Archive for the ‘locavore’ Category

Vignettes from the work of rebuilding the Local Food Infrastructure in Maine.

This post is somewhat longer than my usual.   It is an essay I’ve been working on for awhile now.  I think of it as my TED talk should I ever be invited to deliver one.   Let me know what you think.

 

My grandpuppy visiting the farm.

 I grew up in a small town in Maine in the 1960’s. My mother was a farm girl from a nearby dairy farming community. As a teenager she had worked at the local canning factory in her hometown. Nearly every town with a stream that could produce hydropower had a canning factory.  

My mother was a great believer in good food. This is how I ate as a child. Every year my parents put a side of beef in the freezer. A grass-fed steer from a local dairy farm. Slaughtered at the local food locker. Best beef I ever ate. And we ate it frequently because as a single income family with four growing children a large percentage of the family budget was spent on food. By buying their beef this way my parents could feed us ribeye for the same price as hamburger. We had a milkman who delivered. An egg lady who delivered. My mom said she bought from her because she had a husband who wouldn’t work and she needed the money to feed her own kids. My godfather got us hand-churned butter from a woman in her 90’s who lived in his town. It was bright yellow and salty, creamy, melty delicious. We had a huge garden every year and my mother canned and froze a lot of fresh veggies during the summer, made pickles, canned applesauce and apple butter from our neighbors trees. They were summer folks and long gone by the time the apples on their ancient tree were ready to harvest. We ate very well in my childhood home.

The country around us, along with being dairy country, was also the last bastion of the poultry industry in Maine. Every year in the shire-town of our county they held the week long Broiler Festival. A celebration of the farmers growing and the plants processing broiler chickens in our county. As a 5 year old I was the “gift girl” at the Miss Broiler Pageant. I met my first politician there. John Reid the Governor of Maine at the time. 20 years later I was the last occupational health nurse and safety officer at the last poultry processing plant in Maine. The industry was moving south where it was warmer and the labor was cheaper. My county’s economy was devastated.

At approximately the same time the poultry industry was dying in Maine a couple called the Nearings, Helen and Scott, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, moved to a small farm out on a peninsula on the coast and started homesteading. Scott wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” which became a run away hit with the 60’s generation and lead a lot of folks to move back to the land. These back-to-the-landers started farming and homesteading using organic methods. Soon they asking the cooperative extension agents to help them improve their methods and yields. One of these agents, Charlie Gould, happens to be the father of a friend of mine. He told me years later that he had all these “dirty hippies” asking him about organic methods so he decided he needed to learn how the organic system worked. From this humble beginning, after a few meetings lead by Charlie and attended by Scott, Helen, Eliot Coleman and many others sprang the beginnings of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association or MOFGA. And the rest, as they say, is history. Having the largest and oldest organic farming association in our state leads to many advantages. We are the only state in the country where the average age of farmers is falling thanks to the apprenticeship and journey person programs that MOFGA runs. We also have the highest per capita number of female farm owners. I don’t know what to attribute that to except that the millennials are pretty gender neutral in most things this aspect included.

In the meanwhile the chicken barns were empty and deteriorating. But we have found some uses for them. One became the home for Fedco Seeds. A worker owned seed, tree, perennials, bulbs and farm supply company that has been expanding at a reasonable rate for 30 years now. A local company serving the seed, equipment and input needs of the revitalized farming culture in Maine. Other empty chicken barns, and there were lots of them, became warehouses or self storage units. One became an antiques mall and yet another became the largest used bookstore in the state.

So the work continued and the farms came back to life and the farmers grew more and more food that they needed to get to market. The holes in the local food infrastructure began to show. Since the 1960’s the local food locker had closed. There are currently only three USDA slaughter facilities in the state. Some farmers drive as much as three hours one way to take their stock to be slaughtered in a way that the government will then allow them to sell wholesale or retail in the public marketplace. The local canning plant closed int he 1950’s and as I said the poultry processing plant was gone. So we had a gap, we had farmers who wanted to grow the food and eaters who wanted to eat it but we needed to rebuild the processing and distribution system. We needed more than just CSAs and Farmers Markets.

We have over the last 10 to 20 years been slowly rebuilding the local food infrastructure. A thing that is made less difficult by the fact that we are only a generation, and sometimes less, away from a rural infrastructure that functioned quite well. My organization , Food for Maine’s Future/Local Food RULES, is one of the smaller non-profits guiding and aiding this rebuilding. Along with MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust and a few others we are trying to keep open land in farming and farmers on the land. Some of the other components that have had to be reinvented are distribution. We are fortunate to have Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative another worker cooperative that runs several truck routes around the state picking up produce from the farms and distributing it to wholesalers and retailers around the state and New England. Food hubs are opening up around the state where farmers can aggregate their crops and sell to wholesale and retail markets. The Maine Federation of Farmers Markets is a thriving organization that supports markets for farmers around the state who wish to sell directly to customers.   

Other pieces of the puzzle include the access to infrastructure needed to create value added products. Or, on the other hand, protection from onerous regulatory burdens that prohibit the processing of food on the farm for direct customer sales. The granges around the state are going a great job with the first piece. Several, formerly underutilized, Grange Halls around the state have installed licensed kitchens and rent them out on an hourly basis to local folks who want to make a product that they can sell at retail outlets. My friend Julie just recently gushed to me about how much easier it is to make her Happy Honey in the Halcyon Grange kitchen then it was to try to do it in her own cramped home kitchen. In other communities decommissioned schools are being brought back to life as community centers and the kitchens are being licensed and rented out to local folks for food production.

In 2006 we were having one of our Mud-season Dinners and I stood with a group of young farmers bemoaning the recently introduced animal identification law. A set of USDA regulations that was forcing all farmers large and small to keep a paper trail for every animal they ever owned and to spend money tagging or tattooing those animals. One small goat farmer plaintively asked “What are we going to do?” and my friend Tim Libby, a fine small farmer who feeds thousands of disadvantaged folks with his Veggies for All program, turned to her and said “We’re going to keep doing what we we’re doing….it’s just going to be illegal.” And that is the crux of the matter. Small farmers have been skirting the onerous regulations for years. But the more burdensome the regulations get the more likely these farmers are going to be forced to become outlaws. From this frustration along with the frustration of trying to get those regulations changed at the state level came the movement to pass Local Food Sovereignty Ordinances in municipalities around the state.

And speaking of retail outlets the locavore movement is alive and well in Maine. Over the last two years we have doubled the number of brick and mortar food co-ops in the state. These small local businesses are especially supportive of local farmers and producers. In fact they are so successful that the big chain stores in the state are trying to imitate them by having pictures of in state farmers up around their produce aisles. A nice niche market for the slightly bigger producers.

I have already spoken about transportation but I have to tell you about one of the coolest new transportation solutions in my coastal state. MaineSails a project of the Greenhorns, which is a national organization of young farmers, recently (August 2015) had its maiden voyage carrying farm produce with fairly stable shelf life from Portland Maine to Boston Massachusetts. The produce was then transported via bike to the Public Market in Boston. This project was meant to emphasis the need to think outside the box about solutions in the food system with lower carbon footprints.

In 2006 the Brookings Institute published a study about Maine’s economic future. One of the main findings in the study was that what Maine had that was unique and marketable was its pride of place and open lands. They suggested that one way to keep those fields open was to keep it in farming. 

The Maine Grain Alliance is working to restore Maine’s preeminence as the bread basket of the northeast. They have opened a mill in Skowhegan and are not only grinding grain for human consumption but have filled the need of organic livestock farmers for organic feed grains. Each year in August they sponsor the Maine Kneading Conference a multi day event that brings together bakers and grain growers from all over the state and the country.

For years during the back to the land movement many of the small farmers and homesteaders I knew were growing a small crop of marijuana as their cash crop. Recently Maine legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. Becoming “care providers” under this new law has become a nice little cottage industry for many folks around the state. On the November 2016 ballot in Maine there will be a referendum seeking to legalize recreational use of marijuana. There had been two completing referendums. One sponsored and supported by the big tobacco and other firms seeking to regulate marijuana like tobacco, gambling and alcohol and restrict the number of growers in the state to a few deep pocketed folks from away. The other seeking to keep marijuana cultivation int he hands of the small farmer and allow them to continue to use a small marijuana patch as their cash crop for the year. The small farmers won this one. Big tobacco folded their tents and slunked away in the night when they realized they could not get the required number of signatures. The people of Maine were on to them and the small farmer version of the bill won the day and will be on the ballot. 

And now it comes full circle. Last year my daughter-in-law asked me to teach her to can tomatoes and make pickles. This year, for the first time she and my son had their own big garden. The other night when I called they were making gravy fries for dinner out of the all blue potatoes from their garden. Last fall, it was a very good apple year, we had a cider pressing party at my place. We pressed over 50 gallons of cider and set it to ferment so that we would have our own hard cider for the winter. We gathered the community, added value to the local apple crop, prepared for the winter, and nurtured the local food traditions. Doing the work, legal or not, to feed our family, friends and neighbors.

Right to Food Constitutional Amendment

  
Submission for February 4, 2016 Work Session Hendrik D. Gideonse, 
LD 783 calls for a constitutional amendment addressing the right of Maine citizens to food. My support remains the same, however, the evolving context has only underscored the need for adoption. Last year I analyzed the existing provisions of Maine’s Declaration of Rights in the light of the social, political, and economic context of the times when they were written. The original drafters were more concerned about the rights of protection against arbitrary authority than they were in fully articulating all the elements requisite to the pursuit of life and liberty. Everywhere they were surrounded by nature – farms, fish, timber, and so on. It just never occurred to them that access to food as part of the natural rights of humanity needed explicit expression in our constitution, not only to protect the nourished, but the farms as well.

Adding language articulating the right to food is a needed extension of natural rights provisions already in the Declaration. Two factors have changed. The dramatically changed circumstance for contemporary food production has removed it far from our daily consciousness. Its former neighborly connection has been essentially replaced by a substantially removed, complex, and not-fully-accountable-to-the- consumer corporate overlay. Additionally, many families and individuals have become increasingly knowledgeable about where their food is coming from and what kind of food the current system generates, and their commitment to access nutrient-dense food from farms that are ecologically sound has deepened. Increasingly numbers of us are seeking real food that isn’t chemically or GMO laden from farms where we can see, touch, and smell the gardens where it is grown.
Therefore, the rights of citizens respecting food now require specific attention. At the same time that nutritional and environmental consciousness about food and farming is growing, it is also true that too many families have little idea how their food is grown or produced or should be. They don’t know where it comes from, how it is processed, how it is protected (or not!), and why and, furthermore, what role our own senses and understandings and trust play in making our food choices. No longer coming from farmer neighbors, food comes under the aegis of huge corporations from thousands of miles away, regulated by agencies seeking to deny our right or authority to the fundamental choices governing what we take into our bodies for nourishment. And despite all these changes, Maine now finds itself in the unenviable position of being the New England state with the highest incidence of food insecurity.

We are now much more acutely aware of the extent to which the position of corporations relative to individuals and even government continues to alter. Critical arguments, for example, against the soon-to-be-voted-on proposed TPP trade agreement have to do with the inexorable drift toward corporate control of everything. Indeed, NAFTA and the TPP explicitly turn over to extra-governmental tribunals corporate claims over profits they believe denied them by governmental actions in defense of people and the environment. 

The articulation of the basic right to food is an important protection. It provides grounding for the development of sound agricultural and public policy. It would provide a means of protection when either governmental or corporate action should interfere with the right to food in individual cases. Passing this bill will provide constitutional support for increasing our attention to food and farming. It will foster economic growth and development by a much-needed restoration of smaller scale local farming. That will be good for employment and as a hedge against both the causes and consequences of climate destabilization. Natural rights to life and liberty are already in the very first section of Maine’s Constitutional Declaration, but addressing directly the right to food embraces our individual choices through the most fundamental kind of law. It will safeguard us against the actions of misguided corporations and government agencies which seek to keep us ill-informed about what we’re eating when they’re not actually staking untenable jurisdictional claim over our own bodily health.

Love Your Soil and Eat More Beans!

As I think more and more about local eating and folk-food patterns the radio seems to be talking to me (no I am not having auditory hallucinations).   This morning on Morning Edition the host was talking to a chef who has written a book called “Third Plate.”  I need to read it to have a good grasp of what he is saying but the bit I heard from him was encouraging.   Kind of a “Diet for a Small Planet” ethos re-imagined for the foodie culture.   Listen to it yourself and see what you think.

Then later in the morning on my local NPR station they were talking to a panel about the Maine Food Strategy  2014 Consumer Survey Report which had appeared in my inbox this week.   Now I was not thrilled with some of the layout of the graphs.   I thought bar graphs would have done a better job of conveying the message than pie charts but if you dig down there is some interesting information.    Anyhow, here is the link to the report and the link to the radio show.

And finally a New York Times piece about “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong.”   About the need for real sustainability right down to the basics.   Right down to the soil!

Bioregion, Sweet, Bioregion

We talk so much about local food and its importance to environmental, food sovereignty and health concerns.   I am reading this book about permaculture and it brought up an interesting point that is a slightly different way of thinking about this issue.  Here is the quote:

“A bioregion is defined as any area,small or large, that has a clearly recognizable identity.  Many factors contribute to this identity: geological structure, soil, climate, types of vegetation, history, culture, ‘atmosphere,’ and magnetic and spiritual forces.  Some of the world’s most notable bioregions can boast well-known ‘regional’ writers, painters, musicians, and craftspeople who, its human inhabitants.  Among outstanding examples of links between art and earth are the novels of Hardy and the landscape of ‘Wessex,’ the paintings of Constable and the landscape of the Essex-Suffolk border, and the operas of Janacek and the Moravian forest.  In many parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America, village communities can be recognized by the costumes, songs and dances of their inhabitants, many of them inspired by features of the environment.  The patterns of plants of permaculture plots, forest gardens, and other forms of land-working should also reflect the character of their bioregions.  Those who work them are most likely to benefit if their diets consist largely of the plants that contain the minerals and other nutrients peculiar to local soils, and if they subsist as much as possible on local resources, thereby giving jobs to their neighbors and minimizing the polluting effects of mechanical transport.  Such people—rooted or ‘hefted,’ to use the Scottish term, to their bioregional soils—enjoy a sense of psychological security unknown to restless city-dwellers.

Both the Highland clan and the Native American tribe are examples of bioregional organisms.  The relationship of a member of a clan or tribe to her or his duthus (the Gaelic term for communal land) has an intense and poignantly beautiful quality.  The essence of Amerindian religion lies in the effort to unify with soil, the human psyche with the rocks and rivers, the trees and wildlife of the natural environment.”
Robert Hart in “Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape.”  1991 Chelsea Green Publishing,  pages 14-15.

And Now Some Words of Wisdom and a Call to Action

I already (permanently) link to Civil Eats on this blog but just in case you never click that link you should click this one.   It is a piece written by my friend, mentor, partner in activism Bob St. Peter.   This Land is Our Land?   Here’s a quote:  “The American way of land has been this: conquest, enclosure, inheritance, foreclosure, and sale to the highest bidder. And that trend is likely only to get worse. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, at the bleeding edge of free-market thinking, has proposed that any corporation anywhere in the world be able to buy as much farm land in his state as it wants. At the moment, there are at least a few restrictions on the kinds of international investors allowed to dabble in Wisconsin farmland, with a 640-acre limit on purchases for firms designated foreign.”

Read all the way to the end.   Bob asks you to pull up a chair and enter the discussion about how we can keep land in the hands of those who will farm it.

At other places in the article it speaks about young people who do not come from a farming background who want to “get their hands dirty” and get back to the land as their parents and grandparents did, however briefly, in the 60’s.    Which brought to mind the newest edition of my own alumni magazine which was it’s “Thirty under 30” issue.  In this publicity rag from a school known for its schools of medicine, engineering and business there were TWO alums on the list who were doing work in the area of local food.   One was labeled a “Local Food Champion” and the other was someone who works for Slow Food in NYC.   Not bad odds.  Maybe, just maybe, the issues we care so much about are becoming mainstream.   As long as the interest is sincere and not just a co-opting of the “right” words then this is a good thing.

Home Grown Energy

It looked about the same when we saw it yesterday. Maybe a bit more complete.

Spent the last 36 hours in Vermont visiting with my extended family.   My god-daughter is a science professor at Vermont Technical College where they are doing all sorts of interesting things in the field of Agriculture.    The most notable of which is a very large anaerobic digester they are building to produce methane from food and animal waste.   The plan, as I understand it, is to generate electricity from the methane and use that to power the campus and sell back to the grid.   This project involves students from many different disciplines plus faculty and the manager of the on site farm.   It was all very exciting.  Real home-grown energy.

And it was nice to see the family, too.

NPR Discovers Kale

Beedy's Camden KaleI was standing in my kitchen the other day.   Doing dishes, listening to NPR and basking in the glow of knowing that the Supreme Court may consider the OSGATA VS. Monsanto seed patent suit.    Pubpat has asked the high court to hear the case.

Anyhow, it was a beautiful fallish morning in Maine and I was happy.   But that is not what made me almost fall on the floor laughing.    Soon after the good news on the OSGATA lawsuit on All Things Considered the host spent over eight minutes on what you might be lead to believe was a newly discovered vegetable: KALE.   It made my day.   That is a lot of national radio real estate to give over to this humble plant.   I was very impressed.

 

Personally I love kale and have for years.   I braise it with some garlic and onions from my garden and a little local sunflower oil.  I grow a great variety called Beedy’s Camden Kale developed by a woman I know, Beedy Parker, specifically for growing in our local climate.  It is well adapted to my growing season and soil.   Truly local food.  The seeds are sold by a local worker’s co-operative, Fedco, and guaranteed no GMOs!  The two stories were a great synergy for improving my general outlook on life as we slog along trying to keep it legal to grow our own, save our own seeds and breed plants that grow well where we live.

 

And the NPR audience got introduced to kale.   All in all a good day!