Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Federal Lands Grazing

One of my friends is a multi-approach farmer. He raises sheep and goats for meat, uses a mule for farm power and grows an array of summer vegetables. He is also the man in charge of conservation efforts for the Nevada County Land Trust. In a recent discussion about land use, we touched on the effects of managed grazing on local landscapes, and how important they are for a variety of reasons: brush (and fire load) management, fertilizing the soil, and generally providing control of many invasive species. In fact, I was surprised to learn that part of the conservation efforts in Bear Valley, part of the Cache Creek watershed northwest of Davis, requires the regular grazing by cows as part of the land trust easement requirements. They found otherwise that the invasive grasses outcompeted the wildflowers native to the region.

I was surprised that the discussion of public lands lease rates did not come up, and it has given me some pause. I don’t know about other part of the country, but our local foothills generally benefit from managed grazing. For example, another friend introduced meat goats onto his third generation timber lands, and mitigated the need for extensive brush clearing using mechanical and chemical control methods. The goats not only control the brush, but fertilize the ground at the same time, providing a nice trade of inputs and outputs. Finally, the goats can also be sold as a meat commodity.

Locally, many people “rent” herds of sheep or goats to come and graze the brush to minimize fire fuel loads and create the mandated fire breaks around their homes and properties. It occurred to me that not only do people pay for this service, that it could be argued that BLM and the US Forest Service might also need to pay service fees to the herd owners who provide such a valuable land management tool. This could theoretically off set the need for land lease rates, making the exchange commensurate.

According to a report from the Counsil for Agriculture Science and Technology, “the positive roles of animals in environmental conservation is usually overlooked. Grazing mitigates plant communities, can be managed to sustain or enhance desirable plants and be neutral or benefical to watersheds and wildlife.” (Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply, pg 5)

However, the according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) report, "National Animal Agriculture Conservation Framework, " the 2002 Farm Bill sought to establish conservation services. However, the financial needs of bill would exceed available funding. The bill would provide producer assistance to improve their operations' environmental performance through free or low-cost services, while trying to find additional funding from public investments. This sounds suspiciously to me like charging people for doing what they are already doing, and paying farms that need to the most change to make the changes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Farm Subsidies

The recent Farm Bill up in Congress has raised a lot intense scrutiny of our nation's current farm subsidy practices. On the face it seems like a good idea - support farms to keep them in the business of producing food. What more noble occupation is there after all than to farm?
However, the practice of subsidies today no longer functions in a manner that most of us would understand or support. Oddly enough, the very people that most people think a subsidy would support tend to be the very people who are in favor of a complete overhaul of the system - the small, family farmer.

Michael Pollan's recent book Omnivore's Dilemma outlines the history of farm subsidies quite succinctly. Subsidies were part of FDR's New Deal plan to help turn around The Great Depression. Farmers could take a loan against their corn crop, and then either repay the government the loan, or sell the government the corn crop directly, to be put into a grain reserve. This program not only created a grain reserve against times of need, but also sought prevent overproduction, huge variances in the annual price of corn, and all of the environmental problems associated with overproduction.

This system functioned until the 1970's, when the Nixon administration started a chain reaction by agreeing to sell most of the US's corn surplus to Russia. Crop prices locally were temporarily boosted by the sell, but poor weather that year created a similar need for corn in the US, and corn prices were at an all time high, producing a reverberating effect all the way up the food chain. In fact, my parents remember the recession of 1975, and while they tried to blame it on my birth, it can really be linked back to the selling of our corn surplus in 1972, long before I was a twinkle in my parents' eye.

Nixon's administration blamed the lack of food and the high food prices on the farmers Simultaneously, they began to dismantle the federal grain reserve, the government grain purchases and discontinued the loan programs. Instead, they began paying farm subsidies directly to farmers, encouraging farmers to sell their corn at any price, creating a laissez-faire type of business practice in agriculture. Most farmers found they could not stay in business unless they consolidated, or planted more and more each year. The result is that each year now, farmers have maximized production on almost every acre, ceasing to diversify their crops, and can typically no longer support the typical "farm" family on a farm income alone.

Now, proposed farm bill changes could be the great turning point that the first government subsidies were in the '30s, or they could bring similar disastrous results as they did in the '70s. Reviewing some different sources reveals clearly who is for big business and who is interested in creating a more sustainable agriculture future.

I found it shocking that a cooperative extension economist, Robert Goodman of Alabama, could recommend the continuance of the current farm subsidy practices because doing so could risk "stability and farm security", as well as the suggestion that somehow changes would affect consumers negatively, the very ones who pay for the subsidies through taxes, will somehow benefit from keeping costs lower and avoiding consequences of "rocking the boat". He concludes that the past success of the farm subsidies should be taken into account, yet he fails to review or critique the various changes which have taken place to farm subsides over the last 70 years.

Chris Edwards has a far more interesting analysis of the current practices of farm subsidies. It addresses the environmental consequences of over production, how it hurts consumer prices, that most small farmers get very little in the way of subsidy money, and that most of it in fact goes to large scale agribusinesses, and so on.

The best debate I heard was from NPR, on their Science Friday segment of Talk of the Nation, in which they debate whether the Farm Bill of 2007 should actually be called the Food Bill, in that most of the ingredients in the "unhealthy" foods, like a Twinkie, are subsidized, but wholesome foods like carrots, cost more than the Twinkie.

Finally, I think it's very revealing to look at a list of agencies who are dedicated to farm subsidy reforms on the Farm Bill: Public Health Action on the Farm Bill, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, National Family Farm Coalition, Slow Food USA, Community Alliance for Family Farmers, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Community Food Security Coaliton, just to name a few! Not one big business or Bush Administration special interest group in the bunch!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Diversity of Food

I'm often surprised by the eating habits of people.  Many of my classmates indicated that they have lots of favorite foods.  However, most people tend to eat the same basic set of foods.  I know that my food journal reflected very much a creature of habit.  Most days of the week I have yogurt and tea in the morning, hopefully some left overs for lunch, and then either home cooked stir fry, stew, leftovers from the restaurant or eating out.

I first ate sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, about five years ago.  It was during a potluck, and one of my friends, a visiting organic farmer from central California had brought them.  I loved the texture and nutty flavor - a huge improvement over the bland russet potato.  I raved to husband about how great they were, but had trouble finding a source.  Finally, I found some at the co-op, and eagerly brought home a pound to try.  My husband flat refused to cook them, and grudgingly tried some when I insisted.  After all that fuss, he LOVES them.  

So, I was surprised to see sunchokes listed as a major food source.  I've known about quinoa and amaranth far longer than I have sunchokes.  Turns out I can't digest quinoa, even if I sprout it, but that's another story entirely.

Actually, it's not really another story.  I 've mentioned before Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he discussed in depth why the different regions that developed agriculture actually developed agriculture.  He discusses that current hunter gatherer peoples know all of the local flora intimately - usually thousands of plants, fungi, and the animals too, and also that they tend to be quite keen on examining new types of edibles.

I asked my husband tonight why he was so adverse to trying the sunchokes.  He replied that physically it reminded him of ginger, so he was expecting something tough, fibrous and strong tasting.  I think you can reflect our hunter-gatherer instincts for recognizing many food sources into product and franchise recognition today, and therefore the success of name brands and chain restaurants.

You can go anywhere in the United States, and even in major cities around the world, order a BigMac and get the same BigMac that you could have received in your home town.  This makes for a superficially reliable and consistent food source.  We can theoretically consume many types of foods and cuisines, and yet most people have a very set food group that they regularly consume.

The problem of course is that these food sources are becoming harder to retain, and at the same time, people have developed a deep resistance to "new" foods.  I personally have some food prejudices - I don't want to eat bugs, heart organs, frogs or shark, and have refused to eat these things many times.  Also, changing my eating habits for a healthier lifestyle was a hard change, especially discontinuing to eat wheat products.  Even though I know it is healthier, I still resist the change.

Dabbling with plant genetics, planting monocultures of the same variety of species, using increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is leading to increasing risk of crop failures.  While there are several seed banks around the world which are in place to preserve genetic variety, if something truly catastrophic happened to one of our major crops, it would be very difficult to resurrect varieties which wouldn't be affected in a similar manner immediately.  
The Irish Potato Famine caused a massive reduction in that nation's population.  Within 10 years, the nation experienced roughly 25-30% loss in population as a combined result of famine-related deaths and emigration to other countries, primarily the United States.  A similar massive failure of wheat, rice or corn would have devastating effects world-wide.  Especially corn, as we rely on it for food, animal feed, and oil for manufacturing ethanol and other petroleum replacements.