I hope you had a nice Christmas dinner. If you were lucky enough to have a free-range chicken or turkey and some organic vegetables, all the better. But it isn't really necessary to have such luxuries in order to enjoy the bounty of the nation's farmers.
American farmers have fed the world and they do a good job of keeping our grocery stores well stocked with delicious food at reasonable prices. But that is not to say our farm economy is perfect.
Since the Great Depression, the Department of Agriculture has been dedicated to keeping farm prices stable and food plentiful. Most of us take farming for granted and pretty much ignore it. That has left agricultural policy in the hands of big farm states, with senators and congressmen who are often wholly owned subsidiaries of ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, and Monsanto.
Not to mention the Iowa Caucus, which requires just about any candidate elected president to have sworn allegiance to ethanol—which uses more energy to produce that it yields.
Some of us have been complaining about the overuse of antibiotics in our food supply for years. The CDC has, finally, admitted that putting antibiotics in animal food is resulting in antibiotic resistant bacteria and the government is moving to restrict the use. It's about time.
I do not think that small farms using sustainable agriculture can feed the nation—at least not in the foreseeable future. But there is a growing movement toward more natural foods and as more people are aware of it, the more attention might be paid to all food production.
But we have a two-tiered farm economy now. One huge, one small. It is not necessary to have two Departments of Agriculture or two Food and Drug Administrations. But there does need to be a recognition of the value of sustainable agriculture. The government doesn't have to promote sustainable agriculture, but it would be nice if the government were not hostile. Recognizing that regulation and inspection of large-scale farming operations—with its inherent danger of widespread food contamination—is not practical for small farming operations.
If a farmer sets up to take his farm products to the consumer, that farmer will be very careful. Contaminated food ruins his reputation and puts his farm at risk. ConAgra doesn't go out of business in the case of an E. coli outbreak.
We need the state and federal government to promote and help small farms.
I think it's wrong to try and stop the production of genetically modified corn. But consumers ought to have a choice. I understand that labeling GMO products would be a major headache. Can you find anything in the supermarket that doesn't contain fructose corn syrup? But we could label and promote GMO-free food. We could have standards to accurately define terms like "natural" and "organic." We're getting there on that front.
But there are standard things being done to the food supply, like putting antibiotics in animal feed, that ought to be widely exposed if not prohibited. Like putting arsenic in chicken feed to stimulate appetites and make chickens grow faster.
East Tennessee does not have the miles and miles of open farmland of an Iowa or Nebraska or Kansas. Or even West Tennessee. But we do have lots of hillsides that produce grass and can produce lots of grass-fed beef. It converts solar energy (photosynthesis) to food. Small farms can support permaculture—raised beds without the use of pesticides and herbicides.
On our farm, the chickens and ducks and guineas eat the insects. All you have to do is teach them not to eat the produce—a work in progress.
But we can have a thriving farm economy in East Tennessee. Vineyards are making wine. Dairy farms are making cheese. Nurseries are selling plants on the Internet. Bees are producing honey. Heritage-seed corn is being ground into corn meal.
We aren't going to replace factory farms, but we can certainly contribute to a better quality of life and small farmers can make a living at it.