9/01/2015

Food's Future?

This magazine article is part of Summer 2015 / Issue 82

Heather Skorinko ’78 farms for herself, her family and her community. The challenges she faces provide a case study for the future of food. 

 

“This is about as real as you’re gonna get.”

Heather Skorinko ’78 is standing beside a cattle pen where several huge British Park Whites stand aggressively chomping hay. We’ve just finished a tour of her more than 170-acre farm in Coplay, Pa., the fields green and productive thanks to the summer’s rains. She is telling me about the time she delivered a calf by herself, her son sitting on the mother’s neck to prevent it from knocking over Skorinko as she pulled the calf into the world.

Then there was the time she delivered a sheep’s conjoined twins on her own, the nearest vet away on vacation and the second closest still too far from Skorinko’s remote farm to make it in time. She’s been attacked by a ram and charged by a cow weighing upwards of 1,000 pounds. She works all 170-plus acres—including a fruit orchard, vegetable crops, soybeans, corn, beehives, chickens and livestock—on her own (it is difficult to find reliable help, and none of her five children are interested in pursuing her line of work). She runs and maintains all of the farm’s equipment, from tractors to 12-foot-wide haybines. She’s her own purchaser, her own planter, her own harvester, bailer, retailer and marketer. She’s been doing this for 27 years.

“I stumbled into it,” says Skorinko. A psychology major at Franklin & Marshall, she was always interested in animals; she wrote her thesis on animal behavior and considered going to vet school. She credits her degree with teaching her the power of observation, a skill she’s used throughout her life and work.

She met her husband, Kenneth Skorinko ’75, as a student at F&M. Suyundalla Farms had been in his family since 1892. When he first showed her the farm, she thought, “That’s really kind of cool.”

But that's all it was, for the time being—a passing thought. After graduating from F&M, Heather and Kenneth got married and lived all over the northeast while Kenneth attended medical school and completed his fellowship and residency in cardiology. They had children, and Heather completed an MBA. Years later, they found themselves back in Coplay.

Ever since, under Skorinko’s watchful eye, the farm has produced food for the whole family and neighboring residents of the Lehigh Valley, who avail themselves of vegetables, fruits, preserves, granola, frozen meats, and wool products such as scarves, sweaters, and Christmas stockings at the farm’s store.

Skorinko derives these yields partly through the practice of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an approach that melds organic and industrial farming practices with a focus on keeping the land healthy now and in the future. She prioritizes organic methods and concentrates on reducing waste through practices such as feeding produce scraps to her chickens, planting cover crops to replenish the soil in its off-seasons, and spreading manure from her more than 150 sheep and goats over the fields. What it comes down to, Skorinko says, is being a good steward of the earth.

After all, fertile soil is responsible for both her livelihood and her family’s sustenance. She’s grateful for how easy it is to grow food in Pennsylvania, for how adaptable the land is. “As long as we have water,” she says, “we have product.”

  • farm 2 Image Credit: Dave Debalko
  • farm 3 Image Credit: Dave Debalko
  • farm 4 Image Credit: Dave Debalko

 

In the Face of a Changing Climate

Three thousand miles away, California is suffering from its worst drought in more than 1,200 years. The drought is exacerbated by record-hot temperatures, and studies suggest things will only get worse. In the coming decades, scientists anticipate the southwest and central plains of North America will experience “mega-droughts” of a severity unlike anything the region has experienced before. If left unchecked, these water shortages are all but guaranteed to hamper—and perhaps even inhibit—farming and ranching in the American Southwest.

That isn’t the only region that will struggle to feed itself in the face of changing climate. Around the world, more places are becoming drought-ridden and enduring other severe weather-related events, says Sarah Dawson, director of F&M’s Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment. This, in turn, threatens food security and the livelihood of farmers globally.

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: While farming suffers in the face of climate change, industrial agriculture also contributes to the problem, says Dawson. The current practices of so-called factory farming emit 10-15 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to studies featured in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. They consume water resources at an alarming rate. They pollute waterways and coastal ecosystems around the world. And they destroy critical wildlife habitat and biodiversity as people clear grasslands and forests to make way for more industrial farms.

In turn, the exacerbation of climate change affects farmers’ ability to meet yields. By 2100, the plant-growing season might be reduced by as much as 11 percent worldwide, warns a study published in PLOS Biology. Climate change also may also increase disease and pest exposure for plants and livestock and may even lessen the nutritional quality of some foods. As a result of increased crop instability in the face of extreme weather, food price hikes may become more common; the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development reports that already the price hikes of 2008 and 2011-2012 have been linked to climate change.

Declining yields and rising prices are of particular concern given that farmers of all scales must figure out how to feed an additional 2 billion people—up to 9 billion total—by the middle of this century.

But of the huge quantities of food we already produce, relatively little ends up in human stomachs. Globally, approximately one third of food developed for humans is lost or wasted (In the U.S., that number is closer to 40 percent). That’s about 1.3 billion tons of food per year—more than enough to feed the nearly 1 billion people worldwide who currently go hungry, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

So it’s not necessarily that we can’t feed the world with what we have, says Dawson. It’s that we’re choosing not to distribute these resources in ways that feed everyone, reduce waste, and sustain the soil’s ability to grow food.

The Question of Regulation

The way Skorinko and Dawson see it, misguided government regulation has a lot to do with these poor choices.

Dawson says that too often, powerful corporate interests and politicians who are paid by them inhibit the advancement of policies that promote sustainable and just agricultural development. As a result, she adds, small- and medium-scale farmers like Skorinko are often cut out of the market as policies are designed to benefit large transnational corporations instead of smaller, more localized farms.

It’s a perspective shared by the comprehensive U.N. Trade and Environment Review as well as F&M Associate Professor of Art History Linda Alecia. In partnership with F&M students, Aleci has conducted research on aspects of Lancaster County and its relationship to local and global food systems for the better part of two decades. What she’s determined is that “we, like the vast majority of America, have acquiesced to the private corporate control of the food chain. Consolidation in food distribution chains has meant there are a handful of global corporations who substantially control food distribution. This kind of dominance controls both production and consumption.”

In the U.S., the Farm Bill is one of the most important pieces of regulation affecting how we grow, produce, and distribute food.

“The [current] Farm Bill is set up so that monster farms are paid subsidies to produce lots and lots and lots of food (especially corn and soybeans), whether people will be consuming it or not,” says Dawson. “Some farms are paid to keep their fields empty. Or farmers sometimes end up with massive amounts of crops that they aren’t allowed to utilize—so we do things like feeding corn to fish or letting entire silos of grain go to waste. What we really need to demand is that the subsidies start going to farmers who prioritize the best interests of people and the planet.”

Specifically, Dawson believes subsidies should benefit farmers seeking to transition to more environmentally sustainable production methods. Currently, it costs so much money for farmers to switch to organic production that many can’t even if they want to; the relative lack of subsidies for organic farmers also drives up the price for organic foods, thereby limiting consumer access.

For her part, Skorinko would prefer that the government get out of the business of farming almost entirely. While she’s a proponent of crop insurance, in general, she says, “They’re regulating common sense.” As an example, she references the fact that she can’t expand her farm store to include value-added products like herbal vinegars or ground hot peppers because the cost of meeting regulations for these products is too high. And because she can’t expand her product line, she’s stuck barely eking out a profit each year.

Small-scale farmers often feel the squeeze of government oversight, which holds them to the same standards as their wealthier, industrial counterparts despite their inability to comply with costly regulations. And they’re less equipped to advocate for themselves in Washington, because they’ve got too much work to do in order to stay afloat.

“Part of me thinks I should get more involved in [politics], but I just haven’t had the time,” says Skorinko. That doesn’t stop her from seeing the destructive power corporate-first policies have on local farms. If things don’t change, she says, “I don’t see the future for my kids.”

Feeding the World

The salvation of small-scale farmers like Skorinko—and that of the communities who benefit from their work—may come, paradoxically, from the very challenges facing agriculture today.

“I think [climate change and food distribution issues] could be a good thing for small farmers,” Skorinko says. “We’re a lot more flexible [than industrial farms]. If the food supply isn’t dependent on big corporate farms, it’ll force us back to a system of smaller-scale farming with a community focus.”

Skorinko’s assessment aligns with the consensus of food-security experts around the world: Local food systems might just be the ticket out of the mess that agriculture and global food security are currently in.

The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development’s 2013 Trade and Environment Review reported that “There is an emerging scientific consensus that a shift to small-scale sustainable agriculture and localized food systems will address most, if not all, of the underlying causes of deteriorating agricultural productivity as well as the conservation of natural soil and water resources while saving the climate.”

Small-scale farming already provides a livelihood for approximately 2.6 billion people worldwide, according to the U.N.’s Trade and Environment Review. And one study titled “The Potential for Local Croplands to Meet U.S. Food Demand” and published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment found that up to 90 percent of Americans’ diets could be local, provided we do away with the current model of industrial agriculture (certainly no small feat).

Additional benefit may lie in organic agriculture, which has been shown to match or even surpass conventional yields under the right conditions, including in the 30-year-long Farming Systems Trial conducted by the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., which also found that organic agriculture enhances soil fertility, increases biodiversity, and cuts down on water and energy use, thereby mitigating contributions to climate change.

Already, Skorinko sees some glimmers of hope. She co-founded a regional chapter of Buy Fresh, Buy Local, which has met with some success. Grocery outlets including Redner’s and Wegman’s have started sourcing some products from local farms. And Skorinko sees the impact of her work in her own community. “Every day, customers depend on me,” she says.

Questions over the future of food also have earned the attention of scholars and policymakers all over the world and are the source of serious scholarship, Aleci says. Her own work on food insecurity in Lancaster contributed to the work of Lancaster’s original Hunger Coalition, and many of her former student interns have gone on to careers relating to food systems planning. “This is [a field] that holds huge potential for students. We’re seeing the benefit as students go into professional careers in this area,” she says.

Not least among those careers, of course, is farming. “People with a liberal arts education are increasingly going into farming because they possess the critical thinking skills to apply to this line of work,” says Aleci.

All of this points to the power small- and medium-scale farmers have to influence the future of food, provided the rest of us give them adequate support. Dawson believes that until consumers demand food production that sustains the soil, better labor standards for agricultural workers, healthy conditions for poultry and livestock, and the discontinuation of chemicals shown to harm human and environmental health—and until governments enact policies that support sustainable practices—then many farmers’ hands are tied. Indeed, she says, “Farmers can change the world. They can change everything. But we have to ask them to do it.”

In the meantime, local farmers like Skorinko are doing what they can. “It’s hard work,” she acknowledges, surveying rows of broccoli, lettuce, garlic, strawberries, and herbs. “But I like the farm. I do like working with the earth.”

She pauses for a moment. “All right. I’ve gotta go cut hay.”

  • farm 10
  • farm 8
“If the food supply isn’t dependent on big corporate farms, it’ll force us back to a system of smaller-scale farming with a community focus.”
farm 5
Heather Skorinko ’78
owner of Suyundalla Farms in Pennsylvania
  • farm 6
  • farm 7
  • farm 9
“Farmers can change the world. They can change everything. But we have to ask them to do it.”
Sarah Dawson, Ph.D. Wohlsen Center Director
Sarah Dawson
director of F&M’s Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment
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