Currently, our beef liver is out of stock. Someone wrote to ask me about that. It was a fine question I was happy to answer, but it got me thinking about some of the logistics of a farm-centric supply chain.
I realize that a lot of folks never eat liver, so for them, having it out of stock is no hardship. But for everyone who enjoys liver, it’s absence is felt. Our customer base includes dedicated liver enthusiasts, so for them it matters.
So, here’s the issue with liver: there’s only a few pounds of liver compared to hundreds of pounds of beef on an average steer. Our weights for our cattle, typically called “hanging weight”, are in the high 500 to mid 700 pound range on average. This is the weight of the carcass after it is skinned and cleaned, but before the butchers begin to break it down into all the smaller cuts, so it includes muscle, bone, fat, and connective tissue. But most of that weight is beef. That’s a lot of beef.
There are other cuts that also fall into this category of hard-to-keep-in-stock. For hanger steaks, oxtail, hearts, and tongues, there’s only one per steer. Flat iron steaks, flank steaks, and kidneys only come in two’s. These cuts are inherently harder to keep in stock. Further complicating the situation, our customer base tends to be more health-conscious, so we have a higher percentage of customers who appreciate organ meat than would be found in the general population.
Lately, everyone has had experiences with out-of-stock products across all segments of our economic system. Americans are learning about supply chains and the ways they can break down.
It is worth thinking about the difference in the way the supply chains break in the industrial food system compared to the shortage in beef liver in our farm’s system. The industrial system fails catastrophically, but the distributed, farm-based system fails gently. In fact, the farm system can’t really be said to fail, rather it settles itself.
A recent example of food system disasters can be found in the shortages of baby formula over the last month. The industrial food system runs on production volumes honed to a knife-edge. Any slight variation in supply or demand creates cascading failures throughout the production and distribution networks. They maximize profit at all times, but create record profits when supply chain problems are at their worst. The proximal causes for the baby food problems were related to a shutdown in one plant due to a bacterial infestation. But with the US baby food industry concentrated in just three companies, a breakdown at one point quickly snarled the whole system, resulting in bare shelves and rationing.
Contrast that to the distributed, farm-based food system we’re part of. Inventories are based on real, unmanipulated products. There isn’t a global supply chain behind beef liver or ground beef. I can survey the entire supply chain standing on my hill today, from the young calves with their mothers grazing on the eastern side, to the one and two year old steers in the western field. The grass is growing under their feet, and the pond is brim full from this year’s rain. My neighbor is baling grass hay for me on the back fields, securing our feed for the cattle for the coming winter. All the raw materials needed are in place right here. It really is simple. If we run out of liver, it is just because in the natural system liver is a scarce resource. But we haven’t run out of good beef.
Thinking about failure, in the worst case scenario, our farm might go out of business. I’d hate to see that happen, and I know some of our customers well enough to be reassured that they would too. But if that were to happen, we’re just one farm, a small piece. The distributed production provides security. We couldn’t take down the national supply of beef. Nobody would panic, there won’t be any breaking news stories at ten o’clock with cameras filming empty shelves or interviews with panicked consumers. Our farm’s demise would be a gentle ripple, not a tsunami.
A Different Direction
Solutions that only work at scale, that only work with consolidation, that only work with complex supply chains, these are things that give the illusion of success that motivates our globalized machine. All of our societal abuses, abuses of land, abuses of each other, come from a failure to focus our affection on particulars. Operating at industrial scale precludes that ability to individuate our affection on small, unique things. Instead, we are forced to standardize and commoditize. Our epistemology shifts, so we can only understand truth through status reports and big data analytics. Our morality shifts, so that the mandates of the market become our chief purpose in life.
To some extent, we’re all inextricably tied to the system in which we live. But I don’t think we need to wait until we have a complete solution to fix the problems of the industrialized system, because that would require a solution that worked at scale. And then we’d be applying the same standardized and commoditized logic to solving the problem.
But we don’t need to voluntarily feed ourselves into the maw of that devourer of all that is particular and individual. We can all make choices in what we eat, what we wear, what we build, and, most importantly, what we love. We can chose to do better, to be more directed in our attention and in our affection. It might not be enough to change the world. That’s alright.