Archive for July, 2011

In our Fields and On Our Plates: Challenging Monsanto’s GE Patents

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

By Lauren Ketcham

EcoWatch Journal

Monsanto has created some of the world’s most dangerous and controversial chemical products, including DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, and genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, known as rBGH or rBST.

In 1976, Monsanto launched its glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup, which quickly became the world’s most popular herbicide. In 1996, Monsanto engineered plants with glyphosate-resistant genes, allowing farmers to spray Roundup onto their fields during the growing season without harming the “Roundup Ready” crop.

Promised higher yields, labor savings, and lower weed pressure, genetically engineered (GE) seeds have been widely adopted by U.S. farmers. Over 80 percent of the soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola now grown in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented genes.

Non-GE seeds and crops are vulnerable to contamination at almost every step of the production process: from seed drift or cross-pollination, by coming into contact with contaminated harvest and post-harvest equipment, or during processing, transportation, or storage.

Despite this, Monsanto zealously enforces its seed patents. Monsanto investigates approximately 500 farmers each year for patent infringement. Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto filed 144 lawsuits against farmers in 27 states for alleged patent infringement. And, Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million and a staff of 75 devoted to investigating and prosecuting farmers for “seed piracy.”

Challenging Monsanto’s Practice of Intimidation

This spring, on behalf of 83 family farmers, seed businesses, and organic agricultural organizations, including the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) filed suit against Monsanto. The case, Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, was filed in federal district court in Manhattan.

The plaintiffs, representing more than 270,000 individuals, are preemptively asking the court for protection from being accused of patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s GE seed

The suit also challenges the validity of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready patents under both statute and case law precedent requiring patented products to demonstrate clear social utility and not be dangerous to health.

The specter of GE crops and seeds contaminating the non-GE food supply continues to grow, particularly since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently deregulated Monsanto’s GE alfalfa and sugar beets and Syngenta’s GE corn, designed for biofuel production.

The deregulation of alfalfa is particularly dangerous since it is the nation’s fourth largest crop, planted on over 21 million acres of land. Alfalfa is used in many organic farmers’ crop rotations and is the key feedstock for the dairy industry. Because GE crops are prohibited under the organic label, if organic fields are contaminated or organic livestock consume contaminated feed, a farmer cannot sell those products as organic.

The Dangers of GE Food

Beyond contamination and the threat to our food supply, GE foods present many ethical challenges. Seed, once common property of past, present, and future generations, has been privatized, patented, and made into a corporate intellectual property right. GE seed commodifies life and turns a renewable resource into a non-renewable, non-reproducing product.

GE foods have also not been shown safe to eat. The scientific literature on long-term human safety is divided, but many of the studies arguing that GE food is safe were conducted by the biotechnology companies that commercialized the seed. Monsanto has used their patent rights to systematically prevent rigorous independent scientific research on GE foods.

GE seeds are also directly responsible for the increased use of pesticides and herbicides. Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, endocrine disruption, multiple myeloma, DNA damage, immune suppression, and miscarriage.

Finally, much like the overuse of antibiotics has created antibiotic-resistant super germs, the pervasive use of glyphosate has created herbicide-resistant superweeds. Farmers are now having to resort to more labor-intensive weed management strategies and more toxic and complex mixtures of herbicides to combat these weeds.

How to Avoid GE Food

Because there is no requirement to label GE products, the best way to avoid GE food is to buy organic because organic farmers are prohibited from using GE seed or livestock feed. Look for the organic label and support farmers who are growing food organically and preserving heirloom seed varieties.

For produce, a savvy supermarket shopper can also use information on the product’s Price Look-Up (PLU) code. According to the International Federation for Produce Standards for bulk produce, if the PLU code begins with 9 and has five digits, it is organic. If it begins with 8 and has five digits, it is genetically modified. Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables have a four digit PLU code.

Finally, the Non-GMO Project offers a rigorous third-party verification system for labeling products “Non-GMO Project Verified,” which a growing number of companies are choosing to participate in.

Lauren Ketcham is the Communications Coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). For more than 30 years, OEFFA has used 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. For more information, go to www.oeffa.org.

Food Ark

Thursday, July 28th, 2011
By Charles Siebert

Six miles outside the town of Decorah, Iowa, an 890-acre stretch of rolling fields and woods called Heritage Farm is letting its crops go to seed. It seems counterintuitive, but then everything about this farm stands in stark contrast to the surrounding acres of neatly rowed corn and soybean fields that typify modern agriculture. Heritage Farm is devoted to collecting rather than growing seeds. It is home to the Seed Savers Exchange, one of the largest nongovernment-owned seed banks in the United States.

In 1975 Diane Ott Whealy was bequeathed the seedlings of two heirloom plant varieties that her great grandfather had brought to America from Bavaria in 1870: Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and his German Pink tomato. Wanting to preserve such unique varieties, Diane and her husband, Kent, decided to establish a place where people could store and trade the seeds of their own past. The exchange now has more than 13,000 members and keeps in its walk-in coolers, freezers, and root cellars the seeds of many thousands of heirloom varieties. The farm grows a glorious profusion of select vegetables, herbs, and flowers around an old red barn that is covered in Grandpa Ott’s stunningly deep purple morning glory blossoms.

“Each year our members list their seeds in this,” Diane Ott Whealy says, handing over a copy of the Seed Savers Exchange 2010 Yearbook. It is as thick as a big-city telephone directory, with page after page of exotic beans, garlic, potatoes, peppers, apples, pears, and plums—each with its own name, personal history, and distinct essence. There’s an apple known as Beautiful Arcade, a “yellow fruit splashed with red”; one named Prairie Spy, described as “precocious”; another dubbed Sops of Wine that dates back to the Middle Ages. There’s an Estonian Yellow Cherry tomato obtained from “an elderly Russian lady” in Tallinn, a bean found by archaeologists searching for pygmy elephant fossils in New Mexico, a Persian Star garlic from “a bazaar in Samarkand.”

Heirloom vegetables have become fashionable in the United States and Europe over the past decade, prized by a food movement that emphasizes eating locally and preserving the flavor and uniqueness of heirloom varieties. Found mostly in farmers markets and boutique groceries, heirloom varieties have been squeezed out of supermarkets in favor of modern single-variety fruits and vegetables bred to ship well and have a uniform appearance, not to enhance flavor. But the movement to preserve heirloom varieties goes way beyond America’s renewed romance with tasty, locally grown food and countless varieties of tomatoes. It’s also a campaign to protect the world’s future food supply.

Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it’s grown. We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding. We’ve been hearing for some time about the loss of flora and fauna in our rain forests. Very little, by contrast, is being said or done about the parallel erosion in the genetic diversity of the foods we eat.

Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it’s happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there. In China 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct.

Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct. The precipitous loss of the world’s wheat diversity is a particular cause for concern. One of wheat’s oldest adversaries, Puccinia graminis, a fungus known as stem rust, is spreading across the globe. The pestilence’s current incarnation is a virulent and fast-mutating strain dubbed Ug99 because it was first identified in Uganda in 1999. It then spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen. By 2007 it had jumped the Persian Gulf into Iran. Scientists predict that Ug99 will soon make its way into the breadbaskets of India and Pakistan, then infiltrate Russia, China, and—with a mere hitch of a spore on an airplane passenger’s shoe—our hemisphere as well.

Roughly 90 percent of the world’s wheat is defenseless against Ug99. Were the fungus to come to the U.S., an estimated one billion dollars’ worth of wheat would be at risk. Scientists project that in Asia and Africa alone the portion of wheat in imminent danger would leave one billion people without their primary food source. A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable, according to Rick Ward of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University.

The world’s population is expected to reach seven billion people this year. By 2045 it could grow to nine billion. Some experts say we’ll need to double our food production to keep up with demand as emerging economies consume more meat and dairy. Given the added challenges posed by climate change and constantly mutating diseases like Ug99, it is becoming ever more urgent to find ways to increase food yield without exacerbating the genetic anemia coursing through industrialized agriculture’s ostensible abundance. The world has become increasingly dependent upon technology-driven, one-size-fits-all solutions to its problems. Yet the best hope for securing food’s future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past.

It took more than 10,000 years of domestication for humans to create the vast biodiversity in our food supply that we’re now watching ebb away. Selectively breeding a wild plant or animal species for certain desirable traits began as a fitful process of trial and error motivated by that age-old imperative: hunger. Wild wheat, for example, drops its ripened kernels to the ground, or shatters, so that the plant can reseed itself. Early farmers selected out wheat that, due to a random genetic mutation, didn’t shatter and was thus ideal for harvesting.

Farmers and breeders painstakingly developed livestock breeds and food crops well suited to the peculiarities of their local climate and environment. Each domesticated seed or breed was an answer to some very specific problem—such as drought or disease—in a very specific place. The North American Gulf Coast Native sheep, for example, thrives in high heat and humidity and has broad parasite resistance. On the remote Orkney Islands, North Ronaldsay sheep can live on nothing but seaweed. Zebu cattle are more resistant to ticks than other cattle. In Ethiopia a small, humpless, short-horned cattle breed called the Sheko is a good milk producer that withstands harsh conditions and has resistance to sleeping sickness.

Such adaptive traits are invaluable not only to local farmers but also to commercial breeders elsewhere in the world. Finnsheep, for example, long raised only by a small group of Finnish peasants, have become vital to the sheep industry because of their ability to produce large litters. The Fayoumi chicken, an indigenous Egyptian species dating back to the reign of the pharaohs, is in great demand as a prodigious egg layer with high heat tolerance and resistance to numerous diseases. Similarly, the rare Taihu pig of China is coveted by the world’s pig breeders for its ability to thrive on cheap forage foods and its unusual fertility, regularly producing litters of 16 piglets as opposed to an average of 10 for Western breeds.

The irony is that the dangerous dwindling of diversity in our food supply is the unanticipated result of an agricultural triumph. The story is well-known. A 30-year-old plant pathologist named Norman Borlaug traveled to Mexico in 1944 to help fight a stem rust epidemic that had caused widespread famine. Crossing different wheat varieties from all over the world, he arrived at a rust-resistant, high-yield hybrid that helped India and Pakistan nearly double their wheat production—and saved a billion people from starvation. This so-called green revolution helped introduce modern industrialized agriculture to the developing world.

But the green revolution was a mixed blessing. Over time farmers came to rely heavily on broadly adapted, high-yield crops to the exclusion of varieties adapted to local conditions. Monocropping vast fields with the same genetically uniform seeds helps boost yield and meet immediate hunger needs. Yet high-yield varieties are also genetically weaker crops that require expensive chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides. The same holds true for high-yield livestock breeds, which often require expensive feed and medicinal care to survive in foreign climates. The drive to increase production is pushing out local varieties, diluting livestock’s genetic diversity in the process. As a result, the world’s food supply has become largely dependent on a shrinking list of breeds designed for maximum yield: the Rhode Island Red chicken, the Large White pig, the Holstein cow. In short, in our focus on increasing the amount of food we produce today, we have accidentally put ourselves at risk for food shortages in the future.

One cautionary tale about the perils of relying on a homogenous food source revolves around the humble potato. High in the Peruvian Andes, where the potato was first domesticated, farmers still grow thousands of otherworldly looking varieties. Spanish ships in the late 16th century first brought the tuber to Europe, where by the early 1800s it had become a reliable backup to cereal crops, particularly in the cold, rain-soaked soils of Ireland. The Irish were soon almost wholly dependent on the potato as their food staple. And they were planting primarily one prodigious variety, the Lumper potato, whose genetic frailty would be cruelly exposed by Phytophthora infestans, as fearsome a foe of potatoes as stem rust is of wheat. In 1845 spores of the deadly fungus began spreading across the country, destroying nearly all the Lumpers in its path. The resulting famine killed or displaced millions.

Current efforts to increase food production in the developing world—especially in Africa, largely bypassed by the green revolution—may only accelerate the pace at which livestock breeds and crop species disappear in the years to come. In pockets of Africa where high-yield seeds and breeds have been introduced, the results have been mixed at best. Countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi ended up sacrificing much of their crop diversity to the monocropping of imported, high-yield varieties subsidized by government programs and provided by aid organizations. Small farmers and pastoralists have gone deep into debt to pay for the “inputs”—the fertilizers, pesticides, high-protein feeds, and medication—required to grow these new plants and livestock in different climate conditions. They are like addicts, hooked on a habit they can ill afford in either economic and ecological terms.

One response to the rapidly dwindling biodiversity in our fields has been to gather and safely store the seeds of as many different crop varieties as we can before they disappear forever. It’s an idea first conceived by Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov, who in 1926 had perhaps the least heralded scientific epiphany of the modern era. The son of a Moscow merchant who’d grown up in a poor rural village plagued by recurring crop failures and food rationing, Vavilov was obsessed from an early age with ending famine in both his native Russia and the world. In the 1920s and ’30s he devoted himself to gathering seeds on five continents from the wild relatives and unknown varieties of the crops we eat, in order to preserve genes that confer such essential characteristics as disease and pest resistance and the ability to withstand extreme climate conditions. He also headed an institute (now called the Research Institute of Plant Industry, in St. Petersburg) tasked with preserving his burgeoning collection—what amounted to the first global seed bank.

It was on one expedition to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1926 that Vavilov had a vision in which he attained a vantage point high enough above the planet to see the handful of locations across the Earth where the wild relatives of our food crops had first been domesticated. Afterward he mapped out seven “centers of origin of cultivated plants,” which he described as the ancient birthing grounds of agriculture. “It is possible to witness there,” Vavilov wrote, “the great role played by man in the selection of the cultivated forms best suited to each area.”

Vavilov’s life story did not end happily. In 1943 one of the world’s foremost authorities on the potential cures for famine died of starvation in a prison camp on the Volga River, a victim of Stalin, who had deemed Vavilov’s seed-gathering efforts bourgeois science. By this time, Hitler’s army had already closed in on St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)—a desperate city that had lost more than 700,000 people to hunger and disease. The Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage, convinced that Hitler had his sights set on the museum. They had done nothing, however, to safeguard the 400,000 seeds, roots, and fruits stored in the world’s largest seed bank. So a group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute boxed up a cross section of seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them. Historical documents later revealed that Hitler had, in fact, established a commando unit to seize the seed bank, perhaps hoping to one day control the world’s food supply.

Although suffering from hunger, the seeds’ caretakers refused to eat what they saw as their country’s future. Indeed, by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of the institute’s self-appointed seed guardians had died of starvation.

Vavilov’s ideas have been modified in the years since. Today’s scientists consider the regions he mapped to be centers of diversity rather than of origin, because it isn’t clear whether the earliest domestication occurred there first. Yet Vavilov’s vision of these regions as the repositories of the genetic diversity upon which the future of our food depends is proving more prescient than ever.

Today there are some 1,400 seed banks around the world. The most ambitious is the new Svalbard Global Seed Vault, set inside the permafrost of a sandstone mountain on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen just 700 miles from the North Pole. Started by Cary Fowler in conjunction with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the so-called doomsday vault is a backup for all the world’s other seed banks. Copies of their collections are stored in a permanently chilled, earthquake-free zone 400 feet above sea level, ensuring that the seeds will remain high and dry even if the polar ice caps melt.

Fowler’s Global Crop Diversity Trust recently announced what amounts to a recapitulation of Vavilov’s worldwide seed-gathering expeditions: a ten-year initiative to scour the Earth for the last remaining wild relatives of wheat, rice, barley, lentils, and chickpeas in order to “arm agriculture against climate change.” The hope is that this mad-dash scramble will allow scientists to pass along the vital traits of these rugged relatives, such as drought and flood tolerance, to our vulnerable crop varieties.

Still, storing seeds in banks to bail us out of future calamities is only a halfway measure. Equally worthy of saving is the hard-earned wisdom of the world’s farmers, generations of whom crafted the seeds and breeds we now so covet. Perhaps the most precious and endangered resource is the knowledge stored in farmers’ minds.

Forty-year-old Jemal Mohammed owns a five-acre, hillside farm outside the tiny hamlet of Fontanina in the Welo region of Ethiopia’s northern highlands. It is in the heart of one of the centers of diversity that Nikolay Vavilov visited on his 1926 expedition.

Stepping foot on Mohammed’s land is like tumbling back in time to an ancient way of farming. His circular, thatched-roof hut with walls of dried mud and straw is the same dwelling that has dotted Ethiopia’s countryside for centuries. A pair of oxen lies to the right of the hut in the shade of a jacaranda tree. Three or four chickens strut across a bare front yard. His fields, tilled with an ox-drawn plough and planted by hand, are a jumble of crops: tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, gourds, sorghum, wheat, barley, chickpeas, and teff, a grain used to make injera, a flatbread.

The image of the traditional, small farmer’s life is one of simplicity. And yet compared with the mechanized operations of modern agriculture, Mohammed’s work is a dynamic and highly nuanced juggling act in the face of constant threats like drought, untimely downpours, and disease. He plants legumes and grain together to make the most of limited space. Such intercropping is also a natural way of fertilizing: The legumes growing at the base of the taller sorghum add nitrogen to the soil.

Welo was one of the regions hit hardest by the devastating 1984 famine in Ethiopia that killed hundreds of thousands. The experience is still seared in Mohammed’s memory. He shows me a collection of hollowed-out gourds filled to the brim with what look to be colored pebbles. “I keep these stocks as my security, my backup,” he says, looking down at the gourd casks filled with what I now realize are seeds. He has seeds for all of the crops growing in his fields. Mohammed’s wife has rubbed the seeds in ash to protect them from weevils. “If we have total crop failure from drought or floods,” he says, “I can at least plant my fields again.”

I look into the intent faces of Mohammed and his family, then down at those ashen pebbles: all incipience, gnarled knots of built-in urge, suggesting neither the centuries of selection that informed them nor the full-fleshed foods they’ll eventually become, his own personal seed bank.

This is the beguiling paradox of seeds. They are, for all their obvious significance, so readily dismissible, especially by those of us in the well-fed world, who have forgotten where our food even comes from. Mohammed takes me to a farm across the road, where he and his neighbor lift a stone slab to reveal an earthen chamber six feet deep and wide: an emergency underground food store. In a few weeks, when the harvest is complete, they will line the chamber with straw, fill it with grain, and then pull the slab back over, allowing the earth’s chill to keep it fresh.

When I ask how much they had to rely on their emergency store during the famine of 1984, they bow their heads and mumble a response before falling completely silent, their eyes welling with tears. My interpreter signals with a wave of a finger not to pursue the subject any further.

It is hard for them to even think of that time, he explains. They had sold their stored grain, never anticipating a sudden drought. Things got so bad that they had to eat all their reserves. A number of family members died of starvation. They were left with nothing but their seeds. Conditions were so inhospitable to planting that their empty stomachs soon had them planning to do the unthinkable: eat their seeds, their future.

Ethiopia’s east central highlands were once one of most botanically diverse spots on Earth, but by the 1970s farmers here were down to growing just teff and a few varieties of wheat distributed to them for its high-yield potential. Today the region has been transformed: Local varieties of legumes and wheat are thriving again. Given the common depiction of Ethiopia as famine prone, it is startling to drive an hour northeast of Addis Ababa and see ample fields of a bushy, purple-seeded durum wheat, a variety found only in Ethiopia that is thriving across the country. Used for pasta, durum is largely resistant to stem rust. In one field is another local variety native to Ethiopia known as setakuri, which translates as “pride of women,” because it makes the sweetest bread. It is doing even better against stem rust.

Ethiopia’s turnaround can be traced in part to the efforts of renowned plant geneticist Melaku Worede, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in 1972, then returned to Ethiopia with the goal of preserving—and rebuilding—the country’s rich biodiversity. Training a new generation of plant breeders and geneticists, Worede and his staff at the Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Addis Ababa set about collecting and storing native plants and seeds, known as landraces, from across the country. In 1989 Worede initiated the Seeds of Survival program, a network of community seed banks that save and redistribute the seeds of local farmers.

Worede is hopeful that new efforts to increase food production—such as the Gates Foundation’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa—will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Attempts are being made to include local farmers in decision-making. “The people planning this are aware that the first green revolution failed over time. There are some intelligent ideas,” Worede says. “But they are still placing too much emphasis on a narrow range of varieties. What about the rest? We’ll lose them. Believe me, I’m not against science. Why would I be? I’m a scientist. But contextualize it. Combine science with the local knowledge, the farmer’s science.”

Worede believes it is crucial to preserve the region’s diversity not just in seed banks but on the ground and in close consultation with local farmers. Although yield is obviously important to farmers, even more crucial is hedging their bets against famine, spreading the risk by growing many crops, over many seasons, in many locations. In this way if one crop gets diseased, or one harvest succumbs to drought, or one hillside is flooded, they have alternatives to fall back on.

The challenge has been to show it’s possible to increase productivity without sacrificing diversity. Worede wanted to prove that deciding between having enough to eat today and preserving food biodiversity for tomorrow is a false choice. And he has done precisely that. He has taken the varieties farmers selected for their adaptability and determined which of them promise the best yield. The use of high-yielding local seeds—in combination with natural fertilizers and techniques such as intercropping—has improved yield as much as 15 percent above that of the imported, high-input varieties. A parallel effort is under way with local indigenous livestock breeds. Keith Hammond, a UN expert on animal genetics, says that in 80 percent of the world’s rural areas the locally adapted genetic resources are superior to imported breeds.

Still, a 15 percent increase is far from the doubling of our food supply experts say we’ll need in future decades. Preserving food diversity is only one of many strategies we’ll need to meet that challenge, but it is a crucial one. As the world warms, and the environment becomes less hospitable to the breeds and seeds we now rely on for food, humanity will likely need the genes that allow plants and animals to flourish in, say, the African heat or in the face of recurring blight. Indeed, Worede thinks scientists may well find the Ug99-resistant varieties they’re looking for in Ethiopia’s fields. “Even if the disease mutates into a new form, it will not wipe out everything here. That is the advantage of diversity.”

Yet Worede balks at the idea of the developed world treating Vavilov centers like Ethiopia as wild seed banks from which to withdraw traits whenever the next plague strikes. He cites the outbreak in the early 1970s of yellow dwarf virus, which threatened to wipe out the world’s barley crop. A U.S. scientist who had come to Ethiopia in the 1960s had happened to grab some barley samples from a field for his own study. When the virus hit, he handed over the samples to one of the scientists trying to stop the virus. Sure enough they found a resistant gene. “It changed everything,” says Worede, “at no cost to them. No genetic engineering, nothing. Just a natural source of resistance taken from the very part of Ethiopia where people were suffering from starvation.”

Mohammed and his neighbor stood in silence above their own private earthen seed bank that afternoon in Welo. Since the famine of 1984, they don’t even think of selling any grain until they know what the harvest has brought. I asked whether the bounty I’d seen in their fields had them feeling a bit more secure and optimistic.

“It will be nice to have some extra money,” Mohammed began, “so we can send our kids to school in good clothes, but …” He paused, looking over at his neighbor, then gave an answer I’ve come to think might perfectly describe the attitude we all should adopt when it comes to securing our future food supply.

“We’re positive,” Mohammed said. “But we’re very sensitive to risk.”

Butternut Farms spreads seeds of learning

Thursday, July 28th, 2011
Written by Anna Sudar, Zanesville Times Recorder
Patricia West-Volland owns and operates a sustainable and organic farm called Butternut Farms in Bowling Green Township.  Her farm is being included in the Women's Farm Tour organized by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
Patricia West-Volland owns and operates a sustainable and organic farm called Butternut Farms in Bowling Green Township. Her farm is being included in the Women’s Farm Tour organized by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
Michael Lehmkuhle The Advocate

Thirty-four years ago, Patricia West-Volland’s husband, Robert Volland, came home and announced they were going to live on a farm.”He had seen a for sale sign; I thought he was crazy,” said West-Volland, a Zanesville native. “But the next thing I knew, we had bought 5 acres and moved to the country.”

The couple named their new home Butternut Farms, for the butternut trees that grew on the property. From the very beginning, they knew their farm would be sustainable and organic.

“It was always my husband’s dream to be a farmer; that was his goal in life,” West-Volland said. “And he wanted to be a good, organic farmer.”

Throughout the years, Volland and West-Volland transformed their land from a small family plot to Butternut Farms Retreat and Education Center, a 20-acre farm dedicated to teaching people about organic farming and sustainable agriculture.

Although Volland died about a year ago, West-Volland still is running the farm, organizing programs and teaching classes.

Her work will be on display Saturday during a farm tour sponsored by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. Visitors to the farm will be able to see her animals and tour her garden and orchard.

“I hope they get an appreciation for the work people put into the food they get at local farmers markets,” West-Volland said.

West-Volland grew up on a farm. A graduate of Ohio University with several degrees, including anthropology, history, journalism and photojournalism, she worked at a roller skating rink, ran her own travel agency and worked as a freelance writer and photographer.

Now, West-Volland spends most of her time on the farm, caring for both plants and animals.

Her pasture is home to a horse, three llamas and about 14 Nubian goats that provide her with milk, which she makes into cheese. She also collects eggs from her coop full of chickens.

Throughout the years, the animals have become part of the family, she said,

“When you are a farmer, you are also sort of a vet and zookeeper,” she said. “It’s a lot of jobs combined into one. But I can’t imagine them not being here.”

West-Volland grows hay for her animals as well as fruits and vegetables, from apples and pears to potatoes and eggplant. Everything is grown with natural fertilizers and no chemicals.

“I grow enough that I buy very little from the grocery store,” she said.

In 2004, West-Volland and her husband joined the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. The program gives people interested in organic farming the opportunity to volunteer on farms all over the world.

In the past seven years, Butternut Farms has hosted people from Germany, Australia, South Korea and England.

“My husband really, truly felt it was important we teach young people how to grow their own food,” West-Volland said. “They come to learn to work the soil, do composting and garden smarter.”

When she isn’t working on the farm, West-Volland runs a bed and breakfast on her property and teaches classes.

She also hosts tea parties, a writers’ retreat, a photography group and a children’s day camp that focuses on crafts, recycling and creative writing.

Although things can get busy, especially in the spring and fall, West-Volland said she enjoys teaching about farming and sustainability.

“You try to find work you love that people will pay you to do. That’s what this is,” she said. “You get to the point where you don’t want to be anywhere else.”

West-Volland is proud to be continuing her husband’s dream, teaching the next generation of organic farmers and raising quality animals and food.

“It’s sharing the knowledge with other people so they can continue to share it with their children,” she said. “We should be able to feed ourselves.”

Salem farm part of growing ‘sustainable farm’ movement

Thursday, July 28th, 2011
By Charita Goshay
Salem — Among the calves, Jessie is one of the youngest of the bunch, but she also is the boldest. As the rest shy away from the approaching adults, Jessie wanders over, curious about the goings-on.

The only thing standing between her and a flurry of head pats? An electric fence.

Jessie is one of 70 bison being raised by Kevin and Sarah Swope, co-owners of Heritage Lane Farm at 29668 Mountz Road, which is part of the Ohio 2011 Sustainable Farm Tour and Workshops presented by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. OEFFA is a grassroots affiliation of farmers, gardeners, university researchers, food retailers and educators.

The tour and workshops showcase 40 farms and food businesses, university research centers and family-run businesses that have found success in using sustainable methods for food production.

The Swopes’ farm is an example of how some are using alternative, organic methods of cultivating food.

DIFFERENT WAY
Kevin Swope said Heritage Lane employs a pasture-based system to feed the bison, whose meat is lower in fat grams, cholesterol and calories than beef, pork or poultry. Forty acres of the farm is pastureland, which has been divided into paddocks containing different grasses for bison to eat.

The herd is shifted among the paddocks every two to four days, allowing the pastures to recover naturally.

“It’s a whole different way of thinking,” Swope said. “We’re harvesting sunlight by way of the grass, which finds its way into the animals, which becomes a meat product. … I’m not working for these buffalo; they’re working for me.”

In addition to bison, Heritage Lane also features organically grown vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes and flowers, as well as poultry and sheep. The meat is processed off-site by a USDA-approved facility.

“We’re attempting to manage our pastures, using an organic method,” Swope said. “We’re really focusing on the health of the soil and allowing the biology to develop.”

The property has been a working farm since 1830. It was purchased by Sarah Swope’s parents in 1978 and later deeded to the couple in 1991.

Kevin Swope said the chief goal is to reverse the impact on the soil of nearly 200 years of tilling and chemically-dependent farming. Lime, manure and chicken litter are the additives of choice. Forty of Heritage Lane’s 52 acres is under “grassland easement,” meaning that at least 40 acres must remain as undeveloped grassland for 99 years.

“There was a lot of erosion,” he said. “I see improvements every year.”

HIGH TUNNELS
Swope, who grew up in Louisville, had no prior farm experience. He did his own research on organic farming techniques. In addition to farming, he is a manager and soil conservationist for Natural Resource Conservation.

“Our agency is looking more and more at soil health,” he said.

Sarah Swope grows organic vegetables, including several types of hybrid tomatoes and flowers through a “high tunnel” method.

Essentially, high tunnels are Quonset huts made of clear plastic that cover the gardening area. The plastic keeps the ground warmer, which expands the planting season — from March through December.

High tunnels also reduce the spread of disease and protect plants from such extreme weather elements as high winds or hail.

“Almost all of our produce sold is grown in high tunnels,” she said. “You’re using purely solar energy.”

Sarah Swope said the growing method probably is not for everyone because the enclosure limits use of equipment.

“It’s extremely labor intensive,” she said. “The flip side is we produce all of our family’s food supplies for the year.”

FOOD DESERT
On weekends, the Swopes sell their products at a farmers’ market in Beechwood.

Kevin Swope said the Cleveland area has been designated by nutrition experts as a “food desert,” meaning that availability to fresh, locally produced food is limited.

He believes opportunities abound for people interested in farming as a profession, particularly small-acerage food production. The couple’s three children are engaged in agriculture or environmental studies.

“I grew up with that mentality that you can buy it cheaper than you can grow it,” Swope said. “Sixty percent of our fruit and vegetables in the U.S. are imported. But people are willing to pay for a premium item picked on a Friday.”

The Ohio Sustainable Farm Tour runs through Oct. 9. For a schedule or more information call the OEFFA at 614-421-2022, or visit www.oeffa.org.

Heritage Lane Farms also conducts tours. Call 330-222-1377.

THE TAO OF DAIRY

Thursday, July 28th, 2011
by Bryn Mooth
Edible Ohio Valley

At 4 p.m. on the dot, 135 cows plod in single file toward the milking parlor at The Brick, Bill Dix and Stacy Hall’s 300-acre farm in Southeast Ohio’s Meigs County. The animals queue up five abreast in a holding pen that resembles a large picnic shelter. They wait patiently, snuffling softly, their big, long-lashed eyes registering nothing but calm.

A floppy-hatted farmhand, petite and tough as nails, guides the cows into the parlor, affixes the vacuum milking equipment, and speaks gently to them as they milk and munch the handful of grain they regard as a treat. Ten minutes later, they’re moving back down the fenced lane toward an open paddock. This scene will repeat at sunup tomorrow, twice a day, 365 days a year. This is the rhythm of a dairy farm.

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What happens before and after the milking distinguishes The Brick from conventional dairy farms. Before: The cows graze on pasture, eating less than 10 pounds per day of grain to supplement their grass diet.

After: The milk is moved from the parlor about 200 feet to Snowville Creamery, which is owned and operated by another dedicated couple, Warren and Victoria Taylor. There, the 40 percent butterfat cream is separated from the fat-free milk, then the components are recombined in proper proportion to make half-and-half or 2%. The products are gently pasteurized at 168 degrees for 20 seconds, then chilled and packaged. Depending on the day of the week, the milk goes from cow to creamery to grocery shelf in less than 24 hours.

Snowville’s pasteurization exceeds USDA requirements but is far less hot and harsh than at conventional plants, meaning that the flavor and nutrients don’t get cooked off in the process. Further, it’s unhomogenized; the cream rises to the top, just like the milk our grandparents and their parents drank. The product is unlike the grocery-store milk we’ve become accustomed to; it’s deeply flavored, creamy in color, rich tasting, even in its fat-free form.

“Our milk varies with the seasons,” Warren Taylor says. “This time of year [in spring], the milk and cream are more yellow because the cows are eating fresh green grass. In January, it’s not as yellow and it tastes like hay. It has a range of flavors. In addition, these cows give half as much milk a day, so it’s less watery and it’s nutritionally different. It has more protein. We only give it the absolute minimum heat treatment and pasteurization. We don’t homogenize, which changes the mouthfeel.”

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Taylor knows from milk. He parlayed a degree in dairy technology from Ohio State University in 1974 into a career in the dairy field, designing and engineering production facilities for some of the largest food companies in the U.S. and around the globe. In 1991, Taylor opened his own consultancy, building a tremendous reputation in the dairy field as he helped producers run efficient, safe, large-scale operations. But it was Taylor’s deep involvement in the industry that ultimately led to disillusionment, then anger … and then to Snowville. Over his two-decade-plus career, Taylor says, the dairy business consolidated to the point where it’s now dominated by two major players: Dean Foods, a multibrand manufacturer that bottles milk and makes dairy products, and DFA, a huge co-operative of farmers. While you may buy what you think is a local or store brand of milk, chances are high that it comes from a big producer like Dean. (In fact, Dean Foods owns Newport’s Trauth Dairy and recently announced plans to cease production at the Trauth plant in Newport, Kentucky, by the end of August 2011.)

“I decided that somebody had to stand up and bring quality milk to customers,” Taylor says, pounding his fist on his drafting table, near a picture window that overlooks green pasture. “I’m trying to bring good milk back to America and to re-establish the relationship between the dairy farmer and the customer.”

Snowville Creamery does exactly that. It sits on about an acre of Dix and Hall’s property in the rolling pastured hills just outside Athens, Ohio. It’s quite literally a labor of love for both couples.

The Taylors moved from California back to Warren’s native Ohio in the mid-1990s. Seeking a decent place to raise their two young children, they opted for Meigs County, where Warren’s parents had purchased 300 acres back in the 1960s as a retreat from their home in Columbus. Warren ran his consulting practice from here and made the acquaintance of local dairy farmers Hall and Dix, from whom the Taylors purchased raw milk.

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Hall and Dix had taken a major midlife risk in 1993, when both were in their mid-40s and struggling to make a livelihood raising organic vegetables and selling them in the Athens area. Faced with no savings, no retirement and a hand-to-mouth existence as vegetable farmers, they were, Hall says, “desperate” for other opportunity.

They spotted an article in the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, which advocated the New Zealand model of grass-based livestock farming. The story said that farmers could net $1,000 per cow per year grazing their animals on grass. An $80,000 return on 80 cows looked pretty appealing to Hall and Dix. “We had to try something,” Hall says, “so we bought Jersey dairy heifers from a neighbor.”

A conversation with Hall is a lesson in agricultural economics, one that helps explain why anyone’s commitment to growing or producing healthy local food is an act of tremendous faith (and perhaps insanity) — and one that’s worthy of our support as consumers.

At The Brick, the cows are raised entirely outdoors on a diet that’s nearly all grass; the input costs for shelter, feed and waste removal are much lower than they are on a conventional dairy farm where a large herd is housed in massive barns and fed increasingly expensive grain. Grass-based farms like The Brick are essentially closed systems, where the cows manage the grassland by grazing and fertilizing it the natural way. As the grass grows, the roots grow; as it’s munched, the roots die, a process that fixes nitrogen in the soil and restores the land.

Taylor notes that Hall and Dix aren’t so much dairy farmers as they are grass farmers. “It’s the same process by which the buffalo created the six feet of rich topsoil in the Great Plains,” Taylor says. “Carbon in the soil allows it to take water in during a deluge and keep water during a drought. It fixes nitrogen in the soil — and that’s fertilizer, so you don’t have to put petrochemical fertilizer on the soil. “You need soil that lives,” Taylor continues. “These are things that we’re just beginning to understand. This is the obvious truth: How could we ever think we could create a sustainable agriculture by pouring poison on the soil?”

Grass-based farms are far more sustainable than confined-animal farms. The flip side, economically, is that grass-based farms tend to accommodate smaller herds, and dairy cows fed grass yield less milk — less input costs but less yield. What makes the system work, Hall says, is that grass-fed cows have a longer life span than confined cows: eight to 10 years after maturity vs. two years.

“Conventional dairy expenses — housing, barn, feed, hauling away waste — all of that is expensive, and all those assets depreciate and require upkeep,” Hall says. “The conventional model is a high-volume, low-margin business. We are the opposite: a low-volume, high margin. It’s not better, it’s just different. It suits us better.”

Hall and Dix had found success as dairy farmers by the time the Taylors approached them in 2007 about building a plant on their property and packaging their cows’ milk. Like Hall and Dix back in the ’90s, the Taylors went all-in, committing their retirement, mortgaging their house, and rounding up whatever financial support they could to build the creamery.

With Warren Taylor’s vast experience designing and building dairy operations, the challenge was scaling this one down. He sourced used equipment from around the country and created a Rube-Goldbergian system in a metal-clad structure that’s remarkably small, practical, and pristine. When they ran the first production line in 2008, Warren and a plant manager operated the equipment; Victoria managed the books and a friend or two pitched in.

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Warren spent the first two years almost entirely on the road, Victoria says, evangelizing for Snowville’s superior product by offering samples at farmers’ markets in Ohio and at Whole Foods stores that began carrying it. (He was the primary delivery driver, as well.)

Three years later, Snowville is growing, having doubled production in 2010 and seeking 50 percent growth in 2011. The operation employs 20 mostly young and college-educated people who manage the office and run production (including a couple of newly minted Ohio University engineering grads who help keep Taylor’s machinery humming). “They’re a very diverse group,” Victoria Taylor says of the team. “But they have to have their hearts in it. We’re too new and we operate too close to the margin to have slackers. We need ‘how can I help’ types around here.”

Because of Warren’s obsession with efficiency, the creamery is ever better to handle increased capacity. It currently produces 16,000 gallons a week in a six-day-a-week operation. Snowville’s growth comes from adding stores to its distribution and also from more shoppers choosing to put Snowville in their carts at existing stores. Still, profitability remains elusive, as additional capacity means additional equipment and essential back-up parts — all of which require what Victoria calls “sacrifice.”

Snowville’s bottom line gets a hand from a unique, symbiotic relationship with Columbus-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, whose own products are increasingly in demand and nationally recognized. Snowville produces Jeni’s ice cream base, a custom blend of cream, condensed milk (made in the plant), and sugar. It’s a long-term arrangement that guarantees a buyer for 70 percent of Snowville’s cream and generates 20 percent of the revenue.

Fat-free milk, 2%, half-and-half, a remarkable whipping cream, and a new low-fat chocolate milk are available at Remke Bigg’s, Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, and other retailers in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — as well as Washington, D.C. The latter outlet is a decidedly political statement on the Taylors’ part.

For Warren Taylor, the goodness and wholesomeness of Snowville milk isn’t just about delivering a great product to the people — though that’s certainly the driving factor. But Snowville also represents his middle-finger salute to a dairy industry he sees as corrupt and unethical, run by big business and regulated by an incompetent government.

He comes by that point of view honestly and from the inside of the business. Standing at his desk, quoting from a well-thumbed-through copy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching and the writings of Ralph Nader, Taylor describes a system that has increasingly separated consumers from farmers. “The dairy industry is populated by middlemen who are making unconscionable profits without taking any risk or adding any quality or value,” he says. “They’re absolute bums.”

Large confined-animal operations have the capital and acreage to operate their own processing plants, but small family farms have to sell their cows’ milk to consolidators, who buy from a bunch of farmers, comingle all the milk and then sell it to the likes of manufacturers like Dean Foods, which bottles it or converts it to butter, cheese, or sour cream. The result, Taylor says, is poorer-quality product for consumers, stingy margins for farmers, and fat wallets for the food giants and their middlemen.

“We have a completely counterproductive USDA/dairy lobby in Washington, D.C., that’s clearly succeeding in concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a very few people who have control over the production of milk and the purchase from farmers,” he says, pointing to what he calls a too-cozy relationship between big manufacturers and the big farm co-op. He still travels to Washington for industry group meetings, toting along cartons of Snowville and carrying the banner for healthy, honest foods.

Taylor is a modern-day Johnny Appleseed bringing good food to the people, along with the religion of local produce and sustainable farming. But being simply a local provider isn’t the end game. “Being local isn’t good enough,” he says. “It has to be good.”

Snowville is good, and customers and retailers are noticing. The creamery’s fortunes are linked with two other small, regional businesses that are also growing rapidly: the aforementioned Jeni’s in Columbus as well as Tiny Footprint Distribution, the parent company of Green Bean Delivery, which brings Snowville to grocery stores in Cincinnati. This summer, Tiny Footprint expanded into the Dayton, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky, markets, opening up new retail accounts. Still, gaining access to the capital it takes to add equipment, increase production, and meet growing demand remains the Taylors’ biggest obstacle.

Taylor estimates that there are fewer than 100 operations like Snowville in the U.S., and he’ll preach to any listener about his vision for more and more local dairies producing high-quality milk at good prices. But Taylor isn’t all about milk; he’s teaming with other local food growers and providers to create a “food hub” based in Columbus, where small producers can collectively distribute their goods to retailers and restaurants.

This idea of community — not just among farmers but between small-food producers and customers — gives deeper meaning to what Hall, Dix, and the Taylors have staked their livelihoods on. We consumers play an important role in this community, not just by buying local products but also by evangelizing about local producers. Love the cheese you buy at your neighborhood farmers’ market? Don’t just spend your money; tell your friends. You can support these producers by helping to create a bigger market for their goods.

“This is a political/social justice stand,” Taylor says. “We’re being an example of community-based capitalism for the purpose of meeting a common public need in a way that serves the community.”

Bryn Mooth is a journalist with 20 years of experience writing about design, creativity, art, and business. She indulges her love of words and food with her cooking-and-wine blog, www.writes4food.com.

Can-do crowd

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Old-time method of preserving food popping back into popularity with social-media event and opening of cannery in Sunbury

Wednesday, July 27
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
A jar of bread-and-butter pickles is pulled from a water bath during a class at Glass Rooster Cannery.

Jonathan Quilter | Dispatch photo
A jar of bread-and-butter pickles is pulled from a water bath during a class at Glass Rooster Cannery.

Fresh-picked green beans are packed in jars for canning.

Fresh-picked green beans are packed in jars for canning.

Susie Schmidhammer and her cat Jack take a stroll at the Glass Rooster Cannery in Sunbury.

Susie Schmidhammer and her cat Jack take a stroll at the Glass Rooster Cannery in Sunbury.

To borrow lyrics from an old song: Everything old is new again.

Nothing could be more true of canning.

One of the oldest methods of preserving foods, canning is experiencing a resurgence – with sales of home-canning products up 35 percent in the past three years, according to data from the marketing-research group SymphonyIRI.

Coming next month is the first Can-It-Forward Day, when home canners can connect through a national circuit of parties and social-media activities.

“I think canning goes with the interest in home arts, knitting, homesteading,” said Jeanne Sauvage, founding member and editor of Canning Across America, a nonprofit group committed to the revival of home canning. The group, started in 2009, is among the participants in Can-It-Forward Day.

“It also intersects with the local food movement,” Sauvage continued. “What canners do is they get fresh local produce and preserve it for times when they can’t get fresh local produce.

“It’s all part of the concentration on local food.”

Nowhere, perhaps, is the love of canning more evident than at the Glass Rooster Cannery in Sunbury – where Jeanine Seabrook and her sister, Susie Schmidhammer, teach canning and preserving techniques.

They opened the stand-alone facility in May on Schmidhammer’s property. The two knew they wanted to go into business together, and canning seemed like the right idea.

For Schmidhammer, 56, and Seabrook, 46 – two of 16 children (Nos. 5 and 15) – canning has long been a way of life.

“I started canning when I was very young,” Seabrook said. “By fifth grade, I was canning on my own.”

To help feed her five children, she said, she puts up about 800 jars of food a year. She grows much of the produce herself.

On a recent evening, a half-dozen students gathered in the newly opened two-story space created and furnished primarily from repurposed materials. Pale-green and deep-purple walls are accented with a corrugated aluminum ceiling. Two four-burner drop-in stoves, a multitude of stainless-steel sinks and rollaway counters make up the kitchen. A separate section includes two wood tables, cabinets filled with assorted dishes and shelves packed with jars of jams and jellies.

The class started with a lesson from Seabrook about the history and basics of canning and samples of what the students would be making: dilly beans and bread-and-butter pickles.

Most of the students had never canned before, and those who had hadn’t done so with any regularity.

Some had signed up in search of fun; others were simply looking to try something new.

Pat Vandermark said she tired of her little garden in Westerville, so she started renting one of the community garden plots at the Glass Rooster Cannery along with daughter-in-law Amanda Vandermark, who joined her for the class.

“I wanted to do the whole thing,” Pat said of the plot, where she grows lettuces, snap peas, kohlrabi and cabbage. “Now, I’m learning to put everything up.”

Carla Conkey of Westerville, meanwhile, wanted to learn to can so she can help her mother sell her hot-fudge sauce.

After the students tasted what they would be making, Seabrook divided them into two groups. One sliced cucumbers and onions for the pickles; the other packed green beans tightly into jars, followed by fresh dill, garlic and a sliver of chili pepper.

Halfway through the evening, the groups switched so all could try their hand at each recipe.

Next came the making of the brine, which filled the kitchen with the smells of vinegar, sugar, garlic and spices.

For the beans, the brine was a mix of salt and vinegar; for the pickles, sugar and spices.

The students filled the jars with brine, then carefully wiped the rims and attached the lids.

Some of the lids “popped” as they were attached, but Seabrook explained that the sound didn’t necessarily mean the jars had been safely processed.

They had to go into a bath of boiling water.

(Seabrook also teaches classes in pressure canning, a more-complicated process necessary for safe canning of low-acid foods.)

The processing part of canning is what scares most home-canning beginners, experts say.

“I think the biggest misconception is that (canning is) so complicated that’s it’s hard to do well, or you’re going to create something that is unsafe for people,” said Canning Across America’s Sauvage.

Improper canning techniques can lead to food-borne diseases, including botulism.

“If you’re doing it right, it’s going to be fine,” Seabrook told her students.

She explained that the water bath kills bacteria and seals the jars, allowing them to be stored safely at room temperature for a year or longer.

When the jars were removed from the water bath, she had the students check them. If the lid could be pushed up and down, the jars hadn’t sealed properly.

At the recent class, all lids on the students’ pickles and beans were firmly in place.

Each student left the class with a jar of beans and a jar pickles – and, Seabrook hopes, a little more confidence.

“I want to take the mystery out of canning,” she said. “For me, it’s like carrying on history.”

robin.davis@dispatch.com

Congress Eyes More Funding Cuts for Successful Farm Programs

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

July 11, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Hundreds of Ohio farmers and tens of thousands nationwide may lose their incentives to conserve water and soil if Congress slashes funding for Farm Bill Conservation programs again this year. After cutting a half-billion dollars last year, another billion dollars is on the table in four areas: the Conservation Stewardship, Environmental Quality Incentive, Farmland Protection and Wetlands Reserve programs. These give grants to farmers and landowners for using conservation practices.

Ohio Farmer’s Union President Roger Wise says the programs are important to Ohio, particularly given the recent algae bloom and bacterial issues the state has faced.

“We’re aware of the Grand Lake St. Mary issue and the western Lake Erie watershed and some others across the state, and they make Ohio certainly a key state when it comes to environmental protection.”

There’s also talk in Congress of denying funding for President Obama’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Initiative, which is supposed to strengthen local and regional food systems – although some point out that the USDA program does not have specific funding. It’s one of many debates underway in an effort to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Wise says these programs have allowed small growers to do things that are important to local communities and the environment. He thinks the funding is money well spent.

“The bang for the buck has been positive, and that should be the objective of government outlay: to get the benefits to outweigh the costs. I think these programs have been shown to do that in the past.”

The proposed farm program cuts are between 20 percent and 30 percent, which some contend are disproportionately higher than other spending cuts.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service – OH

Sen. Brown hears local farmers’ concerns on tour

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011
Jul 9, 2011  |
Written by Loren Genson
Sen. Sherrod Brown speaks with Steve Hirsch on Friday as the senator visits Hirsch Fruit Farm & Market on his "Grown in Ohio" Listening Tour in preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill.
Sen. Sherrod Brown speaks with Steve Hirsch on Friday as the senator visits Hirsch Fruit Farm & Market on his “Grown in Ohio” Listening Tour in preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill. / Heather Cory/Gazette

CHILLICOTHE — Southern Ohio farmers told U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown they’d like more support for small, family farms during a listening tour Friday at the Hirsch Fruit Farm.

Brown is visiting locations throughout the state to get farmers’ input as the Senate considers the 2012 Farm Bill.

“The whole idea is for you to tell me what you’re doing and how we can help,” Brown told the farmers who gathered around a makeshift table in an apple storage unit at the farm on Ohio 772 ,just south of Chillicothe.

“There’s going to be budget cuts, and the (farm) bill is going to take some of that,” he told the farmers, adding his priorities would be to secure a safety net for failed crops and increase the development of rural farmland.

Tony Anderson, a Fayette County soybean farmer, said he wasn’t able to finish getting his crops in the ground until July 1. He said he’s about a month behind schedule because of the wet spring season.

“That crop insurance is so important to someone like me, especially this year,” he said.

Several corn farmers agreed and said safety nets such as the crop insurance programs are important in keeping small farmers operating during years with especially dry or rainy weather.

Becky Rondy, a farmer of Athens County, agreed those programs were important, but wondered if there could be a way to get help for small farms that doesn’t measure their crop outputs in tons or acres.

“We are a small operation providing produce locally,” she said. “There’s nothing for us to apply for because we can’t show our yields in acreage.”

Some wondered whether there could be more incentive programs to encourage younger people to take up farming.

“The average age of a farmer is 57,” said 74-year-old John Tillis, of Meigs County. “There needs to be something in that bill to encourage our youth to farm.”

Christina Wieg, a farmer from Hocking County, said it’s been a struggle to compete with housing developers when trying to buy additional farmland.

“Why would you want to farm when you can’t even afford to buy the land?” she asked. “I would love to buy more land … I just can’t.”

Wieg said she’s often only able to find land that’s been divided up into smaller parcels or is out of the range she’s able to afford as a smaller farmer hoping to grow. Brown said urban sprawl often can cause problems for farmers living in counties near larger cities.

“If you live near a city, it pushes the price up, so that’s a struggle we hear from a lot of farmers,” Brown said.

Guide highlights local farm products

Thursday, July 7th, 2011
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

These days, it’s not enough that food taste good. Consumers want local products or those that are grown organically or using animal- and earth-friendly practices.

Now, shoppers can find such food purveyors in their area with the click of a mouse.

The latest edition of the “Good Earth Guide” is available online – and in print, as well – and provides information on more than 315 Ohio farms and businesses that sell produce, meats and other consumer goods, said Renee Hunt, program director for the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association, which publishes the guide.

Included in that number are 150 certified organic farms and businesses and 70 community-supported agriculture programs, she said.

The guide not only benefits consumers but also helps Ohio’s farmers promote their wares.

“We help consumers make the connections they need to find quality local foods and to help ensure the future of a vibrant and sustainable food system,” Hunt said. “Buying locally and directly from the farmer also helps keep our food dollars in the local economy, which in turn helps our rural communities.”

That’s an advantage for small growers such as Shepherd’s Corner Farm and Ecology Center, operated by the Dominican Sisters of Peace. The farm, at 987 N. Waggoner Rd., in Blacklick, sells its vegetables, eggs, honey and maple syrup at the farm and at farmers markets, said Sister Rose Ann Van Buren, an administrator at the nonprofit organization.

She said the guide has helped increase awareness of their operation.

“We aren’t a large farm. We have about 2.5 acres this year,” Van Buren said. “Other than the small sign we have outside our door and our Web page, we don’t do any other advertising. So being in the guide is an important piece for people looking for what we have to offer to know who we are and where we are. It’s a good magazine for us to be in.”

The directory identifies sources for a variety of products, includingfruits, vegetables and flowers and seeds.

Now in its 17th edition, the guide has more than tripled in size since its first printing in 1990, Hunt said.

“The demand for locally sourced and sustainably produced foods is reflected in the tremendous growth the guide has gone through from the dozen or so farms listed when we began,” she said.

“We’ve gotten a significant increase in the number of page views of the guide online, and we get calls all the time for people looking for a product or farm. The demand has just exploded.”

The online guide is searchable based on numerous criteria, including product and location, and it includes maps, Hunt said.

The guide is also a good way for growers to network and find help, said Trish Mumme, who operates Garden Patch Produce, a community-supported agriculture farm in Alexandria.

“I’ve gotten a lot of customers who’ve come out to the farm after finding me in the guide,” Mumme said. “I’ve even had some intern and apprentice farmworkers come here looking for a place to work after reading about us in the guide.”

The guide can be accessed free online at www.oeffa.org/search-geg.php. A print copy can be purchased for $7.50 through the same website.

Athens County aiming to be farm-to-table epicenter

Thursday, July 7th, 2011
By SARA BRUMFIELD
ATHENS MESSENGER/CIRCLEVILLE HERALD
Published: Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Athens County and the surrounding area will be starting a month-long celebration of locally grown and produced food and beverages beginning this week.

The 30 Mile Meal initiative created by the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau will host a month of activities within a 30-mile radius of Athens to connect people to local sources of food.

According to Natalie Woodroofe, project manager for the campaign, organizers opted to hold the celebration in July to benefit local restaurants and area farmers the most. Woodroofe said that business slows for restaurants in July at the same time that farmers and producers are delivering the most product.

The month will be divided into theme weeks, beginning Friday with Pack a Local Foods Picnic Week. During the first week, residents are encouraged to shop at local farmers markets.

According to Woodroofe, a total of 51 farmers markets will be held in the Southeast Ohio region in the month of July alone. Farmers markets within the 30 Mile Meal area can be found in Athens, New Lexington, Logan, Trimble, Morgan County, McArthur, Shawnee and in Nelsonville during Final Fridays.

On Monday, a community corn roast will be held in conjunction with the Chesterhill Produce Auction at 3 p.m.

The second week of the month — July 10-16 — is Ohio Brew Week, which will feature dozens of events focused on beer produced in the state of Ohio. Not only will local brews be showcased throughout restaurants and pubs around Athens, but some events will feature pairing and cooking with local foods.

On July 12, the Ohio Craft Brew Cooking Competition and the Athens Cuisine Showcase will be held at 6 p.m. at Abrio’s Brick Oven on East State Street. A beer and cheese tasting will be held on the same day, at the same time, at Casa Nueva in downtown Athens and will feature cheeses from Integration Acres and Laurel Valley Creamery and beers from several Ohio brewers.

The third week in July is 30 Mile Meal Restaurant Week. From July 17-23, at least 20 area restaurants will feature local ingredients in their menu items.

According to Woodroofe, Athens restaurants ranging from O’Betty’s Red Hot to Zoe and Cutlers at the Ohio University Inn will be using local products in their menu items. While some local restaurants such as Casa Nueva use local ingredients as a staple of their business, Woodroofe said other restaurants such as Cutlers will be using them for the first time.

“We’re really excited about this,” she said. “We hope the restaurants discover the benefit of offering local ingredients and expand the use of those ingredients beyond the one week.”

Woodroofe said that by using local ingredients, restaurants are supporting local farmers.

The last week of July will be dedicated to farmer appreciation. Events will be held at the Athens Farmers Market, and Snowville Creamery will host an ice cream social at the Athens Community Center on July 30 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Throughout the month, there will be free workshops hosted by Community Food Initiatives on such subjects as canning, making jams, composting and home brewing.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association has scheduled a few farm tours throughout the month, including stops at Haulin Hoof Farm, Integration Acres and Shagbark Seed and Mill Company.

Woodroofe encouraged residents to discover the benefits of becoming a locavore and “come explore our Garden of Eatin’.”

For a full list of activities and information on 30 Mile Meal, visit www.30milemeal.com.