Relationship farming

This Mother Jones article by Micheal Pollan ranges a bit too far for my taste, at times, into anti-capitalist/anti-globalist rhetoric, but there are some good points, too.

The article profiles Joel Salatin, a self-described “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” who sees himself as the Martin Luther nailing a challenge on the door of 21st Century agriculture. His vision is to persuade people to opt out of our over-industrialized food production and distribution infrastructure and instead start buying locally — eating food for which we know the provenance.

Joel believes that the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye, something few of us ever take the trouble to do. “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?”

There are a couple of interesting objective facts in the piece about the economics of farming. One is that selling directly to consumers allow famers to pocket “the 92 cents of a consumer’s food dollar that now typically winds up in the pockets of processors, middlemen, and retailers.”

It’s amazing to me that farmers typically only receive 8 cents for every dollar we spend on food.

I also think this is an important insight:

When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. Look at any supermarket ad in the newspaper and all you will find in it are quantities—pounds and dollars; qualities of any kind are nowhere to be found.

There was a time not too long ago when the cost of feeding ourselves exceeded the cost of almost everything else. Hunter-gatherers, for instance, devote considerable resources to ensuring they’ll have enough to eat.

So modern humans are an anomaly in this regard. One could even argue that the resources we now expend on luxuries and tchotchkes, on leisure activities and modern healthcare, represent resources we once would have devoted to feeding ourselves.

Perhaps, as this article suggests, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Perhaps people are starting to look for other qualities in their foodstuffs than just low prices, and as part of that are beginning to allocate a greater portion of their resources on procuring food.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I don’t think it’s a change everyone will want to make (dare I predict that one day people will be demanding tax breaks for buying organic? lol)

But as the article suggests, people are drawn to the idea, and not just upper middle class people.

[tags] sustainable agriculture, organic food [/tags]

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4 Responses to Relationship farming

  1. Sorry, K., but I’m skeptical about people paying more for organic food unless there is objective evidence (not just theories and anecdotes) that the organic stuff really offers tangible health and/or life benefits. To me it’s like gasahol. It’s a great concept to use our surplus grain-growing capacity to help free us from our need to import oil (especially from the Arabs). But if it costs a penny or two more per gallon (or — same thing — costs the same but gives you fewer miles per gallon) it won’t sell. Imho, anyway. I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, believe it or not.


  2. Kirsten says:

    This particular article doesn’t make health benefits claims for organic per se. It looks at issues such as the esthetics of having farms part of our communities, and at food quality issues that are broader than the organic vs. conventional question. For instance, I can tell you from first hand experience that the beef I have in my freezer is the best-tasting beef I’ve ever eaten. I buy it direct from a farmer who raises his stock on grass and personally intervenes with his butcher to make sure the meat is aged. I pay more for this than I’d pay to buy steaks at my local grocer’s meat counter but the difference in quality is worth every penny. I’ll never buy supermarket beef again, if I can help it.

  3. Okay. I agree that people (some, anyway) will pay more for quality products. I do, personally, in many cases. As you indicate, it’s worth it. I guess I “assumed” the health angle was a key.

    (Wrong again! Darn it!)


  4. Kirsten says:

    Well, John, I wouldn’t say you’re wrong — although I personally believe that organically grown food can deliver health benefits, I’ve not been able to uncover any science to back that up. I.e., I’ve seen a lot of assertions that organic vegetables are higher in nutrients than non-organic (and it certainly makes sense that food grown in soil that itself has a higher mineral density, which organic growing is supposed to promote) but I’ve never been able to find any studies to back those claims . . .

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