National Pollinator Week was the perfect occasion to pay homage one of the small but mighty heroes of our food system: the honeybee. One out of every three bites of food we eat is made possible because of this popular pollinator, and annually, honeybees help in the production of about $15 billion worth of US crops, including many of our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
But honeybees and other pollinators are under threat. In recent years, beekeepers have reported 30 to 90 percent losses of their hives due to colony collapse disorder (CCD). The exact causes of CCD are still undetermined, but widespread use of synthetic pesticides is believed to be the primary culprit, along with other factors such as parasites, poor nutrition, environmental stress, and migratory beekeeping practices. Read more
Wendell Berry has said that eating is an agricultural act, but what about drinking beer? A thirst for fermented beverages may have inspired the world’s first farmers to plant crops some 13,000 years ago, yet today beer is rarely part of the larger conversation about where our food comes from. Read more
Mary Davis started feeling the squeeze of city life about a year ago. She had grown up gardening and spent a stint working on an organic farm while attending grad school in Missouri. Now an architect living in San Francisco’s Mission District, she longed to reconnect with her gardening roots, but her small apartment was lacking in the dirt department. “There was no garden, no outdoors,” she says. “I really wanted a place with some soil.” Read more
When we think about the people behind our food, the familiar faces at the farmers market may readily come to mind. But the many other individuals who do the hard work of planting, growing, and harvesting that food may remain only a distant picture for us. These agricultural workers, who often have specialized skills and many years of experience, are generally among the least recognized and respected members of our food system.
As socially conscious eaters know, farmworkers are excluded from federal labor laws that guarantee the right to organize and, in some cases, they are not afforded basic protections such as minimum wage, overtime pay, and workers’ compensation. According to the US Department of Labor, three-fourths of agricultural workers earn less than $10,000 annually. At many farms, the employment terms are not spelled out on paper, leaving even greater room for abuses. People of color and undocumented workers fare the worst in this system. Even on organic farms, although workers are exposed to fewer toxic chemicals, the labor conditions aren’t necessarily much better.
As recently reported in Grist, however, a growing “domestic fair trade” movement aims to formally recognize and reward farms that are working to address social justice. The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) has developed a set of fair labor guidelines under the Food Justice Certified label, which was born out of dissatisfaction with the US National Organic Program’s failure to address workers’ dignity and rights. Read more
Since the homemade food renaissance has taken root in California, there’s been no shortage of home picklers, jammers, and bakers. But under current state laws, it’s a misdemeanor for those home artisans to sell their goodies in the open marketplace. Case in point: Last June, Department of Public Health officials shut down ForageSF’s popular Underground Market, which featured mostly home producers, because its sellers were not compliant with local and state regulations.
But due to a campaign launched by the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), the laws might change this year. The Oakland-based SELC recently teamed up with Los Angeles Assemblymember Mike Gatto to introduce the California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616), a “cottage food” bill that would legalize the sale of certain foods produced in home kitchens. Read more
Urban farmer. Heirloom. Food security. Methane digester. These are just a few of the terms you’ll find in the Lexicon of Sustainability, a series of portraits that speak the language of a growing movement.
The project began with Douglas Gayeton’s first book, Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, which portrayed the principles of the Slow Food movement as expressed in rural Pistoia, Italy. While on his book tour in the United States, Douglas encountered people who longed to connect with those cultural traditions. “We’re a nation of immigrants,” he says. “And a lot of traditions that were tied to food haven’t carried on from one generation to the next.”
He decided, with his wife, Laura, to document and share what they saw as the roots of the sustainability movement in America. They started by photographing 100 thought-leaders, farmers, and food artisans and asking them to describe one key concept that defined what they did. Each portrait in the Lexicon consists of multiple photos seamlessly collaged, then carefully hand-lettered with detailed phrases selected from the interviews. “The people in the photographs often refer to the image as a collaboration, and for us, that’s the greatest compliment,” says Douglas. “They have sweated out all of the words. They’ve thought it all out.”
When Jesse Kuhn started Marin Roots Farm at age 28, he already had dirt under his fingernails. He’d studied ag in college, managed a student farm, and worked as a landscaper. But when it came to succeeding financially in the farming business, he had a long way to go. “I was charging up my credit cards like crazy and bouncing balances back and forth,” he says. “I almost had to declare bankruptcy during the first year.”
Almost 10 years and many lessons later, Marin Roots is a well-established organic specialty produce business. “It’s a lot of people’s dream to live off the land, but the reality of it is, you have to have a plan for how you’re going to pay the bills,” says Kuhn.
His journey is not unlike that of many beginners who are eager to try their hand at farming but don’t yet have all the necessary skills and resources. In a recent report titled Building a Future with Farmers, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) surveyed 1,000 young and beginning farmers across the US and found that access to land, capital, health care, credit, and business training posed huge challenges. Read more
“Heritage” has become a buzzword for discriminating home cooks wondering what bird should grace their Thanksgiving dinner table this season. But while conventional supermarket turkeys cost about $1.50 per pound, heritage turkeys can fetch up to $10 per pound, a considerable price difference that raises eyebrows for many shoppers. So, what’s all the fuss about?
Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman of BN Ranch in Bolinas, California, have made a point of educating eaters about the value of heritage turkeys, as well as the hidden costs of commodity turkey farming. “I want people to understand the difference and why it costs more,” says Nicolette Hahn Niman, who is also an environmental lawyer and author of the book Righteous Porkchop. “Obviously, they can make their own choice, but it’s an informed choice.”
To understand why heritage birds command a higher price, you have to know that it’s not just a different breed you’re paying for. It’s the additional time and care they take to raise and the fact that heritage turkeys tend to be raised more humanely than conventional turkeys, with space to roam and access to pasture. Read more
While the expression “vote with your fork” has become a slogan for the modern food movement, many advocates struggle with how to move from conscientious consumerism to engaged citizenship. Harnessing the groundswell of public interest in food to create lasting policy change was the subject of a recent San Francisco Kitchen Table Talks, a monthly conversation about food issues. Read more
Eric Maundu is, self-admittedly, an unlikely gardener. Growing up in Kenya, he became disillusioned with agriculture, seeing farmers struggle with lack of arable land, water, and resources. “The last thing I wanted to do was farm,” he says.
Everything changed when Maundu learned about hydroponics, a system for growing plants that uses nutrient-rich water in place of soil and fertilizers. By that point, he had studied industrial robotics and had moved to the US to work as an engineer.
“All my life people had told me you need soil to grow plants. People kill one another for soil,” says Maundu. Farming with water offered new possibility. Read more