COP22.

Today, was invited to – and officially accepted – COP22 as a U.S. delegate.  I don’t think it has completely set in yet.  Honestly, receiving a cheery call from Morgan Curtis of SustainUs feels cheery in and of itself; realizing that’s she’s really saying, “See you in Morocco to push amazing global policy work on climate change and the environment!” is a whole other thing.  To think, 10 years ago today I was stressing out over which shows my high school, Celtic Rock band would or would not choose to play in…Actually, 10 years ago this summer I was competing in my first Junior Olympics in Detroit.  But that’s besides the point.  The reality is, 10 years ago today I never imagined I would be more than a female violinist behind a male-dominated music ensemble, or more than a defenseman on a team I hardly made the cut for.

It’s exciting to see all of my work come together.  What’s the most exciting is not a day goes by without me realizing how much of my work came from my grandmothers.  My paternal grandmother, who just had her 87th birthday on Friday, taught me work ethic.  She’s been independent for decades.  In fact, she’s been independent her whole life.  The only girl among many brother and half-brothers, she always held her own.  She worked a whole slew of jobs, bought her own cars, and even worked to keep the farm afloat when her husband died and she was on the verge of poverty.

Then there’s my maternal grandmother, teaching more than maybe she realized.  I’ve traced my lineage through a line of medicine people, the clan I’m enrolled in, and it seems fitting.  The emphasis she placed on plants.  The central part gardening played in our lives growing up.  Making salads of Lovage from her Salad Bowl…It has all translated into my work today.  It has taken me some time, but I finally realize how many people have lost this common sense.  That’s why so much of my work is dedicated to food sovereignty, seed saving practices, and native seed banks.

One thing I love about engineering is how flexible it can be.  I learn all of the tools to apply it to fancy technology, but there’s a whole other realm of possibilities too.  That realm is where engineering overlaps with the most basic concepts.  “Expounding on traditional knowledge” is probably my favorite way to describe it.  It’s taking engineering to analyze why certain traditional farming and other techniques work, then looking at how to make them even more efficient or effective.  Water use and resource management.  Seed cleaning, saving, and distribution.  Even traditional structures.  (Did you know kivas utilize convection to function?)

It’s hard to imagine, based on how I grew up, that people don’t raise their own food, that they don’t know how to grow it or how to save seeds.  But I’m realizing how much that is the reality.  Through the local programs our AISES group has been collaborating with, I’ve been able to work with Working in Beauty, members from COPE, and a variety of other organizations to tackle food sovereignty topics on both the educational as well as policy levels.  Outreach.  Outreach.  Outreach.

If you ever want me to speak at your function, be sure to contact my agent.  Just kidding…my agent’s on vacation this month. 😉

The Small Farm Crisis in America.

My mom texted me a few months ago.  “Dave’s selling his cattle.  He’s going beef now – can’t make money anymore in dairy.”  That hit me hard on two levels.  First of all, I always grew up with dairy.  Grandma had the beef farm.  Seeing brown cows every day at the property line instead of spotted ones and Oreos (who are sometimes also for beef) was regular at home and I could tell already it would feel strange to me.  No milking stalls.  No “Got Milk?” sign.  Just cows awaiting slaughter, staring blankly towards my house all day then going home to be fed.

But that’s not all that hit me hard.  The second part – and by far the worst – is hearing someone say they “can’t make money anymore in dairy”.

We live in Pennsylvania, for God’s sake!  Milk is our STATE DRINK!  We are rolling hills and mountains lined with crooked, topographically-tilled cattle corn fields and littered with silos and milking barns.  Sun-up, to sun-down, to late night, with electrical bulb-lit barns, farmers are out there growing the crop, tending to the herd, then milking them away.  How can we be losing money like this?

I don’t think there is a simple answer, but I’ll spell out what I see: 1. Government regulations, 2. Consumer persuasion, and 3. Industrialization of the farm.

1. GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS
Not long ago, one of my neighbors sold his farm.  He was older, it was too costly, and no one would inherit it.  It was sold and developed and I now can see houses on a hillside across the valley from us.  What a shame.  My mom around the same time explained to me how someone had come in and drained the reservoir behind Dave’s because they want to drive a superhighway through our valley.  In response to this, and with concern that no grandson wanted to inherit his farm, Dave signed into the Pennsylvania farmland protection program so as to preserve his land from development.  Soon after, his partner left him and he was forced to downsize.  I think everyone thought he was crazy for keeping the farm running at such profit levels and in his advanced years.  That’s when EPA rolled in and threatened him for violating standards with watershed pollution.  He was forced to make changes in his practices and to plant trees and lay fence through the creeks to keep cows out of direct contact with the water.

Ain’t nobody got the money to do that.  I respect the EPA and it is part of my job to make sure projects are up to spec with the regulations, but how can you expect people with 200-year-old farms and old buildings to suddenly change their ways?  When they already have no profit?  When they’re in fact being environmentally-friendly to an extent by maintaining old materials instead of tearing things down and building new ones. Of this exact vein, a clipping my mom mailed to me in Ohio that she found in the Tribune-Review addresses these small farmer concerns, saying they’re “weary of new regulations” in Pennsylvania.  It talks about just what I have pointed out, how farmers use old barns, old methods, old wooden tools that may face tough laws soon that restrict how they handle their produce, meat, and dairy.  They cry, What can we do?  If we want local, organic, small family farms to operate, we cannot be so god-awfully stringent like this.

I understand the need to monitor health of food, but at what cost?  Everything we eat is to be controlled?  Our foods supplemented like our water without our consent because someone decided it’s better for us?  When we are constantly learning we were wrong about our previous health-related insights?  We say we need to support America, but aren’t we tearing it down from the inside out and encouraging imports and cheap labor and poverty?  Why are we letting the American Dream die?  Sometimes I feel like government regulations will soon leave us feeling like we’re living in (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT FROM THE HUNGER GAMES SERIES IF YOU HAVE NOT READ MOCKINGJAY) District 13 of the Hunger Games, where food is regulated down to the last calorie and you can’t take more than your share or act outside of your daily schedule.

(SPOILER OVER)

2. CONSUMER PERSUASION
So why do we buy the things we buy?  How is Dave going out of business with dairy?  What is causing this?  I think back to his “Got Milk?” billboard and realize how silly these nutritional notions Americans have are.  The lead of a “Save Your Bones” program discusses how milk actually depletes calcium and argues that countries that drink more milk have higher levels of osteoporosis.  Not only that, but modern milk is a processed food.  Think of Asians who, like me due to my Indian blood, cannot drink lactose.  Their cultures didn’t have milk outside of infancy/young childhood because they didn’t raise crops and drink the milk of other animals yet look at their health ratings, some of the best if not the best in the world.  Finally, like so much of our food, milk is almost always fortified.  You are better off telling your children to eat more dark greens!  No cholesterol, cheap, fresh, unprocessed, low fat, natural…

Then why does the government do these things?  I couldn’t tell you.  There must be some kind of profit in it for them.  Meanwhile, the other problem is that these small farms are selling their milk to large collectors who mix the milks regionally and mass-produce cartons.  These small farms are selling at minimum prices because everywhere you go in Pennsylvania you see signs like “Milk sold at state minimum!”  Who benefits from that?  The collector and the cheap customer is who, leaving people like Dave to break their backs for far-too-less money with inflation, regulation, and every other crisis knocking on their doors – not to mention global warming causing late frosts and draughts and wreaking all kinds of havoc on crops.

Why do we get so riled up about big chains like Wal-Mart who take over small businesses, but we let the same things happen to our farmers?  Why do we allow ourselves to be brain-washed by lower prices?  Higher prices don’t always mean the better choice, but a little research can tell you you’re making a lot of poor choices in the grocer’s.  Why do we fill our buggies with these “fillers” and products that undermine small-farming to keep your budget comfortable?  And, honestly, you can’t blame these big guys.  I mean, they’re just doing their job.  The only ones we can blame are ourselves for submitting to this monopolizing behavior and supporting it through purchases.  Think about what you’re doing.  The consumer has all of the power.  The producers just provide what will fit the demand in the most profitable way possible.

3. INDUSTRIALIZATION OF THE FARM
That is my lead-in into the final point I’m making: High demand of cheap, lower-quality goods is causing farms to become industrialized, thus defeating the whole concept of small, local, and healthy.  Instead, America wants fast, cheap, and easy.  Since animal farms might be hard to imagine as well, picture the huge agricultural farms in the Plains states.  Endless rows of soybeans and corn stalks.  Huge combines and plows combing and tearing up the land.  We are in a topsoil crisis, yet we continue to destroy the ground with machinery, chemicals, and high-yielding but genetically washed-out crops.  Why are we doing this?

Farmers just cannot compete on a small farm using traditional equipment.  We’ve already upgraded to tractors from horse-drawn plows, but it keeps getting worse.  Without an incredibly expensive combine and other contraption, famers cannot possibly meet the demand to yield enough produce for a solid profit.  They have to get big-scale and possibly hire some hands to get them there.  It’s not longer a family business but an industry.  And do you have any clue how environmentally-bad single-crop farming is?  How it destroys the land?  An intriguing prairie study I read in Biomimicry addresses that along with many other concerns.  (I wrote about that here, on my Cleveland blog.)

What’s worse is we are corrupting the God-given (literally or for emphasis) genetics that were evolved to be on this planet.  There are reasons things are here, whether godly or naturally.  Natural Selection.  There are ecosystems in existence.  We, as humans, were borne out of its byproducts, in the same environment, eating its literal fruits.  And now we have big-scale company monopolizing the system and destroying the beauty that was here, companies like DuPont Pioneer (to whom my company sadly caters in projects).  DuPont Pioneer is developing genetically-modified seeds and playing god, encouraging farmers to coerce, and dominating fields with single, unnatural crop types.  Sure, some benefits seem obvious (outside of profit, of course), but is that really helping the farmer?  Is it really helping us?  The planet?  How is making a crop withstand one disease going to prevent it from the next?  Similarly, I don’t support getting flu shots.  Let nature take its course.  That’s what it’s meant to do.  A resistance will build.  We will be better for it.  Nature will find its way to destroy what it wants to destroy regardless of a stupid, genetically-messed up seed.

Phew.

And so my rant concludes – for now.

But, in sum, I say support your local, organic, small farms, don’t support industry, low prices, or genetically-modified food, and keep in mind that the government has reasons for regulations, but some of the things it does are not necessarily worthy of worship.