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Farming Fiber: From Local Food to Local Fiber

Tierra Vegetables farmer Lee James raises what she calls “the remnants of the oldest flock of Shetland sheep west of the Mississippi.” A small flock, around a dozen sheep, eats leftover produce and grazes her home acreage, but there are so few at this point that it’s hardly worth it to harvest their wool, she says.

“I keep them for the wool, but it doesn’t really pay for itself,” says James.  Most of the world’s wool is now produced in Australia, New Zealand, and China, so the infrastructure in the U.S. has all but disappeared. The cost of shearing the sheep amounts to more than Lee can get for the wool. “It’s not something you’d get into to make a lot of money, but it’s something I really enjoy,” says James.

James has her sheep sheared every spring; most weeks of the year shoppers can find raw wool and yarn at the Tierra booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, where it serves as a useful reminder that local agriculture does not stop at food. Read more

When Small Fails

With news of Wal-Mart shifting their purchasing priorities to attract proponents of local food and the mainstream agriculture industry launching a $30 million PR campaign to fight against their rapidly corroding image, it seems like we should be glowing in triumph… the people have spoken and the corporations are responding in fear! But it isn’t that simple.

The risk of green-washing will certainly cloud the judgment of most citizens (and Wal-Mart shoppers) rather than inspire understanding of the complex layers of contradictions “sustainable food” issues present.  Even those of us who have pledged most of our lives, and finances, to supporting and promoting the small food businesses that actually do adhere to ethical, fair, small scale practices have a hard time sorting through it all.  But what hurts the most is, even in a time when terms like “sustainable” or “artisan” or “local & organic” seem old hat and cliché, the hard facts remain that the real people working so hard to produce these foods for us still can’t always succeed. Read more

How Willie Nelson’s Bedrock, the Family Farmer, Could Save the American Economy

As an advocate for local, and for family farmers, I know that there is immense power in the experiential. When you have a direct relationship with a farmer, you just know that relationship is mutually beneficial. When you see four leggers on pasture instead of concrete, it only makes sense. But, do we have our talking points lined up on a deeper level? Are we ready for that serendipitous moment when online dating sets you up with an agribusiness ladder climber who wants to debate free trade two beers in? Or when it comes time to make policy recommendations or offer a zinger quote to a reporter? Despite being a career local foods non-profit staffer, I don’t always feel prepared when I leave the realm of the story for that of the concrete. Now that consumer awareness of the story of local has reached a critical mass, it is time to take our movement to the next level. Research. Organize. Speak out.

In celebration of its 25th year, Farm Aid, the longest running concert-for-a-cause, has published a report to help us make this push. Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family-Farm Centered Food Systems takes one of the more sensitive topics in the American psyche today, the economy, and convincingly demonstrates the bounty of opportunity that family farmers can bring to local and regional communities. Read more

Whole Foods to Use Mobile Slaughterhouses, Will it Help or Hurt Small Farmers?

Massachusetts poultry farmer Jennifer Hashley has a problem. From the moment she started raising pastured chickens outside Concord, Mass. in 2002, there was, as she put it “nowhere to go to get them processed.” While she had the option of slaughtering her chickens in her own backyard, Hashley knew that selling her chickens would be easier if she used a licensed slaughterhouse. Nor is she alone in her troubles. Despite growing demand for local, pasture-raised chickens, small poultry producers throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, and even New York can’t or won’t expand for lack of processing capacity.

It isn’t only small producers who are feeling the pinch—a widespread lack of processing infrastructure appropriate for small farmers has caused supply chain problems for the big retailers as well. Whole Foods—the world’s largest natural-foods supermarket—wants to aggressively expand its local meat sourcing, according to its head meat buyer, Theo Weening. But it faces the same limitation as Hashley. Most regions of the country have “lots of agriculture but nowhere to process,” Weening told me, adding that the phenomenon is most acute in the northeast.

Whole Foods wants to change all that. In a move that has national implications, the retail giant has confirmed to Grist that it is working with the USDA as well as state authorities to establish a fleet of top-of-the-line “mobile slaughterhouses” for chicken. Starting with a single unit serving Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley, N.Y. area, Whole Foods hopes to offer small farmers an affordable way to process chickens as well as to vastly increase the amount of locally-sourced chicken it sells. If successful, this program could be expanded to any region of the country with similar infrastructure shortages.

Read the rest of this exclusive story at Grist

Late Blight on the Roof, and the Small Farmer’s Plight

Two weeks ago, I noticed that two of my tomato plants had late blight. I was up on the roof, weeding, pulling off yellowing leaves from all the excess rain, and harvesting some early tomatoes when I noticed leaves with yellow and brown spots on them. I’d read the article in the New York Times about the blight, and so I sent out the photo on the left to Twitter, asking my followers, “is this the blight?” The answer, sadly, was yes. So I pulled one plant up, before it could spread to the others, and took all the leaves off the other plant which was confined to a corner, hoping to let it’s three giant tomatoes ripen.

Unfortunately, rooftops are not immune from the soil disease that ravages spuds and tomatoes — I bought my seedlings from two small nurseries upstate, which had grown them locally. But it is possible that contamination had already spread to my tomatoes from the nurseries’ neighbors who bought their plants at big box stores like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, which sold plants in soil from an Alabama facility that carried the blight. Ironically, it is new growers’ enthusiasm that might have exacerbated the disease through increased consumer demand. And while a record number of people are growing some of their own produce this year, excess rain in the northeast has created the perfect conditions for the blight to flourish — but it is small organic farmers that are taking a punch. Read more

Building Local Communities with Good Food and Technology

Today’s world is budding with innovation…brand new systems created by a generation of people that find technology as familiar to their fingers as I find a wooden mixing spoon. We are seeing an emergence of people taking this newness and coupling it with craft, with older, perhaps simpler ways of life. Preserving traditional methods of quality by injecting a bit of adaptive contemporary sheen is introducing what may be a key to saving our planet. A perfect example of this in my own town goes by the clear-cut name of Santa Cruz Local Foods, an online Ebay of sorts where food and technology meet. Essentially, on a weekly schedule, farmers and producers register their items into the database while consumers login to shop. There is a single drop off and pick up location, money is handled through the facilitators of the website, and everyone goes home happy. Read more