What I first saw looked like a scene from a Norman Rockwell: 70-year-old farmers and their families gathered around picnic tables, making small talk, as the hosts put the final touches on the buffet just a few yards away in the sugar house. As in a classic painting of New England farmers, these men wore overalls and leather boots. Many had hearing aids, and some walked with canes. These were not the new farmers of my generation, setting up shop in this region in a quest to return to the land as their parents or more likely their grandparents did. These were not the farmers you would read about in glossy New York Times Magazine articles, or hear their stories on your local NPR station. No, these were the farmer-members of the Berkshires chapter of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, the state chapter of the national Farm Bureau. And I, as a representative of Berkshire Grown, the local food umbrella organization I was working for this past summer, had stumbled into their annual summer legislative picnic, to listen to their concerns, and share what Berkshire Grown was doing to better our local food system.
I quickly realized that these were not farmers I had previously met. I had spent the last few weeks criss-crossing the Berkshires, meeting with Berkshire Grown members from every corner of the county. Small-scale blueberry producers, five-acre veggie farms and grass-fed beef operations – I had become acquainted with the local agriculture scene in the Berkshires, one that is mostly boutique, small-scale, and often-times removed from much of the population that lives in the region. But these farmers were different. They were the Larkins who had been dairy farming in Sheffield since the 1800s, and ran one of the largest (industrial) dairy operations in the region. They were the Leabs (who hosted the picnic at their Ioka Valley Farm) who raise cattle on GMO feed. I so hate to use the word “real,” but I can’t lie: Throughout the event, I kept telling myself, “these are real farmers.”
The food that they brought to the potluck picnic made this point clear: These farmers weren’t interested in a boutique local food system – they didn’t choose to farm in the Berkshires because it was a hip thing to do. They had been farming in the hills of Western Massachusetts for generations, and are completely different from the back-to-the-land farms down the road from them that Berkshire Grown mostly represents. It’s like comparing Chicago deep-dish pizza and New York thin crust pizza. I can’t argue that one is better than the other; both types of farms are feeding people, they just have totally different missions.
I found myself caught in the crossfire of farmers and politicians – never a pleasant place to be – that sunny July afternoon at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. After we (the farmers, organization representatives like myself, and politicians) had helped ourselves to the heaping stacks of food – GMO corn that was the sweetest I ever had, green bean casserole, homemade and likely-not-organic pickles, etc – we listened to speeches from the various politicians in attendance. Soon after members of the Berkshire delegation to the Massachusetts State House and Senate started speaking about their efforts pertaining to food/agriculture, farmers immediately started voicing their concerns about the recent GMO labeling propositions. One farmer blurted out, in the middle of a politician’s speech, “Just because those New York City second home folks are willing to pay more for their food doesn’t make it fair to the rest of us locals! We all use GMO feed and they better get used to it. No one knows what real farming is all about!”
This summed up the day for me. There I was, wearing my Berkshire Grown hat, driving my hybrid car, and thinking I knew it all about the local food system, but it was pretty clear I didn’t. It’s a complicated issue, and too often, we think by farming on a small-scale, we’re saving the world. We have to remember: There are folks out there who have been farming a lot longer than us, who are deeply set in their ways, and are feeding a lot of people. I’m not defending industrial agriculture by any means. All I’m saying is that it’s time we start looking at the bigger picture.
Rafi Bildner ‘16 is a farm managing intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project.
Hey all -
Leland the Podcast dude with another weekly audio / literary combo. Check out Dr. M. Jahi Chappell, polymathic agro-problem solver on our podcast.
And for an example of the science-politics overlap he’s into, check out this feature-length NYTimes article about the crazy, insidious science of junk food.
Feeding the Planet -
If you’re interested, here’s the report that Dr. Miller talks about in our interview!
Leland the Podcast dude here -
A few weeks ago, I interviewed an endlessly cool lady - Dr. Daphne Miller, who’s spent her career schooling people on how to think outside of the the pill bottle when it comes to medicine. Listen to our interview here:
Then read this article about curing allergies with manure (sort of):
Then go for a frickin’ walk!
This recent article in the New York Times describes the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) most recent scientific understanding of the risk climate change will pose to our global food supply As a Geology & Geophysics major focusing on climate, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the reciprocal relationship between our systems of food production and changing climate, and how we can modify our agriculture system to mitigate rather than contribute to climate change. Last week at the first Yale Food Systems Symposium, I witnessed a discussion that looked at the relationship between climate and agriculture from a different angle—how can we adapt our systems of food production to the inevitable warming we will continue to face for hundreds of years into the future? The panel, called “Forecasting and the Food System,” included four speakers that discussed the ways that communities, farmers, and scientists in different parts of the world—from India to Vermont—are thinking about and adapting to changes in weather and climate.
Of the four speakers, Ethan Butler’s talk was the most compelling. Ethan is a 6th year graduate student at Harvard University in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. He presented the warming projections from the last IPCC report and explained the phenomenon of committed warming. What this means is that even if we stop emissions of greenhouse gases today, the time lag between increased concentrations of these gases and rising temperatures means that we will continue to have temperatures far above those today for hundreds of years into the future. While this certainly will have far-reaching impacts beyond those we can comprehend today, Ethan’s talk confronted the facts with ways we can adapt our food system to these inevitable changes.
Ethan’s work focuses on historical evolutionary adaptations to changing climate that have occurred in crops and how these adaptations can help us understand agricultural responses to future climate changes. His talk at the Food Systems Symposium focused on US maize, looking at the different strains of corn in the various climate zones of the US. Corn varieties have naturally adapted to local conditions of water shortage or high winds, for example, and we can take advantage of these adaptations by adjusting the food crops grown in different zones to better fit the changing observed and projected temperatures.
Instead of the fear and bleak outlook that can easily pervade discussions of climatic effects on agriculture, Ethan’s focus on adaptation gives us some agency over our future and provides a meaningful strategy to confront the inevitable problem. Although it is only a part of the solution, this kind of adaptation will be necessary to provide enough food for rising populations. Many countries are beginning to confront this issue, as described in the New York Times article:
The [IPCC] report finds that efforts to adapt to climate change have already begun in many countries. President Obama signed an executive order on Friday to step up such efforts in the United States. But these efforts remain inadequate compared with the risks, the report says, and far more intensive — and expensive — adaptation plans are likely to be required in the future.
While my focus will continue to be on agricultural strategies to mitigate climate change, Ethan’s presentation increased my awareness of the ways we can adapt our food system to the inevitable changes we are beginning to experience. Both of these approaches will be important in producing food in our warming world.
Emily Farr ‘14 is a Senior Adviser with the YSFP. She is majoring in Geology and Geophysics and was a Summer 2012 Lazarus Intern.
Hey Folks -
Leland the Podcaster here. There’s a great article in Harper’s this month about the demise of agriculture in the Great Plains. Turns out (surprise!) big ag companies are wreaking some serious havoc. Check out the article here:
and listen to Eric Holt-Gimenez, from the food think-and-do tank FoodFirst, talk about how and why this sort of thing is happening on a global scale
We took an inventory of each school’s kitchen and found that a couple schools did in fact have cooking utensils suitable for raw farm foods, tucked away in back rooms from before the Central Kitchen system was implemented. So these schools could be good places to start introducing local farm foods. Another idea would be to bring the ingredients to Central Kitchen itself. This would allow the farm ingredients to reach schools that did not have leftover cooking equipment—a welcomed goal as these equipment-barren schools are often located in the poorest communities of New Haven where students are likely not getting fresh veggies at home.
To that point, should we even be spending this much effort to improve the quality of food in schools when many of our citizens do not have enough money for food itself? In the six poorest communities in New Haven, four out of every ten people have experienced food insecurity in the past month. That is, they have not had always had enough money to buy the food they need. So is our farm food goal missing the point?
This is a question I often return to, but I do think in this case the focus of the project is well-chosen and poised to have long-lasting consequences: feeding our children farm food in schools does not only nourish them better at present, it also sets them on life-long patterns of eating nutritious food. Part of the challenge tied up in food insecurity is getting individuals nutrient-rich foods. But providing these foods will only be beneficial if people choose to eat them. I hope that feeding children nutrient-rich food while they are in school will set them up well to choose nutrient-rich foods once they are on their own.
Events Intern Jake Wolf-Sorokin ‘16 discusses his work with New Entry, a nonprofit serving the Greater Boston Area and questions his own food choices.
Up until leaving for college, I had spent my entire life living in the greater Boston area. For the first 18 years of my life, I knew one farmer by name: my uncle who raised lamb in rural Minnesota. Once I began thinking about the sources of food, it became hard to escape. Where had that tomato I’d eaten on my sandwich at lunch every day—even during New England’s winter—actually come from? Who picked it? Were they treated fairly? Was it organic? If not, what kinds of chemicals was it grown with? How was it shipped to Boston? Would the label tell me anything? Why couldn’t I find out all this information? What structural systems was I supporting by taking a bite out of that tomato? And couldn’t I be asking these questions about everything I eat?
The lack of connection to my food—one of life’s vital ingredients—began to really unsettle me. It seemed every question, generated three more until I’d cast aside the tomato, the lettuce, the turkey and the sprouts. All that was left of my lunch were two pieces of sourdough bread. I’d decided they were ok since they came from a bakery near my home that got its flour from an organic grower in New York. That’s when I began to see food consumption as a political act. In the short term, as someone living in an urban area, I lacked a means of escaping this food system. Without eating sandwiches like the one I described, I’d have trouble living. But by seeking answers to my questions and making efforts to change my habits, I’d be able to make some progress on a longer timescale. And that’s why I decided to intern at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization dedicated to helping aspiring organic farmers open viable farms near urban areas in Eastern Massachusetts.
Through my work, I had the chance to meet scores of small farmers aiming to make local farming the norm—or at least more common—again in America. “My goal for the future is to continue farming and to continue to supply people in the community,” Bessie Tsimba—one of these farmers—told me. She moved to the United States from Zimbabwe in 1988. Like most immigrants, Bessie arrived without much land—let alone enough to begin a garden or farm. So for 20 years, Bessie—like most Americans—cooked with grains and vegetables bought at the grocery store. Over time she began to see farming as a reminder of home and a way to promote healthy eating.
In 2009, Bessie seized upon her renewed interest in farming and began a small-scale organic farm. “It’s something we grew up doing back home and I benefit from eating organic,” she said. Five years into her endeavor, Bessie sells her produce to a cooperative CSA and to many of her friends who also came to America from Zimbabwe. “I know the things they miss [from] back home,” Bessie told me. By growing maize and other crops common in Africa, but harder to find in the United States, Bessie has created a community around her farm.
Her optimism inspired me. Like many of the farmers trained by New Entry, Bessie didn’t have the means to give up her other job to farm full time. And despite five years of effort, she does not ever expect her farm to become her principal income. Bessie’s belief in the importance of food as a means of enriching culture and community motivates her.
As an organization, New Entry aims to ensure its farmers have a guaranteed source of income by operating a cooperative CSA. Although this CSA does not provide enough income to support a full time farmer, the World PEAS CSA represents a good first opportunity for many new farmers. Over the last 15 years, New Entry has helped to dramatically increase the ranks of urban, organic farmers in Eastern Massachusetts through its farmer training programs. Yet challenges remain: given the dense population of the region, the sum total of food produced by all these farmers represents a small fraction of the food needed to sustain all of the areas residents.
After spending a summer conducting farmer interviews for an analysis of New Entry’s success and working to promote the cooperative CSA, I left feeling both inspired and realistic. Centering our food system on sustainability and community health will require a dramatic change in our society’s understanding of what it means to consume food. Yet through the dedicated, passionate work of individuals like Bessie Tsimba and organizations like New Entry, these seeds of change in the food system are beginning to grow. Realigning our food system around sustainability and community health will require the collective effort of many individuals, beginning with a desire to understand the nuances of the connection between the food we consume and its source.