Wednesday, August 9, 2017


By Farmer Richard

This week we are continuing our on-going conversation about “the future of our food,” a discussion that  came to the forefront in our newsletters as a result of the buyout of Whole Foods Market by Amazon. The last article in this series was entitled, “How’s the Weather” and was published two weeks ago.  That article served as our first-hand account of our experiences with erratic weather patterns and being the person “downstream” from members of the community who are making poor choices on their land that impact others.  In our case erosion from a neighboring property washed down into our valley causing our drainage systems to back up resulting in crop losses and a big mess to clean up.  I concluded my last article with -“What’s next?  We keep talking.  Brainstorming.  We need solutions to these issues, we need changes to policy, we need to figure out the course our future will take.  We’re back to the ‘future of our food.’  I once again, encourage you to be part of these conversations so we, as a community, can proactively decide our future.  There are many things that could be done!  But, they take money, direction, leadership, ‘political will,’ regulation, incentives and education.  Firstly we need understanding, cooperation and the right attitude.”

This week I’d like to revisit that concept of “having the right attitude.”  Some years ago I had the privilege of visiting many farms in Europe over a month stay, both organic farmers and conventional farmers in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, England and France.  I learned so much and made many friends on that trip, but what struck me and made a lasting impression on me was their ATTITUDE!  The farmers had a positive acceptance of government regulations meant for the common good of the community.The consumers also had a desire to maintain and support their local, small farm economy.  The farmers were producing local food that had its own unique terroir, and within the communities the farmers were thriving and everyone was well fed.  For example, the Swiss value the small goat farms that dot the Swiss Alps, each making their own cheese to bring to the village to sell.  They, as a society, made the decision many years ago to preserve those small farms and they do so with government subsidies and regulation. 

I remember a conversation I had with a conventional hydroponic pepper and eggplant grower in Holland.  He was forced by regulation to install a recycling system for his greenhouse fertilizer solution before the water could be discharged into the canal.  He didn’t like being regulated, but all his neighbors shared the same situation and they decided to share in the investment for the technology to reverse an old practice that had led to fish death in the canals.  Because they all had to make the change, and the consumers wanted and supported the change, his attitude was that it was the “right thing to do.” Even though it cost him some money and effort, he had the support of other farmers and the consumers to do what was best for the big picture.  Plus, he acknowledged his previous practices were causing harm to the ecosystem and he too wanted to see the herons return to the canals with the fish.  It’s the right thing to do! 

In the recent Growing for Market publication (June/July 2017), there was an article written by a former vegetable grower and current student at Michigan State University pursuing a Master’s degree with a focus on organic weed control.  His name is Sam Hitchcock Tilton.  Earlier this year he, along with several other individuals from the Midwest, had the opportunity to travel to Europe to learn more about weed control methods.  However, despite all he learned about weed control, the thing that “stands out most brightly are the people that I met and the agricultural systems they are a part of....Just as the soil contains its own myriad characters and relationships, water vapor, bacteria, and worms, that all play interconnected roles to create fertility, so too I found the world of European vegetable growing to be peopled by many levels and relationships.  The entity with the biggest effect on all the others….was always the governments.  In each country the government played a large role in determining how farming is practiced.”  Sam also experienced that similar European attitude I experienced over thirty years ago!    Sam goes on to state “Whereas here we prize individual freedom and often put it before proper stewardship of our shared resources, in the European countries I visited the opposite seemed to be true—communal resources like water, soil, and the social fabric of rural communities are protected, often to the detriment of individual freedom.”

Farmer Richard standing in our field of cover crops!
Across Europe you find many examples of cultures that spend public tax dollars to preserve a food system that they deem important.  It is not about who has the most money to bid for a property or have the upper hand.  In fact, in Sam’s article he explains that renting and owning farmland in Europe is regulated by the government, so they decide who can rent land to farm.  While this may seem unfair, it actually works in the favor of both the farmer and the community as a whole.  In an example he uses in his article, Sam tells the story of a Dutch farmer he spoke with.  This farmer explained that “the Dutch government regulates long-term agricultural leases in order to encourage stability for those farmers who rent their entire farm, whereas if you are renting some fields for a few seasons it is your business…I was told that in the Netherlands his long term lease means that (he) can stay on his farm until he is 65, and that kicking him off before then would be a hard process.”  Additionally, this Dutch farmer also seemed happy when he explained to Sam how closely some farming practices are regulated.  For example, to prevent erosion and nutrient leaching no sandy fields are allowed to lie bare over the winter, they must all have a cover crop otherwise the grower is fined.  (The farmer) didn’t seem to mind this as he thought it was just good farming that protected the water and soil of his country.”

 Additionally, in Europe governments pay incentives to new farmers and organic farmers and insist they have a farming degree and gain appropriate experience.  They encourage education and support their up and coming farmers by setting them up for success.  On the flip side, the consumers are also willing to support their local farmers.  It’s not just about the farmers’ attitudes, the consumers are an important piece of this puzzle as well.

When we consider the attitudes I experienced as did Sam, it is clear that we have a very different attitude in this country!  For several years there has been an “incentive” from USDA to pay farmers to have a buffer strip between field and waterways.  The purpose of the buffer strip is to prevent erosion and filter out much of the fertilizer and chemicals running off of conventional corn and soybean fields so they do not pollute our waterways. What a great idea!  Farmers can be paid extra to plant that buffer to pollinator, bird and wildlife habitat!  Another great idea!  But very few, only the “do the right thing” farmers, are taking advantage of this incentive. 

Portion of our tool room,
organized with Dutch influence.
As I discussed in a previous article, the prevailing attitude in this country is more self-centered and often lacks consideration for the impact personal choices will have on shared resources and the greater community.  Attitude, culture, money and politics, they all go together.  I admire the European cultures.  When I visited my Dutch relatives, I loved their appreciation of good, local food and their attention to details.  Every tool was hung in its place, every outbuilding, even old thatched roof sheds had not one missing pane of glass in the whole country!  They are civilized and take pride in their work as well as their community.  Certainly they have similar challenges to ours, there are pressures from multi-nationals, etc, but they are a democracy and the majority has managed to hold on to their culture.  On the other hand, we have little culture to “hang-on” to!  I would not call Velveeta and Spam a cultural agricultural heritage we should defend!  Unfortunately any cultural heritage that we had, the self-sufficient homesteads that tamed the prairies, and then lost to the “dust bowl,” are gone.  The work ethic of the farm families, the community “threshing bees,” the cooperation among neighboring farmers, mostly gone! 

But there are some positive examples of attitude in this country as well.  Take our neighboring state of Minnesota as an example.  They have made it a regulation to put in buffer strips with cash incentives for farmers.  Despite the fact that the major farm organization who also sells ag chemicals and has massive lobbyists says, “You cannot tell us how to farm ‘our’ land,” Minnesota seems to have decided it’s “the right thing to do” and made it a law.

The USDA has a program called SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) that is part of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.  The purpose of this program is to help advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities by providing education grants as well as conducting research and conducting outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.  In their recent Summer 2017 newsletter they featured several different grant recipients that have gone on to produce positive results in their community. In one example, a grant was used to help connect Michigan beef producers, local processors, distributors, and retailers in the Traverse City area in order to meet the Traverse city’s goal to source 20% of their food within a 100-mile radius by 2020.  As a result of this funding, beef producers have been trained in pasture-based grazing systems for raising beef cattle and they are seeing positive results in both the quality of the products they are producing as well as improving their land and quality of life.”
Our Red Angus Cattle enjoying time grazing in their paddock!
The further we go in these discussions, the complexity of our tangled food system and our understanding of it starts to unravel.  The individual attitudes of farmers, consumers, politicians, biotech advocates, etc are shaping our food system now and into the future.  In my next article, I’d like to explore more of the issues pertaining to this concept of “Feeding the World.”  I”ll share some of my own thoughts as well as those posed by Food First, a non-profit organization that researches, defends and develops policy related to food issues including food justice, food sovereignty , and food democracy.  In one of their recent newsletters they posed this question:  “Can we feed the world without destroying it?”  In closing, I continue to encourage you to consider your place in shaping our food system for the future and welcome your thoughts and input into this conversation.  

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