Agriculture


The good news:

American farmers say they’re selling $4.8 billion a year in fruits and vegetables in their local markets, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though the number of farmer’s markets doubled between 1998 and 2009, the bulk of the new sales came from supermarkets and restaurants.

“There have been a lot of questions in the past if promoting local foods is even worth it,” says Sarah Low, an economist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, who was co-author of the study. But these numbers, she tells The Salt, “suggest that there could be a lot more room to increase demand.”

Indeed, the lion’s share — $2.7 to $3.8 billion — came from farmers selling food through channels like restaurants and grocery stores. It was the first time the USDA has included those sales in surveying local food markets.

The bad news:

Although the $5 billion number sounds big, it represents just 2 percent of American agricultural sales. The rest — 98 percent — comes largely from sales of big commodities like soybeans and corn. Even so, the next set of numbers on local food sales from USDA should reveal whether local food is a fad, or a business model that’s here to stay.

Micheal Pollan explains the reason for the disparity: public policy.

In my campaign for State Senate, I often suggested that Alabama could move towards economic resilience by employing the purchasing power of the state. One possiblity would be requiring schools and prisons to purchase a percentage of their food needs from local farms and groceries.  Georgia now is experimenting with this concept:

School lunches are rarely something to write home about, but three lucky elementary schools in the state are going to have one really great lunch week this spring. They’ll serve as hosts for a pilot project called “Feed My School for a Week.”

A joint initiative of the Georgia departments of agriculture and education, the project will attempt to serve at least 75 percent Georgia-grown food for a full week at schools in Hall, Bleckley and Colquitt counties. The school systems will choose their representative elementary schools.

The article also discusses some of the practical and institutional obstacles to a broad implementation of such a program:

“Feed My School for a Week” is a big sign that state officials are starting to take the farm to school movement seriously.

If you’ve got school-age children and you’re interested in local food, then you’ve most likely heard of farm to school, the grass-roots movement that seeks to connect schools with local farms in order to improve student nutrition. Common farm to school initiatives include building edible gardens at schools, inviting farmers to give talks at schools, inviting chefs to give produce cooking demonstrations at schools, and seeking to include locally grown food in school lunch programs. That last one’s the real doozy, as federal guidelines and established purchasing practices make it very hard for schools and small farms to do business together.

Why? Because school nutrition directors plan their entire menus months ahead of time, taking into account budgetary restrictions, calorie limitations, and rules about how much protein, fat, salt, vegetables, grains, etc., should appear on each plate, each day. Before they buy, they must consider competitive bids. So it’s complicated to work with a local farmer who may or may not be able to provide enough fresh broccoli for an entire district on exactly the right day for the most competitive price. From the school nutrition director’s point of view, it’s just a lot easier to order frozen broccoli for the entire school year from the distributors she’s always used.

I am interested to see what they learn from this experiment.

A new article confirms the underlying analysis of recent discussions on the dysfunction of our food-supply system. (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here)

The recent listeria outbreak from cantaloupe demonstrates one likely cause of large-scale occurrences of serious illnesses linked to tainted food: the long and winding road what we eat takes from farm to fork.

A cantaloupe grown on a Colorado field may make four or five stops before it reaches the dinner table. There’s the packing house where it is cleaned and packaged, then the distributor who contracts with retailers to sell the melons in large quantities. A processor may cut or bag the fruit. The retail distribution center is where the melons are sent out to various stores. Finally it’s stacked on display at the grocery store.

Imported fruits and vegetables, which make up almost two-thirds of the produce consumed in the United States, have an even longer journey.

“Increasingly with agribusiness you have limited producers of any given food, so a breakdown in a facility or plant or in a large field crop operation exposes thousands because of the way the food is distributed,” says Dr. Brian Currie, an infectious disease specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Systemic relocalization of our food production must be preferred to greater technocratic-regulation. Accordingly, we need to exponentially increase the number of producers and farms.

Fewer and larger farms and companies dominate food production in the country. That has driven some consumers to seek out farmers markets and locally grown produce. Supermarkets now highlight food grown nearby, while farmers markets have soared in popularity.

Unfortunately, the article only suggests and encourages greater technical solutions rather than real systemic and structural changes .  As I wrote before,

The preservation of our independence and national security rests in our ability to revitalize family farming. A monopoly by commercial agribusinesses and corporate farms endangers our food to accidental and intentional contamination. Before 1940, only twenty percent of tomatoes were produced in California; today, ninety-five percent are. There is one hamburger plant which grinds fifty million burgers per week by itself. Another salad packaging plant, twenty six million servings of salad pass through its washers. One negligent employee, or worse, a terrorist could endanger millions of Americans. We have recently seen massive outbreaks of E.coli in spinach, salmonella in peppers and peanut butter. A great number of small and medium-sized independent farms are the only assurance of a safe and secure food supply.

We do not recognize how consolidated, concentrated and vertically-integrated our food supply has become.   For instance,

Just 192 large egg companies own about 95 percent of laying hens in this country, down from 2,500 in 1987, according to United Egg Producers, an industry group. Most of those producers are concentrated in five states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California.

Nor do we recognize the corruption which such monopolization breeds. For example:

The monopoly (really an oligopoly) within the tomato industry, and the power which it granted this one set of agri-businessmen, created the environment for criminal corruption. Nearly 95% of all tomatoes grown in the U.S. are processed by four companies in California.

Step into a grocery store these days and on almost every aisle there’s an item tied to a federal investigation: dairy distributors, egg producers, citrus firms and seed developers are all the targets of federal lawsuits or investigations. Starting next month, the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold meetings to gather complaints and hear concerns over lack of competition.

“I don’t think people have any idea when they see all these brand names in the stores that so many are coming from the same place,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a food safety organization. “It raises the stakes — if one company is doing something wrong, it affects a lot of food.”

Just this week, a federal court determined that Pilgrim’s Pride knowingly tried to manipulate the price of chicken in 2009 and awarded nearly $26 million in damages to 91 Arkansas poultry producers who supplied Pilgrim’s Pride.  The Magistrate ruled that Pilgrim’s Pride actions were corruptly made in an effort to affect the national supply and prices of chicken.

And now, a new lawsuit challenging the corrupt and collusive practices within the dairy business has been filed.

Last week, Hagens Berman filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against several large players in the dairy industry, including the National Milk Producers Federation, Dairy Farmers of America, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Agri-Mark, Inc., and Cooperatives Working Together (CWT) alleging the groups conspired to fix the price of milk throughout the United States.

CWT is a massive trade group representing dairy producers throughout the country who produce nearly 70 percent of the milk consumed in the United States.The lawsuit alleges that between 2003 and 2010, more than 500,000 cows were slaughtered prematurely under CWT’s dairy herd retirement program in a concerted effort to reduce the supply of milk and inflate its price nationally. According to the complaint, “the increased price allowed CWT members to earn more than $9 billion in additional revenue.”

As I have written before:

The preservation of our independence and national security rests in our ability to revitalize family farming. A monopoly by commercial agribusinesses and corporate farms endangers our food to accidental and intentional contamination. Before 1940, only twenty percent of tomatoes were produced in California; today, ninety-five percent are. There is one hamburger plant which grinds fifty million burgers per week by itself. Another salad packaging plant, twenty six million servings of salad pass through its washers. One negligent employee, or worse, a terrorist could endanger millions of Americans. We have recently seen massive outbreaks of E.coli in spinach, salmonella in peppers and peanut butter. A great number of small and medium-sized independent farms are the only assurance of a safe and secure food supply. . .

We need widespread ownership of farms, processors, and distributors. Let me rephrase, we need locally-owned farms, distributorships, and processors. Competition must be re-introduced within the markets, especially the agricultural sector. From the farms to the processors to the distributors, Alabama can lead the way with our historic tradition of great agriculture. With the proper policy, Alabama can create an environment which could reignite an entrepreneurial spirit for aspiring Alabamians across this state.

Just as the mounting consequences of the listeria cantaloupe contamination climb from just 1 farm: 23 deaths (and rising), 100 illnesses (and rising), across 19 states (and rising), we have another single farm impacting half the nation.

A California farm that issued a voluntary lettuce recall over listeria contamination concerns said its notice has gone out to 19 states and Canada.

True Leaf Farms of Salinas initially announced a recall of 90 cartons of romaine lettuce shipped to an Oregon food service distributor, which shipped the produce to Washington and Idaho.

But the chief executive of Church Brothers, which sells and markets the farm’s produce, clarified Saturday that the recall involved nearly 2,500 cartons. Only 90 cartons went to retail sales, said CEO Steve Church, and those were the ones mentioned in the initial announcement.

The rest of the cartons, Church said, went to institutions such as restaurants and cafeterias, which were notified about the recall.

The company recalled the 33,000 pounds of lettuce after a check by federal officials found that a sample from one bag tested positive for listeria. No illnesses have been reported.

No illnesses yet.

The states covered by the recall include Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont.

And once again, why are we importing lettuce from California, 2400 miles, when it can be grown here?

According to reports:

A total of 129 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from in 34 states with illness onset dates between February 27 and September 13, 2011.

One processing plant = over 36 millions pounds of recalled turkey, 129 illnesses in 34 states, 1 death. Could turkey and cantaloupes become the next weapons of mass destruction. With bottlenecks like this, the risk to national security should be obvious.

Since discussing the listeria contamination from one mega-farm in Colorado (here and here), the continuing evidence of dysfunction has now reached Alabama. Alabama has its first illness resulting from the contaminated cantaloupes.

Why is Alabama importing cantaloupes from Colorado? Can we not produce enough cantaloupes on our own?  Because the food system has become so overly-concentrated and centralized, the prospects that our food (like cantaloupes) can become weapons of mass destruction. While all evidence points to negligence in this case, what would happen in the case of malintention?

By way of update: 1 farm caused 15 deaths (and rising), 84 illnesses (and rising), across 19 states (and rising).

UPDATE: 23 deaths an 100 illnesses.

UPDATE 10/7/2011: 21 Dead, 109 Sickened in 23 States

UPDATE 11/2/11: Death toll has reached 29.

Last week, I reported more evidence of the dysfunction within the food system: contaminated cantaloupes.

By way of update: the nation has experienced 52 severe illnesses and 8 deaths across 22 states resulting from the accidental cantaloupe contamination of lysteria from one farm.

Without a doubt, consolidation and concentration in the agricultural economy has caused decreasing incomes for farmers, ranchers, workers and the rural communities that depend on agriculture. Our rural communities, our food supply and the fate of a major portion of the American economy depend on us fixing this problem. However, we can’t solve this dilemma unless we are willing to look at the whole picture of the American food chain—from the farm to the grocery store shelf.

So summarizes a report on the consolidation of the retail segment of our food chain. As the report details, Walmart’s size, reach and power are unparalleled:

  • The growth of Walmart’s share of U.S. grocery sales has been stratospheric: almost quadrupling since 1998 and showing no signs of slowing.
  • Walmart has more retail grocery sales than its next three largest competitors (Kroger, Safeway, Supervalu) combined.
  • Walmart controls more than a 30% share in 44% of major U.S. grocery markets; while in 29 of those markets, the company controls more than a 50% share.

Another series of reports corresponds to these findings:

  • An Iowa State University study found that in Iowa the number of grocery stores with employees dropped by almost half from 1995 to 2005, from about 1,400 stores in 1995 to slightly over 700 just 10 years later. Meanwhile, “supercenter” grocery stores (Wal-Mart and Target, for example) increased by 175 percent in the 10-year period.
  • In rural Iowa, 43 percent of grocery stores in towns with populations less than 1,000 have closed.
  • According to Kansas State University, 82 grocery stores in communities of fewer than 2,500 people in Kansas have closed since 2007, and nearly one in five rural grocery stores have gone out of business since 2006. In total, 38 percent of the grocery stores in Kansas towns of less than 2,500 closed between 2006 and 2009.

Makes one wonder why we are providing Wal-mart with millions of subsidies and development incentives.

A young MBA student and reader of Keating’s Desk asked me why I focus on agriculture so much.  A new law review article entitled Regional Foodsheds: Are Our Local Zoning and Land Use Regulations Healthy? details some of the reasons. The article also inventories local communities efforts from the across the nation to secure a resilient local foodshed and accompanying  policies to support such.

The article advances one important point concerning the worldview change in leaders and policymakers necessary to accomplish the goal of a broad, safe, and secure food system.

Regional foodshed planning must be comprehensive, and it should ―approach food not just [as] a commodity but as an infrastructural system. . . that needs to be managed and considered in all urban and regional planning efforts.

Food, today, is viewed exclusively as a commodity, but for the twenty-first century, we need to be as concerned about our present dysfunctional food supply system and consider its improvement, as a structure, as important as we are our crumbling roads and foreign-oil dependence. Consider, if we think it bad to be dependent upon foreign oil, imagine being dependent upon foreign food.

The article begins with the benefits of local and regional foodsheds. In addition to environmental and public health benefits, the article evidences the economic benefits:

In 2009, U.S. households spent more than $526 billion on food produced outside of the home, indicating a significant economic market for locally grown and processed food. Local sourcing can supply a significant amount of food. A recent Michigan State University study posits that by converting vacant urban land to a host of urban agriculture related uses (e.g., farms, community gardens and storage facilities), Detroit residents could be supplied with seventy-six percent of their vegetables and more than forty percent of their fruits. Although there may be a lack of focus and understanding concerning the relationship between the local economy and food systems, strong regional food markets economically support labor-intensive small and medium sized farms, which have been overtaken in the past several decades by mechanized, large-scale industrial agricultural operations. Local economies are also reinforced as the foodshed movement spurs the need for local food processing facilities and agri-businesses providing supplies, equipment and services (such as repairs). In addition to job creation and economic development, regional food markets reduce transportation costs and provide some insulation from volatility in the global food market. Furthermore, regional markets for production and processing can decrease costs for healthy foods, which can in turn produce economic benefits by preventing health care costs from diseases associated with poor diet and obesity.

The article details many strategies and models which local governments and municipalities might follow including: creating food policy councils/task forces and incorporating food policies into their comprehensive planning.

Some local comprehensive plans contain sections (also called ―elements) that touch on regional food policies, such as agriculture, sustainability, or economic development elements. For example, the Marin County, California plan supports ―the production and marketing of healthy, fresh, locally grown food.

A broad array of other policies which are being tried across the country are detailed. For instance, a policy which I have advocated in the past is examined: employing the purchasing power of local governments:

Procurement policies that favor locally grown foods can help establish a market to support regional food production. In Cleveland, for example, an ordinance was passed in 2010 that requires the commissioner of purchases and supplies and each contracting department to develop a list of local food producers and businesses and to ―endeavor to maximize purchases from these sources. It also favors contract bidders that are locally based and purchase twenty percent of their food locally. Albany County, New York, has also enacted a policy to increase the percentage of local food consumed at the county‘s residential healthcare and correctional facilities. The policy recognizes that locally produced food supports the regional economy, requires less oil and gas, and provides nutritional benefits. Furthermore, in early 2011, a proposal was introduced in New York City to increase purchases of New York state food by city agencies.

For anyone wanting to view a broad array of possibilities for their local communities, this article provides a great starting place.

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