posts tagged with 'agriculture'
A moment from the week.
We went to our state fair this week, the first time I've ever been. I thought we should do some comparative literature as home school prep work, so I read accounts of state fairs in some of our favorite old-timey books: Charlotte's Web and Farmer Boy. Then I asked H&Z to wonder how our modern fair would be similar or different. If nothing else, the prep served to make them EXTREMELY EXCITED as we drove down to Topsfield on Friday morning. The excitement carried over as they navigated the petting zoo and saw a REAL LIVE ELEPHANT!, but it waned a bit as we fought against large school groups to sneak a peak at the prize winning vegetables. After an intense hour of trying to see things in the crowded barns we took a break between the fried food stands to eat our bagged lunch. I asked Harvey if this fair was at all similar to the books. He considered a moment while he munched his sandwich, then noting EB White's description he said, "Lot of food for rats here."
After a heartening lunch at 10:30am (the crowds made us all want to stress eat) we enjoyed seeing the sheep sheering demonstration and a lazy parade of horses. Unfortunately, the general admission part of the fair was crowded as crowded could be, and the rest of the entertainment was designed to un-self-consciously strip us of as much cash as possible. I told the boys they could choose one ride and one game, because I am not a terrible moster of a mother. They chose the carousel (only if I rode with them, of course) and for $7.50 I hope they enjoyed the living shit out of that thing.
Unfortunately we had a little family melt-down over the midway game choices. Overstimulation lead to poor communication, and it came out later that Harvey really wanted to play the water shooting game but he was afraid to ask how to shoot the gun. That might have been more fun for everyone, and cost $6 for both children to play. Instead Harvey threw a ball at a cup for $5 (!!!), there was a miscommunication with the Carney over how many balls he would get to throw, and the whole thing was over in a second in exchange for a 25 cent stuffed snake.
Neither mama or Harvey was very pleased with the fair at that moment.
Look, none of us want to throw away our money. There are so many useful things a mama could do with $5. But I share a dirty secret with those rare people whose love language is gift giving (all 8 of us in the world - hang in there sisters!) I actually LOVE spending money on my children. The more frivolous the better. I don't know why - it doesn't quite make sense. It's the easiness of saying yes, the rush of handing over my cash, the joy of looking at their smiling faces and thinking, "I love you more than financial reason."
Of course we're poor, and I'm trying to teach them values, so I don't do it as often as I'd like. Still, considering how much I adore those boys, I could fantasize about being MORE frivolous. My love for them is something that can never be budgeted. Symbolically speaking, a $5 ball throw does not even come close.
Still, this kind of spending is not fiscally responsible, and once we left the fair grounds I transformed that wasted $5 into a veritable homeschool unit. First we discussed the amount of enjoyment that came from playing the game and getting the prize (minimal, because as Harvey noted "it was over so quickly.") Then we stopped by our local real farm and noted the things you could buy for the same $5. TWO whole bottles of chocolate milk (not counting the glass bottle deposit because of trying to keep things simple.) Zion also noted that feeding the goats scraps there doesn't cost any money. And for good measure I took some pictures amidst the pumpkins - a free photo opp with precious lack of interlopers in the background.
I don't know what Harvey will internalize about money growing up in this family. I cannot present him with a unified theory, as I don't have one myself. I try to do a lot for free, but sometimes act like I've suddenly entered a duty free zone. I try not to stress about money, but truthfully I stress about it a lot. I don't know what Harvey will make of all of this. I'd like him to have both a sense of thrift and a feeling of abundance. Maybe the state fair is the wrong place to teach this. Or maybe it's the perfect place.
Harvey likes reading books about pumpkins. Having them read to him, that is; you know what I mean. Other farming-related texts often make their way into our house as well. And I've noticed a pattern: in nearly all cases, when a child in a picture book is described as living on a farm his or her caretakers are grandparents rather than parents. Leaving aside the disturbing question of what happened to the parents (are they dead? drug dealers? financial wizards with no time for their kids?), this shows a disturbing lack of faith in the long-term prospects of American agriculture.
I'm sure there's no slight against farming intended by any of the authors; they just don't expect their readers to believe that a young couple, the sort likely to have a picture-book-protagonist-aged offspring, would willingly tie themselves to the soil for their livelihood. Not that the farmers in the stories seem to be working too hard; it's more the retired-in-the-country-and-fun-to-visit farming. True, there are some good books about farming in the olden days—our last library visit I read Harvey Jane Yolen's Harvest Home—but if you go by most of the books set in the modern day farming is clearly a dying art.
Which it may be, in mainstream culture. But we're fighting the power over here, and we need picture books to back us up and send the right message to our children! One of the rare counter-examples is Nikki McClure's To Market, To Market, which dives right into realistic descriptions of how farmers market vendors grow or make the things they bring to the market. Only there's not much plot to grab you, and the explanations are a little long for Harvey's taste. Oh, he'll listen to them—this child will listen to the dictionary for as long as you're willing to read it to him—but it's not the kind of thing that's going to excite him, either about rereading it or about living it.
So... who knows any children's-book authors?
Via Root Simple, a great National Geographic article about crop diversity. The aim of the piece is to point out how monoculture agriculture is setting us up for disaster when climate change and disease render the few widely-grown cultivars of major crops unusable. That's a worthwhile concern, and as Kelly at Root Simple writes, it's also just sad that all those wonderful historic varieties have been lost. But it was another aspect that caught my attention:
Small farmers and pastoralists have gone deep into debt to pay for the "inputs"—the fertilizers, pesticides, high-protein feeds, and medication—required to grow these new plants and livestock in different climate conditions. They are like addicts, hooked on a habit they can ill afford in either economic and ecological terms.
My other posts last year talk about the subject with more eloquence (or at least more length) so I won't rehash all I have to say about how ridiculous it is to export a system of agriculture that doesn't even work (for farmers or eaters; I'm not concerned with corporations) in this country.
Happily, the article also presents an alternative view:
Forty-year-old Jemal Mohammed owns a five-acre, hillside farm outside the tiny hamlet of Fontanina in the Welo region of Ethiopia's northern highlands. It is in the heart of one of the centers of diversity that Nikolay Vavilov visited on his 1926 expedition.
Stepping foot on Mohammed's land is like tumbling back in time to an ancient way of farming. His circular, thatched-roof hut with walls of dried mud and straw is the same dwelling that has dotted Ethiopia's countryside for centuries. A pair of oxen lies to the right of the hut in the shade of a jacaranda tree. Three or four chickens strut across a bare front yard. His fields, tilled with an ox-drawn plough and planted by hand, are a jumble of crops: tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, gourds, sorghum, wheat, barley, chickpeas, and teff, a grain used to make injera, a flatbread.
There are those who talk about the importance of saving heirloom seeds and traditional knowledge, so that when industrial agriculture does break down we have something to fall back on. I say don't wait for catastrophe: start working on alternatives now! Our food supply shouldn't rely on a handful of cultivars of just three crops and it shouldn't rely on a handful of companies either.
And if you'll excuse me, I need to go tend to my heirloom tomatoes (I'll let the f1 hybrids take care of themselves today). Happy 4th, everyone!
So there has apparently been some sort of egg recall in recent days, thanks to an "outbreak of salmonella". My first response, of course, was: "what? Isn't salmonella always in eggs, and that's why we can't eat cookie dough anymore?!" When it had become clear to me that the current situation is even above and beyond what has become acceptable for the contamination of eggs in our factory farming situation, I began to wonder if there was some way that the big-agriculture lobby would turn this situation to their advantage. Why, naturally!
Various parties are now advocating for tighter food safety laws: on eggs specifically, and across the board. There is even a push make farmers vaccinate their chickens against salmonella. Now, I'm not against either of those ideas in principal, if they're applied reasonably based on scientific evidence; but I also see a pattern in legislation that is introduced in response to food-safety scares making business more difficult for small farms—while containing loopholes that let giant operations continue business as usual. After all, it's not like the farms whose eggs were recalled were even complying with existing law.
In general, we in the United States want things to be safe and regular. That means that there is a prejudice in favor of big farms: we imagine that, once effective legislation is in place, we'll be better served by a handful of humongous egg-factories—no doubt gleaming white and staffed by professionals in scrubs and hair-nets—which are watched over carefully by government overseers. Far better that then to let any roadside farm sell its own eggs, from hens kept in a yard with dirt on the ground! Never fear, because Florida food safety officials want to assure you that "basic protections must apply to everyone regardless of size." As spokeswoman Lisa Lochridge tells us, a salmonella bacterium "not going to choose a 150-acre farm over a 5-acre farm." Even "fourth generation farmer" John W. Boyd Jr., blogging at Huffington Post in favor of small and mid-sized farms, agrees: "If there is one advantage of consolidation, it is that it makes the job of inspectors easier. Since there are only a few hundred facilities producing the bulk of our eggs, making regular visits to each of them should not be too difficult."
How about, instead of making the government keep dishonest factory farmers from poisoning us, we only buy produce from farmers we trust?! It doesn't seem that complicated to me, and it doesn't require millions of dollars to be spent in regulation by the government and in compliance by farmers. Paul and Neil wouldn't want my family to get sick, (a fact that has been recognized by Boston's news media!) and if we should happen to have trouble with the salmonella... we know where they live!
The argument about the bacterium not caring about the size of the farm also misses another important point. Just a small handful of farms have been so far affected by this recall (note as well that it will not be related in each case: they all messed up individually) and yet millions of eggs nationwide have needed to be recalled. If something goes wrong at Chip-In, you're only going to sicken a little bit of eastern Middlesex County.
It seems to me that there ought to be a saying about allowing just a handful of producers to supply all the nation's eggs... something about putting all of your eggs in one... naw, too obvious.
In a comment to the other post, Tom says:
Paarlberg espouses a technical-rationalistic and teleological belief in Eurocentric modernization built on a foundation of pure, objective positivism.
Which, for those of you who've been outside of academia for as long as I have, means that Paarlberg thinks the way Whitey does things is always the right way. I think.
I was contemplating something similar today as I walked the dog. The problem is as follows: many people in the developing world endure poor living conditions, by their own standards as well as ours. It is a problem that needs to be addressed, and because it cannot ethically be addressed by shrinking populations (or allowing them to shrink: Barbara Kingsolver in Poisonwood Bible) we need another solution. Paarlberg, technical-rationalistic and teleological (if the teleos is global capitalism) would fix things by increasing incomes: "improve" agricultural methods, link farmers to markets, get them paid for their produce so they can buy nice things. As he writes:
Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers' labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse.
I would suggest that a better solution would be to redefine the terms of the "poverty" in question. If we can look past the equation that tells us that "money = security", surely "food insecurity" would be more productively addressed by increasing farmers' ability to produce actual food. Can't eat cash! This is where Paarlberg and others who share his point of view go wrong, because they don't actually care about food.
As a point of comparison let us consider the other side of the world, where increasing numbers of people are choosing to pay more for their food in order to see higher quality and a lighter impact on the world's environment and resources. The most forward-thinking among them—like me, naturally!—are working to grow some of their own food, or at least to understand intimately the conditions under which it's grown. That is to say, we are moving in exactly the opposite direction than Paarlberg suggests for Africa. Are we misguided? Stupid? Spoiled first-world brats who are just playing at sustainability while cursing Africa to poverty? All three have been suggested.
Leaving aside the question of whether sustainable, organic farming itself will lead to a collapse in the world food supply—a ridiculous but oft-mooted suggestion that deserves its own post—I think that Paarlberg's dismissal of sustainable-food enthusiasts in the United States as dilettantes who are somehow not connected with the real world is at the heart of his misunderstanding of the situation. Produce from a small organic farm in New England is not a luxury, but an investment in the idea that food itself is important, and in fact is more important than the money involved in buying it. Paarlberg wants to solve hunger by making food cheaper and giving people the opportunity to make more money; I would rather make food better and give people the opportunity to be more involved in its production rather than wasting their time in useless jobs. Would my ideas lead to the collapse of the economy? Maybe, but I'm not concerned with the economy, I'm concerned with food. Unlike Paarlberg.
He wrote his article to condemn those who argue against his kind of aid to Africa. We will curse them with starvation, he says, if we do not encourage development in a specific direction, one which will not only align third-world farming with the Western economy but which will tie third-world farmers inexorably to the Western farm-industrial complex. American farmers have already found out how tough it can be to escape that machine. No one today—well, not many people—would suggest that, since the burning of coal in tremendous quantities powered development in the Western world, the same model should apply in Africa: most sane individuals would agree that we now have better solutions, and that developing nations can learn from our mistakes rather than repeating them.
We are now learning in the United States that our prevailing system of agriculture is in large part a mistake. We need to avoid exporting it. Instead, we should be encouraging sustainability both in the Third World and at home, and we should be listening to African farmers as well as preaching to them: maybe they have as much to teach us as we have to sell to them.
I have a lot to write about today, but alas also a lot of meetings. So instead I'll post a quote from today's entry on Jesus Radicals. Apparently as I slept someone over there captured my stream of consciousness and transcribed it more eloquently.
No anarchist of sound mind holds either that government does not exist or ought not to exist, etymology notwithstanding...
Anarchists would want more government if that means the Department of Agriculture helping to initiate independent producer and consumer cooperatives instead of supporting vertical integration of farms into ever bigger and more powerful conglomerates. Government could favor open-pollinated seed sharing instead of forcing farmers around the world to buy new patented hybrid seed for each planting to enrich Monsanto. Government could facilitate worker buy-outs of small industries with no-interest loans...
But conversely, anarchists want much less if that means racist prisons and war.
As you know, we're big hippies around here; and as such, we are concerned with local and sustainable food production. There are those, however, who do not share our concern—who, in fact, argue that sustainable food is bad because it will contribute to the mass starvation of the world's population. Really! This seems to be quite a popular view among troglodytic reactionaries and Monsanto sales-reps alike. Robert Paarlberg, the author of a recent Foreign Policy article on the topic, is maybe a little of each.
His argument is as follows:
Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.
Leaving aside the snarky parenthetical (what, advocates of sustainable agriculture sometimes want to help local farmers, but other times are just screwing with them for kicks?!), Paarlberg is himself deeply misguided for several reasons. One of them is something he himself brings up in the article, only to fail to grasp its relevance: the rising cost of worldwide food prices. Those rising prices aren't due to the growth of sustainable or organic farming practices (as much as those may affect prices at Whole Foods), but to the very industrialization of farming that Paarlberg advocates. Yes, fertilizer and improved (and patented, naturally) seed will improve yields for a single year, but then you have to buy them again next year. And at the same time, in order to make your operation efficient and corporate-buyer-friendly, you need to dedicate your entire growing area to your cash crop. Congratulations, you are now linked to the world economy! But don't worry, if food prices rise faster than what you take in for your crop, you can always eat your Roundup-Ready soybeans.
Seriously, most farmers in the United States, one of the most industrialized farming countries in the world, are barely scraping by. Every year the US loses about 10,000 farms, as farmers realize that even with government subsidies they just can't make a go of it. Paarlberg would probably claim that the shrinkage is due to the effects of increased efficiency, which may be—but the last thing countries in the developing world need is tens of thousands of out-of-work farmers flooding into cities... where they will be dependent on the ever-increasing production of industrial food to keep them alive.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with aid to Africa. But in the litany of "improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics", some of these things are not like the other (bonus points if you guess which are most exciting to a former adviser to Monsanto!). Wouldn't Africans better off if, rather than being tied to the world agricultural economy, they were given tools to improve their ability to grow their own food? The system of factory farming in the United States emerged gradually—organically, if you will—once conditions made it possible and apparently desirable; if such a system is going to take over in the developing world then perhaps we can let it happen the same way (only, you know, without the multiple ecological catastrophes that marked—and continue to mark—American factory farming).
I will now pause to allow those more knowledgeable than me about the state of African agriculture to comment, should they choose to do so; I will follow this post with another refuting the suggestion—made frequently—that abandoning industrial farming methods, including petroleum-based fertilizers and monoculture plantations, will lead to worldwide starvation.