It’s official: Organic food certified in the European Union will now be treated as equivalent to food certified here in the U.S., a fact that will now make trade between the two regions much easier. Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the new agreement on Feb. 15, several media sources have lauded it for opening up new overseas markets for organic farmers.
The agriculture press has called it a win for organics, and even Food Safety News focused almost exclusively on the positive trade implications of the agreement.
Mark Lipson, organic and sustainable agriculture policy adviser for the USDA, agrees. “It builds more trust,” he says, adding: “It will give more heft to organic overall.”
You know what would make supermarket food taste better? Making grocery shopping more like clam digging. Imagine having to paw through a bin of wet sand to find your onions, or thrash through icy waves for a chunk of Parmesan. Challenging, yes, but think of the feeling of accomplishment as you sit down to dinner.
I thought about this last Sunday as I stood knee-deep in the Pacific, wind-whipped and sandblasted. I’d come to Washington’s Roosevelt Beach on the second clam-harvest weekend of the year to up my foraging game: Having already tackled blackberries, mushrooms, and dumpster donuts, the coveted Pacific razor clam seemed the logical upgrade. The animal kingdom is a whole new ball game, even if the animal in question does look kind of like a stray pancreas.
It’s a familiar story: A farming family in a small rural town can’t make ends meet. After generations of farming, they’re forced to sell their land and call in the auctioneer. In 2005, I produced a short film about a family like this in Meridian, Idaho. All but one of the five McKay siblings had chosen to work off the farm, and the son who’d stuck around grew sod to sell to developers who were systematically paving over Meridian to make way for residential subdivisions. It was a doomsday view of the future of rural land and farming in this country.
Almost seven years later, the story, on the surface, hasn’t changed. According to the American Farmland Trust, over 4 million acres of agricultural land -- almost the size of Massachusetts -- were developed between 2002 and 2007. Meridian is now an official suburb of Boise and, despite the Great Recession, small rural towns across the country are still being devoured by urban sprawl. Meanwhile, the urban farm movement is in full swing in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Detroit, and the blighted landscapes of inner cities are increasingly transformed into vibrant plots of vegetables and flowers. Something else is happening too -- this renaissance, or reimagining of agriculture, is starting to spill over into the suburbs.
This string of dried peppers was a gift from Annabelle Lenderink, a farmer I know. When she handed them to me on one of her last days in the Berkeley Farmers Market for the season, I remember her saying, "They look really nice when the sun shines through them." So I took her advice and hung them in my kitchen, where I can pull one or two down at a time to crush and flavor a pot of soup here and a pot of beans there. And every time I do, I think of Annabelle, who runs a beautiful farm called La Tercera, right beside the larger farm she works for called Star Route. Every time the sun catches the peppers, I'm reminded of the rows of chicories and puntarella she grows there and the crew of workers she treats with dignity and respect.
There’s an old Bob Dylan line: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” It’s one to keep in mind when looking at farms in winter, at the brown fields, skeletal orchards, and vineyards waiting for a shot of green. Despite appearances, winter is a surprisingly important time on a farm. There’s a lot going on, biologically, below the surface, much that can influence what we see on market tables for the rest of the year. And much that can go wrong if the winter is warm, as this one has been in the Northeast.
First, the deep, killing, subfreezing cold of winter typically eliminated many damaging insects and pathogens. As Cornell University Fruit Integrated Pest Management Coordinator Dr. Juliet Carroll explains, “A classic example is Stewart’s Wilt of corn. For Stewart’s Wilt, the bacterium that causes the disease overwinters in the flea beetle that feeds on corn. If winter temperatures are low enough, the risk of Stewart’s Wilt may be completely eliminated for a region.” But if that deep cold doesn’t come, an outbreak of Stewart’s Wilt can mean smaller harvests, higher prices, and frustrated farmers.
In case you think pickling is just another excuse to put Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in goofy wigs, think again. Along with products like jam, flour, and beef jerky, pickles count as “value-added” foods, and they’re at the core of what it will take for the local food movement to mature beyond an easily parodied trend.
You see, without these higher-value, less perishable products, farmers and ranchers working at a small, sustainable scale and selling their products locally can rarely make a real living. In addition to the home food preservation trend, small businesses are also working to fill the gaps that exist between heavily processed, industrial foods and local produce -- and the result is often minimally processed “value-added products.” Such products allow farmers to extend their season, providing a way for locavore consumers to, say, eat peaches in February, and -- perhaps more important -- providing a product for farmers to sell long after peach season is gone.
Not that it’s easy to expand a farm operation in that way. It takes seed funding, market testing, and food safety chops to grow your business. That’s where -- believe it or not -- our government is trying to help.
Urban farmers are raising and slaughtering their own livestock, and a shadowy organization called Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter is up in arms about it. Writing at Mother Jones, Keira Butler gets the scoop on what's sure to be the biggest civil war in the Bobo universe since the great “tomatoes in winter: is it OK as long as they're local?” debate of '09.
This bunch of NOBS has taken the time to put together a flyer and a website in opposition to urban farming -- a tiny subset of farming that looks even more harmless when you consider the awful state of animal welfare in industrial agriculture. Sure, we may be talking about a minuscule number of animals that are being hand-raised in humane living situations, while the vast majority of our meat comes from deplorable conditions … but on the other hand, the NOBS members’ kids might have to think about a chicken getting killed! MAN THE TREBUCHETS.
There are people around who remember the days when squirrel was a more commonly served meat on the American table than chicken. The Kentucky Long Rifle, with its long barrel and small caliber, was designed for squirrel hunting (the smaller the caliber, the more squirrel left to take home after shooting one.)
The ideal shot was aimed not at the squirrel, but at the tree branch directly below it, so that the animal would be killed by the concussion of the bullet instead of the bullet itself. Historians say that this is what won the Revolutionary war; even the most highly trained British soldiers were no match for squirrel killers trained by hunger.
Until recent decades, Americans ate squirrel meat because it was cheap, plentiful, and there, according to Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. Domesticated animals may have been easier to catch, but, in the days before the industrialization of farming, they were expensive to raise and feed. “When Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot, that was a big deal,” Shaw adds. The first edition of The Joy of Cooking, published in 1931, was heavy on the squirrel. As it moved into later and later editions, Hoover’s promise was fulfilled (by other politicians, if not Hoover himself) and chicken gradually replaced squirrel.
Urban Adamah, a one-acre urban farm on a vacant lot in a gritty stretch of Berkeley, has transformed an area better known for liquor stores and light industry into a thriving community gathering space and food hub.
Adam Berman founded the farm in the summer of 2010 with just such lofty goals. Urban Adamah (for the Hebrew word for "earth") offers a fellowship program for young adults, dubbed The Jewish Sustainability Corps, that integrates organic farming, social justice outreach, leadership training, environmental education, and progressive Jewish spiritual practice. There's yoga, meditation, and singing too.
Berman, who directed a Jewish retreat center where he founded a similar fellowship in Connecticut before relocating to Berkeley, got a lucky break when landowner Wareham Development agreed to host the farm rent-free for two years. Hence, the portable feel to the project: The farm has dozens of raised, movable produce pallets, greenhouses, a cob oven, chicken coops on wheels, and large tents that serve as classrooms. Everything on the property could be transported with relative ease, if a new location proves necessary. Raised beds filled with fresh, organic soil also solves the problem of contaminated soil on the property, a former printing press site.