Peak Oil, Food Systems, Irene, Debt and Deadlines

Last month I watched in amazement as a small but inflammatory political faction forced its agenda on the American people—and got results.  The debt-ceiling advocates bullied the issue into Congress using two powerful tools—threats and a deadline.

Our food system depends on petroleum

Standing in line at the Giant last Friday, I reflected on our collective ability to mobilize for deadlines.  “This is not a storm to be taken lightly,” said Governor O’Malley to Marylanders, and we didn’t. We loaded up coolers of ice and refrigerators full of food, double-staked the tomatoes, charged the electronics, filled bathtubs with water, even put away patio furniture in case it might fly into the air and smash our windows. “I just scored the last eight D batteries in Baltimore!,” crowed a friend on Facebook. Read More >

James Beard Leadership Awards: Recognizing Food Systems Pioneers

Today the James Beard Foundation named the 10 recipients of its inaugural Leadership Awards, expanding the Foundation’s focus to include “game-changing pioneers who have inspired positive action to improve our country’s food system,” says Susan Ungaro, president of the Foundation.

Among the honorees are Fedele Bauccio and Fred Kirschenmann, who served as members of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and contributed to its 2008 report, “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America” The report was the product of a two-and-a-half year study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) served as principal investigator on the grant; Shawn McKenzie, associate director of the CLF, and several CLF researchers assisted in the production of the report. Ralph Loglisci, former Communications director of the Pew Commission, is now a member of the CLF staff and serves as the director the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project. Read More >

Conference Envisions a Very Different Future Harvest

future-harvestThirty years ago, Bruce Springsteen wrote the lyric “from small things, mama, big things one day come.” In a sense, that was part of the message of Fred Kirschenmann’s keynote address at the 12th annual conference of Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, although his address had more of a positive twist than the song.

By way of encouraging the small-scale farmers who made up about 75 percent of his Jan. 15 audience, Kirschenmann alluded to their farms as incubators for ideas that could become mainstreamed in the not-so-distant future.

“We are going to be moving toward a food system that looks like what a lot of you are doing on a small scale now,” said Kirschenmann, himself an organic farmer and rancher in North Dakota.

In making the point that innovation can be a collective endeavor, rather than the solitary pursuit of a rare genius, Kirschenmann referenced a book by Richard Ogle entitled “Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas“. The book introduces the notion of “idea spaces” as a launching pad for innovation. The author, Richard Ogle, describes an idea space as:

“A domain or world viewed from the perspective of the intelligence embedded in it, intelligence that we can use – consciously or not – both to solve our everyday problems and to make the creative leaps that lead to breakthrough.” Read More >

Field Notes: Farmers Gather as Winter Settles In

450480-copy1On the front porch, boots stamp away snow, and then the farmer steps inside.  The glasses fog up.  Off comes the jacket, the cap, and out goes the hand in greeting.  After a season spent grazing cows and sheep and pasturing pigs, hens and turkeys, meat producers from around southern Indiana are coming together today to compare the results of this year’s work.

From up to three hours away people have driven through the dark of a 13-degree morning, attracted to the occasion to sit with one another, to talk.  For them the day provides fellowship, a growing acquaintance with other farmers who they know mostly by reputation and whose work they admire.  These farmers are bound together by the work of supplying the region with meat and poultry raised outside the usual concentrated, confined, industrial model of production.  Grazing and pasturing their herds and flocks outdoors, with approaches meant to be ecologically regenerative, this group of graziers constitutes my study group for the past year as I prepare a doctoral dissertation about their part of the marketplace for meat and poultry, its potential, and its implications for public health.  Today’s gathering I have organized to collect a final stream of data.

Bunched together like they are at one end of the production spectrum – under designations like natural, grass-fed, pastured and “beyond organic” – I would have expected more similarity among the study population than I have found.  Motivations, skills, proclivities differ greatly.  And yet, there are commonalities.

One we hear about today is weariness.  All of these people are entrepreneurs quickly ramping up businesses that demand of them a world of new skills.  Some in the group are new to farming from careers in engineering, social work, teaching, sales.  For them, farming itself is new.  Most people here today, though, are lifelong farmers who have decided to add to their plates the work of marketing, selling and distributing the food they know how to raise.

One farm, for instance, that sells cheese as well as pork and beef saw their duties proliferate as they adopted grass-fed production, cheese-making and direct marketing.  They refer to the “BC” and “AC” eras of their farm: Before Cheese and After CheeseBefore Cheese, the only relationships their work required them to have were with the feed mill and the milk truck.  That was pretty much it.  After Cheese has them interacting with hundreds of wholesale and retail customers: relationship-based marketing, they call it.  This farmer says that the constant pressure of the small business life, paired with the long hours, over time begin to “erode family time.”  Another farmer is off making deliveries four days a week while his wife and children basically run the farm – this so they can raise food ecologically and sell it to a clientele whose demand far outstrips supply.  Life balancing is an issue farmers here want to discuss. Read More >

A 50-Year Farm Bill?

The Washington Post’s Jane Black wrote a great Q & A piece in today’s paper with Farmer-Writer-Academic Wendell Berry; Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute,; and Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center fellow and president of the Stone Barns Center. The three had traveled to DC to promote an ambitious proposal to legislators for a new form of food policy in the shape of a 50-year farm bill.

“The plan asks for $50 million annually for plant breeding and genetics research,” and “puts forward a new vision of agriculture, one that values not only yields but also local ecosystems, healthy food and rural communities,” writes Black in the piece, “3 Wise Men, Planting Ideas Where It Counts.”

Says Jackson of the 50-year farm bill: “The idea begins with acknowledging that nature covers much of the land with perennials, and agriculture reversed that thousands of years ago. In our modern times, we’ve offset the consequences with management techniques and fossil fuels that are nonrenewable and contribute to greenhouse gases.”

Black asks Kirschenmann about the approach of using Genetically Modified Plants (GMOs) to feed a growing population. “If you think about it, that approach really isn’t working here,” he notes. “If it weren’t for subsidies, farmers wouldn’t be able to buy the technologies that are supposed to save us. How are African farmers going to afford the technologies?”

Could inside-the-beltway thinking grasp something in a 50-year interval? Both Jackson and Kirschenmann believe so, citing Washington’s apparent ability to tackle long-range issues like climate change and population growth. “They have to extend the horizon. So we think the time is right to add agriculture to that.”