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.