Friday, May 2, 2014

From Farmer Figgins: Why I Became A Farmer

I started learning about the environmental and social effects of the United States' dominant form of agriculture in college, at Smith College and Colorado State University. It set me on the path to becoming a farmer and a writer driven to promote social change, as it has prompted many of my generation. 

Our food system has undergone radical changes in the past century. After WWII, chemicals left over for the war were redesigned for the farm use and started the “green revolution.” It gave us synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides and new strains of crops that responded to these, increasing yields worldwide and saving many from hunger. It paved the way for agriculture as we know it--farms with thousands of acres and only a handful of farmers, giant tractors and combines. Tomatoes and watermelon that traveled 1,500 miles to your the grocery store in January.

But since 1900, the number of farms has fallen by 63 percent, while the average farm size has risen 67 percent (1). In the meat industry as well there has been huge consolidation, in 1970, the top 5 beef packers controlled about 25% of the market. Today, the top 4 now control more than 80% of the market (2). The same is happening with pork and chicken. For farmers today, when it comes time to harvest, they are faced with only a few big buyers offering unpredictable prices. The economics do not work for long. Millions of desperate farmers have had to sign contracts with corporations that dictate their every move, or have lost their farms all together. More and more, farm income is concentrating at the top, so only 1 in 10 US farms makes enough to support a family (3).

Our national policy started us on this track back in the 1970s when the Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to "get big or get out." Getting on board and increasing the scale of farms too often meant planting a single subsidized commodity crop like corn and soybeans from hedgerow to hedgerow, year after year. It also meant stopping practices that keeps soil healthy, like rotating where crops are grown, growing cover crops on fallow fields or at the end of the season to prevent soil erosion, and planting diverse crops. The soil on these farms loses its natural fertility so you have to use more chemical fertilizers. To keep this system going farmers have to buy inputs--fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics--all from fewer and fewer corporations demanding higher and higher prices. This system has innumerable external costs that consumers do not see. According to the FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig (1995), industrial agriculture is responsible for 75% biodiversity erosion, 75% water destruction, 75% land degradation and 40% greenhouse gase emissions (4). In this system, pests and weeds become resistant so you have to use more chemicals. These synthetic chemicals can runoff into waterways or leach through the soil into the groundwater so that today, the average american has 13 pesticides present in their body--through water and food contamination (5).

Livestock that used to be raised outside on the farm got crammed into Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where they produce a lot of manure. Sustainable farming systems use manure for fertilization, but CAFO farms produce it in such toxic strength that it would kill, or "burn," any plant it touches. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hog, chicken and cattle waste from these CAFO farms has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states (6).

In these crowded factory farms, animals sicken more often, so you have to use more antibiotics. Fifty million pounds of antibiotics are produced in the U.S. each year. Of that, over half, some 29 million pounds are used by CAFO farms annually, of which 80% is used on livestock prophylactically for the conditions of their environment and to promote more rapid growth. The remaining 20% is used to help control the multitude of diseases that occur under such tightly confined conditions, including anemia, influenza, intestinal diseases, and pneumonia (7). In CAFO farms, ammonia and other gases from animal manure irritates the animals' lungs, to the point where over 80% of US pigs have pneumonia upon slaughter (8). Antibiotics in farm animals leave behind drug-resistant microbes in meat and milk. With every burger and shake consumed, super-microbes settle in the stomach where they transfer drug resistance to bacteria in the body, making one more vulnerable to previously-treatable conditions. The Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has estimated the annual cost of treating antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. at $30 billion (9).

With these tools from the green revolution, with the increased yields and pest controls, hunger should be a thing of the past, shouldn’t it? Yet today there are 852 million people in the world going hungry (10). 12% of our population here in the United States are going hungry and 49 million are food insecure (11). And yet our global food system is producing 3,200 calories per day for everyone in the world (12). What’s going wrong? First, 1/3 of the world’s grain is going to feed livestock. Meat has become a much larger part of industrialized countries diet than it used to, to the detriment of our health (13). Second, 1/3 of the food being produced is wasted, either because it doesn’t fit grocery stores cosmetic standards, or because it goes bad or is not purchased. And finally, because fresh, unprocessed food has become more expensive. Our population is not outstripping our food supply, rather, people are too poor to buy the food that is available (14).  

This is because our agricultural policies subsidize cereal crops and commodity crops—wheat, soybean, corn—over so-called “specialty crops” like broccoli and carrots--things we eat fresh. Nearly all the corn fields that surround our farm are either going to ethanol fuel, to feed animals at some factory farm, or to be processed into additives for processed food, like high-fructose corn syrup. In the US, our biggest crop is corn, but less than 1% that is planted is what we eat (15). Because of our subsidy system, from 1985 and 2010 the price of beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup dropped 24%, and by 2006 American children consumed an extra 130 calories a day from these beverages. Over the same period the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 39% (16). For families on a budget, the price difference can be decisive in their food choices. With the recession, this has only worsened. Food costs take an increasingly larger part of our budget, and as a result we consume cheaper products--more and more processed foods.

A hidden aspect of American hunger that is coming to light is that a number of Americans are overfed and undernourished. 1.3 billion people overeat unhealthy foods worldwide, and suffer obesity, diabetes and malnutrition from this artificially cheap, calorie-rich but nutrient-poor diet of processed food (17). In the US, more than one-third of adults and 17% of children and adolescents are overweight or obese (18). In 1990, not one U.S. state had an obesity rate greater than 14 percent, according to the CDC. Ten years later, 23 states reported an obesity rate between 20 to 24 percent. And in 2010, 36 states had an obesity rate of at least 25 percent, with 12 states reporting an obesity rate beyond 30 percent (19). Foods are stripped of their nutrients during the refining process, and foods stuffed with high fructose corn syrup, refined flours and trans fats are high in calories but offer little in the way of vitamins, minerals and essential fats. Not only that, the nutrients in our fruits and vegetables have been significantly reduced over the past 50 years because the soil they are grown in has depleted nutrient levels (20). Where did they think nutrients came from?

I got into sustainable agriculture because I believe that we need to be able to feed our world without destroying it and ourselves, and finding a more sustainable approach to accomplishing that is becoming increasingly more important. Sustainable farming, once dismissed as the pastime of crackpots, hippies, and idealists, has grown into a business worth some $7.3 billion a year in the European Union and around $15.6 billion worldwide (21). Organic farming became one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture in the past two decades. According to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, the smallest U.S. farms, those of 27 acres or less, have more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms (22). Study after study has shown that sustainable farming practices produce as well as industrial farming practices, and in drought years even better. These systems go by many names--organic, natural, sustainable, biodynamic, permaculture, agroecology--the point being that there are many better alternatives to what you find in the grocery store, and if you have the motivation, you can take your diet into your own hands and grow your own food.  

In industrial countries, modern agriculture with its yield maximizing high-input technologies, generates environmental and health problems that often do not serve the needs of producers and consumers. Were the real costs of this system--the external ecological costs such as greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater depletion, agricultural-chemical pollution or the health costs--taken into account, the price of meat would easily double or triple.

In conventional agriculture, farms have become industrialized, mechanized and therefore specialized. Farms no longer host a variety of different species, but often grow one genetically identical crop, or raise one breed of animal. By specializing, farm needs that were once produced on farm have had to be outsourced to giant corporations. Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — and therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer.

Sustainable forms of farming are concerned with the maintenance of a productive agriculture that sustains yields and optimizes the use of local resources while minimizing those negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies. It uses better practices, instead of more expensive purchases.

I own and operate a 10 acre, diversified sustainable farm, called The Shire Farm in central Michigan with my partner. We believe that in agriculture our primary goal should be health. By nurturing and managing the health and integration of all parts of the farm—the soil, plants, animals, even the insects—we can improve our own health, revive the health of our soil, our animals, our environment and our communities. Our aim is to develop our farm into as closed a system as is possible—providing our own fertilizers, pest control, and eventually feed and energy.

We make our own fertilizer for the garden through composting garden and kitchen waste, plant matter, bedding, and animal waste from the chickens, turkeys, and cows. Rather than truck in tons of manure or fertilizer and spread it on the fields, our animals do most of the work for us. Our hogs, cows, and chickens fertilize the pasture while harvesting part of their own feed--the grass. We build healthy soil by planting a variety of crops and rotating them over the years, amending it with rich compost to build soils healthy in organic matter and humus.

We are working to create a farm that is a diverse economy within itself, with multiple systems feeding each other. For example, we rotate our pigs onto the garden plot after the growing season is over. This past year, over the course of a few weeks, they ate every leaf, every weed, every split tomato in the garden. Well, they left the okra and the spicy peppers. They didn’t care for those too much. They turned a lush acre of plants into a bare, but very well aerated field. Pigs root with their noses, digging up chunks of earth and breaking them apart to eat roots and bugs. That saves us food costs as well as tractor work in the spring when we will seed that plot back into pasture. Not only that, they fertilized the whole area for us as well. Now that’s a beautiful system.

The animals provide the fertility for the garden and pastures which then feed us as well as the animals. All of our animals are fenced in with portable electric fencing powered by solar energizers. This enables us to move their pastures around the farm to minimize overgrazing and selectively fertilize and also to reduce the farm’s need for another input--electricity.

We don't use synthetic chemicals on the farm. About 35% of the foods purchased by American consumers have detectable levels of pesticide residues, the highest levels are found on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.  A USDA study showed that some pesticide residue remains in fruits and vegetables even after they have been washed, peeled, or cored (23). These toxins may contain carcinogens, can affect the nervous system, the endocrine system, hormones, or fertility. Pesticide use on farms can also harm other insects besides the specific one attacking the crop--killing pollinators and beneficial insects.

For these reasons, we don't use synthetic chemicals on the farm. If we have a bug problem, we either hand-pick them, put the chickens or turkeys out in the garden to eat them, or spray Neem oil on them--an organic broad spectrum pesticide and fungicide that is a vegetable oil made from pressed fruits and seeds of neem trees.

As for herbicides--chemicals that kill weeds--we don't use those either. We mulch, hand weed, use a hoe, or a rototiller. Yes it’s a lot of work, but once the plants get to the right size, they out-shade and out-compete most newly sprouted weeds. So it’s mostly a matter of keeping the garden under control and weed free until the plants are old enough to take care of themselves.

We don't use antibiotics on livestock that is sold. But, if an animal comes down with an illness we will treat it, and keep the animal for our own consumption. We had one of our pigs, Daenerys, contract an infection called Erysipelas last year. The infection very likely could have killed her, so we separated her and gave her penicillin. We see nothing wrong with using antibiotics when they are called for and needed, no one would dispute that penicillin isn't a good thing. But using antibiotics prophylactically, to promote rapid growth, or to make up for the poor conditions they live in, leads to antibiotic resistant infections. After she recovered, we decided that we would keep her as our own source of pork rather than sell her.

Every day, three times a day, you are making a choice, voting with your dollars for one system or the other whether or not you realize it. If you believe that it is important to take care of the environment we live in, to eat healthy, nutritious foods without pesticide or antibiotic residues, there are affordable options available.

We offer 3 levels of subscription to the farm.  We have a CSA program in which a small vegetable share costs $300 dollars a season, a large share costs $500, and with the addition of our greenhouse and improved knowledge of the land and climate should provide 20 weeks of fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit to feed your family. For a family of four buying our large produce share, that’s spending $25.00 a week, $100 a month, on fresh, chemical free, local vegetables, fruit and herbs. How many families already spend $25.00 a week on produce from their grocery store and are not getting the quality or supporting the type of farming they would like to for their money? You can see what our previous year's CSA shares looked like each week here.

The third option is a whole diet share which we are offering new this year. It includes enough meat to feed a family--10 whole chickens, a whole or half hog based on your preferences, and a dozen eggs per week--as well as a large produce share providing your family with enough vegetables to store for winter, meaning a significant savings in food for the whole year!  We also are offering egg shares separately of a dozen per week for 20 weeks for $60.

To sum it up, pay your farmer or pay your doctor.

Sources Cited:

1. Dimitri, Carolyn, Anne Effland, and Neilson Conklin. “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy.” United States Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. Economic Information Bulletin Number 3. June 2005.
2. Food Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Narr. Peter Zinger. Magnolia Pictures. 2009. Film
3. Economic Research Service U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Farm Household Economics and Well-Being: Farm Household Income,” 2011.
4. Shiva, Vandana. “Myths about Industrial Agriculture.” Aljazeera. 23 Sept 2012.
5. Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability, Kristin S. Schafer, Margaret Reeves, Skip Spitzer, Susan Kegley, Action Network North America, May, 2004.
6. “Keep Animal Waste Out of Our Waters -- Stop Factory Farm Pollution.”
7.“Disturbing Facts on Factory Farming & Food Safety.” Organic Consumers Association.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations. “Globally almost 870 million chronically undernourished--new hunger report.” 9 Oct. 2012.
11. “Food Security in the U.S.” Household Food Security in the United States in 2012. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.  4 Sept. 2013.
12. Poole-Kavana, Holly. “Hunger: Myths and Realities.” Rehydration Project. Summer 2006.
13. Aubrey, Allison. "Eat Plants and Prosper: For Longevity, Go Easy on the Meat, Syudy Says." NPR. 5 March 2014.
14. Stuart, Tristram. The Global Food Waste Scandal. TEDSalon London Spring 2012. Filmed May 2012.
15. Based on data from USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Vegetable Summary,” 2011: page 22-23, 77 and from USDA, Economic Research Service, Feed Grains Database: 0.65% of all corn planted is sweet corn; other corn that makes it into our food supply in the form of high fructose corn syrup, for example, is not eaten directly.
16. “For a Healthier Country, Overhaul Farm Subsidies.” Scientific American. 1 May 2012.
17. Shiva, Vandana. “Myths about Industrial Agriculture.” Aljazeera. 23 Sept 2012.
18. “Overweight and Obesity: Facts.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 April 2012.
19. Kersh, Rogan and James Morone. “The Politics of Obesity: Seven Steps to Government Action.” Health Affairs.
20. Shiva, Vandana. “Myths about Industrial Agriculture.” Aljazeera. 23 Sept 2012.
21. “Disturbing Facts on Factory Farming & Food Safety.” Organic Consumers Association.
22. Dr. Peter Rosset, "The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm
Agriculture", Institute for Food and Development Policy, September 1999
23. D. Pimentel1, T. W. Culliney2, and T. Bashore1 “Public Heath Risks Associated with Pesticides and natural Toxins in Foods.” Radcliffe’s IPM World Textbook. University of Minnesota.

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