Pumpkin harvest and local food

Last Saturday 30 adults and children came to help with the harvest of pumpkins of farmer André in the village of Hemmen, just four kilometers from Wageningen. We harvested around 9 thousand kilo of the approximately 15 thousand kilo on the one hectare field. The invitation to help was the first event organized by a new NGO called “Stichting Hemmens Land” of which I am a board member. This NGO aims to facilitate the cooperation between the organic farmers and organic shop in Hemmen, to engage citizens with local food and farming and to organize educative activities on and around the farms.

pompoen oogstMainly families from nearby towns and villages in the Betuwe came to help with the harvest and for the children it was great fun to stand in and fill the box in front of the tractor. The people who came were happy with the possibility to engage actively with local food and the work of the organic farmers. Some were customers of the organic box scheme, others read the announcement in the newspaper and were just drawn by the activity itself. Citizen engagement with local food is a topic of increased interest in the academic literature. Engagement with local food can strengthen regional food systems and local community and can contribute to human and environmental health. However, as has been noted, in our consumption oriented economy, ‘local’ easily becomes a new ‘brand’, a way to distinguish and create space; market space. Or ‘local’ becomes an experience, part of the cultural economy in which “harvest festivals provide an enactment of leisure activities and the urban lifestyle” (Tellstrom et al 2005: 354).

None of the Hemmen villagers came to help with the harvest or came even to look what was going on. The organic farmers and shopkeepers are newcomers, all of whom established over the last six years. Part of the reason for setting up the NGO and a real challenge is also to try to connect and integrate into the village. Local is important as a non-monetary value and at the same time it is an economic factor for entrepreneurs who are seeking multiple ways to make a sustainable living. But as Laura B. DeLind rightly argues “without an emotional, a spiritual and a physical glue to create loyalty, not to a product, but to layered sets of embodied relationships, local will have no holding power.” (2006: 126)

pompoenoogst 2

Allium Sativum L.

The corn grain elevator of Minburn

The grain elevator, a corn symbol in every town

I drove to Minburn yesterday where I spent a great day at the Small Potatoes Farm. I past the road to the farm without noticing and stopped at the post office, next to the grain elevator, to ask for directions. A good choice because the post office, I soon realized is the epic center of this tiny town. So a few minutes before my arrival, the news was announced by the post office, calling to the farm that a tall Dutch lady was coming over.

We harvested more than 5 different varieties of garlic. If it would have been not such wet weather so far, the harvest would have been in already around the 4th of July. And even now, the land was quite wet, which meant that the garlic bulbs came out with big lumps of soft black earth hanging in their roots. We pulled, collected, cleaned and trimmed the garlic bulbs after which they were let to dry hanging in the barn, in bundles of eight. Each variety had its own place in order not to mix them up, and we indicated what we hung on a map. Of some varieties we only harvested a basket full, just to grow more seed.

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The Small Potatoes Farm grows an incredible amount of different vegetables and different varieties. These include different kinds of: squash, melon, potato, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, lettuces, unions, leek, cabbage, beets, kale, beans, strawberries, asparagus and herbs. The total amount of hectares available for production is around 4.5, however at any point in time, there is 1.5 hectares in production while the other acres have a cover crop such as buckwheat to increase soil quality and organic mass. STA72126

When you see the rows of different crops weaving in the wind, you wouldn’t think there is much mathematics involved. However, the production planning system is a complicated multi dimensional puzzle. While rotating land out and into production and rotating the right kind of crops after one another to minimize disease, there also has to be a certain kind of yield available every week throughout the season to give the CSA members their vegetable share. And, of course, this share demands a certain kind of diversity too. A puzzle for winter times,  when a thick pack of snow is covering the land.

Buying fresh local organic sustainable and just food….

Corn! The first harvest of sweet corn at the farmers market in Des Moines
Corn! The first harvest of sweet corn at the farmers market in Des Moines

While I am staying in Ames, I am enjoying the fresh fruits and vegetables of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in which the Flora’s have a share. All throughout the growing season, the weekly share can be picked up at the church, organized by the Farm to Folk Collaborative, which serves as an intermediary organization in order to connect the local producers and consumers. Different CSA farmers and other local producers offering ‘a la carte’, deliver each Tuesday after which the Farm to Folk people take care of assembly and payment handling.

Now I know my way around, I picked up their share at the church this week. It is a share of the Small Potatoes Farm, based in Minburn, southwest of Ames. I had onions, kohlrabi, carrots, squash, potatoes and kale. All the certified organic produce of the Small Potatoes Farm finds its way to the customer through CSA shares. The nature of the CSA model, based on a direct and trusting link between producer and consumer is the closest you can get to an unambiguous ‘honest’ product. It is both organic ánd local. But in the market place both ‘organic’ and ‘local’ can obscure different meanings and practices.

Organic can be produced in an industrial way within the limits of the label. Much of the organic produce in supermarkets is coming from industrial-size farms or companies with farms, which often have an organic line next to conventional production; organic is just another market. The local, at the other hand, has no regulation as to what sustainability standards should be applied. Local produce can come from small scale, but conventional farms, can include the use of pesticides and herbicides for example.

Des Moines Farmers Market

Des Moines Farmers Market

Since organic production has become an industry too, the ‘local’ is often elevated above the organic because the local – by its very nature – cannot be incorporated easily into the centrifuging forces of global commerce. Buying local is an act of opposing corporate food chain powers by going back to a less asymmetrical peer-to-peer relationship between buyer and seller.

A popular platform for these relationships is the farmers market. There are 18 farmers markets in Greater Des Moines (the city and the surrounding counties including Story County in which Ames is located). Saturday, together with Rick, Stacy and Tillie from the Small Potatoes Farm, their worker Brian and his friend, we visited the Des Moines farmers market, one of the biggest in the country. It is huge. Over 200 stands with a variety of products, from vegetables to ‘Dutch letters’ (??), a peculiar S-formed pastry letter, from clothes, to ‘Frisian Gouda’ cheese and from bread to garden equipment.

The beets are 'pesticide free'

The beets are 'chemical free'

Vegetables are promoted as ‘fresh’, ‘without pesticides’ or ‘local’. But that does not necessarily apply to all vegetables at one particular stand. I bought some tomatoes, thinking that I bought local produce. I found out later that it will take a few weeks more before tomatoes can be harvested in Iowa. I have no idea where my tomatoes came from. Being a conscious consumer is hard work.

Selective breeding in organic dairy farming

Tuesday June 2, Wytze Nauta will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Selective Breeding in Organic Dairy Production’. 

Family herd

A family herd

Organic dairy farming doesn’t have a distinct breeding system. Farmers are free to breed with a farm bred bull or Artificial Insemination (AI) bulls of conventional breeding programmes. Organic farming thus directly and indirectly depends on conventional breeding goals and modern selection and reproduction techniques such as multiple ovation and in vitro embryo production and transfer (ET). As naturaless and animal integrity are basic principles of organic farming, the direct and indirect use of these modern reproduction techniques is questioned, from organic farmers as well as from societal interest groups favouring organic farming. Moreover organic farming intends to maintain or even contribute to bio-diversity. It supports the use of different (traditional, regional) breeds. Finally, in organic farming animals are kept for different purposes and in a different, more extensive production environment then conventional agriculture. This further questions the dependency on conventional breeding programmes, since these programmes select breeding animals that perform best in intensive, high input production systems. Practice learns that on the whole these cows are genetically not well equiped to perform in an organic environment and this was sustained by research (see paper Genotype x Enviroment Interaction). So one can argue that organic farming has its own demands towards breeding, that may even differ with different farming strategies (see paper Different Strategies, Different Demands). Organic farming is highly diversified and organic farmers are known for their on-farm experiments, also with regard to breeding.

The question is not so much if selective breeding in organic dairy farming needs to be more in line with the intentions and principles of organic farming, all stakeholders agree on that, but to what extend and how to realize that. Then opinions diverge and different positions are taken (see Discussion paper).

Wytze Nauta explores this question throughout his PhD-thesis. He finally discusses the pro’s and con’s of three options that meet organic principles to a different extend: 1) a pragmatical one, i.e. using conventional breeding programmes, but with the exclusion of modern reproduction techniques, although an exception is made for AI; 2) a distinct organic breeding programme with distinct breeding goals and exclusion of modern breeding techniques and 3) a distinct breeding system based on natural mating.

The more exclusive, the more organic, but also the more difficult to realise. However, for an individual farmer it is more easy to decide to start breeding with a bull at the farm for natural mating. For option one and two more stakeholders need to come to an agreement. But all options imply a ‘system innovation’: radical change of practices at different levels of different actors in different positions lacking appropriate knowledge to come to a well grounded breeding system for organic farming. So, the ultimate recommendation of Wytze Nauta is not to impose a new breeding system, but to start joint learning processes involving organic farmers as well as other stakeholders based on the three options provided. This would best respect diversity organic farming.

Wytze Nauta (w.nauta@louisbolk.nl) is researcher Animal breeding at the Louis Bolk Institute.