Thursday, December 28, 2006

To Clone or Not to shouldn't even be a question.

Yesterday in the New York Times, Marian Burros wrote about the Politics of Food and how in 2006 people (aka consumers) became more in touch with their food. Today, it was announced that the FDA was about to approve the sale of meat from cloned animals (remember Dolly the sheep). They claim that it is just as safe as meat from non-cloned (naturally procreated) animals. Maybe, maybe not. The real question, or quandary, is how far we want to be pushed away from our food system just to serve the greater interests of global agribusiness.

Having just read Ominovore’s Dilemma and been a farmer for more than half my life, many of Michael Pollan’s feelings about killing something with a face hit very close to home. I too have killed many an animal destined to be dinner. It is not easy. But at least you have that visceral connection to what you are about to eat, and that’s important. The point being that this latest annoucement moves us ever closer to a global food machine with which we have absolutely no connections remaining.

We already have an immense number of negative issues in our global food system. Most of which can be overcome with a variety of remedies. But now the FDA is presumably going to allow genetically identical animals to be butchered for general sale. That means, they will all have the same defects, as in the same susceptibility to pests. And because they will have the same susceptibility that means most likely they’ll get stronger more frequent doses of antibiotics to fight the diseases that could now spread easily from one animal to the next because they have no genetic diversity (or very little). More antibiotics is not good for the person about to chow down, but it is also not good for environment as it only ensures a more virulent population of bacteria running around.

The issue I have is not about creating a cow in a Petri dish using a unique egg and fertilizing with unique sperm, or even artificial insemination. It is about taking genetically identical cells from a single animal and turning them into an animal destined for your dinner table. The Bush administration won’t even allow this type of process to be used to help fight human diseases and defects because he feels it is unethical.

Evolution is what it is because of genetic diversity. Nature has chosen to not narrow the gene pool because a diverse gene pool means a stronger web of life. The FDA is now proposing taking a perfectly dysfunctional food system and weakening it even further. At some point something is going to give in a big way. For me, I’ll continue to eat my beef from Slope Farms and my chickens from Cooper’s Ark. I know the farmers. Heck, I may have even known the animal. Mostly, I know they were healthy, happy animals bred and raised in a natural environment, not a test tube. And they taste great! Know Your Roots.

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 22, 2006

When is Local not Really Local?

Stone Ridge Orchard is by default local. Trends by consumers and trade buyers to focus on and feature locally grown produce are powerful allies in our daily missive to get more of our products to the people that really want them. So just about this time of year, as the seasons shift and people start buying other than local, I ask the question, “When is Local Not Really Local?” We’ve learned from the recent transmogrification of the organic industry that nothing is sacred. Local can be and is becoming an easily co-optable message. For example, a produce buyer for a large chain store recently stated to me that “Global is the new local.” That statement says a lot about how the produce industry at large views what should be inviolable. And that’s important because what shouldn’t be co-optable is the reality of Local, and that’s where we as local farmers and business people need to focus our marketing efforts: getting consumers to understand the reality of Local.

Now, by default most farms are located in some fairly rural areas, located a reasonable distance from the markets they need to serve to make a living. In our case those markets are the greater New York City area including southern Connecticut and northern New Jersey. Yes, we do ship to Boston and our products do find their way in the Maryland/DC area. So, can we—or better, should we—consider those areas local? Our definition of local is anything within a 6-hour drive from Stone Ridge, NY. If farmers, including us, depended on their local community to make a living, we’d all be broke. So, by our definition, the answer is yes.

But every day people say they want more of something else and they want it cheaper. We still battle daily with food grown in California, South America, and Canada. Why? Their crops are not necessarily grown any better than the way we grow our crops—we're heavily invested in the Integrated Pest Management and plan on transitioning to biodynamic next year. The farmers don't care about your local community to the same degree as we do—since we have a more direct connection with consumers in our region). Their food is not any safer—the recent food safety scares prove that point pretty definitively. Its not better for you—in fact, our crops are fresher and more nutritious than anything else in the market by virtue of the fact that they are grown locally. And its certainly not local. So what is going on? Well, there are three things going on: price, instant gratification, and seasonality.

The first, price, is something we can’t easily compete with or do anything about. Many corporate buyers know it, so they negotiate it as if we were talking about the same products, even though we aren't. Locally grown food is good food, not cheap food, and it provides so many benefits to local communities that we can barely even begin to calculate their value. Consumers are the only ones that can make a difference here in the way they make buying decisions.

The second issue that affects local buying trends is instant gratification. Here again the consumer is the only one that can make a difference. If people want strawberries in February, then there is going to be someone out there to get it to them. Consumers often focus on buying locally grown products only when they are “in season,” instead of looking to use them throughout the year. Many local products can be processed for use throughout the year, but we don’t do that much anymore. And others like apples store quite well for many months throughout the winter.

Second, as soon as the leaves are off the tree and snow starts to fly, people start thinking about citrus, Christmas, the New Year, almost anything but local produce. But the fact is that local is around us year long. Those vine ripe tomatoes may be gone, but local farms still have an immense amount to offer. Milk, eggs, apples, potatoes, cheese, and more are there for the asking. Unbeknownst to many consumers, local is accessible even in the middle of winter.

So, who doesn’t want to buy great produce at a good price and with some degree of instant gratification? But when these things come with hefty environmental and social price tags what then? And that's where the local comes in. As for us at Stone Ridge Orchard, we encourage consumers and trade buyers alike to buy as locally as possible. Think outside the box and look for local even in the dead of winter. Ask where your food comes from. Who grew it? Better yet, tell us how do you define local. In what ways does it matter to you and how you make purchasing decisions? Are open space, clean air, and good food worth the additional cost of buying locally grown farm products?

We want customers that want our products as much as we want them to have them. It benefits us all. Let us know what local means to you. Know your roots.

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 15, 2006


OK, this time I promise is the last....I hope. It has just been reported in the media that over 600 people were sickened after eating at an Olive Garden restaurant near Indianapolis. There has been not verification of the root cause. But health officials did say that there weren't any health code violations. So we're back to square One and the investigation begins.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) reports that although food borne illness incidents have declined since the 1990s, they are keeping a close eye on things. Yeah, right! The fact is they couldn't do an adequate job unless they had the Hubbel telescope as their magnifying glass. And it is not their fault. No it is the fault of the system. Our food system, that is.
With all the stop gap protectionary measures we have throughout our food system, the one we don't use often enough is to buy more locally. Wereally don't. At least not as much as we could be. Sure, everyone likes to get out in the summer and fall to visit their favorite farm or orchard. But once the season is over, the leaves have fallen, and the snow begins to fly, we head back to the generic shelves lining every large grocery store in America. And the food all really comes from the same place: a long way from home.
The time has come to get back to our roots. And as much as we may feel we're already there, we need to look again. Spend this winter and find a local farmer. Ask questions. Join a CSA. Read labels. Ask your server where your dinner came from. If you can't get the answers you want, then keep digging. The only way we're ever help a healthy, vibrant, safe food system evolve is to dig. Dig deep. Know Your Roots!

Stone Ridge Orchard APPAREL. Hot off the presses! we have new line of T-shirts and hoodies complete with our new design ready to go. For availability and pricing information, please email

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Never Mind!

Whoops! The FDA just released a statement that it may not have been green onions that sickened hundreds in the recent Taco Bell E coli extravaganza. Due to a lab screw up, the results erroneuosly implicated green onions when in fact it may be something else.

So, put another star next to "Buy Local" as one of your New Year's resolutions. If the FDA can't get it right, and with all of the food safety and traceability steps in place at the farm/food processor/distributor level, then it is time to start buying food grown closer to home.

As I have said, just because something is locally grown doesn't automatically mean it is going to be safe. What is does mean is that the links backwards from your plate to the ground it was grown on are much, much shorter. Know Your Roots!

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 11, 2006

Food Safety: The New Frontier

It almost seems like a contradiction in terms: farmers that normally spend their days outside in the elements having to don hazmat suits and work in aseptic conditions just to ensure that the wholesome products they grow are safe to eat. Yet, with all the recent attention to food borne illness outbreaks related to the consumption of fresh produce this may be the only practical way to go. In fact, if you visit any modern food processing facility today that's just about what you get. But it has not been enough.

In a very general way, food can only be contaminated at three points within the farm to fork continuum: in the field, during processing, or during preparation. To use the recent Taco Bell situation as an example, those green onions could have been contaminated in the field, at the Ready Pac processing plant, or during preparation at the Taco Bells. In order to reduce (can you really eliminate anything?) food borne pathogen exposure, you essentially have "plans" to reduce points of contamination. You could have GAPs, GMPs, HAACP, or some other plan in place. Ultimately, with processed food you have a "kill step," something you can't easily have with fresh produce. In some cases, buyers may even require you to be audited by a third party to ensure that all guidelines (some of which exceed government regulations) to be conducted at supplier expense. None of this is cheap, but all of it is necessary. The problem is that growers balk at the thought of being told what to do, much less being forced to conduct third party audits at their expense.

For the past 20 years, apple growers have been faced with increasing supply in the face of declining consumption. In other words we have been growing more apples globally, while the human population has been eating fewer per capita. We have had to deal with pesticide issues such as Alar and Guthion that have raised concerns by the public over the safety of our produce from a pesticide residue standpoint. Fortunately, we have been able to stave off these "threats" and ensure the public that our products are safe. Which it was and is, and yet now we have food safety to add to the list of threats. Can we oversome this threat, too?

Over the years, there have been any number of food safety incidents that have called the safety of our domestic food supply into question. And it just seems like they are happening more frequently these days. The answer? Well, people can't, of course, stop eating. They can, however, stop or reduce their consumption of fresh produce. People have shifted eating patterns before. We, as an industry, could more heavily process our food (pasteurize, irradiate, treat, etc.) to make sure that nothing deleterious can survive the treatments and harm us. But even something as heavily processed as a Taco Bell chalupa proved to be suscpetible to food borne pathogens. Or we could better regulate ourselves and our operations so that we don't have wild pigs running through our spinach fields, or deadly E. coli in hamburger meat because someone didn't wash their hands. The simple truth is that if we don't regulate ourselves, then our customers and/or the government will. You think we can't afford regulation? We can't afford anymore food safety issues, folks.

Farmers are the last of the great American independents. They wear rings of garlic (dried, of course) to ward off the evil government regulator. In New York state, the Farm bureau caved to demands from some cider producers to prevent implementation of a law requiring them to treat cider. Anything coming from growers that rails against action during times like these sends the message that we don't care and that consumer concerns are irrelevant.

Sure it may be expensive and pain to deal with. But it is necessary. If the public gets anymore wary about the safety of our food supply, then it is possible we could see a strong shift in how people consume food. There are things that it would be very easy for them to stop eating if the mere possibility they could get sick or even die exists. We have to step to the plate and deal with this issue now. Sticking our heads in the sand and avoiding the situation is not the answer. Welcome questions, inspection, and scrutiny. We're about to enter a new age of food safety, folks, better get used to it, or else!

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Bell Tolls for Taco Lovers Everywhere

Not that Taco Bell's tacos actually resemble anything close to real food, but its "food" is consumed as a food item by millions of people year. The recent outbreak of E. coli emanating from area Taco Bells has spread from New York and New Jersey to Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut. The most likely culprit seems to now be the dreaded green onion packed by Ready Pac Foods in Irwindale, CA. Preliminary tests show contamination with E. coli strain 0157 on three batches. Ready Pac has pulled these from distribution, but there is still no clear evidence where the point of contamination was and whether this is the only item involved it he outbreak. Not so long ago green onions were implicated in an outbreak of Hepatitis A in western PA.

So the issue at hand once again is how consumers can be assured of a safe food supply in this day and age when so much of our food supply is produced a long way away from where it is consumed and so much of its highly processed. (In my estimation, the more steps it takes to turn raw produce into "food," the easier it is to not only contaminate, but to also obfuscate any contamination sources.) Even something as simple as bagged spinach was difficult to trace accurately when the recent E. coli scare sickened hundreds of people.

This is not the last food safety situation we'll face. I encourage everyone this winter to find a local farm and begin a dialogue with the grower so you can begin to understand what it takes to get food from their farm to your plate. Understand why if consumers don't more forthrightly support local farms that they will simply fade away. These kinds of outbreaks can't be prevented by simply buying and eating locally. However, by knowing your roots (e.g., your farmer), eating lower on the food chain (fewer processing steps), and understanding why the global, corporatized food system is really only interested in itself, everyone that cares about what they eat can take steps to avoid being in situations like the one consumers of Taco Bell "food" have faced the past week.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Here we Go Again!

It is going to be interesting to see how the whole E. coli calamity at area Taco Bells plays out. At this time there have been 36 illnesses linked to three restaurants in New Jersey and one on Long Island. Although they have not been sickened by the deadly 0157 strain, 2 of the 22 in NJ suffered a potentially deadly kidney problem called hemolytic uremic syndrome. Beyond the obvious that it came from some food substance, there hasn't been a disclosed probable source yet. How the food became contaminated in the first place is the big question. Was it poor food handling procedures by restaurant employees or was the food contaminated before it arrived at the restaurants? Whatever the final verdict is, we are in the midst of a series (I hesitate to use the word epidemic) of E. coli outbreaks that could be a harbinger of things to come. Either we're getting much poorer at handling our food at all levels within the food system, or the pesky bacteria is simply becoming more pervasive and difficult to control. At the very least this is all illustrative of a broken food chain that starts on massive corporate farms, leads through food processing plants, and onto the plates of American consumers.

It seems unlikely that poor food handling techniques by Taco Bell employees is the root cause because the reports do not have the affected people eating at the same restaurants. It seems more likely that the food was contaminated before it arrived at the restaurants. It remains to be seen what ingredients caused the outbreak, but I'd place money on the fact that it is the same stuff at all restaurants and came from the same root source (whether it be farm or processing plant).
As I have stated elsewhere, simply buying local does not ensure that these kinds of events will not happen again. But what buying local does is shorten the chain between farm and consumer. It gives consumers the opportunity to know where, how, and by whom their food is grown. By creating closer connections (shortening the chain), you get everyone involved and invested in the quality and safety of our food supply. Know your roots, Buy Local.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Hypocrisy of Local--Prologue

The business of marketing and advertising usually includes the rampant overuse of buzzwords when telling a “story” if it ensures gaining a little more “shelf space” in the minds of consumers. Not such a bad thing if we can take our businesses from basic survival to thrival. More often than not though these buzzwords are little more than self-important aggrandizements used by producers for their products. All in all they are intended to reshape the minds of the average consumer, because, as we all know, reality is perception. And, if we can create the perception in the minds of consumers that something is healthier, more luxurious, cheaper, or simply more like the real thing, then it most certainly must be.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will publish a number of blogs that address the misuse and abuse of select buzzwords in the agricultural world where I live and run a business. Locally Grown, Value Added, and Organic are the first three to be taken on. I’ll start with Locally-grown because I have begun to take a particular dislike at how this seemingly innocuous term is being abused by everyone from farmers, some of which are my neighbors, to Wal-Mart, my not-so-neighbor. Questions to ponder as I go through this are: when is local no longer local? When is value-added a dirty word? Is organic certification more important than that over-the-fencepost chat you can’t have with that 1000-acre industrial farmer in central California?

In the end this business of marketing and advertising is all about adding value to the crops and products we produce no matter our size, sales geography, or ownership. It is about our particular story and what is ultimately inside the business shell we operate within. How we define and convey the terminology we use as we grow (literally and figuratively) and market our crops is everything to our success.

Blue Marble Farms’ story is about who we are, what we do, and how we grow our crops. It is about giving our customers the tools they need to discern and understand the difference between buying California organic and ecologically grown New York apples. It gives our customers the opportunity, should they take it, to come up to that fencepost and find out that this is not the land of Oz, but just another farm utilizing new, innovative tools and approaches to help grow and market ourselves and our products, and ultimately survive, in a world where small farms have suffered at the hands of failed US farm policy. Where getting larger is not an option because land costs far exceed a farmer’s ability to recoup any investment, much less come up with the cash to run a larger farm. We have to look at our businesses from the other end.

But let’s be truthful. These buzzwords have value only if we utilize them properly and retain their integrity. We need to add value to what we do in a way that keeps us from becoming just another fizzy, over-priced, over-caffeinated “energy” drink. I invite everyone to look inside Blue Marble Farms and see us for what we are: growers and purveyors of local, gourmet, and ecologically grown food. I’ll be at the fencepost.

Labels: , , , ,