How gov’t action affects food/ag

Yesterday’s post referred to a Tribune editorial on CAFOs; the comment I posted on their site should be reprinted here because I think it frames my views nicely.

…agriculture/food is one of the more government-influenced industries in America, although not quite socialized. Commodities like corn and soy are heavily subsidized, such that their market price is well below the actual cost of production. Milk prices are not set on the open market; the price consumers pay at the store has little to do with the cost to an individual dairy. Large-scale fruit and vegetable growers in places like CA and AZ receive hugely subsidized irrigation supplies from the Feds, meaning their products are far cheaper than the actual price of production in those desert areas if they were paying market rate for their water.

CAFOs are certainly not paragons of free-market virtue, since their business model is entirely predicated on the availability of large quantities of government-subsidized cheap grains. Such operations would not be economically viable if grain subsidies did not exist, or at least they would be unable to produce meat and eggs at the low prices they do now.

Whether or not this is a good thing is a different discussion; a viable argument can be made that a cheap food supply is good for the American economy. But let’s dispense with the fantasy that cheap American food is in any way “free market” when virtually every product in a grocery depends on taxpayer money for its artificially low price. Our taxpayer dollars are directly involved in influencing and dictating the price of food and methods of agriculture used in America.

I would like to hear a member of the Tea Party explain why government intervention in health care is evil while government intervention in food supplies is desirable. To me it can only logically be one way or the other. I prefer government intervention in neither, but have little patience with those who protest health care while happily buying cheap government-backed food. My farm sells produce directly to consumers with no government involvement, the closest thing to free-market agriculture we have in this country, and I’d like to see more conservatives showing up at farmers markets to live out their principles by supporting farms like ours.

Vegan EPA

Last weekend the Tribune published what I felt was a rather poorly thought-out editorial regarding CAFOs. I posted a comment in response, and the resulting comment thread was actually one of the more rational and interesting I’ve seen on the Tribune’s site, which usually descends into wingnut chaos. It was a busy weekend and I never got back to respond to the other comments, but it was good reading. I want to address/agree with one point in particular.

Someone pointed out a rather disturbing post on the EPA’s official blog. The post, by a sophomore-in-college intern, undertakes a pretty typical argument for vegetarianism and veganism. It’s nothing new and I don’t need to summarize. The arguments are valid and the discussion about these topics is worthwhile. To be clear, I have no problem with educated vegetarianism and veganism; I actually find the latter more ethically and intellectually consistent than the former.

What’s deeply wrong is posting this on an official government site where people are inevitably going to take it as stated or implied policy. Unless the EPA’s official policy has changed to “producing & eating meat is evil”, this does not belong there. Blogs are free and this intern can create her own platform for sharing her thoughts without piggybacking on a tax-funded website. So there’s no misunderstanding, the large banner at the top of the site says “The Official Blog of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency”. A small-print disclaimer states that

“The opinions and comments expressed in Greenversations are those of the authors alone and do not reflect an Agency policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy of the contents of the blog.”

which to me are weasel words. It’s hosted on .gov and is prominently titled “official”. The “About” section claims it’s just a way to start conversations, but people do that quite well on their own without needing official government platforms. Don’t expect that people aren’t going to take whatever is posted there seriously. What do you think would happen if an employee of the US Department of Health and Human Services posted an essay on the evils or benefits of abortion on the official DHHS website?

This is why people distrust government and think it wastes money. Use the site to explain official policies and procedures; don’t use it to give a leg up to individuals’ personal agendas.

FDA regulates salt?

Looks like that NY Rep who wanted to ban salt in restaurants state-wide wasn’t such an outlier after all. The FDA is now moving to regulate and limit the amount of salt used in processed food.

A few years ago I would have been all in favor of this. The evidence is pretty clear that processed foods are thoroughly over-salted and there are clear medical repercussions from an over-salted diet. Nutrition labeling does not seem to influence people’s buying or eating habits, and the resulting health issues are not just a personal issue since we all pay for medical care one way or another (even more so, now).
All this is still true, but I no longer think this kind of regulation is worth it. We have a bad habit in this country of focusing in single issues, and not drawing back to look at the larger context. If salt is so dangerous it requires a deeply intrusive set of regulations to protect people from it, why are driving and skydiving still so free-choice? Why is tobacco still legal? Why don’t we have bar codes on our driver’s licenses keeping us from buying more than a few drinks at a time? The question is not whether salt is the problem; the question is whether an effective solution is worth the costs.
Regulation like this will certainly create jobs; the FDA will have to hire lots of new people to analyze and track every single processed food product for compliance. If they don’t, the law will have little meaning since lots of products will sneak through with misleading labelling (though I suspect this is exactly what will happen). The food companies will probably hire new people to oversee their sodium reduction efforts and marketing. Of course, all those jobs will be paid for by the consumer, either on the sticker price or through their taxes. So we’ll end up with two sets of meaningless jobs funded or forced by taxpayer dollars, to force companies to do something the market isn’t demanding, all to protect us from choices people are going to make anyway.
And, of course, the root problem here isn’t sodium at all. It’s the prevalence of processed “food-like substances” in general, which require salt to taste good because otherwise they’re made of low-quality inputs. If this kind of food weren’t so cheap in the first place, people wouldn’t buy so much of it, because whole foods would be more competitive. And why are these foods so much cheaper and economically attractive? Commodity subsidies. Corn, soy, and salt go hand in hand within the cheap processed food world.
Fewer people will buy salty processed foods if they cost more than whole foods, thus lowering their sodium intake to healthier levels. The most effective way to achieve that, at a whole-system level, is to reform agriculture subsidies such that corn and soy become pricey additives, not subsidized substitutes. Of course, that’s completely off the table in either party. If anything, a generic Democrat reading this would decide to institute a new “salt tax” instead, which would also raise the price but have the side effect of punishing citizens doubly for an already backwards and wasteful food system their taxes are already funding on the production end.
Why does all this matter so much to us, on our direct-market farm with almost no connection to the processed-food world? Because it is exactly this kind of well-meaning but intrusive regulation that threatens our business as well. We see the same patterns in the current efforts at food safety legislation; efforts to regulate and define every aspect of food production in ways that make no sense in the larger system, and simply increase costs across the board while offering no actual real benefit for the toll. I’m rooting against the salt regulations, not because I don’t believe the scientific and medical evidence, but because I’ve become convinced we can’t regulate our way out of problems created by government policies in the first place. Fix the source, not the symptom.

Volcanic diversification

The fascinating volcanic air-travel crisis in Europe has a few lessons to teach us here. Foremost in my mind is the value of diversification. While air travel is obviously significant in Europe, they also have an excellent rail network that has been able to take up some of the slack. Imagine the same thing happening in the US, with our pathetic excuse for rail travel. Diversification is good.

Closer to our own interests, consider this from the Washington Post:

A breakdown in air cargo shipments into the largest cities in Europe, including London, Paris and Berlin, left supermarkets warning of looming shortages of fresh produce. The groundings meant fruit from Africa and South America were rotting in crates in their countries of origin.

Much of our world economy is based on finely-tuned global import/export which cannot handle disruptions. Whether or not importing produce from Africa and South America to Europe is a good thing is another argument; this incident makes it clear that having local, diversified sources of food also serves as a buffer and backup to disruptions.

Again, imagine a similar situation in the US, something that stopped shipments of produce from California for a few weeks. The eastern half of the country, despite containing almost all the nation’s useable farmland, would run out of vegetables. That’s absurd.

Note to policymakers: rail networks and local foods are not indulgences for good times. They are diversifications for all times.

Columbia Business Times

We recently agreed to work with the Columbia Business Times on a business profile article, and spent two hours showing a writer and photographer around the farm while carrying on a detailed and thorough discussion of our methods, philosophy, business plan, and so on. The piece just appeared online; see what you think.

In short: we’re not impressed. It contains numerous errors and misrepresentations which we were not given the chance to review or correct (we moved here from Virginia, not Vermont; Organic certification is NOT a seal of product quality; that bed in the photo contains scattered overwintered onions, not our robust garlic plantings). One would think a business publication could be counted on to get the business name right. The farm is Chert Hollow Farm, LLC, not just Chert Hollow Farm (or Chert Hollow Farms, as the CBT main page shows). The article really carries no more detail or insight than can already be found on our website.

In addition, while they technically asked us to confirm quotes, they didn’t use any of the edits I asked for in those quotes. Over the course of a wide-ranging and busy 2-hour interview, a few things are going to come out oddly. I understand keeping exact quotes in a news article, but really, a business profile is not news, it’s an attempt to show a business in a positive light. Is it really so bad to let the subject gently massage their quotes to be more accurate to their context and meaning? The “Mayas and DuPont” quote is classic here; I have no idea where my mind came up with those specific names off the cuff, but the point is just as well made with “ancient peoples and chemical companies” and sounds less absurd. Furthermore, the photo captions and associated quotes were never fact checked with us, and the quote attributed to Joanna contains inaccuracies.

I know it’s advertising, but what’s the point when it doesn’t say what you want to say? I agreed to work with the CBT in the hopes of depicting the business side of this kind of farming, including marketing plans, regulations, subsidy policies, etc. No context is given to the statements about us, leaving them hanging and unexplained. I specifically told them I wasn’t interested in just another “people living off the land” story, but that’s what we got anyway.

Maybe it reads better to others. I know we hold very high standards and may be too harsh as critics, and for all I know the original piece was far longer and better before being butchered by an editor. But I don’t think the two hours were worth the result. Frankly, there’s far more information, detail, and context on our website. I could have written a 700-word business profile myself, done a better job, and gotten paid for it.

Time to tighten our media policy once again.

Eggs rights in Canada

Every time I get annoyed at restrictive and pointless food/farm policy in the US, I remind myself that almost everywhere else is worse. A Canadian friend just sent me this February article from Toronto explaining a truly bizarre situation for small farmers in Canada raising free-range eggs:

Egg farming is governed by a supply management system in Canada, which means provincial egg marketing boards control the number of eggs produced…Any farmer is permitted to keep 99 laying hens without buying quota, which is worth thousands of dollars, and they can sell their eggs from the farm gate without grading them, a process that evaluates quality. But they are forbidden from selling them elsewhere unless they are graded, which, for the small farmer, is a tough regulation to meet because grading stations are often a long way from the farm and it is expensive to set one up. This has created a grey market for eggs. If you know the password, you can buy a verboten dozen at an Ontario health food store. Often those popular eggs at the farmers’ markets are kept out of sight – for a reason. “It’s more like Prohibition,” Mr. Henry says, “with far more people ignoring the regulations and selling eggs.”

This is like the raw milk situation in the US, but for eggs. Can any American small farmer even imagine living with a situation in which the government literally sets a production quota you cannot exceed, and forbids you from selling eggs away from the farm? Eggs!

This is why over-regulation of food and farming, especially at a small-farm, direct-market scale, is a very bad thing. Basic economics are usually more powerful than laws; people will search out and find the products they want, and others will make those products, regardless of unenforceable laws. I never knew a college student who didn’t drink or smoke pot solely because it was illegal. So the result of such laws is simply to force otherwise honest people into a black market they don’t want to be in, or in scrupulous cases like ours to simply stay out of a market they could otherwise make money at (meat and dairy products for us).

Thus you punish the most honest, reward the medium-honest/stubborn/desperate, and ruin the few unlucky folks who get caught selling eggs or milk outside the lines of law but well within the lines of basic economic demand. Stupid.

Quick notes

It took a lot of agonizing work over a period of months to finish our taxes. How much productivity was lost on our end, and how much government salaried time will be spent reviewing our rather thick return? One report suggests that nearly half of all Americans end up owing no income tax, but how much did it cost them to prove that? No wonder this country is deep in debt. More on this when I get time.

Another week of glorious weather coming up, after an overnight frost. As always this time of year, lots of bed prep, seeding, transplanting, etc. Implementing a planting plan involving over 250 varieties, interplanted within beds and across a time arc from March through August, is quite an experience. Corn & soybeans this ain’t.

Kidding should happen soon; Garlic is showing most of the signs of imminent labor. New life, and new work, to look forward do. Everyone should witness the birth of an animal once in their life; preferably during adolescence.

The geese aren’t laying the way we expected; only one is producing right now. Keep this up, and they’re meat this fall. Geese are too much work and too much mess not to get full egg production and goslings.

Had a visit from the Columbia Business Times on Tuesday; look for an article soon. It’ll be interesting how they approach the story; we tried to make it clear we weren’t interested in another “homestead” story, but wanted to focus on the business aspect of the farm (I had to all but ban photos of the animals). The writer is working to start his own market garden/farm and was fairly knowledgeable about the topic, asking good questions and being very perceptive. Overall one of the best media visits I’ve had in a long time; hope it turns out that way in print.

Not much new on the food safety front. I’m burned out on paying attention to it. Let an inspector or agent show up at our gate, and we’ll see how that plays out. I need a good reporter on speed dial just in case. Does speed dial even exist anymore, or is that an anachronism for this non-cell-user?

Closing quote, from Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I’d make that more like twenty-five, but yeah, that pretty much captures us.

Assessing the value of farm products

With our market season drawing near, and employees (paid in products) starting soon, this is a good time to discuss how we assess the value of farm products, set prices, and decide what to sell. The easiest way to do this is to follow whatever the going “market” value is, but as we’ve learned, that often has very little to do with the actual production cost of the item, and/or the nutritional or culinary value of the item.

For example, let’s compare potential gross income from sweet corn, tomatoes, and garlic (all yield data from the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue, a respected source), using 100′ rows. For simplicity’s sake, I’m using gross rather than the more accurate net, because calculating net income per product involves more variables than I want to introduce into this discussion.

Sweet corn: 100 ears at $.25-$.50/ear = $25-$50/row
Tomatoes: 150lb at $2-$3/lb = $300-$450/row
Garlic: 300 heads at $1-$2/head = $300-$600/row

As far as I’m concerned sweet corn around here is criminally underpriced. It may make some economic sense for a farmer with many acres and large-scale equipment to grow a mass batch and make up for the tiny income in economies of scale, but no small grower with other options should touch it when you can make far more per unit area on almost anything else. Don’t expect us to ever grow sweet corn for market, because I don’t think anyone will ever pay the prices it would theoretically take for that to be worth growing in place of other products. Sweet corn is supposed to be one of the greatest delicacies of summer, yet the economic value placed on it by the consumer is somewhere below leftover Brussels sprouts.

Now let’s compare the caloric value of various items as it relates to their price. Organic eggs cost around $4/dozen here, and local organic milk costs $6-$8/gallon. Many folks would consider that pricey. Yet organic tomatoes routinely go for $3/lb (the price ratios for conventional items are similar). Eight dollars could get you two dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, or a handful of large tomatoes. Of those options, the tomatoes have relatively few calories (though they are packed with nutrients), while milk and eggs are far better at filling the stomach. No wonder someone on a tight budget would choose a couple dozen eggs or a gallon of milk over a few high end tomatoes. Thus either tomatoes are way overpriced, or milk & eggs are way under-priced, from a value-cost perspective.

We spend a lot of time paying attention to our production costs and labor inputs, to better understand what products are worth our while to produce & sell, and what a fair price ought to be. This is unabashedly a for-profit farm and we intend to make a decent living at it. In many cases we’ve concluded that the going “market” rate in grocery stores has little relevance to the cost of production around here. I believe this is largely related to government subsidies.

Most fruit & vegetable production for the mass market comes from places like California and Arizona where effective farming is only possible with hugely subsidized water supplies. If those subsidies were removed, and those growers paid the local market rate for their water, their products would skyrocket in price and make ours look like a bargain. (We had a glimpse of this last year when water shortages briefly pushed California lettuce prices up to $16/pound, a price with which we are happy to compete; we charge $8-$10/lb.) These growers also often rely on cheap legal/illegal migrant labor, another effective subsidy that is not available to most small, local growers. We have a pretty good sense of what it costs us to produce a tomato, and we charge accordingly. The store price has our tax dollars beneath it like Atlas under a globe.

With regards to items like milk, eggs, and meat, the situation is similar only this time the subsidy is for cheap grains. Almost no one, not even us, produces these products without some inputs of corn, soybeans, and other commodities, all of which are hugely cheapened by government payouts. Thus generations of consumers have been trained to expect these products to be abnormally cheap. This is why, in the examples above, the milk & eggs appear to cheaply valued compared to the tomatoes. $3/lb tomatoes reflect an unsubsidized value for a product of low caloric content; $4/dozen for eggs reflects a highly subsidized (even for organic) base ration for those hens, thus making their concentrated protein irrationally cheap for their value.

Now, some would make the fair argument that food should be cheap, that it’s a triumph of modern ag policy that we can get such cheap protein and produce, and that farms like ours are a niche anachromism. I have run out of space to deal effectively with this argument, except to note that many of the same people are otherwise deeply opposed to government interventions in the free market. How many Tea Party members would redouble their protests if all government ag subsidies ended and their steak, milk, and eggs tripled in price? Somehow it’s a disaster to have government deeply involved in health care, but it’s a basic human/American right to have food as cheap as possible no matter the cost in taxpayer dollars and loss of farm independence.

So be thankful if you wish for cheap supermarket food, but don’t expect those of us outside the subsidy system to like it. We do our best to price our products to reflect their actual production value and their nutritional/culinary value, and the occasional sticker shock to customers is something we just have to accept.

Watching health care

It’s 9:30pm, I’m sitting at the computer, watching a 2″ box play the live CSPAN coverage of the House votes on the health care bill. It’s fascinating.

I’ve been torn on this all along. I don’t like the way this process happened, I don’t think it’s addressed some significant issues, I’m not convinced it will really be as budget-neutral as hoped, I wish it had been undertaken as a series of smaller, more understandable, more specific bills… yet the Democrats clearly ran on a platform to do this and clearly won. It’s their right to push forward and win the vote if they can. The Republicans won plenty of controversial votes in the Bush years, as was their right.

And the other thing that I can’t avoid: I detest the tone of the opposition. I detest the slurs, the hatred, the personal vitriol, the deep off-topic negativity that seems to form the front of opposition to this initiative. There are probably a lot of Americans out there like me; unsure, stuck in the middle, not real thrilled about this but not foaming at the mouth either. There are a lot of worthwhile principles hidden in the right’s protests against this bill, but they’re buried in a sea of illogical, irrational sludge that contributes nothing to bettering our country. If I had to choose, I’d have to side with the Democrats on this, if nothing else to deny justification and vindication of the methods of this opposition.

If this passes, I hope it works. If it doesn’t, I hope that result does not push what’s left of a national, rational discourse off the cliff for good.

Banning salt in New York?

Reader response has been clear: you all want food safety/regulation news. Hang on to your hats, this one’s a doozy. I promise it’s not from The Onion or an April Fool’s joke.

A NY state representative has introduced bill A10129, which bans the use of salt in all state restaurants. You read that right. From the bill’s actual text, posted on the State Assembly’s website:


The bill goes on, in typical legalese, to propose fines of $1,000 per violation. Saltshakers on tables would still be ok, but none in the kitchen.

This has generated quite the predictable storm, including some amusing quotes, such as this one from the NY Daily News: “If State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz has his way, the only salt added to your meal will come from the chef’s tears.”

There’s a deep irony in someone proposing a law like this for reasons of food health, yet apparently knowing so little about cooking that he doesn’t realize salt is an integral part of the chemistry of cooking. Salt applied to the final dish is entirely different than salt used within a preparation. It’s almost literally impossible to cook some things properly without integral salt. So this yoyo, who wants people to eat healthier, obviously isn’t cooking for himself enough to realize this basic culinary fact. Has he ever even made pasta before? I wonder what he eats, where it comes from, and what ingredients are on the package?

I would think this bill has virtually no chance of passage; even in a state as dysfunctional as New York, there have to be enough baseline rational politicians to shoot down such an asinine idea. But even as an outlier, it’s a great example of the craziness of our country’s approach to food safety and health.