Food & Drink

Michael Dimock
Image: martha cheng

A network for a sustainable food system.


We already know that for instance, organic strawberries…when you stop using some of the fumigants that are currently used–and organic farmers will say this–production of strawberries drops by 40 percent.

Michael Dimock / Recently, Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change (ROC) in California, met with some of Hawaii’s administrators and organizations involved in agriculture and food, such as Russell Kokubun, chairman of the Board of Agriculture. ROC works to develop a network of leaders and organizations interested in establishing a sustainable food system in California by 2030, connecting food producers with funders, businesses, environmentalists, nonprofits and institutions. Here, he shares some ideas for a more sustainable food system in Hawaii by drawing on ROC’s success stories in California.

What are some ideas you proposed to our new administration?

The veggie prescription project, the idea of doctors prescribing vegetables to families who are suffering from food-related illness…[And] the idea of providing nutrition incentives–that is, helping low-income people who live on food stamps to double their purchasing power by providing a cash incentive when they go to the farmers market to purchase vegetables…[It’s funded through] philanthropic monies, donations from individuals or organizations, foundations.

So how does the sustainable food landscape look since ROC got started?

We’re trying to get everyone involved, working on the same team. There are huge disagreements, but in the past, farmers in California didn’t even want to talk about sustainability because it meant they would have to change. That is the biggest thing ROC has done. We’ve created a context in California and we’ve engaged the stakeholders at the very top in agriculture and government.

It takes time to make change. We think between now and 2030 is not too long. We’re talking about changing how human beings eat, how they get their food, and you can’t do that too quickly and expect to feed people. We already know that for instance, organic strawberries…when you stop using some of the fumigants that are currently used–and organic farmers will say this–production of strawberries drops by 40 percent. That changes the economics for the farmer. The question is, how do you make that transition to non-fumigant use for strawberries? You have to give it time and you have to be smart about it, otherwise you put a lot of people out of business.

Aside from farmers, you help and connect the food processors too?

Yes, restaurants, cheesemakers, retailers…We have huge interest in seeing a lot more food companies, less concentration of food production, less concentration of food manufacturing, more small, regionally based food production.

How come?

Why? Our belief is that a healthy economy is a diverse economy. Eighty percent of the meat in the United States is produced by three companies. That’s a very dangerous situation. Those companies, number one, have huge control over pricing and quality. But second of all, they’re vulnerable. If they go out of business, where does all our meat come from?

We believe just like in nature, diversity creates equilibrium over the long term. It maximizes survivability by having lots of diversity. Because what we know from nature and evolution is, environments change and sometimes they change quickly. And so you need diversity so you can get adaptation and you ensure survival. It’s the same in economics. That’s why people diversify their portfolios.

Can you tell me more about the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which helps vets transition into farming?

Michael O’Gorman is probably one of the most successful, large-scale organic farmers in California. We wrote a grant for him. We’re really big supporters of returning veterans to get into food farming. One of the biggest underlying problems of sustainability is the lack of young farmers. So we think it’s a really brilliant solution. The USDA is backing it now.

A lot of programs ROC helps seem to be grant based. Do you think that’s the economic model for farms now?

I think farms have to diversify their income. Some of it could be grants. I don’t think it should be the majority; I think it should be sales of products should be a piece of it. But eventually, I think farmers should be paid for stewardship work–protecting the environment, enhancing species, protecting human health.

By nature, [farms] have to be complex businesses. They actually require incredible entrepreneurship on the part of farmers. We developed a group of farmers in this country for decades and decades, that were to do one thing: Grow lots of one thing. But what we gotta do is get farmers back to having many balls in the air simultaneously so they have to be excellent entrepreneurs. And that’s how farmers are going to emerge, or are emerging.

That sounds more exciting.

I agree, much more exciting. Much more interesting. One of the reasons young farmers are not going into conventional farming anymore is because it’s boring. Most of the farmers going into agriculture now are going into new systems, organic or otherwise. The kids of the conventional farmers are seeing that their parents are struggling to make a living. Or they’re farming in ways that are highly criticized. And the kids don’t want to be part of that. They want to be part of the future.