Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Justine Appel ‘15 writes about her summer: 

July 10th

Right now it is 9:00 p.m. and to the west you can see the sun still disappearing somewhere far behind the fir trees, while on the other side of the pond, the moon shines so brightly you can see your shadow against the clover. The sky around it is cloudless; such a deep tone of blue that I could stare at it for a long, long time. 

The air on Cape Rosier smells like sea salt and spruce tree, and the constant ocean breeze makes comfortable even the hottest afternoons we spent cultivating under the sun. I learn to recognize the call of the killdeer and the pattern of deer hooves in the cabbage beds. I train my eye to see the yellow galinsoga flowers (bad) amid the yellow melon flowers (good), and my hands to run underneath the vines, pulling only those roots which are unwelcome. I become familiar with the particular kind of quiet that falls over the farm at dusk, and after a while, I learn to emulate that quietness in my own mind.

 Living in this place, you become acutely aware of the infinite cycles of life and death. You find chicken bones when putting down compost on new beds. The beet seedlings you thinned just the other week are now big and leafy, and you’re rescuing them from the ever-abundant lamb’s quarters that grows in the fields like carpets. One night, we drive to Bakeman’s Cove and wade into the moonlit water. As we swish gently through the tide, fairy dust sparks electric blue around our arms and legs: bioluminescent microorganisms. Brilliant life in the black chill of the ocean. 

July 21st

Lunch: weird financial conversation about getting wealthy people to invest millions in small agriculture. Was NOT into it and had to go find my happy place for a while. Don’t like putting small agriculture in capitalistic terms, even if the endeavor is to make small agriculture successful. There are other ways and other languages.

Living in this place, you wonder about the work that you are doing. I am able to work here without pay because of generous fellowships from Yale. I am seeking to learn more about self-sufficiency and the farm as a space for imagining new relationships between people, and between people and the earth. I come here to partake in such imagining and instead find that being here makes it easy to forget whatever is going on far behind the spruce trees. It is easy to feel comfortable and at peace, in part because I am surrounded by natural beauty, and in part because I still have healthcare and my parents still have their jobs in New York City.

 Most of the people in this community are not from Maine, but from somewhere in the mid-Atlantic states. They moved up here in the 60’s and 70’s because they were angry with this country and its industries, its poisons, and its injustices. Now they are farming or homesteading, making art—aspiring to live as closely to nature as they can. They are almost all white and college-educated. In other words, they are all me, were I born a few decades earlier.

 I find that the capitalism, along with other systems I consider oppressive, do operate here, and all of the ways I benefit from them persist. I feel naïve for thinking it could have been otherwise.

 Sometimes I try to talk about it, but mostly I can only verbalize it as guilt. How can I ever hope to create something new out of guilt? I let my mind return to the task at hand: weeding the long beds of leeks. I pick up my pace.

 August 30th

We all started in the farm garden, prepping a bed, transplanting in some broccoli, and weeding. And then, for some reason, all four of us stuck together all day. It was so wonderful—all of our conversations here return to previous topics and delve into them deeper, and that feels good. Like we’re thinking about these things and these questions so seriously that they come up again and again, sometimes in different forms. A big one is cultural change, how that happens, individual vs. community action, etc. The importance of learning skills, being able to teach them. Interacting with communities that aren’t yours in respectful and productive ways.

In the afternoon we all moved to cultivating the north fields, and we were all loony from too much sun. I find so much value in a group of people I can be serious and urgent with, but also goofy with. I think that’s so important.

I spend most of my time here with four people: the summer apprentices hired by Eliot and Barbara, who own the property. Barbara and Eliot treat us with so much kindness: Barbara cooks us all a delicious lunch, and Eliot works alongside us in the fields, laughing and chatting with us, sending us to do indoor tasks when it rains too hard. They both share with us their incredible knowledge of organic growing in every way they can.

 There are many others in this community on the cape, and everyone comes together for a weekly potluck. Towards the end, they start to know my name, greet me with hugs, ask me if I’m excited for my senior year.

But the ones I remain closest to are the Four Season apprentices. Whether we’re making soil blocks in the plant house or splitting wood out in the pasture, they are always ready to discuss most anything with me, to think critically about the change we all seek to make in the food system. We come from different places and were drawn here through different processes, but to see that each of us feels so strongly committed to living well and providing good lives to others through growing food—it gives me hope. We are all young and uncertain, but we are filled with it. Beautiful, stubborn hope.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program supports the extracurricular study of food systems. In our inaugural year, four students proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system. As a part of their experience, they will be checking in with the YSFP (and the world) through our Tumblr – stay tuned to read their reports and revelations! 

It was a late on a Thursday afternoon. Our Mahindra truck bumped along the narrow, curvy road. The horn honked rhythmically as the vehicle spun around the switchbacks, ascending the hills of the Dolakha district. Eventually we pulled off on the side of the road, brandished our umbrellas and stepped out into the rain. Following the narrow path that wound its way down from the road, we walked closer to the plume of smoke rising from the chimney below. Mid-July’s monsoon rains may have sent many in Kathmandu Valley seeking cover, but here in Dolakha the rains marked a season of great productivity. Driving to the Napkeyen Mara Community Forest User Group (CFUG), located some distance outside the district headquarters of Charikot, we passed scores of people—young and old, male and female—tending to their rice paddies as the raindrops fell. When we arrived under the tin roof covering the warm hearth, we were met by a similarly varied group of people. Carrying baskets full of wintergreen leaves from the forest, they arrived at this warm, dry oasis of sorts to deliver their harvest and collect their pay.

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CFUG members deliver freshly cut wintergreen.

The people of Napkeyen Mara and neighboring CFUGs have been collaborating in wintergreen processing—through a community owned enterprise—for the past decade. On this Thursday afternoon, it was time to refill the vat used to distill the wintergreen into oil, so several men emptied the already distilled plants from the vat. Boys and girls and their mothers and fathers delivered freshly cut wintergreen—which would later be loaded into the vat for distillation—to the storeroom. The manager inspected the finished oil and dispensed payments for the fresh wintergreen.

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The distillation vat holds 600 kg of Wintergreen and is refilled once every day during the processing season.

Lazarus Summer Intern Sarah Gross ’17 recently wrote, “It wasn’t immediately clear to me why we were going to the forest besides that forests are really cool. But looking at timber as a crop pushed me to think about our farm.” In many ways, that’s how I felt about this experience. When I asked those delivering fresh wintergreen what they used the money for, they said they paid their phone bills and bought schoolbooks, pens, paper and other household items. It took me a while to realize it, but in essence, this enterprise helped families to continue the area’s traditional subsistence farming. Because the wintergreen efforts provide income, families don’t need to look to food crops as their principal source of revenue. Therefore pesticide use is relatively uncommon in the area since many farmers only aim to produce enough food for their family, and perhaps a bit more.

According to the CFUG and enterprise leaders I interviewed, the business has enabled the establishment of a CFUG based development fund. In an area where interest rates are usually prohibitively high (18-24%), CFUGs have used their group’s royalties from the enterprise to offer the poorest members zero interest loans of up to 10,000 Nepalese Rupees (approx. $100) for two years. This access to capital has allowed many villagers to improve their irrigation systems and invest in livestock, especially goats, which many now raise to consume and sell to other villagers.

The interviews we conducted that afternoon will stay with me for a long time. When we think of agriculture, we can’t just think in the context of food, as many so often do. In her article Stone Soupfor the July 28th issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert notes that “agriculture was ‘invented’” about 10,000 years ago. Those who continue to practice agriculture today, whether living in California’s Central Valley, New Haven, rural Nepal or anywhere in between, inhabit a world dominated by the fruits of civilization that, in Kolbert’s words, “could be said to owe its origin to those first farmers scratching with sticks in the dirt.”

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With other staff from ANSAB, I spent the afternoon interviewing CFUG members and enterprise staff about the role of the enterprise in the region’s system of agriculture.

Agriculture is now more than a technique, for many it is an occupation. Raising food for one’s family is no longer sufficient; farmers need to be able to pay for basic expenses like electricity and propane. In places like Nepal’s Dolakha district, where the concept of agriculture as an occupation is a more recent phenomenon, agricultural people are still working to determine how best to earn a living given their limited opportunities for income generation. This poses great environmental risks as a combination of poor education, a lack of information and the drive to earn money threaten the area’s traditional sustainable agriculture. Through our research, it has become clear to me that programs working to provide alternative income generating opportunities by expanding the definition of agriculture beyond food production— like ANSAB’s ecosystem services certification project (which I wrote about last time)—are an important ingredient in establishing a healthy, economically and environmentally viable system of agriculture in rural Nepal.

            Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a rising junior at Yale University majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and an Academic-Year Intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. His summer internship at ANSAB is funded through the generous support of the Lazarus Global Food Fellows Program at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Kale vs. Kelp

Hello, Yetunde here. As soon as I opened my door to the nostalgic smell of salt water and seafood, I knew it was going to be a great day. I had been waiting for this day for the entire summer. Truth be told, I had no clue what the trip was about, what we would learn or what we were going to do. All I knew was that there would be ocean and seafood-that was good enough for me. However, as a stood shin deep in the Long Island Sound bed grime- searching for clams with my bare feet- the simplicities that had incited extreme excitement were replaced with a thoughtful, soaked Yalie (with a beaming smile of course).

My reflective state began from my muddied clam digging spot around 10:30am. To the soundtrack of the seagulls, I became increasingly aware of a “cyclical” nature of our Thimble Islands experience. This cyclicality that I am describing was more philosophical than tangible. It was the sudden realization that the world and life is truly just a collection of cycles. For instance, as I walked heel backwards in search of clams, I was astonished to be able to see people going for walks, runs or bike rides; boats gliding on the water; cars cruising on the road; trains bumping along their tracks and planes buzzing above, simultaneously. And this observation of cycles only continued throughout the day.

The next cycle that struck me was an unexpected cycle of economies. As the charismatic Chris sped us around the Thimble Islands, he pointed the different islands and properties as well as Yale’s very own island. He described the Thimble island floating party scene as well as the cut throat real-estate activities of the islands. Having grown up in the area, Chris gave us an excellent looking glass into the changes that happened in the area, how those changes had affected the area and what those changes meant for the future. He spoke of a recent purchasing of many of the islands by a single person that put stress on the real-estate market and as a result the micro-economy of Thimble Islands.

With the knowledgeable Ron, I experienced the more comforting scientific cycle from our crab catching activities. In order to catch these tiny shore crabs, we were armed with gloves and a bucket. We employed team work and spent about 40 minutes flipping over stones and instantly snatching up as many crabs as we could and placing them in the bucket. As bizarre as this may sound, it became increasingly evident that it was important. Ron educated us on the presence of invasive species of crabs that were out-competing the indigenous species. In fact, for every 40 crabs we caught, maybe one of them was an indigenous. It was especially frightening to find that one of the invasive species had only been introduced about 30 years ago, yet was the most numerous!

Finally, with Bren I felt the social cycle. Bobbing up and down in his oyster boat, we were brought to the site of my very first experience with 3D farming. In a seemingly random collection of buoys, was the location of a 20 acre ocean farm. With a simple pulley system, Bren began showing us the different parts of his ground breaking farm. The first was the sugar kelp. We peered wide-eyed as he explained how the waxy, dull brown seaweed in front of us was possibly one of the most nutritious foods on our Earth. Furthermore, that unassuming sea vegetable was combatting human pollution by soaking up the excess amounts of nitrates in the water as well as carbon dioxides dissolved in the water. In short, if we had a few more Brens and Bren farms, we could be solving world hunger and global warming.

Although my previous statement may be presumptuous, it got me thinking. Each portion of the day caused me to contemplate the intricate cycles that make up the world. Can something as simple as a few 20-acre ocean farms make an impact on our societal challenges? How much of a ripple effect does change have on a cycle or multiple cycles? …….The Thimble Islands cyclical experience left me with a new sense of inquiry and a strong desire to see the disassembly of the seemingly complex cycles of our world into their simple components.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Summer in The Kingdom in the Clouds: Lessons From An Agrarian Society

Rafi Bildner ‘16 has worked as a Farm Manager for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. He writes about his summer in Bhutan:

It’s hard to imagine that just three weeks ago, I was waking up as cows and horses gnawed on artemesia and clover outside of my window, with wild dogs steadily barking in the distance, before walking to lectures in a early 20th century Dzong (traditional Bhutanese fortress), once used by Bhutan’s first king as a summer palace. As the days roll forward, and my time studying abroad in the Kingdom of Bhutan with the School for Field Studies fades evermore into the recent past, it seems as if each day, a new lesson from the the experience is unlocked and further unraveled. 

Especially since arriving home here in Western Massachusetts a few days ago, where I farmed my family’s land for two seasons before coming to Yale, I have begun to really digest and reflect on what I learned, experienced and observed abroad, from an agriculture and food systems perspective. There were many things I didn’t fully comprehend about Bhutan prior to disembarking from that Drukair Royal Bhutan Airways Airbus two months ago; I certainly had no understanding of what an incredible case study the Kingdom would be, in terms of examining small-scale food systems. 

I am typing these words from a part of our country that is undoubtedly a “local-food hot spot.” Especially right now, in the heart of the summer growing season, farms all over the area are bursting with new crops, farmer’s markets are chocked full with variety, and restaurants and stores have signs out on the street boasting about their locally-sourced options. Every year, new farms sprout up, restaurants with an emphasis on “farm-to-table cuisine” open their doors, and the Berkshire Co-Op Market struggles to find enough room on their shelves to display all of the locally-produced options. But what has become incredibly clear to me, even after only being back for a few short days, is that as much as this type of food system continues to grow in this area, at the end of the day, there is one significant roadblock going forward: At the end of the day, “local food” in our society is still mostly a novelty, a garnish, rather than the main course. We are attempting to bring back a food system that was once in place in our country many generations ago, but it is not engrained in the fiber of society. 

Before studying and researching in Bhutan, I had never fully experienced what it is like to live in a truly agriculture-based society. While Bhutan is not immune to issues affecting rural communities around the world (the younger generation’s desire to live and work in cities, the inability to sustain a family purely from commercial farming), agriculture is still as engrained in the culture as eating itself. There isn’t that same disconnect that we suffer here in America, between food and land, and thus, in many ways, farming governs daily life. Again, I want to be clear that Bhutan is certainly not a food-system utopia; it faces many challenges, and small-scale agriculture in the Kingdom is not immune to global market pressures to scale-up. But it would be hard to ignore the fact that many communities in Bhutan are fully centered around farming. The village where my field research was based, Ugyencholing, in the central Dzongkhag (district) of the Kingdom (called Bumthang), is a perfect example of this. While strictly subsistence farming has given way to growing cash crops like potatoes (to meet a demand for more disposable income on hand), families still grow almost everything they consume on a yearly basis, themselves. What this means is that even the younger generations who are off studying in school, or working in other cities and towns still have a connection to the land on which they grew up, and come back to assist their family members with planting and harvesting. The year is based around farming, in fact, school vacations still coincide with the key agricultural periods of the year. It was clear to me that even if I met someone who had an occupation other than farming, at least one of their family members was engaged in agriculture; throughout the duration of my time in the country, I never met a Bhutanese citizen who wasn’t connected with the land in one way or another. 

While there are a host of challenges that the Kingdom’s food system faces, unlike in many parts of the U.S. (and certainly throughout New England), a small-scale food system is very much in place, and engrained in societal culture. Because we are already so disconnected from the land on which our food is grown, and the farmers that grow it, and just about every intermediate step in between, “local food” is just an accent to an already established way of life. My experience this past summer has encouraged me to continue to examine how (and if it is even possible) to truly make this a system that people can rely upon, here in the United States. How does the local food movement in regions like New England become a food system? It would be naive to think of Bhutan as a country we can entirely base our efforts off of - after all, the Kingdom has less than a million people within its borders - but there is no doubt that there is something to be gained from re-examining what it means to have agriculture fully engrained in societal life.

Tashi delek, and hope to see you all around the farm this coming year!

The local vegetable market in Jakar, close to where I studied

Presenting my research to government officials in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city

With my friend Dechen, who helped interpret while I researched in the village of Ugyencholing

A view of Ugyencholing’s wheat fields - almost ready for harvesting

Friday, July 25, 2014

Hi, Sarah here. On Wednesday the farm crew ventured to the Yale-Meyers forest, 8,000 acres of woods in northern Connecticut. Each summer a crew of students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies manages the forest. 

The forest is divided into plots of land, a few of which the crew looks at each year. The plots, by the way, get named by the crew; we walked through “White Pine-apple Express”, “Super Dank”, and “Carly Simon”. 

"Managing" a plot is a two step process. First, the crew surveys the area and comes up with a prescription. This prescription takes into account a laundry list of factors: the density of the plot which is measured by the basal area (literally the thickness of the base of the tree), how many of each species are represented, the soil type, diversifying the ages of trees. It suggests generally which species or kinds of trees to favor. 

Bearing in mind the prescription, the forestry students take cans of spray paint and look at each area closely. They select trees as “crop trees” which they would like to see flourish, trees with healthy crowns and straight trunks that are about 30 feet away from the nearest crop trees. Then they take their cans of spray paint and mark which trees need to go down, which are pretty much any trees that are inhibiting the crop tree from reaching its potential. Dead trees are usually left up since they make good habitats for wild life. 

Sometimes when we talk about giving tours at the farm, we use the phrase “seeing the forest through the trees,” which for us means giving the larger contexts of diversity, crop rotation, urban farming etc. to the specifics of transplanting chard or trellising tomatoes. Obviously, the phrase was a bit more literal in this context: the prescription serves as a view of the forest when the crew is looking at a smaller subset of trees.

But walking around Yale-Meyers, I found myself a bit more interested in seeing the trees themselves, looking at the subtleties that differentiate a crop tree from the one that will be chopped up and used to fire our pizza oven. Usually when I’m walking in a forest I see a forest, or at least trees plural, but the crew was analyzing the potential of each and every tree. Julius, who manages the forest, described thinning out an area as a puzzle. As one goes through to mark an acre, she must constantly be balancing the locations and species of all the other crop trees and the prescription she created. 

I come from a coding background, and my first reaction was to imagine the way a program might solve these problems. Definitely there were times when lines were blurred, when two beautiful trees stood close to one another and choosing one would then alter the 30 foot radius or the species ratio and therefore all the crop tree selections, There had to be an optimal arrangement. Quite quickly I realized human instinct is actually much more efficient than converting every tree into pieces of data, mostly because each decision has so many incomparable factors. How does one decide whether the knot in one tree might make it less profitable than the bend in another? What about which tree is healthier for the ecosystem? How can one weigh profit against forest health at all? A computer certainly can’t, unless numerical values are assigned to those priorities. I feel like this always happens when we talk about the best forms of agriculture. Grass fed beef have more of a carbon footprint than corn fed beef but also how do we factor in the fact that people would eat less beef if it wasn’t cheap CAFO stuff and then there would be fewer cows? Some things just can’t be compared by exact numbers of carbon dioxide molecules going into the atmosphere. 

Then there’s the issue of playing God.When we weed our lettuce bed or trim an area of the forest, we are taking natural selection into our own hands, favoring the big and the beautiful and allowing the potentially weak to live. I remember a Pollan argument that the plants that can survive without pesticides are the most nutritious ones because they are strong or something like that  (forgive me it’s been a while since I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma). Continuing that path of logic suggests that we should all be foraging, only eating the fittest of plants since they are the most nutritious. The weird thing is with forests, we already have played God, or at least our ancestors have. Almost all of New England was at one point farm land. These forests have grown back from plowed pasture; managing them might get them closer to a “natural” place. Even Native Americans managed forests with controlled fires.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me why we were going to the forest besides that forests are really cool. But looking at timber as a crop pushed me to think about our farm. Which totally raised the trip from dank to super dank. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What About Rural? Food Policy Advocacy in Appalachia

Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Austin Bryniarski CC ’16. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.

I remember when I first learned about food deserts some years ago. I was at an urban farm in Milwaukee, minutes away from the city’s largest housing project, perplexed by the simultaneous cacophony of chickens and car alarms. To me, food access mainly concerned city dwellers. My understanding was basic: supermarkets planted themselves in middle-class neighborhoods, leaving low-income residents with precious few options for healthy and affordable food. In response to this alarming pattern, novelty ways of producing food — like urban agriculture — came to be.

Fast-forward to one week ago, four years after my food access amuse-bouche, and I’m presenting policy options to a group of people interested in increasing food access in their community. Unlike Milwaukee, though, the trains carried coal instead of people and the closest downtown was a couple of blocks long, at best. My supervisor, a fellow intern, and I travelled to Vanceburg, Kentucky and Athens, Tennessee to train community members in food policy advocacy and facilitate the creation of a food policy action plan. The focus of our presentations was to discuss ways to increase production and consumption of local agricultural products in rural Appalachia — a place stricken with food access issues that I admittedly, until this trip, had not thought a lot about.

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Rural America is rife with food insecurity. Like urban food deserts, poverty severely affects Appalachia, which makes it harder for residents to afford healthy foods and more challenging for grocers to ensure they’ll have enough of a demand to supply. Upon our arrival, we found out that one of two grocery stores in Grundy County, Tennessee had recently closed.  Without grocery stores, rural communities depend on corner stores and fast food restaurants for nourishment because they are convenient and inexpensive, albeit unhealthy. (An excursion to Cracker Barrel — the ubiquitous, kitschy restaurant at every highway exit — proved this. I still reminisce about my chicken-fried steak, all slathered with gravy.)

Geographic distance plays a role in rural food access, too — the USDA considers rural Census tracts food deserts if at least a third of the tract’s population is more than ten miles away from a grocery store. Grundy and McMinn Counties in Tennessee contain food deserts under this definition. Complicating this metric is the fact that some residents may not be able to drive — especially in areas with low vehicle access, no public transportation, or with large elderly populations — further limiting the options of where someone can purchase food. The USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas shows that almost half of Lewis County is considered a “low vehicle access” area. We constantly heard about how schools throughout the region had had only one day of school in January because inclement weather made travel unsafe; the same hazards can prevent many from going out for groceries, too.

The situation in Appalachia carries a subtle irony. We city slickers often picture rural America as where we get most of our food from, red barn and spotted cow and green tractor, and thus question why food access would persist in such a place. The numbers, however, tell a different story about the places we travelled. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture (the food and farm policy wonk’s Bible), commodity crops like hay, corn, and soybeans dominate agricultural production in Kentucky and Tennessee, while income from fruit and vegetable production is at the wayside, clocking in at anywhere from 2 to 4 percent of all production. Further complicating our myth, farmers are shifting away from the profession: since the last Ag Census in 2007, the number of farms dropped by 10 and 14 percent and the total land in farms dropped by 7 and 1 percent in Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively. Fewer farmers are farming less land. And what they are farming isn’t ending up in salad bowls or soup pots nearby.

These twin problems of food access — lack of consumption and lack of production — can have significant impacts on public health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that Appalachia is home to the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country. The groups we presented to, called the “Appalachian Diabetes Coalitions” (ADCs), are part of a program created by Marshall University in West Virginia, and they exist throughout the region to respond to and improve public health outcomes associated with diet-related disease. The ADCs that we worked with identified the issues of agricultural production and local food consumption as major priorities, so our report focused on three strategies for improving each issue.

To improve production, we focused on policies the ADCs could advocate for that would incentivize farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables. For example, we looked at policies that allocate greater funding toward new farmers or farmers transitioning to food production from a different crop, for example through grants, low-interest loans, or tax incentives. We also provided examples of policies that improve training for farmers (either new farmers or farmers learning how to comply with food safety regulations, for instance) and policies that could more innovatively link farmers to farmland (aptly called “land-linking”) that Kentucky or Tennessee could emulate.

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To improve consumption of local, healthy food, we focused on how local producers could best take advantage of local markets. I presented about local procurement by institutions, where a state policy could require schools or state agencies to purchase local produce (thereby supporting the local economy). We also discussed policies to make direct-to-consumer purchasing easier (like placing EBT machines at farmers’ markets) and ways to improve the distribution in the supply chain, like incentivizing the existence of food hubs and food processing facilities.

After providing this menu of options and discussing how relevant each one would be in the counties we worked with came the “policy advocacy” activities that were well-received by the coalition members. For the time we had, we realized our original goal of unveiling a completed action plan by the end of the day was too ambitious, but we still went through the process that the ADCs will replicate on their own time after more carefully considering each component of their plans. We spent the afternoon evaluating policy goals, partners, and strategies for attaining those goals; defining what successful advocacy for that goal would look like; and anticipating challenges that would arise from advocating for a policy. With business cards exchanged and photos snapped, our workshops ended with an air of excitement and a palpable potential.

It seems to me that the growing “food policy movement” has honed in on urban centers in recent years, mostly concerned with the wants and needs of people living in cities. Take farmers’ markets — policy has made setting up a farmers’ market in cities around the U.S. easier, so that all it takes is a trip down the block to buy groceries directly from Farmer Brown. Everyone — from city and country — is happy. Right?

What about the rural folks living amongst those farmers? Where are they in the distribution chain, and how are they affected? When we talk about “improving sustainable agriculture,” which demographics are we improving it for? Appalachia made me realize that rural food politics are woefully uncharted, and in solving the problems of an interdigitated food system, rural food politics cannot be left out of the picture. While our interactions with the coalitions were limited to a two-day trip, the objective of our workshops was clear and started a conversation that would continue into the future. Equipping everyone — especially rural populations — with policy advocacy skills makes for a food system that is responsive to the needs and wants of all its consumers and producers.

Even so, rural and urban settings face different problems that will require different solutions — a lot of the examples we presented to the ADCs were city-centric, because that’s where a lot of food policy has been theorized and implemented. Bearing this in mind, we charged the groups to think of what bits and pieces might apply to their communities, even if Vanceburg, Kentucky looks entirely different from Milwaukee or Boston. We also clarified that our list was not exhaustive, because surely there are food policies we didn’t think of, or ones that do not yet exist. The gaps in rural food policy became clearer; if we are to have an inclusive and comprehensive movement, we’ve got to mind those gaps. I’m hopeful that the Appalachian Diabetes Coalitions we worked with are doing that. But it’s just as important for anyone who cares about food policy to be cognizant as well.

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Austin Bryniarski ’16 is a “rising” junior in Calhoun College majoring in Environmental Studies. During the year, you can find him at the Yale Farm as a Harvest leader (and Farm Intern emeritus) or a local coffee shop as a writer for various campus publications. While he’s upping the ante this summer as a paleo-vegetarian eater, he generally abstains from carbs. He is a Lazarus Global Food Fellow at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. He hates the word “rising.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hi, Margaret here.  Last week on the farm we harvested herbs from our medicinal berm and hung them up to dry.  In a week or so, the dried leaves will be crumbled into bins and stored for winter-time tea-making, but for now, the shipping container where we store most of our tools has been turned into a cave full of aromatic oils.

Olfaction is older than any of our other senses.  The olfactory bulb, where scents are processed, is separate from the rest of the somatosensory cortex, but has close access to the amygdala (emotions) and the hippocampus (memory).  More so than taste, sight, hearing, or touch, smell has the ability to form direct associations among memories, feelings, and sensory stimuli. I remember this because the hippocampus is curved like a seahorse and means “sea monster” in Greek.  When I was little I was afraid of the ocean; I associate salt water with that phobia, that time in my life. 

What do I associate these herbs with? 

  1. Mint. According to dictionary.com, mint is both noun, “an aromatic herb having opposite leaves and small whorled flowers,” and verb, “to make or fabricate; invent.” I associate mint with the imaginary people I thought lived in my backyard as a kid, and the houses I made for them out of sticks and grass and other plants.  I think of my mother, my childhood home.  In Greek mythology, Wikipedia tells me, mint is the herb of hospitality.  Its first known use in Europe was as a room deodorizer.
  2. Chamomile.  Those same medieval women who hung mint to dry probably also brewed tea with chamomile flowers. They read bodies of people the same way they read plants, isolating what was useful, what was problematic, and assigning different herbs for different conditions in a subjective and inexplicably gendered care practice. I associate chamomile with an upset stomach, with anxiety, with being unable to sleep as kid sitting up late at night at the kitchen table my mother watching me as I slowly sip a mug of tea.
  3. Lemon Balm.  The Wikipedia page says lemon balm may be the “honey-leaf” mentioned by Theophrastus; also it was in the herbal garden of a famous (but not to me) 15th century man.  No mention of the women witches and herbalists who cured their communities with its calming, soothing properties. The only promising phrase on the whole page: “in North America, melissa officinalis has escaped cultivation and spread into the wild.”  Google: Melissa is Greek for “bee.”  The melissai were Ephesian priestesses of the great mother goddess.  I associate lemon balm with this new knowledge, these associations.  I escape cultivation.  I fabricate, I invent.
  4. I am making mint, chamomile, and lemon balm tea right now as I am writing this, so that later I will associate these herbs with the process of fabrication.  I am sitting at my computer with twelve tabs open. I am sniffing and thinking, and wafting the olfactants of the herbs towards me in order to remember, to feel, to invent. 

Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program supports the extracurricular study of food systems. In our inaugural year, four students proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system. As a part of their experience, they will be checking in with the YSFP (and the world) through our Tumblr – stay tuned to read their reports and revelations! 

One of the most commonly used words in Nepali is “Tiksa,” which means good, I am good, or right depending on the situation. It’s one of those words that sits on the tip of your tongue and comes out instinctively if appropriate. When people ask me what interning at the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) has been like, “tiksa” has become my usual response. The problem is if you were to ask a Nepali who relies on agriculture for their livelihood how their business was going, they probably would not respond with “tiksa.”

During my first few weeks in Nepal, I’ve been amazed by the pervasiveness of agriculture across the country. Even in Kathmandu Valley, arguably the nation’s most developed region, the food system remains rather decentralized.  Last weekend I traveled to a small community in the Valley, to visit a kindhearted Nepali family that wanted me to see how they lived. As I stood on the roof of their home, I admired the view. In one direction the international airport and the densely packed buildings of central Kathmandu loomed before me. In another, the small village of Lubhu—with its distinctive Newari architecture—appeared in the distance. And behind the house (as you can see from the picture below) rice paddies, which are still cultivated by the area’s families, offered a different type of view. The range of scenes visible from this single roof depicts many of the challenges facing Nepal as urbanization spreads and threatens many people’s livelihoods and access to food. As I have traveled around the country and started my work at ANSAB, one thing has become clear: there is no silver bullet that will just resolve all of the challenges facing Nepal’s agricultural people, but there are a few exciting programs which are actively moving towards that goal.

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Data suggests that roughly one third of all Nepalis collectively manage some of their public lands, through community forest user groups. Due to the mountainous terrain, poor road conditions, and other factors that render several regions of Nepal infrequently accessible (and therefore make it difficult to sell food products), many subsistence farmers generate extra income by gathering Non-Timber Forest Products, such as spices, medicinal plants, and the ingredients for essential oils. By working with ANSAB to obtain Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, they’ve been able to successfully tap into international markets and supply companies like Aveda. Despite the progress made, the use of pesticides on many farms continues to pollute watersheds, the desire to increase agricultural production continues to result in deforestation—which can increase the risk of landslides—and the economic interest in greater development continues to threaten biodiversity.

So thanks to funding from the United Nations Environmental Program, ANSAB teamed up with the FSC, and a small group of NGOs across the world, to pilot an innovative ecosystem services certification. One of my current projects involves creating a resource guide, which will explain how the certification provides environmental, social, and economic benefits. We hope that this guide will motivate many community forest user groups to seek ecosystem services certification, therefore increasing the sustainability of their agriculture and expanding the economic potential of their products. The certification also ensures that all community members are treated equitably regardless of gender, caste, or ethnic group.

In these first few weeks, I’ve learned that interconnectedness reigns supreme in the face of the complexity of Nepal’s economic, social, and political fabric. In other words, addressing any one issue (like pesticides on farms or a lack of access to a distributor for food products) requires resolving a host of other challenges, like poor education or insufficient access to information, inequality based on gender or social position, and difficulties dealing with government regulations. Despite these obstacles, the resilience of many individuals—and the emphasis on local communities—can empower people to seek change collectively.

The interconnectedness of various issues also means that gains made in a specific target area have a much wider impact. For instance, the ecosystem services certification also moves communities towards social justice, promotes improved governance, and enhances access to education. It’s this idea of interconnectedness that has been the most exciting part of my experience at ANSAB. Every day, a committed group of highly educated, highly talented individuals come together to help facilitate change. Instead of seeing the challenges as insurmountable, the staff works to organize communities, unleash the power of collective energy, and help villagers across Nepal to create more sustainable and economically viable lives rooted in agriculture. It is an honor and a pleasure to join them in this effort this summer.

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ANSAB maintains a garden at its headquarters in Kathmandu. Many of the ingredients for our communal lunches are sourced from this garden.

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It can take days to transport food from farms in the mountainous regions, like these pictured in the Annapurna Conservation Area, making it difficult for farmers to rely on food production alone for their income.

            Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a rising junior at Yale University majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and an Academic-Year Intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. His summer internship at ANSAB is funded through the generous support of the Lazarus Global Food Fellows Program at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Compost

This week we hear from student farm manager Ryan Mera Evans. A note on the following passage from Field Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield: Ryan’s story contains a graphic scene that is endemic in farm life. The Yale Farm, an acre of cropland surrounded by urban and suburban realities, is no exception. We keep a careful eye on how our compost is produced and where it is spread to ensure maximum safety and fertility. Enjoy!

“Find a pile of gold and sit on it.” 

― John Gardner, Grendel

Over the past two days, I unearthed six mountains of feathery, airy, crumbly, black humus from our compost piles. The six piles were the result of months of food scraps, crop refuse, and weeds. Over hours, under sun, and after plenty of turning, the piles shrink. Weeds are cooked, earthworms and woodlice feast, and old meals are broken down. What is left is a light, amorphous, and fertile substance, where one can’t distinguish between microorganisms, plant matter, minerals, or earthworm poop. Humified plant matter. We spread the black gold over our berms, where they provide flowers, herbs, and vegetables with the conditions they need to grow well. Our six compost bins, like all fluid components of the farm, are a concentrated visual reminder of the fuzzy boundary between new life, old life, and stasis, and kinesis.

But, in order to lubricate the spinning life wheel, our compost must be turned. So, two days ago, I set out with a shovel, a pitchfork, a strong back, and a weak mind to facilitate a “proper” compost.

I think about

  • The parallels between compost and human digestive process.
  • The differences between hot and cold compost.
  • Time, and the degradation of human byproducts (whether they are biologically, agriculturally, or commercially generated.
  • The suburbs of Northern Denver, and my family’s “just-throw-it-in-the-garden-bed” approach to composting.
  • How my fingers look suspiciously like earthworms, color, shape, and all.
  • How funky it would be if my fingers moved like earthworms.
  • Rats.

I was on my third pile of compost, in the groove, muscle memory on lock, when I hit something that wasn’t compost. I pulled the shovel away, pulled a drink from my water bottle, and, while resting, saw a pink and gray sausage poking out the compost.  

That doesn’t belong there.

I leaned in, water dribbling down my chin, towards the compost nubbin.

A rat. I just decapitated a rat. It was about four inches long. As big as the sausages I ate for dinner the other night. The top half of its body stuck out the soil, legs weakly pawed at the air, blood spurted out of the neck hole. Pink and Red, surrounded by a gray casing. This death didn’t belong in this compost. It was fresh, mammalian, still alive.

There must be more. A Nest. A click in the head. Out Out Out. Shovel in, shovel out. Rats out. Memory out. Remove the rats as quick as possible, cover up the hacked carcasses with soil, make the squeals and the unwanted movement stop.

When I was sure there were no more rats, I went to get a drink.

I finished my job. I turned the compost, and made sure that I didn’t approach it without care. Instead, I turned the compost softly. I didn’t stab, I folded, and created a new nest: one that cradles the future life in the compost. One day, the compost will nourish our acre, but this week, it is okay to care for the mobile mountains.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Last week, I was in charge of landscaping duty. With a weed-whacker and mower, I waged a war against tall grass and weeds. I still feel the rumble of the mower. What other tactile sensations exist at the farm? The tickle of our asparagus forest, the sweet, sticky juices from plucked gooseberries, the moist soil after it’s been kissed with fish emulsion. There are countless others. What helps me feel the farm? Hands. Soft hands, with small calluses on the top of the palms.

In middle school, I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One character, Curly, wore a glove “fulla Vaseline.” An unlikely detail, and definitely not practical, but the glove did create a barrier between man and the work-tools, or man and the soil.

Back to my hands. I inspect the scabbed over blisters on the insides of my thumbs. I should’ve worn gloves.

Sometimes, agricultural-workers are called farmhands, a synecdoche that evokes a cloud of hands that till the soil and turn the compost. Popular images show the farmer, cupped and calloused hands pooled with soil. I wonder, what is a grower’s most important tool? Can it be the hands, that weed or transplant? Or is it the mind, filled with years of listening to the soil and other growers? Maybe season after season fuse the two together. I imagine two carrots, corkscrewed around each other, underneath the earth.

At the Wooster Square market, an exchange of crumpled bills signifies the trade between the grower and the consumer. Contact is one thing farmer’s markets provide. You put a place to a face. The interaction reveals the invisible fingerprints that cover our food, that are hidden under bright super market lights. When we trade, cash for veggies, or veggies for cash, we say: Yes, this food grew on an acre of land in Downtown New Haven; yes, we are students. You can tell by our hands.