“If every person spent ten dollars a week on small, local farmers, it would have a huge economic impact. Not only on the small family farms, but to the economy, because the amount of money generated by that would be tripled or quadrupled by what it would bring back to our local economies and our rural areas.” — Diana Endicott, in “Fresh,” a film by ana Sofia joanes.
If you have seen films such as “Food, Inc.” or “Fast Food Nation,” or read any books about our food sources, you may be angered by the control companies such as Monsanto and Cargill have over your life. You may be wondering what you can eat at all. Something as basic as food, that we think we have so many choices about, and such abundance of, in this country, has been monopolized by huge agri-businesses that impose a factory model to food production. The factory model may have revolutionized automobile production, but it does not work for food. The animals raised in this environment are miserable and unhealthy, the waste they produce is a toxic sludge full of pharmaceuticals that cannot be used as the natural fertilizer it would be, instead polluting our streams, rivers, groundwater and vegetable crops. Employees risk disease, serious injury, or death. Farmers cannot earn a living wage, and are forced to purchase all their seed, animal starter stock, fertilizer, feed and chemicals from the same companies that lobby for farm subsidies to support the over-production of corn.
By contrast, small and medium-sized organic farms actually produce more food per acre, are able to use animal waste to fertilize fields, food waste to feed animals what they naturally eat, and improve our soil quality rather than depleting it. Nothing is wasted, everything is healthy.
Joel Salatin, a sustainable farmer in Virginia, estimates that his farm generates $3,000 per acre instead of the $200 per acre earned by a neighboring conventional farm. He calls himself a grass farmer, for it is the grass that transforms the sun into energy that his animals can then feed on. By closely observing nature, Joel created a rotational grazing system that allows the land to heal and the animals to behave the way the were meant to — as in chickens expressing their “chicken-ness” or pigs expressing their “pig-ness,” as Joel would say. Salatin buys neither seed nor fertilizer nor feed.
Another farmer featured in “Fresh” is Russ Kremer. Fifteen years ago, Kremer ran an industrial hog confinement operation in Missouri. Following standard practices, he fed his pigs daily doses of antibiotic for growth efficiency and to ward off illnesses. One day Russ was gored by one of his hogs and nearly died from an antibiotic-resistant infection. He went home, “went cold turkey,” slaughtered all his hogs and started over. Today his hogs are antibiotic-free.
Steven Hopp, in “Animal Vegetable Miracle,” states that, “Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars.” Besides the fuel used to power farm equipment, inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides use oil and natural gas as their starting materials and in their manufacturing. Then, every food item in an average American meal travels an average of 1,500 miles to your plate. Hopp suggests that if every American ate just one meal per week of locally, organically raised food, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over one million barrels per week!
Epidemics like mad cow disease or tainted spinach scares do not just happen. They are an inevitable result of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Not only are cattle or chickens penned in cruelly small spaces, they are fed a diet they would not naturally eat, and wallow in a toxic sludge. Cattle, for example, are herbivores that eat grasses. On commercial feed lots, they are instead fed corn to fatten them more quickly, as well as dead, diseased animals. While FDA regulations now prohibit feeding of diseased dead cattle to other cattle, steers are fed rendered beef fat as well as other dead animals from chicken or hog CAFOs (and vice versa!). And don’t even ask what is in your beloved dog’s food!
Being a vegetarian does not in itself solve the problem. Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables are full of pesticides and herbicides, and almost all the soy, corn, and canola in the US is genetically modified. Corn, by the way, is primarily grown to produce feed for animals that do not naturally eat corn, as well as ethanol and unnecessary and unhealthy ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin and caramel color, present in most of the processed “food” in the grocery store.
So what can we do about our food?
• Buy local products when possible, or buy organic and fair-trade products.
• Support restaurants and food vendors that sell locally produced food.
• Volunteer and/or support an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable food systems.
• Drink plenty of water, and use your own bottle.
• Avoid GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)! When buying processed food, buy organic to avoid GMOs.
• Get involved in your community!
• Grow a garden, visit a farm, volunteer in your community garden, teach a child to garden.
• Read the labels. If you don’t know what it is and the food producer cannot tell you, don’t buy it. Don’t eat it!
But, you may say, we don’t live in Virginia. You can’t garden at 7,000 feet, I have heard it said. Not true, say Pagosa’s numerous gardeners. Some garden inside domes or other greenhouse structures, others outside. It is possible to raise most of your food locally. We do have family farms and ranches within a 100-mile radius of Archuleta County, as well as an active garden club. Our definition of local may depend on the region and the product. For example, Gary Nabhan, author of “Coming Home to Eat,” suggests a 250-mile radius for the desert Southwest, while residents of California or Virginia valleys may define local as a 100-mile radius.
It may take learning some new habits, but you can find beef, lamb, chicken, eggs, and all kinds of vegetables and fruits, including greens, potatoes, garlic, carrots, squashes, peaches and strawberries, within 100 miles of Pagosa Springs. If you stretch your definition of local to a few hundred miles, you will even find vineyards in Colorado and northern New Mexico. Part of this new habit-forming is about eating food in season, and learning to preserve and store seasonal harvest. Our local county Extension office has all kinds of information on how to grow food in this climate, and how to safely preserve it. Oh, and cooking and sharing meals with family and friends is another part of it, perhaps the best part.
“It’s a decision you and I can make right now, tomorrow, we can change the world,” says Russ Kremer.
“Food is at the foundation, but it’s really about life,” states Will Allen of Growing Power. A former professional basketball player and the son of southern sharecroppers, Allen always believed that everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food. Today, he trains and inspires people to start growing food sustainably, on a three-acre lot in the middle of urban Milwaukee. By converting a million pounds of waste into energy via composting, Allen also leads the way in visualizing zero-waste cities.
You may think that organic and local foods are more expensive. Sometimes some may be, but not necessarily. Most consumers don’t realize how much we have paid for the conventional foods before we even get to the grocery store. Not only do we subsidize the petroleum and chemical-dependent farm industries, we pay more every year in health and environmental costs. Hopp calculates that all these subsidies and expenses cost us about $725 per household, per year. Interestingly, this amount is a little more than a large national retailer advertises we would save by buying groceries at their store. By contrast, the higher dollar you may pay to a local farmer directly covers the cost of healthy food production, and stays in our economy. And, some studies have shown that organic food contains more nutrients and antioxidants.
We do need to take our country back. We need to take it back from the agribusiness industry and other corporations that dictate government policy regardless of which party holds office, contaminate our food and water supply, poison our rivers, oceans, earth and air, force farmers into heavily indentured servitude, and decide what you and I have to put on our plates. We have choices. Every dollar we spend is a vote for the company or the method that produced the item we are paying for.
“If every restaurant got just ten percent of its food from local farmers,” says Tod Murphy of Farmers Diner, “the infrastructure of corporate food would collapse.” We can ask local restaurants which menu items feature locally raised food or grass-finished meat. We can choose local, and choose organic. By doing so, we choose to keep our local economy alive, and choose sustainable farming and healthy food.
For more inspiration on the possibilities of sustainable farming and growing your own food, you may want to read “Animal Vegetable Miracle,” by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver; or try to find a community screening of “Fresh” by ana Sofia joanes.
To meet local food producers live and in person, visit the Pagosa Farmers Market. Buy your food, find out how it is grown, listen to some local music, and visit with your friends and neighbors. Come on down to the Pagosa Farmers Market this Saturday morning and every Saturday morning all summer long.
The Pagosa Farmers Market will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday, July 10 through Sept. 25. Location: the parking lot of Ponderosa Lumber and Hardware, 2435 Eagle Drive.
For more information on the Pagosa Farmers Market or other local environmental initiatives, visit www.sospagosa.org or call (970) 264 0430.