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Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

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

HOMEGROWN Life: From September Rains to Holiday Radishes, Farmer Bryce Traces How Marginal Land Could Furnish America’s Christmas Dinner

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ah, yes. A rainy September morning.

It’s one of the glories of the annual cycle of seasons on the farm. Here in western Missouri, fall planting has commenced. Lettuce and spinach and radishes and other leafy and rooting plants are in the ground. But right now they’re just sitting there, waiting for calming temperatures and moisture. After a burning August (I’m not complaining; 2014 had some good and timely rains), we’re hoping for the heat to break and the fall crops to take off.

They need to get going soon if we’re to have a harvest in the next few weeks. The sun is rapidly retreating. The soil is still pretty dry. And yet, even knowing those conditions, we hope things will work out. Maybe the fall will be long and mild. Maybe the temperature will be in that magic 65-degree high, 45-degree low range until Christmas. Maybe.

HOMEGROWNsubmitthanksgivingphotosIt’s all relative, though. I count myself lucky. I live on fairly marginal farmland for specialty crop growing, specifically vegetable production. For the most part, that’s due to our occasional super-high winds and wild temperature fluctuations. And then there’s bug damage and disease and wilt—the latter thanks to our spotty but sometimes incredibly heavy rains. But this is only “marginality” in comparison with other places where veggies are the specialty, such as the mountain-protected regions of the American West. I’m talking about you, California. And you, Colorado River Basin.

I pick on the Colorado River watershed a lot in my head, for a very simple reason: Geography and environmental destruction are my nagging worries. I’m a guy who really struggles with water. The Colorado River has water worries in piles and piles. That sucker doesn’t even make it to its delta, on the southeast California-Baja California coast.

And this retreating river is only part of the issue. A lot of the problem has to do with agriculture. The Imperial Valley supplies an estimated 80 percent of US-produced winter vegetables. As the writer and photographer Pete McBride tells it, we might not realize it, but we Americans “eat the Colorado River” during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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That’s because the majority of fresh produce in grocery stores has a Colorado River pedigree during the holidays. The microclimate there and the farmers in the region have developed a serious agribusiness based on the area’s “economic competitiveness,” or giant monocultures of industrial vegetables that get shipped out to the highest bidder.

I woke up to this reality while I was enjoying this morning’s rainstorm. Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott laid it out clearly: The highly veggie-productive Colorado River region could be facing an absolute lack of water very soon.

So what does that mean for Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern veggie growers like me? We better get our acts together. We better embrace our advantages of fall and winter production, construct hoop houses and greenhouses, and try to build on the beginnings of a nonsummer production season.

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Because those of us with experience know a longer season is ripe for the picking. We’re not trying to steal the market from our farmer friends in the Southwest. Rather, we know two things:

  1. Local food is fresher and can have a much smaller carbon footprint than industrial produce.
  2. People want a more transparent food system that aligns ecological practices with healthy meals.

So, get ready, veggie growers. Whether we like it or not, somebody needs to provide the greens and radishes and carrots for all those holiday meals. Entire industries are built upon such societal shifts. The question is whether, through agricultural policy and funding, we, as produce growers, and we, as a society, can make the transition away from desert-based veggie production in a manner that limits harm while providing maximum local economic development.

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Maybe it’s time we quit listening to all of those economists who keep nay-saying “government picking winners and losers.” If we can transition the fall and winter veggie system in our country from the desert Southwest to the Midwest, South, and East, everybody can win. Yes, everybody: farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Who knows? Maybe that broader geographic distribution of farm laborers who follow the produce would help us fix immigration policy, as well. Maybe not. But it’s worth pursuing.

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

PHOTOS: (HOLIDAY PLATE) JENNIFER; (ROOTS AND GREENS) ANDREA DiMAURO; (HIGH TUNNEL) RICHARD MAXWELL; (FENNEL APRICOT STUFFING) PENNY V.