Monday, July 31, 2006

Sheer volume

Two things quickly come to mind when people visit with me about the many virtues of organic food production; can organic production supply the kind of sheer volume required in the world each day; and what is the carbon footprint of food transportation if you have to haul organic food long distances to get it to market?

I've been poking around for some data on the carbon footprint question and maybe I'll find some I can visit about. But when it comes to supplying the kind of food volume needed in the world every day, I'm thinking a wholesale shift to organic practices would create a wreck.

You can research and apply many best management practices to organic production to increase yields and produce quality. Fighting weeds in organic schemes, for example, uses such tools as crop rotation and tillage to reduce weed pressure. You may also go out and pull weeds by hand.

But when you're out there hoeing and pulling are you gardening or farming? On a small plot of land intensively lorded over, the hoe and hand weed process are fine. Scale up such production and you scale up your labor needs. I'm all for hiring people but I'd like to hire people at a living wage and not have my business depend on exploitation to gain a profit.

Somewhere I read that a rotation of commodity crops such as corn, beans, wheat, alfalfa, and so forth keeps the weeds and other pests common to each from gaining a foothold and thus pressure from weeds and pests is reduced.

Makes some sense. But I think you're going to get a yield drop compared to crops grown with what we're now calling conventional means. The application of fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides are risk reduction tools as well as labor reduction tools. Imperfect as these tools are, their use reduces risks from the pests threatening crops.

Practices that reduce and eliminate the use of pesticides are great by me. But I'm not very interested in sending the whole world back to subsistence farming. Rejecting science and technology in food production is a risky notion.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Meat eaters

A response to this:

It’s been a long time since I’ve lopped the head off a chicken, been involved in slitting a pig’s throat or peeled the hide back on a steer carcass. Those things were done so the family could have food in storage and to keep hard earned cash at home to meet other needs.

When I was involved in killing an animal for food, I always wished someone else would do it. There was no moral objection; we took good care of our animals and there always was a sense of respect and reverence for the whole process.

Yet it wasn’t something I looked forward to. Yes, the eating later was necessary and also done after a prayer and a thought about the animals providing for our sustenance. Still, butchering was something I’d sooner not have to do.

When we found someone who’d come to the farm and do the butchering for us, we went that route. Later, we’d take the animals to a small plant outside of town and have the butchering done there coming back in a few days to pick up the wrapped and frozen meat.

That was the progression. There were people around better at raising hogs than us, too. And chickens. Pretty soon the hogs and chickens disappeared from the farm. We were good at dairy cows so we got more cows.

Neighbors who didn’t have cows would stop by and pick up milk, fresh raw milk right out of our cooler. This was a long time ago and I don’t know if our practice was legal or not. I grew up drinking raw milk. Thought little about it at the time.

Hassles came about. The taste of the milk would change with a change of feed or pasture and our neighbor customers would note and complain. Once the meat that came back from the butcher couldn’t have come from the animal we hauled over there. Then it happened again.

People were changing. In the increasing hubbub it was harder to stop by and pick up milk when you could get it at a store and be on your way home. Then there was a story about a bunch of people getting sick at a church picnic from drinking fresh, raw milk provided by a farmer from the congregation.

We started pasteurizing the milk we used at home. What a chore and it didn’t last long so we assumed the risk of raw milk and went on. But we weren’t going to sell any out of the tank any more even if asked.

As time passed, our acres of corn and soybeans increased. The old barn was maxed out for cow capacity. The family was getting older and us kids were getting to the stage when we might start adding kids of our own. For the farm to support dad and his two sons we’d need more cows. My calculations said we’d need 50 cows for each family. In other words we needed facilities for 150 cows instead of the 40 we had.

Dad had had enough. He was getting old and wanted out and didn’t have much interest in taking on the debt it’d require to build such facilities. He didn’t want us to become farmers because he figured there were better ways to make a living and all he had to do was point to the increasing commuter traffic going by the place morning and afternoon.

It’s funny now to see people squealing about regulations preventing them from selling raw milk. I marvel at a story about someone’s fight to slaughter cattle at home and market the meat. The outrage about USDA and state bureaucrats being involved in agriculture for the sole benefit of corporate masters amazes me.

My entire life I’ve encouraged people to buy food locally. All along I’ve cheered for producers willing to take the risk and do the work to direct market. I like it when people can have a say in how their food is produced. It’s thrilling to see local food systems growing and maturing all over the country.

But let’s not promote assumptions as facts. We are where we are today not as the result of some nasty conspiracy. We’re where we are today because as a social system, we’ve advanced away from subsistence agriculture.

Most of us would sooner someone else would lop the head off the chicken.