Category Archives: Food Systems

Industry, policy, politics, etc.

Mr. Smith Plays the Farm Card

Picture an angry young man with a sign. He appears to be agitated, holding a sign that condemns what his opponent stands for. There’s a chain link fence behind him.

Take a second to capture how you feel about those three sentences. Has your heart rate jumped? Do you associate with the protester? Do you want to get in his face?

Whatever your reaction, that is the first impression you get when reading The 10 Reasons They Hate You So, a clearly provocative post on the site Truth in Food.

With your blood now pumping, the author, Mike Smith, takes you through the first five parts of “his” defense of industrialized food (his agenda is clearly bigger than his own). Had he not presented the image I mentioned above or used words like “hate” in his title, the piece would have likely slipped under the radar. My guess is he knew exactly what he was doing.

Right from the start, Mr. Smith works hard to make “good food” advocates out to be a powerful force hellbent on destroying our abundant food system. He goes so far as to refer to these people as the “food-consumer-activist complex.” It’s laughable to pit citizens against the real force in our food system – the Food-Pharma-Health Complex, especially when you consider how unchecked these industries have become in the U.S. economy.

Now on to Mr. Smith’s Top 10:

#1:  They hate you because you trust in science.

Science is Mr. Smith’s answer to the world’s problems. The advancement of science has always offered tremendous power in improving our well-being. But when it becomes entirely controlled by for-profit entities that leverage it for the sole purpose of making money, all bets are off. You see, our democratically-elected government has been giving capitalism a free ride for decades, allowing near-monopolistic industries to hide behind science. Consumer health be damned, we’ve got to feed the world (and our shareholders) with calories (and cash), regardless of the side effects.  I’m fairly certain that most serious sustainable food advocates don’t question the value of science. What we do question is the application of scientific discovery, which has been concentrated in the hands of a handful of corporate giants through invention or acquisition with a single bottom line in mind – money.

#2: They hate you because you’re messing with their kids.

I’m not a highly educated woman, but I am the father of four kids. Does that mean I can’t be against industrialized food? Is it out of the question that I am concerned for more than my own family? It would seem that being concerned about the welfare of children equates to being a “new-age anti-tech advocate.” How does Mr. Smith rationalize such an absurd claim? He bashes leading sustainable food voices that have extensive knowledge backed by equally extensive research to back up their claims. Mr. Smith, I’m starting to believe you don’t like women; or kids for that matter.

#3: They hate you in order to fight the power.

What is science other than man’s way of trying to make sense of (and control in many cases) what is an otherwise complex world? I would never suggest that such a quest is without merit, but to put it ahead of the human spirit is what bothers many who push back against science-driven industry’s onslaught to reshape the natural world. Apparently, Mr. Smith believes that man has the potential to do this without harm. I wonder if he stopped to think that all of that is based on “belief.” On a related note, after bashing academically inclined thinkers several times by this point in his post, Mr. Smith is starting to appear very academic to me with his citing of Gandhi, Foucault, Borlaug, Berry and others. I wonder if he realizes that he may just be one of “us”.

#4. They hate you because you’re white.

Minority ownership of U.S. farms is concentrated in small, barely-getting-by farms, not the heavily subsidized, monoculture crop farms that feed our industrial food system. Stop playing the “Farm Card” Mr. Smith. It is without merit. I’d also recommend you stop acting like an academic with phrases like “today’s postmodern critics of food production deal in symbol and metaphor.” Letting your true colors show through like this can’t be good for your reputation in the non-foodie, profit-at-any-cost industrial food space.

#5: They hate you because you’re male.

Again, Mr. Smith plays the Farm Card, this time with regard to gender. He tries to make it sound as if all those women working on farms are on par with the male-dominated, monoculture, heavily subsidized farm operations that dominate farming acres and revenues. You miss again, Mr. Smith. The problem is that after making such an argument, first on race, then on gender, you give the reader such a clear indication of your bias. Did you intend to do that? Did you intend to convince those opposed to your position to convert? In either case, I must say your tactics lack sophistication and will have little impact other than to further polarize the debate. Well played. Not.

With that, I can hardly wait for Mr. Smith’s next five hateful reasons to further polarize the knowledge gap between farmers and eaters. I’m especially excited to read how he invokes Norman Rockwell and Ronald Reagan to make his points. Reagan is a no brainer, but Rockwell intrigues me.

Yipee!

SARE’s Farmer Rancher Grants – Helping Farmers to Market

Have you heard of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program? Since 1988, the SARE program has been helping advance profitable, environmentally sound and community oriented farm systems through grants to farmers and ranchers.

If haven’t heard of the SARE program, don’t worry; you’re not alone.

Thankfully, my friends over at Cooking Up A Story (CUpS) have developed the first in a wonderful series of stories showcasing the rich heritage, knowledge, and individual stories of some of our past farmer grant recipients. It starts with The Imperial Stock Ranch a 30,000 acre sheep ranch in Eastern Oregon, which began in 1871. CUpS does a wonderful job capturing the ranches challenges to its very survival, as well as its solution to direct,  market value-added yarn to retailers and apparel designers.

Please check out the complete story with video, and watch CUpS for future installments.

Great stuff!

5 Ways to a Better Eat Local Challenge

Like any good entrepreneur, I believe there are always better ways to do something. In this particular case, I have identified five ways to improve Eat Local Challenges to ensure they best achieve their desired objectives. Before sharing those suggestions, let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding why such challenges exist in the first place.

Ask 10 people why they eat local and you’re bound to get 10 or more different answers. In Burlington, Vermont, where my family just completed its weeklong “eating local” adventure, the reason for the challenge was loosely described as:

“Help keep your community thriving by being becoming a Localvore! We love Vermont and want to keep as much business as possible in our wonderful home! Anytime you buy locally grown or produced products, you keep money and jobs in Vermont.”

In the Mad River Valley of Vermont, where its localvore chapter is well known, its Eat Local Challenge the week before Burlington’s had the following objective:

“The Eat Local Challenge is an event where participants pledge to eat only locally grown and produced foods.  Participants will have the option of choosing to pledge by the meal (one or more meals), by the day (one or more days), or for the entire week.”

Notice a pattern?

Perhaps it’s unique to Vermont, but it seems that the primary reason for participating in an Eat Local Challenge is because it’s a good thing or the right thing to do for your community and the regional economy. Not bad, but after spending a week in the trenches with my family, I’m convinced we need a better objective. Here’s my suggestion:

To fundamentally change the region’s food system – from seed to plate – to ensure locally grown, raised and processed food is widely available and easy for consumers to find and purchase from regionally-owned retailers.

Think about that for a minute.

Rather than simply joining a challenge to feel good, shouldn’t we be doing so with the intent of demanding change and reinforcing those demands with our actions and dollars?  If everyone involved, from the farmer to the processor to the family of six is thinking “fundamental change”, then that is what they will be talking about, brainstorming about and working toward.

With that objective in mind, here are the five things I believe must change or be improved to make every Eat Local Challenge successful in driving permanent change in our regional food systems.

  1. Season-Long Challenge – In today’s hectic, go-go world, people need time to ease into new ideas. That is why I’m recommending that Eat Local Challenges begin when school gets out and go through the autumn harvest. Giving people the chance to get their feet wet, try new foods, try growing and preserving their own food, etc. will go a long way in winning their hearts, minds, pocketbooks and, most important, ongoing commitment to local foods.
  2. Food System Coordination – With a longer window to positively impact behaviors, it will be critical that more food chain businesses participate and promote the Challenge to keep in front and center in people’s minds. Farmers markets and CSA programs are two great places to reinforce the Challenge, as are restaurants and food retailers (thinking weekly Challenge Specials). The point is that by aligning the Challenge with most of the growing season, we make eating local a bigger, more visible part of everyday life.
  3. Shades of Local Labeling – Possibly my biggest frustration with eating local is finding local food, beyond produce, which at times can be a little challenging as well. My suggestion is to develop a Challenge labeling structure that allows farms, processors and retailers to help direct consumers to foods containing all or some local ingredients that were partially or completely processed within the Challenge radius (typically 100 miles). The highest marks and “most attractive” label would go to products that were 100 percent grown/raised and processed (if applicable) in the region and sold by a retailer that is 100 percent regionally owned. You could throw “organic” or some other sustainable criteria on top for good measure. You would also provide labels for “Shades of Local,” which would allow products with greater than 50 percent local traits to be considered the next best alternative.
  4. Peak Week Celebrations – Rather than have the Challenge be a single week, where by the time it is over most people are just getting their legs under them, why not have the season-long challenge culminate in a Peak (Harvest) Week celebration? Participating consumers would go for the 100 percent local diet during this week, which they would hit in stride, with the added bonus of people coming together to celebrate the Challenge, food producers, retailers and each other.
  5. School District Involvement – Given our kids will likely be back in school when the Peak Week hits, and given my kids first-hand experience with school lunch hours, it will be ideal to have the region’s school dialed in on the challenge. While they may not be able to alter their lunch menus much, they like retailers could draw attention to the “localness” of menu items. In addition, they could actively promote the Challenge and encourage teachers and students to do their part to raise awareness and increase consumption of local foods.

Now imagine this happening every year and capturing more participants from all walks each time around. The real, measurable impact in every region employing such an approach will make it all worthwhile, especially as permanent, year-round, regional food options become more available. Think of it as an upwardly spiraling regional food economy. Get the picture?

Of course there is one problem my regions will face in trying to implement these suggestions – lack of resources.

That is why I am recommending that local food retailers drive this more advanced version of Eat Local Challenges based on its potential to serve their bottom line interests, while equally benefiting the regional food economy.

To be clear, when I say “local food retailers” I’m talking about locally-owned stores, not your “friendly” national-owned, 50,000-square-foot, 45,000-item supermarket just around the corner. Such businesses need not apply.

Now who’s with me?

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