Friday, April 24, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup


While they aren’t the most popular guests at your summertime picnics, their positions in the system as pollinators render bees critically important to our food supply. In the past decade scientists have been studying the various factors that are contributing to the global decline in bee health, looking at everything from viruses to climate change. One factor that has recently been considered, and is the subject of two new published studies, is our overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides. A derivative of nicotine, the chemical is poisonous to the nervous system while also being potentially addictive to the bees. UK researchers found that in an experiment to determine which food source the bees were drawn to--a plain, sugary one or one laced with neonics--the bees preferred the neonics. This common insecticide, which is extensively coated onto corn, soy, and canola seeds before planting, is absorbed by the plant and protects its tissue from pests. While the plant may be “protected,” the bees are not so lucky: they interact with neonicotinoid residues that remain in the nectar and pollen of the plant, exposing them to the pesticide and harming them. The Environmental Protection Agency announced this month that it is unlikely to approve new neonicotinoid pesticide uses.

Following last week’s roundup feature on the “organic boom,” check out this article from CNBC that lays out the benefits of buying organic, but also doesn’t shy away from the costs to your wallet. The benefits? Ask Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU: "I always recommend organics whenever possible. They are produced using methods that are kinder to soil and animals.” Organic foods are also less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, another large concern among farmers and eaters. But with good organic practices comes an unfortunate increase in price. Organic produce can show up at the market at four times the cost of its conventional counterpart. The solution? Dr. Andrew Weil researched the level at which certain foods contain pesticides, and suggests some “spending priorities” to make shopping for good produce more affordable.

North Carolina chicken farmer Craig Watts opened his barns to an animal welfare group and their cameras a few months ago with hopes of exposing the unsafe, misleading nature of the factory farm industry to the public. “I wanted to show the public the conditions of an average poultry farm and how they were being misled into thinking the situation is better than it is,” said Watts, in this recent op-ed. Now, Watts is calling on his state’s elected officials to say no to Senate Bill 433 and House Bill 405, “ag-gag” measures that aim to stop investigations into North Carolina factory farms. “Even if animal welfare isn’t a top concern for us when buying meat, food safety should be,” says Watts, “North Carolina’s elected officials must say ‘no’ to SB 433 and HB 405. Democracy thrives on transparency, and our food system should, too.”

It’s been a long time coming! The government announced this week that it is moving forward on proposing regulated standards for organic, US-raised fish. While we may be “trying to play catch-up on organic aquaculture,” according to Miles McEvoy, head of the USDA’s organic program, even if the USDA proposes these standards this year, it may still take time for seafood companies and retailers to accept them. The news may be joyous to loyal organic shoppers, and retailers will likely embrace the product and its higher price, but many in the farmed fish industry say that the feed requirements may be too costly and difficult to regulate.

“...We’re witnessing the rise of a new kind of cook—one devoted to his or her craft, wielding masterly knife skills and a deft palate, as well as a social conscience,” says Brian McGinnis, director of the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table.” In ‘Sustainable Chef,’ McGinnis explores the work of Chef Ben Shewry, who has completely changed the menu at his world-class restaurant Attica in Melbourne, Australia, to emphasize sustainable ingredients. McGinnis saw it fit to profile the innovative work of Chef Shewry on Earth Day this year: “I wanted to highlight the work that he and so many other forward-thinking chefs around the world are doing to ensure that the food sources we enjoy now will still be here in years to come.”

Friday, April 17, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup


Introducing a very special series from! They’re calling it “Farm Size Matters,” and planning to cover just about everything: why farmers lose their farms, the facts on agriculture subsidies, an interview with our own Willie Nelson. So far, we’ve seen stories on commodity farming, farmer suicide, even dating in the farmer community. Be sure to have a look at the series for a truly comprehensive, educational, and thought-provoking glance into the world of the farmer today.

In order to receive farm subsidies from the government, farmers must qualify as “actively engaged.” The USDA is proposing to revise how this term is defined, as it has been criticized for having loose restrictions, allowing individuals to gain subsidies without doing the typical amount of truly active farm work. The qualification that the USDA has proposed requires farm managers put in 500 hours of substantial management work annually or 25 percent of the time necessary for the success of the farming operation. “We want to make sure that farm program payments are going to the farmers and farm families that they are intended to help,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the issue. According to the USDA, as many as 1,400 operations could lose eligibility under the rules, saving the program around $50 million over a three-year period.

What would a green, self-reliant New York City look like? This is one of many questions on 36 year old architect Michael Sorkin’s mind as he considers how to integrate more leafy greens into the structure of the gray city. Buildings could be repurposed to include vertical farms, terraces used for free-range animals, rooftops for growing space, more trees to provide shade and eventually lower high summer temperatures, and solar panels would offset the costs of keeping greenhouses thriving all year long. Seeing as this goal would require around thirty nuclear power plants to become a reality, Sorkin and his team have been working on a more modest goal to carry out their vision: to increase the percentage of New York’s consumables to thirty percent grown within a hundred-mile radius of the city. While this vision may be a long ways away, he believes in the power of green initiatives, and sees them one day reshaping New York City. For now though, let’s get started on more trees.

We all know that our readers are adventurous eaters, but the question is, how adventurous? Young Thai entrepreneur Panitan Tongsiri hopes to revolutionize the way the people of Thailand consume insects, and he’s ready to expand the market worldwide. The current insect market relies on street vendors, which sell everything from fried silkworm larvae to sautéed bees. Tongsiri believes that by bagging the unique product in small, colorful pouches that feature the health benefits, and by giving it a more prominent spot in convenience stores and gourmet shops, more eaters will take the plunge. Boasting high levels of protein, vitamins, and fiber, and an endorsement from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, these unusual snacks have a few barriers before they can really take off, according to Tongsiri: quality control, regularity in stores, and of course, people’s perceptions of eating bugs.

With 19,474 certified organic operations in the United States and a total of 27,814 certified organic operations around the world, this year marks a new record according to the USDA. This organic boom has sparked more producers and consumers to enter the market, and it is hopefully becoming much easier for these organic farmers to remain active and thriving. Options such as transition programs, research and education funding, and cost share programs to offset the costs of organic certification are making the organic market that much more accessible to farmers, and a realistic option price-wise for consumers. We’ll also be seeing a technological advancement in the organic world with the release of the Organic Integrity Database. Created from funds from the 2014 Farm Bill, the OID will provide information about certified organic operations, and will enable anyone to confirm their certification status using its online tool. The database is in progress for launch in September 2015.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Honoring Ralph Paige and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives

Carolyn MugarFarm Aid honors the leadership of Ralph Paige and welcomes Cornelius Blanding as the new Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

Farm Aid became acquainted with the Federation of Southern Cooperative’s tremendous work just a few weeks before the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, as Ralph Paige stepped into his role as Executive Director. Ralph has worked in that capacity for all thirty years of Farm Aid’s existence. While at the helm, he has been a steadfast friend to Farm Aid and an essential partner in our shared work to keep family farmers on the land and to promote a more just system of agriculture.

Under Ralph’s leadership, the Federation thrived for three decades in building socially- and economically-just models of cooperatives, credit unions and community development projects with family farmers and rural communities throughout the South. Over three decades, Farm Aid has had the honor of working with the Federation in the on-going, every day work of strengthening Black farmers and all farmers, and in numerous projects of note: the United Farmer and Rancher Congress in 1987, farmer-to-farmer haylifts in the face of natural disasters, relief and recovery efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and a landmark settlement of the Pigford discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We are ever grateful for Ralph’s work on these and many other projects and know there is no replacing his leadership.

Ralph Paige, Ben Burkett, Willie Nelson and Shirley Sherrod, 1994

The Rev Jesse Jackson, Willie Nelson, Jim Hightower and Ralph Paige at a Farm Aid press conference.

As Ralph retires, we are pleased to welcome Cornelius Blanding as the new Executive Director of the Federation. Knowing Cornelius and his dedicated work of 17 years at the Federation gives us real confidence in his leadership to move the organization forward.

Cornelius brings with him extensive experience not only within the Federation, but also in board and committee leadership and collaborations with several other rural and community development organizations, including the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), Agricultural Safety & Health Council of America (ASHCA), Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC), Alabama Department of Agriculture's Small Farmers' Marketing & Education Association and the Presbyterian Committee on the Self Development of People (SDOP).

Farm Aid knows Cornelius as a humble, yet tenacious and dedicated leader and we look forward to working with him in his new capacity at the Federation as we honor the great legacy of Ralph Paige.

Cornelius Blanding (center) listens to Ralph Paige (foreground), with Baldemar Velasquez (left) at Farm Aid's Gathering leading up to Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Take Action for Food and Farm Justice: Stop Fast Track!

Alicia HarvieTrade deals are one of the most powerful ways that corporations can control our food and farm system. So-called "free trade" agreements, like NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), have concentrated corporate power and contributed to:

  • the exploitation of family farmers in the U.S. and abroad;
  • lower food safety standards for eaters;
  • the degradation of our soil, air and water;
  • the collapse of local economies and forced migration of workers; and
  • the undermining of local food procurement efforts such as farm to school programs.

Once again, trade is being used to expand corporate power. Congress is about to vote on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – or Fast Track – which would give the President power to negotiate trade agreements behind closed doors, to the benefit of corporate interests. Two undemocratic agreements — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)— would then be presented to Congress for an "up" or "down" vote, without amendments and with little or no opportunity for debate.

With the stakes so high, these agreements are too important to be negotiated in secret, without the input of American citizens or Congress.

By stopping Fast Track, we can derail this corporate trade agenda!

Take action now:

Contact your members of Congress using this tool from our partners at the Citizens Trade Campaign to let them know that you want a voice on the future of trade and that they should reject Fast Track.

It is time to abandon the failed promise that any trade deal is a good deal. We must negotiate trade agreements that work for all people, rather than passing trade policies that make corporations richer.

Take Action with Farm Aid and Stop Fast Track today!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup

Emily_EaganAfter four years of the worst drought California has ever seen, Governor Jerry Brown announced the state’s new mandatory water restrictions - the first in history. National Geographic reports on the five things you need to know about the dry situation, including where the state’s water is supposed to be coming from, the growing population, and of course, where the farmers come into play. The mandatory water cuts have not yet been extended to farms, though that’s not to say they won’t ever be. As of right now, farmers are being asked to improve their usage reporting so regulators can help reduce wasted water. “It’s a different world,” Governor Brown says of the agriculture industry, “We have to act differently.”

Predictions from the recently released Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists (PNAS) study include a public health threat due to the massive global increase in factory-farmed meat production, skyrocketing global antibiotic use by 67%. Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, because of their vertically integrated intensive livestock production systems, are projected to double their antibiotic use by 2030 in order to meet their population’s protein demands. As avid Farm Aid Roundup readers may recall, the United States, among these other countries, is experiencing an antibiotic-resistance crisis: over 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The PNAS study is the first of its kind, attempting to explain the links between global antibiotic use and livestock production. What came with this study was not only the troubling present and future health threat, but the lack of publicly funded surveillance of the livestock industry. This lack of antibiotic use monitoring, due to the reluctance of food animal producers and animal feed producers, to name a few, made it difficult for the study to have the comprehensive data to create much needed, effective regulation in the industry.

Transitioning in and out of roles on a family farm can be complicated, to say the least. This piece from Agrinews by Janet Kubat Willette lays out pointers for a successful transition, citing effective communication as a number one priority. “The entering couple might have dreams about the farm that are contrary to the dreams of the exiting couple,” she says, but with solid boundaries and clear lines of decision-making, the transition can be that much smoother. Ted Matthews, director of rural mental health for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, notes that while transitioning leadership among farmers has been present through generations, today the situations can be much more complex with people continuing to farm into their eighties. “When are they actually going to retire? When are they actually going to pass on the farm? It's not as simple as it used to be," Matthews said. If you’re a retiring farmer looking to pass on your life’s work, the Center for Rural Affairs has a great page full of resources on planning a successful transition.

Many farmer groups, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), are filing suit against the USDA. The groups claim that the USDA changed a rule concerning how synthetic and prohibited natural substances can be used in organic food production, and did so without any public comment. In the past, under USDA rules, synthetic materials would be removed from a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances after five years, unless, upon considering public comment, two-thirds of the members of the organic standards board voted in favor of keeping them there. The USDA altered this process without the public’s input back in September 2013, allowing synthetic materials to remain on the national list unless the standards board decides they should be removed. MOFGA’s Ted Quaday sees the oversight of public comment as a violation of the principle that calls for full participation in organic policy-making. "We feel it's necessary to challenge that action to ensure that organic farmers and consumers are able to guide organic food production in the future," he says.

Last week, Amazon, the company that seems to always be in the midst of a hiring spree, added some new employees to its already massive staff. This time, though, it’s goats, and they’re here to take care of your lawn, the natural way. As part of a Home Services campaign trial, Amazon has begun renting out the services of Tammy Dunakin’s Rent-A-Ruminant goat herd. The furry landscapers offer plenty of benefits on the job: their carbon footprint is small, they’re cheaper than their human counterparts, and they’re thorough. They can reach every little corner, even the ones that farm machinery can’t. Dunakin, like her goats, is also thorough, driving to each site location to ensure the environment is safe before sending in her herd. So far, Amazon’s venture with Dunakin is a success: she has nearly 100 job requests for her hard-working goats.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Farm Aid Remembers Ryan White

Jennifer FahyToday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who contracted HIV from a blood treatment for hemophilia. Ryan was diagnosed in December 1984, and given six months to live. At the time, AIDS was a disease widely associated with the gay community. Doctors said Ryan posed no risk to other students, but because AIDS was poorly understood at the time, he ended up at the center of a battle to keep him from going back to his school. The media coverage of the case made Ryan a national celebrity and spokesman for AIDS research and public education.

Ryan's quiet courage made him a hero of celebrities like Indiana native John Mellencamp, Greg Louganis and Elton John. Ryan's fight lasted much longer than the six months doctors predicted he'd live. But in April 1990, one month before his high school graduation, Ryan's health began to fail. At the same time that Farm Aid IV was being held in Indianapolis at the Hoosier Dome, word spread that Ryan was hospitalized and near death. Elton John, who had become a loyal friend to Ryan and his family, was in Indiana to support Ryan. He left Ryan's bedside at the hospital briefly to perform at the Farm Aid concert. Before launching into "Candle in the Wind" John said, "This one's for Ryan." The audience swayed with their hands in the air. Ryan White died the next day at the age of 18.

A new book, The Quiet Hero: A Life of Ryan White, by Nelson Price, celebrates the life and legacy of Ryan White and we highly recommend it, whether you lived through that time and remember Ryan's story or whether you are too young to know about Ryan. His courage to speak up is inspirational and changed the perception of the AIDS epidemic as exclusive to gay, minority, urban and poor people. His fight inspired the Ryan White Care Act in 1990, which guarantees access to health care for people with HIV or AIDS who otherwise can’t afford proper treatment.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup


The United States has long been reliant on antibiotics, especially in factory hog farms. Maybe it’s time to take a tip from Danish hog farmer Kaj Munck, one of the many hog farmers in Denmark who raise their animals without the constant use of antibiotics (using them instead as needed for specific medical purposes). His operation has proven beneficial in almost every aspect on the farm. He’s raising 12,000 pigs per year, which is larger than the average American farmer’s production, and he can produce pork at prices low enough to compete with international markets. The most important benefit to an antibiotic-free farm, however, Munck saw coming from a mile away. “We saw a potential problem with antibiotic resistance and wanted to get ahead of the game,” he said. Turns out he was right, as antibiotic resistance is a rapidly increasing issue in the United States. Antibiotic use in Denmark livestock is currently down 50%, animals aren’t experiencing more bacterial infections than usual, and growth-wise, they’re thriving without regular doses of antibiotics.

Unfortunately for the US, problems with antibiotic resistance continue to grow. A new study finds that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are capable of surviving air travel. Upon gathering particulate matter in a 200-mile radius surrounding 10 of Texas’ commercial cattle yards over a period of 6 months, researchers determined that the airborne microbe had indeed originated from the yards, and the air studied contained bacteria and antibiotics. As for the makeup of the bacteria itself, it was found that a “significant number” of the microbial communities studied had antibiotic-resistant genes, so much so that it made microbiologist Greg Mayer “not want to breathe.” The genes that are capable of becoming airborne are contained in fecal matter that becomes dust and is picked up by wind, creating opportunity for the antibiotic resistant, active bacteria to be spread over a long distance.

This issue, among many others, has prompted the Obama Administration to release a National Action Plan to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. The ultimate outcome stated in the plan is to curb the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria with the goal of saving lives. The agriculture industry will play a huge role in making this a reality. The plan includes the goal to eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food-producing animals by the year 2020. It appears this action plan could create a system of agriculture much closer to that of our Danish counterparts, who adopted antibiotic-free ways back in 2000.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is progressing with its mission to cut ties with Kraft. Kraft currently has a contract to display the Academy’s “Kids Eat Right” label on the packaging of its product Kraft Singles, which is described as “pasteurized prepared cheese product” and is made with milk, Cheddar cheese, whey, milk protein concentrate, milk fat and sodium citrate. Following the announcement of the Academy’s deal with Kraft, concerns grew among the organization members, who expressed outrage that their label, one that was supposed to indicate some degree of nutritional value, would promote Kraft’s highly processed product as healthy. Andy Bellatti, a founder of the group Dietitians for Professional Integrity, believes that the termination of the relationship will provide some much needed conversation surrounding the companies dietary groups support, “Dietitians need to continue advocating for an organization that represents us with integrity and that we can be proud of, rather than continually have to apologize for.”

According to Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator at Whole Foods Market, “There has been a mass awakening among consumers for organic, but not a mass awakening in the farming community.” With major retail chains like Target and General Mills making commitments to sell organic food, massive shortages are beginning to occur, particularly in the market for organic grain. The grain, used for both animal feed and food, is now being imported from places like Canada, Eastern Europe, and South Africa by companies who want to keep up with the booming organic demand. In order to rally support on United States’ soil, collaboration was formed between popular pro-organic companies like Annie’s, Organic Valley, the Organic Trade Association, Sustainable Food Lab (SFL), and more, who together are now known as the US Organic Grain Collaboration. “The focus is to address the systemic issues that are barriers to farmers in organic production,” says SFL program director Elizabeth Reeves. The group will attempt to tackle the technical barriers farmers face when trying to go organic: lack of resources, equipment, services, and finances.

In closing, I invite you all to enter the world of Angora rabbit show business. These divas, while incredibly docile, all have personalities of their own - and with names like Alfredo, Surprise, Silvertone's Marvelous, and Shamwow, how could they not? Learn about the breeds and appearance maintenance, and be sure to view the slideshow of avant-garde bunny beauty by photographer Andres Serrano. Serrano pointed his camera lens away from his usual controversial subjects to something fluffier in this particular shoot. "The rabbits were good subjects," he said. "They didn't move much. They're professionals."