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, 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.
From driverless tractors and robotic pickers to technologies that preserve fresh produce 5x longer, we are obsessed with using technology to solve the many, many challenges in our food system. But after spending a few days in Omaha this week, hanging out with some of the most advanced and progressive farmers in America, I realized that technology is really just a small part of the solution we’re looking for. The real future of farming isn’t growing plants or animals; it’s growing businesses.
Don’t be confused, farms are already businesses — incredibly capital intensive and highly risky businesses at that. In one year, a farmer might buy a few million dollars in inputs and assets, sell a few million dollars of commodity crops, and come out in the end with something like $30,000-$40,000 a year in “profit” (read: wages). That’s a terrifying amount of risk to take for a meager reward. And farmers do it. And now, at a time when commodity prices are cripplingly low, they’re looking to mitigate some of that risk with new businesses on their farms.
Over the last few years, much of the trailblazing, waste-busting progress against Food Waste in Europe has been taking place across the Channel in France, from impactful legislation changes to quirky campaigns and dancing (yes, dancing). Sacré bleu!
They have just banned plastic cups, plates and cutlery