Articles in Farmers

Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

A change is underway. Farmers of color — historically rendered invisible, though permanently woven into the fabric of America’s agricultural heritage — are increasing. The first farmers in this country, that is Native Americans and African-Americans, are the backbone of the nation’s agriculture history. Some farmers of color have endured — cultivating the land with skill that comes from generations of ecological knowledge and animal husbandry practices.

Women of color farmers, in particular, are overlooked, nationally and globally. Yet these farmers struggle with the same challenges any other farmer faces, plus a legacy of institutional exclusion and gender bias. So what are some of the demographic statistics of farmers of color and women farmers in the United States? Who are they, where are they and what do they have to say?

Credit: Sarah Khan

Credit: Sarah Khan

The mothers of Mother Earth

Sandra Simone of Talladega County, Ala., is an award-winning organic farmer who used to be a jazz singer in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It took many years for my husband’s words — ‘We need to own our ancestors’ land’ — to click,” Simone said. “All I wanted was to get out of rural Alabama as a teenager. I never thought I’d return, let alone own land and farm it, organically and sustainably.”

There have always been two faces of farmers in the United States — those of color and those who are white; that is, the ones in the fields and the ones on packages, in the magazines and on commercials. But if farm advocate Cynthia Hayes and farmers Janie Dickson, Beverly Hall and Simone have their way, those faces are about to change.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership

Part 2: Female farmers of color

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos

Going organic, in color

Farmers who decide to create organic and sustainable farms might find that the load gets heavier or lighter, depending on their story. Trust is the core issue for Cynthia Hayes, the founder of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, or SAAFON in Savannah, Ga.

“Our farmers who wanted to go organic felt isolated and had no hope that local USDA government agencies would help them figure out the loan processes,” Hayes said. She has been privy to too many stories of farmers’ lack of equal access to USDA services. “We had to fill the gap, help our farmers manage the officials, the forms and the bureaucracy.”

Over time, Hayes saw that the majority of SAAFON’s clients were women — African-American and Native Americans farmers who wanted not only to reconnect to the land but also reclaim the rich agricultural and culinary traditions that indigenous and enslaved people offered.

Female farm operators statistics

Females make up 14 percent of all principal operators and 30 percent of all operators, according to the USDA. But what are the percentages of women of color farmers by race, and where do they farm in the country? Within each racial category (which includes both men and women), the gender breakdown reveals a relatively higher percentage of female operators compared with their white female counterparts. For example, 30 percent of Native Americans are female operators.  They are followed by 21 percent of multiracial female operators, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, 14 percent African-American and white and 12 percent Latinas. Despite obstacles and challenges, many farmers of color, including women, farm and survive despite historical exclusion. Below are a few of their stories.

Sandra Simone: Of voice and vetch

Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Simone tell her story.

 Janie Dickson: She’s got the share and the crop

“My parents sharecropped. But often we’d miss a week of school just ’cause the owners did not feel like settling up the bill. That’s the kind of power they had over us,” said Janie Dickson of Dickson’s Organics in Effingham, S.C. Dickson runs her organic farm with her husband, Rocky. Like Simone, Dickson vowed she would never farm. Dickson’s mother reminded her of her sharecropping days, “We got the share and they got the crop,” Dickson said, laughing. Despite her vow, Dickson always had a backyard garden where she’d grow collards, beans, turnips, okra and much more.

Before retirement, she yearned to have folks taste the difference between a jet-lagged, store-bought vegetable and a just-picked one. “This time around I farmed, on my own terms, on my own land, growing what I wanted, harvesting when I wanted, and plowing it under when I felt like it,” she said.

The Dicksons used to farm conventionally. “It got to the point where I’d jokingly tell my friends I was going out to poison the collards.” In 2006, she was rummaging through her attic when she stumbled on an organic farming magazine from 1986. “I got the message,” she said. Today, their six-acre property has a road dividing the land into two parcels. Her husband had no desire to let go of what he called his “miraculous fertilizers and pesticides,” but they decided Janie would go organic. Her plot blossomed. They ditched the chemicals. Then Dickson met Hayes, of SAAFON, got certified as an organic farmer and leased 10 acres of organic land while their property transitioned to organic.

Like other female farmers across the country, Dickson faces daily challenges: negotiating gender bias, finding good and reliable farm help, getting produce to the markets, reworking the business plan and affording farm equipment. However, she faces an extra challenge — the need to persist with local USDA officials to get equal access to information on all aspects of organic farming for small business farmers. “Sometimes persisting just feels like a full-time job,” Dickson said.

Beverly Hall: High heels sinking into the dirt

Beverly Hall, a Native American farmer in Shannon, N.C., started the nonprofit group American Indian Mothers to take care of the elders. “It’s not right when your people are choosing to buy medicine over food. I grew up farming and canning, and I had strayed from the circle and my values,” Hall said. “I returned to self-reliance and to the land in 1995. And I marched myself right into the fields, with my high heels sinking into the dirt, to get advice about how to start farming.”

“My mother could not talk about our native traditions, it was forbidden; but we still had to farm, so we held onto some of our farming ways of corn, beans and squashes,” Hall said proudly.

An ingrained self-sufficiency — a do-it-yourself, take-care-of-yourself-because-no-one- is-going-to-do-it-for-you attitude — are what permeate Simone, Dickson, Hall and Hayes’ thoughts and actions. “My ancestors’ blood and sweat courses through this Southern landscape,” Simone said. Resolute, she looked out the window from her self-designed and self-built log cabin and declared, “That’s why I returned, for good.”

Hayes and SAAFON are not going away anytime soon, nor are the spirited Simone, Dickson and Hall. Each woman educates children in their communities by creating farm programs, inviting experts to lecture or organizing local farm co-ops that bring together like-minded farmers to share ideas about what niche crops to grow, how to get rid of a particular pest or just help one another.

Dickson wishes that when she was growing up she had asked her sharecropping mother more about the secret garden she tended deep in the middle of the woods, far from the sharecropper’s eyes. “We’d visit it, quietly, and tend to it,” Dickson said. Now, though, Dickson’s garden is out in the open for all to see and learn from, on her own terms.

Main photo: Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

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An Indonesion delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

One major takeaway from Terra Madre 2014 was that that despite the unique culture and traditions that exist within indigenous communities across the world, we are all united by an undeniable web of interconnectedness.

Over and over again during the five-day event, you could see people bridging gaps and forging relationships over the ties that bind us, namely food and how it shapes communities and cultures.

Turin, Italy, was the site in late October of Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biennial, global event. With a focus on indigenous communities and farmers, some 158 global food communities gathered to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.

It was powerful to witness this discovery of interconnectedness that exists despite the distances that separate various indigenous communities. Norman Chibememe, a farmer from Zimbabwe, said that before coming to Terra Madre he thought he was alone in the challenges he regularly encounters at home. “I’ve learned from my new friends from half way around the world that they, too, are working with the same challenges. I am going home with some new ideas of how to change things in my community,” Chibememe said.

Terra Madre unites people from across the globe

During workshops in the Indigenous Terra Madre salon and conversations at country stalls, people from indigenous communities engaged with each other and the public through a vibrant exchange of stories about the problems they face in their respective countries. A French couple I spoke with came to Terra Madre specifically to speak with delegates from African countries confronting security or health challenges. Unable to travel themselves to all the countries affected, Terra Madre gave them the opportunity to get an insider’s view on how food issues are affected by such conditions.

Participants were also surprised to discover non-food cultural similarities despite living on different continents. A Moroccan woman who produces argan oil stopped two young Sami women who had just arrived from their home in the Arctic to share her astonishment how certain elements of their traditional dresses were like those of the Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, of North Africa. From the color of their clothes to the threading used to the geometric patterns on their ankle coverings being identical to those used in making traditional Amazigh rugs, the similarities were striking.

This was the fifth visit to Terra Madre for Susana Martinez, a yacón farmer from Argentina who is proud to share her knowledge of this crisp, sweet-tasting tuber, also called a Peruvian ground apple, with those outside of Argentina. A farmer from Venezuela whose community has virtually lost all knowledge of how to work with yacón met Martinez and invited her to his region to teach younger farmers how to grow and process the plant. Shea Belahi, a farmer from Illinois who is looking for new crops to grow on her farm and is intrigued about the properties of yacón — it has low sugar levels, making it suitable for diabetics — discussed the growing conditions needed for yacon with Martinez. As she walked away, Martinez said these interactions are the magic of Terra Madre. They “help me in knowing that someone else cares about what I do,” she said.

The wealth of knowledge and the challenges faced by indigenous communities and global farmers, such as climate change, land-grabbing and resource management, were at the forefront of the five-day event and provided visitors the opportunity to gain new perspectives on issues concerning indigenous people around the world.

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The Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) booth serves as a part of the Indian Slow Food Delegation. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Phrang Roy, director of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or NESFAS, discussed the need for a more inclusive approach that treats the custodians of traditional knowledge and modern-day researchers as equal and diverse knowledge holders. He said more than 350 million indigenous people populate the globe — a greater number than the population of Europe — and they form “a community of people connected to the land, with their own systems of connecting to nature. Basically, they are all agronomists.”

He announced that NESFAS, in partnership with Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, would be hosting the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 next fall in Megahalaya in northeast India, a region on the border of Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Under the theme of “The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives, Indigenous Activities,” the event plans to bring together representatives from more than 300 indigenous communities to showcase indigenous knowledge of local food systems and preserve biodiversity within their regions and discuss how to bring their knowledge and vision of food production into modern times.

The infectious energy, friendships and networks developed by the indigenous people and farmers at Terra Madre 2014 demonstrate there is an appetite for change growing among these communities and a global momentum to safeguard their wealth of diverse flavors and cultural knowledge to create a better world.

Main photo: An Indonesian delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

“The worst thing to ever happen to the pork industry was the Other White Meat campaign,” Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman proclaimed at the sixth Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit, held this year in Boulder, Colo.

To that audience, he didn’t have to explain his point: Not only were the ads misleading, they heralded an industry trend toward lean, muscle-bound hogs you can likely thank (along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s old cooking-temperature guidelines) for every bland, dry piece of pork you’ve ever eaten.

But Chefs Collaborative conference-goers who attended a breakout session titled “Eating Invasives” received a demonstration nonetheless, as Eric Skokan of Black Cat Farm-Table-Bistro and conservation biologist Joe Roman organized a comparative tasting of roasted loins from three hogs: one factory farmed, one a heritage breed called Mulefoot and one wild boar.

It may go without saying that the supermarket product paled in every sense of the word, but the starkness of its inferiority surprised even the hosts. As Roman observed later, “Since our tasting, I’ve noticed the consistency of industrial pork: lean, white, almost tasteless. There was a certain complexity of taste and color in the Mulefoot and the boar.”

Skokan agreed, viewing the meat samples along a spectrum: “At one end you have cardboard, at the other end, noticeable gaminess.”

But when it comes to both the heritage breeds and wild animals, consumer education and market availability are major sticking points. To learn more, I talked to the two gentlemen about their pet (so to speak) causes.

The Mulefoot

Once common throughout the Midwest as a prized lard pig, this black breed was “as close to extinction as you could get” less than a decade ago, Skokan said. Today, numbers are on the gradual rise through the efforts of advocates like Arie McFarlen of South Dakota’s Maveric Heritage Ranch. (Skokan calls her “one of the most important people in food you’ve never heard of in your life.”)

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Chef-farmer Skokan decided to raise Mulefoots in 2007 after a lesson-filled first year on his Longmont, Colo., property. “I’d grown this huge number of turnips that were inedible — no amount of kitchen creativity could save them. I realized I could use pigs as a way of turning lemons into lemonade; they would eat up the failed experiments. But if I was going to do it, they had to be great,” he said.

That was when he learned about Mulefoots. “I literally Googled ‘what’s the best-tasting breed of pork?’ And the oracle told me that The Livestock Conservancy had done a tasting with a panel of judges, and Mulefoot won.”

Skokan wasn’t concerned only with its culinary advantages. Given Colorado’s high-desert climate, the pigs had to be able to tolerate intense sun as well as cold winters, and because he’s a father to young children, they had to have “a great disposition. Mulefoots are cuddly if anything.”

Still, as the owner of two restaurants — Black Cat and adjacent gastropub Bramble & Hare — he’s above all a fan of its “superb flavor. I like to joke that even terrible cooks can cook it well; it’s very forgiving.

“We haven’t bought pork in five or six years,” he added. “We use Mulefoots for everything but the squeak.” In his just-released cookbook, “Farm, Fork, Food” (Kyle Books, $29.95), you’ll find gorgeous examples from country pâté with turnip mostarda to plum wood-smoked shoulder.

Their upbringing has something to do with their deliciousness, of course. “They’re free range all the time. We have really big fields, and we actually require them to move, putting where they eat, sleep, drink and graze in opposite corners.” His animals also live at least twice as long as their factory-raised brethren (11 to 13 months versus about six), fattening up over time as the bone structure of their breed dictates.

Scrumptious, user-friendly, consciously raised — sign me up, right? Well, not so fast. Skokan explained that although Mulefoot breeders are beginning to sell their meat commercially, “it’s still very localized and very niche.” If you’re determined to get your hands on some, look for a farm in your area; otherwise, try different types of heritage pork from online retailers.

Feral pigs and wild boars

Given their anything-goes diet, there’s no question these omnivores pack a stronger, more savory punch than their domesticated counterparts; Roman called the meat “almost nutty.” At the same time, they’re even leaner than today’s factory-bred pigs, developing muscle naturally on the prowl. Generally, the younger the carcass is, the more tender and flavorful it is, rather than downright pungent.

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Although you’ll find a swell profile on Roman’s website, Eat the Invaders, here’s his nutshell version: “Wild boar and feral hogs are both the same species, Sus scrofa, but they have different histories in the United States. Wild boar were released to provide huntable game, and feral swine were either released to forage on the open range by farmers and settlers or escaped from captivity.” Because they interbreed, however, “it is not easy to tell the three groups — wild, feral, hybrid — apart, even for experts,” he said.

It’s not easy to get ahold of them, either. “At present, there are just two practical ways,” Roman said. “If you live within their range, the best is to hunt it yourself, or get it from a neighbor who does.” If you’re OK with that, you’re probably in luck, because “many states encourage the hunting of wild boar, to reduce numbers. Florida, for example, has no size or bag limits, and hogs can be hunted during almost any season.”

If your state’s laws are more restrictive, however, or if you’re not a hunter, Roman recommends ordering the meat online through Texas outfit Broken Arrow Ranch.

Cooking the beasts may be the easiest part: You do it just as you would a domestic pig, with the important caveat that safe cooking temperatures are paramount. Yes, hitting that blasted 160 F mark is probably necessary to avoid potential illness — we’ll give the USDA this one.

Main photo: Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

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Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

When people talk about eating local food, the first thing that comes to mind is often produce-related — shopping for fruits and vegetables at a farmers market or joining a community-supported agriculture group, or CSA. While those actions do help support a local food economy, an event I recently attended made me realize how much broader the idea of being a “locavore” has become.

“Let Us Eat Local” is an annual benefit for Just Food, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on making good-quality food accessible across the city by promoting community gardens, CSAs, urban farms and the like. Its tasting event brings together chefs, bartenders, farmers, fish and meat purveyors, beverage producers and representatives of other New York-area culinary businesses to showcase the region’s bounty.

Local food not just about fruits and vegetables

Although I’ve attended this fundraiser before, I was struck by the sophistication and “big-tent” feel of this year’s iteration. Not surprisingly, the event included some of the city’s stalwart veggie-focused and vegan eateries, but their tables were just a stone’s throw from those of Jimmy’s No. 43, known especially for its meat and beer offerings, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, whose founding chef, David Chang, famously delivered the line “Let’s put pork in every f****** dish” when he appeared as himself on the HBO show “Treme.”

There were also farm-to-table brunch spots and an Italian perennial, but the remainder of the restaurant lineup was filled with some of the heaviest hitters on New York’s fine-dining scene — tony Michelin-star recipients and Zagat-list toppers such as Blue Hill, Esca, Gramercy Tavern, Perry St and Riverpark. The sheer preponderance of these types of places made it clear that local food is no longer the sole domain of the ascetic or preachy.

Some of the most intriguing participants were the artisanal craftspeople whose wares defy the pious crunchy-granola expectations that (often unfairly) get pinned on anything relating to sustainability. It’s nice to see the movement become established enough to let down its hair and have some fun. Here are three examples of products that break the mold:

Mixing it up

The next time you sit down to a meal of organic local produce, cheese and poultry, consider pairing it with a glass of soda. Wait, what? At first glance, soda might seem like a strange bedfellow, but when you taste the syrups produced by Anton Nocito’s P&H Soda Co., the combination makes perfect sense. Eschewing extracts, Nocito creates his blends in a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn using only sustainably sourced whole ingredients. In addition to six year-round varieties — cream, ginger, grapefruit, hibiscus, lovage and sarsaparilla — he experiments with flavors such as the tart, aromatic lemon verbena he served at the event.

The P&H Sodo Co.'s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

The P&H Sodo Co.’s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

Available at retail locations and via the company’s website, P&H’s complex concentrates can be mixed with seltzer to your desired level of sweetness, but they’re also terrific in cocktails, which is how they’re being used at some of New York’s hottest bars and restaurants. Looking to put a spin on the classic margarita? Nocito recommends adding a little of his hibiscus syrup, which is made from a blend of dried hibiscus leaves, organic ginger and cane sugar.

Worth her salt

If you’re making the hibiscus margarita with P&H syrup, you might want to rim the glass with New York sea salt, produced on a rooftop high above Manhattan. Although Urban Sproule did not have its own table at this year’s event, Sarah Sproule’s company was represented in the evening’s gift bags, which included small tins of her “Virgin” salt. (She also produces several infused varieties, such as celery and grilled ramp.)

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

The idea for the venture came to the young chef when she was doing weekly cooking demonstrations at the Union Square Greenmarket. As she prepared dishes using market ingredients, she dreamed of topping them with her own locally made seasonings. The seawater she uses is gathered 30 miles east of Montauk, Long Island, by two area fishermen and transported to a building in Chelsea, where it is brought up to the roof (16 floors by service elevator, plus two flights by stairs) and placed into an evaporation house. Once the crystals form, the salt is harvested by hand and baked by the sun before being infused or packaged in its pure form.

Your pick of pickles

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

One of the veterans of New York City’s resurgent artisanal food movement, Rick’s Picks has been brining local produce for the past decade. Based on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood filled with pushcart pickle vendors a century ago, founder Rick Field has helped transform the image of this ultra-traditional food-preservation technique. His product line — which includes “Phat Beets,” “Hotties” (Sriracha pickle chips), “Smokra” (pickled okra) and “Pepi Pep Peps” (pickled red bell peppers) — is clearly marketed to appeal to those who would breeze right past the supermarket Vlasics and B&Gs. These are not your Nana’s gherkins.

While you could certainly go the conventional route and top your next burger with the company’s gently sweet “Bee ‘n’ Beez” (bread-and-butter pickles), the promotional postcard handed out at the event also featured this recipe for Pickletinis.

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Ginger Apple Honey Pie from Bubby’s Restaurant. Credit: Sofia Perez

Pickletinis

Recipe courtesy of Rick’s Picks

Yield: Makes 1 drink.

Ingredients

2½ ounces gin

½ ounces dry vermouth

½ ounces Rick’s Picks Classic Sours brine

1 Classic Sours spear

Fresh dill, for rimming the martini glass

Directions

Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass filled with ice cubes. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the Classic Sours spear. Rim the glass with fresh dill.

Main photo: Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

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The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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