Transcript - November 2, 2007
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
Let's dive into a fascinating case study, the process of changing a traditional culture. We're not talking about Camaroon or outer Mongolia but about farmers right here—a piece of Virginia that touches Tennessee and North Carolina. The economics of tobacco are generally dismal these days. But there's a growing movement toward alternatives, including organic and other high quality vegetables. So how do you go about persuading farmers and consumers to change their habits so that everybody profits? Brenda Breslauer produced our story, part of our ongoing coverage of "Enterprising Ideas."
Bob Orr has spent most of his 61 years in tobacco country.
HORTON: We're right here in the middle of—what they call burly tobacco. The burly belt. Burly tobacco is what the tobacco companies use to put the flavor in—in the cigarettes.
ORR: For 38-year-old Allyn Horton, a fourth generation tobacco farmer, tobacco is the crop that put food on the table.
HORTON: It's been good to a lot of people in this country. Sure has.
BRANCACCIO: For Horton, Orr and other farmers in this corner of Virginia, tobacco has been the backbone of the economy since the place was settled in the 17th century.
NARRATOR: "But tobacco and everything that affects it, remains the central interest. The pot of gold at the rainbow's end, is a barn full of rich yellow tobacco leaves"
BRANCACCIO: But in the past few years, that pot of gold has gotten smaller. Farmers like Horton have watched their bottom line shrink.
HORTON: The biggest thing is we're getting, the prices we're takin' for tobacco now are prices that my granddaddy got 30, 40 years ago.
BRANCACCIO: Since 1975, the demand for tobacco has been going down as health warnings finally sunk in for Americans. This amid rising competition from growers overseas. Then in 2004, the federal government ended longstanding policies that provided price support to tobacco farmers. In the last decade, tobacco revenue in Virginia has dropped by 70 percent. So many farmers gave up growing tobacco altogether.
ORR: It got to where what little they were making by the hour they wasn't even making three dollars an hour. So why fool with it?
BRANCACCIO: That's where Anthony Flacavento comes in. He's trying to persuade farmers to change from growing tobacco to growing organic fruits and vegetables.
FLACAVENTO: Because of tobacco's decline in the last ten years, it also created that I gotta do somethin' kind of thinkin'. It was sort of a crisis that creates opportunity.
BRANCACCIO: So Flaccavento set up a non profit called Appalachian Sustainable Development, or ASD. Its goal was to create jobs that helped the environment instead of hurting it.
FLACAVENTO: We're trying to create more social equity—with environmental conservation. And at the same time, make money. That's a challenging thing. That's not that way we've gone about economic development for the last—couple of centuries.
BRANCACCIO: What he offered to farmers was a system to get their produce from the field to people's tables: that meant instruction in organic farming —how to build soil and control for pests and disease. Then ASD would find supermarkets willing to buy the organic fruits and vegetables.
His sales pitch to markets: produce that was certified organic, locally raised, and tastier because it didn't get trucked in from hundreds of miles away.
FLACAVENTO: And the buyers were very excited, some of the very first buyers. And—they said, "Well, can you get us 200 boxes of this every week and 150 of that and 300 of that?" And—in my head, I'm realizing there's no way (LAUGHS) I can guarantee that. But what I'm needing to say is, "Yeah, I think we can do that."
BRANCACCIO: But getting farmers to sign on was a tougher sell.
ORR: Your average farmer, no matter what he's growin'—in the United States it's like 65 to 67 years old. Well, some of these guys, they don't want to transfer over to vegetables.
BRANCACCIO: Flacavento had to confront centuries of tobacco tradition and overcome the stigma that "organic" equals "hippie." After all, this is Marlboro country.
NARRATOR: "listen as I tell you a story... it's the story of the Marlboro man.. it came out of Richmond Virginia one day and spread across the land..."
FLACAVENTO: Tobacco has been the—dominant part of agriculture in this region, and just a big part of life. There were tobacco festivals, tobacco parades, tobacco queens, tobacco princesses.
BRANCACCIO: Even for those willing to convert, transforming a tobacco field to an organic one takes new skills. A farmer has to wait three years before growing organic on land where chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been used. And unlike regular farming, organic fields have to meet strict federal standards.
ORR: Farmers do not like governments and states interfering in what they do. Because every time that the government gets involved or the states get involved, it just makes their lives more complicated.
BRANCACCIO: Ultimately, it was the economics that persuaded Bob Orr to go organic.
ORR: Well, I can make more with vegetables than I can tobacco. Because an acre of tomatoes is worth more than an acre of tobacco.
And this is what it's going to look like when you are in the store and it's going to have a band around it. And right there is what it will look like.
BRANCACCIO: Getting it to the store is where Flacavento's vision comes to life. ASD runs this processing plant where farmers drop off their produce. Here it's inspected, packaged, stamped with an organic label, and trucked off to markets... something that would be difficult for farmers to do all on their own.
ORR: Marketing. That's all I need 'em for. Marketing.
Probably none of us have got enough to fill that truck, to fill that 18 wheeler. But by all of us being together—and—and this ASD organization, we've got enough to send that truck not just once a week but three times a week.
BRANCACCIO: Still it's been a challenge to have growers sign on and break with what used to be tried and true.
FLACAVENTO: I can remember a couple, three years ago when we said, what about raising eggplant? And one of our farmers said, "Raise what?" He said, "Good Lord." You know it's just like what is that and who in the world is gonna eat that?
BRANCACCIO: But now eggplant has become a big seller...and so have many of the other zany and not-so-zany vegetables these farmers grow.
ASD's produce is now in nearly 600 supermarkets in five states under the organic label Appalachian Harvest...from national chains like Whole Foods to regional grocery stores. A large part of ASD's philosophy is trying to connect consumers with the folks who grow their food.
HORTON: We've got kids in this world that don't realize where their food comes from to understand what—what it is to go out here and pull a tomato plant out and—and grow a tomato to eat on a sandwich. It's—it's not something you're just going in the grocery store and it's in your produce section. It's something that somebody's had to—had to strive to work hard to try to make it.
BRANCACCIO: More people are thinking about where food comes from these days. There's a burgeoning movement across the country to promote all things "local" - including buying food grown close to home.
It helps the small farmers, of course, but it also helps the environment. A shorter distance to market means less fossil fuel to truck food in. Plus, fresher food tastes better. There's a name for all this. You've heard of herbivores. Well, put local and eating together and you have: "locavore."
Meet Steven Hopp, a board member of Flaccavento's outfit. Think of him as Mr. Locavore.
HOPP: As a—as a personal challenge to you and to the viewers, I would say try to get asparagus into a frying pan within two hours after it's cut, and you do that for everything you eat, and there's sort of no going back.
BRANCACCIO: Three years ago, Hopp and his wife, Barbara Kingsolver—yes, the famous novelist—, moved from Arizona with their two daughters to this part of Virginia. The family spent a year living largely off their own farm and sourcing the rest of their food as close to home as they could.
It's your view that Americans generally are quite disassociated from where their food really comes from.
HOPP: Disassociated might be a kind way to say it. I think complete—people are completely ignorant of where a lot of their food comes from.
BRANCACCIO: To try to change that, his family published a book this year about their experience that made it to the bestseller list: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. They hoped it would prompt people to think about food in a new way.
So if this movement is successful, you'd like it to reach a point where if the person reaches for a raspberry, among the things they're thinking about beyond does this look good to eat...Are what other questions should we be asking?
HOPP: Well, I think with regard to the local movement, they should ask where did this come from. Another question is to ask, "Is this in season?"
BRANCACCIO: After the book, Hopp decided to put his beliefs into action. This is Meadowview, Virginia, a quiet farming town with a population of about 2,000, once a main stop on the railroad but no longer.. To revitalize things here, Hopp has just opened a restaurant called Harvest Table and a general store.
His goal is to create a market for smaller, local products.
HOPP: We take advantage of as local as we can. If we have to go a state, or in some cases two states, away in order to get what we feel like we need or we want, then we'll do that. If in time we can convince people to grow things nearby, then we'll narrow—narrow those circles around us.
BRANCACCIO: The "buy local" philosophy is right there on the menu... pretty much everything but the coffee.
HOUSER: There's a local farmer's market where we get our food... And also we just have local farmers that contribute to us that might not be part of the farmers market.
BRANCACCIO: Hopp and his chef Richard Houser try to get to know every farmer who supplies food to the restaurant so there are only two degrees of separation between what comes out of the earth and what goes into the customer's mouth. And in case you somehow missed the point...it's local.
HOUSER: The onions come from North Carolina, and the peppers are local, are grown from our local people the rice we use is from South Carolina, apples are from Virginia, I mean even the vinegar is made in Virginia.
BRANCACCIO: Even much of the wood used to build the place is local. And that brings us back to ASD. Its other venture is called sustainable woods.
Take a look at what ASD's doing... logging the old fashioned way. Logger Chad Miano carefully chooses the best trees to cut, then uses horses to get the logs out. It's a way to harvest lumber without destroying the forest —the opposite of clear cutting.
MIANO: Very little impact as compared to mechanized logging. Our goal is to leave the forest intact.
BRANCACCIO: Flacavento wants to keep the profits from leaving the community along with the logs.
FLACAVENTO: Where do those logs typically go? Well, historically, you'll find them on the train or a truck leaving the area. You send them out without doing any of the processing. You only get a small economic return for that.
BRANCACCIO: So ASD has taken upon itself the job of processing the wood locally. They saw it, dry it in environmentally friendly kilns, and then refine it into flooring, trim, siding and paneling.
FLACAVENTO: That log, that oak log, that hickory log, is suddenly worth a whole lot more. Four, five, six times as much as when it went out of the community as a log. All that—added value enables us to create jobs—create revenue, and pay a little more for those logs to be managed in an environmental way.
BRANCACCIO: Then there's the question of cost. Sustainable wood does cost as much as 20 percent more than regular wood...like organic food, it tends to run more expensive. So who can afford it?
FLACCAVENTO: When we got this going, a lot of people said, "You don't have the right demographics."
BRANCACCIO: People are too poor to buy this stuff?
FLACCAVENTO: People are too poor. People are, you know, concerned about other things, you know. This is more of a Wal-Mart demographic than an organic demographic.
ORR: People who are having to scrape and work hard for living. They could care less if it's organic or not. They want them tomatoes, or they want this cabbage and whatever. And if one—whichever one's the cheapest, that's all they're gonna buy.
BRANCACCIO: But Flacavento says he was pleasantly surprised.
FLACCAVENTO: Not just the kinda foodies or—or the affluent. It's senior citizens who are remembering what—food tasted like a generation ago. It's working families. It's young moms, all of it. So, supposedly we didn't have the right demographic. But in fact—people are willing to pay a little more.
BRANCACCIO: But for many of the growers, the appeal is not about the environment, it's about the bottom line.
ORR: I do it for the money. Period. No. I do not do it for the earth. No. Absolutely not.
BRANCACCIO: And he's doing well. Orr says he's been making twice on organic produce what he would be making on tobacco. And remember Allyn Horton? He was inspired to test the organic waters by his cousin Rickey who made a profit with ASD last year.
Horton, who has cut back his tobacco crop from 40 acres to 25, planted two and a half acres of organic vegetables this year.
HORTON: I guess—you hear positive things about something. And you—it makes you kind of eager to try it.
BRANCACCIO: But it is a risk, he says.
HORTON: There's a lot that you don't know and you don't understand about it. And you don't want to make a failure.
BRANCACCIO: Seven years since ASD formed its organic label, Appalachian Harvest, it has more demand than it can fill but only 54 farmers.
Is that number, given all the years you've spent on this, is this enough not to change the world, but really change the farming economics of this region?
FLACCAVENTO: I'm mixed about that. The reality is that I wish we had three times the volume of production that we've had now.
BRANCACCIO: So, is it—solvent? Is it making money? Are you struggling?
FLACCAVENTO: We're struggling. Financially, we are struggling. There's—there's no way to avoid that. The wood and the food enterprises are growing like mad. We're getting better at 'em all the time, but until they get in the black and start generating revenue, we like most nonprofits are largely dependent on donations and grants.
BRANCACCIO: So what does all this mean for the future of farming in tobacco country? Bob Orr is not optimistic.
ORR: I'll be right here'til I die. But when I die, there won't be another one. Why would you leave a job at $80,000 a year to come and farm? And be in debt $80,000 instead of making that much?
BRANCACCIO: But Allyn Horton says organic provides hope.
HORTON: There may be a pretty bright future for us smaller farmers. And I think it's going to be a good thing for us in this part of the country.
BRANCACCIO: For now, Horton wants people, when they sit down for a meal, to think about where it came from....to remember the small farmers like him who are out in the fields day in and day out.
HORTON: Somebody's gonna bear their weight in the mud and diggin' and playin' in the dirt now to—to produce something to eat. That's just what it boils down to. It's got to be out here in the dirt now.
BRANCACCIO: You can read more about the Appalachian Sustainable Development and other ways to use business skills to improve the world by consulting our "enterprising ideas" website. Pbs-dot-org is the place to start. Now let's talk about what might be described as a "youth quake." That's not my coinage but it's a useful concept: provoking a stampede of younger people, in this case to campaign to stop global warming. The man behind the step it up anti climate change crusade is not exactly a youth but is a renowned environmental thinker and author: Bill McKibben.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Mr. McKibben, greetings.
MCKIBBEN: Good to be with you.
BRANCACCIO: Bill, what's gotten into you lately? You used to be so resolutely pessimistic about the fate of the earth. I mean, you wrote one of the early books on global warming 20 years ago. But now you're—well, you tell me. I mean, what is giving you reason to live now?
MCKIBBEN: I'm not sure that it's I've gotten more optimistic. I've just decided that we better try out best to actually do something. You know?
January of this year, January 10th, working with six college kids, we launched a website, the seven of us called Stepitup07.org. Asked people to organize rallies.
Now, we didn't have any money. We didn't have any organizational lists. We didn't really have much in the way of expectations. But the thing took off like a—some kind of—virus, you know? Twelve weeks later, people in 1,400 communities around the country simultaneously staged demonstrations demanding serious action on global warming.
We didn't wanna do a march on Washington. A, because there was something a little off about flying people across the country to protest global warming.
BRANCACCIO: Using fossil fuels?
MCKIBBEN: Because we thought people would know how to do this in their communities. And they did, so there they are. Under Water in Key West or, you know, skiing—big multi-day ascents of these glaciated peaks out in the Rockies and skiing down or thousands of people in lower Manhattan in blue shirts, holding hands to form a sea of people to show where the tide line's gonna be on the world's most expensive real estate, you know, in 20 or 30 or 40 years.
BRANCACCIO: Your movement is suggesting you're—you need more from people.
MCKIBBEN: Absolutely. Six or seven days after we opened this website, we get—e-mail from this sorority chapter at the University of Texas at Austin, the Alpha Phi sorority chapter. And they attach a picture, 180 sorority women, you know, looking the way that Texas sorority women one imagines, they would. Every one of them can smile more broadly than I'm capable of smiling, you know? They had a sign, Step It Up, Congress. Cut carbon 80 percent by 2050. And beneath it, they had penned a little note, "We wanted to show it wasn't just the hippies who cared about this." That was so sweet!
BRANCACCIO: But it can't just be the hippies, is your pont?
MCKIBBEN: It's sorority chapters and evangelical congregations and chambers of commerce that finish things off, that bring them into the mainstream, where the political system finally has to deal with them. And that's hopefully what's going to be happening over the next 18 months.
BRANCACCIO: So, you've done a lot of work making the message of Step It Up very clear: cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent, by mid-century, by 2050. But why that standard?
MCKIBBEN: We actually—this is the easy part. There are lots now of great scientists who have run the computer models, who understand what we need to do to avoid the worst catastrophes. Now, what they tell us is that that kind of steady cuts over 40 years in the developed world, combined with some real action that we could help lead in the developing world might be enough not to prevent global warming. Too late for that. But to keep us from crossing the red lines that separate us from complete catastrophe. That's all we're aiming for anymore at this point.
BRANCACCIO: You're still, I'm sure, running into people who say, "Look, I know it's happening, but I wanna quibble with you on how quickly it's happening and how pressing and immediate a problem it is." And to them you say?
MCKIBBEN: Well, to them we say—and this is happening a lot in Congress and everywhere else. People would prefer to put it off for a while or to take small steps, you know? It would be nice if we could amend the laws of nature as easily as we can amend the tax code. But that's not on offer. We're gonna decide what we're able to do, and it better be enough because the earth is not going to meet us halfway.
BRANCACCIO: There's a big event tomorrow, this weekend. What do—you're just—what are trying to achieve tomorrow that's different?
MCKIBBEN: We really need finally to identify politicians who aren't just going to say the right things, but are going to provide real leadership on this. 'Cause it's a heavy lift, you know? We're talking about standing up to the most powerful forces in our economy, the fossil fuel industry.
BRANCACCIO: The object is to get the candidates in front of the people, out there in the real world tomorrow. But who? Democrats?
MCKIBBEN: Hopefully everyone. And in fact, the first two Presidential candidates to sign on for this were John McCain and John Edwards, which is a pretty good spectrum. The next President of the United States and the next Congress are either going to provide the leadership on this or it's not gonna matter if their successors do. And for that, you know, you know how Presidents or anybody else works, they get one or two issues that they really get to pour their political capital into.
BRANCACCIO: Now, odds are people are watching us, talking the night before the big Step It Up Saturday. Too late for them to do anything with this?
MCKIBBEN: Not too late. If you have a computer, you go to Stepitup07.org. And it'll tell you where, tomorrow, mid-day. There'll be people near you 'cause there are hundreds and hundreds of these rallies all across the country. Where to go to add your voice to this. It's one day, and it's an excellent way to throw yourself into a movement that needs to become much more than one day. It needs to become, for a lot of people, a really passionate commitment.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Bill McKibben, thank you very much.
MCKIBBEN: And thank you very much. What a pleasure.
BRANCACCIO: And that's it for now. From Abindon, Virginia, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.