Dismantling injustice in the food system: An interview with Elizabeth Henderson

Liz_Henderson_tractorBy Sara Black, NYFC Development Coordinator and Organizer

Last year I had the privilege of chatting with Elizabeth Henderson, a pioneer of the CSA model in the United States and an agrarian leader committed to resisting the many injustices of a cheap food system with the power of cooperation!

Liz co-founded the Genesee Valley Organic CSA in Rochester, NY in 1989, and later Peacework Farm in Newark, NY in 1998. She’s the author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture*; the honorary president of the international CSA network, Urgenci; and a core leader behind the Agricultural Justice Project and its Food Justice Certification label.

From the outset of our conversation, Liz took me to school, sharing advice, concerns, history, and visions; we talked about her Food Justice Certification label, the need for “smashing racism” as we build a new food system, and the minimum wage.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Sara: It’s been nearly 20 years since Sharing the Harvest was first published, and quite a few food and farmer movement waves have unfolded since then. Where do you think farmers and activists have gained the best ground, and what challenges are most pressing?

Liz: Well, there’s been a huge increase in the number of CSAs. At the same time, as you’d expect in a competitive capitalist society, someone will find a way to commercialize it and cheapen it. So there’s also been a proliferation of CSA-like food services. Some of these are really nice cooperative ventures with farmers sharing resources and setting up websites, as a way of cooperating and sharing markets. But a lot of these are just aggregators who are using the CSA image to make some money. Those aggregators are making it harder for CSA’s that are based on farms.

They are providing a lot of competition, making farmers think “How can I make my project more convenient for people. Give them a choice every week? Ask for less of a time commitment? Deliver to people’s door?” That undermines the basic concept of CSA: sharing the risk. CSA’s are the only form where conscious consumers get to share the risk with their farmer or group of farmers. So, when farmers give up on that, they are giving up a lot.

In our food industry, the biggest direct sales markets have gotten up to maybe 10 percent of what people are buying, and that’s in places like Vermont. But that still means that 90 percent of the food people are eating is coming from stores, super markets, buying clubs, food services. Now all these food hubs are springing up. Someone had the bright idea, “Ah, yes, we can aggregate!” But food hubs don’t guarantee a price that covers farmers’ costs of production, and they don’t ensure that farmers are getting a living wage and paying living wages. We haven’t figured out a way of doing those larger sales with a price point that allows family scale farms to thrive. Economics are still very, very challenging. (more…)

New report on Western Water: Conservation Generation

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Across most of the arid West, drought has been the norm for the last 15 years. The majority of young farmers and ranchers in this region have never farmed in non-drought conditions, which means they are uniquely focused on creative solutions to water conservation. NYFC’s new report, Conservation Generation: How Young Farmers And Ranchers Are Essential to Tackling Water Scarcity in the Arid West, paints a picture of these young farmers, their approach to water, and the challenges they face.

To gather data for the report, NYFC surveyed 379 young farmers in the arid West and hosted eight focus groups (thank you to everyone who participated!). Survey respondents were asked questions about their chief agricultural concerns as well as their approach to water conservation and their engagement with and knowledge of water policy and government programs related to conservation.

ConservationGeneration_cover_Page_01Here are a few of the key findings:

  • Water, drought, and climate change are the top agricultural concerns of young farmers in the West. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents listed water availability/access as one of their concerns;
  • Young farmers prioritize water conservation, and the vast majority (94%) are already conserving water;
  • Building healthy soil is the most common on-farm water conservation strategy;
  • Federal cost-share programs are not reaching young farmers in the West;
  • Perceptions of “use it or lose it” discourage on-farm conservation.                       

Download the report here. 

Western agriculture and water scarcity are regional issues of national importance; the Colorado River, a focus area of this report, flows through the Rockies toward the Gulf of California while irrigating 15% of the nation’s crops and 85% of its winter produce. As much as 80% of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, so on-farm water conservation efforts are important in any conversation about water scarcity. (more…)

Funding our farm: loans, grants, and a gamble

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By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

When Brandon and I decided to start Furrow Horse Farm last January, we knew we were about to spend a lot of money. We were moving onto leased land that had no infrastructure, and we needed to build hoop houses and put up a deer fence.

Since we had both been working for other farmers in the years after graduating from college, we didn’t have very much money saved, nor did we have inheritances or farmland in our families. We didn’t have so much as a wheelbarrow or a hoe. So how could we raise the roughly $10,000 we knew we needed to successfully start our farm?

We began by asking our family members for small loans. Most turned us down, as they did not view farming as a real business venture and did not think we could actually make any money growing vegetables. My parents, however, believed in us and have supported us all along, and they were willing to loan us money for tools and equipment.

Next, we applied for a Kiva Zip loan through the Greenhorns, and were approved. Kiva Zip Loans are crowd-funded, but the lenders are paid back every cent. And as borrowers we are charged 0% interest. Within 24 hours of posting our Kiva Zip Loan ask on social media, we were fully funded. We began making our repayments in August, and will be totally paid off within two years. At that point we will be eligible for a larger Kiva Loan if we choose to do another.

Finally, at the last minute, I applied for a grant through a private philanthropic organization based in Seattle that is dedicated to helping sustainable farmers in Washington, especially those with financial need. In my grant application, I wrote about our dream of farming with draft horses and reducing our use of fossil fuels on the farm. One month later, we heard back—we had been chosen for the grant! It was a total game-changer, and the only reason we were able to purchase draft equipment and our team of draft horses this year. Even better, we don’t have to pay the money back! (more…)

Our big goal: Giving back to veterans

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

It’s that time of year— a new year, new goals. For many entrepreneurs, the end of one year and the beginning of the next is a time to reflect and clarify goals. What have we accomplished? Where are we headed? What’s the best way to get there?

A quick recap of 2015
Willow Springs Farm has developed from a 24-page business plan to an actual farm. This time last year, I recall telling my husband that, “if we still own the land in a year, I’ll consider it a success.” Both of us have student loans, and we were building new businesses while working full-time in addition to farming. While the farm’s business model was pretty solid, its execution was hampered by multiple financing rejections and two failed crowdfund campaigns. Just seemed like the cards were stacked against us from the get-go.

After licking our wounds from a few setbacks, we revamped our business model, requiring customers to pay upfront for custom beef products. Such limited offerings narrowed our customer base but enabled us to purchase cattle and get the ball rolling.

Here’s where we’re headed
Having lived in the community a little over a year now, I’ve been able to develop relationships with area farmers and land owners. Our goal for 2016 is to grow our little herd to 20 head and enter a five-year lease with neighboring property owners for additional grazing land and water resources.

HannaWithGrass_croppedThe cool thing about this bootstrapped business approach (aka: not qualifying for traditional financing) is that we’re operating a debt-free farm. Have you ever even heard of such?! It’s slower growth, but it is super neat to own 100 percent of a business.

Our farm is located about 45-minutes outside of the Kansas City metro area, which presents a huge market opportunity for Willow Springs. Our current customers are mostly from our rural county, but we hope to expand into the metro area. There are several restaurants in the area that are always looking for additional local grass-fed beef suppliers. Theses restaurateurs aren’t able to order whole beef packages 12 to 16 months in advance; however, they have expressed interest in our products once we’re able to offer retail cuts. It’s exciting to see such expansion opportunities develop.

Double bottom-line
Giving back to our community has always been a “biggie” for us. As members of the military community, we’re keenly aware of the employment challenges today’s veterans and military spouses are facing. While unemployment stats and backlogged VA claims may just be news headlines to most Americans, they’ve been the overwhelming theme of our post-war life. (more…)

A day in my life: 15 miles and one noisy cat

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By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

A day in the life of this farmer can vary, but since I began farming full time, I wake up in a great mood. I can usually get a few giggles and smiles out of my pre-coffee, drowsy wife, a feat in its own right, I assure you. But I digress. I understand fully how blessed I am to live the way I was meant to, which undoubtedly correlates to my happiness as a human and as a steward of planet earth. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like—torrential rain, freezing temperatures, or Texas’s famous sultry heat—am always excited to go outside and take stock of things.

It may sound crazy, because I am here at the farm all the time, but getting up and seeing what did or did not happen during the night is interesting. Of course there will be days where staying in bed under the warm covers is more tempting than throwing on layers of clothes just to feed the animals, but it has to be done, and I don’t mind it. Ever.

My first breath of fresh air on the porch is always greeted by three waggling tails. The dogs are the first to know when I am awake, but they are always willing to wait patiently for my appearance. After they get some good pats, we all begin chores together with the two shepherds leading the way. These companions of mine are such pros at being farm dogs, they can show most humans how chores are done. As we walk toward the barn to get feed for everyone, our barn cat, who I unfortunately trained to meow to communicate with me, begins her attention-seeking behavior. So while I get the feed, I hear nothing but deafening meows. She only quiets down when I leave the barn area, so I hurry. (more…)

Our farm is debt free … but that wasn’t the plan

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

Like many startups, my farm’s business plan has been tweaked a time or two. Initially, I wanted to start a commercial cow-calf operation, but I was unable to secure the financing necessary to get it off the ground. So instead I decided to explore a grass-fed beef operation and direct marketing opportunities, which offered lower startup costs plus higher profit margins.

The downside was, the production cycle for grass-fed beef is longer than for a commercial cow-calf business, so it would be a long while before I made any money. Also, my education and industry certifications were all focused on traditional cattle operations, so learning the ins and outs of more natural beef production was all on me. I read everything “grass-fed” I could find, and reached out to several other grass-fed farmers in the area. After a couple months of research, I compiled the info and revisited the original commercial cow-calf business plan I drafted in business school. By adjusting the production strategy and numbers to fit grass-fed beef, I finally had a roadmap customized for Willow Springs Farm.

But despite lowering my startup costs, I still needed capital to launch my business. My initial three options for funding my cattle—a crowdfund campaign, USDA/FSA financing, and outside investors—did not pan out. The crowdfund campaign did supply the money necessary for catch pen materials and additional fencing, so that was super helpful. But the USDA/FSA financing options did not work for me, and my network of tech startup investors were more interested in putting their money in the latest app than in cattle. At present, my farm is 100 percent self-funded, meaning I work my tail off as a full-time marketing and PR consultant and a part-time adjunct professor so I can put every extra dime in my “cow fund.” (more…)

Building a business plan that fit our community

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

When coming up with our business plan, we put a lot of thought into what would work best in our community. While most of the country is a decade or more into the local food movement, it is just beginning to take hold here in eastern Kentucky. Two of the most common direct-marketing strategies—farmers’ markets and CSAs—didn’t feel right for our community or our farm.

When we were first making a marketing plan for our vegetable crops, there were a few small and inconsistent farmers’ markets around, but we didn’t want to depend on them for our income (although we do now sell at them some.) Will and his parents were already direct marketing meat through a modified meat CSA program, but as I created a marketing plan for vegetables, a CSA didn’t feel right either.

As a beginning farmer learning to grow vegetables on a new piece of land, I didn’t want to place myself under the stress that could come from striving to maintain the abundance and consistency that a CSA requires. I also didn’t believe that I could require customers to pay a large sum of money upfront in our area. Our region is one of the poorest in the nation, and I did not want to exclude community members by asking customers to pay hundreds of dollars in one upfront sum. Although I understand the sentiment of community support and solidarity behind farmers choosing which items customers receive each week, I also wanted my customers to have a choice in the items and amounts they purchase. I thought it would be easier to convince folks to buy locally via a non-traditional method if they were able to retain their purchasing choice.

After much discussion, we finally settled on a buying club model. Customers join our buying club and are then sent weekly emails with a link to the updated online farm store. Customers choose which items they’d like to buy each week, how much of each item, and then order online. After receiving the orders, we pack the produce, meat, and eggs and deliver to centrally located drop off points. (more…)

FSMA Update: FDA Finalizes the Produce Rule

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By Eric Hansen, NYFC Policy Analyst 

This is what we have all been waiting for, at least those of us with a stake in farm policy. On November 13 , the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the final version of Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption, commonly known as the Produce Rule. This is the last new regulation we have been tracking under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) and our partners have been working on these rules for the past few years, and together our coalition provided FDA with a lot of feedback about how the rules could be effective without creating an unreasonable burden for farmers. You can check out some of our past work here.

The Produce Rule pertains to farms and covers the use of manure and compost; water quality; farmworker hygiene; and other potential causes of food-borne illness. NYFC has been watching this rule very careful, since it will be the primary regulation for food safety on farms. We raised serious concerns with the FDA when this rule was proposed two years ago, and we saw significant improvement in the draft released last year. The final rule closely mirrors the draft.

Our friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have the full rundown here, but we thought it would be helpful to summarize the high points of what this means for your farm:

Oranges_IMG_4415_cropWhen do theses regulations take effect?
The earliest deadlines for compliance begin in two years, starting January 2018. For farms that qualify as “small businesses,” which gross no more than $500,000 in produce sales annually (based on a rolling three-year average), compliance begins in January 2019. And for farms that qualify as “very small businesses,” which gross no more than $250,000 in produce sales annually (based on a rolling three-year average), compliance begins in January 2020.

How can I prepare?
Since the rules are so new, there is not a lot of guidance on how farms should ensure they meet the requirements. However, in the next year, the FDA and others will be helping farms sort out these requirements. Keep an eye out for more information on guidance and training next year. In addition, the FDA is asking for specific questions and recommendations for implementing the rule. You can submit those here.

There is one step you can take now.
If you think you will qualify as a small or very small business (grossing less than $500,000 or $250,000 respectively), make sure you are keeping records that reflect that. The FDA is going to want you to demonstrate that your farm meets these thresholds as far back as 2016 once compliance begins. The FDA will release specific guidance on what these records should look like, but until then, it’s a good idea to make sure you save any records you have.

So You Want to Be a Farmer? First, know this….

CaitlinandBrandon_working_collageBy Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

You want to be a farmer? That’s great news because we need a lot more farmers! But there are some things you should know before diving in:

1) Farming is really, really hard. (Let me stress that one more time….)
Seriously. The hardest work I’ve ever done. You will work longer days then you ever have and take less time off then ever before. You will be perennially sore and exhausted. You will have less money than most (if not all) of your friends. There is no paid vacation, no health insurance, no company-sponsored retirement plan.

2) Farmers are not just farmers.
There is a lot more to farming than just raising your crop and bringing it to market. Farmers are bookkeepers, marketing geniuses, writers, advertisers, organizers, social networkers, managers, and office workers. Not only do you need to be good at growing what you grow, you need to know how to start and run a successful business. (more…)

Nine months, 20 chickens, and $300: BOOTSTRAP AT EMADI ACRES FARM

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By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

Moving from a decent paying job to a job that reduces your income to below the poverty level is scary! But once you’re at the bottom, you know there is only one way to go. I conceded to my wife before I quit my teaching job that she would be the breadwinner for many years to come. It doesn’t bother me in the least bit, and she is completely cool with it. Man, am I lucky!

If I had a chance to do college all over again, I would have majored in agriculture and minored in business instead of going the psychology route. At times I feel clueless when it comes to the businessman’s mentality. I got into farming to farm, and admittedly overlooked the business side of things. The desire to accumulate wealth isn’t a strong sense I carry with me, but farming to make great food and provide for my family drives me. While I’m learning as I go, I would recommend any future farmers start learning business in tandem with farming. It’s something I wish I was well versed at.

Farming is a business as much as anything else, and like all businesses, you have to learn to play the numbers game. Is this venture worth the time, risk, and effort? When will I get my money back? How will I be profitable in the meantime?

For example, let’s say you have 20 chickens. If you buy the chickens as chicks for $4 each, that is an initial $80 investment. They will not make any money for you as egg-layers for at least 7-8 months. If you buy conventional feed for them, they will consume a 50-pound bag of feed per month at about $13 per bag. So that’s another $91 you pay before they can make you money. Once you throw in additional costs for their coop/pen, fencing, waterers and such, you will find yourself about $300 in the hole for seven months, and that’s if you get lucky and find cheap materials. (more…)