Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Anthony Flaccavento | Civil Eats

Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Anthony Flaccavento

Anthony Flaccavento is an organic farmer near Abingdon in the heart of Appalachian Virginia, and is founder of SCALE Inc. (SCALE stands for, (Sequestering Carbon Accelerating Local Economies) which works with new and emerging sustainable ag projects. He has been working on community environmental and economic development in central Appalachia for the past 25 years.  In 1995, he founded Appalachian Sustainable Development, a nonprofit dedicated to developing healthy, diverse, and ecologically sound economic opportunities in southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee, which has become a regional and national leader in sustainable economic development.

CE: What issues have you been focused on?

AF: A couple of things. One is working with farmers and other people in the supply chain, such as material input suppliers, greenhouse folks, distributors, and land grants to persuade traditional farmers and traditional ag support agencies (like local farm stores) that alternatives are possible, whether that’s with organic farming or grass-based livestock, that are better for farmers.

I also use my farm for demonstration, hosting farm tours and the like. We’ve found this to be more persuasive than just talking—especially because people around here are pretty skeptical. We’ve always thought that if we can be nearly as productive as conventional farms and access good quality and large markets (farmers markets on up to institutional buyers) then that’s the most persuasive thing we can do.

When you have things for people to see from the farm level to the value added product components, they can see it involves people more than just foodies and hippie farmers, then it’s persuasive.

CE: What inspires you to do this work?

AF: I grew up in the outskirts of Baltimore and my Dad had a small organic garden and I got very hooked. I went away to study agriculture at the University of Kentucky and I continued gardening. After graduation, I worked in strip mine reclamation and ran the Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace for the Richmond Catholic Diocese, based in the coalfields of southwest Virginia. I discovered that often the environmentalists were at odds with economic developers, farmers and others trying to make their living from the land. There wasn’t a meeting place between rural livelihoods that support people and regenerate communities and people concerned about conservation and stewardship. It all led me to create Appalachian Sustainable Development.

CE: What’s your overall vision?

AF: We’re in the best of times and the worst of times. We’ve gone from 14 acres of productive land per person to 3.5 acres over the past 100 years. We have growing and severe water shortages, enormous environmental problems. We’re making progress on some of these, yet population will grow 40-50% before it levels off; and most of the world wants to consume like Americans. So there’s an impossible reality around the corner.

It’s also true we have a social and political culture in the country that’s somewhere between not really well-informed and terribly angry and misguided. There ‘s a terrible rage in the country with people who not only misunderstand the Obama administration but are swayed by the power of the media, specifically Fox News, augmented by talk radio and bloggers. They have persuaded people that environmentalists are self-serving, irreligious pagans and that climate change in a hoax. But the real issues are about corporate power, not socialism, particularly the incredible concentrations of wealth from Monsanto to Massey Coal to Walmart and a few others.

On the other hand, we have this rapidly growing sustainability movement including consumers and farmers, and a green industry movement from energy efficiency to alternative energy and renewables. I don’t think there’s room for both. So it’s an open question to see who’s role will prevail.

I don’t know how to overcome the anger. All the progressives and environmentalists in the world can’t begin to match the power of Fox. So, we begin with on-the-ground examples which people can see, can participate in, both in rural and urban areas. This is particularly effective with food and farming initiatives. There’s less developed yet exciting solar power, green housing and energy efficiency work out there as well.

My vision would be if enough of those things can get enough traction with enough media attention, then we can persuade the public that it’s less about our battle with Obama and more about food safety and self-reliance for families and communities.

If we can begin to change the public debate, then people in power and politics might come back to the center.

CE: Who’s in your community?

AF: It’s a mix of people, Appalachian communities, people of all different income levels, traditional folks, both farmers who’ve switched to organic models and the consumers who come to farmers markets, and it’s also people who are more politically progressive and been thinking about food, environment and health for a while. It’s mostly white. This part of the world is like that. There is a growing Latino community though.

Appalachia as a region has not generally been a place for leadership about sustainable or organic farming and of course we’re in this battle about mountain top removal and coal. And people are fearful about losing their jobs. It’s generally conservative here. Not just in southwest Viginia, but in Kentucky, Tennessee and neighboring states. It’s a good time to be here to begin to see pieces fall into place.

CE: What are your commitments?

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AF: To try to live responsibly myself, in terms of my household, my wife, my kids, my farm workers. Make choices in the marketplace that are responsible. Try to live lightly. Consume less than normal. The vehicles we drive and the energy we consume.

My work part of things, as a farmer, I feel like growing healthy food and doing it in a way that makes my tiny farm a place of ecologic renewal, that it does it’s part in sequestering carbon. I look for ways to make it healthier.

Through consulting, I’m committed to support and nurture and bring about as fast and thoughtfully as possible, communities around the region in a position to be more sustainable and self-reliant. I work with communities around the Appalachian region and the South, as well as other parts of the country. Some are just at the idea stage while others are emerging and wanting to grow. If my efforts help strengthen and accelerate their work to build healthier food systems and local economies, then, to quote George Bush senior, we might be able to generate “a thousand points of light”.

My kids are grown and it’s nice to see they’ve come around and are living “lightly”. They’re non-consumptive people with a strong emphasis on local and sustainable. It’s in their bones. It’s been important to me to not just love them, but to help shape people who would be constructive in the world and who’s values would be driven by that goal. That’s exciting!

CE: What are your goals?

AF: To have a significant impact on the public discourse, for one. We know our state delegates and we’ve seen their thinking and priorities change for the better in part as a result of seeing the results of our work. We’re trying to be not just another mean voice, but a thoughtful voice to get people to think about where they fit in the world. That would be a profound impact to have.

CE: What does change look like to you?

AF: Lasting change looks everyday people thinking they can live differently, not feeling like it’s about how much we have or great jobs that pay a lot of money; more people feeling able and willing to fit into the local ecosystem. Comfortable with a new way of thinking about what prosperity means.

We are beginning to see this, in middle-class consumers as well as more traditional Appalachian folks. And more than just in their way of thinking and talking, but where you see them shopping, in the healthy grass-fed meats co-ops, farmers markets.

Change also includes improved physical infrastructure in communities. A lot of communities are dependent on the global economy, the Walmarts, etc. Whether an organic packing and grading facility or a regional meat processing plant or a community kitchen or small independent grocers. Or EBT at the farmers market, lots of different things in the food segment, especially for rural poor communities in Appalachia. That’s been a huge focus for me.

CE: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

AF: A lot of the outreach is based on what you’ve already built so that there are things to see. That helps you do successful outreach, whether its to get a traditional tobacco farmer to go organic or a key legislator to make change, it’s all greatly influenced by success on the ground. So, taking them to those people and finding those successes. Get those folks to go to a neighboring community. Or bring them pictures, if you have to.

To build the infrastructure itself involves lots of local leadership and community involvement. Both are catalytic and you need to raise a lot of money through the public sector, foundations and donors, or with more traditional capital.

And of course building a day-to-day presence. With articles in the paper, local stories in the news, outreach to key institutional leaders and legislators, and in the schools.

CE: What projects are affiliated with yours?

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AF: With ASD, all kinds. Kellogg, Food and Community, the Wallace Good Food Network, the Central Appalachian Network, etc. For me now, I’m unaffiliated. I have lots of relationships with groups around the country, but no formal affiations.

CE: What projects have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?

AF: Will Allen’s Growing Power, The Greening of Detroit, the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, and of course the groups of the Central Appalachian Network. One here is the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), they do tremendous work, not so much in food, but alternative financing for energy efficiency and forestry. There are ton of great organizations, not so much projects.
What they have in common is a lot of innovation and risk taking and enduring leadership… people who have toughed it out through economic hardships and many, many ups and downs.

CE: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?

AF: Depends on what you mean by real policy change. I was one among many, many people who spent a good chunk of time on the Farm Bill, with the National Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture, the Kellogg folks, etc. I was on the sidelines as a practicing farmer type, writing op eds, providing testimony and examples. And the long and short of all this effort, was significant increases in funds, and some improvements to policy to remove barriers and enact incentives. So there is more money and more support from farm to table. But when you add up all the work, there’s only slight changes in food politics.

Yet the bulk of federal support is still for a handful of commodities, GMOs, etc. I don’t have much hope that will change soon. What we hope to see with the next farm bill are the kinds of small significant changes we saw this last time.

Things are improving, but far too slowly, and also getting worse in many respects. You feel about policy as you do about the broader world. You know a lot of good people and projects, but a lot of it stinks.

There’s progress, especially on organic and sustainable, farm to school; there’s plenty of good stuff but the bigger issues aren’t changing. It’s as if the USDA and the Obama administration want to have their cake and eat it too. They don’t want to ruffle feathers in the farm states.

CE: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

AF: Polenta with sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers from our farm, Will Clark’s Italian sausage, a great salad, a slice of really good tomato. And, the best ice cream money can buy (hopefully for my last meal I can check out several options!).

Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

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