New England Dairy Examined in Friedman School Screening of “Forgotten Farms”

by Laura Barley

To examine the contemporary trends affecting the dairy industry, on March 27th, the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy hosted a screening of the film “Forgotten Farms”, a documentary featuring some of the longest-standing dairy farmers in New England.

Photo: Sam Whittier, Whittier Farms

Misconceptions exist to be clarified. Complexities exist to be reduced. Myths exist to be busted.

In a world that produces new food media and science every day, thousands of different opinions exist for any given food product. As far as most dairy farmers are concerned, their products are certainly not immune to the cultural and scientific dissection of what is considered “healthy”. In New England dairy farms have persisted for decades, and in some cases centuries, without gaining much cultural or ecological recognition in today’s food economy.

The film, directed by Dave Simonds and produced by Sarah Gardner, was an apt fit for the Friedman school, whose students regularly deconstruct the complexities of food systems. For many, dairy has become a symbol of the most controversial aspects of American food production – animal rights, environmental health, and adequate nutrition. These controversies haven’t left the industry unscathed, and declining demand has precipitated the departure of thousands of dairy farmers across the country. With “Forgotten Farms”, Simonds and Gardner wanted to spotlight the humanity of farmers who continue to brave the economic contraction, doing all that they can to keep the farm on the land.

A multitude of factors share responsibility for declining milk sales in the U.S, including dietary shifts towards veganism and a growing awareness of lactose-intolerance. However, there is a whole host of other factors unique to New England agriculture that makes it especially difficult to operate a dairy farm. The film’s producer, Sarah Gardner, acknowledges that “New England has really high land values, high property taxes, and high development pressures on the land. There aren’t many thriving rural economies in New England.” Consequently, the number of dairy farms in New England has dropped from roughly 40,000 in 1930 to less than 2,000 in 2012. In Massachusetts, only 117 dairy operations remain in operation today.

The film intends to shed light upon those remaining farmers – to include their voices in the broader narrative of food justice and sovereignty. Farmers like Louis Escobar, Win Chenail, Darryl Williams explain how they have endured the struggle to remain competitive in a rapidly shifting food economy. Many rely on the second jobs of spouses to supplement their incomes, and all continue to watch their milk checks shrink as they dread the day they might have to shut their doors. Unfortunately, selling the farm no longer constitutes rock bottom. NPR has recently reported on a string of dairy farmer suicides that have occurred throughout the Northeast, reflecting the demoralizing and tragic consequences of the loss of dairy livelihoods.

Samantha Whittier, a fifth-generation Massachusetts dairy farmer and co-host of Tuesday’s film screening, has worked alongside her family to weather the volatility of the dairy industry. “For my family, dairying is about constantly diversifying to ensure we are as prepared as we can be for the highs and lows of the changing markets.” As a response, Whittier Farms added a storefront retail operation to supplement their milk sales with Cabot Creamery, a cooperative that collectively supports over a thousand dairy farms across New England and upstate New York. These farmers have proven agile and resourceful in protecting their livelihoods, and are willing to adapt to keep their land in the business for as long as possible.

“What really stood out to me was the pride that dairy farmers have in their farms and their love for their jobs,” notes Friedman Ph.D student Ilana Cliffer. “The view they gave of dairy farmers in the Northeast ran contrary to what you often hear in the media about big bad industrial farms, and I think it was a very important perspective to hear.”

Gardner is quick to acknowledge the often negative perceptions of commercial dairy farming, citing this cultural wariness associated with large-scale industrial operations. “Once they scale up, they get slammed for being commercial. They’re not going to stay in business unless they scale up,” she notes. “We need to expand our definition of local agriculture to commercial agriculture.”

While the profiles of earnest dairy farmers serve as the soul of the film, Forgotten Farms also addresses important questions about what constitutes a local food system and who has a stake in deciding what that system looks like. The term ‘local’ can connote a range of ideas of a food system – food miles, quaint family farms, everything made by hand – but for most dairy farmers, this scale simply isn’t efficient to run an profitable enterprise. In recent years academic and collaborative networks have popped up across the country to examine what efficient regional food systems could look like. According to Christian Peters, a professor in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at the Friedman school, incorporating commercial agriculture makes particular sense when considering dairy as part of an efficient regional food system. “Fluid milk is a relatively regional food product already. Localizing it actually makes it less environmentally efficient.”

For their part, dairy farmers have served as economic lynchpins in New England. A typical dairy cow contributes roughly $14,000 to the economy each year, and the New England dairy industry as a whole generates over $1 billion annually. While absolute revenue is important, dairy farms also exhibit a multiplier effect, where their products generate revenue for the local community beyond their own operations. Their feed and equipment purchases, veterinarian needs, and labor demand all prop up a local economy that could easily disappear without them.

Dairy farmers manage nearly one million acres of cropland, pasture, and woodland for their operations. This accounts for roughly half of all farmland in New England. Given a report like the New England Food Vision, which sets a goal for the region to produce 50% of the food it consumes by 2050, local demand must align with foods especially suited for local production. In so many words, for regional self-reliance to strengthen, New England consumers would need to shift their diets to foods already produced here, like dairy, seafood, and certain fruits and vegetables like blueberries or cabbage. Purchasing these products becomes what it means to support a regional food system, which in essence will save as much agricultural land from development as possible.

In this context, Gardner maintains, Without dairy, we lose our food security and our farmland.”

There are some political maneuvers that could help dairy maintain its foothold in New England agriculture. In its 2019 budget, the Massachusetts state legislature has the option to renew the Dairy Tax Credit, which Gardner notes that virtually every dairy farmer uses as insurance in times of low milk prices. But in most cases, the biggest difference between breaking even and breaking down will be determined by the choices made by consumers at the grocery store.

“Understanding the companies that process and sell the local milk is essential to making sure your consumer dollars are returned to the farmers; support farmer-owned brands whenever possible,” says Sam Whittier. And though they may not connote the same appeal as a glass bottle of artisan milk, labels like Hood, Garelick, and Cabot all reflect the efforts of local New England dairy farmers.

“Because of the complexity, you have to be willing to sit in this uncomfortable place where you’re listening and learning before you make any decisions,” advises Peters. Embracing the complexity has become a de facto mantra of the Friedman school, and the nexus of food, environment, and culture will certainly bring plenty more to . “Forgotten Farms” has revealed what’s at stake in New England’s shifting agricultural economy, and has ultimately brought meaning and human connection to the abstract concepts of our curriculum.

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment student about to graduate to greener pastures. She’s developed a love for dairy farming throughout her tenure at Tufts, and hopes to support the industry any way she can throughout her career.

To Systematize Sustainability: An Experience with Italian Corporate Social Responsibility

by Rebecca Lucas

A two-week immersive experience with Corporate Social Responsibility team and sustainable coffee development projects at Lavazza, an Italian coffee company, brought this Friedman student back and forth between two continents on a journey of a thousand coffee cups and one company’s manifestation of sustainability.

On the first day of filming, they asked me, “what does sustainability mean to you?” I sputtered, primarily because I was extremely jetlagged and not used to having a camera in my face. But it was mostly because I truly had no idea how to answer. While this is a word that is used consistently in our field and whose intention often has a common understanding among practitioners and conference attendees, I still couldn’t define it. I began to discuss the three pillars, mentioning the importance of all the social, economic and environmental aspects when talking about sustainability, trailing off in my sentences, deep down knowing that I had no set definition I felt satisfied with.

What is sustainability?

What is “sustainable development,” especially in the agricultural field?

The question of sustainable agricultural development is one I tried to answer, as a wee undergrad in California, by writing a thesis. As a sociology major specializing in world development, I figured if I read enough books, found the right articles, and adopted the right framework, I would be able to answer it. Or at least be able to ascertain the opposite—calling out when something was definitely not sustainable. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t comprehensive work or very easy to do. And clearly, I didn’t even come out of it with a definition of “sustainability” that I felt I could use.

Coming to graduate school, my guiding question changed. I became newly obsessed with wondering how to turn the sustainable work and efforts of “cheerleaders” in various fields systemic. How can we take the good work that certain individuals, small groups or organizations—these “cheerleaders”—do and make that the larger societal norm? How do we ensure positive change doesn’t disappear when that driving force goes away or moves on? Is that one version of sustainable development?

Lavazza is one of the “big guys” in the Italian coffee world. In fact, they claim that they are the main guy in the Italian coffee world. A family-owned company since 1895 known predominantly for their espresso, they now provide a wide range of coffee products.

The Lavazza Foundation, officially established in 2002, is the sustainability-focused arm of the company. As part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the Foundation’s team works with local and NGO partners in different coffee-producing countries across the world to establish projects aimed at increasing the quality of coffee grown and stimulate economic development and women and youth empowerment in target communities. For whatever reason, they don’t talk much about these projects. They’ve recently been getting hip to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and realizing how much the work they were doing was already aligned with the outlined targets. The reasoning followed that they knew they were doing something they liked and were proud of, they were confident enough that they knew someone else could experience the process, understand what they were doing and communicate the sustainability on their own; they just needed to figure out how to facilitate that experience for someone. Enter the Coffee Study Program. Lavazza decided to bring four students from different continents to experience their company, their CSR model, and one of the projects. And they wanted to film it.

Like most experiences I’ve found myself in during graduate school, I don’t really know how it happened. It felt like everything moved very quickly and slowly at the same time. Somehow, in some way, just a few weeks into this spring semester I was on a plane to Italy and I had no idea what I was doing.

We spent one week in Turin, Italy, touring the Lavazza training center and the new headquarters in the downtown area. There, we learned about all the work that happens at the end of the coffee-journey, beginning with how they train their baristas and working our way back to how they decide what coffee to source, from where, and how to blend it with the different qualities that emerge from different origins.

At the headquarters we met the relatively-newly-formed sustainability branch and the man who was essentially responsible for the creation of the entire Foundation and the different coffee projects that they do across the world. It all began because back in 2000, Mario Cerutti thought it would be a good idea for Lavazza to work to improve the quality of coffee produced worldwide. They could do this by investigating where issues were happening in coffee growing countries; was it related to the plant genetics? Climate change? The need to engage in external markets in coffee growing communities to ensure economic viability? They embarked on this idea, on these projects, with the knowledge that to meet increasing demand, more coffee needed to be grown worldwide, and it would be better for everyone involved if that coffee was produced in the best way possible. They did not begin these projects to ensure their company’s supply of coffee for the rest of time or to intervene in their existing sourcing strategies. Indeed, the Lavazza Foundation is entirely separate from the rest of the company and all that is involved with sourcing and choice. They work to increase the quality of coffee worldwide, one project at a time, because they believe coffee quality increases can be a good thing for everyone involved. And it all began because eighteen years ago, one man thought it might be a good idea. And the company was receptive enough to make that idea an entire foundation; they made a version of sustainability systemic.

The sustainability team told us that they were operating under an idea that they called SDG 0: spreading the message. Thus, the whole reason we were there: the mini-documentary.

The project we were visiting in the Dominican Republic had been dealing with a serious problem of coffee rust, as well as aging coffee plants, that had decimated the majority of the island’s production; beyond that, many issues facing coffee production, mirrored in many global trends, were also being addressed. This included the effects of climate change, the pull of urban areas, decreasing land base for production, and pests, all of which had seriously affected quality and quantity yielded. It nearly goes without saying that there will always be problems with the notion of “development” and there is no perfect model of development without its issues, but that is not what this article is about. Lavazza’s on the ground partner was Oxfam’s Dominican Republic branch, and upon arrival, they introduced us to the various organizations involved with the project; including Codocafe, the governmental body that supports coffee production, Concafed, a farmers’ association of three farmer federations, representing over 20,000 small and medium sized coffee farmers in the DR and the cooperative Coopracasine, in Neyba. The farmers and the partners worked to integrate certain practices into their cultivation processes (including establishing family nurseries and intercropping), increasing productivity from 210 kh/ha to 800 kg/ha, decreasing the percentage of inputs from 65% of total production costs to 37% and overall costs from $930.20 to $38.76. [1]

Obviously, there were things that were clearly measurable and an indicator of a specific kind of progress. As a person who is planning to specialize in program evaluation, yes, I was focused on the metrics of the project. And simultaneously, a thought that our own Dr. Chris Peters sent our cohort off with on our last day of class together last fall kept running through my mind: can you figure out what makes a good life? If so, do things like establishing SDGs or working on “development” become easier to conceptualize and actually do? Throughout the trip, I kept wondering if what we really need to do is change our established metrics for success on a global scale. Is that part of sustainability? If we changed our global focus to human qualities, like happiness and empowerment, over inanimate output measures to evaluate prosperity or “having gotten there,” would we be working to maintain more of our humanity in our future? Is that part of sustainability?

At my “exit interview” they asked me what I was taking home with me. While, surprisingly, I didn’t actually bring home any coffee with me, I took home a lot more.

I knew nothing about tropical agriculture. Truly, nothing. I come from a land where everything needs to be irrigated. To see things just growing, on trees, in the ground, because the moisture in the air allowed for it, was undeniably beautiful. I also knew nothing about coffee. Myths were busted in my head daily.  Spoiler—the roasting process does NOTHING to the caffeine content. Did anyone ever tell you that dark roasts have less caffeine than light roasts? Yup, me too. A lie!Turns out, unless they are different beans, the only thing that determines it is how long coffee is in contact with the water when making your cup.

Mostly, though, I took back a reinvigorated idea of what a powerful company can do when they believe in changing out metrics of success, focusing on quality of life while focusing on quality of product, and doing something good for the world simply because they can and should.

Lavazza’s CSR specialist, Veronica Rossi, told us during the presentation that “sustainability is a shared responsibility,” and that idea has stuck with me ever since. So, regardless of how we define it: what are we going to do about it?

To learn more about Lavazza’s Coffee Study Program and the four students who participated, including Friedman’s own Rebecca Lucas, follow the updates at this link.

Rebecca Lucas is a second year Agriculture Food & Environment/Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning dual degree student and when not thinking about farm to school programs, she is now newly obsessed with the intersection of research and practice, in addition to all the other things she talked about. As a California native, this “Sprinter” really hurt and she’s extremely ready to stop eating soup.

[1] Metrics from Oxfam and Lavazza 2017 report on “Hispaniola + Cuba Projects.”

Trump’s Trade Wars: How Steel and Aluminum Might Harm Hog Farmers

by Sam Jones

President Trump has been waging a trade war since early March, with China as his greatest adversary. Steel and aluminum manufacturing stood to benefit from these protectionist measures, but the U.S. agricultural sector is actually getting the raw end of the deal in this tit-for-tat dispute.

In the beginning of March, President Trump announced plans to place a 25% import tariff on all steel and a 10% import tariff on all aluminum. To follow through on his campaign promise of U.S. trade protectionism, the U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturing industry is the first group of intended beneficiaries. President Trump claims that unfair trade practices in other countries, namely China, have flooded the global market with these products, effectively lowering prices to uncompetitive levels.

The steel and aluminum manufacturing industry in the U.S. has seen a significant decline in jobs, with 135,000 people employed in the industry in 2000 compared to just over 83,000 in 2016, according to one source. However, industries that purchase steel and aluminum and rely on the current low prices actually employ far more people—6.5 million—than are employed on the manufacturing side. These industries include car manufacturers, beer companies, and the construction industry, to name a few. As a result, while these tariffs may be good news for a few tens of thousands of steel and aluminum manufacturers, over six million people employed by steel and aluminum buyers would likely be negatively impacted and possibly lose their jobs if production costs rise.

However, this only would have been the outcome if President Trump’s original plan to tax all steel and aluminum imports entering U.S. borders had become reality. The tariffs did go into effect at the beginning of April, but Canada and Mexico were immediately exempted from these trade restrictions. Before the tariffs had officially taken effect, the EU, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and South Korea were granted temporary exemptions from the tariffs as well.

These trade exemptions are essentially being granted to political allies of the United States who threatened strict and politically targeted tariffs of their own in retaliation. These tariffs would have been imposed on quintessential American products, like Wisconsin cheese and Kentucky bourbon, that are produced in red majority regions (Wisconsin is Paul Ryan’s home state).

Politically, exempting these countries is a good idea because of this potential backlash, but these exemptions also severely undermine the original intention of the steel and aluminum tariffs. Canada, the EU, South Korea, Mexico, and Brazil are the top five sources of steel and aluminum imports for the U.S., with over $900 million-worth of imports coming from Canada and the EU alone. So which steel and aluminum exporters are affected by this policy? In one word: China.

Just like the retaliatory measures threatened by the exempted countries, China has its own punitive measures in mind. The potential targets of China’s tariffs are major U.S. agricultural export commodities like pork, soybeans, sorghum, tobacco, wine, and nuts. These products are chosen for specific, political reasons. The international community is well-aware of how the structure of our government impacts elections results. They know which districts voted red and which ones swung blue, which means they know that to impact the voters in red districts, they can target the industries that fuel their livelihoods. For instance, China is the largest consumer of both the pork and tobacco that is produced in North Carolina. As it happens, North Carolina went to Trump in the 2016 election. Not only is China retaliating against protectionist trade measures, but it also seemingly intends to aim their retaliation at President Trump and the Republican party directly.

The same can be said for taxing soybeans, most of which come from the Heartland that overwhelming votes Republican each election cycle. As for putting tariffs on wine and nuts, most of the nut exports come from California, which is a tried-and-true blue state. However, the Central Valley of California swings red and is the largest region of tree nut production in the country.

Hogs at Jodar Farms in Fort Collins, CO

Photo credit: Sam Jones

These politically-rooted trade tariffs may also help to explain why President Trump and his staff decided to exempt the countries they did. A reduced export market, or even a reduction in prices due to speculation, for Wisconsin cheese and Kentucky bourbon would not have been good for the political representatives of those districts. Such repercussions, however, seem unavoidable. When pork producers in North Carolina feel the repercussions of fewer sales and lower prices, they will tie their struggle directly back to President Trump’s decision to start a trade war with China.

As history continues to prove, the losers of trade wars almost always outnumber the winners. From the initial tariffs, the companies and their employees that rely on cheap steel and aluminum imports will suffer as production costs rise. Consumers of steel and aluminum products—like your thirst-quenching 12oz. can of PBR or a shiny Ford F-150—will suffer as higher production costs are pushed onto them. From China’s retaliatory measures, the U.S. farmers who produce the taxed goods will also suffer. Likewise, consumers in China will suffer from higher prices of these taxed U.S. agricultural products.

American farmers of competing products will also suffer because excess pork that cannot be exported will flood the domestic market, and consumers might switch from beef or chicken to the now-cheaper pork. With less beef and chicken consumption, corn and soy producers will also feel a hit. And with everyone’s prices falling, non-farm agricultural input industries will feel the trickle-down effect on top of revenue loss from rising steel and aluminum prices.

Because the steel and aluminum tariffs don’t even apply to the five largest exporters, the U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturing industry is not likely to experience a significant economic boost. In the end, Trump’s trade war managed to single out an openly hostile political adversary that was already facing steel and aluminum tariffs due to its unfair dumping practices. As a major importer of U.S. agricultural products, a disgruntled China ends up straining American farmers more than anyone else. And if it ends up hurting them so badly that they decide to release their frustration at the polls, there just might be a blue majority in the house this fall.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with an interest in sustainable agriculture and food journalism. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine and will be working on a flower farm this summer. You can read more of her work at culturecheesemag.com.

Growing a Regional Grain Economy

by Nayla Bezares, Claire Loudis, Tetyana Pecherska, and Alexandra Stern

Over spring break, four AFE students had the opportunity to visit Dr. Stephen Jones and his team at the WSU Bread Lab and explore the regional grain economy that has grown in the Skagit Valley as a result of their work.

The Bread Lab and Tufts Food Lab

The Team!

Nestled between the snowcapped Cascade Range and the Pacific Ocean, lies the lush and surprisingly sunny Skagit Valley. A bright sea of daffodils flanked long country roads and friendly bovines nodded hello as we made our way to meet with plant breeder Dr. Stephen Jones and his team at the Washington State University (WSU) Bread Lab. The Bread Lab is a special place where plant breeders, growers, and bakers have been pioneering new wheat and barley lines while simultaneously growing a robust local grain economy. In the commodity grain market where yield and uniformity are king, the Bread Lab is breaking rank by pursuing varieties based on flavor, function, and nutrition. Their efforts have reinvigorated fields in the valley that generally grew grains in rotation either as cover crops or for livestock feed. Instead, they now produce a valuable and local whole grain product that bakers, millers and maltsters now covet across the country.

Daffodils in Skagit Valley, WA

Daffodil frolicking (from left: Claire Loudis, Alex Stern, Nayla Bezares, Tetyana Pecherska)

Upon arrival, we received a warm welcome and an action-packed agenda for our visit. Our first order of business of course was to taste the famous whole-wheat croissant that Dr. Jones had taunted us with during the Friedman seminar last semester. Without a moment to spare, we dove into a series of visits with local farmers, millers, bakers, maltsters, brewers, economic developers, and food access advocates. During our meetings, we were inundated with insight and inspiration. We scrambled to take down every morsel of wisdom in our notebooks to be decoded later in brainstorming sessions on ways we can ourselves redefine the food system to be more resilient and equitable. Before too long, we found ourselves breaking experimental bread with our Bread Lab colleagues where we reflected together on our transformative experience. We left galvanized to bring back lessons learned to share with our community at Friedman and beyond. Below are a few of our stories from the week:

Skagit Valley Malting

Skagit Valley Malting

“Our visit to the Skagit Valley was much more than a walk through daffodil fields. It was more than walking through a library of wheat berries and choosing the perfect one to mill and bake a unique whole grain cupcake. Even more than a tasting of malted barley products (read: beer!) that had been harvested and processed in the very fields we drove by. Our visit to the Skagit Valley was a firsthand experience in organized food systems development. As we interviewed key players in this community development process, it was evident that Steve Jones’ proposition of covering fallow fields with wheat was successful because he was able to approach both farmers and developers to promote successful crops AND a local industry that could inject resources back into the system.”
-Nayla Bezares, AFE ‘19

Cairnspring Mills in Skagit Valley, WA

Cairnspring Mills

“ ‘You cannot affect a system unless you understand the process.’ Sitting in the Washington Bulb boardroom, we learned from owner, John Roozen, how tulips grow. Mr. Roozen described how his family came to the Skagit Valley from Holland generations before with just a briefcase full of tulip bulbs. Today, Washington Bulb is one of the largest flower producers in the US with 70 million blooms per year and the most impressive tulip and daffodil operation I have ever seen. Mr. Roozen walked us through massive coolers of varied temperatures that he used to manipulate the lifecycle of flower bulbs and enhance his operation. Similarly, we learned that the entire Skagit Valley grain economy was developed by manipulating an existing system. For years, farmers had been growing “bad” wheat in rotation to support their more profitable seed crops. That was, until Steve Jones and the WSU Bread Lab began working with farmers and chefs to develop and grow improved wheat varieties in the valley. One of the farmers was John Roozen who, along with an extraordinary flower operation, now grows 600 acres of wheat. On our trip to Skagit Valley, not only did we learn about the process a tulip bulb goes through to bloom, but we also learned about the process that the Skagit Valley went through to self-organize and create a thriving grain economy.”
-Claire Loudis, AFE ‘18

Bread Lab baking with Julia Berstein

Baking with Bread Lab experimental baker Julia Berstein

“What impressed me most is the ingenuity and synergistic relationships that helped cultivate a resilient grain economy in the Skagit Valley. Sparking a new movement in the food system takes innovation and whole lot of grit. The lack of infrastructure in the US fit for small and mid-scale processing and production is a common limitation. The maltsters described to us in detail how they designed and built a revolutionary all-inclusive system that allows them to wash, steep, germinate, and kiln grains all in one tank – in other words, gain complete control over the malting process. The local mill also had to get creative in outfitting their operation by sourcing equipment from several different countries such as Poland, Denmark, and Ethiopia. Kevin Morse from Cairnspring Mill likened the process to a ‘barn raising,’ which is an apt description for the cultivation of the grain economy in Skagit as a whole.”
-Tetyana Pecherska, AFE ‘19

Plant breeding at The Bread Lab with Steve Lyon

Plant breeding 101 with Steve Lyon

“Visiting the Bread Lab at WSU was transformative. It was one of the first times that I was able to see a local food system functioning on such a small scale. Almost all of the stakeholders were situated within a 30-mile radius. It was clearly a community; a group of people with differing ideas, but common goals. What was striking about this community and this trip was the diversity of the stakeholders. Each felt strongly about transforming grains into something more positive for Washington. What was interesting, is that each player had a different set of morals and values by which they lived and worked. They worked together almost every day, but their motivations were not necessarily the same. For example, the miller felt strongly about the environmental impact of agriculture while the maltsters were dedicated to developing new technologies and products in their field. Currently grain is just a commodity, often grown for feed, but these stakeholders consider it to be more. They had high hopes for transforming the wheat that they grow into a product that would invigorate the economy and fuel a movement in which consumers care more about the foods they eat.”
-Alexandra Stern, AFE PhD

 

It’s safe to say, we left with both our minds and bellies full. The synergy among us was boundless – so much so that we essentially developed a full-fledged proposal for a consulting group called ‘The Bread Girls.’ One of our key takeaways was what a role just one person in a community can play in cultivating a lasting impact in the food system. The catalyst in the Skagit Valley was the ever-humble Steve Jones. His ability to gain trust and inspire a diversity of stakeholders was integral in cultivating a resilient regional economy. Inspired by the work of Dr. Jones and his team, we have teamed up with faculty at Friedman to establish the Tufts Food Lab – a space where not only research and practice intersect, but where we can foster intention to improve nutrition, sustainability, diversity, and regional economies. Students should stay tuned for ways they can get involved in the near future. To support our efforts, please consider contributing and sharing our crowdfunding campaign. The funds raised will support our time in the field where we hope to actively dig into our grain research directly alongside our partners.

The Tufts Food Lab is a new initiative established by Friedman graduate students and faculty as a place to advance nutrition research and education by tapping into the expertise of diverse food system developers and stakeholders. The goal is to prepare students for future careers through research opportunities and hands-on field experience.

Tales from the Sugar Bush: Friedman Takes a Trip to the Heart of Vermont’s Maple Kingdom

by Laura Barley

The maple syrup harvest has been a tradition in New England for centuries, and this March six Friedman students had the chance to help fellow student Hannah Kitchel’s family in their spring ritual

 

Maple tree vermont

Photo: Laura Barley

 

Hundreds of trees make up the sugar bush forest that connects the lives of a few devoted Vermont families. The small town of Danville, tucked neatly in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, is where second-year AFE student Hannah Kitchel grew up and where her parents continue to manage the neighboring maple stand. In a New England tradition that spans centuries and crosses cultures, the small group of families have collectively invested time and equipment to harvest syrup each spring to last them through the year.

A stand of roughly 50 trees – the sugar bush – all had metal buckets placed waist-high, secured by inch-long taps that drip sap as the weather warms. Historically, sugaring season in Vermont has started the first weekend of March, but the recent shift in warmer weather patterns has meant that sugaring season now begins a few weeks earlier, in late February.

“I remember sugar season used to start in March after [the] town meeting. They said starting in February was a mistake because there would be a long freeze which would mean re-tapping,” explains Fred Kitchel, Hannah’s father and one of the main harvesters in the group. “Now, a February start is common.”

Despite the cozy seasonal celebration that maple syrup receives each fall, the hallmark of sugaring season is this special blend of warmer days and cooler nights that signals trees to prepare for spring. The melted snow seeps into their roots, carries their stored sugars up the trunks to send life into new buds – though not before we take a piece of the magic for ourselves.

 

Maple sap freshly tapped vermont

This is what sap looks like when it first comes out of a maple tree (Photo: Laura Barley) 

 

We headed through the sugar bush armed with five-gallon buckets, excited to see what the trees had produced since the day prior, when the Kitchels last harvested. I’ve always loved imagining trees as straws, sucking water up from the earth to replenish their thirsty leaves; even though you may imagine sap to be a thick, brown, glue-like liquid, the sap that started to drip from the taps was in fact mostly water, clear and smooth. It turns out that a lot of sap is required to make syrup of any justifiable quantity. These particular sugar maples boast a 40:1 retention rate, meaning that the 19 five-gallon buckets we harvested would result in roughly 2.5 gallons of maple syrup in all.

 

aluminum labyrinth for making maple syrup

Photo: Laura Barley

 

Though the families try to share the workload as equally as possible and even manage a worklog together, the core of the operation is at Betty Lou’s (yes, wonderfully, that really happens to be her name) place just up the road. Once the buckets were loaded in the truck, we drove up to her beautiful yellow three-story farmhouse, which had a shed in the back devoted specifically for distilling the sap. What filled most of the inside was a shiny, aluminum that we first had to wash with vinegar, tilting it back and forth to ensure the utmost cleanliness.

Once we’d cleaned the labyrinth, we poured in the first bucket of sap and lit the gas burner that lay underneath. Over the course of a few hours the heat would evaporate off much of the water, leaving a slightly thicker, tanner substance. This was still not the final product – for that we had to head inside to Betty Lou’s kitchen, the laboratory of a woman devoted to the process of perfection.

 

concentrating pure maple syrup fancy

Betty Lou in the thralls of her work (Photo: Laura Barley) 

 

The kitchen was small but meticulously organized. Several burners heated pots of the sap in stages, which Betty Lou frenetically checked every few minutes for exactly the right characteristics. She whipped out what she called a hydrometer, a tool to test the specific buoyancy and density of the syrup’s sugar content, and after a few rounds of checking the hydrometer in small batches, Betty Lou was finally satisfied.

 

Filtering fancy maple syrup

A simple, cone-like apparatus filters the syrup one last time (Photo: Laura Barley)

 

Next the syrup entered one final round of filtering, designed to cleanse and thicken it. And though the process was precise, not all maple syrup is created equally. There is a set of USDA standards that outlines a gradient of maple syrup based on color, sweetness, and viscosity, which depend entirely upon the weather and the trees. Because it was still fairly cold in Danville that first week of March, the syrup we made was delightfully termed ‘Fancy’, the type of Grade A syrup that tends to arrive earliest in the season before the trees release too much sugar. Fancy, also known as ‘Delicate’ syrup denotes a lighter, sweeter syrup than the darker Grade B varieties typically found at the grocery store.

By the end of the afternoon, the kitchen was full of sweet steam and prolonged excitement – most of us had never made syrup before and had spent much of the last hour daydreaming about the buckwheat pancakes and Vermont we’d lather it on later that night. Finally, the syrup was ready to be poured into jars and sent home with us. Our bounty was a small fraction of the gift that the Kitchel family and Vermont’s sugar maples would afford this year, and to them I owe many moments of gastronomic happiness and endless thanks.

 

Pure vermont maple syrup

Some of Betty Lou’s finest products (Photo courtesy of the author)

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE student who loves to eat any food practically any time. She recently fell in love with the rich food culture that Vermont has to offer, and dreams of a time when she has her own land complete with dairy cows and maple trees.

Farmer Profile: Visions for a New Sustainable Vegetable Farm in Putnam, CT

by Nako Kobayashi

Farmer Yoko Takemura hopes to incorporate aspects of her Japanese heritage as well as her academic background in environmental sustainability into her new farm business.

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

While farmers represent an increasingly aging demographic group, a growing number of young farmers in New England and across the country are working to change the food system. Many of these new farmers, like Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm in Putnam, Connecticut, do not have farming backgrounds but instead have experiences that bring different perspectives and ideas into their farming practices. Yoko, who I was introduced to through my former boss at Cloverleigh Farm, is drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural practices in her effort to make her new farm a truly sustainable operation.

Growing up around the world due to her father’s occupation, Yoko always had a passion for the environment. She never thought, however, that she would end up becoming a farmer. After graduating from a university in Tokyo, she briefly worked in investment banking so that she could save money for graduate school. She eventually quit her job and moved to New York City to study environmental sustainability in graduate school. Living in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, she became a member of a community garden and started developing a passion for growing vegetables and the way growing food can bring people together. It wasn’t until she joined her first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group while working for a consulting firm in NYC, however, that she really started to think about starting her own farm. Yoko’s “a-ha!” moment came to her when she visited Windflower Farm in upstate New York for the annual CSA member’s potluck. “On the ride back to NYC,” she reminisces, “I couldn’t stop visualizing myself as a farmer!” She then applied for apprenticeships on vegetable farms outside of NYC and eventually found Riverbank Farm in Western Connecticut, where she worked for 3 years.

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

To start their own farm business, Yoko and her husband Alex bought 22 acres of land in Putnam, Connecticut in 2016. Because the land had been previously used to farm hay for decades, Yoko and Alex had to build all of their own farm infrastructure from scratch. However, this actually works to their advantage as they now have the freedom to design their infrastructure with their specific sustainability goals in mind. For example, they were able to build their greenhouse in a way that accommodates SolaWrap, a durable greenhouse cover that lasts much longer than many other plastic films used in greenhouses.

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm's new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm’s new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex take a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural methods in order to achieve their sustainability goals. The couple spent some time travelling around Japan and visiting many farms and learning about the various ways in which some Japanese farmers have cultivated a harmonious relationship with the natural environment. While organic agriculture can often be heavily dependent on inputs from fossil fuels, Yoko hopes to take her greenhouse off the grid by incorporating the Japanese practice of fumikomi-onsho, which involves mixing a large amount of leaves with some rice bran and chicken manure, applying water to it, and stomping on the mixture in order to generate heat. This variation of composting creates a fairly steady level of heat for weeks. This allows farmers to start their seedlings as well as have heat in the greenhouse without the use of electricity.

Building a relationship with the forest is another aspect of traditional Japanese agriculture that Yoko became enamored with when visiting farms in Japan. “The forest gave the farmers mulch, wood, bamboo, inoculant, etc. and the farmers gave back by maintaining and taking care of the forest through selective cutting, cleaning up, etc.” In comparison, Yoko explains that “the health of our forests around here” is “terrifyingly bad”. Yoko hopes to actively help better the condition of the forests that encompass her land in the coming years “because the forest is as much part of our farm as is our field.” One way Yoko and Alex want to give back to the forest is by applying “humanure” from composting toilets to the neighboring forests, after a two year composting period. For various health-related reasons, the “humanure” will not be used for their actual farming operation, but it is one way Yoko and Alex can create a more harmonious relationship with the forests that surround their land.

Yoko and Alex's DIY composting toilet. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex’s DIY composting toilet that will help them give back to their forests. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

For Yoko, the terms organic and sustainable are not one and the same. While Assawaga Farm has applied for organic certification, there are some additional practices that Yoko and her husband want to incorporate in order to reduce as much waste associated with and inputs required for their farm as possible. In addition to some of the Japanese practices they want to try out on their farm, there are many other sustainable practices not included in the certification that Yoko and Alex hope to take on. For example, they hope to use minimal amounts of plastic by not using any one-time drip tapes or plastic mulch, often used by organic farmers to help suppress weeds. They also plan to eventually create all of their own fertilizer, compost, and potting mix using the Japanese bokashi method of inoculating fertilizer with local culture taken from the nearby forests.

Believing that “organic originates in soil”, Yoko wants to take special care of the soil on their farm by using minimal tilling and eventually transitioning into no-till agriculture. This will help them “keep the delicate web of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi intact,” in addition to preserving the soil structure, maintaining carbon in the soil and keeping a steady release of nutrients in the soil “rather than short bursts of it.” They plan to have at least one field in their farm dedicated to cover crops year-round which will help prevent the depletion of nutrients and accumulate biomass. The couple also hope to save their own seeds and breed seeds that are adapted to their local environment.

In addition to using Japanese farming practices, Yoko also plans to grow many Japanese varieties of vegetables on her farm. When asked why she wanted to grow Japanese varieties, she responded simply that she just wanted to grow vegetables that she craved from home and that she wanted to eat herself! In addition, growing Japanese varieties helps Yoko target a niche market within the oversaturated market for organic produce in the Boston area. She is particularly excited about growing edamame, as “it’s just not summer without edamames!”

Alex seeing Assawaga Farm's first crop - garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Alex seeding Assawaga Farm’s first crop – garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

In the next few months, Yoko and Alex will be busy getting ready for their first growing season and transitioning into the full-time farming lifestyle. They start seeding in three weeks! Look for Yoko and Alex in farmers markets in the Boston area this coming season (locations yet to be decided). They also have some CSA shares available through their website.

Update, March 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the composted humanure would be used on Assawaga’s surrounding forest land only, and not on the farm itself. This has been updated for clarity, and we apologize if our omission was misleading to our readers.
-Editors

Nako Kobayashi is a first year AFE student from Japan who has experience working on a small organic farm, a biodynamic vineyard, for the agricultural sector of a Japanese municipal government, and on a food hub development project. Having a B.A. in anthropology, she loves talking directly with farmers from various backgrounds and hearing about their unique perspectives of the food system. 

Friedman Hosts the 2018 Global Food+ Symposium

by Sam Jones

The second annual Global Food+ Symposium was hosted at Tufts University’s Friedman School this year. Innovative research being conducted at Tufts, MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University in the realm of the global food system was presented in speed-dating style, with each speaker giving only a seven-minute talk. Only some of the takeaways are reported here; the entire event can be viewed online.

February 16, 2018 marked the second annual Global Food+ Symposium, hosted by Tufts University at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year, 23 researchers from Boston University, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts shared the findings of their work in seven-minute presentations on topics ranging from microbiology to nutrition to theology. I attended the conference in its entirety from 12:30 to 4:30 on a Friday afternoon because I wanted to learn about what other researching in our consortium of schools are investigating to gain insight into what the non-Friedman community has to say about the global food system.

Throughout the afternoon, speakers presented fascinating research that touched every corner of the food system. Several presenters from Harvard and MIT discussed how water affects our food system, covering everything from breeding crops to use less water, to developing more adaptable water conserving technologies, and the ramifications of developing a water market in which price reflects scarcity. These speakers together illustrated that whether in the Zambezi River Basin or in Melbourne, Australia, water use and availability affects our food system, but there are steps we can take right now to plan for uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Nutrition was, of course, the subject of several of the presentations. Tufts professor Will Masters discussed his findings on the nutritional quality of baby food. Spoiler alert: the global baby food supply is not actually that nutritious. Alison Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts presented the research from her dissertation comparing the diet quality and risk of hypertension in foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks to those of U.S.-born blacks. Her findings suggest that the former are better-off than the latter. While useful for developing culturally-appropriate nutrition strategies, it does not delve into the root causes of these differences. A more causal-based study would be useful if the intention were to narrow the gap in diet quality and health between these groups.

Most of the presenters at the symposium used or researched cutting-edge technology to answer some of the most vexing problems in our global food system. Karthish Manthiram from MIT, for example, presented his research on how electricity derived from solar panels can be used to create fertilizer. His research found that by using electric voltage in place of high temperatures, a low-footprint nitrogen fertilizer can be created and used by small-scale farmers in even the remotest parts of Africa.

Angela Rigden, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented exciting research derived from new satellite data. These data showed that vapor pressure and root zone soil moisture actually explain significantly more variability in crop yields than does temperature alone. Both Jenny Aker from Tufts and Alicia Harley from Harvard separately explored the effects of having access to technology for poor farmers in Africa and India, respectively. They found that even where a technology exists, the targeted problems may not be solved in exactly the way they were intended. For example, Alicia Harley’s research found that poorer rice farmers were not adopting a system of rice intensification (SRI) that used less water because such a practice required control over one’s water source—a luxury most poor farmers do not have. As Jenny Aker put it, one specific technology is “not going to be a silver bullet.”

Water, technology, health, and sustainability were the overarching themes that wove the presentations together. But one researcher stood alone both in his discipline and in his ability to wow an audience of entirely dissimilar mindsets. Dan McKanan, a senior lecturer in Divinity at Harvard University, revealed that the foundations of organic agriculture, organic certification, WWOOFing, biodynamic agriculture, community supported agriculture, and the environmentalist movement all sprung out of a religion called Anthroposophy. In his words, this was a religion that acted as an antidote to the ideological monoculture system—an antidote to the “monocultures of the mind.”

What the innovative research presented at the Global Food+ Symposium made me realize is that there probably will never be a “silver bullet” that can solve the issues of water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, or climate change. But the research that is being done in these interdisciplinary and diverse fields is worth pursuing, whether it aims to solve a big problem in a small place or a small problem on a global scale.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine nd hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.