Monday, June 22, 2015

Far From Being Mainstream

When I arrived in Durham in 1989, the farm to table movement was well underway, pioneered earlier in the decade by chefs such as Barker and Bakatsias who were already spawning a nationally recognized colony here with similar sensibilities.

My job was to weave this aspect into overall sense of place and give it prominence as a point of Durham differentiation, the essence of the community destination marketing which I was brought here to jumpstart.

Durham was one of the first destinations anywhere to do so but an attribute now claimed by even the smallest hamlets in North Carolina, making it seem that it has become mainstream.

But it hasn’t.  In fact, it’s far from it.

I’ll come back to the farm aspect of Durham’s farm to table in a minute but a new report entitled Farm Factory Nation documents the incredible growth, between 1997 and 2012, of what those intimately involved prefer to call “concentrated animal feeding operations.”

It has been due to consolidation, little or no environmental oversight and especially the powerful influence given special interests by Congress over food policy.

As a result, factory-farmed livestock now annually generate 13 times as much sewage as the entire U.S. population.

Unlike sewage in towns and cities where most of us live, this animal waste doesn’t undergo any wastewater treatment, passing along huge hidden costs to other taxpayers downstream, so to speak.

While my most conservative friends have an uncanny way of making every societal ill the fault of government, in this case, according to the report, they may be right.

While many of us became drawn to locally sourced foods, the U.S. Congress was doing the bidding of huge agribusinesses and as a result, shifting the food chain away from small, family producers to factory farms.

This is evident when you look at hog production, which is big business in sections of North Carolina.  During the 12 year span in the study, the number of hog farms fell by half, while the number of hogs sold each year increased by 39%.

During just the latter half of the study period, the number of hog farms in North Carolina decreased from 2,836 to 2,217 while the number of hogs in production increased from roughly 8.9 million to 10.1 million.

Another way to look at it is that the number of hog growers fell by 90% over the last three decades but the number of hogs produced remained about the same.

North Carolina’s share of national hog sales declined during the second half of the study period but it remained the second largest producer.  One county, Duplin, was the source of three percent of the hog sales in the United States.

Just one producer there generates more manure than all of the people in North Carolina put together.  Duplin, with a population of just 60,000 people, generates more sewage than the entire metro area surrounding New York City.

Another way to look at the transition to factory farms is that just 8 corporations and 7 huge partnerships now control 57% of all hog sales in the United States.

Of course, conservatives would spin this by saying the result of attempts by the EPA to deal with the issue of hog waste drove small producers out of businesses.

If that view has any merit at all it is because the protective regulations were drawn too broadly because small pasture producers don’t create a problem.  It is more likely that large producers insisted on a “one size fits all” approach to eliminate competition.

While the investigative analysis has a liberal bent, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make an excellent point.

It is the very nature of how factory farming is done that concentrates and intensifies the pathogens.  From farrow-to-finish, a 1,000 lb. hog generates an average of 9.3 lbs. of manure a day including 2 lbs. of solids that never degrade.

Most are sold before reaching that weight but you get the point.

Hog waste consists of 13 essential plant nutrients that are used by plants that originate in the feed, water and some supplements ingested by each animal.

Small scale, pasture production naturally regulates the waste in amounts that can be productive for soil and vegetation.

Even in a county where the state’s fourth largest city takes up more than two-thirds of its relatively very small land area, Durham is fortunate to have 232 farms averaging about 90 acres each.

The number of farms in Durham fell rapidly from the 1600 in 1910 to a low of just over 100 by 1950.  During several of those decades the city was the fastest growing in the state.

Since then, the number of farms has stabilized and even inched back above 200.

Meanwhile, the city, though constrained the county’s small land area, has continued to be one of the fastest growing in the state, including #1 again in the 1990s following my arrival.

Today on 45% of Durham’s farms, the primary occupation of the operator is “farmer.  Farmers on 133 of these operations work elsewhere for about a third of the year.

Durham County has a farmland protection program as part of its strategic approach to open space including voluntary agricultural districts in three priority areas.

Nine Durham farms are preserved now under conservation easements.

Even as one of the state’s most dynamic and nationally recognized communities and the center for one of its most appealing metro areas, Durham farms remain an essential ingredient of its sense of place.

They are also unsung contributors to Durham’s “foodie” reputation and appeal for the visitor-centric economic cultural development which has been so successfully leveraged by the community’s destination marketing organization over the past 26 years.

Many Durham farms either raise livestock and crops for sale to local restaurants and/or at various Durham farmers markets including the big on downtown.

Others raise feed such as hay and corn for those who do.  Around 38 use irrigation while for the most part the farmland is protected as a means of protecting the watershed.

Durham farms includes 46 that grow cattle for beef, 15 that grow sheep and lambs and only 5 that grow hogs.  But there is nothing remotely close to factory farms here.

In 1997, the animal waste scorecard showed Durham farms generating 32,000 tons of livestock waste, making it 84th out of 100 counties and less than any other urban county.

To put this in perspective, Duplin County, which is about an hours drive southeast of Raleigh, generated 4.5 million tons of animal waste. They are one of four counties that generated more than a million tons each in 1997.

Overall that year, livestock generated 31 million tons of animal waste in North Carolina, ranking in the top 10% nationwide for hog and poultry waste and nitrogen expelled into the atmosphere.

Waste is a fact of life but our widely dispersed, factory-driven food supply chain is not sustainable.  Powerful special interest lobbies stand in the way.  But this is one area where we need to return to a better way.

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