Thursday, November 16, 2017

Food News: Farm Bill Reboot; Edible Portland Expires Under Cloud

Today Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer is hosting a broad range of experts and stakeholders for a forum titled “A Call for Reform: Fix the Farm Bill,” that focuses on the need to create a more visionary, equitable and cost-effective farm bill. The forum features Michael Pollan (top photo, center), author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who is delivering the keynote, followed by a panel discussion with a group of policy experts to discuss their ideas for the reform that he's calling The Food and Farm Act.

In an interview about his re-envisioned farm bill on the website Civil Eats, the congressman said that "we continue to pay too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong food in the wrong places" and that he's working to reform subsidies to support innovation and small-to-midsize farmers rather than large corporate agribusinesses.

As he told Good Stuff NW in an interview earlier this year, he's building a coalition of consumers, farmers and non-profits to provide "support for protecting the environment, water quality, habitat [and] things that help the farmer and have broader social and economic benefit. The big issue is that all the attention and subsidy is skewed toward things that don’t need it, and shortchanges things that do, upon which we’re heavily reliant."

One unique element of his efforts is a comic book, "The Fight for Food: Why You Deserve a Better Farm Bill," that explains why the Farm Bill matters to people who care about their food and talks about how they can get involved.

Read my interview with Rep. Blumenauer, part of "The Future of Our Food" series. Photo courtesy Rep. Earl Blumenauer's office.

* * *

Sad news came today that Alex Corcoran, owner and publisher of Edible Portland magazine, has announced that the magazine will cease publication after the current November/December issue.

Corcoran bought the magazine last year after Ecotrust, which had owned the publication since its inception in 2006, decided to cease publication after the Spring 2015 issue and put it up for sale. At the time that Corcoran bought it, Eric Thorkilsen, then-CEO of Edible Media, said, "Alex has a great track record of success managing Edible publications, starting with Edible Rhody [Edible Rhode Island] and continuing with Edible Seattle. His capacity to immerse himself in the local food community—forming solid relationships with small businesses and attracting a devoted readership—suggests a great future for Edible Portland."

The first edition under Corcoran's leadership was the September, 2016, issue. Corcoran initially posted an ad for the sale of the magazine, but because of contractual disagreements with Ecotrust, he has pulled the ad.

In an e-mail to Good Stuff NW, Carolyn Holland, VP of Engagement at Ecotrust, said that Corcoran "does not have the rights to sell the magazine. He has been in breach of his contract with Ecotrust since 2015 when he signed on to assume the license. While we were working with him to give him time to get it on track, now that he has decided to fold, the rights to magazine will revert to [Ecotrust]."

Mr. Corcoran declined a request to comment for this post.

Read my first (and apparently last) article for Edible Portland, "Big Milk: Big Issues for Local Communities."

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that Edible Seattle was for sale. It is not. Corcoran is inviting a new publisher to start an Edible magazine in the South Sound area.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Green Bean Casserole, Redux

I just realized that Thanksgiving is next week, not two or three weeks in the future as I had somehow convinced myself. Luckily I contacted my turkey connection this last week, congratulating myself for being so ahead of the game. (Oops!) So now the long list of possible sides is being compiled, to be added to the "must haves" of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and pie, and the voting and deal-making is getting fierce. Real Good Food contributor Jim Dixon's recipe for reconstructed green bean casserole, using still-in-season foraged chanterelles, is high on the list.

Green Bean "Casserole"

I can't eat the old school version anymore, but I came up with this homage that provides the same flavors but tastes much better. If you can get chanterelles, use them, but any mushrooms will work.

Slice a pound of mushrooms and put them in a skillet with some salt but no added fat [or oil] over medium high heat. The mushrooms will start giving up water right away, and you want to cook them in their own juices until it's almost gone before adding a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. (If we're having the usual November weather, chanterelles can be very wet, and this technique concentrates the flavor and improves the texture. It also works with most mushrooms.)

After you add the oil, add a finely chopped shallot and a good shot of dry sherry (a good fino is perfect). Let that bubble away for a few minutes, then add a pound of green beans that you've cooked in boiling, salted water for 3 minutes and drained. Pour in about a half cup of heavy cream, bring to a boil, and cook for a maybe 5 minutes or until the cream has thickened and the beans are tender. Adjust the salt, add some black pepper if you feel like it, and serve topped with crispy fried onions from a can (Lars is a Danish brans sold at New Seasons that's better then the ubiquitous French's). You could make your own or substitute bread crumbs or nuts, but I think some kind of crunchy topping is required. Have a great Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Farm Bulletin: The Roots of Ayers Creek Farm

The following post was written by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm for Big Picture Agriculture, an excellent blog about trends and developments in agriculture, food and farming.

"Anthony Boutard, born in Massachusetts, grew an early appreciation for plants from his father who was a renowned botanist. Educated as a biologist with a graduate degree in Forestry, Anthony and his wife Carol moved out to Oregon in the early 1990s for Anthony to work with a company called 1000 Friends of Oregon, which focuses on land use and landscape preservation. After a few years in Portland, Anthony and Carol decided to take up farming and purchased a 144-acre working farm out in Gaston, about 30 miles from the city. Their philosophy is simple: to grow what tastes good and does well on their land."

The photos below are "lantern slides" taken c.1900 in a beautifully rugged region of Switzerland. Anthony assumes that the photos were taken by his Danish great-grandfather, Ernest Boutard, an engineer who had a patent partnership in Copenhagen, but whose heart was at home in the mountains. He studied at the Polytechnic in Zürich. His grandmother's family was from Graubünden, Switzerland.

[Anthony provided the captions to go with the photos. Click on a photo to see a full size version.]

The reckoning after the cheese has aged in a family cheese-making operation. The Appenzell produces a very fine aged cow’s milk cheese available in most cheese shops today. [Anthony notes: "The cheeses of Switzerland remain exceptional because they still adhere to the practice of moving the herds to the high pastures where the lactating cows graze on the alpine flora, the same intensely flavored vegetation used to produce the amaros (kräuterlikörs), bitter liqueurs that I savor as much as the cheeses."]

Celebrating the ascent of the village’s livestock to the high, summer pastures. Following tradition still extant today, that procession is led by children and Appenzeller goats, a hornless breed of the region. The three lead cows bear large, harmonized ceremonial bells, sounding three different notes, for the occasion. These are not practical for grazing. The regular bells worn by the grazing cows are much smaller and lighter, made of plain steel. The leather collar is heavier than the bell. The man leading the cows carries a milking bucket on his shoulder per tradition. (Note that the man in the center is not in the celebratory finery, and other cows are wandering about, not part of the procession.) [Anthony notes: "It was striking to see the modern Appenzeller parade where the choreography is unchanged over the course of a century."]

Harvesting wine grapes, most likely in the canton Ticino. Note the tile roof on the buildings. Ticino, bordering Italy, is the mildest region of Switzerland.

A building for storing grains. The flat rocks between the granary and its supports keep rodents from entering the stores. Yes, that is the Matterhorn in the background.

Flowering chestnuts growing in the canton Valais. The chestnuts were called the "bread of the poor," providing sustenance in challenging times and circumstances. Roasted or boiled when fresh, they were also dried and ground to make a flour for polenta and baking.

Milking goats in a high summer pasture, as well as goats being goats as is their wont. This was taken either in the canton Appenzell or Graubünden (Grisons). These are the progenitors of what is known today as the Grisons Striped goat, a tough mountain breed at home in sparse rocky pastures.

Pausing at a shrine on the way to bringing milk from the high, summer pasture. Likely canton Valais in the southern part of the country. Raclette is its signature cheese, though many types are produced in the region. (The mountains in the background remind me of the Dents du Midi.)

Service in a mountain community, probably in the Appenzell. The 19th century saw the depopulation of rural Swiss communities. Some to other European cities, like my great great-grandfather who left his small village in Graubünden and learned to make pianos in Cologne, Germany, ultimately settling in Zürich. Others immigrated to the Americas. There are people of Swiss descent from Argentina to Canada. At the height of the exodus, during the 1880s some 82,000 migrated to the U.S. Towns named Bern, Helvetia, and Glarus, names which betray their Swiss roots.

Thanks to Big Picture Agriculture and Anthony Boutard for allowing me to share this essay.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Big Milk: Big Issues for Local Communities

Giant factory farms are moving to Oregon, bringing with them concerns about our rural communities, the environment, and how we want to grow our economy, as well as challenging long-held traditions of our state’s agriculture as one based on small, family-scale farms. This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Edible Portland magazine (full article here).

It’s important to respect “the cow-ness of the cow,” says Oregon dairyman Jon Bansen, a member of the farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley. He's quoting sustainable farm guru Joel Salatin in explaining what differentiates his pasture-raised cows from those living their lives in closed buildings on a factory farm.

Monmouth dairy farmers Jon and Juli Bansen.

“It turns out that some things get more efficient with size, but biology doesn’t,” he says of the large mega-dairies that have taken up residence near the small Columbia River town of Boardman at the east end of the Columbia River Gorge. “To be standing on concrete, fed high levels of grain, treated like a widget instead of a biological being—it shortens their lifespan.”

Animal welfare isn’t the only reason to worry about mega-dairies. Another cost of these giant factory farms is to Oregon’s small dairies. In 2001, mega-dairy Threemile Canyon Farms, a 70,000-cow facility near Boardman, began supplying milk to the Tillamook County Creamery Association’s manufacturing plant nearby. One of the results of this move was that an average of nine family-owned Oregon dairy farms went out of business each month between 2002 and 2007.

Why did this happen?

“Mega-dairies flood the market with milk, driving down milk prices and making it increasingly difficult for family farmers to stay afloat,” Bansen wrote in an editorial in the Salem Statesman Journal.

Mega-dairies also degrade the lives of local communities. Bansen wrote that “the ways in which family dairy farmers and mega-dairies contribute to a community are drastically different. When something breaks, family farmers typically buy parts from the local store. When their animals need veterinary attention, they call the local vet. They support their feed stores, tractor-supply stores, and more. After a hard day on the farm, family farmers often engage in their community, schools, civic groups, and churches.”

Bansen emphasized that employees at mega-dairies have neither the time nor the money to spend in their communities because of low wages and the long hours demanded of them. And any equipment needed at the dairy is bought from the cheapest (mostly non-local) sources, and profits are sent off to corporate, often out-of-state, offices.

Waste and Groundwater

To give an idea of how large these mega-dairies are, all you have to do is refer to their corporate websites. Threemile Canyon’s cows—consisting of 25,000 milk cows, 30,000 replacement heifers, 7,000 steers, and an 8,000-calf nursery—produce 165,000 gallons of milk per day. If you look at a satellite view of the property, you see that the buildings the cows live in are so vast that employees have to drive to get from one end to the other.

Waste runoff at Threemile Canyon.

The amount of waste that these 70,000 cows produce is also mind-boggling—estimates are around 436 million gallons of liquid manure every year. One of the several open-air, double-lined waste pits, called lagoons, covers more than 20 acres. While these large facilities have permits for discharging waste under the Clean Water Act, a state statute (ORS 468B-025) prohibits any of it from entering “waters of the state.”

“It says in very broad terms that no person in Oregon shall place or cause to be placed waste where it may enter waters of the state by any means,” says Wym Matthews, fertilizer program manager of the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). “There’s the broad thought in Oregon that folks should be responsible and not allow material they are managing—waste or not—to get into the waters and cause a problem.”

In other states, leaks from lagoons have endangered the drinking water of cities that rely on rivers as a water source, and manure from the spills has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of fish in waterways. Recently, a major liquid manure spill from a dairy operation in the Tillamook area caused the closure of Tillamook Bay due to contamination from fecal coliform, which had a significant economic impact on commercial oyster growers in the area.

The thing that worries Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF), an organization that supports socially and environmentally responsible family-scale agriculture in Oregon, is that much of the reporting and monitoring is left up to the operations themselves.

Cow standing in waste at Threemile Canyon.

“The reality is that it’s not possible for there to be no discharge at all, so it’s a bit of an aspirational permit, if you will,” Maluski says. “They often rely on the CAFOs themselves to report a problem because [ODA inspectors] visit them typically once a year. Or, if someone says, ‘Hey they’re spreading manure out there, and it looks like it’s going in the creek’ on a Saturday, if ODA can’t get out there until Monday, they might not see anything.”

And now that another mega-dairy—30,000-cow Lost Valley Farm, just 30 miles from the Threemile Canyon operation—has received a permit from the ODA, farm organizations like FoFF and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP), as well as consumer protection groups like the Center for Food Safety (CFS), are on high alert.

The land occupied by these two factory farms is one of three sites in Oregon designated as a Groundwater Management Area (GWMA), so named because nitrate concentrations in many area groundwater samples exceed the federal safe drinking water standard. “What’s so concerning about putting another mega-dairy in an existing groundwater management area is that the Lower Umatilla Basin was designated in the ’90s as a place where there were already too many nitrates in the water—water people use for drinking,” says Amy van Saun, an attorney for CFS. “This is only going to make it worse.”

Wym Matthews doesn’t disagree. “I would describe the groundwater-monitoring well data from the Lower Umatilla GWMA as mixed,” he says. “There are some wells that are staying stagnant and not getting better or worse, some that are getting better, and some that are getting worse.”

Open-air waste lagoon at Threemile Canyon.

Asked how the ODA could issue a permit in such a sensitive area, Matthews says that the only way a permit could be issued is if the agencies believe that the permit is restrictive enough so that if there was discharge, it would violate the discharge standard. For Lost Valley, the department has set the discharge standard at zero.

“How can the state say yes to [Lost Valley Farm], which is clearly going to add a risk of nitrates leaching into the groundwater, when you’ve already got an area that’s impaired and not getting any better?” Maluski asks. “When they were digging their manure lagoons for that facility, they actually hit groundwater at 10 feet, so they had to get a special water right to pump groundwater away from their lagoons. It’s just absurd. Obviously, they’re going to have a couple of liners, but if those liners fail, you’ve got a very serious direct contamination of the groundwater.”

Emissions and Air Pollution

As many restrictions as there are related to the potential release of waste from these industrial farms into groundwater and nearby waters, there are no such restrictions on the very real emissions that are released into the air. Nearly a decade ago, the Oregon legislature passed a bill to address air emissions from these mega-dairies. Called the Oregon Dairy Air Quality Task Force, it was comprised of stakeholders from across the political spectrum, including representatives from government, academic institutions, the dairy industry, and public interest groups.

Warning sign at a confined facility.

The task force studied the current scientific literature relating to air pollutants, such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter emitted by these operations.

“Ten years ago, that task force came up with some really strong recommendations for how the state could move forward with some rules around air quality in order to get ahead of the problem of these operations coming in and having a lack of regulations to mitigate emissions,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, a member of the task force and the current CEO of SRAP. “And 10 years later, none of those recommendations went anywhere despite the fact that it was a consensus list of recommendations.”

Kimbirauskas says that at SRAP, which works across the country with communities that are directly impacted by factory farms, she’s seen what these operations do to rural communities. “It’s just like every other extractive industry,” she says, comparing factory farms to extraction industries like mining and industrial timber that threaten forests and wild lands.

“This is the same model with a different face,” Kimbirauskas continues. “It’s the idea that these out-of-state companies or corporations can come in, and they can call themselves family farms. But you can put lipstick on a cow, and it’s still a factory farm cow. They come in, and they’re extracting local resources. They’re extracting the water, they’re extracting the local wealth, and they’re sending it off to faraway places. They’re externalizing all of their costs of production, first and foremost, on the local community, on the local environment, and on the state.

“If we’re not careful, and we’re not paying attention to these issues now,” she warns, “by the time it does become in our face, it’s going to be too late, and what we love about Oregon agriculture and the local farm economy will be threatened.”

Read the rest of the article raising questions about the "closed loop" systems at these mega-dairies and the fears of local governments that their hands are tied when it comes to the siting of these large industrial facilities in their communities.

Top photo from the East Oregonian. Photo of Bansens from Organic Valley Co-operative. Photos of Threemile Canyon Farms from Friends of Family Farmers.