To express my interest in sustainable farming and local food systems, I have launched a new monthly feature in the Granite Bay View called “Bountiful View.” The first article in this farm-to-fork section is about Mount Pleasant Farm & Gardens in Lincoln, California, where growers follow the philosophies and practices of biodynamic farming. The second article is about Newcastle Produce, which sells fresh, organic produce grown within 100 miles of the store, along with olive oils, jams and other products made by local farmers.
Here we are right in the middle of Monsanto land. Or, “the belly of the beast,” as Denise O’Brien, a leader of the modern sustainable agriculture movement ranked with women from across the United States, says of being in Des Moines. Industrialized, chemical-laden farming surrounds us. Many of us drove past “the rape and pillage of the land” on our way here today. But we are also in the Hawkeye State of Iowa, a place where women own half the farmland.
Farmers, food industry workers, policy wonks, pesticide watchdogs — 400 women and a few intrepid men — have come from 20 U.S. states to discuss ways to transform a disastrously broken global food system, and to explore how some local food systems successfully work. What lessons do they have to teach us? And I’m here, too, a journalist hoping to share their stories. We have assembled in the expansive ballroom of a hotel/conference center in early November “because we believe in gender equity in food systems and agriculture,” says Leigh Adcock, director of Women, Food & Agriculture Network, the nonprofit group that organized this conference. “We don’t just want to link women, we want to empower you.”
Back in the early 1990s, a handful of Iowan women were preparing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and they sought case studies of women working in agriculture. But they couldn’t find any. The U.S. Census of Agriculture didn’t even include women until recently. They continued to ask around, and gather research from those female farmers they could find. “No one had ever asked them questions before about their dreams for their land,” O’Brien says.
What O’Brien and her comrades found were different approaches to farming and philosophies rooted more in the inherent value of the land and the need to conserve. What they found are women now on the leading edge of this transformative movement for a better food system, according to keynote speaker Danielle Nierenberg, cofounder of Food Tank.
Nierenberg spent two years traveling to 35 countries in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and what she determined was that hunger, obesity and poverty could be fought, while protecting the environment. “I’m convinced that how things are isn’t how they have to be,” Nierenberg tells the audience gathered in Des Moines. Yes! I think. I believe that, too. And I know all these people around me believe this same powerful revelation at this precise moment. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.
Nierenberg presents five strategies for a better food system. We need to stand with family farmers — 500,000 family farmers around the world contribute to the livelihood of 2 billion people — disenfranchised populations and food workers. We need to stop wasting so much food; 40 percent of the global harvest never reaches people’s stomachs and one-third of food in the United States is thrown away because of overbuying, misunderstanding sell-by dates and the improper storage of food. We need to increase urban agriculture, improve the diversity of diets to ward off malnutrition in developing countries — an obstacle to economic development — and support sustainable farming. Agriculture is leading to 80 percent of deforestation around the globe and uses 70 percent of fresh water. Industrial agriculture, she tells us, is like the Titanic in reverse: complex, a marvel in invention, thought to be invincible but heading toward its demise.
Two days later, Kari Hamerschlag, a senior food and agriculture analyst with the Environmental Working Group, tells the audience that reading Frances Moore Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet” 30 years ago prompted her to move from Vermont to California to work on food policy, and she hasn’t looked back. There’s plenty of bad news to dwell on, she says. We’re ruled by a profit-driven industrial food system and all the positive change that has been accomplished — more community supported agriculture programs, more women farmers, more organic acreage, more farmer’s markets — has been done without policy support. Twenty-four percent of Americans are food insecure, compared to 9 percent in China. Fewer corporations are controlling more of the food system, and the way we grow our food is destroying our natural resources. “For too many of these problems, our public policy is making the situation worse not better,” she says.
But this WFAN conference is not about bemoaning problems. That’s not what these women do. They do what needs to be done. They take care of business, and work on solutions. “Don’t despair and don’t retreat,” Hamerschlag tells the group, smiling. “The stakes are really high and we need you more than ever. And there’s reason for hope.”
I wrote an article about going on a farm and wine tour through Placer County with the company Local Roots, which aims to connect consumers with farmers. It’s all part of that farm-to-fork movement you’ve probably been hearing about. The article appears in the September issue of the Granite Bay View. Read it here. (Photos by Cole Allen).
Through my newspaper job, I’ve been exposed to the never-ending stories of parents of ill children. I spent time with the parents of a baby with a serious lung condition who had so far spent the first seven months of her young life in a neonatal-intensive care unit. More recently, I met the parents of a young boy with cystic fibrosis, a chronic inherited disease. His life expectancy is 37 years old. But hope, through advancements in medical treatment, is on the horizon.
I admit: This post isn’t journalism related. But that ain’t stopping me! It’s my blog! And so here are some photos from my recent trip to Germany and Italy. (Two weeks in Europe and now I’m preoccupied with daydreams and obsessed with brainstorming ways to get back there, to live for a while and write. Any ideas?)
I wrote an article for YES! magazine’s website on promotoras in Placer County, Calif. These women (and sometimes men) are trusted leaders who help form a new and crucial link between the Latino community and the broader society.
In the photo below, several women and one man attend a weekly meeting in the city of Roseville, led by Maria Cordova (far right), where they share stories and provide emotional support. Cordova is a promotora.
I will tell you! But not here. Instead, go to Earth Island Journal’s website, where I wrote an article on biotechnical engineering projects in Roseville, Calif. In the photo below, Environmental Engineer Scott Dietrich and volunteer Donna Wilson replant willow stakes on a January afternoon using a biotechnical engineering method to stabilize an eroding creek bank.