I thought some of you might be interested...
Viewing Farming From a New Perspective
What I would like to do today is to create a new frame work from which to
review the way we farm. The new frame work, or paradigm, from which to view
farming, is not meant to condemn a particular way of farming, or to set one
type of farming above another. The paradigm we wish to put forth tonight is
one that looks at the consequences of farming.
The consequences of today's farming methods are very broad in scope. We
must look at the environmental costs, the economic costs, and the social
costs. We must consider the benefits too. Surely there are benefits to
farming or so many people would not be involved with it.
We will explore the sustainability of farming. Will we be able to continue
to produce the way we are, without impinging on future generations to
produce for themselves?
So to begin I shall read a passage from the book 'The Unsettling of
America', by Wendell Berry. It will give us two differing paradigms from
which to view farming.
"We as a society can be either exploiter or nurturers of our environment.
The terms exploitation and nurture, describe a division not only between
persons, but, also within persons. We are all to some extent the products of
an exploitive society, and it would be foolish and self-defeating to
pretend we do not bear its stamp.
Let me outline as briefly as I can, what seems to me to be these opposite
kinds of mind. I conceive a strip miner to be a model exploiter, and as a
model nurturer I take the old fashioned idea, or ideal of a farmer. The
exploiter is a specialist, and expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of
the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The
exploiter's goal is money, profit; the nurturer's is health--his land's
health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's. Whereas the
exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be
made to produce; the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and
difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken
from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an
indefinite time?) The exploiter wants to earn as much as possible by as
little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent
living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as
possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the
nurturer in order. The exploiter typically serves a institution of
organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The
exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantity, "hard facts"; the nurturer
in terms of character, condition, quality, kind." Wendell Berry
Okay, so what does that mean? ...
One of the major problems with today's methods of farming is it is so
exploitive in nature. We can see this demonstrated in the Externalized
Costs of operation. By externalized costs, I mean the negative consequences,
that are often hidden or difficult to initially detect. Examples include;
all types of pollution, impacts to health, flooding and drainage problems,
accumulation of animal waste, salinated soils, eroded soils, compacted and
hardened soils, drained aquifers, rivers that no longer flow, and loss of
Many of these examples of externalized costs are the result of labor saving
devices, technologies, chemicals or drugs. As an example, chemical
pesticides do save labor, but they pollute aquifers, and they do cause
health problems. However we have reduced our labor need, and that means
fewer farmers. We have also set up a condition where-by the farmer has just
lost a portion of control of his operation. When he started using chemicals,
he bought into the addiction to cheap food ideals, and put in place a broker
for part of his livelihood. IMO you won't get any richer producing at the
highest capacity, because you will also have the highest overhead. Any
excess capital from producing at high capacity goes to pay for the increased
overhead. It is like a safety line lent out to farmers, that he becomes
entangled in and is slowly strangled. It also acts as a mechanism for
someone else to make profit off his work. He has also traded pollution and
health costs for labor, but never pay the costs of chemical use.
In our present system no cost is accessed for the externalities. They are
not paid for by those profiting in the farming industry, but by you and me
and all future generations. The way the system is working right now these
costs are being born by the environment and in turn, by the public, to whom
these shared resources belong. All the pollution and negative consequences
of the operation, need to have a price tag attached to them, and recorded on
the ledger sheet. That is because these costs are real, and do not just go
away. They become liabilities that some one will end up dealing with.
Somehow, these costs need to be billed to the transgressor, and only then,
will we have True Cost Accounting of the unseen costs of production. We
need true cost accounting to avoid the terrible consequences that will
eventually beleaguer and our children.
Former Senator Gaylord Nelson said it this way, "The economy is a wholly
owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent
upon that environment with it's underlying resource base. When the
environment is finally forced to file under Chapter 11 because it's resource
base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, irretrievably compromised,
then, the economy goes down into bankruptcy with it because the economy is
just a subset within the ecological system."
Professor Donella Meadows said it like this, "Someday we will all come to
learn that the environment is not an intermittent news story, not a special
event, not a win-lose sports event, not a luxury, not a fad, not a
movement, not discredited, not faltering, and not something to pay token
attention to one day a year. It is a beat far more important than Wall
Street or Washington. It's laws are stronger than Newt's, it's moves are
more important than the Federal Reserve's, it's impact overwhelms that of
the stock market or the next election.
The environment is not one player on the field; it is the field. It holds
up, or fails to hold up, the whole economy and all of life, whether the
spot light is on it or not".
Another problem with farming is in the economics of the situation. The
hardest working people I know are farmers. It's been said that if you need
an employee who will work hard and give you 110%, hire a farmer. They know
the meaning of work and should stand to profit by their hard work.
But this is too often not the case. Let's look at what is happening to the
farmer. Is he the one prospering from modern agriculture? Most often not.
He's caught in the pinch between high production costs and low commodity
prices. Take the recent calamity hitting hog farmers. What a disaster this!
dollars received per hundred weight
+ cost of production
+ financial obligations
+ vertical integration
+ over production
= loss of family farms
Someone's making money during these times of depressed hog prices. Not the
farmer certainly. Not our neighbor down the road. But someone is. Who? Who
stands to profit from these depressed hog prices? And why are they so low?
The price of pork in the grocery store hasn't dropped like the price of pigs
has. Why is that? WHO IS PROFITING?
The answer is large scale corporate agriculture. The same ones with 100,000
unit, sow operations in unfortunate states like North Carolina and Iowa. In
Utah, a consortium of firms led by Smithfield Foods of Virginia is planning
a massive factory designed to produce 2.5 million hogs per year! It will
produce as much sewage as the city of Los Angeles.
Proponents say this scale of production lessens costs, thereby making large
operations more efficient. But as we saw in North Carolina, the costs
weren't reduced, they were externalized. Externalized costs are those which
are not paid for by the producer but shunted on to the public, in hope that
no one will notice. These are costs for things like clean up of sewage
lagoon ruptures, contaminated streams and rivers, poisoned aquifers,
pfiesteria (the cell from hell) epidemics, reduced antibiotic usefulness,
air pollution, and decreased property values for anyone unfortunate enough
to live down wind from these pigs. These corporate hog factories (not
farms) use public dollars to subsidize their bloated growth. (see Time
Magazine's recent series on corporate welfare)
But there is another reason pig farmers are going out of business. It's
called 'vertical integration'. That means that the same corporate giants
producing mega hogs and mega pollution also own the processing plants and
distribution chains. As the big processing plants were bought out by the
corporate pigs, many were also closed down. Enough were closed that there
are no longer enough processing plants to handle the supply of hogs. We now
have a glut of hogs and no place to process them. The corporate giants are
able to sell at the depressed price of $13 per hundredweight, because they
don't need to make money at that point of production. They can still make
their money on the processing and marketing!!!
And as it turns out many of these corporate giants were able to get 30 to 50
dollars per hundredweight for their hogs because they had contracts with the
packers for their hogs. These contracts were not available to the family
farmer because they weren't big enough. This is just the type of
discrimination that was supposed to be illegal under the 'Packers an
Stockyards Act (PSA). Unfortunately the current Secretary of Agriculture,
Dan Glickman, chose not to enforce it. Why is that? If you look into
President Clinton's campaign donations, I think you find good reason for Mr.
Glickman ignoring the plight of the family hog producer and enacting the PSA.
A note on the bright side, both Senators Kohl and Feingold have asked for
investigations into this matter.
I see giant, corporate agriculture as the most real threat to our
environment and the family farm.
They refuse to be responsible for their actions, and only responsible for
Peter Montague of the AFL-CIO writers union explains corporate reasoning
" For the most part, corporations are staffed by intelligent, well-meaning
people. But the personal motivations of those individuals are not what
motivate the corporation. A large publicly-traded corporation is driven by
its own internal logic.
** A corporation has an internal drive that is comparable to a human's "will
to live." Once a corporation is publicly traded, it:
** Must return a profit to investors;
** Must grow;
** Must externalize costs to the extent feasible.
These are essential characteristics of the corporate form. If a corporation
fails to provide a decent return for investors, those investors can (and do)
sue for breach of fiduciary trust. This
requirement --to turn a profit --narrowly limits what corporations can do.
In general, what is unprofitable cannot be pursued. This means that
individuals must sometimes put aside
their consciences when they make decisions for a corporation. The most
well-meaning people in the world are not free to act on their personal
philosophies when they are acting on behalf of a
publicly-held corporation. They must do what is profitable, which is not
necessarily what is right." Peter Montague