Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Election is Over, Now it is Time to Vote...

Well, yesterday was what it was and the results are what they are. That is about all the comment you will get from me on the election. But, I don't really believe the voting is done ... in fact I honestly believe that the campaigning needs to continue and that the people need to vote and keep voting. I'm talking about voting with their forks, stomachs, and food purchases! Those are the votes that will matter to the small scale farmers out there. Those are the votes that will matter to the people that want to see America's agricultural systems change. Those are the votes that really matter because they are more than a popularity contest.

Out in California it looks like their Proposition 2 will pass which will put some more regulations on the confinement industry. On the surface that may seem like a victory for grass-based or free-range producers, but I have a feeling that it is going to take more than a ban on confinement agriculture to really change the face of farming in the United States. What it is going to take is for consumers to start dictating what they want with their purchases.

Here is what I think this means... If you are a producer/farmer who believes in the ideas of grass-based agriculture and the fact that it can feed our country you need to get out there and campaign. Not for legislation to help you (although it may be a good idea to campaign for less regulation in some sectors), but rather campaign to the consumers ... the people who buy food for themselves and their families. Let them know what is so great about a farming system that is different from the current conventional norm and then let their stomachs and their forks do the voting.

And, if you are a consumer ... well then get informed, make your decision, and cast your ballot (so to speak). Don't just make the assumption that a cheap food culture is the best way, or that government regulation will give you the safest and healthiest food available. See what is out there. Talk with your local farmers. Then start eating!

8 comments:

Yeoman said...

Excellent points, but. . .

the problem is that the number of people who pay attention to stuff like this is a small percentage of the populace. I'm think a large shift can't occur without some pretty significant government involvement. Faced with every increasing populations, and ever tightening budgets, I don't see the majority of Americans ever making the kind of decisions on their food that will really impact us in the way we hope, and which will also address all the competing pressures. That will take government guidance and intervention.

Those of us who are in farming, and particularly small scale family farming, probably better hope that the new administration will start making some major policy shifts in our direction. That's the only way, in my view, things will get where they need to be.

I'll be frank that I have a lot of worries about what the new Administration will mean. Recently, Democratic administrations with heavy urban representation have been somewhat hostile to agriculture in the West. That's one of the reasons there is no more Democratic party in my state, as it meant you had to oppose farmers and ranchers. At worst, the fact that the new President was elected by urbanites (the majority of Americans) could mean that we have elected an Administration that views us as a combination of the denizens of Green Acres and Sunnybrook Farm plus a Locust Plague. If that's the case, we're in for it. Or, on the other hand, the obviously liberal bent of the new Administration might be bent in our direction by pointing out that we're the true conservators of the land and environment, in which case we might really benefit. Those of us who are from states that the new Administration might listen too might want to start putting in their pitch now.

Chad said...

I found this on the obama website which shows that Obama at least acknowledges some of the challenges small farmers are facing, whether you agree with his response is another thing entirely, but open discussion can't hurt either way.

http://www.barackobama.com/issues/rural/

I vote libertarian. I've got mixed feelings about whoever wins any election, this one is no different.

Mike said...

I had previously run across an essay in the New York Times, an open letter to the next President in which Michael Pollan describes the problems with our current approach to food and farming, and what might be done to fix things. I was encouraged to hear that Obama had actually read this piece -- these are his comments on it:

"I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs."

I don't think he's blowing hot air here -- it sounds like the President-elect understands that rethinking the way agriculture is generally done has the potential to affect a positive change in many of the big-ticket issues you heard about during the campaign.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the Pollan article!

Rich said...

"...our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector..."

That just sounds like code talk for the possibility of more emission regulations aimed at farmers. If they require farmers to use equipment that supposedly emits less greenhouse gases will small farmers be able to afford newer equipment? If I am required to buy new "lower emission" tractors, it will put me out of the wheat growing business. Of course, I could convert all of our cropland to grass and just raise cattle (unsure if I could still bale my own hay), but I would rather make the choice myself rather than being forced by a set of unreasonable government regulations.

Mike said...

Rich, I understand your skepticism. Take a look at the Pollan essay; it's a long read but very good. For what it's worth, I've jotted down some of the suggestions Pollan writes up in his article. Generally speaking, his suggestions value the proverbial carrot rather than the stick:

-> Reward farmers for planting cover crops in the winter to reduce fertilizer usage

-> Composting municipal food waste and distributing to farms at no cost, reducing fossil fuel based fertilizer usage

-> Over the long term, perennialize commodity agriculture -- create varieties of staple crops that can be grown like prairie grasses, decreasing fertilizer application and tillage, while preventing soil erosion and sequestering more atmospheric carbon

-> Reduce carbon emissions by encouraging meat to be raised on farms instead of in CAFOs -- among other things, by rescinding FDA approval for regular use of antibiotics in animal feed, which is creating drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

-> Broadly speaking, build an infrastructure for more regionalized food that better supports diversified farming. Decentralizing agriculture also strengthens the robustness of the food distribution system against bioterror attacks.

-> Specifically, with respect to the above, provide grants to cities/municipalities for four-seasons farmers markets, ease regulations on small farmers and better allow on-farm animal slaughter/processing and small abattoirs, establish a strategic grain reserve, regionalize federal food procurement, bar the use of food-assistance dollars on nutritionally void junk that sends more money to food processors than farmers, and make it easier for schools to purchase "real" food as opposed to fast food.


The idea is not to curb agricultural carbon emissions by simply mandating new technology or penalizing farmers for the status quo, but by making it more economically attractive to diversify the types of production we see in the agricultural market.

I certainly don't mean to conflate the ideas of Pollan with Obama. The ideas that I summarize above are taken from Pollan's essay, not an Obama policy statement. However, in the quote that worries you, Obama is specifically talking about carbon emissions within the context of Pollan's article, and the need for more general reform. A technological mandate to use more expensive, slightly more efficient tractors doesn't solve the remaining problems that Pollan identifies and Obama goes on to list -- monocultures vulnerable to security threats, volatile commodity prices, and a food market that's contributing to severe long-term healthcare costs. The fact that Obama mentions all these problems in the same breath as greenhouse gases is a good sign that he knows a simple technological mandate is the wrong solution.

Steven said...

My crazy idea is that if you just take away subsidies (over time) many of these changes would happen on their own.

Rich said...

Steven - why would that be a crazy idea? Everybody seems to agree that "big or rich" farms and farmers shouldn't get subsidies, which is an admission that subsidies must be part of the problem.

If the current problem in agriculture is partly caused by subsidizing commodities (as I assume Pollan does), then how can it be fixed by shifting the subsidies to a different type of farmer or farming method?

Yeoman said...

"Steven - why would that be a crazy idea? Everybody seems to agree that "big or rich" farms and farmers shouldn't get subsidies, which is an admission that subsidies must be part of the problem.

If the current problem in agriculture is partly caused by subsidizing commodities (as I assume Pollan does), then how can it be fixed by shifting the subsidies to a different type of farmer or farming method?"

It can't.

Part of the problem in discussing subsidies is that people fail to understand the silent subsidizing nature of corporations. The fact that corporations are "persons" in the eyes of the law extends an economic advantage to them with which no average person can compete.

The reason for this is that corporations allow shareholder, often combined in large groups, to act, in terms of the law, as though they are a single individual. There's no liability to the shareholders for the liability of the corporations, and there's really no individual responsibility.

The reason that matters here is that it isn't only subsidies that operate in a negative way here, but that the government (and that would include all modern governments) have generally allowed corporations to act as "farmers" by buying land, and hiring a servant to farm it. There's no danger to the shareholder, except minimum economic danger, for any acts of the corporation, and the shareholders actually have no real say, or even knowledge, as to what is occurring.

If corporations were treated like partnerships, they couldn't act this way, and farming partnerships would be small in number. That would make agriculture much more a sole proprietorship, and local, enterprise than it currently is.

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