Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Difference Between Farmers and Gardeners

I want to share a very interesting article by Russ Parson's in yesterday's LA Times called the California Cook that is worth reading.  In it he tackles the tough and often controversial subject of how our food is produced and where it comes from. 

If you don't have time to read the entire thing, here are a few highlights:

* Agriculture is a business. Farming without a financial motive is gardening. I use that line a lot when I'm giving talks, and it always gets a laugh. But it's deadly serious. Not only do farmers have expenses to meet just like any other business, but they also need to be rewarded when they do good work. Any plan that places further demands on farmers without an offsetting profit incentive is doomed to fail.

* Food is not just a culinary abstraction. No matter how much you and I might appreciate the amazing bounty produced by talented, quality-driven farmers, we also have to acknowledge that sometimes food is . . . well, just food. So when we start dreaming about how to make our epicurean utopia, we also have to keep in mind that our first obligation is to make sure that healthful, fresh food remains plentiful and inexpensive enough that anyone can afford it.

* There's no free pass on progress. Just because you've always farmed a certain way does not mean that you are owed the right to continue farming that way in the future. The days of a small or medium-sized farm making a decent profit growing one or two crops and marketing it through the traditional commodity route are long past. The world is changing, and those who can adapt are the ones who will be successful.

* Quality is more expensive than quantity. Farming fruits and vegetables that are not just healthful but also have great flavor takes a lot of time and work and usually means not growing as much as a neighbor who doesn't focus on flavor. So when you're shopping, don't begrudge a good farmer a little higher price -- that's what it takes to keep him in business.

* You don't climb a ladder starting at the top rung. In a system as complex as our food supply, change is evolutionary. Remember long-term goals, but focus on what's immediately achievable. Any argument that begins, "All we have to do is rewrite the Farm Bill," is probably decades, if not centuries, from reality. But there are plenty of small things we can do now to start us down that road.

* What's political is also personal. If you believe in something, you should be willing to make sacrifices to support it, even if it's expensive or inconvenient. Wailing about farmers who use pesticides and then balking at paying extra for organic produce is hypocritical because the yields in organic farming are almost always lower. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with doing the best you can whenever you can -- as long as you're willing to accept compromises from the other guy too.

Basically, it has to be understood and accepted that, along with everything else, farming will always be changing and evolving into something best suited to meet the demands of feeding the world.  Bottom line: it's a business, and in order to survive, businesses must change along the way.

The fact is, 'commercial' farmers – those 20% of U.S. farmers who produce 80% of our nation's food – have an image problem. A lot of misinformed consumers, longing for something from their past, want nothing to do with food produced from modern technology.

Farmers are no longer using horse and plows and that's not causing any outcry.  Why should using pesticides or other advances in technology?  Parsons has it right.  If we take a step back and use more labor intensive practices, it will result in reduced production...  and cost a lot more.

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