Where did the potato on your plate come from?
We departed from Baca Campus Monday morning on a quest to learn more about America’s industrial farming industries, specifically large-scale potato farms in the San Luis Valley. I was not particularly excited to get up at 7:00 am to see something as mundane as potatoes. Aren’t they just potatoes, what could be so interesting about them?
Jamilah M., with her constant optimism, said “Nghi, we’re going to see the most potatoes we have ever seen in one day today” in an effort to make the trip more exciting. Oh boy, she was right. We saw potatoes alright.
We met up with Heather Dutton, manager of San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and fifth-generation San Luis Valley resident. She brought us to Spud Grower Farms to check out their potato harvest. At first the field looked empty and I thought “Where are the potatoes? That’s all I came here for.”
Our first view of the potato circle
It somehow never clicked in my brain that potatoes are root crops, and root crops are underground. As we walked through the field, I saw small potatoes left behind on the ground. Can you spot what’s potato and what’s rocks?
The potato vines in the picture are dead because they are “beaten to death” 3-4 weeks before harvesting so the potato skin can have time to harden and dry out. If potatoes are harvested right away, the skin could easily peel off and get bruised.
While we were standing there, harvesters came by and scooped up the potatoes from the dirt, passed it through a conveyor belt to shake off anything that’s not potatoes and left them on the ground for the next round of harvester trucks to come pick them up. Sometimes the harvesters will miss some potatoes, and while unfortunate, it’s not worth it to go back over a row twice.
We were standing on a quarter section aka a crop circle. Each crop circle yields around 5-8 million pounds of potatoes every season. Spud Grower Farms grows 13 circles of potatoes annually, and another 13 circles of quinoa and barley. However, they predominantly focus on potatoes because it’s their cash crop. Farm Manager, Michael Curtis, is 1 of 4 full-time farmers working on the 26 crop circles which makes up the farm. To put this into perspective: there are only 4 farmers working year-round to make sure 81 million (2018 yield) pounds of potatoes gets into big grocery stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, Krogers.
Pictured is Heather (left) and Michael (right).
(DID YOU CATCH THAT? 81 MILLION POUNDS! And that’s barely 1% of annual American potato demand).
We, as consumers, demands perfect potatoes. Potatoes coming from the San Luis Valley could be repackaged into the potato buyer’s packaging. This process strips the San Luis Valley identity from the potatoes, thus making the origin of the potatoes untraceable.
Crop circles in the San Luis Valley. Credit: Google Maps: Satellite.
Even though Spud Grower Farms grow a massive amount of potatoes and use industrial machinery, they are first and foremost a family farm. They care about their potatoes, try to minimize pesticide usage by fighting diseases with cover crops, and replenish the soil as much as they can.
Industrial American farming gets a bad rep, but as Heather puts it, “It’s not about the size of the farm, it’s about the ethics.” Michael added, “We would never grow something that we wouldn’t eat ourselves. I don’t buy potatoes from the store, I come out to the field and get potatoes to feed my own kids”
Heather and Michael also touched on water issues in Colorado. “80% of the population in Colorado is on the front range, yet 80% of the water is on the western slope. This puts a stress on municipalities to provide water for their constituents.”
Investors from Denver are looking to come into San Luis Valley, buy land from farmers to acquire the land’s water rights and groundwater wells, and pipeline the water to urban areas. This leaves farms like Spud Grower Farms left to worry about the future of water and the make-up of the farming community. Even though San Luis Valley sits on a large water aquifer, it’s disappearing more quickly than can be recharged.
While our urban lives are seemingly disconnected from farmers in the San Luis Valley, are we truly disconnected? The type of house we buy, the lawns we choose to water, the food we choose to eat, it’s all affecting the water reservoirs in Colorado and farmers around the state. If farmers like Michael were to stop growing food, where else would our food come from?
Bonus pictures of the potato sorting facility:
The beautiful Meghna Bagchi ft. 500,000 lbs of potatoes in the back.
Saturday of second week, we departed at 9am to Denver for an Italian Festival. It was a nice sunny day and I was ready to try some delicious Italian food.
Italian cuisine was popularized over seventy years ago and has made its way into the staple American diet. Familiar foods like pizza, spaghetti, gelato and pasta are easily found in every city. We have romanticized Italy as the country of vacation and its foods as “fresh, handmade, and touched by Italian grandmothers.”
The festival, located in an outdoor shopping mall, attracted audience from all over. Many booths were decorated with grape vines, wine bottles, or any Italian-related tokens to seem more authentic. For example, there were seven consecutive booths named “Grammy’s Sicilian Pizza,” “Grammy’s Canoli,” “Grammy’s Italian Goodies,” and “Grammy’s Italian Cookies” and so on. The Grammy’s booths used the cute abbreviated version of “grandmother” to portray an image of Italian authenticity and home. The tablecloths they used were checkered and bright colors and font styles looked handwritten to add to the illusion. As a consumer, it is hard to tell if the recipes they are selling are truly passed down from grammy; however, they are for sure using the image of the Italian grandmother to attract their customer base.
Willik ft. large Grammy’s “Sicilian” pizza slice
Some classmates have called this festival the “American-Italian Festival” because of the festival’s loose interpretation of what is Italian and its adaptation of Italy to fit the American audience. Some booths at the fair had nothing to do with Italy such as: Costco, Wells Fargo, Empanadas, a booth selling stickers, and so on. The list of sponsors for this event included corporations, banks, TV stations, and a lack of Italian companies. Thus, it seemed like the goal of this festival was to attract the widest audience possible, not to portray an authentic image of Italy.
The Italian Festival is more of a gimmick than a true showcase of Italian values. Prices are marked up, tables are designed to attract the eye, and the word “Italian” is loosely used to describe foods. The one upside is the arancini, it was so cheesy, crunchy, and coated my mouth with its fried goodness!
Bella and Jamilah ft. gli arancini
Despite my critique, the festival was a great way to get off campus, get some fresh air and get lost in “Little Italy” for a few hours. It’s nice to see a glimpse of Italian culture in real life instead of just reading about it in the classroom. I even found a Sharetea! Normally I don’t like boba, but it’s hard to resist when boba reminds me of home. I never thought home sickness would affect me, but college is proving me wrong.
Goodbye Denver! Ci vediamo dopo!
Hello! My name is Nghi and I will be blogging about Slow Food in a Fast Food Nation. A strange combination of Elementary Italian and Environmental Science. I had no idea what to expect on the first day of class. Would we be doing a block of Italian and a block of enviro? How did these two seemingly different topics connect?
On the first day of class, we jumped into learning Italian adjectives and spent the rest of class eating and talking about Twinkies. Twinkies represent the perfect capitalistic food: cheap, lots of calories, easy to eat, perfectly identical to every other Twinkie, and convenient. If I were to describe the qualities a Twinkie possess in Italian, they would be morbido, economico, dolce, e piccolo.
During the first week of class, we had already started learning introductions in Italian, numbers, pronouns and adjectives. In the environmental science portion, we explored what foods are considered “good to eat” and “what is ‘disgust?’” by eating dehydrated crickets. They came in a variety of flavors including sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, or we could choose from the mixed-bugs variety pack. The bugs weren’t half bad, they tasted like Lay’s potato chips. Kind of delicious, actually.
In an everchanging society, the U.S. has changed how the world eats with its political and economic influence. We are slowly turning the world into a fast-food globe with McDonald’s, with our emphasis on efficiency, convenience and cheap calories. Italy, known for its extraordinary cuisine, is fighting against the quickly changing food economy with the Slow Food movement. The Slow Food movement promotes local produce, traditional cooking, and an overall RE-connection to what food means to us. We are simultaneously analyzing Italian cooking, American economy, and where food really comes from.
Frankly, I have no idea where my food is coming from. My idea of “food sources” mostly consists of gory videos of filmmakers exposing the inhumane meat industry. I know that the animals in these videos live a short time, are force fed, and go through mass massacres. Then, they’re packaged in plastic and shipped to the store. Furthermore, I have no idea where my vegetables come from aside from that tropical fruits are imported from Mexico. The sad part of it all, is the fact that I don’t know much about my food sources beyond that. It’s almost magical how groceries show up on the shelf and are refilled every hour; it is almost as if some food elves are hiding in the back waiting to stock the shelves.
On Wednesday of week 1, we visited New Roots Farm; an organic farm ran by CC Alum Sarah Hamilton and Susan Gordon. We learned about their pressing water source and how politicians will favor lawns over farms to please their constituents. We also got to meet Bella, the beautiful golden retriever, she welcomed us with her waggly tail and high energy. After being on campus for weeks with little to no dog contact, meeting Bella was the perfect campus getaway for many of us. Subsequently, we spent the afternoon at Duca’s Neopolitan Pizza enjoying their delicious imported tomatoes from Italy.
Some flowers from New Roots Farm.
This lighting does this pesto pizza no justice, it’s absolutely delicious #notsponsored
Our first week of class has made me realize how much I don’t know about my foods, it was always there, I never had to question where anything came from. However, meeting farmers like Sarah, Susan, and Bella at New Roots who really cares about the produce and their consumers also makes me want to care more about my produce and farmers.
The day following our return from the field trip I wrote about in the third installation of this most excellent blog, we were paid a visit by Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Kate Greenberg. She directs 300 employees at Colorado’s Agriculture Department, so it was a real privilege for her to speak to a class of four of us. Thankfully, Prof Harris invited a number of people from the Colorado Springs community to attend as well, so Greenberg’s visit was a little bit more impactful. It seemed as though the audience valued the opportunity to ask Greenberg a few questions and hear about what she does a lot. It was a rare experience at CC where academia, politics, and community came together in one room. That sort of integration and conversation makes a big difference and I applaud Prof Harris for setting up the meeting. I think CC should make that sort of community engagement more common in its course design and syllabi.
About Kate Greenberg, she was nominated to the position of commissioner this past winter by Governor Polis and she is the first woman to hold the position in the state’s history. Greenberg is a Minnesota native and was a conservationist and farmer in the West before becoming the Western director for the National Young Farmers Coalition. There she worked on moving legislation through Congress that removes barriers for young people to get into farming and secures a decent future for agriculture in this country. Greenberg is in her early thirties, confident, and outspoken. That is good because after hearing a little about all of us in the room, she gave us the inside scoop of what the Colorado Department of Agriculture is up to at the moment. The Department is tasked with doing a lot of kind of frivolous things such as taring all of the scales that exist for commercial or official use in the state. After all of these bureaucratic, administrative, and minor duties are taken care of, Greenberg estimated about 10% of total bandwidth remains for what she considers the really meaningful projects. This includes rural mental healthcare, cannabis agriculture and market development, farm succession, organic certification capacity, water access and conservation, sustainable agriculture, market diversification, and of course supporting the next generation of farmers. She explained that the most valuable tool she has is listening. That is the most important part of her job. You have to listen to the needs of actual people, she said. Positive change is impossible if politicians and academics force producers and distributors to fit into a particular plan of theirs that is decoupled from their operations and experience. I asked Commissioner Greenberg about probably the biggest problem facing farmers in Colorado and across the country, and she responded by lamenting the fact that her department has no control over the matter. It is a federal issue and something that local politics just cannot fix. It is amazing to me that agriculture and construction and the like, the basis of our economy, infrastructure, and food supply is so often left out of the conversation on immigration. Mechanization can solve for industrial agriculture and CAFOS operations to a degree, but it takes a lot of hard work to grow real food and it turns out that seven out of ten farmworkers in the USA were born in Mexico. Farmers have raised wages for years across the country, despite being squeezed from all sides, but still rely almost entirely on immigrant labor and the H2A work visa program. The latter is a strictly seasonal program, though, so it does not help producers who have year-round operations very much. Plus, small and midsized farmers do not have the time nor the administrative staff to handle the stack of paperwork. So rural America really needs immigration. The disconnect amazes me. Anyways, it was great to have a conversation with Commissioner Greenberg and I hope it was worthwhile for her.
On Friday we discussed environmental regulation and farming and how policy shapes agricultural operations and supply chains.
I mentioned in a previous blogpost that we were each asked to write a farmers market response for the class. I drove up to Boulder and swung by the Boulder County Farmers Market’s (BCFM) Boulder Farmers Market on Saturday morning. I am just going to insert an excerpt from my response here. Please skim over it if you don’t have much care for the yuppiness of Boulder or if farmers markets are old news. But here it is regardless,
“BCFM is truly an institution. I have been lots of times in the past, but it doesn’t really get old. It helps that it is in a beautiful park that is landscaped perfectly. Boulder is also very walkable and lots of people walk over, hang out in the park, and have a good time. There are dozens of vendors, some crafts, and then artisanal food products and the freshest of produce. The first thing I found was a long line for the favorite cherry grower. Then there were two biodynamic farms with displays and a couple of other vegetable farms. It is one of those experiences where you pick some amazingly colored greens out of the basket they have on display, take a nibble, and realize that you have been missing out on true complexity of flavor (and nutrition). There’s herby salad greens in the tub at the grocery store and then there are salad greens. The varieties of alliums, summer squashes, brassicas, beans, peas, root veggies, tree fruit, and the bounty of herbs are just phenomenal. There are also ranchers who sell heritage breed beef and pork and lamb and buffalo with all of the cuts. Multiple people sell some cool looking eggs. There’s an artisanal baker, a coffee roaster, a pastry stand, kombucha, kvass, spring water, wine, knife sharpening, all the things. There is a mushroom crew that sells a good dozen different types of mushrooms. I spoke to the guy who made the Boulder Tortillas that use indigenous blue corn to make the tastiest of chips and tortillas. He had something new for me: he cooked up some blue corn gorditas in goat’s butter and had me spread on some of his garlic dip. Totally delicious. I spoke to one of the heritage breed cattle farmers which was fun. The farmers I bought apricots and cherries from wake up at 2am every Saturday to drive from the Western Slope and set up at the market. Sort of nuts. They looked tired, but their fruit was delicious. There are flower vendors and hot sauce companies and more. I spoke to the guy who started Fortuna Chocolate—really freaking good chocolate—and he’s a true artist. I have had lots of fine chocolate in the past and even grown and processed some in Peru, and Fortuna occupies a high place in the chocolate stratosphere. He is from Mexico d.f. and has perfected the technique of bringing out the chocolate essence using correct ratios, spicing, and quality cacao. There are also a bunch of food stands for breakfast and lunch. The whole market is zero-waste (kind of). Everything at the market has to be compostable (mostly) or recyclable (a few things). The market is teaming with activity. There are a bunch of families and kids, lots of couples, friend groups, loners like me, students, old people, working professionals, outdoorsy people, yogis, hippies, artsy types, business types, and tourists. People are relaxed, smiling, and so forth. It is a diverse bunch, or it feels that way compared with Colorado Springs. They do an excellent job at cultivating community, in part because it is just such a fun and amazing event to visit, the displays are nice, and there are samples. Most things are also not that expensive. Anyways, it shows that if people have money, leisure time, if there are nice progressive restaurants that care about the quality of their produce, and there is a really good organization, a local and sustainable food system can be cultivated. I mean, Boulder County preserved a lot of its farm land and kept it from developing and there is a very strong market for good, local, fresh and artisanal food. Boulder likes to support its producers and people in Boulder appreciate effort, creativity, and hard work. That seems not to be the case in Colorado Springs. But so all of these pieces have to align to support a local and sustainable food system. And personally, I think that starts with wealth and prosperity, education, and diversity”.
On Monday, the class took a trip to Adams Mountain Cafe on the eastern edge of Manitou Springs to use up our field trip funds and speak with Dave. He is the chef and has owned and managed the institution for the past twenty years. He is a great guy and has a good story. Adams Mountain is really the only full-service restaurant in the Springs area that has made a big effort of serving a healthy menu using sustainable and locally-sourced ingredients. The food is quite tasty, reasonably priced, and they have a large fanbase. They’ve got a nice place too, all rustic wood chairs, long tables, cool art, and swanky bar. It is not easy to source locally in the Springs, due to the lack of many producers and a robust distribution network. He has to place orders for his restaurant alone, often times. He says it is worth it, though, because the produce is that much fresher and more flavorful. We talked about the trials and tribulations of running a restaurant and owning a property in that particular location and dealing with the neighbors. He also told us about the unique customer base Adams has and the type of people who love his food, the man who has ordered the huevos rancheros every visit for twenty years, and the type of people who come in, sit down, take a look at the menu, get up and leave. We did have class before lunch, by the way.
The class showed up early on Tuesday morning to tune into a House subcommittee hearing on Agriculture on C-SPAN. Present as witnesses were representatives from each of the sectors of animal Big Ag: cattle, turkey, lamb, egg, and pork producers organizations. I liked how each of them had a metal figure of their respective animal pinned on their lapels. The common sentiment among all of them was twofold: they requested that the government implements more safety measures to prevent outbreaks in their CAFOS factories, and that they really need the government to figure out labor. All of them had had some devastating disease outbreak in the last few years and all of them were experiencing a scarcity of labor. The China trade war also came up, especially from the pork guy. I wouldn’t call it an enlightening hearing per se, but it was interesting that all of these conventional meat organizations only exist because of government subsidies–for them and for the feed they buy–and bailouts, and yet they still are requesting more assistance from the government to cover the cost of outbreaks or enforce strict regulation to prevent them from happening. The egg producer even blamed backyard chicken keepers near his factory in California for both accidentally and intentionally inoculating his chickens with disease. After that diatribe and complaining session, the class learned about pollution, toxicity, outbreaks, and the food system.
On Wednesday, each of we students gave a presentation about our individual research papers. Prof Harris invited a couple of people from COS to attend, just to raise the stakes a bit. Unfortunately, Andrew had a family emergency and could not be present. But Hope presented about the role of carbon farming in a potential carbon market. The carbon sequestration potential in soils is quite substantial and farmers should receive offsets in a cap-and-trade system and farmers should receive tax credits in a carbon tax scenario. So any holistic carbon market economy should factor in farming, its emissions, and its potential for carbon sequestration. Ian shared about how Monsanto (Bayer) is ‘the enemy of all things good and righteous’. They sell a product that kills soils, poisons people, and does not actually increase yields. The company has monopolized the seed industry by bullishly patenting seeds and actively persecuting seed saving. Their company policies make farmers beholden to their engineered seed and makes sure that farmers do not stray from their mechanical apparatus. They have produced a lot of fake science over the years and they have lobbied very hard. The history of Monsanto is kind of fascinating and absolutely infuriating. But yes, Ian came to a convincing conclusion about Monsanto’s (Bayer’s) value for society. I was last to present. I originally set out to compile an ideal policy package that incentivizes farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture and begin carbon farming. But I soon came to the realization that those specific policy ideas, and efforts by private investors and NGOs, will not add up to any major change in our food system and will not sufficiently make a dent in climate change mitigation. So instead, I took up the challenge of writing a Green New Deal that centrally focuses on agriculture and rural America and takes a systems-thinking approach to fixing the food system. After a lot of writing this week, I will again just paste an excerpt from the conclusion of my paper, which didn’t exactly spiral out of control, but did end up stretching to twice the suggested page limit:
“In review, I assert that meaningful climate action will only take place if the United States leads the way. The best way for the country to decarbonize its economy is to improve the food system by investing in carbon farming. Carbon farming must be the basis of our economy and supporting it will revitalize rural America. To accomplish this, the healthcare and education costs of all Americans has to be covered and the median American has to earn more money. More money and more education will result in an increased budget for food. With this and the help of market mechanisms, infrastructure development, and targeted incentives by the government, the diets of Americans will improve dramatically as will their health, and the countryside will act as a carbon sink. This necessarily means the end of big agribusiness and big food as we know it. The government has to restrict suburban development, improve our urban infrastructure and transportation networks, and invest heavily in rural America. Farmland should not compete with suburban sprawl and solar farms. Any amount of farmland that is taken out of production due to more intensified agriculture should be set aside as conservation easements which sequester carbon and increase biodiversity. The government has to provide a streamlined, expedited pathway to citizenship for immigrants because the future of our economy hinges on a productive labor force. A national composting program should be set into motion. Aquaculture should be expanded. Cows must be fed seaweed to decrease their methane emissions. Annual crop production acreage should be decreased, transformed using ecological agriculture, and replaced by perennial and agroforestry systems. Pasture should be managed using intensive ruminant grazing. This paper has been a response to the Green New Deal and a response to the ineffectuality of small changes to promote better farming practices and carbon reduction efforts”.
Yep, so in addition to our research papers, we were also assigned a final exam essay which required a lot of fleshing out in order to answer properly. The prompt was essentially to argue wether scientific ‘wizardry’ or the teachings of a traditional ‘prophet’, as relating to our course’s textbook The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann, is the answer to feeding 10 billion people. Borlaug is the wizard in his book who begins the Green Revolution and Vogt is the prophet who predicts a carrying capacity of the Earth and advocates for conservation and population control. I do not know exactly how my comrades in education responded to this essay, but I conclude that we need a more nuanced approach to the future of agriculture than just laboratory technology and synthetic inputs versus traditional farming. Instead, our entire political-economy has to be examined and we need to improve our agricultural systems by using science and technology in an ecological way to improve efficiency and intensify regeneration.
That’s it. Unfortunately the EV department is letting go of Prof Harris and this was likely his last class, so I cannot advocate that you should take the class because it will no longer exist. But I am very glad that I had the opportunity to take it.
Congratulations! You are one of the very, very few people to read this blog. Hope you liked it. I was asked to write this blog at the last minute and I guess it contributed to my learning? It certainly took a significant investment of time. The Communications Department, Summer Session, and the College has yet to share it or anything, so really nobody read it, but hey, you did!
After visiting the Colorado Springs Food Rescue and speaking to Zac Chapman and Shane Lory on Tuesday of last week, we moved on from studying food security, justice, access, and sovereignty to studying the influence of politics on the agricultural sector and the experience of farming in America (or at least in Colorado). This transition was fitting because we students were working on writing a comment letter, addressed to the USDA and Sonny Perdue, regarding a proposed Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) rule that would expedite the deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) organisms and decrease oversight over developers of those engineered species. This 100+ page proposed rule highlights just how consequential specific alterations of processes of government oversight and involvement can be. Sonny Perdue and the Trump administration are dead-set on deregulated big agriculture and shrinking government oversight of agricultural markets. Perdue, a climate denier, has made no attempt to incentivize the adoption of sustainable agriculture techniques by farmers, nor to develop a market for those goods. Instead, the USDA is moving headquarters from DC to Kansas City, a move that is creating upheaval in the department and is resulting in the resignation of many career scientists and policy makers. Beyond that, it looks like Trump’s farm bailouts–which were needed to prop up US agriculture in the ongoing trade war with China–were distributed to a select few farmers in specific locations. I am not sure if this blunder has been exposed as blatant corruption, but multiple checks were sent under different names to the same addresses. In any case, if one takes the time to parse out the consequences of this proposed APHIS bill, it is clear that it would allow developers to flood the market with GE organisms that are not at all safe; it would benefit a few mega corporations at the expense of the environment, the economy, and consumers at large (the public); it would be a major national security threat; it would worsen all of the problems effecting rural America and America’s farmland; and it would fail to protect non-consenting farmers and the public from contamination of their land and their food supply by GE organisms and the chemicals associated with them. The language in the bill suggests that APHIS is transitioning to becoming a market facilitating agency rather than a regulatory agency. The bill would axe APHIS’s regulatory capacity and replace it with a model neoliberal institution made to help big ag right along. This interpretation is all my own, but it does correspond to the reality of the farmers the class met with this past week.
Steve Ela operates a tree fruit farm on the Western Slope, Ela Family Farms, that has been in his family for four generations. We spoke to him about his farming strategies, his growing season, his issues with water and frost and labor, and his products and markets. Steve’s operation is very impressive and his answers to all of these questions were eye-opening. It takes a whole lot of smarts, planning, luck, and a good team to make a living off of growing organic fruit. If subsidies and incentives were rearranged, these obstacles would be decreased in intensity some, but as it stands, farming with an objective of growing the tastiest, freshest, and healthiest product in a way that benefits the land and local community is significantly harder than growing commodity crops using chemical inputs in dirt, and relying on crop insurance. For some of these reasons, Steve serves on the National Organic Standards Board, on top of managing his farm’s operations. The class spoke to him about how the Organic Standards Board operates and what it can and cannot do. The organization is a tiny part of the USDA, but it has oversight over organic certification standards. There is a bit of a crisis going on in the organics world right now because a recent vote ruled in favor for the classification of hydroponic agriculture as a certified organic method. This removes soil from the definition of organic, which is a major problem if soil health and conservation is to remain a goal of ‘good’ farming practices. Therefore, some farmers and distributors are abandoning the organic label in favor of labels like Certified Naturally Grown and Regenerative Organic. Steve opposed the organic soilless medium vote, but his work continues at the Board. The organics market is growing, despite all of the barriers to entry for farmers. Steve wants to make sure that going organic can become a more attractive option for farmers and he wants to make sure that the integrity of the certification is maintained.
After Steve Skyped out, Randy Kruse from Bon Appétit at Colorado College came in to talk to us about what Bon Appétit is doing to support local agriculture and to answer any other questions we had. Many Colorado College students are outraged by Bon Appétit for just about any reason they can come up with. These are mostly unfounded, as it turns out. And in fact, the reason Bon Appétit serves so much pizza, bacon, and chicken, is because that is what CC students truly want to eat, despite their grumbling about Bon Appétit’s unsustainable culpability. It also turns out that CC students steal an absurd amount of the plates, cups, and cutlery at Rastall, so Bon Appétit cannot afford to replace their single-use serving containers with reusable ones. CC also has recycling bin contamination rates above the national average, which is crazy considering that every bin has an illustrated sign with directions of what exactly to place where. We also all grew up very much educated (I am pretty sure I can say) about how to dispose of what properly. Also, CC students really want the packaged goods sold at the C store, Mandy B’s, CC Coffee, and the Preserve. That requires a lot of extra work for CC’s Bon Appétit administration because the company is really focused on preparing things from scratch, not sourcing processed goods. CC is quite unique in this demand, compared to the other schools and institutions Bon Appétit services. To be fair, the closest grocery store is a 30min walk from campus and CC does not exactly encourage students to leave campus, cook for themselves, or generally be self-sufficient. So it makes sense that CC students want their chips and kombucha sold on campus. But that is why those things are so overpriced. CC students’ food tastes, demand and frankly their irresponsible behavior is what is driving most of Bon Appétit’s sustainability troubles. And, with the Block Plan, hiring people to work the cafes and food service is super tough. They only work around seven months a year, and although Bon Appétit pays a $15-$16/hour, they are hard-pressed to find employees. Also, the hours are strange and the work is hard because most of campus eats at the same exact time, across multiple locations and the school has certain expectations of the food service in order to attract new students and to foster their idea of a ‘campus community’. The other issue is that Colorado Springs sits outside of the distribution networks for most Colorado-grown produce and meat. Getting contracts with local producers requires a whole lot of logistics and independent trucks and so forth. In conclusion, it appears Bon Appétit is doing just about the best they can and students should really stop it with the grumbling.
On Friday the fifth, the class to a trip to Cañon City to visit Susan Gordon and Sarah Hamilton at New Roots Farm. Susan and her husband directed Venetucci Farms just south of Colorado Springs for a number of years. It was shut down about two years ago because the water supply was found to be exceedingly contaminated with PFAS toxic chemicals used by the Air Force. This farm had had a strong CSA membership and families visited often, especially for the pumpkin harvest. Once it was shutdown, the family moved back to Cañon City where just a year and a half ago, Susan’s daughter Sarah started the market garden and farm, New Roots, on their property. With the help of her community and family, Sarah built up New Roots without any outside labor or contracting, a truly impressive feat. She now grows a wide variety of produce for the farmers market and her CSA. She has cultivated a habitat for pollinators and birds with a whole bunch of pretty flowers and intercropping. She has lettuces, peas, squash, garlic, tomatoes, brassicas, herbs, peppers, and more. She also has a pasture of goats who are quite funny, a mobile chicken coop, and some cats. Sarah is committed to cultivating healthy soil, efficiently irrigating her crops in what is a very arid environment, and cultivating a diverse ecosystem (beyond growing super healthy food for Southern Colorado residents). After talking with Susan and Sarah, touring the farm, and weeding a few rows of popcorn, the class was treated to a farm-fresh lunch prepared by Prof Harris’ wife who accompanied us down to Cañon City. A very pleasant visit.
On Monday of this week, the class hopped in a big, white CC van and headed to the San Luis Valley. After dropping our stuff at Baca Campus in Crestone, we drove down to Alamosa and met with Cleave Simpson, General Manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The San Luis Valley has a historic agricultural economy, but the Rio Grande’s water rights have been over-appropriated for at least 100 years. Colorado has a compact with New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, so they have to leave some water for the municipalities, farmers, and ecosystems further south. The Valley’s aquifer is dangerously close to being empty. What is more, the Valley has been experiencing a prolonged drought, otherwise known as aridification and desertification, for twenty years. This year has been exceptionally wet, which is good, but it is not in keeping with the historical pattern of rising temperatures, decreasing snow pack and precipitation. For all of these reasons, farmers are really struggling and so Cleave is working on reforming water management across the Valley in order to replenish the aquifer at least to a stable level, and to maintain the agricultural community that will otherwise be forced to quit or move. Farmers need to be more efficient with their irrigation, they need to build up the water retention capacity of the soil, and they need to switch to crops that are less water-dependent. But getting those farmers to change is no easy task.
After meeting with Cleave, we drove over to downtown Alamosa to see Liza Marron, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition. The Coalition engages in multiple projects to support local food production and the local community. They distribute food grown at local farms with healthy and sustainable practices to consumers and retailers across a 250 mile range. They support local, responsible producers and they make eating healthy and local food a possibility for the low-income members of the San Luis Valley community. They also empower these folks, largely immigrants and refugees, with their projects and programs utilizing their commercial kitchen and education gardens and such. The Coalition has a successful farm-to-school program, they are involved in policy and advocacy work, and they are building up a 30-some acre farm park on a sight that was once a school. It is just off the Rio Grande and it is called the Rio Grande Farm park. They have, I believe, eight plots that are already being cultivated by experienced Latin American farmers who otherwise would not be able to afford land. They also have volunteers and interns. The project is just breaking ground, and so beyond the very productive farm and a very biodiverse orchard and a mobile chicken coop, they are developing an educational garden, a compost park, community center, and so forth. As we toured the Farm Park with Liza, we ran in to the author, academic, and policy advisor Mark Winne who was also touring the farm park and seeing what the SL Valley Local Foods Coalition was up-to. He is the senior advisor to the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and founded the Community Food Security Coalition. He is quite well known in the food policy space. We had an interesting conversation with him out in the garden, he gave us all his business card, and then we went over to a brewery in town whose malt is made with local barley, where he bought us a round of drinks. There, we had a good time talking to some of the other individuals who are involved in the Alamosa/San Luis Valley local food movement and talked about how the Valley can change and evolve to attract business, entrepreneurs, and grow the local food movement.
The last stop on our trip in the San Luis Valley was on Tuesday afternoon. We drove over from Crestone (where we were staying) west to Mosca to visit the agronomist Patrick O’Neill at Nissen Farms. He has been advising the farmers there since 2005 in response to the farmers’ desire to reduce inputs including water, to improve soil health, and to produce a better crop on smaller acreage. He has done just that, despite the ongoing aridification of the Valley. Nissen Farms has a rotation of the cash crops potatoes and barley (standard in the Valley), and they now cover their non-cash crop acres with grasses that improve soil health and make the soil ‘spongier’, decrease the potato nematode pest prevalence, and feed the herd of cows that the farmers pasture. O’Neill is a soil health consultant working in the Valley. He also volunteers for soil conservation projects. He has strong and very accurate opinions about how farming should be done around there, what sorts of policies could help improve America’s farm land and rural communities, and how chemical companies and retailers should remodel to decrease waste and improve the food system. But really, O’Neill is a scientist and he quizzed us on our knowledge about how soil works (we maybe got a C- on that quiz). The story of farming in America is not a very uplifting one, especially considering the increasingly dismal health outcomes, the rising suicide rate, and the opium addiction crises there. O’Neill feels like rural America has no say in public life and does not have many advocates in Washington. He believes that unless the cosmopolitan elite addresses the reality of rural populations, the food system will never improve and our healthcare crises and the country’s political polarization will spiral out of control. For Patrick, it all hinges on the soil which really is the basis of our civilization, culture, economy, and nation.
On Friday, June 28th, to round out the first week of the class, we met first to discuss agricultural biotechnology and then walked over to the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College to visit an exhibit about the acequias of New Mexico. Genetically modified organisms are the subject of much heated debate for good reason. The law and policy that regulates the use of GMOs, and the law and policy that promotes GMO use, has profound implications for the economic viability of small and midsized farmers; the monopolistic control of the world’s food supply; the prevalence of poisonous pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in food and water; the health of the world’s soils; seed biodiversity; food sovereignty; food supply resilience and security; the validity of scientific research; the corruption of government institutions; and health outcomes, including life expectancy and fertility. I will not flesh out these implications in detail, nor did we do so in class, but studying agricultural biotechnology is a worthwhile endeavor. One of us students will perhaps write our research paper on a certain element of the subject. Hopefully the technology will be used for more constructive and honest purposes than it has been in the past, and hopefully the industry and government will be more transparent about who is funding what and who is truly benefitting from the rollout of GMO, patented seeds, especially those made to be resistant to a chemical. Please do investigate thoroughly before coming to a conclusion about the efficacy of GMO seed, but dig deep and watch out for who funded the study you are reading. Also, just because Bill Gates supports further GMO adoption does not mean you have to invest in the same biotech he does, especially if you care about all of the things listed above.
After this not-so-heated discussion about biotech (there was not much dissension), we were given a tour of the artist Christine Howard Sandoval’s exhibit entitled Channel by a staff-member at the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College museum. Acequias are agricultural waterways, originally Indigenous, maintained by the Spanish in New Mexico. These acequias are very much in use today. Their continuous use and maintenance is the way many Indigenous and Hispanic people retain their water rights in New Mexico. The exhibit highlights the importance of this infrastructure for shaping the social life and sense of solidarity within communities. Communities that are often fiscally impoverished, but rich in tradition and culture. Sandoval is Obispeño Chumash and Hispanic and her multi-media work considers “the boundaries of representation, access, and habitation via an experiential and community-oriented practice” and the “place, time, and ideas about the democratization of scarce resources” (https://fac.coloradocollege.edu/exhibits/christine-howard-sandoval/). She finds that the ecological ethos of the acequia, a system that irrigates the desert, is important today in regards to the realities of the anthropocene we are all a part of. The exhibit was relevant to our class because it is important to tell all sides of the water story in this arid landscape where water is our most precious resource. Great civilizations have collapsed because they mismanaged their water (and soils), and there is absolutely no reason that the same fate could not befall the swaths of the West that depends on a consistent water supply from the Colorado, Arkansas, and Platte rivers, and critically depleted aquifers. The exhibit runs until October 20th.
The Colorado Farm and Art Market is open on Wednesdays downtown and on Saturdays up north. Prof Harris helped found the Market which highlights local artists, producers of organic fruits and veggies and meats, and a few prepared food vendors. It is a rather modest market, but it has strong community support. We are required to write a reflection on a farmer’s market and CFAM is a good one to write about. I, however, will be up at the Boulder County Farmer’s Market (their Boulder Saturday market) next weekend. I have visited BCFM a number of times and have spoken with quite a few producers. They really put on a show up there, and Boulder’s exceedingly progressive, educated, yuppy, and affluent community takes the farmers market culture up a notch. Stay tuned for a blog with those details.
On Monday, the class walked over to the urban garden at Mid Shooks Run to meet with Barbra Gibb, executive director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (PPUG) and Andy Millman who started a large-scale community supported agriculture farm outside of Moscow to assist West African refugees and help decrease the fervent xenophobia that exists in Russia. After practicing and teaching psychology for a number of years, Ms Gibb managed community partnerships for Whole Foods Market, and since the Amazon merger, has taken over direction of PPUG. The organization helps community members create a deeper connection to their food sources, increase their self reliance, and build communal green spaces to break up the urban landscape. PPUG has built over a dozen community gardens since it kicked off in 2008 and it actively manages six gardens across the Colorado Springs area. It also has assisted schools, churches, and other organization in their garden projects to support local agriculture and gardening education. Ms Gibb spoke to us about the trials and tribulations of running such an organization, its impact, and its potential. Residents of the neighborhood purchase a plot in the garden and tend to it as they see fit, as long as they are decently dedicated and use organic methods. Gardeners bounce ideas off of each other and learn as they go. Some are highly experienced and even professional horticulturalists, and others are gardening nubies. Amusingly, some gardeners get into fairly intense disagreements, as Ms Gibb described, but quarreling and kvetching is a component of every community. PPUG produces a lot of vegetables. Any surplus produce is redistributed through Colorado Springs Food Rescue’s Fresh Food Connect Program.
Next, Andy Millman took to the stand in front of the compost crate to tell us about his remarkable time in Russia. Millman had the brilliant idea to plant a CSA farm from scratch on an unused plot of land, some Soviet relic, in the countryside an hour and a half outside of Moscow. He harnessed the power, influence, and support of the sizable expat and diplomatic community in Moscow to get this thing up and running. He accomplished his program’s goals of reforming nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-migration rhetoric and out-lash; supporting the procurement of documentation for refuges and and the prevention of race-based violence; creating community organization and empowerment; and developing sustainable agricultural all in one fell swoop in his two years in Russia. The farm employs West African refugees and human-trafficking victims still today. The volunteers and CSA members of the farm represent some sixty nationalities. Millman fostered communication and community around the production of fresh food across language and cultural barriers. His story is really incredible and somebody should make a documentary about it.
On Tuesday the class discussed food justice and food access before going to visit Zac and Shane at Colorado Springs Food Rescue (CSFR). This organization is truly remarkable and inspiring. They started just five years ago, redistributing fresh food from grocery stores to the considerable portion of our city that has no access to grocery stores in their neighborhood and little access to a car. They have to rely on a bad public transportation system if they do not have a car to buy groceries for their family. With not much money, long work hours, high rents, low incomes, and lots of stress, the South East side of the city has poor health outcomes, not great diets, and few opportunities. CSFR is working on changing that. They have redistributed over $5 million worth of fresh food and serviced 13,000 residents. They have food redistribution centers in schools, rv parks, and community centers. CSFR goes beyond redistributing food by addressing the systemic issues that cause such dramatic inequality and by empowering those communities to take their food and future into their own hands. Instead of a paternalistic charity model, CSFR works with the community which is largely LatinX and African American. They employ high school students to really think about and question the food system as it exists today and then to design a self-directed project and to manage a weekly grocery program in their community. These kids are addressing the challenges of attaining food security and food sovereignty. They are also becoming leaders. Recent graduates have accepted full-ride scholarships to impressive universities. Zac was particularly excited about one graduate of their Food Systems Leadership for Youth program who is going to Georgetown University and is determined to become an immigration lawyer. CSFR also has a program called the Farmacy which helps physicians integrate healthy produce into their treatment plans for patients. Doctors can give actionable advice about diet and lifestyle and direct their patients to one of CSFR’s no-cost grocery locations where over 600 families come by for veggies every week. A recent endeavor for CSFR is called Soil Cycle, a composting program championed by Composter-in-Chief Nat Stein. Nat and her team bike around town with this big trailer and picks up compost from people who sign up for it. You can also drop off your compost if you live outside of their pick up zone. Soil Cycle is CSFR’s first enterprise and they make a small profit off of it. Beyond that, healthy compost is being applied to local gardens to return nutrients to the soil and make local food growing more successful and more nutritious. CSFR’s biggest and newest project is called the Hillside Food Hub. They will build a community center for education, events, and cooking. There will be a four-season greenhouse, an outdoor farm plot, educational gardens, a space for the indigenous members of the community, and a compost park. It is very exciting stuff and they plan to break ground next March and cut the tape in October 2020. CSFR is transforming Colorado Spring’s food system and addressing some of the systemic problems perpetuated by and encompassing the food system. Their impact is only growing and they are proof that an organization designed intentionally and correctly has the potential to enact real, positive change. Go check them out.
Food and agriculture play a role in nearly every social and political issue facing the United States and the world at large. And, although farmers now represent just 1% of the US population, the nation’s health, environment, security, and economy hinge on how those farmers tend their land and what they produce. This course (EV 260) covers the breadth of these important issues, specifically how law and policy has got us to where we are and how they might be used to fix a broken system.
For Monday morning, we were asked to read a short piece by the rural activist and farmer, Wendell Berry. This set the tone for introductions. There are four of us in Professor Steve Harris’ class, all juniors and seniors. We have one sociology, one political science, one biology, and an anthropology major. Prof Harris is an environmental attorney and long term resident of Colorado Springs, with many connections in the world of alternative food and environmental conservation. So, while we do have a course schedule, a fair amount of reading and a test, we are encouraged to direct our study to the elements of this very broad and complex topic that we are most taken by. Our research papers will be about the law and policy that shape whatever it is we pick to study (outlines due next Monday).
On Tuesday, after watching an hour of a house agriculture subcommittee hearing on Managing for Soil Health: Securing the Conservation and Economic Benefits of Healthy Soils, Prof Harris gave an informal lecture about the role of Congress and the regulatory framework of agricultural policy and the 2018 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is an iterative bill that has been revised every five (or so) years since 1933. The Bill is a bureaucratic nightmare that has many, many provisions, and legislates the distribution of a trillion dollars. As long and complicated as it is, if we want to revitalize rural America, give small and medium sized farmers a chance, make agricultural markets fair and competitive, address environmental degradation, and improve the nutrition and health of Americans, the Farm Bill must be overhauled. Agricultural practices, land use, markets, and food culture can be the solution and not the problem. Michael Pollan’s stirring essay from a decade ago, “An Open Letter to the Next Farmer and Chief” (included on our reading list), elucidates how important food and farming policies are and how simple fixes could transform the world for the better.
On Wednesday we covered the relationship between water and agriculture in the arid West, specifically Colorado. Scott Campbell, a conservation planner and consultant, Principal of Innovative Conservation Solutions joined us and gave a presentation about his project distributing water rights and facilitating sustainable and economically beneficial land use transitions in the fertile agricultural counties along the Arkansas River, just east of the City of Pueblo. He is working with a myriad of different interests, is involved in many legal issues, and is aligning all sorts of moving parts to achieve a positive outcome for the community and land as changes take place over the next decade. A CC graduate himself, his presentation was eye-opening and inspiring.
For our fourth day of class, we took a trip across town to visit the ever charismatic Mike Callicrate of Ranch Foods Direct. He has dedicated his career to transforming the food system, especially the meat industry, after predatory tactics and unfair federal policies radicalized him on his ranch in West Kansas. He calls himself a “rural advocate, people advocate, animal advocate,” which all comes through. He should probably run for office himself at some point, but in the meantime his pointed opinions about all things unjust leaves his visitors and students thinking hard about what they can do. It is worth looking up Mike’s blog or looking up the podcasts, articles, and books he has been featured in. Oh, and if you live in the Springs, do go to the Ranch Foods Direct retail shop for some excellent meat and produce, service, and informative flyers.
Our ‘textbook’ for the class is Charles C Mann’s, The Wizard and the Prophet about the legacy of Norman Borlaug’s and William Vogt’s diverging scientific conclusions about the way mankind should feed itself and relate to the earth. It traces the philosophies of stewardship, symbiosis, and anti-growth vs. exploitation, techno-optimism, and profit that still inform the debate about sustainability and the future of the species. I think I can speak for the entire class (all four of us), that we are looking forward to the multiple field trips, guest visits, and Skype calls yet to come. The photos attached are of Mike Callicrate in the Ranch Foods Direct processing facility.
We had another great day! Our first event of the day was a presentation by Frank Bi, a google trainer. He taught us how to maximize our efficiency with Google. I learned that if you google a word, and don’t want something to pop up, you can add “-the word,” and it won’t show up. He gave us the example of if you wanted to search for coffee, but did not want Starbucks, you could type “Coffee -Starbucks.” If you did this, the results would not include Starbucks. I thought this was really cool, and definitely helpful. We also learned about knowledge graphs, and that all countries have their own domain.
In the afternoon, we went to the Newseum. This is an incredible museum, and I wish we had more time at it. It has six floors, and is very interactive. I stayed on the first floor for over an hour! My favorite exhibit was on the Stonewall Riots and LGBTQ history.
I am grateful for Jim Burke, the Director of Summer Session, and our professor, Corey Hutchins, for making this trip possible. I learned a lot in this course, especially on the trip.
I asked Jim how a trip like this is possible, and he explained that he had funds left over in his field trip budget, and talked to Corey about what kind of practicum-type trip we could take. Jim said that he wanted to capitalize on Colorado College faculty and alumni living in D.C. He wanted our experience to be more than just a tour. “If you are not applying the theory, it’s just a tour,” said Burke.
“Leveraging our resources for the best reason… the student experience.” said Burke.
After our breakfast this morning at Catholic, we went to attend a class on how to best use Google. Once again, Sam had local connections with one of the women running the program at the Medill School of Journalism-a school of. Northwestern University. Our teacher for the morning was Frank Bi, who is a data analyst for SBNation.com. Topics covered included how to remove words from searches, searching only from selected sites, how to sort images, how to reverse search an image, Google Trends, and finally, Google Sheets.
After our two our crash course, we originally planned to go to a nearby District Taco for lunch, but with a line out the door, the decision was quickly made to go to the Mediterranean restaurant next door. With forty five minutes to kill, Jamie, Max, and Sam continued their scooter adventures, while Julia, Robert, David-Elijah, and Sanya explored a local shop and walked to the museum.
In my opinion, the Newsuem is the best museum and it is a shame that its future is up in the air. Lucky for us we got two hours to explore the building that has exhibits including, but not limited to: the Berlin Wall, the FBI, Jon Stewart, 9/11, the freedom of the press, the role of TV and radio, and a display with the front page of each state’s most prominent paper for the day.
Our time at the museum was much too short, but we had to go for one last Metro ride to get to the airport. Security was a breeze and we got to our gate with plenty of time to spare. Shortly we’ll be boarding to head back to Denver, bringing to an end our trip and experience in Intro to Journalism.
After our meeting with Thom Shanker from the New York Times, our resident tour guide Sam Seymour suggested we head over to the White House so the class could see some of the sights of downtown DC. The heat and humidity started to get to us as we were admiring the Washington Monument so we decided to head to lunch a little earlier then planned.
Sam took us to his favorite sandwich shop which was followed by a couple of quick trips to Starbucks and scooter rides by Jamie and Max. Some of us also went to a street festival going on outside featuring crafts from local artists.
Dinner was at the 801 Restaurant; it was absolutely delicious and was highlighted by conversation with CC alumni who are currently working in journalism. Sam and I talked most of dinner with Nick Wing who gave us advice on getting into the industry. Due to the engaging conversation, dinner lasted well past the planned 8 pm. After, some of us decided to go see the monuments at night before getting ready for our last day of class tomorrow. Over all, a splendid day!