The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has made us accept the fragility of modern life, and how easily we can lose access to the conveniences we take for granted. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in food production, due to its complex nature. There are still American producers who utilise a holistic farming approach, and their voices on the subject are more important now than ever.
Will Harris operates a small farm with annual sales of around $20 million: miniscule earnings in comparison to large farming cooperations which operate in the billions. Harris raises animals without the help of the protein supply chain. According to him, the problems with our food supply have been evident for years.
“Let me tell you about Tyson,” the 65-year-old head of White Oak Pastures stated. “For the last 25 years, some of us have recognised there is no resilience in the American food system. Consolidation made production very cheap and very efficient, but it took away the resilience.”
Harris isn’t alone in his approach to handling food supply issues. His concerns have been echoed by numerous local farmers and producers, advocating for decentralisation in their line of work. Such calls have been made for decades now, but have never been properly heard.
Large scale, global producers are dependant on a global network of farmers, whose work can be halted by an event on the other side of the globe. This is exactly the case today, and many believe the answer lies in the utilisation of local producers.
At this point, it’s the large companies major players in the global meat market who are most affected by the pandemic and the governmental response. Companies such as Tyson and Smithfield report major losses, and are cutting back on their workforce and salaries.
Once again, Will Harris provides an explanation for this, from the perspective of a small-scale farmer. “There could be and should be two or three White Oak Pastures in every agricultural county in this nation,” says Harris. “Tyson is highly scalable but not highly replicable. [Local production] is highly replicable. It’s not highly scalable.”
The obvious truth is that the public should rally behind local meat producers within their own communities. However, to do so immediately is far from practical. Such a move would require small-scale farmers to produce far more product, and to have more meat in stock. This in turn requires investments in infrastructure and the supply chain as a whole.
The meat production system includes its infrastructure, supportive businesses, consumers, and also the government, all tied together with a set rules not designed for small-scale businesses. Help for those who could feasibly replace our outdated systems won’t come right away. We must start thinking seriously about how to fundamentally change the system as a whole.