Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It Turned into a Different Kind of Talk

Last week, after a day of marathon business meetings, I headed to Soho to catch a talk hosted by Phaidon Press to promote a new book they published called, "Vegetables From an Italian Garden".  The panel discussion was supposed to be based around the topic of "Growing Your Own Produce in Urban Environment", so I was pretty excited about it.  The press release said the talk would include a panel discussion on urban farming and sustainable agricultural practices.  I went to the discussion thinking that I would come away from the talk with some interesting tips and advice on growing produce in an urban environment like NYC.
Participating in the panel discussion were the following folks, from left to right, Michael Grady Robertson (former Director of Agriculture for the Queens County Farm Museum, currently the owner of Grady’s Farm), the Moderator (Bad on me, I can't remember the name of the moderator of the discussion), Ian Cheney (co-creator of the documentary film King Corn and Truck Farm), and Eric Demby (Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg). 
My favorite speaker on the panel was Ian Cheney.  He showed us a slideshow of images, among them were a "Truck Farm" he created.  I wouldn't call it a farm, it's more of a mobile garden.  He created a garden in the bed of a pickup truck.  He explained that he came up with this idea when he moved to Brooklyn and lacked any space to grow fresh produce, so he had this idea of converting an old truck given to him by his grandfather, into a garden plot.  He retrofitted the back of the truck by drilling drainage holes and added a lightweight soil mixture to grow the plants.
The Truck Farm became the subject of a documentary, and quickly became a traveling exhibition for educating urban youths about gardening and farming.  The garden in the truck bed idea spread and now there are 25 fleets of mobile gardens around the country.  What a cool idea for getting the word out about growing your own fresh produce!  Ian admitted that growing produce this way isn't going to produce high yields, and isn't very practical for the everyday urban gardener.  However, it's become a great learning tool to teach others about where your food comes from.  As an educational tool for demonstrating the process of seed to edible plant to urban youth who don't normally have access to farms or gardens, it's pretty darn amazing.
I must say however that the rest of the panel discussion was a bit of a disappointment because it wasn't what I expected.  I thought it would be a dialogue mostly about urban farming practices, but it quickly became a discussion about Food Justice and the importance of buying local and organic.  Michael of Grady's Farm talked about the hardships of running an independent farm.  He practices organic farming but said that the farm is not profitable because of the high costs of organic feed, the costs to run the farm, and the property taxes on the farmland, he is lucky to break even.   He talked about selling his organic eggs at $6 - $8 a dozen.  I'm all for buying locally and organic, but at that cost, who can afford to eat organic?  In my mind, its not affordable to all, and therefore very elitist.  My in-laws also own an independent farm and they too practice organic methods, but where they are located, selling eggs at that price is out of the question, not only because where they live no one would buy eggs at that cost.  But also, they believe that healthy food shouldn't have to come at a high cost.  Which led me to make a statement and ask a question to the panel discussion.  I told the group that I felt that we as a society had to do more to level the playing field for independent organic farmers. In my opinion, the public needs to be more vocal about demanding safe farm raised food.  We need to demand livestock that is raised ethically and produce that is safe and void of toxic pesticides and is non-GMO.  There should be more government subsidies for the independent farmer to offset the high costs of farming organically.  It's difficult for these farmers to compete with the larger farm conglomerates.  Do we have to sacrifice food safety because it is cheaper?  I think as a society, we should demand that our produce and livestock be safe to eat.  Since buying organic isn't as affordable as I would like it to be, (I can't afford to buy organic with those prices) I'll continue to maintain a backyard garden and grow my own organic fruit and vegetables.  I want to be able to have access to healthy food, even if that means I have to grow my own.
I realize that I am pretty lucky in the fact that I have the yard space to have such an extensive garden despite living in an urban environment.  And that not many urbanites have this luxury.  However, even if I didn't have this space, I would have to seek out ways to have a garden like in a community plot or do container gardening.  What's your take on this issue?


  1. Unfortunately, "organic produce" is becoming more of a trendy marketing term. Buying "organic" in grocery stores is more expensive for us in Maine too. Luckily, farmer's markets in the summer months allow us to buy from the farmer or someone who works for or at least knows the farmer.

    What the heck is the farmer feeding his chickens to justify selling his eggs at $6-8 a dozen?!? Do people really buy then at that price?

  2. Buying organic tends to be more expensive because it isn't subsidized like conventional agriculture. However, buying a CSA share in an organic farm is WAY cheaper than buying vegetables from a supermarket.
    I supplement my CSA baskets with fruits and veggies from the farmers' market and from my garden (which is really just an excuse for growing 20 kinds of tomatoes).
    I do agree that it is grossly unfair that safe food is not readily available to everyone, but until consumers demand better accountability from producers, that is not likely to happen. Also, with the current situation in Washington and our climate-crisis-denying-government in Ottawa, food safety will likely be off the table for a while yet.

  3. Sounds informative. Glad you were able to attend.

  4. Was he BRAGGING about getting that much for a dozen eggs? If so, he should get into a different business - say stockbroker - because he's missing the point. I agree with you - food should be accessible, affordable and unadulterated.

  5. I agree with you about elitist organic foods. When farmers markets in local community were really filled with local farmers selling there goods at a reasonable price I loved going. Now I live in a community where I find the produce to be overpriced and sadly I don't buy as much.
    It is wonderful to have a space to grow in though.

  6. Bottom line...the food system in this country is broken. But people also need to realize the hidden costs of being able to buy a dozen eggs for $1.50 at the supermarket. To some extent, we've gotten "spoiled" by cheap food costs in this country. People in other other countries are paying substantially more for their food. My brother and his wife recently went to New Zealand for two months (because they wanted to move there) and we absolutely shocked by the high cost of living and the cost of food. They decided the U.S. was a cheaper place to live and are on their way back...

    The issue is complicated though and not easily solvable. I'm not surprised to hear organic eggs are $6-8 per dozen in some areas of the country (are they pasture raised as well?); I would even expect that in NYC. I pay anywhere from $4 to $5 for a dozen local pasture-raised eggs here in NC. And the local farmers aren't making some huge profit selling them at that price. They're earning a somewhat middle-class living and they work pretty darn hard. I don't think it's elitest to pay prices that provide a farmer reasonable life. If you want cheap, you need economies of scale and minimized risk - ala United Egg Producers indoor hen battery cage hell hole egg production. Passing off the hidden costs of pollution, hen misery, and poverty-level wages for the workers to society. But everyone can buy a dozen eggs for a buck. I'll skip the part about how cheap prices help to induce waste and how much food is wasted in this country...

    Just my two cents :)

  7. We see lots of produce in farmers market. But I've always wondered if they're organic? They're fresh and locally grown, that is one good thing.

  8. My take is that there seems to be friction between the "trendy" factor of high-cost organic food and the notion that we’ve grown accustomed to spending less money on our food (even if there are many, many hidden costs associated). It’s hard to see an immediate behavior change ahead, but I hope we can continue to work toward striking a balance.

  9. I DO buy organic eggs for $6-8 a dozen...very spendy, but the taste/quality and other factors make it worth it. I would love to go wholely organic with meats too--but the price is a stopper. I only use a dozen eggs a week or less--so it is doable--cheaper than going out for breakfast at least.
    April (who cannot comment thru blogger still)

  10. I've seen that book in stores and have watched a video on the truck farm. I wouldn't all it a farm either but it's cool nonetheless.

    YES you are incredibly lucky to have a yard living where you are!

  11. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Garden-With-Bob/195257907158444?ref=ts Organic eggs,organic vegetables,very interesting topics.Unfortunately the only way to make sure that you have 100% organic eggs and vegetables is,keep your own chickens and grow your own veg.Big packing companies that ship to the stores cannot be trusted.First of all,when you buy eggs do not be fooled by what is printed on a carton of eggs.I worked at an egg packing and grading plant for 15 years,so i do know how they operate.All eggs look the same,if they do not have enough organic eggs to fill the order they mix regular eggs with them to make up the difference.This also goes for any kind of egg that is on the market,substitutes can be made with very few problems.People would come into the office and ask what the difference was between an organic egg and a regular egg,i used to tell them only the price. Vegetables are the same thing,they can be substituted.I live in Calgary,Alberta and have a very large garden.My garden site is on facebook,i try and help new gardeners in the Calgary area.We only have 3 months of growing season between frosts,because of this,it is not easy to grow things organically.I do use quite a lot of compost,but as little chemical fertilizer as possible,only enough to be able to harvest my veg's before the frost comes.I never ever spray my veg's with anything.Farmers markets cannot be trusted anymore,unless they are small gardeners like us.Given our climate,some people wonder how we manage to grow anything here.You are welcome to check out my page (garden with bob) on facebook,i have video's and pictures on there and i welcome all comments and any new idea's you may have.

  12. Mimi, I agree with the initial points you made; we need to find ways to make organic & responsible foods available & affordable for average folks. The system is woefully unbalanced in favor of big agribusinesses, & we are used to unrealistically low prices for food as a result. We pay a much lower portion of income on food than any generation before us, but the food is raised by, at best, questionable methods. I'd rather pay a little more for quality & good nutrition. I'm not sure how many others feel the same...so I buy organic when I can, & grow organic every summer in my S.I. backyard. I've been doing that for 20 years!


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