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HOMEGROWN Life: A Word on Efficiency (and Productivity and Sustainability)

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

For those of you who might not know me personally, I should probably help set the table by telling you a little bit about myself. First off, I’m the butcher’s son of a butcher’s son. I live in one of those rural tribal places where I’m kin to many people throughout the area, my family having been in West Missouri now for going on seven generations.

But I’ve had a pretty different life than most of my friends, family, and neighbors out here on the Osage Plains. I’ve dabbled in poetry. I found a wife all the way over on Missouri’s East Coast (that’s St. Louis). I’ve eaten raw oysters right out of the Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. Heck, once I even joined with several hundred people protesting on Karl Rove’s lawn on a sunny Sunday afternoon for blocking the DREAM Act that would have protected immigrant children from getting deported when they turn 18 years old.

For several years I worked as a community organizer, trying to help stop industrial livestock facilities from further encroaching in rural Missouri. (Note: Farm Aid was a key partner in helping to support this organizing effort by funding great organizations like the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.) It was challenging and fulfilling work that involved equal parts politicking, translation of confusing legalese into legislative language, and haranguing people to hold their public officials accountable. There were wins and losses in this struggle. And today, the battle for the future of agriculture rages on.

In reflecting on these experiences and my return to living and working on the family farm where I grew up, I am haunted by the concepts of efficiency, of productivity, of sustainability. Industrial agriculture would have you believe that “modern agriculture,” as they call it, is the only way to feed the world. In this circle, genetically modifying seeds, driving gigantic machines from satellite-positioning systems, and producing fossil-fuel-based chemicals are thought to be the most efficient practices. In this circle, housing livestock in giant indoor factories or crowded feedlots is the only way to be a productive member of the modern livestock-producing class. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard politicians parrot the line, “America’s farmers are the best and most efficient in the world,” in an attempt to claim their undying allegiance to those of us in the food-producing regions.

Left: Pastured cattle; photo by Supak. Right: Feedlot; photo by NDSU Ag Comm. Both photos courtesy of Creative Commons on Flickr.

But in this era of post-truth politics (coined by the great blogger David Roberts over at Grist), it’s easy to cherry pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire. If you don’t take into account local pollution and rural depopulation, perhaps industrial crop production has some merit. If you don’t have to see it or smell it or pray about it, perhaps industrial livestock production is “a reasonable response to increasing consumer demand for protein in the developing world.” If you don’t have concerns about the social costs of increased concentration of wealth and land resources, the trend toward smaller numbers of people managing more acres per farm probably seems trivial. If you’re a row crop farmer who inherits lots of land and equipment, it’s probably easy to assume that anyone can get a loan for their farming operation and that capital-intensive agriculture is the only way to go.

There are lots of us out here in farm country who are living a different narrative. We are re-creating productive soils with compost and organic soil amendments. We are using low-cost and high-labor practices to try and produce real food for people instead of feeding an industrial ingredient machine of fat and sugar and carbohydrates. We are many, although our voice within agriculture circles is minimal at times. We don’t have the money to be hiring lobbyists or propping up professionally staffed organizations (a la the Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Corn Growers Association) that constantly promote our message. We define efficiency very differently, as a measure of maximizing production with whatever you have in a way that enhances the long-term productivity of the land.

Missouri produce; photo courtesy of Root Cellar Grocery

So enough with the chip-on-the-shoulder rant. Here’s the rub. Here’s the reason I even wanted to write down this rambling mess. I can’t truthfully give you the metrics of the tale I’m trying to tell. I’m a data-driven guy who can’t give you the numbers. The scientific consensus is still out. Is it really more efficient for me to shovel goat manure, let it age, plant some lettuce in it, and truck it to local consumers? Or is it more efficient for Missourians to keep buying lettuce from California that was picked by migrant workers in unsafe conditions who were likely paid poorly, and with said lettuce robbing the withering Colorado River of its flow? There are people who try to figure these things out, but a lot of it centers on the pivot of what one means by efficiency and productivity and measurement.

One thing I know for sure is that many in the local farm and food scene are working through the same issue. We are numbers people in search of numbers. We aren’t crazy unscientific loons like our industrial brothers and sisters think we are. We’re not trying to “take agriculture back to some romantic golden age.” Instead, we understand biology, biodiversity, and ecology. We are concerned about humans as a keystone species dependent upon a fragile food chain in a living world. We embrace technology. We live in the modern world. We take our periodic table of elements very seriously. And for these reasons, plus the grand questions about ethics and morality that are best discussed over campfires and beers, we look forward to expanding the conversation in the years and decades and centuries to come. Because there might be answers out there somewhere. And where there are answers, there are sure to be more question.

 

Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box. Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.

The HOMEGROWN Village Activities At Maker Faire Bay Area 2012

Monday, May 14th, 2012

There are TONS of opportunities for fun, making and learning in The HOMEGROWN Village at Maker Faire Bay Area 2012. Thank you to all of the exhibitors and presenters who are bringing their expertise to the Maker Square Stage and The HOMEGROWN Village Workshop Stage! Below is a simple schedule of events. Follow the links for more detailed information.


Saturday On The Maker Square Stage in The HOMEGROWN Village

10:30 AM Worms, Worms, Worms! How to Compost County of San Mateo/RecycleWorks.org
11:00 AM
DIY Chocolate: Break Away from the Bar Karen Solomon
12:00 PM
Mushrooms on Coffee Jared Abbott
12:30 PM
Sustainably Sourcing Specialty Coffee Steve Ford
1:00 PM
Milkin’ in the City – Urban Goat Keeping Heidi Kooy .
2:00 PM
Organic Beekeeping: Saving the Honey Bee One Bee at a Time Tyler Henthorne
2:30 PM
Backyard Beekeeping 101 Mike Harrel
3:00 PM
Extracting Honey 101 G&M Honey
4:00 PM
Sweet Maria’s Home Coffee Roasting Byron Dote
4:30 PM
The Happy Chicken – Chicken-keeping Basics Rachel Brinkerhoff
5:30 PM
Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter. Lloyd Kahn, Shelter Publications, Inc.
6:30 PM
Low Tech at Home: Simple Projects to Boost Your Household’s Resiliency and Independence Erik Knutzen
7:00 PM
Habitile Modular Living Wall System Aurora Mahassine

Saturday in The HOMEGROWN Village Workshop Area:

10:30 AM
Herb Spiral Revolution — learn to make an herb spiral. Nik Dyer

12:00 PM 
Butter! Shake it and Make it! Farm Aid / HOMEGROWN.org 

1:00 PM 
Chinese Noodle Maker Mr. Wang

3:00 PM
Direct Trade Coffees Taste Better: Ritual Coffee Tasting – Steve Ford

4:00 PM 

Kraut-a-thon Happy Girl Kitchen Co.

6:00 PM

Guerrilla Gardening: Making Seed Balls Edward Cabral

Kraut-a-thon

Sunday On The Maker Square Stage in The HOMEGROWN Village

10:30 AM
Worms, Worms, Worms! How to Compost County of San Mateo/RecycleWorks.org
11:00 AM
Farming FOR Mother Nature – Organic FarmingPaul Kaiser  garden!
12:00 PM  Beer Brewing Basics Anthony DeFerrari , Anthony Tsangaropoulos
1:00 PM
Backyard Beekeeping 101 Mike Harrel
1:30 PM
Extracting Honey 101
2:30 PM
Barista goes to Guatemala!
3:00 PM
Herban Creations: Cordials & Syrups Dawn Zaft
4:00 PM
Sonatas of the Soil Lily Films
5:00 PM Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter. Lloyd Kahn Shelter Publications, Inc.

Sunday in The HOMEGROWN Village Workshop Area:

10:00 AM

Seed Catalog Crafts! – Cornelia Homegrown

12:00 PM

Butter! Shake it and Make it! Farm Aid / HOMEGROWN.org

1:00 PM

Chinese Noodle Maker Mr. Wang

 3:00 PM

Kraut-a-thon Happy Girl Kitchen Co.

 4:30 PM

Guerrilla Gardening: Making Seed Balls Edward Cabral

Chinese noodle-making

Food Product of the Week! Everything at KFC

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Neysa from Dissertation To Dirt writes a series about the edible atrocities available on our grocery store shelves. She has been kind enough to let us re-post them here. Enjoy – and try not to hurl.

I wanted to take some time this week and think about what the hell is happening at KFC.  With the premier of the Double Down and their ongoing advertising campaign using the tried and true medium of college girls’ butts, KFC has been in food news a lot lately.  With all the press and new menu items, you’d think KFC would be swimming in a pool of Kentucky fried money right about now.  But strangely enough, KFC has reported a decrease in sales of around 7% for the last quarter.  It seems that despite its attempts to lure us in, KFC is falling from our favor.

So what gives?  Are the glittery new menu items an attempt to resuscitate a dying profit margin?  Why aren’t they working?  And, perhaps more importantly, how far is KFC willing to go to get our attention?  Lately, KFC seems to be making a game of creating the most random, hodgepodge-iest, overindulgent dishes possible.  Remember Famous Bowls?

Then again, “extreme” fast food items like the Double Down aren’t particular to KFC — there’s the Wendy’s Baconator, the XXL Chalupa, and the 1200 calorie BK Triple Whopper, for examples.  Sometimes I think sensibility-shocking fast food items like these should be the topic of a cultural studies paper.

Still, looking at KFC’s menu, and reading comments online stating that people actually eat Double Downs, it got me thinking how foreign the world of fast food has become to me.  In college I realized that, for me, there was a direct correlation between eating fast food and feeling terrible.  Though it was once a fairly frequent part of my diet, I stopped eating it and never looked back.  Since I began working on a farm, fast food barely even resembles food to me anymore.  I don’t crave it. I barely pay attention to it.  And I feel much better for it.  I don’t judge when people regularly eat fast food.  But I do wonder if they could have the same experience I did.

Now, from an outsider’s perspective, I’ve noticed a sort of two-pronged trajectory of fast food over the last few years: one, catering to health concerns by offering salads and low fat options.  And two, all out scorn for moderation and normal eating habits, with products marketed as a kind of test of endurance for dietary excess (Double Down, I am looking at you).  Could these items be a quiet protest against the sense of guilt we’re made to feel for eating fast food in the first place?

Whatever the reason for KFC’s expanding menu — cultural phenomenon or last ditch efforts from a struggling food franchise — the entire KFC menu–better yet, KFC as an entity–gets my vote for FPOW this week.

Do you eat fast food?  (Don’t be shy).  How often and where do you frequent?

**Have a great idea for FPOW??  Send it to dissertationtodirt@gmail.com.**

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