The travails of a family farmer

Food for sale at a farmers market in London.Last week, I traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which is always a stimulating event. One tour offered by the SEJ took us to a family farm, and to a couple of nonprofit organizations that are promoting local, environmentally-friendly agriculture.

My story this week for The Guardian looks at the work of a farmer named Bill Keener, who works a relatively small (300-acre farm) where he lives with his wife, her parents, his son and daughter. What I tried to do in the story was get behind the romance and mythology often associated with small-scale family farmers and see how their businesses work, or don’t. Bill is a very bright guy–on his way to a career as a farmer, he studied philosophy in grad school at Yale–but his business is harder than it might appear, at least to those who browse by his stall at a farmer’s market.

Here’s how the story begins:

Everyone loves a farmers’ market. It’s pleasing to wander among the stalls, chat with farmers, sip coffee and mingle with like-minded, ecologically-aware, health-conscious folks who buy local, sustainable and organic foods. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this: Bill Keener, who owns a family farm in Sequatchie, Tennessee, has thousands of pounds of raw milk cheese to sell and can’t make money selling it at the farmers’ market. By the time he pays someone to cut a big wheel of cheese into family-sized wedges, transports the cheese to the market in Chattanooga, about 35 miles away and staffs a stall for four hours, he’s barely covered the costs of producing his batches of Cumberland, Coppinger and Dancing Fern cheeses. That’s true even though his cheese, which is lovingly made by a French-trained cheesemaker, costs as much as $15 a pound – a lot more than Kraft’s.

Five years since getting into the cheese business, Keener is undeterred, using earnings from his beef and lamb sales to subsidize his creamery.

“That’s the thing about agriculture,” Keener says. “It’s slow money.”

Keener, the story goes on to say, has tried to make his business work every which way–through community supported agriculture, by selling to local supermarkets including Whole Foods, through pick-your-own opportunities, and by cultivating shitake mushrooms, which he came to love while studying in Japan. He’s now operating one good business, selling local grass-fed beef and lamb, and one not-so-good one, his creamery. But it turns out that what he really needs was a support system of marketers and distributors–people to advertise and sell his products. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; big commodity farmers rely on a system of marketing, distribution and retail outlets that have evolved over half a century to ecome very efficient.

A support system for small-scale farmers, happily, is developing in and around Chattanooga. One of the best things to happen to Keener’s Sequatchie Cove Farm was the opening of a specialty butcher shop in Nashville to sell local, high-quality meat.

As I write, Keener is “the kind of farmer who environmentalists and foodies from Brooklyn to Berkeley (and, yes, places in between, such as Chattanooga) are counting on to feed them.” I’m hoping that he can make farming work for him, as well as for his customers.


Elizabeth Grossman: Chronic polluters also put workers at risk

Elizabeth Grossman

Today’s guest post comes from Elizabeth Grossman, a gifted environmental journalist who is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, YaleEnvironment360, The Washington Post, The Nation and Grist. I met Lizzie this past fall at the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference; she’s been writing about science and the environment for more than a decade.

She reported this story by taking EPA data uncovered by the Center for Public Integrity, and checking it against publicly-available information from OSHA. Her story got my attention because it suggests (based on admittedly limited evidence) that companies that are careless or irresponsible about air pollution also have workplace-safety issues. I wasn’t surprised to see BP among them–my FORTUNE colleagues David Whitford and Peter Elkind did a great job dissecting its culture in BP: “An Accident Waiting to Happen.’  Seeing DuPont on the list did surprise me, since the company is known for its safety culture. This story first appeared at The Pump Handle, a website about public health and the environment.

We have learned from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and released by the Center for Public Integrity earlier this month that there are currently about 465 United States industrial facilities on what the EPA calls its “watch list.” The list is made up of businesses EPA considers chronic violators of the Clean Air Act – but against which the agency has taken no formal enforcement action. An examination of these same companies’ occupational health and safety records reveals them also to be chronic violators of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards.

These “watch list” facilities are located all over the country, but many are clustered in historical manufacturing hubs in the Midwest, Southeast, and along the Gulf Coast. Nearly all can be described as heavy industry. They include petroleum refineries and facilities making chemicals, cement, paper, paint, pharmaceuticals, and metal products, along with waste treatment (landfills, recycling, and incinerators) facilities, meat processing plants, mines, pipelines, a shipyard, and automotive plants. OSHA typically inspects about one percent of the United States’ 8 to 9 million workplaces annually, but more than 70 percent of the “watch list” companies have received OSHA inspections over the past ten years. Those without inspection records included US military facilities and mines that OSHA is not authorized to inspect, as well as a number of public facilities and utilities: municipal landfills, water treatment plants, and generating stations.

Overall, the OSHA inspection reports for the EPA “watch list” companies reveal what for many of these companies appears to be a history of chronic OSHA violations. Some of these companies had dozens of violations over the past ten years; a few had more than 100. (To round out the picture of these companies’ operations, I included both the specific “watch list” facilities and the individual companies’ comparable operations in other locations.) Among the companies with the most recorded OSHA violations at their various facilities around the country was BP Products, with more than 400 at facilities nationwide – violations that included 314 in one inspection record following the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers. (The Deepwater Horizon incident does not yet appear in BP’s OSHA inspection records.) International Paper was cited for more than 295 violations, while Republic Engineered Products (part of Republic Steel) had more than 170 violations, various divisions of DuPont nationwide received more than 130 citations for OSHA violations, and the Greif company, manufacturer of packaging materials, was cited for about 100 violations nationwide in the past decade. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel exceeded 100 violations since 2001, and Weyerhaueser‘s various divisions around the country were cited for more than 300. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering ready for prime time?

2010 has been a bad year for climate, and an even worse year for climate policy. But for that very reason, it’s been a good year for geoengineering—the notion that humans can deliberately manipulate the climate and cool the earth.

Official Washington is starting to take geoengineering seriously: The Government Accountability Office and a bipartisan task force of experts convened by the New America Foundation will soon report on geoengineering. Bill Gates has invested in geoengineering research. Environmental groups–notably Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist of Environmental Defense Fund–have engaged in the conversation. On a parochial note, at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference last spring, Stewart Brand talked about why geoengineering is important, to a rapt audience that included Bill Ford and Lee Scott.

David Keith

David Keith, a leading scholar of geoengineering who administers Gates’ $4.6 million grant with  with Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, also spoke at Brainstorm Green. So I was pleased to have a chance to reconnect with him at the excellent annual conference run by the Society of Environmental Journalists at the University of Montana in Missoula.  I expected him to be pleased by the momentum gathering behind  geoengineering lately, but I was wrong.

“I think things are moving too fast,” David told me. “Research programs can be killed by spending too much money too fast.” Besides, he said, people need time to wrap their head around geoenginnering. (Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post recently described it as playing God with the weather. ) “This is a topic—the first time people hear about it, they have wild ideas,” he said.

As I’ve written before – see this, this and this – geoengineering raises a host of thorny ethical, political and governance issues. Who gets to control the earth’s thermostat? Who decides if and when to deploy geoengineering techniques? Which should be used?

At SEJ, David was on a panel with Dane Scott, director of the center for ethics at the University of Montana, and journalist Eli Kintisch, author of a recent book about geoengineering called Hack the Planet. They all seemed to agree that the technology to cool the earth now exists—either by reflecting sunlight back into the sky, an approach known as solar radiation management, or by capturing carbon dioxide from the air. (Keith has a for-profit startup called Carbon Engineering designed to do just that.) They also agreed that the moral ethical issues surrounding geoengineering are daunting. [click to continue…]

Why a coal guy is turning green

3. 12. 41.

Of all the companies in the U.S., Duke Energy is the 3rd largest emitter of CO2. Of all the companies in the world, Duke is the 12th biggest emitter. And if North Carolina-based Duke were a country, it would rank No. 41 in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of entire nations in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Rogers_JE_color_5x7And yet…Jim Rogers, Duke’s longtime president, CEO and chairman, is pushing as hard as anyone in corporate America to get a climate-change bill passed by Congress. His company helped the U.S. Climate Action Partnership get going, and he was key in getting some (but not all) utility-company CEOs to support carbon regulation.

“We’re very focused on legislation getting done in the U.S. this year,” Rogers says.

Indeed, Duke is “operating today as if climate legislation has already passed,” Rogers says. The company is investing in nuclear power, cleaner coal, wind, smart grid technology, efficiency and solar energy. Rogers says:

We’re in the most transformative period in the history of the power industry, Our mission is to decarbonize our entire fleet.

[click to continue…]