Alan Lewis Interview - Part II

Alan Lewis directs Government Affairs and Food and Agriculture Policy for Natural Grocers - Vitamin Cottage, a thriving 60-year-old natural food grocery chain operating 90 stores in fifteen states. His work sourcing healthy sustainably farmed foods for Natural Grocers keeps his customers happy and healthy and enables numerous family farmers to thrive. Alan is active in many trade organizations and sits on the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council. His focus is on communicating with local and federal policy makers using frameworks that are non-confrontational and inclusive. In his TEDx talk, archived in VIDEO’s – Candy’s Room, Alan reveals the sophisticated methods used by the food industry “fibberati” to manipulate, deceive and distract us and suggests that we can resist these nefarious tactics by making conscious food choices based on core values that support a sustainable and just food system.

As an industry insider, Alan Lewis knows just how badly the food system is broken. Alan’s insights are far reaching. In this, the second part of my interview with Alan, we discuss the historical relationship of American farmers and the government, the secret design behind modern government farm policy, and promising solutions going forward including the battle to protect meaningful truthful product labeling.

You can read part one of this interview with this link.  Here’s part two:



ALAN: It’s ironic because the history of the relationship between American farmers and the government is really a history of popular revolt – and of state and federal militias putting down those revolts.

STEPHEN: Explain that.

ALAN: Some examples. Shay’s Rebellion. After the American War of Independence, colonial soldiers, a thousand of them, return to their farms. They haven’t been paid so they take out loans on the land. They’re raising their crops, but prices collapse. They can’t pay their bills, they can’t eat, they can’t sell their food except at a loss. The moneylenders come to foreclose on their land. The farmers ask for intervention from the government. The government won’t do anything, so Shay and his followers take up arms. They take flintlocks and pitchforks and march on the government, saying, ‘You have to do something. We’re honorable veterans of this war. You’re not allowing us to survive here.’ Massachusetts’s response was to raise a new militia and put down the rebellion by shooting, killing and arresting its members.

A better known example is the1933 farm crisis during the depression era. There are increases of productivity from improved technology and the demand following World War I. Lots of new land is put into production, increasing supply. Then you have this massive disruption from the stock market crash. Demand crashes. Exports end.

STEPHEN: And the Dust Bowl.

ALAN: And along comes the Dust Bowl. Farmers have debts due, crop prices are low, and that’s bad enough, you know? They’ll suck up and work through it. The Dust Bowl made human survival on the farm unlikely. It made paying debts near impossible. But the banking system was determined to come in and foreclose and consolidate farms.

For those of us who are not farmers, it’s helpful to remember that this is just what they did more recently with the housing bubble. For example, Countrywide Mortgage had 70 people working in foreclosures for every 30 they had bringing in new loans. That was a mortgage mill; they couldn’t have been happier to foreclose on a house. Foreclosure was their goal. They could always make their money back by capturing both the families’ down payment and the appreciation on the property. Profit handsomely, then sell the same house to someone else. The 2008 banking crisis occurred because real estate stopped appreciating. That’s why all those mortgage companies went out of business. Their business model depended on appreciation so they could make risky loans and foreclose at a profit.

This same situation has been a familiar sight to America’s farmers. Operating loans and mortgages on land allowed the Bank to foreclose. The banks are always happy to do so.

So, the1933 farm crisis. All across the agricultural heartland, farmers—

STEPHEN: Are being forced off their farms.

ALAN: They took up arms, they blocked the roads, they surrounded country courthouses, they kidnapped foreclosure judges. They stopped milk trucks and deliveries to cities, they destroyed large amounts of food. They tried to decrease the supply so the prices would come back up so they could pay their loans. Farmer activism was the theme of the 1930s in the heartland. The Dust Bowl made it much worse. That’s also the genesis of the New Deal. It’s bad enough that many urban people couldn’t find work. But when rural America revolted and starved, the New Deal had to be created to support the farmers.

STEPHEN: What happened to that revolt? The same thing again with the government mobilizing folks, the National Guard?

ALAN: What they always do. They called out the militia. In areas where the county sheriffs or state police were sympathetic to the farmers, federal forces were sent in to “restore order.” I’m going to circle back to this in a second, but let me give you one more example.

Springfield, Colorado, 1977. Never heard of it, have you? Population 600. Some big farmers and some small farmers - but a small tight-knit community. Same story. They had borrowed against their land at high values, interest rates had shot up to over 17%. Crop prices dropped along with land values. They can’t make ends meet or pay their loans, through no fault of their own.

Their grandmothers and grandfathers had told them the history of the financial community using a crisis like this as a way to come in and foreclose and consolidate land. That’s the fundamental history of Agriculture in the United States. Folks in Springfield started the American Agriculture Movement, which was essentially farmers striking and refusing to ship goods. ‘You’re not going to pay us enough? We just won’t ship it.’ And that farmer’s strike spread across the country.

What the farmers discovered was that at that level of a community, where neighbors depend on neighbors -- where your sacrifice by me is rewarded by my sacrifice for you -- the whole community gets stronger. They realized that community was where their power came from. And so the American Agriculture Movement is this vast network of small communities feeling that same anger. And you remember Farm Aid and the tractors? Those guys put all their tractors up on manicured lawn at the U.S. Capitol. And remember what happened? Federal troops came in and arrested farmers, beat some guys in overalls, broke out the glass on some tractors. Congress made this big stink about them ruining their lawn. Like, really? In the end, Congress did little to help the small farmers.

Springfield is emblematic of farmers’ frustration with larger government. There is an economic report that specifically concluded ‘We have to reduce the importance of small rural communities because that’s the source of these revolts. We don’t want any towns outside of the county seat because it’s those small towns that we can’t control. They are the source of this anger, the source of popular action.’

The reason they’re the source of popular action, besides neighborly cooperation, is that when the sheriff is your brother in law or cousin or high school classmate, that sheriff is not going to enforce an unfair federal law and let you be foreclosed on in an unfair auction. That report recommended that any community under 500 should be removed from the maps to make it less viable. The USDA embraced this policy of consolidating farms -- and consolidating communities. They were treated as collateral damage in the progress toward efficiency and centralized control.

STEPHEN: You’re certain of this history?

ALAN: I’m not a conspiracy guy. I’ve read this history and a lot more. I have spoken to farmers who were a part of it. If you look, the history is clear. You can read the testimonials of the Minnesota farm advocates in the 1980s that were fighting the Farm Home Administration to prevent unwise lending and unlawful foreclosures. You can read first hand accounts of the Dust Bowl, when these farmers are risking – and these are arch conservative, arch traditional farming communities - risking their own liberty to protect each other from the federal agents enforcing foreclosures. This is the history of agriculture in the United States. It is surreal how surprising it is to average citizens. This is not the history we learn in school.

STEPHEN: Now we circle back.

ALAN: This history of protest gets lost somehow - you just don’t hear about it. You see the bits and pieces, but you don’t see the long-term pattern. All those pearls are connected by a common string. We circle back.



STEPHEN: A corollary is the development of Walmart and the large national retail chains, as well as the Tysons, Smithfields and Cargills with the development of factory farming. The big corporations. The very same dynamic happens.

ALAN: Right.

STEPHEN: Getting rid of the local small businesses, getting rid of the independent family farmers and ranchers. They can’t complete, they go under. Today, these small business owners and family farmers no longer own anything. They are reduced to moving on or working for and being indentured to Big Ag. The corporations are now completely in control of mainstream food production.

ALAN: Yeah. You have to get big or get out, that is the USDA’s motto. And you have to get big to hit the low prices that Cargill and ADM were willing to pay. If you remove regional and local processing, leaving Big Ag processors as the only game in town, you better play by their rules. If Archer Daniels Midlands is the only buyer for wheat and flour, you better produce by their rules and within their cost structure or you’re not going to have a buyer for your crop.

To answer your question directly, here is where we circle around…

Because local farming communities with local processing were too powerful and too independent, the response by Big Ag and the federal government was to say, well, we’ll take care of that. We’ll eliminate them. This is history, not opinion.



STEPHEN: So can a solution today be the redevelopment, the re-emergence of these small communities and sustainable farms? That power, I think, is always there. It was there once, it may be there again going forward. And with modern technology and the flow of information, it will be much harder, given a broad public awareness, for the government, or large corporations, and their lobbyists for that matter, to take the kinds of actions or get away with what they once did not long ago.

ALAN: The local movement isn’t as local as people think. In other words, I’ve talked to farmers across Middle America who are creating local food movements within their little farming communities, and it’s the same motivation, it’s the same pushback against being marginalized by the big players. Local is a national movement.

STEPHEN: I see examples of this in communities all across the country. Cottonwood Creek in Colorado is one. Along the east coast, Middle America, Washington, Oregon big time, California. I’m finding examples of this wherever I go.

ALAN: What they’re doing is they’re bringing in artisanal production. Small, safety compliant on-farm processing operations like Cottonwood Creek has. They’re making cheese, they’re making jam, jellies, preserves, making bread. They are processing meat and grains. And then there’s this local exchange of goods, either for cash or barter. And they’re circumventing Cargill, they’re circumventing Archer Daniels Midland. Frankly, sometimes they’re circumventing Natural Grocers - which was fine with us because it’s such a positive movement. In that sense, our role is to introduce liquidity into the local agricultural system by paying cash for some of its production, even though the bulk of that farm’s production may going into competing CSAs or local exchange economies.

STEPHEN: I love that. That’s also spreading the word about the value of the movement. When you go to a farmer’s market, every week there are new customers there for the first time, some even travelling in from other neighborhoods, to discover what’s there, the healthy fresh organic food, and the value. It’s all about the culture and spreading the word, I think.

ALAN: Whenever Natural Grocers has space in a parking lot or an adjoining space, we will sponsor farmer’s markets on that space. So why would we sponsor competing vegetables selling-

STEPHEN: -right in your parking lot. Why?

ALAN: Because our values are such that first and foremost we want people to eat better. That’s going to start with fresh produce. Organic would be great. Get people eating vegetables and fresh whole food as a main component of their diet. Then all sorts of good things happen. We consider local fresh food programs to be the best possible marketing for what we’re doing. That’s where loyal customers are created. Getting people access to a farmer’s market is key.

STEPHEN: That’s great. What could the solution be for food deserts? The urban communities where many residents are blue collar, on a tight budget, even living below poverty line. Where shopping for food means options limited to Walmart, a smattering of run down grocery stores, 7-11s and liquor stores. These folks are not going to be paying $6 for a dozen eggs. I see community groups active in these areas, charities sourcing food, food banks picking up unused restaurant and grocery store food while it is still good. From the perspective of a grocer, do you see a solution on the horizon to getting good affordable natural food into these neighborhoods?

ALAN: I get so many invitations to meet with and help food groups just in Denver, there’s no way I can attend all those meetings. That would be all I would do. But to your point, people are not waiting anymore for a grocery store to come into their neighborhood.

There’s a dynamic. It’s going to be hard to articulate, but I’m going to give it a shot. Typically, a grocery store needs a pretty large trade area. If you look at maps of grocery stores, the big chain stores, each chain will place a store every 2 miles. If you think of a circle that’s 4 miles across, a two mile radius around each store, that’s its trade area. More or less. I’m greatly over simplifying.

But if you think about that, there’s always going to be places in any city, whether it’s affluent or poor, suburb or exurb, that’s just outside of the trade area or can’t support a second full fledged store. You’re just going to have to drive that few extra minutes or miles to get to the closest store. What I’m getting at is the typical grocery store from a national chain is not going to put in small local stores to fill in these blanks. Economically, it doesn’t make sense. It can take 20 million dollars to open up a store, and if most of those sales are going to cannibalize from an existing store, why would you do that? These are what I call mathematical food deserts. They exist because the math shows that one more store is not economically feasible.

I tell all these groups, stop advocating for a grocery store to come in. First of all, you don’t really want a regular supermarket. Second of all, they’re not going to come in here. It’s economically unsustainable. Their models are opposite of what you’re asking them to do. But jujitsu that. What you have then is a protected trade area. So your new co-op, your local grocery store, your community based food system doesn’t suffer direct competition from a chain grocery store.

STEPHEN: Can you elaborate?

ALAN: Because you’re in an area just outside of these trade areas that won’t support a chain grocery store, instead of asking for the impossible, take that as a positive. Say, ‘Okay, we may live in a food desert but that also means that this trade area can be ours. So how do we supply healthy food within our area, knowing that a big box will never come in?’

STEPHEN: Okay, so then the solution would be--?

ALAN: Pop up groceries. Co-ops. Mobile Groceries. Gardens. Neighborhood distribution. So many people are asking about how to make these ideas work. There is incredible complexity of taking a diverse community and getting people from all different backgrounds to figure out what they want in common. But every now and then, something clicks.

STEPHEN: It’s not easy, is it?

ALAN: No. One of the slides in my presentation says if the people in your community look like you, talk like you, eat like you, act like you and agree with you, that’s not a community. Then I put a picture of the Bush family and say, ‘That’s a hereditary cabal.’ A true community embraces conflicts and disagreements from the start. 

You will not create a sustainable, local community food response if you do not do that. But every one of these community co-op meetings I go to. Know what? Often the people look alike, act alike, dress alike, right? And there’s a fundamental problem, and they’re aware of this because they’re smart people.

If English isn’t your first language, or you can’t speak it at all, period, if you don’t use the terminology and vocabulary. If you’re not used to speaking to a group of people. If you don’t feel like you’re part of that core group. If you don’t have the clothes, you don’t have the time, you don’t have the daycare for a two hour meeting. There are a million reasons, legitimate reasons, why someone is not going to participate in your local community food effort.

So, my admonition to everyone - and I actually made everyone do this – is telling them ‘this is going to be like church.’ Remember when you were mortified as a kid as you were told to turn to the strangers around you and say, ‘May peace be with you?’

STEPHEN: I actually do remember that.

ALAN: Yeah. My dad was a preacher when I was a kid. I was always just mortified at that moment in church. I’ll ask people now. ‘What we’re going to do in this room, 500 of you. You’re going to turn to every person around you and ask, Are you okay? Two words: You okay?’ And it was amazing. I mean, yeah, it’s trite, I don’t want to make too much out of it. But that made people feel good to have someone ask after them, ‘You okay?’ If you do it once out of the blue for no reason, it’s patronizing and condescending. If you do it every day, you see someone on your street, you knock on their door, ‘You okay? Everything good? Anything I can get for you?’ Over time, that develops that trust, that develops that relationship, and that actually allows you to know they’re okay or not okay, or for you to tell them, ‘I need this help. I need my walk shoveled. I’m short on food. I need formula. Can I borrow an egg?’ Anything on the spectrum.

You’re letting me go off like a preacher, but thank you.

But see, that’s what we’re missing. That’s the local democracy that we’ve lost.

STEPHEN: So that’s the lynch pin to developing something in these border areas that can become an actual business endeavor?

ALAN: Yes.

STEPHEN: There has to be commerce, something sustainable.

ALAN: People are asking for $300 to join a co-op in Denver. Really? Do you have any idea how much money that is? People could go for 5 years trying to save $300, and have one setback after another, and you’re asking for them to invest in a co-op so they can buy food for 5% less? It works for some, but not all.



STEPHEN: Earlier we talked about the distinction between Natural Grocers and its “crossover” competitors, the different definitions and levels of natural and organic.

ALAN: In the past, the number that was kicked around was that Whole Foods was trying to get 20 percent organic in their produce department. I’m generalizing about 400 stores right now, all in different environments. Instead of referencing organic now as some key standard, they’ve gone to ‘good, better, and best.’ I can’t tell you what those mean off the top of my head, and frankly, that’s the point. Good, better or best? Ok, so depending on how you feel about that mango or that Meyer lemon or that Romanesco, you may want to pay a little more or a little less based on good, better, or best. But when responsible organic farmers figure out that industrial conventional growers can easily outrank them, look out.

STEPHEN: Those are their standards?

ALAN: That’s a made up set of grades. A real standard is like the high jump, either you get over the bar or you don’t. Good-better-best is like the long jump, where everybody gets a participation ribbon no matter how far they make it into the sand box.

STEPHEN: It’s not a uniform standard, just their subjective evaluation?

ALAN: Right, and they tend to be accompanied by pastoral descriptions, as opposed to really meaningful agricultural standards.

STEPHEN: Again, it gets to their problem with sourcing, isn’t it?

ALAN: Well, it’s a lot easier if your “standards” make a place for every grower that shows up with produce at the back door. It’s really challenging for Natural Grocers to only have organic produce in our stores, but our customers think it’s worth it.

As a quick aside, that means we have to educate every single one of your consumers about seasonality and transportation costs. You shouldn’t be eating certain things out of season. And if you want it, it’s going to be so expensive that you wouldn’t buy it anyway, so we’re not bringing it in. We’re not bringing in $20 a pound bell peppers in from Holland in March. Just wait a few months, when they’re $2 a pound locally.

The crossover supermarkets did not do the industry a favor when they positioned healthy food as an affluent, elitist lifestyle. They are now admitting the mistake and they’re backpedaling as fast as they can. People have limited budgets. We should give them the healthiest food we can at the lowest price possible.

STEPHEN: Most Americans really.

ALAN: Like all food markets should, that’s right. So the stepped standards, I think, allow them a huge amount of wiggle room to sell whatever they want and to price something that’s conventional as high as organic. Or at least make it look more desirable.

STEPHEN: Everything you do, not just vegetables, but also your meat involves in essence the best category based on your standards.

ALAN: Our meat standard requires the animals be given no antibiotics or hormones. Cattle need to be grass fed on pasture for at least 120 days. Our long term goal is 100% grass fed. The idea is to reinvigorate small ranchers and the soil in their pastures while keeping the animals healthy and happy. The GAP standard you mentioned is from the Global Animal Partnership.

STEPHEN: Is 5 better?

ALAN: The top GAP grade says that that animal spent its whole life on one farm. Working down from there, you have vague terminology about “animal centered” practices. If they are outside, they should be able to practice natural behaviors. That’s a big if, because nothing in GAP requires the animals to actually be outside. The only practice that seems to be prevented within GAP is caging chickens. They don’t say anything about use of medicines, consumption of forage, unhealthy grain feeding, and other important issues. Just don’t bob their tails.

STEPHEN: Is that 3 or 4 on the list?

ALAN: It’s the first of the three fives. Really, you can’t make this up.

In English though, a standard is a standard. It’s like that bar in the high jump. You either get over it, or you don’t. But GAP puts up five fairly low bars, and suppliers just jump as high as they can. If they knock off the top four bars, they still get a ribbon, because you didn’t knock off the bottom one. It’s not a standard when everybody gets a trophy.

STEPHEN: What is Natural Grocers doing about Dairy?

Dairy. Fantastic. This is an incredibly bold business move. We’re only going to sell dairy products made with milk from pastured, non-confined cows.

This sent a huge ripple through the industry, because the big secret is all of those natural dairy products are made from industrial milk from conventional dairies. Usually without the GMO growth hormones, but we don’t really know, because it’s not necessarily disclosed on the product label.

These are massive confinement dairies. The most the cows get outside is on a dry lot, no vegetation. They’re very stressed, very sick. Lifetime is about 3 years for a dairy cow. When the cost of their medication is high enough that it exceeds the value of their milk, they’re sent off to be ground up into hamburger. What the hell is that about?

STEPHEN: Right. Let alone the life they lead… The suffering, the horrific life of every factory farmed animal. That’s what faCE is trying to change, to put an end to.

ALAN: That’s righteous work!