Category Archives: Sustainable Agriculture in the News

One Weird Trick to Fix Farms Forever

MotherJones Environment

Does David Brandt hold the secret for turning industrial agriculture from global-warming problem to carbon solution?

By Tom Philpott

September 9, 2013
David Brandt
Photos by Tristan Spinski

CHATTING WITH DAVID BRANDT outside his barn on a sunny June morning, I wonder if he doesn’t look too much like a farmer—what a casting director might call “too on the nose.” He’s a beefy man in bib overalls, a plaid shirt, and well-worn boots, with short, gray-streaked hair peeking out from a trucker hat over a round, unlined face ruddy from the sun.

Brandt farms 1,200 acres in the central Ohio village of Carroll, pop. 524. This is the domain of industrial-scale agriculture—a vast expanse of corn and soybean fields broken up only by the sprawl creeping in from Columbus. Brandt, 66, raised his kids on this farm after taking it over from his grandfather. Yet he sounds not so much like a subject of King Corn as, say, one of the organics geeks I work with on my own farm in North Carolina. In his g-droppin’ Midwestern monotone, he’s telling me about his cover crops—fall plantings that blanket the ground in winter and are allowed to rot in place come spring, a practice as eyebrow-raising in corn country as holding a naked yoga class in the pasture. The plot I can see looks just about identical to the carpet of corn that stretches from eastern Ohio to western Nebraska. But last winter it would have looked very different: While the neighbors’ fields lay fallow, Brandt’s teemed with a mix of as many as 14 different plant species.

“Our cover crops work together like a community—you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.

But Brandt’s not trying to go organic—he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food—even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.

Tristan Spinski

THOSE ARE BIG PROMISES, but standing in the shade of Brandt’s barn this June morning, I hear a commotion in the nearby warehouse where he stores his cover-crop seeds. Turns out that I’m not the only one visiting Brandt’s farm. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that grew from Dust Bowl-era efforts to preserve soil—is holding a training for its agents on how to talk to farmers about cover crops and their relationship to soil.

Inside the warehouse, where 50-pound bags of cover-crop seeds line one wall, three dozen NRCS managers and agents, from as far away as Maine and Hawaii, are gathered along tables facing a projection screen. Brandt takes his place in front of the crowd. Presenting slides of fields flush with a combination of cover crops including hairy vetch, rye, and radishes, he becomes animated. We listen raptly and nod approvingly. It feels like a revival meeting.

“We want diversity,” Brandt thunders. “We want colonization!”—that is, to plant the cover in such a way that little to no ground remains exposed. While the cash crop brings in money and feeds people, he tells the agents, the off-season cover crops feed the soil and the hidden universe of microbes within it, doing much of the work done by chemicals on conventional farms. And the more diverse the mix of cover crops, the better the whole system works. Brandt points to the heavy, mechanically operated door at the back of the warehouse, and then motions to us in the crowd. “If we decide to lift that big door out there, we could do it,” he says. “If I try, it’s going to smash me.”

For the agency, whose mission is building soil health, Brandt has emerged as a kind of rock star. He’s a “step ahead of the game,” says Mark Scarpitti, the NRCS state agronomist for Ohio, who helped organize the training. “He’s a combination researcher, cheerleader, and promoter. He’s a good old boy, and producers relate to him.” Later, I find that the agency’s website has recently dubbed Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.”

One government agency website called Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.”

Soon, we all file outside and walk past the Brandt family’s four-acre garden. Chickens are pecking about freely, bawk-bawk-bawking and getting underfoot. In an open barn nearby, a few cows munch lackadaisically. I see pigs rooting around in another open barn 30 or so yards away and start to wonder if I haven’t stumbled into a time warp, to the place where they shot the farm scenes in The Wizard of Oz. As if to confirm it, a cow emits a plaintive moo. Brandt’s livestock are something of a hobby, “freezer meat” for his family and neighbors, but as we peer around the barns we see the edges of his real operation: a pastiche of fields stretching to the horizon.

Before we can get our hands in the dirt, Brandt wants to show us his farm equipment: the rolling contraption he drags behind his tractor to kill cover crops ahead of the spring and the shiny, fire-engine-red device he uses to drill corn and soy seeds through the dead cover crops directly into the soil. As some NRCS gearheads pepper him with questions about the tools, he beams with pride.

Finally, we all file onto an old bus for a drive around the fields. An ag nerd among professional soil geeks, I feel like I’m back in elementary school on the coolest field trip ever. An almost giddy mood pervades the bus as Brandt steers us to the side of a rural road that divides two cornfields: one of his and one of his neighbor’s.

We start in Brandt’s field, where we encounter waist-high, deep-green corn plants basking in the afternoon heat. A mat of old leaves and stems covers the soil—remnants of the winter cover crops that have kept the field devoid of weeds. At Brandt’s urging, we scour the ground for what he calls “haystacks”—little clusters of dead, strawlike plant residue bunched up by earthworms. Sure enough, the stacks are everywhere. Brandt scoops one up, along with a fistful of black dirt. “Look there—and there,” he says, pointing into the dirt at pinkie-size wriggling earthworms. “And there go some babies,” he adds, indicating a few so tiny they could curl up on your fingernail.

Then he directs our gaze onto the ground where he just scooped the sample. He points out a pencil-size hole going deep into the soil—a kind of worm thruway that invites water to stream down. I don’t think I’m the only one gaping in awe, thinking of the thousands of miniature haystacks around me, each with its cadre of worms and its hole into the earth. I look around to find several NRCS people holding their own little clump of dirt, oohing and ahhing at the sight.

Then we cross the street to the neighbor’s field. Here, the corn plants look similar to Brandt’s, if a little more scraggly, but the soil couldn’t be more different. The ground, unmarked by haystacks and mostly bare of plant residue altogether, seems seized up into a moist, muddy crust, but the dirt just below the surface is almost dry. Brandt points to a pattern of ruts in the ground, cut by water that failed to absorb and gushed away. Brandt’s land managed to trap the previous night’s rain for whatever the summer brings. His neighbor’s lost not just the precious water, but untold chemical inputs that it carried away.

ASIDE FROM HIS FONDNESS FOR WORMS, there are three things that set Brandt’s practices apart from those of his neighbors—and of most American farmers. The first is his dedication to off-season cover crops, which are used on just 1 percent of US farmland each year.

The second involves his hostility to tilling—he sold his tillage equipment in 1971. That has become somewhat more common with the rise of corn and soy varieties genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, which has allowed farmers to use chemicals instead of the plow to control weeds. But most, the NRCS’s Scarpitti says, use “rotational tillage”—they till in some years but not others, thus losing any long-term soil-building benefit.

Brandt is “a combination researcher, cheerleader, and promoter. He’s a good old boy, and producers relate to him.”

Finally, and most simply, Brandt adds wheat to the ubiquitous corn-soy rotation favored by his peers throughout the Corn Belt. Bringing in a third crop disrupts weed and pest patterns, and a 2012 Iowa State University study found that by doing so, farmers can dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.

The downsides of the kind of agriculture that holds sway in the heartland—devoting large swaths of land to monocultures of just two crops, regularly tilling the soil, and leaving the ground fallow over winter—are by now well known: ever-increasing loads of pesticides and titanic annual additions of synthetic and mined fertilizers, much of which ends up fouling drinking water and feeding algae-smothered aquatic “dead zones” from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico.

But perhaps the most ominous long-term trend in the Corn Belt is what’s known as peak soil: The Midwest still boasts one of the greatest stores of topsoil on Earth. Left mostly unfarmed for millennia, it was enriched by interactions between carbon-sucking prairie grasses and mobs of grass-chomping ruminants. But since settlers first started working the land in the 1800s, we’ve been squandering that treasure. Iowa, for example, has lost fully one-half—and counting—of its topsoil, on average, since the prairie came under the plow. According to University of Washington soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, it takes between 700 and 1,500 years to generate an inch of topsoil under natural conditions. Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimentel reckons that “90 percent of US cropland now is losing soil faster than its sustainable replacement rate.” Soil, as Americans learned in the Dust Bowl, is not a renewable resource, at least on the scale of human lifetimes.

Then there’s climate change itself. Under natural conditions—think forests or grasslands—soil acts as a sponge for carbon dioxide, sucking it in through plant respiration and storing a little more each year than is lost to oxidation in the process of rotting. But under current farming practices, US farmland only acts as what the USDA has deemed a “modest carbon sink”—sequestering 4 million metric tons of carbon annually, a tiny fraction of total US greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news, says eminent soil scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, is that if all US farms adopted Brandt-style agriculture, they could suck down as much as 25 times more carbon than they currently are—equivalent to taking nearly 10 percent of the US car fleet off the road. (Lal, a member of the Nobel-winning International Panel on Climate Change, is so impressed with Brandt’s methods that he brought a group of 20 Australian farmers on a pilgrimage to Carroll two years ago, he tells me.)

If all US farms adopted Brandt’s methods, we could save as much carbon as if we took 10 percent of cars off the road.

In the middle of his cornfield, holding a handful of loamy, black soil, Brandt explains that he habitually tests his dirt for organic matter. When he began renting this particular field two seasons before, its organic content stood at 0.25 percent—a pathetic reading in an area where, even in fields farmed conventionally, the level typically hovers between 1 and 2 percent. In just two years of intensive cover cropping, this field has risen to 1.25 percent. Within 10 years of his management style, he adds, his fields typically reach as high as 4 percent, and with more time can exceed 5 percent.

Building up organic matter is critical to keeping the heartland humming as the climate heats up. The severe drought that parched the Corn Belt last year—as well as the floods that have roared through in recent years—are a harbinger of what the 2013 National Climate Assessment calls a “rising incidence of weather extremes” that will have “increasingly negative impacts” on crop yields in the coming decades.

As Ohio State soil scientist Rafiq Islam explains, Brandt’s legume cover crops, which trap nitrogen from the air and store it in nodules at their roots, allow him to grow nitrogen right on his farm, rather than importing it in the form of synthetic fertilizer. And the “complex biological systems” created by cover crops marginalize crop-chomping bugs and disease-causing organisms like molds—meaning fewer insecticides and fungicides.

Nor is Brandt any less productive than his chemical-intensive peers, Islam says. Quite the opposite. Brandt’s farm regularly achieves crop yields that exceed the county average, and during last year’s brutal drought, his yields were near the normal season average while other farmers saw yields drop 50 percent—or lost their crop entirely.

THE MORNING AFTER OUR FIELD TRIP, we reconvene in Brandt’s barn to take in a series of simple soil demonstrations. I don’t say “we” lightly—by now, I’ve been more or less accepted into the NRCS crew’s soil geek club. At a table at the front of the room, an NRCS man dressed in country casual—faded jeans, striped polo shirt, baseball cap—drops five clumps of soil into water-filled beakers: three from farms managed like Brandt’s, with cover crops and without tillage, the others from conventional operations. The Brandt-style samples hold together, barely discoloring the water. The fourth one holds together too, but for a different reason: Unlike the no-till/cover-crop samples, which the water had penetrated, this one was so compacted from tillage that no water could get in at all. The fifth one disintegrates before our eyes, turning the water into a cloudy mess that the NRCS presenter compares to “last night’s beer.”

Other demos are equally graphic—including one that shows how water runs through Brandt’s gold-standard dirt as if through a sieve, picking up little color. In the conventional soil, it pools on top in a cloudy mess, demonstrating that the soil’s density, or compaction, can cause runoff. The presenter recalls a recent Des Moines Register article about how a wet spring caused a torrent of nitrogen runoff into the city’s drinking-water sources, prompting health concerns and expensive filtration efforts.

As I watch, I imagine the earnest agents fanning out across the Midwest to bring the good news about cover cropping and continuous no-till. And I wonder: Why aren’t these ways spreading like prairie fire, turning farmers into producers of not just crops but also rich, carbon-trapping soil resilient to floods and drought?

While 66 percent of farmers polled believe climate change was occurring, just 41 percent believe that humans had a hand in causing it.

I put the question to Brandt. His own neighbors aren’t exactly rushing out to sell their tillers or invest in seeds, he admits—they see him not as a beacon but rather as an “odd individual in the area,” he says, his level voice betraying a hint of irritation. Sure, his yields are impressive, but federal crop payouts and subsidized crop insurance buffer their losses, giving them little short-term incentive to change. (For his part, Brandt refuses to carry crop insurance, saying it compels farmers “not to make good management decisions.”) Plus the old way is easier: Using diverse cover crops to control weeds and maintain fertility requires much more management, and more person-hours, than relying on chemicals. And the truth is, most farmers don’t see themselves as climate villains: Iowa State sociologists found that while 66 percent of farmers polled believed climate change was occurring, just 41 percent believed that humans had a hand in causing it.

Longer-term, though, Brandt does see hope. Over the next 20 years, he envisions a “large movement of producers” adopting cover crops and no-till in response to rising energy costs, which could make fertilizer and pesticides (synthesized from petroleum and natural gas), as well as tractor fuel, prohibitively expensive.

The NRCS’s Scarpitti concurs. He acknowledges that in Brandt’s corner of Ohio, the old saw that the “prophet isn’t recognized in his own hometown” largely holds, though a “handful” of farmers are catching on. Nationwide, he adds, “word’s getting out” as farmers like Brandt slowly show their neighbors that biodiversity, not chemicals, is their best strategy.

Sure enough, during the NRCS meeting, another local farmer stops by to pick up some cover-crop seeds. Keith Dennis, who farms around 1,500 acres of corn and soy in Brandt’s county, and who started using cover crops in 2011, says there are quite a few folks in the county watching what Brandt’s doing, “some of ’em picking up on it.” Dennis has known about Brandt’s work with cover crops since he started in the 1970s. I have to ask: If he saw Brandt’s techniques working then, what took him so long to follow suit? “I had blinders on,” he answers, adding that he saw no reason to plant anything but corn and soybeans. “Now I’m able to see that my soil had been suffering severe compaction,” he says. “Because it wasn’t alive.”

Why Northeast Ohio farmers disagree about the latest farm technology

 
WKSU Quick Bikes
10/11/13
By Vivian Goodman

On a breezy autumn morning in West Salem, Mike Haley pulls back leaves in his soybean field, admiring how the crop has outgrown the grass and weeds underneath.

“Right now we’re looking at soybeans that are about a foot taller than the grass. The soybeans were able to get above the canopy the grass was creating to the sunlight and absorb the full effect of the rainfall.”

These are soybeans that grew from genetically-modified organisms or GMO seeds.

Genes modified for higher crop yields
The seeds are genetically-altered to resist Roundup, the world’s most popular herbicide, marketed since 1976 by the food giant Monsanto.

In the mid-90s when Monsanto first modified soybean seeds to stand up to Roundup, Haley bought the new seeds even though they were a little more expensive. He saw it as a way to increase his yield and stay competitive.

“Over in the corner field, there’s a little patch of giant ragweed. That’s where I missed spraying a spot. Don’t criticize me too much for that. But that weed was almost impossible to control in soybeans before Roundup. I remember growing up my Mom’s job was walking the fields and hand-spraying the giant ragweed with Roundup.”

Today, Haley says Roundup-ready seeds save him time, money and painstaking labor.

“We can go in there and we can spray the weeds in the field without hurting the soybeans.”

Haley says GMO seeds also helped him weather last year’s drought, and improve his soil quality.

“In order to control the weeds we’d have to do a lot more tillage which would mean more erosion. The way we’ve adapted our farm we feel it’s a lot better for our farm than it was 30 years ago.”

He’s heard others express concern about GMOs.

“Is there a reason for concern? It’s hard to say. I think that as the technology evolves we’re going to see a lot more benefits, not just to the farmer but also to the consumer.”

An organic farmer has another opinion
About 50 miles southeast of the Haley Farm, at  Creekview Ridge Farm in Minerva, organic farmer Kip Gardner couldn’t disagree more.

“GMOs help preserve a system of agriculture excessively dependent on chemicals. That is damaging to our soils and our environment. That system needs to change if we’re going to continue to feed our population.”

Compared with Haley’s 2,000–acre spread, Gardner’s farm is tiny, just 26 acres. He keeps 100 chickens, and grows fruit, vegetables and alfafa for hay.

Unlike Mike Haley, Gardner wasn’t born to farm. He’s an ecologist and molecular biologist teaching environmental science at Stark State College.

Three years ago he moved his family to a farm that dates back to 1875.

“When we bought the farm, it was a conventional corn and soybean farm. We are transitioning it to a diversified, certified-organic farm.”

His chickens lay about six dozen eggs a day and Gardner’s customers tell him they’re glad he feeds the hens only non-GMO grain.

“And they know that conventional chicken feed, because of the huge percentage of soybeans and corn that’s grown GMO, is going to contain GMO grain.”    

There’s a nutritional difference in the eggs Gardner’s hens lay compared to what you get in the supermarket. Research shows chickens raised without GMO feed lay eggs with higher omega-3 fatty acids.

No tests on humans
Gardner says the uncertain impact on human health is his biggest problem with GMOs.

“Here in the United States, we’ve pretty much allowed them to develop unregulated. There are currently roughly 100 crops approved for use in the United States, more in the pipeline, many we don’t know what the effects are going to be.”

Although GMO staple crops like soy and corn have become ubiquitous, there have been no human trials of GMO foods.

“In the United States,” says Gardner, “most of the research is done by the companies that develop the crops.”

A French study last year on rats showed those fed GMO grain developed tumors earlier than and twice as quickly as a control group.

“There’ve also been concerns about some anecdotal reports of allergic responses and other things,” says Gardener. “So we don’t know yet.”

Consumers can’t tell GMO from non-GMO
Most of the European Union outlaws GMOs and where they’re legal, they’re labeled.

Maine and Connecticut recently enacted labeling laws and 20 other states are considering it.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Mark Udall last month urged the FDA to require labels on GMOs marketed as food.

But back in West Salem, Mike Haley remains confident that GMOs are good for his soil and his crops.

“We’re able to move forward way faster with using bio-technology than with traditional breeding because they’re able to evaluate the different genetics and work with them so much quicker instead of working years to isolate the genetics through traditional breeding techniques.”

He says the latest innovation is heart-healthy.

“Omega-3 soybeans. They’ve altered the oils in the soybeans so that it’s heart healthy. So when  French fries are deep-fried at McDonald’s, it’s going to be heart-healthy oils, very similar to an olive oil. So I’m kind of excited about being able to grow more nutritious crops because of the new technology that’s coming around.”

But research scientist-turned farmer Kip Gardner wonders at what cost to the environment.

Still uncertain: the long-term environmental impact
New weeds that even Roundup can’t kill have been popping up.

“So now they’re talking about creating GMO corn and soybeans that are resistant to more powerful herbicides like 2-4-D. Now we’re going to see that back in the environment, where the use of 2-4-D has been pretty severely limited in recent years.”

Gardner empathizes with farmers who think chemicals and GMOs are essential. He just thinks they’re wrong.

“For those folks who are in that system of agriculture, it is solving some immediate problems. But we’re saying we are working on a different model, hopefully one that we can demonstrate is as effective.”

Organic farming is growing stronger with consumers increasingly concerned about nutrition and food safety.

But with 7 billion of us on the planet now and another 2 billion expected by 2050, the higher yield potential of GMO’s attracts powerful support.

Last month, the editors of Scientific American came out against labeling GMO foods, saying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proved they’re neither toxic nor allergenic. The editors write: “In the growing battle over GMO foods, science is being used as a weapon.”

New Bill Aims At Expanding Local Farms, Getting Fresh Produce Into Schools

 
NBC 4
By Denise Yost
5/1/13
COLUMBUS, Ohio – A new jobs bill would allow local farmers to expand their markets and get fresher food into school cafeterias.The local farms, food, and jobs act would allow more farmer’s markets to accept supplemental nutrition assistance program money and senior coupons.

It would also give farmers whole crop insurance, and allow local schools to purchase locally-grown food instead of buying pre-packaged items.

Bryn Bird owns Bird’s Haven Farm in Granville, and said that demand for fresh produce in schools is growing.

“The parents want to know that their kids going to school are getting the most nutritious lunches that they have available, and I think the schools see it as a win-win economically. It’s local tax dollars going back into the schools, and keeping those dollars again going back into farms,” Bird said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown said the new legislation will cost $120 million each year, nationally, but it will save $20 billion over ten years by eliminating farm subsidies paid to larger farms.

Watch video here.

Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Taken On By Congress In Right-To-Know Act

 
The Huffington Post
By Joe Satran
4/25/13

On Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced bills to the Senate and House of Representatives that would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product containing genetically engineered ingredients — or risk having that product classified “misbranded” by the FDA.

Boxer and DeFazio have both previously sponsored bills that would have mandated GMO labeling — Boxer in 2000 and DeFazio on numerous occasions in concert with former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). But the new “Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act” is the first genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling bill to be introduced with both bicameral and bipartisan support. Its nine co-sponsors in the Senate include Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, while Rep. Don Young, also a Republican from Alaska, is among its 22 cosponsors in the House.

In a phone conversation with The Huffington Post, DeFazio, who’s been growing organic produce for 40 years, said that he remains agnostic about the health impact of GMOs. He supports mandatory labeling of food with genetically-engineered (GE) ingredients because he wants consumers to be able to decide for themselves whether or not to eat organisms that have only existed for 20 years.

“Even the most ardent free market advocate, someone who’s a devout follower of Adam Smith, would have to admit that consumers aren’t being given full information right now,” he said. “Depriving them of the knowledge of whether or not this food has GMOs does not support a free market.”

DeFazio said he hoped the new act would generate a “grassroots tidal wave of support” from constituents, as the National Organic Standards did when he and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) proposed them in 1993.

“That year, my amendment was the only amendment to the Farm Bill that got passed,” he recalls. “We had built this incredible grassroots base of support — from farmers, co-op owners, parents. People would go see their members of Congress constantly asking them to support the standards. At one point, I remember one Congressman coming up to me in the hall and telling me, ‘DeFazio, I have no idea what an organic standard is, but I’m gonna vote for it just so people stop bugging me!'”

It’s not an unrealistic hope. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans — over 90 percent — supports mandatory labeling of foods with GE ingredients. Sixty-four other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, already require such labels. And dozens of advocacy groups and food corporations have signalled their support of the new bill.

However, strong opposition from the agriculture and biotech industries has scuttled proposals for GMO labeling laws in the past. The most recent and high-profile of these failed attempts at a GMO labeling requirement was California’s Proposition 37, which was narrowly defeated in a popular referendum after opponents, mostly in these industries, spent $50 million lobbying against it.

On Wednesday afternoon, representatives of leading GE seed producer Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a GE trade group, said that they generally opposed mandates for GE food labels, though they had not yet seen the full text of the new bill.

“Unfortunately, advocates of mandatory ‘GMO labeling’ are working an agenda to vilify biotechnology and scare consumers away from safe and healthful food products,” BIO spokeswoman Karen Badt wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.

Scott Faber, president of the Environmental Working Group and the Just Label It! campaign in favor of GMO labeling, said that opposition from the biotech and agricultural industries will mean the bill “faces an uphill climb in both the House and Senate,” despite its popularity. But he noted that Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) successfully introduced an amendment to the Senate budget bill in late March to require labeling of genetically modified fish. Moreover, the bill doesn’t necessarily need to pass to have its intended effect.

“No matter, what, it will put more pressure on the White House and FDA to act on this issue,” Faber said.

Faber explained that the FDA — which, as part of Department of Health and Human Services, answers to the White House — already has the authority to require food manufacturers to label GE foods. Over a million Americans signed Just Label It’s petition to the FDA to get them to do so, prompting the FDA to address the issue directly on its website on April 8. FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said that the agency is currently in the midst of addressing the petition, and directed The Huffington Post to the FDA’s procedures for answering petitions.

DeFazio confirmed that he intended the Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act to put political pressure on President Barack Obama and the FDA. He described the executive branch’s stance toward GMO labeling so far as “indifference or even overt opposition.”

“They’re approaching it more like a competitive biotech issue for the U.S., as opposed to a much more insidious threat to our farmers and to consumers,” DeFazio said. “They don’t seem to get it yet. We’ve got work to do there.”

Obama promised to require labeling for genetically modified food on the campaign trail back in 2007, but since taking office, he’s done little to advance that cause. A few weeks ago, he signed into law a proviso known as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which makes it legal to sell genetically modified crops before they’re proven 100 percent safe.

But even if the bill fails to pass and to convince Obama and the FDA to require labeling on their own, GMO labeling could still happen soon — because of the private sector. Whole Foods recently announced that it would require the manufacturers of any GE foods sold in its stores to mark them as such. Elsewhere, a surefire way of avoiding GMOs is to buy organic. DeFazio and Leahy wrote National Organic Standards before the advent of GE crops, but they’ve since been amended to exclude the use of genetically modified ingredients.

Sen. Sherrod Brown serves up local-lunch bill for schools

By Tom Troy
The Toledo Blade
5/3/13
BrownSchools that get federal funds to provide lunches would be encouraged to buy locally grown produce under his proposed farm bill, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) said an an event in a downtown Toledo arts school Thursday.

With some 130 students in the sixth-to-12th-grade Toledo School for the Arts charter school eating their lunch in the background in the school’s Flying Pigs Cafe, Senator Brown said his proposal would boost local farmers, help the local economy, and improve the environment.

The question is whether the $120 million-per-year initiative will make it through a politically divided Congress.

Senator Brown joined with Toledo restaurateur Marty Lahey and two area farmers, Andy Keil of Swanton and Liz Bergman of Genoa, Ohio, to promote the legislation.

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act would allow school districts to spend a portion of federal funds for free and reduced school lunches on locally grown fruits and vegetables, rather than U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities.

“By increasing access to fresh local foods, we can expand markets for Ohio’s agricultural producers while improving health, creating jobs, and strengthening our economy,” Mr. Brown said.

According to Mr. Brown, the act would cost up to $2 billion over 10 years and would be paid for by phasing out an estimated $22 billion in farm subsidies. The proposal passed the Democratic-controlled Senate last year but was not acted on by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, so the bill expired. Mr. Brown said committee work to reintroduce the bill and try again to pass it starts next week.

Mr. Lahey, owner of Manhattan’s Restaurant, caters lunches at the Toledo School for the Arts and six other schools.

“We’ve seen a growing demand in the restaurant for fresher, more local fruits and vegetables,” Mr. Lahey said. “The bill the senator’s talking about would help move in that direction.” He told the students that watermelons that were on the menu in the fall came from Mr. Keil’s farm.

Other aspects of the bill are to help small farmers buy crop insurance and enable seniors to use senior food stamps to pay for local produce at farmers markets. Ms. Bergman, owner of Sage Organics, said Mr. Brown’s legislation would assist local farmers by addressing production, aggregation, processing, marketing, and distribution needs.

“The next step to help build a vibrant food economy in Northwest Ohio is to develop large wholesale options for our farmers,” Ms. Bergman said. That means being able to place local produce in universities and other institutions.

Senator Brown said deficit concerns and the implementation of $85 billion in automatic cuts mandated by the sequester ought not prevent the program from getting off the ground.

“We’ve cut almost $2 trillion in spending in the last two and a half years. We should be funding some of these things that people want,” Senator Brown said. Mr. Brown, now in his second term, is the first Ohioan to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than four decades, according to his staff.

Major Grocer to Label Foods With Gene-Modified Content

The New York Times
March 8, 2013
By Stephanie Strom

Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, on Friday became the first retailer in the United States to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores, a move that some experts said could radically alter the food industry.

A. C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, said the new labeling requirement, to be in place within five years, came in response to consumer demand. “We’ve seen how our customers have responded to the products we do have labeled,” Mr. Gallo said. “Some of our manufacturers say they’ve seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products they have labeled.”

Genetically modified ingredients are deeply embedded in the global food supply, having proliferated since the 1990s. Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, for example, have been genetically modified. The alterations make soybeans resistant to a herbicide used in weed control, and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide. Efforts are under way to produce a genetically altered apple that will spoil less quickly, as well as genetically altered salmon that will grow faster. The announcement ricocheted around the food industry and excited proponents of labeling. “Fantastic,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group that favors labeling.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents major food companies and retailers, issued a statement opposing the move. “These labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk,” Louis Finkel, the organization’s executive director of government affairs, said in the statement.

Mr. Finkel noted that the Food and Drug Administration, as well as regulatory and scientific bodies including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, had deemed genetically modified products safe.

The labeling requirements announced by Whole Foods will include its 339 stores in the United States and Canada. Since labeling is already required in the European Union, products in its seven stores in Britain are already marked if they contain genetically modified ingredients. The labels currently used show that a product has been verified as free of genetically engineered ingredients by the Non GMO Project, a nonprofit certification organization. The labels Whole Foods will use in 2018, which have yet to be created, will identify foods that contain such ingredients.

The shift by Whole Foods is the latest in a series of events that has intensified the debate over genetically modified foods. Voters defeated a hard-fought ballot initiative in California late last year after the biotech industry, and major corporations like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, spent millions of dollars to fight the effort. Other initiatives have qualified for the ballot in Washington State and Missouri, while consumers across the country have been waging a sort of guerrilla movement in supermarkets, pasting warning stickers on products suspected of having G.M.O. ingredients from food companies that oppose labeling. Proponents of labeling insist that consumers have a right to know about the ingredients in the food they eat, and they contend that some studies in rats show that bioengineered food can be harmful.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, a campaign for a federal requirement to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, called the Whole Foods decision a “game changer.”

“We’ve had some pretty big developments in labeling this year,” Mr. Hirshberg said, adding that 22 states now have some sort of pending labeling legislation. “Now, one of the fastest-growing, most successful retailers in the country is throwing down the gantlet.”

He compared the potential impact of the Whole Foods announcement to Wal-Mart’s decision several years ago to stop selling milk from cows treated with growth hormone. Today, only a small number of milk cows are injected with the hormone.

Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for BIO, a trade group representing the biotech industry, said it was too early to determine what impact, if any, the Whole Foods decision would have. “It looks like they want to expand their inventory of certified organic and non-G.M.O. lines,” Ms. Batra said. “The industry has always supported the voluntary labeling of food for marketing reasons.”

She contended, however, that without scientific evidence showing that genetically modified foods caused health or safety issues, labeling was unnecessary.

Nonetheless, companies have shown a growing willingness to consider labeling. Some 20 major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart, met recently in Washington to discuss genetically modified labeling.

Coincidentally, the American Halal Company, a food company whose Saffron Road products are sold in Whole Foods stores, on Friday introduced the first frozen food, a chickpea and spinach entree, that has been certified not to contain genetically modified ingredients.

More than 90 percent of respondents to a poll of potential voters in the 2012 elections, conducted by the Mellman Group in February last year, were in favor of labeling genetically modified foods. Some 93 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent, favored it.

But in the fight over the California initiative, Proposition 37, the opponents succeeded in persuading voters that labeling would have a negative effect on food prices and the livelihood of farmers.

That fight, however, has cost food companies in other ways. State legislatures and regulatory agencies are pondering labeling on their own, and consumers have been aggressive in criticizing some of the companies that fought the initiative, using Twitter and Facebook to make their views known.

Buoyed by what they see as some momentum in the labeling war, consumers, organic farmers and food activists plan to hold an “eat-in” outside the F.D.A.’s offices next month to protest government policies on genetically modified crops and foods. Whole Foods, which specializes in organic products, tends to be favored by those types of consumers, and it enjoys strong sales of its private-label products, whose composition it controls. The company thus risks less than some more traditional food retailers in taking a stance on labeling.

In 2009, Whole Foods began submitting products in its 365 Everyday Value private-label line to verification by the Non GMO Project.

But even Whole Foods has not been immune to criticism on the G.M.O. front. A report by Cornucopia, “Cereal Crimes,” revealed that its 365 Corn Flakes line contained genetically modified corn. By the time the report came out in October 2011, the product had been reformulated and certified as organic.

Today, Whole Foods’ shelves carry some 3,300 private-label and branded products that are certified, the largest selection of any grocery chain in the country.

Mr. Gallo said Whole Foods did not consult with its suppliers about its decision and informed them of it only shortly before making its announcement Friday. He said Whole Foods looked forward to working with suppliers on the labeling.

Jeni’s helps other small companies get their frozen products into stores

The Columbus Dispatch
By Mary Vanac
December 21, 2012

More and more grocery stores and restaurants from Michigan to Washington, D.C., are stocking Luna Burger’s Ohio-made vegan burgers and breakfast patties.

“We’re excited about our list of retail locations,” said co-owner Megan Luna. “And it’s growing. That makes us happy.”

The growth also makes John Lowe, CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, happy.

The artisan ice-cream-maker in Columbus started Eat Well Distribution early this year to get novel products of other small, mostly local, food companies on retail shelves nationwide.

Eat Well is meeting the needs of small frozen-food companies that don’t have enough sales to attract a handful of large national distributors. Eat Well also distributes its food in a unique way: packing it with dry ice and shipping it to retailers rather than delivering it with trucks.

“A company like Jeni’s that figured out how to do this for ice cream could really help other companies figure out a game plan to get their products to market,” said Nate Filler, president and CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association.

Luna Burger was Eat Well’s first client. “We’ve just about doubled our retail locations with them in less than a year,” Luna said. “So that’s been a significant impact for us.”

By taking over Luna Burger’s sales and distribution responsibilities, Eat Well also has freed up owners Megan and Barbie Luna to do other things, Megan Luna said.

Eat Well is compensated mostly with the difference between what it pays for the products it distributes and what retailers end up paying for the products. “As a simple matter, we buy from them at a distributor price and we sell at a wholesale price,” Lowe said.

Jeni’s expertise at taking orders, packing and shipping boxes of frozen food, and learning the lingo of frozen-food retailers sprang from necessity.

“When we started our wholesale business three and a half years ago, we didn’t sell enough ice cream for distributors to want to take up space at their warehouses,” Lowe said.

So a team at Jeni’s started packing 45 pints of ice cream and dry ice in a box, and shipping the boxes to retailers who stocked their own shelves.

“The Hill’s Market was our first customer, and then Foragers in Brooklyn, New York,” Lowe said. “ These retailers were always a little skeptical. But we would talk them into trying it.”

Today, Jeni’s is the largest buyer of dry ice in Ohio and ships its ice creams to 675 retail locations nationwide, Lowe said. It made business sense to leverage the company’s sales, marketing and distribution expertise by adding other small, frozen-food companies.

“We got excited about another product in town called Luna Burger, vegan veggie burgers that we think are fantastic,” Lowe said. “They’ve got a great product, but the chances of them breaking through and making a name for themselves is pretty thin” without a distributor.

Consolidation in the food industry by retailers, distributors and producers has left small, young food companies with few sales and distribution options, he said. Eat Well’s help could improve their odds for sales breakthroughs.

In addition to Luna Burger, Eat Well Distribution serves Brezel, the maker of gourmet Bavarian pretzels at Columbus’ North Market.

Eat Well and Brezel have been developing a line of four flavors of pretzels to be distributed first locally, then statewide, and eventually nationwide, beginning early next year, said Brittany Baum, founder and owner of Brezel.

“We really don’t know what to expect, but we’re hoping our retail business will pick up, and more people will put our products on their menus,” said Baum, who expects to pay Eat Well a success fee every time it gets her pretzels on a new store shelf.

Eat Well also distributes dry beans, grains, seeds and flour for Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens, as well as Naanwiches — frozen naan bread sandwiches filled with Indian dishes such as Chicken Tikka Masala — for Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Foods in Hayward, Calif., and herb-infused, whole-food snack bars for Simple Squares in Chicago.

For Lowe, using Jeni’s expertise “on behalf of these other great companies is fun and exciting,” he said. “We think that if we help companies like Luna Burger and Shagbark grow with very low-cost services, their volumes will increase, and good will come of it.”

An update on a couple of small farmers taking on new challenges for the new year

WKSU Quick Bites with Vivian Goodman
December 28, 2012

We’re at Breakneck Acres with Ami Gignac. You’re going to show us some new friends.

“Sure am. Let’s go take a look.  So we’ve, since you visited Vivian we’ve added three Berkshire pigs to the family.”

And you were telling me you’re working with a few new people, producers that you’re working with, right?

“We are. We started a relationship with a very small micro-brewery in Cuyahoga Falls called Toms Foolery. And they’re actuially going to do a certified organic bourbon. The toughest thing for me is that I’m going to have to wait over a year to have our first taste test.”

Ami Gignac starts most days with her feathered friends in a retrofitted school bus that serves as a mobile chicken coop. Sixty  laying hens including 20 leghorns live with her and Tim Fox on their Portage County farm.

“And then we’ve just recently taken on two cows. They are grass-fed beef that we will later use for meat.”

The cows have quite a salad bar. Breakneck Acres sits on 35 lush acres not far from Kent State University in Portage County.

RETURNING TO HIS ROOTS

Tim Fox grew up on a dairy farm. “Basically I guess it’s still part of my heritage.”

Amy had been a city girl. She realizes they’re getting into farming at the right time, at the peak of the farm-to-table movement.

“But it wasn’t planned. The transition was for personal reasons. I was 70 pounds heavier than you see me today. My blood pressure was 160 over 100. I had this great 6-figure salary but I wasn’t healthy and I wasn’t happy.”

She’d been the general manager of a small mining company. They were living in Kent in 2006 when Tim found the property they turned into Breakneck Acres.

THE SKILLS TRANSFER

“When I was in the mining business there was always this piece tied to sustainability and being environmentally conscious and a lot of that transitioned over. And then of course the financial management, the human resource issues, all of that has really transitioned nicely. And I think the difference is when I have a meeting I have cowboy boots on and before I had high heels.”

At first farming  had been only  a hobby.

“We had started out as row crop farmers and transitioned recently into doing seasonal produce and also specialty grains that we mill on the farm. Our primary is the wheat, corn and beans. We grow a special variety of a hard red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat that are high in protein and excellent for milling and for bread-baking. We grow a special variety of corn that’s a little sweeter than your typical field corn, lovely for corn meal, grits, and polenta. We also grow soybeans and different varieties of heirloom dry beans that are lovely for soups and that sort of thing. I think this year we have 5 varieties in the ground from an heirloom Black Turtle to Jacob’s Cattle, and one called Tiger’s Eye. We’re also looking for some wholesale customers. So we’re working with Breadsmith in Lakewood and they do a lovely loaf of bread that uses all local ingredients that’s really cool. And we’re also just starting to work with Ohio City Pasta on some signature pastas that will offer local ingredients which is also really neat because we love pasta.”

LISTED IN THE GOOD EARTH GUIDE

Ohio farms that sell directly to customers are listed in the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s Good Earth Guide. Published since 1990 , it’s grown from a list of a dozen or so to 350 farms including organic farms, like Breakneck Acres.

“Now that we are certified organic it’s important for me then to keep our information updated because I would guess that about ten percent of our customers find us via the good earth guide. Customers that are specifically looking for specialty products. I’ve even had someone from Malaysia call to talk to me a little bit about milling that said they had found us from the Good Earth Guide and then did a little more research on us so that was really cool.”

STONE MILLS FLOWN IN FROM EUROPE

One of the farm buildings houses two hand-crafted East Tyrolean stone mills they had shipped over from Austria.

“Stone milling keeps the temperature really below 140 degrees as it mills, says Gignac.” And so you don’t lose as much of the nutritional value as you would with some of the burr milling.”

Amy claims her chickens taste great and it might be because they feed on a gourmet blend.

“We use stone ground corn, buckwheat and hard red winter wheat and then we also add some trace minerals, some salt, some sea kelp. It’s great. In fact Tim taste-tests it each time I make a batch. They eat better than we do!”

She says she and her partner have no regrets about buying the farm.  And they plan to keep life simple.

“We’re not going to go into ‘big Ag.’ We appreciate that we do need to grow to be sustainable and really for both of us to officially quit our day jobs. But it’s a slow growth and its making small steps in the directions that keep Tim and I healthy and happy and stress-free.”

Amy Gignac and Tim Fox  sell their specialty grains, beans, organic vegetables and herbs and free-range eggs every Wednesday afternoon at the farm. They’re also at the Kent and Ravenna farmers’ markets.

New Store Becomes Resource For Urban Farmers

WOSU
January 14, 2013
By Steve Brown

Urban farming is growing. In cities around the country, residents are planting crops on rooftops, on abandoned elevated train tracks, in vacant lots and, of course, backyards.

On Columbus’s north side, a new store near the corner of High Street and Morse Road has become a resource for urban farmers.

 Lincoln Park, a former housing project on the far south side of Columbus.

Shawn Fiegelist owns and operates City Folk’s Farm Shop. It’s a small corner store that offers chicken feed, cheese making kits, and everything in between to help people live off a little bit of land.

Fiegelist say she’s always had a passion for homesteading and growing her own food. She opened the store last March after growing frustrated with having to drive up to two hours to find supplies.

“There are other people who are like me. I knew some of those people so I knew there were people who were looking for this sort of thing and not finding it. And there’s also a big push to buy locally, so that helps us, as well.”

 Lincoln Park, a former housing project on the far south side of Columbus.

She says business has been steady, even really good at times. Over the last ten months, City Folk’s has evolved into more than just a store.

“If somebody’s looking for something specific or some sort of specific information, there are a lot of people that come through the doors, so we keep track of those folks and pass on information that way,” Fiegelist says.

“We have classes and workshops, so people who are interested in doing, let’s see what we’ve got coming up. We’ve got ‘Making Bee’s Wax Candles’, ‘Edible Medicine’, there’s a bee-keeping class, there’s a classroom for the urban coop…”

It’s hard to tell just how many urban farmers there are. They range from people growing tomatoes on an apartment balcony to full-scale commercial farms inside abandoned factories. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says about 15 percent of the nation’s food supply is now grown in urban areas, and cities including Columbus have loosened zoning rules allowing people to grow crops and raise livestock.

 Lincoln Park, a former housing project on the far south side of Columbus.

That includes Joseph Swain, owner of Swainway Urban Farm in Clintonville. He started farming four years ago, and it’s grown from a hobby to a career. He’s transformed his third-of-an-acre property into a commercial farm producing raspberries, mushrooms, and dozens of herbs and vegetables he sells at local farmers’ markets.

“We do have to take some different strategies and techniques to kind of compete with people who have vast amounts of land, so we focus on high-value crops and growing crops really intensively.”

He buys supplies from the City Folk’s Farm Shop, and has started supplying the store with some of his seedlings.

“What Shawn is doing is really fantastic. She does an awesome job at connecting with local businesses and other organizations to provide education and outreach programs. And I think it’s really important to support businesses like that to ensure the success of our community.”

Shawn Fiegelist hopes her shop will teach even more people about the benefits of urban farming.

“It’s a wide, wide group of people. It’s all sorts of people, all income levels. Clintonville obviously is a place I think that a lot of people think it’s going on. But it’s not just Clintonville, it really is all over the city.”

Statement of Support for a Full and Fair Farm Bill

We, the undersigned, worked diligently and in good faith with the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to complete the 2012 Farm Bill in regular order. When that did not occur, the Committees jointly developed a plan for a one-year extension that, while flawed, had many merits. Like the Agriculture Committee leaders and members, we were shocked to learn that this agreement had been replaced by a biased extension that also disappointed the farmers, fishers, ranchers, Tribal Nations, farmworkers, and rural and urban communities we represent.

Direct payments were continued at the full 2008 levels – despite agreements to reduce them – while disaster response support for producers who have suffered up to three years of extreme drought and heat was eliminated.

In the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills, Congress gradually adopted a set of programs to build the foundation for a new food system. This emerging food system, a small but growing portion of overall US Farm and Food Policy, has the potential to enhance equity for our nation’s diverse producers and farmworkers, secure a future in agriculture for new entry farmers and rural, urban and tribal communities, and provide fresh, local food for all consumers.

The Agriculture Committees’ December 31 agreement continued 2013 support for these critical programs, which ranged from Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers to Beginning Farmer Development, Rural Development, Specialty Crop, Organic and Urban Agriculture, and others, including a deep surprise cut in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance) education program. All of this funding was zeroed out as the Farm Bill extension was attached to the fiscal cliff bill that has now become law.

We thank the Agriculture Committee leadership and members for their efforts to achieve balance. Beginning immediately, we pledge to work with the incoming Agriculture Committees to complete a full and fair Farm Bill that mitigates disasters, protects natural resources, provides equity and inclusion, constructs a new and economically viable future for agriculture and rural communities, and assures healthy food for all consumers.

Rural Coalition

National Family Farm Coalition

Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association