Saturday, February 20, 2010

Agricultural Outlook, Part 2

In the afternoon, I attended two sessions. One was on bioenergy, which is one of the Secretary's priorities, but quite frankly, I'm tired of the topic. The good news is that at least people are thinking creatively about how to produce energy from biomass; the bad news is that there's always going to be a loser in the food vs. fuel vs. climate fight, and mitigating that loss is an ongoing battle.

The other session was on sustainability and the food system and featured USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, the Keystone Center's Sarah Stokes Alexander, Ferd Hoefner from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Brian Snyder from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Here's a recap of their presentations:
  • Kathleen Merrigan is the USDA's new face of sustainable agriculture, and she was the star of the forum. She briefly discussed the USDA's new program Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) and then took questions, deftly and diplomatically addressing skepticism from some farmers.   The greatest success of this program, and of the USDA(and the federal government) in general, is that there is now a national conversation about food, nutrition, and community. The fact that some people in the agricultural field are questioning ideas about sustainable agriculture means that the message is being heard throughout the country, and everyone is now encouraged to engage in the discussion about what food production and consumption can, or should, look like. More on this in a minute.
  • Sarah Stokes Alexander talked about Keystone's Field to Market program, which is a collaborative stakeholder group working together to develop a supply chain system for agricultural sustainability. This project addresses the concerns raised earlier on the plenary panel regarding transparency and industry-wide dialogue about how to make every step in the chain more sustainable. Members of the stakeholder group include grower groups, conservation organizations, agribusinesses, food and retail companies, and academia and research organizations (more information and a list of members is here)
  • Ferd Hoefner discussed the farmers market promotional programs and raised questions about what policy can do to create new markets and provide greater access to existing markets. A number of people asked questions about loan guarantee programs in their state.
  • Brian Snyder brought up the idea of a sustainable foodshed that could follow watershed boundaries. If that were the case, people here in DC would be actively engaged with folks all the way through Pennsylvania and New York State, since we're all in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Many of the vendors at farmers markets in DC come from Pennsylvania, and since we're on the receiving end of many of the negative watershed impacts, it makes sense that we should be actively engaging our northern foodshed neighbors to ensure that their practices improve our watershed conditions. Brian also pointed out that most of the farms in the U.S. are small farms that make less than $50, 000 a year in gross income - not enough to support one person. But CSAs can change that, and other techniques like SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming, can help small farms make more money without acquiring a lot more acreage.
(More thoughts after the jump)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Agricultural Outlook, Part 1

Yesterday and this morning, I attended the USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum. Conferences are great, not just for the networking opportunities, but also for the chance to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. What are our goals? What is our vision for this field? Who are our inspirations? What mistakes have we made that we can learn from?

The opening session featured overviews of the agricultural economic and trade reports and some pep talks from the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller, the USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, and the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. There was a lot of back-patting, a little bit of hand-wringing, and a strong call to students and budding farmers to embrace the future of agriculture and contribute to efforts to revitalize rural America. Some of the students asked some great questions in the day's sessions, and they really stood out as honored guests at the forum.

The plenary panel titled "Sustainability, Stakeholders & Customers: Achieving a Healthier & Secure Future" featured Nina Federoff (Advisor to U.S. Secretary of State and USAID), Fedele Bauccio (Bon Appetit Management Co.), Richard Schnieders (Sysco Corp.), and Walter Robb (Whole Foods). What a great panel! These are the ideas that really struck me most about each presentation (after the jump):

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Everything is as it should be

Today is my birthday. Last year on this day, it was sunny and 70 degrees outside. I'd never experienced that kind of weather on my birthday before. The days afterward in my 29th year followed suit in a similar fashion. A great deal of the past year was like that - an unexpected and very pleasant surprise. This year, as a special 30th birthday present from Mother Nature, the DC area broke the record for the amount of snow in one season with a couple of small storms and three big storms: Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, and Snoverkill. In total, 54.9 inches. That's more like it for mid-February.

Thirty is a big age for people. It's the line we draw in the sand for ourselves. "By 30, I will be doing _______." "By 30, I will have _________." "By 30, I will have made something of myself," whatever that means for each of us. I'm not sure I ever had those kinds of tangible expectations. I dreamed of the same things most people dream of: the home, the family, the job. Well aware of how I change my mind so often, I knew better than to be too specific about what those things would look like. Which is a good thing because at 30, I'm still living a nomad's life, still trying to figure out what home, family, and job really look like to me. The only time I freaked out about still not having those answers was after watching "Julie and Julia," in which the character Julie freaks out about not having those answers and cooks her way to 30. Then I remembered that we shouldn't feel something just because a movie tells us to, and I got over it.

Now, at 30, I'm still fumbling along, a little wiser and much happier. The only picture I had of myself as a 30-year-old was that of a confident woman, smart, accomplished, who above everything else, knew herself well. Since I was a teenager, I couldn't wait to be 30 because I so looked forward to knowing myself and feeling comfortable inside and out. Now, I don't care about not being settled down, not achieving whatever measures of success people are supposed to have achieved by this age. Because I achieved the goal I have always seen as more worthy than whatever I could use to measure myself against others. I feel like the woman I always wanted to be. I accomplished the task of growing up, of getting through the wrenching teens and the tumultuous 20s and making it out alive and relatively intact. I wouldn't take back any of what I've gone through in my life, but just thinking about it all makes me exhausted. And that's been just the first 30 years of this wild journey.

So now it's time to do something with it. I still feel lost, as much so as I always have, but maybe that feeling never goes away. At least now I have a compass and I know which direction to head: Westward from here, but never far from myself.