The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System

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By Neva Knott

When the environmental movement began in the 1970s, the focus was on protecting and honoring nature instead of depleting it for human consumption. While this same protection of nature is still at the core of environmental advocacy, a new environmental perspective has emerged recent years, a more personal movement–that of food sourcing.

I’ve heard that the easiest way to go green is to green your food source. It’s certainly the most immediate and possibly the most effective.

To eat within your foodshed, to eat the 100-mile-meal, to know your farmer are practices that benefit your health and promote a green triple bottom line–people, the planet, and profits. In graduate school at Green Mountain College, I learned that most food on the American table travels 2,000 miles before eaten, a shocking and disheartening statistic. John Emrich’s new book, The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System, tells stories of the “good food movement,” the alternative to commercial, bland, environmentally exploitive, well-traveled food.

All writers here at The Ecotone Exchange hold Master’s of Science degrees in Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College. John is no exception–he was one of our cohort there. Previously an investment banker, he now runs Backyard Chicken Run, an urban chicken supply business in Chicago, and gathers stories of other entrepreneurs looking join the local food movement. Though I haven’t yet convinced John to join our team at the EE, I did get his permission to share a segment of his book here.

When I first read The Local Yolk, my heart was warmed by the case studies John had collected, putting faces to the ideal of greening your food source. What most impressed and enthused me, though, was John’s explanations of how to make growing and sourcing good food–sustainable agriculture–a profitable venture. Profitability is story not yet told in, and one that is often easily lost in the check-out line when buying organic, local food. With John’s permission, I give you an excerpt from Chapter 17, Tao Theory: Zen and the Art of Investing in Sustainable Food…

“In my prior life, I had owned shares in one of the publicly traded fertilizer companies, so I understood the “bullish case” for fertilizer from the perspective of the chemical companies: a billion or so people in Asia were moving to the middle class and would switch from a rice diet to a protein diet (i.e., a diet with more meat), generating rising demand for the grains to feed livestock and therefore the inputs of chemical agriculture that made monoculture grain-growing viable on a massive scale. At the time I met with the fertilizer manufacturer, the company was forecasting that the United States would become an exporter of corn to China the following year. The future was bright.

“As I tried to put a value on the organic farm, the light bulb went on. The chemical companies’ gain was the farmers’ pain. The chemical inputs of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium were all either directly or indirectly tied to natural resources that would become increasingly scarce and expensive over time, but farmers had to have them to succeed in conventional agriculture. Moreover, industrial farmers buy seed from a monopoly. The two things that an industrial farmer or farm investor could say for sure were that they had no control over their costs, and their costs were going higher. Farm subsidies are often criticized for being a gift to larger corporate farms. They would be more accurately described as a subsidy to the chemical companies and industrial buyers of grain (food processors). The conventional farmer, big or small, is getting little more than his costs reimbursed over a lifetime of work.

“The sustainable farmer doesn’t have the same exposure to cost pressure. After the sun itself, manure is the ultimate renewable resource, replacing the increasingly costly fertilizers. Yet, because I believed in the secular trend towards organic food, the sustainable farmer would continue to benefit from rising market prices for organic crops (for example, organic grains) over time. I was concluding that sustainable farming was a good business investment.”

John writes on to explain the mechanics of Impact Investing and Micro-Lending, and how these strategies can promote the good food movement while providing economic opportunity and promoting environmentally sound agriculture.

The Local Yolk is a smart blend of case stories, anecdotes, background knowledge, and research. You can follow The Local Yolk and Back Yard Chicken Run on Facebook and can learn more about the book at www.thelocalyolkbook.com.

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