Sunday, December 8, 2013


We are farmers. And eaters. And conservationists. It is not easy to reconcile all we do. There is a need for a small amount of ration daily for poultry, that adds up to our largest expense and input on our farm. 

While usually gone in about 15 minutes, it is still a fair amount of feed. It comes from GMO free crops, combined by our feed supplier in Quakertown PA and then delivered to us. 

The cost of corn has almost doubled in the last 4 years. At the same time, USGS satellite imagery shows that millions of acres of land that was in conservation has been converted to crop land in that short time. 

Why? Ethanol. Almost half of corn produced goes to production of ethanol. Corn sells for more because of greater demand. Can it reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Maybe, but are we, as a nation, removing buffer zones and farming marginal areas? These buffers have been important in holding back and absorbing the massive amounts of strong chemicals used in corn production. For decades efforts have been made to increase the amount of trees in riparian areas, to have grasses and shrubs too, with deep root systems that help filter out what flows from row crop fields. And recently the number of acres in important water sheds has decreased. Dramatically. 

We need corn. Not a lot on our farm, and we don't eat a ton of processed foods that have the high fructose corn syrup or other corn based products in them. But we still need it. 

We also need water to be as clean as possible. Scientists, arborists, water experts all know that a healthy filtration system of a variety of plant materials helps absorb the very strong chemicals used on corn. These buffers also help to keep soil in place, which increases clarity of water, decreases algae bloom. 

And yet the fragile, not used before for row crop, edge of waterway areas are being used now for corn. In meetings with farmers from the Dakotas and other western regions, they report that much of the marginal land is being farmed by corporations, not their neighbors, but companies that have formed to make use of two things: the high price per bushel of corn and the subsidies from the federal government for each bushel of corn produced. These monies per acre far outstrip what conservation dollars provide for not growing. 

Alarm bells are ringing with farmers. What began as a good thing: support for farmers to stay on their land in low production/low price years has turned into a system that is being gamed by a few, that will have consequences for all. 

The riparian areas that filter water and hold back soil are critically important to cleaner water. It would be best for all if more, not less were left intact. 

We attended the Pennsylvania Farmers Union convention yesterday. Curious about the political lobbiest positions of this chapter of a nationally based lobbyist group for farmers, we arrived ready to take notes and learn. 

And as luck would have it, the 6 key areas that the national group lobbies for has one that the PA group opposes: the use of corn for ethanol. For two reasons: conservation of soil, air and water and for price: the cost of corn near doubling in 4 years has driven up cost of growing and cost to consumers. The board chair stated this fact to the national representative. 

As brand new members, we are happy to see civil disagreement. Important for all of us. 

John Ickerd, an economist, asserted that changes in our farming food system will come from a grass roots, consumer constituency. The NFU does not have such a component. Groups like Food and Water Watch, Food Tank and other more consumer centered groups have thousands of followers in Facebook and Twitter. Authors of books that have resonated with consumers are not on the board of NFU. Four years have been spent preparing the new farm bill and updating for votes, only to again and again be delayed in congress. 

How can we, as farmers and a farmers union, get the farm bill passed? How can we get consumers engaged? Who or what is backing the blocking of our farm bill? How do we communicate to these people who decide budgets that the Farm Bill is critical to water, soil and air safety?

As the Farm Bill continues to languish, the funds for these important efforts dry up, are no longer part of the budget, and will not be part of the budget. 

The farm bill needs to be unpacked and information disseminated in a way consumers can understand. As a farmer, I am still learning much about this critical funding. 

I'm not certain who can do this work and can have a voice that congress can hear and the consumers that vote in individual voting districts can galvanize around. There are a few key people blocking these votes. Is the National Farmers Union able to bring disparate groups together? Can they join forces with doctors groups, dentists, places like Center For A Livable Future, people like Marion Nestlé and Michael Pollan? The chefs who are gravely concerned about food quality? Nutritionists, allergists, oceanographers, bee keepers, the Cousteau society, the deer hunters, sport fishers, native plant/invasive plant experts together? Can they engage those who look at the changes to fish and frogs in our streams, note the bizarre changes and want to figure out why? Engage the pharmacists too? The heirloom seed savers, the protectors of ancient livestock breeds?

I've been fortunate to attend many meetings these last few years. I believe there is a national knowledge that has not been joined up to compare findings, ideas and concerns. I don't think there is a national effort to take all these findings and join all these disparate people together to say hey, there is quite a problem here, and it is stemming from crappy food, over farming and over production. I believe it can happen, that the groups I list and many more besides could join forces and vote into office people who could compromise along the lines of better health for people and the air, soil and water. 

I can't do it, unless I get funds to offset what we would not be able to grow and sell off farm. But I can see it. 

As the editor of geology and oceanography for Prentice Hall and the daughter of the former curator of herpetology at the Smithsonian, I've been able to meet and understand a lot (not all) of very smart people, who look at facts, who test theories and move science forward. I am lucky enough to interact with researchers at Hershey Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Center For A Livable Future. As a book rep at PH, I met with professors of biology, chemistry, engineering, nursing and more to discuss course materials for current and future courses. These people know a lot about health, of human, animal, soil and earth, and yet our congressional representatives act in a way that ignores the findings of these smart people. I believe the time has come for changes, and I believe there is a common ground for health of people and our surroundings. 

I just hope someone, if not me, can see and bring all these forces together on a national basis. We need it. We need to approach our political representatives from a much larger base, and to include the findings of our own federally funded research when we do so. The old way is just not working, and food is so critical for everyone of us. The uprising of these consumer groups and watchdog organizations makes it clear there is a large group of people concerned. The number of people visiting our farm, expressing desire to grow food for profit and health also indicate the need. 

Today is a snow day. Tomorrow we go back to the business of farming. We can't have the changes need in our short view because we need to support ourselves, and this is the best way we know how right now. But we are ready, should funding exist that allows us to help. 

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