Fresno’s Freedom School is Changing the Narrative on Farming for Black Youth

Civil Eats

Fresno’s Freedom School is Changing the Narrative on Farming for Black Youth

The year-round vegetable farm and job-skills program in an investment in the city’s African-American youth.

At New Light for New Life Church of God in West Fresno, the well-tended backyard yields a colorful fall crop—green and purple cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and curly kale. A few stalks of okra are left, too, as a reminder of summer’s bounty. But this is not just any church garden. This is the Freedom School Demonstration Farm, a year-round vegetable farm managed by a core group of 37 children and their adult mentors.

“It’s very healing to get your hands in the dirt,” said Aline Reed, Freedom School’s board chair. “For African-American children, especially, we are changing the narrative of working outside—of planting, harvesting, and working.”

The church’s associate pastor, the Rev. Floyd D. Harris Jr. (pictured above), founded the Freedom School in 2015 based generally on the Freedom Schools of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. This school is a wrap-around program for West Fresno youth, offering cultural, educational, and job skills programs to at-risk students in grades K-12.

The urban farming group meets on Saturdays during the school year and twice a week during the summer, including at least three farmers’ markets held at the church. Children also perform public service projects and give produce to seniors and others in the neighborhood. In addition to agriculture, the Freedom School teaches tangible job skills such as construction, landscaping, janitorial work, photography, journalism, and video production.

A flock of geese fly over Freedom School Fresno’s demonstration farm, located behind New Light for New Life Church of God. (Photo © Joan Cusick)A flock of geese fly over Freedom School Fresno’s demonstration farm, located behind New Light for New Life Church of God.

Dr. Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, a small farms advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension Service in Fresno, occasionally works with community programs like the Freedom School. “It’s a small group, but they are filling an important role in the food security of our communities,” she said. “You’ve got projects like the Freedom School and the Sweet Potato Project [run by the West Fresno Family Resource Center] that are providing young people opportunities they might not have had in job development.”

Harris grew up in West Fresno and remains passionate about the need to lift up its low-income residents. One recent analysis rated Fresno, 8 percent of whose 527,000 residents are Black, the 10th-worst U.S. city for African-Americans to live in: the Black median income is $25,895, less than half the average white income in the city, and the Black poverty rate is 41.2 percent—one of the largest rates for any city—compared with a 13 percent white poverty rate. Fresno was the only West Coast metro area to make the list.

“When the children come [to the Freedom School], they see a sense of self, a sense of love, a sense of purpose, a sense of someone to care about me,” Harris said. “At the Freedom School, we are about character-building. We’re about discipline. We’re about having fun.”

Growing and Learning Year-Round

When Maria Else joined the Freedom School Board in 2017 as its secretary and curriculum coordinator, the urban farming program “was only supposed to be in the summer,” she said. But based on the children’s interest and enthusiasm, the demonstration farm extends year-round.

“Farming has so many parts to it,” Else said. “The kids all kind of gravitate toward different areas. And that’s what we want to teach them: Agriculture is not just planting. It is engineering and science and so many different aspects.”

Marie Else manages Freedom School's curriculum. (Photo © Joan Cusick)Marie Else manages Freedom School’s curriculum.

The curriculum covers a wide range of topics, too. In January and February, the Saturday classes focus on African-American culture and history. (While Fresno is a predominantly Latinx city, and the Freedom School is open to students of all backgrounds, its home in an African-American church guides much of its curriculum and student body.)

In the spring, several weeks of planting are followed by farm maintenance. During the summer, the program expands to twice a week, allowing time for harvesting, selling, and field trips. In September, the urban farmers prepare their entry for the Big Fresno Fair, where they’ll enter recipes such as watermelon chutney and craft projects like black-and-green potholders.

As the year winds down, the students plant and maintain winter crops while learning about nutrition and cooking. The young students have learned to prepare dishes such as stuffed peppers, black-eyed pea hummus, dill pickles, and their award-winning watermelon chutney. Healthy eating is a frequent topic.

“We talk to them about different diseases and illnesses that affect African-Americans, including high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure,” Else said.

They’re also getting exposure to the world of agricultural research. Last spring, researchers selected the Freedom School as one of three test sites to grow two types of black-eyed peas—one a U.S. commercial blend, and the other an aphid-resistant strain crossed with Nigerian lines from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. The project included researchers Bao-Lam Huynh and Philip Roberts of U.C. Riverside, plus Nick Clark and Dahlquist-Willard, both with the U.C. extension service. Freedom School students helped plant, maintain, and harvest the peas. Dahlquist-Willard is analyzing their results.

“The Nigerian blend did not get one aphid on it, and they were planted right next to the American blend, which was covered in aphids,” Else reported. “We don’t know what kind of magic is in those Nigerian black-eyed peas.”

Changing the Narrative of Black Farmers

Arogeanae Brown, who grew up in Fresno and now works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), wrote her Virginia Tech master’s thesis about nine Black-led community-based agricultural programs, including Freedom School Fresno. She also devoted time to mentoring its students when she came home between semesters, talking with them about agricultural careers and introducing them to groups like 4-H and Future Farmers of America.

“It’s very healing to get your hands in the dirt,” says board member Aline Reed. (Photo © Joan Cusick)“It’s very healing to get your hands in the dirt,” says board member Aline Reed.

Although the ag programs Brown studied welcome children of all races, Brown concluded, the emphasis on Black history helped African-American children thrive. “[The school’s] major focus was allowing students to have a knowledge of their history—where they come from and how the land is managed,” she said. “To get students interested in agriculture overall, we really have to dig up our history and understand slavery.”

Freedom School also strives to change the Black farmer stereotype, which is often cited as a barrier to entry for ag-related careers.

“Most Blacks have an impression of farming based on our history in this country,” said Fresno farmer Will Scott, citing a history of slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow laws. “But we need to get back into it from a new approach. We need to get young people of color back to the farm not just so they can grow their own food but so they can participate in the food system.”

                                     A student poster for Freedom School hangs in the multipurpose room, where classes are held.

The challenge facing black farmers in Fresno are mirrored nationwide. In the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, Black farmers accounted for just 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.2 million farmers. California reported 526 Black farm operators—.7 percent of the state’s nearly 78,000 total farms—of whom only 345 were principal operators in charge of day-to-day operations. In Fresno County alone, only 42 out of 5,683 farms reported African-American farmers.

Harris sees the Freedom School as one way to give African-American children in West Fresno the extra help they need to avoid becoming another statistic. Of more than 100 students to complete the program, several have received college scholarships, and two have completed USDA internships.

“God has favor on us,” Harris said, “because when we look at the success rate of our students—the grades are going up, the behaviors are getting better, they’re eating better, and they’re winning competitions. This is self-esteem building.”

Board Chair Reed said the Freedom School shows kids that agriculture is not just a pastime; “This is something you can devote a career to and make it your future,” she said.

Harris agreed. “When we can see our children walking across the stage with a second degree and a $100,000 job waiting on them at the USDA, that’s what we want to see,” he said. “We want these children to grow into healthy Black men and healthy Black women, and to change society to be a healthy place for them.”

Can Eating Organic Lower Your Exposure to Pesticides?

Civil Eats

Can Eating Organic Lower Your Exposure to Pesticides?

A new study tracks the pesticides and residues in a small cohort of eaters, and found significant reductions when they switched to an all-organic diet.

For consumers uncertain about the value of organic food, a new study adds evidence to a larger body of research showing that eating organic very well may reduce pesticides in the human body. The study, which was just published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research, finds that families eating a 100 percent organic diet rapidly and dramatically reduced their exposure to four classes of pesticides—by an average of 60 percent—over six days.

Conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley School of Public Health and funded in part by the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth, the study builds on prior studies—including one conducted on adults in Australia, and two on children in Seattle and California—which all similarly found that switching to organic food quickly and substantially reduced pesticide exposures.

The researchers studied 16 people in four demographically and geographically diverse families, hailing from Oakland, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Atlanta. Researchers tested participants for a select group of pesticides and their breakdown products in urine; working with independent laboratories to analyze urine samples, they found 14 different compounds that represented up to 40 different pesticides. After six days on the organic diet, overall pesticide levels dropped 60.5 percent in both the adults and children.

“It’s striking that the levels dropped so dramatically after only six days,” said Kendra Klein, senior scientist at Friends of the Earth and one of the report’s authors. “That’s the good news,” she said. “We’re seeing that something you ingest can clear from your body in a few days. The problem is that we’re eating that food so continuously that we’re getting a daily exposure despite the excretion.”

The study provides important information to consumers who seek to limit their exposure to the hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides and herbicides used in the U.S. today, say researchers.

“Families need this type of information,” says Bruce Lanphear, professor, Faculty of Health Science at Simon Fraser University, who was not involved with the study. “In the absence of a robust regulatory system that protects consumers, these types of studies are critical for consumers or families to make these choices.”

While the study reaffirms previous research, it also breaks new ground by testing for newer classes of pesticides that are now the most widely used in the U.S. today to kill insects, namely neonicotinoids and pyrethroids. Previous organic diet studies focused primarily on organophosphates, such as chlorpyrifos, an older class of pesticides with enough well-documented human toxicity results that some scientists recently called for a ban on all of them.

“To date, we just don’t have enough information about these pesticides that are being used now, such as pyrethroids and neonicotinoids,” says lead author Carly Hyland, a doctoral student at the University of California. “There haven’t been enough large-scale studies.” The new study aimed in part to start building that knowledge base.

But its broader aim, says Klein, was to “understand what pesticides people are exposed to on a conventional diet and what are the possibilities for reducing that exposure.”

Organic Diets Reduce Pesticide Exposures

The families the researchers chose represent a small but geographically and racially diverse group. Pesticide levels were tested in their urine for six days on a conventional diet, and then six days on an all-organic diet.

Though the study group was small, a total of 158 urine samples were collected, which allowed for researchers to find statistical significance in the results—which Lanphear says makes it fairly robust. “I don’t have any doubt, given this study and others, that we wouldn’t expect to see similar reductions in pesticides in other populations,” he told Civil Eats.

Chensheng Lu, a professor at Harvard University who led the Seattle organic diet study, agreed that the results have broader implications because of their consistency with previous research. “The major take-home message is very consistent,” he says.

Organophosphates dropped the most, with a 70 percent overall reduction. Chlorpyrifos—which has been linked to increased rates of autism, learning disabilities, and reduced IQ in children—dropped 61 percent in participants, and malathion, a probable human carcinogen, dropped 95 percent.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not banned chlorpyrifos, despite its own scientists’ advice and a federal court order telling it to do so in August 2018. A U.S. appeals court last week agreed to hear the EPA’s case against banning the pesticide.

The only herbicide included in the study, 2,4-D, dropped by 37 percent in the post-organic urine samples. The fifth most widely used pesticide in 2012 in the U.S. (the last year for which statistics are available) 2,4-D was an ingredient of the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and has been shown to have wide-ranging health impacts from endocrine disruption to liver damage to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Glyphosate, the number one herbicide used today and the focus of a recent, landmark lawsuit against Bayer-Monsanto for the herbicide’s link to cancer, was not included in the study because laboratory methods for detecting it in humans are still in development, according to Hyland, although a number of studies have found the presence of glyphosate in foods on grocery shelves.

“Glyphosate is a difficult compound to be analyzed” in humans, agreed Lu.

New Pesticides, Old Problems?

Among the newer classes of pesticides studied, pyrethroid levels dropped overall by about 50 percent and the one neonicotinoid detected (out of two researchers set out to study) dropped by 84 percent. The other neonicotinoid wasn’t found in the urine samples.

The pyrethroid results somewhat surprised Hyland. “For a long time, we believed that residential use was the greatest source of exposure to pyrethroids because they’re used commonly for pets, ticks, and pest control management,” she said. However, the sharp decreases in pyrethroids in the bodies of the participants after shifting to organic foods showed that “at least some of these exposures are attributable to diet.”

While the health impacts of the newer pesticides aren’t as well-studied, research to date suggests links to a range of neurodevelopmental, reproductive, immunological, and endocrine disorders. More is known about the environmental impact of neonicotinoids, which are thought to be a key contributor to colony collapse disorder in bees.

Humans, said Lanphear, are part of a massive experiment. “When industry and government say that pyrethroids are safe, what they really mean is that we haven’t done the research to know [whether] they’re safe for humans. We’ll find out after pregnant women and children are exposed whether or not they’re harmful.”

Lu agreed. “I can almost predict that what happened to glyphosate will happen to neonicotinoids in the very near future,” he said, referring to the EPA’s repeated claims that the pesticide was safe, only to have the International Agency for Research on Cancer determine it to be potentially carcinogenic.

Among major pesticide manufacturers, Dow Dupont declined the opportunity to comment on the implications of organic diet intervention studies, and Syngenta responded that they wouldn’t comment until they have had a chance to review the published study.

William Reeves, Global Health and Safety Issues Management Lead at Bayer Crop Science, told Civil Eats by email, “Pesticides are commonly used in both conventional and organic agriculture. Regardless of whether food is conventional or organic, the EPA and other regulatory authorities have strict rules when it comes to pesticide residues … Data from regulatory agencies in Europe, Canada, and the United States show that trace residues of pesticides in food, when detectable, are usually far below any level of concern. What is most important for everyone is to eat a balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables.”

Moving to ‘Organic for All’

In an effort to make organic food more widely available, Friends of the Earth is launching an advocacy campaign, Organic for All.

Cost is one barrier for families to switch to organic food. Certified organic food on average costs 47 percent more than conventional food, according to Consumer Reports, though prices vary widely and in some cases organic may be cheaper.

“Everyone should be able to afford food that farmers can make a living off of,” says Klein. “But the people who are going to get squeezed in bringing costs down on organics are farmers.” For this reason, driving down the market for organic food isn’t a workable answer on its own. Instead, she adds, “it’s about changing the rules of the game and the government support system.”

Klein argues that organic farmers should receive a far greater percentage of government subsidies than they currently get. “Less than 2 percent of federal agricultural research funding goes to organic methods,” she says. “Just think what we could do even if we directed just a fair share into organic research programs.”

The 2018 Farm Bill was a step in the right direction, she says, increasing funding for the National Organic Program from $9 million to up to $24 million by 2023. Farmers will benefit, she says, noting that U.S. farmers are unable to keep up with the pace of growing consumer demand for organics, as massive quantities of foreign grown organic foods have entered the market here. “U.S. farmers are losing out because they don’t have adequate support to transition. We’re importing enormous amounts of organic soy and corn [from outside the U.S.] that Midwestern farmers could be growing.”

Retailers can also play a key role, says Klein, by requiring growers in their supply chains to phase out pesticides like chlorpyrifos and neonicotinoids. Costco took steps last June by encouraging all of its produce suppliers to phase out use of both those pesticides. Whole Foods has gone further, listing the pesticides that even its conventional growers can’t use because they are known to be harmful to pollinators or people.

Hyland worries that consumers who are worried about the presence of pesticides in their bodies but can’t afford organic will stop eating fruits and vegetables and suggests that they take small steps, such as by avoiding members of the “dirty dozen” list of produce, such as apples and spinach, known to have heaviest levels of pesticide residues.

Prior to the study, one of its participants from Atlanta, Boyd Baker, said he bought some organic items, like bananas or carrots, but that he didn’t buy a lot of organic. That was largely because it’s hard to find where he shops. A writer and producer of a live variety show, Baker does the majority of the shopping and cooking for his family, which includes his wife and two teenage children.

The pesticide residues present in the Boyd family's urine samples while eating a convention and organic diet.

The pesticide residues present in the Boyd family’s urine samples while eating a conventional (dark orange) and organic (light orange) diet.

Baker told Civil Eats that he found the study results “surprising and little shocking.” “Just to see the dramatic shift…there’s no way it can’t make you think a little more about what you put in.”

Now, he adds, he doesn’t think twice about opting for organic foods in the grocery store, especially if the price difference isn’t large. “You can pay your farmer or you can pay your doctor,” says Baker.

Montana Ranchers are trying to Bring Back Country of Origin Labels on Meat


A newly proposed bill would require COOL placards for beef and pork sold in Montana, and supporters want to see the return of a national policy.

When Jeanie Alderson looks at the big picture of ranching in Montana, the numbers just don’t add up. For generations, it was a state where the owners of small and medium-sized independent ranches like hers could make a living grazing cattle on the wide-open prairie. But now, she said, “people have two or three other jobs to support the habit of ranching.”

Alderson (pictured above) and her family raise grass-finished cattle that they sell directly to consumers as well as calves that get shipped to feedlots in states like Kansas and Nebraska, where they are fattened on corn, and then sold into the conventional market. She’s also part of a coalition of ranchers and local groups, including the Montana Cattlemen’s Association and the Northern Plains Resource Council, that are working to bring back country of origin labeling (COOL) in Montana for beef and pork—with an eye toward impacting the national conversation about how cheap, imported meat is effecting the nation’s remaining independent ranchers.

A federal COOL law went into effect in 2013, but was revoked in 2016 after a ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a subsequent decision by the U.S. Congress after lobbing from the Big Four meat packers. Shortly thereafter, the market for domestic beef dropped for a number of reasons. But ranchers in Montana have tied the shift to the fact that consumers could no longer differentiate meat that came from animals that were raised in the U.S. from those that were imported. One reason is a loophole that allows beef and pork from outside the country to carry a “Product of the USA” label if it has been processed here.

“It’s really confusing to customers and it’s not fair,” said Alderson.

Earlier this week, Montana state senator Albert Olszewski introduced a bill that would bring back a modified version of COOL for beef and pork sold within the state. Rather than require labeling directly on the meat’s packaging, however, the lawmaker hopes to circumnavigate the original WTO ruling—which essentially said that COOL required too much paperwork, and thus violated free trade laws and discouraged American processors from buying foreign meat—by requiring a placard to be placed wherever the meat is sold in the state.

The hope, said Jim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, is to “try to get the dust stirred up here, so we can get the conversation going about getting [COOL] back on a national level.” And while the odds of pushing COOL labeling forward—and providing more consumer transparency in the state—are looking good in the Republican-controlled state senate, the bill also includes language that could get pushback from some consumers. In addition to clarifying and defining many aspects of the production chain, the bill also seeks to define “meat” for marketing purposes, an effort to protect the livestock industry from competition from the emerging cell-based protein industry.

The Value of a Label

The United States imported over 3 billion pounds of beef in 2016, or around one-tenth of what the country consumed that year. Whether it comes from Canada, Australia, or Uruguay, imported beef tends to cost less than beef produced in the U.S. And yet, Alderson points out, most customers aren’t paying less for imported beef at the grocery store.

“It’s pretty clear that imports are undermining our market. If we had COOL labeling, consumers would be able to pay attention and choose a product that was born and raised in the U.S.,” Alderson said. “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t bring in those imports.’ Bring them in, but label them so people have the choice.”

Baker describes the dramatic drop in price he saw after the disappearance of country of origin labeling disappeared. “When COOL was in effect, you got like $2.15 a pound for your live animal; a feeder calf is 750 pounds, so he [was] worth about $1,500 dollars. Then it dropped to around $1.50 a pound, so he was down to just a hair over a thousand.”

Most cow-calf producers make all their income for the entire year on a single day—the day they sell their animals to the feedlot. When the price in the area dropped by a dollar a pound, said Baker, a semi-truck load of cattle—typically weighing 63,000 pounds—brought in around $60,000 less than the year before.

“In a little community like ours, in some cases that [price] difference would make [a difference in whether] people could pay their bills and stay on ranches—or not,” said Alderson.

What the Bill Would Do

The placards Senator Olszewski and his allies have proposed provide three options for labeling. “If you can verify that your meat was born, raised, and processed in the United States—that’s what the placard will say,” Olszewski told Civil Eats. The other two options are “processed in the United States” and “processed outside of the United States.”

The original draft of the bill included the phrase, “origin unknown” for the latter, but Olszewski said it met pushback from the Montana Stock Growers Association and the Montana Farmers Bureau. “The big gorilla in the room are packers and the feedlot people,” said Olszewski, who added that the current draft required negotiation with both groups.

Whether or not consumers will register or understand the difference between the proposed labels is a lingering question. Olszewski acknowledges that some consumers will want more information. But he sees the labels as a worthwhile first step in a longer-term effort. “The goal is to take a very diverse group of stakeholders—people who are very passionate about this—and find some way to create an infrastructure that everybody can learn to develop confidence in and to trust it,” he said.

Gilles Stockton, another cow-and-calf ranch operator and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, worked to get a state-level version of COOL passed in 2005 that ultimately expired before it went into effect because the federal bill took hold. And he’s back at it, in hopes of bringing back a set of rules that had wide-ranging appeal in the state at the time. “We’re going at it again,” he told Civil Eats. He also thinks the bill has a chance of moving forward and becoming law again.

“Most rural Montanans vote Republican, but not necessarily corporate Republican,” he said. “And that’s reflected in the Montana legislature. Ranchers across the board understand the history and see [COOL] as important to their livelihood.” The larger challenge, Stockton adds, has been reaching consumers, who also have a big stake in seeing their meat labeled by country of origin, but often have a hard time wrapping their brain around the complexities of the global supply chain.

Gilles Stockton in Montana

Gilles Stockton

For Jeanie Alderson, selling grass-fed beef direct to sustainability-minded consumers has really brought that fact home. An estimated 70 percent of the grass-fed beef sold in this country is imported, and many consumers appear to prioritize what they see as the nutritional benefits over supporting domestic producers.

Both Stockton and Alderson also point to the fact that everything else Americans eat is currently labeled by its country of origin. “If labeling beef and pork is trade illegal, then what about the labeling of all of these other things?” asked Stockton. “Why isn’t there a big push from other global corporations to eliminate all country of origin labeling? They don’t seem to be concerned about it, they’re living with it just fine.”

Defining Meat

Part five of the proposed Montana bill includes a definition of meat as “edible flesh of livestock or poultry” and proposes calling cellular meat replacements “cell-cultured edible products.” Both efforts, advocates say, are part of an effort to promote truth in labeling.

As the first cellular meat is expected to hit restaurants by the end of this year and both the USDA and U.S. FDA are working on a plan to regulate its commercial sales, several states have begun crafting similar policies. The first of such bills passed in Missouri last May, and another was withdrawn in Nebraska last month.

“We’re trying to be proactive in pointing out that cellular-based proteins need to have their own special name,” said Stockton. “If you take beef cells and grow them in a culture in a vat of liquid, you shouldn’t probably call it beef.” Olszewski echoes this sentiment. “I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with a name that sounds just as tasty as meat,” he added.

According to Jessica Almy, director of policy for Good Food Institute, a nonprofit industry group that promotes both plant-based and cellular meat alternatives from both the animal welfare and environmental perspectives, keeping terms like “meat” and bacon” off labels of cellular products will cause consumer confusion and could be dangerous for those with meat allergies.

GFI is one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenges the Missouri bill on the basis of free speech. “We oppose restrictions on cell-based meat that would censor food labels and make it an unlevel playing field. Our goal is to make sure that these products are able to compete against the products of conventional animal agriculture so that consumers are the ones who are deciding the winners and the losers in the marketplace,” said Almy.

And while ranchers like Stockton and Baker oppose the development of cellular meats, Almy points out a number of the people making decisions about the meat industry upstream don’t have a problem with it. Both Cargill and Tyson, for instance, have invested in Memphis Meats, a cell-based meat-industry darling. “Many conventional companies are positioning themselves as protein companies and trying to ensure that they can feed a growing world population,” said Almy.

Of course, ranchers like Alderson, Baker, and Stockton are less interested in the big meat company’s bottom line than they are in their own ability to compete and stay afloat.

“This is a story about beef, but it’s also about our democracy,” said Alderson. “If we’re going to have economic prosperity, if we’re going to take care of our land and our water and our farmers and ranchers, we need to know where all of our food is really coming from.”

Stockton adds that while country of origin labeling is an important part of restoring competitive markets in the livestock industry, there’s a real danger that its benefits have been oversold in many people’s minds. “COOL alone won’t reform the markets—to really do that, we’ll really need antitrust actions,” he said.

The Montana bill is expected to come up for a vote later this spring.

Every developed nation, from Japan to England to Canada, has extensive fast train systems, yet it is being mocked by ignorant people in this country

Occupy Democrats
February 8, 2019

“Every developed nation, from Japan to England to Canada, has extensive fast train systems, yet it is being mocked by ignorant people in this country without understanding why efficient mass transportation is better than being a slave to your individual car. In Spain for example, all my friends had cars but used the metro system during the week, and used their cars on the weekends to go out or travel outside the city. It actually stimulates the economy when people aren’t wast

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Consumers and chefs are clamoring for heritage-breed pork!

Civil Eats

Can Heritage Pork Scale Up?

Consumers and chefs are clamoring for heritage-breed pork. Can the market support both farmers and pure-bred animals?

Marc Mousseau of Island Creek Plantation and his Ossabaw gilt “Keira.” (Photo © Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy)


In the winter of 2014, near Cambridge, Ontario, farmer Murray Thunberg  made plans to acquire seven British Saddlebacks—lop-eared, black pigs with a white band running across their shoulders—with the intent to breed them. Thunberg already breeds Berkshires, Tamworths, Herefords, and Gloucestershire Old Spots, but the Saddlebacks are an especially rare heritage breed that hadn’t been registered in Canada for 30 years. He set up a GoFundMe campaign, raised over $2,000, and bought the small herd from a farmer in Vermont, becoming one of only a handful of farmers raising them in North America.

At the time, he explained his rational for taking on such a complex  endeavor: “By breeding and raising heritage [pigs], some very precious genetics are being saved and expanded.” Now, he considers himself a guardian of the Saddlebacks; after four years of breeding the animals, and selling some to local chefs and farmers’ market customers, the herd has expanded to 18.

Until the late 1930’s, heritage pigs were the norm on family farms, where they had access to pasture, forests, mud bath wallows, and good bedding. Their fat was seen as essential to human health. “Today those breeds do well on pasture because they have not lost their instincts to forage and graze,” says Ross Duffield, former farm manager at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, an organic research farm with a mandate to work with heritage breeds to improve the soil and help farmers create a high-quality product.

MaLea Easterly of Mount Hope Heritage Farm with her Hereford gilt (Photo © Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy)MaLea Easterly of Mount Hope Heritage Farm with her Hereford gilt (Photo © Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy)

Those foraging instincts were problematic for industrial agriculture, however. Heritage pigs can go stir-crazy and become aggressive in confinement, forcing many breeds to the brink of extinction, out-competed by pigs bred to grow fast and tolerate crowding.

On these large, confinement-based operations, where thousands of hogs are typically raised in one barn, the animals are engineered to grow to market weight in around six months. Heritage breeds, on the other hand, can take a year or more to reach market weight.

For all these reasons, heritage pork can cost 3-5 times as much as the meat from conventional farms, and has remained a niche market, even as consumers and chefs alike fawn over its exceptional marbling and rich porky taste. Yet as many farmers turn to crossbreeding to help manage costs and scale up operations, some experts worry the term “heritage” may be losing its meaning.

What Makes a Pig ‘Heritage’?

The Livestock Conservancy calls animals “heritage” if they have a long history in the United States, are of non-commercial stock, can thrive outdoors and on pasture, and are “purebred animals” of their breed. The term can also be used for the “immediate offspring of purebred heritage breed parents.” In other words, a farmer can take a Saddleback and cross it with another heritage breed such as Tamworth, and still call the offspring from that cross “heritage” animals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t define the term when it comes to pork, and those with a stake in the business don’t expect it to do so anytime soon.

“Heritage was an easy concept to grasp, and it worked for a while until people realized they could make a buck off it,” says Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager at the Livestock Conservancy. She added that the organization is currently considering shifting to the British model, which identifies these pigs by pedigreed breed only, and ditching the term “heritage” all together. “It doesn’t carry any power because so many people are using it loosely,” says Beranger.

The challenge is that a term that began as a way to preserve endangered breeds has also become a popular marketing term for many farmers. Although “heritage” meat has caught on with foodie audiences around the country, and commands a price premium, the two goals—profit and preservation—don’t always go hand in hand. The core challenge is the fact that the majority of farmers who use the term heritage to sell their meat don’t maintain a purebred herd, but instead buy purebred animals to cross.

Don Oberdorfer of Dodge Nature Center with his herd of Guinea Hogs. (Photo © Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy)Don Oberdorfer of Dodge Nature Center with his herd of Guinea Hogs. (Photo © Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy)

There are 11 breeds currently on the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List, rated on a scale from “critically endangered” to “under study.” Breed associations will sometimes approach the Livestock Conservancy about conferring heritage status on their pigs, but some don’t qualify in the U.S. “We were approached by the American Mangalitsa Association, and although they are a new breed in this country, they are not rare in Hungary where they originate, so they didn’t qualify.” Even so, the association’s page lists a reference distinguishing them as a “rare breed.”

Another breed consumers and chefs believe is synonymous with the term heritage is the Berkshire—but they don’t fit the Livestock Conservancy definition, either. “The Berkshire is a grey area that we go back and forth on,” says Beranger. “It’s almost impossible to find a good old-fashioned Berkshire because they’re all crosses.” Farmers register their animals with the 750-member American Berkshire Association.

Berkshires’ meat has excellent marbling after growing for six to eight months, making them more affordable to produce. Farmers can either work with the purebred character, crossing them with other Berkshires to improve genetics, or crossing them with a faster-growing breed such as the Pietrain for productivity.

Balancing Profit and Preservation

How important is purity in this discussion? That depends on whom you ask. With no definition or regulations there’s been a rush to stake a claim in the expanse between commodity and purebred heritage pigs and capitalize on it.

“There are very few purebred programs and none of size,” says Kerri McClimen, senior communications director at Niman Ranch, owned by Perdue Farms. Like Rodale, their program relies on heritage crosses that may include breeds like Tamworth or Hereford, as well as other faster-growing breeds. They raise them following practices commonly used for heritage pigs, but don’t require their breeds to be registered, and don’t market the meat as heritage.

Red Wattle sow in hay owned by Nathan Melson of Sloans Creek Farm (Photo © Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy)Red Wattle sow in hay owned by Nathan Melson of Sloans Creek Farm (Photo © Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy)

Paul Willis, a fifth-generation hog farmer and co-founder of Niman Ranch, has an eye to increasing the market for their product. “We continue to grow at about 10 to 15 percent annually,” he says. To keep up with demand, they prioritize qualities like exceptional mothering, hardiness for pasture, and extraordinary marbling. Willis knows the model has to make economic sense to appeal to farmers. Niman Ranch is producing on a scale uncommon in the sector, but Willis points out that it’s still much smaller than the commodity pork industry. “The average size of our herds is 400,” he says. “While concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) holders can have 70,000 pigs on several properties with each building housing 2,500.”

As McClimen suggests, most purebred heritage pig operations are small and, by extension, don’t enjoy the marketing and distribution advantages of a company like Niman Ranch. Beranger worries the purebred heritage breed may never scale up if big farms don’t contribute to available genetics by breeding their own purebred animals.

“The problem that arises with crosses is everyone depends on someone else to keep the breeding animals pure,” says Beranger. “Hybrid vigor only works if you have an endless supply of purebred animals.”

McClimen agrees, and adds that some Niman Ranch farmers do invest in purebred heritage pigs. “We partner with several genetic companies representing large populations of purebred animals,” she says.

Traditionally, only a small percentage of the animals in each herd had qualities worth breeding for, but Beranger worries that the rush to meet the demand of a burgeoning market is changing that approach. “Breeders are selling all their pigs when only the top 10 percent are breeding quality,” she says. “As a result, subpar pigs are bringing in a pretty penny.” The Livestock Conservancy wants to create a marketing advantage for breeds that need more stewards. One possible solution is to offer an incentive or subsidy to farmers protecting purebred bloodlines.

Because raising purebred heritage pork is so costly, farmers can rarely afford organic feed, so certified organic heritage pork is a niche within a niche. Duffield looks to the current trend of generational transition of land and to first-generation farmers as a source for possible growth in the organic heritage pork market. Rodale attracts farmers wanting to adopt their methods in part by making a good business case. Currently, he adds, that’s only possible if farmers are raising heritage crosses.

Take Kate Farrar of Perianth Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. She’s a first-generation farmer who raises Berkshire pigs with a friend on a farm they rent. She likes the breed’s gentle, friendly nature and gives the herd the best life possible; they live outdoors with a mobile hutch to protect them from rain, she rotates pasture weekly, and feeds them an organic diet.

The financial potential of the niche market attracts farmers to pigs like these, but to sell the pork they have to hustle. Farrar sells farm shares through a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription and through a farm-to-table mobile app. And—like many farmers—she uses the term “heritage” in her marketing, despite the fact that Berkshires aren’t on the Livestock Conservancy’s list. She doesn’t have the infrastructure for breeding or wintering, but she hopes to in the future.

If she does, Farrar may use the same model farmer Gra’ Moore has perfected on Carolina Heritage Farms in South Carolina, where he raises several official heritage breeds as well as one of the nation’s only herd of Guinea Hogs. Moore is a rare example of a producer striking a balance between the often-opposing priorities of business and conservation. “He maintains purebreds, but his money-makers are the crossbreds, which is what makes chefs happy,” says Beranger.

Hong Kong is running out of places to bury people

Vice News posted an episode of Vice News Tonight.

February 3, 2019

It’s expensive to live in Hong Kong, but it’s especially expensive to die. And it’s all because of a lack of space.

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What we need to save our oceans


February 2, 2019

90% of large fish in the ocean have disappeared in the last 50 years.

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Severe Black Lung Epidemic Hitting America’s Coal Miners


February 2, 2019

“They’re essentially suffocating while alive.” FRONTLINE and NPR investigate in “Coal’s Deadly Dust.”

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How one man started the worlds largest beach clean-up?

January 31, 2019

3 years ago Mumbai beach was overwhelmed by plastic rubbish. Thanks to the incredible effort of one man 🙏 Afroz Shah 🙏 – who kickstared the world’s largest beach cleanup – 🐢 turtles have started to hatch again.

“I make a change, together we make the difference” 🌎


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3 years ago Mumbai beach was overwhelmed by plastic rubbish. Thanks to the incredible effort of one man 🙏 Afroz Shah 🙏 – who kickstared the world's largest beach cleanup – 🐢 turtles have started to hatch again. "I make a change, together we make the difference" 🌎BrightVibes

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What happened to “drain the swamp,” Mr. President?

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders

January 31, 2019

There are over 160 lobbyists working for the Trump administration. What happened to “drain the swamp,” Mr. President?

What Happened to "Drain the Swamp"?

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Posted by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders on Thursday, January 31, 2019