I'm reading a book right now called The CAFO Reader. It's a compendium of essays about CAFO agriculture and the alternatives that exist to it. For those not in the know, CAFO stands for concentrated animal feeding unit, and, at least in the US, this usually means some sort of large scale industrial agribusiness.
For the most part, reading the essays in the book is literally like listening to myself talk or reading what I write here on this blog. It's scary how often I and the essayist in question use the same phraseology to describe certain key situations. About the only part of the book I have read so far that I disagree with is that some of the authors get very hung up on size. As I have mentioned before, I don't believe that large is always a bad thing; the biggest dairy in the state of Tennessee is also among the best managed; indeed it's run by a personal friend of mine. More often than not, it is the mindset of the farmer, rather than the size of his farm that creates the problem. When the farmer is of an agrarian mindset, size doesn't necessarily preclude a high degree of expertise in farming. Things tend to be well run and everything stays in relative balance. When the farmer is of an industrial mindset, woe be to the animals, the workers, and the neighbourhood, because all of them are going to pay a price over time. It's like every part of their brains not concerned with growing some commodity bigger, faster and cheaper has atrophied itself into nothing.
I'm just getting started on reading the solutions part of the book right now. It comes as no surprise to me that some of the essayists in this part of the book are featured heavily on my bookcase. Like me, many of the authors seem to believe there will exist two or more parellel systems of production for a long while yet, barring some unseen pivotal change. Industrial ag will continue to produce "cheap" food for the masses, while well run regional and local producers will continue to direct market a series of differentiated products targeted toward higher end consumers.
One of the most glaring differences between industrial farms and what I and other direct marketers do is the level of transparency we provide our customers. Perhaps more than anything else we do, this is what consumers are happy to pay for, and for some reason, this seems to be the hardest thing for industrial ag organizations to offer up. Several essayists touch on this, but I think there is perhaps room for more exploration of this topic.
However the book winds up, at the end of the day there are only two decisions I can really control. The first is what goes on right here at home. After having experienced and participated in both commodity ag and enhanced value, direct market ag, I have made my bed firmly in the "value added" camp. The second involves where my purchased food dollars go. Alone, neither one makes a hill of beans worth of difference to the system. But when we start making real choices together on a larger scale, I believe we CAN have food production systems that feature healthy farms and prosperous rural communities instead of what we have now.
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