Blog 7: Communities of the Future Option 1 – Fixing our Agricultural Problems

At this time we are unable to determine what communities will look like in the future because there are so many variables that would determine its outcome. Some of them can be simplified from what is available now and many could lead to the demise of communities as we know them at this time. It also would be determined by what form of governance is in place (and which location in the world) what segment or segments of the population would lead us there. Is it the 60% of us in the United States who live from week to week with less than $ 1,000 in the bank or the wealthy with unlimited earnings. One of the other determinants is what time frame are we talking about. If we keep ignoring climate change then we will have problems which will change our way of life as we know it. If inequality keeps increasing then there would be a chance of social upheavals. Loss of important raw materials by overuse and additional air pollution will make life miserable and change our present way of living. Increasing debt and bankruptcies could lead to a depression worse than what we have ever experienced and anxiety and depression could rise due to these occurrences and overuse of phones and the social media with higher frequencies being used.

These are just a few situations that could happen that could affect our way of living. However, there are other people who believe that new technology will save us by the invention of new things to overcome any problems that would occur. They say that capitalism can change to overcome challenges. In lieu of this I will present some statistics to describe what is happening in the U.S. and the world. This blog discusses how agriculture can affect our way of living in the future. Some statistics are shown below.

Supersizing of the poor with cheap fast foods (all they can afford) until their own obesity becomes another form of depression. (Harpers magazine)

HUD stated on any night in 2018 there are over 550,000 homeless on the street or in shelters in the U.S.

The 2018 median farm income for the U.S. farm households was minus $ 1,553. This is the “median,” meaning that Half of America’s farm families went even deeper into the hole. (Hightower Lowdown)

The Social Security’s annual Trustees Report came out recently, and it showed Social Security ran a gigantic $9 trillion deficit between last year and this year. The systems long term unfunded liability is now $43 trillion, up from $34 trillion last year. It tells old people what they have been promised won’t likely get paid in full. And it tells young people that they could be saddled with up to $43 trillion in extra taxes whose payment will provide them absolutely nothing in return. (The Hill-06/14/19)

Many pesticides still widely used in the USA, at the level of tens to hundreds of millions of pounds annually, have been banned or are being phased out in the EU, China and Brazil. Of the pesticides banned in at least two of these nations, many have been implicated in acute pesticide poisonings in the USA and some are further restricted by individual states. (Journal of Environmental Health)

This could include hundreds of facts, but that is not the purpose of this blog. Just these few facts, however, could alter what is happening in the U.S. and change communities in the future. For example, the bankruptcy or added tax burden to continue it would disrupt where people lived or be able to afford other necessities such as food or medicine. This is the first of my blogs to look at these present and future problems as to how they would affect future communities.

Agriculture – Changes Needed

What is happening in our present agricultural system (as interpreted by our government) will be shown by two sets of facts. The first source is from the USDA National Survey and Southwest Farm Press using their data. Census data provide valuable insights into demographics, economics, land and activities on U.S. farms and ranches. Some key highlights include:

  • There are 2.04 million farms and ranches (down 3.2% from 2012) with an average size of 441 acres (up 1.6%) on 900 million acres (down 1.6%).
  • The 273,000 smallest (1-9 acres) farms make up 0.1% of all farmland while the 85,127 largest (2,000 or more acres) farms make up 58% of farmland.
  • Just 105,453 farms produced 75% of all sales in 2017, down from 119,908 in 2012.
  • Of the 2.04 million farms and ranches, the 76,865 making $1 million or more in 2017 represent just over 2/3 of the $389 billion in total value of production while the 1.56 million operations making under $50,000 represent just 2.9%.
  • Farm expenses are $326 billion with feed, livestock purchased, hired labor, fertilizer and cash rents topping the list of farm expenses in 2017.
  • Average farm income is $43,053. A total of 43.6% of farms had positive net cash farm income in 2017.
  • Ninety-six percent of farms and ranches are family owned.
  • Farms with Internet access rose from 69.6% in 2012 to 75.4% in 2017.
  • A total of 133,176 farms and ranches use renewable energy producing systems, more than double the 57,299 in 2012.
  • In 2017, 130,056 farms sold directly to consumers, with sales of $2.8 billion.
  • Sales to retail outlets, institutions and food hubs by 28,958 operations are valued at $9 billion.

For the 2017 Census of Agriculture, NASS changed the demographic questions to better represent the roles of all persons involved in on-farm decision making. As a result, in 2017 the number of producers is up by nearly 7% to 3.4 million, because more farms reported multiple producers. Most of these newly identified producers are female. While the number of male producers fell 1.7% to 2.17 million from 2012 to 2017, the number of female producers increased by nearly 27% to 1.23 million. This change underscores the effectiveness of the questionnaire changes.
Other demographic highlights include:

  • The average age of all producers is 57.5, up 1.2 years from 2012.
  • The number of producers who have served in the military is 370,619, or 11% of all. They are older than the average at 67.9.
  • There are 321,261 young producers age 35 or less on 240,141 farms. Farms with young producers making decisions tend to be larger than average in both acres and sales.
  • More than any other age group, young producers make decisions regarding livestock, though the difference is slight.
  • One in four producers is a beginning farmer with 10 or fewer years of experience and an average age of 46.3. Farms with new or beginning producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production.
  • Thirty-six percent of all producers are female and 56% of all farms have at least one female decision maker. Farms with female producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production.
  • Female producers are most heavily engaged in the day-to-day decisions along with record keeping and financial management.
Map showing the location of farms in the United States and Texas. This can be obtained for study purposes.

However, the May 2019 Hightower Lowdown newsletter presented the following information in the publication “The devastation of farm country is biting us all on the butt.” Some of this information may be found in the 1918 agricultural survey (USDA NASS) and other sources but I couldn’t find it there. Information from this publication is shown below after the dots.

  • Many farmers have to work in a part time job and the wives a full time job.
  • Today’s Ag economy is so bleak that about 70% of the total income of US farm families comes from their “secondary jobs.”
  • Farmers are going broke because of corporate middlemen; commodity speculators along with government policy have intentionally perverted the structure of US Ag economy.

In my book “Toward Self-Sufficiency” I noted the following.

One of the most comprehensive books about agriculture is the 2014 book Global Eating Disorder by Gunnar Rundgren. Part 1 includes chapters 2 through 9 and discusses the progression of agriculture from 12,000 BC to the present. The data noted is referenced in the book and will not be noted here. The book has to be read to get its full impact. Many statistics are found throughout the book that gives considerably more information than what is shown here:

The food chain now favors the big supermarkets because they can dictate what they want, mainly higher processed foods, at the peril of the farmer. In the United States in 2011, out of each dollar spent on food, the farm sector got 10.8¢, food processing 22¢, packaging 4¢, transport 3.5¢, retail 12.2¢, food services 31.2¢ (food distributors), energy 5.5¢, finance and insurance 6.1¢, advertising 2.4¢, and legal and accounting 2.1¢. The farmers share has gone down by more than thirty percent in just 20 years, and the share for the farmers and their employees work is now less than 2.7¢, more or less the same as advertising costs of the food industry. As much money is spent on convincing us to eat branded products as to remunerate the people who actually produce the food in the field. Using regenerative processes will not ensure we have good and wholesome food, but we certainly will be closer when we have embedded our food system in ecology rather than in the economy.

There are extra costs in the food chain when agribusinesses import food from long distances. As shown above, the distributors are the main expense within the total costs of the food dollar, and unlike the farmer, they are not susceptible to weather conditions and other problems that the farmer has to contend with. The farmer now has a chance to make more money due to selling products locally, local distribution on their own, and growing more nutritional products. They can do this by using and understanding the systems that are in place. Diversity will increase, which will encourage the growth of pollinators, and the soils will be healthier due to better management practices. Local production can also reduce food deserts. Other studies show that subsidies are the only thing that makes farms profitable at this time. Now it is the large corporations that control the food chain, and this is another problem for farmers. They ignore that they are destroying the environment. Consequently, the small farmer does not receive the share of subsidies that large agribusiness receives. The PDP (Pilot Development Project) should evaluate a new approach to provide methods for the project and aligned cooperative farmers to obtain more money. The present system shortchanges the farmer, and the distributor profits. In the statement from the book, a farmer receives very little for his crop in relationship to other participants in the food chain. Farming locally would reduce many of the other costs, especially the food distributors. In the example, the food distributors receive eleven times the amount of money that the farmer does. In addition, he uses energy and causes air pollution while providing food that is not as fresh as the local farmer’s. Note: Gunnar Rundgren has 987 footnotes documenting sources.

The book by Rundgren discusses food waste, managing the planet, efficiency and productivity (deceptive words), relationships to history, the food puzzle, the agricultural treadmill, fueling and farming, and the importance of soils, cars, animals, and people. The chapters on solutions (and where do we go from here) are especially helpful for establishing methods for regenerative farming practices (agroecology, restoration, etc.). The last part of the book looks at alternative pathways for a better food and farming future. Discussed are (1) technical solutions, mainly about farming; (2) where food might come from; (3) how we can change our consumption patterns; (4) economic alternatives in a wider sense; and (5) the policies needed to get us there. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively the land. We just have to know now how to see it and then use it for the benefit of society.

  • For the past several years, prices have crashed for dairy farmers.  In 2018, they got $1.35 or a gallon of milk that cost them $1.90 to produce. 

Most farmers have inventory and building payments above the cost of production. Again there is always the weather to contend with (especially with the effects of climate change)

  • Farm Aid reports that just 2 giants now control 60% of all raw milk processed nationwide.
  • 97% of all the chicken processed comes from multi-billion dollar processors such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride.
  • For a bucket of fried chicken the consumer pays $28.99 and the farmer gets $.58.
  • Today, two-thirds of the world’s top seed supply is controlled by only four entities.  One of these is Bayer, the manufacturer of Roundup®. 

There are many more comments in the newsletter and it is a necessary read to help you wonder what is happening.

My book “Toward Self-Sufficiency” has a chapter on agriculture and it includes many more topics concerning what is happening within our farming communities. To emphasize what is happening, Farm Aid noted that “Farm Aid was founded in 1985 in response to a catastrophic collapse of the farm economy, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of family farmers from the land. Now, once again, farmers both large and small are enduring a multiyear slump in crop and livestock prices that is pushing many to the financial brink. Since 2013, America’s farmers and ranchers have weathered a nearly 50 percent drop in net farm income, the largest four-year drop since the start of the Great Depression. The strain in today’s farm economy is no accident; it’s the result of policies designed to enrich corporations at the expense of farmers and ranchers. If the American family farmer is to survive, farm policy needs a massive shift in direction – one that delivers fair prices to farmers that allow them to make a living.”

Industrial farming (factory farming) provides cheap and unhealthy food for many people as evidenced by the drop in nutritional value of the products it grows. It grows large amounts of corn (monocropping) which is used mainly for gasoline production and animal feed. In the book Restoration Agriculture, Mark Shepard noted:

That although corn packs a tremendous caloric wallop per acre, it hardly qualifies as a nutritional food. There is not much nutrition in corn and it would not be feasible to use it to feed the world. If you did there would be problems with getting nutritional diseases from lack of proper nutrition. Corn is low in calcium, but high in magnesium and phosphorus and this causes a deficiency in calcium. If corn was the main food then there would be deficiencies in folic acid, vitamin B12, retinol and vitamin E. Niacin (Vitamin B3) is locked up in the corn and lack of niacin can cause pellagra. Much of the annual crops do not enter into the human food chain. If a human being eats 10 pounds of corn only about 1 pound becomes human flesh. The remainder is used as the energy for metabolism or is flushed down the toilet. Another problem is when animals (mainly cows) are fed on grain instead of their natural food which is grass. If 10,500 pounds of corn was fed to a cow all you would get would be 569 pounds of beef. Only 5.4% of calories of corn become calories for human nutrition. This is a hell of a way to go into the future.

Scientific American published the article “It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System” by Johnathan Foley, March 5, 2013 (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-to-rethink-corn/). It noted:

It is important to distinguish corn the crop from corn the system. As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: The current corn system is not a good thing for America for four major reasons. The American corn system is inefficient at feeding people. 1)The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources, 2) The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks 3) The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers and 4) the corn system receives more subsides from the U.S. government than any other crop, including direct payments, crop insurance payments and mandates to produce ethanol. In all, U.S. crop subsidies to corn totaled roughly $90 billion between 1995 and 2010—not including ethanol subsidies and mandates, which helped drive up the price of corn.

One Green Planet noted that our current global food system is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse emissions and completely depends on fossil fuels for farm equipment use, transportation and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  It also stated that factory farming has wrought economic problems, public health concerns (CAFA) using antibiotics for animals, inhumane conditions for billions of animals, and a huge carbon debt on the world’s agricultural systems.  Industrial farming also emits 90 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year as well over 37 percent of methane emissions.  In the US alone over 260 million acres of forest have been cleared to make room for crop fields, most of which are used exclusively to grow livestock feed.  Factory farms use about 5.5 gallons of fossil fuel per acre. 

They also noted that industrial agriculture uses up 70 percent of the worlds fresh water supplies.  The EPA estimates that 75% of all water quality problems is caused by industrial agriculture.  Polluted water run-off can destroy whole ecosystems and in many cases toxic to humans and animals.  Algae blooms can be established in lakes and “dead” zones as found in the Gulf of Mexico.  For soil health diversity of plantings is a must but industrial agriculture uses mono cropping of plants, mainly corn, wheat, rice and soybeans in the US.  Most of these crops are genetically modified so Roundup® can be used on them. Roundup® has been found in some court cases to cause cancer.  Nevertheless, it is toxic to the microorganisms and other living creatures in the soil.  If farmers did not receive subsidies for growing commodity crops then a diversity of crops (along with crop rotation, no tilling, etc) could be used. 

Farm Aid noted this about the economy.  Farm Aid was founded in 1985 in response to a catastrophic collapse of the farm economy, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of family farmers from the land. Now, once again, farmers both large and small are enduring a multiyear slump in crop and livestock prices that is pushing many to the financial brink. Since 2013, America’s farmers and ranchers have weathered a nearly 50 percent drop in net farm income, the largest four-year drop since the start of the Great Depression.  The strain in today’s farm economy is no accident; it’s the result of policies designed to enrich corporations at the expense of farmers and ranchers. If the American family farmer is to survive, farm policy needs a massive shift in direction – one that delivers fair prices to farmers that allow them to make a living.

This did not take into consideration the present tariffs that President Trump has put in place.  “If the trade conflict with China continues much longer, it will likely leave lasting scars on the entire agricultural sector as well as the overall U.S. economy,” Amanda Countryman, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University, wrote for the Conversation in 2018.

Now our agricultural system produces more food than we can consume or that is good for us.  We have to reorganize to diverse our crops and use more local suppliers.  “Reaping What We Sow” stated that our high use of water in agriculture has led to aquifer depletion and water scarcity in some of our main agricultural regions.  They also noted that pesticide overuse harms the environment and that federal policies have helped shape the damaging production patterns seen in today’s larger and more specialized farms.  Federal farm policies, such as the now ended direct payment program and crop insurance policies, have encouraged the transition to industrial farming.  Technological advances, bank lending that favors large farm operations, and other forces have also shaped modern agriculture.  It is easier for farmers that grow just one or two crops to get insurance.  Also more farms are being purchased by large conglomerates.  They in turn have more favorable treatment from the government and get higher subsidies.  Over 70% of the farms would go bankrupt if they did not get subsidies.  Smaller farmers oppose the present system, but there is nothing they can do about it.

The worst damage caused by the farms is what it does to the soil.  The tilling and use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers makes the soil sterile and compacted. Erosion occurs during storms and dust can be blown into the oceans where it can kill krill and other organisms that some fish feed on.  Consequently the soil becomes non-usable for crops and this would reduce acreage for agricultural use.

 One of the victims of our agricultural system is the death of bees and other pollinators.  In 2018 the large beekeepers noted that there was a loss of 40% of their bees.  Instead of having an abundance of land for agricultural use we will find ourselves unable to produce enough food for our needs if we continue to use industrial farming.    If other countries with industrial farming react like us to change then there would be little relief for the US. This could change our society as we know it.  Other blogs will continue by offering solutions to our present agricultural system and government policies.  Soils can be a prominent factor in ruling our destiny.

In the “Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture” (Union of Concerned Scientists – Internet) is the following statement:  In fact, our industrialized food and agriculture system comes with steep costs, many of which are picked by taxpayers, rural communities, farmers themselves, other business sectors, and future generations.  When we include these “externalities” in our reckoning, we can see that this system is not a cost effective, healthful, or sustainable way to produce the food we need.

-George Hunt

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