Farmers Pay the High Cost for Cheap Food

northern montana farm

As I’ve mentioned many times: there is a very high cost for cheap food. In my last blog, I touched on this subject with an overview of each of the four entities that bear most of the financial burden of cheap food. But let’s talk about where it all starts—let’s talk about the farmers themselves.

Farming has always been a high-risk business, after all it’s literally at the mercy of mother nature! But there’s also the viability of the market and market prices, the availability of credit for capital purchases, access to land in general, and even the higher possibility for injury. Even death. As I said, high risk. So with all these risks, you might ask why anyone would even consider being a farmer. The answer is simple: Because we love it. But during the last 60 years or so, a new risk has been added to this already daunting list: The risk of adopting the current industrial model of agriculture which is determined to produce abundant, cheap food.

The industrial model was born with the general introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides after World War II. As the need for the military industrial complex diminished, the agrichemical industrial complex began to takes its place. After seeing the devastation in Europe, our government was more determined than ever to see that we had a cheap and plentiful food supply, starting with grain. Everything was focused on yields and an industrial model was adopted to achieve this goal. With increased yields, we were not only able to feed ourselves but we could sell the excess abroad, bringing in money that tipped the balance of trade in our favor for decades.

The wheat farmers of the dryland West adopted these new technologies almost immediately. And why wouldn’t they? Weeds had been increasing year after year due to a lack of crop rotations. And weeds are a pain! They reduce crop yields, plug combines at harvest, and brought so much moisture into the bins that there was a constant risk of mold. But with the application of 2,4-D, weeds disappeared. If your paycheck was being threatened and someone handed you a magic potion to fix it, you’d have done it too. It was a no-brainer and it was adopted by almost everyone in the wheat belt overnight.

By the late 1940’s, the land in our neighborhood here in northern Montana had been farmed for more than 20 years without putting anything back. The soil was starting to run out of nutrients and yields were stagnating. Slowly at first, but at an increasing rate, the application of chemical fertilizers increased yields significantly, especially when combined with higher-yielding varieties bred to respond to higher inputs. The goals for cheap, plentiful food had been achieved. Unfortunately, this industrialized model, like all artificial systems, was neither sustainable nor regenerative.

As higher yielding plants demanded ever-increasing doses of chemical fertilizers, costs for the farmer and the soil went up. After many years, alkaline soils common to the arid west started to turn acidic, which stunted plant growth and stimulated the release of deadly heavy metals like aluminum. But instead of reconsidering the wisdom of the industrial model, those pushing it advocated to apply more chemicals to the soil, such as lime, to reduce acidity and bred wheat that will not absorb the aluminum.

Naturally, chemical fertilizers stimulated more than the crops and the growth of weeds required more herbicides to control them. As herbicide use increased, so did weed resistance, which required more and stronger herbicides. See a pattern here? Herbicides now contaminate the soil, our waterways, and even our rainwater.

And these inputs, the chemical fertilizers and herbicides, are not free. In fact, they are unbelievably expensive! So how do farmers pay for all these inputs? For decades, the ag-chemical companies made sure federal subsidies were the answer. In the mid-80’s, before I switched to regenerative organic farming, my chemical bills ranged from 24 to 26 thousand dollars! My government subsidies very nearly came to the same amount. Meaning that I, as the farmer, was the middle-man in a transfer of federal funds from the government treasury to the chemical companies without any discussion or complaint.

Each year, farmers are required to pay for more and more inputs. Many crops now being grown are GMO crops and the GMO’s are owned by the companies that created them. These companies sell their genetically modified seed to farmers at exorbitantly high prices each year and even restrict farmers from saving seed to use the next year. To add insult to injury, and to entrap the farmers even more into the industrial model where they have less and less control, farmers are also required to buy the chemicals required to protect these GMO crops from weeds.

Does that sound fair or reasonable to you? So why are there still so many farmers participating in the growing industrialization of agriculture? Farmers are assured that by buying all of these expensive inputs, they will see higher yields and more gross revenue. What they fail to mention is the farmer’s net profit. As the cost of inputs continues to rise, the net profit continues to decline, until many farmers can no longer make a living.

When prices drop due to overproduction, according to market demand, the goal of cheap, abundant food is reached, but farmers are paying a very high price for cheap food.

Looking Back and Moving Forward—A New Year’s Reflection

sunrise between trees

New Year’s Day is one of my favorite days of the year! It’s the perfect time to reflect back on the previous year and makes plans for the next. I have finished the last entry of my daily journal for 2018 with a quarterly review of my goals for last year and I have begun the first entry of my 2019 journal with a list of goals to focus on in 2019. This also includes a review of the goals I have set for the next 40 years—I don’t have anything planned past my 110th birthday; I figure if I make it that far I’m going to take it easy for a while. I have always been in the habit of making more long-term plans but for the last couple of decades I have made it an annual ritual to review my written list on New Year’s Day. Some items are accomplished and get scratched off the list, some are abandoned and get dropped, and a few new ideas get added as the years roll by. It is a lot of fun for me.

Reflecting back on the first year of my three-year retirement plan, I am very satisfied with my progress. In 2018 I completed four of my five main goals:

We didn’t get the grant necessary to establish an organic research institute here in Big Sandy using part of our farm. But I’ve been working on some alternative ideas that may still make this possible. (More on that as it develops.) And there are always unexpected hiccups and challenges as a year progresses. We were very sad to see my son-in-law, Andrew, leave The Oil Barn® to work in Great Falls and we sure miss having the grandkids running around the farm every day. We are also still working to understand and resolve the occasional problem we have observed of trace amounts of glyphosate on some organic fields and crops. In addition to my belief that organic farming is the solution to global climate change and growing health crises and should be protected, I always want to understand as much as possible about the world around me and will continue to investigate and collect data on this.

Looking forward to this new year, I will be on the road. A lot. Between book tours around the country and the usual trade shows and organic conferences, 2019 promises to be a very busy year. I hope you’ll be able to attend one of my book tour events; be sure to keep an eye out on my Facebook events calendar for more details on the when and where. But I’m determined to stay home all month in August where I plan to work in my garden and harvest as much food as I can and hopefully start building a subterranean greenhouse. (Stay tuned for more on that later.)

I wish you a very happy, healthy and successful New Year! Be well, eat healthy, and be thankful.

Your friend,

Who Pays the High Cost for Cheap Food?

fruit and vegetable basket

Let’s talk about the high cost of cheap food. As one of the main themes of my upcoming book, Grain by Grain (in stores on March 5th), we can no longer afford the high cost of cheap food. There have been two main goals regarding our food supply since World War II: The first is for food to be plentiful and the second is for that food to be cheap. As the laws of supply-and-demand go, being plentiful and being cheap usually go hand-in-hand. So the goal was easy to achieve. But these goals are achieved at the expense of everything else!

We’re starting to recognize the very high cost of our cheap and abundant food and we don’t pay this cost at the checkout counter when we buy our groceries.

  • Farmers pay it financially with low profits for their crops.
  • Rural communities pay it with the decline of local farms and income.
  • Our planet pays it with increasing evidence of pollution in our food and water (Roundup Rain, aka glyphosate).
  • And people pay it with poor health.

WE pay the high cost of cheap food! Our families. Our friends. Our neighbors.

These high costs were unintended, for the most part. They are consequences of a system focused only on price and yield—cheap and plentiful. But they failed to take into account the effects it would have on all the connecting parts.

There used to be a common saying regarding action and consequence that went something like, “We cannot pick up one end of the stick without picking up the other end.” With our emerging understanding of how everything is interrelated and interdependent, rather than compare the relationship between cause and effect to two ends of a stick, I think it’s more like a giant web. When one part if affected, no matter how small or how far away, the whole is affected.

With a single focus on cause and effect, the goal of cheap and abundant food was achieved by focusing on increasing yields and efficiency. And increased yields and efficiency meant the industrialization of both agriculture and food processing, using more chemicals and bigger machinery. But there was little (or no) thought given to the consequences to anything or anybody beyond “cheap and abundant food.” Whether the decision was a horrible case of naivety or outright deception, I couldn’t say and it doesn’t matter. Unintended consequences are a normal result of almost all human activity throughout history. Mistakes can be forgiven and made right if they are recognized in time and steps are taken to correct them. But if mistakes are ignored, covered up, or denied—blatant lies and false assurances that all is well and there’s nothing to worry about—they are harder to forgive and harder to overcome.

In the weeks to come, I will touch on each of these areas affected by the high cost of cheap food in more detail. After all, we can only fix a problem once it is recognized and the source of the problem is identified. We know what the problem is and we know the cause. Now is the time to change.

Allison’s Elderberry+ Syrup

elderberry syrup and elderberries

Like most berries that grow on the northern plains of Montana, elderberries are pretty tart. They are excellent for making jams, jellies, and juices, but aren’t ideal for snacking. That said, elderberries also make a delicious homemade syrup which has many medicinal properties.

This particular recipe—compliments of my daughter, Allison—is called Elderberry Plus because it includes additional ingredients, not just elderberries. For a more traditional elderberry syrup, just combine berries, water and honey. But the additional ingredients make for a particularly satisfying treat. I use it on my KAMUT® Brand Whole Wheat Sourdough Pancakes, to sweeten my morning KAMUT® grain porridge, or even as a tangy topping for my ice cream. As a bonus, you can also take 1 Tablespoon daily to promote illness prevention or 1 Tablespoon hourly to boost your immune system when you’re sick! Give it a try and let me know what you use it for!

Allison’s Elderberry+ Syrup

1 cup fresh or frozen elderberries (or 1/2 cup dried elderberries)
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
5 cloves, whole
2 cups water
1 cup honey

Combine elderberries, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer over low heat until reduced by half (about 20-30 minutes).

Smash the berries and strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. (Tip: the mash left in the strainer makes excellent compost for your garden!)

To the liquid add the honey (or adjust to desired sweetness). Bottle syrup and store in the refrigerator. Refrigerated, it will keep for 2 to 3 months, but you can also freeze it to last through the winter!

Lights, Camera, Action: A Farmer on Film

After more than three years of discussions, planning, filming, editing and private screenings, our 38-minute film “Ancient Grain for Future Farming” is finally available to the public! It’s an abridged story of KAMUT®, our farm here on the rural northern plains of Montana and my love and promotion of organic agriculture.

Inspired by my good friend, Bernward Geier’s, film, “The Farmer and His Prince”, I spoke with him at length about doing a film about my own work here in Big Sandy, Montana. Bernward has been a dear and long-time friend of mine since my early days in the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM)—nearly 30 years! He was very interested and had the perfect cameraman for the job: Daniel Munding. And boy was he right! You can immediately see the skills of both Bernward and Daniel throughout the film.

Filming started way back in the winter of 2016, during our annual KAMUT® farmer appreciation dinner in Regina, Saskatchewan. From there, we visited Prairie Heritage Seeds (PHS) near Radville, Saskatchewan, the contractor and cleaner for our KAMUT® growers in Canada. About two-thirds of our KAMUT® grain is grown in Canada. We filmed more at my farm the following May during seeding time as well as during our summer field day in July of 2017 and then again at harvest in August. There are shots from our Kamut International office in Missoula, Montana, as well as the World’s Fair in Milan, Italy and the world’s largest organic food show, BioFach, in Nuremburg, Germany.

One of my favorite scenes and filming highlights was the interview with the widow of Earl Dedman. Earl was the reason the KAMUT® grain ended up in Montana in the first place nearly 70 years ago!

With filming completed and many more hours of editing, the final version premiered during BioFach this past February. We had several additional private showings throughout the year and have even produced some DVDs for friends, family, and customers. But in September we finally released the film to the public via YouTube and I can only hope it will motivate and inspire others as Bernward’s works have inspired me. Further validation that organic is the future!

Overall “Ancient Grain for Future Farming” was a great project that I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of and with such an amazing and hopefully influential result. It was all made possible by the time and talents of so many incredible people, most especially the tireless efforts of Bernward and Daniel. But also to all of you who support and promote the transition to organic—whether it be on your farms, in your gardens or at the check-out counter. Thank you!