Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Faces Impacted by a Minimum Wage Increase

I  try not to get super political on this blog, because I think there are plenty of things to talk about without getting into partisan issues, and I like to see groups leave their party affiliations at the door when they come to the table to talk. But, that being said, I’m  having a hard time keeping quiet on the minimum wage discussion. Maybe it’s because I’ve made friends with a lot of farmers since moving to Oregon or maybe it’s because I’m becoming the kind of person who realizes that I’ll never make a real impact unless I follow and participate in local politics. Either way, I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m a Democrat, and I do not support the proposed minimum wage increase currently being debated in the Oregon House of Representatives. It’s not because I don’t want people to earn more money, I do. It’s not because I don’t care about those full-time workers who can’t make ends meet, I do. I’ve watched the public hearings in the Senate and in the House and I’ve heard the emotional stories on both sides. What it comes down to for me is this: I think pushing this kind of a bill through a short, 35-day session designed to handle budget issues and using the threat of a ballot measure as a weak excuse for urgency leads to sloppy and irresponsible legislation.

Let me take a step back. For those of you who are normally like me and don’t follow the Oregon legislature, I’ll explain. The Oregon legislature used to meet every other year for a six-month session during which they debated and passed bills. During the recession, the legislature had to call a number of special sessions to deal with budget crises, so through a ballot measure it was decided on the off years the legislature would meet for a short session (35 days) to address budget-related issues and make other small tweaks. We’re currently in the middle of the third of those short sessions, and it’s turned into a free-for-all. They’re debating things from increasing the minimum wage to a cap-and-trade bill to a ban on sky lanterns (what do any of those have to do with the budget?). Part of it has to do with the fact that proponents of raising the minimum wage have threatened to put up a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and legislators are using that as an excuse to hurry a “less bad” bill. The bigger reason, I think, is that Democrats currently have a super majority in the House and the Senate and they’re taking advantage of that to push forward with their issues. The ballot measure threat is just an excuse. The proposed SB 1532 would increase the state’s minimum wage over the next six years in a tiered approach taking us from the current wage of $9.25 to $14.75 an hour in Portland with other urban counties at $13.50 and rural counties at $12.50.

Here’s the thing. There’s just not enough time in a 35 day session for legislators to fully vet this kind of a bill. Let’s not pass bad legislation with enormous impact with the paltry excuse that we’re afraid of a worse ballot measure. I’m not even convinced the ballot measure would pass. Importantly, the Oregonian, the Eugene Register-Guard and the Statesman-Journal all agree with me in thinking this is too much too fast and a little premature. When three of the state’s major papers come out against it, maybe it’s worth pausing to think about.

So here’s what I can do. Since I failed at a January Farming in Focus post because I was preoccupied with my new job, I can show you the faces and tell you the stories of some of those who will be directly impacted by a hike in Oregon’s minimum wage. These are the people who have convinced me that this is a bad idea. These are the people who I’ve seen explain in legislative hearings that this bill will hurt the very people it proposes to help, that it will cause them to cut jobs and rely on mechanization for their crops, and that it may well put them at a discrete disadvantage against neighboring states and in the end, put them out of business. I hope they can convince you, too.FullSizeRender (2)

Robin Froerer’s family grows and sells fresh asparagus in Nyssa, Oregon. She’s spent 20 years building her fresh pack asparagus business. “This increase will force me to remove the crop,” she said.  “I simply cannot pay the increase to minimum and stay price competitive.” In the image above she’s on a WinCo Foods Warehouse Visit – her business sells asparagus to WinCo which calls themselves the “Low Cost Leader.” (It’s true – that’s why I shop there myself.) Since Froerer doesn’t have the ability to raise the price of asparagus to make up for the increase in labor costs, she’s unable to compete with asparagus growers in other states who don’t have such a high minimum wage. “When it comes times to buy asparagus, WinCo will buy from those with the cheaper prices, not from Oregon farmers, and we will be out of business,” she said.  “How much would you pay for a pound of asparagus?”

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Marie Bowers (second from left) is a 5th generation grass seed farmer in Linn and Lane Counties. Her family also farms wheat and meadowfoam – I profiled her farm’s wheat harvest in July. Bowers has calculated that the proposed bill would increase her farm’s employee cost by $13 per acre. At current market conditions she estimates they would need to increase their yields to produce at least 177,000 more pounds of annual ryegrass. If farmers knew how to dramatically increase their yield, they’d already be doing it, but yield is dictated by many uncontrolled factors like weather. It’s not something they can just crank up this year to absorb increased employee costs. During harvest they hire about seven local students to drive combines, balers and tractors. “For over half a century my family’s farm has hired local youth to work harvest,” she said. “Watching these kids grow as humans and workers is always a very rewarding privilege, particularly when they say ‘Thank you’ 20 years later for teaching them to work.” Bowers believes the current minimum wage proposals will eliminate this opportunity for local kids because many like her will no longer be able to afford to hire them. If they’re going to pay that much, they’ll seek more experienced labors and would turn to automation.”The thought of taking away a kid’s chance to learn work and gain work ethic breaks my heart for them and their future,” she said. For many of these kids, the lessons learned on the farm inspire them to go on to earn their living as a farmer.

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Robby Scharf’s family has owned and operated a farm in Polk County for more than 100 years. His family’s farm grows grapes, hazelnuts, grass, wheat, clover, radish, field corn and canola. Robby works on the family farm and his mom Anna says he wants them to hire his high school friends. “With an increase in minimum wage,” she said,  “We will automate and those summer jobs for his friends will go away.” Scharf asserts that if this bill passes in addition to adjusting the crops they grow to ones that require less labor,  they’ll install a robotic palletizer that would eliminate two to three workers and they would use their mechanical grape harvester instead of hiring more than 40 pickers a day during grape harvest. In addition to the loss of jobs, for the consumer, mechanization can have real market implications. In the case of grapes, at least one wine maker I interviewed preferred the quality of hand-picked grapes to mechanically harvested grapes.

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Karl Dettwyler (left) grows blueberries, hazelnuts, grass, grains and vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley.  Blueberries are one crop particularly sensitive to an increase in the minimum wage because in order get the quality needed for the fresh market, the berries must be picked by hand.  For the consumer, a transition to mechanization would mean fewer fresh blueberries and more frozen blueberries. Strawberry growers might be worse off, though, because there is no way to harvest strawberries mechanically. Those growers are completely at the mercy of labor costs.

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Brenda Frketich is a third generation farmer from St. Paul. I profiled her farm last May. Her family grows grass seed, hazelnuts, wheat, clover, vegetables and vegetable seed. They employ anywhere from four to 10 employees throughout the year. “There is no giant pot of money sitting around on our farm just waiting to be dipped into to pay for this pay increase,” she said.  “For many businesses I believe and fear that the increase in pay for entry level employees will take away from current employees, even those in the middle level of employment. The money will inevitably come from reduced hiring tactics, decreased benefits for current employees, and even cuts in bonus pay or yearly wage increases.” Frketich believes an increase in the minimum wage will hurt small Oregon businesses, and most of all the farmers who grow our food.

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Shelly Boshart Davis is a third-generation farmer whose family grows grass seed, wheat and hazelnuts in the Willamette Valley and operates a grass straw baling, trucking and export business. “The increase would impact how many youth we hire every summer, and that is a devastating thought,” Davis said. “We take pride in teaching the next generation about hard work, and the value of a dollar. It will also increase our cost of doing business, and could make us uncompetitive with the global marketplace.” Davis, like me, believes the wage increase is happening too fast in a short session and hasn’t had fiscal impacts properly analyzed. She contests the wage increase is too high and doesn’t account for the unique needs of industries such as agriculture and food processing, among others. Lastly, she asserts separating the state into three tiers based on county lines is not economically or geographically sound. “Farms cross county lines, economies are significantly different in different areas of a county” she said. “For example, Linn County where I live has a larger urban area – Albany – but has much of the county in rural and timber land. Benton County has Corvallis, but also a large rural area. You could say the same for Lane County, Polk County, Marion County, Yamhill County, and others.” Below is Davis with her dad (left) and her grandfather on his last combine ride before he passed away. These three generations of Oregon farmers are asking legislators not to impose mandates that they’re concerned threaten the chances they’ll be able to pass on their legacy of farming.

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These are the faces impacted by SB 1532. It’s likely the House will vote on the bill today. If you live in Oregon, I’d urge you to contact your legislator and let them know how you feel.

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Review: Arctic Apples (nonbrowning GMO apples)

Yup, that's a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That's his nail polish, not mine.)

Yup, that’s a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That’s his nail polish, not mine.)

Last fall I had this brilliant idea that I should profile an Arctic Apple grower for my Farming in Focus series. I think people would be interested to see the new GMO apples growing on real trees and being harvested by real farmers – it would make for fresh, accurate GMO imagery to combat the ludicrous syringe stuck in a tomato image that seems to show up in every article about GMOs. I got super pumped about my idea and shot off an email to Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), the creators of the Arctic Apple. I got an email back right away from Joel Brooks, OSF’s Marketing Communications Specialist, saying that it was a great idea but unfortunately since the apples were only just approved this year, the first commercial orchards aren’t mature enough to produce fruit yet. Brooks did offer, though, that they have a limited supply of apples this year off their test trials (where filming is not allowed) and would I like a sample to try?  Of course I would, yes, please!!

A few months later a box of eight Arctic Golden Apples arrived on my front door and I don’t think my kids quite understood why I was so excited about a box of apples. For a while I just looked at them in awe and was a bit paralyzed about how to make the most of these eight apples. So I posted about it on Facebook and got some good ideas and a lot of general excitement from readers!

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I was tempted to put them all into a delicious GMO apple pie, but that wouldn’t show off the true benefits of the Arctic Apple. I wanted to demonstrate and test the traits that set these apples apart from traditional Golden Delicious apples. Using RNAi (RNA interference, one of the hottest new applications of biotechnology for which Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize) scientists at OSF have essentially “turned down” the browning effect in apples. You know when you slice up an apple for your toddler and they proceed to eat three bites and then let the remainder sit on the plate for an hour and ultimately refuse to eat it because it’s brown and “icky?” Not the case with Arctic Apples. This minor tweak using the apple’s own genes is revolutionary for a number of reasons: 1. it will significantly cut down on food waste (around 40 percent of apples are currently wasted due to un-appetizing but fully aesthetic browning) and 2. greater convenience will hopefully encourage more consumers to eat fresh fruit.

My kids love apples, and now that they’re both school-aged, I’m faced with packing them a healthy lunch and snack every weekday. In the winter especially, it’s tricky to find fresh fruit to send with them to school. I want to send apples because they have a long cold-storage shelf life, but the options are to send the whole thing and know that a good portion of it will end up in the trash (plus with loose teeth it’s hard to take a bite out of a whole apple), slice it up and risk them not eating it at all because it gets brown, soak the slices in lemon juice which my kids routinely reject, buy pre-packaged slices that are expensive and that my kids also think taste weird, or send apple sauce that has admittedly less fiber and is messy. What if you had apples you could slice up on Sunday that would stay fresh in the fridge all week and you could dole out a few slices a day in lunches? Convenient, frugal, waste-free and good for you! Sign me up.

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Testing the Apples

I did a few tests to demonstrate and test the non-browning trait. First I went to the store and bought a bunch of conventional Golden Delicious apples. Because in order to truly do a side-by-side comparison on taste and appearance, you have to compare apples to … well… apples. First I sliced both apples and put them in their respective bowls to observe. I took care to

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

slice the Arctic Golden first so as not to contaminate it with PPO (polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme that causes browning and which there is less of in Arctic Apples) from the conventional apple.

I started this experiment at 12:15. It was hard keeping my kids’ hands (and mine) out of the bowls, so we left the house and came back to observe the appearance at 5:15.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

As you can see, there are considerably fewer slices in the second picture because … children. But you can also clearly see the Arctic Golden is visibly less brown. I’ll be honest, though, I wasn’t super wowed. Not because the Arctic Golden browned, it didn’t really, but because the conventional Golden didn’t brown as much as I thought it would and it’s not as striking as I’d hoped. I emailed Brooks at OSF to see what was up with that. I hypothesized that maybe the reason they chose the Golden variety as the first variety was because they inherently don’t brown as much? He told me that’s not the case. “The thing is, the speed and overall amount of browning can vary quite a bit,” Brooks said,  “Not just by variety, but even among apples of the same variety for a number of potential reasons. Even the exact same apple would brown at different speeds in areas with different temperature, humidity, sunlight, etc. Golden Delicious isn’t one of the faster browning varieties (though it certainly can be dramatic, as shown in our timelapse), but it is one of the quickest to show bruising, especially because of its yellow skin.” He recommended I give the Arctic and conventional apples a good smack on the counter and see which fares better, but unfortunately by the time I got around to emailing him, we’d already eaten all the apples. So, something to test next time! He also told me that the reason they chose Goldens to start with is because, “it’s a great tasting variety with supply-chain issues that the nonbrowning trait can help address.” Because the light skin bruises so easily, it’s a harder apple to get from farm to market without damage.

Not cheap. That's $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you're not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

Not cheap. That’s $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you’re not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

My next experiment was what I call the lunch box taste test experiment. I went to the store and bought some pre-sliced, commercially available apples with citric acid to prevent browning. I put a few in a labeled ziplock bag in a lunch box with a cooler pack. I also sliced up a conventional Golden apple and soaked the slices in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice before putting the drained slices in a ziplock bag in the lunch box. Last, I sliced up an Arctic Golden and put those slices in a third ziplock in the lunch box. Then we loaded up the car and took the lunch box with us on a hike.

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

After the hike we pulled out the apples for a snack. I had both my parents and both my kids do a blind taste test of the three options, and then asked them to do the same for me (closed my eyes, they gave me three slices one by one and I reported which one tasted the best.) All five of us unanimously chose the Arctic Golden slices as having the best taste. I could taste the lemon apples (yuck, no wonder my kids won’t eat those) and the store-bought ones hardly tasted like apples anymore. But the Arctic Goldens tasted super fresh and crispy and weren’t brown. Conclusion: send Arctic slices in the lunch box. Which is what I did with many of

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids' lunch box!

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids’ lunch box!

the remaining apples.  We also just straight up ate a few of them plain because they were really tasty and I wanted to evaluate the apple in its pure form. When I got down to just three apples, I went ahead and made that GMO apple pie (mixed with some conventional apples as well.) It was delicious, but as I’m not much of a pastry chef, I didn’t take a picture of it because my crust didn’t turn out picture-worthy. 🙂

GMOs 2.0

More than anything else, the GMO apples mark an important and necessary advance in the biotechnology arena from products with farmer benefits that non-farmer consumers may not really understand to products with beneficial traits specifically designed for consumers. Not only do the apples appeal to kids, but they also appeal to adults who care about reducing food waste. I asked Brooks what role OSF (and maker of the non-browning Innate potato, Simplot) play in the biotechnology conversation. “We see these [products] as signs of a positive shift for biotech crops and public perceptions,” Brooks said.  “It’s much easier for consumers to appreciate a new technology when they can witness the benefits firsthand. Products like Arctic apples and Innate potatoes do just that, while also offering value throughout the rest of the supply-chain. And, we feel that our commitment to transparency and open communications is also symbolic of a trend towards improving communications between agricultural innovators/producers and the general public.”

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

If you take it even one step further, think about the potential of this technology for future products. I know it takes a long time (like 10 years) for a new biotechnology product to get to the market, but I can hardly contain my excitement about the potential of a nonbrowning avocado. I have no reason to believe that OSF is working on that, but it seems like such an obvious application of the technology, so I had to ask. As expected, Brooks wouldn’t say, but he did say this, “We do have other biotech-enhanced crops in the works besides nonbrowning apples, including those with consumer-oriented traits (such as other nonbrowning fruits) and also some with agronomic benefits. We are playing some of those cards somewhat close to the chest until we have more to share, though!” I’m keeping my hopes up.

I can’t wait until I can try more apples, but others have already done some cool experiments. This New York Times article shows a cool test of Arctic Apples in a smoothie (the smoothie doesn’t turn brown in the fridge!) and what happens when you bash the apples around in a backpack all day (they don’t bruise) and this guy tested how applesauce looks using conventional versus Arctic apples.

In the meantime, the first roll-out of the Arctic Apple seems to be going well. “Our first true test markets will be in fall 2016,” Brooks said, “But the reception we received in response to samples we provided at tradeshows or mailed out was phenomenal! Lots of positive blog posts and social media messages, plus a few strong articles in mainstream media.” OSF recently applied for US approval of their next nonbrowning variety, Arctic Fuji, and they’ll also be seeking approval in Canada. The next variety in the pipeline is Arctic Gala, with plenty of other Arctic varieties on the horizon.

Stay tuned for my next review as I’ve just received a bag of Innate potatoes!!

 

 

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