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2012: The Year to Stop Playing Nice

Michele Simon, Civil Eats
Given all the defeats and set-backs this year due to powerful food industry lobbying, the good food movement should by now be collectively shouting: I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

If you feel that way, I have two words of advice: get political.

I don’t mean to ignore the very real successes: increases in farmers markets, innovative and inspiring programs such as Food Corps, and an increasingly diverse food justice movement, just to name a few. But lately, at least when it comes to kids and junk food, we’ve been getting our butts kicked.

And it’s not just because corporations have more money to lobby, of course they do. It’s that too often, we’re not even in the game. Or, we tend to give up too easily. While I know many food justice advocates who understand this is a political fight over control of the food system, sadly I cannot say the same thing about some of my public health colleagues. Too many nonprofits, foundations, and professionals are playing it safe, afraid to take on the harder fights.

A politician from Maine I interviewed for my book was complaining to me about how food industry lobbyists were in his state capital every single day, while public health sent the occasional volunteer. His sage advice to us advocates: “You may be out-gunned, but you have to bring a gun.”

Moreover, many groups have shown that you don’t always even need a bigger gun. The small but impressive organization, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood proved that this summer when it won an important victory against Scholastic regarding its corporate-sponsored materials. How did they do it? A combination of smart campaigning and effective media. Not by playing nice…

…the Occupy movement, while still very young, has already inspired a number of food politics offshoots. As I wrote after Food Day, several others have penned calls to action showing the deep connections between corporate control of the food supply and economic injustice. (If you read just one, Tom Philpott’s Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street should convince you.) Also, the amazing grassroots organization Food Democracy Now (based in Iowa) recently organized an “Occupy Wall Street Farmers’ March” to bring the message that family farmers are also the 99 percent. (Read organizer Dave Murphy’s moving account of the successful event and watch the videos of the passionate speakers–I promise you will be inspired.)…
(26 December 2011)

New Farmer School

Jonathan Wright, New Farmer School
The New Farmer School is an offshoot of Thompson Small Farm, a horse-powered initiative begun in 2007 by Andrea Thompson and Jonathan Wright with the goal of providing locally, sustainably produced food and an example of a human-scaled, alternative way of doing things.

Our goal with the school is to help you learn what you need to learn to establish yourself in a symbiotic relationship with a piece of land, whatever your motives in doing so may be.

… While we desperately need agricultural reform, we don’t need to invent a solar-powered tractor that, like a ‘green’ car, takes 40,000 gallons of water, untold amounts of oil, strip mines and foundaries etcetera to manufacture and therefore misses the mark of sustainability anyway. But the primary reason we don’t need to invent a solar-powered tractor is because we’ve already got one. It manufactures and runs itself utilizing the energy of the sun stored in the grass that is all around us, and it’s called the Horse.

Earlier, we offered a potent symbol, an icon for representing unsustainable agriculture as it is practised today. Here, at left, we offer an icon to represent sustainable agriculture, the place to which we will return.

We chose the horse as the fundamental power source for most – although not yet all – of the activities on Thompson Small Farm. We don’t own a tractor. We chose the horse not because we were horse lovers in anything but an abstract sense (although we are now!) nor Luddites, but rather because we were serious about taking a shot at sustainability, and not just using it as a political buzzword to move product. As it stands right now, the horse is where it’s at – you cannot show us another proven, remotely scalable option for farming sustainably, for underwriting food security indefinately, because there isn’t a proven one, and if we are honest, a view of the technological horizon reveals nothing of real promise to date, either. In the meantime, the clock keeps ticking.

Yet we are in a better position than most of us realize. All we need do is acknowledge our situation – we have the horses for breeding stock (we will need more,) we have the knowledge (albeit rather widely flung at present,) and unbeknowst to many, we have today factories rolling out new, field-tested, highly innovative horse-drawn equipment. All we lack is a larger awareness accompanied by the will to take advantage of this current situation and turn things back in a positive direction. Done well, one can achieve a balance on the farm through horsepower that comes as close as we can come to being the biodynamic, sustainable ideal: the farm as a self-enclosed ecosystem that can sustain us not for a mere hundred years or less, but for millennia. And there’s still time for a gradual transition if we get serious right now. (I know some of you are shouting “Permaculture!” at this point. While we are in complete agreement that permaculture systems as they are being extolled today are extremely promising in theory and in some limited instances in practice as well, they need a lot more application in a full spectrum of climates, as well as in the crucible of the real, scaleable, supply-and-demand world before we would be wise to put too many eggs in this basket. We certainly need to keep working on this one! And horses can very likely play a fundamental role making our lives more fruitful and enjoyable here, too.)

To lend further insight into the importance of horses to our future, here is a list of the advantages of the horse over the tractor:

– Horses (and other draft animals) tread lightly on the land. Compared to machinery used for farming and woodlot management, they do minuscule damage;
– they provide on-farm, organic fertilizer, which on industrial farms is all off-farm, non-renewable hydrocarbon based;
– they help plant and harvest their own “fuel,” making you less dependent on fossil fuels;
– they cost less than mechanized equipment (both to purchase and to maintain), they don’t depreciate as rapidly, and they don’t break down as often – vital considerations to the economic sustainability of the small farm;
– they work well in hilly terrain that defies a tractor;
– they can work soil that’s wet enough to bog down machinery;
– they let you easily work without human helpers—a properly trained team will pull ahead on voice command while, for example, you haul hay, clear a field of stones, or gather up firewood;
– their slower pace gives you plenty of time to think while you work, making you less likely to get hurt in an accident compared to operating fast, noisy, powerful equipment;
– emissions are negligible compared to a tractor, and don’t compromise your lungs;
– they haven’t buggered your hearing by the end of the day;
– they offer companionship. No one develops the rapport with a rototiller or a tractor that a teamster inevitably has with a team.

There is work to do, but we speak from experience in saying that it is highly rewarding work that imparts a daily, multidimensional authenticity to life that it seems most today feel they are lacking. There are hurdles, economic, physiological and psychological, to be overcome. For today, as a byproduct of being The People of Oil, we have also become The People of the Machine, (which is why, for instance, we invest so much unfounded faith in such oxymorons as the ‘green’ car.) Our culture is currently helpless without machines, and most individuals are now, too. Horses, along with most other animals, have become entirely abstract, if not alien, to the majority of us. This, along with the aforementioned Myth of Progress (which denies the truth that any given model of civilization inevitably runs its course and eventually dies – that there is no such thing as perpetual upward trajectory;) is why we have yet to embrace them as part of the solution to the crisis that is our current civilization, why they so rarely come up in the dialogue to date. But the horse, over time, has proven even more irreplacable to us than oil, with one crucial advantage: the horse is renewable while oil is not. This is why oil, and all that depends on it to be brought into existance and run, will eventually go, while the horse, which requires only itself, will remain…
(30 December 2011)
About the author:
Jonathan Wright grew up “the old way,” mostly in the countryside, in the hills and along the rivers, fishing, hunting, trapping and working on the farm (although not with horses.) More recently, he came from a background in wildlife studies and conservation. He worked in this capacity as a government contractor, with the oil and gas industry, and on his own dime. He became interested in small-scale agriculture following the realization that attempting to save wildlife – species by species – was a “branch-hacking” approach while taking steps to return to a sustainable economic model with traditional agrarianism at its foundation was truly “striking at the root” of a whole range of our global crises.

He is responsible for raising, training and working the Thompson Small Farm horses and shares in all the myriad other farm tasks. Outside the farm, he is an expert on furbearers, snakes, birds, and a broad range other wildlife and natural lore. He is a recognized authority on the legendary wolverine and certain species of Canadian snakes, having made contributions to the scientific literature on both subjects, stemming from his own extensive field studies. He pioneered the use of remote cameras to identify and monitor wild wolverine, marten and fisher on an individual basis and over a span of years. He is a keen student of holistic survival – on farm and in the woods, and an expert tracker, having spent ten consecutive winters in the boreal wilderness of northwest Canada engaged in the latter. He was publisher of a successful international niche magazine in the ’90’s. He is an occasional bronze sculptor and an accomplished singer-songwriter once under contract to Warner/Chappell, and has recently begun work on a new album of original music.

A Punch to the Mouth: Food Price Volatility Hits the World

Gregor Macdonald,
2011 was an abysmal year for the global insurance industry, which had to cover yet another enormous increase in damages from natural disasters. Unknown to most casual observers is the fact that during the past few decades the frequency of weather-related disasters (floods, fires, storms) has been growing at a much faster pace than geological disasters (such as earthquakes). This spread between the two types of insurable losses has moved so strongly that it prompted Munich Re to note in a late 2010 letter that weather-related disasters due to wind have doubled and flooding events have tripled in frequency since 1980. The world now has to contend with a much higher degree of risk from weather and climate volatility, and this has broad-reaching implications.

And critically, it has a particular impact on food.

Many factors seen over the past decade have produced higher food prices: population growth, urbanization, the decline of arable land per person, and the upgrading of diets for example. But more damaging than food inflation has been the pushing of global food prices out of their long, quiet envelope of stability.

The FAO Index (Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N) shows that, while prices are once again down from a peak, a troublesome volatility started to affect food prices this decade. These are the very prices that caused social instability in countries like Mexico in 2007-2008 (pressure on corn prices, owing in part to US corn ethanol mandates) and more recently in northern Africa (Arab Spring).

Commodity observers will note the rough correspondence with oil prices, and of course that’s no mistake. Inputs to food production are heavily composed of fossil fuels. In the same way that both high (and highly volatile) oil prices play havoc with economies, food prices and marginal speculation in food have done the same.

2011 also saw the highest average oil prices since 2008, at $94.81 per barrel. That is not far below the average high of 2008, at $99.67. In between was a crash in oil prices — and most commodities — which unfolded at a rate almost as rapid as the original run-ups from 2006-2008. What happens next?

With non-existent wage growth and a dearth of investment opportunities, these price advances in food costs have much more impact than it appears. What asset classes are keeping pace with the year-over-year increases in food? Certainly not stocks, as the S&P 500 has gone nowhere in a decade. Moreover, a 3.5% increase in Food CPI this year, with more to come next year, falls on top of a deeply under-utilized US economy in which tens of millions derive income from government transfer payments, most of which are not sufficiently ratcheting higher from “inflation-adjustments.” Food Stamp recipients, for example, are not seeing food inflation adjustments in their benefit checks that would compensate for the price increases. Not even close.

As you may have heard, milk was the top commodity performer in 2011, up 40% on the year in the futures market. A question: do you think milk is a central staple in American family diets? There’s more. On a year-over-year basis through November, according to USDA, beef prices are up 9.8%, egg prices are up 10.25%, and potato prices are up 12%. (This partly explains why junk-type grocery foods make up an ever-larger portion of food-stamp purchasers’ shopping carts. Sadly, people are buying caloric content, not nutrition).

Now, compare these price increases to the average individual Food Stamp benefit, which is basically flat year-over-year, moving from $133.79 in 2010 to $133.84 in 2011. And to the extent that households use Food Stamp benefits to plug overall cash flow problems, the very central and related pressure from higher gasoline prices also deflates the impact of the Food Stamp benefit.

The Decline of Arable Land
The result is that energy resources, and thus the ease of using energy resources in food production, began to converge with a long decline in the availability of arable land.

It is not for nothing that farming acreage in the US Midwest is up over several hundred percent since the lows twenty years ago. (As a personal aside, I remember those lows very well; I lived on a struggling soybean farm in Iowa during graduate school in the late 1980s). The world is in the midst of a New Great Game. But this time, the hunt is not on only for energy resources, but for agricultural resources — mostly cropland.

On my own blog, I recently did a short post on a study of urbanization in China’s Pearl River Delta and its aggregate effect on climate and precipitation. In short? Paving over the earth decreases rainfall…
(3 January 2012)

China’s Growing Urban Population Sprouts Urban Farms

urban gardensvia China Daily
In response to its growing urbanization, China is reinventing the “garden city” concept in order to create space for both its urban and its displaced rural citizens. Every year, more than 15 million people move from the countryside to the cities. By 2025, China is expected to have 400 million more people living in its cities. To feed the world’s largest population, China will have to explore novel ways of food production.

As displaced rural communities are forced into the cities, urban planners have begun to analyze an emerging trend, the merging of country and city by preserving patches of space to be used as productive farmland within urban boundaries.

The model could bring back work and purpose for displaced farmers, but also reduce food miles, meaning access to more fresh agricultural products at lower costs and a decrease in carbon emissons. As a bonus, urban farmland could also be showcased for “agrotourism” and used for education…
(30 December 2011)
There are some lovely photos with the article on the website.

Students Say “Occupy Your Plate”, Plan to Converge at Retreat to Grow Food Cooperatives

Berkeley, CA – CoFED, the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, is gearing up for their second national event to train students to run successful sustainable food businesses on campuses nationwide.

As the UN declares 2012 the Year of the Cooperative, students across the nation are mobilizing and calling on young people to “occupy your plate” as a next step to build towards a more just and democratic society.

Through CoFED’s “boot camp” in sustainable social entrepreneurship, more than 70 young people will gain the skills to create ethically-sourced, student-run local storefronts and cafés on college campuses throughout the US and Canada. Students receive training on both food justice and business skills; including strategic marketing and planning, market and financial analysis, management and other critical tools to launch successful democratic enterprises. Speakers at the event will include People’s Grocery Executive Director Nikki Henderson, Green Festival Founder Kevin Danaher and Moosewood Collective Cookbook Author Mollie Katzen.

“We see thousands of college students hungry for greater access to healthy, ethically sourced, locally produced food. Campus food co-ops give students great food at affordable prices, while supporting local farmers and imparting students with financial and organizational skills crucial for success in life after college,” said Landau…

Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals

Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times
TODOS SANTOS, Mexico — Clamshell containers on supermarket shelves in the United States may depict verdant fields, tangles of vines and ruby red tomatoes. But at this time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation.

… Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in “microclimates” near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando Frías, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.

They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.

To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health.
(30 December 2011)

Digging Into Potash Stocks

Oakshire Financial
People have to eat. That seemed to be the consensus of the markets in 2011, which saw potash gaining traction as a new kind of safe haven. A resource that promises higher crop yields in a time of exploding global population growth, potash is ripe with potential profits for investors who choose carefully. The Energy Report dug deeper into this sector in 2011, interviewing analysts and industry experts who shared how to gain exposure to this growing market.

Investing in agriculture can take many forms. Bob Moriarty, founder, shared his insights in a March article titled “Food Is Fuel.” He said: “Potash is used to make fertilizer. As food gets more valuable, potash gets more valuable. It’s not necessarily that you’re more efficient in the production of food. If the price of wheat doubles, farmers can afford twice as much potash. It’s not necessarily more efficient; it’s just cheaper in relative terms. The price of food is going to go higher and higher. Potash is around $600/ton now, but it could be $1,500/ton based on the cost of food today.”
(1 January 2012)
We don’t usually run excerpts from financial sites, but this one looked appropriate. -BA