Navigating the New Food Movement

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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.

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.

Is corn feeding causing E. coli?

The recent deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany has breathed new life into the Internet amateur food scientists’ claim that “factory farming” of beef cattle is causing the epidemic. More specifically, the “unnatural” practice of feeding corn to cattle corn is causing the outbreak. The cure, then, according to those like Modern Serenity blogger Nick Andre, is simple: “The solution is ultimately to favor a grass-fed, pasture raised model of raising cattle rather than a feedlot based operation.”

But would such a system-wide change really affect the amount and severity of E. coli in the food system? Nebraska U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologists Elaine Berry and James Wells, who are headquartered at Clay Center, reviewed more than 280 existing scientific studies on the subject last year for a book chapter in Advances in Food and Nutrition Research. Here’s what we know—and don’t know—based on the best of the research:

  • The Nebraska researchers caution that the potential effects of what cattle eat on how much and how often they shed the dangerous form of E. coli, O157:H7, must be deduced by looking at the overall large body of research, not from any single study. However, that’s the mistake pasture-feeding advocates often make by relying on a single study from 1998 that involved only three cows. In that study, cattle fed a ration made up of corn and ground soybeans, typical of what most cattle feedlots use, had higher total E. coli populations than cattle fed only hay. When the grain-fed cattle were abruptly switched to hay, the number of E. coli in their manure dropped by a thousand times, and the number that could pass through the acidic environment of the human stomach and thus posed a higher threat of illness declined by 100,000 times. However, what’s important to bear in mind about the study is this: No E. coli O157:H7 were detected, in any of the animals. The authors merely assumed the dangerous 0157:H7 strain would behave similarly to the generic E. coli they found. We know, based on research since, that’s not necessarily true.
  • When you do look at that larger body of research, it does seem that more E. coli, including the dangerous 0157:H7, does appear in the manure of cattle fed grain diets than those fed forage diets. But the conclusions of the numerous studies on the effect of switching to hay are often contradictory and far from clear, including studies showing cattle purposely infected with E. coli O157:H7 were potentially infective to cattle around them for more than ten times longer when fed hay than when fed corn. The bottom line is we know we can change the amount and severity of E. coli by changing the diet of cattle, but we don’t always know why, nor how to repeat it consistently. We do know feeding a grass-based diet is certainly no silver bullet.
  • The review demonstrates another thing we know to be true of E. coli O157:H7: It is naturally carried by animals never fed corn-based feedlot diets, including both tame and wild deer, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, rats, pigeons, gulls, rooks, starlings, and numerous other species of birds.

Corn and chopped corn plants (silage) are an important part of producing cattle to the quality level your customers demand, and they have been for more than a century. As any farmer who has had the unfortunate experience of leaving the gate to a corn field open around a group of cattle can tell you, cattle enjoy corn, whether or not they evolved to eat it. Cattle benefit from the nutritional profile of corn, when they are fed in the controlled environment of a feedlot that are almost always under the care of a professional nutritionist, and consumers benefit from the efficiency corn and soybean based cattle feeds bring by their lower beef prices.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment by clicking the link below. 

Ten Lessons Retailers Should Take away from the Latest Criticism of Animal Farming, from Food-Chain Communications President Kevin Murphy

The latest undercover video secretly shot by a planted hire working for the activist group Mercy for Animals shows workers identified as employees of the nation’s fourth largest pork farm throwing and kicking young piglets, smashing one pig’s head to the floor to kill it. But there's a great deal of context missing from the inflammatory video scenes, and there's some important lessons grocers can learn from it, regardless of whether or not they are familiar with common farm practices.

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Click on the play button to hear Kevin explain the ten lessons retailers can learn from this latest video

Mercy For Animals contacted officials at Costco, Hy-Vee, Kroger and Safeway, according to the Associated Press, gave them access to the video before its public release, and demanded they stop buying pork from this farm supplier. MFA Executive Director Nathan Runkle said this was one of the group’s first attempts to affect changes by directly attacking grocer retailers, a trend that is likely to increase. 

During the more than 50 years’ of food-chain communication experience represented by the principals at Food-Chain Communications, we have followed and actively studied what we now have come to coin the Food Morality Movement. This is a movement that seeks to condemn the modern food production system on the grounds of religion, ethics and morality. This ultimately is the root of the accusations against this pork farm and its retailing partners.

We believe debating the food system on the grounds of the Food Morality Movement is unfamiliar territory to most of its members, from retailers to farmers. And it requires tactics that are equally unfamiliar. For instance, activists like MFA understand this is not boxing; it’s jujitsu. Just as the ancient Japanese martial art uses a bigger and better-armed attacker's energy against him, rather than directly opposing it, MFA and like-minded activists are successfully searching the food chain for just the right pressure point, the place where they can inflict the greatest paralyzing pain to the entire system. Increasingly, that’s you, the grocery retailer.

Unfortunately, too many retailers aren’t prepared to respond with a defense against jujitsu; they still think they’re boxing. If you’re going to effectively respond to this new-age criticism, here are 10 things to consider:

bullet1 Avoid knee-jerk PR. I realize this is Public Relations 101, and trust me, I understand the urgency to rush a response to the public when you’re the focus of such heated attack. But the “any response is better than no response” school of thought is a losing proposition in this new fight. MFA, like other animal rights organizations, invests heavily in communication. Study this latest video yourself, and you’ll see: They are masterfully scripted, shot, edited, scored and presented to evoke deep emotion. When food-chain communicators let their own emotion (that is, fear) drive an immediate, shot-from-the-hip response, they’re bound to rush statements into the public debate that do more damage than damage control. Sometimes it’s OK to say “We don’t know what this is all about yet, but we promise to find out.”

bullet2 Know the context.A favorite saying of mine goes, “A text taken out of context is a pretext.” It’s an apt description of this latest video. Only until you understand what’s going on around the people “caught” on tape abusing animals can you begin to understand—and help your customers understand—that all is not as it seems. Much of the cruelty exposed is planted in the mind of the beholder long before the fleeting image reinforces it. For example, the worker pictured at 2:10 into the video “juggling” and “throwing” the baby pig is actually in the process of doctoring newborn pigs, probably in this case giving the piglet an injection of iron to keep him healthy as he grows. The pretext you see out of context is cruel handling; what you see in context is a worker who, highly efficient at his job, is moving through a single step in a process he likely repeated hundreds of times in the course of the morning that followed the clip, quickly injecting the pig and tossing it to his co-worker who—for the sake of reducing the pig’s stress level, is equally quick in returning it to the comforting presence of its brothers, sisters and mother.

Now, you can rightly argue that may represent a couple of workers who are possibly getting hasty and sloppy in their job, even possibly violating corporate standard operating procedures. But cruel?

Warning: Extremely graphic video 

 

 

Know the heart of the messenger. When Iowa Select Farms, the target of the video, reassures the public it “has a long-standing history of meeting high-quality animal care standards” and “a commitment to animal welfare and continuous improvement,” the response falls flat because it misses the ultimate point of the attack. Mercy for Animals is simply using criticism of Iowa Select’s animal care practices in order to advance a larger agenda: MFA believes humans do not have a right to use animals as they see fit.

Look at the group’s own words in its mission statement:

  • “…non-human animals are irreplaceable individuals with morally significant interests and hence rights. This includes the right to live free from unnecessary suffering and exploitation.”
  • “...MFA primarily focuses on…promoting cruelty-free food choices.”
  • "…cruelty to animals in the United States occurs at the hands of the meat, dairy, and egg industries - which confine, mutilate, and slaughter over 9 billion animals each year.”

So, even though the video pretends to be aimed at forcing Iowa Select to be more humane in handling the pigs it eventually turns into food, the very fact that MFA considers “slaughter” to be unnecessarily cruel clearly demonstrates the group will accept nothing short of vegetarianism. That’s their Achilles heal where effective response to the attack lies.

bullet 4Consider this an invitation to a deeper relationship, a deeper knowledge. The kind of contextualization necessary to understand the issues and explain them to consumers can only come by acquainting yourself intimately with your farm suppliers. If you don’t understand the reasons behind practices MFA consider inhumane, if you simply rush to condemn the food chain by acquiescing, as some retailers have, you may be endorsing accusations and accelerating an agenda you would otherwise vehemently oppose.

bullet 5You can’t be only partially guilty. In its public response to the MFA attack on purchasing such “cruelly raised” pork, the targeted retail chains were quick to attempt to distance themselves from the farm and its packer, to one degree or another. But when it comes to an attack on your ethics like this one, if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. There’s no waffling on being an animal abuser. Traditional distancing public-relations measures are simply not going to work.

bullet 6Understand the interconnectedness of the modern food chain. Here’s why you can’t hold the issue at arm’s length. As one grocery retailer said, “This is an industry issue.” But that defense ignores the reality that everyone is a part of that industry now. The grocery retailer can pass the blame back down the chain by ceasing purchases, but the reality is pork (and beef, and milk, and chickens, turkeys, lamb and eggs) has to be purchased from somebody. The nature of our interactive food chain—more accurately, food web--is not going to allow you to dismiss yourselves from accusations against your suppliers. “I’m just merchandising the stuff,” no longer holds water today. The New Food activism and Brand Environmentalism have trained today’s consumers well in one regard: If you purchase, you enable. You may have no direct role on the farm, but your influence impacts their behavior. Consumers understand that, and activists are openly betting on it to effect the changes they want to make in the entire system, one farm, one retailer and one consumer at a time.

bullet 7Don’t throw others under the bus. Because of that interactivity in the food-chain, it’s increasingly difficult to appear to be the righteous actor by pointing out those who are doing wrong. We have to understand attacks like this pit one entire vision of how a food system should work against another entire vision. Despite the fact MFA speaks the language of evolution in animal handling practices, its actions decidedly speak of revolution. When those of us who believe the system is in no such need of open revolution acquiesce in the fight by sacrificing a part of the chain seen as expendable, it almost inevitably rebounds to hurt everybody. A highly visible communications agency did it last year when it tried to appease the voices attacking large-scale egg farming over fears of Salmonella when it pointed out, why, there’s a lot more people sickened by E. coli in spinach every year!

bullet 8 Tour farm suppliers regularly. If I’ve successfully convinced you deflection is no long-term strategy, then the obvious next step is to actively participate in learning what your farm suppliers do, why they do it, and how they can help you defend against attacks like MFA’s. Programs like Farmer Goes to Market are a great start. While you are receiving the e-mail newsletter this is just the opening of the barn door. Tours, roundtables, and other close-up events are also offered through your state’s grocery retail organization.

bullet 9 Recognize the mission: To divide. When activists 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. Consumer against consumer, consumer against retailer, retailer against farmer, big farmer against little farmer, pet owner against animal farmer, and on and on.

“Schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith,” author and scholar Mary Eberstadt told me in a fascinating Truth in Food interview last year. Activists who want to reinvent the modern food chain in their own image understand that fact, and they understand shattering the united chain into inter-fighting elements not only works in their favor, it’s a prerequisite to rebuilding it through revolution.

bullet 10 The moral answer trumps all. To a man (and woman), every person I’ve seen attempt to respond to the MFA video so far has made the same mistake. They refuse to openly, actively and pointedly address the moral questions MFA raises. If you remember your high-school Aristotle (the father of rhetoric), he reminded us there are three legs to making an effective argument:

  • Logos, or logic
  • Pathos, or emotion
  • Ethos, or the ethics of those involved.

Mercy for Animals uses pathos masterfully in presenting the heartbreaking story of poor, defenseless animals being abused in the name of corporate greed. Corporate ag and food production employs logos at its highest level by reassuring consumers they have volumes of written, scientific welfare standards in place on all their supplier farms and they standards are backed by scientific studies and corporate standard operating procedures. And yet, the consumer—the primary audience each side is struggling to be hear from—is left without an answer to the final question: Who is right, and who is wrong. To be effective, we must be willing and able to turn the logical and emotional debates into the underlying moral questions. And then we must be able to answer them effectively.

Listen to our interview on Truth in Food with animal-rights opponent Wesley J. Smith, author of a Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy. He quickly dispatches the concept that animals are moral beings, capable of entering into a moral contract and thus owed the rights reserved to humans. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand that adequate defense is not the soft middle ground of improved welfare standards, corporate commitment to continuous improvement in humane care, and other PR boilerplate. It’s the bright line of moral and immoral, right and wrong, unethical and ethical. That’s the new ground we have to either choose to fight upon, or risk having the ambush staged there, catching us wholly unprepared.

Go ahead, ask… Watch the video and then use the comment section below to ask us: What’s right about the parts that bother you most. We’ll find farmers who look forward to the debate.

As you court the green movement's call for more "local, sustainable" farming, it's important to be completely clear about some of the movement's underlying assumptions.

When Bill Weida, a retired Colorado College professor of economics, spoke before the 2011 Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition meeting in Lincoln on April 30, he repeated a piece of conventional wisdom that should tip off grocers to the underlying philosophy of today's "local and sustainable" farming movement. 

“...consumers are willing to pay more for better food," Weida told the Lincoln audience, "[but] it costs more for traditional agricultural products because it’s a closed system: farmers are doing all the production, processing, and marketing.... Right now, the land and production skills for sustainable agriculture still exist, but what’s missing is the processing and marketing.”

Weida, a former director of the Food and Water Watch's Global Resource Action Center for the Environment's Factory Farm Project, travels the country presenting his economic case that the current food system as we know it is broken and unsustainable. Because industrial farmers (that is, the larger farms that today raise the majority of our food and fiber) keep on producing even when markets are down -- unlike traditional small farms that either cut back on cropping and livestock or went bust in response to market declines. The result, Weida argues, is a system that is chasing unsustainable levels of production, a system that must return wholecloth to the traditional small-farm system in which farmers not only raise food for their communities, but they process it, deliver it and market it themselves, as well.

Weibe isn't alone in that sentiment. Locally raised is a double-edged sword that may actually work against the community grocer. Why?

Partners

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.


Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.


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