I enjoyed being a part of the Food & Faith Forum this past Saturday put on by the Faith and Environment Network. One of the highlights for me was meeting one of my heroes, Fred Fleming of Shepherd's Grain renown. Fred co-founded the co-op that markets grains grown using no-till practices, and a wholistic approach to agriculture they call Sustainable Agriculture, which falls somewhere between Organic and Conventional farming.
I got a kick out of Fred's introduction. He said, "Hi my name is Fred and I'm a recovering conventional farmer. I'm 10 years into my program." He echoed the sentiments of the other farmers who are in recovery mode, having been driven by the rapid rise in technology into unsustainable practices that erode the land and make them reliant on expensive and harmful chemicals. They are stepping back and experimenting with a more holistic approach. I admire Fred's efforts because not only are they innovating sustainable practices they are also innovating a sustainable business model.
I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder's basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint - Shepherd's Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn't understand in his critique is that it's not ADM that has Shepherd's Grain in its tractor beam, it's Shepherd's Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.
According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd's Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM's management and as a result Spokane's mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It's actually quite remarkable and it's all happening right here in Spokane.
In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it's going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, "Hello, I'm a recovering conventional consumer." But it's also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.
I'm reminded of what Vincent Miller says, “Consumer culture seems endlessly capable of turning critique into a marketing hook.” The flour we buy from the store is essentially all the same, just marketed in different ways. For example, Bob's Red Mill is milled in Spokane with all the other flour (Western Family, Stone Buhr, Gold Medal, etc.) and then shipped to Portland and run through their stone grinders so they can capture our consumer imagination with the phrase, "Stone Ground". If we want more than good feelings that come from marketing hooks, actual different food in the package, we should celebrate when an ADM executive makes his first visit to a wheat field. Fred Fleming gets that and we're all better for it.