Monday, February 28, 2011

Why I Wish More People Could Meet Farmers

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 2/28/11.  For links to all my posts click here)
The other day I made a comment on a blog post that had quoted an article I wrote about the surprisingly tiny scale of Organic farming.  In describing "conventional agriculture," that author had used the term "chemical laden farming," which I pointed out was misleading considering the  USDA data which documents how miniscule chemical residues actually are on our food.  Someone else responded to that comment, saying that it is "sad that farmers today are more into the 'easy money' sort of farming and not being concerned with the benefits of their products."    As someone who has been deeply involved in agriculture since 1977, it makes me angry to see someone making such an unfair assertion about the farming community.  It also makes me sad that, not just this person, but a great many others, have never had the opportunity to know farmers or to understand the challenges that they face to provide us with food.   Their vitriol can only spring from a lack of real perspective.


Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention in St. Catherine's, Southern Ontario.  This is a region with a highly diversified fruit, vegetable and wine industry.  Most of the farms are relatively small scale and at least part of their production is sold directly at farm stands.  These farmers really fit the image of what most "food movement" non-farmers would imagine as the ideal - except for one thing.  They use pesticides.
People lacking knowledge of farming imagine that pesticides are somehow unnecessary. Without controls for insects, diseases and weeds, crop production is greatly diminished. Most people don't realize that the Organic farmers of Ontario (or anywhere)  also use pesticides for the same reasons, and that the ones they are allowed to use arenot all as safe as many of the ones that the conventional growers use.

Farmer's Reality

I wish the armchair food critics could have heard the sort of talks that were being given to growers in Ontario last week:  presentations on how to manage perennial insect and disease threats even as certain older pesticide products are being discontinued.  Presentations about entirely new pests that have recently arrived in the province for the first time.  Presentations about progress of getting regulatory approval for new pest control products which will not only help control the crop damage, but which can do so withless risk to the environment and to us.
I wish people could see how complex  all of this becomes for the growers who need meetings like this to keep up-to-speed with changing and intensive regulatory restrictions, new product options, and the need to prevent the development of pest resistance to critical tools.  No one who actually heard these talks could imagine that any grower has chosen the "easy money."
Of course pest control is only one challenge for growers.  They need to manage fertility, soil quality, and weather extremes.  They need to keep up with new plant varieties and changes in consumer trends.  They have to make key decisions about marketing strategy.  They have to find laborers who are willing and able to do the demanding and skilled work (something that is increasingly difficult).

Farmers Are People

It would be great if more people understood just how difficult it is to farm, but even better if they met the kind of people who do this.  I always enjoy talking with farmers.  Whether it is in Southern Ontario, the vineyards of California, The Corn Belt, the High Plains, the isolated farming valleys in Colorado, Eastern Washington, banana plantations in Ecuador and Costa Rica, or the vineyards of Italy - everywhere I have had the privilege to meet growers, I find them to be great people.  They are highly knowledgeable, responsible,  open to new information and innovative.  They tend to have a great sense of humor and an intrinsic optimism to get them through the inevitable ups and downs of farming.  They are just pleasant, unpretentious people.
I wish more people knew farmers.  If they did, I'm convinced that they wouldn't be so receptive to the widespread demonization of modern agriculture.  It is always easier to demonize something faceless because once you see the real people involved, such harsh judgmentalism is hard to sustain.
You are welcome to comment here or to write me at
Great Lakes farms image from Dsearles photostream

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How To Make Fresh Produce Production More Sustainable? Actually Eat It!

(This post originally appeared on "Red Green and Blue" on 10/20/10.  I'm going to be giving a talk next week to the Ontario fruit and vegetable growers on this subject.  These are some of the points that I will be making.  For a full list of links to my blogs on various sites click here)
There are lots of well intended efforts underway to increase the "sustainability" of fresh fruit and vegetable production.  This includes a recent announcement from Wal-Mart saying that they want to use their influence in the market to drive positive change.
All these efforts focus on how efficiently farmers use land, fertilizer, fuel, electricity, water and pesticides.  While those things are certainly important, there is a another critical dimension that is unique to the sustainability of perishable commodities: whether they ever get eaten.
For a variety of reasons, crops that already generated environmental footprints (carbon emissions, energy, water, land, labor...) never end up being consumed by people to get the health and diet benefits that justify growing them in the first place.  There is certainly nothing "sustainable" about that.  Correcting these issues is really the "low hanging fruit" when it comes to increasing the sustainability of this sector.  I'll describe some of the major reasons for this sort of waste.

False Quality

Everyone has had the experience of buying something like table grapes that look really good, and then finding that they are not actually sweet at all. They then tend to sit in the refrigerator until mold gives you the excuse to get rid of them (hopefully not to the landfill!).
This happens because of a very basic problem for fruit marketing as practiced today. The grower gets the best prices at the beginning of the season when supply is scarce and quality is low. By the time the quality is there, the market gets swamped, the price drops, and the grower is lucky to break even.
Fixing this would require a different sort of contracting process (not opportunistic buying) and institution of higher taste quality standards.  A cooperative packer/retailer partnership could address this sustainability issue.  Tell your grocer you wish they would set higher sugar standards and work with their suppliers to make that work economically for them.

Extreme Cosmetic Standards

There is an old saying that produce is sold by appearance, not flavor.  For example, the price that a farmer gets for apples depends on color, size and shape.
There are lots of apples that are perfectly good in terms of flavor and nutrition, but they are small, slightly misshapen, or otherwise fail to meet purely cosmetic standards.  Some of those apples end up in extremely low value and reduced nutrition uses like juice, sauce or sweeteners (all markets which have been completely under-cut by Chinese imports).
It would take a change of attitude/practice by retailers and consumers (and actually in USDA standards), but we could be making a more sustainable use of this fruit.  We could probably lower the overall price and increase consumption.  Tell your grocer you would be willing to buy "ugly" fruit or vegetables so they don't have to be wasted.

Mishandling In The Distribution Chain

Have you ever bitten into a beautiful looking peach only to find it mealy and tasteless?  That is because somewhere between the grower and you it was held at a "killing temperature," around 50° F.
This often happens in distribution centers or the back of the grocery store where there is a compromise to deal with fruits and vegetable that actually have very different needs for ideal storage.
Selling ruined fruit is certainly not a"sustainable practice"  Tell you grocer that you want "conditioned" stone fruit that has been kept at the right temperatures.

Failed Pest Control

Many people assume that the most sustainable produce would be that grown with the fewest pesticides.  In fact, farmers already have strong cost incentives to only use pesticides as needed.
Organic growers use pesticides as well, and some of their options are less desirable than modern synthetic options.  Sometimes pest outbreaks get out of control and there is enough damage that it isn't even worth harvesting the field.  All the resources used up to that point are just wasted, but harvesting costs are avoided (often the most expensive single step).
This is actually more common on Organic farms because the list of natural product pesticide options is limited (by philosophy, not objective safety).  Organic produce also has a higher rate of "shrink" in distribution and in the store (mold...).
There is nothing particularly sustainable about feeding insects and fungi after investing farming inputs.  Pesticides are often the way that all the other resource investments in a crop are protected.


If we are going to demand that farmers grow fresh produce in a sustainable way, it is only fair that we consider what complimentary changes can be made in the rest of the food chain and also by consumers.  Some fresh produce is always going to be lost - it is a "perishable" commodity.  But there are some very significant sources of waste that could be reduced.
"Sustainable produce" isn't just the responsibility of the farmer - its really up to everyone involved in marketing it, and everyone who wants to benefit from this healthy and delightful category of food.
You are welcome to comment here or to email me at
(Asian pear image from Steve Savage)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rising Global Food Prices. Why You Should Care

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog 2/14/11.  Click here for links to all my posts on various sites)
The chart above shows that global food prices, as measured by the FAO indicies, are spiking, much as they did in 2008.  At the end of January,  the overall food price index had just surpassed the 2008/9 peak, while the indicies for dairy, cereals and oils were closing in on the previous maximum.  The meat price index  is moving up much more dramatically than in 2008.  There was a long period prior to 2008 with no such food prices spikes, but we have every reason to believe that the drivers are in place to make these events common future occurrences (rising population, rising living standards in Asia, high energy costs, biofuel demand, and climate change).

What does that mean to you?

Well, frankly, since you are reading this on a computer, it is very likely that you are "rich" compared to a large percentage of the world's population. If the trend is like last time, this price swing will only raise your food expenses by ~5%.  If you are a typical person in the developed world, your family spends 10% or less of the family income on food (that includes food prepared outside of the home).   This crisis is not about you.  The tragic consequences of this trend will be felt by poor people in countries dependent on imported food.  Worst affected will be countries like Northern Africa, the Middle East, and also some poor countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.   Many families in these regions spend 40% or more of their income for food so these price shifts are devastating.  Food shortages and high prices can also spark political instability.  High food prices already have contributed to the overall discontent that is driving uprisings in the Arab world.  It can also lead to protectionist actions by governments and speculative manipulations.

Farmers Will Respond

Farmers will, of course, respond by increasing production.  Crop yields have been steadily rising over time, but when commodity prices go up, growers have some options they can employ to take production even higher.  As an example, consider wheat growers. They can plant fallowed land or harvest (rather than graze) a crop.  They can buy new, certified wheat seed rather than use saved seed.  They can spray to prevent insect or disease losses that they might have tolerated at low commodity prices when the additional yield gain would not have paid for the treatment.  In the last spike, there was a jump in sales of crop protection chemicals driven by high crop values.  When this happened in 08, some commentators falsely attributed this increase to GMO crop planting when it was just simple grower economics. The old saying has been that "the best cure for high commodity prices is high commodity prices."  Farmers will most likely reverse this current supply issue, but it is likely to be harder and harder for them to do so in the future.

Why Write About This?

I will post on this situation at the beginning of each month when the FAO index is updated.  I am not trying to be alarmist, but I do believe these issues deserve more attention from the public and policy makers.    This issue is definitely in the news, but not prominent (no surprise with what is happening in Egypt etc).   Type "food prices" into Google Trends and you will see that people with computer access are not yet tracking this issue like they did during the peak of the previous spike.

The Questions Raised by Rising Food Prices

A looming food crisis should motivate us to have the following difficult and complex discussions:

1. International investment in agricultural research for the 3rd World has declined dramatically in recent decades, partially because of distorted characterizations of the plusses and minuses of the "Green Revolution."  Is it time to reinvest in that research so that more countries can move towards food self- sufficiency and be less dependent on trade? (particularly for sub-Saharan Africa).

2. Should the big food exporting countries (US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia...) simply sell their grain to the highest bidder, or should there be policies/standards based on humanitarian and/or strategic considerations?

3. To what extent should a country "export its water?" (this is an active discussion in Australia)

4. Should major food importing countries in the EU consider adopting some biotech crops? This would increase their domestic production, thereby reducing their competition for food in the global market.

5. How much of our food crop resource should be devoted to biofuel production (palm oil, corn, soy...) and what are the trade-offs in terms of energy independence, fuel prices and emissions?
6. If government market-modifications (like the US blenders credit for ethanol) are going to be employed, is there a way to use them to encourage the transition to cellulosic biofuel using less food-competitive sources?

7. Can we come up with new models for agricultural land leases to make long-term investment in soil health something that works for our farmers who rent so much of the land they farm? (The ideal requires a 4-6 year transition to continuous no-till with cover cropping, controlled wheel traffic and precision, variable-rate fertilization.  We know this combination of practices builds ultimate yield potential and yield stability of a field, but a grower has to be able to know that he/she will get the benefit from this long-term investment and risk in order to make such a major commitment.)
I'll post an update in early March.  You are invited to join the discussion about these and other  questions here or to email me at and I will summarize in the next post.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reasons The Tiny Scale of US Organic Could Be A Good Thing

(Originally posted on Red Green and Blue 2/8/11.  For links to my other posts on various sites click here)
In 2008, the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA (USDA-NASS) conducted a very detailed and comprehensive survey of Organic agriculture in the US.  It was published last year but got little notice.  It is interesting to study the data and to compare it to the equivalent statistics that are available for the rest of agriculture.
Considering all the buzz around Organic, perhaps the most striking thing in the data is how small Organic remains after decades of "rapid growth."  As of 2008, actual harvested Organic cropland represented only 0.52% of US cropland.  There were only a few specialty crops where the Organic sector represented more than 2% of the total.

Why would a small organic sector be a "Good Thing?"

For an extended period from the early eighties until around 2007, it seemed to many that we had all the farming productivity that we needed.  Farmers were being paid to remove their marginal fields from production and put them into the Conservation Reserve Program.  It was fashionable to promote "low input farming" and/or Organic because optimizing production didn't seem to be urgent.
Times have changed. Between growth in global population and economic status, climate change, rising energy prices, and biofuel demand -  high agricultural productivity is looking like something that is very important. In 2007/8 there were severe food price spikes that hurt poor countries significantly.  We are clearly back into such a cycle today (see FAO data below)

The other main take-home message from the 2008 USDA survey is that the yields of Organic crops are significantly below those of the rest of agriculture. People have long argued otherwise, but the data here is clear.  Now, if the yield of a specialty Organic vegetable crop like heirloom tomatoes or another niche product is low, that means very little in the greater scheme of things.  However, there are two categories of crops where producing any more than a small amount of Organic would be problematic:
  • The grain crops that make up the vast majority of our farmland
  • The high value specialty crops that are dependent on limited irrigation resources

High-acreage row crops

Fortunately, for decades, researchers and farmers have been working steadily to increase the land-use-efficiency of major crops.  That effort has largely masked the underlying food demand growth that is now starting to get to a critical stage.  It is interesting to put Organic row crop yields into the context of these historical trends.

In the graph above, the historical yield trend of US barley is plotted as the blue diamonds and a line is fit to show the trend.  The green square represents the US average yield for 2008 and the red circle represents the average US Organic yield for 2008 (moved to the left until it met the trend line.)  Organic production is 70% of average. That doesn't sound too bad.  But, when you see that such yields are like "time travel" to 1975, and that they are lower than all but one of the intervening 33 years, it does not sound so acceptable.  Particularly not in an era where food supplies are getting tight around the globe.
Barley is no exception.  Comparable "time-shifts" are as follows: Oats 25 years, Flaxseed 23 years, Dry Beans 32 years, Soybeans 29 years, Corn 21.5 years, Spring Wheat 57 years and Winter Wheat 58 years.  How much of our land resource should we want to have at this level of productivity?

Crops dependent on scarce and declining water supplies

The graph below shows the relative yields of Organic fruit crops.  Crops highlighted with a red star are grown in areas where water supplies are increasingly limited. Water requirements are similar for both Organic and non-Organic crops, so it is important to consider how this scarce resource should be allocated.

Graphs and Images by Steve Savage.  You are welcome to comment here or to email me at