Monday, June 1, 2009

An udder disappointment?

Georgia milk leaving state

Bulk of what is produced here is shipped out.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, May 31, 2009

That glass of milk you’re having with breakfast this morning? It most likely came from a dairy farm in Indiana, New Mexico or Texas, not Georgia.

Georgia produces its fair share of milk, but the bulk of its production winds up in Florida, where state dairy farmers fetch better prices. Georgia dairy farmers pay to have outside milk brought into the state. They pay a “hauling charge” which comes out of their milk paycheck. That charge then covers transportation costs. It’s a quirky system that’s been in place since the early 1970s.

“It’s beyond our control,” said Farrah Newberry, executive director of Georgia Milk Producers.

Milk produced here is bought and sold and sent to other states through dairy cooperatives made up of large dairy conglomerates. Those co-ops also sell Georgia’s milk to processing plants throughout the Southeast.

Milk production has had a tumultuous past year. Dairy farmers increased production last year as prices rose. This spring, an oversupply of milk has resulted in lower prices. It’s a good deal for consumers, but not so good for dairy farmers.

Falling milk prices have created problems worldwide.

Just last week, European Union farmers protested the drop in milk prices. Milk prices have plummeted 50 percent in the last year.

Got Georgia milk?


Dairy farms in Georgia


Dairy cows in Georgia

133.8 million

Pounds of milk produced in March 2009

66 million

Pounds imported in March 2009

72.1 million

Pounds exported in March 2009


Georgia’s rank in U.S. production

Top milk export destinations

67.6 million pounds: Florida 700,000 pounds: South Carolina 400,000 pounds: Tennessee

Source: Georgia Milk Producers

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sweet Strawberries and Cream Dreams

I heard through my sources that strawberries would be at my neighborhood's farmers market this week. The first pick of the season. It's only May and salivation, gastronomical dreams, and summer mentally arrives from this inside stock hint. The berry season starts much earlier here in North Georgia then in the Midwest, where I was born and raised. Our trips from South of Chicago to the SE Michigan strawberry fields for u-pick-em weren't all the way until mid-June. It's quite the perk living here when that first inkling of summer fruit arrives a month and a half earlier. So the South turns out to be a pretty darn good place to live after all.

When sustainable food advocates make the case for local food, proof lies in the superior taste alone, with the tomato as the typical exemplar. It possesses obvious distinction of preeminence when fresh picked, local, heirloom, still sun warm off the field/garden and vine. I whole heatedly am an in-season-only tomato eating snob, (good thing this lasts about 4 months in my foodshed) but we must not ignore the berry of all berries and appreciate the strawberry for its all mighty seasonal reign.

Strawberries are a go-to fruit for something special and any dish beholding this ingredient typically has a notch higher of respect. Who ever turns down an offer of food with strawberries? Quite rare to find a soul who rejects its seductive tantalizing goodness. A few slices of the red fruit can make any bowl of honeydew, cantaloupe, and grapes look at least pretty and far more appealing. Unfortunately, the splash of red color in such a typical offering is all that it is gained in such cases. When you get a strawberry out of season it is shipped from who knows where, far, far away (miraculously easy today due to our conventional food system - mechanized, cheap fossil fuel dependent, subsidized petro-fertilizer inputs, and exploited farm workers on 2 dollars-a-day while exposed to neurotoxicant, carcinogenic, reproductive damaging pest killers). Personally, I think regulations should be in place where these red, heart shaped posers should not even be allowed to be labeled 'strawberry'. They might look the same on the outside, except for those with apparent monstrous doses of steroids, carrying the resembling seeds on the outside and some green stem on top, but just open it up and hold on, wait just a sec - what? where did the berry's insides go? What little flesh exists is white - white? Mushy, and, well, tasteless. Where is the red juice...or any juice? You know the stuff where the flavor is, and probably the residence of the antioxidants and other rich nutrients. I'll tell you without any fancy lab equipment that it's not potent in that strawberry.

Enough of that nightmare and back to my local, organic berries from the market that do not disappoint. With this precious collection I am taken back to the farm trips to Michigan. Juice running down my face again as I walk back home with my brown bag of red gold.
You can do so much with this fruit, that is if you have any left after the trip home. The next couple weeks I get my full dose of Vit. C for the year. I eat berries and yogurt for breakfast, berries, goat cheese, and walnuts in my salad, berries over ice cream, strawberry pancakes and bread, berries and chocolate, and the president of all things strawberry - berries with whipped cream, sometimes with a dash of shortcake. But, still most are eaten straight up. No additional ingredients are required to reverently enjoy the pure pleasure provided.

Unfortunately, I run out, besides freezing a few baggies for a mid-winter treat, not having enough to make preserves as I had planned. I cross my fingers in an earnest promise to plant my own strawberry bushes next year.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hard row to hoe: Can local food movement save farmers?

COVER- Hard row to hoe: Can local food movement save farmers?

Published March 5, 2009 in issue 0809 of the Hook

With less than two months left on her land lease, farmer Connie Hicks is desperate to find a new home for her cattle operation.

Forget Pop Tarts and Cocoa Krispies. These days, some children are more likely to beg for "Toaster Pastries" or "Koala Crisp," the organic versions of the popular Kellogg's treats. Locally grown food, too, has exploded out of its niche at the City Market and at stores like Rebecca's Natural Foods and is now popping up on shelves in places such as Reid's Super Save Market, where it once would have seemed as out of place as Donald Trump at a flea market.

The increase in supply and the ease with which shoppers can now fill their baskets with locally grown and raised veggies and meats is thanks to growing consumer awareness of the benefits such local food provides not only for health but also for the environment and for our now tanking economy.

According to the Piedmont Environmental Council, the average distance food travels before landing on dinner plates is a tortuous 1,500 miles. And according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, if every Virginia household spent just $10 a week on locally produced food, it would add a whopping billion dollars to the state's economy every year.

To help bring this about, several new organizations are working to connect farmers to consumers, and "beyond organic" farmer Joel Salatin, founder of Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, will be speaking at two upcoming events aimed at increasing awareness among Central Virginia landowners and food consumers of the value of contributing to the local food chain.

"There are so many opportunities for farmers right now," Salatin insists.

But despite Salatin's optimism-- and the clear demand for local food in Charlottesville-- one local cattle farmer says her way of life has gone from hard to nearly impossible in Albemarle County, where pastureland is becoming scarce, thanks to development and to new landowners who seem more interested in manure-free country getaways than in living alongside the day-to-day operations of a working livestock farm.

The end of a way of life?

Her Ford 350 bouncing over ruts as she heads toward a herd of peacefully grazing black angus cattle, 42-year-old Connie Hicks throws her head back and laughs as a reporter clinging to the hay-rolling apparatus on the back of the lurching truck shrieks and is nearly thrown to the ground.

"You gotta be tough to be a farmer," Hicks shouts through the open rear window of the truck's cab. She should know: a fourth generation farmer, Hicks grew up tending cattle, mending fences, and rolling hay with her father and grandfather on more than a dozen farms in Albemarle County. She continued to work with her father, Conrad Hicks, as an adult, planning to take over the operation when he retired.

That day came sooner than anyone expected, when Conrad fell off a baler onto a concrete slab two years ago at age 75 sustaining a life-altering head injury that coincided with the onset of Alzheimer's.

Although her father still enjoys spending time in the fields with his daughter, the family farming operation fell to Hicks, who has worked alone since then to manage a herd of more than 200 cattle and had hoped to eventually pass the family farming tradition along to her 8-year-old son, Gage.

But life as she knows it may soon end: the lease on a 500-acre tract in Free Union-- the Hicks' last remaining farm-- is up at the end of April, and Hicks, despite her family's long farming history in this area, has been unable to secure a new lease despite an increasingly desperate search.

"I'm going to have to sell them all," says Hicks, all traces of laughter erased as she tosses hay to about two dozen cows and calves milling around her in the field. "I've raised them all since they were babies," she says softly. "It's devastating."

If life as a farmer has always been hard, these days, says Hicks, it's brutal. Land prices in Albemarle have skyrocketed since her childhood, making it impossible for most cattle farmers who haven't inherited a farm to purchase their own land. Development has steadily gobbled land once leased to raise livestock. On any drive along meandering county roads, there are clues hinting at the agricultural history of the land in the names of the new developments: Cory Farm, Blandemar Farm Estates. Despite the F-words, there are no cows on these tracts.

Not alone

Hicks isn't the only cattle farmer who has struggled to find land in the county. Ramona Huff, owner of Gryffon's Aerie, says she feared she'd have to shut her grass-fed beef business down when she lost her lease in 2007.

"We looked for about eight months," says Huff, a former advertising exec who turned cattle farmer in 1999 with the goal of supplying "superior" grass-fed beef.

"We were out there saying, 'We don't want a free ride. We will pay top dollar,'" Huff recalls. "Even saying that, it was still really hard to find."

Fortunately, Huff and her husband, Collins, connected with the owners of Mount Air Farm, another grass-fed cattle business on Brown's Gap Turnpike past White Hall.

"They'd used our bull a couple of years," says Huff. "When they decided to close down their operation, they said, why don't you move the whole shooting match?"

An added benefit of the move was Mount Air's already established on-site market, which is open on Saturdays. Huff says beef business has been brisk.

"People are willing to come out here," she says. "People don't mind the inconvenience."

Huff believes her good fortune in finding a new lease-- and in having people willing to come to her-- stems from the care with which she approaches farming.

"Farmers have to take pride in what they do," she says. "I'm conscious of where I drive my tractor when it's muddy. I'm very conscious of where I feed cattle in winter because I'm renting someone else's land."

As for selling her meat on site, she says, "People expect things to be beautiful. They don't want to see a lot of crud laying around."

Huff's advice mirrors that of Joel Salatin, author of books on farming and owner of Polyface Farms, where he has an "open door" policy, welcoming visitors to see any facet of his farming operation during operating hours Monday through Saturday.

Salatin says the key to convincing landowners to allow farming is to show them the benefit.

"Right now," he says, "I can't imagine one of our landlords kicking us off because all of them are so pleased with the healing that they see on the land."

Among signs of healing, he says, are "thicker, greener grass, fewer weeds, no thistles," traits he attributes to "very intensive managed grazing" in which he moves cattle regularly and lets his chickens follow behind to aerate the manure to help fertilize.

Salatin's success would be hard, if not impossible, to rival. His meat-- beef, pork, chicken and rabbit-- is featured on a slew of area restaurant menus, and he scored a national first: getting local meat into a fast food restaurant, when Chipotle Grill in the Barracks Road Shopping Center began using his pork last year.

Like Huff, who will share the stage with him at a March 7 panel discussion on farming at PVCC, Salatin says land owners need to be taught "not to be fearful of farmers."

At the upcoming events, he says, "I'm going to be talking about things to look for in a farmer, both character and whatever his home base is, so that you as a landowner aren't getting a pig in a poke." (The second Salatin event will be held March 14 at the Montessori Community School on Pantops. See box for details.)

Among criteria landowners should use when seeking out a farming tenant, says Salatin: "look at their fields and see if that's the way you'd like your place to look, including looking at their fences. Look at their animals, look at what they're currently doing."

Beyond that, he says, landowners should educate themselves about "landhealing farming" so they can be more discerning about the farmers they rent to.

Farm to table

While Salatin and Huff are already succeeding in getting their product to market, two new organizations have sprung up specifically to address small farmers' need to reach consumers in a broader and more consistent way.

The Local Food Hub is the brainchild of local wine grape-grower Marisa Vrooman and Kate Collier, owner of the Feast! gourmet shop on West Main Street. The Food Hub will be a food distribution service that Collier hopes will solve one of the main difficulties faced by small farmers: providing a stable clientele that the farmer can count on. By carrying $3 million liability insurance-- and by providing food "traceability"-- the Local Food Hub will meet requirements of large food distributors and institutions like UVA, which recently announced an ambitious plan to increase its portion of locally grown food to 25 percent in its food services division.

"The Food Hub will be a large customer to these farms," providing some financial stability, says Collier, who hopes that level of support will help younger people enter the farming industry.

"It's time to get a new generation going," says Collier, who cites a Piedmont Environmental Council datapoint that the average age of Albemarle County farmers is 59.

Collier recently lost a battle to win a portion of a $250,000 fund designated by Albemarle County for economic development. Although the County rejected the Hub's appeal, the publicity generated by the effort served a purpose.

"We've raised $165,000," exclaims Collier, who says that amount puts the nonprofit Hub within $65,000 of its stated $230,000 needed to launch in June.

Ted Corcoran and Neal Halvorson-Taylor are also getting in on the local food action with the web-based local food business Virginia's Bounty. Like the Food Hub, Virginia's Bounty asked the County for funding assistance, and was rejected. Their start-up costs, however, are significantly lower-- requiring mostly labor to get an interactive website up and running and to recruit farmers.

The site-- will allow consumers to order specific foods and quantities from local farmers, who will sell their wares through the site, and then Virginia's Bounty will arrange for pick-up spots around town.

Collier and Halvorson-Taylor both say there is plenty of room in the market, and that neither new business should interfere with Community Supported Agriculture outfits like Horse & Buggy and The Best of What's Around, just two of the half dozen or so CSAs which provide a weekly dose of produce for an up-front fee.

Virginia's Bounty, says Halvorson-Taylor, is "for those who don't want to make the upfront investment, who may not be around here every week."


These connecting services will be a boon to farms that have a ready-to-eat product to sell. But for Hicks and other cattle farmers who don't have their own beef label like Polyface or Gryffon's Aerie, the efforts won't help-- at least not immediately.

Hicks-- like most Virginia cattle farmers-- makes her money by selling calves at auction. Those calves are sent to feedlots or to larger farms, where most are grain-fed and then slaughtered for meat.

"I really want to start my own label," says Hicks. But without a farm on which to raise the cattle, there's little hope of that dream being realized.

Finding land is not the only problem Hicks is facing. After her father's injury, Hicks' mother wanted to sell her the remaining farm property including tractors, hayloading trucks, and balers. Hicks says that the value of the property is approximately $500,000, and her mother needed only $100,000 to pay off the remaining loans.

"Farm Credit turned me down," says Hicks, who says the rejection was based on her tax return showing meager earnings and that they ignored the collateral she offered, including the equipment and the equity in her own house. "They don't help farmers," Hicks insists.

Representatives from Farm Credit did not immediately return the Hook's call.

Dan Maupin is another Albemarle County cattle farmer feeling the pinch. At 83, Maupin is still working his farm full time, but he says it gets harder to make a living year by year.

"Fertilizer is way up," he says, while the price of calves has declined over the last year from a high of about $1.65 a pound to the current rate of about $1.

He's also afraid that Albemarle County might do away with some of the Land Use Taxation, which grants a reprieve to landowners who use their property for some type of agricultural business.

"That would be really hard to take," he says, of the potential soaring cost in land taxes.

According to County Assessor Bob Willingham, the county has 5,000 properties in Land Use, which translates into a loss of millions of dollars in potential tax revenues. But despite regular discussions at budget time, Albemarle County Supervisor Ann Mallek says the Board has no intention of getting rid of land use taxation. It did, however, recently pass an ordinance requiring "revalidation" of land use every two years. Property owners who are enrolled in the Land Use program will be required to provide proof of how the farm has been used.

Hicks points out that Land Use-- while a boon to farmers-- also provides the perfect justification for wealthy estate owners to reject livestock operations. By rolling hay that is sold to feed livestock, the owners of plush estates can qualify for the same tax break as if they had cattle on their land.

That, says Hicks, is what happened at Jumping Branch Farm on Garth Road across from Foxfield where Hicks and her father kept cattle for years and where the former owner still remembers them fondly.

"I cannot speak too highly of them," says former Jumping Branch owner Elizabeth Hamilton of Connie and Conrad Hicks, who ran cattle on her land until she sold the farm following the death of her husband, Howard Hamilton. "My husband," she adds, "was extremely pleased with every phase of the cattle operation."

The new owner of Jumping Branch, Ted Weschler, (a part-owner of this newspaper) says the decision to shun cattle was family preference. Ironically for someone who benefits from Land Use, he questions the wisdom of the County offering him such a tax break, even as he takes advantage of it.

"I don't consider myself a farmer," he says, "and to get the benefit as though I'm a farmer doesn't strike me as right."

Right or not, Weschler's far from the only estate owner getting the tax break for rolling hay. Hicks says CNET founder Halsey Minor and author John Grisham are two others. (Neither returned the Hook's calls by presstime.)

Hicks, for one, wishes some of them would reconsider their position and invite her and her cows onto their land.

"Farming's in my blood," she says. "It's all I've ever wanted to do."

If she doesn't find land soon, she says, she'll be facing a very different future than the one she had planned for herself and her son, following the seasons and living close to the land.

"I guess I could work at Target?" she ponders, before the reality of that thought seems to sink in, and she exhales: "Oh, God, I don't know what I'll do."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can Atlanta feed itself?

The American Farmland Trust recently entertained the question "Can San Francisco feed itself with local food from farms within 100 miles?  The study looked at the agricultural productivity of the area, assessed the agricultural land availability, the food consumption of the San Francisco Bay area, and the food distribution systems that feed the area.

While the San Francisco area produces a significant amount of food, the study found there still exists a disconnect between the farm and the local consumer, as is a common theme in the US.  Some of the key findings included a need to shift the industrial, large scale production to a production system that supports smaller scales of production that can meet the needs of a variety of consumers, rather than a few institutional consumers.  Other items outlined are a need to address the distribution systems with new processing and transportation infrastructure and new and different markets to purchase and consume the local food.

So this leads to  the topic of this blog, can the Atlanta region feed itself completely with local food?  
While currently the answer is clearly no, entertaining the question helps shed light on our current local food production and consumption systems and helps lead to questions worth exploring to fix the region's deficiencies.  Do we have the agricultural production to feed the 4.1 million people that call the Atlanta region home?  If we did produce enough food for the region, could we easily and equitably move the food from farm to buyer?  Given the the current diets and eating habits, can the crops and seasonality of food meet the needs and demands of the area's residents?

If the Atlanta region is to truely embrace sustainablity, the area needs to begin pursuing similar studies to the one conducted for the San Fran area and begin addressing the changes needed to meet the food needs of our metropolitan region.

Just some food for thought.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Welcome, our first post!

Welcome everyone to our new blog! As part of our push for a more sustainable, healthy food system for Atlanta, we have created this blog to keep people informed about the different local food initiatives taking place in the area, exchange ideas and knowledge about local food, and coordinate our growing network of supports.

Thanks for navigating to the blog and check back over the next few days as we start our blogging experiment.

In the meantime, check out our website at