Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The End of Farming

Last night I paid a visit to our friends Keith and Janice who, for almost the last month, have been taking care of our guinea pig, Shadow. The pig was in the pink of health, and Keith ever so thoughtfully had purchased a big bag of Timothy hay. But not just any kind of hay. No, this was organic Timothy hay.

I couldn't help but chuckle to myself at what seems a bit ironic. Or perhaps just a bit ironic to me. Last week the New York Times opined that we may be on the cusp of the demise of traditional farming as we know it. Not just more family farms going under in an Isn't it Sad kind of way, but the end of individual farming, period. This because of the rapidly escalating price of farmland, due in large part--you guessed it--to the rush to make ethanol.

The boom in ethanol to fuel automobiles, a wasteful, polluting and energy-stupid technology supported and even spurred by our own government, has helped double the price of corn, resulting in record corn planting and now a rush to buy more land on which to plant corn. In addition to driving up the cost of food here in the U.S., creating a tortilla crisis in Mexico, and promising to widen the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by artificial fertilizers, ethanol is now putting farm land out of reach to anyone who might have thought of starting a farm or adding to his acreage.

What the Times foresees is a point in the not-so-distant future when all farming operations will fall into the hands of huge agriculture conglomerates and investment syndicates. The trends are heading in that direction: the average age of farmers in this country is somewhere around 65. Young people just don't want the hassles. Farm products are becoming ever more commoditized, driving prices down on the production end, meaning less income for farmers. The processing of farm products is becoming ever more consolidated and distant, meaning higher expenses on the production end and thus less income for farmers. Local zoning and land use laws hardwire the development of sprawling strip malls, parking lots and roadways, eating up farm land and further increasing the premium on acreage.

With land prices escalating, farmers--what's left of them--are caught in a vice grip. The act of farming, meanwhile, becomes ever more industrial and impersonal. The use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides increases, destroying the soil, eroding it, sending it out to sea. We are, in short, through our government and our taxes--through our indifference to the land and our allegiance to the automobile above all else--dismantling our heritage of local farming in the most pernicious fashion.

So when people say they're buying "organic," I have to chuckle, in a sad sort of way. Yes, there may be more of us every day choosing organic, choosing to buy local. But we are a small minority. The feeling I get is that the vast majority of our countrymen--our leaders, even--really could not give a damn. We are slipping ever so inexoribly into a Soilent Green future where we won't have any idea where dinner came from, and the family SUV will be running on corn.

2 comments:

Joanna said...

SO depressing ... and yet we all carry on driving our cars. You can't help feeling, though, that the world would be a better place if more people cooked their dinner from scratch each day ...

Joanna

Magic Cochin said...

Big sigh from me too ... I can feel a rant coming on but sense I'm in good compnay ...
I almost scream in dispair when I hear people in our village wax lyrical about how in France you can buy local food in the markets, and isn't it great when the "French Market" comes to our local town - do they ever shop at the monthly (and absolutely excellent) farmers' market a couple of villages away - NO they've never bothered, and have heard it's expensive!!! And they're all looking forward to the new supermarket coming to the local town and the bargains you can get at the cut-price superstore - 10 eggs for 70p.
I need to go out to the veg patch to calm down ....