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.

The Transformative Power of Urban Food Systems

by Sam Jones

Last month, the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference came to Boston for its sixth year. Topics ranged from bee colonies and school gardens to hydroponics and the farm bill. A synopsis of issues relating to food access to youth incarceration can be found here, while the entire list of topics and more event information can be found online.

“The price of democracy is eternal vigilance,” says Karen Voci, the president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. At a time when the outcomes of political debates are as predictable as a roll of the dice, the acuity of civil society is of the utmost importance. For the sanctity of democracy and its ability to serve the people, that philosophy is relevant in every aspect of life, particularly in food systems. Food systems have the ability to both enhance egality and take it away.

The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference presented a slice of the world of which our eternal vigilance is both crucial and progressing. It was hosted by the Urban Farming Institute in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on March 16th and 17th at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA. Each day of the conference included four sessions and one or two keynote speeches. For each session, attendees selected one of five or six topics to be a part of. This event synopsis is based on my experience from the sessions I chose to attend on the first day of the conference.

During the first session, titled “A New Approach to Food Access: Best Practices to Shift Systems,” the first question asked by the moderator, Raheem Baraka of Baraka Community Wellness, was “What is your vision for a New England Food System?” In founding the Three River Farmers Alliance, a farm product aggregation business in New Hampshire, Andre Cantelmo hopes to achieve community-level food sovereignty in New England. As a farmer himself, he recognized that small farms lack the clout to push through the local food system on their own. In response, his Alliance fills a role that allows farms to specialize, which lowers prices for consumers and increases demand for locally farmed produce.

Cantelmo and Shawn Cooney, of Cornerstalk Farm, both admitted that their business models currently cater to “the middle-class white woman” who can afford fresh local produce at the farmers market. Cooney hopes these “early adopters” can act as funders that help their businesses grow and become more affordable and accessible in the long run. They hope to expand the New England local food system from one that includes their farm’s name on a  farm-to-table restaurant’s menu, to serving their carrots in school cafeterias anonymously, because “that’s just how it should be,” according to Cantelmo.

The topic of commodity crop subsidies soon came up in the discussion. Instead of hoping the subsidy structure will change, Cantelmo accepts it but intends to build a system through local food aggregation that can effectively compete with commodity crop subsidies. On the other hand, Voci argued that there is room for democratization in the food system, adding that the more people who familiarize themselves with the system, the more educated voters our society will have. Perhaps a more educated voter base will be able to demand change to the subsidy structure that disadvantages many small farmers.

On the topic of federal policy intervention, both Cantelmo and Cooney noticed that Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) and SNAP recipients make up a notable proportion of their customer base. However, there is a visible access problem. Cooney noted that customers using HIP and SNAP typically come to his farm store in large groups by bus or van, indicating that significant coordination unrelated to his business must go into providing people access to fresh local produce. Voci, while encouraged by the use of HIP and SNAP, voiced her concern about the future of these programs under the current administration.

When asked if local produce can be integrated into the current large-scale distribution system, the major concern of the panelists was “greenwashing”. According to both Cooney and Cantelmo, large distributors like Sysco have approached them for fresh produce, which puts their names on a list of producers that sell to the distributor. After a while, however, these large distributors stopped sourcing from them, yet their names and the sustainable methods associated with them remained likewise associated with the large distributors. This greenwashing dilemma is one reason why Cantelmo has taken food aggregation and distribution into his own hands. It is also an example of how self-organization can circumvent a much larger problem.

Another session I attended was called “Job Skills and Agriculture: Models for At-Risk and Formerly Incarcerated Youth.” Captain David Granese from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department talked about a different kind of urban farm—one within the walls of a prison. This working farm is completely run by the prisoners themselves, who can earn time off their sentence in exchange for hard work, learning marketable job skills along the way.

UTEC, also represented on the panel, aims to reduce recidivism in Lowell, MA by teaching formerly incarcerated youth specific food-related job skills, while also offering valuable certificates that employers look for. This organization partners with the unemployment office, the division of labor, and employers in the community to identify where people with a criminal record who go through UTEC’s program are welcome to apply for jobs. UTEC also has an arrangement with the community college to get its members on a path to higher education that does not lead them back behind bars. UTEC is effective at achieving its goals—two years after the program, 78% of UTEC graduates are employed compared to just 40% or formerly incarcerated youth nationwide.  

Across every session, I was reminded why I want to study food systems in the first place. Food and farming have the ability to address seemingly unrelated issues, like crime and gentrification, in ways that can be uniquely tailored to each place and situation. Urban agriculture can breathe life back into a community. Food can make a success story out of a kid going nowhere fast. Food and farming are approachable avenues through which we can democratize our system as we see fit. Urban agriculture has the ability to actually create a more equal society while outside forces attempt to divide us. The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference illustrated the potential for food systems to act as a vehicle for positive self-organization that puts a person’s health and well-being at the forefront of progress.

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

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.

Friedman Policy Corner: A Call to Action for Aspiring Food Activists

by Ayten Salahi (MS/RD-FPAN) and Marielle Hampton (MS-AFE)

On February 5, the Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) convened its inaugural meeting. Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern stopped by to offer words of wisdom, encouragement, and a call to action.

Congressman Jim McGovern offers words of wisdom at the inaugural meeting of new Tufts advocacy group, Friedman Food Policy Action Council.

Congressman Jim McGovern offers words of wisdom at the inaugural meeting of new Tufts advocacy group, Friedman Food Policy Action Council.

Congressman Jim McGovern surprised Tufts students with an impromptu visit at the first meeting of the newly formed Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) on February 5, one week before the Trump administration announced its budget request for fiscal year 2019. Congressman McGovern, champion of anti-hunger causes and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, was visiting the school to discuss his recently launched bipartisan Food is Medicine Working Group in the House Hunger Caucus.

During the meeting, Congressman McGovern expressed his appreciation for the student initiative to get involved in advocacy, since “academia doesn’t always translate into activism.” When FFPAC founding member Ayten Salahi requested words of wisdom for students looking to get involved in political action, McGovern chuckled. “This is the toughest year you could have picked to get started, but that’s why it’s so incredibly important.”

He urged students to remember that people in government are supposed to be working for them. Even in the current political climate, he said, “pressure works.”

So how can students and citizens help? “Every elected official has one thing in common: they want to get re-elected. These issues are important enough that these people need to know if they’re not with you, you’re not with them. There has to be consequences… Nobody would tell you they’re pro-hunger, but judgment should be based on actions.

The Congressman then offered a crucial piece of advice that he adopts in his professional and personal life: Correct misinformation and provide facts.

Even in Congress, falsehoods are repeated regularly. He makes a point to correct the record, whether at a family dinner or among colleagues. “The average SNAP benefit is only about $1.40 per person per meal and the majority of people on SNAP are kids and senior citizens or disabled,” he explained. “The majority of beneficiaries who can work, work. The majority of people on SNAP are white, despite misconceptions. The USDA has been very effective at cracking down on SNAP fraud.”

Congressman McGovern’s guidance to hold our elected officials accountable may prove especially important for food and nutrition advocates this year, with changes to the Farm Bill slotted for congressional review in March.

On Monday, February 12th, the Trump administration announced its budget request for fiscal year 2019, which included a plan to cut 30% – $214 billion – from the SNAP budget over the course of 10 years. The proposed “cost-savings” would result from a major shake-up in the program’s benefit structure. Among the proposed changes, one has received significant publicity: Instead of receiving monthly funds loaded into EBT cards as is currently done, SNAP beneficiaries receiving $90 or more per month would receive half of their benefits in the form of a “USDA Foods Package,” packed with predetermined food items specifically chosen for their long shelf life. The package would include cereals, pastas, canned foods, peanut butter, and shelf-stable milk. Notably, no fresh fruits and vegetables would be included. No one has seen if or how these changes would be reflected in the 2018 Farm Bill.

While the administration calls the proposal a “cost-effective, Blue-Apron-style approach” with “no loss in food benefits to participants,” stakeholders are skeptical that the proposed “Harvest Box” is anything more than a distraction from work underway behind the scenes to slash federal funding for food assistance programs. Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, “I don’t think there’s really any support for their box plan. And, I worry that it’s a distraction from the budget’s proposal to cut SNAP by some 30 percent. That’s the real battle. But all anyone is talking about today are the boxes.” Ranking democrat on the agricultural committee Senator Debbie Stabenow also cautions that this “isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction.” Shortly following the release of the budget proposal, administration officials admitted that the food box plan had “virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon,” rousing further suspicion around the administration’s motives in publicizing it so widely.

During his visit with FFPAC, Congressman McGovern expressed similar concerns, and emphasized how important it is that food policy activists and SNAP beneficiaries alike demand transparency from members of the House Committee on Agriculture on the drafting of the 2018 Farm Bill. Despite his role as Democratic ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, Congressman McGovern shared that neither he nor his Republican counterpart has seen a single sentence of the updated Farm Bill, now under review with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). He cautioned this lack of transparency around the latest draft as “a sign that someone is hiding something.”

Though it remains to be seen, the bill is anticipated to reflect significant reductions in the federal SNAP budget, which will have a direct and jarring impact on the sustenance and economic freedom of nearly 46 million low-income Americans who depend on the program to nourish both themselves and their families.

In his closing remarks, Congressman McGovern issued a call to action for us at Friedman – and for all those invested in the protection of health equity, food security, and social welfare – to call our representatives, and to demand transparency around the content of the latest Farm Bill, and when it will be made available for review. In the coming months, FFPAC pledges to maintain a finger on the pulse of the upcoming Farm Bill and rally advocates to hold representatives accountable for votes that jeopardize SNAP program benefits.

Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) is a student-run organization of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Our mission is to advance evidence-based nutrition and agricultural policies in support of public and environmental health, by equipping students with the skills and relationships necessary to impact policy through advocacy. For more information, or to join FFPAC, please contact friedmanfpac@gmail.com

Ayten Salahi is a first-year FPAN MS/RD candidate, co-founder of FFPAC, and is dedicated to the future of policy, programming, and clinical practice in sustainable diets and nutrition equity. Ayten came to Friedman after working as a molecular and clinical researcher in neuropharmacology and diabetes management for nearly 8 years.

Marielle Hampton is a first-year MS candidate in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program and a co-founder of FFPAC. Marielle began her studies at Friedman after spending five years working with small farmers on Hawai‘i Island.

UN ECOSOC Recap: Building a Sustainable Future

by Laura Barley

In January, second year AFE student Laura Barley served as a student representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in New York City. Empowered youth from across the globe gathered with governmental officials to share ideas about how to achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Here, she recounts her experience and shares some of the key takeaways from the event.

Image source: Author

Image source: Author

For two days at the end of January, I was given the opportunity to travel alongside four fellow Tufts student representatives to the ECOSOC Youth Forum at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The forum was a whirlwind of speeches, brainstorming sessions, and long-winded discourse from youth representatives and official ministries from all over the world—all putting their heads together to decide how to best empower the future.

ECOSOC, abbreviated from the UN Economic and Social Council, regularly holds these types of events to integrate policy frameworks that support the Sustainable Development Goals from the ground up. For those unfamiliar with the SDGs, they were created by the UN in 2015 as a comprehensive platform of 17 goals that cover the world’s most pressing issues: gender equality, hunger and malnutrition, and climate change mitigation, among many others.

By popular consensus, the SDGs are seen as a much-needed improvement from the UN’s previous set of Millennium Development Goals, which many viewed as too vague and intangible. Instead the SDGs work to define timely, measurable goals that nations can properly mobilize—for instance, reducing current levels of food waste by half, or completely eradicating poverty for people living on less than $1.90 a day.

Fostering the notion that young people have exceptional power to drive social change, the Youth Forum focused specifically on six SDGs that dealt with clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, sustainable consumption and production, life on land, and technological innovation, and how to empower youth to achieving these goals.

The structure of the forum allowed participants to choose only one SDG-focused brainstorming session, and as the pious AFE student that I am, I naturally gravitated towards the session on SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production. Voices from Great Britain, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia all echoed sentiments familiar to the halls of Jaharis—we’re consuming too much and too quickly for our planet to withstand. We ought to know better by now, but we’re not living up to our own standards as we should be. And under the framework of youth empowerment, the subtext of these truisms begged the question: how can we raise our children to be more mindful than we’ve been?

The voices from developed nations, including my own American perspective, maintained that serious gaps in our educational institutions preclude most youth from even realizing that their choices have an impact on the natural environment. Exposure to nature, agriculture, and nutrition have become secondary and tertiary priorities in most public school systems, which ultimately neglects the chance to positively influence the consumers that all children will become.

So, when it came time to distill our ideas into concrete policy recommendations, we converged on a few points central to the evolution of education. We recommended increasing diverse and equitable educational experiences across all types of school systems, emphasizing focus on transforming the mindsets of youth from those of a consumer towards those of a producer. In this sense, sustainable development means an expanded awareness of the relationship between consumption and production, and that even the simplest of our everyday choices has the power to influence how the world’s natural resources are used.

Image source: Author

Image source: Author

Ultimately, the participants’ recommendations will be compiled into a broader report on youth engagement published by the United Nations, reflecting official policy goals of the signatory countries to the SDGs. And though I gleaned constructive insight into the annals of UN procedure—how they gather information, how they form their policy stances—I found that the hallway conservations I had with my peers were far more valuable. These events function to tap into the infinite potential of minds with vision and hope, and the sum of our parts are starting to become an incredibly powerful whole. Earnestly, I hope to see the Tufts community continue to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals at this level and beyond.

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. She’s always happy to indulge conversation at laurabarley88@gmail.com.

Branchfood Holds First in 4-Part Panel Series on Technological Innovation in Food and Farming

by Laura Barley

On February 22, Branchfood hosted the first panel in a four-part series entitled The Future of Food, exploring innovation in agriculture, food products, nutrition, and retail. Second-year AFE student Laura Barley attended The Future of Agriculture panel, and reports on the exciting developments on the industry’s horizon. Don’t miss the rest of the series! (Details below.)

As part of its mission to connect food innovators from the local to the global, last Thursday February 22 Branchfood debuted the first in a four-part series of panels devoted to the future of food systems. The Future of Agriculture convened four ambitious leaders for a discussion on the role of data and technological innovation in agriculture, and how they can contribute to the greater vision of global sustainability.

The panel, moderated by the charismatic captain of the Entrepreneur Agrarian Fund, Aaron Niederhelman, focused heavily on one recurring theme: digital disruption. And for a field so central to the health of the planet, this kind of disruption may just be the type of makeover that agriculture needs to account for its externalities.

Water scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical run-off continue to plague large-scale agriculture all over the world, so the implicit question underlying the panel remains: in a world where machines can now compile and analyze massive amounts of data, how can we teach sophisticated machines to solve agriculture’s most complex problems?

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

For Vijay Somandepalli, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at American Robotics, the answer lies in automation, though developing this technology hasn’t always been as straightforward as it seems. “Lots of drones work, but almost none of them are actually used,” Vijay admitted.

To counter the trend, he and his team have developed the first fully-automated field drone, which independently collects and analyzes crop field data from launch to landing. From his point of view, automation is one step closer to ensuring that the benefits of drone technology are actually implemented—if farmers don’t have to manually monitor their field data, they and their workers can spend their time on tasks better suited to human hands. Given the continued trend toward farm consolidation, where the average size of an American farm is 234 acres and half are more than 1,100 acres, this can translate into an incredible amount of saved time and energy.

Essentially, automation has the potential to become the hallmark of precision agriculture, where farmers can build trust in technology to deliver the efficiency gains they need to remain profitable. This vision for technology was echoed by the other panelists, each of whom has the power to influence agricultural production trends on a global scale.

Lawrence Wang, Digitalization and Analytics Strategy Lead at Cargill, spoke to the promising commitment that the multi-national agribusiness company has made towards technological innovation and sustainability. Cargill has partnered with Ecolab and Techstars to create a Farm to Fork Accelerator, an entrepreneurship program dedicated to bringing some of the leading ideas in food safety, manufacturing, and food waste to fruition.

Brett Brohl, Managing Director of the Techstars accelerator program, contends that “The timing is right—there’s a bunch of venture capital moving into food innovation in the last several years.” For a behemoth processing and manufacturing corporation like Cargill, which largely contributes to the nine billion animals slaughtered in the US each year, re-shaping conventional systems of meat production could have widespread implications. Concepts like traceability and transparency have become increasingly popular among consumers, and in an attempt to gauge consumer interest and trust, Cargill has even started to trace each Thanksgiving turkey all the way back to the start of its supply chain.

But for Lauren Moores, VP of Data Strategy and Data Sciences at Indigo Agriculture, data amounts to more than the results it produces. She believes that data analysis is fundamentally a storytelling challenge, and in her line of work, that challenge means simplifying the vast complexity of the plant-soil microbiome. As a prominent Boston startup, Indigo works to tap the potential of the microbes that have evolved in conjunction with plants over time, ultimately to produce a seed coating that maximizes plant health and productivity. The universe of the microbiome is still so elusive, and the microbial cocktail of Indigo’s seed coatings is complex enough to warrant selection by machine learning just to refine the tens of thousands of possible strains available.

Lauren also acknowledges that “farmers know their land better than anyone,” and that Indigo’s role is to develop data to help them cultivate their land more sustainably. The standing paradigm of the microbiome, which Indigo is actively researching, suggests that the biology of bacteria and fungi can enhance crop water and nutrient uptake, so that excessive irrigation and synthetic nutrients won’t need to be applied as frequently.

Interestingly, Vijay’s drone technology aims to reduce the need for agricultural inputs from a slightly different angle—drone imagery can pinpoint nutrient deficiency and other crop ailments at a much higher resolution than even the farmer’s own eye. Where a farmer used to apply chemicals to a whole field just to cover their bases, they can now apply them only to the specific areas in need.

This is the story of technological efficiency—and optimism—that these innovators are trying to write. Collectively our minds are capable of pioneering solutions to the problems of our past’s conventions, and agriculture isn’t the only sector that could use a technological re-vamp. To bring awareness to innovation materializing throughout the whole food system, Branchfood is hosting three further panels on the Future of Food Products, the Future of Nutrition, and the Future of Grocery respectively on March 22, April 26, and May 24. The panels will continue to bring visionary food minds together, to share and inspire how our collective food story will evolve.

Correction, March 7, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Indigo Agriculture uses data about plant-soil microbiomes to develop seed treatments that enhance plant health and productivity. –Editors

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. She’s always happy to indulge conversation at laurabarley88@gmail.com.