Local Food: From Grassroots Movement to Mature Marketplace

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The term “local food” means many things to many people. For some it defines a particular geographic area, while for others it means good, high quality food. A recent survey published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) reveals that, varying conceptions aside, the local food market has matured into an economic driver for farmers and rural communities nationwide.

The “Local Food Marketing Practices Survey” is the first ever survey conducted by NASS, in partnership with USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, that provides benchmark data on local food marketing practices. NSAC worked closely with our allies in Congress to secure authorization for this survey as part of the 2014 Farm Bill’s Local Food Production and Program Evaluation Initiative. The Initiative was one of many provisions of the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act bill, which Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and their many co-sponsors helped secure in the last farm bill cycle.

A Mature Market

Some critics of the local food sector characterize the industry as being small, niche, and disconnected with the production agriculture sector. Others generalize that interest is limited to beginning, urban, and “hobby” farmers. The results of the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey, however, paint a much different picture.

The survey, which includes information on both fresh and value-added foods such as meat and cheese, reveals that in 2015 over 167,000 U.S. farms produced and sold food locally through food hubs and other intermediaries, direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, or direct farm to retail. These sales resulted in $8.7 billion in revenue for local producers.

To appreciate how truly robust this level of direct local food sales is, we can compare these figures with those of another agricultural sector that, though now well-established as an economic powerhouse, previously had to fight against the “niche” label – the organic industry. In 2015 direct, or “first point of sale”, organic revenues were $6.2 billion. This figure provides a strong signal that the local food sector is and will be a significant market and source of revenue for farmers going forward.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the total market value of all agricultural products sold in 2012 was $394.6 billion. Local and regional direct food sales represented roughly two percent of the total value of agricultural products at the time of the survey. Subtracting out agricultural sales of products not consumed directly by humans (e.g., animal feed, tobacco, trees, cotton, etc.), local food’s percentage of total direct sales grows to about 3.5 percent.

According to a report by the Farm Credit Council using data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, “if “direct-to-consumer” (a sub-sector of the larger local food market) were a commodity (e.g., cattle or grains), it would be the 4th largest commodity as measured by the number of farms engaged in the practice.” Direct-to-consumer sales is only one portion (one third of the total market value captured by the NASS survey) of the larger local food market, however. Given the industry’s strong sales record and steadily increasing consumer demand, the significance of this sector to the agricultural economy can no longer be denied.

But what about the farmers? Could hobby farmers really be producing $8.7 billion worth of agricultural products? The short answer is – no. According to the NASS survey, 77 percent of farmers who used direct marketing to sell their products were established farmers, having farmed 10 or more years, with the balance representing beginning farmers. These seasoned and newer producers are the backbone of the local food industry and their rural communities. They are helping to drive the shift toward more healthy, local, and seasonal foods.

The Details Behind the Data

Recognizing that past Census of Agriculture surveys were missing key components of the local and regional food economy, the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey was developed in order to create a baseline for the local and regional food economy. This information, in turn, would help producers, businesses, and policymakers make better decisions about investments in the sector.

While the nature of the survey makes it somewhat difficult to draw broad conclusions about future growth in the sector, we can make some sound projections by examining the data on the value of agricultural products sold directly to individuals for human consumption. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the value of agricultural products sold directly to individuals for human consumption was $1.2 billion; according to the 2012 Census the total had only risen slightly over five years, to $1.3 billion. The NASS Local Food Survey, however, shows a significant jump taking place just two years later. According to their data, the direct-to-consumer market had grown by $1.7 billion (a total of $3 billion in revenue) from 2012 to 2015.

This dramatic increase in revenue reflects the growing consumer interest in local and regional foods and in direct-marketing outlets such as farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs. Although we cannot use changes in direct-to-consumer sales as a perfect proxy for the trajectory of the larger local food industry, the data do clearly indicate that the market is growing.

This growth has been due in part by the efforts of the USDA to promote local and regional food systems, as well as by policies and programs championed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), including: the Value Added Producer Grant program, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Local and Regional Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loans, Farm to School grant program, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Local Food and the 2018 Farm Bill

The current Farm Bill is set to expire at the end of September 2018. Throughout 2017 and 2018, the Senate and House Agriculture Committees will be undergoing the complex and difficult work of writing the next farm bill. As Congress, the new administration, and farm and advocacy groups begin these discussions, the importance of the local food sector of the agriculture economy should not be underestimated.

The 2014 Farm Bill included historic investments in the local and regional food sector that have undoubtedly helped, along with growing consumer interest and demand in all things food and agriculture, to drive growth within that sector. NSAC urges Congress and the new Administration to continue building on the successes of 2014 and driving growth in this sector and in rural America. We look forward to working with policy makers and our members and partners to ensure the continued development and prosperity of this important market and movement.

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A network of small farms and suppliers selling especially fresh food can produce inexpensive food!

By Katherine Whittaker June 27, 2016

Produce prices at your local Chinatown are likely a fraction of what they cost at other supermarkets, and if you’ve wondered why, you’re not alone. In an investigative report for the Wall Street Journal reporter Anne Kadet admits she always assumed the low prices were a reflection of subpar produce. But a deeper investigation of New York’s Chinatown with author Valerie Imbruce led her to the opposite conclusion, and reveals the hidden truths behind the neighborhood’s fruit and vegetable supply chain.

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The markets reduce prices by negotiating bulk discounts from wholesalers, said Wellington Chen, director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.

Imbruce, who’s researched the Chinatown produce economy for over a decade, is the author of From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace. In the Journal she distills to Kadet the real reason Chinatown can keep prices low: “Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.” While most of the rest of New York’s markets get their produce from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, Chinatown sellers work directly with small neighborhood warehouses. Since they’re operating in close geographic proximity, they can get fresh produce throughout the day from wholesalers, and therefore don’t need

Markets also cut costs by eschewing extra technology and certain aesthetic choices—the Journal points out that shelves “are typically made of plywood and lined with newsprint,” prices are scrawled on cardboard instead of printed on stickers, and credit cards are not always accepted. Chinatown retailers also manage to cut costs by “negotiating bulk discounts from wholesalers,” Kadet notes.

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People shop at one of Chinatown’s many green grocers along Mott Street in NYC

“All this translates into low overhead for the retailers—and low prices for shoppers,” the article points out. “The typical Chinatown produce markup is just 10% to 12% over wholesale, said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.”

And then there’s the variety. In Chinatown, Imbruce says, you can find anything from jackfruit to fuzzy squash and baby Shanghai bok choy, in addition to almost 200 other fruits and vegetables. Wholesalers in Chinatown source these interesting items from family farms growing Asian vegetables in Florida or Honduras. Imbruce mentions that she has visited more than 75 of these farms and saw very little exploitation; in fact, they were happy to be working for Chinatown wholesalers “because they could cultivate an array of crops, leading to economic and agronomic stability.”

But what may keep Imbruce coming back is, as she puts it, the adventure of learning about other fruits and vegetables. “It’s just a fun, happy place to go…And it’s always bustling.”

Local is the “new organic”

Written by  Deena Shanker for Quartz

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Local food is following organic into the mainstream

As consumers pay more attention to what they eat, the desire for food produced nearby is starting to gain more traction. In a survey of more than 1,000 US consumers conducted by Cowen and Company, 39% of respondents ranked “where food comes from/’what’s in my food’” as either very or extremely important, beating the 29% who placed the same level of importance on healthfulness. And while both “local” and “organic” labels are (often mistakenly) considered indicators of health, 43% of participants said that they would be most likely to purchase groceries with a “locally sourced” label, compared to organic’s 19%.

These consumers seem to be putting their money where their mouth is: Sales of local food increased to $11.7 billion in 2014 from about $5 billion in 2008, according to the USDA. “Local food is rapidly growing from a niche market to an integrated system recognized for its economic boost to communities across the country,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told NPR’s The Salt. (Sourcing foods locally also increases food security, even if its environmental benefits are sometimes questionable.)

Supermarkets and restaurants, meanwhile, are trying to meet this demand. Grocery stores are stocking local foods in their produce sections and offering customers the opportunity to sign up for shares in Community Supported Agriculture, Supermarket News reported earlier this month. (CSAs are subscription services between farms and customers, where the full season is paid for upfront and a box of fresh produce is delivered or picked up each week.)

Online grocer FreshDirect has a “Local” section of its site that even lets consumers shop according to the state the food is from.

Chefs see the growing interest in local ingredients, too. In a recent “What’s Hot” survey on restaurant trends conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), 82% of the nearly 1,300 chefs surveyed identified locally sourced meats and seafood as a hot trend on menus, while 79% said the same about locally grown produce. That made them the top two trends out of the 198 listed. “Organic produce,” meanwhile was number 25. (The bottom two: Chicken wings at 13% and gazpacho at 10%. So 2012.)

To get in line with that trend, restaurants put the word “local” or “locally” on 11.3% of US menus in 2014, according to data from Datassential. That’s still behind organic’s 18.7%, but it’s catching up. In each of the past four years, “local” has been added to menus at a faster pace than “organic.”

atlas_NJe1wc1t@2x (2)While grocers and restaurants are trying to meet the demand for local food, factors like geography, logistics and weather can make this a challenge, especially if the menus weren’t originally designed with local ingredients in mind. LYFE Kitchen, a chain that incorporates sustainability into everything from its building design to the way it cleans tables, only realistically aims for 20-30% of its springtime ingredients in its New York location to be locally sourced, Fortune reported.

Startups like Good Eggs and Nextdoorganics can get local groceries to individual customers in a handful of cities, but anyone that cooks or sells in large quantities faces bigger hurdles. The NRA recommends cultivating relationships with nearby growers, shrinking menu offerings, and managing customer expectations—all local, all the time is a nearly impossible goal for even the most dedicated eatery.

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Local food could be a “big deal”

FarmersMarketBy Dan Nosowitz

Eating a local diet—restricting your sources of food to those within, say, 100 miles—seems enviable but near impossible to many, thanks to lack of availability, lack of farmland, and sometimes short growing seasons. Now, a study from the University of California, Merced, indicates that it might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. “Although we find that local food potential has declined over time, our results also demonstrate an unexpectedly large current potential for meeting as much as 90 percent of the national food demand,” write the study’s authors. Ninety percent! What?

Researchers J. Elliott Campbell and Andrew Zumkehr looked at every acre of active farmland in the U.S., regardless of what it’s used for, and imagined that instead of growing soybeans or corn for animal feed or syrup, it was used to grow vegetables. (Currently, only about 2 percent of American farmland is used to grow fruits or vegetables.) And not just any vegetables: They used the USDA’s recommendations to imagine that all of those acres of land were designed to feed people within 100 miles a balanced diet, supplying enough from each food group. Converting the real yields (say, an acre of hay or corn) to imaginary yields (tomatoes, legumes, greens) is tricky, but using existing yield data from farms, along with a helpful model created by a team at Cornell University, gave them a pretty realistic figure.

Still, the study involves quite a few major leaps of faith because it seeks not to demonstrate what is possible for a given American right now but to lay out a basic overview of the ability of local food to feed all Americans. It’s not just projecting yields for vegetables grown on land that is today dominated by corn and soy. The biggest leap of faith is perhaps an unexpected one and is surprisingly underreported: Why do we even want to adjust our food supply to be local in the first place?

“Local food is kind of largely rejected by a lot of scientists from earth and environmental fields because the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of food from the farm to the retailer is actually really small compared to all the other emissions,” said Campbell, an associate professor at UC Merced. (Zumkehr is one of his students; the two fused their research to attempt to answer this question.) We take it for granted that eating locally must provide a huge boost to our environmental bona fides, but if the only consideration is emissions from the trucks, trains, and planes that bring us food from elsewhere, we’re mistaken. Looking at our diet as a whole, the total amount of emissions that come from transportation is somewhere around 10 percent—hardly the biggest factor. The bulk of emissions emerge from the farm itself, from the actual growing and production of the food.

So, Why Should You Care? Campbell thinks there’s a distinct connection between eating locally and tackling those farm-based emissions. The elephant in the room, he said, is the move from an animal-based diet to a plant-based one. Environmental and food scientists trying to reduce emissions are focused much more intently on that switch than on local food, but Campbell sees the two as related, largely because those who eat locally also tend to eat a much higher concentration of plants. “You walk into a farmers market and into a grocery store, and it’s like two different worlds, you know?” he said. “A grocery store has some vegetables hidden off to the side, and at a farmers market it’s all about the vegetables. That’s not a trivial issue.”

To tie all of those new acres of vegetables imagined in the study to local consumers, each acre was assigned to a nearby city, with no overlaps. This is tricky, especially in dense megalopolises like the Northeast Corridor and Southern California; land in, say, northeastern Pennsylvania lies within 100 miles of both New York City and Philadelphia. “We added this optimization model that decided which units of land to allocate to which particular cities to maximize the total number of people in the U.S. who could be fed locally,” said Campbell.

So that 90 percent number doesn’t mean that any given American can have 90 percent of his or her food needs met by local food, nor does it mean that 90 percent of all Americans will have all of their needs met by local food. Instead it’s a national average: In some parts of the country, people could have all of their needs met, but in, say, New York City, only about 30 percent of the people could have their food needs met by local food (assuming that we tear up all current crops and plant more smartly). Oddly enough, not all major cities have this problem. Chicago, for example, is a wonderland in terms of local food potential. “Chicago stands out. All the high-population cities seem to have lower potential, but Chicago has a lot of cropland around it,” said Campbell. Chicago’s advantage is partly because, unlike in the Northeast, Southern California, or even South Florida, it doesn’t have any major satellite cities nearby. But it’s also because there are a ton of farms within even 50 miles of Chicago, much more than in the Northeast, for instance.

Dense cities aren’t just difficult to feed because they’re dense; the Northeast also suffered a huge collapse in nearby farmland as farming moved to the Midwest in the 20th century. But that farmland, or a lot of it, anyway, could still be resuscitated and used to feed the cities. Campbell sees that as a possibility with a huge amount of potential. “If you put the farms close to the cities, it opens up new opportunities to basically recycle water and nutrients between the cities and farms instead of relying on things that might require fossil fuels,” he said. A robust urban composting program, for example, could supply nearby farms easily, reducing the reliance on fertilizers that maybe aren’t so good for the environment. (Cheap synthetic nitrogen fertilizers put a massive strain on the environment in about a dozen ways; using less of them can only help.)

“This is kind of the first attempt to quantify what the potential is, so we decided with the first number to just see what the upper limit is, the greatest possibility,” Campbell said. This isn’t a change that we could just put into effect with a few clever laws or behavioral changes; it would require an overhaul of the entire economic system and would probably cause the collapse of the world economy as we know it.

But that isn’t the point. The point is to have a baseline, an upper theoretical potential, of whether feeding the country locally is even possible. It certainly seems that it is. The next step, both for Campbell and Zumkehr and for the others that will inevitably riff on their work, is to refine this data. Right now it doesn’t include any climate data, for example: An acre of land in Michigan does not have the same growing season as an acre of land in California’s Central Valley. (Currently, the model takes an average of the annual production of each acre, but it doesn’t include any tips for how to conserve the harvest so that it feeds people above the Mason-Dixon Line during the winter.) Another issue: Our food preferences now are significantly global, and there are lots of important and popular foods that can’t be grown in the U.S. at all (think coffee or chocolate).

It’s important to understand the limits of this study, but it would be equally foolish to disregard it. This is research that thoughtfully begins the conversation about legitimately feeding the country locally. It’s a conversation that’s going to get louder and more important in the years to come.

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Author Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeeᴅ, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.

Turns Out, the Future of Food Lies in These Old Seeds

Scientists, farmers, and chefs are developing new varieties of produce from heirloom seeds. It will make life better for organic farmers—and yummier for everyone else.

Original Post – November 18, 2014
Kristin Ohlson has written for The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Salon, Smithsonian, Discover, Gourmet, and many others. Her book The Soil Will Save Us was published in March by Rodale.
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Sarah Kleeger pointed to a goldfinch perched on a waist-high millet plant and scowled, tightening her grip as the black cat in her arms twitched with interest. “That bird is just looking at us.”

“I’d like to shoot all the birds,” said Andrew Still, her husband and business partner.

“We don’t shoot birds,” Kleeger clarified for me.

“Yes, but I’d like to shoot them,” Andrew said. “We just lost half our crop of Castelfranco chicory seeds to the birds.”

Kleeger, 35, and Still, 34, can be forgiven their avian antipathy. They don’t sell the Castelfranco chicory or Red Bull brussels sprouts or Aprovecho fava beans or the hundreds of other vegetables they grow in their fields. Their plants don’t look like produce—they are all tall and shaggy, even the three-foot lettuces rattling with seeds. Kleeger and Still sell the seeds from these plants to other farmers through Adaptive Seeds, the small company they founded on their five-acre organic farm in Sweet Home, Ore., in 2009. The birds, not unreasonably, consider Adaptive Seeds’ products their food.

Later, Still squatted and plucked two dwarf Danish melons, pale yellow with green stripes and not much bigger than billiard balls. The couple brought the seeds for these melons from Europe, along with seeds of 800 other varieties of food crops, with the hope that in addition to their good taste and texture the fruit might show robust performance in organic fields in the Pacific Northwest, which, like Denmark, is typically not melon territory. So far the Danish melon experiment is going great. “I’m looking for my ideal melon,” Still said. “Medium-small that’s green and juicy and sweet, with early traits. Northwest adapted, so that it matures in August and not late September.”

That would give farmers more choice of what to plant, potentially raising their incomes, and the ability to pass that choice on to consumers. Gesticulating with one of the diminutive Danish fruit, Still said, “Our goal is to create a healthier, more resilient and sustainable food system. We need to correct the problems of the industrial food system, and seeds are one way to do that.”

Adaptive Seeds has a John Deere combine that’s not quite old enough to appear in a parade of vintage farm equipment at a 4-H fair, a shed overflowing with garlic, a winnowing room where Still dumps seeds from one bucket to another in front of a window fan that blows away the chaff, and an office where they handle seed orders from down the road and around the globe. Kleeger and Still’s living room is full of corn, hanging to dry from racks near the ceiling, for next year’s catalog.

The couple began working on an organic farm right after college but were dismayed to find, over dozens of seasons raising and selling vegetables, that farmers planted the same handful of varieties year after year. That seemed limiting. They decided to seek out varieties of vegetables not available in the United States and spent their savings on the trip to Europe, collecting seeds from varieties that seemed promising. Today they are leaders in a movement that could alter local food systems and economies, as well as strengthen the hand of organic and small farmers.

IMG_4637Andrew Still, holding Danish melons, and Sarah Kleeger on their seed farm in Sweet Home, Ore. (Photo: Kristin Ohlson)

The 20th century saw the rise of a consolidated agriculture sector that demanded volume and efficiency. That led to a drop in the number of varieties available to farmers from commercial seed companies and the resulting handful of mass-produced vegetable varieties in our grocery stores. But farmer-entrepreneurs like Kleeger and Still have joined with plant-breeding scientists and even high-profile chefs such as Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant to remake food from the seed up. Such collaborations could serve as a model for others around the country seeking good organic varieties for their own fields and kitchens. Already, Stephen S. Jones, a wheat breeder and professor at Washington State University, says he’s contacted at least three times a week by farmers in other states, seeking new varieties or wheat tailored for their region and needs. If successful, they’ll soon be providing more of us with fruits, vegetables, and grains bred to thrive in the various microclimates around the country—suiting the needs of small farmers, artisan bakers and brewers, and chefs—and with correspondingly greater flavor, texture, and nutrient density.

John Navazio, formerly an organic seed specialist for Washington State University who now works for an organic seed company, says a new generation of farmers, chefs, and diners is demanding something better than the commercial seeds being developed and designed for industrial agriculture. “They want real seed from real farmers in their region, and…seed from the biggest companies does not suit their needs,” he says. “This is the DIY crowd, and they get it more than anyone has ever gotten it.”

In January, I joined 430 self-described “seedheads” at the seventh Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, Ore., hosted by the Organic Seed Alliance, a national organization based in Port Townsend, Wash., that encourages and teaches farmers to select and save seed, and organizes collaborations among plant breeders, seed companies, chefs, millers, brewers, and others both up- and downstream from organic farms.

The conference thrummed with the buzz of farmers growing seed; plant breeders from universities; representatives of seed libraries, seed cooperatives, and seed companies of varying sizes; and seed enthusiasts from foundations, public policy groups, and student organizations. It confused me at first. Wasn’t organic seed just seed plucked from plants grown without chemicals, and if so, what was the big deal? Even though I skew heavily organic in my shopping and eating, it had never occurred to me to object to an organically raised tomato or cabbage grown from the seed of a nonorganically grown plant. I assumed organic cultivation rendered its origins moot.

Over the course of two days of talking to seedheads from across North America, I discovered that there’s more to organic food than what’s aboveground. Organic farmers want organic seed for the same reason they want to grow their crops organically: They prefer seeds not produced with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other tools of industrial agriculture. Federal guidelines set in 2000 require the use of organic seed in organic production, but farmers are allowed to use conventional seed if it is not available commercially. Many certified growers still avail themselves of that loophole—there just aren’t enough good sources of these seeds.

This is one problem Kleeger and Still are addressing. The bigger issue is that there aren’t enough varieties of wheat, lettuce, corn, or anything else, really, bred specifically for organic production.

“The basic adage in plant breeding is that you breed in the environment of intended use,” explained Micaela Colley, OSA’s executive director. Conventional seeds cultivated organically are going against that adage, which places organic farmers at a disadvantage. In other words, crop varieties for conventional agriculture are bred to flourish in fields with intense chemical inputs—not just the vast rows of GMO corn and soybeans, our nation’s biggest crops, but also the smaller fields where tomatoes and spinach and other produce are grown. According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 84 percent of Americans say they buy organic at least some of the time. But when varieties aren’t bred for organic cultivation—in which roots need to be vigorous enough to scavenge for nutrients and stalks and stems must soldier on without sprays to protect them from insects, disease, and weeds—they’re likely to produce less. Plants grown organically from conventional seed don’t perform as well as they should be able to, or as well as conventionally grown alternatives. The lack of organic seed and of plant varieties developed for organic production may be one of the reasons that organic fields only occupy 6 percent of American vegetable acreage.

If the seedheads are able to reduce this deficit of organic varieties, more organic produce at a lower price may result. At Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center, wheat breeder Jones—famous in seed circles for having rebuffed Monsanto’s bid to have him develop GMO wheat—oversees projects that are developing new wheat, barley, and oat varieties for both traditional and organic farming in Washington’s Skagit Valley. “We’re developing new varieties for flavor and functionality that have four to ten times the yield,” Jones told me. “This will eventually bring down the cost.”

Agriculture has been around for some 10,000 years, and until the 20th century, farmers saved seed that had produced desirable traits, such as sturdiness or large size, to plant again the following year. The practice changed food over the centuries as distinct varieties evolved in regions around the world, with modern plant breeders swapping pollen between two varieties with desirable traits, planting the offspring, and growing those that came out the best, generation after generation, until a new variety was stabilized.

We know some of these older varieties as “heirloom” seeds, a term that began to appear in seed catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the 1970s. Commercial hybrids developed in the 20th century had advantages: high yields, produce that ripened at the same time, uniform size and shape. Some transported and stored better. That suited the production standards of agribusiness just fine. But a generation of organic farmers turned eagerly to heirlooms in the following years for a number of reasons—not least of which was the food tasted better.

Heirlooms were prized for their flavor and texture, but they often had major drawbacks for farmers trying to make an organic living. “The heirloom tomatoes tasted great, but they often cracked and didn’t ship well,” recalls Navazio, who became an organic farmer in the 1970s and later learned traditional plant breeding, earning a Ph.D. in plant breeding at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You could hardly even take them to town to sell them,” he says. Today he works at Johnny’s Select Seeds in Maine. “There was no one breeding varieties for the farmer marketing high-quality organic produce on a local scale.”

Some non-heirloom hybrids worked decently in an organic system. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 1980 decision to allow the patenting of life-forms, among other factors, led to consolidation in the seed industry. Big corporations started buying up small regional companies and increased their focus on splicing together traits to create patentable seeds (many of them with genes from altogether different species, ergo GMOs). Meanwhile, many of the hybrids that organic and other small farmers found most useful were soon forgotten.

“The big companies narrowed their offerings to focus on seeds that have the largest market, such as varieties that either do well in a lot of locations or ones that are used in centers of large-scale agricultural production like the Sacramento Valley,” OSA’s Colley says. “But the varieties that have a smaller market share often have unique qualities [beneficial to] regional growers—say, sweet corn that ripens quicker in northern latitudes, which is not a sweet-corn-growing area.” In 2000 alone, more than 2,000 hybrids disappeared from the marketplace when Seminis—at the time the world’s largest vegetable seed company—bought several smaller companies. Now it’s part of Monsanto, which has stopped producing these hybrids.

10379926_10152547140179490_3134662533450538828_oSarah Kleeger, harvesting at her farm. (Photo: Courtesy Adaptive Seeds)

At the same time, one of the major avenues for developing new varieties was also shrinking. Land grant universities founded in the 1800s to help improve agriculture saw funding cuts and changes to federal policy, including the 1982 Bayh-Dole Act, which encouraged the transfer of publicly funded research to the private sector. The number of researchers dedicated to cultivar development in public universities has fallen 30 percent in the last 20 years, according to a recent survey conducted by Bill Tracy, chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

By the early 1980s, organic farmers were conferring about their need for improved varieties and well-produced seed. Frank Morton—now the plant breeder and seed seller behind Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore.—recalls going to a meeting in 1984 at which a molecular biologist known as Mushroom stood up and announced, “If you grow organic crops, you need organic seeds. Those seeds don’t exist, and we have to create them.”

“It blew my mind,” said Morton.

Morton’s work inspires Kleeger and Still and others around the world. His varieties are grown in many countries and even in space: Outredgeous, one of his most popular lettuces—so named for leaves so red that the botany students who first saw it didn’t recognize it as lettuce—is being grown on the International Space Station. (It grows quickly, has a high concentration of antioxidants, and is highly bacteria-resistant—a concern for astronauts eating raw food.)

In July, I visited Morton at the 70-acre organic farm where he raises seeds between rows of organic crops grown for food. He offers a dazzling 81 varieties of lettuce in his catalog, created by selecting lettuces with certain traits, crossing them, and then carefully breeding them for years. As we walked the fields, he kept an eye out for plants with yellowed leaves or other signs of disease, for plants that were puny, for plants laced with insect bites. Even if these plants had other desirable characteristics, he would not bother saving their seed if they were not vigorous enough to flourish under organic cultivation.

Morton is a model for the kind of painstaking work good agriculture requires, as well as for the openness the new generation of seedheads expects. He does not patent his varieties. If other companies want to sell seeds grown from them, he wants them to pay him a 10 percent royalty. It’s a handshake agreement, and it’s worked so far. Morton assumes other breeders will shape new varieties from his and adapt them to other regions’ growing conditions and other customers’ flavor preferences. Which is to say he expects people to use his seeds as people have used seed for centuries.

IMG_4430Lettuces that have been allowed to grow until they produce seed. (Photo: Kristin Ohlson)

In 2010, organic vegetable farmers in the Pacific Northwest noticed that one of their favorite sweet peppers, an easy-to-grow, easy-to-harvest commercial hybrid called Gypsy, seemed to be disappearing from the marketplace. They were having a hard time finding Gypsy seed, and when they did, the resulting peppers were low in quality—a sign that a seed company has stopped doing the careful maintenance of the parent lines because it has lost interest in selling the hybrid. Gypsy was also beloved by area chefs, who started asking why they couldn’t find their red pepper of choice. All of this set off a sort of red-pepper panic, which soon came to the attention of Lane Selman.

Selman is a research assistant in the Organic Vegetable Research program at Oregon State University and a researcher with one of the big OSA research efforts called the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. Since NOVIC started in 2009, it has helped bring together plant breeders and researchers from Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, Wisconsin-Madison, OSA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with farmers to breed varieties that perform well in the shorter growing seasons of northerly regions, where many organic farmers must start seeds in greenhouses and transplant the shoots to their fields when the weather warms. NOVIC wanted to develop varieties that might eliminate that step and even help farmers grow crops rarely attempted in these environments—for example, sweet corn in Washington.

NOVIC set out to test varieties that could replace Gypsy. Selman soon discovered some likely candidates among the produce at the stand she manages for Gathering Together Farm, of Philomath, Ore., at the Portland farmers market. It turned out that Morton, in response to requests from his farmer friends at Gathering Together, had already bred five new sweet peppers that grew beautifully in the Pacific Northwest. Unbeknownst to the other farmers desperate for a successor to Gypsy, Gathering Together was growing them and sending them to market.

NOVIC’s trials confirmed that Morton’s peppers grew as well as, if not better than, Gypsy. But every Saturday morning at the farmers market, Selman had to face another constituency: Portland’s picky chefs, who were still pining for Gypsy. So in October 2011—about two years before Dan Barber convened international chefs and plant breeders at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture in Tarrytown, N.Y., to discuss the role of seeds in selecting produce for flavor—she invited Portland chefs to Portland’s Tabla Mediterranean Bistro for a special tasting of 10 peppers. At the end of the evening, the chefs’ top three choices were all Morton varieties, including one called Stocky Red Roaster.

It quickly moved into the space in the chefs’ hearts formerly occupied by Gypsy, and now chefs come to the farmers market asking for it. Selman hopes that the chefs and ultimately consumers will become aware of the breeders behind all the varieties. “Restaurants already drop the names of farms on the menus,” she says. “I’d like to see something like ‘This month, you’re eating Stocky Red Roaster, a variety developed by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed.’ ”

In late September, more than 100 farmers, chefs, and food aficionados cruised a party room in the back of Chris King Precision Components, a Portland bike factory. The event was sponsored by the Culinary Breeding Network, which was organized in the aftermath of the 2011 red-pepper tasting in Portland. The group includes plant breeders, seed growers, fresh market farmers, chefs, and produce buyers who are developing a vision and an agenda for vegetables in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a fusion of the agricultural and the culinary, of breeders, growers, and eaters, and it’s taking the concept of local food to an entirely new level.

Twelve plant breeders had turned over some of their favorite new varieties to 12 chefs to see what they could come up with. The assorted grazers sampled dishes such as hominy and shrimp soup, polenta, and caramel popcorn, prepared by Portland chef Greg Higgens from the Amish Butter corn developed by breeders Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Ore. Breeders also brought along samples of varieties in development. Guests filled out questionnaires: Which of the mild habañeros offered up at one table had the best flavor, color, shape, size, and pungency? How did the cherry tomatoes at another table fare in terms of appearance, flavor, sugar-acid balance, aftertaste, and skin thickness?

Selman calls this “community-driven plant breeding.” She’s planning more such events, and hopes to hold “farm days” in which chefs walk the fields looking for varieties that please their eye. She wants chefs and breeders to meet with a flavor consultant, who will teach them to speak the same language in matters of the palate. As far as she knows, this kind of thing “is not going on anywhere else in the country.”

Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still were at the bike-factory party. They brought Adaptive Seeds onions and its seed catalog, with its many varieties new to Americans. Unlike Frank Morton’s Wild Garden Seed catalog, which I saw tucked under the arms of many a guest, Kleeger and Still’s catalog wasn’t crammed with varieties they’ve bred themselves. But they’re eager for the challenge of adding their own innovations to the Northwest’s agriculture and cuisine. “We’re lucky,” Kleeger told me. “We’ve got another thirty years to do this.”

The burgeoning network represented that night could provide new resources for farmers and may help the chefs it’s pulled into the mix expand the possibilities of local food and what it tastes like.

“The more people getting involved in seed projects, the better,” says Matthew Dillon, who cofounded OSA in 2004 and is now the director of Seed Matters, an arm of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which advocates for the improvement and protection of organic seed. “For the last 50 years, there’s just been a handful of people and companies controlling our seed future and thus our food future. The more public-based seed projects that are going on, the harder it’s going to be for companies that want to control via patents to win. They can’t come and take it all.”

Farm Events in Massachusetts

There is so much going on, and we can’t list it all here, but for a complete list check out our Culinary & Agriculture Events calendar. Don’t forget, Topsfield Fair runs through Columbus Day, October 13.

Thanks to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources for putting this list together!

massgrown

History-making day for Boston urban agriculture

Rachel Greenberger reported that….

This morning in City Hall, by unanimous consent, the Zoning Commission passed Article 89, a progressive series of measures to pave the way for farming in Boston.

At the request of Mayor Tom Menino, Edith Murnane of the Mayor’s Office of Food Initiatives and Tad Reed and Marie Mercurio of Boston Redevelopment Authority have led an incredible nearly two-year charge, convening a Urban Agriculture Working Group in the process, to reach this day.

“Urban agriculture is currently forbidden,” Tad Reed told the board and the room of citizens and stakeholders who turned out in support, “because it has not been addressed in the zoning code to date.”

Higher Ground Farm

Higher Ground Farm

Article 89 concerns commercial agriculture only and does not touch current code pertaining to gardens for personal use. Its focus areas are ground-level farming, open air roof-level farming, and rooftop greenhouses. It also addresses on-site composting, soil safety and raised beds, and the keeping of hens and bees.

When Chairman Bob Fondren invited public comment, ten citizens, local leaders, and business people stood to speak in support of Article 89. No one stood to speak against it.

Article 89 then passed by a unanimous vote.

Edith Murnane had tears in her eyes as I hugged her and congratulated her for her impeccable work.

Now Article 89 goes to Mayor Menino’s desk for signature. Considering that the Mayor requested this initiative in the first place, there is little chance of impediment.

This is a Red Letter Day for Boston, which now joins the ranks of urban-agriculture progressive cities like New York, Portland, Chicago and Madison. As Bruce Bickerstaff put it, “not as a novelty but as a legitimate business proposition in a burgeoning industry.”

Original Post –  by Rachel Greenberger

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Anyone interested in this work may also be curious about our Urban Agriculture Online class at UMass.  Check out our online program here:  ONLINE UMass Certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming.