Posts Tagged ‘Farming’

Posted on March 9, 2011 - by

Not a Hippie Pipe Dream: UN Says Eco-Farming Can Feed the World

Whenever I talk about how damaging conventional farming is to our society and planet, eventually some naysayer raises his hand and asks, “Yeah but, how do you know that reverting to traditional and organic farming methods is going to produce enough food? Aren’t we regressing backwards from the technological progress we’ve made? It’s just not practical to go back to the old days—stop being a Luddite.”

At that point, I reiterate that modern industrialized agriculture may appear to generate greater yields, but this comes at a high cost, requiring far more fertilizer and pesticide inputs than traditional forms of agriculture that respect the diversity and balance of nature. Still, not everyone is swayed by these arguments. And well, frankly, I’m not out to convince everyone.

The thing is, not nearly enough research has been done on this question, at least not with studies that haven’t been sponsored by interest groups. There is room to argue that corporate partnerships at our nation’s universities have not only stymied research on eco-friendly farming practices, but have in fact encouraged the development of corporate-friendly genetically-engineered organisms and proprietary agricultural products.

The good news: yesterday, the United Nations released a report on small-scale and agroecological farming, written by Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. He is an investigator who is independent from any government or organization.

In no uncertain terms, De Schutter states, “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live—especially in unfavorable environments…Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today.” (UN News Release)

This change in focus is crucial for feeding the estimated 9 billion people that will populate the planet by 2050. Rather than relying on distant industrial inputs, agroecological farming relies on local resources, additional labor, and traditional knowledge for crop rotation and pest control techniques. In addition, De Schutter takes a nuanced approach to crop breeding techniques, noting that genetically-modified seeds concentrate power in the hands of seed companies, but marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding “use the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver’s seat.” (AlterNet)

How do we get our governments and farmers to make the switch to sustainable forms of agriculture? It will certainly be difficult to achieve, particularly when our current model diverts nearly 90% of the corn crop to animal feed or ethanol (Bittman). We need to have Congressional consensus that this issue must be addressed right now. And that will only happen if voices are demanding change, insisting that we break away from a path that leads to self-destruction.

So, did you talk about sustainable farming today?

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Posted on March 2, 2011 - by

Cork Forests: Actually, Money Does Grow on Trees

Think about the last bottle of wine you drank. Was it sealed with a natural cork? A synthetic plastic closure? A screw top cap? Where does cork come from, and what’s with all the buzz about cork trees being endangered? To investigate, we ventured off to Alentejo, a rural region in south-central Portugal, and one of the world’s largest sources of cork oaks. All told, Portugal produces about 75% of the world’s cork, and about 75% of this goes into wine bottle stoppers. About 33% of all cork trees grow in Portugal, and 95% of these are in the Alentejo region.

At Herdade da Maroteira, Philip Mollet guided us on a tour of his 540 hectare farm. Much of the land is forested, with approximately 2/3 covered by cork forest, 1/3 covered by stone oaks, and some cleared land for vineyards and livestock. Mollet is a 5th generation farmer, whose family originally hailed from Britain. As the story goes, in the beginning there were two brothers who were on their way to Australia. They stopped in Porto to make repairs on their boat and look for cork stopper resources. The brothers ended up traveling to Alentejo, where they found this particular cork farm. One brother continued on to Australia, while the other stayed in Portugal. Later on, the brothers arranged for a cultural swap, with one brother sending eucalyptus to Portugal and the other brother sending cork acorns to Australia. However, the acorns that were sent were sterilized—nothing like a little sibling rivalry to help foment family feuds!

A cork oak has two layers of bark—the cork, which is the outer layer, and the inner bark. After the cork has grown to sufficient thickness, you can strip it by hand using an ax with a curved blade. To date, no mechanical harvesting method has been developed, and it requires skill and experience to harvest cork without damaging the tree. Workers must be able to gauge the cork sheet’s thickness, and not cut too deeply into the tree, or they will cause irreversible damage. Done properly though, cork is a renewable resource, and a healthy tree will produce cork almost indefinitely, or until its life expectancy of 600 years is up.

Cork can first be harvested at about 25 years of age, but this virgin cork is considered low-quality and is worth about the price of the stripping. Thereafter, cork is usually harvested every 9-10 years. To keep track of the last harvest, each tree is marked with a number to indicate the last year it was stripped. For instance, a “6” means the tree was last stripped in 2006.

When do you harvest cork? As it turns out, the cork layer usually sticks to the tree like glue, but there is a narrow 3-week window each year when you can strip cork. As the weather moves out of cold temperatures into warm ones, the trees “sweat” and it is possible to separate the cork from the inner bark. The timing of this window varies from region to region, and depends on humidity as well.

At Herdade da Maroteira, cork harvesting takes place for about ten days in June, and is done primarily by a team of 12 men with axes. Any more than that, and it becomes difficult to supervise workers and make sure they are doing the job properly, said Mollet. They are supported by a back-up team of employees who drive the tractors, paint numbers on the trees, and stack the cork sheets.

The quality of cork depends on the thickness and density of the cork sheets—the greater the better. Cork is traded in units called arroba, which is equivalent to 11.5 kg in Spain and 15 kg in Portugal. Top-notch cork, with high density and thickness, is sold for €40-50/arroba, while lower quality cork might be sold for as little as €8/arroba. Mollet’s cork is middle of the range, with high density but average thickness, and sells for about €18/arroba.

What about all the rumors of a worldwide cork shortage? According to Mollet, cork production is fully sustainable and there is no truth to these claims. “The problem is the wineries,” he said. “Everyone’s looking at cost.” He explained that natural corks cost 28¢ each, while lower-grade 1+1 conglomerate corks and powdered corks cost 8¢, and a 100% conglomerate cork costs 4-5¢. Meanwhile, plastic corks cost 3-4¢ each. Mollet lamented the rise of synthetic closures and said, “Look, this cork is ecological, biological and natural. If we lived in the US or the UK, we’d be marketing this product heavily. But the Portuguese government has their hands in their pockets. So, winemakers are moving to plastics to cut costs, not watching quality and not knowing what goes into the wine.”

In recent years, the demand for cork and value of the raw product has fallen sharply. At the market’s peak about ten years ago, Mollet was grossing about €120,000 for each cork harvest, but that figure has fallen to €42,000 today. Simultaneously, stripping costs total €30,000. And that does not even account for the year-round costs of maintaining the cork forest and fighting the coraebus undatus beetle that infects cork trees. It is a poor time indeed to be in the cork-growing business.

To verify Mollet’s claims, I did some research on the sustainability of Portugal’s cork forests on my own. The cork oak is indeed listed on the World Wildlife Fund website as a priority species, but not for overharvesting. As stated by the WWF, “Harvesting of cork for use in wine stoppers is entirely sustainable,” but “increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak areas, leading to their conversion or abandonment.” In other words, not using cork stoppers will hurt the continued preservation of the trees.

Mollet realized long ago that it was risky to be dependent on the vagaries of the cork market, and decided to diversify his farm into other lines of business. Today, the farm also raises pigs, produces wine, olives, olive oil, honey and has two agrotourism guesthouses for visitors. The pigs are actually owned by Spanish livestock farmers, and are sent to Mollet’s farm in the fall to gain weight. These prized Iberian pigs arrive in October weighing approximately 80 kg, and leave in March at 180 kg. Mollet is paid based on the amount gained by each pig, which comes to about €120 per pig. “I make sure that they are happy and comfortable,” he said. “We keep them as calm as possible, in a stress-free environment.” The pigs are rotated from section to section of the forest, as they feast on acorns dropped by the oaks. They will later be processed into prized jamon iberico and other meat products, for a total value of around €3,000 per animal.

Why harvest the cork if it is a money-losing prospect? Mollet paused to reflect on the volatile prices and pests threatening Portugal’s cork oaks. “People used to say, ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees,’ and we would respond, ‘Actually, it does.’ But now I’m making just enough money to keep the tractor running. Fortunately, we diversified into wine, but the whole cork industry is in trouble, and if something doesn’t change, the forest will die.” Without protection, it is likely that the forest will be converted to other uses and the trees logged away.

Did your wine purchase for tonight’s dinner just get a little more complicated?

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Posted on February 21, 2011 - by

What’s in a Food Dollar?

Source: USDA

Take a glance at your grocery bill. How much of that money do you think goes to the farmer who produced the food? Half? 70%? Actually, in the U.S., only 19% of the money spent on food goes to farmers and ranchers (USDA). And this share has been shrinking for the last few decades. The other 81% goes toward transforming these raw foods into processed products and transporting them to your grocery’s shelves.

From the National Farmers Union, here are some commonly-bought food items, their retail prices and the portion of the money that goes toward to the farmer:

Bacon, $4.39, $0.55 (12.5%)
Bread, $3.39, $0.15 (4.4%)
Eggs, $2.59, $0.74 (28.6%)
Milk, $3.99, $1.30 (32.6%)
Lettuce, $1.99, $0.37 (18.6%)
Chips, $3.99, $0.09 (2.3%)
Beer, $6.29, $0.10 (1.6%)

Intuitively, it makes sense that farmers would receive less of the retail price if the food is heavily processed, since there would be higher labor, packaging, transportation and marketing costs. Hence, a bag of Lay’s and a bottle of Coke do not return much financially to farmers, but instead go towards manufacturers and retailers.

It wasn’t always like this. Between World War I and the 1970s, farmer share hovered around 40% of dollars spent. But since then, the proportion has fallen steadily to its current levels (Farm Aid).

Meanwhile, the amount we spend on food has been declining for years. Americans spend just 10% of their income on food, the lowest proportion in the world. Of that money, 58% was spent on food eaten at home, and 41% was spent on food purchases outside of the home (Alabama Farmers Federation).

How do you make sure your money goes to the people who deserve it? Leapfrog over the middlemen, and purchase directly from farmers markets and through CSA shares. Eat at restaurants that source their ingredients directly from farmers and support the local economy. Buy foods that have little or no post-harvest processing—you’ll also benefit from eating fewer additives and preservatives.

What other ways can we circumvent the globalized production and distribution of the food system?

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Posted on May 7, 2010 - by

FRESH Farm to Table Dinner: La Merenda

Guest Post by: Haute Apple Pie

Buying local is nothing new. 100 even 50 years ago, buying and eating local wasn’t a choice. Everybody had to do it.

When you put it that way, “local” is far from a new concept but the buy & eat local craze is sweeping the nation and the ladies of HAP are excited about it. We recently attended a “Farm to Table” dinner hosted at La Merenda, an international tapas restaurant and a true Milwaukee gem. The dinner was hosted in promotion of the movie “FRESH,” a documentary exploring the world of sustainable farming and shedding light on what has become the industrial agriculture market.

A member of Braise RSA, La Merenda is a local restaurant with a focus on buying local. With an eclectic mix of flavors from around the world, you would never guess many of the ingredients come from our own backyard. Local businesses like Sweet Water Organics, an urban farm that uses hydroponics to grow crops, make it possible for restaurants like La Merenda to support the cause.

Executive Chef Peter Sandroni prepared a four-course meal, with every ingredient hailing from Wisconsin…not an easy task for April in Wisconsin. Wisconsinites are lucky at this time of the year to escape spring snowfalls. But Sandroni mastered his courses with the freshest of ingredients and bold flavors that kept us wanting more. When we asked about our favorite seasonal dish, the Butternut Squash Ravioli, we found that not only does he buy local for that dish as well, but Sandroni houses the squash in the basement of his house to ensure he has enough! We were also treated to sustainably produced wine at each course, expertly paired by local sommelier, Nate Norfolk.

Don’t think that you can make a restaurant style meal using all local ingredients? Check out the menu and you’ll be amazed at what you can find.

Course 1: Toasted Goat Cheese Salad
Honey Goat Cheese: Montchevre Belmont, WI
Mixed Greens: Sweet Water Organics, Milwaukee
Pancetta: La Quercia Norwark, IA
Wine: 2008 Tangent Sauvignon Blanc – Edna Valley, CA

La Merenda Toasted Goat Cheese Salad

Course 2: Spinach Ravioli in Rosemary Cream Sauce
Spinach: Pinehold Gardens Oak Creek, WI
Ricotta: Grande Cheese Brownsville, WI
Cream: Sassy Cow Creamery Columbus, WI
Rosemary: from Peter’s house!
Parmesan: Sarveccio Plymouth, WI
Wine: 2005 Vitanza Chianti Colli Senesi – Tuscany, Italy

Course 3: Braised Pork with Mushroom and Blue Cornmeal Polenta
Pork: Wilson Farm Meats Elkhorn, WI
Prosciutto: La Quercia Norwark, IA
Carrots: Tipi Produce Evansville, WI
Onions and Mushrooms: River Valley Farm Burlington, WI
Blue Corn Meal: Pristine View Farm Hillsboro, WI
Half and Half: Sassy Cow Creamery Columbus, WI
Asiago: Belgioso Denmark, WI
Wine: 2008 Ecologica Syrah/Malbec – La Rioja, Argentina

La Merenda Milwaukee Braised Pork with Polenta

Course 4: Chocolate Hickory Nut Crème Brulee
Chocolate: Omahene Milwaukee, WI
Cream: Sasssy Cow Creamery, Columbus WI
Eggs: Yuppie Hill Farm Burlington, WI
Hickory Nuts: Twin Hawks Hillsboro, WI
Wine: NV Lautenback’s Orchard Country Sweet Black Cherry – Fish Creek, WI

La Merenda Chocolate Creme Brulee

Similar to Food Inc and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, FRESH digs in and asks viewers to reconsider where their food comes from and why they buy what they buy.  Without being all doomsday-style, FRESH will definitely make you think twice about what you eat and how even small decisions with your dollar might cause corporations to listen up.

We were also thrilled to see a fellow Milwaukeean, Will Allen of the Growing Power urban farming initiative, play a prominent and truly inspirational role in the film.  If you thought “farm” and “city” can’t go hand-in-hand, think again.  Based in a rough Milwaukee neighborhood, Growing Power’s two acre headquarters is home to 6 greenhouses, aquaponics stations, beehives, hen houses, goats, a compost center and more. We can’t wait to check out their goods at the Fox Point Farmer’s Market and hope to pop by HQ sometime soon.

How do you get involved with this Fresh movement? What are your favorite “fresh” places to eat? Share your ideas here or get more involved by hosting your own farm to table event with ideas from the FRESH community.


Posted on January 6, 2010 - by

The Food That Feeds Us: Seasons Eatings Farm

Note from the FRESH Team: This is the first of many posts from farmers and food producers around the US who are working hard to change our food system.  We want to share their stories with the FRESH community in hopes of connecting us all a little more and strengthening our collective voice.  This is NOT meant to be an exhaustive resource.  We welcome you to send us your story to share with the FRESH community as well.  Please email Lisa Madison at for more information.”
Farm Name: Seasons Eatings Farm
Location: Talmadge, ME 04492
Specialty: Four season growing, cold weather greens
How to buy our food: Direct from the farm, area restaurants
Contact: Robin Follette

Seasons Eatings is a four season vegetable farm located in northeastern Maine. We are strong believers in community, small business, local economy, sustainable agriculture and fresh, healthy, locally produced food. Get to know your farmer! Ask questions and learn about the food that nourishes you.

I didn’t always want to be a farmer. I used to get up in the morning, shower, dress in heels and suits, drop Kristin off at day care or school and head to the office. I worked all day then picked Kristin up at day care. We’d either stop at the store for supper from a box or meet Steve at a restaurant. We’d take Kristin home, give her a bath and put her to bed. Repeat five times a week. When Kristin was six Steve was offered a job as a forester for a company 100 miles away. I was ready to escape but could we live without my very nice salary? We ran the numbers. Clothes, gas, take out lunch, poor supper habits, day care…. I’d been working for a net pay of $50 a week. Surely I could earn $50 a week staying home. We packed up and moved to rural Washington county. We had a garden and small greenhouse. My mother taught me how to put food up when I was a kid. I was saving almost $50 a week on the grocery bill.

Taylor was born when Kristin was nine. I wanted to work at home instead of finding a sitter for two kids. Steve’s dad gave Kristin a pony for Christmas when she was ten. We had only two-thirds of an acre of land so we boarded him for a year. When we took in a rescued quarter horse we knew we needed to move. Boarding two horses was expensive. I bought six barred rock chicks and we started looking for land. My life as a farmer was beginning.

We bought a small farmhouse on 45 acres of land when we were in our early 30‘s. I’d traded heels and suits for jeans and boots and loved it! Growing fresh, healthy food for my community and area restaurants is my passion. We’ve raised pigs, cattle, goats, laying and meat chickens, broad breasted white and bronze and Bourbon Red turkeys, and ducks. Almost all have been rare or heritage breeds. I enjoyed the animals but my heart is in the garden. We phased out livestock, kept some of the poultry and made room and time for me to be in the garden.

My market garden varies between one and two acres depending on what I want to do each year. My growing season starts in January when onions and leeks are seeded into flats and continues through seedling sales in the spring, the usual vegetables from spring to fall, and ends in mid December when the sun is too low and the days too cold for growth in the high tunnels. I harvest greens in the high tunnels all winter. Kristin’s 25 now, Taylor’s 16 and Steve’s still a forester. And here I am, a grown woman playing in the soil for a living. Life’s good!

Robin Follette