Letter From Langdon: Not That ‘Simple’

It'll take a whole lot more than the demands of Bittman-inspired foodies to overcome the huge multinational alliance of chemicals, commodities, and crop inputs.

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Like the dry weather we had this year, 1956 was a drought, one that decimated crops and pastures. 

That was the same year President Dwight Eisenhower said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.” 

Like so many U.S. politicians that came before and after him, President Eisenhower was talking about recurring problems on American family farms. What could be done to help them survive financially? Federal aid perhaps. But not everyone thought farms should be bailed out.

Sometimes there just isn’t enough money to go around. 

Farmers are always trying to stay ahead by looking back. That’s why in ’66 Dad showed me his profit-challenged ledger from the 1950s. As far as Dad was concerned, a young farmer’s future was bleak. He wanted me to know that before I started farming for myself.

Looking back I have to admit Dad was right. I’m not getting any younger. Neither is the average farmer in America. That’s probably because farmers are living longer. It’s also because enough new ones aren’t around to replace old ones.

We’ve had droughts and floods in every decade since Dad and I had our heart to heart talk. Prices have been both up and down along with interest rates. And operating costs are always on a relentless march to the top. 

There hasn’t been a time when I wasn’t sure the end of the farm was near. So over the years I and nearly every other average farmer looked over his shoulder at the competition — I’m talking about all the other farmers in America and around the world — and decided the only way to survive was by staying ahead. 

We bought into everything and anything that offered an advantage (just like fishing buddies who are the best of friends, but keep their running shoes handy). If markets collapsed, there was weather disaster, or maybe even a grizzly bear stepped out of the woods, we knew the only way we’d survive as bear bait was by outrunning our neighbors. When new pesticides came out, we bought them. When technology changed everything from farm implements to seeds, we set aside the old and bought new. And when markets opened up here and abroad, we sold into them. 

That’s the story of agriculture. It’s a race to the top where losers get gobbled up.

So it’s interesting to look at farm gate prices today and realize that all the family farmers who went broke over the last six decades would be cleaning up now if they had been able to hang on. At today’s prices, the size of an average farm could actually be smaller and still support the farmer and his family.

But that’s not what’s happening. Farms just keep on getting bigger.

Beginning in the 1950s and early ’60s, the number of farms declined and the size of farms increased.

Everyone needs to know that simply being a farmer doesn’t mean you don’t have to make a living like everyone else. So when I read food writer Mark Bittman’s columns in the New York Times about a “simple fix” for farming and food, I want to say, “Mark, show me the money!”

I really don’t mind what guys like Bittman say. Heck, I even agree with a lot of it. And I’ve thought that my golden years might be best spent on a downsized acreage raising crops, livestock, and poultry for food…just like I used to do and just like Bittman champions. The biggest difference between the old days and now is that in a few more years I’ll have my Social Security check to help sustain those underpaid foodie ambitions. 

Here’s the problem we have: It’s not only Monsanto but all the major seed companies — like DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-bred that holds close to 225 individual intellectual property rights — have gained control. They own not just seeds, but genes and varieties that make the seeds what they are. That makes seed more expensive because even when old patents expire, new patents go onto every seed they sell. 

Monsanto has a lock on the soy and corn seed market.

Even if off patent GMO seed remains pure, government regulations demand that someone pays to maintain GMO registration. It’s an economy of scale dedicated to making farmers pay into corporate earnings. That is as real as a tax levied by any government, because, thanks to current laws, that is essentially what tech fees have become. 

But when activists attack big agriculture and big expenses created by tech fees, mainstream farmers, the ones who outran grizzly bear ag economics, line up to defend their style of farming

The best argument against all this is that doing what we do the way we do it is unsustainable, because it is.

Back in the ’50s, instead of using super computers Eisenhower’s bureaucrats crunched numbers with pencil lead and adding machines. Agriculture was different, too. We had diverse markets for a variety of products. Soybeans and other legumes like alfalfa were grown for hay and fed to on-farm livestock. Grain was, too. 

Manure was hauled back to fields returning plant nutrients to the soil in reasonable amounts, replacing what was removed the year before. And when disaster struck? Even a dead cow had value to rendering plants that salvaged hide, horn, hoof, and tallow, cooking what was left into high protein livestock feed. 

Farms in the ‘50s were perfect examples of waste not, want not.

Today we mine plant nutrients out of the ground and haul this thousands of miles to our fields. We feed corporate-owned livestock in places where big crops won’t grow, placing nutrient laden manure where it doesn’t belong. We haul livestock to distant slaughterhouses, then load all the products and haul them yet again to towns and cities across the country and around the world.

This does not even come close to fitting the definition of sustainability. 

But to some, especially the government and big businesses that some call cartels, it is the perfect picture of economic efficiency. While Bittman and his foodie followers point out the folly of it, modern farmers like me defend it as the only way to feed a hungry world.

Richard Oswald
Farmers know the problem. Back in the summer of 2008, there were standing-room-only “Taking It Back” meetings across the Midwest about monopoly in the seed business. This crowd met at the Mark Twain State Park in Missouri.

Do we really believe that? 

People, birds, cats, dogs, cattle, or hogs — all living creatures go from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Dumping all those ashes and dust into one spot is not the way the world was intended to work. I’ve told my family, when the day comes, place my ashes back on the farm so I can grow corn for eternity. 

Eventually though it may not be the farm, but the highest bidder who gets my ashes as we relocate more recyclable plant nutrients away from actual farm growing points. 

Thanks to the calcium phosphate in his bones, someday grandpa may be worth more dead than alive.

We’ve been replacing on-farm plant nutrients with imported fertilizers for decades. Now even the value of hog manure has risen in response to higher overall fertilizer costs.  If this keeps up even plain old poop will be a commodity valuable enough to be trucked across the country, just like manufactured fertilizers are now.

The problem faced by local food isn’t so much public acceptance. It’s that even as USDA offers a few million dollars in grants for local market development, thanks to our laws, corporate powers in America are milking billion dollar profits from a food system they built. 

Those billions in profits that supposedly go toward more innovation and bigger crop yields are really spent to create more concentrated control of everything that grows on the farm.

In order to make widespread local, sustainable food production successful, seed patents and concentrated animal agriculture will have to take a back seat to sustainability. 

That would mean the death of the corporations’ cash cow.

It’ll take a whole lot more than the demands of Bittman-inspired foodies to overcome the huge multinational alliance of chemicals, commodities, and crop inputs.  

And there’s no way a few USDA programs can ever overcome legal status given to big food through patent law and commodity and livestock market monopoly shuffleboard. 

We need to create a real shelter for a food-based cottage industry on the family farm. The best way to do that is with laws that recognize a true vision and definition of what sustainability in food production really means.

Otherwise corporate predators will just keep on eating our lunch.

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer, a Daily Yonder columnist and the president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

 

Topics: Ag and TradeFood
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