Photo: TEDxSonomaCounty (Flickr)
Dan Imhoff is the president of Watershed Media and the author of several books about farming, food policy and sustainable living. He’s also a musician who farms a small plot of land in Healdsburg, California.
He left his chickens, ducks and various crops (from olives to apples) in the charge of his wife and daughter as he traveled to Bloomington, Indiana. Annie Corrigan spoke with him prior to his community talk about the farm bill.
Where Are We Now?
You’re in Bloomington to talk about the farm bill, so let’s just jump right into that. We didn’t get a new farm bill, and at least as far as I can tell, it has fallen off the radar. We’re focusing on other things right now. Can you give us an update on what’s happening?
I think actually that the wheels are in motion for the House and Senate Ag Committees to start the process again this year. But it’s really questionable whether or not it will be a priority. The reason we didn’t get a farm bill last year really was the House refused to vote on the proposal that their House Agricultural Committee put forth. They just didn’t want to get into this argument over how much we should cut food stamps.
The farm bill is euphemistically called the ‘farm bill’ because it’s really about nutrition, agriculture and taking care of the land. Since the Great Recession of 2007, food stamp enrollment has skyrocketed up to almost 50 million people. That means that 80 cents out of every dollar of farm bill money spent goes to the food stamp program called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
This isn’t giving me a lot of hope that we’re going to get a farm bill.
Some of the programs that are protected are very valuable. Like, the food stamp program has been protected as an entitlement. And then the subsidy programs, that really are the financial mechanism that makes our big industrial complex work — corn, soybeans, commodity crops, lots of feed for animals and ingredients for processed food; all those things are preserved.
It’s those small programs that really have big benefits to people on the land, those who are trying to create this dual food system, a sustainable, local, regional food system, concurrent with the industrial ag system that dominates our agriculture. Those things really get cut when we don’t have a new farm bill.
It’s my understanding from talking to people is that these local, organic, small-scale farmers don’t get a whole heckuva lot of help from the government. It’s the commodity farmers that are really dependent on huge subsidies. I got that wrong?
It’s true. Proportionately they get practically nothing, but you can’t underestimate how much a grant of $50,000 for a small producer to help them create a cheese processing facility or a fruit drying facility or some unique program that helps a farmer put fresh fruits and vegetables in a cafeteria, or a contract that gives a vegetable grower an outlet for vegetables that go to senior nutrition programs. These things here — $30,000, $20,000, $40,000 here and there — they make huge differences in people’s lives and the kind of agriculture we have. When they’re on the chopping block, then we’re back to that scenario when the only farmers that really get anything in the farm bill are the corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soybean growers, then of course the big animal operators as well.
I’m surprised that personally I haven’t noticed that we haven’t had a new farm bill. Can you tell me why I haven’t noticed, or maybe I’m just not paying attention in the right places?
To me, the farm bill is one of the most important legislations that people don’t know anything about. It has such a wide ranging effect. This $100 billion goes out and helps to take care of people who really need food. It definitely makes the rules of our farming system — who grows what and who gets paid for it and under what conditions. It’s also there to act as kind of a forward-thinking safety net, research engine and even trade ambassador. So, it has all these many multiple functions in the economy.
But, what you find is that our rural areas are shrinking in population, and because of that they have less and less representations in the government. There’s a lot less willingness for the government to pick up these issues that are seemingly dropping off the radar but are as vital as the food on your table and the clean water in your tap.
Tastes Like Home
I watched your TEDx talk, which was fabulous. One of the first things you say is, “When I think of a sense of place, I think of food.” Can you describe that to me?
I’ve been fascinated by gardening and food since I was a kid, and food was really important in my family. My dad was a cook. He was a really seriously good cook. I took food the other way, as a producer grower. For me, it’s not the farm bill that gets me up in the morning. It’s taking care of the plants and animals.
I do not sell products. My main aim is strictly to grow the highest quality food humanly possible, that I can get on our table, as much of it as I can and in that beautiful, seasonal, exquisite ripeness and readiness. I try to keep things at such a scale that I can do it, along with the many other things I have on my plate, so to speak, during the day. It’s just one of those things that you incorporate into your life.
Photo: Courtesy of Watershed Media
David V. Goliath
You don’t sell but I’m wondering if you can respond to a producer’s concern. I spoke with the folks at Eden Farms. They grow hydroponically. They wanted to get their products into Marsh, which is a local supermarket chain, but Marsh didn’t want their stuff. They import basil from Hawaii instead. So, small cooperative grocery stores and farmers markets are fine and good, but how do local farmers (local food in general) expand if we don’t get into big grocery stores?
I think it’s really on a catch-can basis because I certainly see lots of grocery stores as I travel around the country, and they seem to be increasing their intake of local and regional produce when they can. What I would say is you might try to wage a campaign of customers writing to that grocery store saying, Hey why don’t you get local instead of Hawaiian grown this-or-that. Sometimes it’s the consumers with the power, and if you can’t get them one way then I think you have to try to get them another way.
Scale is the thing that we’re constantly bumping up against as we try to make a truly healthy food system. On the one hand, you might celebrate that Walmart has recognized that organic food is a sale’able commodity and that they’re going to try to put as much of it as they possibly can in their stores. At the same time, given their business model and their mission, you know that they’re often going to go to that lowest-cost provider, and that might be the California leafy greens versus the Indiana grower who has a hoop house and is doing this really cool seasonal system here.
That’s going to mean that growers are going to have to band together so that they can have the volumes that the buyers need. You have to look at it from their point of view as well. They want to write one check, and they want to make sure that they have what the need when they need it. They don’t want to have to scramble around 27 different providers just to get one ingredient. This is actually a very dynamic, exciting part of the local food system — these new food hubs that try to network the growers with the chefs and the buyers. That’s the kind of the thing that has to come up now as we scale up.
Be The Change You Wish To See
You obviously grow your own food, probably not all of it. If you had to choose for yourself between buying local food or buying organic food that is not from your region, can you talk through your thought process for that?
To me, organic is a vehicle for the commercial marketplace. The highest form of certification is familiarity. If you can’t grow it yourself, then you might be able to look farmer Nick in the eye and say, Hey what’s the history of this food? Tell me about it. You can kind of get a feeling for his practice, her practice if it was Nicolette. Then you go down your list.
I try not to be too extreme in my views. I try not to drive myself crazy. I’ve been around long enough to not get too worked up about this local/organic conundrum. It’s not a conundrum for me really.
The things we really have to worry about are our animal products. I have less and less to offer people except to disconnect yourself, to go meatless one day perhaps if you’re an omnivorous family. A meatless day cuts 15 percent of your animal intake. Then have one day that’s a pastured-products day. You go for organic or grass-fed or animal welfare approved, preferably from somebody whose farm operation you know. That’s 15 percent in the positive. Now you’ve just gotten 30 percent of your animal product on a different track — one by subtracting, one by adding the good.
The more you can disconnect yourself from the conventional food system — heavily dependent on GMOs, heavily dependent on intensive confinement of animals that is not healthy for the people who live in those areas or for the animals themselves — the more powerful the impact on the overall food system.
Can organic, small, sustainable farms feed our ever growing population?
I hope so. I don’t think we know yet. It’s going to take a lot more people than we have right now growing food. We basically are growing the same number of animals that we were 20 years ago with 10 percent of the farmers. That means there has to be market infrastructure, distribution opportunities, education. We’re looking at a 30 year transformation.
I see no reason why we couldn’t but in the end, we’re going to eat less animal products than we do now. There’s no doubt about it. We need to go from a system where we take the animals off the land, we urbanize them in windowless structures, we bring the feed to them and then their waste becomes something we have to move around almost as a toxic liability and then we move the animals further into this global processing system.
We want to replace that with a system where the land feeds the animals, where clawed animals, two-footed four-footed beaked animals, actually get out and experience the world as a creaturely being. That is going to be a completely different type of agriculture and we have to be very patient and not take our sights off of that ideal, but it’s not anything that can happen over night. We’ve been down this different road for far too long.