Category Archives: Local Food

Local food could be a “big deal”

FarmersMarketBy Dan Nosowitz

Eating a local diet—restricting your sources of food to those within, say, 100 miles—seems enviable but near impossible to many, thanks to lack of availability, lack of farmland, and sometimes short growing seasons. Now, a study from the University of California, Merced, indicates that it might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. “Although we find that local food potential has declined over time, our results also demonstrate an unexpectedly large current potential for meeting as much as 90 percent of the national food demand,” write the study’s authors. Ninety percent! What?

Researchers J. Elliott Campbell and Andrew Zumkehr looked at every acre of active farmland in the U.S., regardless of what it’s used for, and imagined that instead of growing soybeans or corn for animal feed or syrup, it was used to grow vegetables. (Currently, only about 2 percent of American farmland is used to grow fruits or vegetables.) And not just any vegetables: They used the USDA’s recommendations to imagine that all of those acres of land were designed to feed people within 100 miles a balanced diet, supplying enough from each food group. Converting the real yields (say, an acre of hay or corn) to imaginary yields (tomatoes, legumes, greens) is tricky, but using existing yield data from farms, along with a helpful model created by a team at Cornell University, gave them a pretty realistic figure.

Still, the study involves quite a few major leaps of faith because it seeks not to demonstrate what is possible for a given American right now but to lay out a basic overview of the ability of local food to feed all Americans. It’s not just projecting yields for vegetables grown on land that is today dominated by corn and soy. The biggest leap of faith is perhaps an unexpected one and is surprisingly underreported: Why do we even want to adjust our food supply to be local in the first place?

“Local food is kind of largely rejected by a lot of scientists from earth and environmental fields because the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of food from the farm to the retailer is actually really small compared to all the other emissions,” said Campbell, an associate professor at UC Merced. (Zumkehr is one of his students; the two fused their research to attempt to answer this question.) We take it for granted that eating locally must provide a huge boost to our environmental bona fides, but if the only consideration is emissions from the trucks, trains, and planes that bring us food from elsewhere, we’re mistaken. Looking at our diet as a whole, the total amount of emissions that come from transportation is somewhere around 10 percent—hardly the biggest factor. The bulk of emissions emerge from the farm itself, from the actual growing and production of the food.

So, Why Should You Care? Campbell thinks there’s a distinct connection between eating locally and tackling those farm-based emissions. The elephant in the room, he said, is the move from an animal-based diet to a plant-based one. Environmental and food scientists trying to reduce emissions are focused much more intently on that switch than on local food, but Campbell sees the two as related, largely because those who eat locally also tend to eat a much higher concentration of plants. “You walk into a farmers market and into a grocery store, and it’s like two different worlds, you know?” he said. “A grocery store has some vegetables hidden off to the side, and at a farmers market it’s all about the vegetables. That’s not a trivial issue.”

To tie all of those new acres of vegetables imagined in the study to local consumers, each acre was assigned to a nearby city, with no overlaps. This is tricky, especially in dense megalopolises like the Northeast Corridor and Southern California; land in, say, northeastern Pennsylvania lies within 100 miles of both New York City and Philadelphia. “We added this optimization model that decided which units of land to allocate to which particular cities to maximize the total number of people in the U.S. who could be fed locally,” said Campbell.

So that 90 percent number doesn’t mean that any given American can have 90 percent of his or her food needs met by local food, nor does it mean that 90 percent of all Americans will have all of their needs met by local food. Instead it’s a national average: In some parts of the country, people could have all of their needs met, but in, say, New York City, only about 30 percent of the people could have their food needs met by local food (assuming that we tear up all current crops and plant more smartly). Oddly enough, not all major cities have this problem. Chicago, for example, is a wonderland in terms of local food potential. “Chicago stands out. All the high-population cities seem to have lower potential, but Chicago has a lot of cropland around it,” said Campbell. Chicago’s advantage is partly because, unlike in the Northeast, Southern California, or even South Florida, it doesn’t have any major satellite cities nearby. But it’s also because there are a ton of farms within even 50 miles of Chicago, much more than in the Northeast, for instance.

Dense cities aren’t just difficult to feed because they’re dense; the Northeast also suffered a huge collapse in nearby farmland as farming moved to the Midwest in the 20th century. But that farmland, or a lot of it, anyway, could still be resuscitated and used to feed the cities. Campbell sees that as a possibility with a huge amount of potential. “If you put the farms close to the cities, it opens up new opportunities to basically recycle water and nutrients between the cities and farms instead of relying on things that might require fossil fuels,” he said. A robust urban composting program, for example, could supply nearby farms easily, reducing the reliance on fertilizers that maybe aren’t so good for the environment. (Cheap synthetic nitrogen fertilizers put a massive strain on the environment in about a dozen ways; using less of them can only help.)

“This is kind of the first attempt to quantify what the potential is, so we decided with the first number to just see what the upper limit is, the greatest possibility,” Campbell said. This isn’t a change that we could just put into effect with a few clever laws or behavioral changes; it would require an overhaul of the entire economic system and would probably cause the collapse of the world economy as we know it.

But that isn’t the point. The point is to have a baseline, an upper theoretical potential, of whether feeding the country locally is even possible. It certainly seems that it is. The next step, both for Campbell and Zumkehr and for the others that will inevitably riff on their work, is to refine this data. Right now it doesn’t include any climate data, for example: An acre of land in Michigan does not have the same growing season as an acre of land in California’s Central Valley. (Currently, the model takes an average of the annual production of each acre, but it doesn’t include any tips for how to conserve the harvest so that it feeds people above the Mason-Dixon Line during the winter.) Another issue: Our food preferences now are significantly global, and there are lots of important and popular foods that can’t be grown in the U.S. at all (think coffee or chocolate).

It’s important to understand the limits of this study, but it would be equally foolish to disregard it. This is research that thoughtfully begins the conversation about legitimately feeding the country locally. It’s a conversation that’s going to get louder and more important in the years to come.

Original Post

Author Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeeᴅ, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.


Turns Out, the Future of Food Lies in These Old Seeds

Scientists, farmers, and chefs are developing new varieties of produce from heirloom seeds. It will make life better for organic farmers—and yummier for everyone else.

Original Post – November 18, 2014
Kristin Ohlson has written for The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Salon, Smithsonian, Discover, Gourmet, and many others. Her book The Soil Will Save Us was published in March by Rodale.

Sarah Kleeger pointed to a goldfinch perched on a waist-high millet plant and scowled, tightening her grip as the black cat in her arms twitched with interest. “That bird is just looking at us.”

“I’d like to shoot all the birds,” said Andrew Still, her husband and business partner.

“We don’t shoot birds,” Kleeger clarified for me.

“Yes, but I’d like to shoot them,” Andrew said. “We just lost half our crop of Castelfranco chicory seeds to the birds.”

Kleeger, 35, and Still, 34, can be forgiven their avian antipathy. They don’t sell the Castelfranco chicory or Red Bull brussels sprouts or Aprovecho fava beans or the hundreds of other vegetables they grow in their fields. Their plants don’t look like produce—they are all tall and shaggy, even the three-foot lettuces rattling with seeds. Kleeger and Still sell the seeds from these plants to other farmers through Adaptive Seeds, the small company they founded on their five-acre organic farm in Sweet Home, Ore., in 2009. The birds, not unreasonably, consider Adaptive Seeds’ products their food.

Later, Still squatted and plucked two dwarf Danish melons, pale yellow with green stripes and not much bigger than billiard balls. The couple brought the seeds for these melons from Europe, along with seeds of 800 other varieties of food crops, with the hope that in addition to their good taste and texture the fruit might show robust performance in organic fields in the Pacific Northwest, which, like Denmark, is typically not melon territory. So far the Danish melon experiment is going great. “I’m looking for my ideal melon,” Still said. “Medium-small that’s green and juicy and sweet, with early traits. Northwest adapted, so that it matures in August and not late September.”

That would give farmers more choice of what to plant, potentially raising their incomes, and the ability to pass that choice on to consumers. Gesticulating with one of the diminutive Danish fruit, Still said, “Our goal is to create a healthier, more resilient and sustainable food system. We need to correct the problems of the industrial food system, and seeds are one way to do that.”

Adaptive Seeds has a John Deere combine that’s not quite old enough to appear in a parade of vintage farm equipment at a 4-H fair, a shed overflowing with garlic, a winnowing room where Still dumps seeds from one bucket to another in front of a window fan that blows away the chaff, and an office where they handle seed orders from down the road and around the globe. Kleeger and Still’s living room is full of corn, hanging to dry from racks near the ceiling, for next year’s catalog.

The couple began working on an organic farm right after college but were dismayed to find, over dozens of seasons raising and selling vegetables, that farmers planted the same handful of varieties year after year. That seemed limiting. They decided to seek out varieties of vegetables not available in the United States and spent their savings on the trip to Europe, collecting seeds from varieties that seemed promising. Today they are leaders in a movement that could alter local food systems and economies, as well as strengthen the hand of organic and small farmers.

IMG_4637Andrew Still, holding Danish melons, and Sarah Kleeger on their seed farm in Sweet Home, Ore. (Photo: Kristin Ohlson)

The 20th century saw the rise of a consolidated agriculture sector that demanded volume and efficiency. That led to a drop in the number of varieties available to farmers from commercial seed companies and the resulting handful of mass-produced vegetable varieties in our grocery stores. But farmer-entrepreneurs like Kleeger and Still have joined with plant-breeding scientists and even high-profile chefs such as Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant to remake food from the seed up. Such collaborations could serve as a model for others around the country seeking good organic varieties for their own fields and kitchens. Already, Stephen S. Jones, a wheat breeder and professor at Washington State University, says he’s contacted at least three times a week by farmers in other states, seeking new varieties or wheat tailored for their region and needs. If successful, they’ll soon be providing more of us with fruits, vegetables, and grains bred to thrive in the various microclimates around the country—suiting the needs of small farmers, artisan bakers and brewers, and chefs—and with correspondingly greater flavor, texture, and nutrient density.

John Navazio, formerly an organic seed specialist for Washington State University who now works for an organic seed company, says a new generation of farmers, chefs, and diners is demanding something better than the commercial seeds being developed and designed for industrial agriculture. “They want real seed from real farmers in their region, and…seed from the biggest companies does not suit their needs,” he says. “This is the DIY crowd, and they get it more than anyone has ever gotten it.”

In January, I joined 430 self-described “seedheads” at the seventh Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, Ore., hosted by the Organic Seed Alliance, a national organization based in Port Townsend, Wash., that encourages and teaches farmers to select and save seed, and organizes collaborations among plant breeders, seed companies, chefs, millers, brewers, and others both up- and downstream from organic farms.

The conference thrummed with the buzz of farmers growing seed; plant breeders from universities; representatives of seed libraries, seed cooperatives, and seed companies of varying sizes; and seed enthusiasts from foundations, public policy groups, and student organizations. It confused me at first. Wasn’t organic seed just seed plucked from plants grown without chemicals, and if so, what was the big deal? Even though I skew heavily organic in my shopping and eating, it had never occurred to me to object to an organically raised tomato or cabbage grown from the seed of a nonorganically grown plant. I assumed organic cultivation rendered its origins moot.

Over the course of two days of talking to seedheads from across North America, I discovered that there’s more to organic food than what’s aboveground. Organic farmers want organic seed for the same reason they want to grow their crops organically: They prefer seeds not produced with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other tools of industrial agriculture. Federal guidelines set in 2000 require the use of organic seed in organic production, but farmers are allowed to use conventional seed if it is not available commercially. Many certified growers still avail themselves of that loophole—there just aren’t enough good sources of these seeds.

This is one problem Kleeger and Still are addressing. The bigger issue is that there aren’t enough varieties of wheat, lettuce, corn, or anything else, really, bred specifically for organic production.

“The basic adage in plant breeding is that you breed in the environment of intended use,” explained Micaela Colley, OSA’s executive director. Conventional seeds cultivated organically are going against that adage, which places organic farmers at a disadvantage. In other words, crop varieties for conventional agriculture are bred to flourish in fields with intense chemical inputs—not just the vast rows of GMO corn and soybeans, our nation’s biggest crops, but also the smaller fields where tomatoes and spinach and other produce are grown. According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 84 percent of Americans say they buy organic at least some of the time. But when varieties aren’t bred for organic cultivation—in which roots need to be vigorous enough to scavenge for nutrients and stalks and stems must soldier on without sprays to protect them from insects, disease, and weeds—they’re likely to produce less. Plants grown organically from conventional seed don’t perform as well as they should be able to, or as well as conventionally grown alternatives. The lack of organic seed and of plant varieties developed for organic production may be one of the reasons that organic fields only occupy 6 percent of American vegetable acreage.

If the seedheads are able to reduce this deficit of organic varieties, more organic produce at a lower price may result. At Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center, wheat breeder Jones—famous in seed circles for having rebuffed Monsanto’s bid to have him develop GMO wheat—oversees projects that are developing new wheat, barley, and oat varieties for both traditional and organic farming in Washington’s Skagit Valley. “We’re developing new varieties for flavor and functionality that have four to ten times the yield,” Jones told me. “This will eventually bring down the cost.”

Agriculture has been around for some 10,000 years, and until the 20th century, farmers saved seed that had produced desirable traits, such as sturdiness or large size, to plant again the following year. The practice changed food over the centuries as distinct varieties evolved in regions around the world, with modern plant breeders swapping pollen between two varieties with desirable traits, planting the offspring, and growing those that came out the best, generation after generation, until a new variety was stabilized.

We know some of these older varieties as “heirloom” seeds, a term that began to appear in seed catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the 1970s. Commercial hybrids developed in the 20th century had advantages: high yields, produce that ripened at the same time, uniform size and shape. Some transported and stored better. That suited the production standards of agribusiness just fine. But a generation of organic farmers turned eagerly to heirlooms in the following years for a number of reasons—not least of which was the food tasted better.

Heirlooms were prized for their flavor and texture, but they often had major drawbacks for farmers trying to make an organic living. “The heirloom tomatoes tasted great, but they often cracked and didn’t ship well,” recalls Navazio, who became an organic farmer in the 1970s and later learned traditional plant breeding, earning a Ph.D. in plant breeding at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You could hardly even take them to town to sell them,” he says. Today he works at Johnny’s Select Seeds in Maine. “There was no one breeding varieties for the farmer marketing high-quality organic produce on a local scale.”

Some non-heirloom hybrids worked decently in an organic system. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 1980 decision to allow the patenting of life-forms, among other factors, led to consolidation in the seed industry. Big corporations started buying up small regional companies and increased their focus on splicing together traits to create patentable seeds (many of them with genes from altogether different species, ergo GMOs). Meanwhile, many of the hybrids that organic and other small farmers found most useful were soon forgotten.

“The big companies narrowed their offerings to focus on seeds that have the largest market, such as varieties that either do well in a lot of locations or ones that are used in centers of large-scale agricultural production like the Sacramento Valley,” OSA’s Colley says. “But the varieties that have a smaller market share often have unique qualities [beneficial to] regional growers—say, sweet corn that ripens quicker in northern latitudes, which is not a sweet-corn-growing area.” In 2000 alone, more than 2,000 hybrids disappeared from the marketplace when Seminis—at the time the world’s largest vegetable seed company—bought several smaller companies. Now it’s part of Monsanto, which has stopped producing these hybrids.

10379926_10152547140179490_3134662533450538828_oSarah Kleeger, harvesting at her farm. (Photo: Courtesy Adaptive Seeds)

At the same time, one of the major avenues for developing new varieties was also shrinking. Land grant universities founded in the 1800s to help improve agriculture saw funding cuts and changes to federal policy, including the 1982 Bayh-Dole Act, which encouraged the transfer of publicly funded research to the private sector. The number of researchers dedicated to cultivar development in public universities has fallen 30 percent in the last 20 years, according to a recent survey conducted by Bill Tracy, chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

By the early 1980s, organic farmers were conferring about their need for improved varieties and well-produced seed. Frank Morton—now the plant breeder and seed seller behind Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore.—recalls going to a meeting in 1984 at which a molecular biologist known as Mushroom stood up and announced, “If you grow organic crops, you need organic seeds. Those seeds don’t exist, and we have to create them.”

“It blew my mind,” said Morton.

Morton’s work inspires Kleeger and Still and others around the world. His varieties are grown in many countries and even in space: Outredgeous, one of his most popular lettuces—so named for leaves so red that the botany students who first saw it didn’t recognize it as lettuce—is being grown on the International Space Station. (It grows quickly, has a high concentration of antioxidants, and is highly bacteria-resistant—a concern for astronauts eating raw food.)

In July, I visited Morton at the 70-acre organic farm where he raises seeds between rows of organic crops grown for food. He offers a dazzling 81 varieties of lettuce in his catalog, created by selecting lettuces with certain traits, crossing them, and then carefully breeding them for years. As we walked the fields, he kept an eye out for plants with yellowed leaves or other signs of disease, for plants that were puny, for plants laced with insect bites. Even if these plants had other desirable characteristics, he would not bother saving their seed if they were not vigorous enough to flourish under organic cultivation.

Morton is a model for the kind of painstaking work good agriculture requires, as well as for the openness the new generation of seedheads expects. He does not patent his varieties. If other companies want to sell seeds grown from them, he wants them to pay him a 10 percent royalty. It’s a handshake agreement, and it’s worked so far. Morton assumes other breeders will shape new varieties from his and adapt them to other regions’ growing conditions and other customers’ flavor preferences. Which is to say he expects people to use his seeds as people have used seed for centuries.

IMG_4430Lettuces that have been allowed to grow until they produce seed. (Photo: Kristin Ohlson)

In 2010, organic vegetable farmers in the Pacific Northwest noticed that one of their favorite sweet peppers, an easy-to-grow, easy-to-harvest commercial hybrid called Gypsy, seemed to be disappearing from the marketplace. They were having a hard time finding Gypsy seed, and when they did, the resulting peppers were low in quality—a sign that a seed company has stopped doing the careful maintenance of the parent lines because it has lost interest in selling the hybrid. Gypsy was also beloved by area chefs, who started asking why they couldn’t find their red pepper of choice. All of this set off a sort of red-pepper panic, which soon came to the attention of Lane Selman.

Selman is a research assistant in the Organic Vegetable Research program at Oregon State University and a researcher with one of the big OSA research efforts called the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. Since NOVIC started in 2009, it has helped bring together plant breeders and researchers from Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, Wisconsin-Madison, OSA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with farmers to breed varieties that perform well in the shorter growing seasons of northerly regions, where many organic farmers must start seeds in greenhouses and transplant the shoots to their fields when the weather warms. NOVIC wanted to develop varieties that might eliminate that step and even help farmers grow crops rarely attempted in these environments—for example, sweet corn in Washington.

NOVIC set out to test varieties that could replace Gypsy. Selman soon discovered some likely candidates among the produce at the stand she manages for Gathering Together Farm, of Philomath, Ore., at the Portland farmers market. It turned out that Morton, in response to requests from his farmer friends at Gathering Together, had already bred five new sweet peppers that grew beautifully in the Pacific Northwest. Unbeknownst to the other farmers desperate for a successor to Gypsy, Gathering Together was growing them and sending them to market.

NOVIC’s trials confirmed that Morton’s peppers grew as well as, if not better than, Gypsy. But every Saturday morning at the farmers market, Selman had to face another constituency: Portland’s picky chefs, who were still pining for Gypsy. So in October 2011—about two years before Dan Barber convened international chefs and plant breeders at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture in Tarrytown, N.Y., to discuss the role of seeds in selecting produce for flavor—she invited Portland chefs to Portland’s Tabla Mediterranean Bistro for a special tasting of 10 peppers. At the end of the evening, the chefs’ top three choices were all Morton varieties, including one called Stocky Red Roaster.

It quickly moved into the space in the chefs’ hearts formerly occupied by Gypsy, and now chefs come to the farmers market asking for it. Selman hopes that the chefs and ultimately consumers will become aware of the breeders behind all the varieties. “Restaurants already drop the names of farms on the menus,” she says. “I’d like to see something like ‘This month, you’re eating Stocky Red Roaster, a variety developed by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed.’ ”

In late September, more than 100 farmers, chefs, and food aficionados cruised a party room in the back of Chris King Precision Components, a Portland bike factory. The event was sponsored by the Culinary Breeding Network, which was organized in the aftermath of the 2011 red-pepper tasting in Portland. The group includes plant breeders, seed growers, fresh market farmers, chefs, and produce buyers who are developing a vision and an agenda for vegetables in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a fusion of the agricultural and the culinary, of breeders, growers, and eaters, and it’s taking the concept of local food to an entirely new level.

Twelve plant breeders had turned over some of their favorite new varieties to 12 chefs to see what they could come up with. The assorted grazers sampled dishes such as hominy and shrimp soup, polenta, and caramel popcorn, prepared by Portland chef Greg Higgens from the Amish Butter corn developed by breeders Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Ore. Breeders also brought along samples of varieties in development. Guests filled out questionnaires: Which of the mild habañeros offered up at one table had the best flavor, color, shape, size, and pungency? How did the cherry tomatoes at another table fare in terms of appearance, flavor, sugar-acid balance, aftertaste, and skin thickness?

Selman calls this “community-driven plant breeding.” She’s planning more such events, and hopes to hold “farm days” in which chefs walk the fields looking for varieties that please their eye. She wants chefs and breeders to meet with a flavor consultant, who will teach them to speak the same language in matters of the palate. As far as she knows, this kind of thing “is not going on anywhere else in the country.”

Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still were at the bike-factory party. They brought Adaptive Seeds onions and its seed catalog, with its many varieties new to Americans. Unlike Frank Morton’s Wild Garden Seed catalog, which I saw tucked under the arms of many a guest, Kleeger and Still’s catalog wasn’t crammed with varieties they’ve bred themselves. But they’re eager for the challenge of adding their own innovations to the Northwest’s agriculture and cuisine. “We’re lucky,” Kleeger told me. “We’ve got another thirty years to do this.”

The burgeoning network represented that night could provide new resources for farmers and may help the chefs it’s pulled into the mix expand the possibilities of local food and what it tastes like.

“The more people getting involved in seed projects, the better,” says Matthew Dillon, who cofounded OSA in 2004 and is now the director of Seed Matters, an arm of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which advocates for the improvement and protection of organic seed. “For the last 50 years, there’s just been a handful of people and companies controlling our seed future and thus our food future. The more public-based seed projects that are going on, the harder it’s going to be for companies that want to control via patents to win. They can’t come and take it all.”

Farm Events in Massachusetts

There is so much going on, and we can’t list it all here, but for a complete list check out our Culinary & Agriculture Events calendar. Don’t forget, Topsfield Fair runs through Columbus Day, October 13.

Thanks to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources for putting this list together!


History-making day for Boston urban agriculture

Rachel Greenberger reported that….

This morning in City Hall, by unanimous consent, the Zoning Commission passed Article 89, a progressive series of measures to pave the way for farming in Boston.

At the request of Mayor Tom Menino, Edith Murnane of the Mayor’s Office of Food Initiatives and Tad Reed and Marie Mercurio of Boston Redevelopment Authority have led an incredible nearly two-year charge, convening a Urban Agriculture Working Group in the process, to reach this day.

“Urban agriculture is currently forbidden,” Tad Reed told the board and the room of citizens and stakeholders who turned out in support, “because it has not been addressed in the zoning code to date.”

Higher Ground Farm
Higher Ground Farm

Article 89 concerns commercial agriculture only and does not touch current code pertaining to gardens for personal use. Its focus areas are ground-level farming, open air roof-level farming, and rooftop greenhouses. It also addresses on-site composting, soil safety and raised beds, and the keeping of hens and bees.

When Chairman Bob Fondren invited public comment, ten citizens, local leaders, and business people stood to speak in support of Article 89. No one stood to speak against it.

Article 89 then passed by a unanimous vote.

Edith Murnane had tears in her eyes as I hugged her and congratulated her for her impeccable work.

Now Article 89 goes to Mayor Menino’s desk for signature. Considering that the Mayor requested this initiative in the first place, there is little chance of impediment.

This is a Red Letter Day for Boston, which now joins the ranks of urban-agriculture progressive cities like New York, Portland, Chicago and Madison. As Bruce Bickerstaff put it, “not as a novelty but as a legitimate business proposition in a burgeoning industry.”

Original Post –  by Rachel Greenberger


Anyone interested in this work may also be curious about our Urban Agriculture Online class at UMass.  Check out our online program here:  ONLINE UMass Certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming.

Margaret Christie & Philip Korman: Taking action in the cause of local food

Margaret Christie & Philip Korman; CISA – Daily Hampshire Gazette Editorial

December 10, 2013

Luckily, we are well-nourished for that effort — stomachs, hearts, and souls — by our local farms.

During this anniversary year, we set an ambitious goal at CISA to double the amount of local food in the diets of Pioneer Valley residents. In the next 20 years, we’ll make local food a full quarter of our diet as a region. As an organization, our next steps toward reaching that goal include providing more support for new farmers, increasing the availability of locally grown food for Hampden County residents and aiding the businesses that connect farms and tables — processors, retailers, institutions, restaurants, and distributors, for example.

Filling your family’s table with food from local farms is a delicious way to support farm businesses in your community, and is perhaps even more meaningful during special holiday meals. But you can do more to build a vibrant local food economy.

Using the power of our food dollars and our strength as active, engaged citizens, we can create a local food system that nurtures our families, our communities, our economy and our environment.

Doubling the amount of local food in our diets will require new infrastructure, new businesses and new market outlets, as well as the financing, public policy, support services and enthusiastic customer base to ensure their success.

This big goal brings together many organizations with diverse interests in the Pioneer Valley: economic development, public health, food access and the environment, for example. Ultimately, though, to succeed, it must be a community effort, and there’s a role for everyone.

CISA’s new publication, “Eat Up and Take Action for Local Food,” provides resources and encouragement to bring your love of local food to your workplace, your neighborhood and your friends and family.

The publication includes stories of local people and businesses that are going the extra mile for local food. You can read about the Springfield Food Policy Council, where residents come together to fill gaps in the city’s food system and champion such initiatives as a new city ordinance that supports gardening in the city. At Cooley Dickinson Hospital, wellness policies encourage employees to eat more fresh food from local farms by allowing employees to pay for a CSA share through payroll deduction, pick up the farm share at the hospital, and earn wellness credits by joining a CSA.

Or learn about Greenfield’s Real Pickles, which cemented its commitment to local ownership by forming a worker-owned cooperative and funded the co-op’s purchase of the business through a highly successful community investment campaign that raised half a million dollars.

“Eat Up and Take Action” also provides ideas for how you can take action. Here are just a few, both large and small:

• Bring a friend to the farmers’ market.

• Volunteer at your school garden or community farm.

• Become a local foods entrepreneur.

• Tell your child’s school that you’d like more local food at lunch.

• Make your workplace local-food-friendly: bring local snacks to meetings, add local-food-related benefits to your health insurance options, or give a corporate gift that supports local food.

Eating fresh, seasonal food nourishes our connection to the land where we live and the people that grow our food. It supports our local economy, creating jobs and increasing our economic resilience. It gives us a way to take concrete, hopeful action, every day, to address some of the big problems facing us: climate change, corporate power, a fragile global economy.

And it provides a route to building a local food system that nurtures our community for the long term.

Realizing that vision may require us all to do a bit more, to think about how we can promote and support local food not only at our dining tables but in the board room, break room, cafeteria, fitness center and town meeting room. Eat up and take action for local food. Find the report at

Margaret Christie is special projects director and Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

Original Post

Franklin County Community Development Corp. kitchen in Greenfield key link in local food chain

By RICHIE DAVIS   –  Gazette Contributing Writer  –   Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Joe Czajkowski delivered a ton of carrots, already peeled and “coin-cut,” to the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center last week from his 99-year-old Hatfield farm, Liz Buxton and her crew got to work.


Next February will be promoted as “carrot month” as part of the Massachusetts Farm to School Partnership. So the Greenfield commercial kitchen had a line of half a dozen workers blanching, bagging, and then freezing the sliced orange vegetables for delivery to schools around the region in late January so cafeteria workers can prepare them as part of locally enhanced meals.

“I noticed in Heath, where they have a really nice school garden, that the kids had grown and picked the carrots, and they all wanted the carrots,” said Buxton, who worked as Mohawk Trail Regional School’s food and nutrition service director before taking charge of the Franklin County Community Development Corp. kitchen a couple of months ago. “They’ve started to recognize what’s local, and they were invested in those carrots.”

At Mohawk, she helped buy frozen local cauliflower, broccoli, peppers and carrots from the CDC kitchen, putting on the monthly lunch menus in which local produce was being featured. “These carrots were in the ground a couple of days ago. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.”

CDC this summer processed nearly 10,000 pounds of tomatoes from Red Fire and Atlas farms that it is now getting ready to turn into marinara sauce with some of the 1,300 peppers it received from Red Fire Farm, as well as local onions. It is hiring a food development specialist to help market the local produce to food service directors and their product distributors, and also trying to work with growers to sell their fruits and vegetables to the CDC to become part of the growing local food chain.

 The CDC is also using a $250,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture loan and $50,000 grant to buy a new freezer as well as flash-freezing and related equipment to ramp up its production of local produce for school sales as well as to help farmers’ own supplies for their winter customers.

“We’re taking a risk here,” said CDC Executive Director John Waite. “Schools want it, but it’s a question of price, how we’ll distribute it, and lots of pieces of the puzzle that need to come together. Until you have the product, you can’t make it happen. And we can say that we have this product; will you buy it? It’s making it happen.”

The CDC, has had to downsize from the roughly 16,000-square-foot freezer it originally sought to one that’s maybe 12,000 square feet, and that’s slowed the process, said Waite, but it’s also given the food processing center a chance to learn the importance of working with distributors such as Sysco or Thurston Foods, since food-service directors have balked at the idea of picking up produce. It’s also about hiring someone who can handle marketing, a job that’s proven too much for Waite or Buxton to handle, so they can also promote the commercial kitchen to some of the small-scale food manufacturers who pay rent to use the facility.

Lessons learned

“We’ve learned it’s about efficiency, and efficiency comes with volume,” said Waite, who spent a few months trying to fill a staffing gap this summer while also trying to connect farmers and food service directors with products and occasionally filling in on the production line as well.

“We’re committed to this, and the only way to increase sales is to increase marketing and build relationships,” he said.

The shared kitchen last year handled 65,000 pounds of vegetables, largely freezing and canning them for schools and colleges, including Deerfield Academy, Williams College and Hampshire College in Amherst. That is down to 20,000 or 30,000 pounds this year, mostly for Community Supported Agriculture operations to offer their members and farm stands to sell to customers, in the form of spaghetti sauce and applesauce — think 1,800 pounds of apples from Atkins Farm in Amherst— as well as frozen peaches, blueberries and strawberries.

With the fast-freeze and other equipment planned for deployment at the Wells Street facility by next summer, and with the kitchen getting ready for new USDA meat inspection certification beginning next month, with a meat-pie maker already lined up to use in the kitchen, Waite said he is already looking ahead to the day when the CDC can sell local frozen vegetables through Foster’s and Green Fields Market. He’s also looking at seeking a grant to prepare soups for Just Roots community farm.

Meanwhile, Waite has been meeting with food service directors from Amherst and Hampshire colleges, as well as with Hampshire’s farm program, about continuing to use the Greenfield kitchen to process its tomatoes and other produce. The kitchen even pureed 4,000 pounds of leftover fruit from the University of Massachusetts’ Guinness-Record, 15,000-pound fruit salad in September, for freezing and later use in making smoothies.

And proving the value of connections, the CDC worked through Hampshire’s Bon Appetit food service to make tomato sauce from a Connecticut farmer for Wesleyan and St. Joseph’s colleges.

From Connecticut to southern Vermont, “When a farmer says, ‘Our stuff’s ready,’ we want to be available to them,” said Waite, adding that it’s a matter of finding temporary, seasonal workers and having enough flexibility in the kitchen schedule and the right kind of equipment for that specific crop. “What we’re trying to do is give farmers diverse options to sell. If they can make more at the farm stand, great. But if one week, all their tomatoes are ready and they can only sell so much at the farm stand or grocery store, they can sell to us as well instead of leaving it on the vine. If we can eliminate that waste and pay them for that, it’s not a loss, and the farmers can get more income.”

Another lesson along the way is about the definition of “local,” at least when it comes to processing produce to extend the marketing season for sales to institutions that keep feeding people long after the growing season has ended.

“Now a lot of local is regional,” said Waite, pointing to research efforts by Farm to Institution New England, the six-state collaboration that started with a USDA grant in 2011 to beef up agricultural sales to schools, colleges and other institutions around the region.

Working with two northern Vermont commercial kitchens, two more on the Maine coast, as well as others in Boston and Rhode Island, the CDC here is trying to avoid duplicating costs for expensive, specialized equipment that may be based elsewhere. He points to the Northern Girl processing center in Maine, which is already equipped to deal with tons of potatoes and broccoli florettes.

“Maybe there’s a little specialization around New England, where we’re cooperating instead of competing,” said Waite. “Now there are distributors bringing in vegetables from California, so they can bring from Maine to Massachusetts, from Massachusetts to Maine and go back and forth, that’s a lot better than bringing it across the country.

“We’re competing against Chile and China, and in apples we’re competing against Washington state and China. We’re not competing between Massachusetts and Maine,” he added. “There’s always some hyper-local that wants to grow in the backyard, but when it comes to feeding 15 million people, we’ve got to work together.”

Original Post

The Cost of Organic Food Is Worth It and—Surprise—It’s Not Always Higher

By Charlotte Vallaeys

Sons Kai and Liam shopping with Charlotte 2

“Organic food is too expensive.” It’s a complaint we, as organic farmers and advocates, hear all too often. And we’ve practiced and often repeated our defense of organic food’s higher price tag: it’s worth every extra penny in terms of a long-term investment in our health and in protecting the environment.

When people complain of the high price of organic foods, farmer Joel Salatin likes to respond: “Have you priced cancer lately?”

But we shouldn’t stop at countering the myth that organic food is “too expensive”; we must also examine the assumption that organic food actually is more expensive than conventional food. It’s simply not as black-and-white as many people assume.

Yes, I readily admit that in any supermarket that offers organic strawberries, they will be pricier than the conventional. And a box of organic cereal will definitely carry a higher price tag than the cheap conventional store-brand version.

But it is also entirely possible, without much effort, to fill a shopping cart with a week’s worth of conventional foods and pay more than you would for a week’s worth of organic food.

With two young sons (Liam is 5 and Kai is 3), I buy only organic food for my family. I shop with an organic gatekeeper: Liam sits in the cart and checks every incoming item for the USDA Organic seal. Anything without it he sends back to the shelf.

I also buy as much local certified organic food as possible and carefully choose the brands that I can trust with the important job of providing nourishment for my children. So I assumed that our food budget was much higher than that of families who do not share our commitment to organics.

After doing some quick math in supermarket aisles, I discovered that this is not necessarily the case.

Liam’s lunchbox provides a perfect example. On hectic weekday mornings, I admit that “convenience foods” like a Kraft Lunchable® box—no preparation and no clean-up required—can be quite alluring. But the ingredients list of a Lunchable® box reads like a who’s who of cheap and unhealthy items, including high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, carrageenan, artificial colors, chemical preservatives like calcium disodium EDTA, and lots of salt and sugar.

Clearly, Kraft is not interested in healthy and wholesome foods to support my sons’ well-being, but in cheap ingredients with a long shelf life and addictive taste that augment the corporation’s bottom line. I always figured that the extra cost and extra effort of peeling organic carrots and slicing organic apples were worth it. I would add that medical issues down the road cost time as well as money, and I would gladly add five minutes to my morning routine in exchange for safe and wholesome food.

Then I compared the cost of Liam’s homemade lunchbox, filled with organic foods, with that of a typical Kraft’s Lunchable, which seems to be perpetually on sale, at $2.50 per box, at my local Stop ‘n Shop. As it turns out, the homemade lunch (containing organic bread with organic hummus, organic cheddar cheese, an organic apple, organic carrots and organic raisins) costs less than a Lunchable (a typical box contains crackers or flatbread, Oscar Mayer ham, American cheese, applesauce, a cookie or a bag of candy, and a juice box).

Then I repeated the exercise with one of Kai’s favorite foods: yogurt. I was certain that our commitment to buy only the highest quality yogurt was costing us more money. I buy whole milk Butterworks Farm yogurt, which is highly rated on Cornucopia’s organic dairy scorecard. Not only is it organic, it’s from organic pioneers Jack and Anne Lazor’s farm in Vermont (Anne was one of Cornucopia’s founding Board members). They graze their Jersey cows and sweeten their yogurt with organic maple syrup. There are no fillers like pectin or “natural flavors” or any other ingredients with dubious pedigrees.

I always felt justified about my decision to pay extra for this wonderful yogurt, until I did a price comparison. On a price-per-ounce basis, I pay less for Butterworks Farm yogurt than I would for any of the major food corporations’ yogurt products marketed to children, including Yoplait’s Go-Gurt and Dannon’s Danimals.

Go figure: organic maple-syrup- sweetened yogurt from grassfed Jersey cow milk costs less than artificially flavored, chemically colored and carrageenan-stabilized yogurt in a tube.

I understand that parents living near the poverty level are not buying Go-Gurts or Lunchables either, because when money is tight, the conventional store-brand foods in bulk are definitely the least expensive. Organic foods are not cheaper than the cheapest conventional foods—and that’s a fact. But I have found conventional foods that are pricier than organic foods in nearly every corner and aisle of the supermarket.

While the complaint that “organic food is too expensive” is commonplace, when have we ever heard people point out the high cost of Go-Gurts and Lunchables?

It’s time to shift the discourse, beginning with the real numbers: on a price-per-ounce basis, heavily advertised brand-name foods from multinational corporations like Kraft and General Mills are often more expensive than wholesome organic equivalents that do not advertise and may require the occasional scooping, peeling or slicing.

It is the Go-Gurts and the Lunchables that should be the target of mainstream criticism—for being unhealthy and expensive—not the wonderful organic foods produced by responsible stewards of the land. Organic consumers know they are getting something in return: protection from toxic pesticide residues, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, genetically engineered ingredients, toxic solvents and fumigants. The price premium also supports sound environmental stewardship and humane animal husbandry practices. It is all well worth the extra cost.

What are consumers getting in return for Lunchables and Go-Gurts, for Betty Crocker cake mixes and Lean Cuisine microwaveable dinners, for cans of Breakfast Essentials? Rather than paying more to avoid toxic residues and chemical ingredients, shoppers are shelling out high food prices to buy convenience.

But the cost of preparing food in a factory so we don’t have to do it at home is not the only reason for the high prices of conventional foods. I found many conventional products that cost more than the exact same organic product—with no difference in preparation or packaging.

If not convenience, what are consumers paying extra for? In some cases, the word “deluxe” or “natural” on the label shot up the price significantly, even though these gimmicky marketing tools mean nothing legally. The foods are produced with toxic agrichemicals and often with GMOs and other materials that nobody in their right mind would ever consider “natural.” For example, conventional Kashi cereal (owned by Kellogg) often costs more than Nature’s Path organic cereal. And where does the extra money spent on “natural” and “deluxe” foods end up? Not to support responsible “natural” or “deluxe” farmers, but to line the pockets of multinational corporations with clever marketing departments and ad agencies.

Orange juice at Whole Foods is another good example. Uncle Matt’s orange juice, from organic oranges grown in Florida, costs less than the similarly sized containers of Odwalla orange juice. Coca-Cola owns Odwalla, which packages conventional, pesticide-sprayed oranges in a fancy package and then charges a hefty premium.

I also saw broccoli florets in the freezer of Stop ‘n Shop that were labeled “Deluxe” and cost more than the exact same certified organic variety. Conventional pasta sauce with fancy brand names often costs more than organic versions. Chobani yogurt costs more than almost any traditional-style organic yogurt. Yes, Greek-style costs more because it requires more milk to produce. But their milk comes from cows in feedlots given GMO corn and soy grown with pesticides, which simply does not justify a price tag higher than organic versions.

Organic is expensive? Organic is “elitist”? It’s time to direct the outrage where it belongs. Corporations that buy the cheapest crops—subsidized by taxpayer dollars, sprayed with pesticides, often genetically engineered—spend money on pretty packages and advertisements, and then profiteer at the expense of consumer confusion.

Meanwhile, the bees are dying, animals are abused on factory farms, and the land is poisoned by conventional agriculture.

We have a collective responsibility to ourselves, to the hard-working people who produce our food, to the animals we raise for our nourishment, and to the Earth to be discerning shoppers. We owe it to ourselves and to society to do everything we can to support organic agriculture.

A version of this story ran in Cornucopia’s Fall newsletter.