“Learning to Love GMOs” –Not so fast
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.
Avocados and drug cartels. Bananas and terrorism.
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.
Belated Happy Women’s Day
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.
Building a local economy
This week’s post will be the second part of a three part series where I discuss the philosophy that makes up the core of my business. If you missed part 1, you can find it below.
Part 1: Protecting and enhancing the environment and human health
Part 2: Building a local economy
Part 3: Creating a community of entrepreneurs
Let’s consider for a moment a random object that we come into contact with on a regular basis. How about a soda can, just the can itself. The production of something as simple as a soda can is immensely complex. The bauxite is mined in Africa or Guinea, shipped off to either Europe or the US to be smelted, refined, and produced into alumni, then to China to turn the raw alumina into aluminum sheets, where it is shipped again to the US to be manufactured into cans. It’s then combined with the thingy on top that opens the can, the labels, and the beverage, all of which have their own journey. The components of a single can of soda have circumnavigated the world several times before reaching our hands. Most things that we come into contact with everyday have a similar journey. It’s pretty mind blowing to think about.
World history, for better or (well, and) for worse, has always steered towards the strengthening of global economic connections. Wars have been fought, world leaders have been overthrown, and elections have been decided to establish, maintain, or to enhance these connections. National economies depend on them. Also mind blowing to think about.
Globalization has resulted in plenty of good. No doubt that it has lifted millions out of poverty. No doubt that it has led to the low cost of essential goods. Since there simply aren’t any local mines and refineries, without globalization, we wouldn’t have soda (ok, maybe not so bad), and, if we are to have automobiles at all, they would be as rare as private jets (though I have always wanted a horse and buggy). Point is, unless we are willing to go back three thousand years, globalization is here to stay.
But of course, it’s a double-edged sword.
First, the global economy is vulnerable to major world events. World War 1 for instance completely disrupted the global connections that were established in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the same level of connectivity was reached, after the fall of the Soviet Union. And most relevant to today: pandemics. Nothing is worse for the global economy than a pandemic: the bubonic plague, yellow fever, and now Covid-19 all resulted in major disruptions that took/will take years to recover from.
There are a host of other problems associated with globalization: environmental degradation (see part 1), homogeneity of products, job exportation, wage stagnation, wealth inequality, tax havens, multinational corporations exerting influence over sovereign nations, etc. None of these are inherent to globalization and can be rectified by better policy and policing. But there is one thing that is indeed inherent, and that’s what I want to focus on: the impact on our local community. For every dollar that’s spent at a huge multinational corporation, 70 cents is immediately taken out of the locale where that store is located: much of it goes to China; much of it goes to executives who live far away; and much of it is paid out in dividends to shareholders who can live anywhere. Only very little remains for the local employees who work at that store. If less money is kept within the locale, that means that the money that these local employees would otherwise have spent at other local businesses is accumulating in far off parts of the world. It also means that the taxes that that municipality would otherwise have collected are not being collected by any government anywhere, since many large corporations are very good at avoiding a tax bill. In the end, it costs more for a local municipality to have a big box store (road work, policing, etc.) than it does to have a mainline of small, independently owned shops. Ouch.
So, where am I going with all of this? As I mentioned before, globalization is necessary to meet the demands of a modern lifestyle. Even with all of these problems, we can do the best we can to improve upon them incrementally, but the system is here to stay unless we want to go back millennia. But, there is one sector where it can all change, one sector that is ripe for renewal, one sector that need not be dependent on global forces, and it just so happens to be the largest economic sector in the world: agriculture. Whereas there are no local mines and refineries around us, there is soil everywhere; whereas there is no local automobile manufacturer around us, there are many local farmers.
Every time we support a local farm (or a local store that supports local farmers ????) we help to accomplish a number of things: we keep money within our locale; we help inspire others to farm once they see the demand (we need more farmers); and we are more likely to be safe and secure if a war or pandemic disrupts the vulnerable global food economy. Yes, it costs more (I will be accepting EBT soon) since small, local farms don’t have the economies of scale to offset distribution expenses. But, as I mentioned in part 1, in the long term, Chinese garlic, North Carolina pork, Chilean farmed salmon, and Californian lettuce are much more expensive.
Supporting local farms and millers/bakers/cheesemakers who use locally grown products is one of the most impactful things that I could do to help build a local economy, a guiding principle for my business.
And finally, everything I wrote is debatable. If you know me well, you know how much I love a good debate!
Creating a community of entrepreneurs
This week’s post will be the final part of a three part series where I discuss the philosophy that makes up the core of my business. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.
Part 1: Protecting and enhancing the environment and human health
Part 2: Building a local economy
Part 3: Creating a community of entrepreneurs
While parts 1 and 2 were heavy, this final segment is a bit more light. It’s light and fun because it’s the thing that I enjoy most about my job. It’s also central to everything, because parts 1 and 2 – protecting and enhancing the environment/human health and building a local economy – would not be possible, or at least much more difficult, without a community of entrepreneurs working together in some fashion. There is a lot going on behind the scenes in our local food movement, and I’d love to tell you about it.
There are a couple ways that this community can manifest. First, many of the producers who I supply from use ingredients from other producers who I supply from. For example, Fran and Mark from Castle Valley Mill supply Claire from Ursa Bakery with flour to bake bread. Tom from Kimberton Hills (where I also get herbal products) Dairy supplies raw milk to 7 Stars Creamery (they have their own herd but it’s big not enough so they get extra milk from down the street at Kimberton) for yogurt and Stefanie from Valley Milkhouse to make cheese and butter (butter from her coming soon). Jennifer and Chris from Piggyback Treats use organs/feet for their pet treats from Earl from Kaiser’s Peasantry, and we a working on getting them fish skins and belly from Amanda at Otolith Seafood and from Steve’s trout. While all of the items that you see on my stand are displayed as individual products, there is a hidden web that connects them.
Second, many of us sell each other’s products. Many even produce in the same location. For instance, Brian from Mycopolitan mushroom farm, located off Erie Ave in Philadelphia, subleases space for Ken to make and can his kombucha. Matt from Nilaa Coffee cans his coffee there as well. Brian also sells goat cheese from Catherine at Yellow Springs, which he picks up from me to save Catherine an extra trip. When I pick up eggs from Birchwood Farm, I also drop off my microgreens for them to sell.
Third, there are a couple chefs who I work with as well. Those of you who have been on this list since at least April may remember Max (same guy I mentioned in part 1 re the garlic). He made things like fresh pasta/pierogis (using Castle Valley flour), pasta sauce, and soup in my commercial kitchen (located in my house). I sold his food when I had market out of my driveway. Max has since found a more permanent location to cook, and I’ll be offering his amazing food again soon. He also has a food truck that he parks around town. You can follow him on Instagram here. There’s also Jon from The Omelette Bar. We both had a stand at the Bryn Athyn Bounty farmers market last year. That market didn’t happen this year so Jon started making and delivering quiches. He picks up all of his ingredients from me. You can follow him here and here and place orders on his website here.
I’m always thinking about how I can help expand and strengthen this community. I believe that we are all more likely to succeed if we all work together as best we can in some capacity. And, if we all succeed, parts 1 and 2 will more likely be realized to their fullest potential.
Finally, the friendships that I’ve made in this whole process are invaluable to me. The best business relationships are often extensions of personal relationships, especially when there is a common environmental and economic vision.
So, as we approach Thanksgiving, I want to extend my immense thankfulness to all those I work with and to all those who support us. Have a lovely Thanksgiving.
Dave and the Chocolate Factory
Yesterday I visited the Moka Origins factory in the Poconos where they make their wonderful chocolate. Over the past year I’ve started offering some products that don’t grow anywhere around us: spices, chocolate, coffee, etc (actually I think that’s it?) I was always hesitant to carry these because generally speaking the further one gets away from the source of one’s food, the more likely it becomes to overlook the ills of an ethically broken system: forced child labor, unfair pay, lack of reinvestment, low grade ingredients, to name a few. Some large multinational, publicly traded food companies have a tendency of caving into Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) after mounting pressure from activists, retailers, customers, and politicians, but I have always found these efforts to be insincere and inadequate. I had a job in a past life where I worked for a socially conscious investment firm. A part of my job was to interview the CSR departments of publicly traded companies to see if their efforts were good enough for us to purchase shares. I never really thought that they were.
I checked out Moka’s website after one of my customers/friends told me about them. After a phone call conversation, it became clear to me that environmental stewardship and positive social impact is their raison d’etre. While many large companies have CSR departments as a side thing, Jeff, the founder and CEO, started Moka in order to do things like paying farmers a living wage, reinvesting in local infrastructure, combating poverty, and helping the environment. It’s why these chocolate bars cost $8.
For a while I’ve been wanting to address inflation on this newsletter, something we are constantly hearing and thinking about these days. Seems like the right time to do it now. There are exceptions, but for the most part I am finding that inflation mostly effects goods and services that are closely tied to global markets and long distribution chains. To borrow Thomas Aquinas’s idea of primary and secondary causation, I’d argue that monetary policy, fiscal policy, geopolitical conflicts, and pandemics, everything that we hear in the news that all too easily invites blame and outrage towards one or another political party, are all secondary causes that are not as significant as we are told. The primary cause of high levels of inflation, I think, is more likely the fact that the global economy is made up of long, complex web of producers and distributors. The components of a glass jar and lid, for instance, circumvents the globe several times before it hits a shelf somewhere. A rise in price of just one resource, like oil, compounds down the supply chain.
But this doesn’t really happen in a local economy. It also doesn’t happen with companies like Moka, which deals directly with farmers abroad instead of with distributors who deal with distributors who deal with distributors who deal with an auction house which deals with a distributor who finally deals with a farmer. Fewer degrees of separation mean fewer compounding price hikes. So despite the fact that we have over 8% inflation nationwide, only eggs have gone up in price here at Dave’s Backyard Farms (by 50 cents).
The thing is, a globalized system that has large companies acting within a complex distribution web brings with it efficiencies and economies of scale that allow for ARTIFICIALLY LOW prices. The very reason why these prices are artificially low subjects them to inflationary pressure. In the chocolate and spice industries, these low prices in turn are detrimental to farmers in Africa and Latin America. Contrast this to Moka: the price of $8 a bar is NORMAL; normal because it allows for a normal living wage; it allows for normal infrastructure investment; and it allows for normal environmental stewardship. The interpersonal relations and emotional exchange that occurs between farmers and Moka employees on a regular basis are absent in large, multinational companies. All too easy for business practices to consciously or unconsciously result in exploitation when that’s the case.
This type of sourcing is not only beneficial to people and the planet, but it also results in greater economic stability. When we hear about inflation in the news, I try to think less about the secondary, more fleeting causes that we hear about all the time. The primary cause is deeper, more hidden, and is connected to other problems.
Anyhow, I had a great time there. Moka’s factory is located on the beautiful Himalayan Institute, where I stayed for a night. It’s a yoga retreat with really nice hiking trails. I haven’t done much yoga, but I did some while there. And some silent meditation. It was a nice way to take a rejuvenating mini-vacation. I’m back now with a bit of caffeine withdrawal, full of chocolate and schnozberries, and I look forward to seeing your smiling faces this week.
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.
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.
How to help Ukraine
I want to talk a little about how the scars of century-year old national tragedies reopen during modern-day acts of aggression. Ukraine has for over a hundred years fought for her autonomy, and the most devastating event in her history was the Holodomor (literally “death by starvation”) that occurred under Joseph Stalin in 1931-1933.
In his First Five Year Plan Stalin’s goal was to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union to catch up with the West. A part of this plan was to integrate privately owned land into collectively-owned, state-controlled farms called kolkhozes (collectivization), to requester grain to support urban factory workers, and to deport/murder those who Stalin and his cronies considered to be “wealthy” peasants. They were called “kulaks,” and the deportation/murder of them was called dekulakization-close to 2 million people. The grain quotas placed upon the remaining farmers were unrealistic and the resulting removal of grain from the countryside let to the mass starvation of millions. Ukraine was hit the hardest, since Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and of Imperial Russia before it. Around 5 million Ukrainians died of starvation.
This is the official position of the Russian Federation and of some bad historians. While it’s partially accurate, it’s not even close to a complete description of the Holodomor. This description makes it seem as if the death of millions was the result of the Soviet Union’s economic policies taking precedence over individual human life. Certainly it was to some extent a result of this, but it is also the result of Stalin’s intentional strategy of crushing Ukrainian national aspirations, of consolidating his power, and of ushering in the socialist revolution. The famine was closely tied to the murder of Ukrainian nationalists, who just a couple decades prior had achieved a short lived independence. Correctly labeling the Holodomor has been a point of conjecture amongst governments and historians, and lots of this has to do with the limitations of the UN’s definition of “genocide” (guess why it’s so limited–Stalin petitioned the UN in the 1948 to limit it) but there is no question that the events that took place in 1931-33 Ukraine constitute genocide.
We see a lot of the same rhetoric in Russian state media involving the invasion of Ukraine today as we did in Soviet publications in 1931. Just as Putin calls Ukrainians “fascists and neo-Nazis” to justify his war, Stalin called Ukrainians “fascists and bourgeois nationalists” in 1933. Just as Putin is suppressing journalists today who tell the truth, Stalin suppressed knowledge of the famine within the wider Soviet Union and prevented outside journalists from coming in. Just as Putin is opposed to schools teaching Ukrainian and not Russian, Stalin engaged in a linguistic Russification campaign in the late 1920s. It’s a lot of the same thing.
In September 2020 when Azerbaijan invaded Nargono-Karabakh, majority occupied by Armenians for millennia, we feared that once they took the territory there would be an ethnic cleansing. That’s exactly what’s happening in the region: ancient churches and cemeteries have been destroyed and ethnic Armenians are being murdered and forced out of their homes. It reopened the historic scars of the genocide Armenians experienced in 1915. I believe that the Ukrainians are experiencing something similar. We both have genocides in our history that are not widely recognized and we are both the subject of aggression by tyrants. In fact I originally started studying history because of the Armenian Genocide. I later realized that there are other genocides in history that aren’t widely recognized, which ultimately led me to writing my undergraduate thesis on the Holodomor and Ukrainian history. What’s going on today hits home.
There are many ways to help Ukraine. Here are some links to donate :
Ukrainian National Women’s League https://unwla.org/top-news/call-for-humanitarian-aid/
United Help Ukraine: https://unitedhelpukraine.org/donate
The Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center at 700 N Cedar Rd is accepting donations of non perishables Mon-Fri 9am-7pm which they ship over to Ukraine. Check out their website to see what they are in need of.
Please support Ukraine in any way that you can, and please keep them in your prays.
How to put on socks
It’s interesting to me how each farm that I’ve worked at has a different feel. There are farms where the pace of work is quite relaxed. Work often slows down or even stops when a farmhand tells a joke or an interesting story. These farms are probably closest to how I romanticized farming before I ever started doing it. Oh how that all crumbled upon my first days at some of the more intense farms. Speed and efficiency are paramount. I had to learn how to work quickly and socialize at the same time.
Farming is tedious. Farmhands do the same movement over and over again for hours. A normal day could comprise of harvesting and bunching kale from 7:00 till 12:00, an hour lunch break, and planting tomatoes from 1:00-6:00. What can at first glance appear to be a small inefficiency doing these tasks can over those several hours result in a serious setback for the entire operation. The crew must then work later to accomplish everything. It leads to burnout.
A good farmer will teach his or her farmhands how to work as efficiently as possible with each seemingly insignificant hand movement. I am fortunate to have had mentors who railed this into my head. I recall something that a fellow farmhand jokingly said to me once.
Man, I’m even getting more efficient at putting my socks on!
I’m finding that I need to reapply these principles now that there are two locations. This past week was – well – very difficult and taxing. It also didn’t help that the walk-in freezer at Creekside broke down (again)…had to move a half ton of meat to the chest freezers that I always have on standby for when this happens.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to most efficiently order for two stores and one farmer’s market. Vegetables are the most difficult item to figure out since they are the most perishable. I won’t bore you with the specifics. Just take my word that there is a lot to juggle. The vegetable quality/quantity at the Elkins Park location suffered last week because of all this. I apologize. It’ll get better as I relearn how to put on my socks.
As a first step I’ll be working back at Creekside on Fridays and Brigette will be working at Huntingdon Valley starting this week. At the second location I’m very much enjoying seeing people who used to come to my backyard years ago when I was farming in Huntingdon Valley. And I’m very much enjoying getting to know new people. Your excitement and words of encouragement mean the world to me. I’m grateful. I’m also missing faces at Elkins Park at the same time.
People often ask me if I miss farming. It’s a difficult question to answer. I think that the main thing that I miss about farming is the fellowship that I had with people while doing the tedious tasks that I mentioned above. There is something about doing such tasks alongside others that naturally gives rise to good conversation and light-hearted fun. When I started my own farm it was just me doing tedious tasks alone. It wasn’t the same. In fact it was rather lonely. So it’s not farming I miss as much as it is people. I think that my presence at both locations would lend itself to having comradery with as many of you as I can.
I’m goth now
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.
Over the course of the last several weeks I had the arduous and painstaking task of sampling dozens of ice cream flavors from all of the ice cream makers in our locale. Fortunately I emerged from these trials unscathed and with a new product to hit the shelves next week.
The thing about ice cream is that most creameries purchase an “ice cream base” from a large-scale industrial operation. These bases are composed of dehydrated milk powder (coming from bad dairy farms), all sorts of preservatives, chemicals, and artificial sweeteners. They then mix this base with their own flavorings. There are not very many creameries that make their own base (it requires a hard to get USDA certification), let alone very many creameries that use local, seasonal fruit and pastured dairy. There are a couple in our area that fit the bill, but one stood out: Owowcow Creamery. After experiencing the hospitality that I was shown there, learning about their philosophy, and tasting all of the flavors, I realized that this was the ice cream that I wanted to offer. They source their milk and cream directly from Painterland Farm, a local organic dairy farm owned and run by two sisters. The cows graze on open pasture. Most of the other ingredients are local. And those that are not, like the vanilla and chocolate, are coming from good sources. The decision was pretty easy, honestly, and I’m grateful for a friend who recommended them to me.
Anyway I’ll be carrying 10 flavors in pints and 2 of their ice cream pops. I’m not getting them this week. They’ll arrive next week. But I was just too excited to wait till then to tell you. They’ll only be available at Huntingdon Valley. Elkins Park folks: it’s worth the drive. I do hope that the self sacrifices that I made to fill my belly with copious amounts of ice cream over the course of the past couple weeks prove to be worthy.