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Farmer Knows Best

The dark side of going green.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By BLAKE HURST
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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.

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.

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