I think a lot of agvocate Ryan Goodman, who I met once at a truck stop. (wait, that sounds bad) He’s a good kid, and far more genuine a nice guy than I’ll ever be, I was gifted with too much snark. Anyways, he posted some good points and a good question on his blog this morning, basically whether or not farmers and food companies are to blame for crappy food, or whether we’re just fulfilling the demands of consumers.
I am far from an economist, but I do have a basic understanding of the “supply and demand” concept. Consumers demand salty, sweet, and fatty food and in turn food processors demand the raw products from farmers and ranchers to manufacture those foods. We would not produce the raw materials that make up that quarter-pound cheese burger with fries if there was not a market for that product. There would not be a market for that product if consumers did not demand it. Am I wrong?
I’m not gonna say he’s wrong, people do love the crap. Follow any fat woman shopping on a motorized cart, and you’ll never follow her to the vegetable aisle. But I did take some exceptions, and I can’t let that much typing go to waste…
I respectively disagree, (surprise!) this is something I think about a lot, so please hear me out. No, I’m not responsible if someone turns my wheat into bland white bread. You’re not responsible when Taco Bell uses some part of your beef in their 35% mix. But if all we do is provide the raw materials to feed the system, then yeah, we do bear some of the blame. To some degree I see that as playing to the lowest common denominator, that we sell for whatever we can get because that’s the system that’s in place.
Five years ago I wasn’t selling a whole apple finished hog to a taco shop because? Well I wasn’t raising them. Five years ago customers weren’t buying out my wife’s eggs at the farmer’s market because? We didn’t have chickens and were buying our eggs at the store. No pun intended, it is a chicken and egg scenario. Do people buy the crap because they demand it, or because we don’t offer anything else?
People want to buy this stuff! If I say I grow wheat no one cares, if I mention that we’re into grapes, pastured poultry and grassfed beef, their ears perk up. You can see it on their faces. And if a consumer doesn’t want my products, well guess what, their not worth my time.
Of all the things I’ve learned about wine, the thing I appreciate the most is that every bottle is an expression of that year’s production, of that variety, on that small piece of land. The taste of that year is bottled up and offered for sale. Think about that, and consider that vintners don’t have a PR problem, in fact people plan trips to vineyards to get the full experience. Weigh that against the mentality that every steak should taste the same, that every loaf of bread is identical. Think about it, Prattsville, Arkansas as the Napa Valley of steak. Think I’m nuts? People derided Napa Valley wines a few decades ago, where would they be if they took every grape, blended them together and offered one wine?
What if one day we farmers and ranchers said “You know what, our food is too good for Cargill, ADM and Tyson. You want the good stuff, you come to us!” What would that do to small towns? How about that for connecting the farm to the plate? That’s some agvocacy I could get behind.
We were dining out with another couple last Saturday night, trendy place full of trendy people, lots of wine and food moving about the place, and I was talking to the male half about different aspects of food. My wife and I had just sold a whole hog to a restaurant, so that to all sorts of talk about the details of that, different aspects of production, and eventually to the fact that my wife and I had become food snobs for the lack of a better term. I was telling him how we have a hard time eating out close to home, and that the local grocery store is a joke. “Ya know,” he said, “it seems like that should be the other way around. Out there is where the food comes from, that should be where the best food is.” I agreed, though I didn’t realize at the time that I’d have this exemplified on a couple of different levels.
I made my favorite roast chicken last night, incredibly spicy, crispy skin, it was one of best I’ve ever made. It was of course too much, so we saved the breast for tonight, I was thinking either tacos or sandwiches, this afternoon, I chose the latter. Here’s what I wanted, some nice sandwich rolls, add the spicy chicken, then top with some cheese and sliced avocado. I needed the rolls and the cheese. Now I knew going in that both of these would be a stretch, locally it’s hard to find anything but the worst kind of white bread burger buns, and the cheese (I would have accepted provolone or swiss) usually comes in both kinds, yellow and American. (A South Dakota twitter fave recently freaked that she had found a market with more than three kinds of cheese) Still, it was pretty depressing, a clean miss on both counts. There was some ten day out of date provolone, but I’m not risking that with an eight month pregnant wife.
I know, I know, this is what I get for living in the sticks, I get that. I could have driven twelve miles in any direction and found some, but where’s the wisdom in that? What I want to know is why. Why and when did food out here in the hinterlands become such a dull affair? In my experience country folk can be some of the worst kinds of eaters. Extremely picky, if it’s not burgers it’s well done steak, and wash it down with tasteless domestic beer. (I warned you, I’m a snob.)
Then I get home and find this through a tweet…
I’ve read Mr. Hurst’s opinions before, he’s the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, a division of one of the largest agribusiness organizations in the country. (and one of the biggest Washington lobbies as well) I can find a lot of fault in this latest piece, but I’m not going to write a critique, what I want to address is the tone. Look at it, it exemplifies the standard chest thumping All American attitude towards anything different. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but the tone just irks me. Yeah he swung at the low hanging fru… er granola didn’t he? It’s easy to draw differences when you’re comparing most folks to hippies that are eating quinoa and kale flakes. I don’t eat that way, I’d probably try to get the kid some bacon. But who is Hurst talking to here? He’s preaching to the choir no doubt, but he’s also aiming a bullying, follow the herd mentality at consumers as well. ‘Don’t you get uppity’, he’s saying, ‘keep eating the slop that we toss out, don’t you dare reach for that odd looking fruit at the Whole Foods, or you won’t be a real ‘Merican!’ I don’t have any use for Michelle Obama, and I don’t like being told how to eat more than anyone else, but this knee jerk reaction to anyone saying we should eat better is not doing agriculture any favors in my opinion. We’re painting ourselves into a corner, some of us feel like we have to defend agribusiness at all costs. Seems to me that Hurst is pushing just as big an agenda as the first lady, only his is in defense of a subsidized food system. How’s that for irony? He almost brags that milk comes quicker from New Mexico than it does from Missouri, gee, if I was the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau I think I’d think that was a problem.
Here’s a thought, we like to point out that people are disconnected from where their food comes from, and that that’s our problem. Well you know what, some of us in agriculture are so disconnected from the people that buy food, from people actually eating, that we can’t come to terms with any criticism. The entire rallying cry from some seems to be ‘You’ll shut up and eat if you know what’s good for ya’. ‘Feed the world’ has become an excuse for anything, and doesn’t recognize that most of the problems with hunger in this world are political, and don’t always have to do with lapses in production.
When did this happen? I don’t know, I guess monoculture crops have led to a monolithic pallet. We haul our goods to town, and then never see it again until it comes back, usually pretty unrecognizable if we sent off commodities. I would love to have hit a local dairy with a direct farm store, but dairies are hard enough to find, much less one that makes cheese. That’s one of my points, where has this reliance, now defense, of agribusiness gotten us? It sure hasn’t gotten us more farmers. Someone like Blake Hurst will demagogue the French, or a store like Whole Foods, well, as a rancher and meat lover, the butcher counter there (yes, they have butchers, that cut meat, remember those?) brings a tear to my eye.
Dinner turned out well though, turns out my ever surprising wife can make crusty sandwich buns, damn near from scratch. That beats white bread any time.
Oh the joys of the internet, if you’re not being labeled a socialist, you’re not doing it right, in my opinion. Such was the response to my Twitter snark from a well know “agvocate” as I had dared contradict the well established line that biotech in commodity crops is the only way forward for American agriculture. I think that’s pretty funny since my libertarian political leanings are the polar opposite of such a big government ideology.
Here’s the not so secret fact of conventional commodity agriculture, if we’re taking subsidies to grow crops, we are socialists. (Full disclosure, I grow commodity wheat, I take payments) This is undeniable.
Many a farmer would send you runnin if you dared show up at his place and tell him he was a socialist. Label it corporate welfare and the reaction would no doubt be the same. On top of that, many a cowboy will hold his head up high claiming he’s not taking welfare like those farmers. What he won’t tell you is that he’s feeding out cattle in his feedlot, and they’re eating mountains of subsidized corn, which wouldn’t exist at such levels if not for the subsidies. And what of agribusiness, surely the chemical companies and equipment manufacturers are capitalists, right? Not if you consider the number of farmers who right now are stalking dealerships looking for new equipment to buy at this year’s end, so as to get the deduction and offset their taxes. I’m no fan of income taxes, but are we to believe that if the deduction for new equipment was taken away that those dealers wouldn’t pitch a fit? If you think about it that way, you realize that the subsidies don’t really go to the farmers, they are passed on to equipment and input suppliers. Corporate welfare? How about “crony capitalism”? Which can be explained as seeking special business advantages through subsidies, lobbying, and of course, the tax code.
It’s a pretty funny irony that those hippie lookin, straw hat wearing, farmer’s market producers are in fact more capitalist than their more conventional, commodity brethren. Oh they have their moments too, I cringe when I hear a food reformer type like Michael Pollan express support for the idea of subsidizing organic production, or diversified small farms. Do they not see the mess of unintended consequences that has befallen agriculture since subsidies came to be? A constant theme in farm literature is the decline in the number of farmers, and the flight of young people to jobs in the city. Maybe if agriculture offered a little more in the way of free markets, free thinking and free will, more of us would opt for a dynamic future in agriculture instead of one steered and regulated by our bourgeoisie betters.
As I mentioned before, the Management Intensive Grazing experiment continues. For the past two months I’ve been rationing out stockpiled plains bluestem to a herd of 50 cow/calf pairs. As I move into the final 40 acre pasture of this quarter section, this lunacy becomes visible from the main road, no doubt to the bemusement of friends and shame of family.
Coincidentally a natural gas pipeline cut through this pasture parallel to that road, and instead of letting the ground erode away before the grass regrew, I no-tilled a 50′ wide strip of winter wheat to hold the soil. Since my half acre paddocks run perpendicular to the road this puts a 50′x50′ square of lush green wheat at the top of the hill, and at the far end of the paddock. That’s the tease in my strip tease grazing, as I watch close to a hundred head of cattle fight each race each other to the top of the hill every other morning. It has the added benefit of cementing in their minds that if you play along, good things will happen.
They get two days on the paddock, with the wheat going down a few minutes into their release, and small bale of green alfalfa to supplement them on their second day. The cattle clean up the mature bluestem in two days, something I’ve never seen cattle do, even if they spend the winter on bluestem pasture. They’ll spend another couple of weeks here, before moving down the road to more stockpiled grass, hay grazer and an eventual date with the round bale feeder.
I was enjoying a brisk but nice winter day this Saturday, unrolling temporary electric fence for a new pasture paddock, when I had what alcoholics call a moment of clarity. It hit me in the way that only a revelation can, that we as farmers and agriculturalists, often choose the process over profits. It will take me a bit to get there, but I’ll be back, I promise.
I’ve embarked on a new practice this last couple of years, and this winter in particular. Instead of feeding hay to my cattle for nearly six months out of the year, I’m grazing my main herd on stockpiled forage for as long as I can before breaking into the hay pile. As it stands I’m thinking that I can get into January without feeding a single round bale. That will be quite an achievement in this area, since most ranchers have been feeding hay for near two months, even though the growing season just ended. Now if your unfamiliar with wintering cattle, you may ask, “why wouldn’t you want to feed hay, isn’t that what farmers do?”
Hay ain’t free, hay equipment ain’t cheap, and hay making is a time consuming, repetitive process. Not only will you spend long hours in the summer making hay to feed cattle in the winter, you’ll spend long cold hours doling that hay out to the cattle in question, and you’re no farmer worth his salt unless you do it in an expensive feed that burns expensive fuel.
In comes Management Intensive Grazing (MiG), under which you do your best to restrict the herd’s access to the entire pasture, doling out small but lush paddocks of fresh forage, ideally on a daily basis. By restricting access you build up stockpiles of forage, you let the grass reach it’s full maturity instead of being constantly grazed to the point of submission, not to mention other side effects like being in constant control of the herd, which makes them docile, easy to catch and work, putting them through less stress. Since the cattle are eating fresh forage, and then moving away from their own manure every day, you can cut down on chemical wormers and antibiotics, which are of course expensive (seeing a trend?) and a necessary component of confining animals along with their own waste, no matter if it’s in a pasture or a feedlot.
So anyways, back to the initial point, putting the process over profits. It was another nice day last spring when I was putting a new roof on our old one room schoolhouse (future winery) when my father and I were discussing how he had had a rough winter and was planning on doubling down on his hay production that next season. It was then that I confided that I was planning on making dramatically less hay that same season, with only one cutting reserved for the depths of winter. He was a bit surprised, and when I stated that it would be far cheaper to stockpile then ration forage, his reply surprised me, “Well, yeah!” as if he saying, “Duh!”
That stuck with me, I mean, if you know the right answer all along, why spend your life spending more time and money than necessary? Why scoff at less costly methods, and keep tens of thousands of dollars of expensive and constantly depreciating hay machinery on hand? Well, he’s my dad, and far brighter than I’ll ever be, so I didn’t push the point, just went ahead with the plan.
On to the present, I’ve gotten back into Twitter lately, and have made it a point to follow some of the self appointed spokespeople for my line of work. What I find are two definitive camps, though one side seems to think that they speak for all of agriculture. I have no doubt they’re all nice folk, but how they can hand wring over the low profits and brain drain happening on modern American farms, all while proudly touting the unprofitable practices that have are leading to such, I’ll never know. I mean what good is “feeding the world (!)” when you can barely make enough to feed your family? What sort of mindset willingly bears that burden? I have my thoughts, but I’ll save those for another post.
I’m an admitted smartass and contrarian, so when I see blind support of conventional wisdom, I can’t help but voice an opposing opinion. It is NOT PERSONAL, but I do wonder what keeps ag people so tied to unprofitable systems. Are we so enamored with the process, with the emotional investment in tractors, trucks and inputs that we’ll defend our own impending bankruptcy? Non-conventional ag folk have become all the rage of late, but for all the wrong reasons. One constant exists on every non-conventional, non-commodity farm I’ve visited, they’re making money. Usually hand over fist. Yet we won’t listen to those folk. Joel Salatin makes millions selling food, and wants all farmers to do the same, yet he’s labelled as an enemy by the American Farm Bureau.
Does our loyalty to corporate/industry spokesmen stem from the fact that it can seem that they’re only people who seem to support us, or is it just the free hats they hand out? That chemical rep that just charged me thousands of dollars for wheat herbicide is there to support me, yet I’m the one who writes him a check. Then I’m left with a commodity product that is subject to the same price everyone else gets, but hey I’ve got a hat. Is it just emotional, manifested in the affinity we have for the lifestyle we grew up with, and we see any criticism as condemnation?
Personally I think it is emotion, coupled with the fact that we farmers often willingly wear blinders that keep us aiming at the wrong goals. If all you read are the glossy farm magazines and listen to most of our land grant universities, you’ll never even see other options. That’s the problem, it’s not that farmers are dumb, or necessarily sheep, it’s just that there is such a hurdle to over come just to start listening, to start processing new information sources. It’s so comfortable to keep following that proverbial bucket of oats, right into the corral. Then you’ll easily fall for the line that not raising commodities and raw materials will lead to worldwide starvation, or that people who want to buy products direct from farmers somehow hate farmers. Given that paradigm, being asked to read a book by Michael Pollan for an ag class would seem like an undue burden, when all you really want to do is read another John Deere brochure.
I’ve got some things to say, and I need a forum of more than 140 characters. Almost a year, huh. I’ve had a lot to keep me busy, wheat, beans, cattle, pigs, chickens, and even prawns. Wife got another bronze for her Syrah at the Okie State Fair, and in big news we’ll soon be a bonded winery.
Anyways, watch this space.