Rebuilding the Foodshed, Soil & Human Health — VA Farm-to-Table Conference
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. That’s right, it’s food-and-farms conference season. It’s that time of year when production in the field slows and farmers huddle inside event centers to discuss best practices and plot their course for the coming years.
Did I mention that local farming conferences have some great local food?
I spent the last two days at the second annual Virginia Farm-to-Table Conference in Weyers Cave, which I’ll be writing about for the Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Delmarva Farmer and other publications. The event is part of an overarching plan in the state to rebuild the local foodshed and connect the dots between producers and consumers. According to one speaker, the term foodshed was coined in 1916 as a way to describe the resource of local food production similar to the way a watershed is seen as a resource worth conserving.
We had the chance to hear from foodshed experts like Philip Ackerman-Leist, author of Rebuilding the Foodshed, about the building blocks, challenges and successes of similar programs across the country. And you could see the wheels turning as Virginia producers and foodshed builders mulled over the ideas during breaks and meals.
There was fodder for many food system stories in the mix, but what I find myself still mulling over is the concept of soil health as it relates to human health. Dr. Arden Andersen — an agricultural consultant, author of several books and holder of more degrees than I can count — gave a fascinating and scientific presentation on this connection Thursday morning. He draws a direct correlation between the ability of our soils to sustain food crop production and the amount of nutrients that food delivers to humans.
This was the most comprehensive — albeit slightly over my head — presentation of these connections I’d ever seen. On many levels, we know the two are connected, that what we eat impacts our bodies’ ability to function and that it matters how that food is grown. But I had not seen someone present from a scientific and medical perspective the how of why that is. Dr. Andersen showed that the degradation of soils in America has led to crops containing a fraction of the 60 nutrients that mammals need and that these foods historically contained. But he pointed out that farmers can rebuild their soils to return these nutrients to the crops, as long as they recall that they’re growing food first (and rethink agriculture as we know it). In his words:
“The only reason for farming, truly, is to produce food for people. That food has to have the nutrients necessary for human health, not for plant health. By default, if you provide the nutrients necessary for human health, you will solve the plant issues.”
Dr. Andersen put the onus onto farmers to make changes that will benefit their soil and allow them to grow healthier food for human consumption. But I found the presentation prescriptive for my food sourcing as a consumer as well. If all that he said is true, if farmers who are putting the research and extra effort into their soils are growing exponentially healthier, more nutrient dense foods — then what better confirmation that buying from small, local, organic-as-possible farmers can also be healthier? We already know it tastes better, is better for the local economy and fosters community. Could it also carry nutrients that are otherwise lacking from the grocery store varieties?
I asked Dr. Andersen afterward about the Harvard study that received so much press this year, the one that said organic food is not necessarily more nutritious. His answer to that study was that the “organic” label doesn’t necessarily mean farmers are building into their soils, only that they’re not using certain pesticides and are abiding by the USDA’s other rules. The best route, he said, is to know your farmers and to know they’re doing all they can to measure and produce nutrient-dense foods.
Farmers: He says measuring brix — or, as he put it, the sugars that will turn into these various nutrients — with a refractometer is the best way to monitor this. Dr. Andersen was followed by a livestock/grass farmer from North Dakota — where there is sometimes snow on the ground for four months a year — who is doing just this. His mob grazing practices mimic those of the buffalo herds that roamed the prairies, leaving behind the nutrients those plants and soils need to thrive. And I know of several farms that are deploying these practices here in Virginia, with an eye for producing the most nutritious foods (check out Heritage Hollow Farms, for one).
The presentations really put the decisions we make about local or organic food into perspective. I could eat the same salad mix from one source and not get the benefit of several nutrients that might be present in a salad from another source. Do I know my farmer’s practices? Have I talked to him about brix and refractometers?
Most of all, the information made me especially thankful for those farmers. My-oh-my the research and continuing education they are tasked with pursuing! My-oh-my how unequipped I am to join their ranks (although I was pleased with a bowl full of chard from my “garden” this year — yes, that was about my total production)!
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out some of Dr. Andersen’s books. And I’ll be posting stories that will take a closer look at this and other conference topics. Keep an eye out on Twitter and at whitneypipkin.com for those stories.
Did you attend the conference? What were the highlights for you?