Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ethan's Farm and Food Roundup

EthanAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA will be expanding financial credit opportunities for farmers all around the country. This program was put in place to help new farmers gain access to credit without the looming high interest rates that often come from banks or other loans. This program could also really benefit rural veterans who often make their way back to the land to serve our country’s food system.

Scientists in Britain have successfully decoded the entire tomato genome, and have discovered that the small vegetable is a lot more complex than we previously thought. With the new genome mapped, geneticists hope to use the DNA discoveries and physical trait observations to breed better tomatoes in the future.

Michelle Obama's new book American Grown has hit the shelves
, and takes a look at the White House kitchen garden and the First Lady's struggles to turn it into the successful garden it is today. The book also focuses on America's gardens and nutrition, and fighting the obesity crisis that is sweeping across our country.

The Senate has overturned an amendment that would have required further research into AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon. The FDA has given the product preliminary approval, indicating the first GMO animal may soon be on our plates. But many fear that there hasn’t been enough conclusive research into the health risks and impacts on coastal fisheries and ecosystems.

And in related news, the California Right to Know Campaign is gaining some serious traction in the GMO labeling battle. California voters will get the chance to vote this November on a bill that would require that all foods with genetically modified (GM) ingredients are labeled in California. California hopes to set the stage for other states to follow, similar to how they moved forward the overhaul of our egg industry several years ago.

And, just for fun, The Onion has a fake story about Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and his nightmares about corn!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Greenhorns: How Not to Farm

CorneliaWe're thrilled to finally have our hands on "Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers," a new book by our friends, The Greenhorns. Editors (and fellow Greenhorns) Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, Zoë Bradbury and Paula Manalo have gathered up 50 compelling, funny, heartbreaking and hopeful stories from beginning farmers around the country. Each story gives the reader the opportunity to spend some time in a farmer's boots, and each tale reveals an aspect of the challenges and triumphs new farmers face. These are great stories that can be passed along for the lessons they hold.

The following excerpt is from a story that is right up our alley. It illustrates perfectly the American farmer's ingenuity, tenacity and disregard for the concept that something is "impossible." Teresa and her partner, Packy, dreamed of owning their own land to farm, and had finally found the perfect property for them. They were ready to buy and started the process in what they thought was the "right" way. Turns out that the "right" way wasn't going to work for a farmer. The excerpt picks up there:

I’d like to meet the farmer who can buy a piece of land, till it, prepare the soil, sow the seeds, grow the plants, harvest the crop, take the crop to market, sell it, deposit the cash in the bank, and write a check for the mortgage all in one month. In October. On the Oregon coast.

Hoping to talk to people who at least understood the physical realities of farming, we called the USDA Farm Service Agency about its small-farm loan program. The FSA agent we met with listened to our plans, then paid us the compliment of saying that it seemed like we actually had our act together. But she went on to be brutally honest about the FSA small-farm loan program and our chances of actually getting a loan to buy land for our farm. To her, a small farm was one growing four hundred acres of grass seed or running three hundred head of cattle. She told us that our proposed five or six acres of cultivated land growing mixed vegetable, fruit, and flower crops, and raising chickens with some off-farm income rounding out the economic edges fell into the USDA category of a “lifestyle farm.”

“We don’t normally make loans for lifestyle farms,” she told us politely.

“It’s a damn hard way of life, not a bloody lifestyle,” I muttered, annoyed, on the subdued drive home.

The seller of the farm we loved still wanted a crazy amount of money for it, and we had no loan options that would let us even begin negotiating, so she stopped talking to us and we sadly tried to accept that we were just never going to farm that land.

We spent the next six months scrambling, trying to come up with some way to keep farming on the Oregon coast. We had market customers calling us with land-for-sale referrals and offering to sign up for a CSA program before we even had a farm to grow the food. We explored many, many ideas: buy land with a group of people and start a nonprofit education farm; temporarily lease another piece of land; find a cheaper land option; renegotiate with our current landlords; borrow money privately. Each option was explored and each gradually disintegrated as we tried to cobble together a solution to keep our dying farm alive, all painfully in the midst of our best market season ever.

A grim day in June found us sitting at the kitchen table facing the bleak reality that we were going to have to quit farming. It was a painful moment for me. At forty-three years old I had finally found work I loved, work I was actually good at and that I cared passionately about. I could grow plants, I could feed people, and I could teach them how to grow plants and feed themselves. The support from our community for the farm we wanted to have was heartening to us, but it couldn’t get us the loan we needed. With deep resignation, we each made phone calls, went for interviews, and accepted “real jobs” with the understanding that we would start part time to allow us to finish out the current farmers’-market season, pay off bills, and put the farm into hibernation.

Farm or no farm, we needed to find a new place to live. While cruising around online to figure out what kind of house price we might be able afford with our new job income, we stumbled across a local real-estate company on whose home page under the heading NEW LISTINGS was that farm. The farm we loved. The farm we’d tried to buy for more than a year, the land we’d dreamed about and planned for and had finally, depressingly given up on some six months ago. Still for sale. Price reduced to something we could now maybe afford.

In a daze, we called a local bank and made an appointment to talk about a straight-up, super-normal home loan. We told our long story to the very nice broker, reassured him about our commitment to our regular-paycheck “real jobs,” described the down-payment fund we had waiting, and explained our plan for keeping the farm going part time to help with additional income to pay the mortgage.

“No farming,” he said sternly. “Quit the farming, right now. Only work the regular-paycheck real jobs. Then, maybe, we can make it work.”

So that’s what we did. The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land to move our farm to stuck in our craw, and was made even harder to swallow when we had to provide written reassurance to the lenders (nervous about our worrisome “history of farming”) that although we had indeed spent five years running a “hobby farm,” we had seen the error of that life path, now had nice safe real jobs, and only wanted to buy eighteen acres of land zoned agriculture-forestry so we could continue to live a “rural lifestyle.”

It wasn’t a legally binding document, and besides, I had my fingers crossed behind my back when I signed it. I can’t say I recommend lying to your bank as a road to farm ownership, but it worked, and I’m not ashamed that that’s what we did. The shame I feel is for a country that makes it virtually impossible for hardworking beginning farmers — people who are willing to devote their lives to growing healthy food for their communities — to own land.

We’re still working off-farm to make ends meet, slowly building our soil, rebuilding our infrastructure, putting down roots, heading back to being farmers again. Challenges are still there every day, and they always will be. Some of them seem impossible in the moment.

“Do you really want to keep farming?” we ask each other.

And the answer is always, “Hell, yes.”
In 2003, Teresa Retzlaff and her partner, Packy Coleman, began farming on the north Oregon coast. Six years later they managed to purchase land near Astoria, and now live and farm on 46 North Farm in Olney, Oregon, where they’re building both their soil and a very big elk fence.

"Excerpted from Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers' Movement (c) Zoe Ida Bradbury, Severing von Tscharner Fleming, and Paula Manalo. Used with permission of Storey Publishing."

Over at, we asked folks to tell us their best "How Not To..." story -- check them out! And add your own "How Not To" story here!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ethan's Farm and Food Roundup

EthanAccording to a new government analysis, healthy foods are no more expensive than junk food. The study broke over 4,000 foods down into sub categories, and figured out the price per serving for each. When the results were compiled, there seemed to be no financial effect on consuming more healthy foods for every meal. And in related news, Americans are eating more healthy food than they did just five years ago.

With the rise of local food movements around the country, knowing where your food comes from is something that we can all learn about. At Terra Firma Farm in Connecticut, this means taking on kids of all ages during the summer to teach them about food and farm production. “What Terra Firma does is it helps make these kids custodians of earth,” a mother of a camper said. “This is the generation that’s going to make or break the few farms still left.”

After starting a photo blog series about her mediocre school lunches, nine-year old Martha Payne of Scotland was able to draw enough media attention to her school lunch program to have it changed for the better. What a great example of creating change! Go, Martha!

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded its farm credit program, giving farmers access to new loans and credit opportunities. The focus of the new program will be on beginning farmers and helping to rebuild a new generation of farmers to take over our food system. We're really excited about this development since access to credit is so essential to new farmers and we've been working on the issue of credit since 1985!

The California Right to Know campaign has raised enough signatures to bring a GMO labeling initiative to the ballot this fall. "The right to know is a fundamental right and a bedrock American value," said Stacy Malkan, media director of the California Right to Know campaign. "This November, the voters of California will surely vindicate our right to know what's in the food we eat and feed our children."

For farmers in New York, there is a bitter divide about the moratorium currently in place banning hydraulic fracturing in the state. Some farmers see fracking as a financial opportunity that could give them the money they need to get their farms running again, while others see fracking as an environmental disaster looming eerily close on the horizon.

The last dairy farm in Plainfield, Vermont, closed because they can't make money in the dairy business. And it's happening all across the country. While the number of dairy cows in the U.S. hasn't changed much, the number of dairy farms has been dropping as small farms either go out of business or consolidate to become more competitive and cost effective.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Farm Aid, D.H.L.

JenOn Sunday, May 20, Framingham State University in Framingham, Massachusetts, bestowed upon Farm Aid the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at their 2012 commencement. The Doctor of Humane Letters is given as an honorary degree to those who have distinguished themselves in areas other than science, government, literature or religion. Farm Aid’s executive director Carolyn Mugar accepted the degree on Farm Aid’s behalf.

Carolyn and Framingham State University president Timothy Flanagan

Of course all of us here at Farm Aid are honored by this recognition. But it took on even more meaning when we learned that it was the graduating class who called for it. As Framingham State University President Tim Flanagan told us, the students said they wanted this year’s commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients to reflect their commitment to social justice and activism. They also wanted the commencement to have a theme that unified the entire ceremony.

The students choose the theme of food and nutrition and nominated Farm Aid among those receiving honorary degrees. The food and nutrition theme reflected the University’s majors in Nutrition and Food Science, and two new classes that the University offered this year – one on philanthropy, which engaged students in the process of making grants to local organizations, and a class on sustainability, which brought together students from all majors to explore the major themes of sustainable and resulted in the creation of an on-campus community garden.

The recognition of the work of Farm Aid by young people--the leaders of tomorrow--is inspiring! It gives us great hope that this generation of farm and food leaders is ready to take up the yoke.

The text of Carolyn’s remarks to the graduating class are below.

Good afternoon, and congratulations to the graduates of the class of 2012. I am honored to celebrate your achievement today. And I’m honored to stand where my mother stood in 1922 when she graduated from Framingham Normal School, receiving a degree in Household Arts. She loved this college.

I’m also very proud to accept the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters on behalf of Farm Aid, and all of the people that make up Farm Aid, including Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews. Thank you—we are truly honored.

When Willie, John and Neil started Farm Aid in 1985, they didn’t intend for it to keep going, and yet they’ve stayed committed to the effort to keep family farmers on the land for the very reason that the job’s not done yet—family farm agriculture is still at risk, perhaps today more than ever with increasing corporate concentration in our food system. I call these guys junkyard dogs (and I mean that in the best possible way) because they have remained tenacious and determined, even in the face of some of the most trying times for our nation’s family farmers.

More and more, we see why it’s so important that we have family farmers on the land, growing good food for all of us. We need a sustainable farm and food system that nourishes our planet--not one that extracts and exploits our soil and water. We need a food system that creates healthy bodies and minds--not one that causes public health epidemics. We need a labor system that pays our farmers and workers a fair price—not one that is singly focused on corporate profit. We need good food for everyone--not just those who can afford it. We need family farmers on the land to accomplish these goals. Food needs to be produced by many, not a few. Growing food is too important to be left to just a few corporate giants.

During your years at Framingham State, you have seen the collapse of our banking system—the one deemed too big to fail, and yet it did, taking the economy along with it. You’ve seen the bailout of Wall Street and the rise of unemployment for the rest of us. And you’ve seen the growth of the Occupy movement, the people’s response to the reality that too many of our systems are too big and benefit too few, our food system among them.

You graduates now have the skills and experience to bring about the changes that will transform our food system, and in doing so, our future. This change is not just being brought about by farmers, though I hope that many of you will be farmers. But also by healthcare administrators, nurses, dieticians, communicators and artists, economists, policy makers, entrepreneurs and others—we ALL have a role to play in the Good Food Movement; as Willie says, “We all eat.”

As you graduate with the hope and idealism that these occasions invoke in all of us, I offer Farm Aid’s artists Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews as inspiration. They say now they were naïve, that they thought they would hold a concert, call attention to a problem, and America would step up and solve that problem. 27 years later, they’re still dedicated to what they started. It was not naiveté, it was simply a deep belief that something was wrong with America when our family farmers were being forced off the land. So they jumped in headfirst, offering what they do best--a concert to raise funds to save family farmers and to raise awareness--inspiring others to do everything they could do.

Willie, John and Neil never expected that they would have such a cultural impact on farming and food.

Today, as you sit here, you never know what direction your new skills can take you in. I hope you will always be open to new forms of change. And I hope that you will be receptive to the possibilities and opportunities that come to you as you go down the road.

Farm Aid has no degrees (until today! By the way, we’ve looked into whether an organization has received an honorary degree, and we think we’re the first, so thank you, FSU, for thinking outside of the box already!). We don’t have a formal education, but we’ve learned a lot. A real lot. And it’s been through practice. Through seeing what was needed, by trying to figure out the best thing to do, and by doing it. Through perseverance, and through commitment to something bigger than ourselves--but crucially important to all of us--we are keeping family farmers on the land, growing new farmers and changing our food system.
So, graduates, your education and experience at Framingham State University give you the tools that empower you to tackle what’s ahead. You’re ready.

Thank you, for recognizing Farm Aid and our mission. I wish you strength, integrity and faith as you pursue your own mission.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nebraska Project Aims to Revive Depopulating Rural Areas

KariYoung people leaving the farm, and rural America in general, is not a new problem. Many are not able to make a living in a town that offers few viable options for employment.

In the age of efficiency, many farms are getting larger, with fewer farmers needed to tend the land. Highways are re-positioned to bypass small towns, leaving cafes and gas stations in the dust. As a native Nebraskan, this is not news to me. I’ve seen it happen over and over again, as once thriving small towns are slowly wiped off the map.

A program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln aims to reverse this trend with new ideas in repopulation. Nebraska’s university system is launching the Rural Futures Institute this fall, with the goal of drawing new businesses to the state’s abandoned areas. The system's five campuses have dabbled in rural redevelopment in the recent past, but administrators were disappointed in those results and are aiming for a more lasting, substantive effort this time.

A planning conference held this month in Lincoln drew almost 500 people--250 more than organizers expected. The specifics of how the institute will function haven’t been finalized, but the institute will launch in the fall with $1.5 million in annual university funding.

Rather than looking to what businesses were there in the past, researchers are looking at the current demographics of towns to determine what might be viable now. Aging populations, for instance, might call for retirement homes or active assisted living communities. Agritourism is a booming trend on family farms all across the country, with on-farm skill-shares and kid-friendly experiences.

The message historically has been that these small towns are not worth stopping for, let alone living in. New ideas and approaches to showing their worth will make our entire country stronger, and encourage young farmers to think of new ways to make a living on the land.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ethan's Farm and Food Roundup

EthanOnce again, we are hearing of dairy farmers’ calling it quits, because the cost of producing milk isn't covering the income they are making from their products. Feed costs are skyrocketing right now, leading to this farm in Vermont shutting down and this farmer in New York culling his herd. Have farms in your area been forced to shut down their farms because of rising costs?

Pesticide resistant weeds are sweeping across the U.S., affecting about 12 million acres nationally. These weeds have grown immune to Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide, and leaving farmers with no backup plan for combating the invasive weeds. “Farmers and government officials need to change existing practices if food production is to be protected,” industry experts said on Thursday.

The future of farming is seeing a shift towards advanced robotics
as farmers find alternative methods for the backbreaking and time-consuming work they must accomplish each year. But don’t worry just yet, "There's very much a human element in all of the business decisions and all of the equipment selection and maintenance," says Jeremy Brown, president of Jaybridge Robotics. "I don't think you're going to eliminate the farmer with automation."

The Missouri Senate Agriculture, Food Production, and Outdoor Resources Committee has decided to attach a "do pass" recommendation to the state's pending ag-gag bill, giving it the support it needs to be made into law. If passed, the bill will prevent employees from videotaping potential animal cruelty on farms, or from gaining access to employment under false pretenses.

With the recent boom of organic farms all over the U.S., there has been an ongoing debate about the future of farming and whether organic or conventional farming methods are the best option for feeding our population. But this article from The Atlantic raises the question - Are we missing the point by pitting one against the other?

The Perennial Plate is a series about sustainable farming and eating, and follows farmers and ranchers all over the country to get an idea of what it means to own and operate a sustainable farm. This episode visits J Bar L Ranch, a grass-based ranch on 30,000 acres in the hills of Montana. It is easy to see how you would never want to leave this place!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Farm Aid Music Monday, Starring Neil Young

MattToday's Music Monday brings you Farm Aid co-founder and board member Neil Young's entire set from our 10th Anniversary concert in 1995. The concert was held on October 1 at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. I've enjoyed a lot of Farm Aid performances over the years, but this one ranks up among my favorites. I hope you'll like it too, and to help ensure that, Neil is joined by Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael for two of the songs toward the end.

Find more Farm Aid videos on our YouTube channel.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ethan's Farm and Food Roundup

EthanYoung farmers are worried that this year's Farm Bill is going to leave them out. After the announcement of a 50% cut to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, the Farm Bill's focus seems to be more politics as usual, with the focus on large and established agricultural interests. Making sure our farm system encourages and enables new farmers to get on the land is critical; as the article begins, "By the time the next Farm Bill expires in five years, 125,000 American farmers will have retired. This fact may well be the biggest threat to national food security..."

Vermont has become the first state to ban hydrofracking, bypassing a moratorium and moving straight to a law preventing the practice. Although Vermont is not know for its natural gas deposits, it hopes to get the ball rolling for other states that are on the fence about fracking and its environmental impacts.

The $1.25 billion settlement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a group of African American farmers over discriminatory lending practices in the 1980s and 90s is now coming to a close, with today being the deadline to file claims. "Many of these farmers lost their land and their livelihoods. With the settlement, there seems to be a sense that finally there's at least an acknowledgement of what was done," said Gregorio Francis, the farmers' co-lead counsel.

Texan Julia Trigg Crawford stood strong for years against offers by TransCanada to lease part of her family's 600-acre farm to the company so that it could complete its Keystone XL pipeline. But recently she had to give in when the company gave their final offer: Take the money, or we'll take the land by eminent domain. Now Julia and her family are concerned that leaks from the pipeline, which will carry 590,000 barrels of crude oil a day, will destroy their farm.

Last week, the University of Illinois' College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) in Champaign-Urbana accepted a $250,000 grant from Monsanto to create an endowed chair for the "Agricultural Communications Program" it runs with the College of Communications. In this article, Tom Philpott looks at the phenomenon of food and agrichemical industries financing and using our national public agricultural research infrastructure as their own research and marketing departments.

The Farm Worker Safety Act of 2012 has been proposed in California
, requiring that farmers provide their workers with adequate water and shade during the summer harvest. The bill would also allow workers to file complaints and advocate for better working conditions with more consideration than has been given in the past.

It turns out that growing up on a farm has some distinct advantages for your health. This study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that Amish children who grew up on a farm developed a much stronger resistance to common allergens and the onset of asthma.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Farm Aid Music Monday, Starring Will Dailey at the Farm Aid Office

MattOn April 26, we had a special day in the Farm Aid office. Will Dailey and Dave Brophy paid a visit and performed a little concert for us and people around the world via live webcast. I captured (most of) it on my camera and/or cellphone, so it's not quite the HD quality I usually like to present, but it should give you a flavor of what it was like in the office that day.

Will performed some of the original songs (which you may have seen on stage at a Farm Aid concert) along with a few covers, like "Rain on the Scarecrow" by John Mellencamp and "Don't Cry No Tears" by Neil Young. Below, you can watch Will's performance including those songs along with the original artists performing them at past Farm Aid concerts. Enjoy!

Find more Farm Aid videos on our YouTube channel.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Ethan's Farm and Food Roundup

EthanThe Obama administration has decided to withdraw its proposal for a new child labor law that would place restrictions on children working on family farms. The President made the decision after tough criticism from farmers across the country.

Dow AgroSciences has rolled out a new genetically modified type of corn under the name "Enlist" but nicknamed "Agent Orange Corn" by opponents. The corn has been engineered to be immune to 2,4- Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a potent herbicide containing chemicals that are found in the Agent Orange toxin. And it's not just environmentalists who are worried about the potential impact of Enlist.

A Chicago meat packing plant is going to be turned into a net-zero-energy vertical farm when the empty space is equipped with plants, mushrooms, a fish farm, bakeries and breweries. The idea is to use the waste from each one of these elements as food for another, creating a sustainable circle of production.

Obesity in America is costing us a lot more than we think: $190 billion every year in health costs to be exact. And with rising rates of obesity annually, we are on the fast track to some serious future spending. You know what we have to say about that: Eat good food from family farmers for good health!

A recent study published in Nature on the production and yields of industrial agriculture versus organic agriculture has brought on a slew of debates about which system is right for our country. Tom Philpott takes a look at the various responses to the study and critiques its focus on only yield. At Philpott concludes, "I fear that a lot of policy makers and pundits will glance at the Nature study and conclude that at least the agricultural part of our food system isn't broken and doesn't need fixing. They're wrong."

A former Perdue chicken farmer who was featured in Food, Inc. has decided to take a different approach to farming by ditching her contract and starting a pastured egg operation. Carole Morison loves her new work, explaining, "There’s no one breathing down your neck saying you have to do it this way, no you can’t do it that way. You don’t have to feel bad about what you’re doing.”