June 12-15, 2017
It’s been a couple of months since I drove to Wisconsin to secure new organically raised laying hens for the farm, but the images of the vast, open crop fields and grain elevators that I saw in the Midwestern plains stay with me. This large-scale, industrial agriculture is considered the norm to food production, but was what I was seeing considered agriculture at its best? Sure, the efficiencies and scale of these operations were unimaginable a few decades ago, but at what cost have we arrived here? What have we lost in the industrialization of our food supply?
First, to be clear, I do not have firsthand knowledge about how our country’s conventional food machine works, but in my work with the National Organic Standards Board and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, I was exposed to the generalities of how various agricultural commodities are raised and marketed. Corn is corn, soybeans are soybeans. The more efficient a farmer is with fertilizer, pest-control-chemical, steel, and diesel-fuel use, the more profit they stand to make. Each protein commodity (beef, chicken, eggs, milk, pork, turkey) that utilizes grain has scientifically based protocols with respect to nutrition, animal housing/welfare, herd health, etc. that must be followed for the products to be accepted by the marketplace. To their credit, the industry does wean more pigs per litter, get more milk per cow, and collect more eggs per pound of grain fed every year. The science and technology is verified, if not developed by, federally and state-supported research funds, so it must be good, right? Simply put: Animals confined in a carefully controlled environment, augmented with endocrine and digestive modifiers and whatever else, outperform animals reared outside with minimal inputs, but at what cost?
Second, the farmers that are caught up in the industrialization of the nation’s—if not the world’s—food supply can be viewed as cogs in the industrial machine that feeds the world. They are not bad people that have no regard for the environment or their animals—quite the opposite. These farm families care for the land and animals—day in and day out—pass this reverence to the next generation, and worry about the weather. These farm kids show leadership in their high schools, know how to care for sick or injured animals, and know the value of hard work and how to change a flat tire in the rain or mud—whatever is needed to get the job done.
Third, these farmers are striving to provide what the consumer markets are asking for at a price set by other forces. The 99 cent value meal and retailers boasting of low food prices, is the crux of the issue. Supply and demand estimates are far-reaching across the globe and are at the mercy of the weather patterns in the other growing regions. Futures trading—people hoping to make money off these speculations—can move the markets. There are international trade deals, the devaluation of currency markets and hedge-fund requirements, and the list of pricing variabilities goes on and on. Additionally, the US Department of Agriculture purchases huge volumes of these commodities to stabilize markets and provide food for those in need, including through the National School Lunch Program. Farmers typically contract with the local grain elevator to lock in a price for some percentage of the crop while also speculating on some of their crop, hoping for bigger gains if the market price moves up during the growing season, with no control over either.
Chicken, turkey and most of the pork, these days, is vertically integrated, meaning the whole production system is divvied out to contractors by one entity. This one entity controls the breeding, feeding, housing, animal-welfare standards, processing, marketing and ultimately what those contractors’ potential profits might be. Because of the proprietary nature of the decisions that allow them to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace, just what goes on behind closed doors is unknown to their customers. Faceless transactions, if you will. What customers don’t realize is because of the vagaries of the markets, the farmers producing this food may go for months or even years of operating in the red, while waiting for market forces to return in their favor. Farm credit and crop insurance is a whole other industry within an industry, adding to the vertical integration scheme.
Back to my Wisconsin trip, I drove for hours through great expanse where huge tractors looked like Matchbox toys in the distance, with the ground brown and bare from chemical denuding of the soil. Between these observations and my ag-industry knowledge, I kept wondering how good this system was. The consolidation of the supply of seeds (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) and other “necessary” inputs, market consolidation, and America’s cheap-food policy has abandoned countless farm families. I witnessed many abandoned homesteads, while the land surrounding them is being farmed by fewer individuals that can afford to stay in the game, doing what is considered right by the industry.
To take this drive, I left the verdant hills of Kentucky, where our cattle get everything they need to provide us with certified-organic, grass-fed beef using no sophisticated inputs. I returned home to see the patches of earthy, tilled soil with vegetables feeding off the natural nutrients made available to them. This is the agriculture that makes sense to us, but we would be viewed as the odd balls by most in the industry.
These days, each person who eats is connected to the industrialized food machine. Yet, each person holds the power of their food choices, and collectively that power can make change. Know that your purchasing choices can change the world, one farm at a time. —Mac Stone
In Your Share
Lacinato Dino Kale