Graham Meriwether

published Distance From the Farm in Ruminations 2012-07-18 12:42:30 -0400

Distance From the Farm

As more people have left rural communities and moved into cities, our culture has become removed from the cycles of life and death that are necessary for existence. Dead animals, dead plants, worn-down rocks, manure- these things and many others- combine to make a distinct soil. This soil is where the seeds are placed that grow into plants, becoming our food. Each component of the soil is vital.

Vegetable farming is dependent on animals. Soybeans are grown from the manure of chickens and pigs, this manure being one form of organic fertilizer. Much of our world's vegetables are grown with this type of fertilizer. If we were to stop raising animals for meat- we would lose a main source of organic fertilizer. This would have a dramatic impact on our civilization. Our alternative would be to produce much more synthetic fertilizer. To do this, we'd have to mine more potassium and phosphorus, which is extricated from finite natural deposits like the one at the Dead Sea. Twice as much nitrogen would need converting to ammonia- a process heavily dependent on natural gas and coal. These synthetic fertilizers are manufactured using non-renewable energy and would become scarce in the decades and centuries ahead. Manure is a renewable resource.

Our cultural separation from the farm, and the land, has led to a misunderstanding of the nature of life, and particularly of the harsh, often violent, realities of existence. There is no doubt, in the full exuberance of spring, when the first flowers bloom, one cannot think of a word other than beauty when describing a garden. This, however, is only a part of the reality of a garden. The other truth is that many animals and plants were disrupted, and often killed, either purposefully or incidentally in order to create the beauty we perceived in the garden. The same is true of a vegetable farm. When one visits a field of ripe tomatoes in the late summer, and has the pleasure of plucking a sun gold tomato and tasting the burst of flavor directly from the vine, it seems like a wholly peaceful and transformative experience. And yet this is again only a small spectrum of the reality. We are often not aware that the farmer was forced to shoot half a dozen crows to preserve the crop, and that when using the combine to harvest potatoes in the next field over, bunnies and birds may have been shredded within the essential machinery of the farm. Agriculture, in part, is a violent act. Forests are cleared, prairies burned, ecosystems transformed. There is no death-free agriculture . There is no cruelty-free meal. The reality of life and of agriculture is infinitely complex, equal parts wondrous and terrifying.

The reality is stark- our agriculture faces many challenges today. Most of the animals we eat are being raised in ways that require massive amounts of energy. Energy for feed, for crop-dusters, for heating, for cooling, for water, for transport, it goes on. Because of these externalities, the amount of meat our world consumes is out of balance with the resources we have available. The vital news is that we have alternative methods of animal agriculture- although far from perfect- that harness the cycles of life, death and manure to substantially reduce the external inputs needed. These low-input models combined with increased local distribution will bring us closer to finding the proper balance of animals in our diet, a number which will be substantially lower than today- although a number that pragmatically, and ethically, is not zero.

published Restaurants, too in Ruminations 2012-07-18 12:41:09 -0400

Restaurants, too

There's a movement afoot. 

Today was in West Orange, NJ at the annual meeting of the New Jersey Restaurant Association. 

Before our screening, Dawn Sweeney, President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association spoke. She showed charisma in remembering a woman who'd recently passed from cancer, who had been a big part of New Jersey's Restarant community, Deborah Dowdell.

She then went on to talk about the power of restaurants in America. There are 972,000 restaurants in America. 972,000. Every day we go to these places, we order food, we share a meal together. Our restaurants are a vital part of our communities, and of our culture. Most of us have worked at restaurants, for many of us it was a first job. And yes, restaurants are directly related to agriculture, and restauranteurs and chefs are inextricably paired with farmers. 

Following the documentary, we talked about the growing trend of restaurants to source locally, a point that was backed up by a number of owners in the audience, and also later in the day by a panel of chefs talking about the current state of the kitchen. We talked about the story of Chipotle, about the amount of money that is saved when a company starts sourcing locally when possible. Instead of being trucked from one side of the country to the other, it travels 80 miles instead of 800. If half of the restaurants in America tried that- billions of dollars would be saved on gasoline in transportation annually. Betsy Alger- who for 29 years owned The Frog and The Peach- she just sold it 2 weeks back- talked about the importance of being honest in labeling menus. It's not local unless it is grown here. Folks nodded. Some chuckled.

There were more questions than time which is better than the other way around. 

In conversations through the day, many, many people came up and talked about involvement with a local farm, desire to learn, perhaps to change daily food. There's something universal in a movement. Even when people don't agree, they seem to agree. And every part of the culture is impacted. A fellow named Paul who runs a culinary school in Jersey City said that people are starting to reevaluate what it means to be wealthy. If you're making 100K- working inside- and feeling apathetic about the work you're doing- are you wealthier than someone who's making 40K but working in a job they believe in? It's a complicated question, and certainly there's valid points on each side- but it's a question more and more folks are contemplating. Paul's right- a lot of people are re-evaluating the word wealth. They are re-evaluating their own lives and their own priorities.  It's infectious, and happening everywhere at once. 

published Animal Husbandry Class in Ruminations 2012-07-18 12:04:24 -0400

Animal Husbandry Class

Lots of eager faces. Most of them young. 

We did a special screening as part of Just Food's Animal Husbandry class being taught by Craig Haney and Dan Carr of Stone Barns. It was kind of an odd spot for it too, in the Wall St. Journal's building in Midtown Manhattan. The security guards seemed kind of relieved to see folks in comfortable clothes shooting up the elevator to the venue. 

The students in the class were filled with the passion and energy reserved only for beginners- and experts. Everyone was excited at the prospect of raising bees, or fish, or chickens, or pigs. Everyone wanted to learn. There were a couple of young fellows from Wassaic, who recently purchased 60 acres or so- this is upstate- and were palpably ready to jump in after taking the class. They'd driven hours and hours and hours South into the city just for the 2 hour class. And they'd done this repeatedly for over a month. 

It was the last class, and to celebrate they screened the documentary, and shared a potluck meal of food. The conversation following was fervent, people concerned about the future prospects of our culture and often the topics turned to what is needed for a less turbulent transition from high-input agriculture. 

It was great to see Craig and Dan, both of whom are so humble, and so kind. They are both in our documentary, and we're kind enough to sit through it again.  

People said goodbyes and out the revolving doors into the city night.

published The Power of Sharing a Meal in Ruminations 2012-07-18 12:03:12 -0400

The Power of Sharing a Meal

Today was a new experience. 

Shared a stage with Dawn, a vegetarian advocate, Dr. Gabor, who's laboring to develop artificially synthesized meat- meaning a meat-like substance replicated from animal proteins that starts out in a petri dish, and Will, who's a good-natured journalist that led our conversation.

This was a departure from the conversations we've had at screenings to this point- often in a room full of farmers, local food advocates, chefs and students.

This conference focused on feeding the world in 2050, with a focus on how agriculture will ultimately impact climate. There were people from so many different arenas- sustainable advocates for major companies like Coke and Pepsi, scientists from universities, journalists, representatives from government, representatives from NGOs, leaders of education, of service. It seemed every few moments a vital piece of the solution was being shared and that if we could just pool the collective ideas- taking the strengths of each perspective- we might be able to reach a starting point for a solution. There are of course challenges when reaching a consensus, compromises perhaps, that become more difficult often as people have more and more passion for or against any measure. And there were disagreements, a few of which I was actively involved in.

There was one moment during the day, where an epiphany broke through. A random group of us- Will- a different Will- this one a farmer at EMU in Harrisonburg, Wesley, a young farmer in Southwest Michigan, Debra- who helped to start an incredible organization called Food Corps- (think Peace Corps for American Agriculture), myself and Jeha (check this)- a scientist based in Vancouver started talking about the power of sharing a meal. Debra mentioned that up until the 1980s, there was a room and a tradition in which members of Congress would sit together and share a meal. This is a comforting thought. In our country, in our world, let us hope that after a conversation we can sit down and break bread together. Perhaps, if Democrats and Republicans occasionally shared a meal together, they might reach a consensus, a compromise and be more able to be productive. It also becomes much more difficult to say negative things about one another, if you know that you'll be sitting down with that person later in the month to eat asparagus.

And in this most contentious of years, a presidential election year, it seems the shades of red and blue are often painted on a few shades darker, with a few more coats. Politicians and citizens often retreat to their camps, and often those issues that bring us apart are emphasized, and those issues that bring us together, forgotten. And among the five of us we had a thought, wouldn't it be refreshing, if this presidential election, President Obama, Governor Romney and Wolf Blitzer changed up the typical format and traded in their podiums for seats around a dinner table. Traded in their thirty second barbs, for thoughtful reflection over mashed potatoes. Because, in the end, we all have more in common than we have apart, and each night, often unaware, across our country, and our world each of us sit down and share a meal together. 


published Keener Farm in Ruminations 2012-07-18 12:01:35 -0400

Keener Farm

Matthew, Candice and I squeezed into a pickup. 

The door at the Fox News channel was locked and a fellow let us in after buzzing. 

We sat in a room with big couches and waited to go on set. The wait was made shorter by Matt's natural humor, jokes abound about most everything. 

We slipped on mics and met Megan, the smooth host of the morning show, who asked us some questions casually as we waited for a couple segments. 

After a story about firefighters in drag in Minnesota, we went on. The segment was brief and seemed to be over in less than a minute, although after we heard it was three minutes. Megan expertly redirected focus and intertwined our brief conversation from moments earlier, all the while relaying vital information like when and where the screening would be. 

De-mic'd we hopped back in the truck.

Brunch back at the homestead prepared by Karen Keener, who shares her son Matt's sense of humor and generally upbeat presence. We had egg, sausage, and Irish soda bread, and yes all from the farm, and damn good. 

We talked about orchestras and wind ensembles, a passion of David Keener, father of Matthew and husband of Karen.

The Keeners are gracious hosts- opening their home and their kitchen. They have a farm- Keener Farm- that's been around since 1830. A Century Farm- one that's been in the family 100 years.

Again, Candice, Matt and I got in the truck and headed to Winner's - where we picked up a whole hog raised by Hank- who raises for Keener, and then drove it to Antioch College where a young enthusiastic chef named Isaac, and a few of us carried the whole dead hog through a cafeteria at lunch hour. 

Back at the Keener's kitchen, we had lunch, cheeseburgers that were from the farm and caesar salad, Karen being quite a cook. After, David, Matt and I collected eggs. I had a hard time getting one of the hens off the eggs. It eventually happened when grabbing the chicken by the feet. 

130 people showed at the Neon theater which was about right since we had about 140 seats in the theater. Appetizers were served before using meat from Keener farm- the food prepped and cooked by a great new restaurant- Olive

Following, we talked about GMOs, policy relating to the 2012 farm bill, and helping young farmers get started. Free Chipotle burrito coupons were given out, and some DVDs were sold, and we had a culminating dinner at Olive to cap a full, exciting day. 



published Livestock Genetics in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:57:01 -0400

Livestock Genetics

If you ask someone to think about dogs, he or she will probably consider more than one type: beagles, Labradors, Great Danes, etc. However, if you ask someone to think about pigs, cows, or chickens, it is likely that only a very generic image will come to mind — the white chickens, the pink pigs, the black-and-white patterned cows. But farm animals come in different breeds, too, hundreds of them! So why don’t we ever see them?

Over the course of the past century, as farming has become more and more large scale, we have come to rely on fewer and fewer different breeds of food animals. In the past, the breed of livestock on a farm was the one best-fitted to the climate and needs of the family and community. Now, large commodity farms choose to raise the animal that will produce the most meat in the most cost-effective way. The animals on commodity farms typically have an odd combination of genes and traits that causes them to put on weight in all the right places, and fast. As a result, the types of livestock raised by the million on factory farms are fast replacing traditional breeds — according to Worldwatch Institute, at least 60 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct since 2002 (roughly one breed per month).

So why is this important?

Over time, many  of livestock that are farmed for meat have been genetically manipulated to maximize production, but not the animal’s health. For example, the pigs raised for pork on commodity farms grow large too quickly, and often suffer from joint problems as a result. Similarly, broiler chickens grow breasts so large that they having trouble walking and breathing properly. As a result the farmers have to work extra hard to keep them alive — many of these animals are reliant on hormones, antibiotics, feed-supplements, and other substances. Unfortunately, they are ill-equipped for survival outside the environment of an industrial farm.

Reliance on only a few breeds of animals for such a large portion of our food supply is risky business. It makes both people and animals more vulnerable to disease, famine, and other disasters. If one breed or species of important food animal is wiped out by a disease, it is important that we have other healthy animals for back up!

Traditional breeds of livestock tend to be healthier, hardier, and happier... and many people believe that their meat is much tastier! Companies like Heritage Foods USA have started business programs in which they offer farmers a higher price for meats and products produced from animals of more pure genetic stock. These foods are becoming especially popular among restaurants and chefs for their high quality and unique taste.  Heritage Foods also offers farmers incentives to practice sustainable and humane animal agriculture. By working with Heritage Foods, farmers can more easily transition into operating a profitable farm with healthy animals, healthy land, and delicious food! Check out their website to learn more!

published People We Know in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:52:56 -0400

People We Know

The evening started off at Zingerman's Roadhouse, where Chef Alex cooked up a 4 course meal with all local meats, celebrating the farms and farmers who provided the food. About 80 of us, shared the meal together. 

Michigan Theater hosted us, about 280 people. The energy was strong, an enthusiasm for local food and farmers that runs deep in the community. There was no shortage of questions, or opinions, and the conversation following ranged from energy costs, to regulations, to the farm bill. 

The screening was co-sponsored by Slow Food Huron Valley, and by Real Time Farms. And it was a special screening for me personally because Ann Arbor is where I grew up. About twenty of my good friends were there, people known for more than half of my life, friends who've shared the seasons of life. 

And reflecting on the evening, I was struck by something Chef Alex said during our talk. That the reason he sources food from Kris at Old Pines Farm, is because she's someone he knows, personally. He knows the whole family.

And ultimately, that's what this movement, this unnamed starting thing is rooted in. The people we know, the land we know, the food we know. And these things are connected. It was my friend Dax who suggested a book- The Omnivore's Dilemma- that started this journey- and Luke and Andrea who housed me, and introduced me to farmers like Johnny Glosson and Sam Talley in North Carolina. And Karl and Cara who set this evening up, taking the time after full work days to build partnerships that brought people out. And it was so fitting, that they were all there tonight, people I've known for many wondrous years- Marvin, Mike, Lindsay, Nate, Julie, Melissa, Muki, Lauren, Dair, Ian, Alexa, Ryan, Davy- names of these good people I know. Of course, most of the people there tonight- are more recently met, or unknown. And yet we're all a part of something, something larger, and we're living it, and growing and something is taking shape. And there was a sense in the air tonight that we are all lucky to be part of it.


published SE Warren & Newton in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:51:49 -0400

SE Warren & Newton

Bill knocked. The day started with tea and bread- faro- I think it's called. It's filled with oats and Bill makes it almost every day. Toasted with butter.

Out on the road heading West and North to South East Warren High. The drive was quiet, as Andy stayed in Fairfield to edit, and it is near the end of the trip. And endings seem to be quiet usually.

Brooke greeted, and led the group out of the FFA building- a lot of schools have a separate building that is next to the school specifically for FFA- to the auditorium where about 40 students, Brooke, and another teacher sat and watched. Periodically, a loud buzzer would go off, signaling the end of one class, and the beginning of another. Some students stayed throughout, some left for class, some joined midway. We talked about the impact of technological innovation on agriculture, the advantages and disadvantages. We talked about grass-based production and local economies. The class was engaged, and it was a productive conversation, everyone in the room learning, listening.

A couple hours later the last screening started North and East at Newton. A highschooler named Christian greeted me and walked me through the maze of hallways and doorways to the auditorium where about 70 FFA students and a few local farmers were seated. School got out earlier than anticipated so we were only able to watch two-thirds of the film. It was another engaged group, one that was particularly effective when communicating the challenges of grass-based farming in Iowa. A number of kids came up and said thanks, before heading off to band practice, or sports practice, or home, perhaps to farm. 

Most of our screenings- there were 35- were filled with young people who farm, who are interested in agriculture. There were so many open minds, so many constructive conversations. I've learned much about the challenges young farmers face, and the joys that they share. This trip has been a privilege. 

Tomorrow, assuming the engine has been replaced successfully, we'll begin the trip back East. 

published More In Common in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:50:26 -0400

More In Common

Fairfield, Iowa is a very unique town. Today we had three screenings, all within a mile of each other, all with a completely different feel. 

The first was with an organic farming classm of about 30 at the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) hosted by Stacy. The students ranged in age, and backgrounds. MUM is a place with an emphasis in alternative approaches to education, and to agriculture, and probably to just about everything. The students were really engaged, and focused, and I actually didn't say a word during the group discussions because the students were already talking in depth about the issues- issues like the cost of energy, and the possibility of a whole new distribution system based on local transport. Francis Thicke- the farmer who runs Radiance Dairy- made it to all 3 screenings today, and helped feed a vibrant discussion in one of the groups. His dairy processes on the farm, and sells within only a 5 mile radius of the farm. As the price of gas gets up, Francis' economic model becomes more and more appealing. 

We- Francis, Andy, and I- headed back to Bill's for lunch, which out here is called dinner, where we ate a vegetable similar to bok choy with paneer cheese, that came from Francis' farm. It's always a great pleasure to eat a meal with the farmer who raised the food being eaten. There were some oven-baked potatoes with the paneer and greens, as well as tortilla chips, salsa and fruit. Nourished, we headed to the Fairfield High School where Ann showed us through a couple doors of the FFA building to the classroom. I said hello to Jon Sandboothe, regional manager of Farm Bureau, who joined Francis and myself for the panel. Jon's a great fellow, a 7th generation farmer- ask him for the story- who raises cattle part-time in addition to his work for Farm Bureau. The conversations were of a different nature here, as more of the students were from conventional farms, and understandably were quick to support the style of agriculture that has provided them and their families with a livelihood. At the end, we all talked about different issues, from feeding the world to the possibility of a sea-change in meat production as the price of energy drives- yes- local food distribution. 

Back at Bill's, who's a selfless host with a culinary gift, we sent out e-mails, mailed DVDs and continued editing. Grilled cheese was served for supper- which is what the third meal of the day is called in Iowa. So it goes, breakfast, dinner, supper for those of you keeping track. 

The third screening of the day was a combination of the two perspectives from earlier. A crowd of about 80 packed into the public library where conventional farmers, niche farmers, and engaged citizens all watched the documentary together. Jon was there again, as was Francis, as well as a couple of other grass-based farmers- Lester who grows for Niman Ranch and drove out from Illinois, and Alice who used to farm in Missouri. The crowd showed a diversity of opinion, of experience, but most importantly a mutual respect. You could tell by the electricity in some of the questions, that deep emotions were behind the words. As the conversation concluded, it was agreed that farmers of all types, conventional, grass-based, large, and small- have more in common than apart. That although we may differ on the path, the intentions are often the same. To grow food, to grow community, to grow health. There's a lot of different ways to approach, and each approach has it's advantages and disadvantages. As we gather together, and discuss our agriculture, there's something to be learned from each camp. The manure from a conventional hog barn may be the fertilizer for the oats you buy in the store, and the new CSA model from grass-based farms might help the conventional farmer effectively find a new market that will strengthen economic viability through diversification.

Farmers all enjoy the connection to the land- the birth of an animal, the sprouting of a seed. It's in the blood, is the phrase heard the most this trip. And that's the same phrase regardless of the type of farm.

published Engine Trouble in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:49:23 -0400

Engine Trouble

We walked into a massive 800 person auditorium filled with about 75 FFA members at Indianola High School. It's National FFA pride week- many teachers and students have t-shirts and pins with the blue and yellow logo. Cassie Brown- the AgEd teacher- said hello. Rich, the theater manager, hooked up a DVD player, tested the image and adjusted the sound levels before we got started. Good friend Dale Gruis, his wife Dawn, and son Cole joined. Pressed play.

Outside the theater the day's drama began. A scheduling mishap- my fail- had us going from Indianola to Iowa State and back to Simpson College- in Indianola in the evening. The ISU screening started at 3pm and the Simpson College screening at 6pm, with a dinner at 5. It was beginning to look like we wouldn't make dinner and might not make the start of the movie.

Instead of breaking the discussion into segments at IHS, we screened all the way through. It was just me on the panel, which means a lot of talking, loud talking, in such a large space. There were a few questions, and a few more when Cassie threatened a written test unless more questions were asked. There was a good energy in the crowd, students listening, thinking, ruminating.

Andy and I headed North to Ames, planning on lunch at Wheatsfield Co-op. Those plans changed when we heard the engine make a deep lurch at the stop light. Then another, and another. The engine service light came on, and we pulled over to get it checked out.

We walked along Duff Ave. for lunch, finding a wonderful local spot called Hickory Park, with an old-time soda-fountain feel. The walk itself was a bit demoralizing, as the four lane road was heavy with traffic and box store strip malls in each direction.

Walking back, we talked to Sean and Zane at the AAMCO station- to discover the engine was the problem, it could be the plugs and wires, or it could be the engine. Another test was needed, and this meant more time, and the time for our screening at ISU was fast approaching. Sean dropped me off on campus, and I found my way to Curtiss Hall, meeting the energetic professor, Dr. Nancy Grudens-Schuck. Andy stayed with car to either deliver the good or bad news. A class of 60 undergrads, most of whom were heading directly into farming are a perfect match for who we want to communicate with on this trip.

We tried a new format, which had students take a microphone and talk in a kind of stream-of-consciousness about the issues brought up in the documentary. Most of the students are going into large-scale conventional agriculture, and they felt that the documentary was good because it helped tell human stories about the people who raise our food. But they also felt that some of the downsides of niche production had been left out, and not enough of the benefits of conventional production left in. As a whole there was more we agreed on, then not, the importance of a diversified farm operation- if you're raising dairy and hogs, and hogs have a bad year- the dairy can pull you through those hard times and the reverse. But if you only have one type of operation- hogs- and a year like 1998 happens, then you're livelihood will be at risk. That's one of the advantages of raising many animals and crops, you'll survive a wider range of economic challenges.

Andy called halfway through with bad news. The 2002 beige Honda Accord that had taken us 5k miles thus far needed a new engine. This was bad news for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the cost, and the most immediate being the fact that we needed to be in Indianola- an hour's drive- at 6pm, and it was pushing 5pm, and we didn't have a car. We rented one at Hertz, agreed to put a used engine in, and drove South to Simpson. We got there at 7pm.

Luckily, they already had a copy of the documentary and had already had food. So the film got started as planned at 6.

Lauren- the professor who along with Ryan has sparked a local food enthusiasm- was kind enough to save some burritos from the earlier dinner, and some drinks, which we thankfully ate in the quiet library type hall as students studied.

We entered as the credits started to roll, and were pleasantly surprised to find the theater filled to capacity- about 100- intent with college students primed to change the world. The discussion following was electric. A great collection of farmers, Larry Cleverley, Ethan, Kevin, Lavonne. Dale and Cole were there for the second time that day- we learned they've been raising chickens in the backyard for a number of years. And Chuck Wirtz' middle son- Tyson- who's a student at Simpson joined. The discussion was impassioned, engaged. There was a sense of purpose, and a sense of humor, as Ethan talked about accidental pregnancies of his pigs, and Larry mentioned the free beer at his upcoming farm party- which captured the attention and laughs of many. I talked about the opportunities for young people to get into farming, the impact the cost of energy will have on distribution- pushing it to a local scale as oil inches towards $200 a barrel. With a room full of energy like that, it's a good feeling for the future, and for the present.

We grabbed a couple extra burritos and drinks and hit the road in the white rental Corolla which just a few hours earlier we'd never seen or imagined the need of. Jumped East and a little South. Four screenings tomorrow, sleep tonight.

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