Category Archives: Food Systems

Winter Feast

Winter holiday preparation is basically an extension of harvest time. It makes sense, since most of the holiday season takes place in autumn. Homes are turned into a kind of indoor sukkah, festooned with trees, branches, and berries. Special music is played that is forsaken the rest of the year.

And the food! People whip up more cookies than anyone could ever eat, fancy milky cocktails, roasts and pies and snack mixes to fish from little bowls while playing cards and board games.

This year was no exception for Mike and me, except in the sense that we poured it on more than usual. I’ve known for a long time that we are not typical people when it comes to expendable income. While most Americans save their money for vacations, tickets to sporting events and concerts, or weekly shopping trips to a mall, Mike and I favor quality groceries. This autumn has been especially good to us, so I’m sharing a few pictures of our bounty.

It all started this summer, when my colleague Sara asked if I wanted any apricots. I documented canning them as well as some peaches that I bought. When we had windfall apples in our yard, I made applesauce. A friend who was going on a cruise and needed to unload a bunch of half-ripe tomatoes and peppers unloaded them on me.

Late-season surprise

Late-season surprise

But here’s where it really gets good. Our friends at 6 Ranch posted a contest on their Facebook page in September. They wanted to trade a quarter beef for something. “What’ve ya got?” they asked. People offered fence-mending, firewood, maps, carpet cleaning, a weekend in Bend. Mike offered to record their family history. 6 Ranch being a “century ranch,” one of Oregon’s oldest operations, this was a smart bid. He won.

In order to store that much beef, we finally bought a chest freezer. Then, we had a chest freezer to fill, so I ordered a half-pig from Carman Ranch. The local FFA has a fruit fundraiser, so I ordered a case of grapefruit from Texas. A friend told me about a fishery on the Oregon Coast that ships tuna straight from the cannery. Done.

Beef!

Beef!

Beautiful Christmas ham

Beautiful Christmas ham

At our Winter Solstice party, people brought gift-jars of the food they had put up during the summer. Anyone who had pickles pointed out that they were “for Mike.” (They had seen my blog post.)

And then my colleague Lisa said that her significant other was in Bandon, taking orders for oysters. Not much of an oyster fan, I wondered about Dungeness crab. This is a New Year’s tradition for Mike and me. Last year, the best we could get was frozen Alaska king crab legs from the Safeway.

There's gold in them thar hills!

There’s gold in them thar hills!

A few days later, Scott pulled into our driveway with two dungies. And some still-squeaking cheese curds. And persimmons. And chanterelles. I buried my face in the box of mushrooms and inhaled the mossy, earthy scent of Western Oregon.

Wallowa County winters are long. But, we will eat our way to spring.

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Pursuing Parity for Small and Mid-Sized Farmers by Amending Farm Bill Subsidy Distribution

The situation of small and mid-sized farmers is really interesting, so I was happy to delve into how the Farm Bill affects them, this past summer during my Food Policy and Law class. The group National Young Farmers Coalition has recently launched the strategy “Farming is public service.” I’m not sure this is a winning tack, but I’m also not sure what is. Farming is a business—maybe a nonprofit in some cases, but still a business. Capitalism is the true issue, but solving that is beyond the reach of the Farm Bill. Read on to learn a bit about the profit conundrum in America’s farmland.

The Agricultural Act of 2014 (Farm Bill) is the latest in a colorful history of the nation’s attempts to meet the needs of its agriculture industry. The Farm Bill addresses the following areas: Commodities, Conservation, Trade, Nutrition, Credit, and Rural Development. Title I, Commodities, has been criticized for increasingly distributing its direct payouts (now defunct) and insurance-premium subsidies unfairly, with the top producers in the United States netting the majority of the funds (The Economist, 2014). This paper explores the possibility of creating parity and enhancing diversity within agriculture by inverting the existing subsidy formula to benefit the country’s smallest farms first.

Due to 20th-century federal and state agriculture policies that favored larger and larger operations while ignoring their environmental and social-justice casualties, American farmers have been called to “get big or get out” (Philpott, 2013). The result: “Although most cropland was operated by farms with less than 600 crop acres in the early 1980s, today most cropland is on farms with at least 1,100 acres, and many farms are five and ten times that size” (MacDonald et al., 2013).

While young rural people tend to leave the farm after graduating high school, many young urban people (two or more generations removed from their closest agrarian ancestor) are “re-discovering” farming and launching small operations. The growing awareness of food systems issues and popularity of alternative food institutions such as community-supported agriculture, farmers markets, and community gardens has made possible micro-operations that sell specialty crops directly to upscale restaurants and to the public. In fact, the number of small farms in the United States has grown significantly—by nearly 300,000 since 2002 (Pullman and Wu, p. 8). This may help to rectify the “aging-out” of farmers with which the United States is currently struggling.

However, most of these farms are not sustainably profitable. Newcomers struggle with inflated land prices, equipment purchases that may never fully amortize, college loan payments, and paper-thin profit margins—in addition to implementing a skill set they “book-learned,” instead of having grown up with, and negotiating a complicated marketplace. The USDA estimates that a farm needs to generate $100,000 of annual sales to be solvent; 83 percent of small-acreage farms (10 or fewer acres) make $10,000 or less (Newton, 2014).

In a 2009 study of non-corporate organic farms in California, farmers are shown to address marketing challenges with strategies involving “values-based” purchasing decisions. “Successful small and mid-sized organic farms … are emphasizing the values that make their farms unique and are competing on these values, rather than low prices, where they cannot compete” (Cantor and Strochlic).

Why can they not compete on price? Pullman and Wu hint at the root cause of this problem: “While midsized farms are often too big to benefit from direct sales models … they are also too small to build partnerships with larger supply chain partners. Thus, declines in this sector are not expected to change without policy interventions” (emphasis mine, 2013, p. 9).

So, which policy? While figures are not yet available for the 2014 Farm Bill regarding the disbursement of insurance-premium subsidies, estimates are that they will benefit the top tier of U.S. agribusiness firms in approximately the same manner that previous, late 20th-century Farm Bills have (Dayden, 2014). As of the 2008 Farm Bill, approximately 62 percent of U.S. farmers received no federal subsidies while 10 percent collected 74 percent of all the subsidy funds (Pullman and Wu, 2013). The top four recipients of subsidies in 2012 each received more than $700,000 (Environmental Working Group, n.d.).

This is in addition to crop-insurance subsidies. Federal subsidies for crop-loss insurance have increased, and the profit-loss insurance program is controlled by price “floors” (United States Congress, 2014, p.12) that are written into the legislation (Dayden, 2014). “Overall, of the $40 billion in projected savings over ten years from ending direct payments, $27 billion go … back into these insurance programs” (Dayden, 2014).

Amendment of Existing Provision

One might consider these beginning farmers on small operations engaged in on-the-job training. An apprenticeship, if you will. In order to encourage them to continue, so they can gain experience and knowledge in order to increase the capacity, and thereby the profitability, of their operations, they need to be supported financially. Federally funded insurance-premium support can protect their investments, encourage them to innovate, and aid them in receiving loans (Shields, 2012, p. 2).

There is indirect precedent for this idea: A proposal to the 2014 Farm Bill to reduce subsidies for producers with incomes of more than $750,000 (the limit is currently $900,000) was stripped out of the final version (Casteel, 2014). A number of legislative proposals have been introduced to address the need for insurance of specialty crops, which are grown on most small farms, such as the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2011 (H.R. 3286/S. 1773); the Rural Economic Farm and Ranch Sustainability and Hunger (REFRESH) Act of 2011 (S. 1658 and H.R. 3111); and the Specialty Crop Insurance Act of 2011 (Shields, 2012).

The Farm Bill includes a 10-percent insurance-premium discount for “beginning farmers” in their first five years of farming (NSAC, 2014), but this is insufficient. An across-the-board full insurance-premium subsidy might also make up some of the loss from a 33-percent budget cut to socially disadvantaged producers (ibid.).

The proposed change to re-engineer insurance-premium subsidies would be addressed in Title I, Part II, Subsection F, Section 1605 (d), “Conforming Amendments,” which is a series of edits to the Food Security Act of 1985, Section 1001D(b). It’s beyond the scope of this paper to create an exact formula to achieve this goal within the existing budget; an actuary (or, most likely, a team of them) would need to be consulted. That said, the amendment would feature an inverse proportion.

Proposed language (in English, not Legalese): “All producers with gross income receipts of less than $100,000 shall have their crop-insurance premiums subsidized at 100 percent. Producers with income between $100,000 and $249,999 shall have their crop-insurance premiums subsidized at 90 percent. Producers with income between $250,000 and $499,999 shall have their crop-insurance premiums subsidized at 80 percent. Producers with income between $500,000 and $749,999 shall have their crop-insurance premiums subsidized at 70 percent. Producers with income between $750,000 and $999,999 shall have their crop-insurance premiums subsidized at 60 percent. Producers with income at or exceeding $1,000,000 shall have their crop-insurance premiums subsidized at 50 percent.”

The total amount allocated in the budget for insurance-premium subsidies could remain the same, or it could be reduced to accommodate the likely increase in administrative cost, as the number of policies issued would increase. Increasing the number of policies might be the impetus for new insurance companies that specialize in small and mid-sized farms. This proposed amendment to the Farm Bill would move the country toward a goal of creating parity and enhancing diversity within agriculture by inverting the existing subsidy formulas to benefit the country’s smallest farms first.

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Corporate But “Good”: Charitable Giving of the Largest Independent Organic Companies

I wrote this paper last Winter term, for a course called “Money in the Food Movement.” Note that Annie’s Homegrown has since sold to General Mills for $820M. I have the citations list for anyone who is interested.

Image from Sodahead

Image from Sodahead

Since the 1960s, Corporate America has stepped up its involvement in philanthropic endeavors, from making monetary donations, to encouraging employees to volunteer their time, to providing in-kind goods and services. Instead of coming from a place of wanting to help others, however, corporate giving is now analyzed for its “return on investment,” and coordinated with other marketing and public relations efforts (Einstein, 2012). This has led some to view corporate philanthropy with suspicion, if not outright derision.

Meanwhile, American consumers have sidled up next to the corporations to embrace the notion that cause marketing is a viable means of helping their fellow humans, releasing them from further charitable responsibility. Critics like Slavoj Zizek have carefully outlined how insidious and ineffective substitution consumerism-based cause marketing campaigns are for actual community volunteering and charitable donations. Moreover, cause marketing is a poor (pun intended) substitution for social justice-oriented state and federal policy.

It’s outrageous (or, at least, ironic) when national companies like Cheesecake Factory, Ruby Tuesday, or Snickers use a dessert as the basis of their corporate donation to an anti-hunger nonprofit (Fisher, 2013). But what about successful “good” corporations—large companies that respect their workers, make environmentally responsible choices, and refuse to take cost-saving shortcuts that could jeopardize their integrity? Since their regular business practices already reflect a social conscience, how do corporations like Amy’s Kitchen, Annie’s Homegrown, Organic Valley, or Clif Bar frame and engage in corporate giving? What can their policies tell us about the current corporate climate—are they hippy-loving, tree-hugging anomalies, or the beginning of a new movement in the United States?

History of Mainstream Corporate Giving

Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have waxed and waned in their collective consciousness about “doing good.” Sometimes the predominant myth is one of bootstrapping one’s way to the top using one’s own ingenuity and grit, and then the pendulum swings and universal brother- and sisterhood prevails. Sometimes Americans focus on their own actions and sometimes they want the rulers of our country, via government and/or business, to take care of things. Sometimes government is favored over business, and sometimes the other way around. This process is always in flux, on the macro level as government administrations change, and on the micro level as individual people change their minds about what is most effective and/or “right.”

The history of “doing good” versus “doing well” is as old as the United States itself. From one generation to the next, business and society list from one side of the issue to the other, making regulations and then revoking them, and building empires that are then regretted or, occasionally, even dismantled (such as slavery). From the eighteenth-century Brown brothers to nineteenth-century founder of what is now Dun and Bradstreet to Andrew Carnegie, American economic discourse has struggled with the social responsibility that accompanies great wealth (Lewis, 2008).

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) came to the fore in the early 1960s. It originally meant internal controls to demonstrate a concern for society’s issues (such as using recycled paper or offering discounted public transit tickets to employees); philanthropic efforts were but a small part of a larger picture (Fisher, 2014). CSR didn’t make a lot of headway until, ironically, the Reagan administration, when corporate tax cuts generated excess revenue at the same time that government entitlement programs were gutted, and directors of social-service organizations went to corporations to ask for financial donations (Einstein, 2012).

In the 1990s, corporate philanthropy executives caught up with the unexpected demand for their financial assistance, got their public relations heads on, and started dovetailing their programs with those of their marketing teams. They came up with what is now called “cause marketing:” fundraising campaigns that require a purchase, from which purchase price a (usually very small) percentage is donated in the consumer’s stead to a pre-determined cause. The United States has had a consumer culture for decades, and cause marketing fits right in—why donate money to or volunteer for a cause, when one can simply buy a product s/he wanted anyway?

Most if not all food-based corporations have a charitable giving program; critics consider these programs to serve as a sort of whitewashing of their regular business practices (pesticide- and fat-laden ingredients; labor issues, etc.) and to act as public relations “insurance” should the corporation find itself on the wrong side of the law in the future (Einstein, 2012; Fisher, 2014). A number of cause-marketing campaigns in the food system have received criticism for leveraging the purchase of unhealthy food to support the distribution of (assumedly) healthy food to community food shelves across the United States via the enormous nonprofit Feeding America (Einstein, 2012; Fisher, 2014).

What Constitutes “Good?”

The notion of a corporation concerning itself with ideals like employee welfare and environmental sustainability flies in the face of traditional capitalists, who work under the belief, established in 1916, that corporations exist solely to make money for their shareholders (Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, n.d.). Most capitalists work to wring as much profit out of the economy as possible, leaving ethics to policymakers: “Reformers have more impact when they use the political process to set the ground rules for business, rather than trying to cure capitalism of its basic instinct” (Lewis, 2008).

There are many criteria by which to determine an “ethical” company. EthiSphere uses a methodology that includes 25 percent Corporate Citizenship and Responsibility. Because of the “proprietary” nature of their methodology, it’s hard to discern what exactly might factor in, as two of the three honorees in the Food and Beverage category for 2013 are PepsiCo and Kellogg Company (EthiSphere, 2013).

And then there are the hollow actions of major corporations in the United States, of which many examples were given in this course. Perhaps the most egregious is the Cheesecake Factory’s “buy our sugar-and-fat-laden dessert (and, presumably, dinner and drinks) and we’ll drop a few coins in the Feeding America coffer” (Fisher, 2013). Amazon.com is perhaps the least disingenuous corporation: It unapologetically has almost no corporate-giving program at all (Martinez and Heim, 2013).

Mainstream CEOs have been able to virtually ignore CSR for two reasons: the recession caused anyone who had a job to be desperately grateful for it and disinclined to demand fringe benefits or other amenities. Also, the shopping public has not been particularly discerning on any factor except price point. A search on the Wall St. Journal web archive on March 8, 2014, for “corporate giving ethics” yielded just three results. It’s simply not a priority in the mainstream corporate world.

However, Generation X—the people who grew up supporting Greenpeace, PETA, the Nature Conservancy and other socially conscious nonprofits—has reached middle age. Members of this generation are starting to take over the nation’s businesses, or hitting a cruising altitude on the start-ups they launched in their late twenties or early thirties. Many profiles of this generation have been written; most note their independence. “To a Generation Xer, job security means having the kind of skills that make you attractive to the next company or enable you to start your own business … [they] are most attracted to working for small businesses that operate with a minimum of bureaucracy” (Foley and LeFevre, 2000).

Gen-Xers worry about social and environmental justice. They’ve transformed the back-to-the-land environmentalism of their parents into something that is urban and stylish. And, after enduring twenty years of patchouli-scented cashiers and clay-flavored all-natural toothpaste at their tiny, funky co-op, they can finally afford Whole Foods, which happens to be located in their now-gentrified neighborhood.

The Achilles heel of Gen-Xers is that they grew up in “mall culture,” so they still resonate with the Baby Boomer inclination to purchase their way to social justice. But, as consumers, they’re not afraid to make demands of large corporations, such as during Nike’s sweatshop protests. “The higher the profile of a company or brand, the greater the scrutiny of its activities and the higher the potential for it to become a target for pressure group action” (Arthur D. Little, Inc., n.d.). In fact, the very soul of capitalism is under scrutiny, and even the aforementioned Michigan Supreme Court ruling against Henry Ford has been challenged as misunderstood (Stout, 2008). As business owners, Gen-Xers are not afraid to push boundaries on appropriate work culture, acceptable profit margins, and investor relations.

Academics and public relations firms have studied the effect on corporate giving to ameliorate a corporation’s unfavorable reputation following an instance of fraud or other illegal behavior (Williams and Barrett, 2000; Tesler and Malone, 2008; Koehn and Ueng, 2009). What, then, is the incentive for “good” corporations that already have favorable reputations to expend financial and human resources on charitable giving?

“Good” Companies’ Corporate Practices

Below are synopses of the giving practices of four companies that are generally considered to respect the three Es: Environment, Economics, and Equity. I specifically chose companies that are not subsidiaries, like Odwalla, which is owned by Coca Cola, or Kashi, which is owned by Kellogg Co. (Howard, 2014). All of the company information was gathered from company websites. For this section, please refer to the citations listed per company name unless otherwise noted.

Amy’s Kitchen

Amy's_Kitchen,_Inc.-logo

Amy’s Kitchen is a privately owned company co-founded by wife-and-husband team Rachel and Andrew Berliner. Their grown daughter, Amy, for whom the company is named, now works as an “ambassador,” reaching out to new markets for their products. Amy’s Kitchen primarily makes canned soups and frozen meals, such as pizza, enchiladas and burritos, using exclusively organic ingredients. They are branching out into special dietary needs, with new products like gluten-free biscotti and non-dairy “frozen dessert” (presumably the best way to describe not-ice-cream).

The company supports educational and outreach efforts for agriculture and eco-literacy programs and is a substantial contributor to Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), a nonprofit agency that aids homeless families in Sonoma County. Amy’s is one of the largest donors to the Redwood Empire Food Bank and to the Oregon Food Bank, and donates annually to many other community organizations, including Meals on Wheels. Amy’s also participates in disaster relief, sending thousands of meals to hurricane and flood victims.

In 2013, Amy’s signed up to be a sponsor of Farm Aid, offering a sweepstakes (“I Heart Farmers”) for prizes including tickets to Farm Aid, other promotional items and, of course, Amy’s Kitchen products via a special website. While not directly charity, this effort does place Amy’s in the fray of pro-farmer sentiment. “Our vision and Farm Aid’s vision are closely aligned,” said Amy’s co-founder Andy Berliner in a press release about the launch, “and we’re confident that, together, we’ll continue to move the food industry in the right direction” (Fortune, 2013).

Annie’s Homegrown

Annies-logo-2012

Annie’s Homegrown’s staples for years have been their salad dressings and boxed macaroni-and-cheese, but they have expanded in foods that appeal to children, such as snack crackers and snack bars. They claim that 90 percent of their packaging is recyclable, which seems unlikely outside of an urban area with a progressive recycling program.

Annie’s main corporate giving programs support school gardens. The first, Growing Gardens of Goodness, provides grants and resources including a downloadable guide to gardens for which Annie’s partnered with the Center for Ecoliteracy. They also support FoodCorps, a New York-based service nonprofit that brings nutrition and garden information to schools. Annie’s also hosts a crowdfunding site, Annie’s Garden Funder, so students and parents can raise money for their school’s garden. Since 2008, Annie’s Grants for Gardens program, has donated funds to more than two hundred seventy schools. Other programs are Cases for Causes, one of their oldest grassroots programs, which provides schools and non-profit organizations with free cases of their product, and Sustainable Agriculture Scholarships, which provide financial assistance to students committed to studying sustainable and organic agriculture. They also provide financial support to organizations that promote organic farming and advocacy.

As of 2012, Annie’s is a publicly traded company (NASDAQ abbreviation is BNNY, for their mascot, a rabbit named Bernie). Their investment profile is explicit about the company’s commitment to treating its employees well, acting in a socially responsible manner, and supporting a rigorous corporate-giving program. “We are committed to growing our business and profitability, while staying true to our mission and core values.”

Organic Valley

OV_Logo

Organic Valley is the brand registered to what started in 1988 as a cooperative of farmers in southwestern Wisconsin. Their slogan is “Organic. It’s all we do.” It could also be “Dairy. It’s all we do,” as their products are limited to milk, cheese, sour cream, et cetera. They do branch out into soymilk and eggs (though, eggs used to be, for whatever reason, considered “dairy” [Petersen, 2012]).

Organic Valley’s cooperative funds monetary and product gifts that support a specific list of causes: Family and independent farmers and rural community issues; organic research, education and promotion; parents, parents-to-be and child wellness; humane animal treatment; and environmental education and preservation.

Another program, Farmers Advocating for Organics, is a grant for projects or programs dedicated to furthering organic education, organic farming or product research, and organic advocacy. The farmer-members “voluntarily contribute to the fund on an annual basis, and a committee of CROPP farmers reviews proposals and decides how to distribute the funds.”

Clif Bar and Company

clif-bar-logo

Clif Bar is a private company founded by Gary Erickson and now run by him and his wife, Kit Crawford. Erickson decided to start a snack-bar company on a bike ride, and all the company’s products are designed for on-the-go athletes: Small, dense, highly nutritious energy bars. Since its founding, the only innovations have been to create different styles of bar: one directed at children, one directed at women (at least it’s not pink), and a “one-shot” gel concoction.

Clif Bar’s website lists three sub-categories of corporate responsibility pledges: Planet, Food, and Community. Under Planet, Clif Bar has launched numerous environmentally sound corporate policies and pursued innovative partnerships: with American Forests to replant trees; Escape from Alcatraz, a carbon-neutral triathlon; NativeEnergy, a wind farm; Rainforest Alliance for cocoa products. The company joined Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy in 2009. The Food section is less about corporate giving and more about statements of integrity regarding their ingredients and business partnerships.

The Community section is more complex. In 2008, Clif Bar launched an effort called In Good Company, and traveled to New Orleans to assist with rebuilding efforts. This belief that “collaboration among businesses can be a powerful force for positive change” has since led Clif Bar’s staff to invite other socially conscious businesses, including Amy’s Kitchen and Annie’s Homegrown, to dozens of community-building projects that fall under the general categories of Healthy Food, Safe Housing, and Environmental activism.

Crawford’s view of these efforts: “Through the act of simply extending a hand—not just once in a while but as a regular part of life—we are changed as individuals and as a community.”

Volunteerism is encouraged amongst Clif Bar employees. The company has donated millions of dollars’ worth of product to events, food pantries, homeless shelters, and disaster-relief organizations. The company participates in 1% for the Planet, through which it donates 1 percent of its profits to environmental-activism nonprofits.

Erickson and Crawford spun off a foundation in 2006 that “supports innovative small and mid-sized groups working to strengthen our food system and our communities, enhance public health, and safeguard our environment and natural resources.” In 2009 the Clif Bar Family Foundation launched Seed Matters, an initiative to develop and protect organic seed diversity, with a $500,000 donation. Most of their grants are capped at $8,000, and they occasionally invite nonprofits with which they have a relationship for larger grants. Their grant funds are available nationally, but they have so far served about half the states, with the vast majority (131 of 200 total grants) going to organizations in California.

Analysis

What is most significant about the corporate-giving programs of these four socially responsible companies is that they have them. Any of them could simply point to their pro-Three Es corporate practices and rest on their laurels.

All of the companies give away a lot of product. They also fund specific causes: school gardens, or disaster relief. Creating philanthropy guidelines is a common strategy to limit the number of requests that are made of a business, and also to leverage the fit as a way of appealing to their customer base.

It’s understandable that Organic Valley doesn’t have a vibrant giving practice: As a cooperative that comprises many small farms, it would be difficult to require all its members to forgo profits that would benefit the OV name and not the individual farms. On the other hand, that is the kind of return-on-investment thinking that brought us the “use your American Express card and save the Statue of Liberty” campaign (Einstein, 2012). In Organic Valley’s defense, studies have shown that small farmers tend to feel they themselves are on the edge of poverty, and not empowered to be charitable in this manner (Allen et al., 2006).

Clif Bar is the exception and, it seems, a true pacesetter in the world of socially conscious capitalism. Owners Erickson and Crawford sketched out their community-involvement plan, as part of their original business plan, expanding the usual triple bottom line to five elements: Sustaining “our” planet, brands, business, people (employees), and community (C. Cyphers, personal communication, March 18, 2014). Unlike most corporations, which spend tens of thousands of dollars on vibrant public relations campaigns to advertise their civic-mindedness, Clif Bar’s executives prefers to deflect attention from themselves and instead tell the stories of company partners. “You can imagine this creates an interesting dynamic internally. We have a marketing department, but the owners are always downplaying what we’re doing” (C. Cyphers, personal communication, March 18, 2014). At Clif Bar, it might possibly be 100 percent sincerely about doing good.

Conclusion

With studies of consumer habits as well as evidence and testimony of CEOs, it seems that the United States might be beginning a swing toward benevolence and compassion.

In a 2006 study, Amato and Amato found that people reported an interest in shopping with socially responsible companies, and even to switching brands to a socially responsible company (2006). The result of this bottom-up pressure to at least appear to care about social responsibility is evident: Starbucks touts its dedication to the neighborhoods in which it has stores, after successfully routing hundreds of independently owned coffee shops during its growth phase (Starbucks, n.d.). Archer Daniels Midland, notorious for its price-fixing and other corrupt practices, claims to have directed part of $44M to “Promote sustainable agriculture” since 2009 in its 2013 Corporate Responsibility report (United States Dept. of Justice, 2013; ADM, 2013).

Cassie Cyphers, community planet programs manager at Clif Bar, agrees. “I think consumers are smarter than most people think; they want to know what they’re buying into” (C. Cyphers, personal communication, March 18, 2014).

The Milton Friedman-style capitalism of the twentieth century may be on the wane. Grassroots demand for labeling of genetically modified organisms has, so far, been relatively unsuccessful but even Monsanto is exploring new avenues (Paynter, 2014). The International Monetary Fund, noting in a recent report that “the global concentration of wealth that has taken place over the past three decades has increased in recent years, and today stands at modern record levels,” recently called for global wealth re-distribution (Biron, 2014).

Some people are realizing that cause marketing may have more to do with publicizing a brand than assisting a charitable cause, and it’s become so ubiquitous as to have lost its affect as a special philanthropic activity. “Much of today’s corporate philanthropy is mere marketing, so common that it doesn’t help a company stand out,” says Paul Schervish, director of Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy in a Seattle Times article (Martinez and Heim, 2013).

The 2013 Harris “Reputation Quotient” Poll compares the drivers for “most visible” companies in 2011 and 2013. The differences are telling. In 2011, consumers were looking for:

  • Admire and respect
  • Trust the company
  • High ethical standards
  • Outperforms the competition
  • Good value for the money

In 2013, these had shifted:

  • Outperforms the competition
  • Admire and respect
  • Trust the company
  • Plays a valuable social role
  • Good company to work for
  • Good feeling about the company

In some ways, it appears that consumers were more interested in CSR. However, the shift from “high ethical standards” to “good feeling about the company” is telling. Consumers are more interested in how their purchase makes them feel than to know whether it was truly ethical. This could explain how known Three Es violators such as Amazon.com and The Coca-Cola Company are numbers 1 and 6, respectively (Harris Interactive, 2013).

However, the addition of “good company to work for” is indicative of a revival of the turn-of-the-21st-century attitude toward work that was bolstered by the dozens of high-technology companies that were skyrocketing at the time. This was the birth of foosball tables, napping couches, and beer fridges in the workplace, and having your black lab snoozing under your desk. Much of that cavalier attitude was quashed after the recession of 2009. While these workplaces may have gone a little too far toward a frat-house sort of feel, they did successfully capture the idea of work/life balance (so long as you were childless, and probably also single). Tempered by 9/11 and the recession, the version that is returning may be more mature and community-focused.

A new type of CEO, hailing from the Gen X and Millenial generations, is leading the swing toward socially responsible corporations. These companies are very much for-profit entities; however, they take care of their employees, their environment and their community before counting their profits. “’People today — especially young people — want to work for organizations they feel good about,’ [Bill] Gates said last year at an event organized by the United Way.” (Martinez and Heim, 2012). And if they can’t find the right employer, they aren’t afraid of starting their own company (Depew, 2013).

“This idea of companies being transparent is new” (C. Cyphers, personal communication, March 18, 2014). As what constitutes a “good” corporation changes, and as customers understand the benefit of a triple bottom line and then begin to demand it in greater numbers, corporations will change. Hopefully for the benefit of the planet and all its inhabitants.

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Gender and Race in the Restaurant Biz

My Food Systems and Society cohort is slogging through the first stages of writing our thesis projects. One of my colleagues, Nancy, is looking at discrimination and harassment in the restaurant business. I mentioned that I had some experience in that field, long ago, and she asked for details. In order to put it into a citable format, I’m posting it here. Go get ’em, Nancy!

I worked in two restaurants as a young woman. I was hired at Big B’s Pizza of Golden Valley (the suburb of Minneapolis in which I grew up) in 1984, when I was fifteen; I was thrilled to graduate from babysitting for $1.25 an hour to making real money ($3.18, if I remember correctly). I was not allowed to serve beer until I turned sixteen, so other waitresses had to deliver my mugs of Leinenkugels (the Wisconsin version of Rainier). The place was owned by a classic Greatest Generation couple, Jerry and Elaine, who dressed up and went dancing at the Medina Ballroom every Saturday night. In fact, Elaine was always dressed up. I drove her crazy because the hem on my uniform, a red pinafore apron and brown wrap-around skirt, had come undone and I was constantly re-taping it instead of sewing. Sewing?

Sadly, there is no photo-documentation of me in my uniform, but it was not unlike this one on the left

Sadly, there is no photo-documentation of me in my uniform, but it was not unlike this one on the left

Because Jerry and Elaine ran a tight ship and were nearly always present, there were not a lot of co-worker “shenanigans” at Big B’s. The cooks were more like big brothers than predators. The closing cook often insisted on driving me home, even though I was prepared to walk.

However, there was certainly a gender barrier between the waitresses (“girls”) and the cooks (men). Big B’s was rather small, so there were no hosts, expediters, dishwashers, or prep cooks; regular staff did all those things. They were nearly all Caucasian. One of the waitresses wanted to cook, and she was eventually allowed to, but it took some convincing and it was quite a novelty. A girl cook! I was sort of envious but, at the same time, she gave up the ability to collect tips. So I was happy to keep my pinafore.

My second waitressing job, at the Boundary Waters, began in the fall of 1988. I had transferred to the University of Minnesota after a year at a different school, but was living with my parents in the suburbs. This was a much classier joint, the loss-leader restaurant of the most prestigious department store of a major shopping center. (Perhaps you don’t know but the first enclosed mall, Southdale, appeared in Minnesota in 1956. This was a sister location.) The restaurant had green velvet wallpaper and wainscoting, a bar area with tile floors, and brass fixtures and white tablecloths. The waitstaff wore bow ties and short green aprons over black pants and white shirts. Some of the waitresses had been there twenty years.

I had to start as a busser but was quickly promoted to waitress. You could make some real money there on Friday and Saturday nights, but the rest of the time it was shoppers stopping in for lunch or coffee, or, as a woman named Anne did at least three times a week, about six glasses of red wine over four hours while reading trashy novels.

There was a somewhat fluid gender division—both men and women were bussers; some women were bartenders; one man was a host; all the managers were women—but the race division was distinct. People of color were exclusively in the kitchen, and the more color you had the more lowly your job. All the dishwashers were African American. In fact, there was a white woman with developmental disabilities who was a busser, which is considered a harder and more prestigious job than dishwasher.

What was also distinct in the kitchen was the casual, culturally accepted sexual harassment. Once I was promoted to waitress, I had a closer relationship with the cooks—they were making or breaking my meals and, thereby, my tips. The kitchen manager, Jeff, was a nice guy who focused on making sure everything ran smoothly in the kitchen. His assistant manager, Randy, was another story.

The thing to keep in mind about kitchen-culture is that it’s extremely friendly, jocular, and fast-moving. When it’s the dinner rush, you all have to act as one to get tickets entered correctly, to get salads and soups out in time so the entrees don’t precede them, to communicate special instructions, to make sure the forks get washed before we run out, and to get the food out the door and onto the tables as soon as it’s ready. There’s no time for groping during dinner rush. It’s the beginnings and ends of shifts that you have to watch out for.

Every time I clocked in, Randy was waiting for me for his “hug.” I don’t remember how this started, but I was required to accept his embrace, which lasted at least 30 seconds, with him running his hand down my back (or lower) and making soft groans. Even when he started dating Kellie, an assistant floor manager, I had to endure this hug with every shift—sometimes in front of her! It totally grossed me out, but I was twenty years old and didn’t know how to make it stop. No one in the kitchen seemed concerned about it, including Jeff. I’m not sure if our main manager, Karen, knew about it but I’m guessing she didn’t.

Randy would ask me gross questions from his side of the line, or engage in a sexually explicit “conversation” with another cook, while I was waiting for my food to come up. He would make tongue-faces at me. He would whip his towel at my ass as I passed through the kitchen with a full tray in my hands. I made very sure to not get stuck in the walk-in cooler with Randy. It never occurred to me to talk to Karen about it, and since there were numerous witnesses in the kitchen, male and female, and no one ever said anything, I just figured it was something I had to endure.

Is it any wonder I really enjoyed the feminism classes I was taking at the university?! Too bad I only took those lessons to heart intellectually.

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Effects of USDA Organic-Certification Fee-Reimbursement Program

Okay, this paper is a little dry—but it explores the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the federal organic-certification program.

In order to reduce the impact of organic certification fees on small farming operations in the United States, Congress has authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs, which comprises the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) and the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Organic Certification Cost Share Program (USDA, 2014a). The former program’s funds are distributed to all U.S. states and territories, and the latter’s funds target sixteen states. The increased budget for organic certification fees will support sustainability in some ways, hinder it in others, and have a marginal effect on food security and social justice.

This incentive program covers up to 75 percent of a farmer’s organic certification fees (to a maximum of $750). In 2014, the USDA announced that the amount of money available to offset organic-certification fees for beginning organic farmers had doubled the amount assigned in the 2008 Farm Bill, to approximately $13 million (USDA, 2014b). Of that amount, $11.5 million will be allocated via the NOCCSP and the remainder will be allocated via the AMA program. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has endorsed this increase, finding the program “essential in helping farmers, especially small and mid-scale farms, become organic operations and maintain their organic status” (NSAC, 2014b).

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Defining “Sustainable”

In order to interpret the ability of this program to promote or hinder sustainability, the term should be defined (as is possible). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a sustainable entity as one that “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations” (n.d.). Some of the ways an organic farm may be environmentally sustainable include using few or no herbicides and pesticides, transporting produce a short distance to market, and integrating agriculture with livestock. However, “organic” doesn’t guarantee “sustainable.” The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture notes that “organic practices may conflict with sustainability goals in certain situations” (2009). The institute doesn’t indicate any of those situations.

Promoting Sustainable Business

By encouraging more people who are interested in organic farming to pursue it, the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs promotes sustainable business—insofar as a small organic farm can be considered sustainable as per the preceding section. The USDA finds its program to have “helped increase the number of farmers markets nationwide to over 8,100, a 74 percent increase since 2008” (Vilsack, 2014). Eighty-three percent of small-acreage farms (10 or fewer acres) gross $10,000 or less, so this program will make a difference to those farmers (Newton, 2014).

To some degree, this program might encourage existing farmers to switch to organic farming; however, because of the $750 dollar limit, this would only be useful to farms with gross incomes of approximately $100,000 or less (Oregon Tilth, 2014).

Hindering Sustainable Business

Considering the above income figure of $100,000, it can be said that the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs hinder sustainable business, as the USDA estimates that a farm needs to generate $100,000 of annual sales to be solvent (Newton, 2014), and therefore this cost-share is ineffectual to an economically sustainable business.

Organic certification can be cost-prohibitive for beginning farmers; approximately $700 the first year, with more for inspections (Oregon Tilth, 2014). While the NOCCSP can help farmers, the funds only cover 75 percent of the total fee. This can create a hardship for small farmers.

After the first year, the certification base fee rises in accordance with a farm’s gross income, but not in an equitable manner. If comparing the base fee to income, one sees that the more money a farm makes, the lower a percentage of their income the fee represents—ranging from 6 percent at the low end of the income scale to 0.5 percent at the high end (See Table 1).

Table 1

Oregon Tilth Base Fees, Ratio of Fee-to-Income

Gross Income Base Fee Percentage of Income
(calculated using maximum income in range)
$0 – $4,999 $299 6%
$15,000 – $24,999 $431 2%
$150,000 – $174,999 $1,339 0.7%
$400,000 – $499,999 $2,500 0.5%

Source: Oregon Tilth. (2014, May 1). Oregon Tilth Certified Organic Fee Schedule. Retrieved from http://tilth.org/files/certification/OTCOFeeSchedule.pdf

The NOCCSP, which is responsible for allocating the bulk of the 2014 fee-reimbursement budget, distributes funds to different states and territories in vastly different amounts—for example, Mississippi will receive $5,000, Wisconsin will receive $1,032,200, and California will receive more than $2 million (USDA, 2014c). The AMA funds target sixteen specific states, so most states will receive none of this program’s funding. These disparities may result in encouraging organic farming in some states while discouraging it in others.

Program Impact on Food Security and Social Justice

The NOCCSP does little to specifically affect food security or social justice, other than to promote a few small organic farms. Those farms are most likely to sell their produce at a farmers’ market or a CSA, both of which might be set up to accept SNAP—but SNAP is underutilized at such outlets (Athens et al., 2013).

The USDA as a whole understands, at least on paper, the demographic situation facing agriculture in this country, noting that new agricultural producers may come from farming backgrounds or be new to agriculture; they may be college graduates coming home to farm with their families, veterans, second career seekers, immigrants and people from all ethnic backgrounds. Tomorrow’s producers will be representative of America’s diverse heritage and population (Vilsack, 2014).

However, the USDA’s true commitment to women, minority, and other disadvantaged potential farmers is better revealed by its funding of the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers. NSAC notes that this program, “funded at $20 million per year in the last farm bill, has provided only half that amount in this year’s bill—despite the new farm bill’s expansion of the program to also provide outreach to military veteran farmers” (NSAC, 2014a). So, unless a socially disadvantaged farmer is also a veteran, they have much less chance of being reached by this program. Additionally, funding for this program was suspended in 2013 while the terms of the 2012 Farm Bill were being negotiated. So, including backlog, there will be more demand for a program with a wider scope and less money (NSAC, 2014c).

Organic farms require more hand labor, with weeding and picking of specialty crops. The Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program has no mission to improve the working conditions of farm workers, nor does the Farm Bill as a whole (Furgurson, 2012; Lilliston, 2014). The NOCCSP supports small farmers but doesn’t have much affect on larger problems, such as the environmental sustainability of large farms, social justice for farm workers, or food security for low-income eaters.

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Guest Post: Canning’s Great Comeback

During my 2012 book tour for Get Your Pitchfork On!, Process Media then-publicity maven Carrie Schaff set me up with a contact in Wisconsin. I was super-excited to go to Milwaukee because 1.) I attended first grade at General Mitchell Elementary, south of town, and 2.) Supper clubs. Have I written about supper clubs? I really need to. This blog post is the closest I’ve come. Anyway, I didn’t know my hostess from Eve, but I figured someone 1.) from Milwaukee 2.) who’s a friend of my publisher has got to be cool.

“Cool” does not begin to describe Christina Ward. This braided-hair badass babe set me up for my reading in a cozy bar that was at once retro and modern, and then brought me to her favorite supper club, The Packing House.

The best we could do ... me in front of The Packing House

The best we could do … me in front of The Packing House

Christina is an artist and all-around domestic goddess. She is a bona fide Master Canner (ahem, Food Preserver) in the State of Wisconsin. So we should all thank our lucky stars that she agreed to wrote a guest post! About canning, of course!

Canning’s Great Comeback

By Christina Ward

Part I: History of Food Preservation in America

Before the advent of pumpkin-spice everything, fall was about harvesting and storing the results of hard-won gardening. There are many types of food preservation, but canning is on the comeback and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

See, I’m the Master Food Preserver for my county. (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin).  Aside from the ridiculous title, I actually serve as the resident expert on all things food preservation. Your jelly won’t set? Yup, I get that call. Your pickles are soggy? I can help. Your friend’s aunt who told you about her cousin’s sister-in-law who lost an eye using a pressure canner? I can dispel your fears and tell you the exactly correct way to operate one. (Hint: Think of it as a tool; just like with a hammer, if you do it wrong you’ll do damage.)

The Master Food Preserver is part of the larger university-extension programs, which are vestiges from our Land-Grant Universities. (Thank you, Congressman Morrill of Vermont.) Passed in 1862, the Morrill Act designated newly stolen Native American lands to be sold for the purpose of funding educational institutions focused on Engineering and Agriculture. One of the goals of these new universities was to serve as an incubator for ideas and training for the westward expansion, and to teach migrating farmers the latest and greatest Ag science practices. As well as use those actual farmers as living laboratories.

Wisconsin led the nation in both Ag research and working with farmers and their families. The Wisconsin-Extension program was formally introduced in 1907 and became a model for the rest of the country.  The Extension trained people in their communities on the best practices for growing, seed selection, animal husbandry, stock selection and nutrition, slaughter, as well as home services, like safe food-preservation techniques.  These folks would be chosen for their knowledge, standing in the community, and commitment to volunteerism. And that holds true to this day.

As counties grew more urban and away from rural traditions, so did the Master Food Preserver program. In 2009, I realized that Milwaukee County was on the bleeding edge of the Urban Agriculture and would be well served by bringing the program back. After all, if you’re going to install 500 Victory Gardens in a single May weekend, someone better teach people what to do with all those damn tomatoes.

I begged, pleaded, and cajoled the State of Wisconsin until they agreed with me.

Since January of 2011, more than 2,000 people have taken one of my classes on safe food preservation. Ten of them have gone on to start their own food micro-businesses. And, knock wood, not a single person has given themselves or their families botulism.

So, not sure if you’re canning it the right way? Contact your local University Extension office and ask them to hook you up with the local Master Food Preserver. The MFP may tell you that “You’re doing it all wrong.” If so, listen; they’re trying to keep you alive.

Part II: Reinventing the Wheel

As the “foodie” movement grows, there are now scammy practices I never would have thought of that have become detrimental issues for folks interested in food.

Who would have guessed that ten years ago farmer’s markets would become so chic that local farmers are being pushed out by Big Ag disguising itself. It’s gotten so bad that California passed a law verifying origin of produce at farmer’s markets. Here in Wisconsin, there’s a locally famous “genius” farmer who has his volunteers unpack the Sysco truck then relabel it as from his farm.

I’m seeing it in my little corner of the food world too. Food preservation in and of itself is relatively simple, once you understand the basic concepts and science of why it works. Canning is more putzy than anything else; lots of chopping. It’s often why many people have negative images associated with canning. ‘Cuz gramma was no dummy and made the kids help with all the grunt work. And that’s what folks remember. Hours of cleaning strawberries. Hours of blanching tomatoes. Hours of washing cucumbers.

The honchos at Jarden Brands (the makers of Ball and Kerr canning supplies*) have seen your Pinterest pages. They know that canning is on the upswing. They are also smart marketers. They know that at our core essence of being, we are lazy.

In the past few years, they have gone R&D cuckoo coming up with products no one needs to make canning “easier.” The Automatic Jam Maker, the Freshtech Home Canning System … have you seen this one? It’s the equivalent of a bread-maker for jam … you throw everything in the pot, push the button that says “strawberry,” and whammo, jam. And it’s only $299.95. (By the way, you still have to wash, hull, and cut those damned strawberries.)

What else? Oh there’s the Sure-Tight Band Tool to help you get your bands screwed on. Really? You need help with screwing on a band? Okay, pay them $9.99.  I could go on about the frivolity and excesses of Jarden, but they’re not alone. Kraft (maker of Sure Jell) is getting in on the act.

This past summer Kraft caused a huge kerfuffle in the canning community. For the sake of making it “easier,” they changed and “simplified” the directions included in all their packages. That simplification in combination with a colossal snafu (they mixed up the preparation directions for cooked versus freezer jam), caused jelly-makers across the country to have conniptions. Heck, I’m the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, MFP and I was fielding distress calls from Arkansas and Oklahoma.

And now Jarden is at it again. They’ve decided that you no longer have to “boil lids.” Sigh. Um, yeah, you do. But even saying that is a misnomer. You never did boil them; you’re supposed to soak them in very hot water (preferably taken from your canner) for a few minutes to soften the rubber.

Why? They’re claiming it’s not needed. Truth is, they’re using less rubber on the lids. They’re afraid if you take “boil lids” to heart that you’ll boil the rubber right off. I can tell you that the quality of the 2014 lids has been far below that of previous years. And that’s not just me saying that. We MFPs around the country, we talk to each other. We recognize trends and are the first to hear when something goes hinky.

These are specific examples of issues in the New Food movement I never thought I would see. Staid and boring food preservation is enjoying its moment in the spotlight. From every farm to table restaurant serving “haus-pickled vegetables” to bars concocting drinks with home-preserved syrups; every Tom, Dick, and Mary is putting it in a freaking mason jar. What’s the pH? Do they even know why a food needs to be acidified? And if I even see another jar of Bacon Jam on a shelf I’m going to poke someone with a sharp stick.

Really, I’m all for more people canning—in fact, it’s my mission. BUT, and my but is very large here, BUT trends should never trump safety. And safe food comes only from using safe food-preservation techniques. No short cuts. No gadgets. No making it up as you go along.

Have your read Wisconsin Death Trips? It holds a special place in my heart as it was primarily culled from my gramma’s homestead area of Jackson & Clark counties. People starved to death if they didn’t preserve enough food to get them through the winter. They resorted to boiling shoes and killing pets to survive. And even if they put up enough food, germ theory was still not fully understood and the techniques so primitive, they were often taking a chance on poisoning themselves.

Christina Ward "in the act of mixing some macerating fruit while talking to my buddy"

Christina Ward “in the act of mixing some macerating fruit while talking to my buddy”

Here’s the rule I begin every single class with: If you’re going to poison someone; do it on purpose and not accidentally. In case you think botulism is a rare bird; oh no. It, too, is making a comeback. Bad beets in Georgia. Bad pickles in Oregon. Bad elk in Washington. And saddest of all, three people died in 2012 in Vancouver from botulism-tainted watermelon jelly.

These shortcuts, these “time-saving devices,” these on-trend makers, only divorce you from the origins of the food you eat. Food is not easy. It takes time, skill, and labor to grow, to prepare, and to preserve. We do ourselves a great disservice by relying on a Thing versus relying on ourselves. And if you don’t want to grow, make, or preserve it yourself, find someone who does and support them.

If you’re in the mood to scare yourself food-safe, here’s my favorite food safety blog: http://www.barfblog.

*NOTE: Jarden Brands owns both the Ball and Kerr brands. They’re made in the same factory in Muncie, Indiana … so don’t pay more for the Kerr-branded stuff.

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GMOs: To Label or Not to Label

During the “Food Policy and Law” course that I took this summer, students were asked to write about the recent GMO-labeling ballot measures in California and Washington, which failed, as well as the laws that were passed by state legislators in Connecticut and Vermont. We were asked to compare and contrast the measures and indicate which is the better law and why. I’m posting my response in case it’s helpful to anyone in Oregon who is considering their vote in the upcoming election for a similar law. Please note I am not advocating for a particular vote!

One consideration I would add to what I wrote this summer is that a good share of the GMO products grown in the United States are not for human consumption–most corn is for fuel or animal feed; cotton is, obviously, for textiles. On the other hand, if you’re eating something non-organic with added sugar (i.e. nearly any processed food), soy, or canola oil, you can assume it’s GMO.

It’s difficult to compare VT/CT and WA/CA for two reasons: 1) Their agriculture economies are tiny vs. ginormous, respectively. 2) The former were legislative acts, and the latter were popular referenda. They have similar motives but very different implications.

In any case, the measures were all written similarly, with exemptions for alcohol, animals (via meat and milk) that are fed GMOs but not directly modified themselves, restaurant food, and certified organic food. All of the proposed measures use as their basis a “right to know” tack; that is, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, similar to the nutrition labeling that was promoted in the 1995 USDA video. There are all kinds of irony in this, as consumers also generally don’t understand how genetic engineering works nor how it compares to traditional cross-breeding (they are not the “sophisticated crowd” which Nina Federoff was addressing [2006]). The label would simply identify specific processed foods that contain some amount of ingredient that was a GMO.

Instead of seeking more information about GMOs, people operate under fear and perception of potential harm. At the same time, the companies that own GMO patents operate under secrecy and contempt for consumer concerns, and have prevailed (many claim) in these ballot measures due to outspending the pro-labeling efforts by remarkable margins—five times more in California (Voter’s Edge, 2012) and 2.6 times more in Washington State (BallotPedia, 2014).

An interesting difference in the laws is the market each state reaches: California sells primarily within the United States, providing nearly half the country’s produce (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, 2014); Washington exports most of its ag products to Asia (Washington State Dept. of Agriculture, 2014); Vermont has little agriculture outside of forestry and dairy products (Jeffords, 2010, p.5). So each has different motivations and nuances within their laws. The American Council on Science and Health notes the reason for Connecticut’s condition on its law (that it won’t go into effect until a critical mass of neighbors have also passed such a law) is to ensure at least a regional market for labeled goods (2013). I’m guessing they are also trying to avoid the lawsuits that Vermont seems to be welcoming.

Unfortunately, all of these laws miss the actual problems of genetic engineering: corporate proprietary control of the world’s food supply, and overuse of herbicides, which the corporations also own and sell to farmers. Many commodity farmers are basically lessors of their own operations, as they work under contract with seed/herbicide companies that dictate when and how much chemical to apply to their fields (CitizenWorks, n.d.). I find the crime in livestock-raising to be confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), not whether the animals are eating GMO feed. Because of this, I don’t feel that any of the laws is the better one. I feel they all, while well intentioned, miss the mark.

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Converting a Conventional Farm to Organic

Here is another of my research papers from my Food Policy and Law course that I took this summer. The assignment was to consider a hypothetical conventional farm and calculate the costs and considerations for converting to a certified organic farm. My scenario is not particularly realistic, but it gets the job done …

Carol and Ron Hinckel, the owners of a conventional 50-acre wheat farm in Damascus, Oregon, want to convert their acreage to USDA-certified 100-percent organic asparagus. They plan to sell this crop at the Portland Farmers Market, which takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays in downtown Portland, 19 miles away. The Hinckels are looking for a seasonal, low-maintenance, high-premium crop that will allow them to spend much of the year traveling to visit grandchildren. Because Carol worked for city government for 25 years, she has a pension, and they have saved enough money to cover the three-year transition period that is required of farmers converting a conventional field into an organic one. They have considered the changes they need to make that will affect the land and their business.

Changes to Their Land

The Hinckels’ soil is volcanic and heavy, and has been planted in wheat since 1973. The wheat was sprayed with a number of chemical herbicides and synthetic fertilizers over the years. In order to rest the soil and prepare it for an asparagus crop, they will first put in a triticale/vetch cover crop, plow that in at the end of the season, add compost, lime and phosphorus, and finally amend the soil with sand to lighten it.

They will need to expand their existing buffer zones, adding native plants, trees, and grasses. They also plan to restore a streambed that was re-routed in the 1960s to create more arable land; they received a grant from their water conservation district for this project. They estimate that their restoration efforts will leave them with 25 acres to plant in asparagus.

They will buy one-year-old organic male crowns to plant in the spring, rather than start from seed (§ 205.204(a)(4), Baier, 2012). The asparagus must not be picked for two additional years after planting in order to establish the root system; this will coordinate with the three-year waiting period associated with becoming certified organic growers.

Asparagus is a perennial plant that can produce for ten to twenty years, and therefore cannot be rotated with other crops; the Hinckels will keep their soil healthy by side-dressing with compost (Hutton, n.d.). Weeding is essential; the first two years, especially, they will hire extra help to hand-pull weeds to ensure that none get established. After the asparagus plants have grown, the Hinckels will switch to an approved fabric row cover. They will keep wide aisles (72 inches) between the rows to accommodate a compact tractor for these tasks and for use during harvest.

They plan to use an integrated pest management system to keep their asparagus plants healthy. Asparagus is generally a low-maintenance crop; the most common pest is the asparagus beetle. Since the Hinckels will have only male plants, they should have less problem with the beetles, as the eggs are laid in the berries of the female plants (Pleasant, 2013). They plan to hand-remove any beetles that appear, or use a USDA-approved insecticidal soap if they have a larger infestation.

Changes to Their Business

The Hinckels will need to invest in refrigeration equipment to keep the asparagus cool once it is picked (U.S. Dept. Agriculture, n.d.a.; Baier, 2012); a van to transport the produce to the market; a tent, tables, displays, signage, and POS equipment (cash register, credit-card reader); and possibly temporary housing for their interns. They will be able to use their existing irrigation equipment. Once they have tilled in the cover crop, added the amendments, and dug the asparagus trenches, they will sell their full-sized tractor and buy a compact tractor. They haven’t decided what to do with their grain bin. They have hired out the spraying and threshing in the past, so they have no equipment to liquidate in that regard.

The Hinckels have “hired work done” in the past, but never had regular employees. They are looking into WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and other avenues for bringing low- or unpaid interns onto the farm to help with hand-weeding, and to send to the market to sell the asparagus. Most farmers they know use migrant workers, but they are hesitant to explore that option.

They will continue to use their existing record-keeping procedures “concerning the production, harvesting, and handling of agricultural products” (Baier, 2011). They will also add personnel records to track their interns, and use the Field History/Previous Land Use form to document past farming practices, and note improvements to the soil and buffer zone (ibid.). They will create an Organic System Plan to which they can refer if they have an outbreak of disease or infestation; this plan will help them fill out the application at Oregon Tilth (Oregon Tilth, n.d.).

Because the farm will exceed $5,000 in revenue (Hutton, n.d.), they are not exempt from certification (U.S. Dept. Agriculture, n.d.b.; Baier, 2012). They will contact Oregon Tilth to apply for “transitional certification” and, once the waiting period is over, apply for full status (Oregon Tilth, 2014b, p. 19). They will welcome an inspector to their farm and follow up on any requests promptly.

The Hinckels’ fees during the first year will be less than $700 (see Appendix, Table 1). After the first year, the base fee is determined in conjunction with gross income (Oregon Tilth, 2014a). For the following two years, there will be no income, as the asparagus will be too immature to harvest. Things change significantly after that. With asparagus currently selling for $6 per pound at the Portland Farmers Market, the Hinckels have estimated their annual gross income to be approximately $21,780,000* (Hutton, n.d.; Johnny Seeds, n.d.). Their base fee will be $4,000 plus 0.05% of sales that exceed $2 million, or $13,890 total. However, the fee is capped at $10,000 (Oregon Tilth, 2014a). They will continue to pay for inspections every year, as well.

* This is not a realistic scenario; they would have to sell 3,490 pounds of asparagus at each market day in order to liquidate their produce and earn this income.

Appendix

Table 1

Oregon Tilth Fees, Year 1

Cost Reason
$75 First-time applicant fee
$399 First-year base fee
$200 Inspection deposit
$674 Total
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Join Me in Conversation About Food

Oregon Humanities is one of the nation’s most innovative humanities councils, welcoming discussion rather than lectures. It’s a pleasure and an honor to have been accepted into their Conversation Project roster. My new program is called “Good Food, Bad Food: Agriculture, Ethics, and Personal Choice.” I hope you’ll join me in the conversation!

A slide from my PowerPoint: Conversation-starter! I found this receipt in the field by my house. It was dropped by someone who works there--someone who helps grow food who is on food stamps

A slide from my PowerPoint conversation-starter! I found this receipt in the field by my house. It was dropped by someone who works there–a person who helps grow food who is on food stamps

How can you do that? The process is a little chicken-and-egg at first—an organization must contact me directly (kristy @ kristyathens.com) to talk about potential dates, and then apply to Oregon Humanities. However, if it doesn’t work out with them, or if the event is a fundraiser, for a private group, or some other qualifier that makes OH unable to sponsor it, they encourage CP leaders to make private arrangements. So you people in Hawai`i, please feel free to fly me out! January is open.

You can hear a little more about my topic in this video.

And view the entire catalogue here.

We’ll talk about the power of food in our personal and cultural mythologies, and how that correlates with our purchases. But exactly what we talk about will be up to you! I hope your library or other civic organization will invite me to visit! I’m looking forward to it.

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Honey, I Canned the Peaches

Whenever I engage in domesticities such as canning, I refer to my bible, The Encyclopedia of Country Living. As I’ve noted in this blog, most recently when I canned apricots, I love its author, Carla Emery. And sometimes, love means you can tell someone to go jump in a lake.

I’m not someone who particularly enjoys process. So, just like e.e. cummings talked about the joy of “having written,” when I talk about the joy of canning peaches I am talking about the joy of having canned peaches. The act itself involves anxiety, minor burns, and swearing. I work really hard not to cut myself.

I put in an order with a local farmer for peaches a month or so ago, and they were finally ready on Thursday. I picked up my lug, and yesterday loaded my dishwasher with jars and set everything up: vat of boiling water, cutting board, steam canner. I consulted The Encyclopedia of Country Living, which had Carla’s instructions as well as my notes from past years about how many jars I’d used.

Canning prep

Canning prep

Carla wrote: “If you’re slow you can drop the fruit into water containing 2 T. each salt and vinegar per gallon water to prevent darkening. But I just work fast.” I filled another vat with water.

I was careful to buy freestone peaches so I wouldn’t have to deal with the stones sticking into the fruit. However, the peaches were just slightly underripe. Unlike Carla, who was a full-time back-to-the-land homemaker and could can her peaches at the exact right time, I have a schedule, and that schedule allowed me to can on Saturday. Not Wednesday, when the peaches would have been ready. By next week, they’d be too far gone. Now or never.

The result was that only a few of them separated the way they were supposed to. Mostly, I had to cut around the stone, which had stuck in one of the two halves, and then dig it out with a spoon. Even though I doused the peaches in boiling water, the skins only sort-of peeled off. Mostly I had to peel them with a paring knife. This was fussy.

“I just work fast,” Carla said. Go jump in a lake, Carla.

It was a good thing I had prepared the vinegar-salt water.

But, as with any problem, if you keep working at it you’ll eventually lick it. And I did. And my February-self will thank me!

See, that wasn't so bad! Now, go ice those burns

See, that wasn’t so bad! Now, go ice those burns

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