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.

Putting Income Inequality on the Table

food desert

A new study shows how the food gap is widening—and what can be done.

How does income inequality translate to the food that ends up on our dinner tables? For those on low-income budgets, the results look pretty disheartening according to a new study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Researchers found that the food gap is widening and that costs and access associated with healthier foods were the primary barriers. Such constraints lead to disproportionate health problems—those with lower incomes and educational levels statistically have higher rates of obesity. Frank Hu, one of the study’s co-authors said that the growing disparity is “disturbing.” And while food and diet education play an important role, most people generally know what is healthy, but not all are able to afford the better options.

The researchers utilized a scale called the Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010 which has 11 factors that measure the quality of our diets. On the whole, the U.S. scored 46.8 out of 110. While improvements were seen in the reduction of trans fat and sugary drinks, red meat intake hasn’t decreased and vegetable intake hasn’t increased.

Changing consumption habits is a challenge that is fraught with practical considerations as well as policy-making decisions. One of the most controversial is the soda tax which saw opposition from anti-tax groups and corporations such as Pepsi when a plan was proposed in New York. There have also been proposals to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to incentivize healthier foods. In Michigan, a program called Double Up is seeing success in its modified SNAP guidelines. Recipients collect an extra $10 when they spend their benefits at participating farmers markets or grocery stores. The extra money can then be applied to buy produce grown in Michigan. A study of the program has shown that over 200,000 families and 1,000 farmers have benefited, with 90 percent of the recipients eating more fruits and vegetables and 85 percent of the farmers bringing in more money because of the program. While Double Up is a positive example on a state-wide level, a diverse approach—from large-scale projects (like changing school lunches or re-considering the wage gap itself) to local initiatives (like community or urban gardens) will be needed if we want to close in on the food gap.

Photo by Eric Allix Rogers, licensed under Creative Commons.

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,, 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

Pie (Best read aloud)


Ice water. Two silver knives to work though the flour and shortening, add salt. It is an old art. Do not work late into the night, with sleep nipping at your sleeves, you will fall off, wake up at 3 a.m. to a room full of smoke, two black disks in the oven, bad smell. Do not think about business, or the wave of darkness spreading though the Arts, do not think about depression looming on the horizon or the rhetoric and nonsense our leaders toss into its mouth, or the prospect of revolution in America. Zen. Concentrate on the art of pie. It is an old art. Ingredients spread through the house like a layer of snow, later people say: “O. Pie. Pie. We love pie.” It is a good art. No one will say, “Make this pie with only one silver knife, or no ice, or make it with chalk instead of flour.” Fill pie with ingredients at hand, cans of things, fresh fruit, cheese. Add it to a feast. Eat leftovers for breakfast the next day, the celebration begins again, pie filling the recesses of the body, exhilaration. Pie, it is an old art. If we lose it infants will wither in their mothers’ stomachs, writhe at sunken nipples, men will lose direction, U.S. Steel will manufacture rubber and the pillars of society will flop around like spangles on a half-mast flag. Pie. The planets are lined up – Saturn, Uranus, Mars, Jupiter pull earthquakes, pull poison from beneath the surface. Pie, cut through the mix gently, roll out on a layer of wood and flour, pie. Flute the edges, pour in apples and cinnamon and spices. Pie. Zen. Concentrate on the art of pie. The rites of passage pull us through the gates of depression and war. We shall make pie. Cannot resist. We shall celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July; holidays shall find us traversing the continent in search of heritage. No one makes pie like Mother does. Pie. No one says one pie should represent all pies. Pie is like a thumbprint. Some are sour. Pie is silent, making only a light simmering noise as it bakes in the oven. It spreads scent gently into our hearts. There is ceremony as pie is lifted out of the heat. They gather. O, Pie. The clutter is swept away, space around pie is brought to sharp focus. Light pours down on pie. Concentrate. The art of pie is an old one. Try to imagine life without it. Like the unveiling of a great painting, breaking a champagne bottle over the bow of a ship going off to sea, the ceremony as a cornerstone is laid, pie. Do not roll the crust too thick, roll gently or the center will unfurl, rub the extra flour on the rolling pin every fourth stroke, remember these things. Create pie often so the art is not lost. Do not forget temperature. Cold is essential, then heat. You must have an oven, cannot make pie over an open fire or in a barbeque pit. Be firm with those who insist pie can be made in a crockpot or on the back window ledge of a Pontiac left out in August sunlight. Respect the rule of pie.

From Tirades and Evidence of Grace. Copyright Susan Bright, 1992.

Photo by Fotolia/postsmith

Forget Food Expiration Dates

Pay no mind to food labels that say “best by” or “enjoy by” when cleaning out your fridge: those cautionary dates are intended for food manufacturers, advising them on when the food will be the tastiest. Timelines for when groceries are at their prime and when they become inedible can be weeks off, so hold off on tossing those purchases.

About 40 percent of all food purchased goes to waste—about 20 pounds a person each month. Bump Mark, a new food label intended to prevent food waste, interacts with food quality. The label has four layers, from top to bottom: plastic film, a layer of gelatin, a plastic bump sheet, and another piece of plastic film. As the food within the package starts to go bad, so does the label’s gelatin. Once the food has expired, the label will be reduced to its bumpy layer. If the layer is still smooth to the touch, consider it a greenlight to dig in.

“Because gelatin is a food, the same things affect it as a food inside a package,” Solveiga Pakstaite, a finalist for the James Dyson Award, told the Washington Post. “It has an interesting property that when it expires, it turns back into a liquid. I couldn’t just use any natural substance—it had to be one that changes state.”

Pakstaite is looking for a commercial partner to back Bump Mark, which is likely to cost more than the standard sticker. It might cost more than a sticker, but when Americans alone account for $165 billion in food waste, it seems worth the expense.

Image by Kathleen Franklin, licensed under Creative Commons.

John Oliver Takes on the Sugar Industry


Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver may have effectively scared his viewers out of most foods with his illustrative breakdowns on America’s typical sugar intake.

On average, Americans consume about 22 teaspoons of sugar a day—approximately 75 pounds a year. While researchers have linked sugar to its effects on obesity, premature aging, diabetes, and activating the brain much like cocaine, those with ties to the industry insist the evidence is inconclusive. The FDA proposed adding a new line to nutrition labels that redefine how the information is presented, as an approach in a recent study expressed calories in terms of the amount of exercise it’d take to burn off, causing a decline in soda consumption. The American Beverage Association, however, asks that sugar be presented in grams instead, as they feel teaspoons have a negative connotation.

But Oliver suggests that we use the orange circus peanuts as a new unit of measurement (…a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup has five and a half of those sugary candies). Watch him take on the sugar industry in this clip:

World Food Day Focuses on the Value of Family Farms

National Geographic celebrates the 33rd anniversary of World Food by emphasizing the 500 million family farmers who are responsible for 56 percent of the planet’s food supply.

With the global population expected to increase by 35 percent come 2050, the need for food poses one of the world’s biggest dangers, as crop production will need to double in order to accommodate this escalation. Policymakers in the developed world tend to look at multinational agribusinesses with industrial-sized farms. Family farms, however, are the ones with sustainable solutions: operating with viable, low-tech agricultural techniques, these farms are more adaptable to the warming world while ensuring the security of a global food supply. Rather than turning to the fertilizers and pesticides common in agribusinesses, small-scale farms favor indigenous plants that help protect increasingly stressed natural resources (such as water) while simultaneously improving the density of nutrients in crops.

Agricultural production emits more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined, and clearing habitats for farmland greatly increases the loss of biodiversity. By changing our diets, using resources more efficiently, and growing on already existent farms, a sustainable solution could also be a realistic one.

National Geographic illustrates global trends and issues in food production with this video:

Image by Rex Turgano, licensed under Creative Commons

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