As I walked around our little 4 acre farm the today I was struck by the little things that were happening around me. Our pigs jostling for position at the trough. Chickens gingerly avoiding the voracious maw of our biggest sow while snatching bits of corn and bread the pigs had missed. Calves play fighting with each other, butting heads in an act that reminds one of the annual struggle between deer, elk and moose. Our cow in her pen, shortly to give birth to a Jersey-Dexter cross calf which will either be raised for beef or sold for breeding depending on the gender. There is a sense of deep satisfaction to see the patterns of the seasons. While we are buried in snow (thanks Al Gore) I can see the signs of springs in the swollen bellies of our pig and cow. There is a connection to the land and to the natural environment that cannot be replicated by a life lived under fluorescent lights in temperature controlled buildings. It is no coincidence that we are living longer but less healthy than ever before.
Meanwhile across the broader spectrum of agriculture we see continuing consolidation. In our little largely agrarian corner of the world farm ground sells for an astronomical sum. It is essentially impossible to buy a decent sized plot of farm ground, service the debt and pay for the inputs. The only people who can afford to buy farm ground are the already huge existing farms. Fairly near to us there is a new massive hog farm going in, to the consternation of the neighbors. The farmer in question, Keith Werner, sums it up: “I’m not reinventing the wheel here,” he said. “In order to make it
today, you have to be bigger. I don’t necessarily like that, but the
emphasis is on quantity.” The same holds true in this piece from Harvest Public Media, Changing dairy industry leaves some farmers in the dust.
In the past decade, more than half the nation’s dairy farms have gone out of business,
according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. About 2,500 dairies
closed their doors in Missouri. Thousands more have shut down in Iowa,
Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Colorado.
“It’s just a sign of the times: You’ve got to get bigger to survive,”
Davidson said. “When I graduated from high school, the herds were
smaller numbers and I varied very little from that. That might be the
reason mine did not go on – because I didn’t increase, I just tried to
stay the same.”
Get big or get out. That is the mantra of our day in agriculture. As Keith Werner says the emphasis is on quantity. Move as many animals through the system as quickly and efficiently as possible with a secondary goal of uniformity to placate the modern consumer. The same goes for crops leading to farmers planting every square inch of dirt to squeeze out a little more yield. There is a growing market for the specialty boutique farm but there isn't much room in the middle for the small producer unless he or she has a regular job to pay the bills.
Our ability as a nation to produce our own food in enormous quantities has long been the hidden strategic advantage of America. The coasts might produce the innovators and academics but the heartland raises the food and builds the goods that keep this country running. While manufacturing seems to be enjoying a sort of renaissance, our imagined food security masks a serious insecurity. The overwhelming majority of Americans are at the end of a very complex industrialized food chain. They are completely dependent on the system offering the variety and prices of food in limitless quantities they have come to rely on. Very few of us really think about food other than "what should I make for dinner tonight". Underneath this happy ignorance is a very shaky system. Our dependance on industrial farms, massive meat packing facilities, monocrop megafarms, cheap petroleum and low cost supermarket foods has made food insecurity a thing of the past for most Americans but it is an unstable platform. If a new strain of disease or pest strikes Roundup resistant soybeans we could lose an entire crop. If something happens to the cheap oil we depend on, food prices would skyrocket and food selection would disappear. The very system that makes food so cheap and (on the surface) varied also is what makes the food system so insecure.
I am a pessimist by nature, perhaps explaining why I find reformed theology so appealing. These days that is more true than ever before. I think there is trouble a'brewing in the West in general and America in particular. The growing number of disconnected, unmarried, unemployed men with nothing to live for is extremely dangerous. Our unimaginable national debt is unsustainable, not to mention the untenable social safety net especially the programs for senior citizens, much less for the poor. What happens when we can't just create more money from thin air by issuing more debt? If we have a treasury auction and no one buys? What happens when the income transfer checks suddenly stop? We saw a taste with the chaos around food stamp cards when the system went haywire and stores were ransacked. That is just a taste of what can happen. The social fabric of the West is unraveling and the repercussions will be enormous.
I am encouraged by the growing numbers of younger Americans who are shedding some of the trappings of our soulless modernity and reaching back to ancient wisdom that is in danger of being lost. One need not be a Luddite or Pollyanna to see the value in relearning the ancient ways. We can and should incorporate the many positives of our modern data-driven culture into this movement. What we cannot do is hide our collective heads in the sand and think that an inherently unsustainable and vulnerable system will exist just as it is now in perpetuity. We need to wake up. Get big or get out is a recipe for some sort of disaster. Maybe not today, maybe not next week but someday soon.