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/
“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.
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.