Mississippi’s food future could mirror its past

Published 1:30 am Sunday, November 13, 2011

OXFORD — The arc of world population growth is growing steeper, making folks fretful about a lot of things — including the food supply.

Yet a windshield survey along almost any Mississippi road reveals vast acreage of fallow land. Most is not exactly fallow, just covered up by that wonderful long-term crop known as trees. But there are also miles and miles of empty pasture suitable for grazing. And there are thousands of acres where food crops could be grown, but are not. The reason is that today’s food “systems” really put small-scale livestock, dairy and food crop producers at an economic disadvantage.

At the same time it’s a point of pride (and a good response when globalists complain that Americans use more than “our share” of fossil fuels and other raw materials) that a guy named John Deere invented machinery that has led to America providing much more than “our share” of the world’s food supply.

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Grain production in America’s heartland is still unsurpassed. Sit on a river overlook in Natchez, Greenville or Vicksburg and barge after barge passes south, with Russia, Africa, China, South America or Europe as the ultimate destination for the harvest within. Mississippi also contributes to these exports, mostly corn and rice.

There was a day, however, when big-picture producers didn’t exist. And a growing number of people — which could also be called a number of growing people — believe the little guys are poised for a comeback. As humanity rockets from 7 billion people today to 8 billion over the next 14 years, this group believes individual or community gardens and slaughterhouses will be a smart thing to have, even if not strictly essential to survival.

These folks are not hippie-freaks, communists, fear mongers, extremists or fashionistas who think it’s chic to “go organic.”

Their not-so-reluctant prophet is a Joel Salatin of Swoope, Va. Never heard of Swoope? Probably for the same reason a lot of people haven’t heard of Morton, Petal or Marks in Mississippi. It’s rural.

To a world that loves to stereotype individuals because it makes them easy to pigeonhole, Salatin, 54, describes himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic.” More simply, he’s an evangelical small-scale family farmer.

In a recent profile in Time magazine, Salatin was also an equal opportunity offender. He blamed “Big Food” for hyper-processed goods that ruin Americans’ health and fitness. And he knocked those who produce healthy foodstuffs for shipping as merely marketeers and called on them to do as he does, make a living from what can be sold locally.

As a concession to modern times, Salatin does have a website to share the message (polyfacefarms.com), which, succinctly is that he believes we are best served when we serve ourselves.

While Salatin doesn’t necessarily impose government-set food standards and inspection requirements, he seems to believe the Congress aids and abets Big Food — surprise, surprise, surprise — while making it too tough on local growers. If there is to be a shift, state and federal inspectors will have to back way off, he says. The biggest enemy the small producer has is government regulation. He told a Colorado newspaper, “If you don’t believe me, try selling raw milk to a neighbor tomorrow and see what happens. Try going to your church or your civic club and tell them, ‘I’m going to start making pickles in my kitchen,’ and try selling those. This isn’t just food regulation … what we are doing today with our hyper-regulatory and paranoid, litigious society is that we are stifling the innovation that is the answer to many of these issues.”

As we are on the cusp of a food-centered holiday created to remind us to be grateful, we truly can count our blessings in Mississippi.

Earth’s population has more than doubled during the lifetime of anyone who is now 50 years old. That’s significant, to say the least. The 50-year-olds may not, but certainly their parents remember gardens, remember canning, remember killing chickens themselves so the family could have a meal.

If the future brings back the past, it’s heartening to know we live in a region where the weather and most of the land is suitable for growing animals as well as crops.

“Big Food” and “Big Government” are working hand-in-hand to meet increasing demand so we don’t have to think (or fret) about the food supply. Salatin says, however, that we should think about it more. And that the answers to what we need are, at best, in our own backyards or, at worst, down the road a piece.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.