Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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Yesterday, I finished reading Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001). I had been a fan of Ehrenreich since the early 90's, but I didn't bother to read her book when it came out because I knew the subject so well. But I lucked into a copy recently and it was a quick and interesting read. Also yesterday, I viewed a short video of Seth Godin that was recommended by another blogger on this site. Godin is big on creating our own "tribes" and moving away from mass marketing. A third confluence I thought about in the last 24 hours was Samuel Fromartz' book Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (2007). These three influences have helped solidify the direction my direct marketing has taken in the last year.
Ehrenreich is a long-time socialist-leaning investigative journalist who also has a Ph.D. in cell biology. After Clinton's ill-conceived "welfare reform" in the 90's, she set out to see how bad it really was for the poor. She took a series of minimum-wage jobs in three separate states and tried to make a living. She quickly found out it was impossible to make a living on the bottom of the wage scale. Her book's penultimate paragraph says a lot about America. "When someone works for less pay than she can live on -- when for example she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently -- then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor," as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes wil be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else (page 221)."
Seth Godin also has a new book out, called Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008). What I found interesting is his assertion that mass marketing is not needed and his notion of "telling a story." This is niche marketing in a nutshell. The aspect of forming our own tribes is a good starting point for those people who want to do something locally and under the radar of government.
Fromartz' book was one of my reads over the 2007-2008 winter and it made some very good points about how the organic movement has been hijacked by agribusiness. However, the concept that really resonated with me was the idea of subsidizing your customers. Here is his quote from page 102. He is talking about a young couple trying to make a living on the land. “As with any start-up, you could argue these were the lean years. But a start-up is predicated on the assumption that the business will take off, that a profit will ensue and an asset will grow in value. The farm was on the right track, but it was taking an awful lot of work and patience to wring even a basic living from the land. I later told Hedin that given what he was making after a sixty- or seventy-hour workweek, he was in effect giving his customers a food subsidy.”
Putting all these together, what we are doing with sustainable agriculture, CSA programs, farmers markets, and the like, is to subsidize our customers. Someone who works as a high school teacher, for example, certainly works hard but is getting a subsidized CSA box whenever they drive out to the farm. This is not the case of the teacher ACTIVELY oppressing the farmer, of course, but simply taking the advantages meted out to them by the system for which they work. In industrial corporate agriculture the subsidy comes from the energy slave of 65 million-year-old petroleum products that are used as inputs. The fossil fuels keep the prices down. Instead of slaves producing cheap food for the supermarkets, the energy slave of oil produces cheap food. As long as the farmer stays within the mainstream system, he (or she) can MAYBE make enough to keep themselves well-fed and anesthetized to the real cost of food - pollution, soil depletion, and the US wars to secure oil supply lines. When we try to break out of the fossil-fuel production box (or trap), we basically devolve into semi-slavery, comparable to the wage slaves profiled so well in Ehrenreich's book. The solution, as far as I can see it, is something along the lines of what Godin is talking about - niche marketing moved up to the next level of self-made tribes. Back in the late 60's and early 70's, I started to see some advantages in doing the right thing. In other words, I started to see some payback for my antiwar and co-op efforts. These were measured in human, subjective terms, rather than money or position. We thought of ourselves as the counterculture back then and tribes were another organizing motif. As the circle turns again, the same ideas have new currency.
Posted by Walter
@ 08:23 AM PDT
Last night I sat in on a book reading and discussion by Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered (2008). Of course, this is not a new topic, but some of Tasch's ideas may be doable now that the economy has plunged so far that people are questioning the whole basis of modern economies. Evidently, it is a revolutionary idea that foundations would invest their money in businesses that actually relate to their mission. As an example, a foundation may invest in Monsanto so that the return on their investment can be used to support sustainable agriculture. The 8% or so that the investment returns every year goes to a worthy cause, but 100% of the principal goes to support biological engineering. This is the dirty little secret behind philanthropy. Tasch's suggestion is to work within the grant/philanthropy/foundation system to get small amounts of principal that would actually be used to invest in sustainable businesses. If I read his argument right (which is difficult because he is a terrible public speaker), this is "slow" money, rather than "fast" money that only concerns itself with rapid rates of return.
As usual, Tasch represents yet another scheme that must be marketed and publicized, sending him on jaunts across the country and providing the rationale for organizations that brand themselves as "sustainable" to exist. This strikes me as more of a jobs program for sharp business people who are still trying to surf the crest of the old business model. I did not hear anyone last night propose anything radical - for instance, that 10 people write a check for 10% of their income and give it to a sustainable farmer. I didn't hear any mention of how to get more money for CSA subscription farms. I didn't hear any discussion of how the CSA model stands the current payment model on its head. I didn't hear any discussion on pricing at all. The whole focus of discussion was on how to get more money from foundations by convincing them of the justice of the sustainable "cause." There was a somewhat liberal question on how to stay small, but the usual throwaway answer of looking at successful business models in the marketplace.
The bottom line is that once again, solutions that have to be marketed and discussed endlessly and depend on grant money are really no solutions at all. Individuals and families have to act in their own best interests and go out and support farmers and other local businesses. I can grow more food than I can sell. Until that turns around, all the fancy-dancy authors and marketers are just making money for themselves by giving people false hope.
Posted by Walter
@ 12:03 PM PDT
OK - Here goes. Our farm is called F.A. Farm and the F.A. stands for Full Attention. It also stands for Fresh, Absolutely! or any of a dozen other phrases. We produce sustainably-grown fruits and vegetables for retail sale and are also moving into sustainable grain production. What I mean by sustainable is basically "beyond organic." All of us farmers are on the same continuum, since we are producing new wealth in the form of food. However, some of us use very little petroleum-based products, while others use massive amounts, whether it is in the form of embedded calories in equipment, massive quantities of diesel, or chemical fertilizers. Yet I also use petroleum products when I put gas in my tiller and drive my pickup to the farmers market to sell my produce. We can't be pure, but we can reduce our carbon calorie usage by a considerable amount. Thus, the idea of being on the same continuum. I am more sustainable than my neighbors, but it is not an either-or proposition.
As an example of the economics of sustainable agriculture, I don't sell dry beans because I would have to charge $30 a pound for what I actually do with them. However, with crops I am not selling I do a barter U-pick. I grow them, you pick them and I get half the yield. This has worked good so far on wheat, oats, and raspberries. So, if you want dry beans you can come out and pick a 75-foot row, split them with me and shuck your half yourself, while you are sitting about watching TV for instance. It will probably take you 1-2 hours per row to pick the pods. The yield for the whole row would be about 4 pounds but you would get half in the form of a bucket of bean pods to take home and shell. Once you shell them, you will have about 2 pounds of dried beans. So . . . 2 hours in the field and 2 more in front of the TV for 2 pounds of beans. You can see why I don't sell them. By the way, these numbers compare to an independent trial done here in Whatcom County in 2008 where the farmer got 3 cups of beans for 3 hours of labor on average. A cup of dried beans is roughly half a pound, so you are still looking at 2 hours labor for a 1 pound dried beans. If you factor in land rents, fuel costs, capital costs, etc., $30 a pound is in the ball park for the real price of a pound of beans.
You can probably see why I am so hyped on the peak oil problem. Beans are a necessary ingredient in responsible eating (whether it is low meat, vegetarian, or vegan). The only way to do beans economically is in the corporate model, which is dependent on fossil fuel and heavy equipment. In my sustainable model, I figure in the increased calories in dry beans (1500 per pound vs. 300 for green beans - a factor of 5) and the increase in soil fertility from the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but this cannot really be translated into a dollar value. As a ballpark estimate, I would still have to get $10-15 a pound compared to selling green beans at $3 a pound. However, putting a parallel track into my model allows me to "distribute" beans. The two track model is really what I am doing with informal workshares and barter U-pick. People work and get paid in food. This generates more food and the value of certain crops that build up the soil is part of the process. However, I need another track that brings in cash. Dry beans are on one track, green beans on the other. This dual track allows me to bridge into postmodern agriculture from a modern economy. Another bridge is the CSA share program. By getting money up front, I have operating capital for seeds, fuel, living expenses, etc. and I get an alternative distribution system that also allows me to use the other track for growing more food. I also get more time on the farm, rather than doing deliveries. This dual track model is integral to sustainable agriculture.
Posted by Walter
@ 10:11 AM PST
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