Dollars and sense: the cost of our food

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Stress has a way of revealing weaknesses. This year, only halfway over, is that and then some, courtesy of a global pandemic.

It revealed cracks in our food supply chain. Grocery stores that reliably supplied us with whatever we needed or wanted — whenever we needed or wanted it — had empty shelves for days on end.

Packing plants shut down as workers became sick. The subsequent back-ups forced some farmers to cull animals. Dairy farmers dumped milk and produce farmers plowed under their vegetables after restaurants and schools closed and markets contracted. All the while, food banks have been burdened by record-high numbers of people needing their help.

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Once grocery stores restocked, prices shot up. The price of beef went up 10% in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.

Tyson Foods chairman John Tyson declared in a full-page ad in national newspapers in April that America’s “food supply chain is breaking.”

All of this drove people to look for other sources of food — more reliable sources, like their local farmers, who have been there all along.

Numerous media outlets, including Farm and Dairy, reported on skyrocketing interest in local farmers and their goods. Some people even started growing and raising their own food in an effort to cut the modern supply chain out completely.

With things going so awry in the large-scale conventional system, surely, the smaller local or regional food system would provide more stability. And it did, initially.

But the local food sources too were strained by the huge surge in demand. They weren’t built to feed entire communities of people in the blink of an eye. They weren’t built for the type of convenience that modern supermarkets made us accustomed to, although many adapted quickly as best they could.

• • •

So, is our food supply chain broken? No, but it did see tremendous upheaval that revealed vulnerabilities. Seeing those weaknesses was scary. Everyone needs to eat. It’s not something we can avoid.

All of this got people thinking more critically about where their food comes from and how they get it. At least for a little while. Time will tell if interest wanes once convenience returns.

Agriculture can sometimes seem like a war between two sides, conventional versus alternative, local versus global, small versus big. To hear opponents of different methods talk, one side provides cheap food at the expense of the environment, while the other provides pricey food that’s not accessible for everyone.

That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s one many people latch onto.

The reality of the situation is a lot more complicated than that. It’s helpful to understand where we came from to see through this false choice because the last 120 years recreated what agriculture looks like and how we get our food.

“We started the 20th century as an agricultural nation, with half the population living on farms,” said Douglas Jackson-Smith, a professor of rural sociology in Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.  “We ended that century with about 2% living on farms.”

At the beginning of the century, horses were still used to work fields. Cows were primarily still milked by hand.

To get your food, you either raised it yourself or went into town to buy it from the store. You’d present your order to a clerk, who then gathered up all the goods, measuring out items from bulk containers. You might still have to make a trip to the butcher and baker (and candlestick maker) if you weren’t making that stuff yourself.

But the tide was turning.

The gasoline-powered tractor had just been created in 1892. Milking machines were being built and improved upon throughout the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that commercial models that could safely and cleanly milk cows were developed.

Kroger, founded in Cincinnati in 1883, was one of the first grocery stores chains. The company claims to be the first grocer in the country to establish an in-house bakery, in 1901, as well as the first to sell meat and groceries under one roof.

A shift began after World War I. Wars tend to bring about a lot of technological advances and this one was no exception. Out of World War I came nitrogen fertilizer, thanks to German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. For the first time ever, farmers could add nitrogen back into the soil at will to boost crop yields.

Out of the Great Depression came the first Farm Bill — the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Thus began a pattern of the federal government stepping into the agricultural markets to control supply and subsidize farmers.

Through this all, farm equipment was becoming more advanced, more efficient and more affordable. Farmland was becoming more productive and less labor intensive.

“The big transformation for farmers occurred around World War II,” Jackson-Smith said. “That’s when we saw migration away from agriculture and the growth and consolidation of farms.”

Efficiency and convenience were the name of the game for what became known as conventional agriculture — also known as “industrial agriculture” — and the intricate supply chains that developed around it.

Conventional agriculture gave us easily accessible food. It gave us cheap food.

“We can get food to people — all kinds of food, diverse and safe food — all around the year, to more people than before,” Jackson-Smith said. “Those are things to be celebrated.”

This mechanized system has come at a cost, though. The environmental impacts of large-scale agriculture are hard to ignore. There’s also the literal cost. Farmers carry massive amounts of debt to participate in this system (See: the farm crisis of the 1980s).

• • •

What’s the alternative to this? Well, alternative agriculture. What you hear today called organic, regenerative, sustainable or any other number of buzzwords.

While it’s called alternative now, many of these practices are not new or different. It’s how things used to be done, in many cases. That’s part of the charm of it. But it began to rise in popularity with the environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

In some ways, these practices counteract the failings of conventional agriculture. Regenerative agriculture touts practices that produce food while benefiting the environment. Alternative ag supports a shorter supply chain.

For as good as it sounds, this system isn’t perfect either. There just aren’t enough of these farms to feed everyone. These operations can’t take advantage of the economies of scale that conventional agriculture can. Things are less efficient and, therefore, more expensive. Those costs get passed on to the customer. Not everyone can afford to pay $10 for a pound of grassfed ground beef.

Here is the good news. This isn’t an either/or situation. You don’t have to choose one side. Farmers aren’t. Many of them have a foot in both worlds.

A farmer operating a feedlot may sell beef directly to local customers by the half or whole. A farmer direct marketing grassfed and pasture-raised cattle may take extra calves to an auction where they’ll be bought by a feedlot. Farmers mix and match practices to find what works best for their situation.

But there are trade-offs. You can’t have the bucolic scene of sleek, fat cows on lush green grass and also get ground beef for $3.99 a pound.

We still get most of our food from conventional systems. That’s most of what stocks grocery stores and that’s where we shop most often. Direct sales from farmer to consumer make up less than 1% of farm sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Not that all farms selling direct engage in regenerative practices, but many do. If you add in direct sales to retail markets and institutions, you get up to just over 3%.

But this overreliance on one system to provide for us all has made the entire system vulnerable. That’s why there was such a panic when grocery stores ran empty a couple months ago.

“Resiliency is a diversified portfolio,” Jackson-Smith said. “We’re very heavily relying on a certain type of system now. But a greater role for smaller, medium sized suppliers and supply chain operators, it would make us more resilient.”

That’s happening, slowly. The same stressors that revealed cracks in the food chain are also forcing changes. It’s also forcing consumers to evaluate the costs involved in producing their food.

Although they control a small part of the market, Jackson-Smith sees small and medium-sized producers, processors and suppliers growing more rapidly now. And larger suppliers will likely be forced to give up a little efficiency in the name of diversity and resiliency.

“There are ways that systems work together,” he said. “The more redundancy we see, the better off we are. The issues we’re seeing the food system right now have been there for years. COVID-19 is bringing them into relief.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

1 COMMENT

  1. Rachel,
    This is an excellent story. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.
    Keep up the good work.

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