Everybody needs to eat. We make choices every day about what food to buy, and whether or not you believe the adage “You are what you eat,” your food purchases are pretty important. This summer, we’ll take some time to explore the budgetary side of your diet— who doesn’t want to eat better and spend less?
We’re not here to talk about the nuances of healthy eating habits, but we do care about food. Weighing your options at the grocery store or farmers’ market is about more than the price tag and the percent daily values; it’s about how, where, and by whom your food was grown. That’s why it’s tough to apply a simple cost/benefit analysis to your choices, assuming you have the privilege of choosing which foods to buy. If you pay more for local organic produce, are you less hungry? Probably not, but the salad tastes better and you can feel good about reducing your carbon footprint.
As with any complex and controversial issue, there’s no shortage of arguments and information on all sides. You might agree that buying produce directly from a smiling farmer is preferable to shopping for groceries at Walmart, but geography and your wallet may well have a different opinion. Conscientious consumers will also note that grocers and food companies don’t hesitate to take advantage of your interest in being (and eating) green.
We’ve done quite a bit of reading in the interest of balancing cost, convenience, sustainability, and deliciousness. With one tab on a Michael Pollan op-ed and another on USDA statistics, I wondered what was missing. I wanted a firsthand account of farm life, and I wanted to know what the landscape looked like from the perspective of someone who grows and sells food for a living. I decided to go straight for the best source I know: I called my great-uncle Glenn, who’s spent his entire life farming his family’s land in Solon, Iowa.
I asked Glenn what some of the differences are between his crops today and those he grew decades ago. He’s always grown hay, oats, corn, and alfalfa, and his yields have only increased as conventional farming technology has advanced. When we talked about pesticides, he told me that invasive species such as the Japanese beetle are his biggest problem, and that without pesticides, his fruit trees would die. “Organic farming is fine,” he said, “But it doesn’t produce as much as if you take care of it the modern way.”
Glenn rotates his crops and spreads hay on the fields during the winter, just as farmers have done for thousands of years. But modern fertilizer makes it possible to grow the same crop in one field every season. “There’s one field west of Solon,” he told me, “that, as long as I can remember, since I went to high school in ’41, has always grown corn. It wouldn’t grow weeds if you didn’t fertilize it.” Staunch advocates of organic farming will shudder to hear these kinds of stories, but to the farmer who relies on big annual yields, it’s in his best economic interest to plant corn and buy fertilizer each year. And it’s been that way for more than half a century.
On the other hand, Glenn’s approach to raising livestock lines up with the organic movement. He doesn’t keep animals anymore, but has raised beef cattle, dairy cows, hogs, and chickens. The chickens were least profitable, even though egg gathering and water dispensation were automated. He kept 6,000 chickens, confined, and sold eggs for only $0.19 per dozen. “The feed man was making all the money,” he said. So they got rid of the chickens. Hogs were a different story:
Hogs confined do not do as well as hogs that run out in the field. They grow better and there’s better meat. It’s cheaper that way, because they can get feed out in the hay fields, and they can eat grass. If you have them confined, everything they eat you have to pay for. Then you’ve got electricity, because they keep the lights on all night.
As a farmer, raising free range hogs and cattle produced better meat, and saved Glenn money on feed, equipment, and power. Now that he no longer keeps livestock, Glenn buys conventional meat at the market—as a consumer, he’s less concerned about how the animals were raised.
Some of Glenn’s answers are surprising at first; his acceptance of industrial fertilizers and pesticides might conflict with our expectations of family farming practices. You’ll have to take my word that Glenn isn’t a profit-driven grain tycoon, which is why his story is unique in an otherwise divided landscape of narratives. To Glenn, a farmer’s job is to produce as much food as he possibly can, because people tend to need more food than they have. Developing and improving chemicals that increase yields is one way the farm industry keeps up with ever-increasing demand. We tend to look at the environmental damages caused by industrial farm runoff—not to be understated—and we associate the pollution with corporate greed. It’s easy to forget that without these chemicals, we’d perhaps have less food. The cost/benefit analysis here is tied inextricably to the ones that motivate our individual consumption, and it’s even harder to balance.
In all the conversations about organic versus conventional farming, we tend to hear from consumers, corporations, regulators, and researchers more often than we hear from farmers. We hope Glenn’s perspective has added a new element to the way you think about your food, and, if you ever decide to start a farm, you might learn from his experience. We’ll talk about day-to-day food budgeting some more as the season progresses, and maybe, once we’ve fixed the banking industry, we’ll take on agriculture.
Mae Saslaw is a writer and critic who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
The illustration by Sally Madden for Simple Finance Technology Corp. is available through Creative Commons license (by-nc-nd 3.0).
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