Monthly Archives: December 2010

Raising questions about raising beef

happy cows in a happy field

Ever since Frances Moore Lappe authored Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971, some folks have been down on beef. The premise of that early work was that the solution to feeding everyone was to eliminate one of the foods that people love most — beef. It’s a compelling argument for vegetarians. The amount of land it takes to produce a steak is orders of magnitude larger than what it takes to produce the equivalent number of calories of edible vegetables. In addition to the efficiency argument, there was the health issue. In 1971 it was clear — fat is evil, especially animal fat, therefor, beef is the devil’s food. It’s killing us and taking up too much space.

Raising cows in CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — provided beef production with the illusion of increased efficiency; more cows crammed into much smaller area. Problem solved until you look at how much space it takes to grow the corn to feed wall-to-wall cattle. Not to mention the other side effects of grain-fed beef — health and environmental. Forty years down the path we also now know that not all fat is bad. The fat from grass-fed animals might actually be good for us. So now the swing is back to raising animals on pasture. For this I am glad because I like meat. I’m not ready to be a vegetarian yet, and grass-fed makes me feel a lot better about it.

The result is that we’ve circled  back on a version of the original question — is animal production bad for the planet? If so, which is worse, grass-fed or grain-fed animal protein? According to Brian Palmer in the Washington Post this week, we really don’t know. He peruses some of the recent research on both sides and concludes there’s no clear answer.

From a strictly environmental perspective the answer is obvious — grass-fed wins! On a properly managed grass-based system, the land improves (soil quality, soil conservation, species diversity, water quality, etc.). The animals are healthier, and the system is easily sustained, because it takes a lot fewer external inputs to maintain. And animals such as cows can be raised on land that is of marginal quality, leaving the better land for growing higher yields of crops, including vegetables.

The trade-offs are that it takes longer to raise beef on a pure grass system. Ultimately, that results in a higher price for consumers. But within that higher costs, consumers are paying for environmental protection they are not getting from CAFO-raised beef.

Bottom line: eat grass-fed beef (and hogs and chickens and dairy). Go one better and buy these products directly from a local farmer. Doing so will help keep him/her in business and support the protection of the local environment.

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Filed under animal ag, environment, food, food-health connection, local food, natural

Global organic tries to go local

Bananas with a "local" feel.

This morning, while I sat in the kitchen checking my email, I glance over and notice that my wife had bought another bunch of Dole Organic bananas.  She’s been buying these lately. They’re much more expensive and they are smaller and not as yellow as conventional bananas, but the taste better. At least, me and my oldest daughter think so. This morning was the first time I actually looked at the label. At the top of the label is the USDA ORGANIC seal, and then in small print, “Visit the Farm at FARM 776 Columbia”. That caught my eye. Supposedly I can go on line and look at the farmer in Columbia who grew this banana sitting on my kitchen counter.

I went to, typed in “776” and hit GO. It took me to a page Dole created for the Don Pedro Farm…

In the heart of La Guajira desert with a great view of the snowed peaks of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, there is a farm called Don Pedro. This farm has over 310 hectares of organic bananas and was established in 2005. This farm is currently certified under EU and NOP organic rules, ISO 14000 and SA 8000.

In addition to this brief description, there are eight pictures, most of the farm, and a list of the farm’s certifications. You can even click on PDFs and look at a copy of the certifications. It also has a link to a Google EARTH Map showing the location of the farm. There are a total of 34 farms one can “visit” through the site.

Reconnecting food back to the farmer, sorta.

I have to commend Dole for helping their consumers “connect” with the farmers growing their produce. This is an ingenious attempt to frame their produce in a way that appeals to locavores. Know your farmer. That’s the locavore motto. And now, even if your farmer farms on another continent you can “know” him/her. Of course, “local,” like the term, “friend” is a relative term. For us living in the Midwest US there in no such thing as a truly local banana. South America is about as local as we can get from here. Better this side of the globe than all the way over in the Philippines. Right?

Anyway, glad to meet you, Don Pedro. Your bananas are delicious. God bless you and your farm.


Filed under agriculture, big ag, food, local food, organic

Book: a different field

the stories of real farmers in Illinois

Here’s a book I wrote several years ago. You can order it cheap from the University of Illinois.

A Different Field — Innovative Entrepreneurs in Illinois Farming

Grapes, earthworms, buffalo, pecans, honey, and catfish-not typically what comes to mind when thinking about farms in the state of Illinois. But these and other unusual “crops” are featured in a new book about innovative farmers. This book tells the stories of 18 farmers who are exploring alternatives to corn and soybeans: a first look at a growing trend in Illinois as consumers become “more conscious of their health and more particular about their food.”

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Filed under agriculture, environment, local food, organic, small farms

Illinois Organic Growers Association

WANTED: Farmers interested in advancing organic  farming and marketing methods and strengthening opportunities for Illinois Agriculture.

Interested? Join the first official meeting of the Illinois Organic Growers Association, to be held Thursday, Jan 6, 4.00 pm in the ‘organic business meeting’ slot at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference.  The conference takes place  Jan 5-7 in Springfield IL. Pre-registration deadline is 12/28/2010. This effort is supported by an Illinois Specialty Crops grant, University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

If  you can’t attend the meeting in person, but want to participate in the discussion please call in on Jan 6 at 4.00 pm.

Register (no fee) for the phone conference at:

Instructions on how to  call in are on your registration confirmation.

To learn more about efforts to develop the association and view the organic tracks visit

To learn more about the conference and register, go to, or call 309-557-2107; or email  Onsite registration is available.

Share with others who might be interested!

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A ui webinar on legal issues in local foods

URBANA – University of Illinois county Extension offices will host the upcoming webinar, “Managing Legal Risks in the Direct Farm Business,” on Tuesday, Jan. 25 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. with a follow-up webinar on Thursday, Mar. 3, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.   A. Bryan Endres, associate professor of agricultural law at the University of Illinois, and attorney Nicholas R. Johnson have developed the webinar to  clarify some of the unique legal issues pertaining to direct farm businesses and  to guide direct farm business owners through the maze of laws.

The webinars will be held at 20 locations throughout Illinois. Visit for a complete list of locations and to register.

“In today’s food marketplace, more health-conscious consumers are seeking out local sources of food, and they are increasingly turning to direct farm businesses such as farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and U-pick operations to fill their needs,” Endres said.

“The farmers who run these businesses stand to benefit greatly from the increased demand, but in order to manage a successful direct farm businesses, owners need to navigate a labyrinth of laws and regulations.  These laws are implemented and enforced by more than a dozen local, state, and federal government authorities that each have their own (sometimes overlapping) requirements.  Just figuring out who to contact about a particular law or regulation can sometimes be a daunting task.  This webinar will help guide farmers through it.”

The webinar will look at general business topics such as taxation, labor and employment, business planning and setup, rules and regulations that apply to specific direct farm business products (such as dairy, eggs, grains, honey, livestock and poultry, fruits and vegetables, and organic produce), and other legal issues that may arise in the context of establishing and operating a direct farm business.

The follow-up webinar on Mar. 3 will address questions on issues that came up in the first webinar and provide an opportunity for participants to ask additional questions.

For complete information about locations and to register, visit the website or contact Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant at or 217-968-5583.

The webinars are sponsored by the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research (CFAR), North Central Risk Management Center, and University of Illinois Extension.

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Filed under local food, policy, small farms

A kid with message

Eleven year old, Birke Baehr, does a great job outlining the problems of our food system…

If you watch it at the TED site, read the comments. Very interesting. It’s a great microcosm of the big debate going on over food right now. On one side — “We need all these chemicals to feed the world!” On the other side — “We are killing the Earth and the people with our food!”

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Filed under ag education, food, food-health connection, gmos, local food, organic, small farms

Change going nowhere

Seemingly out of nowhere, new food safety legislation is passed by the Senate, a bill that could have important implications for local and organic food producers. According to the NYT yesterday

Among the Senate bill’s last major sticking points was how it would affect small farmers and food producers. Some advocates for small farms and organic food producers said the legislation would destroy their industry under a mountain of paperwork. Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, pushed for a recent addition to the bill that exempts producers with less than $500,000 in annual sales who sell most of their food locally.

Now, less than 24 hours later, an error in the way the House Bill was written has caused a glitch that could jeopardize the whole thing. Read HERE about the idiosyncratic rules that could put this effort back to square one.

By pre-empting the House’s tax-writing authority, Senate Democrats appear to have touched off a power struggle with members of their own party in the House. The Senate passed the bill Tuesday, sending it to the House, but House Democrats are expected to use a procedure known as “blue slipping” to block the bill, according to House and Senate GOP aides.

My expectation for helpful government intervention remains staunchly low.

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Filed under agriculture, food, local food, organic, policy