Exit Strategy

April 7, 2017

 

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

 ~ Economist Paul Romer

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I started working at a large produce company in April, 2005. My job was to assist the CEO with presentations, government relations and internal communications. I loved it. I advocated for healthy food policy on the national level, met interesting people in the organic agriculture world, and learned how our food is processed from farm to table. That all changed on September 14, 2006 when we found ourselves at the center of one of the largest foodborne illness outbreaks ever. E.coli-contaminated spinach, packed at one of our facilities in San Juan Bautista, California, had sickened hundreds of people across the country and killed three. Literally overnight, my job went from communicating the benefits of eating organic salads to helping coordinate a federal investigation between growers, scientists, investigators, lawyers, insurance agents and victims. For the next four years, I waded through lawsuits and assisted with the attempted sale of the company three times. The third time, the deal actually went through. The family-owned company that celebrated high morale, profit-sharing and innovation was unrecognizable by the time I left in 2010.

Exit Strategy is my first novel and is based on the E.coli crisis of 2006. It is a fictional account, but the themes could be taken from today’s headlines: income inequality, sexual harassment in the workplace, and immigration issues all circulate as a company struggles with its identity and future. Available in both print and eBook, I hope you will support me by buying a copy for yourself, a friend or family member, donate a copy to a local library and/ or request your local bookstore to carry it.

Below, I have listed five easy ways you can help me spread the word about Exit Strategy. (Shout out to Pieces of Me Author Lisbeth Meredith for these tips.) If you’ve already done any, or all, of these, I can’t thank you enough. If you haven’t had the opportunity yet, I would be so grateful if you’re inclined to support me. Thank you!

How you can help support Exit Strategy:

1. SOCIAL MEDIA: LIKE my page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/juliefiniganmorris), follow me on Instagram (@finimo), and share news about the book via social media (tag me when you do, so I can thank you, and please be patient while I catch up with thank you’s!)  Also, feel free to join the conversation by using the hashtag #exitstrategy when posting.

2. BUY THE BOOK: Please consider buying the book! The first few months it’s on sale are VERY important for a new book release. You can order it through your local bookstore, direct from my publisher Author House, at Barnes and Noble (online or in person), and through Amazon. All of these links can be found on my website: http://juliefmorris.com

3. REVIEW: After you’ve read the book, post a review/rating of the book on Amazon. Reviews will help potential readers decide whether or not to buy the book, and the more reviews, the better.

4. GOODREADS: Add Exit Strategy: A Novel to your shelf on Goodreads and rate it honestly.

5. FOLLOW ME FOR INFO ON READINGS & EVENTS, OR SET AN EVENT UP YOURSELF: Join me at one of my upcoming events, and keep an eye on my website for more updates at http://juliefmorris.com  Also feel free to schedule your own event, I would be honored to speak or do a book signing for your group. You can contact me via my website at https://juliefmorris.com/contact/ From civic groups to fundraisers, book groups, faith communities, the possibilities to connect in person or via Skype are endless.

Whatever you decide to do, how big or small, it helps and it means so much. Thank you for your continued support and encouragement, and please let me know how I can pay it forward.

Thank you so much,

j sig (Small)

Julie Finigan Morris

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Local food: London style

March 17, 2015

Scottish eggs

Scottish eggs

Across the pond this week, in London where there is no shortage of good food. We went to Borough Market yesterday: a feast for every sense. Bustling with artisan vendors, office workers grabbing a quick lunch, and chefs picking up ingredients for their restaurants, the outdoor marketplace has been a central part of the London foodie scene since the 13th century.

What I love is the international celebration of food that is produced close to home and on a small scale: there are no industrial farming practices seen in this place. Signage on most vendors booths pays homage to food raised slowly and without chemicals or inhumane treatment. Methods are explained in detail to curious tourists asking questions about everything from how long the perfect Parmesan cheese is aged to the best way to cut meat from the bone, I’ll let the pictures do the talking from here. As you see the sights: be sure to imagine the accompanying sounds of enthusiastic vendors encouraging you to try a sample, aromas of warm paella, and  feel of 600 year-old cobblestones under feet.

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The Case for Steak

January 17, 2015

A shorter version of this article was first published in edible Monterey Bay magazine, Winter 2014. 

In the past 24 years I have seen the California’s Central Coast food scene grow from a sorry corner of the produce section to entire markets featuring locally grown, sustainable products. When Joe and I first started marketing grassfed beef in 1991 people wrinkled their noses and asked “What’s grassfed beef?” Today, it’s a common choice on menus and in butcher cases everywhere. Locally raised, grassfed meats have even been parodied by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia’s “Is the Chicken Local?” episode when the couple abruptly abandons a romantic dinner to go find the farm where the chicken was raised. We have gone mainstream (and can laugh at ourselves too)!

One of the most common misconceptions about meat is that it’s an ecological disaster. Red meats, and cattle more specifically, are blamed for clear cutting rain forests, emitting more methane than LA freeways, using too much water, and a whole list of health risks like high cholesterol, heart attacks and cancer. What’s lost in this argument is that cattle are not the problem: land managers are. Cattle are living, breathing, gas-emitting animals just like whales, dogs, cats and yes – even humans. Managed properly, cattle are beneficial to the environment and produce a nutrient-dense, low calorie food that builds muscle and fights disease. They also nurture expansive, healthy rangelands that have the potential to become the earth’s largest carbon sink.

Not Your Father’s Steak: Ecologically Beneficial Meat

Meat itself is not bad for the environment. Humans’ poor management of the animals that produce it is. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (also known as CAFOs) with their sprawling waste ponds, antibiotic-tainted water runoff, and massive energy consumption strain the environment. Overgrazing leads to barren landscapes that cannot capture water or grow plants, creating a void where photosynthesis was once possible. But these conventional, industrial models are coming under more scrutiny (as the couple in Portlandia so aptly portrayed) while other land and animal management practices are celebrated as a solution to climate change. There is resurgence – a revolution, even – happening all over North America and the world focusing on alternative ways to manage cattle that restore rangelands and waterways. When managed in ways that increase biodiversity, build soil health and restore grasslands, cattle become beneficial allies for environmentalists. Meat, then, is not only good food, but also a healthy byproduct in the fight against global warming. It’s part of an growing trend toward regenerative agriculture.

Well managed rangelands capture and hold water

Well managed rangelands capture and hold water

Richard Young, Policy Director of The Sustainable Food Trust, a UK-based think tank exploring solutions for a food production system that causes “the least possible harm to both humans and the environment” recently addressed the ‘eat less meat’ evangelists.

“We believe that the consumption of red meat, dairy produce and animal fats needs to be increased, not decreased,” Young said. “Grasslands take carbon out of the atmosphere. For several decades the carbon sequestered by grasslands following prolonged, arable cropping will exceed the global warming impact of methane from animals grazing that land. There is still a dispute about whether soils continue to take carbon out of the atmosphere after that, but several recent studies suggest they do this by storing carbon in the roots of grass deep down in sub-soil.”

Young farmers and ranchers around the globe are embracing a new decision-making process in land management that takes into account land, people and planet. Holistic Management, pioneered by the Zimbabwean biologist Allan Savory and described in his 2013 TED Talk How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change,uses grazing as a tool that addresses the most pressing environmental issues we face.

“There is only one option left to climatologists and scientists,” Savory says. “And that is to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving as a proxy for former herds and predators and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.”

We have been using Holistic Management on the ranches we manage for 24 years and can attest to the wildflowers and oak trees that thrive where our cattle have grazed. Joe and I attended our first Holistic Management class the month before our wedding and learned that by carefully planning our livestock grazing, we could maximize our ranch’s productivity. Using portable electric fences to control the timing and number of cows, we moved them often to prevent overgrazing. Careful monitoring ensured we met our goal to promote perennial grass growth and healthy soils while fattening our cattle and increasing our profits.

“We can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years … and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you we can take us back to pre-industrial levels (of carbon) while feeding people. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children and all of humanity,” Savory says. Feeding people meat.

 

Grassfed beef provides essential nutrients, building muscle and joint, with minimal calories.

Grassfed beef provides essential nutrients, building muscle and joints, with minimal calories.

Pasture-raised animal also use much less water than those raised in CAFOs. Last winter’s drought mandated that we haul water to our cattle atop a ranch we lease in Watsonville, Calif. This gave us a real-time measurement of exactly how much water each cow needed: 10 gallons a day or 3,650 gallons per year. Compare that to more intensive factory CAFOs, which use vast amounts of water, with automatic “flushing” systems that consume up to 150 gallons of water per cow, per day. (Source: http://www.sustainabletable.org/906/waste-management.) Add to that the millions of gallons of water used to grow the grain they are fed, and it’s no wonder conventional red meat gets such a bad rap.

 But Red Meat is Bad for Your Health!

 “So often in the media meat is just meat,” said Mark Shelley, a filmmaker and owner of Tassajara Meats in Carmel Valley. “Locally raised, pastured hormone and antibiotic free meat is food. Commodity beef is, well, a poor substitute that has not only negative consequences for the environment, but for your health as well.”

Just like any product, the quality of meat you buy depends on how it was made. Were the cattle humanely treated? Did they graze on grass where they provided the benefits Allan Savory talks about or were they fed GMO grain in a crowded feedlot? If meat is to be healthy, consumers need to demand that it meets certain criteria.

Jessica Campbell is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and founder of the Food Foundation, a Bay Area-based consulting firm that helps people eat healthy. Personal experience and work with clients over the years has taught her to look at alternative therapies and take a more holistic approach to nutrition.

“My new love of beef stems from the fact that I made a poor choice in college to become a vegetarian and was that way for nine years. In my recent blog Nutrition and Mental Health I explain how depressed I was from the lack of protein and B vitamins and it was not until I had trouble getting pregnant that I realized how anemic I was,” Campbell said.

“I tried many ways to heal, but it was the craving for beef that saved me. I lost two sizes, 10 pounds, and was able to get pregnant after finally reintroducing meat back into my diet. I remember how odd it felt once I finally got pregnant to crave hamburgers all day, but the cravings were there for a reason.

When people express their fear of meat, I turn them to the facts. Conventional meat is scary and I understand their fears. These farms have removed cows from their natural diet and fed them GMO corn, soy, and animal wastes, thus they are very sick. In an effort to keep them alive, they are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones to grow faster. We are not sick from eating beef, we are sick from the antibiotics present in the meat, the hormones, and the toxins of GMO feed. A cow is a ruminant, which has four stomachs to eat and ferment grasses into vitamins.  Humans only have one stomach so we cannot ferment grass and live off of greens alone. We do, however, have a strong stomach acid designed to access vitamins and minerals from protein. Hence, when we eat beef from cows that have eaten the grasses they were designed for, we access all of the vitamins from their diet of greens. We see more Omega 3 essential fatty acids which are beneficial anti-inflammatory agents and significantly more antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta carotene which protect our cells form oxidation,” Campbell explained.

Like ecologists, nutritionists are realizing that it’s not meat that’s harmful; it’s the type of meat and how it’s raised.

Cate Ritter is a Certified Nutritionist and Kitchen Coach in Pebble Beach. In her practice, she coaches clients to ask where the meat is coming from and teaches people how to cook meat.

“Quality is crucial,” Ritter said. “Unfortunately, some studies linked red meat consumption to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. But, these studies didn’t distinguish between (1) the quality of meats, (2) the type of meats, or (3) how the meats were cooked. I’m sure most people would agree that a grass-fed steak doesn’t belong in the same category as a processed hot dog filled with preservatives, artificial coloring and added sugars. It’s a slow process, but luckily the health community is finally recognizing the benefits of high quality animal products,” she said.

Books such as Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise and Dan Barber’s The Third Plate advocate a balanced, more holistic approach to eating & nutrition. They encourage consumers to ask how their food was produced. The wildly popular Paleo diet and CrossFit exercise regimes also encourage pastured meat as part of a nutrient-dense, low-calorie diet to build muscle and immune systems.

Decades of doctors’ advice that we should eat a “low fat diet” and stay away from red meat have led to an obesity epidemic in the United States forcing many nutritionists to question traditional guidelines, pushed by powerful interests in the processed food industry. Even former advocates of veganism are seeing the benefit of introducing meat as a nutrient rich food and cattle an essential part of soil fertilization: cow poop grows healthy vegetables.

“The thinking on eating meat has changed so drastically in the last 10 years,” Campbell said. “I remember the nutritional community praising vegetarian diets as heart healthy because of the little bits of B vitamins and phosphorous in green leafy vegetables.  In the last few years diets like the Paleo tell us to eat like our paleolithic ancestors were thought to eat, avoiding all grains and dairy but it is heavy on eating meat. It is funny to me because now we see meat as heart healthy for Paleo diets since it has ample amounts of B vitamins and phosphorous.”

“The flip flopping mostly comes from the media and not nutritional experts, at least not in the holistic field.  The reason I love the holistic approach is that we are not researching and developing new pharmaceutical solutions to your symptoms of disease, we are looking back in time to when our ancestors hunted and ate what was there for them to eat. We are acknowledging the innovations of agriculture and farming but we are turning our back on food processing.  In holistic nutrition we look for the root cause of your symptoms and most of it happens from avoiding the foods we were born to eat and substituting in artificial foods as if we could do better than Mother Nature. In my own humble opinion, our ancestors ate bugs and weeds. So the way I see it, we can eat bugs and weeds for nutrition too or eat the animals that eat them for us,” Campbell said.

Amy Ellsworth, a Registered Dietician Nurse in Costa Mesa, Calif., has also seen an increase in the awareness of how food is produced among her clients.

“In the community that I live in, I have seen a really big shift with people wanting to know the entire ‘footprint’ of their food,” Ellsworth said. “They want to know how it was raised, if it was raised to contain the optimal nutritional value and what kind of impact the farming methods being used have on the environment.”

So what’s an environmentally conscious consumer to do? Ask these three questions: “Who is producing this food and how was it grown? Is the management improving the soil? Is it improving my health?”

If the answers meet your criteria, then fire up the grill and enjoy a juicy Rib Eye, knowing with each bite that you are nourishing your body and fighting climate change at the same time.

Participants at Idea Hack Pescadero discuss the future of local food markets.

Participants at Idea Hack Pescadero discuss the future of local food markets.

What do you get when you mix together innovators, entrepreneurs, farmers & ranchers? Great ideas that are already helping to change the landscape of local food production and consumption in California.

The Pescadero Idea Hack, held in Pescadero, Calif. on October 11, 2014, was the brainchild of The Mixing Bowl Hub’s Rob Trice and his wife, TomKat Ranch Executive Director Wendy Millet. Millet and her amazing team at the TomKat Ranch are our partners in the push to make grassfed beef the new normal. Like Morris Grassfed, TomKat Ranch is committed to considering the land, animals and people when producing its LeftCoast Grassfed beef and has worked hard to increase local, grassfed beef consumption in schools and restaurants in San Mateo County.

We started the day with introductions and it was humbling to be a in a room (a barn, actually) with so many people dedicated to producing good food and creating local markets that encourage and reward the work of farmers and ranchers.

“Our objective is to build upon numerous assessments and dialogues on the topic of the Peninsula’s local food production, and develop a range of actionable solutions.  A byproduct of the Idea Hack is to connect individuals and organizations that could potentially collaborate to bring about desired changes,” Trice said in his opening remarks.

Participants like Karen Liebowitz, co-founder of the soon-to-open The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco and Pete Hartigan, Founder & CEO of Trusted Ventures, LLC are not only innovative thinkers, but agents for social change. Liebowitz’s new restaurant will source foods from local farms and ranches that  go way beyond industrial, monocrop organics; they actively address climate change with their farming practices.

“We first started thinking about what can we do to engage with our environment more closely — not just farm to table, but really deeply engage,” Liebowitz said in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. The Perennial will be a “laboratory,” in which all aspects of the restaurant’s business — relationships with farmers, sustainable practices, choice of vendors — are seen through the lens of environmental impact, the article said.

The prize: $10 gift card to Downtown Local.

The prize: $10 gift card to Downtown Local.

Hartigan has put his money where his heart is. The founder of several successful start-ups, his latest is Trusted Ventures, LLC which aims to develop what he calls the “Impact 500” targeting existing Fortune 500 cash flows in areas like finance, healthcare and education, with a model where helping the community is how the company competes versus the traditional maximize shareholder profit model. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Hartigan has already created successful companies using the model, including the alumni-funded college loan business sofi.com, which he plans to take public this Spring.  He’s not wasting any time on his next project ether. Our breakout group’s challenge: How Can We Increase the Amount of Local Food Consumed by Local Institutions?

Our group's flip chart on how to get more local food into industrial markets.

Our group’s flip chart on how to get more local food into industrial markets.

After an hour-long discussion with institutional food buyers (Stanford and Google), distributors, farmers and ranchers we developed the “LOCAL FOOD MARKETPLACE, INC.” (LFM). Our idea is to develop a collaborative, digital market maker, facilitator/coordinator. LFM can create a demand book for local institutions looking to buy local food supply and aggregate local supply. To pay the premium for fairly priced local goods, dining services organizations can supplement their budget through HR budgets (since employee good food eating should result in lower health costs) or a company’s community social responsibility funding. Financial institutions with a social mission can finance working capital for growers. Participating growers can have an ownership stake in LFM’s success. (We won First Place, by the way.)  Bam.

Other challenges included: How to train and support the next generation of farmers and ranchers? How to scale local food production? and How to deepen the connection between SF Peninsula eaters and growers? We took a hike on the spectacular TomKat ranch after our breakout sessions and capped the day with a candlelight dinner around the ranch’s coi pond table: a stunning setting and perfect way to celebrate the beauty and bounty of local food. The Mixing Bowl plans several follow-up sessions and has started discussion groups for each idea we came up with. The real success here is the awareness that good, local food is not only delicious, it’s a force for economic, social and ecological good.

Dinner was served around the coi pond at TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, Calif.

Dinner was served around the coi pond at TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, Calif.

Organic food Pioneer Bob Scowcroft listens to The Mixing Hub's Rob Trice introduce speakers.

Organic food Pioneer Bob Scowcroft listens to The Mixing Hub’s Rob Trice introduce speakers.

 

A Shifting Landscape

April 8, 2014

There’s a messy food fight happening in kitchens across America. Like the disruptive innovators before them – Netflix, Uber and Square, to name a few – small farms and ranches are shaking the foundations of a powerful industry and sending shivers up the spines of their well-established, powerful competitors. Just five years ago, farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) were minor annoyances to the Food and Beverage Industry. But that’s changing rapidly. According to a recent report by the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic by 2008 “the value of local food sales in the United States reached $4.8 billion, up from $1.2 billion in 2007 and $551 million in 1997.”

Sessions at the Produce Marketing Association’s annual Fresh Summit Trade Show labeled local as a “trend” and patted us on the head with a smile. Common responses to the scrappy dog, pulling at the pant leg of marketing executives, were that local could never compete. They said, “The price point is too high,” “The quality not uniform enough for picky consumers,” and my personal favorite, “You can’t grow spring mix in Michigan in the winter.” What these companies didn’t see coming was the consistent cry from consumers wanting to know more about their food. People want to know who grew the tomato and how it was grown. They care more about the “Who and How” than they do about eating summer greens in January. I call it “First person certified.”

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Joe and I started direct marketing grassfed beef to family and friends in 1992 after they dined at our home and asked, “Where can we buy this meat?” We worked with our local abattoir and butcher and within five years had developed a loyal following that came back year after year. They bought freezers to store a quarter cow and asked their mothers for Grandma’s Sunday roast recipe as they learned to use the whole cow. They brought their children to our Annual Field Day where Joe showed them how a border collie can gather a 100 cows and why perennial grasses and wildflowers can thrive where livestock have grazed. They liked that when they had a question, they could call us and we would pick up our own phone (or call them back if we weren’t in the office, which is often when you work in agriculture.) Twenty-two years later, we are still direct marketing and have a network of more than 900 members throughout California. When people from New York or Colorado call to ask if we ship, we direct them to a website that will help them find a local grassfed beef producer.

Innovation comes in many forms, often the result of an annoyed customer who says to herself: This should be easier! The old model is broken. Food based on cheap labor to grow and pack it, federally subsidized, imported water to grow it, plastic packaging to ship it, and $60-a-barrel oil to distribute it needs an alternative. Local networks are filling the space in innovative ways. Industrial, multinational food companies’ idea of a mobile strategy is making their websites fit on an iPhone screen. “New ideas” echo the 1950s: a coupon for participating in a survey or sweepstakes where you can win a shopping cart full of groceries, worth mere pennies to their bottom lines.

Meanwhile, local farmers are turning to a new model, one that makes it easier and more affordable to put good food on the table and actually adds value to consumers’ wallets and health. They’re using intuitive, interactive apps like Good Eggs, Whole Share and Farmigo that allow customers to add an extra dozen cage-free eggs to next Tuesday’s delivery. Working farm-centric communities, dubbed Agritopia, are replacing gated suburbs for nature and wildlife preserves as people realize the scarcity of water and opt for community gardens over golf courses. Marketing campaigns sponsored by local food advocacy groups such as Community Alliance with Family Farmers’ (CAFF) “Buy Fresh Buy Local” and the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer” raise awareness about the choices consumers have over their food purchases.

Joe Morris delivers boxes of Morris Grassfed Beef at Lake Merced in San Francisco.

Joe Morris delivers boxes of Morris Grassfed Beef at Lake Merced in San Francisco.

As people become more aware of their own decision-making power when it comes to food, the big guys are being asked about paying employees a living wage, challenged over inputs like pink slime and azodicarbonamide, aka the ‘yoga mat compound,’ or how many miles the spring mix traveled to Michigan.

Consumers want freshness. They also support organic, grassfed, local, no GMOs or antibiotics, and humane treatment of workers and animals. In the new model, you log on to your desktop or mobile device and order your favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy to be delivered to your door (or picked up at a drop-off location) in a recycled cardboard box by your friend and neighbor. It’s either already paid for via your online account, or your delivery person swipes your credit card via Square and you’re on your way. The extra 50 cents per pound for meat employs your co-worker’s teenager, or better yet your own, who works for the local farm or butcher. That’s a win-win.

Packaged Food at Fred Meyer Store Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyza/49545547

Packaged Food at Fred Meyer Store                               Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyza/49545547

Ironically, the new model gets back to basics. All the labels that have emerged in the food industry can get exhausting. What ever happened to just going shopping? Does my chicken thigh really need to be certified by five organizations? The distance and anonymity of multi-national food companies has created another layer between people and their food, a whole new industry of third-party certification officers. If you don’t know who grows your food, you can outsource your relationship with the farmer to the USDA’s organic program or the American Humane Association’s animal welfare program who ensure that standards are being met. In the new model, your food is first person certified. If you want to know whether we feed our cattle grain or use sub-therapeutic antibiotics, you pick up the phone and call us. (We’ll tell you we don’t.) I answer texts and e-mails from our members every day. You can also come to our field day where we’ll show you the animals, the land and the people who produce your hamburger. The same goes for farmers who invite children to pick their own pumpkin at Halloween and strawberries in the summer.

The discussion among food industry leaders has gone from patting local producers on the head, to saying “there’s room for all of us'” to criticizing local as less efficient and unsustainable. Common battle cries are that “We have to feed the world.” and “Our food is cheaper!” But the innovators have shown there are farms and ranches all over the world that can feed their communities (recall pre-WW II?) and consumers don’t mind paying a bit more if it means their dollars strengthen the local economy. As industrial food marketers get more defensive, local food innovators are zooming past, coming up with even easier and cheaper solutions to getting their products on to kitchen tables, including adding a recipe for baked cauliflower in next week’s CSA box to replace that overpriced organic spring mix that’s been sitting in a truck for three days.

 

Think big. Be informed.

March 2, 2014

Customers talk with farmers at Pinnacle Farms organic produce stand in Hollister, calif.

Customers talk with farmers at Pinnacle Farms organic produce stand in Hollister, Calif.

A recent Tedx Manhattan talk, “In praise of big organic,” given by the founder of one of the nation’s largest organic salad companies, defended big organic. She listed reasons to support big organic farms: less chemicals, essential part of the healthy food revolution, the organic industry is too small, and we need to grow it. All true, sort of. Certified organic farming follows a strict set of protocols that conventional methods do not. The rules prohibit certain substances and practices, such as using pesticides and other chemicals that pollute waterways and are linked to cancer. Size matters: the more acreage that is farmed organically, the better.

Her impassioned plea to support organic – no matter the size – also talked about the “soul” of organic: “The last misconception I want to talk about is the criticism I hear sometimes that when organic gets big, it loses its soul. … What I have seen first-hand is that being part of the organic food industry often opens people’s eyes and transforms them.” She went on to describe how one of their growers happily transitioned to organic because he liked not having to worry about pesticides on his pants when his kids hugged him. It’s a jump to equate one pair of clean pants with an entire industry’s soul.

The social and biological implications of “Big Organic” are not addressed by its set of USDA protocols.  I worked in the big organic industry from 2005-2010 and while most of the 1,800 employees at the company where I worked seemed content enough, I saw lots of instances that gave me pause for reflection. Employees were not trusted enough to have Internet access at their desks. They were routinely excluded from the hefty profit sharing and annual bonuses enjoyed by owners and a select few in upper management. The then CEO routinely hired unqualified relatives for plum positions and earned more than $600,000 annually, plus a $500,000 bonus and stock options, while workers on the wash lines were paid $8.40 an hour, less than $20,000 a year. Salad wash line workers stood for eight hours in a 38 degree room while inhaling chlorine fumes. Half the workforce was laid off for five months a year when the lettuce crops moved from Salinas Valley to Yuma, Arizona. They collected taxpayer funded state unemployment benefits. Saru Jayaraman, who gave a talk at the same Tedx Manhattan series, on restaurant workers, summed it up: “We cannot have a truly sustainable food system without sustainable conditions for the workers who touch that food.”

The same CEO regularly made inappropriate advances towards female staff members and was eventually accused in a lawsuit of sexual harassment by a C-level officer. Big distribution also means big problems when there is a flaw in the production process.  A nationwide E.coli outbreak originating in one of our facilities led to the death of three people and sickened hundreds more. Although E.coli could happen to any farmer, small farms don’t bag it up and ship it to 50 states. Most recently, the company was named “Company of the Year” by our local Chamber of Commerce. When its name was announced, attendees described an awkward silence that filled the packed banquet room as they slowly realized no one from the company had bothered to attend the dinner. Framed and signed certificates, embossed with seals of the State of California and United States Congress sat at the podium, unclaimed and unappreciated. It was such a divergence from previous years’ winners who had bought new suits, prepared speeches and invited family members to witness such a big event for their businesses.

Workers check for foreign objects in spinach being processed at Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista. The company was ground zero in the spinach fiasco. (PATRICK TEHAN -- MediaNews staff )

Workers check for foreign objects in spinach being processed in a San Juan Bautista facility.  Photo credit: PATRICK TEHAN

The company was sold once while I was there, to a Dallas based private equity firm, and flipped again four years later to a Denver based company that describes itself as “a leading consumer packaged food and beverage company that manufactures, markets, distributes, and sells branded Plant based Foods and Beverages, Coffee Creamers and Beverages, and Premium Dairy products throughout North America and Europe.” As with the private equity firm, profits from the company flow out of the local community and into the pockets of upper management and shareholders in Dallas, Denver, New York and anywhere-but-San Benito County. They do provide local jobs, but they are low-paid, without many benefits afforded to desk jobs and seasonal. As organic gets big, so does its business-model. Just because an organic apple is displayed in a wooden crate, atop recycled brown bag shreds, doesn’t mean it was ethically produced.

Big organic uses the same tilling, bare soil methods of conventional farming. Thousands of acres of organic farms in San Benito County, Calif. have exposed topsoil, void of regenerative cover crops that capture water and sunlight, prompting photosynthesis and solar energy flow. In a recent report by the Rodale Institute, researchers describe the effects of bare soil: “Bare soil is detrimental to carbon sequestration and to soil health in general. Bare soil is an indicator of practices that are not maximizing atmospheric CO2 removal nor minimizing soil carbon losses. Agricultural soils that are left fallow or are heavily tilled are exposed to wind and water leading to erosion of the carbon-rich topsoil. Fallow land also fails to accumulate biomass carbon that it would otherwise by continuously growing plants. Tilled, exposed, eroded soils lead to the breakdown of soil aggregates, allowing formerly stable soil carbon to be released as a greenhouse gas (CO2).29,30 Tillage further undermines soil carbon sequestration by debilitating the growth of mycorrhizal fungi, which are important for long-term sequestration through their role in aggregate formation. Reducing or eliminating tillage, using cover crops and enhancing crop rotations ensure that land will not be left bare and that soil carbon will be fixed, rather than lost.” There is no requirement to maximize atmospheric CO2 removal in Big Organic, but there is a requirement to maximize profits for shareholders.

Big organic’s soul depends not upon its USDA certification, but upon its management. This isn’t to say you can’t be big and ethical. Multinational companies like Zappos and Patagonia put premiums on employees’ happiness and environmental stewardship. Nor is it to say that small equals ethical. In another healthy food revolution development this week, a small, local slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California was shut down by the USDA for processing diseased cattle. All the beef that went through the plant in 2013 has been recalled. No exceptions. Every ounce of meat remaining in the public food supply has to be turned in and destroyed. Owners of this small scale slaughterhouse, well known by farmers and ranchers in Northern California, chose to bypass federal food safety laws and jeopardized dozens of small to mid-scale farm and ranch businesses that have taken decades to build.  That’s nothing to celebrate.

So maybe it’s not a question of “Big or small?” “Organic or local?” but rather “Who and how?” It really comes down to management. If it matters to you, ask yourself: “Who is producing this food and how do they do it? Do they pay a living wage? Treat their employees with respect? Is their management improving the soil? My health? The community’s health?”  Think big, but be informed. 

Who Really Owns Organic? Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/

Who Really Owns Organic?
Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/

Going to the Source

June 4, 2012

Photos by Ted Holladay, courtesy of edible Monterey Bay

       The first time I visited my then-fiancé in San Benito County I sped right by the road that led to his family’s ranch and ended up in Hollister, Calif. I called him from a Round Table pay phone (yes, we still used those back then) at a strip mall, trying to hide the panic in my voice that this was my new home. Fast forward 21 years and I can say that I have adjusted to life outside of The City and learned to appreciate living in a rural place. We are surrounded by breathtaking views, interesting people, a rich ranching heritage, and amazing, locally grown foods and wine. This month’s feature Reimagining San Benito County, by Deborah Luhrman in edible Monterey Bay features the foodie businesses that make up this amazing place, including our own Morris Grassfed Beef. Thanks to Luhrman and edible Editor Sarah Wood for their keen sense of style and appreciation of places off the beaten path. Hope you’ll click on the link and read the whole article … and then come and enjoy the fruits of San Benito County!

Building Relationships

April 17, 2011

Local food is about more than place and ingredients. It’s about building relationships. Relationships between people, land, plants, and animals. We had our annual Field Day this weekend and, as always, I came home exhausted but so happy that we do this each year. It takes some planning: menu, tables & chairs rental, prayers for good weather, etc. We hand formed 180 Morris Grassfed hamburgers Friday night, chopped a couple of pounds of fresh onions, dug up all my mismatched tablecloths from the linen closet, and arranged flowers for the tables. My mother-in-law, Anne, uses old cowboy boots as vases.

This year we were thrilled to host 160 guests who drove from as far away as San Diego. Lots of kids, which always makes it more fun, and several families who brought grandparents and out-of-town guests to see a “real California ranch.”  We call it “First Person Certified” food. Thanks to the Morris Grassfed Team: Liz, Ev, Anne, Rich, and our chef Tim Fowles – for all your help!  

Thanks for visiting! ~ JFM  … Here are some photos of the day:

Family style tables create a casual space for conversation.

Circle P - our host ranch for the day - ranch brand

Field Day Checklist ... lots to plan!

Circle P Ranch is a classic working cattle ranch ... signage on barn wall

 
Darren Huckle led an herbal walk and identified all sorts of medicinal plants in our midst. (Thats his adorable son, Jackson, peeking at me.)

Ev, Ellie and Liz Sparling

Our partner, Everett Sparling, and his future cowgirl daughter, Ellie

After our walk on the ranch, guests relaxed over Morris Grassfed burgers, salad, and good conversation

Angela and Tim at the BBQ - grilled those 180 burgers to perfection.

Joe and me, ready to kick back and enjoy the day!

Guests listen as Joe described holistic land management and how they are an important part of the process ...

Future ranch hand, Charlie Moore

Such a fun surprise when old friends show up! Beautiful Valerie, our niece Didi Petkiewicz, Jack, and Alan Gianotti, a friend of Joes from Notre Dame!

Food Forward

July 27, 2010

We had the pleasure last month of meeting Greg Roden and Stett Holbrook, two independent film makers working on a documentary about … food. I know, I know, maybe some of you are experiencing some “food fatigue” with all the recent books and documentaries about how our food is produced.

Indeed, people like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters have raised awareness about our food. Films like Food Inc., and Fast Food Nation have prompted the question: “What is this made of?” These are good questions though, and, larger than just ourselves. The food we eat affects more than our own health. Depending on how it is produced, food can be a hindrance (CAFOs, large monocrops, and pesticides flowing to the Gulf of Mexico) or help (healthy watersheds, carbon-sucking, healthy grasslands, abundant oceans) to our planet.

Greg and Stett are tackling a new angle on the food theme: looking at the people who produce it. They have moved beyond criticism of federal subsidies for corn and pollutants in industrial production (not that those are not still problems) to Solutions. Food Forward is a celebration of fishermen who catch sustainable fish, community gardens that feed inner-city neighborhoods and build community, and – full disclosure here: grassfed beef ranchers that manage for healthy rangelands and humane treatment of animals. Check out the trailer here: http://www.foodforward.tv/default.aspx

As a journalist, I was taught to write about all the sides of the story, offer an informed and balanced account to complex issues so readers can come to their own, educated conclusion. Food Forward does this by going beyond the problem of industrial food production and offering a way for everyone to participate in choices that are not only good for their bodies, but good for the planet.  Here’s a note from Greg on how you can get involved. Hope to see you there!

Dear food lover,

A special night of food, wine and inspiration at San Francisco’s new Radius restaurant is just a week away and there’s still time to save your seat at the table. We, the co-creators of the Food Forward documentary TV series, are holding a one-of-a kind fundraising dinner Aug. 3. KQED has agreed to present our show to a national PBS audience upon successful completion of our pilot episode. We’d love to have your support to help us get there.

Chef Kelly Hughett is preparing a delicious menu of local foods that celebrate the flavors of late summer. The evening will also include wine pairings and gift bottles from premier local wineries that practice sustainable, organic or biodynamic winemaking including Burrell School Vineyards and Winery, Poetic Cellars, Sky Saddle Winery, Bonterra Vineyards, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Thomas Fogarty Winery, and Loma Prieta Winery.

Attendees will also receive an organic cotton Food Forward grocery bag loaded with hand-selected, premium products from local purveyors including Swanton Berrry Farm, Katz and Company, Point Reyes Cheese Co., Route 1 Farms, Miette and other delicious products.

Check out yesterday’s great post on yesterday’s post on the excellent Grist.org!

What: Fundraising dinner for Food Forward pilot episode on urban agriculture.
When: 6 – 9 PM, Tuesday, August 3, 2010.
Where: Radius Restaurant, 1123 Folsom (btw. 7th & 8th), San Francisco.
Why:  Let’s eat. Right. Now.
Cost: $250 / person.

In addition to a night of great food and wine, this dinner will include a screening of the new Food Forward trailer in HD. Guests will also have the opportunity to hear from some of the stars of our show and words of inspiration from environmental attorney Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop and co-owner of BN Ranch in Bolinas, a farm she runs with husband and sustainable meat pioneer Bill Niman.

Can’t make the dinner? You can still contribute today by donating securely via Pal Pal.

Thanks for your support,

Stett and Greg
Food Forward co-creators


Greg Roden
510.926.7626
www.foodforward.tv
www.gregroden.com

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