Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis

I recently met up with one of the masterminds of the Green Revolution - a man who was mentored by Norman Borlaug himself for decades. He told me that when the Green Revolutionaries first got to India, they found that the Indians were growing all of the wrong crops and crop varieties in all of the wrong places. Oh, those stupid Indians! You have to wonder how an ancient civilization managed to make it to present day without starving into oblivion if it can't feed itself.

As it turns out, once upon a time, India could feed itself. The book Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis tells the story of how the British robbed the Indians of their wealth, wrecked their agricultural system (in order to serve the needs of industrial Britain), and then watched as millions of Indian people starved. The book also covers other countries - mainly China and Brazil, but also African nations, and the Philippines. Each nation has a similar story to tell, but for this diary I am going to focus on India.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, there was a series of abnormally strong El Nino cycles. Famine erupted around the world, in each of the places I named above. Some of the disaster is due to El Nino, but the magnitude of the disaster - the difference between a drought and a famine - is manmade.

This story is very relevant now, sadly. Except now it's the U.S. (on behalf of multinational corporations) who is plundering the developing world.

An 1878 study published in the Journal of the Statistical Society found that there were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule compared to 17 famines in 2000 years of Indian rule. And that doesn't even count two more major famines, in 1888 and in the late 1890s. How can this be?

Prior to British rule, Indians kept larger village-level grain reserves and they were generally free of grain price speculation.

According to the book, Mogul rulers saw protecting peasants as their obligation, and used 4 methods for relief:
  • Embargoes on grain exports
  • Anti-speculative price regulation
  • Tax relief
  • Distribution of free food without a forced labor component

A very important component of Mogul famine-prevention was their investment in well construction via generous tax breaks for anyone who built a well. In another example, under Maratha rule, between 1170 and 1820 only three bad seasons hit Maratha lands. The rulers dealt with it by forcing local elites to feed the poor. Furthermore, Indian rulers tied taxation rates to actual harvest. While this may sound similar to our idea of an income tax today (you are only taxed on what you earn), the British drastically changed the system of taxation, to the detriment of the Indian people.

Shares of World GDP (percent)
1700: 23.1
1820: 32.4
1890: 13.2
1952: 5.2

1700: 22.6
1820: 15.7
1890: 11.0
1952: 3.8

1700: 23.3
1820: 26.6
1890: 40.3
1952: 29.7

From p. 293

Setting the Stage for Disaster

So what did the British do, leading up to the eve of the first famine in 1877? Step one was an enormous capital drain out of India to England.

Robbing the Indian People Blind
First of all, they forced Indians, and the Indian government in particular, to buy British-made goods.

"India, of course, was the greatest captive market in world history, rising from first to third place among consumers of British exports in the quarter century after 1870. "British rulers, writers Marcello de Cecco in his study of the Victorian gold standard system, "deliberately prevented Indians from becoming skilled mechanics, refused contracts to Indian firms which produced materials that could be got from England, and generally hindered the formation of an autonomous industrial structure in India" (p. 298).

By 1910, India purchased 40% of the UK's finished cotton goods and 60% of its exports of electrical products, railway equipment, books, and pharmaceuticals.

Add to that massive exports FROM India, even during the middle of famines when millions of Indians were starving. The opening of the Suez canal improved the economics of exporting goods from India to the UK, and exports from India increased eightfold between 1840 and 1886. In addition to opium, India exported indigo, cotton wheat, and rice. These crops were grown in monocultures, supplanting acres upon acres of subsistence grains.

"Between 1987 and 1900, years that included the worst famines in Indian history, annual grain exports increased from 3 million to 10 million tons: a quantity that, as Romesh Dutt pointed out, was equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25 million people. By the turn of the century, India was supplying nearly a fifth of Britian's wheat consumption as well as allowing London grain merchants to speculate during shortages on the Continent" (p. 299).

What must be considered in addition to that is the role the Gold Standard played in the bankrupting of India. Britain itself adopted the Gold Standard in 1821 and at that time, the rest of the world used silver or both silver and gold. In 1871, Germany shifted to the Gold Standard and the US soon followed. So did the rest of Europe and Japan. England insisted that India remain on its silver backed currency until 1893, when it began to move to gold. The result of this shift was an immense depreciation of silver. That meant that the British were able to buy low and sell high to the Indians... and the Indians suffered from the reverse situation.

If you had a pound's worth of Indian rupees in 1873, by 1895, they were only worth 64 pence. This devaluation of the rupee cost Indians an extra 105 million pounds between 1874 and 1894. Unfortunately for Indian peasants, who stored their savings in silver ornaments, the Gold Standard store 25% of the value of their savings. During this time, the price of Indian grains remained stable for the British while increasing rapidly for the Indians. The inflation was instrumental in helping the Brits convince Indian peasants to grow export crops.

"As Sir William Wederburn pointed out: "Indian peasants in general had three safeguards against famine: (a) domestic hoards of grain; (b) family ornaments; and (c) credit with the village moneylender, who was also the grain dealer. But towards the close of the nineteenth century all were lost by the peasants" (p. 303-304).

Put quite literally, the British taxed the Indian people to death. The reason for much of the taxation was England's military adventures around the developing world. India, instead of the British people, paid the cost of these expensive campaigns. During British rule, India never spent less than 25% of its annual budget on the British army.

The most significant change between Indian rules and British rule was the way in which taxes were assessed. Under the British, taxes were set based on your land's average expected harvest. The colonial budget, mostly financed by taxes on farm land, gave less than 2% to agriculture and education and barely 4% to public works of all kinds. A third went to army and police. By making taxes high and by fixing them to average production without regard for changes in weather, they made sure that a certain number of taxpayers would lose their land every year. A farmer would have his grain impounded upon harvest and then had to borrow money to pay taxes in order to eat from his own harvest.

In one of the top wheat-growing districts that I will discuss later, Narmada, the government reassessed land values in 1887 when the area was at the height of a wheat boom. Land values were sky high, so taxes and rents went up as well. This worked well for a few years, as moneylenders gave the landowners more credit. Then, in 1891-92, the British suddenly switched to wheat from Argentina and elsewhere in India. When the rains stopped in the mid-1890's, Narmada's wheat growers had huge debts, high taxes, and no market for their wheat.

"...the revenue collectors' inflexible claims on a high "average" harvest "compelled the peasants to cultivate marginal lands, and also forced them to 'mine' their land in a situation where most of them had few investible resources left to improve its productivity" (p.307).

Victorian Enclosures
Prior to British rule, Indians augmented their crops with free things they could gather - grass to feed animals and make rope, wood and dung for fuel, leaves and forest debris for fertilizer, clay for plastering houses, and clean water. These were most important to the poorest households, where they were often literally the difference between life and death. The British transferred these resources from the village community to the state.

In 1870, India's forests were enclosed by "armed agents of the state." The Brits needed the forests for shipbuilding, urban construction, railroads, and fuel.

The British also dissolved an important relationship ("ecological interdependence") between nomadic pastoralists and farmers. In the dry western interior of India, large areas of uncultivated grassland separated settled communities of farmers and bands of nomads. After 1857, the British began a "relentless campaign" against nomads, who they labeled "criminal tribes." Although the agroecology of this area was dependent on the symbiosis of peasant and nomad, valley agriculture and hillslope pastoralism, the Brits' voracious appetite for taxe revenue generated irresistible pressure on the peasants to convert "waste" into taxable agriculture. (p. 328-329)

Traditionally, farmers practiced extensive crop rotation and long fallow periods. This required large farms and lots of manure, which was impossible to maintain with more people on the land (living on smaller farms) and fewer cattle. The expert nomad cattlebreeders were "deliberately squeezed out of the economy." (p. 329)

Between 1843-1873, estimated cattle population fell by 5 million. Numbers fell more during the droughts, and by 1896-97, women were pulling ploughs. Fewer cattle meant less manure. The soil converted from pasture could only produce 1/3 as much millet as the soil traditionally used for crops and ultimately became so degraded it was useless for agriculture or even grazing.

Cotton depletes soil nutrients very rapidly and must be rotated with nitrogen fixing legumes. However, crop rotation became impossible due to taxes and debt, forcing people to maximize short term income at the expense of long term soil fertility.

The British also upset traditional Indian water management, by enforcing British common law, which said that the landowner also owns water rights. The result was water scarcity for those who didn't own land.

When the British did finance irrigation projects, they were concentrated in areas important for export crops like cotton, opium, sugar cane, and wheat. By 1921, only 11% of cropped areas were irrigated. Not to mention that the irrigation projects done by the Brits were ecological disasters.

"They might have produced short-term bonanzas in wheat and cane, but at huge, unforeseen social costs. Without proper underground drainage, for example, the capillary action of irrigation brought toxic alkali salts ot the surface, leading to such extensive saline efflorescence... that the superindented of the Geological Survey warned in 1877 that once-fertile plains were on the verge of becoming a "howling wilderness." Indeed, fifteen years later it was estimated that somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 square miles of farmland - an immense area - was blighted by salinity "with 'valuable' crops isolated in clumps upon its surface" (p. 333).

Where the new irrigation went alongside the old, traditional system, the new system undermined the old. This led to well collapsing or water tables falling and wells becoming brackish and unpotable. Canals also blocked natural drainage, leading to breeding grounds for mosquitoes and high rates of malaria. Also, taxes were so high on irrigated land, making it impossible to use it for anything but cash crops (if you use it at all). Villagers often abandoned irrigated fields for lower-taxed unirrigated fields. Also, peasants who built their own wells were taxed on them. Modern studies of industrial vs. indigenous irrigation in India found that indigenous irrigation systems avoided the problems of salinization and mosquito borne disease. Indigenous systems are more efficient and supply more stable yields over the long term. However, these indigenous irrigation systems were neglected and fell into decay in the years leading up to the famines.

Switching Indian Farmers From Subsistence to Export Crops

In this section, I'll give you two case studies, cotton and wheat.

The Cotton Supply Assocation (arm of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce) selected Berar and Nagpore for cotton monoculture. In Berar, the Association dismantled the traditional administrative system of the area, purging "disloyal" leading families who would not cooperate. Then the Brits spent 17 years (1861-1877) reorganizing the peasants of Berar's 7000 villages and 10.5 million acres of cultivable land into a system that was easy to tax.

"In reality the government became the supreme landlord with peasant tenure, unlike Tudor England, strictly conditional upon punctual payment of revenue" (p. 313).

An important new class cropped up - moneylenders who also served as grain merchants. One important contribution of the Brits to India was the railway system, making it possible to export India's grain easily and also making grain price speculation possible.

The railways put traditional porters and carters out of work, turning them into propertyless laborers. Also put out of work were artisans, ruined by taxes on local woven goods and a "flood" of cheap English imports.

What's important to remember about cotton is that the world market was impacted by the American Civil War. American cotton exports ground to a halt and other countries increased production to take their place. When American cotton came back on the scene, the other cotton producing countries were often decimated.

Perhaps the British foresaw this, as they got Berar to grow cotton in the first place to create a buffer to the supply of premium American cotton and to keep prices stable. In 1867, Berar exported as much cotton to Manchester as all of Egypt.

As mentioned before, a new class of moneylenders cropped up. So did another group who split their land into smaller parcels and rented them out to "bhaginders" who paid exorbitantly high rents. By the 1890s, at least 70% of the population were bhagindars or landless laborers.

"Although massive sums of capital were sunk into the Association's export infrastructure, including railroad spurs, cotton yards, and metalled feeder roads, none of it percolated to the village level where degraded sanitary conditions, especially contamination of drinking water by human waste, spread cholera and gastrointestinal disease as well as tuberculosis" (p. 315).

"During the famine of 1899-1900, when 143,000 Beraris died direction from starvation, the province exported not only tens of thousands of bales of cotton but an incredible 747,000 bushels of grain. Despite heavy labor immigration into Berar in the 1890s the population fell by 5 percent and the "life expectation at birth" twice dipped into the 15 year range before finally falling to less than 10 years during the "extremely bad year" of 1900" (p. 315).

Without irrigation, Indian families needed more land than they had to grow grain (to eat) plus cotton and pay their taxes. Many opted to just grow cotton and then buy grain, even as cotton prices went down. One reason for this was that cotton was more responsive than grain (millet) to additional labor, provided for free by their families. In the end, the cotton-growing Beraris went naked.


Narmada Valley,in Central Provinces (today part of Madhya Pradesh), had a wheat boom from 1861-1890. Local handicrafts were ruined by cheap imports that flooded central India after the construction of the railroad. Brits aggressively pushed landowners into commercial production of cotton & especially wheat. Farmers were told to save themselves by growing soft wheat preferred in Britain instead of millet and gram. In main export districts, wheat displaced 2/3 of acreage once used for subsistence grains.

However, the high tax demands drained the money from the area, and small landholders defaulted on debt to moneylenders, losing their land to the moneylenders. By 1889, this had happened to more than half of the land in the Central Provinces. Absentee landowners did not reinvest money into irrigation or cattle.

"Even more than in the cotton districts, the Narmada wheat boom was built upon precarious climatic and ecological foundations" (p. 319).

High demand for wheat in 1880s pushed people into inferior soil (traditionally used for hardy millets) where harvests only succeeded due to unusually good monsoons from 1884-1894. Railroads used up the lumber in the forests, and wheat used up pasture lands that traditionally fed cattle. This made bulls too expensive to keep, leading to a manure shortage (which was made worse by the high price of coal and the subsequent use of manure as fuel) that increased the rate at which the soil was depleted. The government also did not do any irrigation projects in the area. Remember also that just as Narmada's exports boomed, the British changed their preferred source of wheat to Argentina and elsewhere in India. The people of Narmada were left without a market. Just as the people of Berar went naked, the people of Narmada lived on imported millet and rice at the beginning of the 20th century.

Wheat Exports from the Central Provinces (Millions of Rupees)
  • 1871-76: 3.4
  • 1876-81: 7.2
  • 1881-86: 14.9
  • 1886-91: 16.6
  • 1891-96: 4.3

The Famines
Between 1876 and 1879, an estimated 6.1-10.3 million people died. A second (smaller) famine occurred in 1888-1891. A third famine hit India from 1896-1902, killing an estimated 6.1-19.0 million people.

The descriptions of the famine are simply unspeakable. At this point the stories told in India, China, and Brazil have blurred together in my mind. Stories of mothers swapping their children because neither could bear to eat their own. Stories of wild animals eating weakened, starving people in the streets. Stories of pigeons eating spilled grains from railroad cars guarded by armed guards as starving people looked on. In some places, people literally ate their homes and their beds so that when cold weather came, they had no protection nor any food leftover. In these famines, often epidemic disease (cholera, typhoid, malaria) accompanied starvation.

And all the while, India was producing and exporting plenty of food. In areas that were not affected by shortages and drought, often grain prices went up due to speculation, pricing out the poor so that a famine occurred all the same. During the first famine, 1876-1878, India's wheat exports to the UK increased from 308 (1000s of Quarters) in 1875 to 757 in 1876 to 1409 in 1877. Only in 1878 did exports decrease to 420.

A century earlier, Adam Smith said (during a terrible Bengal famine in 1770), "famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconvenience of death." In this frame of mind, the viceroy of India ordered "there is to be no intererence of any kind on the part of the Government with the object of reducing the price of food." (p. 31) Quoting other great minds of the time like Thomas Malthus and ideologies like social Darwinism, the viceroy made the case that aid to the Indian people would practically hurt them more than it helped. He and others frequently parroted talking points we in modern day America have heard too many times, saying that the lazy Indians did not know how to work hard and if they were given aid in times of drought and famine, they would expect a free handout during the good times as well. The difference between now and then is that then there were tens of millions of people dying as the government made these proclamations.

The aid that was given by the British was done in a way that makes life in a Nazi concentration camp look good. To make sure that people would not show up to work and slack off, the British imposed "distance tests" by forcing people to walk at least 10 miles from their homes to reach work camps. At the work camps, they could perform heavy labor and receive food. However, in some cases, the amount of food provided by at the work camps was literally fewer calories per day than was provided to prisoners at Nazi concentration camps.

This is the calamity that set the stage for the modern day "Third World." Today there are an estimated 1 billion people going hungry, more than ever before. We must ask ourselves whether or not we are making human misery worse and then standing helplessly by as we watch people suffer, as the British did a century ago.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Little Piggy Went to a CAFO

Mmm, bacon...

A few weeks back, while in Iowa, I visited a hog confinement. Everyone in Iowa refers to the state as "the belly of the beast" and I did not want to be spared from any part of that beast. (Although my nose began having second thoughts about going to a CAFO the night before I went.)

So, how was it? Well, here's a picture of the hog confinement from the road:

There are 4000 hogs in this building. They are 2 weeks from slaughter, and they put on 2 pounds a day. That means in the next 14 days, each pig will gain 28 lbs, and the entire facility will hold an extra 112,000 lbs of pig. Things are gonna be tight in there before it's all over.

How bad's the smell? Well, as we approached, I didn't smell much. While there were about 5 months of pig shit under the facility (I assume), it was 30F outside, so the smell didn't carry so much. The entire facility was all closed up. There are curtains on the sides of the facility and they were closed to keep the pigs warm. When we got close and they opened the curtains, then I smelled it.

See the curtains on the side? Those can be raised or lowered.

The facility also had a ventilation system. If it didn't, the pigs would have died from the fumes. A farmer on our tour told a story about a friend whose power went out once. By the time they got the power back on, 1000 of his pigs had died because they couldn't survive breathing the fumes of their own shit.

The pigs still had SOME room to move around. This particular farmer raises 32,000 pigs per year, in a few batches. He first gets piglets from a farrowing operation when they are 3 weeks old. This facility would have held 8000 of those until they reached 75 lbs apiece (which means there would be 600,000 lbs of pig in there). Then the farmer sells half the pigs to another farmer who will raise them to slaughterweight. At that point, the remaining pigs have some room to run around - an amount of room that decreases daily as the pigs gain a collective 8000 lbs each day. It was like a crowded subway car, except imagine if that car was located on top of the latrines at Girl Scout camp. That's what life in a hog confinement is like.

There is still some extra space in there (although not much).

For contrast, here are George Naylor's pigs:

You see what they are doing? Rooting. It's a natural pig behavior. Pigs LOVE to play, and the love to root around in the soil. The pigs in the confinement all looked very playful, but with the wooden floor under them, they were unable to root. One farmer I asked told me that she had a 1930's era instruction manual on raising hogs that said that they don't get the proper nutrients if they can't root. I suppose that we've taken care of that problem with the confined hogs' "modern" diet of 25% soy, 75% corn, and some vitamins.

The cruelty to the animals is of course what I expected to be blown away by when I saw the hog confinement, and it really wasn't. People in a subway car don't look too miserable, really, although we'd be much less happy or healthy there if we spent our entire lives in those crowded conditions. But just looking at the pigs wasn't the overwhelming horror that I expected. Nor was it the overwhelming stench, thanks to the temperature.

So I asked a few Iowans: What, really, is SO bad about this way of raising hogs? Their answer surprised me. They cited the water quality problems and the smell and the health problems but their #1 complaint was the unfairness to the farmers. To the farmers who own the hog confinements, that is. That is not at all what I expected.

Here's the thing: Building a hog confinement is a HUGE capital investment. It's a huge risk. You are betting, when you take out that loan and spend all the money, that you will be able to sell your hogs for a high enough price or that you will be able to obtain a good enough contract for a long, long time - long enough to pay back your loan. You are betting that no diseases will wipe out your pigs before your loan is paid off. You are betting that no government policies will make your style of farming illegal or more expensive before your loan is paid off. If you have a contract with a company like Cargill, you are also betting that they won't demand that you make expensive upgrades to your hog facility in order to keep you contract, upgrades that may keep you in debt longer than you intended.

And with all of this risk, everyone except for the farmer holds all the cards. If a farmer has a contract with a company like Cargill, Cargill gets to dictate exactly how the hogs are raised and they can refuse to renew your contract if they wish. Cargill owns the hogs, and you own the manure, the building, the risk, the debt, and the dead animals. If you don't have a contract, you are trying to sell animals on the open market for a good price, and companies like Cargill are working against you to make sure the market is always oversaturated so that prices are low. Right now, I was told, prices are low, and they are STILL building more hog confinements, because they want to keep prices low in the future.

On top of this, Iowans explained to me about their tile system. Below all of the fields in Iowa, there is a system of tiles that guide all of the water into the waterways (if I understand correctly). Once a pollutant gets into the tiles, it gets into the waterways. And nitrogen fertilizer and hog manure are getting into the waterways, polluting Iowa's water and directly leading to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The "correct" way to apply hog manure is by injecting it into the soil. But not everyone does it that way. Some just spread the manure on top of the field. And if they do it while the field is frozen, it sits on top of the land and then melts off into the waterways in the springtime. (And think about it... when is the best time for applying manure? When there are no crops on the field... and that's basically winter, when the field is frozen.)

Then there's the question of antibiotics. MRSA - methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus - has been well documented on hog confinements. The pigs live in a constantly stressed state, which suppresses their immune systems. Plus, with so many pigs in one place together with their shit, conditions are ripe for sharing germs. And with all of the antibiotics given to them, the bugs that remain and breed are the antibiotic-resistant ones. These are transferred to the manure - and onto the fields, and into the waterways.

Then there's the smell. I was told that when the air stands still in Iowa, they have "shitsmog." It's kind of like the air quality problems in Los Angeles, but it's caused by hog shit instead of auto exhaust. The farmers' family breathes this air on their family farm turned hog confinement, making them more susceptible to asthma. And the smell is a nuisance to neighbors and it drops the neighbors' property values.

One more problem that the farmers pointed out was the economically depressed conditions of their rural towns. With farmers each farming huge tracts of land, fewer people make their living in rural areas. In fact, there aren't enough people to support vibrant downtown businesses. It's not even that Wal-mart came in and wiped out the Mom N Pop stores where I visited. There was no Wal-Mart. Only the county seat had a grocery store. It was just a ghost town. Large farms produce cheap food but they don't produce jobs.

So that's my trip to a hog farm. It wasn't as viscerally disgusting as I expected, but between the impacts on the environment, the economy, and the rights of farmers, I think I'll skip out on all factory farmed pig products all the same.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Iowa "Three Sisters:" Corn, Soybeans, and Hogs

When you visit Iowa, you're nearly guaranteed to see three things: corn, soy beans, and hog confinements. Those were the focus of the field trip I attended yesterday at the Community Food Security Coalition Conference To be totally blunt about it, maybe you've wondered: why are farmers so stupid that they keep growing corn and soybeans year after year? Or corn and corn year after year? And why on earth would anybody stink up their own farm with a hog confinement? And, as you may have guessed, it turns out that the farmers aren't stupid at all. Not one bit. I will explain below. There's also another great question I was asked on a recent visit to Lawrence University. In classic liberal arts professor fashion, one of the professors asked me, "Assuming the farmers are all rational, if they all plant GMOs, then wouldn't that mean that the GMOs are the best choice?" Gooood question. I'll address that below as well.

Welcome to Iowa

If you'd rather watch instead of read, you can view this video of George Naylor describing why GMOs and corporate giants win (thanks to Andrew Kang Bartlett for shooting and sharing the video).

We started yesterday on two farms owned by two very good friends. The woman (Chris) grew up on a farm. Her father mentored the other farmer (Jerry) so that he would know that his farm was being well taken care of when he retired from farming. Then, after many years away from farming, Chris decided to come back to it. If I have my numbers right, Chris has about 130 acres and Jerry farms 2500 acres (although he does not own all of it). It seems that the norm here in Iowa is that farmers raise corn and/or soybeans on an average of about 1000 acres, but they often only own about 160 or 320 acres. For the rest, they either crop-share (grow crops on someone else's land and split the harvest with the landowner) or cash rent (farm on land they rent for a set price they pay in cash, not crops).

What does this system have to do with all of the f*&$ing corn and beans grown in this state? Well, if your best, most certain path to a paycheck is corn and beans, then the price of rent will be set based on how much money someone could make using the land for corn and beans. And based on the maximum yield a person could make for corn and beans. In other words, it simply won't do to rent someone else's land and grow a crop of your choosing, or even to rent their land and grow corn and beans using a perhaps more sustainable but less productive method. If you're renting land, you're probably growing corn and beans and growing as much of it as possible. If you're not, you can't afford the rent. And if you don't rent that land to grow the max amount of corn and beans, someone else will.

Well how about the option of just growing on your own land? Nice idea, huh? You've got a nice little 320 acres, and you grow whatever you want, however you want on that land. First things first, let's say you're growing corn and beans on your land. George Naylor said people are motivated by either greed or fear. Either you're making it big and you want to grow as much as possible, or you're not making it big and you're scared you'll lose your farm if you don't make as much as possible. Perhaps that's the case. Maybe that's a cynical way of viewing it. But the entire system is set up to push farmers to grow more and more... if you can make an acre produce 300 bushels and you receive $3/bu, each acre gets you all of $900. Your 320 acres nets you $288,000. Out of that you have to pay for seeds, fertilizer, herbicides, equipment, and crop insurance, and still make a living. How you gonna do that? Better go get some more land and grow more corn and beans - or get a job in town to pay the bills and farm on the side as a hobby.

What about growing something other than corn and beans. Now there's an idea. Chris tried it. She wanted to grow food for people instead of for cattle and pigs. She decided to start by growing beans - black beans and adzuki beans - because they were compatible with the equipment she already had. She had a market for her adzuki beans, even. But there's no infrastructure around here for growing adzuki beans. There was nowhere that wanted to clean her beans. Oh, they've got the equipment for it all right, but they use that equipment for soybeans. Soybeans are white. Adzuki beans are red. And nobody who cleans soybeans wants to get little red adzuki beans mixed in with their soybeans. She looked into buying the equipment to clean her beans herself, but she found that she'd have to clean adzuki beans for one month out of the year and then clean soybeans for the other 11 months to make the equipment pay for itself. There goes that idea. Back to the drawing board.

Chris found a great idea, however. She registered 100 of her acres in USDA conservation programs. She planted prairie grasses and wetlands, and now her land serves as an incredible carbon sink, wildlife habitat, and a buffer to the entire community when heavy rainfalls come and the land floods. Flooding is a big deal around here (more on that in a minute). The government pays her what she would otherwise receive if she rented out her land and someone else grew corn and soybeans on it. She doesn't take a fiscal loss and the entire community and even world is better for it. On the other 30 acres she still grows corn and beans, but she still wants to grow other kinds of beans. Maybe in the future she can grow black beans to sell to the universities in the area, she says.

Jerry also has some of his land in prairie grass. Want to see how tall the grasses are?

And the roots go down 8-12 feet! These plants are what made all of the wonderful topsoil here in Iowa - the topsoil that makes it possible to plant monoculture using soil-depleting practices year after year without running out of soil (yet). Here's a picture of his prairie that isn't so close up, to give you a fuller view of it:

He also raises grass fed, forage fed Angus beef on his land. Just 11 cows, right now:


The cows aren't a major source of income, but Jerry is experimenting with ways to produce food that are more sustainable than your classic Iowa corn-and-soy combo. He's still a conventional farmer, he still uses GM seeds and sprays his crops, and he farms a whopping 2500 acres. (You should have seen the eyes of the man from Uganda I sat next to on the bus pop out of his head when he heard that. He asked me "Two thousand five hundred acres?" just to be sure he was understanding correctly. Where he comes from, he told me, many farmers have an acre, half an acre, or even a quarter of an acre to farm.)

Despite his conventional farming methods, Jerry is quite progressive for an Iowa corn and soybean farmer. He told us that he applies his nitrogen right when the corn needs it so that he can apply less (because the corn gets to use more of it and less runs off). That leads to less pollution, as well as a financial gain for Jerry. He doesn't spray unless he has to. If he hears a rumor that aphids are attacking the crops from a neighbor, he actually goes out and looks at the crops to see if there really are aphids on 'em. He told us he doesn't like aerial spraying, even though he sometimes does it. As for GMO's, he gets so much Roundup drift on his crops from his neighbors' spraying, that he doesn't have much choice. If his crops weren't Roundup Ready, the neighbors Roundup spraying would kill them.

Some of Jerry's GM corn

Those of us on the tour yesterday learned a new word: Triple stacked. The corn is from a "triple stacked" GM seed. That means it is Roundup-Ready, resistant to the European Corn Borer, and resistant to the Corn Rootworm. There's talk of future GM seeds that have four, five, or even six traits stacked into them. George Naylor told us that he went to buy seeds this past year, and they showed him a number of GM varieties, and then they showed him a non-GM variety (George doesn't use GM seeds) that out-produced all of the GM varieties last year. Wow! For all of that technology, a non-GM seed outproduced them all. The salesman told George he better get his order in fast if he wanted that one. George decided to do so immediately, and then he found out... they were only producing that high-yielding seed as a triple stacked GMO this year. In other words, George says, if a GMO yields higher than all of the non-GMOs, it's not necessarily as a result of the GM traits. The seed might've just had wonderful genetics to begin with, even before they inserted the genetic modifications.

Corn and soybean farm #3 was the farm of George Naylor. You might know his name from The Omnivore's Dilemma, because Michael Pollan wrote about him. I've known George for about 3 years and I like him a lot.


George's soybeans

I can't even do justice to all that George said yesterday. Fortunately, I have a long interview I did with him that I have transcribed but not yet posted. He was up harvesting soybeans until midnight the night before I visited his farm (so was Jerry), so it's no wonder that he's been too busy to work with me on blogging. When your boss is Mother Nature, you don't get to procrastinate your work.

Back when I lived in Wisconsin, I naively stared at the corn, still in the field all the way into December, wondering if the farmers perhaps forgot to harvest it. As it turns out, the farmers must wait until the corn and soy are dry enough before harvesting. The alternative is to pay to have your corn dried (if you harvest it to early). Back in the day, farmers used a "corn crib" to dry their corn. George still has one on his farm, but no longer uses it:

Corn crib

The night before our tour, the soy was dry enough for harvesting. The corn was still too wet. But snow was in the forecast, which would make the soy too wet all over again. So the farmers were up harvesting into the wee hours of the night. Then, after the morning's snow, they were unable to harvest soybeans, but free to give us a guided tour of their farms. By 2pm that afternoon, the soybeans were once again dry enough to keep harvesting them.

A combine harvesting corn

A vehicle driving alongside the combine

A frontal view of the combine

They told us you can now harvest without stopping all day long. You get another vehicle to drive alongside the combine and you empty your harvested corn or beans into there. That way, your combine never fills all the way up and you never have to stop and leave the field to empty your load. George told us that you can now get combines that have GPS so they automatically drive straight through your rows. You don't even have to steer, except for when you make turns at the end of a row. You let the machine do the work, then make your turn, and when you are 75% through with your turn you can let go and let the machine and its GPS take over once again. George said he knows someone who fell asleep while doing this.

You may wonder: Why bother? Why do they still farm? Or why don't they all rise up together and decide to grow something else? George says he still farms because he likes being his own boss and he loves living in the country. Plus, these are the skills he has. What else would he do? Jerry added that he grows corn and soybeans because government policy tells him to. Between subsidies, tax incentives, and government subsidized crop insurance, corn and soybeans are the surest way to a paycheck (and a roof over your head and food in your mouth) if you're a farmer. Farming is a risky business because you're dealing with Mother Nature. You're also a price taker on both ends - you pay the market price for equipment and seeds, etc, and you receive the market price for your crops, so that adds to your risk. With corn and soy, the risk is mitigated immensely.

Nowadays farmers buy crop insurance. This is a relatively new phenomenon as no private insurers wanted to insure farmers' crops until the government stepped in with a subsidy for it. Farmers are pretty much required to purchase crop insurance, but it adds stability to the price they will receive for their crops - even if they lose their entire crop due to flooding or another disaster. Then of course there's the government subsidies which provide more money to help you along, should the free market fail you. And there's the fact that you get a much bigger tax incentive for buying a new machine than you do for hiring somebody to work on your farm. Corn and soybeans require much more machines than manual labor. All of this doesn't add up to a big paycheck every single year - you can lose a lot or make a lot in every given year - but it seems to be the best way to keep your farm and to keep farming.

So why does the government do this? They know full well that they are encouraging farmers to grow as much corn and soy as they possibly can, and nothing else. Any farmer could tell them if their own experts can't figure it out. They certainly know. The result is that the environment and the nutrition of our food are the big losers, but we've got a major supply of very cheap corn and soy. Who wins? Agribusiness and the food industry. They get artificially cheap inputs for their products, just like they want. The oil companies aren't doing too bad in the deal either. Ethanol was initially considered a fine form of economic development around here. Unfortunately, when locally owned ethanol plants began to go bankrupt, oil companies came in and snapped 'em up for pennies on the dollar. Farmers lost a lot of money. So now we have an extra place to put some of this cheap corn and soy we're producing. It may not be sustainable, but by golly we can call it renewable and make it sound like a path to liberating ourselves from Middle Eastern oil (even if it takes nearly a gallon of oil to produce a gallon of ethanol, and ethanol is less fuel efficient than gasoline or diesel).

Last, lets talk about the flooding. George told us that a major problem around here is soil compaction. If the soil is too compacted, the crops don't thrive. Water stays on the surface of the soil and doesn't seep in. That means if Iowa gets 7 or 8 inches of rain, it all sits there on the surface instead of seeping into the ground. Of course, it may also run off into their waterways. But those are basically its two options for places to go. To deal with soil compaction, farmers till the soil each year. The tilling breaks up any fungi that might be living in the soil, and the day a farmer tills is a very bad day for any earthworms living in his or her field. I believe tilling also releases carbon into the atmosphere. But if you don't till, you don't get the same yield. And as I've already explained, you need to get a high yield if you want to keep your farm. And even if you till, the soil is still compacted enough that a heavy rain creates problems. (George pointed out areas covered in weeds within his fields, where a heavy rain had made lakes that killed his corn.)

Chris and Jerry's prairie plants are a wonderful prevention measure for flooding. The roots go deep into the soil, and no chemicals are applied to kill the soil life. Plus, without any tilling, the fungal hyphae (long strands of fungi) and other critters aren't disturbed. The life in the soil, along with the plants' roots, improve the soil texture so that water can seep in instead of sitting on the surface or running off. When a flood happens, the water that falls on (or runs off onto) the prairie grasses and wetland plants will seep deep into the soil instead of contributing further to the flooding.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Growing Power: How They Work Their Miracles

Yesterday, I wrote about Growing Power's urban farm in Milwaukee, focusing on the demographics of the neighborhood and the food sold in their store. This diary shows how they produce a lot of food on a very little space (2 acres) in a climate that is cold for much of the year.

I don't think it's possible that anyone could see what Growing Power does without feeling inspired. After coming home from my visit to Growing Power, I immediately got a worm bin. You'll see why below...

The magic at Growing Power starts with waste products, like the food waste from Kohls, shown below.

The food waste and other waste (wood chips from the city, for example) are then composted.


Ta-da! Finished compost

When the compost piles get hot, soldier flies like to lay eggs in them, producing soldier fly larvae:

Soldier fly larvae

Next, the heroes of Growing Power take over - the worms! The worms eat the compost and produce nutrient rich worm castings (a.k.a. worm poop).


Worm bin with worm castings

The worm castings are combined with ground up coconut husks to serve as soil for Growing Power's many plants:

Dehydrated coconut husks

And - voila! - the result is a lot of fast growing, high dollar value crops, like sprouts, baby greens, and wheat grass:



Close up of sprouts

When a sprout like the one below is harvested, Growing Power sells the plant and composts the root and the soil left over in the tray. It takes about a week from planting to harvest for these sprouts, which means that each square foot of Growing Power's 2 acre facility can pull in a lot of money over the course of a year. Add to that the fact that Growing Power uses a lot of vertical growing techniques, often growing several trays of sprouts or other foods on shelves above one another or on shelves over their many fish ponds, and the ability of each square foot to pull in a lot of money multiplies!

Pea sprout with roots

Putting trays of roots and soil from harvested sprouts into compost bins

Sometimes, I thought parts of a greenhouse looked empty - or at least, full of empty trays - but it turns out I was wrong. They were trays full of wheatgrass, covered by empty trays. I don't know what a tray of wheatgrass like this one sells for in Milwaukee, but here in San Diego they retail for $15 apiece. It seems to me like Growing Power subsidizes its costs for providing high quality food at reasonable prices to a low income neighborhood by selling such high value products to those who can afford it elsewhere in the city and its surburbs.


In addition to the many trays of sprouts, they also grew food, typically arugula, in hanging pots. Unlike the sprouts, the roots and soil are not composted after each harvest. Instead, they clip the baby greens and allow the plant to regenerate its leaves.

Now, here's where Growing Power's work gets even cooler. Enter the fish:



Often aquaculture (fish farming) is not sustainable in the least. Shrimp farming has devastated mangroves worldwide. Salmon farming is endangering wild populations of salmon while producing a poor quality product (farmed salmon pack a punch of nasty toxins like PCBs). Another problem with fish farming occurs when perfectly edible low dollar value fish are wild caught and fed to high dollar value farmed fish, thus endangering wild fish populations. But Growing Power seems to have found the right way to produce healthy farmed fish.

The two fish chosen by Growing Power are tilapia, an herbivore that likes its water at a balmy 85F, and perch, a carnivore that lives in cold water. The tilapia eat duckweed and worms. The perch eat the soldier fly larva produced in Growing Power's compost.

Even cooler is Growing Power's method of cleaning the fishes' water. They stack two layers of plants on top of each fish pond and they cycle the water through the plants and back into the fish pond. The fish waste fertilizes the plants and the plants clean the fishes' water. Typically, at least one of the layers of plants is watercress.


Watercress, with roots

An aquaponics system with tomatoes on top, watercress in the middle, and duckweed growing on the bottom where the fish live.

The fish ponds are dug deep into the ground, to use some of the earth's insulation ability in order to maintain the required temperature for the fish without using excess energy:

Hole for future fish pond

Then they line the hole with a thick plastic cover to make sure the water can't seep out:

They add gravel to the fish pond as well. In the background you'll see one of the automatic fish feeders they use.


Put it all together and here's what you've got:

Growing Power does require some outside inputs, but they reduce the amount needed by using their own anaerobic digester that turns food waste into energy. (They also use compost to generate heat in the wintertime, greatly reducing the amount of energy required from fossil fuel sources or even from their digester.)

Anaerobic digester

They also reduce the inputs needed by harvesting rainwater:

Rainwater harvesting

And I would be remiss if I did not mention Growing Power's other critters:


Bee close-up

Heritage breed turkeys



Hens for eggs. The breed is a White Leghorn and Rhode Island Red cross

Unfortunately, this diary does not capture the impact Growing Power has on local children, but much of the work done at Growing Power is done by their Youth Corps and by volunteers (big and little alike). Growing Power is doing more than its part to train the next generation of farmers.

Here's how Growing Power's website describes the urban farm operation I just showed you in pictures:

The urban farm currently includes:

  • six greenhouses growing over 12,000 pots of herbs, salad mix, beet greens, arugula, mustards, seedlings, sunflower and radish sprouts. These greenhouses also host production of six hydroponic systems growing Tilapia, Perch, and a variety of herb and salad greens, and over 50 bins of red wriggler worms;

  • a aquaponics hoop house with two independent fish runs and growing beds for additional salad mix and seedlings;

  • three hoop houses growing a mixture of salad greens;

  • a worm depository hoop house;

  • an apiary with 5 beehives;

  • three poultry hoop houses with laying hens and ducks;

  • outdoor pens for livestock including goats, rabbits, and turkeys;

  • a large plot of land on which the first stage of the organization’s sophisticated composting operation is located including 30 pallet compost systems;

  • an anerobic digester to produce energy from the farm's food waste; and

  • a small retail store to sell produce, meat, worm castings, and compost to the community.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Growing Power: First Impressions

Last week, I visited Growing Power, the urban farm started by Will Allen. If Will Allen's name sounds familiar, that may be from his appearances on Good Morning America or in the New York Times, or from his Macarthur Genius Award, or from a few days before I visited Growing Power, when President Clinton called him "my hero." Growing Power's amazing, and I am absolutely not the first person to discover it. However, even though I was already well acquainted with the work of Will Allen and the success of Growing Power, I came away from my tour of the small Milwaukee urban farm absolutely inspired. Indeed, I think it would be impossible NOT to be transformed by it. I've always been amazed by the fervor of urban ag advocates, and now I feel like I understand. If Will Allen can do what he's done at Growing Power, then there is untold amounts of untapped potential in cities across this entire country.

This diary will give a description of the neighborhood where Growing Power is located and the food that is available in the Growing Power store.

A view of Growing Power's store

According to the USDA's interactive food stamps map, Milwaukee county suffered much higher per capita poverty and Milwaukee residents' per capita food stamps participation was much higher than the surrounding counties in 1999 (the most recent year for which that data is available on the site). The Census Bureau provides city level data for Milwaukee, showing that 21.3% of people in the city of Milwaukee lived below the poverty line in 1999. The Census Bureau also offers poverty data for the county of Milwaukee as recently as 2007, when the percent living in poverty is estimated as 18.2% of Milwaukee county residents. Presumably that rate would be higher within the city of Milwaukee itself, where Growing Power is located.

If you're at Growing Power and you want to go to a supermarket, there's an Aldi about a mile away in either direction. There are a few other places that sell food in the area, like a place called Delta Southern Groceries that is 2 miles away, but Growing Power certainly fills a need by being in the exact location where it is. An important predictor of whether people eat well is whether they have a place to buy fresh, healthy food within a mile of where they live - particularly if they do not own a car.

Keep that in mind as you look at the pictures below, taken at the Growing Power store. In addition to the salad greens, tomatoes, fish, honey, turkeys, ducks, and eggs produced on site, the store also sells produce from Growing Power's other locations as well as produce that cannot be grown in the midwest (like bananas and oranges). I assume the outside produce is sold there to save shoppers from needing to make an extra trip to a grocery store to get all of their food. In addition to the ready to eat food sold at the store, they also sell compost and worm castings for anyone who wants to grow food at home.

The pictures below don't show everything that was available in the store, but they do give a good representation of the types of things that were available.