Well, I’m officially finished with my internship! We’re off the farm and moved into our new house in the city. I’ll have a little more time to spend on other things and plan to start blogging regularly again. Last week I was reading through the top stories on NPR and noticed several were about farming. The stories were incredibly multifarious; from bees in Minnesota to mushrooms in Montana to overtime in California. But seeing these stories together reminded me of one of the major lessons I learned this year during my internship: the problems in contemporary agriculture are varied and growing rapidly. There are rarely easy answers to these problems but I believe it’s important for everyone to be aware of them. So here you go!
Neonicotinoids in Minnesota
For a while now, we’ve known that neonicotinoid pesticides are harmful to honeybees. This class of pesticide is systemic so it doesn’t just affect the surface where it’s applied. It’s actually taken up into all parts of the plant. These pesticides are often applied as a coating on seeds, giving the entire plant pest resistance from the moment they begin to grow. Neonicotinoids are less harmful to birds and mammals but are very toxic to insects. Because the entire plant is toxic to insects, neonicotinoids are very effective against root worms and wire worms that are often difficult to kill with other kinds of pesticides. Unfortunately, they also seem to be pretty toxic to beneficial insects- especially bees. A bee that visits a single plant treated with these pesticides wouldn’t keel over dead right then. The bee would probably be fine the second, third, or forth visit, too. But with thousands of individuals in a hive making millions of collective trips, the colony as a whole is weakened, leaving it much more susceptible to other pesticides, parasites, and kinds of stress.
The EPA is looking at some of the research that shows neonicotinoids (also called neonics) are harmful to bees but I doubt they’ll do much. But Minnesota is moving forward with its own set of restrictions. Basically, farmers may have to prove they need this kind of pesticide before using it. It isn’t clear how difficult this process will be. So the farmers who use neonics aren’t happy. But I doubt the beekeepers are either since this isn’t actually a ban on one of the main culprits in bee deaths.
So how do you balance these interests? Do we just ban all pesticides that might harm bees in any dosage? What about the farmers who are already working with a razor thin profit margin? Do they have to lose their whole crop again? As a beekeeper and someone who leans towards organic agriculture, I’m definitely on the side of banning harmful chemicals. But I also recognize the reprecussions would be vast and costly.
Mushrooms in Montana
Mushrooms, especially morels, harvested from National Forests are a lucrative business. There are more than enough to go around so the US Forest Service usually hands out permits to let folks come in and pick all they want. But, even though this practice is fine for the mushroom population, mushroom pickers have left a huge mess all over the forests especially around campgrounds and entrances. Apparently some folks have even gotten violent, threatening others with guns.
So, this year, the Forest Service didn’t issue any commercial permits. You can still pick mushrooms (up to 60 gallons). But you can’t sell them. Of course, plenty of people are just ignoring that stipulation so the mushroom trade continues.
This story is indicative of the much wider conflict between agriculture (or in this case foraging) and the needs of other creatures, wild spaces, National Parks, etc. Usually these battles take place in rural areas, far from the public eye. Like when protected wolves prey on domestic cattle. Or droughts force water right issues to violent conclusions. As someone who loves National Parks and hates strip malls, I usually fall on the side of protecting wild spaces whenever possible. But I also know that farmers are, in general, conscienscious and apprectiative of nature. And it’s often a few who give a bad name to the lot. I’m sure most morel collectors are careful to pack out trash and take care of the forest. They want more to grow next year, after all. But a few probably went to the woods for a quick buck, left a mess, and got everyone else banned.
Still, with so much land taken up by cities, suburbs, and industrial farms, do we really need even our few remaining forests for money making ventures?
Wages in California
Most of the fruits and vegetables raised in America are grown in California. The climate is great for row cropping. Or, at least, it used to be before the drought but that’s a different story. For now, California is still growing A LOT of the food you eat so new laws about wages affect A LOT of people. Like, 800,000. California’s Legislature recently passed a bill that would require those workers receive overtime pay if they work over 40 hours a week. Since most farm workers are putting in well over 40 hours a week doing back breaking labor and are paid very little, this seems like a good thing. But this is obviously going to be a lot more complicated than just everyone suddenly getting paid more. There are definitely people getting rich in agriculture. But most of them are executives at Monsanto, bureaucrats at the Department of Ag, or -surprise!- both. So it’s rarely the case that farmers are simply too stingy to pay their workers overtime. So where will this money come from? Will farmers need to hire more workers and make sure none of them work over 40 hours? Will that actually hurt laborers who would rather have extra hours without overtime? Do vegetable prices need to go up? Are consumers willing to pay more for produce if it means giving people a living wage? Or will grocery stores make that question moot and simply buy foreign products, believing we won’t care either way?
Greens and Green$
So what do all of these things have in common? For one thing, they’re all difficult questions with no easy answer. They also all mean some farmer (or forager) is going to take a hit at the bank. That’s something I think a lot of folks ignore. If farmers in Minnesota are forced to stop using pesticides, they may have smaller yields. And that may mean higher food prices for consumers. Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drastically cut pesticide use. We absolutely should! For one thing, pesticides may mean bigger profits now, but that kind of environmental abuse will cost us a lot more down the road. And this points towards a paradigm shift that needs to take place in our views of agriculture. We’ve been trained to demand lower prices by any means and we’re going to pay for it one day.