2015: The Year to Label GMO Food in NY!

Time to Label GMOs in New York State!

By Elizabeth Henderson

2015 will be the year to label GMO foods in NYS! Area organic farmers, NOFA and our allies in the NY Label GMOs coalition are determined to pass legislation in the coming session, and you can help.

This is why we care so strongly:  First of all, food made from GMO ingredients is not labeled:  you do not have a choice about whether you want to participate in this massive experiment in novel kinds of food proteins some of which seem to cause allergies. 70 – 80% of the conventionally grown processed foods sold in grocery stores today have at least some GMO ingredient. GMO varieties are not tested independently for safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy not to require testing before approval for commercial sale was set against the advice of its own scientists.  There are memos dating to 1991 in which FDA scientists warn of potential health risks.  The FDA official who made the decision not to test each new genetically engineered variety was a former employee of Monsanto. The safety testing is done by the companies that sell the seeds.

Stacey Grabski-Early Morning-Daily Life

Let’s know the practices used on the fields where our food is grown!

Then there is the issue of contamination. The vast majority of GMO varieties are “Round-Up Ready,” that means, treated with the herbicide glyphosate plus supposedly inert additives that are added to make it more effective.  In 2010, there were 365 million acres in 29 countries planted with GMOs, with Round-Up Ready corn and soybeans making up the largest area.  During the first few years of these crops back in the 90’s, farmers were able to grow them with less herbicide than used previously.  Then the predictable came to pass – the weeds became more and more resistant so farmers poured on more herbicide until by now, there is Round-up in the waters of most states, in the air, in the soil and in the bloodstreams of new born infants.  While independent studies of the safety of GMO foods are scarce, there have been many studies of Round-Up that show it attacks the beneficial organisms in the human digestive system, causing serious health problems – increased birth defects, neurological developmental problems in children, kidney failures, respiratory problems and allergies. Studies also show that Round-Up is a powerful soil biocide, resulting in the increase of microbial plant pathogens, some of which form mycotoxins that can be very poisonous to humans and livestock.

One of the selling points of Round-Up is that it breaks down quickly and that is why you can purchase it off the shelf in garden and hardware stores.  That is accurate.  But what Monsanto does not mention is that Round-Up breaks down into AMPA, which lasts for a couple of decades and is more toxic than glyphosate.  To make things worse, to kill off the weeds that have become resistant to Round-Up, manufacturers are pushing new varieties that farmers can douse with both Round-Up and other herbicides like 2, 4 D, – and USDA is allowing this.

If you want to avoid eating GMOs, eating organically grown foods is the surest way. The National Organic Program that sets the standards for organic production in the US excludes the deliberate use of any GMO seed or materials.  Of course, this does not prevent contamination of organic crops, especially as the huge acreage in GMO crops continues to expand.  The responsibility and cost falls on certified organic farmers to show that they have taken measures to avoid contamination.

You are also safe eating vegetables and fruits from NY farms. Local vegetable and fruit farmers do not have to worry about GMO contamination from drift yet.  So far, the only GMO vegetables on the market are summer squash and a couple varieties of supersweet corn.  This is not to say that all summer squash and sweet corn you encounter uses GMO technology, so do ask your farmer (politely) about their varieties.  But be forewarned, any non-organic processed foods that contain corn or soybeans or any of their many derivatives are likely to be GMO.

Corporate money drowned out attempts at GMO labeling in California, Colorado and most recently in Oregon where the labeling law lost by only 800 votes. In Vermont, the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association is already suing the state to prevent the implementation of the labeling law that passed last year and is not to go into effect until 2016.

On the national scene there are two competing measures.  Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) is making a name for himself with H.R. 4432, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 dubbed the “DARK Act – Deny Americans the Right to Know” by the Organic Consumers Association. If adopted, it would preempt states from passing GMO labeling laws, nullify the GMO labeling laws already passed by Maine, Vermont and Connecticut, and make FDA’s current voluntary labeling system the law of the land. By contrast, the Boxer-deFazio bill, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, would require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.

While a mandatory federal labeling law is the goal, pushing for state laws is the way to build up enough public pressure to pass it. Public opinion polls regularly show that more than 90% of Americans support GMO labeling. The corporations that bring us GMO foods have had two decades to label them voluntarily.  Had they done so with pride early on, the public might be less suspicious.

Assemblywoman Rosenthal and Senator Lavalle will be resubmitting the same labeling bill as in 2014 that will require that all genetically engineered food offered for retail sale in New York be labeled as such.  The bills will get new numbers when the legislative session begins in January. We all have the right to know what is in our food and the right to make informed choices about what we choose to eat. So let’s make this happen!  Please urge your state assembly reps and senators to sign on as sponsors! Plan to join the Label GMO Lobby Day, January 26, 2015 in Albany.  For the latest information on the campaign, go to www.GMOFreeNY.net!

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Grain coming into Focus: Long-standing New York traditional foods get their spotlight at last!

The OREI Value-Added Grains Project is a multi-year collaboration between NOFA-NY, Cornell University, Greenmarket, GrowNYC, OGRIN and others to grow the potential of primarily ancient and heritage cereal grains in New York and the Northeast.  Robert Perry, NOFA-NY’s Grain and Field Crop Coordinator, and June Russell, Manager of Farm Inspections
& Strategic Development for Greenmarket/GrowNYC, share their thoughts about grains and the upcoming Grain Expo happening during the NOFA-NY Winter Conference.

Robert says,

“Who ever heard of spelt, einkorn, emmer, or farro until recent years? This, to many, was like another new food group being grown.  However, I grew up enjoying whole grain flours living near the New Hope water-powered flour mill. Leland Weed had resurrected the old mill and overshot water wheel and spent a lifetime providing bagged whole grain flours that my mother would bake into homemade bread and rolls every week. The mill was open for tours and photo opportunities and was famous for their Buckwheat pancake mixes. My Dad had a dairy farm and did custom harvesting of small grains with his various combines. Eventually we had three combines that my brothers and I operated as well. Riding on the old AC all crop bagging combine, sliding down the chute, and playing in the oat bin was all part of growing up. The coop was close by and everyone worked as a community to support the Grange and the GLF cooperative along with various milk coops. So when legendary music of the late 60’s came along (“Traffic” and Steve Winwood’s “John Barleycorn Must Die”; Jethro Tull with “Same Old Man Workin at the Mill”)l I was already hooked on grains. Over the years various flour mills and bakeries have indulged in stone mills, whole grain bakeries, and legends have lived on, made with a labor of love, by farmers, millers, and bakers. After a silent yet persistent journey by this passionate community the grain movement has once again come into the local regional spotlight.Spelt berries

So when the idea of a Grain Expo came about for the NOFA-NY Winter Conference, coupled with selection of grain farmers
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens as our Farmers of the Year, it was my privilege to combine this into a celebration of the legends, the present, and the future of the incredible Northeast Value-Added Grains community.”

Same old man workin’ at the mill
Mill turns around of its own free will
Hand in the hopper and the other in a sack
Ladies step forward and the gents fall back.

June responds and reflects,

“I am afraid my first encounter with a mill or anything having to do with the production of grain was much less pastoral then Robert’s and most surely involved a rickety building with a lovely river view that either had been renovated into a Ye Olde Tavern of some sort or sold Christmas ornaments and fudge to tourists. Mills were relics of the past and flour was probably made by Keebler elves, as I saw it. Even as someone who had worked as a professional cook for 15 years, I had no idea how grain grew or flour was produced.

Early on in the quest to find flour for Greenmarket bakers, I saw Jack Lazor give a workshop on growing grain in Vermont at a NOFA-VT conference. Jack told the story of being a back-to-the-lander in the 1970s and how he grew wheat to make his own bread, but when he went to sell his crop he found that even the local Vermont co-op was buying grains and flour from the Midwest for half the price and he was laughed out the door. He said it was only now, decades later, that he was finally seeing interest in the market for his grain and he quipped, “I think we’re making progress”. (Editor’s note: Jack and his wife Anne will be presenting twice, and participating in a panel at the Grains Expo at the Conference)

This was circa 2007–a full thirty years or more after Jack and many of our elders were planting those first seeds. And it was true the market was finally catching up to the wisdom of farmers like Jack.  By 2008 the local foods movement kicked into full gear along with an explosion of artisanal food businesses guided by passionate and innovative entrepreneurs who embraced working with local ingredients with gusto.  We met essential allies and co-creators who were and are making incredible products for us to eat and drink from bread to beer, pasta to gin all using local grains …and supporting our farmers. By 2010, when Greenmarket implemented its 15% rule, the market was primed, the customer was ready and a few dozen farmers were willing to take the risk and begin the steep learning curve of growing, handling and marketing local grains.
Roggenvollkornbrot1The momentum is real, from Pennsylvania to the Finger Lakes, The Hudson Valley to Maine, mills have been built, or put back into production; malt houses and distilleries have come on line; and support for re-regionalizing our food system is coming from all directions including the state of New York, which has given us the farm brewery and farm distillery legislation that is helping to drive grain production and much needed research and development of infrastructure.

It has been an incredible time to be a part of this work; rewarding and profound in ways I never could have anticipated. Back in the early 90’s while working for Greenpeace, a good friend and mentor said to me, “there should be a still in every county”. I think he was getting at a message about sustainability on a fundamental level, about feeding the soil, the animals and our selves in ways that align with our values, bringing full circle the agriculture, the market and the food culture in a way that just might have a shot at sustaining us in the long run.

Now as another malting facility opens, another bakery incorporates local flour into production and another small batch distillery using local grains wins an award for excellence, I know what that mentor meant. And although I am pretty sure he would love the taste of the bourbons that our craft distillers are producing, he would be especially proud of what this community has accomplished, and the hope for the future that it signifies.

You can join in the fun and education on Friday January 23rd. 2015.  In the morning, there’s a Value-Added grain intensive with Klaas and Mary-Howell, followed by lunch with various grain-focused vendors, and a grain forum with legendary farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers, researchers and you. Beyond the expo, there will be a total of 7 workshops for grain and field crop farmers, a homesteaders’ session on earthen oven cooking projects (Saturday afternoon), Klaas and Mary-Howell’s keynote address on Saturday afternoon, and an abundance of tasty treats made with New York’s grains.

Pre-registration ends on Friday, January 16th (walk-in registration starts at 7:00pm on Thursday, January 22nd).  Registration for Friday of the conference allows you entrance to the grain expo, plus all workshops and activities.  See www.nofanyconference.org for all the information!

Farmer Voices: Peace & Carrots Farm’s Past, Present and Future

By Tess Gee, Locavore Challenge Intern

At Peace and Carrots Farm in Chester, NY, partners Laura Nywening and Jason Uhler exemplify hard work and sustainability in farming. With a growing CSA of 60 members and a burgeoning calendar of farm events, Peace and Carrots is laying a path of successful development for their future.

Laura Nywening wasn’t always planning to be a farmer, but is glad she decided to veer in this direction after graduating from Westfield State University in Massachusetts with a B.A. in History Education. She got a job working for the National Park Service in Virginia post-college, and quickly realized that she wanted to include nature and the outdoors as part of her life’s work. Luckily, Laura comes from three generations of farmers before her, and the transition to farming seemed natural. She grew up on the same land she works now, and her family runs a dairy farm close by. Her partner Jason grew up in the area where his family always had a large kitchen garden. After working a few retail jobs, he realized he would rather be working outside and giving back to the land. He began working at Keith’s Farm in Westtown, NY where he met Laura and eventually partnered up with her to start Peace and Carrots.

So far, Laura and Jason work on the farm together with the help of one part-time employee. A typical harvest day begins at 7 a.m. as they pick crops and start prepping to deliver their produce to Groundwork Hudson Valley out of Yonkers, which bought 30 of their CSA shares this year. There is usually a lot of weeding to be done, as they use hoes instead of machinery. They also pride themselves on preserving their soil as much as possible by not over-tilling the land.

Peace and Carrots Farm currently has a growing variety of crops available to their CSA members and the public. They do not grow sweet corn due to the overwhelming amount of GMO corn fields in the area surrounding the farm. The farm yields leafy greens such as kale and chard, garlic, cabbage, tomatoes, squash and much more throughout the spring, summer and fall. Peace and Carrots CSA members are mostly made up of families or thirty-something’s, and Laura says interacting with members is her favorite aspect of the job. She can put names to faces and has a great level of appreciation for each member. While the CSA shares seem to be the most rewarding part of the job, it does require focus, organization and close attention to detail.

Peaceand Carrots“The easiest part of my job is getting to interact with customers. We have the greatest members, and everybody is so happy with what we have to offer. The hardest part is a combination of planning out the shares for each week and implementing that plan. It is so much out of your control sometimes,” said Laura.

So what is in store for the future of Peace and Carrots? Growth. They are currently raising chickens, but are looking into getting more livestock for the farm in years to come. Laura would also like to boost attendance at farm events. So far she has organized potlucks, a beekeeping workshop, a canning class, and even a photography workshop over the summer. Peace and Carrots is holding their own Harvest Festival on October 18th which will include games, hot cider, live music and hay rides. Laura hopes to gain more ideas for different events to hold at the farm for the near future.

Laura and Jason display physical and mental dedication, stay informed about growing practices and sustainability, and commit to showing a deep respect for the land they work on. They understand that organic farming is important because the land provides us with everything. At Peace and Carrots Farm, the golden rule applies to people as well as the earth.

“I love the land. If I want the land to continue to provide for me I have to treat it well,” says Laura.

Further Reading:

Learning from Expert Host Farmers

Our Beginning Farmer Program is always a little tough for me to explain to people.  I’ve created an extensive set of inter-linked pages back at the NOFA-NY website, to which I’m happy to direct anyone who’s seated at a computer, but it still doesn’t quite tell the underlying story about what it is I do!  Nope, NOFA-NY doesn’t run a training farm for beginning (or experienced farmers), but we do provide a suite of support services and programs that help beginners (and experienced and transitioning-to-Organic farmers) get the information, experience and boost they need to continue in their farming careers.   Just as importantly, we provide resources for experienced farmers, often simply lifting up the best practices that farmers have developed for training beginning farmers, so that more farmers will be skillful and encouraging trainers to the up-and-coming set of aspiring farmers.  Better trainers will mean better-equipped and more beginning farmers!

For the past nearly 4 years, NOFA-NY has been a part of a project with 6 other Northeast states (5 other NOFA state chapters and MOFGA in Maine) to develop several distinct programs or services, all within a broader “Beginning Farmer Program.”  We rely on farmers’ expertise and experiences to develop broadly-applicable and useful information for beginning farmers.  Sometimes they teach workshops for other host farmers, and sometimes they teach directly to beginning farmers.  Recently, they were teaching me and my interstate colleagues!

farm tour panorama

We went on a daylong learning retreat to discover and be inspired by the on-farm training practices of some of our region’s respected host farmers.  Sure, there are legal issues regarding on-farm labor that each NOFA provides resources and trainings about (the laws vary by state), but the core design and intention of any on-farm training program is critical to successfully train new farmers.  It must be fulfilling to both host and aspiring farmer, and increase the aspiring farmer’s preparedness to take a next step in farming without dropping the productivity of the farm to an unsustainable level.  Not easy, but not impossible.

We visited Indian Line Farm, Caretaker Farm and Cricket Creek Farm, all in the Western Massachusetts region.  Elizabeth (Indian Line) and Don (Caretaker) both have nearly a decade of training aspiring farmers on their farms.  Suzy (Cricket Creek Farm) is newer to that role, though has developed an excellent structure that works for the less-experienced host farmers among us (more structure is better in that situation, to establish clear chains of command).  They shared specific details about how they assign the work on their farm (good lessons whether or not a farm is trying to train the next generation of farmers) but also about how they discern and decide about aspiring farmers to bring on to the farm.  Some best practices I noted, which are generally good practices for having anyone working on your farm.

Clear, central, visible task lists accompanied by permanent guidelines for tasks.  The guidelines (or Standard Operating Procedures) are taught, but all workers can refer back to them in the central location.  So while apprentices may be harvesting or weeding for the first time, they have a standard to refer to, lessening the likelihood for mistakes that can be avoided.

Chore list bulletin board and Elizabeth Keen

Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm shows off the task board, complete with instructions and the Chore board (each apprentice plus Elizabeth rotates between being responsible for the big 4 areas: Watering, Driving the Truck (and managing the greens, just because those tasks seem to go together), Unloading, and Spraying/Nutrient Management.

Captains/leaders rotate through roles.  This helps the farm run smoothly and forces each apprentice or worker to think about all the little things that need to happen under their watch.  The crew becomes invested as they are accountable, but the manager/lead farmer is never so removed that the tasks can’t be explained until the crew is comfortable.

Don in apprentice book library

Don Zasada at the Caretaker Farm lending library.

A priority and emphasis on learning aside from daily tasks.  All farms we visited were members of a CRAFT group, so the apprentices are provided with a schedule of farm tours on other farms.  It’s a chance to make a group of apprentice friends, get off the farm, and learn new ideas and methods by seeing the way other farms do what they do.  This particular CRAFT group enforces a “no penalty for going on CRAFT farm visits” policy.  The farmers explained that it is good for the morale of the apprentices, gets them excited to think about problem-solving on the farm, and helps lessen the load to teach everything or represent more farming methods than the farm actually employs.  A lending library and apprentice-captained research or building projects allow apprentices to dig even deeper.

Scheduled Checking In and Communication.  Each farm does this differently, but each farm we visited did one thing the same: they scheduled communication meetings to talk about the way things were going for education goals, for farming production goals, and for interpersonal issues.  At Caretaker Farm, each meeting takes a slightly different structure so feedback is given all around, in a way that makes sense for that point in the season.

Whole-Farm Perspective.  Farmers give the apprentices on-farm “workshops” or learning opportunities to talk about the business aspects of farming; everything from keeping good records to calculating budgets and financial statements.  Apprentices must learn these skills to know how they would manage a farm for themselves.  Regular farm walks and discussions allow apprentices and workers to understand the flow of all the aspects of the farm, especially as they begin to specialize in one area or a different area is less visited during the season.

Caretaker farm panorama1