OK, this is a dog-bites-man story, I admit. A brief blurb published on the trade web site Food Manufacturing, announces “Agriculture Expert To Dispel Locavore Myth”. The release goes on to explain:
Roger A. Cady, Ph.D., Senior Technical Consultant at Elanco, will dispel the myth that purchasing locally grown food is better for the environment than buying from grocery retailers, during a presentation to members of the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference (AFTC) of the American Trucking Associations.
There is nothing remarkable in this announcement. It’s a meeting of people who are in the business of shipping large quantities of food long distances, and they are defending their business. That is one of the two main reasons for industry associations to exist: to defend it from challenges, as this event seems intent on; the other being to play offense, i. e., promote the industry.
What it does show is that there seems to be a circling of the wagons going on in the food industry in response to certain consumer trends on the one hand, and the many negative food-related stories that have made it to the mainstream media, on the other. The main trend I have in mind is the dramatic growth in farmers’ markets, and its related interest in locally-produced food. The negative publicity includes Michael Pollan’s recent book tour appearances, in which he plainly advises people to stop buying processed food; publicity generated by Food, Inc. being nominated for an Academy Award (as well as being promoted on Pollan’s appearances); recent prominent features on both CBS and ABC network news programs highlighting the routine use of antibiotics in livestock operations, and the cruel treatment of dairy cows in large factory farms, respectively; and the almost weekly reports of bacterial contamination of various food products. Note that Pollan has not been emphasizing the local issue in his latest publicity tour, and the book he’s promoting, “Food Rules” only mentions it a few times. But his main attack, pursued relentlessly throughout the book and in his appearances, is on processed food products. This is the biggest and most profitable part of the food industry, which I speculate accounts for the vast majority of shipping volume, the issue the folks attending this meeting care most about. Therefore Pollan’s main message is seen as a major threat, and the whole farmers’ market/food miles stuff is just a red herring.
But Big Food has clearly decided to focus on food miles, and to use the still-obscure term locavore. This allows them to focus on efficiency and logistics, where their numbers are likely correct. I have no doubt that moving mass quantities of mass-produced goods through our elaborate inter-modal freight transport system does consume, on a per unit basis, less energy than small scale movement of goods. This focus on door-to-door transport conveniently ignores all of the many other forms of degradation of the environment and human and animal health wrought by the food system as a whole. Focusing on this equation also allows them to completely avoid the real reasons for the growth in farmers’ markets and local food: the food available there is vastly superior in every way. It’s fresher, it tastes better, it’s healthier and it’s actually fun to buy. If the industry had to publicly concede these things, they would be in the awkward position of telling consumers to stop buying fresher, tastier, and healthier food. Long term, that’s a losing strategy. So, I believe they are hoping to stem the growth of this movement to farmers’ markets by casting aspersions and using the alien-sounding locavore epithet to describe the already lost.
It’s also interesting that a meeting of transportation specialists is having as their guest speaker, Roger Cady, a rBGH specialist, who worked for Monsanto nine years until their rBGH product Posilac was acquired by Elanco, a division of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, where he now works. No doubt he was booked because he has been a tireless promoter of the idea that factory farming is sustainable and environmentally friendly. I guess the stakeholders in the industrial food system are feeling that they are all in this together.
Another week and another writer is wringing his hands about the contradictions and impracticalities exhibited by locavores. Writing in Saturday’s New York Times, Damon Darlin drags out the usual culprits who have instigated and promoted the preference for locally grown food: Michael Pollan, of course, but also Michelle Obama and her garden on the White House lawn. In his article titled “A Balance Between the Factory and the Local Farm” Darlin boils down the entire local food movement to this keen social observation:
‘Diners now scan the menus at their local restaurants for provenances like “Cattail Creek Ranch lamb” or “Hudson Valley rabbit.” And home cooks now await boxes of fresh produce delivered weekly from local growers.’
Well, you might ask, what could possibly be wrong with these things? Darlin helpfully points out something that perhaps locavores hadn’t thought of:
“as much of the East Coast lies blanketed beneath a foot or more of snow, it’s as good a time as any to raise a few questions about the trend’s viability.”
Doh! Weather! We completely forgot about weather!
But that’s not the only flaw in preferring locally grown food. There are also “inconsistencies in locavore behavior.” Darlin explains:
“People who eagerly order microgreens — tenderly cut with scissors by a farmer that morning — would be scandalized if a Chilean grape was served next to them… But their wine and water? Those tend to be shipped in from far-flung places. Rarely, for example, do you hear a New York restaurant bragging of its Long Island wine. Even at Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant where Alice Waters got the whole local-ingredients trend started, two out of three wines on a recent evening — the wine list changes daily — did not come from the acclaimed wine regions that begin only 25 miles away.”
“Scandalized” by a Chilean grape? Really? And actually, the one time I ate at Blue Hill, New York’s most prominent promoter of local fare, they in fact were featuring wines from Long Island (among wines from many other places). And of course, what critic of locavorism can pass up an opportunity to tweak Alice Waters again? But Darlin is not finished pointing out “inconsistencies.” Those who aspire to modify their eating habits in the hope of reducing environmental impact must also be taken down a notch:
“what started as an effort to source fresher ingredients from nearby family farms is now as much about reducing the carbon footprint and the “food miles” of food. Ordering water from the South Pacific island of Fiji or wine from New Zealand when the local stuff is quaffable seems to run counter to those ideals.”
Ah yes, typical locavores, demanding local carrots, then ordering a nice plastic bottle of Fiji water. So, locavores are impractical and inconsistent. Is Darlin done with the biting critique? No, he also frets that this trend is economically infeasible. His evidence? The following:
“People who grow vegetables in empty lots and schoolyards have a nice, wholesome hobby — but one that can make little sense economically. A few years ago, William Alexander wrote a delightful book chronicling his gardening travails, “The $64 Tomato.” He revealed a truth about do-it-yourself gardening: It is more efficient to buy a fresh tomato in the farmer’s market for $1.50 a pound.”
Maybe he was weeding his garden by leaning out the door of his Hummer as he drove up and down the rows. So, is that all that’s wrong with preferring food from small, local farms? Unfortunately, no. And this time, we need to cue the scary music, like in those election year attack ads. Warns Darlin:
“As a sustainable trend, localism bears at least some resemblance to Mao Tse-tung’s Great Leap Forward. In the late 1950s, Mao decreed that steel production be localized in backyard steel furnaces. Villagers began melting down pots and pans and creating their own steel, which amounted to low-quality and largely useless pig iron…It was a bad idea that dragged down the nation’s productivity and played a role in widespread famine.”
Next will come mandatory urban evacuation, followed by re-education camps. If you’re not scared senseless by localism by now, perhaps you’ll recall from above that the title of Darlin’s article has the word “balance” in it. And just a couple sentences from the bottom, he finally gets around to the balance part:
“But on the other extreme are the mammoth food factories in the United States. Here, frequent E. coli and salmonella bacteria outbreaks are the food industry’s version of Toyota’s sudden-acceleration and braking problems. It may be a case of a manufacturing system that has grown too fast or too large to be managed well.”
So after 18 paragraphs of concern trolling and fear mongering about the growing, but still quite small as a segment of the population, preference for fresh, locally grown food from small family farms, he gets around to mentioning things in our industrial food system that actually kill people.
I find it very interesting that articles and books criticizing the local food movement are popping up so frequently lately. Last year we had the book “Just Food” by James McWilliams, who trotted out the same strawmen that this article contains, and many more. I recently reviewed it in a previous post. He also penned an article in Forbes.com, titled “The Locavore Myth” last August that used strawmen very similar-sounding to Darlin’s, particularly regarding the fictional obsession with “food miles”. And Missouri Farm Bureau vice president Blake Hurst has written two attack pieces defending Big Agribusiness and industrial food, one titled “The Omnivore’s Delusion” in The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, and “Farmer Knows Best” in last week’s “WeeklyStandard.com” (h/t Civil Eats).
It’s possible that these pieces are not being coordinated, and just reflect natural push-back to all the pub that Michael Pollan and Food, Inc. have generated. It’s also possible that Big Ag and Big Food are conducting a campaign to discredit all critics of industrial food. Making critics appear to be either out of touch elitists or clueless ex-hippies is stock-in-trade for corporate-driven campaigns, and sympathetic article placement has always been a key tool in the PR bag. I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of this stuff.
And now, you’ll have to excuse me. I must go check on the two gasoline-powered generators I run 24/7 to power a bank of klieg heat lamps in my Chicago backyard. I need the heat to help my tropical cinnamon tree grow, so I can re-stock my spice rack.
We last visited Boerson Farm near Green Lake, WI early last November. Since we were up at our second home in the area, we stopped by the other day to stock up on whatever they had, and see how winter is treating them. Only Mat was there, and he was kind enough to walk us around, including showing us some ambitious new initiatives they have started.
First, we stepped into their gothic-style hoop house. Right now they have a variety of herbs and vegetables growing. The air inside was thick with wonderful sage and rosemary.
Next, he pointed over to the pig pen and the new addition of some Berkshires. They hope to cross these with their existing Tamworths. In the photo below, only the brown Tams are visible, the black Berkshires are behind the hay station.
Mat then showed us another exciting new venture: entering the bovine world. They struck an agreement with their friends who own nearby Honey Creek Farm, to borrow a group of calves in order to build some manure, which in the method devised by Joel Salatin, will be laced with a few bushels of corn, and stacked with more hay all winter. Come spring, after the calves go back home to Honey Creek, the corn will have fermented, and the Boersons will turn their pigs loose to root around in the stacked, corn-laced hay to be “pigaerated”, speeding up the aerobic decomposition. The result will be very fertile composted manure for use around the farm. But as part of their deal with Honey Creek, they will be keeping one of the calves, with a goal to eventually build a herd.
It was great to see the progress they’ve made toward their dreams just since November! And, as before, we stocked up on a bunch of pork cuts and wonderful vegetables. We can say unequivocally that their pork chops are the best we’ve ever had. If you’re ever within a reasonable distance of Green Lake County, it’s worth a call to see what they have on hand.
Some articles I run across touch on so many issues I’m thinking about simultaneously, that it seems like I wrote the article myself. Although mine would usually not be as good. The latest example is a post by Sharon Astyk on the approaching crisis of not having a enough farmers. Astyk is also the author or co-author of several books on sustainable agriculture, most notably “A Nation of Farmers.” Please read her whole article, you will be glad you did. And the good news is it’s Part One of a Four-part series.
The synopsis is that the steady decline in the number of farmers, here in the U.S. as well as the rest of the world, is the harbinger of a huge disaster. She points out that the dangerously dwindling numbers of new farmers, as percentages of the population, have dropped to levels that are unprecedented since the dawn of agriculture over 10,000 years ago. She discusses some of the common reasons for the decline, such as the low social esteem to which farming is held in the U.S., including by farmers themselves. She also discusses the industrialization of agriculture as both a cause and an effect of the decline.
The biggest problem she focuses on is the transfer of knowledge and skills—it is simply not happening anymore, as farmers’ children decide not to carry on the profession. So even if someone does decide to go into farming, how will they learn how to do it?
This skills issue made me think of one of my recent posts about the FamilyFarmed Expo in Chicago in March. In that post I focused on the attraction of some of the well-known keynote speakers, as well as a few celeb chefs doing demos. But in light of the issues raised by Astyk’s article, it seems like the real value is in the educational sessions that get into issues like finance, marketing, and just getting started in farming. I know there are other agriculture conferences and expos around North America, but FamilyFarmed is the one I’m most familiar with. If you know of other ones, please leave some info in a comment.
Astyk’s article also triggered a fresh association with the obnoxious Atlantic article by the insufferable Caitlin Flanagan groundlessly bashing Alice Waters and the Edible School garden program, and by extension all similar school garden programs. Astyk makes the important point that coming from a gardening family or otherwise being exposed to it in childhood can prepare some of the needed farmers of the future. There were many great rebuttals to the Flanagan article, but my three favorite slap-downs are Jill’s, this one by Kurt Michael Friese on Grist and Andrew Leonard’s on Salon.com.
Those of us who are committed to buying locally-grown and produced food —that is, those of us on the ‘demand side’—sometimes have to explain why. When asked, I usually break it down to two reasons: 1) the food is simply better in every way; and 2) I feel that it is important to create a market so that farmers will be encouraged to make the extensive investments in both capital and their lives to allow the ‘supply side’ to expand. I also firmly believe in the many other common reasons that people frequently give to that question, namely the slowing down and eventual reversal of the destruction wrought by industrial food production. But those larger issues usually require more than a quick elevator pitch.
Any programs or resources that provide potential farmers the knowledge and skills necessary to take up that difficult profession should be vigorously supported.
Or I should say, the attack of the misguided and dangerous beings who feed on those farmer’s market favorites. As described by James McWilliams in his book ”Just Food”, there are people lurking among who us who pose a threat to our food supply. McWilliams has given them a name: Locavores. He helpfully describes their characteristics and behaviors so that we can be on the lookout.
At first, they sound harmless. According to McWilliams, they apparently like to “produce and consume locally grown food”. They seem to gather at “local farmers’s markets”. As stated above they feed on “heirloom tomatoes and baby squash”, but also on “Berkeley microgreens”. They can be overheard speaking in code words such as “sustainability”, “foodshed”, “agroecology”, and “carbon footprint”. They seem to have allegiance to a leader they call “Alice Waters.” Their social rituals are driven by a “fetish of localism”. And they frequently dress as if were “Haight-Ashbury circa 1968″.
Are you getting a clear picture of these Locavores? Well, wait, because it gets more complicated. They apparently also assume many different shapes and sizes. Depending on which chapter in “Just Food” you have strained to get to, Locavores may also appear as “”The Organic Lobby”, “NGO’s”, ”Environmentalists”, the “International Slow Food Movement” and “Greenpeace.”
All snark aside, two things could have made this book semi-useful: 1) Different ordering of the chapters; and 2) an author with a different agenda. Lacking these two things, the book is a 222-page effort at personal branding to advance the author’s career as a supposedly “moderate” food pundit. He calls this brand “The Golden Mean.”
“Just Food” is promoted as a problem/solution book. In this genre it is most logical to begin by comprehensively defining real problems, prioritized by their seriousness. Next should come proposals to solve the problems. Only after these steps have been accomplished should an author who is genuinely concerned with solving the identified problems attempt to critque alternate solutions.
If McWilliams had followed this logical approach, his fourth chapter, titled “Meat—The New Caviar” would have been first. This chapter—by far the strongest in a weak book—is the closest he comes to illuminating the breadth and depth of industrial food’s destructive effects. He provides detailed metrics of the damage to land, water resources and air caused by industrially raising such mind-boggling numbers of animals for food. Additionally, he reviews the related animal welfare and human disease risks of CAFOs. Ultimately, the chapter stops far short of building a complete picture of our global food system. Unlike Eric Schlosser’s classic, “Fast Food Nation”, or Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, McWilliams does not place industrial livestock farming into the larger agribusiness and food processing picture.
But had “Just Food” begun with this description of factory farming, McWilliams would have quickly found common ground with many food policy critics and activists. Perhaps he could have built sufficient trust and authority so that good faith critiques he offered could add value to food debates. But he obviously has no interest in finding any common ground with the existing movements that oppose the oligopoly of the global ag and food companies. In fact, his only use for this diverse movement of food system critics is to serve as the naive, misguided and anti-capitalist strawman contrast to his reasonable ”Golden Mean” persona. That is why “Just Food” does not begin by defining big problems.
Instead, it starts by going after the Locavores. The pattern begins in the Introduction, and continues through the first three chapters by building Locavore strawmen. He uses a pile of buzz words he has collected by apparently clicking through blogs and reading popular food books. Each custom-assembled strawman then becomes the “extreme”, “naive”, or “romantic” foil for McWilliams’ Golden Mean position. The Locavore strawman–whether it’s the strict “food miles” worshipper, the chemical-free purest of small organic farming, or the paranoid anti-GMO obstructionist–is then shown to be incapable or unwilling to comprehend the big-system scalability required to feed the nameless billions of the world’s poor. Any real person who prefers locally-grown, sustainable food, prefers organic methods when practical, is concerned about world hunger, and worries about the environmental degradation caused by our food system will not recognize themselves in McWilliams’ distorted caricatures.
In addition to his own mocking putdowns, McWilliams draws heavily on outside sources to belittle the Locavores, and promote his supposedly middle-ground Golden Mean. These sources should be judged by their entire body of work, but a few samples of their work–some used in the book, some not– should give you a hint as to whether they truly represent the ”middle-ground”. Here is a small taste:
UCLA Professor, Bob Goldberg: “The Hypocrisy of Organic Farmers”
Microbiologist, Dr. Elizabeth Finkel: “Organic Food Exposed”
Ron Bailey, deployed here by McWilliams to glorify the “father of the Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug. Bailey, a journalist with Reason Magazine, has authored these aidditional titles, not referenced in “Just Food”:
“ECOSCAM: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse”
“Global Warming and Other Eco Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death”
“Liberation Biology: The Scientific And Moral Case For The Biotech Revolution”
UC Berkeley Molecular Biologist, Bruce Ames, a controversial figure with a large body of work, but best known in the general media as the guy who advocates the application of synthetic chemicals in agriculture to promote the yield and consumption of more cancer-preventing fruits and vegetables. His work in this area is best evaluated at length, not as a provocative poke-in-the-eye snippet against organic, as used here by McWilliams.
C. S. Prakash, Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University, Alabama. Dr. Prakash is a tireless propagandist for GMO through AgBioWorld, the advocacy group he co-founded with heavy funding from CEI, a rightwing corporate-funded think tank.
One of the few direct interviews McWilliams conducted for this book was with two Monsanto guys, Roger Beachy (now with the USDA) and Ernie Jaworski. The only direct quote included in the text is Jaworski’s answer to the question of who will supply the unprofitable, niche “public domain” GE technology and material to the poor: “Bill Gates!, Bill Gates! The Gates Foundation!.”
And my favorite, Molecular Biologist Nina Federoff, who made this statement ridiculing people who are suspicious of GMO’s in a Seed Magazine interview last year (not referenced in this book):
“And the anti GM-ers circulate some pretty odd stories: Monsanto’s going to “force” farmers to buy its seeds. If farmers keep their seeds to plant next year, Monsanto is going to come and get them. (Um, how’s it going to do that?) A little common sense, please.”
I’ll bet Federoff wishes she had seen Food, Inc. before making that assinine statement. Her question is answered in the segment on Moe Parr, the guy who cleaned farmers’ seeds to enable re-use, and was sued and put out of business by Monsanto, after their private investigators forced testimony from Parr’s lifelong farmer friends and customers.
Having beaten down the Locavores with such moderate “middleground” arguments, McWilliams turns to his “solutions”. But wait, you might be thinking. If the Golden Mean is in the middle, what about the other side? The industrial food system status quo? Doesn’t he spend time beating that up? Well, as I pointed out above, his fourth chapter about meat does physically describe damage being done by factory farming. But his criticism seems framed as just a bunch of bad choices made by reckless and greedy “ranchers” who have allowed their herds to get too big to manage. He makes no connection between subsidized monocropping of commodity corn, CAFOs and Taco Bell’s multimillion dollar ad campaign to get us to go pick up a cheap “4th Meal”.
Perhaps he feels any such critical analysis of the food system power structure would make him sound too much like a Locavore. After all, early on he assesses ”Locavorism” as having “political motivations”, with “the ulterior motives driving the cultural process of localizaton having academic roots”. He presents his damning evidence via quotes he pulls from a collection of academic essays, such as this: “A group of established academics present ‘civic agriculture’ as an antidote to ‘commodifying, concentrating, and globalizing forces’ that drive ‘the corporate trajectory of the current agrifood system.’” Having busted these academic Locavore sympathisers, it’s not surprising that he steers far clear of anything smacking of such subversion. He sums up their criticism concisely, asserting that
“their prescriptions, which typically involve taking a steamroller to capitalsm, tend to alienate the wavering while preaching to the convinced. The person who works hard, tries to be a good citizen, and is concerned with food production is hardly going to be swayed by an argument insisting that he abandon his faith in the free market economy.”
Needless to say, these ground rules hobble McWilliams’ attempt at “solutions.” When he finally prescribes them, they turn out to be a jumble of approaches. Specifically, he wants us to forget “food miles” and instead focus on “life cycle assessments” (already being embraced by some in sustainable farming). He also wants us to drop our obsession with pure organic methods and get comfortable with the use of synthetic chemicals. In addition, he wants us to loose our fear of GMOs, especially now that he implies the Gates Foundation will beneficently be providing all of the technology to the developing world with no strings attached.
He also proposes a radical culinary change: to drastically reduce our consumption of meat. This position, of course, puts him right in tune with a significant segment of the people he has spent the entire book insulting. But the primary protein source he advocates we substitute for land animals is probably not so compatible: freshwater farmed fish. In support of this food source, McWilliams does a little cutting and pasting from aquaculture trade association web sites that extoll its virtues. I predict a few obstacles to broad adoption of this food source, however, based on this apparently common practice in trout farming described by McWilliams: “…some trout farmers will spike water with doses of testoterone in order to alter the sex of male fish, which don’t fatten as well as females.” And while McWilliams’ case for freshwater aquaculture is mostly based on its potential to be an ultra-efficient source of “global protein”, he does not touch on the rest of its nutrional profile. Results from a Wake Forest University Study “revealed that farm-raised tilapia, as well as farmed catfish, ‘have several fatty acid characteristics that would generally be considered by the scientific community as detrimental.’ Tilapia has higher levels of potentially detrimental long-chain omega-6 fatty acids than 80-percent-lean hamburger, doughnuts and even pork bacon.” Yum.
After presenting these food production “solutions” McWilliams runs into the wall he himself built by earlier declaring that harsh criticism of the food system’s corporate power structure is off limits. The last full chapter of “Just Food” attempts to describe how all of these necessary changes to our food system can be made to happen without any direct challenge to corporate power. This is how he sees it happening: first, all “perverse subsidies” (a term he repeats robotically 20 times in one chapter) must be made public knowledge. Then the magic happens. Says McWilliams,
“Once properly exposed, subsidies are—with enough consumer awareness and resistance—bound to shame large producers into righting the rules of the game so as to eliminate the merest whiff of a word that’s pretty close to socialism in the public mind-set: welfare.”
You read that right. McWilliams thinks that large global corporations can be shamed into voluntarily giving up profitable subsidies. Oh, and he also proposes a sweeping set of taxes meant to disincentivize companies from dirtying up the environment, that would no doubt sail right through Congress. Why didn’t someone think of this stuff before?
I have barely scratched the surface of how dreadful this book is. It’s a shame, because all of its main topics are worthy of healthy debate, but only when the parties are acting in good faith. There is almost none of that in “Just Food.” But the book is apparently having its intended effect on McWilliams’ career: he is popping up as a go-to guy for food system punditry, like this recent NY Times article, in which he…you guessed it: defends GMOs. Meanwhile, the science of GMOs is clearly not settled, the road from Monsanto to the Gates Foundation has been busy, and in Obama’s USDA, Big Ag still rules. The Golden Mean at work.
Cross-posted at La Vida Locavore.
I made it to the Logan Square Farmers Market yesterday. It’s held every Sunday through March 28, inside the historic Congress Theatre, 2135 N Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. I stocked up on grass-fed meat from two farms: lamb from Mint Creek Farm, and beef from Black Earth Meats. Also loaded up on sprouts/microgreens from Tiny Greens. There was a decent turnout, and a pretty good mix of vendors, although light on produce as expected in mid-January. More pics below. For the best calendar of Chicago area winter markets, check out The Local Beet.
This year’s FamilyFarmed Expo in Chicago, March 11-13, is shaping up to be the ultimate Local Food and Sustainable Agriculture event of the year. For farmers, consumers and all food-related businesses and organizations in between, there seem to be MANY reasons to attend, but the keynote speakers and special guests alone should put this on your calendar:
Woody Tasch, Author of Slow Money
Will Allen, Farmer and CEO of Growing Power
Lisa Kivirist – Co-author of ECOpreneuring
Screening of Dirt! The Movie
Get the latest from the main expo site link above or follow on Twitter using #FFExpo
Ever since learning from The Local Beet that this new neighborhood co-op opened back December I’ve been trying to get there to check it out. Since I happened to be near Logan Square today, finally it happened. Dill Pickle Co-op is a great little place, with very nice people running it.
I only had a few minutes, so I just wanted to see what they carry, but ended up picking up some great local bread, a bunch of Traders Point Yogurt from Zionsville, IN, some awesome swiss cheese from Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, WI and a few other odds and ends. Local produce and meats seemed to be a bit low right now, but suppliers coming to the Logan Square Farmers Market this Sunday will be making some deliveries at the Co-op as well. They were stocking a lot of great-looking non-local greens while I was there. It’s on Fullerton just west of Sacramento, check it out!
With the possible exception of New Orleans, no major American city has suffered more economic shocks than Detroit. Large tracts of land throughout the once-thriving city have been vacant for more than a generation. Each time the auto business has hit a tough patch, more manufacturing jobs exited the city, leaving behind abandoned factories, warehouses and storefront businesses that supported them.
Many older industrial cities are attempting to restore abandoned, sometimes contaminated land, called “brownfields”, as areas for urban agriculture. But these efforts could be dwarfed by a new venture taking shape in Detroit. (h/t Growing Edge) Writing in the LA Times, P.J. Huffstutter, describes the project:
Acres of vacant land are eyed for urban agriculture under an ambitious plan that aims to turn the struggling Rust Belt city into a green mecca. On the city’s east side, where auto workers once assembled cars by the millions, nature is taking back the land.
Cottonwood trees grow through the collapsed roofs of homes stripped clean for scrap metal. Wild grasses carpet the rusty shells of empty factories, now home to pheasants and wild turkeys. This green veil is proof of how far this city has fallen from its industrial heyday and, to a small group of investors, a clear sign. Detroit, they say, needs to get back to what it was before Henry Ford moved to town: farmland.
“There’s so much land available and it’s begging to be used,” said Michael Score, president of the Hantz Farms, which is buying up abandoned sections of the city’s 139-square-mile landscape and plans to transform them into a large-scale commercial farm enterprise.
Well, doesn’t this sound awesome:
“The DNR has granted preliminary approval to Rosendale Dairy to utilize a never-before-tried method of determining whether it can spread manure on fields with shallow groundwater.”
This quote is from an article in the Ripon Commonwealth Press (RCP), and is the latest development in the life of a Wisconsin dairy CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation). This CAFO is currently housing 4,000 dairy cows, and a permit is pending for an expansion to 8,500 total animals. Once fully expanded, Rosendale Dairy will be the largest in Wisconsin.
Figuring out what to do with the vast flow of animal waste—referred to as “nutrient management” in the business—is always one of the critical concerns surrounding CAFO’s. Contamination of ground water is a well-established risk, as illustrated by recent experience several counties away from Rosendale (not far from another large CAFO run by Rosendale Dairy’s owner) reported on recently by the NYT. After onsite separation of solids from liquids, solid manure is usually sold as fertilizer to area farms for cash, or traded for feed crops and silage, whereas liquids are stored in “manure lagoons” and periodically sprayed onto immediately adjacent fields. That is the plan for Rosendale, but there is a wrinkle.
About 20% of the more than 13,000 acres of farm fields that Rosendale Dairy plans to spread its manure on are classified as having shallow groundwater, also called “wet soils”. This means that groundwater on this land will from time to time rise above a below-surface depth of 24 inches. So, instead of staying where it’s spread to be absorbed and processed by crop plants, the nutrient content of the manure will enter the ground water and travel. Travel where? It depends. If purely through soil, probably not too far horizontally. But vertically, perhaps into aquifers that feed wells, as most likely happened in the NYT story above.
But the fastest mode of travel is via the labyrinth of perforated pvc drain tiles buried in farm fields to keep them dry enough to plant, according to Wisconsin DNR Nutrient Management Specialist Andrew Craig. By design, groundwater entering these tiles flows away, and may eventually make its way into a stream or other surface water body. And if that groundwater is contaminated from the applied manure? Up goes the already-high nutrient load in that water body, as well as the rest of its downstream watershed.
There is only one way to prevent this manure from escaping wet soils: don’t put any on them. This is precisely the reason that the existing DNR rules require any party wishing to spread manure on wet soils to first determine whether the ground water level is above the 24-inch depth line. If it is, then spreading is prohibited. But the only way to determine that is to dig pits or wells to see how far down the water line is. Current DNR standards recommend that these test pits be spaced closely enough that an accurate determination of the depth of ground water across a field can be made. The DNR’s standard is two pits per every five acres of wet soils. Of the 13,000 acres Rosendale Dairy plans to spread manure on, 2,285 are considered wet soils. By the DNR’s standards, that would dictate about 900 test pits.
Rosendale Dairy thinks all this digging and testing will cost them too much time and money, so they complained and counter-proposed an alternative plan. That plan is to dig fewer than 10% of the number of test pits in the DNR’s standards. And the DNR gave them a nice break and accepted their plan. Instead of 900 pits, they only have to dig 74. But how can such sparse soil sampling yield an accurate measure of ground water depth across such a broad area? Technology!
In addition to performing 90% fewer soil tests, the other part of the “never-before-tried method” referenced in the quote above is explained in that same RCN article:
According to [written correspondence from] Conestoga-Rovers & Associates of Green Bay, an engineer working with Rosendale Dairy, the dairy has proposed a plan that could be described as a “statistical analysis” model for determining whether a field is wet. Rather than checking every field, Rosendale Dairy operators will check “representative” wet fields nearby at the same elevation.
“A total of 41 MMPs [moisture measurement points] will be installed at selected locations in the 207 fields with [wet] soils,” Conestoga-Rovers wrote. “These MMPs will monitor more than 904 acres of [wet] soils area on the farm and result in a database of representative field conditions…”
The idea is that if the groundwater is not at less than 24 inches from the surface in the representative field, it will not be high at another area field at the same elevation as well.
The aim, according to Conestoga-Rovers, “is to establish permanent representative [moisture management points] in lieu of excavating soil test pits each time manure or wastewater will be land applied… Rosendale Dairy will have a statistically significant, effective database upon which to base its compliance verification that groundwater is not present within 24 inches below ground surface prior to manure and wastewater application.”
The question remains, does groundwater remain at a constant depth over a given distance, or at least, will it vary in a consistent manner?
“We questioned that assumption,” the DNR’s Craig said.
Having questioned that, they allowed Rosendale Dairy to proceed, albeit with a requirement to dig 40 more pits to verify the statistical model. Will the DNR at least monitor the test to make sure Rosendale Dairy fully complies with this drastically reduced soil protection measure? Well, maybe, but they are not obligated to. Rosendale Dairy will self-report the results of their tests. So, a “never-before-tried method” of manure spreading, with 90% less monitoring for shallow groundwater, controlled by statistical modeling software, with Rosendale Dairy doing their own testing and reporting. What could possibly go wrong?
The safety of the groundwater and other adjacent surface bodies of water in a sizable chunk of Fond du Lac County, and possibly adjacent counties, will rely on the good faith efforts of Rosendale Dairy and its statistical model. Is there any cause for concern about this? After all, the well-spoken, telegenic lead executive for Rosendale Dairy, Jim Ostrom, states in a “Guest Opinion” published Thursday in the the Fond du Lac Reporter, that:
“When Rosendale Dairy’s three partners — John Vosters, Todd Willer and I — were boys on Wisconsin dairy farms, we imagined little beyond waking early, milking, feeding and caring for cows. …we remain committed to the dairy industry and to producing wholesome food for our nation. We are also committed to the environment and to our Wisconsin roots. We are committed to doing what is right — and taking pride in it.”
That’s comforting, right? On the other hand, according to a Wisconsin Public Television report from early this year, Rosendale Dairy commenced construction of the first 4,000-cow expansion of the CAFO facility in 2008, months before receiving DNR approval. This earned them a DNR Notice of Non-compliance, after several written warnings to stop work pending approval. Rosendale Dairy disregarded those DNR actions, and plowed ahead. What was the hurry? Says lead executive Ostrom:
“It’s a massive investment. We’ve got so far over $35 million spent. We’ll eventually have $70 million spent. You want to get the investment employed to pay back some of the bills soon.”
Of course, Rosendale Dairy eventually got the permits they needed, just as they received this extremely lenient manure spreading approval, and will most likely soon get the green light for the final expansion to 8,000 cows (plus 500 “dry cows”). They seem to know they are dealing with a state agency that lacks the will or clout to be anything other than a speed bump for large industrial projects like this. The DNR’s allocation of staff resources tells the story: in Wisconsin’s Northeast Region, the DNR has only 3 enforcement staff members to cover 95 CAFO’s.
The Rosendale Dairy CAFO resonates with me personally. I drive through that town every time I visit my second home located in the adjacent county to the west. I have a direct interest in the potential watershed pollution of a particular stream, Silver Creek, which begins about 10 miles southwest of this facility and meanders another 10 miles further west, eventually feeding into Green Lake, on which my house is located. Mr. Craig of the DNR could not have been more helpful in answering my questions, mailing me a disk containing Rosendale Dairy’s manure spreading maps (I’ll get it next week), as well as talking me through the DNR’s online “Surface Water Data Viewer” software to help me determine the specific impact on Silver Creek. But his agency as a whole is no match for Rosendale Dairy, which in contrast to executive Ostrom’s allusions to his pastoral, “red barn” dairy farm upbringing, is part of a sophisticated, well-financed agribusiness firm, named Milk Source Holdings, LLC.
The contrast between this industrial operation, and the small, sustainable, family farms less than 30 minutes away, that I recently profiled here and here is quite jarring. There is a fork in the road heading to two very different food futures. I’m committed to the fork that heads towards these small farms.
If you are looking for holiday/end-of-the-year donating opportunities, you might consider Midwest Environmental Advocates, who have been representing the local citizens organization opposing the Rosendale Dairy, People Empowered to Protect the Land (PEPL) of Rosendale. If you check out MEA’s site, you’ll see how much important work they are doing.
Cross-posted at La Vida Locavore.