December 1

Another reason to buy from your local farmer


Thomas Friedman writes an opinion piece in today’s New York Times about the ongoing disaster that is the Middle East. He feels that the only way we can solve the problem is to wean ourselves from our oil guzzling ways. He points out that where oil is concerned, they are the pushers and we are the addicts.

We need to end our dependence on this part of the world for energy, because it is debilitating for us and for them. It is terrible for us, because addicts never tell the truth to their pushers. We are the oil addicts and they are the oil pushers. The only way we can be brutally honest with them is if we undertake the necessary conservation measures, investments in renewable fuels and a gasoline tax hike that could make us energy independent.

I do not want my girls to live a world where the difference between a good day and bad day is whether Moktada al-Sadr lets Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, meet with the U.S. president or whether certain Arab regimes alter what their textbooks say about non-Muslims. I wish them all well, but I don’t want them impacting my life and I don’t want to be roiling theirs, and the only reason we are so intertwined now is O-I-L.

Not only would ending our oil addiction protect us from the worst in the Arab-Muslim world, it would help us support the best. These regimes will never reform as long as they enjoy windfall oil profits, which allow them to maintain closed societies with archaic education systems and protected industries that can’t compete globally. The small Persian Gulf state of Bahrain just held its second free election, in which women could vote and run. Bahrain is also the first Arab gulf state to start running out of oil. No accident.

Everyone asks what is our “Plan B” for Iraq. Answer: It’s get out as soon as we can, with the least damage possible, just as Israel got out of Gaza. And then build a wall — not a physical wall, but a wall of energy independence that will enable us to continue to engage honestly with the most progressive Arabs and Muslims on a reform agenda, but without being hostage to the most malevolent.

I agree totally with Friedman’s assessment. But what does this have to do with buying from your local farmer?
Today’s Wall Street Journal had an article about a woman, formerly from Enron, who heads Tyson Foods commodity trading and risk management. The piece (requires subscription) is about her efforts to minimize expenses by being nimble in buying raw materials and energy in the commodities futures market. A graphic that came with the story shows how much energy is used to produce a chicken that you would find in your local supermarket. It’s cleverly written as a recipe.

Heat chicken house to about 60 to 70 degrees using propane, while a breeder flock lays eggs. Using a diesel truck, deliver the eggs to a hatchery. Keep eggs warm for 21 days in an incubator run on electricity and natural gas, until hatched. Transport the chicks in a specially-designed diesel bus to a broiler farm. Keep chicks for about seven weeks in propane-heated houses, starting at 90 degrees. Reduce by five degrees a week until 70 degrees, and maintain that temperature. Ventilate with electric fans. Meanwhile, use electricity and natural gas to power the mill that grinds corn and soybeans into chicken feed. Sprinkle liberally. After seven weeks, load the chickens on an 18-wheel diesel truck and drive to a processing plant. Quickly process the chicken (within about 30 minutes) in an electricity-powered plant. Chill and ship within about six hours of arrival.

Yields about 8,000 broiler chickens.

The bold lettering is in the original graphic and is designed to show the various commodities used in the production of the chicken in our grocers shelves. Notice how much energy is used just in dealing with the chickens directly. That’s not to mention the energy consumed in growing and transporting the corn and soybeans.
Compare this to your local farmer who has a bunch of chickens running around pecking and clucking eating whatever it is that chickens eat. The mother hen sits on the eggs until they hatch and takes care of her own little ones without the need for all propane-heated houses. When the chickens are of age, the farmer kills them, dresses them, and sells them. At least that’s how they did it in the small town in southern Missouri where I grew up. The chicken houses on my grandfather’s farm had neither power nor heat, and he raised plenty of chickens. I assume that’s pretty much how it’s still done in the natural, free-range farming business.
So, buy local. It helps yor neighborly farmer; it helps wean us from Middle Eastern oil; and it tastes a whole lot better.

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  1. Hi Mike,
    Interesting that a multitude of variations of the “Hundred Mile Diet” now exist on the net in response not only for climate change/oil independence related food source selection, but also the desire for connection with your local farmers and better quality, organic and humanely raised produce. Funnily enough, once you start to examine what goes on your plate in this way, for the vast majority this will mean no more bread, pasta, rice … or sugar!! Hmmm, does that sound familiar?
    Hi Malcolm–
    Believe it or not, but until your comment I had never heard of the 100 Mile Diet.  You are right.  Limiting your food to only that grown or produced within a 100 mile radius of where you live would cut down on a lot of bad stuff.
    Thanks for the heads up.

  2. “Chickens running around pecking and clucking eating whatever it is that chickens eat”… “The mother hen sits on the eggs until they hatch”. Come on, that’s how Granma Duck used to do in late 19th century.
    Nowadays, even “small, local” farms are not that different from the “big” ones. The small ones may even use more energy per hen by missing some economies of scale the big farms have.
    I agree completely with the energy dependency issue, but in the chicken thing the author completely missed the mark by depicting a “cartoonic” version of reality. As a chicken farm, the author is an excellent economist.
    Hi Mauro–
    Uh, it may be cartoonish, but that’s how my grandfather raised chickens on his farm when I was a kid.
    See the next comment.

  3. Well, you were talking about regulation in a prior post, and unfortunately that ties into this topic, too. The farm that provides most of our meat is required to take all animals to an approved processing plant which happens to be about 120 miles distant from the farm.
    They can only process what they’re allowed to; the “Mrs.” part of this farming family told me that although they sell duck eggs, there are no processing facilities approved anywhere in the state for the ducks themselves, and they are not allowed to process the ducks on the farm. So I can buy duck eggs but not duck — unfortunately for me!
    The reality of how they operate may not be quite as idyllic as how it was when you were growing up in Missouri. I believe I have heard her talking about getting chicks to raise as either layers or meat chickens. I don’t think they leave reproduction to chance. And I know they don’t sell the layers as meat when they have reached the end of their laying usefulness.
    Still, once the chicks have arrived on their farm, they stay there, run around outside, eat whatever chickens eat, and then are transported minimally: to and from the processing facility and then to the farmers’ market, where I gratefully buy as much as will fit in my freezer. Still uses less oil or other resources than a chicken that came from who-knows-where.
    Thanks for an interesting post as usual! –Anne
    Hi Anne–
    A chicken that comes from down the street has got to result in less oil use than a chicken that comes from the other side of the country.
    This whole idea of ‘approved processing plants’ is idiocy foisted off by our friends at the USDA.  Once the local food movement really gets going, someone, somewhere will have the political clout to get the regulations changed.  Or, I suppose, we could do like a lot of farmers do who let people come onto their farms and pick there own.  They could make facilities available, let us purchase ducks on the hoof (or on the web?), and process them ourselves.  Would probably not work for the squeamish, but I think it’s a good idea for people to see where their food really comes from.

  4. Have you ever prepared a chicken or duck from “cluck to pot”? It’s not trivial work, and most urbanized people have no idea how to do it safely (no contaminated meat). My grandfather taught me how to properly clean ducks, chickens, and rabbits (and by extension, anything with feathers and furry critters small enough to handle). It’s a lot of work and very time consuming, although you really appreciate the meal you get. Just don’t get emotionally attached to your food source!
    Hi Martha–
    It is indeed time consuming to prepare from “cluck to pot,” and I can’t say as I’ve actually done it with any kind of fowl.  I’ve watched my grandmother do it a thousand times.  I have cleaned plenty of squirrels and rabbits, however.  It’s not as much work since you don’t have to get rid of the feathers.
    Thanks for the comment.

  5. I am a big fan of eggs, as I am sure many readers are. I have been looking into raising my own “layers” here in Mass. I doubt the weather is appropriate though and I would have to heat one of my sheds for them. I can easily get whole organic birds at my local megamart, as well as breast meat. Does anyone know of a good resource (book or website) for raising birds for self use, my grandma came over on a boat so no one could teach me.
    I also had never heard of the 100 Mile Diet and love the idea.
    Keep up the good work!
    Hi Dave–
    I don’t know of any resources, but I’ll throw up your comment for others to comment on.  Surely someone out there can help you out.

  6. I’m sure many people who read this blog have at least perused Michael Pollan’s “An Omnivore’s Dilemma”. All our agricultural industries are petroleum based, and it will be a major undertaking to change it, as change it we must.
    If we were to run out of petroleum tomorrow, we would all starve, as our system of supermarkets would have no way to replenish once they run out. Fresh products would be the first to dissappear, and canned goods would not be able to be transported either, after having sold out. Frozen would rot along with the fresh after thawing since our homes would not have power, and anybody with a generator would only last as long as their stockpile of fuel…and so on. Oh, and does everyone realize that plumbing and fresh tap water would fail after the sewage plants ran out of power?
    Thomas Freidman is an incredible twit. He may get it right verrrrrry occasionally, but he is one of those who painted the future of Iraq and the Middle East with a rosy glow, based on the fumes emanating from his imagination and the misinformation of the current adminstration, which he didn’t bother to verify with hardcore, non-corporate journalists, who all would have told him RIGHT AT THAT TIME that he was full of cowplop. I’m tired of opinion columnists who don’t know to check their facts before formulating an opinion and foisting their blither on an unsuspecting american citizenry. All corporate owned papers are full of them.
    I knew from the very outset that the war and subsequent goals were all a crock, simply because I know who the real journalists are and read the info. Every bad outcome that these journalists extrapolated would happen has.. and more.
    Hi LCforevah–
    You’re right.  Thomas Friedman was, like John Kerry, for the war then against the war.  He first came out saying what a wonderful thing it would be to create a democracy in Iraq and what an opportunity we had to do so.  Now, you would never know he once had those delusions.  I don’t think, however, that he is much of a fan of the current administration.
    And you’re also right about what would happen were we to run out of fuel overnight.  It would be an unmitigated disaster.  That’s why rational people would like to see great strides made quickly to wean ourselves from Middle Eastern oil, which is one of the (verrrrry occasional) ways in which Friedman has been right.  He’s been recommending that strategy for ages.  I count his refusal to push for an alternative fuel one of the major failings of the Bush administration.

  7. local != earth-friendly
    The *only* benefit you *necessarily* get from buying foods locally is that the food has not been trucked about, saving transportation costs. It still may have been raised crappily though. Local to me are some chicken factory farms raising chickens just like the description given above. also local to me is a feedlot where the cattle are kept in barns year-round and the surrounding fields grow corn which is hauled into them. The animals live in little kennels the first few months of life so as not to waste space in the production barn; once they get into the production barn, they live in manure up to their knees the rest of their lives. Driving by on the road, you can barely avoid gagging.
    The real benefit to local is you can *know* how your food was raised. Like I *know* not to buy beef from that feedlot or chickens from the batteries.
    *Also* local to me is a guy who’s been raising grass-fed beef for decades and won awards for it and such. In fact, he’s just a couple miles away, but I didn’t know he was there! I found out online. Click here for a good source for finding local farmers.
    Aside from generic discussions of buying from local farmers, I want to add a plug for CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Local Harvest also has lists of CSAs and I am going to preach about CSAs for a moment because it’s something I do. I don’t run one, and I raise most of my produce myself being a major gardening type person so I don’t buy from one, but for those who aren’t into gardening, CSAs are a great way to buy the majority of your produce.
    Basically, a CSA works on a subscription basis, you pay a farmer so much for a subscription and you get a basket of food throughout the local growing season. Various CSAs are organic or just “natural” (not springing for the cost of organic certification), etc. How many weeks you get the basket depends on the growing season where you live, and if a particular CSA extends the season with greenhouses and coldframes and such,
    Getting a big basket of fruits and vegetables that you have to use up before the next delivery does *wonders* for one’s diet in health terms. And because the food is in season, it’s also much more scrumptious than a diet based on grocery store purchases. There is just no down-side at all!
    Some CSAs offer “extras” such as eggs, meat, cheese and butter, etc. as well as the basic produce basket. Sometimes it’s stuff they raise themselves and sometimes they are marketing for neighbor farmers.
    Many CSAs have newsletters or on-farm events for their subscribers so you can “be a part of it” even if you don’t own a single square foot of gardening space. Some CSAs allow you a discount on your subscription if you volunteer on the farm.
    There *is* a CSA near you, even if you live in the city. I live very rurally, but one of the larger CSAs near me does weekly deliveries to Philadelphia.
    Basically, if you can’t raise it yourself, a CSA is the next best thing. You can pretty much get fresh, wholesome produce anywhere from 4-9 months of the year… and if you’re into preserving, you can buy extra to put up for when the CSA is not producing.
    P.S. For the poster who wants eggs in MA, check out the Dominique breed. This bird was raised by pioneers because it could overwinter without shelter. We raised them for several years and they not only provide eggs, but go broody and raise their own chicks, so produce meat as well. We began with 40 day-old hatchlings and raised all our own eggs and chicken meat for several years. I used Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia for reference when I began; it was quite sufficient info. WARNING: Butchering is not fun. Knowing the animal you’re eating had both a good life and a good death is worth something though.
    Hi jpatti–
    Thanks for writing and thanks for the link to Local Harvest. I’m more than happy to let you put out the word for CSAs on this site.

  8. Last week’s Economist magazine (Jan 13th, “Bagdad or Bust”) has its whole reader’s letter section dedicated to the article I mentioned before. It seems that the subject is highly controversial.
    Some quotes:
    “Recent research by Danish and American scientists suggests that if all agriculture was organic, the slight decrease in yields in the northern hemisphere would be more than matched by overall increases elsewhere, leading to a slight increase in total food production”
    “Ethically minded consumers can best save the planet by avoiding meat, the process of which, such as providing food for livestock, uses energy and resources”
    “By exaggerating the social and environmental benefits of ethical production they provide some much-needed balance to big food and drink companies, which have shown remarkably little leadership on such critical social issues as consumer health and global warming”
    “Have you considered that people might buy local strawberries because there is a better chance that they will taste like strawberries and not like cucumbers?”
    “It is not clear to me why anyone needs to eat a tomato in winter, whether it is from Spain or from a local greenhouse”
    “The smallest garden or patio full of vegetable pots can produce enough to supplement food bought at a supermarket”
    Hi Mauro–
    Controversial, indeed. 
    Here’s a link to a post in a blog I read from time to time.  The Economist article got a lot of people worked up.

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