Thursday, August 28, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaThis summer, Americans proved their dedication to the cookout by shelling out a little bit more for their hot dogs and hamburgers. Despite an 11 percent increase in pork and beef prices, customers still flocked to the meat counter and kept net profit for farmers steady. The price increases come from a shortage in pork caused by a virus that killed several million piglets and an increase in cost of feed. Some retailers have tried to keep prices low to draw in consumers, bearing the extra cost of beef and pork themselves. Experts expect the record corn crop projections for this fall to make feed cheaper and help to lower meat prices again.

The next time you indulge in a Nestle Crunch Bar or Drumstick, you can feel a little bit better about the source of its ingredients. Nestle, the world’s largest food company, announced late last week that it will require suppliers to end common yet cruel farming practices such as tail docking and dehorning of cows as well as cage systems for chickens. The company has also become the first to partner with an animal welfare NGO by pairing up with World Animal Protection. Monitoring 7,300 suppliers worldwide won’t be easy, but with the help of World Animal Protection and the auditing firm SGS, Nestle believes it can track the progress of its farmers and eliminate those who do not comply.

For Farmers, the change of the season could mean less change in their pockets. Record harvests of corn and grains are likely to drop farmer income this fall by 13.8 percent. This marks lowest agriculture income in four years as supply increases and demand remains steady. The USDA has also predicted a 4 percent rise in production costs, which coupled with income loss could send some farmers into the red for the first time in years.

Don’t be so surprised if you’re local New England farmer looks a bit younger than you expected. The number of young farmers in New England has increased by 5 percent since 2007 despite national trends that show an overall decrease in the number of youth farmers. Many of these farms are less than 50 acres and charge a little more for their products, but proponents of the local food movement have willingly paid more to support their neighbors. You can find this trend not only out in the fields, but also in the classroom. In the Northeast, there are now 43 percent more undergraduate students studying agriculture than in 2004.

Farmers work diligently to protect their crops from insects and weeds, but beating the latest pest could require some new measures. This month, thieves struck two Connecticut towns, stealing enough corn from Green Acres Farm to value $1,200. Farmers say these experienced bandits picked the corn without damaging the stalks and probably sold it a few towns over where stolen produce can easily be distributed from the back of a truck. For produce snatchers, penalties are fairly lenient – a maximum of three months in jail and $500 in fines.

Whether or not you really want to know all of the chemicals that go into Twinkies (or think you’ll be able to pronounce them), you’ll soon have the answers. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced a new initiative on Wednesday that will give the FDA access to a database of safety information regarding chemicals commonly used in processed foods. Until now, most chemicals were self-approved by manufactures. Of the 10,000 chemicals present in food products, only 43 percent have been recognized as generally safe to consume. The GMA has said that new safety standards will be made public by the end of the year and the database of ingredients should be accessible in 2015.

Monday, August 25, 2014

We’re on the #Road2FarmAid Again!


We are counting down the days until our first Farm Aid concert in the great state of North Carolina. (As of this writing, it's a mere 19!) The pace has picked up around the Farm Aid office, as we put the finishing touches on our biggest event of the year.

The lineup on the stage is set and the scenic, rigging and lighting has been mapped out. We're working with photographers to put together the images for the video set that will be the backdrop for the amazing music on the Farm Aid stage. The photos will reflect the farmers and agriculture of North Carolina—from beautiful farmland vistas to the faces of family farmers who will be in the audience. Farm Aid artists are letting us know when they're arriving on site in Raleigh and we're scheduling sound checks and set times. We're organizing their airport pickups and bus load-ins and making sure they have hotel reservations, tickets and backstage credentials. We're coordinating dressing room schedules and backstage catering.

We're compiling the farmer stories for the press event that kicks off show-day. The message of that event—part press conference, part pep rally—sets the tone of the day. It's a combination of celebration, appreciation, rallying for change, and fighting the powers that threaten the fulfillment of our vision of family farm-centered agriculture. We're organizing shifts and tasks for the hundreds of volunteers who make the Farm Aid concert possible, from the folks who help out in our catering operation (featuring family farm food, of course!) to the Green Team, which minimizes the waste we produce through our recycling and composting efforts. Our awesome t-shirt designs are finalized and merchandise is being screen-printed on organic cotton tees.

We're designing the signs that will tell concertgoers where to go for a taste of all Farm Aid 2014 has to offer: from the HOMEGROWN Skills workshops and issue briefings that feature farmers and artists, to the tasty farm-fresh treats and local brews. HOMEGROWN Village exhibitors are finalizing their exhibits that will inspire, inform and engage 20,000 concertgoers on September 13. Times for HOMEGROWN Skill Shares are being set so that concertgoers can take part in fun activities like spinning wool for handmade friendship bracelets and weaving those beautiful flower crowns that are all the rage these days (utilizing family farm-grown flowers!). Farmers are tending the watermelons that will be served at our HOMEGROWN Youthmarket. The menus for HOMEGROWN Concessions are being finalized, and the last ingredients secured from family farm sources.

The official Farm Aid 2014 app is now available for download in the Apple and Android stores! The live webcast and the live broadcast on SiriusXM are being promoted and planned so that everyone, no matter where they are, can take part in the day.

And that covers just a few of the things that are being worked on! I didn't mention the farm tours, farmer meetings, and our annual Farm Aid Eve kick-off party (but you can read more about those here!).

The Farm Aid office is a bit like a beehive right now, buzzing with the work of all the pieces coming together. Those of us who have the pleasure of putting this puzzle together every year thrive on that energy. For us, it's a labor of love. And it isn't just staff members at Farm Aid, but people across the country working to put on the best Farm Aid yet. In the coming weeks, we'll be interviewing and posting guest blogs from those folks, to give you an idea of how the Farm Aid concert comes together. It takes a community, that's for sure, and we think we've got one of the best communities of amazing people out there.

We invite you, too, to tell us how you're getting ready for Farm Aid 2014, whether you're joining us in person at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre or watching and listening from home. We want to know what your road to Farm Aid looks like, and what you do in your daily life to support family farmers and good food. Share your photos, videos, status updates, etc. on your social media outlet of choice, and tag it #Road2FarmAid. Get started on the #Road2FarmAid and you could win two front row tickets! Together, as a community, we'll paint a picture of what this concert means to all of us and inspire others to take action to rally for family farmers in their own communities and at their own tables.

Farm Aid's vision is for eaters and farmers working together to transform agriculture. We know you share this vision; we want to know how you're working towards it. We're all in this together, and it sure as heck isn't going to happen without all of us pitching in.

We look forward to seeing you on the Road to Farm Aid. Travel safe and eat well!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaThis September, Willie Nelson and Neil Young will share a stage not only at the Farm Aid concert in Raleigh, but also in Nebraska. The two have planned an appearance on Art Tanderup’s family farm at the “Harvest the Hope” concert – an event that will benefit opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, which requires the approval of President Obama to construct, would carry Canadian oil through Nebraska to the U.S. Gulf Coast, posing a threat to water and soil in the area. During the September 27 event, Willie and Neil hope to tell the rich histories of the farmers, ranchers and Native Americans who actively oppose the pipeline through music.

An increasing number of people in Arkansas agree that picking produce off a grocery shelf just doesn’t compare to picking it from the farm. A new study found that agritourism is growing in the state, benefitting both consumers and producers. While pumpkin patches and vineyards have long been popular tour destinations, the local food movement has recently encouraged people to reconnect with the roots of their food. This has led to an increase from 268 farm tours in 2007 to 389 farm tours in 2012, according to the Agriculture Census. To bolster this growing trend, the Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program has provided funding to start a mobile app that allows consumers to search for local farms and food in their area.

While many think of drones as enemy spy machines, farmers may soon call them friends. Drone demonstrations at farms in South Dakota have caught the attention of farmers who could use a second set of eyes. The drones could detect areas of ailing crops and use infrared cameras to locate livestock by flying over farmland. Relatively inexpensive and operational via smartphones, drones could be accessible to the average farmer. The main barrier: breaking through concerns about the invasive capabilities of drones and privacy concerns. Drone manufacturers encourage farmers to give the drones a try and insist that they can act simply as another tool on the farm, not a secret spy agent. As of right now, there’s no need to worry about a robot replacing your local farmer – drones only have the capacity to survey the land and cannot give it the nurturing care it needs.

Two weeks into Russia’s ban on Western agriculture imports, the consequences of Putin’s sanctions are already starting to hit home. Experts estimate that Russia will spend $10 billion in farm subsidies in coming years but could still struggle to combat a food shortage. Long, devastating winters make growing enough produce to support the nation’s demand nearly impossible. Many believe five years could pass before any significant progress, leaving Russia’s 145 million people without a secure food supply.

It’s hard for many of us to imagine what it’s like to have 20 hours of sunlight, let alone a cabbage weighing in at 138 pounds. If both of those prospects interest you, then it might be time for you to pick up and move to Alaska: the land of the midnight sun and some freakishly overgrown vegetables. Here, extra sunlight puts produce into photosynthesis overdrive, resulting in sweeter fruits and veggies that often set Guinness World Records. At the Alaska State Fair – running from today through September 1 – farmers will show off their prized produce in a variety of categories.

Despite support from all of the governors along the line of the Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline, plans to build have been put on hold. The 180 miles of pipe slated to carry natural gas from New York to New England has faced crippling opposition along the way. Citizens in Massachusetts rallied and protested against it, including Senator Elizabeth Warren who wrote and published an editorial opposing the pipeline and property owners who feared the effects of gas leaks refused to allow Kinder Morgan to survey their land. For now, vocal citizens have halted the progress, but Kinder Morgan claims it’s not ready to put pipeline plans in the past.

Colorado will be the next state to put a GMO labeling bill on the ballot. The placement of the measure on the ballot could bring a huge wave of corporate spending, as was seen last fall in Washington state last year.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaThe GMO labeling lawsuit pitting Big Food against the state of Vermont might not even make its way to the courtroom. Last Friday, Attorney General Bill Sorrell asserted the state’s right to require the labeling of GMO products in a 51 page court filing. He has asked the federal court to dismiss the case, stating that the law withstands every constitutional challenge the Grocery Manufactures Association and other industry groups have presented. The labeling law is set to take affect in 2016 and could cost Vermont $8 million to defend.

Europe’s move away from GMOs may affect United States producers in some unsuspected ways. Recently, a judge in Mexico revoked Monsanto’s permit to plant GMO soy in the country, believing that the crops would contaminate the honey industry in the Yucatán peninsula through cross-pollination. Monsanto, an international agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant based in St. Louis, had planted more than 600,000 acres of soy despite opposition from Mayan farmers, beekeepers and Greenpeace. If Mexico can’t market the honey as GMO-free, it will be much harder to sell in the European market – the nearly exclusive importer of Yucatán honey.

While many continue to brush off the ominous signs of climate change that have flooded the media for the past few years, experts say that changing weather patterns are already affecting corn production in the Midwest. Last year, heavy rains early in the season made farmers leave some plots bare and extreme-drought later in the season devastated corn production. Now, two studies predict that climate change will continue to affect production of the nation’s largest crop in coming decades. In an Iowa test field, farmer Seth Watkins and Iowa State University agronomist Matt Liebman have joined forces to suppress erosion in the event of severe storms by strategically positioning prairie plants to hold soil in place. Still, experts say these new techniques will not be enough to save the corn crop from climate change.

But as Iowa corn faces threats, climate change has North Dakota farmers shifting from wheat to corn. Traditionally, North Dakota farmers focused on wheat – especially durum wheat, which is used to make most pasta. Then, in the early 1990s, scab, a disease that thrives in humid conditions, first made its way to the changing climate and killed the wheat crop. While wet seasons and humidity hurt wheat, they benefit corn and have allowed North Dakota farmers to start making the transition. Now, the lucrative corn crop makes up 15 percent of the state’s farmland.

After toxic, blue-blue green algae in Lake Erie forced Toledo residents to turn off the tap water last week, the blame fell mostly on farmers and fertilizer runoff. Now, Ohio farmers are urging authorities to investigate other possible sources of phosphorous in the lake. Farmers say that they’re only using the minimum amount of fertilizer each plant needs – any more than that is excessive and wasteful. In fact, farmers have been using less fertilizer over the past ten years than they had been, and yet Lake Erie the highest algae presence experts have seen in years. Officials are still looking toward reforming farming practices to improve water quality, including a new law that requires a certification to apply fertilizer.

This November, Californians will vote on a $7.5 billion water plan to combat the three years of extreme drought in the nation’s leading agricultural state. Drafted by lawmakers and almost unanimously voted onto the November ballot, the measure represents the largest investment in water infrastructure in decades. The funding will be used to build reservoirs, clean groundwater and promote new water saving technologies.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Amanda's Farm & Food Roundup

AmandaIn the Midwest, tests have uncovered alarming rates of pesticide remnants slipping into water supplies. Iowa, a leading user of neonicotinoids over the last decade, has at least nine streams and rivers polluted with the chemical. All 79 water samples revealed the presence of neonicotinoids, and some samples exceeded the toxic levels for aquatic organisms. Studies found other pesticides in only 20 percent of samples. Despite apparent dangers to pollinators and the water supply, the EPA and neonicotinoid manufactures continue to deny the risks of using the chemical.

If we go beyond the point of no return for bees, there may be other options for pollinators in the future. The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has designed “RoboBees” that can pollinate a programmed path of crops. We’re still at least 20 years from widespread use of such technology that would require farmers to pay high prices for their robo-pollinators.

Shiny skyscrapers have long decorated city skylines, but soon, you might find a farm growing among them. Skyfarm, a new project in Seoul, is an urban farm that will provide crops, energy and clean water while also conserving space in the densely populated city. With between 60 and 70 farming decks, Skyfarm would act as a giant tree capable of growing a variety of fruits and vegetables using a hydroponic system rather than soil-based approach. Of course one urban farm won’t put a dent in feeding the 10 million people of Seoul, but the project represents an innovative start in sustainability for cities worldwide.

Despite pushback from the powerful forces in the meat industry, the government still thinks you have a right to know where your food comes from. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court upheld the new government rule requiring producers to label meats with information regarding where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The meat industry, led by the American Meat Institute, has avidly tried to block the law since its inception last year, claiming that the costly labeling process violates freedom of speech and fails to benefit to the consumer. The court, however, saw the law as valuable to consumer interest and important in the case of foodborne illness outbreaks in producing countries. Consumer, environmental and some farm groups have supported the rule since 2002, and then again in 2008 once some revisions were made after haggling with the meat industry.

On Tuesday, the USDA announced $9 million in grants to provide outreach and technical assistance to minority and veteran farmers. The funding comes from Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, also known as the 2501 program. In recent years, the number of minorities working in agriculture has increased significantly. This program will enable community organizations to help some of these individuals own and operate farms while also participating in USDA programs, changing the face of agriculture and creating a diverse, varied network of farmers.

Public records have long kept the public aware and informed, but information regarding farms could soon become near impossible to access. A bill already approved by the state Senate in North Carolina would prevent the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources from disclosing complaints or information from investigations on farms without a court order. The proposed law, backed by the North Carolina Farm Bureau and opposed by the Sierra Club, has created controversy in the state. Supporters say that bill protects farmers from the stigma created by false accusations, which account for 30 to 80 percent of complaints against farms, depending on the area. Others call the bill misdirected, believing that it robs the public of vital information and prevents necessary scrutiny. The bill currently awaits a vote from the House.

23,000 Americans are killed by antibiotic-resistant infections each year, yet the FDA and a U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals seem unconvinced that they could solve the problem. A recent ruling by the court allows an antibiotic used in animal feed to remain available even if the agency finds the drug dangerous. Now, the meat and poultry industry can continue to misuse antibiotics for growth purposes, breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect consumers. While the United States continues to gamble with the drugs in meat industry, the European Union has already outlawed the use of growth-promoting antibiotics.