Keynote Address: 2004 Iowa Food Policy Conference
America Is Hungry!
Breaking bread, buying local and fixing food policy--George Devault corners the Iowa Food Policy Conference attendees after lunch and gives them an earful on nutrition, farm economics, food security and more.

Posted October 14, 2004

Editor's NOTE:

We heard through the grapevine that someone gave an exceptionally rousing addresss at the Iowa Food Policy Conference in September at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa--a fiery monologue on the state of food in America.

Turns out the speaker was New Farm's very own George DeVault. And, he received a standing ovation following his post-lunch, full-stomach, drowsy-eyed time slot.

We just had to hear what he said. Here's George's speech--straight from the farmer's mouth...

--Eds.

This may sound a little strange after such a good meal, but America is hungry. No. Actually, America is starving ... for food that tastes like food.

America is hungry ... for food that comes from the family farm just down the road, not from the other side of the country or the world.

America is hungry ... for food that is fresh, not jet-lagged.

America is hungry ... for real tomatoes, not slices of pink cardboard on hamburgers in the middle of the summer.

America is hungry ... for food that is not drenched in pesticides, pumped full of antibiotics and covered with sealing wax.

America is hungry ... for food that doesn’t just fill the belly, but titillates the taste buds, satisfies the soul and makes the human spirit soar like a hawk.

Americans are hungry ... for some little control over their lives.
Ballots don’t seem to mean as much as they once did. So more and more Americans are exercising their Constitutional right by “voting” with the one thing that still packs a punch -- the Almighty Dollar.

Price is not the big issue at many farmers’ markets. Americans want good taste and better nutrition. Obesity and diabetes are now so widespread in our country that they have spawned a new word -- “diabesity.” That’s why Americans can’t get enough of fresh fruits and vegetables that their children actually like to eat.

At least that’s what Americans tell me and my wife every week at farmers’ markets. Melanie and I have a 20-acre farm about one hour north of Philadelphia. It is both preserved and certified organic. We raise vegetables and flowers. We’ve been direct marketers since we bought the place 20 years ago. We have sold at four different producer-only farmers’ markets from South Street in Center City Philadelphia to one that opened just last summer in our hometown of Emmaus, PA.

In a typical week, we might talk -- face-to-face -- with 1,000 different people. We know most of our customers by sight, and many by name. Their children, spouses and pets, too. And, every week, they all tell us the same thing: They are absolutely sick and tired of the tasteless supermarket produce. They don’t trust it, either. In this age of globalization -- and global terrorism -- many say they are increasingly afraid of food from afar.

That’s part of why we grow the widest selection possible in our part of the country. Our signature crops include sugar snap peas, garlic, blueberries, salad mixes of all kinds throughout the summer, red, white and blue potatoes on the Fourth of July, heirloom tomatoes, artichokes and flower bouquets that last a good 10 days. We extend the season from early spring to late fall with three high tunnels.

Like most farmers in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country, we also grow soybeans, not for export or livestock feed, but for people. One pound of our fresh, vegetable soybeans -- edamame, they’re called in Japan -- sells for what a bushel of regular beans brings on world markets.

All winter long, Americans complain about cardboard tomatoes and strawberries that don’t taste like much of anything. When the days start to grow longer in February, Americans are as hungry as a bunch of groundhogs, drooling for the first tender greens of spring.

That is one of my biggest pet peeves about organic certification. Frozen edamame in the store may meet all of our federal organic certification standards, but they come half way around the world -- from China. They may be organic, but no way are they sustainable.

Americans may buy supermarket produce in the off-season, but they don’t like it. Not one little bit. All winter long, Americans complain about cardboard tomatoes and strawberries that don’t taste like much of anything. When the days start to grow longer in February, Americans are as hungry as a bunch of groundhogs, drooling for the first tender greens of spring. That’s when they start bugging us with e-mails: When does the season start? It’s not too late to sign up for this season is it?

Why? America is hungry -- starving, again -- for human contact. How often does the cashier smile and say “Hi!” when you go to the supermarket. Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! That’s usually all you hear, the endless bleeping of the bleeping bar code scanner.

Most cashiers don’t know the prices, let alone where the food comes from or how it was grown. And they couldn’t care less. It’s not their job. God help you both if the computer goes down. Most cashiers can neither add nor subtract, and they don’t know how to make change.

I shouldn’t pick on cashiers. Like a lot of American workers these days, cashiers are worried about losing their jobs. Their jobs can’t be outsourced overseas, of course. But cashiers are being replaced by machines, bleeping machines that keep bleeping at you until you hit all the right bleeping buttons. Then they spit your change back in your face, and a memory chip kicks in: “Thank you ... for shopping ... Mega-Mart. Have ... a nice ... day.”

That’s why I get such a big kick out of making change at farmers’ markets. People are just amazed -- get the goofiest grins on their faces -- when you total up a big order in your head and say, “OK, let’s see ... $53.50 out of $55 ... 50 cents makes $54, and a one makes $55.
Thank you SO much for coming out to the market today. Bon appetit!”

No wonder the number of farmers’ markets has grown from a few hundred 20 years ago to more than 3,100 today.

No wonder more than 19,000 farmers throughout the country are now making their living by selling only at farmers’ markets.

What is the future for farmers’ markets in America’s food system?

Farmers’ markets are the future for much of American agriculture.

That’s because traditional agriculture gets the shaft, while the rest of the food system gets the gold mine. Of every dollar now spent on food in this country, an average of only 19 cents goes to farmers, according to USDA. That’s down from 30 cents as recently at 1990.

Except for a few upward blips, mainly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the farm share of the food dollar has been falling steadily for more than half a century now, reports USDA’s Economic Research Service.

But that’s nothing new. Back in 1844, John Stewart Skinner, editor of The Plough, The Loom And The Anvil, said, "There is a perpetual surplus of corn, and tobacco, and wheat, and cotton, and all other products of the field. It is sold at low prices, yielding little to the producer while destroying the man with whom it comes in competition."

Just a few years ago, Iowa State’s Neil Harl called it feudal, and our farmers “serfs.” That makes today’s farmers’ marketers the new Sons and Daughters of Liberty, flinging the chains of economic bondage into the harbor. It’s one helluva tea party, folks.

Seventy-two years after the start of the American Revolution, Skinner also complained that American agriculture was still too “colonial.” Just a few years ago, Iowa State’s Neil Harl called it feudal, and our farmers “serfs.” That makes today’s farmers’ marketers the new Sons and Daughters of Liberty, flinging the chains of economic bondage into the harbor. It’s one helluva tea party, folks. Maybe that’s why the farmers, themselves, are as big an attraction at market as their produce. Americans love heroes and, as the bumpersticker says, “Farmers Are Heroes.” America is hungry ... for heroes.

But back to economics. If farmers today receive only 19 cents of the food dollar on average, what becomes of the remaining 81 cents? It goes to pay what USDA calls the “marketing bill.” That is the cost of labor, packaging, transportation, energy, profits, advertising and other expenses involved in getting food from farm to table.

But we’re not here to recite another stinging indictment of our food system. Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon and Jim Hightower have done that just fine. We know what’s wrong with our food system. We’re not here to talk about how great and wonderful farmers’ markets are, either. We already know all of that good stuff, just like we know to build attractive market displays, give our customers recipes for kohlrabi and weight down our market awnings, while keeping a close eye on our cash boxes.

Our job is to fix our food system. That starts with a thing called policy, the rules and regulations that make it possible -- or sometimes impossible -- to do what we need to do.

A lot of people in American agriculture today don’t want to make any waves. They like things the way they are just fine. They don’t want to rock the boat. And I agree with them: We shouldn’t get anyone’s feet wet or capsize a few canoes. We need to sink some battleships, and turn herds of sacred cows into mountains of hamburger.

Actually, there is not a thing for us to worry about on the policy front. I have it on the highest authority that our next president will name Gus Schumacher Secretary of Agriculture, and all of our troubles will be over. Oops. That’s politics, not policy. Sorry.

A lot of people in American agriculture . . . don’t want to rock the boat. And I agree with them: We shouldn’t get anyone’s feet wet or capsize a few canoes. We need to sink some battleships.

Seriously, paying closer attention to policy is a little like flossing your teeth. Not many people like to do it, because it’s a pain in the neck. But there is no arguing with the benefits of keeping all your own teeth.

Just how important is policy? What happens when we fail to learn from the past? What happens when a nation implements wrong policy for all the wrong reasons? I can tell you firsthand -- disaster strikes.

Since 1991, as editor of Rodale’s Russian New Farmer magazine, I have worked and often lived in a country where food policy failed, utterly and miserably.

My first day in the Soviet Union in March of 1991, half a million people filled Red Square in protest of failed policies. Most store shelves were empty. Buying food depended more on ration coupons and bottles of vodka than rubles. One day that August, I was supposed to have lunch with Vassili Starodubtzev, director of the best state farm in the Soviet Union. He stood us up. “I’m sorry,” his secretary explained, “but Tovarish Starodubtzev was unexpectedly recalled to Moscow on important party business.” So we feasted on liver and onions in his executive dining room. After lunch, we wandered into the farm’s little grocery store. The shelves and cooler cases were empty. A handful of men and women -- the farm’s farm workers -- milled impatiently before the counter.

Then a man emerged from the backroom carrying a large metal pan that contained maybe five pounds of fresh keilbasa. The farm workers began jostling each other. Curses flew, then fists. While Tovarish Starodubtzev was plotting a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in a desperate attempt to stay in power, the workers on his farm punched each other out over a pan of anemic-looking sausage. That winter, things got leaner and meaner. Russians relied heavily on what they called “Bush Legs,” American chicken parts that the first President Bush provided as humanitarian aid.

That’s why, to this day, every Russian who can get their lands on a little bit of land grows all of the food they possibly can. These market gardeners, as we would call them, produce more than half of Russia’s food -- 90-plus percent of all potatoes and 76 percent of all fruits and vegetables.

I’m not saying things will ever get that desperate in the United States, but Russia’s failed experiment with mega-farms and food monopolies is certainly something to keep in mind, especially as our farms get fewer and bigger and the world becomes more dangerous.

Welcome to the 21st century -- and the threat of agroterrorism.

This Saturday, day after tomorrow, is Sept. 11. It is a very special day for all Americans. We each have our own, very personal memories of 9/11. As a volunteer firefighter for 22 years, I can’t help but think first of the 343 New York City firefighters who died in the collapse of the twin towers. But as a farmer, I also think of many farmers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and throughout the Mid-Atlantic area.

They were selling in a Green Market at Ground Zero when jetliners full of fuel were crashed into the towers. Those farmers escaped with their lives and little else.

What, exactly, is agroterrorism? A bill just drafted by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) would define it this way:

“A criminal act consisting of causing or attempting to cause damage or harm to, or destruction or contamination of, a crop, livestock, raw agricultural commodity, food product, farm or ranch equipment, a material, any other property associated with agriculture, or a person engaged in agricultural activity, that is committed --

(A) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(B) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(C) to disrupt interstate commerce or foreign commerce of the United States agricultural industry."

Agroterrorism would be punishable by fines, imprisonment for up to life, and carry the death penalty in the most serious cases.

It will be interesting to see what happens if a law like that gets passed. There is only one group I can think of that has done anything even close to that, and it is not Al-Queida. It is biotech firm that has “contaminated” raw agricultural commodities, scared the bejesus out of millions of consumers around the world and attempted to influence government policy, while disrupting the domestic and foreign agricultural commerce of the United States.

Last Friday, I drove 180 miles round trip to hear more about Sen. Specter’s draft at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture headquarters in Harrisburg. It was billed as an agroterrorism roundtable. More than 50 people attended, mostly food industry representatives, bureaucrats and academics. They all thought it was a pretty good idea, since they stand to pick up most of the $67 million in new prevention, detection, response and recovery programs the legislation would authorize.

I couldn’t believe by ears when they started complaining about those darn -- dirty -- small farmers who offer farm vacations, petting zoos, bed and breakfast, pumpkin patches, corn mazes and other things that bring the great unwashed public onto farms.

No one mentioned farmers’ markets, specifically, but it may be only a matter of time before they are added to the list. After all, what could be more bio-insecure than putting tons of farm products on public display in an open-air markets?

As farmers’ markets become big business -- and they are becoming bigger business every year -- others want to get in on the action, just like organics

Yes, not everyone likes farmers’ markets. As farmers’ markets become big business -- and they are becoming bigger business every year -- others want to get in on the action, just like organics. This issue of In Business magazine, which you’ll find at the workshop, has an article called “Birth of A Farmers’ Market.” Part of that story is how the farmers got kicked out of a shopping center mall when a failing grocery chain store complained the market was cutting into its business. It was a stupid, mean move. The chain shut down the store a few years later anyhow. But it shows what can and does happen.

Farmers’ markets are not the problem. They are perhaps the biggest part of the solution to the problems of our food system and threat of agroterrorism. The greatest single threat to our food system today is the the huge distance that our food travels from farm to table. An average of 1,500 miles is the number I see most often.

The more we shorten our supply lines, decentralize our food production and processing, the more secure our homeland is going to become.

A headline in The Des Moines Register last month read, “Food prices tough to swallow ... U.S. consumers feel the squeeze as rising costs of food production filter down to grocery stores and restaurants.” The culprit was rising oil prices. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait until the price of crude oil more than doubles and hits $100 a barrel, as some industry observers predict. Wendell Berry put it this way in ORION in July:

“Our federal system was conceived as a way to balance national unity with local self-determination and self-sufficiency. Terrorism has made local economic integrity more necessary than ever before. All the regions of our country are dangerously dependent on long-distance transportation. The emphasis in agriculture should now be on genetic diversity, local adaptation, and conservation of energy. We need, for a change, an agriculture policy that focuses above all on the health of the land and the economic prosperity of smaller farmers, rather than the agribusiness corporations.”

This may come as a shock to Wendell, but he has an ally in the man who gave us the “Get Big or Get Out” policy, Ezra Taft Benson, President Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture. “If the family farm disappears we will find ourselves living in a world of giant corporations. I leave you to imagine how long our present economy would last under those conditions,” Benson warned in 1960.

The Farmers Diner in Vermont got it exactly right with its slogan: “Food From Here.” That’s what farmers’ markets are all about. I got a newspaper reporter in a lot of trouble last spring when we were starting our farmers’ market in Emmaus. He asked me why we were not working with the so-called farmers’ market at the fairgrounds in nearby Allentown.

“Because it’s not a real farmers’ market,” I shot back. He quoted me. The folks at the Allentown market went nuts. We are too a real farmers’ market, they said. Never mind that of 65 vendors who are open 50 weeks a year, only a handful actually grow what they sell.

If, indeed, it is true that a wall has been raised between leadership of the Department of Agriculture -- the “People’s Department,” as President Lincoln called it -- and America’s small farmers, I would borrow a thought from President Reagan and say only this: Mrs. Veneman, tear down that wall!

We need to define, defend and protect the very term “farmers’ market” with national policy that means “producer-only.” That may be a tough sell in Washington. This past July, the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative released a report titled “USDA Incorporated: How Agribusiness Has Hijacked Regulatory Policy At The U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

If, indeed, it is true that a wall has been raised between leadership of the Department of Agriculture -- the “People’s Department,” as President Lincoln called it -- and America’s small farmers, I would borrow a thought from President Reagan and say only this: Mrs. Veneman, tear down that wall!

Small farmers, those who gross less than $250,000 a year, make up 94 percent of the people you are supposed to represent.

For as Skinner said 160 years ago, “The plough and the harrow cannot prosper at a distance from the loom and the anvil. A home market is the great desire of every farmer and every planter. Everyone knows that the nearer he can bring his customers to him, the more valuable are his labor, his land, and their products."

If we don’t tear down some walls -- and soon -- we may find ourselves like Neil Young in the Farm Aid song: “Just woke up morning and the farmers all were gone.”

As patriotic Americans dedicated to the security of our homeland and a sustainable future for generations to come, we simply cannot allow that to happen. Never forget ... America is hungry. Feed her -- with food from here -- real food from producer-only farmers’ markets!