The Future of Sustainable Agriculture

We have come a long way in the 15 years I have been privileged to serve as executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. When I first started, I remember being ridiculed or, even worse, ignored in a lot of public contexts where PASA now is a welcome voice for change. For this we can feel some pride, while also thanking myriad other national groups and personalities who have paved the way, often in the face of withering uphill battles.

As I prepare to transition to a new position in June, my main concern is that we don’t lose the momentum gained over the years. There are a number of critical factors that I believe need to be kept in mind, as follows:

  • Words matter. Though faced with abuse and even cooption of the word sustainable by corporate interests wanting to steal our thunder or undermine the power of our ideals, we must never give in to that. Other words like natural, local, and fresh are similarly threatened, even within our own ranks, but we must never relinquish or walk away from the words that got us here in the first place, even as we develop more descriptive terms, like regenerative, to convey the significance of our vision.

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Looking Back; Surging Ahead

It should readily be apparent that we arrived at PASA’s 25th annual conference thinking more about the next 25 years than the past. We could easily have built this year’s conference around a celebration of all that has come before, and indeed there was some of that to be found in the conference center and on the program.  But the predominant motivation for all of us – staff and board members alike – in planning the event was to make manifest the urgency of taking action to change agricultural systems in the immediate future, and our plans for doing so.

I also want to add here a few additional thoughts about the nature of this organization, our work together and the success we anticipate for the new programs PASA is now developing. To do this I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, one that I talked about just over fifteen years ago as I first interviewed for the job of executive director. Instead of looking back just 25 years, though, I’d like to go back in our consideration to a little over 500 years ago. Continue reading

Dancing with Nature: The Sustainable Challenge

I am not much of a professional sports fan these days.  But every year at this time I remember myself as a kid, pulling out my old Maury Wills baseball mitt and Carl Yastrzemski bat from the basement to play outside with my friends, following what seemed like endless winters while growing up in the Midwest.

Throwing a baseball back and forth for hours felt like absolute freedom. And every once in a while you could reach an exalted state with a best friend whereby the two of you would feel at one with each other, the gloves and the ball – nothing would miss the mark, until you fell out of that groove due to fatigue, or maybe the dinner bell ringing.

The same kind of thing happens with other sports, including an outdoor sport like fishing, another harbinger of spring. As any good fisherman will tell you, it is at those times when you feel unified with the fish, and the stream in which you both do your dance, that the true nature of the sport and the freedom it has to offer is realized. For me, there is no greater sense of liberation, and belonging at the same time, than to commune in this way with nature, often in the company of a dear friend. Continue reading

PASA on the Move

{This is my speech from PASA’s recent annual conference, which was delivered there in a somewhat abbreviated version}

The 24th edition of our annual Farming for the Future conference is an achievement worth celebrating in itself, but this year we are mindful that it begins a year of intense preparation for our 25th “PASA family reunion” as some people like to think of this event. And while there will be much literal preparation for the next conference in terms of developing a program, designing the workshops and recruiting the best lineup of speakers possible, there is a far more subtle process of organizing, and reorganizing, currently underway, that will come more fully to light over the next 12 months and in the years ahead.

To put it succinctly, PASA is undergoing an “extreme makeover” that we hope will pay dividends for our members and society in general, both in the short and long term. We are planning for what the next 25 years will bring to an organization that has already experienced considerable success, but is fundamentally restless and feeling an urgency to do more. It is indeed in the very nature of this organization that we, as its stewards, are perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo in agriculture and food systems, and are committed to moving ahead even before we stop and celebrate anything very much. Continue reading

Let a Farm Be a Farm

{blogger’s note: Please make sure to read the action alert at the end of this post!}

With the dust still settling from the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law a piece of legislation widely known as the Bioterrorism Act (BTA) in early 2002.  From one perspective this action was a necessary response to one of our greatest vulnerabilities as a nation, a potential attack on our people through the food supply chain. From another, it was an overreach of federal power intended and abetted by corporate America to extend their control over our food system. The actual reality of the situation probably falls between these two perspectives, and in many ways is still very much in play today.

No matter the effects of the BTA, one of the most significant things it did was to draw a distinction between two major categories of activity within any food system by defining a “farm” as a producer of raw agricultural commodities as distinct from a “facility” that transforms those commodities into the variety of processed foods that can readily be observed in any modern supermarket.  The distinction was critical, especially since the stated intent was to exempt all farms from the new regulations facilities would face, beginning with the requirement to register under the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), establishing the agency’s authority to regulate the activity of all such facilities.

Enter the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 (FSMA), which was intended as an elaboration and extension of the BTA, now with added intent to authorize direct FDA regulation of farms producing raw agricultural commodities consumed by humans or animals with very little or no processing by a regulated facility along the way. The immediate effect of FSMA was to blur the lines between farms and facilities, such that even FDA personnel visiting farms – some of them for the very first time – were apt to see facilities wherever they looked. It was a dramatic representation of the old adage “Give a boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail.”  Even those of us working to improve draft regulations written to implement FSMA were wondering if anything such as a farm, pure and simple, could ever exist, at least according the definition being used in the new regulations. Continue reading

Food Safety Back On the Agenda

If you thought we were done with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), you can think again. It has been most of a year since the process of responding to newly proposed food safety rules seemed to be smothering every waking moment of our lives, and late December since we heard the good news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had “heard” our concerns loud enough to force serious reconsideration of those first drafts of the Produce and Preventive Controls rules.

Fact is, the past eight months have been anything but quiet for those of us following the situation closely. There have been myriad other, lesser known proposed rules to respond to along the way, and several high level meetings behind the scenes aimed at helping FDA to “get it right” in a second go-round of rulemaking as well as the later implementation phase.  For most people, the process simply went below the water’s surface, but now it is poised to make a big splash back out in the open. As of this writing, we expect to see new proposals any day, perhaps within the next week or two.

As a reminder, this whole process really started in the spring of 2009 when FSMA first appeared in various forms of proposed federal legislation.  So some of us have been at it over 5 years now, making sure at every turn that the needs and interests of family farmers of all sizes, as well as the preferences of an increasingly engaged community of sustainably minded consumers, are taken into account both in the legislative and regulatory phases. Implementation will take several years of diligence too, but right now we may be facing the most crucial point of the whole process, as a second draft of rules takes us closer to a point of no return. Continue reading

When Farming and Civil Rights Intersect

In June of this year I had the privilege of attending a portion of the 50th anniversary celebration of Freedom Summer in Jackson, Mississippi. The experience was profound and a bit haunting to me. I was just six years old in 1964 when the original events took place, including occurrences of murder and general mayhem, leading up to the Civil Rights Act of that same summer and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Growing up in a totally white rural community outside Chicago meant that the interpretation offered to me of the Civil Rights Movement was sometimes less than charitable, and I have worked hard to replace my first impressions ever since. The black and white images from television, showing both unimaginable brutality and equally surprising solidarity among “Freedom Riders” and other activists, were stunning then and have stayed with me all these years. So it was poignant and humbling, to say the least, to be in Jackson with some of the people who had appeared in those news reports so long ago.

My principal reason for attending the event this year was to help moderate a discussion between civil rights leaders, old and new, and several of my colleagues who are leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement of today, to see what we could learn from those who had been on the frontlines of social change.  Imagine the sense of awe we felt when the youngest Freedom Rider from the early sixties introduced himself and participated in our meeting. We had scheduled two hours for this exchange, but could easily have filled two days . . . our challenge now is to never let this conversation end. Continue reading