Monthly Archives: May 2011

Athens, Ohio goes the distance in the local food movement

Cleveland Plain Dealer
Wendy Pramik
May 21, 2011

It was spitting rain on an overcast, windy Saturday in mid-April when we reached the State Street exit to Athens, off Ohio 33.

We had heard that the Athens Farmers Market was one of the best open-air food bazaars in the Midwest, and despite our muted expectations for fresh produce this early in the season, my family and I decided to make the hour-and-a-half trek from Columbus.

We found the market in a strip-center parking lot along an uninspiring drag strewn with big-box retailers and fast-food joints that looked like Anytown, USA. There was an Arby’s across the road and a Walmart down the street, but nary a farm in sight. Yet we came to realize, while spending a couple of days in this Appalachian enclave, that one of Ohio’s poorest counties is a blossoming destination for food lovers and a glimmer of hope for sustainable living.

Thanks partly to an endeavor dubbed the “30 Mile Meal,” Athens County has fast become a shining example of local-food sourcing, making a visit a feel-good exercise in conservation.

Rena Loebker of Crumbs Bakery, a regular at the Athens Farmers Market, serves pizza topped with vegetables purchased from the market.
Rena Loebker of Crumbs Bakery, a regular at the Athens Farmers Market, serves pizza topped with vegetables purchased from the market.

It’s about a meal at Casa Nueva, a trendy restaurant in downtown Athens that sources most of its ingredients from nearby purveyors. It’s a drive through Southeast Ohio’s Appalachian foothills to a microwinery for a sip of organic elderberry wine. It’s a tour of Snowville Creamery, a local farm that produces nonhomogenized, fresh milk and cream.

But mostly it’s about the market, a colorful exchange featuring the bounty of nearby farmers and other merchants hawking fresh eggs, produce, honey, baked goods, meats and cheeses.

We pulled up on the paved lot near a Goody’s department store and strolled over to see two rows of vendors offering bunches of carrots and French breakfast radishes just plucked from the garden, pretty jars of golden, maple syrup and barbecue sauce made with local honey and peppers.

The 30 mile meal

Audubon Magazine named the market one of the nation’s best. It’s open every Saturday year-round and on Wednesdays during the summer.

“I like supporting the local farmers, and I love coming to the market,” said Elizabeth Atwell of Athens, who was carrying a box of spinach and kale plants for her garden. “It’s a great atmosphere, and it’s delicious.”

Our first market stop was a coffee kiosk and drive-through that exceeded our expectations for a hot cup of java. Brew du Soleil Espresso Cafe, run by Ken and Maria Jackson, had a chalkboard chock-full of espresso-based drinks, smoothies and teas. My husband opted for a Muddy Monkey, a double espresso laced with the cafe’s own banana syrup and topped off with chocolate sauce drizzled over a thick heap of crema made from milk supplied by Snowville Creamery in nearby Pomeroy. I had a Snowville Mud Puddle, a similarly rich concoction. We quickly downed the perked-up potions and joined the diverse crowd perusing the market stands.

We encountered a farmer selling free-range eggs from the back of a van, a barefoot patron walking on the rain-soaked pavement with a bouquet of broccoli in her hand, and a fellow playing harmonica while collecting donations in a flower pot. “Be a hero for $2,” he said, adding that the money is used to help provide healthy food to local school cafeterias, homeless shelters and food banks.

We packed a picnic at the market, which included a yummy vegetarian pizza from Crumbs Bakery. The business is located in the ACEnet Community Kitchen, where entrepreneurs share space, techniques and ambitions. Crumbs owner Jeremy Bowman told me he used ingredients he purchased from other vendors at the farmers market to make our lunch, like cornmeal from Shagbark Mill in Athens and feta cheese from Integration Acres in Albany.

It’s a prime example of the 30-mile meal concept, which highlights the advantages of local-food harvesting. Developed by the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), and based loosely on the growing “100 Mile Meal” movement, it features foods from more than 130 local producers.

A visit to reveals an interactive map to locate food purveyors of many types.

“As citizen eaters, we make choices of what we put on our forks each day,” said Leslie Schaller of ACEnet and a Casa Nueva co-founder. “It’s really essential for our economy, our planet and our social cohesion in our communities to be more conscious of where that food comes from.”

We then headed to Shade Winery, Athens County’s only winery, where owners Neal and Oui Dix produce wines from vidal blanc, chardonnay, cabernet franc and syrah grapes. Neal Dix is especially proud of his elderberry wine, which, as he describes, is “a serious, dry wine — not Kool-Aid.”

Dix, originally from Westlake, opened a tasting room last fall in a newly built, comfortable lodge. He offers cheese and crackers made by Integration Acres and welcomes visitors to bring along their own meals to his “simple and original” winery.

After our lunch, we checked into our room for the night at a local B&B. It took some patience and expert navigation by my husband, Mike, to find Sand Ridge Bed and Breakfast in Millfield, but it was worth the effort.

Owner Connie Davidson showed us around her restored 19th-century farmhouse set on a seven-acre plot landscaped with native plants and a butterfly garden. She offers two bedrooms with full baths and a library, and she serves a breakfast boasting local ingredients.

We headed back into town for dinner at Casa Nueva, amid the hopping strip of nightlife that Athens, home of Ohio University, is known for. A crowded bar on one side of a dividing wall melds seamlessly with a narrow, lively restaurant on the other. Schaller calls the Mexican-inspired cuisine “slow food,” built around ingredients from about 50 local producers.

Casa Nueva opened in 1985 as a cooperative owned by its workers, who serve a seasonal menu. In the height of the growing season, they flash-freeze local produce to preserve its taste, color and nutrients. All the entrees and baked goods are made from scratch, and the bar features several brews from Jackie O’s, a microbrewery a couple of streets over.

Laid-back people, unhurried food

The establishment’s unhurried pace reflects the careful preparation of the food as well as the laid-back attitude of the people who live in the area. Athens, after all, is a college town in rural Appalachia, and there’s evidence of the ’60s back-to-the-land vibe.

“Now you can’t really tell the hippies from the fourth-generation farmers,” Schaller says.

Our meals had locally grown black beans and cornmeal. Most of the ingredients in my refreshing rice salad, with vegan soy sesame dressing, also were grown locally. Berries used in some of the salsas were frozen at ACEnet’s facilities.

Schaller says many of her suppliers belong to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, a statewide group of organic farmers. The quality is evident, and it’s easy to see why Casa Nueva has such a dedicated local following.

After dinner we drove back to Sand Ridge, where a chorus of peeping frogs on the property’s pond interrupted the country quietude. Their shrill filled the nighttime sky as we entered the house.

We climbed under quilted covers, and before long awoke to the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee. Davidson, dressed in a colorful, apron-topped outfit punctuated by spunky cowboy boots, greeted us cordially and offered us cups of Silver Bridge Coffee, produced by a mom-and-pop company based in Gallipolis.

Davidson cracked brown eggs — “from the farmer down the road” — into a frying pan and began to scramble them. She topped them off with her own homegrown herbs and goat cheese from Integration Acres. The cheese is made of milk produced by a herd of grazing goats on a farm known for its pawpaw trees, which are native to the area.

Integration Acres lays claim to producing more pawpaws than anywhere else in the world. It ships pawpaw products around the United States and sells them at the local farmers market. Athens celebrates the papaya-like fruit each September during the Ohio Pawpaw Festival.

I spread some spicy pawpaw jelly on a piece of bread that Davidson purchased the day before at the farmers market. Delightful.

Before heading back to Columbus, we visited the Village Bakery and Cafe in downtown Athens to take a bite of Appalachia home with us.

Inside is the Undercover Market, bulging with local farmstead cheeses, grass-fed meats and Snowville Creamery milk — tastes that are well worth the drive. Just don’t forget to bring along a cooler.

For more information, click here.

How gas drilling contaminates your food

Barry Estabrook
Gilt Taste
Wednesday, May 28, 2011

There’s a stunning moment in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Gasland,” where a man touches a match to his running faucet — to have it explode in a ball of fire. This is what hydraulic fracturing, a process of drilling for natural gas known as “fracking,” is doing to many drinking water supplies across the country. But the other side of fracking — what it might do to the food eaten by people living hundreds of miles from the nearest gas well — has received little attention.

Unlike many in agriculture, cattle farmer Ken Jaffe has had a good decade. But lately he’s been nervous, worried fracking will destroy his business. Jaffe’s been good to his soil, and the land has been good to him. By rotating his herd of cattle to different pastures on his Catskills farm every day, he has restored the once-eroded land and built a successful business with his grass-fed and -finished beef. His Slope Farms sells meat to food coops, specialty meat markets, and high-end restaurants in New York City, about 160 miles to the southeast. “If you feed your micro-herd — the bacteria and fungi in the soil — then your big herd will do well, too,” he said when I visited him recently on a cool, sunny afternoon.

But a seam of black rock lies nearly a mile beneath the topsoil he has so scrupulously nurtured, and the deposit contains enormous quantities of natural gas. Profit-hungry energy companies — and the politicians that their campaign donations support — are determined to exploit that resource, even though it could destroy the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers like Jaffe who have sprung up in New York City’s vibrant, alternative food shed.

Energy companies liberate the gas, which is trapped in tiny bubble-like pockets in the rock, by forcefully injecting chemicals diluted with millions of gallons of water into the rock. This fracking ruptures the earth, creating fissures through which the gas passes — along with a witch’s brew of carcinogens, acutely poisonous heavy metals, and radioactive elements.

“For sustainable agriculture, fracking is a disaster,” says Jaffe. The gas rush started in the South and West, but has spread to the East and now affects 34 states. Under much of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York lies a 400-million-year-old geographic formation called the Marcellus Shale. Although estimates vary, the shale may hold 50 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, enough to meet New York State’s needs for 50 years. To see what fracking can do to food production, Jaffe has only to look at what has happened to some of his colleagues in nearby Pennsylvania, where the first fracked well came into production in 2005, and where there are now more than 1,500.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle belonging to Don and Carol Johnson, who farm about 175 miles southwest of Jaffe. The animals had come into wastewater that leaked from a nearby well that showed concentrations of chlorine, barium, magnesium, potassium, and radioactive strontium. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a fracked well began bellowing, foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead. Homeowners near fracked sites complain about a host of frightening consequences, from poisoned wells to sickened pets to debilitating illnesses.

The Marcellus Shale itself contains ethane, propane, and butane, arsenic, cobalt, lead, chromium — toxins all. Uranium, radium, and radon make the shale so radioactive that companies sometimes drop Geiger counters into wells to determine whether they have reached the gas-rich deposits. But those compounds are almost benign compared to the fracking fluids that drillers inject into the wells. At least 596 chemicals are used in fracking, but the companies are not required by law to divulge the ingredients, which are considered trade secrets. According to a report prepared for the Ground Water Protection Council, a national association of state agencies charged with protecting the water supply, a typical recipe might include hydrochloric acid (which can damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines), glutaraldehyde (normally used to sterilize medical equipment and linked to asthma, breathing difficulties, respiratory irritation, and skin rashes), N,N-dimethylformamide (a solvent that can cause birth defects and cancer), ethylene glycol (a lethal toxin), and benzene (a potent carcinogen). Some of these chemicals stay in the ground. Others are vented into the air. Many enter the water table or leach into ponds, streams, and rivers.

For the most part, state and federal governments have turned a blind eye to the problems brought about by fracking. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that it has no jurisdiction to investigate matters related to food production, a contention disputed by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who wrote a report urging the EPA to study all issues associated with fracking. A concerned farmer who prefers not to be identified forwarded me an email written to him by Jim Riviere, the director of the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, a group of animal science professors that tracks incidents of chemical contamination in livestock. Riviere wrote that his group receives up to 10 requests per day from veterinarians dealing with exposures to contaminants, including the byproducts of fracking. Nonetheless, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has slashed funding to his group. “We are told by the newly reorganized USDA that chemical contamination is not their priority,” Riviere wrote.

“The dangers of fracking to the food supply are not something that’s been investigated very much,” said Emily Wurgh of Food and Water Watch, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. “We have been trying to get members of Congress to request studies into effects of fracking on agriculture, but we haven’t gotten much traction.”

Fracking is not a new technology. It was first put into commercial use in 1949 by Halliburton, and that company has made billions from employing the extraction method. But it really wasn’t until 2004 that fracking really took off, the year that the EPA declared that fracking “posed little or no threat” to drinking water. Weston Wilson, a scientist and 30-year veteran of the agency, who sought whistle-blower protection, emphatically disagreed, saying that the agency’s official conclusions were “unsupportable” and that five of seven members of the review panel that made the decision had conflicts of interest. (Wilson has continued to work at the EPA, and continues to be publicly critical of fracking.)

A year later, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act with a “Halliburton loophole,” a clause inserted at the request of Dick Cheney, who had been Halliburton’s CEO before becoming vice president. The loophole specifically exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the CLEAR Act, and from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it unleashed the largest and most extensive drilling program in history, according to Josh Fox, the creator of the film “Gasland.”

In 2010 New York State imposed a moratorium on gas drilling, but if that were to be lifted, fracking would deal a triple whammy to Ken Jaffe’s farm, and thousands more like it. (Compare a map of the Marcellus Shale with one of small organic farms.)

Back on his pasture, Jaffe gestured to a pond in a bowl-like valley surrounded by sloping pastures and hillsides of maples, white pines, and blossoming wild cherries and apple trees, that, along with wells on the property, provides water for his animals. Given the geography of the land, any chemical contamination seeping from the rock would go directly into Jaffe’s water supply, poisoning his cattle.

And it’s not just his herd that’s vulnerable; all the plant life on his property would also be in danger. According to Jaffe, ozone is more lethal to crops than all other airborne pollutants combined, and of all crops, few are more susceptible to it than clover, a nutrient-rich feed that is critical to his method of sustainable cattle raising. While ozone is normally associated with automobile exhaust, fracking generates so much of it that Sublette Country, Wyo., has ozone levels as high as those in Los Angeles. This, despite the fact that it has fewer than 9,000 residents spread out over an area the size of Connecticut. What it does have is gas wells.

Even if his cows and his land would somehow remain unaffected by nearby wells, Jaffe’s business would still likely suffer. Joe Holtz is manager of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop, which buys a cow a week from Jaffe (and upward of $3 million products from other New York area farms). He says that his environmentally conscious organization would be forced to seek alternatives to New York meat and produce if fracking becomes commonplace. “If the air is fouled and the animals are drinking water that contains poisonous fracking chemicals, then products from those animals are going to have poisons,” he told me. Given the progress that small, local farms have made in the region, he says, the decision to stop dealing with long-term suppliers would be hard. But he adds, “We would have to stop buying from them. There is no doubt in my mind.”

For a link to the article, click here.

Ohioans Encouraged to “Go Down on the Farm” this Summer

Ohio News Service
Mary Kuhlman
May 19, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohioans mapping out their summer plans are being encouraged to check out what’s going on “down on the farm.”

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s Farm Tour Series kicks off in June, offering Ohioans the chance to see, taste, feel and learn what sustainable food production is all about.

Michelle Gregg-Skinner, the association’s organic education program coordinator, says the more consumers know about how their food is grown, the better prepared they are to make informed choices about who to support with their food dollars.

“Consumers can get a better grasp of the procedures that are involved in getting food and agricultural product from the ground or from the livestock to their plate or place of business.”

Consumers will see not only the production side but also how the product is processed and prepared for market, Gregg-Skinner says.

The series has been offered for 29 years and this year features 40 tours, including organic dairy farms, grain production, fiber and fabric production and diversified livestock farmers.

The tours are a great opportunity for Ohio families to get out and do something new this summer, Gregg-Skinner says, adding that what’s even better is that they’re free.

“With the dollar being a little tight in most people’s wallet’s this year, the farm tour series is a nice and really economically friendly way to promote agriculture in Ohio, especially at sustainably managed agricultural operations.”

A complete list of tours is available at

For audio and the original story at the Ohio News Service, go to

OEFFA Announces Free, Public Tour Series Featuring Ohio’s Organic and Sustainable Farms


Lauren Ketcham, Communications Coordinator, (614) 421-2022,
Michelle Gregg-Skinner, Organic Education Program Coordinator, (614) 421-2022,

Columbus, OH—The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) has announced its 2011 series of free public tours of some of Ohio’s finest sustainable and organic farms. OEFFA has offered this series for the past 29 years, providing unique opportunities for Ohioans to see, taste, feel, and learn what sustainable food and fiber production is all about from the real experts—the farmers themselves.

Consumers interested in local foods, farmers and market gardeners wanting to learn more and network with other farmers, aspiring and beginning farmers, and anyone interested in learning more about the production and marketing techniques of sustainable farmers in Ohio, are encouraged to attend.

“The food production system is a mystery for many consumers. This series of free tours shows that some farmers are eager to open their doors to share their experiences with other farmers and with the general public,” said Michelle Gregg-Skinner, Organic Education Program Coordinator at OEFFA. “The more consumers know about how their food is grown, the better prepared they are to make informed choices about who to support with their food dollars,” added Gregg-Skinner.

The 2011 Ohio Sustainable Farm Tour and Workshop series, sponsored by OEFFA, the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau 30 Mile Meal Project, Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, Innovative Farmers of Ohio, the Ohio State University Sustainable Agriculture Team, and the Tecumseh Land Trust, features 40 farms and food businesses, 3 university research centers, and 3 educational workshops, making this the largest farm tour series in OEFFA’s history.

For a complete list of all farm tours, including dates, times, farm descriptions, directions, and maps, go to

“This tour series offers conscientious consumers, established growers, and aspiring producers a unique learning opportunity to see first-hand how the mechanics of sustainable agricultural methods really work,” said Gregg-Skinner. “The series was expanded this year to showcase not just producers, but also handlers and points of sale, helping tour participants better understand the process that brings food from the farm to their dinner table,” concluded Gregg-Skinner.

Twenty tours are being sponsored by OEFFA and will be held between June and November. These tours feature: organic dairy farms and artisan cheese production; a canning facility, grain production; a poultry hatchery; farms using season extension; heirloom vegetable and flower production; diversified livestock farmers; farm markets and retail locations; fiber and fabric production; and farmers using a wide range of direct-to-consumer marketing strategies, including farmers’ markets, restaurants, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The tours are:

  • Saturday, June 4: Full service sustainable dairy—Snowville Creamery, Pomeroy, Ohio (Meigs Co.)
  • Saturday, June 18: Grain production and cleaning, organic vegetables, and season extension—Hirzel Farms, Luckey, Ohio (Wood Co.)
  • Thursday, June 30: Family-owned poultry hatchery—Ridgway Hatcheries, LaRue, Ohio (Marion Co.)
  • Saturday, July 9: Organic dairy and herdshare—Double J Farm, Hamilton, Ohio (Butler Co.)
  • Tuesday, July 12: Heirloom vegetables, buffalo, and season extension—Heritage Lane Farms, Salem, Ohio (Columbiana Co.)
  • Tuesday, July 19: Farming with horses—Turner Farm, Cincinnati, Ohio (Hamilton Co.)
  • Saturday, July 23: Rain and butterfly gardens and native seed production—Ohio Prairie Nursery, Hiram, Ohio (Portage Co.)
  • Saturday, July 30: Women in agriculture—Blue Rock Station, Log Cabin Weaving, and Butternut Farms Retreat and Education Center; Philo, Zanesville, and Glenford, Ohio (Muskingum and Licking Co.)
  • Saturday, July 30: Year-round organic farm and market—Trinity Farms Market and Meadow Rise Farm, Bellville, Ohio (Richland Co.)
  • Thursday, August 11: Value-added fiber and fabric—Morning Star Fiber, Apple Creek, Ohio (Wayne Co.)
  • Saturday, August 20: Farmstead cheese and diversified livestock—Canal Junction Farmstead Cheese, Defiance, Ohio (Paulding Co.)
  • Saturday, August 27: Organic pork, grain, and livestock feed mill—Curly Tail Organic Farm, Fredericktown, Ohio (Knox Co.)
  • Saturday, September 10: Grass-fed marketing and NRCS EQIP demonstration—Marshy Meadows Farm, Windsor, Ohio (Ashtabula Co.)
  • Saturday, September 17: All-in-one organic farm—Mile Creek Farm and CSA, New Lebanon, Ohio (Montgomery Co.)
  • Saturday, September 24: Organic family dairy—Pleasantview Farm, Circleville, Ohio (Pickaway Co.)
  • Saturday, October 1: Year-round growers’ market—Local Roots Market and South Market Bistro, Wooster, Ohio (Wayne Co.)
  • Sunday, October 9: Living off the land—Carriage House Farm, North Bend, Ohio (Hamilton Co.)

In addition, the series features the following workshops sponsored by OEFFA:

  • Friday, October 14: Advanced Sustainable Tomato Production—This interactive workshop is designed for experienced growers looking to improve tomato production and management. Cost: $85 OEFFA members, $100 nonmembers. Lunch included.
  • Saturday, November 5-Tuesday, November 8: Raising the Salad Bar: Advanced Techniques and Season Extension for the Established Specialty Crop Grower—Geared toward advancing the earning potential of seasoned growers, this multi-day, two-part workshop will equip specialty crop producers with the tools needed to improve efficiency, utilize season extension, engage in sophisticated business planning, and improve growing practices. Co-sponsored by the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy. Cost: TBA.

The Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau 30 Mile Meal Project, Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, Innovative Farmers of Ohio, the Ohio State University Sustainable Agriculture Team, and the Tecumseh Land Trust are also sponsoring tours as part of this series.

For a complete list of all farm tours, including dates, times, farm descriptions, directions, and maps, go to


The Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA) is a non-profit organization founded in 1979 by farmers, gardeners, and conscientious eaters who committed to work together to create and promote a sustainable and healthful food and farming system. For more information, go to

Organic Farm Groups Sue Monsanto

The Huffington Post
by Allison Rose Levy
March 31, 2011
Originally appeared at

Family farmers, seed businesses and organic agricultural organizations filed suit against Monsanto in New York court on March 30th. According to the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) which filed on their behalf, the plaintiffs were forced to sue preemptively to protect themselves from future accusations of patent infringement when Monsanto’s genetically modified seed contaminates their crops, something which cannot be prevented once GM seeds are released.

“It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s Executive Director and Lecturer of Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.

A broad array of family farmers, small businesses and organizations from within the organic agriculture community, representing some 270,000 members are plaintiffs in the suit, and many explained the need for the suit in a statement issued by PUBPAT.

“Some say transgenic seed can coexist with organic seed, but history tells us that’s not possible, and it’s actually in Monsanto’s financial interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply,” said Ravicher.

The release of GM canola contaminated organic canola, leading to its near extinction. Organic corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa now are now under threat. The agricultural monolith plans to develop GM seed for many crops, which farmers claim threatens the future of food.

“We are rapidly approaching the tipping point when we will be unable to avoid GMOs in our fields and on our plates,” said Dr. Carol Goland, Ph.D. of one of the plaintiff organizations. “That is the inevitable consequence of releasing genetically engineered materials into the environment.”

The challenge to Monsanto’s patents rests on evidence of the negative economic and health effects of GM seed, which the organic groups argue invalidates the legal requirement for “usefulness” under patent law.

“None of Monsanto’s original promises regarding genetically modified seeds have come true after 15 years of wide adoption by commodity farmers,” said David Murphy, founder and Executive Director of plaintiff Food Democracy Now! “Rather than increased yields or less chemical usage, farmers are facing more crop diseases, an onslaught of herbicide-resistant superweeds, and increased costs from additional herbicide application.”

In “The Battle for Biodiversity: Monsanto and Farmers Clash,” a current article in the Atlantic, Anna Lappe asks, “Does genetic modification lead to more and better crops? Or will it destroy the foundations of our food systems?”

“Corporate control of seeds and relaxed laws for biotech promotion spur innovation and productivity. That may sound good,” Lappe writes. “But many other groups around the world look at the real-world effects of 20 years of patent approvals and the spread of biotech crops. These critics argue that corporate power over seeds has actually undermined biodiversity and food-system resilience.”

“Crop biotechnology has been a miserable failure economically and biologically and now threatens to undermine the basic freedoms that farmers and consumers have enjoyed in our constitutional democracy,” said Murphy.

“It is outrageous that one corporate entity, through the trespass of what they refer to as their ‘technology,’ can intimidate and run roughshod over family farmers,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, one of the plaintiffs. He contends that Monsanto and the farmers licensing its technology should be the ones required to ensure that genetically engineered DNA does not trespass onto neighboring farmland.

“This debate is significant,” Lappe contends. “Which side we listen to will largely determine just how well we can continue to feed the planet.”

Although saving seeds from one year to the next is a farming tradition as old as agriculture, due to Monsanto’s aggressive legal action, “Farmers are being intimidated into not saving seed for fear that they will be doggedly pursued through the court system and potentially bankrupted,” detailed Kastel.

“We must protect our world by protecting our most precious, sacred resource of seed sovereignty. People must have the right to the resources of the earth for our sustenance,” said Rose Marie Burroughs of plaintiff California Cloverleaf Farms.

“The building blocks of life are sacred and should be in the public domain. The private profit motive corrupts pure science and increasingly precludes democratic participation,” claimed Jill Davies, Director of plaintiff Sustainable Living Systems.

“Monsanto, and the biotechnology industry, have made great investments in our executive and legislative branches through campaign contributions and powerful lobbyists in Washington,” Kastel points out. “We need the court system to offset this power and protect individual farmers from corporate tyranny.”

Ravicher noted that “Monsanto is the same chemical company that previously brought us Agent Orange, DDT, PCB’s and other toxins, which they said were safe, but we know are not. Now Monsanto says transgenic seed is safe, but evidence clearly shows it is not.”

“Today is Independence Day for America. Monsanto’s threats and abuse of family farmers stops here. Monsanto’s genetic contamination of organic seed and organic crops ends now.” Declared Jim Gerritsen, a Maine family farmer, who is President of the lead plaintiff Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. “Americans have the right to choice in the marketplace — to decide what kind of food they will feed their families — and we are taking this action on their behalf to protect that right to choose.”

Ohio Farmers and Growers Take on Agricultural Giant

Ohio Public News Service
Mary Kuhlman
April 11, 2011
For audio, go to

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Organic farmers and growers from the Buckeye State are involved in a landmark lawsuit challenging a seed and chemical giant’s patents. The suit would prohibit Monsanto from suing farmers whose crops become genetically contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically-modified seeds.

The board president of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Darren Malhame, says contamination can cause organic growers to lose their organic certifications, and put them out of business. He adds it’s a matter that could affect the future of organic farming.

“This lawsuit is really about protecting farmers’ ability and freedom to practice their art in a way that’s not only beneficial for them, but beneficial for society as a whole.”

Farmers say it’s nearly impossible to prevent Monsanto seeds getting into their crops, because animals and wind can pick up the seed and distribute it widely.

Malhame charges that Monsanto has been trying to monopolize the seed market with its patents, and has a history of suing farmers who say their fields have become contaminated with their genetically-modified seed, so he feels those who are involved in this lawsuit should be commended.

“Standing up to an organization like Monsanto is really an act of bravery, but it’s also an act of patriotism, because it’s really standing up for the best interest of everyone who depends on agriculture to live, which is all of us.”

Monsanto has said the lawsuit is misleading, and that it has never sued farmers over, as the company puts it, “the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits” in their fields.

The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. The plaintiff organizations represent more than 270,000 members, including thousands of certified organic family farmers.

Sustainable Agriculture – Organic, Diverse, and Local

Outlook Columbus
May 2011
by Michael Daniels
Originally appeared at

Want to know nearly everything there is to know about local, sustainable, organic agriculture? Look no further than right here in Columbus, at the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA). I had a chance to chat with its Executive Director, Dr. Carol Goland, about the organization and its goals.

Michael Daniels: What is OEFFA in a nutshell?
Carol Goland: Formed in 1979, the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA) is a grassroots coalition of nearly 3,000 farmers, backyard gardeners, consumers, retailers, educators, researchers, and others who share a desire to build a healthy food system that brings prosperity to family farmers, helps preserve farmland, offers food security for all Ohioans, and creates economic opportunities for our rural communities. OEFFA developed and began operating an organic certification program in 1981, and is currently one of the largest USDA-accredited certifying agents, last year certifying over 600 organic farms and processors. OEFFA provides education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote local and organic food systems, helping farmers and consumers reconnect and together build a sustainable food system, one meal at a time.

MD: What are the advantages to sourcing food locally for both grocery consumers and restaurateurs?
CG: The number one advantage of buying food grown locally is that it is fresh – flavors will be at their peak, so the bottom line is: they taste better. But there are some other important advantages, ones that may be less obvious. For fruits and vegetables, buying locally grown food may help preserve crop biodiversity – that vast array of varieties of each and every crop that was planted a hundred years ago but not so much anymore. The reason is that the varieties of produce we get through conventional channels are chosen because they ship well and have a relatively long shelf life. In contrast, farmers who sell their products locally have the freedom to choose varieties because they taste good. That’s one reason why, when you go to the farmers market, you can see a mind-blowing variety of tomatoes and other produce! Buying locally grown food also allows you to support your neighbor, keep money in your community, and help protect farmland by making farming more profitable.

MD: What’s so special about certified organic food? Is it really better for you than non-organic certified? Is it worth the cost differential?
CG: I don’t think I’m in a position to tell anyone whether or not it’s “worth” the cost differential. That seems to me to be a personal decision for each individual. For myself, I’d rather spend my money on organic food for my family than for cable television or the latest fashions, but that’s about my values, and I’m not going to impose them on anyone else.

I feel more comfortable answering your question about what’s special about certified organic and what it’s benefits are. I think most people, think of organic food simply as “food grown without chemicals.” That’s a good start, but it’s incomplete. In general, the national organic regulations allow the use of natural materials and prohibit the use of synthetics in food production. There are a few exceptions, however. Strychnine is natural, but it’s not allowed in organic production. Some synthetic materials are allowed but only after they’ve been carefully reviewed with respect to their effect on human health and on the farm ecosystem, their level of toxicity, availability of alternatives, probability of environmental contamination during manufacturing, use and disposal, and so on. So aspirin, though synthetic, is allowed to reduce inflammation in organic livestock, and newspaper, likewise not ‘natural,” can be used for mulch in production.

Many people also know that organic production prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms. But less apparent, I think, to many consumers is that it’s not just about what you can or can’t use. Organic farmers are required to maintain or improve the condition of the soil, minimize soil erosion, promote biodiversity, and protect other natural resources such as air and water. The definition of organic agriculture used by the National Organic Standards Board makes this clear: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Organic farmers yearly must develop an organic system plan that shows how they are going to achieve this. That plan is reviewed by a USDA-accredited certifier (there are about 50 in the country) who determines whether or not the plan is in compliance with the rules of organic production. If so, then the certifier sends out a third party, independent inspector to verify that the information on the plan is accurate. The inspector may spend 4 to 6 hours on the farm. The inspector then writes a report to the certifier, who makes a final determination and issues an organic certificate. Or not. And the farmer has to do this every year.

So what’s so special? First, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the label “organic” is the most highly verified eco-label out there. That reflects the grassroots origins of organics, which persists today, and how strongly the people involved with organics care about the integrity of the label. Organics is also, hands down, the gold standard of environmental stewardship for agricultural production. Looking at our own health, the average American is exposed to 10 to 13 pesticide residues each day from food, beverages, and drinking water. And while the levels are quite low in most cases, this isn’t always the case, and is of special concern during particularly vulnerable phases, such as during pregnancy and in the first years of life. Consuming organics is a special opportunity to protect our babies and children. Finally, there is mounting evidence that organic foods may be more nutritionally dense, which makes sense given the attention to building healthy soil.

MD: Is the local and organic model viable in large metropolitan areas? Can available farmland, using organic and alternative methods of raising food (both vegetable and livestock) meet the demand, or is some factory/large-scale farming necessary?
CG: Viable? Absolutely. In fact, I think Ohio is perfectly positioned for this development. We have more metropolitan areas than any other state in the country. Each one of those is surrounded by productive farmland. This is the perfect geography for developing a locally-based food system. And as far as organics goes, there’s no reason why it can’t be a viable way of feeding our urban populations. In fact, I would argue it’s the only way, given that the alternative, with all the environmental degradation, reliance on fossil fuels, and human health impacts, simply is not sustainable. Organic yields are often – though not always – equivalent to those of conventional production systems. And if our research institutions and federal agencies would devote more research attention to organic production (right now funding of organic research is less than 1% of all agricultural research), there’s no telling what organics could achieve. I don’t think that scale necessarily has to be the defining characteristic here – “large scale” is not, inherently, a good or bad thing. Rather, we need to be making choices based on what kind of system is capable of producing food that is best for the environment, for farm animals, for our communities, and for the people who consume its products.

MD: What legislation is pending (in Ohio and/or nationally) that OEFFA is following closely and what would be the impact? What legislation, if any, do you plan to propose in the near future?
CG: Right now, we’re gearing up for the Farm Bill: every 5 years Congress write a new Farm Bill, which really ought to be called the “Food Bill,” because what gets written there ends up determining, to a surprising extent, what our food choices are. I can’t overstate what its impact is. There aren’t that many farmers in our country and there are even fewer that are producing for local markets using ecological and organic methods. So everyone needs to get involved with that process to ensure that we get policies that promote rather than hinder sustainable family farms and consumer choice.

MD: How can our readers learn more about OEFFA? What resources, programs, and memberships do you offer?
CG: I encourage all your readers to check out our website ( and follow us on Facebook ( and Twitter ( We have individual and family membership, as well as discounted student memberships. The benefits of membership include a subscription to the information-packed newsletter (published quarterly), voting privileges in the organization, networking opportunities, access to our apprenticeship program, our local food guide: the Good Earth Guide to Ecological Farms and Gardens, invitations to OEFFA’s educational workshops, summer farm tours, and discounted admission to our annual conference and other educational events. OEFFA has chapters around the state that get together to support each other and collaborate on various projects. Our Capital Chapter, based in Franklin County, is very active and comprised of some really great folks.

On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns

The New York Times
By Tess Taylor
May 3, 2011
Originally appeared at

Rich Ciotola with Larson, far left, and Lucas, the team of young oxen he works with in Sheffield, Mass.

ON a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.

Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.

Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.

Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.

“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.

Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.

“A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road,” Mr. Ciotola noted.

In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer.

David Fisher, whose Natural Roots Community Supported Agriculture program in Conway, Mass., sells vegetables grown exclusively with horsepower, said he is getting record numbers of applicants for his apprentice program. “There’s an incredible hunger for this kind of education,” he said.

Mr. Fisher discovered farming with horses more than a decade ago as an intern on a farm in Blue Hill, Me. It stuck.

“Using animals is just really appealing to the senses,” he said, adding that he found it philosophically appealing as well. “There’s a deep environmental crisis right now, and live power is also about creating an alternative to petroleum. Grass is a solar powered resource — and you don’t need manufacturing plants or an engineering degree to make a horse go.”

Drew Conroy, a professor of applied animal science at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, who is known in draft-power circles as “the ox guru,” notes that horses and even mules are seeing a comeback. Each animal has its niche.

“Ox are cheap and easy to train but they’re essentially bovine, which is to say, smart but slow,” he said. Horses are faster, more spirited, trickier to train and more expensive to buy and to keep. Professor Conroy notes that mules are better suited to Southern weather. “In the heat, an ox will just stop,” he said.

Even their most ardent supporters concede that draft animals are likely to remain minor features of the rural landscape. For starters, they are cost effective only on small farms. They are also time intensive, performing well only when they can be worked every day, and becoming temperamental when neglected.

On Mr. Ciotola’s first day out with his oxen, he had to struggle with the fact that the long winter had left them rusty. At one point they pulled over and came to a full stop in the bushes. He walked in front of them and tapped them gently.

“They’ve been cooped up all winter, so they get restless,” he said. Indeed, getting Lucas and Larson to go is a much more involved process than turning a key, and even at top speed they are far slower than a tractor. They plod, and Mr. Ciotola must plod along with them.

Working with oxen at Moon in the Pond Farm is “better than spending a day with a tractor,” Rich Ciotola said.

“You still have to walk nine miles for every planted acre,” said Dick Roosenberg, the founder of Tillers International, a 430-acre farm learning center in Scotts, Mich. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Mr. Roosenberg helped farmers who practiced hand cultivation in third world countries learn about oxen. Eventually, he also taught ox techniques to interpreters at historic communities like Plimouth Plantation.

But now Mr. Roosenberg’s plowing workshops fill with a new demographic: farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Alaska who hope to use animal power in their fields. Last year, about 320 signed up.

“It’s suddenly not just historic replication, it’s reinvention,” he said. “A new generation wants to do this again, now.”

Oxen are also cheap, at least compared to a tractor, and can work for 10 to 14 years. Since the dairy industry relies on keeping cows pregnant so they lactate, millions of baby bulls are born each year. A pair of calves start at $150 and range up to $1,500, depending on their breed and how much training they have.

Some dairies even give their young males away. Mr. Ciotola got Lucas and Larson, now 2 ½, as wobbly-kneed babies from a nearby raw-milk dairy, bartering for them with his own labor. “I just had to buy or make the yokes and cart,” he said.

Farmers who want to learn the old art of draft power sometimes find their education in odd places. Dominic Palumbo, Moon in the Pond’s owner and chief farmer, learned to plow with an oxen team by way of an intern from Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., which replicates an 18th-century Shaker community. Mr. Ciotola first learned to work his team from Mr. Palumbo, then later refined his skills by studying a DVD called “Training Oxen,” made in 2003 by Dr. Conroy.

The film is something of a cult classic in the draft-power community, and in sections covering topics from “the yoke” to “stall etiquette,” the movie pictures Dr. Conroy and his partner, Tim Huppe, working with New Hampshire farmers who raise oxen from their cute baby phases through their slightly belligerent adolescence. It also features each of Mr. Huppe’s four daughters leading her own team around the farm.

Interest in ox-farming became so strong that in 2005 Dr. Conroy and Mr. Huppe began hosting three-day workshops at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, N.H.. At first they were surprised to find themselves emerging as minor celebrities on the draft-power circuit. After all, they had learned ox-pulling as teenagers in 4-H clubs at a time when the activity was mostly seen in shows. “It used to be kind of a cultural thing, a county fair thing,” Dr. Conroy said.

But Mr. Huppe, who sells yokes, oxbows, carts, goads and other gear at his store, BerryBrook Ox Supply, in Farmington, N.H., said his clientele is changing.

“It used to be 15 percent small farmers,” he said. “Now the farmers are more like 60 percent.” About his workshops, Mr. Huppe said, “I feel like the Johnny Appleseed of oxen.”

As draft power spreads, a 7,000-year-old technology is being looked at in different ways.. Some young farmers are developing a hybrid practice, using oxen to supplement, rather than replace, tractors. Some use them just to log and plow, while others have their teams haul machines with engines. Even this can be energy efficient.

“If you use animals to pull a motorized hay-baler,” Mr. Roosenberg said, “you can bale hay pretty fast with about one-third the gas.”

Mr. Ciotola, who does not yet own his own land but who makes his living doing jobs at Moon in the Pond and other Berkshire farms, does have a lightweight tractor, a 1949 Farmall Cub that is particularly suited to small acreages. Some of its accessories — the manure spreader, stone rake and disc harrow — can also be fitted to the ox-drawn forecart he bought from Mr. Huppe’s store.

As the spring morning passed, he continued breaking his team into their third season, walking alongside Lucas’s left side, talking softly. About three hours in, after Lucas pulled into the bushes, Mr. Ciotola turned to head out for one more load, and Lucas pulled back toward the paddock. Mr. Ciotola decided to let him go.

“Lucas is always the troublemaker,” he noted, patting the blond steer. “He’s been restless all winter, but then he gets stubborn.”

For Mr. Ciotola, the most challenging aspect of working with his oxen is finding the time it takes to break them in.

“The best pairs need to get worked every day, and that’s hard for me because I have to do other work during the winters,” he said.

Even though Lucas and Larson now stand 5 feet tall and weigh 1,500 pounds each, they are not yet fully grown. Over the next two years, they will each gain 500 pounds and grow two feet. At that point, they will easily be able to pull 4,000 pounds. Mr. Ciotola wants to have them in prime shape for logging, plowing and haying.

After this season’s first expedition, they stood calmly in the dung-scented paddock, rolling their eyes and flicking their tails as Mr. Ciotola brushed them. Larson ambled off to eat some hay.

“Even when it’s tough with them, it’s better than spending a day with a tractor,” he said.

Then again, there was that time when he nearly took a horn to the groin.

“A tractor doesn’t do that either,” he said.