Thursday, July 30, 2009

Organic and Local Farming by the Numbers

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.


Jonathan Setter said...

TRUTH hurts doesn't it? facts and figures always make things more clear though, and only by living in reality are we going to improve things on this planet.

Down here, we are trying to make SA a food exporter, with many obstacles to be overcome, firstly our own self sufficiency.

As for the 5 foot hole, no problem with me, just as long as my terrier is at the bottom making a noise. I wish it was the weekend already.

keep it coming Pat.

Jonathan CT

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you don't see roadside produce stands in Virginia. They're pretty common - though obviously quite seasonal - here in SE Minnesota.

The small deli where I get meat has a small produce stand in the parking lot. Farmers along many backroads have stands set up on the honor system. Produce is left out, prices are posted, shoppers take what they want and drop cash in the slot. Most of these products aren't produced on mechanically managed acreage - they come from large rural gardens. In sweet corn season (starting now!) farm kids sit at the roadside with pickup beds full of freshly harvested corn for sale. Nom!

Just south of the Twin Cities there are large produce farms operated by Mung immigrants. They supply a wide array of produce to local farmer's markets.

We've also got lots of local berry farms, sugar bushes and orchards. A few hardy souls even operate vineyards.

Not much of this is organic (heck my own garden isn't completely organic) and the corn is all mechanically tilled and planted - but it is fresh and it is locally produced. There's also a wider variety of cultivars available than one sees in even botique grocery stores.

Even if they aren't terribly important on an economic scale, IMO local gardens, truck farms and orchards are a vital repository for genetic diversity.

Sean said...


Not sure if you have seen the book the $64 Tomato. Here is the NPR article on it.

PBurns said...

I think a $64 tomato sounds about right. After all, there's the cost of the pressure-treated landscaping, the rental of the roto-tiller, the cost of the seed, the cages and trellises, the water, the spray, the twine, the growing flats, the seed heater, the peat starter plugs, the cold frames ... it can go quite a ways.

Nothing wrong with a very expensive tomato -- I've grown a few myself. But, as the book says, the point is not about food. It's about gardening. Food is about farming. Gardening is about something else. It's a GOOD something, but it makes for very expensive produce.


Matt Mullenix said...

Jake: [fakes accent] How much for the little girl? How much for the women?

Father: What?

Jake: Your women. I want to buy your women. The little girl, your daughters... sell them to me. Sell me your children.

PBurns said...

We have exactly the same kind of stands in Virgina you describe Smartdogs: a few rare roadside stands that fall into the following 3 catagories:

1. Anemic-looking culls from a large family garden, with limited selection or amount (put cash in slot if no one is there);

2. A single product that is available in vast quantities (usually apples around here, but sometimes melons), and;

3) The rare "permanent stand" that has decent amounts and variety of stuff, but which is mostly a marketing ploy made up of repackaging fruits and vegetables from far away (including California and Mexico). As far as I can see, this is different from the local supermarket only in its rural setting and paucity of locations. My wife likes them because it *feels* like the country, but look carefully at the field you were driving by for the last 2 hours, and then look for labels. Too often is is a fraud.


Unknown said...

We have come to believe that inexpensive beef and year-round, citrus are, if not constitutional rights, then at least reasonable expectations; they are not. The hidden, subsidized, and delayed environmental, health, and economic costs make the modern American supermarket akin to the statues on Easter Island: an impressive distraction from crumbling ecological infrastructure.

PBurns said...

Of course it could be that there are no hidden and delayed environmental, health, and economic costs, and/or that they are declining. After all, here in the U.S. the data shows that we are living longer, our rivers are getting cleaner, our air is getting cleaner, we are planting more trees than we are harvesting, and wildlife is roaring back.

More and more land is lying fallow because we are producing more and more from fewer acres. Food is cheaper, vitamin deficiency is rare, child labor has ended, and old folks have government health care. As for Easter Island, last I looked it has three Internet cafes! True -- look it up.


Rocambole said...

Due to the USDA certified organic label, there are lots of us that can't use the words "organic" anymore because we don't want to go through the paperwork (which is extensive). Our community garden's name is grandfathered it, but if I end up getting my own land, I won't bother to register either.

Personally, I never found a certifiying agency that had 100% practices that I agreed with, so I've gone with what many of us in PA do -- I grow what I grow and encourage people to ask me about my practices.

For instance, I could "lose" my certification (if I had it) simply by using ProMix as part of my seed-starting mix because it contains a tiny amount of petroleum-based wetting agent. I don't do ANYTHING else that "violates" the USDA certified organic code, but it so enrages me that I, like many others (I don't know anyone in Seed Savers Exchange who doesn't use ProMix -- and these are the top seed people in the country) that I won't participate. But in all other respects, I'm what USDA would consider "organic."

Virginia has such a great climate (you guys can grow figs reliably!) that it's blowing my mind that you can't find "grower-only" farmer's market (here in Chester and Montgomery Counties, almost all the larger cities and borough have them) and "only what we grow" farm stands with high-quality produce. Even Philadelphia is gaining forward in being able to supply its own low-income residents AND high-end restaurants.

Rather than digging a 5 foot hole (I only do such a thing when making composting pits in the fall for winter), you should suggest create a 3 foot wide by 5 foot long raised bed -- that's a little more accurate about the labor that's involved. And you don't really need to timber the bed out -- that's more for a garden where people are watching than for production (where even in organic farms, people use row cropping.)


Anonymous said...

Um Patrick - fortunately for me, I don't think the stands here are quite like yours. The produce is fresh, not crappy "culls" and while the selection is obviously limited - it still often includes things not available in stores (heirloom tomatoes etc.).

The only place I've seen stands with repackaged store goods is at the farmer's markets (sadly including the small one here in town) and to someone like me who grows and knows produce - they stand out like sore, brown thumbs.

Maybe the higher land prices in the DC area are a factor?

BTW there are also a lot of places to get relatively inexpensive pasture raised beef, pork, lamb and chicken here. In a couple of months my freezers will be filled with meat I've met.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Responding to the same data, Rod Dreher at "The Crunchy Conservative" points out that the organic movement is about more than nutrition.

I tend to agree. I'm in it for the critters.