Just Farm Nostalgia?

From Executive Director, Melissa Kogut:

Is our vision of the family farm as the answer to a sustainable food system (over industrial farming and globalization) just farm nostalgia? I was struck by a thoughtful recent article by Brent Cunningham, making the point that it may not be all that helpful to us to hold the family farm out as the blueprint for solving our food production woes.

I referenced this article in a recent FreshNet (our e-newsletter) and got a lot of thoughtful feedback in my inbox from members who have been thinking about this topic.  We’re posting some of the feedback here and want to keep the conversation going.

I once heard Fred Kirschenmann, longtime national and international leader in sustainable agriculture, say something that resonated for me.  Citing the crisis we’re in and the importance of a food system that encourages independent entrepreneurship, regional food sufficiency and food sovereignty, he referenced the book Guns, Germs and Steel: “Those civilizations that have correctly assessed their current situations, anticipated the coming challenges, and gotten a head start in preparing for them, were the ones that survived.  Those that failed in that exercise collapsed.

Even though we may not have all the answers for how to fix the crisis in the global food system, it’s vitally important that people are working now on many fronts to grapple with these issues because when the solution becomes clear, the people will be educated and ready.

I’m proud of the work that chefs are doing around the country to make responsible purchasing decisions, support local farmers and producers, and educate their customers with their menus — even as we struggle with the big questions, like, “can we feed the world this way?”

Scroll down for some feedback from our friends and members.

Jenny Huston, of Oakland, CA says:

Where to start… I am the first person born off the family farm since 1640 (Long Island, North Fork), my mother was the first member of her family to move out of the down state area, then leave NY in 1957. That said, I don’t agree with the premise of the article. At the present time we are using 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food, this is unsustainable and we need to change the system for the sake of humanity and every living thing on this planet. I don’t believe we will go back to the farm of West Virginia in the 1930′s, this is a very different creature than what a farm is today, and I am not talking about industrial Ag farm, but family farms. Additionally, I don’t think all modern farming practices should be thrown out, but we do need to utilize traditional farming techniques, along with appropriate modern farming techniques, to create sustainable agriculture system for the future.

Being a chef, and a female chef at that, is not easy if you are not using processed foods, which is my background, (having worked with Patrice Bouley, Alice Waters, Thomas Keller etc.) it is a lot of long hard days and nights. Do we expect the all china jobs should be ‘easy’? It takes hard work to do it right, even if it is cooking real hamburgers, or raising chickens. One other issue is that monoculture is not often discussed, our family farm was a ‘truck farm,’ meaning that they raised their own fruits and vegetables, chickens, pigs, cattle and horses, in addition to their market produce (potatoes, head lettuce, tomatoes etc.) With a mix of products there was a spread of income through the year, and the production of fertilizer from the animals and composting. For example, traditionally, cattle and pigs are slaughtered in the fall, sold and/or preserved for the winter, this practice also mitigates the cost of feed through the winter… there are many more examples of traditional practices that are applicable today.

This is just my take on the issue.

Be well,

Jenny Huston

Kevin Brungraber, of LaCrosse, WI says:

As a youth I saw the decimation of the family farm growing up in Wisconsin. Corporate expansion into agribusiness and the inequality of the milk pricing board is mostly to blame. However, it was the business model of the Restaurant Franchise  and the growth of the grocery store that has ultimately caused the demise of small operation farming and the growth of corporate transnational distribution systems of mass produced food product. I’m sure you already know this, but this transition is not one that will be readily remedied by switching over to small farming systems. Indeed, they are an important part to the reversion to a more sustainable system for the long haul. On the whole, most Americans have become fond of their grocery store products, because of the constant promotion and marketing of said products.

I currently view the “organic” food movement as one embraced almost solely by liberals and affluents. If such a system is to be remedied it must be adopted by the whole of the U.S. population. The average American is currently tight on cash, and will cut corners with spending as long as the distribution system can afford to move food cheaply to market. (Eg. I live in La Crosse, WI, about a half an hour from Organic Valley. However, their butter is a minimum of two dollars more a pound than the competition. I will probably buy the competition’s simply because it is cheaper.)  Yet, I am confident the system can change, and will change. But, the small farms are only part of the answer.

Therefore, I suggest regional farming systems with large indoor growing facilities for year-round production. In the Midwest, with no access to the coasts, our main problem is getting quality local fish for a fair price. We need to build closed aquatic systems for fish and shellfish farming regionally as well, to support restaurants’ daily need for consistent quality product.  Because of mercury pollution in Wisconsin’s northern lakes, farm runoff in the Mississippi, and sportfishing, I have no access to even native fish of Wisconsin in grocery stores or the restaurants I’ve worked in. With the exception of trout from Palmyra and Sweetwater Organics in Milwaukee for perch, I’ve got nothing. I have to get my walleye frozen from Canada, because the fresh stuff is regularly $15 per pound!

These regional growing facilities should be owned as cooperatives by small farmers to prevent corporate monopoly on the system.  In other words, farm fresh is always the best, but larger scale operations bring the price down for the consumer. We need the small farmer to grow up in a responsible way. Much like how national food distribution companies lay out their distribution plants, we should try to configure planning regional indoor farms’ placement in a similar fashion. The grocery store is here to stay, but we need to come up with concepts to infiltrate them. I see Rick B.’s Frontera line, and that is one good step.

On a side note, these facilities would create more jobs locally. They would allow for more land to go back to their natural state. And fish farms would allow natural fish populations to recover, and give our oceans a much needed break.

Addressing the chain restaurant, we need someone with the celebrity of Rick to promote a new national chain restaurant that supports local farmers/products. This would be a great step in forging the “go local/organic” movement from a restaurant perspective nationally to brand the movement and give it a face and name. Not to mention that it would undercut other chain restaurants in quality of product.

I would like to see Chefs Collaborative take a lead on these concepts, because they are necessary steps in removing negative influences on the food industry by corporate entities. ”Organic”, “sustainable”, “heirloom”, and “heritage,” need to be affordable to all Americans/people from a business perspective to see universal change in our system. These concepts need to address pricing for the consumer to maintain growth for the long run, and to prevent loss of interest in the movement that will occur over time if it is not practical from a consumer financial perspective.

Thank you for reading this somewhat solicited rant, and I hope it makes sense.

Kevin Brungraber

Member of Chefs Collaborative since 2009

Want to weigh in? Please post your thoughts and comments on Brent Cunningham’s article and let’s keep the conversation going!

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

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