Big Food, Little Food

harvest-1A food system organized around subsidized monocultures of corn and soy … guzzled tremendous amounts of fossil fuel … and in the process emitted tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas. … the types of food that can be made from all that subsidized corn and soy … bears a large measure of responsibility for the steep rise in health care costs.”

Big Food Strikes Back by Michael Pollen, The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2016

From the highway I can see the rows and rows spanning the vast fields of crops, some of which I can identify. Alfalfa, winter wheat, maybe potatoes, corn. Occasionally, we pass a small farmhouse, usually abandoned and forlorn-looking. Another small farm family that didn’t make it and sold out to Big Ag.

Michael Pollen describes it this way:

“Big Food is … the $1.5 trillion industry that grows, rears, slaughters, processes, imports, packages, and retails most of the foods that Americans eat.”

Big Food includes Big Ag, primarily the corn- and soybean-industrial complex, plus growers of commodity crops, plus their suppliers; Big Meat is all the animals funneled into the tiny number of companies that ultimately process most of the meat we eat and the raw ingredients for the packaged food sector; Packaged Food that transforms commodity crops into processed foods; and Big Retail/Fast-food where consumers get the food.

Pollen again, “Each sector is dominated by a remarkably small number of gigantic firms.”

From 1940 to 1980 the number of farms halved; however, the average farm size tripled. Big Ag is responsible for 80 percent of the food sales in the United States, though they make up fewer than eight percent of all farms.

The Depression created conditions that fed these changes. In the pre-WWII years, tractors became the source of the majority of the horsepower available on American farms, replacing large numbers of draft animals and freeing up the land required for their feed and pasturage for market crops. Commodity markets and national farm policies impacted the way food was grown and how much it cost. Refrigerators (with freezers) and supermarkets changed the way consumers bought food and what they bought. Nutrition science and convenience foods helped to make eating safer and easier. By the end of WWII, women didn’t have to spend most of their day cooking.

In this transition, there was also a tremendous shift in the population from rural to urban residences. In 1900, forty percent of the US population lived on farms, with twenty percent more in rural areas. In 2016, only one percent of the US population live on farms, and a total of twenty percent live in rural areas.

This rapid urbanization has come with all kinds of issues, including traffic, pollution and social difficulties. On the other hand, a rural community I worked with complained of poor medical services, insufficient pupils to justify maintaining local schools, and family disruption due to parents being forced to work out of town and kids forced to leave home to find jobs. Limited opportunities for education or employment, and limited availability of goods and services makes rural living challenging.

Several other factors complicate the viability of small farms. Jayson Lusk reports that technologies and production practices have significantly lowered the use of energy and water. US crop production is now twice what it was in 1970, using half the labor and 16 percent less land. That makes it hard for small farms to compete.

Lusk says, “Large farmers … are among the most progressive, technologically savvy growers on the planet. Their technology has helped make them far gentler on the environment than at any time in history. And a new wave of innovation makes them more sustainable still.”

Molly Harbarger states, “Farmers are aging, with the average now near 60. Beginning growers can’t afford the skyrocketing land prices to replace the older generation. And that’s opening the way for investment firms and out-of-state companies to scoop up tracts from retiring farmers….When big-money corporations move in, it drives up the price for farmers who are looking to start their own operation, but don’t have the capital to compete.”

Many, however, decry the loss to local economies, including local jobs, local markets and local suppliers. Nellie McAdams, Rogue Farm Corps, noted, “We see it (local farms) as a statewide economic driver, but also a keystone to rural communities. Not only economically, but also socially.”

I remember back in the 1960’s and ’70’s the hippies were calling for a Back-To-The-Land movement. Communes were formed and there was a call for people to move to rural properties and grow food from the land on a small-scale basis, whether for themselves or for others. Publications like the Whole Earth Catalog and The Mother Earth News, promoted ways to create and maintain the small farm lifestyle. It was exciting to imagine the bucolic life, tending goats and growing your own food; unfortunately, most of the disciples of this movement were from the suburbs and big cities and were not prepared to deal with the rigors of small farm life (such as milking the pigs early on a cold, cold morning).

One attraction of the Back-To-The-Land movement was the creation of community. Many kids from the big city and suburbs were looking for something that they could be a part of, and what they had seen at home wasn’t it. The concept is still alive, though, and there is still a yearning for the small farm/rural community life. The social value of small towns is immeasurable and shouldn’t be allowed to die out.

Michael Pollen observed, “The power of the food movement is the force of its ideas and the appeal of its aspirations – to build community, to reconnect us with nature and to nourish both our health and the health of our land … Looking for options better aligned with their values, [eaters] have created, purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food. Call it Little Food.”

So, maybe there’s hope for the small farm/rural life. We see it in the opportunities presented by high-value foods, farmer’s markets, locavore interests and legal marijuana. Maybe one day, the view on my drive across the country will feature both Big Food and Little Food. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

References: Big Food Strikes Back, Michael Pollen, The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2016

Industrial Farms Have Gone Green, Jayson Lusk, New York Times, September 25, 2016

The Depression Was Great for the American Kitchen, Megan McArdle (Bloomberg View), The Denver Post, October 2, 2016

Farms Face Land Crisis, New Report Says, Molly Harbarger, The Oregonian, October 16, 2016

Boulder Hopes To Lure Next Generation, Charlie Howard, Special to the Daily Camera, Denver Post, June 27, 2016

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