Texas Farm Bureau: Industrial Agriculture

“Industrial” and “sustainable” are words thrown around freely when discussing agriculture in the ongoing food debate.

Here’s what those words mean to me.

A year or two before I was born, my dad was scratching a living farming a quarter section of rented land in Oklahoma. He and mom had served in the military and after World War II, they decided to go back to agriculture. He, mom and eventually, my older sister and brother lived in a small farmhouse with an outhouse out back. Dad worked dawn to dusk, seven days a week, while mom tried to make ends meet by teaching at a country school. Dad’s primary crop was wheat and he fought drought and hail, greenbugs, soil erosion and everything else Mother Nature threw at him. Sometimes he made a good harvest; other times, not much. They ate what we today call free-range chicken almost every evening for supper. The chickens had the run of the farm by day and were cooped up at night. I remember well mom talking about those “scrawny little” chickens. They never got very big…one, because they were subject to the fangs of stray dogs and the whims of other predators; and two, they didn’t have time to get old. Times were hard, my family had to eat, and those chickens were their main source of protein.

Some food idealists might call this the perfect life. They might say it was simple, pastoral and the family enjoyed an abundance of fresh food, air and sunshine. They might say the quality of the crops was better because they were grown on a small farm without high-tech methods. They might suggest that all food be grown like this.

Dad, if he were still alive, would disagree. What he saw was endless hard work. He contributed buckets of sweat and more than a few tears, with little economic benefit for his family. He loved farming, but decided to move on.

The first rule of sustainability, my blogging partner Gene Hall is fond of saying, is economic survival. If a farmer or rancher can not make a living in agriculture, they will be forced to another vocation. My dad could not survive on the farm. He found opportunity in the growing industrial complex on the Gulf Coast of Texas and provided a good living for his family. That story was repeated thousands of times in thousands of locations across this nation. The move from the farm to the cities and suburbs that started as a trickle in the 1940s became a flood in the ’50s to where today only 2 percent of the population in this country produces the food and fiber many of us take for granted.

Those who stayed on the land had the resources or sticking power or just plain determination to make farming work. Farms became bigger. There were tremendous innovations in agricultural machinery and farming methods. Genetic technology resulted in increased yields. Techniques were developed to achieve economies of scale. In what critics term industrial farming, a new generation of American family farmers provided abundant food for an economically booming nation and much of the rest of the world.

Many food purists/activists say this is bad. Many of them propose going back to the old ways of farming. My dad would say hogwash. (Actually, he would say something more of a bovine nature, but hogwash will suffice.)

Dad would have the vision to clearly see both sides of this issue. He would embrace and applaud the opportunities provided to farmers and ranchers with the local food movement and organic agriculture. He would realize the need for large-scale agricultural production to feed a hungry world.

He would recognize that farming is more complex than it used to be. He would marvel at the new efficiency of agriculture. He would appreciate the continuing evolution and adoption of new techniques to protect precious soil and water resources.

My mother? I don’t think she missed the farm. She continued teaching, this time in a city school. She was a big fan of indoor plumbing. And she relished those store-bought, fat chickens whose necks she didn’t have to wring. I think mom would have loved industrial, sustainable agriculture.

 

Mike Barnett

Director of Publications
Texas Farm Bureau
I’m a firm believer that farmers and ranchers will continue to meet the needs of a growing world population by employing equal measures of common sense, conservation and technology.
Follow Mike on Twitter and Facebook.

17 Responses to “Mom would have loved industrial agriculture”

  1. Mike, this is a terrific response to the folks who seem to think they want all their food from very, very small arms. I wonder if they ever consider the kind of serfdom they are proposing for food producers?

  2. Carlon A. Stapper says:

    it could be that the "elite" who want their food to come from these small farms embrace the idea of serfdom as a way to control those who "cling to their guns and religion"

  3. Billy Bob Brown says:

    A standing ovation for Mike. Well said.

  4. Very nice piece, Mike. I think people sometimes wish for return of the "good old days" without stopping to think about what they are wishing for.

    A few people are willing to pay a large premium for a free range chicken. More power to them. They are creating golden opportunities for ambitious chicken ranchers.

    I doubt that the organic food movement is a conspiracy by the elite to enslave gun owners and the religious, but I could be wrong. I think most folks just want good, safe food at a reasonable price, and I think that is what farmers want to supply. Most of the rest is just hot air and marketing.

    It’s difficult to produce more, faster, cheaper while at the same time improving quality, taste, and safety of food. Thanks for reminding us that things now really are sometimes better than they were then. That’s why they call it progress.

  5. I certainly won’t argue about the 1st rule of sustainability being economic survival. My question is regarding how much fossil fuel energy does it take to run industrial ag? Even if the tar sands, tar shale and the Bakken oil formation have 25 billion barrels of oil, when you divide that by 80 million barrels of oil that is consumed world wide on a daily basis, that 25 billion doesn’t seem all that large.

  6. For the record, there are approximately 2.6 trillion barrels of technically recoverable hydrocarbon in US oil shale reserves alone. It’s just not economically or environmentally feasible at today’s low prices to extract any of it. The era of cheap energy is winding down. It would be smart for everyone to make the necessary adjustments. The fact that we import over sixty percent of our crude oil, and that the supply could be halted in the blink of an eye, should make all of us really uneasy.

    However, as long as the lights are shining in Vegas and the average American drives a two ton SUV, it seems hypocritical to spotlight agriculture, industrial or otherwise, as an energy hog.

  7. Mike Barnett says:

    Jeremy, in answer to your question.

    The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy, in 2009 estimated direct energy use on farms in the U.S. at 1,142 trillion BTUs, more than 1 percent of total U.S. energy consumption of 101.9 quadrillion BTUs. Components of direct energy use on the farm are diesel, motor gasoline, natural gas, LPG, electricity and other fuels.

    Indirect farm energy use should also be included. In 2009, the agency reported, indirect energy requirements for agriculture stood at about 420 trillion BTUs, most of which is natural gas. Natural gas is used to make ammonia fertilizer.

    Even adding both together, agriculture’s energy use is a tiny percentage of U.S. energy use.

    That doesn’t mean that agriculture should be an energy waster. It is seeking solutions and alternatives–just like the rest of the U.S.–to falling supplies and rising prices of fossil fuels.

    http://www.congressional.energy.gov/documents/4-1-09_Final_Testimony_(Gruenspecht).pdf

  8. Theresa Leftwich says:

    I am disappointed in the defensiveness of Texas Agriculture and the Texas Farm Bureau regarding organic farming and ranching. There are many profitable, small natural/organic producers in Texas- from cattle, chicken, and vegetables- to orchards and vineyards. Can we not have the common goal of providing food to Texas residents and stop arguing its benefits or lack of as if it is a personal attack? Shouldn’t we rely on the consumer to decide which they prefer- and in the model of capitalism and free enterprise, provide food to meet the demand of the consumer accordingly.

    My family has farmed/ranched in Texas since 1850; I have transitioned to organic, and it is hard. All farming & ranching is hard work. Those of us who believe in growing organic food are not the enemy of those who do not.

    Additionally, it doesn’t make sense to me that there are dozens of perfectly good peaches grown (organic or not) within a 50 mile radius of my home town, and our stores are selling ‘California’ peaches.

    Eating local is just as important to the environment as eating organic is heralded to be.

    I humbly request that you find a way to represent all farmers in Texas, without painting one side or other as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in your blogs; and in reporting balanced news in your website news columns.

  9. Mike Barnett says:

    Thanks, Theresa for your comments.

    I have no problem at all with the local and organic food. In fact, I think there’s lots of opportunities for those who seek that path and I applaud them for doing so. I’ve visited with many organic producers and have written about them in our publication, Texas Agriculture http://www.texasfarmbureau.org/newsmanager/templates/TXFBTemplate.aspx?articleid=3319&zoneid=71

    I have not attacked organic agriculture. What I have a problem with is those who would promote organic/local food by attacking modern agriculture…the movie Food, Inc., comes to mind, which I have blogged about, and the latest article in Time magazine, which is nothing more than a blatant broadside against modern agriculture. That’s become all too common in today’s media. When was the last time you read an article about the wonders of modern agriculture feeding the majority of the world?

    I have the utmost respect for anyone who farms…organic or traditional. I have no problem at all with organic, which I have repeatedly said. And I 100 percent agree with you that the consumer will be the deciding factor.

  10. Mike Barnett says:

    Theresa, I enjoyed your response, and I’ll try not to be defensive. The Texas Farm Bureau is not opposed to organic production. Our position is exactly what you suggest, that organic producers be free to respond to market forces. There’s nothing wrong with that. This marketing effort should not, however, suggest that organic is any more or less healthy than conventional means, since that has not been proven. The Texas Farm Bureau has, in fact, been called upon to defend what some folks call "industrial agriculture." There has been no shortage of reporting on the benefits of organic and local production. Here in our own little corner of the world, we are pointing out some facts that are sadly under reported. As I’ve said before in this space, Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate,scientist and professor emeritus at Texas A&M, points out there is enough natural nitrogen in the world available for crop production to feed approximately 4 billion people. We will have 9 billion forty years from now. It is clear that though organic will always have a place, we’re going to need industrial agriculture too. We have many organic producers in our membership and many more who are not. We will try to balance accordingly, but I suspect the market will do that for us.

    Keep contributing Theresa, we need this viewpoint and we at TFB need to hear it too.

    Gene

  11. "Eating local is just as important to the environment as eating organic is heralded to be."

    Great observation, Ms. Leftwich. Mike cited earlier the low percentage of American energy consumption directly linked to farm activities. What he didn’t mention is that OVERALL food production activities (including processing and transportation) are the largest segment of energy consumption (TIME says 19%) in the US. It takes a heap of diesel to bring you peaches from California.

  12. JD: I wouldn’t cite too many figures from the Time magazine article. They were long on assumptions but short on sources.

    I’ve looked unsuccessfully this evening for some solid percentage of total U.S. energy used from farm to plate to stock your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. I’ll continue looking.

    What I did find were some interesting numbers from the government’s Energy Information Administration–the same agency that provided the 2 percent energy use number for U.S. farming. They say electric power consumes the largest chunk of energy in the U.S. at 40.1 percent, followed by transportation at 27.8 percent (the majority which goes to gasoline which tends to move people, not goods), industrial at 20.6 and finally, residential and commercial at 10.8 percent. I could find no numbers that totaled food production, processing and transportation.

    I’d also like to share some information I found about organic farming. It’s a Going Jessie, according to USDA. The Agriculture Department says consumer demand for organics has increased 20 percent annually in the U.S. since the 1990s. Consumers are increasingly finding organic foods in supermarkets around the nation. Many farmers are finding opportunity in organics/local foods. That’s wonderful.

    But let’s keep things in perspective. Certified organic production in the U.S. in 2005 encompassed a little over 4 million acres. I’m sure it’s grown as demand has dictated over the past four years. That 2005 certified organic acreage included crop and pastureland. Total U.S. cropland in the 2007 Census of Agriculture was 400 million acres.

    U.S. expenditures for food at home in 2005 total $593 billion. Add another $491 billion for food away from home. U.S. organic sales in 2005, according to USDA, totaled $15.7 billion.

    I am not belittling organic/local food by any means. It’s a great niche market, and a great and growing opportunity for farmers and ranchers in Texas and across the U.S. But organic/local is still a tiny percentage of total food production.

    Will organic/local food production ever be the main source of food in this country? I don’t think so but I may be wrong. Ultimately, as I’ve said all along, the consumer will decide,and which ever way they choose, the farmer and rancher will grow it.

  13. Don Sugarek says:

    Mike,
    With a lifetime in production agriculture, I have "been there and done that" and my hat is off to you for an article that tells it like it is.

    Thank you,

  14. Mike, thanks for the good data on organic. I agree, it’s not in the cards for all food to be grown locally, organically, or both. I think the issue is more that when it’s available, take advantage of it. Local produce saves a lot of energy and tastes good, too. So what if the peach isn’t quite as big and perfect as a California peach? 😉

    The total food industry energy consumption is pretty hard to pin down. Pimentel of Cornell (famous in ethanol circles) has done a lot of work on it and says in his 2006 book that US food industry energy consumption is 19% of the nation’s total consumption. I suspect that is where the TIME magazine article sourced that number, though as you observed, it’s impossible to tell. Let us know if you come up with better numbers than Pimentel or TIME.

    Your original post still rocks! It’s a fine piece of writing.

  15. Mike, what your mom, and dad, would have loved most was to have been successful with their farm. This is a way of life that involves hard work, perseverance, and great pride in accomplishment. I’m not against industrial agriculture at all but I advocate for us small guys. We are the foundation of farming and were the backbone. Competition is a basis for business but there comes a point where the word "Competition" is no longer the correct one to use. That’s when the Walxxxt’s and other giants with huge resources can come into a small town and swallow up the small mom and pop operations. We take pride in our work, we take pride in the quality and taste of our products, we just want a fair playing field and voice in it. I see the Farm Bureau as our resource and representative in that, our advocate. I might be wrong but your statements felt like a dismissal of what I work so hard to accomplish, a belittlement of all who struggle with pride to make a small farm work.

  16. Mike Barnett says:

    Thanks, Bob for your comments.

    You are exactly right about my parents. Dad’s choice would have been to remain on the farm. Dad loved agriculture but he couldn’t make it work, like thousands of others in the early 1950s.

    The words "industrial" and "sustainable" are being thrown around loosely in the ongoing food debates. I was simply addressing those concepts from a different angle.

    There is no way I dismiss the important contributions of the small farmer/rancher to our agriculture economy. Thousands and thousands of acres in Texas are farmed and ranched in small operations just like yours.

    All of us are fortunate that "small guys," as you say, are in the agriculture game. Keep up the good work. Farm Bureau is proud to be your advocate.

  17. Dan Dierschke says:

    I am late to your posting but wish to add my compliments to a great article recalling what "the good old days were like". I gave a tribute to my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary and spoke about my recollections of what our lives were like in the early days of their marriage. I was stunned by the number of older members of the audience who expressed heartfelt appreciation for being reminded of the realities. I was equally amazed to hear from many of the younger generation who never realized what previous generations endured to provide for them.

    Perhaps you have the beginning of a book that could chronicle the actual experiences of farm life now being romanticized.

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