What Does it Mean to Eat Well

What does it mean to eat well?

By Tony Schultz, Farmer, Stoney Acres Farm

This past winter I was invited to speak on a panel in Madison with the famous chef Odessa Piper, a Nobel Prize winning climate scientist, a UW Madison Sociologist, and a Grass-based cattleman. We were asked to respond to the question: “What does it mean to eat well?” and as we begin our CSA season together I want share some of my thoughts.

            I began with a bit of deadpan humor. “To eat well is to eat a diet high in fiber and low in saturated fat. Thank you. Goodnight. …   …   …”   Of course that joke is meant to highlight that an answer to this question is multidimensional and much deeper than the limited narrative about what makes food good, a narrative created by food and diet corporations and mainstream nutritionists. To eat well is an act that enriches every aspect of our lives, it is personal and political it has implications for the economic, ecological, cultural and the spiritual. I could speak from many angles on infinite topics and contexts regarding this question, but I’ve boiled it down to five or so points.  

To eat well is to cook. Perhaps no other act is more crucial, more fundamental to people eating well on a mass scale. If you are cooking you are more likely to be using fresh whole foods not simply floating through the world ingesting the random processed calories that make up the negative core of the western diet. If you are cooking you are much more likely to be asking questions that lead to a more complete act of eating well like… What will this do to my health? Who can I share this with? Was this sprayed? Who picked this? What are the conditions of the people who raised this? Where did my food come from? I always say that the people who love the CSA the most are people who like to cook.

To eat well is to eat seasonally. If you are eating seasonally you are likely eating food at its freshest and most flavorful; when it is ready to be eaten and delivers the most nutrition. If you are eating seasonally you are likely eating from a farmers’ market and in doing so supporting local agriculture helping to create a multiplier effect in the local economy.  To paraphrase the great Barbra Kingsolver, author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, The pleasure of eating seasonally is the great joy you receive when food comes to you in its season. Asparagus arrives. You gluttonize yourself with butter sauce and make jokes about asparagus pee and just when you are starting to get sick of it, it’s strawberry time!

To eat well is to eat like a flexitarian. I think Michael Pollen summarized the last words anyone needs to know when wondering about eating healthy: Eat food. Not to much. Mostly plants.  To eat mostly plants is to eat like what is known as a flexitarian, and there is good reason to be one. It’s widely accepted that large quantities of red meat may be problematic, health-wise, and we know that many people have made it a goal to eat less meat because large-scale industrial production is damaging to the environment, the animals, and the family farm economy. However I think there is a place for meat especially in sustainable agriculture. All of my animals have a function in our system at the farm. Chickens eat flies and weed seeds. Pigs are better rototillers than I could ever be. My grazing cows keep my land in pasture controlling soil erosion, phosphorous run-off and sequestering more carbon than almost any other land use. Actually what I like most about my animals isn’t their eggs, bacon or steaks, it is their manure. Animals are my primary source of fertility for my vegetables and are how we work to close the circle on our farm and make it more sustainable. It is my general suggestion that we eat half as much meat and pay twice as much for it to be raised well.

To eat well is not to eat anonymously. This statement has two meanings: share your meals and know your farmer. I wrote this when Kat took the kids to a weekend meeting in another part of the state. I thought I would be liberated, but I ended up defrosting a pizza fry with an anxious sense of longing. If I ever eat by myself in a restaurant I experience some of my most dreadful feeling of loneliness as people look at me like a zoo animal. Eating seems to be a primal social act that bonds us and helps to break down barriers in the act of sharing a common human need and in our current social context I feel less awkward about drinking a bottle of wine when I share it. The other part of this statement is to know your farmer. Knowledge is power and knowing where your food comes from is the most important factor in making our food system more just, sustainable, democratic and fun. As the author Wendell Berry has said, “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.”  

To eat well is to eat in a world where everyone is able to eat well. Local organic food cannot simply be some foodie culture war expression - Some novelty of the educated, upper middle class culturally privileged. To eat well means to have a critique of local, organic, justly produced food. It is to be ashamed of its sometimes rightful (but often wrongful) portrayal as elitist. To eat well means to sacrifice and fight and beg and demand that good food be present in all classes and all dinnertables of our society. That it be a recognition by all those who care about eating well that it not be isolated to their circles and sensibilities. To eat well is to share the principles of eating well and share these meals with everyone. Understanding this is important to expanding the presence of local, organic and fair-trade food. Our CSA coalition “Fairshare” is constantly thinking about how to reach “mainstream eaters,” folks who may not be exposed to CSA.  Achieving this is not simply a matter of educating or speaking differently to different demographics, it is about understanding where people are, knowing that our liberation and the liberation of our food system is bound up with one another and participating in struggles together to raise access to education, raise incomes, raise access to land.  More than ending an exploitative food system, and saving the world from environmental destruction, this may be our most important task and our most effective means of achieving and just, sustainable, and nourishing food system.  

Can Organic Feed the World: Part One The claims and a review of agricultural research

 

by and for Stoney Acres Farm

From the early nineties until the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008 the organic food market has been booming, with organic product sales growing by 20% per year and organic acreage growing 14.3 percent. Despite the current economic crisis organic agriculture continues to grow. Total U.S. organic sales, including food and non-food products, were $26.6 billion in 2009, up 5.3 percent from 2008 according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2010 Organic Industry Survey. In the past 10 years organic has increasingly become mainstreamed with more consumers demanding more products and more farmers finding supportive stable markets and other benefits with this method of agriculture. With increasing popularity, organic methods challenge the status quo as they offer a viable alternative to chemical dependant agriculture and the factory farming of livestock. This challenge raises questions about environmental sustainability, human health, and the quality of life in rural communities. In response, defenders of industrial agriculture have addressed this threat by feeding the public a diet of misleading and inaccurate statements, claiming, among other things, that organic farming offers no real benefits and organic products are no better than industrially produced foods. Beyond many baseless claims, one of the most common attacks is that “organics will starve us or starve the poor,” as this niche could not possibly produce enough food to feed the world without factory farm efficiency and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. We are particularly interested in looking into this claim. Can organic feed the world? We plan to look at yield based studies this week, and to focus on studies which look more closely at long term impacts of industrial versus organic systems next week. From what we have read it appears that organic methods can feed us.

Several recent national and international studies have helped to answer this question with their comparisons of conventional and organic methodology and their subsequent yields. In plain yield based terms, in short term trials it appears that organic agriculture is similarly productive on a national level, and in poorer areas can be much more productive. Research conducted by the UN Environment Program found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it. An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa.

Nationally, the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST) project recently concluded 13 years of research comparing conventional and organic crop yields in the southern part of the state. According to the results, which were published in the Agronomy Journal organic systems produced corn and soybeans 90 percent to 98 percent as well as conventional systems. An analyses of similar field trial studies done during the past several years in Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Michigan shows that on average organic and low-chemical corn yields were 98 percent to 114 percent of conventional corn yields; soybean yields under sustainable systems averaged 94 percent to 111 percent of their conventional counterparts. However, organic systems can be particularly vulnerable to wet conditions early in the season. Since organic systems cannot utilize herbicides, they must rely on mechanical weed control such as rotary hoeing to control weeds. If excessive wet weather at the wrong times of the year makes it difficult to get weed-killing steel out in the field, yields suffer. Field trials show that when weather conditions prevent good mechanical weed control, corn and soybean yields average about 74 percent of their conventional counterparts.

Another issue in yield comparisons has to do with rotation as most organic systems are more complex than the corn-soy rotations that have come to dominate so much of conventional agriculture. A study at the USDA-ARS Beltsville Farming Systems Project and published in The Agronomy Journal revealed that in a traditional corn-soybean rotation organic yields were 76-82% of conventional, but when a more complex organic rotation of corn, soybean, wheat, and hay were used the result was a 30% increase in yields which were essentially the same as conventional if not better.

To conclusively answer the original question Professor Ivette Perfecto and colleagues, at the University of Michigan's school of Natural Resources and Environment, analyzed published studies on yields from organic farming. They looked at 293 different examples. "Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base," they wrote in their July 2007  report, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. Beyond the question of yield, is what is necessary to achieve those yields and the different methodologies impact on the land and broader environment so we can continue to be feed in the long term. Stay tuned, we will examine these questions next week.

Can Organic Continue to Feed the World: Part Two of Series

 

by and for Stoney Acres Farm

Last week we looked at the raw research data which compared yields for grains in organic and conventional agriculture. Beyond the straight comparison, is an analysis that looks more seriously at the practices of organic and conventional agriculture and their impacts on food security.  When we consider more complex agricultural systems and how grains are currently used (not necessarily to feed people), the productivity and stability of organic systems seems to be of even more importance.

Despite corn and soy’s dominance of our agricultural landscape we must also take into consideration other crops, such as those eaten by people rather than cows, (or used to make ethanol… which confuses this ‘feeding the world’ question a bit.) In 2002 the Los Angeles Times reported on a 21 year Swiss study between organic and conventional systems examining a broader selection of crops. The comprehensive study, published in Science magazine, not only compared yields but examined other claims by studying energy use, inputs, and pollution. Organic crop yields averaged about 20% less than conventionally farmed crops, although the differences covered a wide range. At the low end, were potatoes due to challenges such as blight and the Colorado Potato Beatle yields were 58% to 66% of those produced by conventional means. The production of wheat reached 90% of a conventional harvest. Overall, organic farming methods used 50% less energy, 97% less pesticide and as much as 51% less fertilizer than conventional methods. While yields may not be equal the inputs that provided for those yields were dramatically lower. This point broadens the picture, for it is not simply a question of just yield but the resources used to achieve those yields. Also, the sustainability of those yields was not in question. After two decades of cultivation, the soil in the study's test plots was still rich in nutrients, resistant to erosion and readily water absorbent.

Organics’ dedication to soil health was evident in an apple comparison at Washington State. The six-year study published in Nature April 2001, concluded that organic apple farming was not only better for the soil and the environment than its conventional counterpart but had similar yields, higher profits and greater energy efficiency.

In a review of the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial comparing soil fungi activity, crop yields, energy efficiency, costs, organic matter changes over time, nitrogen accumulation and nitrate leaching across organic and conventional agricultural systems, David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agriculture, concludes, "Organic farming offers real advantages for such crops as corn and soybeans." Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does. Pimentel is the lead author of a study that is published in Bioscience (Vol. 55:7).The study compared a conventional farm that used recommended fertilizer and pesticide applications with an organic animal-based farm (where manure was applied) and an organic legume-based farm (that used a three-year rotation of hairy vetch/corn and rye/soybeans and wheat). The two organic systems received no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The research compared "First and foremost, we found that corn and soybean yields were the same across the three systems," said Pimentel, who noted that although organic corn yields were about one-third lower during the first four years of the study, over time the organic systems produced higher yields, especially under drought conditions in which organic corn and soy yields averaged 22% higher than conventional. The reason was that wind and water erosion degraded the soil on the conventional farm while the soil on the organic farms steadily improved in organic matter, moisture, microbial activity and other soil quality indicators. The fact that organic agriculture systems also absorb and retain significant amounts of carbon in the soil has implications for global warming as soil carbon in the organic systems increased by 15 to 28 percent, the equivalent of taking about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per hectare out of the air.

To conclusively answer the original question Professor Ivette Perfecto and colleagues, at the University of Michigan's school of Natural Resources and Environment, analyzed published studies on yields from organic farming. They looked at 293 different examples. "Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base," they wrote in their July 2007  report, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. Yields aside, not all aspects of these systems can be easily quantified regardless of their importance. As stated by the lead author in the Swiss Study "Costs like soil erosion, or pollution of ground water or climate change, these costs are not covered when you run comparisons between organic and conventional products. Society is paying these costs.” In the end, as these costs mount, yield is only one essential factor of any honest agricultural analysis. As fossil fuels deplete, and global warming changes the agricultural landscape, environmental sustainability must be a primary consideration for agricultural policy throughout the world. Organic is not only capable of feeding the world, it may have to.

Cookbooks in Our Cupboards How to get inspired to cook more vegetables by and for Stoney Acres Farm

 

 

  1. From Asparagus to Zucchini – The most perfect compilation for CSA cooking and also the most local. Produced by the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition the cookbook takes you alphabetically through Wisconsin vegetables providing interesting historical background, basic preparation and storage information, and several wonderful recipes. The book’s introduction lays out ‘what is so special about eating locally’ and after zucchini provides a host of fantastic seasonal combinations perfect for every week’s box. My favorite recipe: Glazed carrots. I use it all the time, and though it is hard to go wrong with butter and maple syrup (substituted for honey), the mint is a special something.

 

  1. Local Flavors – Deborah Madison’s newest book which is centered on recipes that “tour” farmers markets across the US. A great book for basic cooking techniques for vegetables and sauces that can be used on a variety of dishes. Lots of great recipes for mid-summer through winter. This book does include rare vegetables and fruit which is particularly useful. At times includes ingredients that are harder to find.

 

  1. Farmer John’s Cookbook – Put out in association with Angelic Organics CSA near Beloit. This book is a good reference with listing by vegetables. Some of the ingredients are less common than those found in Asparagus-Zucchini, so they require planning but it is almost as good as a seasonal reference.

 

  1. Chez Panisse Vegetables - In this cookbook Alice Water’s presents an A-Z list of vegetables with rich, simple, and seasonal recipes. The only problem with this locally focused book is that her seasons take place in California and there are several recipes that draw on ingredients that are not grown or found locally in the Upper Midwest, like avocados.  Nevertheless, this book includes veggies that are not found in most other books like amaranth and chicory, and she provides beautiful, informative descriptions of vegetables and gives you creative ideas for entire meals. 

 

  1. How to Cook Everything – We are newly converted to Mark Bittman’s reference book, but honestly it offers a wonderful how-to guide to follow for cooking most dishes, including vegetables (arranged alphabetically). With over 2000 recipes it has been called the modern Joy of Cooking and has great ideas for simple soups, salads and stir fries and more creative dishes for all your vegetables.

 

  1. The Joy of Cooking – If this were cookbooks for the general kitchen and not just the CSA box this would be at the top of our list. We love this book for its general approaches, sauces, and ease of use. It contains a very good guide to cooking lots of vegetables. It does not contain references to more obscure vegetables and is often not seasonal but for basic “how to make great mashed potatoes” or how to incorporate vegetables into roasted meats this is the best book.

 

  1. The Midwest Gardner’s Cookbook – This book is a much more standard “how my grandmother cooks vegetables” type guide to vegetables that come from the Midwestern garden. It is almost perfectly in tune with our seasons and has some great staple recipes. Our favorite is Poor Man’s Caviar, which uses lots of eggplant, tomatoes and creates a wonderful spoonable or spreadable sweet dish. Some other recipes focus on basic dishes of mashed or buttered vegetables. There is some discussion of preservation here as well.

 

  1. Epicurious.com- We mentioned it before but this is a just a great, search by ingredient website. It is useful for all dishes, has ratings and reviews and additions offered by other folks who have used the recipes, and draws on a list of well known cooking magazines. And…. It is free.

 

  1. Ball Blue Book- The best guide for how to can and freeze extra produce. It has temperatures, techniques, basic recipes that you can adapt and a long to preservation that is particularly useful for reference, or beginners. This book includes some basic pickling techniques although we recommend a specific book or fermentation if you want to make fermented vegetables or fruits.

 

  1. Moosewood Cookbook, The Original- A classic cookbook focused on vegetarian fair. Filled with lots of recipes that are centered on staple vegetables. We especially love the soups and entrees and find many of the basic ideas adaptable to vegetables from throughout the season. Some of our favorites are their carrot soup, cornbread laden with vegetables, and polenta pie. The restaurant does offer some free recipes on their website - http://www.moosewoodrestaurant.com/recipes_archive.html

This Farm Was Made for You and Me An Examination of How CSA Farms Can Create Community

This Farm Was Made for You and Me

An Examination of How CSA Farms Can Create Community

by and for Stoney Acres Farm

 

 “Community Supported Agriculture” is a powerful name for a business model, but it was never meant to be merely a business model. CSAs are meant to be part of a broader movement to participate in a deeper economy, to build and strengthen community around local food, and change the agricultural system be emphasizing democracy and sustainability. A tall order, and one will all sorts of challenges and practical limitations. This past winter, using Bill McKibben’s book, Deep Economy we have been reflecting on how, and how not, CSAs can create community.

                                                                                                            CSAs create community in the same way as any small local business. To begin with, your purchase, gives us the economic basis for being here among you. Shopping locally generally creates a concrete connection to real people around you whether it is a florist, a butcher or a farmer. Locally owned businesses make more of their own purchases locally, and give much more locally in dollars and volunteerism. As Bill McKibben says  “We learn once again what skills and gifts our neighbors possess, and they become valuable to us once again, literally valuable, people we can start to depend on for some of our food, our fuel, our capital, our entertainment.” For us this has meant finding neighbors with boars and finding CSA members who work at printing shops. It is not just about a social network but about being invested in the same community and consciously supporting each other to improve it. CSA farms are not producing an anonymous commodity for international markets or contracting with agribusiness firms seeking to dominate the food economy.  In this model we not only want to produce food, we want to produce food for you.

 Beyond the economic basis of local food is the social setting it creates. McKibben discusses Sociological research in which consumers at farmers markets have ten times the conversations they would at supermarkets, “This simple change in economic life-where you shop- produces an enormous change in your social life. You go from being a mere consumer to being a participant, taking about things you like and dislike, expanding your sense of who is in your community and how it all fits together.”

In his reflection on eating locally for an entire year Mckibben writes, “Eating this way has come at a cost. Not in health or in money (if anything, I’ve spent less than usual, since I haven’t bought a speck of processed food) but in time I’ve had to think about every meal, instead of wandering through the world on autopilot, ingesting random calories…But the payoff for that cost has been immense, a web of connections I’d never known about. The geography of the valley now means something much more real to me.” Eating through a CSA connects you literally to where your food comes from.

Limitations

In Laura B. Delind’s Journal “Considerably More Than Vegetables, Considerably Less Than Community”, she argues that “the ‘community’ in community supported agriculture exists more as a metaphor than as a fact.” Delind says that because CSAs are most often small businesses first, “However dedicated (the farmer) may be to ecological practices and social responsibility, making a comfortable and dependable living is an equally critical concern.” These hard managerial decisions led to paradoxical behavior: one farmer put his CSA up for sale. Delind asked “can a community in any traditional sense… ever be sold?” Additionally trade magazines have advised CSA farmers on how to “price community.”  This is not our hope for our farm, but a reality to be conscious of. We purposely do not price community (in the form of farm events, potlucks etc).

Community at Stoney Acres Farm

Despite these limitations, which we grapple with constantly, we feel like, as time goes on our CSA has transcended a mere market relationship. From year to year, we know more people and have a deeper connection.

We have been told by several families that their children eat their vegetables because they come from their farmers even if they are resistant to the vegetables themselves. We also know that during farm visits CSA members learn about the ecological community – they meet animals that their family later purchase to eat, they see bugs, pull weeds, etc. and understand at some level the life and work that goes into their food. This is more than most of us can say about anything we buy or eat.

Workershares create unique relationships and allow us understand commonalities with people with whom we have fundamental political or religious disagreements and also strengthen our relationships with local friends and family. This closeness or in essence community forces us, and them we think, to see our individuality and complexities.  Farm events bring together people and bumper stickers who do not always find themselves in the same places because of shared beliefs around food, eating and the actual space of the farm. These events also extend and connect our local friends, family, and neighbors with CSA members and vice versa.  We’ve exchanged services, bartered with, helped people move, and partied with folks we would have otherwise never met. We have reconnected with so many people through the CSA and made great new friends to trick’o treat with, brew wine together  or sample homemade beer.

In the spirit of community we hope that you all are able to visit us this season on the farm. We have Wednesday Night potlucks, which everyone is invited and beside farm events welcome visits to explore the farm, walk in our woods, or just a visit for visiting sake. We are so excited to begin the season together. Thank you for supporting our agriculture. You are our reason for being here.