Thursday, January 14, 2010

Youth at Work

I can't take credit for this inspired graphic, but I think it's brilliant. Thanks, Justin.

Speaking of young farmers, I just found out about a sweet survey project attempting to link young farmers, interns, apprentices, and ag workers across the country. Check out their map

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

One more reason to choose farming

This winter, I've spent one day a week volunteering on a farm just outside the city. It's been wet, and cold, and the labor is not glamorous - putting in fenceposts, pulling weeds, repairing various equipment - but I get to work side-by-side with Rob, the farmer, and I've learned a lot just by watching, listening, and asking questions.

On one of my first visits to his farm, Rob requested my help in emptying a 55-gallon drum of waste from their composting toilet. This particular drum had been filled and sealed three years prior, and had since turned into fertilizer. We strapped the drum to a dolly, and three of us pushed and pulled it up the hill and into the pasture. When we stopped, Rob loosened the bolts holding on the lid, and we tipped the drum over, spilling odorless, dark brown soil onto the grass. Along with the compost, out tumbled a plastic water bottle and an old spatula. A spatula? I thought, glancing at the other intern, whose face reflected my own confusion. Rob considered the find, and then explained: three years ago, his younger daughter had been in diapers. He and his wife had used the spatula to scrape the (cloth) diapers clean before washing them; it must have fallen in at some point. Rob picked up the spatula , shook off the loose dirt, and stowed it in the side pocket of his Carhartts.

While I consistently try not to romanticize Rob's lifestyle, I was struck in that moment by the intimacy and complexity of his relationship to the farm. Everything has a history, everything plays a role, and nothing goes to waste. Including the poop.

On another note, the most exciting thing about getting excited about food is that lots of people are doing it - especially young people. I found a lovely essay on the Green Fork Blog about why so many 20-somethings are steering their lives toward farming. In "Cultivating Change: Interns on the Farm," Neysa King captures everything I've been feeling and trying to say in this article.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Localize This!

Coming of age in the late '90s meant that the dawning of my political awareness took place against the raucous backdrop of the anti-globalization movement. I attended pro-Nader rallies and protested at the Bush-Gore debates. I went to conferences. At school, I refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and got called a "commie". In the fall of '99, I watched footage of the November 30 WTO protests in Seattle. Inspired, I boarded a bus the following spring with students from a local university, bound for Washington, D.C., to attend IMF protests on the Mall. We slept on the floor of a church, made posters, got teargassed. I was 16, and had never seen so many beautiful people before.

Over the next year, as I read more about the WTO, IMF, NAFTA, etc, and as I spent more time with so-called anti-globalization activists, I became increasingly disillusioned that this catch-all movement representing a cornucopia of progressive agendas could do much against the engines of the global economy. Then, September 11th happened, and subsequently the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and much of the energy resisting globalization was absorbed or translated into anti-war efforts.

Since highschool, except in nostalgic passing, I haven't thought much about the ideals and goals of the anti-globalization movement. But as I delve deeper into current conversations about food production and consumption, I'm beginning to wonder if this "Eat Local" revolution isn't just a reincarnation of the anti-global vision, albeit somewhat sanitized, stripped of its patches and safety pins.

For the most part, proponents of eating locally emphasize the feel-good incentives for changing the way we eat: it's better for our bodies, for animals, and for the environment, it creates a connection to growers, it supports our communities, it improves our social lives, and so on. In the reading that I've done recently, while many food activists criticize large companies and the lack of legislation regulating them, they tend to refrain from actual attacks on global capitalism and the institutions that make it run.

Yesterday, however, I picked up Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture by Elizabeth Henderson, and, anticipating a feel-good manual for starting your own CSA, I was surprised and excited to find a lengthy and astute assessment of the effects that the WTO and NAFTA have had on agriculture in the US. Henderson asserts, "I believe we will be successful in transforming human relations only if we think in more political terms and link our community farms with the national and international networks that oppose the forces of neoliberalism and neocolonial globalization" (Pp. 23).

And consider these words from Wendell Berry, in his latest book, Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food: "It is clear that the advocates of factory farming are not advocates of farming. They do not speak for farmers. What they support is state-sponsored colonialism--government of, by, and for the corporations" (Pp. 15). Berry elaborates, "The present agricultural economy, as designed by the agribusiness corporations (and the politcians, bureaucrats, economists, and experts who do their bidding), uses farmers as expendable "resources" in the process of production, the same way it uses the topsoil, the groundwater, and the ecological integrity of farm landscapes. From the standpoint of sustainability, either of farmland or farm people, the present agricultural economy is a failure. It is, in fact, a catastrophe. And there is no use thinking that agriculture can become sustainable by better adapting to the terms imposed by this economy" (Pp. 17).

Now, it's hard for me to imagine Elizabeth Henderson or Wendell Berry spitting on cops or throwing bricks through the quintessential Starbucks window, but I think their resurrection of radical anti-globalization principles deserves some attention. It takes some gall to bring up neocolonialism at the dinner table, and you risk not being taken seriously by your fellow eaters. But here's Wendell Berry, a writer, thinker, and farmer, who is generally taken very seriously, wielding a well-honed critique of corporate-controlled government.

Meanwhile, more and more people are climbing on the local foods bandwagon everyday, and no one's getting called a "commie" for shopping at the farmer's market. Since everybody has to do it, maybe eating is just the easiest and most obvious entry point into harder conversations about localizing all of our economies.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Beyond Consumer Choice

Upon reading the quote from Sandor Ellix Katz's call to fermentation activism in my last post, a reader of this blog raised the concern that such an emphasis on food as politics might encourage laziness in other arenas. What if, for example, folks use proof of their organic purchases to exculpate themselves for driving a hummer? Or present loaves of home-baked bread to justify wasting water and leaving all the lights on?

These are extreme examples, of course, but, after mulling it over for a few days, I think there is some validity to the concern. I have to admit, I am regularly surprised to see, when waiting in line at my local food co-op, the shiny covers displayed in the checkout aisles, of such mainstream magazines as O and Women's Health. What kind of person shops here and buys those magazines? I ask myself. Clearly, there are consumers out there whose local and sustainable choices are not accompanied by larger cultural critique. I'm willing to bet, however, that their lack of cultural critique does not stem from, but rather predates, their awareness about food. What about the other set of co-op shoppers? Those who choose to patronize the co-op as part of a greater set of political principles - can stressing the activism inherent in their personal gastronomic choice perhaps promote apathy or inaction in other parts of their lives?

One aspect of the issue is that getting political about food largely means redefining one's role as a consumer. How political I am is defined by what I buy, and where I buy it (and what sort of bags I use to carry it home). Most of the advice offered by prominent food pundits (fundits?) like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle concerns how to be the right kind of consumer (join a CSA, shop at farmer's markets, read food labels closely). For some people, this just means positioning oneself as a non-consumer (you cultivate, bake, or ferment). Either way, one's identity as an eater or activist exists within or in relation to, profit-driven systems of food production.

I don't intend to decry or diminish the importance of being a conscientious and responsible consumer. Buying directly from local farmers, paying attention to what's in packaged food, and tending gardens and P-patches are superlatively important. But limiting our activism to the sphere of consumer choice is not only slow in change-making, but is also extremely isolating. And it is that isolation, I think, that is dangerous.

In his book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben coins the term "hyper-individualism," in reference to Americans' increasing isolation from families and communities. He attributes the hyper-individualist trend to a range of lifestyle changes over the last 100 years or so, from cultural narratives about "making something of yourself," to suburbanization and 2-career families, to television and the Internet. I've found the concept poignant in thinking about food issues.

The call to food action in someways manifests McKibben's hyper-individualism, in that it primarily politicizes individual consumer actions and choices. An individual's consumer choices are just that: choices a person makes alone in the supermarket or in the kitchen, of what to buy and what to eat. There is very little community or interpersonal connection in consumer choice. [McKibben cites research showing that shoppers have as many as 10 times the number of conversations at farmers markets than they do at grocery stores, claiming that shopping locally will change your social life. I disagree - I have more conversations at the farmer's market because I make more transactions, not because I make more friends - food buying is still a rather solitary act.]

If eaters are not supported by or accountable to a community of food activists, their choices remain isolated, disconnected from any larger politicized story. Is spending 20 minutes in the meat section of the food co-op, agonizing over whether to buy 100% organic broilers, or grass-fed antibiotic free roasters, really a political act, if I'm just going home to cook the chicken for myself? Or does this endless emphasis on what to buy just make private martyrs of all of us? And worse, does the time I spend fretting about poultry purchases take away from time I might spend writing letters to senators, signing petitions, or attending rallies and meet-ups?

I want to say, let's worry less about each specific purchase (or non-purchase, as the case may be), and worry more about talking to each other and to the people who make food policy decisions.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Home Again, Fermenting

I just returned home after eight days visiting friends and family on the Other Coast, and as I set about making dinner with the root vegetables that survived my absence, it hit me how much I had missed my own kitchen. I suddenly felt so much more grounded, chopping onions and hearing them sizzle as I dropped them, handful by handful, into the frying pan. I certainly can't deny the luxury of being cooked for and fed (thanks, Mom), but I am nonetheless relieved to be back among my battered pots and scarred cutting boards.

The upshot, however, of the holiday festivities, was that I came into possession of several wonderful books about food, among them Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Life-Cultured Foods. I already knew of Katz via his website,

and am excited to have a hard copy to take into the kitchen with me. I'm currently tending to a sourdough starter and a "bug" for ginger beer.

Recipes aside, what I appreciate most about Katz's work is the eloquence with which he articulates the relationship between eating and activism, while making a case for exploring fermentation:

"Resistance takes place on many planes. Occasionally it can be dramatic and public, but most of the decisions we are faced with are mundane and private. What to eat is a choice that we make several times a day, if we are lucky. The cumulative choices we make about food have profound implications.

Food offers us many opportunities to resist the culture of mass marketing and commodification. Though consumer action can take many creative and powerful forms, we do not have to be reduced to the role of consumers selecting from seductive convenience items. We can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators. Food has historically been one of our most direct links to the life forces of the Earth. Bountiful harvests have always been occasions for celebration and the appreciation of the divine . . .

. . . Not everyone can be a farmer. But that's not the only way to cultivate a connection to the Earth and buck the trend toward global market uniformity and standardization. One small but tangible way to resist the homogenization of culture is to involve yourself in the harnessing and gentle manipulation of wild microbial cultures. Rediscover and reinterpret the vast array of fermentation techniques used by our ancestors. Build your body's cultural ecology as you engage and honor the life forces all around you." (Katz, 27).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cheap Eats

Once again, making my way through Jill Richardson's Recipe for America (see previous post) I came across the distressing story of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old "undocumented" Mexican migrant worker, now the youngest farm worker in the U.S. to die from heat exhaustion. It was May of 2008, and Jimenez worked harvesting grapes in California. Jimenez collapsed after working for nearly 10 hours in 95 degree heat, receiving only one water break during that time (a direct violation of CA state law). Her employer delayed bringing Jimenez to the hospital, and by the time they did, she arrived in a coma, dying two days later.

Tellingly, it was not Jimenez's death that disturbed me most, so much as the knowledge of her employer: West Coast Grape Farming, a subsidiary of California's Bronco Wine Company which produces the ever-popular-among-broke-2o-somethings wine Charles Shaw, or "Two-Buck Chuck".

I came across this anecdote not a few days after a long conversation with Rob, the farmer I've been working for, about the grocery store Trader Joe's. I've long held a mild grudge against Trader Joe's for their questionable marketing of ethnic foods (labels reading "Trader Ming's," "Trader Giotto's, etc). But Rob's critique of the store was much deeper: he objects to how successfully Trader Joe's perpetuates the idea that good food can, and should be, cheap. Indeed, I've been privy to many a championing of Trader Joe's for their ability to anticipate the needs and appetites of their customers, their delicious pre-prepared meals, and above all, their rock-bottom prices for often organic foods. Rob argued that the cost of food should reflect what it costs to grow it, harvest it, and get it to market (which, for a small, diversified organic grower is a lot more than the costs for large-scale industrial producers). The lower the prices for food at places like Trader Joe's, the less likely consumers will be to spring for Rob's delicious vegetables (usually $2.00/lb), eggs ($6.50/doz.), or free-range chickens ($7.00/lb).

As one of those aforementioned, underemployed 20-somethings, I disagreed with Rob's argument. Lots of folks simply can't afford farmer's market or co-op prices for all-organic food.
There's no way around that fact. But what is slowly beginning to shift my perspective (maybe I could spend a larger chunk of my weekly checks on food) is stories like that of Maria Jimenez. Trader Joe's food isn't just cheap. It's cheap for a reason: the companies they contract with, like Bronco Wine, whether organic or not, rely on exploitable, cheap labor. In other words, and I am certainly not the first to say this, there are costs to our cheap food that we do not see (at least not yet).

But am I in a position to demonize and boycott Trader Joe's? Not really. All I can do is shop conscientiously and buy local when I've got the cash. Until systems change radically and the U.S. government begins subsidizing small-scale, low-impact organic farms, instead of the pesticide-sodden environmentally destructive corn and soybean operations they current do, we will remain caught in this bind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Industrial Agribusiness Eats Us for Lunch

The last few months have afforded me an unprecedented amount of free time, during which I've begun to explore one of my long-standing interests, farming, and delve deeper into the politics of America's food. The stack of books on my desk grows ever higher, and I'm spending more and more time on the internet, reading other activists' blogs. For the first time in a long time, I feel truly invigorated and driven to consume (the puns are endless) as much new information as possible, but also, increasingly overwhelmed.

I've been putting off writing about it because, where do I start?

But here's an interesting tidbit that I felt needs sharing. I'm just finishing the book Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It by Jill Richardson (Ig Publishing, 2009). As a frequent consumer of organic foods and food products, I stopped dead in my tracks when I got to Richardson's section titled "Industrial Ag Invades Organics." I sort of knew that a lot of so-called organic foods were produced by not-so-benevolent megacorporations, but the following list really brings it home:

Organic Brands Parent Company

Boca Foods, Back to Nature ---------------------Kraft

Naked Juice -------------------------------------- Pepsi

Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen -------------------- General Mills

Horizon, Organic Cow of Vermont,
Alta Dena, White Wave/Silk ------------------- Dean

Lightlife, Alexia Foods -------------------------- Conagra

Green & Black's ---------------------------------- Cadbury Schweppes

MorningstarFarms, Natural Touch,
Kashi, Gardenburger, Bear Naked ------------- Kellogg

Odwalla ------------------------------------------- Coca-Cola

Seeds of Change ---------------------------------- M&M Mars

Dagoba -------------------------------------------- Hershey Foods

If this isn't proof that simply "buying organic" does not absolve us as consumers, then I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, one of Obama's most recent acts as president has just come to my attention: the nomination (and subsequent confirmation by the US Senate) of two "Big Ag" types to prominent positions in the USDA and Office of the US Trade Representative, respectively. Roger Beachy, of Monsanto, and Islam Siddiqui, of CropLife America, will surely only tighten the choke-hold of industrial agriculture on Federal food regulation and monitoring.

Read more about it at