The food movement's success so far has come, in large part, from its ability to link rural and urban interests. It brought together people who wanted to help farmers and the environment with those who wanted to fight hunger and provide healthier food.
That powerful partnership persuaded governments (notably the federal government) and nonprofits to put some of its ideas to the test. We’ve now reached a critical moment where we can see the results of those tests -- and decide what’s working.
The effort to create a market to support alternative agriculture is really working: Organic sales have grown 25 times over since 1990. But the attempts to bring good food to the poor have had mixed results.
Journalist Heather Gilligan recently took a steely-eyed look at these results and determined that the idea that we could improve health by bringing food into poor neighborhoods has failed.
President Obama signed the farm bill today, bringing to a close a legislative odyssey. The president made it official at Michigan State University, apparently as a nod to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who midwifed the law into existence. Michigan State is also one of the institutions that will be doing basic ag research funded by the bill.
Grist started covering the voyage of the "2012 Farm Bill" (ha!) back in 2011. Early on, there were rumors that Congress would pass a quick farm bill in a couple of weeks. Instead it took a couple of years: The legislation still had to languish among the lotus eaters and sneak past the cyclops.
Now that it has become a law, many of its programs will run for five years, setting a stage for a new law in 2019 ... ish.
For much of its history, the meat company Tyson defined itself as a family farm. Doing so allowed the company to pay workers less than minimum wage, dodge lawsuits, and get creative in its accounting. Farmers were allowed to do cash-basis accounting, which gave Tyson the leeway to claim to the IRS it was losing money year after year. But the company also kept another set of books, for investors, which showed profits. By claiming to be a primitive farming outfit, without the sophistication to keep proper records, it was able to keep $26.5 million out of the government's hands before 1985, when the company was struggling for dominance.
Farming is actually the one thing that Tyson doesn’t do -- as a new book-length investigation details. The company owns chicken breeders, hatcheries, feed companies, veterinary services, and slaughterhouses. The only part of poultry production that Tyson doesn’t own is the farms.
In the 1960s, Tyson tried running its own farms, but that experiment failed. The land was expensive and so were the chicken houses, which rapidly lost value as equipment wore out. And then there was the problem of labor: It was almost impossible to motivate workers to get up in the middle of the night to tinker with broken fans or wade through the stench of shit to pick up dead birds.
Contract farmers provided the solution to this labor problem. These farmers were highly motivated because they were nominally independent. Often, the farmers had bet their entire family’s savings on the chicken houses. They didn’t mind getting up throughout the night, or laboring 14-hour days, because they were working for themselves.
Or so they assumed. Christopher Leonard, the former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press, makes a strong case that contract farmers are more securely in Tyson’s thrall than paid employees.
A few years ago, I bought a little share in a dairy farm so I could receive my own portion of creamy Jersey milk. Each week I’d fish a heavy Mason jar out from under a blanket of tinkling ice cubes. It was delicious, and when it went off it only got better: mixed with scalloped potatoes, salt, and onions, the fermenting milk transformed in the oven into cheesy ambrosia.
But there was a big problem with this milk: It waited for me on the other side of town. It took me a little over an hour to fetch it by car. I know because I didn’t have a car at the time, and so I’d rent a Zipcar and try to run the errand in under an hour. Then the farm started asking for members to drive out regularly to do chores. That was too much for me. I bailed out and went back to buying milk at Safeway.
The experience taught me to appreciate the middleman -- someone who, for a reasonable fee, handles the logistics and transportation. Middlemen get a lot of grief. There are thousands of ads that exhort you to “cut out the middleman!” From the outside, the middleman just looks like a barrier between the consumer and low wholesale prices. But for small food producers, having a middleman can dramatically expand the number of eaters who can buy their stuff.
Middlemen might also help farmers fill the missing middle of our food system. Right now we have big farms that move their food to market with industrial efficiency, and we have little farms that rely on dedicated eaters to drive out over the potholes, but we don’t have much in between. In part, that’s because those companies that efficiently move trainloads of grain to market think making a trip to pick up a dozen pounds of salad greens is, ahem, just radicchio.
After much delay, debate, and rending of garments, the farm bill is now just a presidential signature away from becoming law. Tuesday afternoon, by a vote of 68-32, the Senate passed the same bill the House approved last week.
When I first saw the headline “Childhood Cancer on the Rise,” it triggered my journalistic salivary glands. Sad news, sure -- but it could also settle an old debate, I thought.
Cancer rates have been edging up over the years, which gives some credence to the idea that our modern way of life -- replete with bad food and new chemicals -- is killing us. But the statisticians have largely answered that hypothesis: The reason more people are getting cancer is because we are living long enough to get cancer.
Which is why a rise in childhood cancer perked my interest. Pediatric cancer can’t be chalked up to longer lifespans. But my (OK, somewhat ghoulish) thrill faded as soon as I read the article under that provocative headline.
The steady increase in these cancers can be attributed to better diagnostics and better technologies. It is often difficult for parents to spot early warning signs in children as they appear to mimic other childhood illnesses.
Good news! It’s not that childhood cancer rates are rising; it’s that our ability to detect cancer is improving. It’s amazing how headlines and articles can go in different directions. In this case, though, neither was quite right.
It now seems almost certain that -- after two years of pummeling in the congressional gauntlet -- the farm bill will limp down the Hill and make its way over to President Obama’s desk for its final step toward becoming a law.
When it finally completes that Homeric journey, Obama should kill it, according to the editorial board of the Washington Post. Why? “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this legislative grotesquerie gives to the rich and takes from the poor,” the Post writes. That’s because the bill makes cuts to food stamps but doesn’t strip away all subsidies to farmers.
All this raises the question: Why do we keep giving money to farmers? It’s not like they make up a huge voting block. You could argue that bailing out agriculture is simply good policy, but I can easily find a dozen experts who can tell me why government funding in some other field -- say, their own -- would be better policy.
I phoned up T & D Willey Farms because, in some sense, they’ve made it: Tom and Denesse Willey earn a comfortable income off 75 acres in the California’s San Joaquin Valley, near Madera. Most of their produce goes to organic specialty markets, and they deliver about 15 percent of what they grow through a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program.
“The CSA enjoys probably twice the profit margin of the farm wholesale business, but the hassle factor is also very high, in comparison,” Tom Willey told me, with a chuckle. I called because I had a very basic question: The Willeys have a proven model; why we don’t see a landslide of other farmers emulating them?
Tom Willey has been thinking about these issues for years, and he laid out a few specific suggestions -- along with a couple of big-picture quandaries.
Q.So basically I’m calling because I read in the New York Times that you are making money, and I want to know why we don’t just see a wholesale conversion of agriculture to look like T & D Willey Farms?
A. There are certainly many other people like myself that are operating profitable organic farms of modest scale. But why is there not more proliferation of the modest-sized farms that are financially successful?
I think there’s a conundrum with the legions of young people being attracted to local and organic agriculture. They seem to be a bit hesitant about getting involved in what I call production agriculture, which is feeding a hell of a lot of people besides yourself. And they seem to be more strongly attracted to the Jeffersonian concept of having your little piece, your couple of acres, and farming mainly for self-sufficiency and some very small-scale marketing in their community.
One of the reports I’m getting from young people who have been through some renowned organic farm schools or internships is that they are not learning much about farm economics. I think that’s a real disservice. If they came to my school -- if I had one -- they’d learn a hell of a lot about that, particularly from my wife.
There’s a piece in the New York Times by Andrew Pollack about the next generation of genetically engineered plants, which use a technique called RNA interference, or RNAi. There’s nothing that's exactly news here; Times editors must have simply decided it was time to explain this technology to the world.
And it’s a good explanation. There are potential dangers in this technology, and the possibility of great benefits, both of which get blown out of proportion (because GMOs). But Pollack’s piece does a nice job of sifting out the hyperbole and showing what’s really there. Here are the Cliffs, er, Grist Notes:
What it does:
RNAi turns off specific genes. A plant could use RNAi to turn off vital genes in the bugs that eat it, killing them.
It might also kill “good” insects, and it’s hard to assess how it will affect the environment in the long run. It is also theoretically possible for foods containing RNAi to silence human genes after consumption. But this isn’t a new danger: RNAi is common in nature and in our foods, and it’s never had any observed effect on humans. The risks are examined in detail in this new paper from the EPA.
RNAi crops might be the next fix for weeds and insects that have evolved resistance to the last round of GMO techniques. There are also a number of plants in development that can stave off various diseases and fungi thanks to RNAi. This could reduce the spraying of antimicrobials and provide more reliability for poor farmers.
As usual with genetic engineering, there are unknown unknowns and interesting potential benefits. But if past is prologue, the debate will focus on elaborate worst-case scenarios and visions of utopian wonder plants. If you are interested in the more realistic parameters of possibility, there's a lot more in Pollack's article.
A generation ago a group of countercultural organic farmers kicked off a movement that has evolved into a $31.5 billion dollar industry. Now, as those back-to-the-landers from the '60s and '70s retire, they are asking what comes next.
I’m going to spend some time asking the same question. For my next deep dive (after looking at GMOs), I’m going to be trying to identify the next concrete steps that can be made toward the regional food systems of our dreams. Part of the problem, of course, is that we all dream of something slightly different. But there are some broad goals that we can probably all agree on:
Making farms more sustainable, beautiful, and biodiverse; allowing farmers and food workers to earn a decent middle-class income (currently, many of the former and most of the latter do not); connecting eaters to agriculture; and providing more healthy and delicious food.
Already there’s a hearty new generation of people who want to produce food this way, and an ever-growing base of people who want to buy and eat it. But now what? What are the barriers as we make our way down this road? Do we need different middlemen in the market? Different infrastructure? Different laws? Different technologies?
I’ll be talking with successful farmers and food producers to try and understand the conditions that have allowed them to succeed, and to suss out the snags that are still holding them back.