This week I’ll be switching egg suppliers over to Bryan and Brittany from Horse Shoe Ranch. Allow me explain.
The eggs that I’ve been getting thus far are distributed by Lancaster Farm Fresh (LFF), a fantastic company that has stellar quality food raised/grown the right way. It is also structured as a cooperative corporation, a business model that I find to be inspiring. The story of how they started is pretty great. Check it out by clicking here.
LFF is the single largest supplier of the products that you see when you visit Dave’s Backyard Farms (DBF ’cause I want an acronym too). Pretty much all of the veggies, much of the meat, and the eggs come from farmers that cooperatively belong to and own LFF.
The eggs we’ve been getting from them are great. But as the saying goes in chess, when you find a good move, look for a better one.
The main reason I got into farming was to reestablish a connection to the source of our food, something that most of the world’s population had intimately been tied to for thousands of year and something that has mostly been lost over the course of just a hundred. While I don’t farm anymore, what I try to do to the best of my ability is to get as close as I can to the people who do (um, not in a weird, creepy way…?). Maybe I do this because it allows me to live out my ideals vicariously through others. Who knows. Anyway, a major goal of mine when sourcing products is to minimize the degrees of separation between the farmer and your table.
Yes, the eggs from LFF are great, but I don’t have much of a connection to them; they get delivered after I respond to the list sent by the LFF sales reps. With Horse Shoe Ranch, I’ve had conversations with the farmers, we have mutual friends, and they go to farmers markets nearby in Philadelphia. These things are nice, but there is something more important that more closely ties me in. Bryan and Brittany are currently raising money to expand their business. They are not asking for donations. Rather, they are accepting loans from the public that they will pay back over the course of 5 years with 8% interest. You can click here to check out all the details and to lend.
Lending money to a good farm gives me a new level of satisfaction in carrying the product that they offer. I now have a personal, vested interest in the success of Horse Shoe Ranch, and I think that when I place financial responsibility upon something, I’m likely to better appreciate it, even something as seemingly inconsequential and ordinary as eggs. This is not because I’m concerned about receiving back my investment plus interest: I guess it’s similar to how if I were to built a chair I’d appreciate it more than if I were to purchase one from a store (not a perfect analogy exactly, but I think you know what I’m trying to say). If I build a chair, I’m more likely to think about how I sourced the wood, the proper tools to use, the years of training it took to gain carpentry skills, and the kindness and patience of the people who taught me, etc (purely hypothetical-I have no idea how to build anything). Similarly, if I have a financial interest in something, I’m probably more likely to think about how those hens are raised, how lending the money supports a young family reach their dreams, how much their toddler will learn from growing up on a farm, how much work it took to build out the fencing, and how their farming methods are improving their corner of the world,etc. And if I more greatly appreciate something via this route, I’m probably more likely to talk about it. Over time, the conversations that come out of all this create community and better solidifies what we all in the end so desperately need: more young farmers supplying their local populations with properly produced food. I think it’s best to ascribe as many layers of meaning on top of food production as we can: environmental, social, spiritual, emotional, and now, financial. It’s all quite different from buying a dozen eggs from any grocery store.
Ok, now the fun stuff. The eggs are colorful. Yup! each dozen has one or two blue or green eggs. If you have kids, they’re going to love them. And the eggs are going to have more colors once the farmers become established at their new location in Pottstown. The chickens are outside all day and they’re moved once a day so they eat as many bugs, worms, and brassicas as possible. This means deep orange yolks. And they follow cows, allowing them to spread nutrients across the soil. These hens are part of an integrative agricultural ecosystem, and this translates to what is best for the environment and what’s best for you.
During the New Year season I like to sit down and meditate on the past year and to compare it to previous years. I feel like doing so places what may otherwise seem like a disparate year into the wider story of my life. Placing 2021 into story-form also gives rise to the question of whether or not I’m on the way to some end goal, since every story has an ending.
This is how some historians often write history books: they compartmentalize periods of time (called periodization) according to perceived similarities between events that occurred within that period (classical era–>dark ages–>medieval age–>renaissance–>enlightenment–>modern era), and they then go on to compare and contrast different periods that they themselves constructed. It’s all somewhat tautological, and there’s a large degree of imagination that goes into the whole process. It becomes more of an issue when such constructions become the basis of attempting to steer the future in some direction. About that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” proverb? Yeaaa, not very wise. I honestly don’t know who to fear more: those who cannot remember history or those who claim to remember it.
I’ve always been a critic of conceptualizing history in this way, but, when it comes to myself, I find that periodizing my life gives me meaning, purpose, and direction. However problematic it may be, I prefer it over abandoning it all together. I’ve found that I’m generally more happy with imagined structure, because, without it, I tend to go down the dark tunnel of nihilism and I start listening to gothic rock music. If you see me with headphones on at Creekside listening to bands like The Cure or Bauhaus, please smack me.
Twenty-twenty-one (just to make proud my high school English teacher for not starting a sentence with digits) was a calm, steady, and comfortable year for me and Dave’s Backyard Farms. It brought with it gradual growth in product offerings, in number of customers, in revenue, and in newsletter subscribers. Actually probably one of the things that I’m most proud about accomplishing this year is having established this newsletter as something more than just marketing. The sharing of deeper meditations, of my thoughts on agriculture, and of silly anecdotes via these emails has become one of the more meaningfully rewarding things that I do. I deeply appreciate you reading them, and I love hearing your thoughtful responses.
Having a calm 2021 is exactly what I had hoped for. This is because 2020 was its polar opposite: explosive growth combined with explosive stress. If you’ve been here for a while, you know why. If not, it’s a long story. I can tell you about it some time. Just ask.
Over the last two years it’s become apparent that, for me, the speed of business growth is proportional to my level of stress. So with this in mind, I’m trying to figure out in what direction do I steer 2022. I know that I am capable of, or even could benefit from, a little less calm than what I experienced this year. But I certainly don’t want to experience another 2020. I wonder, do I want to open a second location in 2022? Well, if I open a second location, might as well open 500 eventually (better watch out, Bezos). My main motivation for doing so would be to spread the local food movement as far and wide as possible. But, since I’m particularly sensitive to cortisol, would this lead to overwork and debilitating stress? Or maybe this fear is the result of me over-imagining my 2020 stress level, or at least of me giving more attention than is deserved to just a few isolated, unique incidents that occurred that year, similar to how historians often imagine or exaggerate unique historical events. I honestly have no idea. You know what? Screw it. I’m going to put on my headphones instead. I’m goth now.
This week you may notice that the shelves where Herrcastle Farm, the other produce vendor, was set up are now empty. This is because Sunday was their last day at Creekside. There are a few things that I want to say about this. First, it’s no cause for alarm. Business is strong. To give you any idea, more than double the amount of turkeys have been ordered compared to last year (which reminds me, if you want one, please hurry. almost sold out). Anyway, I’m not going anywhere.
Second, if you ever thought about starting a business, now’s your chance. We are looking for new vendors.
Lastly, Herrcastle sold avocados, bananas, and citrus, things that are not local. And since they are not local I tend to shy away from them. If you’ve been on this newsletter for a while, you know many of the reasons why I focus on local food. If you’re new here (welcome!), check out this blog post. But when it comes to things like avocados, bananas, and citrus the issue becomes more alarming and upsetting.
When drug lords came to the brilliant realization that, while not everyone snorts cocaine, everyone does in fact eat food, they diversified their operations into the avocado industry. With the surge of the legal marijuana industry in the United States, growing avocadoes in Mexico became more profitable than growing drugs. It’s at a point right now where MOST of the avocadoes (and also Mexican berries) sold in places like Acme and Shoprite are coming from drug lords who are either growing it themselves or who tax, threaten, and murder farmers who do. Not to mention that they also chop down old forests on a daily basis to plant more avocado trees.
Chiquita Banana and Fresh Del Monte: more pieces of work. They fund and aid Columbian paramilitary terrorist groups in exchange for protection of local banana farmers. At least they are loyal to their employees, except when it comes to exposing the children who work for them and for their partner plantations to extremely toxic pesticides without protection, paying them poverty wages, and requiring that they work a 12-hour work day. And let’s not forget that Chiquita Banana is the successor to the United Fruit Company, which has a long, dark history of staging coups against democratically elected governments in Central America.
Health food stores like Whole Foods go through Fair Trade companies like Equal Exchange, a brand that pays farmers fairly, presumably. This is not an option for us. I have no way of confirming with absolute certainty that cartels are not in some way involved in Equal Exchange’s avocadoes, especially because they are coming from Michoacán, a region that has like 10 cartels that are active in the avocado industry.
When I first learned that Herrcastle was leaving, I was presented with a challenge. For one, I don’t tend to carry nonlocal produce because I prefer to keep dollars within the local economy. But, I don’t want people to go elsewhere for bananas, avocadoes, and citrus because of everything I just mentioned. After not being satisfied with any Fair Trade companies, I had the thought to find a small-scale organic farmer in California who sells at their farmers markets and who would ship to us directly. Well, I found a few. I’ve sent emails and left voicemails. I’ll report back after I get some more information. I do have some pineapples today sourced by Lancaster Farm Fresh, a company that I trust. Bananas will be more difficult to find and will take time, and I can’t even guarantee that I’ll get any. Doing my best.
Last week I assigned some homework, to read an article in the NYT Magazine entitled “Learning to Love GMOs.” I realized that I haven’t written anything about GMOs, which is odd since it’s the most discussed agricultural topic in the media. I usually write on topics that are not so well known, so I guess I skipped over GMOs for that reason. I’m writing this assuming that you read the article, so if you didn’t get to it, you can click here.
Via genetic modification, plant biologist Dr. Cathie Martin developed a tomato plant that produces fruit with a high level of anthocyanins, a class of flavonoids that is responsible for the purple pigmentation of certain fruits and vegetables like blueberries, blackberries, plums, purple potatoes, and eggplants. While some of the anthocyanins of tomato plants exist in the fruit, most of it is stored in the leaves. By inserting a gene from the snapdragon plant into the genetic code of a tomato plant, Dr. Martin was able to turn on a “switch” that changes the location of anthocyanin production from the leaves over to the fruit. She fed the resulting, deep purple tomatoes to mice, who lived longer than those mice who were fed normal tomatoes without that switch turned on (of course you knew this, because you read the article). Seems like something reasonable at first, does it not?
This leads me to the purpose of this week’s newsletter: I would like to problematize, if I can’t answer, the following question: are GMOs inherently bad? We know that as they currently stand they are without question horrible. The environmental effects, the effects on human health, the actions of companies like Bayer-Monsanto, etc, are all well documented, and I will not spend time on them here. But could GMO technology perhaps be viewed like a tool? A hammer can be used to build a house, though it could also be used to hurt someone. We know that GMOs are now used en masse to hurt someone, but could the technology be used to build a house? The author of the article, Jennifer Kahn, while acknowledging some the current harmful effects of the hammer (though there are several false statements in her article), and Dr. Martin certainly believe that it can be used to build a house.
Well, not so fast. While the idea of increasing the concentration of a specific nutrient in a tomato seems nice, there is a lot to consider. Let’s start by zooming in by asking some questions about this particular case involving Dr. Martin’s purple tomato. I’ll be tying each of these questions to a specific point, which I will discuss immediately after asking the question. At the end of it all, I’ll zoom out to discuss the issue within a larger, philosophical framework where I hope to lend an answer to the initial question that I posed above. My hope is that this piece will provide you with a fresh perspective on the GMO debate.
Question 1: Anthocyanins protect plants from stress caused by excessive heat, drought, flooding, pests, and disease. As many of these stresses affect leaves, how much, if at all, does the production of anthocyanins in the fruit affect their concentration in the leaves?
Purpose of question 1: Plants have been around for a long time. They have over 500 million years of evolution under their belts. During this time they have developed numerous means of protection. It’s why they have survived for so long. The pathway for anthocyanin production emerged around 450 million years ago, around the same time that plants emerged from the sea and began to colonize the land, where there existed different forms of stress. Many plants produce it, not just tomatoes. Anthocyanins are just one means of protection that plants developed, and all of these pathways are amazingly beautiful in their complexity, so much so that it is but it isn’t a stretch to say that plants have some form of sentience.
We do not have and probably will not have any time soon a complete understanding of this complexity. When scientists modify plant genes, they subvert this complexity that emerged from hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This leads to the following objection: “GMO technology is just doing quickly what nature itself does already, whatever ‘nature’ means anyway.” This objection does not hold ground when we consider one major difference between natural evolution and genetic modification: while plants have evolved in accordance to what THEY themselves require, we modify plant genes in accordance with what WE desire.
Since our understanding of these pathways is limited, and since many scientists have a tendency to reduce complexity in order to find an independent variable to achieve some predetermined aim, it is very likely that something important will be overlooked. One thing that could be overlooked in this case could be the natural protection of the leaves provided by anthocyanin. If such genetic modification methods become commonplace and extend to other plants within the next few decades, and if at the same time we experience (even more) severe weather conditions due to climate change, the natural, adaptable resiliency of these crops, what PLANTS require, could likely be compromised. That’s a big long term risk to take for the immediate reward of a more nutrient dense purple tomato, what WE desire, when we could just eat more blueberries and blackberries for the same anti-oxidative effects. What plants require and have established via evolution usually translates to what’s best for us, and what we desire through genetic modification could end very badly.
And just a corollary to mention quickly: yes, we use hybridization to promote traits in plants that WE desire, but that’s very different from genetic modification. Hybridization involves assisted natural reproduction, and this is what happens in nature all the time. Hybridization maintains evolutionary protections, unlike GMO technology, which alters them and which will never occur in nature. They are worlds apart. No need to discuss this further.
Question 2: Under what conditions was the normal red tomato that was fed to the mice grown?
Purpose of question 2: While plants have developed protective compounds, they can’t develop them out of thin air. The biosynthesis of anthocyanins requires carbon, phosphorus, magnesium, nitrogen and a number of trace elements. It is further optimized by the presence of cyanobacteria in the soil. If the soil is properly built up with the addition of carbon from high quality compost, magnesium from dolomite lime, phosphorus from soft rock phosphate, and nitrogen from either cover cropping or blood meal and with the encouragement of biological life via minimal tillage, the entire plant will have much higher levels of not only anthocyanins, but also a whole host of other beneficial compounds. The concentration of anthocyanin specifically would not be at the level of Dr. Martin’s tomato, but it’d be just fine for a healthy plant that yields sufficiently nutritious fruit. Scientists who genetically modify plants generally do so without regard for the findings of agronomists and organic farmers. It takes proper soil management to produce resilient plants and nutritious food, and genetic engineers work under the incorrect assumption that we need complex genetic alterations to produce healthy plants that yield nutrient dense food.
GM tech currently solidifies conventional agricultural techniques. While in this specific case it may increase the concentration of one beneficial compound in the fruit, in that process it may lead to the conclusion that organic practices are not necessary to produce nutritious food. That may very well be the case, but what of other negative impacts of conventional agriculture? There is no mention of how synthetic fertilizer negatively impacts the environment and creates dead zones in bodies of water far away, or how they destroy carbon sequestering microorganisms in the soil; no mention of the impact on native flora and fauna and the ecosystems they support; and no mention of the depletion of soil of vital trace minerals. GM proponents tend to focus on single thing, whether it is anthocyanin concentration in tomatoes, vitamin A concentration in GM golden rice, or Bt production in GM sweet corn and claim that this one thing will improve the world. They tend to ignore everything else that comes with the territory. The harm of solidifying conventional agriculture greatly outweighs those less substantial perceived benefits.
Question 3: Why wasn’t there any additional control where the mice were feed blueberries or another anthocyanin-rich food?
Purpose of question 3: Not including another control group of mice strikes me as very odd. Essentially not doing so implies that purple tomatoes are necessary. If another control group of mice was fed blueberries, and the life extension was similar to those mice who were fed the purple tomato, as it likely would have been, it would imply that this specific genetically modification is not necessary. The project would lack purpose. In an interview, Dr. Martin explains that you can eat 70 grams of blackberries to get the same amount of anthocyanin as only two purple tomatoes. She says that that’s a lot of blackberries and laughs, and that you’d be eating a lot of sugar in the process. That sort of made me laugh too: 70 grams of blackberries is like a handful of blackberries. I can eat that in less than a minute. And not only do blackberries have very low levels of sugar (they are keto-friendly), but the sugars found in fruit, when maintained as whole fruit and not juiced, are great for you. Contrast this to Dr. Martin’s goal of marketing a juice derived from her purple tomatoes: tomatoes still have sugars, and when you juice any vegetable or fruit the glycemic index shoots through the roof. This all struck me as silly.
Besides, it’s okay that tomatoes don’t naturally have high levels of anthocyanin or other flavonoids. This specific compound is found in much higher concentrations in blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, pomegranates, grapes, cherries, cranberries, plums, red cabbage, beets, purple potatoes, purple peppers, eggplants, purple beans, purple cauliflower, and purple peas. Tomatoes have much higher concentrations of other beneficial compounds. In fact, they have one of the highest dietary sources of lycopene, a carotenoid that is beneficial for cardiovascular health and protects against the sun and certain types of cancer. It’s completely unnecessary that tomatoes have high levels of anthocyanin. Why should they when anthocyanins are readily available elsewhere in high concentrations?
Question 3 leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that these purple tomatoes are largely a gimmick to profit off the mass production of GMO derived tomato juice.
Enough with the questions. I hope that by zooming into this specific crop we can begin to ask similar questions for other GMOs. The devil is always in the details.
Let’s zoom out. By having focused on the specific details of this one specific crop, can I extract a more general answer to the aforementioned question: are GMOs inherently bad? I think I can, and the answer will surprise you. No, I do not believe that they are inherently bad. Here is why.
Just because GMOs currently revolve around uncertainties in evolutionary biology, around the solidification of the detrimental effects of conventional agriculture, and around unnecessary gimmicks does not necessarily imply that the entire technology should be entirely discarded. I can imagine an ideal situation where we have a much better understanding of biology, where GM tech works within the framework of small-scale, organic agriculture, and where it is geared towards actual problems in agriculture that agronomists and farmers have been unable to figure out using good agricultural techniques. As of yet, none of these ideal scenarios have presented themselves. And they probably never will. I’m going to have to switch over to philosophy to really explain what I mean here.
Famous philosophers are hugely influential in world history. For instance, 19th century European culture and politics revolved around Hegel’s writings and the responses to them, and we can even see echoes of this in American political culture today. The same applies to science: Francis Bacon sparked the emergence of modern-day science. He had a lot to say about science and our role in nature, and he conceptualized this within a Christian framework. For Bacon, our role as humans is to use science to recover our “dominion” over nature, which had been lost by the fall of Adam and Eve. By “dominion,” Bacon does not mean our modern understanding of the words domination or exploitation. Rather, he means a peaceful coexistence with nature where humans are its philanthropic stewards through the use of science. He believed that knowledge and science must be subject “to the use that God granted, which is the relief of the state and society of man; for otherwise all knowledge becometh malign and serpentine.” Whether or not we are religious, it’s clear that Bacon was aware of the potential threat posed by a type of science that is not bound by responsible stewardship.
In the 1800s, when science and philosophy were compartmentalized and became more distinct disciplines, the two eventually divorced. Hence little introspection coming from genetic engineers as to to the overall social and environmental benefit within the context of Bacon’s idea of the philanthropic stewardship of nature. As the natural sciences themselves further split into the branches of biology, chemistry, physics, and later biochemistry bioengineering, each field focused on its individual pursuits. Hence little communication between organic agronomists and evolutionary biologists and genetic engineers.
Due to the uncertainties in evolutionary biology, the solidification of the detrimental effects of conventional agriculture, and the unnecessary gimmicks, I would characterize GMO technology today as an unfettered form of science that regards humans as having absolute liberty to modify anything in accordance to our will with no regard to Bacon’s idea of responsible stewardship. This echoes the anthropocentric conception that that humans are meant to exploit and conquer nature. This is an extremist position that does “science for the sake of science,” or just for profit. History is full of examples of different types of hammers that do lots of damage. The GMO hammer is no different. But, this is not inherent to the technology. If the circumstances around GM technology would improve with homage to what I’ve mentioned and more, and would be in alignment with Bacon’s ideas, I think that the GMO hammer might be able to be used to build a nice house. But, a word of caution, if there is any doubt about using a technology with such profound impacts, and doubt is a good thing, it’s best to give up the hammer rather than risk accidently smashing a finger because someone overlooked something somewhere. There are many other tools in our toolbelt to accomplish the same task, ones that have been used for millennia that may not be perfect, but work just fine.
Last week I assigned some homework, to read an article published in The Guardian about the concentration of America’s food industry. I am writing under the assumption that you read it, so if you weren’t able to get to it last week, click here. Here we go.
In 1971 President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz gave Soviet Minister of Agriculture Vladimir Matskevich a tour of the American Midwest. It was during that time that Matskevich expressed interest in purchasing American corn, soy, breeding stock, tractors, and other agricultural equipment.
What in the world does this have to do with the fact that there are just a hand full of companies that control America’s food supply today? Well, quite a lot. The Cold War had a profound effect on not only foreign relations but also domestic affairs: it impacted American culture, political ideology, the economy, and the role of the president. Agriculture and the food industry did not escape its clutches.
When Nixon came to office in 1969 he brought with him the policy of Détente, a relaxing of strained relations as a reaction against the traumatic events of the Cold War up to that point. Nixon and Henry Kissinger believed that improving trade relations with the Soviet Union would be a vital first step.
What became the 1972 US-Soviet Grain Deal was the most important trade agreement established during this period. Due to the inefficiencies of Soviet agricultural system and a series of droughts in 1971 and ’72 in the Volga region, the Soviets looked to the US for grain. Meanwhile, the US government for decades prior had been purchasing surplus grain from farmers in order to stabilize prices, so it had excess stockpiles of wheat and corn. The Nixon administration viewed this as an opportunity to bolster the American economy, promote better relations with Moscow, and establish Soviet dependence on US agriculture which could then be used as leverage to influence other foreign policy negotiations. All sounds pretty reasonable, right?
Ever since the New Deal, the federal government had payed farmers to leave sizable portions of their land fallow in order to limit supply. Large grain surpluses during the 1920s-30s caused prices to plummet, which led to and exacerbated the Great Depression. But in the early ’70s, Agricultural secretary Butz went on a campaign across the American countryside to bolster corn, soy, and wheat production. He was (in)famous for telling farmers to “plant from fencerow to fencerow” and to “get big or get out.” Many farmers were hesitant to reignite Depression-era conditions, but Butz assured them that excess grain could easily be sold to foreign markets, including to the Soviet Union. The USDA funneled money to the farmers who listened, and a policy that is supportive of large-scale, industrial agriculture became solidified.
In 1972, after the deal was signed, the US sold the majority of its stockpiled grain to the Soviet Union at low prices. This saved Soviet citizens from starvation (including my mom. Thank you Nixon), but it had far reaching impacts on the US. Because, 1972 and 1973 were very dry years in rural America. With the resulting low yields and with no stockpiles, the price for grain skyrocketed in 1973. Farmers viewed the high prices as an opportunity: they wholeheartedly took in Butz’s mantra of planting from fencerow to fencerow: they purchased more land, tractors, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds and took on huge amounts of debt. It became a bubble. Overproduction ultimately led to plummeting prices in the 1980s and the FED’s war on inflation at the same time led to double digit interest rates. The bubble burst. Countless farms went under, and the few that survived acquired the others at a low cost, hoping to make up the falling prices with even more supply. Butz’s vision: the consolidation, “optimization,” and corporatization of agriculture came to fruition.
In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. This gave every state and territory 30,000 acres per member of congress to be used in establishing a “land-grant” university. Millions of acres, most of which were violently taken from Native Americans no less, were used to establish universities in order to promote and improve American agriculture. Penn State, Rutgers, Yale, and the University of California are all land-grant universities and they all have large, hugely influential agriculture departments. Well, conglomerates have infiltrated these institutions. Earl Butz, before becoming the Secretary of Agriculture, was the Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University, another land-grant school. He was also on the board of the Ralston Purina company, a large conglomerate (which has more recently been acquired by Nestle) that produces pet food, which, you guessed it, is made from corn and soy. I mention this because I want to highlight the revolving door that exists between our education system, the private interests of large-scale agribusiness, and the federal government. This is not unique to Butz: Monsanto, Dole, Tyson, Cargill, McDonalds, Coca-cola, Kraft, ConAgra, and Walmart donate millions to the agriculture departments of the Universities of Minnesota, Arkansa, Purdue, and California, Penn State, Iowa State, and Colorado State and currently have corporate representatives that sit on these departments’ advisory boards. These advisory boards are regularly consulted by the USDA for policy creation. And if I’d want to study GMO technology and how to create stronger pesticides and herbicides, it would be a good idea for me to apply to one of those schools.
The overproduction of corn and soy that resulted from Butz’s policies presented an opportunity for already burgeoning agribusinesses, especially Tyson, Archer-Daniels-Midland, and Cargill. The last two are currently among the largest companies in the world, and Cargill is the largest privately held company in the US and fourth largest in the world. In fact, the president of Cargill was involved in negotiations with the Soviets for the grain deal. Anyway, during this time, in the 1970s, and due to the overabundance of cheap corn, these companies started building a lot of feed lots to raise poultry and pork and chemical plants to produce and refine corn syrup and corn starch. This was very profitable. Their revenues and with it their power grew. And this power, combined with a couple disastrous Supreme Court and district court decisions in their favor (Cargill vs. Montfort and Haff Poultry vs Tyson Inc), allowed them to acquire smaller companies until the point where, between them and a few other companies that grew in parallel, they now control the majority of everything you see in Acme and other conventional grocery stores. That’s where we are today.
This is a crisis that came out of a complex history and is now normalized in our social-political-educational climate. What’s the solution? Well, it’s complicated, and I’m not sure that I have an answer for you other than the simple “buy local” mantra that I’ve repeated over and over again since I started this newsletter. First, I want to suggest how NOT to approach the solution.
Most articles I’ve seen written about this topic, including the one in the Guardian, identify capitalist food policies as the source of the problem. I believe that this is too simplistic. Politicians, pundits, and journalists often unconsciously or consciously throw around words that we have predisposed emotions towards in order to provoke, to garner attention, or to achieve some aim (“capitalism!” “socialism!” “communism!”). The words we use to label phenomena matter, and it’s important to clearly identify a problem in order to solve it. Labeling the problem “capitalism” may lead people to believe that the natural solution would be some brand of “socialism,” its polar opposite. But that’s no solution at all. History has shown time and time again that the interests of harmful agribusiness conglomerates and governmental administrations align. The ideologies of capitalism and socialism both emerged from and still work within the same framework, that of modernity, where fewer and fewer farmers produce more and more food to support one of its most defining characteristics: urbanization. There is nothing inherent in either any brand of socialism or capitalism that would lead to the return to local, regenerative food production. I think a new socioeconomic discourse needs to be popularized to fix the problem.
In any event I would distinguish “capitalism” from the events that I described above. The idea of capitalism emerged out of the European Enlightenment, when philosophers like Adam Smith and John Locke emphasized the importance of individual rights over and above centralized monarchal power. Adam Smith conceptualized capitalism as a means by which to enhance the rights of the individual and to decentralize political and economic power away from the aristocracy. Everything I described above involves the consolidation of power into fewer hands, creating some sort of weird neo-aristocracy. It’s not capitalism at all, especially because those judicial decisions I mentioned above essentially allowed Tyson and Cargill to engage in anti-competitive behavior by colluding with one another to fix prices. The labels of “monopolization” or “corporatocracy” are probably more fitting to describe agribusiness today.
This gives rise to the question, is there something inherent in capitalism the leads to monopolization and corporatocracy. Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin certainly thought so, and they wrote extensively on how the stages of economic development naturally evolve from capitalism, to monopolization, to imperialism, to socialism, then to the final stage of classless communism. It echoes Adam Smith’s idea of the “invisible hand” unintentionally bringing about greater social benefits via enlightened self-interest. Capitalism is just as teleological as communism, they’re both highly idealistic, and they both were imagined by philosophers, not economists, who knew nothing about agriculture. Both Smith and Marx were wrong about anything inherently leading to anything else. History rather moves via real people with real motives and intentions responding to circumstances beyond their control (like droughts).
So, this brings me to two possible solutions. The first is to democratically elect people with the right intentions and the right motives into positions of central power. I don’t think that this would do much. Even President Biden’s executive order targeting large conglomerates, as mentioned in the article, will do little to solve the problem. The educational, private, and governmental interests are so entangled and normalized that only a dictatorship could unravel them. I believe in the separation of powers and our system of government, so we are not going down that route. Besides, never has there been a politician who is fully committed to regenerative, local agriculture. Some have mentioned it in passing, but I have no faith in any politician to effectively and competently make a difference.
The second solution is where I do have faith: it is via decentralizing power in the manner that Adam Smith imagined. Rather than shopping at conventional grocery stores, shop at your local farmers market and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. A farmers market is the purest example of capitalism that we have in this country. By supporting local farmers and food producers, we are taking power away from that centralized neo-aristocracy and decentralizing it into the hands of ourselves and a larger number of small farmers and food producers. There is a lot behind the phrase “buy local,” and I hope that everything I discussed gives it new meaning and greater appreciation.
Peaches this week! The peaches are early peaches. They’re delicious, but they’ll get better every week. Plums will be coming soon. This fruit is coming from Nathan at Sharrah Orchard, located near Gettysburg. I want to write about how Nathan and I met, because he is the biggest reason why my business is what it is today. Now hang tight, because everything that I’m writing – in usual longwinded fashion – is related to the big news for the day, that we have a new vendor coming soon to Creekside.
If you have been shopping with me since 2018 at Bryn Athyn farmers market, you may recall that I only had one table full of produce that I grew in my parent’s backyard and microgreens that I grew in their basement in Huntingdon Valley (thanks mom and dad. You’re the biggest reason why I have a business at all). Another vendor at Bryn Athyn, Tom from Heck of a Cookie, told me about the winter farmers market at Primex, where I decided to sell microgreens since they’re easy to grow all year round.
In the winter of 2018-2019 at Primex, I had one small table up front with microgreens, while Steve from Clay Brick Farms was in the back selling his meats, produce, dairy, etc. One day while at market a man named Ben approached me and told me a secret: Steve is going to retire at the end of winter, which leaves a spot open at the Upper Gwynedd market, which had been his summer market. Ben was the manager of that market, and he invited me to sell my produce there on Thursday afternoons. So, I made a new crop plan to support both Bryn Athyn and Upper Gwynedd markets for the 2019 season.
Ben found other vendors to come to this market at Upper Gwynedd, and one of them was Nathan from Sharrah Orchard. As I got to know Nathan and tasted his delicious fruit, I suggested that he come to Bryn Athyn on Saturdays since we didn’t have an orchardist there. He told me that he had to go to another Saturday market, but he offered that I purchase his fruit to resell at Bryn Athyn. I thought this was a good idea. I asked the Bryn Athyn market manager if this was okay. She was ecstatic that there would be peaches and plums, so I made my first order with Nathan. Didn’t have much to loose after all.
Well that Saturday at Bryn Athyn was a big success. I had a line for the first time. Eventually I realized that I could keep adding items from other farmers I had met and befriended through the years. I called up a mushroom farmer I knew, so that following week I had a third table with fresh mushrooms. Then salmon, and on and on. With every item that I added, the line grew a little longer. Nathan sparked all this.
By the time the Thursday market at Upper Gwynedd started, it was common knowledge that Steve from Clay Brick Farm had retired. One of my customers, Rachel, saw that I was gradually adding more and more items from other vendors. And, she suggested that I contact Steve to see if he would be willing to continue farming and sell me his meat. It would relieve him of the long market days coming all the way from Lancaster early in the morning, and he would still be able to farm and have business income. I thought that was a brilliant idea, so I contacted both Steve and the Primex market manager. Everyone was on board. I sold Steve’s meat at Primex during the winter of 2019-2020 along with everything else that I had.
Eventually things grew to the point that I needed a permanent location, which opened almost a year ago. Anyway, I wrote all of this because I want to highlight something I find to be fascinating: small businesses tend to emerge and evolve through relationships and passing ideas. Without my relationships and chance encounters with Tom, Ben, Nathan, and Rachel, I wouldn’t be writing this today.
So this brings me to the big news, which is the result of another relationship. In the coming days at Creekside you’ll see some construction in the spot adjacent from my stand. A contractor is building a kitchen for a chef and good friend of mine to start his business. His name is Tam Fuard and the name of his restaurant will be Haven Local. You can follow him on Instagram.
I met Tam about a year ago back when I was setting up at the Sisters of Holy Redeemer in Huntingdon Valley before Creekside opened. If you’ve been on this newsletter for a while, I’m sure you remember those days. For those of you who joined more recently, Covid had shut down all of my farmers markets, so I sold at first from my parents driveway and then later at that beautiful convent down the road. The list below originated from those times when you would verbalize what you wanted from a safe distance while I’d put the items in a bag. Since I’d help each customer individually in order to maintain distance, the wait was very long. During one Saturday at the convent, Tam, after waiting in line for quite some time, came by and introduced himself and told me about his plans to open a restaurant in which he’d use local food. We had the same values and similar personalities so we instantly became good friends.
Tam invited me to check out the space where he was going to open his restaurant, on the other side of Old York Road inside the building where the Subway, Fitness 19, and Marco Polo are located. I thought it would be much better if he came to Creekside. I wrote him a long, heartfelt email (this newsletter isn’t the only place where I write long emails haha). He got back to me a while later and said he was convinced. I made the introduction to the owners of Creekside and they’ve been working out the details. The lease has since been signed by all parties and construction will begin shortly.
A few words about Tam: he’s a great chef, lives a few blocks away from Creekside, and has been trained by superstars in the culinary world. On a more personal level: never have I met anyone who puts such thought and care into every component of a dish. We have had hours of conversation about how food is sourced, how he plans to use every part of an animal so that nothing goes to waste, and about how eager he is to support local farmers while getting to know the Elkins Park community. Tam will be offering high quality soups, sandwiches, savory pastries, meat and cheese plates, rotisserie chicken, and lots more.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big believer in lean businesses: meaning in businesses that do a lot with a little. His space is equally small like my space. It takes real skill and ingenuity to make a small space work for people, for the planet, and for oneself. Tam has this skill and ingenuity, and I can’t wait till the grand opening later this summer.
My experience in my business life has taught me that our relationships, whether close, distant, or passing, are humbling and immensely valuable for overall well-being and productivity. On a large scale, big historical events often unfold through such relationships. And in our own lives, we learn and grow from our interactions with others. Nothing brings people together quite like good, ethically sourced food. Creekside is gradually becoming a hub for such interactions, and I’m happy that Tam will be joining the web.
I apprenticed on a farm in New Jersey for a season, Chickadee Creek Farm. Right next door was another organic farm, Blue Moon Acres. While weeding I’d often peek up to look at the rice fields across the street. I thought it was so interesting that they were growing rice without flooding their fields.
Traditionally, rice fields are flooded to control weeds. While rice can grow just fine in flooded conditions, weeds cannot. But, flooding fields comes at a cost. The problem is that ground water contains arsenic, and rice, for some reason, uptakes arsenic at much higher levels than most other plants. The result is that store-bought rice, either organic or non-organic, has levels of arsenic that far surpass what the EPA and WHO consider safe.
Fortunately, overnight soaking and washing store-bought rice before cooking removes most of the arsenic. Also, it’s always best to use more water than is needed when cooking. The rice should still be swimming in water when it’s ready to eat. Otherwise, the arsenic goes right back into the rice.
The rice from Blue Moon Acres, since the fields are not flooded, has very low, safe levels of arsenic. The rice is also fresh. It was freshly husked a couple weeks ago, making a big difference in flavor and nutrition. And of course, it’s local. Most rice eaten in the US is coming from the deep south or the Midwest (only about 4 percent comes from Asia). This rice is coming from 45 minutes away in Pennington, New Jersey from a fantastic farm that’s using great principles. You can read more about it here. I’m excited to be carrying it!
So I’ve decided to discontinue carrying pasteurized milk. I never felt good about carrying it, and I’m pulling the plug once what I currently have in stock sells. And just to maintain my reputation of long-windedness, here is why:
As is the case with many interesting (and tragic) stories, it all begins with alcohol. Distilleries and craft breweries were popping up all over the place in large northeastern cities in the early 19th century. Meanwhile, people were concerned about milk spoiling on the long journey between the countryside and the city. Distillers and brewers had a brilliant idea: why not start dairy operations adjacent to our breweries and distilleries so that we can just feed our grain waste to milking cows to provide the urban population with cheap, fresh milk. Since there were no pastures to graze on in Manhattan, the spent grain comprised 100% of the cows’ diet. Unfortunately, cows don’t very much like eating too much grain. In fact, it makes them terribly ill. On top of that, the cows were confined in tight quarters where they were knee high in feces. The resultant “swill milk,” as it was called, was dreadful. The distillers and brewers added chalk to hide the blueish tint, and molasses and salt to hide the taste. But, what’s far worse is that the milk was deadly. Thousands of children died in Manhattan alone. Not so brilliant an idea after-all.
In France Napoleon III commissioned microbiologist Louis Pasteur to save the French wine industry. Why was wine souring when kept in storage? Pasteur discovered that bacteria was the culprit, and he experimented with heating wine. It worked. Years down the line this method was applied to milk as a reaction to the dangers posed by swill milk. It was something that was hotly debated state to state. Many raw milk advocates believed it destroyed the nutritional content of the milk. Advocates of pasteurization claimed that it would save lives. While they were both correct, I think that Teddy Roosevelt’s surgeon general Walter Wyman put it best in 1908 when he wrote, “While pasteurization is not the ideal to be sought, practically, it is forced upon us by present conditions.”
We live in a different era now. Raw milk dairy farms are closely inspected on a regular basis. Bottling facilities are sanitized after every milking. The milk is regularly tested for pathogens. And cows freely roam on open pasture, feeding on their ideal food: grass. Pasteurization is only necessitated by the existence of unsanitary industrial agriculture. When things are the way that they are supposed to be with any type of food, processing, chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, etc are not necessary.
Pasteurization (and homogenization, but that’s another story-and A1 milk is another problem for another day) destroys most of the nutritional benefits of milk. I don’t have time to get into it all, but Realmilk.com is a great resource to understand the science. I highly recommend exploring the website.
I encourage you to try the raw milk from Kimberton Hills. I hope to increase the amount that I order to support this amazing farm and to spread the joy of drinking delicious and healthy raw milk.
Normally I reserve this newsletter for topics concerning agriculture and local food. I’m going to make an exception this week because something of importance to the Armenian-American community, of which I am a member, happened on Saturday.
Every April 24th, Armenians all over the world commemorate the genocide perpetrated against the Ottoman Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. On that day 106 years ago, the Ottoman government arrested and murdered over 200 intellectuals and leaders of the Istanbul Armenian community. What followed was a massive, organized campaign to exterminate the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. They were deported to the Syrian desert, were told that they were being relocated for their safety, were forced to march in no particular direction in the scorching heat, and massacred along the way in accordance with orders coming from the top levels of the Ottoman government. Approximately 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated.
The Turkish government, to this day, denies that this ever happened, although the vast majority of historians understand it to be undeniable. I’m not going to go into the specifics, but, considering the amount of evidence that we have, denying the Armenian genocide is akin to denying the Holocaust.
Up until this past Saturday, US presidents have not called the events that took place in 1915 a genocide. The last several presidents: Bush senior, Clinton, Bush junior, Obama, and Trump all campaigned to label it genocide but reneged since they did not want to strain US-Turkish relations. On Saturday, President Biden was the first ever president to say the word.
There are so many more details that I can go into about this topic: what led up to the genocide, the reasons for denial, and the strategic importance of American-Turkish relations, but I’m sure these were explained on the news on Saturday. What I’d like to share here is what all of this means to me on a more personal level, and how my identity led me to become a farmer.
Armenians have a very strong sense of national identity and pride. It’s just a matter of time after meeting an Armenian that you’ll hear about the food, the 3000 years of history, the fact that Armenia was the first nation to formally adopt Christianity, and, most importantly, the genocide. We have a real fear that if we do not strongly hold on to our culture, the original aim of the Ottoman government will be fulfilled ex post facto. As a child, I went to different youth groups and summer camps where we waved flags while passionately singing patriotic songs, loudly proclaiming our survival and what it meant to be Armenian.
I disassociated myself from this community when I became a teenager for two reasons. First, the extroverted tendencies of these youth groups were in conflict with my more reserved, introverted personality. Second has to do with the fact that whenever members of a group have a strong sense of who they are, with it often comes a strong sense of who they are not: in this case, the Turks. In the groups that I was a part of, this often translated to hatred of Turks, something that I did not share. I hadn’t even met a Turk before.
I struggled with my Armenian identity afterwards. At times I felt close to my culture, and at other times I felt distant. While at Ursinus College, I felt so distant that I decided to reconnect by switching majors from chemistry to history my senior year. I dived into every book written about the genocide during my last two years as an undergrad (I stayed for 5 years). I even read the books written by denialist authors to understand the strategies they’d use. Eventually, I started to realize that the Armenian Genocide was not the only unrecognized genocide in history. In fact, out of all of them, only the Holocaust is widely recognized and accepted by the perpetrating nation. This led me to study genocides comparatively. I learned to place them all within the context of wider historical movements, namely mass democratization, globalization, and nation building, things that were going on all over the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In graduate school at the University of Bremen, I dived deeply into some of these wider topics of modern global history, and one of the most compelling things I learned about was how quickly we urbanized and industrialized in the last couple hundred years. For most of world history the vast majority of us lived in the countryside and engaged in some form of subsistence gardening/farming. Within the span of 150 years, this all changed. Due to the sudden, rapid pace of industrialization and urbanization, a lot was inevitably lost.
In one of my seminar classes in graduate school, someone gave an excellent, truthful presentation about the Armenian Genocide. Afterwards, I approached him and asked, “Are you Armenian?” He replied, “No, I’m Turkish.” That was surprising. In Turkey it is illegal to acknowledge the genocide under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which imprisons anyone who “insults Turkishness.” Many Armenians in Turkey have been murdered for speaking publicly about it, and many brave Turks who speak the truth have been imprisoned. Here was a Turkish citizen who was risking his freedom. His name was Olur. We became best friends. He invited me to his hometown during a spring break. I remember his mother served me a number of traditional Turkish dishes. As she brought me the food, one by one, she began to explain to me how special and unique that specific dish was. And one by one, before she finished, I announced the name of the dish in Turkish and said, “I grew up eating this.” She was taken aback. We have the same culture, I told her.
During my visit, Olur took me to a foundation in his hometown that cared for children who came from families who were either abusive or who could not care of them financially, or who were orphans. I was fascinated by the place. Children running around, chickens, sheep, and cattle everywhere, a farm where they grew much of their own produce. After I completed my graduate studies in Germany, I contacted the foundation asking if I could volunteer there. They invited me, and I ended up living and volunteering there for six months. I occasionally worked on the farm. It was the first time I stepped foot on tilled ground. I remember harvesting peppers alongside one of the farmhands who was surprised as to why my Turkish was broken:
“I’m from the United States.”
“But you look Turkish,” he replied.
“I’m actually Armenian.”
After a brief pause, he looked at me and smirked sarcastically, “So what are you doing here??”
We both laughed. I had this same exact interaction with many others.
While I was in Turkey, I recalled some of the fondest conversations I had with my mother. She had told me about her childhood in Soviet Armenia: her father grew most of the vegetables they ate while her and her mother and her siblings preserved the harvest; my uncle would make spirits from mulberries and apricots that they grew in their backyard; chickens would freely enter and exit their house; and the neighbors would raise sheep and sell the meat for profit while they would pay the KGB to turn a blind eye.
It wasn’t at that time that I decided to become a farmer. I still wanted to be a history professor. But I realized that everything that I learned in school coincided with the fact that I am only one generation removed from some degree of subsistence agriculture.
My time in Turkey “planted the seed” to become a farmer, and my time there has everything to do with my Armenian identity, which indeed has shaped much of my life. President Biden’s declaration on Saturday closed a big circle for me, as it did for all Armenian-Americans who have their own stories to tell. It has helped me remember the suffering of my ancestors, has opened the path towards healing the wounds of the past, and has given me the courage to share with you how my identity has inspired me to bring to you local food.
There is an immense amount of food waste in this country. Around 30-40 percent of the US food supply is “wasted.” I put this in quotations because this statistic defines wasted as food that is not eaten: food in grocery stores that are past their prime are thrown into the dumpster; tomatoes on the vine or onions in the ground that are only partially rotten are picked and thrown off to the side. Given that 1 in 6 children in this country live in a state of food insecurity, this waste is a serious problem. Indeed, there are non-profit institutions that help alleviate this problem: Rolling Harvest, Philabundance, and Germantown Community Fridge are a few in our area that do great work. But in the grand scheme of things, the problem persists.
For our purposes, I’d like to expand the definition of “waste” to not only food, but also byproducts of food, things that we don’t really eat but come from the things we eat, like avocado skins, egg shells, and banana peels. By far, most uneaten food and byproducts of food end up sitting in landfills. Sometimes they are incinerated. If they are sitting in a landfill, they are undergoing anaerobic decomposition: meaning that they are piled on top of each other to an extent that oxygen does not come into contact with them. When piles of organic waste do not come into contact with oxygen, they degrade into methane, a greenhouse gas that is forty times more harmful than carbon dioxide. When they are incinerated, they just turn into methane right away.
When organic waste comes into contact with oxygen and has the right moisture levels, a beautiful thing occurs: microbes convert the waste into stable carbon compounds that do not escape into the atmosphere. When spread onto the soil, compost feeds plants, which in turn more effectively converts more carbon from the air into oxygen. What’s even more interesting is the fact that not only the plants but also the soil itself captures carbon from the atmosphere when organic matter levels are high. When all of this occurs, the “waste” is not really waste at all. It is just a part of a beautiful, natural, cyclical process.
If you’re inspired to start a compost pile in your backyard, let me know and I will help you get started. There are also some great companies in our locale who will pick up your food “waste:” Back to Earth Compost Crew, Bennett Compost, and Mother Compost are all doing great work.
I’ve said this in a previous email, but I’ll say it again here: if every farmer in the country added 1 inch of compost onto their soil each year for a couple years and every household composted their food waste, there wouldn’t be any climate change, and one of the major visions of Earth Day would be realized.
Last week was International Women’s Day. I’d like to say a few words. I was lazy last week due to the nice weather so I didn’t write anything, but really, this shouldn’t be limited to one day of the year.
Some statistics: the average age of a farmer in the United States is about 60 years old. Of all the farmers and ranchers in the country, 1/3 are women. Now, of all the young farmers who just started farming less than 10 years ago, 41% are women. Finally, and this is the most important point, even though there is no figure for this in the USDA census, I am willing to bet that the percentage of young farmers who just started farming less than 10 years ago AND are also farming organically is around 60%. Based on my decade of experience farming and what I’ve witnessed at conferences, apprenticeship programs, and workshops, there are many more young organic farmers who are female than there are male. Three out of the four farms I’ve apprenticed at are run by women (meaning, a woman makes all the decisions), and around 3 out of 5 farmhands at each of them are also women. At conferences and workshops, there are more women present, and at least half of the presenters are women.
We need more farmers. We need more young farmers. We need more young, organic farmers. And most specifically, we need more young organic farmers who directly supply their locale. Simply put, young women are at the forefront of the local organic food movement. It’s pretty encouraging.
On this (belated) International Women’s Day, thank you to all of the hard working, passionate women farmers and other food producers who have dedicated their lives to making a positive difference.
For thousands of years spices from the Indian subcontinent were in great demand throughout Europe and the Middle East. For one, spices masked the flavor of food that had spoiled due to the lack of refrigeration. It was also a symbol of wealth and prestige amongst the aristocracy, who were often buried with peppercorns and other aromatics. Finally, the West historically romanticized goods that came from the “far-off” and “exotic” “Orient.”
This demand was so high that, while today we can say that crude oil is one of the main drivers of today’s global economy, spice was the main driver of the classical, medieval, and renaissance economies. They were in some fashion connected to the rise of the wealthy European merchant class, the emergence of the powerful Italian city-states out of the ashes of the Dark Ages, and the triumph of some of the most influential empires in history.
The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 put a strangle on the European spice trade due to the tariffs imposed by the Sultan upon spices that traveled through the Middle East to Europe. This led Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Magellan to find an alternative route to Asia to continue to satisfy the European demand for spice, sparking the Age of Discovery. Well, it worked. The spice trade was reestablished and Spanish, Portuguese, and eventually British power was cemented. It is no overstatement to say that there would be no United States were it not for those little jars of peppercorns and turmeric inside our spice cabinets.
Fast forward a hundred or so years: the British East India company lands on the Indian subcontinent in 1608. Gradually it takes over and colonizes the entire subcontinent with the backing of the Crown. I won’t get into how this impacted every segment of the subcontinent’s society, but one of these segments was spices. The British classified, categorized, and organized spices into some mold in order to exploit them for profit. For instance, they arbitrarily favored the brightest yellow turmeric and the largest peppercorn varieties although these characteristics have no correlation with flavor or nutrient content. Also, the earliest branding marketing campaigns of the Company created Malabar pepper and Allepey turmeric, names that you’ll commonly see in any grocery store. These are not botanical varieties. Rather, they are carefully created brands that used the colonial names of “exotic” places to entice the British consumer into purchasing a taste of the Empire. With the standardization of spices came quality assessment via color and appearance, not via flavor and smell, and certainly not by how it was grown. The result was the loss of countless heirloom varieties that had been cultivated for a couple thousand years.
As I mentioned above, the history of the spice trade enriched many people: from the individual merchant to entire empires: basically everyone involved except the farmer. This system remains largely unchanged to this day. The traditional supply chain from farmer to consumer involves the auction house, multiple traders, exporters, importers, wholesalers, and retailers. The price of the spice is marked up by each intermediary, and the farmer is left with little. The standard commodity market price in India for a kilogram of turmeric is around 35 cents. By the time it reaches the West, it’s around $35. That’s a big difference. The farmer gets 100x less than the final retail price. No matter if we are on the colonial or post-colonial side of history, the farmers seem to get the short end of the stick.
Luckily, there are some companies that are doing good work. Diaspora Company and Burlap & Barrel are devoted to “decolonizing the spice trade.” They cut out several intermediaries by establishing working relationships with many farmers, which allows them to pay the farmers up to 10x the commodity price, overcoming the negative impacts of a globalized/colonialized economy. Also, they encourage the reintroduction of rare heirloom varieties into the western market, varieties that have been lost due to the legacy of colonization. Finally, their connection to the farmers allows them to support only the best agricultural practices.
One of the main reasons why I promote supporting locally produced food is because the further one gets away from the source of one’s food, the more likely it becomes to overlook inequitable systems. Yet at the same time, the closer we look into these systems, the more likely we are to find inspiring business leaders who have dedicated their lives to change them. There is a lot behind the seemingly inconsequential jars of pepper and turmeric in our spice cabinets, and I thank these two companies for bringing much attention to easily overlooked items that we all use on a daily basis.