thriving city in an unfriendly climate, is where urban farming began. Terraces were built for food production, to hold hillsides from massive floods and to hold water for crops.

Likewise, Moray, also in Peru, was likely an agricultural research station where more than 6,000 varieties of potatoes and corn were grown, and every climate zone in Peru was represented. “This was the first green revolution,” said Snyder. “The foods that came out of this facility transformed the culture of Europe.

“We have major universities in [the United States] now that have no idea how to generate new varieties of fruits and vegetables without splicing genes. It’s gone. They [at Moray] not only perfected the generation of new varieties but also freeze dried potatoes,” freezing them at night, thawing them in morning, walking on them, and repeating this process until the tissue was dry enough for storage. [For more, see the feature story about Moray in the Spring 2012 MOF&G.]

In Vietnam, native peoples grow the Three Sisters, something they learned from North American Natives. Hanoi food vendors make food from fresh, local ingredients every day. “You understand the concept of a food chain and of food sovereignty when you’re here,” said Snyder.

Fundamental Change

Snyder noted that it took 300 years for people to accept that the sun rather than the earth is the center of the universe – “and people got killed in the process.” The change was slow because no compromise was possible; the truth had to be one or the other.

“We’re involved in the same kind of thing, in changing a paradigm that is going to die that hard, but it is going to die. We can no longer go on thinking that the way to solve people’s problems is to try to manipulate nature to try to get what we want. We have to step back, learn to live with nature.”

For farms to truly be sustainable, they should not depend on federal funds, said Snyder; but the infrastructure – roads, markets, meat packing plants, collection points, distribution systems – is missing. “That’s where we need to focus federal money and federal policy. We can’t do this a little in this farm bill, a little more in five years. We have to dismantle this thing and start over.

“We have to organize ourselves to promote a credible farmer-driven vision of the food systems we wish to see and believe are possible. We need to develop a national voice. We can’t be dependent on hidden crutches in the farm bill. We have to be honest about what is working that is profitable. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as small farmers. There’s nothing small about what we’re doing. As soon as you use that term with a group of policy makers, the entire conversation is about small farms. You’re no longer talking about the food system, about the big change that has to occur.”

The new paradigm has to acknowledge the treatment of farm workers, including those hired to run our markets. “Are they getting a living wage, vacation time, health benefits?” asked Snyder.

It has to reach out to less fortunate groups, to ensure a just supply of food for all. “We know that industrial farming is not the way to feed the world. When you travel, you see that the only way people are going to be fed is if they have local agriculture that they can participate in.

“We must take the line of history and bend it back into a circle of sustainability before it’s too late,” Snyder concluded – “something MOFGA and PASA do well. We must find a way to use that experience to transform the world.”

Pingree on the Local Foods Act

United States Congresswoman Chellie Pingree talked about the Local Foods Act that she introduced as part of the Farm Bill conversation.

“We are very lucky to be in a state like Maine, where we have MOFGA and so many wonderful people who do the work that we do,” said Pingree.

She said that her Scandinavian grandparents came to Minnesota to farm. Pingree herself, like many young people, came to Maine in 1971 “with my copy of Living the Good Life to have a chance to meet Helen and Scott Nearing.” She ended up living on North Haven, and studied under Eliot Coleman at College of the Atlantic, “so my only training in life is as an organic farmer, except for bartending.”

She sold raw milk to friends and neighbors, raised 2 acres of vegetables and had an egg delivery route. Today she owns the Turner Farm on North Haven, “so I have a real interest in what’s going on in farming today and looking at ways to support that.”

Involved in politics since 1992 and now on the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. Congress, Pingree said, “We have to make dramatic changes in agricultural policy. I wholeheartedly agree: Throw out the Farm Bill and start over and really think about food systems in our country and how we design a system that is appropriate to today and how we make it sustainable for our environment, for working people, for the land. I might be the only member of Congress I’ve convinced to throw out the Farm Bill completely. Working with people like Russell, Brian, food advocacy groups all over the country, we have written our own title to the Farm Bill.”

Such a large piece of legislation, she said, has titles that deal with commodity foods, direct payments made to farmers, etc. And 75 percent of the farm bill supports SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps), food benefits, the WIC Program, “things that help people pay their food bill, particularly in difficult times.”

Smaller parts of the bill help local agriculture. “We put together many of the things we thought were beneficial in the Farm Bill and wrote our own title around local farming… We wanted to be able to say, here’s a piece – how do you have all the things that we were talking about today reinforced and rebuilt? Some things that we lost in the infrastructure of farming decades ago when Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, said ‘Get big or get out,’ when our country said you’re either going to be a big, vertically integrated corporate farm or there’s no place for you in this country; we lost a lot of that infrastructure. There aren’t enough places to have your animals slaughtered, there aren’t enough distribution networks, community kitchens, all the kinds of things that would make our work easier, but there are billions of your tax dollars currently spent to support the big commodity crops – corn, wheat, soybeans” – crops that Snyder suggested may not even be needed, noted Pingree, “and that have become so pervasive in our food today, and have made bad food cheap and available to everybody because of corn subsidies and such things. So what if we just leveled the playing field, or even came close to that? Direct support today is about $5 billion; our entire bill only costs $100 million.”

The Move to Local

Pingree noted that the number of farmers’ markets grew by 150 percent in the last decade; that regardless of their politics, people are very interested in having healthy food on their tables, and the market reflects that.

“Big agribusinesses are trying to buy local food companies now. Walmart is the biggest retailer of food in this country and wants to be the biggest retailer of organic food… They plan to do it by buying all of their organic food in China,” but even Walmart has “a little section now called ‘heritage food’ because they’ve kind of figured out that they maybe shouldn’t buy it all from China but from somewhere down the road. I don’t think it’s genuine, but here’s where the market is. We just have to try to figure out how to change our food system so that all of us continue to be the food producers and we continue to expand the number of farms and the number of people who are able to go into farming and everyone’s ability to make a living at it.”

Strength in Maine

Pingree said she’s proud to say she comes from Maine, where the average age of farmers is going down, and more and more young people want to go into farming and find a way to make a living at it.

“We know production is going up in Maine, much thanks to organizations like MOFGA, the apprenticeship program, the journeyperson program, and all of the other things we do to make it possible for people to participate in farming.”

She thanked Russell Libby for crediting her for starting the apprenticeship program, but said she did that “only because I wanted to learn about farming myself. In those days we had the wonderful Tony Bok, who farmed in Camden. I sent him a letter and said, ‘How about if I apprentice on your farm and you teach me how to milk a cow?’ It turned into a wonderful program that continues to this day and allows people an entry into learning more about farms. We need those everywhere in this country, and we need them to be supported just like the rest of our educational policy.”

Pieces of the Act

The Local Foods Act includes pieces already in the Farm Bill that help sustain infrastructure (e.g., more slaughterhouses, ways to process food locally); that make it easier for people to use Electronic Benefit Cards at a farmers’ market; that enable schools to use some commodity funding to buy more food locally; grants to make it easier for schools to process and cook local food.

“It’s amazing to me,” said Pingree, “how many schools don’t have a kitchen anymore. In many places a school lunch looks like it came out of a vending machine.

“When you visit a school with a greenhouse, kids are sitting down to lunch eating sautéed kale with garlic and showing off how wonderful it is. This myth that kids won’t eat healthy foods because they don’t like the taste of it – it’s not always true if they have a role in seeing where it came from or growing it. Many of those kids encourage their parents to go to the farmers’ market.”

The Act has provisions for the Farm Service Credit Agency to help growers who want to borrow money but don’t have access to credit – to build hoophouses or start a goat dairy, for example.

“We’re interested in the crop insurance program,” Pingree added, “a hugely expensive program today that basically subsidizes what we don’t want to do in agricultural policy; we’re writing in language that includes specialty crops – which includes vegetables. With our strange weather systems and the risks that people are going to take, if we’re going to have crop insurance, it should include the diversified family farm.”

The Act changes some rules around commodity farming to give more flexibility in moving that land back into vegetable production. It also supports communities and farmer training.

Change is Difficult

Pingree acknowledged that we need to address the much larger problems of climate change and the economy. But she is one of the few in D.C. who are organic farmers and understand the processes; and she is willing to speak up “despite considerable opposition from the big food companies and agribusiness and a lot of people who never want to change the way things are. Someone once said to me, ‘The only person who likes change is a wet baby.’”

When the opposition tells her that local farming is a Luddite concept, she brings up our country’s heritage, all the people who now want to be farmers, and the intense impact on a community when farms disappear. Even tourism depends on the health of our fishing and farming communities; tourists are looking for local food, at farmers’ markets and restaurants. They want to see cows in fields and apples on trees.

“We’ve got to throw out the policy that we’ve got and start over, but until you all deliver enough colleagues in Congress to me who are ready to tear up those pieces of paper, we need to change the things we’ve got as quickly as we can possibly do it, and this [Local Foods Act] is an opportunity to do that right now.”

– Jean English

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