Who grows your food? (And why it matters) Essay by Bob Schildgen
Annette and Ron Dubas, with their youngest son, Clint, on their Lazy D Ranch outside of Fullerton, Nebraska. See more pictures >>
Millions of vegetarian tofu enthusiasts and carnivorous burger addicts have more in common than you might think: They can't tell a soybean plant from a canola, or a Hereford from a Guernsey.
It's not really their fault: Mountains of packaging and processing stand between the crops on the farm and the food in the supermarket. The distance between the people who grow our food and the rest of us has stretched, and there are fewer and fewer farmers left to encounter.
With so little contact, it's hard for outsiders to understand that farming remains one of the most financially risky and dangerous occupations, or appreciate what it's like to work through dust, heat, freezing cold, anxiety about weather, loan payments, livestock disease, pest invasions, and crashes in prices.
What urbanites-especially urban environmentalists-do understand about farming is that it can damage the environment. We criticize farmers for the use of polluting pesticides and fertilizers; for robbing wildlife of water by pulling it from rivers and aquifers for irrigation; for damaging streams and causing erosion through bad grazing practices; and for erasing wildlife habitat. We condemn agriculture for poisoning wells in the Midwest and California's Central Valley, and blame it for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi dumps toxic runoff from a third of the U.S. landmass.
Such criticism usually doesn't sit too well with the farmers themselves. After all, they are feeding us, and doing it as efficiently as they know how. It often sounds as if we're yelling at them across a cultural gap.
Fortunately, some farmers are now bridging this gap, with help from those environmentalists who support sustainable agriculture. Farmers like the Dubas family from eastern Nebraska, whom you'll meet in the following pages, are trying environmentally friendly methods and selling their products locally. They're running a diversified operation, rotating crops, keeping plenty of land in pasture, and raising their livestock without routinely dosing them with antibiotics. (While antibiotics make livestock grow faster, their use on healthy animals can create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics used to save human lives.)
The history of the Dubas family is one that has played out across rural America. Ron Dubas's father made a living on 200 to 300 acres. Today, the family runs 2,000 acres and struggles to keep afloat. Four hundred miles northeast, on the northern edge of the corn belt in Wisconsin's unglaciated prairie, my grandparents got by on 80 acres. Now farms up there are often five times that size. The number of real producing farms nationwide has shrunk from 3.3 million in 1950 to 750,000 today.
What explains this decline? Price, mainly. You can't afford to stay in business if your costs exceed what you're paid for your product. In 1998, for example, hog prices plummeted-from 45 cents a pound to less than 10 cents a pound, only one-fourth the cost of production. Customers in the supermarket had no way of noticing: The price of a pork chop fell by only pennies.
What's this got to do with the environment? Well, farmers can cope by producing more, in the hope that volume will make up for low prices. Or they can switch to other commodities, but they'll likely raise them in high volume to cover previous losses. Either way, they're forced to resort to more intensive cultivation and more irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides. They have long been encouraged to do this by the agricultural establishment. Universities supplied the research and technical assistance to ramp up production, lending agencies the capital, and government the subsidies. For years the mantra was "Get big or get out," and Richard Nixon's agriculture secretary exhorted, "Plant fencerow to fencerow."
But this "efficiency" has a high cost. As production soared, prices generally dropped, encouraging more production. The math is simple. Consider corn. In 1955, a farmer got $1.43 a bushel. Adjusted for inflation, that bushel should be worth over $9 today, but the price hovers around $2 or $3. Although the yield has almost tripled since the 1950s, this increase hasn't kept pace with rising expenses, like taxes, mortgages, fertilizers, and pesticides. Moreover, half of that increased yield, according to research at Purdue University, has come from increased use of nitrogen fertilizers, a major source of pollution.
The biggest beneficiaries of the farmers' cornucopia are the agribusiness corporations that absorb the glut of cheap raw material and turn it into our dazzlingly diverse (and dangerously unhealthy) supply of processed foods. Take soft drinks made with cheap corn sweeteners. Sixty years ago, each American consumed an average of 60 12-ounce servings of soda a year. Today, we're guzzling almost ten times that much. Yesterday's occasional treat has exploded into a regular diet of 64-ounce Double Gulps.
As food-processing profits have grown, the farmer's average share of food income has shrunk. In 1950, farmers got 50 cents out of every retail food dollar; now they receive less than 20 cents. The rest goes to processing, distribution, and marketing. While thousands of farmers take outside jobs to survive, advertisers spend $28 billion a year just to promote food products.
To illustrate the triumph of marketing over honest toil: The corn in a one-pound, $4 box of cornflakes costs about four cents. The retailer is paid eight cents to process a coupon for this box. Yes, the farmer gets half as much as the coupon shufflers.
We're spoiled by this cheap food. The average U.S. family spends only 10.5 percent of its income on food. Environmentalists who are willing to pay more could lead the way to better agriculture practices. Organic or sustainable farming costs more than conventional. Conventional pork production, for example, costs around 40 cents a pound, whereas organic runs about 60 cents. In growing crops, it's more labor-intensive to weed manually or by mechanical cultivation than to spray chemical weed poison. Farming sustainably can also require planting less land in crops and making do with smaller yields.
But farmers who receive a fair return for their labor and investment can thrive with an organic or environmentally sustainable operation. One successful dairy co-op, Organic Valley, sets prices based on what its members need to earn. Its products do cost more, and certainly, some struggling families can't afford them. But if the rest of us are serious about changing the way land is used, we'll have to put our money where our mouths are. It's time to end that cheapskate refrain, "I'd like to buy organic, but it's too expensive..." We have no business demanding that farmers produce environmentally friendly food if we aren't willing to pay for it.
Organic farming is still a tiny fraction of U.S. agriculture, despite increasing demand. But faster change is possible. After all, a cultural revolution propelled our gluttonous adventure with processed foods, and another could undo it. A second revolution would start by tuning out the cheap-food, junk-food hype while telling Ronald McDonald and his posse to get out of town. By paying a fair price to the farmer, we'd enjoy healthier meals and safer, cleaner air and water. A square deal all around, for rural America and the environment.