8 06 2008

So…the era of airfreight is just about over.  All those fruits and vegetables we’ve been getting from Peru, New Zealand, Central America–fuel costs are going to price them right out of the market for everyone except the incredibly rich–and even their numbers will start to shrink as the dollar keeps contracting and the economy falls apart.  Just trucking fresh food from California or Florida is going to get prohibitively expensive, not only because diesel is headed for five dollars a gallon and may never be south of there again, but  because rising petroleum prices affect other farm inputs as well.  Even organic farmers–big scale ones, especially–run diesel tractors and spread fertilizers, and that’s costing them more money–and for conventional farmers, whose fertilizers and sprays are oil-based, the situation is even worse.  Even though commodity prices are rising, farming expenses are rising faster.

There’s an old joke about the farmer who, when he won a million dollars in the lottery, was asked what he planned to do with the money.  “Farm ’till the money runs out” was his reply–and folks, that ain’t no joke.  I wish it was.

Under these circumstances, it would seem prudent for the government to take what steps it can to foster local, small-scale food production, just as it would seem prudent, with the airlines in a downward spiral, to revive railroad passenger service–or, with millions of people losing their homes due to the housing bubble, to help families keep a roof over their heads.

But no….just as the government is bailing out the banks that thought up the cooked mortgage deals, and leaving hung-up homeowners out in the cold, just as mum’s the word on better public transportation, so the government is doing everything it can to shore up our centralized, commodified agricultural system.  Hey, our lawmakers know where their money comes from, just like a lemming knows to follow the ass of the lemming in front of it.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me tell you a few stories.

Jack Hedlin, an organic farmer in southern Minnesota, is a good place to begin.  He’s been growing various fruits and vegetables for 12 years, selling them in the lucrative Minneapolis market, and he needed to expand…so he rented 25 acres from a neighbor and planted veggies on it.

They should have done their homework a little better.  When the USDA found out about this, they revoked the neighbor’s subsidy on that 25 acres and reduced his total subsidy payment by the amount Hedlin earned from the land, with the result that Hedlin had to pay his neighbor almost $9,000 in additional rent and basically work that 25 acres for nothing. It seems it’s illegal to grow fruit or vegetables on farmland that’s in a USDA commodity program.  Most US farmland is in some kind of commodity program, and if the growers plant something besides commodities–corn, wheat,  soybeans, rice, or cotton–they lose their subsidies, so mostly they don’t do it.  Farmers, like the rest of us, are fairly risk-averse.

This prohibition is strongly backed by the California and Florida Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Associations, who are not, thank you, interested in competition.  Never mind that California is a long way from everywhere else and running out of water, and Florida is in another corner of the country and probably about to receive too much water of the salty variety, them dogs are gonna hog the manger.  They don’t care about the future, it’s all about now.  We ain’t talking Eckhart Tolle here, we’re talking crying babies.

The “commodification” of U.S. agriculture is something to contemplate in its own right.  Most farmers grow, as I said, corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice.  Very little of this is eaten by humans in its unprocessed form–especially the cotton.  It is all either fed to animals or processed.  Wheat becomes baked goods and pasta, soybeans are fed to animals, pressed for oil, and turned into everything from margerine to plastic (well, maybe that’s not much of a leap).  Corn, too, is an animal feed, but corn is also pressed for oil and processed into high-fructose corn syrup, which, at least until the ethanol boom was created, (largely by act of a lobbyist-paid Congress) was cheaper than sugar, and largely replaced sugar in processed foods.  It also seems to be more fattening than sugar–rates of obesity and its accompanying diabetes and heart disease have risen along with the nation’s HFCS consumption.  So, most of the commodity subsidies that our taxes pay for go to large scale farmers (with an average annual income of around $90,000) to grow raw materials for what Michael Pollan has called “food-like substances”–if you wonder what I mean, go in your local grocery store and start reading lists of ingredients on processed foods.  What are you eating and where did it come from?

When it comes to fresh food, the USDA, in its infinite wisdom, is trying to take better care of you than you want them to.  Following reports of people getting the runs from drinking  raw apple cider (which, come on, is not a new phenomenon!), all apple cider must be pasteurized, an expensive process which  destroys not only the nutritional value of the raw juice, but also small, local cider mills.  There was a similar problem with raw almonds, due to one specific incident involving poor sanitation at a factory farm–so the USDA’s response was to mandate that almonds either be sterilized with a known carcinogen or lightly toasted, both expensive propositions that effectively cut small farmers off from the possibility of selling their harvest directly to consumers.

The dairy situation is the same.  I personally am pretty much vegan, so I have no dog in this fight, but some people want raw milk, and there are small farmers who take good care of their cows and milk them cleanly who are willing to sell it to them.  They are prevented from doing this by USDA regulations that presume that the farmer is dirty, ignorant, uncouth, and out to rip off his customers, and so all milk must be pasteurized in a very expensive setup that insures that milk distribution will only occur through large, centralized dairies who can afford a good lobbyist.  It’s the same with slaughterhouses–the rules are set up to favor the big players.  As the economy becomes increasingly creaky and long-distance transportation more of a luxury, laws like these will work to keep people from eating, rather than to protect them from danger.

And then there’s the so-called “National Animal Identification System,” which again seems specifically set up to pressure small farmers and homesteaders–big farmers can have one tag per herd, but if you’ve got a few cows and goats and a couple of hundred chickens and some ducks and turkeys, they each need a tag–and a lot of paperwork to go with it.

A year or two ago there was a big scare about e. coli in the country’s salad supply.  The USDA did something useful and sleuthed out what happened–a wild boar had taken a dump on some spinach plants, which got harvested and washed with a whole bunch of other spinach plants, and, lo and behold!  They all became infected with e. coli!  To me, this points up the foolishness of growing most of the country’s salad vegetables in a couple of counties in California, but to the USDA it means that they are floating regulations that will require fruit and vegetables to be irradiated  “for safety.”  “Irradiated for safety.”  War is peace, lies are truth…yeah, it’s right up there with that kind of rhetoric, isn’t it?

Such a requirement would effectively ban small-scale, local agriculture, not to mention what it would do to the quality of the food we eat.  It seems so bizarre and impractical that it’s hard to imagine that it could actually happen.  But hey, the big Ag boys have plenty of money, and they’re determined to do whatever it takes to protect their market.  Don’t misunderestimate them.

music: Greg Brown, “America Will Eat You”




One response

3 11 2008

[…] Mr. Smarty pants, where’s that expensive gasoline you were promising us?   Back in June, you […]

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