The Small Farm Crisis in America.

My mom texted me a few months ago.  “Dave’s selling his cattle.  He’s going beef now – can’t make money anymore in dairy.”  That hit me hard on two levels.  First of all, I always grew up with dairy.  Grandma had the beef farm.  Seeing brown cows every day at the property line instead of spotted ones and Oreos (who are sometimes also for beef) was regular at home and I could tell already it would feel strange to me.  No milking stalls.  No “Got Milk?” sign.  Just cows awaiting slaughter, staring blankly towards my house all day then going home to be fed.

But that’s not all that hit me hard.  The second part – and by far the worst – is hearing someone say they “can’t make money anymore in dairy”.

We live in Pennsylvania, for God’s sake!  Milk is our STATE DRINK!  We are rolling hills and mountains lined with crooked, topographically-tilled cattle corn fields and littered with silos and milking barns.  Sun-up, to sun-down, to late night, with electrical bulb-lit barns, farmers are out there growing the crop, tending to the herd, then milking them away.  How can we be losing money like this?

I don’t think there is a simple answer, but I’ll spell out what I see: 1. Government regulations, 2. Consumer persuasion, and 3. Industrialization of the farm.

1. GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS
Not long ago, one of my neighbors sold his farm.  He was older, it was too costly, and no one would inherit it.  It was sold and developed and I now can see houses on a hillside across the valley from us.  What a shame.  My mom around the same time explained to me how someone had come in and drained the reservoir behind Dave’s because they want to drive a superhighway through our valley.  In response to this, and with concern that no grandson wanted to inherit his farm, Dave signed into the Pennsylvania farmland protection program so as to preserve his land from development.  Soon after, his partner left him and he was forced to downsize.  I think everyone thought he was crazy for keeping the farm running at such profit levels and in his advanced years.  That’s when EPA rolled in and threatened him for violating standards with watershed pollution.  He was forced to make changes in his practices and to plant trees and lay fence through the creeks to keep cows out of direct contact with the water.

Ain’t nobody got the money to do that.  I respect the EPA and it is part of my job to make sure projects are up to spec with the regulations, but how can you expect people with 200-year-old farms and old buildings to suddenly change their ways?  When they already have no profit?  When they’re in fact being environmentally-friendly to an extent by maintaining old materials instead of tearing things down and building new ones. Of this exact vein, a clipping my mom mailed to me in Ohio that she found in the Tribune-Review addresses these small farmer concerns, saying they’re “weary of new regulations” in Pennsylvania.  It talks about just what I have pointed out, how farmers use old barns, old methods, old wooden tools that may face tough laws soon that restrict how they handle their produce, meat, and dairy.  They cry, What can we do?  If we want local, organic, small family farms to operate, we cannot be so god-awfully stringent like this.

I understand the need to monitor health of food, but at what cost?  Everything we eat is to be controlled?  Our foods supplemented like our water without our consent because someone decided it’s better for us?  When we are constantly learning we were wrong about our previous health-related insights?  We say we need to support America, but aren’t we tearing it down from the inside out and encouraging imports and cheap labor and poverty?  Why are we letting the American Dream die?  Sometimes I feel like government regulations will soon leave us feeling like we’re living in (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT FROM THE HUNGER GAMES SERIES IF YOU HAVE NOT READ MOCKINGJAY) District 13 of the Hunger Games, where food is regulated down to the last calorie and you can’t take more than your share or act outside of your daily schedule.

(SPOILER OVER)

2. CONSUMER PERSUASION
So why do we buy the things we buy?  How is Dave going out of business with dairy?  What is causing this?  I think back to his “Got Milk?” billboard and realize how silly these nutritional notions Americans have are.  The lead of a “Save Your Bones” program discusses how milk actually depletes calcium and argues that countries that drink more milk have higher levels of osteoporosis.  Not only that, but modern milk is a processed food.  Think of Asians who, like me due to my Indian blood, cannot drink lactose.  Their cultures didn’t have milk outside of infancy/young childhood because they didn’t raise crops and drink the milk of other animals yet look at their health ratings, some of the best if not the best in the world.  Finally, like so much of our food, milk is almost always fortified.  You are better off telling your children to eat more dark greens!  No cholesterol, cheap, fresh, unprocessed, low fat, natural…

Then why does the government do these things?  I couldn’t tell you.  There must be some kind of profit in it for them.  Meanwhile, the other problem is that these small farms are selling their milk to large collectors who mix the milks regionally and mass-produce cartons.  These small farms are selling at minimum prices because everywhere you go in Pennsylvania you see signs like “Milk sold at state minimum!”  Who benefits from that?  The collector and the cheap customer is who, leaving people like Dave to break their backs for far-too-less money with inflation, regulation, and every other crisis knocking on their doors – not to mention global warming causing late frosts and draughts and wreaking all kinds of havoc on crops.

Why do we get so riled up about big chains like Wal-Mart who take over small businesses, but we let the same things happen to our farmers?  Why do we allow ourselves to be brain-washed by lower prices?  Higher prices don’t always mean the better choice, but a little research can tell you you’re making a lot of poor choices in the grocer’s.  Why do we fill our buggies with these “fillers” and products that undermine small-farming to keep your budget comfortable?  And, honestly, you can’t blame these big guys.  I mean, they’re just doing their job.  The only ones we can blame are ourselves for submitting to this monopolizing behavior and supporting it through purchases.  Think about what you’re doing.  The consumer has all of the power.  The producers just provide what will fit the demand in the most profitable way possible.

3. INDUSTRIALIZATION OF THE FARM
That is my lead-in into the final point I’m making: High demand of cheap, lower-quality goods is causing farms to become industrialized, thus defeating the whole concept of small, local, and healthy.  Instead, America wants fast, cheap, and easy.  Since animal farms might be hard to imagine as well, picture the huge agricultural farms in the Plains states.  Endless rows of soybeans and corn stalks.  Huge combines and plows combing and tearing up the land.  We are in a topsoil crisis, yet we continue to destroy the ground with machinery, chemicals, and high-yielding but genetically washed-out crops.  Why are we doing this?

Farmers just cannot compete on a small farm using traditional equipment.  We’ve already upgraded to tractors from horse-drawn plows, but it keeps getting worse.  Without an incredibly expensive combine and other contraption, famers cannot possibly meet the demand to yield enough produce for a solid profit.  They have to get big-scale and possibly hire some hands to get them there.  It’s not longer a family business but an industry.  And do you have any clue how environmentally-bad single-crop farming is?  How it destroys the land?  An intriguing prairie study I read in Biomimicry addresses that along with many other concerns.  (I wrote about that here, on my Cleveland blog.)

What’s worse is we are corrupting the God-given (literally or for emphasis) genetics that were evolved to be on this planet.  There are reasons things are here, whether godly or naturally.  Natural Selection.  There are ecosystems in existence.  We, as humans, were borne out of its byproducts, in the same environment, eating its literal fruits.  And now we have big-scale company monopolizing the system and destroying the beauty that was here, companies like DuPont Pioneer (to whom my company sadly caters in projects).  DuPont Pioneer is developing genetically-modified seeds and playing god, encouraging farmers to coerce, and dominating fields with single, unnatural crop types.  Sure, some benefits seem obvious (outside of profit, of course), but is that really helping the farmer?  Is it really helping us?  The planet?  How is making a crop withstand one disease going to prevent it from the next?  Similarly, I don’t support getting flu shots.  Let nature take its course.  That’s what it’s meant to do.  A resistance will build.  We will be better for it.  Nature will find its way to destroy what it wants to destroy regardless of a stupid, genetically-messed up seed.

Phew.

And so my rant concludes – for now.

But, in sum, I say support your local, organic, small farms, don’t support industry, low prices, or genetically-modified food, and keep in mind that the government has reasons for regulations, but some of the things it does are not necessarily worthy of worship.

Fueling Up the Smart Way

just-living-is-not-enough

My grandma and I were making a trip out to Ohio yesterday when I stopped at Get Go to fill up one of our Audis with her Fuel Perks.  Get Go and Sheetz have always had my admiration for how they create savings for customers as a way to keep business in their favor.  With fuel prices always rising and falling, saving at the pump regardless of the prices is an attractive choice.  I’ve long given up watching the fuel prices and accepted that driving a car with Premium petrol requirements and fueling up at competitive stores with competitive prices is always going to leave me paying a hefty bill.  I’ve also driven enough in Europe to realize our fuel prices are – relatively speaking – outrageously low, even in California.  Still, how to maximize your dollar at the pump?

First, let me just say: I am actually a fan of rising gas prices.  Before you grumble too much, consider what these prices are implying: Sure, you can argue it’s the oil industry being the king that it is and taking what it can from the common people.  But doesn’t it also come down to demand?  Not only do prices rise when we keep burning up gas at higher rates than we usually consume and/or extract it, but the prices are able to rise with our increased dependency on fuel.  I think it should cost an arm and a leg to fill up your car.  That’s a tiny sacrifice we make for a life of luxury that we don’t deserve and which is in turn destroying the planet.  So let the oil giants live like kings for the time being.  Their luxuries are short-lived, but also their investment in the business is incredibly genius.  They benefit from our dependency, stupidity, and greed as a society.  That makes them no less of a criminal than all of the other enterprises that thrive off of society’s demands.

But let’s talk about saving money.  Part of that comes from making good choices for the environment, too.  Sure, sometimes the green solution is the more expensive solution – but it’s the right solution.  And it doesn’t always have to be more expensive.  Sometimes it’s a matter of living with less, or just knowing how to spend less.

First, I am notorious for my miraculously low to non-existant electric and gas bills at my apartments in Cleveland.  How do I do it?  By living the same why I live in the country in Pennsylvania.  For the life of me, I don’t understand why city people drive as much as they do.  They have public transportation AND you can find five of the same stores within a five mile walk!  You’d be lucky to find a house that close to where I live, let alone a sole store… but we still make do!  Furthermore, city folk are all about working out.  They pay for gym memberships, drive the the gym, then do the same work that they could do if they made better lifestyle choices on a daily basis.  Talk about hypocrisy!

So how do I keep up my country, fuel-efficient, healthy ways in the city?  First of all, I always pick do-it-yourself before anything else.  Without a question, you can guarantee I walk up every flight of steps, walk to any store within a predefined radius, carry my own groceries in reusable bags, buy only what I need as I need it, buy things that are not only made or grown locally but that belong in the local climate, and I let the outdoors dictate my indoor climate as much as I can.  That means I open and close windows during the summer to utilize the cool night air and the breeze without the need of fans or air conditioning, and in the winter I seal my place up and keep it as cold as I like.  If you’re going to spend money on sweaters and socks, you might as well use them!  I hate artificial lighting, and if you’re going to have a place with windows that let heat escape, well you might as well use those too!  I do everything by natural light, save for some moments when I light candles or do turn on the electricity.

I cook my own meals from scratch and I grow most of my ingredients or harvest them from the patches of woods I find around Cleveland.  I am appalled that there are people in Cleveland who have asked me, “Wait, what’s compost?  You do that?”  I know down to the cents per kilowatt how much energy I’m using and I maximize this energy as much as possible.  If I’m making tea, I’ll use the steam off of the hot water to heat something else.  If I’m baking, I’ll use the cooling oven to reheat other things or just let it dissipate to heat my room or even my socks before bed.  I’d use a wood fire to cook in Cleveland if I could.  Also, I prefer to take baths rather than showers.  This allows me to run less water (although water is fairly recyclable in urban settings).  After my bath, I use the water to hand-scrub my clothes which then hang to dry on my drying rack.  I dream of the day that I can run all of my products off of a self-installed solar panel array.  I also think bikes are one of the best inventions of all time.

But this doesn’t answer the question of how to save money when I’ve gotta roll out my Audi and drive somewhere, like when neither a bike nor public transportation are suitable to haul my large hockey bag across seven states for my indulging in sports.  This is when I invest in Sheetz and Get Go.  Back to the pump at Get Go: I’m filling up only half of a tank on my grandma’s 50-cents-off-per-gallon discount and thinking, What a waste.  But my grandma is very particular about not letting the gauge go down too far and I know I’ve got to use it or she will complain.  Still, 50 cents off on only eight or so gallons?  I turned around to see a family with a huge truck tanking up, then unloading small gas cans and filling those too.  You’re not supposed to do that because that’s how you’ll make the system bankrupt, but they do it anyway.  Alas, my everlasting internal battle: social honesty or environmental responsibility?  I’d have to choose the honesty here.  I couldn’t milk a bargain that way without feeling guilt for how I was jeopardizing a widely-welcomed system.

However, filling up your truck – that is fair game and it’s a smart move.  I’m used to using Fuel Perks on my GMC pick-up truck, all 20-some gallons of it.  That’s why my tiny eight-gallon fill-up felt particularly illogical next to the F150 two pumps over.  But then I started recalling warnings from my parents about not using the Fuel Perks until a lot has been saved up and I realized that’s only true in a certain regard.  Honestly, you’re going to save the same amount of money regardless of the discount, right?  That’s just it, though: it’s a rate.  The rate may be the same, but your purchase size is what affects your savings.  So no matter if you’re saving 20 cents on a eight gallon fill-up or 40 cents on a 16 gallon fill-up, you’re saving the same amount despite the different rates.  What my parents were really trying to tell me is save up a lot of savings… then make a big purchase.  In other words, we rack up savings here and there, then buy a large quantity of fuel to expire our savings.  My little fill-up used up those savings on an unjustifiably small (if you’re not my grandma) quantity of fuel.

So do some math, weigh your values, and take the effort to do what’s right for your wallet – and the environment.  The point of this entry is really just to get you thinking about your daily choices and how it’s affecting your health, your planet, and your wallet in different proportions.