You Are The Big Team Farm

Hello Team—

I didn’t write a newsletter last week because I didn’t have the energy. It’s been a long, hard summer, and it’s still going. DC flirted briefly with a relaxed mask mandate, but it’s back. A white terrorist came to our city with a bomb. I got a year older (boo). Things remain hard.

I’m going away to do some reporting next week, and then will be away for the month of September, so the newsletter will be on hiatus for a few weeks (barring any surprise newsletters I somehow find the motivation to write). Rest assured that in that time (and for a while thereafter), I’m going to be doing research, talking to people, and trying to figure out how to use knowledge and stories to make things better. I’m not sure it’ll work, but it’s what I can do, so I’ll do it.

Though it has been an incredible pleasure and honor to get to know so many of you personally through this book journey, this newsletter, and elsewhere, the exciting part about taking a break is knowing that that doesn’t mean the community is going to collapse or the work will stop. I am not the community, you are. So many of you are out there; working, communicating, collaborating, scheming, and conspiring to make things more thoughtful, equitable, and just in your little corners of the world. Connecting with one another, and being able to strengthen and amplify each other’s efforts, that’s what inspires and motivates me about this work.

The best way to connect/interact/meet folx in this community at the moment is probably the Slack group. But you can always comment in the “comments” section at the bottom of these newsletters or connect on social too! Or listen, what if I cc’ed all 1,500 of you on an email, and then everyone could just reply all? Lol jk I would not do that to us.

Or if you’re DC-based, there’s one more chance for us all to hang out! The inimitable Reana Kovalcik has struck again and spearheaded another amazing event, this time at City-State Brewery. Come join us on Wednesday, September 1st for $1 off drafts (but only if you RSVP!), mingling, a bunch of farming hot-takes, and a brewery tour led by City-State founder James Warner. I’m stoked to meet you all, but this time you’ve gotta RSVP! Get your tickets here:

Click to reserve free tickets to Beer, Farming, and F Words at City-State Brewing

Discussing Energy Efficiency with the Big Team

Andy Kosick of the Creative Rebuilding Company responded to Claire Cushing from a few weeks ago, who I spoke with about improving energy efficiency:

“I'm partially responding just because I was delighted to not be the only energy efficiency person reading a farming newsletter.  I’m specifically in home performance, so residential housing is what I know and while I don’t have certain answers here, I can try to summarize the results of the difficult thought journey I’ve been on over the last couple years.  I’ll try to channel you here Sarah with some tough love and a farming reference.

Claire, Stop thinking about energy efficiency!

I mean it. This is the most difficult change to make but the most important. There’s a couple reasons for this.

First, efficiency is something that tends to happen when you get everything else right first. Kind of like how healthy soil tends to happen when you place people at the center of farming. (Did I get that right?) It’s a great result but not the main reason to being doing something in the first place.  It’s really only worth the money it saves and that's rarely enough to justify the cost of getting there by itself, especially in existing homes. Of all the criteria for a high performing home Comfort, Health, Durability, and Efficiency, efficiency is the least valuable to people.  Most people don’t care and aren’t willing to pay for it or can’t afford it, thus all the rebates, subsidies, grants, and so on, but if you figure out the BEST way to solve problems or produce results that people are willing pay for, efficiency is a key part of the solution nearly every time (or it can be).

I came to this work thinking that saving people money by saving energy would drive this. No. All I do is solve people’s problems.  Cold rooms, hot rooms, ice dams, and in every case increased efficiency is a key part of the solution.  To be clear this is a market minded approach and I am definitely not someone who worships at the alter of the "free market” but government and utility programs have had years to scale this and gotten no traction.  The reason is that energy use is woven into the fabric of everything we do and incentivizing efficiency in the absence of all the other criteria is fraught.  A trail of bad results and broken business models.

Second, right now, in this moment, it’s actually more important that we electrify everything and not worry so much about saving all the energy we can, in fact that may be counter productive.  You can save energy by installing a more efficient gas furnace, but now we’re stuck with that fossil beast for the next 20 years.  It's going to take a long time to electrify and we’ve got to start now.  More importantly though, the electrical grid and generation need massive investment.  Piling revenue into electric utilities so they can invest it renewable generation and storage (which is now the cheapest kind to build out) is a good thing.  More people buying more electricity spreads out that cost and means cheaper electricity.  Less people buying less gas means more expensive gas.  You have to trust that the efficiency will come, and it will, but the transition has to start now.

The best thing going on around me right now in new housing is an All Electric rebate pilot program from the Consumers Energy (local utility).  Up to $10k Market Rate and $25k Affordable to build all electric and it also demands a really efficient building envelope. (reference attached)  This program got the local Habitat for Humanity to go ahead with some all electric duplexes and I doubt they would have otherwise.  Right now it’s costs a little more up front and a little overtime (for now) to build electric.  I was able to design a system for this with the HVAC contractor and he just called me this week with this:

Me: Hey Scott

Scott: I’m really excited about this!

Me: Yeah?

Scott: This isn't going to cost much more than the other way we did it.

Me: And it’s going to work better

He's coming around.

So, my suggestion for government right now would be to pour money into low income housing contingent upon it being all electric and high efficiency.  It’ll get less push back than gas bans.  These are the people that need help the most and the work will be a proving ground to help normalize these practices with trade contractors (that’s a huge problem).

On that note, the best thing happening in existing homes right now is this: https://www.hvac20.com/

It’s basically a sales model that’s a Trojan horse to turn HVAC contractors into a performance and electrification army.  Slightly overstated, but really….  Look for one in your area.

I’m really pushing my way into design at the moment, getting stuff designed right up front is the best way to get good results, and it’s just not happening right now in residential.  When you get the design right, it’s also happens to be more efficient.

P.S. If you’ve actually read this far, what are your feelings on “agrivoltaics”, combining farming with PV arrays?  It’s already managed land and it’s another possible stream of income for farms.  Double up and help keep the wild wild if you know what I mean. Just curious.”

Have thoughts about agrivoltaics? Have questions, comments, big ideas for Andy or Claire? Comment below!

Soil Health and Forestry Parallels with the Big Team

Big Teammate Madeleine Carey wrote, in response to the idea of soil health having a Blackfish problem:

“This is very similar to what happened with "Forest Health" during Bush II R1 and you can see *waves hands at western US* how that is going. It conflated health with "economically productive and greenwashed." The Healthy Forest Restoration Act is basically a mandate to do more logging (because it is true that if a tree isn't in the woods, it can't burn) and required community's to become "FireWise" without dealing with the complicated reality of managing wildland fire for its natural role in ecosystems or hamstringing the building industry (IMO if '08 and the past decade of fires had overlapped, maybe it would be diff[erent]). I think the lessons from HFRA is that a) people are gullible AF especially when they are scared b) USDA doesn't have the organizational culture to lead on the scale and magnitude of change we need and c) there is a huge segment of the population who still think that in general, corporations are good and to be trusted. 

Anyways, you are spot on in centering humans and that addresses all the issues I raise above. We are starting to see that with fire by talking about cultural burning, firefighter safety, prison fire labor, climate refuges, etc etc. But I'm seeing another generational issue, at least in forest advocacy, which is the Olds who cut their teeth with Zero Cut are hyper focused on not letting the agency or loggers get a single win and not really thinking about the macro issues of agency mandates, shitty agency culture, or how climate change might change what is good advocacy. They can't see the forest through the trees (I am so so sorry). 

re:soil health I think a lot of enviro advocacy folks will either a) not want to hand farmers/ranchers a single win or b) think that Tyson/NBCA/etc are farmers and ranchers. c) is maybe another corollary to fire which is it's gonna have to be ecosystem specific. What is good for your soil back east probably ain't the same shit that is good for my soil at 7500' in the southern rockies and we definitely cannot monetize sequestering carbon in them in the same way. 

Your last graph is so good. And I think that caring about people is key to changing USDA into an agency that will be less of a roadblock on the pathway to change and I think that messaging can help create a big tent with the rest of The Movement because it's fundamentally a message about justice and not about dirt (sorry, I know more people should care about dirt).” 

Interested in more conversations on forestry? I recommend reading Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, or to learn more about Indigenous burning traditions, I’ve heard good things about Forgotten Fires.

Thoughts for Madeleine? Let her know with a comment/response to this email.

Big Teammates Take on Fashion

I got the chance to sit down with Kim van der Weerd this week to talk about her work (which kind of mirrors mine) in the fashion industry. Here’s more about Kim:

“My academic background is in human rights - but I felt I didn't understand production well enough to be effective in sustainable fashion spaces. I quit my London job and moved to Cambodia to work as a garment factory manager for five years (til March 2020). The experience undid all of my assumptions about what sustainable fashion requires, and made me frustrated that supply chain perspectives are so misunderstood and underrepresented at the sustainable fashion table. Everything I do now is about challenging the kinds of conversations the industry has and bringing more supply chain perspectives to it (as complicated as they are).”

A big part of Kim’s current work is making Manufactured; a podcast about the sustainability and making of fashion. I’ve talked to my fair share of people interested in the intersection between fashion and agriculture as related to my work, and I think you all should connect with Kim!

Building People Power at the Grocery Coop with the Big Team

Tom is a new DC-based friend who’s previous work in NY is pretty interesting for anyone looking at the grocery end of the food chain or cooperative models!:

“Before I left my previous job I had established a program on rural grocery stores, specifically on "new" models communities around the country have used to own, operate, and finance them. Here's a link to the program page. The first educational opportunity we hosted via webinar was at the end of May and you can see that it focused on cooperatives. I've always been a big union/ worker democracy person, so cooperatives in the food system appealed to me (I worked for the [an] Economic Justice and Labor program for a bit right after college hence my current return to clean energy policy and clean energy manufacturing policy). I'd love to know your thoughts! I feel like unless those coops currently being established work together up and down the chain then it's a big missed opportunity for wealth building.”

Why Do We Care About Places More Than People?

Michael Tlusty is a professor of Sustainability and Food Solutions at UMASS Boston, and a frequent (and fav) responder to newsletters. He shared this interesting question he’s been struggling with recently:

“I am helping a PhD student in Indonesia with her thesis on the use of enrichments for children's nutrition in Cambodia. There was a supplement called CSP (corn-soy-plus) and they were looking at performance of this compared to more locally created products that include local ingredients including fish. She has a big hesitancy to call out a developed world product (supported by USAID) is not as good as the local product. She wanted to come up with a sustainability argument for why the local was better, and I asked her to think about over the life of the child what will lead to the better outcome? She is very wary of doing this. 

I kind of think this is similar to the organic discussion - where there is something we feel is better in terms of supporting people, and yet we use an environmental argument [to support/defend it].

My experience was seeing family farms [go] away, and instead of supporting the people, we argued that buying organic was the way to do it. This has morphed into the soil health blackfish problem you described in the last newsletter. 

For …(the Indonesian PhD student), it is [that] we want local foods for infants that can help with nutrition outcomes, but we need to address environmental sustainability (even though it will be a lower GHG footprint than soy and corn)….

We often use the environment as a red herring over concerns about humans. I'm not saying all environmental concerns are red herrings, but I think humans are devalued in these discussions, or we don't want to say we care about people. 

…If anyone has thoughts supporting or refuting this idea, I would like to know. Is this American individualism, and we can't hug our boys / farmers, and therefore we need to care for the land instead of the people? Does this explain why we say we want things to care for the land (organic), and support "family" farmers who then don't reciprocate caring for the land (those that don't instill conservation measures). I don't know if these thoughts can improve anything now, but maybe explain why we are on the path we are on? That is the kind of feedback I'm hoping your mention could elicit.    

Things to Do in the Next Few Weeks

Donate to help poultry workers organize - From the website: “Venceremos is a newly formed, worker-based organization in Arkansas whose mission is to ensure the human rights of poultry workers. Venceremos seeks to spearhead adaptation of the WSR model to the poultry supply chain.  Successful implementation of WSR will address longstanding abuses faced by low-wage workers. In order to carry out this work, Venceremos is developing its organizational capacity, its base of committed worker-leaders, and its network of external allies.”

Attend La Semilla Farm Bill Zine Virtual Release - From their website: “A call to action as much as an in-depth history, “Food, Land, and Us” shows how on-the-ground communities have and continue to organize to transform our agricultural and food systems on their own terms. Built on decades of work by food justice advocates, this collaborative project is an effort to make the Farm Bill accessible, learn how it impacts all of us, and know that we have a seat at the table to shape agriculture policy.”

It’s next week! Register here.

Attend Inhabitants Screening and Panel Discussion - If you liked Gather, it looks like Inhabitants is going to be another wonderful view into Indigenous life, foodways, and the future. From their website: “INHABITANTS is a feature documentary that follows five Native American Tribes across deserts, coastlines, forests, and prairies as they restore their traditional land management practices.” A previous panel discussion focused on Hawaiian food forests (you can view it on their website now!)

It’s also next week! Register here for the screening featuring discussions of Indigenous Forestry.

Listen to LANDED - Recommended by Jackson Rolett of the Collaborative Farming Podcast: “Farmerama Radio released a four part podcast series LANDED. It's three hours well spent on "the small family farm is a colonial concept" and how folks in Scotland are going about addressing it.”

Buy this Cajeta - From the website of Angeles Crest Creamery, a CA farm still recovery from a past fire: “Half pint jars of small batch goat milk caramel made with the milk of our sagebrush-fed goats and organic cane sugar. Enjoy with ice cream, apple slices, in your morning coffee, or just with a spoon.”

Let me tell you, I have enjoyed this Cajeta (“Just like dulce de leche, cajeta is a thick, sweet confection made from boiled milk—goat's milk in the case of cajeta, and cow's milk in the case of dulce. And, just like its cousin, cajeta is almost universally described as "Mexican caramel." On the surface, that makes sense. They're both gooey and brown, with a similar sort of nuttiness. But it's also a gross oversimplification that erases the unique attributes of Latin America's dairy-centric confections, which aren't caramels at all.” Learn more at Serious Eats) all of these ways. With apples and pears and bananas, on berries and cream, in coffee, on my finger straight from the jar. It’s so good. It’s like the main thing that’s keeping me going at this point.

If you’re in DC… Celebrate summer with our Summer Soiree! 

  • DIY flower crown station 

  • play games and make crafts with kids 

  • pick up a back to school kit from the LEAF youth program

  • tour the farm and see what is growing 

  • enjoy grilled vegetables and other summer dishes 

  • build-your-own ice cream sundae 

  • check out a book from Shaw Library and create your own story with a story adventure kit

Thursday, August 26 - 5:30 - 8 pm - FREE, Common Good City Farm and the Park at LeDroit 

Register here

Last F(ew) Thing

  • If you’re new to Big Team Farms and want some explanation for what the F you just read, check out The Intro Newsletter and more recent additions by visiting Big Team Farms online.

  • First and foremost, Reservation Dogs is incredible and all I *really* need right now. I laughed so hard during the first few episodes, it is a spectacularly good, heart-felt, moving, gritty show that reminds me a lot of Wyoming, which I miss. I love Ted Lasso and I need it right now, so I’m not going to say anymore about season 2, but I’ll leave this story right here. What If…? Is two episodes in, and we’re watching it though animated is still not my favorite. Brooklyn 99 is also back, coming in really hot (I was a fan of the idea that they would come back and the show would inexplicably just be about a post office instead of a police department). I finished How Fiction Works, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and 2007’s Best of Science and Nature Writing, as well as The God of Small Things. Up next I’m finishing End of the Myth and a book of Edith Nesbit children’s stories.

  • Don’t forget to share this email!

Stay safe out there friends, and thank you for all your support. Don’t forget, if you have funny gifs, thoughts, comments, stories, questions, feedback, catchy song lyrics, good podcast recommendations, or anything else to tell me, I’m right on the other end of this email.

Rock on,

Sarah