Archive for March, 2011

A New Day for Rural Communities

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

A couple of thoughts after the annual MOSES Conference in La Crosse.

One thing is certain:  rural communities are being run-down, depleted and impoverished by the modern American food economy.   Ken Meter, an economist who specializes in rural analysis, has developed a large amount of data that is incredibly persuasive on this score.  Even though rural communities produce a huge surplus of commodities — and do so with great efficiency given dwindling numbers of farms and farmers — and are considered the heart and soul of American prosperity, freedom and independence, there is a world of hurt being inflicted on rural communities.  Downtowns in small communities are literally drying up in terms of business and blowing away.  Young people go away to college and never come back.  Young families are settling in urban and ex-urban areas where they have access to better schools,  jobs, transportation and amenities.  Farmers themselves, despite the good year in 2010, are typically in debt, dependent on government programs and steered into practices that are unsustainable long term and create negative environmental impacts short term.

The gist of Ken Meter’s work shows that as commodity agriculture continues to grow in size and importance, the revenues and benefits flow up and out of rural areas, into companies whose actions and values have little interest or respect for what happens to the little people growing crops on the land.

Right now, the small community on our doorstep has about a dozen buildings for sale on Mainstreet, and it’s been that way for years.  Traffic crawls through town and out to the mall where the hardware, grocery, liquor stores and Post Office relocated years ago.  One place serves breakfast downtown, and on a good night there are a couple of dinner venues, neither of which has any connection to locally grown food or specialties.  Probably the largest food vendors in town are chain stores, burgers and sandwiches….  a McDonald’s franchise is on the way as if that is somehow going to make a crucial difference.  So, even here, when it comes to meeting basic food needs, money drains out of town to large corporations, happy their truck can deliver products from thousands of miles away.

It’s sad really.  But like frogs left in a pot of water that is slowly rising in temperature, it’s hard for folks out here to really pinpoint what or how this is happening to them.  They’re just squeezed.  Their money doesn’t get far these days.  Health care is expensive.  College is too.  Try to raise kids on an hourly wage job.

I bring this up in relation to a very inspiring talk at MOSES by Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds in Hardwick, Vermont.   Now here’s a rural community that is fighting back and taking matters into their own hands.  And why not?  What do we have to lose by trying to find a new paradigm for doing business around how we eat?

Look at the reality of the American food system, as detailed by Tom Stearns:

  • The food production system in America, including farming and distribution, is the number one consumer of fossil fuels.
  • It is also the number one polluter in terms of emissions of harmful atmospheric gasses associated with global climate change.
  • It is  also the number one polluter in terms of runoff, erosion and nutrient loading into our lakes, rivers and streams.
  • And, for all this, for this incredible cost that is truly unsustainable, the end result is that the food we eat is the number one factor in American mortality rates.

Let me ask that you read the bullet points above one more time, just to make sure this sinks in deeply.

That’s a lot of number ones.  And they are all in categories we absolutely need to change — have to change — if we have any intention of leaving a decent way of life for the very fine human beings we leave behind on this planet.

So, how do we step out of the dismal reality of our current commodity-based food system and into something healthier, saner, more economically sound and better for our environment?

It starts with understanding the importance of food.  Local.  Organic.  Low input.  Healthy.  Food.

This is a long story but the themes are really quite simple.  If we get our food from local farms, the money stays in our communities.  We have a direct connection to what we are supporting:  young people making a living on the land and able to raise children.  We embrace small-scale, low impact farming that will ensure better soil and water for future generations.  And, we get to eat great tasting, dynamic, healthy and nutritious food that keeps us young at heart and strong of body and mind.

These changes are profound.  They are real.  And they are being successfully implemented in places like Hardwick, Vermont, where High Mowing Seeds has become the number one producer of organic seed in the United States;  where 25 farms are fully certified organic within 10 miles of town, where a local CSA restaurant is community-owned and supported, where local farmers are pooling resources and creating regional brands to increase sales and reduce costs.  I could go on and on.  The fact is:  there is no lack of creativity, innovation or adaptation in the heart of America’s rural communities.  There is still plenty of time for the frogs to look around and realize that they are being boiled to death, literally destroyed by the very companies that established this system of rural impoverishment after the Second World War.

And the time to start is now.  In this area of western Wisconsin, the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Food Network is just getting started, March 24th and 25th in Rice Lake at the Technical College.  At RNH, we are working every day, planning, thinking, imagining, how to make this transition from the Sysco truck to the local farm plot a reality.  You can help by joining in.  Show up at the conference, shop at the farmer’s market, examine food labels, refuse to give your lifeblood over to what we all know is bad for our economy, bad for our environment, bad for our bodies — and even worse for the future of our planet.  Demand fresh, local food and build your lifestyle around others who understand the imperative that can and will change this country and make local self-sufficiency and resilience a reality.

MOSES — Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Services

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Attended the annual MOSES Conference in La Crosse over the weekend, a large gathering of growers, gardeners and assorted advocates/policy makers who have a strong dedication to organic farming, CSAs and a saner way of producing food for our communities.

This was my first time to MOSES and I have to say it was very inspiring, incredibly well organized, informative and very worthwhile.  And, it was not cheap.  On the other hand, with most of the meals covered, and the quality of the networking and information high, I recommend getting down to La Crosse over the last weekend in February.

Some notes:

Elderberries.  Commercial scale elderberry production was a HOT topic, thanks to Terry Durham of Missouri.  Check out his scene at www.elderberrylife.com .  Elderberries, it turns out are a kind of native superfruit, prized for its flower, its prodigious, versatile and medicinal fruit and its beautiful growth habit.  It doesn’t hurt that it is a native, can handle cold weather and its market is growing by leaps and bounds every year.

Here’s the deal:  Europeans love elderberries for its juice, its flowers and its dye.  In Europe, artificial coloring in food grade products is limited to using colors derived from 100% natural sources, thus elderberry has a huge market.  The flowers are quite large and stand up well in dried arrangements.   In addition, the juice has tremendous anti-oxidant qualities and is higher in vitamins and minerals than even grapes.  It also makes a great cordial, high quality wine, delicious jelly as well as many other value added products.   So, the market continues to expand rapidly and in the United States, 95% of the product comes from Europe, whose variety sambucas nigra, does not have deliver as much anti-oxidant as the American one.

Terry and his organization have been pursuing a valuable elderberry cultivar for 16 years:  one that is high in anti-oxidants, has superior berry quality and can take cold weather.  And, they have produced some excellent candidates, including Wyldewood, Bob Gordon, York and Nova (the two latter varieties will only be available Fall of 2011).   They teach a course in early June, a two-day comprehensive workshop on all aspects of elderberry production, for a mere $25.00, so if you are interested in learning more or starting your own elderberry production, that is the place to go.

In any case, their booth was a mob scene.  They brought hundreds of cuttings, if not thousands, along with jelly, cordials, and juice.  I’m not sure that they didn’t sell out every scrap and jar and cutting in their whole inventory.  RNH now has 25 of the Wyldewood cuttings starting to root out and we are most excited to get these plants in the ground and let the magic begin.

High Tunnel Production.  Spent all day Thursday consolidating my learning about high, medium and low tunnel food and flower production.  John Biernbaum of Michigan State and Ted Blomgren of Windflower Farm in the Hudson Valley tag-teamed the presentation and loaded about 75 people up with all the latest studies and experience in working with these season-extending technologies.  Just a ton of things to know about growing in these environments, tricks, trouble-shooting and pitfalls galore.

The long and the short of it is that tunnel production mitigates risks:  from extreme climatic events, insect infestations and disease.  Tunnels allow producers to turn out high quality vegetables, flowers and niche produce earlier and later in the season, thus providing income streams, some of them quite profitable, that heretofore were unavailable for local growers.

RNH has a movable high-tunnel already, produced by Four Season Tools of Kansas City, who interestingly, were exhibiting at MOSES.  But refining its applications, understanding growing techniques, figuring out better systems and strategies — makes conferences like this extremely worthwhile.  The one thing that has really whetted my appetite is to look more at small and mid-size tunnels, sometimes called “caterpillars” — which are much less costly, go up quickly, have mobility and can achieve some amazing results.

John Biernbaum, a veteran organic grower and researcher, was particularly inspiring in speaking about the student-run organic farm at Michigan State:  10 acres, a 48-week CSA, multi-disciplinary ag experiences for a variety of student majors.  Just to consider what these young people are doing, and to look around the room at all the producers and CSA operators looking to add season-extension to their repertoires — this is extremely inspiring and hopeful for the future of local food production in the temperate zones.