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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Fresh Look at Food

Salisbury Post

A new way of thinking about food.

That's what the documentary "Fresh," screened last Thursday in Salisbury, was designed to promote.

The screening at Catawba College's Center for the Environment was co-sponsored by the center, Bread Riot and Wild Turkey Farms.

A panel discussion followed, featuring Dr. Chris Magryta of Salisbury Pediatrics, Maggie Blackwell of the Salisbury City Council and Bread Riot, Lee Menius of Wild Turkey Farms and Libby Post, director of child nutrition for Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

The innovative way "Fresh" is being distributed around the country seems to fit its subject matter. Rather than screening in theatres, it's been released to small groups — who often discuss its content afterward — in order to create a shift in consciousness from a grassroots level.

The goal, according to the "Fresh" Web site, has been to "create a ripple effect" and help "reach a tipping point where sustainable food is no longer a niche market but mainstream."

With 200 people attending locally, there is clearly strong interest locally.

The movie explains different farming approaches and ultimately expresses optimism that we can evolve beyond our current industrialized farming paradigm to smaller, more sustainable — and still profitable — models.

The movie begins with a poultry farm that packs huge numbers of chickens into small spaces, giving them antibiotic-laced feed to prevent the illness that often accompanies such stressful conditions.

Such a "monoculture," with large numbers of a single species grown together, is not healthy or sustainable in the long term, the film argues, whether it's chickens or cottons or soybeans being exclusively grown.

For example, in the cattle feedlot model, with no field crops, vast lagoons of waste are produced, creating serious environmental issues.

And when only crops are grown, with no animals to produce the manure that keeps fields healthy, huge amounts of chemical fertilizer must be used, since planting the same crop year in, year out, depletes the soil.

In the ideal system, diversity promotes health and efficiency. Animal waste goes back into the soil, so plant crops don't need chemical fertilizers.

The film questions factory farming without demonizing those who practice it, since many farmers have simply done what "experts" have recommended in recent years.

Joel Salatin is one farmer, from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, who practices sustainable farming. Salatin, who is featured prominently in Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," explains that cows are herbivores and points out that in our quest for cheap food and more "efficient" farming methods, some farming operations are feeding animal protein — "dead cows" — to cows.

Salatin said that when his father acquired the farm many years ago, he rejected the prevailing wisdom and chose to follow a more natural template.

Following in his father's footsteps, Salatin is an outspoken and charismatic advocate of grass feeding. After the cows have grazed one area, it's the chickens' turn to follow behind, pecking through the waste, eating what's useful for them, including undigested grain and bugs.

His chickens are allowed, Salatin says, "to fully express their chicken-ness."

(It's an approach that is quite similar to what Lee and Domisty Menius are doing at Wild Turkey Farms near China Grove.)

Hog farmer Russ Kremer explained that when he went to college, increased production was the main goal for the modern farmer.

"I got hung up on efficiency," he says. He finally came to the realization that his "efficient" operation was anything but. His hogs were constantly sick, he says, and he spent much of his time injecting them with medication.

He had an epiphany after one of his boar hogs stabbed him in the kneecap.

The resulting strep infection, he believes, was a particularly virulent "monster" strain because of the overuse of antibiotics — common practice in the industry.

Deciding he'd gone down the wrong path, he exterminated his whole herd and started over, with a radically different approach.

As a result, the diseases disappeared, and Kremer says he hasn't used an antibiotic on his hogs in 14 years. His vet bills have all but disappeared.

He now raises 300 hogs — fewer than before, but enough for him to earn a living. Raising fewer animals will mean

that farmers will need to make more on each one, but the writer of "Omnivore's Dilemma" Michael Pollan points out that local and organic food, while more expensive, is a higher value product.

Cheap food is an illusion, he says, when the bill is ultimately charged to the environment or to our health.

Farm subsidies, he points out, tend to go to crops like soybeans and corn, which are main ingredients of unhealthy processed food.

The movie also highlights Will Allen, an urban farmer and activist who farms on three acres in Milwaukee. More importantly, perhaps, Allen teaches what he knows and spreads the gospel of healthy food production.

The film also looks at David Ball, owner of a chain of independent supermarkets dedicated to supporting local sustainable agriculture.

Discussion Thursday night after the film focused on shopping locally, from local producers. Many questions concerned how consumers could support local producers.

City Council member and Bread Riot member Maggie Blackwell emphasized the importance of people supporting local businesses and building relationships with the farmers who grow our food. Exposing your children to those relationships makes them feel like part of a community, she said.

She mentioned several farmer's markets available seasonally in Salisbury — the Salisbury Farmer's Market and one at the hospital. She also mentioned the Bread Riot, a community group that has formed buying relationships with local producers to support local production.

Dr. Chris Magryta spoke on the relationship of food and disease, and how making positive changes in the way we eat can forestall or prevent the onset of many diseases.

He pointed out that grass-fed beef, which contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is preferable to grain-fed beef, which contains the kind of fat that can cause an inflammatory response in our bodies.

Lee Menius, owner of Wild Turkey Farms, spoke of promoting a different way to farm, and of the need to help farmers transition from the old way of doing things to a more sustainable model. "Markets need to be in place," he said. He also spoke of the loss of the infrastructure to support sustainable farming — for example, he has to drive miles in order to find a plant that will process his meat.

Libby Post, who is head of cafeteria services in the local schools, talked about changes being made in the schools, including more fresh vegetables offered, with an emphasis on locally and regionally produced produce when feasible.

Dr. John Wear, executive director of the Center for the Environment, pointed out that the center will be offering spring and summer workshops on creating community gardens, as well as planning, planting, harvesting and preserving food.

A reception at the event included food provided by Bame Farms, Poplin Farms, Laughing Owl Farm, Goat Lady Dairy, New Moon Organics, Fisher Farm and the Bread Basket.