I was listening to Tom Ashbrook’s radio talk show On Point last week, and actually found a few of the comments to be interesting enough to discuss. Normally, I avoid On Point like the plague: Tom’s annoying and too many of his callers pedantic or spacey and off-topic, but I’m not skilled at changing the radio frequency while driving. Tom was interviewing an “accidental farmer” from the Seattle area who wrote a book about becoming a farmer almost by chance as he kept buying land and growing a little more food, year by year. These days, he’s a snazzy cheesemaker with a cheese cave. Translation: classic American Slow Food poster farmer who makes incredibly delicious food I eat on my birthday, and only on my birthday.
Another farmer, from Kentucky, called in to the show and raised an oft-forgotten issue: a vocal segment of the sustainable food movement (called the localist in this grist article) idolizes the small specialty producer working 10 acres while dismissing the midsize farmer as a corporate shill. That tendency is incredibly divisive and desctructive, as well as short-sighted. Midsize farms are now being squeezed out of business even more than small farmers, and the our urban communities desperately need larger farms that produces staples for them. The midsize farmer has enough land to grow a supply large enough to sell to wholesalers, including institutions; benefits from economies of scale, like equipment purchases; and has the potential to become the base of a regional food economy. In a simple example, growing buckwheat on ten acres would yield about 3 tons flour after milling the grain. It may sound like a lot of flour, but that’s only about 8,000 loaves of bread. A small city could eat that in one day. A region supporting a large city needs many farmers growing and rotating hundreds of acres of different grains and beans. We simply cannot survive without the staple foods grown for us by midsize farmers, even if we cut out more of the inefficient grain-to-animal conversion that is meat production. Small is not the only answer.
On another topic, the sustainable foodie community also needs to chill a little on the anti-corn and soy campaign. Seriously. Another commenter called in to the show and was practically frothing at the mouth about subsidies for corn and soy. Now, I definitely agree that supporting feed corn and soy are not necessarily the best uses of our tax dollars. However, agricultural subsidies have provided our country with a relatively stable food system with decent variety and food access. It’s not perfect, but we have not experienced famine or widepread massive nutritional deficiencies. Many farms rely on sensible subsidies programs like crop insurance, conservation programs, and marketing assistance; the public often gains benefits like cleaner watershed as well. While I would design the system differently, agricultural subsidies are neither uniformly supporting rich urban landowners nor are they inherently evil*. Corn and soy are still reasonable foods to grow and eat. Asia has been eating soy longer than Europe has been eating wheat. Corn is, and was, the base of many traditional cuisines in the Americas. There are heirloom and traditional varieties of both fit for human consumption, and those varieties deserve a suitable place in our nation’s fields and on our plates.
Basically, my take on the show is Don’t Jump on the Oversimplified Bandwagon. Stop. Think. Consider that there are many elements of the food system and the sustainable food movement needs to work better with the non-artisan farming community and the just food/community food security movement and the alternative diet folks and… and… and…
*I’ll happily stipulate that selected subsidies have supported massive overproduction of feed corn and soy, while reducing incentives to grow produce. That should be changed, but without causing an 7.0 earthquake in the food system. Anyone remember 2002?