Hacker News new | more | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Farms, More Productive Than Ever, Are Poisoning Drinking Water in Rural America (wsj.com)
255 points by mudil 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 115 comments



My own family's dairy farm with 60 head of milking cows is currently set to go bust in the springtime. There's always been a steady drip of family dairy farms going bust but the pace has really picked up over the last few years with milk prices being so low.

Meanwhile there's a CAFO less than a mile down the road from them with over 5,000 head of milking cows that continues to grow and gobble up all the farmland in the area. They've had multiple manure spills, one of which ran down the hill onto my parents' land, into the creek that runs through their land and killed all the water life (that one they got a small fine from the EPA for).

They have literal manure lagoons that they don't know what to do with. Right now they're getting permits to put in pipelines to move it around.

I always wanted to move back near my folks but I worry about the drinking water quality due to this CAFO, with the probable high nitrates from spills and the high capacity wells sucking out all the drinking water. I shudder to think of what would happen if the planned manure pipeline burst somewhere and a large amount of manure seeped out underground before being noticed.

edit: I'm currently writing a blog post about this that I will post here next week; there is a lot of interesting tidbits to the story including the failure of farmer and dairy cooperatives. There is another post on the front page right now about Costco's vertical integration with chicken farms; well Wal-Mart is doing the same thing with dairy.[1]

edit2: A commenter had asked why my folks didn't go organic but deleted the comment before I could reply. We have some family friends who did that (organic crops as well), and it worked for a time, but the CAFOs have caught up on that as well.[2] Their story is very similar to this gentleman's: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/dairy-farming-is-dyin...

[1]: https://www.dairyherd.com/walmart

[2]: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/why-your-org...


Wow, my uncle in the same boat. He actually now rents land back to the large farmers and is making more than when he was farming it himself. The new farm is massive, similar number of cattle, methane collectors, manure pipelines...but the owners are far away and the people doing it are just your rural farmhands doing the work because they like it and it's. All that's available. The owners are making $$$$.

Modern farming is a mess from head to toe, been in the making for 40 years.


One of the benefits of living in a semi-rural area btw is that you can easily participate in changing this situation. During the Spring, Summer, and Fall months I can go and pick up fruits and veggies from a local grower -- just show up on their property during regular business hours, go and pick it yourself if you feel like or just pick up one of the boxes they've prearranged. I can get meat from a good local ranch too. I don't think there's any nearby dairy though.

Mega-agribusiness is one of the consequences of increasing urban living. To support really large, dense cities, everything has to be scaled way up. A dairy farm is no longer producing for the 100,000 people in a 20 mile radius, it's producing for millions, and the waste it creates scales up too.

In an ideal world, these mega-producers would be less harmful to the environment than the equivalent number of small producers, because there would be some benefit from economies of scale. But in this world, the mega-producers largely see regulation and environmental caretaking to be cost centers and they pursue the cheapest solutions, which usually involve hiding the problem or paying somebody off or buying themselves some legislation. Smaller producers meanwhile have a harder time getting away with that.


...economies of scale.

The other thing is local carrying capacity. A small herd might not have anything done to the manure, and through the wonders of bacteria and fungi not harm local streams at all. Once the operation is big enough to more closely resemble a Kansas feedlot, that shit's toxic waste.


If there's an oversupply problem, that suggests that perhaps the point where further industrialization was necessary in order to support the population is somewhere in the rear view mirror.

And if the economics of megaproduction involve externalizing costs of dealing with waste, then somewhere we've broken something about pricing and/or regulation.


There's been an oversupply of consumption in the US of most foods grown in the US for decades of course (witness the endless media stories of giant stocks of us govt cheese surplus). With exports we have soaked up much of that oversupply. There are some years when there is less production but generally we have too much; milk seems to be especially bad. My uncle is a farmer and works for the us govt somehow administering crop price supports. A few years ago, he told me that the price supports mostly guarantee that there is a stable supply for food, almost pushing for greater production, thus keeping us close to oversupply (which keeps the prices lower).

I'm not a farmer, I wonder if this idea that us govt price supports for farming leads us to have constant oversupply? And then what if they went away?


During the Spring, Summer, and Fall months I can go and pick up fruits and veggies from a local grower

City dwellers can do nearly the same thing through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture services. (except instead of picking yourself, the farmer does the picking)

Mega-agribusiness is one of the consequences of increasing urban living. To support really large, dense cities, everything has to be scaled way up

Isn't it more a factor of how many people there are to feed rather than density?

A million people in a dense city will need (roughly) the same amount of food as a million people spread over half a state.


A million people will likely have more land each. They’ll be able to have gardens and maybe even raise their own animals.


Is that a net environmental win? Rural housing is much lower density than city housing -- so if these million people each had one acre plots and devoted half that land to gardens (which would feed roughly half a person for a year), they'd have a population density of around 0.4 people per acre (assuming 2.5 people per household). Most of the rest of the land would be covered with houses and landscaping.

And that's assuming that each of these people are willing to work a half acre backyard farm, which is a lot of land to maintain as a hobby.

So they are consuming 400,000 acres (625 sq miles) of land, with half of it replacing dedicated agriculture, but the other ~300 square miles is going to low density housing. (which is impossible to serve effectively with transit so everyone has to drive to go anywhere)

In contrast, San Francisco houses 800,000 people on 49 sq miles of land. (which doesn't include the roughly 250,000 workers that commute there every day)


As a total outsider, I wonder what are the efficiencies that these huge operations get, which let them crush the little guy?

Is it that they can arrange huge contracts with distributors/chains/whatever so there is less overhead in the selling part? Is it less scrupulous environmental or animal welfare practices that just mean they are more exploitative and creating more externalities? Is it something else?

I wonder if there'd be some way for the little guys to band together. I'm sure there's already a lot of this with co-ops and such. What's stopping these co-ops from reaching the next level and crushing the big guys?


Economies of scale like everything else. An example is big farms have their own veterinarian staff.

Much of the government management eg subsidies are also favorable to big operations. The expertise of knowing about them, filing and complying correctly, and in some cases even qualifying all are weighted to large players.


> Modern farming is a mess from head to toe, been in the making for 40 years.

Longer than that. The Grapes of Wrath springs to mind.


>>Their story is very similar to this gentleman's: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/dairy-farming-is-dyin....

If I understood correctly the (last) parts of the article mentioning "organic" (here in Switzerland we call it "Bio"), you miss something like this...

The livestock must be adapted to the agricultural area, location and climatic conditions. Livestock may not exceed 2.5 DGVE per hectare of utilized agricultural area in the valley area. At higher altitudes and in unfavorable site conditions, animal stocking must be reduced.

...in your rules/legislation, or am I wrong?

(that's an extract from the BioSwiss regulation https://www.bio-suisse.ch/media/VundH/Regelwerk/2019/DE/rl_2... , at the end of chapter 4.1)

EDIT:

and additionally (chapter 4.2):

Basically, the feeding of the animals takes place with in-house bud food. Conversion feed from own Production may be used up to a maximum of 60 percent of the ration (conversion farms: up to 100 percent). Supplied feeds serve only to supplement the company's own feed basis and are as possible organically grown. Young mammals must be nourished on the basis of unaltered milk, preferably breastmilk become. All mammals are to be fed with unchanged milk for a minimum period. The Minimum period depends on the species. The feed components must be left natural and the techniques of feed preparation used should be as much as possible be close to nature and energy-saving. Feed must not contain traces of genetically modified organisms or derived products of genetically modified organisms that are proportionately above the statutory limits.


No, organic regs in the US are not at all equivalent with Swiss Bio regs.


> I always wanted to move back near my folks but I worry about the drinking water quality due to this CAFO, with the probable high nitrates from spills and the high capacity wells sucking out all the drinking water.

Same. Always wanted to move back to into country farms where I grew up with a small hobby farm, but these mega farms are causing real headaches in that area. 15 miles south of where I grew up, one of them has contaminated most of the wells in a very large radius around the farm and surrounding community. My parents don't have this problem, but it's obvious all of the local farms are being consolidated (and have been for years). Difficult to buy property when you don't know the result of the impact of these mega farms until later.


It is sad to see all the ramifications of these large operations. Between environmental and economical impacts of the area around them, how do we let these get so big? I wonder how many other families are being hurt by the CAFO near your family's farm. I feel for the people who are just trying to run a sustainable business with these huge farms constantly looming in the background.


> how do we let these get so big?

My understanding is there was a big change in policy during Nixon's administration, when agribusiness lobbyist Earl "Rusty" Butz became USDA secretary.[1] His mottos were "get big or get out" and "plant fence row to fence row."

[1]: https://grist.org/article/the-butz-stops-here/


It is because the externalities of such operations aren't priced in. They are allowed to privatize profit and socialize poison.

If you want to fix such problems, fix the incentives that cause them.


> how do we let these get so big

Farm subsidies (artificially cheap grains for feeding cattle) and the inheritance tax (children are forced to sell the land after parents die due to tax obligations)


The 2018 individual inheritance tax doesn't apply to inheritances below $5.6 million per individual ($11.2 million for couples)[1]. I suspect that relatively few small farmers are impacted by it.

[1]: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleaebeling/2017/10/19/irs-an...


There were 682 estates in 2016 that contained farm assets subject to the estate tax, and on average about 5% of taxable assets on such estates were farm assets, while about 80% of the assets of family farms are family farm assets.

That suggests that the number of family farmers caught by the estate tax each year can be counted on your hands. And even then, farmers (unlike everybody else) get 15 years to pay off the estate tax. So, yeah, politicians claiming to hate the estate tax because of its negative impact on small farms are lying their ass off.


==children are forced to sell the land after parents die due to tax obligations==

Do you have a source for this? If true, wouldn't they just sell a portion of the land to cover the tax, as it only kicks in over $5.5 million?


I'm in this situation -- when my mom passes, me and my brothers will inherit the family farm of 320 acres in central VA. As far as I can tell there's no inheritance tax involved.

Just in case, decades ago my dad put the land in a family partnership of which me and my siblings each own 19%. So even if inheritance tax was a thing for family farms, there are ways around it.

We'll have to pay property tax on it, but that's around $3000 per year.


> Just in case, decades ago my dad put the land in a family partnership of which me and my siblings each own 19%.

Is it that easy to bypass the estate tax? I'm surprised it collects basically any money at all, if all you have to do is make your children "co-owners" before you die.


It absolutely was a thing in the 1970’s. I saw neighbor’s farms destroyed by the inheritance tax. The law was changed, so now the inheritance tax kicks in at a much higher level. Most farmers set up trusts now anyway.

It wasn’t only farmers that got clobbered by the inheritance tax. The children of the local shoe store owner were in the same inheritance tax hell.


Was this in the 70s or more recent? I can't imagine a shoe store that costs more than $5 million.


My family ranch was in North Dakota.

Most ranches and farms are set up so that there isn't much value if you don't sell the whole thing.

You need land, the homestead (house, barn, shop, corals...), a water source (ideally multiple), roads in and out, fences carved the right way...

Yes, you could likely sell a portion of the property, but the parts aren't worth the same as the whole. You'd likely eat the cost of adding in new windmills, water storage tanks, and developing the land in order to get it to sell if you were to carve out a part of your existing pastures and put it on the market.

We basically ended up carving off the farm land and selling that, but we had to pay to put a road in... and fences on either side of the road, cattle guards, and it ended up costing $100k in materials and labor (since we had to hire people to do it given nobody lived out there any more)... all just to make $300k.

TL;DR: Ranches are set up to be units, and while you can sell part of the land, it sucks to do so.


Disagree BTW. Subsidies are an easy target. Affect very little to the bottom lines I've been privy to (managing input price is biggest factor IMO).

Subsidies are an artifact of scale--optics look bad when a big operation is getting 100K USD when they farm 10k acres


Is corn not an input?


In dairy farms yes. Was trying to generalize.


Would you be interested in publishing this on AgFunderNews? A lot of your target audience will be there. Ping me and I’ll connect you with the editor.


Sorry to hear about the farm. Can you talk a little about the financial aspects...cost, milk price etc of your small farm? Do larger farms make a little on each cow but multiplied by 5000 ends up being a decent sum? I guess buying tractors, building sheds etc might be more cost effective with larger farms--spread over more. Also pricing power.


Thanks. I had asked my folks about that as well because it didn't make sense to me they could just "make it up in volume."

They didn't know the secret sauce, but said they are able to negotiate better prices with the creameries due to their volume, and they use their own milk hauling trucks. It's also an open secret all their regular farmworkers are illegal aliens (i.e. cheap labor).

With their volume I believe they're also able to pay better rates for other contracted work like feed harvesting, fertilization, etc. as well. But I don't fully comprehend it myself.


I have a friend who farms some dairy plus corn & beans. He says that the big operations can get better prices on supplies and equipment, while getting paid more for their crop. He doesn't know how to crack that puzzle. Collusion is certainly a possibility.


They can negotiate better prices for the feed they buy as well. Or they just own a feed supplier. That's by far the largest single operating cost they have to deal with.


> all their regular farmworkers are illegal aliens

How do they keep an arm's length away from that hot potato? Contracted through a temp worker agency?


A sizable proportion (half?) of the seasonal agricultural workers in America are undocumented immigrants and have been for 2 generations.

It used to be that they would migrate seasonally and go back home during the off season. But since the 1980s it has gotten increasingly expensive to cross the border, which means that migrant workers must stay in the US longer to pay for the crossing, which means that during the off-season those migrants find other jobs (in factories, restaurants, as janitors, gardening, ....) which they then keep instead of going back to agricultural work the next season. Agriculture then needs to recruit a fresh batch of immigrant workers every season.

Ironically, making the border harder to cross thus works as a kind of ratchet which prevents seasonal workers from moving back and forth, and ends up increasing the total number of undocumented immigrants in the country.


No, it's more of a don't-ask don't-tell policy. Workers provide fake social security numbers that the CAFO is under no obligation to thoroughly vet. The workers with fake SSNs will never be able to collect their benefits on those wages, either - they end up in the IRS's suspense file.

I know this because I married the daughter of the (Mexican) guy who started the Mexican immigrant labor pipeline at that CAFO, when they first were starting to get big and transitioning to large milking parlors.


> Workers provide fake social security numbers that the CAFO is under no obligation to thoroughly vet.

AFAIK unless something has changed in the past few years, it is worse than that. It is illegal for employers to challenge documention that is at surface level in order. Source: a friend that is a resturant owner told me that if a dishwasher applied for a job using suspicious but superficially consistent documents with all the blanks filled in, he could be penalized for asking for further proof. He knew he had illegals working for him, but had a file drawer full of correct documentation in case the INS came calling.


>>a friend that is a resturant owner told me that if a dishwasher applied for a job using suspicious but superficially consistent documents with all the blanks filled in, he could be penalized for asking for further proof. He knew he had illegals working for him, but had a file drawer full of correct documentation in case the INS came calling.

Ya think? :) Of course he knows, everyone knows. Even La Migra knows. Who is going to wash dishes for $x an hour and not complain? In US that's slave wages. So every once and a while they do a little raid here and there but otherwise close both eyes and ears. Good for them, good for USA.


FWIW, I believe business owners can opt into eVerify now and it wouldn’t be illegal to deny workers on the basis of an eVerify failure.

https://www.greenindustrypros.com/business/article/12121235/...

Of course outside of the 19 states where eVerify is required, you’re hurting your bottom line by opting into the program. Not only are you shrinking your labor pool but you have to go through extra steps even to hire a legal worker.


>the workers with fake SSNs will never be able to collect their benefits on those wages, either - they end up in the IRS's suspense file.

And some unfortunate American can't finish their taxes because they end up with an extra W-2 they don't claim, because they didn't earn the money. Or when they go to claim SS benefits and the Social Security office notices that 25 people have been using their number and that they need to produce the last 40 years of their work and pay history to quickly resolve the matter. More victim less crimes.


There have been big waves as big distribution chains have started vertically integrating portions of the dairy industry.

https://www.dairyherd.com/article/dozens-more-farmers-lose-m...

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/amp/ncna887941

It works for large scale operations, because they can use milk as a loss leader. That means they can squeeze producers for the lowest price possible, rendering margins so thin that you basically have to be a hyperoptimized producer to even be able to compete.

It's an example of large businesses creating value deserts, and unfortunately, the political/economic climate hasn't been terribly up to the task of doing anything to slow or stop it.

A value desert is the situation created where an actor corners and optimizes so much of an industry such that meaningful competition in that vertical becomes dead from the start. This puts the actor in an advantageous position since there is no rational reason to disrupt that vertical, which makes it easier to coast along as a major player.

Google/Alphabet has been used as an example of the phenomenon with regards to the digital advertising market. Wish I could find the citation, but I think I first heard of it from an NPR spot.


Not OP, but work in Agriculture. Margins are so thin, you either need crazy scale (5000+ head/acres) or crazy specialization (think organic). Without scale, one bad year and your out of business.


The thing that has always been terrifying to me about those CAFOs are the fact that there can be 5,000 head of dairy cattle and you'd _literally_ never know it unless you were told.


Any thoughts on the feasibility of vertical farming in the future?


Lots of times farmers, especially in the winter don't want to haul manure any distance so it gets spread on fields nearest the barn. In Michigan over twenty years ago farmers by law had to come up with manure management plans.

Composting became popular because it would eliminate the water so you needed to make far fewer trips to those distant fields. Customers I worked with in the late nineties realized the need for the law and accepted it.

However there were a few large farms that chose not to cooperate and were fined pretty much out of existence. Sounds like this is what needs to be done nationally.


Bio-digesters and gasifiers would provide some energy independence and drastically reduce pollution (think of all of those hog shit lagoons out there...)

That is a perfect zero-interest funding opportunity.


Interestingly, the CAFO I wrote about in another comment has a manure bio-digester, and they ended up disconnecting it years ago because it broke down so often / didn't work. I believe the thing costed over $1M, although I don't know how much was paid for by the CAFO versus the electric company.


That's disappointing to hear. I still think that it's probably the best approach to deal with the problem if it worked properly; it would behoove us all if the technology could become cheaper and more reliable.


No one wants to pay upfront.


Exactly. The zero-interest loan would be the government paying up front. It would be a good investment if done correctly.


We hear about lab-grown meat but lab-grown dairy is actually easier, and at least one company is starting to commercialize it this year, providing milk proteins from yeast to food manufacturers. Milk and cheese for consumers would still be easier than lab-grown meat, which requires actual cells instead of just proteins, fats, and sugars.

The advantage of course is that lab-grown requires far less physical resources than animals, thus helping to alleviate environmental problems. Prices may be higher at first due to capital expenses but should drop significantly at scale.

(The recent book Clean Meat has a chapter on dairy.)


What about broth? I think the lab meat market is missing a very valuable ingredient. A lot of times, the collagen and the umami in meat is extracted in the broth. It has amazing depth of flavour and texture. And the nutritional benefits of bone broth is highly desirable. It’s not same as stock cubes or vegetable broth. Having fish fumet or a rich pork trotter broth substitute with just flakes of meat is a chef’s dream.


Broth is an interesting idea. As a liquid it seems like it'd be a relatively simple product.

The questions I can think of are (1) how big is the market, (2) how hard would it be to get competitive, and (3) how much impact would it have? If broth today is mostly made from byproducts of meat production, then it's probably pretty cheap to produce and we might as well keep doing that until we get rid of that meat production.


The Vox series on Netflix has an exceptionally good story about the water crisis generally. I left with the impression that right now water is not priced appropriately, and the solution is to impose more normal market pricing on water market by market. If you live in a rural area where it's hard to get access to water, or where your water usage requires elaborate cleanup to maintain the water supply, you should have to pay way more.


this doesn't seem like fair thing to do at all. Clean water-acess is a basic human right, market forces should not determine who pays how much. Think of children of poor families born into areas where clean water is expensive...i don't want to imagine the consequences.


Water for human consumption costs are mostly in purifying and distribution, and are already charged. Water for agriculture is often subsidized and not limited from preventing environmental destruction (aquifer over-drawing, f.ex.)


I don't think the idea is to make individuals pay market rates for drinking water, but rather commercial water users, especially industrial and agricultural projects.


This. It’s conflicting to see that people who use water for basic needs have a higher water bill than farmers who use it for commercial purposes, and due to the lack of market pricing for bulk water are not incentivized to conserve water even in drought conditions.


Is this significantly worse than food being subject to market forces? Both are needed to live.

I dearly wish there was enough food and water to go around (and the data says there likely could be, if people in developed nations changed our lifestyles†). But, here we are. Drinking water is likely to become more scarce in the future if we don't get climate change other control.

†I'm 100% complicit in this too, btw.



more props for this guy!


The hero we need.


Food availability is important, and productive farms help realize that but it comes at a cost. As a society, we are pushing the boundaries in so many areas with respect to the environment and we are really starting to see the consequences for these actions. I feel like there are many possible solutions to these problems but very few are actually viable and widely accepted. Big farms aren't going to accept the limitations we want to place on them and people aren't going to let them continue to destroy the environment around them. In my own opinion, money means nothing if we can't live long enough to use it.


This probably adds a cent or two to the gallon. Or a small number. They simply want to cut as many corners as possible to squeeze the last penny. State has to intervene.


You make it sound like farmers make a lot of money. Most don’t. They have to squeeze every penny to survive—and that’s in the good years. They often run in the red in bad years.


I've been wondering lately if there is a profitable business model to be made out of this problem. Could you collect manure from giant dairies and hog farms, and use solar-thermal-assisted pyrolysis to break down harmful compounds and kill bacteria? Turn it into more generic chemical feedstock / fertilizer?

Maybe once the Gates Foundation sorts out toilets they can work on this next.


I sympathize with this guy, but 123' is a really shallow well. If the neighboring dairies were smart (little evidence of that in TFA), they would have paid to get a 400-footer drilled (and grouted) for him 18 years ago when the problem first showed up. Better yet, why don't they just set up a local sewer and water district so they can have one professionally maintained (and deep) well that serves the community?

In one sense this guy is lucky. Multiple parties at both the local and state levels care about his situation. When we tried to get MO DNR to force a local truck stop to cease pouring undiluted trucker shit downhill into the Gasconade River, my neighbors and I struck out completely.


A 400 foot well? That'd be what, 15, 20 grand, including the casing to prevent contamination? I can see that being a smart move for the dairy farm to offer to neighbors, but that's a ton of money to do on your own initiative unless you're mortgaging new construction. (Better than drinking contaminated water, but still...)


Last time I had anything to do with a well it was "$5k no matter how deep I go" (granted that was paid in cash) and it was 500ft or so.


That's pretty great pricing, though to add in protective piping to avoid contamination from shallower waters is an added cost. Almost built a house about 2 miles from an old garbage dump site, and the estimate for a shallower well than that was around $12k


This was in a low cost of living area in a low-regulation state. Paying cash was what made the price fixed regardless of depth.


I have learned a lot about agriculture, sustainability of same, insights on & analysis of family & corporate farming, I from following Dr. Sarah Taber on Twitter.

She does a lot of threads discussing food & food production. Here's a link to one I pulled basically at random from near the top of her feed. https://twitter.com/SarahTaber_bww/status/108629576050794906...


Dr. Taber works with fruit and vegetable farms. She's extremely biased and aggressive to the point of derangement when it comes to anything dairy-related.


Downvote away but it's true; she says as much herself: https://twitter.com/SarahTaber_bww/status/105707517878883123...

If you just read her Twitter feed[1] you'll get plenty of great hits, like dismissing the farmer who farmed for 40 years and went bust I linked to elsewhere because he was a) white (!) b) was planning on "cash[ing] out" earlier (she somehow knows this after discussing the issue with "colleagues," nevermind the huge pattern backing up this story's vignette).

Her answer to the dairy crisis is just "grow something else,"[2] which I can tell you with firsthand knowledge is beyond flippant. You don't think farmers that are committing suicide at record levels perhaps considered this?

Scroll back and you'll see plenty of hyperbolic drivel.

[1]: https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&vertical=default&q=from%...

[2]: https://twitter.com/SarahTaber_bww/status/104693232563910246...


Who are you addressing? I actually upvoted you for your original response. I got that you didn't agree from the first response though.


I didn't intend to reply to you specifically and gave no thought whatsoever about if you downvoted me or not - I was trying to address the folks who didn't like my comment, whoever they may be.

It didn't even bother me that it was downvoted to -3 before I added the follow-up. The comment was brief and quite negative, which I knew HN would find a distasteful ad hominem without more supporting info, but I was busy writing a lot of other comments at the time.

I assume Dr. Taber is knowledgeable about vegetable and fruit farming but I stand by my original accusation that she is aggressively, unfairly negative towards dairy farming, and I would gladly ride both comments past -3,000 karma to let people know about my distaste for it.


I think this is a really interesting distinction, to be honest. I am definitely a big fan of her commentary but know nothing about agriculture. I know she is very strident about communicating to people what "family farming" actually means and stuff. But I totally get there must be a ton of nuance that people in the biz can see that i can't.

I would really be interested, sincerely interested, in seeing some examples of what you mean


It's not like I keep a dossier on her that I can hand over, but from the time that I followed her on Twitter, I recall several things that ticked me off:

* She mentioned several times this one anecdote where she worked with a produce farm where a neighboring dairy/livestock farm had bits of dried manure that wound up blowing over onto the produce farm's product. She repeatedly uses this one pathological case to color all livestock farming as dirty and irresponsible.

* She plays up the above case as a "turf war" between vegetable/fruit farmers and livestock farmers. Presumably the implication being that livestock farmers are to blame for all E. coli and other illness outbreaks from contaminated produce. A different comment in this very thread pointed out how ridiculous that is: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18945036 This whole "turf war" angle is just a way to sound edgy to get more Twitter followers.

* She trotted out some anecdote about when she lived in a small Wisconsin farming town how dairy farmers would not only routinely track cow shit through the grocery store, but do so purposefully, loudly and proudly. In my opinion as someone who grew up on a dairy farm in a small farming town in Wisconsin, this is a bald-faced lie. Every farmer I grew up around wears separate clothes and specifically cleans up before "going into town." Even if it's to the farm hardware store or cooperative. Farmers want to be respected members of their community and not ostracized for being dirty, just like anyone else. Obviously I can't disprove a personal story, I never, ever saw something remotely like this play out in my whole life.

* She mixes in identity politics where it isn't warranted. She is dismissive of the dairy farming crisis in whole as well as in specific instances because it disproportionately affects white people (because most dairy farmers are white). I shouldn't have to mention my mom's tribal membership to make my family worthy of sympathy.

* Her unsympathetic advice to dairy farmers is to "diversify." Meaning plant different things. Problem is she mostly works with produce farms in areas like California, where that kind of advice doesn't map to Wisconsin, which has a very different growing environment. It's also completely ignorant of the inelasticity of farming in general - there is so much specialized equipment/assets both for cattle and crops tied up in CAPEX, you can't just go "whelp, this year I'm gonna do something totally new!" and snap your fingers and make your cattle and barn transmogrify into a pile of money, and buy all new specialized equipment. She's not wrong that there's a perhaps foolhardy race-to-the-bottom in competing on milk price alone, but blaming individuals for not completely reconfiguring their business, knowledge and identity into a farming niche she's more comfortable with, and not giving a proper nod to the massive industry-wide shift towards vertical integration is unreasonable and tinged with an edge of cruelty.

To boil it all down, she's everything I despise in modern Twitter personas. She's an elitist passing judgment on entire swathes of hardworking blue-collar people with a sneer. And she does it dressed up in robes of faux wonkish authority using her adjacent knowledge and niche experience in produce farming. The excessive wokeness is just a shit cherry on top.


Oh, and she also got caught out spinning complete fabrications about the origins of organic, playing it up as some anti-Semitic cabal:

https://twitter.com/_MatthewDillon/status/108419765521399398...

https://twitter.com/_MatthewDillon/status/108419856336050585...

And if you want an example of why Taber's "diversify!" advice is misguided, look at the USDA's own estimates of costs and returns for different crop types: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/commodity-costs-and-r...

Click on "Difference between costs and returns," select a commodity (e.g. Corn), then click on Northern Crescent. Now click through different crop types and notice how many you'd be underwater on. Crops are a volatile crapshoot like milk. Yes, you can "diversify" and plant more than one type, but you're still placing bets on which ones are going to go underwater and cost you money, and which are going to net you anything at all - you're still betting on combined gains and losses.


I agree. I didn’t get the second comment. But really appreciated the twitter link. A lot of what she says resonates with me.


Nitrogen runoff is huge problem. Multi-billion dollar idea? Autonomous tractors applying N only when the plant needs it (a couple small 2 week windows).

Cant wait for the startup to bring this to market


Is it surprising that nitrogen runoff is a thing? Something like 7% of world energy use goes into making nitrogen for farming — why is it that we don’t have efficient methodology for adding it to soil at a rate which does not exceed the soil uptake rate — is fertilizer cost not a pretty clear resource cost that _someone_ would find value in reducing even without considering the (non-priced) externalities ...?


Happening. Depleted phosphorus in the soil is a greater risk and will be a problem.

Phosphorus is a non renewable resource.


Images of the landscape of intensive cattle farming: https://mishkahenner.com/Feedlots


I moved to a rural area and the real estate agent was going on and on about how, since this was farm country, you knew the air was clear and the water pure.

It was all I could do not to laugh.


The majority of Americans have brain damage of some kind from toxic organic pesticides. This is why people are so weird.

Look for the twitches and shakes, that the indicator. Especially facial muscles around the eyes. We've all been poisoned. The organic chemists have known this for years.

The upside? Cheap corn.

Now what?

Source: Former organic chemist who was exposed to toxic organic pesticides. [a light dose]


This is very plausible. Consider how the rise and fall of tetraethyl lead in gasoline corresponds perfectly with historical incidence and subsidence of violent crime, with the exact delay you'd expect to account for the time to physical maturity of a developing person.

Can you link to any example videos of symptoms to be aware of?


> ...Especially facial muscles around the eyes.

Just to clarify, you aren't talking about tetany, but say, cheek muscles or perhaps the forehead? Can't say I've seen it myself, but that's just anecdata.

And where can I read more about the proposed metabolic pathway, etiology, etc.?


Geez dude. Agree chemical are not ideal, but is $10 USD a gallon milk ideal?

Hope you dont use a cell phone because of the radiation.


If milk was $10 USD, it would encourage people to eat in ways that are cheaper to produce. Cheaper to produce unsubsidized lines up reasonably well with good for the environment (more vegetarian and vegan foods). I'm always surprised that milk is cheaper than canned beans on a calories per dollar basis, given the cows, pasteurization, and refrigeration needed.


This is correct. Additionally, many of the subsidies for agricultural businesses go to the largest player. That's why your local diary farm's milk is $8+/gallon versus the grocery store.


Yes. Good food should cost a little more than what it takes to grow it + a profit. Like any other business.


> Farmers can’t produce milk and cheese at the low prices American consumers have grown accustomed to without some effect on water, says [an industry mouthpiece]. “The alternative here,” he says, “is a society that depends upon other countries to feed us.”

What a crock of bullshit, if I may say so. US has a surplus of agricultural products and is a massive exporter to the point where it perturbs world markets, some 140 billions per year. This is true for many advanced economies that subsidize agriculture in various ways to protect food security and rural employment, for example the EU, and is frequently contested by poor economies dependent on cash crop exports to finance healthcare, etc.

The typical reaction of any industry when an ecologic issue is reported is to ignore it, then deny it, then lobby forcefully that tying to fix it will destroy the national economy. And then they grudgingly comply and there is no economic catastrophe.


My understanding is that there is an oversupply of Dairy in the country right now due to reduced demands for things like Milk and American cheese. The stockpile of American Cheese is at an all-time high and they're converting to this cheese to get their surplus into a more long-term store of value. Not sure why we would continue to subsidize this: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/28/ameri...


We subsidize foods because most of the people in our government have read their histories, and know that instability in food pricing and availability is a great way to bring about a domestic regime change.


Don't forget this applies to those importing our food as well, giving the US a large amount of influence on those countries

From a realpolitik perspective encouraging the vast overproduction of food is probably one of the smartest things our government has done


> From a realpolitik perspective encouraging the vast overproduction of food is probably one of the smartest things our government has done

Not if you're in for the long haul. Dumping excess ag products and clothing on Africa has trashed the local economies beyond repair, made the countries depend on "foreign aid" and now China comes in and binds the countries to them by rebuilding all the infrastructure... with the dollars they gained from exporting to the US.


I feel like funding the poisoning of drinking water might also be bad for governmental stability.


Unless the poison is immediately making you sick, and you can't afford to drink clean water, people don't get mad enough to riot.

Ape brains are really bad at holding other apes accountable for long-term, distributed harm inflicted on them.

Brown water coming out of the tap? You'll have marches in the streets. A slow poison that will, over five years of exposure drop the IQ of your children by 20 points? After four years of litigation hell and much hand-wringing, someone might finally get around to making your water mostly OK. [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flint_water_crisis#2018


> Unless the poison is immediately making you sick, and you can't afford to drink clean water, people don't get mad enough to riot.

Flint still has lead in the water. In Western societies riots have become really rare except France (which except for the Nordic states properly investing their oil money)... which coincides that they're the only remaining Western world with a halfway decent social security network. Macron tried to dismantle it and follow Germany and UK neoliberalism... had to roll back quite a bunch and people still want his head (some literally brought guillotines!).

French people actually can and dare to stand up for themselves. Their methods aren't exactly conventional, but they are effective.


There's a huge difference between subsidizing stability of staple crops and continuing to subsidize beyond sustainable levels or because of a lobby.

Clearly it is in the national interest to ensure we can produce certain kinds of goods, however government does not really adapt to the market or changing tastes so they end up causing asymmetries. You could likely dial-down these subsidies a significant amount and still be just fine from a production perspective.

Even if you wanted to destabilize global markets by domestic subsidies to create leverage, we're still WAY beyond that level which is a bit crazy. Anecdotal? I dunno - I would point to the current Soybean prices after losing one importer (China) and the fact that we basically are incentivized to dump wheat and corn on countries for aid to prop up prices.


> There's a huge difference between subsidizing stability of staple crops and continuing to subsidize beyond sustainable levels or because of a lobby.

There is, just like every company has 20% of its workforce that can safely be fired, with zero, or positive impact on overall performance.

The problem is that nobody can reliably identify who that 20% is.

It's much the same with agriculture subsidies. Your system can either be efficient, or it can be resilient. The US Federal government - just like the government of every other developed country in the world - wants to err strongly on the side of resilience.


Maybe I read this differently than siblings did, but ISTM this means that domestic regime change frequencies are way too low. We need a few more wheat panics and milk shortages to produce the optimum level of domestic regime change!


Agree 100%, this is as old as politics:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_circuses

Which gives me some optimism. Things are quite bad in the US right now for people in the bottom 3 quintiles (compared to where we would be if it hadn't been for vulture capitalism which started in the early 80s).

I remember when they weren't as bad as today. In the early 80s the debt was a paltry $3 billion and minimum wage had a buying power equivalent to perhaps $15-20 per hour today in rural America.

Where I live, republicans are in charge of farming, but the political split is about 30% left-leaning. We're unlikely to see a significant increase in food prices even with inflation. But I feel that republican politicians have broken the social contract of providing basic needs and good-paying jobs for their constituents. And democratic politicians have largely abandoned their base (which used to be labor).

Gasoline costs perhaps 1/4 of what it would if externalities were included (like in Europe). Same with foods like meat, dairy or anything else that becomes environmentally unfriendly under factory farming. This is all by design to keep the masses satiated. It's cheap so it can't be disrupted.


Here's a way that I think about it. We produce enough food to be toxic at the level that it is being consumed, by any reasonable definition of toxic. We produce so much that we have to chemically modify it, and then engage in psychological warfare, to force people to consume it.


Our planet is dying.


Couple the above article with

Crisis on the High Plains: The Loss of America’s Largest Aquifer – the Ogallala

URL = http://duwaterlawreview.com/crisis-on-the-high-plains-the-lo...

Does seem like we're running on fumes.


Interesting, will read later. Odd that TX has the greatest depletion. As a NE resident, was under impression Ogallala was back to 2010 levels after 2012 drought hit it bad.


Technically our planet will be fine even if there is manure in human water supplies.

We could even go insane and nuke ourselves into oblivion by having every society launch every nuclear weapon at one another.

Even in the face of such a catastrophe the Earth would be here afterward. Albeit in a vastly different form that is incompatible with human life.

Climate change is basically our way of saying that the environment for human life is being adversely impacted. Doesn't really matter how because if we don't start to make the environment better for human life we won't be able to live on this planet any longer.


What's the point of all this technological progress if our bodies grow sick from the pollution?

Food for thought.


I agree. Farming for food is not an ideal way to get calories and nutrients into the human body.

I really hope we can create a nutritional lab concoction like a broth which has a baseline nutritional value. And can be customized for people with deficiencies or special dietary requirements.


Livestock feces runoff into irrigation water is also responsible for most cases of fruit and vegetable E. Coli contamination (such as the recent one of lettuce: https://www.independent.com/news/2018/dec/14/adam-brothers-f...)

E. Coli is not a normal plant pathogen (it does not infect a plant even if it comes in contact with the roots), and is only able to survive in soil for a couple of weeks. There are claims that E. Coli outbreaks have been caused by wild animals such as deer (https://www.ecoliblog.com/e-coli-outbreaks/deer-poop-conclus...), however, no mention is ever made of alternative hypotheses. What do you think is more likely: dozens/hundreds of acres of crop being infected by a handful of deer strolling through and leaving some droppings, or the deer drinking the infected irrigation water and contracting the E. Coli, which shows up in their droppings? How much do you think the likelihood changes if you know that the E. Coli is antibiotic resistant (cows are continually fed antibiotics, primarily because it makes them grow faster)? There are even more outlandish claims about birds (apparently geese are now supposed to be tactical precision bombers targeting our food supply with biological weapons). This wild-animals theory also fails to explain why every single crop field is not continuously infected with E. Coli from rodent droppings from the hundreds or even thousands of mice, rats, and other rodents that live in and around the fields.


At least one outbreak was attributed to wild pigs.

Also, the outbreak investigators for these things are well aware of the alternate hypotheses, and water and machine-driven contamination is often investigated.

And no, geese aren't precise. But they do shit a lot.




Applications are open for YC Summer 2019

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: