A Middle Ground for Agriculture


I read that book I mentioned the other day, (post: “My Feminine Side“) ; it was really good—funny, honest, poignant. I was laughing so much reading parts of it that my kids were looking at me funny. rurally screwed(And she writes a blog, at rurallyscrewed.com). The book was a great read; an exploration of those questions we all ask ourselves about our lives. And, many aspects of the author’s story were almost freakily similar to mine and my wife’s—I was the guy with the pickup from the west (Texas, in my case), who was mechanically inclined and could fix anything, and an officer in the military, she was the one getting letters from Iraq with little stick figures on them and wondering what to do with her life while I was deployed, etc, etc. But the part that pertains to sustainability is the author’s experience moving to a rural place and raising chickens. We, too, moved to a rural place and raised chickens. And in our case, turkeys as well. We too built the mobile yard coop that turned out heavier than expected, we too used the electric mesh fences, we too have killed and gutted and dressed the birds, and gathered and washed and sold the eggs. So, I knew exactly where she was coming from. And when she talked about barely breaking even, I knew what she was talking about.

Which brings us back to where our wealth comes from. I’ve mentioned this before (post: Wealth 101)—it is efficiency and productivity that creates our wealth. As an illustration, let’s just look at the two ends of the chicken-production-spectrum. Here’s a picture of one end–

Factory farming

Factory farming

There’s plenty for everyone to hate here. Birds de-beaked, birds genetically modified so much that they grow so fast their legs break, stress due to overcrowding, inhumane treatment by handlers, yummy-sounding conditions like “PSE meat” (pale, soft, exudative meat) caused by stress… Again, the list goes on. But these are the efficiencies that produce the 99-cent-a-pound turkey and chicken in the freezer rack at your local grocer, and those cheap chicken nuggets at McDonalds. And few seem to hate that; we’ve all been the one at the supermarket comparing prices.

At the far other end of the scale is the type of chicken farming people like me do. And I’m not sure you could even call what we’ve done farming. We’ve sold enough eggs to pay for feed from time to time, but that’s about it (and we haven’t had a large number of birds for a couple of years; we’re down to two hens now). But our birds get sunshine, and grass, and room to range around, every day. They get to have their social lives (which can be a bit brutal, but never-the-less…). In fact, unless you’re a PETA type, there’s nothing not to like here. They live healthy, natural, stress-free lives, and when it’s time for them to be butchered, it’s quick and

Free-range chickens; happy birds.

Free-range chickens; happy birds.

painless. The quality and flavor of the birds is fantastic. What’s not to like here is the efficiency at which they’re produced. If all of our food was made like this, we’d be lucky to get enough to eat to stay alive. I calculated just the feed costs for the heritage turkeys we raised (which grow slower than modern “factory” birds), and when it was all said and done, the meat that got to our plates cost us something like $6 a pound. And that was just the food costs, with no accounting at all for labor, or electricity, or the barn, or the initial cost of the birds and equipment. There are just very, very few efficiencies when producing any item on a small scale.

This same dynamic can be seen across the agricultural spectrum. It’s most visible with the raising of animals (link: great article about the costs of grass-fed beef ) (thanks Cindy), just imagine your typical tomato from the garden in July compared to virtually any example at all of one available at the grocery store.

So my point to all of this– we need to aim for a middle ground when it comes to agriculture. (And perhaps for all products, but that would be another topic…). Extreme efficiencies might be fine for producing our dish soap or our plumbing pipes, but for our food the external costs are just too high. This will likely cause our food to be more labor intensive, and therefore more expensive, but it will also be of higher quality, and will be able to be produced humanely and with less environmental impact.

But, we can’t go overboard, and throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need efficiency and productivity, so we can’t strive only for food raised in people’s backyards. If nothing else, there are too many desperately poor people in the world who depend on cheap food just to survive.

So, as with much else—we need to be aiming for some sort of middle ground.

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