Monday, August 13, 2007

The new farming frontier...

The organic advantage - how big is it? Or does it exist at all? In this week's Time, the inescapable Dr. Sanjay Gupta offers some remarkably reasonable comments about eating organic.
The evidence of nutritional advantages is almost as thin. Never mind the idea that organically grown foods fairly burst with vitamins that modern farming techniques drain out of crops. To date most studies have either shown no difference between organic and conventional produce or found very small pluses in the organic column, such as slightly higher levels of vitamin C or other antioxidants. [More]
Such advice is now common, as scientists and science reporters adhere to the scientific method that has carried us to the level of abundance we now enjoy. Nonetheless, the organic sector is growing vigorously thanks to consumer preferences and I for one welcome it.

Organic production is part of a bustling agrarian sector of agriculture that delivers a process (free-range, organic, grass-fed, cage-free, etc.) with a product (meat, eggs, etc.) is a legitimate market response to consumer demand. Farmers have no inherent right to say what the eating public should have to buy.

The agrarian sector, like all emerging industries does have some regrettable baggage. Extravagant claims of non-existent nutritional advantages, for example:
On the question of grain- versus grass-fed cows, some suggest that pasture-fed cows may produce milk that contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a special type of fat that may protect against cancer and other health problems. But Michael Pariza, professor of food microbiology and toxicology at the University of Wisconsin, and a leading expert on CLA in dairy products, says grass feeding by itself does not assure increased CLA. He and Bauman both note that cows fed mixed grains with soybeans or other additions can produce milk that has higher CLA levels than milk from grass-fed cows. This may lead you to spend less on milk and more on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and other healthful foods. [More]
Agrarians have also found a way to tap into the strong animal welfare feelings that I think are overlapping our enormous pet industry. One of the latest battles is for cage-free eggs.
The eggs, from chickens raised in large, open barns instead of stacks of small wire cages, have become the latest addition to menus at universities, hotel chains like Omni and cafeterias at companies like Google. The Whole Foods supermarket chain sells nothing else, and even Burger King is getting in on the trend.

All that demand has meant a rush on cage-free eggs and headaches in corporate kitchens as big buyers learn there may not be enough to go around. [More]
Industrial producers like myself have been trying to write off these developments as consumer fads, but I think they are woven into the cultural shifts made possible by abundance and the differences in values of Boomers and succeeding generations. We also have struggles with a larger issue: agrarians are boldly snatching our outdated "family farm" image which we flog in the halls of Congress to attract subsidy support.

The growing divide between agrarian and industrial producers no longer alarms me. In fact, heated opposition to the agrarian movement is the last thing industrial ag should be spending time on. The market is sorting this one out as we speak.

Besides, the agrarian sector is an appropriate answer for the handful of products that lend themselves to selling the process - seasonal fruit/vegetables, large-purchase (halves, for example) meats, etc. It is also a good answer for ag topography that does not lend itself to large scale production, such as rolling/wooded terrain or near urban areas.
We have seen new business models emerge over the last decade for dozens of industries including travel, advertising, and publishing—all relying heavily on technology-based improvements in productivity and changes in distribution associated with the Internet.

Now we may be seeing the emergence of a new business model for small farms, which have lagged the transformation of other industries and continued to rely heavily on commodity pricing and middlemen distributors.

At the forefront of this revolution is the 10-employee, $700,000-a-year Polyface Farm, a 550-acre producer of beef, chickens, and pork in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. A family farm run by its second generation owner, Joel Salatin, Polyface is thriving thanks to a combination of innovative use of technology to encourage livestock mobility, and streamlined distribution to bypass middlemen and instead sell products directly to consumers. [More]
This new business model also is labor intensive while industrial ag is shedding jobs via technology. For young people aspiring to a rural lifestyle the agrarian model seems more realistic than hoping to rent 1100 acres someday away from guys like me.

And as for the concern that agrarian producers could hijack our farm payments - I think industrial ag has put that idea to rest. When agrarians can't get Reps. Pelosi or Sen. Feinstein to support them, it indicates they got nothin'.

The scary part is agrarians may learn to succeed despite government, not because of it. Now those will be competitors!

1 comment:

Bill Harshaw said...

Checked out Polyface's web site. I think you missed a small, but significant advantage of the agrarian movement: getting people to do their work for them. (Remember Tom Sawyer and whitewashing the fence?) Both "harvesting your own" and treating farm life as a "life experience" that you can attract "apprentices" to--slick. :-)