My dad was not enamored with the grandiose consolidated high school that sprang up in a cornfield at the transect of three or four towns that were losing their hometown high school identity. Most everybody else was excited about new technologies and the efficiency at which they could steer kids through high school. That was in the early 70s.
I guess it all worked out, but what my dad was lamenting was the loss of developing leaders. There would now only be one captain of the football team, senior class president and valedictorian where before there were four. He had a chance to lead his Owensville Kickapoo’s leather helmet six-man football team to victory. They played the other towns and everybody knew everybody. He knew he would not have been picked to be quarterback and learned the life lessons of team sports at that behemoth of a consolidated school.
Dad enlisted in the Marine Air Corp (they were glad to find a farm kid with machinery experience) on Pearl Harbor Day, served in the South Pacific, loved his wife and life and kids and his career in private aviation. Mom and Dad are buried on a knoll overlooking his farm—and Gibson Southern High School—at Blythe Chapel, a classic country church with a bell heard for miles.
The new high school made sense in that community, where the farmland was steadily consolidating into the hands of fewer and fewer farm families enchanted with all the post-war ag technologies that exploded onto the landscape. Bomb materials were converted to fertilizer, truck and tank technologies transformed into tractors and modes of conveyance. GPS-controlled spray nozzles on autonomous tractors and proprietary, genetically manipulated seeds are now the norm.
The change has been incremental, in the name of science, over the last half century, and that has led us to a technically efficient food system. Get big or get out is still the mantra of mainstream agriculture today. While technically efficient, is that the best way to ensure a steady supply of food for this nation?
For example (don’t hold me to the numbers, they are close and relative to the others), a dozen or so companies control some 80 or 90 percent of the milk market. (You can see the top 100 dairy companies in the US ranked by revenue here.) I was told, by a reliable source, that at one point four of the CEOs lived in the same gated community outside Dallas. One outlier among the larger stakeholders is Organic Valley—a true co-op where farmers participate in decision making. They say if you think you understand the federal Milk Marketing Order—the matrix of formulas that determine how much the farmers and processors and haulers make per hundred weight of raw milk—then it has not been properly explained.
A handful of multinational corporations control some 80-plus percent of red meat processing and distribution. Price fixing court cases have been ongoing for decades, and entanglements with federal regulators and regulations makes you wonder who is minding the store. When I asked our abattoir if he could give a USDA quality grade to our pork in the same way he does our grass-fed beef, he replied that the USDA no longer has pork-grading standards since the companies didn’t like them.
It’s much the same in the poultry world. Each mega-corporation has their own sworn-to-secrecy proprietary seed, feed and bird genetic strains to hit that 90 percent mark of the global market.
The seeds to make all this feed and food are in the control of a couple of companies, and by the way, the chemical formulations recommended to grow them come together as a package deal.
Every aspect of all that efficiency of scale runs on just-in-time delivery schedules. It’s a logical business model for auto manufacturers, but agriculture also has to uphold quality controls of perishable products and food safety. When our capitalistic multinational food supply was put to the test last spring amidst panic buying at the grocery store, the closing of restaurants and the need to reconfigure distribution networks, cracks in this fragile global food system were exposed, opening the eyes of a lot of people, not the least of which were mine.
When a single pork harvesting facility shut down to address worker health and implement safeguards, hog farmers had to euthanize dozens of thousands of full-grown pigs. There was no place for them to go and young ones needed the space in their crowded barns. Similarly, chickens were depopulated by the millions. This is no fault of the farmer—they were driven to this point by following the science and everybody saying it was a good thing, until it wasn’t.
The COVID effect just nicked the supply chain. It could have been worse, and there are plenty of other things that could cause huge supply chain issues, and by default, food shortages.
We do not have to be at the mercy of Big Food. The local food movement has shown us what the decentralization of the food supply can offer. When we started this little direct-sales venture more than 25 years ago, there were only a couple of small, independent, USDA-inspected meat processors available to us. Now there are quite a few processors, each serving more and more farmers supplying more and more families with meat and poultry each year.
We had to go all the way to Tennessee, then to Ohio, then to Guthrie, Kentucky, to access organic poultry feed back then. Now they send a truck to us on the third Thursday of every month to deliver the organic grains we don’t grow here. Sustainable systems are falling into place for a sustainable food supply to scale up appropriately. More entrepreneurs will open additional processing facilities, offer different services and bring healthy competition to existing facilities, rather than any one company consolidating all the power.
Folks in the organic and sustainable farming community are transparent with one another: which varieties perform best in cold weather, pros and cons of chicken tractors—these conversations can go on for hours. We share with neighbors what we have learned, even if they grow and sell the same things we grow and sell. They are not our competition. The competition is with Mother Nature and customer service. We do a good job with both, and they will bring new people into the movement.
On that note, the Organic Association of Kentucky’s virtual annual conference is at the end of January, where a wealth of information will be shared about how to do what we do (including a session with John on our crop-livestock rotation’s impact on soil health).
The way I figure it, our country is 70 years into post-war consolidating industrialization of the nation’s food supply, and our community is 25 years into the decentralization of the local food movement. With more and more quarterbacks on more and more football teams, small farmers can shuck and jive around the big, bad behemoths. You have the ability to support your hometown team with your food choices.
As the son of an Owensville Kickapoo Marine, I’m gonna give it my best shot as efficiently as it makes sense. I was a Boy Scout, and we are supposed to put things back better than we left them. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Thanks for your support. —Mac Stone