Chris Bedford's Keynote - from the Michigan Small Farms Conference 

Chris Bedford's Keynote

From the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference on January 26th, 2008

"Good morning. It is an honor to speak to a group of small farmers. I believe the work you do, the lives you lead, the vision you pursue… are the hope for our state, indeed, for our world. 

In spite of that, the work of small farmers -- and the local food economy you contribute to -- is largely ignored by the federal and state governments, and by many agriculture advocates. This inattention and outright opposition to small farms and small scale farming represents a fundamental mistake – a mistake I want to talk about this morning.

As Bernie Ware indicated in his kind introduction, in partnership with market manager, Diana Jancek, I run a farmers market in Muskegon called the Sweetwater Local Foods Market. The thoughts I am going to share over the next hour come from our work with this market and my work over the last decade on the issue of economic and environmental sustainability.

Bill McDonough, the revolutionary architect and designer for sustainability, says…

“If you want to go to Canada, but are driving towards Mexico at 100 miles an hour, slowing down to 30 doesn’t really help. You are still going the wrong direction.”

To regenerate our state’s small farm economy, we have to turn around and go the right direction. We can’t just be “less bad” anymore. We have to discover what’s “good” and act on it.  I believe we have to develop and implement a plan for our future that will actually work, that is economically and ecologically sustainable, that will allow us to not only survive, but thrive as farmers and as Michiganders.

The moment for this turning around is right now. Michigan’s economy is in deep trouble. By virtually every measure, we are in decline. We have lost 364,000 manufacturing jobs in seven years. Household income has fallen 12% during the same period.  And people are leaving our state as a result. We had net population loss of 30,000 people last year. 

I believe this decline is not the result of some cyclical change in the auto industry, or the agricultural economy, or even the climate. The failure before us is systemic  -- a change so fundamental that some call it an “emergency”.

At the heart of our decline are a series of increasingly dysfunctional relationships –  our relationship to the global economy, to oil and other carbon based fuels, to technology and work, our relationships with each other – and, ultimately, to nature, herself. 

I believe it is this last relationship – our relationship to nature – that has become the most critical in our fight for economic survival. For as US Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat from Wisconsin, observed in a speech on the First Earth Day, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature.”  

And that explains, in part, why our economic crisis is, in reality, an ecological crisis grounded in how we treat the land and the water…and, in particular, in how we farm.

Wendell Berry, poet and Kentucky small farmer, wrote, “Farming cannot take place except in nature; therefore, if nature does not thrive, farming cannot thrive. Nature is not a place in which we reach from a safe standpoint outside it. We are in nature and part of nature while we use nature. If it does not thrive, farming cannot thrive.” And, I would add, “Michigan cannot thrive.”

I want to begin with a look at where we stand as a state.

I do this, in part, to communicate how urgent it is we act now to change our situation.

Today, Michigan is facing a kind of systemic collapse comparable in scale and depth, to the one that overwhelmed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But unlike New Orleans, our devastation is not the result of an Act of God or failing levies. We can’t blame Bush’s FEMA Director “brownie” …or al Queda …or illegal immigrants. 

Our problems are the product of our actions, our policies, our intentions, our design. We are going the wrong direction and we haven’t even slowed down to 30 yet.

Our economic ill health is a function of two other health crises.  Here is the picture of Michigan I see on this cold day at the end of January.

1. The environmental health crisis.

Last year, right in this room, George Bird eloquently called the Great Lakes, “The jewel of the biosphere”.   Well, the jewel is about to be pinched. Broken apart and sold. The truth is… the Great Lakes are in trouble. 

Water levels are dropping. Corporations like BP and Dow still treat the lakes as a free sewer to dispose of their toxic wastes. Everyone from Nestles to the governor of New Mexico want to pump our precious fresh water for their profit, their lawns, their farms.

Bill Bobier tells me a few years ago Enron had a 36 inch pipeline near Chicago, ready to begin pumping Great Lakes water to the Southwest.

The introduction of invasive species, the continued nutrification of the Great Lake waters by runoff from farms, lawns and sewer overflows, urban sprawl and the increasing stress of climate change… all these have pushed the Great Lakes to a “tipping point” from which they may not recover.

Last year, Dr. Donald Scavia, Director the Sea Grant Program at the University of Michigan, warned of this approaching collapse in testimony before the US House of Representatives, citing increasing numbers of “sudden and unpredicted” changes in life in the lakes. The real canary in the coal mine for this collapse may be the virtual disappearance of a little creature called Diporeia – a critical foundation of the Lakes food chain. To quote Dr. Scavia, “lacking this critical food source is another clear indicator of the ecosystem reaching a tipping point.”  

2. The human health crisis.

Michigan is malnourished, hungry, and sick.

Over one million of our neighbors will go to a food bank for food this year. Four in ten of those folks live in rural and suburban areas. Over half are children and seniors. Demand for food from Michigan’s five regional food bank organizations has increased 12 percent in the last year. Food stocks are at an all time low and running out. 

Michiganders are not only hungry, they are malnourished. Our current food system directly undermines our physical health. Over 25 percent of Michigan adults are obese making us the sixth most obese state in the nation. One in twelve Michiganders has Type 2 Diabetes. 

Bad nutrition is implicated in the epidemics of inflammatory diseases that plague us. One in five Michigan high school students suffer from asthma. Three in ten Michigan residents have arthritis severe enough to affect their movements. The state has the eighth highest cancer rate in the nation. 

One measure of our collective ill health is the relative size of the healthcare industry in our state. Twelve out of one hundred Michiganders work in healthcare. One dollar in seven of our state’s entire economy is spent on healthcare. Look at your local newspapers’ Help Wanted Sections. How many jobs are listed under healthcare?

The development of giant new medical centers is heralded as economic growth in Michigan. Is this how we want to grow out state’s economy? Is such a de facto strategy for economic growth sustainable? Desirable? Ethical?

This human health crisis touches everything we do and everything we want to do.

In 2006, all state expenditures for public health including Medicaid comprised 32% of the General Fund, up from 19% in 2000. This number will grow to 40% of the state’s total general fund within the next two years…unless something changes.  This huge expenditure on health crowds out funds for our schools, our roads, our libraries, restoration of our lakes. Our bad health is bankrupting us. 

A look at our state today presents us with a sobering picture. The health of the Great Lakes is deteriorating. The health of our economy is declining. Our physical health is bad. Our food systems are insecure. Our government’s financial health is uncertain in a time when we need public resources the most.

None of what I have just said is news to you. You all know we are in trouble. But our leaders seldom put all the news on the table and look at what it adds up to.  There is little talk of the scale of dramatic action that the current situation demands.

In 1936, Winston Church wrote, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delay, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” 

Churchill was referring to the coming confrontation with fascism in a world war that killed 50 million people in nine years. He could have been talking about the war for survival we, in Michigan, face today. 

We are in a war for our survival. It is a war of our making, of our design. It is a war against nature; and because we are part of nature, it is a war against ourselves.

Former World Bank economist, Herman Daly, describes the conflict in very clear terms.

On a planet of finite resources, a human economy dependent on ever increasing growth is squeezing out more and more species and ecosystems, straining and disrupting basic nutrient and energy systems, and ultimately, reducing the planet’s carrying capacity for human life itself. 

Put another way, if everyone in China and India lived like we do in Michigan today, it would take the resources of three Earths to supply them. Three Earths. This means every exuberant, positive story about the growth of India’s and China’s middle class we read in our papers, is not a signal for increased opportunity for our export businesses… but, in fact, is an alarm warning of the deepening ecological emergency. 

Think about that. All our political happy talk about a recovering industrial production based on exports, about Michigan’s re-emergence in the world economy may be, in fact, hastening our downfall – threatening our children’s future, and reducing the quality of life we will experience in our lives.

We are not only going the wrong direction. In many ways, we are speeding up and heading over a cliff. So what do we do? What can we do right here and right now in this moment of impending crisis? 

Albert Einstein once wrote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  If we are to survive, we cannot just do more of the same and expect new results. We have to turn in a new direction. We have to do something as simple as it is revolutionary. I believe our task right now is to renew our connection to nature… to regenerate our economy by coming into harmony with Nature’s processes… to respect Nature’s limits by living by Nature’s laws. 

I believe this renewal, this redesign, this reinvention begins with our food. 

Our future begins with the people in this room and what you do and how you do it. 

In my view, there are two steps we must take to begin.

First, Michigan must feed itself.

Right now the US imports almost as much food as it exports and the gap between exports and imports is closing rapidly. In 2006, we imported more than 50 percent of our fresh fruit, 20 percent of our fresh vegetables and the percentages keep increasing at the expense of Michigan farmers.

Although a thousand Michigan small farmers grew apples worth $100 million in 2007, the United States imported over $300 million in apple juice – nearly 70 percent of domestic consumption – primarily from China.

Michigan is one of the last two export producers of asparagus left in the US – now that Washington State is closing its processing plants. In 2006, Michigan small farmers produced 11.6 metric tons of asparagus - about 18 percent of US annual consumption. 

One hundred and twenty thousand metric tons – 70 percent of US annual consumption – was imported, much of it from Peru. 

This story is being repeated in commodity after commodity. 

This growing dependence on imported food threatens not only Michigan farmers, it threatens Michigan food security as well.  For every mile food travels across the globe is fueled by increasingly expensive and increasingly scarce oil. 

The food distributor - SYSCO -- now spends twice as much to ship tomatoes to its customers in Michigan as to buy them. The average Michigan meal travels more than 2,000 miles from farm to table. This radical dependence on oil and petroleum products makes our food system increasingly insecure.

Although we farm about 10 million of the state’s 35 million acres, the food we grow doesn’t feed our people. By one estimate only about 10 percent of Michigan’s food comes from Michigan’s farms. If an oil crisis disrupted the global food system tomorrow, Michigan families might go hungry. 

This food insecurity is a crisis. But it is an opportunity as well. 

In 2004 Michigan’s households spent a $22.1 billion on food - $8.4 billion eating out and $13.7 billion buying food for home. These expenditures represent a huge market for Michigan farmers, if we are intentional about growing for it.  

This is a change that others are trying. Let me tell you a story about the local food revolution…and its impact on one community in another state.

In the Fall of 2003, I was the National Campaign Coordinator for Sustainable Agriculture Programs for The Humane Society of the United States – an organization of eight million current or recent members.  After moving our office from Washington, DC to Des Moines, Iowa I organized a campaign called Care4Iowa – in an attempt to develop answers to some of the complicated problems I have spoken about this morning. 

One day, I got a call from an HSUS member in Sioux City, Iowa. Her name was Penny Fee and she was desperate to do something, anything about the state of Iowa’s food system.

The story of Iowa will sound familiar…a giant agricultural state the produced billions of dollars of crops but couldn’t feed itself. Less five percent of Iowa’s food is grown by Iowa farmers. Iowa’s waters are massively polluted by agricultural chemicals and soil runoff.  The state comprises a mere 5 percent of the Mississippi River watershed but contributes 25 percent of the nutrient runoff that created the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa’s population suffers from an increasing number of almost epidemic scale health problems.

Penny was a caterer, a gardener, and an activist. After many months of meetings in her living room, I helped Penny and a group of farmers and consumers found a new kind of farmers market in Sioux City.  It was called the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market. It was the first market in the United States that operated on the values of an ecologically sustainable local food system. Our slogan was “healthy, humane, homegrown.”

Everything in the market was produced within 100 miles of Sioux City. All the fruits and vegetables were raised to National Organic Program standards or higher. All the meat, eggs and cheese came from humanely raised and processed animals according to Animal Welfare Institute standards and without the use of antibiotics or hormones. 

The response to the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market was immediate and overwhelming. Sixteen farmers grossed over $400,000 in total this first season. Customers came from as far away as Omaha, seeking food grown in harmony with nature. At first, this market was labeled as a kind of cute “niche” market. A play thing of a few rich people. One corporate ag consultant told me it was a 3M market for “Minks. Mercedes. And Monaco.”

But the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market continued to grow. A restaurant and a store were added to the weekly farmers market. A full 25% of the market’s customers used food stamps. In 2007 The State of Iowa invested $1.5 million in the market to make it the center of the renewal of downtown Sioux City. The Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market was not a “niche” anymore.

Something else happened, something unprecedented. Leaders in Sioux City began to understand that food grown locally, connected them to a place – Woodbury County, the place where they lived. Food was at the heart of their place’s story – its cultural system, its ecosystem, and its economic system. 

When this “local” food was raised and served according to positive values – healthy, humane, homegrown – both residents and outsiders began to perceive Woodbury County differently, as a result. Among the first to understand this was Rob Marqusee – a lawyer and local activist. 

In 2005, he became the first Director of Woodbury County’s new Rural Economic Development Corporation. His first act was to create the nation’s first property tax abatement for farmers who transitioned from conventional-to-organic production. Any farmer who converted his farm to certified organic production was eligible for a tax abatement for five years. 

In 2006, Woodbury County became the first county in the nation to mandate the purchase of locally grown organic food for county institutions – adding over a quarter of a million dollars to the local food economy.

A 2007 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University documented the economic benefits of the Woodbury County program. The study compared two scenarios – a 1,000 acre conventional farm growing corn and soybeans in rotation and a 1,000 acre organic farm using a five year organic rotation. The results were stunning.  The organic farm produced 52% higher gross sales, 56% more jobs and 182% more farm income.  The Woodbury County organic programs began to attract national attention. Just last week, the County received the highest award from the National Association of Counties for sustainable economic development. 

This year, Woodbury County will inaugurate the nation’s first Organic Homestead Program, to attract more small scale organic farmers to the county. The program sets up a $2 million revolving fund to give new farmers loans to buy their farms – with no payments for the first three years and no interest on the remainder of the loan. 

In addition, a number of Woodbury County’s rural communities will offer these new organic farmers FREE building lots to build a home. Habitat for Humanity has agreed to help build the new houses. Even before the program was announced, Rob’s office received dozens of phone calls from people seeking to farm organically in Woodbury County.

I recently completed a film about Woodbury County’s story. It’s called “The Organic Opportunity” and I want to show you the last three minutes now. (BREAK)

In 2005, Diana Jancek and I founded the Sweetwater Local Foods Market in Muskegon to build on the successes of Woodbury County. Like the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market, the Sweetwater Market has set the highest standards for food production under the slogan “healthy, humane, homegrown”.

We began with five farmers and about a hundred regular customers. We developed a Pledge to our Customers to stand behind the quality of the food sold at the market. Like in Sioux City, people responded with enthusiasm. In market after market, our customers bore witness about the effects of healthy, local food – how eating the crops and animal products raised by Sweetwater farmers improved their health. We ran the market as volunteers, with little money. 

Today, our market is year-round. We have over a thousand regular customers who are passionate about local food grown according to Sweetwater’s values. We operate in partnership with Hackley Health, a major local healthcare provider. Today we are working with Muskegon County leaders to develop a plan to feed the children in our schools, locally grown organic food.

The Sweetwater Local Foods Market is just one beginning. There are many other healthy local food initiatives around the state.

But these efforts struggle without much government support or leadership,

What could happen to Michigan if we were intentional about developing local food systems based on ecologically intelligent farming – farming that regenerated soils through organic techniques – farming that promoted human and ecological health through the growing of food without chemicals, the raising of animals humanely without antibiotics or hormones? 

Second. Develop programs and policies to support Michigan farmers growing healthy food for local consumption. 

I believe we must take action to promote a new kind of local food system, one based on the values of human and ecological health, one that is economically and environmentally sustainable, one that helps small farmers thrive. This morning I want to propose five specific steps we need to take. 

1. Establish a program of tax credits and other financial incentives for farmers who use less oil and petroleum dependent inputs like inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. 

Each person in Michigan consumes 400 gallons of oil a year through their food. Agricultural energy use is only second to transportation in our nation’s energy use. In 2000, A University of Michigan study by Marty Heller estimated that as much as 40 percent of the energy used for food production is expended in the manufacture and application of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. 

Organic agriculture avoids these oil-based input costs and reduces environmental liabilities at the same time. No-till organic agriculture dramatically reduces fuels costs as well. 

2. Design and develop an infrastructure that supports small farm production for local consumption. 

The Starting Block in Hart, directed by Ron Steiner and developed by Michigan’s Project GREEN, offers a great model of the kind of economic infrastructure a true local food revolution needs. The Starting Block offers a kitchen incubator, frozen and cold storage, office space and other services to farmers and food entrepreneurs. 

Starting Block type facilities may be crucial to the development of Farm to School supply chains to supply all the meals in our schools, not just token snacks. Further, such local storage and processing will help develop local food distribution businesses.

3. Create a revolving no interest loan fund for small farmers.

This fund will be set up to provide no-hassle small and medium size no-interest loans to farmers under a certain size. Some of might be micro-loans for specific equipment or seeds. Others might capitalize small food processing businesses or land purchases. 

The no-interest designation will reflect the new priority for small farm production of diverse crops for local consumption. 

4. Link farmland preservation tax breaks to production of organic food for local consumption.

Right now, farmland preservation efforts evaluate farm soils as industrial commodities. The grading systems that decide which farmland to preserve are based on an extraction model for farming, not on a regeneration model embodied in organic production.

I propose that any tax breaks or public funding for farmland preservation efforts be linked to regenerative farming techniques and the growing of food for local consumption. When we preserve farmland, we have to ask the question, “preserved to grow how and what?”

5. Create a Small Farm Corps Program for student summer employment.

Susan Cocciarelli of the CS Mott Group at MSU has developed a program of Individual Development Accounts for people who want to begin to farm. The goal is to help people with limited income, save money to invest in farming. Under the program, an individual who saves $1,000 receives a matching $1,000 from the federal government and another $1,000 from a local source like a foundation. 

I propose we take this successful model and expand it into a Summer Farm Jobs program for Michigan students to work on the state’s small farms.  Students would receive $1,000 from the farmer to be matched by state and local resources for successfully completing a program of work and learning on a small farm. This incentivized farm intern program would help provide farmers with needed labor while exposing numbers of young adults to farming and the food system that feeds them. At the end, each participant would have $3,000 to invest in college or to begin farming.

These are just five suggestions of places to begin. I am sure you all have many other good ideas. The underlying idea here is that Michigan cannot wait for the federal government. We have to take action as a state, now.

In Michigan today, the first question asked of proposals for new programs is, “How will we pay for it?” It is a good question and my answer comes from the act of turning around and going in a new direction.

The funding for these programs can come from the savings in healthcare expenditures that access to healthy food and proper nutrition produce. 

An example. In 2004, Michigan all payments for Type II Diabetes totaled $3.7 billion dollars. A study found that about 90% of that amount - $3.3 billion dollars -- could have been avoided if the Type II Diabetes sufferers ate a healthy diet. 

I believe it is cheaper to supply diabetes sufferers with healthy food than to supply them with insulin and doctor’s visits and surgery. In Grand Rapids, Spectrum Health's NOW program (Nutritional Options for Wellness) treats seven major diseases with doctor's prescriptions for healthy food with spectacular results.

A program of providing healthy, local food to Michiganders suffering from nutrition-affected chronic diseases could save the state billions of dollars. From those savings could come  the investment in small farmers that I have proposed. 

Such an investment would have a ripple effect, positively affecting many of the problems that confront us today.

Education could reap rewards from this investment in healthy local food from small farms. Virtually every Michigan leader has called for improvements in educational attainment as critical to our collective future. Yet little mention has been made of the importance of proper nutrition in preparing children to learn. 

Finally, healthy local food is good business for Michigan.

If every Michigan household dedicated just $10 a week to buy Michigan-produced food, that expenditure would generate an estimated $5 billion in new economic activity. This boon would require not a dime of public money.

Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, writes that "the most valuable natural resource in the 21st Century is brains. Smart people tend to be mobile. Watch where they go. Because where they go, robust economic activity will follow."

In the new industries of the 21st Century, quality of life can play a more important role than tax breaks in business location decisions. Opinion surveys have discovered that local food produced by farmers consumers can know -- "food with a human face" -- is a high priority for the "smart people" that Michigan arduously works to attract. Being intentional about developing its own food supply could give Michigan the competitive edge it needs.

If we continue to focus on slowing down to 30, while still going the wrong direction, all our energy and resources will be devoted to braking, to being “less bad”. When we turn around and go the right direction, that energy is freed up to accelerate, to move quickly towards our goal.  Isn’t it better, isn’t it more exciting, to be “good” instead of “less bad”. I think it is. Thank you."

Christopher B. Bedford

6543 Hancock Road

Montague, MI 49437


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