Time to rediscover an older food economy?
by Tena Starr
Hank Parker believes the pandemic has presented the Northeast Kingdom with an opportunity to “drill down” on a different kind of food economy, one based not so much on a new model as an old one.
People should be relying more on food produced closer to home on diversified farms rather than on imported food, or even on food produced in the U.S. by big corporations located thousands of miles away. As Americans are seeing through the pandemic, this country’s food system, which has been humming away for as long as most can remember, has started to fray during a pandemic.
His view is widely shared in this part of Vermont, but Mr. Parker, who lives in Sutton, is former research manager and acting director of Homeland Security for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Agriculture Department. He’s currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, where he teaches a graduate course on biological threats to food and agriculture.
In other words, he’s thought about the country’s food chain more than most. He’s also the author of a novel that lays out in terrifying detail what agro-terrorism could do to this country, particularly with its current heavy reliance on monoculture.
“It’s an accident that’s been waiting to happen for a long time,” he said in a recent phone interview about the sparsely populated grocery store shelves and higher prices we’re now seeing. “The system has evolved naturally. You can see what happens now when it breaks down.’
Americans are used to cheap and plentiful food. So, for many, it’s been tough to figure out why crops are being plowed under, pigs are being euthanized without going to slaughter while grocery stores are rationing meat, milk is being dumped and dairy farmers are failing, and unemployed people are fretting about how to feed their kids.
Food is out there; it’s just not reliably making its way from the farm to the consumer anymore.
The answer to why that’s occurring is complex, Mr. Parker said.
“A lot of it has to do with our food system in general. A lot of our agriculture is concentrated on large farms even though most of our farms, the overwhelming number, are small farms.”
Ninety percent of U.S. farms are so-called small farms, he said, but they account for a small percentage of the food produced in the country, though even the “family farms” are generally pretty big these days.
Three-quarters of the nation’s food production comes from corporate farms sprawled over fairly big tracts of acreage in distinct geographical areas, Mr. Parker said.
“They’re trying to make maximum use of the land,” he said. “It’s all about production efficiency. Both the crops and the animals are concentrated.”
And that, in itself, poses a threat to the food supply, he said. One disease among, say, cattle, or a particular crop, could go far toward wiping either out, a situation exacerbated by the fact that many crops tend to be a genetically uniform strain.
The U.S. food supply system is largely safe, Mr. Parker said, but it has its vulnerabilities. And some are showing up now.
For instance, because of its dependence on corporations that are so often vertically integrated — meaning they control more than one stage of production — if one company is disrupted, a word Mr. Parker uses a lot, its whole supply chain can follow.
“Lots of big farms are vertically integrated, so they control production, storage, distribution, they control almost everything from farm to consumer,” Mr. Parker said.
And many rely on migrant labor that “might be health compromised,” he said, since they don’t have ready access to healthcare.
“Truck drivers. Who’s looking after them? Who is monitoring their health? If they get sick and can’t drive, that’s another disruption.
“You get all these potential disruptions in the supply chain that come with vertically produced products coming from often very far away, and it’s a very vulnerable situation.
“I keep going back to the fact that we’ve become far too reliant on food that comes from distant locales. We want kiwi fruit and fresh produce in the winter, and fish. We also don’t spend much on our food. We’re about at the bottom in terms of percentage of household income for food budgets.”
With the price of meat nearly doubling in some cases now, it looks like that’s about to change.
An alarming situation with sick workers, closed processing plants, sick truck drivers, and labor shortages is compounded by people panicking, a natural reaction, Mr. Parker said.
“What’s the solution? It’s not an overnight solution. We can go back more and more to where we used to be to produce food closer to the consumer. I look around at our failing dairy farmers. Here we have a lot of productive farmland, and you have struggling farmers. What is the potential for them diversifying?”
As for crops going to waste, Mr. Parker said he can’t speak to why that’s happening in specific cases, such as news reports of cucumbers being plowed under.
But he can provide generalities. Who’s supposed to harvest those crops? Migrant labor that’s sick, or afraid to go to work? Are there issues with transporting fresh products from California to Vermont?
“The problem of getting the product to point one to point Z is complex to begin with,” Mr. Parker said. “If you have any disruptions, the farmer’s choice is it’s probably cheaper to plow it under.”
“Forty percent of the food we produce in this country is wasted,” he said. “Just thrown away. I’m assuming that’s everything that doesn’t get harvested, doesn’t get sold in stores, gets thrown out at home or restaurants.”
He said he sees much that could be done to ward off similar situations in the future, and he believes the Northeast Kingdom, and Vermont, are well placed to do just that.
He envisions a state facility with climate control where food could be stored long-term, also that there would be a sensible system for getting it to the people who need it. Vermont could have several facilities, buying from local farmers and storing food.
“We don’t have adequate government foodbanks where we can store even perishable goods for prolonged periods of time to buffer the ups and downs of prices,” Mr. Parker said.
The Northeast Kingdom has a lot of poverty and a lot of agriculture, he noted. “It’s such an important topic in Vermont.”
And the Northeast Kingdom is “such a logical place to drill down on this. There’s a reasonable array of large retailers, a fair representation of good restaurants.
“There’s an awful lot more we could do here. I think we could do more locally and regionally.”
The region has the ingredients necessary to develop a new/old, more diverse, more sustainable, and less vulnerable food economy, Mr. Parker said.