Part Two: Scale and Perspective

Editor’s Note:

This is Part Two of a three-part series from farmer Brian Bates of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, Michigan. This essay was delivered as part of his keynote address to attendees at the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network’s annual Farm Route to Prosperity Summit on February 17th of this year. 

In Part One: On Becoming A Farmer, Bates describes some of the influences in his life that led him to become an organic farmer.  In this Part Two, he details an eye-opening journey that took him to a variety of farms around the world, learning what he could about the differences that scale makes in farming practices. And that, all in all, the farmers he worked with are not that different than him!


Part Two: Scale and Perspective

We used to drive to the beach every year on the 4th of July and pass through the vast cornfields of Delaware. You may not have expected me to say Delaware, being that we’re in the Midwest, but at a certain scale, we become numb to the scale regardless of size – more on that later.

Here’s the thing.
In our family car, we chuckled at roadside signs advertising fresh ‘lopes’ and ‘maters’, we knew to say the corn should be knee high by the 4th of July, but we never stopped at a roadside stand. We never went to a farmers market. I don’t think we ever thought that the corn we were driving by was different than the sweet corn we boiled for dinner.

And after my father had been driving through those fields for decades, he asked me if corn was a perennial? I was shocked. But why should I be? He was from DC after all. Except that wasn’t true. He is OF DC, but my father is from Rutland, Vermont.
Vermont! The local food poster child for America. An ideal state we hold up for local food initiatives and small farming and artisanal foods and farmer coops and farmstead cheese. And do you know who else is from Rutland, Vermont – perhaps it’s most famous resident – John Deere! THE John Deere. Now – this wouldn’t mean much to my father, who wanted to get out of Rutland as soon as possible – but I share this story because much of this relates to our current world in northern Michigan and across the country.

Like my father, you can live in a local food haven and not notice, care, or afford to participate. You can choose to go to Meijer or to Oryana, Walmart or Oleson’s – all of these stores get the vast majority of their food the same way – but some get a little bit very differently. Our farm is in the very different category. And our farm is in the minority. But I’m not going to try to convince anyone that we should become the majority. Instead, I would emphasize conscious consumption, making little changes, and understanding that we have two parallel food systems.

I’m convinced we have two parallel food systems. One that feeds the country. And one that feeds its community.

Many of us are focused on the latter. Indeed some of us have dedicated our lives to it. But sometimes I think we get to thinking that we need to replace, or fix, or change the food system that feeds our country with the one that feeds our community. I’m not saying the one that feeds our country is perfect, but I do think we should explore why it is that way, and why simply replacing it is not only unrealistic but not necessary – archaic even. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to explore what it means to feed our community and to feed our country. (I’ve got about 15 minutes to cover a lot of ground, figuratively and literally) They have more in common than we may think, and they each have something to teach the other.

This is lettuce growing on our farm in Petoskey.
The size of this theater’s lot – one-half acre (Old Town Playhouse in Traverse City.) We grow more lettuce than any other crop on our farm, and we typically harvest 200-300lbs per week.

This is lettuce on a farm in Yuma.
BatesSlide10In an area smaller than Grand Traverse County, Yuma County, AZ produces 90% of all leafy vegetables in America from Nov – March. Think about that – 90%!

100% of the fields are irrigated, and all are irrigated with the Colorado River water through an intricate system of canals. Every farm field in the county is laser-leveled and graded using GPS to ensure maximum irrigation efficiency.

Once we harvest the lettuce, it is washed on our farm – here:
Once their lettuce is harvested in the field it is taken to a washing facility to be washed and packaged here:
BatesSlide12There are 9 salad plants processing 2 million pounds PER DAY, PER PLANT.

That’s 18 MILLION pounds a day!

Our lettuce is harvested from April – November. And we sell it here (local farm market,)
and here (The Grain Train Coop in Petoskey.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Yuma’s lettuce is harvested from Nov – March (how convenient!)

And it is sold here:

BatesSlide15And actually, just about everywhere else! Remember, 90%! There are over 32,000 grocery stores in the US – and we haven’t gotten into foodservice & restaurants!

The photos don’t lie. In many ways, our respective operations are vastly different. But in many ways, we have a lot in common.

We each use a truck from the field to the wash/pack (theirs is bigger)

We each use the same knives to harvest (they have more.)

We grow some of the same varieties, we wash and spin and package, we take our product in a truck to the store, we sell in a container on the shelf at the store.

We have two parallel food systems.

The difference is, in my mind, that this community of workers is manufacturing food at an incredible scale to service a nation mostly stuck in winter.
The money is not circulated locally much beyond wages. The fertility and water are brought in, and the resulting crop is shipped out. And we should be so lucky that our nation has an Arizona and a California in our portfolio of national assets.

These farms are a factory. I say this without bias. The tasks are mostly the same, and the workers are specialized. Some people think this is a bad thing. I just think it’s different.

They might as well be harvesting iPhones or t-shirts.

And the workers are compensated better than on most small farms. Wages start at $12.75 and go up to $32 per hour. Healthcare is included, breaks mandatory, shade provided, and some are unionized. This is good pay for hard work, and it’s readily available.

Not nearly as exploitative as I had imagined, these systems are typically presented as much more vulnerable in the scheme of things.
The workers could strike. The water could stop flowing. Fuel prices could rise. Climate change is real. But here’s the thing – with refrigeration, mechanization, and human ingenuity – we turned the desert into a breadbasket. And we grew rapidly as a result. It is what it is. And I don’t think it’s going anywhere. It can’t. We would find new workers, pump in new water, and transport more efficiently before we would give up on this vegetable factory of a county. They have 350 sunny days a year!

And in the meantime, farmers like us are just trying to supply a couple hundred households and a couple stores each week with some local lettuce. So why bother with local food?

Please check back for part three of Brian Bates’ keynote address in the coming weeks. And if you haven’t read Part One already, you can find it here. You can contact Brian and his wife Anne at their farm on the outskirts of Petoskey, Michigan.