Tears and crowds at the Sebastopol Film Festival

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Why did Big Ag giant Cargill get $5 billion from Congress?

To my surprise, Cargill showed up on the list of the top 100 companies that dominate federal subsidies along with corporations like Bank of America and the Bank of Ireland.

Cargill ranked #93 on the list of corporations that receive federal loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance and stands alone as the only ag-related company. Their total take was $5.1 billion. The closest neighbors on the list: #94 Synovus Financial. #92 is Best Bank.

I am just starting to check on the figures and why Cargill needed $5 billion in subsidies when the company boasts of being one of the world’s Pillars of Plenty
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The story of how Big Ag fought Obama and won

Here is a transcript (and a recording) of the beginning of the end of what would have been the toughest challenge to mega livestock and poultry corporations like Tyson and Cargill.

It was July 20, 2010 and USDA officials were nervously defending legislation at a hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry. Most of the congressmen come from farm states, had ranches of their own in the family and had filled their re-election accounts with money from the very companies fighting the proposed laws.

The controversy started when the USDA tried to level the playing field for poultry farmers and ranchers using the agency’s authority under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 1921 law whose power to give growers a fair deal had been growing thinner by the decade. The congressmen bristled at the provisions, which members said usurped the power of Congress. Now those provisions were back.

It’s worth noting that at the time President Obama was looking at whether Big Ag was violating anti-trust laws. Even as the USDA officials were sweating it out, their boss, Tom Vilsack, was touring rural states across the country with the head of the Justice Department, Eric Holder, and his anti-trust chief Christine Varney. Obama had sent them out to hear from farmers and ranchers about how to restore competition and fairness to farming. The trio of the USDA and DOJ was the last combination Big Ag, the packers and producers, wanted to see working together. They quickly dispatched their lobbyists. You could hear echoes of the industry’s lobbyists in the comments and questions of the subcommittee on July 20. One of the lawmakers said he regretted that farmers were having to consolidate in order to stay on the land but that’s just the way it is. Get big or get out. uncle-sam-food-garden-mid As The Grist’s Tom Laskawy put it, “To say this was a lost opportunity is a vast understatement. After all, the top four companies control 90 percent of all beef processing. In the case of pork, four companies control 70 percent of the processing, while for poultry it’s nearly 60 percent. When you get that kind of market power,* abuse becomes rampant. Indeed, ranchers all around the country now agree that it’s impossible for them to get a fair price for livestock.”

A new generation of farmers fighting for land in California’s parched wine country

 Rains may yet head off a full-blown drought crisis in Sonoma County. But no amount of water will solve one of the toughest problems facing America’s most picturesque, productive and pricey farmland regions. That is getting new farmers access to land.  Listen to the Story

It’s a late Saturday afternoon and the sky has been darkening all day, casting Sonoma County in a sheet of gray the color of cement. The sky means rain and that’s good news to the farmers here at the Sebastopol Grange Hall. California is in a drought, the worst in recorded history. Reserve ponds are drying up and the pastures are brown and barren.

Dairy farmers and ranchers are cutting into their slim profits just to feed their herds. They’re culling deep into their stocks, selling or butchering entire herds. The organic dairies worry they won’t be able to sell their milk because they can’t pasture the cows much longer. A liter of organic milk from one of nearby dairies already goes for $5. The ranchers have it even worse with the shutdown of the only USDA slaughterhouse within a three-hour radius. You can’t have grass fed beef and lamb without pasture. And now they’re feeding their herds and having to drive further to slaughter. This might be enough to make any farmer get out of the business. But these new farmers in skinny jeans and flannels were here because they wanted in. To farm they need land. And in Sonoma County that’s a big problem. With the average age of farmers now at 59, it’s a problem that reaches deep into the future of farming in America. IMG_1797

That’s why I have come to the Sebastopol Grange Hall, a one story sage green building on Highway 12 that runs through grasslands dotted with wooly white sheep and row after row of grapes grown for some of the country’s best known wineries. The temperature was dropping when I arrived and the wind whipped the edges of a white tent pitched outside, behind the hall. Inside the hall, a stream of women threw open their arms and lurched up to hug a man who turned out to work for the USDA, the agency that oversees our food system. Normally this would be enemy territory for the USDA. But his long blonde hair and big eyes seemed to melt resistance. “Hey! Glad to see you in the big city,” one woman said, laughing. Sebastopol is hardly a metropolis but compared to a farm, it can seem like jarringly busy.

IMG_1800They sipped glasses of Mission Hardware Old Sonoma Red and Highway 12 Sauvignon Blanc, named for the road that connects the town with the rest of Sonoma County. This was the annual meeting of the Farmers Guild, an organization catering to young farmers trying get started. So it wasn’t surprising that these young agriculturalists looked more like baristas in the Mission District in San Francisco than our classic image of farmers “straight white men on tractors” as one woman put it. No one showed up in dreadlocks but they wouldn’t have been out of place. A few wore cowboy boots but if there was a cowboy hat it would have been an ironic flourish. The crowd held plates piled with salad greens, pulled pork and meat-free maple sausage — all organic and local of course, from a place called the Happy Pig Farm.

Evan Wiig, the organizer of the event, was trying to round up the crowd for what he called farmer speed dating.IMG_1795 “This is chaos,” he said, ringing a cowbell. “It’s like herding cats.” The first time I met the red-haired Wiig he was dressed in a three-piece plaid suit that looked like it came straight from the rack of a vintage store. He wore cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat. He left the New York publishing world for a 600 acre farm where he raised chicken and now lives on the Green Valley Village cooperative. He has 17 pigs including the litter born that morning.

“I am not sure people will be reading books in five years but they’re still be eating,” he told me on a January afternoon. The sky was cornflower blue and yaks and cows bellowed in the field behind us. The breeze made the grapevines curled around the trellis above us move just slightly. Most small growers have to subsidize their earnings with a second job or marijuana he said. “Cause you ain’t eatin’ local otherwise,” he said.

Land in Sonoma County can go for tens of thousands of dollars an acre, more if a vineyard is planted there. That’s out of reach for young farmers. “The cost of land is the number one obstacle,” Ariana Areguzzoni told me. She works for California Farm Link to help new farmers get access to land and capital. Rent and housing prices skyrocketed, she said. “And that’s really spilling over to ag land.”

People who have land to sell are holding on to it because they know they’ll get more money from a developer than a farmer. Ask anyone who has lived in Sonoma County long enough and they’ll tell you land is expensive because of city slickers moving in from San Francisco or Silicon Valley. They are chasing a back to nature fantasy of owning some land and planting a few acres of grapes to make their own wine. Vineyards are “in a whole different economic bracket. They just have more access. They have more options,” Ariana said. Some of them want to show off to their friends or make a little money. IMG_1804

The county’s agricultural commissioner, Tony Linegar, called it a dangerous hobby because when the prices of grapes go down they give them away. There are growers who rely on their grapes to make a living. Linegar said the hobbyists don’t have bonds to the community. They pick up after a few years when they get bored or disillusioned — or both — and sell off their land — for ever more money. It’s a $14 billion industry. “There’s a lot of money involved and a lot of influence,” Linegar said.

Even families whose ties to the land goes back to the Spanish-Mexican days couldn’t buy an acre today. They call themselves land rich and cash poor. The new farmers at the Grange are mostly just poor.

Like David Cooper. He works the Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen, a storied piece of land profiled in the book “Field Days.” Oak Hill’s 700 acres are protected because they are of the Sonoma Land Trust. Cooper could never afford to buy into Sonoma County. “Not in this area. Not a chance,” he said. It’s so expensive someone starting out couldn’t make enough money to cover the mortgage. Paul Wirtz and Bob Cannard, two of the country’s leading organic agriculturalists probably couldn’t afford their land either if they were getting started today, he said.

Owning the land means security and not losing the value that farmers put into the soil and surroundings. But Evan, David and the others like them know that 80 percent of the nation’s land is held by non-farming landlords. If you’re getting started you rent. But just getting capital to start is an uphill battle. “It’s not worth your time to talk to a bank,” a red-haired former software executive said. There are option, like Slow Money and Farm Link.

It seems like a pretty hopeless picture and land prices are troubling, which is why they’re playing a game of speed dating, after all. Yet these are some of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met. Farmers like Andrea Davis-Cetina.

She grows organic vegetables and popcorn on her Quarter Acre Farm in the Sonoma Valley. She studied agriculture at Hampshire College and started her own farm “because no one else would hire me.” Six seasons later she has expanded to three-quarters of an acre. She’s optimistic but said part of the problem is the lack of connection shoppers have with farmers. Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm. “So it’s understandable people don’t know what a farmer looks like because they don’t know one,” she said. But to make the local food movement work shoppers need to shop from one, Andrea said. “No middle man” she said. “Get to know your farmer,” David added. They turned and walked back in side. A few minutes later the sky opened up and raindrops pinged off the cars like tin bullets.

It was a welcome sound.

Rancho meat recall, California drought, open questions

First came the drought then the USDA forced Rancho in Petaluma to recall 9 million pounds of meat. I’ve been sprinting to keep up. There is so much to tell. I honestly don’t know where to find the time to write about it all for a few more days. But even though I might be invisible at times here, you can keep up with everything on Twitter —@GleasonRanch — and Facebook/gleasonranchfilm.

Here are some photos from yesterday. David Evans of Marin Sun Farms bought Rancho in record time — with some Silicon Valley tech VC dollars. A worker was already painting over the sign yesterday. IMG_1863

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Here is an interview with Evans about the recall.

Livestock growers from Mendocino, Marin and Sonoma counties I spoke to were, as one of them put it, “cautiously optimistic” about the deal because Evans now has tremendous control over the system. Translation: Evans is doing what many of the big players do: integrate all points in the process, from growing to slaughter to marketing. That’s good business but the big worry is whether, in time, he will squeeze out the independent producers. The drought was bad enough: How do you raise pure grass fed beef and making a living if there’s no pasture and you’ve culled as much as you can afford, plus you’re having trouble finding organic hay — expensive organic hay. Livestock growers are burning through gas and dollars driving to get to a slaughterhouse/cut and wrap operation. That’s not what the local food movement was supposed to accomplish. But such is the dilemma the Rancho closing created. Poultry is another story: in Northern California you go to Modesto or nowhere.

I haven’t asked Evans all these questions yet but I have been pestering his press rep for some phone time.

The recall and the takeover were the topic of conversation at the Farmers Guild meeting last night at Shed in Healdsburg (and btw walking into Shed is like being in some kind of food sensory nirvana; the place just makes you feel gorgeous and rich and like life is best with a bottle of Chardonnay). The Guild invited Evans but I think everyone understood he was busy. Still things have moved so fast, are still moving so fast, that there are many questions left unanswered about how this affects the local food system they are trying to weave. There were enough questions without the Rancho recall. Now…

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What’s local in a CSA?

I forgot to take photos of week 1 of the CSA delivery. These are from week 2 but it is similar and includes the once-a-month meat delivery. The vegetables confused me because the band holding them together is labeled “County Line Harvest Farms/Organically Grown in Thermal, CA. USA.”

I didn’t even know where Thermal was. This is how the County Line website describes the farm: “County Line Harvest is a certified organic farm with two locations in California: one in Petaluma, Marin County, and one in Thermal, Riverside County.” I thought I was dealing only with one farm, the one in Petaluma until I looked more closely at Tara Linda’s website and read that they source from several producers, such as Strauss (along Hwy 116 in Petaluma) for dairy. Tara Linda supplies the meat. Lesson one.

But the greens and carrots were noticeably different from even the organics at Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods. They cook differently too. I’m beginning the understand that is because of what Michael Pollan calls “supermarket organic.” The way a lot of the organic food we pay dearly for at Whole Foods etc. is grown resembles industrial farming only without (all) the chemicals. Clever marketing but hollow in the end. I’m even hesitant to say that CSA was better for fear that I’m being duped and if I were to visit the farm wouldn’t be much different than the ones supplying the big chains. And Riverside County isn’t what I think of as local. That makes me worrry.  I got a recommendation for Clark Summit Farm as multigenerational, authentic. But you can see from their How-to Buy guide they’re not as consumer friendly as Tara. And no vegetables.

Tara Firma is slicker and a different beast than Clark or Gleason. But I trust Tara Firma and the ranches are doing good work. Maybe I’m getting too wrapped in the minutia of this stuff. It’s just that I wanted to have confidence in my decision and that, as I said earlier, I am not getting slow-washed. I wanted the easy way out, I admit it, without driving to Riverside County for a scheduled visit (no drop-ins).

Postscript: I cancelled my vegetable order. I was not seeing the quality of other CSAs I looked at online or growers at the farmers’ market. And there’s only so much Russian kale I can eat. I made the best bistro beef stew from the chuck loin and carbonara from the bacon. 

Gleason Ranch: the book and the blog

By Angela Woodall

Deciding to write a book is like getting engaged. It is at once exciting and frightening, and you have to be prepared to stay together for a long time. But the story behind Gleason Ranch is impossible to turn away from. Even food guru Michael Pollan had bestowed his benediction: “This doc goes beyond the romance of farming… [it’s] a hard look at the struggles…” So within 10 minutes of seeing a trailer of Morgan’s documentary about the Gleasons I could see the story unfolding on the page.

GRpigsIt was the scene with the sows that got me interested. Great big, bossy, Gleason Ranch sows in a pig barn built for them. They watched with curiosity and maybe a little amusement at the humans — Nancy Prebilich and her nephews — cleaning the stalls of messes the ladies had left. One of them rested her front paws on the gate of her stall for a better look at the hard and tiresome work being performed by the fourth and fifth generations, respectively, of Gleasons on the land. They looked nothing like the sows raised in the usual industrial system — enormous pale pink pigs kept pinned down in narrow metal crates with nothing else to do but eat. They stare blankly ahead. By now most people have seen those pigs either in person or in images. In contrast, the Gleason sows and their offspring had the run of the ranch with the sheep and the chickens and other animals.GRpigsmore

Morgan had been filming the Gleasons for four years so I had heard about the project, the twists and turns that barreled at him and the family. Nancy and I met for the first time at the fundraiser for the film, where I saw the trailer. A few days later I rode out to spend some time with her and Morgan, as well sheep, goats, dogs, horse, cow and guard llama, Ace. I wanted to make sure there was enough story and character for several hundred pages before committing. To be honest, my mind wasn’t made up until later that night when we stepped into the hall of the Sebastopol Grange #306. I needed something that put the Gleason story in context, something bigger than one family. Inside the pastel olive-colored hall, I started hearing the stories of other Sonoma County farmers being squeezed by big-time developers looking for land to feed the ever-growing wine business and Rousseauian fantasies of wealthy Bay Area dwellers. Sometimes the two overlapped.

The Sonoma County growers I met at the Grange that night were as libertarian, independent and contrarian as any of their farming brothers and sisters. But one of the youngest men there was dressed in an old 70s-era plaid suit, cowboy boots and a gnarled ranchers hat. The chaplain, a strawberry blonde in her 50s, wore a Medieval-cut tunic and Native American-styled accessories and opened the meeting with a prayer — a poem by Rafael Jesus Gonzalez. A middle-aged women in a black leather jacket, cargo pants and black ankle boots carried a chihuahua. A ring of tiny daisies crowned the head of a teenage girl. That night happened to be the annual election of officers to the Grange, which moved swiftly with no contests between candidates until it got to nominations for the three muses, Flora, Pomona, and Ceres. A competition sprung up for Flora, requiring a secret tie-breaking ballot. I never want to lose a group that idiosyncratic. I made up my mind by the time we started driving back to the Bay Area.

What you will read here on the Gleason Ranch blog is not verbatim from the book. Rather, the blog records discoveries along the way about the food, the land, the farms, the vineyards, the people. For one thing, I discovered a huge coincidence: My partner’s grandparents ran a dairy just down the road from the Gleason Ranch. In fact, his aunt Maria and Nancy’s mother, Barbara, were childhood friends since they went to the tiny one-room Watson schoolhouse in Bodega. Barbara was Maria’s model during her state cosmetology exams. In recent years, Barbara and her husband, Tony Prebilich, stopped by Maria’s housewares shop in Cotati on their way to the feed store. There were many other coincidences and connections. And nearly every day since I have learned something new about where we get our food, why we eat the way we do, what regulations are hurting or helping farmers and what the future is for them.

For starters I started to see the new iteration of greenwashing. Or, as I have to think of it, slow-washing.

The future of family land (and Angela eats odd tubers)

The Vanoni Ranch

By Angela Woodall

I spent the day with the Vanoni family on their Geyserville ranch, an 1,800 acre piece of Sonoma County land overlooking Alexander Valley. The sun shone hot on the scrubby fields grazed by horses and cattle for more than a century. Looking over the hills of the Vanoni ranch was breathtaking, like seeing the world filtered through the honey glow of a bottle of perfect chardonnay — gold, shimmering, warm. A breeze rustled through the old Oak trees and a trio of cats of various ages and colors sunned themselves on the warm cement near the horse stables and workshop.

The Russian River below separates the Vanoni land from the miles of vineyards that stretch with perfect symmetry in the valley below, their grand estate houses on the hills above. These grapes belong to Gallo, Silver Oak, Pastori and others whose names that I haven’t heard before. Cal Vanoni, the fourth generation of the family, handed me a pink-purple tuber that reminded me of a giant larvae. “I know it looks like a grub,” he said. The sound of gunfire coming from down the hill at a shooting range for sheriff’s deputies erupted every 15 minutes or so.

We first met at a Sebastapol Grange dinner a few months before. Dark, strongly built but on the wiry side and not much taller than me, Vanoni worked for years in what is politely called pest control. He quit the business and now grows rare crops like Andean machua, quinoa, corn and the lumpy tuber he handed me. I cradled the creature called oca in my palm before biting into it’s crunchy body. The taste and texture reminded me of parsnips. “I think it has a grapey taste,” Vanoni said. He sells his goods at farmers markets and to some of Sonoma County’s high-end restaurants. (Lady Gaga went out of her way to eat at Catelli’s in Geyserville a couple years ago).

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Shoppers at the Santa Rosa Community Farmers’ Market, at the Veterans Building buying the tubers grown by Cal Vanoni on his family’s land. Vanoni is standing in the background. 

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“It’s hit or miss,” Vanoni said, meaning farming income is seasonal and even then unpredictable because of the weather. His father, Ed Vanoni, a thin man who appeared in a crisp indigo blue denim shirt, blue jeans cinched by a big rodeo-style belt buckle and spotless cowboy hat atop his bald head, is feeding his herd of about 100 cattle longer than he ever has in 61 years. That’s what Cal tells me.  The lack of rain has for weeks been a constant anxiety and topic of chatter and in newspapers. I feel guilty because I dislike rain and love the warm weather. “It’s 12 degrees above normal,” Cal announced.

The Vanoni land most of the in Sonoma County was part of the Spanish-Mexican land grants established in the 18th century. Those pieces of land were vast, as far as the eye could see. Ed Vanoni’s grandfather bought 1,500 acres and his son added 300 more. Most of the land around them has since been divided and subdivided into smaller and smaller parcels and will likely continue to be cut up more. The Vanoni family could never afford to buy their land today. People call it “land rich, cash poor,” and it’s a condition afflicting many if not most of the old Sonoma County farmers and ranchers. “In agriculture, in farming, that is the norm,” Johanna Vanoni, Cal’s mother, said. She was sitting under the thick limb of an old Oak tree, the setting sun creating a soft glow around her. It is her aqua-clear eyes that her children have inherited.

The future of the land will be in the hands of Cal and his three siblings when Johanna and Ed Vanoni pass away. Joanna knows that and she’s seen plenty of other families sell off piece by piece. That’s part of the reason they’re surrounded by vineyards and people from the city.

It was four o’clock and time to start the drive back down their long road to town. At the bottom of the valley, sprinklers watered a patch of grapes. The water was going when I arrived at the Vanoni ranch in the morning, five hours earlier.