What We Value

We arrived in Dallas yesterday, and took non-toll roads to McKinney where we found a cheap inn on University. Slept. 
In the morning, we headed out to Prosper HS, which was built 5 years ago, and looks like a palace. Complete with pillars, high ceilings, skylights, it has the squeaky feel of a new place, where things don't yet seem settled into place. 
Wade Shackelford, is the FFA instructor. He took roll call, and then we started screening the movie. We showed scenes and talked about the advantages and disadvantages of different types of agricultural models. That how moving pigs into one place makes it easier to feed more at once, and how it also makes things easier on the farmer, and the pigs in winter. But there's the upfront cost, the massive loans that farmers take out, and the ability of disease to spread quickly among concentrated animals. 
We talked about the advantages of grass-based systems, the fact that they create more on-farm jobs because they are more labor-intensive, about how farmers get to keep the whole dollar spent on the food, because they own the animals and the resulting product. About the disadvantage that it requires so many more people, and that the product currently costs so much more than conventional.
After the two classes, Wade talked to us about the history of the region. About how only 20 years ago it was a very rural area, but that today the population has jumped and jumped. The surrounding area is filled with housing subdivisions, with names like Rock Creek Ranch, subdivisions as far as the eye can see along the horizon. These developments, referred to as MUDs in Texas (Municipal Urban Development), have replaced small family farms, similar to the way that fields of corn and soybean have replaced small towns, Main Streets, in the Midwest. 
We drove out of Dallas, South to College Station, where we were lucky enough to be hosted by 1love, and Cole Skinner, of Texas A&M, the Aggies. Where better for a documentary about farmers?


100 people joined us for the evening, almost all of them students taking time from full schedules to spend some time reflecting on agriculture, and on the hard work many Americans do to feed us. 

After the final scene, Cole introduced the panelists and the conversation began. As a whole, myself included, comments were a bit long-winded, however, it's hard to have short sound bites when addressing such complex issues as feeding the world. Each person, with the possible exception of myself, had a wealth of knowledge to draw from. Jason, who proudly represented conventional agriculture, talked about the importance of adhering to facts, to studies, to numbers. When one person mentioned that he wanted to eat happy cows, Jason pointed out that it is difficult to measure the happiness of animals. He talked about how conventional agriculture has been getting better at handling drought, based on comparisons with previous droughts like the dust bowl of the 1930s, when compared with the historically bad drought of 2011 in Texas, that wiped out an estimated 40% of Texas' cattle herd. 


Dr. Hill, the moderator, talked about the growing pressures of population, how China is commanding a larger and larger amount of grain, as its people begin to want to eat diets similar in meat to the diets of Americans. He talked about the rising cost of energy, and the rising population, and that for the first time in a while, there was not enough grain in all the coffers to feed all the people in the world. He concluded the night by talking about the water aquifers that are being tapped to irrigate and provide water for cattle, at the expense of emptying the rivers from West Texas to Los Angeles. What's the solution here? He asked. It's a perfect storm of problems that your generation faces he said to a group of either distracted or sober faces. 

 Karen talked about nutrition, about how she noticed as a young girl growing up in Wisconsin that her family and friends growing up on dairy farms were healthy people, who ate a lot of food, and worked hard. She believed that a return of more people to farms would be good for the nation's collective health, however, she thought it was highly unlikely given the cultural expectations of pay, and the current generations lack of knowledge of both agriculture and demanding physical labor. She, like Jason, expressed the importance of looking deeply at scientific studies, at analyses, to not get swept up in emotion or rhetoric when approaching such a complex issue. 

Olympia talked about how she's gone through a transformation in a few short years, from getting curious about her food, to actually buying an acre of land and growing rabbits, and chickens for her and her husband's consumption. If a couple of 50 year olds can do this, you can too, she said, to smiles. 

At one point, a fellow in the audience asked how we value things that do not have monetary value, like healthy soil. Often, these vital elements cannot be directly profited from in a monetary sense, and yet we all know that they are vital to our existence. And at another point, Dr. Hill talked about the diminishing aquifers, how government bought up all the rights, and as a result, areas are going dry, and regions are perhaps in danger of becoming desert. Jason mentioned that this is known as the problem of the commons. Meaning that everyone owns these things, and no one owns them, and as a result, few people gain control of them and use them up, while exploiting the power provided within for financial gain. 

And after the conversation was over, a fellow named Enrique came up, and talked about how we need to rethink America's core belief system. About how in a recent trip to Costa Rica, he had learned the meaning of their national credo, Pura Vida, which means "pure life" and which focuses their actions as a nation, and as a people into an environmental stewardship that is essential for their nations economic, environmental, and spiritual survival. He said that our nation has been successfully using a motto that involves, consuming, selling, and making money, and that has worked well for us up until now. That he believes that our nation is currently at a time of self-reflection, how we must redefine what we value, and what is at the core of who we are. 



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