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Food & Agriculture

Are the Seeds That Spawn America’s Crops Too Homogenized?

From genetic researchers to agricultural economists, and from commodity farmers to backyard gardeners, the debate over seed biodiversity in the United States continues. The productivity of genetically modified seeds is still pitted against the security that lies in genetic diversity. And as the world population continues to balloon, this conflict is now being rehearsed on a global scale. “We’re trying to feed more and more people and so they’re using high-yielding varieties to get more food from each crop,” says Conine, who has worked as supervisor of the Preservation Center’s Seed Quality Evaluation Lab for nearly 35 years. “I’m part of the woodwork, actually,” she says, smiling. The Preservation Center was built in 1958 as a means of safeguarding America in the event of a doomsday-style food crisis. Originally, it was constructed to store seeds and withstand all plausible disasters, including earthquakes, tornadoes and floods. But Conine says that today, human, rather than natural, forces are having a greater effect on biodiversity in modern agriculture.

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Recipe: Strawberry Salads and Braised Greens

Considering the long winter, I didn’t expect much from the first farmers’ markets of the season in western Montana. I was quite surprised and pleased to find an abundance of green on the tables. I’ve sorely missed that color on my plate. Luci Brieger, who manages the produce division of Lifeline Farms in Victor, Mont., explained that the great early season crops are partly a result of hoop houses, the smaller versions of greenhouses built with PVC pipe and typically covered in white tenting. “It’s been a great year to have a hoop house since it’s been crazy cold,” Brieger said. While peaches and cherries get all the glory, Brieger’s just looking forward to the first fresh chard of the year. “Simple pleasures for me,” she said, “Just the first meals of the spring, delicious sweet chard.”

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President Obama Takes Aim at Farm Subsidies and Farmers Get Less and Less of Food Dollar

President Barack Obama came out against subsidies to agribusiness this week, saying in a CBS News town hall meeting that the whole system "needs revamping." The President was answering a question from a fruit and vegetable farmer, Matt Harsh, when he said: "Part of what we want to do is to make sure that help is going to family farms in crisis situations. Drought, disaster and so forth," Obama said. "That we're not just giving ongoing subsidies to big agri-business. Which is the way that a lot of our farm programs work right now." Also in this week's food and ag roundup: ag boom misses small towns, the legality of urban farming and farmers get smaller and smaller share of the American food dollar.

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Where the Bison Roam: ‘Hard Grass’ by Mary Zeiss Stange

Mary Zeiss Stange opens her book, Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch (University of New Mexico Press, 256 pages, $27.95), with a description of how many ranching women also work “off the place” to help make ends meet. She is no exception. Except that she is. While most wives work in the closest town at the bank or hardware store, Zeiss Stange is a professor of women’s studies and religion at Skidmore College in upstate New York, two thousand miles from the ranch she and her husband, Doug, own in eastern Montana. When commenting on her particular situation, she states, “More recently I have noted the structural likenesses between the pecking order of a buffalo herd and power arrangements on a college campus.” When Zeiss Stange and her husband, two academics from nonagricultural backgrounds, buy their approximately 4500 acre ranch in 1988, their neighbors immediately label them as “differnt,” which Zeiss Stange points out, isn’t exactly complimentary. When they decide not to raise cattle in the midst of cattle country, but rather to restore the land to its natural ecological state, their reputation extends beyond their neighbors to residents in all of Carter County.

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Challenges of a Colorado Local Food Initiative

Building up Boulder County’s local food system – increasing the capacity for food to be grown, processed, distributed and sold within the county – is a goal of Boulder-based nonprofit organization Transition Colorado. The organization’s outlook is informed by the global Transition movement, a grassroots effort tied to the Transition Network in the United Kingdom and focused on strengthening communities dealing with what Michael Brownlee, cofounder of Transition Colorado, refers to as a “convergence of global crises.” With his silvery hair pulled into a neat ponytail, 64-year-old Brownlee has a contemplative mien that melds with an unmasked pessimism about these impending crises: peak oil (the point at which global oil production hits its apex and begins to decline, resulting in rising fuel prices), global warming and economic instability. Re-localizing the food economy dovetails with localizing manufacturing and energy production and is key to curbing consumption of resources, he said during an interview around a small conference table at the organization’s headquarters, a three-level house in Boulder. “We’re not saying we want everything to be produced within a 100-mile radius,” he said. “We’re saying we want to shrink the local food shed, our food shed, to be as local as possible.” Transition Colorado has a goal of steering the county toward 25 percent food localization by 2020. To outline the economic benefits of achieving this goal and map out the strategies for reaching it, Brownlee has enlisted economist and author Michael Shuman to compile a report on the county’s food economy.

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From Farmwife to Farmer, Giving One Farm Mom Her Due

Easter weekend, my brother and I and our families gathered at my Mom's house and the night before the festivities, we watched some old footage, first from an 8mm of us when we were babies and then more of Easter day, 1991 – 20 years ago, almost to the day. As we watched the flickering footage, I couldn't help but to focus the background: the farm. Trees and shrubs. A white picket fence. Flower beds and wild rose bushes. Thick shelterbelts protecting the house and yard from the sea of dusty farmground behind them. Barn cats skittering about and old farm machinery dotting the edges of the homestead. "You know, Mom," I said. "Like it or not, you're really the reason I became a farmer."

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Roundup: Food Deserts Aren’t Just Urban Anymore and Prince Charles on the ‘Future of Food’

The discussion about "food deserts" in recent years has largely focused on the lack of access to food in urban areas. But, as a cool new map released by the USDA this week shows, when it comes to finding fresh, healthy food, ironically, farm country has it pretty rough too. Also in this week's roundup: Prince Charles keynotes the Washington Post's Future of Food event, energy consumption rising in food production and the Gates', the Fords and the Kelloggs announce a new foundation help bridge the gap between sustainable and industrial ag.

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Recipes: Rhubarb Crisp and Jam

Spring is taking its sweet time to arrive here in Montana. As I write this, wearing my wool socks and a flannel jacket, the mountains overlooking the Missoula valley are still dusted with snow. But some signs of spring are popping up: parks are starting to turn green again and rhubarb is on the shelf at my grocery store. Rhubarb, which is technically a vegetable, is a big celery-like stalk in form, but very tart, like cranberries, in function. It’s a cool-weather plant, so it’s an excellent early spring gap filler when apples are going out of season and stone fruits aren’t in yet. The stalks come in have green, pink and red varieties, all of which are tasty when combined with enough sugar, but remember the bitter backlash: the leaves are poisonous. They’ll most likely be trimmed off at the grocery store, though. I happen to be quite familiar with rhubarb because my mom has made jam with it as long as I can remember. She often grows it in her garden, dices and freezes enough so she can make rhubarb jam throughout the year. I’m particularly fond of spooning rhubarb jam onto pancakes. Following is her recipe, roughly.

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Roundup: Innovation and the USDA in an Era of Budget Woes, Investing in Food and More

When President Barack Obama took office, hopes ran high in the sustainable and local food world that the USDA would finally be an agency of change in agriculture. And, by and large, the agency showed promise in fulfilling that hope out of the gates. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign was a big hit. School nutrition measures have been too. But now, on top of everything else (see this piece from Tom Philpott on Grist that explains why the agency is falling out of favor, particularly on the GMO issue), there are budget cuts to contend with and that can make change even harder. At the Atlantic's food summit Tuesday, Kathleen Merrigan, the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, talked about the balance between budget and innovation at the USDA.

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Roundup: Vilsack Champions Ethanol, GMO Coming to a Veggie Near You and Climate Change Farming

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been talking up biofuels this week, taking on critics who say federal support of ethanol should be eliminated. First, he came out strong against suggested cuts to the 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit on ethanol to a Senate committee, saying in a (very complete, worth the full read) report from Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register that: "If you create a cliff, you're going to create a significant job loss in rural America at a time when we're just beginning to turn a corner in terms of the economy." Also in this week's roundup: The coming of GMO veggies, a plan for urban agriculture, organic growing continues to grow and more.

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