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...
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
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
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
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
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
||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
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.
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
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
(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
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
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
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’