The Next Big Change in Agriculture
“We’re at the forefront of a big change coming to agriculture,” said Graham Meriwether the filmmaker who currently traveling the country to present showings of his documentary, American Meat to various school groups and other target audiences. Meanwhile, the 2012 farm bill remains on the docket and Congress should consider the conditions set for forth in the film, finding ways to encourage new, young farmers.
Farming communities have seen their population go down, as big agriculture has replaced the small farmers. The film argues that the United States has enough pasture to raise the same amount of chicken and livestock now produced, but not enough farmers to do the work required. The movie has been shown in a number of agriculture states, including Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Washington and Virginia, and will travel to several more states in the coming months. The following chart may point to a location near you. The Young Farmer Screening Series is sponsored by Chipotle, Applegate, SRI, Bon Appétit Managment Company and Niman Ranch. Weston A Price Foundation is an outreach partner.
Meriwether and his production began in 2006 and traveled throughout the country, interviewing farmers large and small, organic and non-organic. He showed evidence of why economies of scale have been introduced and why farmers typically sell to large industrial production operations. Unlike many documentary films, American Meat does not present good and bad guys and doesn’t cast blame. Too many farmers have large loans to pay for their equipment and large-scale production is the only way they can recoup the costs of their investments.
There is an idea that to be economical, you must do things that will harm the environment. “Not true!” claims Meriwether, and Joel Salatin’s model of farming which uses very little petroleum and no chemicals, hormones or antibiotics will be more productive in the long-term. The cost of transportation becomes a huge factor when the price of oil goes up. Farming has to become more local to compensate for the economic uncertainty and the uncertainty of energy costs. As proof, one of the farmers who is profiled in the movie, Johnny Glosson, sold his broiler chickens to Pilgrim’s Pride, a large industrial packer which filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
Another person interviewed in the film is Fred Kirschenmann, farmer and PhD in philosophy who is affiliated with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He transformed his family farm in North Dakota to certified organic in 1980. He uses a natural prairie livestock grazing system combined with a nine-crop rotation of cereal grains, forages, and green manure. According to Kirschenmann, there are four reasons we need to get away from industrial agriculture: to save on transportation costs, to maintain the water supply by using half the amount of water, to stall climate change and to repair ecological gradation by putting organic matter back into the soil. He has shown that water conservation is possible in large growing regions of six continents, enough to feed the world if we take charge of this goal.
American Meat goes into detail about the chicken, hog and beef industries and explains both the industrial models and the healthier alternatives for human and animal welfare. Monoculture farms of corn, soybeans and wheat rob the soil of nutrition. The film doesn’t mention that we need to stop producing an abundance of corn and soybeans, but the gradual switch to grass-fed beef other healthy practices could reduce production of these crops, while introducing more food commodities into the mix.
Many people have read Michale Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma which sheds light on this possibility of healthier eating while acknowledging the expense of “organic food.” Use of the term organic is a compromise anyways, since the USDA’s standards for it accommodate large scale farming operations that don’t meet the strictest standards, he explains. Pollan’s opinion is that most chronic illnesses are linked to diet and preventable. He surmises that when the Affordable Health Act goes into effect and government has to pay for it, the United States will be forced to change by the huge health care costs resulting from industrialized agriculture and the over-processing of food.
A hog farmer featured in the film, Chuck Wirtz, switched a portion of pigs from indoor pens to outdoor pasture farming using organic feeds. In the film, he says raising animals in a “welfare-compassionate” system is harder and riskier. But the pork tastes much better, he opines. A contract for the meat from his outdoor operation fell through after the recent economic downturn, but eventually he was able to sell his pasture-raised hogs to the Niman Ranch in California.
Organic may be tastier, but skeptics say it is more expensive and inaccessible to the middle class. However, if, on a large scale, the production and selling of food becomes more local, it will bring down the cost of transportation while eliminating the middlemen. According to filmmaker Graham Meriwether, American agriculture is beginning to change, and he presents the following information as proof:
1) One grocery food chain, Whole Foods, has begun to locate and sell locally grown meats on a limited basis, in some but not all of its stores. This model can be expanded.
2) Chipotle, a fast food chain, has begun buying its pork from local farmers in 4 or 5 areas. It began this experiment with Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA. The farm provides for the Chipotle restaurants in the nearest cities, Harrisonburg, and Charlottesville, each about 40 miles away from the farm.
3) Urban buying clubs are cooperatives which sell farm foods to groups of people who pick up weekly or bi-weekly at certain locations.
4) Community Supported Agriculture is a model in which everyone who joins pays or contracts to pay a certain amount in advance and thus guarantees that the farmer(s) will have enough income to recover the cost of growing.
Among the changes not mentioned in the film or discussion are gradual changes such as:
1) Providing only grass-meat to school systems, as has been applied at one school district in Weld County, CO, supplied by Crystal River Meats and facilitated by Whole Foods.
2) School Farms — Alice Waters of Berkeley started a school farming movement long ago as a way to teach students pride in growing their food and eating healthy.
3) The growth of facilities such as EcoFriendly Foods, an environmentally-friendly company in Moneta, Va., which buys its animals from a regional network of grass farmers who adhere to strict ethical standards using no chemicals or biological additives. From its USDA-approved processing facility, it sells to East Coast restaurants and directly to consumers through farmers’ markets.
We can also help by making loans to small farmers part of national policy. Again, such provision can and should be put into the 2012 farm bill, and expanded in the 2017 bill. In the long run, it may be more productive and helpful to all of us if the government stopped telling people to take out expensive loans for college and put that money into encouraging and rebuilding our farms instead. (Perhaps this model made more sense when people expected corporate American to expand, but this idea is no longer feasible and four years of college promises no job in the future.) Our future is in the expansion of small businesses and small farms should be part of the equation.