Mother Nature’s Daughters: meet the new urban farmer

Wait a sec. Nick, Caspar and Jared: Are those unconventional girls’ names now, like Kennedy and Reagan? Because if you’re looking for a farm-fresh tomato in the city this summer, you’re likely to find a woman growing it.

In recent years, chefs, writers, academics, politicians, funders, activists and entrepreneurs have jumped on the hay wagon for urban agriculture. New York now counts some 900 food gardens and farms, by the reckoning of Five Borough Farm, a research and advocacy project.

Deborah Greig, the agriculture director of East New York Farms in Brooklyn. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

Yet city farmers will tell you that the green-collar work on these small holdings is the province of a largely pink-collar labor force. Cecilia, not Caspar. And they’ll provide the staffing numbers to show it.

This is where the speculation begins — and, inevitably, the stereotypes. Are women more willing to nurture their communities (and also their beet greens)? Are men preoccupied with techie farm toys like aquaponics? Is gender the reason the radio at the Queens Farm washing station is always stuck on Beyoncé and Alicia Keys?

More significant, if urban ag work comes to be seen as women’s work, what will that mean for the movement’s farming model, mission and pay?

Counting New York’s urban farmers and market food gardeners can seem like a parlor game: part math, part make-believe. Data on gender is scarce to nonexistent.

The federal 2012 Census of Agriculture isn’t much help. It suggested 42 farm “operators” in New York were men and 31 were women. But the census published data from just 31 city farms. (Under confidentiality rules, it doesn’t reveal which farms participated.) And its definitions fail to capture New York’s unique abundance of nonprofit farms and community gardens.

A “farm,” by census standards, is any place that grew and sold (or normally would have sold) $1,000 worth of agricultural products in a year. Yet surveys from the parks department’s GreenThumb program suggest that some 45 percent of the city’s hundreds of community food gardens donate their harvest to neighborhood sources and food pantries. Blair Smith, who compiles New York’s data for the U.S.D.A., explained, “Those are not farm businesses, at least from our standpoint.”

New York’s urban farmers — the people who actually work in the field — offer a sharply different head count of what you might call bulls and cows. Of the 19 farms and farm programs that contributed information for this article, 15 reported having a majority of women among their leadership, staff, youth workers, students, apprentices and volunteers. (Of the remaining four, one claimed gender parity and another hired two men this summer from a seasonal applicant pool of 18 men and 30 women.)

It’s a snapshot, not a statistically rigorous poll. Still, the farms, from all five boroughs, represent a broad sample of New York’s particular growing models: a commercial rooftop farm; community gardens; and farms attached to schools, restaurants, parks, churches, housing developments and community organizations. The sample included two city-based farmer-training programs and two out-of-state sustainable farm-education schools and fellowships. These are the types of programs that mold future urban farmers.

Describing their own farms and gardens, managers suggested that women make up 60 to 80 percent of field workers, organizers and educators. Applicant pools are similarly unbalanced for summer postings, internships and certification programs.

Farm School NYC, an affiliate of the food-access nonprofit Just Food, “is 100 percent female-run,” said its director, Onika Abraham. But then, she added, “I’m the only staff person.”

More important, Farm School NYC receives 150 to 200 applicants annually for professional agriculture instruction. For this year’s entering 30-person class, Ms. Abraham said, “the breakdown for applicants was 76 percent women and 24 percent male.” (Applications for next year are open through Sept. 15.)

The gender divide appears to exist in salaried posts and volunteer work alike. For 18 years, Steve Frillmann has led Green Guerillas, which provides support and materials to more than 200 community garden groups. Most of these sites lie in central Brooklyn, Harlem and the South Bronx, and three-quarters of their volunteer leaders, he estimates, are women. So, too, women typically represent 75 to 80 percent of the applicants who want to join Green Guerillas on an AmeriCorps stipend.

It’s challenging work, and Mr. Frillmann, 49, is happy to hire whoever wants to do it. “To be honest with you, we’ve never really lifted and looked under the hood and tried to figure out why,” he said.

At the extreme, Edible Schoolyard NYC runs a food and garden-teaching program with two growing plots and a staff of 16. Sixteen of these employees are women.

Kate Brashares, 40, who is the group’s executive director, said: “It’s a little unusual we don’t have any men on staff at the moment. There are usually one or two.”

Ms. Brashares believes that the diversity of her employees should reflect the low-income communities where they work. That diversity includes gender. “We talk about wanting to get a few more men in the place,” she said. “It’s funny, we haven’t talked about it that much, though. It’s one of those things that just sort of happened. As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s gotten more obvious.”

Less obvious is why the discrepancy exists. Ms. Brashares speculated about the prevalence of women in education and nonprofit careers. But ultimately, she concluded, “I honestly don’t know.”

Onika Abraham, right, the director of Farm School NYC, at the Governors Island Urban Farm with Katherine Chin. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times

Karen Washington has been observing the community garden scene for more than 25 years from her plot in the Garden of Happiness, a couple of blocks from the Bronx Zoo. She also organizes the Black Urban Growers conference and a long list of other food and neighborhood initiatives. This roster may explain why Ms. Washington, 60, is prone to make work calls at 10 o’clock at night, say, after teaching a class on season-extending hoop houses, or on the way home from running La Familia Verde farmers’ market.

Nowadays, she sees a cohort in her gardens that she gauges to be 80 percent women. “It was more 60/40 back in the early days,” Ms. Washington said. “Mostly Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans. They were in their 40s and they’re in their 80s now.”

Explaining the gender gap on a community garden level, she said, “a lot of it, from my point of view, had to do with the fact women lived longer than men.”

The stereotypical image of an American farmer may be a white man of late middle age captaining a $450,000 combine in an air-conditioned cockpit, high above a flokati of corn. But this profile is a poor match for farmers in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa — that is, the groups that often predominate in New York’s community food gardens. Nevin Cohen, 52, an assistant professor at the New School and an expert on urban food issues, points to a telling statistic from a United Nations special rapporteur: “Women are 80 percent of the global agricultural labor force.”

Many of the women who farm in Bushwick with Maggie Cheney possess experience in small-scale agriculture. They’ve long fed their families out of extensive kitchen gardens (as Colonial-era immigrant women did in New England). Ms. Cheney, 30, is the director of farming and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY. And on the group’s two growing sites, she said: “I tend to work with a lot of recent immigrants from Africa, Mexico, Ecuador. And the islands: Jamaica and Haiti, the Dominican Republic.”

Ms. Cheney’s youth interns (five boys and nine girls) include the children of some of those immigrants. Yet wherever they were born, the youth growers at the Bushwick Campus Farm do not approach New York gardens as virgin soil.

Their fathers may have experienced farm labor as a harsh and exploitative activity, Ms. Cheney said. These men are not necessarily the easiest people to recruit for a hot afternoon of unearthing potatoes. By contrast, “I see a lot of girls interested because they may have that positive relationship to being the ones who cook in the family and buy the food in the market.”

She added, “The ones that I see, their roles at home are very gendered.” The politics of the New York “food justice” movement start at progressive and run to radical. But the connection between women and urban farming can appear traditional and even conservative.

Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Ms. Abraham, 40, recalls visiting her family’s black farmstead in Alabama. She said: “My grandfather grew row crops: cotton, soybeans and corn. He worked the fields. My grandma was home with a large vegetable garden and chickens.”

Put another way: “My grandmother grew the food; he grew the money. And I think maybe the scale of what we do in the city relates more to this kitchen garden.”

 Maggie Cheney, center, the director of farms and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY, at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn with Kristina Erskine, left, and Iyeshima Harris, garden managers. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

Maggie Cheney, center, the director of farms and education for the food-access group EcoStation:NY, at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn with Kristina Erskine, left, and Iyeshima Harris, garden managers. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

The Five Borough Farm project identified three commercial farms in New York, all of them sophisticated rooftop operations. Gotham Greens, for example, runs two (and soon three) climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses in Gowanus and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Next stop: Jamaica, Queens.)

Of the company’s 50-odd employees, more than two-thirds are men, said the company’s 33-year-old co-founder, Viraj Puri. “At Gotham Greens, our approach is more plant-science and engineering focused and less ‘gardening’ focused,” Mr. Puri wrote in an email. He posited that this orientation may account for the different gender skew.

Beyond these few enterprises, the city’s farms exist not just to grow okra, but to advance a shopping list of social goals. These include recreation, nutrition, public health, environmental stewardship, ecological services, food access and security, community development, neighborhood cohesion, job training, senior engagement and education. We ask a lot of our gardens.

Mara Gittleman, who jointly runs the Kingsborough Community College farm program, at the end of Manhattan Beach, often sees urban farming likened in the news media to “the new social work, or this thing you do for poor people.” In response, Ms. Gittleman, 26, founded the research project Farming Concrete to record and publicize the surprising yield raised in community gardens. These are vegetables that come not from the glittering glass on high, but from the ground up.

Be that as it may, if you’re trying to account for why so many college-educated women are attracted to urban agriculture, nearly everyone agrees that a social calling is the place to start. “Definitely, the most visible influx is young white people, and I’m one of them,” Ms. Gittleman said.

Kristina Erskine, a garden manager at the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn. Credit Erin Patrice O’Brien for The New York Times

If urban farming were just about the crops, it would be cheaper and easier to do it 50 miles north. Urban farming, however, is not a solitary or single-minded activity. Along with the weeding and pruning, the job description includes sowing community interest and reaping grants.

Kennon Kay, the 31-year-old director of agriculture at Queens Farm, said: “What makes this farm different is the element of public interaction. We have over half a million visitors a year.”

The farm staff currently numbers two men and five women, which is actually a bumper crop of gents. And Ms. Kay takes pains to say: “I don’t want to knock the guys. They’re great.”

That said, in her experience, “Women have been extremely effective in multitasking, planning, communicating and being the representatives of this public organization.”

Inevitably, there’s an inverse to saying that women are attracted to work that involves children and the elderly, caring and social justice. In short, you’re implying that men don’t care, or care a lot less.

This is what you might call the men-as-sociopaths hypothesis (M.A.S.H.), and Nick Storrs, 29, who manages the Randalls Island Park Alliance Urban Farm, does not buy it. “I would refute the claim that guys are sociopaths,” he said.

Having cheerfully dispensed with that libel, he struggled to explain why men seem less interested in the social goals of community agriculture. “I don’t know, because I am interested in it,” Mr. Storrs said.

So where are the men?

“Wall Street,” Ms. Washington said (a theory that may not be inconsistent with M.A.S.H.).

The Bronx’s vegetable plots, she will tell you, are not insulated from what goes on outside the garden gates. “A lot of our men of color are incarcerated,” she said. “Huge problem. If you tell a 21-year-old man just out of jail to go into farming, he’s going to look at you as if you have two heads.”

Or in the words of Esther Liu, 25, a rooftop farmer at the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project: “Men? Perhaps they want a living wage.”

The time has arrived, as it always does, to talk about money. The pay for community-based agriculture starts low and climbs over time to not much higher.

Ms. Cheney endeavors to pay her youth interns $8.30 to $9.30 an hour and the Bushwick farm managers $17 an hour. Farmers with longer tenure may earn $20. These are decent wages in agriculture, Ms. Cheney said. Yet they’re hardly enough to keep up with the climbing rents in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Deborah Greig, 32, oversees the crowded market at East New York Farms, leads the gardener-education program, manages dozens of youth workers, and cultivates specialty crops like dasheen and bitter melon. (And some 65 to 70 percent of her farm staff, apprentices and youth interns are women.) “I get paid $37,000 a year,” Ms. Greig said. “I started at $28,000 or $29,000, which was huge at the time. And I have insurance included.”

The permanence of the job, which she has held for seven years, is a boon to Ms. Greig and to the community where she works. Ultimately, Ms. Abraham, of Farm School NYC, argues that only stable employment will make urban farming viable for neighborhood women — and men — who lack the safety net of a college degree and family support.

For her part, Ms. Greig is probably underpaid. Don’t tell anyone, but she would do the job for less. “People don’t expect to be paid very much doing this work,” she said. “It’s a labor of love to a certain extent. I don’t think we’ve come up with a hard and fast model to pay people exceedingly well for doing nonprofit urban-farming work.”

Sounds like a job for the guys on Wall Street.



The Future of Food: How our eating habits will change

1407946783000-Fresh-FoodThe way we eat — the kind of food we buy, where we get it, how it’s prepared — has become a part of our identity, a guiding force that shapes how we live. It unites us. And divides us. Food brings people together in communal functions. But it also pits ideologies against each other: vegetarians vs. carnivores; all-natural evangelists vs. the convenience crowd; calorie counters vs. indulgence seekers.

No matter where individuals fall on the spectrum, we are a country obsessed with food. And with a seeming explosion in allergies, heightened concerns over obesity, increased scrutiny of chemical additives and growing environmental concerns, there’s more attention being paid to what we eat than perhaps ever before. After decades of stocking our kitchens with meat, cheese and noodles, while simultaneously dieting to reverse the effects of all those fatty, starchy foods, we may be realizing that food isn’t just a way to live, it’s a lifestyle choice.

“We’re beginning to get to where Eastern culture has been for thousands of years,” says Mark Erickson, provost at the Culinary Institute of America and a certified master chef, “which is the idea that food is medicine, and we cannot disassociate our health with what we eat.”

So where is this all headed?

USA WEEKEND asked some experts: How will Americans be eating in five years? Here’s what they said about the future of food:

Food that’s good for us will taste better

A growing number of chefs, food bloggers and restaurateurs have started dedicating themselves to promoting healthy food that’s also delicious. They’re finding ways to cut down on fat, sugar and meat and still make money. Vegan bakery Sticky Fingers in Washington, D.C., won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, and restaurants such as New York City’s Dirt Candy and Philadelphia’s Vedge are making vegetables the star of great meals.

“There are plenty of restaurants and food purveyors out there that are working to make nutrient-dense food delicious and appealing and exciting,” says Trish Watlington, owner of two farm-to-table restaurants in San Diego where she supplies most of the produce for the menu from her garden.

At Andrea McGinty’s vegan restaurant chain, Native Foods Cafe, most customers aren’t even vegan. “I bet one person would raise their hand,” she says. “All the rest are looking for a better way to eat.”

Betting that she’d be able to make vegan food — or a plant-based diet, as she likes to call it — mainstream, McGinty moved the headquarters of Native Foods from the health-nut hills of Palm Springs, Calif., to Chicago (a city once known as “Hog Butcher for the World”). McGinty was confident she’d be able to change people’s minds about her “hippie dippie” food, and she has designs on growing from 17 stores across the USA to more than 200 in the next five years.

McGinty says vegan is going mainstream as people seek healthier, convenient options. Included on her menus is a “bacon cheeseburger” made with seitan, a gluten-based meat alternative; caramelized onions; tofu bacon; and battered dill pickle chips. “When you can have something that tastes delicious and it feels good in your body and you feel like you did something good for yourself, why wouldn’t it sell?” she says.

Farm-to-table will trickle down

The advent of farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants have brought food sourcing to the forefront of Americans’ consciousness. Not only are strawberries grown an hour away fresher and better tasting than the ones that spent days or even weeks being shipped across the country, buying that produce supports the local economy and a more sustainable way of eating.

But it’s also expensive. Access to locally grown produce is still relatively reserved for those who can afford it and have the time to seek it out. “Unfortunately, if you’re a single mom and work two jobs and can barely put food on the table, you don’t have time to think about where your food came from,” Watlington says.

That could change if the country collectively demands better food. Watlington hopes that support of local farmers and farmers markets, and programs that introduce kids to gardening, will help make access to better food a national movement. “If you can have this happen on a grass-roots level, then it spreads so it’s in the community. No one is dieting. They’re just eating better food.”

Erickson says the farmers market movement already serves a broader purpose. “As people begin to look for (fresh food) in their everyday dining occasion, they put more pressure on grocery and other fast-food segments of the industry.”

That has already started to happen, with companies such as Subway being called out for the chemicals they’ve added to food. Other major brands, such as Cheerios, are eliminating genetically modified organisms. And Panera Bread is removing artificial ingredients from everything on its menu by the end of 2016.

“I think the only way that it really changes is if it becomes a class-divide issue,” says Mary Beth Albright, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who specializes in sustainable food issues and a former contestant on Food Network Star. “Like, look, all these other people are getting better things than you. Either … the traceability movement is going to be reserved for the elite, or everything is going to have to go sustainable.”

We might see ads for broccoli

Another way to make produce cheaper? Get people to buy more of it. Processed foods dominate the grocery business, luring us with million-dollar marketing campaigns that show up on our TV screens as commercials with our favorite athletes or celebrities, in magazine ads and in eye-catching store displays.

“The problem is there’s no branding in produce,” says Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat, about the processed-food industry. “The power of marketing is huge.”

The produce growers could catch on, he says. “Absolutely we could see the produce association getting Madison Avenue-savvy and competing with snack foods and the rest of the grocery store in that arena,” says Moss, who last year challenged an ad agency that has worked with Coca-Cola and General Mills to come up with an ad campaign for broccoli.

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t necessarily make it easy, Moss says. “How do we level the playing field for people financially to make it possible for them to eat healthier in ways that aren’t going to cripple their budgets?” he asks. “One big way would be to totally rethink the Department of Agriculture. Because so much of that agency’s energy and research and development money is going into crops that fuel the highly processed food industry. And so little of it is going into making fruits and vegetables less expensive.”

We’ll see the end of the diet

Can a country that has built an entire industry around dieting decide to, instead, just eat healthier all the time?

Groups of people have adopted gluten-free diets even though they’re not technically allergic to gluten. Others prescribe themselves the Paleo diet, eating the protein-heavy, dairy-free foods of our Stone Age ancestors.

When it comes to eating, we are a country of extremes, Erickson says, opting for meat and potatoes or doing a complete 180 and going only for vegetarian and non-fat food. But what were once considered specialty diets are starting to be combined and adopted into a more balanced and manageable way of eating all the time.

“Somewhere in between is something we cannot treat as a diet, but treat as an accepted and sought-for lifestyle as it relates to what we consume,” Erickson says.

And as fresher, local food not only becomes more widely available but is prepared in ways that are appealing, “eventually people will make more choices of things that are better for them because it tastes good,” Watlington says, “not because they’re necessarily disciplined about it.”

Sustainable Food and Farming – in the News

The following are news stories related to Sustainable Food and Farming selected by Jenny Huston on August 14, 2014.


Jenny Huston, MA, CEC, CDM, CFPP
Farm to Table Food Services
Oakland, CA


Agricultural Justice Project reaches out to area farmers over issues of fairness

farmerBy RICHIE DAVIS – Recorder Staff- Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When buying tomatoes or lettuce, there’s so much to consider: freshness, price, taste, farming practices — and fairness.

With a resurgence of interest in Pioneer Valley agriculture, some advocates have begun to look for ways to make sure that workers at farms are treated fairly, with livable working conditions, and that food co-ops and farm-product businesses do the same to their employees and farm suppliers.

The Agricultural Justice Project — with roots going back more than a dozen years in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey and New York, and overseas — has been reaching out more recently to farmers in this region as well.

Looking at “Food Justice Certification” is an outgrowth of the organic certification effort that Portia Weiskel says she and other growers were involved in with formation of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association decades ago. But when federal organic standards were adopted, the “fairness” principle that was part of the original concept for organic was forgotten.

According to Elizabeth Henderson, the Northeast Organic Farmers Association representative on the Justice Project’s management committee, that meant “fairness to people who work in agriculture, fair pricing for farmers, fair treatment for farmworkers and fairness to animals and fairness to all creatures. The creatures got into the national organic program, but the people didn’t.”

Weiskel added, “It’s attempting to say the principles that apply (to how food is grown) also need to work on a larger scale, including people working on farms. This is taking in the whole system, this group of people trying to get social justice, earth justice and food justice.”

Weiskel — who runs a one-woman, five-acre farm that produces eggs, kale, rhubarb and raspberries — and farmer Jon Magee of Greenfield began approaching area farms this winter, along with food co-ops and food-product manufacturers.

After helping edit an international food justice document a couple of years ago, Weiskel said she volunteered to work on approaching Franklin County farmers to gauge their level of interest on working toward certification standards, such as “farmer provides at least one day of rest out of every seven,” “regular and timely payments” and “clear multi-step conflict resolution process with no retaliation.”

Many of the standards, Weiskel said, are probably already being met.

“I feel my presence is not about saying, ‘How much are you paying your workers?’ but in asking, ‘Do you regard what you’re paying your workers a fair, living wage? Do you house your workers on the farm?’ and whether they’d be interested in certifying for their customers that they do.

“Some of these people are operating on a shoestring, and a lot don’t have any employees,” acknowledged Weiskel. “If I had to pay anybody here, I couldn’t do it.”

Most of the farmers and the co-ops she and Magee have approached have been open to the idea, although one told her, simply, “I can’t fill out any more paperwork.”

Admittedly, this is the busiest time of year for many farmers to be approached — especially with the idea of adding another chore to their load and the expense of certification fees.

Yet, Magee said, “It seems everyone is interested in knowing more. Most are cautious because they perceive more of a managerial burden. … In the Pioneer Valley, no one has anything against farmworkers and people are fairly fond of their farms.”

Even for farmers who do not become certified, he said, many seem interested in having a conversation about issues like spelling out a clear conflict resolution process, having defined policies about sickness and maternity or paternity benefits, or health and safety protections.

“It’s a chance to bring agricultural justice to the table,” said Magee.

At Red Fire Farm in Montague, Ryan and Sarah Voiland said they are committed to trying to improve pay and conditions for their workers who number between 60 to 80 at the peak of the growing season between their Montague and Granby farms. And they said they are willing to look at the specific standards of the project, for which the Pioneer Valley Workers Center at the University of Massachusetts would be the independent certifying agent.

At the same time, Ryan Voiland said, “We feel we’re stuck between what consumers are willing to pay for their produce and what we’re able to pay our workers,” while at the same time being asked to donate food under the banner of “food justice” to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“We try to think about the right way to do things, and to make it viable for the people who work for us. And we’re in favor of having a just workplace and strive toward that,” he said. “But I’m not super-excited about having another set of forms to fill out.”

Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield, agreed that many local farmers care deeply about providing liveable wages, along with better benefits and fair working conditions for employees, although “they have a lot less wiggle room than larger, industrial agriculture enterprises. And the challenge is when the farmers are working under the same conditions as their laborers.”

He added, “The way this needs to move is how we can get more people to understand that the price to grow food that’s healthy and fresh and sustainable for all of us is more than what we’ve been paying.”

Claire Hammonds of the Pioneer Valley Labor Center said the hope is to get a couple of farms involved initially to raise awareness among consumers and other farmers.

“Some farms are already largely meeting these standards,” she said. “But they don’t necessarily have these standards and these policies written down.”

On the Web:

Source URL:

WHY BOTHER: shop at a farmer’s market?

New York Times – Mark Bittman – August 5, 2014

This is a new commemorative stamp introduced by the U.S. Postal Service

This is a new commemorative stamp introduced by the U.S. Postal Service

For most of us, there’s no better place to buy fruits and vegetables than at a farmers’ market. Period. The talk about high prices isn’t entirely unjustified, but it can be countered, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

What’s inarguable is that farmers’ markets offer food of superior quality, help support smaller-scale farmers in an environment that’s more and more difficult for anyone not doing industrial-scale agriculture, and increase the amount of local food available to shoppers. All of this despite still-inadequate recognition and lack of government support.

Then there’s “know your farmer, know your food.” When you buy directly from a farmer, you’re pretty much guaranteed real freshness (we’ve all seen farmers’ market produce last two or three times longer than supermarket produce). You’re supporting a local business — even a neighbor! And you have the opportunity to ask, “How are you growing this food?” Every farmer I’ve spoken to says — not always in a thrilled tone — that the questions from shoppers never stop. But even if a vegetable isn’t “certified organic,” you can still begin to develop your own standards for what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Farmers’ markets are not just markets. They’re educational systems that teach us how food is raised and why that matters.

“Producer-only” farmers’ markets, as opposed to markets that sell food from anywhere, are really the ideal. The organizations that run these tend to be nonprofits, and often use volunteers to keep going. In many cases they are mission-driven: organizers want to make sure small farms remain viable and that we — nonfarmers — have access to good local food. At this stage of the game, there is no higher cause.

The quality of produce in producer-only markets — that is, places where people sell what they grow — is phenomenal, especially right now. If you’re going to complain that tomatoes are $6 a pound in some markets (they are; they’re also sometimes 99 cents), you might also note that usually these are real tomatoes, sometimes explosive in flavor, whereas the $4 per pound tomatoes I bought in the supermarket this week were grown in water and were less tasty than your average canned tomato. To some extent, you get what you pay for.

Then again, there are often bargains on incredibly high-quality produce for anyone who is willing to shop. Last week, at a recently opened market near Washington, D.C.’s convention center, I bought tiny lavender “fairy tale” eggplants for less than $3 a pound. The Saturday before last, at New York’s Union Square Greenmarket, I found perfectly ripe, real apricots for $5 a pound. (A chef strode up next to me and bought two cases; the farmer had only three total, which is why you want to go early.) That may sound expensive, but if you want a real apricot, this is the only way to get it.

At the 37-year-old market on 175th Street in Washington Heights, I found purslane — a salad green I’ve been foraging for 40 years, and that I adore — and bought a bunch as big as my head for $2. I found papalo (also called Bolivian coriander), a delicious, strong-tasting green I’ve bought every time I’ve seen it since I first tasted it in Mexico a few years ago.

And at the tiny farmers’ market in Truro, on Cape Cod, now in its second year, I bought lobsters for 40 percent less than they cost in local stores, pork jowls for $2 a pound, and gorgeous half-yellow, half-green summer squash for a dollar each; they were worth it.

With more than 8,000 farmers’ markets nationwide (representing something like 50,000 farmers, according to the Department of Agriculture), potentially millions of people are being affected by similar experiences. That’s a great thing. And this week — National Farmers Market Week — a commemorative postage stamp is being introduced at a ceremony in Washington on Thursday. Present will be Bernadine Prince, co-executive director of FreshFarm Markets in Metro DC, which runs 13 producer-only markets, and president of the Farmers Market Coalition. Prince said to me, “Farmers’ markets are an economic engine that keeps farmers going.” Yes, that too.

That’s good for everyone, but things could be better. It’s clear to me — after visits to farmers in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California, to farmers’ markets wherever I’ve traveled in the last few years, and recent conversations with Prince, Michael Hurwitz (director of New York’s Greenmarket), Francie Randolph (who runs Sustainable CAPE and founded the Truro market last year), and others — that a few key improvements could make it easier for farmers and markets to thrive.

Near the top of many lists is municipal support, largely in the form of space, water, electricity and the like, and the reduction (or absence) of fees. “Each of our 13 markets requires a different negotiation and different set of fees,” says Prince. “Some are a dollar a year and some are far more expensive.” Since this money comes mostly from fees charged to farmers, the costs are usually passed on to consumers.

By increasing foot traffic, bringing shoppers into otherwise-ignored spaces, providing space for farmers to sell their goods at retail prices (80 percent of the farmers in New York’s markets, says Hurwitz, could not survive on wholesale alone), these markets benefit everyone. Markets need infrastructure — either permanent space or, at least, water and electricity.

Farmers who come to market may be working 18-hour days, or even longer, depending on the length of their drive. On top of this, to handle retail sales they’ve got to process a variety of forms of payment in addition to cash, from SNAP (food stamps) to credit cards to tokens (you actually do not want to know how convoluted these payments get). When there’s a unified, wireless form of payment, this will become less of a burden. That’s in the works — Hurwitz estimates it’ll be here no later than the end of the decade — but undoubtedly it could be hurried along.

At least a few hundred markets are taking advantage of programs like Wholesome Wave that double the value of food stamps at farmers’ markets, and that number will soar when the Agriculture Department’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program kicks in, contributing as much as $20 million to the cause. That’s real progress, but more is needed.

In short, says the Southern Maine congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a staunch supporter of local food systems, “We’ve had some success in passing policies that support farmers’ markets, but really the numbers are pretty small compared to the huge support that flows to big commodity crops. Policy makers are slowly catching up with the public on the benefits of supporting local agriculture, but we have a long way to go before the playing field is really leveled.”


Original Post

New England Ag goes against national trends

I’m being interviewed today by a reporter who wants to know about trends in New England agriculture. So in preparation, I’ve pulled up the following facts (and thought I’d share them here as well).  For example, did you know that:

  1. While the number of farms nationally continues to decline, farms have increased about 5% in New England since the last Ag Census to around 35,000 farms.
  2. The land in agriculture has also decreased nationally, while land in productive farming in New England has increased by about 4% to 4.2 million acres.
  3. Farmland in New England is being converted from hay production to more valuable crops such as nursery crops, small fruits and vegetables.
  4. Beginning farmers (those with less than 10 years of experience) declined nationally but increased in New England.
  5. The fastest growing demographic category in New England agriculture is in farms managed by women, up 15% in the past 5 years.

And in Massachusetts:

  • Massachusetts was one of only 10 states that saw an increase in both the number of farms and land in farms.
  • Massachusetts operators include a greater percentage of women and a relatively high percentage of beginning farmers.
  • Massachusetts crops feature an emphasis on nursery crops, and a good amount of fruits, nuts and berries.
  • The sales channels in Massachusetts are also different than the national norm, with unusually strong direct- to-consumer sales, direct sales to retail outlets (such as stores, restaurants, and institutions), and community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements.


The price of a cheesburger is not the true cost

nytlMark Bitman – NY Times – July 15, 2014

In 2005, the House of Representatives passed an act that forbade consumers to sue fast-food operators over weight gain. “The Cheeseburger Bill” (formally, “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act”) attempted to legislate the message that the costs of fast food are personal, not social, and certainly not a consequence of selling harmful food at addictively low prices.

The reality is different, as we begin to understand the extent of the financial and economic costs wrought on our society from years of eating dangerously. That’s a different kind of cheeseburger bill; the butcher’s bill, if you like: The real cost.

What you pay for a cheeseburger is the price, but price isn’t cost. It isn’t the cost to the producers or the marketers and it certainly isn’t the sum of the costs to the world; those true costs are much greater than the price.

This is an attempt to describe and quantify some of those costs. (I have been working on this for nearly a year, with a student intern, David Prentice.) It’s necessarily compromised — the kinds of studies required to accurately address this question are so daunting that they haven’t been performed — but by using available sources and connecting the dots, we can gain insight.

Whatever the product, some costs are borne by producers, but others, called external costs — “externalities,” as economists call them — are not; nor are they represented in the price. Take litter: If your cheeseburger comes wrapped in a piece of paper, and you throw that piece of paper on the sidewalk, it eventually may be picked up by a worker and put in the trash; the cost of that act is an externality. Only by including externalities can you arrive at a true cost.

Almost everything produced has externalities. Wind turbines, for example, kill birds, make noise and may spin off ice. But cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades; in fact it’s unlikely that producers of cheeseburgers bear the full cost of any aspect of making them. If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or — ideally — both.

We estimate that Americans eat about 16 billion burgers a year of all shapes and sizes, based on data provided by the NPD Group, a market research firm. (The “average” cheeseburger, according to the research firm Technomix, costs $4.49.) And our calculation of the external costs of burgers ranges from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger, including only costs that are relatively easy to calculate. (Many costs can’t possibly be calculated; we’ll get to those.)

The big-ticket externalities are carbon generation and obesity. Environmental Working Group’s “Meat Eater’s Guide” (2011) estimates the carbon footprint of beef cattle at 27 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound; the use of “spent” dairy beef in burger meat reduces that slightly, but we can say that each pound of burger meat accounts for roughly 25 pounds of CO2 emissions. (Cheese counts, too: It produces 13.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound, and even bread has a carbon footprint.)

The cost of this carbon is hard to nail precisely, but the government’s official monetary valuation of greenhouse gas pollution is roughly $37 per metric ton of CO2 emissions. Many experts, however, double that rate; others multiply it nearly tenfold. So the monetary value of the carbon emissions produced by the average cheeseburger might range from 15 cents (the official government rate), to 24 cents (conservative independent sources) and $1.20 (high independent). The average of these three estimates comes out to 53 cents per burger.

The calculable chronic disease costs are similar. There’s some evidence that red meat intake may increase risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, but like many of the speculative externalities discussed below, it’s impossible to assign a cost to this. (If red meat were further implicated in cardiovascular disease, the true costs of a burger would rise significantly.)

In any case, a main factor in the rise of obesity has been an increase in the availability of calorie-dense foods, and burgers played a big role in this process. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita calorie intake increased by 24 percent, and the “food-away-from-home sector” grew to nearly half of all food we eat. Restaurants, of course, are the source of most burger consumption.

Between 2007 and 2010, 11.3 percent of adult Americans’ daily caloric intake came from fast food. Correlation is not causation, of course, and it seems likely that foods high in sugar and other hyperprocessed carbohydrates are most responsible for high obesity rates, but burgers certainly played a role in rising caloric intake.

To estimate the share of obesity-related costs resulting from burger consumption, we estimated the share of calories coming from burgers in fast-food restaurants, where the majority are eaten. Assuming that the 11.3 percent of calories is proportional to the incidence rate of obesity (it may be higher), its associated health risks, and its treatment costs, up to 15 percent of fast food’s share of direct and indirect costs arising from obesity (about 1.65 percent of the whole) are attributable to burgers.

The link between obesity and a handful of deadly chronic diseases — arthritis, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, among others — is well documented, as is their enormous economic burden. Direct medical diet-related costs are currently pegged at about $231 billion annually.

These numbers above would mean that this cost of burgers is about $4 billion per year (from fast food burgers only!), which averages out to 48 cents per burger. (Some put these costs five or six times as high, and there are indirect costs as well; again, we’re being conservative.) And between 2010 and 2030, the combined costs arising directly from diseases related to obesity could increase by an additional $52 to $71 billion each year. This could double the cost per burger in additional health costs alone.

Some other costs are only vaguely calculable, and we have numbers, but the ranges are so great that they’re useless; what matters, though, is that the numbers are above zero. There are elevated nitrates in water supplies resulting from the chemical fertilizers used to grow corn to feed cattle (the city of Des Moines has been forced to spend $3.7 million to build a water treatment facility for precisely this reason; then there’s the famous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico); the cost of food stamps and other public welfare programs made necessary in part by the ultralow wages paid at most fast-food operations; the beef industry’s role in increasing antibiotic resistance, which costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something like $55 billion a year; some measure of E. coli illnesses; and land erosion, pesticide residues, direct corn subsidies, injury rates at slaughterhouses, and so on.

Each of these adds pennies or less to the external costs of a cheeseburger. But although they may be trivial individually (unless of course, you’re being directly affected by them), they add up. Even more difficult to calculate are the “cost” of a shortened life, or the value of loss of biodiversity that results from the destruction of rain forests to provide land for cattle or their feed. There is even an emerging body of research linking decreased male sperm quality to mothers’ beef consumption.

Last year, burger chains grossed about $70 billion in sales. So it’s not a stretch to say that the external costs of burgers may be as high as, or even outweigh, the “benefits” (if indeed there are any other than profits). If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly.

In this discussion, the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability.

Original Post