Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

HOMEGROWN Life: What will be the future of agriculture?

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Drones, robots, and humans collaborating from a control room monitoring the wheat crops? Vat-grown “meats” in factories? Drinkable nutrients for the on-the-go “consumer?” People swinging pitchforks and scythes at compost parties? Tomato plants floating atop tanks of tilapia in greenhouses filled with solar-powered lighting systems?

It’s all possible, and most of the scenarios above could likely be on their way. I am torn about it.

That’s because I struggle with the concept of a technological “fix” for how we produce and process and distribute food. Technology and science and innovation are clearly one of the most important investments in how to move forward for modern society (I’m tempted to say “civilization” here, but I’m holding back). And yet, the direction of that complex of innovation investments can lead to some awful outcomes.

Take the scientific fix of how to solve the problem of sick pigs when you put thousands of them in enclosed factories. Give the pigs a steady stream of antibiotics so they don’t get sick. It’s a logical scientific response to a very narrowly defined problem. But then, years in the factory farm pig production system with people and pigs bio-accumulating the antibiotics, scientists and society have raised real concerns about the utility of our antibiotic strains remaining viable. Viruses and bacteria have evolved to become more resistant to our antibiotic supply. What happens if there is a disease outbreak and we need those valuable medicines? Too late. We used up the biological supply to prop up factory farm pig production for past thirty-odd years.

I suppose we all have our favored notion of what’s to come, what’s preferable, how we should move along the path. Mine is more people on the land farming a mix of crops and livestock, minding the recycling and biological renovation of nutrients while producing healthy food for people, and leaving room for the wildlife with whom we share the planet.  That’s already a mouthful, I know, but there also needs to be something said for economic fairness, decent pay, and incomes sufficient to support these food producers and conservationists.

IMG_6430

The swirling of these issues comes crashing home sometimes when a news article or study or something comes along. Yesterday was such a day for me, reading a new study that offers up some interesting data for those of us wondering if our dream of local food systems could actually meet the food needs of modern America. Turns out that the answer is pretty much, “Yes.”

Professor Elliott Campbell, with the University of California, Merced, School of Engineering, discusses the possibilities in a study entitled “The Large Potential of Local Croplands to Meet Food Demand in the United States”. Dr. Campbell’s new farmland-mapping research shows that up to 90 percent of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes.

It’s an interesting piece of work. It turns out that most metropolitan areas (other than some parts of the New York-New England Megalopolis) have plenty of productive land around that can be used to produce most of the food.

Here at home in West Missouri, just outside of Kansas City, that potential is clearly evident. Lots and lots of land lies in an “unproductive” state. Most of the land is grazed by herds of cattle, the nursery for the beef industry. Some land raises corn and beans and wheat. Some is bottom land hardwood forest. Very few acres are used to produce actual food for people. Instead, our local area provides raw material for the industrial economy (feed and calves for the feedlots out West, corn for the ethanol plants, etc.).

Cornstalks

And the thing that most of us in the local food movement fail to realize is that this industrial commodity system is in place for some understandable reasons. First, the conventional system works in a way. It functions in that there is an understandable system for producing goods (corn or calves) and then selling them into a marketplace with local access points. Second, there is an existing capital system in place to keep the commodity production system chugging along. Third, there are policies and incentives and regulations in place that support this industrial commodity structure.

We can, and should, certainly argue that the industrial commodity system is problematic. It’s dependent upon a steady supply of cheap fossil fuels and lack of accountability for pollution to air and water. It discounts soil health and conservation activities (mostly, but with some exceptions). It tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already wealthy and the food processors, and tends to pay farmers poorly for their efforts and risk over time. This corresponding wealth accumulation and capital flight to the food processors leads to lack of economic opportunity and depopulation of many rural communities. On and on it goes.

shutterstock_113089669

So what’s the future of agriculture, then, if we hope to use the opportunity of transitioning agriculture to more of a focus on raising healthy food for people in the cities near us? The technological and innovation engine needs to keep chugging along for sure. But more important than these technological considerations might mean building a policy framework and developing market opportunities and infrastructure.

You know, truly sexy things like food processing shops and developing trucking routes. That along with making sure that the newly developed infrastructure doesn’t steal off all of the income from food production and leaving farmers with too little income once again.

Feeding the metropolitan areas with locally raised goods is a wonderful opportunity and a goal worth pursuing. We can do it if we choose that path. We just need to make sure that when we’re building out that re-localized system we “innovate” with community and ecological health as critical ingredients for success.

MORE FROM BRYCE:

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

 

PHOTOS: (BARN) EMILY EAGAN; (CORN STALKS) JEAN MARKKO TIKUSIS; CULTIVATOR (SHUTTERSTOCK)

HOMEGROWN Life: A Farmer’s Take on the Agriculture Census

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150For data nerds like me, I suppose there are few gifts that could compare with the joyous release every five years of the USDA Census of Agriculture. Given that I’m a farmer and sustainable agriculture advocate, I naturally want to track the real-time data trends about what’s happening with our nation’s agricultural scene. I’m interested in farm numbers, farm size, economic viability, the aging farm population, and more.

But what really interests me, just like in the broader social context of the wildly widening gap of economic disparity, are the differences between the median and the mean.

Inequality. It’s an important concept. So put on your social science goggles, and let’s get down to it.

Lots of people are familiar with the term “average.” In social sciences analysis, we call that the mean. Take the total amount of farm products sold in a year, divide it by the number of farmers, and you’re left with the mean. In 2012, the agriculture census tells us the mean, or “average,” amount of products sold was $187,093 per farm.

HOMEGROWN-life-Bryce-Oates

Bryce on the farm

That sounds pretty good until you compare it with the median, which is actually much, much lower. The median is where you stack up all of a given population or wage-earning group and describe a characteristic from the middle. In this case, you’d stack all 2.1 million U.S. farmers by rank of sales per year, and the median would be farmer number 1.55 million. That’s a figure the USDA doesn’t even provide.

But here’s a signal: More than 1.6 million farmers of those total 2.1 million farmers sell less than $50,000 per year in agricultural products. That means the median is likely down in the $30- to $40-thousand level. (I’d be more precise, but this is preliminary data, and we won’t know more until all of the USDA ag census data for 2012 is released in May).

Here are some other interesting things to consider:

1.) The average size farm nationally is 434 acres per farm. The median is 80 acres.

2.) The average age of the farmer is 58.3 years old. Only 120,000 of the total 2.1 million farmers are under the age of 35.

3.) Of those 2.1 million farmers, just over half have jobs where farming is not considered their primary occupation. (This one can be confusing because farmers can have seriously low income levels but still be increasing their wealth. Also, USDA’s Economic Research Service generates annual reports demonstrating that between 82 and 95 percent of annual farm household income comes from off-farm sources.)

What does all of this mean?

Well, that requires some context to go with our content. My first thought is that agriculture is much like the rest of society. We have large levels of inequality. The larger farms are getting richer, as they’re wired through financing, cash-on-hand, equipment, and more to lock up more land that lower income farmers simply can’t afford. Those of us wanting 80 more acres for pasture and cattle and sheep can’t really outbid somebody coming in with a bulldozer, Roundup Ready beans, and lots of wealth on their balance sheet.

The larger farms are also getting richer because they have a policy situation in hand that protects them from weather and markets in a way that most small farmers do not: government-subsidized crop insurance. So larger farmers have used their wealth and power to create a political situation in their favor.

One thing I will say is that the 2012 census data for farmers isn’t an anomaly. It’s the continuation of trends that have existed for the last 40-plus years. Farmers are getting older. Big farmers (that’s primarily the row croppers) are getting bigger and richer. Small farmers are hanging in there but primarily through working off-farm jobs to pay their bills.

This sounds pretty much like the broader story of American society to me in 2014. It’s disappointing, for sure. And, no, I don’t begin to expect full equality and equal incomes. But taxing the rich and providing services and funding to the bottom 50 percent sounds like a better idea every day.

Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

HOMEGROWN Life: Visions of Urban Agriculture

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

Call me nerdy, but I think planning and zoning is fascinating. Give me a project proposal or zoning code, and I gladly immerse myself in land use regulations, zoning jargon and mapping.  So when the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Mayor’s office held a kickoff and visioning meeting to rezone Boston for urban agriculture on Monday night, I was sitting front row, pencil in hand!

Image courtesy of City Farmer News

Boston is not new to agriculture. The Boston Common was used from 1634-1830 as a public livestock grazing pasture. The city has the highest number of community gardens per capita; 150 gardens throughout the city in which 3,000 members grow. There are currently 6 urban agriculture projects in Boston, and farmers’ markets in every neighborhood. A new pilot rezoning projectapproved last year by the city leases two parcels of land in South Dorchester to be farmed by local organizations.

But, this rezoning project is critical to the future of the local food system in Boston.  As it stands now, the current Zoning Code details 3 (basic) types of land uses for Boston:

  • Allowed by right use: A land use that is permitted as a matter of right. Board of Appeal approval is not required.
  • Conditional use: A land use permitted by the Zoning Code provided that it is found by the Board of Appeal to comply with certain conditions set out in the Code
  • Forbidden use: A use that is not permitted in a particular district because of harmful impacts on other allowed uses; e.g., noise, pollution.

However, as I learned Monday night, if a particular use is not expressly mentioned in the Zoning Code, it is, by default, forbidden.  This applies to most agricultural land uses. In order for urban agriculture – the use of a parcel of land to cultivate food and other products with the intent of sale – to thrive, the Code must be revised.

Map courtesy of Boston Redevelopment Authority Pilot Urban Agriculture Project

As urban environments, like Boston, seek to become more sustainable, food and agriculture will play an increasingly critical role. I am excited to see my city take the first steps in becoming greener and creating a local food system. The expansion of urban agriculture in Boston will have profoundly positive effects on the city. A new chapter in the Code will increase residents’ access to local, fresh food, it will provide new economic opportunities to grow and sell food products, it will expand educational programs about healthy eating and agriculture for local youth, and it will utilize vacant lots and empty spaces in a sustainable and beneficial way.

At the meeting I was pleased to see a diverse group of Boston residents present, asking question, and providing their own visions for the future of urban agriculture. Mayor Menino voiced his enthusiastic commitment for agriculture and urban farmer and founder of Growing PowerWill Allen, the man who transformed Milwaukee into an thriving agricultural city, gave an inspiring presentation about possibilities for growth in Boston.  The meeting wrapped up with a spirited roundtable discussion and thoughtful comments from residents that left me energized for an urban agriculture revolution in Boston!

Even though this rezoning and planning is in it’s infantile stages, and I’m sure at some point this year-long process may become arduous, the prospects urban agriculture holds for Boston will be worth it.  Beekeeping, backyard chickens, and farms in my neighborhood? Let’s get started!

Photo Credit: Linda N., Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License

 

I am the Flock-Tender here on HOMEGROWN.org. I am keeping a chronicle of my experiences learning, living, and growing a homegrown lifestyle fresh out of college.