Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The cold, hard facts

I'm knee-deep in The End of Food and, while from what I can tell the very end is going to offer some hope, it is a difficult read because of the subject matter. Every aspect of our food system is so, so broken. None of it is sustainable. We are severely depleting natural resources and there are no viable solutions to keep things running the way they are. When we run out of water to produce grain, what is the alternative to that?

I was looking at these agricultural statistics for Tennessee and can see how our state is being affected by our food system. All these statistics cover changes over a 10 year period, between 1997 and 2007.

The world's meat consumption is steadily rising, a trend that is far from sustainable. Meat, particularly beef, is a highly inefficient use of calories: it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef. In Tennessee, between 1997 and 2007, the number of acres used to grow crops decreased by 1.4 million, while the number of acres used for pasture (i.e. to grow meat) increased by 1.4 million. No surprise, the #1 agricultural commodity is cattle. Meat is becoming a priority.

Globally we are chipping into our non-farming acres, as all immediately arable land is already in use. In Brazil, 8,000 square miles of rainforest are depleted for the sake of farming (typically for poultry or beef production). In America, soil-fragile acres are being put to use, acres that the gov't has paid farmers NOT to use because of the risk of destroying the soil completely. In Tennessee, the number of acres conserved dropped by over 100,000 acres, a 25% decrease.

The good news in all this? Most Tennessee farms are NOT mega farms, which are known for their high costs on the environment due to higher use of pesticides and fertilizers. Tennessee's average farm size is 138 acres. A farm that size can be ecologically sustainable with a "small farm" vibe - our local Delvin Farms is almost 100 acres and is a family enterprise that remains in touch with its customers and the environment, growing quality organic produce.

Is there hope for change? Yes. The average age of a Tennessee farmer is 54, something that will change as folks from our generation (ages 20-30ish) develop a passion for the land. We need to glean knowledge from these farmers who have been working the land since the 50s or 60s. There is a huge gender discrepancy: there are almost 83,000 male farmers, but only 8,500 females. Let's rise up, ladies and young folks of Tennessee!



Doe Run Farm CSA said...

Thank you for your article focusing on the small farms of Tennesse, especially those local farms near Nashville, of which ours (Doe Run Farm CSA)is numbered.

I am one of the female farmers that you mentioned in your article and very proud to be a lady farmer.

Our Certified Organic farm is located about an hour South of Nashville, and our philosophy on farming is that we strive to farm in such a way as to honor the connection of all living things and their dependence on one another. We believe that the Earth does not belong to man, but man belongs to the Earth. Whatever is done to the earth, is done to ourselves, whether helpful or harmful. We believe in doing our part to spread the word about treating the land with respect and reverence, for the health and hope of future generations. When a farm puts this into action, they become an example of sustainability.

justin.owings said...

good job of connecting THE END of FOOD to tennessees ag stats. keep it up!

and thanks Doe Run Farm for reading the blog.

Ryan Fasani said...


I second Justin's comment on making textual connections to local agricultural realities. Thank you.

I challenge you to begin thinking through what "rising up" looks like for the millions of young-farmers-to-be, when we live in a agro-economic system that is inherently against this small-scale "rise". Buying 5 acres, for instance, would triple the debt I've already accrued from school, which is rather enslaving, not liberating.

Thanks for the excellent post.


Kirsten said...

Thanks, Doe Run Farms! It is so good to know that there are women whose passion is farming sustainably. Way to go!

Justin, thanks!

Ryan, I don't have an easy/correct answer to that challenge - but I wonder how much of that issue is a matter of mentality? We are used to the idea of going into debt to buy a house and that has become pretty much the norm, which is great. I wonder if buying land can be seen much the same way, as an investment that is part of your family's well-being, even if it isn't a "for-profit" venture.

I think that land and home ownership could possibly go hand in hand and not only in a rural sense. I've been getting interested in micro-farming and recently watched a video (which I'll post on here soon) about a family in California that produces 3 tons of produce on 1/10th of an acre, which is the average amount of land that a suburban house has. I'd imagine that most houses in Nashville (that aren't RIGHT downtown) probably have at least half of that, since as a city we are fairly spread out.

I'm not sure exactly what all that would look like, or if it would be feasible for the average family, but those are my initial thoughts. Thanks for challenging me! It's good to think through these things and come up with pros and cons.

Kirsten said...

Follow-up: I looked through homes for sale in East Nashville that are under 120k and found that most have lots that are between .2 and .4 acres. The smallest lot I found was .15 acres.

yayyy statistics!