The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA): Why you should care and how you can help

Written by Sarah Parsons, Former Farm Fellow.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is causing a stir among farmers and consumers throughout the nation. The new act, a set of rules and regulations created by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create safeguards in food production, could place a large financial and logistical burden on small to mid-scale farmers across the U.S. Any farm making over $25,000 a year in produce sales could be affected, i.e. most fruit and vegetable production farms in America. The act also places undue burden on farms that use organic and sustainable practices. Should the rules stay as is, it will be more difficult for many farmers to stay in business, it may deter beginning farmers from farming, and it may make fruits and vegetables more expensive. During a time when the country is bleeding farmers, particularly young ones, and when fruits and vegetables are not readily accessible or affordable for many Americans, this act could have dire consequences both for our agricultural system and our public health.

Background

Let us flashback to 1938, the year that FSMA was first created. In an effort to feed Americans both at home and oversees in WWII the U.S. agricultural system had to move large quantities of food efficiently and safely. FSMA was, therefore, in fact a good thing. For without FSMA, there would be no safeguards against distributing large quantities of contaminated food to the American people.

Now let us fast-forward to 1990 and the creation of the National Organic Program (NOP). In response to popular consumer demand, the National Organic Program, a program initiated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), created more markets for organic foods, i.e. foods grown without synthetic chemicals. As a result of the NOP, consumers now have a choice to buy organic or non-organic foods in the marketplace. Hold onto this idea and historical event. I will bring up how it relates to FSMA later.

Now let us jump forward to 2002 when the USDA created a voluntary certification program for farmers called the “Good Agricultural Practices” program (known by many as “GAP”). GAP is one of the most commonly recognized certifications among institutions and grocery stores. GAP sets forth a set of stringent guidelines that safeguard against the risk of spreading biological contaminants on produce later to be sold on the market. GAP certification is not required by law. Many restaurants and farmers’ markets do not require GAP certified produce. “Why might not everyone require that their produce be GAP certified?” you may ask. The answer: GAP certification can be costly for some farms, particularly smaller farms, and it places a large logistical burden on farmers. GAP certification requires intensive documentation that can be unreasonable for smaller farms to complete, given the smaller size of their staff. GAP is also not as necessary for smaller farms sourcing
directly to restaurants or farmers’ markets. Many restaurants ask that farmers sign contracts with a certain amount of liability coverage before accepting a farmer’s produce. In the event that any produce becomes contaminated, the restaurant can easily trace the produce back to the farmer and the farmer is held liable. A similar idea holds for farmers’ markets. Should a farmers’ produce be contaminated it is easily traceable. GAP was put in place specifically to create additional safeguards for the movement of large quantities of produce from many different farms to many different institutions. On a larger scale, it is much more difficult to trace back the source of contamination and hold a particular farm liable. Therefore in the case of large-scale distribution, GAP, like the original FSMA rule passed in 1938, can be a good thing. Although a good thing, however, it is also good that GAP is voluntary. Smaller farmers can opt to get GAP certified if they choose to sell produce to larger institutions and if they have the capacity and resources to do so.

Now, lastly I want to add to this stew of historical events an E. Coli outbreak in 2006, originating from a vegetable field in California, and the increased threat of bioterrorism in the U.S., resulting from 9/11. These two realities have created a sense of urgency among rule makers at the FDA to better standardize food safety in the U.S. The concerns of rule makers are legitimate, but the way in which they go about making the rules needs to be an intentional process that takes into account the livelihoods of farms of all sizes and approaches.

Now you are prepared to talk about FSMA.

FSMA Today

So what is the problem with the new proposed FSMA guidelines and why should you care?

For the Farmer: The 4 C’s: Cost, Contradiction, Compost, and Conservation

Cost
First, I want you to revisit my discussion of GAP in the Background section. The
new FSMA guidelines are in many ways similar to GAP guidelines. There are several differences as well, however, the premise is the same. FSMA has the potential to be costly for some farms, particularly smaller farms, and it places a large logistical burden on farmers. According to the FDA, the costs required to update a farm’s operations to be in compliance with the new FSMA rules can range anywhere between about $4,500 for a small farm to about $30,500 for a larger farm. When considering a small farm that grosses $25,000 a year, $4,500 is a large cost. Such high costs can also deter beginning farmers and potentially put smaller farms out of business. FSMA, also like GAP, requires intensive documentation that can be unreasonable for smaller farms to complete, given the smaller size of their staff. Additionally, should a farm want to maintain sales to direct markets (such as restaurants and farmers’ markets), it seems unnecessary that farms be required to comply with FSMA rules. It appears as though the intent of FSMA is to create additional safeguards against the risk of food contamination at a large scale. In instances, where large amounts of produce are being transported to markets and institutions across the country, then there is a place for FSMA, just as there is a place for GAP. However, in instances where it is easy to trace food back to the farmer (i.e. when food is sourced directly from the farm to a restaurant or a farmers’ market), it does not seem as necessary to require these additional regulations and safeguards. On a small scale, a farmer, who has a direct relationship with a restaurant or his customer, is already heavily affected by the burden of accountability. It is in the direct interest of the small farmer to provide quality produce, because he is likely to lose his customers if he does not. The onus of accountability may be burden enough.

Contradiction
Another major issue with FSMA is that it creates regulations only for biological contaminants on produce. Therefore, it places an undue burden on farms that use organic and sustainable practices. Conventional farms that use synthetic chemicals are not included in the new FSMA regulations. This reality raises the question that we, as a society, have to ask ourselves. Should we not be equally concerned about chemical contaminants on our food as we are biological contaminants?

Compost
In the new FSMA regulations, if you are a farm that uses compost generated on-site and/or if you use any animal-derived amendments, then you may be negatively affected. The new FSMA rules require a waiting period of approximately 9 months between when compost is put down and crops are harvested (if there is risk that the produce may come in contact with the ground). Annual crops generally take a fraction of that time to mature. Therefore, farmers would have to leave a field fallow for 9 months after compost application before planting, at which point many of the nutrients may have leached from the soil. This regulation may force many farmers to go the route of chemical amendments, which are not regulated under the rules. For farmers wanting to be organic certified, chemical amendments are not an option. This regulation is also in direct conflict with National Organic Program standards, which requires and recommends a reapplication of compost at 3-4 month intervals.

Conservation
In the conversation section of the FSMA regulations, the FDA makes a claim that it wants both to support sustainable conservation practices and food safety. However, it does little to address how sustainable conservation practices should be implemented. In addition, in the Domesticated and Wild Animal section of FSMA, there is language that implies that animals should be kept off land that is to be in fruit and vegetable production. There are various different regulations for domesticated versus wild animals. However, by implying that farmers should keep wild animals off their property, farmers may be encouraged to rid of natural areas
around their property. Both the lack of language about conserving natural areas around farms in the Conservation section of FSMA and the language that encourages the removal of wild animals from farm areas in the Domesticated and Wild Animal section, may further encourage farmers to rid of natural areas around farms.
Natural areas around farms support native pollinators and beneficial animals that aid in the functioning of a healthy agro-ecosystem.

For the Consumer
As a consumer, if you value getting fresh produce from local farmers, as well as from farmers that use sustainable and/or organic practices, then the new FSMA regulations will affect you too. Should the regulations pass as is, the costs to the farmer will also be passed on to you, the consumer. Additionally, over the long term it may reduce your options of organic and/or local produce. The new regulations put a great amount of burden particularly on smaller farms and organic farms.

Be a part of the Movement and Take Action
The new FSMA rules are open for public comment, so now is the perfect time for you to make your voice heard. We need everyone to comment, so please take a few minutes out of your day to visit the two links below and send a comment to FDA.

For Consumers:
Visit this link.

For Farmers:
Visit this link.

These links provide detailed instructions about how to submit a comment, and it also provides sample comments for you to use as a guide. Please try to make your comments as unique as possible, and please do not copy the sample. These links also provide more detailed analysis of the proposed rules, should you want to learn more about how the rules will affect you.

Farmers it may be helpful to pick one or two of the issues in the Produce Rule that directly affect you and comment on those rules. Give a personal story, and do not be afraid to tell FDA how the new rules would affect you.

Some small farms are exempt from some of the rules. However, it is advised that all farms and farmers comment. Even if you may be exempt now, the rules may eventually affect you either directly or indirectly.

Be a part of the movement and help make a difference!

 

*The information gathered for this blog post was obtained from the National
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website. NSAC provides a great analysis of FSMA.
The analysis I provide below is not perfect and only highlights a few aspects of FSMA.
For more up-to-date, detailed information please visit the NSAC website.

The Future Health of the Honeybee and Our Food System

Honeybees are what some may think of as whimsical, mythological creatures that turn flowers to fruit.  According to the EPA and USDA, their Midas touch, helps to produce approximately one-third of the food and beverages we consume in the U.S. every year1. In recent years, however, honeybees have seen a rapid decline.  Farmers across the U.S., who for years have relied on honeybee hives to pollinate their crops, have reported large numbers of colony loss.  For many years, the reason for honeybee decline was an enigma.  In the mid-90’s when my dad kept bees, a mite, known as the Varroa mite, was the reason for most colony deaths.  My dad, like many hobby beekeepers I imagine, gave up after losing hives for 3 consecutive years.  Farmers, however, could not give up.  Giving up meant a loss of both their crops and their livelihood, and as the years progressed the reasons for colony losses became more and more mysterious.  In an effort to better identify the reasons behind honeybee colony losses in the U.S., researchers across the nation have been testing several different factors that may contribute to colony loss.IMG_4316

On May 2, 2013, a statement was released by the USDA and EPA announcing the findings of several years of research conducted by researchers across the U.S.

In summary the statement announced that, according to the 2012 National Stakeholder Conference on Honeybee Health, a network of federal researchers, managers, and researchers at Penn State University, the following factors are greatly impacting honeybee health in the U.S.:

  • The parasitic Varroa mite and a new virus species, causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), are largely contributing to honeybee colony deaths across the U.S.  In addition, the Varroa mite is increasingly becoming resistant to chemicals, used to kill the mite.
  • Genetic diversity is lacking in many honeybee colonies in the U.S., resulting in decreased resistance against the Varroa mite and other diseases.
  • Poor nutrition among colonies, resulting from pesticide-treated crops and lack of diverse forage, is also decreasing disease resistance among colonies.
  • A lack of coordination between growers and beekeepers on best practices, with regard to pesticides and bees, is contributing to colony loss.
  • Pesticides present a challenge to bee health and more research needs to be done to explore pesticide exposure and effect on bee health.

2012-04-12 14.02.48As the findings suggest future policy needs to address pesticide use, methods of chemical pest control of the Varroa mite, increasing genetic diversity among colonies, and land use management.  I think that two of the large factors here of greater concern are pesticide use and land use management.  Both factors would require some very large systematic policy changes.  To speak to the first of these, pesticide use:  Limiting pesticide use on just one farm will not do the honeybee any favors.  Honeybees know no property line boundaries, and they are known to fly up to 5 miles or more away from their hive in search of pollen2.  What happens then if the neighbor’s farm is applying pesticides?  Or what if the landscapers in the subdivision next to the farm are applying pesticides?   A systematic policy approach to pesticide use that impacts the timing of application and quantity used is therefore in order.  Such an approach would have to function at levels of policy beyond the municipal and state levels.  Land use management would also require systematic change.  Providing bees diversity in their food sources is suggested to increase disease resistance.  By decreasing forest fragmentation (i.e. increasing forest connectivity) around agricultural areas, as well as increasing the diversity of the crops planted on farms, diversity in food sources for bees can be achieved.  Local governments can play a role in forest conservation in agricultural areas.  Increasing the diversity of crops on farms, however, is a larger issue that would require a systematic change in the way that agriculture is currently done in the U.S.  Increasing diversity in crop selection also means moving away from large acres of monoculture crops, a favored approach to agriculture in the U.S..  As farm size increases and the monoculture approach to agriculture increases, we need to be careful not to make ourselves more vulnerable to diseases and pests that not only affect our bees, but also our crops.  By increasing biodiversity on farms both through crop selection and conservation of forestlands around farms, both our crops and our bees will be healthier.  It seems to me as though honeybees are taking on the role as the ecological indicator species for our agroecosystems.  The struggling of an ecological

149398_540051966047176_1471143392_n

indicator species makes us aware that a balance has been disrupted in the ecosystem. We, therefore, cannot ignore the honeybees distress much longer.   A change in the way we do agriculture and manage our agroecosystems is vital for the future success of our food system.

1.  USDA and EPA Release New Report on Honey Bee Health.  May 2, 2013. http://content.govdelivery.com/bulletins/gd/USDAOC-795a36

2.   Ribbands, C.R. “Flight Range of the Honey Bee.”  Journal of Animal Ecology.  Vol.2 , No. 2,  1951.  http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1541?uid=3739776&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101991005473

Closed loop farming

This April, I had the privilege of touring Chapel Hill Creamery in Chapel Hill, NC. I took away two major lessons from my visit and would like to use this blog post to share them with friends and visitors of the Duke Campus Farm.  First, the potential for selling a locally made “value added” product like cheese.  Second, the major benefits of “closed-loop farming.”  But first, let me set the scene.

Chapel Hill Creamery

The 37-acre operation began with a handful of Jersey dairy cows and has grown to support over 30 Jerseys, along with two oxen, barnyard poultry, and hogs.  The milking parlor has six milking machines and the girls are milked twice a day.  The dairy cows are rotationally grazed, which I saw during my visit.  The girls were roaming across a 2-acre field, quietly munching on luscious ryegrass and lounging in the mid-spring sun while contentedly chewing their cuds.  In my work I have seen hundreds of herds of dairy and beef cattle, so let me say: These were some happy cows.

2013-04-05 14.04.37

Like many states, North Carolina has outlawed the sale of unpasteurized or “raw” milk, meaning anyone who wishes to sell milk must have access to a pasteurization tank.  You can imagine that Flo and Portia who own the farm did not make this sizable investment when they opened their business with just six Jerseys, instead opting to turn their cows’ milk into cheese.  Portia and Flo however, do not make simply one type of cheese from their herd – they now produce and market seven different cheeses.

Our group sampled three of the Chapel Hill Creamery cheeses.  There is the buttery and creamy “Carolina Moon” cheese that spreads on bread, a raw milk “Hickory Creek” cheese that is full-flavored, and the “Dairyland Farmers Cheese” that is equally moist, smoky, and tangy.  The Dairyland Farmers Cheese was my personal favorite, and while slowly eating it my mind raced with what types of flavorful dishes would benefit from its strong smoky flavor.

Portia and Flo retail their cheeses at multiple farmers’ markets and sell them wholesale to local grocers like the Maple View Country store and Whole Foods.  At this time their sales are divided roughly 50-50, with half of their cheese being sold directly to consumers at farmers’ markets and the other half being sold at food retailers.  When small farmers market their goods, a mixture of wholesale and retail sales is often preferred because grocery stores purchase in bulk and with consistency (depending on your contract).  Selling retail at farmers’ markets gives the farmer the biggest financial return because they remove the middleman.  By combining the two, local farmers like Portia and Flo can have an income that is profitable and reliable. They also benefit from selling cheese, because it is a value-added product.

Benefits of value added products

So what is a value added product? Basically, it means you take a raw product, process it somehow, and sell it at a higher cost because of the added resources and labor.  For Portia and Flo, this means they milk their cows and then use their cheese-making facility built onto the back of their milking parlor to produce wheels of delectable cheese.  For local farms, value added products can be delights like jams, jellies, pickled eggs, sausages, bacon, butter, yogurt, and yes, even Mapleview ice cream.

For Portia and Flo, raising a reasonable number of dairy cows was the life they wanted, and selling cheese was the way to make it pay for a number of reasons.  First, they add value and reduce input costs by making cheese on-site, meaning no fuel and transportation costs are added until it is actually time to take cheese to market.  Second, they diversified their product line by selling seven types of cheese, meaning if you don’t like the tanginess of the Dairyland Farmers Cheese you can instead try their 2012 NC State Fair Best of Show Calvander cheese.  Finally, they found a niche market because no one nearby made dairy cheese.  Additionally, there is an ethereal added value some customers receive from purchasing locally made goods from a farm whose animals have exceptional living conditions.

While the Duke Campus Farm does not sell value-added products, we do have workshops that feature food processing, like with kimchi and kombucha.  The Duke Campus Farm does however practice a closed-loop farming system like Chapel Hill Creamery.

Closed-loop Farming

To understand the benefit of closed-loop farming, think about all the inputs necessary to grow vegetables or in this example, make cheese. To make cheese you need cows (check), land (check), grass (check), water (check), and fertilizer.  The dairy cows at Chapel Hill Creamery are rotationally grazed which means a large portion of their diet comes from grazing. While Portia and Flo rotate their cows on a very structured system, their manure input will not equal the amount of nutrition they removed from the soil.  So, do they drive down to the local farm store and purchase chemical fertilizer by the ton? Certainly not!

Instead, hog waste is occasionally spread on fields to restore depleted nutrients and organic matter.  The hog waste comes from their own herd of roughly 15 pigs that live on the farm in an outdoor enclosure.  When asked, Portia said that she had never planned to have pigs but it made the most economic sense for their needs.  When she said this, she wasn’t just referring to their waste, but also their diet.

When Portia and Flo began making cheese they produced a surplus of whey as a byproduct.  In the past farmers would just dump the whey and call it a loss, but the material eventually became classified as an animal waste which means there is now a mountain of regulation about waste-whey.  So, the option emerged: do they install a wastewater treatment system that can properly break the whey down for disposal, or find an alternative way of making it disappear.  They chose the alternative method and invested in hogs hungry for whey.  The hogs consume every drop of whey the dairy cows produce in exchange for some supplemental feed and soft hay bedding, far less demanding than a state-approved wastewater treatment system!  As mentioned, the whey-fed hog waste is put back on the fields to fertilize grass for the cows, plugging a hole where nutrients would have quietly left the farm and increased the rate of soil depletion.

Once their time on the farm comes to an end, the whey fed hogs are processed at a North Carolina slaughterhouse and then make their way to the customer base.  Whey fed pork is a niche product in the meat market, with more people trying it because they have heard that the meat is better-marbled, more flavorful and produces a more tender hog altogether.

Portia and Flo’s hogs are also another example of a value-added product because whey fed pork is a specialty meat that is hard to find.  If anything were to happen to their cheese income, they also have pork as a secondary source of revenue.  By closing the waste-loop on their farm, Portia and Flo saved tens of thousands of dollars they would have spent on a wastewater treatment system, added an on-site source of animal waste aka fertilizer, and successfully turned a problematic byproduct into bacon.

Conclusion

At this time, the Duke Campus Farm produces fruit and vegetables and does not have animal waste to use as fertilizer (hog waste cannot be spread near food for humans, just grass for cows).  We do, however, value composting residual plant and vegetable matter.  This way, nutrients that were stored in leaves, stems, and dented watermelons make their way back into the soil for the next crop.

All in all, I hope that you (readers) are now familiar with the concepts of value-added products and closed-loop farming.  These critical principles of local farming help make ends meet for businesswomen like Portia and Flo, who have more freedom to work on their next gold medal cheese and give more attention to their cows to check for sickness, rather than worrying about the legality of their production’s byproducts and if fertilizer is affordable this year.

Debunking Myths about the Farmer

On the farm there is a lot of quality time spent with your co-workers, especially at a farm with an intimate setting, such as the one at Duke’s Campus Farm.  There is a lot of story exchanging and reminiscing.  It is not rare to come out on the other end of a tomato patch (or lettuce patch- depending on the season), baskets full of tomatoes, and feeling as if you have just divulged to your co-worker many of your most profound life ponderings.  It is one of the many beautiful realities of working on a farm.  On one such day in August, Emily (farm manager) told me a humorous story about an event she had just attended the week before.  At this event she was tabling for the farm, and about an hour into the event a pair of older women approached her to ask some questions.  The first question:  Where is the farmer for the Duke Campus Farm?  Emily proceeded to tell the women that she was the farmer.  The women politely laughed and then asked again:  But really where and who is the farmer for Duke Campus Farm?  Confused, Emily said to the women, “No, but really I am the farmer.”  The women, apparently displeased with Emily’s responses, said some pleasantries and left.  When Emily told me this story, she said, “What did these women expect? A middle-aged man?”

This story made me realize that yes, indeed most people think of farmers as middle-aged, uneducated white men with beer bellies that appear large enough to give birth to a case of PBR.  (I do not write this narrative to discriminate against middle-aged white farmers.  For one there are a lot of wonderful middle-aged white farmers in the world to which we owe a great amount of gratitude for growing our food.  And secondly, a good beer belly is nothing to be ashamed of).  My point here is that most people don’t think of Emily Sloss, liberal arts graduate and white woman from the Miami area, when they think of “farmer.”

I write to challenge the way we think of farmers and debunk the stereotypes. If we continue to give credence to farmer stereotypes, particularly negative ones, we will not be able to move forward with our food ethic as a nation. So let us start with debunking Myth #1.

Myth 1:  Farmers are Middle-Aged

According to data from the national agricultural census to date 40% of America’s farmers are 55 years of age or older.  I dug into this information further to find this table published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002.  As you can see in Table 1 the average age of farmers has increased from 51.7 years of age in 1974 to 55.3 years of age in 2002.  Additionally, the percentage of farmers (older than 65) has continued to increase, and the percentage of younger farmers (under the age of 35) has decreased.  Therefore, rather than having a majority of middle-aged farmers in the United States, in actuality we have a majority of aging farmers.

Although the average age of farmers is increasing overall, there is a small growing contingent of young beginning farmers entering the mix.  In 1992, out of worry about the growing number of older farmers, Congress and the USDA created loan programs and Federal/State financing partnerships for beginning farmers and ranchers in the Agricultural Credit Improvement Act.  The reason for supporting beginning farmers and ranchers was to support younger people entering into U.S. agriculture.  Studies presented to Congress and the USDA showed that beginning farmers and ranchers tended to be younger than established farmers.  By supporting beginning farmers, the U.S. would also be supporting younger farmers.  After the 1992 Act Congress supported the Farm Security and Rural Infrastructure Act of 2002, which provided payments to beginning farmers participating in conservation.  Later in 2008, Congress supported the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, which increased support for beginning farmers and ranchers.  The combination of all of these loan programs and grants has aided in bringing in younger, beginning farmers into the U.S. agricultural system over the past decade.

In conclusion, although our farmers are aging, there is hope that the influx of new younger farmers may ensure the security of food production in generations to come.

Myth #2: Farmers are White

In the United States, there has been historically a large contingent of African American farmers.  I grew up in a renovated sharecropper house in Stockbridge, Georgia, where 2 miles down the road Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s grandparents, former farmers, are buried.  According to a recently aired PBS story, 1 in every 7 farmers in 1920 was black.  Unfortunately, that number has decreased in the last several decades, as a result of the unfolding of a series of controversial events.  Therefore, to date there are not as many African American farmers, as their once used to be.

However, currently an increasing number of Latinos are getting involved in farming.  In order to explain this statement in more detail, it is important to make the distinction between farm operator and farmworker.  Farm operators are what most people think of as the “farmer.”  Farm operators own the land and usually the farm business.  Farmworkers, on the other hand, are the field workers, who are oftentimes working more closely with the land on a day-to-day basis.  Are farmworkers any less farmer than their farm operators?  I suppose that is a question worth asking yourself.  However, they both are “growers.”  Without one or the other our food system is non-existent.  Now thinking in terms of farmworker, the demographics of farming changes.  According to 1995 data from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration 69% of farmworkers in the U.S. were foreign-born.  The majority of foreign-born farmworkers came from Mexico.  Additionally, farmworkers unlike their respective farm operators were younger in 1995, with approximately two-thirds of the farmworker population under the age of 35.  This 1995 data is dated, but it does give a sense of the more current demographic trends in U.S. agriculture.  Many Latinos are also entering into farming as primary farm operators. Although I was unable to locate specific statistics addressing this trend, it is important to note that a contingent of Latino farm operators exists in the U.S. as well.

In conclusion, the traditional image of the white middle-aged farmer is not only false, but it is also actively changing as more and more different kinds of poeple are trying to make careers out of growing food.

Myth 3:  Farmers are Uneducated

This latter of the myths was the one that encouraged me to write this blog.  Having helped Emily on the farm now for 6 months, I have realized that farming takes a lot of smarts.  To farm you have to know soil science, microbiology, ecology, chemistry, business, social science, the list goes on and on.  Farming also requires knowing hard skills, such as carpentry, forestry, and engineering.  The farmer is likely the most underrated person in our society.  He or she has to know a little bit of everything!  I suppose most farmers cannot quote to you from the literary classics, nor could they calculate the trajectory of a rocket, but they can tell you how to build a greenhouse, how to harness the sun’s light to your advantage, and how to know when your crops need more calcium in the soil.  In order to see farming differently, in a new and brighter light, we have to question what types of knowledge we value.  If I were to guess, I would say that our society favors the kind of knowledge produced by liberal arts institutions, rather than the kind passed down from generation-to-generation on the farm.  There is no harm in valuing liberal arts education. I, for one, am a big proponent.  However, we do not have to discard other types of knowledge as less valid.  Should we continue to devalue farming knowledge we will be lacking sorely in farmers to grow food for our children and our grandchildren.  Already we suffer from a lack of farmers willing to step up and take over the family farm.  Until we value farming knowledge again, young people will continue to go to the city after college rather than back to the farm.  It is up to us to see them for the intelligent, valued members of society that they are.

With that let us all give thanks to our farmers, white, black, Latino, male, female, old, and young.

The Research Gap

Hello Readers,

Thank you for that introduction Emily.  I am excited about all the many adventures to come at DCF!  As Emily mentioned, I recently graduated from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke, where I received my Master in Environmental Management.  I am a lover of living creatures of all sizes and vibrant habitats of all kinds.  I have been a lover of these things all my life, but in recent years my love and my life have been focused more specifically on sustainable farming and food systems.  I am excited to devote my career to making food systems more just and healthy for all, and I am thrilled to begin that career here at DCF.

The Research Gap

 I wanted to focus my blog post today on a particular phenomenon that is shaping college campuses across the country:  the campus farm.  Campus farms and gardens, such as the ones we have here at Duke, are popping up on college campuses across the nation everywhere.  After doing a brief Internet search, I found this resource, a website created by the Rodale Institute, which is a guide to colleges with campus farms[i].  From this guide I found that approximately 50 colleges have campus farms.  The number of campus farms to-date, however, is likely larger, seeing as that this guide excluded Duke University, among a few other campuses, which I know to have started farms in the past couple of years. So what does this mean?  Why are colleges getting so excited about growing their own food?  I suppose you would have to ask each individual college for the answer to this question.  If I were to infer, however, I would say that such a phenomenon signals the start of a movement.  College campuses have been the birthplaces and incubators of progressive movements throughout history.  Think civil rights and women’s rights for instance.  So when more and more college campuses across the nation start to grow their own food, it may be in one’s best interest to pay attention.  If you a businessman or woman, this phenomenon screams business opportunity!  Harness the energy of young people coming out of college and put them to work.  Start local food restaurants, start organic and local food distributors, start farmers’ markets, start organic and local grocery stores.  The list goes on and on.  If you are politician, this phenomenon screams policy change!  Get ahead of the curve and introduce bills that support local food systems that function via direct markets, i.e. farmers’ markets.  Reallocate subsidies that support crops that aren’t commodity crops.   But if you are the scholar, a man or woman of academia, what does this phenomenon scream to you?  I have my thoughts.

If you are a scholar or affiliated with academia in any way, I urge you to pay attention to this movement as well.   Thousands of students across the nation are eager to do research in non-conventional food systems.  For the purposes of this blog post, I am broadly defining non-conventional food systems as those systems, which do not function via the conventional model, e.g., community-based food systems, organic food systems, etc.  Currently, every state in the United States has at least one land-grant university, as set forth in the Morrill Acts of 1862.  As defined by the Morrill Acts, land-grant universities were started “to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts, so that members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education[ii].” Most land grant institutions today focus on the agricultural sciences, and a majority of the agricultural research coming from these universities is focused on improving conventional agricultural systems.  Currently, there is a lack of research being done in the area of non-conventional agricultural systems.  Based on information I gathered from this report published by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, of the 70 land grant institutions they surveyed only 6 of them were rated as having comprehensive organic agriculture programs, which demonstrated “an institutional commitment to conducting research meaningful to organic producers”[iii].  The Organic Farming Research Foundation used an 8 point scale to rate institutions and gauge institutional commitment to organic agriculture.  Points were given based on whether or not an institution had the following:  certified organic research acres, a student organic farm, organic academic programs, and organic Extension services.  Nine land grant institutions had 7 out 8 points, and 16 had 6 out of 8 points.  The remainder of the institutions had less than 6 points.  Although organic agriculture does not encompass all types of non-conventional agricultural systems, it is a good indicator of system-think change, particularly in the world of academia and land-grant institutions.  Conclusively, therefore, it seems as though the majority of land grant institutions have not demonstrated a substantial commitment to research in the non-conventional agricultural sector.  If I were a professor at a land grant institution, or any other college institution for that matter, and looking for ideas for the next publication, I would see this research gap as an opportunity.  Not only is this an opportunity, professors, but this is an opportunity fueled by the energy of a thousand burgeoning student researchers, interested in this very topic.

The research gap in the non-conventional agricultural sciences is an opportunity for both universities across the nation and the nation as a whole.  We keep asking ourselves how we can create more jobs in the United States…  Well this may be an answer to a piece of our puzzle:  grow and improve our non-conventional food systems. With corn prices going up (a direct result of a faulty conventional agricultural system), we have nothing to lose, right?  So students grab your professor, tell them you are interested in developing new methods, new technologies, new policies that improve non-conventional food systems, and professors listen.  There is a world of agricultural sciences and food system studies awaiting discovery.  And students, if your professor still doesn’t listen, just go start a campus farm.

Sidenote:  Please approach us here at Duke Campus Farm should you have any research ideas.  We would be happy to be a resource for you.


[i] Rodale Institute.  “Directory of Student Farms.”

Accessed August 2012. http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0104/studentfarms/directory.shtml.

[ii] Washington State University Extension.  “What is a Land-Grant College?”  Accessed

August 2012. http://ext.wsu.edu/documents/landgrant.pdf.

[iii]  Organic Farming Research Foundation.  “2012 Organic Land Grant Assessment.”

Accessed August 2012.  http://ofrf.org/sites/ofrf.org/files/docs/pdf/2012-LandGrantAssessment-forscreen.pdf.

 

Drought, You, and Yellow #2

2012 Iowa Yellow #2 corn, from Emily and my trip to Iowa earlier this month

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on Ag Policy here, but Tuesday night’s Colbert Report offered a golden opportunity to discuss a few of the key features of our industrial ag system. Unlike some past posts, I’ll try to stick to the (self-explanatory) facts rather than rail against the system itself. You can judge for yourself whether the system we’ve got is the one we want.

In the clip, Colbert plays a funnier Michael Pollan (no disrespect, Michael) while speaking to Bruce Babcock, professor of agricultural economics at Iowa State University. Watch the clip first, then read on!

Watch the video here (sorry, WordPress doesn’t let you embed flash into their blogs)

The interview begins with issues of scale. As Mr. Babcock states, “Iowa is corn country.” Here are the facts: this year, the blanket of corn covers 41% of Iowa’s exquisitely fertile land. Iowa planted almost 15 million acres of corn this year, or 15.5% of the 96 million acres of corn in the U.S. As a reference, America produces about 40% of the total corn harvest for the globe.

The interview continues to the issue of rainfall. Perhaps surprisingly, corn remains almost entirely un-irrigated in the U.S. Farmers depend on seasonal rains to produce a solid yield. This means that irrigation infrastructure doesn’t exist across most of the Midwest. (Personally, I think we should be grateful for this. The Oglala aquifer that underlies most of the land is expected to dry up in the next decade or so, even without irrigation of the nation’s most prevalent crop). When it doesn’t rain, there is little that can be done. And it’s not raining in Iowa, or in most of the Corn Belt.

Next, Colbert turns to the corn crop’s effect on food prices. According to Babcock, “You don’t need to worry about [the price of] soda pop or corn chips or corn on the cob.”

Why?

Well, the short answer is that soda pop and corn chips have a much smaller percentage of the corn price embedded in their sales price. This is a difficult point to make sense of. A useful analogy may be to compound interest. Products that use corn directly, such as soda pop and corn chips, use corn directly to produce the (diabetes-causing, heart-disease ensuing) goods. The cost of rising corn prices effects these good directly, but tend to get swamped by the cost of energy embedded in their production and shipping, and the cost of selling them embedded in marketing and labor.

And corn on the cob?  Corn on the cob is “sweet corn,” e..g. the corn you can eat directly without processing. It’s a very different incarnation of zea mays that makes up less than .3% of the America’s corn production.

The corn Professor Babcock was talking about? Fieldcorn, or Yellow #2 as it’s known on the street, a commodity defined only by its “0.2% or less heat damaged kernels, up to 5.0% damaged kernels and up to 3.0% corn or foreign materials.” If you walk into a field of Yellow #2, peel back the husk and dive right in, you’ll repeat the same earth-shattering experience I did as a child. The stuff is inedible, at least before it’s processed or fed to livestock.

In any case, as Prof. Babcock points out, “What you need to worry about is the eggs and chickens and dairy products…your beef and your pork.” Eggs? About 70% corn. Beef? 93% corn, according to Scientific American. That’s about half the corn, give or take.

Most of the other half, “About 35-40%,” goes to ethanol production. With a LOT less corn to go around for the next year or so, the feedyard operators and ethanol producers are in a bidding war over Yellow #2. In any normal market, the ethanol people would have packed up and gone home months ago, resigned to not make ethanol this year. It’s a highly inefficient process, after all, and people won’t pay $10/gallon for it.

Instead, more corn is going to ethanol this year than in any year in history thanks to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS mandates that gasoline makers blend some 15 billion gallons of ethanol into their gas this year. Since the requirement isn’t based on price, ethanol producers can charge whatever they need to break even, which means they can pay whatever they need to buy the corn “feedstock.”

Farmers who can’t afford to feed their cattle will dump them on the market. If you have a deep freezer, this would be a really good time to buy two years’ worth of beef. Better yet, corner the market. The point is that prices will rise steeply once the glut is off the market.

Finally, lest you lose too much sleep fretting for our brethren in the Midwest, the interview turns to crop insurance.

Babcock: “90% of Iowa farmers have crop insurance. It’s a federal program…”

Stephen: “A federal insurance program? That’s just Obamacare for our corn.”

Babcock: “Well, in essence, you are right.”

He is right, in the sense that the vast majority of commodity crop farmers carry insurance, covering up to 85% of lost revenues, heavily subsidized by the government, and with none of the most basic environmental protections required by other farm subsidies. Ironically, heavily subsidized federal crop insurance is part of the reason we have 95 million acres of corn. Federal crop insurance has systematically taken the (private financial) risk out of industrial monocultures, removing any incentive to diversify what is grown in the field (the best form of “natural” insurance). Taxpayers are paying farmers to make riskier bets, and we pay again when those bets bust in the form of emergency aid packages.

Now is the time to bring a little sanity back into the picture. For one, the five-year federal farm bill is up for renewal; it’s our best chance to trim the subsidies and pseudo-subsidies (i.e. RPS standards) that have exacerbated this “disaster.” On the other hand, bad farm policy didn’t make the weather. Consider this closing exchange from the interview:

Colbert: “Is this the worst drought of our lifetime?”

Babcock: “Well, it depends on how old you are…”

Mr. Babcock’s answer gives a nod to the severe drought of the 1930’s that led to the Dust Bowl. Yet the obvious answer, for anyone who has been paying attention, is “This may be the worst drought you’ve ever seen, but it won’t be.” The right answer is that it depends on how young you are. If you are not super-old or terribly infirm or particularly danger-prone—if you’re planning to stick around for a few more years—you’ll see a worse drought than this in your lifetime. More likely, you’ll see a dozen.

 

 

Why Aren’t All Farmers Driving Gold-Plated Tractors?

I recently ran across this policy briefing,  “Still Waiting for the Farm Boon,” by Timothy Wise at the Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute. In a tidy and digestible five or six pages, Dr. Wise debunks the common narrative that historically high crop prices have improved the economic situation for most American farmers.

First, you have to understand that crop prices are high—in some cases (such as corn), really high. A recent check shows corn is trading somewhere around $6.20/bushel, down from recent highs but several times the price guaranteed by the government. As a result, farm revenues are up—farmers are taking in more money for the crops they sell.

The USDA, among others, has trumpeted the “highest net farm income since the nineteen seventies.” Unfortunately, things aren’t so good for Farmer Joe. As Wise asserts, most of the reports making such claims suffer from a critical flaw: they include information on all individuals whose property is classified as farmland by the government. In fact, most (about 2/3) of these “farms” do not produce much of anything at all; they are used as tax shelters (usually to reduce the property tax burden).

This distinction is fundamental if we are to understand the socioeconomic plight of the farmers that produce the bulk of our food. I cannot tell you how many reports I have read that fail to make this distinction, including (as Wise points out) most of information coming out of USDA through ERS and ARS.

Suffice it to say that real, net income for most farmers has dropped over the past decade even as prices have soared, although the same cannot be said for huge farms selling $500k or millions of dollars in product each year. The reason for falling incomes? Input prices have soared even higher: fertilizer, pesticides and, of course, the price of oil.

Misleading statistics are used for all kinds of political objectives. In the case of agriculture, they are often used to paint a nicer picture of the average US Farmer’s economic situation. But anyone who has ever looked at a chart of income distributions in farming knows that the mean (income, farm size, etc) is a horrible statistic to use to describe a distribution that is nothing near normal. A much better statistic, if you had to choose only ONE, would be the median. You can have the craziest distribution in the world, but if you know the median, you at least know that the number describes the point at which half the population is doing better and half worse.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Wise’s piece is that farms are getting bigger in response to market pressures. Bigger, and increasingly dependent on the industrial inputs that sound the death knell for long-term ecological health. Large farms succeed [sic] because they do not pay the full price of their inputs; they do not pay the external costs of pesticide exposure, nutrient runoff, soil loss or even the full price of oil, subsidized as it is by American military force, a lack of climate change legislation, and greedy autocratic regimes with short shadows of the future.

Dr. Wise’s prescription is to continue direct subsidy payments for commodity producers, a prescription that Congress is not likely to fill when they re-write the Farm Bill this year or next. And it’s a good thing. Continuing direct subsidies is the worst kind of Band-Aid for a systemic infection that can only be solved with systemic reform. Rather than asking How can we keep mid-sized farmers afloat with government handouts? we should be asking how policy can level the playing field by making producers pay the full cost of their production.

Any such action would certainly raise the price of food. But remember, Americans spend a tiny percentage of income on food compared with other developed countries (and especially compared with developing ones). If we are concerned (and we should be) about the effects of food prices on poor people, we should strengthen the safety net of WIC and EBT. Depending on ever-larger corporations to grow cheap food using subsidized inputs points us in the wrong direction.

Oh, Deer

As children growing up in rural Chatham County, my sister and I competed to spot deer while our car sped along the ribbon of back-country roads. Most nights we pulled into our driveway disappointed. But occasionally the headlights would illuminate a bright pair of white eyes lingering on the forest edge and our mom would slow down so we might admire the sight, like tourists on African safari.

Driving along those same roads out to the Duke Campus Farm, it is nearly unthinkable to make it without seeing at least one herd of deer. Recent studies have shown that this change is not merely anecdotal. White-tail deer populations are ballooning and their numbers pose an environmental, moral and human health crisis.

Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets that will solve overpopulation. But there are bullets. It is time to reconsider our regional approach to the management of deer populations, including loosening restrictions on hunting and legalizing the sale of wild venison.

Calls for more hunting inevitably evoke the rancor of those who wish Bambi’s mom had returned home safely.  Yet opponents of deer hunting would do well to remember that hunting associations saved the white-tail deer after farmers had driven them to the brink of eradication.

In 1930 there were fewer than 300,000 deer east of the Mississippi River. Today, there are about two million in North Carolina alone, and as many as 80 deer per square mile in parts of the Triangle, about five times the sustainable number.

Deer overpopulations wreak havoc on forest ecosystems, especially the young pine forests so common in these parts. They eat shrubs, small plants and tree seedlings so voraciously that the Duke Forest has labeled them a major threat to local biodiversity.

In the absence of population control, deer will eat themselves into starvation. On a recent visit to the Duke Campus Farm, on the edge of the Duke Forest, I stumbled on a herd of seventeen deer.  They were not the full-bellied, vigorous deer of my childhood memories.  Having picked clean the forest floor, the emaciated deer had ventured onto the farm in search of food (explaining the 7.5 foot deer fence that protects our fragile acre).

Animal rights advocates are not doing the deer any favors in their blind opposition to hunting. Hunting restrictions have exacerbated the boom and bust cycles that lead to mass starvations. Meanwhile, population pressures have driven more deer out of the forest and into the crosshairs of unwary drivers.

A 2009 study out of UNC Chapel Hill estimates that deer are involved in over 17,000 automobile accidents each year in our state, or about 10% of all accidents. This represents a 25% increase since 2004.

Deer-vehicle collisions impose significant economic costs estimated at $127 million annually in NC. Worse still, no good comes of deer carcasses rotting in the grass or littering the shoulder of the highway. Moral outrage should not demand that deer are never killed. We should demand that deer are killed humanely and not wasted.

Several local programs are working to bring sensibility back to deer population management. In a highly controversial program, The Duke Forest has allowed bow hunters to take as many as 200 deer a year since 2006.

In years past hunters shared half of this venison with local food shelters. Last year, in another ominous sign that populations are wildly out of control, many deer taken during the annual hunt in the Duke Forest were too sickly to be eaten.

That’s why we need an enlightened public policy that allows enough hunting to create a perennial equilibrium where deer can thrive without exploding in sheer number. Smaller populations will be healthier, happier and less destructive to habitat and automobiles.

Legalizing the sale of wild venison is an important first step. Venison is a tasty, sustainable and local source of meat. We served both venison stew and venison tacos at our Fall Farm Festival last October (to mostly rave reviews). Creating a market for local venison would promote a less wasteful approach to hunting and would allow officials to regulate safety and quality standards.

As a community, we need to summon the courage to embrace hunting as a responsible and necessary approach to deer control. It is time to swallow our medicine and allow hunters to bring deer populations back into a healthy equilibrium. If we’re lucky, we might get to swallow some fresh venison, too.

Paradigm Shifting Down on the Farm

Of all the trends in American agriculture, I want you to consider two for a minute.

First, the American farmer is aging: the average farmer was just over 50 in 1978, 54 in 1997, and is about to turn 58. New farmers are not replacing their aging predecessors nearly fast enough to keep up. The U.S. needs a new generation of farmers to pick up the plow as half of all American farmers retire in the next decade.

Second, the American farm is growing. The acre-weighted median farm (feel free to email me if you want a complete description of how this statistic is calculated) has grown 35% since 1982, meaning most agricultural production occurs on farms bigger than 2,000 acres. Large farms overwhelmingly use capital and input-intensive processes focused on growing commodity crop monocultures with myriad environmental externalities.

To summarize, we have a lot of older folks growing crops in increasingly unsustainable ways. Why isn’t grandpa’s generation leaping into the sustainable food movement, even though organic demand continues to outstrip supply?

Well, older farmers tend to be set in their ways, even, dare I say, stubborn. They are less connected to digital social and knowledge networks where they could learn about new sustainable practices; as one farmer told me, “We older farmers are somewhat allergic to the internet.” And older farmers are less willing to make investments that would enhance their land over time (preferring instead to save for retirement, or take a vacation). And I won’t even get into Farm Bill policies, which have made land-pillaging practices nicely profitable.

Wait, wait, I know we’re off to a depressing start. American farmers are old, unsustainable and unwilling to change. Bummer. But they’re also old. Or as Thomas Kuhn put it: “Conversions will occur a few at a time until, after the last hold-outs have died, the whole…will again be practicing under a single, but now different, paradigm.” Not so subtle, Dr. Kuhn, but maybe pretty wise.

To rephrase, the dinosaurs of conventional agriculture won’t be around forever. If they eat the same food [sic] they’re supplying the rest of the country, they won’t be around long at all. Which means it’s up to my generation to restore sanity, care and justice in our food system. Returning to Kuhn, who was a rather brilliant man when it came to revolutions: “Almost always the men [sic] who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.” Pun intended, by the way. Go ahead and have a second look.

Anyway, the question becomes, what do we “very young” and “very new” busy ourselves with in the meantime? How can my generation prepare for a paradigm shift in agriculture when land is so expensive and we are so very poor?

It’s a question with a complex answer, but seeing as this is a “policy blog” I want to highlight one policy that will help. The “Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunities Act of 2011” is a bill that is currently sitting around on Capitol Hill doing whatever it is that bills do while they wait to get passed (or, more likely, as they wait to die).

There’s no need to get into the specifics on “BFROA” (as we in the know call it)—other much smarter people have carefully explained the bill’s particulars—but I will say that this bill takes one very small step toward overcoming the barriers that keep small, young, sustainable farmers out of farming. New farmers need land, they need loans, and they need a marketplace that pays a fair price for their food. At the very least, this bill would throw a handful of (organic) fertilizer onto the beginning farmer movement to help it grow a little stronger. If you think that’s a good idea, give a holler to your congressman.

What does “sustainable ag” mean to you?

Last month the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association hosted its annual Sustainable Agriculture conference in Durham, and a handful of Dukies donned our best plaid shirts and headed down to the Imperial Sheraton to see what was going on. The conference attracts goers from all over North and South Carolina who are interested in “sustainable” food and agriculture (more on that in a minute). Everyone from farmers young and old, food processors, catering companies, academics, equipment suppliers, policy wonks and activists huddle in small conference rooms to discuss a dizzying array of topics. Want to learn how to build a greenhouse? There’s a demonstration. Want to know how cover crops fix nitrogen? A lecture from an expert from NC State. Want to make meade? Butcher your pigs? Write a business plan? Plant your crops based on the phases of the moon? Check, check, check, and, well, check.

It is this diversity of topics, interests and individuals that makes the conference so enriching and why I will surely be back next year. But it is important to remember that this convivial, excited atmosphere comes at a price. The word “sustainable” has become a buzzword appropriated by anyone to mean anything, and CFSA applies it masterfully in this sense. To some, sustainable means locally produced; but 10 miles? 50 miles? Within NC? To others, it means organic growing practices; but certified organic? Free from any chemicals, even natural ones? To others, it means capable of continuing in the wake of Peak Oil; but, is biodiesel okay? Can I use my horse carriage to transport food if I didn’t build the carriage myself? To yet others it takes on financial meaning; but financially sustainable by whose metric?

Of the more than 1200 people who attended, I can guarantee that no two people would define sustainable agriculture—or its parent, “sustainable food system”–in precisely the same way. There are farmers who believe that they are sustainable simply because they make a profit. There are others who won’t be satisfied until we are all growing most of our own food in the backyard. And there is every shade in between.

This is not a critique of CFSA—casting a huge umbrella enables the kind of discourse about food and agriculture that this country desperately needs. And to the extent that we can all say “This is what sustainable means to me, and this is what sustainable is not”, the better our society can hash out the tradeoffs we make with our policies and pocketbooks.

I encourage everyone who attented the conference, and anyone interested in food and agriculture, to spend some time defining “sustainable agriculture” and “sustainable food system” for themselves. Write down your definition, write down your reasons, and share it with a friend. Or if you’re feeling bold, post it here and let’s compare notes. Then we can go about the real work of changing the world.