From Soil to Water and the Future of Sustainable Food

baby cucumbersOne of my first experiences on a farm opened my eyes to the fascinating interconnectedness of an agricultural system. For this reason, I find it truly rewarding to share in people’s excitement when they visit the aquaponics project. It was on that first farm visit that I realized agriculture meant more than growing a head of lettuce in a faraway field; it meant growing and nurturing a community of organisms, from the chickens that fertilize the soil to the microbes that break down their waste and the people that consume the food. Aquaponics takes these relationships out from hiding. Read More >

When the Fish and Plants Don’t Get Along

2013-aquaponics-tankIt’s easy to get excited about aquaponics. On the surface it seems simple: the waste from the fish is recycled into valuable nutrients for the plants, while the vegetables purify the water for the fish. Aquaponics, like any form of agriculture, is dynamic, changing with the seasons and over time. As the fish and plants grow, their needs change and shift the balance. Read More >

Jackson touts 50-year plan to ‘perennialize’ landscape

pasa-logoThe Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture was celebrating its 20th annual conference Feb. 2-5, but it seems that keynote speaker Wes Jackson wasn’t there to celebrate. Instead, he was on a mission to gather allies for his proposal of a 50-year farm bill, which could supplement the “five-year” farm bills that the U.S. Congress has been passing since the 1930s.

“I’m tired of kicking the 100-foot sponge,” he blared, in explaining his feelings of futility surrounding those short-term farm bills. “What we want is a 50-year farm bill that would use the five-year farm bills as mileposts toward progressively perennializing the landscape.”

Jackson also gave a keynote address at PASA’s first conference in 1992. The event has grown from 500-plus attendees in that first year to 2,000-plus in recent years. In addition to his keynote this year, Jackson also led a workshop entitled “The Necessity for a 50-Year Farm Bill.”

He would like to see the federal government get behind the idea of transforming U.S. agriculture – over the next 50 years – from 80 percent annual crops and 20 percent perennials to an 80:20 ratio that favors perennials. Grains are a vital part of any agricultural sustainability plan because they supply 70 percent of the calories we eat.

This ambitious policy proposal dovetails well with the work that Jackson has been doing at the Land Institute since he founded it in 1976. His mission there has been to reinvent agriculture by replacing annual monoculture grains with perennial polycultures, using the prairie as his guide.

Wes Jackson shows off perennial Kernza, a wheatgrass developed at his Land Institute.

Wes Jackson shows off perennial Kernza, a wheatgrass developed at his Land Institute.

He says we must solve the “10,000-year-old problem of agriculture,” first by acknowledging that it is inherently unsustainable to plow up the land each year. Jackson also noted that while no-till and minimum-till agriculture have had success in curbing soil erosion, their downfall is that they are allowing lots of excess nitrogen to enter waterways, contributing to aquatic dead zones all over the world. The culprit there is annual crops that can’t absorb enough of the nitrogen fertilizer being applied to them.

“Annual systems leak! Those wimpy roots can’t do it!” he exclaimed. “So, consequently we have dead zones. The dead zone didn’t get smaller with minimum till/no-till, it got bigger.”

Jackson showed a satellite image of cropland in the heart of corn and soy country in the U.S. Midwest. The image was taken in early April, when much of that land is bare – just when the spring rains are due.

“That’s the land of the tall-grass prairie,” he opined. “That’s the land that’s providing 70 percent of the calories [that Americans eat]. That’s the land that’s providing the grain for the feedlots. That’s the land that’s providing the grain for the ethanol …”

And the kicker: “That’s the land that has very serious soil erosion … Five-year farm bills don’t speak to that.”

Jackson’s good humor and affability helped him walk a tightrope in addressing a sustainable agriculture audience he called “our natural constituency” for the 50-year farm bill concept. He had both praise for the accomplishments of the movement and criticism about its current state.

“I hate to say this to this group. You’ll probably shoot me,” he began. After a pregnant pause, he offered: “We’re overly concerned about food. Michelle [Obama]’s got a garden. It’s a nice garden. It’s organic. It’s beautiful. We got a Slow Food movement. We got everything that oughta be cookin’. What’s wrong? Because it involves gardens, and organic, and local; meanwhile, the calories feeding us are coming from land that is going downhill fast – literally.”

Jackson gave credit to sustainable farmers for what they’re doing on a small scale, but he harped on the fact that the movement must expand its focus.

“In terms of saving the soil resource and reducing chemical contamination, most of the sustainable has to do with you folks as a ragtag of people who got the story straight. But, you’re small in number, and the kinds of crops you’re growing don’t address that [erosion] problem in Iowa and Illinois, and other places,” he said. 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 >

2 School Farms in 2 Days

This past weekend, I witnessed hundreds of volunteers working in a very tangible way to take back the food system for a community.  The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  This was a stride.  Two high schools in Richmond, Calif in the span of one weekend built urban school farms at their respective school sites.  Supported by Urban Tilth, those students, teachers, parents and community volunteers laid the infrastructure and built the capacity to grow significant amounts of local produce in Richmond. 

These are farms that will not just change the physical environment of the schools and the community, but significantly change the way students think about food.  This year, close to 30 students at Richmond High are enrolled in the second pilot year of an Urban Agriculture and Food Systems class, what we call Urban Ag Institutes, and those students will grow from seed thousands of pounds of produce, that will feed families from their high school.  Last year, the program had a small but impressive 10 family CSA box (community supported agriculture) and this year with the expansion of the farm at the high school, they hope to do even more. Article on RHS program

Just as exciting, across town at Kennedy High School, an even larger farm with thirteen 100 ft. rows were put in behind the football field.  Say bye-bye to the school garden and say hello to the school ‘farm!’  Imagine the depth of knowledge that will come as those students learn to manage a working urban farm.  Growing seasons, soil, pests, nutrition, food systems, marketing, community food security, advocacy, organics, cooking, and permaculture are just some of the topics that we will engage with students in the program.

I interviewed Park Guthrie, the Urban Ag Club teacher at Kennedy (slated to become an official Urban Ag Institute in fall of 2010) and his words speak volumes.  I wanted to know how he saw this program and these farms fitting into the food movement and the local food system of Richmond.  With the interwovenness of the American food system, was this solving access issues, food security, or generating behavioral change?  Park replied, “The truth is, I really think it all goes back to Wendell Berry.  It’s the most direct way to address a relationship problem.  It’s a relationship problem imbedded in so many facets of our culture.  The alienation between food, nature, natural cycles and community health.  I guess I feel like a production focused Urban Ag Institute Program solves that relationship problem.  It puts those teenagers in a completely new relationship with food, land, community and a general sense of power.  I think it does tangibly improve the Richmond food system, but maybe the most important way it affects the food system is in the relationship these teenagers have with food.” Read More >

Is Smithfield Decision Not to Replace Gestation Crates Ethical?

alan-goldbergAlan Goldberg, Ph.D., is a former commissioner of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and is a guest blogger today for Livable Future.

The largest pork producer in the world, Smithfield Foods Inc., says it can’t afford to go through with one of its much-ballyhooed animal welfare improvement plans. The company said that it must delay plans to replace its “gestation crates” for pregnant sows with more humane “group housing.” Frankly, the decision comes as no surprise to me. Back in 2007, when the company announced that its 187 Smithfield-owned pig nurseries would be converted within 10 years, the executives refused to admit that the crates were inhumane. Rather, they said their decision was based on consumer preference. If Smithfield were truly concerned about growing consumer awareness and/or preference concerning how animals are raised for food, it would have also required that all of its contract facilities convert within the same 10-year span.

These gestation crates truly are appalling, and some have used the word cruel.  A sow living in a typical industrial facility will spend the majority of her life confined in these metal and concrete stalls that are so small that she can barely lie down, let alone turn around. I won’t belabor how awful gestation crates are – they are awful. Chances are you’ve heard a great deal about them as the Humane Society of the United States and other animal welfare organizations campaigned across the country in efforts to legally have them banned.  So far, six states have laws on the books that ban producers from using gestation crates. The European Union was ahead of the curve, requiring farmers to replace all gestation crates by 2013.

Read More >

Show Me the Movement!

Aaron French’s commentary yesterday on the Civil Eat’s blog raises this issue of how prepared the sustainable food movement is to take its seat at the table in Washington. An important question given the receptivity the current administration has shown of late. It seems some more organizing is necessary. Case-in-point: a statement from Obama, as quoted by Michael Pollan at the Georgia Organics conference (where I was on Saturday), in reference to taking action on sustainable food:

“Show me the movement. Make me do it.”

While Obama’s comments are encouraging, they point to the need for stronger organization within the movement. Read More >

Vilsack Visits the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Meeting

I was privileged to spend the past few days at the Inaugural Meeting of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a well-organized group of stakeholders from around the country ranging from farmers to policy wonks (who are sometimes one in the same) working in coalition on important issues. In addition to learning an incredible amount from this crew, I was thrilled to meet dozens of NSAC members eager to see public health take a larger, more active role in drawing the links between sustainable agriculture and health. I was also encouraged that Secretary Vilsack took the time visit to the NSAC Meeting. Read More >

CLF’s 9th Dodge Lecturer Vandana Shiva: Sustainable Local Food is Imperative

At the 9th annual Dodge Lecture yesterday at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (video will be posted on CLF’s website soon), world renowned scientist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva stated that the most important issues in sustainable agriculture today are the disappearance of nutrition in food (a major public health concern) and localization of food sovereignty. Much of what passes for ‘food’ today -processed foods heavy with corn and soy byproducts – lacks the nutrition that once was the defining feature of food. The so-called gains of the Green Revolution weren’t so much gains as displacements. More wheat, rice and corn was grown, instead of the varied plethora of grains that had supported humans for centuries with diverse nutrients. Good nutrition in food comes from healthy soil, which is a result of biodiverse and sustainable agriculture practices, not vast monocultures. As we continue to grow chemically dependent monocultures of a few crops, we denude the soil of the organisms that keep it healthy and impart necessary nutrients to our food. Dr. Shiva expands on soil health in her recent book: Soil Not Oil. Read More >

A Solution to Contaminated Foods – Local Sustainable Agriculture

In mid-January, Future Harvest – A Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, held its 10th annual conference. More than 200 people gathered to learn about sustainable agriculture practices, and how to get more local, sustainable foods into groceries, schools, hospitals and even farmers markets (thanks to keynote speaker Nina Planck). This year’s attendance was evidence of the expanding diversity of the group’s supporters as food service chefs from schools and hospitals, small grocery buyers, local food distributors, and farmers’ market managers came for the first time. Farmers from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania mingled with these folks, sharing their stories and talking about ways to improve the local food system. Members and supporters of Future Harvest CASA are a real, viable solution to the recent unsettling news about the safety of our food supply – like antibiotic resistant staff strains in industrially produced hogs and mercury in industrially produced High Fructose Corn Syrup or see IATP press release. Read More >