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Farmers’ Profit

The great thing about farmers markets or buying direct from farmers is that there is no “middle man” who distributes the food and takes a cut of the profit. Farmers are notoriously low paid, so when you buy direct from the farmer, he actually receives the money.

Farm workers in third world countries, where much of our supermarket fruit comes from, have some of the lowest paid jobs that exist. The money we pay at the grocery store goes primarily to transportation and restocking costs, with only a tiny fraction actually going to the people who do the hard work of growing the food.

These facts underlie the reasons for buying food locally. Farmers can be supported and appreciated, and money is not wasted on transportation. If you think about it, it really is a waste of resources on many levels to buy fresh food from halfway across the world—when it can grow in our own backyards.

Farm Buildings

Farmers are often willing to sell locally but there is a lot of bureaucracy preventing them from being as profitable and marketable as possible. If consumers seek them out and encourage them to keep offering their products on a private or small-business basis, many good results will be encouraged. Choose today to make an effort to purchase in this manner—from people who want to supply you with good food.

As Joel Salatin often asks, “Do you know your farmer?”

Centralization in the Food Economy

 

A full discussion of food will include the social-political and cultural aspects of the environment in which the food will be cultivated, harvested, prepared, and eaten. If our society and culture in general is messed up, our food’s quality will not escape unaffected. It is good for us to then to examine our current system, and the centralization that accompanies it.

Authority and relationships go hand in hand. Without any relationships or knowledge of the people or situation, authority will be blind and arbitrary. Without authority or rules, relationships will have an arbitrary basis (i.e. no basis) for love, faithfulness, or even clear communication. Thus only God, who alone has absolute knowledge of everything, has absolute authority over everything. And when He has a special saving relationship with a people (or person), that people is even more accountable to His authority. We, on the other hand, are limited in knowledge and relationships, and thus limited in our authority and power. While we should not be individualists, we should have an emphasis on local authority and relational power. The more centralized and impersonal the relation is, the more limited the authority should be.

From this thinking comes representative government and our Tenth Amendment. Also from this comes the vital importance of the family to society and culture. It is in the family that the relations are able to be close enough to establish what food we eat, what clothes we wear, and what music we develop. It is in the family that culture is passed on and developed.

When large institutions like Hollywood and government schools try to form culture, it ends up with cheap, impersonal Pop Culture. It affects music, dance, agriculture, communication, cooking, manufacturing, etc… While some good will usually remain in the centralized systems (like great action scenes in perverse movies), and while the centralized systems may think they are helping, they generally break apart relational and familial culture, society, and economics. Thus we get fast-food. Thus we get the processing and preserving to make food mass-marketable. Thus we get FDA raids on small farms.  Thus we get most of the modern food industry. 

Much can be said on how to rebuild our food system (hence True Foods Solutions), but basically it will be a return to a more local and relational system. How that is done is up for debate. How local do we mean? What can we learn from the corporations of today, and what should we throw out? How quickly ought this to happen? Etc… And neither will it be easy. Relationships are very messy. But in the work that has been put before us, so let us strive for reform, for decentralization, and for excellence.

"Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land."
(Isaiah 5:8 ESV)

 

Joel Salatin talk to farmers and local food activists

Joel Salatin

 

The folks from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply recently hosted a luncheon that featured Joel Salatin talking to farmers and local food activists.  His talk covers a wide range of issues, and in typical Joel Salatin style, he weaves a beautiful tapestry of agrarian and food related topics.  Listen to the speech here:

[audio:http://groworganic.com/media/audio/Joel-Salatin.mp3]

 

Seeking shalom: Renewing the Regional Foodshed

seek the shalom

I'm not sure when it began but it's been ongoing for many years now. Maybe it was when I read the book 'Fast Food Nation' or when I read Wendell Berry's classic 'The Unsettling of America'. Maybe it was when my wife and I started buying grass fed beef from a local farming family. Maybe it was when it dawned on me that what I put in my mouth directly effects my health. I'm not sure the exact moment that this happen but at some point over the past five years I became passionate about food and agriculture.

I can look back at some key moments that tipped the scales for me – watching movies like 'FRESH' and Food Inc' or 'The World According to Monsanto', attending an open house at a local farm, becoming friends with small scale family farmers, growing our first garden, slaughtering my first chicken, or learning how to milk a cow. These were all stepping stones on our journey that I believe the LORD has led my wife and I down – waking us up to the reality that "Eating is an agricultural act" (which Wendell Berry says so well).

One of the ciritcal elements undergirding our transition from mindless eaters to passionate "foodies" (as some people call it) has been our friendships with local, small scale family farmers. Watching them struggle, seeing the beauty of their vocation, joining with them in the joys of harvest and mourning at the death of a beloved animal. These relationships have aided us in our own pursuit of self-reliant living but have also been a catalyst in forming the way we think about our food practices – what we eat and why.

This long personal journey in exploring issues of food, health and agriculture (and how they all relate) has also coincided with a deeper spiritual journey. Growing up always in church I learned how to define my Christian faith in certain ways. For most of my life that faith walk has been heavily focused on 'orthodoxy' (right belief) but through times of crisis and questioning – my wife and I have begun to explore what it means to embody our belief in Jesus and His Gospel. This embodiment or 'right action' is also known as 'orthopraxy'. Without right action – there is truly no right belief. A Christian's credibility relies upon it.  And while I have spent my fair share of asking people if they would go to heaven or hell if they died tonight – I have come to understand that the Gospel of the Kingdom is so much more than personal salvation (although I am by no means diminishing our personal entrance into covenant relationship with the Living GOD). GOD is at work in the world to seed His redemption amidst brokennes and sin. We must be about our Father's business not just proclaiming the Age to Come when He will renew all things in the Resurrection – but we must also demonstrate this coming resurrection through acts of mercy, love and laying down our lives for those around us.

What does this look like? What does this participation in the mission of GOD look like? Well, it looks different for each one of us but one thing is certain – it involves our engagement with our neighbors and our community. It means sluffing off the fatalism that says 'it's all going to burn up anyway – why should I care about the poor, or the environment or the economy, etc… Folks, we're not just passing through this world to go to a better place. We await a new heavens and a new earth – and while we wait, we are ambassodors of the Age to Come – sowing reconciliation wherever we go – reconciliation with GOD, with each other and with GOD's good creation all around us.

Lately we have found our faith and our passion for food and agriculture converging into a very practical expression. As a means to seek the shalom of our community, to seek the renewal of our local economy, the land and our bodies – we are asking ourselves 'how can we help grow the local food movement and sustainable agricultural practices in our regional foodshed'.

We began organizing monthly gatherings to get sustainable farmers and others interested in local food together to network, collaborate and support each other. Our first meeting there was four of us sitting around a table and this past Tuesday we had our fourth meeting with 19 people and a handful of babies and kids running around. It was an amazing time of sharing and conspiring and seeds of concrete action were sown. While we are organizing these gatherings for our own reasons this is not a meeting specifically for Christians – it is open to the whole community with the purpose of establishing a local food forum from which a larger foodshed renewal movement can grow.

Even before we got people together- folks have been gardening and farming with sustainable methods, they are selling their products, but they are barely breaking even and there are not many of them. There are community gardens but not enough to serve everyone. The land groans under the burden of toxic biosolids, chemical pesticides and other industrial abuses. Our bodies bear the burden of our oppressive eating. Now is the time for change. Now is the time for the Church to awaken to our place in the world – to be salt and light – to serve not just in matters deemed spiritual but in the stewardship and caring of all the gifts GOD has given us – our bodies, our land and our communities. As the LORD told exiled Israel:

"Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare." – Jeremiah 29:7

_________________________________________________

If you are interested in starting a local food forum/network be watching LandAndTable.com (website coming soon) and Sustainable Traditions in the coming days for some practical advice on how to get started.

 

Steps toward Healthy Eating

Steps toward Whole Health

Since there is no end to the research that can be done about which foods are healthy, and since there is no universal formula given people’s varying health histories, I’ll condense some advice into a few steps to take. One basic approach to use is to question mainstream health claims and test them against a respect for God’s creation and a respect for the traditions of history. If there is conflict, gravitate toward God’s natural foods and toward the wisdom of bygone eras.

breakfast

1. First of all, seek natural foods. With any packaged foods, look for natural ingredients. Avoid anything you can’t pronounce or couldn’t define; avoid anything you don’t remember seeing in a garden, in a field, or on a tree; and certainly avoid anything that clearly tells you “artificial.” Look for brands with the fewest additives and preservatives. Avoiding chemicals in this form is very important! Just about every product, from ice cream, to tortilla chips, to salad dressing, is usually offered in more-natural versions and conventional versions. In the next point, I’ll encourage you to make some of those same products in your own kitchen—but if you’re going to buy them, please buy the most natural versions and you will avoid a lot of toxic substances in your food and in your body.

2. Then, seek wholesome foods. With anything you eat, try to avoid the most processed versions. Something may be “natural,” but has been pumped full of so many ingredients and undergone so many alterations to make it what it is, that it is hardly wholesome anymore. The more that ingredients in a food product have been changed from their natural form, the less able your body is to digest it and assimilate it. Or, some things, such as white flour and white sugar, have had their composition denatured so much that though they are “pure,” they are no longer wholesome at all. Try buying the simplest, plainest foods and cook from scratch with them. Buy or make plain yogurt and add a few berries instead of buying the expensive, even organic, flavored and sweetened yogurts. Cook whole grains for hot cereal instead of buying even the “natural” boxed cereals—those have undergone much processing and denaturing even though they are technically natural, containing nothing artificial.

3. Seek the most accessible foods—most accessible to your body. Avoiding artificial foods and processed foods will make great strides toward this action. But included in this idea are giving your body what it most needs: not just “okay” healthy foods, but therapeutic, nutrient-dense foods and foods which meet your individual biological needs. Cut back on sugar and grain altogether, even if the kinds you now have in your kitchen are more natural. Try to buy produce locally and in season since it will likely have more nutrients than that which was picked unripe and shipped across the country. Fresh and homemade foods are always richer in nutrients than foods from grocery stores, and as such, the nutrients are more accessible to your body. For instance, even though organic boxed chicken broth is technically “wholesome,” it in no way compares to the rich nutritional composition of homemade chicken stock.

Seek the most natural, wholesome, and accessible foods, and you will be on your way toward a pantry full of healthy foods and a body strengthened by good nutrition.

Wholesale Alternatives for the Small Farm, Part 2

Ten billion. That’s the size of the organic fruits and vegetables grocery market in the US.  According to the USDA, the total direct-to-consumer fruits and vegetables market (conventional and organic) weighs in at roughly two billion. The difference in potential is staggering. Yet very few local organic growers dare venture into wholesale. It is an impersonal environment driven by small margins and high volume. The arena is dominated by large producers who wield the power of industrial efficiencies. They can stomp you. But they’re not local. And you are.

As I began to discuss in the first post in this series on Wholesale Alternatives for the Small Farm, I think the greatest entrepreneur opportunity, both in terms of impact and profitability, is in figuring out how to get local produce into the wholesale system profitably. The wholesale market is alien to most organic farmers. There are no enthusiastic patrons bubbling with praise for the quality of your purple sprouting broccoli. In fact, they probably don’t want your purple sprouting broccoli. But they do want good quality local organic produce in consistent volumes, properly packed and palletized, cooled and delivered. And metropolitan grocers are starting to realize that local organic produce will get people in the door. But Local doesn’t work very well right now for retailers. Only a few retailers are actually willing to work directly with small growers and nobody releases their figures, but I suspect that local is a net loss to them, mainly due to poor shelf life, inefficiency, lack of consistency, etc. Small organic growers have no trouble growing to wholesale quality standards but they struggle to meet the industrial requirements of volume, post-harvest handling, standardized packaging, pallet-scale logistics, and food safety protocols. So along comes the food hub, which I introduced in part one of this series.

What is a food hub? It's pretty simple. A food hub is a company, co-op, or non-profit which aggregates and prepares the produce from small farms for the wholesale market. The concept of the Food Hub is not entirely new but is the realignment and blending of existing models, scaled down to work with small producers. Food hubs are an emerging model and take on many forms, from web-based marketing systems such as LocallyGrown to traditional distributors who focus on local produce such as Atlanta’s Turnip Truck. The most relevant to food system reform, though, is often called the full-service food hub. It is this form which adds the most value for both the grower and the retailer. The full-service food hub acts as both aggregator and value-added processor, preparing the local produce for wholesale customers and taking on the risks of compliance and marketing which allows the grower to continue growing.

Winter Greenhouse Gardening – Planning and Resources

Eliot Coleman's greenhouse

Yes, it is that awful time of year when we step out after the first hard frost and see the tomato vines and other susceptible plants all dark green and shriveled under a crystalline layer of new frost.  Winter has begun the slow occupation of our gardens, and we have nothing to look forward to but our canned vegetables and the beautiful pictures of growing plants in the seed catalogues.

Maybe.  I recently had the fortune (misfortune due to the amount of work I went through?) of coming across a Craigslist find of an attached greenhouse.  The overly wealthy purchaser of a home did not like the attached greenhouse, with all of it’s automatic fans and heater and posted it for a song on Craigslist.  I just happened to call, and after paying less than 1/10th the retail price, and subsequently drilling out 100 or so rivets over 2 days, it is sitting in my yard unassembled, but marked and ready for installation.  It was relatively new, so I could order the few new parts I needed from the manufacturer. 

This was a very blessed find, but after thinking about it, this small greenhouse would be great for starting seedlings, and if I really worked at it, I might be able to grow enough vegetables for a couple weeks of food for our family of 4, but only after spending a small fortune to heat it throughout the coldest days of the winter and maybe even using some supplemental lighting.

I realized the best option for this greenhouse is to use it to start my heat-loving plants early in the season, growing heirloom, non-GMO plants from seed, and thereby avoid the big box chains for my young plants for next year’s garden.  Still, it was not a bad investment overall.  I plan to start my seeds, and possibly work with some local friends by supplying them with heirloom seedlings in pots they can not get anywhere else for next year’s gardens.

But what about actual fresh vegetables in the winter?  For that, we need to reference the amazing work The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman.  Coleman lives in Maine.  He uses unheated greenhouses.  In the winter.   He grows an amazing collection of vegetables.  The only veggies he really avoids are heat lovers like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.  Oh, and he does not mention it in the book as far as I’ve read, but in a closed greenhouse, you have to pollinate those by hand, with a paintbrush. 

Here is how his system works:  You pick your veggies appropriately (a lot more are available than you think).  A single coat of greenhouse plastic and the thinnest row covers.  By adding a covering of plastic over your hoop house, you move your zone 1.5 zones to the south.  By adding a row cover, you add another 1.5 zones.  That means in my area of Virginia, I can grow whatever they are growing in Florida or California during the winter.

Eliot Coleman's greenhouse with row covers

The row covers float over your veggies and allows the sunlight to pass through to the plants and soil.  At night, moisture condenses on the under side of the row covers reflecting the long wavelength heat radiation coming up from the soil and bouncing it back down.  No double walled plastic over your hoop house, no constant fans to keep the layers separate, and no supplemental heat.  The other “ah ha” moment this book suggested was that a cold winter greenhouse is not really for starting the harvest, but extending it.  Additionally, there was a time when this Maine greenhouse setup did more business in the winter than in the summer; not only in volume, but also probably from lack of competition.  More pictures and information can be found on his Four Seasons Farm website.

This is not a book review blog really, so let's get back to our self-sufficient family application.  You have a couple ways to look at this.  You can use it to produce food for your family and then additional food to sell / barter.  The greenhouse can remain and be used to start your heat loving vegetables, and then the plastic removed when it starts getting hot enough to sustain them.  You can then add the plastic back at the end of the growing season to maintain those peppers and tomatoes for a couple more weeks.   The hoops can be used to hang strings to keep your tomatoes and other vines vertical.  You can even wrap the base with chicken wire if you need to keep out certain pests.

Locally, Coleman sells a significant amount of cut and come again vegetables throughout the winter – spinach and lettuces, in addition to other veggies.  Using this setup, you could technically have a winter farmer’s market.  Your local restaurants could use your produce to continue to advertise that they use locally sourced vegetables (where do you think they normally get salad lettuce in the middle of winter?)  Apparently, winter-grown vegetables taste better.  Real or perceived, it was Coleman’s consistent feedback.

As soon as I finish my current attached greenhouse project, I’m going to look at erecting my hoophouse.   To get started, first look at www.craigslist.org or www.searchtempest.com to search your area for used greenhouses.  If there is nothing available, or you want to customize your options, you can check out Build It Solar's Sunspaces page for lots of resources, many of which are free.  In considering short and long term expenses and usability, my personal favorite was the bender on Lost Creek's website.  This site sells very affordable bending jigs to use chain link fence pipes as the frame for hoop houses.  Several folks have also used this bender to build semi-permanent outbuildings as well (check out the customer gallery).

My last thought was on the plastic.  Usually, regular polyethelyne plastic is not recommended for greenhouses due to its lack of UV protection.  However, I wonder if  used only for winter, would it last for more than one season?  Maybe.  However, I saw some pretty conservative prices on greenhouse plastic on Ebay.   Your best money spent though is on Coleman’s book.  It’s an easy read, well documented with the science behind his suggestions.  It contains lists of vegetables, planting times to maturity based on your zone and type of cold greenhouse, and lots of supplemental information.  Bon appétit!


Farmers Markets

In the Northwest where I live, we are coming to the end of the harvest season and likewise, the season for farmers markets.

Looking back on the summer, a few things about farmers markets remain fresh in my memory and give me much to look forward to next spring.

Ft. Greene Farmer's Market

Farmers markets are a great community gathering place. There are three or four that I frequent, and each one has its own flavor. Saturday morning markets are alive with people who woke up early to seek prime, crisp produce or to meander around with their fresh bread under one arm, admiring natural soaps, exotic salsas, handspun wool, and endless other handmade artifacts. Weekday evening markets bustle with people picking up some vegetables for dinner or eating at any number of local food vendors while listening to live music under a canopy.

Farmers markets are the ideal place to get local food from knowledgeable growers and to support family farms. They are one of the oldest and most popular methods of direct to consumer marketing for small farms.  The benefit goes both ways.  The buyer supports the grower directly rather than most of the profit getting divided between intermediaries. The grower can tell the buyer exactly how the food is grown, and is usually as proud as can be to do so. The only thing hard about farmer’s markets is not being able to buy from every committed, passionate farmer, and not being able to avail ourselves of all the colorful bounty displayed on every table.

I had quite a few things growing in my own garden and greenhouse this year, so I didn’t buy everything from farmer’s markets. However, I always love walking around and noticing the fruits of the farmers’ hard work. The growers are always more than willing to talk about their trade, even when you say you have a garden and don’t end up buying anything from them. Another thing I love about markets is eating meals there—whether breakfast or dinner—and supporting the local vendors who often use local food, even farmers market food, in their preparation. I’ll eat my meal while walking around appreciating everyone else at the market who takes the effort to display and sell the fruit of their labor.

Until the markets start again next year, I’m going to remember these festive scenes of summer where food is celebrated and community is connected.

Integrated, Generational Thinking

“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are healed by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” ~Wendell Berry, agrarian writer

“Modern man stands on a precipice. Continued physical degeneration is inevitable if we continue to eat industrial foods; but we have more knowledge and resources today than at any time in recent history to help us adopt a diet that ensures good health, generation after generation.” ~Kathryne Pirtle, Weston A. Price Foundation

Farm

These quotations make me consider two things which should characterize our pursuit of True Food: Integration and Generations.The idea of integration encourages the consumer—the buyer, the cook, the eater—to make choices which complement and bring together all areas of his life. Too often there is a dichotomy between food and health, whereas, if made compatible with each other, food and health would each have many times the impact and potential in our bodies and in our society. If food is chosen to promote health, and if in good health we are able to enjoy good food, we are much better off. To not realize this is schizophrenic—meaning to do two contradictory things while not expecting contradictory results.

The idea of multi-generational thinking encourages the consumer to look behind us in history to learn what people ate and how they lived, and to look forward into the future to imagine the consequences if we keep doing what we are doing today. Sickness and disease are only growing in their grasp on Western nations, and reversing this trend will take drastic action. Looking at the past gives us much wisdom about what to eat and how it nourishes us, and we would do well to heed this knowledge while taking advantage of the research, transportation, and resources available to us today. We have no excuse; we have knowledge of the past and tools for the future, if only they are used wisely.

The right food will be true to all that we need it to do: satisfy our tastes, nourish our bodies, hearken to bygone wisdom, and sustain the next generation. Consider the internal and the external when you put food into your body. Consider history and the future when you choose food today. In your choices, look beyond the immediate desire and the immediate need, and choose food which will truly integrate all that it can, and which will respect the heritage of other generations.

Wholesale Alternatives for the Small Farm

Farmers' Market. Hartwell, GeorgiaUpon reading the question "what is a local food system?", consumers and growers alike will respond with terms like "CSA", "farmers' market", or "produce stand". Farm-to-consumer channels dominate the local food conversation right now, and with good reason. Local food implies a connection with the farmer and that naturally lends itself to the idea of shaking his hand, talking about his farm, connecting with him on issues. For the farmer, the direct-to-consumer means a higher margin on product sold and working with customers who are often evangelically enthusiastic about his efforts. This is the idyllic situation for many farms.

But step away from the romantic for a moment and put on your business hats. According to the Organic Trade Association, 93% of all organic food sold in the United States in 2010 was sold through retail grocers (see here). That is a staggering number and amounts to a market potential of $25B. Who do you think is taking advantage of that potential? It isn't the small family farm. Our regulatory environment, including that monstrous FSMA, makes the landscape hostile for small farms who want to enter the wholesale market. So Big Ag is filling the gaps with huge production areas in California, Florida, and Mexico as well as imports from South America. But the small family farm can tap into this market. In fact, the growing interest in local food begs for entrepreneurs who can figure out how to get it to the mass markets in a relational and connected way. And we really don't have to forge new tools for this.

In the remaining parts of this series, I'll write about two of the tools available: food hubs and branding. Food hubs are aggregators. They bridge the volume, overhead, and regulatory gaps between the small farm and the big market and meet an essential need in the local food system supply chain. Branding has always tried to connect with consumers. And I believe it can be used successfully to connect consumer with farmer in the local mass market retail system.

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