Why Do We Grow What We Grow

By Bill Brandon

The answer is probably just TRADITION!  Tradition is founded on some practical foundation and wrapped in social and economic ties and laws, etc.  It is hard to break from tradition. Cost is associated with such a change.  

Farming is based on change though. When our ancestors started farming, it changed society. Most people would say for the better. They raised their basic foodstuffs of grains, fruits, and vegetables.  As our society advanced, we added domesticated animals, which sometimes added to our harvest demand, as we grew feed for them. Farming rooted itself in progress and advancement taking over several core industries for centuries.

By the 19th century in America, farming was a backbone industry for daily life’s many needs.  They provided food, of course, for themselves and those working in cities and factories.  They were also the core providers of horses and mules, the powerful farm machines and transportation vehicles of that time. These same machines helped create their own fuel with the roughage and grains used to feed them throughout their day of labor.  Food, transportation, and fuel were the sources of income a farmer could count on.

This changed with the introduction of the internal combustion engine and the development of the oil industry. Farmers adopted tractors, and instead of raising and selling ‘fuel’ they now bought it from oil companies.  The importance of the farmer started to decline in America. While the country roared in the 20’s, the farmer just held on. By the end of WWI, farmers had pretty much completely lost the transportation and ‘fuel’ market. Now they were highly reliant on a commodities market.

Today, many farmers are tied to this format. They are stuck between corporate input suppliers and corporate commodity buyers. These buyers, in turn, distribute low cost products in the form of processed foods and animal feed.  This format has drained rural farm communities of their wealth and a connection to their own community’s needs. While some brag about American agriculture ‘feeding the world’, rural food deserts are common with lack of access to healthy food options.  

Those who are concerned about poor Americans diets leading to  chronic health issues often chastise farmers for ‘farming the subsidies’.  This is a simplified criticizing concept of the problems of farmers and rural economies. However, many, including farmers, feel we need to pivot the Nation’s farm format and structure.

Farming is a critical industry in any country and deserves special support to keep it healthy and productive.  The question is to what end. What factors of agriculture deserve support? Which ones serve the nation and food consumers on the whole and not only corporate food processors and input suppliers? 

The EPA has estimated that in 2017 the agriculture economic sector (including farms and supporting business) accounted for 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.*  Others say this is actually 37% because some areas are undercounted. Undercounted may be partially true because, for example, the production of fertilizers, which releases significant CO2, is included in the ‘Industrial sector’.

Critics are not completely negative about agriculture’s ability to become more sustainable. Peter Lehner, who authored the “Agriculture” chapter of “Legal Pathways To Deep Decarbonization In The United States, stated “The good news is we can actually reach carbon neutral agriculture pretty soon, and we can reach it in a way that is profitable for the farmers and for the communities they live in.”**

Some believe that farms can even become carbon negative, sequestering more CO2e than they release. At the same time, they can once more supply local fresh produce year round without relying on food from distant growers.  It will, however, require a pivot from business as usual.  

To advance this goal, we are running a series of blogs looking at factors that might advance this pivot and return more industries like energy back to rural farm communities. 

*source https://www.fb.org/market-intel/agriculture-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions 

** https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2019/12/02/5-reasons-agricultures-greenhouse-gas-emissions-are-usually-underestimated/#263c7ca06ac8  

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