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

by Laura Barley

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

Photo: Sam Whittier, Whittier Farms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Systematize Sustainability: An Experience with Italian Corporate Social Responsibility

by Rebecca Lucas

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

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

What is sustainability?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.