Socialism of food (the gift of breaking bread)
An interesting trend that I have come to notice is that in areas with a great abundance of wealth and natural assets, a cultural shift takes place. In the land “flowing with milk and honey” we tend to forget about what it is we have and, instead, focus on what it is we don’t have.
If you read many of my blogs you know that I am food and farming focused. In my view of things, we all need to eat and that means food must be pretty important. So, why not consider those things that are most important to us and make sure we focus on that first before we reach for so many other things that are not as important?
It is no surprise to anyone who follows farming and agriculture here in the United States that we are on a rather dire path that few talk about. The rapid decline of the farming population and consequently the consolidation of land, and production methods to not only maintain but increase productivity is causing the system to undergo some rather long-term strains in the realm of the environment and the overall farm social scene.
Before I go any farther, I want to first say that this blog is NOT a criticism or judgment against anyone or any one group. I have spent 30 years in the business of helping farmers and suppliers raise crops and my own actions have probably supplied hundreds of thousands of people, and animals spread across a continent. That is the amplification effect that anyone one has who is in the business of supplying farmers. The person operating the drag line in this picture must affect the productivity of millions of acres during their career as a drag line operator digging the ore to produce phosphorous fertilizer. That is truly an Amplification Effect! I invite you to revisit my blog on the challenges involved. This is not meant to be a criticism to these folks and their employers. Rather, this is simply my experience and observations.
It is simple economics that tells us that as more is available, the value will seek a lower level. Hillsdale College offers a great course on the basics of economics, and best of all, it’s high quality and free. (Thanks, Hillsdale!) So, for those of us blessed with the abundance of farmland, we have found ourselves slowly losing sight of those things that we are blessed with…food. Less perceived value drives the market to a cheaper price and so it goes. In the process, we lose our farming population, farms get bigger, production increases and more is produced with fewer people producing it. In the process, average household incomes for the farms that are larger scale is consistently higher than the average American family income. These numbers, while accurate, can so be somewhat misleading. A 2016 report from Canada shows that while the average Canadian farm family has an annual income in excess of $110,000 the farm only provides about $20,000 and the rest comes from
businesses that are not of the farm. Here in America, this kind of information can be problematic when the consumers and taxpayers hear about subsidies for farming. Especially as our government slowly changes from a Republic to a full blown democracy and the minority loses the protection of their individual rights. Hence, another side of socialism may present itself in the realm of food in the United States in years to come. Will we be ready with sound policies in the ways of food and farming?
Crossing a line
Like it or not, we have crossed a line. And the consumer has noticed it. In the land of milk and honey, we have somehow crossed over an imaginary line in the mind of the consumer. The realm of social media is a powerful outlet for those companies that supply the consumer with the foods they want. And those suppliers are listening. And, we as an industry sometimes bristle at the infringement on our ability to do our job. We work like dogs to supply the food to a buyer who is starting to balk at what it is we offer. And, as government officials read the reports, and listen to the constituents who far outnumber the farming community, some very powerful tools that are already in place could be used against an ever shrinking segment of society. One that is most troubling is the FBI now heading up animal cruelty investigations. I am NOT for the mistreatment of animals. Quite the contrary, I strongly support the calling of Man by God in Genesis to be the steward of Creation. However, I must also point out that the term “humane treatment” means being treated like a human. And this is not in line with my view of creation relative to man. God called Man to be higher than the rest of creation, not its equal.
The industry of food has also entered the realm of food production and is backing it up with money to boot. General Mills, Dannon Yogurt, Kellogg, Walton Foundation, Unilever, Campbell’s along with others are all stepping into the realm of food production. Remember the social media link I shared earlier? That powerful tool is what is connecting all of us and making food a social event. The issues of farm employees and farm labor is also becoming more of a social issue that we have not seen since the days of the milk riots by dairy farmers over 80 years ago. The farm industry starves for labor and is the only industry that has an expedited labor immigration program. However, the awkward truth is that the farm sector is still one of the ones with a high level of illegal immigrants. It is reported that up to 52% of these workers are illegal immigrants With the current farm wage being at levels that are 20 years behind the current average wage, the industry finds itself becoming the target of some rather awkward social reforms relative to the formation of organized labor. Will we as a society be ready for the amplified consequences? Think about this: if 52% of those harvesting your food were told to get out of our nation immediately, who will take the place of those million or so workers? Do any of you reading this article want to take their place?
We in the United States are used to spending the least amount of money on food of anyone in the world and yet are the most affluent. How willing will we be to spend more of our own money so that the farmer can pay these employees more so that they can become legalized workers? With farming having a relatively low number of non-family employees relative to other industries, the politicians could find that it is easier to go along with the sentiment to allow collective bargaining for farm employees at the expense of the farmers especially when the laws are written in states with a very small farmer population. Will we be ready for the ripple effect? It may mean not going to as many sporting events or forgoing a few other enjoyments.
The Breaking of Bread
The breaking of bread and sharing of intimate moments around food is a very powerful experience. It signifies friendship, common interests, mutual understanding, or a desire to learn more. In many parts of the world, it is the wife or woman of the family unit that is in charge of farming and food production. That is foreign to us in the United States. Except for those who are delving into the realm of CSA’s, and localized micro farms. Over half a billion woman are involved in agriculture in the world. In Asia and South Africa, 50% or more of the female population is involved in farming. I believe this speaks volumes as to the strong bond between woman and child in the family. In areas that are not as rich with goods, services, and wealth, women are vital to food production. They seek the help of each other and develop strong and often successful networks to help them succeed as reported in the study of 63 such support groups in Kenya, Africa. I believe it is no small coincidence that the one who brings new life into the world finds such a close attachment to the nurturing of crops and animals.
A Timeless Lesson
This trend is even carrying over to regions like New Brunswick, Canada. It is reported that 55% of all new farmers are females. Here in the United States, less than 300,000 women are now principal owners of a farm. While the American woman may not be farming, she has a curiosity about it. According to this report, ethics is what is driving the consumer, not necessarily the farmer being able to be profitable and provide what they want. I believe it is no small coincidence that female consumers while not necessarily farming themselves, is becoming much more aware of the ways of farming by starting small part-time farms that provide a way of education for children and food for family and local customers…from Kenya to France to New Brunswick to North Carolina and anywhere a mother feeds a family. They chose how to invest their money in the food they buy. Herein lies the rub for American farmers. They find themselves with a market that is changing all around and new neighbors with new views on what is important. Caught between a mix of government policies, consumer demands, labor and economic challenges, they do not find much stability in today’s farming world.
What will become of all of this?
What are we to make of this? This is going to have an effect of every one of us. The wishes of the consumer drive the food supplier and the consumer and lobbyists drive the politician. Meanwhile, the men and women of the agronomy retail industry find themselves adapting and changing. The breaking of bread has become something we in America have taken for granted and a system of farming and suppliers has kept us fed for a very low price. But can we continue to do so at such a cheap price? Winds of change are blowing in from various directions. Some winds that are not always magnanimous but rather self-serving. That is what concerns me. I read a lot and pay attention to trends. The trends I see in motion are not all so rosy. Technology is a definite tool with massive power capable of helping all farmers make complicated decisions. With such a tool comes an equal level of responsibility. There will be special interest groups that seek to create chaos that will not always be the best for a stable food system. Food is the common ring that binds all men together and those who look to exert their own selfish desire on others know that. Nations and tribes have gone to war over such things. Will those in positions of responsibility and power be able to sort through the tares and wheat to find what is true and best for a hungry nation while preserving the environment? What will we do to support those who feed us? Will we as a nation be willing to put our money where our mouth is and pay a little more to have food that allows the farmer to pay a little more for farm labor and sustainable farming practices? It will require some attitudinal changes, and quickly, I fear.
The stakes are life changing. The fate of regions and nations hangs in such things.
Thanks for reading!