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.

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.

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.

Paradise Lost

by Laura Barley

Climate change is a globally felt human experience that recently hit home for California native Laura Barley. Here, she reflects on the wildfires in her home state and takes a look at some policy tools aimed at climate mitigation.

California is on fire. Needless to say, the past two months have been a terrifying series of events. The Thomas Fire has devoured almost 275,000 acres, granting it the all-too dynamic status of the largest wildfire in California’s recent history. It wraps up the most destructive wildfire season California has on record, capping off at over 500,000 acres burned—more than double the total acreage burned in 2016. To add insult to injury some of those acres, charred of all vegetation by the Thomas Fire, bore the burden of a flash flood that killed 21 people in Montecito.

Even though the Friedman School pulled me to Boston, California is and always will be my home. For the most part, I watched the coverage of the Thomas Fire from afar. Tucked away in the icy confines of my Somerville apartment and Jaharis 118, I checked my phone every few hours to see who of my friends had been evacuated, which of my sun-streaked memory lanes had been destroyed. I couldn’t believe what I saw—apocalyptic images of scrubby hillsides swallowed by flames, plumes of orange clouds encompassing the whole sky. Each picture I saw boomed the same message over and over: that nothing would ever be the same again.

Photo credit: CNN.com

Photo credit: CNN.com

The frequency of large-scale devastation speaks for itself: California’s climate is changing. It appears that the massive strain on the state’s agricultural and urban water resources, fueled by the longstanding lure of its eternal growing season and illustrious vision of paradise, have come to a reckoning. Years of prolonged drought followed by a sporadic year of intense rainfall have created ecosystems irresilient to the rapid shifts—groundwater and river basins have all but dried up, leaving forest and chaparral ecosystems as little more than tinderboxes. The euphoric agricultural and commercial boons of the twentieth century have lurched into a twenty-first century defined by scarcity, uncertainty, and dramatic change.

So, what’s really at stake here? Climates change, they have for eons. Species perish and adapt in the great equilibrium of life. And we—Californians, Americans, humans—will adapt too, hopefully in a timely manner. But much of the world finds itself in the middle of a cycle that feels beyond our control, where the climate interventions we make barely seem to break even. The tons of carbon dioxide emissions from a single large-scale wildfire, like the Thomas or Napa Fires, are estimated to equal the annual emissions of all motor vehicles in the state, and definitively offset much of the progress made by the state’s cap-and-trade program.

For the foreseeable future, California and much of the American West will continue to battle climate change on multiple fronts—greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, flash flood and wildfire mitigation, to name a few. Encouragingly, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has made significant headway towards a baseline system of climate accountability across the state. In addition to the emissions cap-and-trade program, since 2009 the Safeguarding California plan has established a template for large-scale climate change adaptation strategies, and continues to convene action plans across multiple state and municipal departments. Additionally, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 has finally enacted groundwater monitoring protocol in a state that will continue to rely almost exclusively on subterranean water stores for agricultural production. These are positive signs of political responsiveness, and hopefully yield noticeable impacts in the years to come.

But at the heart of climate change, there exists a loss more worrisome than any policy analysis or statistics could project. For me, for now, the loss is purely psychological. The sense that all of us feel to some extent, which is felt especially strongly in California and the developed world at large, the sense that nothing bad can ever happen to us—that’s gone now.

Enduring the human experience of losing the places we’ve built from scratch, places with cultural and spiritual significance, places we call home—this is the global price many of us will have to pay in the coming decades. The stories of devastation and loss are the stories we should be paying attention to, the stories that make the numbers real. More importantly, they’re the stories that motivate us to action, out of fear and compassion that nothing so terrible should ever happen to us again. Because every time it happens, it shouldn’t.

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE Master’s student, who grew up in the Bay Area and lived in Southern California while attending UC Santa Barbara. She is a member of the Water Systems, Science, and Society research program aimed at mitigating water constraints to healthier diets. Most importantly, she strives to be a climate optimist.