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.
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.
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.