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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reading Someone Else's Mail

I didn’t realize when I picked up the mail that a piece that should have gone into a friend’s box had inadvertently been put in ours, and before I realized the error my eye had been caught by a headline and photo: “Robinette’s Turns 100: Switch to retail helps Michigan farm last a century.” Wouldn’t you want to read the rest of the story, too? Now Robinette’s Apple Haus & Winery, the fifth generation of this concern is still, as the article notes, “clinging to the northeast edge of Grand Rapids ... while every other farm in the area has disappeared.”

It wasn’t as if I’d torn open an envelope to read a letter addressed to someone else. Fruit Grower News is a monthly tabloid, the July issue 40 pages of news and advertisements. I called our friend to say I had his mail but wanted to read a couple pieces in it, so unless he was in a big rush I’d take it back and ask the postmaster to put it in his box tomorrow morning. Here are some of the things I learned:

The Agricultural Jobs, Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, “a legislative proposal that sought to remedy U.S. agriculture’s labor dilemma,” is probably dead in the water. Supposedly, the Administration wants a comprehensive immigration reform bill, with a single set of rules to handle immigration and labor enforcement, despite the fact (this was the editor’s point of view) that the comprehensive approach has been tried before, did not and cannot address agriculture’s unique needs, and was in its earlier guise “dragged down by baggage from other industries.”

Another way agricultural concerns have been pushed to the back burner is that funding from USDA to land-grant universities (this is from a separate article) has “been stretched to its limits by increased demands without a concurrent increase in public funding.” The Cooperative Extension service, therefore, has been cutting programs in some areas, looking for private funds in others. “Gone are the days when every county had a fruit or vegetable Extension agent who could regularly visit neighboring farms.” The financial troubles extend back into the universities and affect research, as well. Departments are shrinking, being phased out and combined with other departments under more headings. The last line of this article notes the hope that “fruit and vegetable industry partners will continue to cover more of [research] expenses,” which is not a hope that comforts me. It sounds too much like the pharmaceutical industry subsidizing drug studies and meetings of the American Psychiatric Association. Research beholding to industry cannot be fully free or objective. That last sentence is my opinion, not the FGN editor’s.

An article headlined “Agriculture must use water more efficiently” includes four general recommendations: modification to tillage practices; expanded use of cover crops; improvement in the delivery of irrigation water; and hydroponics. I’m all for cover crops. Making irrigation more efficient can’t be a bad thing, either. I’m on the fence when it comes to hydroponics, and I’ve become a little more skeptical than formerly about no-till farming. No-till, I’ve found out, is more highly reliant on herbicides, so is there really a net savings of costs to the farmer or lowered reliance on petroleum products? I don’t know enough about hydroponics to speak on the subject but am curious about chemical inputs there. After all, it takes more than water to grow healthy plants.

In the not-so-bad news category, there was no increase in losses to honeybee colonies this past year. In the surprising bad news category we learn that local farmers in some areas of the country are seeing serious drops in their farmers’ market income, with more and more vendors--not necessarily farmers--getting into the act and buyers wanting prices so low that growers can be forced to sell at a loss. The wait-and-see-but-keep-your-eye-on-it news is that climate change, specifically warming trends, may mean that some fruit and nut tree crops will have to shift further north for the winter chill these crops require.

There was much more, all of it fascinating, all of it either affecting your household grocery budget already or poised to do so in the future. I don’t understand why we are supposed to care about which movie star is divorcing or having an out-of-wedlock baby. Everyone who follows the news hears and reads about the stock market and retail business sector. Agriculture? Do you know what’s going on? Where does your food come from? Do you know?

Fruit Growers News is published by Great American Publishing in Sparta, Michigan. The articles referenced above appear in the July issue, Volume 50, Number 7.


Gerry said...

Nothing like spending time talking to people who are actually doing a job to make a person understand how complicated the world is. But taking the time and trouble to understand each other takes so much more effort than letting the Great Homogenized Marketing Machine wash over us . . . (Why in the name of all that is rational do I even know who Lady GaGa is??? I suppose I could learn a lot from her, too, but somehow I think she might come up short with respect to the things I really need to know, eh?)

P. J. Grath said...

You're right, Gerry. I know farming is hard work, but reading this periodical gives me new insight into the complexities. The whole market aspect seems as unpredictable as the weather, and farmers are dependent on both.

dmarks said...

The agriculture and farm labor issue reminds me of an old family cassette tape I unearned a few days ago. Someone had recorded a lot of radio back around 1971. Included is a report of Cesar Chavez ordering a strike over canteloupe-picking.

There are also AM radio news reports about Vietnam War deaths that had just happened: jarringly sad to hear, after all this time.

And commercial jingles for a long-existing grocery chain that went under around 2001 or os.