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Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: In Defense of Good Food; or, Farmer Bryce Responds to the 2014 Midterm Elections

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150“Who are the folks that work at the White House? Why, they’re a bunch of college professors and community organizers who think they’re smarter than all the rest of us.”

Those are the words of yesterday’s 2014 midterm elections big winner, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is poised to become the Senate majority leader in January 2015. He, and Republicans the land over, ran their campaigns against President Obama. And they won.

HOMEGROWN readers might prefer DIY instructionals about gardening and canning, but that’s not what’s on my mind today. Maybe that’s because I live in a conservative farming community in West Missouri. Maybe that’s because I had to endure a bunch of loony political ads on TV while I was rooting on the KC Royals during their exciting, if unfulfilled, drive for a World Series title. Maybe it’s because of that McConnell quote I heard on NPR Monday evening, blasting the liberal elite professors and community-based organizations trying to stand up to the rich and powerful.

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I can’t seem to get Senator McConnell’s venom for people like me—a college-educated liberal who spent years working as a community organizer for family farmers and against the corporate takeover of agriculture—out of my mind. He put into words a very popular sentiment, and those of us working for local food and family farm agriculture need to wrestle with it.

On the face of it, you have to admit it’s pretty easy to make fun of us local food folks. We spend hours thinking about such important topics as how to best preserve the nutritional value of kale in our meals or which is the best breed of chicken to use for a pot of soup stock. (Eighteen-month-old Barred Rock laying hens do great!) I slapped my forehead when, a few years back, President Obama mused on the troubling increase in food prices by asking, “Have you seen the price of arugula at Whole Foods lately?”

No, Mr. President. I have not seen the price of arugula at Whole Foods. I grow my own.

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So, yes, we’re easy to poke fun at. We take ourselves too seriously. And that’s a big reason why we’re seen as elitist snobs instead of real people with good ideas about how to improve the economy and environment by having more farmers growing real food in a sustainable manner.

Think about what Senator McConnell is saying: Elections and politics are about a war of cultural symbols. During the Farm Bill mess the past few years, critical nutrition and local food and conservation programs were on the ropes. Some good programs were cut severely; others were eliminated. That’s what we’re facing with a McConnell-led Senate. Who cares about the latte liberals and their food stamp machines at farmers markets? We’ve got corporate taxes to cut.

This is all important because the Good Food Movement needs to figure out how to resonate with a broader population if we are to make the change we seek. It’s important to understand the reality of the people working on these issues. We’re incredibly diverse. Yes, you’ve got your Brooklyn fermented-beverage hipsters, but there are also plenty of off-the-grid conservatives who identify the grandest issue of all as the right to drink raw milk. Go to a “small farm conference” and you’ll see all kinds of weirdos doing interesting things.

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I ramble. I know.

Mostly, I’m concerned and frustrated, just like the majority of Americans. I’m sick of a supposedly growing economy that enriches a few at the top while most of us barely scrape by. Heck, my wife had to go back to teaching so we could have health insurance, since it was so hard to make a living off the farm. (In addition to farming, I also work as a writer of grants and such to make extra money). Living without health insurance seemed fine until my son broke his arm while we were building our homestead house, and we wracked up giant hospital bills we couldn’t afford.

My greatest frustration is watching as good people with good ideas who work hard face increasing challenges. Local farm and food enterprises deserve serious support from society, both from “the market” and from public support. It’s a job-creation machine ripe for the picking.

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I’ve gotta get back to the compost pile before my head explodes. I’ll try to be more happy and hopeful next time.

 

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

ALL PHOTOS BY HOMEGROWN.ORG MEMBERS: (GIRL WITH RADISH) CITY BLOSSOMS; (CHICKEN COOP) AMY; (HIGH TUNNEL) JESSICA REEDER; (SWEET POTATOES) ASHLEE SHELTON

 

HOMEGROWN Life: Farmer Bryce’s Take on New USDA Funding

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150I’m a small farmer struggling to pay the bills and keep the farm alive. Farming takes time and money, which sometimes turns out to be the same thing. Even if everything works out and the harvest is good, it takes money to buy more animals or to build fences or to pay for seeds or soil improvements.

So, like the vast, vast majority of farmers, my wife and I both work off the farm to pay our regular bills, and we try to keep the farming happening at the same time. That doesn’t make us special or unique. Net farm income is actually negative, as farmers tend to defer paying themselves in favor of reinvesting in their farms’ future capacity. USDA Economic Research Service reports, somewhat startlingly, that 85 to 95 percent of farm income comes from “off farm” sources.

In terms of off-farm work, I count myself lucky. I work on a variety of rural economic development projects related to local food production, expanding access to resources for small farmers, rural infrastructure projects, and renewable energy programs. Generally, I help do paperwork: writing grants, getting startup capital in place, writing business plans, et cetera.

Involvement with projects like these puts me in a position of being very attuned to the policies, priorities, and investments made by USDA through a wide variety of programs. And, as you might expect, I get frustrated and confused about what exactly USDA’s multipronged approach means when it comes to distributing resources on the ground.

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For instance, one of my favorite USDA programs of all is the Community Food Projects Grants. This week, USDA announced that it would be providing $4.8 million in funding to innovative local food and healthy eating projects. In terms of combining job creation with nutrition and healthy food distribution, CFPs are a hugely impactful and beneficial program. Some of my favorite organizations, like the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Cultivate KC, have paired CFP investments with internal and private funding sources to build long-standing efforts that support urban and family farmers in improving access to good food for low-income families.

That said, it boggles my mind why such an impactful program like CFP continues to have such a limited volume of funding compared to other USDA funding streams. This week, for instance, USDA also announced a $40 million bump to the commercial canned salmon industry, in order to “clear last year’s inventory” as they are canning up this year’s catch. The canned salmon will be distributed to food banks across the country.

Now, I’m not complaining here about the purchase of salmon—a healthy food and possibly sustainable industry in its own right—for low-income families. I want to be clear that I have no problem with using resources to feed hungry families with nutritious food. But what rattles me is the wide disparity of scale between the two programs, $4.8 million versus $40 million: one to prop up small organizations building healthy food infrastructure and jobs to support local economies, the other to bail out a well-established industry from overproduction.

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I’m only using the salmon purchase here to demonstrate a very small point because, in reality, both of these programs are a drop in the bucket. I mention the salmon program because I heard about it on the radio while I was watering my spinach patch. The truth is USDA invests nearly all of its resources in SNAP (food stamps) and a safety net for crop producers (crop subsidies and crop insurance). That’s where the true disparity resides.

Here’s what’s frustrating: spending time and effort to build a project team, budget, and people’s hopes that we can make meaningful change in their lives. And then competing with other, similar projects that could make meaningful change in people’s lives. Frankly, it seems like we’re fighting over the crumbs at the table.

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Once again, I’m glad USDA has these minimal local food programs available. I’m glad important soil and water conservation programs are up and running and that USDA is committed to renewable energy. I’m glad USDA has expanded its work with beginning farmers and socially disadvantaged farming communities, including African-American farmers, Latinos, and Native American agricultural efforts. I even support a strong safety net in place for family farmers raising crops and livestock, although my system of support would look wildly different from the one we have in place for now.

But at times like these, when so many of us are looking for jobs and pathways to building a better economy through clean and green industries, it seems like a no brainer to shift resources away from giant agribusiness interests and toward high-impact, community-based ventures. I am not naive about the prospects for making this shift happen through the political process. Still, it’s worth the conversation. Back to work, I guess. Back to work.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTOS: (HAPPY GARDENER) CITY BLOSSOMS; (CANNED SALMON) PAT JOHNSON; (COMMUNITY GARDEN) SALLIE GORDON

HOMEGROWN Life: A Fisherman’s View of Farm Aid 2014

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

 

We’re thrilled to share this guest post from Chris McCaffity, a member of the community-supported fishery Walking Fish and the first workshop presenter in the HOMEGROWN Skills Tent at Farm Aid 2014. We couldn’t have made it happen without him! Read on for more about Walking Fish, why community-supported fishing is crucial, and the September 13 concert in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

I was blessed with a chance to help represent Walking Fish at Farm Aid this year.

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The day started with a press event featuring Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Several small scale farmers explained how some corporations and politicians are controlling them and our food supply. Their stories mirrored much of what commercial fishermen experience. The best chance of survival for independent food producers is simply for consumers to purchase our products. Voting with our money can have more impact than voting for most politicians.

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We were scheduled first at the Skills Tent, immediately following the press event. The gates had just opened to the public, so our audience was small to start with but grew through the presentation as a steady stream of people joined us. A chef from Hatteras demonstrated how to clean some seafood as I talked about how consumers across the state could access local seafood through Walking Fish.

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After visiting educational booths with topics ranging from biodiesel to locally sourced food for schools, we got to enjoy some music in a sea of spectators.

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My daughter met Lillie Mae from Jack White’s band. Lillie told us about how one of her friends fished commercially as she graciously posed for a picture.

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It was inspiring to see so many people supporting independent food producers. Our collective purchasing power is the key to preserving our freedom to access healthy food from family farmers and fishermen.

You can learn more about Walking Fish on the fishery’s website and feel free to contact me, Chris, if you are interested in learning about how we can sustainably manage our fisheries to limit waste and produce more seafood. Ask me about how you can place special orders for the snapper/grouper and other offshore seafood I harvest.

Our hearty thanks to Chris, his family, and Walking Fish. You can browse more photos from the HOMEGROWN Skills Tent and read more about the North Carolina organizations we partnered with to make the workshops happen.

ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHRIS McCAFFITY