About a weeks ago, I wrote a post noting that despite his essays and poems advocating non-mechanized, locally-grown, organically-grown food production, author Wendell Berry's might not be the best person to lead a sensible discussion about U.S. farm policy.
As I noted, Berry's own farm produces feed corn, small grains, and tobacco. No commercial fresh fruits and vegetables of any kind are grown.
As for tobacco, the nicotine that comes from that destructive plant is such a terrible insecticide it is banned from being sprayed on U.S. food crops.
The little "joker in the deck" with Wendell Berry is that if we were to try to "eat local and eat organic" from the commercial crops he grows, we would starve to death in short order.
What was amazing about the Wendell Berry post was how many responses it engendered from people who seemed to think America is full of farms growing organic fruits and vegetables. Just go down to your local road-side vegetable stand to pick up locally-grown produce.
What road-side stand?
Am I living in a different America from everyone else? I have been driving around this country for a long time, and outside of a few parts of California, I have not seen much land in fruit and vegetable production, nor have I seen too many road-side fruit and vegetable stands.
Am I missing something?
I didn't think so, but just to be sure, I decided to look at the numbers.
A quick glance at the CIA World Fact Book confirmed that American is still a very large country with approximately 2,427,000,000 acres of land.
Unfortunately, less than 19 percent of this land is arable, and only 0.21 percent is in permanent crops.
Of course, 0.21 percent of 2.4 billion acres is still a lot of land. In fact, it's about 500 million acres.
Of the approximately 500 million acres in permanent crop production in the U.S., we have about 72 million acres in corn, 72 million acres in soybeans, 60 million acres in hay, 53 million acres in wheat, 8 million acres in sorghum, and 3 million acres in rice.
In addition to these 367 millions acres of machine-harvested grains and feed, we also have machine-harvested barley, rye, peanuts, sugarcane, sugar beets, flax, and sunflowers to round things out.
Floating on top of all this, we have about 4 million acres in fruit and nut trees, and about 6.8 million acres in vegetables.
Of the 6.8 million acres in vegetables, only 1.7 million acres is grown for fresh vegetables -- the rest is cropped for machine-harvested potatoes (1.2 million acres), machine-harvested dried beans (2 million acres), or canned vegetables (1.3 million acres harvested by both machine and hand).
In addition, a significant portion of the fruit and nut acreage is also machine-harvested -- wine grapes are now picked by mechanical "fingers," while fruit and nut trees are routinely shake-harvested.
All in all, only about 0.0021 percent of all land in the U.S. is in fruit and vegetable production that is not being mechanically planted and harvested, and more than half of this is in California.
Why do I stress mechanical planting and harvesting?
Two reasons. The first, is that Wendell Berry and his adherents like to rail against "industrial agriculture" even as they say they respect farming.
Sorry, that doesn't work for me.
Farming is not some romantic and abstract notion. It's tractors, cultivators, electric fences, bailers, graders, post pounders, dryers, feed bunkers, and electronic monitors.
You cannot tell me you respect farmers while telling me you disrespect the tools and methods they use to make a living.
Second, there is the little matter of labor.
As I noted in an earlier post entitled The Problem Is Not in Our Fields,
If you have food crops that cannot be mechanized (and many crops cannot), then you need a massive labor force that will show up on call and without fail to work in the heat and bugs for 12 hour-days, and for as many days as it takes to bring in the crops.
And then, when the crops are in, you need those people to disappear until they are needed again at a moment's notice (i.e. during that magical three-day window when your fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest at maximum value).
If we get rid of all our corn and soy bean fields, and replace them with locally-grown truck gardens, who is going to pick the lettuce, cabbage, string beans, onions, tomatoes, pumpkins, and zucchini?
Of course, the traditional American answer has been slaves.
We tried indentured servants, but the ungrateful bastards ran away.
We brought in Africans who had a harder time escaping, but Lincoln freed them in 1863.
After that we had to go to the end of the earth to bring in the Chinese and Japanese, but that game ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Asiatic Barred Zone, and the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan, so we brought in Mexicans until that flow was ended (at least for a time) by Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame television documentary in 1964.
So now we have machines in our fields where we can, and illegal aliens where we can't.
There is not much in between: some recent legal immigrants, some refugees, a few college kids, and a few drunks. That about rounds it out.
Is there any wonder305 million to 500 million (and rising!) while we bring back peonage?
Harvest of shame: Foreign labor plants squash in North Carolina, 2005.
Of course, I have not even mentioned organic fruits and vegetables, have I?
Nor have I talked about buying locally-grown produce.
Let's look at the data there.
Across the U.S. we harvested less than 98,000 acres of certified organic fruits and nuts in 2005, the latest year for which there USDA-published data. Of these 98,000 certified organic acres, 57,000 acres were in California
You want to know how many acres of organic fruit were grown in Wendell Berry's home state of Kentucky?
Two acres in 2005! And that's for a state with a population of 4.1 million people.
Of course, much of the rest of the nation is doing too much better.
That same year, Ohio grew only 57 acres of organic fruit, Pennsylvania 42 acres, Louisiana 63 acres, Maryland 16 acres, Alabama 0 acres, New Jersey 50 acres, South Carolina 0 acres, West Virginia 0 acres, Illinois 5 acres, and Delaware 0 acres. Click here to see more state data (Excel spreadsheet).
How about organic vegetables?
Here too, we find rather paltry production, with just 98,000 acres across the U.S., of which 58,000 acres were grown in California.
You want to know how many acres of organic vegetables were grown in Kentucky?
Just 25 acres.
That same year, Ohio had only 581 acres in organic vegetables, Pennsylvania 869 acres, Louisiana 11 acres, Maryland 361 acres, Alabama 4 acres, New Jersey 237 acres, South Carolina 53 acres, West Virginia 63 acres, Illinois 357 acres, and Delaware just one 1 acre. Click here to see more state data (Excel File).
Bottom line: Anyone who thinks America can feed itself on locally-grown, non-mechanized, organically-grown fruits and vegetables is living a rich fantasy life.
To be clear: I am NOT against organic gardening.
As I noted in my very-positive review of Michael Pollan's book, Ominvore's Dilemma, I have been reading Organic Gardening since long before it was cool.
But gardening is not farming.
You do not farm with a trowel and bags of potting soil.
You do not farm by turning over a compost pile with a hoe, or by stirring coffee grounds and banana peels into "night soil" collected from the base of your composting toilet.
I am not against that, but it is not farming. It is gardening.
It is a question of scale.
In a world of 6.7 billion people, you do not put food on everyone's table by watering from a garden hose snaked from a tap.
In America, farming is done with machines, and there is no apology for doing so.
After all, it is only because of machines that the U.S. is able to feed itself.
It is only because of machines that we are a net food exporter.
As the U.S. Department of Commerce notes,
Foods, feeds, and beverages represented $108.4 billion of U.S. exports in 2008, and was the second largest export growth category (end-use) for the U.S., with exports rising $24.2 billion (or 28.7 percent) over 2007. The U.S. trade surplus in foods, feeds, and beverages rose $16.8 billion to reach $19.4 billion in 2008, up from a surplus of $2.6 billion in 2007.
Nothing said here is meant to discourage people from doing more backyard gardening.
And when you garden, please use fewer pesticides and more organic fertilizers.
If you can afford it (and many people can), try to buy foods that have a positive environmental and social agenda woven into their manufacture, whether that is local-grown, organic, or fair-trade.
Try to learn more about modern agricultural methods such as no-till, strip-till, and ridge-till practices, as well as winter cover-crop production, sewage-sludge fertilizer, drip irrigation systems, and mechanical harvesting innovations.
But do not turn your nose up at farm mechanization or overseas agricultural production.
Mechanization is what allows farmers to farm in the United States, and it is what allows old people and poor people to afford food.
If this is a surprise to you, then I suggest going out this next weekend, with shovel in hand, to dig a five foot deep hole in the ground just to see what manual labor feels like. Digging by hand is farming without mechanization.
After you have dug your five-foot-deep hole, I suggest spending a little time with "the Google" so you can discover the average annual income, from all sources, for those age 65+. It is not quite what you think! After paying for rent, gasoline, prescription drugs, clothes, heat, and car maintenance, how is it that these people are supposed to afford $5 tomatoes?
And as for overseas production, it is the only logical alternative to a new slave trade in the United States for crops that cannot yet be mechanically planted and harvested.
Without a doubt, overseas production is the future of organic produce at your grocery store, as the differential cost of manual weed control in Mexico versus the U.S. is $50 per acre as compared to $500 per acre.
The bottom line is this: The idea that there are vast acres of locally-grown, organic, non-mechanically harvested fruits and vegetables in the U.S. is pure fantasy. So too is the notion that America's roadsides are littered with fruit and vegetable stands selling such produce. Yes, go ahead ahead and cultivate an organic garden. But gardening is not farming. If American agriculture is going to be saved, it will be with a tractor and not a hoe.
- Related Links: ** The Problem Is Not In Our Fields
** Wendell Berry's Pipe Dream
** Population Growth and the Limits of Accommodation
** Omnivore's Dilemma (book review)
** How Many Americans?
** The Fox Versus the Stork
** What Would You Give Up to Keep What You Have?
** Immigration to the U.S. 1820-2007