What’s for dinner? Decades ago, it was an easier question to answer. But today, we’re confronted with seemingly endless choices: for the diet we follow, the food we buy, where we buy it, and how we cook it.

Each choice hints at deeper questions: We might be able to eat everything our hearts, minds, and stomachs desire, but should we? If we’re lucky enough to have endless choices, what is our responsibility to ensure others—in the neighboring community or across the globe—have the same? And how do we extend that access in a way that sustains and respects local food practices?

In response to growing interest in these sociological and ecological dimensions of food, Macalester has developed a concentration in Food, Agriculture, and Society.

The curriculum, which launched in 2017, emerged from a campus-wide discussion during the 2012 International Roundtable, which was focused on how best to feed the world sustainably in the 21st century. That year, student organizers took the signature event a step further by organizing a series of supplementary workshops that culminated in a call to action: they wanted the college to consider developing an academic program in the subject.

The concentration comprises a series of core courses, with a selection of complementary subjects—like ecology, sociology, environmental studies, and even food chemistry—that add interdisciplinary perspectives. For example, in “Economics of Global Food Problems,” students use economics to understand agricultural production problems, household dynamics, and food security and insecurity. The curriculum culminates with an internship where students connect their academic work to practical situations at sites like community-supported agriculture farms, food shelves, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

“This [program] is an alternative model for education on food and society that’s very interdisciplinary,” says Bill Moseley, professor of geography and director of the Food, Agriculture, and Society program. “We’re training a new generation of leaders to do groundbreaking research that hopefully changes the way farming is done in the U.S. and globally, but also grooming students who can be activists, and who have the policy analysis skills to work for political change.”

Even before the program launched, Mac grads had been working in diverse food-related careers—from the Environmental Protection Agency and government think tanks to corporations such as Cargill and General Mills to international development agencies and environmentally conscious farms. We talked to a few of them about their experiences, and the principles they say can guide your own decisions about how and what to eat.

1. Know where your food is coming from…

“Identify countries of origin on labeling. The closer you get to home, the less of a carbon footprint you generally make. And you’ll probably learn about new and different foods that can be produced in the place where you live.” —AUDREY ARNER ’73

A teacher once told Audrey Arner ’73 that making sweeping changes is a bit like moving cattle. You have to go slowly, always guiding the cattle toward your intended target. Quicken the pace too much and they’ll end up scattered all over the place.

For Arner and Richard Handeen ’73, that metaphor has shaped their vision for Moonstone Farm since they took over Handeen’s family land in 1973. They’ve gradually transitioned the farm from corn and soybean monocultures to a biologically diverse polyculture of pastures and hayfields for grass-fed cattle, timber, fruits, nuts, ornamentals, and medicinals.

“We have well-defined long-range goals that have driven our decision-making and the changes we implemented year to year,” Arner says. “[They represent] our understanding of how ecosystem processes need to function healthfully long into the future to support production and quality of life for people who aren’t yet walking the planet.”

Arner and Handeen’s plans have always centered on a commitment to growing food for people, and building community around food and farming. “When we got started, organic was a daunting concept to a lot of farmers, and the information stream was very limited,” Arner says. “It required the development of networks. Our circle of co-learners, both eaters and producers, has been a stronghold for us. Now I feel like we are among the most well-connected, local, organic, seasonal food eaters I know.”

In recent years, Arner and Handeen have set their sights on a new goal: retiring and passing the torch to the next generation of regenerative farmers. Again, they’re approaching the process incrementally and intentionally.

“We are working with some young, creative, hard-working partners who not only have a philosophical synchronicity with us, but also have a training period with information sharing,” Arner says. “It has to work from all the dimensions of sustainability: their financial capacity, ecosystem integrity, and how the social dynamics work in their family and in the larger community.”

2. …And its true cost.

“The amount we pay on average for food, and the percentage of our income that we dedicate to food, has continuously gone down. But we are not paying the true cost. The food is too cheap because it excludes negative impacts on the environment. If you are in a privileged position, don’t be afraid to pay more.”
—SAEMI LEDERMANN ’05, who teaches in the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University

Saemi Ledermann ’05 has spent years studying agriculture, development policy, and sustainability in Africa—first as a triple major in political science, international studies, and geography at Mac, and then pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in geography. But Ledermann says his work promoting sustainable development in East Africa is most critical when conveying the nuances of agriculture and sustainable development to his graduate students.

“I try to relate with examples that I have from the field,” he says. “As a geographer, the ability to connect to the local is paramount. Without an understanding of what people’s lives look like, it’s difficult to engage in research that is actually meaningful.”

For more than five years, Ledermann did exactly that, working with a foundation to take a holistic approach to development. Specifically, Ledermann funded and later coordinated with the African research institute icipe to scale their integrated sustainable farming method, Push-Pull, which increases yields by controlling pests and weeds, retaining soil moisture, and improving soil fertility in an ecological way.

“Most of the interventions in conventional agricultural development are focused on increasing yield as quickly as
possible without thinking about the longer term,” Ledermann says. “Push-Pull can improve the soil health so farmers do not need to rely on fertilizer. It can also improve gender equality because most adopters are women. And, it even tackles climate change to some extent because, if they’re not plowing their field, they’re bringing carbon into the soil through their perennial crops.”

Even as Ledermann has shifted to academia, his research continues to seek out long-term, holistic strategies for supporting development countries. Most recently, he’s been analyzing the potential benefits and challenges of impact investments— investments that not only make money, but also have social and environmental benefits.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.

Alex Park ’09 is no stranger to questioning the relationship between food and culture. Since graduating from Macalester, he’s worked as a researcher and journalist focusing on agricultural investment in Africa. His work has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, Mother Jones, and HuffPost.

Most recently, he’s been working on a book about the rise of fast food in Africa and China. Fast-food restaurants are often welcomed by residents as heralding their country’s arrival on the global stage. The repercussions, however, may run deeper than increases in rates of heart disease and diabetes. Park’s reporting explores the impact of standardizing agriculture to focus on commodity crops like corn and soy. These crops supply local meat producers whose products, in turn, supply fast-food companies. He also studies the relationship between multinational corporations and international development organizations like USAID in developing these local supply chains.

As part of his reporting, Park has interviewed farmers, USAID contractors, government representatives, and fastfood workers. The conversations revealed complex cultural attitudes toward the presence of the companies.

“I talked to one [fast-food] employee outside of Shanghai, and it was the first time she had ever seen how working hard and being enthusiastic about her job could move her ahead in her career,” Park says. “In typical Chinese companies, you got promoted through family connections and rubbing shoulders with the right people. But American companies represent something outside these traditions and values and hierarchies.”

4. Family-owned doesn’t mean simple.

Don Mennel ’68 is the fourth-generation leader of the family-owned Mennel Milling Company. Founded in Fostoria, Ohio, Mennel now spans six states and comprises six flour mills, 13 country grain elevators, three trucking companies, two bakery mix facilities, and a popcorn plant. We asked Mennel about the company’s past, present, and future.

The family story

The Mennel Milling Company was founded in 1886. My great-grandfather was hired as the managing director and he and his sons bought it out in 1917 and changed the name. I took it over from my father in 1983. I had a good start and we grew the company significantly, expanding and building new facilities and increasing capability in research and development. Then my son took over about five years ago and has grown it even further.

Don’s story

In a family business, it’s good for the next generation to go out and get a job doing something else so that they can establish their self-confidence and knowledge. I started out as a school teacher and then I worked for a mobile home manufacturer in human resources. When my father bought a mill in Michigan, he asked me to come back and be the general manager [of that location]. It had actually been shut down, so it was a startup, all hands on deck. I did every job in the plant. I had to be a sponge, I had to learn from everybody, I had to listen, and I had to earn their respect.

The product

We make specialty cake flours that go into refrigerated cookie dough and cake mixes. The customers expect the product to be the same in every truckload. But each crop year is different, depending on the climate and the environment. Being able to blend the wheats and then blend the flours so that the uniformity of our product is the same every time is a really critical factor for us.

The challenges

The wheat milling industry has definitely been affected by the gluten-free movement. When we hear from customers [asking for a new product] often enough, we say, “Maybe that’s something we ought to be doing.” So we do the research and development to figure out how to best do it, and we invest in the equipment and install it so we can become operational. Our newest product is a popcorn flour; it’s non-GMO, gluten-free, and very natural.

5. Go see a farmer…

“I encourage anyone to drive an hour outside of the metro area and go visit a farm,” says Lisa Moldan ’10. “Take advantage of farmers who are willing to open the doors and show you the how and why of today’s agriculture. We do things for a reason.”

If you happen to take Moldan’s advice and drive to Frederickson Farms just south of New Ulm, Minnesota, you’ll want to get there early. At 6 a.m., you’ll likely find Moldan and her husband, Nate, starting pig chores, followed by a day of farm improvement projects, fixing equipment, field work, and more. “Everywhere you look, there’s work to be done!” she says.

While Moldan is deeply embedded in farm life now, in her high school and college days, she assumed she’d live in the city. Right after graduating, she landed a position with Cargill’s headquarters outside Minneapolis—a “dream job” for Moldan, who wanted to work in global trade. But a year later, when her now-husband invited her to join him on his fourth-generation family farm, she traded the city blocks for rows of corn and never looked back.

Even after the move, she spent a few years working as a grow-finish field representative for Wakefield Pork, where she supervised local contract farmers and served as a liaison between the farmers and the company. She scaled back after welcoming her second child, but still works one day a week for Wakefield.

“It was fantastic to have that dual perspective,” she says. “As a supervisor, I wore the company hat and said, ‘This is what we’re doing for pig care, antibiotic and vaccination management, this is what our stewardship looks like, here’s how we’re doing what’s best for the pig.’ And on the flip side of that, I know what the growers go through every day—all the work they’re doing to produce safe, high-quality pork and feed the world.”

6. …Or just look out your window.

When you think of a farm, you might picture cows grazing across acres of pastoral land, row after row of crops, or an orchard full of fruit trees. Leigh Bercaw ’12 went for something a bit more compact. She started Blue Fingers Farm in her friend’s backyard in Idaho—which totaled just a quarter-acre. Bercaw sees the tiny space as a way to make big strides in labor and sustainability. We asked her to tell us more.

The winding path to farming

After graduating, I taught English for a year in rural Tanzania with a program called World Teach. I spent a lot of time talking to my neighbors—most of whom were subsistence agriculturalists—about their food system. I left that year thinking that the U.S. had some lessons to learn from a food system that was supported by a network of smallholder diversified farms.

That summer, I went home to Colorado and got a job as a farmhand on a nearby organic farm while I worked on grad school applications. That was a simultaneously brutal and rewarding experience. By October, the end of that growing season, I knew I was not going to grad school anytime soon. I was captivated by the process of growing food.

On living her values

When I started my own farm, I set out to be as small as possible because my labor experiences on other farms left me with a stringent set of values. That involves fair paid labor, ecological sustainability, and a good livelihood for the farmer—a good lifestyle that doesn’t destroy your body, or your family, or your pocketbook. The only way that I saw that as possible for me was on an extremely small scale.

That’s why farming has been so intellectually challenging to me; over time I can control certain variables, and then start tweaking the system to produce more food at a competitive price.

On growing efficiently

Crop planning is key. My two big limiting factors are space and time, because we have a really short growing season in Idaho. I am very careful about what crops I grow and sell. I primarily grow crops that take a month from seed to harvest, and I specialize in tender, high-value restaurant produce like baby greens, herbs, and edible flowers.


August 2 2019

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