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 Landwerkst├Ątten,” 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 saut├ęd 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.

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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.