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Our farm is dedicated not just to responsible, healthy, accessible food, but also to changing the very model that our country uses to produce and consume food. We’ve said before that being certified organic doesn’t go far enough to affect this change; in this article we take a look at a few more reasons that eating local beats both organic and conventional. And at the end, we give you a sneak preview of what our “dream” food model looks like.

1. Local really is more nutritious

An organic controversy exploded in 2012 when a Stanford University study asserted that there’s no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventionally raised foods. Stanford, along with many other food scientists and supporting institutions, make the claim that the only substantial drivers of nutritional content in food are genetics and freshness. If you take two seeds from an identical heirloom plant, raise one on a conventional farm, the other on an organic farm, and harvest and eat them at the same time, there will be virtually no difference between the two.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Supporters of organics naturally (hehe) fired back, citing everything from the university’s relationship with agro-giant Cargill to alleged technical flaws in the study itself. Importantly, however, critics of the study did not attack its underlying premise: that genetics and freshness are what really matters when it comes to nutritional content.

When you make the decision to ignore the labels, buy local, and source all your food from a nearby ecological farm, this controversy immediately loses meaning for you. If you’re buying heirloom produce from a farm less than an hour away, you’re pretty much guaranteed two things: 1.) you’re getting plant genetics at least as good as what you’d find in an organic market, and 2.) you’re getting your produce at the peak of freshness, especially if you visit the type of farm that lets you pick produce yourself. The only way to get fresher food would be to disguise yourself as a cow during the day, graze the fields with the rest of the herd, and hope the farmer doesn’t notice.

Soon.

Soon.

2. Local really does taste better

It’s not hard to find people – especially those who patronize expensive restaurants – that will insist that organic food tastes hands-down better than conventionally raised food. Unfortunately, those people would be proven wrong by a slew of blind taste tests in which people truly can’t tell the difference between stuff that’s grown in a chemical-bound psedo-soil and compost-pampered supersoil.

Much like nutrition, taste is largely the effect of freshness and genetics. For eggs, meat, and dairy, the inputs that create them are also a very significant factor… but one whose positive effect on the taste of the food is correlated with freshness.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

As great as organic farming is compared to its conventional counterpart regarding environmental impact, it gleefully shares conventional ag’s most glaring structural problem: centralized distribution. This model of distribution underlies the efficiency that some would argue is modern agriculture’s biggest strength, but it also underlies its biggest weaknesses: the ecological compromises demanded by farming for economies of scale, and products whose nutrition and taste suffer from shipping (to distribution facilities and markets) and waiting (in markets to be bought).

Do you find it strange that you can buy organic sweet corn and vine tomatoes at health food markets in January? If you don’t, then you should. That sweet corn and that big red ‘mater, being more than six months out of season, are both going to taste like hot-house garbage. If you buy from an ecological farm, however, this isn’t going to be a problem because an eco-farmer worth her salt will not grow things out of season, even in a greenhouse. Shopping for groceries at such a farm ensures that you’re buying food in season and at the peak of freshness, which is the ONLY way to guarantee your food is at the height of its nutritional content and taste.

3. Local really is best for the environment

Conventional and organic farming have something else in common besides centralized distribution: they’re founded on the idea that you have to fight nature to produce enough food for civilized society. The only difference between the two is that organic farmers are following the rules of gentlemanly warfare, while the conventional farmers are whipping out the nukes and mustard gas.

To be sure, organic farming is much gentler on the environment than conventional farming. The “Three Cs” of organic farming are compost, cover crops, and crop rotation; together, these are intended to minimize the effects of farming on the environment and reduce risks to public health. The first “C”, compost, provides natural soil fertility without frying soil life the way synthetic fertilizers do. The second, cover crops, prevents soil erosion and runoff pollution while improving soil structure and nutrient content after cash crops are harvested. The third, crop rotation, interrupts cycles of pests and diseases by taking away their food sources.

So... what do they eat?

So… what do they eat?

The Three C’s, unfortunately, do not address organic agriculture’s reliance on monocultures. A monoculture is what you get when you have a whole bunch of the same plant (or animal) covering a large area. This is something you almost never see in nature because, in nature, such a state can’t persist for very long. If a 50 acre field were to spontaneously sprout nothing but corn, then the beetles and armyworms would soon follow. With a gigantic food source and no habitat for their predators, these pests would reproduce explosively until all the corn was gone, at which point the they would starve to death. Their decaying bodies and rotting corn husks would cover the soil with new organic matter while the occasional breeze or four-legged creature would deposit various seeds from elsewhere. Over time, a new and balanced ecosystem would develop – one that would invariably be a polyculture rather than a monoculture. I won’t say that monocultures aren’t “natural” since “natural” is such a slippery term. But I will say that we’re swimming against nature’s current when we use monocultures, and that’s a dangerous proposition when we’re relying on them to stay alive.

If there’s one thing your small, local family farm probably doesn’t have, it’s a 50 acre cornfield. These little farms generally use hoophouses and/or raised garden beds to produce plants in polycultures that are much more environmentally sound. And while these fruits and veggies don’t provide the staples we rely on from corn and soy, there are permaculture farms coming online using tree guilds to replace them both affordably and with ecological soundness. Most of these operations are small family farms that need your patronage in order to succeed.

4. It’s the only way to make responsible food affordable

America’s food model is broken because it demands an interface between the consumer and the producer in the name of efficiency and centralized profit.* Proponents of this model will argue that such ruthless efficiency is necessary in order to meet demand; a dubious claim considering that America trashes nearly half it’s food.

"Smashes" rhymes with "trashes."

“Smashes” rhymes with “trashes.”

The organic movement, God bless it, does not address the structural flaw in this model. It instead funnels food into the same broken system as its conventional adversary (or parent company) using a production method that’s much less efficient. With its misguided focus on markets and monocultures, organic farms fight a relentlessly uphill battle against the efficiency of conventional farming’s chemical marvels and the inertia of mother nature’s ecological inclinations. The result? The most difficult, expensive food on planet Earth.

But in spite of the cost, farmers markets and agritourism are booming at the same time unprecedented public outrage is being directed at GMO, feedlots, and big agribusiness. The enormous demand for organic, relative to its supply, is one of the drivers of its high price. If we could only lower the price of responsible food to make it accessible to the average person, the sustainable food movement would be on its way to fulfilling its mission of saving the world by feeding it. This is where your local permaculture farm comes in.

Permaculture farms are those that intensively mimic natural systems to produce food that’s both ecologically sound and affordable. The affordability stems from a number of things: reliance on perennials that only need to be planted once; emphasis on forage rather than feed for livestock; selection of locally-adapted plants and animals that require minimum human intervention; focus on a hyperlocal customer base that does most of the harvesting; adoption of multistory agriculture (fungi, ground covers, tall annuals, bushes, and trees occupying the same space) to improve efficiency; providing the diversity of products that allows the farm to replace the supermarket.

Taking central Virginia as an example, the new agricultural model here would have 1,400 small (20 – 30 acres) plantations set up near population centers, each providing food for the 160 or so people living with the immediate vicinity of that farm. People would go to these farms to do most of their food shopping; the Whole Foodses and Harris Teeters would be for the things you can’t get locally – coffee, spices, citrus, etc. The time a farmer would ordinarily spend every year planting, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, shipping, etc. would instead be spent on value adding (e.g. milling wheat into flour, grinding corn into hominy, smoking bacon, baking bread) and surveying the neighborhood to see what products her customers want more or less of.

"Coming right up!"

“Coming right up!”

This model doesn’t exist yet, but it can in your lifetime. All you have to do is make a commitment to cultivate a relationship with a local farmer, make a commitment to buy from her as often as you can, and of course stay tuned to our website as we work to make this model a reality for everyone.

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

*Before my more conservative readers accuse me of Marxism, please know that I’m not a proponent of socializing or nationalizing food production (notwithstanding charity). Farmers and those who own farms should enjoy comfortable lives financially to the extent their talents will allow them to steward the land responsibly. It is another matter entirely for Monsanto to advocate for market-divorced commodity subsidies, soil-killing chemicals, seed patents, and a factory farm system that brutalizes both farmer and animal… all in the name of its stock price and at the expense of literally everyone in the world.

Like many books and articles before us, we’ve stated that the environmental and health effects of conventional agriculture have hidden costs. We argue that these hidden costs ultimately make supermarket fare just as expensive, if not more so, than naturally-grown food. But like those other books and articles, we’ve failed to get specific… so now we’ve remedied that with actual facts and figures!

Below are three ways that cheap food is snatching OVER $25 A WEEK(!) out of your wallet without you even knowing it.

1. The Farm Bill

This year’s Farm Bill was a very touchy subject, as congress took an unprecedented step in sectioning off the nutrition part of the legislation from the farm-assistance part of the legislation. I don’t say this to draw lines in the sand*, rather I say it to say this: because of the politics involved, it’s very difficult to get the bottom of exactly what the devil the farm bill is. Here’s the basics:

  • It costs about $19.5 billion per year (with the nutrition programs removed)
  • It consists of many parts, but the key parts directing your tax dollars to keep your “cheap” foods cheap are the Commodities Program and the Crop Insurance Program. Together, these programs  eat up about $13 billion per year of the total $19.5 billion annual Farm Bill budget .

The Commodities and Crop Insurance programs are a big part of the reason that corn is in virtually every food item in the supermarket. If a drought destroys the corn crop, the crop insurance program subsidizes farmers to recover their losses. If there’s a bumper crop of corn, the commodities program makes sure the farmer is paid above the catastrophically low market price regardless of the massive oversupply. This creates a win-win situation for producing corn (if you don’t mind becoming a slave to the Farm Bill)) that’s completely divorced from free-market economics.

Remind you of anyone?

Remind you of anyone?

Corn, and the products derived from corn (this includes your $1/lb chicken and $3/lb beef, by the way), are omnipresent because corn is cheap. Corn is cheap, but only because $13 billion per year in taxpayer dollars are keeping it that way. Now, let’s do some math to see how much this is costing you, individually.

According to the U.S. Census, there are about 197,138,017 people of what I would call “working, tax paying age” between 18 – 65. Dividing that $13 billion tax bill by 197+ million people?

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $66

*Hint: Natural farmers think the Farm Bill solves America’s farming problems like rooting for the New York Jets cures cancer.

2. Utility Increases, Fees, and Taxes

Here we’re specifically talking about water. You may not have even noticed, but it’s likely that your water bills have doubled or even tripled in the past decade or so, racing well ahead of inflation. According to a USA Today analysis, 29 of 100 surveyed localities saw their water bills AT LEAST double in that time period. The article cites five factors contributing to the increases, two of which are related to environmental issues involving conventional agriculture:

  • Increases in the costs of treating water
  • Compliance with Federal clean water mandates

To review, conventional agriculture throws an enormous amount of pollution into watersheds. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay.

Oh yeah, and you with the OCD-perfect lawn.

Oh yeah, and you with the OCD-perfect lawn.

So how might this be affecting you? Let’s take a city like Atlanta, where prices have tripled to $600/year. $400 of that annual total is attributable to the rise in your bill. 2 of the 5 factors driving up water costs are related to agro-environmental issues, so let’s be conservative and say that just one-fifth of the increases are related to them. That puts us at $80/year for utility increases. But we’re not done.

Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, are imposing stormwater fees. These fees – often called “rain taxes” by opponents – are for environmental cleanup in the Chesapeake Bay (particularly in Maryland); cleanup that’s necessary principally because of stormwater runoff from conventional agriculture: nitrogen runoff from poultry confinement houses, runoff from chemical fertilizers, runoff from manure lagoons in feedlots, etc.

Guess where the poop goes. Oh God, please guess.

Guess where the poop goes. Oh God, please guess.

In Maryland and Virginia, these fees will run between $70 – $100 a year. And Maryland residents can tack on another $60 per year for the so-called “flush tax” that, in part, goes toward planting fields in cover crops to improve the health of the Bay… which needs cleaning up because of conventional agriculture. So let’s take the lower end of the stormwater fee ($70) and add that to just a third of the flush tax ($20), since the flush tax also pays for sewer systems.

So your utility taxes/increases related to your cheap food: $80 + $70 + $20 = $170. Adding this to your $66 contribution to the Farm Bill…

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $236

Now brace yourself, because this is where it gets real.

3. Treatment and Management of Chronic Health Conditions

There’s no disputing that chronic health conditions are on a terrifying rise, far outpacing the increase in population. The CDC says that 75% of healthcare dollars are spent treating chronic illnesses. Many, if not most, of these instances of disease are triggered either directly or indirectly by diet, and the “cheap” corn churned out by conventional agriculture is the key ingredient in that diet.

Science is just beginning to grasp the extent to which the river of corn from conventional agriculture is affecting our health. Sugars (which are what corn and corn-derived products morph into once digested) are now linked to heart failure, obesity, liver toxicity, cancer production, and a host of other terrifying health risks. This makes sense, considering that the nation’s various misguided dietary wars on saturated fat, red meat, and calories have done nothing to blunt the rise of obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease, or any other chronic illness.

Run.

Run.

The bottom line is, if you’re eating cheap food, you’re almost certainly eating corn. If you’re eating corn, then you have conventional agriculture to thank. And you can thank them both for the ballooning costs of both health insurance and programs like Medicare and Medicaid; all costs that hit you right in the wallet. It’s admittedly difficult to arrive at a dollar figure here to determine exactly how much cheap food is costing you, individually, in health costs, but let’s try anyway:

The average annual cost of family health insurance premiums edged past $16,000 a year in 2013. So let’s be conservative and a.) keep that amount rounded down to $16K, and b.) divide it by four to approximate an individual’s cost at $4K/year. Now let’s use the CDC claim that 75% of healthcare dollars are directed toward chronic illness; this lets us derive that $3K of your annual insurance premium (75% of $4K) is being directed toward the treatment of someone’s chronic illness (remember, your premiums don’t just pay for you). Then to figure out how much of that $3K to allocate to illness related to America’s sacred corn, we’ll use the 35.7% of adults regarded as obese. 35.7% of $3K brings us to $1,071 per year. Note that this is lower than the CDC claim that the medical costs for the obese are $1,429/year higher than those of normal weight.

You got served.

You got served.

Using this most conservative of estimates, then, your “cheap” food is being subsidized by $1,071 per year in health insurance costs being directed toward treatment of chronic illness CAUSED SPECIFICALLY BY THAT CHEAP FOOD. And yes, this is a conservative estimate: it’s doesn’t include your contributions to Medicare or Medicaid, or health costs from food borne illnesses stemming from feedlot practices, or the to-be-determined health effects of GMO, or people dying/nearly-dying in conventional poultry slaughterhouses.

So to sum up, adding to the $236 you’re paying for the Farm Bill, utilities, and environmental cleanup:

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $1,307

Hence does your weekly trip to the grocery store cost about $25 more than you thought it did. Given that our estimates are conservative, especially in light of our exclusion of Mediare/Medicaid contributions, it’s probably even higher. That’s good a reason as any to convince yourself and your friends to get out of the supermarket, and help change the way America feeds itself.

There are plenty of great things about being a vegetarian or a vegan. According to vegansociety.com and PETA, vegans/vegetarians are healthier, live longer, are more compassionate toward animals, have less impact on the environment, and are even better looking. Much of this is true, if the comparison is to conventional factory farming and the folks who patronize it.

But the vegan/vegetarian creed is a stiff reaction to industrial agriculture – a system of food production that’s harming ecological diversity, mining soil, abusing animals, and tricking people into eating things that can barely be considered food. So how does the veg(etari)an creed stack up against the “third way” of food: natural farming and being a locavore? Here are several good reasons why, if you want to be healthy/compassionate/eco-friendly, you may want to consider going locavore instead of veg(etari)an:

1. You will still consume lots and lots of plants

It’s fairly common knowledge that the overwhelming majority of human kibble should be plants. To be sure, there are specific cultures and populations that have subsisted healthily on a meat-only diet for centuries or longer, but most of these are hunting cultures where the ultra-protein diet is accompanied by an interminable exercise program wherein one chases down said protein source, under human power, all day long, in the world’s most extreme environments.

2seal hunter

“Broccoli? I’d rather eat this kayak.”

For those of us who don’t live in the arctic circle or the scorchingest part of the Australian outback, rest assured that a locavore diet consists overwhelmingly of plants and imparts all the attendant health benefits. And part of the benefit comes from something veg(etari)ans don’t necessarily hold sacred…

2. Eating locally-sourced, in-season plants is best for the environment

Veg(etari)ans pride themselves on their relatively small environmental footprint, and those who eat locally and in-season should. But it’s not uncommon to see other veg(etari)ans eating oranges in Maine, asparagus in December, and tomatoes in March. Most folks forget that it takes an outrageous amount of fossil fuel to store and transport fruits and vegetables. When you’re eating lettuce in Canada in the middle of the summer, you’d might as well be drowning baby ducks in crude oil. And this brings us to the harsh inverse of #2: eating plants out of season wrecks the environment and kills absolutely all of the things.

Pictured: Things

Pictured: Things

It also incentivizes morally dubious agro-giants like Monsanto to develop genetically modified crops that can survive shipping. This practice encourages monoculture and reduction in plants’ genetic diversity; diversity described by plant geneticist Jack Harlan as the single resource that “… stand[s] between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine… the line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner.”

I known many vegetarians in my life, and there are a few things common to all them: 1.) they are always eating all sorts of different plants all year long, and 2.) none of them bother canning in-season plants or buying canned plants from others. This boils down to non-seasonally-eating veg(etari)ans gut-punching the environment just as hard as the factory farm boys, except they’re replacing nitrogen runoff and toxic lagoons with the gory environmental effects of fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

Being a locavore means, of course, eating locally sourced plants, preferably getting it directly from the producer at the farm, or via buyers club, farmers market, or CSA. Sourcing locally defaults the locavore to eating in-season all year long, increasing the nutritional content, taste, and diversity of the food while providing a net benefit to the environment. And before you think to yourself that being a locavore-veg(etari)an is the best of both worlds…

3. Meat is critical to environmental restoration

The rallying cry of vegans around the world is “Meat is Murder,” and when they’re referring to factory raised, CAFO-finished animals, they’re right. No cow, pig, chicken, or any other animal has any business in a confinement house or a feedlot.

But they often extend the argument to natural farming operations, because there’s still a slaughterhouse at the end of the line. In response to this, I invite the veg(etari)an to consider a world in which everyone has decided that meat, even naturally raised, is murder. In this world there is no longer a practical need for domesticated livestock of any kind. Their populations then decline to almost nothing, except for a few kept as pets or in zoos. Thus, in this ham-fisted solution to Buddhism’s admonition that life is suffering, we make sure the animals don’t suffer by making sure the animals aren’t alive.

The vegan approach to this problem involves a cruise missile.

The vegan approach to this problem involves a cruise missile.

And all that might be fine were it not for the fact that the landscape impact of LARGE NUMBERS OF DOMESTICATED LIVESTOCK IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL TO THE ACHIEVEMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY.

At one time, extensive land management by Native Americans that provided vast pristine habitat for large numbers of wild animals (especially bison and their predators) and secured an ecological stasis that could simultaneously support both large numbers of people and a healthy environment.

"You're welcome."

“You’re welcome.”

Europeans thought this was so great that they drove both the bison and the Indians to near extinction, founded America, brought the plow, and proceeded to absolutely, positively destroy the country’s millennia-old natural resource base.

"Thanks."

“Thanks.”

Since this happened, domesticated livestock – again, herbivores in particular – are the only animals that exist in numbers large enough to recreate the conditions that made un-Pilgrimized America into one of the only places in history where you could have your cake (ecological productivity, e.g. bison burgers for all) and eat it too (ecological sustainability, e.g. bison burgers for all, forever.)

And speaking of bison burgers…

4. Meat is healthy, if you eat it right

When people say the veg(etari)an diet is “healthier,” the implied comparison is with the outrageously meat-heavy diet of the typical American. Most of us expect to eat meat at every single meal, and we usually realize that expectation, so it’s little wonder that the no-animal diet would be healthier than this insanity.

But ask any doctor – natural/holistic or conventional – and they will tell you that a little meat is good for you because it’s high in protein and a few key nutrients that you simply can’t find in plants. The key is to eat the right kind of meat at the right time and in the right amounts, and again we have Native Americans to thank for providing a model for doing this.

"Whatever."

“Whatever.”

Let’s take as an example my ancestors, the Choptico Kanawha from present-day D.C. and southern Maryland. As far as meat went, we didn’t eat terribly much of it until summer when the fish runs started. Throughout summer nearly all the meat we ate was fish or shellfish, while during the autumn we took wild deer, birds, other small mammals, and at one time even bison. During winter we ate meat from the summer and fall that was preserved either through smoking or natural refrigeration/freezing. Spring was light on meat because of the overwhelming abundance of sweet, green wild plants.

In short, Native people ate 1.) relatively little meat to begin with, but we ate it from 2.) a wide array of animals that were 3.) taken in accordance with the seasons and 4.) were highly nutritious owing to their natural diets. This is precisely the diet advocated by locavores and provided by natural farmers. It is also the diet that does a better job than veg(etari)anism of meeting the goals of veg(etari)anism.