Archive for August, 2007

Wisdom From Afar

Food should be local but good ideas should flow freely.

Here is a reprint from Adbusters (Canada) article on an Indian (as in the subcontinent) blog.

It is certainly true that if we paid the true cost of food, a hamburger would be about $8 at McDonalds and a pound of broccoli would cost, well pretty much what it does now, if you buy it local.

Have fun folks, I have to head down to the farmers market to get some supplies.


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Slow Food Southeast

Just so we can have some actual food talk on this blog here is a link to the Slow Food of Wisconsin Southeast. They look like a wonderfully active group, with two events scheduled this weekend with Deborah Madison (sorry they are already sold out, but keep checking their site for other wonderful events).

If you live in or are heading to the Milwaukee area you might want to print out their Farm Fresh Atlas for that part of the state. It is a full color .pdf file just right for spreading out on the dashboard as you drive. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about this link being directly to the pdf.

Happy motoring and eating!

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Water, Water Everywhere

A wise guy once said, “Invest in real estate, they will never make any more of it.” Mostly true, but a very similar thing can be said about water, or as the National Geographic put it: “All the water that will ever be is, right now.”

Is there a resource any more vital than water? Of course, not. And all over the globe agriculture is one of the leading users of water resources. The trick is, of course to use that water wisely as water in some form and some quantity is absolutely necessary for crops. But what is wise use? And even, what are we actually doing to and with our water?

Unmanned plane from UWOne project at the UW-Madison is seeking answers to what is happening with surface water discharges by using an unmanned, over grown radio controlled airplane to gather data to answer questions like these.

If you are interested in learning more about water resources in Wisconsin here are two sites to check out.

The UW Water Resources Institute is clearinghouse of water related research and information. And if you prefer your information in hard back, perhaps you should check out Wisconsin’s Water Library. You can check out real books on our water resources here in Wisconsin for free (assuming you are a Wisconsin resident…if not perhaps you should consider moving here).

You can’t start working on what should be until you know what is.

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Life in the Slow Lane

Most of the people who stumble onto this blog are going to be familiar with the Slow Food movement.  The movement started in Italy in 1986, here is a bit of that history from the Slow Food website:

In 1986, the founding father of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini recognized that the industrialization of food was standardizing taste and leading to the annihilation of thousands of food varieties and flavors. He wanted to reach out to consumers and demonstrate to them that they have choices over fast food and supermarket homogenization. He rallied his friends and his community, and began to speak out at every available opportunity about the effects of a fast culture.

But ultimately there is more to slow food than just preserving heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.  I think there is a broader philosophical basis.  Realizing that food in all its aspects involves businesses large and small, from family farms to giant grocery store chains, this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book, The Art of Power,  is very appropriate any business, but especially so in something so necessary and close to the heart as food:

We don’t need to get rid of profit.  Compassion can bring financial and political success.  I believe it is simply good business to include in the definition of the bottom a consideration of all the effects we have on one another and the planet.  Businesses that combine profit making with integrity and concern for the world have happier employees and more satisfied customers while making more money.

As consumers too, we have to keep in mind that voting with our dollars counts, and that we need to keep in mind the commitment of the companies we give our dollars to principals such as those that Hahn espouses.  We need to look at the entire value of a product, not just cost and convenience.

Slow food can lead to slow living, which is more local, more connected and more organic.  And, as I am sure Thich Nhat Hanh would agree, more peaceful, in every sense of the word, as well.

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Food or Fuel?

Talking with an organic farmer can sometimes be an alarming thing, as they sometimes think about things in a way the rest of us don’t.   We were talking about the misguided agricultural policy in this country that subsidizes corn production (resulting in cheap sugar and meat) but not, say broccoli or tomatoes.  And then he dropped a little bomb.

“Some people say that corn production for ethanol might double food prices in the next couple of years.”  GULP!

Now, I did not find an article that said that prices would double, but there is a clear relationship between ethanol and overall food prices.

Over 20% of the current corn crop is already used for ethanol production, and the high cost of fossil fuels making ethanol more attractive.  So, 20% of the corn crop is lost, and next year more acreage will be planted in corn (perhaps to be burned as ethanol) removing land from growing other food crops, like perhaps tomatoes and broccoli.  Which is about what this article says.

What is worse is that even the most conservative estimates indicate that converting ethanol into fuel is not very efficient, only yielding about 25% more energy than is put in — mostly in the form of fossil fuels.  Using soybeans, on the other hand to make bio-diesel results in 93% return on the energy investment. Other researchers seem to feel that ethanol results in a net energy loss.

Whether it is a loss or only a slight gain, it appears that we may have to start asking ourselves if ethanol (and the car culture that drives its demand) are truly worth in the face of higher, perhaps much higher food prices.

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Organic Farming

Once upon a time all farms are what we now consider “organic” that is to say that they used no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  Such things were pretty much unknown before World War II and did not exist very long before then.

From the 50s into the 60s more and more synthetic inputs were used and farms began to grow larger, and we now know, more toxic.  Some farmers got uncomfortable with the “newfangled” methods and either never adopted them or went back to a way of farming that was more like their forebears.

So, even though it didn’t have a name at first, “organic farming” was reborn.  “Organic” was added to “farming” in much the same way “acoustic” is added to “guitar” to identify it as a certain way of doing things.  However it needed much more than a name.

In the grocery store an “organic” tomato” is going to look pretty much like a factory farmed one.  But organic farming is a bit more expensive, and the growers wanted to let consumers the value of the more expensive produce.  So, the word “organic” was applied.  Unfortunately as soon as the word had some value, everyone wanted to use it whether they farmed that way or not.  So a way was needed to separate the “real” organic farmers from others.

In many cases, farmers themselves set up standards organizations to certify farms and their products as “organic.”

One such organization was formed here in Wisconsin, the Midwest Organic Services Association.   One of our local farmers, Blaine Tornow, of Moonshadow Farms was on the original board of the organization and helped set the standards they used.  If you want to see what the standards are, and what kind of paperwork farming in an old fashioned way can generate, check out their audit trail and paperwork page.  It should give you a a little more appreciation for what your local organic farmer has to do other than risk his or her financial future each spring.

If you are not big on paperwork, check out their page of organic links to learn more about organic farming.

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Wisconsin Food System Partnership

Being new to the blogosphere I was worried whether or not I had picked an appropriate name for this little effort, but fortunately my fears were soon allayed.

Brilliant me started doing google searches after I had picked the name and registered with WordPress, but the first result when I searched “Wisconsin Food Web” was quite heartening.

The Wisconsin Food System Partnership is a cooperative program among many branches of the UW system that, in the words of their website:

…brings people from the community and the university together in partnerships to build a more food-secure future for all.

The program provides small grants and other support to community-university partners for a wide range of teaching, research, service, and action projects.

Hmmm…maybe I should ask them for a grant for this little project.  I would say that we are definitely walking on the same side of the street.  Here is part of their vision statement from their website:

The Wisconsin Food System Partnership seeks a more food-secure world in 2020 — a world with less poverty and a plentiful food supply that is varied, enjoyable, safe, and healthy.

Food will be produced and distributed in profitable, equitable, and environmentally sound ways that:
  • invigorate and regenerate the earth and its people;
  • equitably address local, regional, and global needs;
  • are consistent with community resources and objectives; and
  • take advantage of the most useful information and technology.

If I was smart and articulate it is just the sort of thing I would say that I was hoping to accomplish with my little electronic scribblings.  So, you can take that as somewhat of a vision statement for this blog as well.

And finally, the site even says what I was trying to get across on the “About” page and the first post here:

The food system involves people, the environment, and agriculture. It includes the following linked set of activities and organizations:

  • agriculture and agribusiness;
  • natural resources and the environment;
  • rural and urban community development;
  • health and nutrition;
  • biology and biotechnology;
  • science education;
  • international development; and
  • public policy.

I do see a lot of very nice words there, and I hope that as time goes on I can highlight more in the way of actions — people doing things to achieve the goals laid out.

Stay tuned.

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