09/07/2012 09:32 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

Local Food Production for the Future

As I look around my Midwestern countryside at the hundreds of thousands of acres of corn being cut early for silage instead of grain as was intended, it only further irritates my sensibility regarding how we use our land -- as a culture and a society.

To begin with, why are we growing all these billions of bushes of corn? To feed animals, to feed ourselves and the world? The answer, of course, is political. As usual, it is because of a few individuals with economic and/or political influence, who profit from such an agricultural system such as Monsanto, ADM, Cargill. This is not to mention the universities, often large land grant ones, who churn out the information and graduates to help drive these massive companies.

A small slice of this misinformation that relates to my professional expertise and farming business can be found in a publication put out by North Dakota State University regarding the pH of tomatoes. I've personally tested thousands of tomato samples from dozens of tomato varieties including many of those in this publication, and never seen a reading above 4.45 for a pH. The study claims many tomatoes have pH's upwards of 5.0, and that one needs to add lemon juice when canning. The fact is, acidic foods with a pH of 4.6 or less don't need to be canned at all. They can simply be heated above 165 degrees F, poured into a jar, and then capped -- no hot water bath canning necessary. Ball, Kerr and the rest of the canning supply industry don't want you to know that, so they all contribute to the misinformation that would keep everyone buying lots of unnecessary canning equipment.

The U.S. leads the world in growing lots of corn for animals (and ethanol in recent years) that we eat far out of proportion to grains and plants given our biological capacity and genetic disposition. Human teeth and digestive systems alone suggest we should focus on eating more plants than animals. As a result of what we do eat (along with lifestyle and activity levels), we have one of the highest obesity rates in the world. Of course this leads to "diseases of affluence," another category in which the U.S. is a world leader. We're a really fat country prone to heart conditions and cancer due to eating lots of fatty and processed foods that are either directly (corn syrup, soybean oil) or indirectly (eating animals) coming from the corn/soybean fossil fuel industrial agribusiness system.

As far as ethanol goes, it has quickly been recognized that this is a bad idea, and though much industrial energy capacity had begun to be developed in this direction, it is unlikely that increased production potential in this area will continue. I could be naive, but that's my opinion.

So then, take a look at what farmers are getting for growing all this corn. They're lucky to gross $400/acre and net $100/acre. This year, farmers with irrigation might reach that gross, and will be lucky if there is any net at all. Those without irrigation are cutting their corn for silage months early, and, as mentioned above, not getting a grain harvest at all. According to Lester Brown -- who I strongly encourage everyone to read in World on the Edge -- the world is headed into 2012 with an historic low amount of grains/food in storage. Food prices will go up, probably dramatically. This will greatly affect those closer to the poverty line, which includes most of the world, and increasing numbers of those in more affluent countries like the U.S.

Meanwhile, I'm a vegetable farmer growing on 10 acres in Wisconsin. Though the heat of this summer has been very hard on crops and my crew alike, we've produced about 85% of what we'd normally produce, both in terms of overall production value and the number of crops we've harvested. Not bad considering the extreme conditions (warmest year on record with many days in the 90s and a few 100s). We grow food that people eat directly (as opposed to being feed for animals), aim for a gross income of $100,000/acre, and hope to keep 10% of that. We're not quite there yet, but in a couple years I project us grossing $1 million on 10 acres, and keeping $100,000 total. If we get really good and efficient, we might be able to keep 20% of that $1 million, but for many years it will be necessary for us to put that money back into the business, so it will be a long time before I report $200,000/year income. We pay our field workers $10/hour, and will pay experienced field workers $12/hour when we reach our farm capacity and efficiency (which experienced workers will help to achieve). Managers currently make up to $30,000/year, and eventually will make up to $40,000 annually, again, once we reach our productive capacity and do so with greater efficiency.

When that happens, I'll write a book, and get asked to speak more than I am currently. Heck, we're still struggling with debt and efficiency, but we've got an increasingly professional group of people in the field as well as in "the office." I've been at this 20 years now. The light at the end of the tunnel has never been brighter. Local food can provide more than one to two percent of the food supply as it currently does where I live. An increase to 10% would be very doable, and would represent billions of dollars of revenue/farm business opportunity in the Midwest alone.