Back in March, the Yale Sustainable Food Project sent 6 of our student interns to the Connecticut winter conference for the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Our students have pulled together their thoughts, which we will be sharing with you in small posts throughout the rest of the week. Kicking it off is Sophie Mendelson BK ‘15. Sophie writes:
"In his keynote address, Fred Kirschenmann took some time to emphasize what he sees as the importance of the arts to the alternative food movement. If we can’t imagine a better future, Kirschenmann noted, we will only continue to hold on tightly to what we have - and what we have isn’t working. This remark reminded me of something that Mark Bomford, director of the YSFP, brought up a couple of weeks ago in his seminar on sustainable food and agriculture. What we have over the industrial food system is narrative. Numbers and data are important, but stories are what can really get under our skins and begin to change the way that we think. So if we can tell a better story than industrial agriculture - if we can imagine a better future than what they’re offering - then maybe we actually stand a chance in this David-and-Goliath style face off.”
A Tale of Two Berkshires: finding common ground
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.
Yale Food Systems Symposium – Forecasting and the Food System
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.
New Entry and Food Access in Boston
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.
Sustainable Pasture Management in Kyrgyzstan
Events intern Caroline Tracey ‘14 spent her summer on an environmental fellowship studying pasture management in Kyrgyzstan. Here, she muses on her Russian lit background and the sociopolitical controversies that shape the country’s agricultural landscape.
I spent a month of this summer in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic nestled between China and Kazakhstan. It was clear to me before I arrived that environmental issues were at the forefront of the minds of the people in the country. For one thing, less than a month before my visit to Kyrgyzstan, a large riot broke out at the Kumtor mine, a gold mine on the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul. The mine accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP, but is owned and managed by a Canadian company. About 1,000 people, some arriving on horseback, camped out for days and blockaded the road from the mine to Bishkek, calling for Kyrgyzstan to receive a bigger share of the mine’s profits.
My studies as a Russian literature major have focused on Russian writers’ treatment of landscape: how authors understand vast, unending landscapes; what kind of culture and specific experiences develop in places marked by vastness. I have also versed myself in the contemporary environmental challenges that come with these kinds of landscapes. During my trip this summer, I planned to find out how the country’s pastoral heritage was faring in the modern economy.
Horse supplies at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek
Flying into Bishkek delighted me: it felt like flying into Denver, where I grew up. Tall, snow-capped (even in July) mountains are visible in the distance, and the flat, brown land that holds the airport and the city slides up to meet them. From the plane window I could see both dry and irrigated fields; windbreaks; and small reservoirs. There were fewer roads than I was used to; the land wasn’t gridded, as the whole middle of America is, and so the fields took stranger shapes, strips and trapezoids. On the drive into the city, I drove by a young boy herding goats with a stick, and I realized there wasn’t going to be any shortage of interesting things to learn about pasture agriculture.
Here’s what I found out:
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the land and livestock holdings of collective farms were parceled out to their employees based on seniority. This immediately led to crisis: most employees had held positions unrelated to animal husbandry - they had been drivers or bookkeepers - and were unprepared to manage their own farm animals. Most - seventy percent, a pasture manager later estimated to me - floundered. Their animals died, and they lost their chance at financial solvency in the new economy. To make matters worse, those that did succeed in raising their animals met the harsh reality of the new system: they worked all year only to sell their animals at market for a price so low it often wasn’t even a profit. Now, the prices are better, thanks to consumers from Kazakhstan, where the economy is much stronger, crossing the border to buy animals in cheaper Kyrgyzstan. The increased demand means that Kyrgyz people have a financial incentive to go into agriculture - farmers in the villages often make more money than middle-class people in Bishkek.
Abandoned Collective Farm
Kyrgyz “farmers” are more like what we would refer to as ranchers (if you want to talk about vegetable or fruit farmers, you have to specify). They raise animals, and sell them at large, open-air markets. During the winter months, their animals are in their villages’ town pastures, either within the town or just outside of it, and during the summer months, they bring their animals (along with the animals of other villagers who have paid them to look after their animals for the summer) to the rural pasture. The rural pastures are mountain camps where the farmers live in yurts with their families while the animals graze the high range.
Talas Livestock Market
Unloading bulls from the mountain pastures for sale at the market
The requirement to bring their animals up to rural pastures, I learned, is one of a group of radical changes to pasture law that were enacted beginning in 2009. Kyrgyzstan was one of the only meat-producing countries in the Soviet Union, and as a result of always-increasing demands from distant Moscow, the country left the USSR highly overgrazed. Until 2009, when the country really began to gain some traction on the challenges of privatization, pastures were private. Now, with the new pasture law, the land is government owned again, and pastures are managed by a village committee. Each town has been assigned a piece of rural pasture that corresponds with the size of the village. The “closed,” or “winter,” pastures within or nearby the towns are not to be used during the summer, so that they can recover from the last year of use.
Highway overlooking government pastures
Sheep running in on the rural pasture
Before I had learned about the distinction between rural and closed pastures, I experienced the distinction firsthand, by being in transit between the two. Having approached a tunnel through a mountain pass, my minibus back from Talas found itself stopped at the entrance, along with a parking lot’s worth of cars. Finally, fifteen confused minutes later, a man on horseback emerged from the dark opening. He was followed by a whole large herd of horses, who tried their best to follow his lead and navigate their way through the herd of cars.
So you can imagine it made sense to me when the pasture manager of the town of Barskoon explained that the reason that people hadn’t made sufficient use of the rural pastures until they were required to by law was that there was not sufficient infrastructure to reach the rural pastures. 2 million som, he said, or about $40,000 - a very large sum of money in Kyrgyzstan, where the middle class makes about $160 per month - has been marked for new bridges to the rural pastures. It remains to be seen, however, whether that money will make it through the government’s extreme corruption.
As I talked to more and more people in Kyrgyzstan about pasture management, I came to the most surprising conclusion I could have: pasturing seems to be moving in a good direction. Certainly it would be hard to create a system that does more damage than the Soviet Union’s system. But I am disposed to expect that the arc towards capitalism is an unstoppable and destructive force, and the Kyrgyz people proved me wrong. They tried out privatizing their pasture land, and fifteen years later returned to a system of the commons. The pasture committee system is still young, and the law still needs changes, but the new system stipulates an attitude toward rangeland that shares both resources and responsibility.
When I describe this, I am reminded of a presentation I saw at the forestry school as part of its grasslands lunch series three years ago. It was on the “buffalo commons,” an idea published in Planning magazine in the 1980’s, suggesting that the emptying American prairie should be returned to buffalo rangeland. The idea was virulently rejected. But yesterday I read in the High Country News that Montana is slowly introducing free-ranging bison. Perhaps with enough committed minds, the commons - east and west - will get their chance to succeed.
Farm intern Maya Binyam ‘15 on what her Ethiopian father taught her about what it means to depend on the land:
Boston is a cold city. In the winter months a biting humidity saturates the air, threatening to freeze car locks and the tips of hair. The sunlight is static, even in the summer, and reflects but never warms.
In this landscape of fractured water and light, my father attempted to make a home. He cranked up the heat and filled the rooms of our house with things he knew would never survive outside—dainty potted basil plants, an ugly bulb too big for its pot. He was proud of this thing he had created for us—this warm oasis—because it meant we were no longer affected by Boston’s characteristically sporadic temperature declines, its unexpected noreasters. We were comfortable.
After a few months he stopped watering the plants. The leaves wilted and eventually turned brittle, but this was something to be proud of. We had begun cultivating things outside of the home, things more important than plants. We were going somewhere.
"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.