I care deeply about animal welfare, especially animals on farms, which is a big reason that I decided to research cattle and what we can learn about human culture and belief through our relationship with them. I also recognize that the well being of domestic animals is related to the well being of humans. Through my involvement with Windsor Dairy and the larger food community in Colorado, I have had an opportunity to meet many farmers near my home in Fort Collins, Colorado, who strive to be good stewards of the environment, and animals (both domestic and wild) and provide a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to make a living as a farmer, especially on that farms with sustainable or organic methods with more labor required to produce and sell food and costly organic certification fees without government subsidies that industrial commodity crop farmers rely on to make a profit. (The farm subsidy program is explained in a clear way in the documentary King Corn). Subsidies mask other costs of farming, like environmental costs, which include too much nitrogen from chemical fertilizers is washed into the ocean creating “dead zones” or pesticides that harm insects, but affect everything from birds to humans too as the chemicals make their way up the food chain. Subsidies also impact human health and health care costs. Government funded commodity crops end up in processed foods, some of which cost less than fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or farmers’ market. Cheap processed foods contribute the diabetes and obesity in the United States, especially in low-income households.
Human health, the health of the environment and the welfare of animals are interwoven and in my day-to-day life I try to make consumer choices that reflect my concern for all three. Knowing who grows my food, how they grow it and supporting local living economies contributes to my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of my community. I’m always looking for new avenues with which to share my understanding of food, the environment, animal welfare and public health. This blog is one way to connect with people, but this past fall, my friend Liz and I decided to capitalize on an idea we had a while back to produce a “hot farmer” calendar to generate more interest in local food and provide some free marketing for our friends that farm using sustainable and organic methods.
A couple years ago at a farmers market Liz and I and remarked about how good looking all our farmer friends were. They were toned and tan from hours in the field, their minds were sharp from constant problem solving farming requires and the intellectual endeavor that understanding farming, food politics, and direct marketing to consumers requires; and they exuded a sense of well being that working a job one deeply cares about creates in a person. In short, they were attractive – Sexy. “We should make a hot farmer calendar” Liz joked. That remained a running joke between us until last August when we decided to actually make a “pinup” calendar of farmers in the area.
We named our business “Pitchfork Pinups Calendar Co.”, hired the talented Fort Collins photographer Darren Mahuron of Summit Studios (who photographs many music bands in the area) to give our farmers a larger than life look, and asked our farmer friends if they would be kind enough to let us take their photos, even though it was the middle of high harvest. They were all kind enough to agree. Our first photo shoot happened on September 4th and with the help of graphic designing wizard Suzanne Dominguez and a local printer we had calendars in hand on October 15th. Since then we have been selling our calendar at retail establishments from Fort Collins to Denver and through our website www.pitchforkpinups.com. The calendar features one farm per month, a description of the farm, a seasonal recipe for every month and includes a list of local food terms. All profits after taxes will be donated back to the farmers featured in the calendar.
If you aren’t convinced that sexy isn’t enough of a reason to buy more local food this year, I’ve included an exert from an article I wrote for the independent newspaper Matterhorn’s Tour de Fat edition this summer titled: “Revolution Never Tasted So Good: Five Reasons to Eat Local Food.”
1. You can afford it
Local and organic food often has the stigma of being too expensive and hence elitist. But the statistics reveal otherwise. Farmers’ markets are the fastest growing sector of the food industry, growing at a rate that outpaces that of retail giant Walmart – even during these past recession years. Recent studies also reveal that local food is more affordable than you think. According to food writer Barry Estabrook’s blog “Politics of the Plate,” The Northeast Farming Association of Vermont compared farmers’ market and supermarket prices for a dozen foods: blueberries, cantaloupe, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggs, bell peppers, lettuce, potatoes, peas, string beans, squash, and tomatoes. Only two foods cost more at the farmer’s market than at the grocery store: eggs and potatoes. A recent study also found that organic food costs less at farmer’s market than in the grocery stores. “Astoundingly, organic items at farmers markets were nearly 40 percent cheaper than they were at neighboring supermarkets” Estabrook reported. For the frugal shopper, the farmers’ market may be the most economical way to purchase certain foods.
Signing up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) may also be a way to maximize your food budget. When you purchase a CSA you pay money to a farmer at the beginning of spring and receive a share of vegetables every week throughout the growing season. This serves two functions, a farmer receives necessary capital at the beginning of the season when they need it the most and people usually get a better deal on fruits and vegetables than if they were to buy the same amount of food at the farmer’s market or grocery store. Some farms even offer barter shares where people exchange work for their share, which allows people from every income to procure local food.
One of the best things about spending your dollars locally is that the money stays in the community where it is often re-invested. Be Local, a non-profit in Northern Colorado challenges members of their community to spend their dollars locally by challenging residents to spend $20 a week for 20 weeks. At the moment there are 654 people who have taken this pledge resulting in $261,600 being invested in the community over four and a half months. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies estimates that money spent locally is reinvested two to four times resulting in the potential for over one million dollars to be circulated in Northern Colorado’s economy in less than six months.
Spending money at farmer’s markets also ensures that people are paying the true value of food. Industrial farming of commodity crops (corn, wheat, and soy) are subsidized by the government, which is the reason that processed food is cheaper than whole food. Subsidies also encourage farmers to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which create environmental costs and these cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
2. You effortlessly become an environmental steward
Do you know that on average food travels 1500 miles to end up on our plates? This is just one way the conventional food industry contributes to global warming. Agriculture emits significant amounts of greenhouse gasses into the environment. Livestock production alone emits more carbon dioxide than automobiles. In the book, Diet for a Hot Plane, Anne Lappe´ describes numerous solutions for limiting the amount of greenhouse gasses agriculture emits into the atmosphere including buying food locally. Not only does this drastically reduce the amount of fuel used to put food on your plate, local food is fresher, meaning that it contains more nutrients than food that has traveled. Local food tastes better and does not require any additional chemicals to artificially ripen it – all good reasons to head to source food locally and enjoy the bounty of the season.
Also, most farmers that sell at farmer’s markets practice sustainable farming methods. Monoculture only remains economically viable because of economic subsidies provided by the government. The fact that monoculture is not environmentally sustainable will be a much larger issue for food security in the near future. The true cost of agriculture will soon be determined by environmental factors like declining aquifers and global warming. Once aquifers run dry and watersheds shift, nature will not so easily forgive us our trespasses. As Temple Grandin has said, “You can’t cheat nature.” This wise insight holds true for any aspect of agriculture. No one knows this better than food activist Gary Paul Nabhan who gardens in the Arizona desert near the Mexican boarder and recently published State of Southwestern Foodsheds that documents current and future problems with food security in the Southwest as well as proposes viable solutions for circumventing a possible food crisis in an arid landscape that is home to millions of people.
The true costs of our indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides, the hallmarks of large-scale monoculture, are beginning to rear their ugly heads. The excess use of nitrogen fertilizer in the Midwest has caused the 8,543 square mile oxygen deficient “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (which is not related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Pesticide use is now being linked to both colony collapse disorder, which is killing bees by the millions, and white nose syndrome, which is decimating populations of bats. Bees and bats are both indicators of environmental health and provide essential services, such as pollination and pest control, to farmers for free. The USDA says that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat and bats remove tons of insects from the atmosphere at no cost to farmers – or consumers. These are the problems chemical farming causes to the environment, and we are only beginning to understand how harmful these chemicals are to human health.
3. Buying food at the farmers’ market will make you healthier
You are investing in health insurance when you eat local, seasonal, organic and whole foods. Obesity, diabetes, cancer, and allergies are all bi-products of the conventional food system. Making food choices that minimize consumption of pesticides and processed foods keeps you healthy and will make you feel better. Food that goes from farm to consumer will often also limit your exposure to pathogens like mutant strains of e coli bacteria (which cause 100,000 Americans to become ill every year) and salmonella.
When food production occurs on a massive industrial scale, if something goes wrong it affects a significant number of people. Last year’s egg recall is a classic example of how fragile our food supply can be. Last summer two companies in Iowa simultaneously had half a billion eggs recalled because of a salmonella outbreak. Between the two companies these eggs were being sold under 30 different labels. The massive egg recall illustrates how diversity in the market place is often an illusion. If only a few businesses produce food on a massive scale, when something goes wrong it goes wrong in a big way and significant numbers of people are affected. When you know where your food comes from you are less likely to become a statistic.
4. You do have time to cook
Michael Pollen, in an interview on Fresh Air, told host Terry Gross about an interesting phenomenon happening in American households. The number of people watching cooking shows is increasing while the number of people who cook their own meals is simultaneously decreasing. Pollen described cooking shows as a spectator sport, which may reveal how we long to be connected to the primal process of cooking food even as we absentmindedly munch Chinese take-out in front of the boob tube. If you have time to watch Iron Chef’s compete, you have time to make yourself a meal from scratch. If you don’t have time to cook every night, cook two or three meals at one time and eat the leftovers. Understanding the ingredients that are used to prepare food will also help make savvier choices at the grocery store and in restaurants. The New York Times food writer and author of the classic, How to Cook Everything, has been a vocal advocate for cooking with local foods. His new book, Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express: 404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less, simplifies cooking seasonal foods with the dexterity of a Zen master. His delectable recipes are virtually fool proof.
5. Local, Seasonal, Organic Food Tastes Delicious
The extraordinary taste of seasonal and organic food is often its own reward. Professional chefs know the secret to cooking amazing food is to start with the best ingredients. Chef Dan Barber of Stone Barns Agricultural Center and Blue Hill Restaurant in Pocatano Hills, New York and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California both educate people about the sensational flavors of seasonal cooking. Human health and happiness increase when people are mindful about what they eat and they have found that seeking out the best tasting ingredients almost always come from farms that are organic, sustainable, and promote diversity of food and in the ecosystem. In this respect doing the right thing can be motivated by the most hedonistic of desires – our appetites. Let your taste buds be your guide because you can taste the goodness.
And… being part of the local food movement is sexy. If you don’t believe me, according to the Denver Post “farming is the new sexy”