Arkansas Farm Bureau statistics state that in Arkansas only 11.6 cents of every dollar spent on food at a grocery store goes to the farmer. In my own experience, the price of cattle I sold at auction never seemed to keep pace with the price of beef at the grocery store. A rancher can control the quality of his ranch and herd, but he can’t control the weather or cattle markets. The longer you can hold onto your livestock, the more middlemen you skip over who eat away at profit. But every day you hold onto a live animal, the more risk you accept with the investment in its health and well-being. You can’t sell a dead steer. Sometimes the best a farmer or rancher can hope for is to break even.
With the rise of commercial agriculture over the past decades also came a consolidation of the food industry which led to food giants like Tyson and Cargill. With the increased USDA food safety requirements, massive food production and slaughter centers replaced and streamlined regional and local distributors. Today, I can drive around the state and see shuttered, local slaughter houses that closed their doors years ago. The few that remain, primarily make their money processing whitetail deer hunters kill during the fall hunting season.
Often these companies face criticism from opponents of “industrial agriculture.” And while they have certainly earned critics and shouldn’t be immune from criticism, as the food system is currently structured, they play a critical role in the nation’s food infrastructure that can’t be ignored or discounted. These slaughter and processing facilities are exceedingly efficient and intensely monitored by the USDA for contaminates. The reality is, when things are working as they should, they provide quality meat to consumers that is consistently safe to eat and consistently available.
But that’s when things are working as they should. What we’ve discovered over the past few years, is when something goes wrong, there are too few redundancies to keep the problem from cascading into disaster.
If the Covid pandemic taught us anything it should be that our supply lines are more fragile than we care to admit. As someone born in the early 70’s, the past few years were the first time in my life that I’ve seen shelves at grocery stores empty when there wasn’t a snow storm. But, a highly contagious virus running across the globe, that leaders had trouble both comprehending and containing, showed us where the weak spots are. Manufactured goods, imported primarily from China, ground to a halt. Texas learned the hard way what happens when their energy grid dominoed into failure due to freezing temperatures they failed to prepare for. But, within our nation’s well-oiled food system, a big wrench got tossed into the gears. The large-scale meat facilities that primarily use large numbers of immigrant labor for operations could no longer keep up with demand as the virus caused rampant illness and death among its workers and quarantine mandates hobbled their production. The bottleneck caused cattle prices to plummet and healthy herds were euthanized as producers were unable to sell livestock ready for slaughter.
Meanwhile, at the grocery store a lack of supply and increased demand drove up prices at the checkout line. The end result was a rancher unable to sell his cattle for anything above a loss while a consumer found it harder and harder to afford to buy what little food was available at the grocery store.
The farming and ranching operations that I’ve seen do the best, either found a niche or figured out a way to keep as much of the entire process in-house and move to something closer to a farm to table model. I believe there are lessons to be learned for rural, agrarian communities to reimagine a food system that better serves them, and a lesson to be learned for a modern university built on the foundation of agriculture.
The consolidation of the food industry certainly has its advantages on feeding a global population, but when the world’s largest exporter of food has issues getting food delivered to its own population in a crisis, there is a logistics problem to address.
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt was traveling across the United States by train and took note of the isolated communities. While it was true that they were largely self-sustaining, there was a weakness that each of them shared by not being connected and not being able to easily pool their network of resources. That weakness, Roosevelt understood, was transferred to the nation.
Connecting communities not only added wealth to their populations, but also created a system of resiliency. Where one area failed, perhaps by a flood or drought, another with a surplus could shoulder the deficiency.
His vision was a nationalized system built on a decentralized structure of interconnected communities. While there was some semblance of that through the first world war and the Great Depression as the nation worked to build its road system, the industrialization of the United States, in response to the second world war, created a nationalized food system that was both centralized and powerful that functioned better than most could imagine. But, like a six-lane bridge on an interstate, that easily handles thousands of vehicles crossing it each day, everything works fine until a barge hits it and comes down crashing into the river below.
That’s when you start wishing there was more than one bridge or at least a lot of people with boats. In terms of food, when you can’t buy affordable meat at the big box grocery store because some crisis outside of anyone’s control shut down everything, you start wishing that local rancher was still supplying that local butcher with full sides of beef instead of hoping that truck from distribution center shows up this week with enough frozen boxed beef.
It’s not that the system isn’t good. It’s that it could be better.
What we do know is that in the past few decades, the decentralized structure of the internet has not only transformed the way we live our but consequently created disruptive technologies that have built-in resilience and redundancies. Napster transformed the music industry by taking the power away from music labels. Apps like Airbnb and Uber transformed travel by allowing someone with an extra room or a driver’s license to create a personal business. The iPhone that I carry in my pocket, with the addition of a few social media apps and web connection, has more ability to capture, share and broadcast to more people on the planet than the largest media company in the world did 20 years ago.