Friday, March 20, 2009

Does White House garden help or hurt agriculture's cause?

First lady Michelle Obama is breaking ground today — on National Agriculture Day — on a White House vegetable garden.

It's a nod to healthy eating, which is a good thing. And it may instill some appreciation in the first family of the challenges to growing food (although they will likely have plenty of staff help too). And it draws attention to the local foods movement, which will undoubtedly help some farmers.

But, as a whole, the local foods movement may do as much harm as good for American agriculture. The whole local foods discussion seems to bring with it disparaging comments about commercial agriculture and use of terms like factory farms and corporate farms. People who know agriculture know that a lot of family farms are incorporated. Creating a corporation provides for things like transferring ownership or separating and protecting the family's assets from the farm's creditors. And America's and the world's people rely on farmers who grow more food and fiber than they personally use so others can eat.

The White House vegetable garden won't satisfy all the food needs of the Obamas, it will merely supplement their menu. If they have bread, they will still need to rely on the wheat — likely grown in the Plains or Pacific Northwest — that become the flour. Citrus? California or Florida will likely have to supply that. Perhaps a bottle of wine for the state dinner? That might come from California too, or the Pacific Northwest, or some other part of the country. Rice? That's gonna come from a sunny, southern state. Want some animal protein in the diet? Cattle or sheep rancher or fishermen will need to produce that. And what about the clothes they wear? Where will the fabric come from?

People would be mindful to realize what benefits our nation, and the world, have enjoyed from commercial agriculture as our society has become more urbanized. Americans are not hunter-gatherers or predominantly farmers anymore. Life is no longer only about finding or growing enough food to feed yourself or your family. Farmers and ranchers are specialists that provide the food and fiber, there are in many cases other specialists who distribute it or process it and get it to other people who are specialists at other things. We all rely on each other to meet our collective needs.

A law student at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., did an interesting personal experiment over about nine months. Justin Rothboeck decided to eat exclusively local grown foods and he kept a blog about his experiences on what he called The Salem Diet. He learned that eating local became very time consuming. He found out that while eating was good when foods were in season, he also had to learn to preserve some of that bounty so he would have stuff to eat beyond the harvest.

Reading about his experiences reminded me when I was a kid and all the work my grandmother (and the rest of the family) put in every summer in her garden and preserving all the stuff she grew there. Sure, it was great to have fresh sweet corn and cucumbers and watermelon, but after a while I grew tired of cucumbers with every meal. And then there was the hours and days devoted to canning. I loved her home-made pickles, but beyond that the canned foods were not appreciated by my young, finicky palate. Heck, I didn't like the green beans when they were fresh, let alone canned. Maybe snapping beans til my hands ached affected my taste buds too.

My grandmother's garden and caring for the chickens that supplied eggs and meat for the table was a full-time job.

Today, on Ag Day, I'm glad there are farmers who make growing food and fiber their full-time job so I can sit at a computer and play a role in telling their story and use my paycheck to go to a store, or restaurant, or farmer's market to buy the things they grow when I need them.

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