Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Farmer Veteran Stakeholder Conference

JoelWhile sitting around gabbing with a group of young farmer veterans during a break between sessions at last weekend's Farmer Veteran Stakeholder Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, I heard a story that my long-passed farmer grandpa, himself a WWI vet, would have really enjoyed. We guffawed repeatedly as farmer-vet Mickey Clayton told of hunting down a poor sap of a poacher on her livestock farm in Oregon. "I was flashing back [to my combat experience] and my training totally kicked in," she said, "and that silly bastard ended up cowering in fear and begging me not to shoot him. I had to snap out of it and remember I was a civilian now. But I'll bet that dude doesn't come poaching my sheep again!"

Mickey, an Army mechanic who survived catastrophic injuries while serving in Iraq and then struggled for years with the Veterans Administration before finally receiving full disability benefits and buying her dream farm, was one of dozens of established, beginning or aspiring veteran farmers on hand for the conference. A single mother who walks with a cane and wears a heavy knee brace, Mickey is sole proprietor of Dot Ranch in Oregon, where she raises rare and valuable Navaho Churro sheep as well as ducks, chickens and cattle.

Here is Mickey with fellow veteran-farmers Kevin Lanzi and Mike Lewis and me. You can read their stories here. Mike and Kevin are old pals of Farm Aid, having represented the Farmer Veteran Coalition in our HOMEGROWN Village every year since the FVC inception in 2008 and attended our national Farm Advocate Meeting in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 2012. I want to give a personal shout-out to these two guys because they are committed to serving as farm advocates and mentors for other returning vets. Mike is founder and director of the non-profit Growing Warriors Project, whose mission statement makes clear that these veteran-farmers remain wholly committed to a life of service: "to equip, assist and train our military veterans with the skills they need to produce high quality organically grown produce for their families and communities."

It is deeply gratifying to get to know and work with these and other veteran-farmer men and women. As a culture we are only beginning to learn the hard truths about individual human beings transitioning from fighting to defend the homeland to turning the earth to nurture the homeland and ourselves. Trading in weapons for plows is giving some shattered vets a new chance at a life of peace. Farm Aid is proud to support the work of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and out hat's off as to the Drake University's Agricultural Law Center and Law School for co-hosting this unprecedented event.

Mickey Clayton, holding the microphone, along with four other farmer veterans and (on far left) FVC executive director Michael O'Gorman during a conference session titled, "Adapt and Overcome: Military Lessons for New Farmers." On Mickey's left is Wisconsin farmer-veteran Chris Hollman, who first connected with the Farmer Veteran Coalition in the HOMEGROWN Village at the Milwaukee Farm Aid concert in 2010.

North Carolina farmer veteran Robert Elliot (middle, read our Farmer Hero profile of him here) with RAFI-USA's Scott Marlow (left) and FVC's Michael O'Gorman. Robert's farm was included among the farm tours we organized for Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh.

Conference keynote speaker USDA Deputy Secretary Krista Harden displays a WWII era government poster promoting farming as a viable profession for vets following the war. During her talk Harden introduced Karis Gutteer as the USDA's first Military Veteran Agricultural Liaison, who will provide info, resources and support for active duty military and veterans interested in agriculture.

In preparation for this year's HOMEGROWN Village at Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Marine Corps veteran Kevin Lanzi helps set up the Growing Warrior Project's exhibit on industrial hemp.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaFor now, those living along the line of the Keystone XL pipeline can breathe a sigh of relief. After passing in the House, a vote on the TransCanada sponsored project came to the Senate for the first time this year where Democrats defeated the bill by one vote. Unwilling to accept the bill's demise, Republicans say that they plan to propose the legislation again once they have control of Congress. While President Obama has voiced his stance against the pipeline, some experts speculate that he may approve the bill in exchange for cooperation from the GOP majority Congress in 2015.

As more veterans make their way from the battlefield to the farm fields, the USDA is taking notice and taking action. This week, the USDA announced a new position, the Military Agriculture Liaison, an individual who will coordinate leadership and provide information, resources and support for active military and veterans interested in either returning to or starting a career in agriculture. For many veterans, returning to civilian life poses a daunting challenge and a life in agriculture can become a therapeutic transition. The new position, created with funding from the 2014 Farm Bill, comes in addition to funding for housing, job training and financial assistance the USDA has provided for veterans in past years.

In Russia, necessity for food could steer the world's largest country into the locavore movement. Three months into Putin's yearlong western food import ban, lack of competition has brought consumers to organic and local food sources. For the first time, shoppers are taking notice of where their food comes from and find themselves willing to pay a higher price tag for homegrown goods. Still, local food sources cannot support the entire nation. Russia has taken major agriculture hits throughout its stormy 20th century history and local operations are few in number. Many hope that this transition to buying locally will inspire more to take on farming and encourage citizens to support Russian agriculture even after Putin's sanctions expire.

As technology becomes more prevalent on the farm, big data becomes another issue to tackle. Tractors and combines record data and upload it to the cloud, but what happens next? The amount of fertilizer used, type of soil and yield can all be found here, and farmers worry about leaks of that data. Top agriculture companies, including Monsanto and John Deere, have moved into the information businesses and extended their hand in an offer to collect, store and analyze data, but some are skeptical about the roles these groups will play. While many initially worried about exploitation, for now big businesses and farmers have come to an agreement: farmers have full ownership of their data and can determine who uses it and prevent unwanted sharing.

You might be having a bad week, but for Syngenta, it's been a rough year and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), the world's largest corn processor, has filed a lawsuit against the manufacturing company for the irresponsible practice of selling genetically modified corn seeds that China has banned. The farmers who bought and planted the corn then had their export crops refused by China.  ADM isn't the first company to fire back at Syngenta – more than 100 farmers and exporters have already sought damages from the Swiss company. China has rejected over 1 million tons of imported foods in the past year, resulting in an estimated loss of $1 billion for U.S. farmers.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaAfter six years of rising rates in food insecurity, the US may be seeing a steady supply of food on dinner tables nationwide. A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time since the 2007 recession hit, the number of families who do not have enough money to purchase adequate food has dropped from 18.9 percent this time last year to 17.2 percent – the lowest rate since 2008. While experts have not identified a concrete cause for this decrease, some speculate that the Affordable Care Act could have an influence. Prior to the implementation of the legislation, 66 percent of food bank recipients said they faced the dilemma of choosing sufficient food supply or health care benefits. Still, the 17.2 percent remains problematic, as before the recession only 11 percent of Americans reported financial struggles to purchase food.

Of all the items on the black market, you’d probably be most surprised to find H2O among them. In California, drought effects have become so devastating that some are turning to illegal water sales to save their land. Dealers steal water from canals, schools, clinics and fire hydrants and auction fresh water off the to highest bidder, creating resource inequality between the wealthy and the less fortunate. While there are fines for wasting water, there’s little written in law to apprehend the thirsty thieves.

Meanwhile, experts predict that continued drought could shrink California’s largest lake, the Satlon Sea, by half by 2033.

After a six-year battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, both houses of Congress will hold a vote next week to determine the project’s fate. Those in favor of the pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas claim that the economic benefits of the pipeline are too great to ignore, while those opposed, including farmers and ranchers, cite potential environmental degradation. As the pipeline is slated to cross national borders, the final authority rests with President Obama, who has expressed his stance against the pipeline hinted that he would use his veto power if Congress passed the bill.

If you think living in a city means compromising on fresh and local food, think again. A recent study found that 1.1 billion acres (40 percent) of the world’s farmland lies within 12 miles of cities, with 16 percent of these actually in within metropolitan borders. In developed areas, many of these farms are new initiatives bringing local food closer to home, but for those in developing areas, established farms may have to compete with urbanites for water and fight off housing and industry expansion to stay on their land.

When thousands participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest economic inequality, they didn’t expect they’d inspire a conversation about food inequality on the opposite coast. In 2012, hundreds of Californians broke into a 14-acre plot owned by UC Berkeley that was slated for commercial development and planted thousands of seeds. While the act was a protest against developing the plot, it was also an action taken to combat malnutrition and food inequality. By the end of the first summer, the land yielded two tons of food. Now, a film documenting the impromptu operation called Occupy the Farm will premier in Berkeley, New York and Pasadena.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Doer and A Visionary for Boston’s Local Food System

Last week, the City of Boston suffered a huge loss when our former mayor, Thomas Menino, passed away. People turned out in huge numbers to remember Mayor Menino, not just for his leadership as our longest serving mayor, but for his friendship and commitment to the neighborhoods and people of Boston. This is how we'll remember our Mayor.

Mayor Tom Menino has been noted for saying, "Visionaries don't get things done." He prided himself on being a doer. But he was a visionary too. Our story is just one small example of this truth.

In the last days of 2009, Farm Aid was invited by Mayor Menino to a meeting with others working on food and farm issues. We attended, mingling with dedicated people addressing hunger, public health, and the challenges of growing food. When our convener finally arrived he quickly got down to business, thanking us for joining his new Boston Food Policy Council. He asked us to keep the news under wraps until the official announcement from his office. Then he was off to his next appointment.

It was brilliant. We couldn't say no, for we hadn't been asked; we'd been initiated. This was the doing part. At the first official meeting of the Boston Food Policy Council, the Mayor of Food, as he's been rightfully proclaimed, laid out his vision: urban farms on rooftops and vacant lots, farm fresh food in schools and neighborhood bodegas, thriving businesses built around the local food system, farmers markets and community gardens bringing healthy food to communities and community to neighborhoods in short, a greener, healthier, food-secure city.

The Mayor's Office of Food Initiatives is working on all of this and more. Mayor Menino became a leader in the food movement nationally and Boston became a brilliant model for other cities. This commitment to food security and local food production is just one of Mayor Menino's legacies. Farm Aid is proud to be part of this work. We will continue to be inspired by his ability to get things done, by his bold vision, and by his love of food and, most of all, people.

John Mellencamp and Mayor Menino at a press conference in Copley Square, Boston, to announce Farm Aid 2008.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Amanda's Farm And Food Roundup

AmandaVermont, one of the country’s havens for farm fresh food, has drawn customers from the New England and northeast area across its borders for years. Now, it could become easier for those in neighboring states to come pick up locally grown goods for which the area has gained notoriety. The Boston Public Market, slated to open in June 2015, will revive the tradition of selling fresh food in a downtown setting on a large scale. You can expect to see Vermont well represented in the farm stands. As Vermont’s local food system has grown three times faster than the state’s overall economy, it makes sense for the small population to market goods out of state while continuing to grow local food and jobs at home. .

Across France, French farmers unions led a nationwide day of protest on Wednesday to express their anger at collapsing prices, increased environmental regulations, cheap imports, and high costs. Thousands took to the streets, dumping tons of produce, flinging manure on government buildings, burning effigies, and throwing apples at riot police. The farmers also urged their fellow countrymen to "eat French" and support local agriculture.

Soda lovers in Berkeley, California are about to start shelling out a few extra cents for each soda they buy, and your town could be next. This Tuesday, Berkeley voters approved a one-cent per beverage ounce tax on the sale of sugary drinks with an overwhelming majority despite big donations from beverage companies in attempt to thwart the initiative. As similar campaigns have failed 30 other places, many wonder, what went right here? In short, it was sizable donations from those in favor of cutting calories. From the American Heart Association to the deep pockets of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, supporters spared no expense to send messages about the harmful effects of soda. While the American Beverage Association says they don’t fear a trend of tax increases, Bloomberg’s camp has suggested that they could help fund campaigns in other areas where there's a willingness to decrease soda consumption.

Despite defeats of GMO labeling measures in the West, the initiative could be moving South for voter consideration. As GMO labeling campaigns have gained momentum in the northeastern and western parts of the country, the Southeast has maintained immune to the movement. But as urban legislators join the conversation, they’re starting a dialogue about transparency and the consumer’s right to know. While Colorado and Oregon voted initiatives for mandatory labeling down, efforts continue in other states.

California may be running low on water, but the state is anything but short of tomatoes. Typically, California farmers grow a third of the world’s tomatoes used in pasta sauces and soups, but this season’s yield saw 14 million tons of tomatoes – up 16 percent from last year’s yield. As worldwide tomato production fell below demand, prices rose and California farmers focused their efforts and remaining resources on growing tomatoes, getting the best return for their investment in water.

Forget baton twirling and ventriloquism--neither is going to earn you the crown in the Ms. Uganda beauty pageant. Looking to update the nation’s beauty pageant, President Museveni steered the focus toward agriculture. In order to compete, contestants had to demonstrate talents like milking cows rather than modeling swimsuits. Overall, the competition centered around improving agriculture techniques and promoting the backbone of Uganda’s economy.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

How Food & Farm Issues Fared on Election Day

AmandaFollowing midterm elections yesterday, many parts of the country will soon be seeing changes in their government and local laws. Proposed bills regarding food, farms and the environment appeared on many ballots across the country, allowing citizens to take direct action on the issues. Last week, we told you about different initiatives proposed around the country. Today, we have your results on everything food and farm related from the polls.


The Water Bond

A majority of California’s voters at the polls yesterday said yes to Proposition 1, allowing the state to allocate $7.5 billion in bonds to counteract three years of pervasive drought that have devastated local agriculture. After maintaining a comfortable lead in the polls and receiving support from popular incumbent Governor Jerry Brown, it’s no surprise the proposition was approved by 67 percent of voters. Moving forward, Gov. Brown and other officials will be working on using the money to provide long-term solutions during water shortages through state-wide infrastructure improvements, conservation initiatives and restoration efforts.

Sugary Drink Tax: Berkeley and San Francisco

Yesterday, Berkeley became the first city in the United States to pass a tax on sugary-drinks in an attempt to encourage consumers to purchase healthier options. Although 30 similar measures have failed around the United States, and big soda corporations outspent supporters throughout the campaign, the initiative to create a one-cent per ounce tax on sugary beverage sales in Berkeley passed with a nearly two-thirds majority. A similar measure next door in San Francisco that called for a two-cent tax per ounce mandate, however, failed to pass.


Proposition 105: Colorado Mandatory Labeling of GMOs initiative

Voters in Colorado cast their ballots against the mandatory labeling of GMOs by a margin of 67 to 33 percent. The measure, which would have required genetically modified foods to bear labels that read “Produced using genetic engineering,” was an effort to increase transparency and support the consumers' Right to Know. While three states including Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have passed similar initiatives in the past, the measure has yet to take off in other parts of the country (most likely due to the record amount of money the opposition is putting up to fight these measures).


Amendment 1: Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative

In The Sunshine State, voters turned out in an overwhelming majority of about 75 percent to say yes to Amendment 1, an initiative that allocates about $1 billion per year over the next 20 years to conserve wildlife, working farms, parks and historic sites. Since one-third of Florida’s land is used for agriculture, this money will play an important role in the preservation of important farmland. The measure imposes no new tax on residents.


Maui GMO Farming Ban

In a narrow victory of just 1,000 votes, Maui citizens placed a temporary ban on growing GMO crops. Although corporations spent $8 million in attempts to kill the measure, residents approved it 50 to 48 percent. The ban will require all GMO growers to cease production until the county analyzes their effect on public health and the environment – meaning that Monsanto, who owns or leases a combined total of 3,100 acres in Maui, will have to bring their work to standstill. Due to its warm weather, Hawaii is a key location for year-round growing and a ban on GMO crops here is a big loss for corporations like Monsanto.


Question 2: Maine Agriculture, Natural Resource and Human Health Bond Issue

In Maine, voters cast their ballots in support of funding $8 million for a laboratory to study insect-borne disease and food safety. The measure adds necessary infrastructure improvements to the University of Maine that will assist farmers in treating their animals and discovering blights early to prevent crop loss.

New Jersey

Public Question No. 2: New Jersey Open Space Preservation Funding Amendment

Despite opposition from Governor Chris Christie, New Jersey approved a constitutional amendment that creates a permanent funding source for the state to purchase and preserve open space. While 4 percent of the corporate business tax was already allocated toward broad environmental programs, this amendment mandates that 6 percent be allocated for more specific preservation projects by 2019.


Measure 92: The Oregon Mandatory Labeling of GMOs Initiative

In another GMO mandatory labeling initiative, voters narrowly decided to keep mandatory labels off of their foods. Here, the measure lost by a narrow margin of 51 to 49 percent, making it a far closer race than in Colorado.

Rhode Island

Question 7: Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities Bonds

In Rhode Island, residents voted to allocate $53 million toward environmental preservation. Since The Ocean State has lost 80 percent of its farmland in the last 70 years, such funds will work to combat that loss while also protecting other important natural resources.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

An Evening With Farm Aid in Texas

KariOn October 25, we held our latest An Evening With Farm Aid event at Luscombe Farm in Anna, Texas. This is our small event series dedicated to an intimate celebration of local family farm food, incredible music and community. (We posted about our An Evening With Farm Aid event held in New York City last year.)

We honored the region's family farmers with cocktails and delicious food, all sourced locally by Chef Robert Lyford of Patina Green in McKinney. I was lucky to eat his food for most of the week and let me say that a squash sandwich isn't what I might reach for normally, but he changed my mind on every food I might avoid, including beef tongue!

Our guests and Farm Aid staff were fortunate to meet and open the event with Robert Hutchins, of Rehoboth Ranch in Greenville. Last spring, we sent an emergency grant to the Hutchins family after their farm was devastated by a tornado. We activated our local network support, and Robert's community rallied around them as well. Hearing the impact this had on him left me in tears! I am happy to say that the ranch is nearly completely recovered only six months later.

HoneyHoney closed the event with an incredible set. They're an amazing hybrid of country, rock and folk, along with being hilarious and warm people to boot. We're thrilled to have had the opportunity to share their talent with the crowd. See the band and lots more beautiful photos by Troy Foster in our slideshow below.

We are grateful to the local hosts and sponsors that made this event a smashing success. We couldn't and wouldn't have been able to do this without you. See y'all next year!