Who Decides
What's For Dinner?

Dateline: 7 September 2014

My recent post about robots prompted Lyle Stout, a reader of this blog from Iowa, to send me an essay he wrote a year ago. Lyle wrote "Who Decides What's For Dinner" for his family and posted it on his Facebook page. This essay contains firsthand observations about the changes that have taken place in agriculture, and I'm sure many of you will appreciate the perspective and commentary. Thank you, Lyle, for giving me permission to publish it here.

"Dinner For Threshers" by Iowa artist Grant Wood
(click picture for larger view)

Who Decides What's For Dinner?
By: Lyle Stout

When the kids were home over the long Thanksgiving weekend, for one meal we made home-made pizza from scratch. While the crust  was very good (the flour was made from fresh ground whole camut berries), the home grown/ home made kale pesto and the re-hydrated tomatoes (home grown, hand-picked and dried at the peak of ripeness) were to die for. You can make food like this, too, with a little effort. But industrial agriculture won't give it to you.

My great grandfather farmed this 160 acres with horses & mules. Most of the land was in grass or forage. My father even remembers plowing up a patch of native prairie as late as 1962.  In 1903, most of Grandpa Ed's income came from the sale of the livestock products that he raised – not crops. He and Grandma Hattie also raised and preserved almost all of their own food as well.

Interestingly, back before there was mechanical refrigeration in railroad cars, and before Mulholland and others figured out out to steal half the water of the west and pipe it over the mountains to the Central Valley of California, Iowa was a principal supplier of produce to Chicago. Before 1900, Iowa was also one of the top apple producing states in the USA. But there was a blight that killed the trees in the early 20th century, and then Wallace started the Pioneer Seed Corn company, promoting hybrid seed corn, and the rest is history. One hundred years ago, Iowa was self sufficient within its boarders in terms of feeding its citizens. But we now import most of our food from other states.

My current “day job” has to do with manufacturing and technology. I sit at a desk, talk on the phone and, since I do a lot of CAD and bills of materials, I push a mouse. (Joyce says I need a cat.) My brother, like 5 generations before him, is a farmer. Now, just as a draftsman used to use real pencils and T squares (as I was trained to do back in high school), farming has also changed a lot, as I witnessed recently when rode a bit with my brother as he was doing his fall tillage. When I was growing up on the farm, we had no climate controlled cab on the tractor, a mold board plow might cut a 5 foot wide swath perhaps 8” deep, and it took both hands on the steering wheel and complete concentration to plow a straight furrow. Dave's huge tractor is climate controlled and steered by GPS. It pulls a chisel plow that is 16 feet wide and plows 12-14” deep. The GPS maintains a consistent overlap of a few inches. Unlike the old mold board types, the chisel plow leaves lots of organic trash on the surface to resist erosion. Each “round” is 1 mile long – ½ mile each way – and covers about 2 acres. Dave plowed over 400 acres this fall. He says this system is very efficient, but pretty boring to operate. He has to keep one eye out for anomalies in the field, but mostly he sits in climate controlled comfort with no more cabin noise than a commercial jet, listening to talk radio to pass the time.

Farming has also become capital intensive. The farm I live on has been in the family for over 100 years. When great grandpa sold the farm to grandpa back in the 1920s, he sold it for less than $50 per acre. (Of course, a farm laborer got 3 squares, a roof over his head, and maybe $0.50 per day back then.)  If my dad were to advertise it for sale today at $16,000 per acre, it would likely be sold within a week. My brother's tractor is valued at $160,000. His seed corn – something great grandpa used to get by saving his best corn from last year – will cost him over $125 per acre. He plants about 800 acres – do the math. Plus, because the seed is not only a hybrid, but a GMO, there is a label on it just like on your software. You know – this is not your intellectual property, you are just leasing it from us, yada, yada, yada. For the farmer, that means that it is illegal for him to save his own seed, should he want to. All this GMO stuff is necessary so that the farmer can control weeds with herbicides, which are also expensive. The hybrid part boosts yields – four fold from great grandpa's 50 bushels to the acre. And that kind of production requires expensive fertilizer, mostly synthesized from petroleum or natural gas.

Now, all this money flying around sounds impressive, but no farmer actually owns much of what he has free and clear. As Robert Kiyosaki says in “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” when the banker says that your mortgaged house is an asset, he is not lying. He just isn't telling you who's asset it is. (Hint- it's not yours.) So, there is a lot of money pouring through the farmer's hands, but it is difficult to get much of it to stick. But the bank, Monsanto, Dupont, Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) and John Deere are all doing well, thank you. And, since we have the best government money can buy, the big agricultural conglomerates pretty much dictate ag policy, which pretty much decides what the farmer grows. And that includes the food we eat, not just corn for cows.

So, under this kind of leadership, let's look briefly at how corn has been modified. We already mentioned the GMO part, which may also include insecticidal genes to resist root worm. (BTW, even the pollen from this stuff kills insects – including bees and the Monarch butterfly.) Then, it is also bred to keep its ears attached just well enough so that they make it into the combine and don't fall on the ground. We already mentioned bushels to the acre. But it is also bred to dry down on the stalk, so that it costs less to artificially dry it down to acceptable storage moisture. And, of course it is bred for sugar, as it is used as the primary carbohydrate in livestock feed, the principal component in Ethanol, and don't forget that ubiquitous ingredient in manufactured food – high fructose corn syrup. So, what about other nutritional aspects? Hello? Anyone there?

So, if the agri-conglomerates are in control of ag policy, and they also control and manipulate the genetics of our food stock, what is happening to our food? Take that tomato at the store. It was bred to be picked by a machine and to stay green until they gas it just before they deliver it to your store. And then you wonder why the texture is a bit rubbery and it doesn't taste like the tomatoes that Grandma used to grow? Wake up and smell the roses. If you want real food, grow it yourself or go visit you local farmers market. And tomatoes are just the tip of the iceberg. (And I'm not just talking lettuce here.)

So, who decides what's for dinner at your house?


dfr2010 said...

Kudos to Lyle for writing it and you for reposting it ... these are points hubby and I have been deliberating for a few years now. It all started when one of his platoonmates brought in and gave away garden-grown carrots and potatoes when he had a bumper crop, and also some eggs when his hens were all laying every day. There was such a huge difference in flavor! I started a garden (after decades of not growing any food) the next spring. Now we have our own chickens (all in molt right now) and keep adding new planting beds for vegetables.

Everett said...

I worry every day for the lives of my children, grandchildren and those to come after them, if there are any! Been trying to inculcate in them the need to learn about growing your own food!
Very depressing to look forward a couple of years

SharonR said...

Excellent article. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

GMO is poison! Question why does the rest of the world ban GMO yet the states push more and more onto it's people, and try to force it onto other countries via aid policies.

Grow proper food

wildbillb said...

great post. always food for thought here.

one concern i have is that faced with these changes in our world, i worry that people will get depressed or alarmed. sure, it is scary and alarming, however we have the solution.

one suggestion, get your kids/grandkids/neighbor's kids involved in your garden. raise vegetables, experiment with growing different potatoes, plant fruit trees and vines. the kids will love it. yeah, kids balk at work, but when you do it with them, they love it. except for taking care of chickens, but that is my challenge ;-)

and when the kids get these skills, they have options, and FREEDOM. production of any size = independence. and it feels good. a victory garden is just that.

the other benefit is that children grow up realizing our vulnerability. nature is a difficult partner at times, and trying to grow things makes us appreciate God's hand more, and i love the feeling of dependence on Him! it is not superstition, but it is faith. that is the real produce from a garden.

so, don't despair, just do little things and get the little ones involved. God changes the world by sending new little children into it. and He knows the end from the beginning!

Lisa @ HappyinDoleValley said...

So, so glad there are many others out there with their eyes wide open! Thanks for sharing, Herrick. There is just nothing like the freedom of deciding what's for dinner at my house! Our kitchen has been turned into a cannery the past few weeks. Dan comes home from work and is always delighted by the accumulating jars and wonderful aromas that fill the kitchen. Late summer blessings to you and your readers! ~Lisa