Foraging is a hot trend, with home cooks, chefs, and craft brewers alike harvesting wild, local ingredients ranging from mushrooms and berries to dandelion greens and nettles. Now, a new peer-reviewed study is beginning to explore whether urban foraging can help reduce food insecurity.
The study, from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the U.S. Forest Service, surveyed 105 self-identified foragers in Baltimore to understand the motivations of people who seek out parks, forests, residential neighborhoods, and corporate campuses for wild edibles including berries, mushrooms, rose hips, and dandelions.
“If foraging is comprising a large fraction of your diet, there may be economic motivations for that,” said Dr. Keeve Nachman, one of the researchers of the study and the director of the food production and public health program at Johns Hopkins. More than half of the foragers cited economic benefits as their main motivation. And foraged foods made up three times more of the diets of Baltimore residents earning less than $40,000 per year than those earning more than $100,000. Moreover, for 10 percent of foragers, wild edibles accounted for 20 percent or more of their diets.
Not only are wild edibles widely available and free for the taking—most are nutrient-dense as well. For example, lambsquarters are an excellent source of vitamins B6 and K, folate, and riboflavin; rose hips are rich in vitamin C; and hazelnuts contain protein, fat, and fiber. But factors including cultural norms, potential environmental contamination, and local laws often inhibit the practice’s ability to proliferate.
“There are a lot of high-end restaurants and hipsters embracing [edible] weeds, but there are still social and cultural barriers to foraging,” said Philip Stark, associate dean of mathematics and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder of Berkeley Open Source Food.
Stark noted that foraging fell out of favor with the rise of industrial agriculture, triggering a belief that food sold in a package or stocked in a supermarket is safe, but food plucked from the soil is icky.
“The more we normalize weeds as foods, the more we can change people’s attitudes about foraging,” he said, “but I don’t think we’ll ever get a substantial percentage of the population to forage.”
Eric Kelly, one of the foragers included in the Johns Hopkins’ study, agrees. Even those interested in foraging often give up upon realizing the amount of education and effort it takes to find and harvest wild edibles. “You have to spend a lot of time learning to identify plants and process them so they don’t taste like bubbling garbage,” he said.
Overcoming the “ick” factor is just one roadblock. Nachman also worries about potential chemical exposures from consuming foraged foods, especially those harvested in risky areas.
The Urban Forestry and Urban Greening study found that 15 percent of foraging sites were commercial, including industrial and agricultural lands where contaminants are more prevalent. In the next phase of his research, Nachman plans to gather samples from foraging sites across Baltimore and test them for toxic residues.
Additionally, harvesting food from public or private lands is often illegal. In 2013, a Chicago Tribune article noted that a 75-year-old man, “barely making it on Social Security,” was fined $75 for picking dandelions to make a salad. The Daily Mail reported that a nurse foraging for mushrooms in the U.K. was ordered to pay £364 in fines and court costs in 2016.
For those lacking funds to fill their refrigerators, the possibility of being fined for foraging could be too large of a risk. But Marla R. Emery, research geographer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and co-author of the Baltimore foraging research, notes that policies prohibiting foraging could be ripe for change.
“We’ve heard concerns about the ecological impacts of foraging and concerns about potential exposure to contaminates,” Emery said. “But park managers are increasingly interested in managing parks as multi-functional landscapes that provide a variety of benefits to the citizens.” Emery added that sharing with park managers the findings that the five most frequently foraged edibles are both weedy species and quite nutrient-dense could help managers decide “whether or not there might be scope for allowing at least some foraging in the lands that they manage.”
Although the Johns Hopkins study doesn’t address the larger issues that drive food insecurity—such as poverty and a lack of affordable housing—the authors do note that their results point the way toward creating urban planning, policy, and design guidelines that can encourage, or at least not criminalize, gathering wild foods.
And cities around the country are starting to take action. Seattle recently changed its rules about foraging and, in its 2013 Urban Forest Stewardship Plan, stated that fruit and nut trees and other wild foods provided a valuable food source for residents and that foraging maintains traditions and deepens connections to nature, making it a legitimate use of urban forests. Free-food parks have also been popping up nationwide in recent years.
Even as public attitudes and policies are slowly changing, the trend of foraging is raising its profile for profit-making.
“There are already people commoditizing on our romantic notions of wild foods on our plates,” Baltimore forager Eric Kelly said. “You can buy dandelion greens at Whole Foods.”
When I met Ron Rosmann last winter, he’d just had a small windfall. The Harlan, Iowa farmer was in the process of building a new hoop house for his farrow-to-finish pork operation and he’d come into some high-quality farrowing equipment—the parts needed to keep sows and their piglets warm and safe during the first weeks of their life—for a bargain. But the circumstances were bittersweet.
Rosmann’s friend and a fellow hog farmer in the area was selling off the equipment because he had gotten out of hog production. “It’s sad because he has a quarter of a million dollars worth of facilities,” Rosmann said. “He used to raise [hogs] conventionally and now there’s no money in it unless you’re huge.” The farmer in question was nearing retirement age and he had no family members willing to take over the operation, so he’d decided to shut it down completely. This was just the latest in a series of family farmers Rosmann has seen close up shop over the last few decades. “It’s just typical of what farming is like out here in the Midwest,” he told me.
Rosmann is in a different position. He and his wife Maria raise certified organic pork and beef under their own private label and for Organic Prairie, as well as corn, soy, and a range of other grains and hay in a diverse rotation on 700 acres. And as they look toward retirement—Ron Rosmann is about to turn 68—their sons, David and Daniel, are working to succeed them. In fact, their family was just chosen as Organic Farmers of the Year by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).
Ron and Maria Rosmann in their farm store.
You could say he’s one of the lucky ones. But, if you meet Rosmann and his family, you’ll quickly realize that luck has had very little to do with it.
Take their commitment to biodiversity. The farm is divided into around 40 different fields, and in order to maintain soil health and reduce pressure from pests, they grow corn, soy, hay, oats, popcorn, turnips, and other crops in a constantly changing rotation. Some of those crops leave the farm, but much of it gets fed to the pigs and cows they raise. “We don’t buy anything!” said Rosmann.
It can be a challenge to keep this ever-changing rotation straight, he adds. But that’s key to his approach. “You have to be willing to change your mind all the time,” said Rosmann. “You can’t be set in your ways. But that’s what I love about this kind of farming. You have to be responsive to the indicators and the information out there.”
For instance, the farm survived the farm crisis of the 1980s—a time when many families in the area lost their operations due to mounting debt—by expanding on a modest scale, and taking out a bank loan to put in a farrowing nursery. Then they were early in the transition to organic and secured a coveted contract with one of the only companies paying a consistent premium for organic meat on a national scale.
Surrounded by miles and miles of conventional corn and soy, just 50 miles east of Omaha, Rosmann Family Farms also serves as a beacon for those looking for local food in the area. Maria runs a small on-farm store where she stocks everything from their farm’s meat and eggs to locally made gifts and holistic body products. Meanwhile, their son Daniel and his wife Ellen run a farm-to-table delivery service and a restaurant called Milk and Honey that sources many of its ingredients directly from the farm.
And aside from running his own business, and preparing to pass it on to his sons, Rosmann has also been an avid spokesman on the issues affecting small- and medium-scale farmers like himself.
After earning a degree in biology from Iowa State, Rosmann returned to his family farm for a trial year in 1973. But his parents gave him more autonomy than most, and he realized he decided to dig in and make it his own. “I was chastised by some people who said, ‘why did you come back, if you’re a college graduate?’ You’re supposed to leave the farm, leave rural areas to improve your life.” But Rosmann felt just the opposite; he stayed, in part, he said, because “you could make a difference in a small community” by sticking around.
Rosmann’s father was an early adopter when it came to using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but after his father passed away, Rosmann says he began experimenting with alternative methods, and by 1983 he decided to reverse course.
One of the major revelations came when he went to a field day at the farm of fellow Iowan Dick Thompson, who had eschewed conventional pesticides and fertilizers in the late ‘60s.
“He had a cleaner farm than we did and he wasn’t using any pesticides. I said, ‘I can do what he’s doing,’” Rosmann recalled. He was also intrigued by Thompson’s use of on-farm research using replicable, randomized strips. “These were environmentally friendly practices that didn’t hurt your pocketbook—in fact they helped. The goal was to get the same yields using less pesticides and fertilizers and then have proof that it would work, and learn from other farmers who were experimenting as well.”
Three years later, in 1986, Rosmann joined Thompson as a founding board member of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a nonprofit organization that has remained dedicated to these goals ever since, and has grown from around 50 farmers to more than 3,000.
Farmers like Rosmann and Thompson relied on tools like the late-spring soil test, which allows them to measure the amount of nitrate in the top layer of soil when their corn plants were young, so they could accurately gauge the amount of nitrogen they would need to add to the soil before harvest time. “It helped us place that nitrogen very precisely. We were cutting our nitrogen 50-75 percent and sometimes we found that we didn’t need to add nitrogen at all.”
David Rosmann at the family’s manure composting area. (Photo courtesy of Ron Rosmann)
The idea was to help farmers maintain autonomy in the face of massive farm consolidation and changes to the industry. Rosmann says that while there was a lot of interest in the late-spring soil test at the time, the tool’s popularity soon waned as the seed and chemical companies began to get a tighter hold on commodity agriculture.
“Biotech and Roundup came along. Farms were getting bigger, prices were low for commodities. The attrition of farmers kept going at a steady pace,” said Rosmann. Soon, he adds, “most farmers weren’t even willing to cultivate [as an alternative to using herbicide to control weeds] or test their nitrogen. They became paranoid, and said, ‘we’ve got to get this done in the fall.’ That’s the norm now. They put the nitrogen on in the fall, and 40-50 percent ends up in the groundwater because of leaching and warm weather.”
In Iowa, over the last few decades, this shift has had a nearly disastrous affect. Thirty years later, the ongoing nitrogen and phosphorous pollution has resulted in a high-profile lawsuit and a recent decision by state lawmakers to spend $282 million over the next 12 years on cleanup and prevention. Since then, PFI has played an important role in helping farmers diversify their farms, transition to organic in some cases, and just work in harmony with the natural world more generally.
Although PFI has remained an apolitical organization in an effort to reach farmers from both organic and conventional farms, Rosmann himself has always believed it was important to engage with policy. He and Maria have lobbied congress with organizations like the Pew Charitable Trust and Center for Rural Affairs on issues like farm consolidation and the overuse of antibiotics on farms. He also served as a board member and president of the Organic Farming Research Foundation for a number of years.
And he remains committed to on-farm research. For instance, Rosmann uses a lesser-known approach called ridge-tilling, which reduces the disturbance of the soil and helps retain organic matter—and he has produced data to support its efficacy. “I’ve done research trials comparing conventional disk-tilling and ridge-tilling. Every year, we get 5-7 percent more weeds in the area we disk till. So it’s a good tool for organic farmers,” said Rosmann, who adds that it’s hard to find the equipment because the practice has gone out of vogue in recent years.
Daniel Rosmann hand-counting weeds in a soybean field during the ridge-till vs. conventional till trial. (Photo courtesy Ron Rosmann)
He also prides himself on fixing his own farm equipment and acquiring much of the farm’s machinery used, an approach that is increasingly rare in the age of $250,000 tractors that can only be repaired by the companies that make them.
In all these ways, Rosmann stands out as a modern version of Jefferson’s educated yeoman farmer, “an enlightened citizen, trained in many fields,” motivated by the opportunity to be a steward the resources of land and community.
It’s a noble life, but also a lonely one, and Rosmann doesn’t always see eye to eye with many of the farmers in his community. So he relies on the PFI network as a way to stay connected to the handful of other “elder statesmen” farmers around Iowa and beyond.
“There are very few of us left with native knowledge passed down from our fathers,” said Rosmann. “But that’s the beauty of having Daniel and David here.” With his sons, he adds, the desire to stay curious and continue working at a human scale is a given.
Near the end of my visit to his farm—after I’d perused the hand-stitched tea towels in Maria’s shop, heard about the details of farrowing piglets, and toured the barn Rosmann’s father had built—we ducked into small stand of white pine trees he had planted in 1993 as a windbreak and wildlife refuge. The trees attract deer, a pest, but they also provide a rare home for pheasants, the occasional quail, and several other types of upland birds.
After a windy climb up a small hill, we stepped between the branches and the sound of the wind came to a stop. In that hushed environment, it was easy to imagine a time when many of Iowa’s diverse farms were dotted with trees. “We have more pheasants on our farm than any other in the county,” said Rosmann, lowering his voice so as not to scare off the visitors. And I pictured him and his family members stepping in among the trees every now and then when the day-to-day work of swimming against the agriculture tide becomes too much.
Then we turned and waded back through the February mud so Rosmann could take me to see his cows.
The Trump presidency has been marked by tumult and confusion, but also a reinvigorated sense of engagement with politics, particularly among American progressives. This new-found manifesting as fierce resistance to the Trump administration’s positions and policies, and it is also bringing many new faces into the political arena, as first-time candidates channel their anger into unseating long-time politicians.
Among the many political newcomers running in this year’s elections are a great number of candidates who seek to represent communities’ shifting priorities around food and farm policy. As federal regulatory battles around factory farm pollution, agribusiness consolidation, local food, and farmland access come to a head, new political leaders are emerging at the local, regional, and state levels to bring issues of food policy and food justice into the halls of power.
Civil Eats recently spoke with some of these emerging voices. Their interests and backgrounds range broadly, but together they’re fighting for reform in many of today’s top agricultural issues. (If you know of other new candidates running for office at any level on a platform of food justice, please let us know.)
Austin Frerick has gotten national attention since he launched his campaign for Congress last August. The seventh-generation Iowan is quite different from the incumbent he’s challenging, David Young. At age 28, Frerick is 21 years younger, a Democrat, and a vocal advocate for social and economic justice. Two of his heroes are RuPaul and Louis Brandeis. In a battleground state with complicated farm politics, he’s a voice for younger environment and agriculture advocates who want to see a change to the status quo.
A staunchly anti-monopoly candidate, Frerick has come out against the Monsanto/Bayer merger and other consolidation efforts in the agriculture industry. And he’s trained his sights on Iowa’s powerful agricultural players. “Iowa has [seen a] collapse in commodity prices the last few years. It’s on everyone’s minds,” he told Civil Eats. But “you’re seeing the pillars of the agriculture community, like [the American Farm Bureau Federation], not speaking up.”
Frerick has taken on Iowa’s Farm Bureau chapter in particular, drawing attention in recent weeks to the organization’s apparent investments, through its insurance arm, in companies like Tyson and Monsanto. To Frerick, the investments indicate that “they’re clearly not putting farmers first.”
Frerick is also invested in bringing better food to the state’s residents. “It’s expensive to eat healthy in this country,” he says. “Iowa has a quarter of the country’s best soil. Yet in a lot of these small towns, I can’t get a meal where any part of this meal is sourced from anywhere in the state. Good food shouldn’t be a privileged thing.”
In that vein, he’s been working with Alice Waters to craft a farm bill program that would bring a version of Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project to a national scale. He calls it an “updated version of home economics,” with grant programs for schools to build farms and cooking classrooms. Frerick received Waters’ endorsement last December.
“We’re living under that Earl Butz model still,” Frerick says, referencing President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, who famously encouraged farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and to “get big or get out,” which became a rallying cry for modern industrialized agriculture. But Frerick thinks “we can use this moment to redefine agriculture.”
Brandy Brooks came to food policy from the architecture and design world, learning about urban agriculture through a work project as a form of community design. She says she was taken with the concept and “became fascinated with the idea of growing in the city.” She loved the idea of gardens and farms providing food for urban neighborhoods. But she was also interested in the idea that, through food production, “communities that had been facing a lot of disinvestment and discrimination could bring land back under their control.”
It was that draw to unite food, politics, and social justice that brought Brooks deeper into food policy. “I was so excited about it I just became kind of an amateur expert,” she says. Soon, she was working at the Food Project, a sustainable agriculture organization in Boston. From there, she moved to Maryland, where she worked at Dreaming Out Loud, a food justice nonprofit in Washington, D.C. She’s also worked with numerous other agriculture organizations, including the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group as their annual conference organizer.
“Our food system typically isn’t raised as a political issue,” she says. But she “wanted to be talking about food in this much more systemic context. That has to do with the economy, with political decisions about which communities get resources.”
That messaging is at the core of Brooks’ campaign for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council. She’s calling for better farmland access in the county, support for small-food-business entrepreneurs, and culturally appropriate food assistance services. And she links healthy food access to meeting other basic needs, such as access to transportation, housing, and freedom from discrimination.
“Food is this amazing lens for talking about justice,” she says. “You could be talking about land use justice, you could be talking about racial justice, you could be talking about economic justice, you could be talking about immigration, health justice, housing—you could talk about everything through the lens of food.”
Kirkland Hall Location: Somerset County, Maryland Office: Maryland House of Delegates, District 38A Primary election date:June 26, 2018
Dr. Kirkland Hall grew up in Somerset County, Maryland, working on small farms, picking strawberries, cucumbers, or whatever was in season. “We had to do that in order to survive,” he says. Those experiences motivated him to go to college, to work towards a better future for his family. But as he moved through his education and began working—he is an instructor in the School of Pharmacy and Health at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore—he saw his peers move away for the lack of job opportunities in the county, and watched the poultry industry take root in the region.
A longtime civil rights activist, Hall has in recent years turned his attention to organizing against the expansion of large-scale poultry farming on the Eastern Shore. He has witnessed how the growing number of chicken houses meant adverse health and environmental consequences for many in the area. Hall’s daughter moved away, in part because the air quality aggravated her asthma.
As a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates, Hall hopes to address some of the chronic health and economic issues that have plagued the region as the poultry industry has become a powerful economic player. “We don’t have anyone monitoring the poultry industry, monitoring the waterways,” he says. If elected, he would work to locate poultry houses in less residential areas and better regulate the ones that already exist.
Hall feels that the growing chicken industry is decreasing job opportunities. “I think the poultry industry is running other businesses away from the county,” he says. Currently, Somerset County is the poorest county in the state, and poultry represents nearly 90 percent of the county’s agricultural sales.
He notes that as a young boy exploring the county, local streams were clean enough to drink from. Now, they’re polluted with runoff from the local farms. “We’ve got to protect the future of not only our environment, but also our young people.”
Jeremiah Lowery has been a leader for years on many social and environmental issues in his hometown of Washington, D.C. Themes of community economic development, sustainability, and workplace equity run through his campaign platforms. But much of his background and organizing experience is in food.
“When you talk about food, it’s also connected to environment, it’s also connected to inequality, it’s also connected to labor,” he says. “So, food is one of those things where [if] you can make it equitable, you can really transform a lot.”
Lowery has spoken publicly about his experiences of food insecurity while growing up in D.C. He says his personal background has helped him work with lower-income and low-food-access communities and learn which issues affect them most. “I’ve been able to … speak to my experience when I talk to the residents,” he says. “I’m a guy that’s worked on these issues.”
As for the city’s food policies, Lowery has lots of ideas, many of them more creative than the typical municipal proposals. “We can look at ways we can have a central processing facility here in D.C. for all our school meals … and source them locally,” for one. “I would love to see D.C. become a city where we have city-wide composting,” and “[stronger] workplace protections for food service workers.”
He’s also thinking about the effects of rapid gentrification on the city’s food-service workforce. “When we think of displacement…we normally think of houses,” he says. “We never really think of small businesses.” Commercial rent control would be one way to keep small food businesses, and their employees, in operation, he says.
“You can take food and you can address so many problems within society,” Lowery says.
Emily Best Location: McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania Office: Pennsylvania State Senate, District 30 Primary election date:May 15, 2018
Emily Best has been a committed booster of local food systems for many years from her home in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania. As the general manager of the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, she helps farmers from 40 Pennsylvania farms get their products to market around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and D.C. Now, in her campaign for a state senate seat, she is running on a progressive platform that unites many of the issues facing rural America.
A major focus for Best is consolidation’s effects on rural communities. “Our small businesses that open on Main Street sometimes struggle to compete with the larger corporations that come in and open stores that sell cheap products,” she says. “People want to support their local businesses, but in many of these rural communities it’s difficult to do when people are struggling to make enough wages to afford the products that local businesses need to sell.”
Best has also thought a lot about one of the biggest issues plaguing farm advocates in recent years: how to keep farmers on the land. One way? Make it less expensive to farm. “Each year there seems to be more regulatory processes that [small farmers] have to engage with,” she says. “It’s causing a lot of stress and expense.” Best suggests that federal and state farm policy should do more to support small farmers with the expenses associated with audits, certification, and food safety inspections.
Pennsylvania is an agricultural state, where agribusiness interests have a loud voice in the state’s capital. But Best sees herself as a new voice that is “a bit more independent-minded than some of the invested agricultural interests.” She says her identity as a passionate Democrat, a working mom, and an advocate for local economic development sets her apart.
“It’s still a very, very tough environment to be able to raise a family on only farming,” she says. “And if we want to encourage that in the central Pennsylvania region, then we need to have people in Harrisburg who have been there and done that work and have those relationships. I really do work with these small farmers every day. I know what their concerns are.”
But a small number of presidents spanning the history of the republic have had particular influence on our food supply and culture, and its impact on the health and well-being of all Americans, including farmers. And notably, as we’re also observing Black History Month, the interventions of those past presidents in our food system have often particularly affected African Americans.
1. George Washington: First farmer, innovator, and slaveholder
Whether or not young George chopped down that famous fruit free, the post-presidency Washington grew cherries, along with apples, pears, other tree fruits, and a whole lot of other food at his Mount Vernon estate, which comprised five neighboring farms on 8,000 acres. An innovative farmer who kept meticulous records, Washington was an early proponent of composting for soil health, and eventually phased out tobacco (the plantation crop of his day in Virginia) in favor of a diversified seven-crop rotation system including wheat for sale, corn for domestic consumption, and fertility-enhancing legume crops. (Sounds like a good idea.)
The grim reality behind Washington’s farming success, though, is that his farms were worked by slaves. A slaveowner since age 11, when he inherited ten slaves from his father, Washington bought and sold Black people throughout his life (reportedly treating them severely and separating family members through sale), and 317 slaves worked on his estate at the time of his death.
3. Abraham Lincoln: The USDA and the land-grant college system
Born in that legendary log cabin on his father’s farm in Kentucky, Lincoln was, as he put it, “raised to farm work.” His father farmed frontier land in southern Indiana before moving the family to Illinois, where Abe later got his political start in the state legislature. A believer in technological progress in agriculture, Lincoln advocated for horse-drawn machines and steam plows to take the place of hand labor. As president, he advocated for and signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he later called “The People’s Department,” since about half of all Americans at the time lived on farms. And Lincoln’s early belief in the value of educating farmers came to fruition in 1862 when he signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which facilitated the transfer of public land to each of the states to establish colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts.
Lincoln fought a war over slavery (perhaps we’re finally coming to agreement on that point?), issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and submitted the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery to the states for ratification just a few month before his violent death in 1865. But it would be another quarter century before freed slaves in the former Confederate states would get the benefit of a land-grant education Lincoln envisioned. A second Morrill Act in 1890 required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion for its land-grant colleges, or else to designate a separate institution for students of color. (See some of the achievements of some of the institutions known as 1890 schools here.)
4. Theodore Roosevelt: Cattle ranching and conservation
Teddy Roosevelt’s is known as one of the nation’s great conservationists, but that legacy was born out of a series of calamities. On a hunting trip in the Dakota Territory in 1883, the passionate outdoorsman discovered that native bison herds had been decimated by commercial hunters. Cattle ranching on the region’s vast grasslands was booming in bison’s wake, and he became interested in the cattle business, investing $14,000 (a huge sum at the time) in a ranch. Returning to politics in New York, Roosevelt was struck by tragedy with the death of both his mother and his wife on the same day in 1884, and he turned to the West and the ranching life to forget. But cattle in the Badlands at the time was itself a looming disaster: a boom with no regulation quickly led to massive overgrazing, and a scorching summer followed by a harsh winter in 1886-87 proved deadly. Tens of thousands of cattle, about 80 percent of the region’s herds, froze and starved to death in a blizzard. Roosevelt himself lost over half his herd, and soon got out of the business.
But his experience with agricultural disaster helped shape the future president’s views on the importance of conservation and led to an inspiring conservation legacy. Using his presidential authority, Roosevelt gave federal protection to more than 230 million acres of public land, creating the National Forest Service (now part of the USDA) and five national parks, and setting aside 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, and four national game preserves. In his words in 1908: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.” (Nah, that couldn’t happen, could it?)
5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Dust Bowl and soil conservation
In the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, FDR inherited economic and ecological catastrophes that hit farmers particularly hard. The Dust Bowl was caused by massive-scale plowing up of grasslands (the Great Plow-Up of the 1910s and ’20s) followed by four distinct drought events in the 1930s. It scorched the Plains and literally blew away its soil, leaving millions of acres of farmland useless, driving farmers into bankruptcy and off the land, and worsening the banking and unemployment crises.
An amateur forester, Roosevelt understood the importance of soil conservation, and soon after taking office he established the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Erosion Service. The latter (now the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) was the first major federal conservation effort to focus on privately owned natural resources. FDR also launched the Plains Shelterbelt Project effort that planted millions of trees, creating windbreaks (now at risk) on farms from the Canadian border to Texas. And he initiated farm policies to help farmers manage future boom-and-bust cycles by preventing overproduction. The Agricultural Adjustment Act enacted on his watch would grow into today’s wide-ranging farm bill, which still struggles with how to deal with overproduction while providing livelihood for the nation’s farmers and conserving soil and water.
6. Richard Nixon: Turning farming into big business
But his lasting legacy in agriculture continues to haunt us. That’s because Nixon gave his blessing to his agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, to essentially undo decades of FDR’s supply management policy. The Nixon years would be all about maximizing and consolidating farm production. “Get big or get out,” Butz told farmers in 1973, and boy, did they. His policies encouraged farmers to plant as much corn and other commodities as they could, on every possible bit of land. Today, one might argue, we have Nixon and Butz to thank for persistent fertilizer pollution in our nation’s waterways, for high-fructose corn syrup and the power and deception of the food industry, and for our enduring crisis of obesity and diet-related disease. (Read the full story of Secretary Butz, entertainingly told by Tom Philpott back in 2008.) Buzz’s obit recounts how a nasty racist comment ended his political career.
7. George W. Bush: Justice for Black farmers denied
While George W. Bush spent a lot of his presidency clearing brush on his Texas ranch, he wasn’t particularly known for his agriculture policy. But during his administration, a long-simmering dispute between the USDA and Black farmers came to a head. The background: in 1997 a group of Black farmers sued the USDA, citing years of racial discrimination by the department, which denied Black producers loans and other assistance and failed to act on their claims for years. The farmers prevailed in 1999, winning a $2.3 billion settlement from the government, the biggest in civil rights history. But there were limitations on who could collect under the Pigford settlement (named for lead plaintiff Timothy Pigford, a Black corn and soybean farmer from North Carolina), and what kinds of documentation they would need to provide.
Under W’s watch, many of the 22,000 farmers who had joined the Pigford suit were denied payment; by one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought damages were denied. And the Bush Department of Justice, representing the USDA, reportedly spent 56,000 office hours and $12 million contesting farmers’ claims. Many farmers believed their claims were rejected on technicalities.
He also fixed a lingering problem with the Pigford discrimination settlement described above. Failure to effectively notify and communicate with Black farmers eligible for payout under the 1999 settlement meant that many farmers were left out. Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder advocated for a fix, and in 2010, the administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement of the so-called “Pigford II” claims.
And now what?
These eight former presidents have made their mark on U.S. agriculture and food, delivering both progress and setbacks. Bottom line this Presidents Day? We still have a lot of work to do to achieve a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in this country.
Next time I’ll look at what happens when the occupant of the White House is not only not a farmer, but seems puzzlingly (if not cynically) indifferent to farmers’ concern. And when, instead of a healthy food advocate, he’s an unabashed proponent of the same processed and fast foods that are damaging the health—and even shortening the lives—of our nation’s children.
Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are starting to shape the 2018 Farm Bill–a comprehensive food and agriculture bill passed about every five years. Most observers associate the farm bill with food policy, but its conservation section is the single largest source of funding for soil, water, and wildlife conservation on private land in the United States.
Sixty percent of U.S. land is privately owned, and it contains a disproportionately high share of habitat for threatened and endangered species. This means that to conserve land and wildlife, it is critical to work with private landowners, particularly farmers and ranchers. Farm bill conservation programs provide cost shares, financial incentives, and technical assistance to farmers and other private landowners who voluntarily undertake conservation efforts on their land.
President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request would slash funding for farm bill conservation programs by about $13 billion over 10 years, on top of cuts already sustained in the 2014 Farm Bill. In a recent study, we found that it is highly uncertain whether the benefits these programs have produced will be maintained if they are cut further.
Jim and DeAnn Sattelberg received Conservation Reserve Program funding to plant ‘filter strips’ that protect water sources on their Michigan farm. (Photo credit: USDA)
Congress made substantial cuts in farm bill conservation programs in 2014–the first reductions since the conservation title of the bill was created in 1985. In total, the 2014 farm bill reduced conservation spending by 6.4 percent, or about $3.97 billion over 10 years.
These cuts reduced the number of farmers who were able to enroll in the programs. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production and convert cropland into ecologically beneficial grasses. In 2016, due to budget cuts, it accepted just 22 percent of acres that farmers offered for enrollment.
The Conservation Stewardship Program, which focuses on working lands in agricultural production, offers farmers financial incentives and technical advice for conservation measures such as cover crops or efficient irrigation systems. In 2015 USDA funded only 27 percent of CSP applications.
In a June 2017 hearing, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said:
“I’ve heard repeatedly from farmers and ranchers about the importance of these programs, how they successfully incentivize farmers to take conservation to the next level, and the need for continued federal investment in these critical programs.”
In October 2017, Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, introduced a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which fosters private-public partnerships in regions of high conservation priority. The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate this program, along with the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Funding will be tight for the 2018 Farm Bill, as USDA has acknowledged. A set of guiding principles the department released on January 24 pledged to provide “a fiscally responsible Farm Bill that reflects the Administration’s budget goals.” Congress will soon face funding decisions that will have critical implications for conservation outcomes and landowners.
USDA employees help South Dakota cattle ranchers repair and replace ponds for watering livestock, an initiative of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. (Photo credit: USDA/NRCS South Dakota)
Without Funding, Fewer Farmers Will Conserve
Further budget cuts in farm bill conservation programs would undermine environmental protection in multiple ways. Less land and wildlife would be protected, and fewer farmers would be able to enroll in these programs. Moreover, as our study concluded, landowners are unlikely to continue their conservation efforts when payments end.
Texas farmer Taylor Wilcox received USDA funding to flood his fallow rice fields, creating habitat for black-necked stilts and other birds. (Photo credit: USDA)
Federal agencies and environmental organizations generally would like to see owners keep up conservation practices even when they no longer receive federal incentives. We call this phenomenon “persistence.” Designing incentives so that they produce lasting behavior changes is a challenge in many fields, including agricultural conservation.
Our search of relevant scientific publications found very limited research on landowner behavior after incentive program contracts end. What research has been done indicates that persistence is highly variable and often does not occur.
Studies have found that after contracts expire, the percentage of landowners who continue conservation management can range from 31 to 85 percent. Persistence also depends on the practices landowners are required to perform. Structural actions like planting trees are more likely to have lasting effects than measures that landowners need to perform frequently and may abandon, such as treating invasive plants with herbicides.
Little is known about why landowners do or do not persist with conservation behaviors after incentive programs end. But we have identified several mechanisms that could support persistence behavior.
As landowners participate in conservation programs, they might develop positive views of conservation. They also may continue to use conservation practices because they want to be perceived as good land stewards. Practices that involve repeated action, such as moving cattle for prescribed grazing, might become habits. Finally, landowners with sufficient financial and technical resources are more likely to persist with conservation behaviors.
Long-Term Costs Of Defunding Conservation Programs
Our research shows that it is hard to predict how farmers and ranchers will respond if they are unable to re-enroll in farm bill conservation programs. Some might continue with conservation management, but it is likely that many landowners would resume farming formerly protected land or abandon conservation practices.
To promote conservation more effectively over time, it would make sense to consider farm bill policy changes such as issuing longer-duration contracts and designing post-contract transitions that encourage continued conservation. Further budget cuts will only reduce future conservation on private land, and could undo much of the good that these programs have already achieved.
Top photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.
The first car arrives over two hours before the hulling station officially opens in Jeffersonville, Kentucky. By the time that Renee Zaharie appears and starts the hulling machine, four more vehicles have pulled in and are waiting under the darkening evening sky.
The steady murmur of conversation (and the occasional guffaw) hums beneath the tent protecting the machine from the elements, as walnut hullers shoot the breeze after a long day of picking. Occasionally, a plaintive mew announces the otherwise-silent arrival of one of the 40 cats that Renee and her husband, William, foster. Out front, cars zip by on the busy county road. All around, the soft chirps of crickets sing their nightly chorus.
It’s the first weekend of the annual black walnut harvest that takes place each October, and the air is festive.
Money That Grows on Trees
Black walnuts are native to North America (including six Appalachia states) and, unlike many other tree nuts, grow in the wild. The green, tennis ball-sized nuts rain onto fields, roads, vehicles and sometimes, people, presenting a nuisance to cars parked beneath them and a danger to lawn mowers everywhere.
During black walnut season in October, the tree nuts rain down everywhere. For homeowners, they present a nuisance that can damage lawn mowers. Mike Foight of South Shore, Ky. enlists his grandchildren to clear his yard (pictured here) and earn some spending money.
While some may dread black walnuts for these reasons, for many others, the annual harvest is a welcome time of the year: a sign of the changing seasons, the return of a beloved baking ingredient, and, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to earn extra cash.
Black walnut harvesters gather the nuts locally—from their yards, nearby yards, roadsides and forests—and bring them to one of 238 hulling stations in 14 states across the country. There, hulling operators use specialized machinery to remove the hulls (which can make up to half of a black walnut’s weight), weigh the hulled walnuts, purchase them, and send them to Stockton, Missouri for shelling and further processing. Stockton, the unofficial black walnut capital of the world, is home to Hammons Product Company (HPC), a family-owned business that has been shelling black walnuts for the past 71 years. The company sets the price for black walnuts every year. This past October, they paid $0.15 per pound to walnut pickers, and an additional $0.05 per pound to hulling stations.
Brian Hammons, the company’s president, says that they produce an average of 23 million pounds annually and are expecting a bumper crop in Appalachia this year that will push that figure upwards of 30 million. After shelling the nuts, HPC sells them raw in grocery stores and specialty retailers, as well as directly to chefs and ice cream makers (black walnut ice cream is wildly popular in certain parts of the country). There’s also an ever-increasing selection of black walnut products, like black walnut oil, and even myriad uses for the shells, which can serve as eco-friendly ingredients in sand-blasting agents, water filtration systems and even sports fields. Every part of the nut is able to be used.
The front door of Gerlach Farm and Feed in Wheelersburg, Ohio advertises the start of the black walnut season. Hulling stations earn a commission of $0.05 per pound of black walnuts hulled, providing a good incentive for them to get the word out in their local communities.
Black walnut harvesting is also a unique business because it’s low-risk for the hulling operator, say Christina Gerlach-Armstrong and her husband, Darryl Armstrong, who run Gerlach Farm and Feed, the only remaining family-owned feed store in Scioto County, Ohio. In October, their store also hulls black walnuts. In good years like this one, as much as 25 percent of their business activity will be dedicated to the hulling.
HPC reimburses the hulling stations for their payouts to individual harvesters, pays the hulling stations a commission, and handles the nut delivery by scheduling regular semi-truck pick-ups. On years with low yields, they’ll even connect the hulling stations with other buyers, which saves them on trucking costs while giving the hullers a market and benefiting the buyer.
A few years ago, Darryl and Christina recalled that Hammons connected them to West Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources, whose forestry division used the nuts as squirrel feed.
Portraits of the Black Walnut ‘Village’
In addition to the financial benefits of the harvest, Gerlach-Armstrong also finds it meaningful to be part of a process that takes “a village of people from many states.”
That village includes a variety of motivations, as well. There are harvesters like Annabelle Richie, who returned to walnut picking after a long hiatus to make money for her husband’s Christmas present. Some simply enjoy spending time outdoors, like retiree Paul Riggle, and others want to teach the next generation the value of hard work, like Mike Foight, who takes all of his grandkids out walnut picking. Full-time walnut harvesters like Penny Hednell spend September picking pawpaws, October culling black walnuts and, in the spring, wild ramps that are also native to many parts of Appalachia.
Then, there are those who simply need to clear their yards.
For many of the hullers, interacting with these community members is part of the appeal. Such is the case for Chris Chmiel, the owner of Integration Acres and a county commissioner in Athens County.
“I like providing this service to people,” he says, even though his main passion is not black walnuts, but Ohio’s native fruit, the pawpaw. He organizes the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival, and found his way to the black walnut business because of the overlap between the two. In addition to both being native fruits, a lot of Chmiel’s pawpaw foragers also collect walnuts. Pawpaws, it turns out, grow well beneath walnut trees.
“It becomes part of who you are in a way,” he says of black walnuts. “It’s [one of] your seasonal traditions and rituals.”
Reconnecting to the Earth and a Simpler Way of Life
For the Zaharies, who run the hulling station from their modest five-acre property, black walnuts are the only source of income for both themselves and the animal rescue that they run on site.
Chris Chmiel of Integration Acres writes out a check to Penny and Larry, his first two customers of the season. Penny and Larry are retired, and spend all of October picking black walnuts from around the county.
The couple started out as walnut pickers themselves, but the nearest hulling station was more than an hour’s drive away. When they bought their property, they decided to begin hulling at home. In the 11 years since starting, their hulling operation has become the most productive in all of Kentucky, and many neighboring states as well.
The Zaharies live simply. They own their property (lowering their overhead costs), drive older cars, and eat a vegan diet. “We like to do things in a natural way,” Renee notes. “This is a nice way to be able to make ends meet and give back to the earth.”
While the duo’s dependence on hulling as their income is not the norm among hullers, they are not alone in their desire to challenge the dominant economic and food systems.
“Native plants are a more efficient and more cost-effective agricultural crop,” Chmiel says. “In these hills of Appalachia, we’re not going to grow soybean and corn. Diversity is part of the resiliency of Appalachia.”
John Stock of United Plant Savers—an organization dedicated to protecting native medicinal plants—agrees with Chmiel’s assessment. “The real value is the intact forest and the diversity. In these communities, that’s what we’re trying to instill.” But he recognizes that money talks. “We are trying to find ways to demonstrate that [the value of native plants] in a monetary way, even though the bigger value is beyond money. We can’t exist without these ecosystems.”
The Future of Black Walnuts
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $7 billion worth of tree nuts are grown in the United States annually. But unlike black walnuts, most tree nuts are grown and harvested in large-scale, monocultural orchards concentrated in California. Orchards mean a much more stable supply of crops, and the improved varieties typically grown also improve nut yield and profitability. However, orchards are more resource-intensive, and their lack of genetic diversity makes them less resilient against disease.
Brian Hammons believes that black walnuts have the potential to become a much bigger industry—his annual net sales are in the range of $12-14 million. Black walnuts also meet many of the current demands in the food industry, which is placing greater value on native and foraged products, as well as sustainability and health.
The first customer of the night watches as her walnuts are weighed in Jeffersonville, Ky. This year’s price is $0.15 per pound of black walnut.
But getting there is a problem of supply, not demand. Because the vast majority of black walnuts are foraged, and naturally-occurring black walnuts produce low yields of nut meat, the company has partnered with various agricultural extension programs to develop a faster growing variety that produces more walnut meat. Today, a small number of black walnut orchards are already producing grown, rather than foraged, nuts. (Still, these represent less than 1 percent of the annual harvest.) Hammons does not believe that orchard-grown black walnuts will negatively impact the wild black walnut harvest. If anything, he says, the increased market will benefit everyone.
And, with the number of nuts that lie unpicked every year, he may be right.
This article originally appeared in 100 Days in Appalachia and is reprinted with permission. All photos by Eileen Guo.
Top photo of Gerlach Farm and Feed in Wheelersburg, Ohio, where Paul Riggle receives cash for his load of black walnuts. This year, Hammons Product Company is offering $0.15 per pound, the highest price that they’ve ever paid.
Last Tuesday, students, farmers, and community members called for a “fully funded, fully staffed, re-imagined” Leopold Center during a press conference at the Iowa State Capitol building and in meetings with legislators and staff members at the governor’s office.
“The work is far from done,” said Liz Garst, a conventional row crop farmer who’s been involved in Leopold Center research on several topics, including prairie hay and cover crops. Because these practices are uncommon in a state where most farmers grow only corn and soybeans in otherwise bare soil, and most university-level research in the area focuses on that system, losing any hub for alternative information is significant. “As a practicing cover crop farmer, I have way more questions than answers,” added Garst.
“A lot of the students received funding and support from the Leopold Center, and some of them came to ISU to study because the Center was there and it has an international reputation,” said Debbie Bunka, a representative from the Iowa Farmers Union.
The participants in last week’s event signify the Leopold Center’s wide reach. Iowa Farmers Union president Aaron Lehman, who farms both organic and conventional row crops, spoke alongside several other farmers who talked about how the Center had supported their work in the fields. Third-generation organic crop and livestock farmers Ellen Walsh Rosmann and Daniel Rosmann spoke about how the Center supported their creation of a food hub that now links over 40 producers in western Iowa to institutions like schools and grocery stores.
Daniel Rosmann said the hub was one tool for supporting Iowa’s struggling rural communities, a topic the Leopold Center had advanced in many ways. “They have created an understanding of what rural communities need to survive and thrive,” he said.
Between 1987 and 2017, the Center awarded more than 500 research grants to study pressing agriculture issues like conservation buffers, rotational grazing, and building local food economies. While Leopold’s focus was on Iowa’s specific food and farm landscape, many of its findings have had national and international impact.
An Iowa State University student collects water infiltration data in a field with cover crops, as part of a Leopold Center supported research project studying the long-term impact of cereal rye on cash crop yields. (Photo courtesy The Leopold Center)
In fact, the day before the press conference, the results of a new Leopold Center study made the news, promising “transformative” change for the dairy industry. The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, identified a new technique for differentiating between milk from grass-fed cows and that from cows fed grain. Fluorescence spectroscopy, the researchers found, measures the amount of chlorophyll metabolites in the milk and found that they were higher in milk from the cows fed grass—a fact that could make it easier for the industry to monitor whether producers using the “grass-fed” claim are truly grazing their cows on pasture.
“This project was started a couple of years ago,” said Leopold Center director Mark Rasmussen. “It was totally coincidental that it came out the very week that the advocacy event happened.”
A Long, Slow Shutdown
Last week’s advocacy event marked a bright moment during a tough year for Rasmussen, who, since the funding disappeared last May, has been presiding over shutting down most of the Center’s operations.
The staff’s first order of business was figuring out how to manage the grants that had already been awarded. They moved up the end dates of some projects so that they could be completed before the end of last year, and transferred 20 projects to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center for completion. Twelve projects were cancelled outright, although four of those found alternative funding.
After dealing with the grants, five of the Center’s staff members were let go, leaving just two: Rasmussen and distinguished fellow Fred Kirschenmann. The duo moved into a smaller office and downsized 30 years of records, taking care to maintain the history and work of the center. They received a commitment from ISU, for example, to keep the Leopold Center’s website up and running, with all past research searchable in the university database.
Finally, they set up listening sessions around the state to hear input on what the future of the Center could be, with the goal of determining a narrower focus with limited resources.
“The old Center is gone; we have to accept that and think of a new Center, a Leopold Center 2.0,” Rasmussen said. “When Leopold Center started it was the only game in town. Thirty years later, there are a bunch of organizations that are focusing on beginning farmers, women in agriculture, you name it.” Using information from the listening sessions, an 11-member volunteer task force conducted a gap analysis to look at where the center should go from here. Findings from the analysis will be presented to the Center’s advisory board in March.
A Path to Rebirth?
If the grassroots advocacy campaign is successful, however, Leopold 2.0 won’t be a stripped-down version of its former self. At the Capitol, the activists—several of whom worked on fighting the Keystone XL pipeline—talked to lawmakers about supporting new legislation that was introduced by state representatives Charles Isenhart and Beth Wessel-Kroeschell. The bill would make $1 million in annual public funding available to the center if ISU’s president first raised the same amount in private funds. Together, the $2 million would equal the Leopold Center’s pre-cutback budget.
“This legislation would provide the opportunity for [ISU] President [Wendy] Wintersteen to demonstrate her commitment to the Leopold Center and deploy her fundraising skills to benefit the Leopold Center, advancing the cause of sustainable agriculture in Iowa,” Rep. Isenhart explained by email.
A Leopold Center-funded a grant project supported Congera Alex, originally from Burundi, shown here transplanting his crops in early spring in a community garden in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo courtesy The Leopold Center)
Iowa Farmers’ Union’s Debbie Bunka said during meetings, however, that support for the bill generally broke down along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed, a fact Isenhart confirmed. “The bill itself is not likely to be considered, unless Rep. [Pat] Grassley [the appropriations chair] is encouraged to do so by agricultural interest groups [such as the Farm Bureau],” Isenhart said. “We will, however, probably offer this as an amendment to the state’s Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environmental Protection Appropriations Bill.”
David Osterberg, the co-founder of the non-partisan Iowa Policy Project and one of the former state senators who created the Leopold Center, blames the influence of agribusiness on legislators’ unwillingness to support the center.
“I’m not sure you can follow the money and find out that each person who voted [to defund the center] also got money from agribusiness,” Osterberg said, “but in general, if you’re a rural legislator you realize that there are a lot of entities you don’t want to piss off. And this legislature seems to be willing to do anything for corporations.”
Bunka confirmed that in meetings, legislators said they perceived the Center as “bashing conventional ag,” which is one reason part of the advocacy group’s mission is educating the public education to help more people understand the Center’s mission and activities.
“This movement is not for the benefit of a small group of people,” Bunka said. “The Leopold Center is internationally known, and they do so much good work that helps conventional farmers, farmers growing organic crops … it’s a wide range of groups. We like to say it’s ‘agriculture research for the common good.’”
Jimmy Emmons isn’t the kind of farmer you might expect to talk for over an hour about rebuilding an ecosystem. And yet, on a recent Wednesday in January, before a group of around 800 farmers, that’s exactly what he did.
After walking onstage at the Hyatt in Wichita, Kansas to upbeat country music and stage lights reminiscent of a Garth Brooks concert, Emmons declared himself a recovering tillage addict. Then he got down to business detailing the way he and his wife Ginger have re-built the soil on their 2,000-acre, third-generation Oklahoma farm.
A high point of the presentation came when the 50-something farmer—who now raises cattle and grows alfalfa, wheat, and canola along with myriad cover crops—described a deep trench he’d dug in one of his fields for the purposes of showing some out of town visitors a subterranean cross-section of his soil. After it rained, Emmons walked down into the trench with his camera phone, and traced the way water had infiltrated the soil. Along the way, the Emmons on stage and the Emmons behind the camera became a kind of chorus of enthusiasm, pointing out earthworm activity, a root that had grown over two-and-a-half feet down, and the layer of dark, carbon-rich soil.
“It was just amazing,” said Emmons in an energetic southern drawl. The water had seeped down over five feet. And the other farmers in the room—a collection of livestock, grain and legume producers mainly from Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, as well as several Canadian provinces who had gathered for the 22nd annual No-till on the Plains conference—nodded their heads in a collective amen.
Most had travelled for hours to hear Emmons and others like him share their soil secrets, their battle scars, and their reasons to hope. And they knew that getting rainwater to truly soak into farmland—instead of hitting dry, dead soil, soaking an inch or two down, and then running laterally off—is a lost art.
Jimmy Emmons on his farm in Leedey, Oklahoma. Courtesy of No-till in the Plains.
The previous morning, the controversial grazing guru Allan Savory had stood on the same stage before the enthusiastic crowd and described the enormous quantity of spent, lifeless soil that erodes into the ocean every year in terms of train cars. “A train load of soil 116 miles long leaves the country every day,” said Savory, quoting the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Or to put it another way, erosion accounts for the loss of around 1.7 billion tons of farmland around the world very year. As that soil escapes, so does an abundance of nitrogen and other nutrients that are slowly killing vast parts of our oceans and lakes. And as agricultural soil dies and disperses, it also releases greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
As the world begins to zero in on the need to bring this soil back to life—as a solution to drought, nitrogen pollution, climate change, and more—farmers like Emmons and others practicing no-till in the middle of the country could play a key role. As they reshape their operations with a focus on things like earthworms and water filtration, and practice a suite of other approaches that fit loosely under the umbrella of “regenerative agriculture,” these farmers are stepping out of the ag mainstream. And while most no-till farmers see organic agriculture as inherently disruptive to the soil, they also have a great deal in common with many of the smaller-scale farmers that are popular with today’s coastal consumers.
These two groups of farmers don’t use the same language to describe what they’re doing (you’re unlikely to hear words like “sustainable” or “climate change” among the no-till set, for instance), but it’s clear that both groups are motivated by the opportunity to be responsible stewards of the land while exploring creative solutions to the status quo. And many no-till farmers are also just as skeptical as their organic counterparts are of the large seed and fertilizer companies they see as running their neighbors’ lives (and controlling their finances).
With Every End Comes a New Beginning
No-till farming has been around for more than half a century, ever since herbicides and precision planting tools allowed farmers to plant crops directly into the soil without disturbing it. But because tilling—or breaking up the soil—is primarily a means to control weeds, farmers who practice no-till have often relied heavily on herbicides to manage weeds instead. For this reason, it has traditionally found a home among conventional farmers looking for a way to improve yields or cut costs—although some no-tillers reject the term “conventional.”
But over the last decade or so, no-till has also become a kind of farming subculture—a world in and of itself. And, as the farmers who gathered in Wichita see it, putting an end to tilling the soil is often just the beginning of a whole range of practices that include growing cover crops, managed grazing, and diversification, i.e., literally increasing the number of cash crops in their rotations.
“No-till without cover crops and crop diversity is still an incomplete system,” Emmons told the crowd.
Together, however, these approaches have the ability to bring back living fungal ecosystems in the soil, retain water and organic matter, and sequester carbon. The farmers who practice them are also eligible for conservation funding from the USDA via the farm bill, and yet they are likely to see a reduction in the amount of available funds in this year’s smaller-than-average bill.
Many of these practices have also made modest gains in popularity recently. According to the USDA’s latest data, by 2010-11, no-till farming had grown to the point where roughly 40 percent of the corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton grown per year in the U.S. used either no-till or a half-step technique called strip-tilling. That works out to around 89 million acres per year. And while it’s unclear just how many of these farmers see no-till as a bridge to other practices—and therefore a way to cut down on the quantities of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers—it’s clear that the path forward is there for those who do.
Photo of dark, carbon-rich soil courtesy of North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
“Those who are truly committed to regenerative ag are trying to use plants in place of [fertilizer and herbicides],” says Steve Swaffer, executive director of No–till on the Plains, the nonprofit that hosts the annual conference. “As your soils heal and go back to a more natural state,” he says, most successful farmers are able to “wean themselves off” chemicals. But he adds that most “haven’t eliminated [herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers] from their toolbox,” entirely even if they see them as last-resort options.
“You can’t quit [synthetic fertilizer and herbicides] cold-turkey,” said Adam Chappell, a fourth-generation farmer from Arkansas who practices no-till and plants cover crops on over 8,000 of the 9,000 acres he farms with his brother. Now that he’s several years into the practice, however, he said, “I don’t need seed treatments for my cotton anymore. I’ve taken the insecticide off my soybeans. I’m working toward getting rid of fungicide … I’m hoping that eventually my soil will be healthy enough that I can get rid of all of it all together.”
Nearly all the farmers who spoke at the conference had similar stories. And while many of the environmental benefits were left implied, the financial benefits were right up front. Emmons reported cutting fuel costs by two-thirds and fertilizer costs by half. Derek Axten, a grain and pulse farmer from southern Saskatchewan, described a major reduction in fungicide use for the high-value chickpeas he grows there. “I used one application while my neighbors used five,” he told the audience. “That works out to about $100 an acre.”
For today’s farmers, many of whom are squeezed financially at every turn, this ability to spend less on inputs is hugely compelling. “It’s not always how much money you make, it’s how much you keep,” Axton told the crowd.
Since this approach requires gradual, system-level changes, however, Emmons underscored, “the first year is going to be crappy. The cover crops aren’t going to work as well as you want and you’ll want to give up. But if you can make it three to four years, you’ll start seeing fungal dominance, more diversity of living organisms in the soil, and more biomass in the system.”
No-till farmers courtesy of No-till in the Plains.
Tension with Organic
There was a resounding disdain at the conference for large organic operations, which many no-till farmers see as “ruining the soil” by tilling it.
Jonathan Lungren, an agroecologist and entomologist who left a job with the USDA in 2015 after filing a whistleblower suit alleging the agency had suppressed his research on bee health and pesticides to start a farm and nonprofit science lab for independent research in North Dakota, is an interesting example of this perspective.
After meeting no-till veteran and minor farm celebrity Gabe Brown and cover crop expert Gail Fuller, Lungren says he was convinced to try their approach. “Some farmers are way ahead of the science when it comes to this stuff,” he said. He contends that, “Insecticides are an addiction. The more you use, the more you need,” and advocated for “changing the whole system, rather than trying to make a broken system work.”
And yet, his disdain for certified organic farms was palpable. “I’ve been on organic farms in California and I wouldn’t eat that food,” he said. “The soil is dust!”
Of course, not all organic farms are the same and while most do practice tillage, they also build fertility slowly using compost, rather than synthetic fertilizer—a fact that some research says makes their practices inherently better for the soil than most conventional systems. And many organic producers also rely on cover crops, green manure, and crop diversity to retain carbon and organic matter in the soil. For instance, a 2017 study from Northwestern University found that soils from organic farms had 13 percent more soil organic matter (SOM) and 26 percent more potential for long-term carbon storage than soils from conventional farms
But Kristine Nichols, former chief scientist for the Rodale Institute—one of the only locations where researchers have long-running plots that combine no-till with organic practices—says that the gradual breakdown to fungal communities in the soil over time in many organic systems can be a serious problem.
“Tilling can start to erode the diversity of the fungi in the soil over time. So you’re going to start getting the loss of certain keystone organisms for providing amino acids and antioxidants that can be very important for human health,” said Nichols. While at Rodale, Nichols worked with researchers at Penn State University to look at an antioxidant and amino acid called ergothioneine, which is produced by soil fungi. They saw a very strong relationship between both the concentration and frequency of tillage and loss off ergothioneine.
As scientists begin to get a firmer grasp on the human microbiome and its relationship with microbial communities in the soil, Nichole believes, “it’s going to start putting more pressure on the organic community to reduce tillage.”
Nichols, who worked with no-till farmers in Nebraska for a decade before going to Rodale, says that while organic farmers tend to see any use of herbicides as “the ultimate evil,” the no-till set feel similarly about tillage. In the same way that no-till farmers are often told to use herbicides only when no other solution is available to them, Nichols likes to challenge organic farmers to see tillage as the choice of last resort.
Steve Swaffer also acknowledged that that sweeping generalization about soil health can be hard to make. “It’s all about management, right? And it’s a human being who makes the decisions about how a farm is managed,” he explained by phone after the event.
“I think that the organic producers have been bastardized somewhat because of the large production and people capitalizing on the premiums that are available,” he said. “I’ve been on these farms where it’s a monoculture of lettuce or spinach and it certainly meets the organic standard, but the dirt that’s being used as a growing medium has no life in it. And yet those people are able to capture those premiums.” Meanwhile, he added, many of the farmers he works with aren’t able to sell the food they grow outside the commodity market. “So I think there’s probably some resentment,” he said.
That feeling is compounded by the fact that many of the farmers who gathered in Wichita are often ostracized in their own communities for stepping outside the expected rules of conventional agriculture.
Soybeans coming up in a rye cover crop. Photo by Lander Legge for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Even Jimmy Emmons, who seems about as self-assured as a farmer can be, acknowledged that he doesn’t even go to his local coffee shop anymore. If he did, he’d hear disapproval from his fellow farmers for doing things like planting his wheat directly into a living stand of plant residue without tilling or grazing his animals on cover crops.
On one panel at the conference, for instance, Adam Chappell responded to a comment made about the science of monoculture by saying, “There is no scientific evidence of the benefit of monoculture, but there is plenty of propaganda. The salesmen tell me constantly that I’m stupid, or that I’ll go broke” because he’s using fewer inputs.
Tuning out those messages, he added, has become a lot easier thanks to the network of other no-till farmers he stays in touch with online—Twitter and YouTube are popular platforms for sharing photos, observations, and videos of one another’s farms—and at conferences like No-till in the Plains.
In some ways, the fact that this approach to farming is based on profiting by cutting costs has liberated the “soil health movement” from the need to make a premium by differentiating in the marketplace. And yet several groups are currently working to do just that through potential certification schemes for regenerative agriculture, making a label likely in the near future.
And because consumers are more likely to spend with their health in mind than the health of the environment, the success of such a label may rely, at least in part, on proving what many no-till and regenerative farmers say they’ve seen anecdotally: that healthier soil leads to more nutrient-dense food. And several of the scientists present in Wichita, like Nichols and Jill Clapperton, farmer and founder of Rhizoterra, hope to help move that research forward.
At the conference, Australian soil ecologist Christine Jones pointed to research that looked at 27 kinds of vegetables and found that since 1940, the amount of copper present in the food had declined by 76 percent, while calcium had declined by 46 percent, iron by 27 percent, magnesium by 24 percent, and potassium by 16 percent. She and others believe that depleted soil is the culprit. But rather than being deficient in minerals, argued Jones, today’s soils are often deficient in the microbes necessary to help plants access those minerals.
Nichols points to ongoing research at The University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California at Davis aimed at determining the links between soil health and nutritive content in food. And she says some of the preliminary research she has seen suggests that improved soil health could point toward solutions to the obesity crisis as well.
The diluted nutrient content in our food, says Nichols, “basically drives our bodies to have to consume more. Our gut microbiome essentially signals to our brain that it’s starving, and says, ‘eat more food.’”
She hopes that the organic and no-till communities—which are both relatively small on their own—can work together to begin to find solutions. If that doesn’t work, she says, a broader goal of saving soil could inspire unity.
“Organic farmers, conventional farmers, no-till farmers—everyone is seeing soil leaving their farms,’ says Nichols. “Reducing the amount of tillage you’re doing is a very significant way to stop that from occurring.”
Over the last nine years, Ben Hartman’s farm in northern Indiana has become more efficient and profitable following the techniques developed by an unlikely source: Toyota.
By adapting the production techniques developed by the car manufacturer—commonly referred to as “lean manufacturing“—Hartman has revolutionized his methods, cut down his work hours dramatically, and shrunk the size of his farm, all while making a better income.
In his 2015 book The Lean Farm, Hartman detailed how lean manufacturing techniques could be broadly applied to agriculture; in his new follow-up, The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, he goes deep on the specifics of adapting the principles to vegetable growing, from starting seeds and plant spacing to making compost and using specific tools to cut out waste.
Civil Eats recently spoke with Hartman about setting up his new farm, how his latest book came about, and how Hartman doesn’t feel like he’s adapting lean thinking to agriculture at all, but simply going back to its source.
Why do you think lean—which is so deeply rooted in car manufacturing—makes sense in agriculture?
Actually the first workers at Toyota were rice farmers. And they brought a lean way of thinking onto the factory floor with them. What I’m doing is taking the lean system back to the farm. Rice farmers in 19th century Japan were very shrewd. They had a growing population, and they had a lot of mouths to feed. They redesigned their farming to feed Japan’s growing population and they did this by identifying different types of waste and really utilizing every square foot of land that they had.
Have your views on these principles changed since your first book came out?
No, they haven’t. We’ve just implemented lean on a deeper and deeper level. I’m consistently amazed at how much waste we still have on our operation nine years after beginning our lean journey. The idea behind kaizen, the continuous improvement concept in lean, is that there is no perfect system, no final solution. We’re not looking for the perfect, final way to grow our tomatoes. We’re just looking every year to cut out more and more waste from our tomato-production system and align our work ever more tightly with what our customers want.
Rachel Hershberger and Ben Hartman on Clay Bottom Farm.
The first couple seasons we focused on getting rid of the low-hanging fruits—they call them “type-two mudas” in lean speak. These are the obvious wastes. We had too many tools on hand. We had too many supplies. Our production systems were too complicated. So we simplified our system, and that took a couple of seasons. Then we could start implementing ideas like “Single Piece Flow.” We started using spaghetti diagrams and really counting our steps.
For three seasons, we’ve contracted the size of our operation. And we’ve grown more profitable every time we’ve gotten smaller. Which tells me that it’s working—that lean is helping us focus and increase our profits with less work.
Have you been able to see the lean principles being implemented on other farms since your first book?
I have. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a couple places. Especially through the Lean Farmer Facebook group. People post photos of all the junk they’re getting rid of, how they’re reorganizing their farms, and how they’re thinking differently about their process.
It’s very inspiring to me to see changes on other people’s farms and to have people come up to me and say, “Hey, if I hadn’t read your book, I wouldn’t be in business.” That keeps me going.
Have you received any negative feedback about these ideas?
After the first book came out, I heard, “We love the concepts, but we want to know how you apply lean specifically to the vegetable crops that you grow.” So that’s why I wrote the second book—to fill in the details of how. In the first book, I explained the concepts and tried to make the book applicable to any size and type of farm. And the second book is my gift to small-scale market vegetable growers. It’s explaining in detail how we’ve taken these concepts and applied them to radishes, turnips, carrots, and everything else that we grow.
And you’ve also just moved your farm, right?
We’re in the process of moving. We’re doing excavation, and we’re halfway done building a greenhouse on the new property. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set things up with these lean principles from the very beginning.
Talk a little more about that.
First, it puts us within a mile and a half of all of our customers. So we are going to spend much less time on the road and much more time on the farm adding value.
Number two, we’re contracting the size of our farm even more. And we actually hope to grow and sell more by using some lean principles in how we lay out the farm. We’re going to be able to be more efficient with less infrastructure and less space.
We’re hoping to develop this farm with just two buildings, two roofs. Our old farm, we had gotten to the point that we had 11 structures that we were paying taxes on and performing maintenance on.
We had four greenhouses under 9,000 square feet at the old property. We would build a greenhouse as we had the money—we couldn’t afford [to build] all of them at the same time. However, with this new property, we’re just building one large greenhouse, which will give us about the same amount of room as the [previous] four.
We’re also building a house/barn. The idea of a connected farm, where many functions are pulled together under one roof is appealing to me. We’re going to save a lot of money just by sharing walls, sharing hot-water heaters, sharing furnaces. So it’s a building that will be our house, our processing [facility], our potting shed, [and] an office, [and] there will [also] be employee bathrooms, tool storage, and equipment storage.
Has the amount of acreage you cultivate changed at all?
We were doing a little more than half of an acre, and we’re going to scale down again and hope to do it on less than half of an acre. And part of the reason we can is that we switched to this Paperpot transplant system, so all of our bed lengths are going to match the lengths of the paper chain [that the Paperpot uses for fast planting of seedlings]. We’re designing the farm around the Paperpot system.
Interesting. You warned a little bit against getting too focused on tools in your first book, but what about the Paperpot Transplanter motivated you to dedicate a section of your book to it and then to set up your new farm around it?
The big qualifier I like to use is that I never like to be too adamant about one tool. It’s a tool that works in our case for the types of crops our customers tell us they want. It’s going be a totally inappropriate tool for a lot of farms. Our system might also be totally different two years from now.
I think that’s the genius behind a lot of the agriculture in small Asian countries and other smaller countries—to make it they just had to constantly reinvent their farming. We think of agriculture as static. We think that people grew rice or beans or whatever the same way for tens of thousands of years. But history shows that’s simply not correct. Indigenous native cultures were constantly reinventing their farming.
Zooey Deschanel and Jacob Pechenik can’t get their daughter to stop eating lettuce. It’s almost become a problem.
“It’s gotten to the point where she insists on it. She’ll run outside and pick it,” Pechenik said, referring to the vertical gardens the family has outside their home. The Hollywood producer—and husband to actress Deschanel—hopes to bring similar set-ups to more people’s homes through Lettuce Grow. The vertical farming towers will officially hit the market this spring; they’re one part of The Farm Project, the celebrity couple’s new initiative to reconnect people with their food.
“When you have the opportunity to reconnect with nature, you learn that there’s a joy in growing your own food and in connecting to such a natural process,” Deschanel told Civil Eats. “It’s an inherent part of being human, and it’s enriching in so many ways—spiritually and emotionally.”
Deschanel and Pechenik are just the latest Hollywood celebrities to rally behind the food movement in the last decade.
After actress Natalie Portman read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, she reportedly contacted Foer about turning it into a documentary. The resulting film, ”Eating Animals,” was narrated by Portman and debuted at Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in 2017. Sundance Selects, which picked up the rights to the film, is planning to release the documentary sometime in 2018.
Drew Barrymore, appointed as an Ambassador Against Hunger by the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) in 2007, has worked on several WFP operations in Kenya. Jake Gyllenhaal has been involved with The Edible Schoolyard Project, saying, “When kids get their hands dirty in the garden or experiment in the kitchen, they have fun, but more important, they learn about how to care for themselves and each other.”
In the social media age, a celebrity’s support can offer a significant boost in an instant. After Hurricane Maria, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda—who also recently donated $5,000 to close out a fundraiser for an app to alert farmworkers of dangerous temperatures—helped amplify New York food writer Alicia Kennedy’s fundraiser for Puerto Rico’s food service workers, helping get the event off the ground. Called Eat It, Maria, the event raised more than $10,000 last September for Serve PR, an organization that raises money to support and rebuild the service industry.
“Without [Miranda], we wouldn’t have found a venue—or maybe we would have, but it never would have come together so quickly and easily,” said Kennedy. His sharing of the information also led The Brooklyn Kitchen to offer up space, free of charge.
In some ways, celebrities and food issues are a natural combination. After all, part of any Hollywood actor’s job is to look good, and eating healthy food obviously plays a role in that. And some celebrities see getting involved in the social, political, and environmental aspects of food as a natural next step.
“Twenty, 30 years ago you had celebrities starting to talk about juice, eating healthy, and food transparency,” said Charles Platkin, executive director of the New York City Food Policy Center. “It’s a natural progression that year over year and generation over generation, celebrities are still focused on food. But they’re starting to go deeper, which we’re seeing with things like The Farm Project.”
In addition to investing in products such as Lettuce Grow, Deschanel and Pechenik are investing in food organizations including an urban farm in Austin. They also started an online video series on Facebook called Your Food’s Roots. The five-episode series covers a range of challenges within the food system, including overfishing, food miles, and pesticide use, and are designed to educate and empower people to engage more deeply with their food.
“Our goal is to educate the viewer, and present them with a few solutions so they can find at least one that resonates with them when they’re eating or shopping,” Deschanel said. “The choices they make don’t need to be complex or completely alter the way they live—they’re deliberately chosen to be accessible to everyone.”
Platkin of the NYC Food Policy Center says the fact that they are engaging people’s curiosity and providing an entry point—even if they don’t get everything right—makes Deschanel and Pechenik’s efforts valuable. “Sometimes, as someone who speaks to a lot of journalists, they get it completely wrong,” he said. “[But I tell myself,] ‘Calm down, they got the gist of it.’”
And yet, inaccuracy can be a slippery slope. “Raising awareness” without a solid grasp of the facts can often open people up to harsh criticism, especially from those with competing agendas. And with issues of elitism still hamstringing the food movement, celebrities who can afford to spend the money and time to achieve good-food nirvana may have to work harder to ensure that their message will be taken seriously by the mainstream public.
Celebrities also tend to gravitate toward the trendiest aspects of the food movement, while many other critical issues often remain unaddressed. (That’s why it was refreshing to see food worker advocate and Restaurant Opportunity Center co-founder Saru Jayaraman join actress Amy Pohler on the red carpet at last month’s Golden Globes.)
It’s one thing to focus on farm-to-table restaurants, Platkin adds, but, “there are a lot of issues—the farm bill, SNAP funding, WIC—that celebrities seem not as willing to attach their name and fame to.” Still, he said, everyone should be welcome to engage with the movement. “You never know who is going to have an idea that could change the whole system.”