Archive for the ‘Organic Farming/Local Food’ category

Organic Valley At The Crossroads

July 28, 2015

The Organic Valley farmers coop has been a huge success. With national sales hitting almost $1 billion, this upstart challenger of conventional agriculture has helped create a massive consumer market for chemical-free farming. Small family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation have gone organic because of the premium prices their milk, eggs and meat attracts in the organic marketplace. But in researching this story for The Progressive magazine I found the coop in a surprisingly precarious position. I write:

Surging consumer demand for organics has created supply shortages for dairy products, and immense opportunities for profit. That has attracted some of the nation’s largest American food corporations to step up an already sizable investment in organics. These aren’t people motivated by protecting the environment, says David Kaseno of the National Farmers Organization. They are “people who think: ‘Hey we can make a lot of money in organic milk.’”

The $46 billion merger of Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Co. in March will prompt its rivals to bulk up by buying fast-growing organic food labels, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News predicted. The food giants already produce a stunning 70 percent of the items stocked in a typical co-op grocery, says Philip Howard,a Michigan State University professor who tracks corporate consolidation in the organic world.

For organic industry observers, this poses stark questions for Organic Valley: Is it smart enough and big enough to compete with the corporate giants? Will it yield to the temptation to compromise organic standards to maintain market share? More to the point, will it hold on to its all-important dairy members, who have been abandoning the co-op for the significantly better pay offered by some Organic Valley competitors?

This is the paradox of Organic Valley: At a moment of great success, it faces something of an existential threat.

To read more, please go here.

I interviewed a ton of people for the story, including Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Some of this views can be found in the story. I wrote an online sidebar that touches on other matters. I suspect that some people will be surprised at his positive impressions of Walmart. You can read about it here.

I also wrote about the Organic Valley coop for Isthmus. You can find those earlier stories from 2007 and 2008 here and here and here.

John Kinsman, the Family Farm Defender

May 30, 2012

Interviewing John Kinsman, the farmer activist  from Lime Ridge, was easily one of my more enjoyable assignments. The guy is fascinating, uniquely American in his personal history and  in committment to holding our country to its ideals. Here’s how the story in The Progressive magazine begins:

What could be more rare than cactus in a Wisconsin farmer’s wintry backyard? That would be the farmer himself if it’sJohn Kinsman. At age eighty-five, Kinsman has lived a singular life of activism.

This modest farmer from the Dairy State boondocks has traveled the world to stand with small farmers and indigenous people.

“You have to put your whole self into it,” he says of his approach. “You have to live what you’re saying.”

Kinsman has certainly done that. He’s locked arms with Native Americans like Winona LaDuke in their struggle. He founded the activist group Family Farm Defenders in 1994. He marched with his friend the French farm leader Jose Bové of anti-McDonald’s fame in “The Battle of Seattle” in 1999. He’s even sailed with Greenpeace.

How he managed all this while running a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, near tiny Lime Ridge, and raising ten children with his wife, Jean, may be the most improbable thing of all about Kinsman.

On a winter afternoon, Kinsman is just another Wisconsin farmer as he walks his 150 acres. He and Jean bought the worn-out, rock-strewn farm in the early 1950s not far from where his parents farmed. An early run-in with chemical pesticides put Kinsman in the hospital and converted him to organic farming. He points to the results.

Here are the pastures on which he rotationally grazes his milking herd of thirty-six Holsteins, the forested hills where he’s planted, literally, tens of thousands of trees, and the stand of fruit trees and bushes he’s grown around his house. And that patch of cacti—the prickly pear—was no exotic transplant but a stubborn native remnant from a warmer geological age in Wisconsin. Sort of like Kinsman himself.

Kinsman is a fourth-generation Wisconsin family farmer. His grandmother Samantha, who died at the age of ninety-seven in 1944, saw General Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Sandusky, Wisconsin. His dad was a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican who would vote for a dog if he were a Republican,” he says with a laugh. His own political awakening began in World War II, when on an Army train through Mississippi, he was upbraided for waving to the black people along the track.

To read more, please go here: http://www.progressive.org/family_farm_defender.html

I’ll Have What She’s Having

July 24, 2011

Here’s something different–a story about the most delicious peach in the world. It begins:

When approaching a ripe donut peach, one must temper lust with mindful restraint. First, assume a wide stance, slightly flexing your knees to maintain balance. Then gently grasp the saucer-shaped fruit with your thumb and middle finger, careful not to squeeze too tightly. Thrust your head forward, eyes closed, chin out, mouth open and prepare to swoon.

That first bite will release a wave of sugary goodness slobbering down your chin and, you hope, not on your Tommy Bahama camp shirt or Eileen Fisher cami. Spritzing is always a danger. Envious friends and family who have leaned in to take a close look may get a sudden jet of peach juice to the face.

They too may fall to the ground, writhing in pleasure.

“It’s a fruit you would have expected in the Garden of Eden,” says a close friend who shall remain nameless to protect her professional  reputation. “It’s fleshy and practically obscene with sticky sweet, dripping juices. If I were Eve, I would have tempted Adam with a donut peach.”

Psst. I can get you some….

Tempted?  To read more, go here.  Among other things, you’ll learn  that, according to Daoist mythology,  a single bite of a donut peach can bring immortality.

Chew On This

April 27, 2011

Personally, I’m big on local food and try to buy organic products. As a journalist, I find the organic/local food movement a  fascinating topic, but don’t see my role as that of an advocate.  In this column for Isthmus, I detail my reservations about the city building a large public market in downtown Madison.

For sure, the public market is beguiling in the abstract. Imagine a glistening 10- or 11-story office tower rising next to the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co., where the aging Government East parking ramp now sits. Picture the first floor with 51 vendors situated inside a festive kiosk environment selling everything from chocolate to seafood to wine, with another 30 carts and stalls offering local farm products and goodies. A consultant predicts 808 new jobs.

Sounds marvelous, but there is reason for skepticism.

Real estate developers I’ve talked with see any number of major problems. Among other things, they say the costly, open-space, “clear-span” construction needed for the Public Market would drive up construction expenses to the point where the building’s rental rates would be dangerously expensive for the Madison real estate market. They warn that managing so many small and financially at-risk tenants is difficult, and worry about the impact on existing restaurants and the Wednesday Farmers’ Market.

“The Public Market would be a nice thing for Madison, but my concern is that will end up requiring a very large taxpayer subsidy,” says developer Sue Springman. “If it does, we need to know that going in and not be surprised later.”

In a city stung by the Overture Center miscalculations, Springman’s warning ought to be taken seriously.

To read more,  please click here.

Eating Locally In Eau Claire

December 15, 2010

On occasion, I write about good news. That’s what took me to Eau Claire earlier this year to chronicle the rise of the local-food movement in western Wisconsin for The Progressive magazine.

I was impressed.  Sacred Heart Hospital has pioneered the use  of locally grown food in its dining operation and is recognized as a national leader.

Here’s how the story begins:

HOSPITAL FOOD: THE VERY term conjures up the most bland and unappetizing images. But that’s changing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000. Sacred Heart, the smaller of Eau Claire’s two hospitals, has committed to spending 10 percent of its food budget on tasty local produce and meat.

By big-city standards, this does not amount to much—about $200,000 a year. But cracking the institutional market is one of the trickier challenges facing food system reformers, and this 334-bed hospital in western Wisconsin is showing the way.

By its nature, institutional food service is cost conscious and lends itself to the efficient, standardized approach of mass production. If you have hundreds, if not thousands, to feed daily, purveyors like Sysco, Aramark, and Sodexo are experts at delivering food product in the perfect portion size.

“We were used to placing an order and having everything come in the door exactly how we wanted it,” says Rick Beckler, Sacred Heart’s director of hospitality services. “We didn’t have a clue where it was produced or who grew it. We didn’t know even what continent it came from.”

Sacred Heart’s kitchen now serves greens from Pam Herdrich’s Flower Farm south of Eau Claire, meatloaf made of hamburger from Vic and Mary Price’s Out to Pasture Beef in Fall Creek, chicken from Eileen McCutchen’s Angel Acres in Mason, pork from Jim and Alison Deutsch’s Family Farm near Osseo, and lots of other locally sourced items.

To read more, including the Deutsch family’s  inspiring story, go here. Note that Sacred Heart recently increased its  purchase of local food to 15% of its total food budget.

HOSPITAL FOOD: THE VERY term conjures up the most bland and unappetizing images. But that’s changing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000. Sacred Heart, the smaller of Eau Claire’s two hospitals, has committed to spending 10 percent of its food budget on tasty local produce and meat. By big-city standards, this does not amount to much—about $200,000 a year. But cracking the institutional market is one of the trickier challenges facing food system reformers, and this 334-bed hospital in western Wisconsin is showing the way.

By its nature, institutional food service is cost conscious and lends itself to the efficient, standardized approach of mass production. If you have hundreds, if not thousands, to feed daily, purveyors like Sysco, Aramark, and Sodexo are experts at delivering food product in the perfect portion size.

“We were used to placing an order and having everything come in the door exactly how we wanted it,” says Rick Beckler, Sacred Heart’s director of hospitality services. “We didn’t have a clue where it was produced or who grew it. We didn’t know even what continent it came from.”

<a href=’http://www.progressive.org/adserver/www/delivery/ck.php?n=aca0f3e5&cb=INSERT_RANDOM_NUMBER_HERE’ target=’_blank’><img src=’http://www.progressive.org/adserver/www/delivery/avw.php?zoneid=1&cb=INSERT_RANDOM_NUMBER_HERE&n=aca0f3e5′ border=’0′ alt=” /></a>

Sacred Heart’s kitchen now serves greens from Pam Herdrich’s Flower Farm south of Eau Claire, meatloaf made of hamburger from Vic and Mary Price’s Out to Pasture Beef in Fall Creek, chicken from Eileen McCutchen’s Angel Acres in Mason, pork from Jim and Alison Deutsch’s Family Farm near Osseo, and lots of other locally sourced items.

Where Do You Get Your Veggies?

April 22, 2010

For some families in Milwaukee and Madison, the answer is from  a weekly box they pick up from a local farmer. I looked at the community-supported agriculture movement in a post for WisBusiness.com. CSA subscriptions are booming, but I found  some problems for both farmers and consumers.

The story begins:

The local food movement is providing a noticeable boost this spring to Wisconsin farmers who sell seasonal-vegetable subscriptions to families in the Milwaukee and Madison areas.

“We’re having a real growth spurt,” says John Hendrickson, a senior outreach specialist with UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “Local food has just been exploding.”

In Milwaukee, more than a thousand people turned out at a March open house at the Urban Ecology Center. Fourteen farmers offered subscriptions in a program called community-supported agriculture (CSA).

“We saw a lot of people from the suburbs this year,” says coordinator Jamie Ferschinger. “The idea of fresh, local food, and getting it from someone you know, is starting to spread.”

Madison’s CSA program is far bigger. Consumer demand has so grown that the organizers moved the CSA open house from Olbrich Gardens to the much larger Monona Terrace Convention Center, where a record 42 farmers talked to about 1,700 interested consumers.

Read more here.

Questions for Michael Pollan

April 7, 2010

My interview with Michael Pollan is another piece from the recent past that I wanted to post here. We talked at his home in Berkeley for an hour plus. He is impressively, almost frighteningly,  articulate. But that should be no surprise to his readers. The story ran in the November 2008 issue of The Progressive. It begins:

Michael Pollan has got people talking. His recent books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, have captured the public imagination, setting off countless coffee shop discussions, dinnertime arguments, and oh-so-many blog posts.

Even more impressively, his exploration of modern-day agriculture and the dysfunctional American diet has prompted his readers to look at their own eating habits with a new sense of understanding and often a desire for change.

Read more here.


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