Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jen looks at the food crisis and what farmers are doing about it

Lately it seems that not a day goes by without some major headline involving food and farmers--honestly, I can't keep up anymore. Today's story in the New York Times about fertilizer shortages and how they are affecting farmers worldwide is the most emailed Business story of the day. Why do so many people care about a story about fertilizer?

Food is on everyone's mind these days, it seems. While recent polls show that in our faltering economy Americans are most concerned with the cost of gas, we are also feeling the crunch at the grocery store. Worldwide, the problem is much worse. Food shortages are causing riots, coups, deaths -- worldwide 25,000 people a day are dying of conditions linked to hunger.

Even our President is paying attention. Yesterday President Bush said something that we've been saying here at Farm Aid for quite some time now. In a statement on the state of the Farm Bill (which, yes, a year later is STILL being debated in Congress), Mr. Bush said that in response to higher food prices "Creative policy is to buy food from local farmers." Since his administration, and every recent administration before it, has failed to make policy that helps family farmers, we think Bush must be referring to a creative individual policy, not public policy, unfortunately. For while there are some pieces of the Farm Bill that will help family farmers (and will hopefully make it through the final passage), recent public policy hasn't done much to keep family farmers on the land and, therefore, hasn't done much to make it easier for struggling families to buy good, fresh, local, affordable food. Quite the opposite as farm policy since the early 80s has actually favored industrial farms over family farms, giving us cheap, overly processed food that has given rise to a health epidemic that we're just beginning to realize.

But as Mr. Bush pointed out yesterday, family farmers are your best bet for fresh, delicious food--food that doesn't include the extra cost of transportation, refrigeration, marketing. Additionally, family farmers are dedicated to doing something about the global food crisis we find ourselves in. They're not just advocating for policies that help their bottom line (as the agribusinesses are), they're thinking about our food safety and our food security, here at home and across the world.

For example, just yesterday the National Family Farm Coalition presented this letter which Farm Aid has signed on to) to Capitol Hill, calling for the establishment of a strategic national grain reserve--similar to the one we have for oil. The idea behind the reserve is to ensure that we have a supply of grain in the event of an emergency, such as a drought; it serves as a buffer when production drops, as it is now as more farmers spurn wheat in favor of the more profitable and easily grown corn; and it also regulates the price of grain, cushioning the market from price spikes. On Tuesday, the Washington Post published this article about the wheat shortage we're currently experiencing, which is giving rise to higher prices for everything from bagels to pizza to pasta. The real concern, as the Washington Post points out, is that our wheat reserves are the lowest they've been since WWII--only enough to feed the world for just four days. At the same time, more countries are importing more wheat than ever before. A Strategic Grain Reserve would do much to rectify this situation, protecting our national food sovereignty and providing for the world. Family farmers are thinking locally and globally. We hope that Congress is listening. Judging by the articles I'm reading, the rest of us are.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Happy Birthday Willie!

All of us here in the Farm Aid office wish our Board President, Willie Nelson, a happy 75th birthday!

Another pitch for the Green is Good Bag!

We're seeing the great "Green is Good" Hayden-Harnett bag everywhere! People magazine showed it as one of the cool bags to have and now glam.com has too. So if you haven't bought yours yet- go do it now!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Rebutting 6 Myths About Organic Food

MSN recently published a little piece called 6 Myths About Organic Food. The only hitch is this: They're not dispelling myths; they're propagating them (and probably not organically!)!

The first myth this article attempts to dispel is the myth that organic foods are always better for the environment. While the article acknowledges that crops grown organically don't pollute our environment with deadly chemicals, it claims that since "organic farming is only about half as productive as conventional farming, it requires far more land to produce the same amount of food." MSN should do their research a bit more carefully because numerous recent studies have found that this is a myth, if not a flat-out lie.

For the real truths about organic food, we suggest you check out Farm Aid funded-group Organic Farming Research Foundation. They'll tell you, for instance, of a study based on 154 growing seasons' worth of data on various crops that found that organic crops yielded 95% of crops grown conventionally. And if the USDA would increase its funding of organic crops to reflect the proportion of organic products we see in the marketplace (an effort that OFRF is working on with Farm Aid's support), we could probably get that 95% up to 100% or higher!

MSN gets myth #2, IT'S MORE NUTRITIOUS, wrong too: Recent studies have proven that organic food is in fact more nutritious than conventionally grown food. A March 2008 publication, "New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods," compiles the evidence of more than 100 recent studies that have found that organic food contains more nutrients than food grown with chemical inputs.

As far as myth #5: YOUR'E SUPPORTING SMALL FARMS OR ECO-COMPANIES, MSN gets this partly right. But most of us are smart enough to know that just because something has been raised organically, doesn't mean that it comes straight from a family farm (even if that's what the package has been designed to make you think!). But just because some of the producers of organic products happen to be large corporations doesn't mean that those companies (at least the brand that makes the organic product) aren't "eco-companies." Let's be realistic, it's best to get our food directly from farmers -- people we know and trust, who are important to our local economy and ecosystem. But buying directly from a local family farmer is not always possible (although this is the goal that Farm Aid is working toward!). In certain cases we are going to buy some products from a large food corporation. At the very least, don't we want to tell those corporations that we want our food grown without chemicals? If we tell them that by buying their organic products, won't they produce more products organically? Won't that result in fewer toxins in our soil, groundwater, and oceans?

To sum it up: Organic is always a good option. And buying direct from a family farmer is what we at Farm Aid like best. If you happen to be growing your own, check out today's Homegrown blog post to learn how to make your own organic pesticide from veggies and dish soap!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Link to NYT Article: Commodity crops and loss of conservation land

An article in the NY Times today looks at another consequence of the high price of commodity crops: loss of conservation land.

Back in the 80s, during the farm crisis that gave rise to Farm Aid, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Conservation Reserve Program to take farmland out of production. Today when we're looking to find as much farmland as possible to grow crops for our food, food for the world, and now for our fuel, it seems strange that we were at one point taking land out of production. But back then, the rise of industrial farms and the need for family farmers to compete with those farms by, in the infamous words of Earl Butz, "Get[ting] big or get[ting] out!" caused farmers, again in the words of Earl Butz, to "Plant fencerow to fencerow," which resulted in a surplus of commodities and record low prices, which in turn drove farmers deeper into debt and off their land.

In an effort to deplete the surplus and drive up the price of commodity crops, the government paid farmers to put some of their land out of production and into conservation. The result was that the farmer got a return on that land (as little as that return was at about $50 per acre per year), commodity crops didn't suffer overproduction and prices could stabilize. As a bonus (because I'm quite sure the USDA was more concerned with farm prices than with land conservation), wildlife and natural habitats got back a little of their space.

But now, with demand and prices for commodity crops high, many farmers are finding that they can make more on that land than what the government pays them to keep it fallow. It remains to be seen whether the USDA will keep the CRP going and, if they do, whether farmers will continue to find value in putting some of their farmland into conservation. What is clear is that this points once again to the complexity of our U.S. farm policy. But it also points to the value of family farmers. We talk alot at Farm Aid about what family farmers bring to the table and it's clearly more than just good food. This promises to be a contentious issue: Should we place a premium on conservation land or should we throw it all back into production to meet the rising domestic and worldwide need for crops for food and fuel?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Jen says "Save Money, Buy from a Family Farmer!"

We all have different reasons and impetuses for changing our behavior. With regard to what and how we eat, some of us base our decisions on our health, some on our morals, some on our traditions and background, some on trends, and some on a specific event (for me, the discovery of mad cow disease in the U.S. four years ago changed everything about how I eat). Many of us also base our food decisions on economics and, as Kim Severson points out in the NY Times, in today's economic climate this could be good news for family farmers.

We wrote recently about the high price of commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soy driving up the cost of the food you buy at the grocery store. And while I'm sure no one in the Good Food Movement is cheering about the high cost of food, there could be a silver lining for those of us who are working to get more people reaching for family farm food. Because while grocery store prices are rising steadily your local farmers' prices are probably not undergoing a comparable increase.

See, commodity crops generally go to two food uses: processed foods and animal feed. When the cost of commodity crops go up, the cost of processed food and the cost of raising animals who eat those crops goes up. In terms of processed food, you're probably going to see a savings if you put down the cheese puffs and pick up a piece of local, seasonal fruit. In terms of animal feed, your local farmer's beef, raised on pasture and not on corn, is going to be a savings over the feedlot corn-fed beef you'll find in your grocery store. (Not to mention these family farm items taste better and are better for you!)

Another factor in the increase of food prices is the cost of energy, which is used to refrigerate, process, and transport food items. Here again you'll save when you keep it small, minimally processed, and local. And don't forget all the packaging and marketing--something else you're paying for when you purchase processed food. At the farmers market, you're paying for food--not all that extra. And your money is going to the farmer, not to a middleman, not to an advertising budget, not for the cost to transport that food item across the country or the world. If you're not shopping directly from a farmer or at your local farmers market yet because it supports your local economy; keeps farmers on the land; protects the environment; results in tastier, fresher, healthier food; or because it's trendy right now, maybe your wallet will be the reason.

Whatever the reason, Farm Aid encourages you to give it a go. Seek out a farmers market. Look around for a local CSA this summer! Call up a local farmer and arrange for an on-farm visit to pick up some good, wholesome food. Because at the same time that we're reading about increasing food prices, we're reading this too, about giant industrial food companies raking in huge profits from the sales of seeds and the pesticides used to coax those seeds into food. I eat family farmer food for a number of reasons, but this is a big one: If the contents of my wallet have to go somewhere, I want them to go where they are deserved and where they will do some good.

And until we're all making as much as those corporations, Farm Aid supports the work of groups like Community Food Security Coalition, which works to increase accessibility to good farm fresh food for all.