Published: Friday, 02 September 2011 13:37
Written by Pati Jacobs
The current food system that we have in this county is broken. It is doing a slow slide into an abyss. I don’t care what the agroindustrial people say – it’s gone flat! However, these days, whether you talk to the right – “we’ll just Genetically Modify ourselves out of it” – or the left – “we all need to become veggies and stop eating meat” – they seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel. But folks, it’s the same wheel!
Here is a frightening fact. Come this October (yes, this 2011 October) world population will hit 7 billion people. And last time I checked, they are all going to be eating something.
The agroindustrial people say, more, more, more. More fertilizer, more herbicides, more pesticides. Let’s manipulate genetics to make crops more resistant to herbicide and pesticides so we can pour on more to get rid of the pests and the weeds that keep modifying themselves. Let’s crowd more animals into more feedlots and use more antibiotics and growth hormones. Of course, the fertilizer is becoming more expensive as oil climbs in price. The insects and weeds are evolving faster than the modifications on the corn, cotton, wheat and other crops. And, while genetic modification may or may not be dangerous to people, we don’t know what the ramifications are for the plants and animals and for nature. As for raising animals in crowded conditions, well, we’re already seeing the humane and health issues that arises from overuse of antibiotics, hormones and crowding!
But what about the alternative. Several prominent writers are advocating we all just move over to the herbivore side of the equation. The problem with this is that while you and I (and all of the developed world) may actually be able to give up meat (OK! I’m just joking about me!), we may want to realize that countries such as China may not want to make such a sacrifice now that they are acquiring more wealth (remember when we had the carbon dioxide discussion?). Additionally, while I DO agree we should all eat less meat – the suggestion that we substitute fish (has anyone been watching what our increased harvesting of fish is doing to the world’s oceans!?) and veggies doesn’t make any more numbers sense.
So, what is the answer?
Well, first, let’s throw out the wheel. It’s flat. It’s not going to re-inflate. It’s not going to roll down the road any further.
It’s time to start looking for a hover craft! I like this – I grew up with the Jettsons and Star Trek and Star Wars. Let’s stop looking at agriculture like relic we have to keep patching and move it squarely into the 21st Century where it belongs.
In the last blog, I talked about how we keep people on the land and also see them make a living on the land. Here I’d like to talk specifically about beef – I hope it applies to other agricultural products, but let me address something I know about!
I think we need more processing plants – a whole lot more! However, they need to be of an optimal size. What do I mean by optimal size? Well, they shouldn’t kill more animals than can be handled humanely and hygienically. OK, that may sound oxymoronic – how can any processing plant be humane? Well, if you’re killing in such a way that each animal is killed cleanly, swiftly and with no pain or fear than it’s a humane facility. And if an inspector actually inspects each animal while its alive, then witnesses each animal being killed and inspects the carcass thoroughly after each kill, and every piece of meat is handled properly and accounted for then it’s a hygienic plant.
This cannot be done killing four hundred animals an hour (typical in a large USDA plant) or even 400 animals a day (“small” USDA plant). It can be done with a facility killing roughly 40 to 50 animals a week (2,600 animals a year). Such a plant would employ approximately 20 people and it would be community based and regionally oriented. We’re talking pulling calves and hogs from within a 50 mile radius and maybe selling within a 200 mile radius. Such a plant would do more than just process calves and hogs (or sheep and goats), it would also do specialty lines (bacon, sausage, hotdogs, cured and smoked meats), and it would utilize everything coming off of each animal – no waste – how about a natural line of pet food – and the water? – well how about moving that off to irrigate companion groves or a fish farm?
Of course, the big producers will find this idea ridiculous! After all they have perfected the processing of millions of cattle, hogs and sheep a year. What I’m suggesting is counterintuitive! How can it possibly be done on a small scale and make money? How can it be policed and humane and hygienic standards kept? How can a small system ever produce enough product to feed some many people so cheaply?
Stop, this is just trying to re-inflate the wheel.
Ask yourself, when you go to the farmers market and buy meat or vegetables from a small grower, why do you trust the product? You know where the product came from and you know who is responsible.
What do you want more. Cheap, questionable food, or food that is slightly more expensive but that is completely accountable?
How are you going to do this on such a small scale? Well, what you loose in economy of scale, you make up for with quality control and efficiency (if we can bar code every item in a Walmart, why can’t we bar code meat to show which ranch it came from, what processing plant it went through, when it was processed, and when it went on the shelf?).
Right now, all these large processing plants are doing exactly what has been done for the last 100 years. Yes, they may have sped it up. They may have increased volumes. They may have reduced skilled jobs to mindless assemby line work, but where is the 21st Century technology?
Instead of one plant killing 146,000 animals a year, spread it over 50 plants doing the same number. But make up what is lost in economy of scale with technological efficiency.
I know I’m asking you to wrap your head around a completely new system.
Smaller plants mean real inspection, not random inspection – the government will have to hire more inspectors (a lot more inspectors). But isn’t that exactly what government is suppose to do – ensure the safety of the food system?
And there will be many more jobs in the food industry – but wait isn’t that exactly what we need, more jobs. And now we’re not talking about minimum wage jobs, but jobs that require skill and education. Master butchers (believe me, once you’ve seen a real butcher reduce a 400 lb. carcass to ribeyes, briskets and t-bones in less than one hour, you’ll never consider it an unskilled job again!), logistics people, data people, people who know how to generate specialty meats, nutritionists, hygienists, computer people. And think of the ancillary jobs – delivery, packaging, computer equipment, bar coding equipment, advertising.
Whole new businesses will develop around servicing processing plants. Can this be done? Yes, but . . .
What's the cost of the hover craft? Part IV
Published: Friday, 29 July 2011 19:18
Written by Pati Jacobs
Agroindustry does one thing very well. It produces massive amounts of cheap food. It has successfully applied the concept of economies of scale to the production of food, and like the assembly lines that it mimics, it has turned a once labor intensive, artisan trade into a capital intensive, high technology industry.
The problem is that tomatoes are not keyboards and calves are not cars. While our current food system may feed lots of people cheaply, we are paying dearly for the severe unintended consequences of this system.
So, first the organic movement and now the local/sustainable movement have offered up an alternative that promises to put the “good” back into our food. Visit a farmers market and rediscover that tomatoes have taste! Return to pasture fed meats and feel better about how the animals are treated while you truly nourish both body and soul.
The trouble is that this bucolic vision runs smack into reality!
If we as a society – producers and consumers – are going to replace one paradigm with another, we better come up with some realistic ways for the providers to make a living while not pricing all but the very well off out of the food market!
The organic movement has already experienced what I’m talking about. Back in the early 60’s and 70’s, organic was the darling of the communes, hippies, and the whole back to nature movement. However, once a few smart, entrepreneurial people started to make a living at it, they adopted many of the same practices that the big agroindustrial folks were using. It was the whole “economies of scale” thing and the need to have volume if you wanted to crack the market. They in essence decided that if they were going to succeed they had to “play by the same rules”. Agriculture is a “commodity” product and “volume” is where you make your money.
While organic today is certainly healthier and more ecologically better than the “big guys”, it has in many respects become the “big guys”. If you minus the chemicals, herbicides, pesticides and soil nutrition sucking practices, but still ship stuff halfway across the country, don’t let it ripen on the vine and produce a product that is pretty but has no taste or nutrition, then the difference between the bad “big guys” and the good “big guys” starts to shrink.
So along come the local/sustainable movement and says, “We can do it better! We won’t make the same mistakes. We’ll concentrate on where its grown or raised and who’s raising it or growing it!”
So now there’s a litmus test. Is it within 50 miles of the market (does 51 miles disqualify?). It’s a family operation (does this mean that childless couples don’t count?). It all has to be raised or grown on your own place (does this disqualify someone who expands their holdings by leasing or works with like minded people to expand an operation?).
And frankly, my biggest gripe isn’t any of these things. It’s the reality of the market place slamming me in the face. I won’t speak to farming, but let me point to the example of meat.
The average family owned ranch in Texas is 200 plus acres and 30 to 40 head of cattle. If you want to do grass fed beef and make a living you have two choices. Sell your meat at the farmers market on a seasonal basis and get a second job, OR figure out a way to expand your operations enough to cover the fixed costs you will have in establishing a name brand and selling retail/wholesale and make selling beef into a full time job.
The second choice means not just raising enough cattle (that’s the easy part – and that’s hard!), but dealing with the regulation requirements, permits, labels, transportation, sales, distribution, marketing, and promotion. It means reaching out further than just farmers markets – you got to sell beef with the emphasis on the word “sell”.
The movement itself likes the first choice. It’s pure and untainted by all the nasty stuff that we dislike about agroindustry. The trouble is, if people can’t make a living raising cattle (or hogs, or chickens, or tomatoes), eventually it’s just easier to make the second job the first job and leave the land. Good agriculture is tough work. People will only do it for so long for the love of the land. At some point, you got to pay the bills! Right now, Central Texas land is going for anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 an acre -- $2 million can put a kid or two through college!
There’s one more thing (and this is another gripe of mine – I’ve got a lot!). If we’re going to shift the paradigm so that providers can make a living on their land, we have to do it in such a way that we don’t leave the majority of consumers behind!!
I can make a living raising 30 calves a year on my land, but it means I’m going to have to charge you $15.00/lb. for my hamburger. Any takers?
The local/sustainable movement will never produce food as cheaply as the big agroindustrial guys. But don’t dispair! The majority of consumers are willing to pay a LITTLE MORE for good food. People will stretch a little for quality. It’s just not $15.00/lb. But it is $6.00 or $7.00.
There is a middle ground. It is possible. I know, because our operation and several others in Central Texas are inventing and implementing it. It’s has to address the issues of the market while still holding onto the uniqueness of the artisanal good that we all want so badly back in our food. It will have to take some lessons from agroindustry and the “big guys” in organic. It’s going to have to implement “quality of scale” instead of “economies of scale” and it’s going to have to be tech savvy, highly efficient and extremely innovative.
In other words, agriculture must become the 21st Century Industry.
If the wheel has gone flat – don’t reinvent it – get a hover craft! Part III
Recently, I've read several articles on how local/sustainable is developing in other parts of the country. As it takes off here in Central Texas, it is running into several of the same problems -- consistency, volume, availability, lack of complimentary business -- over the next couple of months, I'd like to talk about these issues.
Published: Friday, 01 July 2011 16:43
Written by Pati Jacobs
The first and most important point to all of this is that for the local/sustainable movement to become more than a "fad", farmers and ranchers MUST be able to make a living at what they are doing! This means farming and ranching that can support a family without someone in the family bringing in a "second income".
There are several reasons why this is so difficult.
First, for all the support that local farmers and ranchers receive from customers who are willing to spend more for quality and take more time to go to farmers markets or to specialty stores to find local and sustainable food, local/sustainable is still competing against subsidized agroindustrial foods. Too many people cannot withstand the wave of "cheap, convenient" food washing over them. This is gradually changing, but the progress is slow. It takes a real commitment on the part of buyers to resist the ease and pricing of the current food system that is in place. However, prices are rising - for various reasons (increasing oil costs driving up chemical fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide costs, rising prices for corn, soy and wheat, increasing transportation costs) - and the general public is becoming more aware that "cheap food" costs much more in some many other ways (bad health, tax subsidies, environmental costs). As prices rise, local/sustainable is becoming more "cost competative".
Still, rising prices will not soley alleviate the problem mentioned above.
For farmers and ranchers to be able to move from a need for a "second job" to really putting the meaning into "sustainable" is going to require addressing other fundimental changes that need to take place on the part of everyone involved - the customer (who is even now having to deal with "sticker shock" as food prices rise - the wholesalers (who have to re-think how they stock, sell and market local/sustainable versus agroindustrial foods), and - the producer (who must determine if they are prepared to do what is necessary to become "a real" business.
This is not going to be easy on anyone. But the end result could be a radically different (and much better) system for feeding both the US and the world.
Part II -- How to get to the "Big" little without loosing our souls!
Published: Thursday, 02 June 2011 13:22
Written by Pati Jacobs
I like to think I'm up on the latest trends. It seems that the media is all atwitter about Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor and owner of facebook, commenting on meat . . .
It seems that Mr. Zuckerberg is concerned about what is in the meat. He goes on to say that he will only eat meat that he has killed himself. OK, well, good luck. I hope he's a good shot and that he has his hunting licenses in order. Also, for some reason, I have a problem thinking of this guy field dressing, but what do I know!
As a rancher, I would point out that if Mr. Zuckerberg wants to continue to eat beef, Last time I checked there is not hunting season for cattle! At least I hope not. So, maybe Mr. Zuckerberg is looking for the ultimate experience - walking into a processing plant and butchering that calf himself. Of course, that doesn't mean he knows what the animal has been eating or how it has been raised.
Can we just make this way easier. How about Mr. Zuckerberg visit a Farmers Market and just buy the beef, or pork or chicken from his neighbors! I do appreciate Mr. Zuckerberg's concern - I've had them for some time - that's why I raise, process and sell grass-fed, free-range beef. And I understand that Mr. Zuckerberg is well known for hyperbole. Still, what is needed is not impractical declarations, but a consorted effort by all of us to promote and support healthy food.
But, what is healthy food?
It gets really hard to know because of all the conflicting information from all the experts. We have the USDA that is doing the "lalalala" song and telling us "don't worry, be happy". There is no such thing as questionable chemicals or residual effects from herbicides, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics permeating all our food. In fact, this stuff is good for you, and without it there is "NO WAY" we can feed all the people who need to be fed.
And there is the other extreme. Nothing is safe and we're all going to die!!
I prefer to be more optimist and follow a couple of common sense ideas.
1. Real food is the best for me. If I can't pronounce it or figure out what it is that's listed in the ingredient list, then it's not for me!
2. Buy fresh whenever possible and always buy local whenever possible. This not only allows you to know more about who is raising or growing it, but it also keeps all us producers honest. I know that my customers know where I live and sell. It behooves me to make sure you're happy!
3. Eat in season - luckily in Texas, we have a pretty long season! And aim for stuff within 150 mile radius. I'm not saying give up kiwi or avacados out of season, but try as much as possible to stick with what's in range and in season.
4. I ask questions (something that can be done at a farmers market). But you can do this at grocery stores, restaurants and pretty much anywhere that food is served and sold.
This last one is a good way to force more establishments into accountability. If you don't like the answer, then don't spend your money there. It's also a great way to re-enforce the places that are doing a good job with food.
There ARE a lot of restaurants that are now using local/sustainable foods, and several of the grocery stores are trying to do the same. Just make it clear that you want the truth. Make sure local/sustainable really is that!
Finally, for the activist among you -- it's time to send a message to Washington and Austin and the USDA -- we're not fooled. Stop subsidizing the agro-industries that are doing all the wrong things. And stop writing rules and regulations that favor deceptive labeling, questionable practices with chemicals, and only serve to keep a collapsing system in place.
Most of you know that I’m an NPR fan, and in the afternoons I really like to listen to Fresh Air. Yesterday, Lester Brown was interviewed . . . . .based on his recent article, "The New Geopolitics of Food", in this month's Foreign Policy. If you care about food, the world and just plain living you should read it.
Published: Friday, 20 May 2011 17:31
Written by Pati Jacobs
Lester Brown has been around forever! He has been the "fly in the ointment" for some time and people have been dismissing him and his predictions since the 1970's. However, I think that what he is talking about has major ramifications for all of us.
Let me make some observations:
1. We are on the cusp of the whole food industry in this country changing. Agro-industry cannot continue along the same path and survive. Just speaking as a beef producer, the feedlots may not disappear tomorrow, but with rising grain prices and rising transportation prices, I think their days are numbered.
2. The cost of food is rising and will continue to rise for the same reasons that the feedlots are on their way out. It’s just getting more expensive to supply food.
3. We’re in a drought. I know this is obvious, but let me point out we were already headed for a water shortage well before it stopped raining. Texas is growing like crazy – people wise – and our glorious leaders have some pretty bizarre ideas about where everybody should live (the IH 35 corridor). Both of these trends are putting severe pressure on our water resources.
4. Texas is blessed with a natural resource called land – and thanks to the silver lining accompanying the housing slowdown – it hasn’t all disappeared under subdivisions and shopping malls.
With these points in mind, let's start putting land and water first and foremost. Let's start asking some serious questions about how we use them most efficiently and productively. How we conserve them. And how we build a sustainable society around these two very limited resources.
The agricultural land that we have should be used more effectively. By this, I mean that not only should we be doing all manner of agriculture, but we should be “multi-tasking” If we can raise cattle on land, then why not increase its net worth and it’s owners revenue stream (thus keeping land for ag use and not subdivisions, and keeping people on the land who will do ag for a living!) by coupling cattle with another species – sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, or how about fish. Or why not raise cattle and olive trees together.
As I have commented on in earlier blogs, this not only means more incentive for farm and ranch families to stay on their land, but can lead to many more jobs (all along the professional and pay scale) in the agricultural sector. Let's extend that as a way to also revitalize our smaller rural communities -- and take some of the pressure off of the IH 35 corridor. Note I am not calling for urban sprawl, but rather treating rural communities as small urban centers where people can find jobs, education and quality of life without having to either commute long distances or live in sprawling "bedroom" subdivisions that are merely extensions of mega-cities.
This also means that we give up the idea of moving water -- what a horrible idea (and costly for everyone but the water profiteers!) that hasn't worked in any other western state that has tried it.
Let's keep water for drinking and agriculture. Let's stop flushing potable water down toilets. Let's stop using it on lawns or golf courses. Think I'm joking? Las Vegas recycles 94% of all their water -- and none of their potable water ends up anywhere that doesn't require potable water. We need to do the same all over Texas.
Folks, we need to get serious. More to follow.
Published: Friday, 22 April 2011 12:59
Written by Pati Jacobs
I've been depressed lately. It's the wind. Day after day, it blows in from the south and scours the moisture out of the soil. Relentlessly it sucks the what water is left out of the stock tanks. Nothing seems to stand up to it. Even the mesquite look beaten down.
Walking just kicks up dust. The grass looks green, but the blades are thin and there's an unhealthy yellow hovering around the tops of every field.
Yesterday I walked down to the front pasture. Our hay pasture. Normally, this time of year, the costal is five or six inches high, deep green and slightly swaying in a gentle breeze. Now, the grass is just hanging on, reaching deep into the soil and trying to stay alive. Still, it looks better than some places, and the back pasture needs a rest. I called the "girl" up and they (and the two bulls) happily trotted into the costal. I did my head count as they passed through the gap, and that's when I came up one short.
I knew who was missing. Nanooka. She's been just getting bigger and bigger. Kind of like a barrel with legs sticking out! So, I headed for the back. It's her first calf and all kinds of things were running through my mind. She's a good size cow, but sometimes first births can be a problem. Would she know what to do? Was she laying somewhere in trouble? I walked up the side of the back stock tank behind the dam and as I came around the end, there she was. Just standing. I keep down wind so not to spook her and let her see that I was far enough away not to be a threat.
She still had some afterbirth hanging under her tail, but I couldn't see any calf. Had she dropped it somewhere and walked away? Was she so befuddled she just didn't care? I looked along the ground around her and finally, just under a large mesquite next to the truck I saw a beautiful cream-brown calf. It's head was up and it was watching Nanooka -- and she had her eye on it. Ears were twitching and it was dry and alert. She'd already cleaned it up and apparently she'd already fed it. It sensed me from Nanooka's reaction and it stood up. It was big and steady on its feet. Just fine. I told her what a beautiful baby she had and left them alone.
Later, when I checked again, she'd already retreated into the brush for the night. Nanooka knows what to do.
This morning, I looked out and saw her and the new baby getting water. She headed out for the front pasture with it skipping along after. I don't know yet, whether its a bull or a heifer. Give it a few more days after the placenta drys up and drops off, then we'll be able to tell. All that matters right now is that it is healthy.
The wind is still blowing and its just as dry as yesterday, but I have a new calf. Soon there will be more. At least there is something to be happy about!