Feeding America's Cities
By Daniel de la Rosa
From Peter Luger under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn to Alfred's on Merchant Street in San Francisco, many Americans would trifle more with how their T-bone is cooked than where the meat comes from.
Americans eat about 97 pounds of meat a year, which comes out to something like almost 2 pounds per week for every person in the country. To a large part, the meat is homegrown, raised in sprawling cattle ranches that are strung out from Texas to Montana.
The work on those ranches is constant and is practically year-round. It is also near invisible to the millions who live in America's cities.
"The type of work we do is dictated by the seasons, "Elaine Schwend said in an email interview while helping run the Lonesome spur ranch in Bridger, Montana.
The ranch is located a few miles outside a town whose population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is just under 800 people. They could see the Beartooth Mountains from where they live. Some of the rocks on the mountain are about 4 billion years old, which is almost as old as the Earth itself and would make the area one of the oldest places on the planet.
The mountain range here is one of the most remote on the United States' mainland. It was named after a peak which had the appearance of a bear's tooth.
Raising cattle in this part of southern Montana near Yellowstone Park is tough work although the sheer beauty of the area can take one's breath away.
"February and March (would) see us calving out and tending to the cows; we usually ride the pastures and bring the cows in to calve in the corrals," Schwend said.
By late April, they would start branding some of the early born calves. The gathering and branding of cattle spills over into late spring, she said.
For Kim Lund of the Ponderosa ranch in Crawford, Nebraska, life on a cattle ranch is no different. She said they raise about 175 calves each year before they are sold in the nearby livestock market in Crawford.
"Yes, the beef we raise helps feed the country. Our goal is to raise quality cattle for a profit," she explained in an email reply to questions sent by Hand that Feeds US.
There seems a certain diffidence among farmers about the vital role they play in feeding the country with food that is with some pride called among the richest and most varied in the world.
The cornucopia of American farm products reaches our cities everyday. We get our chickens from Alabama and Georgia, eggs from Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Apples tumble out of Washington and the dairy products from Wisconsin (hello Green Bay cheeseheads) or New England.
Mention lobsters and one thinks of Maine. Crabs and the best come from Alaska. Shrimps and one thinks of the Gulf Coast off New Orleans and Louisiana. Maple syrup for our pancakes hails from Vermont. Theflour to make our bread comes from the wheat grown across the Midwest.
Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, said in an interview the nation's food supply depends on the health of the American farm sector, and the rest of the world relies heavily on U.S. farmers as well. But he adds that most Americans think of the source of their food almost as an afterthought.
"Many consumers have at best a vague notion of where there food comes from, and often have major misconceptions about everything that has to happen to supply healthy and affordable food," he said.
In an era of tightening government budgets, one would often hear calls to get rid of farm subsidies, as if the issue were that simplistic or clear cut.
Westhoff said this issue mainly concerns "misconceptionsabout the role of government policies."
He said: "Many people exaggerate both the positive and negative effects of farm subsidies. While those subsidies continue to have an important impact on producer income and land values, they probably have a much smaller impact on food production, food prices, and the federalbudget than is widely assumed."
Many American farmers also feel that people who live in cities do not fully understand the challenges of making a living on a modern farm—juggling everything from securing financing to buy the seed to managing the risks in selling their goods when prices of items like corn orpork bellies careen wildly on volatile commodity markets.
"I have encountered very few Americans who have (a) realistic knowledge of American agriculture," said Jamie Blythe Wood, who works on the family farm in Courtland in northern Alabama where they have asmall herd of cattle and also grow wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton on over3,000 acres of land.
"It is exhausting to even begin to explain the role of farming in our culture and our economy to someone from an urban background with little or no experience with agriculture," she said.
A good example is the case of the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation crafted once every five years that is hotly debated in the U.S. Congress which helps set farming policy for the country. A critical part of the bill are provisions to support agricultural research, which is vitalgiven the United States has become the world's granary.
Westhoff said "people do not fully appreciate the importance of agricultural research, both public and private. It is an amazing achievement that the growth in world food supplies has generally kept up with population growth, and successful research will be critical in feeding 9 billion people or more by 2050."
"One simple way to make the point is that even a generous definition of farm subsidies (including traditional support programs, crop insurance and conservation programs) implies total federal costs of around $20 billion per year," he said.
U.S. consumers, on the other hand, spend $1.4 trillion alone on food.
"Suppose all subsidies were eliminated tomorrow, but that farmers were somehow magically able to raise prices (something they could not, of course, do) enough to fully compensate for the loss of farm subsidies. Suppose further that these higher prices for commodities were passed along to food consumers, dollar for dollar. The netincrease in consumer food costs would be $20 billion/$1,400 billion, or less than 2 percent," said Westhoff.
"It's hard to make the case that farm subsidies play a major role in helping Americans obtain food at affordable prices—or that they play a major role in the obesity epidemic," the FAPRI director concluded.
For American farmers, the lack of appreciation for how they feed the country and provide food to cities big and small—from New York to San Diego—is but part of the landscape. They would appreciate if some recognition were given to their role, but it does not unduly worry them.
"We are not expecting appreciation from the consumer," Lund of Ponderosa ranch in Nebraska said.
Wood said farmers look at themselves as a bedrock of the American way of life.
"I realize that this perspective isn't shared by the vast majority of Americans," the 35-year old said.