Friday, January 30, 2015

Ask us anything (about food and farming!)

JenFarm Aid is teaming up with Dollars & Sense magazine on an exciting special issue on farming and agriculture--addressing many of the current challenges facing farm communities (and all of us who eat!) in the United States and across the world.

The issue will come out in March and will be available for free, in electronic form, to Farm Aid supporters.

Dollars & Sense is dedicated to covering political and economic issues in a way that is accessible to a broad audience--not just business or finance professionals. Part of that mission is the magazine's "Ask Dr. Dollar" column. Written by UMass-Boston economist and D&S founder Arthur MacEwan, "Ask Dr. Dollar" answers reader questions about current economic issues.

Readers have asked, in the last year, such questions as:

  • whether environmental regulations destroy jobs;
  • why the U.S. economy has shifted so much from production to financial speculation;
  • whether a rise in the minimum wage would cause higher inflation;
  • whether there is more economic inequality in the world now than in the past; and
  • why oil prices have been falling in recent months.

D&S and Arthur would like for the "Ask Dr. Dollar" column for the special issue to focus on an question from a Farm Aid supporter. If there is something on your mind that you would like answered, let us know! Drop us an email at info@farmaid.org or leave a comment here.

Arthur is waiting for your question!


Emily's Farm & Food Roundup

Emily_EaganAt this point, awareness and concern over GMOs is a given, but it seems the controversy may extend beyond our food supply. To halt the spread of tropical diseases and deadly fevers, the FDA is considering the experimental release of GMO insects in the Florida Keys. This “GMOsquito” developed by Oxitec, formally known as the species Aedes aegypti, would be released by the millions, mating with females in the wild and passing the modified gene onto their offspring. The insects, while they will hatch, will die before they mature, thereby decreasing the risk of diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya. With 10-20% of area residents in opposition of the GMOsquito release, tensions are running high: “We don’t want to be guinea pigs,” said resident Deb Curley, who doesn’t see a need to react so drastically to a fever that hasn’t hit the Keys since 2010. Entomologist Michael Doyle, however, worries about the huge number of tourists that visit, increasing the chances of the disease’s arrival.

It’s UKOOG (United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas) versus WWF (World Wildlife Fund) this week as Scotland has announced a block on all planned fracking operations. UKOOG Chief Executive Ken Cronin believes that fracking will boost Scotland’s economy, creating jobs and less reliance on foreign oil. WWF, on the other hand, recognizes the public’s favor of cleaner forms of energy, citing unconventional oil and gas are “neither good for the people or the planet.” Contrary to the actions of the United States, which has allowed extensive use of the extraction process for years, Scotland is choosing to take on a more cautious approach. They’ve tightened restrictions and announced a straight-up ban on fracking in national parks and sites of special interest.

No more syrup induced confusion for you! The USDA revised maple syrup grading to match its international counterparts, so as to operate on one universal grading system based on descriptive terms. The change is expected to help consumers by making it easier to know what exactly you’re looking for in syrup. Producers see the positives too, as this system will assist in marketing the syrup both domestically and internationally. Take it from Matthew Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association: “...we believe the coordination of our entire industry's grading will prove to be beneficial for business.” Check out this chart from the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association to answer your syrup conversion questions!

Malawi’s high youth unemployment and low agricultural productivity may have a temporary solution. 31 year-old Bettie Kawonga, a Malawi lecturer and entrepreneur, was awarded $150,000 for her vision of a new agricultural education system that will encourage the youth of the country to become dairy farmers, and successful ones at that. Through Kawonga’s “incubation centers,” set to open in Lilongwe in 2016, people will have the opportunity to learn business proposal writing, agribusiness management, and dairy farming, while also equipping them with start-up money for their own farm. Kawonga, enthusiastic about the prospect of a more agriculturally engaged youth, believes that her attitude will trickle down to those who attend programming at her new centers: “The youth are willing if we provide what they are looking for: skills, credit and the promise of a regular income and a good life,” she says. Her goal for the first year of the program is to get 240 young people engaged and active in agriculture - what she (and Willie Nelson) call “the engine of our economy.”

Is your Christmas tree still kicking around, lazy bones? Turns out pro and amateur chefs have taken to “cooking with conifers”: repurposing the branches and needles as fuel for the fire to smoke the perfect savory, flaky fish or black forest ham. One pioneer of this recycling tradition, Chef Philip Harrison, has received critical acclaim for not only his savory dishes, but also his wildly creative “Christmas tree ice cream,” infusing the mouth-watering dessert with lemon zest and pine needles from abandoned trees. Take Harrison’s advice and prepare a light dessert reminiscent of your most recent holiday, or smoke your own fish over the smoldering branches and memories of yuletide.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup

Emily_EaganThe iconic “Non-GMO Project Verified” label has probably been catching your eye more and more as you peruse the aisles of your favorite grocery store, but how exactly do these products get the stamp of approval? As demand for these types of products grows, many major conventional companies, such as General Mills, have discontinued the use of GMO ingredients in some of their products. According to Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, a certifiable product must contain less than 1% genetically modified ingredients, as a completely GMO free product is next to impossible. Third party auditors, such as FoodChain ID in Iowa, evaluate the ingredients of a product by extracting and analyzing the DNA of each ingredient, then determining whether or not it can safely remain in the product. Regardless of the growing demand for Non-GMO products, it may be awhile before everyone catches on: about 90% of US corn and soybeans still contain genetic modifiers.

With 80 percent of the state in extreme drought, California has taken certain proactive measures to conserve water: take shorter showers, or stop watering lawns, even perhaps a city-wide redesign. The rapidly growing California almond industry, though, continues to use the same amount of water in one year that could provide water to LA homes and businesses for three years. Now, almonds are a thirsty crop - it takes about one gallon of water to grow one almond. But with the state’s almond market having quadrupled the past decade, it doesn’t look like drought will halt production and exports of the versatile, high-protein, healthy nut. Growers have resorted to pumping groundwater, generally used as a “savings account” for the state’s water supply, to continue their booming almond operations.

Now here’s an interesting question: should farming be considered a public service? The National Young Farmers Coalition formed a campaign to include farming as part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to encourage young people to farm as a career - something that’s hard to do with massive loan debt from college. The program forgives the balance of loan payments after 120 payments and 10 years of full time public service employment, and allows participants to make those loan payments based on income. The coalition believes that because agriculture meets a lot of our basic needs, and farming supports rural economies by providing jobs, that it should be able to qualify as public service.

Downtown Nashville’s farmer’s market will soon lose some of their vendors due to a new policy that prohibits them from selling products they haven’t personally made or grown. Avid market-goers have always loved the idea of buying locally, but is this policy taking it too far? Joe Barnes, who has sold produce from local farms at his market booth for 20 years, will fall victim to the new policy as the produce he sells is not his own. Farmer’s Market Director Tasha Kennard believes this policy is a change for the better, as it will ensure customers the opportunity to interact directly with the farmer: “...there are expectations that people can go and meet the farmer and learn how the products are grown, learn where they're grown.” This policy is becoming a trend across US farmer’s markets - how would it impact yours?

The dairy industry is on the decline in North Dakota, and reactions could lead the state toward the reconsideration of one family farmer-friendly law. That law says only family members can form farming corporations, which was intended to protect family farmers from large corporate competitors. Now, with only 91 dairy farms left in the state the law is becoming considerably impractical in the eyes of Doug Goehring, the state’s commissioner of agriculture. A milk processing plant in central ND has even resorted to importing milk from out-of-state, as it is said to be operating on a 600 cow-per-day deficit. People like Goehring and Kenton Holle of Northern Lights Dairy are in agreement that there’s room for expansion, but the only solution considered as of yet is to bend the rules and allow non-familial corporations into the state.

Check out these two agriculture maps:the first depicting the most lucrative crop in each state, the second showing us which states make their money from human food and which make more from animal feed. Both are great visual representations of how America’s agriculture industry functions. What’s the status of your state? We’re all cranberries over here in the Bay State!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup

Emily_EaganKansas agriculture is experiencing a shift in the female direction. Though they represent only 28 percent of farmers in the state, women are taking to crops and livestock such as sheep and goats, vegetables and melons, and fruits and nut trees, which have not been common in Kansas agriculture and require increased labor and knowledge. Organizations like the Kansas Rural Center (KRC) have been assisting women farmers since 1979 with programs and workshops, in addition to their “Women In Farming” initiative. Nearly half of the attendees at a “Tunnel to Table” workshop by the KRC last year were women, and eight of them were provided with free low tunnel infrastructure for their farms (with grant support from Farm Aid!).

The route for the Keystone XL pipeline may have been approved by the Nebraska Supreme Court last week, but is this necessarily bad news for the family farmers fighting to keep the pipeline off their land? According to environmental groups and lawyers for the landowners affected by the proposed pipeline, this decision works to their advantage, not the advantage of Transcanada. Now forced to defend a “tricky route” that crosses the vitally important Ogallala aquifer and sensitive Sandhill ecosystem, Transcanada should expect a veto from the president as soon as legislation hits his desk. As far as Randy Thompson, landowner and lead plaintiff in the Nebraska case is concerned, the expected veto cannot come soon enough: “It’s time for our president to put an end to this damn thing, and let us get back to our lives and get back to raising food for America.” Read more about how the Keystone XL pipeline affects family farmers in our "Ask Farm Aid" column.

This week’s soil update in honor of the International Year of Soils hits close to home (or school, rather.) A Northeastern University researcher-led team has uncovered a brand new antibiotic, teixobactin, in a Maine soil sample. While scientists have recognized soil bacteria as a source of antibiotics for years, this particular bacteria has a special ability that its discoverers have inscribed right in its name: teixos. The Greek word for “wall,” teixos references teixobactin’s ability to kill bacteria by preventing the growth of their cell walls. Though it’s early to declare these bacteria totally unstoppable, scientists find it a very promising discovery. Another win for soil!

The controversial debate over the safety of GMOs continues: This week, NPR’s Dan Charles tackles a new breed of russet Burbank potato from Innate™, genetically modified to ace what Michigan State University’s top potato breeder David Douches calls “the bruise test.” These potatoes, while seemingly perfect on the outside, aren’t the cause of celebration for the world’s top potato buyers. The ongoing GMO dispute was cause enough for companies like Frito-Lay, the largest potato chip maker, to condemn the new super-potato. On the other hand, folks like Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center of Science and Public Interest, assures consumers to have no fear if and when the potatoes are approved by the FDA: “...if we could have genetically engineered crops and foods that produce safer products, and less expensive products, that's terrific!" Regardless of Jacobson’s persuasion, it doesn’t look as though buyers will be eager to jump on the GM potato wagon.

Hundreds of Chipotle restaurants won’t be serving you carnitas this week due to the suspension of a major pork supplier. The popular Mexican food chain became aware of several violations concerning the housing for pigs, citing that the conditions breach Chipotle’s required humane standards and access to outdoors. According to Paul Shapiro, the VP of farm animal protection for The Humane Society of the United States, humanely raised pigs are simply hard to find, representing “a very small portion of the pork industry.” Chipotle is working to resolve their pork shortage, and intends to resume work with the suspended supplier if it fixes its issues. Carnitas fans are devastated, illustrating how the demand for family food is outstripped by supply: We need more family farmers on the land growing good food!

How do you like your eggs? Cage-free? Organic? Omega-3 enriched? Check out TIME’s guide to what kind of eggs you should buy. There are a wealth of labels, new and old, on cartons across the country. So whether you’re looking to enhance your egg vocab for health reasons or humane ones, this guide might get you through your search for eggs whatever way you please. But do your research, as recently pointed out in a letter to the USDA from Senators Booker and Feinstein in the case of chicken, the label doesn't always mean what you think it does!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Farm Aid Texas Drought Summit on January 29

JoelDespite significant rainfall in portions of Texas in early January, over 60% of the state remains in conditions ranging from abnormally dry to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map issued last week.

Prolonged drought, lingering like a bad dream, continues to plague farmers and ranchers in Texas and the Plains region and elsewhere. In recent years Farm Aid's national farmer hotline has responded with hay lifts in Oklahoma and Texas, drought disaster grants in several states and individual emergency grants to producers throughout the region. Through referrals to organizations in the Farm Aid Resource Network, we've also shared knowledge and info from local, state and regional experts in sustainable soil management, drought-resilient grazing practices and water conservation.

Now, thanks to a donor with a heart of gold, and to the hard work of several ally organizations, we are putting together the Farm Aid Texas Drought Summit, set for Thursday, January 29, in San Antonio. Working closely with the Texas Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association (TOFGA), the Farm Aid Texas Drought Summit precedes and leads into the annual TOFGA conference. Farmers and ranchers in need can apply for scholarships to attend both the Drought Summit and TOFGA conference.

At the Summit, those farmers and ranchers will be brought together with a wide range of stakeholders, public, private and non-profit, with the goals of learning from each other, deepening cooperation, improving immediate and long-term disaster response and sharing knowledge of drought-mitigation production techniques. Also, the TOFGA conference will include several production-oriented workshops and seminars focused on the business of surviving and even thriving in times of drought. Core organizers of the Summit include not only Farm Aid and TOFGA, but also our old friends from Austin, the Sustainable Food Center, as well as nationally prominent disaster response and farm sustainability experts from the Farmers Legal Action Group, the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA and the National Center for Appropriate Technology. NCAT is also producing a Texas-specific drought resources publication (just as it did for drought-plagued California), hard copies of which will be available at the conference, with free online copies available soon at this NCAT publications link.

It's been my great pleasure over the last six months to work with all of these folks in putting together the Farm Aid Texas Drought Summit. Come and join us! You don't have to be from Texas to come, and you know that if you do, you'll get a big ol' Texas welcome. See you in San Antone later this month!

Friday, January 09, 2015

Emily's Farm & Food Roundup

Emily_EaganWelcome to 2015, the International Year of Soils! In order to celebrate what Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Director General José Graziano da Silva calls our “silent allies in food production,” this year will be devoted to raising awareness, increasing global understanding, and giving a voice to our earth’s soils. A vital, multi-faceted component of the farming team, it is important to remember that soil is first and foremost a living organism. The FAO, along with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) and more are committed to this campaign, citing that it will not only showcase the importance of soil, but will work to improve soil health and conservation. Want to join in on the soil celebration? Get your hands dirty with this 5 Steps To Boost Soil Health how-to!

The egg: the little breakfast staple that has graced our kitchen tables forever is making headlines this week as California’s Prop 2 takes effect. The law, passed in 2008, requires farmers in California (and farmers in other states who sell eggs to California) to provide enough cage space for chickens to move, spread their wings, and turn around.. It’s great news for chickens and animal rights advocates, but many large scale egg producers, and maybe even you avid egg consumers, won’t be so happy. CEO of Iowa’s Centrum Valley Farms Jim Dean explained, "You're talking about millions upon millions of dollars. It's not anything that's cheap or that can be modified easily, not in the Midwest." This financial setback for farms like Centrum Valley could cause disruption in the market for eggs, leaving the price nowhere to go but up. So if you’re planning on following a New Year’s resolution-egg-superfood diet, you may have to shell out (no pun intended) a little extra cash for your favorite protein this year.

In just five short months, voters in Benton County, Oregon, will have the opportunity to say no to GMOs. The anti-GMO measure, which would ban the planting of genetically modified organisms or patented seeds, has officially qualified for the county’s May ballot. With 2,685 signatures of valid supporters turned in by the Local Food System Ordinance last month, the initiative is in full swing. However, success at the polls may not guarantee the end of GMOs in Benton County. In the past, Benton County Legislature has passed a bill to prohibit local GMO bans like this one while they develop a statewide policy on the subject.

A study published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America this week concludes that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” operations at the oil-and-gas wells in Ohio are the reason for the several earthquakes that have been jolting the area. As the practice of fracking becomes more and more common, the frequency and intensity of the fracking related quakes has risen with it. It appears that both the actual act of fracking and the consequences of injecting the related waste into the wells widens cracks in the faults, greatly increasing the chances of earthquakes. Ohio has since halted the development of new wells, but existing wells in the seismically active area remain in closely-monitored operation.

China’s young urbanites have responded to food safety scandals by joining the organic food craze. With a calm consumer inflation rate and growth in purchasing power among China’s middle class, consumers are focused and ready to learn the truth about where their food comes from. Beijing based farmer Zhu Xun, CEO of Noah Organic, is the answer to this group’s concerns, offering fertilizer- and pesticide-free produce that consumers can see, smell, touch, and hear when they visit his bustling farm. They are even willing to pay almost five times the standard supermarket price for his trustworthy, scandal-free produce. With 1,500 members and counting, Noah Organic will hopefully continue to increase their consumers as more and more of China’s population becomes aware of the upsides of going organic.

Expect some new material from the Farm Aid family! Board member Neil Young sat down with Rolling Stone Executive Editor Nathan Brackett at the International Consumer and Electronics show to discuss the release of his high-resolution Pono Music Player, the complete audiophile’s dream of a portable music player. With this product came a deep discussion of the power of high quality playback: “making music sound as good as it can, and making you feel as much as you can,” Young said. Young also announced plans for an LP with Lukas and Micah Nelson, long-time Farm Aid artists and sons of Farm Aid President and founder Willie Nelson.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Meet Emily Eagan, Farm Aid's new co-op!

Emily_EaganNot everyone can boast that they are from the asparagus capital of the world. Born and raised in Hadley, Massachusetts, I am lucky enough to declare myself a proud citizen of this beautiful and delicious kingdom. My summers as a young’un in Hadley were spent at the farm stand, distributing local produce from family farms to chatty townspeople who were just as excited about today’s strawberries as I was. These experiences gave me a closer look into the community that surrounded me - one of farmers and supporters. It is these attitudes and ethics that I’m happy to bring with me through the rest of my life’s work and passions.

With a supportive community came a world of opportunity as I grew up. My time in high school was spent primarily on music: listening to it, learning new instruments, teaching the youth of the town, performing with my friends and neighbors in our local Kinks tribute band, and exploring the greats through an array of musical outlets. My listening perusal included a range of jazz ensembles and soloists, classical masters, indie rockers, folk legends, and the all encompassing live acts in the music scene of Northampton, a short drive away from my home in rural Hadley. This fascination with music is what led me to pursue a more formal education in music industry, which happened to be offered at the experiential learning behemoth that is Northeastern University.

I’ve already had great experiences at Northeastern - I’ve been able to continue performing in the school’s ensembles, take lessons, complete an internship, study classical music in Austria last summer, and learn from some incredible professors in the wonderful College of Arts, Media, and Design. Of course, Northeastern has proven to be good to me by connecting me with Farm Aid for my first official co-op. One cannot imagine my excitement when presented with the offer to work for an organization that combines my interests and past, and fits in perfectly with my goals for the future.

Though they always took a back seat to music and school, food and cooking have always, and will always, be on my radar. Between serving and hosting at Judie’s Restaurant in Amherst (co-owned by my mother and home of popovers “the size of your head”), enjoying weekly “hummus feasts” with my sister and her boyfriend, and baking vegan dog treats with my hometown pal for the furry friends in our lives, food brings me nothing but joy.

And so comes my natural next step, a co-op at Farm Aid - the organization that for 30 years has sought to keep family farmers on their land - and my perfect fusion of hard-working non profit organization, benefit concert, and good food. I’m thrilled to be able to spend my next six months working with and learning from Farm Aid’s all-star staff, researching the world of agriculture, and sharing my thoughts and findings.