Friday, March 27, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup


Could Texas be our new Napa? While the state has been suffering in the midst of plunging oil prices and a mega drought, their wine production industry has never been better. Texas is now the fifth-largest wine producer, generating $1.88 billion in economic activity for the state in 2013, according to Wine Vines Analytics and the Grape Growers Association Report, respectively. Winemaking is a booming industry in the lone star state: production has increased by a third since 2010. “A long-standing drought and falling cotton prices are also enticing more of them to plant grapes,” says Andy Timmons, a long-time grape grower. Vineyards themselves can generate as much revenue as 40 acres of cotton with a fraction of the water use - a game-changing crop for farmers in the drought-ridden landscape.

The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm has declared the herbicide glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” It’s a key ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide and is the most widely used weedkiller, particularly on GMO crops like Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready corn and soy. Monsanto, of course, is fighting back, accusing the World Health Organization of unnecessarily scaring consumers and farmers who use their products.

NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff reports on the antibiotic-ridden state of the pork industry worldwide. A study published Thursday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that, on average, pig farmers use about four times the antibiotics per pound of meat that cattle farmers do. As a result the impact of these antibiotics is growing: as agriculture continues to use these antibiotics, consumers get hit harder by the drug-resistant bacteria that emerges on and off,the farm. Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C. says, "...the circumstantial evidence, linking use in animals to drug-resistant bacteria in humans, is exceedingly strong." A future with such heavy antibiotic use, according to Laxminarayan, looks grim, “We project in the next 20 years, world use of antibiotics in animal production will go up by two-thirds. The implications for the effectiveness of our antibiotics could be quite devastating."

Last week’s National Agriculture Day was celebrated by happy students and volunteers as they banded together at Miller Grove Middle School in Lithonia, Georgia, to build, plant, and maintain a school garden. Sixth and seventh graders planted the lettuce, cabbage, and more in raised beds under the hoop-house as USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Dr. Joe Leonard, thanked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for his commitment to providing opportunities for community gardens in underserved communities. Middle Grove Principal Thaddeus Dixon was happy to see excitement around agriculture in his school, adding, “This was a great way to celebrate these kids who have shown a desire and ability to learn about agriculture and teach their classmates about something they might not otherwise be exposed to in their community.”

This article from City Lab chronicles our ramblin’ president and co-founder of Farm Aid Willie Nelson’s greatest geographically inclined tunes. Willie’s been known to croon metaphors of the cities he’s passed through in his 60-year professional touring career, and these graphics show just how many places and faces he’s touched with his music, and how they’ve influenced him.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tell Congress: Don’t Leave Us in the DARK!


Whatever your opinions about the oh-so-many issues related to the food on our plates, we can all agree that we, as eaters, have a right to the information needed to guide our decisions to feed ourselves and our families.

Here at Farm Aid, we believe the best way to get key information about your food is to get as close as possible to the farmer who grows it. But when that isn’t possible, we all rely on labels to learn about who grew our food, where it was grown and how it was produced.

It is around that fundamental right to know that many states have explored labeling laws for genetically engineered (GE) food. In 2014, Vermont became the first state to require mandatory GE labeling, while Connecticut and Maine have passed similar laws that would go into effect once neighboring states pass labeling bills. Increasingly, states across the nation are having this civic dialogue unfold through bills and ballot initiatives – 30 states in 2013 and 2014 in fact - several of which we’ve supported here at Farm Aid.

Meanwhile, 64 countries require the labeling of GE foods, including our trading partners in Asia, the European Union, Russia and even countries like Brazil where GE crops are raised by many farmers. But here in the U.S., a handful of agribusiness and food corporations have spent over $100 million to block state labeling initiatives. This week, their latest swing at these efforts is a federal bill – the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act - introduced by Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo that would block state labeling laws and further confuse the public.

That’s why several of our partners have dubbed Pompeo’s bill the “Denying Americans the Right to Know” or DARK Act. Pompeo’s DARK Act would:

  • Preempt state laws to GE foods and prohibit confusing “natural” claims on food products.
  • Create new barriers to federal mandatory GE labeling.
  • Further entrench our broken voluntary labeling system through new FDA rules and a new USDA program.
  • Create a loophole-riddled GMO “safety” review system based on industry science.

Call your Congressman and tell them to reject Pompeo’s “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” Find your Representative here or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

The introduction of the DARK Act comes on the heels of a new report from scientists convened by the World Health Organization revealing that the herbicide glyphosate – commonly known as Monsanto’s Roundup, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Roundup Ready crops like corn, soybeans, alfalfa and others are the most commonly used GE crop varieties raised for animal feed and ingredients in processed foods – they are currently ubiquitous in our food system.

Over 90% of Americans support labeling of GE food, regardless of party, income or education level. Tell Congress you’re one of them and you want them to support GE labeling and reject the Pompeo Bill!

  • Visit our Genetic Engineering page for more on this issue & what family farmers have to say. 
  • For more on all the many food labels out on the shelves today see our Food Labeling page.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup


This piece from NPR’s Dan Charles will not only make you crave a fresh, juicy summer peach, but will also take you deep into a story of a family, a bleak moment in history, and an all-out food revolution. Peach farmer and preservationist Mas Masumoto grew up on the farm in southeast Fresno, CA, that his parents had bought after being released from an internment camp that imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II. Post-college, Masumoto returned to his family’s farm and started a family of his own. But year after year, he’d find that the big peach buyers simply wouldn’t want his product - an old heirloom variety peach called Suncrest that just didn’t have the flashy cosmetics or shelf-life to keep buyers interested. It seemed it was time for the bulldozer to destroy the orchard - or so Masumoto thought. He wrote “Epitaph for a Peach,” a sort of eulogy for the Suncrest variety that he loved, but was losing the family farm thousands of dollars. He sent the essay off to the LA Times, who published it, sparking readers to send letters to Masumoto, begging him to continue growing these peaches that he himself promised “tasted great, like a peach was supposed to.” These letters, along with an unwelcome visit from the peach-executioner driving the bulldozer, were the sign that Masumoto was looking for. He kept the trees, and got the attention of acclaimed chef and food activist Alice Waters, who put the peaches on the menu at her restaurant. Today, Masumoto has passed the farm and legacy on to his daughter, Nikiko, who has since moved in to her grandparents’ old farmhouse.

Avid Roundup readers may recall that Nestle opted to use natural flavors and colors in their products instead of their old artificial methods. This week’s chocolate update questions whether the use of genetic modification can save humanity from the dreaded chocolate shortage predicted to hit within the next five years due to climate change, disease, and demand. Chocolate, which begins with the seeds of the cacao tree, has an abundance of limitations. Geographically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to grow beyond the “20/20 zone,” a belt 20 degrees north or south of the Equator. It’s also often plagued with witches’ broom, a fungus that has wiped out cacao trees for years. Options to stave off impending chocolate shortage have been popping up, such as CNN-51, a sturdy, disease-resistant, and less fussy variety with an unfortunately flat flavor. Scientists now wonder if it’s time to capture the chocolate flavor profile we know and love by resorting to GMOs. Because of its extremely complex makeup, a GMO cacao plant won’t be easy, but the genome of the plant has been mapped by both scientists from Hershey’s and Mars. Is GMO chocolate environmentally worth it? Or would you shell out more for the popular confection?

Curious about last year’s farm bill? Check out this piece from Slate that attempts to make some sense of the 1,000-page bill that has the rare quality of both bipartisan support and opposition. Author Alec MacGillis believes that while it may be too soon for final judgment of the bill, the costly agricultural subsidies that were supposed to be reined in were rather boosted. The farm bill also replaced direct payments to farmers with subsidized crop insurance programs, which were expected to be more efficient and save taxpayers $23 billion in the long run, but instead will pay out over $24 billion according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. Groups like the National Family Farm Coalition had hoped that lawmakers would have considered an alternative to the subsidies such as a price stabilization program, which would cost the government much less, but isn’t beneficial to big agribusiness. “There can be a safety net in agriculture, but it should be a very basic safety net that steps in when farmers suffer crippling losses,” said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group. “It shouldn’t be programs that simply boost incomes, that actually are income transfers to businesses in the guise of a safety net.” The House Agriculture Committee is preparing to get a new farm bill through in 2019, but the threats facing agriculture aren’t expected to solve themselves between now and then.

Technological advancements are supposed to make everyone’s lives easier. This article from Lancaster Farming describes how this idea extends to the farming community by providing information on the coolers and storage spots for farmers’ produce via updates sent to their cell phones. The University of Vermont Test Project Extension service installed remote thermostats int nine farms’ storage units, reducing the rates of vegetables that didn’t last by 30-50%, adding an average of $10,000 in revenue for farmers. Pete Johnson, owner of Pete's Greens in northern Vermont, is on board with being able to detect and quickly fix any problems without having to physically monitor things himself. "The fact that there's something in there all the time checking in on it, letting us know what's going on is extremely helpful," he says. This system, so far a success, has boosted confidence among growers, and will hopefully allow for farm expansion in the future.

Wednesday, March 18th, marked the 42nd annual National Agriculture Day in America! The holiday was created to celebrate and recognize the valued contributions of farmers and to increase the public awareness of agriculture's vital role in our society. In honor of Ag Day’s passing, check out this list of food trivia and learn a little more about your favorite good eats! My personal favorite from the page: we are eating 900% more broccoli than we did 20 years ago (I like to think that’s because I was born about 20 years ago… Maybe I account for that 900%!).

Friday, March 13, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup

Emily_Eagan A 114-year reign of male principal operators is coming to an end at Longley Farms now that 26-year-old Kate Danner has taken the reins on the family’s corn and soybean operation - and according to this piece from Bloomberg Business, incidents like this may start to occur more often. With the average age of principal operators on the rise, more and more women are stepping in to fill the void left by an aging community with fewer young people willing to join the industry. Michael Stolp, a business adviser for Northwest Farm Credit Services in Spokane, Washington, believes that the agriculture industry will thrive with the addition of some much needed diversity. “This is way more than cows and plows,” Stolp said. “As farming becomes more complex, you need more diverse perspectives. Farming is becoming more professionalized, which means multiple career paths.” Women make up 49% of undergraduates at Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and opportunities for them to succeed are growing. The USDA’s deputy secretary Krysta Harden looks forward to engaging women in agriculture through her new mentoring network.

In this article from the New York Times, we hear from farmers who have opted for no-till farming practices. With tilling comes a slew of issues, environmentally and financially: degrading the soil, killing beneficial organisms like earthworms and fungi, and requiring heavy applications of synthetic fertilizers to produce high enough yield. By utilizing the no-till method, farmers are working on the side of soil conservation. They no longer need to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, and are able to produce above average yields with less labor and lower costs. The practice’s advocates include farmers like Gabe Brown, who speaks on the no-till method at soil conferences, in addition to nonprofit organizations like No-Till on the Plains, which seeks to educate growers on production systems that model nature more closely. Leaving fields unplowed can also increase organic matter in soil, making it easier to absorb and retain water, and therefore making it more drought resistant. While there are clearly benefits to employing a no-till system, critics argue that they aren’t outweighed by the costs - that the method is impractical and much too expensive. Though it may take several years for soil to recover using the no-till method, proponents assure that patience will be rewarded.

Even with federal legislation and the USDA created Farm to School program to help out, getting local food into school lunch programs is still not an easy task. According to the USDA’s Farm to School Program survey data, 36% of school lunchrooms in the US served local food in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, and most of these lunchrooms were in the northeast schools of Maine, Vermont, Maryland, and Delaware. Katherine Ralston, an agricultural economist at the USDA, reports that the both the number of schools interested in and actually serving local food were “higher than expected,” but it was worth looking into the other 64% that weren’t going local. The biggest barriers a school faces lie in the details: the contract requirements, paperwork, and the varying levels of labor availability at the farm and the school. There are also worries that certain local products won’t have the year-round availability to meet the needs of the school. Despite all the obstacles there is much hope, however. Ralston claims it’s getting easier to source these products, and we at Farm Aid have proof that farmers themselves care about getting their good products into schools. Read our profiles of these two Farm to School Heroes dedicated to raising awareness about the benefits of eating locally!

Boston Music Awards’ artist of the year and Farm Aid artist Will Dailey is gearing up to release a deluxe edition of his album National Throat, featuring six new bonus tracks. One of these tracks, a rocker which he’s entitled “$300 Man,” he attributes to his experience with Farm Aid in a very profound way. “I am most inspired by those who get their hands in the soil and get work done. The good kind of work,” he says, restating Farm Aid’s mission and a quote by President Willie Nelson. Listen to the track and read his Q&A with CMT Edge. Thank you, Will!

Goat milk is on the rise, according to Modern Farmer, but could it ever compete with cow milk in our supermarkets? Here are a few facts to note when considering your milk choices: goat milk has calcium, magnesium, potassium, and Vitamin C, and less lactose! Goat milk isn’t typically produced in the same massive operations as cow milk, so give it a try if you’re looking to steer clear of big ag. The environmental impact of keeping goats is slightly lower than cows because they produce less manure. And by the numbers, goat milk is doing pretty well - sales have jumped 15%, and consumption has risen by a third since 2007. Go goats!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Power of the People: A recap the Iowa Food & Ag Justice Summit

AliciaIf ever I needed a reminder of our power as "we, the people," I received it ten-fold this weekend when I joined our long-time partner Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) in their efforts to organize the Food & Agriculture Justice Summit.

The justice summit emerged in response to the first-ever Iowa Ag Summit, an event organized by Iowa's agribusiness tycoon Bruce Rastetter that brought Republican presidential hopefuls including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Chris Christie to Des Moines for a conversation about "modern agriculture."

Family farmers and rural communities in Iowa are no stranger to Rastetter's corporate ag agenda that puts profits before people, communities and our environment. Rastetter made his fortune founding Heartland Pork Enterprises in 1994, which was later acquired by Christensen Farms to create the 4th largest pork producer in the U.S. That trend of corporate consolidation and the expansion of pork production into mega "factory farms" has pushed over 80 percent of Iowa's hog farms out of business since the early 1990s, draining rural health and wealth from the state as family farms left the land.

Iowa CCI rallied a broad coalition of local, state and national partners to elevate a different vision for food and agriculture. That vision, endorsed by Farm Aid's President Willie Nelson in his recent Politico op-ed, puts family farmers front and center and endorses local control of agriculture using methods that sustain the health of soil, water, communities, and rural economies for future generations.

Here are a few highlights from the weekend's events:

  • Pre-dawn rallying: It was bright and early for this crew of 130, who showed up at the Iowa State Fairgrounds an hour before the event doors opened with a choir of voices shouting "Family Farms, Yes! Corporate Ag, No!" Attracting the attention of press and early arrivals to Rastetter's event, we ‘early birds' got the proverbial worm – important coverage and social media callouts showing there was a different vision worth paying attention to. One that wasn't powered by corporate money, but instead by people.
  • What conversation? Rastetter's Iowa Ag Summit, which was supposed to be left open to the public for first-come, first-serve tickets provided online, proved to be a more private affair. Several members of Iowa CCI and allied organizations like Iowa Farmers Union who had registered for tickets in advance were told that their tickets were no longer valid, and were not allowed into the event. One person was actually forcibly removed from his seat as he flipped through the Summit program provided.
  • Crashing the Party: Before making our way to the community-led Food & Ag Justice Summit, we stopped by the Iowa Republican Party's headquarters in Des Moines to urge the support for our family farm vision of agriculture, not the one advanced by Rastetter.
  • Food & Ag Justice Summit: We ended the day with an uplifting gathering that brought together local, regional and national leaders for dialogue around a vision for food and ag justice that benefits all. We discussed what that vision included and how we would get there – underscoring the need for people to come together, to continue in the long tradition of organizing to protect community welfare, the rights of family farmers and the health of our environment, and the need to bring eaters into the conversation!

For a peek at what the Food & Agriculture Justice Summit looked, check out these photos:

For more coverage of the events see:

Thanks to Iowa CCI for use of their People and Planet First vision for agriculture photo.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup

Emily_EaganIn an attempt to address the spread of antibiotic resistance, three United States Senators introduced legislation on Monday to expand the authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pull antibiotics from their use in livestock and agriculture. The FDA would be required to withdraw its approval of any antibiotic used for the purpose of disease control or prevention in food producing livestock, according to the bill. This legislation would tighten the restrictions on the use of antibiotics in the set of guidelines released in 2013, which called for drug makers to voluntarily remove their products specifically being used for animal weight gain. Back in October, the FDA announced that sales of antibiotics used in agriculture increased by 16% between 2009 and 2012, and of all antibiotics manufactured, a whopping 70% sold in the US are used in food livestock. Over 20,000 people die each year from antibiotic resistant infection, and 2 million get sick. Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the bill's three cosponsors, stresses the importance of antibiotic reduction: "Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest public health threats we face and we need a comprehensive response to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics...While FDA took an important step to reduce antibiotics overuse in agriculture, we need to do more."

Fast food giant McDonald's has already taken a step toward antibiotic reduction, announcing Wednesday that it will begin to use chickens not treated with antibiotics. As one of the largest chicken buyers in our country, this decision will likely have a large impact on the entire industry. In fact, McDonald's has already received support from large meat suppliers Tyson, Perdue, and Keystone Foods. The shift toward the use of antibiotic-free birds is likely to occur within 2 years, and is only expected to grow. Steven Roach, food safety program director at Food Animal Concerns Trust, predicts a ripple effect: "The last time McDonald's did something like this, five other fast-food companies made similar announcements within six months… I would expect we're going to see a similar pattern this time around."

This article from Modern Farmer takes us deeper into the video series produced by The National Young Farmers Coalition chronicling young women on their dairy farms. Though we've seen some growth in young people starting farming careers over the past few years, this growth has been somewhat limited to vegetables and raising animals for meat - young dairy farmers are much harder to come by due to the costly yet necessary equipment, acreage, and livestock.  Watch as these three young women, Sarah Chase, Ashlee Kleinhammer, and Laura Ginsburg, share their success stories despite the challenging nature of running a dairy operation.

During Wednesday's hearing on agriculture spending, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested an idea to members of Congress that consumers use their smartphones to scan specially generated codes to reveal a truckload of information about the ingredients in products at the grocery store. Vilsack's idea is particularly interesting to the key players involved in the GMO labeling debate. While a technological labeling method would certainly solve a lot of mysteries for some curious consumers, Scott Faber, head of the Just Label It campaign, sees the idea as a setback: "Consumers shouldn't have to have a high-tech smartphone and a 10-gigabyte data plan to know what's in their food." At this point, Vilsack's proposal is just an idea, but it's an idea that has the potential to halt the progress consumer advocates have made for a federal standard of mandatory GMO package labeling.

Four members of Congress introduced the Farm to School Act of 2015 last week, expanding the already in place USDA Farm to School program. The act will improve schools' access to healthy, locally grown food, promote interest in agriculture education, and boost economic opportunity for family farmers. With 23 million students eager to learn about where their food comes from, Helen Dombalis, Policy and Strategic Partnerships Director with the National Farm to School Network, sees this new bill as a win-win for kids and farmers. She said, "...We are building on the positive momentum of farm fresh food in school meals, school gardens and farm to school education across the curriculum, such as cooking classes, taste tests, hands-on science classes and farm field trips." The act will open doors for farmers, fishers, ranchers, and food entrepreneurs, giving them opportunities for more direct relationships with local schools.

This piece from NPR takes a look into farm life after military service - and why the USDA encourages veterans to become farmers. With the help of programs from nonprofit organizations (like the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a Farm Aid partner), universities, and Congress, the USDA is seeking to create opportunities for veterans to receive the financial help they need to include agriculture as a form of therapy in their post-war life. USDA military veteran's agricultural liaison Karis Gutter sees the connection as a natural fit. She said, "Many of the men and women who have served come from rural backgrounds and get training to work with their hands and have a natural instinct for entrepreneurship." Sara Creech, former Iraq War surgery nurse, received a grant from the USDA following the recent changes to the Farm Bill, allowing her to improve the quality of her farm. She calls her farm a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and she's found purpose through taking care of animals, providing for her community, and hosting workshops for veterans to introduce them to life on the farm.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Join us at The Food and Ag Justice Summit in Des Moines

AliciaThis Saturday, 2016 presidential hopefuls will descend upon Des Moines to attend the first-ever Iowa Agriculture Summit. Hosted by Big Ag operator Bruce Rastetter, the summit promises to be a conversation about "modern agriculture," including topics like renewable fuels, biosciences, GMOs, grain and livestock markets, and more. Rastetter will speak one-on-one with each potential candidate, allowing no questions from the audience.

While the idea of an agriculture summit is a good one, it's likely that the conversation at this summit will focus on furthering the interests of corporate agriculture.

Family farmers know that feeding all of us — not corporate interests — should be the focus of farm policy and the food systems throughout our country. And we here at Farm Aid agree: people, not profits, should come first.

That's why our long-time partner Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) has planned a separate summit to counter the message of corporate agriculture. This weekend, at The Food and Ag Justice Summit, I will join family farmers, local community advocates and national allies to talk about a vision of agriculture that works for people and for the planet.

We invite you to join us for a powerful day of elevating a People and Planet First Agenda that puts family farmers, and all of us who eat, before corporate greed.

Friday March 6

6:00 pm – 8:30 pm

Food, Fun, & Fight Back
Iowa CCI Headquarters, 2001 Forest Ave, Des Moines

Saturday March 7

7:00 am – 11:00 am

Food and Ag Justice Speak Out
Elwell Family Food Center, Iowa State Fairgrounds
3000 E. Grand Ave, Des Moines

11:30 am – 2:00 pm

Food and Ag Justice Teach In
Simpson United Methodist Church
2600 Capitol Ave, Des Moines

Learn about speakers at the summit here and click here to register.

We hope you'll join us in Des Moines to support a vision of agriculture that puts family farmers, good food, and a fair and just food system first.