Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An Overview of US Agriculture, Circa 2010

Although I'm often not much of a fan of the overall food system as it currently stands for a whole host of reasons, some of which I'll get into shortly, there are some things that are remarkable about where we are today. I don't think it is an overstatement to say that most people don't think about their food supply at all, except perhaps to complain about the cost of groceries at the store. I read a statistic recently that stated the average American is five generations removed from the farm. Thus, a startlingly high percentage of the population has no real idea that their food is grown ANYWHERE ! I guess they think it just arrives on store shelves as if by magic.

According to Maslows heirarchy of needs, the majority of people in this nation are focused right at the top of his needs pyramid, with some consumers taking the time to self actualize about what sort of food system they want. Personally, I think these are exciting times in which to be a farmer, as long as the farmer is willing to keep up with and stay in touch with the consumer. Althought the majority of consumers remain disinterested in the food system, which probably ensures at least a short future for many of today's factory style agribusinesses, many consumers are becoming very aware of how things are being produced. I think it's fair to say this large pool of consumers are talking and acting in ways not widely seen since our grandparents day in this nation.

There are some glaringly obvious (and very silly) logistics (or, actually a lack thereof) in our current system of food production. I make no attempt whatsoever to list them all, but here, at least, is an overview.

Most of the grain in this country is grown on the prairie soils of the western midwest, centered on Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and the states surrounding them. In order to realize high yields, grain producers...particularly those that grow corn, but also wheat and milo, use a tremendous amount of fertilizer. This fertilizer used to be generated, at least in part, by animals raised on local farms. Today, this is mostly not the case, because (unbelieveably to me) most animal production has moved away from the midwest. So instead of using locally produced animal manure to sustainably fertilize grain and at least attempt to maintain soil tilth and fertility, today most farmers have no choice but to purchase large quantities of "synthetic" fertilizer (which is produced using huge quantities of fossil fuels) instead.

You heard me correctly when I said that most animal production no longer happens where most of the animal feed is grown. Today, most of the milk in this country is produced in the far west on very large dairies in places like California, Idaho, New Mexico and Texas. To a lesser extent, it is also produced in traditional dairy states like Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, etc. Most of the broiler and egg chickens in the US along with a large number of hogs are housed in the deep south, from North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas right on down to the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the beef in this country is grain fed and finished in huge feedlots in Colorado, Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle.

We truck grain away from the midwest and move it to the areas of the country where animals are produced in quantity. Unfortunately, in addition to being unsuitable for large scale grain production, most of these areas are not particularly close to their markets either. So after trucking feed in, we then spend more money to truck manufactured food products away from these areas to the cities where they will actually be consumed. I really don't know what happens to the massive quantities of manure that are generated in these places, and I'm going to guess that I probably don't want to know.

When you think about what a farm ought to look or smell or sound like, for better and for worse, I promise that most of these large scale facilities don't look (or smell, or sound) anything like that at all.

As long as fuel remains cheap and grain production is subsidized heavily by the federal government, a continuance of this system makes at least minimal economic sense for the farmers involved. When such is no longer the case, we will have to do differently than we do today.

My next series of posts will explore what some of these differences may look like as well as taking a closer look at the way agriculture is practiced in places like Tennessee, where I am intimately familiar with what goes on.


Anonymous said...

Large scale monoculture and the segregation of the different types of agriculture, as well as the segregation of producers from consumers, is the origin of many problems with the current system. Will be interested in your further observations on this topic.

SmartAlex said...

I am one generation removed from farming, and since I still own half of that farm myself, and eat beef raised there at least once a week, I guess I'm not that far removed afterall. If American society spent more time and energy growing their own food, and less time and energy worrying about love, self-esteem and self-actualization, this country would be a much nicer place to live. I'm pretty sure at the end of the day, my grand parents and great grand parents were just happy the pantry was full and the cattle were fed. They certainly didn't have time and energy to gripe that they didn't have the newest and greatest Blackberry. And if they did, it was the blackberry patch they had just spent a sweltering day in gathering berries for a pie, not the one they got their minute by minute worldwide news updates on. And don't even get me started on the mortgage crisis.
It is not an inalienable right to have a huge house, brand new car and an unlimited calling plan. It's a priveledge. You have to work for it. And preferably pay cash. You know, the stuff that used to be backed by gold, but now has about as much meaning as Monopoly money.

The one news blip this week that has caught my attention most often this year is the local Mill who is on a locavore campaign on the radio. Good for them. Locavore was added to the Oxford American dictionary in 2007. Yay. In the 1930s, we didn't need a word for it. It just was.

And, aprapo to your posting, the big Iowa egg recall yesterday. The eggs from that farm were packaged under 13 brands, and shipped to how many states? Really? My eggs come out of a chicken's ass. Right here in town. They each have names. They eat greens (and yes, sometimes toads). At least, my grocery store of choice, Wegmans, who has consistently ranked in the top chains in America, has fancy little signs outside giving the mileage to the farms their produce comes from. And the names of the families. That's the kind of regional business I can get behind.

Well, obviously you've touched one of my nerves, and I've mistaken your blog for mine. Carry on good farmer.

Jason said...

Sorry guys...I deleted my own comment after I got a reply from SA to avoid getting spammed to death at our work email address !

Kate; I agree that segmentation creates a colossal lose:lose situation for everyone.

SA; I concur !

I hope the article I sent to you both was thought provoking. The part that is upsetting to me isn't solely based on the fact the entity in question will be milking 13000 cows. Partly it's that there is no reasonable way this entity can milk that many cows in either an animal friendly or an environmentally sustainable way. Partly it's also because building out this dairy entity is like giving the one finger salute to the entire community in which it resides. This violates the spirit and treads all over the lifestyle associated with living in a rural place. Farming is a business, but IMO if you take away the lifestyle component there is no good reason left to be a farmer.

Sylvia said...

A doc I used to babysit for had 'fresh air kids' every summer from NYC. Sometimes I would watch them, too. It was quite amazing to me, that they had no idea what even a simple garden looked like and produced. They were very interested in it, which made it fun to teach them!

Jason said...

Hey Sylvia;

I just saw your comment...for some reason it didn't arrive in my email box.

I think getting children to help in the garden when they are small would do wonders to alleviate a whole bunch of issues, with food production being just one of them !