Higher ed, lower pay? (Serious Sunday – well, now Monday – Blogging)

I wrote most of this a couple of days before the election when, like most, I was pretty sure we’d be seeing a President Clinton. Obviously that’s not how things turned out. What was expected to be a time of post-election Republican-party soul-searching and regrouping has turned into the opposite, as people begin to take seriously the question of how the Democratic Party has lost the support of working class voters (a nice piece on this here). This post isn’t directly diagnostic in that regard, but it does resonate with that problem, and so I offer it as my own small contribution to thinking about what direction progressive ideas should be moving in as we figure out how to operate in Trumpworld.

_________

In the Bill Clinton years, as George Packer describes in a piece last month on Hillary in the New Yorker, the idea took root in the Democratic Party that being progressive meant getting people out of the working class, rather than simply making the conditions of the working class better (through better pay, safer workplaces, protection of collective bargaining rights, etc.). In other words, Democrats came to believe that the mission of social policy should be to give non-elites access to what elites have, and so in effect to transform them into elites. And they thought the primary way to do this was to educate them more. This has been the reigning ideology of the Obama administration too. College is for career; the future is one for educated workers. This is not the same as, but it resonates with, the conservative drive to purge the “liberal” from the liberal arts and see higher ed in purely careerist, job-oriented terms. The mission of the university has thus come to be very widely seen as the economic transformation of the working class.

As a professor at a regional state university, my job is basically to carry out this mission. And every day I question it.

Continue reading “Higher ed, lower pay? (Serious Sunday – well, now Monday – Blogging)”

Blue Dog Family Farm

DSC_0281

Dennis Wilcox doesn’t look like a an old-timer, but by the standards of the local food movement in the Kalamazoo area, he comes pretty close to being one. Dennis started working in Three Rivers for Sustainable Greens (supplier to a number of elite Chicago restaurants) in the late 90s, and, at their encouragement, began bringing their salad greens to the Bank St. market to establish himself there. He then started his own farm, Blue Dog Greens in 2002. I moved here in 2004, by which time Dennis had become known for being one of only two certified organic producers at Bank St., and the only grower selling the bagged, mixed salad greens highlighted in his farm’s name, as well as lots of other delicious, very high quality vegetables. Fourteen years later things are a lot more crowded at the market, and a lot has changed for Dennis, but he’s still got a table full of amazing greens and veggies, and plenty of optimism that his farm will continue to find its niche in the local food network. Continue reading “Blue Dog Family Farm”

Radio, live transmission

I had to log some hours in the car on Saturday in what was a very unsustainable way to procure sustainably raised veal. I did a little online digging before I left in order to find some food-related podcasts to listen to, and I discovered two that were fabulous and fantastic: Radio Cherry Bombe and Gravy. Radio Cherry Bombe is done by two of the women behind Cherry Bombe, an indie food magazine about women in the food industry. It features interviews by Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu of all kinds of interesting food-world people (mostly women, though in the 50th episode “boys” including the amazing Yotam Ottolenghi are featured). Great guests, smart and funny conversation, and insight into lots of areas of the food industry.

Gravy is put out by Southern Foodways Alliance, which is an amazing resource for anyone interested in Southern food and culture. (My folks are from the northern edge of the South, so I have some ancestral ties that I like to think explain my love of greens, beans, and chicken.) The episodes are more professional than Radio Cherry Bombe, the kind of thing you could find on long-form NPR or PRI shows, and are very thoughtful and informative. As is inevitable when talking about Southern food and agriculture, lots of the shows deal with issues concerning race, and they do (I think) a great job at showing how to have a smart conversation about something most of us have a hard time talking about. They’re accessible, but sophisticated enough for classroom use too. I’ll draw on Gravy when I teach my intro philosophy course in the fall on ethical and political-philosophical issues connected to food.

I also listened to a couple episodes of Taste of the Past, with culinary historian Linda Pelaccio. Good guests, but she isn’t as fluent behind the mic as other interviewers, so the conversations always felt a little awkward.Still worth listening to though.

Would love to hear other suggestions of good food and ag podcasts!

Green Gardens, Part 2

(For Part I, click here.)

About 90% of Green Gardens’ sales are direct-to-consumer, either through their CSA or at the local markets, with the other 10% wholesale to restaurants, the People’s Food Co-op, and through Sprout Urban Farm’s small food hub in Battle Creek.I ask whether it would be a benefit to Green Gardens to have a larger wholesale outlet close by, one that could take their excess produce, and Trent says “yes, definitely.” Tomatoes were especially abundant this year, for example, and it would have been great to have a place to sell them in bulk, even at the lower prices he gets for wholesale. For a farm of his size, though, the margins are so much better with the direct-to-consumer options that they will remain his focus, and the CSA is the foundation of those, since it provides for consistent predictability in terms of both harvesting needs and income. They’re hoping to grow this portion of their business as they make infrastructure improvements, but still, Trent notes, thinking both about their own operation and those of other vendors they see at the markets, “farmers have to be smarter about how they market and sell their product if they’re going to be competitive. I just don’t think you can keep throwing stuff out on a farmers’ market table and hoping it’ll sell.” They need to “find ways to reach out to people and get them excited about food, get them to come out.” One of the efforts in this direction that Trent and Ruthie are most excited about is an on-farm market they opened this year that anyone can come to, not just CSA members. “We’re doing all the veggies,” Trent says, and “I buy local fruit from other people,” including apples from Molter Family Orchards and The Country Mill. Chicken and (soon) pork come from Green Gardens alum Clay Smith at EarthSmith Food and Forest Products, and a variety of other things ranging from quiche to maple syrup come from other local producers. The goal, explains Trent, is “to be a one-stop convenience shop for people,” so they can get most of what they eat on a regular basis from local producers with just one stop.

DSC_0303 Continue reading “Green Gardens, Part 2”

Green Gardens Community Farm, Part I

Snow flurries swirl along I-94 as I drive out to talk to Trent Thompson of Green Gardens Community Farm, east of Battle Creek, a week before Christmas. It’s been an unusually warm fall, allowing field crops to continue to be harvested far past when they can be most years. Yesterday was a day to get as much picked as possible, so today is the semi-official end of the season, or as close to the end of the season as Trent gets. Several of his hoop houses are full of greens which, along with carrots and other vegetables in storage, will send him every week to the indoor winter market in Kalamazoo. DSC_0297This makes eating a lot tastier and healthier for those of us who try to source as much as we can from local growers, but it also means a lot less down time for farmers after the relentless work the usual spring-fall crops demand. Trent has had only two half-days off since May before today, something a January trip to Florida will only do a little to make up for. But Trent isn’t complaining.

Though I’d met Trent at a dinner Donna McClurkan organized several years ago, and though hardly a week has gone by when I haven’t bought something from his stand at the Bank St. Market, I’ve never been to his farm, either the original one he started on rented land in 2008 or this one, which is on twenty acres that he and his wife Ruthie purchased in 2012. I pull up and park in front of a long low barn sitting perpendicular to a row of six big hoop houses and next to a stately old white farmhouse with a wraparound porch, columns, and shade trees in front. Trent and Ruthie, along with toddler Jorah, will soon move into the main house out of an apartment built off the back that they’ve been renting, just one of many steps forward that they’re taking as their farm grows. Trent calls to me before I can ring the wrong doorbell, and I walk over to meet him where he’s come out of the barn. He greets me with a strong handshake and then we head inside to talk for a bit with Ruthie before he and his feline helper, May, give me a tour of the farm.

DSC_0308 Continue reading “Green Gardens Community Farm, Part I”

Foul Butterball

When we think about why more sustainably raised meat costs more, we tend to focus on its higher costs of production, and sometimes also the broken meat processing system that makes it hard for small-scale farmers to get product to market (as I wrote about a few days ago). This piece from NPR/KQED’s Food Bites adds another topping to the crust. Avian flu has driven turkey costs up: “The USDA’s mid-November report on frozen tom turkeys, in the 16-24 pound range, showed that the average wholesale price was $1.35 per pound, up from last year’s $1.17.” Not enough to close the price differential with birds from all those small producers raising their organic, pastured, heritage breeds, but a step in the right direction, right? Sadly, no: the retail price of frozen tom turkeys has fallen to an average of 87 cents a pound, compared with last year’s 93 cents.” Why? Because this time of year turkeys are loss leaders, products sold below cost in order to get consumers into the stores, where they’ll buy other stuff with a good profit margin. And turkeys are just the thin end of the wedge: “The USDA says cheaper turkeys also will put downward pressure on prices for roaster chickens and hams in coming days.” More than a little discouraging, this. We can try to level the production playing field all we want, but if national retailers aren’t even trying to break even on the animals they sell, there’s no way to get the price of good meat anywhere close to in line with that of industrial protein. Hard to know where to press for change here.

Meating the Needs of the Future

FarWriting at Civileats.com, Lauren Dixon informs us that since the Wholesome Meat Act (WMA) of 1967, the number of meat processors in the U.S. has dropped precipitously, with “with some states [now] only offering one USDA-inspected plant, and roughly half of the states in the nation completely lacking such a facility.” The sticking point here is “USDA-inspected.” Any facility that slaughters and processes animals for eventual sale to consumers, grocery stores, restaurants, etc., must, according to the WMA, meet safety and sanitation criteria set at the federal level by the USDA and be subject to regular inspection. As these criteria are generally designed for large-scale processing, and as they regularly get updated, smaller processors can’t afford to comply and so get forced out of business. The result, as Dixon says, is that now, even “[i]n a time of growing awareness about the ills of factory farming and increasing demand for local, pasture-raised meat, many small producers who might sell direct to consumers just don’t have time to drive for hours to get it processed.” The flip-side of this is, of course, a system whose benefits accrue to those operating at a large scale, as is shown by the massive consolidation in the meat-packing industry, where, according to Dixon, “just four companies produce 80 percent of the beef sold in the U.S[;] [a]nother four companies produce 60 percent of the pork, and five produce 60 percent of the poultry.”   (See Christopher Leonard’s recent book The Meat Racket for how we got to this point.)

In July, two members of Congress, Republican Thomas Massie from Kentucky and Democrat Chellie Pingree from Maine, introduced a bill aimed to change all this: the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act. Continue reading “Meating the Needs of the Future”