Sundance documentary takes on weighty issue of food culture in America

Filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig takes on the misinformation that food companies — aided by the government — spread to the public.  She states:  “the government has really failed us. Our public-policy legislation has sided with industry, not with citizens.”

Read more:  http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/57400944-223/documentary-fed-film-jan.html.csp?page=1

from Reuters: Organic food and farm groups ask Obama to require GMO food labels

(Reuters) – Four U.S. lawmakers joined with more than 200 food companies, organic farming groups, health and environment organizations and other groups on Thursday to urge President Barack Obama to require manufacturers to label food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.  Read more:http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/16/us-usa-gmo-labeling-idUSBREA0F10H20140116

Cheerios drops genetically modified ingredients

from USA Today:  “This is a big deal,” says Todd Larsen, corporate responsibility director at Green America, a green economy activist group. “Cheerios is an iconic brand and one of the leading breakfast cereals in the U.S.” What’s more, he adds, “We don’t know of any other example of such a major brand of packaged food, eaten by so many Americans, going from being GMO to non-GMO. ”

Read more:  http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/01/02/cheerios-gmos-cereals/4295739/

 

Organic milk’s fat is healthier than that in conventional milk, Washington State University research finds

Drinking organic milk, even the full fat variety, might be better for your heart and other aspects of overall health than chugging down milk from non-organic farms, a new study from Washington State University finds. … The difference is believed to be a result of the pasture and forage-based feeds used on organic dairy farms.  … “We were surprised by the magnitude of the nutritional quality differences we documented in this study,” said Charles Benbrook, the study’s lead author and a program leader in WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Read more here:  http://www.oregonlive.com/health/index.ssf/2013/12/organic_milks_fat_is_healthier.html

Boston University News Service: A Farmer’s Best Defense Against Drought

BU graduate student writes about Harold Wilken, one of our farmer tenants, and how his organic corn fared during the drought of 2012.

“In the summer of 2012, during the worst drought in twenty years, Danforth, Illinois, went for six weeks without rain but the corn in Hoekstra Farm grew tall and green. The corn in the neighboring fields was almost a foot shorter. While farmers across the Corn Belt watched their crops shrivel and die, Harold Wilken of Hoekstra Farm made enough money from his crops that summer to pay a bonus rent to his landowner.”

http://bunewsservice.com/a-farmers-best-defense-against-drought/

 

from ABC News: Selling Farms Sometimes Calls for Creative Deals; Iroquois Valley Farms cited

ALBANY, N.Y. September 1, 2013 (AP)            By MICHAEL HILL Associated Press

Dave Miller discussed Iroquois Valley Farms’ unique approach to helping organic farmers like Andy grow their businesses.

“Illinois-based Iroquois Valley Farms was founded in 2007 to help young organic farmers by offering them long-term lease deals on farm land the private company purchased. That way, a young person who doesn’t have $500,000 to buy a parcel can still get into farming or expand their operations, said company founder David Miller.

“Purchasing farm land ties up a lot of capital,” said Andy Ambriole, an organic corn, soybean and wheat farmer in Roanoke, Ind., who added 120 acres to his existing farm through Iroquois last year. “So I’m able to invest the capital that would be tied up the land in other areas of my business.” ”

Here’s more: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/selling-farms-calls-creative-deals-20130338?singlePage=true

 

Cornstalks Everywhere But Nothing Else, Not Even A Bee

NPR’s Robert Krulwich writes about his colleague Craig Childs’ long weekend in an Iowa cornfield, looking to see what he might find in terms of living things …. besides the corn, of course.  “He found almost nothing. “I listened and heard nothing, no bird, no click of insect.””

http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2012/11/29/166156242/cornstalks-everywhere-but-nothing-else-not-even-a-bee

 

Expanding organically and musically in New York

 We met Susan in La Crosse, Wisconsin at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Conference in February. Her concerts support two other non-profits in sustainable agriculture, Practical Farmers of Iowa and The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas.
If you were to put the corporate mission statement of Iroquois Valley Farms to music, it would be redundant. Susan Werner, with her native Iowa farm roots, has already done it. She combines a great sense of humor with hard working musical talent,  while singing the importance of family farms and healthy foods/soils. I recently attended her Hayseed tour in Chicago and immediately saw that we shared much common ground. What fun to connect over a bale of hay! As information, all our farmers grow hay as part of an organic crop rotation. We also hope to be announcing soon our growing impact in the New York foodshed.
Susan’s tour continues through the East, Southeast and Midwest into next year. You can obtain ticketing details, and I highly recommend this, a reservation, from her website www.susanwerner.com. If you are in the New York area, you can catch her today and tomorrow at the Falcoln Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y.
Iroquois Valley Farms is pleased to sponsor Susan Werner and to have been a sponsor of conferences at both Practical Farmer’s of Iowa and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (Wisconsin) earlier this year. We hope to connect soon with The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Information on all three of these outstanding supporters of sustainable agriculture can be obtained by clicking on their logos below. Please consider a donation.
      



“What we do to the land, we do to ourselves.”  — Wendell Berry



A Gap in Organic Food Chain Feed Needed by Meat and Dairy Producers Falls Short; Foreign Suppliers Required

from the 7/15/13 Wall Street Journal:

“The Farm Belt isn’t going organic fast enough to keep up with surging consumer demand, forcing makers of organic foods from milk to deli meats to look abroad for key commodities while struggling to recruit skeptical farmers at home.”

Read more here:  Gap in Organic Food Chain – WSJ – 7-15-2013-2

 

 

 

U.S. Approves a Label for Meat From Animals Fed a Diet Free of Gene-Modified Products

By STEPHANIE STROM
Published: June 20, 2013
The Agriculture Department has approved a label for meat and liquid egg products that includes a claim about the absence of genetically engineered products.

It is the first time that the department, which regulates meat and poultry processing, has approved a non-G.M.O. label claim, which attests that meat certified by the Non-GMO Project came from animals that never ate feed containing genetically engineered ingredients like corn, soy and alfalfa.
More…

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/business/us-approves-a-label-for-meat-from-animals-fed-a-diet-free-of-gene-modified-products.html?src=rechp&_r=0

Long-term research shows organic farming’s benefits

Organic cropping systems can provide similar or greater yields, higher soil quality, and greater economic returns than a conventional corn-soybean rotation, according to research conducted by Kathleen Delate, an agronomy and horticulture professor at Iowa State University

https://www.certifiedcropadviser.org/story/2013/may/thu/long-term-research-shows-organic-farmings-benefits

CSR Press Release

Local & Organic Farmland Investing: Iroquois Valley Farms Selected as an Impact Assets 50 Firm, Becomes B Corporation

CHICAGO, Dec. 12 /CSRwire/ –  Iroquois Valley Farms, LLC – The leader in local and organic farmland investing, Iroquois Valley Farms, LLC (www.iroquoisvalleyfarms.com), has been named an ImpactAssets 50 (IA50) firm for 2012 and recently became one of the first six-hundred (600) Certified B Corporations globally. Iroquois Valley Farms is the first private equity company in the U.S. to directly connect socially responsible investors with local and organic farmland. The Company, formed in 2007, has pioneered scalable impact investments for accredited and institutional capital seeing the opportunity in sustainable agriculture.

http://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/34978-Local-Organic-Farmland-Investing-Iroquois-Valley-Farms-Selected-as-an-Impact-Assets-50-Firm-Becomes-B-Corporation

Organic or Not Organic: That Is the Question

The American Academy of Pediatrics weighs in for the first time on the benefits of organic food for children.

        By | Published Oct 22, 2012

… “one thing we do know is that young children, whose brains are still developing, are uniquely  vulnerable to chemical exposures. Therefore, choosing organic foods  might be the safer choice.”

http://www.healthline.com/health-blogs/study-roundup/organic-food-children-102212

Organic Farming Increases Soil Quality

October 17th, 2012

Discovery News by Tim Wall

To a chemist, organic means that a compound contains carbon. To a farmer, it means using non-synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It turns out that organic farming actually may make the soil more organic in the chemical sense too.

An analysis of 74 studies on the soils in fields under organic or conventional farming practices, found that over time the carbon content in the organic fields had significantly increased. For farmers, that means organic agriculture results in a richer, more productive soil with plenty of humus.

Although the carbon in the organic fields is good for the farmers’ wallet, the research didn’t find evidence that organic farming was trapping enough carbon in the soil to combat climate change. Extraneous sources of greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture weren’t analyzed in the study, hence the study’s authors could not determine if organic farming was tilting the scales towards trapping more greenhouse gases than it released.

For example, soil-derived nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions weren’t accounted for in the research. Nor were emissions resulting from the production of organic fertilizers. Energy-related emissions from farm machinery and irrigation, as well as emissions from livestock and manure, were also not measured.

The study’s authors noted that offsetting emissions with trapping carbon in soil only buys time and does not negate the need for emission reduction.

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

http://www.cornucopia.org/2012/10/organic-farming-increases-soil-quality/

Organic Food Market Continues to Gain Ground

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–October 10, 2012.   U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified organic growers in the United States sold more than $3.5 billion organically grown agricultural commodities in 2011, according to the results of the 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey, released by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The data shows a general upward trajectory for certified organic production and produce in the U.S. NASS conducted the survey for USDA’s Risk Management Agency to help refine federal crop insurance products for organic producers.

Organic sales totaled more than $3.53 billion last year, about 0.9 percent of total U.S. farm receipts, and an increase from 2008 reports. The 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey provides acreage, production, and sales data for a variety of certified organic crops and inventory and sales data for selected certified organic livestock commodities. In addition, data on land in farms, participation in federal farm programs, and marketing practices on certified organic farms are included.

The 2008 Certified Organic Production Survey, the first organic production survey conducted by NASS, reported certified and exempt organic farms had $3.16 billion in total sales –$1.94 billion in crop sales and $1.22 billion in sales of livestock, poultry and their products. In 2008, organic farms had average annual sales of $217,675, compared to the $134,807 average for U.S. farms overall. However, the 2008 survey included farms that were not certified as organic, but produce commodities classified as organic. This 2010 survey collected data only from certified organic operations. Similarly, according to a 2011 report from the Organic Trade Association, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. According to this report, sales in 2010 represented 7.7 percent growth over 2009 sales. Total U.S. organic sales, including food and non-food products, were $28.682 billion in 2010, up 9.7 percent from 2009.

“This is the first time we have conducted a survey focused solely on the USDA-certified organic producers,” said Hubert Hamer, Chairperson of NASS’s Agricultural Statistics Board. “With this survey’s results, policymakers will be able to better assess the Federal Crop Insurance program and its impact on the organic industry.”

At least 3.65 million acres were used to raise certified organic crops and livestock, approximately 0.4 percent of the 917 million acres of farm and ranchland in the U.S. Crops accounted for $2.22 billion, or 63 percent, of total organic sales, followed by livestock, poultry and their products at $1.31 billion. Mirroring its conventional counterpart, corn leads organic field crops in sales and accounted for more than $101.5 million in 2011. The only other field crops to have more than $50 million in sales were alfalfa dry hay and winter wheat, accounting for $69.5 million and $54 million in sales respectively. When it comes to organic field crops acreage, Wisconsin leads the nation with more than 110,000 acres harvested in 2011. Wisconsin is followed by New York, with organic growers harvesting more than 97,000 acres. California closely follows the Empire state growers with more than 91,000 acres of organic field crops harvested in 2011. These top three states illustrate just how geographically diverse organic crop production is in the U.S.

In addition to looking at organically produced crops, the survey also gathered information on the organically raised livestock, which accounted for $1.31 billion in sales in 2011. Organic milk was the top livestock commodity last year, accounting for $765 million in sales. The other key organic livestock commodities were chicken eggs and broiler chickens, earning $276 million and $115 million in sales respectively.

Despite tough economic times, consumers continue to buy organic products. Most venues now offer organic products so more consumers now have the option of including organic products into their shopping carts. Increased use of coupons, the proliferation of private label brands, and value-positioned products offered by major organic brands all have contributed to increased sales.

Organic foods have been shown to provide numerous benefits to human and environmental health. A recent review conducted at Stanford University sparked headlines nationwide questioning the value of purchasing expensive organic food, despite its findings that consumers are exposed to higher levels of pesticides from conventionally grown food, while also ignoring the benefits of organic food and the hazards of pesticide residues on food, and the broader benefits of organic practices that protect farmers and farmerworkers, air and water quality, wildlife and biodiversity. Organic foods have been shown to reduce dietary pesticide exposure and children who eat a conventional diet of food produced with chemical-intensive practices carry residues of organophosphate pesticides that are reduced or eliminated when they switch to an organic diet.

There are numerous health benefits to eating organic, besides a reduction in pesticide exposure. Unlike the findings of the Stanford study, research from the University of California, a ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce finds that they have almost double the quantity of disease-fighting antioxidants called flavonoids. A study out of the University of Texas finds organically grown fruits and vegetables have higher levels of antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals than their conventionally grown counterparts. A comprehensive review of 97 published studies comparing the nutritional quality of organic and conventional foods shows that organic plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, grains) contain higher levels of eight of 11 nutrients studied, including significantly greater concentrations of the health-promoting polyphenols and antioxidants. The team of scientists from the University of Florida and Washington State University concludes that organically grown plant-based foods are 25 percent more nutrient dense, on average, and hence deliver more essential nutrients per serving or calorie consumed. A study by Newcastle University, published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture, finds that organic farmers who let their cows graze as nature intended are producing better quality milk.

In addition, the adoption of organic methods, particularly no-till organic, is an opportunity for farming both to mitigate agriculture’s contributions to climate change and to cope with the effects climate change has had and will have on agriculture. Good organic practices can both reduce fossil fuel use and provide carbon sequestration in the soil through increased soil organic carbon. Higher soil organic carbon levels then increase fertility and the soil’s ability to endure extreme weather years.

Beyond Pesticides advocates through its Eating with a Conscience website for consumers to choose organic because of the environmental and health benefits to consumers, workers, and rural families. The Eating with a Conscience database, based on legal tolerances (or allowable residues on food commodities), describes a food production system that enables toxic pesticide use both domestically and internationally, and provides a look at the toxic chemicals allowed in the production of the food we eat and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use. For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.

Sources: USDA Newsroom, http://www.beyondpesticides.org

 

Iroquois Valley Farms selected for the ImpactAssets 50 2012

All of us here at Iroquois Valley Farms are very honored to have been selected for the 2012 ImpactAssets 50, an industry resource for advisors and investors seeking investment opportunities that deliver social and/or environmental, as well as financial, returns (link to Official Press Release).

A 2012 IA50 Reception for Listed Companies and Impact Assets leadership and staff was held the evening of October 3, 2012 at the Fort Mason Center, as part of SOCAP12. I was fortunate to be there, sharing in the ebullient mood of all, as ImpactAssets Board Member Ron Cordes congratulated IA50 companies.

It was exciting to hear Tim Freundlich, ImpactAssets President, say that Deutsche Bank told him earlier in the day they were using the IA50 as their primary resource to find impact investment opportunities. That’s focused, high-level exposure!

The IA 50 is the first open source, publicly published database of impact investment fund managers. The fund managers included in this year’s IA 50 manage a combined $10.2 billion in assets within the impact investing market, a 15% growth over assets represented in last year’s IA 50.

Criteria for making the IA 50: First announced at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010 by Genworth Chair and ImpactAssets Board Member, Ron Cordes, an extensive application and review process of fund managers across the impact sector, conducted each year, produces the IA 50 list. Fund managers need to meet multiple criteria including having at least $5 million in assets under management, more than three years experience with impact investing and a demonstrated commitment to impact.

John Steven Bianucci
Director of Impact
Iroquois Valley Farms, LLC

That Flawed Stanford Study

by: Mark Bittman
New York Times 

I tried to ignore the month-old “Stanford study.” I really did. It made so little sense that I thought it would have little impact.

That was dumb of me, and I’m sorry.

The study, which suggested — incredibly — that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” caused as great an uproar as anything that has happened, food-wise, this year. (By comparison, the Alzheimer’s/diabetes link I wrote about last week was ignored.)

That’s because headlines (and, of course, tweets) matter. The Stanford study was not only an exercise in misdirection, it was a headline generator. By providing “useful” and “counterintuitive” information about organic food, it played right into the hands of the news hungry while conveniently obscuring important features of organic agriculture.

If I may play with metaphor for a moment, the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries. It was the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness. It did, in short, miss the point. Even Crystal Smith-Spangler, a Stanford co-author, perfectly captured the narrowness of the study when she said: “some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” That’s because they didn’t look — or even worse, they ignored.

In fact, the Stanford study — actually a meta-study, an analysis of more than 200 existing studies — does say that “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

Since that’s largely why people eat organic foods, what’s the big deal? Especially if we refer to common definitions of “nutritious” and point out that, in general, nutritious food promotes health and good condition. How can something that reduces your exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria not be “more nutritious” than food that doesn’t?

Because the study narrowly defines “nutritious” as containing more vitamins. Dr. Dena Bravata, the study’s senior author, conceded that there are other reasons why people opt for organic (the aforementioned pesticides and bacteria chief among them) but said that if the decision between buying organic or conventional food were based on nutrients, “there is not robust evidence to choose one or the other.” By which standard you can claim that, based on nutrients, Frosted Flakes are a better choice than an apple.

But they’re not. And overlooking these key factors allows the authors to imply that there isn’t “robust” evidence to choose organic food over conventional. (Which for many people there is.) Under the convenient cover of helping consumers make informed choices, the study constructed a set of criteria that would easily allow them to cut “organic” down to size.

Suspect conclusions derived from suspect studies are increasingly common. In the last couple of weeks: having a poor sense of smell might be linked to being a psychopathPeople who read food labels are thinnerG.M.O.’s give rats tumors. (That one in particular violated many rules of both science and ethics.) Usually these “revelations” are of little more than passing interest, but they can sometimes be downright destructive. Susan Clark, the executive director of the Columbia Foundation, summed up the flaws of the Stanford approach perfectly in a letter to her colleagues:

“The researchers started with a narrow set of assumptions and arrived at entirely predictable conclusions. Stanford should be ashamed of the lack of expertise about food and farming among the researchers, a low level of academic rigor in the study, its biased conclusions, and lack of transparency about the industry ties of the major researchers on the study.  Normally we busy people would simply ignore another useless academic study, but this study was so aggressively spun by the PR masters that it requires a response.”

When Clark says “aggressively spun by the PR masters,” this is what she means: a Google search for “Stanford Annals of Internal Medicine” gave me these six results in the top seven:

Yet even within its narrow framework it appears the Stanford study was incorrect. Last year Kirsten Brandt, a researcher from Newcastle University, published a similar analysis of existing studies and wound up with the opposite result, concluding that organic foods are actually more nutritious. In combing through the Stanford studyshe’s not only noticed a critical error in properly identifying a class of nutrients, a spelling error indicative of biochemical incompetence (or at least an egregious oversight) that skewed one important result, but also that the researchers curiously excluded evaluating many nutrients that she found to be considerably higher in organic foods.

Even the Web site of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (which supported the research) features an article right above that about the new study that says “study confirms value of organic farming” and details how conventional agriculture is much more likely to contaminate drinking water with nitrates, which “can cause serious illness in humans, particularly small children.” What’s healthy and nutritious again?

Like too many studies, the Stanford study dangerously isolates a finding from its larger context. It significantly plays down the disparity in pesticides (read Tom Philpott on this) and neglects to mention that 10,000 to 20,000 United States agricultural workersget a pesticide-poisoning diagnosis each year. And while the study concedes that “the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33 percent higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives,” it apparently didn’t seek to explore how consuming antibiotic-resistant bacteria might be considered “non-nutritious.” Finally (I think) it turns out that Cargill (the largest privately held company in the United States) provides major financing for Freeman Spogli, and that’s inspired a petition to retract the findings.

That the authors of the study chose to focus on a trivial aspect of the organic versus conventional comparison is regrettable. That they published a study that would so obviously be construed as a blanket knock against organic agriculture is willfully misleading and dangerous. That so many leading news agencies fall for this stuff is scary.

Clark is right: this junk science deserves a response. Ignoring it isn’t enough. I apologize.

Link to article

Sustainable Farmland in the Midwest – 1.3 million acres and growing

As the founder of the first private equity company devoted to Midwestern sustainable agriculture, I read a recent article in Financial Advisor Magazine titled “Organic Growth” with great interest. While I wholehearted agree with most of the West Coast discussion on organic opportunities, as a lifelong resident of the Midwest, I am pleased to inform the public that sustainable agriculture is also alive and growing here in the heartland. In fact, a quick review of USDA statistics shows that the Midwest has more farmland and pasture lands in organic production than the entire West Coast. It would be a surprise to these thriving businesses (and a non-issue) that they are operating in a “bubble”. I can assure you that bubbles are not a major concern of our local and organic producers, no more than falling into the Pacific is impacting West Coast organic production.

The old agriculture adage of never putting all your eggs in one basket is certainly appropriate advice for the thousands of financial advisors represented by Financial Advisor Magazine — including those in the “bubble” of the Midwest. If FA’s are looking to diversify client funds in this growing field, they should consider Iroquois Valley Farms LLC, which already has a solid 5 year track record of converting farmland to organic production — and is seeded and rooted in the middle of Illinois conventional agriculture. When you combine these gritty organic farm beginnings with the best soils in the world and access to fresh water, it’s common sense that sustainable investment opportunity exists in the heartland. If one wants be a change agent, then consider the huge market available in the Midwest to convert production to more local and organic alternatives. Much of our market is still composed of small and mid-size family farm operations. The Midwest is blessed with many generations of such family farms and we are tremendously excited to support their growing and diverse businesses. Come visit the heartland and view the staggering opportunities in sustainable agriculture.

David Miller, CEO, Iroquois Valley Farms LLC

Iroquois Valley Farms LLC was incorporated Illinois in 2007 to enable new capital for the production of local and organic foods.  For more information, see our website: www.iroquoisvalleyfarms.com

Michael Pollan Responds to Study Finding ‘No Significant Health Benefit’ to Organic Food.

The Stanford University “study” on organic food benefits. Hey, does this mean we can now start using DDT again? The media (and Stanford) has done us a favor by bringing our health back to the forefront of sustainable agriculture. Let’s face it, given the choice, most people will choose not to eat pesticide foods or drink hormone contaminated liquids — regardless of government directed tolerances. It’s the reason why Iroquois Valley Farms is focused on organic food production.

600 million acres of pasture

Here’s a great article that makes the case for diversification within sustainable agriculture:

http://smithmeadows.com/farm/the-drought-of-2012-an-organic-farmers-perspective/#comment-1938

We frequently are approached by pasture based farm owners, that won’t sell their farms to the conventional plowed earth farmers. Educate yourself by reading why this shouldn’t happen.

D. Miller, Iroquois Valley Farms

 

 

A Banker Bets on Organic Farming

By Mark Bittman
New York Times

It’s unlikely that large-scale changes in the so-called food system will happen without movement on the part of big investors. Sadly, most of these – like the corporations they support – take short-term, profit-maximizing views. (This, along with enthusiastic dabblers, is the basic reason we have bubbles.) But there are unconventional exceptions. Jeremy Grantham, the chief investment strategist for the unfortunately named G.M.O. (it stands for Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co. LLC, and he is a company co-founder), is one of those. Grantham, widely known in the investment community as a supercontrarian, came to my attention last month when I stumbled across an article he wrote in his firm’s quarterly newsletter entitled “Welcome to Dystopia! Entering a Long-Term and Politically Dangerous Food Crisis.” Next to this unexpected headline was a photo of (forgive the stereotype) an expectedly conventional-looking investment banker. Below it, however, were two quotes: one from Bob Marley (“Them belly full but we hungry . . .”) and one from Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” My attention was caught.

Grantham has made offbeat predictions before, and he’s been right. In 2007, referring to remarks by the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, about the subprime crisis being contained, he said, “If it’s contained, the container in this case is likely to be Pandora’s.” Since then, he’s been sounding the alarm on the finite nature of resources, an undeniable state of affairs that is largely ignored by economists. And he’s concluded that the most compelling issue isn’t energy (technology will take care of that, he believes, making renewables less expensive while oil prices rise) or even metals, but food.

Grantham’s article succinctly puts economic teeth into the argument that all advocates of truly sustainable food make almost constantly: We are going to be eating sustainable, more-or-less organic and mostly regional food within a couple of generations, and the big question is whether we get to that place willingly (it might be too late for that, but one can hope) or whether we go through a dystopic convulsion first.

Citing falling grain productivity, rising resource prices (and, of course, dwindling resources; they are finite after all), snowballing water problems, declining returns from the use of chemical fertilizers, increasing energy costs, a lack of will, investment theory that is “ill-informed, manipulated, full of inertia, and corruptible,” and a newly unfavorable climate, Grantham concludes that we are “about five years into a chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades.”

Discussing food security and the global food crisis on the phone, Grantham was if anything more emphatic: “We have to go to an organic sustainable system or we’ll starve,” he told me. And he elegantly counters the arguments that large-scale organic agriculture (or whatever it will be called when it becomes dominant; the agro-ecological method, perhaps) cannot be profitable. (Remember, this is a guy who does profit for a living.)

He’s established foundations that are financing research in organic agriculture. After all, he said: “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities – they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)

When he sees which research shows the highest return, Grantham intends to directly finance organic farms, on the order of 350 acres (in my book, this qualifies as “medium” in size), “and see if they can scale it up.” The first question, he said, is to accurately measure output from organic farming: is it the same as conventional, or somewhat less? Even if it’s 30 percent less, he said, because inputs are less expensive, “we save a ton of money.” Then, of course, there’s the premium in price that organic foods command.

As there is more organic product, that premium will decline, but Grantham argued, “as [conventional] input prices go up, we save relatively more until even regular farmers will be looking closely at what we’re doing.”

None of this is going to happen quickly, or be easy: “We have no infrastructure” or training set up, and organic farming is far more “brain intensive” than industrial, he says. “Nothing against farmers, but this is much more trial and error – asking a farmer to do this is asking him to take much higher risks.

“It’s just altogether a different business – much more complicated,” he said. “But it isn’t a choice. If we keep on going the way we’re going, it will end very very badly.

“And since I think the rest of the market is in trouble,” Grantham continued, “I think a portfolio of farms that are doing state-of-the-art farming over a 20-, 30-year horizon will be the best investment money can buy. So I’m killing two birds with one stone: I want my foundation to make more money than anyone else on the planet, because that gives us much more to spend for the main event – which is saving the planet, in a nutshell.”

The drought and diversification

Our farmers at Iroquois Valley Farms have already harvested bumper  crops of wheat and hay – both selling at favorable prices. Because they farm organically, they plant other crops besides corn and soybeans. In a hot and dry year such as this one, having some diversity on your farm reflects a prudent business plan. It’s money in the bank.

We have also noticed that our organic soils do a good job of retaining moisture and that some of our corn fields are handling the heat in pretty good shape. Don’t get me wrong, they need more rain but having a living sponge to support your plants becomes more evident in stress years. It will be interesting to compare our organic yields later this year with conventional production. So far, we are quite pleased.

David Miller, CEO  Iroquois Valley Farms

 

TIAA-CREF following our lead?

I have been saying for years that I couldn’t believe there aren’t more entities structured as operating companies (such as Iroquois Valley Farms LLC) buying farmland. Well that is changing with the recent announcement by TIAA-CREF. While our focus on local and organic will not be threatened by this new company, it will be interesting to see how “sustainable” they will become. Specifically it would be good to see an extension of lease terms to family farmers. More than anything else, this opens the door to more farm diversity and local food production. Two years ago we finalized a shift to a minimum 5 year lease. I expect that this will lengthen with time. In fact, I would hope that more enlightened ownership entities view one year lease terms as the equivalent of Wall Street day trading. Let’s hope that TIAA-CREF continues to move in our direction.

Dave Miller, CEO, Iroquois Valley Farms LLC