Guest Essay: A Soil Nerd Walks Into a Roomful of Futurists

If you saw headlines about a recent gathering in Dubai with the indecipherable acronym of COP and, like me, wondered what the heck it was and if you should care, then read this personal report from Portland's self-described "soil nerd," Kristin Ohlson, author of "The Soil Will Save Us" and "Sweet in Tooth and Claw."

Over 97,000 people convened in Dubai this December for the twenty-eighth Congress of Parties (COP)—the United Nations’ annual conference on climate change. A much smaller segment of the world’s eyes were on Dubai for a gathering which preceded the COP by a few days and involved at least a handful of the same people: the Dubai Future Forum, billed as “the world’s largest gathering of futurists.”

Amazingly—or at least, amazing to me—I was invited to speak at the forum. I had received a request to connect on LinkedIn from someone with the Dubai Future Foundation months ago, and even though this seemed like yet another request from someone whose interests seemed so different from mine that I hesitated to make the connection, I accepted. Further communication led to a phone call.

The forum would have four themes: Empowering Generations, Transcending Collaboration, Transforming Humanity, and Regenerating Nature. The director of the Dubai Museum of the Future had read my book, "The Soil Will Save Us," and the committee putting the gathering together wanted me to speak on one of the regeneration panels. I’m not exactly a Luddite but I certainly don’t consider myself a futurist—unless one who alternately hopes and panics about the future is a futurist, which probably describes all of us—but I’ll go anywhere to talk about regeneration and healthy ecosystems. They had told me that around 2,500 people would come, many from that region and that they were also flying in thinkers and doers from around the world.

And indeed they did! I’ve never been at a gathering as truly diverse as this one—people young and older, from just about every part of the world, of every hue, and dozens of nationalities. Lucky for me, all speaking English albeit with the chiaroscuro of both their first language and the accent of whoever schooled them in English.

The reality of a conference like this is that you can’t get to everything, especially if you’re a speaker who’s a little nervous about being there to begin with. I managed to get to several of the regeneration panels, which were held in a dimly gorgeous room inside the Museum of the Future with walls that glowed with images of various life forms. In one panel, people talked about tapping indigenous wisdom to prepare for the future; in another, panelists talked about what might lie beyond Net Zero carbon emissions; in another, they talked about city planning that centers nature.

On my own panel, my co-panelists, Nithiya Laila, who works on biodiverse diets and equitable food systems in Singapore;  Christine Gould, who supports science-and-technology-based startups through Thought for Food based in Switzerland; and our moderator, Dionysia Angeliki Lyra from the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai and I spent an animated 45 minutes talking about soil, seeds, native plants and feeding the world’s people.

I certainly wasn’t the only person among the 2,500 futurists who centers on healthy ecosystems—including healthy, prosperous humans, of course—but it’s also true that many of the panels and discussions at the conference were about shiny new things. Shiny new tools, shiny new technologies, shiny new approaches to problems. I told anyone who would listen that I’m not opposed to the new and shiny—unless those innovations are aimed at hacking the natural world for the convenience of humans.

Yes, new technology for benign sources of energy, please! New technology to turn my gas-powered car into an electric one! New technology for mining the mountains of garbage we’ve created to obtain the resources for future products! New ideas for our homes and cities! New science to parse the dazzling and essential complexity of the natural world and—this is the issue for me--to help us figure out how we can hack our own behavior so that both we and the rest of nature thrive.

Because life is so precious and—given what we know so far—unique. One of the early presentations at the Dubai Future Forum was a panel of astronauts talking about life on the space station. They talked about how they dealt with the conundrums of ordinary life while living in space—eating, getting enough exercise, staying in touch with loved ones—and agreed, sweetly, that one of the best things about the experience was the brotherly bond they now have with each other.

I couldn’t help but think of our marvelous planet as I listened to them. Scientists have searched through the samples brought back from space, hoping to find evidence of life. It’s not there. I have more life under my little fingernail after digging in the soil than has been found in all our extraplanetary explorations. We have to treasure life on Earth, respect that life, and change ourselves so that those coming next will also experience its beauty and abundance. Imagine if our collective aspiration for the future was to be good ancestors.

Watch a video of the presentation here.

Top photo: The Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (l); presenters (left to right) Christine Gould, Nithiya Laila, Kristin Ohlson and Dionysia Angeliki Lyra. This essay was originally published at SoilCentric.

Once Renowned Oregon Dairies Decimated by Factory Farms

How much is that grilled cheese sandwich worth to you?

It may seem like an odd question until you consider that the decline in American dairy farms has been catastrophic (see animation below). According to FarmAid, in 1934 some 5.2 million dairy farms dotted America’s countryside, but between 1997 and 2017, the U.S. lost half of its 72,000 remaining dairies and today fewer than 28,000 licensed dairy herds remain.

Thousands of small dairies once populated Oregon.

In Oregon, once renowned for the quality of its dairy products, one historian said that in 1914 there were 1,004 licensed dairies in Portland alone. A recent article in Portland Monthly states that the number of licensed dairies in Oregon dropped from around 500 in 1990 to 192 in 2020 and that, on average, Oregon is losing about six dairy farms a year. 

Loss of Dairy Farms in America: 1970 - 2023. From 460,000 dairy farms to 28,000 dairy farms.

Interestingly, while the number of individual dairy farms in Oregon has been dropping like a rock, the number of dairy cows has remained fairly steady. That's because of the influx of industrial factory farm dairies—aka "mega-dairies"—that have flooded into Oregon due to our lax environmental regulations that classify these industrial facilities as "farms" instead of the factories that they really are.

The largest is North Dakota-owned Threemile Canyon Farms, a 70,000-cow industrial facility that supplies the vast majority of the milk used to make Tillamook cheese and its ice cream, yogurt and other products. It's also one of the two largest in the United States, according to an article in Columbia Insight on mega-dairies' use (and abuse) of our water resources. Ironically it has called itself a "family farm" in public hearings in Salem.

As my friend, organic dairy farmer Jon Bansen noted on his tour of Threemile Canyon, "The scale is impressive, but the biology is horrifying."


Of the wells tested so far, around a quarter have contained high levels of the dangerous nitrates that have plagued the Lower Umatilla Basin since at least 1990.


Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF), an organization that advocates for Oregon's small family farmers, posted recently that mega-dairies have played a major role in driving dairy farmers off the land, stating that they over-produce and flood the market with cheap milk, making it impossible for small dairy farmers to compete, while externalizing their environmental and social costs on the state's taxpayers.

Wells on the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area in Umatilla and Morrow Counties (black dots) and the approximate locations of two mega-dairies (in red).

As an example, FoFF's post states that last May Governor Tina Kotek met with community members in Boardman—where several industrial agricultural facilities, including feedlots and mega-dairies, are located—where she set a deadline to test for nitrate contamination from agriculture from all 3,300 wells used by households (see map, above). Testing on that scale is a huge expense that will be borne by taxpayers rather than the polluters, but as of the deadline at the end of September state agencies had only managed to test 1,001 of the domestic wells in the Lower Umatilla Basin. Of the wells tested so far, around a quarter have contained high levels of the dangerous nitrates that have plagued the Lower Umatilla Basin since at least 1990.


It’s shameful taxpayers are left with the bill instead of agribusiness and industry
which have profited while contaminating the state's groundwater.


The federal government is stepping in to help with some of the cost to address the water crisis in the two counties affected, announcing $1.7 million dollars in federal aid to help deal with nitrate contamination in private wells. But according to Kristin Anderson Ostrom, Oregon Rural Action executive director quoted in the Hermiston (OR) Herald, "Folks can’t live out of 5-gallon bottles forever, and they shouldn’t have to. This is really just a long-awaited first step and there’s a lot of work to do to build on the testing we’ve already done.”

Ostrom added that it’s shameful taxpayers are left with the bill instead of agribusiness and industry, which have profited while contaminating the state's groundwater.

So what is having that grilled cheese sandwich worth to you considering the costs outlined above?

As I said in a recent post on social media, the fact that these industrial facilities were—and still are—allowed to operate on a federally designated, at-risk aquifer is outrageous. Oregon's taxpayers are and will be on the hook for the clean-up for decades while these extractive industries will be given a slap on the wrist (if anything) while continuing to operate.

Read my coverage of mega-dairies in Oregon, and why it's critical that we try to buy local when possible. Top photo of Mayflower Dairy delivery wagon from the fascinating website PDX History.

A Restaurant Asks You: When Are We Opening Back Up?

I met Mark Doxtader of Tastebud when I wrote the Market Watch column for the Oregonian's FoodDay section, and he was running his wildly successful wood oven pizza business—one of the city's first mobile oven businesses at the time—at the Portland Farmers Market. He has consistently offered Portlanders the highest quality handmade breads, bagels, pizzas and salads—not to mention that heavenly porchetta—made from locally grown produce and meats. Like Cory Carman's essay from last week, I felt this message from his newsletter was invaluable to understanding what the people who make up our food system are dealing with.

For continued safety and precaution, we ask that everyone continues to wear masks when picking up orders. With the confusing “progress” we have made in the pandemic, playing it safe and remaining cautious has served the community well and allowed us to stay open. It has only been a couple weeks since we moved our pickup table from the doorway to just inside our shop. It felt like a baby step forward, although mainly spurred by the extreme temperatures outside.

We are tired and a little weary but still in a holding pattern. But we are committed to waiting out the pandemic and and are hopeful for some additional government assistance to make the changes we are in need of to adapt to a modified service style. Doing to-go only for the last 18 months has been a temporary solution to our global crisis. Although we have all adjusted, modified and survived thus far, we continue thinking about and focusing our intentions towards our next iteration. We remain patient and dependent on the health and safety of our staff and community.

We are a very small crew. In the last year we have had two fulltime employees who have been with us five years each. In addition, we have three people who are part time, who also live with me, and a sprinkling of friends that have dependably pitched in. And last but most definitely not least, we have my two daughters who have been integral and vital to the last year, in keeping our doors open and me "sane." These are the vaccinated folks that are keeping us running.

At this very moment, we all are nervous and not so comfortable with “opening up," especially as we existed before the lockdowns. It is really hard to imagine how it all used to operate in such a small space—can’t imagine how we used to squeeze 11 staff and 40 guests inside. As we can see in the world, and now with the dramatic domestic COVID uptick, this pandemic is really not over. Not even close.

We enjoyed the short “loosening," but we just don’t see a path that takes us back to how things were. The old way of our industry has revealed its cracks. And we are not comfortable just plugging those holes and moving on. Working in the service industry will not be the same, nor should it be. Late nights, low wages, rampant substance abuse, unfair, unpredictable and misguided tipping systems, and more entitled and rude customers who just seem out to make overt political statements when going out for dinner.

After non-essential services were mandated to close, I explained to my youngest daughter that I wasn't sure if another customer would ever set foot in our dining room. I was not sure if we would go out of business or if our operation would fundamentally change to survive a new world. My goal when this all went down was to stay consistent and dependable as much as humanly possible. Not changing hours, not changing service style, trying to keep my family, staff and community safe. Trying to stick with what folks know us for, pizza inspired by the farmers. I am so thankful for the community that has supported us through all of this. 

So, ultimately, we are spending days and nights trying to imagine and plan what Tastebud 5.0 will be, in what is our 21st year of operation and 6th year in Multnomah Village. Ideas range from more pizza, more bagels, more breads, chicken dinners, lunch sandwiches, bakery, coffee, private dining, mutual aid, and how we can support disadvantaged communities. We are waiting for a committed pivot to fulfill our goals and not continuing this temporary setup that is keeping us afloat. We are hoping the restaurant revitalization fund will come through, but we are not holding our breath.

I hope we all stay safe, heathy and vigilant and that we see you soon.

Mark

Drought Plus Fire: A Devastating, and Potentially Deadly, Combination

Cory Carman of Carman Ranch is a pasture-based rancher on the land in Eastern Oregon's Wallowa County that her family has passed down over four generations. Her story brings visceral meaning to the words "drought" and "fire."

“Dry” was the word we used at the start of the growing season. The plants barely grew, their normally vibrant colors signaling spring and early summer strangely muted. The land I know so well felt completely unfamiliar. 

It didn't rain. We began to say “drought,” a word that invokes a certain level of anxiety and urgency. It was time for action, but what to do? And when to do it? Our ranch manager, Sam, and I spent hours revisiting our grazing plan and forage budget. Should we sell cattle? Which ones, and when? If we did, would we be able to serve our customers? Pay our bills?

Then the storm clouds rolled in, not with rain, but with lightning. It struck in the dense timber north of where we were running 320 pair.  We watched the fire grow, traveling across the gnarly country toward the cattle. To gather and keep them bunched together would make it easier to evacuate them, but to do it too soon would mean leaving them for a period of time that would stress the land.  To wait too long might put us in danger.

I reached out to Ed, a public information officer from the Lick Creek Fire, as it came to be called. Ed was from a very competent national team sent to help manage the blaze. We discussed the location of cattle, the progress of the fire and devised a plan.

He told us the fire crews were attempting to hold the southern line of the fire (at that point 50,000 acres) along two forest service roads. If we could consolidate the cattle into one large pasture, we would be able to gather them in a day. If the fire crossed the road to the steep, rugged terrain, thick with timber, they wouldn't be able to stop it until it reached the cattle. It would take more than a day for the fire to travel the 7 miles to the cattle, leaving us time to get them to safer ground. We had a plan.

So last Monday  (7/12) night, Sam, my 13-year-old son Emmett, and two other riders hauled the horses two hours to the ranch house where we lease the pasture. They set up cots, slept a little, and were at the pasture at daylight. I met them that morning with food and water. Together, we gathered the cattle until late afternoon.  

Back at the ranch house, Emmett fell asleep before he could finish eating his sandwich. While he slept, we checked the rest of the cattle and headed back, feeling like we'd executed the first part of the plan.

The Elbow Creek Fire on July 20th.

The next morning, I called Ed to see what the fire did overnight. For two days, the crew held the southern line through back-burning and we began to breathe a sigh of relief. Then, on Thursday (7/15) afternoon, we heard rumors that another fire had started to the west and it was moving quickly toward the cattle. The fire (later named the Elbow Creek Fire‚Äč), was gathering speed, burning on both sides of the Grande Ronde River. 

Exceptionally dry conditions and the steep terrain overwhelmed local fire crews quickly. With four active wildfires in the region, not including one of the largest in Oregon history—the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon—there was very limited help to send. Ed called after his briefing. His tone had changed and, reading between the lines, it was clear he didn't know if they would be able to stop this fire. He suggested we move our herd of cattle closest to the new fire out of the area.

That evening, Sam went home, saw his wife and 2-year-old son, and  loaded up the horses. I grabbed food and water and headed out, this time leaving Emmett home. We called Marvin, one of our favorite truck drivers, and asked him to meet us at the corral in the morning.  

When we gathered at daylight, it was beautiful and crisp, but the huge columns of smoke to the north and the west made what would have otherwise been an enjoyable task surreal. At 6:30, Marvin arrived and we loaded the truck with 33 pairs, then traveled several miles to the next group of cattle, to consolidate them into a smaller pasture.  We took a break in the heat of the day, when the cattle were so deep in the brush we had to walk right into one to find her.  

We came back in the evening, finishing up by moonlight. We did the same thing the next day. When Marvin arrived at 6:30, we loaded out the last of the smaller herd, before we finished collecting the cattle we missed the day before. The timber was so dense that it sometimes felt like luck to find any at all. I glanced at a wolf pup and kept searching. The smoke made the temperature more bearable, and we were able to gather all but two of the cows in a 200-acre pasture, with good water and enough feed to allow us time to see what the new fire would do. 

It’s been five days now, and the Elbow Creek fire hasn’t moved much closer to our cows, instead heading west and—almost ironically—south, towards the ranch where we brought the first two truckloads and where my kids and I live. When I look out our front window, there's a sea of tents and porta potties, and a helipad two fields in the distance. During the most recent briefing, we were told that there were over 1,000 firefighters on this fire, more than doubling the Wallowa's population of 805.

The drought set up the conditions for these fires, each of which has caused us to consider our relationship to our animals in a new context: In times of stress, we forfeit good management and a grazing plan in favor of being able to leave quickly. When there's no rain, we have to compromise our goal of constantly moving cattle to green and lush pastures, and think about how many animals the land can support.

This isn't over yet, but I've come to realize along the way that we can't control or obsess over the financial implications. Every time I worry about how we’ll make our budget work, or if we'll be able to pay down our operating loan, I go down a path that ends with decisions that are ultimately detrimental to our people or our land. And those are relationships that can't always be repaired. Digging out of a financial hole can be time consuming, but it’s possible. And in a year like this, something has to give.

My relationships with the people who care for our animals are ones I hold most dear. And also the myriad relationships with customers and friends in the culinary community, who have texted and emailed and called. There's no doubt that this will continue to be a challenging year, and so we'll keep looking for different ways to make it work. As I have before, so many times in this business, I am finding all the solace I need from you, the people who support us and have our backs.

Thank you.


Read my interview with Cory Carman about why she chose to raise her animals on pasture, and how she sees it as a vital tool in reversing climate change and building a more resilient and vibrant local food system.

Your Food, Your Legislature: Hits and Misses Tallied for Oregon's Food System

The Oregon Legislature adjourned "sine die"—which translates as "without a day," i.e. with no appointed date for resumption—on June 26, after a session marked by the usual rancor between the GOP minority (which staged a virtual "walkout" over objections to Governor Brown's COVID restrictions, the third year in a row for that maneuver) and the Democratic majority. Despite that and the fact that the session was conducted online due to the pandemic, there was some progress on strengthening our food system. Below is a summary of the hits and misses of the most important bills affecting our local food system:

Hits

Oregon supports more small meat processors.

Grant program to increase small-scale meat processing capacity (HB2785): The grant fund was allotted $2 million, plus an additional $300,000 for OSU’s Clark Meat Science Center. According to a report from Friends of Family Farmers' Amy Wong, "This long-overdue investment should be considered a major milestone for small farmers and ranchers who have pushed for expanded processing for decades." What this program means for you is that, in the future, more locally grown, sustainably produced meat from small Oregon farmers should be coming to your table.

Bovine Manure Tax Credit (HB 2451 and SB 151): This measure died in committee. It would have continued funding tax credits for factory farms that use methane digesters to product natural gas. The vast majority of these credits have gone to Threemile Canyon Farms, the 70,000-cow mega-dairy supplying most of the milk for Tillamook cheese products, which is owned by an out-of-state corporation. It's a big step forward that our legislature rejected a highly greenwashed process that maintains investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, one that also props up a factory farm system that harms small farmers, rural communities and our environment, not to mention the animals it exploits.

More fresh produce for Oregonians on food assistance.

Double Up Food Bucks (HB 2292 and SB 555): The Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) program assists recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program. This important program was funded at the $4 million level—a big jump from the initial $1.5 million funding level in 2019. Nearly one in four Oregonians experienced hunger during the pandemic and this program is a triple win for eaters, farmers, and local communities.

Farm to School Grant Program (part of the Education Dept. budget): The Oregon Farm to School Grant Program, which was in danger of being eliminated altogether, was awarded $10.2 million, maintaining its current level of funding.

Misses

Oregon Organic Action Plan (SB 404): This bill would have increased funding to the Oregon State University Extension Service for new positions related to organic production as well as funding for expanding the market for organic crops and products. Assurances were made to advocates that it would be included in the final budget reconciliation bill, but at the last minute it was dropped from the bill.

Bill to pause permits for dairy CAFOs dies in committee.

Moratorium on permits for industrial dairies (SB 583): Sadly, as posted in the mid-session report, this bill that would have allowed a pause in the permitting of new and expanding mega-dairies died in committee. Lobbying by powerful industrial agriculture interests have once again prevented the state from enacting reasonable protections of Oregon’s air, water, climate, rural communities, small farmers and animal welfare.


Thanks to Amy Wong, Policy Director for Friends of Family Farmers, for her help in compiling this report.

Your Food, Your Legislature: Mid-Session Report, and How You Can Help

The Oregon Legislature is at its midpoint, where bills have either been scheduled for a public hearing and work session and are moving forward, or are dying in committee, or are being sent to a Rules or Revenue committee where the mid-session deadlines don’t apply. A summary of the most important bills affecting our local food system is below, with links to take action.

Lobbying by Big Ag has killed the mega-dairy moratorium bill for now.

Moratorium on permits for industrial dairies (SB 583): Sadly, this bill that would have allowed a pause in the permitting of new and expanding mega-dairies has died in committee. Lobbying by powerful industrial agriculture interests have once again prevented the state from enacting reasonable protections of Oregon’s air, water, climate, rural communities, small farmers and animal welfare.

However, advocates were able to secure a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment and they need as many concerned constituents as possible to submit testimony to let legislators know it's not a subject that's going to get swept under the rug by powerful interests. Food and Water Watch has produced a template for your testimony that you can copy and paste into the legislative submission form. (Choose the meeting date of April 1, 2021, at 1 pm, then click on SB 583 to copy and paste your testimony.) Also consider sending a copy of your testimony to your legislator. For additional information on mega-dairies in Oregon, read my article "Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities."

Oregon needs more local meat processing facilities.

Grant program to increase meat processing capacity (HB 2785): Unanimously passed out of committee with a recommendation for passage, this bill establishes a grant program to fund the building, upgrading or expansion of local meat processing facilities. Oregon’s already acute lack of meat processing capacity has been exacerbated by COVID-19, and investing in processing capacity will go a long way in creating food system resilience post-pandemic. Amy Wong of Friends of Family Farmers said this program would build "infrastructure and hopefully technical assistance for bringing existing, and potentially new, processing facilities up to standards compliance."

It is critical for the members of the Ways and Means Committee and your legislators to understand the importance of helping rural communities recover from COVID-19 and build long-term rural economic development. E-mail committee members and also e-mail your legislators to let them know how much you value and support access to local food. For more information, read about how important access to local meat processing is to Oregon growers.

Oregon should expand access to organic food from local farms.

Oregon Organic Action Plan (HB 2269 and SB 404-3): The Senate bill (SB 404-3) had a successful public hearing on March 15th and is scheduled for a work session on March 29th. The House bill (HB 2269) would increase funding to the Oregon State University Extension Service for new positions related to organic production as well as funding for expanding the market for organic crops and products. This bill likely will end up in the Ways and Means Committee and it will be important for you to e-mail the Co-Chairs and let them know that we want more organic production in Oregon. And consider e-mailing your legislators to let them know how much you value and support access to locally grown organic food.

Funding for Double Up Food Bucks program (HB 2292 and SB 555): The Senate bill (SB 555) had a successful public hearing and work session and is currently in the Ways and Means Committee. The House bill (HB 2292) would continue funding to assist recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program. With nearly 1 in 4 Oregonians currently struggling to afford to buy enough food to feed themselves and their families, the number is closer to 1 in 3 in Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. E-mail your legislators and let them know that this program not only helps keep our neighbors healthy by providing them with fresh, locally grown food, but also benefits our communities and supports local farms.

Manure digesters are a false solution to methane emissions.

Renewal of the Bovine Tax Credit (HB 2451 and SB 151): This bovine manure tax credit proposed to give taxpayer money via tax credits for an additional six years to industrial facilities like feedlots and mega-dairies that have methane digesters that produce biofuels. While industry claims that digesters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the fact is that burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants—including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide— potentially offsetting other greenhouse gas reductions. Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Food and Water Watch, said they presents a false solution that doesn't address the underlying problem of methane emissions. At this point it looks like the House and Senate versions of the bill may have died in their respective committees and the tax credit will not be renewed.

Stay tuned for future developments in the 2021 Your Food, Your Legislature series as the legislative sausage gets made! 

Make a Difference in Our Food System: Join a Commodity Commission!

Love West Coast albacore? Passionate about beer? Want to do something to change Oregon's food system for the better? If you care about where your food comes from and how it's produced, please consider joining one of Oregon's commodity commissions. Most include a member of the public, so check out the list of the positions available and make a difference in our food system!

This year the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is recruiting for 70 commodity commission seats, with a deadline to apply on March 15, 2021. Oregon’s 23 grower-funded commodity commissions support promotion, research and education to improve market conditions for their commodity.

A key point: they also give commissioners direct access to key Oregon agricultural opinion leaders and decision makers. Which means that new commissioners could help set the state's priorities going forward, encouraging the adoption of more regenerative, innovative practices rather than the business-as-usual, industry positions it has in the past.

Each commission has a board that includes producer and handler positions. Producers grow or harvest the commodity; handlers are the first to purchase the commodity from the producer and often are processors, distributors, or marketers. Most commissions also include a member of the public. Time commitment varies depending on the commission, and due to COVID-19 restrictions, remote attendance is an option.

Here are the commissions seeking public member applicants:

  • Blueberry
  • Clover Seed
  • Dungeness Crab
  • Fine Fescue Seed
  • Raspberry Blackberry
  • Strawberry
  • Sweet Cherry
  • Tall Fescue

Get more information and application forms. You can make a difference!

Your Food, Your Legislature: Mega-Dairy Moratorium, Biogas, Organic Plan on Tap

The Oregon Legislature convened its 81st session on January 11 of this year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the session will be held remotely with public hearings in both chambers done over videoconference. Governor Brown and the leadership of the House and Senate are planning to focus on the state's response to the COVID pandemic, addressing the damage from the climate change-related wildfires last year and the danger they present in the future, as well as dealing with the usual budget issues.

With all that, there are still bills dealing with Oregon's food system that are on tap for consideration. Here's an abbreviated list of what's coming up:

A moratorium on mega-dairies will be a hot topic this session.

A moratorium on permits for industrial mega-dairies (HB 2924, SB 583): Put forward by Rep. Rob Nosse (D-42) and Senator Michael Dembrow (D-23), these bills temporarily prohibit the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) from issuing a permit to construct or operate any new industrial dairy, or to expand on an existing industrial dairy. "The moratorium would allow a pause in the permitting of new and expanding mega-dairies until meaningful protections can be enacted to protect Oregon’s air, water, climate, rural communities, small farmers and animal welfare," according to a statement from a coalition of community, farm, environmental and social justice organizations. One of those, Food and Water Watch, is encouraging citizens to sign a letter asking their legislators to co-sponsor the bills. For more information, watch a panel discussion on the topic.

Oregon Organic Action Plan (HB 2269SB 404): Increases funding to the Oregon State University Extension Service for new positions related to organic production as well as funding for expanding the market for organic crops and products. 

Meat processing facilities are critical for a robust food system.

Grant program to increase meat processing capacity (HB 2785): Establishes a grant program to fund upgrades to establishments under a program of state meat inspection. "So many of our [local] meat producers have been negatively impacted by Oregon’s lack of processing capacity," according to Amy Wong, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers. Oregon has lost several small processing facilities in the two years, crippling local farms and ranches who need to bring their animals to market. She said this program would build "infrastructure and hopefully technical assistance for bringing existing, and potentially new, processing facilities up to standards compliance." Read about the importance of access to local meat processing to Oregon growers.

Funding for Double Up Food Bucks program (HB 2292SB 440, SB 555): Continuation of funding to assist recipients of supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program.

Manure digesters aren't the panacea they're cracked up to be.

Renewal of the Bovine Tax Credit (HB 2451, SB 151): A bovine manure tax credit gives taxpayer money via tax credits to industrial facilities like feedlots and mega-dairies that have methane digesters for the production of biofuels. The problem is, as outlined in an issue brief from Food and Water Watch, "despite claims that digesters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, potentially offsetting other greenhouse gas reductions." Additionally, less than half of methane emissions from an industrial agricultural facility are actually captured by digesters. In addition, digesters, because they are heavily incentivized and subsidized, actually spur the expansion of these kinds of industrial facilities, according to Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Food and Water Watch. She said they presents a false solution that doesn't address the underlying problem of methane emissions. Needless to say, consumer and watchdog organizations will be active in making sure this bill does not make it onto the floor for a vote.

Stay tuned for future installments in the 2021 Your Food, Your Legislature series as the legislative sausage gets made this session!

My Proudest Moments: 2020 in Review

I'm not normally a person who lives in the past, sifting through decisions or the lack thereof, weighed down with regrets (not that I don't have some, mind you). I tend to move forward instead, looking at tomorrow with anticipation of what it might bring. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to look at the major stories I posted in 2020, a year, as so many have already said, unlike any other in living memory.

First up, on January 13, was a big moment in the 14 years I've been writing Good Stuff NW, and that was a top-to-bottom redesign of this blog, originally begun as an exercise in a new marketing medium that turned into a whole new career as a journalist.

But now to the proudest moments of the last year:

Your Food, Your Legislature

Oregon's Capitol in Salem.

I'm extremely proud of this annual series of reports that follows Oregon's yearly legislative sessions at the Capitol in Salem, focusing on the bills that affect our food system. They give a comprehensive look at legislative process, from the inception of bills, through the committee processes that can amend, kill or pass them on to be voted on in the House and Senate chambers. These reports give you the chance to express your opinions to legislators, which I sincerely hope you do. Look for the new series to start in January on the 2021 session.


Farm Bulletin

Carol and Anthony Boutard

I have been publishing contributor Anthony Boutard's missives from Ayers Creek Farm since 2007, almost exactly a year after first starting this effort. Anthony and his wife, Carol, have been instrumental in teaching me what conscientious, thoughtful, respectful farming looks like, and what it means to steward a piece of ground. His always-stunning prose, as well as his and Carol's friendship, has shaped this blog in ways beyond counting, and I encourage you to read back through them both here on the new site and in the archive. You won't be sorry.


Farmers' Markets Take on the Pandemic

Farmers' markets learned to cope.

When COVID-19 hit in March, there was no guarantee that our up-to-that-time robust local food system would survive. With the governor instituting a lockdown that month and with a great deal of uncertainty about how the virus was spread or how long it would last, restaurants closed down and grocery stores were being inundated with shoppers "stocking up" (i.e. panic buying) dried beans, canned goods and paper products. The future of farmers' markets was uncertain, but working with state officials and pivoting on a dime as regulations changed, our open-air markets have thrived and provided a lifeline to our small farmers. I'm proud my series of reports on this topic has kept the community informed.


Local Food Gains Traction

Our local food system is thriving.

I've been so amazed and inspired by our farmers and ranchers in this pandemic, and I've been taken aback by how fervently the community has embraced and supported them during this most difficult year. From figuring out home delivery to starting Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions to holding a virtual celebration of local vegetables, our food community has proved their ability to overcome obstacles even in a pandemic.


Pesticide Contaminates "Organic" Compost

Result of contaminated compost.

This story originated when I was talking with my neighbor about her extensive vegetable garden. She mentioned that she'd just found out that the gorgeous organic compost she bought from a supposedly reputable local company was contaminated with pesticides. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) became involved, and a lawsuit seeking compensation is in process. It's a story you can be sure I'll be following as it develops.


COVID Outbreaks Threaten Essential Food Workers

Crowded conditions and lack of proper protective equipment have proved a deadly combination among essential workers at food processing plants like those owned by Tillamook Cheese as well as workers harvesting crops in the fields.


Wildfires

Skies turned dark at mid-day.

The intense wildfires that raged through Oregon this past summer and early fall had a devastating effect on our rural food system. Many of our farmers and ranchers lost homes, livestock and fields of crops ready for market, some barely making it out with their lives. Many had to move themselves and their animals multiple times to stay ahead of the unpredictable flames. This on top of a punishing pandemic that has no end in sight. Really, 2020?


Dungeness Crab: MIA

No crab for the holidays in 2020.

I love our local shellfish and the family-owned businesses that comprise the bulk of Oregon's coastal fishing industry. This story explains the too-opaque, behind-the-scenes machinations by powerful players stifling progress in the name of profit and hurting our food system. (Not to mention our holiday dinner plans.)

Dungeness MIA This Holiday: Crabbers Getting Lowballed by Processors

With price negotiations stalled and the entire West Coast fleet
essentially tied up at the dock,
it looks like holiday crab feeds are going to have to wait.

Every New Year's Eve for the last several years we've gathered with friends for a crab feed. While our get-together wasn't going to be possible in this year of COVID, we wanted to keep the tradition going by having our own crab feed here at home, maybe even ZOOM-ing with our friends for at least a toast, if not the whole feast.

Gorgeous, delicious Dungeness.

But in calling around, there was almost no whole, fresh crab to be found. Odd, since the season for the 2020 commercial Dungeness season opened on December 16.

Is this yet another reason to curse 2020?

In doing a little digging, it turns out that the curses would be more appropriately flung at the large fish processors that dictate the price they're willing to pay crabbers for this quintessentially ephemeral delicacy. The 800-pound gorilla among these processors is Pacific Seafood with 3,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenue. Next largest is Bornstein Seafoods with 170 employees and $40 million in annual revenue, followed by Hallmark Fisheries and Da Yang Seafood.

According to Tim Novotny of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commissionan industry-funded agency that's part of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) Commodity Commission Program—each of the state's six major ports has a team of negotiators that, together, meet and propose the price crabbers believe their catch is worth each season. In 2020, the price they went to the processors with started at $3.30 per pound for live crab.

It's not just us: the whole economy of the coast is hurting.

Hallmark and Bornstein countered with a price of $2.20 per pound, then Pacific Seafood came in with a proposal of $2.50 per pound, all roundly dismissed by fishers as barely enough to cover their costs, not to mention not worth risking their lives for in winter's cold, rough seas. Crabbers then came back with a price of $3.20 per pound, which was rejected by processors.

The pandemic is playing a part in negotiations as well, with crabbers saying if crews experience an outbreak it could shut down their season entirely. For their part, processors are nervous about the market for crab, with restaurants only open for takeout and not ordering in their usual volume, and with retail customers hesitant to venture out to stores to buy product.

Pacific Seafood—which Novotny described as "the straw that stirs the drink" because of its position as "the big dog" in the market—is irked that it's being blamed for ruining holiday celebrations. An article for KCBY in Coos Bay quotes Jon Steinman, vice president of processing at Pacific Seafood, as saying "the notion that Pacific Seafood is holding up the Dungeness season is absurd.

"'We are one of many other major buyers on the West Coast,' Steinman said in a statement. "We have to do the best we can for our customers, our fishermen, and our team members who are counting on us to run a good business and be here for this season and years to come.”

Lyf Gildersleeve, Flying Fish.

It is possible that the ODA could get involved in the negotiations if a request is made by both the crabbers and the processors.

"By law, Oregon allows [processors] and fisherman to convene supervised price negotiations with oversight from the ODA," said ODA's Andrea Cantu-Schomus in response to my e-mail. "A request for state-sponsored price negotiations was made to ODA, [but] ultimately there was not enough participation [from both sides] to hold negotiations."

The opaque nature of the negotiations is frustrating to Lyf Gildersleeve of Flying Fish, a sustainable seafood retailer in Portland, who would like to see a more transparent process rather than what he terms a "closed-door conversation" between the haggling parties. "Processors always lowball the price to make another fifty cents per pound," he said, noting that, for the most part, "people will pay whatever it takes" to have their holiday crab.

And as much as I'd like to make this about me, the delay in setting a price for this year's Dungeness catch isn't just inconveniencing my holiday plans, it's hurting the whole economy of the coast. From fishing families to retailers to the small coastal towns already hard-hit by the pandemic, it's compounding the devastation wrought by job losses and the lack of tourist dollars,.

So, with price negotiations stalled and the Oregon and California fleets* essentially tied up at the dock, it looks like our New Year's crab feed is just going to have to wait.

You can find tons of recipes in my Crustacean Celebration series.

* Washington's Dungeness season has been delayed until Jan. 1 due to elevated levels of domoic acid, a marine toxin.


UPDATE: After more than three weeks on strike, on Friday, January 8, commercial Dungeness crab fishermen accepted an offer of $2.75 per pound from Oregon processors, a significant reduction from the crabbers' previous proposal of $3.25 per pound.

Find tons of recipes in my Crustacean Celebration series.