Friday, October 11, 2013

Indoctrinating the Youth: National Pork Board Spins Yarns About Modern Meat Production

A few months ago I stumbled upon a curious attempt at social engineering.  A website link led me to a children’s coloring book titled “Producers, Pigs & Pork.” Available both as a downloadable PDF or printed booklet, it invites kids to color in the pictures and “learn more about pigs.” 

The storytelling takes place on an elementary level. But given the realities of contemporary livestock production, “Producers, Pigs, & Pork” is quite a tale. We travel with narrator Billy to a 100-year-old farm where we meet fresh-faced veterinarian Dr. Sarah and smiley farmer Jones. Huge feeding silos and windowless barns are outlined for kids to color in. “This is fun!” Billy exclaims. “I’ve never been to a pig farm before.” 

Billy learns that fast growing pigs need lots of corn and soybeans (not forage or food “waste”) to grow to a market weight of 270 pounds. Veterinarians are there to look after animals if they fall ill. And pigs no longer grow up in the mud so they can stay “healthy and happy.”

The veterinarian’s prominence in the story is especially curious. She shows up everywhere, as if she’s an employee of farmer Jones. Meanwhile maps and surveys done by the American Veterinary Medicine Association paint a different picture of the involvement of veterinarians on today’s large confinement livestock operations. In fact, the AVMA has documented a desperate lack of veterinarians in states where livestock production has become heavily concentrated: Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and North Carolina. What’s more, a battle is raging right now over the abuse of antibiotics, dosed to animals routinely in feed and water rations—without veterinary consult. 

In the real world of modern factory farming, the stench from 2,500 pigs jammed into a single hog barn might send Billy running for the door ready to lose his lunch. He might have nightmares after witnessing the crazed repetitive behaviors like bar chewing and pacing that intensive confinement induces in animals who naturally want to spend the day wallowing in mud, rooting for food, and socializing in family groups. 

According to the National Pork Board’s coloring book, “pigs can’t use all the feed they eat, so they produce manure. ... this makes our crops grow better.” But there is no picture for kids to color in of a football field-sized, multi-million gallon manure “lagoon.”  There is no mention that a manure holding pond is more like a cess pool, containing hundreds of compounds including antibiotics, hormones, heavy metals, bacteria, and toxic gases. In fact, an operation like farmer Jones’ pig farm can produce as much waste as do the citizens of a small city.

As the story of “Producers, Pigs & Pork” unfolds, the fantasy mounts: doting veterinarians, happy animals, and healthy industrial hog manure. In one final turn of creative nonfiction, pigs turn into roasts, pork chops, ribs and other cuts—without transport or slaughter.  

This and a number of other coloring books are funded by the Pork Checkoff Program as part of the “Pork4Kids” initiative. The Pork Checkoff Program began with the 1985 Farm Bill and is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its $60 million annual budget for communications, research, and marketing is funded by a processing fee on every 100 pounds of domestic and imported pork. Ostensibly the goal is to raise the profile of and demand for “the Other White Meat.” And “Producers, Pigs & Pork” and other propaganda definitely aim at convincing a new generation of the wholesomeness of industrially produced meat.

It is essential that our children learn the fundamentals of where their food comes from. But let’s not feed them industry-written myths about food production. Children don’t have to confront the nightmarish scenes behind contemporary meat production to understand that there are better ways to raise animals than inside a bright and shiny factory farm—without substance abuse, excessive crowding, and environmental contamination. That will mean telling a different story. Either the actual truth of what goes on behind the windowless walls of modern factory farms or the story of the independent farmer struggling against all odds (and the USDA) to produce a healthy product that truly honors the animal that become food on our plates.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Message to Congress: Stop Monkeying Around with Conservation Budgets

When most Americans think of the agencies in charge of nature conservation, the Department of the Interior or the National Park Service likely spring to mind. They don’t think of the Department of Agriculture, which allocates nearly $4 billion per year to land conservation in its Farm Bill.

This summer the House and Senate are rewriting the Farm Bill, which Congress last year kicked down the road. The 10-year price tag will total nearly a trillion dollars, funding food stamps, agribusiness subsidies, conservation, and research. Budget cutters are searching for billions of dollars to slash, and Farm Bill conservation programs, once again, seem vulnerable.

This is real cause for concern. Established in response to the overplowing that led to the Dust Bowl, conservation programs are intended to compensate landowners for vital work that the free market does not value: soil protection, wetland and grassland preservation, water filtration, pesticide and fertilizer reduction, carbon sequestration. Safeguarding natural resources in a time of rising temperatures and more violent weather events are crucial investments in public health and national security.

Of all agriculturally-related federal spending, conservation programs can offer the public the biggest return for the taxpayer dollar. They can expand the availability of organic and pasture-raised foods, help farmers reduce runoff that harms public waterways, promote soil-enhancing practices like cover cropping and field rotations, and protect farmland and wildlands for future generations.

Unfortunately, most members of Congress, including many influential members of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees, don’t understand the devastating toll that six decades of Farm Bill subsidized factory farming methods has taken on the land—or the power of conservation programs to reverse them.

Adding insult to injury, those conservation programs that do exist rarely get the money they are promised when Farm Bills are passed. Legislators make a big deal about how the Farm Bill protects the environment. But whenever budget appropriators need savings, conservation programs are the first on the chopping block. There’s a term for this: Changes in Mandatory Program Spending, or CHIMPS. 

Over the last five years, Conservation budgets have been CHIMPed by more than $3 billion, with nearly $2 billion in cuts between 2011 and 2013 alone. That’s not because there’s no demand for the programs. Three out of four applications are turned away for lack of funding.

Even common sense on-farm stewardship practices that were historically required of farm subsidy recipients are disappearing from the Farm Bill. Take taxpayer funded crop insurance. Over the past five years, subsidized crop insurance has become farmers’ preferred source of taxpayer assistance. Crop insurance policies currently come with no land conservation requirements. Because of this, they are actually causing a massive amount of previously protected land to be plowed up. Farmers anxious to cash in on record crop prices no longer have to worry about yields when taxpayer programs guarantee them against losses. Across the Great Plains, corn and soybeans are being planted on millions of acres of erodible lands that were previously deemed marginal and formerly protected through the Conservation Reserve Program. Scientists fear another Dust Bowl is in the making.

“Congress right now has the ability and responsibility to transform the Conservation Title for the next 10 years,” says Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer. In May, Blumenauer introduced HR 1890, the “Balancing Food, Farms and Environment Act of 2013.” The bill is just one of many intended to strengthen conservation efforts into the House and Senate Farm Bills, which should come to floor votes this summer. A Coburn-Durban amendment is aimed at imposing income thresholds on crop insurance for the largest farmers. HR 1890 would provide more money for to protect land in permanent easements and reward farmers for carbon sequestration. Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced an amendment to expand supports to organic farmers.

In a political landscape hostile to environmental protection, agricultural lobbies have for decades found ways to pilfer conservation budgets to help boost crop and livestock production. Over the last ten years alone, according to the Environmental Working Group, two billion dollars in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program have been diverted to pay for the hard costs of establishing waste containment structures for concentrated animal feeding operations, laying pipe for irrigation in arid regions, and draining wetlands.

Like the Olympic Games, the renewal of the Farm Bill only comes around every four to five years. It offers the opportunity for Americans to invest in the long-term health of farmlands and the countryside. But time may be running out.
Could this year be a turning point for Farm Bill conservation reforms, like the 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills, which established far-reaching efforts to protect grasslands and wetlands across the heartland? 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Factory Farms of Lenawee County

Eastern, Michigan, March 2013 — Rolling across North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, Washington, California, and today, eastern Michigan, I’ve seen first-hand the impacts of industrial dairy, poultry, and hog factories on rural communities. I admire the people who fight back against the invasion of factory farms. I seek them out, trying to see the land from their eyes. But no matter how many times I experience it, I still find unpalatable a business model that’s based on marginalizing animal welfare and polluting your neighbors’ air, land, water and quality of life in the name of profit and cheap food.

Lynn and Dean Henning are guiding me on a tour of the CAFOs of Lenawee County. It’s a cold morning in early spring. The landscape is leached of color. The ponds are thick with ice. An occasional snowflake flutters from wooly clouds.

“When they spray manure in the winter, sometimes you can see it hanging frozen from the irrigation booms,” says Lynn from the back seat. “We call them ‘poopsicles.’”

“What’s it like here when spring arrives?” I ask, imagining a painterly transformation of the countryside with grass, foliage, blossoms, songbirds.

“Springtime smells really bad,” she answers.

Dean is driving. He is silver haired, in his late fifties. He has cut back on farm work since suffering a heart attack and a subsequent quadruple by-pass surgery a few years ago. We travel by “Henning Hwy.,” named after his grandfather, the first homeowner to bring electricity to the neighborhood. Dean still farms a few hundred acres of corn and soybeans, manages a few hundred acres of forestland, and maintains a massive garden that produces a prodigious quantities of tomatoes, sweet corn, and other heirloom vegetables for family and friends.

I already know Lynn Henning as the anti-CAFO warrior with waves of white hair who won the prestigious 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize. Lynn and I have met  a few times as fellow conference speakers. She and Dean have been kind enough to let me tag along on one of their thrice-weekly surveys of creeks and drainages, scouting for discharges from the dozen or so dairy CAFOs spaced at five-mile intervals around their area.

With its vegetable, tree fruit, grain and livestock production, Michigan boasts the country’s most diverse agricultural output next to California. But Lenawee County is corn and soybean country. Its fields follow the rolling contours of the land. Broad fields are interwoven between small belts of trees and complex drainages that carve through the sloping lands, sometimes flattening out in low-lying wetlands. This is precisely the challenge of concentrating livestock in this area: how to keep the waste from running off fields into the many surface and underground drainage systems that feed creeks, streams, river arteries and eventually flow into the now mightily polluted Lake Erie.

Our first stop is Hartland Farms, a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) with 1,000 dairy cows and 2,000 acres of cropland. As Lynn rattles off the complicated web of partnerships that make up its ownership, it becomes immediately obvious to me why a CAFO is so aptly referred to as a “factory farm.” The buildings are sheathed in steel. Cows are nowhere to be seen. They are housed inside by the hundreds in linear stalls, moving only to lie down or take their turns at the electronic milking parlor. Waste exits one end of the facility the way a vertical smokestack might release pollution skyward. Instead of smoke, the CAFO pipe spews concentrated liquid animal waste—rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, ammonia and other chemicals and laden with bacteria such as fecal coliform and E. coli. The waste is temporarily stored in nearby holding lagoons that are bermed into ponds as long as football fields and deep enough to contain millions of gallons of waste. Waste off-gasses into the atmosphere that floats across the surrounding community. Waste is spread on nearby fields or pumped directly into underground irrigation pipes beneath fields. 

“They plaster it on 8 inches thick and spray right up to the roadsides,” says Lynn.

“In liquid form,” adds Dean, “it doesn’t stay on the ground too long.”

The image of 100-acre fields smeared with CAFO manure more than a half a foot deep is nauseating. In fact, I can see the brown green shadow from a recent ground application glistening between rows of stubble left from last year’s corn harvest.

Dean and Lynn make the rounds of potential discharge sites. A drain can be a simple grass-lined gulley that moves through the low point of a field. It could be a culvert that spans beneath a road. Eventually the water moves onto successively larger waterways, like the South Branch of the River Raisin.

In order to monitor what is happening to their community, the Hennings, along with other members of the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, have become citizen scientists. Armed with a variety of hand-held devices, volunteers can monitor for nutrients, chemicals, bacteria, antibiotics and biological oxygen demand. Samples are sent to a lab if results indicate potentially dangerous contaminants. Any alarming findings are officially reported to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Rural agricultural conflicts like these are not just the result of too many humans coming up against too few resources. These fights have been going on for a very long time. Way back in 1610, English landholder William Aldred claimed that his neighbor, Thomas Benton’s pig sty, was sited too close to his home. Aldred argued that the livestock operation was violating his rights as a community member. Upon hearing the case, King Charles I’s court ruled in Aldred’s favor, deciding that no one has “the right to right to maintain a structure upon his own land, which, by reason of disgusting smells, loud or unusual noises, thick smoke, noxious vapors, the jarring of machinery, or the unwarrantable collection of flies, renders the occupancy of adjoining property dangerous, intolerable, or even uncomfortable to its tenants." In other words, it’s against common law to stink up or foul the neighborhood.

Four centuries later, it is still to the courts where citizens must turn when their air, water, and health are violated by intensive concentrations of animals.

We make a stop at what looks like a recently constructed CAFO facility. There are four white hangar-like barns. Sandwiched between the four barns is a fancier brick building that must serve as the main office. But something is amiss. There are no trucks in the lot. There’s no one around at all. The mailbox is tilted at a funny angle. The place is abandoned. Apparently, the CAFO went belly up. It’s been taken over by the bank and is for sale.

Factory farms, I learn, are a relatively new phenomenon in Lenawee County. The first mega-dairy arrived in 1999 as the Hudson area became a target of the Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development syndicate. This family, with Dutch origins, is now legendary across the Midwest for fabricating an elaborate Ponzi scheme that started over 90 mega-dairies, mainly with investments from European families they conned into coming to America. Facilities were often never completed or were simply unprofitable. Environmental violations were routine. Even as dairies failed, Vreba-Hoff continued to attract more investors, expanding further into rural communities. Many investors were forced into bankruptcy. Creditors lost millions. The CAFO conmen took the money and skipped town.

“Small town drama,” says Lynn.

Indeed. The more you look behind the curtain, this CAFO model becomes a serious shell game. Pack as many animals on a particular property as an agency will authorize with a pollution permit (if the agencies even require one.) Convince local governments to build new roads and other infrastructure. Rake in hundreds of thousands in US Department of Agriculture subsidies to help pay for waste management costs, and on top of that, take advantage of feed subsidies, taxpayer supported crop insurance and disaster payments for your croplands. Degrade the health of the neighborhood with waste emissions and stench, slowly driving homeowners out, then buy up their devalued properties in the process.

“They use manure as a weapon,” says Dean.

We are passing through the half-boarded up farming town of Medina. It’s a victim of what can only be described as economic undevelopment.

“Why don’t people fight back?” I ask.

“People are afraid to pick fights,” says Lynn. “It’s like the town in A Civil Action. People have lived here forever. Many are convinced that they need this system, that they’ll earn money renting their land to the CAFOs for field applications.”

“Even when that waste damages their soil and lowers their yields,” adds Dean.

“People will drop a note in the mailbox or take me aside every once in a while and thank me for speaking out,” says Lynn.

I think about the twisted and somewhat tragic logic at work: an unhealthy food production system that people somehow accept as inevitable. A system where many of the real costs of production—effects on human health, impacts on shared water resources, basic costs of feed and waste management—are passed off on local communities and federal taxpayers. I ask Lynn and Dean to talk about the words and terminology which industry uses to describe these events I am seeing.

“They always speak of ‘odor,” says Dean, “never of toxic pollution.”

“Waste runoff and lagoon overflows after heavy rains is always ‘storm water,” says Lynn.

“Waste running into the creeks is a ‘discharge,” says Dean.

“Lagoon waste spread across the farm fields is ‘sediment,” says Lynn. “But it’s never dry and it’s not sediment. And underground pipes that drain straight into the creeks are ‘sub-irrigation systems.’”

We stop at an infamous site where a 20-acre wetland was filled with CAFO waste a few years back.

“The EPA was here to see it,” says Lynn.

I begin to fear that in my zeal to document this tour with photos I’ve been breathing nasty air. It’s no doubt on my boots and clothes and perhaps in my respiratory system.

“What if you could buy up one of these defunct CAFOs and turn it into a demonstration farm for a new kind of pasture-based, healthy agriculture?” I ask.

“I wish we could,” says Lynn.

Dean describes a farm.  “A 640-acre section is a square mile,” he says.  “You would want to keep at least 160 acres in woodland. The rest could be fenced off so that fields could be rotated between pasture and row crops. At two acres per cow, you could have a diversified farming operation,” he says.  “This model could be very effective on smaller operations.

I can almost imagine a new era of integrated agriculture catching on in Lenawee County. As someone once said, it’s hope that makes us human.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Bag the "Ag Gag" Bills

When might it be punishable to report a criminal activity? When it takes place inside a poultry warehouse, slaughterhouse, or on a cattle feedlot. That’s the upshot of a new wave of so-called “ag-gag” bills passed in state legislatures around the nation, the latest of which, AB 343, was introduced in California last month.

 “Ag gag” laws have been put forth by the meat industry to criminalize the reporting of animal cruelty by anyone—journalists, activists, or whistleblowers. They are intended to prohibit the release of videotapes or photographs that document what happens inside factory farms and meat processing facilities, often with the threat of jail time. The real goal of these laws is to “chill” a person’s resolve to make public any illegal behavior such as beating or torturing captive animals, often using the police to seize their materials.

Whistle blower intimidation laws incite the ultimate cynicism about politics. For instance, the California bill is titled, “Duty to Report Animal Cruelty,” when in fact, its true aim is to squelch dissemination about the brutality of factory farming. If passed, AB 343 would require would-be whistle blowers to submit any visual evidence to law enforcement within 48 hours of taking a photograph or video or be subject up to a $500 fine. It also encourages the submission of any proof to the owner of the animals.

This would effectively force reporters to forfeit their anonymity. A worker might face retaliation from an employer. A journalist might not have time to adequately pursue a lead. Offending operators would be alerted that they are under suspicion. Meanwhile, industry maintains the appearance that it cares about animal welfare.

Big agricultural lobbies are desperate to avoid the kind of public relations disaster that befell the Hallmark Meat Packing Company. In 2008, secret cameras showed downer dairy cows being chained, dragged, and electrically prodded to slaughter at Hallmark’s facility in Chino, California. Such illegal practices were exposed by a disillusioned plant worker and the Humane Society of the United States. The USDA’s Commodity Procurement Branch, which distributes beef to the National School Lunch Program, was one of Hallmark’s biggest customers. The ensuing news coverage resulted in the largest recall of meat products in history and the ultimate closure of the plant.

Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota already have laws making it punishable to photograph an agricultural operation without consent of the owner. Utah, Missouri, and Iowa passed ag gag laws last year. In Iowa, where recent undercover videos have shown blatant animal abuse at egg and hog facilities, a first offense can land you in jail for up to a year. A second offense is considered an aggravated misdemeanor with up to two years jail time.

What’s happening in California is part of a nationwide effort. Already this year, whistleblower suppression laws similar to California’s have been filed in Arkansas, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming.

The timing of this legislative push is extremely troubling. The federal government’s budget sequestration could significantly reduce funding for USDA meat inspectors. The system is already challenged to keep up with continual changes in production lines that process animals at ever-increasing speeds. That means even as the government has less resources for oversight, industry is working to suppress whistle blowing.

Why is the meat industry on the defensive? Even perfectly legal practices are often distasteful to the public. In the face of rising public awareness about genetically modified crops, contaminated eggs, downer animals, etc., the meat industry has been jolted into anti-democratic tactics to muzzle its critics.

Newly elected California Assemblyman, Jim Patterson (23rd District), introduced AB 343 to the state legislature with the backing of the California Cattlemen’s Beef Association. While it might appease the powerful California meat lobby, this law would go against the will of California’s majority. Most citizens want animals to be raised more humanely. California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, passed with 63 percent of the vote. Restrictions on animal cages are slated to go into effect January 1, 2015.

When government fails to fulfill its regulatory oversight, citizens—including the news media—often have no choice but to become their own watchdogs. There is a noble American tradition of journalism related to food production concerns. At the turn of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle described appalling conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouse district. Its publication greatly influenced new laws to regulate food safety and meat processing. Now is the time to turn the tide against a national assault on greater transparency and meaningful reform in the food system.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hermannsdorf: Symbiotic Farming

Snow is falling as the plane touches down at Munich airport. By the time we arrive in Hermannsdorf, an hour’s drive, the forests and rolling hills of the Upper Bavarian countryside are pillowed in a few inches of white powder. My wife, Quincey, and I are on a mid-winter European junket. We’ve tagged along with her father, Doug Tompkins, to visit the farm of Karl-Ludwig Schweisfurth, one of Germany’s (and the world’s) leaders in the sustainable food movement.

We start our tour at the Schweisfurth home, a delightful cottage decorated with all manner of livestock-inspired artwork. Karl-Ludwig is a tall, solid-boned, man with a mane of white hair and horn-rimmed spectacles. Now in his mid-80s, Karl-Ludwig grew the family business, Herta, into one of Europe’s largest meat processing corporations. He even based its expanding production lines on Oscar Mayer assembly operations, where his father sent him as a young man to study American innovation. “I am a butcher,” he says, deprecatingly, acknowledging the role and trade that life have given him.

After three decades in the meat packing business, however, Schweisfurth realized that the perpetual need for growth and ever-increasing disassembly line speeds came at too high a cost. He saw animal welfare, work conditions, health of the environment, food quality, and personal values plummeting as humans became further and further disconnected from the basic tasks of food production. In 1984, at age 54, he sold the business to start over again with his two sons. His career as a butcher wasn’t at an end. Rather, it became one skill among a larger set that requires farming, animal husbandry, meat processing, and retailing. The revamped family business soon included an inn, organic farm, restaurant, brewery, and bakery. It became a hub for local employment and the purchase of regionally produced organic grains and other ingredients.

Around his kitchen table, Karl Ludwig explains his concept of “symbiotic agriculture.” For more than two decades, he has been experimenting with raising different species of livestock on the same pastures using various mobile structures. The pigs protect the chickens from predators. The chickens eat parasites that might potentially sicken the pigs. The free ranging animals’ manure returns vital nutrients to the soil as they graze. Hundreds of acres of fields and livestock pastures at the farm, officially called “Hermannsdorfer Landwerkstätten,” are planted with various crops that provide forage for the animals or feed that can be stored for the winter. The farm’s workers are always striving for the best rotations of pasture crops to prevent pests from becoming too established, maintain healthy soil, and keep meat flavor as high as possible. On the kitchen table is a wooden model of a mobile group housing structure. I take off the wooden roof to inspect. The pigs’ quarters are downstairs. Poultry enter around the back and roost upstairs.

Finally it’s time to walk. We find plenty of animals out on the snowy landscape. Bavarian-styled chicken tractors house birds for both meat and eggs, active out in the cold winter day. Pigs are kept in permanent barns, as well as in smaller groups with simple wooden structures out in the fields. The barns have roomy outside stalls full of straw and covered internal stalls for feeding and weather protection. Families are raised together for their entire lives to honor the social hierarchies they develop at birth. Karl Ludwig delights in explaining the natural conditions in which the animals are raised. Below the barn, he points to a methane digester, a covered circular tank about the size of a yurt. There animal waste from the pig barns is processed. It generates electricity from captured methane gas. Compost for the farming operation is made from the remaining solid waste.

When we enter the slaughter plant, Karl Ludwig describes it as “the best plant I have ever designed.” It is white tiled, very clean. Chain mesh gloves and white aprons hang in orderly fashion. The animals are raised right on the farm and are moved to holding pens close by prior to slaughter. There is no long distance transportation involved that heightens stress in animals. The slaughter room and butchering operation are completely separated, he explains, so that no animal has a sense of imminent death. “I realize that in order to process animals I must kill them,” he says. “So I want to make both their lives and their deaths as compassionate as possible.” On a given week, 100 pigs, 20 bulls, and 100 sheep are killed, butchered and begin the curing and processing stage.

We tour a curing facility, a hall with a series of brick-lined rooms where meats are aged. The smell is sweet, sour and pungent. One room is filled with hanging hams that seem to be the German equivalent of Italian prosciutto or Spanish Serrano. Another room contains many racks of salamis. The air is peppery. The rooms have been cleverly designed using the thermal mass of the hill that the building abuts to provide optimum humidity and temperature controls with the least amount of energy.

In a processing kitchen we find large mixing machines for making sausages. Each stainless steel bowl could easily hold a person. Two ovens are presently occupied in the smoke curing of pork bellies. We see Karl-Ludwig’s guidance everywhere. The organizing principle, from start to finish is quality: for animals, workers, the environment, and eaters.

At last, we sit down to break bread. It is no wonder that the operation at Hermannsdorf is a popular tourist destination, with its beautiful restaurant and modern organic grocery. Karl-Ludwig’s family joins us at the table, a wide open floor plan with high ceilings and exposed wooden rafters, reclaimed from the former building, which was a mill. In addition to the restaurant they have a micro-brewery and a bakery. Both use ingredients from the farm and purchase grains, hops, and malt from regional farmers. We taste a goat cheese appetizer that is light, tangy and creamy. Spread on chewy dark German bread, it combines perfectly with a stein of the family Schwinebrau brown ale. This is followed by sautéd fennel and leeks, a crispy potato pancake, and a roast of veal that is shimmery and pink with a clean robust flavor. A lager beer, the paler brother of the ale, accompanies this main course. Karl-Ludwig carves the meat from his seat at the head of the table,  generously passing samples to customers at the next table.

At the meal’s end, we present Karl Ludwig with a copy of the photo book, CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, that Doug Tompkins (Foundation for Deep Ecology) and I (Watershed Media) co-produced. He looks at the grisly photo on the front cover. It’s a dark scene inside an industrial hog facility. He points to me, shakes his head and with sad eyes asks, “You made this book?” I nod my head yes.  “I finally decided to get out of the industrial meat business when I went inside one of these,” he says. He begins flipping through the large photographs of animal processing, waste lagoons, feedlots, and then puts it aside, knowing all too viscerally the heavy content featured in the book.

We have landed in one of the epicenters of the global healthy food movement. It’s a social current that is slowly sweeping the entire planet. I’ve been lucky enough to visit other places where science, art, land stewardship and food production combine at such profound levels. I see as this as our modern renaissance. Hermannsdorf is on the scale of the Prince of Wales’ efforts at the Duchy Home Farm in the English Cottswalds, Doug Tompkins’ pioneering farmscaping at Laguna Blanca in Argentina, and Wes Jackson’s visionary perennial polyculture at the Land Institute in Kansas.

Karl Ludwig is convinced that this approach to sustainably produced meat and grains—“symbiotic agriculture”—is not just a wealthy man’s hobby, not just a passing fad. It is the future that agriculture must somehow become. His son calls it “retro innovation,” the combination of land management and husbandry practices of the pre-petrochemical and pre-animal antibiotic past, with the understanding of ecological systems and small-scale agricultural technology of today. This is information rich, systems thinking: finding ways for the farming to fit the land, and for the land to feed the animals.

A day’s visit is not enough. We need more time to explore. I have dozens more questions. But we must be on the road to our next destination, and leave, having tasted, experienced, and fully sensed Hermannsdorf, a lighthouse to the world of food and farming.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Farm Bill is Really A Food Bill

America’s first Food Stamps were orange or blue.  Citizens eligible for government relief bought a one dollar orange ticket at face value, redeemable for any food item. Accompanying every orange stamp was a free blue ticket worth 50 cents, that could be used to buy surplus food items: meat, milk, eggs, or seasonal produce that the government purchased from farmers. This was the 1930s, and federal nutrition assistance, along with support to help farmers conserve the soil and earn fair prices, were essential elements of what we know today as the Farm Bill. Food stamps were what helped many desperate families put food on the table.

Eighty years on, Food Stamps continue to be one of the ways America grapples with its hunger problems. Paper coupons have given way to less stigmatized Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards—monthly monetary allotments assigned to a debit card. But the numbers are staggering. As a result of the economic contraction that started in late 2007, nearly 50 million people, one-third of them children, are now in poverty (up from 31 million in 2000). The number of U.S. citizens applying for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has nearly tripled since 2001. In the month of October 2012 alone, three years into our economic “recovery,” nearly 1 in 7 Americans—47.5 million people— participated in the SNAP program.

These monthly Food Stamp enrollment tallies, however, don’t demonstrate the magnitude of poverty in the U.S. or the true function of the program. Critics of big government and social assistance often use the Food Stamp program as a punching bag for wasteful, excessive and fraudulent entitlements. But the fact is, a majority of people use Food Stamps as a temporary safety net between jobs—not as a permanent solution to hunger. Many are working families struggling to raise themselves out of poverty. USDA estimates that as many as 65 million Americans received SNAP benefits for at least one month during 2012—1 in 5 Americans.

“People don’t aspire to enroll in the SNAP Program,” says Stacey Dean, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “By far, the SNAP Program serves people who, because of the stress and hardship of poverty, face a genuine lack of access to healthy and affordable foods.”

Even in the era of 99-cent value meals, Food Stamps play a crucial role in providing calories to hungry Americans. As the economic recovery drags on, and as deficit reduction talks heat up, the annual Food Stamp budget—which now totals $75 billion per year—will become a prime target for cost cutters. The values of food assistance must be part of those deliberations.

1. Food stamps are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill. While most people associate the Farm Bill with subsidies for corn and soybean farmers, in fact, its largest line item is the SNAP program, which accounted for more than 75 cents of every dollar spent by the Department of Agriculture in 2012.

2. The Food Stamp program mainly serves people in need. The USDA’s official term for hunger is “food insecurity.” These are people who regularly skip meals because of a lack of resources. It could be a senior citizen, with hefty medical bills and fixed income, who must choose between medicine and food. Or it could be one out of every six American children for whom Food Stamps along with the School Lunch, Breakfast and Snack programs governed by the Child Nutrition Act, are an essential bridge between hunger and starvation.

3. Many food stamp recipients have employment income. Over 60 percent of participating households earn income that they contribute toward the family food budget—it’s just not enough to stave off hunger.

4 . No one is buying filet mignon with food stamps. The maximum monthly allotment—$200 per individual and $668 for a family of four—nets out to around $2 per meal. Big city mayors, celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali, and others have taken on the challenge of living on a Thrifty Food plan for a week at a time. All have complained about temporarily foregoing caffeine, snacks, and things many Americans take for granted—and feared running out of money.

5. Food stamps function as an economic stimulus. President Obama’s economic stimulus plan (the American Recovery Reinvestment Act of 2009) provided tens of billions of additional dollars for food assistance programs. Studies show that every Food Stamp dollar spent actually generates at least $1.74 in the broader economy. This is called a “multiplier effect.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack regularly reminds audiences that the Food Stamp program helps farmers too. “Producers get somewhere between 15 and 16 cents of every food dollar that’s spent in a grocery store and a restaurant,” he told the American Farm Bureau Federation in Nashville in January 2013. “And to the extent that families are empowered during struggling times to be able to buy adequate groceries for their family, at the end of the day that also helps American producers.”

6. Food stamps have a positive effect on health and nutrition. According to the Food Research and Action Center, the SNAP Program lifted nearly 4 million Americans above the poverty level in 2011 by boosting monthly income. Providing relief from hunger yields positive impacts on body weight, learning abilities, and reducing the incidence of chronic diseases—particularly among children.

The recent rise in Food Stamp enrollment offers an important window into the crisis of poverty and hunger in America. Some might view it as solid proof of failed economic policy. Instead we should look at as a way to assess whether and how government is doing its duty—investing in the health and well-being of all of society for the long term.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Clueless About Food and Agriculture?

Outside of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to urge kids to exercise more and eat better, this administration remains largely indifferent to the disaster that is the country’s outdated food and agriculture policy. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently argued that rural America has become politically irrelevant—a possible explanation for why the House refused to even consider a vote on a new Farm Bill last year. Maybe it’s something else.  It could be that the present Congress and Administration are simply clueless about the severity of our food and farming crises.

Riding the coattails of the fiscal cliff bargain, the 2008 Farm Bill—three months past its “renew by” date—got a nine-month extension shortly after New Year’s Day.  The extension could have included funds to preserve programs that help rural America and rebuild a food and farming system around the challenges of the 21st century. Instead, the policy—concocted in backdoor fashion without any public input—might as well have been written by lobbyists from the crop insurance, finance and agrochemical industries.

The Farm Bill extension bears little resemblance to the plan hotly debate and passed by the Senate last summer. While by no means ideal, that Senate plan would have clipped excessive commodity subsidies and reduced but still preserved important programs for conservation, organic agriculture, and rural development. This Farm Bill extension will continue sending $5 billion in direct payments to landowners whether they farm or not, whether they experience losses or not. (Both Republicans and Democrats favor eliminating such subsidies.) By extending rather than writing a new five-year Farm Bill, Congress did, however, manage to avert the dreaded “dairy cliff.” This would have reverted to a 1949 dairy subsidy program causing milk prices to spike to about $7 a gallon.
Kicking the Farm Bill down the road means we continue to invest in a backward agriculture policy. Because nothing was done to reform cotton subsidies, the US will continue to send $150 million in 2013 to Brazilian cotton farmers. This is the result of a lingering World Trade Organization ruling that declared previous US cotton supports trade distorting. Meanwhile, as Brazilian farmers benefit from the Farm Bill extension, the big losers are dozens of programs that train the next generation of US farmers and ranchers, invest in on-farm renewable energy, assist organic growers, expand farmers markets, and rebuild the infrastructure of a regionally-diversified food system.

Contrary to what many might think, the US faces a mounting list of rather alarming food and farming related challenges. Over 15 percent of the American population—mostly retired, disabled, children or underemployed—depend on food stamps, the largest budget item in the Farm Bill. Last year’s severe drought affected two-thirds of all agricultural counties, impacting crop yields, raising grain prices, and forcing livestock owners to sell off herds. Unpredictable weather patterns, we are told, are now the norm. “Superweeds” occupy 60 to 80 million acres of the country’s farmland as a result of a large-scale shift to genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crops. Our research budgets into innovative farming strategies to address such problems are shrinking rather than expanding.

The Farm Bill exists to address problems, like these, that are not easily solved by the free market. A smarter Farm Bill would offer assistance to farmers to take care of natural resources, help for those who can’t get enough to eat, and funding for forward-thinking research to help farmers stay ahead of environmental challenges.

The good news is that the door is not yet closed on a Farm Bill. The most recent short-term extension means that a new five-year Farm Bill could be written and voted on by September. Despite “Farm Bill fatigue” setting in among many citizens who care about agriculture policy, the time to set the terms of this debate is now, as Congress struggles with the challenge of fiscal austerity and the national debt. We still have the opportunity to make the changes necessary for a healthier, more secure, and conservation-based food system. Representatives need to repeatedly hear our concerns.

Here are a few ideas that voters should be pestering the 113th Congress about:

Full funding for conservation programs to protect topsoil, clean air, fresh water and safeguard natural habitat;

Reform of the crop subsidy rules to exclude millionaires from government handouts and limit how much an individual entity can receive;

Changes to crop insurance including limits on federal funding to insurance companies and strict environmental stipulations for farming operations that enroll;

Expanded support for sustainable and organic agriculture through cost-share programs, research, and market development;

Continuation of programs that invest in a new generation of farmers and ranchers;

Initiatives aimed at increasing the accessibility and affordability of healthy nutritious foods, particularly among the young and aging.

Holding our collective breath for change won’t help. The healthy food movement needs to speak more loudly and preferably in unison on these issues. Otherwise we’ll get more of the same: food and agriculture policy that is clueless about the real problems we face in the years ahead.

Follow the Farm Bill discussions at

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vote Yes on Prop 37 by Daniel Imhoff and Michael Dimock

In America we hold a consumer’s power of choice at the checkout line nearly as sacred as that of a voter at the ballot box. This November, California voters will be asked to protect the right of food buyers to make informed purchases. Vote Yes on Prop 37.
Passing Proposition 37 could change the future of food in this country. The initiative is rooted in a simple premise: Consumers have the right to know if their food is produced using genetic engineering, which manipulates DNA or transfers it from one organism to another.  Any plant or animal food product with genes that have been engineered would be so labeled. This isn’t a radical new idea. It’s been standard practice in all member countries of the European Union for years. The latest published research shows that 61 countries have some form of mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified crop ingredients.
The companies that sell genetically modified seeds and manufactured foods argue that American consumers don’t need such detailed labels. They say, “Just trust us.”
That is a lot to ask. Product labels are the front line of consumer protection. Research and development on genetically engineered products (also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) are largely done by private-sector, not public-sector, scientists because companies very aggressively protect their patents. According to the Center for Food Safety, as of January 2010, Monsanto had filed 136 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of its technology agreement and/or its patents on genetically engineered seeds. These cases have involved 400 farmers and 53 small-farm businesses. The level of secrecy and the combative nature of the industry fuels public distrust.
Unfortunately, consumers cannot look to the federal government to increase their trust. The Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling of GMO products.   Many people fear that some government officials in positions that make policy on genetically engineered products may hold biases born of their previous jobs with GMO seed companies.
Distrust is amplified by questions over who really benefits from GMO foods. One beneficiary is the herbicide industry.  Corn and soybeans are implanted with herbicide-resistant genes so that when fields are sprayed, the weeds die and modified crops survive. Yet, credible studies show unintended consequences. Some crop yields have leveled off and now farmers face “super weeds” that require escalating the use of toxic herbicides. Many of the same corporations that own GMO crop patents are also in the herbicide business.
Another concern is the skyrocketing price of seed for farmers. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, between 1995 and 2011, the average per acre cost of soy and corn seed rose 325% and 259%, respectively. These are the same years in which GMO soy and corn went from less than 20% of the total annual crop to more than 80% for corn and 90% for soy.
Finally, GMO products on the market offer American consumers no clear benefits. Not one introduced genetic trait makes a food product healthier, tastier or longer lasting. With the exception of one research plot kept far from the center of production, rice farmers in California have refused to support introduction of GMO rice because their buyers in Japan have banned its import.
Some critics will no doubt see GMO labeling as another “nanny state” law and argue that revising labels will add costs.  But Proposition 37 simply requires basic transparency and truthful packaging, and companies have 18 months to implement it. And it protects the consumers’ right to know in a product category central to health. As we saw in the multi-billion tobacco case settlement in 1998, companies cannot always be trusted to put health before profit.   Corporate executives face the need to maximize shareholder wealth. That need often trumps other concerns. In light of such history and with the vitriolic battles among scientists still debating the risks of this relatively new technology, labeling GMO foods allows shoppers to make informed choices about the level of risk they are willing to assume.
Proposition 37 supporters are now waging a David versus Goliath battle. Supporters have raised just over $4 million thus far, much of it from small natural food companies like Organic Valley, Lundberg Family Farms, Nature’s Path Foods and Amy’s Kitchen. Opponents of the initiative have raised $34.5 million, nearly half from Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Agrosciences and Bayer CropScience, corporations that own most of the GMO seed patents.
Voters may not realize the broader significance of this battle. With a $2-trillion economy and 38 million residents — nearly 12% of the U.S. population — the California market is impossible to isolate. In 2008, many out-of-state agribusinesses financed opposition to the state’s Proposition 2, which banned cruel livestock confinement techniques such as tiny pens for laying hens and crates that trap breeding sows for life. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters supported more humane standards, and that law has created a ripple effect across the nation.
On Nov. 6, California has the chance to reassert a basic consumer right that has been lost in grocery store aisles: the right to know exactly what you’re buying. After all, if there are no health or environmental disadvantages to genetically modified foods, what do their proponents have to fear in labeling?

This piece originally appeared in the October 11, 2012 LA Times
Daniel Imhoff is the author of "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill." Michael R. Dimock is president of Roots of Change and chairman emeritus of Slow Food USA.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The House Farm Bill is a Not So Funny Joke

If you thought the Senate’s 2012 Farm Bill had its shortcomings, wait till you see the House Agriculture Committee’s version passed this week. Most people predicted it would take aim at the SNAP program (food stamps), continue subsidizing commodity mega-farms, and make a deep reduction in conservation supports. It does all of this and a whole lot more.

  •  $16.5 billion cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program;
  •   no limits on how much a subsidy recipient can get in a single year;
  •   no basic conservation requirements in return for crop insurance subsidies;
  • $6 billion cuts to conservation programs.

The House draft is known as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012. But there is little reform to be found within its commodity programs that will largely shape farming practices, land stewardship, and public health and well-being over the next five to ten years.

The draft bill’s failure to reform income eligibility rules means the biggest operations will continue to receive the lion’s share of all subsidies, which they can use to expand and squeeze out smaller and medium sized farms. Without basic conservation requirements in place, operators have the economic incentive to plow up even the most marginal grounds because the government “safety net” will ensure they turn a profit. The likely and unwelcome result will be the loss of critical habitat and soil protection, and a reversal of conservation gains made over the past three decades.

Instead, this bill’s reforms are designed to roll back regulations and policies that protect the public, small farmers, and rural residents from potential harms of industrial agribusiness. If passed as written, a series of riders and provisions in the House Farm Bill would:

• gut rules that protect water quality and wildlife from agricultural pesticides;
• exempt GMO crops from proper environmental reviews and federal oversight;
• block states from establishing their own standards around food production and food safety;
• eliminate fair competition and contract reforms for livestock producers passed in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The only silver lining is that the House leadership has yet to set a time frame for this disastrous draft bill to be debated by its full membership. Amendments can and are being written to bring the bill back in line with the needs of the country. Now is the time to reach out to your representatives and urge them to defy this agribusiness biased contract on America.

It is anyone’s guess as to how this Farm Bill cycle will move ahead. Will a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill be passed until a bill can be agreed upon later? Will the Senate and House Agriculture committees go straight to the conference process to avoid a messy debate and vote on the floor of the House? Will automatic cuts to the USDA budget be assessed in 2012 through the sequestration process agreed to earlier this year (which prohibits decreases in SNAP and Conservation Reserve Program funding)? These are just a few potential scenarios.

As concerned citizens the best thing we can do is to stay in touch with groups that are working for change on this issue, be prepared to make calls and in person meetings with your representatives, and bring your vote to the table.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

PINK SLIME by Becky Weed

I am a farmer/I am a citizen, and this is what ‘we’ are being told:

We must raise or at least finish our animals in cages and feedlots because it is ‘more efficient’.

Even our animals that start on pasture must end in feedlots, because they ‘finish more quickly’.

We must feed heavy grain diets to ruminants evolved to live on grass, inducing low-grade illness and the practice of feeding subtherapeutic antibiotics --- because that ‘enhances growth rates’.

We cannot quit subtherapeutic feeding of antibiotics because it would be too expensive.

We must implant growth hormones to make our animals grow faster because that is most ‘profitable’.

We can extend the output of such feedlots by scavenging the meaty bits admixed with pathogen-prone fatty exteriors, and disinfecting the resultant ‘pink slime’ with ammonia gas. We must serve this augmented ‘hamburger’ to our populace, unlabeled, because it ‘adds value’.

We must spray chemicals on our fruits, vegetable, grains, and into our soils, because it is ‘cleaner’.

We must work, or hire others to work, in conditions that affluent Americans shun for themselves or their children.

We must burn up the carbon in our once-organic-rich soils in order to maximize production with ‘modern’ farming. We must displace food production with ethanol production because it ‘conserves’ carbon-based fuels.

We must purchase crop insurance via government programs rather than building our own crop insurance by building our soils and our crop diversity.

We must grow crops with diminished nutrients because modern, high-yielding Wonder Bread varieties are ‘best’.

We must feed the food derived from such management to our children.

We must plant only a few crops for fuel and livestock feed on such a vast portion of our continent that we disrupt the natural migrations of birds, mammals, pollinators, and water, because it is more ‘efficient’.

We must kill even our most iconic and remnant species, such as buffalo, because their vestigial grasslands interfere with our ‘system’.

We must degrade our waterways, air and soil with the effluent of modern agriculture, because it is most ‘efficient’.

We must purchase and plant the output of centralized biotechnology companies, because that is more ‘efficient’ than following a farmer’s curiosity, drive and wherewithal to breed seed suited to our local landscapes and cultures.

We should be grateful for the plentiful food thus produced, even if we observe increasing obesity diabetes, and malnutrition even among the ‘well-fed’.

We must be grateful for this ‘cheap’ food.

We must endorse these mandates of modern agriculture, while asserting that we are salt of the earth, and that we deserve to maintain our ‘way of life’ even as our food system degrades everyone else’s

If we choose to reject these mandates of ‘modern’ agriculture and farm differently, eat differently, vote differently, then we are quaint, callous, elitist and irrelevant.

We must feed the world, now seven billion, soon nine, then twelve, then what?

I am a farmer/ I am a citizen, and ‘we’ are telling us:

We are indeed grateful for the abundance, ingenuity and hard work that has brought us all much good food and good fortune, and it is time we take stock. How many compromises equal ‘modern’?

It is not our job to fill the Petri dish to bursting point.

The earth is our matrix and regulator. Neither trade associations, nor insurance companies, nor governments, nor universities, nor corporations, nor stock markets, nor our neighbors will superceed its natural systems’ ultimate grasp.

Perhaps some of us are too different to fit the rhythm of modern agriculture---too small, too poor, too new, too foreign, too female, too contrary, too dry, too wet, too close to the land?

Perhaps it is our job to lead the colony to pause, to feed our hearts and our brains, not just our bellies and our banks.

Efficient? Cheap? Robust? Equitable? Durable?

Farmers, of all people, could be the most qualified to recognize and explain that the current practices and trajectories take us to a place we cannot afford, and that we can scarcely want. That is, if we would speak our minds.

Pink slime is only the most recent manifestation, at the output end, of a more deep-seated, long-brewing slurry at the heart of American agriculture. This critique of the half-century-old corn-soybean-feedlot-dominated regime of American agriculture is not an attack on farmers, but is rather a plea to farmers, to awaken to our own complicity in, and our own power to change, the very system that we have allowed to compromise our values, our status, our land, and our futures. Pervasive propaganda notwithstanding, it does not have to be this way, because it cannot continue to be this way.

Have we entered Alice’s rabbit hole, where governors defend pink-slime manufacture for its job creation, even as the numbers of farmers, ranchers and cows continue to dwindle; where Farm Bureau policies perpetuate the dominance of a continental corn desert, even as their roadside posters invoke bucolic red barns and ranchers with calves-in-their-arms; where Monsanto patents life forms and prosecutes farmers, even as it bankrolls a $30 million dollar PR campaign to resurrect agriculture’s sullied reputation?

We have watched and sometimes profited in recent decades as the complex maze of subsidies, lobbies, markets, revolving doors and ignorance have rendered our legislative, executive and judicial branches impotent to find a path out. Consumers are trying to peer down the rabbit hole; scientists are tweaking the dials and reporting some news, but farmers, especially farmers, can and must blast open the portals and reclaim.

Becky Weed is co-owner of Thirteen Mile Farm in southwest Montana. Thirteen Mile runs a small wool mill and is currently revising its long-term sheep operation, collaborating with a young farmer to add vegetables to its lamb and wool marketing. Weed has worked on her own place and with others to raise livestock while coexisting with native carnivores.