Farm Life

While on my way to visit kids and grandkids recently, I passed through some of the most lush farmland in the country.  In western Ohio and eastern Indiana one can see for miles in all directions for the land is tabletop flat, and the soil is nearly black.  Early settlers must have concluded that they had indeed reached the promised land.  It is difficult to imagine an area on the planet more suitable for farming, and it has been utilized as such for two hundred years or more.

During the last forty years of traveling this route, there have been dramatic changes in the landscape for this is the age of corporate agriculture with its
“factory farms”.  Gone are the fences, farmhouses, barns, silos and houses that identified family farms.  In their place are huge expanses of unadorned land reaching almost to the horizon with a lone house and machinery shed surrounded by shiney metal granary bins visible in the distance.

On this trip, I noticed a bulldozer in one of those fields which was in the process of demolishing a house.  It had also attacked a group of trees surrounding the house and there was no evidence of the barn and silo which must have once resided there.   I wondered about the family who had lived in that house and worked that soil.  I wondered about how many generations had lived there and how many kids grew up there.  I wondered about what had led them to sell out.  Was it the amount of money offered, poor management, crop failure, or simply a lack of interest by the kids and their desire to pursue an urban life?

Whatever the history of that house, I felt sad to see that it would soon be obliterated for it provided further evidence that a way of life which had existed for thousands of years would soon be gone.  200 years ago more than 90% of people were involved in farming while today it is less than 2%.  Early on man learned that planting his own crops and domesticating animals was more efficient and less risky than hunting for food.  As he became more proficient he was able to barter and later sell what was left after he fed his family, a tradition which survived until recent times.  In the last century that system was turned on its head as farmers joined the evolving culture of specialization.  Rather than growing food for his family and selling what was left, he sold what he produced and bought food for his family with the proceeds.

During my adolescence I was fortunate enough to spend a year living on my Grandparents farm.  It was small, and operated primarily as a source of food for the family; consequently it was diversified with cows, chickens, pigs, a huge vegetable garden, and a field of corn large enough to feed the animals.  Although they did sell some eggs and milk the primary fruits of their labor was to provide food for the family.  To live there was to be in harmony with nature.  I found it very satisfying to eat what I had labored to help nature produce.  I have been a “city slicker” all my life, but I still cherish that year I spent learning the most important lessons of my life.

With the age of specialization such farms as my Grandad’s are seen as very inefficient.  Consequently we now have chicken farmers, turkey farmers, hog farmers, dairy farmers, grain farmers, fruit farmers, beef farmers, truck farmers (vegetable growers for you who are unenlightened) and even fish farmers.   Furthermore many of these may be even more specialized producing a particular species of animal or variety of vegetable or fruit.

After a group of investors buy several adjoining farms and clear them of obstructions like buildings and fences, one man on a huge air conditioned tractor can till, sow, fertilize, and reap more crops than could all of the previous occupants combined without even breaking a sweat.  The weed problem was long ago solved by soaking the ground with chemicals which prevent unwanted vegetation from appearing, so forget those long days in the hot sun hoeing a field of corn one stalk at time.

Much about these changes are laudable for in a world in which the World food Program reports 795 million people do not get enough to eat, food production needs to be done as efficiently as possible. Another statistic that floored me was that while we struggle with the problem of childhood obesity 100 million children in developing countries are underweight, and malnutrition is the norm.

There is much about the demise of the family farm, and proliferation of large corporate farms which causes concern for many of us.  Farm subsidy programs are a major source of contention which not surprisingly are popular with farmers, but not so much with others.  In these programs, crazy as it may seem farmers are sometimes paid for not growing crops.  This costs taxpayers 25 billion dollars a year, most of which according to an article in the February 14, 2015 issue of the Economist “goes to big rich farmers…..”.   As nearly as I can tell, this is designed to protect farmers from price fluctuations by limiting production.   What a comfort   to know your business is insured against losses by the federal government.  That type of business welfare appears to be even better than the type enjoyed by “big oil”, or Wall Street.  Little wonder that “agribusiness” has expanded rapidly.   I can’t help but wonder if that subsidy money might be better spent by paying farmers to grow stuff and using the surplus to feed those kids who go to school hungry.  25 billion dollars should buy a lot of corn flakes.

Environmentalists are also in a tizzy over modern farming techniques with good reason.  In 2015 there were 190.4 million tons of fertilizer used worldwide with its runoff causing all kinds of problems.  For example, in my area of the world it is deemed responsible for the pollution of Lake Erie with toxic algae affecting the fishing industry among other things.  There are reports of so called “dead zones” in streams where fertilizer run off is said to reduce oxygen levels to a level incompatible with the life of fish and other aquatic organisms.

The debate over other health issues which may be associated with fertilizers rages on between the environmental community and the major chemical companies.  There is also speculation about impurities such as heavy metals which could have a more long lasting effect on the soil.   However there seems little doubt these chemicals have had a major effect in increasing food production.

Even more contentious are the disagreements as to the effect of insecticides and herbicides.  These substances are after all powerful poisons which are spread over wide areas.  Many entomologists believe that one type of bug killer (neonicotinoids) is largely responsible for the demise of large numbers of bees which are so necessary to pollinate many of our fruits and vegetables. . Neonicotinoids are still widely used in the U.S. while they have been banned in Europe, enough for a cynical old tree hugger like myself to lose even more confidence in the EPA. It also seems logical that the widespread use of weed killers could adversely affect wildlife populations.  Once again, skeptical me does not find the reassurances of giant agribusiness companies that these substances are innocuous very comforting.

Livestock farms pose even more disturbing scenarios.   The December issue of Scientific American published an expose of the effects of antibiotic use in livestock “the looming threat of factory farm superbugs”.  Animal rights advocates have  long complained about the policy of close confinement of animals and chickens in order for them to require less feed and gain weight faster.  The author of this article visited a hog farm to find 1100 pigs housed in a 40 x 200 foot building, which allowed them little room to move or to avoid lying in their own excrement.  Such conditions raise the risk of infections which could decimate the herd, the solution for which is to give them antibiotics.

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Recently researchers have found evidence of drug resistant bacteria in these animals.  In one study 70% of pigs tested were positive for MRSA, the drug resistant staphylococcus which has become a major problem for hospitals nationwide, and now shows signs of entering the population at large.  They have also found those same organisms in workers on these farms.   In addition to the risk from undercooked pork, the bacteria can also be transmitted from handling raw meat from infected pork, chicken, or beef.  With that in mind it is important for those preparing meats to wash their hands thoroughly after handling them.

In most cases the format for the pork factories is different than for grain farms.  It appears that in most cases, the company does not own land, but pays a farmer to raise their pigs until they are old enough to butcher.  What is most disturbing about the Scientific American piece is their assertion that researchers who wish to investigate this problem have been denied access to these farms on orders by the corporations who own the pigs. This prompted Dr. James Johnson at the University of Minnesota to say “Frankly, it reminds me of the tobacco, asbestos, and oil industries”.  “We have a long history of industries subverting public health”.  The response to this potential epidemic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been tepid at best, while the Netherlands and Denmark outlawed such animal antibiotic use years ago.  The mantra that business is over-regulated in the U.S. does not seem to apply in this case.

There is also the   problem especially in the pork business of what to do with the manure.  It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that raising 30 or 40 thousand pigs a year in one spot could result in a lot of pig poop.  The problem has been solved by building “lagoons” in which to dump it.  Believe me if any of you have ever had a whiff of pig shit, you will know that lagoon is not a very appropriate designation for these super cesspools.

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It does not take a high powered scientist to understand that odor might be the smallest part of the problem.  The leak into an aquafer for example could not be very healthy for those downstream.

Last but not least is the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) about which there does not seem to be a consensus.  There are those who think foods from these seeds may be unhealthy, and others who express concern over the dangers of tinkering around with DNA apparently concerned that some Frankenstein plant form might evolve.  Those on the other side of that fence point out that we have been doing genetic engineering for many years, by creating hybrids, selective breeding, or by grafting one part of a plant on to another.  They also suggest we look at dogs who exist in hundreds of varieties, who although genetically different from each other all have the wolf as their ancestor.

One very promising development of this science has been the ability to develop plants which are drought resistant.  It is also reported that it may be possible to produce plants which are unaffected by pests.  If that were to come to pass we might be able to eliminate the use of some of those pesticides which certainly would not be a bad thing.  On the other hand, once again we face that same old conundrum, forced to decide if the good resulting from the implementation of a new technology outweighs the bad.  Unfortunately, we are often unable to anticipate the bad.

At this point you may be thinking that many of these thoughts are colored by the nostalgic meanderings of an old man, and of course you would be correct.  Although I am saddened by the losses of a subculture, I am heartened and amazed at the scientific achievements witnessed during my lifetime.  One of these is how it has been made possible to yield so much food from our soil.  My grandfather would be amazed to learn that his one acre which had produced 50 bushels of corn could now yield three times that much.

So far innovations in farming have allowed us to increase food production to grow at a faster pace than the world’s  population; therefore refuting Malthus’s prediction of world -wide starvation.   The big question that remains open is whether such innovations will be able to keep up with a continued increase in world population especially while facing the challenges of climate change, if we will be able to do this without killing the goose that lays the golden egg.