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
We just had to hear what he said. Here's George's
speech--straight from the farmer's mouth...
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
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,
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
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
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’
What is the future for farmers’ markets in America’s
Farmers’ markets are the future for much of American
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
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
(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
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
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
“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
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