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Posts Tagged ‘Agriculture’

By Lynda Waddington 3/12/10 10:15 AM

ANKENY, IOWA — Whether they realized it or not, the roughly 250 family farmers, workers and consumers gathered in Ankeny, Iowa, Thursday night fired off their own point-by-point response to a letter from two Republican senators that urged the U.S. departments of agriculture and justice to maintain the existing status quo in the agriculture industry.

Speakers line up to comment at Thursday night's townhall. Photo by  Lynda Waddington, Iowa IndependentSpeakers line up to comment at Thursday night’s townhall. Photo: Lynda Waddington, Iowa Independent

The often rambunctious townhall event was organized by a coalition of groups concerned that everyday people do not have adequate opportunity to express their opinions on the agricultural industry at a joint U.S. Department of Justice and USDA antitrust workshop on Friday. And it had one overarching message: “Bust up big ag.”

“We are here today to make sure that the voices of everyday people are heard loud and clear and send a simple but powerful message to our government regulators and elected officials,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth generation family farmer from Dexter and board member for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Bust up big ag, pass policies that promote sustainable agriculture and local markets, and put people first during the workshop series by prioritizing public comments and input and adding more family farmers and consumers to panels.”

On Wednesday, however, two Republicans in leadership positions on the Senate Agriculture Committee urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to do just the opposite.

“We urge you to ensure that these sessions are balanced and reflect the wide array of producers and business operations in modern-day agriculture,” wrote Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

After noting that “American agriculture is responsible for feeding the world,” that many industry “segments have become more vertically-integrated” and “other small and successful agriculture businesses have merged” to meet demands, the senators note that change is often met with frustration.

“Such change has led to better income margins for producers and processors as well as lower prices for consumers,” they wrote, adding that competition issues have been “studied extensively by several entities including the United State Congress and, specifically, the Senate Agricultural Committee.”

Although Chambliss and Roberts appear to call for a wide swath of American agriculture to have representation at the meeting, it is difficult to overlook the key point of their correspondence:

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By all honest accounts, 2009 was a terrible year for traditional agriculture worldwide. Extended weather events have cut many crop harvests in half. Farmers are going bankrupt as crops fail, commodity prices are exploding, and millions of people more have been added to the list of those who go hungry on a regular basis. The world economy is still in tatters, which paints a bleak picture for any hope of receiving government assistance. Meanwhile, Earth’s population continues to rise, and is estimated to reach 9 billion before reaching a point of balance.

2010 looks to be a time of immense hardship; yet, in times of hardship come great innovation as people are spurred from their complacency and forced to become participators in their own survival. The Organic Revolution is focused on self-sufficiency as the primary component toward reaching the goal of living sustainably. Despite how power brokers have aimed to co-opt the movement, individuals must remain steadfast in their pursuit of living a simpler, healthier, and less-dependent lifestyle.

As I have highlighted before, our modern way of life is centered on mega-cities. This will continue, as the percentage of the global population living in, or very close to, major cities rises to 80%. It would make sense, then, that any new movement or new system should begin here, as it will benefit the greatest number of people.

There is an innovative new way of creating food with a limited footprint by using the concept of the skyscraper in order to use plentiful vertical space to supply cities with organic produce. This new system is called Vertical Farming. According to Vertical Farming’s founder, Dickson Despommier, a thirty-story building could feed 50,000 people. An estimated 165 of these “farmscrapers” would feed all of New York City — each building with the footprint of 1 city block (approximately 1 acre). His calculations were based on a project he assigned to his students at Columbia University.

Indoor farming is, of course, nothing new, but as Despommier mentions on the Vertical Farm Web Site, “What is new is the urgent need to scale up this technology to accommodate another 3 billion people.” The concept of Vertical Farming solves a multitude of problems; Verticalfarm.com lists 15 advantages. Here are some highlights:

* Year-round crop production: 1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more (strawberries for example would be a 1 acre indoor to 30 acre outdoor equivalent

*No weather-related crop loss

*All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers

*VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling black water

*VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping)

*VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers

*VF could reduce physical conflicts resulting from battles to control limited resources

And Vertical Farming is not limited to produce; preliminary plans include chickens, ducks, geese, fish, crustaceans, and mollusks to be raised within the same building, creating one large integrated system of food production.

Vertical Farming could very well be THE answer for supplying the world’s growing population who are destined to go hungry if innovative solutions are not implemented quickly. The economic crisis has indeed left abandoned buildings and empty malls and houses in its wake. I think of Detroit, for example: what a great concept Vertical Farming would be in a place that has upwards of 50% unemployment, and a completely ravaged urban environment. Buildings can now be bought for pennies on the dollar, and the vast unemployment offers a ready and willing labor pool. Vertical Farming is urban revival at its most basic and needed level.

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To me, there is no job more important than producing healthy food in a sustainable way. Admittedly I’m a newbie to this particular topic, but I feel my passion growing with every bit of new information I find.  Can there be anything more beautiful than mimicking nature to produce an abundance of healthy food? Sustainable farming methods are gaining huge traction based on their fantastic results.

It is estimated that about 80% of our food comes from industrial single-crop farming and feed-lot livestock, all of which is factory processed to our plate. This method is an efficient assembly line however it is utterly dependent on fossil fuels, has been proven to spawn disease, thoroughly kills any organic life in the soil, and grossly pollutes any waterway that it touches. Is this is how we expect to feed our growing population forever – efficiency over quality, biotech over nature, oil over organic, and rampant pollution?
Wonderful books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and corresponding movies like Food Inc and The World According to Monsanto, are making a huge impact on the public. Conscious customers are driving demand higher for organic and local foods. Therefore, more farmers are now adopting sustainable methods because they have proven to produce better products.
Two farming methods have really taken root and are beginning to flourish without the need for pesticides, fertilizers, or large amounts of fossil fuel. It is telling that both methods mimic nature to control pests and produce abundance. In other words, these methods work with nature rather than fight it with chemical additives and antibiotics.

The first method of rotational pastured livestock, or more simply – grass farming, has been popularized by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc). Polyface focuses on healthy pastures and soil to raise the highest quality cattle, chicken, eggs, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs.  It all starts with the grass which Salatin calls a grand “salad bar”.

Polyface’s method is a beautiful stage show of nature at work. First, the cattle are grazed in a specific area of the bountiful pasture where they eat the fresh salad bar and dung the field. The herd is moved almost daily to new thick pastures. Following nature’s example, they then bring the poultry birds behind the cattle to eat the dropped grains, scratch the cow dung for bugs (which keeps pests to a minimum), all while their dung adds significant nitrogen to feed the grass. Salatin’s philosophy is to let the animals be what they were born to be, and to use their natural behavior to limit the work on the farm. For instance, they have developed a composting method where the pigs, through their tenacious rooting, turn the compost for the farm. Every action has a purpose and nothing is wasted.
It’s so simple it should be obvious – that following nature to create healthy pastures for happy animals will make for a much higher quality product than factory farming methods. And because there is less labor, machinery, and chemicals involved, Salatin says they can make a nice living. He claims single-crop growers with oil intensive practices make about $500/acre, while he says his pastures produce roughly $5000/acre. Buying clubs, local chefs, and retail shops all rave about Polyface’s premium quality, and their food purity tests off-the-charts, especially compared to factory farm chickens that have been filled with antibiotics and washed in bleach. I would say there is sufficient motivation for farmers to take notes – and they are.
The second method is permaculture gardening, which is an interdependent system where a large variety of complimentary plants are strategically located for the benefit of the entire garden. This design system is brilliant for urban micro-farms, kitchen gardens, self-sufficient homesteads, and even large scale family farming. The philosophy of permaculture gardening is to recreate nature in a profound way to produce chemical-free food.
Permaculture works something like this; you design an entire edible habitat based on the natural capital of your setting. Then, place plants to methodically balance the soil, water, and pests. For instance, a nitrogen fixing plant may be planted next to a nitrogen hungry plant, which may sit next to an ornamental that deters predators, and so on. Permaculture is also a closed circle philosophy where all resources are optimized though conservation and recycling. The immense food yields per acre are astonishing when using permaculture methods and the results are also drawing many newcomers.
Many homesteaders have utilized these techniques for years before Bill Mollison coined the term “permaculture”in the 80s. However since then, the definition of permaculture has grown to encompass sustainable design systems for all aspects of our existence – agriculture, water, housing, business, community, and wellness.
Now that conventional agriculture methods that depend on cheap infinite oil are proving to be unsustainable at best, permaculture’s popularity is exploding. Numerous businesses, institutes, courses, and internships are popping up to spread nature’s gospel.
Learning about these methods has given me new-found optimism about living in a sustainable way as humanity progresses. These techniques can truly provide a future of what has been previously called an oxymoron – Sustainable Abundance.

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Jeff Rubin, the former Chief Economist of CIBC World Markets and the author of Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller built his reputation as one of Canada’s top economists.  In this video, he explains peak oil, de-globalization, re-localization, and pollution as they relate to the current recession and the economy overall.

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Imagine growing fish and plants together in one integrated system.  This is the promise of aquaponics.  For those who would like to take a quick first step toward self-sufficiency, aquaponics might offer the least expensive, least time-consuming path to creating your own sustainable ecosystem.

Aquaponics is a full simulation of nature where fish and plants are both kept healthy and productive through a balance supplied by each in a recirculating environment.  The aquaculture side offers nutrient-rich water that is provided as natural fertilizer for plants.  These nutrients are normally a disposal problem for fish farmers who need to eliminate the toxic waste.  On the other side, hydroponics desperately requires nutrient-rich water in order to grow in a soil-less environment, and the plants serve as a natural filter for the fish.  This mini ecosystem is surprisingly easy and relatively inexpensive to set up thanks to emerging science and technology.

The beauty is in the small scale.  Just as micro-farming has taken root in urban environments, aquaponics can utilize a home aquarium, a mini garden of herbs, vegetables, or even flowers.  This is known as Desktop Aquaponics and serves as a great showpiece, or as an educational microcosm of what is possible through the fusion of fish and plants. And, yet, according to Aquaponics.com it is possible to convert a backyard into a system that grows hundreds of pounds of fish and all the fruits and vegetables a family needs.

For further education, visit Growingpower.org, a non-profit organization that has been instrumental in bringing this new concept to fruition mainly in urban settings.  They offer workshops in aquaponics and portable farms.

Once you are ready to begin your own endeavor, take a look at BackyardAquaponics for full systems information.  The great news is that for less than $2,000 you can begin taking the step toward self-sufficient food production . . . no matter where you live.

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Eric deCarbonnel
Market Skeptics

If you read any economic, financial, or political analysis for 2010 that doesn’t mention the food shortage looming next year, throw it in the trash, as it is worthless. There is overwhelming, undeniable evidence that the world will run out of food next year. When this happens, the resulting triple digit food inflation will lead panicking central banks around the world to dump their foreign reserves to appreciate their currencies and lower the cost of food imports, causing the collapse of the dollar, the treasury market, derivative markets, and the global financial system. The US will experience economic disintegration.

The 2010 Food Crisis Means Financial Armageddon

Over the last two years, the world has experience faced a series of unprecedented financial crisis: the collapse of the housing market, the freezing of the credit markets, the failure of Wall Street brokerage firms (Bear Stearns/Lehman Brothers), the failure of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the failure of AIG, Iceland’s economic collapse, the bankruptcy of the major auto manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler), etc… In the face of all these challenges, the demise of the dollar, derivative markets, and the modern international system of credit has been repeatedly anticipated and feared. However, all these doomsday scenarios have so far been proved false, and, despite tremendous chaos and losses, the global financial system has held together.

The 2010 Food Crisis is different. It is THE CRISIS. The one that makes all doomsday scenarios come true. The government bailouts and central bank interventions which have held the financial world during the last two years will be powerless to prevent the 2010 Food Crisis from bringing the global financial system to its knees.
Financial crisis will kick into high gear

So far the crisis has been driven by the slow and steady increase in defaults on mortgages and other loans. This is about to change. What will drive the financial crisis in 2010 will be panic about food supplies and the dollar’s plunging value. Things will start moving fast.

Dynamics Behind 2010 Food Crisis

Early in 2009, the supply and demand in agricultural markets went badly out of balance. The world was experiencing a catastrophic fall in food production as a result of the financial crisis (low commodity prices and lack of credit) and adverse weather on a global scale. Meanwhile, China and other Asian exporters, in effort to preserve their economic growth, were unleashing domestic consumption long constrained by inflation fears, and demand for raw materials, especially food staples, was exploding as Chinese consumers worked their way towards American-style overconsumption, prodded on by a flood of cheap credit and easy loans from the government.

Normally, food prices should have already shot higher months ago, leading to lower food consumption and bringing the global food supply/demand situation back into balance. This never happened, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), instead of adjusting production estimates down to reflect decreased production, has been adjusting estimates upwards to match increasing demand from china. In this way, the USDA has brought supply and demand back into balance (on paper) and temporarily delayed a rise in food prices by ensuring a catastrophe in 2010.
Overconsumption is leading to disaster

It is absolutely key to understand that the production of agricultural goods is a fixed, once a year cycle (or twice a year in the case of double crops). The wheat, corn, soybeans and other food staples are harvested in the fall/spring and then that is it for production. It doesn’t matter how high prices go or how desperate people get, no new supply can be brought online until the next harvest at the earliest. The supply must last until the next harvest, which is why it is critical that food is correctly priced to avoid overconsumption, otherwise food shortages will occur.

The USDA, by manufacturing the data needed to keep supply and demand in balance, has ensured that agricultural commodities are incorrectly priced, which has lead to overconsumption and has guaranteed disaster next year when supplies run out. An astounding lack of awareness

The world is blissful unaware that the greatest economic/financial/political crisis ever seen is a few months away. While it is understandable that general public has no knowledge of what is headed their way, that same ignorance on the part of professional analysts, economists, and other highly paid financial “experts” is mind boggling, as it takes only the tiniest bit of research to realize something is going critically wrong in agricultural market.

All someone needs to do to know the world is headed is for food crisis is to stop reading USDA’s crop reports predicting a record soybean and corn harvests and listen to what else the USDA saying.

Specifically, the USDA has declared half the counties in the Midwest to be primary disaster areas, including 274 counties in the last 30 days alone. These designated are based on the criteria of a minimum of 30 percent loss in the value of at least one crop in a county. The chart below shows counties declared primary disaster areas by the secretary of Agriculture and the president of the United States.

The same USDA that is predicting record harvests is also declaring disaster areas across half because of catastrophic crop losses! To eliminate any doubt that this might be an innocent mistake, the USDA is even predicting record soybean harvests in the same states (Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama) where it has declared virtually all counties to have experienced 30 percent production losses. It isn’t rocket scientist to realize something is horribly wrong.

USDA motivated by fear of higher food prices

The USDA is terrorized by the implications of higher food prices for the US economy, most likely because it knows the immediate consequence of sharply higher food will be the collapse of the US Treasury market and the dollar, as desperate governments and central banks dump their foreign reserves to appreciate their currencies and lower the cost of food imports. Fictitious USDA estimates should be seen as proof of the dire threat posed by higher food prices, as the USDA would not have turned its production estimates into a grotesque mockery of reality if it didn’t believe the alternative to be apocalyptic.

While the USDA may be the worst offender, the US isn’t the only government trying to downplay the food situation out of fear. As one Indian reporter writes, governments are lying about the looming food crisis. Some experts and governments, in full cognizance of the facts, want us not to create panic and paint a picture of parched crops and a looming food crisis. This, they say, would push up food prices unnaturally, lead to hoarding and ultimately result in a situation where many more millions across the world would go hungry. And whether it is the developing world or the developed, it is those at the bottom of the pyramid who are the most affected in such scenarios. This leads to a confusing divide between reality and government pronouncements, or even between the perspectives of government departments.

Confusing divide between reality and government pronouncements

For months now, the media has been reporting two distinctly, contradicting realities. One of these realities is filled with record crops and plentiful supply, and the other is filled agricultural devastation and ruin. It has been a mad, frustrating experience to read about agricultural disasters and horrendous crop losses in virtually every state combined with predictions of a US record harvest, sometimes in the same article.

A Reality of record crops and plentiful supply

The accepted, “official” reality is found in USDA crop and WASDE reports. In this reality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is projecting the largest US soy crop on record, at 3.3 billion bushels, and the second-largest corn crop at 12.9 billion bushels.

Below are the government’s numbers for US soybean production by state. The USDA is expecting record high soybean yields across the Midwest in 2009, leading to production numbers significantly higher than the 5 year average. The large increase between the August and November estimates also indicates that the USDA doesn’t believe crops suffered much damage during the fall harvest.

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Those who study current events are largely in agreement that we appear to be reaching a critical tipping point in terms of the environment, economics, geopolitics, and even consciousness. A concerned public – some now openly calling themselves “survivalists” – desire to be more independent and live a more self-sufficient lifestyle. The rise of sustainability and permaculture are direct outcomes of what more and more people perceive to be a sound response to an uncertain global economy.

The epicenter of abundance gone wrong, and misplaced faith in government responsibility (and ability), is North America. Developing countries like Costa Rica have long held an attraction for independent thinkers and those seeking self-sufficiency. Among the developing countries, Costa Rica is the jewel; it is THE top location for more independent living: it is a country with a firmly entrenched history of peace and a wonderful year-round climate that is suitable for an independent happy lifestyle.

The world is provably approaching a peak in its productivity and resource abundance; we have moved over the crest and our supplies are in a phase of rapid dwindling, according to many experts. These experts assert that countries primarily producing electricity by fossil fuels will likely face serious hardships keeping up with the ever-growing demand, especially in light of Peak Oil concerns. These same countries that tend to rely on big-box stores and factory farming with long supply lines will have the hardest time adapting. On the contrary, countries that produce electricity by renewable self-sufficient means will likely be the most desirable locations in which to reside during our painful transition away from fossil fuels.

In the early 90s, Costa Rica discovered oil off the Caribbean coast. At that time the country produced roughly half of its electricity from fossil fuels. The government placed a moratorium on drilling because it was too politically toxic, and the government stated that sustainability would be their new goal. Today, Costa Rica produces over 90% of its electricity through renewable means: hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal sources. Additionally, Costa Rica is at the front of the race to become carbon neutral, with its stated goal of becoming so in 2021.

Atenas Farmers Market (click for more images)

Policy aside, the spring-like climate of Costa Rica allows for fresh inexpensive fruits and vegetables all year round. What’s more is that most of the produce is local, so it does not have to be transported long distance; it is usually fresh picked the day of the ferias (farmers markets). By contrast, a pineapple costs more than an entire fast food meal in North America, almost forcing the cash-strapped public to eat the unhealthy alternative. Pineapples rarely cost over $1 at local ferias making eating healthy more affordable, which no doubt contributes to a life expectancy that surpasses The United States.

The variety of edible plants that can be grown in Costa Rica is fantastic . . . and almost intimidating. The majority of Costa Rica soil is volcanic in nature and quite fertile, providing the organic gardener with natural diversity and natural capital. However, insects do remain a challenge to someone new to organic gardening in the tropics. Rest assured though, every local community seems to have its organic experts who still practice what America lost so long ago. New ventures in permaculture have brought in formal institutes and consultants dedicated to sustainable practices that serve to augment Costa Rican tradition.

Permaculture Sustainable Community

One of the greatest characteristics of Costa Rica that often goes unmentioned, and is particularly important to “survivalists,” is its localism and sense of community. We all have read about the political neutrality, wonderful people, peaceful culture, and beautiful landscape; but it is Costa Rica’s localism that really makes it special. In our old agricultural town of Atenas you’ll find small barrios (neighborhoods) with independent schools, churches, markets, clinics, hardware stores, fruit stands, soccer fields, bus stops, and much more. Many expats comment that Costa Rica reminds them of America fifty years ago, when there was a sense of community, family farmers, a strong middle class, and thriving local commerce.

Additionally, since the Central Valley is considered to have one of the best climates on the planet, very few homes in the area require heat or air conditioning, thus reducing energy consumption. Furthermore, solar power for hot water and electricity is frequently used in homes, extending one’s ability to be affordably independent.  There are even some energy efficient permaculture communities offering lots for sale.

The government of Costa Rica has been a world leader in conservation, preserving roughly 30% of its landmass. The government has launched many incentives to protect and plant more forests toward its goal of being the world’s first carbon-neutral country. Because Costa Rica has bountiful forests and a healthy rainy season, water tables remain secure in most of the country. Although some areas of Guanacaste have water challenges in the dry season do to high winds, deforestation and development, fresh water is generally abundant.

Costa Rica has continually set itself apart as an attractive destination for those seeking independence and tranquility. Costa Rica provides natural abundance and a peaceful atmosphere for one to live self-sufficiently on less income than North America or Europe. Indeed, many expats have already moved or bought property here, and even more are arriving based on their growing concerns over instability in the world. “It sure is a pretty place to ride out a storm,” an American expat proclaimed. And this “storm” may not be quickly passing through. Costa Rica is not only positioned to weather the worst, but it also offers a bounty of proven health and opportunity for those who believe in independence and self-determination.

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