by Christopher Fisher
You May Call Her Frankie
An enthusiastic crowd of nearly a hundred souls welcomed Francis Moore Lappé to the Healdsburg SHED just after sunset on the second Thursday in November. Lappé was on hand to help launch the North Coast Heritage Grain Alliance, a Sonoma County non-profit with an ambitious and worthy mission – to return a thriving local grain economy to California’s North Coast.
This was a diverse crowd – farmers & ranchers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers and consumers, young and old; most definitely epicureans. We were there to celebrate the possibilities of local grain production, after all, and anticipating some fine local breads to sample. We were not disappointed.
It was clear the group was excited to hear Frances Moore Lappé speak, she being something of a rock star in the history of the food movement, but there was also a palpable excitement in the air that Lappé herself noted, something about being present at the beginning of a new era, ripe with possibility. This evening seemed remarkable, she suggested, one small but integral part of a growing worldwide movement that embraces the principles of agreocology and food sovereignty – what Lappé referred to as “the new science of ecological agriculture.”
“You are choosing to trust the Earth and each other as you build the new Grain Alliance to bring back heritage grains,” she told the audience, adding that “this is not a New Age fantasy, this is a ‘New Rage’ of positive possibility. Our actions are contagious. Courage is contagious!”
Informed by an abundance of research, Lappé’s enthusiasm has always been both contagious and empowering.
She caught the world’s attention in 1971, with the publication of her first book, Diet for a Small Planet. A worldwide bestseller, the book is credited with introducing millions of people to the ecological ramifications of meat production and the possibilities of vegetarianism. It was among the earliest popular critiques of the modern, industrialized food system which evolved in the post-World War 2 era, and provided inspiration for the subsequent work of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters and many others.
Writing in The Nation magazine in 2011, journalist Michael Pollan suggested that “Lappé’s groundbreaking book connected the dots between something as ordinary and all-American as a hamburger and the environmental crisis, as well as world hunger.”
“Along with Wendell Berry and Barry Commoner, Lappé taught us how to think ecologically about the implications of our everyday food choices. You can now find that way of thinking, so radical at the time, just about everywhere—from the pages of Time magazine to the menu at any number of local restaurants,” wrote Pollan.
Several years after the publication of Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé met journalist Joseph Collins and began a lengthy writing collaboration that continues to this day. The duo founded Food First – the Institute for Food and Development Policy – in 1975 and soon thereafter published their first of many books together, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. That book, along with Susan George’s 1976 How the Other Half Dies, laid to waste the notion that hunger was caused by insufficient food production for an overpopulated world, a central tenant of the prevailing conventional wisdom of food and hunger.
The world already produced more than enough food than was needed to feed the people, they argued. It’s just that too much of that food was in the form of grain which was fed to animals, too much was produced by multinational agribusinesses in export-oriented economies for consumption by Western consumers, too much was simply wasted along the food chain. The global food system was, they suggested, decidedly undemocratic, with waste and hunger its intrinsic byproducts. Simply cranking up the efficiency of our industrial ag system and producing more was not the answer.
The myth of food scarcity remains a popular explanation for hunger today, a point Lappé promptly made to our gathering in Healdsburg.
“There are actually 40% more calories produced for every person on Earth than there was when I wrote Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. It comes to about 3,000 calories for every human on Earth.”
Unfortunately, Lappé has noted in her most recent collaboration with Joseph Collins, World Hunger: 10 Myths, roughly half of the world’s grain and most of its soy protein is used for animal feed and non-food uses. Lack of food is still not the problem.
The North Coast Heritage Grain Alliance
Quite a few of those present in Healdsburg were already well-acquainted with the Grain Alliance. There were several of the group’s founding and board members in attendance, among them Mai Nguyen, a Mendocino County grain farmer whose efforts were recently featured in the Mendocino Beacon, and Celine Underwood, founder of the widely acclaimed Brickmaiden Breads.
The Mendocino Grain Project’s Doug Mosel – himself on a years-long quest to reinvigorate a local grain economy – was there. Mosel has been integral to the Grain Alliance’s founding, according to director Deborah Walton of Canvas Ranch, located in the Two Rock area of Sonoma County, west of Petaluma.
Healdsburg SHED owner Doug Lipton was on hand to host. Lipton and partner Cindy Daniel have been prominent, vocal supporters of efforts to reintroduce local grains to the area’s foodshed since their lovely “modern Grange” opened in 2013. The SHED features an in-house stone mill for public use, sells hand mills for home use and features a selection of local grains from the Mendocino Grain Project and elsewhere for retail sale. Lipton and Daniel have dedicated themselves to rejuvenating a local grain economy.
A farmer for over fifteen years, the Grain Alliance’s Walton noted that she and husband Tim Schaible been growing various grains at their Petaluma-area ranch for six of those years, and had reintroduced farro (emmer) production to California, harvesting about 8,000 pounds last season.
Walton first became enamored of the ancient grain and staple of the Mediterranean diet in 2009 while in Italy. Upon her return she discovered it had once been grown on their land outside Petaluma.
Speaking with me after the SHED event, Walton noted the nutritional benefits of farro: it’s nutrient-rich, high in fiber and magnesium, and low in gluten. Spreading the word about farro and other heritage grains will be a major priority of the new Grain Alliance.
“The important thing to do now too is to get the word out to the general public about grains in general. I just can’t tell you how many times I have to explain the whole gluten situation – why people are having such a hard time digesting bread. They’re just eating the wrong kind, that’s all. So I would like to do some education around that as well.”
The Grain Alliance’s origins lay in a winter 2009 meeting of a small group of local farmers who dreamed aloud about the prospects for reintroducing locally-grown, heirloom grains to a northern California foodshed from which they’d largely disappeared.
A winter 2014 meeting found substantially more interest in local grains from farmers, bakers, brewers and distillers in the region, leading directly to the formation of the new non-profit to support their efforts.
“This was only December 12 of last year that the Grain Alliance actually started, so we’re not even a year old, but during this year I’ve been doing a lot of reaching out to farmers, millers, bakers, microbrewers, and everybody says the time is right, that this is exactly what we need right now,” said Walton. “We’ve had a rebirth of heirloom vegetables, grass-fed beef, omega 3 eggs. It’s time we brought grains back, so that’s the mission.”
According to Walton, the Grain Alliance has four primary objectives:
- Support existing and new grain farmers with educational, training and other farm resources.
- Connect grain farmer with grain users, be they consumers, bakers, millers, brewers or distillers.
- Ensure access to the infrastructure for grain farming, processing, and distribution.
- Raise awareness of and increase demand for whole grain products.
“Getting people onto the website to join as members” is a big priority, Walton told me.
“With membership they can post and share things on the website. I get those kinds of calls pretty often. So if a baker is looking for 100 pounds of local rye they can post that and connect with all the farmers who’ve signed up who might have what they need or know who does. That’s what I see as the tremendous benefit of having as robust a website as we have.”
Walton went out of her way to thank Carrie Dufour of the Sloat Design Group for that website – www.GrainAlliance.org – and other strategic marketing and identity services the company provided as the grantor of the 2015 Farm to Shelf Service Grant to the Grain Alliance. The annual grant is intended to benefit “farming that puts people, animals, and the environment first and to make responsible farming an economically viable way of life.”
Walton said the grant was a tremendous head start for a fledgling non profit.
“It was huge! They say it was worth $30,000 in donated time, but I believe we got a lot more value than that. I said look, the website is going to be the thing for this organization. I don’t need a brochure. So that’s what they spent their time on and boy it’s just a wonderful site. They’re so great to work with and absolutely fabulous.”
A Local Grain Economy
Since local grain production has largely disappeared over the past several decades, the equipment to harvest and mill grains has gone as well. Doug Mosel has for some years now regularly lent his combines to a host of growers for harvesting, including Walton’s Canvas Ranch. Such equipment is prohibitively expensive, particularly for young or beginning farmers, but necessary.
Mosel told writer Leilani Clark in 2014 that he had noticed a substantial growth of interest in growing local grains in recent years, suggesting that you could find a growing local grain movement nationwide, but particularly in Northern California.
“It kind of started up simultaneously in Mendocino, Sonoma, Humboldt, and Lake counties. Farmers showed an interest in trying out grains again.”
Liam UiCearbhaill, the current manager of another local grain endeavor – the Grange Grains project – pointed out to writer Kate Maxwell recently that “within living memory, Mendocino was the primary supplier to the bay area” of a variety of grains, including wheat, oats, and barley. Mills were a much more common feature of local communities.
Today the broader category of field crops represents less than 1% of agricultural production in the region, so little that such crops are not currently tracked in any of the region’s annual county crop reports.
Rebuilding a local grain food chain that stretches from grower to miller to consumer and back again will require considerable time and resources, but yield positive results for our health and environment as we consume more nutritious whole grains that are also beneficial for soils, and eat less highly processed foods made with enriched white flours.
“Since I wrote Diet for a Small Planet, nutrition and calories have been parting ways. Now you can have all the calories you need, but still be harmed by poor nutrition,” said Lappé in Healdsburg, noting further a recent study had concluded that within five years 75% of all deaths will be due to non-communicable diseases, most of them diet-related.
“So our food, for the first time in human evolution, our food is making us sick. Our food is killing us. There is this parting of nutrition and calories.”
Despite this and other bad news – Lappé noted the alarming disruption of the phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, for example – she remained decidedly optimistic, pointing to the Grain Alliance and other multifaceted efforts to rebuild local food and agricultural economies.
She called our attention a meeting she attended in Wisconsin in the winter of 1988 with a small group of Wisconsin dairy farmers who hoped to form a cooperative. Family farmers at the time seemed dying breed and they hoped to survive through a collaborative effort. Lappé encouraged the group to proceed, but had now idea how successful they would become. The Organic Valley cooperative is now the single largest source of organic milk in the U.S.
“I ask you to think about the tremendous power that you have,” she said, suggesting the times call for boldness and pushing past fears which may prevent people from acting.
“Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist,” she read, quoting Chinese writer Lu Xun from a poster she said had adorned her wall for years. “It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”