“It is now possible to mass-produce and market foods with extra flavor, extra nutrients, extra purity, at less cost with less energy, with societal and ecological benefits as well.” These words were written by Gwynn Garnett, a working Virginia farmer with a remarkable background. After growing up on a Wyoming ranch, he worked in agriculture and then became head of the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1950s. He spent several years as a technical adviser to countries in Africa and Asia before putting his knowledge to work on a 200-acre farm in Remington, Va.
Now Garnett raises beef according to what he calls “controlled biological specifications.” The nutrient and purity level of beef, he says, “depends on the genetics of the animal, the sex, age when butchered, rate of gain, health, use of drugs and chemicals, stress, feeds, formulations, additives and many other factors.”
With such meticulousness, can Garnett make money selling beef? Well, consumer demand for his products is greater than his supply. Indeed, he is offering premiums of 10 per cent over the net market price for beef animals grown to his “controlled biological specifications” which, he assesses, are about 15 per cent, cheaper to raise. He turns around and sells his beef directly to consumers at 10 cents per pound under supermarket prices.
The agribusiness chemical industry would not be comfortable with Garnett’s approach. And if his idea catches on in this country, farm drug and chemical pesticide sales would decline significantly.
This beef producer and his son, Stephen, have developed a marketing system that connects into small farms.
Garnett recognizes that small and part-time family farms, separately, are not likely to be viable, but systems of small farms can be successful enough to “break up large agribusiness” with lower costs and superior quality products sold at higher profits. This can be done without any government subsidies or supports, he adds.
I asked Garnett about the response of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to his ideas and practices. He replied as if USDA was not ready to listen.
“I’m 15 to 20 years ahead of my time,” he said matter of factly, with a shrug of his shoulders. One suspects that he means that it will take some years before the human cancers and economic folly of drug and chemically saturated agriculture becomes too evident for anybody to deny.
Garnett sees other trends as hopeful: Consumer attitudes toward food are changing; more people are suspicious of chemicals in foods that give them no value and raise health risks, and they are becoming more sensitive to nutritious diets and the connection between poor diets and disease. and to farms in a small way. He sees the increasingly high cost of transport dictating a restructuring of U.S. agriculture “to exploit the location value of agriculture resources near population centers.” So, states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York can become larger food producers, in his opinion.
No vague dreamer he, however. He insists that there is a need for systems “to fit part-time farmers and small farmers into sustaining economic and cultural mosaics.”
Cultural mosaics? Is Garnett thinking about a resurgence of a rural life style? Is he urging a rethinking of the economics and cultural advisability of substituting pell-mell chemicals and machines for people in agriculture, and what that displacement has wrought for farm land quality and ecological damage? You bet he is.
His provocative thinking is based on his willingness to meet the toughest tests–more profit for farmers, lower prices for consumers, and better health for all.
The Department of Agriculture should give him a high-level hearing.