Momentum


Dear Readers:  I am thrilled to introduce our guest blogger, Derek Denckla.  He’s an esteemed chief of the urban ag tribe in NYC and it’s an honor to have him contribute here.  Here’s his thoughts from Day 1 of the Slow Money National Gathering in Vermont.  To read more of Derek’s work, see www.thegreenest.net.

The Venue; Photo Courtesy of Shelburne Farms

“Food is the field in which we daily explore our harming of the world.”

– Gary Snyder (as quoted by Woody Tasch)

I am attending the 2nd Slow Money National Gathering in Shelburne Farms, Vermont.  18 months after writing his book, The Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Matter (Chelsea Green), Woody Tasch has organized a growing movement of investors, businesses and farmers to bring his ideas about saving the planet through “nurture capital” through the nascent Slow Money Alliance.

Woody Tasch, Author of "The Nature of Slow Money" at the podium

Slow Money Alliance has developed support for its idea to foster entrepreneurial finance supporting soil fertility, carrying capacity, sense of place, diversity and nonviolence.  It has issued six “Slow Money Principles” that set out a vision of the destructive world of Fast Money and how Slow Money responds and restores balance and peace.

At this gathering in Vermont, Tasch has set a course for action to enact Slow Money Principles across the US.  His goal is to have 1 million people invest 1% of their income in soil fertility in the next ten years.  He announced the creation of the Soil Trust as a first step in this goal, aiming to collect $25 from 1 million people.  The money from the Soil Trust would fund local funds that would invest directly into land conservation and businesses that practice sustainable agriculture.

The conference began with remarks from Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, who framed the urgency of the need to invest in a restorative model for agriculture that would address disastrous climate impacts caused by industrial agriculture over the last 50 years.  Repeatedly, he and other speakers emphasized the ways in which industrialized farming harms the air, water and soil as well as our bodies.

Tasch introduced the next two speakers with a reference to the contrasting views on how to grow sustainable food businesses.  “On the one hand, Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface farm, told me that ‘We are not part of an industry, we are a part of a movement.  On the other hand, Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, told me ‘I hate using that word ‘Movement’ for our business.  We are trying to make sustainable businesses that make change on a massive scale which can only be achieved by industry.”

“As far as I see it,” Tasch continued, “I agree with them both and see them as the separate halves of the whole discussion here about how to grow sustainable food business.”

Throughout the amazing day, the speakers represented the luminaries from the sustainable food movement who emphasized the need for investment in differing strategies for changing business as usual.  Joel Salatin, author, farmer central character in Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, spoke about sticking to your principles as a way to deal with scaling your enterprise.  He said that scale was not a problem if you stay true to your beliefs and set goals with your soul not your sales target.  He emphasized that the quality of his product and relationships with customers made his success.

Gary Hirschberg described his beginings as director of New Alchemy, an experimental self-sustaining agricultural center in the 1970s.  “It was a perfect agricultural system with solar heated greenhouses and aquaponics in a closed loop.  But it was not a good business and it failed.”

“I set out to start Stonyfield to correct what New Alchemy lacked: a business. However, it took nine years of struggle before Stoneyfield made a nickel.  297 courageous patient capitalists gave me the funds to start.  Many of them have done very well, as aresult. Today, Stonyfield Farms is a $355 million company.”

Hirschberg went on to say that our economy is based on myths that sustainable business seeks to dispel by facing the real consequences and costs of ignoring the impact of traditional business practices.  Hirschberg described how Stonyfield has adopted changes in doing business step-by-step, incrementally to become more environmentally sensitive.

“Industrial food businesses make their product as cheaply as possible to get the widest margin in order to outspend the competition on advertising.  We spend more on the product, spend close to nothing on ads, and make a better return than most traditional food businesses, like those in our corporate parent, Danone.”  (Stonyfield was bought in 2001 by the Danone Group, a $25 billion food company.  Although Hirschberg retains control over Stonyfield’s business operation.)  Hirschberg agreed with Salatin that quality and loyalty were his best assets.

“This is a critical moment for the food movement.  We are charged with nothing less than saving the world.”  Hirschberg said.  He closed with a Gandhi quote: “Anyone who thinks that they are too small to make a difference has never been in bed with a mosquito.”

All of the speakers conveyed an abiding passion for their work.  Will Rapp from Gardener’s Supply who pioneered composting techniques and greened the Intervale in Burlington, VT. Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Seeds, who spoke about all the sustainable businesses in his town of Hardwick, VT who meet to discuss issues and how to support each others work. Eliot Coleman, founder of Four Seasons Farm and author of New Organic Grower, outlined his Feast Philosophy with a common sense approach to growing food that delights and nourishes the person and the soil.  Each enterprise presented a different facet of how business might express environmental goals and personal ethics.  The ideas were filled with joy of creativity and life but the moral task was seen in sober terms of war.

It was no accident then, that one of the speakers quoted a war-time President, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, who warned:   “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself”  It was a day of ideas that were both sobering and inspiring in equal measure.

On an early summer night

Under trees and soft light

The thought came to me

“I am where I wish to be.”

Continued below

Candlelight Dinner for "What's Organic About Organic?"

Some moments are best said in poetry.  This was my impression after the recent premiere of Shelley Roger’s documentary film, “What’s Organic About Organic?”.  The event was held in a precious, private Brooklyn backyard.  On a wide plank table, the hostess offered high notes from local farmers, bakers, and cheese mongers.  Shelley and her “characters” — the people interviewed in the film — along with journalists and bloggers, gathered in front of the screen centered between two trees.

Her beautiful film digs deep into what organic means.  Told through personal stories and official decrees, the word organic can be used many ways.  But this film isn’t interested in what it means to poseurs.  At its core, it’s about the farmers and consumers who vigilantly ensure the integrity of organic.

For example, the wording on grazing pastures for organic cows was once vague.  Some operations were stamping a hoof on grass occasionally, rather than having days in open pasture.  The truly organic dairy farmers were outraged.  As a result of their protests, the USDA strengthened its wording on these practices.  Now the organic label means something again.

Farmers go to these measures for “organic” because they are the stewards of their land and animals.  They serve a community they know.  To explain why they care, Andy Grant, of Grant Family Farms, tells a tough story from his childhood:  He lost his family dog to pesticide exposure.  His little boy perception saw then that something was fundamentally wrong.  Once an adult, he became an organic farmer.

Organic also has cultural importance — in the name of social justice.  To many, the principles also include fair wages and treatment for farm workers.  Wende Elliot of Wholesome Harvest, a co-op of family farms in Iowa, explains that she and her husband go beyond the U.S. organic standards and adhere to international codes.  In doing so, they promise their customers that the workers make a living wage in good conditions.  Similarly, Andy Grant shows his respect for his team as he inspects a box of lettuce packed by his field workers.  Gently handling the lettuce heads, he says, “These guys are artists.”

Back under the moonlight in Brooklyn, the crowd around the table talked late.  In addition to making a film, Shelley and her conspirators, are building a coalition.  These are kindred minds coming together.  It’s not enough to just say organic and go home.  Those who care remain watchful, promising integrity in word and process.

Now our table gets bigger.  If you are in NYC, then pull up a seat.  The team behind “What’s Organic?”  has a wonderful series of events coming in June.  Shelley and many of the people interviewed in the film will be ready for questions.  And together, with Shelley, her characters, and our expanding community for delicious, fair and safe food, we’ll find the answers.

Years ago on a road trip, my friend and I pulled into a gas station late night.  We had been driving nonstop for hours.  It was deeply dark and most places were closed.  Now we were hungry and weary.

It was a scene for Edward Hopper to paint:  One man attending a brightly-lit station on a road with few visitors.  The only movement was a slowly-rotating hot dog machine in the corner.  There, moving up and down in a steady circle, was one scraggly hot dog.  Somewhere I heard the faint sound of Rosemary Clooney singing, “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair.”

So imagine the surprise when a recent stop at the WaWa in New Jersey had something new.  Take a look at the fruit stand below.  This is one the best illustrations of Americans’ changing attitudes towards food that I’ve seen.  The WaWa station isn’t in an urban center — it’s along a road where a variety of people stop by all day and night.

Now if we could start building these kind of options around local producers, then we’d have real roadside dining.  For example, when people talk of Italy, they often say, “You can pull over to a shack and have one of best meals of your life.”  What if travelers on our highways (and in our airports) started to say the same of the U.S.?  Readers, have you seen anything similar to this in your travels?

Fresh Fruit "Stand" at the Gas Station

Really? Along side the highway?

I Hear They Call This "Good Food Quickly" (Seinfeld)

I've Never Seen This View And Thought, "Delicious!" But Now...

Union Square was recently the open air venue for a scene that was part urban agriculture, part art piece.  It brought to mind the Shaker proverb:  “Don’t make anything unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

The exhibit was a wall of Woolly Pockets: flexible pouches, made in the U.S. and comprised of recycled materials, that house plants on vertical surfaces.  An ordinary wall becomes a living thing; watching people walk around it, the verdant sculptures hooked people in.  Tourists took photos.  Some people took bites.  It was easy to the beauty and the usefulness.

But my favorite part was in the necessity of this idea.  For example, for those of us who just finished watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, we learned that there’s a problem in our schools:  Students don’t know where food comes from.  At one point, Jamie held up an eggplant before a first grade class and no one could tell him what it was.  Nor could they tell him that the French fry came from a potato.

The people behind Woolly Pockets understand this food illiteracy, so they also use their pieces to educate through vertical gardens.  For $1,000, a school can start a fifty pocket garden, fully equipped with the soil, seed packets, planting and nutritional manuals.  Their goal is to plant their unique form of gardening in 11,000 schools across the United States by 2011.

Perhaps we don’t have to go back to the land at all.  Maybe some of it can come in with us.

Unexpected Sights at Union Square

Pockets Full of Greens

Sunshine as a Basic Ingredient

Woolly Pockets and Their Paparazzi

Just When You've Seen It All, the Avatar Actors Show Up

The Long View of Beautiful, Useful, and Necessary

Remember this photo taken a few weeks ago on February 25th?

You May Recall...

Now take a look at the latest stage of life for this vegetable bed.  Yes, a beginning is born!  Over at the Bellevue Garden, we have been clearing away the old, dead bits and turning over the soil.  Here we planted greens and beans with more to come.  The scallions mark the water lines of the sprinklers, so those stay.  (Ahem, lesson learned.)

Well, We've Only Just Begun...

It’s all possible because of the expertise and elbow grease of the head gardener, Jimmy.  Here he puts in the first seeds of 2010.  The garden crew and community can’t wait to see what it all becomes.  Happy Springtime, dear readers.

Fresh Dirt and New Seeds

On a recent walk with my good friend, urban environmentalist Kate Zidar, our boots made cracking noises on the ice underfoot. I can’t wait to hear the soft sounds of loose dirt come springtime.

Despite the cold, the community of people who want to change food in America is gathering. Some say it’s a fad, but I know this movement has staying power. One way we’ll dig deep for the long haul is through the work of visionaries like Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard programs. In these programs, increasing in size and number every year, students plant gardens to learn where food comes from and how it grows.

There’s another common and untapped place for good food and nutrition: the hospital. Here we have people often in the most dire health of their lives. Yet, when it comes time to build them up nutritionally, we serve enriched white bread slices, individually wrapped in plastic.

Yes, it’s true that most hospitals are private businesses, whereas schools are often public. Regardless, food is elemental to our health, and no where is that more important than in a hospital. This summer we will create an edible garden at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. We plan to grow greens and other vegetables as part of the Bellevue Sobriety Garden. For years, the garden has been a place of peace and quiet for hospital outpatients in recovery from addiction. Soon it will also be a place of urban agriculture, both by and for the hospital community. Here are photos of what the space looked like a few days ago – want to help us create what it will look like this summer?

Entryway

Long view

Come sunshine, these will be vegetable beds

Long View, Looking Back

Hang in there, Piggy! Not too much longer...

In the trailer from Vanishing of the Bees, one of the experts says that the Chinese character for “crisis” includes the characters for both “danger” and “opportunity.”  What a precise metaphor for our economic climate today.

In the global groundswell to change the way food is produced and distributed, entrepreneurs are opening to the opportunity.  I hear spirited stories from New York often and will bring you local updates soon.  In the meantime, enjoy these kindred businesses from distant lands.

SoupCycle in Action on the Streets of Portland, OR

This comes from Groundswell West, a.k.a. my sister Lindsay and her friend Elizabeth Moore in Portland, Oregon:  SoupCycle.  Started by two “soup lovers and avid bicycle advocates,” the company delivers freshly-prepared soup by bike to your home or office in the Portland area.  The standard order starts at $18 for a quart of soup, a salad, and rustic bread with the delivery fee included.  A meal this size is estimated to feed 1-2 people.  In New York, our density makes bicycle delivery standard (albeit ruthless to pedestrians), but imagine the carbon benefit of this model in our wide and vastly-paved cities.  They could create a franchise for every few neighborhoods.  Customers could also bike over to the franchise to pick up their soups, rather than get in a car nightly for fast food via a drive thru.  [Note:  The drive thru example falls under my category of "Confessions of a Midwestern Childhood."]

Beautiful utility: Unpackaged in London

The mention of this next business is dedicated to the first environmentalist I ever knew: Joan Landewe.  I went to high school with her kids and was in their kitchen one day when she returned fired up from the grocery store.  The store had not let her use her own bags to carry out her groceries.  They claimed that all bags leaving the store needed to be printed with the store name.  In those days, reusing a bag was simply not done.

Many years later, there’s a store in London called Unpackaged.  It is BYOE – Bring Your Own Everything, except the food you purchase.  They have that part.  They sell it in bulk and customers bring their own containers to take it home.  If you think you have a particularly heavy container, they will weigh it first and then deduct the weight from the final price.  Otherwise, they will offer their discount for any container that customers bring–including for the person who brings plastic bottles for lentils.  And yes, they let you bring your own bags, too.

Have you experienced a new food business in your corner of the world?  If so, I’d love to hear about it.  Opportunity — here we come!

On an evening out recently, my friend asked our waitress if the restaurant’s beef was corn-fed or grass-fed.  With a minor degree of smug, I nodded at his question.  It showed that we know the facts and we know what to ask for.  Our work was done.

“It’s corn-fed and grass-finished,” she said.

To quote a different, but famous animal from our culture, Miss Piggy: “Humph!”  This meal was going to need a new vocabulary.

According to Michael Pollan in the movie, Food Inc., when we stop feeding cows corn–the common, cheap food of concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs)–the e-coli bacteria in their stomachs is reduced by 80% in about three weeks.  This doesn’t say anything about unnaturally fattening the cows with corn in record time before the transition, but perhaps there is a noble goal here of trying to avoid lethal bacteria.  That’s my best guess for “grass-finished.”  Our server wasn’t quite sure why she’d been instructed to answer in this way.

Continued below

Out on the Range and not in the CAFO

On the Range and Not in the CAFO

This food conversation between three people all well-intentioned, but not fully agreeing in the nuance, got me thinking about the upcoming tables in Copenhagen.  As we invent new phrases in this little corner of the world, what will be the common language of food sustainability there?  May it not be a Tower of Babel.

One international group, The Global Crop Diversity Trust out of Rome, Italy, has issued a document entitled, “Food Security and Climate Change:  A Call for Commitment and Preparation.”  At the time of this post, it is supported by the signatures of 68 international dignitaries.  It may not seem like a large number, but collectively, this circle of experts holds much of the world’s knowledge for the future of sustainable food.  Please take a look at their Climate Change Statement here.  Let’s hope the conference leads to a larger table of communal understanding.

Right now, in the window of the Whole Foods Market in Union Square, there’s a giant man holding a green bag.  He’s got standards and he’s having them for dinner.

Now I appreciate a good standard — and have a few of my own — but what if someone can not afford the high standard prices of Whole Foods?  Shouldn’t everyone be allowed the standard of pesticide-free food?  Or the pure nourishment of food, rather than the filler calories of food science?  High fructose corn syrup may make a food cheap, but it doesn’t make a body healthy.

On Saturday, December 12th, these issues and others will be addressed at the “NYC Food and Climate Summit,” hosted by New York University, Just Food, and the President of the Borough of Manhattan.  Clean food is a right for all, and more and more, it’s an imperative for our planet.  So, how will we get there?  I’m excited for this day-long event because the organizers have lined up both practical topics, i.e., “talking to reporters about meat practices” and public policy issues such as, “The Food Collar Economy.”  I’d love to know if you plan to attend – what do you think?

Note: The WTF sticker is not part of official Whole Foods marketing

I know somebody who knows somebody.

And this Somebody Dos was telling President Obama about the flaws in the American food system.

I wasn’t there, but I think he mentioned:

  • The government pays subsidies to farmers to grow primarily corn and soybeans.  For real cheap.
  • The cheap corn becomes feed for cattle (not their natural diet, by the way) and the basis for high-fructose corn syrup that gives fake flavor to things we’ve taken to calling food.
  • This processed food has no nourishment in it, so we eat more and more of it to fill up.  Here I imagine that Somebody Dos leaned in and said, “Really?  An epidemic of obesity?  We’re going to allow for that?”
  • To make ends meet with the cheap crop sales to agribusiness, farmers use pesticides to get the highest yield possible.  The pesticides may work for awhile, but with time, the insects and diseases fight back and introduce resistant populations.
  • The pesticides make our people and our land sick.

You know what Obama said?  May I paraphrase since – you know – I wasn’t there?

The President said, “On a personal note, I completely agree with you.  But you have to show me the movement.”

So, now we’re all here.  You talk to your friends and I’ll talk to mine.

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