Blog Archive

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The White Album Makes Me Hungry

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world...

Please excuse me while I speak to my contemporaries. By that I mean the baby boomers, the folks who were born in the 50's ballpark and are having birthdays with what seems like enough candles to light a ballpark. I seem to recall us saying we wanted a revolution. Well, have success and comfort blunted the attraction to that song we used to sing over the roar of our glass pack mufflers? If there is still any glimmer of hope for our generation to bring about some of the change we felt so strongly about in the days of eight track tapes, I am about to suggest a way for us to join hands and do a lot more than sing Kum Ba Yah. Perhaps we missed, or ignored, our other chances to make a better world, but there is still an opportunity to make a better Glasgow.

For those of you who don’t want to read too far before finding out what I’m talking about, here is the deal; this is an epistle about the idea of a creating a sustainable local food economy and the concept of turning Glasgow into a community of raging “locavores.” There is a world of information out there about what becoming a locavore means. You can read books by Kentucky’s own Wendell Berry, or Bill McKibben (Deep Economy is one of the best), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a great place to start), or Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is wonderful as well.). You can also click on this link and watch a great episode of Now on PBS to learn more about the concept in much less time that it will take you to read any of these great books (but they are well worth the time), but on to why this is such a perfect outlet for our generation’s long-silenced zeal for upheaval.

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We'd all love to see the plan...

Glasgow is far from being a big city. Some lament that condition and many seem intent on making constant progress toward reversing our lot, but perhaps we are already just about the right size; maybe even a perfect size for the infrastructure we have in place relative to our population. My suggestion is that this might be a tremendous advantage for us, not a weakness to be corrected. In fact, my theory is that we can save ourselves from the sort of turmoil we are subjected to when we lose hundreds of jobs because some distant corporate board decides they can make more money by closing their business in Glasgow and moving it to Mexico or China or somewhere else that simply increases their profits. I see an opportunity to create a perpetual motion economy where we train folks here to run agriculture businesses here to sell goods to residents here. One that works for us, instead of us working for a distant them.

Our infrastructure virtually created Glasgow. By most accounts, it was a free flowing fresh water spring in the midst of fertile farming and hunting land that first sparked the community of Glasgow. Ready access to essential elements of life has always been the basis of communities. The big spring soon attracted residents which in turn attracted businesses to serve those residents. Roads became necessary to move folks around between the spring, the homes and the businesses. Before long the spring alone was not enough and the residents thought it wise to create a water utility to help democratize access to the water. It is certain that those same folks decided to own the water utility and own the roads that formed the basis for the City of Glasgow.

Once a city had taken root, the residents also chose to employ their own sanitation, police, fire, and other emergency service workers and utilities. It only made sense for these things, so important to life and happiness in Glasgow, to be owned and controlled and operated solely for the benefit of the residents. Local ownership made a lot of economic sense as well. The fact that the city drew the residents together and made them nearly captive customers of these services made it practical to finance and expand the services. It was easy to predict the demand for the services as the utilities knew just what services they would be required within the community. When you can accurately predict a stable demand, business decisions come easily.

By the late 50's that same line of reasoning made sense to apply to another service rapidly being classified as essential for health and happiness, electric power. As discussed in a very recent post, by 1962 that idea became a reality with the creation of Glasgow’s own electric power utility, the Glasgow EPB. Most of us remember that idea also expanded into cable television in 1988 and then on to internet access and other services made possible by the community ownership of a modern broadband network. Some might think we already own and control all of the services we really need. We own our water and sewer systems and roads. We have our own police, fire, EMT’s, and landfill. We have our education and health care covered with our own independent schools and a community hospital. We are self-sufficient. What else could a community possibly need to assure its ability to deliver health and happiness to its residents? Well, what about something to eat? Oh yeah, there is that issue that nags us about three times a day.

You can’t tell it by looking at a large segment of the people in Glasgow, including me, but we live in sort of a food desert. Fifteen thousand souls in our city count on Houchens Industries (#140 in the Forbes list of largest private companies, located in Bowling Green), Food Lion (owned by Delhaize Group in Belgium), and Wal-Mart (the pride of Bentonville, Arkansas) for our daily bread. Even though Glasgow is the county seat of Barren County, which is one of the most productive agricultural areas in Kentucky, practically none of the food found in the stores of these three companies comes from here. Rather, our corn, grain, poultry, dairy, and beef products get combined with diesel fuel on a tractor and then a truck leaving Barren County for some distant processing facility where they are turned into finished products and wrapped, canned, or otherwise packaged. Then those packages trickle through several different trucks and warehouses before finally being delivered back to Glasgow at the end of a very long food chain. While we are not like the disaster victims huddled around a helicopter elbowing each other for an allotment of food relief, we are dependant on tractor-trailer trucks and privately owned retail stores for our food.

Of course there are a few exceptions. Glasgow has a couple of nice little farmers’ markets during the summer and we are blessed with a few Amish farmers who deliver us some wonderful fresh produce a couple of days a week during the summer (and those days can resemble the hectic scenes of panic at one of those helicopter food drops!). But, generally, Glasgow, like thousands of other cities and towns across our country, has lost the ability to feed itself. We eat what we are offered by the corporations. We eat what we are told to eat. This is a subject which is far too vast, and my expertise is far too inadequate, to be well addressed here, but the books and resources mentioned above(as well as outstanding articles like these) hold the following stunning points about the nature of our present food delivery system:

• 50 percent of the world’s assets and consumer expenditure belong to the food system as well as half of the jobs.Modern agriculture produces a lot of food and produces it cheaply but that comes through relentless consolidation and concentration. Four companies slaughter 81 percent of American beef. Cargill, Inc., controls 45 percent of the globe’s grain, while its competitor Archer Daniels Midland controls another 30 percent.
• 89 percent of American chickens are produced under contract to big companies usually in broiler houses, like we have a few of here in Barren County, some of which are up to five hundred feet long and hold upwards of 30,000 birds.
• Four multinational companies control more than 70 percent of fluid milk sales in the United States.
• Wal Mart is now the largest seller of food in this country.
• Tractor makers, agrochemical firms, seed companies, food processors, and supermarkets take most of what is spent on food, leaving the farmer less than ten cents of the typical dollar spent on food.
• In North Carolina there is a pig operation so large that the porkers produce more monthly fecal waste than California, New York, and Washington combined.
• 70 percent of the water used by human beings goes to irrigate crops and the demand for water to irrigate crops on land that is only able to be productive because of this irrigation has tripled in the last fifty years.
• The average bite of food we eat has traveled fifteen hundred miles before it reaches our lips.
• In much of the world, 40 percent of the truck traffic comes from the shuttling of food over long distances.
• The ubiquitous soybean, which we can find in one form or another in two thirds of all processed food, is generally subsidized about 70 percent with our tax dollars. The same is true for high fructose corn syrup. Essentially, we are subsidizing Cheetos with our taxes.
• In the 1930's a family might have spent a third of its income on food; middle class Americans now spend more like a tenth.
• If you buy a loaf of supermarket bread, the farmer gets about 6 cents of each $1 you spend. If you pay $1.57 for a head of lettuce, chances are the farmer got about 19 cents of that.

All of these facts are quoted to lay the foundation for the primary question posed by this post. The people of Glasgow have repeatedly decided that the control of certain essential elements of life is too important to be left to the whims of private companies controlled by distant boards and stockholders; so why, given the frightening facts listed above, are we not concerned about controlling what we eat? Streets, landfills, electric power and cable television are all great, but we could not enjoy them for long without regular inputs of food. Virtually all of us are just three corporate board meetings away from having practically no groceries for sale in Glasgow. Even more scary, we are only one diesel fuel shortage away from being hungry. It is just not like us to be so vulnerable.

Large cities like Louisville, or even Bowling Green, pretty much have to accept these risks because their ratio of population to farmland is too far out of whack, but maybe Glasgow is different. Barren County contains 491 square miles of land. By the time you eliminate lakes, rivers, cities, roads, parks, etc., about 400 square miles remain. According to this website the average farm in Barren County consists of 120 acres. If that is right, there must be more than 1,500 farms in Barren County! In my mind, if we started the process of trying to establish self sufficiency in our food supply, those farms represent 1,500 businesses that we might help grow and flourish. If each of those farms responded to our new desire to become “locavores” by producing food products for use right here at home, and hired one new employee, that would be the same as us picking up the paper to learn that a new manufacturer is coming to Glasgow to hire as many people as presently work at R.R. Donnelley. Those 1,500 businesses would be green as well. The agricultural process is nearly 100 percent solar. Farmers convert sunlight into protein and calories. There is no better business for us to attract. Further, if we do this right, their customers will be us! Vast amounts of fuel would be saved because the food is not going to travel fifteen hundred miles before we eat it. Best of all, our local farm businesses would be getting almost all of our food dollars instead of the measly few cents they get today.

Such a pivot in our normal economic development efforts would not occur overnight and it could not occur from the efforts of any single individual or any single agency. Rather, such a move would have to be embraced by all local officials, boards, agencies, and citizens, but that would not be too difficult if we put our mind to it. A very small group of folks took about five years to convince this community to give birth to the idea of a locally owned and operated electric utility in the 50's. Are we not up to the same sort of project today? We would need to get our IDEA folks thinking more about developing a sustainable food economy than about convincing new companies to come here and consume more resources. Development of farm industry would need to become more important to us than building spec buildings in the hope of luring another automotive parts supplier. We would need some inspired leaders to start working out relationships with local farmers, restaurants, grocery stores, local schools and hospitals and other people who eat food. We might even need a government-owned building to house year round space for producers and consumers to exchange food for dollars. We would need political activists to lobby our state government and federal government to relax any restrictions that might make our idea difficult to implement. We might need government subsidized meat processing facilities. We would need to also be able to work with our local high schools, vocational/technical schools, and Western Kentucky University to get courses taught which would lead our young people toward sustainable local agribusinesses instead of the sort of agriculture we generally practice today that mainly benefits the likes of Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. We would have to go at this like we are hungry and afraid.

You tell me it's the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead...

Some of this activity is already happening. We have already mentioned the nice work already under way by the folks at our local Green Market Cooperative. In fact, if any of this resonates with you at all, you should attend their upcoming information meeting on January 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church. If you can’t be there, watch for a video of the event on our Cable6 shortly thereafter. But even though these folks are pushing forward with an element of a solution, and even though we do have a few very nice farmers’ markets around town in the warmer months, the problem is much bigger than that which can be solved by these efforts.

Our efforts at economic development over the last several years have concentrated on simply attracting industry whom we then hope will employ local folks and be successful selling their widgets in a world economy. We are not abundantly successful at that because of several factors. We are not on an interstate highway. We are not on a main line of the railroad. We do not have abundant cheap labor. We do not have a lot of the shopping and restaurant options that seem to attract folks to move here, and we are not able to influence the world economy to be kind to local industries. But this idea of developing a sustainable local economy hits us right in our sweet spot. We are a small population surrounded by abundant, productive farm land that is already set up to produce many agricultural products. We are hungry. Our population is certainly going to stay hungry no matter how cheap labor is in Mexico or China. We have abundant large vacant retail buildings suitable for serving locavores.

So the question becomes, do we have enough baby boomers who are still looking for a way to upset the establishment and create a revolution? Would we like to live in a Glasgow that has a plan for surviving even if it were suddenly cut off from the outside world? Are we willing to put this plan in place and use it, in combination with our other excellent infrastructure, to attract folks to our community? Does it not follow that folks would like to live somewhere that has a plan, instead of just somewhere that has the same chain restaurants and big box stores as thousands of less prepared communities? I hope so. The idea of using Barren County resources for the benefit of Barren Countians is just the sort of revolution I want to be a part of! Will you join me?

Don't you know know it's gonna be alright
Alright Alright!


Bill Travis said...

An excellent essay.
We in Barren County do have an historic opportunity,as described by Mr. Ray, to improve the quality of life in our little burg.
Our current living circumstances in America are unsustainable and making us no happier. Fossil fuel is the engine of our current food production scheme, and that resource is finite.
All movements for change must start somewhere, and where better than in communities of concerned citizens. The kind of change we need will not come from government without grassroots movements in the public.
Let us begin.