Recently, I attended the first regional “Ethics of Eating” Leadership Training in Region 1. The event took place at Campbell Farm, a 40 acre working farm also used as a retreat center. We flew into Seattle the night before and drove through green, pine covered mountains on our way to the farm. On the other side of those mountains we approached dull, brown mountains. Campbell Farm is in Yakima Valley, WA, a desert on the other side of those barren mountains. I was going to learn many, many things in this desert made fertile with irrigation waters.
We talked to both conventional and organic farmers, employers and employees, and observed the farming practices of the area. Our objective was to discuss the ethics of eating in a world where 1 in 6 people are hungry. We did this by educating ourselves on our own methods of food production and transportation, and exploring the conflict of the abundance of food and empty stomachs.
I’m still sorting through most of the information; however, I want to share with you the 10 things that stand out the most to me from this experience.
1) The farm we stayed on was fairly small and had both an organic and conventional apple orchard. We asked Craig what was the difference between organic and conventional farming. He informed us that organic farmers ‘pull a heck of a lot more weeds.’ Herbicides are not allowed, making for a more labor intensive care of organic fields.
2) We further questioned the differences between organic and conventional, knowing that pesticides were not used either. He explained that to keep pests away from organic foods they are coated, with fish oil. A vegetarian in the group was quick to question whether or not this information was required to be advertised on organic foods. I’ve never seen an organic food label announcing the use of fish oil, and it’s pretty common practice, along with the massive amounts of bug hormones used to keep moths from mating in organic fields.
3) One reason the fish oil may not be considered a problem is that produce is rinsed in water and chlorine. While chlorine is not natural, the USDA has decided that it is necessary considering the manure used to fertilize the organic fields.
4) Developing the composite is a lot of work, especially for organic fields; not only must it sit in the sun for weeks to get to a certain temperature, the manure used must come from organic animals. Ten thousand gallons of water are used on approximately one square mile of compost piled about a foot high. A lot of compost, but that’s a huge amount of water in a desert of all places!
5) The amount of water used for irrigation is just phenomenal, enough to make a desert a fruitful place! In order to conserve water, some farmers received incentives to begin a ‘drip system,’ where a small hose lines the rows of crops and drips out water, as opposed to being doused by a sprinkler system. This greatly reduces the amount of water used; however, the water table level is greatly reduced as well. This means there is less water in local reservoirs, and more water will be needed out of the Yakima river, lowing river levels for fish, which is what was happening with out the drip system. What a cycle!
6) You may think your kids are picky eaters, but we all, as consumers, are very picky eaters and because we are spoiled. An incorporated farm that we visited throws out 15,000-20,000 pounds of produce a day. Twenty thousand pounds of fresh food goes to waste every day during harvesting season because consumers like us don’t want to buy a yellow-bottomed cucumber. It doesn’t taste any different; it just grew on the ground the way cucumbers are supposed to grow!
7) The greatest concern expressed by farmers was over production. Over production in a local and global community where some people do not get enough to eat does not sound like a problem to me. Both big and small farm owners admitted to letting produce rot in the field, which nourishes the soil, and keeps food prices from plummeting by not flooding the markets, however this keeps this food out of the food pantries that would distribute the produce to people in need. Yet another vicious cycle.
8) Just down the road, Campbell Farms struggles to provide healthy meals to youth in the area whose parents are financially strained when it comes to groceries, buying limited, and often unhealthy, food. While our visit may have opened up the eyes of the incorporated farmer as to how these neighbors can help each other, how often is this happening in other communities, or in my own refrigerator?
9) These kids who aren’t eating healthy food don’t look as though their not eating. That’s when I recognized the concept of nutritional starvation. Sure these kids eat, but they eat processed, fatty, high in calorie and low in nutrition foods. It’s all their families can afford, or know to eat, even with the abundance of fresh produce all around them.
10) On top of nutritional concerns, farm workers are 70% more likely to get uterine cancer and 60% more likely to get leukemia. May be genetics, may be working conditions? The number one cause of death among farm workers is suicide.
To end on a better note, I’ll share another quick story. On a small 18 acre farm that we visited they were raising organic chickens. The pen they stayed in was a beautiful little piece of land, covered with apple and crab apple trees as well as tall grasses. Off in one corner we noticed a small circle enclosed by some fencing: chicken jail! Apparently, there is such a thing as a cannibalistic chicken; the three housed there ate eggs.
We obviously covered a wide variety of topics, specific to the region, but applicable nationally and globally. Enjoy the food for thought I’ve shared with you, and consider for yourself the “Ethics of Eating.”