Friday, March 11, 2011

Bread and Revolution 1

As you’re well aware, the price of oil is once again making its random upward walk.  Well, perhaps it's not so random, and it surely isn't walking alone.  But with events in the Middle East continuing to unfold dramatically by the day - bringing uncertainties welcome and unwelcome alike - we'll all soon be very aware just how intimate the connection is between the global oil market and the corporate-industrial food system.  

According to figures released last week by the U.N's Food and Agriculture Organization, the average price of staple agricultural goods - known as the "food basket" in its Food Price Index -  went up 2.2 percent in the last month alone.  This is the largest percentage jump since such accounting began.  Here are one and two recent stories drawing some of these connections, i.e., between the price of food and the politics of scarcity on the one hand, and the politics of food and the price of scarcity on the other.  For a more in depth look, have a look at this article from Harper's, "The Oil We Eat".

And yet, all of this is complicated even further by another ingredient in the gas tank.  Last year alone, some 30% of the American corn harvest joined crude oil from the Middle East in fueling our "developed" lifestyles.  Diverted from the sugar factories and confinement animal operations that raise the cheap food on which such economies depend, the price of corn is approaching its all-time high of $7.88 per bushel.  While the housing market remains in the gutter, the price per acre of productive land, especially in the Mid-West, is going up dramatically.  Even in Tennessee the rental costs of acreage suitable for row crops is rising quickly.  

The question is whether this is yet another bubble.  In what precisely this bubble will consist is another question entirely - i.e., whether it's in the price of land, or in a particular crop, or in the futures markets, etc. - but there are at the moment a few people making quite a bit of money.  In fact, as Frederic Kaufman details in a recent article for Harper's - "The Food Bubble" - the 2009 financial collapse had everything to do with  the "free" market in wheat derivatives being traded on the floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. 
And well, as they say, all this trickles down.  A few weeks ago I received from Windy Acres an email announcing their new spring prices.  And even while such grain is not, strictly speaking, part of the agricultural commodity chain, one can only assume that the basic costs of production rose sufficiently to justify the price increase.  Just for your information, corn, wheat, and barley went from .20 to .25 cents per pound, while roasted soy went from .40 to .50 cents per pound.  At least for me these cost increases are significant.  So significant, in fact, that they have given me cause to pause over the sustainability of this kind of farming in general, and what we're doing here at Ecotone in particular.  

After receiving word from Windy Acres, I began to research other alternatives.  After exploring having five tons of "non-GMO" grain - i.e., from fields in transition to organic - shipped in from Ohio, I was ultimately dissuaded by the $3,500 price tag.  With a few more calls, however, I learned that the folks I've been getting feed supplements from also manage an old-style farmer's grain co-op in Guthrie, KY.  This small community of Mennonite farmers associated with Organic Valley, which pays for the certified organic grain to be delivered to their mill en mass and then bills individual farmers for what they use.  While, of course, they don't have much of a web presence, Kentucky Organic Farm and Feed is run by Wilbur, who can be reached at (270) 265-5004.   

This, for now, is where I am getting feed grains for the poultry and pigs.  And while Ecotone is not yet certified organic, which potentially gives us more flexibility in what we feed our animals, it is the political and ecologic - rather than the personal and economic - that has kept me from using such grains on our farm again.  While corn remains significantly higher than before, the rest of their grain remains largely in line with what I was paying before.  Nevertheless, the total feed bill for the month of March was $898.41.

In the next week or so, I'll post the link to a survey we've put together to help us adapt the various economies of Ecotone to these dynamic, uncertain agrarian days.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for not posting the video of me spilling the feed everywhere.

    Enjoying the eggs-- thanks!