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Growing a New Crop of Farmers

The California farming community is facing a demographic crisis. The average age of a California farmer is 58, and nearly 20 percent of them are 70 or older. As these farmers approach retirement, California needs to train new ones if we are to continue to feed our country and keep a healthy rural economy in the decades ahead. And with farm internships in California subject to strict labor laws, opportunities to get a hands-on farming education have become even fewer.

To help meet this need, the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, CA recently launched the California Farm Academy (CFA) to train beginning farmers in specialty crop production. Read more

Farm Protesters Land Seized Back by UC Berkeley

The newly established farm on UC Berkeley-owned Gill Tract will soon be empty. At the time of this writing, it is surrounded by riot police from at least 8 different UC Campus police forces. Nine have been arrested. This is the end to a standoff that began on Friday, when the police blocked farmers from entering or leaving, forcing supporters to toss food and water over the fence. In addition, the UC has filed suit against 14 individuals and 150 additional unnamed persons.

The farm began with a celebration of life, the planet and the people’s right help determine the fate of a place owned by a state-supported institution. Three weeks ago on, Earth Day, a group of 200 volunteers occupied the Gill Tract. The multi-generational crew planted two acres of vegetables, including a children’s garden, and began to offer workshops on sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty. A small encampment sprang up, but organizers insisted it be limited only to those doing the everyday work of maintaining the farm.

The land in question is a 10-acre parcel that comprises the last remaining class 1 agricultural soil in the East Bay. Despite years of community action favoring the creation of a research site specializing in urban and organic agriculture, the land is slated to be sold for development.  Read more

Did Climate Change Drink My Apple Cider?

I bought a cider press at an auction last week. I am really excited to make apple cider this fall. The last two years, I had a bumper crop of apples. That sounds like gallons and gallons of cider to me.

But now I am wondering if I should put the cider press back up for sale. You see, my apple trees were in full bloom before the end of March when temperatures hit 90 degrees.

Then it dipped to 27 degrees earlier this week. A handy chart I found warns that fruit loss begins at 28 degrees, and if it hits 25 degrees, a near total loss occurs.

A lot of people are talking about the strange weather this spring. Come to think of it, a lot of people were talking about the weather last spring too. Read more

International Women’s Day: 12 Innovations that are Helping Women Nourish the Planet

Women have proven to be a powerful force in the fight against global hunger and poverty, especially in agriculture. Worldwide roughly 1.6 billion women rely on farming for their livelihoods, and female farmers produce more than half of the world’s food. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, women account for 75 percent of all the agricultural producers. Today we observe International Women’s Day, a global celebration and recognition of women’s achievements.  Read more

The Prince’s Speech: A Love Poem to the Future

Last spring, right on the heels of one of the biggest events in his life, his son’s wedding–and with the eyes of the world upon his family–Prince Charles came to the United States to deliver a speech at Georgetown University about the future of food.

There’s nothing like sitting in an audience and getting goose bumps listening to a great visionary tell it the way it is. They say lightening doesn’t strike twice, but when I heard Prince Charles’s speech that day, I felt the same kind of jolt I got the first time I saw Al Gore’s slide show on global warming. Gore’s power point stood out because it was the clearest, most concise explanation of our climate crisis I had ever heard.

Now, another elder statesman, Prince Charles, is boldly speaking out about another crisis that we urgently need to address. With eloquent words, clarity and heartfelt passion, the prince explained, what’s gone so terribly wrong with our food chain–and what we can do to make it right. Read more

Kitchen Table Talks: Dairy Farmers Squeezed to Utter Extremes

Perhaps no one represented the American work ethic more than the dairy farmer. Early morning hours and hard physical labor, often conducted in solitude while ankle deep in muck. Families working together to get the job done. They have long proudly supplied a demand for their community, and like most farmers, are clearly not in it for the money.

Today however, the American dairy farmer also represents the frustration and economic hardship evident across our nation. Increasing volatility in the price of milk paid to farmers, higher feed costs, corporate consolidation in the supply chain, organic milk farms scaling up, and questionable government policies all have farmers shedding a few tears. The life is so unappealing that the number of American families remaining in milk farming has plummeted from roughly 165,000 20 years ago, to less than 50,000 today. Read more

Controversial Animal Drug at the Heart of International Trade Dispute

According to recent numbers, 80 percent of antibiotics on the market today are being administered to animals, much of which is given non-therapeutically to promote growth. A new report today on msnbc.com by Helena Bottemiller reveals that ractopamine hydrochloride, a growth promoting drug, has become the focus of an international trade dispute concerning its potential effects on human health.

“Although few Americans outside of the livestock industry have ever heard of ractopamine, the drug is controversial,” Bottemiller writes. “Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States, it has sickened or killed more of them than any other livestock drug on the market, Food and Drug Administration records show. Cattle and turkeys have also suffered high numbers of illnesses from the drug.”

According to the story, USDA meat inspectors have reported an increase in “downer pigs”–livestock that is unable to walk–who have been fed ractopamine. On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously voted down a California ban on “downer” livestock being used in the food supply, on the basis of a federal preemption. Read more

Farmers Talk About the Books that Inspire Them

Scores of books depict farms as little slices of heaven on earth, where venison is smoked and butter is churned, and things seem perfect. But today’s farmers are far from unrealistic dreamers, longing for a Little House on the Prairie-esque pastoral ideal. They’re socially conscious doers. And when asked about books that inspire them, they cite writings that are practical, at times poetic, and that beckon them to rescue the land.

Here are some of the books that farmers are reading and getting inspiration from today. Read more

Linking Heirlooms and Civic Agriculture

“Heirloom” is an interesting term, and like the word “sustainability,” it means different things to different people. Recently, I read The Heirloom Life Gardener, a book written by Jere and Emilee Gettle. The Gettles are the co-founders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, which publishes a lush and incredibly informative seed catalog and has spun off a variety of gardening-related enterprises across the nation.

The Gettles define heirloom seeds as being “nonhybrid and open-pollinated” and as usually having been in circulation for more than 50 years. Some heirloom seed types currently in use could have been found in Thomas Jefferson garden at Monticello. Some appear more recently, during the Great Depression, including the Mortgage Lifter tomato (who couldn’t use one of these in today’s economy?).

While reading the Gettles’ book, I began thinking once again about the relationship between land and the American character. I was inspired to pull some of my favorite books off the shelf and revisit them, to consider the notion of “civic agriculture.” Read more

Good (Food) News: The Food & Environment Reporting Network Launches

For years, agriculture and the food system have been critically under-reported subjects in the media. Take for example earlier this year, when Gannett (the parent company of USA Today) laid off Phillip Brasher, one of the last reporters covering agriculture issues in Washington, D.C. Thanks to a public outcry (and in part to reporting here on Civil Eats and elsewhere) he was rehired. However, this made clear that the desire for food reporting is not being sufficiently met by the current media structure.

The Food & Environment Reporting Network, a journalism non-profit for investigative reporting in the area of food, agriculture, and environmental health, which launches operations today, is seeking to reverse this trend. Read more