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.
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