Tag Archives: Barbara Kingsolver

The Farm Bill and its Significance

The Farm Bill is the colloquial name for the absolutely monstrous package of farm and food policy that Congress passes (or tries to pass) every five years. Though other pieces of legislation may also include similar issues, the consistent timing of the Farm Bill provides the government with a predictable arena to discuss and implement improvements to prevailing food and farm policy.

The Farm Bill is so huge and controversial that the topic could (and does) fill books upon books. In this post I want to just include some background and introduction to this fascinating topic as I currently understand and think about it. In a series of posts following this one, I will cover other important Farm Bill topics in more detail and depth: the politics of the bill, conservation, subsidies, nutrition, etc. Through these posts I will try to explain how the Farm Bill works and why it works this way. Additionally, I’ll try to address how we can use the Farm Bill as a tool to bring about change in the food industry.

The Significance of the Farm Bill

The most recent Farm Bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014 which was passed this February, authorizes an estimated $956 billion in federal spending over the course of ten years. In addition to its nearly trillion dollar cost, the bill covers a huge range of issues in its 959 pages. The Farm Bill includes several seemingly unrelated areas such as forestry, nutrition, agricultural subsidies, conservation, and rural development. Clearly, the Farm Bill has influence outside farmers’ fields, for example on the price of foods, the health of the environment, the wellbeing of rural communities, as well as water and air quality. Additionally, the bill is funded by our tax dollars.

As you can see, there are many interwoven issues and interests wrapped up in the Farm Bill. Recently, the House and Senate spent two years trying to navigate this maze and pass the latest Farm Bill. (Cartoon courtesy of Matt Wuerker at Politico)

In his book, Food Fight, author Dan Imhoff asserts that “if you eat, pay taxes, care about biodiversity, worry about the quality of school lunches, or notice the loss of farmland and woodlands, you have a personal stake in the Farm Bill.” Though these large social, economic, and environmental issues are hard to see first-hand and may seem far-off, they are no doubt important for the future of our society and the earth we rely on. I like Imhoff’s words “personal stake” as this bill really does impact all our daily lives, even if we don’t realize it or remind ourselves of it. When we fight to bring change to the Farm Bill, it is not about some obscure, distant issues but ones that are close-by and personal like the food we eat and the nature and wildlife we love.

We can look at agriculture itself as the intersection of many environmental issues: water usage, pollution of air and water, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and land degradation and erosion. In the quest to feed all humans, we will necessarily alter our planet and other creatures. It’s just a matter of doing so in an ethical and sustainable manner, one that keeps the land healthy for future generations and does not deplete our resources or environment. One of the most effective ways to change how we grow food is to start at the policy level. Policy in the Farm Bill has the amazing ability to incentivize environmentally beneficial behavior and disincentivize or prohibit environmentally harmful behavior.

Farmers can only produce in an environmentally sustainable way if it is economically viable. With the funds it has to offer, the Farm Bill can help make these practices possible. The bill therefore has the power to ameliorate or exacerbate all the aforementioned environmental issues depending on how funds are spent and the kind of practices they encourage. So then, how are these 1 trillion Farm Bill dollars spent? Surprisingly, about 79% of the funding from the 2014 bill goes to nutritional programs such as school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP or simply food stamps) rather than to agriculture itself. I will talk more about this chunk of the bill in my next post. Second to nutrition are subsidies to agriculture in several different forms (the crop insurance and commodity programs slices in the graph below). These programs together make up about 15% of the total bill. Next in size, the conservation slice includes all the money that helps farmers to adopt any of several conservation-minded practices, such as setting land aside in a conservation reserve for several years. Again, more to come on conservation in future posts! I wrote a 15 page paper for class on conservation in the Farm Bill so I have a lot to say about this topic. Even though they take up a small percent of the bill’s total budget, other programs such as those devoted to research or certified organic practices also receive significant funds.

Above are the Farm Bill budget costs over the next ten fiscal years. (Photo courtesy of this Washington Post article)

If you have any questions or opinions you’d like to share, feel free to send me an e-mail at eatfortheearth@gmail.com or just comment below. All of the above is my original thought or commonly accepted knowledge, accept where otherwise noted and where credit is given to someone else.

Additionally, I’ve just reviewed four more books, each very different in topic. You can check these book reviews out at the Movies & Books tab and scroll down to get to the books. The newly reviewed books are: Upton Sinclair’s classic The JungleFood, Inc. by Peter Pringle (an especially awesome book), Farm Together Now by Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Thanks for reading,

The Beauty of Heritage Animal Breeds (Tons of Amazing Pictures!)

Before I get into the bulk of the post, I want to say right now that if you are  too excited about the pictures of cute and crazy looking farm animals, feel free to scroll to the bottom first and check them out. I promise I won’t be too offended. I also promise these varieties will be like nothing you’ve ever seen. Picture chickens with mohawks, afros, beards, and five foot long tails. Now for my actual words (and a few nice pictures mixed in). Though this post got pretty long, I think it is a very informative, comprehensive look at livestock breeds and the important differences between heritage and modern ones.

As we saw in my last post, a drive for high yields in farming can force us to sacrifice quality:  flavor, nutrition, and environmental sustainability. But when looking at farming livestock, it’s important to realize that the drive for high yield breeds also becomes an ethical issue. When livestock are bred for quick growth and weight gain above all else, the health and happiness of the animals can be sacrificed. Common breeds such as the Cornish Cross (a chicken) or Broad-Breasted White (a turkey) grow muscles and fat so quickly that their bones, organs, and other systems can’t really keep up. As a result, 75% of these chickens on industrial farms will have “some degree of walking impairment” (Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer). Many will suffer from immune, breathing, and heart problems.

These animals are almost always the product of artificial insemination and indeed most conventionally raised turkeys have breasts so large (up to 70% of their body weight) that they are physically unable to mate. Basically, these animals have been so highly bred for our purposes that they can’t do something so inherently important to their functionality as having sex. It is speculated that the Broad-breasted White would go extinct in a single generation were it not for our artificial insemination. There is clearly something wrong with this situation.

Prior to our current industrialization of animal husbandry, animal breeds were developed pretty differently. Sure, breeds were crossed to bring out desirable characteristics that would serve our purposes like high productivity. But as these animals spread to different places and were allowed to mate on their own, they adapted to the climate and geography of the area they lived. Many were named for their place of origin: the Appenzeller chicken from the Appenzell region of Sweden, the Scottish Blackface sheep, or the Ossabaw island pig from an island off the coast of Georgia.

No doubt these animals were actually able to have sex and knew how to raise their own offspring. These animals were far closer to their wild counterparts both anatomically and behaviorally than a highly bred modern variety like the Broad-Breasted White. The process that brought these breeds into being was closer to good old natural selection. From this long, slow process comes a population of animals that have a wider range of characteristics then what would typically be called a “breed.” The name for this group is a landrace.

An awesome example is the Hedemora chicken. This chicken is named for the town in Sweden from which it originated and has lived for at least 500 years. The small chicken has a thick layer of feathers and a reduced comb and wattle so that it is perfectly adapted to the cold. It can withstand sub-zero temperatures and will continue laying eggs as long as the temperature is above 5º F. As is true for many landraces, Hedemoras can be quite different in appearance. Some have feathered legs, some have very fine fur-like feathers, and there are many different colors present.

The furry-looking variety of the Hedemora: modest but hardy

The feather-legged variety of the Hedemora with striking red and black coloration

Nowadays, these types of animals might also be known as “Heritage” breeds. The Livestock Conservancy defines Heritage animals as “traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers.” They continue, using similar words as mine above:

         “These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became            a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over            time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment          and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are                very different from those found in modern agriculture.

         Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-            sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability            to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.

         Heritage animals once roamed the pastures of America’s pastoral landscape,          but today these breeds are in danger of extinction. Modern agriculture has              changed, causing many of these breeds to fall out of favor. Heritage breeds            store a wealth of genetic resources that are important for our future and the          future of our agricultural food system.”

And now we come back to the same principle that I hit upon in my earlier post: the importance of preserving this “genetic resource.” We can all help out on this front. Maybe if you start a backyard flock of chickens, you can get a diverse group of animals from a place like Just Struttin’ Farm which works to preserve these breeds. I got two of my hens, pretty Mille Fleur Leghorns from Just Struttin’. “Mille Fleur” describes the coloration of these hens and means “a thousand flowers.” This designation is fitting to describe the spots of white and black that cover these awesome birds.

A similar place is Green Fire Farms (who breed very rare chicken varieties and are often the first people in the US to raise certain breeds). In choosing these breeders, you help maintain the diversity of functional, historic breeds and support the hard work of the animals and people that created them. That choice is clearly much better for the animals and environment than buying an uninteresting, ubiquitous breed from a hatchery. These hatcheries often employ cruel practices like grinding day old male chicks alive since females are obviously the only ones useful for laying eggs.

Chickens out on pasture at Just Struttin’ Farm in Novato, CA.

Additionally, you can choose to buy a heritage turkey at thanksgiving (one that will probably taste better and actually had the ability to mate while it was alive). This action is more in the plant realm, but you can also find someone at the farmers market who grows cool heirloom varieties. One stand at the Menlo Park farmers market has things like Watermelon radishes (light green on the outside, bright pink on the inside as you’ll see in the picture below); Spanish Black radishes (a variety uncommon in the US that contains something called glucosinolate metabolites which supposedly help with organ function and extracts of the turnip are made into vitamin supplements);  Borage (a little blue edible flower); Nopales (the young leaves of the prickly pear cactus which supposedly taste a little like green beans); and bright purple Wild Mountain Spinach also called Orach. These varieties are fascinating to learn about and eat for the first time. More importantly, buying them helps support the kind of farm that cares about this awesome diversity.

The crazy looking Watermelon radish

And now for the most fun part of the post: the animal pictures! I have spent the last week compiling a bunch of images of breeds that I find spectacular. They are not all necessarily heritage breeds or landraces. Though many are old and historic breeds, the point of the pictures is mainly to show the diversity of breeds. I strongly believe this diversity needs to be preserved in the coming years. I’ll start with the chickens because they are my favorite.

The strikingly beautiful Ayam Cemani is from Indonesia and coveted for it’s all black skin, feathers, comb, and legs. (Even its meat and bones are black). The chicken is extremely rare in the US and anywhere outside of Indonesia. How rare? A pair of them costs $5000 at Green Fire Farms, likely the only place you can buy them here.

The Brabanter: check out that V-shaped comb and mohawk (or crest if you want to be proper). The pattern on its chest is known as spangled. Chickens can come in tons of different patterns like spangled, barred, mottled, penciled, laced, or the beautiful double-laced.

The White-Faced Spanish: there are records of this breed going back to 1572.

Who could ignore the beard and big chest of the grumpy looking Belgian Bearded D’Anvers? You can start to see that chickens come in all shapes and postures.

The Modern Game Bantam (this color is called lemon blue) was developed for purely ornamental purposes. Many breeds come in a large or Bantam (smaller) variety. This particular Bantam weighs only about one pound.

The Jersey Giant is quite a contrast from the Modern Game Bantam and weighs about 13 pounds. (Human included for scale)

The Sebright is an ornamental breed from England. The names for their colors are pretty fancy: the birds are either silver (above) or golden. That interesting looking comb you see on the hen’s head is called a Rose comb, one of many different comb shapes that chickens may have.

The Yokohama (this color is the red-shouldered) is one of a few long-tailed ornamental breeds like the  Onagadori, whose tails can reach 27 feet in length. In my opinion, breeding a chicken to have this long tail is similar to breeding one for a huge breast: both qualities may come at the expense of the chicken, who is rendered dysfunctional in some ways (only in extreme cases with the long-tailed breeds). In one such case, the Onagadori is sometimes kept in a cruel and tight cabinet-like hutch in which it stands on a high platform to preserve its tail.

This funny-looking bird is the Araucana from Chile. It has those awesome ear tufts, lays blue or green eggs, and is one of a few rumpless breeds (meaning it has no tailbone and often no tail).

Because I promised you a chicken with an afro, here’s the Polish. At a local summer camp and farm, we used to call these the disco chickens. I think it’s a fitting name. This particular one is a Frizzle Polish, which means it has those crazy curved feathers that stick out like above. Many different breeds come in a Frizzle variety.

If you thought chickens were all white or brown and about the same size, now you know how diverse they are. Yes, they come in different colors, patterns, and sizes. But they can also have different combs, different egg colors, different body shapes and postures, beards, crests, ear tufts,  and feathered legs. Now onto some pictures of other livestock:

The Highland cattle has long, thick fur to protect it from the cold temperatures of the Scottish Highlands.

The Ankole-Watusi is an African breed of cattle known for its huge horns which can reach 8 feet from tip to tip. The cattle use their horns as a defense and to cool themselves off, as they contain blood vessels which can help radiate heat.

The Chianina cattle from Italy is one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world (raised for at least 2,200 years) and definitely the largest. Bulls can be taller than 6 feet and weigh almost 4,000 pounds.

The painted Desert Sheep is a hardy breed from the Southwest US. Known for its spotted coat and mane, the breed is a “hair sheep,” meaning it doesn’t have the  thick coarse coat typical to sheep and looks more like its wild ancestors.

The Valais Blacknose sheep originates from the chilly Valais region of Sweden and is unbelievably cute.

Nigerian Dwarf Goats are a miniature dairy goat from West Africa. Their small size, varied colors, and high productivity in milking makes them a popular backyard breed.

The Leicester Longwool is an increasingly rare breed developed in the 18th century in England. Those awesome long, wavy locks make it one of a few designated “Longwool” breeds. Its high-quality wool and meat mean that it has been bred into many other varieties to bring about these desirable characteristics.

And last but not least: the ducks!

The Cayuga duck is unique not just because of its green-black iridescent coat, but also its green, gray or black eggs. If you have never had duck eggs before, see if you can find some well-raised ones at your local farmers market. They are bigger than chickens’, matte so that they look like stone, and super creamy.

The Muscovy duck descends from a different species than most other domestic ducks. They are larger and have those characteristic knobs on top of their beaks. Also, drakes (the male ducks) raise their crests to attract females or fend off other males.

The Indian Runner duck runs around everywhere instead of waddling like most ducks. You gotta love their signature funny posture, too!

I think it is easy to see that these diverse breeds of animals are by far preferable to those factory farmed Cornish Crosses and Broad-Breasted Whites. Their diverse characteristics, history, and functionality are worth maintaining.

As Barbara Kingsolver notes in her book  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:                     

         “Our purpose for keeping heritage animals is food-system security, but also            something else that is less self-serving: the dignity of each breed’s true and              specific nature. A Gloucester Old Spots hog in the pasture, descended from            her own ancient line, making choices, minute by minute, about rooting for              grubs and nursing her young, contains in her life a sensate and intelligent                “pigness.” It’s a state of animal grace that never even touches the sausages-            on-hooves in an industrial pig lot.”


Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

The Livestock Conservancy, an organization that works to preserve heritage livestock breeds: http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage


Green Fire Farms: http://greenfirefarms.com/