Zan Romanoff, our Program Coordinator, writes about economy & community in the wake of natural disasters:
Last year I wrote about sitting with Bren Smith while members of his Community Supported Fishery program picked up their first post-Irene shares; while the Connecticut coast had come through that storm relatively unscathed, Bren’s Thimble Island oyster grounds had been closed for the better part of two months, 80% of his crop destroyed by mud churned up on the ocean floor. It was a tough moment for him and his business and so particularly heartening to see customer after customer come by with nothing but sympathy and an eager desire to help: it served as an important reminder that community supported agriculture programs of every kind are as crucial for their economic impact as the actual sense of community and kinship they can create.
Bren used the money he got from those shares to tide him over as he replanted and started again. Oysters take two years to come to market size, and it’s a long waiting game with a lot of work to get them there, so he diversified his crops, adding in faster-growing mussels, clams and seaweed in case of another huge event. Last week Sandy caused storm surges nearly double the height of those seen in Irene; as Red Hook flooded and Breezy Point burned, Bren’s comeback crop was drowning down below. Oysters need to be able to filter water continuously and the muck kicked up by huge waves effectively choked them; suspended longlines growing mussels (and awaiting a winter seaweed crop) snapped in the storm.
It’s all too easy, in the modern food system, to see failed farmers as isolated economic events; when the farmer is part of our community and food is part of your consciousness, however, you begin to see a much larger, and very different, picture. What’s going on with Thimble Island Oyster Co. is happening to farmers up and down the eastern seaboard; it happened when Irene flooded hundreds of thousands of acres with contaminated water, making produce grown there unsalable, and it will happen again. These disasters put our friends out of business but they also destroy the local food supply— and bigger operations are not immune, as we saw when drought swept the country this summer and prices for commodity crops soared. When farmers are failing, we need to be afraid for their economic viability but also for our own health and safety. When natural disaster strikes, there is no safety net. Science has given us huge advances, but we’re still planting and growing in the ground: there is no alternative food source.
Farmers who grow commodity crops are well-supported by crop insurance payouts; small, independent farmers like Bren, who grow things other than wheat, cotton, corn and soy can’t necessarily depend on the government to keep them going when disaster strikes. It’s up to us, his community, to do that, to support not only a smart, sustainable business model but also the kind of food we’re comfortable consuming. CSF shares for 2013 are available, and again the cash infusion Bren gets from them could be the difference between staying in business and closing up shop. Each of us has a stake in a future of a better food system, one that doesn’t cause further climate change, and that can deal robustly with the effects that we’re already feeling. A CSF payment literalizes that stake, making it clear to us exactly what we lose when small farmers go under: the choice to eat better, and the chance to be a part of the community that makes good food possible.
“It turns out that fertiliser can be as deadly as a pesticide.”
That phrase— not even a whole sentence— is slipped quietly into this little piece about new technology that will help weed and thin lettuce beds on massive conventional farms in California’s Central Valley. The machine in question has found a way to put fertilizer’s deadly strength to good use, its makers claim: by spreading it directly on unwanted plants, it first kills competition and then provides nutrients to the surrounding survivors.
It seems to me, though, that this idea raises a number of questions relevant to the state of agriculture as a whole; for starters, why are we putting poisonously strong chemicals onto our food and our land? Issues with fertilizer runoff are numerous and well-documented, including everything from tainting groundwater to creating massive dead zones along nearby coastlines; soils managed with chemical fertilizers have been proven to fare very poorly under conditions of drought and flood (the coming effects of climate change, which is caused at least in part by manufacturing chemical fertilizer and then using fossil-fueled machines to spread it). A system that insists on a fertility source that is in every way toxic can’t possible be in very good shape.
There is also a larger question, though, raised by the notion that we need technology to do this work in the first place. The current system is inefficient because “labourers, who tend to be paid per acre, not per hour, have little incentive to pay close attention to what they pull from the ground, often leading to unnecessary waste.” The modern tendency is to view jobs like this one as irredeemably menial, and so to compensate them minimally (if at all) and try to tech them out of existence. For a country in the middle of an employment crisis, this seems like a shortsighted way of thinking about things. What if we took manual labor seriously, protecting workers and paying them a fair wage, making it possible for them to take real pride in their jobs? Agriculture is tough work but it’s absolutely crucial, and there’s no reason to continue to treat it as if it were an expendable process.
This is not to say that technology is inherently evil, or that we shouldn’t be modernizing and mechanizing at all— it’s only to suggest a more comprehensive way of thinking about where technology and agriculture meet might benefit workers in the field as well as the land they tend. Especially given this report that increasing wages for food workers, which includes field hands, would only cost the rest of us a dime a day.
Looking for follow up from last week’s New York Times Magazine food issue? Look no further: here’s Mark Bittman, talking about his experiences in the Central Valley on LA’s KCRW.
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about how sustainable agriculture tends to defy easy answers— and how that quality is one of its most compelling. So to start the week, here are two stories that demonstrate exactly how thorny thinking carefully about where your food comes from can get.
First there’s a domestic tale from our neighbors to the south in New York, where backyard chickens are laying eggs with detectable (but not necessarily harmful) levels of lead. Soil contamination, especially in urban areas, is a huge issue for many would-be backyard gardeners; the Yale Farm site was chosen in large part because unlike much of the rest of the city, it has lead-free soil. There are quick, cheap soil tests that you can do to determine whether soil is plantable or not, but no such standards exist for raising chickens or other backyard livestock— leaving many families without guidance, wondering if their attempts to raise their own are actually doing them more harm than good.
Then there’s the international: entrepreneurs in Haiti are trying to stimulate local economies by having natives grow the peanuts given to malnourished children in their communities. It’s a smart idea in theory, creating jobs on farms and in processing plants, intending to enrich the population rather than keeping them dependent on foreign aid. The catch is that the peanuts are vulnerable to fungi and toxins, requiring intensive chemical management— and that the multinational companies importing peanuts work on a massive scale and do so much more cheaply than these small-scale startups can. So far the UN has been willing to buy the more expensive product, supporting the long-term vision at work, and it will be interesting to see if the Haitian farmers can create a more competitive price without sacrificing the unique elements of their business model.
And because it’s Monday, a little bonus something fun: David Chang, Adam Gopnik and a host of others talk food on The Moth Radio Hour.
Two big fish stories: Alaska’s King Salmon populations are diminishing every year— and no one knows why. Their decline threatens local economies which rely on the catch and the tourists who come to try their hand, as well as communities with traditional subsistence diets heavily dependent on a strong season. In better news, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue program is working with fishermen, processing centers and chefs to get underfished species on menus in the northeast, giving strained populations a break and encouraging people to eat locally and sustainably from sea as well as land.
By now you’ve probably seen the New York Times’ controversial summation of a Stanford study on the nutritional content of organic food, headlined “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” For those of us who are organic advocates it’s an incredibly frustrating claim, misunderstanding many of the most crucial reasons that we try to eschew pesticides and herbicides in the food we grow and eat.
Time and again, studies have shown that conventional, chemical agriculture contributes to climate change, worsening storms and droughts even as it strips soils and ecosystems of their diversity and resilience, making them less able to self-regulate and, eventually, correct. A system that makes processed corn product cheaper cattle feed than corn itself (never mind the grasses that comprise their natural diet) seem self-evidently broken. An organic strawberry with no more vitamins than its chemically farmed counterpart is still worlds better for the environment, and likely for the people who grew it, who are exposed in the field to sprays of neurotoxic pesticide levels high above the acceptable residue eventually tested.
Then there is the economic aspect: the fact that organic farms are often small-scale and local, strengthening civic economies and creating robust regional foodsheds, supporting a variety of small businesses. The conditions for laborers on large chemical farms are famously inhumane, with some legitimately qualifying as enslavement. The rise of an alternative food system has encouraged some former farmworkers to start their own farms, transforming them from underpaid, undervalued field hands to business-owning entrepreneurs.
But none of that makes for a pithy headline, or fodder for angry debate. One of the greatest strengths of the sustainable food movement is that it isn’t a catchy phrase or quote, or a simple answer to anything. This means that the media will continue to get it wrong— but that, as long we keep reading and thinking critically— we are bound to be closer to getting it right.