Ron Finley explains the transformative power of urban agriculture, and the problem with relying on members of non-profits sitting around in chairs discussing how to eliminate food deserts.
One of the advantages of living in a cosmopolitan city is that dining locally doesn’t mean having to forgo international cuisine. Many such dishes were available this Sunday at the Columbus International Festival, held in the Vets Memorial Center. For the first time in the festival’s history, there was a contest to decide the best of these foods, and I had the pleasure of judging this contest, along with Bethia Woolf, from Columbus Food Adventures, Jim Ellison, of CMH Gourmand, and Erika Pryor, reporting for Advanced Language Access.
(From left to right: Erika Pryor, Wayne Shingler, Jim Ellison, and Bethia Woolf. Photo by Columbus International Festival)
Saturday at the Clintonville Farmers’ Market, one of my customers said she was surprised to see so many yard signs in Clintonville in support of Issue 2. She reached the same conclusion I did: most of these people have probably fallen prey to the misleading advertisements in support of Issue 2. I’d like to clear up some of the confusion by responding to some of the talking points I’ve heard from supporters.
Issue 2 would establish a Livestock Care Standards Board. It’s about time we had some standards for livestock care! Do you know what horrible things they do to animals on those factory farms?
That’s just the point. It’s those factory farms that want Issue 2 to pass. They’ve seen voters in California and elsewhere outlaw the use of battery cages so small that the laying hens in them can’t spread their wings and gestation crates that prohibit a hog from turning around for the entire duration of her pregnancy. Factory farms in Ohio don’t want to have to abide by rules like these, so they’re seeking to preemptively cut off the ability of the voters or the legislature to make any such rules. They hope to do this by creating a board of non-elected political appointees who will have absolute power to make rules related to agriculture in Ohio.
I’m not exaggerating when I say “absolute power.” This board would be established by our state constitution. This means that no Ohio court could judge their rules to be unconstitutional. They’d have no direct oversight by the legislature, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture would be obliged to enforce whatever rules this board comes up with. Issue 2 doesn’t say how the Board is to come up with its rules. It does say that they shall consider certain things, like food safety and disease prevention, but it doesn’t say that those are the only considerations, or that the stated considerations should supersede all others. That is to say, the Board could declare, “Yes, battery cages probably cause some stress to the hens inside them, but requiring that cages be roomier would increase the cost of producing eggs, and that’s simply unacceptable.”
The board wouldn’t have absolute power. All their regulations would have to be approved by the General Assembly.
Issue 2 doesn’t say that. (Here’s a link to the actual text of the Joint Resolution from the General Assembly.) It says, “The Board shall have authority to establish standards governing the care and well-being of livestock and poultry in this state, subject to the authority of the General Assembly.” That doesn’t mean that each regulation that comes out of the Board would have to be submitted for approval from the Assembly. It just means that the Board has authority to make these rules so long as the Assembly says they do. In other words, it’s not the standards that are subject to the Assembly’s authority. It’s the Board’s authority that’s subject to the Assembly’s authority. Presumably, if the Board started making rules that resulted in really egregious human rights abuses or something along that line, the Assembly could step in and establish some guidelines. Still, the existence of the Board would be constitutionally mandated, and the members would be appointed as stated. There’s nothing the assembly could do to change that. Basically, if we vote this Board into existence and decide we don’t like some of the rules they’re passing, the only way to do anything about it is for the Ohio voters to pass another constitutional amendment repealing this one.
Besides that, even if the Board did have to get approval from the Assembly for any new agriculture regulations, what’s the likelihood the Assembly would contradict them? This board will be regarded as “the experts” in agriculture in Ohio. If they–veterinarians and industry bigwigs–say that something is a good practice, how reasonable is it to think that a majority of the General Assembly is going to oppose them? It’s true that elected politicians like to get re-elected, and that legislators need to be responsive to voters. They’re not going to want to get caught between the voters and the Board, though, so it’s easier for the legislature to skirt the whole dilemma by giving the Board blanket authority from the outset. Then, if voters protest to their Representative about a new Board regulation, the legislator can say, “I share your concerns, but this isn’t a legislative matter. It’s the Board that makes these rules. You should appeal to the Board directly.”
The commercial said a Yes vote will ensure safe, locally grown food, and that livestock are well treated.
Big Ag isn’t clueless. They know consumers prefer safe, locally grown food, and that consumers want livestock to be well treated. In other words, they know that the public objects to the way they do business. This is why they fought so hard to prohibit natural dairy farmers from advertising their hormone-free milk as being hormone-free. (The compromise the courts came up with is that labels can say that milk is rGBH free, but they also have to say that rGBH-free milk is no different than milk from cows on steroids.) They know that if consumers get to choose between safe, ethical, locally grown food from a small, family farm, or scary, questionable stuff produced by a multinational corporation, they’re going to go for the former, often even if it costs more.
To stay in the game, they’ve co-opted these buzz words to push public opinion in favor of a constitutional amendment that can protect them. Really, it’s a bold move. Big Ag is trying to win the support of the people who hate them most, because they know that if Issue 2 passes, they don’t have to do anything to please anybody ever again. The Board can give a free pass to factory farm abuses and outlaw anything that gives small farmers a market advantage. Things like the milk labeling issue wouldn’t be settled in court anymore. The Board would decide.
Did they lie? Not exactly. It’s not lying if you believe it yourself. In the opinion of the industry, industrial food is safe. In their opinion, factory farms are humane. If a facility in Ohio is raising cattle in a confined feeding operation to sell to Japan, it’s still an Ohio farm. That makes it local food, right? If a family owns a farm with several hundred acres, millions of dollars in assets, and several employees, and it raises half a million chickens a year on contract for Tyson, it’s still a family farm, isn’t it? In their view, what they’re doing is providing safe, local food from family farms. What farmers like me are doing–raising animals naturally and selling directly to the people in our own communities–doesn’t even count.
If you talk to the farmers at your local farmers’ market, most of them will tell you they oppose Issue 2–assuming they’ve researched the matter. The reasons vary, but the bottom line is the same: whether it will hurt us or not, changing the constitution to establish the Livestock Care Standards Board will not do anything to help us. Having a bunch of corporate lobbyists get together to make rules–whether they favor Big Ag or not–is not going to make my animals happier, me wealthier, or you healthier. It could possibly have the opposite result, but it can’t improve on what I’m already doing.
Actually, I guess that’s not exactly true. With this enormous amount of power they’d be given, the Board could issue an edict that rules null and void all prohibitions against livestock. They could see to it that chickens, pigs, and dairy goats are welcome in every city, subdivision, and gated community across Ohio, even if clotheslines and non-conforming house colors are not. Yeah…that’ll happen. I’m sure that’s exactly why it’s being supported by all the factory farm organizations–because they want people to raise their own food in their own communities. More likely, if we see a loosening of these restrictions come to pass, it’ll be because they want to allow a hog factory to be built in a place where the zoning prohibits it.
Election day is tomorrow. If you haven’t already voted, please go vote NO on Issue 2. A local, free-range farmer asked you nicely.
Some of you may have noticed we weren’t at the Westerville Farmers’ Market last Wednesday. Instead, we were in Pennsylvania. I have family there, and it was nice to visit, but the real reason for going was that I attended the NAIS Listening Session in Harrisburg. (There’s another one in Louisville this Friday if anyone with the inclination to go reads this in time.) I had pre-registered online, and got an email telling me that while my pre-registration was confirmed, there was still a limit on the capacity of the room, so even among pre-registered attendees, it would be first-come-first-admitted. They advised I show up early if I wanted to get in.
I didn’t show up early, but it didn’t matter. The parking lot was mostly empty other than several fire trucks that were there for an unrelated event. I told a woman at the registration desk that I had pre-registered online, and it made no difference. “Did you register to speak?” I had, I told her. She handed me a folder with a colored sticker on the outside and a ticket inside. It appeared that everyone got one of these folders. So much for the scary warning about the need to pre-register.
I went into the banquet room where there were probably fewer than a hundred people in what looked to be a space designed for a thousand or more. That “fewer than a hundred” included members of the press, USDA officials, and a handful of security personnel in addition to regular attendees like me. I got a seat to the left of the central aisle, where there were microphones about every 15 feet. In front of me was a woman wearing a T-shirt that read “I LOVE MY COUNTRY. IT’S THE GOVERNMENT I DON’T TRUST” or something to that effect. To my left was a young woman carrying a baby in a sling. The woman with the T-shirt was making it her business to personally accost each person she could before the start of the meeting, as though we were all going to vote and she wanted to make sure we voted the right way. Unfortunately for the cowboy-hatted gentleman sitting next to her, he responded that he really hadn’t taken a position and could see the merit of having some kind of system for tracking diseases. The T-shirt lady got into a heated debate with him–well, heated on her side, at least. When she failed to rattle him, the lady with the baby joined in. I felt bad for him, though I disagreed with most of what he was saying. Just about the time I hopped into the conversation, the meeting started. Continue reading USDA-APHIS Holds NAIS Listening Session in Harrisburg
I was really excited about this message (below) until I read further into it. “…for the production of a premium brand of creatively designed fruit based preserves.” Farmers can already make their own jelly at home. It’s covered under the cottage food exemption. You’ll find fruit preserves at every farmers’ market in Ohio.
What our farm needs is a cannery that will do meat, broth, soups, and other meat-based products. We’ve made inquiries to ACENet and the ODA–even looked into starting our own facility–and all we heard was “You have to have a big industrial cannery to do meats.” After more than a year of searching, we finally found Keystone Meats in Lima, Ohio. They charge $1.35 per 28 oz. can, and the minimum amount they’ll process is 2000 lbs. of boneless meat.
They don’t slaughter the animals, though. You still need to have that done at an inspected facility somewhere else. Otherwise, the cans will be marked “not for resale.” That means I’d have to take my broilers to King & Sons (presently the only state-inspected custom poultry processor in the state) to have the birds processed first. The trouble with that is that they’re only equipped to do 800 birds a day. Conservatively estimating two pounds of boneless meat per bird, that means you’d need a minimum of 1000 chickens to get enough meat for Keystone to let you in the door. And King’s doesn’t slaughter every day. It’s just one or two days a week, never consecutive days, so I it wouldn’t even be possible to have them do 1000 birds at once. You’d have to drop off 800, store them frozen somewhere, then do another 200 on a different day.
Let’s say this was workable, though. By the time I pay around a thousand dollars for a thousand chicks, and buy feed for them at $11.35 per 50 lb. bag, then pay for fuel to haul them two hours to King’s, pay them to slaughter and de-bone, and pay Keystone $1.35 a can for 2000 pounds worth of 28 oz. cans, I’ve got over $11,000 tied up in cans of meat that I have to sell for something like $9.60 a can just to break even. If I sold it for $11 a can (too low? How much will someone realistically pay for a can of non-organic chicken?), I’d make about $1,500 profit. That’s not accounting for marketing costs, fixed assets, etc. Presently, I can make more than that on 300 birds I sell at the farmers’ markets, and I don’t have to raise them a thousand at a time or take out a loan of $11,000 for operating expenses.
And Keystone won’t do broth. That’s principally what I’m looking for. After my customers make a rush on the chicken breasts and buy about half the leg quarters, I’m left with a bunch of wings, backs, and the other half of the leg quarters. I’d like to cook these down into broth or soup to try to recapture some value, but try collecting 2000 lbs. of those pieces! I have a big pressure canner, but the state won’t let me sell broth or stock canned in it.
If some well-funded entrepreneur were to open a cannery that could do small, custom batches of soups, broths, canned meats, etc., affordably, it would be a fantastic opportunity for small farmers to sell value-added products. We have no shortage of Ohio produced jams and salsas, but there are no small farmers in Ohio doing direct sales of hot dog sauce or chicken noodle soup made from their own meat. And if a cannery is licensed and outfitted to handle meats, they could do other low-acid foods, too. That throws the door wide open to all kinds of canned vegetables. We could fill the grocery stores with locally produced, identity preserved goods, if only someone would package them for us.
Best of luck, though, to Mr. Leard and anyone who gets in on this new fruit cannery co-op.
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Renee Hunt
Date: Wed, 20 May 2009 09:18:49 -0400
Subject: [oeffadirect] [Fwd: Fwd: co-op cannery]
Anyone interested in forming a cooperative cannery, read on… This was originally sent and distributed to the OEFFA Athens Chapter. Best, Renee
*From: *”Ray Leard” <firstname.lastname@example.org >
*Date: *May 17, 2009 11:03:01 AM PDT
*To: *<email@example.com >
*Subject: **co-op cannery*
I own Purely American, a specialty food manufacturing concern located in the Poston Station Road Industrial Park – www.purelyamerican.com . I am trying to determine the interest among the region s’ farmers for the creation of a cooperative cannery in which the farmers would contract with my company to provide certain fruits raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, apples for the production of a premium brand of creatively designed fruit based preserves. I would invest the required funds in building the commercial kitchen, product design, marketing, promotion, and distribution at the national level through my existing channels I have already established. The press attached release explains the basic idea.
Wanted to know if, as a member of the Athens Farmers Market, you (or other fellow farmers that you know) might have an interest in becoming an owner/member in our new cooperative. The main purpose in creating the co-op will be to enable the area farmers to join forces to obtain a fair and consistent price for their premium quality fruit. The fruit will be used in a line of preserves that will help establish the Athens region as one of America’s premier locally grown food artisan regions. This will be achieved by maintaining the level of “Athens Grown” fruit in the line of products at 100% thereby creating a product line similar to great wines in which all the grapes are from a certain winery or region. In the preserve world as a company gets larger and larger they start compromising on quality and begin sourcing their fruit from outside the region where the idea started thereby compromising the integrity of the product.
I would appreciate your serious consideration in this matter. Please feel free to ask any and all questions. Don’t have all the answers yet but will work with each of you to make this something we can all be proud of as we proceed.
See you at the market!
Ray Leard and dedicated foodcrafters
5991 Industrial Park Road
Athens, Ohio 45701
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
41 Croswell St., Columbus, Ohio 43214
Ph: 614-421-2022 Fax: 614-421-2011
This was originally posted as a reply to Sam Rose’s question on Ohio State University’s Local Food Systems network.
“So, the question is: how can we plausibly increase the amount of farmers? The answer seems to be to take farming to where most of the people are at: in the cities.” –Sam Rose
I very much agree. In bringing farming to cities, we face two major obstacles, neither of which are insurmountable.
The first is that, even with intensive models such as Square-Foot gardening, Grow Biointensive, or SPIN, farming still requires land. A person aiming only to feed his or her own family might find a backyard sufficient, but someone trying to grow enough to earn a living is going to need either a lot of land on which they can grow during the regular growing season, or a more modest space with a greenhouse in which they can grow all year.
For all romantic and idealized notions people may have about farming, most urbanites who have a steady paycheck coming in, especially from a white collar job that they’ve obtained through many years of college and career climbing, aren’t likely to chuck it all for a risky entrepreneurial venture that’s bound to mean less money (especially at first) and a life of hard, dirty, sometimes smelly, often uncomfortable, physical labor outdoors.
Of course, not all city dwellers have such cushy lives. Many are poor and/or unemployed. Many already perform physical labor with no hope of advancement. For these people, farming offers the promise of a better life. These people, however, don’t have the capital necessary to start, and usually aren’t financially savvy enough or well connected enough to get it. Even peasants farming in developing nations on plots of an acre or less have more land than most of America’s urban poor can afford to buy.
In a nutshell, those who have the means to farm generally don’t want to, and those who want to generally don’t have the means. This is true all over, but the problem is exacerbated in the city because of higher real estate prices. Community gardens are not the answer. They’re a good way for people to learn horticultural skills and to put some extra nutrients in their diets or a few dollars in their pockets, but the average community garden plot doesn’t come even close to what’s necessary to feed one person, let alone provide an income for an entire family.
This is where I put in my plug for Local Matters and offer high praise for the work Michael Jones and his colleagues are doing. They are developing a system to connect landless farmers with landowners willing to let others use their land. I am the beneficiary of their first test of this idea. They connected me with a man who owns about five acres in Columbus, maybe three miles from my home. In exchange for donating some produce to local food pantries and agreeing to manage a community garden on the front acre, I’ve been given access to the back acre for my own use. I worked out a similar deal on my own with another township’s community garden, and I’ve been leasing a vacant lot for $1.00 a year from the city of Columbus for the past few years. In aggregate, I now have around two acres on which to farm. This year, I’m offering a CSA for the first time. My gross sales to date this year (as of May 7th) already equal over 70% of my total sales for all of 2008 when I had only a half-acre–and the season is only starting!
I said there were two big problems. Getting land into the hands of the people who want to work it was the first. The second is the morass of municipal regulations criminalizing agriculture. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that in neighborhoods where hanging out laundry is prohibited and everyone’s Christmas lights have to match, the controlling authorities frown upon having livestock and hayfields next door. Until we can change urban sensibilities enough to eliminate or at least loosen up some of the agri-phobic codes and regulations presently in place, we can’t grow food in the city on a wide scale without constant harassment from health departments, zoning officials, and homeowners’ associations.
Today is a gorgeous day, perfect for planting, but I took time to come home and watch my son so my wife, Mayda Sanchez, Secretary of the Farmers’ Market Management Network, Inc., could attend a meeting. The meeting (that she missed due to some scheduling confusion) was about a planned study of farmers’ market food safety. It’s being done through OSU in collaboration with the Columbus and Franklin County health departments.
From what I understand, they plan to look for pathogens in samples taken from farmers’ fields both before harvest and either at the time of harvest or immediately afterward (I’m not sure which). They also plan to take samples after the produce has been out on display at a farmers’ market, where it will have been handled by customers.
As a farmers’ market vendor, I’m opposed to this study. Why? Have I got something to hide? Am I afraid that all the dirty little secrets of sustainable agriculture will be discovered and the whole concept of “clean food” exposed as a sham? Not at all.
What I’m opposed to is the narrow focus of this study. I have no doubt at all that tomatoes that have been fondled by prospective customers for three hours are going to have some level of some kind of dangerous pathogen on them. No question. It further stands to reason that tomatoes that have been sitting out for three or four days at a large grocery store that’s open 24/7 are going to have tremendously higher counts of dangerous pathogens…but the proposed study won’t be looking at these tomatoes.
See the problem? Germs are everywhere. They’re unavoidable in the natural world. That’s why we have immune systems. Vegetables–at least any other than hydroponic ones–grow in dirt. Dirt is–you guessed it–dirty! The outdoor fields where the tomatoes are grown, exposed to flying birds and other wildlife, undoubtedly carry traces of germs, which is why the smart money is on washing your food before you eat it. This is true, though, of food grown outdoors whether it’s sold at a farmers’ market or at a big chain grocery store.
If we take two samples side by side, we can say, “Both samples show the presence of Superbug X, but Sample A has 6,000 times more Superbug X on it than Sample B does.” Reading that sentence, you would probably come to the conclusion that you would prefer Sample B. If, however, the result is just “We tested a sample from Jones’ Fruit Farm, and it contained Superbug X,” no doubt Farmer Jones is going to see business dry up fast. His customers will run from his stand to whatever store happens to be selling the food that is 6,000 times filthier, because that danger wasn’t reported. There is no absolute safety, only relative safety. If you don’t make a fair comparison, anything examined in isolation is going to seem dangerous.
I would welcome such a study if it were broadened to include conventionally grown food sold in stores. If the study shows that my carrots are germier than Wal-Mart’s carrots, so be it. It may hurt my interests, but at least it’s a fair accounting.
I trust that the folks behind this study have the most principled of intentions in doing the study. They no doubt want the public to be safe. They see farmers’ markets growing, and like anyone suspicious of something new and unconventional, they feel it necessary to verify the safety of the food sold at these markets. That’s fine if the study is being done in such a way as to include like samples of non-farmers’-market-food to offer some context. Otherwise, regardless of the sincere intentions of the creators of the study, it has the potential for being used as a hit piece by purveyors of industrial food seeking to undermine the competition.
That may sound a little “tinfoily” to some, but we’ve already seen Big Dairy sue to force farmers who don’t juice up their cows with hormones
to label their milk with a disclaimer saying that milk from normal, healthy cows is no better for you than milk from cows on drugs. Just today I read a story about Monsanto suing Germany for banning a genetically modified kind of corn that was the cause of some health concerns. If a corporation will do massive damage to the environment and sell people poisons while calling it food, there’s little reason to expect them to play nicely and tolerate competition from a bunch of little farmers selling homegrown goods. I don’t want to give these guys any ammunition, and a study that will undoubtedly conclude that local food is dirty (without also saying that shipped-in food is tremendously dirtier) would do exactly that.
Frijolito Farm is offering a CSA this year running from the beginning of June through the middle of November. Vegetables, eggs, chicken, bread, sweets, and a limited selection of fruits will be available. For full details and to order online, visit the CSA page at frijolitofarm.com
Spring is officially here. We received our annual visit from the Health Department. No, I don’t mean the inspection for my mobile food vending license. I still need to schedule that. I’m talking about the follow-up on an anonymous complaint about the chickens that’s become something of an annual ritual here, typically about this time of year. Continue reading Don’t Cuss the Farmer With Your Mouth Full
Are you an apartment dweller looking for a place to garden? A gardener looking for more space than you currently have? Art Yoho has generously volunteered his front yard for the site of our new community garden. The space is about one acre on Maize Road, just a bit north of Cooke Road. We’re looking for interested people to participate.
There is no fee for participation in the 2009 season. Wayne Shingler of Frijolito Farm will be available to help those new to gardening. Whether you’re looking to make a dent in your grocery bill or just want to give away your crop to neighbors or a food pantry, come out and play in the dirt with us this year!
Plots will be ten feet by ten feet, but if we have more plots than gardeners, you can do more than one plot. Everyone is welcome, but in the spirit of localizing our food system, preference will be given to those who live nearest to the garden if we get more interested people than we have plots available.
Special thanks to Art Yoho, Chuck Lynd, and Michael Jones for making this garden possible.
To sign up or for more information, contact Wayne at (614) 390-2692 or at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Maize garden” in the subject line.