Tag Archives: agriculture

Come See Me in Kissimmee

I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on soil health at a small farms conference in Florida Aug. 2.

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4.

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4, 2013. While it may appear all fun and games, I’ll be back again this year working hard – operating the booth for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program, promoting and educating about sustainable agriculture for ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, and moderating a panel discussion on cover crops and soil health featuring experts in the field from the University of Florida and other organizations.

Here’s the who, what, where, why, when:

Conference: Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference
Topic: Soil Health in the Subtropics and Tropics
Presenter: Jim Ewing, Moderator
Location: Kissimmee, Florida
Date: 2014-08-02
Registration Info: Learn more about farming as well as alternative enterprises, through farm tours, a trade show, networking opportunities, live animal exhibits, and hands-on workshops.
Registration Link: http://www.conference.ifas.ufl.edu/smallfarms/registration.html

I went to the conference last year, operating a booth for NCAT’s ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) program. If you are an organic grower or interested in sustainable agriculture in Florida and the region, it’s definitely the place to be! I wrote about it on this blog, outlining some of the offerings, including detailed information about aquaponics.

Already, the talk I’ll be moderating is quickly filling up. If you are interested in cover crops and soil health, it should be quite informative, with experts and farmers who are actively growing cover crops available to share their knowledge.

I’ll also be operating a booth for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program. I’ll be handing out lots of free information about sustainable agriculture.

Come see me!

I’ll be on Twitter @OrganicWriter

Food Movement May Be Torpedoed by FDA

As many who follow food and farming news may have heard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is formulating rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that could adversely affect small farmers. “Adversely affect” may be an understatement. Read: Destroy small farmers and stop the food movement in its tracks, as far as local, organic and sustainable is concerned.

Here are my thoughts.

For a complete analysis, read the articles on the website of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and then click on the buttons it gives to make a public comment to the FDA. The FDA is accepting public comment until Nov. 15.

For a complete analysis, read the articles on the website of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and then click on the buttons it gives to make a public comment to the FDA. The FDA is accepting public comment until Nov. 15.

For a complete analysis, read the articles on the website of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and then click on the buttons it gives to make a public comment to the FDA. The FDA is accepting public comment until Nov. 15. See:  http://sustainableagriculture.net/fsma/

We all know that our food system needs help. And more oversight. The FSMA is the right step in that direction, but it has some serious flaws that need fixing in order for it to do the job it is supposed to do in protecting public health.

Foremost, FSMA requires regulations that giant agribusinesses must conform to and that’s a plus. Unfortunately, the protections for small farmers that Congress intended have been stripped away by the language of the regulations.

To be blunt, it appears that FDA decided to reinvent the wheel  in agricultural matters and instead of having a round wheel, it created a square one to fit its own purposes and ideas of what agriculture should do.

But as anyone who knows how agriculture works – dependent on seasons, erratic markets, odd federal policies, and a plethora of existing agencies, rules and regulations – a new square wheel won’t help it keep rolling along.

As proposed, the FMSA will regulate small farmers out of business, deter new farmers, beginning farmers, transitioning farmers and especially impact minority, underserved, distressed farmers and women who are only now starting profitable businesses in agriculture through the food movement.

First are the safety rules that FSMA would impose. They make sense when you have a giant industrial farm, but make no sense if it’s small farm where everything is done by hand, customers know the supplier and all facets of the farm are inspected daily by a sole proprietor and/or his family (who also eat the food they grow, drink the water that irrigates it and tend to the poultry and livestock that share their farm).

The rules  — such as extensive and expensive groundwater testing from ponds and wells – may be necessary when you’re a giant conglomerate,  don’t know where the water is coming from and are trying to locate a disease event affecting 2 million people in a handful of states. But if you’re growing for 200 families in your local area, you know what the water is doing, where it came from, and the consumers know it, too. It’s local water that local people share.

Yet, FDA estimates the typical cost for one water test  is $87.30 and, depending on the type of crop, it may have to be tested daily. What small farmer can afford $87 a day for water testing?

By the FDA’s own estimates, some of the most basic rules like water monitoring will put many small farmers out of business; it estimates complying with basic rules for small farmers would cost $12,972 per year.  Now, if you’re only making $40,000 or $50,000 a year, that’s a huge impact.

Moreover, it only exempts farmers from its regulations who make less than $25,000 per year over three years. That has its own problems. For example, where’s the incentive for a new or beginning farmers to take out loans and invest in land and equipment to be repaid over time, if they know that in a couple of years, they’ll hit a $25,000 income ceiling – beyond which they’ll be effectively penalized in profits, if not run out of business by regulatory costs?

That rule in itself dooms local and organic growers to not grow beyond a set point, effectively putting the brakes on organic and small ecofarm operations, and as a disincentive for young, new and beginning farmers from seeing farming as a career choice. It’s a barrier to underserved, distressed and minority farmers looking to make a living and provide healthy nutritious food for themselves, their families and their communities.

Doesn’t the FDA care about food deserts, urban ag and the burgeoning inner city and rural grassroots cooperatives that are changing the face of agriculture? Fresh food fights obesity, the worst effects of poverty and provides self sufficiency and community empowerment.

That $25,000 exemption should be raised to at least $100,000 so that young families can see local food production as a career, and help build communities.

Even for farms with sales up to $500,000 per year, NSAC estimates, they would have to spend between 4 percent and 6 percent of gross income to comply – this for farms that generally only have incomes of 10 percent of sales.

Again, these are not the giant food producers that are causing the food safety problems nationally, but generally are family farms that have been in operation for generations. They often include aunts, uncles, cousins, across generational lines. Two younger cousins, for example, could actually be doing the labor or be managing a farm and sharing the profits as a LLC for elderly family members and their extended families.

These are the endangered types of farms that are disappearing rapidly, being bought up by corporations and investment firms or turned from farmland into residential development and luxury estates or country clubs as elder farmers retire and their children turn to other employment. FSMA would only accelerate the trend of precious arable farmland being converted into real estate, further endangering this nation’s food sovereignty. Rather, government should be promoting the conservation of farmland and encouraging local food producers so we are not dependent on foreign sources for our food.

The act does offer some concessions for farms under $500,000 but above the $25,000 exemption, under the congressional Tester-Hagan Amendment. That includes farms that have “more than half of their sales going directly to consumers, or to a restaurant or retail food establishment in the same state or within 275 miles of the operation.”

But, even there, it has a huge loophole whereby FDA can yank that exemption with no reason and with no way for the farm to either defend itself or get reinstated.

Furthermore, under FSMA, CSAs, farmers markets and roadside stands are left vulnerable.

Here, state agricultural agencies are finally getting around to promoting small farmers having direct sales, and providing them limited legal liability to promote it. And community supported agriculture is starting to include not only young and women farmers but churches, schools, civic clubs and like. Such stands, farmers markets and CSAs are held accountable by being local, direct to consumer without middlemen. They are transparent and have immediate accountability. They should be protected.

In addition, a lot of the regulations that are FDA required under FSMA are already in place: such as General Agricultural Practices and food safety practices required under the USDA certified organic program.

If farms are already training and complying with state regulations and existing USDA programs, why add more and different requirements? Stores and grocery chains themselves are instituting their own food handling requirements and regulations, cooperating with state agricultural departments and the USDA. Why not accept USDA rules and adopt them, and ensure they are enforced, rather than creating new square wheels?

As stated, for a more complete appraisal, see the NSAC website.

As it is, if you care about food safety and the local food movement (Buy Local, Buy Organic!), then you’ll at the very least want to tell FDA to exempt small farmers who make under $100,000 per year, reconfigure restrictions on family farms making under $500,000 per year, and redraft the rules to comply with existing USDA programs to avoid duplication.

FMSA is a good start; and it’s important that the giant conglomerates that are responsible for the lion’s share of the nation’s food safety issues are held accountable for safe practices. The regs just need tinkering.

Without modification of FMSA, the food movement could be stopped in its tracks from the ground up by essentially outlawing — or effectively running out of business — small local farmers selling locally.

As an example of a good recommendation (and one I support) is this offered by the Mississippi Food Policy Council:
Recommendations: 1) creating stronger procedural elements of proof before taking away an exemption, warning letters, and a reinstatement process; 2) raising the exemption for producers and processors from $25,000 to $100,000; and 3) defining, as the Act requires, CSAs, farmers markets, and roadside stands as retail food establishments to allow for exemption, and expanding these to include local, direct sale buying clubs.

Share this with your friends and like minded folk.

Use the hashtag: #fixFMSA

Here’s a step by step on how to comment on the rules: http://sustainableagriculture.net/fsma/speak-out-today/

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Spontaneous Combustion of Hay a Real Threat

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

On my daily bike ride (which is more like every other daily maybe), I saw an interesting sight: Spontaneous combustion of a hay bale.

I was riding my bike and kept smelling smoke — not uncommon with people burning off their fields from winter stubble. I came over a rise and there was the hay bale, off the side of the road: smoldering.

I’ve seen it only very rarely. With round bales, it occurs where wet hay and dry hay are rolled up together. The heat from natural degradation or unintentional composting of the wet hay causes the dry hay to ignite. It can happen in stacked square bales, too.

Here’s more on the mechanics of it and how to avoid it from Washington State University: http://ext.wsu.edu/hay-combustion.html

Here’s a photo I took:

Spontaneous combustion of a hay bale occurs when damp and dry hay is mixed.

Spontaneous combustion of a hay bale occurs when damp and dry hay is mixed. Photo by Jim PathFinder Ewing c. blueskywaters.com

What to look out for? According to the WSU article:

There will be early warning signs. Watch for steam rising from bale surfaces and condensing on the roof and eves of the barn. Often molds will start to grow on all these surfaces, too. There will be an acrid, hot, tobacco smell rising from the bales. Even before these visual signs appear, it is wise to take the temperature of the bales in the stack.

If the hay is in round bales, probe the bale ends. If in square bales, probe from the sides. If you do not have a long temperature probe, you can use a crowbar. If the haystack is large, push the crowbar in between bales as deep as you can go. Leave the crowbar there for about two hours. Remove the bar and feel with your bare hands. If the crowbar is easily handled, without feeling heat or discomfort, the hay in that area has not heated yet.
If the crowbar can only be held for a short time, the hay temperature is approaching 130 Fº. If the bar can only be touched briefly, hay temperatures are about 140 Fº. At 150 Fº, the bar is too hot to hold.

There’s an important lesson here: Pay attention when cutting hay for storage. If that smoldering bale had been in an enclosed structure with other bales and other flammable materials, it could have posed a substantial danger. As it is, the farmer is out the $90 or so the bale could have fetched or the cost of feed that s/he would have to shell out to replace it.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. For more, see: http://www.linkedin.com/in/jimpathfinderewing/, Facebook or his webpage, blueskywaters.com

Earth Day & The Future of the Organic Movement

Earth Day and the Organic Movement

April 18, 2012

Forty-two years ago, a new way of looking at our Earth arose in human consciousness.
It came about on Christmas Eve in 1968 when Astronaut William  Anders looked out the window of Apollo 8 and snapped a photo that he  dubbed “Earthrise.”
The photo was featured on the cover of the first “Whole Earth Catalog,”  which celebrated natural living and a back-to-the-earth credo in 1970.  It became the icon of a movement that saw the first Earth Day that same  year.
That holistic way of looking at the world—seeing us all as voyagers on a  tiny, bobbing blue and green vessel in the vastness of space—gave vigor  to another movement that came to be called organics.
On Earth Day this year, it’s time to review where that movement went, where it is likely go and maybe even where it should go.
For those deeply involved in the organics movement, this year could  prove transformative. Some of its pioneers believe that industrial  agriculture has
co-opted the movement since the U.S. Department of  Agriculture took over administration of organics, and that the movement  has lost its spirit. The USDA has even made it illegal for a farm to use  the word  unless it us USDA certified.
Most of the USDA Certified Organic produce you see in your local  grocery store is grown on huge factory farms using migrant laborers who  are often abused and exploited, paid pennies on the dollar, housed in  shanties and, because they are often undocumented, are afraid to  complain for fear of being deported. That’s if the produce is grown in  the United States.
Much of the produce marked USDA Certified Organic in your market is  imported from foreign countries where inspections to ensure harmful  synthetic chemicals, fertilizers and poisons aren’t used or may be lax.  Corporate ownership of organic brands is becoming the norm. (For a list  of corporations that own certified organic farms and their brands, see http://www.bit.ly/i6zF44.)

Beyond the Label
Eliot Coleman, author of “The Winter Harvest Handbook” (Chelsea Green  Publishing, 2009, $29.95) among other titles, grower, and owner of Four  Season Farm in Maine (fourseasonfarm.com), was a founder of the organics  movement in the 1960s and helped set up the original National Organic  Program guidelines.
Now, however, he rejects USDA certification.
Indian Line Farm in Egremont, Mass., one of the first Community  Supported Agriculture farms in the U.S. and a founder of the CSA  movement, also rejects USDA certification, choosing instead to be listed  with Certified Naturally Grown, a nonprofit alternative eco-labeling  program for small farms that grow using USDA organic methods but are not  part of the USDA program. (Disclosure: My ShooFly Farm in Lena is CNG  certified.)
The organics movement faces a dilemma, even from within: whether to  embrace “evil” Big Ag and all it entails, including greater corporatism  and devaluing of workers, or to reject the mainstreaming of organics and  its promise of a better planet.
This schism is playing out around the world. Countries in Europe and  elsewhere have rejected genetically modified, or GMO, seeds and food  because they believe these mutated strains are untested for human health  and safety and could pose a threat to the environment. However, under a  quirk of U.S. law, GMO doesn’t have to meet independent testing and  analysis to be proven safe. The foods are safe because companies that  genetically engineer them say they are safe, and they fund their own  studies to prove it. Hence, companies can market GMO food and seed to an  unsuspecting public even without labeling.
Organic growing practices do not allow GMO seeds or plants. But even  here, corporate agriculture is pushing to include GMOs in USDA organic  certification rules. (For more, see: OTA ‘Modified’ by GMO interests,  Organic Consumers Association, June 9, 2011: http://www.organicconsumers.org/bytes/ob280.htm.)
A real risk exists that, ultimately, the food and farming label of “USDA Organic” will be a distinction without a difference.

Organics’ Gordian Knot
This growing divide forces a dilemma for the consumer as well.  Certainly, Certified Organic is better than conventional chemical  farming. It’s healthier,
safer and more beneficial for the planet. But  it’s a Faustian bargain: In exchange for safe, healthy, pesticide-free  food under the guise of saving the
planet with environmentally friendly  farming methods, consumers may be dooming the planet to worse air  pollution, depletion of natural resources and
exploitation of workers,  while putting land ownership and food production into fewer hands.
Like the fabled Gordian knot that many said was impossible to unravel,  the answer for consumers is almost embarrassingly simple: Grow local,  buy local. In other words, cut through USDA and Big Ag-generated  confusion.
Here is the key to the future of organics if it is to continue in the  spirit in which it began: The organic movement must transition from an  idea of
sustainability using old growing methods to a new model that  embraces modern social change and science. In centuries past, growers  who used organic methods knew the practice worked, but they didn’t know  why. Now, with all the research into soil science that is broadening  horizons as to the vital role of fungi and microorganisms in the soil,  we know and can scientifically prove that organic methods can feed the  world for a safer, sustainable and nourished planet.
Consumers want safe food, and young people have embraced the idea. Many  have started small backyard and “boutique” farms to grow foods. This  small but growing postmodern organics movement embraces a worldwide  awareness under the moniker “ecoagriculture.” I believe this is the next  phase of organic growing.

The Power of Choice
In America, I suspect this movement will likely veer increasingly away  from pure crop production and toward a more holistic view of the  environment, such
as permaculture. Coined in 1959 by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren,  permaculture incorporates two concepts: “Permanent Culture” and  “Permanent Agriculture.” The practice eschews soil disruption, an  agricultural hallmark since its beginning 10,000 years ago.  To the  untrained eye, a permaculture food plot may appear to be a jungle.  However, if it is well crafted, it can serve as a continuing ecosystem  through the seasons, providing food with a minimum of human  intervention.
Consumers’ continued demand to label genetically engineered foods will  boost natural growing techniques and, perhaps, reverse the decline in  seed diversity. Demand can revive heritage foods and crops, while  shifting attention toward fruits and vegetables, lessening health  threats caused by high-fat, high-sugar, processed “food products.”
The future of organics is in our hands. We each can do our part in  keeping our precious Earth of Anders’ iconic photo blue, green and clean  by growing our own food — whether in our backyards or with our neighbors  in community gardens — and by buying organic, rejecting GMO, supporting  locally grown food and only voting for those who look out for the  consumer first.
This is the type of organic growing that those of us who  marveled at that little planet in the black void of space envisioned  some 42 years ago.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Face’ of Agriculture Increasingly Female, Small Farm, Organic

Sept. 23, 2011
 ‘Face’ of agriculture increasingly female, small farm, organicIn case you missed it, there’s a new organization (started in April) called Mississippi Women for Agriculture. Its a “professional association for women interested in giving voice to agriculture.”
It’s based on Annie’s Project, an educational program “dedicated to strengthening the roles of women in the modern farm enterprise.”
The story of Annie’s Project is an interesting one, and perhaps helpful to women in Mississippi, too. It’s based on the life of a farm woman in Illinois.
According to the organization, Annie grew up in a small town and had a goal to marry a farmer. She spent a lifetime learning how to be an involved business partner, and faced the challenges of three generations living under one roof, low profitability, changing farm enterprises and raising a family. Her daughter, Ruth Hambleton, founded Annie’s Project out of needs she observed in farm women she knew.
That project – which resulted in the Mississippi Women for Agriculture – is now established in 22 states. (seewww.msucares.com/ womenforag or writewomenforag@ext.msstate.edu, or call (662) 325-3207).
The face of agriculture is changing, here and across America.
Not only has the median age of farmers (58.6 years in Mississippi) been going up, but so are the numbers of women. According the USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of men listed as farmers is 35,829 (and falling); but the number of women farmers in Mississippi has grown from 4,608 in 1997 to 6,130 in 2007 (the
latest numbers available).
Since most of the men are probably married, there are far more women in agriculture than men, and that number is growing.
Young people are entering farming, as well, and many of them are women; often heading up small acreages, such as organic backyard farming and specialty crops.
Not so coincidentally, today in Mississippi, 88.4 percent of farms are “small,” or less than 500 acres, with nearly half (48.8 percent) under 100 acres (the smallest amount measured in the survey).
Some 71 percent of Mississippi farms earn less than $10,000 and 86.6 percent
make less than $49,999. Only 2.4 percent have 2,000 acres or more and only 6.3 percent make more than $500,000.
So, when politicians brag how they support farmers via subsidies or commodities, what they are telling you is that they are tied to Big Ag, not the average farmer – or majority of farmers – today.
The face of agriculture increasingly is female, or married to a small farmer, who also works off the farm to make ends meet. That’s the “family farm” today.
That’s who our politicians ought to be addressing. If average farmers ever realized they were in the majority, the Farm Bill would be an entirely different document, focused on nutritious food (organic!), with clear labels (warning of genetically modified ingredients) and not tailored for corporations.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.