I wrote about the Real Organic Project here in June 2018. In February 2023 I found their booth at the Pasa conference and chatted with the people there. I picked up a few leaflets, and signed up for their electronic newsletter. They also have a podcast; I also discovered they are in the middle of their 2023 Virtual Symposium on Sunday Feb 26 and Sunday March 5 3-5pm EST. A virtual series of talks with more than 30 prominent organic farmers, scientists, chefs, and climate activists.
The Real Organic Project was formed in January 2018 to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming, which used to be called “Organic Farming.” The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was a great idea that has gone wrong. Much about the National Organic Program is a success, and most of the farms being certified deserve to be called real organic. But the farm products from a tiny minority of large industrial operations now being certified are at odds with the original intent of organic farming. Unfortunately, these few operations produce a large, and growing, proportion of the food labeled organic on the market today.
The NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, focused on the verifiability of inputs: seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock feed and medications, with little regard to other aspects of sustainable regenerative, biological farming.
As CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and hydroponics (growing crops in a solution of plant nutrients) became an ever bigger part of the certified organic products, the public has been misled. The real organic farms who still make up the vast majority of certified operations (if not the volume of products) are being lost in the smoke and mirrors. A story written by Cornucopia noted that the remaining 6 “organic” dairy farms in Texas (all large CAFOs) produce one and a half times more milk than the 450 certified family dairy farms in Wisconsin. Organic family dairy farms being driven out of business in Vermont and California by CAFOs every day.
The Cornucopia Institute was founded about ten years ago. One of their first activities was to expose industrial-scale confinement dairies with 4,000-10,000 cows producing organic milk.
The Real Organic Project is intended as a catalyst to reinvigorate the organic farming movement to fill the void left by failures of integrity, transparency, and public process in setting the NOP standards. To support the Real Organic Project, please visit their website to become a member.
The Real Organic Project requires tomatoes to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic tomatoes to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires berries to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic berries to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires cows to be raised on pasture. The USDA allows confinement dairy operations to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires chickens to be raised on pasture. The USDA certifies eggs from chickens who have never been outside.
Real Organic has an add-on label to the USDA Organic label. This wrap-around label prohibits hydroponic and CAFO production, instead requiring practices that maintain and improve the health of the soil. With this add-on label, farmers are creating a new way of communicating their practices to consumers who care. The Real Organic Project’s goal is transparency in the marketplace through “Know Your Farmer” videos. Through this effort, they have brought together farmers, scientists, eaters, and advocates whose common interest is to support real organic farming.
Origin of Livestock. In NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.
Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of OFPA (Organic Foods Production Act) and the NOP language.
Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the animal welfare standard (known as OLPP, Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices), CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. Our standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as tail docking and beak trimming, that are needed in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock.
Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.
Book Review From The Ground Up, Columns from the Princess Anne Independent News, John D Wilson, Pungo Publishing, 2022. 124 pages, $15.00.
This slim volume is a treasure trove of short writings (600 words each, says John), from his first five years writing a farming column for a Virginia Beach local newspaper. Local newspapers and local farmers are all to be valued and supported. This collection of about 40 articles has been chosen and reorganized by topic, rather than date, to follow a path, making for a pleasant and thoughtful stroll through topics such as sustainability, healthy soils, gardening, nutritious plants and small-scale chicken-keeping.
John’s writing is concise, encompassing political and lifestyle passions, cheery humor, and poetic turns. It makes for easy ingestion, but not like marshmallows. We’ll be jolted into considering “heck, we do waste a lot of food in the US, and we really need to change that.” We need to do better in promoting and increasing every kind of organic, regenerative and sustainable farming practice, building up our soils, and being part of providing better food for everyone. That’s serious work. And then, it’s not every farmer-writer who thanks their washing machine!
John Wilson serves his community as a farmer, a consultant, a writer, and a volunteer board member on a couple of foodie and farming organizations. He describes his stories as “mostly personal with some science added.” That seems about right. John’s fascination with soil science, microbiology, soil food web, microbes, is infectious. We can have a voice in the world, and we need to stand up for what we believe in, even when we must step outside our comfort zone, as John has done by putting his thoughts into print.
The book starts out with a column setting out the benefits of a local food system, in terms of fresh food, support for local farmers, food security, and enjoyment of local chocolate cakes at the Fayette County Free Fair. There is a discussion about the travesty that is Industrial Organic Ag, and if you didn’t understand the “input switching” game, you soon will. This is where a farm simply replaces their old herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and all the other cides with Organic ones, but continues their same-old extractive, soil-destroying practices. Far better is to regard the soil as the valuable resource it is, and learn how to farm the soil in ways that help crops grow, by providing the right conditions and nutrients.
And if your appetite for science is small, right now you’ll appreciate John’s observation that “When you mow grass or anything, the smell you get is the nutrients going back into the atmosphere.” Your reminder to capture those nutrients for your next crop. We need to conserve our soil, our greatest national treasure.
John hastens to point out that he has the utmost respect for all farmers, even those making choices different from his. Farming is hard work, physically, mentally and emotionally, and it’s undervalued. We’ll need to tap into the vast experience of all farmers to manage the necessary transition to a sustainable system.
We all do wasteful things, we could all do better at recycling, making compost, not buying stuff we end up not using. Look to the soil, and see how everything eats and gets eaten, absorbs water and nutrients and then passes them on. Apparently we throw away 40% of the food we get. Considering how hard farming work is, how few Americans want to do it, and how our governments try to keep out immigrants who would willingly do the work, it’s clear this needs to change. “Farmland needs to be re-peopled” as Wendell Berry says. We need to help those who want to farm, and make farming attractive to more people.
Perhaps understanding the soil food web biology, and some history of farming (such as production of terra preta in the Amazon), and some back-yard experimentation making biochar, could lead more people to farming. You can read more about these things in this book.
John frequently points out the soil-saving (planet-saving) advantages of sustainable and regenerative farming, such as how it can prevent water run-off, soil loss and soil erosion. I was interested to read that the collapse of societies is related to soil erosion – when desperate farmers try to get more food from the land by using chemical fertilizers that don’t add organic matter, or fail to use cover crops or put organic material into the soil. See David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization. Let’s appreciate steps such as the cost share program for growing cover crops. And the increase in research into sustainable farming practices. And, of course, the implementation of those practices by more farmers.
John tells us that the influences that formed his views include desire for optimum health and wellness for all; the hard work ethic from his childhood; soil science from recent research; joy in eating good food and appreciation of the beauty of a well-tended farm.
The author learned about gardening from his Grandpa, but took a detour while studying energy-efficient building and carpentry. By chance he was hired by Alan Chadwick’s horticulture program, and chose to trade his work for participation in the program. Later, after raising a family as a carpenter, he met George Leidig who sold compost turners and spading machines, and signed up for workshops, which inspired him to start a farm.
His first farm was a lease on 25 acres, for which he needed to borrow money and keep his day job as a carpenter for several years. He invested in farm equipment, and also in improving the soil, which was compacted and inactive (“grows too many buttercups”) when he started out. He saw positive changes even after simply sowing one round of buckwheat cover crop on 10 acres. Pollinators came back, and all manner of life-forms. And the water-holding capacity of the soil improved rapidly – no runoff.
John has become a worm farmer, with four home-made worm bins at the time of writing, producing enough worm castings and worms for sale. His other job in a micro-brewery provides his worms with a portion of the barley mash. Red wiggler worms consume food waste, and paper scraps, and John has no doubt we will make ourselves a worm bin after reading his article!
The days of cheap food are over. We need to reduce the damage we have been inflicting on the environment, and people’s health. The idea that farmers should “get big or get out” has cost us too much. Food systems need to be local and operated by people who understand the big picture of energy and global sustainability. Farmers need to earn a fair living for their work. Currently only 7 cents of the price of a loaf of bread goes to the farmer.
The injustices of cheap food affect African Americans particularly strongly. John refers us to Leah Penniman’s inspiring book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. He heard her keynote address at a conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. John says “We need to hear her messages about farming, society, justice and our future.” We owe it to Black farmers to give them credit for their work in sustainable agriculture (CSAs, raised beds, cover-cropping, pick-your-own farms, and growing hot weather crops). And we must recognize that the US food system is based on exploitation, on stolen land, stolen people and enforced labor. That’s why food is cheap. And why there are food deserts and diet-related illnesses mostly where People of Color live.
The author is also a beekeeper, and a couple of the articles reflect this. Beekeeping these days is complicated by the parasites and diseases honeybees are dealing with, as well as loss of habitat and forage plants, and deadly assaults from pesticides. France has become the first country to ban all five pesticides that kill bees. We need to care for pollinators, native and imported (as honeybees are). We can plant bee-friendly plants, plant only unsprayed shrubs, trees and annuals.
Regenerative agriculture includes steadily building up soil organic matter, maintaining plenty of soil microbes, getting the right bacteria:fungi ratio for your crops, increasing biodiversity above and below ground, improving water filtration and water-holding capacity, producing nutrient-dense food, and bringing in a good profit. John recommends Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture. The Brown family farm 5000 acres in North Dakota, with diverse crops, no synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, fungicides or pesticides. They use minimal herbicides and no glyphosate (RoundUp). They also raise livestock.
This brings us to the topic of managing livestock in a healthy regional food system. Some people believe that eliminating all animal farming is the best way to feed the planet. We can probably all agree that confined animal feedlots with cattle raised on corn and soy, and no grass, is not healthy or sustainable at all. The global percentage of greenhouse gases from livestock farming is 14.5%, although the figure is less in the US (maybe only because we produce higher percentages of emissions from other sources!). Some people have shown that holistic management practices used to raise livestock, especially ruminants in a responsible way, on integrated farms, can benefit the environment, the farm, and the diners. Soil organic matter can increase dramatically on well-integrated farms. White Oaks Pastures in Georgia, has succeeded in off-setting at least 100% of their beef cattle’s emissions, by using Holistic Management grazing practices.
Meanwhile, in the home garden, we can care for the soil by keeping it covered with crops or mulch as much of the time as possible. Never leave the soil bare over the winter, as used to be recommended before we understood the importance of soil organic matter and feeding the soil food web. John’s system for beds with no overwintering crop, involves pulling up or cutting down weeds and crop residues, spreading them over the soil, adding ½-2 inches of compost along with any needed amendments such as trace minerals. Top this with tree leaves, straw or hay. In spring, you can ease apart the mulch to pop transplants in without turning over the soil, which disrupts fungal hyphae, microbes and worms. This method also solves the problem of soils that are too wet to till or dig over in early spring.
John is making compost at the rate of 60 cubic yards per windrow on his farm. This qualifies as a “mid-size” compost operation. He uses a hot composting method, and pays close attention. Compost feeds the soil and its inhabitants, adding micro- and macro-nutrients for the plants. Soil microbes create pores in the soil, improving the structure, and welcoming larger soil-dwellers such as worms.
Food security is a frequently heard phrase. It means having access to enough nutritious food at a price we can afford. During World War Two, many people grew Victory Gardens and were able to get a lot of their diet from their own garden, or trade with a neighbor. After the war, Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs) became more widespread. People could see the sense in supporting people to grow their food right nearby.
The author includes a three-part series on starting a garden, which is a masterpiece of economy with words. As in many of his articles, he takes the opportunity to give a shout-out to creators of other resources. Here he mentions John Jeavons’s How to Grow More Vegetables, and Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower. He adds three points from his own experience: improve the soil, boost the organic matter, encourage biodiversity. In part two he covers deciding what to grow and how much of it. Choose the size, method and plant selection so that you will enjoy it. Plan energy-saving methods (like mulching). Consider extending the seasons with shade cloth or rowcover, so you can enjoy the products of your labor for longer. Feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants. In part three he addresses pest control and choosing suitable varieties for the local area. Healthy soil grows healthier plants, that grow healthier people. Create a healthy ecosystem, learn about pest lifecycles. If you run into pest problems, look for organic pest controls in Peaceful Valley, Arbico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seven Springs Farm in Floyd, Virginia. For locally adapted vegetable varieties, buy from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (good friends of mine). He does provide names of some of his favorites – get the book!
Plant trees on your land. Look for cost share programs from the local branch of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and look for young trees at the Virginia Department of Forestry nursery. Consider trees that provide fruit, nuts, flowers and nectar for pollinators. Grow yourself a windbreak. Trees sequester carbon, clean the air, hold water in the soil, and benefit bugs, birds, shade and anyone needing a rest.
Another article is about collards, a southern vegetable coming into new fame. Plant in the fall, eat them all winter. Plant some more in the spring, but don’t let them get big and bitter. You can eat collards from December to June. Season extension in the fall can provide a lot of extra food (not only collards), for not much more effort. Plan in August. Keep the summer crops as long as productive, by covering them with rowcover when it gets cold. After the first cold spell of fall, there is usually a few weeks of warmer weather.
Climate change is a hard-work topic. John suggests we focus on working for the change we want, rather than protesting loudly about the things we don’t want. Find ways to address specific issues. Plant trees, grow a garden, travel less. Go to City Hall with constructive requests: ask for an ordinance permitting backyard chickens, or a local composting program for food and paper waste, or an urban farm.
And talking of backyard chickens, John has a couple of articles about those. He started 20 years ago with 30 birds, primarily for eggs, and for their benefits on the farm. He still raises hens for eggs and also breeds them to supply others with small flocks. He recommends chicken tractors, coops on wheels, to move around the farm, to spread their benefits. Go into chicken-keeping with your eyes open. The responsibility is bigger than that of growing vegetables. Chickens need food and water; they need adequate housing; they need shutting in at night to protect them from marauders. You, or someone, needs to be home every night and morning to care for them. John recommends Harvey Ussery’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.
John has a thoughtful piece on the wisdom of real experience. Keep an open mind, look deep and wide. He talks about a period in his 20s “following self-created trouble” when he lived alone in the mountains for a while. Contemplation of nature, and focusing on daily needs left him time to think. He also took seriously the maxim “Don’t believe everything you think.”!
And then, as recently as January 2022, John had a stroke. He got help from loved ones, friends and professionals, and learned more about gratitude. He took several months away from writing his column, and found two people to keep his farm going. He learned to accept help. He eventually sold New Earth Farm to Kevin Jamison, who grows ingredients for his oceanfront restaurant in Virginia Beach – Commune. The restaurant has a big commitment to using local ingredients as much as possible. 90-100% of their ingredients are farm-sourced at any one time. John has helped nourish the local food system.
The New Farmer’s Almanac, Vol V 2021, Grand Land Plan, by the Greenhorns, Feb 2021, 400 pages, softcover, $25, illustrated with B&W photos and drawings. Distributed by Chelsea Green.
This is a great winter treasure trove to dip into by the woodstove after darkness brings you in from the fields. Or to absorb you on snowy days. Or to leave by a frequently visited seat (!) for browsing. It’s a compilation of pictures and writings as an antidote to helplessness. Here you will find reports from the fields, shores, woods, beehives, kitchens, watersheds, and compost piles.
There are historic pieces, such as The Diggers’ Song by Gerrard Winstanley written in 1649, and very current writing on living in a time of racism, Covid, hate crimes, climate disaster and white nationalist surges. This Grand Land Plan is a vision of the future of food systems and land use, put together by farmers, gardeners, poets, activists, grocers, nature-lovers and agitators. Here are solutions to give us hope and ideas on what to do to recover from the challenges, dismantle inequity, restore our chances of a beautiful world. You can browse for what you need each day: poetry, maps, comics, portraits, lessons from honeybees, campaigns for local food, reports of successes, thoughtful prose on the principles and practice for fair and responsive land use for everyone, or a design for a seaweed commons.
The Greenhorns are a group working to promote, recruit and support the next generation of farmers, through publications and events. Covid has led them to use more digital productions, including EARTHLIFE, initially centered in Downeast Maine, along the Pennamaquan River, where the Greenhorns are based in the old Pembroke Iron Works. The group has several ventures in the town, including carpentry, a boat shop, mycological lab, agrarian library, art spaces and living spaces. They offer monthly naturalist trainings.
The contents are divided into monthly sections with a theme. January’s theme is Resistance and Recovery. Small-scale farmers producing healthy food for local eating, have become the envy of many of those in the big cities. The difficulties of 2020 (and 2021) have thrown home food production and working together into a better light, and shown the deep importance of friends and companions. Vegetable seeds sold out, as did CSA shares. Security is in the potato patch, in knowing how to feed your household with what you have on hand, fix things, organize, be a leader – things that truly matter. Not money in the bank, flashy clothes, having a large office.
People have become aware of the fragility of industrial supply chains and the value of local small businesses and the people who work in them. Mutual aid and support, community-based economies, revolving savings and loans, shared healthcare funding groups – all help people get through hard times and thrive. Doing small things that make a difference can empower us to persist and make more differences. As one pioneering farmer says “When we started, we wanted a revolution! . . . Then we realized, it’s the incremental changes that affect a revolution. And then you realize you have had a revolution. You just didn’t see it coming.” The Black communities have long used mutual aid strategies to survive and uplift each other. Black farmer cooperatives have a long history.
We can get hope from reading about reforestation. By the late 1900s, forest area in Denmark had almost rippled since 1800. Swiss forestation had increased from 19% in the 1860s to 32% in the 1980s. Japan, New Zealand, Cuba and Scotland have all undertaken large scale reforestation. An article describes New Zealand’s One Billion Trees Programme, part of a range of initiatives to build a sustainable economy for the people while also meeting their international climate change commitments.
The articles move from political to poetic to practical, and round again. Should farms set aside areas to encourage species diversity, while “sacrificing” the fields with edge-to-edge plowing and cultivation? Or would we do better to incorporate the diversity into the whole of the farm? Here we can probe this question by considering soil life; soil cover; water, nest and shelter functions; flowering plants (food for insects, birds and mammals); native plants; plant structure and composition (diversity); habitat patches and corridors. This leads to thinking about the effects on humans of time in nature. The Japanese have “forest-bathing” therapy. Perhaps it’s time to recognize the value of “farm-bathing” too.
There’s a Hawaiian glossary of terms related to land and water use. You may not need the actual words, but the concepts are such valuable food for thought! There are wise quotes from Kalaninuiliholiho Kamehameha, Ursula Le Guin and Janene Yazzie. There is material to read on pesticide spraying, fishing, pruning, shopping during Covid, cottonwood tree decline and propagation, trapping fish, spruce bark beetles, farming seaweed. Did you know it takes 11-16 years for a 4ft tall rockweed to recover from being cut back 16ins from the holdfast?
Read about capitalism, cooperation, Medieval European land enclosure, colonization, and other forms of land tenure. Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, researched global commons-based resource management systems. She found that each represents a unique set of ways in which people work together to ensure the longevity and health of the resources they depend on. It isn’t the land or the resources that causes commons to succeed, but the process by which people relying on those resources engage with them and with their fellow commoners. Ostrom lists 8 general principles used.
Garrett Hardin’s 1968 infamous essay The Tragedy of the Commons suggests that individuals will destroy the commons by prioritizing their own needs until the system collapses. The assumption is that financial gain is always more important than social networks, or sense of fairness, integrity, or desire to be well-thought-of. Hardin’s theory was not based on research of actual commons-based management systems. Sadly, he is better-known than Ostrom, and the myth that personal ownership is the most effective and logical way to divide resources, is often spoken of as fact.
Sixty miles east of Alaska, the Gwich’in community of Old Crow had to deal during the pandemic with two uninvited visitors from the city of Quebec, seeking refuge, but bringing no gloves, no tools and a risk that they had the virus with them. The community had limited access to healthcare, many vulnerable elders and a bad history of white people bringing in diseases. Members of the Tribal government met them at the airport, isolated them and sent them back.
Many writers thread their politics through their observations. Sheltering in place, working from home, learning to bake sourdough bread and grow kale are not too hard for the privileged, with spacious comfortable housing, outdoor space, computers, desk jobs, and garden space. “By actively and consciously cashing in on my privilege, I have placed myself in an environment in which feeling relief is possible.” (Quinn Riesenman). Others ponder how to shelter in place when unable to earn money to pay for shelter.
I discovered the work of George Washington Carver maybe 10 years ago, when gathering information about growing sweet potatoes. In the Almanac you can read his instructions for growing peanuts, and how to build up worn out soils. Makshya Tolbert has written a eulogy to her late grandmother, who came from Cameroon, in the form of an ode to peanuts. There are photos of recipe cards from Black women in domestic service. A way of establishing an identity.
The Indigenous Corn Keepers Conference of Uchben Kah in January 2020 brought together indigenous farmers to share experience and cultural attitudes about corn. Did you know corn is one of the few plants that can coexist with black walnut?
I loved Ang Roeli’s essay Radicalize the Hive, on what honeybees can teach us about social change. There is proof in Spanish cave paintings that people gathered honey from bee colonies 8,000 years ago. There is evidence of honey-gathering 15,000 years ago, long before farming. The author followed the ritual of “telling the bees” when the Covid pandemic started. “If we come together now, we could get sick, and many of us could die.” Their response was “If we were apart, and could not hold each other, even for a short while, we would most certainly die.” You can read this metaphorically if you prefer. I was taken aback to see the chapter illustrated with a photo of paper wasps, but then, many people are afraid of stinging insects, and don’t look long enough to distinguish one from the other.
Learn about the history of land tenure in Puerto Rico. It is indeed tragic that the lands of the sugar lords were, in many cases, sold to the multi-national seed magnates. 122 years after sugar plantations, the land is still not in the hands of the local people.
Read the September 19, 1942 front page of the Poston Chronicle, published in the Poston, Arizona concentration camp for Japanese-Americans, which was located on the lands of the Colorado River Indian Reservation, against the objections of the Tribal Council. The editorial proposes changes to the co-operative farm management system, with five year leases on a sharecropping basis. Clearly the prisoners didn’t expect to return to their homes in California any time soon.
History is interwoven with memoirs. A Farm Hand’s Perspective explores the challenges and benefits of working on an organic vegetable farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. “I have no idea how to quantify right livelihood, proximity to nature’s beauty, and the slow pace of seasonal, rural living. The downsides are much easier to count – long hours, low wages, no healthcare – and due to our socialization in a capitalist society, these are easy to fixate upon.”
For a different slant on life, read about developing native plant materials for roadside dust mitigation in southern New Mexico. Yes, people are researching this, and have promising plants that are drought-tolerant, perennial, quick to establish and able to deal with high salt levels.
Michael McMillan writes about a serendipitous meeting on the road with a mycologist and botanist, who taught him to identify wildflowers, cactuses, shrubs and trees, by first identifying the plant family and noting what types grow where. This practice of reading the landscape informed Michael’s career as an ecological landscape designer.
Colleen Perria writes about restoring oak savanna in the southern Great Lakes bioregion. Oaks are fire-resistant and the Native peoples used fire, producing the savanna, with oaks, grasses, flowers and shrubs. But later the land was cleared by settlers to grow field crops. When abandoned, dense young forests grew up. Concrete came later. We falsely “remember” that deep primeval forests occupied the land before the white settlers, when in fact, that land had been a savanna for ages.
Catherine Bennett writes about composting those glossy political candidate flyers, along with dead lambs and reed canary grass. Will the microbes be able to break down the inks and other chemicals, some probably toxic? Journalist Bill Moyer got tested and found he was home to 84 health hazards. Why do we produce so much waste that isn’t safe to be around?
Back to land reform – this time in Scotland. The public has the Right to Roam across private land, provided they do no damage. Between 2003 and 2016, a set of land reform acts established a diversity of alternative land tenure arrangements, intending to reach 100,000,000 acres of community land ownership by 2020. They only managed just over half a million. Parliament reported that 432 individuals in 2013 owned 50% of the private land. But there has been good progress. The entire 5,000-acre island of Ulva was bought by the residents. The Scottish government has supported these transfers, with the message that if you hold title to land, you also have the responsibility to ensure that its use balances your private profit with public good.
How about this for a $64,000 question: “Is fixing trophobiosis the key to beating everything from Coronavirus to locust swarms to climate change?” Trophobiosis is a symbiotic association between organisms where food is obtained or provided. Locust swarms are one symptom of land degradation and poor land management, where trophobiosis has gone awry. Land degradation leads to chronic drought and flooding, followed by soil erosion and loss of organic matter and nutrients, then pest invasions and increased disease levels in crops, livestock and humans. Covid-19 crossed over to humans from wildlife, where the contact was closer than was wise. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers cause imbalances that lead to pest and disease outbreaks. Francis Chaboussou writes about this theory in Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution. It leads to a unified theory of earth repair.
A traditional Hopi dryland farmer in Arizona describes his heritage crops including corn, beans, melons, squash and gourds. He is in a line of 250 generations of farmers, and knows how to grow food when nature provides 6-10 inches of rain each year. As a youth he worked with his grandfather and studied agriculture at Cornell University. He often wondered at the recommendations in his course. He could not see a need for a 14-row planter. An agricultural economics class explained that American farmers are locked into a cycle that demands high yields (because food prices are low). They are trapped by the financial costs, and the devastating psychological dependence, to need extreme efficiency. Hopi farming is not to make money but to survive and continue their culture. Agriculture and spirituality are closely linked. Despite more than 2,000 years of these methods of crop production, these methods are often called primitive! Hopi plant corn anywhere from 6-18ins deep, depending on the soil moisture availability. Rows are 6ft apart, with 10-20 kernels in each hole.
I have picked out some articles and left others unmentioned. I’ve no idea how to review poetry, for instance. You, too, can pick and choose what to read in this book. Different subjects speak to us at different times. I have named some people and left many unnamed. A review can only say so much – you need to see the whole book to get the whole benefit. The Greenhorns have done an outstanding job compiling this almanac. You will eventually reach the back cover, and appreciate what you have learned, been uplifted by, and been spurred to act on. (Of course, you might start at the back of the book, nothing to stop you.)
There are four pages of careful image credits and five pages of the 99 contributors’ names, locations and occupations. Sadly, no index.
To submit something for the February 2023 edition of the New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume VI Adjustments and Accommodations, send to email@example.com by March 2022. Perhaps you have something on building, planting, community land ownership, transformative finance, citizen science, rotational strategies, wildcrafting, rooftop gardens, seed migration, or the art of the possible.
Book Review: Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, techniques and traditions from around the world, by Sandor Ellix Katz.
Chelsea Green, 2021, 252 pages, hardcover, $35, color photos throughout.
This brand new book will make an amazing gift for your friend who is very enthused about all kinds of fermented foods and drinks. Sandor Katz is the world’s most well-known and respected advocate of all things fermented, and the author of four previous books on the subject. This book includes directions and recipes for over 60 fermented foods from across the world. Sandor traveled the globe learning, teaching and tasting every day. And this time, Sandor had a camera, and the pictures are fascinating. This is his first book in almost ten years, so you can be sure there are many foods you haven’t met before.
To his credit, Sandor shows deep respect for the cultures (human, fungal and bacterial) that he encounters, and invites us to do so too. He describes the traditional techniques as well as the customs and ceremonies attached to the ferments. Here are some well-known fermented foods, such as sauerkraut (in a chocolate cake), tempeh, cheeses, and breads, and also much less well-known ones like pickled tea leaves, Dan Chang egg sausages, Alaskan stinkheads (salmon), and Peruvian Chicha de jora. Sandor reminds us how much work sustenance takes, and what a wide range of skills and knowledge are involved.
After youthful discoveries of palm wine and millet beer in Niger, Sandor found books for home brewers technical and off-putting, with their emphasis on chemistry and sanitation. Global alcohol makers had other traditions, as had the fermenters of other foods, to preserve the food and add flavor and safety by preventing pathogens. Some ferments, consumed raw, may provide beneficial bacteria.
Fermentation varies across the world, depending on climate, which foods are abundant, and what storage facilities are available. Ideas and techniques have spread from people to people, although sadly, sometimes extinguished by colonization.
The book is organized by fermentation substrate (sugars, vegetables, grains, starchy tubers, mold cultures, beans, seeds, milk, meat, and fish). Due to his fame and fermentation friends, Sandor was able to visit many small villages. Fortunately for us, when Sandor had to hurry home from Tasmania (wearing a gift of a home-made mask) after Covid-19 struck, he realized he suddenly had time to write a book!
The simplest ferments are sugary fruits and plant saps, including the recent excitements: “drinking enzymes” (young fruit wine) and “cleaning enzymes” made from vegetable and fruit scraps for killing mold and general wet cleaning. Fermenting vegetables is recommended as a gateway into fermentation, because it is simple and safe, and yields results fairly quickly. Also, fermented vegetables are delicious, nutritious and rich in probiotic bacteria. It seems likely that China is where fermenting vegetables with salt started. Sandor has eight short videos of his travels in China, each highlighting one realm of fermentation. You can find them on YouTube by searching for “People’s Republic of Fermentation.”
Pao Cai is a Chinese fermentation method using a perpetual brine. New batches of vegetables can be pickled in sequence, adding salt, sugar and spices as needed to restore the flavor of the brine, which can live for years. Sometimes the vegetables are sundried for a day before immersion in the brine, to keep the pickles crunchy. There are recipes for both methods.
I mentioned the sauerkraut chocolate cake earlier. This recipe intrigued me, because I usually am not a fan of vegan cakes, finding them flat-tasting and dull (or over-sugared). But I know a good vegan chocolate cake that includes a little cider vinegar. I’m not usually a fan of vinegar either. This cake is moist and tasty, so I expect the sauerkraut chocolate cake to also be tasty. Sandor explains that the sourness of the kraut is mostly neutralized by the alkaline baking soda, and the reaction between them causes the cake to rise. Inspiring!
Pickle soup is a thing. Previously my standby for making soup when there seems to be nothing in the house, and the garden is covered in snow, was garlic soup. The recipe started: “Gird up your loins, take your courage in both hands and peel 6 whole bulbs of garlic”. It’s delicious, the flavor mellows in the cooking. The source of the pickle soup recipe, Coppa Restaurant in Juneau, Alaska, uses curried kelp pickles.
Grains and starchy tubers are dietary staples, and fermenting them can unlock nutrients, pep up their mild flavors, and even convert them into alcohol. Salt-rising bread is a traditional Appalachian food with a unique fermentation process. The simple recipe is in the book. The raising agent is not yeast, but the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. The name may give you pause, but microbiologists have studied salt-rising bread and found no dangerous bacteria present. A fresh starter is made for each batch, from a little baking soda, fermented with milk, cornmeal and flour, for about 12 hours. The hot liquids kill most of the yeast and unwanted bacteria.
The author clearly enjoys meeting community millers and fermenters, who provide a service for their neighbors. Oat “milk” is gaining fans in the global north. Here’s how to make your own, soaking and then fermenting oats in water for up to 5 days.
Starchy tubers have mostly come a long way from their toxic predecessors. Read the history of the potato, if you are in any doubt! The original cassava varieties were similarly bitter and toxic. South America has many other starchy tubers, consumed both fermented and unfermented locally, but little known outside their bioregion. Included is a recipe for Chicha de Yuca y Camote, using yucca (cassava) and sweet potato. You can make it just with sweet potato if you lack cassava.
In many places, Indigenous practices have been lost because of suppression and worse. This book includes a short section on North American Indigenous fermentation, such as Cherokee cornbread with a small amount of wood ash mixed into the dough. Ancestral practices can be revived and celebrated. Chef Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux has started an organization called the Indigenous Food Lab, working together with others to restore their food cultures.
Mold Cultures is the title of the next chapter. These cultures also use starches, but rather than spontaneous fermentation (as in the previous chapter), here we are looking at cultivated filamentous fungi (such as koji, Aspergillus oryzae) on grains and legumes. These molds do have more precise growing requirements than the spontaneous fermentations do. Start with small batches and take notes and photos! Find ways to keep the right temperature (oven with the pilot on? insulated boxes with incandescent lightbulbs? heating pads?) There are detailed instructions on growing koji on rice, barley and other grains, seeds, beans and starchy tubers. Koji is used in brewing sake, making miso and other foods. From Switzerland comes garum, a fermented fish sauce. Vegetable garums, usually made from food scraps (which can include coffee grounds), are also explained.
Because of my familiarity with tofu and tempeh making, I was especially interested to read those sections. Tempeh is a fermentation of filamentous fungi on cooked soybeans, creating a delicious protein food. I enjoyed seeing the photos of the small-scale commercial production in Indonesia. A surprise for me were the tempeh bowls served at a café in Amsterdam. Edible soup bowls, which are briefly baked before serving. To get bowls of the right size to eat as well as hold a serving of soup, they use Puy lentils and crushed lupine seeds as substrate, and plastic bowls as forms for the shape.
Tempeh can also be grown on whole or chunked boiled potatoes. I read that fried potato tempeh is especially delicious, nutty like chestnuts. That’s a recipe I want to try!
Mao Dofu is moldy tofu, which might not sound appetizing, but has a creamy texture, and is widely enjoyed in China. You can use tempeh starter to make mao dofu, if you can’t find the real mao dofu starter.
There is also fermented tofu, called furu or dofuru. Until refrigeration, there was no way to keep tofu fresh, except by using a fermentation method, after making mao dofu. The initial fungal ferment keeps the product safe from harmful bacteria. Do not shortcut by fermenting tofu in plastic wrap, or you risk cultivating the very harmful Clostridium botulinum.
Some fermented foods have been sensationalized with offensive words like weird and bizarre. You may not like all fermented foods, but there is no call for rudeness towards the people who enjoy a food you don’t like. Sensationalizing foods from other cultures to get laughs, shudders, fame or to make money is unkind and chauvinistic. Rather, we can celebrate the diversity of foods and the ingenuity of the people who create them.
Fermentation used to be considered a mistake in coffee production. Clean and sweet flavors were preferred. Fermentation, which facilitates removing the pulp from the coffee seed, had been a useful tradition. As yeast and bacteria consume the mucilage, they create flavored by-products, which add “mouth-feel” or viscosity to the beverage. This natural process works best at 50-60% humidity. At higher humidity, molds can grow. Below 50%, the beans dry without much fermentation happening. A product we think we know well has a fermentation back story too.
The part about fermentation removing the slime coating from the coffee seeds reminds me that we use the same process when wet-processing saved tomato, cucumber and melon seeds. After a few days, the clean seeds emerge from their slimy coating and it is easy to wash and dry the seeds.
Sadly, in the global north, fermented foods have moved from traditional village food preservation skills to become niche foods for well-off, mostly white, people. “The fermentation industry, like any other, has a whiteness problem” as Miin Chan wrote on the Eater website. The people making money from copying indigenous cultures are almost all white. Sandor Katz acknowledges his privilege in the world, leading to this wonderful book, and seeks to understand the perspectives of the food creators who do not have the same privileges.
Fermented milk products include naturally occurring clabbered milk, and deliberately cultured yogurt, kefir and others. Ah! Now I know what SCOBYs (such as kefir grains) are: Symbiotic Communities of Bacteria and Yeast!
Yogurt starters have been made from inner tree bark, unripe fruits, St John’s wort, sorrel, white stonecrop, ants, clarified butter, buttermilk and rain-water. Most yogurt-makers save back a portion of each batch to be the starter for the next. This practice, known as “back-slopping”, is common in fermented foods. A technique for immigrants was (is?) to saturate a cloth with the culture, dry it and pack it among clothes. Sandor has done this successfully, keeping the resulting culture alive and productive for years.
My most appetizing chapter was the one on cheeses! I, too, love blue cheeses and very ripe soft cheeses, and strong-flavored mature hard cheeses. Dr Johnny Drain is quoted saying “The perception of rancidity and oxidation in foods and fats are culturally elastic and context-dependent.” Mild rancidity adds richness and complexity.
Only in the far North are meat and fish fermented without combining with other preservation methods – the cold temperatures provide some preservation. Meanwhile, in Australia, Bruce Kemp is making salamis of possum, wallaby, horse, hare, goat and boar, on a mission to increase consumption of these animals which damage agricultural crops and the environment.
One way to ferment meat and fish is to add a carbohydrate source to feed the lactic acid fermentation. Traditionally in Japan, sushi consumed beyond the coastal areas where the fish is caught and can be consumed immediately, the fish is fermented in rice. Nowadays we see refrigerated raw fish served with vinegar on rice, in imitation of the traditional flavor. This fermented fish is known as narezushi.
The book’s epilogue “A Whole World in a Jar,” reminds us that across the whole world, fermentation is practiced in some form. Fermentation traditions vary, but the basis is that people ferment what id abundant, to save it for later. This reduces food waste, and keeps people fed and healthy. May your next year include more fermented local abundance!
The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More
Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2021, 224 pages, $17.95
Vicki Hird has a passion for insects, and this book brings home to us how much depends on the well-being of invertebrates in the world. Insects are a cornerstone in our ecosystem, and we must reverse the current dangerous decline in bug populations (40% of insect species are at risk of extinction and 33% more are endangered). We are heading towards “Insectageddon.” After reading this book, I found myself being much more careful about gathering up insects inside the house and taking them outside, where I imagine they will thrive better. Did you know that spiders rest calmly in your gently closed hand? They do not wriggle and tickle!
We need to overcome any aversion or indifference to creepy-crawlies, and change our attitudes to respect, appreciation, and some humility if possible. Insects pollinate plants, recycle waste into nutrients, control pest species, add air channels in the soil, and ultimately return themselves to the soil food web.
Vicki explains how to rebug our city green spaces, grow gardens without pesticides and weedkiller, teach children to appreciate small creatures, make choices that support insect-friendly (planet-friendly) production of food and fiber, and make wider choices that affirm human dignity and equal rights.
This book has charming insect drawings, and delightful anecdotes: “I was never going to get the pony I wanted, so I settled for an ant farm at an early age.” Studying biology at school led Vicki to a summer job observing bees at a research station. A later job investigating cockroaches led her to respect them and realize that it is humans that need better control, more than roaches do.
Vicki has been an environmental campaigner, lobbyist and researcher for about 30 years, and is the mother of two children. Vicki is also head of the Sustainable Farming Campaign for Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, a UK alliance of organizations and communities advocating for healthy food, people and environment, and equity in society. She has a website for Rebugging.
Those over 50 (and maybe 40) will have noticed that long car drives no longer lead to cars covered in smashed bugs. There are fewer butterflies. More than twice as many insect species as vertebrate species are at risk of extinction. I noticed on a trip to England after an absence of a couple of years, that the number of sparrows has plummeted. We are more likely to get distressed about the charismatic mega-fauna, but less so about formerly ubiquitous sparrows, and even less about insects. There may be 4 million unidentified species of insects (as well as the million we know). In the UK 23 bee and wasp species have become extinct since 1850.
So, what is ‘rebugging’? It is a form of rewilding (the introduction of similar-to-natural ecosystems and missing species into an area and then waiting to see if the species can settle in). It is somewhat controversial, and alone is insufficient to cause all the changes we seek. We also need changes in policy, lifestyle, and civic involvement. This book provides information, encouragement and tools to act.
What would the world be like without bugs? “A great image that has been doing the rounds is a picture of a bee saying, “If we die, we’re taking you with us.” It’s not an empty threat, but a fact – we would not last long without insects. Our flowering plants would die off; all the species that dine on insects would be lost, followed by the next ones up the chain; dead animals would pile up undigested; trees would cease growing in the compacted airless soil.
But this is not our inevitable future. We can step back, as we have done when the dangers of DDT, CFCs, and nuclear weapons became blindingly clear. We can work to restore habitat, reduce damage and make political and economic structural changes at all levels in society. We can start by “rebugging our attitudes.”
How can we protect and nurture invertebrates? We can help research what’s out there. We can encourage others to be concerned and take action to protect invertebrates. We can teach others about the value of insects for human well-being. We can make havens for wildlife, convert every city street into a biocorridor, share designs for pollinator-friendly gardens, encourage conservation of water and other natural resources, make urban farms and community gardens.
The book is studded with sidebars on aspects of the value of insects, such as “How much is a bee worth?” (The answer is over $3,000 per hectare in pollination services, for wild bees) That’s more than 651 million GBP to the British economy.
Insects are food for many animals such as poultry, fish and pigs. And some insects could be food for humans. I ate a 17-year cicada last time they were in our area (2013). I was partly inspired by Jackson Landers’ book Eating Aliens. And really, if you can eat shrimp, you can eat meaty insects. But Rebugging isn’t mostly about eating insects, but rather preserving their lives, and benefiting from their contributions.
If you are still unsure what bugs do for us, the second chapter spells it out. We would be knee-deep in manure, leaf litter and dead animals within weeks, if there were no bugs eating it all, and enriching the soil. Tardigrades (water bears or moss piglets) are the most resilient animals known, able to survive extreme temperatures, pressures, dehydration, oxygen deprivation, starvation and radiation. They can remain in suspended animation for years until conditions improve. They have already survived all five mass extinction events, and some have been revived from a hundred-year-old sample of moss in a museum. Respect, please!
Avoid spraying wasps with pesticides-in-a-spray-can. They are as useful as bees and ladybugs, and are the best pest control we have for hauling away cabbage caterpillars. If you are more motivated to provide accommodation for ladybugs than wasps, keep moist dark places like old hollow stems, bark pieces and logs where the adults can overwinter. I could really use some early-spring-wakening ladybugs in our hoophouse to tackle the aphids!
Carefully introduced biological bug control can reduce the amount of pesticides used. A scientific risk assessment is an important first step, though. The 1930’s introduction of cane toads in Australia for pest control was a terrible mistake. The toad was a worse pest than the bugs had been. There are many more success stories than disasters!
Rewilding can be complicated – looking at a huge overgrowth of creeping thistle is alarming. Happily, the biggest migration of painted lady butterflies came over and laid eggs on the thistles. The resulting spiny black caterpillars ate the thistles down to the ground. UK organizations have been creating maps of “insect superhighways” they are calling B-Lines, that will be filled with wildflowers so that insects and other wildlife have continuous corridors to travel from one area to another. There’s a two-page spread of possible actions to help the rebugging process, starting with publicity and education, and moving onto helping build bug-friendly habitat in public places and workplaces and private gardens.
Green public spaces can include a wide variety of invertebrate species. Look on derelict land, in cemeteries, along grass verges, and even on golf courses. Many companies and local authorities are now wanting to manage their land in ways that support more wildlife, and with encouragement might move another step in that direction. Tiny public orchards and forests are being planted in some places. There is a sidebar of actions to reduce deliberate, accidental, and thoughtless damage to insects.
After starting small and local, you might be ready to expand your ambitions and commitment. The overall total mass of insects is estimated to be falling by 2.5% every year. One big factor pushing species towards disaster is climate change. This is a big one to tackle, and yet we must. Overwintering numbers of monarch butterflies (the celebrities of the insect world) have dropped to less than 1% of their 1980’s population. Yes, compared with 40 years ago, the population is now just 1/100 of what it was. When food species arrive, peak, or leave earlier in the year due to changed temperatures, the predator species goes undernourished. Pesticide contamination gets a lot of blame too.
Water pollution also harms diversity. Leached fertilizers in estuaries have created ocean dead zones. Combating climate change might not be what you expected to read about when picking up a book on rebugging the planet, but it is vitally connected. We can learn from bugs about climate management. Honeybees have learned how to mob an invading Asian giant hornet and cook it to death. In Brazil, scientists discovered an area of 200 million termite mounds each spaced 60 feet from its neighbors. This is all one colony, connected underground. Some of the mounds are over 4,000 years old. They have created a stable environment for millennia. The methods of ventilation and gas exchange could be copied for human habitation.
Are 5G phones heating insects 370% above normal levels and cooking them in the electromagnetic fields they generate? It could be true, based on research on models. The action list at the end of this chapter urges us to avoid 5G phones if we can, and not to use them outdoors if we must have one.
The chapter on why our farming, food and shopping all need bugs opens with a discussion on almond milk. The “dark reality” is that huge almond plantations need millions of bees brought in every year for pollination. Thousands of colonies are moved in to California’s Central Valley, for example. 30% of these bees die, because the environment is hostile, devoid of crops other than almond trees. Local wildlife cannot survive either.
It is a mistake to think that all vegan milk-substitutes are environmentally better than all dairy milk. It takes roughly 4 gallons of water for every gallon of milk a cow produces. Almond milk is much more intensive on water use: it can take up to 101 gallons of water to grow 1 cup of almonds, plus another 3 or 4 cups of water to manufacture almond milk. In fact, many commercial almond milks only have about 2% of almonds in them – the rest is water!
Bugs and other small animals can thrive in pastures if the livestock management is done well. The stock numbers and types are important.
Did you know that more than 70% of the world’s fish stocks are over-fished, depleted or collapsed?
We could also consider the impact of our decisions about textiles, timber and metals, on wildlife and ecology. The average person in the UK now buys over four clothing items a month! Less than 1% of clothing textiles is recycled. The waste mounts up. Forests are destroyed to make way for cotton plantations. Even if organically grown, cotton monocultures destroy habitat of thousands of species of butterflies, moths, termites, wasps, bees, and other bugs. Ironically, the cotton crop is then a sitting target for the bollworm moth. Genetically modified cotton was developed to overcome bollworm problems. A few countries resisted the siren call of GM cotton, and use integrated pest management (IPM) instead. They have lowered costs and increased yields.
While worrying about cotton, let us not forget synthetics and the huge problem of microplastics. In 2016, for example, 65 million tons of plastic textile fibers were produced. They do not decay. They are found everywhere on the planet, from the Arctic to the ocean depths. Ingestion of microplastics causes problems for marine life. The dyes cause disease, and can kill corals.
The action list for this chapter focuses on reducing waste. Think before you buy, think before you throw away. If you can, switch to consumption of locally sustainably produced goods.
The action lists that close each chapter get longer, the connections get wider. Politics and the economy might not be the direction you expected from this book, but these topics are all part of the connected system, and all need consideration and action. Termites and corals co-operate within their colonies to create and maintain large healthy populations: we can do it too. (Corals are symbiotic associations of bugs (coral polyps, which form the exoskeleton) with several thousand species of animals and plants living within. Algae provide oxygen and carbohydrates.)
Big investors own shares in seed companies, just to make money. They have no interest or incentive to protect bugs or any aspect of the ecology. “It’s as if some beetles decided to take all the ants’ food supplies even though they cannot eat or use them. Money accumulation is hard to eat.”
Frustratingly, vested interests have too much power in decisions that affect large groups of people. We tend to avoid tackling entrenched societal problems. Vicki suggests three big areas to understand and deal with: poor governance and politics; inequality and poverty; runaway consumerism and waste. If you only wanted to read about saving beetles, you might be tempted to put the book down at this point. However, in order to save beetles, we need to look at the underlying causes of beetle die-offs.
Decisions on land use are often made by corporations and investors less focused on protecting biodiversity, and more on profits. We need to show them that enlightened self-interest can protect their financial success for the long haul. Some corporations are seeing this now that climate chaos is biting hard. Pushing humans to get three-quarters of their calories from just four crops (soy, wheat, rice and maize) may bring in fast bucks, but gives little resilience against climate change and extreme weather conditions, and is bad news for biodiversity.
Research has shown that as social inequality grows, so does harm to biodiversity, which leads to more inequality. Financial pressure from profit-seekers drives down wages, leading to a demand for ever cheaper food, spiraling to lower costs of production. They wring out higher short-term yields. Sustainability of food production goes to the wall. Desperate people take desperate measures to cover their basic survival needs. In 2020, the UN announced: “to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, we need to bend the curve of inequality.”
The action list for this chapter is over 5 pages, demonstrating the broadening of the goals. Campaigning, lobbying and voting; pushing governments and economists to balance social and environmental concerns and work for sustainable outcomes; requiring corporations to show much stronger accountability for all the results of their activity; supporting companies that are taking steps to lower their environmental damage and increase co-operation with others, strengthen international treaties and hold nations to their commitments on biodiversity and limiting climate change.
This probably sounds overwhelming, but “You don’t have to rebug alone”! You can join (or start) local organizations working on an issue you feel strongly about. The book contains a directory of some organizations (mostly in the UK). There is some help on starting lobbying, which most of us have not done before. The resources include guides on campaigning and influencing people. You can reduce your own carbon footprint and encourage others to do so. Big change is needed, but some days it’s restorative to “clean our own house” rather than go out lobbying.
At my presentation last evening at the Fredericksburg Food Coop, I learned about Downtown Greens and their hoped-for expansion using 56 acres of greenspace. They need financial help to reach their goal, which will improve lives of people in Fredericksburg, with open greenspace, outdoor education for children, farmer training, and the expansion of their current projects growing food and flowers for people of limited means and limited access to good food.
I hope some readers will be able to offer donations to help preserve valuable green space. Contact info is below the brochure.
This was day 7 of my Agroecology Tour of Cuba with the Organic Growers School (Monday January 13, 2020)
Dinner at the Garden of Miracles (Jardin de los Milagros Paladar) farm-to-table restaurant, with guest speaker, Rafael Betancourt
Overview of the Cuban Economy, Cooperatives and Politics
We rearranged the tables in a square, to better hear the speaker, Rafael Betancourt, talking about the Cuban economy, cooperatives and politics. First I’ll write about the talk, then about the restaurant.
The Cuban economy has changed from the export of plantation products (using enslaved people) to tertiary tourism, remittances from ex-pats in the US and training (medical and other). Sand and Sun tourism is waning, Agritourism could be increased. Farmers can earn more money by catering for tourists than from selling crops. “Cuba doesn’t export any food except apples.”
Rafael Betancourt believes it is geographically inevitable that the US and Cuba will come together. Right now we’re at a juncture. Obama’s executive orders were been rolled back by Trump. Cubans prefer the word “blockade” to “embargo” (which implies bilateral actions.) The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 included that US dollars cannot be banked in Cuba. It’s costly for them to keep moving suitcases of US dollars around.
The US and Cuban economies are entangled but limited. Food imports from the US are allowed but have to be paid in cash as soon as the product arrives. [This is different from what we were told about US chicken not leaving the US until it had been paid for in Euros and cleared the European Bank.]. Exports to the US are almost always prevented, except that tourists export rum, cigars, honey, etc.
“In this history of Cuba, Louis A. Pérez proposes a new Cuban counterpoint: rice, a staple central to the island’s cuisine, and sugar, which dominated an export economy 150 years in the making. In the dynamic between the two, dependency on food imports—a signal feature of the Cuban economy—was set in place.”
U.S. rice producers resisted Cuban efforts to expand rice production, because they relied on the Cuban market for rice. Cuban sugar growers relied on the U.S. market. U.S. growers prepared to cut the sugar quota to control Cuban rice markets. In the 1950s, when revolutionary tensions in Cuba were strengthening, U.S. rice producers and their allies in Congress clashed with Cuban producers supported by the Batista government. U.S. interests won out, contributing to undermining Batista’s ability to govern. Cuba’s inability to be self-sufficient in rice production continues to this day, but U.S. rice growers have lost the Cuban market. In the face of the U.S. embargo, Cuba buys low quality rice from Vietnam, that does not sell well in Vietnam. They are learning Vietnamese water-conserving rice-growing methods.
Cuba does not need to import eggs, but they do import chicken feed.
Food waste from restaurants may be taken home by the workers, or sent to schools and hospitals, or become pig food. There is no State strategy.
Portion size: there is a scarcity mentality in Cuba, leading to a frugal use of resources.
Cubans going overseas bring back empty Tropicana juice jugs in their luggage.
Recycling varies from place to place. The State purchases cans, metal, plastic and paper. They sell the products back to the manufacturing company.
Climate change and resiliency: In the US, food waste accounts for more than 20% of greenhouse gases. Cuba has a strategy for reducing greenhouse gases. Cuba didn’t make many of the greenhouse gases, but will be strongly impacted by climate change. The coastal resorts are vulnerable to sea level rise, and suffer badly from hurricanes. They have a big Reforestation Project, adding more trees every year. Cuba is committed to 20% renewable energy sourcesby 2020. Cuba became the first country in the world to completely phase out incandescent light bulbs.
The top five Cuban products Rafael Betancourt would like to see exported to the US: Cancer vaccine, other pharmaceuticals, high technology software, beer, services. Currently the label “Remittance” covers business transactions.
Academic Exchanges: A US institution would need to partner with a Cuban academic institution. Cuba could help with rice post-harvest equipment and know-how; Milk production (they have a very cheap method of producing 1 liter/day); Cattle feed; Biofuels using sugar bagasse; They could use help with setting up a certifying board and certifying and exporting organic food; They would like to provide their own organic seeds (many Cuban vegetable seeds are imported, but row crop seeds are grown there).
The story of the CUC: The US embargo was designed to push Cuba towards the USSR. Most imports came from the USSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba experienced an 80% reduction in imports and exports. Remittances from Cubans overseas helped island survival. Tourism grew, and hard currency started coming in, but the banks didn’t touch it. Cubans became allowed to possess hard currency, and a chain of stores opened, selling goods in US$.
The CUC was invented in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to substitute for US$, which people were then not allowed to spend. People converted their dollars into CUCs. Domestic tourism increased, and the CUC stimulated imports and suppressed exports. The exchange rate was about 24 Cuban pesos to 1 CUC. The State promises to honor the value of the peso. The CUC was phased out on January 1, 2021, after that plan being a kind of a secret. The duty-free shop at Havana airport sells goods for US$ or pesos, but not CUCs. We were warned not to take CUCs out of the country, hoping to use them in the future. (US banks and currency exchange bureau don’t deal with Cuban money at all.) The Peso is now officially set at 24 Cuban pesos to 1 US dollar
Garden of Miracles (Jardin de los Milagros Paladar) farm-to-table restaurant
We visited the restaurant roof garden, which supplies the restaurant. There were table-top beds of greens, and beehives. We saw it in the dark, so my photos and impressions are murky! I believe they must buy a lot of their ingredients from elsewhere.
Cuban Agriculture, Tour of a restored historic early 19th century French coffee plantation (Cafetal) Buenavista, worked by 100 enslaved Africans, Las Terrazas Ecovillage, Artemisa.
This is an episode in the tales of my Agroecology Tour of Cubain January 2020 with the Organic Growers School. Click the category Cuban Agriculture to see more posts in the series. In particular, refer to my most recent post on Las Terrazas. The Cafetal Buenavista is on the land of that ecovillage and bioreserve.
Buenavista is Cuba’s oldest coffee plantation, built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti. The attic of the master’s house (which is now a restaurant) was used to store the beans until they could be carried down to the port of Mariel by mule.
The coffee beans were sun-dried on huge drying beds during the day (top photo), then piled up every night in the center of the drying bed, and covered. If it rained, the beans were bagged up and stored in small low sheds, shown above.
The huge tajona (grindstone) that cracked the coffee beans is well restored and does move!
Ruins of the quarters of some of the enslaved people held there can be seen alongside the drying beds. They were chained up at night in tiny 8-12 person stone cells built onto the walls of the coffee drying beds.
We had a talk about slavery with our Cuban tour guide Josetti. A study of the DNA of 2000 Cubans showed widespread genes from indigenous people, Africans, Chinese, Spanish and other Europeans. It’s impossible to tell ancestry from skin color. General guide: “Our mothers were Africans, our fathers European.” There is still individual racism, but it is not institutionalized as it is in the US, Josetti thinks. Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1865, earlier than in Brazil, for example.
The view from the top of the plantation is breathtaking!
I got a tick bite (was it one of the sterile ones Cuba has introduced to defeat tick-borne diseases? I didn’t get sick, so I don’t know that it wasn’t)
We got back on the bus to return to Havana for our last 3 days. Everyone wanted to stay in beautiful Viñales. We have a farm work project on Monday and a free day Wednesday (we might go to the beach). We returned to Havana, registered at our casas. I went with four others of the group to a small corner café, and spent 3 CUC on pizza and 2 CUC on a beer. The pizza was so big I still had leftovers to take home after I gave one piece away.1 CUC=$1 US.
Book Review: Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, by Monica M White, UNC Press, 2020. 208 pages, with 11 b&w photos, hardback, $27.95, paperback $19.95.
This book will fill the gaps in your knowledge of Black US agricultural history, with a mix of narrative and evaluation. Here you can read about people such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who set up the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), offering a way for Black people of limited means to pursue self-reliance, health and a supportive community. Cooperatives offered an alternative to another wave of northern migration for African Americans – a way to stay in the South and help each other build a sustainable lifestyle.
It’s good to celebrate paths of hope, while also acknowledging the things that need to change. Freedom Farmers provides an uplifting perspective, showing agriculture was not only a site of oppression and exploitation of Black people, but also one of proactive political resistance and cooperative effort. Land access gives people the power to heal themselves, much more directly than food pantries and cooking lessons do.
Dr Monica White is assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin. This is an academic book, so you’ll need to navigate some sociological terms, and I recommend you persevere even if this is challenging, in order to learn more of the important history of agriculture in the South. The book divides into two parts, starting with the intellectual traditions in Black agriculture, specifically Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver (my sweet potato hero) and WEB Du Bois. Part 2, Collective Agency and Community Resilience in Action, covers four specific cooperatives, the Freedom Farm Cooperative, North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
As a member of a cooperative community (Twin Oaks) myself, I always appreciate reading the stories of others who have chosen a collective path. As a food grower, I enjoy hearing other producers’ stories. No, I don’t enjoy stories of slavery, share-cropping, land loss, although I do need to know about them. I do enjoy hearing stories of those who found a way to earn a living on the land and lift others up while doing so.
Dr White’s framework of Collective Agency and Community Resilience (CACR) covers proactive approaches that build knowledge, skills, community and economic well-being. Collective agency is an intrinsic part of social activism. Community resilience refers to adaptation to adversity: social organization to adjust, withstand and absorb disturbance, and reorganize for best results.
Martin Luther King Jr pointed out that the broken promise of the US government to provide 40 acres and a mule to freed people happened at the same time that millions of acres of land (stolen from Indigenous people) were given to white people in the West and Midwest.
The Black Panther Party recognized the importance of land ownership in getting access to food. The free breakfast for children program fed 20,000 children at its height, as well as providing clinics, childcare centers, clothing programs and political education. The Nation of Islam also provided access to healthy food in cities. In the late 1960s, NOI owned 13,000 acres in the South, collectively known as Salaam Agricultural Systems. In 1994, Muhammad Farms was formed on 1,556 acres in south Georgia.
These movements built on Booker T Washington’s model for building community-based institutions, George Washington Carver’s scholarship as an agricultural scientist improving farming methods, and the work of WEB Du Bois in documenting the experience of southern Black farmers, particularly in Alabama.
In 1875, African Americans owned 3 million acres of land. Five years later, 8 million. By 1900, 12 million. The Tuskegee Institute welcomed its first class in 1881. Students worked on the two farms as part of paying tuition. In 1902, the USDA established the Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service, which offered information on modern farming methods. The Negro Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service sent farm and home demonstration agents into the field. The value of Black-owned land in the South increased more than sevenfold by 1920.
George Washington Carver was a brilliant man with advanced botany degrees. He was committed to land conservation, plant breeding, scientific approaches to pests and disease. He left his plantation childhood at age 11, and made his way from Missouri to Iowa, where he enrolled in Simpson College, and later the college that became Iowa State University. There he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany, and became their first Black faculty member.
Carver accepted Booker T Washington’s 1896 offer of a job on the Tuskegee faculty although it entailed a loss of income. He said “The primary idea in all my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s dinner pail . . . My idea is to help the “man furthest down”.
WEB Du Bois studied race, inequality, Black political participation and social movements including agrarian production. He was convinced that cooperatives were the key to freedom. Du Bois’s theory of the power of cooperatives was that the key is distribution, rather than production.
Du Bois established the Negro Cooperative Guild to promote cooperation among African Americans, beginning with basic needs (food, clothing, jobs) and moving on to economic power.
He insisted the cooperatives adopt the Rochdale Principles of Cooperation, which I am familiar with from the Co-op movement and intentional communities in the UK. These Principles were set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England and are used by co-operatives around the world.
Part Two tells of four specific organizations, one a single farm cooperative, one a county-wide program, one a regional federation of cooperatives and the last one an inner-city food security network.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and domestic worker, founded Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in Sunflower County, MS in 1967, to fight poverty among displaced farm workers. Hamer wanted an opportunity for Black farmers to live off the land, as an alternative to a second wave of northern migration. “Someone with a pig and a garden need not starve to death.”
Between 1950 and 1960, the county population decreased by 20% as African Americans moved to northern cities to find work. Between 1960 and 1970, another 20% left.
Hamer’s boss fired and evicted her when she refused to withdraw her voter registration. She articulated the link between voter suppression by farm employers and starvation and homelessness. Her way to fight back was to set up a cooperative farm, providing workers with food, housing and the freedom to vote. Freedom Farm was a Black-led organization, with a triple focus on affordable, safe housing; a business incubator providing training; and an agricultural cooperative meeting the food needs of the most vulnerable people in the county. Thirteen of the first 40 acres were used to collectively grow subsistence vegetables. Freedom Farm was also a social and political organizing center, supporting activists.
In 1969, 50 pigs were donated to the farm as the “starter funds” for the “Bank of Pigs”. Families kept the sows and took them to the facility that kept the boars. From each litter, the family paid two piglets back into the pig bank. Heifer International (in its first US-based project) provided training and help. By 1973, more than 865 families were beneficiaries of the pig bank, which provided them with meat and income.
In 1971, Freedom Farm put down a deposit on 640 acres of additional land to build more housing, and the next year, the US Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) gave funding for 80 self-build houses, to include electricity and indoor plumbing. By 1972, their crops were feeding 1600 families. 540 acres were used for grazing cattle and a catfish cooperative. Two years later, they added 600 acres of cash crops of cotton, soybeans, wheat and cucumber. The income paid the mortgage on the land.
In 1973, FFC had 600 acres in crops, 300 families receiving livestock from the pig bank, 70 families living in affordable housing, and several people benefiting from college and business funds. Freedom Farm was a major employer in Sunflower County. As well as farm and office jobs, FFC started two sewing cooperatives. FFC paid all employees $10/day, often with housing, food and services in addition.
After four years of growing success, Freedom Farm Cooperative started to unravel in 1971. There were several tornadoes, leading to next year’s seed money being used for disaster relief. Donor funds started to dry up. The social service programs were wound up in order to focus on making the farming financially viable. A disastrous sequence of droughts and floods added to the troubles, and the seasonal employees could not be paid. The pig bank was closed as it was not paying its way. In 1974, FFC’s business manager died suddenly and Hamer became ill. In 1976 FFC had to sell its land to pay overdue taxes. The enterprise could not continue but many people had had their lives changed for the better. As Monica White says “FFC created an oasis of self-reliance and self-determination in a landscape of oppression maintained in part by deprivation.” We should not undervalue their successes.
Compared to the very local efforts of FFC, the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative (NBCFC) was a county-wide enterprise. The decline in need for farmworkers had left farmers unemployed, malnourished, ailing and in poor housing. Unfortunately, the area was a sea of racism. Black farmer-activists were glad of the support from Mound Bayou, an all-Black town founded right after the Civil War. The town included a health insurance cooperative, a hospital and a cottonseed oil mill worth $100,000, built and owned by African Americans.
In December 1967, sixty-four residents of Bolivar County, Mississippi started the NBCFC. They were mostly sharecroppers, tenant farmers, day laborers or domestic workers. Two Black landowners allowed the cooperative to use their land and another loaned his tools. For the first year, no one received pay, so members worked other jobs simultaneously. At the end of the first year, 953 families had joined and 120 acres were prepared for planting. Over one million pounds of produce was raised and distributed. The area was divided into 12 sections, each with two representatives on the board of directors.
Cooperative members who worked in the fields typically earned $4 cash per day plus $6 in produce. NBCFC created a Food and Nutrition Cooperative Project. They prioritized protein vegetables, then greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra and cucumbers. Starchy vegetables were at the bottom of the list, just above melons. They began processing their own vegetables because it was obvious to them that they lost value by selling their produce to distributors and then buying vegetables at market.
The third example in this book is on a regional scale: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC). Cooperatives had sprung up throughout the South, from Texas to Virginia, organized by the disadvantaged: Blacks, Latinx and some whites, working together in mutual aid. Some were farming, others manufacturing, sewing or consumer cooperatives. The FSC began in 1967 with twenty-two representatives of southern rural cooperatives as an umbrella cooperative for the Southeast with the goals of raising funds, providing technical assistance and developing resources.
By 1974, 134 cooperatives had joined FSC from 14 southern states. Through the Small Farmers School Program, FSC staff provided training in agricultural technology, hoophouses, irrigation systems, new crops, farm management, energy consumption and business decisions. They gave help to illiterate farmers with application forms, and made loans to members through an interest-free Revolving Loan Fund.
By combining orders and maximizing savings, FSC broke the stranglehold that distributors of seeds and fertilizers had on farmers (charging high prices because there was no competition). Farmers also cooperated to plan their crops so that different farmers brought in cucumbers, say, in different weeks of the season.
FSC included cooperatives for aquaponics, shrimping, and catfish farming, as well as flowers, transplants and shrubs. In 1979 FSC expanded by collaborating with two other organizations, the Emergency Land Fund (addressing the issue of Black land loss) and the Southern Cooperative Development Fund (providing emergency loans to struggling co-ops).
FSC also trained agricultural workers to plan and build housing for displaced farmers. They operated the Black Belt Family Health Care Center in Epes, Alabama, an ambulatory preventative health care cooperative providing services on a sliding scale. FSC also ran the Right to Read Program, including in-home literacy classes for 500 members and small group classes. Incarcerated people got literacy training. There were also mini-libraries, GED training and vocational training. They developed credit unions, protected and expanded Black landholdings, and provided book-keeping and financial services. They advocated on policy issues for low-income cooperators.
There was white backlash. Some white business owners and white political officials had no moral qualms about destroying Black cooperatives. A group of Black farmers in 1965 formed the Grand Marie Vegetable Cooperative of Sunset, Louisiana. The low price they were getting for their sweet potatoes was about to force them off the land. They banded together and shipped $102,000 worth of sweet potatoes to market in 1971. In 1972 a group of white growers asked the bank to stop the line of credit to Grand Marie. Their checks bounced, leaving them in a precarious financial situation.
In 1979, a federal grand jury in northern Alabama ordered FSC to provide all documents relating to federal funding for the past four years. The 18-month investigation did not lead to any charges, as they found no wrongdoing. It was an exercise in grinding down FSC. Defending itself cost FSC $20,000 in legal fees, and lots of wasted time. There are other examples of such harassment. Alabama state troopers stopped a fleet of refrigerated cooperative trucks, keeping them at the side of the road until they ran out of fuel, causing the produce to rot after several hours in the Alabama heat.
Fifty-three years later, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is still organizing Black cooperatives in the southern states, running a land assistance fund, a food box program, rural training, networking opportunities, technical assistance, and more. They accept donations on their website.
The next chapter, about the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), tells the stories of some of the descendants of those who migrated north, specifically to Detroit, for work. Sadly economic decline arrived there too, starting with the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, resulting in white flight and car manufacture moving elsewhere. Black flight followed in the early 2000s. Knowing that returning to growing food was an effective strategy of survival and resistance, the remaining Black community resisted pressure to leave and formed agricultural communities.
Following the 2008-2010 foreclosure crisis, the population shrank further and public services were cut again. DBCFSN mobilized the Black community with conversations about food sovereignty and food security, mutual aid, collective wealth-building and general political education. Today, Detroit is a major center for urban farming and community food systems.
In 2008, D-Town Farm grew out of the school garden at the Nsoroma Institute, when the city of Detroit asked DBCFSN to consider a 2-acre space in Meyers Tree Nursery, Rouge Park. Five more acres were added in 2011. By 2016, D-Town Farm was producing over 30 different vegetables, as well as mushrooms and honey. Hoophouses and a large composting operation are included. They have an annual internship program and a volunteer program, as well as a paid manager and staff. Their produce is sold mainly at city farmers markets.
The farm participates in Keep Growing Detroit, which promotes Detroit as “a food sovereign city where the majority of fruit and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city limits.” Food is a gateway to foster a sense of self-determination and self-reliance. The major grocery chain in Detroit closed, and growing food became a necessity. Cooperatives help resources stay in the neighborhood and build it up, rather than get siphoned off to shareholders elsewhere.
The African American urban farming movement encourages us to “dig deeper,” further than the traumas of enslavement, sharecropping and exploitative tenant farming, back to roots as people of the land. This counter-narrative shows how food production is an aspect of self-reliance, collective resilience and resistance. Aside from food resources, cooperatives offer information, community support, physical exercise, and solutions to problems in politics, education, housing and policing. Three strategies: sharing (resources, ideas, labor and solutions), participation in decision-making (politics) and economic autonomy, are the building blocks of community resiliency.
Book Review: Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights
by Pete Daniel, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 352 pages, with 17 photos, $29.95.
Dispossession is a very gripping and valuable book, a combination of detailed history and personal stories, making plain how African American farmers were systematically deprived of their land and livelihood by the white-controlled agri-government during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Yes, the same “civil rights era” when some substantial success was made against racial discrimination. At that same time, agriculture was experiencing big changes leading to increased yields. Mechanization, herbicides and pesticides reduced the number of farmworkers needed. Between 1940 and 1974, the number of African American farmers fell by an astounding 93 percent, compared with a much smaller number of white farmers leaving the land. The magnitude of this decline was personal tragedy to those farmers and it was not coincidental – white people in the USDA manipulated the distribution of information, loans, grants and of positions of power, to favor white farmers. This shameful part of American history only slowly became apparent to me, a white immigrant farmer, as I noticed USDA reparation efforts within phrases like “historically under-served”. Quite the under-statement!
The USDA promoted capital-intensive agriculture and subsidized already wealthy farmers headed in this direction. At the same time, the USDA put barriers in the way of women and minority farmers seeking a fair share of resources, including the important acreage allotments (approval to grow certain acreages of wheat, cotton, corn, tobacco, peanuts, and rice). These production controls had been introduced in the mid-1950s to prevent surplus production. Every couple of years the rules changed, and not all farmers were given the needed information to apply for that year’s permits and price support mechanisms.
The USDA had been run by white men since it was formed in 1862, and, with the exception of the Negro Extension Service, African Americans were excluded from any decision-making positions. Many individuals and organizations worked to get USDA to remove the discrimination, and to help African Americans get a fair distribution of the resources. Pete Daniel’s book focuses on the South in the years before the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class action suit, which won compensation for discrimination occurring after 1981. Previously there was no real check on USDA discrimination. The class action suit opened the way for similar suits by women, Native Americans and Latinx farmers.
The first couple of chapters of the book give the overview and make for information-packed reading. After setting the stage, Pete Daniel shares individual stories of farmers, civil rights volunteers, and black extension agents. The first chapter is called “Intended Consequences”. Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination, the US Commission on Civil Rights (created to monitor the application of the Act) reported in March 1965 of a broad range of discriminatory practices in every office of the USDA. It took 30 years before Timothy Pigford brought the suit that found the USDA guilty of widespread discrimination. The broken promise of “Forty acres and a mule” for every soldier in the Civil War was followed by decades of subverted laws and farming programs that left black farmers unjustly treated. And Pigford did not fix everything! Congress did not make funds available until 2010, by which time many of the mistreated farmers had died or lost their farms. And all the farmers discriminated against before 1981 received no recompense.
At the very time that laws were supposedly protecting Black people from bias, Black farmers were suffering the most crippling discrimination. It was very hard for sharecroppers to become tenant farmers, with control over the sale of their own crops. Their fortunes were eroded by labor laws, bad weather, bankers, landlords and pests. Diets were poor, and so was sanitation and health, as well as childhood schooling. Many tenants and sharecroppers became redundant as machinery took their jobs.
Black farmers who succeeded did so by cultivating white support, as advised by Booker T Washington. The decline of Black farmers after World War II was in strong contrast with their gains in the 50 years after Emancipation from slavery. Over-production led to lower prices, which led to desperate farmers.
The USDA was founded during the Civil War to encourage better farming methods throughout the country. In 1862, Congress funded land-grant universities in each state. Since Southern white schools would not admit Black students, Congress funded the African American land grant colleges in 1890 (with fewer resources than went to the white colleges).
The 1887 Hatch Act established agricultural research stations, and Congress established the segregated and unequal Federal Extension Service in 1914, operating out of the land-grant universities, providing some farmers with advice and information. The organization of the Extension Service was convoluted, territorial and discriminatory, and extension agents wielded enormous power. The confused structure lead to claims that some agents were employed by the county and some were federal employees. (All, in fact, were part of the federal civil service retirement system and held civil service appointments.)
White agents oversaw the Negro Extension Service, which was hosted by the 1890 land-grant colleges. Black agents got lower pay and poorer equipment, but the jobs offered respectability and the opportunity to serve rural people. Women working for the Home Demonstration service got a lot of satisfaction from the work. African American Extension agents had to tread a fine line when addressing the needs of Black famers and preserving goodwill with whites. Many whites only tolerated black agents who did not challenge their authority or disrupt farm labor.
A white agent with 6 years’ work experience with the extension service was paid $375 a month, while a black agent with 14 years’ experience was paid only $212. The Black agent received considerably less information from the office, and was kept out of the decision-making loop. In some places, the furniture for the Black agent’s office was much poorer quality than that in the white agent’s office; Black agents received no vehicles, and little demonstration materials and had to do their own typing. Black agents were usually isolated from decision-making and rarely interacted with their white counterparts. Because the USDA functioned in isolation, the white leadership in USDA had not been challenged about their discriminatory practices.
Loans often went to wealthier farmers rather than the poor farmers for whom the program was intended. Black farmers assumed many of the programs were for whites only, and did not apply. Or they decided that the costs of upsetting the applecart were higher than the costs of managing without those resources. As pressure mounted on the agricultural organizations to appoint or elect African Americans, whites turned to intimidation, tokenism and duplicity, such as getting permission to include the name of an African American on a committee, but then not telling the person which committee or when they met. His name was sought to satisfy requirements, but his participation was not wanted.
During early 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was preparing for the Freedom Summer, and the US Commission on Civil Rights turned its attention to the USDA. This 6-person commission made investigations and reports but had no enforcement power. The National Sharecroppers Fund had filed nine discrimination cases with the Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, but Freeman had reported that all Mississippi USDA agencies had denied discrimination, as if that was a fact. The commission interviewers questioned USDA agents throughout the South, and observed unchallenged malpractice in powerful southern USDA county offices. Black farmers had not received information about new trends or programs or loans. Black farmers often received no notices of conservation service or other committee elections, or even of their right to vote.
Successful Black farmers made their own way, finding sources of loans outside pf the government agencies that should have helped them. Many Black farmers had no idea they even had access to USDA. Many USDA committees throughout the South controlled which farmers received information. Acreage allotment increases went to the “committeemen. White land-grant universities paid lip service to the support of civil rights, but distributed the resources as they liked.
Towards the end of the Freedom Summer of 1964, civil rights activists moved into helping African Americans benefit from federal programs. They also hoped to get Black farmers onto committees where they could have influence by force of numbers. Many believed the jobs were for whites only. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were squeezed out when committee work involved calculations they had never been taught to do, or understanding complex farm programs.
This left the field open for white agents to ignore deceitful acreage measurements by white farmers. Surpluses were not destroyed, even in cases where they were hundreds of acres in excess. Some ballot boxes were stuffed, some elections were declared invalid. In order to preserve central control and shore up apparent participation, committee members sometimes convinced farmers of the value of programs that did not help them.
Court jurisdiction in disputes was replaced by powerful committees that were not neutral, and did not rely on established precedent. Farmers were at the mercy of the personal preferences of the committeemen.
SNCC workers saw how sharecroppers did not have access to their accounts, and Willie Mae Robinson in Mississippi, for example, picked 20 bales of cotton in 1962, that should have brought her $1870. But she was only given $3.
In 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, civil rights leaders there urged John Lewis, the SNCC chair, to tone down his criticism of the Kennedy administration for unlawful arrests and failure to promote the civil rights bill. SNCC was seen as outside the main campaign for civil rights. When farmers in Mississippi provided housing for the SNCC workers, they suffered economic reprisals. When they registered to vote, they risked losing their homes and their jobs. Sharecroppers had no bargaining chips. One key for progress was to get Black farmers to stand for seats on the Conservation Service committees.
In 1965, The Conservation Service (ASCS) took steps to make sure all farmers had the chance to vote, and that the elections would be fair. But there was widespread fraud and intimidation, which the Conservation Service chose to ignore. Sometimes Black farmers found their names had been added to the ballot in an effort to dilute Black votes, preventing any African American farmers getting seats on the committee. Or ballots included only Black nominees chosen by white committees for their cooperation with whites rather than their support of Black farmers. “Discouragement” and humiliating treatment of this sort was widespread. Black farm wives in one county had been required to collect their own ballot slips at the office instead of receiving them in the mail like everyone else. Whites exacted a price for Black activism, such as registering to vote. Physical intimidation and violence, firing from jobs, and petty insults, such as using only first names for Black people, were common.
All-black advisory committees were set up to assist white ASCS committees, although this was not the equal participation mandated for federal programs. Unsurprisingly, white committees continued to run the show. SNCC workers offered workshops and stressed how important participation in ASCS elections was. They gave support by putting opaque election rules into plain English, and using stick-figure diagrams to explain elections, so farmers could understand what options they had.
The next year, Horace Godfrey, the head of ASCS, ordered counties to hire non-whites for temporary summer jobs at the same percentage of the population as whites. This was challenging in high-majority Black counties, and with few Black farmers owning cars. Also, the numbers of Black farmers were declining, leaving whites more control. However, overall, Godfrey’s hiring initiative became the best civil rights action taken by any USDA administrator in the 1960s. This did not smoothly lead to the hiring of more Black farmers for permanent jobs, although the ASCS set up a training program for clerical positions, which helped a few individuals each year and cracked the segregation within ASCS.
1965 included an escalation of violence, with the assassination of Malcolm X, the police brutality towards the marchers in Selma, President Johnson’s increase of troops in the Vietnam War, and the introduction of the draft. Press attention turned towards the war and away from civil rights.
In July 1965, Nyle Brady (the soil scientist), as the USDA’s director of science and education, claimed that the Extension Service had contacted 312,000 non-white southern farmers. Census numbers showed that there were less than 200,000 nonwhite farmers in the South.
Many elections were rigged, but Washington refused to take corrective action, or even admit anything was wrong. In July 1966 in Lowndes County, Alabama there was such blatant fraud that Stokely Carmichael reflected “If the government can spend billions of dollars to kill people in Vietnam to assure free elections, then they had better spend some of those dollars to assure free elections in the Lowndes County ASCS.” Stokely Carmichael led SNCC away from civil rights organizations including their white allies and focused more on color rather than class. He introduced the Black Power slogan, which meant different things to different people, perhaps as “Defund the Police” does in our times. His belligerent words alienated John Lewis, Charles Sherrod and Julian Bond, who all resigned from SNCC in 1966.The last of the white allies left in the spring of 1967, a step that was painful to many of them. The representation of Black farmers on ASCS suffered as a result of this pivot of attention in the SNCC.
During 1968, support from civil rights workers for southern Black farmers dwindled as political activists focused on anti-war efforts. Increasingly, the focus of discrimination included women, who were extremely rare within USDA. In a summary of minorities on county committees, there were no women at all. Beginning to employ Black people and white women changed the office culture. Training programs began for minorities (and women?), to qualify them for jobs in ASCS.
Integrating 4H camps proved too challenging for some white extension administrators, who cancelled the whole program rather than integrate. I am reminded of the closing of the white public swimming pool in one county in Virginia, by those in power, who would not integrate. The county remained without a public swimming pool for decades.
In 1981, the USDA had disbanded its Office of Civil Rights and stopped responding to farmers who had filed complaints. The US Commission on Civil Rights reported in 1982 on continued injustice in every program, which resembled too much the discrimination exposed in its 1965 report. By 1982 only 33,000 Black farmers remained in the South. Isidoro Rodriguez headed the Office of Minority Affairs from 1981, and in a bid to support the Republicans, dropped civil rights guidelines that were contrary to the Reagan administration. Investigations dropped from 90 a year to zero. He cut staff by ten and returned $475,000 in unspent funds. He was fired in 1983.
The 1984 House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing included as a witness, Timothy Pigford, who went on to file a class action suit, after eight years of struggling to afford to farm in the teeth of very bad advice and no financial assistance from the USDA. The 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class action suit won compensation for discrimination occurring after 1981 claims of discrimination. (The two-year statute of limitations was extended to cover the longer period.) Theoretically, before that date, the office of Civil Rights had dealt with complaints, although as we have seen, this was a big whitewash.
As a result of Pigford, farmers lacking incomplete documentation of their claim could get a cash payment of $50,000 and forgiveness of debts owed to the USDA. Farmers with documentation had no cap on what they could recover. Judge Friedman commented that the billions of dollars due to farmers for discrimination would show that the USDA was not above the law and remind them of the consequences of discrimination.
The payment of compensation resulting from Pigford claims was delayed in some cases for a decade, until February 2010 when the Obama administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement with African American farmers.
Memory fades and the history of the civil rights movement is mythologized as a string of heroes, achievements and successes. Like the earlier faked compliance reports, the success story has edited out conflicts, obstruction of justice and the many individual and small group efforts to bring justice. The USDA spoke of equal opportunity even as it obscured inequities in lending and provision of information and assistance and discriminated in choosing employees, and as it continued bad policies that drove more African American farmers off the land. Resources went to relatively wealthy white farmers
To compound the problems of Black farmers, many died without making a will, and all the heirs inherited the farm. Any heir could later sell their share outside the family to someone who could force a partition sale. Problems with Heirs’ Property caused a further loss of farming land in the African American community.
In July 1987 only 33 of 2,520 county directors in the nation were Black. Most of the offices by then were staffed by white women. All the Good Old Boys were resisting having a Black man in charge.
After Pigford, the USDA did backslide, and in 2009, Tom Vilsack as the incoming Secretary of Agriculture, inherited 11,000 unprocessed civil rights complaints, several class action suits and 113,000 employee discrimination complaints. In November 1999, Native American farmers had filed a suit that led to a $760million fund to pay damages, as well as cancelled debts. Hispanics sued in 2000. Women sued and were added to the Hispanic farmers’ case. These cases opened the way for more claims from other minorities who had suffered discrimination.
Lloyd Wright, former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton—and himself a farmer—on his family farm in Montross, Virginia. Photo Donnamaria Jones
No financial settlement makes up for humiliation, distress and loss, and many of these farmers had already lost their land by the time they received money. It is past time we treated everyone with decency and justice.
Click the link for an interview with Pete Daniel and Jess Gilbert on Edge Effects