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Posts Tagged ‘sustainable’

“American Meat”: Not Just Another Food Documentary

Friday, February 24th, 2012


Over the past couple of weeks the mainstream media has been paying more attention to the industrialized meat system in America.  During it’s telecast the Grammy’s featured Chipotle’s ‘Back to the Start’ advertisement, an animated critique of factory farming,  to which the Farm Bureau  and sustainable farming supporters published opinions in major outlets last week.

After the ad aired, two massive food corporations, McDonalds and Bon Appétit Management Company, have publicly committed to sourcing pork from farms that prohibit the use of gestation crates. Are we seeing the start of real change in the meat industry?

Recently I met documentary filmmaker Graham Meriwether at an Occupy Big Food event in New York City.  Over grassfed burgers (his favorite), our conversation turned to the issues with our current agricultural system, and the future of food.  Graham’s latest documentary, American Meat, takes an in-depth look at the problems with meat production and offers models for change in our current food system.

AMERICAN MEAT TRAILER from Leave It Better on Vimeo.

 What really sets American Meat apart from other solutions-based, sustainable agriculture-supporting documentaries is its balanced and respectful expose of the meat system.  Graham, an advocate for sustainable agriculture, originally planned to film a year on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, but realized his film did not include 99% of the real meat production, the prevailing industrialized system. “I tried to make the film as even-handed as possible. I do have an opinion and I talk about sustainable agriculture, but I want to respect commodity ag.  There is a reason it is in place and that is because we decided as a culture we wanted our food as cheap as possible.”

Graham reached out to commodity hog producers in Iowa and poultry producers in North Carolina for inclusion in the film in order to provide an even-handed look on American meat production.  I asked Graham how he was able to convince these producers to open up their doors to him.  He said that “in 2008 Pilgrim’s Pride was the largest producer of chickens, and then declared bankruptcy and cut off 44 farmers in North Carolina.  I found that to be an opportunity to talk to some farmers who were frustrated with the system. “

The openness of these farmers to camera crews, and the American public’s opinion, is something that you don’t often see in food documentaries.  American Meat humanized these producers and fairly showcased their operations.  While American Meat does present a strong case for encouraging sustainable models like the Salatin’s Polyface Farms, Fred Kirschenmann and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Niman Ranch, and corporations like Chipotle, it also provides factory farmers with an opportunity to tell their story.  A huge risk for them to take on.

Per usual, the segments on Polyface were interesting and inspiring — it’s always wonderful to see farmers in sustainable production — but that’s not the story that stuck with me.  I was more intrigued by how, when, and why farmers have vertically integrated into industrialized production.  There is a strong case for farmers from the Midwest to expand and sign contracts with major corporations.  In order for these farmers to make “big money” in the marketplace, they have to adhere to the status quo.  And, even though production models are changing, today’s dominant system in place is industrialized production.

Many farmers vertically integrate into the industrial agriculture system in order to stay competitive. They invest millions of dollars into their operations in order to fulfill the margins of the companies who contract them, but many end up going into massive debt in order to meet their quotas.  American Meat showcases farmers like Sam Talley, who became a poultry farmer for the independence and gratification of helping feed the world, who was contracted by Pilgrim’s Pride and required to build massive heated poultry houses in order to produce enough chickens to fulfill his contract.  He was cut back in 2008 and 2 of his houses were put out of production.  He is $420,000 in debt, and will pay it all back by the time he is 75.

The story of one hog farmer, Chuck Wirtz of Iowa, stuck with me.  Chuck and his young son Carson operate a farrow-to-finish commodity hog farm. The film shows images of his 10’x18’ pens where 24 pigs live in confinement indoors.  While he is still raising the majority of his hogs in these conditions, Chuck has converted a small portion over to welfare-compassionate production to reach new markets like Whole Foods.  It’s been a challenge for Chuck, but he doesn’t regret it. And, he admits that the meat tastes better!

For Graham, transitioning operations are “just as important to this movement. Folks in Iowa and Nebraska, they’ve been doing [commodity agriculture] for generations.  They have so much pride, they produce most of the food in this country and they will be part of the solution. We need our primary stake behind the middle of the country, it’s very important not to turn a deaf ear and to celebrate what people like Chuck are doing.”

Graham shared with me a story about screenings for the Future Farmers of America he and Chuck did in Iowa.  Says Graham, “it’s an inspiring moment.  [Chuck and I] would have young people in HS after the film who want to try to figure out a way to do [transition].  They are working on a commodity farm, but want to set up a new system.  They ask us how to transition and how to convince their parents to do so.”

American Meat brings the good food movement full-circle.  It goes back to the roots of the issue in our industrialized food system, fairly presents them, and offers models for change and sustainable solutions. Graham feels that “the pendulum has swung too far to this type of production. We need to expand sustainable production to be a much larger part of the market. Right now it’s only about 1%, but should be 10%.” Graham and his crew did a masterful job on the film, and I recommend everyone check out it out on DVD or at a screening near you.

A Beginning Farmer Goes To A Farming Conference

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Kat is Farm Aid’s Program Assistant. In the fall of 2011, she transplanted from an organic vegetable farm in Kansas to the Northeast. She enjoys a full-on life as a yogini and graduate student in agricultural policy at Tufts University

I’m still high from gleaning little tastes of that farm life I dearly miss. I am a beginning farmer who is spending two seasons in graduate school … without a farm. I don’t need an M.S. to farm, but a wise farmer once told me that everything I do makes me a better farmer. Earlier in January, I attended the NOFA-NY Winter Conference, which included a workshop track specifically for beginning farmers.

My experience began with the full day intensive session Get Your Boot in the Door: Defining, Planning and Starting Up Your Farm on the Path to Long-Term Success. Most folks in the room planned to start farming in one to two years. We heard the presenters’ stories of how to make goals, plans and mistakes; of how to find the right land, restore unhealthy soil and convert historically conventional farms into diversified, organic farms.

Melissa Madden and Garrett Miller of The Good Life Farm shared a comparison of two actual farm situations in the Finger Lakes region. Farm A had little farm training before starting a small farm with low debt. Farm B had significant farm experience before starting a large farm with high debt. Yet both farms have similar net incomes, great farmers and reliable markets. At The Farmer’s Calendar workshop on Saturday, Mark Kimball of Essex Farm recommended 12 years of education on diversified farms before starting a farm. If I follow that prescription, by the time I complete graduate school and the rest of my farm-based education (I have two seasons of experience to date), I will be 37 years old. Ugh.

The point is the importance of gaining enough experience to feel confident going into debt later. But I am not patient, and from my experience, farmers are not patient. We get this itch to dive in—to jump off the cliff. Mark and Kristin Kimball did it (they started 11 enterprises their first year). Melissa and Garrett did it, too. Although they sat and observed their land for a year and planned diligently, they still moved quickly and made mistakes. Isn’t this process valuable in a profession of lifelong learning? Mark’s answer: we need to figure out how to farm bigger and better rather than recreate the wheel. For Essex Farm, I think this means sustainably providing a high quality, full diet—grown on 600 acres, and powered by draft horses and solar panels—for as many people as possible.

The Kimballs apply a lens to farm planning that considers how everything on the farm has peaks and valleys (the seasons, the budget, the stress, the physical labor, etc.). The higher the peak, the deeper the valley you will need for restoring balance. Being reminded of this reality helped me finally accept the difference between building a farm and farming. These workshops asked mostly first-generation farmers to be honest with our goals and missions. For many, community is part of the dream. We want and need relationships to start sustainable farm enterprises, and the theme of this year’s conference, The Cooperative Economy, echoed this value.

Hearing the personal stories of struggle and resilience on farms in New York state reminded me of the bigger picture, and the irony in my worries about how, when, where and with whom to farm. The stresses we impose on ourselves prevent us from enjoying life. For beginning farmers, the key is to know where we are now, where we are going in the long haul and to have faith through the peaks and valleys. I know what little steps I can achieve this year—even off the farm.

HOMEGROWN Life: The state of sustainable agriculture in the United States

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011






That’s a hefty headline.  Let’s see if I’m qualified to write about it.

The state of sustainable agriculture is strong.  The very fact that it exists at all is a huge step forward compared to fifteen years ago.  We have an engaged customer base that understands the need for a change in the way food is produced in this country — largely due to the proliferation of documentaries like “Food Inc”, “Fast Food Nation”, “King Corn”, and “Super Size Me”.  Those are the films that broke through the American collective consciousness and propelled many consumers to change the way that they eat, the way they shop, and the way they think about food.  The books that led to the movies were “Fast Food Nation”, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and “In Defense of Food”.

Those were the biggies, but there were many others and we have had a lot of credible folks from around the world weighing in on the subject like Jane Goodall,  Prince Charles from the U.K., Alice Waters – our own top chef from Berkeley,  the rockers from Farm Aid – we especially remember Neil Young leading the chant about No Factory Farms – in response to the amount of C.A.F.O.s flooding our countryside.  We were even lucky enough to have Paul and Nell Newman giving early credence to the subject further solidifying organic agriculture in the American consciousness.   We had our own pioneering organic gurus who never gave up from the sixties and seventies like Elliot Coleman, the folks at The Rodale Institute and Mother Earth News.   I may have missed some crucial components here, but the point is made.  Without the commitment of early pioneers in the U.S. we would never have been where we are now.

Ramping up production is always the hard part.  In the industrial agriculture world, we have a system in place in the U.S. that is probably the largest in the world to help support and maintain agriculture in this country:

  • We have land grant universities in every state that are chartered by the government to do agricultural research and development.
  • We have an extensive agriculture extension service that is designed to take that knowledge and give instruction in our counties and towns and to educate farmers and producers about new methods of agriculture.
  • We have agricultural co-ops in place across the farm belt to help farmers receive lower prices for commodities and where they also have access to less expensive equipment and services that they otherwise would have to pay more for.
  • In the Farm Bill legislation, we have direct payments made to farmers to encourage them to produce the most commonly used crops in this country, and we (the tax payer) even help them have less expensive crop insurance so that they can all afford it and to ensure they will buy it.
  • With all of these programs in place it’s still not easy.  Producers in the areas of agriculture not directly supported by the farm bill have it especially tough.  These producers are locked into the commodities market and have the hardest row to hoe due to unpredictable and wildly fluctuating prices.

So imagine, in the world of sustainable agriculture, how hard it is to build a new system in this country from the ground up with none of the supports listed above.  Not only do we not have those structures in place for sustainable agriculture, but we also have to compete against the above system in the market place.  The prices of “conventional” foods seem to be less expensive, although the savvy consumers understand that they’re paying for the price difference through their tax dollars.

It is amazing that even with the deck stacked against it, organic production and purchasing is still growing in this country.   To me, that means the future looks bright.  If we could get some more programs in place to help encourage sustainable agriculture in this country, the same way we encourage industrial agriculture, or if we just level the playing field so that sustainable and industrial can compete  on fair terms, it seems obvious that you will see sustainable agriculture thrive.   The very nature of sustainability means that it is more cost efficient.   The “closed loop” systems that we use where fewer off-farm inputs are purchased will allow us to thrive and compete and win the market share in today’s more educated consumer marketplace.


Dave Ring along with his wife Sara owns a small organic vegetable and egg farm in East Central Indiana.  In May of 2007 they opened the Downtown Farm Stand, a local organic grocery store.  The store has grown to include a “made from scratch” deli restaurant, and a full grocery store selection.  They are active in the community and have founded a local Slow Food Chapter, and are constantly looking for ways to advance a local, sustainable, and organic food system.