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Battle over slow food heats up in heartland

Farm feud Agricultural establishment fighting back at movement

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

May 2, 2010

From Pennsylvania church ladies to Iowa dairymen, the locavore, small-is-good, organic food movement born in Northern California has penetrated America's heartland, where it is waging a pitchfork rebellion, much of it on the Internet, against the agricultural establishment.

After long dismissing the new food movement as a San Francisco annoyance, the establishment is fighting back.

"Alice should drown in her own waters," said High Plains Journal's Larry Dreiling of Berkeley food guru Alice Waters.

Delhi,CA---Ray Prock, Jr. is a second generation dairy farmer who runs Ray-Lin dairy and is on a mission to empower farmers use social media to tell their stories. Prock is widely popular in agriculture circles with a Twitter following of some 11,000 subscribers. Prock says he treats his 500 Holstein and Jersey cows well and runs a green operation. Prock's has blog postings dealing with "the Animal Rights activists use of sensationalism," on his Wordpress blog. Tomas Ovalle/Special to the Chronicle

On one side of this culture war is the tiny but fast-growing segment of U.S. farming that sells local and grows organic. On the other are commodity farms that make up the great bulk of production and sell into a global food chain.

Kansas rancher Chris Wilson, president of American Agri-Women, condemns the "pastoral fantasies" of such documentaries as "Food, Inc." and "King Corn," and defends the use of pesticides and fertilizers to feed the world. She is launching a television show this week.

Texas State University historian James McWilliams warns against food "primitivism," tracing a link between UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan's "seductive mantra" of "don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't eat" and Puritan idealism.

Software billionaire Bill Gates entered the fray last fall, defending genetically modified foods to combat hunger in Africa.

Congress and the Obama administration appear alternatively oblivious, hostile or confused toward a movement that feeds from the apple-pie taproot of the American psyche, with a stout dose of libertarianism that defies both parties.

Bloggers' fury

Even as first lady Michelle Obama makes urban gardening a global sensation, Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto Corp. lawyer appointed by President Obama to head food safety at the Food and Drug Administration, has become the target of fury among food and farm bloggers.

Democrats in Congress seem blind to intense grassroots anger toward their new food safety legislation, derided in the blogosphere as a totalitarian noose for small farms.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, opened a new front on Tuesday. They sent a blistering demand to know more about the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program spearheaded by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, a leader of the organic movement.

The two questioned "Facebook chats with USDA bureaucrats" and subsidies to the "so-called locavore niche market ... aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers" who cater to "affluent patrons at urban farmers' markets."

Plan to ban church pies

But in rural Pennsylvania, Republican state Sen. Elder Vogel is pushing legislation to block a state ban on homemade pies at church suppers, after a "Pie-Gate" crackdown by state food safety regulators, exposed last year in the Wall Street Journal, had church ladies in an uproar.

Vogel aide Joe Wiedner said the bill would protect "the cherry pies we've been selling out here since Pennsylvania was a colony."

Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, posts Web bulletins warning of food safety raids on Amish farmers and lobbies Capitol Hill. The movement is not new, she said. "What we are promoting is actually very, very old agriculture, and what's considered conventional is new."

300,000 new farms

The latest five-year farm census in 2007 showed nearly 300,000 new farms started since 2002, most of them small. "Here we have a thriving economic engine that is providing the safest, healthiest food in the country, and it seems to us that the government at every level - state, federal and local - is doing everything it can to squash that," Stockton said.

But Agri-Women's Wilson, who sends cattle to feedlots and pumpkins to a farmers' market, said conventional growers are the ones under assault.

"The Flint Hills of Kansas have the greatest grasslands in the world other than the Pampas of Argentina," she said. "We have a lot of cattle in those hills, and a lot of them go from there to beef feedlots for finishing. Most of those ranches are family owned and pretty friendly places."

Added Greg Henderson, a Kansas rancher and editor of Drovers, a beef industry publication: "You can't find any industry in America that wants to go back to way they were doing things 50 years ago. The food we buy at stores comes through large food companies like Cargill and Tyson's, but the food still comes predominately from family farms."

Middle ground

In Iowa, Francis Thicke of Radiance Dairy, a 65-cow operation that uses grass and clover pasture, is running for state agriculture secretary against Republican incumbent Bill Northey, who holds up a 2.5-million-chicken, egg-laying facility that supplies McDonalds as a model for economic development.

Thicke argued that commodity farms are in denial about rising energy costs and an environmental backlash.

He said age-old techniques where a pastured cow harvests her own food and fertilizes perennial clovers with her manure are more efficient and profitable than conventional dairies that rely on corn monocultures that erode soil and leach fertilizers, and confined animal-feeding operations, known as CAFOs, that create hazardous manure lagoons.

Thicke said he meets a mixed reception in rural Iowa, but insisted, "The time is right for this."

In Denair, near Modesto, Ray Prock Jr. runs the 500-cow RayLin Dairy and has a Twitter following of 10,000. Prock is trying to reach a middle ground. His operation would be technically defined as a CAFO, but he argued the term is widely misused and his cows are treated handsomely.

"Instead of automatically thinking conventional ag is the enemy, and instead of conventional ag always thinking that organic and local food is the enemy, we need to sit down and figure out where we can work together," Prock said.

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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