Saturday, April 28, 2007

Michael Pollan on the Farm Bill

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine published Michael Pollan’s latest piece focusing on a labyrinthine piece of legislation commonly known as the Farm Bill. Pollan explains that this bill, whose passage comes around in cycles every five year or so, is in large part responsible for our hegemonic processed foodscape. The most insidious consequence of the bill is that the cheapest calories at the supermarkets are the most unhealthful. This perversity is accomplished largely by directing subsidies enabling large corporate entities, such as ADM and Cargill, to overproduce corn and soy. The largest portions of these commodified crops end up as high fructose corn syrup and soy derived fat additives. If all of this is making you sick in the stomach (I won’t even mention your arteries, heart and liver) you should know more. Read Pollan’s article.
Then write a note to your congress people. In recent incarnations, the Farm Bill has been authored behind closed doors by representative from farm dominated states, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, and such, with the help of ADM and Cargill. Our senators and representatives are all too impassive because of voter’s misperception of the bill’s scope as a “farm” bill. You need only look to our national waistband to realize that there is no such thing as a Farm Bill state. We are all being silently assaulted in our local supermarket.

Therefore ask your representatives and senators to clue in this time. Ask them to be involved in eliminating incentives that result in overproduction of commodity crops. Ask them to make sure that provisions in the bill do not earmark federal funding of school lunches to the dumping of excess crop production (one of the more perverse aspects of the bill in its current form is that it treats our children as omnivorous pigs at a trough – as a way to dump surplus crop production and pad corporate profits). Lawmakers should write into the bill incentives to increase organic production (and fund research in this area) and promote the expansion of local food systems.

If you live in San Francisco, email these folks: Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Dianne Feinstein.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The April 18th Chronicle food section features locavore!

The cover story profiles several people, some seasoned locavores, some not, and their joys/struggles to eat exclusively local foods. The articles were published in anticipation of the coming Pennywise Eat Local Challenge week, April 22-29. Challenge participants pledge to eat foods produce no further than a 100-mile radius from where they live, and to do it on a budget ( information at ).

The articles were fun to read and offered some useful information (such as the name of local producers of specific food items), and a few suggested recipes. You can check them out at
It also seems to be part of a much-welcomed Chronicle series titled Food Conscious.

A big theme of the writing was the Quixotic nature of eating strictly local. All the people profiled had to work hard not to contaminate their food supply with excess carbon emissions. They had to know more, pay more, travel more (and to more places) to adhere to their eating principles. One couple used foraging as a strategy for staying within bounds and on budget. All of them expressed some guilt when they indulged in any outsider treat. They sounded just like serial-dieters who can’t control themselves.

Where was the joy of exploring our foodscape? Where was the fun of meeting your local producers and visiting farms? The author did not ask the most basic question anyone would ask someone fighting such odds: Why do you believe in eating local foods?

Not that it should come as a surprise to any of us, but doesn’t it seem topsy-turvy that it is such an upstream swim against spring runoff to supply yourself locally? I don’t want to misrepresent this point either. Much of the upstreamness of locavoring comes from our predilection for a varied diet chock full of exotic flavors. Many of these come from products that, like vanilla and coffee, cannot or should not be produced in our foodshed.

However, for many of us bordering locavores, this is our main dilemma: with our already busy and complicated lives, how can we invest the extra time, effort, and expense to go exclusively local? My take is to forget the guilt – some conscious locavoring is better than none. In time as more of us join the ranks, at any level, it will become easier.

And as for the foraging, the author included two useful references: “Flavors of Home”, by Margit Roos-Collins, Heyday Books, 1990 and “America Eats”, by Nelson Algren and David E. Schoonover, University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Producers mentioned in the articles:

Old Mill Farm

Zuckerman's Farm
Spring Hill Cheese Co.
Eatwell Farm
Little Organic Farm
Point Reyes Farmstead
Clover Stornetta
Gowan’s Apple Farm

Mendo Bistro is in Ft. Bragg and is owned by one of the couples profiled in the articles, Nicholas Petti and Jaimi Parsons.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

US Stamps Commemorate Pollinators

This upcoming stamp set depicts some of the diversity of pollinators that plant species depend on. It is a great reminder of the need to protect these keystones in our ecosystems. Remember to think beyond the European honey bee.

Best Practices for Sustainable Agriculture

The best way to become informed about sustainable agriculture is to talk to growers. Most of the people who staff your local market stall are also directly involved in the farm operations. But, if you are concerned about how something is grown as well as its flavor, what should you ask about? What are sustainable farming’s best practices? This is important because you can help promote sustainable practices using your purchasing power and by engaging in dialogue with growers.

I don’t mean to imply that the grower has the full burden of satisfying the consumers’ demands for sustainability. There are limits to what the growers can do and still have a viable, accessible product to bring to market.

Also, for a balanced approach it would seem that we should generate a list of best practices for the farmer and another for the consumer.

For the growers these practices would revolve around some critical areas: farm labor, water use, pest control, soil conservation, fertilizer use, energy use, transportation, open space preservation, and wildlife protection. For livestock raising it also involves humane treatment of animals, enclosures, animal waste handling, and the use of dietary additives such as hormones.

Although I will begin a list of best practices in this posting I really want to rely on your expertise to make it more complete with your input, and also hope to start a dialogue about the relative merits of these measures. Please post your comments and suggestions. Here are a few to start with:

Grower’s Best Practices

Buffer Zones:
Some farmers choose to leave marginal areas out of cultivation. These fallow areas provide refuge for native wildlife and plant species. They may also act as a riparian buffer protecting rivers and streams from the impact of cultivation (such as increased silting of streambeds or the influx of excess nutrients which may lead to algae blooms and the depletion of dissolved oxygen).

Water Use:
Every Californian should know that, unless you live in the northernmost region of the state, you live in a seasonal desert. Our Mediterranean climate is characterized by wet winters and summers with nearly no precipitation. Our agriculture essentially thrives because of Sierra Nevada’s snow pack (a natural reservoir) and piping. Irrigation is the name of the game particularly with industrial operations. High water dependent crops such as cotton and rice (both of which comprise a large percentage of industrial crop output in our state) are essentially water-subsidized by us (not to mention the salmon and other wildlife, whom I am sure we have not gotten consent from). Aside from volume use, best practices should also protect water sources by avoiding pollution and excess nutrient influx (more on these under pest control and fertilizers).

From Oliver the following:
Diversity of Crops: While monoculture farming eases labor it may also create conditions for insect and pest invasions, by keeping farm stocks diverse farmers can reduce their dependency on chemical pest control and their exposure should an infestation occur.

Cover Crops and Crop Rotation: Related to the previous note, tilling under cover crops to rejuvenate soil (Though I understand that tilling its self can be damaging to soil health) or their use in suppressing weeds and annual rotation of cash crops in a given field help control pests. Rotating crops means that species specific pests will last at most one growing season.

For the Consumer :

Buy in-season: Understanding and accepting that certain produce can not be sustainably produced year-round is a good step in reducing the impact of farming. While most people accept that peaches are seasonal, many still insist on ripe tomatoes all winter. Buy purchasing food out of season you are often supporting unsustainable farming or requiring that produce be shipped from the southern hemisphere.

Buy Locally Grown Food:
this seems redundant in the context of this forum; however, by buying from local farmers who practice green farming you create a demand and a market for the food they produce. As mentioned above, the sellers at your local farmers’ market are often very connected to the production of the food in their stall so by talking to them you can give direct feedback about what impacts your food buying decisions.

More to be added in coming days, stay tuned.