Sunday, March 22, 2009

Farm Fresh Rhode Island & SBN Greater Boston

Two Fridays ago, the 13th to be exact, I attended an event organized by the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston (that name is way too long) at Boston City Hall entitled Think Local, Eat Local: Growing Local Food Systems with special guest Noah Fulmer, Executive Director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island. I looked forward to the event to learn more about the work happening in the New England region around local food as well as to continue to connect with people engaged in the work. The Boston Redevelopment Authority hosted the event at City Hall (with all due respect to the designers and the experts who lauded its design, that building is depressing). I expected a dozen or so people, and was pleasantly surprised to see closer to 30 attendees; people ranging from small business owners, restaurateurs, Boston city employees, and generally interested people. Of course, I bumped into Jessie Banhazl from Green City Growers. Jeff Barry of Boston Organics and Michael Kanter of Cambridge Naturals were there as well.

The event was enlightening, and it appears that Noah and the small staff of Farm Fresh RI have made some incredible progress increasing the connections between local eaters (not "consumers", it's an important distinction) with local producers. In the Providence area, they have a 50% awareness penetration rate; I cannot remember how they calculated that number, but it's impressive. Right off, I liked the fact that they invited the participation of farmers, buyers, and eaters outside of RI's borders, after all, when it comes to food, local is not just about political boundaries (and it is already pretty ambiguous). As Noah went on, we learned that at any given time we have between 2-3 days of food supply within the area, including what's in transit. I heard a comment that something like 5% of the food consumed in Massachusetts is produced here. Again, it may be better for greater Boston to get something from southern NH than western MA, yet it's still a startlingly small percentage.

I loved his anecdote about seeing potatoes in the local supermarket with Idaho stamps on them instead of the ones produced right there in Rhode Island. It led him to start asking "what's going on here? This makes no sense."

Something that Noah mentioned that I'd never thought of was the work schedule differences between buyers and sellers; farmers get up early and go to bed early, chefs (one of the groups searching for fresh local produce) arise late and work late. There is little time when they overlap, making it difficult to connect them. He's created an online ordering system to take advantage of excess truck space in delivery vehicles to connect chefs with the local food they want. That's a refreshing effort; one of the things I've learned in my brief interest in local/regional food is that the delivery infrastructure is one of the key problems to address. Seems that coordinating deliveries from many small forms could help in that regard.

The demand for (and interest in) local food continues to grow, and Noah mentioned that through October of 2008, they had 60,000 unique site visitors, growing from 1,000 in 2005 and 12,000 in 2006. That's pretty amazing, and clearly and indication that they are doing something important and doing it well.

Large gaps in the local supply and delivery infrastructure remain. It is great to see interested people thinking about closing these gaps and energetic young people taking action. It's interesting that the subject of infrastructure comes up over and over again. At the creative session on local food I coordinated back in December with the help of Seven Cycles, we spent a good deal of time talking about infrastructure (there were a few people in the room that had some experience in this area).

How might we continue to rebuild the local food supply & delivery infrastructure with New England?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Livestock Regulation Favors Agribusiness

So, here we are, facing another regulation that effectively supports the business that are contributing to the problem in the first place. CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations - just sounds bad doesn't it?), where animals are kept in close quarters and fattened up for the slaughter are NOT natural. These operations allow disease to sweep through populations, necessitating the administration of antibiotics and this new tracking system. OK, I am no farmer, nor have I become a vegetarian (yet), and I cannot help but think there's a better way to do this...something like regionally appropriate localized farming operations that meet our needs sustainably? Maybe less meat consumption, something good for the environment and good for our health? (image from

I must be crazy...anyway, onto the NYTimes piece.

Tag, We're It

Warnerville, N.Y.

AT first glance, the plan by the federal Department of Agriculture to battle disease among farm animals is a technological marvel: we farmers tag every head of livestock in the country with ID chips and the department electronically tracks the animals' whereabouts. If disease breaks out, the department can identify within 48 hours which animals are ill, where they are, and what other animals have been exposed.

At a time when diseases like mad cow and bird flu have made consumers worried about food safety, being able to quickly track down the cause of an outbreak seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, the plan, which is called the National Animal Identification System and is the subject of a House subcommittee hearing today, would end up rewarding the factory farms whose practices encourage disease while crippling small farms and the local food movement.

For factory farms, the costs of following the procedures for the system would be negligible. These operations already use computer technology, and under the system, swine and poultry that move through a production chain at the same time could be given a single number. On small, traditional farms like my family's, each animal would require its own number. That means the cost of tracking 1,000 animals moving together through a factory system would be roughly equal to the expense that a small farmer would incur for tracking one animal.

These ID chips are estimated to cost $1.50 to $3 each, depending on the quantity purchased. A rudimentary machine to read the tags may be $100 to $200. It is expected that most reporting would have to be done online (requiring monthly Internet fees), then there would be the fee for the database subscription; together that would cost about $500 to $1,000 (conservatively) per year per premise. I estimate the combined cost for our farm at $10,000 annually - that's 10 percent of our gross receipts.

Imagine the reporting nightmare we would face each May, when 100 ewes give birth to 200 lambs out on pasture, and then six weeks later, when those pastures are grazed off and the entire flock must be herded a mile up the road to a second farm that we rent.

Add to that the arrival every three weeks of 300 chicks, the three 500-pound sows that will each give birth to about 10 piglets out in the pastures twice per year (and that will attack anyone who comes near their babies more fiercely than a junkyard pit bull), then a batch of 100 baby turkeys, and the free-roaming laying hens. Additional tagging and record-keeping would be required for the geese and guinea fowl that nest somewhere behind the barn and in the hedgerows, occasionally visiting the neighbors' farms, hatching broods of goslings and keets that run wild all summer long.

Each time one of those animals is sold or dies, or is trucked to a slaughterhouse, we would have to notify the Agriculture Department. And there would be penalties if we failed to account for a lamb quietly stolen by a coyote, and medical bills if we were injured when trying to come between a protective sow and her piglets so we could tag them.

For my family, the upshot would be more expenses and a lot more time swearing at the computer. The burden would be even worse for rural families that don't farm full-time, but make ends meet by keeping a flock of chickens or a cow for milk. The cost of participating in the system would make backyard farming prohibitively expensive.

So who would gain if the identification system eventually becomes mandatory, as the Agriculture Department has hoped? It would help exporters by soothing the fears of foreign consumers who have shunned American beef. Other beneficiaries would include manufacturers of animal tracking systems that stand to garner hefty profits for tracking the hundreds of millions of this country's farm animals. It would also give industrial agriculture a stamp of approval despite its use of antibiotics, confinement and unnatural feeding practices that increase the threat of disease.

At the same time, the system would hurt small pasture-based livestock farms like my family's, even though our grazing practices and natural farming methods help thwart the spread of illnesses. And when small farms are full participants in a local food system, tracking a diseased animal doesn't require an exorbitantly expensive national database.

Cheaper and more effective than an identification system would be a nationwide effort to train farmers and veterinarians about proper management, bio-security practices and disease recognition. But best of all would be prevention. To heighten our food security, we should limit industrial agriculture and stimulate the growth of small farms and backyard food production around the country.

The burden for a program that would safeguard agribusiness interests would be disproportionately shouldered by small farmers, rural families and consumers of locally produced food. Worse yet, that burden would force many rural Americans to lose our way of life.

Shannon Hayes, a farmer, is the author of "The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook" and the forthcoming "Radical Homemakers."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bicycle Parking (Regionally Appropriate Design)

Two-wheels have become more important in my life (again!) lately, and I find its self-sufficient metaphor applicable to something my friend Asheen twittered a few weeks ago from the Biomimicry event in San Diego. Seems Ms. Benyus (I desperately want to read her stuff, maybe when I graduate) mentioned something about regionally appropriate design. A synapse must have closed in an odd way as I started thinking about thermodynamic economics, bio-regionally determined political boundaries, and the connection with maintaining an overall energy (and therefore material) balance within regions. Imagine if we accounted for the energy in and energy out of these regions, and the net outflow must be countered by a net inflow?

So, beyond talking about cycling as one of the basic solutions to our unsustainable economy (in terms of localized transit), I read Thomas Friedman's latest Op-Ed in the NYTimes called the The Inflection is Near. There's an underlying message in it, one that wonders if we have indeed reached some sort of a limit. In it, he references an article from the Onion, here's the excerpt he included:

FENGHUA, China — Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the “sheer amount of [garbage] Americans will buy. Often, when we’re assigned a new order for, say, ‘salad shooters,’ I will say to myself, ‘There’s no way that anyone will ever buy these.’ ... One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless [garbage]? I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said. “And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible.”
As Mr. Friedman goes on to say, the folks at The Onion were pretty much right. Satire is great isn't it?

So does all this stuff I've written tie together? I think so. As we sit here looking into the maw of a wounded and still falling economy, I can not help but feel confused and a bit befuddled that the behaviors that got us into this mess, over-consumption, debt, overproduction, etc. are the ones we, and the leaders we've elected are advocating to reignite.

Back to growth without the acknowledgment of limits..sounds like a great plan...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Good News for Green Livery Service

I met Seth Riney, the founder of PlanetTran back in 2003 when I was more involved with the RBABoston. I believe PlanetTran was just getting started and I was excited to learn of what he was doing. I appreciated Seth's energy and his "just do it" attitude when it came to starting a business seeking to change what is a fairly stodgy and conservative business. It was great to receive this announcement about their recent funding success:
On New Year's Day, 2003, while reading a book about environmental entrepreneurship, I wondered why hired vehicles were based on traditional platforms such as the Lincoln Town Car. Livery fleets are the largest class of public vehicles on city streets, yet they are comprised mostly of large, inefficient gas-guzzlers.

At that time I saw an opportunity to create an urban transportation system that utilizes the most efficient transportation technology available. Thanks to your support and patronage, we have turned that vision into a reality and have established a stronghold as the nation’s first livery service to operate exclusively with hybrid vehicles. Since 2003, we have grown our fleet from one Prius in Boston to over 50 vehicles covering much of New England and the San Francisco Bay area.

Over the past two years, I have carefully evaluated a number of potential outside investment partnerships that would allow us to continue growing from a two-market small business into a real enterprise. The goal is to improve our services with cutting-edge technology, expand our geographic reach, and continue delivering a valuable service in an environmentally responsible fashion.

To that end, I am pleased to announce that we have closed an institutional round of financing from Cue Ball Capital, a Boston-based private investment firm. Our new partners provide a special blend of finance, operations, and marketing experience, as well as capital, all of which are crucial for PlanetTran to take it to the next level. I will continue at the helm of PlanetTran as President and CEO, and am delighted to work with Cue Ball’s team of professionals to refine our offering, deliver outstanding service, and charge on with my mission to provide more environmentally responsible transportation options to individuals and corporations.

You’ll see a lot more of us this year as we grow, and as always, I welcome your feedback and look forward to continuing to serve you.
All the best Seth!