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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Building the Fifty Dollar Table

There's an old saying:
“If a man invites you to join his poker table, but you only have $50 while he and his buddies each have $5000, Don't Sit Down.

Our food system is that $5000 table.

If you're a farmer, someone who just wants to live in the country, grow some food, maybe have a cow and some chickens, you soon find that you're in a game of high-stakes poker. It isn't Farmville. Outfits like Cargill, ADM, Monsanto, and the bank will tell you what to grow, when to plant it, where and when to sell it, and how much you'll get when you sell it. You'll work long hours and have a big cash flow, but actually make very little money. You buy more and bigger equipment to try to get ahead. No cow. No chickens. No real choices. They'll tell you that other choices like organic farming are too inefficient and don't bring in enough cash flow, that “You can't feed the world on Organics- they're just an elitist thing.” It's a lie. They don't want you to know that theirs isn't the only, or even the best, game in town.

If you're someone who eats, and just wants good food at a fair price, you're at the table, too. Most likely you have no neighborhood grocery store, but have to travel ten miles or so to a megastore. Aside from paying a few locals near-starvation wages, the megastore sends all the money you give it far away, making your community that much poorer. The food you buy there is full of toxic chemicals and allergy-inducing engineered proteins. This is why many countries around the world will not accept US food for import. Healthy kids? Forget it. Social and Economic Justice? Ditto.

(While I was writing this I came upon an appropriate TED video: It's a bit long, but worth it. If you aren't outraged by what the “$5000 Guys” have done to our food, you aren't paying attention.)

I really don't blame people who don't want to see these facts. As Gandhi said, when a people are deeply oppressed, when hope is banished, they cease to be able to even see that they are being wronged, and accept their situation as inevitable.

But the situation IS NOT hopeless. Many people are working to “Build the Fifty Dollar Table.” Carol and I have proven at least part of what can be done. Just yesterday we had a couple from Southern Minnesota come by to talk about building their own greenhouse like ours, so they and their families can eat real food in the winter.

Here are steps you can take, some easier, some harder:
Don't let the $5000 Guys make you sit at their toxic table! Help us all together to Build the Fifty Dollar Table. This will take work, as worthwhile things always do: Saving our lives, health and local economies is about as worthwhile as anything I can think of.

You Can Do More Than You Think You Can.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Food System Like the Internet

The way food is produced and distributed in the US is the very model of inefficiency and insecurity.

Some will claim that it's very efficient. They use tricky accounting, taxpayer subsidies to ag corporations, profligate use of unsustainable cheap oil, and lax environmental “book keeping” to hide costs or pass them on to future generations.

They'll point to the abundance of cheap food in our stores, not mentioning that perhaps 2/3 of that food's real cost is hidden from the consumer. We end up paying those costs in taxes, health problems and a degraded environment. Nor will they mention that much of what's in those stores is “Food-Like Products;” over-processed things that are full of chemicals, extra sugar and extra salt that are bad for us- things that our grandparents wouldn't have eaten on a dare.

And don't even pretend that the system is secure. It's over-centralized structure and long supply lines make it anything but. Think of the e coli or salmonella scares; those are usually caused by mistakes at only one processing or storage facility, but end up affecting millions of people. And when that food is shipped thousands of miles it's vulnerable to increasing fuel prices, weather catastrophes, epidemics and terrorist attacks all along the route.

The ideal that the Industrial Food System is striving for looks like this:


The more of these steps can be owned by the same company, the better. Forget all images of Old McDonald's Farm: The ideal modern farmer is an industrial employee, growing what The Company says, how The Company says, and ships it to The Company on Company trucks. There is no illusion that the farm belongs to the farmer: both belong to The Company.

Increasingly, every step in the chain belongs to The Company- even the Consumer. Billions are spent on advertising and lobbying every year, training consumers to buy whatever The Company wants to sell, and training lawmakers to stay out of The Company's way. Even the word “consumer” was invented in the mid-Twentieth by Corporate hacks. We're people, not “units of consumption.”

This unsustainable system developed over decades of shortsighted greediness and will eventually, perhaps soon, fall apart from its own contradictions and weaknesses. Cracks are evident and spreading. When it does go, many people will be hungry unless we can build its replacement before that happens.
We, and many others, are working on that new system. It resembles how the Internet is organized. It's no coincidence that that's also how living systems are often organized, something like this:

This is a very simplified version, but makes the point. This ideal is that a town or neighborhood mostly feeds itself. Local organic wastes go back into the food system as fertilizer. Surplus and luxury items can be traded along from others. What's that? Your town is too big? Pre-Industrial Ag kept some pretty big places in operation with a similar system- we can do at least as well. You can do more than you think you can.
Such a system is:
  • Efficient- Nothing travels farther than it has to. No unneeded middlemen get their cuts. Money isn't spent to make people WANT more than they NEED.
  • Secure- Fewer steps means fewer places for things to go wrong, and if they do they effect far fewer people. It's also like Neighborhood Watch- Farmers who are feeding their neighbors are more careful and accountable.
  • Sustainable- Resources in an area are recycled with a minimum of fuss. Inherent efficiencies and natural rhythms form a system that can last.
  • Resilient- Shortages and problems can be worked around and fixed using neighboring resources;
  • Community Centered- The point is people feeding people, not people feeding those synthetic organisms- corporations.
While taking the needed practical steps, we must remember that the root of the problem is spiritual. It's about who and what we think we are. In the last few hundred years, with the Industrial Revolution, we learned to do many wonderful and clever things with our technology, but we forgot that we are beings firmly embedded in Nature, and in our societies. We've come to see ourselves as units of consumption, tools, counters on a game board, and mere resources. Such an attitude can't help but lead to disaster.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Tahrir Square Moment- From Evolution to Revolution

Revolutions are boiling across Africa and the Middle East, not to mention Wisconsin and Ohio. People are opening their eyes to the failures of top-down, bigger is better, oligarchical government and economics. We all know that The Big Guys will fail us, or worse, so the return to community and human needs is becoming a wildfire all across the globe.

That fire was burning last Tuesday in Milan. We showed how much the Local Foods Movement has changed in only a few years- good food is not just the property of Yuppies any more. About one hundred people; farmers, dietitians, school lunch folks, buyers from big stores, and agency representatives, gathered to discuss how to move from the long-distance, petroleum-based food system to one about “food with a face.” (See the West Central Tribune's article.)

Such a gathering, in a town of 300, with a highly diverse group, could not have happened a few years ago. Many of the speakers talked about plugging along, promoting healthy foods and wise farm policy, for decades. They're amazed at what's happening now. They say “tipping point” a lot. They've toiled for “evolutionary change” in the Food System for a long time- now that's become Revolutionary Change.

There's a repeated saying in the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still: “At the precipice, we change.” That's what's happening around us now. Right now. 2011 is becoming the Year of Revolutions. Only self-absorbed fools can't see that we're in a worldwide predicament. The People sense it. Old ways that have ceased to work are being rapidly replaced. Short-sighted doubters want to clamp down, thinking that a return to some imagined past, or more discipline against dissenters, will see us through. So, following the path to a wiser future, toward dealing with things as they actually are, becomes as much about dealing with violent dunderheads as with solving actual problems.

Local Foods is one of the ways we can adapt and thrive in the new, chancier, decentralized world.

>>>>>Garden Goddess News<<<<<

As you know, FARRMS is financing another printing of our book. We've firmed up the book launch event:
We'll be on hand for both April 2 and 3 in Fargo, at the Green Living Health Expo, signing books, talking, and singing a few songs. The BIG EVENT for us will be at Noon on Saturday- a press conference with us and representatives from other Local Foods-related groups.

Come on out, especially if you're a farmer or part of a foodie or sustainability group. Admission to the expo is FREE with a donation for the Great Plains Food Bank. Come show your solidarity with Local Foods folks from around the region! Meet people who you don't know, but are fellow “toilers in the fields.”