Friday, August 20, 2010

Agribusiness Hates Tree Crops

I spent Tuesday at a place that is fulfilling J. Russell Smith's vision of a permanent agriculture - later coined permaculture - based largely on tree crops and other perennial woody crops.

The surrounding farms are all traditional corn & soybean operations. I got to thinking that the local seed salesmen, herbicide and fertilizer salesmen and implement dealers must grit their teeth as they drive by my friend's farm. He has a small tractor, and another one that started rusting during the Eisenhower administration and is held together by the proverbial bubble gum and bailing twine. There are no drums of chemicals. His farm is notable for what isn't there, for what he doesn't spend, and for the fossil fuels he doesn't burn.

But the other thing that occurred to me is that the economics are my friend's farm are actually real. How screwed up is a system that has farmers growing corn and beans below cost, making up the difference with subsidy payments (that provide incentive for them to grow even more corn and beans, further suppressing the price)? How screwed up is a system that siphons money from farmers and rural areas and goes to large chemical, petrochemical and implement companies just so farmers can more efficiently (not in the sense of "profitably" but in the sense of "faster and easier") do battle with the soil each year to grow more and more of an unprofitable crop? How screwed up is a system that then must find new uses for that overproduction, such as high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks that keep getting cheaper by the ounce and served in larger quantities to a population in which obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing, and production of ethanol which in the short term serves the laudable goal of increasing grain prices but in turn makes it profible to slash & burn rainforest land and convert it to grain production?

Yes, those agribusiness companies provide jobs. Yes, those local seed, chemical and implement dealers are probably fine fellows with families to support. But the entire house of cards is built on an unsustainable relationship with the soil, an unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels, and an unsustainable economy.

It calls to mind the question Michael Pollen ponders in The Omnivore's Dilemma of who is really using whom - are we using corn, or is corn using us to expand its range and dominance in the landscape?

My friend has operates his farm on a "pay as you go" basis. No price supports, no subsidies.
Then again, no erosion, no pollution. Just food.

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