Speaking of Industrial Agriculture

Speaking of industrial agriculture, can you name the following product?

As far as I know, it is the only product which is so undesirable and so uneconomical, and would do so poorly in the open market, that the U.S. government must:

  • Massively subsidize its production;
  • Protect it from foreign imports (which are produced much more cheaply and efficiently) through high tariffs; and
  • Mandate its use by consumers.

What is it?

Food, Inc.

Last night, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I finally made the time to sit down and watch Food, Inc. It’s an outstanding documentary film about modern industrial agriculture, where it came from, the strategies it uses to sustain itself, and what the rest of us can do to supply alternatives. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend you do so. Put it in your Netflix queue, rent it at your local video store, or buy it from Amazon. Just watch it.

The film is at its best in discussing corn, and how elements of corn (and/or soybeans) have found their way into nearly every corner of the supermarket. I would’ve liked more detail about the ways in which federal agriculture policy subsidizes corn production, but the bottom line is that corn comes to the market below its real cost. Chemical and food companies have found countless ways to break this artificially cheap commodity apart into component pieces and reassemble them into the dizzying array of ingredients you see listed on package labels — and these “processed to death,” calorie-laden products end up cheaper than more wholesome alternatives. Ever wondered why a package of Twinkies is less expensive than a bunch of carrots? Even though the former is among the most highly engineered and chemical-intensive products in the supermarket and the latter is just several roots yanked out of the ground and rinsed off?

The sections about confinement agriculture, feedlots, and factory meat processing are eye-opening. The narrative was especially powerful in drawing a line between the inhumane ways in which animals are treated to the dehumanizing ways in which agricultural workers are treated. Everything — animal and human— is simply another element of industrial production.

One of the film’s bigger “lightbulb moments” for me was the degree to which the fast food industry has shaped the way food is produced for all markets. McDonald’s, Burger King, and the rest are enormous customers who want their products to taste exactly the same every time. They thus have enormous power to dictate the standardization of beef, pork, chicken, and potato production. And because those products need to be cheap enough for the Dollar Menu, growers need all kinds of “efficiencies” (i.e. feedlots and other animal concentration camps) to reduce their own costs.
The sections showing Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia are by far the best in the film. Salatin’s books (in particular You Can Farm and Pastured Poultry Profits) greatly inspired us as we were starting out, and it was even more inspiring to see his farm in living color. Salatin has put together a real, workable model of how wholesome food can be produced profitably. It’s no wonder that people drive a hundred miles to fill their freezers with Salatin’s meat. Although we are not attempting to run a pastured poultry enterprise, his production techniques have provided our family with outstanding chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.
I could’ve done without the long section with a grieving mother who is now a “food safety activist” seeking to enact legislation named after her son, who died from a e coli infected meat. Although I certainly empathize with her grief, and cannot imagine the pain she has had to endure, I really don’t think additional regulations and inspections of mammoth industrial food facilities are the answer; as the film itself shows later, the very agencies charged with creating and enforcing regulations are frequently headed and staffed by former executives and lobbyists from the industrial food companies themselves. In political science, we call this revolving door phenomenon “regulatory capture.” In the case of industrial agriculture, it results because the only people with enough experience and expertise to understand the industry are those with extensive ties to the industry itself.
The film’s biggest shortcoming, in my mind, is that it doesn’t do enough to connect the dots between “food safety legislation” and regulatory capture. My sense is that the former is useless — or even counterproductive — unless something is first done about the latter. And given the complexity of the industry, I’m not sure anything can be done about it. The result is a regulatory environment designed by and for the protection of agricultural conglomerates, but too byzantine and expensive for small producers to understand or abide by. The entirely foreseen and intended outcome is even less competition from farmers like Joel Salatin. Want to be able to sell your meat to local restaurants, which would provide a very nice and stable customer base for any farmer? You’ll need to have your animals butchered at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. Good luck finding one of those anywhere near your farm. And, by the time you transport your animals there and go back to pick up the meat, good luck turning a profit. And don’t even think about starting your own small dairy or cheesemaking operation until you’re ready to spend a fortune building something that abides by state regulations. Then, have fun with the inspectors showing up to pick through your property whenever they feel like it. I realize that some of these measures are essential for large producers, but there ought to be more exemptions for small entrepreneurs.
The bottom line, though, is that this is a very important documentary. I apologize that it took me over two years to see and review it here. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend that you do so.

Don’t Call the Cops

They won’t come. Not for a long time, anyway. Unless it’s a real emergency. And even then…who knows?

That’s essentially what’s happened here in our county. While most people are aware of the dramatic police and firefighter layoffs in big cities like Camden, NJ, there is a somewhat different — and more interesting — dynamic at work here in our little corner of Michigan.

Like most counties in our state, the territory is divided up into large townships of about 30-35 square miles. Within these, there are pockets of incorporated municipalities which are administratively separate from the surrounding township. Our particular rural township has about 2,400 rural residents, and there are about 2,300 people living in its one incorporated municipality.

Most of the incorporated municipalities, including the one we live just outside of, have a small police force. (They seem to spend much of their time camped out with a radar gun at the municipal line, where the speed limit suddenly drops from 45 to 25.) However, that police force will not respond to crimes on our property; their responsibility ends at the municipal border. We and all other rural residents are under the jurisdiction of the County Sheriff, whose services are paid for by our property taxes.

Last summer, the County announced that they would need to slash the Sheriff’s budget by $2.2 million for 2011, and that they would no longer have the resources (i.e. deputies) for routine patrols or response to non-emergency rural calls. If we wanted more police coverage than that, we would need to approve a special millage on the November ballot. The money raised would be used to contract with the county sheriff or a local municipality for police coverage, or to form a new rural police force.

The assessment would’ve been about $150 per residence and $250 per business. Of course, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I voted in favor. We tend to oppose most millage proposals, but police coverage should be a no-brainer. Public safety is one of the few truly essential and appropriate functions that government provides. I simply assumed it would pass, and didn’t even bother checking the election results for several weeks.

As it turns out, the millage in fact failed. Miserably. Each of the thirteen townships voted separately, and the measure only (barely) passed in one. It came close (49%) in one other township. Five other townships were in the low forties. None of the remaining seven townships, including ours, could muster a “Yes” vote in excess of 37%.

Interestingly, the one township which passed the millage has chosen not to contract with the County Sheriff for services. They are instead going to hire a local municipality’s police force to cover them.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have been scratching our heads and trying to understand the election outcome. MYF’s working theory is it’s similar to the “boy who cried wolf” one too many times not getting taken seriously. She reasons that voters have gotten sick of being told the sky would fall down if they didn’t approve an additional property tax hike, and finally decided to stop listening. That’s a plausible explanation, especially given that our property taxes are supposed to be covering police protection in the first place — and that, according to some locals we’ve spoken to, the county commission has proven itself less than trustworthy on some occasions. No doubt, some voters thought the County was playing “chicken” with us, and would blink if we didn’t.

The County didn’t blink. The first week of January, they in fact cut the Sheriff Department’s staff from 223 to 187 employees. That leaves exactly two deputies on duty at any given time to respond to calls in the entire 440 square miles they are responsible for.

What does that mean, exactly? We’re starting to find out. Earlier this month, when a student took a loaded handgun into a rural middle school, it took deputies 20 minutes to get there.

Fortunately, our townships are not high crime areas. But many of us are concerned that could now change. If you’re a burglar, what better place to ply your trade than one where, even if you’re surprised by a homeowner, it takes the cops 20 minutes to show up?

Of course, burglars know that most of us here in the country are fairly well-armed. Few would be stupid enough to break in when a rural resident is at home. Our family is especially fortunate in this regard; because we homeschool, and because I work on the property, someone is nearly always here. We’re also on a fairly well-traveled blacktop road that’s not far from a municipality, so lots of eyes would be upon someone carting property out of our house. But that’s not true of most other rural homes; many sit empty all day, and are on isolated lanes. What better target than a house where it’ll take a deputy several days to come out and even file a police report of your burglary? Just imagine how contaminated the crime scene will be by then!

Already, there is talk of putting another police millage on a future ballot; it’ll be interesting to see if, as residents experience the reality of life with reduced sheriff coverage, support for a special assessment increases.

In the meantime, what’s especially heartening is the grassroots response in some townships. People aren’t just sitting back and waiting for the criminals to strike, or for government to act on our behalf. In the true American civic spirit, they’re forming voluntary associations to address the problem themselves. Residents of one township, for example, have been extremely aggressive in forming a neighborhood watch. Signs like these:

have popped up all over the rural roads. The churches, including the Catholic church in that township, have been especially active as centers of coordination. Down in the church basement, there’s a big stack of these signs that the Knights of Columbus and others have been working to distribute.

It reminds me a lot of something that happened when we lived in Illinois, and someone in our rural county began setting fire to barns on isolated properties. As the size of territory was too large for police to keep an eye on, a group of locals began organizing active patrols of roads with likely targets. I myself started taking a different route into town, just so I could drive past and keep an eye on more isolated structures. Anyway, after just a couple of weeks, one of the local patrols caught the arsonist fleeing the scene of a fire. They held him until the cops could arrive.

I’m sure hoping it doesn’t come to that here in Michigan. But we’re all ready to step up for our community if it does.

Got Rice?

One consequence of having kids with food allergies, and who can eat basically only one grain, is that we take a hit when the price of that grain spikes. Given the role of rice as a worldwide staple for so much of the planet’s population, supply disruptions or crop failures in one part of the world can ripple through to impact the prices of grain we buy from California. For that reason, we try to maintain a prudent supply of bulk rice at our house, packed and stored securely to keep out moisture and rodents, as a hedge against price fluctuations. If the cost jumps temporarily, as it did during a panic in early 2008, we’re not over a barrel. We have some flexibility to wait the market out.

We’ve been concerned for some time now about the reckless behavior of the Federal Reserve, and its massive printing of money through “quantitative easing,” and the impact this could have on commodity prices. Oil is now over $90 per barrel, and we’re all seeing the effects at the gas pump. Agricultural commodities have been rising significantly as well; you can see that for yourself by checking prices at the Chicago Board of Trade. But here’s a more personal anecdote: a month or two back, the woman who manages the local grain elevator told me that so many farmers around here have tried to cash in on soaring commodity prices, by bringing loads of corn and soybeans to the local elevator, the elevator ran out of capacity. They actually had to turn farmers away, or send them on to other elevators. But it was obviously a problem for everybody.

Anyway, Bloomberg reports that agricultural commodities, including rice, likely won’t be coming down in price any time soon:

While gold “may go down for awhile,” the metal is “going to go over $2,000 in this decade,” [Jim] Rogers [chairman of Rogers Holdings], who owns gold, silver and rice, said today during a presentation to business executives in Chicago. Gold touched a record $1,432.50 an ounce in New York on Dec. 7. The price closed today at $1,387.

I’d rather own rice,” Rogers said. “I’d rather own something that’s more depressed than gold.”

Agricultural commodities are “going to boom” as demand increases in developing markets, primarily in Asia, he said. All commodities will be supported by the weakening dollar, which is losing value because Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is “printing money” by buying Treasuries in an effort to shore up the U.S. economy, Rogers said.

“Paper money is made of cotton, and I’m long cotton, by the way,” Rogers said. “One reason I’m long cotton is because Dr. Bernanke is out there running the printing presses as fast as he can.”

Rogers said he doesn’t own shares in U.S. companies and is short U.S. long-term treasury bonds. The Chinese renminbi may provide “almost sure profits over the next five to 10 years,” he said.

“In the future, it’s the stock broker who’s going to be driving the cabs,” Rogers said. “The smart stock brokers will learn to drive tractors, and drive them for the farmers, because the farmers will have the money.”

Needless to say, I’m grateful that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer laid in a good supply of rice at last year’s prices. We may try to get some more at our next co-op order. If there is some grain or other commodity that your family depends on, I’d recommend you think about investing in a good supply of it now while the prices are relatively reasonable. It wouldn’t surprise me if coffee prices, for example, increase significantly; coffee is produced almost exclusively overseas, and its prices can therefore be influenced by currency valuations. I personally can’t live without coffee, and for that reason have invested in a prudent supply from Sam’s Club. For most of us, this kind of practical move makes a lot more sense than trying to buy a commodity contract on the Chicago Board of Trade. There’s really no downside, other than the lost opportunity to invest the money in something else. Commodity prices certainly aren’t going to be decreasing. And we’re eventually going to consume these stored products anyway.

And for those of you who don’t yet have your own farm: note well the final portion of the Bloomberg excerpt above.

Why So Unusual?

I’m sure we’ve all been following news about the recent events in Arizona. Saturday’s shootings were especially personal for me because Gabrielle Giffords is my parents’ representative in Congress, and my folks live a short distance from the Safeway where everything happened. My mother learned about the shooting when a concerned friend called, frantic, wanting to make sure she was okay. As it turned out, my mom had gone grocery shopping that very morning at a Safeway not far from the one in question.

In the days since, I’ve read a great deal of material about the shootings. I’ve been particularly moved by what’s come out about the victims themselves (especially Judge John Roll), and by the heroism of those who stopped the perpetrator from firing more rounds. I’ve also been appalled by attempts to ascribe the attacks to some sort of “climate” generated by those on the Right, especially after details about the shooter became known. Even though his victim was an elected official, he was clearly not motivated by ideology or partisanship.

I’ve noticed, however, that one question has gone largely unanswered: why is it that ideologically-motivated attacks on American elected officials are so exceedingly rare? In a sense, this is the “dog that didn’t bark” of American public life. That dog didn’t even bark in the current instance.

It took an article-length article to organize my thoughts. The good folks at MercatorNet have published the piece here. It begins like this:

In the hours following the horrific shooting at Gabrielle Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event in Arizona, the rush to explain the perpetrator’s motivations began. Giffords had recently survived a hotly-contested re-election challenge from a Tea Party-backed candidate who was her ideological mirror image. In the absence of hard information about the shooter, it might be natural to wonder if he had been discouraged at the election outcome or otherwise inspired by the Tea Party’s anti-Washington rhetoric. Indeed, many on the political left ─ including the local county sheriff ─ speculated aloud in just that manner.

Although the investigation is ongoing, the principal suspect is actually a registered independent who was so disconnected from politics that he didn’t bother to vote in the 2010 congressional election. By all accounts, Jared Lee Loughner appears to be an isolated, deeply mentally ill young man suffering from multiple psychoses.

As analysts continue to debate the reasons for the Arizona events, a potentially far more interesting question has remained largely unasked: Why are violent attacks on American elected officials so exceedingly rare?

But please do read the whole thing. And comment if you feel so inclined.