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.
In an important article in PERC Reports, published by the Property and Environment Research Center, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu demonstrate that the concept of “food miles” ignores the advantages that fertile land and agreeable climate give some producers. If my corn yield is 200 bushels an acre, while farmers in Tennessee achieve half that yield from comparable inputs, then I can afford to ship my crop a greater distance.
The PERC authors use the example of strawberries grown in California, where the climate is near perfect for the crop, and strawberries grown in Canada in greenhouses that must be heated in winter. In December, strawberries from California can be shipped to market in Canada with less total energy use than the locally grown crop. The food miles are greater, but the carbon footprint is smaller. True believers in the local food movement, of course, simply stop eating strawberries in winter. Their devotion is admirable, but a winter diet of freshly dug turnips and stored potatoes is hardly interesting. If we concentrate production of each crop in the areas best suited for it, we’ll leave more acres for trees, recreation, and other environmental goods. There are perfectly defensible reasons both for shopping locally and for dispersing production, but protecting the environment isn’t one of them.
Local food isn’t always fresher, either. The cooperatives that collect, process, and distribute milk schedule pickups according to the size of the dairy. Driving a truck from the plant to the farm is expensive, so large dairies’ milk is picked up daily, while smaller dairies may only see the milk truck a couple of times a week. Here in Missouri, milk reaches the store more quickly from the large dairies in the Southwestern states than it does from small local dairies. If Missouri consumers want to support local dairies, and I hope they do, their milk won’t always be as fresh as milk that has traveled farther. As Desrochers and Shimizu point out, most food miles are clocked on the trip home from the supermarket. That truck delivering milk holds thousands of gallons. Most consumers buy one gallon at a time. The five-mile trip home from the supermarket is the most carbon-intensive trip your morning’s milk will make.
Our family is enjoying the last of a side of beef we bought from a local farmer. He raised the cow on his small farm, took it to a small meat processing plant, and delivered the meat to our door. We had a nice visit, farmer to farmer, family to family. The beef is tender, cut the way we like it, and we were pleased to support a local grower. The food miles traveled by our beef were minimal. In fact, the carbon footprint of that heifer was about as small as could be, since she was fattened on corn. That’s right, corn-fed cows emit about half the greenhouse gases cattle fattened on grass emit, because corn is a more concentrated feed than grass, the cattle reach market weight faster, and less land is used per pound of food produced. If carbon footprint is your guide, better to buy beef fattened in one of those feedlots in Western Kansas and shipped cross country to your grocery store than to purchase locally raised grass-fed beef. Then again, it’s probably a given that people truly concerned about energy use and environmental costs have already excised beef from their diet. I appreciate their dedication, envy their self-control, and wish them a long life. A life without beef will seem very long, indeed.
Sixty-five million dollars isn’t much these days, a mere drop in the ocean of stimulus bills and health care reform. It’s not even much compared with the subsidies we traditional farmers receive, and it would be hypocritical to begrudge the local and sustainable movement its chance at rent seeking from Washington, a game that farmers have played successfully for years. If the only reason for the program were to encourage small farmers as a bit of social engineering, then few would object. The damage done here, however, is to truth. The program will not reach its environmental goals. It will only help certain consumers feel good about themselves.
Implicit in the argument about local production is the assumption of market failure. People worried about food miles want to control the energy expended to bring them food, but they value not at all the land necessary to produce it or the farmer’s labor to grow it and get it to market. To make food more local is to replace technology with more farmers and more land. Petroleum, it is assumed, will soon run out, but labor and land are cheap and easily increased. Sustainability advocates believe the costs of alleged global warming and other environmental damage from conventional agriculture are greater than the present economic contribution of all the prospective farmers who will leave their occupations and move to small, local, sustainable farms. Not only that, but they fail to account for the additional acres of land needed for the new farms.
Are these assumptions true? It may be that productive land and human capital will become ever more dear, while we continue to find new ways to improve our energy supplies. Organic advocates like Merrigan spend a lot of time asking for more labeling, telling the consumer where food was produced, how it was produced, what it might contain, and even who produced it. But all food already has a label that serves as a pretty good proxy for the resources used in its production. It’s called the price.
Blake Hurst is a farmer in Missouri.