Monday, March 30, 2009

Back to School?

AnnaHilde and I just returned from the Fourth National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Portland, Oregon. I'm exhausted from the long flight! The conference was hosted by the Community Food Security Coalition and the National Farm to School Network and sponsored by a number of organizations- including Farm Aid!

There were nutritionists, food service supervisors, community organizers, policy makers and farmers from all over the US. People from Canada and Mexico also participated. It was great to hear about emerging and established farm to school programs from across the country.

I was blown away by the Rethinkers from New Orleans- a group of mostly middle school students who chose to "rethink" the issue of food in their schools. After thorough research, they held a press conference to announce their recommendations to the superintendent; the schools should start serving local food.

Great things are also happening in Chicago Public Schools- where Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality is bringing in regional food. These lucky students even get local veggies in the winter that were flash frozen right after harvest. Here’s a picture of me enjoying some of the colorful veggies! Yum!

There was lots of buzz at the conference about the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which is due for action this year in Congress. To learn more about Farm to School Initiatives in the Childhood Nutrition Act check out the PDF, "Nourishing the Nation One Tray at a Time."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Flooding in the Northern Midwest

MattFarm Aid is working with local groups in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota to monitor the flood situation and its effects on farmers. Already at the beginning of this crisis, we've heard reports of farm buildings looking like islands in the middle of flooded fields. Other farmers are creating dirt piles in still-dry fields in the hopes that it gives their livestock somewhere to seek higher ground to escape floodwaters. We will continue to work with groups in the affected region to coordinate a response to help farmers.

If you're a farmer dealing with this disaster or another crisis, please visit our Help for Farmers page. If you'd like to help, please consider donating to our Family Farm Disaster Fund.

To see stunning photos of flooding of the Red River and people preparing for it, see this page on

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tweeting Farmers

MattCute kitten videos? Sure. The latest celebrity gossip? Yup, you can definitely find those things on YouTube and on blogs, but a growing number of farmers are turning to those methods to reach customers.

Selling directly to consumers via farmers markets or CSA programs provide farmers with income at a fair rate. And a great way to connect with those consumers is through websites, blogs, Twitter, and other social media sites. In this month's farmer story on, we spoke with Greg Massa and the idea of knowing your customers came up. While he's surveyed foreign markets for his rice, he also gets to know people through farmers markets and also through his blog and on Twitter.

In using Farm Aid's Twitter account, I've noticed a definite increase in farmers using the service. It's a great way to peek in at the everyday lives of farmers that we see so rarely in other media. Lately I've been reading firsthand accounts as farmers prepare for the developing flood threats in North Dakota.

Whether you're a farmer or not, follow us on Twitter to get updates on what we're working on and links to the latest food and farm news. And I promise no kitten videos or celebrity gossip. If you're a farmer with a blog or other social media account, please comment here or via Twitter!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A CSA for the Seas: Getting Local Seafood

MattIf you’re looking for fresh vegetables and meat right from the farmer, where do you look? Farmers' markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are excellent ways to know you’re getting quality food and supporting a family farmer. But those of us that enjoy seafood discover it isn’t quite as easy to get food straight from the source, unless you’re lucky enough to have a friend that's a fisherman or the time to bait your own hooks. Luckily, Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) are starting to gain popularity. Similar to the CSA model, you pay up-front for a weekly or monthly portion of food straight from the person growing (or in this case, catching) it, which helps the producer with stable prices and a guaranteed market. In this way, growers (and fishermen) and consumers provide mutual support for each other and their community and share the risks and benefits of food production.

The Boston Globe had an article about a great CSF program in Maine that is looking to make it a lot easier for consumers to help support fishermen in their area while getting the freshest catch off the boat. Since fishermen can get more money by selling directly to customers without a middleman taking a cut, they can adopt more sustainable fishing practices. With the dire threats facing seafood, from overfishing and pollution, this seems like a promising way to ensure we can continue to enjoy seafood and support fishermen well into the future.

Now the only problem is waiting for this trend to blossom so I can join a program in my area for myself! Would you join a CSF if there was one in your area?

A Perennial: The Resurgence of Vegetable Gardens

MattIn an unstable economy, the last thing you want to worry about is where your next meal will come from. Also, when you grow it, you know exactly what you’re eating; it’s nice to not have to read a label to find out if that springtime asparagus came from a few miles away or from South America.

Those are a couple of the reasons that the National Gardening Association says 43 million U.S. households will grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, and berries this year. That’s up 19% from last year! Organic seed sales are up 46% at Burpee & Co., the country's largest seed retailer.

The latest garden to pop up? One at the White House, where a section of grass is being dug up and replaced by a vegetable garden. This will be the first time vegetables have been grown on the White House lawn since Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden from 1943.

With winter breathing its last frigid breath, are you planning a garden for this year? What’s everyone growing?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Downer Cows: Down and Out (of the food system)

KariThank you to everyone who commented on the important issue of the regulation of GE technology in our food and fields. GE and the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock are two big issues within our industrial food system. With The New York Times and all of you speaking up on these issues, we're making progress. And now we can add President Obama to that list of folks trying to change our industrial food system!

Obama announced on Monday the permanent ban of the slaughter of downer cows; cows too sick or weak to stand on their own. The ban helps to further minimize the chance that mad cow disease could enter the food supply. It also ends a cruel and common practice in factory farms.

A partial ban on downer cows was put into place after our country's first case of mad cow disease in 2003. But that ban contained a loophole that allowed cows with an injury not related to a central nervous system disorder, like a broken leg, to go into the food supply if they had passed inspection prior to their injury.

The Agriculture Department proposed the new, full ban last year after the biggest beef recall in U.S. history. The government finalized the ban this past weekend. "As part of our commitment to public health, our Agriculture Department is closing a loophole in the system to ensure that diseased cows don't find their way into the food supply," President Obama said in his weekly radio and video address.

Downer cows pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease. They are also susceptible to infections from bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as E. coli, because the animals lay in feces.

The recall also raised concerns about the treatment of cattle and came after an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States videotaped workers abusing downer cows to force them to slaughter.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the ban was "a step forward for both food safety and the standards for humane treatment of animals."

Factory Farms, the Over-Use of Antibiotics, and Our Health

JenIn an op-ed from The New York Times yesterday, Nicholas Kristof took a close look at the use of antibiotics in factory farms. We know that factory farms are detrimental to the environment, our communities, and our health in terms of the pollution they generate that contaminates our air and water. But there's something less obvious to the eye (and nose) going on as well.

Kristof found that 70% of all antibiotics used in the US are used to treat healthy livestock. Why give a healthy animal antibiotics? So that when they're exposed to the horrible conditions of a factory farm, they will have a better chance of surviving until slaughter. This non-therapeutic overuse of antibiotics is one reason we're seeing more and more antibiotic-restistant pathogens that threaten our health. In fact, MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, kills 18,000 people annually; and a new strain of MRSA can now be found in an estimated 25% to 39% of US hogs.

The practice of giving antibiotics to the animals who are destined for our plate compromises our health for the sake of our industrial food system--for the sake of efficiency, corporate greed and cheap meat. Just another reason to choose food from family farms!

Kristof mentions that there may be some upcoming legislative action to curb the overuse of antibiotics in our food system. As things progress, we'll keep you informed so that you can act to help stop this dangerous practice. In the meantime, choose antibiotic-free meat!

To learn more about Farm Aid's work against factory farming and issues like antibiotics, click here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Got Yak?

JenThe Ethicurean has a terrific blog post today on one of the many facets of the dairy crisis: The importation by the US of foreign Milk Protein Concentrate (MPC).

What are MPCs? Well, you've probably eaten many of them without even knowing it, in processed foods like cheese slices, snack foods, coffee creamer and candy. As Elanor of The Ethicurean explains, "Milk protein concentrates are created when milk is ultra-filtered, a process that drains out the lactose and keeps the milk protein and other large molecules. The protein components are then dried and become a powder. That all sounds relatively benign - until we learn that those “other large molecules” can include bacteria and somatic cells; that virtually all MPCs come from other countries, most of them with very poor food safety records (China, India, Poland, the Ukraine); and that the milk used to make MPCs is usually not cows’ milk. More often, it is from water buffalo, yaks, or other animals common to the countries where MPCs are manufactured."

And if that doesn't sound sketchy enough... MPCs are not approved by the FDA as a food ingredient!

So what are MPCs doing in our food? Good question... we're not sure what the FDA's excuse is but those big food processors? They're using untested, foreign MPCs to save a few bucks instead of paying the higher price for real milk from U.S. family farmers! And in doing so they're helping to put American dairy farmers out of business. With the current price for milk at less than half what it costs farmers to produce, it's estimated that by the end of this year we could lose 20,000 of our nation's 60,000 by the end of the year*.

What can you do? Learn more, buy direct from your local dairy farmer, and contact your local representatives to ask them to protect dairy farmers. Many congresspeople are pushing for reform but they'll push harder if they hear from you!

To read about other aspects of the dairy crisis, including price manipulation by dairy processors, check out this month's Ask Hilde.

To read the letter to the USDA from 35 US Senators urging an examination of dairy pricing, click here (PDF).

To get even more technical, visit Farm Aid-partner The National Family Farm Coalition at

* This statistic has been updated to reflect current projections as of July 2009.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lots of Food & Farm Stories in the News Today!

JenThere are so many important food and farm stories unfolding right now it's hard to keep up!

Here are just a few of today's stories:

  • Michael Pollan wants your help! Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food is working on a new project. He's compiling a list of food rules--ideas about how we choose, prepare, and eat food that have been passed down through our cultures, ethnicities, families and time. Share your own food rules with him here.

  • The First Lady loves fresh, healthy, local food and thinks that everyone should have access to it!

  • Farmers and farm organizations are speaking out against the proposal National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which seeks to microchip every livestock animal, including cattle, hogs, sheep and goats, chickens and other poultry, horses, bison, deer and elk, alpaca and llamas, and others (whether or not they're destined to be someone's dinner) so that the federal government can track their location. Farmers will be responsible for the cost of this program, but while small farmers will have to ensure that every single one of their animals is individually chipped, factory farms will be able to use one chip for an entire building full of animals! The proposal claims to be about food safety but the reality is that once the animal enters the slaughterhouse, the chip does nothing to tie the burger on your plate to an individual animal.

    Click here to read an op-ed about how this plan endangers small family farmers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Neil Young, Advocacy Groups and 19 Senators Urge Foreclosure Protection For Farm Families

JenWhile the Obama Administration begins to implement the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Program, Farm Aid and farm, rural and housing advocates from across the country have joined to urge Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to ensure that family farmers also have the ability to restructure their loans to avoid foreclosure.

More than 50 organizations, representing farmers and ranchers, rural communities, communities of faith, and anti-hunger advocates, signed a letter to the Treasury and Agriculture Secretaries urging that banks and other financial institutions that have accepted federal bailout funds be required to work with farmers to restructure farm loans to keep farmers on the land and in their homes. A similar letter was sent from nineteen Senators, led by Russ Feingold (D-WI), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

While many Americans are feeling the impact of the current economic crisis, farmers face volatile commodity prices, rising production costs and tightening credit markets, resulting in a serious cash flow and credit crisis. Farmers depend on credit to cover the up-front costs of planting and harvesting their crops, for which they may not receive payment until the end of the year. These farm loans are essential to farmers but in today’s uncertain economy they are also a tremendous risk. Because farmers are often required to place their family home as security against their farm loan, many farmers are in danger of losing not just their business but also their family home if they fall behind in their farm loans.

The farm loan restructuring plan mirrors requirements that are already in place on farm loans supported by the USDA Farm Service Agency and the requirements being developed for home loans under the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Program. It is similar to the 1987 Farm Credit Act, which had the support of Farm Aid and many of the organizations who support the current plan, and which kept thousands of farmers on their farms during the farm crisis of the 1980s. This plan requires no additional funds from the federal government, and will in fact result in savings for taxpayers and the banks that hold these farm loans by preventing foreclosure. In addition, the plan will keep farmers on the land, protecting our food supply and the local and national economies that farmers support.

"The United States is re-laying the groundwork of its economic stability, and family farmers are the key to a strong foundation," said Farm Aid board member Neil Young. "It's time... to recognize the unmatched abiliity of family farmers to strengthen local economies. We can all learn from the ingenuity and innovation that family farmers demonstrate time and time again in the face of challenge."

In 2008, the agriculture sector is projected to have contributed more than $130 billion[1] to the U.S. economy; estimates indicate that it employs 14 percent of the total workforce and accounts for nearly 5 percent of the total U.S. gross domestic product.[2] As important as the financial contribution family farmers make at the national level are the investments they make in their local communities.

To view the sign on letter from farm and rural organizations, go to:
To view the Senate letter, go to:

[1] "Agriculture Outlook: Statistical Indicators." Economic Research Service, December 2008.

[2] "Visions of the Rural Milieu: United States." Dabson, B. Rural Policy Research Institute, July 2008.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

It’s Official, Organic Food Tastes Better (According to Hammy the Hamster)

MattCooksDen performed a test to determine whether or not organic food tastes better than conventionally-grown food. Their results? Organic wins! (At least according to their hamster named Hammy.) Sure, the test wasn’t what anyone in a white labcoat would call scientifically sound (all of the organic food is always on the same side! Hammy’s only one hamster!), but it may be the cutest pseudo-scientific experiment ever:

(Via boingboing)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Skeptical Look at the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture

JenThe Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University recently published a policy brief titled, "Boom for Whom? Family Farmers Saw Lower On-Farm Income Despite High Prices" (link to PDF). I am thrilled to have this paper to refer to when I need to explain why we need to continue to advocate for fair policies and prices for our farmers.

Here's the problem: If you read the recent headlines about the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, you hear that farmers raked in the cash over the past couple years with record profits. Here's the reality: That's an oversimplification that completely distorts the truth. The truth, according to the GDAE and the farmers we've been taking to, is that "midsized family farmers actually saw lower incomes from farming operations in 2007 than they did in 2003 (the date of the last USDA agricultural census), with high costs and reduced government support outpacing the rise in income from farm sales."

How can the USDA report be so far off, with claims that the average farm household income was $86,864 in 2008, 27% higher than the average for all American households? Because the USDA takes into account a category of "farms" called rural residence farms. These rural residences are not farms in the sense that they don't make their living from farming; they're retirees and hobby farmers who rely mostly on off-farm income, which is counted in the census numbers as farm income. So, for instance, say you've got a CEO who makes $25 million a year and who happens to live on a ranch and run some cattle. That $25 million earned off the farm is counted in the farm income survey. Distorting, isn't it? And these rural residence farms account for a full 2/3 of the "farms" surveyed by the USDA. Of course, these "farmers" are not all millionaires, but you can see how their off-farm income distorts the numbers.

If you take out those rural residence farms and leave in the folks who are most likely to be family farmers, you get a slightly more accurate picture. The USDA says these family farmers increased their average household income by 23%. But again that number is distorted, because it still includes off-farm income. And, according to the GDAE report, the entire 23% increase can be attributed to off-farm, not on-farm, income.

With record high crop prices, why didn't farmers increase their on-farm income? Because the prices for fertilizer, feed and fuel were high too, so any increased income farmers might have seen for their crops was absorbed by their higher cost of production.

The moral of the story? You can't just read headlines, you've got to read the small print and, in this case, really dive into the numbers and methodology. While the USDA and newspapers across the country tell us that farmers raked in the profits last year, Farm Aid received a record number of calls on our hotline during 2008. Looking forward to 2009, those record high crop prices have fallen while the cost of feed and fertilizer remain very high, and to further compound the situation in our current economic crisis farmers are finding it hard to get the credit they need to put this year's crop in the ground. Unfortunately we expect to have another record year on our hotline here at Farm Aid. And this is why, despite what the newspapers say, it is so important to support our farmers with our vote and our fork.

To read the complete GDAE report in PDF format, click here. To examine the full USDA agricultural Census, click here.

P.S. And on another note, in addition to good food, thriving local economies, community and environmental stewardship, this is why we need our family farmers: ingenuity in helping us solve problems. Read this great piece in The New York Times about how two farmers found a brilliant use for cow manure!