I know I said in the previous post there was more to me than just food, and there is. But after six years of researching and writing about the subject, it’s a little difficult to go cold turkey. (See how I did that? I could have said something like “old habits die hard”, but no. My mind went right to a food metaphor.) Suffice it to say that I will get to all that other stuff eventually. For now, I want to talk about one “last” matter of food before moving on.
Not long ago, I drafted a list of what I believed to be the most honorable professions in the world. It wasn’t too terribly difficult. No intellectual gymnastics were needed. Included were many of the jobs you’d expect. Military, police, fire and rescue, doctors and nurses, and teachers filled-out the top five, and one that might surprise a few of you: farmers.
Yes, farmers. I dare say that most of us don’t recognize the effort and commitment of farmers, dairymen and ranchers and it’s importance to our way of life. Because of their contributions, the task of feeding ourselves and our families is made infinitely easier. Without farmers, the fabric of our civilization would unravel in a matter of days.
Ask yourself this, if all the world’s farms were to disappear tomorrow, would you know where your next meal was coming from? Once the shelves at the supermarket had run bare, where would you turn? We all know the dread of coming home at the end of a hard day only to have to get supper on the table. But imagine how much more difficult supper would be if it meant digging up some potatoes from the back yard, foraging for mushrooms in the dark, or slaughtering the family hog.
I would wager a guess that without agriculture as a trade, at least half our waking hours would be spent in pursuit of feeding ourselves, leaving us little time to earn a living. So when you sit down at the table tonight and give thanks to hands that prepared your meal, don’t forget the hands of those who raised it.
We often romanticize about life on the farm. Signs and labels throughout the supermarket depict farms with pristine red barns, lush, perfect fields of crops, and sunny skies, but in reality, farming is far from idyllic. It is difficult, often dirty work involving long hours and mediocre pay. In his book Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan suggests that if we were to experience a typical day in the life of the farmer, we’d never again begrudge them a fair price.
The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.
– Will Rogers
You have to wonder why anyone would want to become a farmer. What compels a person to devote his or herself to such a lifestyle all for the sake of putting food on the tables of complete strangers? I am inclined to believe that, like teaching or nursing, the desire to farm comes from a higher calling.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistic, in 2012 there were only 930,600 farmers, and that number is expected to decline by 19% by 2022. The median salary for a farmer with 5 or more years of experience is $69,300, twice the national median. Yet the median pay for an Accountant with a B.S. degree is $63,550 without any work experience. Obviously, we value bean counters more than bean growers.
That is why I am heartened by stories like this one from The New York Times, which tells of young college grads who are choosing crop lands over the corporate cubicles. Abe Bobman, a 24-year-old college student, who came to farming by way of a job in the produce department of a grocery store, gives us some insight as to why. “Farming appeals to me,” he tells Natalie Kitroeff of the Times. “It’s simple and straightforward work outdoors with literal fruits from your labor. It doesn’t feel like you’re a part of an oppressive institution.”
Words like those have a tendency to stir the faded remains of the hippie inside me. I still long to believe that in America, if all else fails, we can always “live off the land, man”. But the time-hardened pragmatist that I’ve become, with his endless statistics of the decline of the family farm and the rise and domination of corporate-run farms, suspects that Mr. Bobman and his generation will eventually hit the hard walls of reality and be forced to abandon their loftier ideals.
Since 1935, we have lost approximately four millions farms, mostly small and midsize family farms, while corporate farms have grown at a rapid pace. According to Roberto Ferdman of The Washington Post, 70 percent of the farm land in the U.S. is now controlled by just 10 percent of the corporate farms.
But maybe young people like Abe Bobman know something we don’t.”While big farms are indeed gobbling up more and more land,” Ferdman goes on to write. “Small family farms aren’t exactly disappearing — most farms are, after all, still relatively small.” In other words, family farms may not be going away as much as they are shrinking. But why is this happening? And will this trend continue?
In May 2013, Todd Kliman wrote this truly honest assessment of the local food movement for The Washingtonian. Kliman, a locavore himself, questions many of the tenets of the faith. Local food is better and fresher; Local reduces our carbon footprint; Local can change our failed food system; and, local is good for the local economy.
It is this last point that I think is the truest and best reason to support the local movement. As Kliman writes, “One thing we can be sure of is that supporting a local producer helps keep that producer in business, and that is indeed a very good thing.”
I’ve said it before here, but it bears repeating. The fewer hands that come between you and your food the better. And that holds true for the farmers. If 100 percent of the money you spent on food were to go into the pockets of the farmers, dairymen and ranchers, all food would be local.
I don’t know if the trends that Mr. Ferdman writes of are a direct result of the local food movement, but it goes without saying that we all benefit from a local agricultural economy. For years, development, globalization and Big Ag, have worked together to push the farmer further and further from the urban centers. As a result, food travels greater distances than it has during any other time in history. Anything that reverses that trend is okay in my book.
Of course, I don’t expect to ever see large-scale farming to in urban areas, but a strong drive to buy local ensures that farmers like Jim Crawford of New Morning Farms, who has been supplying fresh organic produce to my neighborhood in Northwest D.C. for over 40 years, can continue to make a living doing what he was called to do.
So I can blow past all those other reasons for buying local, not that they don’t merit consideration, but for me, buying local is good for the farmer. And what’s good for the farmer is good for us all.