Strengthening Agriculture’s Infrastructure: Notes from a WSARE Conference in Portland

Author: Strengthening Agriculture’s Infrastructure: Notes from a WSARE Conference in Portland

Publish Date: Winter 2013

Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (WSARE) sponsored the Strengthening Agriculture’s Infrastructure conference in Portland from Dec 3-5. Topics focused on post-harvest processing and distribution issues; strategies for optimizing on-farm and local nutrient cycles and sustainable energy use were also discussed. Recordings of presentations from the conference will be posted on the conference website: http://www.westernsare. org/Conferences/Strengthening-Agriculture-s- Infrastructure-Conference.

In the morning sessions, speakers addressed all participants. Break-out sessions in the afternoon looked more closely at opportunities and challenges in specific segments of the food system, featuring examples of infrastructure-related projects from the WSARE region. This article is based on notes from the morning sessions.

Fred Kirschenmann, a long-time leader in sustainable agriculture, inspired and challenged participants to think outside the box and develop solutions to some of the broader challenges faced in our farm and food system. He cited Richard Heinberg’s book Peak Everything (2010), which addresses the challenge of feeding an increasing global population in an era of dwindling resources, especially fossil fuel energy. He also described the “neo-caloric” analysis of Ernest Schusky (End of the Neo-Caloric Era), an anthropologist who views modern agriculture in the context of our long history of providing food, from hunter gatherers to today. Schusky claims that our diet became less nutritious with the introduction of agriculture and that our current energy-intensive and often nutrient poor food system will by necessity be short-lived.

Fred gave credit to the Permaculture movement for pointing out the value of closing nutrient cycles on farms and in food systems. He also praised Food Sovereignty activists who are interested in the rights of peoples to define their own food system. (The term “Food Sovereignty” was coined by members of Via Campesina movement in 1996 and has gained traction at the United Nations.)

One of the ideas that resonated strongly with participants was the difference between cooperative and dominance-based business relationships in the food system, both past and present. Many speakers at the conference emphasized the importance of mutually beneficial, transparent partnerships throughout the food system and provided examples of cooperative versus dominance-based partnerships, favoring the former.

Kirschenmann pointed out the importance of mid-sized farms (grossing $50,000 - $500,000/year) that are large enough to produce significant volumes of food and landscape-level ecosystem services but small enough to be flexible in production and marketing practices. Yet these farms, the “agriculture of the middle,” are struggling to stay in business. Rising input costs make it more difficult for many farmers to stay profitable, though studies in Iowa suggest that the economies of scale are optimized at 600-900 acres for corn, soybean rotations, meaning that mid-sized farms are economically efficient.

However, Fred explained, consolidation at the retail level is forcing mid-sized farmers out of business. Large retailers strive to minimize transaction costs: it is cheaper for them to buy 10,000 hogs from one farmer than 1,000 hogs from 10 farmers. If mid-sized farms can’t supply the largest buyers, they get cut out of the system.