Habitat, Embracing Biodiversity
CR Lawn, 2010
Intro: “We like to think we are pioneers in building local and sustainable food systems: In just 15 years we've gone from having 1,755 to more than 5,000 farmers markets, in the 25 years since Robyn Van En brought the concept from Europe and Japan, we've created more than 3,300 CSA's (and that estimate is too low because it counts only 71 in Maine and I know there are more than 100). We've built robust organic conferences like this one, started scores of buying clubs and food co-ops, established garden and farm programs in colleges and universities all across the country where not long ago there were almost none, begun Slow Food convivia. The Local Harvest website lists more than 160 farmers markets in your state, from Iron Mountain to Zeeland, from Owosso to Hillsdale., from Wixom to Battle Creek. It boasts of 41 food co-ops and 160 CSA, in Climax and Tecumseh, in Traverse City and Zeeland, in Highland and Hespiria, all through the state. You can be justly proud of these accomplishments.
Grange: And yet, let's start by going back, back to December, 1867 when seven men led by Oliver Hudson Kelley, a mason and a clerk with the federal Bureau of Agriculture, met in Washington DC to establish a farm organization they would call the National Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, better known to us as the Grange. Persuaded by his niece Caroline Hall, Kelley decided to admit women into the new order as complete equals, a radical departure from 19th century custom. In 1912 the Michigan State grange became the first in the nation to advocate for women's suffrage! Without the benefit of blogs and internet, automobile or telephone, the Grange grew at a rate that can only be described as astonishing. From 4 chapters in Tennessee in 1872, it mushroomed to 823 in May, 1874, peaking at over 1,000 one year later. In Michigan, the first chapter, called Burnside #1 Grange was organized in 1872. By 1875 there were over 600 active Michigan granges, with a collective total of more than 33,000 members. In my state of Maine, the Grange arrived in 1873. By the end of the following year there were 64 granges boasting 2,000 total members. Within two more years the order had grown to over 228 granges, with a sixfold increase in membership to 12,000. At its 1876 peak, nationwide membership exceeded 850,000. They established thousands of local chapters, built Grange halls that became the centers of community life in many small towns across the country. They held dances, potlucks, picnics, fairs and social gatherings, but they were far more than a social center. They lobbied, they championed rural free delivery and the new Agricultural Extension service, They hosted political rallies and town meetings. They were deeply concerned with education, and they rallied around improving rural schools. According to the Proceedings of the 16th Annual session of the State Grange in Representative Hall in Lansing held Dec. 11-14, 1888 they even had an officer called the Worthy Lecturer. He reported traveling around the State delivering 62 public lectures to grangers and would-be grangers in 1888, even lamenting that one such 3-day trip requiring 281 miles was not worth the exorbitant travel expenses of $11.45 plus his per diem allowance of $2.50!
They were a fraternal order, an agricultural forum, a service organization, an economic cooperative, a political rallying point and a social gathering all rolled into one. They started insurance companies and other cooperative group purchasing ventures. During the Panic of 1873 so many farmers gathered to air their complaints on the 4th of July that it became known as the Farmers 4th of July. Their issues? High costs, burdensome debts, small profits, monopolistic railroads and grain elevators, predatory banking practices. Sound familiar? In four midwestern states they became powerful enough to pass the so-called Granger Laws to curb the powers of the railroads by regulating maximum rates. These laws establishing the principle of public regulation of provate utilities devoted to public use were upheld as constitutional by the famous US Supreme Court case Munn vs. Illinois (1876).
When I was a little kid growing up in rural Vermont in 1950 the Grange was still the major community institution. In a small town with maybe 300-400 residents, the potluck Grange suppers of that era still attracted 60-100 people. Kids would be running around having fun, a few younger ones already wrapped in blankets asleep. Our contra dances and buying club breakdowns in the '70s were somewhat reminiscent but on a much smaller scale.
The Grange halls dot our rural landscapes to the present day, some gaining designation as historic buildings. As of 2008 there were still 170 standing in our rural small towns of Maine, and a 2008 article from the Grand Traverse Herald in 2008 counted 43 remaining in Michigan. Yet these buildings are usually empty, under-utilized and represent but a shell of what they meant to folks a century or more ago. National Grange membership is less than a fourth of what it reached in its twin peaks in the 1870s and 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. What happened, why does it matter and what can we learn from it?
The dictionary defines habitat as the region where a plant or animal naturally grows or lives, its native environment, the place where it is ordinarily found. When the Grange was founded, more than 1 in every two persons was a farmer. The Grange was able to engage farmers on all levels: social, educational, economic, cultural and agricultural, and farming, in turn, was so prevalent that any institution that could represent farmers was bound to be strong. Strong? Imagine the strength required to erect all those halls in the 1870s! Economic, social and cultural strength. Today only 1 person in 40 is a farmer. And the diversified farms that were characteristic of the era of the founding of the Grange became so scarce that at one time, until their recent revival, they seemed to be nearly as endangered as the thousands of vegetable and fruit varieties and animal breeds that became extinct in the Twentieth century. The Grange was such an important part of the farmers' and therefore the society's social and cultural heritage that it was truly a part of the farmers' habitat. In the last one hundred years, farmers have lost habitat, both literally and figuratively: literally as thousands of acres of prime agricultural land have been turned into suburban developments or paved over, figuratively in the loss of the cultural context for diversified farming, the loss even of respect for what was once considered a noble calling. People didn't want to sweat, to get their hands dirty, or even to make things anymore. Instead we were to become a service economy. At its nadir, probably the 1960s, no bigger insult than the epithet “farmer” could be hurled at our high school athletic teams as we bused from the relatively bucolic Cortland, New York (once a center for the sauerkraut industry) to the city of Syracuse to take on (and usually defeat) their teams.
How was the Grange able to grow so quickly? Why did it so resonate with its constituency? Why did it decline? What can its story to teach us? First, that the ultimate success of our movement is far from inevitable. Powerful forces, cultural, political and economic are poised against us. We need to be creative to fight those trends that can narrow our habitat and to build on those that will allow us to expand it and thrive. Second, that to have any chance to prevail, our focus must be broad and cut across the culture. Culture is about relationships and relationships are at the heart of healthy systems.
Four Kinds of Food Systems: There are really four kinds of food systems. On the primary level we grow our seeds and our food crops ourselves. We KNOW how they were grown, when they were harvested, what variety they were and how fresh they are. On the second level we forge direct relationships with the growers and creators of our food, through direct-marketing institutions such as CSA, farmers markets and restaurants where we literally get to meet and converse with those who grow and prepare our food. And ultimately, these relationships are based on the knowledge we gain about these farms, restaurants and operations and the trust that builds from that knowledge. If we trust our CSA farmer, then the last thing we need is more governmental or institutional regulation of that farmer. At the third level the relationship is one removed. We shop at the co-op store that buys from the farmer and advertises her operation through pictures and shelf talkers. Or eat at the restaurant that features identified farmers and their products. Or shop through the seed catalog that buys tomato seed from that seed farmer in our area whom we know. In the fourth level, the food has become co-mingled and anonymous. It may have been bagged and traveled thousands of miles. We have no way to know how long ago it was picked and no one whom we can ask. Alas, most of us are trapped in this fourth level most of the time. No wonder we have mixed feelings about more food safety regulations. On the one hand, if we don't know who grew the beef we eat or the bagged leafy greens from California, how can we know they are safe? Wouldn't we want them to be regulated to reduce the chance that they make us sick? And yet, these four food systems are so very different in scale and end result that we cannot even consider that the carrot that we grew ourselves or purchased from the farmer we know and trust is equal to the one bagged in celo at our supermarket, variety unknown, that was grown God knows when, where and by whom, with what chemicals in the soil, what preservatives or whatever. And yet many of the proposed food safety laws or metrics treat them all alike, based on one size fits all.
Heirlooms and Their Stories: Long Pie Pumpkin, Marfax bean, Gilfeather Turnip, Boothby's Blonde cucumber. All regional heirloom varieties with stories to tell. All at one recent time in danger of extinction. This year we are working with RAFT (Restoring America's Food Traditions) and Chefs Collaborative to get these varieties out to farmers who are growing them, marketing them, introducing them to chefs. Boothby's a white cucumber with black spines and a juicy refreshing interior...maintained for five generations by the Boothby family of Livermore, Maine. Long Pie, said to have migrated in 1832 from the Isle of St. George in the Azores to Nantucket on a whaling ship, then came north to Maine where it was widely grown 60-70 years ago in Androscoggin County. Looks like an overgrown zucchini but makes the best Yankee pumpkin pies, saved from extinction by LeRoy Souther, another Livermore Falls native. Gilfeather, either discovered or developed by John Gilfeather of Wardsboro, a secretive Vermont bachelor who is said to have cut the tops and bottoms off his turnips so no one else could propagate them, yet seeds escaped to a neighbor who gave them to market growers William and Mary Lou Schmidt who saved the variety from extinction. Though known in folklore as a turnip, it is really a rutabaga with sweet white flesh. These and many more are in our catalog. More such varieties such as the Weissnicht Ukrainian tomato, saved by Scott Weisnicht in Wisconson, who also helped prevent Pride of Wisconsin melon from becoming extinct, are in our pipeline to be offered in future catalogs. Hundreds more such varieties are still family keepsakes unknown to seed catalogs, or are in the Seed Savers Exchange collection, or rest in our government genebank, their virtues waiting to be discovered by seed savers or purveyors to get out to growers like you to nurture and maintain and to enrich our culture. As we find and maintain these varieties, we must also find and nurture the network of seed growers to grow them, because the big multinational wholesalers are unlikely to be interested in offering them, and we still have a long way to go before we have a real infrastructure of organic seed wholesalers. And today, after twenty or more years a-building, our grower network is more than 50 strong, producing 150-200 varieties annually for our catalog. Not that it is easy, as anyone who attends my “Inside the Seed Company” workshop and hears about the dread axis of weevil will find out!
The Potential for Heirloom Wheat. Together we can expand our horizons beyond the usual or even unusual crops that have been appearing in the seed catalogs. What about wheat—the world's most important food crop? Have you ever considered growing wheat in your backyard or introducing it into your vegetable crop rotations? Oh no, it is uneconomic. Takes up too much land to grow too little. Very difficult to thresh. Probably you have believed these myths and never even considered it. But in fact, you CAN grow wheat in your back yard, enough to bake a loaf of homemade bread every week of the year on a patch no bigger than 30x25 feet. My partner Eli and I have been trialing heritage wheat varieties in Maine and Massachusetts in a Northeast-SARE funded project, looking for those with high yields and good baking quality. In our first year we found at least 18 such varieties that performed comparably or even better than some modern varieties. Eli has gathered these varieties from seed savers and gene banks all over the world. Armed with many bundles of sheaves from her bountiful harvest at our University of Massachusetts test site, she used her ingenuity to invent a simple home threshing system that can process many pounds of grains. She snipped off the grain heads, inverted a car mat pointy side up in a low-sided basket, agitated the contents to break up the chaff, and then used a hair dryer to blow the light chaff from the heavier seeds. The end product, while not quite seed company quality, was surprisingly clean and very usable.
Today I coming bearing wheat. I have brought six small packets of heritage wheat varieties from the United States genebank that are connected in some way to Michigan. I would like to distribute them after my talk today, one each to anyone who will agree to grow it out and multiply it. Here is Michigan Amber, a winter wheat mixed with some spring types released in Indiana in 1875, which may have been bred by William James Beale, a Professor at Michigan Agricultural College (the predecessor to Michigan State University) famous for being the first scientific corn breeder and the first to hybridize corn for the express purpose of increasing yield 30 years prior to the discovery of Gregor Mendel's work. I have American Banner, a famous heirloom winter wheat collected in Michigan in 1922. Here is Michikof, a cross between Michigan Amber and Kharkof released in 1920. While he was searching for flavorful winter wheats in Russia in 1900 famous plant explorer Marc Carleton collected Kharkof, a bearded winter wheat extremely hardy, especially resistant to piercing dry winter winds where there is little snowfall. Carleton put 327 accessions into the gene bank. Also I have Purkof, a cross of Michigan Amber and Malakof released in 1924, the latter another Russian variety and a source of genes resistant to leaf rust. And I have Michigan Wonder with no story to go with it, though the name surely justifies enough curiosity to grow it out to see why it was considered a wonder!
At the Frontiers of Biodiversity: I have long advocated for heirlooms for their own sake, but heirlooms also provide breeding material to create potentially better varieties by crossing them. I also advocate open-pollinated varieties that are not completely stable. Some heirloom bean varieties, for example, are not uniform but show some variation. Frank Morton in Oregon has bred gene-pools with a diversity of material, particularly in lettuce and leafy greens and brassicas. The strength of these cultivars is their adaptability to environmental and climatic change because of their increased genetic diversity. Their different traits will manifest in different conditions, increasing their versatility. Gene-pools also allow growers to continue to select for the traits that they most value. At the frontiers of biodiversity is one of our amateur breeders in Maine who calls himself Relentless. In a recent article in Acres USA he advocates going primitive, meaning that he thinks we should be breeding tougher plants to better withstand the rigors of unpredictable weather and climate change. Instead of breeding relatively stable varieties we should be looking for varieties that will thrive in an unstable world. Among the tactics he advocates is crossing modern varieties with their ancient precursors such as hybrid carrots with Queen Anne's Lace, or back-crossing wild tomatoes with heirlooms such as Brandywine to bring in more wild genes. He even hypothesizes that our bodies' genetics have not kept pace with the domesticated, hybridized plant varieties that we have been breeding, so that combined with the toxic chemicals we've ingested, our health has been affected.
Solving for Pattern: I could go on with endless intriguing inspiring examples of the wonders of biodiversity but today I shall attempt the more daunting task of considering how we might go about creating the social and cultural conditions, the habitat, in which such diversity will thrive. And in so doing I am going to throw out three challenges to us all: The first I owe entirely to Wendell Berry, who nearly 30 years ago explored the nature of our society's problems, and in his famous essay Solving for Pattern concluded that cures that prove incurable are characteristic of our time. And so we have a health system that incubates iatrogenic illness, a health insurance system that enriches insurance companies instead of promoting the health and welfare of our citizens, school systems that graduate illiterate students, correctional systems that release hardened criminals, agricultural systems that produce food laced with harmful chemicals and food distribution systems that adulterate foods with empty calories that make us obese. Berry warned against solutions that worsen problems, such as solving soil compaction by manufacturing bigger tractors which in turn further compact the soil necessitating still bigger tractors...and against solutions that address one immediate problem without regard to the other potential ramifications of the solution that create or worsen other problems.
Consider, for example, the CAFO, seemingly a maximally efficient feeding system. Yet it immediately produces biological disorders, bestowing health problems and drug dependence upon the confined cattle. And from there, the problems ripple out: manure disposal creates a public health problem, the manure, if not returned to the soil results in a fertility deficiency, the centralized operations encourage feed grain monocultures and depopulate rural areas, removing sources, services and markets to more and more distant towns. Small diversified farming enterprises lose their surrounding habitat and disappear.
Or consider genetic engineering as a solution to world hunger. My biggest reason for opposing genetically engineered crops is not that they are unsafe, though unsafe they may be, it is because of the structural changes they forced on the marketplace that are not socially good. The scale of investments required for entry into the transgenic industry has forced a series of corporate consolidations that have turned the seed industry into an oligopoly. Today the four biggest corporations control more than half the world's proprietary seed market, and 43 per cent of the commercial market, an unprecedented concentration. When it comes to genetically engineered crops, this concentration goes beyond oligopoly to monopoly. Though there are other players in the GE game, one name dominates the conversation: Monsanto. At least one of Monsanto's genetically engineered traits is planted in more than 80 per cent of American corn acres and more than 90% of soybean acres, and its market share in these two crops exceeded 60% in 2008. And when it acquired Seminis in 2005, it became the world's largest vegetable seed company as well, with a 21% global market share, greater in key crops such as tomatoes, peppers and squash. And while it was chosen Company of the Year by Forbes Magazine, Monsanto was ranked dead last—out of 581 companies, as the world's least ethical company in by Geneva, Switzerland-based NGO Covalence. Today, when corn and soy farmers go to the seed marketplace seeking the best genetics, they find they must pay dearly— price increases in the last several years for the stacked trait GE varieties Monsanto is pushing have been unprecedented, more than 25% between 2008 and 2009 alone, and more than 60% in the last three years. Should farmers decide to resist these increases and seek conventional seed, or single trait GMO seed, they find their options in the marketplace have greatly narrowed. How can GE varieties possibly be a solution for world hunger, when, as the world's most expensive seeds, they are offered to those who can least afford them?
If we start with a faulty or overly simplistic paradigm, we are bound to achieve poor solutions. The faulty paradigm of genetic engineering is the mistaken notion that single genes produce single traits and so we can therefore modify crops gene-by-gene to produce desired results. In fact, due to pleotropy one gene influences multi-traits and so we can expect unforeseen results from genetic engineering. Moreover, starting with a narrow and inaccurate hypothesis, genetic engineering has limited itself to a narrow range of traits, almost exclusively herbicide resistance (to Roundup) and pesticide incorporation (bt) introduced into a narrow range of crops, primarily the major agronomic crops of corn, soybeans, canola and cotton, with a narrow range of multinational industry players. This is about as concentrated and non bio-diverse as you can get.
In India farmers are struggling with yields down, food prices up and wheat imports way up. Why? Since the 1970s the government has given huge subsidies to urea manufacturers, who in turn have made vast quantities available to farmers at prices below the cost of production. Consequently, farmers started relaying exclusively on urea, rather than using the more expensive potassium, phosphorus and other products. In the State of Haryana, in 2008-9, farmers used 32 times as much nitrogen as potassium, compared to the recommended ratio of 4-1. The result is unbalanced soil that requires more and more urea each year to maintain the same level of production. This story illustrates two important truths: the inadequacy of one size fits all solutions and the example of bad public policy making problems worse.
As Berry realized, “such solutions involve a definition of the problem that is false or so narrow as to be virtually false. A bad solution solves for a single purpose such as increased production, either in ignorance or in deliberate disregard of the larger patterns in which it is contained. It therefore purchases its immediate objective only at exorbitant biological or social costs. The real problem of food production occurs within a complex mutually influential relationship of soil, plants, animals and people. A real solution to the problem will therefore be ecologically, agriculturally and culturally healthful.” Since yield or total production is only one factor in a complex equation in the causation of poverty and hunger, a single-factor solution cannot solve the problem.
Biodiversity cannot thrive in an atmosphere of concentrated corporate control because the corporations always simplify to the few varieties with the broadest adaptation that can generate the maximum sales all across the world. And they concentrate their research on a small number of major crops that can make them the most money. Ever wonder why a genetically engineered rutabaga or cardoon is not a major likelihood? Follow the money! To quote eminent University of Wisconsin plant breeder William F. Tracy, “Placing the responsibility for the world's crop germplasm and plant improvement in the hands of a few companies is bad public policy. The primary goal of private corporations is to make profit, and...this goal will be at odds with certain public needs. Even if we assume that the one or two companies controlling a crop were completely altruistic, it is extremely dangerous to have so few people making decisions that will determine the future of a crop. Even well intentioned people make mistakes. The future of our food supply requires genetic diversity but also demands a diversity of decision makers.” And that's why when Monsanto absorbed Seminis, by far Fedco's largest supplier, we decided that we could no longer be customers. And we set about to replace those Seminis/Monsanto varieties one at a time.
Berry advises us to search for a ramifying series of solutions. Since the farm is a complex system of living beings in mutual dependence, successful solutions will be biological and not industrial and will require a concern for pattern that addresses the complex interrelationships of fertility, soil and animal husbandry, sanitation, economics, a concern for the health, not only of soil, plants, animals, farm, farmer, farm family, but also of farm community, or rural community—a pattern of patterns.
Why my concern about patterns in problems and solutions? Because our society is rife with solutions that don't solve our problems and instead actually make them worse. A perfect example is in so-called corrections. At some point in the '70s, perhaps in reaction to the obstreperous '60s, we decided to take on a collective attitude of “lock 'em up and throw away the key.” This was all about our collective need to find scapegoats to punish and never about correction because we make very little effort to improve people once they are imprisoned. In fact, we've farmed out prison administration to cost-cutting private corporations who cut down on educational programs and opportunities to gain skills. Instead we throw our rejects into this system where they are bored, sensorally deprived and given endless time to percolate and maturate their resentment against the society treating them thus—in the company of the very persons who can teach them the skills to wreak more effective revenge when they come out! A solution that is effective for a limited time only in the narrow objective of keeping us on the outside safe from them on the inside. But since we can't keep them locked up forever, it is ultimately a doomed solution. With 5% of the world's population we have almost 25% of its prisoners, enough so that if they were all locked up in one city, it would be the fourth largest in the country! In twenty years our prison population tripled and our expenditures quadrupled from $10.6 billion to $44 billion, a 121% increase in inflation-adjusted $ during a time period when real expenditures on higher education increased by only 21%.
And so my second challenge: Why do I dwell on prisons and what have they to do with agriculture? Because we in the organic movement are not immune from societal trends. We, too, are preoccupied with enforcement at the expense of education. In Maine, where I just completed a 17-year stint on MOFGA's Board of Directors, we are proud of having the largest organic organization in the country with more than 6,000 members and a yearly budget approaching $2 million. We have thriving well-attended educational programs and in many areas, de facto have taken on much of the role of the declining federal agricultural extension programs. Yet, our combined educational and agricultural services budgets are less than our budget for certification. And since the National Organic Program mandates a separation between education and certification (inspection is essentially viewed as a compliance tool) and certification is process-based, not outcome-based, we are spending more on policing than we are on education. And I think that's a darn shame.
I have seen this policing bureaucracy grow and grow. I have watched our inspections as a food processor grow longer, more detailed, more nit-picky, and our prep time to meet them increase commensurately. With commensurate benefits for our end users? I doubt it. As a seed source, we always had to be careful not to mix varieties. We had systems in place long before the cops came. It is a fact that bureaucracies tend always to grow and to raise standards to justify their existence. And with our local certifier feeling pressure from the feds—another much larger bureaucracy--the policing costs mount. In the end growers are always the ones who pay. I've watched MOFGA's certification budget multiply almost sixfold since 2002. Meanwhile, the $75 fee for growers grossing under $5,000 mushroomed to $300, the $350 fee for larger farmers taking in $350,000 jumped to $1,650! Imagine what we could do if we used half our enforcement budget for education. How about K-12 teacher workshops integrating organic farming/gardening into an edible schoolyard that achieves grade level standards for each grade! A working farmer in every school alongside the music teacher and the gym teacher! Or a communities initiative involving 4-H, scouts, extension, researchers and master gardeners to develop local food plans with direct benefits for local businesses. Or working through schools to start State seed banks to preserve rare local and regional varieties of vegetables, grains and fruit crops, and to research their stories and get them out to the community?
While on the subject of education, I would mention Fedco's seed school initiatives. These are programs—and we have three of them—to involve children in fund-raisers about seeds and gardens. We have 56 groups, mostly classrooms and PTA's participating in our convenience preorder modeled after the Girl Scout cookie sales. Kids go around with order forms offering 25 popular seed varieties to raise funds for their groups. At least 20-30 other groups are involved in our bulk seed schools where they buy bulk quantities of seed, break it down into packets and offer them for sale, often in conjunction with their own school gardening programs. They get to design their own packets, weigh out the seeds and practise the computations, and conduct their own start-up business. It is so important to get kids started with seeds because they are the gardeners and farmers of the future. And again, these are solutions on multiple levels. They provide hands-on units of classroom instruction in math, science, art, business and ethics with a practical side that transcends book-learning. They will get kids out in the garden, and parents, too. They provide needed funds for non-profit service groups. They replace sales of unhealthful products with one that is literally green.
For further relevance of the enforcement model, we need only look at federal food safety initiatives that could curtail or even halt the growth of our movement by entwining our farms and modest value-added initiatives in a complex and costly web of food safety programs, audits, paperwork requirements, certifications and regulations. Happily, the USDA has shelved for now the NAIS program, but only because we felled it with our grassroots uprising. If we scrutinize through a close Wendell-Berry-like patterning lens the USDA's GAP program, and the FDA's proposed food safety regulations on tomatoes, melons and leafy greens that follow a similar model, it is crystal clear what bad solutions they are for the problem of food safety. GAP features high annual certification fees of up to $1,000 per farm, a pass-fail scoring system administered by inspection service workers who are experienced in grading vegetables for color and size but lack any expertise in whole farm systems, and a series of metrics that penalize farmers for wildlife activity near crops, using manure and compost, being near any livestock operations, or God forbid, integrating livestock into the on-farm operation, without acknowledging whatsoever that pesticide use might pose any risk to food safety. The model is one size fits all with no recognition of the benefits of compost and natural fertilizers, of conservation practices such as buffer strips or of organic or integrated pest control in slowing the movement of pathogenic organisms. The ideal is one of monocultures and sterility, biased toward large concentrated operations and discriminatory against small diversified ones. The USDA's goal is that all farmers supplying major markets be GAP-certified and it is becoming virtually impossible for growers to get into the federally funded school lunch program, the large supermarket chains or wholesale produce markets without the certification. Ironically, GAP will likely make our food less safe, driving out small and medium-sized diversified farms by making market entry prohibitive, and concentrating our food system even more into the hands of the few. If we go back to Berry's definition of a thriving farm, GAP is not even a good solution to the immediate safety problem, to say nothing of its negative ripple effects. Consider also HR 2749 and S510 the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act that would require facilities to register with the FDA, pay an annual fee of $500, and have bio-terrorism and food safety protocols in place. The definition of facility is so broad and so vague that it could include anyone who cuts, peels, trims, washes, waxes, eviscerates, renders, cooks, bakes, freezes, cools, pasteurizes, homogenizes, mixes, formulates, bottles, mills, grinds, extracts, distills, labels or packages, the enforcement left to an FDA that has never been friendly to small farms or processors. Here again is a 1-size fits all solution, one fee for all size operations, lacking a risk-based analysis of specific activities as they relate to specific foods, without acknowledgment that centralized processing and co-mingling present the greatest risks and should therefore be more closely regulated, without any recognition that a complex problem requires complex sophisticated solutions.
Of course, one might as well oppose apple pie, motherhood and the Fourth of July as oppose food safety. No doubt our highly concentrated, centralized food industry needs appropriate regulation, and I do not question the motives of many proponents. But let us not be naïve. Some proponents are not so pure. Some are representatives of the large trade organizations and the big food processing corporations who are concerned that our local sustainable food movement has been steadily gaining market share. They would love to slow then reverse our momentum, all in the name of food safety, and they are not afraid to scare people about the dangers of manure, even though it has been at the foundation of good husbandry for milennia. These corporations and trade organizations, with their phalanx of lawyers, have the resources to dominate our legislatures while we stay close to the farm struggling to make ends meet. Any rulemaking process within the federal government and the FDA places us at a serious structural disadvantage.
Which leads us to the third and most important challenge. If we look at CSA as an example of solving for pattern, we begin to understand why it has had such meteoric success. Look at the problems it solves: 1) It provides farmers with up-front capital at the time they most need it 2) It gives them a guaranteed ready market for their products 3) Within limits it provides flexibility for unexpected surges and decreases in production 4) It provides some buffer from the vicissitudes of market pricing 5) For consumers it is a dependable source of fresh produce each week 6) It offers them a connection to their farmer 7) Best of all, it necessitates a diversified model of production that is good for the soil, good for the farm and good for the community as well as offering the farmer a chance to cooperate with other farms to further expand the possible range of diversity of products offered.
Now CSA is not a perfect model for every farmer and every consumer. It requires a high level of skills on the part of the farmer, a willingness to embrace the whole community, and for the consumer, it requires a greater degree of involvement with the whole food process, whether the CSA has a work requirement or not. Characteristic of good solutions, it is a complex system that solves many potential problems and has a good ripple effect on the whole community ecology.
But it is not for everyone and our challenge is to find other solutions that can reach people who can't be reached by CSA. And this, with a bow to Al Gore, is what I call OUR inconvenient truth: That the present system makes it inconvenient for us to vote for biodiversity. It is so easy and convenient to shop at our Safeway, Sainsbury or Wal-Mart. But every time we do, we are voting for monoculture and centralization—monoculture in our farms and monoculture in our markets, monoculture all the way up and down the line. And so, for the time being, embracing biodiversity means tolerating some inconvenience, and yet, we must work toward the day when finding real food grown sustainably close by is no longer difficult or inconvenient, when we can source that good bread, that local beef and chicken and those apples and rutabagas without going far out of our way and we must do so from the source marketplace: the seed, all the way to the end marketplace: the point of purchase, and all along the line.
I am celebrating the best thing that has happened to my small city of Waterville, Maine in at least 20 years. We have a new market called Barrel's, offering not just local food but also local crafts, and a community center in the making. For the first time in so very long, I can now purchase real food downtown. It is convenient. It is community minded. And next week it will host two workshops on how to start seedlings, one presented by Johnny's Selected Seeds and one by Fedco. We will know we are winning when there is a Barrell's in every downtown, even the small towns, and when those corner Ma& Pa stores carry local sweet corn and farm-raised chicken instead of the generic brands of processed food and junk prepared by huge corporations. The most important work we can do is to continue what we have begun, redoubling our efforts with inner strength and inner discipline, and above all, with love. Recall that like the Grange, our organic movement was born, not with a desire for riches, but with an inner conviction that we could find a better way to farm, a way without chemicals, a way with respect for the living organisms in the soil and around us. There were no organic police to oversee us, only our own consciences and our own desires that we could find a path with heart.
The more we are successful, the more we will be opposed. We must be determined. We must show the way with our own hearts and our own strength and the truth of our convictions, and we must ask of our leaders the same. We must not settle when on the one hand Michele and Barack Obama offer us rhetoric and symbolic gestures like the White House garden, while on the other hand advocating onerous food safety laws that could enervate our strength. We must ask for substance not symbols, complexity and subtlety, not one size fits all, fair and open process, not backroom politics with bribes for the powerful, but instead solutions forged skillfully with the conviction of righteousness.
We have a lot of work to do, miles to go before we sleep. You and us, at Fedco, too. We may have ditched the least ethical company in the world, but we still purchase from Syngenta, ranked 574th in that list of 581 companies. Imagine learning to live without Masai and Jade beans, Raven zucchini, Sunburst Patty Pan squash, Silver Queen corn, Quetzali and Sangria watermelons---all Syngenta varieties. When will we do with Syngenta what we did with Monsanto? Only when we are ready. Only when we can find varieties good enough to replace these. Only when you—who use our seeds-- are ready. But make no mistake. That is the direction we must head.
I will close with some thoughts from Brian Snyder, the Executive Director of PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, whose commentary about food safety has shown the way. In an article called Diversity or Dominion, Snyder addressed the topic of biodiversity more eloquently than I ever could. I am not much for power-points or technology in workshops, but I wish I could show a blow up of two pictures that appeared in Passages, PASA's newsletter. Instead I have a copy up front for anyone who'd like to see them and I'll bring them to my workshops as well. Snyder took a trip to Peru, mostly for pleasure, but he had his mind blown by what he saw in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a complex of terraced, concentric circles at Moray near the city of Urubamba. Though it looked like an ancient amphitheater, it was actually an elaborate most sophisticated agricultural research station, capable of mimicking hundreds of different ecological zones and conditions that could be found throughout the Incan empire. These people whom we once regarded as savages, maintained an incredible biodiversity and an elaborate food security system for 15 million people. Peruvian farmers developed several thousand varieties of potatoes, alone! From his trips to Peru and Cuba, Snyder concluded that “The act of implementing a food system build on the principles of proximity and diversification, with a healthy dose of neighborliness, can change the world in profound ways, even when political and economic realities get in the way. To feed the world one must start at home with a plethora of seed varieties and production strategies, not a precious few designed to yield dominion over all the Earth.” First feed ourselves, then our families, then our neighbors, then our communities, and then we can feed the world. Thank you!