Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is it a crisis yet?

infographic from Oxfam

Some days it is hard not to wonder when someone is going to call it and finally say, "yes, our food system is in crisis." Why the doomsday feeling? It's hard to avoid after a headline line-up like this one:

Buzzkill: EPA rejects beekeepers' pesticide petition
GMO sugar beets get the green light
The lesser of two evils: Why food advocates are pushing a Farm Bill they don't love
A dry run from hell: Drought hits the small farms the hardest
For young farmers: No land, but plenty of climate change to go around

Now admittedly Grist is especially colorful with their headlines, but still... the underlying message is equally worrisome: the bees are dying and no one cares (don't forget that 70% of our food has to be pollinated by someone), another GMO crop enters the market (and more important, the environment) with the most paltry attempts at evaluation, having to settle on the Farm Bill because the House is full of bullies, our nation is stricken with drought and small farms are taking the biggest hit (but never mentioned in the media), and for the new folks trying to make a difference for our food system there's no land and a million climatic challenges standing in their way. Some days it is rough to read the news.

So why do we keep going? Why not give up, surrender to the (supposedly) inevitable, and crawl back into bed with a Hershey's bar and bag of Lay's?

Because it is our food system. Every single one of us eats, hopefully two or more times a day. That means this is our responsibility. No one else is going to stand up for our food if we do not. Business will always chase profit, and government will (probably) always stall and pander to the businesses with the money. But we are just people, trying to feed our families, live healthy lives, and enjoy food that we aren't scared of, that nourishes us, that doesn't destroy the planet, and that helps feed and employ our neighbors. It sounds like a lot to ask, doesn't it? And it is. 

This is why every single one of us needs to step up. Make the decision that health is something you value, a future for your children is something you value, your community is something you value. Put your dollars where your mouth is... and I mean a significant portion of your dollars. Just picking up a pint of strawberries from market and placing them in your reusable bag once a week isn't enough anymore. Better yet: move beyond dollars. Grow extra food and give it away to friends, family, or people in need of it. Trade a few hours weeding for a bushel of produce. Get together with friends and go in together to buy a local grassfed beef or heritage pig from someone you know, whose hand you can shake. Split the meat (and the cost), and learn to cook frugally and make the most of what you have. 

We need to get serious. We need to be thoughtful. We need to decide what really matters, and then work toward that with every ounce of our being. No more halfhearted attempts, no more political posturing, no more talkin' without the walkin'. (I know no one is super human, and there will be moments of weakness and exhaustion, but conviction and commitment are what we need now more than ever before.)

If you're reading this, you probably know where to start. And you probably have the resources to do so. So please, go out and do it. And then share what you are doing--offer to teach people skills that you know, offer to cook for them, plan a berry picking outing and freezing party with them, give them a ride to the farmers market. Read more of these difficult articles instead of glossing over them. Maybe you have land that isn't being used--offer it to someone who doesn't have a garden. Maybe you have a full canning set up--offer to rotate it between houses so everyone can preserve the season's bounty. Maybe you have capital--invest it in the local community. Maybe you have good ideas--share them!

What do you do to stand up for our food system? Leave your stories in the comments! Simple or complex, easy or hard, we want to hear about them all! Thank you for sharing your ideas with us and the world. Thank you for caring!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Urban Gardens & a Save-the-Date!

(Image credit: The New York Times)

Urban gardening is all the rage! From the New York Times to LA, and everywhere in between, from Cuba to China, and all across the globe, folks are growing more of their food than they have in years, and a lot of them are growing it in cities. To learn more about the movement, click on one of the links above! 

A little closer to home, you have a great opportunity to see urban gardens in action! The Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District is holding their second annual Garden Bike Tour this month!

The details:
JULY 28th

This self guided tour is free, open to the public, and a great opportunity to learn from experienced urban gardeners right in your own community! There are three stops on the tour, all a leisurely pedal apart. To print off your map you can click here, or visit our events calendar here! Hopefully we will see you out there!

This picture is from last year's tour: bikes and visitors at Ellie's beautiful garden. Look what you have to look forward to!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In the midst of all this talk about subsidies...

...this article came out!

With the House Ag Committee having just passed their version of the Farm Bill, protecting subsidies but making cuts to programs like SNAP, Farmers Markets, and local food systems work, you may feel like despairing. But did you know that New Zealand, a nation whose agriculture was even more subsidy-dependent than our own, did away with their agriculture subsidies in one fell swoop back in the 1980s. And despite the drastic, abrupt shift (not to mention that they undertook it in the middle of an economic crisis in agriculture), only 1% of farms were lost. Everyone else figured out what they needed to do to remain viable, diversified their operations, branched out into value-added products, and otherwise found ways to make things work. Today, New Zealand agriculture is stronger than ever, and completely subsidy-free. Inspiring! Read the full article below.

Do you think that something like this could ever happen in the US? What would it take to make it happen? What would it look like? Leave your comments below!

image credit: marvinfarms.co.nz

In New Zealand, Farmers Don't Want Subsidies
By Mark Ross (original article by the Huffington Post here)

Every five years or so, members of Congress from rural areas team up to push through a costly extension of farm programs. They are at it again this year. The Senate recently passed legislation to keep billions of dollars in subsidies flowing to farm businesses, and the House just passed a similarly bloated bill out of committee.

Farm bills are an inside game. Politicians never give the public a good reason why U.S. agriculture needs to be coddled by the government. Members of Congress focus on grabbing more subsidies for home-state farmers, and they rarely discuss or debate whether all this federal aid is really needed.

It isn't needed. New Zealand's farm reforms of the 1980s dramatically illustrate the point. Faced with a budget crisis, New Zealand's government decided to eliminate nearly all farm subsidies. That was a dramatic reform because New Zealand farmers had enjoyed high levels of aid and the country's economy is more dependent on agriculture than is the U.S. economy.

Despite initial protests, farm subsidies were repealed in 1984. Almost 30 different production subsidies and export incentives were ended. Did that cause a mass exodus from agriculture and an end to family farms? Not at all. It did create a tough transition period for some farmers, but large numbers of them did not walk off their land as had been predicted. Just one percent of the country's farmers could not adjust and were forced out.

The vast majority of New Zealand farmers proved to be skilled entrepreneurs -- they restructured their operations, explored new markets, and returned to profitability. Today, New Zealand's farming sector is more dynamic than ever, and the nation's farmers are proud to be prospering without government hand-outs.

Prior to the 1984 reforms, subsidies stifled farm productivity by distorting market signals and blocking innovation. Many farmers were farming for the sake of the subsidies. For example, nearly 40 percent of the average New Zealand sheep and beef farmer's gross income came from government aid.

When the subsidies were removed, it turned out to be a catalyst for productivity gains. New Zealand farmers cut costs, diversified their land use, sought nonfarm income, and developed new products. Farmers became more focused on pursuing activities that made good business sense.

Official data supports on-the-ground evidence that New Zealand greatly improved its farming efficiency after the reforms. Measured agricultural productivity had been stagnant in the years prior to the reforms, but since the reforms productivity has grown substantially faster in agriculture than in the New Zealand economy as a whole.

Since the reforms, agriculture's contribution to New Zealand's economy has remained steady at about 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Adding activities outside the farm gate, such as processing of milk, meat and wool, agriculture is estimated to contribute over 15 percent of GDP. By contrast, agriculture's share of the economy has fallen in many other industrial countries.

With the removal of subsidies in New Zealand, agricultural practices are driven by the demands of consumers, not by efforts to maximize the receipt of subsidies. At the same time, the whole agricultural supply chain has improved its efficiency and food safety has become paramount. Businesses that deliver inputs to farming have had to reduce their costs because farmers have insisted on greater value for money.

More efficient agricultural production in New Zealand has also spurred better environmental management. Cutting farm subsidies, for example, has reduced the previous overuse of fertilizer. And cutting subsidies has broadened farm operations to encompass activities such as rural tourism that bring management of the rural environment to the fore.

The message to American farmers is that subsidy cuts should be embraced, not feared. After subsidy cuts, U.S. farmers would no doubt prove their entrepreneurial skills by innovating in a myriad of ways, as New Zealand farmers did. And we suspect that -- like New Zealand farmers -- American farmers would become proud of their new independence, and have little interest in going back on the taxpayer gravy train.

Now would be a great time for America to embrace Kiwi-style reforms because commodity prices are high and U.S. farm finances are generally in good shape. It's true that weather conditions and markets create ups and downs for agriculture, but over the long run, global population growth will likely sustain high demand for farm products. Some people claim that America needs to subsidize because other countries do. But unsubsidized New Zealand farming is globally competitive, with about 90 percent of the country's farm output exported.

The removal of farm subsidies in New Zealand gave birth to a vibrant, diversified, and growing rural economy, and it debunked the myth that farming cannot prosper without subsidies. Thus rather than passing another big government farm bill that taxpayers can't afford, the U.S. Congress should step back and explore the proven alternative of free market farming.

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Mark Ross is a general manager of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand, which is New Zealand's leading farm organization. Chris Edwards is editor of the Cato Institute's www.DownsizingGovernment.org.