Reality Report: Ben Gisin of Touch the Soil magazine
Ben Gisin is co-founder and publisher of Touch the Soil magazine, an agricultural magazine promoting resilient agricultural practices. He speaks with Jason Bradford about the crumbling industrial agricultural system and its close relationship with the global economy.
Transcribed by Jessica Rios and Melissa Bart
Jason Bradford (lead in): This is the Reality Report; I am your host Jason Bradford. It’s November 17th ,2008 and on the line with me from Idaho is Benjamin Gisin, publisher of Touch the Soil magazine. Can you hear me alright Ben?
Benjamin Gisin: Yes, I can hear you fine Jason.
JB: Great. This is your first time on the show, so why don’t we start by getting to know you a bit. Can you tell us a story of how your magazine began, and what is the point of view it has regarding the food system?
BG: Sure Jason. Touch the Soil was born out of my experience while I was the senior agricultural approval officer for one of the nation’s top ten agricultural banks. I was approving billions of dollars of credit extension, and then after I left the bank I was a consultant to farmers and ranchers that were really facing extreme financial challenges. And in spite of all these obstacles that farmers faced year after year, they were willing to risk everything just to still be touching the soil. And that’s where the namesake came from.
A little more background: 1935, I think you know, was the peak year for farms in America with almost 7 million family farms. That number has shrunk today to a little over 2 million farms. This 70% loss of family farms was accompanied by a very dramatic boom in urbanization that was ready to gobble up farmland from stressed farmers. America’s peak farmland year was 1954 and since that time America has lost some 276 million acres. Put that into perspective on a per capita basis, America today farms less than one fourth of the land than it did in 1900. So it was these events coupled with steadily declining global grain stocks that led to the vision of Touch the Soil magazine. We want to encourage and publicize the best ideas and practices that lead to greater local food security, while giving our readers a heads up perspective of the crumbling industrial food system. This move to local food has turned out to be a national movement, not so much because of the magazine but because I believe millions of people sensing something more ominous needs to be avoided -- which has unfolded in the food and financial crisis of 2008.
JB: Yeah, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today, it’s a great sort of review of the show. We are going to go over a lot of the same topics that you cover in your magazine regularly. So why don’t we start with the financial system and its impact on agriculture and distribution and move on from there, alright?
JB: So I’ve been watching the tightening of the credit markets and am concerned about the impact on the timely shipping of food. And there are reports right now of grains piling up in ports because the credit freeze is preventing buyers and sellers from making a transaction. And I’m wondering if you can explain what is going on, whether this is a serious problem or something that can be easily worked out.
BG: OK, part of the reason that grain is piling up is certainly due to the financial issues of which we’ll talk in just a minute, but part of it is also due to the very high grain prices earlier this year that are now in the process of collapsing. A lot of these poor countries are waiting for grain prices to come down to a more opportune level and have held off on making grain purchases but that’s now being eclipsed by problems in the credit market. The way it works is: let's says that a buyer from Egypt wanted to import grain from the United States. Egypt, by the way, is the world’s biggest importer of wheat, it is very food dependent. So that buyer will go to his bank and ask his bank to issue a letter of credit. And basically what that means is that the bank stands behind payment of the grain, so when the ship arrives at the dock in Egypt and the grain is there, the bank will ensure that payment is made to the US seller. Now a letter of credit, if the buyer of the grain doesn’t pay for the grain and the bank actually has to step up to pay it, in effect the bank made a loan to the trader in Egypt. So issuing a letter of credit basically uses up a trader’s credit line and in the global financial crisis, as money slows down in its circulation throughout the economy, everybody’s businesses look weaker.
So we have kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy here, as the economy slows down, borrowers are less capable of getting credit and at the same time banks then increase their underwriting requirements or make it a little more difficult to get credit, so it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would say that the situation won’t be easily worked out and it’s really in a very, very delicate if not dangerous condition. I will say this also, the financial economy is bad for food security regardless of the situation for this reason; when food stocks are tight like they were earlier in the year, the financial economy responded by increasing prices thus removing hundreds of millions if not billions of people from or partially from their dinner plate and then removing buyers from the market resulting in the collapse of grain prices and the stocks not moving. So now, when we’ve experienced a financial crisis, money is not there to facilitate food purchases even though there may be food available thus leading to increased farmers and, in between, more farmers are bankrupted threatening further urbanization of farmland.
So I would say from the perspective of a shrinking economy, this financial crisis is very serious; and what’s confusing to most people is that the world does not run on money if we look at money in the historical sense, it’s either gold and silver or bank accounts backed by gold and silver. Today the world has only banking process and bank credit. So the world runs on credit, and this is why defaulting loans can very rapidly affect the credit we use as instruments of exchange, and then plunge the nation and the world into a recession. So the problem with the economy today, which is impacting food security, is that the financial industry can’t find enough qualified borrowers to create the bank credit necessary to facilitate the buying and selling transactions of 6 1/2 billion people.
JB: Yeah, it’s sort of based on confidence and when you start losing confidence, it sort of runs its course in a sense where nobody trusts anybody anymore and then, like you say, it becomes a self fulfilling downward spiral.
BG: I think in part that is true.
JB: Yeah, but then also there was overconfidence for a while, which led to sort of bubble. So the market seems to either go too far in one direction or the other.
BG: Yes well I think confidence is a factor, but there’s another factor, and that has to do with -- when the world uses bank credit as its instrument of exchange, it does so by building larger and larger residual debt. And I think that’s what a lot of people are concerned about, are these huge national debts and personal debts. In an analysis that I’ve done, it shows that the debt in our economy is rising about twice as fast as the gross domestic product. And so even though the financial subprime lending crisis was kind of jolt that got the whole thing teetering, it’s still the larger debt that has built up over the last probably hundred years or so that is really causing the underlying problem.
JB: So it’s sort of: we put our faith in a system that is destined to create more debt than can ever be serviced, and so in the long run that meant that it had to have a bubble that would break. Then when people realized this, there’s a good reason why they lack confidence, because it’s structurally unsound.
BG: I think so, I would even make an entertaining statement that says the financial system is thrashing around dangerously and really behaving like a dinosaur in denial of its approaching obsolescence.
JB: So some people see it but not everybody does, and they’re kind of struggling to come to grips with it.
BG: I think so, I think so.
JB: Well, I have a whole set of questions on the production side too, not just on the trade side and financial system. Agriculture is more and more a big business and of course a lot of costly farm inputs are required and I’m just wondering: are farmers still getting the credit they need to purchase things like fuel, seeds, and fertilizer and then are the costs of these inputs going down as rapidly as you are saying commodity prices are going down for major staples such as wheat and rice, so that farmers can cover their expenses?
BG: Well, 2008 has been an unusual year that has extremes that farmers have experienced in the past and for the most part the agricultural lending system that farmers use, and that could be the farm credit system or the banking systems, they look at each farmer on a case by case basis. So if the farmer somehow hit the markets in a way to pay for all of his costs he’ll be financed and the ones that didn’t hit the cost or market so that they could pay their costs may not be financed. And I can assure you that knowing how to hit the market is less a science and more happenstance.
So 2008 is a little different, earlier on in the year when grain prices and commodity prices were so high, I would say most dirt farmers farming the land probably had little problem getting financing. And so the punishing cost of fuel, and fertilizer and feed input in the spring was at its peak and also at a time when it looked like it was going to be a good year so I don’t believe that credit particularly for this last year was a problem. What’s going to be a problem now is that the farmers paid for all these inputs when the input markets were at their peak and now that they’re getting ready to sell, the grain markets have softened. And in some cases, particularly wheat, they have dropped significantly below production cost. So much of the financial punishment farmers receive may in part not be from high costs but unfortunately from USDA statistics that say that world is going to have a bumper wheat crop.
JB: So that leads the futures market to say that wheat is going to be cheap and that then impacts the price that farmers can get in the futures market, is that correct?
BG: That’s correct, and this concept is very, very important as it relates to global food security because if you have an artificial inflation of price, far in excess of production cost, you’re going to push a lot of people away from the dinner table as has happened this year. And in fact it was part of the reason for the collapse of the WTO talks earlier this year where India and China got together and said, you know we’ve been on a path of not protecting our farmers, which means not protecting food security because we’ve been lowering the very tool that we use to protect farmers and that’s to put tariffs on agricultural imports to protect domestic farmers. And when WTO negotiators said; well that’s a 180 degree opposite of where we’ve been going with this free market, India and China stuck together and said "look, we have to protect our nations from western style speculators because frankly, if we have another year like this our governments could topple very easily."
JB: So, did some farmers lock in sort of contracts for purchase of their grains earlier in the year when they were high and they might actually be able to sell ok right now, is that it?
BG: Yes, there are some, but there was a lot of grain planted on speculation. Folks believed that things would be better. I sense that what’s going to happen too, is that a lot of the grain will go into storage and those farmers that are financially able will try to wait it out a little bit. Now the price of grain has had another destabilizing effect, particularly in the agricultural community. There’s really two types of farmers through the specialization in agriculture that has taken place in this country over the last 50 to 100 years. You have the farmers that raise the grain, and you then have the livestock farmers and dairy farmers. And these high grain prices have really threatened the livestock industries, the poultry industries, and the dairy industry with extremely high costs that many of them were up against the wall and couldn’t pass on. And I know in rural America, in some places it created now very hard feelings between those raising the grain and those having to buy the grain to pass it on through meat and dairy and egg products. So we have a little bit of a financial issue here, in that when prices have to raise to cover the costs of the grain farmer, then by the time it raises perhaps in the milk and dairy and other meat products, those livestock farmers could be snuffed out. And in fact that’s what happened this year, many of America's small pork farmers from 800 to 1400 sows, have seen their darkest hour and been put out of business.
JB: Yeah, and so it’s the sort of wild variability, the fluctuation, the inability to plan for changes in prices itself that can drive these people out of business.
BG: Yes, it’s the wild speculation that stretches our financial system in a way that it pushes prices up for consumers so they can’t afford it and then it collapses down to the point that the farmers can’t stay in business. So this volatility that we’re in is extremely delicate and, if it doesn’t stabilize out, could create quite some problems moving forward.
JB: Now one thing I like about your magazine is that you profile all kinds of farmers, some of them very large and dependent upon credit and commodity markets, and I’m curious about the range of thoughts farmers are having right now. Is there anything you would like to share?
BG: Yes, as you know we have writers across the nation, and we often talk to them behind the scenes and also the stories that we source directly and I think it would be fairly representative to say that as a general rule, farmers are afraid of escalating input costs. And again when it comes to what the farmer receives, opinions are split. The soil farmers need high grain prices and the livestock and dairy farmers need low grain prices, so we really have sort of two differing opinions when you really get into the rural parts of America.
For the small farmer that sells directly, I think that the issue is to find people with money willing to buy local and who then have the time to prepare those meals at home. And so often they’re, with this financial crisis, maybe looking at a declining pool of customers or customers that may be more financially stressed. And so, I think for the main farmer it’s his input costs, and for the small farmer it’s jeez, can I continue to keep my customer base?
JB: Yeah, you know speaking to myself, I don’t think that something as important as food should be left to the market place as currently constructed. I mean, like we said there’s just too much variation in prices to plan a farm budget reliably, too much short term thinking forced on the farmers by the money system, and I’m just wondering is there a kind of schism developing in America right now between those who still have sort of faith in the current system verses those who are disillusioned by what they’ve been seeing and are searching for some workable alternative?
BG: Jason, I think there may well be a schism, but certainly I think lots of confusion, and literally what I would call philosophical stumbling blocks. What I mean by this is, philosophically we’ve been taught that a capitalistic free enterprise system solves all issues, and the double whammy of the food crisis followed by the financial crisis proves this certainly not to be the case. Yet we often don’t know what else to do because we’ve not been trained in everything else. And even those looking for alternatives do so by wanting to work within the context of using cash flows created by a failing financial system. But I sense there’s a growing movement to start thinking non-financially. More neighbor to neighbor bartering, raising and canning food, billions of unpaid volunteers working in food banks and other service projects and so while these types of economic projects in their financial state are unable to facilitate the kind of complex economy that we depend upon, in many cases literally, for our life sustaining services. We are in the information age and there’s a likelihood that the financial industry, if it continues to punish us with a non-performing economy, it may lose its luster as being the sole provider of the nations and worlds mechanisms of exchange. And a whole new financial system may emerge.
JB: Yeah, we haven’t had to think about these issues for so long that I think, like you’re saying, people are kind of groping for something. There’s a lot of anxiety out there and it’s hard to see how these activities that you're talking about, the neighborhood activities and these small organic farms can, like you say, feed us these big commodity crops that we’re used to getting so cheaply. You know one of the things I like, you have profiles of farms and farmers in Touch the Soil and one thing I’ve noticed is some demographic patterns. It appears that if a farm is small scaled, organic, and community based, it’s most likely it’s going to have younger farmers and it’s most likely to be focused on vegetable production, not so much into other food stuffs, like grains and beans. Does this seem true to you and if so is it an important observation?
BG: Well I think it’s a very complex but very important observation. Most new farmers coming on, I believe, are young and often do not have previous agricultural experience. And there are two things driving this move; one is that many young people today want to do what they believe in their hearts and number two is that the weak economy has people looking for alternatives. So the reason these farmers will focus on fresh vegetables is that it is easier to find a small plot of land close to a large urban center than it is to go out and find a large plot of land that may be hundreds if not thousands of miles away. But urbanization in America has pushed up land prices around the perimeters of big urban centers that make farming unfeasible, if the land had to be purchased at term market prices. So much of the affordable price structure in the food that we eat, unfortunately, is that food is grown far away on land that is only a fraction of the cost near a big city. And also that this food ultimately is touched by many hands along the way that may earn less than the living wage. So while available land in around cities, vacant yards, rooftops, vacant lots, pots on balconies can be cultivated for food, we ultimately have to face the fact that we as a population have reached a size and congregated in cities to a point that a critical portion of our food must come from a far distance, and it's particularly true if we are going to maintain our heavy meat and dairy diet.
So the cost of large scale farming, even though it’s far away, is also increasing geometrically for a number of reasons. The world is experiencing a shortage of farmland and that’s creating a greater and greater competition for a limited resource, raising the price of farmland. And then that spills over to competition for other scarce resources such as oil and fresh water, fertilizer and other farm inputs. And so really in the big picture, the road to local sustenance with small farmers raising vegetables is not only important from an environmental perspective, but one that I think we will be forced to take as agriculture resources are competed for more and more aggressively.
JB: This is the Reality Report; I am your host Jason Bradford. Today we’re talking to Benjamin Gisin, he is the editor and publisher of the magazine Touch the Soil, you can find out more at www.touchthesoil.com. And we’re talking about the relationship between the financial system and the food system, looking into the global commodity markets for grains and other products as well as exploring how home gardening might help and how community food security can be enhanced with the development of local food systems.
So I’m wondering what you think about current US agricultural policies. Are there some changes you’d hope to see over the course of the Obama administration?
BG: Well I think everybody’s looking for some changes. One thing however, current US agricultural policies, to the extent that they pump money into rural America and help in whatever little way they can to arrest the loss of farmland is something that we shouldn’t lose sight of. Now however, our policies currently ignore strategic food stocks and they exclude funding the growth and sustaining of local food systems. And I think this is what people are hoping to reverse and something that we hope that the current administration will work towards.
JB: What do you mean by strategic food stocks?
BG: Back when the WTO was formed, when it first came out in the early to mid 90s, one of their main strategic objectives was to eliminate import or export tariffs and this is how countries protected their agricultural system.
Two things happened. As these tariffs were lowered, countries abandoned protecting their agricultural systems; and global food stocks, which historically carried civilization from season to season, were now viewed as inventories to be sold, and held over the head of farmers and literally saying "we still have something in stock." So, we have years where the world didn’t produce enough grain, when in fact prices were still weak or went down because stocks were just being depleted. So, we’ve been artificially living on the production of farms of almost a generation ago.
Strategic food stocks, which was part of the problem that caused wheat prices in America this spring is when America was exporting far more wheat than it produced, and it drained stocks to a level where many bakers across the U.S. were getting into wheat that was 3 and 4 years old. The U.S. collapsed its rice supplies, and had to buy them from Europe. And, few people know that the baking industry had a march on Washington D.C. saying you know it’s time that America established a reserve of certain key food stocks below which we don’t export or use, or if we do then we make an attempt to rebuild those. So, from a financial perspective, if we don’t have stocks, we’re going to have volatility, and the kind of volatility that we’ve seen unfold in 2008 does two things. It pushes people off the dinner plate and then comes back when farmers are incented to shrinking prices and collapses the farmers. So, strategic food stocks -- it would be nice if the federal government would do it, but even far better if it’s something that states could do at their level. States determining we need so much wheat, we need so much corn, we need so much of our basic staples, and we maintain those reserves so if there’s a problem, regardless of what it is, we don’t have to call Washington D.C. and say send food to hurricane stricken Louisiana, but we’ve got something that’s more local.
JB: Yeah, or beg Cargill to open up their elevators or something like that.
BG: Yes, yes.
JB: That’s a thing I also noticed from your magazine is you talk about the privatization of food stocks. It’s really not a government thing. There’s no big government program to store grains like the kings might have done in the feudal system.
BG: You know that’s an interesting subject. Just a quick comment here. The U.S. government’s grain reserves and food reserves, since May, have gone to absolute zero. This is the first time in our history that our government really hasn’t had food reserves. Again, it’s part of this free market system that if we don’t have it here we can go somewhere else and buy it, which has proven not to be the case particularly this last year when most of the world’s grain exporting countries and rice exporting countries closed their doors to protect their own domestic food security. So, with the government not having any reserves and it being totally tossed into the private industry, the concept that literally even in many founding Native Americans, the earlier Indian tribes, it was a tribal rule that they had sometimes up to two years’ worth of grain stocks. They had very exact sciences on how they protected those grains to carry them from season to season. So, when this time-honored tradition that goes back as far as history goes in terms of having stocks to carry civilization between seasons, particularly here in America where we live in northern climes and can’t produce year round, it’s a concept that has gone by the wayside that the world has paid for this last year and something that needs a whole lot more attention.
JB: That’s right. Well, I know that not everybody is holding their breath for change at the federal level and so I’m wondering if you can give us a review of some of the roles households can take in the food system?
BG: Sure. This last year has seen a number of changes reflected in the economy. One is that, in many areas, sales of vegetable seeds exceeded sales of flower seeds for the first time. So, folks instead of wanting to beautify their gardens decided to use their gardens for food production. That, then, has spilled over to a tremendous increase in home food canning. One of our writers is the nation’s top food safety and food canning expert out of the University of Georgia in Atlanta. When we were talking to her earlier, she explained to us that this year cannot be described in any other year. America probably turned the corner. Their sales of canning books and canning videos; their books they sold out twice. Hits on their website have gone from several hundred thousand into the millions, and she said her phone’s been ringing off the hook. It’s just been a hectic system.
BG: Then we found that Ball canning, there’s just one company now in America that provides the canning supplies, and their sales are up 30-40% and their freezer bags are up 100% and there were spot shortages of canning supplies all across the U.S. While this may sound bad on the surface it was tremendously constructive because we are literally fomenting a new food culture. Folks are doing everything from learning about container gardening on their patios or balconies, to folks converting their lawns, to movements to even have allotment gardens. So, what’s happening is this resurgence means that there are more people through our culture that know how to do these things. A person who might have an interest in raising something locally and taking a little time out of their busy schedule to do something, there’s more help and more people that are doing it at the same time. That really is a part of an answer. The other part is to continue to support the local grower and the local farmer.
We had a woman we talked to who has a very successful CSA. For those of you on the line, a CSA is just a community-supported agriculture, where at the beginning of the season you buy a share of the farm’s production and then every week during the growing season you’ll get a box of produce. What this woman explained to us, she said that when she first started her CSA five or six years ago, most of the people who came to her farm were there because they believed it was the right thing to do to spend a few extra dollars to promote local agriculture and to promote the local economy, and food in many cases that didn’t have the toxins that our chemical agriculture does. But, in the last year or two, she’s been approached by her customers and says you know while we’ve been with you for a number of years for reasons that we philosophically believe were right, we’re now with you for this reason--when there’s no food in the grocery store we’re going to come to your farm. I know that today that’s a huge leap of faith and it’s hard for us to imagine that can happen, but the thing is that it is still in the back of people’s minds. I believe that’s constructive because it will help continue to move towards the road to more sustainable local food.
JB: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think like that. I have a little farm and I wonder if some day people are going to turn to me and say, "Please grow my food!" Whereas right now if I have a crop failure or whatever, it’s not a huge deal. There’s still plenty of food around. So, it’s interesting to hear that other people are thinking along those lines. You never know really how much of your thoughts are your own or if they’re shared, and so that’s one of the reasons I like reading your magazine. It helps me understand.
BG: Well, thank you.
JB: Why don’t we take the caller? Hi there. Go ahead.
Caller: Hello Jason, Mr. Gisin. The amount of information you’re giving is just fabulous. We have a specific problem here in Willits. I’ve been container farming in my front yard and it’s been okay, but what’s happening is we’re raising our water prices and I can’t conceive that in the coming growing season I’ll actually be able to afford the water to grow the vegetables. That’s just a comment; any kind of answer you want to give or any of your thoughts, I’d welcome.
BG: Well, that’s certainly an interesting perspective and I think water will be the next big issue. As a matter of fact, it is right now one of the limiting factors to global agriculture. In other places, I think the issue is that communities need to get together and perhaps find a way to have a group of citizens getting together and going to their water board. I don’t know if your water is handled by a city or if you’ve got a private company?
JB: It’s city water.
BG: It’s city water? To go to them and say for those of us that are raising food, we need an exclusion.
JB: Yeah, or some allotment of some kind, maybe.
BG: Yes, or something. Not to be punished. You know, this brings up a strange conversation we’ve had in other areas that are, in some cases, fairly dry. In most states it’s illegal to collect rain water and reuse it, because the state owns the water, without a license. I don’t know what the case is there in California and I don’t know what your rainfall is there, if there are water catchment systems that make sense.
JB: Yeah, as long as we catch it before it hits the ground, we can use it in California.
BG: I see.
JB: We get about 50 inches of rain here a year. The problem is that our dry season is so long. But, you can go a long way if you have a big enough tank. It’s just expensive to get started, even. Yeah, a lot of people are going have to learn how to be water wise, and I think grey water systems also are interesting. Instead of flushing it down into the sewer system, capturing that and using if for growing food.
We have another caller, though.
JB: Hi there. Go ahead.
Caller: Very interesting show. I wanted to dispute that comment about water, because even out in the hills where we’re all using our own springs, if every one of us had to really, seriously try to produce enough food to get us through even a couple of months in the wintertime we’d be using up all available water in our springs, and here in the Mattole River we have a big program with these steel 55,000 gallon catchment tanks to try and reduce the impact on the springs. I think the idea of each individual trying to farm enough food to make a substantial dent in his needs is not practical and we need to work together to efficiently use the resources to limit the amount of water.
JB: All right, thank you. Any comments on that?
BG: Yes, and I agree with her wholeheartedly. As a matter of fact, I think work for food and cooperation are going to be a much bigger part of our economy moving forward. The financial crisis and our financial system has an impact particularly on this woman’s comments and that is--little known is that America’s infrastructure, which includes bridges and dams and water projects, are graded each year or every few years by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In their last report, which they’re just in the process of updating, America got a D. America’s infrastructure deficit at that time was $1.6 trillion dollars. Public projects, and getting public monies where we’re working together to build the infrastructure, even if it means dealing with the environmental issues and figuring out solutions to desalinating water for costal populations, is a huge thing moving forward. Seventy percent of America’s population lives within 100 miles of a coast somewhere. Desalination or figuring out a way to use that water, particularly to bring it inland to raise food, may very well become one of the pivotal issues moving forward. I think this woman’s idea and these water issues of working together and beginning to focus on some of these capital projects is long overdue.
JB: Well, you know, the global food system, as you were talking about, is faltering and I think home gardening is great. I do it, but I also in no way think it can provide for the caloric family sufficiency. I’m just wondering is there an intermediate scale food system emerging yet? Perhaps only in bits and pieces here and there and, if so, can you give us some examples of what it looks like and how it gets started?
BG: You mean more of a local food system?
JB: Yeah, I mean the problem right now I see with a lot of home gardening and local food systems is they are very much focused on the vegetables and it’s very hard to get, like you’re saying, the land you need to grow the grains. But if we’re going to have a local food system that really feeds people’s significant amount of their calories, not just their vitamins and minerals which are very important, do you see any signs of that kind of food system where we actually start to have a local food system that looks at the broad basket of foodstuffs?
BG: As it relates to grains, probably not, because grains are so acre intensive. Let me put this in perspective for you. One acre of grain will produce roughly a ton of food. The average yield in the United States for wheat is about 40-45 bushels. A bushel is 60 pounds, which is close to a ton or a little over a ton. Grain uses a little bit less water. Let’s take potatoes for example. One acre of potatoes will produce 35,000 pounds of food as opposed to a couple of thousand pounds of food. Potatoes are not part of the global speculation and commodity markets. In fact, the United Nations has adopted 2008 as the year of the potato, and to encourage more local potato production because of its volume output and the fact that it’s not interfered with these global speculation markets. There are some root crops that potentially, even though potatoes require a little bit of an acreage, there are some root crops that can come a little bit closer into the cities and provide a tremendous amount of food security.
The country of Peru, for example, is using potatoes for making flour and to augment wheat. I haven’t seen a particular awareness that says these kinds of crops put out the most yield and we need to move those closer. I guess I haven’t seen that yet, at this point in time. The other thing is I do believe there is a little bit of awareness that even though grains are raised a long ways from home, if local communities could begin to control those grain stocks and bring a granary into town and portion it off and begin to hold your grains there. Then when there’s a grain shortage, you’ve got grain to provide the local bakers and to people at home. Local food security can be as much as controlling certain commodities and having them located in the community.
JB: Well, I’ll just give you some examples along the lines of what you’ve been talking about. I did a study around here where I looked at historic grain yields. We did grow grain in this county before World War II primarily. You could feed about two people per acre from our local yields. This was dry land farming. Whereas the potato yields showed you could feed nine people per acre. The problem was, of course, that potatoes don’t store as well as grains, so it’s not the kind of thing you can have carry over stock from one year to the next. In terms of that, buy direct the grain storage. The other problem was if you start to grow grains here where I live, there’s no where to put them because there are no more grain silos or elevators. One of the things that we’re talking about here is putting in silos, getting silos constructed, and then buying from the farmers that are about 150 miles away from here and getting a portion of that off of the commodity market and directly into our community’s hands.
BG: That is tremendous!
JB: So, we’re thinking along those lines. Just wondering if anyone else is, you know, because it’s hard to do this without any kind of insight from anyone else who has already gone through the process.
BG: I would say there are some other groups of people. I know particularly in this area that I live, the Mormon faith up here has had a long tradition of storing grains for the future. While storing grains is a good idea, it’s more or less just kind of a bumper that protects you in case of an accident. It’s not something that you can rely on from year to year, so it has some shortcomings. I do know that in individual households there are substantial stocks of buckets of grain and those kinds of things. In an emergency the whole community has to eat and I think a community granary sounds like a whole lot better idea to me.
JB: Well, definitely. It takes about fifteen 5-gallon buckets of grain to give you the caloric needs of a single person for a year. So, if you have a family of a few people, that ends up being quite a large number of buckets, whereas when you put that in the volume of a silo it’s a lot easier to manage that. We’re just not used to thinking in those terms anymore.
Well, we only have a couple minutes left in the show. I just wanted to ask if there’s anything we haven’t covered yet, you’d like to mention, or maybe you just want to sort of summarize your main points during the show?
BG: Yes, I would like to make one other comment.
Part of the answer lies in communities working together. To work towards, perhaps, states allocating allotment gardens, and with a larger portion of the public raising food your infrastructure will grow in terms of processing. I also believe part of the future lies in a community kitchen or cafeteria. Many people are so busy and, in many cases, financially stretched that if there was a process that folks can work on the farm, work in a cafeteria, work in the processing to help ameliorate the cost of the food while bringing it in, would be tremendous. Particularly people who are busy, and if there was a professional that was preparing the food when you’re too busy to cook it, and get quality meals, and create kind of a broader infrastructure. These systems, if they rely on work-for-food models from production to preparation, will become more popular as we face more financial problems.
JB: Yeah, I think right now you have the situation where for so long the economy has been good enough, there’s been enough employment, that you didn’t have to have much involvement in your food system and maybe the upside of a downturn in the economy is that there will actually be more free time for people to do things like this. I just hope that’s the case.
BG: Our company’s going to stay kind of on the forefront of this and we would invite listeners to, if they’re interested in more information, to visit our website which is www.touchthesoil.com.
JB: Yeah, it’s a really nice magazine. How long have you had Touch the Soil out?
BG: We’re in our fifth year of publication. We’ve also started a new product which is called Conscience Economics newsletter where we deal more with a financial piece and then talk about how that interfaces with food security and other economic security.
JB: All right. Well, Ben, I want to thank you and I know your wife works with you a lot on this, so really appreciate your magazine. It’s one of my favorites. I highly recommend it to everybody. Go ahead and go to the www.touchthesoil.com. Also, Folks, this show and previous shows are available at globalpublicmedia.com.
Thanks for listening to KZYX Philo, KZYZ Willits and Ukiah. This has been the Reality Report. I’m your host Jason Bradford and today we had on the line Benjamin Gisin. He is publisher of the magazine Touch the Soil. We talked about relationship between the financial system, the food system, and strategies that individuals and communities and, hopefully maybe, states and the federal government can put together to give us greater food security going forward.
I want to thank also my studio engineer, Craig Norris, here today taking over for an absent Tim Gregory.
We’re going to say goodbye and thanks, again, for listening and have a great week everybody!
BG: Thank you, Jason.
JB: Thanks a lot, Ben.
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