Resignation

Today I resigned from the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board:

VAFPDB resignation

My three years on the VAFPDB (originally the VADB) have been most interesting. I learned a lot, and I met many interesting people. I am grateful to have had the opportunity for this experience.

My letter above to the governor gives two reasons for resigning, but why now? Why after three years?

The time factor has gradually become more problematic. We really are busy at Yankee Farm Credit, and I need to devote more attention to work. That is how I can best serve the agricultural and forest products industries.

The philosophy factor has always been a little uncomfortable, but it became increasingly problematic earlier this year with the creation of, and my appointment to, the joint VAFPDB/WLEB Financing Committee. The purpose of this committee is to advise the WLEB on how to best use the money appropriated to it. I don’t believe this money should have been appropriated in the first place. I share everyone’s goal of a vibrant rural economy. But I believe that it is best achieved via slow government, not fast government. In most instances, government should not be picking winners and losers in the economy. There are many potential problems with government picking winners and losers—it can lead to market distortions and crony capitalism. The sorting out of economic winners and losers is generally a task better suited for markets than for government.

My advice on the WLEB appropriation is to return it to the taxpayers. It was their money to begin with, and I believe that they can use it more wisely than government can.

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Slow Government Presentation

At the 2013 Slow Living Summit, held June 5-7 in Brattleboro, I gave a presentation about Slow Government. It was a joint presentation with Susan Clark of Middlesex who talked about her book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home.

Here is a copy of my PowerPoint slides and talk:

SLS2013 Putnam slides
SLS2013 Putnam talk

Here is a copy of the case study that we used:

Maple syrup grading case study

About 300 people attended the 2013 Slow Living Summit and 20-25 people attended the breakout session that Susan and I presented on Slow Democracy and Slow Government.

Agriculture and climate change

Could agriculture be both the cause and the cure of climate change?

“To preserve our planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere..” (source: 350.org) What caused elevated levels of atmospheric CO2 in the first place? The reason most often cited is the burning of fossil fuels. But agriculture may be a greater factor.

Topsoil stores carbon. When topsoil is lost, carbon is released into the atmosphere. The world has lost a lot of topsoil through both farming and desertification.

A solution to climate change may therefore be a concerted effort to build topsoil. Allan Savory believes that the way to reverse desertification and build topsoil is with intensive planned grazing, as he explains in this recent TED talk:

How to green the desert and reverse climate change

A key point is that soil health cannot be maintained with crop farming alone. Livestock farming is also required. Lots of livestock according to Allan Savory. The importance of livestock for soil health is also a theme of the book that Paul Harlow gave to members of the old Vermont Agricultural Development Board around the end of 2011: Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin.

Creating topsoil through intensive planned grazing has many advantages. Allan Savory discusses some of them in his TED talk: it helps to fight hunger, poverty, violence, social breakdown and war. It helps to improve water supplies and water quality. It does not require large capital investments. It does not require “fast” government (a plus in my book).

Creating topsoil has one other advantage. It will appeal even to climate change skeptics. The physicist Freeman Dyson is a prominent climate change skeptic. He wrote that “all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated” in this paper published in 2007:

Heretical Thoughts About Science and Society

But he also wrote in that paper:

To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil… I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.

In 2009 the New York Times Magazine published a long and fascinating article about Freeman Dyson: The Civil Heretic.

If both Allan Savory and Freeman Dyson are in favor of building topsoil, what are we waiting for??

I highly recommend Allan Savory’s TED talk above. For more information about his work, here are some articles I found:

Using Primeval Methods to Fight Modern Abuses of Agricultural Lands
Roving Herds of Grazing Climate Helpers

GMO/GE Labeling

There was an interesting article on the front page of the New York Times today:

Major Grocer to Label Foods With Gene-Modified Content

Whole Foods will require labeling of all GMO/GE foods sold in its stores by 2018.

This is consistent with the Slow Government way of thinking. Absent an overwhelming food safety issue, food labeling issues should be left to negotiations between buyers and sellers. Let the marketplace work. Keep the government out of it.

As an aside, here is an interesting observation about two hot-button issues: climate change and GMO/GE foods. Earlier I blogged about Mark Lynas. Mr. Lynas is a strong proponent of taking action to fight climate change. He is also a strong proponent of GMO/GE foods. “To vilify GMOs is to be as anti-science as climate-change deniers, he says.” (source) John Mackey is the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods. “He is one of the most influential advocates in the movement for organic food.” (source) He is himself a vegan. Based on those facts and his company’s announcement yesterday about labeling GMO/GE foods, it would be hard to say that he is a proponent of GMO/GE foods. Yet on climate change he had this to say earlier this year: “I haven’t been outspoken about global warming… I guess my position on it is that I don’t think that’s that big a deal.” (source)

The usual position of the left is to believe that both climate change and GMO/GE foods present huge risks to society, while the usual position of the right is to question that belief on both issues. Mark Lynas and John Mackey do not fit the mold of either left or right, and furthermore, they hold opposite positions from each other. Is there no consistency in the world??

People are complicated. Just because you know someone’s position on one issue doesn’t mean that you can always predict their position on another issue. None of us are perfectly consistent. It may be that perfect consistency is neither possible nor desirable.

Slow Government

Last summer I attended the second annual Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro. After that summit I wrote a post on my home blog about an idea that I call Slow Government:

Introduction to SLOW Government

Next summer at the third annual Slow Living Summit I will be presenting a talk about Slow Government. Part of my presentation will be audience discussion of a case study. The case study I am going to use is the maple grading issue that we have discussed on the VAFPDB.

I am looking for a philosophical soul-mate or two who might like to help me lead the discussion of that case study. Is there anyone on the VAFPDB who is interested? If you think you might be interested, please read the attached proposal that I sent to the Slow Living Summit to see what I have in mind. Then please let me know, and I’ll be happy to talk about it with you.

SLS2013 – proposal

GMO/GE Discussion

We’ve been discussing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on the VAFPDB. Or GE (genetic engineering) as some prefer to call it. There was a talk in England on 1/03/13 on this subject that caught my eye. Here’s an article in Slate about the talk:

Leading Environmental Acitvist’s Blunt Confession: I Was Completely Wrong To Oppose GMOs

Here’s the talk itself:

Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013

The speaker is Mark Lynas. I don’t know anything about him beyond the above links and his Wikipedia entry.

Please feel free to discuss in the comments.

UPDATE: Click here for a New York Times column on Mark Lynas’s talk.

Where our food and wood come from

After the VAFPDB meeting on 11/07/12 I found myself thinking further about the general subject of where our food and wood come from.

Many people these days are intensely interested in knowing more about where our food and wood come from, yet many people (sometimes the same people) don’t want to kill anything. They don’t want to kill any animals and they don’t want to kill any trees. This is a strange attitude.

This attitude is currently on display in the controversy over Bill and Lou, the team of oxen at Green Mountain College. Read this article for background. Some of the online comments are interesting! Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross recently issued a statement on this controversy. I support his statement.

Perhaps Green Mountain College can draw inspiration from Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook:

In May 2011 Mr. Zuckerberg made a pledge to consume, for one year, only meat he had hunted or slaughtered himself. He got a hunting license and shot a bison. “My personal challenge,” he explained, is “being thankful for the food I have to eat.”

That quote is from a New York Times article last month that reviewed four books about hunting:

NYT hunting 2012-10-01

If one is philosophically opposed to killing and eating Bill and Lou, is one also opposed to hunting for food? They both involve knowing where your food comes from—up close and personal. And this NYT article makes clear that hunting is becoming trendy. Especially for women. Who knew?

Most of our meat comes from a “food system” where we don’t have a personal connection with the animal. Many people object to that, too. Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University is a widely respected authority on humane slaughter. She recently hosted an informative video on this subject: Video Tour of Beef Plant Featuring Temple Grandin. I highly recommend this 10 minute video. Dr. Grandin spoke at the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference at the Lake Morey Inn in January to a large and enthusiastic crowd. She is speaking at UVM on Tuesday 11/13 (details).

Back on the subject of hunting, this was also discussed in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this month about the resurgence of wildlife in the eastern United States:

WSJ wildlife 2012-11-03

There is a quote about hunting at the end of the article from a professor of environmental studies at Brandeis University:

[H]unting is good—one of the best, most responsible forms of stewardship of nature.

It is presently deer season in the northeast, and to the many deer hunters at Yankee Farm Credit (a group which includes women), good luck! And be safe.

The WSJ article included above is by Jim Sterba. Some years ago I saved two other WSJ articles by Mr. Sterba published in 2002 and 2005:

WSJ Great Eastern Forest 2002
WSJ Cut to Preserve 2005

The articles by Mr. Sterba aren’t so much about where our food comes from (except for the comments about hunting), but they have a great deal to say about where our wood comes from. The two topics are closely related, and both are within the purview of the VAFPDB. I highly recommend all three articles. Mr. Sterba has a book coming out next week: Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds. I expect that will be interesting, too.

Back on the subject of food, in 2008 the Vermont Large Farm Dairy Conference featured a speaker from Nebraska named Trent Loos. He had a quote that has stuck with me:

Everything lives, everything dies, and death with a purpose brings full meaning to life.

I agree. For more information about that conference and Mr. Loos’s comments, see this blog post.

What do Vermont farmers think about all this? For one view I recommend this blog: Farm Life Love. This blog is by Joanna Lidback who farms with her husband and 1-year old son in Barton. Here’s what she says about herself:

I am a 30-something who recently got married, had a son and moved to a dairy farm in rural Vermont. We milk about 30 cows and have about 45 youngtock. I work part-time from home which allows me to be home with the baby. I’m learning more and more each day about being a mom, wife, career woman, dairy farmer, home-maker. It’s exhausting at times but I’m feeling truly blessed.

Full disclosure: Joanna works part-time for Farm Credit, but not for Yankee Farm Credit. She works remotely from home for our neighbor Farm Credit East which is headquartered in Connecticut. Some of you may be familiar with the Northeast Dairy Farm Summary (aka the “blue book”) published by Farm Credit. Joanna has been the lead author of that publication for several years.

Joanna tells moving stories. Relevant to the discussion about Bill and Lou is this post:

It’s a Good Day to Put the OId Girl Down

Also relevant are her posts about selling Jersey beef at the local farmers’ market:

Got Jersey Beef?
For the Love of Jersey Beef
Our First Farmers’ Market
Farmers’ Market Conversations, Part I: You Have to Believe in Your Product
Farmers’ Market Conversations, Part II: Our Chosen Farming Practices

So where does our food and wood come from? Largely from killing things. Life cannot exist without killing things. Now there’s a paradox to ponder.