A capacity crowd stands up for small, sustainable family farms at Pamela Walker's book signing

Inspired by such visionaries as Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Joel Salatin, and Michael Pollan, our country is experiencing a small but important paradigm shift away from the chemical-dependent, big agribusiness, factory-farm model to one where small, sustainable family farms are once again feeding fresh, local food to their neighbors. Austin's own version of this paradigm shift was in evidence on the second floor mezzanine at BookPeople last Friday night. A capacity crowd had gathered to sample dishes made from local produce, meats, and cheeses and to meet Pamela Walker, author of Growing Good Things to Eat in Texas (Texas A&M University Press, $23). Walker began with a reference to Wendell Berry's classic essay, saying that "anyone who eats is involved in agriculture," and the grazing crowd heartily concurred. The author went on to describe her own development into an avid organic gardener and explained how she chose the Texas farmers and ranchers who are profiled in her new book. Before she sat down to sign books, Walker opened the floor to questions for the area farmers in attendance – Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm, Katie Kraemer of Tecolote Farm, Amelia Sweethardt of Pure Luck Farm & Goat Dairy, cattle ranchers Betsy and Katherine Ross of Schulenburg, and Mike and Debbie Sams of Full Quiver Dairy Farm near Dallas. They spoke frankly and eloquently about the many challenges facing Texas' small farmers today. They told stories of wells gone dry during the drought and the need for commercial or agricultural water rates for urban farmers. Another major concern was their feeling that supposed food safety regulations developed by and for big agribusiness (such as the National Animal Identification System, among others) are being used to put small operators out of business. What struck me most about this discussion was how similar it was to conversations I've had in researching a story. I spent quite a bit of time this summer researching state egg-grading regulations, which were developed for giant factory farms but have been adopted into the Austin city code, and how these regulations are used to remove ungraded eggs from Austin restaurants and grocery stores. The upshot of my research and last week's book celebration is the realization that even though there's enthusiastic support for our local farm-to-table movement, the success of these small, sustainable local farms is by no means a given. To elaborate on Berry's quote, if we want to continue eating local, we need to pay close attention to agricultural issues. The family farms and ranches that feed us need our political as well as our financial support. Voice your concerns to members of Austin's new Sustainable Food Policy Board ( and make sure that our City Council members, county commissioners, state legislators, and officials of both local and state health and agriculture departments understand that their support for small-scale, sustainable agriculture is of vital nutritional, economic, and environmental importance.

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