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The culture and politics of food.

How One Farm is Reinventing Agriculture for Better Food and a Brighter Future

Organic Farm
Photo by iStock/Redrockschool

Old McDonald of E-I-E-I-O fame would feel right at home on Essex Farm, a 600-acre spread in upstate New York where the future of American agriculture is being radically reconceived.

For the past 60 years, farmers have been encouraged, seduced and coerced by agribusiness and federal policies to become ever more specialized.  So it’s surprising to walk through a modern farmyard and hear a moo-moo here and an oink-oink there, and see 50 different kinds of vegetables growing in the fields.

And that’s just the beginning of what farmer and writer Kristin Kimball—working with her husband Mark and eight other full-time farmers—provide for 222 members in the Adirondacks and New York City.

Members of their “full-diet” CSA (community supported agriculture) receive a weekly year-round Cornucopia, which can include beef, pork, chicken, lamb, eggs, lard and dairy products. Plus fresh veggies—greens, lettuce, tomatoes, tomatillos, carrots, several varieties of peppers, cabbage, squash, eggplant, beets, onions, potatoes, parsnips, turnips, kohlrabi and more.  Then there’s fresh fruit—strawberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, rhubarb.  Grains too—four kinds of flour, cornmeal, steel cut and rolled oats, wheatberries, pancake mix, frozen bread dough. Don’t forget herbs—sage, mint, chives, fennel, meatloaf mix.  And to round out meals—sauerkraut, popcorn and maple syrup. On top of all this, farm-made soap.

‘There’s something about the idea of most of your food coming from one farm that touches people,” Kimball says, noting that Essex Farms’ membership has increased every year since the start in in 2003.

But how can 10 people provide that much food for just $3700 a year (with a sliding scale for families).  “It’s a constant juggle,” acknowledges Kimball, author of the acclaimed The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love“It takes a lot of time and energy to come up with the systems to do it.”

It also takes a transformative vision of farming as a way to provide people local, wholesome food at a reasonable cost using methods that restore the earth, reinvigorate rural communities and fight climate change. Essex Farms is mounting a challenge to the very foundation of industrialized agriculture: mass-scale production of highly uniform and specialized crops for people in distant places.

Showing that another kind of farming is possible remains the animating mission of Kimball and her husband Mark, who first met when she interviewed him for a magazine article. Mark had formulated plans for this new face of agriculture while working on farms across the country on a coast-to-coast bicycle trip.  Kristin shared his vision, and thirteen years ago they settled on a dairy farm near Essex, New York (which had sat empty for 20 years) and worked together to assemble the intricate systems necessary to provide a sizable share of people’s weekly meals from a single place. Even some sympathetic observers wondered if their plans were quixotic.

“There’s beauty and synergy in farming this way,” answers Kimball. “Vegetable skins and skim milk go to the pigs, broken eggs and manure make compost for the vegetables.”

Today, Essex Farms boasts barnyards filled with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and horses; pastures and paddocks where the animals are rotated for grazing; 50 acres of vegetables; 15 solar panels; four old truck trailers converted into food processing facilities; two daughters; two ponies; a farmhouse where all the farmers sit down to a feast on Friday nights; and Kristin’s writing cabin tucked away in a woodlot near where sugar maple trees are tapped for syrup.

Two years ago Kristin and Mark launched the Essex Farm Institute to share what they are learning, and to draw attention to regenerative farming as one answer to climate change.

This means more than reducing fossil fuel use in the production and long-distance transportation of food—regularly moving grazing livestock from one parcel of land to another allows the soil to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere. Practiced on a wide scale, “carbon farming” could help bring down carbon levels below the climate change threshold of 350 parts per million.

“Farming can go from being part of the problem to being a big part of the solution,” she says.

This Institute operates as a boots-on-the-ground ag school with demonstration projects, public events, an internship program and classes covering topics like welding, economics, and the “mob grazing” techniques central to carbon farming. “It truly is a training ground,” Kimball explains.  “Mark likes to say we give people practical experience but also the courage to try new things.”

As Kimball walked me around the farm, trailed by her 5-year old daughter on a bicycle, a young couple and their three kids arrived.  They were moving here from Rhode Island to study farming as soon as the husband was out of the Navy. Many of those who come to work or study at Essex Farm stay in the area. “We all share equipment and help each other.  That’s characteristic of the region.  We all know this place is too small for us to be in competition.”

Jay Walljasper is a consultant, writer and speaker focusing on how to create stronger, better communities.  He is also editor of the Commons website of the Blue Mountain Center arts community in upstate New York.

Healthy Snack Invented on Indian Reservation Now Faces Stiff Corporate Competition

Pine Ridge Reservation Flag 

The Pine Ridge Indian reservation is not the first place you’d look for good news about creating a new kind of economy that works for everyone. 

This corner of South Dakota includes several of the poorest counties in America, according to census figures. Ninety-seven percent of Pine Ridge’s Lakota Indian population lives below the federal poverty line, reports the American Indian Humanitarian Foundation.  The unemployment rate is well over 50 percent.

Yet these dire conditions—compounded by public health problems like diabetes and addiction—have not snuffed hope.  Growing numbers of Pine Ridge residents are embracing their own traditions as a path toward healing and economic self-sufficiency. 

The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, for instance, is moving forward on an ambitious set of projects, including a worker-owned construction company, a worker-owned IT firm and  a farm to combat lack of access to nutritious food.

Even more surprising, Pine Ridge is home to a fast-growing natural foods food company, which created a healthy new product in the booming snack food industry. Native American Natural Foods was inspired by wasna (a concoction of cured buffalo meat and berries) to invent the Tanka bar—which is now for sale at Whole Foods, Costco, Amazon.com, natural food stores and other groceries across the nation.  Available as a protein bar,  a meat stick and in bite-size bits packaged with Lakota-style trail mix, the all-natural snack features flavors like spicy pepper, apple orange peel, jalapeno and slow-smoked original.

Natural Foods 

Tanka sales reached $5 million last year in 8000 stores, according to Forbes, and the company currently buys 25 percent of its buffalo from Native American growers, with the goal of 100 percent.

“The for-profit company—which actually is making a profit—recently gave equity to its employees,” the magazine continued, “…and they’re persevering despite growing competition from other companies selling buffalo meat with marketing campaigns that evoke a Native American theme, if not their authenticity.”

Tanka is now battling for space on grocery shelves with meat bars produced by food conglomerates—including the Epic buffalo bar, which was recently acquired by General Mills. Epic is an Austin-based company that originally produced the vegan Thunderbird bars, whose packaging claimed each one was “shaman blessed”.  (Chocolate maker Hershey Foods also recently bought Krave, a line of snack meat products.)

That’s the dark cloud on the horizon for this Indian Country success story, says Native American Natural Foods co-founder Karlene Hunter, a Lakota who has spent her entire life on Pine Ridge.  “We created the [meat bar] category but now we’re fighting with a food industry giant on something that is our centuries-old recipe.”

Hunter is certain that Tanka can compete based on the quality of their products, but is concerned that Epic’s deep pockets could outdistance them in reaching new stores and customers.  “We don’t have $20 million to throw at this like a big company.”

“We started this company to regenerate our community, not just to make a profit,” she explains.  “Last year we gave five percent of our company to the seven employees that have worked with us to build the company. We pay our staff good salaries for this area. We buy our wild rice from the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota.  We buy our cranberries from a company that buys from tribes in Wisconsin.” 

“Tanka can change people’s perceptions of Pine Ridge and what’s possible here. We came up with a brand right here on the reservation that changed the whole meat snack industry,” says Native American Natural Food’s other co-founder Mark Tilsen, who has lived on Pine Ridge on and off since he was 16. Although not Lakota, he came to the reservation to join his father, who was a lawyer defending Native American activists involved in the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973. His children and grandchildren are all enrolled tribal members.

Hunter and Tilsen first partnered to create Lakota Express, a Pine Ridge-based communications company that created fundraising campaigns for Oglala Lakota College and other Native American causes, which they still operate.  The idea for Tanka bars arose in a meeting with Lakota ranchers, who sought advice on finding more customers for their buffalo.

“We want to do something that no one has done before: create opportunity for people who live here,” Tilsen notes. “To offer people the chance to become owners and step into the position of being a manager. When you have a brand like ours, you do things that competitors don’t do.”

Three years ago, Native American Natural Foods launched the Tanka Fund to help Native Americans communities nationwide return buffalo to their land as a way to create community wealth, restore the environment and improve their diets.  They introduced a new product to support the project, a turkey-buffalo-cranberry jerky bar, for which ten percent of all profits will go to the fund.  

Tilsen and Hunter believe Tanka’s mission builds loyalty among their customers, who can help regenerate Native American culture by enjoying traditional Lakota food.  But they worry competitors also wants to evoke those positive associations too. 

“In their social media, Epic calls customers their ‘tribe.’ I even read they named their dog, ‘Lakota,’” Hunter reports. “That’s not cute, it’s patronizing—and misleading.”

While their competitors can shell out big bucks for marketing campaigns or discount prices to gain market share, Native American Natural Foods has some distinct advantages too.

They’ve been supported by philanthropic groups like the Northwest Area Foundation and non-profit organizations like the Democracy Collaborative, which fosters worker cooperatives and other forms of community wealth building across the country through initiatives like its Learning/Action Lab, which supports a cohort of four Native American communities.

And then there are the growing numbers of people who want to know all about the food they eat and products they buy.  “A lot of younger customers, especially, want to drill down into where the food comes from,” says Tilsen. “They are searching for the truth, not just a story cooked up by the marketing department. A lot of our customers have those values.” 

Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and longtime editor of Utne Reader, writes widely about justice, environmental and community issues. 

Image by tony4urban/Fotolia

Photo by Bert Folsom/Fotolia