Monday, May 25, 2015

Week 9 - Emily's Post: Migrant Farmworkers

This week, my focus will be on migrant farm workers. I’m certainly not an expert on this topic, but I think it’s a really important aspect of the food system that should be discussed.

There are many directions we could go, but first it’s important that we all have a baseline level of knowledge. Please look over each of the Farm Worker Issues on this website:  Although this information is referring to farm workers in general, note that almost 80% of farm workers are foreign-born and virtually all of those 80% are from Mexico.

Michigan is quite agriculturally diverse, and Southwest Michigan actually has a large concentration of migrant workers. Michigan Radio did a documentary called “Voices from the fields: a story of migrant workers in Michigan.” I’m only posting two short segments, but if you’re curious, here is the full documentary:

Please listen to these! They’re short!

1) A segment about housing conditions for migrant workers:

2) A segment about some of the issues with undocumented migrant workers: This segment is particularly interesting because it explores the employers' viewpoints on undocumented workers while showing how policy changes can trickle down and affect migrant workers.

Also, this is the organization in Kalamazoo, Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan, that the story references:

So, I’ll ask you to think/write about:

What, if anything, did you know about migrant workers rights before reading this blog post?

What, if anything, were you surprised to find out?

Of all the complex issues related to migrant workers (labor laws, low wages, health & safety, housing conditions, child labor, education, women’s issues, etc.), what stood out to you? Are any of these more easily addressed/fixed than others? 

I don’t know much about immigration policy, and I suspect many of you might not either. Still, what might an ideal immigration policy look like? How can we give migrants more power so that they can speak out in the face of injustice?

Finally, I want to try to keep this solution-based. How can we, as consumers, help protect the people who are picking so much of our food? 

We’ve talked about the importance of buying local, but is that enough? Buying locally may be better for the environment and even for your body, but we can’t forget the human component of how our food was produced. 

Finally, on a more broad scale, how do we deal with all these intersecting issues? It can be exhausting to consider every aspect of the food we purchase (Is it local? Is is organic? How was it produced? Who produced it, and how were they treated?, etc.), but it’s crucial if we want to revolutionize our food system. I know I get frustrated and overwhelmed at times, so feel free to share any feelings you have about this.

Thanks everyone! Can’t wait to read all your blog posts!

Week 9 on the Farm: Scouting

Weather Forecast: Tuesday, high of 78 degrees F, 80% chance of rain. Wednesday, high of 75 degrees F, 60% chance of rain.

Weather is going to be a big influence on what we're able to do this week and since the forecast keeps shifting, it's a little hard to plan ahead! It looks like there's a good chance of rain on Tuesday afternoon and a possibility on Wednesday as well. Even though that will interrupt our field work, we'll be grateful for the rain since all of the plants and seeds we've got in the ground need it badly.

As we've moved around the farm these past several weeks, I hope you've observed John & I checking both our vegetable plants and the orchard for insect and disease problems. "Scouting" is a term that's used in agriculture to mean actively checking to see what's going on in your fields and it's particularly important in integrated pest management and organic systems where we are trying to get away from what I've heard referred to as the "nuclear bomb" method of pest control--flooding the agricultural ecosystem with broad-spectrum toxins at regular intervals throughout the season. Instead, we spend lots of time observing and trying to figure out exactly what's going on in our crops so that we can decide what actions we need to take to help them withstand pest and disease pressures.

If rain prevents us from working outdoors, we'll go to a local coffee shop and lead you in a virtual "scavenger hunt" to help you hone your pest and disease diagnostic skills. If you have devices on which you can access the internet, such as smartphones or laptops, please bring them with you. Afterwards, we'll visit one or two garden centers and critically assess their pest and disease control offerings.

If we are able to be outdoors, we'll do some active scouting. Depending on soil moisture, we may be able to do some planting as well. If not, we'll give you a taste of orchard work with a little fruit thinning!

Here's a 3 minute video that gives a nice overview of how to scout a vegetable garden:

Week 9 - Lucy's Post

The microbiome and its connections to diet, soil, and health.

So I know I may have touched on this a little before, but I want to start by giving some background on my health journey and how that led me to become interested in local, sustainable agriculture.  I’ll try to keep it short.

I struggled with eczema, an autoimmune skin condition, for most of my life.  Despite numerous visits to the dermatologist, allergist, and pediatrician and countless prescription steroid creams, I was itchy and uncomfortable a lot of the time. 

A little over a year and a half ago, my older sister sent me some research that connected diet and eczema.  She encouraged me to try a paleo diet.  I was skeptical, and was really unhappy about having to give up the processed, sugary foods that I loved.  But I decided to try it, and the difference was immediate.

Not only was my eczema disappearing rapidly, but I also noticed other positive changes in my health.  I had increased energy, less joint pain, and faster workout recovery.  I  slept better, got sick less frequently, and just felt great throughout the day.  It was almost as if I hadn’t fully lived the first seventeen years of my life; like this fog had lifted that I never knew was even there.

My eczema was better than I could remember it, but still not gone completely.  I knew there must be something more. This is when I first came across the idea of the microbiome, “leaky gut”, and its connection with autoimmune (and other) diseases.  All of my free time was immediately channeled to learn ways to restore my microbiome and heal my gut. 

I made it a priority to find vendors at the farmers market who were strictly sustainable and used absolutely no pesticides.  Knowing that they were chemical-free, I also stopped washing most of my vegetables and embraced any bits of soil (and soil bacteria) that were left on them.  I began to eat even more fiber in the form of fruits and vegetables, and especially made a point to eat foods that are probiotic (fermented, having good bacteria) and prebiotic (things that feed the good bacteria).

I have now been completely eczema-free for several months, and I feel like a totally different person than I was two years ago.  I’m a firm believer that the microbiome is the future of medicine, and I will be studying the microbiome in relation to diet and autoimmunity for my PhD.

Here’s some general info on the microbiome and it's connection to leaky gut and health status.  Even if you don't have time to check out any of the other articles, PLEASE read this one: 

So what does this have to do with sustainable farming?  Here are just a few connections that have been on my mind:

Pesticides and antibiotics perturb the microbiome.  Pesticides are harmful to the microbiota.  Antibiotics, particularly broad-spectrum antibiotics, which are routinely given to conventionally raised farm animals, make their way into meat, egg, and dairy products.  When you consume those products, you are essentially giving yourself a low-dose of antibiotics.  Yet another reason to always buy organic/sustainable produce.

Working on a farm gives you a more robust microbiome.  One of the reasons that our microbiomes are so compromised in the first place is that we live in a world that fears dirt and germs.  Studies have found that kids who grow up on farms playing in the dirt have less allergic disease because they have more robust immune systems:

We were meant to eat soil microbes along with our food.  We evolved eating vegetables dug straight out of the ground, not vegetables that are coated in chemicals and sterilized.  Most people are deficient in species of bacteria that are found in healthy soil.  This is a great article talking about how we should focus on cultivating healthy soil ecology in order to ensure our future health.

Our microbiomes determine our food cravings.  I alluded to this in a previous class discussion, but I think it’s important.  Our diet determines our microbial composition, and vice versa.  If we want to figure out how to reshape our collective diet to support more sustainable food systems, we have to consider the role the microbiome has on our brains.

Microbiome hype might help fuel the food revolution.  The microbiome is a rapidly expanding field of research and as more and more people understand its implications on human health, I believe more and more people will choose to buy real, organic, sustainable food and invest in soil cultivation.

I’m really looking forward to discussing this with everyone on Thursday.  I’d be happy to take the discussion towards personal health,  soil ecology, or the effects on the healthcare system itself, depending on what interests everyone most.  Here’s some questions to ponder, but feel free to take this anywhere:

Had you heard of the microbiome before?  Are there any other connections you can draw between the microbiome and sustainable farming?

Was there anything that really surprised you from the articles?

What implications might this have for you personally?  For the health care system as a whole?  For the food system?

Why don’t doctors warn you about the detrimental effects on your normal gut flora when you take a course of antibiotics? 

Why is the role of diet and nutrition in general so downplayed in modern medicine?

Why are so many doctors not aware of this / not utilizing this knowledge in their medical practice, particularly with conditions (like autoimmune disease) which supposedly ‘have no cure’?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Week 8 on the Farm: More Potatoes, Bees, Transplanting, Weeding, More Bed-Making. Otherwise known as the week when everything happens all at once.

Weather Forecast: Partly cloudy. Highs in the low 50s on Tuesday; Low 60s on Wednesday.

This really is the time of year where we feel like everything needs to happen NOW. There are more seeds to start indoors and more beds to clear and direct-seed outdoors. At the same time, all of the seeds and plants already in the ground need to be watered, weeded and protected from insects.

Tuesday folks, since you didn't get in on the potato planting a couple of weeks ago, we're going to give you the opportunity to help us with our next potato planting: Adirondack Blue potatoes! If you haven't had a chance to look at the links I sent earlier on potatoes, check them out & we can talk about them on Tuesday:

100 Circle Farms, Washington State:

Potato Park, Peru:

And here's the website for the Potato Park if you'd like to learn more:

We'd also like to give those of you who are interested the opportunity to look inside our beehives. We don't want to disturb them too much, so we'll only open them one day this week. Then we'll plan to give the other group the opportunity to check them out in a couple of weeks. IMPORTANT: You certainly aren't required to look in the hives if you are uncomfortable with bees. However, if you do want to get close to them, please come to the farm with long sleeved shirts and pants and close-toed shoes. (You can change on the farm if you need to.) Light colors are best, as are smooth and natural fabrics. Don't wear black fleece unless you want to test our bees' temperaments!

Here are a couple of videos that will give you a little background on Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been plaguing our honeybee populations for quite awhile now, including one on beekeeping in cities:

Marla Spivak on Colony Collapse Disorder:
And from PBS's Nature, a clip on the "dance-language" of bees:

Beth's Blog Post: How/Are Farm Subsidies Affecting out Diets?

As Eileen mentioned, this week we wanted to focus more on rural farming. We have talked a lot about problems and solutions related to urban food systems, however as I was talking with my mom the other week I was reminded how different food access and farming is in the countryside. Eileen focused more on how current farm subsidies affect farmers, so now I want to take a look at how/if they affect consumers.  

First let’s take a look at some of the different perspectives on how government subsidization of certain crops over others is linked to our diets. 

This article discusses how what the government subsidizes is directly responsible for the unhealthy diet of Americans:

This NPR story however, does not find the link between subsidization of corn and soy, over say cabbage and carrots, to really effect what Americans choose to eat. It instead concludes that food processing companies’ desire to heighten profits is primarily at fault:

After hearing/reading these different perspectives, do you think government subsidization of food and the American diet are significantly linked? If so, in what ways? And how substantially? Or, are other culprits more responsible for creating an unhealthy US diet. Are you more inclined to agree with Bush’s Health and Human Service Secretary who said in the video in the prior article: “there’s no link between agriculture subsidies and health”?

Personally, after reading these stories, I am still more inclined to think that government policy really does affect the American diet, especially in a society where costs and efficiency are such high factors in decision making.  So the question then is how do we make better food policy?
This Washington Post article echoes some of the previously mentioned concerns around what we subsidize, and how it affects the American diet: . My initial response when first learning of farm subsidies was that we should instead subsidize healthier foods, however this article addresses how that may or may not be the best solution. How do you think would lowering the financial risks (through subsidization) of fruits and vegetables would affect the rates at which farmers produce them?

The main question being, is there a better system for increasing fruit and vegetable quality and accessibility than crop insurance/subsidies, while also making sure farmers are paid well for their crops?  

In class we will brainstorm what alternative government policies could be? Was the “get big or get out” transition to large scale farms a mistake? Should we support smaller farms, or not? Why and how?

So many questions and potential solutions are already flying around in my mind. Can’t wait to hear (read) your thoughts and chat with you on Thursday!  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Eileen's Blog Post: Farm Subsidies

For this week’s discussion, Beth and I wanted to collaborate and move the conversation towards rural farming, as we both agreed that we have focused a lot on urban farming in past classes. Specifically, I want to address the ‘elephant’ in the farmhouse, so to speak, in regards to agricultural subsidies...Who really benefits from farm programs and payments?

Agricultural subsidies are governmental subsidies that provide ‘safety nets’ for farmers and agribusinesses to help ensure their production of a stable food supply and their profitability, despite discrepancies in weather, market prices, and other factors.

The main subsidy system consists of a layering of 5 subsidy programs, including direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, revenue assurance programs, marketing loans, and disaster payments. You can read more about these 5 programs on the EWG Farm Subsidies page à

Generally, this financial support is skewed to program commodities of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, with corn and soy being the top crops for subsidy payments...which is interesting as these are the two crops that assist in the production of meat and processed foods that we are supposed to exclude or decrease from our diets. (Beth will talk more about this in her postàDefinitely read her Washington Post article on the farm bill!)

Going back to my original question...Who benefits from these programs really? Despite the rhetoric of ‘preserving the family farm’ that often accompanies conversations about agricultural subsidies, the vast majority of farmers do not benefit from federal farm subsidy programs. Check out this video on agricultural subsidies that addresses this issues as well as provides a summary of a few pros and cons of subsidizing food production.

What are your thoughts after watching the video?
I personally believe that farm subsidies can help create more stable farming systems, enable farmers to compete in the market, and potentially prevent possible price spikes, etc. However, they can also be hindering as they don’t always allow farmers space for change (diversifying, innovating, etc.). They also lead to more intensive agriculture, with an increased inefficiency in regards to the use of resources like water and environmental pollution (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.)
Are there more pros and/or cons that you can think of?

Do you think that making the dramatic decision to end all farm subsidies in the U.S. could be as beneficial as it was with New Zealand?

Beth and I are really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Thursday!!