Vern Grubinger

Vern Grubinger of the University of Vermont said that the principles of organic agriculture can help improve our food system, our environment and our society. Photo courtesy of University of Vermont
Food, Farms, and Community:
Exploring Food Systems

By Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger

Vern Grubinger, keynote speaker at MOFGA’s 2016 Farmer to Farmer Conference, is the vegetable and berry specialist and an Extension professor at the University of Vermont. He also coordinates the USDA Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE). He has conducted research and outreach in the areas of climate change and agriculture, pest management, produce safety, renewable energy and soil health. He has produced hundreds of fact sheets, magazine columns and radio commentaries, and three books: “Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start Up to Market,” “With an Ear to the Ground: Essays on Sustainable Agriculture” and, with Lisa Chase, “Food, Farms and Community: Exploring Food Systems.”

Over the past 30 years, Grubinger has seen the positive effects of organic practices and principles on economic, environmental and social aspects of our food system – including awareness and enthusiasm for soil health, grass-fed livestock, cultural pest control, pollinator protection, learning communities among farmers, and a passion among producers for their businesses and for stewardship.

In his keynote, Grubinger addressed the legacy of organic farming.

From Twinkies to Principles

Grubinger traced his interest in the food system from his time spent at the Natick, Massachusetts, Hostess Brands factory (maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs and other products) where his mother was a tour guide, to his undergraduate years at UMass Amherst, his own farming and marketing experiences, attending a NOFA conference in Vermont where the idea of organic agriculture took hold for him, going to graduate school, doing organic inspections and then working for Cooperative Extension and coordinating the Northeast SARE program. Recently he’s become interested in social capital and learning communities.

Grubinger focused on principles in his keynote because he has seen how “organic” has helped people think about the world.

Principles are sometimes confused with values, he said. He gave these examples of values: We should have a healthy environment; people should be healthy; the world should be fair. Values are things we believe are worth striving for, but they don’t provide much guidance for achieving those things.

Principles, on the other hand, are fundamental truths that make a system work. They lead to standards and practices.

For example, said Grubinger, a value might be that “people should be educated,” and a principle might be that “all children should go to school.” Practices could include establishing public schools, charter schools, home schools, etc., and standards might address the number of days of school attendance and the curricula.

Another value might be, “We should have a healthy environment,” and having healthy soils is one key to a healthy environment.

The enduring principles of organic farming, said Grubinger, are that soil health leads to healthy crops, animals and people; that biodiversity is essential to agro-ecosystem stability; and that renewable resources are key to sustainability. The social piece – cooperation among farmers – must be balanced with competition. “There’s more to it than just the money or being the last farmer left standing in a vicious marketplace,” said Grubinger.

These core principles have led to a legacy of shared positive aspirations in organic agriculture. Various terms describe those aspirations – resilient, authentic, sustainable, fair trade, ecological, natural – but all honor the same kind of values, aspirations and principles.

Those positive aspirations were not valued in recent U.S. history. Since World War II, said Grubinger, we’ve abandoned discussion of the principles of a healthy food system while being led into “this cartoony world of marketing and the subtext of the most yield, money, control, while abandoning any kind of spiritual, culinary or community set of principles.” As a result most Americans are now separated from any knowledge about their food sources.

When Grubinger leads a UVM semester class in Oaxaca, Mexico, the class visits villages where corn has been grown for 6,000 years, where residents produce all their own food and where some elements of modernity exist.

“We went to the federal corn research institute,” said Grubinger, “and the scientists were showing us charts of yields with high-input systems” that were achieving yields several-fold above those of the “poor villagers.” Once in a village, however, the class saw a beautiful mountainside field with some corn growing, some sugarcane being cut, with coffee amid the jungle-like environment, and kids laughing and rolling in the dried sugarcane. Women come up from the village and made lunch together, while the men cut some cane and drink its juice.

“It hit me,” said Grubinger. “Of course they get a ton and a half [instead of 10-ton] yield per acre. They’re totally chilled and they have this incredible quality of life. Why would they want to put in the nutrients and be out there harvesting and hoeing? It just doesn’t fit with their principles of having quality of life and not having stressors.”

In contrast, some of the principles that U.S. agriculture has inadvertently adopted “have squeezed out the humanity of the way we go about things,” Grubinger continued. “And one of the problems is that people are so removed from how the food they eat is grown. They don’t see the broiler houses in Delaware and see what it takes to produce chicken breasts for $2.99 a pound, or what it takes to make a cheap hamburger. So you’re left with choices that don’t support your values or the principles trying to achieve those values.”

The good news, said Grubinger, is the awakening from where we were, with TV dinners, Tang and Jell-O 1-2-3, to trying to communicate social, environmental, food safety and animal well-being issues to consumers. Recent labels, such as Fair Trade Certified and free range, reflect a desire to honor those principles.

Some labels, however, use location as a proxy for principles. “Is it proximity per se that people really value?” asked Grubinger. “I’m all for growing things as close to home as possible, but we are in a global food system. Yet when I go to Oaxaca and see people growing chocolate, coffee and bananas, and that’s their only way to get cash, is it proximity that we want to honor, or is that [proximity] a tidy bucket to put all of this stuff into? I don’t think just proximity is going to get us where we want to go.”

To maintain the momentum of the positive legacy of organic, we need to meet key challenges, said Grubinger. We need greater transparency to shift invested food dollars to principles consumers believe in, and we need new measures of success based on key principles. “It’s not all about the money,” Grubinger continued. “What else might we quantify to show progress toward the many principles that we want to fulfill? This is where organic agriculture can lead the way.”

A Few Good Principles

One principle is that direct connections with producers are good, often creating new markets for smaller producers and creating agricultural literacy among consumers, who see the ebbs and flows of the season. When Grubinger got an end-of-season letter and budget from his CSA farmer, “suddenly spending $500 felt different. She’s working really hard, has a lot of expenses, she’s making a living but she’s not making much. It gets into the whole social capital piece. I’m investing in someone I know and cherish.” That’s a much more robust calculation, said Grubinger, than asking where he can buy that food at a different price.

Another principle is that everyone should have access to fresh, flavorful, unadulterated food. How do we make this local, organic system more accessible to low-income people and those who feel culturally alienated by our community? “I don’t think we’ve thought hard enough about how to embrace a wider demographic in our movement,” said Grubinger.

Also, food should be grown in healthy environments, but Grubinger pointed out that much of our large-scale agricultural production creates pollution, and then we come up with government-supported cost shares and other systems to reduce nutrient losses and greenhouse gas emissions. “I think we have it backwards,” said Grubinger. We should be getting away from mitigation and moving toward design of systems that don’t require mitigation – ways of farming that don’t create problems to begin with.

At one meeting, Grubinger heard several large-scale dairy farmers who have excess manure and nutrients going into the water talking about manure pits and digesters, while one person said he might downsize to fewer cows and make cheese. “We have a lot more help for the guys who have too many nutrients going into the water because there are too many cows,” said Grubinger, “and then there’s too much milk, and they’re not making enough money, versus saying, ‘Don’t have so many cows.’ Design of the system doesn’t really come up.”

Another principle: Livestock production should be humane. “I think this is one reason why local meats are taking off,” said Grubinger. “I tell people, pay more for meat and eat less of it and reap all the benefits of environmental and your own health.”

Soil and water resources must be protected, he continued, adding that he had mixed feelings about some of the regulations coming into effect, but soil and water must be protected somehow.

Yet another principle: Young people must have opportunities to farm, including access to land, capital and markets.

Also, working landscapes are worth protecting – for farming, tourism, spiritual values and more. Often the most fertile land is turned into strip malls, which don’t provide the same spiritual feeling as farmland, said Grubinger.

Another: Agricultural literacy promotes healthy eating behaviors. “Farm to school programs are doing a great job with this,” said Grubinger.

Distributed systems are an important principle, he continued, and strong markets for local and regional food enhance the vitality of rural communities. “I believe we have much greater food security by having production dispersed. It may not be the most ‘efficient,’ but we create local jobs, get the multiplier effect, and you’re moving toward value chains instead of supply chains. The value chain builds relationships from the farm to the retailer; they start to have more of a partnership and try to take care of each other. Quality and consistency go up, new ideas emerge.”

Grubinger cited the example of Karl Kupers, who started Shepherd’s Grain in Washington state. Kupers was a commodity wheat grower who started getting into no-till and talking to local bakers. This led to the Shepherd’s Grain partnership – a group of farmers who work closely with local grain buyers, so they’re not in the commodity system anymore but are in a regional wholesale distribution system. Kupers said he used to ride a roller coaster on prices for wheat, but at one meeting with local wheat buyers and growers, he showed the cost to grow the crop and what was needed to make a living. The buyers said, “Oh. OK. We get it.” This value chain relationship changed the economics of the farmers’ marketing, creating a fairer, more stable price.

And one more principle: Alternatives to corporate oligopolies and their highly processed foods must be maintained. “These oligopolies aren’t just going to go away,” said Grubinger. “I’m arguing for a balance and policies that allow the niche people to survive. I think of these as ecological refugia. A lot of people are involved in these niches, and they’re keeping the landscape and communities alive. If you want new and different ideas that will allow us to grow, we can’t have this monolithic system. I think it’s important to limit the power of corporations to dominate the food system.”

What We Can Do

Tipping points for a positive legacy include strengthening “horizontal” relationships; securing power in the marketplace; deepening agro-ecosystem knowledge; and creating new measures of success other than yield and net returns.

“The quality of human relationships is key to the health of our food system,” said Grubinger. “We have a lot more ways than direct marketing to create transparent and honest relationships: social media, the potential for transparent labeling, sharing communities.”

Horizontal relationships, he said, are characterized by a lack of anonymity; are transparent; are distributed systems with many little pieces working together; and have economies of scope rather than scale.

“It’s not how big you have to be to knock this widget out at the lowest cost; it’s how many valuable things can you get out of doing this.” For example, growing oilseed crops can generate byproducts such as animal feed, organic fertilizer, fuel to burn and even ingredients for cosmetics. “This fabric of relationships is much more durable than the alternative,” said Grubinger.

Horizontal relationships scale out rather than up, he added, leading to distributed systems rather than consolidation. “What might be called inefficient is actually much more valuable because of the number of brains paying attention to something.”

With vertical networks, on the other hand, a power at the top makes decisions, which trickle down to middle level managers, and the rest of us consume the product. Vertical networks are characterized primarily by competition, consolidation, economies of scale, reductionist measures with all negative costs externalized, and anonymity; by box stores, commodity markets, multinationals and supply chains.

“It’s hard to push back,” said Grubinger, “but it can be done. Somebody said to McDonald’s 20 years ago that we’re not going to buy genetically engineered potatoes, and the New Leaf potato went away.”

How do we put principles into action? Transparency is critical. Grubinger would like to see point-of-origin labeling and full disclosure of ingredients on everything. He cited Australia’s labeling law, which has a minimum threshold for labeling products as made or partially made in Australia. Optional labels may say, “Made with peas, carrots and onions from Australia and flour from Sweden …”

Why not have such a system here? “We’re all big boys and girls with big brains,” said Grubinger. “I can handle that, and if I don’t want to read it, I don’t have to. It will add a little cost to the system and will let people make a little more intentional purchasing decisions. We already do that with some things. In Vermont, maple syrup is on a pedestal, with strict standards. I’d like to see that level of rigor applied to lots of products. It’s weird that it isn’t a fundamental right to know what I’m putting in my body.”

To reclaim some of our power over the food system, we need to work together – through farmer-owned cooperatives, for example, which enable farmers to get into the larger food supply and have some control. Also peer-to-peer systems provide social and technical support.

Regarding food safety regulations, many small farmers are exempt, but producer-driven solutions to regulatory challenges can be helpful. When farmers are asked what they would do to ensure food safety, most get it, said Grubinger: “Wash your hands, don’t get manure on the food, keep things cold, be able to track things.” Using this model, produce farmers in Vermont created their own 18 standards, posted them online and reviewed one another. (See

Agriculture also has to lead the way regarding fossil energy independence, Grubinger added. “People are growing liquid fuels and animal feeds from oilseed crops. Community-scale processors serve farm ‘fuel sheds.’ There’s solar drying for seeds and grain crops. I’d like to see more PV panels on buildings rather than on fields; local biomass for heating with clean-burning systems; ‘passive’ energy systems, conservation and energy efficiency are huge. We need to promote grass-based ruminant livestock production for animal and environmental health.”

We need to get more of our nitrogen from legumes, he added, especially because we’ve been using so much manure in vegetable production that soil phosphorus is very high.

We’ve got some great regional seed production companies, Grubinger continued, and people are looking at recycling food waste into valuable products, such as livestock feed and compost. We need to figure out how to have “small yet safe” produce handling systems, slaughter practices and processing technologies. “When making something like cheese, it’s about microbial management rather than eradication.”

Another positive trend is that institutions are increasingly committed to buying healthy, local wholesale food.

Grubinger mentioned a couple of pet peeves. “How can farming not be recognized as the best use of fertile land? How can it be used for development? This is one area where we are failing miserably. American Farmland Trust data show that year after year, in state after state, we’re losing farmland.”

Also, “We should protect and honor certain words.” Only real farms should be allowed to use the word “farm,” he said. Instead, “Corporations put pictures of happy farmers on their products to make them look like they came directly from a farm.”

Perhaps most difficult is to transition to more holistic measures of success. Instead of gross domestic product, have a genuine progress indicator – of what you produce and high school graduation rate, crime rate, pollution issues … “We are using stone age measures to assess how well a sophisticated society is doing.”

The future legacy of organic agriculture can be continuous improvement using measurable, holistic goals, such as the ratio of the total energy consumption on a farm to total food output. Pay is another issue, with many organic farmers probably paying pretty fair wages. Organic farms provide many ecosystem services, including pollinator habitat and water quality protection, that aren’t quantified or discussed.

Grubinger cited the article “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century” by John Reganold and Jonathan Wachter (Nature Plants, 2016), which used several such metrics to find that organic farming systems generally produce lower yields than conventional but are more profitable and environmentally friendly, and deliver equally or more nutritious foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, as well as, apparently, greater ecosystem services and social benefits.

The bottom line, said Grubinger, is that “it’s about continual improvement for your own farms and for organic agriculture in general and as a result for our entire food system, for society and for the world!”

– J E


Food, Farms, and Community:
Exploring Food Systems

By Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger
University of New Hampshire Press, 2014
288 pages, $29.95 paperback, $27.99 Ebook

“Food, Farms, and Community” expands on the topics Vern Grubinger addressed in his keynote speech at MOFGA’s 2016 Farmer to Farmer Conference. Readers learn about the food system in general – its businesses large and small, its values, the agricultural workforce, effects on the environment, climate and energy use – and ways to promote local, often organic food systems that will feed us all with healthful food while preserving land and other resources and building communities. The book is full of useful data. For example, Americans consume 2,538 calories per person now compared with 2,064 just 40 years ago. Small farms account for about 90 percent of all U.S. farms and more than half of the land in agriculture. A well-run 1,600-square-foot garden generates about $2,000 worth of food. And on and on.

To promote local food systems, the authors discuss access to healthy food, farm to school programs, agritourism and on-farm marketing, food safety from farm to fork, supporting the next generation of farmers, and maintaining farms and farmland in the future. Dozens of specific examples from individual farms, communities and organizations illustrate the good work being done in these areas. The final chapter brings all of that information together by listing and discussing ways to improve food systems to help ensure our survival.

“Food, Farms, and Community” is an excellent read to develop a thorough background in food system issues and is an excellent resource for your bookshelf, in case you ever need to know how to measure genuine progress instead of gross domestic progress, how many pounds of pesticides are used in the United States annually (more than a billion), or seven principles of a healthful, sustainable food system.

– J E


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