Leased Food

During a recent family trip to Northeast, Pennsylvania, I was gawking out the car window at farms.  It’s a habit in every farm family, I suppose, because I know quite a few farm wives who’ve appropriated all of the driving responsibilities after too many trips off the pavement when her distracted husband took a keen interest in passing fields instead of passing vehicles.  A farmer driving past farms is as bad as a sixteen year old driving while on his phone.

Here’s what I notice on the landscape: Farmsteads that have been in the family for generations.  A collection of equipment occupying outbuildings.  Fancy pickups.  And herds of cattle on completely exhausted grass.

I know you’ve seen it, too, but you probably didn’t think much about it.  See how the grass is chewed right down to the dirt?  The fences are permanent perimeters, the cows are a centerpiece of cattlemen’s pride, but the patch of dirt they occupy is completely worthless, unworthy of even a glance from passersby.

Often I think of a shared admonishment from innumerable respected farmers: a nation is only as wealthy as the soil the supports it.  Sounds dumb, doesn’t it?  Who cares about dirt?  We have Google, Mark Zukerberg, and Tesla.  They’re economic drivers.  Worrying about soil is for hicks.

Our soil is bankrupt.  So abused are the barren patches of ‘pasture’ I see everywhere that the only way to achieve productivity is by purchasing it.  The scruffy cows standing on scruffy earth are completely dependent on someone bringing them food, and, if you think about it, that’s about as ridiculous of a thought as one can muster.  It’s a sign of debt.

Fields of tall crops are no better, so don’t be fooled by them.  Purchased fertilizer is the norm, and farmers spend everything they make from previous crops on chemical fertilizers just to make the next crop grow.  Again, the corn (or soybeans, or wheat, or whatever) are entirely dependent on someone bringing sustenance.  The soil can’t grow a productive crop.  It’s a sign of debt.

Do you see what I’m saying?  The land isn’t producing for us anymore; we’re producing for it with outside capital, which usually comes from an outside job.  If cows on worn out pasture aren’t fed, they’ll starve.  If fertilizer isn’t added to a cornfield, that land won’t grow a crop.  We owe the land what we’ve taken from it through all those generations of ownership.

I’m afraid this mimics the culture’s frenetic spending habits: it’s unbelievable that so overextended are we that most vehicles are leased these days.  Even phones are chartered, for crying out loud.  A lease is outgoing money with no return, but it’s becoming a trend as consumers require decreasing payments to acquire the stuff they want.  Our food is produced the same way, with outgoing payments that don’t yield real returns.

Stop and think about that.  The scenery on our family trip to Northeast wasn’t unique.  One travelling in any direction will see similar worn out farms and worn out ground.  It’s a food epidemic, but big pickups, tractors, and paradigms prevent us from noticing it.  If the guy has a nice truck, he must be doing well, right?

If Apple suddenly demanded payment in full of every phone currently in possession of a lessee, most people would lose their device.  The money isn’t really there.  If we suddenly had to repay all of the abused farmland that’s been bankrupted through careless management, people would starve.  The money isn’t really there.

Still think that thinking about dirt is for hicks?  The most suave, slick, urban businessman should worry first about how the land is doing in rural America, and then about the Kardashians.

How do we fix this problem?  Better – how do we get people to care about fixing the problem?  I truly don’t know, because, much like the person leasing a phone feels security (success, even) from possession of the borrowed device, consumers feel security when they can drive past a window and pick up a meal: ‘What do you mean, our food’s in jeopardy?  I just got a biggie bag for $5!’ 

That bag is a lease.  Good luck figuring out what to return when the lease ends.

What we need is mutual understanding between customers and farmers.  Customers must educate themselves enough to understand and recognize farming practices that invest in the land instead of withdrawing from it.  Farmers must realize that a big pickup and a destroyed cow lot are an indication that priorities are out of whack.  If we work together we can turn a farm into a bank of wealth; by pouring our resources, ideas, passion, and sweat back into the soil we can return it to a state that once again works for us, providing stability to everyone from the family eating around the table to the family working in the field.

What do you think? Is it possible to convince people they need to think about dirt? Will we ever purchase our meals instead of borrowing them?