Rethinking the agricultural economy | Greenbiz


Every year, farmers like Joe Tisbert of Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, Vermont, are challenged to find an outlet for their surplus crop. Surplus harvest is defined as the food left over after a harvest that cannot be sold in the market, or that cannot be harvested. As a result, farmers earn less income for the season, but it also represents a potential loss of food for people in their communities.

Agriculture is the genesis of our food supply, and it is an industry plagued by labor shortages, the weather effects of climate change, food waste, price volatility and unequal distribution. lands.

In response to the challenges some Vermont farmers face, a non-profit organization in Vermont, Salvation Farms, which is not a farm, is developing ways to work with farmers to manage their crop surpluses and distribute them to people who need fresh produce.

Salvation Farms co-founders Theresa Snow and Jen O’Donnell piloted their model in 2004, which focused on the agrarian practice of gleaning. Since ancient times, the poor or travelers visited the local cultivated fields, the owners of which left small sections of their land to be harvested or gleaned by those with less means. Snow, executive director of Salvation Farms, discovered gleaning while serving at AmeriCorps in the early 2000s on a farm in rural Virginia. She grew up with parents Snow described as “lowly farmers” and with grandparents who owned a dairy farm.

AmeriCorps then moved Snow to New York City, where she was tasked with helping families and individuals who had lost their jobs, homes and loved ones during and after the 9/11 attacks. There, Snow realized how far people were from meeting their basic living needs.

“What I experienced in providing services – mostly files to people looking for support – was that these people did not have the capacity to meet their basic needs because they had fully embraced an economy. monetary, ”Snow said.

Snow argues that this was not only an issue for residents of metro areas, but also in his home state of Vermont, where people could be just as far from their food sources. After her stint at AmeriCorps, Snow returned to Vermont and returned to work on a farm. She was struggling to know what to do with her life and when a farmer asked her where she really wanted to put her energy, she said she wanted to teach people about farming. At this farm, Pete’s Greens, she designed and tested the Salvation Farms plan.

“I want to teach people about farms, I want to teach people and communities that through relationship and appreciation with farms, we can have more personal and community agency,” Snow said. “We can have more control over meeting our needs.”

The United States has more than 2 million farms. According to the USDA, agriculture, food and adjacent industries contribute $ 1.11 trillion for the U.S. economy. Of this amount, agriculture produces $ 136.1 billion. Snow, along with Salvation Farms staff and volunteers, help farmers like Tisbert find a place for their surplus food.

Valley Dream Farm sits on a 300-acre expanse of mostly streams, pastures, and woodlands, with 10-15 acres set aside for food cultivation. Its main crops are potatoes, cucumbers and kale, which are sold through three channels: its own farm stand; wholesale buyers such as groceries; and a cooperative, Deep Root Organic Cooperative, which sells farmers’ produce to other food cooperatives, CSAs, and some grocery chains such as Whole Foods.

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“It’s great to grow something and say, ‘Wow, I really like growing this little one. I really like growing this and selling it and trying to make a living from it, ”Tisbert said. “Well, you’ve got to find a market. Everyone must have a niche. People are trying to figure out where to go. How can I sell it? “

This is where Salvation Farms comes in.

“When I can’t market the product, I have Salvation Farms,” said Tisbert, who has worked with the organization since 2006. “They show up and I give them things that I can’t sell on time. have to bring it out because I need my space. “

Salvation Farms is part of the Vermont Gleaning Collective, which is made up of a number of organizations that glean throughout the state.

For some farmers of color, like Amber Arnold, gleaning isn’t something her farm uses. Arnold, who identifies as black and multiracial, has other considerations in establishing his farm practices.

Most farms in Vermont and the United States have white owners. Since 2017, white farmers owned nearly 93 percent of farmland in the United States and accounted for about 97 percent of the market value of their products. Nonetheless, Black, Asian, Native American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander farmers still owned around 60 million acres combined, and Hispanic, Latino or Spanish farmers, regardless of any other racial identification, owned 32 million acres. Of nearly 7,000 farms in Vermont, only 13 are owned or operated by people of Asian descent, 17 by blacks from Vermont, 23 by Native Americans, and 82 by people with more than one racial identity.

Arnold’s farm, Susu CommUnity Farm in Brattleboro, Vermont, was founded in October in response to his community’s wants and needs for access to food during the pandemic. Arnold and his co-founder, Naomi Moody, who identifies as AfroIndigenous, are in the process of purchasing 37 acres to cultivate and continue a free CSA program they have designed called Boxes of Resilience.

Arnold and Moody learned to glean from a funder and ultimately determined that the way the produce from Susu Community Farm is harvested and the way they want to work with who they harvest or partner with must be intentional and aligned. on the values ​​of the founders.

“Everyone who goes into our programs and things like that, we want to make sure they have a racial analysis and that they want to connect in a very special way,” said Arnold. “And so I think it’s not just about work for us. There’s a whole community collective piece that needs to be present.”

Salvation Farms only gleans products that will be used by the organizations and people they work with. The group works with 20 to 30 farms and 50 beneficiary sites, including food banks and other food charities such as Meals on Wheels of Lamoille County and Lamoille Community Food Share as a way to bring farm-fresh produce to people. food insecure people. According to the USDA, the average household food insecurity rate in Vermont between 2017 and 2019 was 9.6%.

In 2017, white farmers owned nearly 93% of the farmland in the United States and accounted for about 97% of the market value of their produce.

Meredith Niles, a researcher and professor of food systems at the University of Vermont, is part of a team that conducted six studies on food insecurity in the state during the pandemic. In the first month of COVID-19, Niles and his colleagues asked 600 people about their food safety before and after the pandemic began in the United States in March 2020. The survey found a 33% increase in l food insecurity among households during COVID-19. pandemic.

Food insecurity is not only defined by the lack of economic resources with which people can obtain food, but also by the ability of people to move around to access food. Additional hurdles were presented by the pandemic when many public transportation was cut back.

Niles believes that Vermont farmers, including a small number who have identified themselves as BIPOC, have an opportunity to act as a solution to this problem.

“We saw that there were a number of respondents – farmers – who wanted in the future to start accepting the benefits of SNAP after COVID, for example,” she said. “So there are a lot of opportunities to better connect those two things, especially in a state like Vermont where we have such a vibrant local agriculture and food sector, and we’ve also demonstrated the need to increase food security. “

Food service programs such as Lamoille County Meals on Wheels receive, on average, 100 pounds of local produce per week from the Salvation Farms Gleaning Program. Over the course of their eight-year relationship, Salvation Farms learned what products will serve Meals on Wheels beneficiaries, many of whom are older Vermonters.

“They know what we need,” said Nicole Fournier Grisgraber, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels in Lamoille County. “They show up here every Monday and drop off our delivery.”

Importantly, Salvation Farms’ work is a collaborative ecosystem strategy of food banks, pantries, gleaning collectives, and farmers to feed those in Vermont who may not have access. sufficient for food.

In some cases, Salvation Farms will act as a broker for farmers who may not have a client base. In these cases, Salvation Farms will purchase the produce as soon as it finds a buyer who will pay for the produce as well as the freight costs.

Snow believes that the food that does not come off the farm and make it into the community is wasted food. In Snow’s eyes, wasting food is different from wasting food. Food waste is a product that has left the farm and entered the food supply chain; waste can occur anywhere in this chain, from storage to shipping and distribution to consumers.

In the United States, approximately 400 pounds of food per person is wasted each year, according to the National Resources Defense Council. An organization like Salvation Farms tries to intercept food before it leaves the farm to make sure the food has a clear end point. In the end, there is less food loss and potentially less food waste.

Snow also argues, and Tisbert argues, that most farmers do not waste and if they cannot sell a crop in the traditional market, they will find something to do with it, even if it is to return. this harvest in the earth. Tisbert composts part of his surplus on site. For other farms, if no beneficiary for a donation can be found, or if there is too much excess harvest, Salvation Farms will help donate this food to a rancher or a composting operation.

Tisbert said working with Salvation Farms has been helpful. “Farmers sometimes have crops that are second, which the Whole Foods of the world will not take,” he said. “So you have to find something to do with it. And you don’t want to just throw it away. They have a great service for me and for a lot of other farmers that I know.”

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