Recently we took a road trip to Indiana to see my in-laws. If you’ve ever driven through, or flown over the middle of the country you know there are lots of very large farms. During the several days there I kept thinking about a few things in relation to these farms.
Before I go further I would like to mention that this post is in no way a negative judgment on these farmers. Farmers have lives filled with filth, sweat, and toil. Like any other business owner they must always be wary of market forces that could disrupt their livelihood. Additionally they deal with whatever Mother Nature has in store for them. I’m guessing the cute boutique down the road probably doesn’t ever have to worry about plagues of insects or non-stop rain.
I am also very aware that for every person who knows anything about GMOs/CAFOs/etc., there are probably hundreds who have never even heard of them. Information isn’t universally dispersed, and even if it were, people are entitled to disagreements. With that said, let me get back to the topic at hand….
While driving through I just kept realizing that everywhere we looked was corn. Sometimes you’d see some cattle, but mostly corn. Granted, none was currently growing, as the weather has been too wet to plant just yet, but those fields will be planted with corn. Some also will be planted with soy.
Then I started to think about the fact that, statistically speaking, most of it would probably be grown from GMO seeds. And then, while growing, would probably be sprayed with tons of horrible chemicals. Everyone near those farms then has to deal with that stuff in the air, and any runoff that goes into the local water.
Which then led to me thinking why we need all that corn and soy. Most of it will probably never reach a dinner table in its pure form. I’m sure that some will end up being broken down into byproducts to put into food and cosmetics. The rest would end up as animal feed.
This leads me to the cattle part. Americans generally really love to eat beef. It’s “What’s for Dinner™” right? (I should probably through in a little trademark symbol here) All those animals eat a lot. Plus, getting them bigger on a diet of corn happens a lot faster than pasture grazing. All ethics aside, this is really just a matter of economics.
Having had the pleasure of working out at Kilpatrick Family Farm, I have a good idea of the basic harvesting process to supply a CSA and two Saturday markets. Michael’s diverse offerings require different harvesting and washing strategies. As I’m sure many of his loyal customers will attest, it’s worth it. But it means one person can’t go out to the field with one large machine to bring in a harvest. It also means hours upon hours of planning out the growing season of each vegetable, versus one monoculture crop.
I was relieved a bit to learn that some of the farms near my in-laws were at least in the habit of rotating between corn, soy, and winter wheat. At the very least they aren’t trying to push the biological limitations of their land by planting corn year after year.
I am incredibly lucky to get to work in small ways within the local food system. I am always proud and grateful to support it with my dollar as well. But there was something very humbling about seeing all those identical acres. A brutal reminder that I am truly a minority in how I choose to eat.
It was also a very up-close look at unsustainable farming. As gas prices climb, and weather continues to be finicky, those farmers will have to charge more, and that gets passed to consumers. But the scariest Catch 22 of all is that if those farmers can’t find a workable balance between the price they post and the price people are willing to pay, they could lose their land.
If they lose their land, there is the potential for it to be bought up by housing developers. Personally, I’d rather see corn stalks than cookie-cutter condos any day. But I guess that’s where hard decisions really come into play and you realize that there’s a lot more gray area there than is comfortable to deal with.
And I’m fully living in this gray area as well, which if I’m honest with myself, makes me feel guilty. For all the money I spend on amazing local food, it doesn’t change the fact that I have a box of Wheat Thins in my pantry and lots of ground coffee in my freezer.
I’m also lucky to live in an area with several great farmer’s markets and many great farms and food producers. Many people only have a Super Walmart within 30 miles. Heck, some of the farmers I mentioned probably have to buy the bulk of their food from one of them.
People certainly shouldn’t stop trying to improve and reform the way this country eats and shouldn’t quit just because this is an uphill battle, but understanding and seeing the roots of the current food system is definitely a good step. It’s one thing to read statistics and it’s another to stare down the reality behind those numbers.
I know not everyone has a reason to drive to the middle of the country, nor am I advocating that. However, I am glad that it’s something I get to see on a semi-regular basis to shake myself out of my local-ag bubble. And it also reaffirms why it’s important for me to take the time to know the people who produce my food, and also to cook it from scratch.