Sunday, March 9, 2008

Weekend Update

Imagine a world where a few far-flung states get to dictate to the rest of us how we get our fruits and vegetables. Imagine a world where corporate food giants hundreds of miles distant get to tell small farmers where they can and cannot plant the tomatoes and zucchini destined for the local farmers market.

A world where Industrial Agriculture finally achieves the power to stifle and stamp out the growth of local food production sounds like the end game in some futuristic, nightmare food fight.

Well, it's time to wake up, America, because the nightmare is now.

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times exposes how growers in huge produce states such as California, Texas and Florida are able to put the breaks on local food production all over the country through their government lackey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's all done via our own taxpayer-supported system for subsidizing commodity crops (corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, cotton) and a bizarre labyrinth of federal rules.

As Minnesota farmer Jack Hedin discovered, trying to plant vegetables on any of the land normally reserved for those commodity crops incurs huge penalties. Congressional delegations from the big produce state have put the kibosh on any attempt to ease the restrictions. It all sounds like the kind of state-against-state economic exploitation that at one time would have started a civil war.

Hedin tried to supplement production for his booming business in local produce by renting 25 acres from nearby corn farms. He plowed under the alfalfa that was established there and proceeded to plant watermelons, tomatoes and vegetables for the local market. Only later did he learn that by planting vegetables on land that had been designated as corn acreage, he had run afoul of the federal government's commodity crop program.

The farmers who rented him the land not only had to forfeit the usual government subsidy that year for the 25 corn acres, there was a penalty to be paid equal in value to Hedin's illicit vegetable crop. In addition to a paperwork nightmare, the farmers also stood to lose permanently any future subsidies for those acres under the federal rules.

Hedin was forced to cover the damage.

"In my case," Hedin wrote in the Times, "that meant I paid my landlords $8,771 — for one season alone! And this was in a year when the high price of grain meant that only one of the government’s three crop-support programs was in effect; the total bill might be much worse in the future.

"In addition, the bureaucratic entanglements that these two farmers faced at the Farm Service office were substantial. The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables."

Midwestern legislators have proposed some flexibility to these rules in the nation's Farm Bill. But congressmen from the big producer states have made quashing any changes their number one priority. So far, they've succeeded.

Local farmers, say hello to your real daddy.


Who knew bakers had their own discussion board?

Trip over to Sam Fromartz's Chews Wise blog and you'll see that the bakers are in an uproar over the spike in wheat prices. Thanks to the wacky, government-sponsored scheme to turn food crops such as corn into fuel for automobiles, the price of commodity crops is soaring. Sam reports that wheat prices have surged 34 percent in the last year to a record $12 a bushel, with supplies at a 60-year low.

That's no fun for bakers, whose business revolves around wheat flour. Here are some of the discussion board comments Sam posted on his blog:

"Alberta Red winter (ARW) which I was paying $12.00 (20kg bag) for a year ago will be $27.00 for tomorrow's delivery. Every delivery it is going up."

"I too now join the ranks of the flour pricing oppressed. My supplier just raised my price for a 50 lb bag of GM All Trump from $17.55 to $29.95. Yes, the end may be near. Maybe I can be a barista next!"

"My spring wheat just went from $15.90 for a 50 lb. bag to $24.50 for 50 lbs. This is really crazy. I have called every flour supplier in my area and they are telling me to prepare for much higher prices than the $24.50 I am currently paying. The forecast by two of these suppliers was $30.00 a bag by April."

Rising food prices have prompted protests and riots in other parts of the world. The Retail Bakers Association announced that it is planning a march on Washington, "to let our government officials know that there is a “CRISIS” happening to bakers of every type and size," according to a press release on the association's website. "Commodities prices for every item we use are out of control and rising faster then we could ever hope to catch them. If there is not some type of relief many small businesses will not survive."

I wonder if this will be anything like the protests in France, where dairy farmers dump their milk in the streets. Will we see baguettes rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue?


Those very same soaring commodity prices apparently are forcing dairy farmers to think twice about switching from conventional to organic milk production.

Demand for organic milk has been booming, but not enough to keep up with the price of feeding the cows. Switching from conventional to organic requires that farmers take cows out of production for a certain period of time after they are introduced to organic feed.

Add in the rising prices farmers are receiving for conventional milk and the odds are now stacked against organic.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average price producers paid farmers for milk in February was $19.68 per counterweight, the industry measurement for fluid milk. A year ago, farmers received $13.39 per counterweight.

An Associated Press report quotes Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producer's Alliance, as saying the supply of organic milk has already started to drop. Last fall, Maltby said, there was an excess of organic milk on the market. Now, supply is merely balancing demand.

Any way you look at it, consumers are paying more for milk.


The New York Times today devotes a front-page spread to the spiking costs of food woldwide, attributing the increases to "diet globalization"--increasing wealth chasing after a richer diet. As a result, some experts see the uptick in prices for basic commodities as possibly a permanent phenomenon.

"Wheat prices have doubled in the last six months. Corn is on a tear. Barley, sunflower seeds, canola and soybeans are all up sharly," says the Times. "American agricultural exports are expecte to increase 23 percent this year to $101 billion, a record. The world's grain stockpiles have fallen to the lowest levels in decades."

The result is an infusion of new cash on U.S. farms, with expectations that land previously set aside for conservation could soon be plowed to meet demand. Somewhat more ominously, there may not be enough land to meet the growing demand.

"Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe," said Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource Company, a chicago consultancy. "But if they do, we're going to need another two or three globes to grow it all."


On the subject of milk, it appears that legislation that would have banned labels in Kansas from stating that certain milk is not derived from cows injected with bovine growth hormone is dead--at least for the moment.

You'll recall the case in Pennsylvania where the state agriculture secretary wanted to ban such labels on the theory that indicating some milk did not come from cows injected with bovine growth hormone might imply there was something wrong with milk that did come from hormone-treated cows. The move raised such a ruckus among milk purists that the governor had to step in and quash the proposed labeling changes.

Similar efforts to prohibit hormone labeling have been cropping up around the country. They would mostly benefit Monsanto, the maker of the hormone, which insists that consumers needn't know whether the milk they drink comes from cows with man-made growth hormones coursing through their veins.

Congratulations, Kansas!

Meanwhile, this recent piece in AlterNet tells all the reasons you should know whether the milk you're drinking comes from cows treated with growth hormones. (Hint: Monsanto really doesn't want you to know what happens to the cows.)


Finally, you've heard me rant plenty about some downsides of trying to become a locavore. Like the $6.95-a-pound pork shoulder at the local farmers market, compared to the $3.49-a-pound shoulder from Whole Foods. Or the $6 head of broccoli.

Well, maybe it's time to hear someone else rant. Heath Putnam, who raises Mangalitsa pigs in rural Washington State and writes the Wooly Pigs blog, recently had quite a few things to say about local foods and what he sees as Americans' irrational food preferences.

"My biggest problem with the 'buy local' mentality is that it is anti-quality concept that can't work in America," Putnam writes. "Given our goal of producing the absolute best pork we can, the odds that we can sell it all 'locally' are zero. If we wanted to sell our stuff locally, we'd have to cut lots of corners to make it affordable for our broke neighbors who live near our farm."

Putnam has quite a lot to say about the inefficiencies of small, local food production:

"There's the argument that vegetables produced on a small farm, marketed in a nearby area require less fuel than ones from big agribusiness. I don't believe that. In America, almost all farms are more than 30 miles outside of cities. The farmers who live on those farms drive to and from the farm every day to buy supplies. They produce an economically insignificant amount of vegetables, which require a huge amount of fuel to market. They also dump all their garbage on their farms, illegally. Usually they burn some too, which is also illegal."

Putnam and his blog have been widely hailed in the food blogosphere for shining a light on efforts to raise superior pork on American soil. Needless to say, his rant on local food and other trends created quite a stir. In fact, it has taken Putnam several blog posts to give sufficient air to the discussion. Start with the original post here.

One of Putnam's more recent posts is a boast about selling some of his Mangalitsa pork to a Donal Trump resort in Florida. Hey, isn't that on the other side of the country? Apparently, that's what happens when a "local" pig farmer makes really good pork.

Bon appetit...

No comments: