Thursday, October 23, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaDespite working their usual long hours, farmers in the Midwest are expected to take home a smaller paycheck after this season. While a record harvest dropped crop prices, inputs like seed, fertilizer and pesticide expenses rose, combining to make double trouble for farmers looking to receive a decent return on their investments. Studies show that they’re losing $225 per acre of corn and $100 per acre of soybeans. The price gap is likely to be bridged by farm subsidies, using taxpayer dollars to make up the margin and put a Band-Aid over the larger issues. The author, Tom Philpott, suggests that farmers look at organic crop production and diversifying to grow other crops and raise animals, which command stronger prices for farmers.

For one day each year in Illinois, man replaces machine in the race to harvest corn. Last weekend, farmers took part in the 34th annual Illinois State Corn Husking Competition, a tradition that originally grew to popularity during the Great Depression when everyone picked their own corn by hand. Today, machines can harvest 12 rows of corn at a time and 200,000 pounds per hour. Conversely, skilled farmers can pick about 4,500 pounds of corn by hand each hour. The competition brings farmers of all ages out to try the old fashioned method for a day.

Even as heat waves across the country die down, forecasts don't predict a wetter winter for the West Coast. 60 percent of California is currently experiencing exceptional drought – the worst possible ranking according to a NOAA report. The northern coast may see more rain, but the central valley is likely to remain dry another season.

When you look at a soda, you could start thinking in minutes on the treadmill rather than calories and ounces in the bottle. Recently, Johns Hopkins conducted a study by placing signs in convenience stores in Baltimore that tell shoppers how long they would have to walk or run to burn off calories consumed in sugary drinks. So far, the signage has caught the attention of adolescents, as the average amount of calories per drink purchased by teens dropped by 203 to 179. The average beverage size also dropped by 37 percent once customers learned of the workout routine their sugary indulgence would merit. So far, these numbers are small changes, but they are significant beginning steps to show that with education, buyers lean toward healthier choices.

A beautiful photo series in the Washington Post shows a day in the life of a 94-year-old farmer in Weston, Missouri. "It's altogether a different situation," Charles Bradley says of farming as he reflects on the past. "There were many farms up and down the road, but now it's operated by one fella who has 2,000 to 3,000 acres. Back in the old days, if we had 200 acres we had a lot of ground."

The next time you’re watching primetime TV, you just might get a break from Coke ads and see some fresh produce on screen instead. This week, the first TV ad from Whole Foods Market aired nationally as an effort for the chain to rebrand itself under the slogan "America’s Healthiest Grocery Store." Showcasing farmers at work and eye-catching landscapes, the campaign focuses on promoting values in food production, including the fair treatment of animals, farmers and the earth. The chain, which opened in 1980, has earned both 'elitist' and 'pioneer' as titles and is working to ditch the 'Whole Foods – whole paycheck' reputation while maintaining their status as leaders of the local and organic food movements.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Amanda's Farm and Food Roundup

AmandaWe like to think that Google has all the answers, but your next search could lead you to some unreliable information. After a PBS Frontline report titled "The Trouble With Antibiotics" aired this week, the National Pork Board sent an advisory email to food industry executives, detailing plans to control the conversation and redirect online searches for the PBS special to their own website and propaganda. The detailed Frontline report focused on the dangers of antibiotic resistant superbugs like KPC and MRSA that have become more frequent in areas close to large confined livestock agriculture operations. These superbugs kill about 20,000 people each year in the US and an increasing number of experts believe that excessive antibiotic use on farms is to blame. The National Pork Board's communication, which was leaked to the press, claimed there were no connection.

In additional antibiotic news, new findings published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supported the hypothesis that antibiotic use in agriculture could be linked to antibiotic resistance found in some pathogens. The study showed that manure aids the growth of bacteria in soil by both feeding them and eliminating other competition for resources. Even manure from antibiotic-free cows can assist in this process.

As California continues to seek solutions to its devastating drought, some farmers are turning toward technology to alleviate the situation. In the third year of drought, some 500,000 acres of farmland have already been taken out of use, pushing the agriculture business toward long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. To continue feeding the country, California crops may start to shift north to areas where water is plentiful, but sunshine is lacking. Here, the presence of grow lights can provide supplemental sunshine indoors and allow farmers to grow crops year round. In other areas, farmers are trying to adapt to climate change by cajoling rain from clouds. By using drones to fire silver iodine into clouds, farmers can facilitate participation. These two methods have become less costly in recent years and could become attainable solutions to the Golden State's growing water problem.

If you're looking to stretch your dollars, a trip to your local farmers market could do the trick. Early this month, the USDA announced $31.5 million to aid programs that bring farm fresh food closer to low-income families. For every $10 SNAP beneficiaries spend at farmers markets, they will receive $20 worth of produce, while the grant program provides the other $10. This move is designed to bring some of the $80 billion SNAP dollars spent each year to local communities rather than Big Food manufacturers.

For farmers taking those extra steps to be sustainable, more than just a pat on the back from Whole Foods could be in store. On Wednesday, the chain announced that it would begin ranking produce from farms as either "good," "better" or "best" based on farmworker treatment, greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem management. Some complain that the rankings require statistics that are tricky to retrieve – such as the number of earthworms in the soil. But for those willing to count their dirt dwellers and protect native species in their area, increased sales could pay off. The initiative marks a move toward transparency that will also define goals for farmers to achieve.

This year, the United Nations chose to focus its annual World Food Day on family farmers. In honor of the occasion, Willie Nelson wrote a letter that appeared on the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization's website and in the Huntington Post. You can read it here. The voices of North Carolina farmers we met at Farm Aid 2014 are also shared on the UN's website.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaIn the upcoming election, swing voters could vote with their stomach in mind rather than their wallet. A new poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, a public opinion and political strategy research firm based in Washington DC, shows that voters found issues regarding nutrition assistance, food safety and farm subsidies pivotal. They saw feeding vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and veterans as particularly important when casting their votes. These results could indicate that voters will hold their representatives accountable for their voting record regarding food when they head to the polls this November.

In Europe, activists are fighting to keep chlorinated chicken out of their food system. As talks resume between the US and Europe regarding the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), an agreement that would create the largest free-trade zone in the world, many worry about the implications of such a system. Europeans are concerned that US imports could degrade their food system with goods such as hormone-treated beef or GMOs, but they're especially concerned about chicken from large US companies that is often soaked in chlorine to combat disease. The practice of letting poultry take a dip in the pool has been outlawed in Europe for 20 years. Instead, the EU has chosen to fight disease in live birds before they make their way to processing plants, reducing salmonella rates in birds to 2 percent.

Amid the windy city's numerous skyscrapers, a record-breaking number of fruits and vegetables could soon start spouting. Gotham Greens, a Brooklyn based company that designs, builds and operates urban agriculture projects, has begun planning what will be the world's largest rooftop farm. The Chicago project will live on top of an LEED platinum manufacturing plant of home cleaning products – the first of its kind. Gotham Greens predicts that the urban operation will produce 1 million pounds of fresh food each year – five times the current yield of the Brooklyn farm. The manufacturing plant is slated to open early next year with the farm to follow.

Taking his pacifist commitment to a new level, Amish farmer Samuel Zook has decided to stop waging chemical warfare on plants and pests. When fungi and pests attacked Zook's farm, chemical remedies did little to nothing to salvage his crops. Zook began researching alternatives to alleviate crop loss and came across Advancing Eco Agriculture, a consulting group founded by 18-year-old Amish farmer John Kempf. Determined to save his own crops from a similar fate, he had spent recent years teaching himself biology, chemistry and agronomy with only a middle school education as background. Kempf studied plant immune systems, which naturally produce toxic compounds to ward off intruders without killing the natural predators of pests. Like in humans, a healthy immune system depends on healthy diet. Kempf discovered deficiencies in certain minerals after analyzing the plants and was able to introduce them to the soil, allowing the plants to defend themselves and making chemical treatment unnecessary. These practices are now utilized across North America, South America, Europe and Africa, according to Kempf.

Despite being surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables, some farmers find themselves often reaching for Doritos and Twinkies rather than apples and oranges. New findings show that this trend stems from long work hours and a lack of time to prepare good food. During stressful planting and harvest seasons, farmers can often work between 12 – 16 hours each day, leaving little time for sleep and even less time for cooking from scratch. Traditionally, men worked in the fields while women prepared food for the family, but as both parties spend more time getting their hands dirty and single individuals take up farming, the classic model has shifted.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Amanda's Farm and Food Roundup

Amanda The latest mystery surrounding GMOs isn’t just about what’s in them, but how they’re making their way into fields where they don’t belong. Just as the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service abandoned an investigation into unwanted GMO wheat planted in an Oregon field in 2013, the Montana State University's Southern Agriculture Research Center uncovered more peculiar plants in their field. The unapproved GMO wheat was found when workers tried to clear a field using glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide. Some wheat survived exposure to the herbicide because it carried a gene for glyphosate tolerance that Monsanto had inserted into some of the GMO varieties. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple to point the blame at Monsanto for this one – genetic tests showed that the wheat was a combination of different types created by a breeder and not sold as a seed from a corporation. Fortunately, this wheat was grown in a test field and not put on the market for unsuspecting customers to buy.

By grossing $35 billion last year, the organic business finally got the USDA to listen up and pay attention. On Monday, the USDA announced $52 million to support local food systems and organic farming research as part of the 2014 Farm Bill. This investment is just the beginning of $30 million a year for marketing programs to help young farmers reach consumers and $125 million over the next five years for organic farming research that has often been brushed to the side in budget plans. Still, some say that these funds are not sufficient to sponsor the rapid rate of organic and local food market growth expected in coming years.

One of the best things about shopping at the farmers market is the trust you gain in the people who provide your food. But recent findings show some farmers market vendors are frauds, picking up wholesale produce and re-marketing it as their own locally sourced products for a higher price. In California, Governor Jerry Brown is cracking down on the cheaters by allotting $1 million for an army of inspectors to verify the source of food at farmers markets across the state. In 2013, 19 vendors were fined for fraud, and the state hopes this investment will stop impostors and clean contraband crops from local stands.

Many have rallied against GMO crops on land, but California is ready to take on freaky food in the water, too. A new law in the Golden State prevents the production of GMO salmon in all of the state’s waters, including the Pacific Ocean. The legislation is meant to protect native populations of trout and salmon, which could become contaminated if bred with new “frankenfish” in local waters.

At the Harvest the Hope Concert in Neligh, Nebraska, Willie and Neil shared a stage to stand up for farmers, ranchers and Native Americans whose land lies in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline. Proposed six years ago, the 1,179 mile line was planned to carry oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast refineries, but has met opposition from residents along the path. Many worry that it could spill into the Ogallala Aquifer, contaminating the water source for much of the area’s cropland. Neil and Willie played for a crowd of 8,000 on the farm of Art Tanderup, who has refused to let the pipeline invade his land. Because the pipeline crosses international borders, President Obama will have the final say in its approval.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaSure, Russia can grow its own fruits and vegetables, but can it make fine Italian cheeses or supply salmon on a budget without the help of Europe? As the food ban enters its sixth week, niche restaurants that depend on luxury-imported goods are hurting more than the average consumer. The solution: just slap a new label on them. Some Russia neighbors who haven’t been blocked by the ban, such as Belarus, are importing the European goods and relabeling them, letting contraband parmesan slip past the borders and onto the plates of Russia’s foodies. Many prices have doubled for local items, leading restaurants to rely on these sneaky imports to keep customers coming.

In light of the recent climate change chatter buzzing at the UN in New York, agribusiness giant Cargill has agreed to stop chopping down forests and do their part to cut down on carbon. The promise comes in a pledge to abide by the New York Declaration on Forests, a product of the UN summit on climate change that vows to halt loss of forests by 2030. The initiative is a big one, cutting between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tons of carbon emissions – the equivalent of taking all of the world’s cars off the road. Other big brand names have jumped aboard as well, including Kellogg’s, Nestle and even Walmart. The summit is non-binding, so we’ll have to wait to see if Big Food keeps their word in the coming years.

In North Carolina, the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has awarded more than $2.3 million to agriculture and economic projects in the state. The grants are aimed at boosting local agriculture initiatives and providing scholarships for students living in tobacco-dependent communities. Since 2000, the fund has awarded 220 grants to North Carolina organizations, facilitating the transition from tobacco following the Master Settlement Agreement.

When you think about up-and-coming areas of real estate, blustery, rural northern Vermont may not immediately come to mind. But if you’re a first time farmer looking to get your hands dirty, it could be the place for you. Here, young farmers can find affordable land priced as low as $3,000 an acre and an expanding food-systems network that supports local agriculture. In the last 14 years, $68 million in grants has made its way to the area and the USDA promised $2.3 million more last month. The combination of these factors has allowed newcomers to afford a life on the farm and drawn more young people into agriculture.

As Eric Holder announced his resignation as Attorney General, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he'd remain in his position, making him just one of two original Obama administration members still in office and bringing him within just two months of the record set by Dan Glickman as the longest-serving agriculture secretary since the Kennedy-Johnson years.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

You Spoke; They Listened: FDA’s Second Draft of the Food Safety Rules

AliciaGood news, family farm supporters! Late last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed revised food safety regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). If you joined our Take Action booth at the Farm Aid 2013 concert in Saratoga Springs, NY, you had an important hand in this victory!

The FSMA rules represent a major change to our farm and food system and the first overhaul of our food safety laws since 1938, with major implications for family farmers.

That's why it's extremely important for FDA to get it right. FDA's original proposal, issued in 2013, included highly problematic requirements that would have put many sustainable and organic farmers out of business, dampened the growth of local food systems and innovative supply chains, and undermined common on-farm conservation and stewardship practices. This was in stark contrast to what Congress intended when it rejected a one-size-fits-all approach and instead wanted the regulations to work for diverse sectors of American agriculture.

In response, Farm Aid partnered with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and organizations from across the country in an extensive outreach and education campaign on the proposed rules, resulting in thousands of comments to FDA from concerned farmers, food entrepreneurs and consumers. At the Farm Aid 2013 concert in Saratoga Springs, NY, many of you signed our petition calling on the FDA to get it right.

In large part thanks to people like YOU speaking up, FDA announced that it would go back to the drawing board for several areas of FSMA that threatened farmers.

Last week FDA issued their revised language and initial review of it shows important improvements. Farm Aid is working with our partners to make sure the standards in their second draft:

  • Allow farmers to continue longstanding sustainable practices, like applying compost and manure to their fields for soil fertility, instead of creating a preference for chemical fertilizers;
  • Establish an agricultural water standard that works for farmers of all sizes, different water systems and sources that farmers use, and not create a preference for chemical water treatment;
  • Clarify the FDA definition of a ‘farm' to reflect the modern reality and ensure farms (especially those that pioneer models in the Good Food Movement) continue growing and thriving without being overregulated by rules designed for large industrial food processing facilities;
  • Avoid negative impacts to on-farm conservation and wildlife habitat protection.

While we are cautiously optimistic that FDA is moving in the right direction, it is critical that the final FSMA regulations reflect a flexible, scale- and supply-chain appropriate framework that supports the growth and success of a more sustainable food and agriculture system.

FDA is inviting a new round of public comments and farmers, organizations and the public will have the opportunity to weigh in on the rules for the next few months. Stay connected with Farm Aid for updates on how you can weigh in and check out NSAC's FSMA Action Center for updates on the rules' impact on sustainable farm and food systems.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Happy Birthday, Farm Aid!

MattTwenty-nine years ago today, dozens of artists and 80,000 music fans (joined by millions of viewers at home) came together at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, IL, to raise money and awareness to stand up for family farmers. The concert came together and was planned in just six weeks and brought much-needed attention to the crises forcing thousands of family farmers off the land each year in the early- and mid-1980s.

© Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to ask Farm Aid staff members for their favorite musical moments from that very first concert. Here are their picks:

Jennifer Fahy: In the spirit of the awesome collaborations that happen on the Farm Aid stage, here's my pick: Daryl Hall, Billy Joel and Bonnie Raitt on "Everytime You Go Away."

Kari Williams: The best thing about Farm Aid are the people involved, so I chose Carole King's "You've Got a Friend."

Caroline Malcolm: Classics!

Carolyn Mugar: A legend.

Jennifer Wehunt: I chose "Refugee" by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, because it's one of the best songs of all time, obviously!

And John Denver and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performing "Take Me Home, Country Roads" because any friend of the Muppets is a friend of mine.

Alicia Harvie: A great performance of this song and an amazing way to kick off Farm Aid’s impressive musical history!

It just doesn’t get any better and any badder than Johnny and Waylon.

Carole King brings some sweetness to the first Farm Aid!

Despite some wardrobe choices I wouldn’t necessarily make myself, Bonnie proves why she’s one of the guitar queens with her slide guitar prowess!

Matt Glidden: It's my turn and I get to pick Neil Young! First up is a quick interview with Neil encouraging TV viewers to call in and donate to Farm Aid and to call their congressional representatives to support supply and pricing reforms that we're still fighting for today.

And finally, here's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)." It's one of the most popular videos on Farm Aid's YouTube channel with nearly 1.3 million views so far, and with good reason. A powerful solo performance.