American Farmers Are in Crisis
September 17, 2018 7:04 AM   Subscribe

 
A gallon of milk costs a farmer approximately $1.90 to produce, but in the last year, farmers have been receiving as little as $1.35 per gallon. With prices so low, Cochran wonders how to pay for seed corn, feed, potential visits from the veterinarian, and health care for her ill husband. Ultimately, she wonders, “What is tomorrow going to hold for us? Can we go through another season?”
[cough]supplymanagement[cough]
posted by clawsoon at 7:17 AM on September 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


Even as the number of dairy farms shrinks, the milk supply continues to grow as the remaining farms get ever larger. In 1987, half of American dairy farms had 80 cows or fewer; by 2012, that number was 900 cows. In March, Walmart announced plans to open its own bottling plant in Indiana, leading Dean Foods, a major Walmart supplier, to terminate its contracts with over 100 dairy farmers in eight states.

Another case of corporations and rich people centralizing wealth.
posted by KGMoney at 7:37 AM on September 17, 2018 [29 favorites]


I've heard this so many times, and always from a source that needs it to be true. Meanwhile the slightly larger farmers understand that there will be a few tough years and then they'll get back to making bank through scale and automation.

When Farm Journal has an article to the same effect, or even hinting at it, I'll believe something might change.
posted by windowbr8r at 7:37 AM on September 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


I wonder if the same gallon of milk costs ConAgra $1.90 to produce.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:38 AM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


The lynchpin has always been consumer preference for lower prices over just about everything short of salmonella.

There is absolutely no political logic that connects this to peoples' own struggles to secure wages and benefits. Until that clarity is gained in a voting majority, expect this to continue apace.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 8:03 AM on September 17, 2018 [17 favorites]


And yet, the Farm Bureau officers I worked with consistently supported the right-wing candidates and causes that are making the situation worse, and were staunch climate-change deniers.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:05 AM on September 17, 2018 [39 favorites]


This article reminded me of a harrowing commercial I remember seeing in a cinema in the late 90's showing cattle and dairy farmers breaking down in tears on camera - the point being that the recent BSE crisis had had a human impact.

I couldn't find it but did come across this Guardian article (TW: suicide) that explains the origins behind the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network mentioned in the original article above.
posted by Molesome at 8:13 AM on September 17, 2018


[cough]supplymanagement[cough]

(a terrible, terrible thing, which hurts American farmers by keeping the price of milk ... high, so Canadian farmers can afford to produce it.)

I feel for the small producers, but the agricultural historian in me reads a phrase like "small farmers are struggling to stay afloat" and thinks - yes, this is the fate of small farmers, and has been since about 10,000 BCE. There is a reason that rural lower classes (labourers and small producers) have always been the poorest people in every society since the invention of farming.

That's not to say that they should be. But to change that means actively interfering in markets, through systems like supply management.
posted by jb at 8:37 AM on September 17, 2018 [17 favorites]


Meanwhile, the animals are being phased out of factory farming.
posted by pracowity at 9:17 AM on September 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Canadian here. Not sure why supply management is the solution when President Trump's trade war is to blame.

Anyway, we have supply management in Canada and the price of milk is extremely high. A 4L jug (about a gallon) costs $5+tax. With two boys, we go through 3 of these jugs a week.

And then there's the price of cheese. The quality of cheese in Canada is not good and it's extremely expensive. The average cheapest price for non-process cheese is $2/100g (Kraft Singles are $1.55 a gram)+tax, but if you want to buy any cheese that tastes halfway decent, you're looking at $5/100g+tax.

I don't think that dairy farmers should be pushed out of business, but with supply management, be careful what you wish for.

And if Trump stopped behaving like an uneducated moron who's duplicitous and untrustworthy to boot when it comes to NAFTA, American dairy farmers wouldn't be in this predicament.

Fuck that guy.
posted by JamesBay at 9:21 AM on September 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


One thing I'm wondering is how people are drinking less milk, though they are eating more cheese and yogurt. But, even if yogurt and cheese were picking up the slack, wouldn't this shift of milk from being an end consumer product to a more "raw" material sold to another business affect its pricing too?
posted by FJT at 9:24 AM on September 17, 2018


The quality of cheese in Canada is not good

The quality of mass produced cheese available in Canadian supermarkets isn't great (largely because we use poorer quality milk solids from the US - ours get used for higher end cheese, butter and drinking milk) but there are many small producers that produce good quality cheeses in Ontario and Quebec. The problem is that they are not really available outside of where they are made so you see a lot of "good cheese deserts" in places like BC & Alberta.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:17 AM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


I can't really afford to eat cheese from small producers (we have them in BC and on Vancouver Island), except on special occasions. I suppose, for health reasons, it's a good thing, but it's always seemed to me that supply management has little to no regard for consumers. It's all about the producers. While I suppose this helps preserve the great, rich tapestry of Canadian culture, we also need to recognize that part of Canadian identity is lousy cheese (I'm talking about the food, but I suppose this also applies to most CanCon and CBC content).
posted by JamesBay at 11:10 AM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Seems to me like this is exactly what American farmers have been reliably voting for, so why all the tears? Yay, you won and this is your prize!
posted by aramaic at 11:11 AM on September 17, 2018 [37 favorites]


The low payments received by US dairy farmers are not the fault of Canadian farmers, or their supply management program. There is a global surplus of dairy products, and many farmers (especially smaller farmers) are having trouble finding someone who wants to buy their milk. Dairy farmers are price takers due to the perishable nature of milk, they can't just store their milk and hope for better prices in 6 months, as grain farmers sometimes can. The reason that so many farms are exiting (going out of business) is that the only way to squeak by in the US is to be extremely efficient. This requires capital for investment, particularly if you're looking to use robots and other technologies to lower your labor costs, and lots and lots of cows. Many small farms are "landlocked" by neighbors and cannot expand if they want to. Also, many (clearly not all) people raised on farms want to make a living in other ways. There are already "stealth" supply management programs being tested by US milk processors, such as purchasing a first (fixed) quantity of milk at one price and the overage at a much lower price. There are small farms that are very well managed and make money, but they often produce premium products (farm-packaged butter, ice cream, etc.) or sell premium genetics, which can be worth a lot more than milk.
posted by wintermind at 11:21 AM on September 17, 2018 [11 favorites]


i live in maine and happily pay ~$5 for a half gallon for whole raw milk from small producers at farmers market. i know the small farms around here are doing pretty well due to an affluent retiree population in coastal maine. pay relatively big money for eggs and meat too. but happy to eat less of those things and get them from small scale people i know.
it's scary sometimes to just look at food prices in the grocery store. crazy low.
actually the price of anything in a big store is crazy.
posted by danjo at 11:28 AM on September 17, 2018


it's scary sometimes to just look at food prices in the grocery store. crazy low.

But crazy low quality too.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:34 AM on September 17, 2018


Food prices are much higher in Canada than in they are in the United States, especially when you factor in household income, and household income devoted to paying for rent or mortgage. There are reasons for the high cost of groceries, notably we're a small country in terms of population, our consumer-oriented ag sector doesn't have economies of scale, fuel costs and other inputs are much, much higher.

I myself have no use for local raw milk (illegal here anyway) since I don't drink milk, but my kids literally demand it. Besides the $5 per jug there is also a combined 12% VAT on top of all of that.

We're okay, but good grief groceries must eat into the budget of single-parent households.
posted by JamesBay at 11:52 AM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


America's inefficient farmer fetish is weird.
posted by srboisvert at 12:28 PM on September 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


One advantage of direct farmer subsidies over supply management is that as the subsidies would come from general revenue it would be a better system for low-income consumers because they'd save more on buying dairy products than what their increase in taxes would be. If we're keeping supply management then maybe we need some kind of credit for lower-income Canadians to offset some of the extra they pay for dairy here (like the HST cheques but for dairy).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:37 PM on September 17, 2018


I dunno, doesn’t every country mythologize their food production?
posted by q*ben at 12:40 PM on September 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Trump, in an interview.
Brady Mallory: "So, for family farmers here who are worried about losing their generations-long farms -- at the end of the season --, (and) early retirement, any words of comfort for them now?"
President Donald Trump: "Well, they would've lost them anyway because they were being hurt so badly by the trade barriers. We will tell you they are going to be in a very good position soon."
Soon.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:32 PM on September 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Soon.

As soon as Canada agrees to his NAFTA demands. Or at least that's what Trump's rhetoric seems to say.
posted by Ashwagandha at 2:00 PM on September 17, 2018



I used to work in Canadian dairy, cheese to be specific at a small rural company. After that I wouldn't want to drop our supply management system. I get that it makes dairy more expensive here but the alternative is worse, not just for producers but for everyone.

The TLDR: Dairy produced with farmers, animal and consumer health and well-being in mind costs. It is not a cheap product to create. Yeah may used to have been but that also came with a whole lot of health and safety issues. It's super regulated for very good reasons.

Without some sort of supply management sure, the market reigns and we get cheaper, because competition and over supply. This potentially leads to all sorts changes as farmers need to figure out how to do it cheaper. You want antibiotics and all the fun things US farmers put in dairy that Canada doesn't? Doing this would increase pressure to do so.

In a nutshell it's all about sanitation and consumer health. Keeping dairy safe for human consumption at large scale takes work and careful management all the way through the supply chain. It takes so little to cause a major problem. One of the reasons consumer cheese is so expensive is because large part of the production process is all about sanitation and health concerns. A lot of money and a lot of labor is spent to ensure it's safety. They have to or people will get sick.

You do not want dairy farmers or end producers to have to be pressured to do it even cheaper and then even more cheaper. If you think dairy products in Canada are shitty now just get rid of supply management.
posted by Jalliah at 2:58 PM on September 17, 2018 [12 favorites]


I can't shed too many tears for the dairy industry. Producing milk is basically terrible for the environment, and frequently involves great animal cruelty. The more people rely on dairy as a primary food source, the greater the market and political pressures to keep it cheap. This pushes supply toward scaled-up operations, like CAFOs, and thus corporate ownership.

Americans often complain that food is expensive, and it seems we're pretty obsessed with saving money on food. Maybe this is true other places too, but it seems particularly intense here. This is despite the fact that food is cheap in the US, and Americans spend some of the lowest proportion of their incomes on food.

The low prices strike me as a bad thing, especially coupled with the belief that low prices are good. Low prices for food probably contribute to the obesity epidemic, and they keep farmers poor and desperate to cut costs, which generally means more environmental damage and cruel labor/animal conditions. As someone famous once said (I think), cheap prices make for cheap wages, and cheap wages make for cheap men.

As usual, the problem is income inequality. Most Americans are not hurting economically because of food prices—we can thank nigh-nonexistent wage growth, increasing inequality, and high housing costs for that. But because wage inequality is hard to solve without agitating the very rich, polite discourse requires us to focus on the prices. I think few Americans want our food supply to look more like Walmart, or the wages of Americans to look more like those of Walmart workers, but as long as it's politically acceptable to fret about high food prices, Walmart is what we will get.
posted by andrewpcone at 3:23 PM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


JamesBay - milk might feel expensive, but when compared to other countries (and adjusted for currency) it's actually....cheap?

I got this from an NDP MP's tweet but haven't seen it debunked -

Cost (in CAD) of a litre of milk:
Canada: $1.50
Australia: $1.57
USA: $1.61
France: $1.77
NZ: $1.83

I used to be under the impression that everything in a grocery store was just cheaper in the US than in Canada. But alot of that impress is coloured by my having moved out of the US twenty years ago. I've been travelling down more often for work, and will hit up grocery stores for snacks while I'm cooped up in a small town hotel. And I'm shocked by how much I'm spending on things like granola bars and orange juice.
posted by thecjm at 3:31 PM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Agree with andrewpcone - the dietary benefits of milk for adults are contested, and it's fairly awful environmentally, particularly west of the Mississippi.

I love me some cheese, but the North American obsession with milk can be destructive and erosive, both socially and literally.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:41 PM on September 17, 2018


America's inefficient farmer fetish is weird.

The policy to protect "family farmers" makes about as much sense as protecting artisan wool spinners. It's fine if you want that hobby but it shouldn't be the burden of tax payers to subsidize your hobby as if it were a real business.

Here are some hard numbers from the US Department of Agriculture. 50% of farmer owners do not make a profit. They lose money farming every year. That 50% of all farmers produce less than 1% of the nation's food.

Most of those farmers are what I would call hobbyists. They want a rural lifestyle, but their farm can't pay for it. They have primary jobs outside of farming that supply their income and use the farm losses as a tax deduction to support their rural lifestyle.

That leaves less than 1 million "real" farmers in a country of 330 million.

Half of all food in the U.S. comes from the 4% (just 80,000 farmers) who earn more than $1 million per year. Farming really is a corporate business. There no sense pretending otherwise.
posted by JackFlash at 3:59 PM on September 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


From the article: "As early as February 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted a decline in net farm income to its lowest level since 2002 (adjusted for inflation), with median farm income projected at negative $1,316."

This is kind of a silly statistic. The median farm has had a negative income forever -- at least for many decades. That is because most farms are not real farms. They are people living in rural areas whose primary income is from off the farm.

Half of all so-called farms never make a profit. So always take any statistics involving average or median farm income with a grain of salt. The numbers are always heavily skewed by the majority of hobby farms.

The USDA is not interested in segregating out serious farmers from hobby farmers because it reduces the size of their constituency, basically in half.
posted by JackFlash at 4:12 PM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


"Meanwhile, the animals are being phased out of factory farming."

Is mock milk really taking the world by storm like that?
posted by Selena777 at 4:14 PM on September 17, 2018


Well if it is then farmers should get paid a good salary with health benefits, vacation time and be able to retire. Which they don't if anyone is wondering.

Also as far as farm owners making a profit I wonder if that 50% includes non food producing farms like horse or hardwood operations?
posted by fshgrl at 4:15 PM on September 17, 2018


Also as far as farm owners making a profit I wonder if that 50% includes non food producing farms like horse or hardwood operations?

The convoluted nature of discussions about "agriculture" always annoys me.

For example, there's talk of converting a local dairy farm into a cannabis operation.

In turn there's much hand-wringing about the effect growing cannabis will have on our "food self-sufficiency".

What many people don't recognize is that hay and livestock fodder is the number-one use of ag land locally.
posted by JamesBay at 4:37 PM on September 17, 2018


If efficiency is the only metric that matters, Walmart and Amazon are the model.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 4:49 PM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


If it's including the old Food, Fur or Fiber the number of individual operations that are a) v.v. small and b) not food producers would be totally out of whack with what the general public thinks of as farming.
posted by fshgrl at 5:44 PM on September 17, 2018


America's inefficient farmer fetish is weird.

I don't understand this attitude. Corporate farms cause a huge amount of pollution, use environmentally risky practices (like feedlots where their liquid manure pits could poison a water system if they don't remain contained), release carbon in to the air via tillage, etc.

That stuff is all "efficient", though, in that it gets the meat of an abused animal on your plate for cheap.
posted by Emmy Rae at 6:36 PM on September 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


If efficiency is the only metric that matters

This is going to be a little OT, but... yes! Efficiency is all that matters, and it's what's keeping a planet with 7 billion+ people fed.

Efficiency is the only thing that is keeping Canada fed. Most metropolitan centers in Canada, especially here in the southwest of British Columbia, have no food security whatsoever. Let's hear it for logistics and economies of scale!
posted by JamesBay at 7:59 PM on September 17, 2018


"stop fetishizing family farms" + "corporate megafarms are the only way to feed the world" is an especially frustrating combination of sentiments. Who is enamored of one particular model of production here? The people saying that smaller farms have value, or the people saying megafarms are the only way?

The fate of smaller farms is not a foregone conclusion. There are government and corporate choices made over the last 30 years and still today that influence how and whether farming makes sense for smaller farmers.

I know I'm a broken record, but megafarms are a major environmental threat. Alternative farming methods that are less resource intensive and cause less pollution are often pioneered on small farms who aren't relying on Monsanto to engineer their entire operation.

Do folks really think handing over the keys to our food production system to corporations will give us a better outcome? Is that a common scenario when corporations have all the power? These familiar dynamics don't disappear just because a small farmer can't afford to buy the same complex machinery as Big Farm Inc.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:42 PM on September 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Last week I listened to a radio panel of some Dairy guys politely disagree about Canadian Dairy Supply Management for an hour. It was interesting and rather complex. I lean to supporting Canadian farm policies, but I can see why some feel differently.
posted by ovvl at 9:02 PM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


There is room for large corporate farms and for small farms they way there is room for The Gap and high end or speciality boutiques. Diversity of the means of production and goods produced is good in any business and it's fucking critical when it comes to our food supply. Start-ups, traditional craftsman operations and locally complete businesses are all super important to keeping an industry going. Farming is not like Farmville, where you put inputs in and get guaranteed outputs. Farmers are constantly facing new challenges as well as the vagaries of the weather and disease and the markets. Innovation and research and development are critical to feeding the planet and smaller to mid sized operations often lead the way in that, usually hand in hand with university or farm agents. What is not smart or fair is when they are run out of business in the service of slightly better commodity prices for a few quarters for some tycoon.
posted by fshgrl at 10:19 PM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


I read the article and the thread. I live in China. I spent frequent amounts of time in Indonesia. Both are massive countries, and each is quite different in its food profile. Each place says significantly different things about agriculture and food than what living in the US means.

Here are things I know - since the beginning of recorded history, governments have intervened in markets to ensure food supply. I don't know how many links I intend to include in this, since it's off the cuff, but I'll be damned if nearly every ancient empire didn't maintain grain reserves, and I'll be damned if I can't think of any number of rebellions and civil wars fueled by starvation. This is one of of those fundamental what-is-government-for things, alongside self-defense, which is often pretty much just a defense of the food supply ffs. Weather and markets are fickle. We manage production to counter that.

On top of that, there's always the general question of diet/nutrition and the environment and the local economy. Teh fuq if I know the panacea, but I think there isn't one, and I think if there was ever a local issue that justifies taxes and active management, this is it. You'll notice the glut of people who seem to want to live off the land, and that's a quality of life issue that intersects hard with urbanization, modernization, labor rights, and all that fun stuff. We've all read the things, I'm not an expert and have no dog in this, except that I'm an urban renter who gets most of my food from delivery apps. I'm as far abstracted from this issue as it's possible to be.

Except I also grew up in the rural Midwest, and I know intimately the problems of rural America. Maybe not as intimately in the last decade, but what aside from opoids and further depopulation has happened? I've been back enough to see the cancers spread.

In China, the world's most blatantly communist country, spends more on agricultural subsidies than any other country in the world, and strategic pork reserves are a thing. Here's an edited pullquote from the first link -

Farmers produced surpluses of certain commodities leaving China with large stockpiles of a variety of goods, but mainly cotton, corn and sugar. Due to the price supports that underpinned domestic production, local food prices were considerably higher than those on global markets. In 2014, Beijing decided to rescind price supports for soybeans and cotton. As a result, stockpiles began to shrink and more products were imported from abroad. In 2016, price supports for corn were removed. Large stockpiles of cotton, corn and sugar still exist in China, however, and the government is beginning to consider alternative uses for these commodities, such as biofuel production.

Price supports for wheat and rice continue to exist and it is possible that production will increase as farmers take advantage of these remaining subsidies. If production increases, however, there will be increased impetus for the government to rescind support for these commodities to restore balance to the agricultural system.

A large portion of Chinese agricultural subsidies are now directed to improving the underlying agricultural system, rather than ensuring self-sufficiency. For instance, since 2004 the central government has subsidised the cost of machinery, increasing the efficiency and productivity of the agricultural sector.


Indonesia is another animal. First, mostly Muslim, so they're self-sufficient in pork, which is legal, because they are nominally secular and serious about maintaining that status. Not so in lamb and beef, which they pull primarily from Australia. Rice import subsidies are also a seriously big deal in elections, much of which they currently get from Vietnam.

Critical to understand about both these countries is that China imports much of its soybeans and other vegetables from the US, that Indonesia actually imports a huge chunk of its grains (and all of its wheat), and from the back of my brain, I can fish out that China doesn't import much US meat, but BOTH countries depend on US exports as a price stabilizer and "strategic reserve" in case of emergencies. The US, Brazil, and Russia together export so much agricultural surplus that the rest of the world is essentially dependent on us to eat and avoid food riots.

Also notable is that if you look into agricultural policies in the rest of the world (here is where I get back into unsubstantiated claims because I'm lazy about links) is happy to engage in agricultural subsidies to prop up their domestic industries, nowhere less so than in the US. In the US, we pay taxes to subsidize global staples; in the rest of the world, we pay taxes to subsidize local staples, often directly to help local landowners grow cash crops and modernize. All said, there is a huge food surplus that gets f**kin' wasted in all the friction.

The world needs us. The world needs factory farms. It's debatable that they don't, but at least during the time it takes everyone to get their shit together and get on the same page globally about nutrition and caloric intake and land use policies, the world needs the net agricultural exporters to keep doing what they do. That means us. The alternative is food riots, starvation, and war, because they can't sustain their populations without us. We are one species, and despite 200+ autonomous territories, there's a moral obligation here.

Once upon a time, the US government understood that, and in fact built us into one of the world's breadbaskets precisely to ensure the world's dependence on us. If we abandon that now over a f**kin trade war, well, I guess that's how it was designed, but also, the article is saying a sizable portion of US farmers make than $10,000 profit a year?! Excuse me and fuck you, system, while I go unionize farmers. If there ever was a national and global security issue, it's this. Local, non-corporate ownership of farms keeps people fed and the world at peace, and right now every responsible government but ours are spending their butts off to protect their people from US without starving them in the process.

I don't begrudge Trump the $12 billion in aid. I begrudge to whom it goes and why. I'll be voting and emailing.
posted by saysthis at 3:51 AM on September 18, 2018 [9 favorites]


The thing is, efficiency is the most important thing in farming, but efficiency in terms of energy inputs to the system is what matters for humanity, and efficiency in terms of money is what matters to stay in business. And thanks to things like pollution and fossil fuel inputs having huge externalities, economic efficiency is not the same thing as efficiency, especially in energy intensive endeavors such as farming.
posted by Nothing at 4:14 AM on September 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


>Dairy farmers are price takers due to the perishable nature of milk, they can't just store their milk and hope for better prices in 6 months,

In Portugal, milk is UHT pasteurized, comes in tetra paks and lasts unrefrigerated for 6-9 months. It tastes great. They stack them in grocery stores, in one liter packages.

I guess this is a drive by comment cos it's not like it solves the economic pressures farmers face, but just I don't understand why this system isn't used everywhere. Having to buy a gallon of milk that spoils in two weeks is a pain in the ass.
posted by pmv at 6:38 AM on September 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


I don't understand why this system isn't used everywhere

Differences in local preferences for flavor and sweetness of milk. For me, if I wanted milk that was too sweet and tasted a tiny bit caramelized, I'd just dilute cans of evaporated milk.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:13 AM on September 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


One thing I'm wondering is how people are drinking less milk,

I think there's a lot of things impacting it. One thing I'm noting is that most people I know have less time than they did 20 or so years ago. Commutes are longer, and more households have all adults in them working. Milk is great, but it's mostly necessary as part of labor-intensive cooking processes that people just don't have the time for anymore because they are spending eleven to fourteen hours a day working and getting to and from work.
posted by corb at 10:03 AM on September 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Corporate farms cause a huge amount of pollution, use environmentally risky practices (like feedlots where their liquid manure pits could poison a water system if they don't remain contained), release carbon in to the air via tillage, etc.

Alternative farming methods that are less resource intensive and cause less pollution are often pioneered on small farms who aren't relying on Monsanto to engineer their entire operation.

I don't like corporate centralization of food production either, but this is a wildly broad claim. Sure, some efficient farming methods were pioneered on small farms, but others were pioneered on large corporate operations. Centralization can, in many cases, be more environmentally efficient, even while it tends toward animal cruelty and corporate control of food.

The view that small farming is less resource intensive seems simply false. Some may be, but in general, no. Almost every process becomes more efficient at scale. The larger the trucks used to haul feed/livestock, the larger the barns that need to be climate controlled, the larger the equipment used to tiil and and harvest, the less resources are used per unit of output. Engineered agriculture mostly tends toward resource efficiency. That is the point of hiring all the engineers. Their job is to get the most yield per acre, per gallon of diesel, per animal, per pound of feed, per sack of fertilizer.

Ancient river valley civilizations managed to destroy their ecosystems producing a minuscule fraction of the food produced in comparable biomes now. 150 years ago, Europe was largely deforested and covered in farms, even while the population was vastly smaller and frequently starving. The fact that most of the world is unprecedentedly well fed, that starvation has halved in the past few decades and continued to plummet, is almost wholly due to innovations in STEM-driven agriculture, most aggressively implemented by large, centralized, profit-driven farms and ag companies, including the dreaded Monsanto. Producing even half the food we produce now without such techniques would turn the world into a barren wasteland, and no, it is not a barren wasteland now.

The role in reducing starvation and increasing per unit productivity, including overall per-environmental impacts, is negligably attributable to the folksy or idealistic innovations of small farmers. If we want to look constructively at the economics of farmers and farming, or the political aspects of food supply, we should acknowledge these uncomfortable facts.
posted by andrewpcone at 10:12 AM on September 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


UHT milk has a terrible cooked off-flavor to it if you’re used to “fresh” milk. I don’t mind it in my coffee, but I don’t like drinking it.
posted by wintermind at 10:22 AM on September 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


andrewpcone: Ancient river valley civilizations managed to destroy their ecosystems producing a minuscule fraction of the food produced in comparable biomes now. 150 years ago, Europe was largely deforested and covered in farms, even while the population was vastly smaller and frequently starving. The fact that most of the world is unprecedentedly well fed, that starvation has halved in the past few decades and continued to plummet, is almost wholly due to innovations in STEM-driven agriculture, most aggressively implemented by large, centralized, profit-driven farms and ag companies, including the dreaded Monsanto. Producing even half the food we produce now without such techniques would turn the world into a barren wasteland, and no, it is not a barren wasteland now.

You make fair points, but I'd add that all of this rests on one-time fossil fuel use. We are not in any way more efficient in our food production than ancient river valley civilizations - or whoever else you'd like to compare to - were, we just have access to huge one-time reserves of fossil fuels that they didn't.
posted by clawsoon at 10:37 AM on September 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


Producing even half the food we produce now without such techniques would turn the world into a barren wasteland, and no, it is not a barren wasteland now.

This is also a broad claim, that does not acknowledge our current slide toward dust bowl-like conditions. Modern conventional operations have soil that is depleted of fungus and microbes - it is dead. Valuable, nutrient-rich top soil is lost all the time (much of it running into rivers), nitrogen and chemicals (that farmers paid for) run off into rivers, farmland can't effectively absorb rain because of the way it's been used so farmers face flooding followed by dry, cracking dirt in need of irrigation.

"The dreaded Monsanto" is not engineering the best way to grow the most food to feed a hungry world. They are engineering the best way to grow crops using THEIR seeds and THEIR inputs.

I'm not unaware of the need for efficiencies to feed the world, but I think it is dangerously short-sighted to think that modern agriculture is delivering efficiency that can last, and that won't destroy the environment we live in.
posted by Emmy Rae at 5:27 PM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


ovvl: "Last week I listened to a radio panel of some Dairy guys politely disagree about Canadian Dairy Supply Management for an hour. It was interesting and rather complex. I lean to supporting Canadian farm policies, but I can see why some feel differently."

There is always going to be a small subset of producers who are hurt (or think they are hurt) by supply management because they know that with out supply management a few producers would get much larger at the expense of everyone else and they think/believe that they would be those few producers. And of course the "drown the government in the bathtub" anti-tax extremists like to support any one who would tear down any sort of socialist collective good system so these minorities get lots of media exposure.

Supply management is essentially a legal monopoly/cartel and it's crazy for members of a CARTEL to think the majority of members of the cartel would be better off without it. For individual members to agitate to disband the cartel only makes sense if those members think they can form a new cartel controlling the same assets but with fewer members to dilute profit.
posted by Mitheral at 8:38 PM on September 19, 2018


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