Erica Hellen, co-owner and farmer at Free Union Grass Farm, is speaking at the third annual D.C. Food Tank Summit, Let’s Build a Better Food Policy, which will be hosted in partnership with George Washington University and the World Resources Institute on February 2, 2017.
Free Union Grass Farm is a diversified livestock farm producing beef, pork, chicken, duck, and eggs on nearly 300 acres in Albemarle county, Virginia. She and her husband utilize rotational grazing and portable infrastructure to raise animals in systems that mimic the natural world. After seven years as a full-time farmer, Erica is familiar with the flaws of our industrialized food system and hopes to convey the role small farmers play in helping fix it.
Food Tank had the chance to speak with Helen about
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Erica Hellen (EH): My liberal arts education at Warren Wilson College exposed me to the world of farming both in the classroom and in the field, on the school’s working farm and garden. It was there I learned the immense role agriculture plays in how we treat our environment. I grew up in an urban area and it had never occurred to me to consider farming as a career, but it combined so many things I love: working outside, being my own boss, and contributing to positive environmental change.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
EH: Providing something tangible for our community and creating relationships with our customers reminds me that our work is valued, and valuable. Farming is a unique kind of business because it is our livelihood, but it is also activism. There is much to be done when it comes to fixing the food system, and I feel inspired by the work that lies ahead of us.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
EH: My mom! Anything in our house that needed fixing was seen to by her. She painted our walls, repaired broken doorknobs, reupholstered our furniture, and taught me that with a little resourcefulness and a lot of YouTube videos, you can figure out how to do almost anything.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
EH: Leveling the regulatory playing field for small producers. As an example, there is a house bill being voted on at the end of the month that would allow small-scale producers to sell home-prepared, uninspected items directly to consumers so long as they inform the consumer the items are not inspected. A second example is a law that’s already in place and working: a Virginia processing exemption allows us to slaughter our own poultry on our farm without an inspected facility, so long as we produce no more than 20,000 birds a year. This kind scale-focused freedom means we can avoid expensive infrastructure and skip otherwise prohibitive regulatory hoops. It also gives consumers more local options and keeps money within the community.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
EH: I was an intern at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in 2009. He’s been an incredibly vocal advocate for sustainable agriculture in food policy and has done much to educate consumers, land-owners, and small farmers the world over. When I worked there, we’d have visitors from all over the country, professors from prestigious universities, even tourists from China. But when my parents came to visit and we went out to dinner in Staunton, the closest town, my dad bragged to our waitress that I was working at Polyface, and she’d never even heard of it. The farmers next door thought Salatin was crazy—moving your animals around all the time is a hell of a lot of work, after all. I remember being really struck by the contrast.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
EH: The food that is the most processed and the worst for you is the cheapest and most readily available. Subsidies keep food cheap but prevent consumers from realizing the real costs of production. It also means good food raised right is inaccessible by comparison. The implications of cheap calories are broad, ranging from obesity and diabetes epidemics to environmental degradation and the draining of local economies.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
EH: Buy real, whole foods with as few ingredients as possible. If they are naturally or organically produced, that’s all the better. This does not mean buying anything at Whole Foods, but rather, buying foods that require very little labeling/packaging to be identifiable. Invariably when you shop this way, you save money because you’re buying things that will stretch to more than one meal. You also pay more attention to quality, production, and portion.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
EH: Focus on scale. We need to level the playing field for small producers, but keep massive corporations in check. It would be easy to say, “stop subsidizing the big guys.” But aside from being unrealistic, drastic food price increases would create chaos and instability. Instead, supporting the little guy by removing regulatory production hurdles would allow for more robust local economies and more diverse offerings. We don’t need big farms to feed the world; we need more small farmers incentivized to work within their ecosystems and communities.