Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Action Call from Farm Aid

"Factory farms pose a real danger to our communities, our natural resources, and the livelihood of hardworking family farmers. A current USDA program is funneling taxpayer money to fund new and bigger factory farm operations that lead to the gross overproduction of hogs and poultry. So much livestock is being churned out that it has caused a long-term depression of producer prices, forcing family farmers out of business.

The longer the USDA continues this misguided policy, the greater the threat to small farmers who are already being squeezed in this economy. Please fill out the form below to add your name to our letter telling Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to stop using taxpayer money to prop up factory farms."

-Farm Aid

Take Action HERE

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why would you buy the cow.....

When I started to write this post I had one simple goal...well maybe not a simple goal, but ONE goal: to encourage beef eaters to shop with local grass-feeding ranchers in a thoughtful, sustainable way.

Other issues soon bubbled up as I attempted to write: Why would you even try to find local grass-fed beef? Readers would need to know the difference between corn-fed beef and grass-fed beef, an explanation of why we feed corn to cows (below), the definition of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the various atrocities of CAFOs, and the scads of social, environmental, and health benefits of choosing to eat grass-fed beef.

Since I'm particularly opposed to our oppressive monocrop of field corn, I felt compelled to address corn feed. I'm going leave the rest of the research to my industrious readers based on the links embedded in the above paragraph. But there are simpler reasons to go local.

When I buy local beef, I have all of the above information in mind, but I have two simple reasons for going local: I like farmers, and I like animals. It makes me feel good to support farmers I've gotten to know at farmers markets and through my work. And I have peace of mind because I know that these farmers treat their livestock humanely. I've seen it with my own eyes, and so can you. When you're buying local, you have the miraculous advantage of being able to visit the farms where your food was raised, and even butchered....if you want.

A couple of weeks ago, Jeremy Parker of Missouri Grass Fed Beef near Salem, MO spoke at a dinner for Slow Food St. Louis. On Jeremy's farm they manage 930 acres of gorgeous rolling pasture, and about 100 head of cattle. He and his two brothers work hard building fences and planting red clover hay, timothy, orchard, grass, alfalfa and other pasture so that they can rotate the cattle and crops sustainably.

You can find Missouri Grass Fed Beef at Local Harvest Grocery, Baumann's Fine Meats, the Maplewood Farmer's Market, Tower Grove Farmer's Market, and a small smattering of restaurants in the St. Louis area. Out of towners can always find excellent local food information in the Local Harvest Database.

Local livestock faces more challenges than other industries in the home foodshed. Small-scale ranches and butchers are having trouble staying in business. Giants like Tyson and Smithfield are dominating the meat market, and they have in-house butchers. The number of small-scale butchers has almost halved since 1992.

For farmers like Jeremy, there's another problem. Customers desire prime muscle cuts: rib eyes, strip steaks, porterhouses, t-bones, and filet mignon. With a hundred cattle per season, lets assume he's butchering between 5 and 25 cattle at a time - depending on demand. If he's butchering 5 cattle, that's only a handful of the aforenamed cuts, so what happens to the rest of the meat?

Jeremy solves this problem by selling only whole and half animals. If his customer (often a restaurant or small grocer) can't handle at least half an animal, it doesn't make financial sense for him to split it up. Once, as a favor to a local chef, he butchered several animals himself so that he could provide a slew of choice cuts for an event, but he swears he'll never do that again. He would prefer to see a restaurant serve a number of different cuts in one evening the way that they do in parts of Europe and South America.

Sadly, many cattle ranchers end up selling these less sought-after cuts at a much lower price, or turn them into processed foods for pennies on the dollar. That setup puts those farmers in a very precarious financial situation ... they're taking a significant loss.

People who live in farm areas are more likely to know what to do with the other cuts. My Aunt and Uncle give away parcels like tongue and liver to people they know happen like them. But in the city, it tends to be a different story. According to Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow farm in upstate New York, "To sustain local agriculture, consumers need to have a basic understanding of how to work with each of the different parts of the animal so they can make meal planning decisions based on what the farmer has in stock, not what the recipe featured in the latest cooking magazine tells us we have to run out and buy." Ms. Hayes has written two cookbooks addressing the issue "Farmer and the Grill" and "Grassfed Gourmet." I plan to break out the pressure pan, and imagine the possibilities. It always amazes me how eating local or eating heirloom varieties has me trying more new foods than eating in the global food system ever did.

While I was working along Ms. Hayes' public education, and my Aunt and Uncle's coop lines of thinking, a colleague had another idea. Bill Burge is a co-leader of Slow Food St. Louis, and a food critic who has gotten to know a number of socially conscious chefs through his work. Bill's idea is to get restaurants teamed up together so that Niche, for example, would get all of the prime muscle cuts, while the rest of the beeve could be ground into hamburger meat and sold to a bar or family restaurant that could make things like meatloaf and burgers.

So...I throw it back to you. What about the restaurant idea? Do you know of cafes, bistros, brasseries, or diners on either end of the spectrum that might want to participate? And what about you? Would you cook cuts of meat that you hadn't attempted before? I'm not necessarily talking about the liver and tongue, but what about chuck, shoulder or brisket? Would you give'em a shot?

Corned Beef

The people I know are confused about what cows eat. The idea that they might eat grass sounds right, and the idea that they might eat corn also sounds right. The idea that corn is not part of a cow's natural diet does not sound right to most people. Most cattle in 2009 do eat corn, so it's logical to assume that corn is a natural part of their diet.

But a modern cow's diet is not about nutrition or evolution. It's about economics.

During WWII the U.S. government built 10 new plants to provide nitrogen for bombs. After the war, those plants were converted so that they could produce nitrogen fertilizer. Officials were excited about the productivity the fertilizer would provide, and it flooded the market. At essentially the same time, modern irrigation and modern pesticides hit the agricultural scene. The corn yield tripled immediately, and the price of corn plummeted far below the price of grass.

Even in our era of ethanol innovation, corn is heavily subsidized by the government, keeping the price (superficially) low. And that, my friends, is why most U.S. cattle eat corn.

It is true that farmers historically "finished" cattle on corn or other crop surplus to fatten them before slaughter. But a full diet of corn is vastly different. Cattle who feast on only corn after weening are disease-ridden and grow big at unnatural, unhealthy rates. Some industrial cattle farmers further cut the corn feed with foodstuffs such as candy and municipal garbage. By the time of death, the cows' livers are nearly destroyed, and they've been dosed with an overuse of antibiotics - partially to combat an immune system weakened by a synthetic diet.

In my next post I'm hoping to explore the various ways to support your local renegade pasture-grazing cattle rancher a.k.a. "livestock superhero."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zombie Blog

Can a blog rise from the dead? As my friends in the Princess Bride would say, it's only mostly dead. So I'm going to feed it a chocolate-coated miracle, and see where I get.

As a reminder, a double disappearance is when something disappears, and then the memory it ever existed disappears (see first blog post). There's no one left to ask what happened to it, because no one remembers that there ever was such a thing. It's gone. Really gone.

This double disappearance blog is dedicated to traditional food systems, and the dying art of many practices related to food production. Which, in recent years, has become the reviving art of many practices related to food production. While the industrial food system still puts many elements of our agricultural heritage in danger of being forgotten, thousands of dedicated people are running to the rescue of traditions like seed saving, salt curing, bee keeping, and soil tending.

More generally, this blog is about local food, food traditions, recipes, my family's agricultural history, homesteading ... whatever strikes my fancy. What usually strikes my fancy is food and history, so that works out well.

I'm aiming for one post per month. If I don't say it out loud, it may not happen, and next time I'll be referring to a Monty Python quote. You know the one.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Label Local

The creation of organic labeling was controversial, and complicated for the USDA to implement. The effect on farmers has been a mixed bag - opening niche markets, but also creating expense, extra work, and a system that sometimes makes farmers feel like show dogs jumping for approval. Furthermore, finding a certifying organization to provide said approval can often be the most challenging part of the process.

The effect on the average consumer has also been complicated. I didn't know until recently that "100% Organic" was more organic than "Organic" which is more organic than "Made with Organic Ingredients." I just thought they were different marketing strategies or gimmicks.

Still, I think creating local labeling is brilliant, and it would really help me to make smart choices at the market. The local label templates I've seen are more straightforward than the organic model. Of course, that's subject to change after the wringer of organizational bureaucracy, and the gauntlet of capital hill. But some models will avoid these challenges completely.

For example, the familyfarmed.org label will have the regular Price Look-Up (PLU) number, farm location, farm name, and the familyfarmed.org logo & web address. If the consumer is curious enough to visit the website, they will find the story of the farm where their squash, apple, or strawberry was planted, grown, and harvested.

A more universal model has been proposed by the Leopold Center for Sustainability. Their Food Miles Ecolabel would show the number of miles traveled from the farm to the store, source state or country, mode of transport (ex: truck, plane or barge), and categorize the food into one of four environmental impact categories: low, moderate, high, and very high.

These would be extremely helpful labels, but they're complicated, and creating universal implementation would certainly put them through the wringers and gauntlets. As far as I know, the Leopold Center is only referring these labels as a working model of what could be done in the future with more infrastructure - not as a finished product ready for market. They also point out that food miles don't tell the whole story. Some foods consume more energy in their packaging production, or in their storage and preparation than during transport. Personally I can't imagine a label with all of the appropriate information labeled on it. A kumquat labeled with its life cycle analysis would probably resemble a textbook with a fruity center. But for now, any guidance would be appreciated.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tri-State Locally Grown Conference

Quincy, Illinois is far prettier than I remember from annual visits to see my great grandmother in the nursing home when I was a little girl. When I drove in from highway 24 I thought I was in New Haven, Connecticut for a moment. The similarity was so striking that I actually felt physically disoriented. But those upmarket blocks fade to a city overrun with train tracks, and what appear to be small mining and refining operations. In my mind these things are still very pretty. Maybe it’s the St. Louis girl in me that finds ghostly skeletons of the industrial revolution beautiful.
The Tri-State Locally Grown conference was held at John Wood Community College. Like other conferences I have attended, the lobby was bustling with exchange of information around educational booths, a couple of vendors, and, thankfully, coffee service.

Apple products from Blue Heron Orchard in Canton, Missouri:

I made my rounds, introducing myself to each booth conductor with - I must admit - the selfish underlying motivation that someone out there knows where I can find a paying job in Missouri local food systems. For shame. Okay, that wasn’t the only reason. I came to the conference to learn. I have a lot to learn – and I started in the right place. David from the nonprofit, The Land Connection, told me what programs are in place to establish new small farms, and support existing family farmers through their organization. My brief discussion with David about small farmers set the theme for the conference: small-scale farming is about Stewardship and Autonomy.

Bonus!: David also gave me carrot, pumpkin, and endive seeds.

The opening speech was by Richard Pirog, Associate Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He discussed the impact of local and regional agriculture models on global energy consumption and emissions.
My favorite thing about Mr. Pirog was that despite his thorough research in-hand, colleagues at his side, and a confident air, he was humble and open to critique. He acknowledged that data isn’t everything, and, there are some aspects of farm life that can’t be measured with charts and graphs.

For example, studies show that there are fewer emissions when farm food is delivered to customers using a small truck as compared to customers commuting to the farm themselves. However, Mr. Pirog noted that consumers are then unable to s
ee farm, get to know the farmer, the land, and the process. He left the question as to whether this was worth the carbon tradeoff open-ended, and closed with the M. Scott Peck quote, “Through community lies the salvation of the world.”

My first seminar was with Dr. Mary Hendrickson, Rural Sociology professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia. She discussed benefits of local food systems: community, friends, quality and taste of food, local economy, knowledge, adventure, and variety. But the crux was this: “quality of livelihoods.” For most small farmers, money alone doesn’t equal a high quality of life. In fact the thing that draws most new farmers into the field is autonomy. That’s not to say they aren’t constrained by seasons, timing, customer demands, and that storm blowing over the horizon; but most alluring to the farmer is the ability to plan his or her day themselves. No one could have trouble understanding this concept.

There is enormous social capital gained from engaging in local food systems on the part of consumers, lenders, farmers, and community leaders: healthy, happy, independent people; a growing local economy; an attractive and diverse environment, community vitality, partnerships, trust, equity. A community with high social capital can do anything.

I sat rapt through my next two seminars. The first was an intensive crash course in challenges and solutions to urban food access; and the second taught me how to build my own refrigeration storage out of brick and a window air conditioning unit. Rock'n!

The keynote speakers were Alisa Smith and James Mackinnon, authors of "Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally," one of my favorite recent reads. I had been kicking myself because I left my copy of the book at home, but I was delighted that registration included a new copy, which I was later able to get signed while moderately embarrassing myself talking to Alisa and James about food access in urban areas.

During his speech, James told a great little story that exemplifies the absurdity of our current food system. He met a carrot farmer from Washington State who could never find his own carrots at the local market. Knowing his carrots were sold in North Carolina, he made a trip to the area, and found that his product was the only type of carrot sold in that market. On his way home, he came across a North Carolinian carrot farm that he recognized from his own market. So, carrots were traveling from Washington to North Carolina, and simultaneously, carrots were traveling from North Carolina for sale in Washington State. Two trucks passing in the night.

James pointed out that while food systems can be complicated; there is a simplicity and transparency to eating locally. Buying locally from small-scale farmers is supporting your local economy, sure, but also supporting other people's dreams of autonomy, and a diverse preserved environment that we can all be proud of. This, I think, is what draws me to the issue. Local food has a significant global impact on the issues of peak oil, climate change, social justice, and human rights, but this issue also has a face. A local face, my farmer's face. And I can talk to my farmer while eating his product. That's so beautiful to me.

This is Ron. He grows tomatoes.