Before there was a film, there was the blog. Check out posts dating back to the inception of the project in April 2008.

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Thursday
Apr012010

The Food News

1. Slaughterhouse Five. Sure, local meat is great. But, if there aren't enough processing facilities to meet demand for the stuff, small farmers in the livestock biz may be forced to scale back. This article from the New York Times tells the woes of local meat economies. There are simply not enough slaughterhouses to go around. The scarcity is forcing farmers to reduce the size of their herds, schedule processing appointments months into the future, and drive long distances to have their animals slaughtered. Our friends David and Margaret Ann who run Snow's Bend Farm in Coker drove their pigs to a processor in Buhl, Alabama - the only processor in the area who had space for them during deer season. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack is sympathetic and is encouraging small farmers to form local cooperatives or use mobile slaughtering units, and is offering some funds for such ventures. But ultimately, until the system changes, getting local meat from farm to table will continue to be difficult.

2. Green Giant. Tomatoes in the winter? You betcha. This really isn't an article about local foods, but it's good reading material, and an insight into the hothouse tomato game. Someone's gotta grow all those tomatoes consumers are eating out of season. At Backyard Farms in Madison, Maine, a whopping 42 acres (or for you football fans, that's 32 football fields worth) of tomatoes are grown under the glass of two super large greenhouses. These well-maintained tomato vines are grown sans dirt in a hydroponic mixture, without pesticides - the company often introducing beneficial insects into the greenhouses to control pests- and are pollinated by bees the good-old fashioned way. In contrast to most commercially grown tomatoes that are picked green and allowed to ripen during transit, the Backyard tomatoes are only harvested when ripe (hey, there's a concept!). Oh, and you probably guessed that these suckers take a lot of electricity to produce - in fact, when the greenhouse lights are in use, they consume in 32 minutes the same amount of electricity the average American household consumes in a year!

I'm staying local on this one. If you want to eat tomatoes in January, think ahead this summer and do a little home canning.

3. Hoop Dreams. Snowmaggedon was no match for the White House garden this winter. While the rest of the city fell prey to Jack Frost's wintry wiles, an army of hoophouses dutifully protected and shielded the garden's bounty. Check out this video from The White House - it has some really great time-lapsed footage of snow falling in the garden.

And speaking of hoops, back in December the USDA announced a new pilot project to study hoop houses as a season extension - part of their "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative.

*Top two photos are from the New York Times

Wednesday
Mar242010

Glean Times

The light at Snow's Bend is best in the late afternoon.

We were there in late February, on what seemed like the first pretty day in months. Andy packed his camera equipment, hoping to take advantage of the sunshine and do a little filming at the farm. But, I had other motivations for being there - Margaret Ann invited us to come out and replenish our dwindling stores of vegetables, gleaning from the fields what was left from the week's harvest.

Gleaning is nothing new. The act of collecting a farmer's abandoned or unprofitable crops, gleaning began as agricultural law in many ancient cultures. Farmers were required to leave a portion of their fields unharvested, allowing the poor to gather the remaining crops. Today, gleaning has become the mission of many charitable and church organizations as an effort to provide food for the hungry and repurpose large amounts of food waste - both on the farm and in the supermarket. Traditional gleaning groups, like the Society of St. Andrew, work nationally with volunteers, growers, and distribution agencies to salvage and distribute this abandoned food (there is also a local SSA chapter in Alabama). It has been estimated that 40-50% of all food ready for harvest in the U.S. is wasted. The reasons vary, but much food loss on the farm occurs during harvesting. Some crops are left behind because they are blemished and uneconomical to harvest, and some are just simply missed. Standing in the fields at Snow’s Bend, I found it hard to imagine that David and Margaret Ann would abandon half their crops because of cosmetic reasons.

When we arrived, it was just beginning to spit rain, the sun darting in and out of the moving cloud cover. Without the leaves on the trees we could see the high red banks of the Black Warrior. The light shone through the barren branches casting a late afternoon glow on the landscape around us. What might have been considered monochromatic this morning was now ablaze with color. We drove around to where the hoop houses stood, just adjacent to the now empty bit of land where five Tamworth pigs made their home until late last year. We were among the lucky few to benefit from David and Margaret Ann’s first foray into livestock production and our freezer was now filled with rich heritage pork. I remembered meeting the pigs at the Harvest Party back in October. Friendly animals, they didn't seem to mind when Andy jumped into the pen with them (I decided against joining him and instead assumed the role of gatekeeper just in case an incident arose). Mostly, they just sniffed and followed Andy around; I think they were happy to have the company.

Pieces of a new hoop house frame blocked the road. Laid out and waiting to be assembled, the pieces were long and large, and it would likely take more than two people to successfully erect the new structure. We parked the car, and got out. In the distance, Margaret Ann rode the tractor, preparing the ground for new plantings. Not far from her, David walked row after row, seeding turnips, beets, and other cool weather crops with a wheeled push seeder. After saying hello, Andy set up his tripod and I took to the fields.

Snow's Bend is in transition right now. With winter waning, and the CSA set to start up in early April, David and Margaret Ann are beginning to plow and break ground for spring and summer crops. Even though the fields are mostly bare this time of year, the hoop houses are full of seedlings and preparations are well underway for the start of the main growing season. I made my way over to the remnants of the fall garden, where greens, despite a few frost-bitten edges, grew hardily, and I could jump between rows of carrots, broccoli, and cabbages. Everything but the carrots were up for the taking - they were still selling those to restaurants. But, Margaret Ann promised to hold some back for us. We'd already been buying vegetables from Snow's Bend all winter long, the exchange of goods often taking place downtown, behind the Bama Theater after a film. It was like dealing in narcotics, except our illicit holdings were root vegetables, with dirt still clinging. We often finished up our post-film discussions while holding bags full of turnips, potatoes, and carrots, attracting a few stares from curious moviegoers (My mind formulated a retort in case a comment was made: It's legal, I swear - and it totally beats going to the grocery store!) Our own garden provided us a considerable amount, but because of our higher than average number of freezes this year, the greens were unavailable for a lot of the time - encapsulated in ice, then weakened by the frost. And our carrots never fully formed. Now things were beginning to go to seed, and my diet was entirely too meat heavy.

A run of the mill serrated knife and a recycled plastic bag were my gleaning tools of choice. I walked the rows, making it my goal to harvest some of all of the green things growing in the garden. Asian mustards, tatsoi, arugula, collards, bok choi, broccoli, salad mix, and cabbages all made their way into my bags. While collecting a few beets, Margaret Ann unearthed a turnip as big – Andy pointed out - as a baby's head. The turnip had been overlooked somehow, and had stayed in the ground until reaching its current mammoth size. It was unlikely that the flesh would be any good now, but I decided to keep it anyway - for purely comical reasons.

By the end of the afternoon, I had filled four large bags full of vegetables - vegetables that would feed us for over a week. As the sun started to go down, the fields looked much the same way as they did when I had first arrived. They appeared to be untouched and unaffected by my gleaning. We lingered for a while, but soon it was time to go. Margaret Ann turned the electric deer fence back on, and we all packed up and headed home for the night.

Monday
Jan252010

Eating locally, Eating Animals.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about being an omnivore. It started when I rode with my friend David Snow from his farm in Coker to a hog processor in Buhl towing a trailer with five Tamworth pigs that he and his partner Margaret Ann had raised for the last nine months. I rode along not only because I’m making a film about this kind of stuff, but because half of one of those pigs was destined for our deep freezer. I got out to the farm early so I could photograph the pigs that last morning. It was cold and I watched them huddled together in their pin snorting at my intrusive camera. Even though they were raised to be slaughtered, that didn’t make it any easier on David and Margaret Ann. It’s difficult to be detached when you’re taking care of animals, especially clever and amusing animals like pigs. As we unloaded the pigs at the slaughterhouse, David shot me an uneasy look. I was merely an observer in all this – I hadn’t invested the time and the dedication and the countless moments with those animals. But even for me it was hard to see them go.

A few weeks later, after our portion of the pig was delivered in three huge paper bags, I had another occasion to consider the ethical repercussions of eating meat. This time I was sitting in a frigid hunting house in north Alabama trying to kill my first deer. I’d been talking about going hunting for quite some time. It seemed a natural, if not slightly illogical, way to consider the repercussions of a local food diet. Also, having grown up with a granddaddy and cousins who were avid hunters, it seemed part of my family tradition, too – a part I’d never fully acknowledged or cared to even think about. But after getting a taste for venison and reading about how there are almost 2 million deer in the state of Alabama (a little more than one deer for every three people), I decided it was time to give it a shot. No luck my first trip out, but I’m going back this weekend – the last weekend of the season. I’ll be sure to write a post when I return.

In the midst of these meat adventures, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s new nonfiction book about factory farming called “Eating Animals.” Foer’s argument throughout – that ideally we should stop eating animals altogether, and at the very least we should refuse to support the completely unethical and unsustainable system of factory farming – is compelling, wide-ranging, well researched, and mostly persuasive. He’s writing about the food system for an audience that, almost inexplicably, has never thought about where their food comes from. If you’re like the 98% of Americans who don’t live on a farm, chances are that you haven’t thought much about your food sources – especially the anatomically incorrect cuts of cow, pig, and chicken you see in the meat aisle of the grocery store. “Eating Animals” sets out to change all that in the most truthful and unappetizing way possible. While the book comes off a little too preachy at times, Foer does a commendable job marshaling a variety of rhetorical strategies to make his case. He opens the book with a Swiftian shot across the bow. After lovingly describing the dog nestled against his feet as he writes the very sentences you’re reading, he wonders aloud, and at some length, about why we refuse to eat dog in this country. There’s even a direct challenge to local food enthusiasts in this modest proposal:

The inefficient use of dogs – conveniently already in areas of high human population (take note, local-food advocates) – should make any good ecologist blush…If we let dogs be dogs, and breed without interference, we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put even the most efficient grass-based farming to shame. For the ecologically minded it’s time to admit that dog is realistic food for realistic environmentalists.
But we don’t eat dog because we don’t eat dog. It’s just accepted practice. Like lots of other cultural practices, if you interrogate it beyond mere custom and sentimentality, it doesn’t make logical sense. And that’s just Foer’s point. We eat animals out of tradition, sentimentality, and convenience, and we unquestionably eat factory-farmed meat because it’s what’s available to most Americans. Most of us don’t know anything about the system that produces it (nor do we care to know the former life of our Big Mac), and eating this stuff is just what we’ve always done. Simple as that. It’s what our parents have always done, it’s what our friends have always done, and it’s what our children will always do.

And that’s where this all begins for Foer. After straddling the line between committed and part-time vegetarian, Foer and his wife (the author Nicole Krauss) decided to have a baby, and he decided to figure out what that baby should eat. This journey took him over three years and it’s obvious from the scope of the book that he took his time and did his homework. What he lays out spans from personal memoir of food and family to measured journalistic inquiry. There are cameos from some heavy hitters in the world of sustainable food - Bill Niman, his wife Nicolette (who wrote this great oped for the NY Times late last year), the poultry farmer Frank Reese - and the facts here are daunting, surprising, and irrefutable. Basically, we’ve created an industrial meat production system that is completely unsustainable and irresponsible on ethical, environmental, scientific, and human grounds.

ETHICALLY: The horrors most animals face in this system are simply unpalatable. But in matters of animal cruelty we’ve often decided to causally turn a blind eye. There are more important things to worry about than the well being of the chicken that’s going to one day be part of my McNugget. But being faced with the egregious violations of the system is liable to make for an unhappy meal. For instance, most states have something called “Common Farming Exemptions,” which allow processors the legal berth to operate in essentially any way they choose – so long as they can justify that the practice is common in the industry. Foer writes, “If the industry adopts a practice – hacking off unwanted appendages with no painkillers, for example, but you can let your imagination run with this – it automatically becomes legal.”

ENVIRONMENTALLY: Simply put, the way we farm animals now – in huge monocultures where their waste isn’t distributed in a helpful way by putting nitrogen back into the soil – is the greatest worldwide contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Greater than transportation, greater than pollution, greater than every unrecycled plastic water bottle in every landfill across the earth. A recent report from the World Watch Institute shows that fully 51% of greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock and their byproducts. To talk about the issues surrounding a warming planet, to be concerned about your carbon footprint, to try and take steps to curb your consumption, and to not talk about eating animals? That’s like trying to teach someone to swim from shore while they’re in the water drowning and you’re holding a life jacket.

SCIENTIFICALLY: In addition to the grave environmental consequences of factory farming – not just green house gas emissions, but ground water contamination around hog farms, pollution from factory farms, etc – there are other troubling scientific repercussions of this system. One of the most egregious is the widespread use of antibiotics in farmed animals. Foer reports that about 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year in the US, but 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock. The Union of Concerned Scientists thinks this industry generated figure is far too low – they estimated the figure is closer to 24.6 million pounds. And, like the old adage of "you are what you eat," we’re ingesting those antibiotics with disastrous effects. Take this recent article from the AP describing the effects of this over medication, and you’ll begin to see the relationship between what we eat and the rise of drug-resistant infections.

HUMANELY: But, while the industrial meat system we’ve created in this country in the last 60 years is increasingly illogical, immoral, and fundamentally broken, it does bring us cheap cuts of meat to the grocery store down the street and only seldom puts us in the hospital or confines us to a wheelchair for the rest of our lives. And as long as you don’t live near a hog farm, or make your living raising animals or fishing, chances are you’re probably pretty happy about how cheap your meat is. In fact, one of the ways that the sustainable food movement has been demonized is to make it an elitist’s cause – something that only yuppies can afford, not something that real Americans should pay attention to. But the truth is that the hidden costs make our food system enormously expensive. The toll on the environment, rising health care costs, the mass exodus from rural America – all of these have a cost. And if food is so cheap, how come the Goliath multinationals have such insane profit margins? Tyson, the worlds largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, which controls nearly a quarter of all US sales, took in almost $27 billion last year – but it paid average wages of less than $25,000 a year per worker. Perhaps most importantly, the system isn’t just broken for animals and for the environment – it’s broken for the people and the workers, too.

So what’s to be done? For starters Foer suggests (and I would agree with him) to stop eating factory farmed meat altogether. That means pretty much no meat in restaurants, no meat from the grocery store, and instead tracking down farmers and producers who grow locally with diversified practices and smaller operations. It means eating a lot less meat, and paying a lot more for what you do eat. It means more vegetarian meals. It means being uncomfortable in front of friends, colleagues, family. None of these are easy, but they're the right thing to do. Check out our farm locator or email us if you want some suggestions of suppliers. I can’t say that I’ve been true on this path (there was a bacon cheeseburger when we were in Wyoming a few weeks ago – I know better than this), but I’m trying to make a concerted effort. We haven’t purchased factory-farmed meat from a grocery store since March of 2008, and I’m proud to say that our freezer is stocked with ethically raised animals (beef, pork, venison, quail, duck). We eat a lot less meat than we did before we started this project, but in the lean times of winter when there aren’t that many fresh vegetables we rely a little more heavily on protein from meat.

But beyond your individual choices, I think it’s also time for a fundamental change of attitude about eating. Why don't we consider our food choices as ethical decisions just like every other part of our ethical lives? I’ve noticed in the past few years that my eating choices are scrutinized much more closely than any other belief system in my life - and they have the power to drive away friends and family unlike any other set of beliefs. I can talk politics with my conservative friends, religion with my evangelical friends, and football with my Auburn friends. But if we share a meal and I give an opinion about the food? That's a deal breaker. Somehow, it’s okay to be a “picky eater” where you don’t like to eat your vegetables, or you can’t stand okra, or you don’t eat fish. But if you make food choices based on ethical considerations – the treatment of animals, the wages of farmers, the environmental toll of that banana from Brazil – you’re demonized and ostracized. It's an interesting double standard, and it says a lot about how much meaning we place onto the food we eat. We're forced to make decisions (or not) all the time about our belief systems, but food is one place where we typically all agree - we all like to eat. To bring these tough decisions and conversations to the dinner table - a realm of our lives that's so associated with comfort, with tradition, with sustenance, with memories of the family table - that's crossing a line. But I think it's time to cross that line. That doesn't mean turning every dinner conversation into an annoying fount of troubling statistics (see previous ten paragraphs...), but it does mean finding ways to talk about why food matters.

Because, as Foer makes clear, if we don't start talking seriously about this stuff soon, it might be too late.

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