by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Oct 19 2018

Weekend reading: Fruitful Labor

Mike Madison.  Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm.  Chelsea Green 2018 (short at just 164 pages).

Image result for fruitful labor

Every now and then, Chelsea Green sends me a book this publisher thinks might interest me.  And right they are.  This book is a perfect example of why I’m so impressed by what Chelsea Green chooses to publish.

Fruitful Labor is a conversational how-to manual for anyone thinking about doing small-scale, sustainable farming and wondering whether it could be fun and provide a decent living.  Madison’s optimistic yet realistic outlook makes it clear that both are possible.  He raises 200 or so vegetables and fruits on his own farm of 20 acres or so near Sacramento.

The book covers the specifics of what equipment and tools you need and what you need to do to raise animals, take care of the soil, and, yes, make a living.  Madison philosophizes about such matters as spacing of trees, what to do about wild animals, water quality, care of tools, the cost of electricity, and other such details.

He provides a copy of his IRS profit-and-loss statement and explains what it means to have enough income.

Dianne and I have never been motivated to be rich in terms of money.  We live in a beautiful place, we have many friends, we’re healthy, we have meaningful work, and we have wholesome food to eat and good local wine to drink–what would we want with more money?

Later, he explains the reality:

The increasing price of farmland in this area has far outstripped the rising prices of other assets, most notably labor, to the extent that a young couple starting out today has no possibility of replicating our experience….the price of farmland reflects not only its agricultural value, but also its value as an instrument of financial speculation and a place for a homesite; it is the latter two that primarily drive the price….In this context, our farming system is not sustainable.

This is a thoughtful, useful book, a pleasure to read and an inspiring plea for what used to be understood as agrarian values.

More than ever, we need such values.  Thank you Mike Madison, and thanks also to Chelsea Green.

Aug 29 2018

The $12 billion trade mitigation promised to farmers: who gets how much?

Recall that to mitigate the damage to U.S. agriculture caused by our current tariff disputes, President Trump promised to give affected farmers $12 billion.

The USDA has now set up its Trade Mitigation Programs.  As seems invariably to be the case, these are not simple; they involve three separate programs:

  • The Food Purchase and Distribution Program
  • The Market Facilitation Program
  • The Agricultural Trade Promotion Program

Food Purchase and Distribution Program

The government (taxpayers) will purchase up to $1.2 billion in commodities and then distribute them to food assistance programs.

USDA issued a list.  Here are some selected examples, to which you must add three zeros (amounts are in $1000s):

Apples $93,400
Apricots $200
Beef $14,800
Blueberries $1,700
Hazelnuts $2,100
Kidney Beans $14,200
Pork $558,800
Potatoes $44,500
Strawberries $1,500

The big winner here is pork, hit badly by the trade disputes.

The Market Facilitation Program

This one gets a bigger slice—$4.7 billion.

Here, the big winner is soybeans — $3.6 of the $4.7 billion in payments.  Corn producers are lpretty much left out.  I can’t imagine tht they are pleased.

The Agricultural Trade Promotion Program

All I’ve seen about it is that USDA will spend $200 million on foreign market development.

What are we to make of this?

Whether trade groups are for or against this depends on how much of this pie they get.  Overall agricultural losses will be greater than $12 billion, so everyone loses, but some more than others.  The Environmental Working Group has filed a FOIA request for information about how USDA made these decisions.  Can’t wait to see what they get.

Only half of that has been distributed so far.

Let’s hope the lobbying is transparent so we can see who is doing what.

The Documents 

 

Jun 13 2018

Farm subsidy payments: an EWG analysis

The Environmental Working Group, ever on the job, has a new analysis of subsidy payments to farmers.

Nearly 28,000 farmers got USDA payments worth $19 billion since 1985.

EWG says:

Between 1985 and 2016, farm subsidy programs paid farmers when crop prices fell below price guarantees set in the federal farm bill or, more recently, when crop revenue fell below historic averages. In addition, “direct” subsidy payments linked to historic crop production were made between 1996 and 2014. Disaster payments have been paid through both annual spending bills and permanent disaster programs.

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Jun 1 2018

Weekend reading: Declining US investment in agricultural research

The USDA reports that investment in agricultural research is declining (since 2009) in high-income countries, particularly in the U.S.

The U.S. share of total agricultural investment in research was 35% in 1960; it fell to 25% in 2013.

What with global problems of hunger, chronic disease, and climate change, shouldn’t we be doing more agricultural research, not less?

The documents

May 2 2018

China’s “outward” (foreign) investments in food and agriculture

USDA’s Economic Research Service has a new report on China’s investment in agriculture and farmland.

China’s outward agricultural investments are growing rapidly.

The purchases are everywhere: Indonesia, New Zealand, Bulgaria, Jamaica, etc., but some is in the United States.

China owns Smithfield, for example (see previous post).

The report is worth a serious read.  If you aren’t up to that, take a look at the tables and figures.  I wanted to reproduce a lot more of them.

 

Mar 12 2018

The link between obesity and food systems: World Bank

I’m late in seeing this but the World Bank published this report linking food systems to obesity last year.

It’s got lots of charts and tables and ends with actions that can be taken in food production systems to improve food quality.  It’s wonky, but useful.

Feb 26 2018

U.S. Agriculture at a glance: USDA report

USDA and the National Agricultural Statistics Service have just published “Farms and Land in Farms: 2017 Summary.”

Here’s the bottom line:

Earl Butz, USDA Secretary under presidents Nixon and Ford, was infamous for, among other things, telling farmers to “get big or get out.”  And so it came to pass….

Government agricultural policies have a lot to do with this, no?

Feb 23 2018

Weekend reading: Effects of Industrial agriculture on health and the environment

I reviewed an earlier draft of this report, and was impressed by its comprehensiveness and attention to detail.  If you are interested in understanding how our current agricultural system came about, what problems it causes, and what to do about them, this report is an excellent place to start.

It’s “new vision for farm and food policy” calls for:

  • An end to subsidies that encourage farm specialization, intensification, and overproduction
  • Practices that reduce soil loss and water pollution
  • Ending the use of medically important antibiotics
  • Aligning agricultural policy with health policy

Its conclusion:

It is time for a change in our agricultural policies and priorities, away from a near absolute emphasis on maximizing production and toward ameliorating the problems caused by the intensification and specialization of farming. Developing a more balanced agricultural system will require extensive changes throughout our food production system. Those reforms will threaten established interests and reshape farming in the U.S., but also create opportunities to build more vibrant rural communities. Accepting those challenges is essential because the
threats generated by current farming practices cannot be ignored any longer.