By Robert Turner
Josh Smith trailered a cow over to my farm that looks like an Oreo cookie. It was a bull cow, a breeding male with all faculties intact, and so I could look forward to a bunch of Oreo mini’s running around the pasture next spring. The baby calves would all likely come with white stripes around the middle.
My mama cows and heifers (those that have yet to birth a first calf) are a Black Angus breed. Smith’s breed is called a Belted Galloway. A traditional breed from Galloway in Scotland, they are gentle animals with thick, soft, curly coats that help them manage the cold, windswept hills and moorlands of the region. I thought they would do well on the windswept hills of my farm, and so decided to paint some white stripes across my pasture.
Smith is a sales manager with Walnut Cove Realty and that helps pay the bills, but his real passion is farming and animal husbandry. He feels a sense of joy and pride in his farm because he is a producer. He feeds people, and that is, inherently and fundamentally, a noble endeavor. This has never been truer in recent times than it is now. No matter what happens to the global economy, farmers will keep producing food, and that should give us all a sense of security.
We are now beginning to understand the risk that comes from the concentration of our food system into large centralized production facilities. The closures of massive meat factories across the Midwest and the resulting panic buying that quickly created meat shortages across the country should be a wake-up call to American consumers. The one positive thing that may result from the COVID-19 pandemic is the realization of how important local food production really is to a community and to food security and sovereignty. We understand that now—after the pandemic crippled the centralized meat factories that provide most of our protein.
In March, Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the US (and owned by a Chinese company) had to close another one of its plants in South Dakota because more than 600 workers became infected with coronavirus. This one plant represented five percent of the total pork production in the US. That’s one out of every 20 bites. As more plants shut down in late April and early May, meat shelves were empty in many grocery stores, and stores started to limit the amount of meat that shoppers could purchase.
When it comes to beef, just four companies control 85 percent of the US meat market, and two are foreign-owned companies. Brazilian-owned JBS is the largest meat packer in the world and operates nine massive cattle-processing facilities across the US.
The largest food and agribusiness corporations have locked up the food marketplace through a business model containing the key means of control, including complete vertical integration, with the company controlling an entire supply chain, including dairy, poultry, eggs and grains.
Just a few large corporations control the market for the distribution of most of the farm output in the nation. And concentration is happening all over the food system and throughout the food chain, from the suppliers of seeds and fertilizers for farmers to the facilities that perform key functions like processing dairy or grinding wheat. All has been concentrated into fewer hands at massive facilities in faraway places.
Taking back some local control and responsibility for feeding ourselves is, clearly, the prudent thing to do. There is a simple way to regain control of our food supply: eat more local food to support our farmers, who need our help now more than ever. Farms in our region produce a wide variety of products, but many have lost important outlets at restaurants and farmers markets due to closures or reduction of service.
At the same time, many people in our community have lost jobs and are facing the serious threat of hunger. Families are struggling just to access fresh foods. Thankfully, our friends at Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) have developed a new program that facilitates direct connections between farms and local relief efforts such as food banks and charitable food services.
Because you eat food, you are part of this long, slow process called agriculture. Where you purchase your food and where it comes from will help determine the future of our food system. And if you see an Oreo cookie with four legs and a head grazing in a pasture, know that it’s a Belted Galloway and it was a local farmer who decided to paint white stripes on a green pasture.
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.