The Love, and Business, of Agriculture
Today on Rootstock Radio, we speak to Hal Hamilton, founder and co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab. Hal is also a founder of the Academy for Systemic Change and a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He has been a German Marshall Fellow, a Kellogg Fellow and received a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. Hal’s career began as a commercial dairy farmer in Kentucky, and he still raises sheep, makes hay, and taps maple syrup.
Speaking from his own experience as a farmer during the farm crisis of the 1980s, Hal says “It was heartbreaking. It was difficult. It was so hard on people, but also on the fabric of rural culture which was dependent on having enough farmers in the area.” Watching and experiencing this hardship first hand had a profound influence on Hal. In his words: “I had to get involved and try to do something.”
Enter Hal’s long list of accomplishments and advocacy that brings us to today, where his focus is on the Sustainable Food Lab. The organization’s core purpose, he explains, is to “accelerate progress with sustainability in the mainstream.” This critical and laudable goal stems from the recognition that “the production of food is an avocation and a love, but it’s also a business” and the Sustainable Food Lab takes the business into account every bit as much as the passion, in order to maximize its positive impact.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Hal Hamilton, founder and co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab. Hal advises businesses, helps design and manage collaborative projects, and supports leadership development. He is also a founder of the Academy for Systemic Change and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He has been a German Marshall Fellow, a Kellogg Fellow; he received a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. Hal’s career began as a commercial dairy farmer in Kentucky and he still raises sheep, makes hay, and taps maple syrup. Welcome, Hal, and what an honor and a pleasure to be able to speak with you today.
HAL HAMILTON: Well, it’s my privilege to be here with you, Theresa.
TM: You know, Hal, I remember when you lived in Kentucky, and I know that you live in Vermont now. And you were working a lot with the Good Food movement and have been for a long time. I’m really, really wanting to go back in time a little bit with you if you don’t mind and say, you know, you were a farmer. In fact, you were a neighbor of Wendell Berry, I know. And were you making a living as a farmer right from when you were a young man?
HH: Yeah, I was, such as it was. In, I guess it was 1973 when I got my first cows and borrowed money from the bank and bought the farm, and we started off with about thirty cows and built up to about forty-five cows fifteen years later. It was an average size dairy farm at that time; farmed about 150 acres and rented some more hay lands on neighboring farms. And since we were in Kentucky, at that time every farm had a small acreage of tobacco, so we raised a few acres of tobacco and essentially paid for the farm with the tobacco and lived on the cows.
TM: You know, that is such a Midwest story; it’s a Wisconsin story too—that is, until the whole market for tobacco, which is a good thing I believe, fell through. And then when did you start raising sheep?
HH: Well, we had a little flock of sheep, oh, I don’t know, after ten or twelve years of milking cows. We had a little flock of sheep for…wife Susie wanted to do it. But it didn’t amount to much. And after moving here to Vermont, you know, it’s a whole different kind of scene up here. And I actually live in a community on a farm, and we have a dairy and cheese and yogurt operation and make maple syrup and various things. But it’s something I do with a couple friends for fun. It doesn’t make much money, but it gives me chores to do, which I think everybody ought to have chores to do.
TM: Definitely, especially when you get older.
HH: Well, and when you’re sitting in an office a lot of the time, and talk on the phone and go to meetings, then you really need chores to do!
TM: No kidding! Well, that makes sense. But tell me, how is it that you transitioned from being a farmer to sitting in an office and [going to] meetings and being an organizer and an activist and a pioneer leader and a change agent?
HH: It happened to me in the 1980s, when I got sort of itchy to be involved in some things off the farm, as people do. And so I was farming full-time, which everybody knows that a dairy farmer farming full-time is like working two or three normal jobs. But I started going to a few meetings, and at that time a large swathe of central Kentucky was threatened with strip mining for shale oil. And this was early 1980s, and a lot of people didn’t think that was a great idea. So at any rate, I hung out and supported an organization to inform farmers what the deal was with selling mineral rights and what might happen and what might not happen.
And some friends of mine found out about some meetings, actually, up in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, during the days of sort of the family farm movement, penny auctions and, you know, talking about farm bills in Washington and so forth. I got involved in that a little bit, and we created the Community Farm Alliance in Kentucky. And Wendell Berry was an early participant and supporter and sponsor and helped with fund-raising and stuff for these sort of things.
We were all trying to figure out, you know, how to blend these lives of working on the land with also trying to do something to support a future for family farms in this country, which has always been kind of an uphill struggle but also, you know, such a love, such a wonderful place to be with so many incredible people on the same trail that it’s become a life. And for me, it’s evolved, in working with different kinds of players in the food system, but it’s all about the same thing: it’s about the land and the people.
TM: What a great experience that you had on the farm, to bring that to this kind of evolution that you made to being an organizer, being an activist, and then of course founding the Sustainable Food Lab.
HH: Well, you know, I still remember one seminal moment for me, when I was farming full-time and wasn’t involved in anything much. But one of my neighbors was a good dairy farmer but he had borrowed money at the wrong time, which was often the difference between people who were having trouble and people who weren’t. But he borrowed money at the wrong time when interest rates were low and land prices kept inflating every year, so every year your whole operation was worth 15 percent more than it was the year before. But then everything turned around, and then interest rates went high and land values and value for cows and so forth was deflating, and then he was in trouble. And his son came home from college, and he told his son he couldn’t afford to send him back to school, and his son committed suicide right there, over Christmas on the farm. And I don’t know, it just sort of flipped a switch for me, and I just said I had to try to get involved and do something.
And I don’t want to go down tangents, but there was a seminal moment like that for Wendell Berry’s father. Not very many people know that Wendell Berry’s father was a farm organizer and one of the people who crafted New Deal farm legislation back in the 1930s when Roosevelt was president. But Wendell Berry’s father, John Berry Sr., he used to tell the story about how when he was a kid, his dad came back from the tobacco warehouse one winter, before Christmas, and selling tobacco before Christmas was what made the annual payments, let alone enabled the family to have some things for Christmas. But his father came home completely depressed and in kind of tears and whatever version that was for John Berry Sr.’s dad, and the tobacco, which represented a year’s work, didn’t bring enough money to pay the commission. And so he said he then committed to himself that he would do something about that, and that led to his lifelong journey as sort of a senior statesman in the upper South, in agriculture. And so George and I and then you and hundreds of other people have dedicated our lives to family farming in the U.S. because of, spurred on by similar experiences, I think.
TM: That is a very deeply moving story. I was just thinking, though, the 1980s, when you said you were farming in certainly one of the toughest decades that farmers had to face, and so many dairy farmers went out of business. I think I read at one point in time, in the 1980s, we lost two thousand dairy farmers in a week. What was it like, Hal, trying to farm in the 1980s?
HH: Well, the thing of it was, the 1970s had been great. Lots of young farmers were attracted to agriculture, prices were good; some of the farm programs for dairy and other things were still in place. The prices were still pegged to the cost of production, to some extent. And then there was a change in the political climate—Ronald Reagan was elected president—and there was also a change in sort of global markets, in oil, and all sorts of commodity markets just took a tailspin, and interest rates went up. And it was hard on very many, many, many, many people. And it wasn’t about who the good farmers were or the bad farmers. It was really about when you borrowed money and what the deal was—and also, of course, how ambitious you were to expand. So people got too big too fast. But it was also just happens, just bad luck for a lot of people about when they borrowed money, on what terms.
And yeah, it was heartbreaking. It was difficult. And it was so hard on people but also on a whole rural, the fabric of rural culture, which depended upon having enough farmers in an area. And where I lived, Henry County, Kentucky, it’s a totally different place now. I mean, it used to be a really beautiful and vibrant farm community, and that’s what it was—it was a farm community, it wasn’t anything else. And now it’s not. And it hurts your heart and your soul to feel that change.
TM: So Hal, you know, the most interaction that I’ve had with you, and it certainly has been a tremendous experience for me, is with the Sustainable Food Lab. I’m wondering you could tell our listeners a little bit about the Sustainable Food Lab, and what does it do? What’s its mission? Who’s in it?
HH: Yeah, the Sustainable Food Lab’s core purpose is to accelerate sustainability, its progress with sustainability in the mainstream of the food system. So we decided early on that there’s lots of wonderful work in sort of community-based, local food systems, and lots of wonderful work in the niches which have grown enormously over the last twelve years. But what we were going to focus on is the food that’s in regular grocery stores and restaurants.
And so we started out by getting together a group of people from businesses and nonprofit organizations and some governments, from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America, and that initial group of thirty people went on a pretty powerful leadership journey together. We did a lot of farm visits out in the country, and we did a lot of personal reflection with each other about what our visions were and what it all meant to us, what we thought the obstacles were. And initially, you know, it was a little rocky at times. There was one guy from the Cisco Corporation, a big food distributer based in Houston, who said to me, referring to some of the nonprofit and organic activists across the room, he said, “You know, Hal, I don’t think those people like me very much.” But actually, what happened was, after a while, those people, after bouncing around in vans in, you know, Brazil or Guatemala or somewhere else, people got to know each other as human, as people, and figured out that underneath the skin there were a lot of common aspirations. And people did start to work together, and in fact this one guy from Cisco started working with some of the people from Oxfam on a project with broccoli and snow peas from Central America, from very small farms, and it ended up going pretty well.
So over the years the Food Lab has evolved into a…the Sustainable Food Lab is now a consortium in which about seventy different organizations are at any one time working together on projects. So it’s kind of a project incubator. Sometimes it’s projects in a company’s own supply chain, or something they’re doing together with one of the nonprofits, like the Nature Conservancy or WWF or somebody, or a development organization like Catholic Relief Services—a lot of projects in developing countries.
Also bigger collaborative projects, like one in which, at the moment, many of the organic brands in the United States, including Organic Valley, are working together to increase productivity or increase the amount of organic grain that’s available in the U.S., which is a big bottleneck, both for livestock feed as well as human, products we eat like energy bars and cereal and that sort of stuff. We also have a little project in the corn and beans Midwest, mostly in Iowa, trying to figure out how to get more demand for oats so that corn and beans farmers will grow more oats in their rotation in order to improve soil health and reduce dependence on fertilizer and pesticides and all that. We have projects like that in other countries too, like one with the whole vanilla industry in Madagascar and all the countries that buy vanilla from Madagascar, trying to figure out how that whole little industry could work better for the farmers and everybody else.
So, you know, it’s a leadership hub, it’s a watering hole, it’s a place for these different organizations to figure out what they need to do together next in order to solve a problem, in order to improve their impacts in the sustainability domain—which are partly social, having to do with farmers and farm workers and farm communities, and partly environmental, having to do with soil, water, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, that sort of thing.
TM: When was, when did you found that, Hal? It was quite a few years ago already.
HH: Yeah, it’s been a while now. It was formally founded in 2004. So it’s been, you know, more than a dozen years now. And at that time, you know, after my years of activism and so forth, I guess I was a little frustrated, and I know other people were too, about not having a big enough impact. And so the question was, you know, how do we have a bigger impact? And some friends of mine challenged me to engage with more in the business world, which I hadn’t done. I was sort of a typical activist and thought, sort of, all business beyond the scale of a family was the enemy and the problem. And in many ways it’s true that business is the problem. So business is also the solution, or a part of the solution anyway, because the production of food is an avocation and a love and it’s also a business—you know, buy and sell stuff.
So we started engaging with a variety of actors, including big mainstream businesses as well as the smaller, pioneering organic and local brands. And it’s been quite a journey over these years, trying to figure out where the impact is. And it’s, you know, sometimes not inspiring with these big businesses, but it affects… When they change what they do, it affects practices on hundreds of thousands or millions of acres, and, you know, hundreds of thousands or millions of people. We also work with some of the very, sort of white-bread, big, consumer-facing manufacturers and retail chains, and they have a big impact too.
And we find, of course, that there are people inside those organizations who care a lot about farmers and about the planet and are willing to do what they can inside those organizations—which can be imperfect, for sure, but make a big difference. So we’ve seen that, you know, companies reduce pesticides on hundreds of thousands of acres just by establishing a new integrated pest management project, which is not organic but it reduces a whole heck of a lot of toxics in the environment. Or other companies who make a commitment to affect the lives of, oh, half a million small farmers in developing countries through their programs and trying to pay more for what they buy. I was just talking with one member of our team who’s working closely with Ben & Jerry’s on everything that’s in their program. And you know, they’re not organic, they’re more identified with fair trade, and their commitment is to improve the lives of everybody that they touch in their business. That makes a big difference.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Hal Hamilton, founder and co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab, a global network of organizations facilitating market-based change for a sustainable food system.
Well, you know, I think that working, for example, with Ben & Jerry’s, which is a Unilever sub-brand, and Unilever having one of the best reputations out there in the CPG world, really is a model for how a larger company… And yes, of course, they’re not perfect, but they’ve done a tremendous amount of good work that I can see. And you have some firsthand experience with that, Hal.
HH: Well, yeah, I mean, Unilever’s been involved since the beginning of the Food Lab, as you know, Theresa. And I remember when… And you know Janke Spitz (sp?), one of the pioneers, a Dutch guy, Dutch engineer, one of the pioneers of sustainability at Unilever. When we first went on that trip, one of those trips in Brazil, and traveled around and visited all sorts of large and small farms and labor-organizing outfits, and resettling landless people and so forth, Janke(?) said to me, he said, “Well, you know, for us, sustainability doesn’t include anything about workers or poverty or small farmers. We’re just concerned about the environment.”
So that was 2004. And you know, now, when they set the Sustainable Living Plan in motion, their sustainability set of commitments and programs, it included this pledge to improve the lives of 500,000 small farmers in their supply chain. And they work with Oxfam to help them develop a system to measure what they’re actually doing and how those lives are improving. So Unilever and many other of the big companies, like General Mills or Dannon, will make commitments, and in this age of transparency and the Internet and Facebook, they can’t fake it anymore. And so it’s a big help.
And something else that is worth noting is, as I think about Unilever, is that as any big company always have senior executives who question the value of sustainability and wonder if it isn’t just a cost from a business point of view. And shouldn’t they, especially whenever the numbers go down, shouldn’t they instead focus on core business and see sustainability as an extra? And so Unilever recently did a review of all of their major brands, dozens of brands around the world, different products they sell to the different groups of consumers. And what they discovered was that the brands that are most associated with their sustainability work are the ones that are growing the fastest as businesses.
TM: That is so exciting. I know that you were working also with Costco in buying direct from the Dominican Republic. And how did that project go? And of course, Costco has been doing some very exciting things, too, in where they source from. What an amazing company they are.
HH: Yeah, they’ve done some good projects. And I guess that the flagship project that we started with them was buying, in their purchases of green beans from a cooperative in Guatemala, they were challenged at one of our meetings by some of the activists, the NGOs, who asked them, well, how do you know about how these small farmers are doing? Are you paying them enough? Do they have good lives? Do they have good jobs? What’s the deal? And this woman from Costco who was at the meeting, she said, “Well, I don’t know, but let’s find out. Can you help us find out?”
So that was the initiative of, initiated a project. And an organization called the International Center for Tropical Agriculture got involved, and they hired some students from the university in Guatemala City to go out and interview the farmers. And it developed into quite a wonderful relationship between people from Costco and the leadership of the farmers’ cooperative where they got the green beans. And they learned a whole lot, including that some of the green beans came from bigger farmers in the lowlands and some came from very small, very poor farmers up in the highlands. And Costco said, well, we’d rather just get our beans from the small farmers, because it seemed like the bigger farmers are doing all right.
And it turned out that the smaller farmers needed help with irrigation because, as everybody knows that tries to grow vegetables, when it doesn’t rain they don’t do so well. So Costco figured out a system for that and ended up pledging so many cents a case, and it went into a newly created community foundation in that area that continues to support those smaller farmers, not only with their farming things like irrigation but also with education and health care needs. So there’s still the trade in green beans, it’s still a big product for Costco and a high-quality product, and it’s doing a lot of good for the small farmers there. And for our Sustainable Food Lab, that became a bit of a set of methods that we would use in different projects with companies who wanted to make sure that they were being responsible to the smaller farmers in their supply chains in developing countries.
You know, you talked about “how,” and one thing to just note about this is it wasn’t just about some experts studying the thing and then coming up with some suggestions to Costco, which Costco then implemented from corporate headquarters in Washington State. It involved a whole lot of conversation in place, in Guatemala. And there was in fact one point, through these small conversations in which people really learned to listen to each other, that a senior VP from Costco was Mexican, came from Mexico, and hadn’t been to a Mass in Spanish since he was a boy, and he ended up on one of these visits going to a Mass there, and it happened to be a Mass that was sort of celebrating the life of the son of the president of the farmer cooperative, who’d been killed recently in a traffic accident in Guatemala City. And they bonded through this very emotional experience, celebrating this life of this young man. And you know, it was that very personal relationship that sort of fueled the project, because people got into this place where they really cared about each other as human beings.
You know, doing this work in agriculture, I don’t know how many of your listeners are connected to agriculture, but we’re all hardwired to being connected to the land and farming, somehow or other. So if you can touch those deeper cords, then the work of sustainability and in trying to get a better future for family farmers, you know, it just all can happen so much more profoundly when people can connect to that deeper place.
TM: Well, thank you so much for bringing that out. And I just want to say, really an honor and a privilege to have watched the Sustainable Food Lab and your work with it, and all the people in the Sustainable Food Lab really struggling to try and figure out how to hear each other and how to create change, even though they have differences of opinion. So I just really want to thank you for that, Hal.
HH: Well, you’re welcome, and it’s been great to talk with you.