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Bridging the gap between farm and table for sustainable agriculture

Posted by Syed Badruddoza | January 7, 2019

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Syed and Sherry posing together
Syed Badruddoza with Sherry Hessian. “Sherry & Dave Hessian are sustainable agriculture enthusiasts from the outskirts of Spokane. Sherry and I talked about different issues in supporting and marketing organic seeds. The pack of squash seeds I’m holding was a gift from her.”

“I’m a doctoral student at WSU in the School of Economic Sciences.”

The audience looked puzzled whenever I introduced myself with this sentence at the Tilth Conference. The connection between the dismal science and Tilth Conference perhaps was a little less than obvious.

“For my dissertation, I’m looking at price premiums for organic dairy products,” I added.

“Oh, I see! That’s what brings you here!” Now there’s a big smile in place of confusion.

Very few economists attended the Tilth Conference. In fact, I was the only one from my department. But I came back with a fantastic experience and a deep insight regarding sustainable agriculture. I have been to many other conferences before, but the homogeneity and harmony of interests among participants were particularly enjoyable. I met farmers, processors, sellers, and researchers at the conference. What brought them under the single umbrella was their dedication towards sustainable agriculture. It’s more of a movement to them than ordinary nine to five work.

potatoes, onion, cauliflower and other vegetables
Organic produce on display.

What is it about sustainable agriculture that inspires so much passion?

No research so far has shown an organic product is significantly better for health compared to its conventional counterpart. Some consumers perceive organic-labeled  food to taste better (but not unlabeled organic food). Then why should we care?

“We emphasize locally grown produce,” said Ames Fowler, a doctoral student at WSU who also owns a small farm in Moscow, Idaho. “Produce loses nutrients over time. Encouraging small local farms also checks the tyranny of large farms and keep the income inequality low.” Indeed some farmers put a sticker on the produce that declares time like “picked at 8 AM” to give buyers a clear signal.

“When you smell organic rosemary you can tell, for sure it smells better.” said an herb farmer from Spokane. “The intuition is simple. All the pesticide residues are going to kick in some day in your body, and then you’ll pay your doctors ten times more than you’d pay the farmers.”

Technology and awareness among producers considerably grew after sustainable agriculture had started its journey. New challenges keep showing up. I attended different sessions that primarily focused on the problems of sustainable agriculture (Sustainable Production and Systems, Regulations and Certifications).

To every solution, there is a problem! (and Millennials should learn how to cook)

Produce from sustainable agriculture invariably cost more. In my research, I investigate how price premiums for organic products can be lowered—which would attract more consumers towards organic produce. But farm productivity varies across region and season. A local farm can hardly grow that big to serve consumers from several states.

“Scaling is a major problem” Jim Baird from Cloudview Ephrata Educational Farm admitted. “Feeding the entire population of the U.S. from sustainable agriculture is not possible without government support” added a farmer from Puyallup. “Yet, we keep subsidizing corn! Consequently, there is corn syrup in everything. It looks like nutrition is not important to the country.” He shakes his head in disappointment. “Millennials need to learn how to cook!” said his wife “they rely more on processed food because of their busy lives. Once in the farmer’s market, I saw a couple enjoyed the fragrance of organic herbs, but they didn’t buy because they didn’t know how to use it.”

“Awareness is important,” opined a chef from greater Spokane area. “Consumers need to learn about the goodness of sustainable produce. People don’t like to buy red bell pepper if it’s half-yellow. We are so commercially brainwashed regarding consumption. The only way out is to create demand for sustainable agriculture via mass awareness.”

Restaurants and retail grocery chains cannot afford to buy produce from 10 local farmers instead of one big company. The scale issue can be resolved through building awareness and government support. However, no commission is available at this moment that promotes sustainable agriculture by educating people and lobbying in the administration. “If I’m already paying apples and dairy commission, then it’s one added cost for me to pay to a new commission!” said Mat from Idaho.

2 thoughts on "Bridging the gap between farm and table for sustainable agriculture"

  1. ANNE SCHWARTZ says:

    As a WSU alumnae, I think it is so important to get students to the Tilth conference. Thank you for coming and for sharing your comments!! When I took my Ag Econ classes in the 1970’s, it became a life changing experience to learn about cost benefit accounting principals and bear witness to the annual soil erosion loss from the Palouse wheat fields that approached 30-40 tons of topsoil per acre per year. I was in disbelief, how can economic science justify this kind of farming? I was inspired to dedicate my life to pressuring our university and society to create sustainable food and farming systems. Just ask former Dean and Provost; Dan Bernardo. I hope you made it to my work shop on True Cost Accounting at the Tilth conference. You and your classmates are exactly the students I want to bring this conversation to. I want to volunteer to speak in your classroom with any of your professors. I want to show you in more detail what other colleges, universities, NGO’s and businesses are doing to change the dialog and build the science to value upstream and downstream costs to the environment, our natural resources and society. Please contact me, speak with your professors and other students, and let’s get this conversation going!!

    1. Syed says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. Yes, I was fortunate to be in your workshop on True Cost Accounting and I really enjoyed it. I appreciate your works in the sector. They offer important insights as well as directions for future research. Let me talk to my professor and I think we can schedule a Friday seminar! Best regards, Syed

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