The Local Food Movement Is Flourishing And Shows No Signs Of Stopping

Joseph Erbentraut Senior Reporter, The Huffington Post- February 2, 2017
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For a long time, the prevailing mantra of farming in America has been simple: “Get big or get out.”

That mantra traces its roots back to the late Earl Butz, who President Richard Nixon appointed as U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1971. He held the position for five years.

Under Butz’s watch, domestic farm policies shifted to favor large, industrial operations planting mostly corn and soy and shun smaller farms that favored organic, locally sold crops. That legacy has continued to this day, as evidenced by U.S. farms’ dwindling crop diversity and the massive environmental footprint — like degraded soil, excessive water use, and heavy use of pesticides and herbicides — such approaches to farming leave behind.

Despite this, alternative approaches have continued to survive — and even thrive. A growing number of Americans want to know where their food comes from, connect with the families producing it and buy products at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

But how, exactly, can small farms capitalize on that interest and earn a living? Can farmers markets and CSA boxes really sustain a farm, especially at a time when the incoming administration has signaled a push to fight the local food movement’s recent gains?

Josh Volk thinks so. He’s the owner of Slow Hand Farm in Portland, Oregon, and he has a lot of evidence to back up his argument.

In a new book titled Compact Farms, out this week, Volk highlights 15 different farms across the country ― all of which are located on no more than 5 acres ― and the hard-working people who run them.

Volk details how each farm grows and sells its products, even offering advice to aspiring farmers who are interested in taking up the trade themselves. And through telling their stories, Volk pushes back against the “get big or get out” narrative, making a strong case for how smaller farms can, and do, contribute to our nation and planet’s health and livelihood — and will continue to do so regardless of the current political climate.

The Huffington Post recently spoke with Volk about farming and the future of food policy under President Donald Trump.

What inspired you to write this book that’s a how-to guide for small farmers?

I wanted to create a dialogue around how these things work and how can we make them better. I wanted to look at this smaller scale of agriculture and find out from the people what they are doing that is making them so successful, to put those ideas out into the world and try to generate more discussion around the topic.

How did you select the farms you highlight? What made them unique?

Narrowing it down was a little bit tricky. I was looking for a cross-section of farms. I wanted to have urban examples and rural examples in all different parts of the country. I ended up with more of a mid-northern tier and didn’t get farms further south, but I had so many good examples from farmers in the northern tier that just ended up being the way it was.

I was also looking for diversity in markets and to have a good gender balance. What I didn’t end up with, which I wish I had found more examples of, was a more racially diverse audience. It would have been interesting to find more examples of those farms ― they are out there, but that just wasn’t where my connections were.

You’ve been in this business for some time. You know your stuff. What surprises did you encountered along the way of working on this? 

The most surprising thing to me was how many examples of these farms there were. And some of these examples went back 15, 20, 30 or more years. There are many people who have been doing this for a significant amount of time. This is something that’s out there. It’s not new. I knew that to some extent but was surprised at how easy it was, in some ways, to find examples of that.

This all pushes back against the “get big or get out” idea — do you think that idea is dying out? Is there momentum here, or still a long way to go?

We always need more education about how successful these [small] farms can be. These examples of folks doing it for 20 or 30 years show you can maintain this. That this is sustainable in the environmental sense, in the social sense and in the business sense. I also included some examples of farms in their third or fourth or fifth year to show that it looks like when you’re first starting this. I don’t know if those farms will continue to succeed, but so far they have. But I think this is getting easier and there is a lot more information out there, and a lot more acceptance. I think it is gaining momentum.

I also don’t think that means that “small” is the only way. There needs to be a place for the mid-sized farms and even the bigger farms. But I think the landscape needs to be more open and more accepting of all of it. I hope this book will help make this more of an option of people who don’t want farming to just be the one way.

Farm policy has been in the spotlight recently thanks to Trump’s late nomination of a U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary. There have been reports of some farm groups being anxious about Trump. How are you feeling about the future of small farms, given the current political climate and incoming administration?

From what I’ve seen over my last 15 to 20 years in small-scale agriculture, the organic farming movement operated without any help — and, really, antagonism — from the USDA and government entities and it still successfully grew. There’s no question in my mind that when the USDA took over the organic label and started the National Organic Program that that really kickstarted a lot of help from universities and other organizations and things have been much better. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be better than they are right now, but they are better than they ever were.

I think it’s almost impossible to think there won’t be a major step backwards [under the Trump administration], but I don’t think that step backwards will be particularly problematic. Certainly, with the very minimal subsidies there are and the kind of momentum there is in terms of interest in research, I think we’re still on solid ground. But we’re going to have to make major efforts to continue to move things forward now more than ever.

It sounds like you’re feeling more optimistic than many people might guess you would be. Why is that?

I live in a bit of a bubble here in Portland. We’re so progressive in some ways and there is so much support at the local level, not just in terms of local government, but with the customers — the people at the farmers markets and the support for the CSA growers and restaurateurs using local produce and buying from local farmers. It doesn’t feel like any of that is going to change. If anything, I think in some ways, there’s more of an excuse than ever for that core group to put their support behind these small farms, to double down on that.

I’m optimistic, too, because I do travel and visit farms in other parts of the country. And over the past five to 10 years doing that, I’ve always been impressed when I go see these places. I grew up on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and it was not like that when I lived there 30 years ago. The food scene is changing. Maybe it doesn’t look the same as it looks in Portland, but there are a lot of the same aspects of support for local farms. I meet a lot of farmers who are making it work because restaurants are buying from them and people want their produce at farmers markets. I don’t just see that in this bubble in Portland. I see it everywhere I go.

What are other indications of this movement that you’re seeing?

When I first moved to Portland in 2001, I think there were maybe 15 CSAs serving the area. Now I think it’s at least five or six times that. There were no training programs for new farmers starting out, unless you consider the on-farm jobs, which were limited at the time. Now you have formalized training programs at community colleges and private organizations, as well as through farms. And all of those programs exist because people are interested in getting involved at this scale in this type of agriculture. It’s a huge leap forward. If you track it year to year, it doesn’t seem like much, but if you compare it to 20 or 30 years ago, it’s a leap forward. I don’t see that slowing down. I see it accelerating.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Slow Hand Farm CSA, Sauvie Island, Portland, Oregon.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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.”

“Cheap” Food has a High Cost

The industrial food system that provides 95-99% of the food to U.S. households results in the least expensive food anywhere in the world on a price basis… at a very high social, environmental, and human and animal health cost.  We can do better….


HANOVER — The United States needs a new food policy, much like it already has an energy policy and an agriculture policy, journalist and author Michael Pollan told a crowd of more than 700 on Monday.

The country’s existing so-called food policy, as it has remained over the last 50 years, is to ensure Americans’ food is “plenty and cheap,” Pollan said.

On that metric, we’ve succeeded, he said — Americans spend about 9.5 percent of their disposable income on food, while Europeans spend 14 to 15 percent. United States citizens, Pollan said, enjoy cheaper food than do the citizens of any other country, now or ever.

“In the history of humankind, that is a blessing,” he said.

But cheap food incurs costs elsewhere, Pollan said.

Americans need a more thoughtful food policy, Pollan said, because left unchecked this $1.5 trillion industry produces environmental, social and medical harms, of which the public remains largely unaware.

For instance, one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas pollution today results from the agriculture industry, Pollan said. Nitrogen pollution from farms — used to fertilize fields depleted by monocultural agriculture — has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts, he said. Oligopolies in the meat industry (only four meat packers slaughter 85 percent of the beef in the country, he said) mean that farmers are forced to accept unfairly low prices for their livestock — prices that prevent them from adopting sustainable practices, Pollan said. Overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry has led to evolution of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, he said. Americans suffer more chronic diseases from dietary choices than from any other cause, he added.

These and other consequences of Americans’ food consumption and food production ought to be addressed intentionally and holistically, Pollan said, through a national food policy.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a memo leaked to the press that the Obama administration needs to coordinate such a food policy. Vilsack was on Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice presidential candidates, and Pollan said he’s likely to have her ear should Clinton win the election.

It’s worth watching for steps in this direction, should Clinton prevail, he said, but advocates for better food policy have been disappointed before. Clinton has also said she’d pursue antitrust litigation against the few meat-packing corporations that currently control the industry — “I’ll believe that when I see it,” Pollan said.

A professor at Vermont Law School is currently working with her peers at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic to draft a blueprint for what a national food policy might look like.

Today, numerous agencies oversee food-related issues, and no overarching policy guides their actions with respect to food, so the agencies and the other policies they try to put in place “are not coordinated, and sometimes they’re at cross-purposes, and sometimes they undermine each other,” said Laurie Ristino, who teaches at Vermont Law School and heads the institution’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.

“We’d really benefit from a coordinated approach” to food, Ristino said.

As president, Clinton might invest the time and political capital that a national food policy would require, but it’s hard to say for certain, since candidates this year have articulated relatively few specific policy positions, Ristino said. No president is likely to undertake a food policy without clear support from voters, she said.

“I don’t think it’s impossible or out of the question that Clinton would focus on it … but really it has to coalesce and be part of [her] agenda, which is partly our responsibility — to say, ‘This is important,’” Ristino said.

One thing standing in the way of food-policy reform in the U.S., Pollan said, is the food movement itself.

It’s a very diverse coalition, Pollan said, “and not all interests in it care about each other.”

For instance, many activists working toward improved food-production practices care primarily about animal welfare, Pollan said. These activists don’t care nearly as much about the working conditions laborers experience while picking produce in fields or while preparing meals in fast-food restaurants, he said. Those who feel most strongly about workers’ conditions aren’t animated by concern for the environment, and those who care most about the environment aren’t typically worried about processed foods’ deleterious effects on public health, he said.

Pollan likened the situation to that experienced by members of the gay rights movement a decade ago — fractured and heterogeneous, until “some part of it decided to work on marriage equality” — and said a similar focus on a single issue could lead to real improvements in the industry.

Another obstacle to food policy reform, Pollan said, can be seen even in the congressional committees devoted to agriculture, which are composed almost entirely of representatives for agricultural interests. There are no committee members chosen to represent “eaters,” or ordinary American citizens, Pollan said.

The result is agriculture policies written to serve the agriculture industry, and to a lesser extent, farmers, he said. Ordinary Americans ought to have a seat at the table that makes these decisions, Pollan said, because, for instance, current agricultural policies drive national public health problems that ramp up health care costs.

Although corporations exercise significant influence over what Americans eat and what Americans wish to eat, Pollan said, consumers also play a role in shaping the country’s approach to food.

Among the most influential decisions Americans make in their food habits, Pollan said, is the choice to eat meat.

Americans on average consume half a pound of meat per person every day, he said.

“In the history of humankind, this is a new thing,” he said. “Meat was a luxury for most of humankind for most of human history.”

Meat requires enormous resources to produce, he said, to the point that eliminating meat from their diet is among the single most effective methods individuals have to combat anthropogenic climate change.

At some point, he said, Americans’ current meat-eating habits “will seem irresponsible.”

“I’m old enough to remember when, if you had any litter in your car, you threw it out the window,” Pollan said, and when “smoking in public places was something routine.

“I think meat eating’s going to suffer the same thing,” he said.

Although Pollan professed to enjoy eating the flesh of other animals, he said that at some point the environmental community will need to reckon with the practice.

Once that happens, he said, meat’s likely to become “something very special you have on Sunday night.”

Original Post

Living according to ecological “rules”

Original Post by Jonathan Foley – July 19, 2016

For most of my adult life, I have been a teacher of sorts, first as a university professor, and now as the director of a science museum. While the students and settings have changed, the job has remained the same — to share the wonders of the natural world, and teach the science we need to understand and sustain our planet.

Over time, I have come to believe that our environmental problems stem from too many people not understanding, or intentionally overlooking, the physical and biological systems governing this planet. We have gotten very good at ignoring nature’s laws, pretending that we are exempt from them.

But we’re not, and that’s where our problems arise. Whether we’re causing dangerous climate change, degrading the world’s ecosystems, or collapsing our natural resources, environmental problems begin when we ignore the physical limits of our planet, and act as if they don’t apply to us. This is a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance.

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As a science educator, I feel we can and should do a far better job of helping people see and understand the systems that govern our world, and internalize the lessons they can teach us. In other words, we need to truly learn the lessons our living planet can teach us, and start living by them. Only then can we truly sustain our environment, and our civilization, into the future.

And we must share these “planet lessons” with as many people as possible — presidents and preschoolers, CEOs and cab drivers, parents and policy-makers. We all need to learn the lessons of our living world, and act accordingly.

I’ve decided to do my part by sharing some of the planet lessons I’ve learned so far.

Lesson One. Physics Trumps Politics and Economics. Every Time.

The first lesson I learned from the planet is about the absurdity of our “real world” politics and economics.

Despite what many people claim, politics and economics are arbitrary systems of belief that people in power have invented over the years. And regardless of what we have been brought up to believe, the planet does not actually obey the rules of politics and economics. It never has.

Although our beliefs about these systems are often useful, ultimately they are entirely negotiable. After all, people in power just made them up. Believing otherwise isn’t just lazy thinking, it’s an excuse people use to justify poor decision-making and maintain the status quo. When you hear someone dismiss something sensible and necessary — like protecting our oceans, shifting to 100% renewable energy sources, or making agriculture sustainable — because it “isn’t economical” or “isn’t political feasible”, what they’re really saying, whether they realize or not, is “that’s kind of inconvenient for people in power right now, so please don’t talk about it.”

Instead of allowing ourselves to be trapped by arbitrary economic and political systems, we should instead focus more attention on what really governs the planet: the physical systems that have been operating here for eons.

keep-calm-and-study-chemistry-physics-biologyUnlike politics and economics, Earth’s physics, chemistry, and biology are natural systems based on empirical, reproducible facts. And these facts are fixed and entirely non-negotiable. Nature doesn’t care what we choose to believe, and you can’t cheat the laws of physics. Ever. Ignoring them is at best shortsighted. At worst, it guarantees the demise of our civilization.

That’s why it is so alarming that some political leaders ignore the laws of physics and profess that climate change is not “real”. Of course it is. The greenhouse effect has been understood since the early 19th century, and we have overwhelming evidence that increasing CO2 levels are warming the planet. Denying those facts is either dishonest or delusional. While the basic physical realities of climate change are no longer debatable, the political and economic concerns are. For example, what should we do about climate change? What will it cost us, and who will pay? But let’s not confuse negotiable political and economic frameworks with the non-negotiable, inviolable laws of physics.

We can — and should — have debates about how our political and economic systems solve the problems we face. After all, economics and politics are meantto be debated. But for these debates to be rational and productive, we need to understand and acknowledge the physical realities of the planet. What we cannot do is pretend that the laws of physics are somehow ours to control or ignore, as we see fit. On that path lies delusion and ruin.

Lesson Two. Thermodynamics and Systems Thinking are Powerful Tools.

The next lesson I’ve learned over the years is that thermodynamics and systems thinking are very powerful tools for understanding and describing the workings of our planet.

Thermodynamics is the study of energy — how it flows through the universe, and how it changes from one form to another. It is also a good way to learn about life, as living systems are ultimately all about energy — energy gathered from the sun, converted to biochemical form, and consumed by countless creatures until it is ultimately released back into the universe. Energy is what fuels everything on this planet, and maintains its order, organization, and evolution. To understand Earth’s biology, climate, water cycle, chemical cycles, and so on, you must first understand the basics of thermodynamics.

systemsthinking2Systems thinking is another powerful tool for our mental toolbox, as it helps us organize our view of the world, seeing connections among all of Earth’s living and non-living things. Systems thinking provides a framework through which to view the planet — through the lenses of complexity, feedback loops, and the countless connections of stocks and flows coursing through the environment. Systems thinking also helps us build powerful models — whether conceptual models in our heads or numerical models running on a computer — that enable us to test our understanding of the world. Of all of the things I’ve learned in my education so far, systems thinking has been the most useful.

Thermodynamics and systems thinking, combined with some keen observations of the natural world, can give us many important insights, including:

  1. Earth is powered by renewable energy. The sun provides nearly all of the energy used to power life on Earth, as well as fueling all of our weather, ocean currents, and water cycling. Earth receives 1,370 Watts of heat and light per square meter of sunlit space — something we call the “solar constant” — and that’s been enough energy for the planet to do everything for billions of years. In fact, for all of Earth’s history, natural systems have lived on this “solar income”. And we can, too, if we put our minds to it. Sunlight — and associated energy from wind, waves, and biomass — can provide all the energy we need. Ultimately, it has to.
  2. Nature has almost zero waste. Earth is essentially a “materially closed” system. Short of the occasional meteorite, nothing much enters the planet, and nothing much leaves the planet either. That means there are only so many carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus atoms, water molecules, and so on, on the planet to work with. So natural systems have gotten very good at recycling everything. In fact, living things rarely create “waste.” What’s waste to one organism is quite often food for another. For example, a single phosphorous atom — a necessary ingredient for life — can be recycled hundreds of times within a forest, before it’s gently redeposited into Earth’s sediments, where geology will ultimately recycle it once again. Unfortunately, we humans use many goods only once before they become waste or toxic pollution. We need to mimic nature’s frugality with material, and get much, much better at emulating Earth’s “circular economy.”
  3. Earth’s ecosystems build strength and resilience from diversity.Evolution has created a remarkable diversity of life, which is extremely resilient in the face of change. Nearly every flow of energy and matter, and practically every ecological niche, functional trait, and space is being used by something. And if one ecological link fails, others typically pick up the slack. Sadly, humans seem to ignore this lesson. We tend to build monocultures, especially in agriculture, with only one link; if that one fails, the whole system fails. We need to realize that diversity is essential to building strong, enduring, and sustainable systems.
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Click on the image to see a presentation on the three “rules” of ecology

 

Lesson Three: We Need a Big Dose of Humility.

The natural world has also taught me that we should be far less arrogant about the power of our science and technology. We still have so much to learn.

It’s humbling, but we have to admit that nature does things that we cannot yet do ourselves. Even the simplest pond scum is able to run entirely on renewable energy, with nearly infinite recycling, with extraordinary diversity and resilience. In short, nature is one hell of an engineer.

Sadly, we are still far from matching the capabilities of the natural world. We still use dirty fossil fuels, not renewable energy — leading to air pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, and other critical problems. We still recklessly extract raw materials from nature, far faster than they can be regenerated, so they inevitably run out. Our throw-away culture then uses something once, creating a dangerous waste product that is tossed into the environment. Unfortunately, we continue to ignore the lessons even simple pond scum can teach us.

What we need is a big dose of humility, and to admit that we have much to learn from the rest of life on Earth. The rest of life has learned the lessons of the planet, and we have not.

Lesson Four. Go Outdoors and Observe Nature.

Nature is the best teacher I’ve ever had. I learned about photosynthesis, carbon stocks, and nutrient cycling from my garden. And I learned about meteorology and oceanography by watching clouds and waves. While classroom learning is certainly important, it is crucial that we spend time observing and interacting with the natural world to truly internalize the lessons of the planet.

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Thankfully, many people are beginning to look to nature as a source of inspiration and solutions. And we can follow their lead.

For example, keen observations of the natural world have led to the basic concept and innovations of biomimicry, which seeks to design products that emulate solutions already found in nature. Observations of nature have also spurred the development of agroecology and permaculture, which seek to design agricultural systems that emulate processes found in nature. We have also begun to more keenly recognize the flow of ecosystem goods and services and how they support human wellbeing.

We should look to nature for even more practical solutions for living sustainably on planet Earth. After all, if we just stop to look, and learn, nature can teach us how to build extraordinary things, with zero waste, amazing resilience, all powered by the sun.

Final Lesson. Get to Work!

Finally, the natural world has inspired me to roll up my sleeves, focus on the problems we can solve, and get to work.

Whether we realize it or not, the fate of the planet is now in our hands. We are a driving force on an enormously complex planetary machine, and most of the people in charge have no idea how it operates, or are still under the mistaken belief that political and economic systems outweigh the laws of physics. They simply don’t know the rules. Worse yet, they are obeying the wrong rules. This is a very dangerous situation.

Our leaders — hell, all of us — urgently need a crash course in how the planet really works, including the principles we need to follow in order to thrive into the future. We must learn the lessons of the planet so we can build a civilization that endures.

So far, there is no major, and no degree that teach these lessons of the planet. It’s not that simple. In the meantime, a mix of humility, a little training in physics and systems thinking, a keen eye for observation, and a lot of time in the natural world would be a good start.

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Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the Academy or any other organization.

NOTE:  if you want to study farming systems based on ecological principles, see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Science degree.

Learning Through Gardening in School

Few things are more inspiring than seeing a young person create a meaningful place in society from scratch. That’s the case with Ava Bynum, who grew up near our home in Philipstown, N.Y., and — setting aside the idea of college — created a program for local schools, Hudson Valley Seed, built around incorporating basic learning with gardening and nutrition. The program now serves about 1,500 students a week in schools in several Hudson Valley counties.

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These two videos tell the story far better than I could, so I hope you’ll spend a few minutes this Earth Day weekend watching and sharing them. (Here’s the program’s Facebook page.)

Are there gardening-education programs where you live? If not, I’m sure Bynum would be happy to spread the joy of learning.

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About 25% of the students studying Sustainable Food an Farming at UMass Amherst are focused on community-based and farm-based education.  To learn more, see:

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CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — A decade ago, a couple running a dairy business in Northern California visited a Mennonite farm where the owner had used a flock of laying hens to teach his children business principles and instill values like responsibility and care for nature.

They returned home and bought 150 hens for their boys, Christian and Joseph. “My parents told us, you and Joseph are in charge of keeping these 150 birds alive,” recalled Christian Alexandre, who now heads the family’s egg business.

What started as a parental effort to instill solid values has become the mainstay of Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms. Within five years, Christian and Joseph were tending 1,500 hens and had a deal in place to supply eggs to Whole Foods stores in Northern California. Christian remembers Walter Robb, co-chief executive of the grocery retailer, showing up at one of his football games.

The rusty red chickens foraging in the fields outnumber the cows 10 to 1 — and the roughly five million eggs they will produce this year command prices that make organic milk look cheap. “The egg business has kept the dairy going for several years,” Blake Alexandre, Christian’s father, said.

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Members of the Alexandre family at their farm in Crescent City, Calif., earlier this month. (Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Alexandre Kids Eggs produces pastured eggs, which on their farm means that the hens live in housing that allows them to spend much of the day in open pasture. While still a minuscule portion of the roughly 75 billion eggs produced in the United States each year, pastured eggs like theirs are one of the fastest-growing category of eggs in America today.

Consumers have grown more aware of the conditions under which many of the nation’s laying hens live, thanks to undercover videos from animal welfare advocates and, more recently, photos of hundreds of thousands of dead birds being tossed out of hangar-size barns after outbreaks of avian flu.

Pastured eggs from hens allowed to roam about help to address some of those concerns about how foods are produced and the impact such systems have on the environment, animal welfare and health and nutrition.

“The egg market for probably the last 30 years has been a very sleepy category,” said Betsy Babcock, a proprietor of Handsome Brook Farm, a pastured egg business with operations in 41 states. “What we’ve seen over the last year or so, though, is a revolution, with pastured eggs going from being a niche-y segment in the natural food market and Whole Foods to being a thriving business in places like Kroger.”

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Julio Alfaro, left, checks eggs for defects during the packaging process. After collection, the eggs are washed, inspected and packed.

Not all eggs labeled “pastured” are the same — there are no federal regulations governing use of the terms “pastured,” “free range” or “cage-free” on egg cartons.

Thus, the Babcocks’ production regimen for eggs labeled “pastured” is somewhat different from the Alexandres’, which in turn is different from the operations of Vital Farms, another large pastured-egg supplier.

Hens producing pastured eggs may indeed live in lush pastures — or they may merely have access to a patch of dirt outside their barn. Eggs labeled “cage-free” typically means the hens that laid them were free to move about inside a barn kitted out with an aviary system of roosts, nests and feeding stations — but with no outdoor access at all.

“There’s quite a range of operations among businesses that label their eggs pastured,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder and senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, which publishes the Organic Egg Scorecard, a ratings system.

Cornucopia is updating its egg report, thus Mr. Kastel and his team have recently visited egg farms around the country, hoping to clarify the terminology used on egg cartons. Its highest rating will go to egg businesses like the Alexandres’, where most of the hens are outside in mobile housing during the day with access to fresh pasture.

“To get the very best eggs, consumers need to do their homework,” Mr. Kastel said. “Despite federal organic law that requires access to the outdoors, many of the leading organic brands come from giant henhouses with as many as 180,000 birds, offering nothing more than a tiny screened porch.”

In 2008, California voters passed a ballot measure requiring egg producers to provide more spacious living conditions for laying hens. Eggs imported to California from other states also must come from hens housed to the same standard.

In the meantime, major food businesses like Taco Bell and Panera Bread have made commitments to require the eggs they use to come from cage-free environments, which are a step beyond the colony cages that are the minimum needed to meet the California regulations.

Finally, after the avian flu epidemic that killed tens of millions of laying hens this year, some major egg producers decided to replace at least some of their conventional housing with cage-free systems.

Costco began reducing its sales of conventional eggs in 2007, according to Craig Wilson, its vice president for food safety and quality assurance. “It just seemed to us at the time that battery cages were going to go away, and anyway, they’re not a good thing,” Mr. Wilson said.

In August and September of this year, which are not particularly big months for egg sales at Costco, the grocery chain sold 516 million eggs, he said.

Just 39 percent of those eggs came from birds housed in conventional systems. About 30 percent came from hens housed in colony cages, and the rest were from birds in cage-free systems or raised organically, free range or pastured.

Only 1.5 million eggs sold in August and September were from pastured operations like the Alexandres’, who have been Costco suppliers since 2014. “Could we rely on that kind of production for the nation’s egg supply?” Mr. Wilson said. “No. But our members just love them and so we do our best to support their desires.”

Costco, in fact, has inspired the Alexandres to double the number of laying hens they have over the next year

Their egg production system lives side-by-side with the milk business that Blake and Stephanie Alexandre started with when they bought the first 572 acres here, just eight miles south of the Oregon border and about a mile from the Pacific Ocean on land where giant redwood trees once grew.

The mild climate — the temperature fluctuates by only 11 degrees throughout the year — is ideal for outdoor hens, and rotating chickens and cows in pastures has a number of benefits for livestock and soil. Chickens, which are natural foragers, peck at cow patties to extract fly larvae and in the process help distribute manure around a field (as well as keep the fly population to a minimum). “They’re our best manure spreaders,” Christian Alexandre said.

That helps fertilize grass for the family’s 3,500 dairy cows, which are managed organically, to graze on. Vanessa Alexandre, who graduated last summer from California Polytechnic University, is immersing herself in the dairy business and recently struck a deal to provide milk from the family’s herd of 100 percent grass-fed cows to a large grocery business for its private label yogurt, which is made from milk from grass-fed cows. She plans to increase the number of cows raised solely on grass, rather than on grass and feed, as well.

The farm has nine chicken flocks, each typically numbering about 3,500 birds. The flocks are somewhat smaller now after a bout of cholera wiped out about a third of the hens last spring.

The flocks are rotated to new pastures every Tuesday and Friday, leaving behind a section of field shaved as close as a chin in the morning. The pasture then is left alone for a month or so to allow grass to regrow before cows are returned to it.

The hen barns, made from tin reclaimed from the farm in Southern California where Mrs. Alexandre grew up, and heated by solar panels on the roofs, move around on wheels. Christian Alexandre designed the barns, basing the design on the picturesque caravanlike coops he first saw as a boy on the Mennonite farm.

The barns are split in the middle and separated, to give the birds ample room to walk in and out. Nesting boxes hover over a wide canvas belt that catches the eggs as they are laid. Some of the farm’s 85 employees turn hand cranks each morning to move the belt, collecting the eggs at one end and delivering them to a facility where they are washed, inspected and packed.

Roosts for the birds slope up to the rafters of a barn. Very few birds were inside the barns on a recent visit, but they all return at night. “The best thing about chickens is you don’t have to herd them,” Blake Alexandre said.

The eggs sell for as much as 53 cents each — Christian Alexandre declined to reveal the profit margin. Costco sells 18 of them for $9.49 and is working with the family to reduce the price.

Handsome Brook, which grew out of a bed-and-breakfast farm that the Babcocks opened after they retired from the health care business, contracts for eggs with about 50 farms in 41 states that have some 250,000 hens in total. Its production, about 82 million eggs this year, dwarfs the Alexandres’ — and it plans to have 120 farms under contract next year, more than doubling its production.

Each farm houses an average of 5,000 birds in a barn on a 12.5-acre pasture, Ms. Babcock said. The chickens are fenced off in a section of that pasture until they have pecked the grass down to dirt; then they are moved to another section.

“We’re seeing 100 percent year-over-year growth in sales in the stores where our eggs are sold,” Ms. Babcock said. “We think we’re just at the beginning of what’s going to be a very big business.”

Original Article

Urban farmers find success leads to eviction

It’s a prickly chore Clark loathes but one she can’t avoid as her Big Muddy Farm has had to move from one vacant lot to another even though the business was thriving.

Urban farms like Clark’s are being evicted from center cities across the nation where they’ve become a much-remarked-on driver of urban revival in recent years, having brought healthy food, commerce and eye-pleasing greenery to dreary neighborhoods. During the recession, downtown landowners and leaders offered up plots for free to get new vitality on empty streets.

Now the thriving farms are being routed by another urban phenomenon: the hordes of people moving back downtown to live, which is turning green spaces into prime real estate. Plots where low-income residents raised vegetables, where community groups trained at-risk youth and where small garden businesses took root are being snapped up for construction of new apartments and townhouses.

“You have to plant as if you’re going to be there 10 years, even if you know it probably won’t work that way,” said Clark, a co-founder of Big Muddy Farm. She added, “It stinks to put in the time in an investment that doesn’t last.”

The evictions are sad but inevitable, said Amy Brendmoen, a City Council member in St. Paul, Minnesota, which recently booted an urban farm from city land to make way for housing construction. Even the most robust farms can’t earn enough to compete with a real estate development.

“You couldn’t help but smile when you went by,” she said of the ousted Stones Throw farm. “They were working so hard. You could see the harvest. It was incredible.”

No estimates exist on the number of urban farms, but their popularity soared in the past seven or eight years. Many started as community projects.

It’s unclear how many will survive. Big Muddy’s partners are hoping to hold onto their main farm, a series of raised beds and unheated greenhouses on three empty lots between a nonprofit theater and houses dating to the early 1900s.

But in Denver, Lisa Rogers last month closed her Feed Denver organization, which promoted urban farming in the booming city. The fact that the farms’ beautifying effect actually helps endanger them is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Developers will call and say, ‘We have a piece of land, can you pretty it up for two years?’ Rogers said. “As available land gets squeezed and prices go through the roof, like in Denver, it’s nearly impossible to find land and stay there.”

Even public property isn’t safe. Recently, a 6,000-square-foot nonprofit farm called GreenLeaf was evicted by the Denver Housing Authority so the land could be sold to a private housing developer. At-risk high school students worked at the farm, which is now moving next to a middle school.

“We’re going to have to look for new customers, and our old ones are going to have to look for a new produce source,” said Cody Meinhardt, the nonprofit group’s executive director.

In many center cities, residents are lamenting the disappearance of the farms, or their move to the suburbs.

Laura Staugaitis regularly bought produce-filled boxes from a local farmer near Denver, but said she can’t justify the 45-minute trip the purchase now requires.

“The drive made it a negative experience rather than an enriching experience,” she said.

The pressure for urban land is especially intense in the fastest growing cities like Houston.

In 2008, neighbors in a financially and racially mixed area just southwest of downtown signed a $1 a year lease with a property owner to turn an overgrown lot into the Midtown Community Garden.

“My goal was to get people out of their homes and apartments so they could relate to each other, and we did that,” said resident Scott Harbers, who helped set it up.

But attempts to get local government to acquire the site as a public space failed, and last year it was sold for nearly $1 million to a housing developer.

Some urban farm promoters are pushing local officials to begin setting aside plots for urban agriculture because of the health and community benefits. In the Seattle area, officials have designated portions of parks and other public land. In Los Angeles, community groups are working to encourage developers to have farming and green space designed into housing projects, including on rooftops.

“The vacant lot story is cool, but it’s also short term,” said Jesse Dubois, a leader in the Los Angeles urban farming effort.

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Follow Scott McFetridge at: https://twitter.com/smcfetridge .


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