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.

I like local, but local sometimes local is the wrong answer.

Yup.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  For all of you “go local!” buffs, the ones totally obsessed with this new trend, first of all, WOAH.  Going “local” is NOT some new trend, people!  Local is the way we evolved!!  Do you think cavemen imported food?  How about frontiersmen?  Yeah, local is a way of life, so get over yourselves…

But local isn’t always good.  In fact, sometimes it’s bad for the environment.  Ever thought of that?  It’s a pretty simple concept.  The first step in realizing the fault in locavore lifestyle is acknowledging the unrealistic demands today’s food industry.  Back when we were a naturally locavore society and didn’t have the option of importing goods, we ate what was available when it was available.  That means eating melons in the summer, roots in the winter, and there’s nothing wrong with that…we still do that.  The problem is, now, we also expect other crops to be there.  Crops that aren’t supposed to be there.  But now that we have the technological ability to grow them, we will.  And we’ll do it locally.  So it’s locavore food…or is it??

I vote, NO.  Just because a food is grown locally, that doesn’t mean it’s locavore.  Although “locavore” is supposed to include locally grown foods, I think classifying it as such misses the point.  LOCAVORE means LOCAL because LOCAL is SUSTAINABLE.  So locavore is really sustainable.  Nothing else.  Locality is just a vehicle of this sustainability.  So what’s my point?  Well, do you really think growing a non-winter crop in a greenhouse during the winter is sustainable?  Maybe it’s being grown on a local farm, but does that mean its energy expenditure is valid??   No way!

Here’s an example:  A study has shown that “it can be more sustainable (at least in energy efficiency terms) to import tomatoes from Spain than to produce them in heated greenhouses in the UK outside the summer months”, according to a food mile study.  I think this sums up my point well.  Truly eating sustainably means getting rid of fresh fruits in the winter, and in fact ditching a lot of the crops that we eat out of season.  Thinking about this, I realize how unsustainable a lot of Farmer’s Markets crops are if they’re not actually produced in fields and are instead closely monitored in greenhouses and watered frequently.  I now realize that scrutinizing a company for importing goods is not necessarily worse.  Maybe those pineapples came from Hawai’i, but just imagine the energy expenditures had we grown them here?

vegetannual

What’s my point?  Just this: If you want to eat sustainably, don’t focus so much on “local” as being a matter of “distance”.  Realize that “local” really means being locally available.  Eat seasonally.  That’s what makes the real difference.  Think about that the next time you make a grocery list, and consider growing your own food.  Cheers.

Catch 22: How Improving Our Country Would Cripple Us

America – it has its flaws and we know it.  Poverty, pollution, outsourcing, topics ranging from global political issues to internal ethical controversies.  But what if solving these problems only introduces an epidemic of fresh complications?  I have reason to believe that it might.

Here’s an unlikely example: corn.

While I researching how questionable corn is for our health as a new topic in my other blog (heartsmartandpennywise.wordpress.com), my mind began imagining how to solve our country’s problems.  The thing about corn is it’s in pretty much everything in America.  Just watch the movie The Informant and you’ll get the idea.  Not only do we eat corn as corn, we eat it as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch, corn-fed animals,… We rely heavily on corn.  Come a draught or epidemic big enough to wipe out a portion of our corn and the price of everything is going to skyrocket.  We won’t know what to do with ourselves.  Another factor to this problem is that about 80% of corn is genetically modified.  (I say 80 because I saw a stat that indicates 20% of corn demand is for organic kinds.)  Not only is corn already difficult for our bodies to digest and a nutritional wasteland, but genetic modifiers accelerate corn’s negative effect on our health.

So now you know about corn.  You know we rely too much on it and it is affecting our health.  But how would we solve these problems?  Here are my initial thoughts – and the points at which I realized the Catch 22’s:

1. Stop using so much corn.  Seems like a no-brainer.  We eliminate corn products and then we don’t need to rely on it so much.  Besides, it’s better to spread our dependencies around to different crops so that, in the event of a blight or other tragedy, we don’t lose absolutely everything in one swipe.  The problem: Why should companies eliminate corn?  It’s cheap, it does its purpose, it’s versatile.  There is no motivation to change it… unless the FDA steps in a changes regulations.  That’s a whole mess of controversies and complaints, of time and energy to actually follow through, etc.  Products everywhere would be changing ingredients, tastes, costs, allergy warnings, calorie counts.  Farmers with tons of corn crops would have suddenly a dramatic demand decrease and would have to change crops.  But not all soil is suitable for all crops, and there’s the whole crop rotation issue to factor in.  Corn pretty much strips soil of nitrogen, and each crop has its own soil demands.  So maybe stopping using corn – at least all at once – isn’t the quick fix solution?

2. Ban genetic modifiers.  There’s so much internal controversy over the health and environmental effects of genetic modifiers as it is.  The problem: No genetic modification means more organic crops.  Organic crops are more expensive and the FDA would keep farmers under strict regulation.  Not only this, but organic crops would yield less and smaller crops, so the volume of what would be produced would be insufficient and require more land to produce enough.  One plus might be that these demands means increased price which might in turn cause the demands to go down, but that isn’t want a farmer wants to hear, even if that means less product would end up going to waste in the end.  However, no genetic modifiers would likely affect the shelf-life of produce, thereby increasing the transportation demand which is already a problem in this country.  By improving one environmental issue, we’d introduce another.

This same thought process can be applied to a number of situations.  Like poverty.  If we could actually spread the wealth so that everyone was happy (which they inadvertently wouldn’t be anyway), it is the error of humans being vain humans that would lead to a collapse.  There is a disparage in the wealth for a reason, I believe, and it’s like the expression: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man how to fish, feed him for life.”  Maybe this is a highly Republican viewpoint, but I think it is applicable.  I also think the Communism is wonderful concept, it’s just that humans are too greedy and corrupt by nature to be equally committed to making it work.  It is in our nature to want to come out on top.  It’s called survival, as trivial as a thing that may seem in modern society.  Hand-outs seem like a quick fix, putting heavier taxes on the wealthier temporarily smoothes out some intrinsic problems, but, in the long run, the equilibrium will balance itself back out.  These “fixes” will only aggravate the system.

This “Catch 22” theme also applies to my previous post on LEED certification, where we do more environmental damages in the long run to prove that we tried to care about “going green”.  Now that we’ve entered this energy-dominated era, there is little hope for turning back.  There are so many things to fix that, honestly, I feel like we will have buried ourselves before we can ever hope to get back out.  You can only have so many cracks in your windshield before you realize they’re running and you can’t see anymore.

I can’t take credit for writing a particularly organized post because, I’ll admit, this has become somewhat of a rant.  But I guess this is a blog and not an article.  Hopefully my point-of-view sparks some thoughts for whoever might read this.  I genuinely do believe America is in quite a jam – or, at least, is heading into one quite quickly – and that it’s going to take a lot of hard work to clean it up before it falls apart.