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Ag Economics, Politics: On a Long Quest for Parity

Family Farm Advocate George Naylor Discusses Past, Present & Future of Ag Economics, Politics 

Naylor is the great contrarian at the heart of the industrial farm system — that immense edifice of massive corn and soybean production, mega-farms of vast and increasing size, powerful corporate actors and federal money. As a leader of the National Family Farm Coalition, a board member of the Center for Food Safety, and a persuasive writer of essays and op-ed pieces, he reminds the elephant of mainstream agriculture that it’s heading for a cliff, his voice always articulate, his candor unsparing. Most Americans had never heard of him until he appeared as one of the great explainers in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the conventional farmer who outlined the self-destructive nature of Big Ag in a pivotal chapter. He played a key role in forcing Monsanto to abandon its plans for GMO wheat, and he is one of the few voices in the entire spectrum who insist that a guarantee of fair prices for all farmers offers the only hope for rural America. He’s one of the few critics in the land who seems to know that “parity” is still part of the English language. “Without Clarity On Parity, All You Get Is Charity,” he titled his chapter in a book called Food Movements Unite!, stating an important truth in doggerel worthy of Muhammad Ali. Naylor believes everybody should pay organic prices for their groceries and vary their diets accordingly. “Here in Iowa,” he wrote, “where the landscape is plastered with millions of acres of genetically modified corn and soybeans along with their poisonous herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers polluting our lakes and rivers, our institutions deny that Silent Spring has arrived, let alone that anything needs to change. In fact, politicians and educators of every stripe bow to the god of Norman Borlaug, mesmerized by the World Food Prize mantra that we must feed the world using whatever new technology the chemical giants offer to deal with new problems turning up every day.” Continue Reading →

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

Taking on Food Justice with Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

As a creative educator, regenerative farmer, writer and activist, Leah Penniman is an exceptional leader for food justice. She is best known for her work at Soul Fire Farm, which she and husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff started as an organic family farm committed to “the dismantling of oppressive structures that misguide our food system.”

Soul Fire Farm is entering its ninth year of growing healthy food for the couple’s former urban neighbors in Albany and Troy, New York. Since coming to the land over a decade ago, they have transformed a patch of marginal mountain ground into rich topsoil, faithfully provisioned a sliding-scale CSA whose members often lack access to fresh produce and created a vibrant, welcoming community of learning and admirable influence.

Nurtured by her childhood connection with the natural world, Penniman got hooked on agriculture as a teenager at a summer job with the Boston-based Food Project and has never looked back. Before graduating from college, she worked at the Farm School, co-managed Many Hands Organic Farm and co-founded the YouthGROW urban farming program. Until this year, she has been a full-time environmental science and biology teacher for which she received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.

Continue Reading →

Fighting Food Insecurity

Author, Anti-Hunger Advocate Andy Fisher Sheds Light on Food Insecurity and its Ties to our Industrial Food System, Politics

Why is the problem of chronic hunger and food insecurity getting worse in the world’s top superpower? Forty-three million people receive SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and 13 percent of the U.S. population fit USDA’s definition of “food insecure.” Despite an army of well-intentioned volunteers working with 60,000 emergency food sites supplied by more than 200 food banks, the anti-hunger sector has not been able to stem the tide of hunger. In fact, as Andy Fisher points out in his new book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, little that they do alleviates the root causes of the problem.
Fisher is best known for his roles developing the concept of community food security and building the food movement. In 1994 he co-founded the Community Food Security Coalition, a national alliance of groups focused on improving food access and strengthening local food systems. He served as the organization’s executive director for 17 years, until 2011. CFSC brought together people from disparate parts of the food system, such as sustainable agriculture, anti-hunger, community gardening and farmers’ markets, which had not been in the same room before, and gave them opportunities to collaborate as partners and create projects that benefit multiple interests. Fisher was instrumental in gaining passage of federal legislation such as Community Food Projects and the Farm to School grant program. He has worked on a wide variety of food system projects and topics, including food policy councils, healthy corner stores, coalition building and farm to cafeteria. Since leaving CFSC, he has taught at various universities in Oregon, most recently as adjunct faculty member of the public health department at Portland State University, and served as interim executive director at Portland Fruit Tree Project.
Fisher became interested in domestic food issues as a grad student in Urban Planning and Latin American Studies at UCLA. When Los Angeles exploded following the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King, he and a handful of fellow grad students felt an urgency to deal with what was going on in their own backyard. “The food system was not working for people in South Central Los Angeles. People were burning grocery stores, and there weren’t many supermarkets there,” he said. Fisher went on to conduct a yearlong inquiry into the problems of food access, health and hunger in one South Central neighborhood and explore possible solutions. The report gained attention as one of the first community food assessments in the country.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

ACRES U.S.A. Food pantries and soup kitchens were originally intended as sources of food for emergencies, but millions of Americans regularly depend on them. Food pantries have popped up in so many neighborhoods, in rural areas and even at colleges. What went wrong in our country to make this the new normal?

ANDY FISHER: That’s a wonderful question. The first food bank — a place that aggregated food from retailers and processors in a warehouse — opened in Phoenix in the 1960s. Into the 1970s only a handful of food banks existed across the country. A nascent alliance called Second Harvest coordinated those efforts. Come 1981, after Reagan took office, the country went into a deep recession. A lot of manufacturing jobs went south or to Japan. The steel industry is a prime example of an industry where many jobs left the country. Many people became unemployed. During that period labor unions, churches and other groups started creating food pantries as a way to feed people on an emergency basis. Nobody expected it to last forever. But once the ball got rolling, food corporations realized it was a morally preferable way to dispose of their surplus food. For volunteers, it was a wonderful way to feel good. People continued to need the food. The emergency food system became very convenient for the federal government because it demonstrated that the private sector was addressing this issue and suggested that we didn’t need ‘big government’ to do it. Over time it became institutionalized. I started working on these issues in the early- to mid-1990s. For the first 10 years I was involved, food bankers would frequently claim that they were trying to put themselves out of business. Around a decade ago, I stopped hearing that on a regular basis. Part of what accelerated the process of making the emergency food system a permanent part of the landscape was America’s Second Harvest, the food banking trade association. Around 2006, Second Harvest hired Vicki Escarra, formerly Delta’s chief marketing officer, as its CEO. She led a rebranding of the organization as Feeding America and brought in high-level advertising PR folks. They ramped up their fundraising from corporate America and starting engaging in cause marketing. The relationships between the food banks and corporations really took off.

ACRES U.S.A. You call fighting hunger a national pastime. That sounds like something that Americans could be proud of. What makes you critical of the way we conduct this activity? Continue Reading →

Ecological Economics

Herman Daly, Ph.D., is an ecological economist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. His life’s work is to explore how massive-scale human activities can be ordered in ways that take into account the biosphere — “ecosystem services” in economic parlance — the life support systems on which everything depends. As a professor, he’s encouraged students to look beyond the existing neoclassical economic paradigm — the one that says we can, in essence, have infinite growth on a finite planet. Daly came of intellectual age in the late 1950s and early ’60s while attending Rice University in Houston, Texas, his home state. He believed economics was a good choice for a major because it combined humanities, science and philosophy, and he figured it might help him make a living upon graduation. But he later decided choosing economics was a mistake, “because economics along with social science generally does not really have one foot in the sciences and the other foot in the humanities. I kind of thought it had both feet in the air,” he says. Still, that sophomore-year mistake led to his life’s work — attempting to ground economics in both the physical sciences and in the humanities and ethics. After receiving his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Daly taught economics for a time, then went to Northeast Brazil to teach as Ford Foundation Visiting Professor at the University of Ceara. Daly worked as a senior economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank from 1988 to 1994.

He also served as a research associate at Yale University, visiting fellow at the Australian National University, and a senior Fulbright lecturer in Brazil. He has more than 100 articles to his name in professional journals and anthologies as well as many books, including Ecological Economics and the Ecology of Economics (1999); Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (with J. Farley, 2003, 2011); and From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy (2014).

Interviewed by Leigh Glenn

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve said you were interested in helping to resolve poverty in Latin America through economic growth and development. How quickly did that change after you entered the field of economics?

HERMAN DALY. That took a while to disappear. In a way, that’s both fortunate and unfortunate. That made it easier for me to get along as an economist, to be promoted and get tenure. From the time I graduated, it took maybe 10 to 12 years before I had some experience teaching in Northeast Brazil. Reading Mathus, Rachel Carson and more recently then, having studied under Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen at Vanderbilt, re-reading John Stuart Mill — all of those things, plus the whole big population question in Northeast Brazil.

ACRES U.S.A. What kinds of real-life examples did you see in Brazil that prompted you to question the emphasis on economic growth as a panacea? Continue Reading →

Interview: Author Judith Schwartz Examines Water Management

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

Judith Schwartz - modern water wisdomWhen writer Judith Schwartz learned that soil carbon is a buffer for climate change, her focus as a journalist took a major turn. She was covering the Slow Money National Gathering in 2010 when Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap stated that over time more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than has been released from burning fossil fuels. She says her first reaction was “Why don’t I know this?” Then she thought, “If this is true, can carbon be brought back to the soil?” In the quest that followed, she made the acquaintance of luminaries like Allan Savory, Christine Jones and Gabe Brown and traveled to several continents to see the new soil carbon paradigm in action. Schwartz has the gift of making difficult concepts accessible and appealing to lay readers, and that’s exactly what she does in Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, which Elizabeth Kolbert called “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.”

For her most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.  

The week after this interview was recorded, Schwartz travelled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a congressional briefing on soil health and climate change organized by Regeneration International. As a public speaker, educator, researcher, and networker, she has become deeply engaged in the broad movement to build soil carbon and restore ecosystems.

A Healthy Water Cycle

ACRES U.S.A. Please explain the title of your book, Water in Plain Sight.

JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ. The title plays on the idea that there is water in plain sight if we know where to look. It calls attention to aspects of water that are right before us but we are not seeing. By this I mean how water behaves on a basic level, not anything esoteric.

ACRES U.S.A. How should we reframe the problems of water shortages, runoff, and floods?

SCHWARTZ. Once we approach these problems in terms of how water moves across the landscape and through the atmosphere, our understanding shifts. For example, when we frame a lack of water as “drought,” our focus is on what water is or isn’t coming down from the sky. That leaves us helpless because there’s really not much we can do. But if we shift our frame from drought to aridification, then the challenge becomes keeping water in the landscape. That opens up opportunities. Continue Reading →