For many, summer is a time of exploration, adventure, and, as result, reflection. With sunshine and blue skies above, the call of road trips, hikes, climbs, paddles, and all other journeys of the day, get us up and away from our desks. During these days, we put ourselves in the way of nature and its beauty – reminding us of our place in it all.
The other day I was reminded of an old favorite, Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blesses, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The last two lines of this beautiful poetic meditation on life have been burning in my mind, especially given my work with local food supply chains this summer. “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I count myself lucky to be mentored by a powerhouse team of NC sustainable food systems leaders, and for all the learning experiences and opportunities that have crossed my path.
Given that Firsthand Foods is a food hub, their role in the Triangle’s local food scene is aggregating animals from various NC farmers, creating meat products through second party processors, and distributing these products to local retailers who otherwise would have to manage all of these relationships individually. Not an easy undertaking.
My involvement with this food supply chain has included documenting visits to our farmers and NCDA’s research stations, connecting with cooperative markets and their staff, surveying UNC-Chapel Hill’s sustainable local food sourcing model, and meeting many young people who are passionate, knowledgeable, and driven to rebuild local food economies.
For us youths involved in this landscape of local food, we are picking our niches, plugging in, and getting things accomplished. The spaces we carve out for ourselves – be it community gardening, farming, composting food waste, organizing, blogging, lobbying, or just getting the knowledge and facts out there (the real ones), are what many of us have chosen to do with our one wild and precious life.
With all that said, I’ve realized on the surface levels of the local food “movement” (which get most widely and quickly communicated to the masses), many of the conversations being had are saying the same things.
Local is better. We need more farmers. Resilience over production. Increase access to land. Fresher whole foods in our schools. Food access and nutrition. Sustainable farming practices. Farm workers rights. Humane animal treatment. Environmental stewardship.
Rural agriculture. Urban agriculture. American agriculture. Agrarian pride.
All of these issues and guiding principles are integral to growing, mobilizing, and strengthening local food economies, but sometimes (perhaps too often) we become rooted in cyclical discussions about the same things. We talk about the same subjects in different ways, coming up with the same solutions in different forms, which often render the same successes, the same failures, and the same frustrations.
So I ask the question – is the same improvement, really improvement?
There is an enormous grey space of what is not being acknowledged or discussed in the mainstream – unless you get into the nitty gritty of farm coalitions, community action/working groups, food policy councils, related listserves, and the like, which not many people do. But, within the fog there exists a powerful truth once realized.
What is that truth?
As human beings, we exist as part of our ecosystem, a large whole whose complexity is much greater than the sum of all its parts. The same goes for our food system. By isolating issues, we distance ourselves from the full range of possible solutions. Though we cannot alter time and retract what has already happened, we can alter the way we think about the reasons and causes behind the ways we know and experience food. I’ll endeavor to do just that by exploring some grey matter that’s been wracking my mind lately.
This year, I’ve been closely following two issues in the food realm – the Young Farmer Success Act (HR 2590) and the Farm to School Act of 2015 (S 569 and HR 1601).
HR 2590 was introduced in Congress on June 1st by Rep. Gibson (R-NY) and Rep. Courtney (D-CT). This bill is part of a widespread effort spearheaded by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) to address one of the biggest barriers to entry level young farmers – student loan debt. Though there are many young, educated, and able-bodied young people wanting to enter into the field, student loans hinder their ability to acquire the necessary start up loans and greatly limits the possibility for profit. Thus, many who want to and can farm, and who approach the industry with an education that is dynamic and diversified by virtue of having attained a college degree, simply can’t, or, if they do, they struggle.
In a 2012 government survey, the average age of American farmers was 58. Now, in 2015, there are many young people choosing a life of farming and we have a food system needing innovative thinkers, able bodies, and effective technological advances, especially in the face of climate change. We need those young farmers with student debt to enter in and stay in the industry because we need those college educations to strengthen our sustainability, widen diversity, and deepen the efficiency of our agricultural sector. So, what does that boil down to? We need our government to acknowledge the most blatant and paramount truth of this sector – that farming is in fact public service.
NYFC is pushing the platform of“farming is public service” as their main campaign (#FarmingIsPublicService), which is also the purpose of the bill. HR 2590 would modify the Higher Education Act of 1965 to include farming as public service, therefore adding farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This program currently includes government service, nursing, and teaching, and public service professionals within this program making 10 years of income-driven student loan payments have the balance of their loans forgiven after this period.
Last week, NYFC also releaseed the results of a survey of more than 700 young farmers on the matter. Here are some highlights:
– Only a scant 6% of all US farmers are under the age of 35
– Between 2007 and 2012 America gained only 1,220 principal farm operators under 35
– During this same period, the total number of principal farm operators dropped by 95,000+
– Respondents carried an average student loan debt of $35,000
– 30% say college debt delays or prevents them from entry level farming
– 53% are farming but struggling to pay their student loans
– 20% are unable to obtain credit because of their student loans
– 28% say student loan pressure is preventing them from growing their business
– Respondents continue to value their college education, despite its cost, and think it will help make them better farmers
The answers speak for themselves. Student loan debt is one of the major barriers to the success of entry level farmers, as well as those currently in the field who still have payments progressing well into the future of their careers, accruing interest all along the way.
Now, let’s shift gears to the Farm to School Act of 2015.
Farm to school programming is one of the most engaging and affective approaches to child nutrition that encompasses two very important issues.
As reported by the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), over 30% of all children in the US are overweight or obese. This results in more missed school days and poor academic performance. Additionally, obese children experience more medical costs throughout their lifetime – totaling a rough estimate of $14 billion.
Shifting over to the food supply, farmers receive only 16 cents of every food dollar, which is significantly lower than the 31 cents received in 1980. There are clear weaknesses surrounding child nutrition in our country and the low integrity of compensation for agricultural work.
Thus, farm to school programming engages both of theses issues in a way that improves the health of children and their families and the profitability and support of the farmers.
So what does the act call for? SB 569, HR 1061 would expand the success of the USDA Farm to School Grant Program by:
– Enabling school districts to more flexibly include preschools, summer food service sites, and after school programs
– Increasing annual mandatory funding from $5 million to $15 million to better meet high demand and need
– Improving farm to school participation from beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers
– Enhancing access among tribal schools to farm-fresh and traditional foods, especially from tribal producers
– Identifying and eliminating regulatory and other administrative barriers to the development of farm to school efforts
Given the many successes in farm to school programming since the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, farm to school makes sense – especially in our beautiful day and age when sodas and sugar are being identified as the culprits, and kale and milk as our friends. We’re getting farmers connected with schools, boosting their businesses as a result of increased purchase quantities. We’re getting children and their families educated about the nutrition of their food and the process around how it’s grown, empowering them to make more beneficial purchasing choices. We’re connecting the dots, but, still, we’re missing some of the links.
The grey space for me between these two efforts (HR 2590 and S 569, HR 1601) is that we are adamant about engaging farmers to produce whole natural foods that we are granting our schools to incorporate into dining services and curriculums, and calling for a forgiveness of payments for the education of our farmers. We create all these ebbs and flows of government dollars towards different efforts when a huge cultural disconnect seems to be at the heart of things.
What if a child who has had the opportunity to experience farm to school programming decides on a life of farming? Let’s call this kid Shiloh (I like this name). Shiloh becomes a member of the FFA in high school, and enters into college pursuing an education along the lines of agricultural technology, horticulture studies, or food systems. She does this in order to gain as much knowledge as possible in order to become the best farmer possible. Instead of working odd jobs during the summers, she does organic farming apprenticeships to get on the ground experience. In 4 years, she graduates with a multidisciplinary education with a focus on sustainable and organic agriculture, but, as a result of seeking a top notch education, she has incurred a large amount of student debt preventing her from affording or qualifying for the necessary start up capital she needs to be able to farm. What does Shiloh do now?
Picture this scenario on the scale of 700+ farmers and would be farmers, or 7000. Now, with the average American farmer being 58 and with less than 2,000 young principal farmers entering the field every 5 years or so, what happens when those older farmers retire? Who will be able to successfully produce the fresh wholesome foods that doctors are beginning to prescribe their patients? That are schools want in their dining halls? That our children need in their diets in order to lessen their risks for medical debt, or worse, death? Who will be producing the millions of dollars worth of farm fresh foods that the Farm to School Act of 2015 is calling for? Who will be the farmers that the bill supports?
There are many entry level barriers to farming. Student loan debt is just one, but it is a big one. I definitely urge any an all to support both bills, but beyond that, I urge you to consider the grey matter. The space that isn’t discussed. The hard truth that it is our system, our culture, and the way we’ve accepted things as being that hinders us from greater possibilities of change. I challenge you to change that, and put two and two together. Connect those links.