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Saturday March 24, 2018

When USDA released its new Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass in March, an online interactive U.S. map showing local food infrastructures, farm to institution programs, health food access for underserved communities, and other aspects of the $65 million program, it wasn't difficult to notice one important link in the food chain was missing from the map. You.

Community food security and small farmers market advocates continue to try to draw a bright line between community-focused supermarkets and small, local "farmers markets." In doing, so they attracted the attention of many farmers, small and large, who obviously want to see markets flourish that encourage sales of farm products. However, we think it would be a mistake to overlook the longterm implications of the "us vs. them" mentality that's developing around the 6,100 farmer’s markets which USDA now reports exist across the country -- a full 16 percent increase since last year and double the number of a decade ago.

Consumers believe home-grown eggs are less likely to carry Salmonella? Think again, CDC warns

Are backyard chickens safer than commercial ones?

As cities across both the nation and Nebraska debate the wisdom of revising their zoning ordinances to accomodate the growing popularity of small-scale, “backyard” poultry hobbyists, it's important to keep some perspective on the health benefits of that type of chicken farming.

Surveys conducted of small backyard chicken growers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture tend to suggest their sanitation and disease-control practices, known to poultry growers as “biosecurity” practices, are often less strict than those practiced by large farms. For instance:

  • Overall, USDA found, only one in 10 flocks is seen by a veterinarian in the course of year.
  • Only about one-half of the survey respondents were aware of a connection between poultry and infection in people.
  • For flocks that reported having children in the household, the majority permitted contact between birds and children.
  • About one out of every six flock owners reported they had allowed chickens inside their homes at some time in the last three months.

How backyard chicken flock health practices could encourage disease spread

Those types of biosecurity oversights likely contributed to an outbreak of Salmonella last year believed to be carried by newly hatched chicks delivered to small urban chicken growers. In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued warnings that small egg growers may be engaging in practices that put them at risk of contracting or spreading dangerous forms of the food-borne bacteria.

At last count, the Salmonella outbreaks had sickened 92 people in 20 states, according to CDC, including nearby Minnesota and Kansas. The government doctors reported the offending poultry had been traced to a single hatchery in Ohio that supplies small egg layers by mail, although the hatchery contended it had not found the organism in its premises; it suspected one of its suppliers may have been to blame. Two different strains of Salmonella were implicated, known to cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps and more serious illness in the young and old.

Backyard chicken growing, particularly for eggs, is gaining popularity in cities as people long to get closer to their food and eat local. However, CDC warned, it doesn't guarantee protection for the diseases chickens can typically carry and spread. “Information that promotes raising chickens touts the birds as being good pets, stress relievers, and easy to keep,” says CDC. “Most people…choose to keep flocks because they believe the meat and eggs they grow will be safer and less expensive than store purchased products. [However], keeping chickens poses a potential health risk.”

Live poultry, even if they appear to be perfectly healthy and clean, are a common source of infective Salmonella, CDC cautions. The CDC warning sounded particular alarm about young children handling chickens, as well as handling chicks at farm stores selling the birds. Almost one in three of those infected by last year's outbreak were under the age of 5.

Have a prespective on the new food movement you'd like to share with fellow Nebraska grocers? Use the section below to leave your comment.

Reporting on 400 fourth graders from 15 area schools traveling to the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center for Nebraska's annual Agriculture Appreciation Day, North Platte Telegraph reporter Diane Wetzel hit it right on the head: 

"For 'town kids' who may not know if there is a difference between a heifer and Hereford, going to the grocery store is the closest they get to Nebraska's agriculture economy."

The students visited eight stations in the Center's parking lot to learn about plants, crops, bugs, horses, cows and food processing. The question Nebraska grocers should be considering is this: Why shouldn't every day be the chance to connect consumers with agriculture at the point of natural contact, the supermarket? 

What better illustration than the controversery last year over some supermarket chains taking criticism for promoting fresh produce sales by posting "Farmers Markets" signs? As farmers, we think it would be a mistake to overlook the longterm implications of the "us vs. them" mentality that's developing around the 6,100 farmer’s markets which USDA now reports exist across the country. The local farmers market movement, now underwritten by the Obama Administration's USDA to the tune of $65 million through its Know Your Farmer Know Your Food program, is a struggle over who gets to claim partnership with the "real farmer." It is a fight over the authenticity of the most important thing in everyone's life: food.

But the point we'd like to get across is that every food market is a farmers market.

Those direct-to-consumer outlets obviously meet a need. Joel Wachs, president of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, crystallized it when he told the Wall Street Journal, "If we don't have it stand for a very simple thing—farmers selling directly to consumers the produce they grow—then you've lost what so many people find valuable and magic about these events."

Grocers must realize that, as Wachs rightly says, the often politicized farmers market movement is indeed selling magic. But it's not a magic that community supermarkets can easily capture through simple signage. More importantly, it's not magic they should necessarily want to capture. Instead, retailers have to learn to better communicate the economic magic our food system performs every day.

Playing with fire?

To one degree or another -- some quite vocally , some more subtly -- the local-food, farmers market advocates suggest that local food is better tasting, more sustainable and safer than the conventional food you sell. All this on the grounds of little or no real evidence that it's true. But for political advocates of a local-based system, such as author and advocate Mark Winne, author of Food Rebels and Closing the Food Gap, the evidence isn't a particular necessity. They are merely convenient market shorthand for broader aims the movement hopes to achieve.

Whether directly or by inference, critics like Winne imply the conventional supply chain consists of empty promotion, without moral virtue, disconnected from the community, guilty of producing unsafe food, destructive of the world, unsustainable, polluting, and economically unfair. In contrast, the unspoiled domain of the farmer -- small, community-rooted, low-tech, devoted only incidentally to profit (and as a result, often acceptably underpaid) -- is the only correctly authentic defender of the underlying virtues. This in spite of the evidence that the farmers market structure has its own problems of authenticity.

Instead of pandering to a food authenticity that really exists only in fiction, the community-centered grocer has to communicate its own authenticity, especially:

  • That the market-driven, profit-oriented distribution system may need some tweaks, but it is not broken and doesn't need wholesale revolution.
  • That the modern food system is the one in history that has lived up to the promise of feeding the poor on anywhere near a national or international scale.
  • That the modern system is the best hope for leading the underserved areas of food distribution into a future that improves the availability for all.
  • That the system can only accomplish that future by growing the system rather than redistributing a smaller share "more fairly."

It is a mistake to buy into the need to imitate the small farmers market by using the language of the system's opponents. It confirms their accusations that you don't deserve the trust to feed the public, simply because you may be a market for farmers, you're just not the market for the right kind of farmers. Instead, every working community grocer should take the opportunity to reclaim not just agriculture appreciation every day, but food system appreciation. 

Photo by Diane Wetzel/The North Platte Telegraph

Let's talk about this issue! Leave a comment or question below, and we'll get you a real answer or response from one of your working Nebraska farmers.

Watch for these dozen farm and food trends to heat up in the coming year

1. Animal welfare
2. Mission: to divide
3. Technology vs anti-technology
4. Food-safety bait-and-switch
5. Antibiotics
6. The local push
7. Farmers markets
8. Organic vs. more-ganic
9. Access to food
10. Bigger farms/fewer farms
11. Food safety and the promise of Nirvana
12. 'Responsible food'


Animal welfare. From the country’s largest hog farmer pronouncing it would finally follow through on a promise to stop housing pregnant pigs in small individual stalls, to new developments in this summer’s deal between the nation’s egg farmer association and the largest animal-rights group HSUS, the spotlight will continue to illuminate shoppers’ perceptions and misperceptions about how farm animals are treated. Expect additional state legislation to be introduced, increased pressure on USDA to expand standards critics believe are lacking to improve how livestock live, and increasing (and periodically meaningless) label claims saying one food is raised “more humanely” than another. Guess who gets to explain what it all means to consumers. Are you prepared?

Mission: to divide. When small-farm advocates complain about “Big Ag” and “Big Food,” they’re right in one sense. When the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal—consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. Therefore, they understand the ultimate mission is to divide the food chain against one another. Just as the animal-rights group Mercy for Animals did with its July “undercover video” of Iowa hog farms, look for vocal critics of the food chain to continue inundating food companies with so-called “consumer complaints” about their farmer suppliers. By pressuring large food retailers, they hope to succeed in the market where they’ve failed in the political arena. That success will often be measured by how much they can add significant costs to food producers, impose burdensome regulation by supplier dictate, or even win de facto outright product or practice bans. Although it may strike retailers as the safest and quickest response to yield to such pressure, it’s a dangerous path for you to strike out upon. It can hurt the bottom line, as supply costs increase. But beyond that lie additional risks: In the short term, demanding suppliers abandon a cost-effective and safe technology only implies to consumers that some justifiable reason exists to reject it, making consumers distrustful of you for using it in the first place. In the longer term, feeding the activist machine hampers the overall food chain when it comes time to adopt future technologies that improve production efficiency, quality and food safety. And finally, case history demonstrates capitulation often only makes you a more attractive target for future, less “reasonable” demands.

Technology vs. anti-technology. Continuing infatuation with “natural,” “free-range,” “local,” “sustainable,” and even the old standby “farm raised” and “farm fresh” are short-hand labeling terms to signal an underlying discomfort with the scientific technology that has made U.S. agriculture the world’s most productive. Expect to see the trend continue, masked in even more creative terms like “from family farms” and “not from factory farms.”

The food-safety bait-and-switch. Many critics and political opponents of modern farming express frustration at the general public’s stubborn unwillingness to buy the message that their food is killing them and the federal government’s built-in hesitance to rubber-stamp rash legislation. So they will continue to adopt another approach they believe will gain them more advocates in the mass market: Look for them to morph individual food-safety questions into broader environmental-safety issues. Some examples?

  • Genetically engineered foods, which although studiously proven to be of no risk to human health are increasingly painted by environmentalists as a threat to the planet’s plants and animals.
  • Arguments that American diets are only affordable to individuals because farmers push “externalized” costs like pollution and community destruction off onto the general public at large (even as the critics ignore the externalized costs of expensive food).
  • Manure from farms that use antibiotics and growth promotants as an environmental risk. Unable to prove such products pose any meaningful risk to the health of individuals who eat the food produced by such farms, political opponents of the technology will attempt to make the case they are seeping into the public through pollution of the soil, air and water.

As is the case with childhood obesity, such bait-and-switch strategy depends on studiously misdirecting the eye of the public and regulators from clear issues of personal choice and personal responsibility to murkier, shadowy threat to the general public as a whole. 

Antibiotics. Despite failing in the last seven Congresses in a row to convince legislators that farm antibiotics pose enough threat to ban them, despite FDA’s dismissal this year of a decade-old legal petition that it circumvent Congress and regulate the practice out of existence, the question of farmers’ use of antibiotics and what lawmakers should do about it will not be going away soon. Be ready for additional consumer questions, and bear in mind two important aspects:

  • One, if you carefully study the language lobbyists use to frighten the public and pressure lawmakers, you’ll notice they speak not of certain harm to human health, but of risk of harm. And, yes, even defenders of the practice admit use of antibiotics in farm animals does carry risk. The risk you’ll die from an untreatable disease because farmers use penicillin, for example, is about one in 4 billion—or more than seven times less likely than getting hit by lightning. Shoppers driving to your store to buy antibiotic-free meat to avoid that risk are about 600,000 times more likely to be killed behind the wheel on the way there.
  • Meanwhile, even the most vocal opponents of farm antibiotics will concede that, far and away, the No. 1 cause of human drugs losing their effectiveness is that too many people take too many antibiotics for the wrong reasons. Grocers who point out the antibiotic issue to shoppers in their meat and dairy cases and then send them across the store to their pharmacies for discount antibiotic prescriptions may be sending mixed messages to consumers concerned about the issue of antibiotic resistance.

The local push. USDA predicts food sales through direct-to-consumer channels and intermediaries, including grocers, will rise to about $7 billion for 2011. However, the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic. If consumers are looking for a means to stay rooted in time and place via a sense of community that purchasing from local farmers brings, few retailers are in better position to lead that trend than the community focused grocer. If true, grocers may discover the "food" portion of the "local food" movement may be a case of the marketing tail wagging the dog. Grocers who see locally sourced food as only a small part of fulfilling their commitment to the community, through community relations, employee relations and true contributions, will put themselves in the lead in capturing the loyalty of those local-focused consumers, regardless of how many miles the food they offer travels to get to them.

Farmers markets. The visible result of that local push will be continued official sanction of farmers markets as direct competition to you. USDA now numbers 7,173 farmers markets for 2011, up 17 percent over the year before. A good portion of that growth is being subsidized by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, through its Farmers Market Promotion Program. Funding farmers markets expansions since 2006, the program this October announced another $9.2 million in funding. Allotted about $33 million by the last farm bill, the program expects to make available another $10 million for 2012.

Organic vs. more-ganic. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) its continuing growth in market share, organic is suffering an identity crisis that stands to further erode its credibility in the years ahead. Co-option by corporate giants, most notably Wal-Mart, as well as dependence for credibility upon a bureaucracy as deep and loathed by the new movement as USDA, the organic brand is now, ironically, being attacked from within by those who question the need to be more than organic. “For many consumers, an organic apple tastes sweeter not only because it’s healthier,” author Felicia Mello wrote in a recent issue of the politically liberal magazine The Nation, “but because it conjures up a vision of a simpler, more pure world, where we produce our food without wreaking havoc on the environment and our relationship to it is unmediated by fear, guilt or the drive for excessive profits.” The infighting between the organic and the more-ganic wings of the “sustainable” farming fashion has the potential to add to growing consumer confusion over exactly what they’re getting when they willingly increase their food bill to purchase products that science has yet to prove offer any real, meaningful health benefit in return.

Access to food. Promises of further food inflation ahead, impending reduction of benefits to the unemployed and poor even as the economy continues to drag, highly public infighting over how to divide up the safety net benefits like WIC and EBT between grocers and other food outlets—it’s all going to mean continuing media focus on those who don’t have sufficient access to good food every day. In the political season of next year, watch for the highly vocal and well-organized “community food security movement” to ramp up attacks on conventional food distribution by fostering a creeping paranoia that the grocer-centered, for-profit food system is no longer up to the task of feeding everybody fairly and sustainably.

Bigger farms/fewer farms. Despite a bump in the number of small farms counted in the last national farm census, related to the expansion of local farms around cities, the longterm trend toward larger and fewer farms will continue unabated in the years ahead. For better or worse, the United States will never return to the small, local diversified farms of yesteryear, any more than it will return to the corner grocer as the model for retail. Yet, according to USDA, about 99 percent of U.S. farms and ranches remain in hands of individuals, families or partnerships, not large corporations.

Food safety and the promise of Nirvana. The coming fight isn’t about whether or not to make food safer. It’s about how to best accomplish it. As the political dialog in the election year polarizes the philosophies of government-as-solution vs. government-as-problem, look for the food-safety debate to take on similar tones, pitting the government solution against the system created by profit incentives of a properly functioning free market. Case in point: USDA’s capitulation this year to add the non-STEC strains of E. coli to its list of illegal food adulterants. As government steps in to visibly stamp such realities of food production as no longer allowed, with little to no regard for the practical realities of delivering on such promises, it risks setting the consumer up for further disappointment when the system inevitably fails to deliver.

“Responsible Food.” Today’s fight over food hides a lot of political and social undercurrents, undercurrents that will create some significant undertows in the political season of 2012. If you’re defining “good” food as food that’s simply nutritious, safe and wholesome, you’re risking being blindsided by entirely new definitions of “good.” Those definitions include socially just in how food rewards both the workers who deliver it and the poor consumers who can’t afford to eat it, environmentally sound in how it impacts the planet, culturally sensitive in how it forces minorities to abandon the foods of their unique cultures, and animal-sensitive in terms of how it ensures animals it originates from enjoy “enriched” lives before they meet their demise.

This summer's Farm Aid concert held in August in Kansas City received several glowing reviews from the Nebraska media, most of which echoed the sentiment that not only does the 26-year-old annual concert offer good music, it also meets a valuable need in "supporting farmers in crisis." 

"Farm Aid is about continuing to create a farming culture that embodies the best of America’s farms," one Nebraska reviewer wrote.

However, although promoters billed the annual concert as a benefit for America’s family farmers, grocers should be cautious about the politics behind the effort. Food and farming have become words increasingly used as a political platform. Farm Aid is a prime example. You’ve seen the event morph from being about helping family farmers stay on the farm and endure a two-decade-past financial crisis, to today promoting a small farm only agenda. The $39 million Farm Aid organization and its chief public faces, singers Willie Nelson, John “Johnny Cougar” Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews, rail against large farms, using the activist’s coded language of factory farms, corporate greed, technology such as genetically modified, growth hormones and antibiotics.

Speaking of the 2006 concert, for instance, a glowing new media press report about co-founder Niel Young boasted of this evolution in sensibilities. “[Young] has seen the cause of Farm Aid go from a financial organization to activist organization.” His involvement, it continued, was in reaction to the “quality of food in U.S. supermarkets, and how to get the family farmer growing superior food to industrial producers into the market.”

Granted, Farm Aid always had a markedly political tone, as you’d expect from such a collection of pop music entertainers. However, the group’s aim to educate and motivate people to influence farm policy goes deeper than the face value of making U.S. citizens healthier by improving the quality of the food. Their language has also shifted from not just “helping family farmers” but to a “Good Foods Movement.” And the important distinction grocers have to realize is that “good” in “good foods” bypasses the grocer completely. According to the Farm Aid web site, “Getting food directly from farmers at farmers markets or through community-supported agriculture (CSAs) puts your dollars directly into the hands of family farmers and you receive the best quality food.” Such tactical division of the food system--small farm vs. big farm, supermarket vs. farmers market, organic vs. conventional--is a common tool used by political advocates of a system that relies on the traditional, profit-driven, free-enterprise system of which you are a part. And those progressive political aims are regularly funded, even in a time of record public debt and budget cuts, by federal, state and local governments. The federal government increased the funding on the Healthy Foods Initiative from $35 million to $400 million. It also promoted a campaign called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, a $65 million initiative designed to drive consumers to farmers markets bypassing the grocery retailer.

In Nebraska, Farm Aid's devotion of dollars illustrates the group's growing rift between early aims and today's. Of the $408,100 the group reports granting to other organizations in 2010, $7,500 went to the Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska's Rural Response Hotline, a suicide hotline set up during the 1980s farm crisis to respond to an increase in rural suicides, which has been funded since. In addition, another $15,000 went to the Center for Rural Affairs, which although demonstrating an affinity for direct sales of farm goods to consumers as well as publicly owned grocery stores, is not as stridently anti-supermarket as other groups outside Nebraska that are funded by Farm Aid.

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