Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ongoing Evolution of Modern Agriculture

What I see happening is a dynamic redistribution of resources within the agricultural industry.  The inherited business model is both dying out and been reinvented at the local level.  We already have craft producers everywhere grabbing the premium end of the market and an expanding customer base supporting it.  The key has been that craft producers do not need a lot of land.

Let us put this in perspective.

An industrial grain farm operated by one family is lucky to gross $200 per acre.  The capital for this includes a lot of heavy machinery and handling equipment.  To take home a good income, the operator is hugely leveraged.

A custom chicken operator using five acres to grow free range chickens who buys low grade grain from our industrial farm and who butchers and properly packages his chicken can gross around $30,000 per acre.

That is why the brew business has hugely expanded and why the organic movement is shifting bad practice out of the agricultural world.

The hard thing for an outsider and many insiders to understand is that agriculture is an evolving industry led by tens of thousands of individuals who are well educated in the needs of their industry.

We have just been shown that organic is superior to industrial in all aspects.  This was done through a thirty year field trail.  I assure you that all agriculture will be organic over the next thirty years.  This is true survival of the fittest.

We continue to make halting steps toward establishing biochar as soil remediation.  Its presence will be shown to eliminate the need for fertilizer.  Inside the next century, I expect all working soils to have a ten percent elemental carbon content to eliminate any use of chemical fertilizers.

These are both revolutions as important as the original revolution is industrial farming.

Farming itself will begin to attract manpower as the modern world is able to deliver the benefits of the city to the farm.  This will open the floodgates to a rapid expansion of craft agriculture.    The moment you combine industrial methods with good husbandry you have a winning combination.

Great places, great food: part one

2 JUN 2011 2:59 PM

Is this your idea of a great place? Didn't think so.Photo: Robert Terrell

David Roberts has been sketching out a positive, unifying agenda for progressives under the banner of what he calls "great places." It isn't enough, David argues, to rail against the snarling philistinism of Sarah Palin or engage endlessly in the "decrepit political arguments that dominate U.S. politics." Instead, he urges us to:

see things with fresh eyes, to think anew about the unique challenges and opportunities of our historical moment. We're in a time of profound, rapid change and we need an agenda that looks to the future with purpose and confidence.

David's project resonates, because he's not pushing us to imagine some joyless future in which everyone grimly pursues maximum eco-virtue. Rather, he asks:

what if ecological activism meant figuring out how to make living together more fun?

What if "going green" meant making cities more sociable, exciting, rewarding places to live? What if, instead of making people feel guilty and give up things they like, your job as as a green activist was to delight them?

David asked me to weigh in with just such a vision on food. I do so with a heavy heart, because this marks the end of my tenure as a Grist staffer after nearly five years of proud duty. Startinmarg June 8, I'll be writing for Mother Jones. My time at Grist has given me a haven from which to think long and hard about the food system and its future, and to hone and refine my ideas by scribbling tens of thousands of words. For that I am endlessly grateful to my Grist colleagues, and also to everyone who has ever clicked on one of my posts. When I started at Grist in 2006, it seemed exotic and risky for an environmental 'zine to invest in a fulltime food writer. Today, the practice is commonplace. Grist's leaders and readers helped blaze that trail.

David's request is an opportunity to draw a rough sketch for what a sane food future might look like. Following an example he has set over many years, I have decided to break my thoughts on the topic into two posts. This need not be an exercise in crude utopianism -- the practice of imagining a "no place" (literal translation of utopia from Greek) that has never existed and has no direct relationship with the world as it is. To engage in such thinking is to enter the realm of fantasy. A more robust utopian strategy can be found in Marx (whose own utopian musings were actually pretty scant and vague) in his wonderful essay "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte": "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past."

So, there's no clean historical break; we do our best, we try to move forward, working with what we've got. With that insight in mind, I'll start by looking at how the food system as currently structured creates the opposite of "great places"; then, in part two, I'll move to some alternatives that are emerging to it, and speculate on how those alternatives might be bolstered into something like general reality.

Our food system is characterized by massive and increasing consolidation. At the top of the heap sits a handful of mega-retailers. In 1992, the eight largest players rung up about a quarter of all retail grocery sales in the United States. By 2008, they were snatching fully half of all sales, the USDA reports. What happened in between was the emergence of Walmart as a grocery player in the early 1990s. The company immediately imposed its "everyday low prices" business model on food, and promptly set about doing to its food suppliers what it had already done to makers of brooms and dish drainers: relentlessly squeeze them on price.

As a result, food suppliers have had to scale up in response. The most notorious example is meat, where just four companies -- Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Cargill -- now essentially control the marketin beef, pork, and chicken. But other examples abound. In breakfast cereals, snacks, soda, and beer, just four companies own 75 percent or more of the market. And a single company, Dean Foods, processes about a third of fluid milk.

I've written plenty about the dire environmental and public-health effects of this hyperconsolidation. Squeezed on price, companies scramble to slash costs in order to maintain quarterly profit growth -- and that pressure encourages them to cut corners on things like sanitation and pollution control.

But consider the effect on communities and the job market. Again, meat makes a telling example. In the wake of publication of The Jungle in 1906, the U.S. meat industry underwent a variety of reforms, one of which was the unionization of slaughterhouses. By mid-century, the meatpacking industry provided a proper middle-class living to thousands of Americans. As Human Rights Watch put it in its excellent 2005 report "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants":

For about forty years in the middle of the twentieth century, from the 1930s to the 1970s, meatpacking workers' pay and conditions improved. Master contracts covering the industry raised wages and safety standards. In the 1960s and 1970s, meatpacking workers' pay and conditions approximated those of auto, steel, and other industrial laborers who worked hard in their plants and through their unions to attain steady jobs with good wages and benefits. Meatpackers' wages remained substantially higher than the average manufacturing sector wage -- 15 percent higher in 1960, 19 percent higher in 1970, 17 percent higher in 1980.
Today, of course, after decades of union-busting and consolidation, meatpacking jobs rank among the very lowest paid and most dangerous -- indeed, conditions have gotten so dire that the Human Rights Watch, usually fixated on the misdeeds of tinpot dictators, saw fit to issue that scathing report.

And as the meatpackers consolidated and waged war on labor in order to protect profit margins, it wasn't just slaughterhouse workers who paid the price. An entire trade has evaporated: that of the butcher. A half century ago, virtually every community and even neighborhood in America supported an independent butcher shop. In Manhattan at mid-century, "there was a butcher on every block of Broadway in Manhattan from 100th Street down to the 60s," reports Pete Wells in Food and Winemagazine. Then, as supermarkets began to gobble up market share, butcher shops came under severe pressure, and skilled butchers migrated from their own shops to the supermarket meat counter. Today, supermarkets have largely dispensed with skilled butchers altogether -- they rely heavily on "case-ready" meat from the the giant meatpackers. Wells reports:

"The butchers used to be the highest-paid guys in the store," says Bruce Aidells, who wroteThe Complete Meat Cookbook. "Now clerks put the meat on the shelves and they get the same low wage as everybody else." It might seem that the butchers have simply moved from the stores to the slaughterhouses, but in fact meat packers have perfected an assembly-line system in which unskilled workers repeat a single cutting motion all day long.

All across the food industry, the story has been the same: the systematic de-skilling of labor and the resulting plunge in wages. Job growth in the restaurant industry has far outstripped that of the broader economy, a report [PDF] from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United shows; but wages have lagged badly. Today, the national median hourly wage for food preparation and service workers stands at just $8.89 including tips -- and nearly 90 percent of industry workers lack health insurance. If any group in the entire economy has it worse than restaurant employees or slaughterhouse workers, it would have to be farm workers.

What have we gained from this systematic pauperization of the food-industry work force? True, food as a percentage of income is cheaper here than anywhere else on the planet; but what about quality and public health? As I've shown before, access to cheap food does not translate to higher quality of life -- in fact, quite the opposite. Measured in terms of pure cost, Walmart has brought great efficiency to the food system. But even if you fetishize cost efficiency as the measure of success, can you really get excited about grocery shopping at a Walmart? Does the rise of mega food-retailing build robust communities that people value -- or represent the erasure of communities?

Our food system has evolved into a vehicle for impoverishing workers and transferring vast sums of wealth from communities to shareholders in a few large companies, all the while churning out huge amounts of health-destroying food. But food can also be a tool to build health and wealth within communities -- and indeed is doing just that in localities throughout the country and across the globe. And that is the topic of part two.
Former Grist staffer Tom Philpott now writes for Mother Jones.

Great places, great food (and beer): part two 

3 JUN 2011 5:00 AM

You can't have a great place without great beer.In part one of my musings on food and "great places," I painted a bleak picture of the U.S. food landscape: one in which a handful of companies churn out mountains of low-quality food, competing not to see who can put out the best product, but rather to see who can most deftly and deeply slash costs. The fixation on cost-cutting gives rise to all manner of dysfunctions, including the erasure of skilled food trades like that of the butcher and the rise of a vast, low-wage, low-skill army of food-system workers. 

Indeed, I'd wager that a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the food system -- balancing the benefits of cheap and plentiful food against costs like unchecked pollution, diet-related maladies, public-health concerns like antibiotic resistance, and the effects of chronically low wages -- would find that food today is a net drain on the resources of most communities throughout the nation. 

A broad look at the culinary landscape reveals devastation on many levels -- mountains of flavorless chicken breasts harboring multiple varieties of antibiotic-resistant pathogens; boatloads of insipid tomatoes harvested by people making sub-poverty wages and housed in conditions not unlike those of Apartheid-era South Africa; suburban landscapes pockmarked by endless carbon-copy outlets selling such suspect fare.

But the big picture isn't the only picture. Our food system is actively generating dreadful places, but if you hone in, you'll also find that all throughout the country, people are creating great places based around food, too. Corporations wield plenty of power in this country, but they don't control everything. Even as hyper-consolidation of the food industry lurches forward, citizens are creating their own alternatives on the ground.

To illustrate my point, let's look in an unexpected corner of the culinary world: beer. (Don't smirk -- can there be great places where there isn't great beer?) By 2004, Anheuser-Busch brewed fully 45 percent of the beer consumed in the U.S. The Budweiser maker and its two largest competitors, Miller SAB and Adolph Coors, controlled about 80 percent of the market. Then, in 2007, Miller and Coors (which had already merged with Canadian beer giant Molson) combined to become MillerCoors. So now just two companies produce eight of every 10 beers consumed here. The product is inferior -- they cut beer's traditional staple ingredient, malted barley, with rice for the express purpose of making the beer bland. 

And yet, look what's happened in the U.S. brew market over the past 30 years:

As recently as 1980, fewer than 50 gigantic brew facilities produced all of the beer consumed in the United States. Nearly all of it was horrible. Lovers of good beer were relegated to the tiny import section of the beer case, or to making their own. Today, there are more than 1,700 breweries in operation -- we've returned to the pre-Prohibition peak (granted, when the U.S. population was much smaller).

What happened? Put simply, a critical mass of people got sick of drinking corporate swill. A home-brew revolution was launched, and some of those home brewers got really good at their craft and opened small breweries. As those small regional breweries flourished, the circle of people who enjoy a good beer widened -- drawing more craft brewers into the market. In 1980, the U.S. brew industry was the scandal of the beer world, its products universally scorned by beer aficionados. Today, walk into a bottle shop like Carborro Beverage outside of Chapel Hill, N.C., or Brooklyn's gloriousBierkraft, and you'll find dozens and dozens of excellent U.S. beers, representing a dizzying variety of styles. Even as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors continue dominating the overall market and churning out gazillions of gallons of their dismal product, U.S. brewers represent the global avant-garde, providing inspiration to new-wave beer-makers even in countries with strong beer traditions like Belgium and England. Here in the U.S., consumers have more beer choices than ever.

There are a couple of "great places" lessons to be drawn here. First, regionality. Who wants to live in a country where the food and beer is the same wherever you go, as nondescript as a Walmart looming at the edge of a suburban freeway? Our new-wave beer culture is helping revive something that has been eroding for a century in this country: regional identity. When I travel, I can now think in terms of beer-sheds. Here is just a sampling: Stone, Green Flash, and Port in Southern California; Lost Coast, Russian River, and Lagunitas in the north of the state; Bells and Founders in the upper Midwest; Five Points and Brooklyn Brewery in New York City; Highland, Duck Rabbit, and Craggie here in North Carolina; and so on. All of them are world-class breweries, and none of them existed in the pre-1980 Dark Ages. You can now go nearly anywhere in the country and experience a robust and varied local beer culture.

There's also an economy-related "great places" aspect here. I don't want to live in a place where a small class of "knowledge workers" flourishes, catered to by a large and de-skilled "service" class that's barely able to scrape by. In my vision of a great place, economic prosperity is shared broadly, and communities benefit from the presence of skilled artisans producing a variety of things in their midst. 

By 1980, the brewer trade had essentially disappeared in the U.S. Production happened at a few mega-breweries, overseen by engineers and staffed by low-skill factory workers. That model still has plenty of momentum, but the brewing revolution has reestablished the brewing trade. Virtually all of the 1,700-plus craft breweries in the U.S. are overseen by a skilled brewer. According to theBrewers Association, the craft brew industry now supports more than 100,000 jobs -- none of which would have existed today if everyone had been satisfied with what they were swilling back in 1980. 

And we've barely tapped the economic potential of de-corporatizing our beer supply. After 30 years of explosive growth, craft beer still represents just 4.9 percent of the U.S. market. In other words, there's plenty of opportunity for new generations of skilled brewers to ply their trade.

Moreover, craft beer is starting to become more intimately knit into regional agricultural economies. Right now, barley and hops -- two of beer's main ingredients -- are grown in mono-cultures concentrated in a few places. Craft breweries in the Northeast typically source these staples on the same commodity markets as those in, say, Southern California. Malting barley requires special facilities and skills -- and as the malting industry consolidated right along with the beer business, all of that evaporated. But imagine the economic benefits if barley and hop production were to spread out again. When you enjoyed a pint at your local pub, you'd not only be supporting your neighborhood bartender and brewmaster, but also nearby farmers and workers at the local malthouse.

Just such a vision is coming into place here in North Carolina. In the wake of the 2008 spike in wheat prices, a group of artisanal bakers and farmers launched the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project, designed to reestablish wheat and other grains on the state's farmland and connect farmers directly with the burgeoning artisanal bakery and craft-brew scene. Such a revival of grain agriculture -- for decades concentrated in the Midwest -- cannot happen without the very processing infrastructure that has been dismantled over the past half century. This coming fall, the project plans to roll out the state's second mid-scale flour mill, called Carolina Ground in the western part of state, and it's partnering with a business called Riverbend Malthouse, which plans to roll out its malting facility this fall, too. Those two facilities will join Lindley Mills, which grinds organic graion into flour in Graham, N.C., near Chapell Hill. In 1980, every dollar you spent on bread or beer essentially leaked out of your state's economy, supporting a few low-wage jobs but mainly just profits for mega-processors. It's likely that within a couple of years, every dollar you spend on a good beer or loaf of bread in North Carolina will reverberate through the state's economy, supporting a range of skilled craftspeople and farmers. As that money circulates through communities, it creates opportunities to support other skilled trades -- the brewmaster can afford to shop at the farmers market instead of the chain grocery, and so on. Such models are eminently adaptable to regions across the country.

I've focused on beer for this post because I love it and haven't had much chance to write about it; but I could have settled on any number of sectors within the alternative-food economy. In part one, I complained that the rise of gigantic meat processors had stamped out the butcher trade, once a solidly middle-class and high-skill occupation. Well, the butcher trade, too, is in the midst of a revival, intimately linked to the surge in grass-based, small- and mid-scale meat farming that's taking place throughout the country. The same, of course, can be said of vegetable farming as we move from relying on vast, water-sucking, labor-exploiting operations in California to far-flung, human-scale farms that provide us with seasonal produce adapted to our own regions. 

To me, food is integral to the concept of "great places." It represents the opportunity to rescue our culinary culture from the clutches of corporate flavor engineers and replace it with something that ties us to landscapes around us and to the skills of our neighbors. Economically, it represents the opportunity to revalue labor, and create economies based on respect and care, not exploitation and the race to the bottom. 

There are many obstacles between present reality and my vision of a delicious food future, chief among them the lack of infrastructure -- as I've written so many times before, including in my very first column as a Grist staffer in 2006. But as the story of craft beer shows, things can change for the better fast -- especially when people band together in pursuit of deliciousness.

Former Grist staffer Tom Philpott now writes for Mother Jones.

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