RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

We Can't Eat Business Models

I live on the edge of America’s Bread Basket, where a few big farms raise grain for the international market. And what’s happening to the big farms is like what happened to the smaller ones; the big farms have decreasing numbers of markets – in fact, pretty much only one market –and a price that’s fixed by the international buyers. So we’re all in this together, even if they’re farming thousands of acres and we’ve only got a couple hundred acres.

Decades of deep plowing, followed by a decade of biotech farming that leaves the ground bare all winter, has left much of the Midwest in a desert condition.

To see the maps, Google “desertification” and hold your breath. A dozen maps will pop up, all showing the same gashes of desert in the Midwest.

The desert, with water and chemicals pumped to it, can grow corn. Not the robust, nutrient-filled corn that we’d like to have, but a starchy kernel packed with calories that can support animal life. And that’s all industry needs. Something that can be made into ethanol or crushed and enhanced with flavorings and secret ingredients and fed to hogs in CAFOs or to kids in school. While soil scientists for decades warned us that the health of the soil determines the health of people, desert can raise crops, albeit unhealthy ones, until somebody pays to give it a rest, or converts it to housing, or bring in new topsoil and build a golf course.

But nobody would want to live on this desert, or raise kids in the chemical soup that’s poured on the crops.

So John Deere’s company, of he who broke the gummy prairie with his self-scouring plow, is testing the drone tractor. Like any drone, it will be controlled by an operator in a faraway place, setting controls and watching the dials. This joyless relationship will go on day and night, eliminating the need to take a break.

When the weather’s good, the drone will be racing across the open fields, undeterred by houses, trees, roads, ponds. And in some room in the skyscraper or old farmhouse, the modern farmer will be controlling the system with a joystick. It’s just a step away from the new tractors, driven by humans but communicating with I-phones and laptops. There has been a lot of PR about the drones and the spin meisters always advise us that it will provide food for a hungry, increasingly urban world. The population has gone up in a steep line, and gotten way richer and lives longer, and they want to live in cities, says the PR. The lines of longevity and wealth will continue to go up…technology will prevent any collapse from happening, other species be damned, says the PR.

But Nature bats last, and I got that from an old Sierra Club bumper sticker. There are always unintended consequences. To the industry, raising hogs in confinement buildings seemed like a good idea. Then, batting last, confinements started leaking antibiotics into ground water. To the industry, dousing GMO crops with poison seemed like a good weed preventive. Then, batting last, the weeds developed resistance. Technology, clearly, is not the answer for raising food on a desert.

Still, I’m distressed to hear people talk about big farmers as if they’re enemies. We need to change that. Vilification oversimplifies a very complicated issue and it makes opponents of folks who should be our allies. The farmers on monocultures are extremely hard-working, trying to make places for their kids on the farm and trying to make ends meet. These folks, who have bought into the industrial model and purchased enormous combines and semi trucks to haul grain or who are raising livestock in confined animal feeding operations, are trapped in a bad system and, increasingly, the big farmers know how bad the model is because they are getting gipped by it. And, unless you raise everything you eat or buy ALL your food at the farmers’ market or from your neighbor, and you never go to a restaurant or buy a donut at the quick shop you are benefiting.

That said, we don’t have to agree with what they do, and we should have learned that the model of industry, applied to agriculture, isn’t good for the land.

So, in the future, where does the food for people come from? Well, it can come from new ground appropriated from new continents, which is the model we depend on when we import more and more food from other lands. We have a hand in this system every time we eat a banana. Or a tomato from Mexico, an apple from China.

President Obama is trying to fast-track new trade agreements with Central America and Korea, to export more low-quality American food. Missouri’s governor is using agriculture as an excuse to negotiate with the General Assembly for a warehouse hub in St. Louis. This warehouse hub, by the way, is supposed to produce jobs. One job for every 2,500 square feet of warehouse, according to the model.

As soon as someone tells you that their business plan is based on a model, head for the door. Models are Excel spread sheets—tweak one entry and everything looks different. Models have given us mortgage pools and credit default swaps.

Models are not life.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2011

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