Coming soon: My new book on CSA Farms

May 5, 2015

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finished writing a new book, and that it’s coming soon. All the details will be announced on this blog.

Over the last decades many thousands of people in all parts of the world have come to recognize in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) a vehicle for approaching land, food, labor, environment and community in a healthier way. Now – in an era with increasing shadows of environmental catastrophe – it’s time to expand exponentially the CSA vision and reality.

CSA book cover

The opportunity is before us to establish hundreds of thousands of CSA farms in nations around the world, and to thereby employ a proven, egalitarian model to address the radically changing circumstances in our environment, climate, economics, and social relationships.  This book lays out the vision eloquently.

As a journalist I’ve been writing about CSA since its inception in the USA in the late 1970s. This new book is a visionary call to action.

 


Three Overlooked Seeds at the Core of CSA Farms

December 26, 2014

Three seed ideas were among the many elements that underlie the actions of the first CSA farmers who in 1985-86 established new ways of farming in America. Those ways have emerged in subsequent seasons to yield as many as 10,000 contemporary community supported farms (CSAs) in cities, suburbs, towns, villages and churches across the land.

Photo: Maggie Mehaffey

Photo: Maggie Mehaffey

The CSA model has proven to be a natural for adaption and innovation. Many latter-day CSAs, however, have overlooked or bypassed some of the seed ideas as they have established a wide range of variations on the CSA theme. Yet the seeds of the initial CSAs remain viable, perhaps even more so in our era of profound global change. They are freely available to anyone who chooses to cultivate them.

Alice Bennett Groh is part of the founding group for the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, in New Hampshire. In November, 2014 when she spoke at a Peterborough Grange ceremony to honor CSA pioneers, she put her focus on three of the seed ideas that helped community farms to become established in the USA and to grow.

With eloquence and economy of language, she told of how her husband Trauger Markus Groh partnered with Anthony Graham and Lincoln Gieger to cultivate new thinking, and thereby to initiate their highly productive, economically sustainable, and environmentally radiant Biodynamic farm on rocky, rolling hills flanking the Souhegan River.

Alice Bennett Groh speaks to the overflow crowd at the Peterborough Historical Society during the Grange ceremony honoring the pioneers of CSA. Photo from the balcony by Patrick John Gillam.
Alice Bennett Groh speaks to an overflow crowd at the Peterborough Historical Society during the Grange ceremony honoring the pioneers of CSA. Photo from the balcony by Patrick John Gillam.

In conversations with me after the Grange-CSA event, Alice spoke further about those seed ideas:

1.  The first seed that Alice recalled has to do with the ownership and financing of community farms, questions Trauger Groh engaged early in his life while living in Germany, questions he engaged again with compatriots at the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, and questions which he explored in his autobiography, Personal Recollections: Remembering My Life and Those Who Mean So Much to Me (2010).

The general agricultural situation in Germany in the 1960s, according to Trauger and Alice, was that most farms were economically dependent on using foreign workers and paying them low wages. This set up ensured that the farm workers would remain poor and have no stake in the land. Meanwhile, in comparison with conventional farms where production rose steeply with the addition of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, the financial return from harvests was unsatisfactory for organic and Biodynamic farms.

watercolorpaintIn this economic and social environment, how could organic or Biodynamic farms survive and prosper into the future? At Buschberg Farm in the 1960s, Trauger and his farm colleagues of that era were all actively cultivating Anthroposophical and Biodynamic understandings. They recognized that new economic, social and agricultural forms were needed for the Farms of Tomorrow.

Understanding that isolated farms and isolated farmers had a dim future in the shadow of corporate-industrial agriculture, they strove to create a wider, village-like arrangement based on free-will associations of households with the farm. One great aim was to open the farms to the participation of many people, to share the responsibility of growing food and caring for the earth cooperatively. To make that possible, it was necessary to change the relationship of the ownership to the land, and to give up the conventional employer/employee wage relationship.

They formed a co-operative work group for the Buschberg Farm Agricultural Working Group. The group was composed of about 40 people, with three active farmers including Trauger. Together they bore responsibility for the farm and its risks.

They developed a co-operative property association to hold the farmland in trust, and to act as a co-operative credit guarantee company. Attorney Wilhelm Barkoff designed this risk-sharing arrangement in partnership with the Co-operative Bank in Bochum, near Dresden, Germany.

Nonfarmer community members worked alongside the active farmers in managing the farm, but did not interfere with it. They contributed to the farm from their own life experience. Each member of the work group was given a loan of 3,000 DM (Deutsche Mark) by their Community Bank. This functioned as a line of credit, which the nonfarmer members of the community could then assign to the active farmers to give them working capital and enable them to establish a farm budget. The financial and health needs of the active farmers themselves and their families were built into the budget for the farm. Withdrawals were deducted and income credited.

On this basis the active farmers went about their business. If they made a profit they turned it over to the members of whole farm community: if the farm had a loss then the farm community members agreed to make up the difference. They shared the risk. This approach to free-will community trust ownership of the land and shared risk was among the original CSA seed ideas.

2.  While speaking at the Grange ceremony for the pioneers of CSA, Alice told also of how in the 1970s Trauger came to know Peter Berg, a farmer in south Germany. Berg came up with an idea for a box scheme – a weekly box of Biodynamic vegetables for people who wanted them, an approach which he was able to extend to Dornach, across the nearby border with Switzerland.

The Sower - V. Van Gogh

The Sower – V. Van Gogh

As a member of the Board of Directors for Fondation la Bruyére Blanche and as an agricultural consultant, Trauger visited Dornach many times in the early 1970s, and learned about the approach Berg was taking. Then in the 1980s, an American named Jan Vander Tuin also learned of this approach while visiting in Switzerland. He became passionately enthusiastic. Later when Vander Tuin visited western Massachusetts in 1985, he told about the pre-paid box scheme to a core group of people including John Root, Sr., John Root Jr., Charlotte Zenecchia, Andrew Lorand, and Robyn Van En. They formed The CSA Garden at Great Barrington, later known as Indian Line Farm.

The two communities – Temple-Wilton CSA in New Hampshire and Indian Line CSA in Massachusetts – were less than 150 miles apart. They connected and communicated with each other before the first CSA planting season in America, 1986.

Rather than an agriculture that is supported by government subsidies, private profits, or martyrs to the cause, CSA pioneers strove to create organizational forms that provide direct, free will support for farm and farmers from the people who eat their food by receiving a share of the harvest they have made possible. This is a second seed idea at the core of CSA.

3.  Alice Bennett Groh concluded her talk for the Grange by telling of how in the early 1980s Trauger visited with a farmer named Asgar Elmquist and his wife, Mary. The Elmquists were houseparents at Camphill Village, Copake, NY, and Asgar was also actively farming.

logoCamphill Villages are set up as households, with food budgets. It was the agreed custom for housemothers to use thier budgets to purchase food for all the residents of the households. One option was to buy food for the households from local farmers, such as Asgar. The houseparents were in fact buying from him, but toward the end of each month as house budgets ran low, the housemothers would switch and shop supermarkets instead to save money. That was not working for Asgar because it invariably left him stuck with food that he had produced but could no longer sell while it was fresh.

“Wise fellow that he is,” Alice observed, Asgar proposed that the households pledge a certain amount of budgeted money up front each month to support his general farming efforts, to support the whole farm. In return he would agree to deliver produce to their doors throughout the entire month. That upfront agreement worked better for everyone.

Trauger Groh later wrote in his autobiography. “That farms flourish must be the concern of everyone, not just the individuals working as farmers.” The idea is for the community to support the whole farm, not just to be occasional consumers buying boxes of carrots, lettuce and squash. That way the farm is in a position to reciprocate and support the community. The community supports the farm out of free will association, and the farm supports the community out of the bounty of the land.

0Back in the day, Asgar told Trauger that after he changed over to this arrangement, everything on the farm began to grow better. He explained that the nature spirits, or elemental beings weaving their works in the farm fields, have no relationship to money and no conception of it. If a farmer looks over a row of carrots and principally calculates what money he can earn with them, the elementals cannot grasp this abstraction. But if a farmer is instead thinking about bringing the crop to its highest perfection to nourish human beings and livestock, the elementals can in their own manner comprehend and respond.

“Elemental beings want what is good, healthy and right for the soil and the situation,” Alice told me. “If a farmer can be freed from the economic stress of counting rows of carrots to calculate how many rows he needs to make how much money, then the farmer can think instead of what the soil, the plants, the farm, and the farm community need. With these thoughts about concrete matters such as food and eating, rather than thoughts about the relatively abstract and artificial concept of money, everything grows better.”

“We can’t see the forces of nature,” original Indian Line CSA farmer Hugh Ratcliffe once told me, “but we can see the effects of working consciously with them.” Careful observation of nature, and intelligent cooperation with it, are among the great contributions of Biodynamics. And that’s how CSA pioneers approached it in the USA.

Considered through the lens of economics, CSA was not originated as some new, improved way to sell vegetables, milk and meat, nor was it thought of in any way as a “marketing scheme.” The seed efforts of CSA pioneers were aimed at the basic economy of finding ways to free farmers to do the tasks that are right for the farm, the people, and the earth. This intention represents a third seed at the core of the original CSA impulse.

The Temple-Wilton Community Farm in particular has taken up these seed ideas from the beginning. With effort it has cultivated and refined the seeds over 28 growing seasons: shared ownership and risk, free-will participation as members of the community, and intelligent partnership with nature rather than brute efforts at domination and control.

As Alice observed in the aftermath of the Peterborough Grange-CSA honoring ceremony, “it is unusual, to say the least, maybe even miraculous, that in these times of great social struggle that something that we approached with idealism and dedication has prospered and has had such a profound effect in the world.”

– Steven McFadden, December 2014

farmm 


A Primer for Pilgrims: Responding With Devotional Intelligence to Urgent Geospiritual Imperatives

July 26, 2014

By all scientific accounts we are in profound crisis on the physical plane. The Sixth Great Extinction is no longer a possibility, but has become a brutal unfolding reality as plants and animals become extinct at a mind-numbing rate 1,000 times faster than they did before humans walked the land; meanwhile the climate crisis steadily intensifies to the level of planetary emergency. On the land the most obvious causes and responses are physical, but as important are metaphysical causes and responses.

*PilgrimsfinalCoverIn recognition of this foundational truth, I am pleased to announce that I have authored and published a new Soul*Spark eBook: A Primer for Pilgrims. Pilgrimage can serve as yet another healthy response to the call of the land, in this case with devotional intelligence and action.

In a wealth of ways across a wide span of traditions and hundreds of generations, pilgrims have sought out holy places: forest groves, healing wells or springs, pyramids, mountains, churches, temples, stone circles or labyrinths. Millions of people have traveled for a host of reasons.

In the end, whether we go willingly or unwillingly, whether we regard ourselves as tourists, business agents, or sacred travelers, we are all, pilgrims. A pilgrimage is a journey, not only outward to a faraway place, but also, inevitably, inward toward spiritual understanding and growth. In our era pilgrimage can be as well a critical geospiritual deed to help maintain the balance of our land, our planet, our lives.

This eBook is an invaluable guide to personal spiritual growth, as well as to earth healing. It’s also a collection of riveting and beautifully told true stories about critical geospiritual actions in North America

This nonfiction eBook by veteran journalist Steven McFadden also acknowledges, honors, draws from and strives to integrate the many cultures and traditions which have streamed onto Turtle Island (North America) over the last 500 years or so.

Author Steven McFadden walks the labyrinth, circla 1998.

Author Steven McFadden walks the labyrinth.

We have long needed, and finally have begun to find ways to graft the far-flung traditions from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Asia, and beyond — onto the rootstock that is so deeply embedded here: Native ways. So many teachings make beautiful sense, in both the short and the long term, in ways both common and rare. We need all the wisdom we can summon to meet the challenges of our times, and native pilgrimage teachings offer a deep foundation.

The book offers a wealth of insight about the challenges that arise in pilgrimage and the profound good that such a spiritual exercise may bring – not just for the individual pilgrims, but also for the world at large.

Pilgrims may set out to do penance for past evils, to find answers to questions, to invoke blessings, to pursue spiritual ecstasy, or to seek a miracle for a friend or family member. Increasingly in our era, pilgrims also set out to help heal the earth.

In most mystical traditions it is said that the human soul itself, every human soul, is on a pilgrimage, consciously or unconsciously. He or she is bound for a holy place and therefore life is not just for enjoyment, but the soul also has dharma, a purpose or objective that must ever be kept in focus.

Now as you set out on the literary pilgrimage of reading this book, my hope as the author is that it will offer up useful compass points to help you maintain your bearings.

Journeys to luminous locations are often undertaken by people with scant understanding of what pilgrimage is and the principles that have been found to enhance it. Thus, they may see only what they have come to see, whereas intentional pilgrims may more readily open doors of perception, encounter revelation, and gain constructive power.

To the extent any or all of us are alienated by modern life from the natural world, a pilgrimage to a sacred place can help heal and restore this. The energetic atmosphere of sacred places can awaken a slumbering soul, providing not only renewal, but also a clearer sense of purpose. The energy can invigorate and promote balance — assisting human beings to realign through physical, mental, and emotional planes.

Pilgrim Marie McFadden

Pilgrim Marie McFadden

Just as I finished writing and prepared to publish this new eBook, my mother died. Marie Dolores Fitzsimmons McFadden was herself an inveterate pilgrim. Over the 92 1/2 years of her life she traveled to just about every region of the planet, and to an impressive number of sacred sites including Jerusalem, Rome, Fatima, Lourdes, El Santuario de Chimayo, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and many other places. To honor her memory, this new book is dedicated to her, as well as to all of us who are “on the road” in an era when extreme circumstances call out for our presence and our intelligent healing participation.

 

A Primer for Pilgrims delivers nonfiction insight, excitement, inspiration, adventure, and more. It’s available in 10 different eBook and Smartphone formats through Smashwords, and also available for Kindle through Amazon.com and for all Apple devices such as iPad and iPhone in the Apple bookstore.

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#Amazon-buynow

 

 

 


The Call of the Land now on all Apple devices

June 7, 2014

No matter what kind of digital device you have, you can now access and read in all digital formats the 2nd edition of The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century.

The book has long been available in print and in a range of ebook formats through Amazon.com and other major retailers.

ibookNow The Call of the Land is also available in the whole range of digital devices from Apple: iPads, iPhones, and Mac computers.

Impending matters of finance, transport, oil supply, climate stability, water availability, and diet, necessitate—right now—a clear, visionary look at our relationship with our land and an immediate wholehearted response. The Call of the Land addresses these critical issues head on, and offers a broad range of creative, positive responses.

Worldwide, agricultural and financial systems are mutating at breakneck speed. More change is coming. That is certain in response to fundamental shifts in the global economy and environment. These changes impact not just food cost, but also food quality and food availability. This book has proven iteslf to be an valuable resource for those seeking wise pathways to respond.

Many of my other books are also now available from the iTunes and iBook online stores. To check out the possibilities, just follow this link.

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BackCover


The Future of CSA Farms: Podcast Conversation

March 4, 2014

pcastCommunity Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an agrarian movement that arose in America starting in the 1980s. In an era of general farm consolidation and industrialization CSA has continued to develop. By now there are many thousands of farms and many hundreds of thousands of households networked directly with local farms.

The initial vision of CSA arose in the context of wide recognition of the necessity for renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends on farming for survival. The vision united farmers and consumers in an agrarian relationship for the health of people and planet, and explicitly recognized the necessary stewardship of soil, plants, and animals: the essential capital of human cultures. CSA emerged as a web of relationships.

Recently I had an opportunity to engage in conversation about the movement and its future with two renowned CSA farmers: Jean Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm in New York, and Allan Balliett of Fresh and Local CSA in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

My thanks to Allan for creating and hosting BDnow Podcast 017 – The Future of CSA, and to Jean Paul for sharing his experience and insight.

As it happens, I must demur on the matter of “foremost…philosopher,” which is a descriptor applied to me in the podcast. CSA farms arose as a community supported concept. “The idea of CSA was in the air in the late 1980s.” Many different people were contributing to the thoughts and practices, including Jan Vander Tuin, John Root, Jr., Andrew Lorand, Robyn Van En, Elizabeth Henderson, Anthony Graham, Lincoln Geiger, and Alice Groh. Trauger Groh – my coauthor on Farms of Tomorrow and Farms of Tomorrow Revisited – had a profound and eloquent grasp of farming and of the budding CSA vision.  My role with CSA in those days, and ongoingly, has been not to philosophize, but rather to listen closely and then to write about what I learn.

Farmland,_Stokenchurch_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1013299

#csa #organicfarmers #organic #agrarian


The Future of Food is Local

November 19, 2013

Michael Brownlee in Lincoln (author photo)

Michael Brownlee in Lincoln
(author photo)

Michael Brownlee stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska on Monday evening and gave a talk about local food. Detailing the systemic weaknesses in the juggernaut of industrial agriculture, which now provides about 98% of our food, he commented: ”food is the one area where we are all most vulnerable, and where the need is most urgent.”

Brownlee and his partners at Local Food Shift are out to catalyze the national movement in local food helping to take it to the next level — from a culture of consumers, to a culture of contributors. He considers their efforts in the Front Range of Colorado to be a Whole Systems Demonstration Project.

“The way we feed ourselves is the most important social, environmental, health and economic undertaking of our times,” he said. “Food is going to come soon to the forefront of emerging human calamities.”

Brownlee cited the draft report leaked earlier this month from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In blunt language, that report spells out the trend: “climate change will seriously damage the world’s ability to feed itself in the coming decades. The report confirms previous studies’ findings that climate change could exacerbate poverty, strain water supplies, make extreme weather more common and increase conflict around the world.

Local food is a core response to impending catastrophes, accentuated by climate change. The world’s agricultural areas will shift, causing an overall decline in agricultural production. The movement toward local food comes at the juncture of a troubling array of global environmental and economic crises, he said, and responds to them in a healthy and positive way.

The Local Food Shift campaign is designed to empower communities to marshal their efforts in beginning to shift their food systems towards the local. They are creating and making available tools and processes to empower the local food movement.

“The global food system is now teetering on the edge of collapse,” Brownlee asserted. “The future of food is local – as close to home as possible. Local food production helps to reverse the wide spiral of damage caused by industrial agriculture and the industrial growth society.”

Brownlee concluded his talk with a quote from economist Herman Daly, author of several books, including For the Common Good (1994).  “If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food. This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one…The most fundamental requirement for survival is food. Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”


Humane Husbandry: Nebraska Tries to Blaze a Trail

July 22, 2013

“Nebraska leads the nation in organic livestock numbers and is one of the leading producers of grass-fed beef. In time we will lead the nation in producing and marketing humanely raised livestock.”

– Kevin Fulton, rancher

Out of the smoldering rhetorical and legislative rubble of recent years, a band of farmers – the Nebraska Farmers Union – has stepped forward in a joint venture with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in an effort to blaze new, cooperative market trails that lead to increased opportunities for small and mid-size farmers, as well as to more humane livestock care.

Photo © 2013 by Heather Blanchette

Photo © 2013 by Like a Cup of Tea

Most Americans eat meat of one kind or another (96% of us). Questions about where our meat came from, how the animals were treated when alive, and how they were killed and prepared for our tables, are fundamental. They matter a lot, and in a lot of ways. Thus this joint venture between two groups that might well stand in opposition to each other is a model of national and perhaps international significance.

Nine billion animals are raised for the table each year in the USA. The experience the animals live out on a farm or endure in mass, industrial confinement has economic, environmental, health and moral ramifications.

Meat has of late been engulfed in ferocious conflicts of law and rhetoric, pitting livestock producers head on with animal welfare and animal rights groups. As one of America’s premier meat-producing states, Nebraska is a critical forum for these debates to play out.

sowGestcrate1For over a decade HSUS had been waging a general campaign to get livestock and poultry producers to abandon various industrial-scale livestock management practices that they consider inhumane. In particular, HSUS helped push successful ballot measures in several states to restrict or prohibit sow gestation crates – enclosures that keep female pigs pregnant and all but immobile.

Pretty much all HSUS needed to do was show pictures of the sow gestation crates to the public. The pictures told the story, no narrative necessary. People did not like what they saw. Thus, ballot initiatives prohibiting sow gestation crates were being enacted into law in states around the nation. This engendered rancor among many livestock producers. They felt the crates were safe and efficient, and that science and economics were on their side.

 “Our American Way of Life”

While HSUS was advancing legislatively and in the court of public opinion, industrial agriculture was, and is, coming on strong in state after state with so-called Ag Gag laws, which make it a crime to photograph or film how livestock is managed in industrial settings.

The moral stance of HSUS — the idea that it regards itself as working toward a civil society that “triumphs over ignorance, convenience, and archaic tradition” — was rubbing salt in the wounds of frustrated livestock industry movers and shakers.

Several years ago HSUS considered Nebraska as a possible state for another effort to render sow gestation crates illegal. Because HSUS already had a winning track record in other states, the Nebraska animal agriculture establishment was on red alert. Several large producer and insurance organizations formed a trade organization, We Support Agriculture, to promote their point of view and – pointedly — to thwart HSUS initiatives.

A November 2010 town hall meeting in the capital city of Lincoln to discuss animal welfare wound up as a heated confrontation that produced less than a wisp of understanding on the core issues around livestock-meat. Hot words continued to fly in the aftermath.

americanwayThen about 18 months ago things went nuclear when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (R) blasted HSUS from a national stage near Washington, DC. He spoke before a conference of lawmakers who chair agriculture committees in their respective states. Heineman, a West Point graduate and a former Army Ranger, sought to rally the troops. He called on lawmakers from across the country to join him in fighting HSUS.

Echoing the position of We Support Agriculture, Heinemann said he did not trust the Humane Society. He described it as an organization bent on destruction of Nebraska’s top economic engine, agriculture.

Then he dropped a bomb: “This is about our American way of life,” he said, “and HSUS wants to destroy the American dream for America’s farmers and ranchers. This is about jobs for American families, and HSUS wants to destroy job opportunities for our sons and our daughters and our grandkids.”

In the aftermath of this verbal nuke, the state of affairs vis a vis livestock-animal welfare-meat appeared intractable, a heavily mined legal, economic, environmental and ethical battlefield. Matters seemed destined for an ugly finish. At just about that time, though, the market asserted itself in the debate.

The Market Speaks

Bowing to overwhelming public opinion many food industry giants — McDonald’s, Burger King, Krogers, Johnstown Sausages, ConAgra, Smithfield Foods, and leading Canadian retailers — began notifying their pork suppliers that they wanted sow gestation crates phased out. The market proved swifter, more powerful and more effective than any political resolution

As the market reality was emerging, HSUS abandoned any consideration of a ballot initiative in Nebraska, or elsewhere. The issue of sow gestation crates was becoming moot.

trailTrying to turn a negative into a positive, the Nebraska Farmers Union (NeFU) began to talk with HSUS about ways to collaborate, to look for a trail forward, and to develop new, profitable, consumer-driven markets for livestock producers, rather than pursuing various statewide ballot issues to regulate livestock production.

“Statewide ballot campaigns polarize the situation,” explained John K. Hansen, President of  NeFU. “The campaigns are designed to get a visceral reaction. When that happens, and people on both sides are getting hit in the gut, then folks are not open to changing their positions.”

Hansen has held the elected office of President since 1989. Although he encountered  resistance from fellow Union members in state and around the country, he stuck his neck out and agreed to sit down with HSUS and talk. After exploring the possibilities, together in a joint venture they created the Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS.

In a phone interview, Hansen explained: “In other states HSUS was getting into bruising battles with groups representing ag producers. I called the Farmers Union presidents in all of the states that had dealt with ballot issues on livestock, and I talked with them about this. They told me it had been a very painful process for them and their states. The livestock debates were extremely polarizing and creating long-term damage in the industries that produce the various meats most Americans eat.

“The battles were deeply destructive for everyone, especially livestock producers, and that’s not good. So that’s when Nebraska Farmer’s Union agreed to talk with the Humane Society to see if we could move things forward.”

Confab at the Cornhusker

Regarding livestock animal-welfare issues as crucial and Nebraska as pivotal, the President and CEO of HSUS, Wayne Pacelle, returned to the state a second time early this summer to represent his 11-million member organization, and to participate in a second public forum concerning HSUS’s joint venture with the Farmers Union — the Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS.

chPacelle visited the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel in the capital city of Lincoln, the night of June 27, 2013 to help articulate the ideas behind the initiative.

As noted by the Lincoln Journal-Star, when Pacelle made a public appearance in Lincoln three years ago “the mood was tense…” and the proceedings were contentious. This time, knowing the vehement opposition that had characterized Pacelle’s visit to Nebraska in 2010 a contingent of security guards was posted at the door. They warily inspected everyone approaching the conference room.

This time there was no opposition. Opponents chose, at least publically, to ignore the Nebraska Agriculture Council. Thus, the forum was quiet, orderly, sparsely attended.

With 6,200 farm families as members, the Nebraska Farmers Union (NeFU) is the largest family farm and ranch group in the state. The union was formed 100 years ago in 1913, when Nebraska farmers perceived that independently they were consistently at a disadvantage. They banded together to stand up against monopolies that controlled the railroads, agricultural processing, farm supplies, and large grocery businesses. Over the last century the Farmers Union helped found 436 farm cooperatives across Nebraska.

At the Cornhusker forum, after farmers and union members spoke, HSUS’s Pacelle took a turn at the podium. “The history of this country is an expanding sphere of moral consideration,” he declared. “That sphere is now expanding to include the animals who are part of our lives, and who so many of us depend upon for food.”

“We are here to celebrate forward-thinking farmers who make animal welfare a priority and to appeal to the increasing share of consumers concerned about the values of humane treatment and sustainability,” he said.

The Nebraska Agriculture Council of the HSUS is the first of it’s kind in any state, but is a model that will be replicated elsewhere.

A Good Business Partnership

A Nebraska native, Farmers Union President John Hansen told the forum he wants to create opportunities for people to return to animal agriculture, and for family farmers to make a living. He said he wants to see farmers moving product through supply chains.

NeFU.logo“Instead of continuing a knock-down, drag-out fight, we have to find a way to move forward,” Hansen said. “We have to find a way to reward people in the market for improving their standards of livestock care. We want to create new opportunities for new producers. We want to do value-added to create a premium product that will reward farmers and ranchers in the market for the ethical treatment of their animals.”

“This is a good business partnership.” Hansen said. “American agriculture can produce quality products with high standards of livestock care, and then be rewarded in the marketplace. The key to this is being open and transparent. We believe the market will reward us for doing the right thing in the right way.”

“Before this approach came forward,” Hansen said, “we were basically in a shin-kicking contest, and those contests were tending to go in favor of the pet owners, who are in the majority. Two-thirds of Americans own pets – and that majority tends to apply their own pet ethics and pet standards to livestock.

“That’s where the trouble starts. The two – pets and livestock – are related but different. In these conflicts ag producers are going to lose most of time because they are outnumbered by consumers, and that’s not good. We need them to live and they need us to make a living.”

“It’s pretty clear what local consumers want,” Hansen said. “They want meat from animals that are free of growth hormones and non-essential antibiotics. They want animals that have been properly and respectfully cared for, and allowed to express their basic animal nature.”

Building a More Humane Economy

When he took his turn speaking at the Cornhusker forum, Kevin Fulton said “animal welfare” outranks “organic” and “local” as an issue of concern for consumers. Fulton is a founder of the new council, and also the operator of Fulton Farms in Litchfield, Nebraska, a 2,800-acre diverse, multispecies livestock grazing operation for grass-fed beef, lamb, and pastured poultry.

“Farmers and ranchers should be at the forefront of the animal welfare issue, Fulton said. “Animals are not production units, but living creatures.”

Fulton cited a 2011 poll by the University of Nebraska. The poll shows that most rural Nebraskans (69%) agree that animal welfare means more than providing adequate food, water and shelter; but also includes adequate exercise, space and social activities for the animals.

As Fulton interprets the results, an overwhelming majority of people – these are rural Nebraska people, not seaboard city dwellers – are of the opinion that animals should be in an environment where they can express their natural behaviors.

“If they have legs they should at least be able to walk and turn around,” he said, “and if they have wings they should be able to flap them.”

Farm to Fitness

One component of the NAC marketing effort is a variation on the by now well-developed array of “farm-to” models. The US and farm2fitlogoCanada already have many farm-to-school, farm-to-church, farm-to-hospital, farm-to-office, programs, and more. As of late 2012, Farm to Fitness adds to the array of possibilities by using gyms as a focal point for connecting health-minded consumers with local producers of nutritious, humanely-raised meat, poultry and other foods to support their fitness goals.

According to Ben Gotschall, who hails from a cattle ranch in Nebraska’s Sand Hills and is Market Development Coordinator for the Nebraska Farmer’s Union: “The idea is for gyms to promote local livestock to their members, and to provide a distribution point for humanely raised and cooperatively purchased food orders.”

“I think this partnership is progress in the right direction,” Gotschall said. “Legislation can only get you so far. If you try to legislate problems away you run into other problems. The arguments we were having were not really getting anyone anywhere. The fight was demonizing producers and villainizing HSUS in the eyes of the agricultural community, and not really changing the way animals are treated in industrial systems.

“Taking a market approach is more constructive. That’s the nature of the problem anyway, because the marketplace dictates the system. Now with the new technologies, the market has the potential to take livestock care in a different direction, to make it better for animals, producers and consumers.”

“There is consumer demand, for sure, but that’s not a market,” Gotschall said. “You need a market system with production, processing, distribution, and so forth. That’s all been destroyed in the last 30 to 40 years. There is no way to go back to how it was. But that’s OK. It’s a different time and a different world.”

“We need to create a better world. Small-scale and mid-size farmers and ranchers now have the Internet, smartphones, and other information tools. The whole concept of knowing your farmer and where your food comes from is a lot more nuanced. It’s not the same as a first-person visit to the farm and farmers, but it is a connection and it works. We have many exciting new technologies.” Those technologies make it simpler for people in a supply chain to communicate and do business.”

Local, sustainable, value-added producers have the facts on their side, Gotschall asserted. “The research shows their product is healthier for people,” he said. To support his claim, he emailed me an Excel spreadsheet listing 58 relevant studies, including this sample.

Moral Evolution

Nebraska’s Governor proffered some incendiary rhetoric when he identified the matters of livestock and meat as a core issue, and then condemned the Humane Society as attempting to destroy the American way of life. Yet the “American way” the Governor so ferociously attempted to defend has, alas, long ago been generally overwhelmed.

Farmer’s Union President John Hansen laid out the familiar, grim facts: “Because of vertical integration and consolidation, in the years since 1980 we have lost 91% of independent hog producers, 80% of all dairy producers, and 40% of all beef producers. That is a massive shift. It shoved a lot of farm people out the door. They didn’t want to go. They were pushed out. No wonder we now are down to just 1% of the population farming today.”

“No animal welfare group drove these farm families out of business. It was, rather, a market dominated by vertically integrated multinational food corporations with mass industrial approaches, and little if any transparency about what they are actually doing.”

The population and character of Nebraska — and many other places in rural America — began altering markedly in the shadow of the relentlessly efficient advance of industrial models of food production and livestock management.

Even before the Governor’s damning words about HSUS ceased reverberating, his premise about the “American way of life” was further assaulted. Shuanghui International, a colossal Chinese conglomerate, surged forward in 2013 in an effort to purchase Smithfield, the world’s largest hog producer and pork packer. With three large ham and sausage plants in Nebraska, Smithfield is a major-league player.

Meanwhile, JBS Swift & Company, which also has a substantial presence in Nebraska, has for years been a wholly owned subsidiary of another multinational, a corporation based in Brazil.

Neither of these foreign entities – or the other multinational corporations behind industrial feedlots and confinement operations across America – necessarily match the down-home, patriotic profile conjured by the Governor’s volley. They are, for better or for worse, global institutions in an era of global commerce and communication. Multinational corporations, with their pluses and minuses, are but the latest permutation of the very forces that have so profoundly impacted, and continue to impact Nebraska and American farm families.

Governor Heinemann’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

the-thinker-224x300Through a sophisticated focus on efficiency and profit, large operations tend to spawn coldly rational mechanistic systems and dynamics that are well suited to machines, but not — as HSUS sees it — to living beings such as cows, pigs, lambs, chickens and turkeys. Here lies an enormous philosophical divide.

“What we are seeing is a major consumer reaction that was predicted back in the 1960s,” Hansen explained in our phone interview. “It was known even back then that when the corporations took over the farms, as has happened, that then the system would become less competitive and more homogenous. All of this stuff, it was known. They are reaping the harvest of what they sowed.”

“As I see it all of the things the Humane Society has been responding to are directly tied into the vertically integrated, industrialized corporate agriculture,” Hansen said. “It all comes out of this. The corporate takeover of livestock production has resulted in these conditions.

“The reason HSUS has influence in the debate,” Hansen said, “is because they are giving voice to legitimate consumer concerns. What do consumers want? You have to listen to that and respond. How do we create a value-added market that responds to this desire and expands the possibilities? The answers to those questions are the way forward.”

Leading a ‘Hungry Army’ along a Market Trail

It appears in the aftermath of the rhetorical battles and tectonic market shifts that have taken place around animal welfare, the troops that rose up in response to the Nebraska Governor’s call to arms included not just legislators wielding meat cleavers on the public’s right to know, but also consumers wielding forks, knives and authentic marketplace clout.

As the Lincoln Journal Star put it in an editorial, the “hungry army” that has been aroused is a growing network of consumers who want meat that is more humanely raised, that does not pollute the environment, that is healthy, and that is free of synthetic hormones, and chemicals.

humane,logoNext that “hungry army” may march on growth hormones, or excessive antibiotics, or any number of industrial practices that hold the stage as issues of common concern. Most citizens feel that the basic right of knowledge and choice is theirs and should remain theirs, an essential element of the American and Nebraskan democratic tradition.

The agriculture industry group We Support Agriculture apparently remains distrustful of HSUS. They did not respond to a request for comment. According to press releases on their website, they remain convinced that  animal welfare groups intend ultimately to terminate all livestock husbandry, and to convert everyone to vegetarianism.

In talking with members of the Nebraska Agriculture Council, I heard no one speak about eliminating animal agriculture. They spoke rather about creating more opportunities for small and mid-size farmers. I heard them speak, also, about their cooperative effort to pioneer a way forward with healthy, local humane husbandry using a robust and sophisticated network of 21st century technologies to help blaze the trail.

Jocelyn Nickerson, HSUS state director for Nebraska, had this to say: “This is all about protecting family farms, and that extends well beyond Nebraska. Nebraska is a tough state, but we’ve made strides in relationship building, in getting our message out about protecting family farms, and in improving conditions for animals on the farms. That’s a good thing, no two ways about it.

“Our ultimate goal is not to stop livestock production, but to promote humanely and sustainably raised products. We’re doing it because it’s important, because it’s the right thing to do, and because that’s what consumers are demanding.”

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Author’s Note: Along with several producer coops, Open Harvest consumer coop grocery in Lincoln is a partner in the newly formed Nebraska Agriculture Council. I serve on the Board for Open Harvest, which does business with over 110 Nebraska farms. I’m also on the Advisory Board for Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska, and a member of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.


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