The Prying Mantis

No Justice, No Peace – reflections on organic farming, CSA and domestic fair trade.

National Charter for US CSAs?

CSA farmers and members!

Inspired by the examples of CSA networks in other countries, I have a suggestion that may help us reinvigorate our movement, encourage new people to join CSAs, and win the support of wellness programs.

Here is my proposal: Let’s create a CSA charter or pledge that all CSAs can use in an energetic publicity and educational campaign to grow our share of the pie of eaters. If we can agree on language, sometime early this winter, after the election frenzy recedes, we can print this in all the CSA member newsletters, in all the state and regional network publications – Fair Share Coalition, CAFF, Just Food, the NOFAs, PASA, Small Farm Central, etc. and get a lot of public attention. Having a clear (though not too detailed) definition, will give us greater weight in advocating with wellness programs and insurance companies to get their support. It will also help us differentiate farm-based CSAs from the aggregators, even the well-intentioned ones, that sell weekly bags of produce that look like CSA shares, although the farmers are paid just as though they sold to any wholesale market.

As has been noted in the NYTimes and by people closer to CSA – Simon Huntley, of Small Farm Central, and Steven McFadden, author of Farms of Tomorrow Revisited – many CSAs all over the country have been having trouble recruiting and retaining members.  Farms that had waiting lists no longer even have as many members as they would like. Based on interviews with former CSA members, Simon Huntley has some good ideas for making CSAs more “customer-centric” while retaining the essentials of CSA. He advises improving member retention through asking members what they need, offering more choices and continually educating them about the food (“CSA: We have a Problem,” 8/17/2016). While Huntley is fine tuning business as usual, Steven McFadden admonishes the public to wake up and recognize the transformative potential of CSA as an emergency response to climate change (“Awakening Community Intelligence: CSA Farms as 21st Century Cornerstones,” see * quote below). Continue reading “National Charter for US CSAs?”

A Draft Program for All People of the Land

 “From the beginning, organic regulations set a high bar for advancing cultural and social values in agricultural production. We propose a return to this foundation by rededicating organic to an ethical food and agriculture system that honors the values of fairness and basic rights. Fairness includes fair trade; fair pricing (and contracts); fair access to land (and credit), and fair access to quality, organic food and seeds. These basic rights also encompass the rights of all people to follow their own cultural and traditional knowledge systems and the rights of farmers and farmworkers to have an empowered voice in the continued improvement of an ethical food system. This should apply directly to both domestic and foreign agricultural policies with the recognition of organic agriculture’s contributions to local food security and the alleviation of hunger both nationally and internationally.” From the National Organic Action Plan – On “Social and Cultural Change” (p. 32) 

By Elizabeth Henderson

I call upon fellow organic farmers and all friends who want to put the above statement into action to help develop a program that will take us in the direction of the highest ideals of the organic movement for local, just and clean food for all.

Despite the impressive growth in organic markets – organic products are widely available in conventional groceries– the farmers I know are not having an easier time economically and farms continue to go out of business, especially dairies. Conventional farms are going out of business too.  When the NOFA-NY Board made a public statement in support of raising the minimum wage, carefully balanced though the statement was with the need to raise the farmer share of the food dollar, farmers called into the office to complain of the hardship this will cause for their farm businesses.

These next few years will build towards the next farm bill.  I invite others to join me in projecting where we would really like to go. Instead of limiting ourselves to incremental adjustments even to very good programs, let’s put together an integrated program of policies and cultural changes that will lead to a more radical transformation towards organic, biodynamic and agroecological farming, in support of carbon farming, fair labor and pricing practices, renegotiating power relations in supply chains, and an end to industrial agriculture. I realize that many of these proposals are not “realistic.” The majority of the US Congress will not vote for them at this time.  The full realization of this program will happen together with other radical changes in power when Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie people, the labor movement, the Greens, merge into a determined movement for social change.  In the meantime, let’s be sure the eater members of this movement know what the people who work the land – farmers with and without land and farmworkers – need so that we can thrive and create a food system worth sustaining. Continue reading “A Draft Program for All People of the Land”

Berries: Support the Union or Take the Locavore Way

By Elizabeth Henderson

The berry patch at Jack’s house.


Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, service berries, elderberries, jostaberries – some of the tastiest and most healthful foods that Nature provides.  I am an avid berry picker.  To be a good picker, you have to switch your awareness to berry-mode.  You stand near the bush or crouch near the plants and focus on the color of ripe berry – red with no white spots for strawberries, deep blue with no green showing for blueberries.  Then your hands dart out and grab them – ever so gently. You can only cradle a few in your palm or you crush them.  You disregard the stabs from thorns, the stain of dark juice on your skin.  Your hands dart back and forth from bush to basket.

You fill it till just before the berries are about to cascade to the ground. Then you grab another container. This is fun for an hour and not too tiring for half a day.  But it’s very different if you have to keep picking for 12 – 14 hours, day after day. When you do this for a living, payment is by the pound or the pint – piece work that puts you under pressure to pick as fast as you can without taking a break. Legally, even a slow picker must be paid minimum wage per hour, but an unethical employer can find many ways to underpay. Continue reading “Berries: Support the Union or Take the Locavore Way”

CSA in Norway

By Elizabeth Henderson

New CSA symbol for Andelslandbruk in Norway
Marte Guttulsrod and Alexandra Devik introduce the new symbol for the Oikos CSA network.

Oikos – Organic Norway paid me the great honor of inviting me to be the keynote speaker for their second annual CSA conference, June 23 in Oslo. The gathering took place in a building called Sentralen that looked like an old (maybe early 19th century) public building, but now serves as a cultural center with spaces for a café, theatrical performances, and workshops. I did not get to explore the many rooms and layers. By 10 am, the 80 or so seats were full of farmers, food activists and a few researchers. Currently in Norway there are 40 CSAs – Andelslandbruk – and 20 more in formation. Most of the 40 are only a year or two old – there were four in 2012. The concept has been catching on quickly. Farmers have initiated only about half of the CSAs. Groups of consumers have started, and continue to run the others, often structuring them as coops and renting land from a farmer who may get more involved after a while. They call the people they hire to do the growing – “gardeners” since the scale of most CSAs so far is pretty small and a few groups do all the work themselves.

Participants in the CSA conference.

The official policy of the present Norwegian government is to encourage fewer, bigger farms. With only 3% of the land suitable for farming, Norwegian agricultural production is limited and most of the food comes from abroad. In the fjords, there are big salmon farms largely for export, and Norway still has an important fishing fleet. Yet as in other European countries, farms are struggling to stay in business. The statistic Oikos folks quoted was Norway loses 5 farms every day. Continue reading “CSA in Norway”

Organic Farmers Are Not Anti-Science, but Genetic Engineers Often Are


By Elizabeth Henderson

At one of the public brainstorming sessions for the New York Organic Action Plan, an organic farmer made an impassioned plea for support for “independent science” and told us that with 8.5 billion mouths to feed by 2050, we will need genetic engineering to prevent starvation.

I would like to examine these words carefully to decipher what they mean, how those words are used by this farmer and by others, and suggest how the movement for locally grown organic food in this country should respond.

What is the meaning of ‘independent science’? As co-chair of the Policy Committee for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), I have been an active participant in the coalition that is campaigning to pass GMO labeling legislation in NY State. In this capacity, I have spoken at public meetings, to the press and on radio interviews. A question that I have heard from proponents of biotechnology is “why do you organic farmers oppose science, like the climate deniers?” Continue reading “Organic Farmers Are Not Anti-Science, but Genetic Engineers Often Are”

A Walk Through the Kraai Preserve

Kim Grabosky spring 2009 039

Photos and Text by Elizabeth Henderson

After we dance around the May Pole, come to the woods of the Kraai Preserve!

There are three ways to get there.  You can drive by turning right onto Welcher Road out of the farm driveway, and then turning right again onto Norsen Road, going to the very end of the road and parking.  There is a sign at the entrance to the Kraai Preserve. Or you can walk straight across the Peacework fields to the woods.  But I invite you to join me in taking the trail we have created along the Ganargua.  To get to the trail, we walk from the barns to the north along the grassed banks of the little stream that is overgrown with watercress, past the hoop house and the hay bales until we get to the Ganargua.  There we turn left and follow the trail marked with small Genesee Land Trust signs. Peacework leases our farmland from the Genesee Land Trust with a 25 year rolling lease.  CSA members contributed the money so that the Land Trust could purchase the farm ten years ago. This May Day Party is a significant anniversary, celebrating a full decade of cordial and productive cooperation between the farm and the land trust!  The Kraai Preserve is a nature preserve that honors the memory of Doug Kraai, a passionate conservationist as well as bison farmer, good friend and founding father of NOFA-NY.


Along the trail are ceramic plaques that identify some of the plants and trees. Students of the ceramic arts of CSA member Carol Bell made the plaques. There is an impressive patch of Horsetail or equisetum, one of the most ancient plants on earth.  Horsetail is rich in silica and makes a good spray to boost the immune system of vegetable crops like tomatoes.

Continue reading “A Walk Through the Kraai Preserve”

Carbon Farming at Peacework Farm: A Farm that Builds Carbon in the Soil

POF aireal view of Peacework farm 2008
From the air, you can see the patchwork of diverse crops in many beds near the barns at Peacework Farm, a contrast with the monocropped fields like the one on the upper left where corn and soy beans rotate year after year.

While most people understand the urgency of reducing the use of fossil fuels and resulting carbon emissions, fewer realize that a companion path is just as urgent – restoring carbon in the soil.  Fully a third of the excess carbon now in the atmosphere used to be in the soil.  Poor land management and industrial farming methods released that carbon into the air. Before forests and grasslands were converted to field agriculture, soil organic matter generally composed 6 to 10% of the soil mass.   These days, agricultural fields in the US average 1 to 3% organic matter.  Soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal has calculated that “a mere 2 percent increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere.” Using traditional methods, organic farms like Peacework are putting carbon in the soil and keeping it there.Sept27 025

Without requiring a billion dollar contraption like the one the tar sands folks boast about, Peacework cooperates with Nature to increase soil carbon.  The first and simplest practice the farmers use is to keep plants growing as much of the year as possible.  Plants are the miraculous carbon pumps – and they work for free.  Through photosynthesis, the chlorophyll molecule in their leaves allows plants to absorb energy from sunlight and to use that energy to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.  The plant releases the oxygen back into the air, and combines the hydrogen with carbon dioxide to make simple carbohydrates such as glucose. This process is so active that an estimated 15% of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere moves through photosynthetic organisms every year! Continue reading “Carbon Farming at Peacework Farm: A Farm that Builds Carbon in the Soil”

CSA – an Antidote to Industrial Farming

Very excited and honored to be here and to share the podium again with Professor Wen and Andre Leu!

At the 1993 NYS CSA Gathering in Syracuse, I shared my thoughts on the significance of CSA as an antidote to the dominant industrial food system: “We need to take our work more seriously.  We have the chance to build the food system that will replace the current one.  CSA is an idea – a tremendously flexible concept for a new consumer-farmer connection, an alternative system of distribution based on community values.  The economics of direct sales make this a win-win solution for farmers and consumers.  The farmer gets a decent price and the consumer pays less, since there is no middleman.  For the farmer, the CSA offers the possibility of a broad support group of people who genuinely care about the farm’s survival and who are willing to share the farmer’s risks.  Consumers have the opportunity to connect with the earth, know and trust the people who grow their food and support the local economy.  The big question we must answer – will this be sustainable?” These were bold words, and you may ask what I had been smoking, but in 2015, 28 years after the first tiny CSA began in NY, there are over 400 CSAs providing weekly shares to over 30,000 households. In Maine, one family out of 5 belongs to a CSA.

Continue reading “CSA – an Antidote to Industrial Farming”

Rural Regeneration, Part 3

Shared Harvest CSA, Farm Tours, and People Care

There would be little point to traveling half way across the world just to go to workshops and meetings. You can do that by skype or teleconferencing. The many encounters and personal connections around a conference are at least as valuable as the formal agenda.  At meals and late into the evenings I had wonderful talks with friends old and new.  Here are a few glimpses.

Shinji Hashimoto with Joy Daniel, Director of the Institute for Integrated Rural Studies, India, at farm tour before CSA conference in California, January 2013

One of my dearest friends in the international CSA network is Shinji Hashimoto.  I had the pleasure of touring his farm on my first trip to Japan and four years later staying for two days with his family during the Urgenci conference in Kobe in 2010. I was a guest at a special dinner to celebrate 17 new farmers in his area whom Shinji helped train. Then I returned the favor by arranging for Shinji to be a keynote speaker at a NOFA-NY conference in 2013. In Beijing he had some sad and disturbing news.  Fukushima and radioactive contamination have caused a serious and perhaps irreparable split among the members of the board of the Japanese Organic Agriculture Association (JOAA), which has championed Teikei since its origins in the mid 1970’s.  JOAA has been very supportive of the Fukushima area farmers who are determined to stay on their family lands despite the contamination.  Michio Uozumi, a Teikei farmer and JOAA board member, has been able to demonstrate soil management methods that tie up the cesium in the soil so that the produce does not contain dangerous levels of radioactivity.

Uozumi Farm testing for Cesium (2)
Michio Uozumi created this slide to demonstrate that the level of cesium in the crops from his farm in 2011 was much lower than the level in the soil or in most cases undetectable.

JOAA has also supported sending young farmers to help those who remain in the contaminated zone.  Shinji Hashimoto is vehemently opposed to this program.  Shinji’s father was a child in Hiroshima when the US dropped the atom bomb on that city at the end of WWII and has spent all his life observing what that exposure did to survivors.  Shinji accedes that farmers may be able to make the produce safe, but the whole area continues to have dangerously high radiation levels.  He has taken a Geiger counter there to do his own testing and considers it immoral to expose young farmers to this level of contamination. Shinji also shared the much happier story of how his Teikei members and fellow farmers dug out his farm after the landslide last summer. Continue reading “Rural Regeneration, Part 3”

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