Food without Borders: Reporting from Future Harvest-CASA’s 15th Annual Conference

At Future Harvest-Chesapeake Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s 15th Annual Farming for Profit and Stewardship Conference on January 17-18, 2014 in College Park, MD, there was no shortage of enthusiasm or delicious, healthy, locally sourced food. How many conferences do you go to where the chefs get a standing ovation from the conference participants? And did they ever deserve it. The offerings were diverse –a curious person could hit a technical session on sustainable potato growing, then geek out in a food policy council discussion.  The crowd was decidedly younger and urban.

Sam A. Calgione, founder and President of Dogfish Head Brewery gave the opening keynote address. His talk, peppered with stories about how he got started (with a loan from his dad and his orthodontist!) seemed to encourage the smallness of sustainable agriculture operations.  Even though Dogfish Head Brewery grew to be much larger than he ever imagined, the small operation philosophy prevails in Calgione’s business.  The way Sam tells it, using the finest quality local ingredients, making plenty of space for creativity, and staying true to the company’s “off-center” culture, are qualities that can be best maintained in small operations.

Perhaps Future Harvest-CASA can carry Sam’s thought forward into its next evolution –keep its local connections vibrant, while expanding its reach and hopefully impact.  At the member’s meeting portion of the conference, the organization’s board announced its plans to merge with Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture. The two organizations have been partnering and exchanging board members for years.  They’ve decided that now is the time to take this difficult, but important step towards becoming truly regional about food.  Scaling up, but not forgetting their roots, I heard.

One of the sessions I attended was packed with about forty folks listening to panelists from several food alliances and policy councils around the region (of course I geeked out!). The session stirred up some great discussion about the importance of bridging the “doing” part of sustainable agriculture to the “action” part of being in a movement. The panelists highlighted some impressive examples of how they are working to improve policies, build connections with people working on critical issues like childhood hunger, and cultivate channels for making progress on local and statewide policy.

Big change is afoot in 2014 for our friends at Future Harvest-CASA, a small organization that has provided a great source of technical help and comradery for people trying to grow and eat sustainably grown, local food. These changes seem to reflect of a growing understanding of the need to connect into something bigger, with perhaps a more rigorous idea about what our food system could be moving towards.

What I Learned Over My Summer (Not So Much) Vacation

I’ve just returned to work after being away from the office for several months.  It was time off from work so that I could spend time on with our recently expanded family. We had the great fortune of welcoming our newborn son into the world at the end of May.  This summer I spent quite a few (very) early mornings, dark circles under my eyes with a large mug of coffee in hand, at local parks toting our infant and chasing around our two and half year old daughter. One of our favorite spots has not just slides, but a great little beach on the Choptank River where my toddler can collect rocks and shells and check out the jellyfish while I bop around with our infant in a carrier hoping he’ll nap. Inevitably, I run into lots of other moms, parents, and caregivers there.  When people find out I live locally (this park is frequented by beach travelers), the question I hear most often is “you think it’s OK for my children to swim down there at the little beach?”  As in, “will my kids get sick if I let them swim in the river?”

It’s very hard to resist the urge to get on my clean water soapbox.  Instead, I just try to be practical and helpful.  But I found myself fumbling around for a good answer. Is it too polluted to swim?  Shouldn’t the answer be a simple yes or no? And shouldn’t I be able to point to a reliable source that gives me the information I need to decide if my kids can go in the river?   Scientists agree across the board that the Choptank is dirty. In fact, it is probably one of the dirtiest rivers that flows into the Chesapeake.  If someone is testing locally for bacteria counts, the information doesn’t seem to be posted anywhere for public consumption. How are people supposed to know what the deal is? If there is public information about whether the water is safe for swimming in the Choptank, I couldn’t find it.  A recent article in the Bay Journal recommends doing a little internet research before plunging in, but for the Choptank, the internet came up empty.  Maryland Department of Environment does have a beach advisory website, but lists no sites on the Choptank.  What I learned is that we don’t have good public information about whether it is safe to swim in the river in my community.

A notable solution to this problem is the Waterkeeper Swim Guide which is online and has a handy app for your smart phone.   Quite a few swimming spots around the Bay are in the system, although precious few on the Eastern Shore, and none on the Choptank.  The app pulls up a map and you can look up beaches near your location. The information is super easy for a ding-dong like me to understand and use.  If the water is safe, the status is “green.”  You can guess the rest.  Sites in Anne Arundel County include information from County Health Department and a warning not to get in the water within 48 hours of a rainstorm. Our friends at West/Rhode RiverkeeperSouth River Federation, and Assateague Coastkeeper do a particularly good job of keeping their constituency informed about water safety.

So, who, other than clean water geeks and freaked out moms like me, cares about whether the river is safe for swimming? It seems to me that there are probably lots of parents concerned about whether the water is safe.  The communications experts and pollsters tell us consistently that health is a top concern for Marylanders. But the parents I know are like us –pretty slammed trying to get the basics done, such as raising the kids and staying employed. Personal activism on issues we care about, while it is something our family values, ends up pretty low on the list of priorities.  I am fairly certain we are not alone.

On the Eastern Shore, most of the information sharing and connecting about what’s happening in the community happens on social media.  A virtual network that busy families could easily plug into to have their voices heard on issues they care about could be powerful.  National outfits like Mom’s Rising do an amazing job of amplifying the voices of women and mothers through their massive virtual network. They’ve been effective at raising awareness and mobilizing grassroots support for issues such as increasing access to healthy food in schools, improving early childhood education, and better family and sick leave policies.  Social media makes it easy for busy people to sign petitions, send letters to their elected officials, and share information broadly with friends and family. I wonder what the potential is here in Maryland for a virtual network of progressive people who care about issues that heavily impact families  –like paid sick and maternity leave, access to healthy food, and perhaps rivers that are safe for our children to frolic in all summer long.

Locavores Unite

Local food culture in the upper Eastern Shore is not just alive and well.  It is thriving.  This was evident at the 2013 Locavore Literature Festival (March 21-24, 2013 in Chestertown, MD) featuring authors, poets, eaters and growers, all speaking and buzzing about the joy, challenge, and possibilities of food.

The festival featured a series of talks about food as a catalyst for healing the environment and health, and building community. Keynote speaker and author Shannon Hayes (Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (2010)) offered stories about what it takes to transition to sustainable, accountable living centered on home and community. In addition to tastings and farmers markets, the program included a lively panel of local food activists sharing their vision for healthy food and resilient communities. I was fortunate enough to catch a poetry reading by Nathaniel Perry, author of Nine Acres (2011), whose prose embraces not so much a romantic view of food and nature, but rather a rich slice of trial and error in growing stuff to eat.

Perry’s reading and discussion was followed by a dynamic presentation by Professor Tanya Denckla Cobb, author of Reclaiming Our Food:  How the Grassroots Food Movement is Changing the Way We Eat (2011).  Cobb highlighted inspiring stories and lessons from community-led food projects around the country. She paid particular attention to projects that are increasing access to healthy food for more members of the community and creating jobs. What I observed in Chestertown can been seen in small pockets across the Chesapeake region –people organizing and energizing themselves around healthy, locally grown, sustainable food. I came away from Cobb’s discussion with a sense of hope about the good things that people are doing in their communities, but I had to wonder –does the collection of earnest efforts add up to a movement that can make the comprehensive reforms we really need?

Fortunately, our friends at Future Harvest-CASA are working to link local efforts together through a regional vision for the future of food called the Chesapeake Foodshed Initiative. The idea is to build collaboration and connection between the innovative projects happening around the region to drive bigger change and impact. Other regions such as New England have used this sort of visioning to help drive policy change and grow the marketplace for local, sustainable food.  In fact, leaders of the New England movement recently set a bold new goal of building the capacity to produce up to 80% clean, fair, just, and accessible food for all New Englanders by 2060. As the Chesapeake Foodshed Initiative evolves and develops, our hope is that a blueprint for the future of food will emerge that reflects thriving local economies, equal access to good food, and healthy communities.

Reporting in from the Environmental Grantmaker’s Association 2013 Federal Policy Briefing, Washington, DC

Funder gatherings are a little bit different from most of the conferences I’ve attended. First of all, the early morning sessions are extremely well-attended and filled with lively discussion.  Second, these meetings tend to have fewer talking heads and more focus on dialogue, which I find to be an energizing and refreshing format. The Environmental Grantmakers Association 2013 Federal Policy Briefing in Washington, DC (February 26-27) was no exception.  Over 100 grantmakers from across the country gathered at the Pew Charitable Trusts conference center in Washington, DC to talk about the path forward on Federal issues given the re-election of President Obama, a divided Congress, and game-changing climate-related events like Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented drought, and destructive forest fires. When I arrived for the first morning plenary, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon was already rolling with his remarks to a standing room only about where we are in the transition towards a new energy future.

One of the best sessions I attended was called “What Did the 2012 Election Mean for the Environmental Community?”  A panel of polling experts, moderated by Washington Post environmental reporter, Juliet Eilperin, discussed what was learned in the 2012 election, how the current electorate is different in its demographics and attitudes from years past, and what these changes might hold for the future on the environment. Ruy Teixeira with the Center for American Progress shared his data about millennials, the demographic cohort born between 1980 and 2000.  The goods news is that Teixeira thinks the millennials, estimated to make up 36% of voters in the next decade, are the most pro-environment generation this country has ever seen.  Celinda Lake, President of Lake Research Partners, shared her sobering research showing that most Americans think that we can adapt to climate change (and therefore are far less motivated to do anything about it right now) and that so long as the economy remains sluggish, people feel the environment is less of a priority. Christine Matthews, President of Bellwether Research, gave us a glimpse of how environmental issues are faring in conservative circles. She confirmed that the era of bi-partisanship on the environment is officially dead. Reality check:  the environment is the second most polarizing issue between democrats and republicans, right behind opposing views about the social safety net.

While some of this was discouraging to hear, the overwhelming attitude of the session was one of optimism. With over 70% of 18-29 year olds supportive of alternative sources of energy, and the fastest growing segments of the electorate leaning strongly in favor of environmental interests, there is a lot to be optimistic about –we have a tremendous opening for progress on the environment if we resist the urge to take the easy route. We’ve got to aim for the result that we really want, instead of what we perceive to be the most politically feasible in the moment.  We also need to do the hard work of building a scaffolding of public support that is informed by and responsive to the needs and concerns of quickly growing sectors of the electorate that support progress for the environment.

In keeping with the dominating theme of climate, Secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, who chairs the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, gave remarks about the innovative partnerships he and the Obama administration are working on to ensure that recovery from Sandy reaches the communities most in need, and sets into motion a comprehensive planning framework that that takes into consideration equitable access to housing and transportation in order for communities to be more resilient in the future.  Donovan’s vision was refreshing and encouraging.

All in all, the briefing provided a good caffeine boost for environmental grantmakers.




Dogs Don’t Eat Dogs



Our friends at the Center for Progressive Reform recently released an important report, Fairness in the Bay:  Nutrient Trading and Environmental Justice,  about the negative impacts of nutrient trading on low-income and disadvantaged communities.  Nutrient trading is a market-based approach to pollution reduction that creates an exchange enabling polluters to purchase credits from someone who reduces pollution from a different source in a different place.  For example, under nutrient trading, a wastewater treatment plant needing to reduce its pollution could purchase credits from a farmer.  Nutrient trading has been incorporated into Maryland’s pollution reduction efforts under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) as a way to deal with additional pollution anticipated to result from future growth and development.   The scheme has been understandably highly controversial within the environmental community –some feel that trading will compromise the integrity and effectiveness of the whole TMDL effort, while others are certain that the market-based tool is only way to reduce costs while achieving pollution reduction.


CPR’s report rightfully points out that market-based nutrient trading could have a particularly deleterious impact on communities lacking a voice and power in water quality decisions.  The report cites specific concern about the potential for pollution hotspots resulting from trading.   If you look at where our biggest pollution sources are located –too often in areas already suffering from poverty and a host of other environmental risks – allowing more pollution in already compromised communities is not an equitable solution.


Maryland Department of the Environment has been hosting stakeholder meetings around the state, listening to comments, concerns, and suggestions about their “Accounting for Growth” policy, which provides a framework for how to keep pollution in keeping with the Chesapeake Bay TMDL when future development and growth takes place.  The policy relies heavily on nutrient trading to keep pollution loads resulting from growth in check.  As we understand it, the nutrient trading framework is still under development at Maryland Department of Agriculture and no official regulations have been issued for public review or comment.


As government entities and communities around the Chesapeake Bay watershed are planning and implementing pollution reduction actions, the question of how these investments impact low-income and minority communities deserves serious attention.   We have before us a ripe opportunity to ensure that the deep investment of resources needed to reduce pollution will raise the tide for all boats.

Do the Evolution

Music can change the world because it can change people.  -Bono

People say that music can change the world.  Remember all of those “[insert your cause here]-AID” concerts of the 1980s and 90s?  Farm-Aid, for example, still raises significant funds ($38 million spent since 1985!) by holding annual concerts featuring greats like Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews.  These stars are also, by the way, at the inner sanctum of the public conversation about reforms needed for our food system.  In case you were wondering, this year’s concert is not far from us in the Mid-Atlantic –September 22, 2012 in Hersheypark.  The funds raised are granted out to support sustainable agriculture by training new farmers and building the market for locally grown foods.

Music can do lots more than raise money –it can inspire, bring people together, and influence culture.  It may even be a core catalyst of human evolution, at least according to rocker turned McGill University neuroscientist, Dr. Dan Levitin, who argues in his book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008), that music is a primal force that humans use to bind together around friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love –and ultimately, to evolve as a society.

Not sure that anyone can really explain the mystery of music, why it moves us so deeply or exactly how it brings about change or evolution for that matter.  I imagine that every listen to MC Yogi‘s house beats mixed up with turntable scratching and the Bhagavad Gita must certainly be improving the global karmic balance.  Or each time Billy Bragg blesses the audience with his unplugged humor and undimmed faith in activists, as he did recently at Easton’s Avalon Theatre, a few good but tired souls must be lifted up enough to keep trying to make the world a better place.  Whether the impact is intentional, visceral, or downright ethereal, I say rock on.

The Dirty Road to Abilene


“Nibbling around the edges” is the way I would describe the last decade of efforts to reduce polluted runoff in the Chesapeake Bay, particularly when it comes to the agricultural sector’s piece of the mess.  Despite widespread efforts by government and the environmental community to work in partnership with agricultural interests and farmers to reduce pollution through voluntary measures and incentives, we remain a long way off from making a meaningful progress.  As seen in recent dialogue about the Chesapeake Bay’s pollution problems, some leaders in the agricultural community don’t see themselves as a critical part of the problem (or the solution), meanwhile all of the other sectors are stepping up.

The situation reminds me of a management concept developed by Jerry Harvey called the Abilene paradox that gets its name from the anecdote used to describe perils of groupthink –when individuals are reticent to act contrary to the prevailing viewpoint of those around them.  I can’t say for sure that groupthink is how we got here, but, when it comes to dealing with agricultural pollution, it’s looking an awful lot like Abilene –a place that none wants to be.  Many environmental organizations have worked hard to develop partnerships with the agriculture sector to address our pollution problems.  It’s an understandable approach given the collaborative mind-set of many organizations and an earnest desire to reduce pollution without fueling conflict.  The leaders of the agricultural community are resisting meaningful pollution solutions with all their might, an understandable approach given their perception that avoiding regulation will bear short-term benefits and disbelief about the scientific facts.   The dialogue is stuck in a bad feedback loop.

Increasingly, there are voices offering a different perspective on the problem, as seen in these op eds by Waterkeepers ChesapeakeSenior Scientists and Policymakers for the Chesapeake Bay,  and farmer, William Morrow, published in the Baltimore Sun.  We’re not on our way out of Abilene just yet, but there are signs that a pathway forward may soon appear.

Is the Student Loan Crisis Bad for the Bay?

The facts are clear –getting a college or graduate education is more expensive than ever, meanwhile, actually getting a job once you have an education is harder than ever.  According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 60% of college graduates in 2008 had student loans, up from about 50% when I graduated from school in the 1990s.  The average student loan debt today is about $25,000 and half of students graduating in 2012 are jobless.  It’s no surprise that student loan relief made it to the top list of concerns of the Occupy movement –it’s a defining issue for the majority of people graduating from college today.

No doubt, entering working life with student loans impacts early decision-making that creates lasting impressions on a person’s life trajectory.  Student loans delay a lot of major life events –marriage, having children, buying a home, just to name a few.  Having student loan debt also drives graduates away from public interest work and towards other career choices that may provide an easier financial path.  The high cost of education makes it harder for people without means to pursue public interest work.  Don’t we need all hands on deck?   There are a few programs out there that help take the bite out of the stress of student loans for people in public interest careers, such as the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, which provides loan forgiveness for those who work in public service for ten years.  But these programs don’t go nearly far enough to equalize the playing field.

We need diverse, bright, committed, and creative people available to take the helm of nonprofit and government efforts for the future of the Chesapeake Bay.  I’m wondering what our Chesapeake Bay public interest work force is going to be like in the future if we continue going down our current path?  Who will be left standing?

More Carrots, Please

I’m feeling extra grateful that farmers market, community supported agriculture (CSA) and garden season is fast upon us.  Fortunately, there seem to be ample opportunities here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to partake in the bounty if you know where to look.  But, a person could still easily find herself challenged to find fresh local food, particularly in small towns and rural crossroads where the only walkable access to food might be a quickmart.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future’s food mapping project was recently noted by the Baltimore Sun for the light it sheds on food deserts.  Food deserts are places where a grocery store is more than a ¼ mile walk, there are limited alternative places to purchase fresh and healthy food, more than 40% of the population does not have access to a car, and the median household income doesn’t exceed 185% of the poverty line.  The Center for Livable Future food mapping project discovered that more than a third of Baltimore City residents lack access to healthy foods.  And without access, it’s pretty hard to eat a healthy, sustainable diet.  Check out Bob Lawrence, founding director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future, giving a TED talk about the public health challenges we face with our current food system, especially how eating more veggies and less meat makes sense for our wellness and the planet.

Moms, Bees, and Fish

The other day my very young daughter eagerly gobbled a handful of dirt while we were getting the garden beds ready to plant.  I didn’t want to think too hard about what would have happened if I had treated the soil with something other than just compost.   While wiping the dirt mustache off of her face, I was reminded about how much scary poison we all keep around without even realizing it.  There are plenty of sprays and concoctions available to deal with the creepy crawlers.  Remember the scads of stink bugs that invaded everyone’s lives couple of years ago? And the creepy bed bug crisis?

A chemical called pyrethrin or pyrethroid is commonly used in residences and on farms to control all sorts of insects –according to the EPA, it is an ingredient in 3,500 registered products.  Turns out bed bugs and other critters that are supposed to keel over in their tracks when exposed to the chemical are becoming resistant.  In addition, a strong body of research finds links between pyrethroids and major health concerns including cancer and impacts on the immune and reproductive systems, with children and infants having particular susceptibility to negative impacts.  Researchers have also found that pyrethroids are linked to decreased reproduction of honeybees.  When the chemical is found in stream sediment, it can have toxic impacts on bottom dwelling fish.

EPA is currently reviewing this class of pesticides, as it does for all registered pesticides every fifteen years.  It’s not at all clear what the result will be. EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program is getting ready to release a report on pesticides in the Bay later this year, setting the stage for pesticide reduction goal setting planned for 2013.  The “toxics strategy” for the Chesapeake Bay has relied heavily on voluntary measures.  But based on the information provided by the Chesapeake Bay Program, it appears that the needle on reducing toxics from entering the Bay has not moved much since 2006 (and in fact, appears to have gone the opposite direction).