All the noble but ill advised romantic notions about sustainable farming aside, let’s talk real world economics for a change. I know there is a group of food elitists out there led by the financially successful, headline grabbing Michael Pollans of the food eleitists who preach sustainability and push their ‘kill big ag’ agendas but there are two real problems with their sustainability models:

1. If their quest for a return to the ag days of old means 80 hour work weeks and little or no pay at the end of the day, it isn’t a sustainable concept!

2. If their quest for a return to the ag days of old means we won’t be able to feed the additional 2.5 billion or more people estimated to be on this planet by 2050, it isn’t a sustainable concept!

Today’s issue of Food Systems Insider had a great line about sustainability. Chico State University animal science professor said, “It shouldn’t be a crime to make a profit! There is a group within the sustainability circle, at the fringe, that uses sustainability as a euphemism for anti-capitalism.”

Let’s be honest here. If you’re in agriculture, you are the epitome of capitalism. You work hard and by the sweat of your brow and the shrewdness of your decisions, you hope to come out ahead of the game at the end of the year. It doesn’t matter if you’re farming 40 acres with a mule or running 40,000 acres with a John Deere, you have to pay for the fuel, electricity, the food you can’t raise or grow on your own, over the mortgage, buy the health insurance and send a few dollars to Washington for their pound of flesh.

You have to buy supplies with more than your good looks and a promise of cash to come ‘later.’ Sooner or later, you want to visit the banker who’s been carrying your note all year, pay him off and make a nice deposit, the dividend your shareholders – that would be your immediate family members – expect from you.

Farmers and ranchers, large or small, are not in it for the sheer delight of feeding the masses, especially if the masses (or a significantly vocal portion of them) are more than willing to bite the hand that feeds them. Just as Mr. Pollan doesn’t write books and go on nationwide speaking tours for the self-funded fun of it all, farmers do not go into their fields everyday purely for the thrill of seeing corn grow knee high by the Fourth of July. Ranchers don’t raise cattle just to hit their ‘break evens.”

So let me make a few rash statements. Most people are delighted with the food North American farmers put on their tables. They like the taste. They like the variety. They like the availability. And, thanks to old fashioned capitalism and its ability to drive extraneous costs out of any distribution system, the love the low prices. Ask the majority of them to shop for inaccurately named ‘all natural, sustainably grown foods’ and pay the much higher prices and you’ll see soccer moms rioting in the streets outside their friendly, neighborhood Kroger stores.

The few people who continuously demonstrate a stunning ignorance of the capitalist nature of American farming – the Beemer driving boys who shop at Balducci’s – cry for a return to the good old days that only existed in their dreams. Smaller farms, the unsustainable sustainability programs they preach and the ‘do-it-all-by-hand’ techniques they seem to admire from afar are simply not workable solutions.

Unless, of course, the likes of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Robert Kenner and Bryan Walsh, wish to forsake their very well-paid positions as scribes to the moneyed, buy 40 acres and start new careers as sustainable farmers. Nothing like digging in and getting your hands dirty to prove your devotion to your unfact-checked principles.

I’m not sure, though, if any of them could handle the work load or ‘sustain’ the serious cut in pay.

Here is a quote from “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against The Agri-intellectuals,” written by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst for The American, The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute. (Click on the underlined title to read the entire story). Blake’s piece, published July 30, is possibly the best explanation of the realities of modern American farming I’ve read. Too bad it didn’t get the same play as the recent cheap food article in Time magazine or the attack on ground beef just published by the New York Times.

In his book Dominion, author Matthew Scully calls ‘factory farming’ an “obvious moral evil so sickening and horrendous it would leave us ashen.”

If Scully, a speechwriter for ex-President G.W. Bush was being intellectually honest and couldn’t employ empty agit-prop phrases like ‘factory farming’ he should have said “Abandoning modern farming techniques for outmoded agricultural pursuits condemns millions of people to starvation and is an obvious and moral evil so sickening and horrendous it would leave us ashen.”

Chuck
Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide
range of ag industry topics for Cattlenetwork.com and Agnetwork.com.