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    Can ProFood and "Conventional" Agriculture co-exist?


    Given the fact that there has been a vital shift in the amount of knowledge consumers are demanding from agriculture, as well as a focus on the "how" of food production, I believe we need to adress the question: Can the ProFood movement co-exist with "conventional" agriculture? In short, I say yes, of course it can!


    The first thing we need to do is divorce the connection between industrial agriculture and conventional agriculture. This may be a difficult task given the history of agriculture, but it is imperative we, as a society, make this happen. I work in agriculture, obviously, but do not farm. I spend a great deal of time with farmers and respect what they do and why they do it. There is a 100% garauntee that the family farms (of ALL sizes) that I work with are good stewards of the environment, focus on the welfare of their animals, and take very seriously the notion that "we are feeding the world". For this, we should all be thankful and provide our support for farmers. Now, are there some bad apples (no pun intended) out there? Absolutely! I reject the idea that these bad apples are the norm. Maybe that is my tendency as an eternal optimist coming out? So be it then! By lumping all these "conventional" farmers together with the current definition of industrial farming, we are doing a dis-service to the very many hard working farming families across our country. The vast majority of conventional farmers ARE NOT growing as much as they can with total dis-regard to the soil and the natural resources Mother Nature has blessed us with.


    So back to the orginal question and my position of Yes. The ProFood movement is compromised of very educated consumers. In our country, change can only take place if it is driven by the consumer; the essence of a free market system. We in agriculture can, and should engage in this movement. To be frank, ProFood can learn from farmers who have been growing our food for many years. There is no amount of researching and education that can replace the knowledge of experience. Another reason we in agriculture need to engage is so we can propogate the innovations and technological advancements that have been made in production agriculture. These advancements have led to reduced chemical use, sustainable processes, and reduced water use, to name a few. Is this not a stepping stone in the ProFood ideals?

    It is my position that conventional and sustainble will ultimately converge; once the economics become viable, and they are not now. By design, sustainable agriculture is closely related to organic methodologies. The tenents of organic growing require a shift in the labor required to produce crops. Technology is adopted on a limited basis in organic agriculture. Couple this with the fact that our population shows zero signs of decreasing. To the contrary, we have had rapid expansion in our population. I am not convinced that ProFood can sustain this rapid expansion; at least not in it's current form. On that note, it should be noted that conventional agriculture will also have to adapt, and has been for many years.

    There is room for all types of farmers in the agricultural space. Each has a place and provides the food we require to sustain life. As we continue to engage in fruitful conversation about the growing of our food, it would do us all good to remember that a "conventional" farmer should not be associated with the negative connotaions of "industrial" agriculture. It is due to their hard work and determination that our country has flourished. We are all looking for better ways to produce our food.

    Please stay tuned for more in depth posts touching on the agri-supply chain.




    12 comments:

    1. I appreciate this post, Nate, and I'm going to show you the respect of a completely truthful, honest answer, even though I'm afraid you might not like it.

      I do not believe there is any way for a ProFood movement embracing sustainable, regional food systems to also embrace and support so-called conventional ag. And as often as I see 'conventional' farmers also claim to be sustainable, I have to call bull-hockey.

      I live on the Delmarva Penninsula in Sussex County, Delaware. We push 600 million chickens through per year on this little 300km x 100km strip of land. We grow hundreds of thousands of acres of corn and soy to feed those chickens and still have to import more. We're home to Perdue, Allen, Mountaire and Tyson plants.

      The result? Our wells are poisoned with unsafe levels of nitrates (1 in 3 in this county). Our ponds and streams are contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and blue-green algae. The pond where my dad taught me to fish is now so choked with algae, duckweed and cabomba from the levels of nutrient pollution that it has become a giant, stinking dead-zone. There are signs posted at popular fishing spots warning us against eating the fish we catch because of the bacteria levels in the water. This is NOT the land I grew up in! This is NOT the land that my ancestors cherished. This is NOT the land they farmed.

      According to the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, agriculture the way we are currently practicing it is the number one reason for this pollution in the watershed. This isn't bias on my part. These are government and non-profit organizations commisionning study after study on the fact.

      This is NOT sustainability, it cannot be. This is ruinous and my home has become a sacrifice zone, a toxic pollution dump, so that Americans, who have tripled their per capita chicken consumption in the last 30 years, can have their Buffalo wings on SuperBowl Sunday without having to deal with the million-bird chicken farms in their own backyard.

      By asking that ProFood and conventional ag co-exist, you are asking that I accept the status quo, that I accept living with the pollution, and that I accept the destruction of my ancestral home. I cannot do that. I can and will continue to fight for a way of producing the food that we need in a way that is gentler on the ecosystem and the human population and I don't see that the status quo system, the one I am surrounded by every time I open my front door, has any place in that fight.

      I will go further, and probably anger a lot of people, by saying that I do not believe that farming and farmers are too sacred a cow to criticize. While I firmly believe that by far the bulk of blame for this messed up food system lies on the shoulders of the billion dollar corporations pushing their agendas here in rural America, the farmer himself cannot entirely escape responsibility. Farmers may have a love for the land and for agriculture, but they are not super-humanly kind or benevolent. They are as much motivated by economics as any of us, and if it comes down to putting food on their own tables or going against Tyson's wishes and losing a contract, you can guess where their decision will fall. The path of good land stewardship is often intersected by the road of financial reality, and that is something that absolutely must change.

      Whoa, that was a book already. I still have a lot more to say, but maybe I'll just save it for another time. Thanks again, Nate, for putting this post out there. I know we don't always agree, but I hope we can always have a good discussion.

    1. Joya,

      Many thanks for your candor. To begin at the end, I assure you we can always have a good discussion.

      Back to the beginning: I am dreadfully sorry your dwelling place has been compromised and affected by pollution. We all should continue to fight to stop those practices.

      My position has not been swayed in regards to farmers, as I am sure you know. It seems that the "fight" you are talking about really isn't with the farmer. I say this because Tyson, or any other company for that matter, controls what a farmer does to produce their crop. I am strictly speaking of row crops here for this example. Tyson doesn't dictate whether or not a farmer uses a certain tillage practice. The farmer chooses whether or not to go no-till, strip-till, or any other approach. Large companies also don't dictate the adoption of precision technologies. This is solely at the feet of the farmer, and I believe that there are more of the good than the bad.

      I am not asserting that we accept the status quo Joya. The status quo, to your point, isn't sustainable.....in any endeavor. We should work towards advancing awareness of agriculture, taking part if Food Policy, and getting better at what we do.

      I leave you with a situation wanting feedback. I farm 6000 acres of corn, tomatoes, wheat, and soybeans. I utilize the latest and greatest in precision technologies so as to reduce my input costs and the impacts on the environment. I utilize Swathpro and VRT as well as Strip-Till. What am I doing that is wrong?

    1. Nate, as the General Manager of A1organics in Eaton, Colorado. Organic can exist alongside commercial and do that with exceptional results. A1organics supplies some of the largest and most technological advanced farmers in Weld County. These commercial growers utilize this compost along side and in conjunction with their commercial program for very good results.

    1. Nate, without knowing the specifics of your 6000 acres and business/cash flow challenges, I'll ask a question in return: Would the better farmers prefer producing ingredients to be used in a packaged goods product such as a bun for McDonald's or ketchup, or growing food or "minimally processed" food, and why. All this debate about whether organics are "better" for you than conventional etc. strike me as specious, we are asking the wrong questions. Let's just say for the sake of argument that whole, fresh (meaning ripe) and minimally processed foods not only taste better but are also better for us, the environment, livestock, plants... what can we entrepreneurs or consumers do to provide an incentive, financial or otherwise, to you and others to move in this direction?

    1. Just my two cents, but....

      If consumers are serious about changing impacts to the environment from agriculture or the obesity epidemic or whatever vision drives you, then they should focus on the food manufacturers & retailers rather than the growers or farmers themselves. The only result of dictating to farmers directly tends to end in alienation and despise of a noble idea.

      I speak for myself, of course, as a food manufacturer, farmer, and retailer/wholesaler. But here goes….all based on my region, my field of expertise, and my personal and business experience.

      The consumer has the ultimate power. Yes, the consumer. Advertising only goes so far. Argue if you will, but this is what I know from actual experience selling to the consumer. You may be able to get a consumer to purchase an item once, but if the product doesn’t appeal to them you won’t be selling it to them twice. So, YES…the consumer is the driving force. The retailer purchases from the distributor what the consumer will buy. The distributor purchases from the food manufacturer what the retailer will buy and the food manufacturer purchases from the grower what the distributor will buy. Our business focuses solely on making a lifetime customer rather than a one time sale. (continued…)

    1. A little background….we have had our own “custom exempt” livestock/game processing facility in Kentucky since 1986. To go back a little further, John grew up with a knife in his hand in South Haven Michigan working under his father and his father working under his father, etc… You get the idea, he is a generational artisan meat cutter. Me, I was a farmer, am a farmer, and will continue to be a farmer. My childhood was spent in the fields, gardens, in the yard picking fruits, in the kitchen canning & preserving for winter, etc… From dairy, to beef cattle, to goat & sheep, to commodities of corn, tobacco, etc… I was and am a small rural farmer. But, I am also a mother, a daughter, and now a grandmother. I was absolutely disgusted with the meat choices in my neighborhood grocery. We as a family had had enough but also had the means, experience, expertise, money & balls to change it. So we did. In 2003, we went from a part-time farmer based custom processing NOT FOR SALE sideline biz to a full blown USDA livestock slaughter/fabricating/further processing/value added and food manufacturing, retail/wholesale full time business. It was a leap of faith, sinking millions on the sole basis that the consumer wanted something different. The business has consumed our lives, but continues to grow each and every year. It is a blessing and our customers are a blessing. This was a consumer driven venture and without them we would have failed terribly. Luckily, they did in fact want change. However, their reason for wanting change was a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t that they could know and meet the farmer, or even that they were supporting local agriculture. It was us and the taste we gave back to them. We were solely consumer driven. They jumped onto the fact that they were physically standing in front of and talking directly to the very two people who were preparing their meats or other food products that they would be using to prepare their meal and they were ecstatic about it. We meet and greet each individual customer personally. We know their names, we know what they like and better yet, what they don’t. They directly changed our recipes by their suggestions. The consumer is the driving force behind our success and is the very reason we continue to grow each and every year. We owe them a great debt of gratitude and continue to offer then exactly what they want and educate them on things they are confused about in the marketplace.

      Now with that said, we do not raise every type of meat animal in existence and even if we did we needed other livestock farmers to fill demands. Luckily, our livestock processing customers are loyal. We had years of knowledge of the types of livestock they brought in for processing and we knew just exactly which farmers were RIGHT for the type of meats we wanted to offer to the public. Now, question was how to we get them on board. Our state is notorious for shipping feeder cattle, other livestock etc…to the cornbelt. We are the largest beef producing state east of the Mississippi river and our facility and farm is dead center of Kentucky’s cattle country. Location to the agriculture was on our side. Also on our side was our reputation as meat cutters. Our customers appreciated our work, paid a little extra for a better job. But, how would we steer them from the typically livestock auction. It was fairly simple, we treated them with respect and more importantly we paid them more for what we wanted (which in turn, was what the consumer wanted). Do you see where I’m going here? The consumer changed the status quo in our area we just facilitated it. It’s not easy being a producer/farmer for our business. We want what we want and we don’t back down from that, but actually we want what the consumer wants. What will they buy? That’s what I want my fellow livestock producers to raise. (continued....)

    1. The lesson here, perhaps Profood should change their methods (Not to mention their tag name, in my opinion of course..but it really annoys me. I mean aren’t we all Profood? Just sayin’). Give the farmers a market for the type of products you want them to produce and many will follow. Nobody grows what nobody will buy and sustain. All in all, the agricultural community is the most noble and hardworking community in our nation. They are the backbone. You may dispute this all you want, but my experience living in the heart of rural America tells a different story. Moving away from criticism of agriculture as a general rule and focusing attention on creating food manufacturing businesses such as ours that is conscious of what the consumer needs and wants will give them the agricultural community a reason to change.

      Okay, so maybe that was a $1’s worth. I had more to say than I thought.

      Amy @KyFarmersMatter

    1. Glen,

      Thanks for posting and sharing information about your business. I perused your website and like your approach to providing products and services. I am a big fan of higher quality "stuff". Do you provide your product nationwide? If so, have you generated a strong customer following outside of CO? Thanks again for reading and providing feedback. I do appreciate it.

      NJT

    1. Good exchange!

      I think until all participants in the global 'food' discussion, reckon with the fact that conventional agriculture is totally dependent on petroleum and that the end of cheap oil is here - the 'debates' go nowhere.

      Consumers will not have a choice between chemical/bio tech corporate ag and TRADITIONAL ag - because all that will be left is traditional and local agriculture.

      The tomato dependent on much travel, heated greenhouses, and petroleum based fertilizer will simply become too expensive for the consumer.

      I hear very few people on any side of the discussions reckoning with this simple fact.

      It IS time we turn away from old lines in the sand and note - That THAT was then, and this is now.

      With great affection to all with dirty fingernails!

      LizM from hyperlocavore.com

    1. Also - folks might be interested:

      The Council on Responsible Genetics
      Genetic Crops Myths

      http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/GeneWatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=70&archive=yes

    1. Amy,

      Wonderful comment(s)! I think it re-iterates the point I made earlier about divorcing the Industrial term with the conventional term. Maybe then people can focus on the piece of the food supply chain that needs the most work. Congrats on the migration to a full time food small business. In my view, it is companies like your that are going to assist in developing local food supply chains that support local communities. When I moved to New York, Great Neck on Long Island to be exact, for college, the personal interaction disappeared in my transactions. Where I was raised in Tin Top, Texas, the personal interaction was everything! Best of luck in your endeavor. Are you anywhere near Louisville? I will be out there for the National Farm Machinery show....would love to try some of your beef!

    1. Liz,

      Thanks for the feedback. I do agree that conventional agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels; however, we will progress. Who's to say we won't have autonomous vehicles operating on solar power doing the same, if not more work? To some this may sound like I am on the Enterprise asking in a frantic voice "scotty beam me up", but this isn't so far fetched. I say this because conventional is just conventional during it's time, and to think conventional agriculture will remain static just doesn't add up. Like I say, we will progress. In my personal view, there will be a time when big isn't what make sense. Big is part of the reason smaller farms cannot adopt leading edge technologies. If you have 30 acres of corn & soybeans, the likelihood you drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on a combine is slim to none. It just doesn't compute on the balance sheet. Once technology becomes smaller we will start to see more adoption on the smaller farm level. This, in my view, will really help sustain local economies.....just my view though.

      Thank you for growing our food and supporting your local community.

      NJT

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    Agriculture passionado! I lead GeoVantage's Sales, Marketing, and Business Development activities. If you haven't explored the benefit of remote sensing for production agriculture, now is the time! Not one to rest, I am also a part of the Memes Associates team where we focus on assisting large companies in the agriculture space to "re-discover their inner entrepreneur" through the introduction of market disrupting technology(s) and services.  

    Have questions about agriculture and technology in agriculture? Ask away! 


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