Saturday, January 18, 2014

Buying the Farm: Slow Money supports Organic Farming

This article first appeared in the 2013/2014 edition of the Natural Choice Directory for the Willamette Valley. I first learned about the Russells and their unique investing philosophy when profiling Jeff Broadie and Casey White of Lonesome Whistle for my article on part time farmers for the November/December 2012 edition of In Good Tilth, the magazine of the Oregon Tilth.

The rain has stopped for the moment on this overcast spring morning, but it’s threatening to come back any time now. Janet Russell, a slim, grey-haired woman, has slipped on a pair of high rubber boots and a big straw hat to venture out in the muddy pasture with a handful of bovine treats.

Calpurnia, a bold Jersey cross-breed heifer ambles up to eat from Janet’s hand. The milk cow’s shy offspring, steers Janet has affectionately christened Bulwinkle and Meatball, forgo the treats for the shelter of the fir trees they've been browsing under.

It’s too early and cold to plant yet, so the beds in her sprawling organic garden are mostly empty, save for some hardy winter greens and perennials waiting for warmer weather to bloom. A multi-hued flock of chickens, guinea fowl and ducks flutter about the yard closer to the house, scratching for scattered grain.

The modest, single-story ranch house on seven acres of farmland just east of Fern Ridge Reservoir that Janet and her husband Jerry Russell share is a picture-perfect slice of Americana. People across the country aspire to a lifestyle like the Russells’, living quietly in the country and growing enough food to fill the pantry and share with friends and neighbors. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, retirement farms make up 21 percent of the county’s total farms, with so-called lifestyle farms accounting for another 36 percent.

“I read the Mother Earth News and other publications back when I was a teenager and always wanted to have a small farm,” says Janet. But when she came into an inheritance, Janet and her husband realized they could do more than just buy a snug little place in the country. What sets the Russells apart from other retiree and hobby farmers is the depth to which they have invested in the local agriculture community.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Social media: Diving in, the right way

Earlier, I talked about the value of adding social media to a nonprofit’s communications toolkit. Social media is free. Millions use it every day. So why not dive in?

Why not? Because a poorly run social media campaign may hurt your organization by making it look unprofessional, unhip or unpopular. As the marketing firm CAWOOD says, don’t use social media if you don’t have the time and resources to put into the campaign or if you don’t understand the specific social media platform you sign up for.

The key is to treat Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and any other social media platform as an individual community with distinct expectations about what you’ll say to them and how you’ll say it. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the habit of treating your social media accounts as online versions of your quarterly newsletter.  

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Slow Food USA: The message is the movement

Willamette Valley CSA farmer Derek Brandow introduces a
potential customer to his flock.
On the surface, the Slow Food message is simple: Everyone deserves access to “good, clean, and fair food.” Convincing U.S. consumers to buy into that message, however, is a herculean task.

Consider that agribusiness conglomerates, which receive the lion’s share of the $10 billion annual U.S. agriculture subsidy, pour an estimated $32 billion annually into advertising. What are they selling? The highly processed, sugar and fat dense prepackaged foods  that make up the average American diet.

Yet over the past two decades, organic food sales have skyrocketed while Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and thousands of farmers markets have sprung up across the country. Why is that? Has the Slow Food movement successfully countered the dominant American food narrative, which says the best food, even if not nutritious, is quick, cheap and convenient? 

To learn more about Slow Food USA’s communications strategies, I recently dug into Ashli Quesinberry Stokes’ academic study on efforts to brand the movement, recruit supporters and combat the agribusiness advertising blitz. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

FOOD for Lane County: Harvesting social media

For those of us who didn't grow up in the age of smartphones and constant online communication, social networking can present a professional dilemma. For every success story about a company making its mark online, there seem to be a dozen cautionary tales of public figures putting their virtual foot in their mouth in real time, or worse.

More importantly, from the perspective of a nonprofit organization, cultivating a social media following and
All images courtesy of FFLC.
maintaining multiple online profiles takes time and effort. Is the potential payoff worth it for an organization devoted to helping people in the community, not bolstering its bottom line?

Last week, I sat down with Dawn Marie Woodward to talk about adding social media to a nonprofit’s traditional communications toolkit. Woodward, the president of the Greater Oregon Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, serves as events and media relations coordinator for FOOD for Lane County (FFLC).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Critical Mass: It’s all about the bike community

The Eugene Weekly included this story in their Earth Day On Wheels special edition published April 18, 2013.

We’re living in a golden age of cycling. And we might have a bunch of loud, traffic-stopping cycling activists with anarchistic tendencies — better known as Critical Mass — to thank for it.

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass (CM) is a quasi-organized monthly bike ride that takes place on the last Friday of the month in cities across the globe. Founded in San Francisco in September 1992, the ride is part-rolling street party, part-pro-cycling demonstration, often chaotic and a heck of a good time — minus the occasional arrest — but, hey, even those can have side benefits.

True, cyclists on CM rides have run red lights to stay with the pack to the ire of drivers stuck idling at green lights. And in some cities CM rides draw controversy and cops like magnets. But in the pre-Lance Armstrong era — before charity fundraising rides became popular and hipsters discovered single speeds — CM played a big role in raising public awareness of cycling as a sustainable community choice and part of a healthy lifestyle.
Critter Cruise at Kesey Square on April 4. Photo by Eugene Weekly 

In its heyday, Eugene’s CM made plenty of headlines due to an overly aggressive police crackdown in the summer of 2006. Since then, the local CM ride has petered out — replaced by less overtly political and confrontational group rides that local cycling enthusiasts organize via word of mouth and social media, such as the “Critter Cruise” that pedaled off from Kesey Square April 4.

In 1991, a year before the first Critical Mass, the federal government spent a measly $4 to $6 million annually on cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. By 2008 that figure had grown to $541 million, according to government data. Between 2001 and 2011 alone, national bike use rose by 39 percent.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The fight over canola is far from over

In late January I blogged about the ongoing fight by the small farm community to keep canola out of the Willamette Valley and the danger the plant, also known as rapeseed, poses to the area’s thriving specialty seed industry. At the time, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) was taking public testimony on the issue before finalizing a rule change that would have allowed canola to be planted on thousands of previously restricted acres in the valley.

Despite public opposition to the plan, on February 7 the ODA adopted a modification of the proposed administrative rule that will allow some level of canola planting in the valley. In response, the non-profit group Friends of Family Farmers (FFF) which has led the anti-canola fight and their allies are rolling up their sleeves for a new grassroots campaign in support of a new law reinstating the area-wide canola ban.

Current House Bill 2427, entitled the “Willamette Valley Canola Ban”, would block any canola planting in “Clackamas, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Washington and Yamhill Counties and the portion of Benton and Lane Counties lying east of the summit of the Coast Range.”  FFF’s Leah Rodgers says that while legislators are voicing support for the local seed industry, many are leery of the idea of a ban and used to deferring to the experts at the ODA.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Oregon Ripe for Aggie Bonds?

It’s no big secret that Oregon’s farmer population is aging. On the other hand, increasing demand for locally produced food provides opportunities for a new generation of sustainably minded growers to develop successful farms — if they can get financing, that is.

A group of farmers and agriculture experts recently testified before the state Legislature on the difficulties small farmers, especially those new to the profession, face getting the credit necessary to purchase farmland or farm equipment. Though some Oregon farmers may qualify for the federal Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loans program, the state does not have its own credit program to assist inexperienced farmers break into the business.

On Feb. 12, the Oregon House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources held a hearing on HB 2700, which would create a Beginning and Expanding Farmer Loan Program to help farmers with less than 10 years experience buy land, equipment, livestock and seed. The program would utilize private bonds exempt from federal taxes, known as “aggie bonds,” which can be bundled with existing FSA lending programs and can lower loan interest rates by as much as 25 percent. Sixteen states already offer aggie bonds.