Why oil is killing the American farm

American Meat

A meaty movie on what's wrong and what could be right with meat production in America. Photo: American Meat.

After an assortment of documentaries in recent years on America’s industrial food system — Food, Inc., Fresh, The Future of Food, King Corn, Super Size Me, Vanishing of the Bees — you might wonder what another can possibly add to the conversation.

Most observant, open-minded and thinking persons get it by now that our corn fed, fossil fuel heavy, confinement livestock operations produce, in the most efficient way possible, cruddy foods that make us fat and destroy the very land we depend on for more food.

The grapes of wrath

The conflict, or so we’re told, is that in spite of a few organic farmers here and there making a go of it, industrial farming is the only way to feed America. Choosing otherwise — a niche fetish for the elite we’re also told — doesn’t profit and costs too much for consumers.

It seems those spouting that line are still refusing to listen to renegade farmer Joel Salatin, whose passion for sustainable farming is matched only by his commercial success, and by his advocacy against governmental regulations that hamstring efforts to get into the market.

Salatin’s fervent view of deregulation would seem a natural fit for old-school conservatives (the authentically small government types). But the truth is food regulations are often written by big industry not to protect the public, but as a way to protect their profits by blocking competition from the little guy. Sadly, your free market proponents aren’t likely to fess up to that one while still urging Tea Party Patriots to “Take back your government.” They just leave out the “from plutocrats” part.

I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan

In American Meat, the latest food and farming documentary, Salatin’s methods and mission are front and center, as filmmaker Graham Meriwether focuses on the viability and profitability of sustainable farming for meat production using Salatin’s Polyface Farms as a key example. It also shows, like no other farming film yet, just how vulnerable our food system is to oil shocks.

Unlike Food Inc., and Fresh, American Meat doesn’t focus on the largest scale industrial livestock operations. There’s no gruesome footage of the tight-quartered feed lots, no shots of cows knee-deep in manure in crowded and filthy barns, and no look into factory slaughterhouses with hook-hung carcasses coming quickly down the stainless steel assembly line.

Meriwether first grew concerned about that kind of meat production from an encounter with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). But, he says, with a background in journalism he was more inclined to dig into PETA’s claims rather than take their graphic imagery and agitprop materials at face value. Instead he looked across the spectrum of livestock farms, from operations like Polyface, to farmers tied into the industrial system but still operating on a relatively small scale. And he decided early on to only film openly, no hidden cameras.

What emerges is the story of farmers who are struggling whether they are in the industrial model or the independent model.

People are people

What’s great about this is that it allows the viewer to separate the industrial model into discrete parts, seeing those who have been in the system for a long time in more human terms. Meriwether allows us to sympathize with these farmers’ situations. They are not Cargill; they are just serving Cargill. And these farmers very often are barely making it themselves, with many heavily in debt to the system. They’ve also become hooked into the use of chemicals, antibiotics, and confinement styles expected in rapid rate productions. They have, or feel they have, little way to break out.

This is contrasted with farmers like Salatin, who’ve long used sustainable methods (Salatin’s father rejected fossil-fuel inputs and industrial methods back in the 60s) but with different requirements — more labor (jobs) and a more demanding and direct relationship with end users, whether restaurants, grocers, or the consumer.

God’s green earth

One of the biggest difference that emerges is a sense of joy for Salatin and others like him who are farmers precisely because they experience awe, wonder and gladness in their relationship to the natural elements and the animals they tend. They also know what tastes good.

Over the past few years as Polyface Farm’s operation has grown, Salatin has grossed over $2 million in sales and added nearly 20 full time jobs to his business. In addition, his apprenticeship program helps with labor while teaching his proven methods (there’s been sustainable farming throughout human history) to a new generation of emerging farmers. Beyond that, he’s scored a lucrative deal with a local branch of the Chipotle restaurant chain, itself a model of how fast food can change in the marketplace, offering higher quality products and a lower carbon footprint while satisfying the demands of its customer base.

Meriwether adds some compelling statistics on acreage in the US, arguing that we have more than enough arable land to produce meat fed on grass rather than corn and to use other nature-friendly methods pioneered by Salatin.

As I wrote earlier this week, in my review of the film The Greenhorns, many young farmers are embracing just that, going back to the land determined to use sustainable methods while achieving profitability.

When peak oil means peak food, what then?

But more than any of this I was impressed with Meriwether’s clear inclusion of the peak oil phenomenon, and what the end of the era of cheap energy means both for industrial farming methods and for sustainable ones. While the film never mentions peak oil by name, Meriwether makes clear just how fragile is a system wholly dependent on fossil fuels for the lion’s share of its inputs. What will declining supplies and spiking prices mean for a system built on so tenuous a prospect?

Sustainable farming, on the other hand, largely rejects fossil fuel inputs, whether to run industrial machinery, or to laden the crops down with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Instead it is a job-creating machine, heavily reliant on the human factor. This means better food produced, more workers employed, less damage to the land, and a boon to the local economy as what’s made locally, often stays local.

I know you are but what am I?

It strikes me as an immense irony that the US has long assailed the old Soviet style system, arguing that centralization was a poor model for getting things done. The Soviet system was top-heavy, unwieldy, and unresponsive to the needs of the people. That the American system looks much like the old Soviet system, save being capitalist rather than communist, makes little difference. The result is the same: a centralized, top heavy, unwieldy system unresponsive to the needs of the people.

Yet American Meat shows that our food production can be decentralized, job producing and result in a desirable and affordable product for consumers while supporting family farms and farmers.

Bucking the system

Salatin has a book called Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal. If we really want to “take back our country,” we’ll drop the slogans, stop asking permission and just do the thing that may be illegal but is certainly right. It’s called making stuff and selling it. Working. Buying. Living. Tilling the soil. Reaping the harvest. I believe it’s even been called an inalienable right, the pursuit of happiness, even if that means selling goat cheese without the USDA issuing marching orders on how it’s done. Do let the market decide.

American Meat shows us not only what could be right, but empowers us with the right to do what is right.

And we can still put special sauce on it.

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    But where does NASA fit into Polyface Farm’s model?
    That’s one of the rubs of this problem: that we have to evaluate EVERYTHING in relation to what people are for, what they can contribute to the planet, and what it will cost.
    Then peak food and peak oil and peak humanity can be evaluated objectively.
    As Wendell Berry asks, “What are people FOR?”, we have to also ask, “How many do we need to do it?”
    I am not advocating for population control at all. What I am advocating for is the disposal of Humanism and the establishment of Future Usefull-ism. Similar to what Native Americans called “Seven Generation Thinking”, but with the twist that we now have vast scientific abilities to go beyond what we affect in our human-centered mindset and understand that humans are not the center of the universe or even the planet. We have simply become so many that we cannot see otherwise.
    If all of our food comes from Polyface-type farms, then what are the quantitative numbers to support civilization’s demands for Systems? Some demands would be less (health care, prisons, military etc), while others could grow or shrink (rural planning and local management, veterinary care, general practitioners, public education). The high maintenance things like NASA and foreign relations/foreign aid would still need financing. How much would be possible based on rural economics (manufacturing pitchforks instead of cars and TVs)? Economists will not admit that we have too many economists, but they sure told us we had too many farmers. No Humanists will tell us there are too many humans. They won’t even tell us that there are too many humans in cities and not enough sweating to death on the land.

      • Auntiegrav says

        Agreed, but isn’t the concept of Polyface farm vs. industrial agriculture also the question of what kind of system we are going to be living under? To question our food is also questioning how we pay for food, how we raise our food, and if food is going to be the focus of our efforts (as it will be if we follow the Polyface model as a culture), then we have to spend some time thinking about what else is important and how we are going to pay for it.
        Not all questions, but the current system doesn’t really ask where value comes from, either; and we see where it is headed.
        By asking how farmers are going to pay for space programs, we start down a more intelligent path of planning than just working people to death and hoping they will generate enough revenue for elitists to play at nobility on perpetually increasing debts to cover the programs they have promised in order to buy votes.
        I guess my basic point is to ask “How much production by everyone is necessary for the type of culture/life we want to have?” and “How much of the current system of systems can be retained with a more localized and ecologically sustainable land use model?” There is a lot of room for discussion on these issues, and it’s important to think of them when we start romanticizing about living on the land.

        • says

          I guess I question whether the decentralized model is a “system” per se, or just an adaptation, evolution, new direction. Perhaps farmers, distributors, etc. may have networks for exchanging info and even for trade, but a “system” may be precisely what we’re getting away from, making systems local maybe, but not vast.

          Secondly, what kind of space system are you talking about? Land, or outer space? I don’t even see a role for outer space here except for our astronomers, navigators and astrologers. If you’re talking about land management, I suppose that’s a question, but it depends on how you’re looking at things, centrally, or decentralized. I’m not sure why we have to have a top-down model for issues and ideas.

          • Auntiegrav says

            There was an article in National Geographic a few years back about the various risks we face over time.
            Of the most dangerous ones, (hurricanes, tornadoes, famine, global warming, etc) the one at the top was an asteroid impact.
            It isn’t because it happens very often, but because when it does, it wipes out everything.
            That’s why even an agrarian society should be putting some effort into space exploration: because it doesn’t make any sense to feed people if they are eventually going to be extinguished. It isn’t a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.
            The other risks are mostly localized, and the global warming risk is an unknown as far as the total damage it will cause. Some assumptions are involved (that it will be slow, that at least some of us will survive, etc.), but the gist is that we can handle everything else (as a species).
            Top-down or bottom up, it needs to be a coordinated effort somehow.
            Everything we do should have at least some part toward this type of “saving the planet” effort, or else we should just give all humans a lobotomy and not concern ourselves with consciousness at all. It is the one thing we can contribute (as a conscious species) that cannot be left to chance or ‘adapted to’ through natural forces.

  2. says

    Had a long chat with American small farmer Brad Wilson, who blogs a lot and has opinions in this area! He reckons the macro farming with macro economies of scale have been aimed to undercut the small farmer for the last 60 years or so but his solution is some kind of price support. To quote him at some length:

    “Higher prices change many many things in the food system, as I explain in a blog “Farm Bill Platform Planks”. Very importantly, they give grassfed livestock a chance to compete, so the farm economy as a whole would encourage resource conserving crop rotations in a huge way without government subsidies to rotations. Those rotations and that livestock, then open up trends toward organic, toward getting nitrogen from the air, toward rotational grazing, and cheaper production costs as fossil fuel costs rise. It’s hard to make those switches when the whole market is against you.

    “Local food is great, but how much wealth and how many jobs can you stimulate in Africa with sales to people living on $2 per day. After 60 years of market declines, Africa needs fair trade farm prices, to stimulate jobs, to create wealth to build needed rural infrastructure. We could easily find another 30 (or 300?) regional livestock farmers who might want to sell at farmers markets in Cedar Rapids, (only a few larger farmers markets are profitable, as marketing costs are high), but 30 more farmers is way, way, way beyond what the market can bear at profitable levels. Even today it might take several years for one more farmer to get in.”

    It seems he wants to be global and local and is stuck into serving the biggest market although being greatly attached to the traditional farming model. I reckon America should concentrate on feeding herself and feeding herself in a more healthy manner. How about “you have to work a day on an organic farm for every Mac Donald’s visit you make!”

    • Auntiegrav says

      I am also a farmer (on a good day..mostly I’m a farm mechanic).
      The problem with price supports for farmers is that it presumes that cheap food is good for people. Rather than paying farmers to produce at a minimum, we should be taxing fuels at a maximum. Then, the systems which are providing cheap food and destroying local economies with petroleum would have to pay the costs of petroleum-fueled economics. Eventually, the cost of petroleum would be prohibitive to high fossil fuel per calorie foods. Doing it on purpose, rather than waiting for a crash and trying to recover would be the sensible thing to do.
      We don’t need to feed so many people as we think we do. People need to pay more for the things they really need, so that they reconsider what is important and what is not.
      Disposable ‘income’ is equivalent to throwing away the lives of people who enabled that income. One of the first things that enables disposable income is cheap food.
      Nobody appreciates that the reason they can buy laptops and iPhones is because they don’t have to spend 40% of their time and money on food, yet that is what it should cost, and that cost should be paid to their neighbors who put that wealth back into the land that grows the food, not to corporations and medical staff dealing with obesity and pesticides and sedentary people.

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