Long-time activists know all too well how the powers that be work to divide us to maintain their power base. They use coercion, ego stroking, and straight up misinformation to entice some of us to dance with them, while others see the devil for what he is.
This time the devil, or shall we call him the wolf, comes dressed in sheep’s clothing. The wolf is the World Economic Forum (WEF), the World Bank, an assortment of global and regional think tanks, and front men for Big Food and Big Pharma. The fluffy white fleece is none other than the United Nations itself, now fleeced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Grandma’s house is the UN Food Systems Summit, full of the scent of warm cookies and a bright future, but in reality, housing the world’s most powerful corporations waiting with cameras and recorders to focus group the f*** out of anyone who walks in.
Join the boycottand People’s Autonomous Response to the UN Food Systems Summit. These are the key global voices for smallholders and Indigenous Peoples with 25 years’ experience in global governance – if they refuse to legitimize a corrupted UN process, you should listen.
When the world’s least powerful ask the most privileged to stand with them against exploitation, land grabbing, and corporate capture of the governing mechanisms we have to fight with, it’s our responsibility to listen. Shut up and listen. Shut up, listen, then speak up. Speak as one to lift the voices of the marginalized. Don’t marginalize them further by turning up in the spaces they have intentionally vacated because they have spent decades fighting to be heard, only to realise that in this case the only ones listening are the multinational corporations, market researchers and those interested in profit over people and the planet. The peasants of the world refuse to be focus grouped.
Breaking with the long history of multilateralism – a process of organizing and negotiating between states – the UNFSS has taken a multistakeholder approach from the beginning, giving multinational corporations equal footing with democratic states in discussions about how to achieve the transformation of the food system we need – to ensure everyone has access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food, produced and distributed in socially-just and ecologically-sound ways.
How did we get here?
The UN partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to run the Summit – you know, the world’s peak body for multinational corporations like Bayer, Cargill, Facebook, JBS, and Syngenta. Then the Secretary General appointed the leader of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Agnes Kalibata as the Special Envoy to coordinate the Summit. AGRA is substantially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (also a member of the WEF), which has been aggressively promoting the uptake of biotechnology in Africa for the past couple of decades. Our sister AFSA – the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa – has called for donors to stop funding AGRA and show support for smallholders.
The Gates Foundation has a well-documented Big Tech bias in the ‘solutions’ it backs. This is not a Foundation that funds programs that empower communities to be self-sufficient, resilient, and resourceful – Gates is not here for food sovereignty. His projects in Africa have steadily increased farmer reliance on annual purchases of GM seed, and his investments in lab meat startups along with two of the world’s biggest meat companies, Tyson and Cargill, clearly demonstrate the cynicism and self-interest of his philanthrocapitalism.
Kalibata and her secretariat have promoted Food Systems Dialogues at the global and national levels as well as ‘Independent Food Systems Dialogues’, which ostensibly can be hosted by anyone who chooses to. There have apparently been over 800 independent dialogues led by everything from corporations to civil society organizations across the world. According to UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri, these have produced nothing substantive that has been taken up by the secretariat, and in fact not ‘everyone’ is granted the privilege to host a dialogue – the secretariat holds the decision-making power.
Food Systems Dialogues are still occurring in the name of the UN around the world, including in Australia. We believe most people who participate in these do not understand the extent and gravity of the corporate capture of multilateral global food governance. Hence, AFSA has shared as much as possible to get the word out and keep well-intentioned healthy and sustainable food systems advocates from being duped into legitimizing an illegitimate and damaging process.
Four ‘levers of change’ have been selected by the secretariat from the obscure processes of food systems dialogues, champions, Action Tracks, and the Scientific Group. This is where Machiavelli pops in for a cuppa. In preparation for the Summit to be held online entirely over one day (23 September), these ‘levers of change’ are being developed into a compendium. The lead organisations for each lever are, wait for it:
Human Rights – a consultant hired by the UN Secretary General (!)
It’s worth noting that the Gates Foundation provides funding to all of these bodies in addition to its support for AGRA, as does the Rockefeller Foundation. These private funders are controlling narratives and negotiations under the guise of the UN – discussions that should rightly be led by the Committee for World Food Security (CFS), which has the mandate for food systems transformation, informed by the full participation of civil society.
It gets worse. Once our corporate overlords have led the drafting of proposed solutions to the problems they have created in the world, this body of work is intended to guide the development of ‘National Pathways to Food Systems Transformation’. What that means is that many countries will at last create National Food Plans[i] – in theory a good thing – but the plans will be guided by corporate solutions.
According to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, ‘Even representatives of Indigenous Peoples who participated in the official Pre-Summit feel disappointed that the human rights of Indigenous Peoples were not taken into account in the conclusions, nor did FSS approve a Coalition of IPs, as they had requested. Today these IP representatives say they will be out of the Summit until their demands are met.’
If you are involved in UNFSS dialogues or action tracks, or being invited to participate in its processes, engage critically and consider boycotting if rights-based governance and epistemic justice demands are not met.
If you are boycotting or otherwise resisting the UNFSS, consider working with others! #foodsystems4people #boycottUNFSS
[i] Fun fact – the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) was formed in response to the federal government’s commitment to a first-ever National Food Plan. Released in July 2012, the National Food Plan Green Paper reflected a heavy bias towards corporate agribusiness, large-scale food manufacturing and big retailing interests. The limited and perfunctory nature of the government’s ‘consultation’ process suggested that most or all of the key decisions had already been taken elsewhere.
In response, a small group of activists who had formed AFSA resolved to develop and implement its own process to establish a People’s Food Plan that would reflect the concerns and aspirations of eaters, farmers, community organisations, food businesses and advocacy groups. The People’s Food Plan process was open, inclusive and democratic, and brought together some 600 people across the nation in ‘kitchen table conversations’ to develop the content collectively. The People’s Food Plan reflects the needs and desires of people, not corporations. Should Australia take up the challenge to develop a National Food Plan at last, AFSA is ready to ensure small-scale farmers and eaters have a seat at the negotiating table this time around.
As agroecology gains traction in Australia, many farmers and food systems activists have asked what the differences are between agroecology and regenerative agriculture. So today I’m going to draw from my PhD literature review to try to answer that question. I do so in the spirit of furthering the movement for ecologically and socially just food and agriculture systems, regardless of where any farmer may presently situate themselves along a continuum of agricultural production.
I’m going to take you through what I understand as the history and contemporary state of the rise of alternative agricultures. I’ll then turn to a closer look at regenerative agriculture and agroecology specifically. And I’ll finish with my views on why agroecology offers the transformation our food and agriculture systems need. I do not aim to create divisions in our beautiful fledgling food movement full of hard working and passionate farmers and advocates. On the contrary, I aim to build our collective knowledge, wisdom, and solidarity as we work to radically transform the food system from the ground up. I don’t wish to focus on what regenerative agriculture isn’t, but rather on what it can be, and highlight the dangers of corporate capture to these important parallel movements.
A brief history of alternate agricultures
Farmers and researchers have been practising and writing about the need to move away from chemical agriculture for nearly two centuries – all the way back to George Perkins Marsh’s warnings as early as 1864 in Man and Nature – awork credited with launching the modern conservation movement. Agronomist Sir Albert Howard went to India in the first decade of the twentieth century to ‘teach the locals’ how to modernise their agricultural systems, only to be transformed into an advocate of organic agriculture by what he learned there. Along with Rudolf Steiner J.I. Rodale, and Lady Eve Balfour, Howard is considered one of the founders of the organic movement in the Global North. All promoted the use of composts instead of chemical fertiliser, and focused on the critical roles of humus and mycorrhizal fungi in healthy agroecosystems.
We are in need of a historical corrective here that is as much about today as yesterday. The influence of Indian peasants on the rise of organics in the North is rarely acknowledged. The Green Revolution in India all but decimated small-scale farmers’ traditional, sustainable practices, though the recent farmer protests certainly demonstrate the collective will there to reclaim their right to life and livelihood. While the organics movement has clearly had a net ecological benefit due to reduced use of agricultural and veterinary chemicals (amongst other more sustainable land management practices), what started as a movement has become an industry in its own right. Industrial organics are full of vast monocultures controlled by a decreasing number of corporations. One need only look at the increase in multinational corporations claiming to promote regenerative agriculture to get a taste of what is already happening to this movement (see Walmart, Purina, General Mills, and Danone for just a few, or the consortium that includes Nestlé, Unilever, Kellogg, and McCain Foods for another).
There is an effusive and influential popular agrarian literature on the philosophy and practice of what is considered organic, biological, ecological, regenerative, or agroecological farming. This spans the lyrical musings of bucolic life in the country, exhortations to diversify to maintain the viability of small-scale farms, and socio-political treatises championing the protection of rural communities, local economies, and healthy landscapes.
While it can often seem to be the domain of cis-gendered white men, there are many less celebrated women, BIPOC, and queer agrarian (often explicitly anti-capitalist) thinkers and doers to engage with. One I admire is farmer-activist Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Farm, a pioneering community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in the American organics movement. Elizabeth has contributed decades of guidance through columns in The Natural Farmer magazine and community-supported publications on CSA, and also as a leading member of Urgenci: the International Network for Community-Supported Agriculture.
Yet while the emergence of the CSA movement in the United States is largely credited to two white-owned farms in the mid-1980s, it can also be tracked to Black horticulturalist Booker T. Whatley’s ‘clientele membership club’ established in the 1960s, as recorded in his 1987 guide How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres. Both of these CSA origin stories arise from economic and ecological sustainability narratives and constitute quite radical moves to solidarity economies, as small-scale farmers were rapidly disappearing in the ongoing commodification of food production. However, Whatley’s work included an explicit focus on support for Black farmers who suffered from racialized limited access to government support.
Black farmer-activist Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm is a more recent inspiration to many. In 2018 she published Farming While Black, a contemporary practical and liberatory guide to everything from land access to composting. Temra Costa’s celebratory anthology Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat profiles 26 women across America farming, cooking, and advocating for change, and Trina Moyles’ Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World offers a more radical feminist political lens on the efforts of women across three continents farming against the tide of food system injustices.
In Australia, Bruce Pascoe published Dark Emu in 2014, which argues that there is a long history of Aboriginal agriculture, and his and others’ ongoing work to recuperate Indigenous farming practices has had a significant influence within the food sovereignty movement. Pascoe has challenged us with the question, ‘Black people aren’t going anywhere. White people aren’t going anywhere. So what are we going to do about it?’ My PhD project seeks to contribute to working out what we’re going to do about it in the context of small-scale farmers with exotic livestock holding title and farming on unceded Aboriginal lands. I’ll write more on this in a future post.
The origins of regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture’s practices were developed before the phrase was coined by Robert Rodale, J.I.’s son, in the 1980s in the United States. The early works of André Voisin on ‘rational grazing’ (a strong influence on the creator of Holistic Management Allan Savory) remain deeply influential in the regenerative agriculture movement, and spawned an entire education industry around holistic planned grazing of livestock, particularly cattle.
Regenerative agriculture is described by many as an approach to food and farming systems which aims to recuperate biodiversity, soil, water and nutrient cycles, economies, and communities. It has notably grown in public awareness over the past decade, and especially the last few years in Australia, as the country has suffered unprecedented fires while enduring extended droughts. The literature is extensive and still growing. Some of it focuses on farmers’ experiences and reasons for transitioning away from industrial agriculture, while much concentrates on the importance of soil, or on various techniques, and others on regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Charlie Massy’s triumphant 2017 account of a dozen broadacre farmers in Australia who have overcome the ‘mechanical mindset’ to farm with nature is arguably one of the most radical of regen ag’s foundational texts, as it actively tackles questions around farmers’ very ways of thinking and being in the world.
Despite these steps forward, many believe that regenerative agriculture remains insufficient. While it accepts the shared biogeological nature of agricultural landscapes, it remains looped into the premises of economic and sociopolitical systems that treat farms and farmers as separate economic units. The two impulses are incompatible. We cannot return to an agriculture that acknowledges a more natural economy defined by a shared ecosystem that still operates under a social system that defines farmers almost entirely as segregated competitors in the market and sectioned-off on the landscape. Such systems reward practices that externalize the damage of such agriculture off-farm and onto our neighbours, both local and global.
Agroecology as ecology and social system
Let me be clear that regenerative agriculture represents a rightly celebrated step forward. There are also other alternatives that can take us a few more steps forward. And I’m sure all of us want that.
While regenerative agriculture has gained momentum and prominence in Australia, agroecology is much less well-known or understood here, though there is a deep and substantial literature on agroecology internationally. Broadly speaking, agroecology is a scientifically and experientially justified practice of agriculture that is sensitive to the ecosystems in which it is situated and that fosters the democratic participation of farmers in the food system. Its original and still predominant practitioners are Indigenous peoples and peasant smallholders the world over. Many of its advocates make a strong case for relying on peasant and Indigenous knowledge of their land and systems to produce sufficient food sustainably. A science, a set of practices, and a social movement, agroecology is fundamental to my own research project, including its concerns with the importance of biodiversity, the role of animals in agroecosystems, and the lived social, economic, and political realities of small-scale farmers.
The term agroecology was coined by Russian agronomist Basil Bensin in 1930, and the practice emerged as more of a social movement in Mexico in the 1970s in resistance to the Green Revolution. Much research has focused on the diversification of agroecosystems ‘over time and space at the field and landscape level,’ and on enhancing ‘beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of agrobiodiversity, thereby promoting key ecological processes and services’. There is also a focus on supporting resource-poor farmers in managing their agroecosystems with minimal inputs.
The democratic and ecological potential of agroecology and its political expression in food sovereignty has been well canvassed for decades. There’s been an explosion of publications in the last decade that coincided with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) launched a process and series of global and regional symposia on agroecology in 2014. Political analysis in agroecology extends from Marxist ecological examinations of racism in food and agriculture systems, to maintaining the integration of Indigenous peoples and peasants within a matrix of wild and managed ecosystems, to rejecting imperialist attempts to lock up ‘nature’ to protect it from ‘humans’. The concept of ‘nature’s matrix,’ in which biodiversity, conservation, food production and food sovereignty are all interconnected goals represents a stark contrast to ‘land-sparing’ arguments that posit humans as separate from and antithetical to the health of functional ecosystems. This debate is currently being played out in the UN’s work on development of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, with peasants, fisherfolk, and Indigenous peoples defending their rights to customary lands and territories as governments and conservation groups push for further enclosures.
Presently there are economic, political, and cultural lock-ins that limit the ability of Australian farmers to shift to agroecology. At the same time, there are what Alastair Iles proposes are enablers. At its core, Iles asserts:
Geographical and environmental conditions have made – and are making – it hard for farmers to adopt agroecological practices. Strong beliefs among scientist, industry, and government elites in the power of science and technology to overcome climate constraints are leading to agroecology being ignored.
He proposes that some of the implications of neoliberal agriculture policies for agroecology in Australia include:
Weak farmer resources for adopting agroecological practices;
demoralized and eroding rural communities; and
investment in export support instead of environmental support’.
In turn, enabling dynamics for an agroecological transition include:
All of the above enablers are currently coalescing in Australia under:
a global pandemic;
strengthening global and national food sovereignty movements;
the emergence of agroecology schools such as those run by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA); and
increasingly supportive state governments offering targeted support for small-scale farmers.
Food sovereignty embodies the collective politicisation of agroecology. It asserts everyone’s right to nutritious and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ethical and ecologically sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems. With its political roots established in the mid ‘90s in the fertile soils of La Vía Campesina (LVC) – the global alliance of peasants – food sovereignty was launched into public political discourse at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996. In the words of McMichael, ‘food sovereignty emerged as the antithesis of the corporate food regime and its (unrealized) claims for “food security” via the free trade rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’.
Agroecology fundamentally aims to promote the deep ecological, social, and economic knowledge of First Peoples, peasants, and other small-scale food producers and custodians of land. It puts decision making power back in the hands of Indigenous Peoples and peasants and local communities.
Regenerative agriculture is promoted and practised by many who are thinking and acting in much more holistic ways than industrial agriculturalists, but as a people’s movement, the approach presently lacks coherence and cohesion. Too much of what I see promoted as regenerative agriculture is still just capitalist agriculture with better inputs. Its ecological work is important but ultimately iterative rather than transformational because of its lack of a political framework. In a critical way regen ag is repeating the errors of the organics movement. Organics were commodified and consolidated because the sector lacked a collective vision to unshackle itself from capitalist food systems.
To my knowledge, regenerative agriculture has not developed a theory of change for an economic or social transformation, and is growing a new generation of ‘experts’ and gurus who profit from teaching the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ or ‘why’. This is a critical juncture for regen ag – can it shift to teaching the ‘what’ as well as the ‘how’? Who will its teachers be? Will they accept the challenge to think and advocate beyond farm boundaries to the broader social and political economies and ecologies within which farmers care for country?
Agroecology, on the other hand, has a well-developed theory of change. It works to support horizontal knowledge sharing by empowering farmers and their communities to learn from and with each other and the land and all on it, rather than relying on external experts for inputs of knowledge or other resources.
Further, by collectivising and uniting the voices of the people in democratically constituted organisations like the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), and actualizing shared decision-making, agroecology offers genuine political strength and capacity for policy reform as well as grassroots transformations. A major strength of agroecology is that it is immune to being captured as a brand due to its grassroots, democratic principles and practices – nobody can own or certify agroecology because it asserts everybody’s right to practice it without reliance on or creation of externalities.
My intentions are altruistic. I do not aim to divide us, but rather to help understand our histories and ways forward from here. Our objective should be to offer every kind of farmer a path to the next food landscape forward. Regenerative agriculture and agroecology proponents and practitioners ultimately want food and agriculture systems that are ecologically sound and socially just. If we work together, actualizing everyone’s right to nutritious, delicious, and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ethical and ecologically sound ways, Australia can get there.
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Eating is not just natural, it’s also an agricultural and
a political act, as wise people have said before me. Everything we eat must
have been grown or manufactured somewhere, somehow, and simply put, some are
better than others – better for soil, water, air, plants, animals and people.
The philosophy behind ethical omnivorism is quite simple – it’s a principle of doing least harm, treading lightly and trying to produce and consume in closed systems as much as possible. Outputs are inputs, there’s no such thing as waste. Animals are a critical part of healthy agro-ecologies, but get them out of balance (or divorce them from horticulture entirely), and we have a problem. Why grow thousands of them in sheds and then try to work out what to do with the concentrated effluence when they can live a natural life on the land while benefiting soils instead of poisoning them?
The ethical omnivore doesn’t float through life sometimes
eating critically endangered fish like Orange Ruffy and calling herself a
pescatarian. She doesn’t refuse to eat red meat but enjoy the odd bit of
factory-farmed bacon because it’s too tasty to resist. Nor does she eat meat
furtively, with a niggling sense of guilt at the part she’s playing in
rainforest degradation and the decimation of global fish populations. She may
not have all the answers, but she’s got a framework and a commitment to finding
out more and following through on her best options for a delicious, ethical
dinner. She eats meat mindfully, with visceral pleasure and gratitude.
The ethical omnivore rejects the notion that the only healthy, sustainable, ethical diet is devoid of animal products, while respecting one’s right and choice to be a vegetarian. She devours a broad range of vegetable-based dishes and accepts the concern that most of the global north consumes too much meat – both a result of and catalyst for intensive animal agriculture. She agrees with the Slow Meat mantra to ‘eat better meat, less often’.
The ethical omnivore mindfully refuses to eat animals
grown entirely indoors, whether in cages or vast sheds, and arms herself with
knowledge to find local options for meat from animals raised outdoors and
without huge inputs of monocropped grains. She prefers to eat food grown by
humans, not manufactured by corporations, and supports a livelihood for local
farmers instead of lining the pockets of the power brokers in today’s
industrial food chain.
Sometimes the ethical omnivore might eat from the detritus of Big Food, which serves to remind her that it doesn’t even taste good. And then she moves on, continuing with her mindful choices, ever conscious of her own fallibility in a complicated world.
The ethical omnivore eats most things, not too much of any one thing, preferably whole things.
I’ve spent the better part of what will soon be (gasp!) three decades worrying about the ills of industrial animal agriculture, and most of today gathering some of the relevant stats around the amount of feed grown globally to feed livestock in preparation for writing about what we’re trying to achieve in our feeding system at Jonai Farms. Bear with me…
And then it occurred to me that the numbers don’t matter that much. We simply must stop growing monocultures of grain crops only to process and feed them to animals. Whether it contributes 3% or 18% to greenhouse gases, it’s just bloody unnecessary and entirely a result of industrialised agriculture, which segregates each aspect of production in the most unnatural ways instead of growing food in diverse, integrated, and holistic systems.
There’s a complicated discussion to be had around the differences between feeding grains to ruminants (such as cattle, sheep, and goats) and non-ruminants (aka monogastrics like pigs, poultry, and people), but that’s for another post. (Fun fact for those who don’t already know this – horses are not ruminants, they’re monogastric herbivores.) In that discussion we could talk about the suitability of a part or whole grain diet for ruminants, and differences in greenhouse gas emissions from different species, but I’ll simply offer this short quote about some of those complexities before moving on:
‘…pork and poultry production currently consume over 75% of cereal and oil-seed based on concentrate that is grown for livestock (Galloway et al., 2007). Therefore, while ruminants consume 69% of animal feed overall, nonruminates consume 72% of all animal feed that is grown on arable land (Galloway et al., 2007). Consequently, while enteric fermentation from nonruminants is not a significant source of GHG, indirect emissions associated with cropland dedicated to nonruminant livestock might be significant.’ Ref.
Like I said, it’s complicated. So this is a slightly long-winded introduction to telling you the story of what we feed our animals at Jonai Farms and why we’ve made the choices we have.
From the outset with our pigs and cattle, we wanted to farm agroecologically – ‘working with biodiversity to provide the farming system with ecological resilience and reduce dependence on costly, often harmful, conventional inputs’. One thing that means is that since obtaining our first pigs, we had intentions to salvage or produce enough feed for a complete diet for them without purchasing grain purpose-grown for livestock.
It’s been five years but last week we achieved that goal!
From very early on, our pigs have been fed primarily a diet of spent brewers’ grain (some of which Stuart ensiles with molasses to stabilize it for storage and increase the energy extracted by the brewing process). We drive twice a week to collect a total of around three tonnes of this grain. The cattle are fed any excess, particularly during the height of summer and depths of winter when nutrient value of the feed on the paddocks is lower.
In addition to the spent brewers’ grain, Stuart has managed to salvage so-called waste stream (or in some cases ‘surplus yield’) feed from the dairy, fruit, and vegetable industries, including post-harvest ‘seconds’ of everything from potatoes to strawberries, colostrum-rich cow’s milk during calving season, and supply-chain damaged or unwanted dairy products such as milk and cheese.
Two summers ago a dairy processor delivered an entire container load of milk – in thousands of plastic bottles – when they had an oversupply due to some kind of logistics failure. We contacted every pig farmer we knew and got them to collect as much as they could haul away but were left with enough milk to feed out for many months. In consultation with our vet, we were confident that spoilt milk is not dangerous nor non-nutritive for the pigs – they continued to enjoy it well past the point where we enjoyed feeding it out.
We’ve only made minor inroads into fodder cropping, with some success at growing turnips and brassicas in the mostly rye paddocks we inherited in our attempts to wean ourselves off purpose-grown commercial grain.
We have, however, planted at least one hundred oak trees and a couple dozen other nut and fruit trees to provide fodder in what we hope will eventually be a full-blown agro-sylvo-pastoral system. Trees take a really long time to grow and they’re hard to keep alive through our hot summers, but Stuart does his best to nurse them through the heat.
While the brewers’ grain is a steady supply upon which we can rely and the paddocks provide a proportion of the happy piggehs regular diet (up to 20% depending on the season), the other salvaged feed has been sporadic – not enough to rely on without ensuring we had a nutritious regular feed on hand to supplement the brewers’ grain.
This other ration has always been a pelletised grain we’ve bought from a Victorian feed supplier. The standard ration we were originally offered was a mix of barley, wheat, peas, lupins, bread mix, mill run, soy, post-industrial food waste (such as bread meal and Smarties off the factory floor to increase the energy), essential amino acids (such as methionine, tryptophan and lysine), and vitamins and minerals. We said ‘no, thanks’ and asked for a custom ration that was just barley, wheat, and lupins and paid an extra $50/tonne for the privilege of keeping all the nutrititive and non-nutritive additives and soy out of it.
The pellets formed anywhere from 15-30% of the pigs’ diet for the past five years (depending on their age and stage, e.g. wet sows get more pellets to ensure they’re getting sufficient proteins to support reproduction). It was convenient, very little wastage, and simple to monitor nutrition as the feed company’s nutritionists did all the knowledge work for us. But it never sat well with our principles – we’ve been relying on the very industrialised food system we rail against!
Last week everything changed when we got a call to collect 23 tonnes of water-damaged rice (only about 2 tonnes of which was actually damaged). It wasn’t lost on us that this rice was sent from a country with much higher levels of food insecurity than Australia only to be condemned on food safety standards when the vast majority of the shipment was perfectly palatable, but much better to at least divert it to feed and keep it out of the landfill. We shared the bounty with some other farming mates, and ultimately collected 14 tonnes ourselves, which we unloaded manually one five-kilo bag at a time into our shed.
On the second day of collecting the rice, we were also offered some 14 pallets of milk from the landlord of a distributor who’d gone into (heh) liquidation. Again we shared the love and collected five pallets for ourselves, all of us grateful to the landlord who wanted to see the milk used and not wasted.
The rice stores well, and if we feed it out at 10-15% of the pigs’ normal ration (as advised in the plethora of research articles I’ve read on the topic) we have enough for nearly two years. The milk will last a couple of months if fed out at up to 20% of their ration. We actually live next to a dairy and have been discussing buying milk directly from him as we would pay the same as we were paying for pellets (50 cents per litre, and we pay 50 cents per kilo of pellets) for a higher quality feed, while supporting one of the many struggling dairy farmers in Australia (he’s been paid as low as 25 cents per litre this year). So if more waste-stream milk doesn’t come our way we have another source of milk, a near-perfect feed for pigs as it contains the essential amino acids needed for optimal health, fertility, and growth.
Inspired by all this salvage feed, I contacted a local free-range egg farmer we know and have planted the seed with him to get their egg seconds as well, which he said he’s happy to barter for pork (when the other pig farmers who take some don’t get in first!).
This windfall of salvaged feed sent me back into a whirl of planning for 2017 – I do love a good spreadsheet – and we’ll be adjusting a few priorities now that we’re entirely reliant on salvaged feed.
For a starter, building a shed near the pig paddocks with a 20-foot container to store dry feed in a rodent-proof box has jumped up the list. While we wait for our oaks to produce for the pigs, we’re also keen to collect acorns and chestnuts in autumn and dry store them in the container to feed out, in this case not so much diverting waste as using a wasted resource that is abundant in our region.
The tractor we’ve wanted to buy for a few years but just couldn’t fully justify in a system we are physically capable of running manually (for now – ask again in a decade!) has also climbed the priority ladder. Offloading many tonnes of feed by hand is neither desirable nor sustainable when it’s our regular feed source. One mad week of offloading nearly 20 tonnes made us feel proud and strong, doing it regularly would quite likely make us feel dumb and tired!
A critical point about the shed and the tractor is that we can afford them because we just erased a significant feed bill from our budget – as with all things, taking on more labour ourselves rather than outsourcing it to others frees up more cash to invest in infrastructure and equipment.
But on that labour point – dealing with salvage feed is significantly more labour-intensive, and it also usually comes with a level of packaging waste that ultimately costs us as well. In the case of the rice bags, we have to pay if we need to deliver rubbish to the tip more than once per month. And there’s the extra time and labour to unpackage the rice and the milk, as well as milling and soaking the rice to make it fully digestible by the pigs. Some of this is a nuisance and is a hidden cost if you’re not paying attention. I’ve adjusted our business planning spreadsheet to fully account for the change in motor vehicle use and increase in waste disposal to ensure we know how much this ‘free’ feed actually costs us (financially – we also weigh all financial choices up against the environmental and social benefits of each decision, and salvage feed wins on every count).
The necessity of learning more about pig nutrition and carefully adjusting their rations to ensure they’re getting the best possible diet is some of the real work of farming, something that’s been lost in large-scale industrialised agriculture where the knowledge and competence to source, process, mix and distribute feed has been outsourced to another segment of the ‘industry’.
Stuart and I are both feeling excited and invigorated by our newest milestone and its requisite stepping up our skills and knowledge. It’s got us back on the case of working out an effective and productive mixed perennial and annual fodder cropping system in the paddocks as well.
There are more improvements happening with the cattle I’ll write about soon enough, where I’ll include details on the introduction of the chickens and their eggmobile out on the paddocks providing an incredible ecological service to our soils while nutrient cycling what would otherwise be ‘waste’ from our own boning room. This year we not only quit commercial grain and made it fully onto salvaged feed, we also went from being ‘paddock-to-plate’ to being ‘paddock-to-paddock’!
Bring on 2017!
Postscript: A quick note on waste-stream feed, animal health, and food safety.
Swill feeding (feeding waste feed that includes any meat product or product that has been in contact with meat) is banned in Australia and much of the industrialised world. There are some good reasons for this, as some downgraded food can become contaminated with pathogens that make animals and/or the people who eat them ill. For example, foot and mouth disease, which can be derived from contaminated meat products fed to pigs, has wrought havoc with pig production overseas. A blanket ban on swill feeding is typical of most regulation – incapable of dealing with complexity – and clear guidance and monitoring of use of swill would obviously be preferable for a small-scale farm. Meat meal is actually quite common in most pig feed (they are omnivores after all) – it is heat treated to kill potential pathogens. We have concerns about the origins of said meat (and fish) meal, so always opted out of that option in the pellets.
What I will say about the moral panic around feeding pigs swill, a practice claimed to be thousands of years old, is that it serves to protect the interests of Big Ag (whether intentionally or not) to the detriment of small-scale farmers. Intentionality is to an extent immaterial – the consequences are that a) food is wasted that could have gone to producing more food, b) small-scale farmers are forced to pay higher feed costs rather than use their labour to re-purpose waste, and c) most farms are forced to rely on monocultural grain production.
While we obviously don’t feed any swill to our pigs, we would love to see a day when sensible, safe regulations were put in place to allow swill feeding to reduce waste, increase smallholder profitability, and end reliance on unsustainable grain production for livestock feed.
My interest in community-supported agriculture started in early 2000 as an eater in search of local, organic vegetables for my dear little family of three, soon to be pregnant with the fourth of ultimately five Jonai. We were living in Santa Cruz, California, pursuing the granola, earth-mama lifestyle so prevalent in that part of the world in spite of the exorbitant cost of living. Living on just $35,000 per annum with a rent of $1600 per month, we didn’t have cash to spare.
I was a vegetarian at the time, which helped keep food costs down, but I was also determined to feed the little people I had grown inside my own body organic produce only. And so after many months of joyful shopping at Santa Cruz’s excellent twice-weekly farmer’s markets, we stumbled across the CSA farm run by the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC).
Even now, the UCSC CSA vegie box is a mere $25/week, payable as $560 in advance of the 22-week season. It was a struggle to find the money up front, but UCSC offers low-income households a few options to improve access, and we were able to pay in two instalments instead of one.
The bounty was incredible – a box of seasonal fruit and veg plucked from the farm each morning before collection time. Interacting with the student farmers and hearing about the harvest – successes & failures – was a highlight of the week, often helping us understand better what was and wasn’t working in our own little garden a mile away from campus.
A decade later we found ourselves setting up our own farm in the central highlands of Victoria, Australia. From the beginning we were keen to run the farm as a CSA, but until we tested our supply of ethically-raised rare-breed pork and beef, we didn’t feel confident asking people to commit. It seemed wrong to ask the community to share our risk when we weren’t even sure what the risks were, and had no production data to know what our average litter sizes or carcass yields would be.
The first year of meat sales (second year on the farm) affirmed our caution in waiting to start the CSA. We had a lot to learn about farming and butchering, and were pleased with the way demand for our produce grew rather organically as supply grew, without placing undue pressure on us to produce more.
Halfway through that first year of selling meat, we crowdfunded a $30,000 boning room and I trained as a butcher while Stuart built it, and we see the crowdfunding as our first foray into community-supported agriculture, because that’s just what it was. People pledged an up-front payment for a reward of fresh pork we delivered once we had a licensed boning room. And that’s how it works – people take a risk with you and you deliver, and so we did.
The same month we got our licence for the boning room was also the month we launched our CSA. It was also just a few months before we reached peak production – an average of eight pigs and a side of beef per fortnight. We’d watched our land carefully over the previous two years as we went from our original single boar and five breeding sows until we reached two boars and 12 sows on our 69 acres in addition to an average of 18 cattle.
We have sufficient demand to grow more animals for meat, but our land would suffer, so we reached the limit set by our soil and climate. We’d set out to be an ethically-viable no-growth model, and two years in, we found the limit of our start-up growth. It also just happens to be a very full and fulfilling schedule, and the workload, while sometimes quite intense, is sustainable for a small family farm.
So with those three variables – taking over our supply chain with the boning room, reaching peak production, and launching the CSA – in January 2014 we went from running a small loss to making our first profit, and we’ve been profitable since.
The first month, we had eight subscribers, which gave us an assured income of just over $12,000 for the year. Six months into the CSA, we had 25 members, and by the start of the second year our community had grown to 40, with about two-thirds based in Melbourne and one-third spread around our region. As we enter the third year, we have 74 members and a waiting list for Melbourne, with room for about 15 more members in the region.
In exchange for 6 or 12 months payment up front, or a monthly payment, subscribers get 3, 5, 6 or 10kg bags of pork only or mixed pork and beef cuts, including our range of smallgoods. The bags now may also contain pet treats, bone broths, air-dried muscles such as coppa, lonza and pancetta, and charcuterie such as our popular pâté de tête made from the heads.
The CSA currently guarantees us an income of just under $100,000 out of a total revenue of approximately $170,000 projected for 2015-16. The remainder is about $50,000 in ad hoc sales in the region and through farm gate, and approximately $20,000 from our monthly workshops. Our profit margin is around 30%, giving us an income of just over $50,000 after all farm expenses are covered.
Our cost of living here is so low as we grow and barter for the majority of our food and live a low-consumption lifestyle that we find this income meets all our needs, and will actually increase slightly as we improve certain processes and eventually stop building new structures!
Aside from a secure income, there are too many benefits to the farmers and the eaters in community-supported agriculture to possibly quantify, but I’ll mention a few. For us, getting to know our members, their preferences, and their appreciation for our efforts and the uncommonly delicious results is invaluable. The emails, texts, and photos on social media sharing how people have cooked our meat, or how their children will no longer eat any sausages but ours are salve to knuckle-weary farmers at the end of a day of what must otherwise be thankless toil for those working in a disconnected, windowless industrial boning room or cavernous sheds full of shrieking, stinking, miserable pigs.
Since joining your csa our monthly spend on meat has reduced by heaps. Also the meat you provide is so nourishing that we often have some left over by the time the new bag arrives (usually bacon so i freeze it). We get the small pack and it is enough for three full size women who eat well! (One is 12 but she is the middle size person). AND of course the taste is sensational. All three of us were unable to stomach pork prior to trying yours! You are awesome! Thank you. (CSA member Tani Jakins, 2015)
Even the critical feedback – not enough meat on the ribs, too much fat on the bacon, uncertainty about the grey colour of our nitrite-free bacon – is so much easier to hear from people with whom we have an ongoing and genuine relationship. This feedback has helped me improve my butchering skills as members have guided me with their desires, just as it has taught many of them that fat is delicious and nitrites are the only reason most bacon is lurid pink.
Logistically, running a CSA with bags of mixed cuts enables me to ensure every carcass is fully utilised, and makes packing day a much simpler exercise than when I was cutting and filling bags to custom requirements. And the standard CSA set box model teaches eaters to be better, more resourceful cooks attached to seasons and the reality of just 28 ribs and two tenderloins per pig. It also means automated repeating invoices, instead of endless documentation of weights after packing followed by 100 tailored invoices into the night before delivering 400kg of meat.
Having attended the Urgenci: International Network for Community-Supported Agriculture conference in China in November, we’ve come back full of ideas from our CSA farming comrades around the globe, including plans to share our budget with members (starting with sharing the financial data here right now!), and preparation to host a members-only Open Day on the farm, with butchery & cooking demos, music, and of course a long lunch of Jonai Farms pork and beef surrounded with organic bounty from other growers in our beautiful region.
At Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths, we say we don’t need to scale, we need to multiply. In our region and across Australia we see this happening rapidly, and we’re delighted to be amongst at least half a dozen small-scale free-range pig farms within 100km of us. There’s room for many more if our waiting list is anything to go by, and imagine a land re-populated with families caring for the land, sending our kids to the local schools, and re-creating vibrant rural communities. You won’t get that with scale – quite the opposite in fact.
Community-supported agriculture comes from an ethics of connectedness, care, and solidarity. It ensures accountability at both the farmer and the eater end of the equation, provides a viable living for farmers, and helps everyone learn more about the hows and whys of food production. As we enter our third year of running our farm as a CSA, we’d like to thank our members – those who’ve been with us since the beginning and those recently arrived – we couldn’t do this without you.
If you’re interested in reading further about CSAs around the world, have a look at the Urgenci website, and especially the Principles of Teikei, developed in Japan, the birthplace of CSAs in the 1970s.
Viva la revolución!
Principles of Teikei
Principle of mutual assistance
Principle of accepting the produce
Principle of mutual concession in the price decision
Principle of deepening friendly relationships
Principle of self-distribution
Principle of democratic management
Principle of learning among each group
Principle of maintaining the appropriate group scale
This has become a regular occurrence for me. Next I school the butcher, providore, or waiter on the difference between ‘bred free range’ (aka ‘outdoor bred’) and ‘free range’ and suggest they have a look at Otway’s website, where they themselves clearly state that they are ‘bred free range’. Ditto Western Plains.
Confused yet? Fair enough. Fortunately, I’m here to help. 😉 Let me explain the three systems for raising pigs we have in Australia so you need not be confused anymore.
Pigs are kept indoors their entire lives on concrete or slatted floors. In some systems the breeders are kept in individual pens with limited movement. In others pigs are kept in groups. Some of these systems use both group and individual pens. The industry is moving away from gestation stalls (where sows are kept immobile for their entire gestation period of 3 months, 3 weeks & 3 days) due to consumer demand for higher welfare standards.
Outdoor Bred (aka ‘Bred Free Range’)
Breeding sows are kept outdoors, and farrow (give birth) in huts with access to the paddocks until they’re weaned, typically at 4 weeks. The weaners are then kept in groups in open-sided straw-based sheds, also called ‘eco-shelters’, where they spend the rest of their lives until slaughter.
All pigs are raised entirely outdoors, with free access to shelter and wallows at all times.
Within these three systems for raising pigs in Australia, there is diversity amongst farm management strategies in regards to tail docking, castration, vaccinations, weaning, sub-therapeutic antibiotics in feed, sow management, age for slaughter, and stocking density.
Unfortunately, most outdoor bred growers are still using the term ‘bred free range’ on their marketing materials, and butchers and provedores just as much as consumers are often confused by the distinction (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t intentionally misleading customers).
In three separate butcher’s shops over the past two months I have asked where their pork labeled free-range was from and been told either Otway Pork or Western Plains, which are outdoor bred systems, not free range. I know of others who have had the same experience. I always tell the butcher that they’re wrong, and they apologise and profess ignorance.
I’m not interested in critiquing butchers, nor intensive or outdoor bred systems here, but I am interested in eaters being able to make informed choices. As I’ve written before, ethical decision-making is deeply reliant on the availability of accurate information. If you understand the difference in the systems and which one is in front of you, you can decide for yourself whether you are happy with that animal welfare standard. But if you are misled about the system, someone is taking that choice away from you, and you shouldn’t stand for it.
I recommend that for those who truly want only free-range pork, you do a couple of simple things:
1) always ask whether the pork is free range, whether it’s on a menu, in a butcher’s shop, or in a deli;
2) if they say it’s free range, ask the name of the farm. If it’s Otway or Western Plains, it’s not free range (there are other outdoor bred growers as well, but these two are by far the largest in Victoria);
3) print this out and take it to your butcher, cafe, or deli if they tell you an outdoor bred farm is free range – they may simply not know the difference.
Choice is great. We can all choose how we want to eat, and what sort of farming we support, so long as we can rely on accurate information. You may choose intensively-raised or free-range pork, caged or pastured eggs, conventional or organic fruit and veg, or a wholly vegan diet, but not if those of us who produce and sell the food don’t tell you the truth of what’s in it.