Mom always wanted a Lexus truck. She would talk about it incessantly, cooing about her “baby shoe” whenever one of the Japanese luxury upstarts shot by us on I-395 as she drove me to school. My eyes would roll, teenaged broodiness blinding me to another of Mom’s uncountable sacrifices; she couldn’t have her baby shoe because she was spending all her money sending me to this school. Money likely unimaginable to her as a Black farmer’s daughter growing up in the Virginia Tidewater. A successful farmer, even.
Her father, a stout and handsome man with skin the color of rich soil, quit his well-paying job as a cooper in North Carolina at the ripe old age of 20, relocating to Virginia to build a house on the farm his mother bought in 1914. A new house in Depression-era Virginia was peculiar. For that house to belong to a Black man sounded like a fish story. Strangers travelled for miles to watch Coston Beamon pound nails into his roof.
American farming, on any meaningful scale, is driven by one thing and one thing only: the almighty dollar. We’d all like to think that producing the food and fiber that nourishes us physically, mentally, and emotionally is about more than economics — but at the end of the day, farmers have to eat too.
That’s why Amazon’s proposed acquisition of Whole Foods is such a huge deal. When I spend time with farmers, many of them big commodity farmers in the Midwest, they (generally) aren’t ideologically opposed to growing organic or otherwise changing their management practices. The biggest reason they don’t do it is because it’s expensive, and there usually isn’t a market for it. And when they say market, they mean in the most literal sense — there is not a physical place where they can easily, and with certainty, go and sell thousands or millions of bushels of whatever they’ve grown for a good price (or any price, these days). Few local elevators separate organic produce, and otherwise finding specialty buyers and storage takes a whole lot of time that farmers don’t have.
Many farmers don’t grow organic because they don’t know where to sell it. But Amazon could change that.
“The global population is skyrocketing, the climate is changing, and diets are shifting. So how do you tackle the problem of feeding 9 billion people by 2050? Assemble an elite team of scientists for a year-long brainstorming session… What’s needed is akin to a moonshot. Or as committee co-chair John D. Floros put it, a “green revolution 2.0.””
This is from a month-old article in the Washington Post entitled “This quiet agricultural ‘moonshot’ could change the future of food.’ They are some of the scariest words I’ve seen put together in quite some time.
Back in 2013, my wife (Annie) and I made an abrupt change. I was working as a software engineering consultant near Washington D.C. with a team that I loved (and still do), but a client that seemed determined to send me to an early grave. When the stress of the job finally culminated in a cancer scare, Annie exercised her spousal veto over our lives: our plan to start a farm as a retirement project got moved up to right that very minute, I left my job and she hers as director of Washington Printmakers Gallery, and off we went to Annie’s hometown outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
We had no background in farming. Neither of us went to ag school, had any experience as farm interns, or had even WWOOFed. The biggest thing I’d ever planted was a 100′ diameter three-sisters garden in a park in southern Maryland. My grandparents were farmers, but none of that knowledge got passed down to me. My formal education in farming occurred on the weekend of my 31st birthday, where I spent two hot days in July at the Polyface IDS. I devoured books and YouTube videos on permaculture and pasture farming, and that was that.
I told a story a little while ago and received an interesting comment; here’s most of it:
Local food, organic food, “real” food produces less per unit of land farmed without a demonstrable improvement in nourishment. Do you really want to have to expand the amount of land in cultivation to feed the earth? Wholesale going “local” means having more limited diets. As long as this is limited to zealots and those who want to be accepted by their organic friends, and for whom the amount of their income spent on food is negligible, that’s great. It’s a lifestyle expense. But if you want to feed the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, and do it on a budget, this is an awful, awful approach.
Last night I watched a TedX talk that successfully induced fear into its audience about how we are being betrayed, deceived, and cheated into buying food that is raised inhumanely, unethically, and ultimately, is dangerous for our bodies.
The speaker dubbed the collective group behind this deception the “fiberatti — a secret society of people trained in deceptive food marketing.”
He first attacked the dairy industry, calling attention to the differences between the rolling grassy hills portrayed in milk marketing campaigns and the scenes of a real dairy. He then moved on to speak of the fiberatti’s influences on pork, poultry, crop farming, and the beef industry.
Last night, my wife and I watched a Redbox movie on the tiny 15” television in our bedroom. It’s called “War Dogs,” and it’s about a pair of 20-something arms dealers who have wacky and unlawful adventures in procuring weapons for the U.S. military. The movie’s anti-heroes make a living by scouring a website that should produce a cold sweat in anyone that’s ever been involved in any way with government contracting: FedBizOpps. This is a website that lists practically every requisition for products and services needed by the Federal government — from office supplies to military hardware — and invites contractors to bid on the work. After watching the movie it occurred to me that the government probably uses the site to buy food as well, so I went digging and came across an object lesson in why Local has a gaping hole in its strategy for global domination of agriculture.
Big Food, Tiny Prices
Interestingly, nearly all of the food requisitions I came across were for the Bureau of Prisons. Even the small orders were for staggering amounts of food: 5,000 lbs of ground beef here, 2,000 lbs of chicken leg quarters there, 2,500 lbs of turkey breast over here. There was one contract for a straight bid on 20,000 lbs of beef burritos. The smaller offerings typically involved at least 10,000 lbs of meat. The larger orders shot north of a quarter-million pounds. And the only thing more shocking than the amount of food involved was the price.The most recent award (January 6, as of this writing) for well over 100,000 lbs of various meats was awarded to two suppliers for a combined total of about $30,000. Another, awarded just 24 hours prior, involved 127,000 lbs of beef, pork, and chicken plus about an equal weight of frozen vegetables and various packaged food, including 70,000 lbs of pancakes. This one was awarded across nine suppliers at a total value of about $190K. Fun sidebar: $50K of this was awarded to a company in Texas that paid a $100K fine in 2002 after pleading guilty to selling adulterated meat.
This is staggeringly cheap food being sold to the federal government by an awful lot of companies with the word “Importers” in their names. I was surprised by how few of the procurement items made any mention of a requirement for USDA inspection.
Cattle are cheap and ranchers are struggling, but the price of your steak hasn’t changed.
Cattle prices are extremely low right now, and ranchers across the country are struggling to feed their herds and their families. But you probably haven’t noticed a commensurate drop in the price of you beef at the market, have you.