Agricultural Workers Should Organize

by Maddy Bennett

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a farm workers’ rights group founded by laborers on Florida’s tomato farms. The organization now operates in many states to secure fair wages and to oppose involuntary servitude in the U.S. agriculture industry. CIW succeeded in bringing large food retailers to meet the terms of the group’s Fair Food Program. The work of CIW proves that when labor organizes to reclaim its rights, society benefits. Learn more by attending Friedman Seminar on April 19.

The valorized “efficiency” of the American farming system has historically relied upon shamefully poor living and working conditions for farm laborers, who, in the post-slavery era, were often immigrants. Slavery, indentured servitude, sharecropping, and guest worker programs provided exploitative and profitable business models rooted in unjust and predatory landowner–laborer relations. Today, the mistreatment of labor in agriculture remains a national embarrassment and a poignant reminder of our country’s apparent incapacity to rectify the historical and ongoing injustices committed against these indispensible yet highly vulnerable workers.

Now more than ever, large-scale fruit and vegetable farms in the United States are heavily dependent on migrant labor coming largely from Mexico and Central America. As most of these migrants are undocumented, they live and work under especially precarious conditions and may therefore be hesitant to organize to demand better wages, humane working standards, and an end to human trafficking, sexual abuse, and gender-based violence prevalent in farm labor. Yet those who dismiss farm labor abuses allege that the current paradigm is a necessary evil—or simply an inevitability—required to meet both the scale of production and low prices demanded by consumers. Not only is this patently false, but such a facile argument serves to discredit the development of alternatives to oppressive practices in the American farming system. In fact, one such alternative has proven its success in securing workers’ rights without unduly burdening farm owners, food retailers, or consumers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a workers’ rights and social justice organization started by farm laborers in Immokalee, Florida in 1993 in response to falling wages in the state’s tomato industry. CIW gained influence and industry recognition after organizing a hunger strike, a series of work stoppages, and fast food franchise boycotts that brought about improvements in wages and working conditions for tomato harvesters in Florida. CIW has also led the fight against endemic human trafficking and slavery taking place on American farms.

Six years ago, CIW rolled out the Fair Food Program (FFP) that educates farm workers about their rights and conducts third-party monitoring to ensure that just labor practices are being followed. FFP enlists large retailers, including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, to sign on to be Fair Food Certified. By paying a premium, retailers help finance the enforcement of good labor standards, thus ensuring that worker dignity and human rights are upheld on tomato farms in Florida. Since 2015, FFP’s reach has expanded to farm laborers across six other states. Through its Campaign for Fair Food, CIW has educated consumers about the causes of and solutions to the rampant abuses against farm laborers. Mobilizing consumers to apply pressure to the largest food retailers has led to 14 companies joining FFP.

CIW is proof that farm worker agency, the right to organize, and cooperation among laborers, farm owners, and corporate retailers can help eradicate the scourge of unfair and inhumane labor practices and abuses in American agriculture, and that doing so need not come at the expense of consumers.

To learn more about CIW and its endeavors, please attend the Friedman Seminar on April 19—brought to you by the Friedman Justice League—during which CIW organizers will share their experiences, successes, and struggles.

Maddy Bennett is a second-year FPAN student and anti-work leftist from subtropical Texas. She enjoys vegan baking and tweeting hot takes.

Following our Food: A Northern California Supply Chain Adventure

by Christina Skonberg and Krissy Scommegna

How do people at different points of food production make decisions? As part of a directed study on Sustainable Supply Chain Management, Friedman students Krissy Scommegna and Christina Skonberg spoke with representatives at three different food and beverage businesses in California to learn how producers weigh costs and benefits to yield optimal results.

While the Obamas packed up the last of their belongings at the White House on January 19, 2017, we walked through the doors of Jaharis for our last first day of school ever (hats off to the indefatigable PhD students who may still have a few more to go). As we anticipate our transition away from Harrison Avenue in May, we reflect on this crossroads between academia and employment. The Agriculture, Food, and Environment curriculum has taught us to use sound data sources and unbiased modeling techniques to substantiate every claim we make, encouraged us to address how the food system disproportionately advantages some at the expense of others, helped us develop a systems approach to analyzing food production and consumption, and much, much more.

As we embark on one last semester of group study sessions and post-class beers, we return to a central question that drove many of us to attend graduate school in the first place:

How will we effectively apply these tools to real situations involving real people beyond the boundaries of academia? Do farmers in the Northern Plains actually develop quantitative models to determine which wheat varieties they should cultivate given climatic conditions, prices, and market demand? Do food and beverage packaging specialists conduct elaborate life cycle assessments to determine which materials have the lowest carbon footprint? Do retailers meticulously vet suppliers based on environmentally sound soil management practices? Or, do many of these producers forego elaborate methodologies to instead make decisions based on instinct and habit?

In our last four months at Friedman, we’re seeking to address some of these questions through a directed study on Sustainable Supply Chain Management. In speaking with over 20 food industry professionals who operate at different points of diverse supply chains around the country (read: Nebraskan cattle ranchers, Californian coffee procurement specialists, and Pennsylvanian butchers), we hope to explore how food producers optimize outcomes given their unique goals and constraints. In the classroom, we immerse ourselves in the minutiae of soil health, herbicide resistance, tillage techniques, and other important facets of on-farm production. Through site visits and interviews, we hope to deepen our understanding of decisions and tradeoffs beyond the farm gate and into the manufacturing, distribution, retail, and waste sectors of the wider food system.

Eager to escape the New England winter and set out on our supply chain quest, we ventured to Northern California over winter break to conduct our first few interviews. Below, we share stories from a handful of the inspiring producers we met.

Front Porch Farms: Healdsburg, California

Interviewee: Johnny Wilson, Farm Manager

Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, California Photo from Front Porch Farm’s Official Website: https://fpfarm.com/

Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, California
Photo from Front Porch Farm’s Official Website: https://fpfarm.com/

On a rare rainy day in Northern California, we trekked to bucolic Healdsburg to see how Front Porch Farm Manager Johnny Wilson cultivates the scenic 110 acre, 30+ crop farm. Perhaps most famous for their perennial cut flowers, wines, and Italian heritage polenta, Front Porch Farm is in many ways a paradigm of ecologically sound production. Drip irrigation systems line orchards, organic compost fertilizes fields, and their giant but gentle puppy Hilde assists in predator control. When asked about how the team determines which seeds to select from catalogs like Baker’s Creek and Seed Savers Exchange (yes, farmers still buy seeds from catalogs!), Johnny explained that while profitability is an undeniably important factor, the team also focuses on the ecological and cultural significance of crops. Enriching the agricultural diversity of Sonoma County (winegrape cultivation currently dominates the region), maintaining a polyculture system that fosters long term soil health and wildlife biodiversity, and experimenting with new varieties that excite the team are all considerations that go into the seed selection process. For Front Porch Farm, the generation of social and environmental value is inextricably linked to the success of their business. To see what diversified farming looks like at Front Porch, check out the map of their impressive agricultural mosaic in Healdsburg.

Blue Bottle Coffee: Oakland, California

Interviewees: Jen Flaxman, Learning and Development Manager & Melissa Tovin, Finance Operations Manager

Blue Bottle’s Roastery and Production Facility in Oakland, California Photo from the Washington Business Journal, December 2016

Blue Bottle’s Roastery and Production Facility in Oakland, California
Photo from the Washington Business Journal, December 2016

Jen Flaxman and Melissa Tovin of Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland are intimately familiar with the complexity of international supply chains. As the Learning and Development Program Manager, Jen ensures that effective employee training and education programs help Blue Bottle employees in California, New York, and Japan thrive in their jobs. Melissa is Blue Bottle’s Finance Operations Manager and she spends much of her time forecasting appropriate procurement quantities for all Blue Bottle cafes (there are 33 globally). Among the many fascinating things we learned from Jen and Melissa was that much of the decision making around procurement quantities of green coffee (unroasted coffee beans) lies within the Finance department of Blue Bottle rather than in the Production department. Melissa—a veritable Excel whiz—explained that this improves accuracy in predicting and meeting demand, allowing the company’s green coffee buyers to focus their energy on developing supplier relationships in the field and upholding coffee quality standards. For Blue Bottle, technical tools like modeling are critical to supply chain decisions, and starting this summer you can taste the quality yourself in Boston. (Students in Chris Peters’ Food Systems Modeling course this semester may want to take note and highlight those analytical skills on their resumes!).

Three Thieves: Napa, California

Interviewee: Roger Scommegna, Thief

Left: Current Packaging for Bandit 1L Tetra Pak; Right: Roger Scommegna in his element Photos Courtesy of Roger Scommegna

Left: Current Packaging for Bandit 1L Tetra Pak; Right: Roger Scommegna in his element
Photos Courtesy of Roger Scommegna

Over a warm cup of non-Blue Bottle Coffee in Berkeley, we discussed the wine industry with beverage entrepreneur Roger Scommegna. Full disclosure, he may have been coerced into this interview due to family ties. As one of the founders of Three Thieves, Roger has spent the past 16 years working to bring high quality wines to the masses at low prices—a noble cause for grad students on a budget. Three Thieves achieved this model by initially packaging their wine in one-liter glass jugs and later establishing an offshoot brand, Bandit, available in half and one-liter Tetra Paks instead of traditional bottles.

Roger provided many insights into the beverage industry, but perhaps most interesting was his perspective on getting products into retail establishments. Roger discussed “gatekeepers” (wine buyers at different grocery chains like Safeway and Costco), and their authority in determining which products to purchase, in what quantity, and at what frequency. While one might expect grocery chains to use a reliable algorithm to determine which products will fare best on shelves, these gatekeepers often make decisions based on the crucial relationship forged between client and buyer. This camaraderie, the client’s ability to highlight differentiating features of their product, and even the restaurant where the business dinner takes place can all sway purchasing decisions. The gatekeeper is a powerful stakeholder in this context and can have a profound influence on a supplier’s brand. Roger recounted an instance when a purchaser told him that while his grocery chain had once regarded Three Thieves as a cutting edge brand, a lack of rebranding efforts had rendered their products outdated. In a successful response, Three Thieves conducted a branding overhaul and regained the favor of this key buyer.

At this early stage in our adventure, we’ve learned that—as is typically the case in science—the answer to our question about how producers make supply chain decisions depends. It depends on product, scale, metrics of success, and several other factors. Some decisions are based on models and economic analysis while others are more grounded in personal experience and preference. We look forward to speaking with the rest of our gracious interviewees over the course of the semester to learn more about the tools and motivations people use to make discerning production decisions. We’re indebted to the professors and faculty who’ve poured their energy into honing our technical skills and expanding our intellectual curiosities, and we hope that this opportunity helps bridge our academic lives with the professional endeavors we pursue after graduation.

Christina Skonberg is a 2nd year AFE student from Berkeley, CA who is trying to embrace the New England winter but couldn’t resist smuggling a suitcase full of Californian produce back to Boston in January. Krissy Scommegna is also a 2nd year AFE student who was happy to see her home in Boonville, CA in its rainy glory in January, even if it meant digging trenches against flooding and building fires in the wood stove to stay warm. Second-year AFE student Carrie DeWitt will also be participating in this directed study, but was unable to attend meetings in California in January. Stay tuned for more information about their end of semester presentation on Best Practices in Supply Chain Management, coming in May.

AFE Students Visit University of New Hampshire’s Fairchild Dairy and Organic Research Farms

by Kathleen Nay

On Saturday, October 22, students from the Fundamentals of U.S. Agriculture and Agriculture, Science and Policy II classes visited two dairy farms at the University of New Hampshire. Kathleen Nay documented the field trip for the Friedman Sprout.

The maternity barn at the University of New Hampshire’s Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center. Fairchild is a conventionally-run dairy operation, typical of those seen across New England. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Saturday mornings are normally for sleeping in—the one rare day a week I can afford a leisurely wake-up time. Not today. Today my alarm is set for 5:30 am; I’m joining my fellow Agriculture, Food and Environment students for a day trip to visit two dairy farms at the University of New Hampshire: the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center in Durham, NH, and the Organic Dairy Research Farm in Lee, NH. Hot tea in hand and warm oatmeal in my belly, we make our way up I-95 and take in the beautiful fall colors along the drive.

Dr. Pete Erickson, professor of biological sciences and extension dairy specialist, meets us at the Fairchild Dairy where he introduces us to his doctoral student, Kayla Aragona, who manages several pregnant cows and calves in her research on colostrum quality. (Colostrum, the first milk produced after a cow gives birth, is key in supporting the health of her young calf.) They give us a tour of the Fairchild Dairy, a typical New England dairy operation that is home to about 90 milking-age Holsteins and Jerseys and 70 young replacement heifers. The facility relies heavily on undergraduate student labor, including students participating in the CREAM program (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management).

Before entering any of the barns at Fairchild Dairy, we slip plastic disposable boots over our footwear. This is a biosecurity measure meant to prevent the spread of pathogens to or from the farm animals. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Before entering any of the barns at Fairchild Dairy, we slip plastic disposable boots over our footwear. This is a biosecurity measure meant to prevent the spread of pathogens to or from the farm animals. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Students begin the tour of Fairchild’s maternity barn. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Students begin the tour of Fairchild’s maternity barn. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Dr. Pete Erickson leads us on a tour of the facility and answers students’ questions about the New England dairy industry. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Dr. Pete Erickson leads us on a tour of the facility and answers students’ questions about the New England dairy industry. Photo: Kathleen Nay

 Second-year AFE/UEP student Tessa Salzman makes friends with a mama cow. Milk production from these mamas averages 26,000-27,000 pounds per cow per year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Second-year AFE/UEP student Tessa Salzman makes friends with a mama cow. Milk production from these mamas averages 26,000-27,000 pounds per cow per year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Dr. Erickson passes samples of corn silage around for students to feel and smell. Silage, a fermented, high-moisture stored fodder, is a primary ingredient in ruminant feed. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Dr. Erickson passes samples of corn silage around for students to feel and smell. Silage, a fermented, high-moisture stored fodder, is a primary ingredient in ruminant feed. Photo: Kathleen Nay

As a bovine nutrition specialist, Dr. Erickson knows a lot about dairy cows’ diets. Here, he shows us a mixture of dried citrus pulp and beet pellets. Beet pellets are a byproduct of sugar manufacturing. Photo: Kathleen Nay

As a bovine nutrition specialist, Dr. Erickson knows a lot about dairy cows’ diets. Here, he shows us a mixture of dried citrus pulp and beet pellets. Beet pulp pellets are a byproduct of sugar manufacturing. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Blood meal, a byproduct derived from the poultry industry, is a high-protein supplement added to cow feed. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Blood meal, a byproduct derived from the poultry industry, is a high-protein supplement added to cow feed. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Pictured: Friedman professor Tim Griffin. This is the sixth time Tim Griffin and Chris Peters have brought AFE students on this field trip to the UNH dairies.

Pictured: Friedman professor Tim Griffin. This is the sixth time Tim Griffin and Chris Peters have brought AFE students on this field trip to the UNH dairies. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Dr. Erickson shows students the dairy’s stores of animal bedding. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Dr. Erickson shows students the dairy’s stores of animal bedding. Photo: Kathleen Nay

A young Jersey calf reaches to scratch an itch. The dairy houses approximately 90 milking-age Holsteins and Jerseys, and 70 young replacement animals, which will become the new stock of milking cows once they reach maturity. Photo: Kathleen Nay

A young Jersey calf reaches to scratch an itch. Fairchild houses approximately 90 milking-age Holsteins and Jerseys, and 70 young replacement animals, which will become the new stock of milking cows once they reach maturity. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Students observe the Jersey herd up close. The milk from the Jerseys and Holsteins at Fairchild is sold to consumers as fluid milk and—everyone’s favorite dairy treat—ice cream. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Students observe the Jersey herd up close. The milk from the Jerseys and Holsteins at Fairchild is sold to consumers as fluid milk and—everyone’s favorite dairy treat—ice cream. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Holsteins watch as we peel off our protective boots and get ready to head to UNH’s organic farm. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Holstein cows watch as we peel off our protective boots and get ready to head to UNH’s organic farm. Photo: Kathleen Nay

After an extensive tour of Fairchild, we head seven miles down the road to the university’s Organic Dairy Research Farm. Established in 2005, this facility was the country’s first organic dairy operation at a land grant university. The farm houses roughly 100 organic Jersey cows, heifers and calves, and the property includes 275 acres of woodlands, crop and forage production, and land for pasture.

Brand-new calves greet us upon arrival at the Organic Dairy Research Farm. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Brand-new calves greet us upon arrival at the Organic Dairy Research Farm. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Students pose for a feeding photo-op. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Students pose for a feeding photo-op. Photo: Kathleen Nay

The organic herd is exclusively Jersey cows. As a breed, Jerseys are prized for the high butterfat content of their milk. These cows average 43 pounds of milk production per day. Photo: Kathleen Nay

The organic herd is exclusively Jersey cows. As a breed, Jerseys are prized for the high butterfat content of their milk. These cows average 43 pounds of milk production per day. Photo: Kathleen Nay

The milk from UNH’s organic herd supplies Stonyfield Yogurt, an organic yogurt company located in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Photo: Kathleen Nay

The milk from UNH’s organic herd supplies Stonyfield Yogurt, an organic yogurt company located in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Photo: Kathleen Nay

UNH’s organic dairy was the first of its kind to be established at a land grant university. Primary areas of research include dairy nutrition and feeds, pasture quality, forage production, compost production, and natural resource management. Photo: Kathleen Nay

UNH’s organic dairy was the first of its kind to be established at a land grant university. Primary areas of research include dairy nutrition and feeds, pasture quality, forage production, compost production, and natural resource management. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Friedman professor Chris Peters (in yellow) walks the pasture with Dr. Erickson and UNH graduate student Kayla Aragona. UNH manages 55 acres of pasture, in addition to 120 acres of woodlands and 100 acres of crops and forage. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Friedman professor Chris Peters (in yellow) walks the pasture with Dr. Erickson and UNH graduate student Kayla Aragona. UNH manages 55 acres of pasture, in addition to 120 acres of woodlands and 100 acres of crops and forage. Photo: Kathleen Nay

The University of New Hampshire’s Fairchild Dairy is open to the public seven days a week between 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Visitors can observe milking at 3:30 pm.

Kathleen Nay is a second-year AFE/UEP student and has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography. In undergrad, she spent a semester photographing life on a small organic raw-milk dairy in Baroda, Michigan.

Overdue for Overtime

by Julie Kurtz

A new California law just enacted the most revolutionary labor standards since the creation of the 40-hour work week.  What is it?  Well, it’s the 40-hour work week. But will it improve equality? Will it impact the cost of your food? Will equitable farm labor make your vegetables healthier? And will the new law change the curriculum at Friedman?

On Monday September 12th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed monumental legislation that should be of interest to all Friedman students. California Assembly Bill 1066 will require that agricultural workers be paid overtime for working more than eight hours in a day or forty hours in a week. While this may seem like a no-brainer, the current standard requires workers to work 10 hours/day and 60 hours/week before earning their overtime pay. The changes will be incremental starting in 2019, with full realization of the law by 2022 for most farms and 2025 for farms with fewer than 25 employees.

We take for granted the forty-hour week as a cornerstone of American work ethics, representing fair working hours and honoring the dignity of work. Many industries had a forty-hour workweek in place well before the 20th century. In the heat of the workers’ rights movements, victory came with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, guaranteeing a maximum work hour week—or overtime compensation when forty hours were surpassed.

However, agricultural workers were exempt.

As were domestic workers.

In the 1930s African-Americans were disproportionately employed in agricultural and domestic labor. President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labors Standards Act knowing it was a compromise with Southern Congressmen who had a vested interest in excluding black employees to preserve the plantation-style economy of sharecroppers and black domestic workers.

While there are practical reasons why agricultural workers remained excluded from the labor rights that most Americans enjoy, mostly related to seasonality, it is clear that enormous power differentials persist between farm laborers and farm owners. In California more than 90% of farm laborers are Latino, and 80% are immigrants. Given the long history of labor exploitation in US Agriculture, what does it mean that the agricultural giant California has set this precedent of equality? Will the new overtime legislation be effective? Or are there loopholes that will inevitably allow the continued overworking of farm laborers? Will other states follow in California’s footsteps? And finally, to bring things back home, why should California Assembly Bill 1066 be discussed at 150 Harrison Avenue?

One of Friedman’s great strengths is our integrated approach to food. Friedman extends into every corner of the food system, from cutting edge nutritional science, consumer behavior, and food policy economics, to the environmental impacts of agriculture. Our system-wide approach enables Friedman to engage one of the most complex challenges on the planet: how to feed ourselves. But there is a realm where our reach rarely extends: labor.

I came to Friedman in part because we ask questions like “Is this tomato that is grown in nutrient-rich biodynamic soils healthier than a conventional tomato? Is it healthier for our bodies? Is it healthier for the land and for the sustainability of agriculture?” I’m thrilled that my education is helping me answer and provide insight to those questions. I’m less certain where on this campus we can ask: “Is this tomato that was grown by an equitably-paid farmer who has access to healthcare, leisure time, and education, as healthy as a tomato grown by a farmer who works 12-hour days, sees her children only briefly at dawn and night, and lacks a nutritious diet, time for education, and access to medical attention?”

Can healthy food come from an exploited workforce?

Second-year students from Friedman’s Agricultural Science & Policy II course recognized this gap in our education and knowledge. We do not feel equipped to evaluate and understand the impact of California’s new law in the grander context of the food system. As policy students we frequently discuss the “inputs” that go into our food: technology, land, and fertilizers. Labor is another input. But labor is people. We need a different set of tools to consider the migrant harvesters, the meat processors, the truck drivers, and the line cooks—the people without whom nutrition students would have nothing to study in the first place.

Fortunately we have a supportive faculty who has recognized the hole, and are working alongside us to bridge the gap. In fact, the entire Friedman community is invited to help bridge the gap:

  • In October the Friedman Seminar Committee will meet to determine Spring 2017 Seminar speakers and they will consider agricultural labor experts. To that end, students are invited (as they always are) to send speaker suggestions to Christian.Peters@tufts.edu.
  • Due to student requests, two AFE core courses (Nutr215 and Nutr333) will dedicate classroom time to address farm labor and the new California law. Interested students are invited to attend those lecture and discussion dates, and can email Timothy.Griffin@tufts.edu for more information.
  • As Friedman administration seeks to hire new faculty, we urge consideration of candidates with expertise in farm labor, food system law and justice.
  • Second-year AFE student Caitlin Joseph is spearheading a student-directed course on Agricultural Labor Policy and Justice in Spring 2017. Students interested in joining should contact her at Caitlin.Joseph@tufts.edu.

California AB 1066 did not materialize out of nowhere. How does its signing fit into the broader picture of dismantling inequality in the food system? As Friedman students and faculty, can we satisfactorily discuss nourishment if we are not equally concerned with the welfare of those who bring food to our table? What models exist to dismantle this systemic oppression? What impacts will those models have on the environment, on the economy, on nutrition, on academia, and mostly pertinently, on the labor force? And how can we integrate those models into the Friedman curriculum?

Julie Kurtz is in her second semester of the AFE program. She landed at Friedman after acting professionally in San Francisco, practicing Emergency Medicine in Minnesota, and farming in Bolivia.

 

Eat Retreat 2016: My Weekend at Camp

by Krissy Scommegna

40 people. 9 shared meals. 20 participant-driven workshops. 4 days of culinary bliss.

This is Eat Retreat: a collaborative weekend for leaders in the food world where skills and knowledge are shared, meals are made and dishes are washed together, meaningful connections are solidified, and indulging in good food and drink is highly encouraged.

eatretreatflag

I first heard about Eat Retreat in 2013 when founder Kathryn Tomajan and director Heather Marold Thomason stopped by the Boonville Hotel where I was working as a sous chef. They were looking for a good meal, an interesting community, and insights about hosting an event in the Anderson Valley. While I was immediately interested in attending, I wasn’t sure if I was really qualified to be there. I had only been cooking for a few years and didn’t really consider myself a “food leader” of any kind. But I applied thinking I may as well see if I had something to offer.

Even if I was the token local, I couldn’t have felt more honored, and incredibly nervous, about being selected to attend as a 24 year-old. I packed up pounds and pounds of the dried chiles my family grows and drove 10 minutes down the road to the camp where I would spend the next four days.

This sounds incredibly cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway: what was waiting for me was truly life-changing. I gained confidence in myself, in the work I was doing, my skills as a chef, and made connections with people I wanted to be when I grew up. Eat Retreat helped push me to be in and stay in the food industry, where there were genuinely good people doing cool things.

When I learned that this year’s Eat Retreat would be hosted in my home state of Wisconsin, I applied without even thinking twice. There was no way I could miss out on this. I wanted to spend the weekend extolling the virtues of Wisconsin supper clubs, the iconic relish tray, and the importance of a squeaky cheese curd. And I did just that.

In mid-September, a select group of food professionals from around the U.S. and Canada converged at a summer camp in Delevan, WI. I was there to greet them with the best cheese whips and curds the state had to offer and the perfectly mixed Brandy Old Fashioned, a Wisconsin tradition.

These are my people. My Eat Retreat family. A story-driven photographer with one of the best collections of agricultural photos around. An organic olive oil and almond producer. A food journalist. A founding fisherman of a community supported fishery. A sustainable protein and cricket enthusiast. An advocate fighting rural hunger. A handful of artisan food makers. A food anthropologistFood writers and food stylists. A member of the Vermont Workinglands Enterprise Initiative. A butcher working to improve and localize supply chains. A certified olive oil taster and miller. And me—a chef, dried chile pepper producer, non-profit program director, and graduate student.

Eat Retreaters in action throughout the weekend.

Eat Retreaters in action throughout the weekend.

 

There was even a fellow Friedmanite! A 2005 graduate of the Nutrition Communications program, Cathy Carmichael is a Registered Dietician currently working as the Project Manager at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. Cathy had this to say about her experience: “Eat Retreat brought together an eclectic group of food professionals passionate about sharing their craft through formal and informal learning opportunities. I left the retreat with true admiration for my colleagues and their great work in an complex industry.”

At this point, you’re probably wondering what happens on Eat Retreat. Attendees plan and determine the weekend’s workshops, making the event different every year. Everyone is encouraged to dream big, meaning that anything and everything can happen.

 Saturday lunch complete with 35+ domestic cheeses, cured meats, local radishes, and bread from Milwaukee bakeries

Saturday lunch complete with 35+ domestic cheeses, cured meats, local radishes, and bread from Milwaukee bakeries

 

We talked about Midwestern food traditions and how Friday Fish Fry’s and meat raffles are the norm. We had a domestic cheese tasting, featuring over 35 different cheeses. We learned the delicate art of cocktail mixology and even made our own bitters. We discussed the Alaskan salmon industry and learned how to butcher a Coho. We experimented with sourdough and ferments. We learned different techniques for baking pies. We discussed the process of creating a food facility.

 

 

We talked about body image, food guilt, and the interplay of food and sex. We discussed local food cultures and the difference between amplification and appropriation. We had a bourbon and ham tasting and ate a Tamworth ham that our resident Vermonter cured in his basement for four years. We cooked each meal with local fare and other ingredients brought by attendees. We shared cutting boards and allowed for professional chefs and home cooks to teach each other in the kitchen. We became friends, stayed up too late, and had a stupid amount of fun.

 A unanimous highlight of the weekend was a bourbon and ham tasting curated by Sara Bradley of Freight House in Paducah, KY.

A unanimous highlight of the weekend was a bourbon and ham tasting curated by Sara Bradley of Freight House in Paducah, KY.

 

I ate too much. Laughed until I cried, and maybe almost peed a little. I shared my passions about food with people who genuinely cared and felt similarly. Got suckered into tap dancing. Cooked some pretty delicious food. Caught rainbow trout, cleaned it, and ate it for dinner. Roasted marshmallows over the campfire. Swigged Malort. And went to bed each night feeling overly nourished from the food, fun, and community that filled my soul and woke up ready to do it again the next day.

Rainbow Trout caught that morning at Rushing Waters Trout Farm in Palmyra, WI ready to be cleaned.

Rainbow Trout caught that morning at Rushing Waters Trout Farm in Palmyra, WI ready to be cleaned.

 

Next year when the call for applications rings through kitchens across the country, consider applying for Eat Retreat. We at Friedman have an interesting story to tell about food and the role of our studies in the broader world of nutrition and agriculture. As the next leaders in food policy, our voices contribute to the wider conversation about the current and future state of food in our country.  Facilitating conversation between policy advocates and those actually working in the food industry is important and necessary. We can be the ones to make it happen and Eat Retreat can be a way to make those connections possible.

Krissy Scommegna has been to Eat Retreat twice and is pretty proud of the quark ranch dip, potato gratin, and pecorino + piment d’ville popcorn she made. Her biggest accomplishment of the weekend? Learning how to properly sharpen her knives. 

I Say Potato

by Lindsay LaJoie, RD

Growing up on a family farm meant changing roles with the seasons, and changing with the times.

For over 100 years, the LaJoie family has been growing potatoes in Aroostook County in Northern Maine. What was once a small farm with fewer than 10 acres has grown into a 1,300-acre operation, and as you can imagine, many aspects of production have changed. My father is a fourth-generation potato grower, and even in the last few decades, he has witnessed a multitude of technological advancements that have led to the growth and efficiency of our farm today. While the horse-drawn plows and potato barrels have faded from the images of the yearly harvest, replaced by high-powered tractors and mechanical potato harvesters, one thing has remained constant throughout the generations: family.

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Tractors on the Family Farm. Photo credit: Nic LaJoie

 

My father and his seven siblings—one brother and six sisters—grew up working on my grandfather’s farm, and as my aunts will tell you, the girls were always the fastest when it came to hand-picking barrels of potatoes. After studying Diesel Technology for a year after high school and spending a few years as a truck driver, my father ultimately returned to Grand Prix Farms, my grandfather’s 400-acre operation, to settle into his own farming career. He recalls using tractors and equipment built in the 1950s well into the 1980s, with little change over that 30-year span. In the 1990s, he witnessed the beginning of a stream of innovations that would forever change his life as a farmer. No longer did he have to rely on CB radios or listening for the sound of another tractor in a nearby field to communicate with my uncle and grandfather—he could pick up his cell phone anywhere, anytime. In the year 2000, when my grandparents bought us a computer capable of Internet connection, the family business was truly revolutionized.

It was at a young age that my siblings and I learned our own roles on the family farm. We’d wake up early, put on tiny work gloves and boots, and ride in dad’s pickup truck to the potato house. There, we stood on step stools to be able to see the potatoes whizzing past on the fast-moving conveyor belts, working alongside our senior family members, and reveling in the nods and smiles of approval from our grandfather. I never knew what happened to the potatoes once they were hauled away in huge 18-wheelers, just that it was my job to watch the conveyor and pull out any bad potatoes—along with rocks or any non-potato objects. At the time when our new computer came along, the market was tough, and my father was looking to find a new niche. In a career where success can be determined by something as uncontrollable as the weather, and with a wife and four young children to support, my father began to view the Internet—a foreign concept—as an opportunity.

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Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

Most of what I remember about using the Internet at the age of 10 is that I could play a lot of computer games, and my mother couldn’t use the phone while I was online. My father, a man who once opted out of taking a high school computer course because he “never thought [he’d] need it,” was initially weary of online communication and its potential implications. He remembers finally finding the courage to contact people on the Internet, hoping to sell a new product he was interested in growing: blue potatoes. He grew small amounts at first, starting with five acres, and increasing to 10 acres the following season. These potatoes—blue on the outside and the inside—were sold to brokers in the beginning, until finally one of my father’s emails was forwarded to a buyer of raw product for Terra Chips. The buyer came to visit the farm, and soon after, my grandfather was trucking a sample of blue potatoes to the Terra Chip factory in New Jersey. The full load was sold, and a long-term relationship began.

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Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

In 2007, our family farm was restructured to create LaJoie Growers, LLC, which is now an operation co-owned by my father and his brother, nephew, and cousin. Previously, the farm was structured in such a way that equipment and labor were shared, but the crop belonged to the individual farmer. This could be a problem if tending and harvesting schedules led to a great yield for one individual, and failed crops for another. Restructuring the company allowed for gains (and losses) to be shared, solidifying the teamwork that is needed to succeed in a large agricultural operation. But the owners are not the only members of the LaJoie Growers team. My grandparents instilled the essence of the family farm in their eight children and 26 grandchildren, myself included. The family is continuing to grow, and each of us contributes to the farm in any way that we can, even if right now it can only be love and support sent up from Boston.

Today, LaJoie Growers, LLC grows 220-acres of blue potatoes, all of which are dedicated to Terra Chips (as seen on JetBlue!) or as seed for next year’s crop. Over the years the scope has widened beyond potatoes to include multiple varieties of beets, carrots, and parsnips, all of which are also made into Terra Chips. There is no question that growing up on the family farm taught me about the importance of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, and I am incredibly grateful for that. Even though I am not at home to work anymore, I observe the business continuing to evolve by growing new vegetables and using GPS technology in tractors to maximize efficiency, and I am inspired to seek opportunities, take chances, and be innovative. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find my blue potato.

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Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

Lindsay LaJoie is a Registered Dietitian and second year biochemical & molecular nutrition student. Her favorite way to eat potatoes is any way her grandmother cooks them.