State of Concentration

The Farm Family Action Alliance recently published a paper titled “The Food System:  Concentration and Its Impacts.”  I keep a close eye on the state of the grass fed beef and pasture raised chicken landscape, but this report has given me some hard statistics to back up my impressions about the larger food industry.

If you look back at some of the critical times in rethinking the American food system, for a large group of people that wakeup moment came when reading Michael Pollan books or watching influential documentaries such as Food, Inc and Supersize Me. The early 2000s started a cultural shift, creating an alternative path by bringing food attributes like Organic, Small Batch, Artisanal, and Local into the mainstream consciousness.

But in taking stock of the state of our food system, it is sad to note that very little has improved.  Or to be more precise by looking at the data, the problems in our food system have only intensified.

The growth of what the food industry calls the “natural food and beverage” category has been a sleight of hand that has helped the conventional industrial brands to create higher margin segments, funding further cost cutting on their conventional brands.  Competition in the marketplace is rapidly disappearing.  Significant segments of the food system can be demonstrated to have more than half the market share owned by four or fewer companies.  73% of beef processing and 54% of chicken processing are controlled by four companies.  48% of all pork processing in the United States is owned by two companies, one of which is Chinese and one Brazilian.  This same situation is found in beverages, snacks, bread, and everywhere up and down the grocery aisles.  Maybe the greatest example of fake consumer choice is the beer aisle, where Anheuser-Busch InBev owns over 40% of the market, despite the appearance of a plethora of microbrew choices.

Extra Credit:  Think Like a Robber Baron!

Fact: 80% of soybeans are processed by four companies. Think about which companies and which of their investors are leading the charge for meat substitutes. Consider that many of the investors are currently profiting from significant capital positions in the meat processing industry. Consider that the alt-meat industry depends on soybean and pea processing. Do you think those who stand to profit are actually motivated by the ecology of meat production as they claim or are they enticed by the opportunity for further capture of the entire soybean processing market? Give supporting information for your answers.

On the agricultural supply side, farm numbers continue to decline while the number of crop acres per farm and livestock per farm shoot upward.  Between 1987 and 2017, the median dairy farm went from 80 to 1,300 cows.  The median chicken farm raises 770,000 broilers and the median beef feedlot handles 43,000 head.  Wheat, corn, and soybean farms are now about three times bigger than they were in 1987.

These trends have continued unabated despite the emphasis on small farms and local foods during the last fifteen or twenty years.  So where is that small farm and locavore revolution?

The Food Revolution that Wasn’t

Upton Sinclair famously noted that his book The Jungle motivated consumers to clamor for food cleanliness standards, yet it never accomplished his goal of generating concern for the workers in the Chicago meatpacking plants.  “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

I believe a similar situation has occurred during the last twenty years.  The public has grown to want and to expect healthier, cleaner food options, but as a whole very little has been done to look behind the attractive labels.

It seems that people think that they purchase premium food about 25% of the time, but national sales data suggests the actual “natural food and beverage” segment is about 8% of the market.  Regardless of the exact number, the natural segment continues to grow rapidly.

But all that growth isn’t accomplishing anything to improve the overall industry, the position of farmers, the position of workers, the problems of pollution and resource use, or the loss of local control.  Since the ownership of these natural-branded products is almost entirely connected to the same companies that own the conventional product lines, there are no market forces exerted on those companies to change any of their practices.  Buying Applegate Organic turkey puts money in Hormel’s pockets.  Buying Coleman Natural Organic chicken funnels cash back to Perdue.  Nothing changes, not even for the chickens or turkeys.

The actual food system alternatives, such as small farms, artisanal processors, and producer cooperatives continue as a tiny pixel on the map of the entire food system.

Here is what I think happened in most people’s minds when they watched some food documentary and decided to start eating responsibly produced, healthier food.  They imagined that although not everyone would do it, enough people would start buying better food and it would create a clear division in the food industry, like this:

Below is what actually happened.  Almost everyone kept on buying the same old stuff.  A few people thought they were taking a new path but ended up merging back into the conventional market.  And a fraction of a percent actually ended up on an alternative path.

Where do we go with this?  There’s not a great “we’re going to change the world” message here.  By all objective measures, our choice of a farm name is still as applicable as it was when we started.  Our farm is pointing out a path that is generally considered to be a Wrong Direction.

I can’t tell you that you are going to change the world if you buy my hamburger.  Indeed, the world will continue pretty much the same whether you buy it or not.  But you change my world, and for that I am grateful.  And you help the many people this farm touches.  Think about this web of connection:

I can’t tell you that you are going to change the world if you buy my hamburger.  Indeed, the world will continue pretty much the same whether you buy it or not.  But you change my world, and for that I am grateful.  And you help the many people this farm touches.  Think about this web of connection:

  • Clint and Jim, two incredibly patient and hardworking guys for whom our farm has become their biggest customer for chicken butchering work.
  • Our neighbor Mike who sells us his weaned calves each year for us to raise as grass fed beef cattle.
  • Our other neighbors Mike and Brian who cut hay for our farm.
  • Mary-Howell, who sends us a truckload of Organic feed for our pasture raised chickens and turkeys every week or two all spring, summer, and fall.
  • Alana, Garth, Normandy, and Edmund from Cairncrest Farm who raise all the pigs and lambs for us.
  • Zia, our farm employee who puts up with all manner of crazy situations.
  • And the list could keep going on

The changes don’t just happen here on the farm.  I believe you are changing yourself when you go down the alternative, regenerative agriculture path.  On the physical level, if you’ve tasted our grass fed beef, pasture raised chicken, or if you’ve eaten a cucumber or a strawberry from a great produce farmer, you know in your body that you are eating something dramatically better than what you could get elsewhere.  But this is more than just a different type of consumption-based activism.  The choice to look for alternatives that do better for more people is part of a mindset, a conscious decision.  That mode of thinking surely influences all aspects of life.

2 thoughts on “State of Concentration”

  1. w-o-w great write up.
    We try to buy local as much as possible because the money stays in our community!
    It is pretty simple, but it does require effort and study…but meeting new people and watching as new businesses grow and evolve to serve the customers is always worth it to me!

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