Sunday, March 18, 2012

American Food Crisis - The Emperor's New Clothes

My uncle George was a meat and potatoes man.  Every night on the dinner table was basically the same.  It was almost a joke to the family because any variation to the theme was met with a reminder of what an appropriate dinner was. 

Each day at the England house there was a piece of steak, potatoes, a vegetable, and bread with honey.  The bread was not the standard Wonderbread but was usually homemade brown bread.  The honey was in a little bear dispenser.   Desert was rare in the household.

This meal seemed odd to me because at our home casseroles reigned but in retrospect the same principles applied. We referred to it as the four basic food groups. I understood this not because the adults in my life explained it but because the schools showed a chart.

Michelle Obama has taken steps to remind us of the importance of healthy eating.  For this she has received both praise and criticism.  I for one am happy that she is using the platform she has to promote such a basic and yet neglected topic. 

Bad eating habits like anything else do not happen overnight - they happen one meal at a time. I have to continually remind myself that carrots are better than cookies when I grab a snack. I continually have to make a conscious effort to not have that extra cup of coffee that I love so much.  More importantly than my own personal choices is the children and the parents who are responsible for providing and building habits that will last a lifetime.

Rumors abound and are becoming reality regarding the possibility of rising costs of food and even possibilities of scarcity in America.  The recent Texas drought has indeed had a major impact on our food supply.  If we believe we can live a healthy life on potato chips and pop we are delusional.  Recently my own health has required me to cut back on salt.  What?  I don't even use a salt shaker so where is it coming from?

As we rush through our busy schedules we tend to just grab what is easily available and put it in our mouths and keep going.  Or, many now who are more conscientious have taken the opposite direction of believing that radical diets or vegetarianism is the answer.  As we continue to move in either of these extremes we are missing the basic, healthy lifestyle available to all of us.

There are many things I don't like about getting older.  But there is one thing I am wholly beginning to appreciate:  the longer I live, the more I see that the media and social waves are a bunch of b.s.  Coming from my farming experience I can use this phrase and know that the literal definition really does fit the situation.  It's just a mess that needs to be shoveled up and disposed of.

The idea of a food crisis in America, if one should occur, is a subject that increasingly strikes me as utterly ridiculous, contrived, and diabolical.  Why?  Do I think it could not happen?  Yes, I do think it could happen.  BUT,  an American food crisis would be like a man starving with a cupboard full of food that he will not eat.  I struggle to know the words of how to present this in such a way to make the point that to me is so obvious yet never mentioned.  It is almost like the story of the emperor's new clothes in the old folk tale.  If you are not familiar with the story here is a cute little 3 minute video.

To illustrate what I'm referring to let's look at the history of American Agriculture for a minute:

The following is excerpted from
A History of American Agriculture 1776-1990
Total population: 23,191,786
Farm population: 11,680,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 64% of labor force
Number of farms: 1,449,000
Average acres: 203
Successful farming on the prairies began
With the California gold rush, the frontier bypassed the Great Plains and the Rockies and moved to the Pacific coast
Free land was a vital rural issue
Graduation Act reduced price of unsold public lands
The miners' frontier moved eastward from California toward the westward-moving farmers' and ranchers frontier
Total population: 31,443,321
Farm population: 15,141,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 58% of labor force
Number of farms: 2,044,000
Average acres: 199
Homestead Act granted 160 acres to settlers who had worked the land 5 years
The sharecropping system in the South replaced the old slave plantation system
Influx of Scandinavian immigrants
Cattle boom accelerated settlement of Great Plains; range wars developed between farmers and ranchers
Total population: 38,558,371
Farm population: 18,373,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 53% of labor force
Number of farms: 2,660,000
Average acres: 153
Total population: 50,155,783
Farm population: 22,981,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 49% of labor force
Number of farms: 4,009,000
Average acres: 134
Heavy agricultural settlement on the Great Plains began
Most humid land already settled
Most immigrants were from southeastern Europe
Drought reduced settlement on the Great Plains
Total population: 62,941,714
Farm population: 29,414,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 43% of labor force
Number of farms: 4,565,000
Average acres: 136
Increases in land under cultivation and number of immigrants becoming farmers caused great rise in agricultural output
Census showed that the frontier settlement era was over
Total population: 75,994,266
Farm population: 29,414,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 38% of labor force
Number of farms: 5,740,000
Average acres: 147
Continued agricultural settlement on the Great Plains
Reclamation Act
Policy of reserving timberlands inaugurated on a large scale
Total population: 91,972,266
Farm population: 32,077,00 (estimated)
Farmers made up 31% of labor force
Number of farms: 6,366,000
Average acres: 138
Dryland farming boom on the Great Plains
Immigration of agricultural workers from Mexico
Stock Raising Homestead Act
Total population: 105,710,620
Farm population: 31,614,269 (estimated)
Farmers made up 27% of labor force
Number of farms: 6,454,000
Average acres: 148
Immigration Act greatly reduced number of new immigrants
Total population: 122,775,046
Farm population: 30,455,350 (estimated)
Farmers made up 21% of labor force
Number of farms: 6,295,000
Average acres: 157
Irrigated acres: 14,633,252
Drought and dust-bowl conditions developed
Executive orders withdrew public lands from settlement, location, sale, or entry
Taylor Grazing Act
Total population: 131,820.000
Farm population: 30,840,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 18% of labor force
Number of farms: 6,102,000
Average acres: 175
Irrigated acres: 17,942,968
Many former southern sharecroppers migrated to war-related jobs in cities
Total population: 151,132,000
Farm population: 25,058,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 12.2% of labor force
Number of farms: 5,388,000
Average acres: 216
Irrigated acres: 25,634,869
Legislation passed providing for Great Plains Conservation Program
Total population: 180,007,000
Farm population: 15,635,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 8.3% of labor force
Number of farms: 3,711,000
Average acres: 303
Irrigated acres: 33,829,000
State legislation increased to keep land in farming
Wilderness Act
Farmers made up 6.4% of labor force
Total population: 204,335,000
Farm population: 9,712,000 (estimated)
Farmers made up 4.6% of labor force
Number of farms: 2,780,000
Average acres: 390
1980-901980, 1990
Total population: 227,020,000 and 246,081,000
Farm population: 6,051,00 and 4,591,000
Farmers made up 3.4% and 2.6% of labor force
Number of farms: 2,439,510 and 2,143,150
Average acres: 426 and 461
Irrigated acres: 50,350,000 (1978) and 46,386,000 (1987)

If you don't look at anything else check out the first and last blocks and compare the percentage of the population compared to the farm population. In 1850 64% of the American laborforce was in the agricultural business or farmers.  In 1990 the percentage was 3%.  The population for the same periods went from 23,191,786 to 246,081,000. 

The question immediately jumps to my mind: Where is our food coming from?

With the growing population, logic would seem to indicate that there would be more involved in the production of our milk, vegetables, grains, and meat that sustain our lives but instead there is less. We know that much of this comes from the highly industrialized processes now employed for which there are benefits and disadvantages.  The ultimate reason we may have rising prices in food is not that we do not have the capability to have more food but rather we do not have enough farmers.

As I continued to explore this I found two interesting topics to google:  Agricultural Land In U.S and Government Owned Land in the U.S. When you click on the images button the actual maps are shown.  The results may surprise and shock you.  I may address this in a later post but not today.  While it is true that we are using more of our agricultural land than in 1850 this and the maps do not take into consideration just how much food Americans can grow in their own back yards if they choose to do so. 

Most surburban homes have space in the backyard for a few fruit trees, a vegetable garden, and some berries.  While your family may not be able to use an entire tree full of apples if all your neighbors planted also neighborhood trades or farmers markets could be made allowing an exchange and adding to the variety.   Sure we would still need to rely on our country neighbors to supply meat and dairy or those unemployed may consider this a good time to head to the hills.  That was how my own rural lifestyle began years ago.

Just as an experiment ask a 5 year old and a 15 year old "Where does our food come from?"  If their answer is "the grocery store"  then they too are already admiring The Emperor's New Clothes.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post!!!!
Passin this one on!

Carol Schultz said...

Thank you. I appreciate passing it on! There is so much we can do for our families and our country.

Practical Parsimony said...

That was such an eye-opener. I was watching as the years appeared. Only in 1960 and on the following chart did the size of farms grow. I suppose that is when small farmers sold out to corporations and our food became less about a product and more about a profit.

I think our backyards could save us!

Carol Schultz said...

There were many laws put in place to make it impossible for the small farmer to sell any of their growth and Monsanto is taking over the seed business. I am sure that food will be the next big noticable assault on the American people. It's all in place already. City people (98% of the population) have remained too uninformed about what is going on so big business has created a monopoly.