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The View from my Farm

Most of you happily shop at supermarkets where the vast majority of the food comes from industrial food companies. Prices are right, and you thrive. Right? What is all this fuss about industrial food? Temporary shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic gave glimpses at just how breakable that system is.

Our farm supplies customers with local food as fresh as possible using time-honored methods. The hidden objective is to keep the little land we farm healthy. ‘Efficient’ industrial food has forced farmers to become specialized, often raising a single crop or animal for meat using refined materials unavailable to my father or his. Let’s look under those supermarket wrappers and inside the boxes at some of these industrial food companies.

The four biggest beef packers are responsible for 75% of beef consumed in the U.S., two with household names – Tyson and Cargill. Looking a little closer at Cargill, it’s a huge company with 131,000 employees. Like other meat-packers, they forced workers in massive plants to work shoulder to shoulder during the pandemic. They are also strong in chicken and pork sales. Other important businesses are soybeans and high-fructose corn syrup.

What about prices? In my second blog, I called out orange juice from Brazil. Whereas I can assure you that farmers market prices for many foods are competitive with the prices you see in supermarkets, some, like OJ are not. What our farm produces is also seasonal. No blueberries, avocados or oranges out of season. I’ll spend more time on prices in a later.

Do we thrive on industrial food? This is where I open pandora’s box. The Greek myth has two meanings: "Any source of great and unexpected troubles", or alternatively "A present which seems valuable but which in reality is a curse". How many isles in your supermarket are filled boxes and bags whose main ingredients are refined wheat, corn or other grain, a fat, sugar and salt? Let’s spend some time on the unexpected troubles or the curse hidden in the appeal? Food technologists spend countless hours perfecting cleaver combinations of these ingredients that are irresistible to many of us. Take a look at the label. No matter the isle, they are full of calories with fat content a big portion of suggested daily intake as are carbohydrates, while there is little nutrition.

If you let me open up an old chemistry book, I can spell out where the calories come from: fats and carbohydrates. Both are simple chemically. Nutrition, on the other hand is complex. Let’s save that for another time.

Fats are all chemically the same. Esters of glycerin. What does that mean? Basically, all fats have three long hydrocarbon chains hanging off a glycerin which is water soluble. Those long hydrocarbon chains are similar to gasoline and motor oil. Lipophilic (fat-loving) is the term for those long chains. The opposite, glycerin is hydrophilic (water-loving). Combining the two halves of these molecules give fats special properties. Differences between fats are due to slight variations in its long chains. Uniqueness gives them properties that allow specialized fats to make up cell membranes in mammals or be used as cooking oil. Our bodies know how to burn (metabolize) fats to generate energy (calories). We can also store them.

Carbohydrates are the other big calorie generator you’ll find in those aisles. What are they? If you look up the sugar, glucose, on Wikipedia, you’ll find the empirical formula is C6H12O6. Six carbons, twelve hydrogens and six oxygens. Another way to look at it is nature figured out how to combine water with carbon in something plants and animals make and use. The disaccharide sucrose, table sugar, contains glucose linked to fructose. Millions of carbohydrates are polymers with many linked simple sugars based on nearly the same formula. In the case of the polymer cellulose, that makes up about 50% of wood and almost all of cotton, it again has almost the same formula. Most animals can get energy from carbohydrates but not cellulose unless they enlist the help of symbiotic bacteria that know how to break it down. Most of today’s boxes and bags are plastic. But they used to be cellulose. And, that’s the chemistry lesson for today. Simple, huh?

Most American food comes from farms that generally practice monoculture. There’s little interconnectedness between industrial food, you and local communities. Diversified farms, like mine, work to avoid chemical inputs and maintain traditional, healthy-soil practices. Far fewer of us farm than when my father started, small farmers continue to struggle. Look at next week. I plan to write about alternatives.

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