July 31, 2015

The Buck Stops Here

BY Peter Schutt

After leading many tours of our farm for both young students and mature adults, I have come to realize that hardly anyone really understands the why’s and wherefore’s of what is known in today’s narrative as the “local food” movement.

To those who come to tour Winchester Farm see the context of our food system by understanding the practices of conventional grain farms that surround ours. All these farms grow either soybeans or corn as a primary crop, and some grow winter wheat during the colder months.

To begin, almost every acre of these farms is sprayed with herbicides, first to kill the weeds growing prior to planting, then another “pre-emergent” herbicide that prevents the sprouting of weed seeds not killed by the first spraying.

Almost every ounce of these chemicals sold to the farmer are made by either Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science, Dow Chemical, Dupont or Sygenta. All these are multinational corporations with offices around the world and CEOs who are paid many millions of dollars per year.

Almost every one of the billions of corn, soy and wheat seed planted in the soil around our farm is likewise produced by a multinational corporation, sometimes the same corporation that produces the herbicides sprayed on the fields.

Local farmers generally buy or lease very large tractors, harvesting machines and irrigation systems. Most of this equipment is made by multinational corporations with manufacturing plants located outside the U.S. This includes John Deere and Case-International brands of tractors and equipment. Most Deeres for years were made in Illinois, today most are made in India, Mexico and other countries outside the U.S.; International, of course, used to be made in Memphis and is now owned by Case New Holland, which is controlled by the Italian firm, Fiat. They also own Ford-New Holland, the third large tractor maker.

Further, the equipment (and land) is often financed by very large companies such as life insurance or specialized farm credit companies.

Once harvested, the corn, soy and wheat is loaded onto large tractor-trailer rigs and usually hauled to large grain storage facilities on the Mississippi River, who buy the grain and load it onto barges. Almost all the grain is barged and then trucked again hundreds or thousands of miles to be used as either animal feed, feedstock for ethanol plants, or in some small percent of cases, for actual human food.

About the only thing local used in conventional grain farming near our farm is the labor and, when farmers decide to use it on their soil, lime, which comes from a quarry near the Tennessee River.

When a farmer then buys all his seed, chemicals and equipment with borrowed money, he is paying interest, usually to a non-local lender. He is using this borrowed money to buy his materials from multinational corporations. So if you follow each dollar he spends, very few pennies of each dollar stays in the local economy, unless the farmer is one of the fortunate ones to make a profit. In which case some money goes into his pocket.

But still, almost every grain of corn, soy and wheat he produces is shipped far miles away.

Winchester Farm presents a stark contrast.

After eight years in the livestock business, almost all the cattle and hogs we now graze and raise were born on our farm. We bought the original Angus cows from Claybrook Farm just up the road. The rootstock of our Berkshire hogs and our laying hens came from various farmers within 100 miles or so.

We buy our non GMO corn and alfalfa seed from small, independent suppliers; though they’re not all within 100 miles, they’re not multinational corporations, either.

Our tractors and equipment are almost all second-hand and made in the USA, although we do plan to buy a new John Deere soon.

Our fertilizer comes from a small manufacturer in Ohio. We buy what mineral supplement for our cattle and sunflower seeds for our hogs from a family owned business 12 miles away.

Our lender is a family owned bank in Paris, TN.

We sell all of our pork and eggs and much of our beef locally, from Brownsville to Memphis. When we have an animal butchered, it is by local butchers.

So, rather than spend our money in a way that almost all of every dollar leaves the local economy, and sell what we grow in a way that all of it also leaves the local economy, you can see that the effect of all our work is to keep the money and resources circulating locally.

* * *

I am reading a book now, “American Catch”, about the state of the seafood system in America and around the world. The author has researched the current and past of the seafood industry and points out that today, Americans import about 91% of the seafood we consume. And we export about 75% of the seafood we produce.

In light of what I have written above, I think it’s important to regurgitate a few sentences from this book:

“Two thirds of all Alaska seafood, much of it salmon, is sent abroad. And much of the Alaskan salmon that does make it to American consumers is flash-frozen whole, shipped to China, defrosted, filleted and deboned. It is then refrozen and shipped back to the U.S. as twice frozen boneless product.

“Nowadays, however an increasingly large part of the seafood we send to China stays there for consumption. This trend is augmented by the dissolution of the American fish processing industry. From scallops and haddock in New Bedford to spiny lobsters and black cod in central California, I found again and again that fishermen had poor access to selling their fish locally. In American coastal communities, fishermen are being pushed off the dock by the real estate business and as a result it is easier and cheaper to send their catch, unprocessed and in bulk, to China.”

* * *

So why have we Americans veered so far off course, in that every day we nourish ourselves blindly, without regard to where what we eat comes from or what the cost of eating is, beyond the cost in dollars and cents? Who is to blame?

As Wendell Berry says, “we all are implicated”.

Americans, thanks to decades of incessant messaging thru mass media, are hand conditioned to measuring the value of things in dollars and cents and of perceiving food as a commodity that we must pay as little for as possible – again, without regard to the consequences of such a choice.

The local food “movement” is in many circles adhered to by those who think it to be trendy – a conversation piece and an idea whose main purpose is to make us feel good about ourselves. The reality is that understanding eating to be agricultural act rather than simply another box to check in our busy daily routine, is necessary to “right living”.

In the Judeo-Christian history, eating is nigh onto a sacrament to be savored as an event that nourishes our bodies and our spirits. Taken from that perspective then, the cost in dollars and cents is not as important as the process of how and where we get our food. Those who grow their own food, or at least buy or barter their food from a neighbor or local farmer, I contend are truly living in community.

Today’s narrative of the “global economy”, put forth by those who say we now live in a global community, by contrast encourages citizens to ignore their immediate neighbors and tends to justify a food system that we are now realizing is just plain broken.

The Haida people of coastal British Columbia have a folk tale about a hummingbird’s effort to put out a raging forest fire that is consuming the home to all animals. While all the bears, deer and other animals flee the fire, the hummingbird flies back and forth from the sea, unloading from its beak one drop of water at a time on the fire. The grizzly scoffs, asking the tiny bird why he is so silly as to think one drop of water can help extinguish the fire. The hummingbird explains – no matter how small the effort to put out the fire, one must still try to solve, rather than run from, the problem.

Get the point?