Articles in Family Farms
Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
I was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 50% of the fruits and vegetables we put on our tables.
We regularly see produce from Mexico, Canada, Chile, China, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and more — imports that have tripled since the 1990s. The produce is harvested before it is even ripe, so that it can be cheaply and efficiently boxed and shipped to our shores for consumption often weeks later.
And while it is a fact that the local food movement is growing exponentially, the reality is that these small farming efforts are often built on marginal land or urban plots. As for big agriculture, according to the American Farmland Trust we lose more than one acre of farmland to urban development every minute of every day, 24/7.
It all adds up. Stifling competition from often inferior product from abroad. Aggressive developers here at home. Shopping malls. Young farm family members choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
According to the USDA, the number of farms in the United States fell to a six-year low in 2012.
Shrinking number of farmers
According to the USDA, as of 2007 (the latest date for such statistics) the average age of principal farm operators was 57 years old and there are relatively few prepared with the skills to take their place. How could it be that the Unites States, once the envy of the world in terms of agricultural output, is not even producing enough to feed our own people?
As a nation it’s no secret that we eat too much and too much of the wrong foods, and this has dire consequences on our health. We are currently ranked 33rd on Newsweek / Bloomberg’s 2012 survey of the world’s healthiest countries.
I was reminded of these and other sobering statistics at a screening of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a powerful documentary that addresses the urgent need to retool and reboot U.S. farming practices.
Thanks to the efforts of Dulanie Ellis and Ray Singer, award-winning filmmakers in Ojai, Calif., a social action campaign has been launched nationwide to give combat veterans the opportunity to become a new generation of farmers.
In 2000, Dulanie Ellis launched Walk Your Talk Productions to explore what it would take to protect the world-class farmland in her region of California from development. Thus began her commitment to agricultural activism. Her partner in the documentary, filmmaker Ray Singer, shared her passion and together they embarked on a three-year journey that has profoundly affected each of them. Their goal is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture and to build resources for veterans so they can create healthy new lives for themselves and contribute to food security for our nation.
Back from the battlefields
Recently returned from protecting U.S. interests overseas and having traded in their fatigues for overalls, hundreds of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are now committed to growing organic produce and selling it to local communities from Seattle to Florida.
Colin and Karen Archipley, founders of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, Calif., have taught more than 100 veterans not only how to grow crops, but how to run a farm as a business through their Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
VSAT is a proprietary hands-on six-week training program “from seed to market” with an emphasis on developing a business plan. Colin and Karen purposefully tap into the skills and military training of the veterans — attention to detail, dedication and thoroughness — and assist with job placement and business creation at the end of the immersive training. Graduates include successful farm owners and workers, soil-testing pioneers, restaurateurs, and owners of food companies.
Michael O’Gorman, a passionate advocate for the cause of teaching veterans to farm, is the founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) located in Davis, Calif. This national network of independent veterans-in-agriculture has teamed up with the USDA to offer free educational retreats in sustainable agriculture all around the country, open to veterans and their spouses.
The coalition serves as an important networking agency. Veterans are able to talk with farmers, attend workshops on financing and related business topics. FVC also offers the Fellowship Fund, which makes small but strategic grants to farmer-vets so they can get what they need most to strengthen their operation.
“Our goal is to connect the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to viable careers in agriculture,” says Michael. “What we see amounts to religious conversions. These young folks have taken on the military and farming — two of the hardest challenges we face — and they’re not even 30 years old.”
American-grown food for all — it’s more than a wish. The United States is projected to add some 18 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 334 million mouths to feed by the end of this decade, food supply is arguably one of the defining issues of our time. Think about it. Homegrown food is healthier for you. Healthier for your children. Healthier for our communities. Healthier for America.
The next time you plan your week’s shopping, check first for a local farmers market. You may just find a veteran farmer continuing to do service for our country.
Top photo: Mark Winkworth. Credit: JJ Britt
The best time of year for lovers of great olive oil is the harvest season, from October to December, when new stocks pour fresh from the mills. But I would argue that the second best time is right now, late winter to early spring, when fresh oils arrive in our markets from great producers throughout the Northern Hemisphere. (Southern Hemisphere oils, primarily from South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Australia, arrive in U.S. markets beginning in July, after the May harvest.) This is the finest time to taste and understand what a great oil can be.
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This year the arrival coincides with the annual Flos Olei guide, published in English and Italian by Marco Oreggia and Laura Marinelli. The book recognizes the world’s top olive farms and producers in 45 countries, an amazing number. It’s heartening to see that recognition goes well beyond the usual candidates in Italy, Spain and Greece. Croatia, for instance, whose oils are almost unknown to U.S. consumers, has 60 entries in the guide and one of them, Tonin, won top marks. Beyond that, Flos Olei provides interesting background to many lesser-known territories. If I’m traveling anywhere in the Mediterranean — nay, anywhere in the world! — I want my current Flos Olei in my suitcase. Who knows what I might run into? (Copies of the 2013 guide, in English and Italian, can be ordered on-line at marco-oreggia.com.)
Much talk in recent years has dealt with olive oil scams, frauds and deceptions. But there is still an abundance of beautiful, well-made, honest and delicious oils. Yes, they can be expensive; it takes time, care and energy to produce a great olive oil, which is the result of picking by hand at the right degree of ripeness, of pressing within 24 hours of harvest, and of extremely tender treatment thereafter, including shipping at controlled temperatures and protecting it from light, the twin enemies of the finest oil.
Six tips for buying olive oil
1. Never buy oil in clear glass bottles — as noted above, light is the nemesis of olive oil, and even the finest will suffer from display in clear glass under shop lights. Dark green bottles or, better yet, tins are what to look for.
2. Examine labels for harvest and/or bottling information. Current European Union regulations require oil to carry a use-by date that is 18 months from bottling, but new regulations may require a harvest date, which is more important. Olive oil does not get better with age. It’s conventional to say a good oil will last two years — but that depends on how it’s handled in the interim.
3. With European oils (from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece), look for a symbol of either Protected Denomination of Origin (aka DO, DOP or AOC in France) or Protected Geographical Indication (IGP). These are not invariable guarantees of high quality but are a step in the right direction.
4. Most high-quality olive oil is made by individual producers who cultivate their own olives and closely supervise the production of oil, often on the estate itself. (This is the equivalent of estate-bottled wine.) Look for telling details on the label: the producer’s actual name, information about the method of harvesting and production. Even if you don’t understand the particulars, it is a good indication that someone is sufficiently proud of what he or she is doing to make a public statement about it. And almost all producers have websites where more of this information will be offered. But read astutely: If the label claims the olives are stomped by the clean feet of Tuscan peasants, or aged in oak casks, don’t believe it — and don’t buy it.
5. Taste and taste and taste — use every opportunity to sample olive oils and do so judiciously. Most consumers — and not just in the U.S. — say they like the flavor of fusty oil, and fustiness is a serious defect. Only by tasting over and over again will you be able to confirm the difference between freshness and fustiness. (What does fusty taste like? A bit like old hay left in a corner of the barn until it grows moldy. The taste actually comes from olives that have been left too long before pressing.)
6. Best of all, travel to oil-producing regions at the time new oil is being produced. It is unquestionably the best possible introduction to the nature of this most prestigious ingredient. I think I can guarantee that once you’ve traveled and tasted, you will become a convert and, who knows, maybe even a fanatic like me.
The Greeks seem well on their way to a fate akin to the Dodo. Or so one gathers from media reports on the southern Eurozone countries known as PIGS — Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — and the economic free fall that has threatened the survival of the Eurozone.
Of the Eurozone’s southern-tier PIGS, the Greeks are the real tragedians, an Homeric tale of hubris, greed and corruption that has pushed the feta capital of the world to the brink of self-destruction that would make America’s Great Recession look like a picnic.
So how can we help, we who believe in Greece more, perhaps, than the Greeks? We, that is, who grew up loving tzatziki, moussaka, spanakopita and “Zorba the Greek.” I’m thinking gastro-tourism and its twin, agro-tourism. And I’m proposing a new airline, CULINAIR, and we are going to save Greece and the Eurozone one cuisine at a time. Yes, a UFO invasion, waves of 737s filled with Urban Food Obsessives, aka foodies, descending on Greece to plant dollars in the fertile fields of the Peloponnese.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth
One recent headline in the Wall Street Journal puts Greece’s tragedy this way: “For Greeks, Crisis Reverses A Generation of Progress” (Nov. 19, 2012). The article focuses on the stories of several nouveau bourgeois Greeks forced to leave Athens and return to their ancestral villages and family farms and to lives of hard labor and poverty.
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Or, as journalists Gordon Fairclough and Nektaria Stamouli put it in their Journal article, “Families that had clawed their way into the middle class in the decades after World War II are slipping painfully backward.”
Painful, of course, but backward? Sad that Greeks raising goats to make cheese and harvesting olives for oil, two things they do as well as any country in Europe, consider themselves losers. “For many people my age growing up in Athens,” says a former plumber featured in the article, “they wouldn’t ever imagine doing something like this.”
“This” refers to milking a goat.
Ironic that these same food-production tasks, laborious and low-paying as they may be, are considered career choices today by young middle-class urbans around the world hungry for a more authentic life connected to the land and the production of first-class culinary products.
Gastro-tourism to the rescue in France
To be sure, the forced return to difficult rural lifestyles by tens of thousands of Greeks is not a particularly happy choice. But what they don’t seem to see is the silver lining that their farming neighbors to the north are discovering: that there is gastro-tourist gold in them thar Eurozone hills. Have these Greeks lost touch with their inner Zorba? He was, after all, a chef, not just a chronic dancer and philandering lush.
Witness, for example, regions like France’s Dordogne where the agriculture sector is being supported by creative refugees from France’s urban middle class. Case in point: The Brusquand farm in this southwest region of France (also known as Perigord) and its four generations of farming women — Isabelle, Ginette, Marie and, now, Charlotte, the 20-something daughter of Isabelle and husband Christophe — who have opened a restaurant that features the special products from their duck and goose farm such as foie gras, patés and confit.
I first heard about the Ferme du Brusquand and its new auberge last fall at the Bay Area’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Premiering was the documentary “After Winter, Spring“ by Judith Lit, an American living part time on a small farm in the region. Over the course of three years, she focused her camera on her neighbors, farmers who have come up against forces that threaten a way of life that has evolved since Neolithic times: encroaching suburbia, industrial farm competition and decreasing subsidies.
The farm’s new restaurant — Auberge de la Ferme du Brusquand — is managed by young Charlotte who has returned home from Paris to join her family. Her father, Christophe, is the chef. Good reviews of the auberge and two new rental cottages on the property have sparked an invasion of UFOs that make it possible now for the older Brusquand women to enjoy the fruits of their labor without the fear of losing the farm.
Crooked labels and crooked books
It may seem naïve to think that a surge of Greek pride in its gastronomic patrimony will help turn around the Greek economy, let alone the Eurozone. Corrupt business practices, fuzzy regulations and even crooked labels on Greece’s upscale gourmet products don’t help matters. And the truth is that Greece’s most popular products, like feta cheese and olive oil, have never caught on outside Greece on the scale of equivalent products produced by European competitors to the north.
According to Bay Area entrepreneur Peter Damm, whose former import-export company, Peloponnese, had moderate success in the U.S. back in the 1980s: “Even superb Greek products from small family farms, such as delicate olive oils and handpicked herbs, couldn’t compete with French and Italian offerings. There was a perception that Greece was just not a refined culture, so these products just couldn’t be good.”
Oink like a pig, WWOOF like a farmer
Despite the perceptual and actual obstacles, it’s possible now to at least consider a turnaround for Greece driven by its menu of classic delights. Worldwide trends in gastro- and agro-tourism may in fact be the key — like farms in France, Great Britain and elsewhere that are making room for authenticity junkies to participate in, or at least watch, the daily routines. Dude farms, it turns out, are cash cows.
Then there’s the international organization known as WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, that puts volunteers to work — really work — all over the world. Imagine young nouveau-poor but land-rich Greeks repurposing their family farms and producing products with the free labor of UFOs dying to get their hands dirty in the name of righteous agriculture and gastronomy.
The more I think about it, saving Greece and the Eurozone through gastro-tourism is no fantasy. All that Greece and its fellow PIGS need, and all CULINAIR needs, is the capital — culinary, political and financial — to make it happen. Are you listening Angela Merkel and Sir Richard Branson?
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris and PR Graphic Arts
Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims — usually implying that the food is produced with animal welfare or the environment in mind.
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As consumer interest in how our food is produced has increased, so too has the use of subtle imagery of happy livestock grazing in lush pastures on food packaging. They’re backed up by claims like “all natural,” “cage free” and “organic.” Yet in many cases these labels bear no resemblance whatsoever to how the animals are raised.
While you might think you’re buying food that’s better for animals, for the environment, and/or for your health, the sad truth is that many of the terms and claims on meat, milk and eggs actually mean very little. They are used to hide the same old intensive farming systems that have been used for decades, a billion-dollar business that does not have animal welfare on its short list of priorities.
The intensive farming industry doesn’t want you to know what goes on behind its locked gates, because the chances are if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch your food — let alone eat it. If food manufacturers were legally required to use actual images from the farming systems, most standard egg cartons would be adorned with horrific images of row upon row of caged hens, all with their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other. Pork products would display images of pigs packed indoors in concrete-floored pens, the sows confined in gestation crates. Most of the beef products would have to show the thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of cattle crammed together on each of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that supply 90% of all U.S. beef, where they have no access to pasture and are fed an unhealthy diet of corn and grain and antibiotic growth promoters.
Nothing natural about it
Two of the most common terms you’ll find on meat products are “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised.” Both terms arguably suggest that livestock have a “natural” life, with access to pasture. Yet the term “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal was raised and simply means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. “All Natural” ground beef in stores almost certainly comes from cattle who spent their last three to six months on a dirt-yard CAFO. And while manufacturers who use the “Naturally Raised” label must take steps to ensure the livestock involved were raised without growth promotants and not fed animal byproducts, the animals are usually confined in feedlots or cages. Although there are no independent checks to make sure the rules are being followed.
“Cage free” eggs are becoming increasingly popular as more people refuse to buy eggs from battery cage systems. While “cage free” eggs may come from hens raised without cages, they almost all spend their lives indoors in vast barns or warehouses with thousands of other hens in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, and receive routine antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. As the “cage free” hens still don’t have much space to move around, beak cutting is routinely practiced on them as well, to stop them from pecking each other to death.
When food labels that say organic aren’t
Many people put their faith in the “certified organic” logo. Yet an increasing number of headlines show unscrupulous operators are exploiting the weaknesses in the organic rules to introduce practices associated with industrial farming. In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute investigated organic egg production and found numerous instances across the U.S. where industrial-scale operations were managing thousands of hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors — yet they could legally sell their eggs as organic. These operations make a mockery of the organic principles and threaten the livelihoods of countless real organic poultry farmers who are farming to the high standards consumers rightly expect.
There are even problems among some of the “humane” certified labels. Despite claims that products carrying the American Humane Certified label have met rigorous welfare standards, this animal welfare certification supports caged production for chickens and doesn’t require pasture access for any farmed species. Hardly what most people would consider “humane” practice.
So how can you spot a meaningful label from a spurious claim? Animal Welfare Approved — the industry leader in auditing and certifying family farms to the highest welfare standards — has published “Food Labeling for Dummies.” This free 16-page guide is designed to help decipher the most common terms and claims found on food packaging and, most important, determine whether they have been independently verified. Download a free copy or call (800) 373-8806.
Top photo composite:
Andrew Gunther and guide cover. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute
What looks like a cross between a giant thistle and supersized celery, but tastes like artichoke with a trace of truffle? Don’t worry if you don’t have a clue. Cardoons are still a rare find in U.S. stores, although more and more farmers are growing them. If you’ve spent time in Italy or Spain, though, you probably know them as cardi or cardone — a classic winter vegetable that is perfect in a bagna cauda.
Cardoons are among the vegetables that home gardeners have enjoyed and that great painters have lovingly rendered for centuries.
The cardoon in Juan Sánchez Cotán’s bodegón (a still life, usually in a pantry or cellar), is domestic and poetic, mundane and mysterious, secular and sacred. Somehow Sánchez Cotán painted the lowly yet lovely cardoon’s sharp edges in soft colors, making it pulse with hidden life. It’s a humble, ordinary scene, yet the gathering up of the fruits of the earth before they die and return to whence they came hints of the rituals of the altar.
The artichoke’s cousin
Like artichokes, cardoons are in the thistle family. Their wild ancestor grew all over the Mediterranean and was gradually domesticated. Some, bred for their big buds, became the artichokes we know today, while others, bred for a large and meaty petiole (leaf stalk), became the cardoon.
The cardoon plant resembles its forebears, with long stalks and velvety, deeply lobed, heavily spined, gray-green leaves with a felt-like surface. The pale green stalks are about an inch wide, and 18 to 22 inches long. Some cardoon stems are straight, but in Italy the most sought after are curved, a feature that results in their being nicknamed gobbi, or hunchbacks.
My brother, Henry, plants the Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice) cardoons, as well as the Porto Spineless variety on his farm in Illinois. Both have the look and the crunch of celery, but the flavor is absolutely nothing like celery.
Cardoons are not normally eaten raw, but when my brother had me go chop one down (slicing through the 6-inch base is more akin to chopping a tree than cutting a vegetable), we inhaled the earthy truffle aroma, and decided to sample it on the spot. Raw, it has an immediate bitter bite on your tongue, but as you chew it, it develops complex and pleasant flavors. By the time you swallow it, you can’t help but take another bite, and soon the bitter flavor becomes addictive.
Worth the trouble
When cardoons are cooked, their membership in the artichoke family becomes apparent. But they are better than the best artichoke hearts, in that they seem to have been dusted with rich white truffle. A quick look through my Italian cookbooks suggests a variety of cooking methods, from braising to frying to making them into a risotto or gratin.
The cookbooks also make it clear that cardoons need some prep time. Chef Jason Hammel of Chicago’s Lula Café and Nightwood Restaurant, once said, “Good food is trouble.” And I say cardoons are a case in point. But anything worthwhile requires a bit of work, right?
In the case of cardoons, you trim the spines, peel the fibers and boil them for in water with the juice of a lemon before doing anything else with them. And honestly, that’s not so much trouble. Rest assured — what comes later makes it all worthwhile.
Try substituting this cardoon gratin for that tired old potato or squash gratin at your Thanksgiving dinner. Give an extra helping to whoever can identify the vegetable.
1 large cardoon (3 to 4 pounds)
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup coarsely grated provolone
½ cup finely grated pecorino
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Bring a large kettle of salted water to a boil. While the oven and the water are heating, prep the cardoons.
2. Use a paring knife or your fingers (I prefer fingers) to zip off the strings on the ribs of the cardoon stalks. (Some recipes say to peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler, but that just got my peeler all gummed up. Besides, you don’t have to get all the strings out for the cardoons to come out soft and luscious.)
3. Squeeze the lemon’s juice into a large bowl of cold water. Cut the cardoon stalks into 2- to 3-inch lengths, and put them into the lemon water to keep them from discoloring.
4. Put the squeezed-out lemon pieces into the boiling water and then whisk in the flour. According to some, this lemon-flour combination removes some of the bitterness from the cardoons, and keeps their pretty green color. Let the flour and lemon boil together for few minutes, and then toss in all the cardoon sticks, and boil about 30 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and silky. Drain.
5. Liberally smear olive oil (or bacon fat) all over the inside of a casserole dish that is large enough to hold all the cardoons. Arrange the cardoons in one layer, and then sprinkle with the provolone, and then with the pecorino. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature. This dish is even better as leftovers, reheated in the microwave or toaster oven.
Photo: Cardoons at farmers market. Credit: blowbackphoto / iStockphoto.com
Food-producing communities from 150 countries came to share ideas and experiences at the Slow Food joint Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre event this week in Turin, northern Italy. (Follow this link to my first report on it). Of the many food-related issues that were brought to the table at this extraordinary five-day event, one of the most pressing is land-grabbing.
TERRA MADRE AND
SALONE DEL GUSTO
Carla Capalbo reports from Slow Food's joint event at Turin, Italy, this week.
Part 1: Terra Madre's global fraternity of food producers
Part 2: Land-grabbing seizes the spotlight at Terra Madre
Land-grabbing is when private groups buy or gain control of vast areas of farmland in developing countries for producing food and biofuel crops for the first-world market. Africa, Asia and South America are particularly at risk in this modern land rush. Data compiled by the Land Matrix Project shows that 200 million hectares (772,000 square miles) — an area of land eight times the size of Great Britain — were sold or leased for foreign agricultural use between 2000 and 2010. Of these, 143 million hectares (552,000 square miles) are in Africa.
“Hungry for land,” a two-hour session on land-grabbing, brought together an international panel to discuss this serious and troubling trend that participants referred to as “neocolonialism,” before an equally international audience of farmers, students, journalists and other interested parties.
Stefano Liberti: ‘Just think of the so-called banana republics’
Stefano Liberti, who chaired the meeting and is the author of an Italian book on the subject (an English edition is on the way) explained: “There’s nothing new about the practice of using land in other parts of the world to facilitate food imports: Just think of the so-called banana republics of Central America.
“Two factors make the current situation very different: the speed at which it’s happening, and the type of people involved in the acquisitions. It’s no longer traditional agribusinesses or farmers who are buying up land in Africa, but speculative capitalists looking for quick returns: hedge funds, private equity, even pension funds now consider this type of action a safe investment. And they have been mushrooming at an alarming rate since 2008.”
In some cases, it is the governments of the African, Asian and South American countries that have enabled these acquisitions in an attempt to bring outside investment and capital into their countries’ coffers — at the cost of the local communities, which rarely see any of the benefits.
The attraction of lax laws, cheap labour and fertile land is proving irresistible in the run-up to the planet’s population boom and its growing search for food. Industrialised countries are increasingly supporting themselves from land outside their own geographical confines.
Karin Ulmer: ‘A very inefficient use of land’
“Globally, 70% of all arable land is being used to grow feed for animals,” said Karin Ulmer, Senior Policy Officer on Trade, Food Security and Gender at APRODEV, in Brussels. With the intensive industrial farming methods that are prevalent in Europe and the U.S. today, it takes 12 to 14 calories of cereal to produce 1 calorie of meat. “This is a very inefficient use of land, as opposed to grass-fed animals, sustainable and integrated farming. We need to source less from other countries.”
Liliana Marcela Vargas Vásquez, of Asociación de Trabajo Interdisciplinario-ATI, Colombia, agreed. “There’s been a huge increase of soya being grown in Patagonia to satisfy the ever-increasing demand in India and China for animal feed. Latin America is prey to land looters from within its countries and without, and life is becoming increasingly violent for many rural farmers seeking to defend their land against those who want to steal it.”
“Land used by local communities is being leased or sold to outside investors, including corporations and governments,” said Anne Van Schaik of Friends of the Earth Europe. In Africa, much of the land used by herdsmen is “commons” land, with no specific ownership, yet swaths of that land are being fenced off and converted to monocultures by and for the developed countries. “Access to land and water is a human right,” she declared. “We don’t need corporate control to feed the world. Unlike what we are being led to believe, 70% of the world is currently being fed by peasants, with 30% being fed by industrially produced food. The traditional models can work.”
Mwanahamisi Salimu: ‘farmers who resist are being evicted and killed’
Mwanahamisi Salimu, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Economic Justice of Oxfam Tanzania, gave a stirring account of the situation in her country. “Agriculture is very risky in Africa, as people may grab your land, and farmers who resist are being evicted and killed.” She highlighted the role of women in this battle. “Women farmers are heroes in Africa. It is very difficult for them to own any land due to the patriarchal structure of society, and they are always at the bottom of the totem pole, with no access to credit and few rights. Yet they do the majority of the work.” When they do have land, it is often the worst, least fertile land, on the margins of their villages. “Yet many courageous heroines are working the land despite the risks of violence they face.”
So what can be done? Several speakers encouraged the audience not only to spread the word about land-grabbing, but specifically to put pressure on their banks, funds and other financial institutions to disclose where their investments are being made. Often, individual investors are unaware their money is being used for this purpose, and object when they discover it is.
Terre de Liens in France: buying and restructuring abandoned farms
A speaker in the audience from Terre de Liens, a civil society in France, recounted how a group of French farmers, worried about the buy-up of French farms by outside investors, had collected 26 million euros (nearly $34 million U.S.) to buy and restructure 100 abandoned farms, thereby ensuring they remained in local communities and were run sustainably and organically.
“In rural communities of the developing countries, more efficient agricultural models must be developed for Asia, Africa and South America,” Liberti said. “Foreign investment in agriculture was initially encouraged based on the misguided assumption that it would aid local communities. The result has been the opposite. Local farmers must be supported and helped towards sustainable methods of agriculture, using modern technology when necessary for irrigation, storage and transportation, so they can be self-sufficient and retain their rights to their own land.”
Main photo: Mwanahamisi Salimu of Oxfam Tanzania. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Almost 40 years ago, Kay and David James started their search in the West for the perfect piece of land on which to ranch and raise children. The couple was young and in love, and knew what they wanted: clean air, a large spread that would accommodate cattle, and plenty of water. Their search ended on 450 acres in the mountains of Durango, Colo.
Although there’s been a chronic drought throughout the Southwest, there’s plenty of water in the ditch that runs through the middle of this sublime land.
Through the 1970s, the James’ raised five children on grass-finished meats, high ideals and the concept of stewarding the land. When these kids graduated from high school, Kay and Dave pushed them out of the nest into the world of higher education and self-sufficiency. They were told if they wanted to return to the ranch in the future, they should bring back something that would add to the already flourishing ranch. And while the mainstay of the ranch continues to be the beef, all the kids have finally come home. And they’ve come home with their talent.
Julie James and her husband, John Ott, raise free-range chickens for eggs, and blue spruce trees. Jennifer and her husband, Joe Wheeling, raise fresh produce, flowers and herbs. Dan James and his wife, Becca, raise pigs and Jersey milk cows for raw milk and artisan cheese. The James food is available at the Durango Farmers Market and also at their own truly exceptional roadside farm market just above where they all live in the Animas Valley.
A second generation returns to the land at James Ranch
Two years ago, Cynthia James Stewart — the third child and last to come home — pulled all the blessings of the ranch together by creating a roadside grill that serves the ranches’ own hamburgers, cheese and bratwurst, thus making the ranch a real destination for dining.
Unlike the rest of the gang, when Cynthia returned to the ranch, she had no plan. She and her husband Robert were not “rancher-type” people. Her siblings suggested she raise meat birds. She just shook her head. But while she and Robert waited for their epiphany, they worked the farm market.
In her former life, Cynthia had been trained at the Fashion Institute in New York City, and then she’d worked for Ralph Lauren. After that she worked for an environmental company that specialized in water filtration equipment.
“Folks laughed when I told them soon they’d be spending more on bottled water than gas,” she said.
When she met Robert 11 years ago, he was in the mortgage industry. They’d both reached a point in their careers where they were ready for something new around which they could build a family. Soon after they began thinking about adoption, Cynthia knew she had to get back to the ranch.
At the bottom of the ranch property in the old hay barn was a wreck of a trailer that Cynthia’s brother Dan kept saying the family had to get rid of. Cynthia asked her youngest brother, Justin James, who was in the restaurant business, how much he thought it would take to put a basic grill and griddle into the cart. She imagined “people sitting around eating all our food, looking out on all of this beauty — the mountains, the cows, the chickens, you know …”
The trailer had to be completely gutted, which estimates showed would cost about $5,000. In the end, the final cost, which included obtaining many permits and putting in a Bob’s John, was nearer to $18,000.
“Before I married Robert I didn’t cook. At 35 years old, I started,” Cynthia said. “I fell in love with how my family were scientifically rediscovering nature’s harmony of food production. I was amazed at how my dad moved the cows each day, how he’d figured out how much grass each one needed.
“My brother Dan’s milk cows only ate grass and what an effort to make sure they get enough food for milk production. He doesn’t supplement with grain. And how much Jennifer has to go through with her vegetables because we’re at high altitude.
“And the huge amount of work Julie has with her chickens and their eggs. She has 450 now! It’s a lot of work.”
The Harvest Grill and Greens
Cynthia and Robert and The Harvest Grill and Greens are now part of the James Ranch circle. Most all of the ingredients are sourced from the James Ranch, including the meat, cheese, tomatoes, all the salad material, and the currant sauce. The blue chips come from the local “chip peddler,” and the bread from local bakeries. All the recipes are Cynthia’s, and she’s not giving away the recipe for her “signature sauce” for the burger.
During summer, the grill has two cooks, one of whom is Robert. In winter, the grill is open only on Saturdays when Cynthia makes chili, stew, sloppy Joes, and other fun food.
“By the end of September, I’ll have a basement full of my sister Jennifer’s squash. I’ll use her squash and pumpkins through March in soups and stews. I take all her Roma tomatoes, put them in olive oil, roast them and then freeze them. Robert is always reminding me how expensive my ingredients are. We have Annie’s ketchup and organic Dijon mustard … probably why we got voted best burger. We use real food, organic, no non-sweetened, no corn syrup, everything the way nature wanted it to be.”
The Harvest Grill and Greens puts all the James Ranch pieces of the food puzzle together. In July, they fed between 120 to 160 meals a day. June and August were also fabulous. “All of us at the James Ranch want people to come to their food source and delight in it. The stars of our show are the remarkable cheese, our grass-finished cows and our organic vegetables. Those things and my recipes using all this great food, ties us together.”
So far, the James Ranch has two generations working their food. Grady James, who is 14, is teaching his first cooking class this fall. The third generation is coming up fast.
Photo: Cynthia James Stewart and Robert Stewart cooking up a hamburger and some chili in their Harvest Grill. Credit: Rick Scibelli