Friday, March 21, 2014


MARCH 10, 2014

Food co-ops on the rise as Mainers seek local foods, buying power

PHOTo / Tim greenway
Rachelle Curran Apse, a board member of the Portland Food Co-op
with her baby, Tobin, at the food buying club, which will become a
storefront co-op in September
Portland Food Co-Op plans to open its storefront this September.

Maine's Food Co-ops

1. Barrels Community MarketWaterville
2. Belfast Co-op
3. Blue Hill Co-op Community Market & CafĂ© Blue Hill
4. Fare Share Market
5. Gardiner Food Co-op (just starting) Gardiner
6. Good Tern Natural Foods Co-opRockland
7. Market Street Co-op (just starting) Fort
8. Marsh River Cooperative (just starting) Brooks
9. Portland Food Co-op (to open storefront in the fall)
10. Rising Tide Community MarketDamariscotta
11. The County Co-op and Farm Store (just starting)
Sources: The Coop Directory Service, individual co-ops

What is a co-op?

In the loosest sense, a co-op is any voluntary organization composed of a group of individuals (or organizations) formed for their mutual (generally, financial) benefit.
These informal associations and the more formal ones discussed share a number of common features.
  • They all are democratic, volunteer associations.
  • They are formed for mutual financial benefit (to save money or to increase buying power); in short, they are businesses.
  • They are non-profit organizations; what would be profit in other organizations is returned to the members/owners.
Coops are all around us. They include credit unions, mutual insurance companies, housing co-ops, rural electric power co-ops, consumer goods co-ops (like REI), distribution coops (like Ace Hardware) and producer co-ops (like Sunkist, Land'O Lakes).

Cooperative succession

Co-ops aren't just for the here and now. They also offer a way to keep a conventional business going when the owner wants to leave. That's especially true with small businesses, including food markets in rural communities that may be difficult for owners to sell.
That was the case with the owners of four stores in Stonington, who after 40 years in business wanted to sell the stores, but keep them locally owned and viable. When one potential buyer didn't work out, they sought alternatives. The plan that succeeded and currently is in the works is selling the stores — Burnt Cove Market, V&S Variety, V&S Pharmacy and The Galley — to employees and turning the businesses into a co-op called the Island Employee Cooperative. So far, 45 of the 60 employees have agreed to join the new co-op as owners.
The owners, Vern and Sandra Seile, worked with the Cooperative Development Institute and the Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative for technical and business assistance. The co-op has turned to CEI for financing.
"These businesses are a major employer on the island," says Rob Brown, manager of the Business Ownership Solution program at CDI in Maine. "The question was what a buyer would have done. We helped them start a co-op. This is a major opportunity for Maine to consider and a model to develop."
He explains that by comparison, an employee stock ownership plan or ESOP is fairly expensive to administer, so it requires a larger business size and value.
"For 99% of the businesses in the state, ESOP is not an option," says Brown. "A lot of people will retire in the next five to 10 years. This is a valuable model for Maine to be promoting. It's a great way to transfer ownership over time for succession planning. It keeps jobs in the community." He estimates that fewer than 10 such co-ops currently exist in Maine.
Daniel Wallace, program developer, sustainable agriculture, at CEI, says the potential range of benefits for such co-ops is large. "These are strategies that enable businesses in small towns to grow and thrive," he says. "I hope it works with the grocery business in particular, especially in rural areas. In many Maine small towns, there still is only one small grocer."
The number of member-owned food co-operatives in Maine is on a course to almost double to 11 this year, leavened by a taste for locally produced food that is safe and healthy.
While these new storefronts still plan to be community venues, they aren't our parents' co-ops. Many aim to offer one-stop shopping, carrying a wider variety of goods in addition to the traditional bulk items and "granola-type" fare. And backed by development loans and legions of member owners, they have become a force in the local economy.
"There's a local economic multiplier," says Kate Harris, education and publicity coordinator at Belfast Co-op, which started in 1976. "Our bank and payroll are based in the community. A much higher percentage of money stays in the community. We spend as much as we can locally. And the largest contribution is that we won't leave the state."
Nationally, every $1,000 a shopper spends at a local food co-op generates $1,604 in their local economy, $239 more than if they shopped at a conventional grocery, according to, a consumer website run by the National Cooperative Growers Association. Other metrics: 157 local farmers and producers on average work with a food co-op versus 65 with a conventional store; 20% of products are locally sourced versus 6% for a standard store; and 38% of revenue is spent locally versus 20% for a regular store (see chart, next page).
Unlike conventional supermarkets, which can be owned by individuals or corporations, food co-ops typically are owned by their members, each of whom has one voting share. Although food co-ops are open to the public, members receive certain benefits such as discounted prices. And unlike buying clubs, where members are volunteers and pre-order food that they pick up from a warehouse or other location, food co-ops have paid staff and are located in storefronts with regular store hours. That provides access to shopping seven days a week, unlike a farmers market.
The Belfast Co-op now has 3,500 members. Its customers bought nearly $1.68 million worth of Maine-made products in the past year, contributing 20% of its $7 million-plus in revenue, Harris says. Total economic multiplier figures for all Maine food co-ops are hard to come by because few co-ops keep those figures.
"A co-op is a legitimate form of business," says Marada Cook, co-owner of Crown O'Maine Organic Cooperative in North Vassalboro, which distributes local food to 38 co-ops and food buying clubs around the state. Cook adds that her company has sold more than $5 million worth of local food in the last three years. "And it all goes back to our local community. Every dollar into a co-op has a purpose and a place in the community." She says her company is in the midst of expanding its ownership to other employees.
Cook says "co-op" is considered a dirty word by the population at large, mainly because agricultural co-ops in the state haven't been as successful as in other parts of the country. But they can be a successful model. And she encourages the business community to engage with co-ops.
Co-ops date from colonial times, when people banded together to get more for their money. In the 1800s, when the population shifted from farms to cities, co-ops provided buying power and a place to socialize. As city populations boomed, a backlash ensued: the back-to-the-land movement took hold in the 1960s and 1970s with a focus on simplifying life and growing food sustainably. Today, with populations once again moving back to cities, food co-ops have become a way to get back to the land without moving.
"The biggest challenge with local food is accessing it," says Rachelle Curran Apse, board member at the Portland Food Co-op, which is in the process of transitioning from a food buyers' club into a co-op that plans to open with 1,400 member-owners in a 5,000-square-foot storefront at 290 Congress St. in September. It plans to create 20 jobs.
"Selling to stores helps small farmers feed into the local food movement. The idea of having co-op businesses is a really exciting way for folks to be involved in building the local economy and the local food system," she adds. "And compared to a farmers market, we're open seven days a week." Curran Apse says the food co-op model is different than the supermarkets most people are used to, so the Portland co-op has to provide education about the advantages of joining a co-op, like members-only sales.
Another benefit to co-ops: members essentially pick the food they want to buy. If they don't like something, they can vote it out of the store.

Mutual benefits

Co-ops are voluntary organizations composed of individuals or organizations formed for mutual benefit of workers, consumers, farmers and producers. They come in many different sizes and industries. They are nonprofits, usually incorporated, that return excess proceeds to their members/owners. Co-ops include credit unions, mutual insurance companies, rural electric power co-ops, distribution co-ops like Ace Hardware, housing co-ops and producer co-ops like Sunkist. Altogether, there are more than 29,000 co-ops in the United States, providing more than 850,000 jobs, $74 billion in annual wages and nearly $500 billion in revenue. Co-ops can use their own Web address extension, .coop, which more than 3,000 have adopted, according to
There are between 300 and 350 member-owned food co-ops in the United States, according to the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. Compared to food buying clubs, which operate on a pre-order basis, food co-ops are storefronts where food is available immediately like a conventional supermarket. The United Nations declared the International Year of Cooperatives in 2012, which coincided with many local discussions to transform food buying clubs into co-ops.
Co-ops can either be owned by member consumers or by their workers. The Portland Food Co-op and Belfast Co-op are member-owned, whereas Local Sprouts Cooperative, a food cafe in Portland, is worker-owned. Harris says the Belfast Co-op is in early discussions to possibly become a hybrid member-worker-owned co-op, which could increase the options for membership.
The member-owned co-ops just starting in Maine are in Portland, Brooks, Gardiner, Houlton and Fort Kent. Existing member-owned co-ops are in Belfast, Blue Hill, Damariscotta, Norway, Rockland and Waterville. In addition, the worker-owned Island Employee Cooperative is in the works in Stonington. It will combine four existing conventional shops, two of them food stores, a pharmacy and a variety store (see "Cooperative succession" sidebar on page 16).
"Anecdotally, there's been an increase in the past 18 months," of food co-ops seeking funding, says Daniel Wallace, program developer, sustainable agriculture at CEI, a community development corporation based in Wiscasset. "A number of food co-ops have talked to us and also buying clubs that want to transition to a food storefront."
Wallace adds that he thinks food co-ops have a competitive advantage based on their local ties to the community and to local producers and food. "It's a well-designed and executed business model," he says. CEI also is involved with funding for the Island Employee Cooperative.
Co-op membership fees typically run $60-$100, and some member-owned co-ops have a small yearly fee on top of that. Food co-op members vote on a one-member/one-vote basis and elect a board of directors from among the membership. Investment in membership shares is considered a contribution to equity, while membership fees are treated as income. The member-owned co-ops don't have to pay income taxes on member-based income if they return that income to members as cash or as allocated patronage, according to the University of Wisconsin center. The amount of money members get back in a surplus year depends on how much food they buy.
The surge in Maine's food co-ops comes at a time when farm growth in Maine also is on the rise. Recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture preliminary 2012 census figures show Maine bucking a national downtrend, with the state's farm crop and livestock market value having risen 24% to $764.4 million from 2007 to 2012. In those five years, the number of farms rose 13.6% or by 38 farms and by more than 100,000 acres to 1.45 million acres. Maine led New England with 8,174 farms in 2012. Also, while Maine has the oldest general population in the nation, it attracts a number of farmers ages 34 and younger. Their ranks rose nearly 40% in the five years to 551, far surpassing the 1.5% increase in the United States.

From club to store

Many food co-ops begin as buying clubs, typically run by volunteers where members pre-order food to benefit from the savings of group-buying. Such was the case with both Belfast and Portland.
The Portland Food Co-op recently topped 1,000 member-owners, Curran Apse says, and expects to be ahead of schedule to reach the 1,400 it needs to open its storefront. Each member-owner pays $100 for a share, which is a one-time equity investment.
The idea for the Portland co-op sprouted in 2006. The Food Now buyer's club started in 2008 as an interim step. From 2008-2012, the all-volunteer, pre-order club drew in 150 member-owners and more than $200,000 in annual sales. By 2012, 61% of the products sold through pre-order came from local producers, many of them bought through the Crown O'Maine Cooperative. The Portland Food Co-op's leaders in 2013 hired Cooperative Development Services in St. Paul, Minn., to conduct a market feasibility study with the idea of transitioning into a retail co-op.
The results, says Curran Apse, encouraged them to move forward. Cooperative Development projected sales of $2 million in year one and $3 million in year four. The co-op put together a business plan that set a minimum membership of 1,400 before the store opens in September and a fundraising goal of $1.26 million. Of that, so far $100,000 has been raised from member-owned share purchases, with another $330,000 loan from the Cooperative Fund of New England. The co-op is reaching out to members for another $600,000 in loans. It also has received $200,000 from a combination of grants and community loans and is applying for other loans. She expects the last chunk of money, $30,000, to come from first-time buy inventory vendors, which typically donate a percent because the co-op is a new business.
"This gives folks like myself and others who were not in business before a way to invest locally in their local food co-op," she says. "People can be involved as much or as little as they want. It's another road to creating a thriving economy where every piece is local. That resonates with a lot of people."
Curran Apse says the current board will focus on policies and oversight, but leave the day-to-day operations management to staff. This summer the 13-member board plans to go through training to learn about management and running the co-op. The Portland Food Co-op is searching for a general manager to set up the store and systems and hire staff.
The co-op plans to prioritize local food purchases, as well as to offer a large section of bulk items. She says it will differentiate itself from competition by having a wide selection of local foods and products, providing a big selection of bulk items, including liquids.
"The cooperative model means the Portland Food Co-op will always remain a local business," she adds.
That is a big point for the now-forming Gardiner Food Co-op, which is a project of the Kennebec Local Food Initiative. Started as a buying club two years ago, it is now transitioning to a storefront. It recently launched a membership drive, and is about one-third of its way toward the initial goal of pulling in 150 members paying $100 per share, says Sarah Miller, co-president of the Kennebec Local Food Initiative, who also was on the original planning team of the Portland Food Co-op. Over the past two years, the buying club took in $84,000 in revenue, with food pickups twice a month.
The idea for the co-op model came at the beginning of 2013. "It really lends itself well to individuals or an entire community who want to have a community-building project," Miller explains. She says the co-op can add to the downtown revitalization under way in Gardiner.
The Gardiner food club's 346 members have been buying exclusively Maine-produced goods, including from Farm Direct and Crown O'Maine Cooperative, but the storefront opening, scheduled for this summer, will broaden the co-op's purchases.
The Cooperative Fund of New England is the primary lender, but the co-op also is looking to a local bank and a possible grant. The startup cost is $140,000, which includes $10,000 that members will contribute, Miller says. The business plan calls for one full-time and one part-time manager and two full-time staffers. The co-op will be in a 2,000-square-foot building.
"There's a national resurgence of the cooperative model," says Miller. "The impact on the state of Maine could be really significant. Most co-ops are dedicated to the community. And they are a boon to the local economy by recirculating money and supporting smaller farmers and producers."


Radical UN Report Promotes Democratic Control of Food and an End to Corporate Domination

(Credit: Shutterstock)new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the “Right to Food” took aim at the entire basis on which food is produced and distributed on a global scale. Reflecting the type of progressive analysis of our food system from experts like Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan, report author Olivier De Schutter called for an undermining of large agribusinesses and an infusion of democratic control.
Although the report’s recommendations are revolutionary, news of its release went largely unreported in the major U.S. media.
De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, spent six years visiting more than a dozen countries and concluded that the world’s entire food system should be rebuilt, starting with the promotion of local, sustainable farming so that ordinary people have control over what they can grow and eat. This certainly does not sound radical to those of us in U.S. cities where there has been a rapid expansion of farmers markets and an explosion in backyard farming. But in poor American communities and in poor countries as a whole, it is a radical notion for food to be grown locally, sustainably and democratically. 
The world’s food system is controlled by a handful of giant corporations, the majority of which are based in the U.S., such as ConAgra, Cargill and PepsiCo. These companies are a bottleneck through which most of the world’s food is forced, in order to feed most of the world’s people. Not only is this method environmentally unsustainable given its overreliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels, but it is also inefficient at actually feeding people. The World Food Programme estimates that there are 842 million hungry people worldwide.
How did it get this way? The “Green Revolution” starting in the 1940s was a promise that a technological fix of high-yielding grains cultivated for mass planting, used in combination with newly developed chemical fertilizers and pesticides, would eliminate world hunger. By some measures the Green Revolution was indeed successful in producing vast amounts of cereal grains that feed a large chunk of the earth’s population. But how did so few companies end up at the top? And why are so many people still hungry today?
In an interview on Uprising, I asked food justice activist Raj Patel to explain what went wrong with the Green Revolution and why De Schutter’s report may provide a panacea. Patel is a writer, activist and academic, and he wrote the book “Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System” as well as the New York Times best-seller “The Value of Nothing.” He teaches a class at UC Berkeley with Pollan called Edible Education and is an adviser to De Schutter. According to him, “the food system is carved out of a history of colonialism, of slavery, of empire.”
Today, Patel told me, the Green Revolution has resulted in “substituting chemicals for workers and that means you have displaced people who end up moving to cities. And these are the people who are most likely to be going hungry.” Patel conceded that, “yes, there is more food produced if you measure just the big commodity crops.” But, he noted, “you sacrifice the other kinds of more nutritious crops that were growing alongside the cereals.” Pointing to Latin America as an example, Patel told me that during the peak of the Green Revolution, “food production went up by 9 percent, but so did hunger.”
Patel maintained that “there is enough food,” but “the way in which we distribute the food is unjust.” In other words, corporate control of these vast monocultured farms grew even as more people were pushed off land slated for cultivation, until all that is left are a handful of wealthy businesses producing more food than ever and a hungry population of landless poor that cannot afford to feed itself.
It is not just food corporations that control our food system, but also large chemical and seed companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical. For decades, Monsanto has benefited from a monopoly it created through its genetically engineered corn and soy seeds that are impervious to its own brand of pesticide called Roundup. The Roundup Ready seed-pesticide system was easy and efficient for farmers to use—except that the seeds are also engineered to be sterile so farmers cannot save seeds for next year’s harvest and are thus dependent on Monsanto year after year. Not only has this method resulted in crops that rely on heavy use of poisonous chemicals, it has also given rise to dangerous “super weeds” that are resistant to pesticides.
Eager to jump into the game, Dow Chemical is awaiting approval of a similar genetically engineered seed and pesticide duo called Enlist. The Enlist pesticide contains a chemical that was part of the cocktail of toxins used in the Vietnam War called Agent Orange. Patel lamented how “the power over fertilizers and seeds is concentrated in the hands of very few companies,” and that “they are able to bend the market to their will.”
In his report for the United Nations, De Schutter suggested as a solution the idea of “agroecology,” which he described as “a way to improve the resilience and sustainability of food systems.” Agroecology, according to Patel, is “a system where instead of supplanting nature, you work with it. So instead of relying on pesticides, for example, you would [rely on] plants that attract beneficial predatory insects that will take care of the pests, so that the management of pests is integrated into a diverse and complex ecosystem.” Patel said this method of food production would replace monocultures of corn, soy and wheat with polycultures of lots of different plants that have a variety of benefits such as soil improvement, pest control and shade. Most importantly, an agroecological food system would be, Patel said, one that is the most “climate-change ready” and “much more robust in terms of external climate shocks.”
Agroecology is also consistent with the idea of “food sovereignty,” a term embraced by food justice activists and groups like the 200-million-strong peasant farmer movementLa Via Campesina to demand local and democratic control of food. So it is no surprise that the corporate-dominated industry is extremely wary when the words “food sovereignty” are bandied about. Yet, in his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, De Schutter boldly wrote, “Food sovereignty is a condition for the full realization of the right to food.” He explicitly took aim at big corporations, warning that “the current food systems are efficient only from the point of view of maximizing agribusiness profits,” and added that “[a]t the local, national and international levels, the policy environment must urgently accommodate alternative, democratically-mandated visions.”
Patel concurred that this notion of democracy “is the real heart of what’s radical in this report.” He told me that rather than “food sovereignty,” corporations and governments like the term “food security.” But “technically,” Patel said, “you can be food secure in prison and be given sufficient food to survive. But you have no say in that process, in how that food is grown or how society has decided how to end hunger.” In other words, democratic control of our food system is the only thing that can break corporate control of what we eat and how and where we grow our food, and that is exactly what De Schutter has reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Like other basic human needs such as water, shelter and health care, our food shouldn’t be subject to the drive for profit. In calling for democratic control of our food, De Schutter and Patel are threatening the business interests of some of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations. Given that De Schutter’s report has been submitted to the highest international representatives of civil society, it has the potential to effect change, but only if there is enough pressure from below.
Patel told me the report is “only as good as the mobilization that is able to use it.” Although it provides “ammunition to groups like La Via Campesina in their ongoing fight to be able to democratize the food system,” he warned that there is much work to be done, saying, “we do need to keep organizing and to keep the pressure up and in fact to be dreaming much bigger than we’re allowed to be dreaming by the governments that purport to represent us.”

Monday, March 17, 2014


Published on Monday, March 17, 2014 by Common Dreams

Mass Scallop Die Off a 'Red Flag' for the World's Oceans

Rise of carbon in the atmosphere raising acidity in oceans and causing 'cascading effect' at all levels of the food chain

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer
(Flickr / thumeco / Creative Commons License)An increase of acidity in the Pacific Ocean is quickly killing off one of the world's most beloved shellfish, the scallop, according to a report by the British Columbia Shellfish Grower’s Association.
“By June of 2013, we lost almost 95 per cent of our crops,” Rob Saunders, CEO of Island Scallops in B.C. told Canada's CTV News.
The cause of this increase in acidity, scientists say, is the exponential burning of fossil fuels for energy and its subsequent pollution. Oceans naturally absorb carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fossil fuel emissions, which causes acidity to rise.
An overdose of carbon in the atmosphere subsequently causes too much acidity in the world's oceans, Chris Harley, a marine ecologist from the University of British Columbia, told CTV News. Overly acidic water is bad for shellfish, as it impairs them from developing rigid shells. Oyster hatcheries along the West Coast are also experiencing a steep decline, CTV News reports.
“This is a bit of a red flag,” said Harley.
And this red flag has a much bigger impact than one might imagine. “Whenever we see an impact at some level of the food chain, there is a cascading effect at other levels of the food chain,” said Peter Ross, an expert in ocean pollution science.
A recent study warned that ocean acidification is accelerating at a rate unparalleled in the life of the oceans—perhaps the fastest rate in the planet's existence—which is degrading marine ecosystems on a mass scale.
"The current rate of change is likely to be more than 10 times faster than it has been in any of the evolutionary crises in the earth's history," said German marine biologist Hans Poertner upon the release of a recent study published in the journal Nature.
Ocean acidification has been referred to as the "evil twin" of climate change.
Poertner says that if humanity's industrial carbon emissions continue with a "business as usual" attitude, levels of acidity in the world's oceans will be catastrophic.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.


Wall Street Investors Take Aim at Farmland

| Fri Mar. 14, 2014 3:00 AM GMT

Where's the money? 
In a couple of posts last fall (here and here), I showed that corporations don't do much actual farming in the United States. True, agrichemical companies like Monsanto and Syngenta mint fortunes by selling seeds and chemicals to farmers, and grain processors like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill reap billions from buying crops cheap and turning them into pricey stuff like livestock feed, sweetener, cooking oil, and ethanol. But the great bulk of US farms—enterprises that generally have razor-thin profit margins—are run by independent operators.
That may be on the verge of changing. A recent report by the Oakland Institute documents a fledgling, little-studied trend: Corporations are starting to buy up US farmland, especially in areas dominated by industrial-scale agriculture, like Iowa and California's Central Valley. But the land-grabbing companies aren't agribusinesses like Monsanto and Cargill. Instead, they're financial firms: investment arms of insurance companies, banks, pension funds, and the like. In short, Wall Street spies gold in those fields of greens and grains.
Why are they plowing cash into such an inherently risky business with such seemingly low profit potential? For Wall Street, farmland represents a "reassuringly tangible commodity" with the potential for "solid, if not excellent, returns," the Oakland Institute notes—something clients are hungry for after being recently burned not long ago by credit-default swaps and securities backed by trashy mortgages. As the saying goes, you can't make more land; and as the Oakland Institute notes, "over the last 50 years, the amount of global arable land per capita shrank by roughly 45 percent, and it is expected to continue declining, albeit more moderately, going toward 2050."
Nearly 40 percent of US farmland is rented—and more like 50 percent in ag-heavy regions. 
Financial institutions and food-strapped countries like China and United Arab Emirates have already been snapping up landin the developing world, where prices are low and labor is cheap. But now, the Oakland Institute reports, pricey US land is also looking attractive, because it "boasts some of the world's most fertile soil, advanced industrial farm technology, strong private property rights, [and] federally subsidized crop insurance."
And Wall Street likes a good bubble. Farmland prices have soared to all-time highs in recent years, pushed up by the government-mandated corn ethanol boom. The average per acre price of Iowa land surged about 60 percent in real terms between 2007 and 2012, and rents have jumped in lockstep.
The report notes that over the next 20 years, nearly half of US farmland—about 400 million acres—will be up for sale as our aging base of farmers moves into retirement. So far, Wall Street cash is moving onto US farms like a stream; financial firms own just about 1 percent of total acreage, and most farmland is still bought by farmers, not institutional investors, the report states. But as more prime land enters the market, the hot money could soon flow like a gusher. By mid-2013, farmland was such a hot commodity that institutional investors werecomplaining of a tight market for prime farmland—that is, they had more money committed to buying farmland than they could find attractive deals for. But the supply of prime farmland for sale will expand as farmers retire in the coming decades, and Wall Street looks poised to move into the market.
And of course, you don't have to take on the risk of farming when you buy farmland; you can also collect rent checks from the people who take on that risk. According to this USDA report, nearly 40 percent of US farmland acres are rented, and in the ag-heavy regions of farm sates like Iowa, Illinois, and California, the number tops 50 percent. The Oakland Institute report points out that one of the biggest players eyeing US farms is UBS Agrinvest, an arm of the Swiss banking mammoth UBS. UBS's strategy: "Rather than gambling its profits on commodity prices that could rise or fall, Agrivest prefers the predictable income that comes from renting to tenants, usually through lease agreements that last one to five years." That strategy is looking pretty good right now, because corn and soy prices have fallen while land rents remain stubbornly high. Between 2010 and 2012, the value of UBS's US farmland portfolio jumped from $192 million to $415 million. 
Another major player, particularly in California, is the Hancock Agricultural Investment Group, which is investing heavily in land suitable for growing export crops for East Asia's rising middle classes, like nuts and wine grapes. Hancock Agricultural Investment Group owns 290,000 acres of US farmland—nearly 40 percent of which is devoted to almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and macadamia nuts, all of which have found a booming export market in Asia in recent years (wine grapes, also a hot export product, make up another 8 percent of its holdings). According to its Investment Strategy, HAIG leases the land it owns that is devoted to "row" crops like vegetables and corn. But for "permanent" crops like tree nuts—with the help of Farmland Management Services, a national farmland management firm with primary offices in Turlock, California, and Champaign, Illinois—HAIG tends to "directly operate" the land in order to "maximize income returns." Translation: It figures that the large profit potential associated with hot export products offsets the inherent risks of farming.
Overuse of water in California's Central Valley has caused a landmass twice the size of Los Angeles to sink 11 inches per year.
Of course, one advantage of owning farmland in California's is its Wild West water-pumping regulations. California's Central Valley, now parched by its worst drought in 500 years, is the site of much of that booming nut production. Almonds and pistachios are thirsty crops, as my colleagues Alex Park and Julia Lurie recently showed, yet acreage devoted to almondsrose by more than 25 percent between 2006 and 2013, while pistachio acres jumped 50 percent over a similar time frame.
For about a decade, Central Valley farmers there have been pumping groundwater much faster than it can naturally be replenished, to make up for reduced irrigation flows from the state's rivers and streams, researchers at the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling recently found. The trend has dramatically increased since the current drought's onset in 2011, the team says. The overpumping has gotten so bad that 1,200 square mile swath of the Central Valley—a landmass more than twice as large as Los Angeles—has been sinking by an average of 11 inches per year, a 2013 US Geological Survey study found. And here's the kicker: USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed, who worked on the study, tells me that it's not on land owned by family farms that most of the water sucking in the part of the Central Valley is occurring; rather, she said, it's on land owned by large finance firms.
She added that the switch from row crops like broccoli to tree crops like nuts have worsened the situation, because crop growers can fallow fields during a drought, while nut growers have to keep their trees watered or risk losing them altogether. The pumping frenzy is made possible by a regulatory free-for-all—Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a leading think thank on water issues, says California has no statewide limits on how landowners can exploit the water under their land—a state of affairs he calls a "recipe for disaster."
Wall Street's move onto farms comes at a time of severe ecological flux that will be exacerbated by climate change. On top of deepening water woes in California—where half of US-grown fresh produce comes from—there's a slow-motion, largely invisible soil crisis brewing in the Midwestern grain belt, which I wrote about here. Who would you trust more to navigate these challenges sustainably—farmers looking to pass on productive land to their kids, or financial managers operating under pressure to deliver short-term profits to investors?

Sunday, March 16, 2014


The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools

“Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or get pinched.” That pretty much sums up the Irish-American “curriculum” that I learned when I was in school. Yes, I recall a nod to the so-called Potato Famine, but it was mentioned only in passing.To support the famine relief effort, British tax policy required landlords to pay the local taxes of their poorest tenant farmers, leading many landlords to forcibly evict struggling farmers and destroy their cottages in order to save money. From Hunger on Trial Teaching Activity.
Sadly, today’s high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.
Yet there is no shortage of material that can bring these dramatic events to life in the classroom. In my own high school social studies classes, I begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,” which includes the verse:
… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak
December day,
The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive
Us all away
They set my roof on fire, with their cursed
English spleen
And that’s another reason why I left old
By contrast, Holt McDougal’s U.S. history textbook The Americans, devotes a flat two sentences to “The Great Potato Famine.” Prentice Hall’s America: Pathways to the Present fails to offer a single quote from the time. The text calls the famine a “horrible disaster,” as if it were a natural calamity like an earthquake. And in an awful single paragraph, Houghton Mifflin’s The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People blames the “ravages of famine” simply on “a blight,” and the only contemporaneous quote comes, inappropriately, from a landlord, who describes the surviving tenants as “famished and ghastly skeletons.” Uniformly, social studies textbooks fail to allow the Irish to speak for themselves, to narrate their own horror.
These timid slivers of knowledge not only deprive students of rich lessons in Irish-American history, they exemplify much of what is wrong with today’s curricular reliance on corporate-produced textbooks.
First, does anyone really think that students will remember anything from the books’ dull and lifeless paragraphs? Today’s textbooks contain no stories of actual people. We meet no one, learn nothing of anyone’s life, encounter no injustice, no resistance. This is a curriculum bound for boredom. As someone who spent almost 30 years teaching high school social studies, I can testify that students will be unlikely to seek to learn more about events so emptied of drama, emotion, and humanity.
Nor do these texts raise any critical questions for students to consider. For example, it’s important for students to learn that the crop failure in Ireland affected only the potato—during the worst famine years, other food production was robust. Michael Pollan notes in The Botany of Desire, “Ireland’s was surely the biggest experiment in monoculture ever attempted and surely the most convincing proof of its folly.” But if only this one variety of potato, the Lumper, failed, and other crops thrived, why did people starve?
Thomas Gallagher points out in Paddy’s Lament, that during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, as Gallagher notes, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad.
The school curriculum could and should ask students to reflect on the contradiction of starvation amidst plenty, on the ethics of food exports amidst famine. And it should ask why these patterns persist into our own time.
More than a century and a half after the “Great Famine,” we live with similar, perhaps even more glaring contradictions. Raj Patel opens his book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System: “Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.”
Patel’s book sets out to account for “the rot at the core of the modern food system.” This is a curricular journey that our students should also be on — reflecting on patterns of poverty, power, and inequality that stretch from 19th century Ireland to 21st century Africa, India, Appalachia, and Oakland; that explore what happens when food and land are regarded purely as commodities in a global system of profit.
But today’s corporate textbook-producers are no more interested in feeding student curiosity about this inequality than were British landlords interested in feeding Irish peasants. Take Pearson, the global publishing giant. At its website, the corporation announces (redundantly) that “we measure our progress against three key measures: earnings, cash and return on invested capital.” The Pearson empire had 2011 worldwide sales of more than $9 billion—that’s nine thousand million dollars, as I might tell my students. Multinationals like Pearson have no interest in promoting critical thinking about an economic system whose profit-first premises they embrace with gusto.
As mentioned, there is no absence of teaching materials on the Irish famine that can touch head and heart. In a role play, “Hunger on Trial,” that I wrote and taught to my own students in Portland, Oregon—included at the Zinn Education Project website— students investigate who or what was responsible for the famine. The British landlords, who demanded rent from the starving poor and exported other food crops? The British government, which allowed these food exports and offered scant aid to Irish peasants? The Anglican Church, which failed to denounce selfish landlords or to act on behalf of the poor? A system of distribution, which sacrificed Irish peasants to the logic of colonialism and the capitalist market?
These are rich and troubling ethical questions. They are exactly the kind of issues that fire students to life and allow them to see that history is not simply a chronology of dead facts stretching through time.
So go ahead: Have a Guinness, wear a bit of green, and put on the Chieftains. But let’s honor the Irish with our curiosity. Let’s make sure that our schools show some respect, by studying the social forces that starved and uprooted over a million Irish—and that are starving and uprooting people today.