Friday, September 2, 2011

A few thoughts on the "food movement"

I received a comment about one of the posts I made on why Tierra Miguel Farm closed.  The commenter made some salient points.  But they got me to thinking about the food movement at large.  Here's my response since I believe those thoughts are worth sharing.

I. Chang,

Thank you for taking the time to not only read what I wrote, but to leave a comment as well.  It may be too late but let me offer you an apology.  I can assure you that not making a public announcement was not the direction the management wanted to go.  In the end it wasn't the management's choice.  There is always "more to a story" and some things may never be resolved.  But at this point they will all seem like excuses for past actions.  I can only say I empathize with you deeply.  My faith in the "food movement" has changed as well.

I've read and re-read your comment.  Something in it just isn't sitting right.  It's not the criticism but much deeper than that. 

I always renewed my CSA membership with the maximum dollar amount, both to get maximum discount (we are of modest means, and the produce at TM was expensive) and to show my support of the farm. I did so early this year again as usual, despite feeling that the quality and quantity of the boxes of late had been suffering.

I agree with you that the quality of the boxes had suffered, and by quality I mean variety.  But I disagree that quantity and price was lacking.  In fact we undercharged for our produce while the costs of delivering to LA kept going up.  This brings up an interesting point about the "food movement."

To be certified organic a farmer must be certified by a certifying agent.  A certifying agent is someone the USDA has certified.  So the USDA doesn't do the actual certifications.  Sounds like typical bureaucracy doesn't it?  What this means is that farmers are dealing with private business to get their certification.  These certs are usually based off a percentage of the sales.  Typically starting around $2,000 and they sky rocket up from there.  Then the state of CA imposes an organic certification of around $300.  Now along comes Demeter for the Bio-dynamic certification which is another couple of thousand dollars.  These are only the certifications.  But these aren't costs that a chemical farmer has to deal with.

Additionally, the majority of the labor is hand-labor on an organic farm, not mechanical.  We do use tractors but much of the weeding and harvesting is by hand.  All those beautiful heirloom varieties aren't uniform enough to pick with machinery.  So by the time we pay our workers a living wage, the worker's comp taxes, and the payroll taxes, our labor costs are at least double a chemical farmers.

I only mention these to show the disparity between a chemical farmer and an organic farmer.  Here's where I have a problem with the "food movement."  Why does providing food that protects the environment, protects us, and is how we produced food prior to the 50's cost more than coating it with poisons?  Why do I, as an organic farmer, need to map out my watershed, and keep detailed records of everything I use, and pay for all of these upfront certifications?  It's not me poisoning the water systems.  It's not me making the air unfit.  It's not me depleting the nutritious density of food so that it is expressing itself in our children's health - diabetes, obesity, autism to name a few.  Yet if I were to go and spray my produce with toxins I don't have to do any of that and incur any of those costs.  I wouldn't have to show were my chemicals run off to. 

Organic produce costs more because we've allowed the system to be set up backwards. We've allowed the system to be set up backwards because we all (myself included) look to the "food movement" as something to be a part of; just another cog.  In fact WE are the "food movement."

Wendell Berry, in one of his essays, makes the point that we have become specialists.  We have chiropractors, optometrists, dry cleaners, and mechanics.  Along with giving them the work we also give them our responsibility for our backs, our eye sight, our clothes and our vehicles.  Don't get me wrong, I want to be your farmer.  I want to be responsible for the land I use.  I want to be responsible for growing the best food possible.  But I don't want to be solely responsible for your health.  When you make a choice to buy organic that choice should be driven first and foremost because you want to ensure perfect health for yourself and your family.  Then it should be because you want to protect the environment for yourself and your family.  Lastly, it should be to protect your community for yourself and your family.

Just purchasing a CSA share from an organic farm is an important step.  But it is only the beginning.  WE each need to be responsible for our food.  Why are we leaving it up to Michael Pollan to tell us are food system is screwed up?  Why are we leaving it up to Eric Schlosser to tell us fast food is bad?

The fact is that only those who farm care to read the farm bill.  Yet the farm bill lays out who is going to get subsidized, how the food stamp program is going to work, and who is going to get aid to take farming in new directions.  These are issues that are important to all of us.  I'm not trying to single anyone out because I've done exactly the same thing.  I thought that just buying organic was all I had to do when I first got started.  Then it morphed into all I had to do is grow organically.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  There are a lot of huge companies now going organic.  That is good but they still aren't doing the best for their workers, they aren't taking care of the soil, they aren't caring about much other than the bottom line.

Only buying organic food is going to continue to keep organic food pricey.  What we need to do is not just support our farmers but become their allies.  Help them fight the fights that need to be fought.  Why is it illegal to sell raw milk?  Have you heard about the CA Leafy Green Handler's Marketing Agreement; the LGMA?  Look at the restrictions they are trying to impose on farmers in the name of food safety.  And now the USDA wants to make it a national policy.  You think organic is pricey now?  We are having laws and regulations put into place by people who don't know squat about farming.  Nor do they know squat about a healthy environment or producing food that is meant to keep us healthy.

I understand the frustration with feeling like you have to compromise ethics with competence.  The sad truth is that most people who feel driven to grow food for others don't possess the skills required for business.  In fact they seem polar opposites. Most of the businessmen work for Monsanto and Tyson and Cargill.  There are those who are successful - Joel Salatin for example.  But, and I love what he does, he's a business man who farms.  However, if we ally ourselves with those who produce our food and really become invested in our health, together we can create the relationships we both want. 

Having the food that provides us with the nutrients we need to build our bodies and to have perfect children is our birthright.  It's being taken away from us in the name of profits.  But to only have a few stalwarts guarding over our health is ridiculous and it will fail and our children will be the ones who lose.

I appreciate greatly the fact that you commented.  I appreciate your dedication to TMF.  I am sorry for how that relationship transpired.  I am not trying to shift blame nor am I trying to call anyone out.  As I have said before I am to blame to.  What I want to do is make organic food the cheapest food out there. I, and all the organic farmers out there, can't do it alone.

My deepest regards and respect,