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The Prying Mantis

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

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Root Solutions to Crisis for Family-Scale Farms

By Elizabeth Henderson

“Agricultural choices must be made by these inescapable standards: the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.’ Wendell Berry, Right Kind of Farming

For almost 5 decades (50th anniversary coming up in 2021!), the Northeast Organic Farming Association  (NOFA) has been dedicated to supporting and expanding the community of farmers, homesteaders and conscious eaters who build their lives and livelihoods through agroecology – growing and consuming food, forage and other crops in as much harmony with natural processes and rhythms as we can muster.  We have been leaders in promoting buy local organic and alternatives to globalized industrialized chemical agriculture. To enable shoppers to identify organically grown food, NOFA has put a lot of resources – time and energy -into developing and maintaining organic certification and the integrity of the organic label. Increasing public recognition of that label has helped save many generational farms and enabled the creation of new farms. But that label is not enough to keep family-scale farms viable.

For as long as I can remember (and I started farming in 1980), most of the farmers I know have supported their farms by someone’s off farm job – either the farmer or someone in the family. Under relentless and steadily increasing financial pressures, dairy farmers sell their cows and turn to field crops, raising cattle for beef or selling hay. Anything to keep the farm alive. Talented young farmers give it their all for five, even ten years – and then quit.  Experienced farmers, including organic farmers, go out of business – the farmers give up the struggle, sell what they can and find “real” jobs.  Development gobbles up farmland which has grown too expensive for a farmer to buy with farm earnings. The price farmers receive for crops does not cover all the costs of keeping farms viable, not to mention the extra costs of ecological or regenerative farming systems. The farm crisis is not over.

Can we find solutions? Continue reading “Root Solutions to Crisis for Family-Scale Farms”

What Domestic Fair Trade Means for Farmers

By Elizabeth Henderson

In a world where fair trade prevailed, family-scale farms, both rural and urban, would prosper, paying living wages to the farmers and to all employees, forming the backbone of a stable economy.  Farm gate prices would cover the full cost of production including these wages, a decent benefits package with full health coverage, a retirement fund, workers compensation and unemployment insurance, funds to maintain and develop the farm, and ten percent for savings.  Farmers would not be under pressure to overproduce and would practice conservation of the soil and of all the natural resources upon which the farm depends.  If a farm raised livestock, the animals would enjoy the five freedoms. Access to a healthy supply of food would be considered a basic human right. Contracts with buyers would be negotiated and long-term, farmers would be free to discuss the conditions of the contract with other farmers, their family and legal advisors and a conflict resolution process would make it possible to discuss differences and grievances without retaliation.  Buyers would only cancel contracts for just cause. Continue reading “What Domestic Fair Trade Means for Farmers”

Organic Farms Are Under Attack From Agribusiness, Weakened Standards

By Elizabeth Henderson

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute, and originally published by Truthout.

The certified organic label has helped save many generational farms and enabled people like me, who do not come from agricultural backgrounds, to become successful farmers. Organic farming has brought environmental benefits — healthier soils, freedom from toxic pesticides and herbicides — to 6.5 million acres in the U.S.

Organic shoppers are willing to pay a little extra for food that is free from chemical residues. But the organic label is in trouble after reports of fraudulently labeled food made national news. On top of that, agribusiness pressures and National Organic Program (NOP) actions have weakened standards. Yet at a time when farms are in distress, family-scale farmers need a label with integrity. They need a label that provides public support from people who understand that small-scale farmers are an endangered species.

In the 1980s, I was one of the organic farmers who helped launch organic certification. Farming and non-farming members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association worked together to write standards for a label that identified the real organic food that non-farmers wanted to buy — for which they were willing to pay enough to keep the small farms in business.

To pass the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 — which established the NOP for organic food production on farms and in processing plants with a National Organic Standards Board of stakeholders to advise USDA, as well as a process for certification and accreditation — organic farming organizations and consumer and environmental groups allied with the Organic Trade Association, which was dominated by organic processors. At that time, there were few processed organic foods on the market, but since the NOP was implemented in 2002, sales of those foods have grown impressively. Cracks in our united front began to appear, as large conventional food corporations bought up independent organic brands and savvy players figured out how to scam the system.

The NOP standards require outdoor access for livestock, grass for ruminants and dirt for scratching for poultry. Shortly after the creation of the NOP, a chicken farm, where the chickens never walk outside but only access the outdoors by spending time on a porch, applied for certification. Today, most eggs with the organic label come from similar farms.

A bigshot with Organic Trade Association launched the first of the mega-dairies. The milk from these multi-thousand cow dairies is crowding family-scale dairies out of the market, causing heartbreaking farm closures by taking advantage of an obscure loophole that allows them to increase herd size quickly by using conventional (non-organic) heifers. These farms also cut corners on feed. Organic regulations require that 30 percent of feed by dry weight comes from pasture. Aerial photos of mega-dairies suggest that they do not have adequate pasture.

Despite clear language in OFPA requiring that organic farming be based on the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility, the NOP allows the certification of hydroponic produce. Hydroponic operations grow fruits and vegetables indoors, in greenhouses or hoop houses, or even large warehouses where all the light is artificial and the roots of the plant sit in a neutral medium with nutrients provided through the irrigation system. The acreage of hydroponic tomatoes and berries increases steadily, underselling produce from smaller farms and hoodwinking shoppers who have no way of knowing what they are buying.

Kate and Enid Leading Marchers at Rally snapseed mini Oct 30, 2016
Kate Duesterberg of Cedar Circle Farm, and the late Enid Wonnacott, longtime and much beloved executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, protest against allowing hydroponically grown produce to be certified organic, October 30, 2016, in Thetford, Vermont.
Claudia Henrion

Organic farmers and independent organic processors are deeply upset by these developments and are taking actions that the public can support.

Because family farms are so economically vulnerable, farmers who feel betrayed by the NOP do not want to undermine consumer confidence in the organic label on which so many farms depend.

This chart shows the large decline in numbers of farms while the amount of land has only declined slightly in recent years and has been consolidated into ever fewer and larger farms.
This chart shows the large decline in numbers of farms while the amount of land has only declined slightly in recent years and has been consolidated into ever fewer and larger farms.
United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

Instead, there are three efforts underway to create add-ons to that label. The Real Organic Project will signal that products were grown in soil or raised on pasture. Regenerative Organic Certification will assure that products come from farms that build soil carbon to fight climate change, treat livestock humanely and use fair labor practices. The Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certified label is already on a few products signaling that the farms pay living wages with decent working conditions.

For the health of our planet and agrarian justice — meaning fairness to family-scale farms to ensure their survival — consumers need to become co-producers, learning about why it is such a struggle for smaller farms to thrive, and acting in solidarity by paying fair prices, buying direct or seeking out meaningful labels.

Agrarian Justice: Creating a Food System Worth Sustaining

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(Keynote delivered in Dayton, Ohio, February 15, 2019)

Elizabeth Henderson

I feel truly honored to have been entrusted to speak to the theme of your conference, “Just Farming: the Path Before Us” in celebration of OEFFA’s 40th anniversary!  I was here once before – in 1996 when the theme was Cooperating for Change! NOFA is up to 48! Together with the other organic farming associations, we are part of an important social movement.

In the 2016 presidential elections, I suspect that had “neither of the above” been on the ballot, it would have won the farmer vote.  The sad reality is that both mainstream parties advocate the neoliberal, free trade, cheap food policies that the ever more aggregated seed/food/chemical corporations have imposed upon our country since WWII to the detriment of family-scale farms all over the world.

But before I launch into this depressing story, let me ask a few questions:

If you farm or work on a farm or on the land in any way, please stand up. (Over half of the people in the audience of about 600 stood up.)

Please remain standing if you do this work full time. (About half of those standing remained standing)

Please remain standing if you make your full living from doing this work with no off farm income. (Only about a dozen people remained standing)

Now, please stand if you buy any of the food that you and your family eats. (Of course, everyone stood up.)

Thank you – we all have a stake in creating agrarian justice – making work on the land a dignified, respected way of life in which people can support themselves and their families growing healthy food for our communities. Continue reading “Agrarian Justice: Creating a Food System Worth Sustaining”

Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal

“De-carbonize the Atmosphere, Re-carbonize the Soil!”(Jim Goodman, inspired by La Via Campesina)

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No till Swiss Chard at Woven Roots Farm, MA, 2016. Surrounded by woods, Woven Roots farmers, Jen and Pete Salinetti and their crew, use no-till regenerative organic practices to grow a diversity of certified organic vegetables for the members of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Farms like this one build carbon in the soil while also producing high quality, nutrient dense food.

By Elizabeth Henderson

“For Sale” signs have replaced “Dairy of Distinction” on the last two dairy farms on the road I drive to town. The farm crisis of the 1980’s that never really went away has resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2013, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2012. Farm income has continued to decline ever since. The moment is ripe for the movement for a sustainable agriculture to address the root causes.

Just as in the 80’s, a brief period of high commodity prices and cheap credit in the 2010’s resulted in a debt and asset bubble. Then prices collapsed. Meanwhile, ever larger corporations have consolidated their dominance in the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay going to farmers. At first this mainly hit conventional farms, but in 2017, processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business. Reports of farmer suicides are increasing dramatically.  Despite the shortage of farm workers, their wages remain below the poverty line.  People of color and women are often trapped in the lowest paying food system jobs and many are forced to survive on SNAP payments. The tariff game of #45 is only making things worse. The farm consolidation that has taken place has grave consequences for the environment and for climate change as well. The newly passed Farm Bill barely touches the structural and fairness issues that led to this on-going disaster for family-scale farms and the food security of this country.

An alliance of social movements and members of Congress led by newly elected Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) are proposing a Green New Deal that would initiate an emergency mobilization to address economic inequities and reverse our blind march toward catastrophic climate change, attracting much more attention than the Green Party version. In a draft resolution, Ocasio Cortez proposes the formation of a Select Committee to develop a plan to transition the US to a carbon neutral economy within ten years, together with a comprehensive package including guaranteed living wage jobs, public banks, and a “Just Transition” for all workers. As of this writing, 43 members of the House have signed on to the concept.

The sustainable agriculture movement with our many organizations and individuals – farmers, foodies, ngos, faith groups and enviros together with farmworkers, food chain workers and their advocates – should become active shapers of the food and agriculture aspects of the Green New Deal. Frontline communities that bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate chaos and food and economic system breakdown often have the most penetrating insights into pathways forward and real solutions.  For this reason, in addition to the ethical imperatives, fair representation of frontline communities at decision-making tables (of the Select Committee and beyond) is essential.  As a white woman wanting to be the best ally I can, I hope to warmly encourage white people in the food movement to un-learn racism and use privilege to acknowledge and overcome our history of oppression.

What was the New Deal and What Did it Do for Agriculture?

Under tremendous pressure from the social movements in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, “U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal—a set of government programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, and stimulate the economy. It included the building of homes, hospitals, school, roads, dams and electrical grids. The New Deal put millions of people to work and created a new policy framework for American democracy. New Deal programs included public employment (Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps); farm price supports (Agricultural Adjustment Act); environmental restoration (reforestation and land conservation); labor rights (Wagner Act); minimum wages and standards (National Recovery Act and Fair Labor Standards Act); cooperative enterprises (Works Progress Administration support for self-help); public infrastructure development (TVA and rural electrification); subsidized basic necessities (food commodity programs and Federal Housing Act); construction of schools, parks, and housing (Civil Works Administration); and income maintenance (Social Security Act).”[i]

Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace fashioned the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), introducing supply management together with parity pricing, a national policy of price supports that functioned from 1933 – 53. In effect, parity provided a minimum wage for farms.  In “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy,” Kevin Engelbert, NY’s first certified organic dairy farmer, explains how it established “commodity prices that would give farmers the purchasing power, with respect to items they buy, equivalent to the purchasing power of agricultural commodities in a ‘base’ period.” [ii]

In “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau describe the parity system in more detail:

The parity program had thee central features:

(1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.

(2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. Since government storage of surpluses was expensive, this feature was crucial to reducing government costs.

(3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. 

From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952. [iii] 

What Could a Green New Deal (GND) Do for Agriculture?

First of all, instead of current subsidies that purportedly compensate for constantly falling farm prices, but really only subsidize the big processors, vertically integrated livestock factories, and international traders, family-scale farms need a system of fair pricing, that is, prices that cover the real costs of living and farming, including conservation practices that regenerate natural resources. We need to dust off and refresh the concept of parity to create a just transition out of our calamitous current conditions. Twenty-first century parity should provide price supports and supply management for the basic commodities – “wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products”[iv] – as described by Ritchie and Ristau, and reestablish farmer held reserves for grains as buffer stocks in case of poor harvests or climate disasters that also protect farmers against price volatility.

Parity pricing and supply management should also be extended to other crops, what Farm Bill language calls “specialty crops.”  Since fruit and vegetables are perishable, the GND should invest in value-added enterprises that could be farmer or worker-owned coops in every county where these crops are grown.  If excess supply of fresh produce threatened to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year round.  Investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide many jobs. The GND would return livestock onto family farms, in place of large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have eliminated the need for diverse crop rotations. Family farm livestock production integrates crops and livestock for a much more flexible and resilient system that reduces the pressure for routine antibiotic use. This system also increases the biodiversity on these farms thus strengthening their economic viability adding opportunities for new farmers while improving the quality of the meat, milk, and eggs.

Next, farmers need contract reform.  Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation to protect their rights to freedom of association so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position in negotiating fair contracts without threat of retaliation.  In addition, a limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down.  With control by mega-corporations an ever greater threat to family-scale farming, the GND must be linked with anti-trust measures like the Booker bill that calls for a moratorium on mergers (S.3404, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018).

All farmers should be eligible for GND programs whether they own land, rent it with cash payments or through share cropping.

The GND should include measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession. Ocasio-Cortez wants to guarantee living wages and green jobs – that must include the jobs on farms. Since farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 60% of farm workers on US crop farms are undocumented, immigration reform based on human rights needs to accompany the GND. Human rights based immigration reform would prevent the separation of families and include a path to legal status.  Farm workers should have the option of a path to citizenship if they want to remain in the US or freedom to come and go across the border to visit their families back home.

Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If farms are guaranteed prices that cover their costs of production, farm earnings will be high enough to pay farm workers time and a half for overtime over 40 hours a week like workers in almost every other sector of the economy.

In writing about parity, Ritchie and Ristau make a very important additional point: “Paying farmers a fair price would result in a one-time increase in food prices of only 3 to 5 percent, less than a nickel on a loaf of bread. Since the supply management proposal also contains provisions for doubling the funds available for food assistance, the poor would not be hurt by this small increase in food prices.” [v]

Investment in Regenerative Farming Practices

To invest effectively in “drawdown” of greenhouse gases (GHG), the GND must include incentives and training for farmers to become the true managers of solar power that photosynthesis makes possible. The largest, and only remaining, “sink” for carbon on earth is the soil and regenerative farming practices increase soil carbon. The more fertile the soil, the more carbon it holds. The same practices that improve soil health, such as planting cover crops, recycling crop residues, and reducing tillage, the basic practices of organic agriculture grounded in agroecology, build soil carbon. In a win-win-win combination, building the health of soil improves farm viability, increasing farm resiliency to extreme weather events, and improving food quality and surrounding water quality.

Since 1/3 of the energy used by conventional agriculture comes from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which are natural gas derivatives, farms under the GND will reestablish the importance of natural nitrogen creation by legumes and compost.

Confining cattle, hogs and poultry in huge structures turns manure from a valuable soil nutrient into a big storage problem, with lagoons that overflow during extreme rainfall events with large, negative environmental impacts. Ending the confinement of livestock will also lead to better manure management.  Raising livestock on pasture turns manure back into a benefit. Especially when combined with skillful rotations, integrating livestock with crops builds soil carbon. Planting trees in pastures (silvoculture) builds carbon even faster. The GND should invest in training and incentives for farmers to make these changes in their practices. Farmers will be able to afford to farm more ecologically, if we push for the structural changes that will be part of the GND and will revitalize farms and rural areas.

The GND should preserve farmland and discourage sprawl. Research in California and New York led by UC Davis and American Farmland Trust show that the conversion of agricultural land to development, particularly low-density real estate development, increases GHG emissions. Farms emit fewer greenhouse gases than the homes that often replace them. Tax and other incentives can make preserved farmland available to new farmers.

The GND should also ban speculation on agricultural commodities and farmland since this drives up the price of land and food. Strict regulations should control investors who are not producers or final users.  Food derivatives markets should not be used as investment vehicles by banks and investment funds.

A Just Transition for Farming

Ocasio Cortez calls for a “Just Transition” for all workers.  In agriculture, a just transition would mean providing access to farmland to those from whom it has been unjustly taken, the reparations called for by farmers of color and Native Americans (http://www.soulfirefarm.org/support/reparations/).

Farmworkers should have the opportunity to become farmers. The GND should include training for farmworkers who have been trapped in repetitive, body-taxing jobs so that they can become farm managers themselves.

It should also include retraining for the farmers who now farm thousands of acres using heavy equipment, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to use regenerative practices with a buy-out scheme for CAFOs. Once these farmers give up the heavy use of chemicals, parity pricing and supply management will free them from needing so many acres for the economic viability of their farms.  GND incentives could encourage them to sell excess land to new farmers and to retrained farm workers.  Thousands of acres could become available for smaller scale farms and also for wildlife. Increasing the social diversity of farmers will at the same time promote biodiversity, since they will grow a greater variety of crops and livestock breeds, which also increases sustainability. As La Via Campesina and others note, small farmers cool the planet.[vi]

A Just Transition would provide incentives to farmers to reduce their production of bio-fuels that take land out of food production. Instead, farms could receive payment for other kinds of renewable energy production that makes use of marginal land, sun, wind and the heat of the earth.

With the goals of food, fiber and energy self-sufficiency and the elimination of hunger at the local, regional, or national level, farmers should be weaned from the current focus on an export economy.  Thus, changes in trade policies will also have to accompany the GND.

Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Participate in Creating a Green New Deal

Everyone eats. To “eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation,” as called for in the  draft resolution for the GND, means that everyone will have access to good food, fair food, food they can afford without impoverishing themselves or the world’s farmers. That has to be part of the GND. For the food system to be sustainable, we must balance the interests of farmers and farmworkers while constantly expanding access to local high quality organic foods for more and more people of all income levels, comprehensive domestic fair trade by definition.

When the 17% of all workers who are food workers earn living wages of $15 an hour or more, they will get off food stamps (a savings for tax payers) and be able to afford to buy high quality, locally grown food from their own earnings. The billions of dollars that currently go into subsidizing crop insurance could be reallocated to increase funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs so that low-income people can afford the higher prices that would be needed to fully cover farm production costs for fair, regenerative, ecological practices.

A recent article by Whitney Webb, “Corporations see a Different Kind of “Green” in Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal,” [vii] accuses the newly elected Representative of moving to the right and opening the door for corporate takeover: “Despite its pretty, progressive-sounding banner, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal — in its current form — will continue to perpetuate gross distributive injustice by ensuring that the side with the most “green” keeps winning as the world continues to seek solutions to climate change.” This will only happen if social movements like the sustainable agriculture movement hang back and allow neo-liberalism which is dominant in both mainstream parties, to continue the cheap food policies that have put farms in crisis.

In “The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement?” Eric Holt-Gimenez writes: “Social movements have an opportunity to join together as never before—not just to get behind the Green New Deal—but to form a broad-based, multi-racial, working class movement to build political power. Visionary leaders from these movements are already knitting together strategies for solidarity, education and action…The Green New Deal just might be the fulcrum upon which the farm, food and climate movements can pivot our society towards the just transition we all urgently need and desire.”[viii]

By not merely endorsing the Green New Deal, but insisting on a place at the table when the program is written, the sustainable and organic agriculture movement will open the path to the ecological, equitable and fair food system we dream about. And while we are in visionary mode, funding for the GND could come from taxing polluters.


[i] 12 Reasons Labor Should Demand a Green New Deal by Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein, In These Times. Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, 6:20 pm.

[ii] Kevin Engelbert, “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy” https://www.cornucopia.org/2013/01/a-brief-history-of-parity-pricing-and-the-present-day-ramifications-of-the-abandonment-of-a-par-economy/

[iii] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau, League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN

[iv] P. 8,The Agricultural Adjustment Act, PUBLIC—No. 10—73D CONGRESS, H.R. 3835

[v] Ritchie and Ristau, op. cit., p. 14.

[vi] https://viacampesina.org/en/la-via-campesina-position-paper-small-scale-sustenable-farmers-are-cooling-down-the-earth/

https://fairworldproject.org/get-informed/small-scale-farmers-cool-the-planet/

[vii] The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement? Eric Holt-Gimenez, Food First, 12.17.2018: https://foodfirst.org/the-green-new-deal-fulcrum-for-the-food-justice-movement/

The 4th Assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, October 12 – 15, 2018

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Opening Mistica, October 13: The Food Workers succeed in smashing the WALL (MURO) constructed by Monsanto, Walmart, ConAgra and the other representatives of the corporate food system.

By Elizabeth Henderson

The 4th National Assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) took place against a backdrop of intense labor struggle as Community 2 Community, the hosts for the gathering, supported a strike by berry farm workers led by the independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.  Attendees also took part in the 88th week of the “Dignity Vigils” that C2C conducts outside the Bellingham City Council meeting.  Led by C2C director Rosalinda Guillen, the vigils demand that the councilors make Bellingham a sanctuary city to protect undocumented local residents from deportation. I attended the Assembly as a representative of NOFA which joined the US Food Sovereignty Alliance in 2017 as part of a deliberate effort to broaden our connections to efforts involving people from diverse sectors of the food system. The declaration from the Assembly lists the range of participants – farmworkers, food chain workers, fishers, family farmers, urban agriculturalists, food providers, and social justice advocates.

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For the 88th week in a row, Rosalinda Guillen, of Community 2 Community Development, calls upon the Bellingham, WA. City Council to take measures to protect local undocumented people from arrest and deportation by ICE.

Continue reading “The 4th Assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, October 12 – 15, 2018”

CSA Beyond Borders: The 7th International CSA Symposium in Thessaloniki, Greece

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Lively discussion at the plenary session, November 9, 2018.

By Elizabeth Henderson

At regular intervals during the 7th International CSA Symposium, Jocelyn Parot, director of Urgenci, asked the people assembled together – “Is there hope after Thessaloniki?” And the crowd roared back – “yes!” Farmers, food activists and researchers from 40 countries gathered for four intense days in the City Hall to share experiences about food sovereignty in a country that has lost its financial sovereignty. For the first time there were representatives from Community Supported Fisheries as well as farms. The Symposium was organized by the International Community Supported Agriculture Network urgenci and its Greek partner, the Hellenic Network for Agroecology, Food Sovereignty and Access to Land, Agroecopolis.

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Jocelyn Parot, Director of Urgenci, Shi Yan Sina from Shared Harvest Farm and Vice-President of Urgenci, and Jan Valeska, CSA organizer and trainer from Prague, welcome the over 300 people from 40 countries to the opening plenary of the Symposium.

Necessity being the mother of invention, people in Greece have much to teach about how to scrape by when times are hard and about the power of solidarity to save people and communities from the distress brought on by unemployment, slashed pensions, and a steady wave of refugees from war and economic crisis. In contrast to this grim backdrop, the symposium was a joyous learning community, combining three conferences in one: the 4th all-European gathering, the 2nd Mediterranean network and the 7th International conference. There was a full day of tours, workshop tracks on CSA, food justice and solidarity economics, practitioner sharing, and advocacy, special tracks for the Mediterranean folks, and for CSA beginners, an evening of CSA videos, Greek folk dancing, and as a finale, the Urgenci General Assembly. There was even a group action – digging and planting a small garden at the public school where some of the workshops took place. A team of interpreters who volunteered their services did simultaneous translation to and from English, French, Greek, Turkish, Spanish and Korean. For reports from conference workshops, many photos and the CSA videos, visit the Urgenci website – www.urgenci.net .

As a participant in most of the seven international gatherings, it was an intense experience of encounters with people whose stories I have been following for decades and new acquaintances. Here are some highlights.

Continue reading “CSA Beyond Borders: The 7th International CSA Symposium in Thessaloniki, Greece”

CSA – Solidarity Economics or Capitalist Innovation?

Plenary address to Community Supported Agriculture Beyond Borders! the 7th International CSA Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, November 8 – 11, 2018

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The 324 participants at CSA Beyond Borders pose for the obligatory group photo.

Greetings!

Urgenci’s Mission is to “promote all forms of partnership between producers and local consumers, and Community Supported Agriculture initiatives as a solution to the challenges associated with the global industrial agricultural production and consumption paradigm.”

You may ask – what is an honorary president and why would Urgenci need one?  Allow me to explain.  Being honorary means that there is an actual president – Judith Hitchman, who does all the real work of a president, traveling relentlessly around the globe, persuading, badgering and pressuring the international bodies that have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals to actually live up to their promises to end hunger and support smallholder farms and food sovereignty.  My role is to add a little extra – I serve as the historian of this movement, collecting stories from many countries, observing, encouraging.  As a CSA farmer who made my living on a small-scale farm for over 30 years, I look at what goes on with the eyes not of a theorist or an academic but of a practitioner, a passionate participant.

Looking over the world from my lofty honorary heights, I see that smallholders have not yet turned back the tide of the industrialized monocrop monopolies of agribusiness.  If anything, the Empire has extended its grasp – dark anti-democratic forces are in the ascendant in the US, Latin America, parts of Europe, India. Inequality is at its most extreme in countries like mine – back to the days of the robber barons.  Growth in the economy goes to the top one tenth of a percent. Concentration of power in the food system intensifies. The world’s hope for democracy is becoming an oligarchy.

Aggregate farm income in the US in 2017 was half what it was in 2014. Dairy farms especially are struggling with milk prices under the cost of production even for organic dairies.  The farm share of the food dollar is shrinking and farms continue to go out of business. As in India, there are farmer suicides in Iowa. Recent research shows that “over the past decade, an increase in deportations and stricter immigration policies have begun to shrink the United States’ agricultural labor force. The produce industry is currently experiencing $5 billion to $9 billion in annual losses due to labor shortages.” Prices will rise, and the present immigration policies will cost shoppers more than if farms paid farmworkers living wages.

In countries like France and the US where CSA has been flourishing for over a decade, entrepreneurs out of a profit have taken notice.  If there is money to be made, venture capital moves in, replicating the CSA language without the reality: in the US we have One Egg, Blue Apron, Gobble, whose ad reads:

“We’re flexible. Skip weeks, change dishes, and cancel anytime — only order when and what you want. No commitment. For busy people, Gobble is a life saver. Satisfaction guaranteed.”

Farmigo ran a food box service for a while and then in August last year suddenly closed shop leaving farmers and customers high and dry. A brand new study by the Berkeley Labor Center finds that the jobs at these meal kit fulfillment centers have low wages, unstable shifts and cold unsafe working conditions. In CA an outfit named Imperfect Produce has even claimed they were saving the world by reducing food waste–and helping farmers by buying surplus ugly produce that would have been thrown out, (while in reality, this produce would not have gone to the landfill but to food banks and food pantries) taking customers away from Phat Beets, a grassroots ngo that runs the BeetBox CSA supporting small farmers of color mostly farming under 50 acres, including a one acre youth farm at an Oakland High School.  Luckily, Food First exposed this travesty, and most customers returned to BeetBox.

And then there is the weather – swinging wildly out of control.  In September after Hurricane Florence, I received this email from the Underground Farm in NC:

“We have reluctantly decided not to hold our Fall/ Winter 2018 CSA and will refund all monies previously received. As you can imagine, we are very unhappy to take this action as well.

“Hurricane Florence hit our farm hard and also every other farm in Carteret County, indeed in nearly all counties in Eastern NC.  We lost all the crops in the field that we had seeded or transplanted as did the greenhouse that was starting our second and third successions. We lost all our fall-bearing fruit trees (pears, persimmons, apples) and most figs and pecans.” A month later, the farmers announced that they were retiring completely.

Sadly, Shinji Hashimoto, who has played an important role in Urgenci, could not attend this conference because of the repeated weather disasters he has been experiencing on his farm in Japan.

These are hard times.  But remember the people’s wisdom – it is darkest before the dawn.

And that is where CSA and our worldwide movement for food sovereignty comes in.

By contrast with all this grim news, or perhaps as a consequence, CSAs and the movement for food sovereignty continue to spread around the world. There is so much exciting activity in Europe, there is no way to keep up with all the creative projects to spread CSA and help established CSAs to thrive – Be Part of CSA, SolidBase, EATingCraft.

In China, next month they will be holding the CSA Summit Forum and the 10th China Community Supported Agriculture Conference organized by the Rural Construction Centre of RENMIN University of China Department of Sociology of Tsinghua University Rural Regeneration Centre of Peking University CSA Conference Organizing Committee, it will be held on 14-16th, December in Zhanqi village, Pidu district, Chengdu, Sichuan province.

In the US where farmers of color have lost their land 5 times as fast as white farmers, African American and Latinx farmers are regenerating long unfarmed family land and initiating new farms. They are the fastest growing farming sector.  Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitle-Wolff at Soul Fire Farm, in Grafton, NY have transformed sloping fields of heavy clay into terraced permanent beds where their collective grows enough vegetables for a CSA of low income people back in their old neighborhood in inner city Albany.  They conduct popular trainings of black and latinx farmers, workshops for at-risk youths as an alternative to incarceration, and workshops to help white people learn how to dismantle racism and white supremacy.

The Homeless Garden Project, one of the oldest CSAs in the US, will finally move from a temporary site on developer owned land to a permanent farm on 600 acres of public land, part of  the Santa Cruz, CA greenbelt in 2020. Their mission – “In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world.” This project provides transitional jobs, pay and support services for homeless people, teaching them basic life skills required for employment while growing organic vegetables so that they can move successfully into other jobs. Over its 30 years of operation, The Homeless Garden Project has helped hundreds of people to get back on their feet, find work and homes.

In Genoa the Orto Collective is providing work for African migrants, building terraced gardens on formerly abandoned land near the city, doing urban horticulture and selling veggies boxes (www.facebook.com/ortocollettivogenova/

At Angelic Organics, a biodynamic CSA farm with 1000 member household in the Chicago area, farmer John Peterson devotes his writing talents to colorful embellishments of the meaning of CSA:

When you sign up, you dedicate yourself to being our customer for the year, thus providing us a secure market — a welcome measure of certainty in the fickle world of farming! We, in turn, dedicate ourselves to being your farmers, providing you with a varied, nutritious vegetable diet. We do our very best to bring you a beautiful and bountiful box each week, but since our boss, Nature, provides no guarantees — we can’t offer any either. One of the premises of a Community Supported Agriculture program is that the shareholder shares, through the veggies, the farmers’ experience of nature’s mischief (and blessings).

 

As happens so often in human history, the best ideas bubble up from the bottom; the greatest wisdom comes from most afflicted. Here in Greece, you have lost your financial sovereignty. Necessity being the mother of invention, to cope with austerity, you are leading the way to local food sovereignty.  So exciting to be here and so much to learn from you. Thank you for hosting us, despite all the obstacles!

 

 

 

Growing Our Roots

By Elizabeth Henderson

Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, February 2004

“We aim to rescue the government from the control of the privileged few and made it function for the use and benefit of all by abolishing monopoly in every form.” Declaration of Principles of the Farmer Labor Association, 1924.

It is truly an honor to be here again!

The past 3 decades have been years of solid achievement for organic agriculture.  Like a chestnut tree seedling, we have been growing our roots, sending them down deep into the soil before putting our energies into growing upwards towards the sun and outwards into the air.  Without much help from the government, university researchers, or the extension services, we have created an ecologically sound way of farming, an effective system of verification, organic certification, the most highly respected of all the eco-labels, and the only sector of US agriculture that is attracting young people and arousing hope for the future of rural communities.  Our growth is bringing us to a critical crossroads. Will our trunk grow straight or crooked? How high will we spread our branches?  Whom will they shelter?  Whom will we feed?

Continue reading “Growing Our Roots”

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