Tag Archives: organic farming

The Politics of Strawberries

19 Jul


The other day I went to pick strawberries. Since I live near countryside these days, that’s easy to do. In ten minutes I was at a strawberry farm, several acres of long, low, leafy rows, and no trees. Among the rows, small groups of foreign workers from Jamaica were filling green, plastic mesh quart boxes that then go into a cardboard flat, ready to then go on to a supermarket somewhere.

When you bend down to pick the strawberries here, you find that they do not in any way resemble the enormous red globules that come in plastic clamshells from Mexico or California. These berries are small and clustered beneath jagged leaves, close to the ground, on runners. They really are what their name in Dutch is – aardbaien, or earth berries.

In fact, it reminded me of the last time I picked berries, which was maybe ten or fifteen years ago, with my mother, who was from Holland. And the taste of the berries, again utterly unlike the kind I buy all winter long, also remind me of the past. At one time in my life, I think, this was the only kind of strawberry I knew or had tasted.

I am glad to buy berries from this local farm but at the same time, I wonder how the owners make much of a living from their berry fields. Because the other thing that has changed radically from my earlier years is the whole financial aspect of farming.

The hundred-acre farm on which I grew up, which in the 50s might have been worth $9000 or $10,000, is now priced at more than a million, from what I’ve heard. According to a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, prices on average ranged from $6000 an acre to $14,000, across ten counties near me. Thanks to higher commodity prices and lower interest than in my Dad’s day, some are as high as $20,000 per acre, an amount he’d have never imagined.

But it also means viable farms are much bigger, highly leveraged, and more mechanized. Produce has to sell, and that also means that fruit and vegetables that are not perfect get trashed.

A recent study done in the U.S. found that half – that’s right, one half – of produce is thrown away or left rotting in the field or fed to animals. Food waste accounts for 8 per cent of global climate pollution and, according to the EPA, is the single largest component of landfill and incinerator waste. That makes it a significant source of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. Add to that the waste of water, land and other resources and the picture just seems head-shakingly stupid.

How did we get here? Why are people going hungry while potatoes, apples and strawberries have become the Stepford Wives of the food chart?

I honestly can’t figure it out, despite the economists’ explanations. All I can do is look for alternatives in my small corner of the agricultural world and turn those fresh berries into ruby-coloured jars of strawberry jam.

But yes, someone should write a book about it.

Wiki-Solutions for a Hungry World

7 Apr

Sculpture: Natalia Porter

This month AlertNet, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s news site for humanitarian issues, is posting submissions from the general public for its multi-media special report on  solutions to global hunger. This is my “silver bullet” idea:

A tragic paradox envelops the lives of small holding farmers throughout the Global South. They want to make a living from the land, but the economics of small scale farming force them to migrate to constantly expanding urban slums. Food prices rise as millions of peasant farmers lack the means — from enough land to sound eco-agricultural advice — to produce enough of a surplus to sell to the hungry. The world needs farmers while at the same time they make up the majority of its poor.

Yet the answer to the dilemma rests with peasant farmers themselves, and in ever increasing numbers, they know this. They are organizing themselves in democratic grassroots movements throughout the developing world, not only demanding but also working for change. From Indonesia to Senegal, and from Haiti to Brazil, the landless and the land poor are finding solutions to the contradictions of today’s macro-economic imperatives.

Here are just a few examples: The Serikat Petani Indonesia is not only working with their 700,000 members to reclaim land stolen during the Suharto dictatorship, but encouraging increased yields using organic techniques that cost nothing. In Senegal, regional farmers organizations, like the Union of Peasant Groups of Mehknes, ask all members to surround their plots with trees and to grow the drought-resistant crops their forefathers planted. Participation in Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement, or MST, has permitted more than 350,000 families to own land and to run cooperatives, schools and small enterprises. Even in Haiti, where land is at a premium and instability a seeming fact of life, peasant organizations working with La Via Campesina and Partenaires de Developement Locale are taking the initiative and breaking free from both top-down solutions to improve and manage better production methods. The government of Brazil, for example, is basing all of its agricultural foreign aid to Haiti on advice from the La Via Campesina and the MST.

These are just a few of the many organizations flowering throughout regions we typically associate with poverty and helplessness. Other developing world nations with national peasant organizations include the Philippines, Thailand and Mozambique.  While their members don’t lack ideas, a sense of initiative or  a determination to succeed, finding the funding to expand their outreach is always a challenge.

Meanwhile, little of the billions of dollars affluent nations spend on foreign aid is going to support farmers and their families.  Rather, too many First-World development policies comprise a vision of letting giant agri-business conglomerates take care food production and leaving farming families no choice but to join an already vast labour force that will struggle to survive on cut-rate wages in modern factories and sweatshops. No wonder donors are asking themselves why so much poverty still exists in the countries to which they have been sending their money for decades.

At the same time the effectiveness and purpose of so many aid projects are being questioned, simple solutions are at hand — and have been for quite some time.

Just imagine if those of us in the rich countries could help the millions of small farmers in the developing world achieve land justice and plentiful crops.

Try and picture the results in farming villages when agriculturalists embrace their knowledge and abilities to produce healthy crops to sustain themselves and their urban counterparts.

Ask the average person who donates money to charity, and they are likely to react with enthusiasm at the idea, at the image of productive land, life-giving clusters of woods, decent schools and clinics, and vibrant markets filled with the fruits of the peasant farmer’s labour rather than wasted aid dollars, pounds and euros.

It is time to change the picture of rural poverty to one of rural power. Along with our donations to those NGOs that concentrate on empowering farmers, we can also pressure our governments to switch from foreign aid conditionalities that impoverish Third World economies to ones that insist on meaningful re-distribution of fertile land. In the United States, Canada and Britain, average people can tell their governments that we no longer want our tax money to spent on food dumping but on buying locally produced food for feeding programs and on practical help for farmers. How? Using a number of methods, from social media and the Internet to Amnesty International-style letter-writing campaigns, average people can influence government policies.

Aside from alleviating rural poverty, two immeasurably valuable consequences will come with this. First of all, we will find peasant farmers themselves taking on the task of conserving and protecting local forests and other fragile habitats. Environmental protection is already a hallmark of most if not all peasant movements.

Secondly, as their livelihoods improve, rural populations will feel empowered to demand accountability from their governments, insisting on honest and wise use of their nation’s financial resources.

The rural poor don’t want handouts and they don’t want banishment to dysfunctional lives in a slum. They want to land to till, fair markets in which to sell the fruits of their labour, and respect.  We can and must make it clear to our leaders and policy-makers that we want the same.

What do you think can be done to alleviate global hunger? I would love to hear your comments and your own ideas.

“Not the kind of S@#* we need

14 Aug

The other day I spent a couple of hours weeding the Diversity Garden that takes up a small rectangle of the park near my home. Just over half of its space is cultivated by local families – and they are a diverse bunch – while the other half is tended by volunteers, the organic carrots, lettuce, tomatoes and cukes going to a variety of food banks.

The weeds had come up thick and fast after some summer showers but the proliferation of vegetables remains truly impressive. The problem is, to keep up this kind of productivity, we need more natural fertilizer, and the city has not been forthcoming in delivering compost. Yes, what we need is some good, strong, old-fashioned animal manure –  I suggested contacting the police to see what they might be able to give us from their herd of urban horses. Our volunteer coordinator Marc, meanwhile, was wondering how he could rent a truck and drive north into the countryside to see what he could pick up from a sheep or cattle farmer.

However our lack of inputs – in such a contrast to the abundance of beautiful and healthy produce – seems part and parcel of the current city administration’s corresponding lack of interest in our efforts. I certainly didn’t vote for our Rush-Limbaugh doppleganger mayor Rob Ford. In fact, not many in our downtown ward most likely did. But Ford is a man of the suburbs, and vegetable gardens in the suburbs are rare and never collective; food banks or homeless people are non-existent; and the idea of devoting a few hours a week to some healthy physical labour something to be avoided at all costs when there is a handy couch and cable TV at hand.

Rather, Mayor Ford, who during his campaign promised neither to raise property taxes or cut services, has found problems where none existed before. Basically he wants to pay down more of the city’s debt from annual deficits than has been done in the past, and to do so by cutting what he considers frills – libraries, school meals, parks maintenance, the Farmers’ Markets, community centres – basically all the stuff poor and lower-middle class people need and use.

And, really, how much can Farmers Markets or urban gardens cost the city? On the contrary, encouraging people to grow their own food in summer, giving urban farmers a venue to expand and improve their businesses, and turning handfuls of seeds into tonnes of healthy produce must surely save money. Not to mention beautify and humanize a city that, contrary to many, I find still pretty unattractive.

The real cost to the municipal budget – about 80% I gather — is very clear: salaries for city staff, including firemen and police (among the highest paid in North America).  So raise property taxes a small amount and add a tax to liquor or hotel rooms. It’s not rocket science. And give us some free compost from all those well-fed horses or the compost we already separate and pay to have picked up every week.

Even former mayor Art Eggleton – no progressive by any means – came out recently in the Huffington Post sounding like a paragon of reasonableness. “In particular we must avoid cuts that would affect the most vulnerable among us,” he wrote, “ the poor, the elderly, racial minorities, the disabled and at risk youth, to name a few. These individuals rely on programs and services like nutritious meals for low-income children, child care, libraries, and affordable housing every day. Without these, their quality of life would be drastically reduced, and at what cost? Many of these programs are just a drop in the proverbial bucket that is the city’s budget. Remove them for a small gain, or maintain them for a tremendous upside; it seems like a simple decision.”

Unfortunately, it’s actually simpler for Rush, I mean Rob, to attack things he doesn’t seem to understand: physical activity, healthy produce and reading. And that’s the kind of crap we don’t need.

News Flash! Global Food System Fails Millions

25 Feb

A recent article about a new report on hunger and food security caught my attention recently, just as work and the news of mass protests across North Africa have kept me from paying any attention to it. Not that the headline in the Guardian, or rather the deck, wasn’t compelling: “The existing food system fails half the people on the planet and needs radical change if world is to feed itself, report warns,” it said.

Said report, handily named ‘Foresight,’ has called for a “transformation on the scale of the industrial revolution.” Wow. Its suggestions include the provision of technical support in more modern agricultural methods to poor countries, greater investment in GM crops and even animal cloning, all in an effort to beef up the amount of food the world produces. It also calls for better transport links and for cutting down on the vast amounts of food that goes to waste — anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of everything produced. (To me, that would seem like the answer right there.)

But while it makes clear the imperative that increases in food production need to come without the corresponding increase in greenhouse gas, it also warns that organic agriculture “should not be adopted as the main strategy to achieve sustainable and equitable global food security.” (my italics)

So here is where many, including myself, start to find the short-sightedness in ‘Foresight’ (which was originally commissioned by a branch of the British government). While the U.N.’s Olivier de Schutter points out that hunger is not a technical question but a political one,  Devinder Sharma said the authors “call for radical change but they really want to intensify existing policies.”

In fact, the report acknowledges the concerns many have regarding corporate concentration in the global food business, but says that “there does not seem to be an argument for intervention to influence the number of companies in each area or how they operate…” (my italics again)

Nor could I find any reference at all, in the executive summary at least, on the need for land reform – to take land away from governments, companies and big private landowners and give it to landless peasants along with, yes, technical advice and good infrastructure.

This is odd considering that the summary does indicate that in poor nations like those of Africa, “agriculture provides not only food for households but also very important means of broadly based income generation.”

It cites studies showing that a one per cent gain in GDP from agriculture “generates a 6 per cent increase in overall expenditure of the poorest 10 per cent of the population, while the equivalent figure for GDP growth originating in non-agricultural sectors is zero growth.” So land reform does make economic sense.

Yet for all its headline-grabbing rhetoric, Foresight’s recommendations are really pretty conventional. Compare them to those of the eye-glazingly-titled  International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development; despite the boring name, that study does, for example,  see “increasing access by small-scale farmers to land and economic resources” as an “important option” for improving the lives of the rural poor.

Whether it’s planting ‘cade’ fruit trees around crops in Senegal or transforming urban wasteland into organic vegetable plots in São Paulo, personal experience has shown me numerous examples of peasant farmers themselves finding ways to increase production and enhance environments at the same time. From Indonesia to Africa and Mexico to Brazil, having sufficient land, fairer market access and freedom from expensive commercial fertilizers and pesticides have brought the poor not only better livelihoods and nutrition, but dignity.

On Balance – Organic is better

20 Jul

While I was travelling in Brazil and Indonesia meeting members and visiting the farms of the Landless Rural Workers Movement and the Peasant Union of Indonesia, I heard a lot about better crops from organic methods.

In west Sumatra for example, the SPI’s Rustam Efendi told me they were getting rice yields of 7 tonnes per hectare compared with 4 or 5 using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Now their personal experiences have found some academic backing – from Washington. State University A recent study, published in Nature, found that organic techniques actually offer better pest control and larger plants that the agric-chemical competition.

Study author David Crowder and his team surveyed potato farms in Washington state. Their focus wasn’t so much on yields as on another important aspect of both agriculture and environment – the concept of evenness. That’s the relative abundance of different species, including predators and pests, in a farm’s ecosystem. In other words, rather than the number of species present on a farm, it is this “relative abundance,” they noted, that may determine the success of one technique over another. This idea also helps explain why certain commercial pesticides lose their effectiveness.

The WSU researchers found that “although organic and conventional farms did not differ markedly in the richness of (potato) beetle eaters, the evenness of predators differed drastically. Organic fields … had far greater evenness than those where pesticides were applied regularly.”
What happens when evenness increases what Crowder called a “powerful trophic cascade,” resulting in fewer potato-munching beetles and larger potato plants. in layman’s terms, that means 18% lower pest densities and 35% larger plants. And bigger plants generally mean greater potato yields.
Evenness is really another word for balance, even though the struggle to stymie the power of agribusiness and unfair land distribution remains a grossly uneven one. But as Crowder pointed out in nature, “What our study suggests is that organic agriculture is promoting these more balanced natural enemy communities and they may have better, organic pest control.”

Organic Farming, Indonesia

28 Dec

 The SPI, as I mentioned below, has succeeded through struggle and unity in taking 1 million hectares of land from companies and government entities, much of it in fact reclaimed after it was stolen from peasant farmers during the years of the Suharto regime.

Now, like the Movimento dos Sem Terra in Brazil, they are working to convince peasant farmers to go organic. In July, I went from Jakarta to the coastal city of Padang, on the island of Sumatra, and from there to  Nagari, where the SPI have an organic farming school. I did not have my trusty interpreter Adi with me on this trip, relying instead on Rustam, an SPI leader from nearby West Pasamant. A tall rangy fellow, with a square jaw and jokey manner, Rustam had participated in a lengthy and violent struggle there to reclaim land taken by a palm-oil company, one that resulted in the death of one Union member and the imprisonment of many others. His command of  English, while eccentric and rather endearingly — if confusingly, at times – informal, was my path to communication with his Mingabau-speaking comrades.

Before talking about the school, however, I must say something about the amazing architecture of this part of Indonesia, immense wooden houses with curving roofs like the horns of a buffalo, or the prow of an old-fashioned ship, called rumah gadang, which translates simply as big house. What’s more, this island, or what I saw of it, is particularly lush with jungle vegetation, riven with streams and waterfalls, much of my bus trip from Padang to Payan Kumbuh along the route of a now-abandoned train track built by the Dutch.

The organic school in Nagari was run by a taciturn man named Adek, who had taken a six-month course in Medan, North Sumatra, back in 2002. Adek was chosen to take the course, said Rustam, “because he is interested, and clever – more clever than most.” Beyond the small house where Adek lived with his family, dozens of different species of vegetables grew in furrowed strips, often surrounded by flowering plants useful for fertilizing or pest control. At the bottom of a slope, a stilted pen had been built for the school’s collection of five goats, whose manure was added to the piles of biologically rich compost, which contained everything from leaves to burnt rice husks. They were also making a liquid organic pesticide, said Rustam, “but we don’t use it much. We focus on how to manage different species of insects in this area. Some are bad, some are friends. You always have to figure out the needs of the plant.”

Since its inauguration in 2006, about 100 people had come there for courses, staying in simple constructions made of wood and bilik,  also used for classrooms. Most of them were SPI cadre, coming one day a week for a year, but local peasant farmers had also begun turning up to ask for advice. “When we built the school, everyone laughed,’ said Rustam, “but then they started coming, one by one.” Even the government was sending a group of 60 students for an intensive six-day course in August. Meanwhile, its broad choice of organic vegetables and fruit were being packaged at the school and distributed for sale in various towns and villages nearby.

At some distance away were the rice paddies, set in a much larger area of terraced green fields, and offering a stunning view of mountain ranges, purple and misty, extending toward the horizon. Water veined the entire landscape, running through swards of rice in various stages of development, from the brilliant, almost luminescent green of bunched young plants to waving fields of ripe, pale-gold grain. The yield from using organic was almost vertiginous: people were harvesting seven tons of rice per hectare, compared to just four or five using traditional fertilizers and pesticides.  If, as Rustam said, the SPI began discussing organic farming “to see about how to lose our dependence on commercial fertilizers and the  big companies that sell them,” their endeavours had been enormously successful.

The next day in Sibaladuang, I went to a meeting of organic farmers, who had transformed a 66-hectare piece of land that had been theirs since ancestral times, taken over by a cattle ranch, then won back by them trough occupation and pressure in 1998. I asked them why they had decided to adopt organic practices and, in spite of the higher yields they were getting, no-one mentioned that as motivation. “I do it first of all so as not to be dependent on fertilizers and pesticides from factories,” said a man named Jastil, “because the factory gives the peasant very little information about what it really contains and what the effects are.” Another simply expressed confidence in this latest SPI campaign. “As an organization, it has the power to kick out the ranchers, and bring us many solutions and alternatives,” said Beni, secretary of the Sibaladuang base, “to improve agriculture and our livelihoods.”

But the most faithful adherent, perhaps, of organic techniques was Sukardi Bendang, 39, from nearby Tanjuang Pati, where he farmed one hectare of his grandmother’s land and raised a few cattle. “I first got information about organic farming from reading about it in newspapers and seeing things on television,” he said. “Shortly after, in 2002, I joined SPI. I discussed this with them and decided to take a one-week intensive course in Medan from the same teacher Adek had. After growing the first plot of organic rice, I felt really good. I got a very good crop, about 200 kilos more than by doing conventional farming.”

Sukardi had moved back to where he had grown up from the similarly named village of Tanjuang Pauh, where his wife’s clan had farmed. But “in 1996,” he said, “the government moved us because they were building a dam there and gave us two hectares for planting and another half hectare for a house in another place. But this land was very steep and no good for farming.” An NGO had initially organized the peasants against the dam-building project, he said, but once their funds dried up, they left. This NGO, said Sukardi, “only took on one project, the dam, but the SPI struggles for long-term issues that can last a whole lifetime.”

In Tanjuang Pati, Sukardi began to organize the peasants there “step by step. I have invited members to start growing organic. And I still campaign,” he said, “so that the landless can get land and for agrarian reform. Government politicians campaign and say that ‘yes, organic is very good for the peasant,’ but these are just empty words. They give no support for it. They only support the peasants who are in favour of them; they’re the one who get loans, for example. If we want these loans, we have to really pressure for them.”

Sukardi had been so successful with his organic production, that not only had he recently been invited to work with the local Farming Board – a sign of official backing he took with caution – but allowed him to purchase two more hectares of land. Nevertheless his primary reason, he said, for promoting organic farming so strenuously was because “it is healthy for families who eat our products.”

So far about a fifth of SPI members are farming organically, but that number is growing. In Batang, Central Java, the local SPI had also set up an organic showpiece, hoping to convince members and non-members alike to go organic by giving them visible evidence of its success. As in Brazil, the switch from traditional methods isn’t an easy one, but at least it is beginning.

On a final note, I was told back in Jakarta that Padang is famous for its cuisine, with many restaurants all over the country attracting diners by announcing that their cooks are from there. I’m ashamed to say that (except for the excellent slap-up meal we ate sitting on the ground in Sibaladuang) I never had time to eat a good Padang meal while here. The only place where I stopped to eat on my final day – and this is really embarrassing, I admit – was Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

But I can’t close without mentioning the amazing little hotel where I stayed: a lovely large old house, huge, beautifully furnished room and the friendliest staff imaginable, all for about $27 a night. It’s called the Hotel Mayang, and is located just off of Jalan Veteran Dalam.


This wonderful photo of a rumah gadang was taken by Michael J.  Lowe and downloaded from Creative Commons.