Category Archives: Sustainable Agriculture in the News

Organic farmers and consumers will be hurt by congressional inaction that let the farm bill lapse: letter to the editor

 
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
November 14, 2012

On Oct. 1, the farm bill officially expired due to inaction by the U.S. House of Representatives. Their fumbling over budget cuts and money allocation has led us to the first full expiration of the farm bill in history, leaving many programs without funding to continue their essential actions toward advancing agriculture in this country. One such program is the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP), which stopped accepting applications after Oct. 31.

Organic farmers are required to pay an annual fee for certification. The NOCCSP gives farmers the opportunity to offset those costs by up to $750 per year. Without this low-cost program, we are likely to see the number of enrollments to organic certification programs in Ohio slow and re-enrollments decline. Being organically certified helps consumers know that their food is held to the standards set by the National Organic Program, which approximately one-third of Ohio’s organic operations utilize.

The loss of such a program could have devastating effects on the growing organic movement, but all hope is not lost. Congress can replenish funding by voting in its current lame-duck session to reauthorize the farm bill. A call to your congressmen can help make this a reality.

Shane Richmond, Granville

Tomatoes make way to Harding

November 15, 2012
By Bonnie Hazen
Tribune Chronicle

WARREN – Students in Warren City Schools soon will enjoy salsa made from locally grown tomatoes.

Five bushels of tomatoes were delivered this week to Warren G. Harding High School.

Warren Schools Department of Food Service director Laureen Postlethwait poses with locally grown tomatoes delivered Tuesday at Warren G. Harding High School.

“We were really happy with what came today,” said Laureen Postlethwait, director of the Warren Schools Department of Food Service, explaining the aroma and vibrant color of the tomatoes was surprising for a November delivery.

The tomatoes were the last pickings of the field-grown tomatoes from Anguili’s Farm Market in Canfield. The produce was purchased from the Lake to River Food Cooperative, a member-owned cooperative comprising a local group of food producers, processors and institutional and commercial buyers, including a number of area farms, schools and businesses.

The cooperative was formed in 2011 and is supported in part by a $75,000 USDA grant. It offers a variety of foods, including fresh produce, meat, cheese, eggs and other products.

“Our goal is to keep food dollars in our community,” said Lake to River Food Cooperative produce manager Greg Bowman of Salem, who made the delivery.

Though this was the first delivery to Warren, he said the co-op has also served Austintown, Youngstown, Girard, Boardman, Springfield, Labrae and Badger schools.

The food co-op is helpful both to schools and farmers because it serves as an intermediary and helps provide fresh produce that is grown locally to schools while helping farmers wrap up the season after their stands close, said Melissa Miller, marketing manager for the Lake to River Food Cooperative.

The variety of produce offered by the co-op assists local schools in providing more nutritious ingredients in their school lunches, helping them comply with the stricter dietary guidelines initiated this year, Postlethwait said.

The federal meal program guidelines, signed into law by President Barack Obama as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, require schools to offer healthier food choices to students, such as lower-calorie and lower-fat foods.

“It’s a challenge to change the mindset of the students’ meal patterns,” Postlethwait said, adding that students have been very receptive to the fresh salads, and they recently made salsa from tomatoes grown at school.

The tomatoes delivered Tuesday were the first of three shipments to be delivered within the next two weeks, and will primarily be used for salsa in nacho and burrito lunches at the high school.

Postlethwait said apples also will be purchased from the co-op in the winter months.

Editor’s Note: The Lake-To-River Food Cooperative’s  (L2R) $75,000 grant was provided by the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP) in the Farm Bill. The FMPP provides grants to community supported agriculture programs (CSAs), farmers’ markets, and farm markets to develop marketing information and business plans, support innovative market ideas, and educate consumers. L2R’s FMPP funding supports the group’s efforts to sell produce to 10 local school districts feeding nearly 14,000 school children and bring fresh food to low-income neighborhoods in Youngstown and Warren. Go to http://policy.oeffa.org/farmbill2012 to urge Congress to pass a 2012 Farm Bill that funds the FMPP and other important programs.

Area farmers finding number of ways to bring people back to the land

Mockingbird Meadows co-owner Dawn Combs instructs Girl Scouts from Dublin about facials and other uses for herbs in health and beauty.
 
By  Mary Vanac
The Columbus Dispatch
October 24, 2012 

If you’ve ever picked your own apples or bumped along on a hayride, you’ve taken part in agritourism.

But the concept has grown up as more people want to learn about their food. That’s led to local-food meals served in the middle of sunflower fields and classes on making cheese from goat milk.

It’s about relationships, said Rob Leeds, an Ohio State University Extension educator and pumpkin farmer who offers activities such as horse-drawn hayrides at his farm in Ostrander.

“Picking your own food, knowing where it comes from, and hopefully while you are out there meeting the farmer — it all develops a sense of trust for who’s raising your food,” Leeds said.

No matter what form it takes, agritourism is growing in Ohio, said Julie Fox, a direct-marketing specialist at OSU Extension. More farmers are inviting consumers to buy baskets of seasonal produce, help make maple syrup or learn how to can fruits and vegetables.

“People want unique food experiences,” said Fox, who leads a statewide team that is beginning to collect marketing and agritourism data. Close proximity to farms also is fueling agritourism growth, Leeds said.

In Ohio, farm income from agritourism and recreational services more than doubled to nearly $5 m illion in 2007 from $2.2 million in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s five-year farm census. Agritourism grew to 2.1 percent of farm income in 2007 from 1.4 percent in 2002.

It took Val Jorgensen a long time to accept the “tourism” aspect of agritourism. “This is definitely not Disney World,” Jorgensen said about her 65-acre Jorgensen Farms in Westerville, which she sees more as an education hub than a tourist trap.

“What I want to share with people is what real food is,” said Jorgensen, who grew up on a Michigan dairy farm. “My degree’s in nursing. So my focus is on health and sharing the process of growing healthy food.”

Jorgensen raises sheep, which provide wool, pelts and meat. She keeps bees, producing several herb-infused raw honeys. She grows fruits, vegetables and herbs and sells them to local food companies and restaurants. But hosting events from school tours to organization dinners to weddings “does balance the budget,” she said.

Her Sunday Supper series features seasonal produce and meats grown on her farm or other farms just outside of Columbus, prepared by local chefs and served in a barn or sunflower field. Dinner tickets usually sell for between $58 and $75.

“I want to provide a place for people to be nourished,” said Jorgensen, who sees herself as a steward, not an owner, of the land. “It warms my heart and soul to see people come out to the farm.”

Visitors to Orchard Hill Bed & Breakfast can feed the animals — including donkeys, pot-bellied pigs, llamas and alpacas — while staying at the 1850 farmhouse near Granville.

“The latest count is 72, if you count all the chickens and other fowl,” said Don Jones, who owns the B&B with Andrew Kohn. The three suites at Orchard Hill go for between $95 and $155 a night.

Jones and Kohn feature local foods and products, including Gambier Gold honey and Tilton Hollow goat milk soap, at their B&B. Kohn makes jams, which are served to lodgers and sold online and at a few local stores.

The B&B operators cooperate with local shop keepers and wineries to create package deals. “ Wineries can be a hook” to attract well-heeled tourists, said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

Slate Run Vineyard in Canal Winchester doesn’t do tours, but it does offer wine tastings and use of its “weinhaus” for events of up to 125 people. Owner Keith Prichard charges between $150 and $550 for weinhaus rental, he said.

At Soine Vineyard in Powell, volunteers do much of the grape-picking in exchange for a good meal and glass of wine, said co-owner Sandy Sainey.

Mockingbird Meadows between Plain City and Marysville connects visitors with healing herbs, sustainable beekeeping, homesteaders’ dinners and the spirit of the farm, said co-owner Dawn Combs.

Combs and her husband, Carson Combs, recently hosted a troop of Girl Scouts from Bailey Elementary School in Dublin for herbal facials and a tour of the couple’s biodiverse farm.

“We like to do things with the girls twice a month,” said Tala Rogers of Dublin, one of the moms at the facial table. “A lot of our girls are familiar with dairy farms. This is an herb farm, so they’re learning how to use herbs for health and beauty.”

Dawn Combs infuses honey from the farm’s bees with herbs to create healing spreads. Three Mockingbird Meadows products are poised for national distribution.

“It’s very difficult to live off a farm,” Dawn Combs said. “If we were just to be honey producers, we could not support our family. We diversify our honey, and we diversify our herbs.” Regular events also bring in income, she said.

At Blue Rock Station in Philo, home of the “Earthship” — a house made of mud, scrapped tires and other recycled materials — Jay and Annie Warnke teach visitors how to make goat-milk cheese and use mud to plaster walls and build structures.

Visitors can trek surrounding hills with llamas, finishing their journey with a “proper English tea,” or they can stay a night in two cabins made of recyclables, said Annie Warnke. The Warnkes have written a dozen books on sustainable farming, based on nearly two decades of experience.

“For me, it’s a whole way of life, every step you take,” said Annie Warnke, who started out in a corporation, not on a farm. “The gross domestic product of Blue Rock Station is happiness.”

A Simple Fix for Farming

The New York Times
By Mark Bittman
October 19, 2012

IT’S becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use — if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.

The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.

In short, there was only upside — and no downside at all — associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it’s a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticidesare used each year in the United States.

No one expects Iowacorn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

Rosie Gainsborough

Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.) In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.

But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, “See? We have to remain with conventional.”

The Marsden Farm study points to a third path. And though critics of this path can be predictably counted on to say it’s moving backward, the increased yields, markedly decreased input of chemicals, reduced energy costs and stable profits tell another story, one of serious progress.

Nor was this a rinky-dink study: the background and scientific rigor of the authors — who represent the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service as well as two of the country’s leading agricultural universities — are unimpeachable. When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Why wouldn’t a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, “There’s no cost assigned to environmental externalities” — the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the “cheap” standard American diet — “and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned.”

This study not only questions those assumptions, it demonstrates that the chemicals contributing to “environmental externalities” can be drastically reduced at no sacrifice, except to that of the bottom line of chemical companies. That direction is in the interest of most of us — or at least those whose well-being doesn’t rely on that bottom line.

Sadly, it seems there isn’t a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.

Managing Weeds on a Midwest Farm: A Profile of Ken Rider

By Patrick Lillard
The Rodale Institute
October 17, 2012
Ken Rider

We’ve all probably played with modeling clay at some point in our lives, making pottery or a sculpture in school. Well, imagine trying to grow a plant in it. That analogy came to mind as Ken Rider described farming in his Hoytville clay soils.

Rider grows organic corn, soybeans, spelt and wheat on almost 500 acres in the Great Black Swamp region of Ohio. As part of an Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI) project looking at organic farmers’ weed management, an undergraduate student from Purdue University and I interviewed Ken. When we asked him about how he manages weeds, he quickly replied cover crops, crop rotation and cultivation, but we learned those practices were best explained through stories and experiences.

Cover crops

Rider’s favorite crop is alfalfa. He grew up among alfalfa fields, but, beyond the nostalgia, the crop has significant benefits on his farm:

  • Its deep-penetrating roots open up his heavy soils and access deep nutrient reserves.
  • It serves as a significant source of nitrogen for subsequent crops.
  • Its thick canopy suppresses weeds.
  • Its ability to be mowed provides a measure of control over challenging perennial weeds.

While alfalfa is his favorite cover crop, Ken is continually researching and experimenting with new cover crops and techniques. He currently has funding from NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to evaluate the use of crimson clover and oilseed radish as a technique for reducing the amount of moldboard plowing he does. Ken’s thought is that as oilseed radish will winterkill and crimson clover is not as winter hardy as other clovers, spring incorporation will not require inverting the soil.

While cover crops do provide numerous benefits, they aren’t without their own management requirements. Ken once had an outbreak of Canada thistle in his alfalfa cover. He figures the thistle took hold because the field was in alfalfa for an extended amount of time and there were gaps in the stand. He addressed the outbreak by changing his rotation and mowing the thistle several times in a season, which put significant pressure on the thistle’s rhizomes and lessened the population.

Ken stresses that in organic agriculture, weeds are controlled but never eradicated. Therefore, organic farmers must be diligent managers.  “My father-in-law used to say ‘mind your business,’” says Rider. “He didn’t mean ‘mind your own business,’ which is something everybody should do. He meant mind your business—be attentive.”

Observation is essential for successful cover crop and weed management. “Observation in a timely manner so you don’t get behind,” says Rider.

Crop rotations

Crop rotations are another integral component in Ken’s weed management system as they allow him to disrupt weed life cycles, minimizing any windows for weeds to flourish and reproduce. Ken’s rotation was outlined in Michigan State University’s publication Integrated Weed Management: Fine Tuning the System, but crop rotations are flexible structures, providing opportunities for controlling outbreaks.

Figure of Ken Rider’s Crop Rotation on p. 19 in Integrated Weed Management:
Fine Tuning the System
from Michigan State University Extension

As described earlier, when Ken had an outbreak of Canada thistle in an alfalfa field, he changed his rotation, planting a crop with a thicker canopy that could outcompete the Canada thistle. He is using the same strategy to battle weed pressure created by this year’s drought. The lack of moisture after seeding slowed germination, which allowed the weeds to get established ahead of his crop. He is changing his rotation from beans-wheat to beans-corn, since the corn can better compete with weeds.

Cultivating conservatively

The last weed management strategy Ken reaches for is cultivation. While it is an effective tool, Ken is very conservative in his cultivation. He warns that the conventional mindset of wanting extremely clean fields can be detrimental for soil in general, but especially for clay soils.

“The biggest problem with [working the soil] as an organic farmer is the tendency to overwork it,” says Rider. “You want to go out there and get rid of all the weeds and make a real fine seedbed. When you do that, you’ve tightened your soil up. In our situation, that’s compacting it…You learn that when you get your next rain, it’s so sealed over and so tight that the water won’t drain through it.”

Ken minimizes this risk by limiting his cultivation and selecting implements that remove weeds with the least damage and compaction. There are several great resources on implements in their uses, one of the most well-known being Steel in the Field,  which is available free online. It describes each implement, its effectiveness on different size weeds and provides case studies. One of the farmers profiled is Rex Spray, a pioneer of organic farming in Ohio and one of Ken’s mentors.

Observe and learn

Even after 40 years of farming, Ken is still perfecting his farming system, learning from experience and experiments as well as from other farmers and organizations. Ken’s mentor Rex Spray was an important source of knowledge over the years. Rex was an extremely well-known organic farmer who, in addition to appearing in Steel in the Field, was profiled in several articles over the years. Ken noted Rex had one of the most important skills for an organic farmer: observation.


Rex Spray (Photo by Danielle Deener)

“[Rex Spray] was very observant and knew what he was looking for,” says Rider. “If you’re perceptive and have a discerning mind, you can pick out a lot of things you need to know about your cropping just through observation.”

Ken noted another important source of information as the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA) and its grain-growers chapter. The chapter meetings and email listserv provide opportunities for farmers to discuss the topics most pertinent to them in the context of their own specific farms and share what has worked for them. Ken also acknowledged the benefits from collaborating with faculty at the Ohio State University on research trials and participating in organizations like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Ken served on North Central SARE’s advisory board and is a strong proponent for the organization, advocating for farmers’ continued involvement in SARE and utilization of its producer grants.

Weed management wisdom

As I thought back over our interview with Ken, I began to understand and appreciate the skills of a successful organic farmer:

  • observation,
  • experimentation, and
  • adaptability.

Ken’s observational skills have given him an understanding of the characteristics of his soil, weed life cycles, the attributes of different cover crops, and how all of these different elements interact on his farm. He then uses these observations to experiment, to develop and test new approaches that will hopefully improve his farming system. His observations and experimentation also provide him with the knowledge to be able to quickly adapt his system to respond to challenges.

Door opens for Ohio meatpackers: Federal program lets state-inspected shops ship beyond borders

By  Mary Vanac
The Columbus Dispatch
August 25, 2012

Indiana, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are Ohio’s neighbors, but to some Ohio meat processors, they were a world away because the processors weren’t allowed to sell to customers there.

However, a new program has allowed them to access markets beyond state borders for the first time.

The Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program went into effect this month. Before August, only local meat inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture could be sold outside Ohio.

There are 160 federally inspected slaughterhouses and processors in Ohio, according to the USDA.

But under the new program, small, state-inspected meat processors that match federal standards and are cleared by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service can sell their products outside their home states.

Because Ohio has the most state-inspected meat facilities of any state — 279 — it is likely the program will have the biggest impact here.

“It’s going to have a positive effect on our processors,” said Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of legislative and regulatory policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

“We have a lot of small meat processors … that can grow by having this new opportunity,” Lesicko said.

Small processors near Ohio’s borders likely will be the first to use the program, she said. Next might come producers whose products have mass appeal.

“This is opening up a tremendous opportunity for small producers,” said Bob Ehart, senior policy and science adviser for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Great Lakes Smoked Meats in Lorain is among the first companies to participate in the new program in Ohio. The maker of smokies and wieners, as well as kielbasa, chorizo and andouille sausages, has been waiting for months for the program to begin.

A grocery-store chain outside Philadelphia has wanted to buy smokies from Great Lakes for years, but the Ohio-inspected processor wasn’t allowed to ship to Pennsylvania. Now, the Lorain company expects to begin shipping its smoked meat sticks to the chain’s 300 stores in more than 30 states, said Kim Kordeleski-Gonzalez, office manager of the nine-employee meat processor.

“ We are ready to go,” she said.Why didn’t Great Lakes go the federal inspection route rather than wait for years for the so-called interstate meat rule to take effect?

“The federal requirements are so high for small companies,” Kordeleski-Gonzalez said. And Great Lakes wanted to keep the daily, personalized attention from its state meat inspector.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and several other groups have been working on getting the rule passed for years.

For some meat processors, the rule addresses a fairness issue. Many Ohio consumers buy meat from other countries inspected by the foreign equivalent of a state inspector.

Yet, state-inspected processors in the United States were prohibited from selling to consumers in neighboring states.

“If you do a good job and you have a good product, you should be able to sell your product anywhere,” said John Grimes, an Ohio State University Extension beef coordinator and associate professor.

Farmers who produce specialty meats, such as bison or grass-fed beef, also can benefit from the new rule.

“Say I’m a cattle producer, and I raise the equivalent of USDA-certified Angus beef, or an organic or all-natural product. The new rule gives me access to millions more people,” Grimes said.

In addition, “a local packing house can give you more attention to detail, allow for keeping your brand identity,” said Grimes, who raises Angus breeding stock.

Large, federally inspected processing plants often rely on volume to drive their cost-efficiencies, so small, state-inspected processors can be more affordable for small producers, Grimes said.

Why We Need to Save the Farm Bill

The Huffington Post
September 6, 2012
By Helen Dombalis, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

This is my first time working in Washington on a Farm Bill, and did I ever pick a good one to start with! Seasoned Farm Bill advocates keep reminding newbies like me that this Farm Bill debate is anything but normal, which is refreshing to hear considering how chaotic the process has been.

In June, the full Senate passed its version of the new Farm Bill, which is a great starting point. On the House side, however, the process is delayed. The House Agriculture Committee did its share of the work in July, but the House leadership will not bring the bill before the full House of Representatives for a vote, meaning, in short, that the bill is stalled.

Why does this matter?  For starters, despite what may be implied by its name, the Farm Bill affects much more than farm country U.S.A. (It’s real name is the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012.0 The massive piece of legislation, renewed roughly every five years, has a lot to do with our entire food system.

Here are six (of the many) ways the Farm Bill affects you. It dictates…

    • Which foods are grown and raised in the U.S.
    • Which American farmers and ranchers produce our food
    • In what quantities our foods are produced
    • What kinds of food ends up on grocery store and food bank shelves
    • Food prices
    • Who can have access to the food.

It’s expected to cost just under 1 trillion dollars over 10 years.  It’s a big deal.

The current Farm Bill, passed back in 2008, is set to expire on September 30. That leaves Congress with just 16 business days to act!

The chances of fully renewing the Farm Bill by the deadline are looking slimmer by the day. It is therefore possible that Congress will pass an extension bill and then return to debate at a later point. But any extension should continue to fund the food and farm programs that are set to expire on September 30th.

Which programs? The Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), and National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), just to name a few. Not to mention all of the USDA Rural Development programs, such as the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG), which fund farmer projects to increase their income through smart marketing and other tools.  These programs ensure the success of local and organic food systems and are the future of American agriculture.

Here’s what you can do to help keep these and other important programs alive: Send a message to Congress.

Don’t put rural America, organic and local food, and the next generation of farmers on hold. Find a way to continue these important programs. Visit congress.org, type in your zip code, and contact your representatives about food and farm programs and policies that matter to you.  You can also check to see if your congressmen are part of the Senate or House Agriculture Committee, since those members are especially involved in the process. Finally, sign up for National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition action alerts to get the latest information on how you can shape the future of our food and agriculture policy!

 

Helen Dombalis holds a Master of Public Health and a Master of Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She has researched the role of local and regional food systems in community economic development and advocated at the grassroots and federal levels.   Helen staffs NSAC’s Marketing, Food Systems, & Rural Development Committee and leads NSAC’s local food and economic development advocacy, which includes farm to school and child nutrition.  She also serves as a Policy Co-Chair for the American Public Health Association’s Food and Environment Working Group.

Farm bill’s expiration lamented

The Toledo Blade
10/2/2012

By Jon Chavez

 

Without fanfare, the 2008 farm bill expired Sunday night and while the effects of not having a farm bill won’t be devastating immediately to Ohio’s farmers, it could get to that point if one isn’t passed before year’s end, experts said.

“We’re at a really critical point without one now. We’re going to be at a dire point if we don’t get a new bill by the end of the year,” said Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of legislative and regulatory policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau in Columbus.

The great fear, said Roger Wise, a Fremont-area farmer and president of the Ohio Farmers Union, is that any new farm bill before year’s end will undoubtedly be passed by a lame-duck session of Congress, meaning there will be no great incentive to pass a bill that truly meets farmers’ needs.

“I don’t think it will be as good as it can be had we got it before the Sept. 30 expiration just because of the nature of lame-duck Congresses. But if we don’t get it soon, there could be dramatic effects on farmers, nutrition programs, and even national security issues,” Mr. Wise said.

Congress adjourned Sept. 19 without renewing the existing farm bill. Both houses of Congress had proposed a replacement bill, but they were far apart on unifying legislation with the House proposing a bill with $35 billion in cuts to meet budget deficit restrictions and the Senate proposing cuts of $23 million.

Either way, cuts were going to happen, Ms. Lesicko said, but Ohio farmers were hopeful a bill could be crafted that still met the needs of farmers without making drastic reductions. But Congress adjourned without passing an extension and with it now in recess until after the Nov. 8 election, there is no telling when the matter will be taken up again.

In the meantime, several programs paid for by farm bill funding are expiring.

First on the list is MILC, or the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which compensates dairy producers when domestic milk prices — which can be volatile — fall below a specified level. MILC payments will be made through November, but after that, dairy producers are out of luck.

Next to go is the Specialty Crops program, which could affect all northwest Ohio fruit and vegetable growers and specialty nurseries. The program provides block grants to help organizations and individuals pay for research, assistance, and marketing for specialty crops and floriculture businesses.

Also to expire shortly due to lack of funding is the Conservation Reserve program, which encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as grasslands or shade trees.

The CRP program has been particularly effective in northwest Ohio to control flooding and promote wildlife.

“It’s all kind of starting now as these programs start to expire and we’ll get progressively worse as we continue to go,” Ms. Lesicko said.

At an undetermined point, theU.S. Department of Agriculture won’t be able to enter into new trade contracts, which will hit Ohio farmers particularly hard and hurt programs designed to promote trade of commodities such as corn, wheat, and soybeans, Ms. Lesicko said. “It’s any person’s guess as to what might happen,” she added.

For now, monies to help offset this summer’s drought disaster are covered, and payments to several northwest Ohio counties listed as disaster area will go to farmers as scheduled. And overall, the 2008 law that expired on Sunday covers all of 2012’s crops.

“It’s next year that we’re worried about,” Mr. Wise said.

The Farmers Union president said he believes funding levels in existing programs in the 2008 farm bill are likely to be reduced in whatever replacement bill gets passed either this year or early next year by the new Congress.

“I see consequences of not getting this done early and it’s difficult to tell how they’ll manifest themselves. I think a lot of programs will be cut or consolidated,” Mr. Wise said.

“The thing about farm legislation is it’s generally an investment. It’s money that creates a return,” he said. “For example, it’s said that you reap $7 for every $1 that will be spent in the nutrition program.

“Generally, a farm bill is a safety net for farmers so that in poor years those farms can remain in business. Farmers only plant and harvest once a year, yet they have to provide for 12 months a year,” Mr. Wise said.

Contact Jon Chavez at jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

Farm Bill Expiration Puts Forward-Thinking Food Policy at Risk

Civil Eats
October 2, 2012  
By Ferd Hoefner
 

As of this week, our nation’s food and farm policy in the form of the 2008 Farm Bill has officially expired, with no workable replacement. There are many who see this as a better course of events than the passage of one of the new, admittedly imperfect, bills passed by the Senate and proposed in the House.  Others view congressional inaction as no big deal.

We beg to differ.

The farm bill is the nation’s major food and agricultural policy vehicle and is about much more than the big ticket items: food stamps, crop insurance, and commodity support.  The farm bill is also about conservation and environmental protection, rural economic and community development, food system reform and agricultural research.  Here’s what’s at stake:

With no new farm bill or extension, the programs that address rural and urban job creation, natural resource conservation, renewable energy, and improved production and access to healthy food are in big trouble.

With the expiration of the farm bill, farmers will not be enrolling sensitive land in ecological restoration projects.  Training opportunities for the next generation of beginning farmers will dry up.  Microloans to the very small businesses that drive economic recovery in rural America will cease.  Emerging farmers markets in rural and urban food deserts will not have access to startup grants.  Organic farming researchers will not be able to compete for any dedicated research funds.

Grants to encourage on-farm energy conservation, to fund fruit and vegetable research, to assist minority and tribal farmers, to rebuild local and regional food systems, to invest in emerging farmer and community owned food businesses with high consumer demand, and to transfer land to young farmers will also be put on hold.

These are casualties of Congressional inaction. Many commentators note that SNAP (food stamp) benefits and federal crop insurance subsidies, the two largest categories of farm bill spending, continue unabated, and that is true. But they’re missing the fact that these lesser-known programs have no funding starting on Monday.

These lesser-known farm bill programs have an outsized impact.  They drive innovation.  They create jobs.  They help solve environmental problems and boost energy independence.  They support the next generation of farmers and food entrepreneurs.

When the Senate passed a new five-year farm bill in June, it was difficult to imagine we would find ourselves in this situation. The House Agriculture Committee passed its version in July with bi-partisan support, but the House left town last week to go home and campaign without House Republican leaders ever bringing the new farm bill to the floor for amendment and approval.   Now Congress is tasked with passing a new farm bill during the short, busy lame duck session after the election.

Many House members are trying to reassure their constituents that because food stamps and crop insurance are taken care of, and because there is a little bit of time before commodity subsidy programs implode, it was all really no big deal to kick the can down the road.

Don’t try telling that to young farmers enrolling in training programs, to landowners trying to restore wetlands, or to researchers working to make a healthier and more sustainable food system.  They know they have been left in the lurch and they are looking to Congress to do the right thing and return after the election to get a new farm bill finished and signed into law.

As a nation, we need to keep food stamps working and we need a better, less costly and fairer farm safety net. But as important as those goals are, the farm bill is about much more than that.  Congressional dithering has put movement toward achieving a 21st century food and farm policy at risk.  The first programs to be shut down starting October 1 are precisely the ones that invest in a more equitable, sustainable, opportunity-generating farm and food system.  Despite the words of assurance to the contrary, this really is a big deal.

Ferd Hoefner is the Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Living Organically: Peach Mountain Organic Farm

 
By Bryn Mooth
Photographs by Julie Kramer
Edible Ohio Valley
Summer 2012

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Above: Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia stand in front of the barn on today’s Peach Mountain Farm. The Silo is covered in Virginia Creeper, a vine that creeps into their barn and prep area. Below: Leslie Garcia shows us one of the last strawberries of the season. Doug Seibert inspects beneficial insects in a cover crop of flowering cilantro that is roughly four feet high. He is conscious of not seeing bare ground on his land and cover crops grow in any row that is not currently in production.

An easy-to-miss driveway juts off a county road north of Spring Valley, Ohio. The gravel lane leads to a modest house tucked in amid tall shade trees. Across the yard stands a barn that’s seemingly held together by its contents: old machine parts, stacks of plastic nursery pots, seed packets, bags of soil amendment. A stooped yet graceful white-haired woman pushes a walker slowly down the pebbly drive, taking in the cool morning air.

This 17-acre Greene County spread is home to Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia (along with Garcia’s 93-year-old mother and a big ol’ farm dog). On seven acres, the pair —business and life partners since 1991 — cultivate a huge variety of vegetables and cut flowers under the Peach Mountain Organics banner. Their farm, certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA), produces enough for Seibert and Garcia to create a simple, sustainable lifestyle on the land.

The farm’s bounty also graces dining tables throughout Montgomery and Greene counties: Seibert and Garcia sell to restaurants in nearby towns, including the popular Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs and The Meadowlark in Dayton. Their ever-changing salad mix is a must-buy at the Saturday morning Yellow Springs farmers’ market; Peach Mountain sells out of its offerings in an hour or two. “I once saw a woman in high heels running across the parking lot to get the last bag of our salad mix before we sold out,” Seibert says, laughing.

Peach Mountain is surprisingly productive: last season, they harvested just under a ton of salad mix. More than a thousand bunches of kale (“we did kale before kale was cool,” Garcia says). More than 4,000 pounds of tomatoes came out of just one greenhouse. Last fall, they planted 1,000 pounds of garlic, which this summer will yield perhaps five times that. Squash, greens of all kinds, onions, strawberries, herbs, potatoes … the list goes on. Organic certification requires detailed record-keeping of every input (seed, soil amendments, pest control, planting dates) and output.

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The Business of Farming
Think about the business model for a moment: About 22 tillable acres (Garcia and Seibert have a nearby property with 15 acres under cultivation). The expenses of organic seed, soil amendments and pest management. Two highly limited sales channels: a single farmers’ market stand and a handful of restaurant accounts. A seasonal production cycle.

How in the world can anyone make even a bare-bones living raising vegetables organically? The secret, says Seibert: no debt.

By purchasing their land outright (the latest parcel at auction for a favorable price), buying used equipment and a secondhand greenhouse (deconstructed, moved and rebuilt by Doug), and keeping their staff to a minimum (two full-time summer employees), Seibert and Garcia have withstood the variability of weather and the volatility of expenses. They haven’t raised their market prices since 1991.

To be sure, the couple have a huge “soft” investment in the farm — namely, in their own labor. Farming, organically or not, is a 24/7 venture pretty much year-round. The couple seems content to take no more than they need, maintaining a simple lifestyle, and even managing to put away a bit of money to buy a small farm property in Washington State near Seibert’s grown son. They have a tidy nest egg; what’s left of any profit is reinvested in the farm. “We’ve never had a losing season,” Garcia says. “Our worst season, we each got about $365.” “It’s never been about the money,” Seibert says.

What it is about, though, is satisfying customers and being good stewards of the land. Standing in an open field behind a large triple greenhouse, her salt-and-pepper hair in two braids, Garcia says she and Seibert never for a minute considered farming conventionally. “I read ‘Silent Spring,’” she says. “I saw what happened in Bhopal, India. How many clues do people need?”

At 59, she’s a veteran of organic agriculture. Wary of the dangers of agri-chemicals and dismayed by the conventional teachings of the Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture, where she spent a year, Garcia began organically farming a few acres in Adams County in her early 20s. That farm was near Peach Mountain, reputed to be Ohio’s second or third largest peak, depending on you you ask, and it lent its name to the current operation.

Neither Garcia nor Seibert come from farm families; Seibert, 62, is a Cincinnati native who attended Wilmington College, where he lived off-campus in a “shack” with a big garden. His early career as a machinist comes in handy; someone’s gotta build the hoop houses and keep the tractor running.

In a large greenhouse and several smaller structures, Seibert and Garcia start nearly all their crops from seed, then transplant directly into the ground in hoop houses or open beds. In addition to the salad mix and Garcia’s gladiolus, which Peach Mountain is well-regarded for, and a whole host of organic produce, the farm sells vegetable and herb plants. Until a few years ago, Garcia also grew bedding plants for retail sale; while that was profitable business, the work was exhausting and the two decided to scale back.

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Fooling Mother Nature
On a cool May morning, rows of healthy tomato plants reach nearly four feet high in a greenhouse. The farm uses a clever rope-and-pulley system to corral the vines: As the tomato plants grow taller, the rope is lowered so the heavy bottom stems coil on the ground, containing the plants and keeping the tomatoes in easy reach for harvesting. Growing tomatoes under cover is expensive, Seibert says, because the close conditions are heaven for aphids, which must be controlled by introducing insects that feed on them.

In a creekside field near the main farm, Garcia picks flowers to arrange for a weekend wedding. Rows and rows of hardneck garlic, planted by hand in the fall, are already sprouting their springtime curlicue scapes. Seibert walks past a patch of cilantro that he let go to seed as a bee pasture; the tall, spindly plants are recognizable only by their strong scent, and they’re humming with insects. Seibert and Garcia use plants like clover, vetch, and field peas for all-season cover, to add nutrients to the soil. “I don’t like bare ground,” Seibert says. “You want that microbiology going on in the soil all the time.”

Organic farming is a carefully managed ecosystem — and while it tries to work within the natural order of things, it’s also a constant battle against nature. They tried raising chickens a couple of years ago, Garcia says, but the raccoons systematically picked off the flock. She points to a bed of lettuce that’s speckled with maple sproutlings, thanks to the huge trees that frame the farm. “Mother Nature wants to take over all the time,” she says. “We try to have a lot of crop diversity, but in the end, farming isn’t all that compatible with nature.”

Trial-and-error and sharing knowledge help Seibert and Garcia in this constant struggle to both sustain and control natural forces. Their success with the former and generosity with the latter have earned the two recognition and admiration from their fellow farmers. In February, OEFFA awarded them the Stewardship Award, its highest honor. Growers throughout the region cite Seibert as a mentor. “People ask me questions all the time, and I’m always happy to share what we’ve learned,” Seibert says.

Market Ecosystem
On a warming Saturday morning, there’s a line at the Peach Mountain Organics booth at the Yellow Springs farmers’ market. Seibert has pulled up a panel truck full of produce; customers snatch up salad mix and other seasonal goodies.

This single market pulls in three-fifths of Peach Mountain Organics’ annual revenue. “When we first started, farmers’ markets were at the bottom of a downward trend,” Seibert says. They’ve taken a calculated risk by investing in a single retail venue rather than participating in multiple markets or launching a CSA program, which they feel would compete with their Yellow Springs presence. “We do one market, and we do a big deal,” he says. “We spend two days getting ready for Saturday.”

Customers are loyal to Peach Mountain because of their organic, high-quality product. Like the environment, a farmers’ market is its own ecosystem, with vendors working in concert to draw big crowds that benefit everyone. Too few farmers and customers don’t come; too little variety and the farmers compete. Seibert and Garcia are always evaluating what to grow, in what quantity, and how much to bring to market. They raise cost-intensive crops like herbs and greenhouse tomatoes because they know demand is high. “A farmer can’t stand there all day and sell $100 worth of produce,” Doug says. “We want to sell out. It’s a fragile balance.” 

Bryn Mooth is an independent journalist and copywriter focused on food, wellness, and creativity, and she shares recipes on her amazing, consistent, and timely blog Writes4food.com. Cultivators is her standing column in Edible Ohio Valley, where she brings you the stories, in words and pictures, of the growers, producers, bakers, cooks, and vendors who bring great local food to our Ohio Valley tables.