Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is Green Always Greener?

Farmer Knows Best
The dark side of going green.
By Blake Hurst
Tarkio, Missouri

Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture and an organic and sustainable food expert, has announced an initiative entitled “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” Sixty-five million dollars will be spent “to begin a national conversation to help develop local and regional food systems.”

America, it seems, has been operating at a knowledge deficit when it comes to farmers, and farmers lack the social skills to close the gap between eaters and producers of food. Still, one can only imagine what a Know Your Farmer program designed by government will involve. As I survey the farmers living around me, it’s clear we need some sort of sensitivity training, memberships at the local gym, nose hair trimmers, and a new barber. Most of us have been farming for decades (the average American farmer is 58) and are working land that has been owned by family members for generations. Yet any quick perusal of the current literature about agriculture would indicate that our days of farming are numbered. In the current jargon: We are not sustainable.

Local food is seen as a good thing because it travels a short distance from farm to consumer. This cuts the production of greenhouse gases, is presumed to guarantee freshness, and connects consumers with “their” farmer. “Food miles,” the number of miles food travels to your table, has become an important metric, and marketers are trumpeting their allegiance to local producers.

This is mostly harmless, and farmers will benefit if they can capture some slightly larger percentage of the food dollar by selling at the farm gate or through a local USDA-subsidized farmer’s market. I love showing people my farm, will talk with anybody about agriculture, and am more than willing to “know” my consumer. Even so, I imagine the experience will be a letdown for her. I’m sure to disagree with most of the views a typical Whole Foods/farmers’ market customer holds about what they eat. The opportunities for confrontation are legion, and maybe some of that $65 million should be set aside for arbitration as foodies find out what “their” farmers actually believe about food production.  Read more.

People talk a lot about going green, buying local, and carbon footprints but no one ever talks about these three contradicting each other. This article stood out because it does just that. Too many people are trying to tell farmers how to farm and consumers what to buy without doing any real research. It is assumed that buying local is always better, grass-fed cows are always healthier and greener, and shipping food always creates a larger carbon footprint. Yet again, we are confronted with misconceptions. Buying from your local farmers market is a great way to support your local economy and farmer; however, fertile land with optimal climate for different food products should not be ignored.

A final note on this article, Hurst's mentioning of grass-fed cows. As you know by now, we raise hogs but we know plenty of people that raise cattle. Activists criticize feeding cattle grain instead of grass because it's "not natural." Activists criticize the carbon footprint created by farmers when they ship their produce, such as cattle, across the nation or globe. However, upon further inspection, Hurst's notes, "corn-fed cows produce about half the green-house gases cattle fattened on grass emit." Agriculture is a balancing act that farmers must deal with on a daily basis. Through research and common sense perhaps activists, farmers, and consumers can find equal ground. Until then, I'll just keep clicking away in an effort to correct the plethora of misconceptions out there.

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