March 11 2015 12:00 AM

Sustainable farming conference sows the seeds of a new food system

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As a panel of experts chewed over the obstacles facing the nation´s small farmers at MSU´s Kellogg Center Monday, a craggyfaced man in the back of the room rose to ask a question.

"I invite you to spend two nights in migrant worker housing in Kent County," the man said. "Will you come?" The panelists agreed the housing must be terrible. The whole point of the "Less = More" conference was to call out the hidden costs of industrialized farming, from the runoff that turned Lake Erie into green poison last year to crates of immobilized sows to the neardemise of the small family farm.

Nobody accepted the migrant activist´s invitation. He later said he was only there to raise the issue.

"I wouldn´t put a pit bull in those shacks," he said.

He didn´t want to give his name. "I´ve been shot at a few times," he said.

"Less = More" was a mix of tent revival, workshop, political theater and a not-so-secret meeting of guerrilla rebels, held in the belly of the beast of Big Agriculture.

With farmers´ markets burgeoning and demand for local food spiking, guest speakers tried to seize the moment and push for big changes in the global food system.

The group at Kellogg was diverse, if not motley, ranging from farmers to academics to gardening nuns to hemp advocates. Keynote speaker Joe Maxwell, a fourth-generation Missouri hog farmer and the state´s former lieutenant governor, focused on the common enemy. He called the factory farm system "an industrialized plague."

"This concentration in the market, this path that Big Ag has set the last 35-40 years, has driven a million farmers off the land," Maxwell said.

Maxwell said 141,000 cattle farms have gone out of business since 2000. He called for a big change in the nation´s farming policies, especially the taxpayer subsidies that go overwhelmingly to factory farms.

MSU´s Phil Howard, a panelist in one of Monday´s discussions, was less sanguine about prospects for change in Washington.

In 2010, President Barack Obama hinted he would dismantle monopolistic practices in the poultry, pork and beef industries and build a "framework for a new rural economy," according to a speech by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. That hasn´t happened.

Howard, an associate professor at MSU´s Community Sustainability Department, said he was "not at all surprised when the key reformers who were appointed all ended up resigning in two or three years and having very little impact on federal policy."

When I collared Maxwell during a break in the conference, he was giving advice to a young MSU student who wanted to go into farming. Maxwell said land grant universities like MSU aren´t doing enough to help aspiring small farmers.

"If you´re a family farmer and you want to find other markets or learn about processing, it´s very hard to find that data," Maxwell said. "It´s just not being done on the land grants. We still see a heavy-handedness of industrial agribusinesses within our land grant institutions."

Everyone at the conference seemed to agree on the common enemy, but the speakers and attendees at Monday´s conference disagreed about what the local food movement really is, and how far it can go.

A second keynote speaker, sustainable farming expert Danielle Nierenberg, urged the group to think globally. After studying farming practices in over 50 countries, Nierenberg said American farmers can learn a lot from small-scale sub-Saharan and Indian farmers, especially with severe drought looming in the American West.

"What has happened over the last 15 years in food in the United States is incredible, but we need to go to the next step and get that diversity and momentum," Nierenberg said. "Otherwise, we´re just going to be talking about the really fancy Chinese vegetables we bought at the farmers´ market last week, and not about real change in the system."

That stuck in the craw of a later panelist, small-scale West Michigan farmer Michael Vandenburg. "Those Chinese vegetables at the farmers´ markets are critical to a small farmer who´s trying to make a living," Vandenburg said. "The whole sustainable ag arena is an experiment. The financial sustainability is still questionable."

Another panelist, Michelle Jackson, described the rise of urban farming in her hometown of Detroit. Jackson runs two organizations that promote small urban farms, Small Ville Farms and Sustainable Community Farms.

"The most important thing is to know where your food comes from," Jackson said.

Rebecca Allers, a social worker from Marquette who recently moved to Lansing, felt a gap in the conference.

"I work with low-income people every day," Allers said. "Community food gardens have their place, but I don´t think that´s an adequate response to providing nutritious food for families." Allers looked around the conference room. "There are no poor people here. We need to be engaged in those communities."

Nierenberg asserted that sustainable farming is intertwined with human rights and gender equality. Women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, but "no one recognizes them as farmers," she said.

"We have to make sure they have the same access to resources as men," she urged.

Maxwell chimed in, saying that women are the fastest growing segment of small farmers in America. The future, Maxwell said, belongs to them, and to "liberal arts farmers" who are coming back to the land after two or three generations in towns and suburbs.

"Too many of my generation are stuck in the past and will never find their way out," Maxwell said.

Among the "liberal arts farmers" listening in the auditorium was Colleen Warner of Grand Haven, now in her fourth year raising farm-raised pork and free-range eggs and poultry. Warner grew up in suburban Detroit, got a liberal arts degree and started educating herself about food. Now she feeds about 40 people with her 1.5 acres and can´t keep up with demand. She and her husband, Derek, are both high school teachers and bring their students to the farm for courses like "Backyard Chickens 101."

"The younger people get it," Warner said.

"They are pissed off about the way things have gone and they want to do something about it."

Despite Maxwell´s Death Star picture of Big Ag, Warner struck an optimistic note as the conference wrapped up and she headed back to the farm.

"We way outnumber the 1 percent," Warner said." Everyone just needs to do their part, whatever that might look like in their community."