Times may be tough, but there’s room in the Farm Bill tent

Part of my work at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has been to report on happenings and announcements at the USDA and on the Hill. Here’s a repost of a quick update I wrote on the most recent House Ag Committee hearing for the 2012 Farm Bill. Check out the NSAC blog and other articles here, or sign up for the Weekly Roundup and you’ll receive regular updates to your inbox.

Thursday’s hearing in the House Agriculture Committee brought in two panels of farm and food policy experts to continue the conversation kicked off on late April in preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill.

As in the first hearing in late April, the witnesses’ testimony and Representatives’ questions covered a wide range of topics, but consistently came back to two underlying themes.  First, the 2012 Farm Bill will need to shift “business as usual” especially with regards to farm safety net programs like crop insurance; and second, Congress will need to make these changes within a tough budget context.  Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) has been calling the 2012 Farm Bill a “baseline” bill, but in the hearing, it was apparent that even a baseline level of funding is not guaranteed.

These themes played out in a back-and-forth on approaches to rural development.  Professor Neil Hamilton of Drake University testified on the importance of continuing to support federal programs that promote the development of local and regional food systems alongside existing national and global commodity agriculture.  This analysis was in line with prior comments from Chairman Peterson and Secretary Vilsack, but with overall funding for the Farm Bill likely to be limited, some in Congress feel threatened at what they perceive as an increasing emphasis on new and alternative markets.

In response to Professor Hamilton’s testimony, Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) expressed concern over what he saw as a “growing emphasis” on “lifestyle” agriculture over “production” agriculture and said that “a prospering mainstreet” would not come as a result of this “lifestyle” farming.

Hamilton countered by citing the potential for local and regional production to keep more dollars  in rural communities and keep farmers on the land.  In his written testimony, Hamilton also emphasized support for  “Agriculture of the Middle” – farmers and ranchers who rely heavily on farming income, are too large to sell into direct markets, but too small to compete effectively on the commodity market but are finding new high value regional markets.

Fellow Iowan Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) reiterated that there was room in the tent for everyone: ‘There is not a threat to production agriculture,’ he said. ‘There’s room for both.’”

May 15, 2010   1 Comment


This guy is a rockstar. Everything he says resonates.

What inspires you to do your work? “Problem solving… Creating interesting, innovative, and efficient solutions”

“I think we miss opportunities to connect food advocacy and other fields of interest because the nature of the work (and the method of funding) breeds specialization rather than integration.”

“I don’t know one initiative in any field of interest that has been able to create sustainable, game-changing outcomes within 12 months… But in the food movement, we overpromise and underfund, then get mad when we don’t change the world after a year.”

“Investing in communities to create things. Be a part of the creation movement.”

And yet another reason to move to Detroit:

“In two weeks Detroit will launch its Green Grocer Project, which is a grocery expansion and attraction program to help with operations, financing and giving them a direct liaison housed in the City for anything they need. To create a space in the city for a grocer at any level to get involved and give them a contact for anything they need: bookkeeping, accounting, store design, product handling, you name it.… the Mayor will make an announcement on May 17th and it’ll be like watching my baby be born.”

May 11, 2010   No Comments

Awesome food safety poster and something you can DO now.

This poster was made by Veritable Vegetable for the Wild Farm Alliance.

It’s a spoof on food safety regulations that make it very difficult for growers to maintain ecologically sound growing practices (like buffers and vegetation that might provide habitat) and nudge them towards less desirable habits — like using fences, traps and poison to keep wildlife away — that undermine biodiversity and may not actually have the desired effect on food safety.


If you can’t read the tiny print. The top three read left to right: “Toxic Pesticides, Toxic Fertilizer, Fueled by Fossil Fuels” “Unknown Food Value” and “Unknown Pathogens”

The blue part says “Please grow only between the red and yellow flags. The food is patrolled for the safety of YOUR food system.”

To read a great article on alternative strategies to improve food safety while maintaining biodiversity and supporting small farms with good stewardship practices, check out this awesome report by Food and Water Watch.

If you care about the issue and want to act, consider calling your senator and asking s/he to support Senator Stabenow’s Food Safety Training bill that would help deliver training and technical assistance to small farms to help them provide safer food.

Funny how much the poster reminds me so much of these (real) signs in Singapore. But I’ll have to leave those thoughts for another post!


February 3, 2010   No Comments

Washington Farm Intern Bill Hearing

I’m not sure who to blame for my historic lack of interest in politics or public policy. I’m loathe to admit that until (very) recently I contributed to the dismal statistics of “young apathetics.” Like many, the 2008 election piqued my interest, but the effect was dampened by distance and humidity — watching events unfold from rural Cambodia just wasn’t the same as dancing in the streets in the Mission in SF.

But now, I’m starting to understand and really care. I’ve seen small policy take shape first-hand and it’s exciting. And I’m starting to see how much policy matters in the issues that move me.

While on the farm, Peter and Susan invited me to come along to a meeting of the Agricultural Resources Committee — a group which advised the County government on agricultural policy. The ARC was discussing farm intern policy in response to a situation in which the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) began to audit local farm’s internship practices. The state’s labor law does not currently recognize farm internships as a valid worker category unless interns are registered students at a recognized educational institution.

Thanks to work by local farmers and activists, that first conversation eventually developed into a bill sponsored by Senator Kevin Ranker, a major small farm advocate in the state. The bill will establish principles for small farm internships in the state, and will allow farms to offer internships at less than the minimum wage, given specific requirements including an internship agreement signed by the farmer and the intern which includes some sort of record of the educational/vocational component of the arrangement.

The law will make it possible for small farms to continue to hire and train a new generation of young farmers without undue financial burden. This is not meant as a way for farms to dodge the law or gain unfair advantage, but rather as a way for them to provide a much-demanded public service of educating young would-be farmers.

Now, the bill’s having its public hearing:

“Senator Ranker’s SB 6349, establishing a farm internship program, has been scheduled for public hearing before the Labor Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee on January 28th at 3:30 pm. The Senator hopes that he has several farmers and interns at the hearing. The latter will be critical in order for the bill to pass. Please pass this along to stakeholders and those who are willing to provide testimony during the public hearing.”


The tool stand in Synergy Farm’s barn

I can’t make it to Seattle, but I did write a letter of support:

Dear Senator Kohl-Welles,

I am writing in support of Washington State Senate Bill 6349, the proposed law on farm interns. As a farm intern in the San Juan Islands, I participated in the early stages of development of the bill within the San Juan County Agricultural Resources Committee and am very excited to see it move forward in the Washington state legislature.

From April to September of 2009, I apprenticed on Synergy Farm on San Juan Island with Peter and Susan Corning. During my six months at Synergy, I gained hands-on experience and knowledge about sustainable farming, plant cultivation, and the business of running a small farm.

I came to my interest in agriculture through work in Cambodia, and the experience at Synergy has been an invaluable step in my career and personal development. Now I plan to return to graduate school to study sustainable business, with an emphasis on developing local economies and food systems. I would eventually like to run my own farm and value-added food business, very likely in Washington State. The season I spent at Synergy laid a strong foundation to pursue these goals and strengthened my desire to farm in the region.

This bill would make it possible for small farms like Synergy to continue to offer hands-on technical training for a future generation of farmers and I hope you support it in the upcoming hearing.

Very sincerely,

Jess Daniel

January 27, 2010   1 Comment

Where have all the farm boys gone?

We were driving through Ontario the other weekend, past car dealerships and strip malls and concrete dividers and I got this image in my mind of the Inland Empire way before the orange groves, before the Mormon settlements, before the Spanish settlers when the Serranos and Cahullia Indian tribes lived in the San Bernadino valley. It must have been beautiful.

Our family friend, John told me about being out in the area and taking biking trips out to wineries through the backs of fields back in the 70s. Apparently not all the freeways were around back then and you could get from place to place without your Suburban (or in our case, Honda) .

I went digging a bit and turned up this map from the California Dept of conservation on land-use change in Chino from 1984 to 2008. How fascinating.

Check out the way the green turns pink. Within the image area, more than 12,500 acres were removed from agricultural uses, and urban land increased by more than 17,000 acres.

Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program
1984 to 2008 TIME SERIES


November 30, 2009   1 Comment

Can a movement toward a new food system learn from the music industry?

In this entry, I started off on the similarities between a trend in the food industry toward smaller, alternative food & farm businesses and changes in the music industry that resulted in part from the growth of the internet.

I made a brief analogy between the effect of the internet on the music industry and the effect of new information and a shifting culture on the food industry and these comments drew the comparison out further.

I like this comparison. In both cases, there are some seriously established players (“new oligopoly” perhaps?): the major labels and and the major food corporations — who currently control a large part of the market and have a stake in seeing that things as they are don’t change. And in both cases, as a result of a new technology and new information and a changing ethos, consumers demand a new way of doing things.

In the case of the music industry, the game changed when internet technology made it possible to upload and download files. When industry decided to ignore this game-changing innovation and stick to business-as-usual, pirates moved in to fill the gap; eventually some legitimate businesses followed (Apple & iTunes). There were lawsuits, there was upheaval. I’m not sure if the major labels actually lost marketshare, though overall rate-of-growth in the industry supposedly slowed. But in general, it seems to me that consumers and small artists ended up much better off since we now we have all sorts of new and legitimate ways to find out about new music (LastFM, Pandora, cheap iTunes singles available for download) and they now have more avenues to get noticed.

In the food industry, there aren’t really “pirates” yet, since generally food isn’t considered intellectual property** but certainly the big players (and there really are only a few, just like worry that profits will be dispersed as modes of distribution become more varied and specialized, as consumers become more informed and their preferences change and the advantage of scale becomes less important.

In the case of music, large scale players might be frightened by the idea that the internet allows people to find out about an artist online rather than only in a record store. As Janis Ian argues in this article in 2002, music downloads may hurt huge artists and labels, but help almost everyone else, consumers who wouldn’t be exposed to so many new artists and new and small artists, for whom exposure is everything.

In the case of food, large scale players might lose part of their advantage when individuals or policies calculate the true costs of food production (social, environmental) and impose penalties for negative externalities, when sustainable farming and food processing and distribution becomes more efficient with time**, and when society pays attention to other elements of value (taste, nutrition, uniqueness or variety, etc) and not just cost.

So what are some things we could learn?

  1. Big companies who are making a lot of money don’t want that to change.
  2. Change that may hurt large companies may benefit individual consumers and smaller players, not necessarily financially (lower costs, increased profits), but also in other measures of value — more access to a broader range of music, better access to healthier food that’s better for the planet.
  3. Consumer knowledge and behavior can force a change to totally new types of business models.
  4. Anything else?

* Monsanto’s patents on certain seeds are a notable exception!
** Some would argue that efficiency isn’t important in the world of organic farming, but I think that’s a romantic and backwards notion. Yes, efficiency isn’t everything, and a quest to produce more, more cheaply can’t completely sacrifice taste, nutritional quality, and the social good, but few would argue with the benefit of finding new appropriate technologies to help make healthy food affordable and accessible to more people.

July 12, 2009   No Comments

Oh San Francisco, how I miss thee…

…and thy progressive foodiness!

I was already pretty impressed when my adopted city’s Board of Supervisors voted in favor of mandatory composting last month. And now, an executive order by Mayor Newsom is making a big statement in favor of small, local, sustainable farming.

“[Newsom is] ordering all departments to survey the land under their control in order to create an inventory of land that can support community gardens. All city-purchased food for city meetings, schools, jails or homeless shelters must be grown locally with sustainable farming practices. Food vendors with city permits must also meet these requirements.” — from Tilde Herrera at Greenbiz.com

Wowsers! What a coup for food advocacy organizations and local Bay Area producers, and how tremendously apt for the region that gave rise to the term “locavore.”

I wonder how they are going to define “local” for these purposes, and what percentage of the food will have to adhere to this definition? This kind of policy is really only feasible in a place like SF, where fresh food is available year-round. But what about harder-to-procure stuff like grains and spices?

I assume this decision is also going to create more demand for services like this cool online startup to help city departments and food vendors to handle procurement more efficiently than juggling daily phone calls with dozens of small providers.

July 9, 2009   2 Comments