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Would Pilgrims slam modern farm practices?

POSTED July 30, 2013 8:52 p.m.

Thank modern farming practices and other bogeyman of the environmental perfectionists such as chemicals and fossil fuels for helping provide you with 27.5 more years to protest modern farming practices, chemicals, and fossil fuels.
If you were born in 1900 in the United States you had a life expectancy of 46.3 years. And if you were born in 1998 you have a life expectancy of 73.8 years.
Credit modern water and sanitation systems, replacing horses with internal combustion engines and agriculture’s ability to produce significantly more food and preserve it for longer periods as well.
The idyllic image of people traveling around using real horsepower is just that —  idyllic. Imagine what Manteca would be like if the 40,000 or so vehicles registered here were replaced with 40,000 horses. The smell, the flies, and the spreading of disease would be rampant. Say what you want about modern-day air quality that has improved by almost 50 percent during the past 20 years in the San Joaquin Valley. Cars don’t produce piles of dung you have to avoid stepping in. Those Currie & Ives images of New York in 1900 very conveniently forget the huge piles of horse manure stacked along streets much like snow banks and pushed onto empty lots.
The growing hysteria about modern farming practices is amusing.
There are so many absurdities it’s difficult to know where to start.
First, there’s the insistence that we should strive to eat fresh food that is grown locally within miles of where we live. That actually might work fairly well here in the San Joaquin Valley. But try that back East. The Pilgrims could tell you a thing or two about the fun of relying exclusively on locally grown fresh food during the winter.
The reason we eat so much better today than 113 years ago is the ability to move agricultural products great distances a well as the ability to use chemicals to help preserve them.
It is why you have apples in December, watermelon in January, lettuce in February and oranges in October. Sure you could grow some produce in greenhouses but that’s not au natural, is it? Besides you could never produce enough volume inexpensive enough to make it work.
Without chemicals keeping insects in check and slowing down the deterioration rate of various produce, the amount of food that makes it to market would drop significantly while the prices would sky rocket.
And before you start complaining about the high price of food, keep two things in mind. First, United States Department of Agricultural data shows the typical American family in 1930 spent 24.2 percent of all their income on food. That has dropped steadily over the years. By 2004, the amount of money that an average household spent on food — whether it was fresh, processed or eaten at a restaurant — had dropped down to 9.5 percent of overall income. And that has happened because farmers have been able to grow more and more per acre. Of course, they have had no choice since prices have plummeted as volume goes up. But listening to some of us complain, we act as if farmers and ranchers have hacked into our bank accounts and are taking every last dime.
We have effectively become disconnected from our food and agricultural history.
There’s no doubt things went haywire with DDT and those using chemicals with wanton disregard.
Wholesale condemnation of genetic engineering — it’s been around for scores of years in our food chain — and a complete contempt for modern agricultural practices underscores how most of us with full stomachs have become clueless about where our food comes from.
It may explain why over the years farmers have been painted as villains in water wars and are viewed by some extremists as money hungry capitalists who could care less about their land or herds.
Farmers can ill afford to waste or use too much water. Water costs money. Also, too much water can reduce tonnage. And water experts will verify an acre of farmland uses no more water than an acre of urban development. 
As for those who believe farmers abuse animals that they depend upon to produce milk or meat, they need to get a grip. The debate about veal operations and big poultry factories aside, farmers can ill afford to mistreat the very livestock they depend upon to make a living. They also must be good stewards of the land.
Not only can you thank a farmer — and those responsible for strides in crop production and food preservation in the agricultural science industry — for a full stomach, but you can also thank them for you having money to buy plenty of non-essentials.
We are no longer spending 25 cents of every dollar we make on food. And thanks to transportation made possible by fossil fuels, we can enjoy a year-round bounty of fresh produce that would leave the Pilgrims speechless.
Yet all some of us can do is bellyache about how bad we perceive farming to be and that somehow farmers are gouging us.


This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 249-3519.

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