Archive for November, 2009

November 24, 2009

Hobson Asks, “Do you love the American farm?”

By Joseph Dougherty

Thomas Hobson

At the turn of the 16th a century a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England began a practice of offering each of his customers a choice; they could either ride the horse in the stall closest to the door, or they could ride no horse at all. The asperity in this new policy stemmed from the owner’s frustration over the customers habit of cherry picking only the best horses, a practice that resulted in the favored horses being ridden too often and breaking down from exhaustion. This innovative “take it or leave it” policy reversed this practice and distributed the riding equally, and the success gave birth to the term Hobson’s choice (named after the owner, Thomas Hobson).

Today the term is used today to describe any free choice in which only one option is truly offered. And for me, this is a perfect description how agricultural policy is currently framed for the American public. The reasoning behind this is that in nearly every other political debate the proponents proffer the classic “false choice” – describe two options and say you can only do one, when, in fact, it is actually possible to do both (example: “we can either focus on executive compensation or focus on reviving our economy”). But in the debate over agricultural policy, the lack of both complexity and variance in the public discourse creates a situation in which proponents rarely need to even mention a second option. You’re just for American farms…period.

The problem with this stance is that being “for American farms” eventually becomes synonymous with being in favor of American agricultural policy as it is currently structured. More importantly, it imbeds a level of cognitive dissonance that results in supporters of farm policy viewing nearly every other domestic policy issue as inimical to their interests. Carl Taylor, in his classic article for the American Sociological Review, scoured decades of polling in rural communities and found that this trend placed both farmers and their supporters in a position of reflexive, unified opposition to a platform of issues regardless of their relationship to agriculture. Many of these policies, particularly the ones related to social or urban policy, had no discernible impact on agriculture at all.

One of the many limitations, and significant ironies, in this is that a number of the policies classically opposed by agriculture supporters actually help farmers. As an example, let’s look at the field of environmental policy. Many environmentalists like to start a discussion of farms and the environment by referencing global climate change (the future of arable land in the Midwest, introducing carbon into soil, etc.), but since climate change legislation is not currently in place I’d prefer to focus on something more concrete. For example – the relationship between farmers and federal regulators is widely understood to be contentious. This is primarily a result of the Environmental Protection Agency’s role in regulating solid waste and pesticides in farms as well as the farm community’s reflexive opprobrium for federal regulation (as cited by Taylor above). But underneath the emotion begs the question…is this opposition to the EPA necessarily helpful to agriculture?

Consider this – the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for pollutants that are considered harmful to public health and the environment. These standards are, at first glance, something the farm community would reflexively oppose (the regulations impact energy producers, primarily coal and oil, which could raise energy costs on farms). But why are they in place? The first reason is to set a primary standard to protect the health of sensitive populations such as asthmatics, children, and the elderly. But the second reason is to protect livestock, vegetation and crops from air pollution. Why is that necessary? Air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter can have a corrosive effect on crops, especially ones downwind from coal fired plants. Absent national regulation these pollutants could significantly impair crop production and reduce the productivity of American farms.

U.S. Senator Grassley (R-IA)

It’s just one example, but the point is that there is far more syncretism between the pro-agriculture and pro-environment worldviews then many people recognize. Last summer Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) invited EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson down to Iowa to see how “real family farms” operate under the onerous impact of EPA regulations. It was an unremarkable stunt, primarily because the farm policy debate is so stilted to begin with, but it belies the unnecessary tension between agriculture supporters and the rest of the policy arena. With time, and with great understanding of the collaborative role other stakeholders play in farm policy, I hope supporters like Grassley can move the debate from a Hobson’s choice to a real choice over what is best for American farms.

Editor’s Note:  I hope you enjoyed our guest writer and a good friend of mine, Joe Dougherty.  Please take a minute to submit a comment or question for him below.


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Tomorrow's guest writer: Joe Dougherty

November 23, 2009


Stop by tomorrow to read my favorite and yours…Joe Dougherty!



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November 19, 2009

Is Thursday the new Friday?

Why should I withhold all of the fun and crazy frenzy we all associate with YOUR AWESOME FRIDAY BONUS content another minute!?

I can’t think of a single reason.

That being said, there is one decidedly good reason to go ahead and post it today.  Namely, that I’ll be on vacation tomorrow and decidedly not near my trusty blogging device.  And what’s on tap for Saturday, you may ask?  Well, a small fête at my home.  Really, just dinner with a few friends.  If you’re lucky (and you look lucky in that snazzy shirt, my friend), I’ll post about our organic, sustainable, local, AND EASY menu when I return on Monday.

But you had better behave over the weekend, kids.  (Or no soup for you!!)

So, here it is.  Your Awesome Friday Bonus content.  For that special someone.  Enjoy!

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November 17, 2009

Sustainable Food for All – Plus, Evil Alien Worms! – By  Sara Jaye Sanford

Evil Alien Worm! Known to most as a common Tomato worm (Photo: Jon-Rappaport)

This summer, I took it upon myself to find out what this sustainable agriculture business is really all about. So I got in touch with Anonymous Farm (names changed to protect the innocent and the guilty) and spent July there with my sweetie as a “Woofer.” Anonymous was just getting started as a CSA farm with one acre of vegetables producing for twenty-odd members. I remain grateful to everyone I met there, human and animal alike, for their incredible generosity and teamwork and everything I learned from them. I harvested copious amounts of zucchini and pattypans, drowned an untold number of evil, alien-like tomato worms (see left), and weeded. (Mostly weeded.) By their own standards, I think Anonymous was successful. Getting a quality harvest your first year working a field is an ambitious goal to begin with, and we were providing our shareholders with an adequate amount of quality, delicious produce.

Puppppyyyy! This little guy "supervised" us in the field.

But in a broader context, I don’t think this model would “scale up” very well. And that’s not a bad thing. I think it’s fabulous for people to be able to work in a field, to support a local farm, and to build community around that. What it isn’t, however, is an answer to the question “How do we give everybody – or at least more of us – access to quality food?” At the end of the day, half a dozen people working one acre to provide vegetables for twenty or so families isn’t efficient enough to reach very many people. About a zillion times more workers would have to be engaged in agricultural labor and a lot more land would need to be farmed.

So what is the answer? Agribusiness says it’s not possible.  They’ll tell us that we NEED them to feed the world. Now, I am skeptical of this claim – some research has shown that organic farming can have yields just as high as conventional farming, and there are plenty of better-established organic farms out there that get a lot more produce out of their land with relatively less labor. Michael Pollan seems to think the answer lies in each of us developing a closer and more honest relationship with our food. That’s cool and all, but what about the single mom trying to put food on her table who doesn’t feel she has time (or the need, frankly) to go hunt down her own wild boar? Her needs and constraints are legit too, and it’s been a growing peeve of mine that the movement for sustainable food often seems geared towards those of us who wield some consumer power.

In the field workin'.

But when you think about it, is something that’s really only available to a fraction of the population really sustainable? As long as the vast majority of our food is coming from agribusiness, we as a population are still going to be feeling the hurt.

That’s why I hope those of who care about these issues will spend more time thinking beyond our own consumption. Many farmer’s markets accept WIC and food stamps and some are even dedicated to serving communities without adequate access to fresh food, like DC’s Ward 8. Elsewhere in DC, check out Common Good City Farm and Martha’s Table’s schoolyard garden (cute kid alert!). Growing Power is fightin’ the good fight in Chicago and Milwaukee. To me, supporting organizations like these – and there are plenty out there to connect with – is as important as worrying about where my own food comes from.

Editor’s Note:  Hope you enjoyed our guest blogger today!  Feel free to leave comments thanking her for her thoughts, disagreeing with her conclusions, or asking questions about her incredible experiences!  I’ll certainly ask her to reply to any inquiries in the “Comments” channel below this post.  It’s America, people – say what you think!  I’ll be back on Thursday for your end of the week post – including EARLY Friday Awesome Bonus content!

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Guest writer: Sara Jaye Sanford

Sara Jaye Sanford

Sara Jaye Sanford (Photo: washblade.com)

November 9, 2009

Hey everyone!  Please stop by the cyber garden Tuesday, November 17th to read about Sara Jaye’s take on sustainable agriculture – including an interesting look at its current state of accessibility.

It should be a VERY insightful post and I can tell you – it comes from a heck of an advocate gardener to boot.

See you all tomorrow!

Best wishes,


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(Photo: gatherandnest.com)

Holiday Shopping Guide #1

November 6, 2009

So what’s on your favorite gardener or food lover’s mind these days?  Well, as the fall crops only have a few more weeks at best in the mid-Atlantic, it’s quickly becoming: the holidays.  Don’t freak out – I’ve got you covered.

So who are we shopping for, here?  Does your loved one have baggage!?  No, no – not the stories about that ex they drunkenly confessed to you on their birthday last year.  If they’re going to continue to hit that 4-season farmer’s market all year long (like this one in Dupont Circle), they’ll need some heavy duty food transportation.  And they’ll thank you for setting them up in style.  Enjoy!

Upcycled bags

1. $24.99 (zJayne on Etsy.com; "SIX PACK Paper or Plastic No Thank You")


1.  What’s big with the kids these days?  Upcycling!  (And what’s big for you?  DEALS!)  Well, here are six upcycled market bags for the price of one!  Made from old t-shirts, there’s no waste in site.  Buy them here.

2.  Don’t make your hippie friend ask for that vendor’s reusable-on-the-farm vegetable container!  (They probably won’t let them take it, anyways.)  Give them these screen-printed muslin veggie bags and help them to keep it all organized at the market – without peeving off Farmer Jane (or Joe).  Buy it here.

veggie bags

2. $10.00 (wonderthunder on Etsy.com; "Three Small Happy Vegetable Reusable Vegetable Bags in Blue")


3.  Now here is a bag with a ton of style and one of the greenest virtues of all – versatility.  This bag could go to the beach with your bud just as quickly as the market, and it’s even classy enough to take along to work or sub in as a gym bag when it is time (perhaps past time?) for your friend to deodorize their current gym bag.  Buy it here.

oil cloth

3. $45.00 (wonderthunder on Etsy.com; "Oilcloth Market Bag")

4.  If your loved one is really a classic/crafty lady or gent – then THIS is the dream gift.  A pre-owned Radio Flyer wagon is versatile, heavy duty, and uber stylish.  In that charming, sweet, bad ass kinda way.  Buy it here.

radio flyer

4. $60.00 (trek98 on Ebay.com; "Radio Flyer #22 Trav-ler Red Wagon"


5.  Oh tres chic – non?!  This is the quintessential market basket and PERFECT for that person in your life who can charmingly pontificate on the layered meanings of Proust’s finest, raise eyebrows just by walking into a room – with a certain air of sultry intellectualism slowly swirling about them, and could whip up a souflee for an impromptu dinner guest – but would probably just run down to the patisserie and grab a bottle of Champagne, instead.  Because pourquoi pas? Buy one like it here.


5. Approx. $45.00 (Photo: 2bnmaine.com/blog/2008/06/)

6.  But wait – there’s enough vintage allure on etsy.com for everyone.  This old wire basket could tell a few stories, I’m guessing.  Give your amigo the gift of looking totally retro cool, and – hey, why not – pick one up for yourself, too.  A minimalist carry-all like this one is great for gardeners and friends of gardeners, men and women, and savvy market vets and newbies, alike.  Buy it here.

wire basket

6. $38.00 (oldcrowfarm on Etsy.com; "Vintage Wire Metal Market Basket")






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Atlanta: A Retrospective

November 4, 2009

The trip to Atlanta was memorable.  Perhaps even balanced, in a way.  There were gigantic farmers’ markets brimming with fresh produce, but there was also bad, take-you-nowhere-helpful, dirty public transportation.  (Bad.)  There were beautiful old homes and tenderly loved yards in neighborhoods of every socioeconomic bracket, but there was also near consensus at our dinner table one evening that President Barack Obama was probably not an American citizen.  In a word, it was the south.


Cabbagetown home - complete with an old tire swing.

Oh, but wait.  I have a deep love for these southern cities like New Orleans and Charlottesville and all the others, really.  It’s born out of my childhood.  Out of the adoration I had for my late southern grandmother’s beautiful pearls, her simple elegance, and her true grace.  Out of my insatiable appetite for my mother’s homemade dressing (what you Yankees call “stuffing”), my respect for her indestructible and infectious optimistic strength (“Oh Katy, this too shall pass,” in her decidedly Texan twang), and in my quiet sense of arrival as a southern woman this summer when she handed me her delicate antique linens.  That were, of course, handed down to her by her mother.

My childhood memories of the south are of the seemingly magical garden my grandmother grew


Old Louisiana Magnolia Tree; Photo: Chateau Nouveau Developers & Builders

around her big old Mandeville home – magnolias spilling down from the trees at just the time of our arrival each Christmas season.  They’re also of my BIG extended family get-togethers, and of the endless warm Christmas afternoons I can recall walking with my dad along the banks of the Pontchartrain.

Needless to say, returning as an adult was different.  As a tourist, I returned to the south without any of the above context in place.  It was a bit jarring.

Sweet Melissa's

Sweet Melissa's - brunch WITH live blue grass (Photo: http://sweetmelissas.home.comcast.net)

I will say, though, that the charm and DELICIOUSNESS of Sweet Melissa‘s, an Atlantan brunch joint we hit up that had a kick ass bluegrass band (called Donner Party of Four) almost washed the bad taste out of my mouth from the pro-business/anti-environment stories I heard and overheard at the equally Atlantan Halloween party the night before.  And the beauty and bustle of the (now) undisputed World’s Largest Indoor Farmer’s Market – Your DeKalb Market, just about made up for the fact that my “Death Panelist” Halloween costume didn’t get a ton of positive attention.*

Actually, the DeKalb Market even had a community composting site on their lot so that you could drop off your table scraps on your way to the market and pick up some black gold in return.  (I wish they had something like that in our neighborhood!!  My garden would LOVE it.  Yes, yes – we’ll be composting next spring.  Instructional forthcoming.  :-))

In any case, my vacation was well-deserved and much-appreciated.  I was able to enjoy the experience for what it was, savor the yummies I found (like an entire 1/2 QUART of coriander seeds for 66 cents!), and rock out to the sounds of Atlanta.  I met liberals (it IS a big city, guys), I met conservatives, and I met some really, really good people – political persuasion totally irrelevant to my affections.  As always, life is a grab bag:  You never know what ya gonna git.  Especially when you’re in the south.

With love,


© Copyright 1994 - Paramount Pictures

© Copyright 1994 - Paramount Pictures

*Well, I suppose humor is subjective no matter what your values.  There are plenty of progressives that don’t think I’m funny, either.  And thought the costume was just plain nerrrrrrdy.  🙂

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