Tom Philpott

A Peek Inside Our Farm

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 6:00 PM PST

My boss: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonBoss lady: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonAs some of you may know, when I'm not scribbling away for Mother Jones, I help run a small farm and grassroots project in Valle Crucis, a small community in the Appalachian mountains just outside of Boone, North Carolina.

You may be wondering what precisely the hell is Maverick Farms and what my role is there. Mainly, these days, I'm sort of the farm mule. I tend to our flock of 40 laying hens—let them out of their house in the morning, keep them fed and watered, etc. I do heavy lifting jobs, like moving vast piles of compost from one end of the field to the other in a wheel barrow. I help set up irrigation pipes when the rains don't come; things like that.

I also earn my keep in the kitchen, cooking most lunches and dinners during the growing season for a farm crew ranging in size from three to seven or eight, depending on what's going on—a task which provides the fodder for my Tom's Kitchen column.

But now that I'm so busy writing, I'm no longer involved full-time in farm operations. Like so much of the broader sustainable food movement, Maverick is pushed forward these days by a young woman: Hillary Wilson, 27, the daughter of the couple who started the farm in the early '70s and the younger sister of my girlfriend, Alice Brooke Wilson. The three of us took over the farm in 2004, along with our friends Sara Safransky and Leo Gaev, and the project has evolved considerably over that time.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.

Hillary grew up here and started working on the farm with her father Bill when she was 17—and from the start, she was the most experienced farmer among us, despite being the youngest by a decade. Hillary now oversees not only a 3-acre vegetable farm, but also the crazy projects I'll get to below. I'm kind of her consigliere these days; she's the boss.

When we first launched, we knew we never wanted to be a niche operation selling to the high-end country club and resort restaurants that dot the area, which is a magnet for vacation homes for people who live in the hotter regions to the south and east. The idea of growing for a small elite while most people who live here year-round rely on fast-food chains and multinational grocery giants for food never appealed to us. We wanted to work on the ground to build an alternative food system that works for everyone.

So from day one, we saw the farm as a laboratory for finding solutions to what I see is the main riddle facing the sustainable food movement: how to expand access to healthy food in a way that works for farmers. The laboratory has had its share of spectacular near misses, like the major effort our first several years to transform the farmhouse into a restaurant one weekend each month. It was fun to play chef and come up with elaborate menus, but we realized that unless we were willing to charge exclusive prices, the dinners took up too much time to justify the money they brought in.

Alice Brooke Wilson and I, hoeing the corn. Alice Brooke Wilson and me, in the early-season corn patch. Over the years, we've concluded that the task of creating an accessible alternative food system is really about community building—about working with other farmers and with the broader community to create new economic models. In 2009, after four years of running a small CSA on our own, we launched High Country CSA, a multi-farm year-round CSA project designed to help stabilize the market for locally produced food and take advantage of our region's particular mountainous geography.

In the three counties that surround us, elevations range from 1000 feet to 3500 feet above sea level (we're at about 2800 feet). As a result, the area has a stunning diversity of microclimates, long winters, and mostly small farms (in the 1-3 acre range). The multi-farm CSA model gives our community a robust institution that delivers a variety of high-quality food even under challenging growing conditions.

And it's not just for people who can afford a big upfront payment for the season's produce. We invite people to pay for their shares in installments throughout the season, and in 2010, after a slog through the USDA's byzantine bureaucracy, we became one of the few multi-farm CSAs in the nation that can accept SNAP/EBT payments (ie, food stamps). As far as we have been able to find out, we are the only rural multi-farm CSA that takes EBT—although we would love to find out otherwise.

With the multi-farm CSA up and running, we're embarking on our next project: a farm incubator program, in collaboration with Appalachian State University, which has vacated a 13-acre educational farm a couple miles away. In our community, as in most of the nation, the only way we're going to create a food system that makes sense is to get more smart young people on the land. Hence, what we're calling FIG—the Farm Incubator and Grower Program.

The new incubator will create an "agricultural commons" to give landless farmers access to land and equipment to start new farm businesses, and will help link them to affordable land once they're ready. Hillary is a natural to lead the incubator—she's been teaching novices how to farm since I showed up here nearly eight years ago, when my entire growing experience involved a rather weedy eight-square-foot community-garden bed in Brooklyn. She's also worked closely with the dozens of young interns who have moved through Maverick over the years, eager to get experience working the land.

Kaitlin Melven, 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. Kaitlin Melvin, the other 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. 

So that's pretty much what we're up to here at Maverick Farms—that and eating well. For Thanksgiving, one of our star former interns, Hana Crouch, is coming over to cook a turkey that she raised and slaughtered (and that I have requested that she dry-brine). I'll be making those side dishes I wrote about a few days ago, along with a classic apple pie. We'll have some friends and family over, and we'll cook and laugh and drink and enjoy this most unlikely holidays in our fast-food nation: a day to celebrate food, the land it came from, and the people who grew it.

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Did BP Oil Make Shrimp Lose Their Eyes?

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 1:51 PM PST

Little more than a year after BP oil disaster, seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is "as safe to eat as it was before the oil spill," the FDA insists on its website.

But along the Gulf itself, questions linger within the very fishing communities that rely on the Gulf's bounty both for sustenance and a living, as this CNN report shows (video below). For one thing, shrimp populations have plunged. The New York Times reported last month that Gulf fisherperople were complaining of the worst white-shrimp season in 50 years, with yields 80 percent lower than normal.

Several fisherman and processors make similar complaints in the CNN piece, and admit that they feel less safe eating shrimp now than they did before the spill. One makes an even more startling claim (see 2:47 mark of the video): "fisherman are bringing in shrimp without any eyes … they evidently have lost their eyes and they're still alive."

Your Tax Dollars Help Cargill Export Factory Meat

| Tue Nov. 22, 2011 5:03 AM PST
Pigs stuffed together in a factory farm—or agribiz giants lined up at the government trough?

The US Meat Export Federation has a straightforward mission: to open foreign markets to the output of our vast factory animal farms. The group represents all major players in the US industrial meat machine: the dominant meatpackers (Cargill, Smithfield, Tyson, and JBS); the big farm interests that grow their feed (American Soybean Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association); and the agrichemical giants that supply corn farmers with inputs (Monsanto and Dupont).  

Now, I deplore the US meat industry for all of its many abuses, but I'm not shocked that it has formed an interest group to push its suspect products on overseas markets. But this? It's nuts. Under a USDA initiative called the Market Access Program, US taxpayers will be cutting a check to the US Meat Export Federation for $19.7 million in fiscal 2012.

Tom's Kitchen: 2 Quick and Easy Sides to Spice Up the Thanksgiving Table

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 11:00 AM PST

Thanksgiving is upon us; that means it's time to spend hours in the kitchen grinding through really, really elaborate recipes.

Or not. Our national feast day is a time to enjoy food with a large table of friends and family. And for me, enjoying cooking for a crowd means keeping everything simple and low-key—leaving plenty of time to relax, hang out, and enjoy adult beverages. (Or, if you want to go dysfunctional-family-traditional, plenty of time to plunge into a snarling family meltdown … and enjoy adult beverages.)

But staying simple doesn't mean sacrificing flavor. What I advise is to focus on getting the best ingredients you can find—and farmers markets will be brimming with great stuff this time of year—and let them speak for themselves, with just a little tweak to push them over the edge.

Freakonomics Blog: Still Wrong on Local Food

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 2:27 PM PST
Greens grow in a heavily irrigated California field.

When we last checked in with him, Freakonomics blogger Steven Sexton was ludicrously blaming the "local food movement" for a listeria outbreak that sickened people over a swath of the nation stretching from New York to Alabama to Oregon.

Now Sexton is back with an even broader indictment of local food. This one starts off on shaky ground, and then plunges into an abyss of self-assured and deeply flawed analysis. Honestly, I would not spend time engaging with it if I didn't know that serious people, some of whom wield real political power, automatically regard the Freakonomics brand with credulity. So here goes.

Yet Again, Organic Ag Proves Just as Productive as Chemical Ag

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 5:00 AM PST

Back in 2000, an interviewer asked Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution" of industrial farming that swept through Asia in the 1970s, what he thought of the idea that organic agriculture could feed the world. The Nobel laureate became apoplectic:

That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

The great man's derision has clung to chemical-free farming ever since in elite policy circles.  USDA chief Tom Vilsack occasionally pays lip service to organic farmers, but when he addresses the hard question of how to "feed the world," he reliably toes the Borlaug line.

And yet, Borlaug was evidently wrong. It turns out, when you actually compare chemical-intensive and organic farming in the field, organic proves just as productive in terms of gross yield—and brings many other advantages to the table as well. The Rodale Institute's test plots in Pennsylvania have been demonstrating this point for years.

And now comes evidence from the very heart of Big Ag: rural Iowa, where Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture runs the Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment (LTAR), which began in 1998, which has just released its latest results.

At the LTAR fields in Adair County, the (LTAR) runs four fields: one managed with the Midwest-standard two-year corn-soy rotation featuring the full range of agrochemicals; and the other ones organically managed with three different crop-rotation systems. The chart below records the yield averages of all the systems, comparing them to the average yields achieved by actual conventional growers in Adair County:

Chaets: Leopold CenterCharts: Leopold Center

So, in yield terms, both of the organic rotations featuring corn beat the Adair County average and came close to the conventional patch. Two of the three organic rotations featuring soybeans beat both the county average and the conventional patch; and both of the organic rotations featuring oats trounced the county average. In short, Borlaug's claim of huge yield advantages for the chemical-intensive agriculture he championed just don't pan out in the field.

And in terms of economic returns to farmers—market price for crops minus costs—the contest isn't even close. Organic crops draw a higher price in the market and don't require expenditures for pricy inputs like synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.

Moreover, organic management improved soil's ability to retain nutrients. "Total nitrogen increased by 33 percent in the organic system," Leopold reports, and "researchers measured higher concentrations of carbon, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium in the organic soils.

So if organic farming offers equivalent yields, a dramatically higher economic return, and better long-term soil health, why aren't more farmers switching over?

The last line of the Leopold Center's report offers a clue: "Skilled management is an adequate replacement for synthetic chemicals." Look at it like this: In the Corn Belt, technology and monocropping have reduced farming to a relatively simple endeavor. You douse your fields in synthetic and mined fertilizers and plant them in in corn one year, soy the next. When the inevitable plague of pests arrives—weeds and bugs love monocrops—you attack them with an arsenal of poisons. Then, you harvest and sell to vast multinational companies—Cargill and ADM—with the built infrastructure on the ground to make the transaction easy.

Farmers are understandably reluctant to switch away from that paint-by-the-numbers style. To make organic farming work, you have to stay ahead of the weeds and bugs by rotating in more crops than just corn and soy. And weed management requires other strategies just driving a chemical tank through the field or hiring a crop-duster: planting cover crops, tilling at just the right time, mulching.  And selling, say, oats or alfalfa is trickier, because the infrastructure for marketing them has largely been dismantled over the past 50 years.

But that doesn't mean that organic farming is impractical, as Borlaug insisted. It just means that we need to move public policy away from blind support for industrial agriculture (no easy trick), and learn to support the hordes of young people seeking careers in high-skilled, eco-minded farming.


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Eat Your Greens, or Your Gut Gets It

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 5:00 AM PST

While Big Food rams its Tater Tots and frozen pizza school lunch agenda through Congress, we're learning more about the effects of diets high in starchy foods and low in green vegetables. And it's not pretty.

I pointed yesterday to a vast recent Harvard study finding that heavy consumption of potatoes—even in nonfried forms—leads to unhealthy weight gain.

Now, from UK scientists, comes a study (press release here; abstract here) suggesting that green vegetables may have even more dietary importance than we previously thought. (Hat tip Atlantic Life.) The researchers subjected mice to a diet stripped of vegetables and found that after just three weeks, the mice lost 70 to 80 percent of a kind of white blood cell called intraepithelial lymphocytes, which, the press release states, "play a critical role in monitoring the large number of micro-organisms present in the intestine, keeping infections at bay and maintaining a healthy gut."

The researchers posit that a substance known as indole-3-carbinol, prominent in leafy greens, is responsible for maintaining these white blood cells. Take it out of the diet, apparently, and the cells die. Here's a graphical depiction of their findings:

One of the researchers, Marc Veldhoen, remarked that, "since the new diet contained all other known essential ingredients such as minerals and vitamins," the results surprised him.

Image: Babraham InstituteImage: Babraham InstituteBut I'm not surprised at all. Foodstuffs are complex; they are not the sum of their vitamins and minerals, calories and fiber, fat and protein, or any other isolated substance currently being fetishized or demonized by the food industry. As this study shows, you can't calculate the level of vitamins and minerals found in leafy greens, synthesize them, combine them in a vitamin pill, and then happily dispense with leafy greens. Whole foods interact with our bodies in ways we are only beginning to understand.

I predict someone will be inspired by this study to isolate indole-3-carbinol, synthesize it for a mass-produced pill, and market it as an immune-enhancing wonder supplement. If it happens, I'm willing to bet that that researchers will find that indole-3-carbinol supplements don't do the work of leafy greens, either. Recall that when scientists discovered the benefits of antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, the supplement industry rushed out with all manner of antioxidant potions—which proved to be worthless. It turns out that isolated beta-carotene added to a pill or a can of soda doesn't offer the same benefits as beta-carotene in the context of a carrot. Unfortunately, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that more than two-thirds of US adults fail to meet the recommended daily intake of at least five fruits and vegetables per day.

"Eat real veggies" is something we could be teaching kids in school cafeterias. Instead, we're going to keep teaching them to scarf down stuff like "potato smiles."


UPDATED: Everyone's Favorite Vegetable, Frozen Pizza

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 5:00 AM PST
Can you spot the veggie on the plastic foam plate?

[See update below.]

Congress is in the process of figuring next year's agriculture budget, and the food industry is using the occasion as an opportunity to bully the USDA as it rolls out new rules for the National School Lunch Program. According to the New York Times, Big Food has already dropped a cool $5.6 million lobbying to kibosh the new rules.

Why does the industry care about school lunches? Because school cafeterias get less than a dollar a day per student in federal funding to spend on ingredients (about two-thirds of the maximum $2.94 outlay per lunch goes to overhead and labor), and many public schools lack cooking facilities altogether. So cafeterias often outsource cooking to massive entities that know how to squeeze a profit by selling lots of dirt-cheap food—companies like meat giant Tyson and its infamous heat-and-serve "Dinosaur Shaped Chicken Nuggets," and Conagra and its frozen pizzas.

In January, the USDA came out with new guidelines governing what can go on kids' plates. Mandated by a 2004 act of Congress ordering USDA to align school lunches with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the rules (PDF) impose two new criteria that have drawn the ire of the food industry.

First, they rewrote the requirements around vegetable and fruit servings. Before, cafeterias were required to serve at least one vegetable per day, and the definition was expansive: Tater Tots and French fries, for example, counted. Now, they limit the amount of potatoes and other "starchy vegetables" to no more than one cup (two servings) per week—and require schools to serve at least one serving per week of dark green and red/orange vegetables. Second, they no longer allow the two ounces of tomato paste that lacquer a typical frozen pizza to count as a vegetable.

Tom's Kitchen: A Sardine Dish to Convert the Unsaved

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 1:35 PM PST

Earlier this week, in a screed about the absurdity of grinding up sardines and dumping them as feed into fetid factory salmon farms, I promised a "simple, tasty, and economical sardine dish."

This turned out to be a bit more challenging than I thought—not because sardines aren't delicious, but rather because one the people I live with, Maverick Farms director Hillary Wilson, hates sardines. Or at least she thought she did. So the task wasn't just to make a delicious sardine dish—it was to make a sardine dish delicious enough to convert a card-carrying non-sardinista.

Added to that of course, was the usual challenge of Tom's Kitchen: to make a quick dish with only ingredients on hand—nothing fancy, no special trips to the grocery store. The idea is to show that that good cooking needn't be fussy or rely on rarefied ingredients. Happily, a stack of sardine cans sat in the pantry, unused only because of Hillary's objections.

To construct the dish, I started by conceding the non-sardinistas' main complaint about the delicacy: that they have a strong flavor. No doubt, they offer a briny blast of the sea in each bite. I refuse to allow their flavor to be labeled "fishy," but I acknowledge that they savor of fish, in the deepest way imaginable.

The Local Food Economy in 2 Charts

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 12:15 PM PST

First, the happy chart. The USDA recently released a report (PDF) that crunches numbers on recent developments in local/regional food economies. Sales are booming—and more farms are growing food for their surrounding communities, not global commodity markets. (I'm interested in that spike in the late '70s/early '80s—the report doesn't comment on that.)


For our era of stubbornly high unemployment, the report offers this interesting tidbit: Fruit and vegetable farms that sell into local markets employ 13 full-time employees per every $1 million in sales, versus just 3 employees for their counterparts that sell into global commodity markets. In other words, a dollar you spend at the farmers market supports four times as many workers as a dollar spent at the supermerket.

Now the scary chart. The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), which represents the new guard of farmers rising to grow for local markets, has conducted an interesting study of the challenges and opportunities facing young growers. As the following chart from the report shows, their problems are everyone's—the nation's farmers are aging rapidly.


Source: National Young Farmers Coalition

Source: National Young Farmers Coalition 

The NYFC surveyed 1300 young farmers and asked them to name the biggest obstacles they face. The top answers all essentially relate to start-up money: lack capital (78 percent of respondents), land access (68 percent), health care (47 percent), and access to credit (40 percent).

Even healthcare can be thought of in start-up terms: Who wants to enter a physcial career that offers no prospect of affordable health care?

Yet as the top chart shows, once local-oriented farmers get up and running, there's a robust and growing market for their goods.

The NYFC report ends with an excellent discussion about how federal farm policy could be tweaked to make condistions friendlier to incoming growers.