Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Report back from Huntsville

HildeLast week I headed south to Huntsville, Alabama, for the first ever workshop to examine issues of competition in the poultry sector. The meeting was the second in an unprecedented series of five workshops being hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate corporate concentration and anti-trust enforcement in agriculture.

The day was opened with remarks by a star-studded lineup: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Eric Holder, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney, and a slew of local politicians. Vilsack set the tone by asking, “What needs to be done to ensure a fair, competitive market? How do we bring greater coordination and communication between DOJ and USDA for poultry enforcement?”

It was a heartbreaking trip, in many ways. The recurring theme: hardworking family farmers are trapped in a one-sided contract system leaving them in major debt and out of options.

In his opening remarks, Alabama Congressman Artur Davis reflected upon meeting a poultry grower who discouraged his son from poultry production because he had so little confidence in the viability of the profession. Davis acknowledged the anti-competitive conditions that hinder the sector and went on to plea, “We can’t walk away from our farmers. There is something fundamentally flawed when a father has to say to his son – don’t walk the path I walked.”

The turnout was low compared to the inaugural USDA/DOJ Iowa hearing held in March. I ate lunch in the overflow room with not a soul in sight. But this didn’t come as much of a surprise. Key grievances being examined were the intimidation tactics used by poultry processors to keep contract growers in a state of near servitude. In the 48 hours I spent in Huntsville, I heard dozens of stories of growers who in just the past week had been bullied by service techs and other processor reps into not showing up to the hearing. One farmer who I spent much of the prior night with going over his comments, found me on Friday to say he wasn’t up to it. He spotted an industry lawyer in the room, and that was enough to keep him quiet.

One of the more poignant testimonies came during the morning’s farmer panel from an active Alabama grower. He talked passionately about his service to America as a veteran and his belief in our country – a belief so strong that he felt compelled to speak out against the patently un-American abuses that typify poultry contracts, despite facing the very real threat of retaliation by his processor for doing so. Few dry eyes were left in the crowd.

Varney, who joined the grower at the table, made a public point of handing him her direct number to be used in the case of retaliation. The gesture inspired a riotous applause, but unfortunately I don’t think it offered enough confidence for many nervous onlookers to take the stand.

Yet, even within an atmosphere permeated by fear, the dire message of the poultry growers resounded: the false promises of security, the inequitable and abusive treatment, the outrageous debt, the lack of transparency, the extreme imbalance of power, the severe lack of competition, the failed enforcement of anti-trust law, the ugly reality of poultry production in this country.

The current system of contract poultry production is not just unfair, it’s wrong. Thanks to all of you who took action last week to encourage DOJ and USDA to rein in these companies so that growers are treated with the fairness and dignity they deserve. If you haven’t taken action yet, there’s still time: click here for more information.

Read the public comment I made on behalf of Farm Aid by clicking here (PDF format).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Victory for Family Farmers in the Missouri Legislative Session

HildeLast week, we alerted our Missouri supporters about a dangerous effort afoot in Missouri: Senate Bill 795. This bill was jam-packed with pro-corporate, political maneuvering, and contained language threatening local control over livestock development in the state.

Well, we have some great news to report:

Thanks to the dedication and commitment of family farm supporters across Missouri, all deceptive and pro-factory farm language was removed from every agricultural bill being considered in the legislative session.

Here's what Rhonda Perry of Farm Aid funded-group the Missouri Rural Crisis Center had to say:

"Thank you and everyone at Farm Aid for your help in making this major win possible. I know your email went far and wide because I received it several times from people who forwarded it to us, and your blog post also made local radio on Wednesday night. We can't thank Farm Aid enough for your help at a very critical time—it made a major difference."

So, thank you all for calling your Senators, forwarding our alert and really just caring about family farmers. This is a great reminder to us all that the voice of thousands of farmers and the people who care about them can be stronger than that of corporate agri-business and their allies. Your participation in the democratic process paid off!

Monday, May 17, 2010

More Farm Aid shows coming to DIRECTV

MattGet ready to experience more favorites from Farm Aid's 2009 concert. DIRECTV is continuing to air Farm Aid specials over the next month. See below for the schedule, with more to come.

Farm Aid Presents Jason Mraz & Friends
Monday, 5/24 @ 2:00 am ET
Sunday, 5/30 @ 7:00 pm ET

Farm Aid Presents Gretchen Wilson & Friends
Sunday, 5/23 @ 5:00 pm ET
Friday, 5/28 @ 7:00 am ET
Saturday, 5/29 @ 9:00 pm ET/PT
Tuesday, 6/1 @ 7:00 am ET
Friday, 6/4 @ 4:00 pm ET
Saturday, 6/5 @ 10 am ET

Farm Aid Presents Wilco & Friends
Monday, 5/17 @ 8:00 am, 7:00 pm ET
Tuesday, 5/18 @ 5:00 pm ET
Wednesday, 5/19 @ 7:00 am ET
Thursday, 5/20 @ 6:00 pm ET
Saturday, 5/22 @ 2:00 am ET
Sunday, 5/23 @ 8:00 am ET
Tuesday, 5/25 @ 7:00 am ET

Farm Aid Presents Jamey Johnson & Friends
Sunday, 5/23 @ 4 pm ET
Tuesday, 5/25 @ 7 pm ET
Tuesday, 6/1 @ 8:00 am ET
Friday, 6/4 @ 7:00 pm ET
Sunday, 6/6 @ 2:00 pm ET/PT

This series of 1-hour specials are from the Farm Aid 2009 broadcast that aired live on DIRECTV's The 101 Network in October. "Farm Aid 2009" and the "Farm Aid Presents" specials were produced by Ambassador Entertainment Inc.

Speak Out Against Abusive Poultry Contracts!

JoelOn Friday, May 21st at Alabama A&M University in Normal, Alabama, the Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold an unprecedented public workshop on competition and regulatory issues in the poultry sector. This workshop will be the second in a series of five workshops being hosted this year by the DOJ and USDA to address antitrust and corporate concentration issues in agriculture. The first workshop, held in March in Iowa, attracted approximately 800 people, including hundreds of farmers, consumers, activists, and a significant media presence.

Now, working with several ally groups, Farm Aid is encouraging poultry growers and family farm supporters from around the country to attend the workshop in Alabama and let their voices be heard. We know many contract poultry growers fear retaliation for speaking out against the imbalance in power that typifies their contracts. Opportunities for both public and confidential comment will be available, and growers and supporters who prefer not to comment but want to support greater oversight and fairer conditions for contract growers will be an important presence.

It is crucial for all of us to learn more about the situation facing contract poultry growers. There is no real competition in the poultry industry because just a few large companies dominate the market at every step of production. This forces poultry growers into one-sided, abusive contracts that put them in debt and lock them into a system they can’t get out of. In the U.S. today, more than 90% of poultry is raised this way, and the abusive contracting model is quickly spreading to other forms of livestock and crop production. Most poultry companies, for example, urge new farmers to build at least four poultry houses, based on the company's own specifications, in their contract agreements. At about $300,000 per house, this requires farmers to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get started. The poultry company, who owns all of the birds both pre- and post-slaughter, gets off the hook without any risks associated with this investment. It's clear to see who's getting the short end of the stick in this relationship. Check out this PDF fact sheet from RAFI-USA for the hard realities of contract poultry production.

As with the first workshop in Iowa, the Alabama workshop is free and open to the public. However, individuals interested in attending should register for the workshop by clicking here. For more details, please contact RAFI-USA's Becky Ceartas or Farm Aid's Hilde Steffey.

New regulations and stronger enforcement by USDA and DOJ would be a big step towards contract poultry growers being treated more fairly and getting fair pay – and the first step toward a more sustainable and just livestock sector. Please join us in bringing attention to this critical issue.

For more information about the full series of workshops, see this page.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rallying for raw milk on Boston Common

GlendaOn a lovely, sunny spring day Suzanne the cow happily grazed on the Boston Common.

A scene from the 1700s? No, it's 2010!

On Monday, May 10, the Organic Consumer Alliance organized dairy farmers and raw milk supporters on the Boston Common with Suzanne the cow. They rallied for a continuation of raw milk buying clubs that deliver fresh unpasteurized milk from dairy farms to members. The Boston Common event preceded a hearing at the Massachusetts State house regarding a proposed ban on raw milk buying clubs. Dairy farmers and raw milk customers asserted their rights to sell directly from the farm and to buy the food that they want to consume. Since raw milk cannot be sold in stores in Massachusetts, unlike some other states, buying clubs help customers get direct access to raw milk from the farms.

I grew up on a family farm with one Jersey cow. Our family drank raw milk and enjoyed the cream and butter. It's worth exploring the issues on unpasteurized milk as well as the opportunities that raw milk sales can offer to sustainable dairy farms. Find out what the laws are in your state, and make up your own mind. Click here to read an Ask Farm Aid column from 2008 on raw milk.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Attention Missouri: Local Control is threatened in your state!

HildeLast October, you may remember Farm Aid posting about Ohio Issue 2 — a corporate power grab in the form of a ballot initiative that radically changed how livestock issues are regulated through the establishment of a state "Livestock Care Standards Board." Posing as a farmer-friendly effort, the initiative actually threatens state policies that regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), food safety, and much more.

Since then, we've been on the lookout for similar, deceptive initiatives that erode local control over what kind of livestock development occurs in states across the nation.

Recently we've heard from Farm Aid partner and funded-group Missouri Rural Crisis Center about a dangerous effort afoot in Missouri: Senate Bill 795. If you live in Missouri or have family or friends in the state, please make sure they know what's at stake, as this misleading bill is debated in the upcoming legislative session.

The current language in Senate Bill 795 - deceptively spun as the "Right to Raise Animals" clause — will have far-reaching and radical consequences, such as:

  • Stopping local county governments from protecting their communities from the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of industrial livestock operations through local ordinances.
  • Prohibiting elected representatives from responding to the needs of Missouri citizens when corporate agribusiness decides that playing by the rules is an undue economic burden.
Senate Bill 795 also establishes the "Missouri Animal Care Advisory Committee," similar to Ohio's Livestock Care Standards Board, which writes pro-CAFO supporters into statute as official advisors to the General Assembly.

Please Call Senators TODAY!...Tell them to make the following changes to Senate Bill 795:

  • Remove the deceiving "Right to Raise Animals" language that threatens local control and the ability of the General Assembly to pass state CAFO standards.
  • Remove the "Missouri Animal Care Advisory Committee," which is nothing more than a corporate attempt to legitimize a pro-CAFO agenda.
Please Call Senate Leadership: Senator Engler (573-751-3455); Senator Shields (573-751-9476); or click here to find your local senator.

Senate Bill 795 is pro-corporate, political maneuvering at its worst. Please call your Senators and urge them to kill this bill before it becomes law. Using your voice is the best way to stop this bill and protect family farmers and fellow Missourians.

To read the bill in PDF format, click here.

Who’s growing what, where, and how?

MattFarmers, their land, and what they grow come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles (just take a look at these few dozen Farmer Hero profiles we've written). With that spirit in mind, and knowing about the diversity of Farm Aid staff's living spaces, gardening experience, and eating habits, I set out to chat with our staff on what they were planning on growing this year.

AnnaAnna, our Operations Manager, shares an apartment with roommates and has very little room to grow, so she's planning to continue growing herbs this summer. Growing up, her family had a huge garden, with each person responsible for a different section. Some of that skill must still be present, because she's been able to keep the same potted plant of basil growing in the window for the past 13 months. Not unlike many other staff members, her favorite gardened food is tomatoes.

JoelJoel is Coordinator of Farm Aid's Hotline and Farmer Resource Network. He lives in an apartment, but is lucky enough to have access to two garden spaces. In front of his building, he's got a small “guerilla garden” on city-owned land that would otherwise be barren where he grows flowers and pole beans to the delight of his neighbors. Behind his building, he takes care of a neighbor's yard in exchange for getting to grow food there, including tomatoes, more pole beans, chives, green peppers, and even had some small success with cantaloupes. Pole beans are his favorite thing to grow because they're fun to watch and make for tasty eating.

CarolineCaroline is Farm Aid's Spring Intern from Northeastern University (and she grew up on a family farm!) Now, she lives in a very small city apartment, but she does manage to grow basil, thyme, cilantro, and rosemary. She's another staff member who grows her own aloe, and her plant is a second-generation one she has managed to keep in good shape for years. One of the things she misses most is growing vegetables at home. Strawberries and rhubarb were her favorites, which she turned into pies with her mother and entered into competition at fairs and festivals. Hopefully she'll get her hands on some rhubarb other staff members are growing and let us taste us those prize-winning skills.

AliciaAlicia, Farm Aid's Program Manager, is another apartment-dweller, with no real garden space, so she relies on a CSA for much of her fresh food. Alicia does grow aloe and basil year-round, enjoying the latter in summertime Caprese salads (click here for Hilde's recipe from last year) and in pesto over pasta all winter.

CorneliaCornelia, the HOMEGROWN Sherpherdess, is a proud new homeowner and fully taking advantage of having new garden space (along with a community garden plot – she'll be busy)! She's growing four varieties of heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, delicata squash, cucumbers, dill (sounds like a great pickle-making combo!), swiss chard, Ali Baba watermelons, potatoes, kale, Brussels sprouts, basil, a bunch of herbs, and peas. I'm full just hearing about all the possibilities and hope she shares her forthcoming bounty at the office. Her favorite thing to grow is black cherry tomatoes from seed.

JoannaJoanna is Farm Aid's Accountant and another prolific and busy gardener. In addition to growing her three favorite varieties of tomatoes, which she uses all winter (after washing, drying, and freezing them), she grows: tons of basil, pole green beans from seeds saved last summer, trying to grow onions for the first time, squash, zucchini, oregano, chives, rosemary. Joanna's family is lucky to have grown up eating all the fresh food they've grown together over the years.

KariKari is Farm Aid's Development Relations Manager and resident salsa fanatic (here's her recipe), but unfortunately has no space at all in which to grow her beloved tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Even her attempt at growing basil failed last year, so she'll rely on other staff sharing whenever they've got extras.

WendyWendy is the Resource Development Director and grows vegetables in four raised beds in her backyard. With two young daughters, she sees it as a great opportunity to expose her daughters to the way food is grown and maybe convince them to try food they otherwise wouldn't want. This year, she's planning on growing peas, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, squash and watermelon. While heirloom tomatoes are her favorite, last year her plants were wiped out from blight and she's hesitant to try growing them again this year. Perhaps she'll stick with what her space seems to like best: peas and cucumbers.

CarolynCarolyn is Farm Aid's Executive Director and isn't content just growing tomatoes, lots of different herbs, and potatoes at her own home. She's also helping to grow vegetables at two different friends' houses. Yellow cherry tomatoes are her favorite backyard treat.

HildeHilde, the Program Director here at Farm Aid, is growing in a community garden space the next town over from her house. With a very experienced gardening friend, she's growing rhubarb, strawberries, garlic, different kinds of beets, snap peas, lettuce, herbs, onions, leeks, fennel, asparagus crowns (I didn't know this, but apparently it takes three years of development before asparagus pays off with delicious edibles), melons, squash, kale, chard, collard greens, peppers, and cucumbers. Ahh yes, and I can't forget about the fact that she's growing a few varieties of tomatoes (her favorite, naturally).

GlendaGlenda, Farm Aid's Associate Director, lives in a second-floor apartment, but maximizes her space by growing tomatoes and basil in self-watering grow boxes on the back porch. In addition, she plans to grow rhubarb, chard, peas, more tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, arugula, green beans, peppers, jalapenos, and herbs in her backyard. She's been extremely impressed with results from her self-watering grow boxes – the crop outperforms that in her backyard. Her favorites? Tomatoes and basil, along with rhubarb, which is fun to both cook and grow, since it's a perennial.

MattAnd finally me, Matt, Farm Aid's Web Marketing Manager. What am I growing? I'm still not sure yet. I don't have any good-sized areas with sunlight, so I'm waiting to hear back from my landlord about a project I'd like to undertake. I'd love to turn the top of my boring, black (albeit, very sunny) garage into a container garden paradise. I'm infamous around the office for my love of raw carrots, so that would have to be the first thing I'd try my hand at planting.

What about you? Are you growing any fruits or vegetables this year? Reply in the comments or on this discussion on HOMEGROWN.org (a Farm Aid project).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Farm & Food News Bites

MattAll week long, we post updates on what's happening at Farm Aid and in the world of farms and food on our Twitter feed. In case you missed some of those links, below are some notable stories we shared since our last update:

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Urban Farming: Inspiration from around the country

CorneliaOur good friend and HOMEGROWNer Aliza* recently sent a note to let us know about the upcoming "Sowing Seeds Here and Now!: A Chesapeake Area Urban Farming Summit on June 18, 2010 in Beltsville, MD. The inspiration and keynote speaker for the summit is urban farmer and MacArthur "Genius" fellow, Will Allen, from Farm Aid-funded group Growing Power. Allen's Milwaukee farm and "community food center" has served as a model for other cities, and summit organizers are hoping that his presence can get things into high gear.

The goal of the one-day hands-on learning and strategizing event is to "catalyze and support" urban farming throughout the metropolitan area – Washington, DC, Prince George's and other local counties, and Baltimore – known as the Chesapeake area. The summit aims to educate attendees about the many benefits of urban agriculture projects and to provide a deeper look into the models that exist around the country.

Sounds like a wonderfully powerful gathering of forces – spread the word!

Do you know of similar summits happening in your area? Post the information in the comments section and I'll add it to the HOMEGROWN.org events calendar, too.

* Aliza is an urban homesteader who blogs at BaltimoreDIY and is a constant inspiration for us at HOMEGROWN.org. Check out her blog posts here.

Also on HOMEGROWN.org, Farm Aid's online gathering place for eaters, growers and farmers who celebrate the "culture" in agriculture by sharing skills like growing, cooking and food preservation:

Friday, May 07, 2010

Weeding Out The Truth About Roundup

CarolineLast week I reported on a recent study conducted by USDA scientist Dr. Robert Kremer revealing the negative effects that the widespread use of herbicide glyphosate (also known as Monsanto's Roundup) has on our soil. I also noted how the ubiquitous use of Roundup has led to the rapid growth of Roundup resistant "superweeds" that are now devastating American farmers' fields. Well, lo and behold, New York Times must have caught wind (wink, wink) — they published a front-page piece on this very topic this past Monday!

Here's what they had to say:

The Times reports that the first Roundup resistant species to pose a serious threat to agriculture was spotted ten years ago in Tennessee, but with the continued overuse of Roundup, weeds have evolved to ten resistant species in at least twenty-two states, as well as in Australia, China, and Brazil. Roundup Ready crops, genetically-modified to tolerate the chemical, allowed farmers to spray their fields to kill weeds while the crop itself remained unharmed from herbicide exposure. Currently 90% of soybeans and 70% of the corn and cotton grown in the United States are Roundup Ready. It is these very crops that are most at risk of being choked out by the superweeds, with millions of acres already significantly damaged.

The Monsanto Company and others like it in the biotech industry are leading farmers into a more pesticide-dependent future, despite their repeated promises that farmers should be moving in the opposite direction with their products, notes the Center for Food Safety in the article. Roundup and Roundup Ready crops were designed to protect farmers' yields from destruction by weeds, but instead, farmers are being forced to use higher doses of multiple chemicals in order to kill the superweeds ravaging their farms. While Monsanto maintains that Roundup is still an effective weed control, the company is subsidizing cotton farmers' purchases of herbicides to supplement Roundup. Seems like a mixed message to me! Are more chemicals really the best solution, here?

There is good evidence that this pathway may lead to decreased crop yields and more land and water pollution, only exacerbating the health risks associated with their products.

Could this be the straw that break's Monsanto's back? As the Department of Justice investigation into Monsanto and the Supreme Court case regarding Roundup Ready alfalfa continue to unfold, producers and consumers are finally getting to voice their concerns with Monsanto's business principles and products.

What do you think should be done to prevent further spread of Roundup superweeds?