Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Farmer's Perspective

For several years now I have been a subscriber at Terra Firma Farms CSA. Located in Winters, CA (near Sacramento), they deliver beautiful boxes of vegetables, fruits, herbs and nuts to lucky subscribers in San Francisco. An unexpected bonus for me was the newsletter included in the box each week. Written by Paul 'Pablito' Underhill, one of the farmers and partners in the CSA, the essays are always informed and interesting and bring a new perspective to urban-ag issues. I am excited to say that Pablito has agreed to allow his essays to be re-published on this blog. The essay that follows examines yet another reason to be actively engaged in the question of ownership of farm land near urban areas, and in fashioning partnerships that allow small farmers to continue growing near metropolitan regions. As a post note to the essay, the orignal LA times articles estimates that 5% of California's agricultural land is owned by foreign trust interests.
What's the Opposite of a CSA?

In Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), eaters make a financial commitment to buy food from a farm in advance, and then reap the benefits by  receiving food every week.  Making an investment in a CSA reaps dividends that some folks feel is more valuable than money.

Wall Street has taken a big interest in farming lately as well, but -- as usual -- both their motives and methods may be less community-oriented.  As detailed in the L.A. Times this week, money managers hunting for a higher return in the wreckage of the housing and stock bubble have discovered a finite resource that they believe is recession-proof:  farmland.  They are creating mutual fund-type investment vehicles that pool together money to buy up large tracts and then hire farm managers to plant and harvest the acreage.

     Feudal serfdom is not a new invention:  wealthy people have owned farmland for millenium and employed others to grow crops on it.  And farming is an extremely capital intense industry even when land ownership is taken out of the equation.  If done ethically, this type of joint mass ownership of farmland could provide an opportunity for younger farmers to make a career farming acreage that they could never afford to own.

Unfortunately, Wall Street's money making schemes almost always seem to have negative unintended consequences to those who don't reap the direct rewards.  In the last decade, hard working people put their money into retirement investments run by bankers who demanded that companies offshore millions of American jobs.  In the end, many of those people ending up losing both their jobs and their savings. 

Farmers are not humanitarians, and all of us do our best to plant the crops that will produce the highest return.  But Wall Street farmers will have much easier access to large amounts of capital, and will thus be more able to quickly shift from one crop to another -- even if that means growing food entirely for export.  Unlike many countries, there are no rules about foreign ownership of land in the U.S.  With China's growing middle class hungry for walnuts, almonds and other crops best grown in California, it's not impossible to imagine our state becoming an agricultural colony, with large chunks of land held by investment vehicles owned by the Chinese government.

    Looking on the "bright side", given the track record of investment bankers, it's far more likely that this Wall Street trend will end in a bust while the geniuses who thought up the idea walk away with millions.  My advice for you:  stick to an investment with a 17 year track record of healthy returns -- Terra Firma's CSA.
Thanks, Pablito

Monday, November 1, 2010

Eating the Hotel Landscape

A recent article in the New York Times profiles a range of innovative ways that hotels are integrating local and on-site food production as attractions to draw in guests and enrich their experience. From roof-top vegetable gardens to bee-keeping, goats, curing meats and homemade wine, the hotels featured fully explore the relationship between local food production and hospitality.

While many hotels and inns, especially in more rural areas, have long had kitchen gardens (such as the luxurious Le Manoir), the hotels featured here are unusual for being urban hotels that make more of the produce than just an ingredient. Some of the more intriguing strategies include the Elysian Hotel in Chicago that not only serves a local farm-based menu created around available produce, but also leases land at the Heritage Prairie Farm to grow specialty vegetables and keep bees. Such a partnership benefits the hotel (chefs and bartenders request heirloom vegetables for signature menu items) but also, presumably, the farm which has a guaranteed income from the hotel while keeping the land in production. In this way the hotel's buying practices become a form of activism that conserves working farmlands near urban areas.

[Heritage Prairie Farm Market]

Another partnership worth noting also takes place in Chicago, where the Marriott Downtown uses honey from their rooftop hives to create a special beer, made in partnership with a local brewer. Again, while the hotel gets a unique item to market, the brewery might benefit from a dedicated revenue stream.

Noting a trend towards hotels with working gardens and apiaries, Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality summarizes: "It creates a positive image, and people will pay a premium for it."

[Omm Hotel Kitchen Garden,]

The lost opportunity, based on the article's description of these gardens, is the chance for guests to fully interact with the gardens, to gain a landscape perspective on productive gardens. The strategies generally encompass marketing to a passive consumer, through a descriptor on the menu, but rarely seem to suggest a direct interaction between guest and garden, or diner and dinner. For example, I imagine the Marriott's brew, Rooftop Honey Wheat Beer, might taste best if quaffed in the rooftop garden, surrounded by the humming of the bees themselves. A beautiful example of designed agriculture is the Omm Hotel in Barcelona, whose kitchen garden is the center point of the hotel courtyard, affording view and interaction between the garden and guests.

The opportunities abound for engineering encounters between the guests and their food in the landscape - a breakfast orangerie where fruit is freshly plucked for juice, courtyard gardens planted in orchards of nuts and fruits, herbal lawns at the spa, a poolside planted with date palms. I'm hoping more hotels keep the kitchen garden front and center, integrating the productive landscape into the leisure landscape. Do you know hotels with beautiful and accessible potagers? Leave a comment, I'd love to hear about them.