Survival, New Mexico Style: Finding New Food Sources

May 29, 2009

By Anna Moya Underwood

Modern agriculture, dermatologist as practiced by large agribusiness corporations, information pills is broken.  Emphasizing short term profit, it has disastrously polluted the nation’s soil, rivers, and air, as well as the food it raises. It has often pushed the smaller family farmer into bankruptcy. In addition, right now this giant—the food industrial complex,  and another, the financial industry—banks, Wall Street—are pitted against each other. The contention is over the unbridled speculation in the commodities market. Many of us do not realize that the commodities market, the central market of our country’s food supply, has gone through a bubble of deregulations, speculative gambling, and consequent volatile pricing. These high food prices from commodity casinos paid off bankers, investors, and insurers handsomely, not the farmer, whether corporate or not.  It may be wise to find other ways to feed ourselves than to rely on products from modern agribusiness, even if it limits our choices.

Most people, if they stop to think about it, realize that agriculture is necessary to civilization. As food activist Trauger Groh said, “Without a steady supply of clean, lif-giving food, we have neither the leisure nor the energy to develop industry, science or art.”1 While the argument is sometimes made that agriculture (unlike eons- old hunting and gathering) is destructive to the environment, it doesn’t have to be. If  farmers are willing to adopt environmentally sensitive methods, similar to those required for organic farms, the earth can heal.

In particular, large anmal feedlots, where thousands of livestock are huddled together, called factory farming or CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—puts huge amounts of polluting manure waste into our surface water and noxious fumes into the air. The property value of homes in the CAFO area plummets. The Sierra Club estimates that one corporate CAFO puts 10 family farms out of business, or forces many small farmers into corporate contracts.2

It is a fact, sad to my way of thinking, that the family farms as an occupation in America shrank from 40% of the population after WW II to 1 % or less now. Why sad?  Because first, large corporate farms are able to unfairly price family farms out of the marketplace, regardless of food quality, and then second, they emphasize profit and short-term advantage, disregarding considerations of our relationship with nature. Corporate industrial-size farms, and the ways they use toxic chemicals, animals, genetically modified seeds (GMOs), un-announced food radiation, nutrition-less food, great pollution of the soil, water, air, and vegetative life, along with massive erosion of precious topsoil, have the power to influence our health and the future of the earth.3

Which is not to say the small farmer is completely innocent; from the way European immigrants cleared the magnificent Eastern U.S. forests, to the prairie dust bowl of the 30’s, to nitrates pollution of our rivers, streams and lakes, we as a nation have lost much from the family farmer as well. However, profit and power is not usually the family farmers’ only consideration, and they are usually open to conservation. Usually family farms are interested in passing good farm land on to family members ; or if no one is interested, some consider a land trust instead of selling to developers.

And if the family farmer can make a decent living and not work round the clock for penury, heirs will be more interested in continuing the farm. While there are some millionaire independent farmers, a survey in 2001 showed the farmer’s income range to be from $0 to $30,000.4 In the 19th and early 20th centuries, hard-working farm families were large, almost clan-like. Now the work is even more intensive for a nuclear family, and the wife is almost always overburdened. According to USDA statistics, off-farm income supports 84% of the family farms.5 In the past, the U.S. Government has consistently supported policies to keep food cheap to the consumer; but the small farmer typically gets only 20% of the final price, the rest going to many middlemen.6

As an example of multiple middlemen taking the plums from the pie, from 2006 to 2008 excessive speculation wracked the commodities market where grains and other basic foodstuffs are traded and sold. Such familiar firms as Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns, through unregulated speculative futures or derivatives, caused amazingly volatile agricultural prices (along with oil prices—foodstuffs can now be “bundled” with oil and metals!) Because of the spiking prices, insurance companies like AIG were called in to insure the deals, sometimes for as much as $150,000. Unlimited speculation greatly increased the prices of food in the United States and prices of basic foods like grain exported to developing nations. Poorer nations found themselves unable to purchase, and dire worldwide hunger and food riots resulted. (And here in America, 28 million people are dependent on government food programs for their food.) However the cut for the farmer using the commodity market was still discouragingly low during this two year period; the speculators, investors and insurers took all the profits. Much of the speculation was “OTC, or Over the Counter,” i.e., private, secret, and not transparent or subject to the rules.  (www.iatp.org/tradeobservatory/library.cfm; http://en.internationalism.org)  Legislation to demand transparency and limits to speculation (“Derivatives Market and Accountability Act”) passed in the House in 2008 but was defeated in the Senate when Bush signaled he would veto it. The pertinent House committees say they will bring it up again in August of 2009.  Banks like Goldman Sachs, who made billions on the secret commodities swaps, oppose any regulation.

If the complete modern, industrialized process of growing, producing and selling food smells like portions of the interstate driving south between Las Cruces and El Paso, alternatives do exist. The wise small farmer excludes the middleman and sells directly to the consumer. You as a food consumer may already  be frequenting roadside stands, farmers’ markets, and direct sales through catalogs and the internet or you may subscibe to a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. Here in Southern New Mexico, especially in the deep Mesilla Valley soil, opportunity abounds for more year round farmers with a variety of direct links to buyers.

You may not have heard of CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture, a movement that started in Japan and moved to the United States, Russia and Europe in the 1980’s.
In general, the CSA de-emphasizes price and emphasizes the farmer-consumer connection. The food consumers sign up for shares ahead of the harvest and pledge or pay a certain amount of money that seems supportive, not always in relation to the amount of food received. Usually the the share holder visits the farm once a week for food pick up or if living at some distance, less frequently; an individual or family consumer helps out once in a while with farm chores, or may help with planning or in other ways; sometimes the consumer is privy to the farmer’s expenses and budget. As with organic farming, relating to nature and the health of the soil, air and water is of prime importance to both consumer and farmer.

If you are not looking into the face of your farmer/grower at a roadside stand, farmers’ market, or a CSA pickup, and there is no sticky label on your apple or address on your potato from the bin or bag of carrots, ask the produce worker at the retail store where the item came from.  He or she will try to find out quickly and tell you. In the case of meat, ask the butcher. Sometimes, like a sleuth you have to research on the internet to find out if your chicken was free-range. Sometimes processed and packaged food will have a familiar, old family name yet will be produced by a mega-size corporation like Kraft, also discoverable online.

Everytime you refuse to buy food originating from an industrial-size farm corporation, the power of that firm shrinks.

(Farms of America Revisited, Trauger Groh and Steve McFadden, Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Kimberton, PA, 1997)

(www.serconline.org/cafozoning.html+CAFO+Sierra+Club)

(Sharing the Harvest, Elizabeth Henderson with Robyn Van En, Chelsea Green Publishing Co. White River Junction, Vermont, 2007, p. 109)

Anna Underwood lives in a suburb outside of Las Cruces in a solar (mostly) off-the-grid home, with an acre of fruit trees, a husband, a dog, two cats, and 12 chickens. She writes fiction and essays when apple harvest is past.

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