Fighting the Farm Bill

Durango restaurateur seeks to change federal agriculture legislation

Linda Illsley poses in front of portraits of local growers that hang in her all-organic and largely gluten-free Durango restaurant, Linda’s Local Food Cafe. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald

Linda Illsley poses in front of portraits of local growers that hang in her all-organic and largely gluten-free Durango restaurant, Linda’s Local Food Cafe.

An elfin woman dressed in a knit cap, white scarf and jeans two sizes too big seems an unlikely champion to take on the enormity of the problems plaguing the national Farm Bill.

But this hasn’t occurred to her.

Linda Illsley fairly hums as she makes breakfast and calls to customers through the open window of her small, unprepossessing restaurant. Pictures of cows grazing and farm workers smiling happily in the fields adorn the tops of her tables and walls, next to the day’s specials.

Two years ago, Illsley transformed her Durango business, Linda’s Local Food Café, into a completely organic restaurant. She made the move to insure she was serving customers healthy homegrown food without fear of it being genetically modified, irradiated or nutritionally compromised.

Yet, it has taken this long to find and nurture local and regional producers to keep her kitchen stocked with the organic produce and meat she uses in her dishes. Time and again, farmers she worked with simply up and quit. They couldn’t make it financially farming on small acreage using organic practices.

That’s when Illsley decided to take on the Farm Bill, which she sees as the root of nationwide problems from the pollution of farmland to obesity in children. She contends American taxpayers are footing the bill for subsidies to giant agribusinesses that use toxins to fertilize crops, which in turn causes illness in humans and animals and ruins the soil.

“It’s making us sick and compromising our future,” she said. “We’re destroying our soil, sucking up our water and devastating family farms.”

For the record, the Farm Bill (or the Food, Conservation and Energy Act) was created after the Great Depression to boost farms to feed the starving. Its initial focus was to help farmers produce staple grains to feed needy Americans, but it has morphed into one of the largest pieces of legislation in Congress, including the original commodity subsidies, food stamp programs, crop insurance and price supports. It’s so big, few members of Congress understand its full scope, much less the average American.

Illsley is enlisting the help of Durango’s health-care community to change the behemoth legislation, asking naturopaths to speak at informal lectures about the harmful side effects of high-sugar, high-gluten, high-transfat processed foods. She’s also trying to create demand for organic and local produce through educating customers and bringing in national speakers such as Jeff Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology, an Iowa-based activist group that fights the production of genetically modified foods.

James Forleo, a local chiropractor who wrote the book Health is Simple, Illness is Complicated, joins Illsley in her concern over the Farm Bill and its effect on Americans’ diet. He counsels his patients, many of whom have chronic gastrointestinal problems and inflammation of the joints, to establish a family garden and seek organic food.

“I tell them to stick with whole foods. You can trust nature. If it’s in a box or a bag, don’t eat it, it’s not good,” he said.

Forleo also questions the viability of spending billions each year to support giant farming businesses that produce food he believes makes people ill. If you factor in the cost of health care for Americans sickened by nutritionally detrimental products, he said, the cost of cheap food isn’t worth the consequences.

Those who monitor the business of Colorado agriculture don’t share that view. Ron Carlton, deputy commissioner of agriculture, dismisses the notion that large farms such as those that receive federal subsidies in Colorado to grow feed corn and wheat are putting out a bad product.

While he supports the call for more local farms growing what he deems “specialty products”such as fruit and vegetables, he says the state needs a variety of ways merely to provide enough food for a population that’s set to double in 40 years. He notes that farming in Colorado is a $40-billion business generating 170,000 jobs – and it would not be without large-scale farming.

However, he adds that as chairman of the state’s food system advisory council, he is looking for ways to help organic farming grow here, whether by providing farmers with direct access to grocery stores and markets or helping with irrigation and transportation. Farms of any size, he says, are eligible for grant money channeled to the state by the Farm Bill.

Perry Miller wishes some of that federal largess had been available to help him when he started raising and processing chickens according to USDA rules at his plant in Olathe, the closest plant to Durango.

It took too long for his investor to see a return on his money, and Miller was forced to fold up shop after just a year, unable to find another financier to keep him going until he reached profitability.

His vision had been to raise chickens on healthy feed in the open air and process them for the Four Corners, but at 40 acres and 200 chickens a week, Troyen Farms wasn’t big enough to make a go of it, and no government subsidies came his way.

“It would definitely be nice if there was money in there for the small guys,” he said of the Farm Bill. “It didn’t happen when I needed it.”

Still, he holds out hope that one day farmers like him will have the support of the nation’s taxpayers.

So does Illsley.

To see her quest through, she’s joined the Chef’s Collaborative, a national group working to change both the Farm Bill and the way food is produced in this country. After a recent convention in Seattle, she came back with new ideas for how to make a difference even in a small, remote place such as Durango.

On the local level, Illsley and other restaurateurs encourage nearby farmers to produce more organic vegetables and fruit with the promise they will buy the entire crop and pay a price that will keep them in business. Beyond producing healthy food, organic practices don’t harm the soil or pollute water.

She’s also looking for people to contribute $50 each to finance a lobbyist to push the agenda for small, local farms in Congress – “We have to fight fire with fire,” she said – and impose stricter regulations on agribusiness.

Illsley marvels that if just a quarter of Durangoans spent a quarter of our food budget on locally produced fresh food, we would create a $7 million industry of our own. Simply by transferring our food dollars from anonymous mega-farms to neighboring ones, she says, we can make an impact.

“The magnitude of fighting the Farm Bill is overwhelming,” she said.

Still, she’s unbowed.

“People say ‘We can’t do this.’ I say, ‘Yes, we can.’”

phasterok@durangoherald.com

The tables at Linda’s Local Food Café, owned by chef and activist Linda Illsley, are covered in photos of local growers from whom she purchases food, including Heidi and Judy Rowher of Rowher Farms and Dave Banga of Banga Farm. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald

The tables at Linda’s Local Food Café, owned by chef and activist Linda Illsley, are covered in photos of local growers from whom she purchases food, including Heidi and Judy Rowher of Rowher Farms and Dave Banga of Banga Farm.

Eleven-year-old Stanton Ott feeds some of about 250 free-range chickens at James Ranch north of Durango. The eggs they lay are free of artificial hormones and antibiotics, which activists contend can cause illnesses in humans. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald file photo

Eleven-year-old Stanton Ott feeds some of about 250 free-range chickens at James Ranch north of Durango. The eggs they lay are free of artificial hormones and antibiotics, which activists contend can cause illnesses in humans.

La Plata County rancher Dave James talks about his plans to put in hydro power on a irrigation ditch that runs through his James Ranch property north of Durango. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

La Plata County rancher Dave James talks about his plans to put in hydro power on a irrigation ditch that runs through his James Ranch property north of Durango.