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Relish Austin: Farmers at SXSW Eco talk about why food is cheap, even though it’s not supposed to be

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
Skip Connett, co-owner of Green Gate Farms, spoke at South by Southwest Eco last week about the fact that even though the local food movement has grown tremendously in the past few years, it’s still a low-paying, under-appreciated profession.

At the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in March, you can attend panels on technology as it relates to just about every topic under the sun. I’ve covered panels about sex education, sustainable seafood, how baby boomers use the Internet, how tablets are changing how we read magazines and how mobile devices affect our interpersonal relationships.

Over the past few years, SXSW has added both Eco and Education conferences outside the March film/interactive/music festivals to allow even further exploration into niche subjects, and last week, I checked out several of the many food-related panels at SXSW Eco at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center.

‘WE DON’T GO ON VACATIONS’

Despite all the food chatter around organics, celebrity farmers (“star-mers”), genetically modified foods and the Farm Bill, it’s still not that great of a time to be a farmer, because even with the growing demand for local, organic, sustainably grown produce, farming is still one of the hardest, lowest paying jobs around.

Skip Connett of Green Gate Farms, who says he went from “poor” to “very poor” when he left a career in journalism to start a farm in East Austin with his wife, Erin, talked honestly about the troubles he faces as a small, organic farmer trying to make it one $3 bunch of kale at a time. “We try to be a model farm, but we don’t have health insurance. We don’t go on vacations,” he said. People complain about the price of organic, local food, but “if only they knew what went into that kale. … I can grow tons of food, but you’re not going to eat it because you perceive it as expensive.”

The expanding definition of “local” makes it hard on farmers like Connett, who says he has to compete with huge farms in the Rio Grande Valley that can also market their products as “local” even though they are hundreds of miles away, and small farmers are at the constant mercy of public policy stacked against them and even the public perception of organic. The recent Stanford study that put into question the nutrient superiority of organic wiped out years’ worth of work on the part of farmers who are trying to grow food without chemicals.

Co-panelist Tom Philpott, who writes about food for Mother Jones, said that the relative low price of food in many restaurants and grocery stores creates a sense of complacency on the part of consumers. “You can hold wages down without a lot of social protest if you can make food really cheap,” he said. “Farm owners are not making tons of money, and they can’t pay their workers much. This whole system is built on people making huge sacrifices.” Philpott said that we need to start thinking about local food in terms of the jobs it creates. You’re more likely to spend more money for something when you know it’s going to help your neighbor.

KEEPING AUSTIN LOCAL

Connett wasn’t the only farmer-panelist at the conference. Glenn Foore of Springdale Farm joined Jake Stewart, the city of Austin’s urban agriculture and community garden coordinator, Edible Austin publisher Marla Camp and Sustainable Food Center executive director Ronda Rutledge to talk about the ways in which Austinites are trying to improve access to local and sustainably grown food.

Foore said that his job is only partially about providing organically grown food to people in the area. “We are here to educate people so that they can see what a farm looks like and where their food comes from,” he says. Getting an up-close look at a food source automatically makes you start thinking more about the consequences of choice.

The nostalgia that Foore (and so many others) share for an “easier time” when the world ran on “good, healthy, clean food” isn’t lost on people like Jake Stewart, but as an employee of the city, Stewart knows first hand that those warm fuzzies don’t get you very far in a meeting at City Hall. “If you’re going to allocate public resources, you have to have the data to back it up,” he said. In the coming year, he’ll help conduct an economic analysis to determine the number of jobs that the local food economy creates, its overall impact on Austin’s economy and how much return on investment the city would get for projects that encourage local food production.

Camp and Rutledge are members of Austin’s Sustainable Food Policy Board, one of the first joint city-county commissions in the country. Camp explained that the idea for the board actually came from South by Southwest a number of years ago, where food policy expert Mark Winne was giving a presentation on food insecurity. After Winne’s talk, he and Camp started talking about how Austin needed a board to act as a liaison between the community and city policymakers. That conversation led to the creation of the board three years ago.

The Sustainable Food Center is leading the way in Austin for creating programs that tackle the question that so few want to address: the cost of locally grown, sustainable food, which can often be seen as prohibitively high. Rutledge said that the nonprofit’s “seed to table” philosophy drives the programs, including Farm to Work, La Cocina Alegre and Sprouting Healthy Kids, that teach people everything from how to grow their own food to how to share it and how to cook it. “The healthiest, most local food is what’s growing in your backyard,” Rutledge said. They give out seeds, compost and training to help people get started. “When the economy tanked, the seeds were flying off shelves. People realized that it’s more affordable to grow their own food.”

SFC, with the help of a grant from the St. David’s Foundation, also has a double dollar program at both the Sunset Valley and East farmers’ markets that allows customers who are using WIC or SNAP benefits to have their dollars matched, up to $10 a week per benefit program. (Green Gate’s farm stand, which is a SFC affiliate market, also offered this double dollar incentive.) At the newly opened SFC Farmers’ Market East , Rutledge says that the incentive program is bringing in people who had never shopped at the farmers’ market before, and these new customers lead to an economic benefit for local farmers.

Also of note, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, has recently created a Farm to Table caucus, another first-of-its-kind initiative to help all the interested parties communicate better with one another and start coming up with solutions for some of these big-picture issues.

Whether you look at the local food situation as a glass half full or a glass half empty, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion without a growing demand from consumers, Camp said. “It’s not just from home cooks, but chefs and restaurants,” school cafeterias and even hotel chains, she says. “Enough people are questioning where their food is coming from that this idea is becoming mainstream.”

BUSTING FOOD MYTHS

SXSW Eco attendees got a sneak peek at a new project from Anna Lappé, who co-founded the Small Planet Institute with her mother, “Diet for a Small Planet” author Frances Moore Lappé.

Food MythBusters is a series of animated videos, live-action short documentaries and online resources that tackle what Anna Lappé calls “Big Ag’s billion-dollar PR machine.” “The American public has long been presented a false choice between growing food sustainably or feeding the world,” Lappé said before the screening. “It’s time we put such a pervasive myth to rest so that our communities can more effectively work to create a food system that serves human need over corporate profit.”

The project won’t officially launch until Food Day on Oct. 24, but you can watch a trailer at foodmyths.org.