Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field is a new offering of the ATTRA Web site featuring interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Local Foods and Sustainability
An interview with PEAS Farm director Josh Slotnick
By John Webb, NCAT Web Specialist
March 28, 2006
Recently, ATTRA sat down with Josh Slotnick, a community farm director and sustainable agriculture educator, to discuss the importance of local foods and sustainable agriculture. Josh wears two hats - one as the PEAS ( Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) Farm Director for Garden City Harvest and the other as Director of the PEAS Program based in the Environmental Studies Program (EVST) at The University of Montana.
The PEAS program provides an opportunity for college students to intern at a working community farm in Missoula, Montana. The PEAS Farm is a collaborative effort between EVST and Garden City Harvest, recently recognized with the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership Award for an outstanding nonprofit/university partnership. Josh, along with his wife Kim Murchison, also runs the Clark Fork Organics farm in Missoula.
Q. What does sustainable agriculture and local foods mean to you?
A. Sustainable agriculture means that we are producing food in such a way that we can continue to produce food for the long-term. To unpack that a little bit, what exactly needs to be sustained? We need to sustain soil health, farmers need to make enough money so they can keep farming, and the quantity and quality of food produced needs to meet people's needs as well.
Where does local food fit into that? If we are sincere about our efforts towards sustainability, we have to produce food as close to customers and consumers as possible given high transport costs and the hope for technically sustainable agriculture as well. I feel that small farms are going to have a better shot at being environmentally sustainable than large farms. So I'm imagining a decentralized national agriculture with lots of small farms ringing small cities. Rather than an agricultural district in the central valley of California and then urban districts on the coasts and then we ship food everywhere. And it doesn't just stop at the coast... the current system is fully global and I feel like that is very unsustainable. Unsustainable in that when you grow large quantities of food all together in one place it's really hard to do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable because of the high cost of transport. If the cost of oil gets really high we'll have no choice but to do things more close to home.
Q. What do you see as the biggest issue facing the sustainable agriculture movement today?
A. Two issues come immediately to mind... one has to do with land and the other with markets.
The land near most population centers in the U.S. is of a really high value. Property values have skyrocketed in recent years. So what does this mean for sustainable agriculture? Land is an absolute prerequisite for farming, and if farmland is priced at development value farmers can't afford to buy and pay for it doing agriculture. So the big challenge here is to come up with some set of tools, or set of mechanisms, to reward landowners to get them a return on their investment but also make sure that the gap between development value and agricultural value is filled by some other entity than a prospective farmer. If we don't do this no farmer will be able to afford to farm. But if we have some state, national and/or local mechanisms so that when a farmer buys land it goes immediately into some sort of permanent conservation or agricultural easement [farmland will be protected]. We need to be working with land trusts and local, federal and state governments to make this a national priority, because I really believe there will be a time when transport costs become too expensive and we will have to farm locally.
The second big issue facing sustainable agriculture is markets. For the most part, sustainable agriculture meets a niche market, a specialty market. We need to work on getting local food into all grocery stores. And I'd like to see these grocery stores patting themselves on the back with big, bold signs saying "We sell local produce" and "We sell Montana products" and use that as a marketing tool. I feel like it has been an underused marketing tool by grocery stores. I don't think the grocery stores understand the influence they would have on customers if they first bought locally and then advertised and sold that food.
The challenge is that we need to break into larger markets. I saw in the newspaper recently that Wal-Mart was going to begin carrying organic foods at one of its stores in Dallas . I don't feel that organic is necessarily sustainable. If organic foods are following the same economic paradigm that all foods are following: centralization, mass-scale, and shipping all over the globe...it's a little bit more sustainable in terms of soil building but it's not very sustainable in terms of transport costs, treatment of labor, treatment of animals, and treatment of local economies.
Q. How does GCH and the PEAS Farm meet the needs of the low-income population in Missoula?
A. We have two mechanisms for meeting needs of low-income Missoulians in terms of food security.
One is we grow food directly for emergency food shelters. We give the Missoula Food Bank around 20,000 pounds of food a year. We also supply the Poverello Center, our homeless shelter, with food, along with the Joseph's Residence, a home-like setting for homeless families.
The second way we do it is through our community garden network. The community gardens are located in low-income neighborhoods. These are places where there are trailer parks or lots of multi-family housing with not many opportunities to garden. So we put community gardens in these neighborhoods and now people who live there have access to land, tools, seeds, a little bit of expertise, and they can grow their own food. It is really neighborhood and community building. The River Road Community Garden is next to a trailer park and has served as a medium to create a real feeling of community. The garden is a place where people come together, the kids play outside, they have potlucks, they jointly grow potatoes. That kind of activity wasn't happening before the garden.
Q. As a sustainable agriculture educator, what do you see as you look to the future of the local food movement?
A. I feel like local foods are only going to grow in importance. It's a popular, hip thing right now and with those transport costs I mentioned earlier it's only going to become more important. We're seeing things in Missoula like Farm-to-College—this is happening all over the country, it's taking off.
Local participatory guarantees— alternatives to organic certification—which are about small groups of local growers who are working with their own customers to set-up some kind of pledge where the customers and growers are all on the same page about the techniques the growers are using [are also part of the future]. Then, the growers can step out of being certified organic. These little labels are taking off all over the country. The latest one I have heard of is "Mendocino Renegade." The one that we are doing is called the Montana Sustainable Growers Union and our label is "Homegrown." There are probably 100 of these things across the country.
These new local groups of farmers promote awareness—people get really excited about having an attachment to where their food came from. I mean if something says "organic" on it...it could be from Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, who knows where. But if it says "Western Montana Homegrown" you could find the farmer, and people are into that. The whole ethic behind "certified organic" is all about purity of food to maintain the health of the customer— 'I want to know there are no chemicals in my food.' That's pretty much the absolute bottom line, which is an important component. But that's only one of the things that compels consumers to make the right choice, and if they know that something was grown right down the street, that they could go meet the farmer, that's much better.
Part of our pledge [as farmers] is that we spend as much of our money locally as we can. That means when we go buy supplies, instead of going to the Internet to find the cheapest fencing in America I'm going to Quality Supply here in Missoula to buy fencing there. As much of the stuff we can buy locally, we do buy locally. We put money back into the local economy. We hire people here.
So, I see the future of local foods is really bright—all these indicators like farm-to-school, these new local labels, farmers' markets are booming, CSA's are going really well—I feel that economically we're on the right path.
Q. Can you talk about the programs you have here at the PEAS Farm?
A. The PEAS internship is the main labor force at the farm. In spring and fall, university students work six hours a week at the farm. In the summertime, Monday through Thursday, the kids are here from 8-noon. On Fridays we have a class on soil, bugs, weeds, agricultural technology, and then go on a field trip to visit a local farm. So when you put the whole thing together as a package it's really educationally powerful. You're mixing traditional academics in a sit-down class with experiential and service learning. The students get really attached to each other, to the place—it really becomes their place.
We have a community education program with field trips for school kids. In September and October we have afternoon field trips for Missoula County public school kids and a couple of the private schools in town. We have an education coordinator who does all the logistics and works with teachers to create curriculum so that when the kids come up to the farm they don't just have a quick tour and look at the pigs and chickens—they actually get a lesson. We're expanding that program this summer by partnering with the parks department and will have a three-week farm camp up here.
And we have the Youth Harvest Program, an employment-based therapy program, for kids from the drug court. These kids work side by side with the PEAS students and get integrated right into the mix. They get paid a minimum wage stipend and they have some therapy associated with that with our Youth Harvest Director, who is a licensed counselor. And we have seen really great results in terms of buy-in and personal engagement from these kids. They get sucked into it. So, we have people who are 16 and 17 working with people who are 20 and 21. Most of the Youth Harvest kids are bitter and cynical and have a whole bunch of obstacles. They are impoverished, they are living in youth homes, their parents are broken up—things are pretty rough. And then here they are in the midst of all this optimism and wholesome, good, strong work. And working with people who are motivated and feel like the world is a place where you can make a positive change—who are excited to be here, excited to be alive. And it's not instantly contagious but you see them beginning to get swept up in it where they can't maintain this posture of dark cynicism because it just doesn't fit. Every year we have seen some great mentor relationships happen between a Youth Harvest kid and a PEAS student.
The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is the main income generator for the farm. We sell 70 shares and the sale of those shares generates most of our operating expenses. And now we have 70 households that are advocates for the farm. It's a great economic model where farmers get to sell directly and consumers get to know where their food comes from. I feel like there is lots of potential for more CSAs across Montana—there are a lot of them all over the U.S., nearly a thousand.
Q. Can you tell us about the energy conserving technologies at the farm?
A. This barn we are in was made with straw bales and all the timbers were salvaged. In terms of water, we set up water catchments on the barn, so we have two cisterns and use these to water perennials and nearby trees. We burn biodiesel in the truck and tractor. We use floating row covers, sort of miniature greenhouses inside the larger hoop house to extend the growing season without having to burn any propane. We recently built a root cellar using the constant temperature of the earth to maintain a 50 degree space. I have high hopes we can get solar panels on the barn for the next big physical improvement at the farm.
Q. Why should people be buying locally produced foods?
A. If you buy locally produced food you are keeping local farmland in farmland. When that donut of farmland around a city disappears it's replaced by the kind of culture that doesn't remind you of where you are locally but reminds you of where you are nationally. When you lose that little donut the farmland is replaced by big box retailers or tract housing. It's replaced by the physical embodiments of a national, homogenous culture.
Next, the economy—you're buying local food, your dollars are staying in the community.
Ecology—biodiversity on a farm as compared to the biodiversity of a big box store parking lot or tract housing. It's not even close. There were 54 species of butterflies found here on the farm last year and they wouldn't be here if this was a sub-division.
For our towns and cities to remain vital, people need to be engaged and really feel that they matter. Buying and eating locally connects you to your place and helps you to becoming a local. When we're engaged in our communities, and care about what happens, that's when we can be very optimistic about the future.
This page was last updated on: February 9, 2015