I won’t be silent

Black lives matterOur country is in turmoil, gripped by widespread protests over deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police.  I’m saddened by what has been happening in Louisville, even though I don’t know what has happened in Louisville.

There have been two incidents there in the past few months, in the midst of the global pandemic, in the midst of economic crisis, where police returned fire, killing two people who shouldn’t have died. These incidents are under federal investigation.
The first incident resulted in the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26 year old African American emergency room technician. Just after midnight on March 13, police used a battering ram to enter her apartment to execute a search warrant. A judge authorized a “no-knock” search warrant, allowing police to forego announcing themselves. They were reportedly fired upon by Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend. He was initially charged in this incident, but those charges have been dropped.

What we don’t know: There are conflicting reports about whether the police chose to announce themselves, or not. Reports are that the investigation that this search warrant was issued for had already resulted in the arrest of the prime suspect, hours before and across town, so we don’t know why police were there in the first place. We don’t know why charges against Walker were dismissed, although it could be an indication prosecutors don’t believe the police account of what happened. Police did not record body camera footage, which may have been counter to department policy.


More appropriate to these pages, David McAtee, a 53 year old African-American man who owned and operated a barbecue stand in West Louisville, died after being shot by police around midnight on June 1. Police and National Guard were there to break up a crowd that had gathered because it was after a 9 PM curfew instituted because a minority of ongoing protests in support of racial justice had become violent. Once again, they were reportedly fired upon before returning fire in this incident.

What we don’t know: who actually fired on police. It could have been McAtee himself, but video released by police is inconclusive. Whoever it was, it is apparently a reaction to the firing of pepper balls by police. Once again, it’s unclear why police were there in the first place. Not all reports indicate this was a protest, and even if so, much bigger rallies were miles away downtown. Once again, there should have been body camera footage of this incident, but the officers involved failed to follow department policy, resulting in the firing of the Chief of Police.

In the video footage, McAtee is shown removing food from a group of smokers, evidently waiting on and feeding his customers. It’s what he was known for.

According to Marvin McAtee, David’s nephew, police often ate at the barbecue stand. Officers advised David to get a gun to prevent looting in the ongoing civil unrest, he said.
“He fed everybody, even the people that killed him,” said Marvin. “For free.” David McAtee had previously worked as a head cook at a shelter and halfway house. Brandon Smallwood was a co worker there. “All the shelter residents that were there, they were like family,” Smallwood said. “He loved to feed everybody. He loved to make people happy. He was just, like, a joyful person.” I add, he shouldn’t be dead.


dollar store

What does food justice, and a sustainable food system look like?
I don’t know how many times I’ve written about the lack of clear definition of the terms bandied about on the subjects I’ve chosen to write about, “organic” perhaps being public enemy #1. It’s enough to drive a good Frenchman like myself (le mot juste!) out of his cotton-pickin’ mind. But there’s a lot going on here that it’s time to debunk.
What do the most talked about elements of a sustainable food system do for us? By this I mean farmers’ markets, food hubs, and CSAs.   I use all three of these. I think they contribute positively to the quality of food on our table, and the health of our local economy, if only through the application of common sense, not academic research. But these are not the best tools for creating food justice, even though they are often promoted as such.

Food Injustice                                                                                                S.Margot Finn wrote an article with the above headline for the Breakthrough Institute that I find very telling. She says of these places, “such markets might give people double the dollar value for their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if they shop at this inconvenient, once-a-week produce vending system where you can’t buy paper towels or toothpaste.”
Let’s not forget, it’s expensive to be poor. It costs a lot of time when you have to work two jobs to make ends meet. It costs a lot of time to travel everywhere on a bus, because as Weird Al Yankovic pointed out, the things are always stopping. Don’t get me started about making a transfer. If you’re fortunate enough to have a car, it’s liable to need constant repair.

According to Truthdig
“In many parts of the U.S., mass transit is vastly inferior to the systems in Europe, Australia or Japan. If the poor aren’t losing time and money waiting for buses that run irregularly—assuming their area even has public transit at all—they are driving older cars in need of costly repairs.”  And this is just the beginning of the discussion. The banking and insurance industries are also called out for penalizing the poor in the above-referenced article.

And now…
In one of the most interesting developments, the city of Tulsa has required that dollar stores in some parts of town be at least one mile apart. Dollar General has gone on record as saying their customers travel no more than five miles to find them. I see why.  It seems unlikely this kind of regulation is helping.
In continuing to read Finn’s article, she goes on to debunk every notion about the correlation between a poor person’s diet and health. They cook more often at home, not less. They eat less fast food, not more. They are less likely to be obese. The kind of food they’re eating isn’t killing them, assuming they can get any food at all.
Her conclusion is, it is all a matter of class. Poor people aren’t doing well because they’re poor. Breaking this cycle takes higher wages, safer workplaces, better access to both mental and physical healthcare–the kinds of things advocates for the poor talk about all the time. A sustainable food system might include all the things the rest of us find helpful, but there’s no such thing as food justice, until we’re willing to do the right thing.

How do small farms survive?

Editor’s note:  In order to enhance the reader experience, links to source material are now found in the headings of each section.

I’ve had to cringe every time I pick up a gallon of milk, lately. My grandparents were dairy farmers, and prices are historically low, right now. I’ve pieced together my grandparents’ story based on history, personal experience, and stories told by family members.

PA barn

A family history

During the Great Depression, my grandfather, Clarence Singer, took a job off the farm driving a truck that collected milk from area farms to be shipped to New York City. Fortunately, the family’s Wayne County, Pennsylvania farm was just the right distance from the important New York City market for the technology of the day. They produced much of what they ate on the farm, but they needed some cash for other things. My grandfather was also in a battle with depression of another type: he took it hard when his infant daughter, Isabelle, died in 1931.

Changing times

Depressed milk prices create razor-thin margins that favor the very largest operations. This is a fact of economic life.
According to a recent article in the Troy Daily News, “many dairy product corporations are switching to ‘one-stop and drop’ operations where milk comes from one large operation instead of several smaller farms filling a milk truck together.” In other words, this is the last nail in the coffin of the marketing strategy that sustained my grandparents.
Jeff Knoop, a Brown Township, Miami County, dairy farmer who plans to get out in 2019, told the paper, “For whatever reason, America says they don’t want factory farms. That’s simply what these guys (consumers, parentheses mine) are doing, they are creating the factory farms, even though the American people say they don’t want that, but that’s where it’s going,” Jeff said. “The smaller dairies like this and small family farms are gone. They are the first ones going out.” Farms like Jeff Knoop’s, which can accomodate no more than 64 milk-producing heifers at one time.




Many people understand the value of fresher, more local produce and getting to know their farmer, yet consumers greet low prices with enthusiasm. People have choices. Too often, they don’t understand the consequences of those choices, but they make them. If you’re in the minority when it comes to choosing, you can choose to be a sore loser, or you can move on, and make the best of it. Conversely, winners shouldn’t gloat. If you like, you can translate all that to: Shut up, internet trolls of all stripes. But perhaps I digress.

To reflect

Dianne Shoemaker, a field specialist and dairy production economics professor with The Ohio State University provided these statistics that accompany the above article, which you may access by clicking on the heading of the previous section: 85 Ohio dairy farms were lost in the last three months of 2018. That left 2045 dairy farms remaining.
Jaclyn Krymowski, an Ohio writer responding on the website AgDaily, provides the statistic that, in my grandparents’ state of Pennsylvania, there were 525,000 dairy cows in 2014, compared to 531,000 in 2018. She goes on to say, in an article entitled No, dairy farming isn’t dying, “To be fair, a part of me hurts very deeply for (small dairy farmers). In the perfect world, I’d love to see (a) 45-cow dairy could hold its own as well as a 4,500-cow one. Expand or stay the same, all farms would stay in business. But that is not the reality of the world we live in.” Farming is, after all, a business that needs to change with the market. However, there are ways for small farms to stay in business.


Direct to consumer marketing

Direct to consumer marketing allows farms to keep more of the money that a consumer pays for the final product. This is crucial to their survival as a business. There are no distributors, or other steps along the way, people who would ask for a portion of that payment in order to keep their own selves in business. For dairy farmers, costs of starting their own processing plant are prohibitive, as Ohio and all adjacent states except Pennsylvania prohibit the sale of most unpasteurized milk. But for farmers whose produce doesn’t present these issues, what does this strategy require? What my grandparents’ farm had in the 1930s, the correct proximity to the market. Also, what small farms in our area have.

10% shift

If you are someone who recognizes the value of small farms around here, consider the 10% Shift promoted by local non-profit coalition Green Umbrella. This is a pledge to spend 10% of your food dollar on local products, and with the growing season not far ahead, now is a perfect time to make this commitment. Find it by clicking on the heading above.

A description of the evolution of a family dairy farm as development encroaches, one that’s interesting and yet typical of the experience, can be found here. The farm is in Cumberland County, Pa.

Farmers (market) in many ways


I’ve decided to celebrate National Farmers Market Week, (Aug. 7-13) not just by thinking of all the local markets I’ve had the opportunity to visit, to meet the vendors, and to help tell their stories. Instead, I’ll examine the different ways in which farmers take their products to market.

Recently, the New York Times published an article about aggregators and distributors more clearly defined as food hubs calling themselves CSAs. The upshot of the Times article was that, like many terms heard where farmers are directly marketing to consumers, the term Community Supported Agriculture is unregulated (except in California, no surprise), and there is no clear definition. To be fair though, and for the purposes of this article, as well as the information you’ll read on these pages in general, let’s look more closely at these terms.

The National Food Hub Collaboration defines a food hub as follows: “A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”  Locally, the entity that most closely meets this definition is Green BEAN Delivery.

Contrast this with the definition of a CSA from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.”

Clearly, the heart of a CSA is a farm, and farms come with farmers. According to the Times, a company called Farmigo that was delivering boxes of produce in New York, New Jersey, northern California, and Seattle, abruptly shut down that operation in the middle of the 2016 growing season, to return to its core business: the food distribution platform software that the company’s founder, Benzi Ronen, says will eventually and completely replace the supermarket. The Times article calls this delivery service a CSA. I’m reminded of the Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the Big Bad Wolf blows down Bugs’ house, and shoving Bugs aside, rummages through the rubble, disappointed. “No pigs here,” says the wolf. Well, no farmers, either.

Farmers are competing with these other services by acting as aggregators, as well. Locally, Rice Family Harvest, and Our Harvest, are farms that are delivering their own produce, and delivering other foodstuffs that they buy in, or simply distribute for other farmers.
Green BEAN Delivery started out as a food hub, doing distribution. They have added processing their own private-label products, and bought a couple of farms, one of them in Mason. In my opinion, farming is not their primary business. Not everyone will agree. Once again, in the space where farmers directly market to consumers, many terms are not clearly defined.

While it’s helpful to understand these things, there is good news. Defining these terms is not important. A recent University of California study indicates that buying local really does help the local economy. The study looked at producers engaged in direct marketing, and those who were not. It was acknowledged that direct marketers used other channels to do business. On average, they generated 44 % of revenue through direct marketing.
The study concluded that direct marketers purchased 89% of inputs (broadly, labor and materials) in the local marketplace, while the others purchased 45%. The total economic output factor was 1.86 for direct marketers, 1.42 for the others.

There are many ways for farmers to bring their produce to market. The local farmers market is primary for many, but by no means all.

Beginning with Benedict, faith works for sustainable food production in our local community

St. BenedictThe recent passing of the feast of St. Benedict on July 11 has brought up the contributions of Benedictine monks to agriculture. Considering St. Benedict of Nursia was born in the fifth century of the Common Era, and was dead by the middle of the sixth, you might think his work to restore the land is well chronicled, but such is not the case. This is more stunning when you consider he is also called “the father of modern monasticism“. His “Rule of St. Benedict” is a thorough guide for monastic life that is followed to this day. I’m working from limited sources today, so please forgive any inaccuracy.

Benedictine monasteries both contained and surrounded gardens. Cloister gardens were areas where monks could read, meditate, and pray. The sacristan’s garden provided flowers for the alter. In some cases the sacristan’s garden doubled as the paradise, at the altar end of the sanctuary, though in larger abbeys this could have been separate. The paradise was established to remind viewers of the lost Garden of Eden. Vegetables were grown in another area, and sometimes, medicinal herbs.

The Benedictine relationship to the land was one of restoration and nurture, something we could learn from in modern times. One source speaks of friars restoring estates where soil had been depleted by Roman practices which sought maximum economic gain. Others say Benedictines established themselves in swamps and marshes, draining and reclaiming land which was formerly considered useless. Given the prevalence of superstition in early times, I suspect these areas were also dark, scary sources of evil. Benedictines accepted them as equal in God’s creation, thus making a contribution not only to agriculture, but to sociological culture as well.

Another order came along that sought to follow the rule of St. Benedict, the Cistercians. Perhaps the Cistercians were more like farmers than gardeners, however, their contribution to this legacy can not be ignored. One early twentieth century observer, Henry Goodell, president of the then Massachusetts Agricultural College, was impressed by “the work of these grand old monks during a period of fifteen hundred years. They saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practiced it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it.”

We still need to work to restore land that has been exploited. We still need to expand our definition of arable land. We still need to remember the entirety of God’s creation. Locally, a religious community called Grailville does this work. Located in Loveland, Grailville is the headquarters of The Grail in the USA. The Grail is an international movement of women of faith working for peace, justice, and renewal of the earth.

The Grail is seeking new partnerships to make use of Grailville’s facilities. Although Grailville’s retreat center recently closed, they are pledged to continue Grailville’s mission to support sustainable agriculture and local food. 79 of Grailville’s 315 acres are certified organic. Six acres are leased to the Earth-Shares CSA, and 75 acres are pasture leased to other local farmers. These arrangements are expected to continue through the end of 2015. An announcement about the future of Grailville is also expected by the end of 2015.

Pig Tales: an omnivore’s quest for sustainable meat

Pig Tales cover

I’ve been reading and enjoying a new book. Pig Tales: an omnivore’s quest for sustainable meat, was just published this past Monday. In the book, author and James Beard award-winner Barry Estabrook explores the the fate of three types of hog: feral hogs, free ranging farm-raised hogs, and those in confined animal feeding operations. More importantly, he discovers the consequences of the human relationship with each of these animals.

The first porkers may have been domesticated almost 10,000 years ago. Estabrook talks with Richard Redding, a University of Michigan anthropologist who found, during excavations in Turkey, that humans there abandoned nomadic life and domesticated hogs as a means of sustenance around that time. Previously, it had been believed that when we evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, grains had been cultivated first, and animals second. However, Estabrook points out, pigs were the perfect partners for the change in lifestyle. They’ll eat what-have-you, and supplement their diet by fending for themselves. They’re able to defend themselves from predators. A sow can be bred every eight months or so, produces six to ten piglets, and those pigs are ready to eat in six months or so. Other meat animals are remarkably less prolific, and more dependent.

What happened? Redding suspects that hogs were destructive to cultivated grain fields when they came along. Pigs were now for the lower classes, those who didn’t have access to the land that grain requires. This was one subject of my conversation with Estabrook.

“There are half a dozen theories,” he said, on the origin of dietary laws restricting pork consumption for Jews and Muslims. “However, the well-to-do ate beef, goats, and sheep, and poor people ate pigs. It could have been a way to control the masses.” Pork was important as cities grew in the Middle Ages, he noted. Even in an urban environment, pigs owned by people without means could be left to fend for themselves.

After the discovery of the New World, Spanish conquistadors would leave hogs behind to ensure a food source when settlers arrived. The Ossabaw heritage breed was alone on a Georgia island for three or four hundred years, Estabrook said. “They developed a fat profile and fine muscle cells that chefs love, the opposite of very fast growing commercial hogs.”

Heritage breeds like this are often kept in a way they have been for centuries, allowed to roam about small farms. Large industrial farms employ the aforementioned fast growing breeds, where they’re kept in a confined space. Farming is inherently risky, as bad weather, pest, and disease problems are always in play, but industrial farming magnifies that risk. Industrial hog operations are no different.

“Every ten to fifteen years, an epidemic sweeps the entire industry,” Estabrook said. “When you have 1000 or more genetically similar animals in a confined space, it’s a perfect breeding ground for diseases to come out of nowhere.” Manure disposal is problematic as well, and Estabrook chronicles many legal battles that arose from the stench and health hazards that came from this. I asked him if he thought any progress had come from the light shed on industrial hog farming in courts of law.

“No, I don’t think we’ve made much progress. The biggest threat is the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, which hasn’t changed.” Antibiotics are given in industrial pork production to prevent disease, but they only cause more resistant bacteria to evolve. As in the case of the swine flu, diseases jump from hogs to humans rather easily, and super bugs are a threat to human populations.

“They have hog production in Denmark that’s every bit as industrial as ours,” Estabrook said. “But they don’t use antibiotics.”

Interactive online mapping tool helps PA farmers

PA barn

Most of us are only a few generations removed from the farm. And even if that’s not the case, most of us have seen life on the farm portrayed as a daily rhythm of repetitive chores timed to nearly coincide with sunrise and sunset. That’s an early start, and a late end, to each day. When farmers keep livestock, this portrayal is not far off, but it’s only part of the picture.

In my case, my mother’s parents were dairy farmers in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, a mountainous area 30 miles northeast of Scranton. Much of the land there is too steep for any use besides pasture, so dairy farming was a common choice. The Dairymen’s League, a cooperative which was active in the area in the early part of the 20th century, controlled most of the milk sold in New York City. In other words, with membership in this co-op came a guaranteed market, and a guaranteed price. My grandfather drove a truck which collected milk for such a co-op, while my grandmother and her parents ran the farm.

However, this area is prone to erosion and runoff because of the topography, and this is an even more sensitive issue because it lies in the Susquehanna River basin. At 464 miles long, the Susquehanna is the longest river draining into the Atlantic Ocean in the U.S. What if, in addition to milking cows every day, you had to submit a digital map to move manure around the farm, or to spread it on fields over at your neighbor’s place? Phosphorous, nitrogen, sediment, fertilizers and pesticides are all farm substances which can pollute waterways, and farmers are required to mitigate such risk. Nutrient balance sheets, nutrient management plans, and soil erosion and sedimentation plans are all required submissions to the government. Farmers can hand draw maps, or hire a consultant to do them, but the cost of mapping could add up to millions for all farmers across the state combined.

Pennsylvania has created a resource to help farmers with these tasks. PAOneStop is an interactive online mapping tool created by Rick Day, associate professor of soil science and environmental information systems at Penn State. It imports required aerial photography, topographic images and soil information from state and federal databases. It also calculates field acreage and allows farmers to add field boundaries and mark streams, ponds, wells, and sinkholes.

“We’re like any other family dairy farm: the day’s as full as you can make it,” Pennsylvania dairy farmer Dean Patches told PSU’s website. “PAOneStop is nice because it gives me a complete set of maps and saves me the effort of having to use another computer program or flip back and forth among multiple sets of data — it’s been a real help.”

Worksongs, a life’s work

BakingPowder_horsford-3_0001_605“You can be a worksonger. It just means letting go whatever fears you’ve got and erupting into a joyful noise.” Words that are found at the top of one of the pages at Bennett Konesni’s worksongs.org. Bennett is a farmer and musician and his love for the particular musical tradition of worksongs is “a strange and wonderful coincidence”, he says.

He sang while he worked as a teen and young man, working on schooners plying the Penobscot Bay in his native state of Maine. He learned about the “mchakamchaka” chant of distance runners from a native Tanzanian. And he joined his uncle, Eben Fiske Ostby, in establishing Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, where the mission is preservation: of farmland, of the historic plantation, and of music.

“My love of worksongs grows out of my wish to understand and enliven the culture of food,” Bennett said in a recent interview. He was asked about the significance of the common call-and-response construction of the worksong.  “Before modern technology (recording and radio) caused a psychological drift, music was more participatory,” he said. The call-and-response song not only invites participation, it requires it, he noted. In the case of worksongs, their purpose is to satisfy the singer, and pass the hours. In other words, they’re solely for the entertainment of the participant.

The Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island, New York, is an organic farm, historic preservation, archaeological dig, and music festival site. Until this year, when the transition to a non-profit was completed, it had been continuously owned by the same family of European settlers since 1652, when it was founded as a provisioning plantation, importing sugar from Barbados. Slave labor was used in this endeavor. Later, it was the home of Eben Norton Horsford, inventor of baking powder and gilded age industrialist (he’s pictured above), and previously, it was a Native American hunting ground. In addition to the other work, the farm sponsors a group of worksongers.

Remaining connected to this history is part of the “chain of arts” that Bennett sees connected to food. “Farming, connected to eating, as well as preparing. Singing, planting, and growing. Bringing together groups for the sheer fun and joy of sharing. Barn dances,” he said, enumerating links in that chain. Work songs are both a beginning and an end to to this chain.

Here’s a list of Bennett Konesni’s upcoming appearances:

Feb 7 – Concert & Workshops w/Gawler Family, Walton Public Schools, Walton, NY

Feb 8 – Concert w/Gawler Family, Mettabee Farm, Hillsdale, NY

Feb 10 – Mchakamchaka Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Feb 11 – Mchakamchaka Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Feb 12 – Mchakamchaka Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Feb 13 – Kickoff Worksong, NOFA-VT Conference, Burlington, VT

Feb 14 – Worksong Workshop, NOFA-VT Conference, Burlington, VT

Feb 15 – Music w/Edith&Bennett for NOFA-VT Conference, Burlington, VT

Feb 15 – Concert as Edith&Bennett, Signature Sound’s Parlor Room, Northampton, MA

Feb 16 – Worksong Workshop & Music at NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx, NY

Feb 17 – Worksong Workshop & Music at NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx, NY

Feb 18 – Worksong Workshop & Music at NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx, NY

Feb 20 – Workshop and Talk at Bio4Climate Conference, Arlington, MA

Feb 21 – Concert w/Edith&Bennett, Youth Trad Song Showcase, Folksong Society of Greater Boston, Somerville, MA

Feb 22 – Day-long Worksong Workshop, Brooklyn, NY

Mar 27 – Elsiepalooza – Art Opening at Belfast Co-op w/Gawler Sisters, Belfast, ME

Mar 27 – Concert w/Waldo County Ramblers, Camden Opera House, Camden, ME

Mar 28 – Concert w/Gawler Sisters, Benefit Concert for Ashwood Waldorf, Rockport Opera House, Rockport, ME