Vandals in the Veggies, Pirates in the Poultry

An agricultural forum for the progressive farmers of the Northeast.
By Martin Harris Jr

A strong case can be made that the best pieces of basic wisdom come from rural or small-town America; you certainly wouldn't expect a quote like "The more I see of people, the better I like cows" to have been offered by an urbanite - penthouse or lower - apartment dweller. Years ago, the quote was considered to be of northern New England (dairy country) origins, but recent research has it coming from ex-Hannibal, Mo., (pre-Civil War population 2,000) native and author Mark Twain, who referred not to plural cows in general, but to his own "my dog" in particular. We don't yet know the provenance of "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch," but it's fair to guess that the unknown author owned both large-paw dogs and ornate exterior woodwork, while the urbanite, then and now, probably owned neither. Recent unpleasant events in two sectors of modern ag - grow-your-own and contract production - prove both nuggets of wisdom to be on target.

The first isn't new, but each additional report confirms the strength of the Jeffersonian comments on the nastiness of urbanites - "mobs" he called them - as shown by one continuing behavior pattern: vandalizing the nearby gardens of fellow urbanites. In recent history, the benchmark example was the 2009 large-scale attack on the downtown private gardens in smart-growth Portland, Ore., a self-described socially advanced, environmentally sensitive urban center probably second only to Hyannis Port, Mass., as a place where such ungentrified behavior wouldn't be expected. "Vandals Destroy Portland Community Gardens," reads the header on the website The report describes in depressing detail the destruction of the entire (some two dozen plots) Earl Boyles Community Garden: not theft, but destruction, and by neighbor Portlandites. The behavior isn't new: back in the urban-renewal years, we planned for some of the newly cleared lots to be gardened (imported topsoil was in the budget) either temporarily, until reconstruction took place, or permanently, as part of the long-range development plan, and we swiftly learned - assurances from highly skilled urban sociologists notwithstanding - that such gardens were always vulnerable. A quote from Portland said: "They targeted the ones that were the most cared for." Lest you conclude that only the larger cities (Portland's population is 584,000) are home to both gardeners and vandals, this summer's parallel experience in Johnson City, Tenn., with a tenth the population, proves otherwise: its Carver Community Gardens were similarly trashed (and by non-hungry predators, as the several arrangements of vandalized produce left proudly displayed on-site showed) by night visitors for reasons that urban sociologists always excuse but never explain, whether it's attacks on gardens, public housing, schools or even parks, for no apparent purpose other than leaving behind the evidence of their ability to destroy. One expert sociologist recommendation: change the name to Carver Peace Gardens. Right. And a quick Web glance at the first half-dozen of 97,000 Web hits for "vandalized community gardens" brings up Flint, Mich., South Bend, Ind., Alexandria Va. (a first-grade school garden targeted there) and Republic Mo., where the vandals destroyed a grow-your-own operation on private property, not a community garden on public land. Without getting into the "gated-community" argument, the evidence seems clear that gated (and fenced, and video monitored and whatever else) defenses are as essential as seeds and soil for the small-scale operations, urban and suburban, that make up a growing (no pun intended) sector of the table crops market. It's not a welcome subject in urban-consumer circles, which explains why a recent Scripps-Howard wire service piece on the joys of urban food production gave not a word to the joys of urban food destruction. Where and why such defenses against vandals in the veggies are essential is beyond the scope of this column, but the ''why" is instantly obvious when you look at pirates in the poultry.

Contract growing, wherein the corporation owns the birds and furnishes all the inputs (feed, etc.,) and the grower owns the building, furnishes the utilities and the labor and is paid for weight gain at delivery, has been around in its present form since the post-World War II decades, and has contributed its share (and then some) to the weight of agricultural law ever since. The benchmark lawsuit - Baldree v. Cargill - was filed 20 years ago, and not much has changed since. As of this writing, the Federal court system has just found Pilgrim's Pride (the nation's largest chicken "producer" corporation) guilty of all the usual crimes against the actual grower/producer farmers these corporations typically contract with, and has "ordered the company to pay $26 million to dozens of contract growers in Arkansas." You can read a more detailed account in the October 4, 2011 Wall Street Journal, where reporter Marshall Eckblad wrote that Pilgrim's Pride closed its nearby processing facility and refused grown birds from its contractors in order to reduce wholesale poultry prices at the national level by reducing its own demand for grown birds. Why? Well, economics 101 teaches that gross profit is the difference between costs and sales. Whether piracy for gain is more, less or equally as reprehensible as vandalism for fun is best left to the reader to decide. Suffice it to observe that contract growing isn't limited to birds, and that, as the "localvore" concept gains moral authority to the point where supermarket chains are now contracting with nearby growers for a range of crops, from the usual table items to fish and, yes, even eggs, beef, mutton, pork, bison (!) and poultry, all the usual problems for small-scale operators, "getting off the porch and running with the big dogs" will be unavoidable. Stories from the automotive and retail past - small inventors and producers thinking they could do a handshake contract with General Motors or Sears, Roebuck and Co., for example, and painfully finding to the contrary, should serve as warning to those who would now purvey green beans to buyers ranging from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart. A 1992 article by Randi Roth in Farmers' Legal Action Report furnishes a concise (only six pages) analysis offering the 10 major reasons for the problem.

Her list ranges from the size of the grower's mandatory investment in physical plant, often needing a score of years of production to pay off, versus the short-term nature of the corporate contracts, putting the grower at the mercy of the buyer; to such surpassingly crude tactics as under-weighing deliveries, underpricing them by finding aesthetic fault, and even demanding a lower price on delivery using the time-tested "sell-it-or-smell-it" threat. What they all have in common is the small-scale, debt-burdened producer, engaged in an expensive and unequal legal contest with a large-scale, deep-pockets buyer not averse to such tactics.

Lest this column convey too much gloom - for smaller-scale producers urbanite vandalism, and for larger-scale producers corporate piracy - it would be well to include a couple of mid-scale examples of farmers defending their own interests quite well, thank you, in both cases by taking control of their own crop storage. One is almost 30 years old and involves a soybean grower who reclaimed his own crop from the bankrupt elevator that was holding it for him, as elevators typically do, as a "bailment," which means that the grower legally owns the crop being stored for him and can reclaim it at any time until he authorizes sale by the elevator on his behalf. His name was Wayne Cryts, and he did just that; a May 1982 story in TIME magazine describes the details. In the late '70s, with grain prices fluctuating wildly (a federal export embargo will cause that) there was a mini boom in on-farm storage, part of the reason for elevator bankruptcies, including the one in southeastern Missouri from which American Agriculture Movement President Wayne Cryts, with a small army of neighbor-farmer help, removed his own crop before the bankruptcy trustee could sell it on primary behalf of the elevator's nonfarmer creditors. Readers with memories of those years will recall the official put-downs of the on-farm storage trend, even arguing, after the usual quality concerns, that producers shouldn't be thus entitled to control the movement of their crops into commercial channels. Now, for the same reason - wild fluctuations in grain prices - growers are again investing in on-farm storage, a sort of part two of the Wayne Cryts story.

It's that customer demand that has encouraged tractor and combine manufacturer AgCo to acquire grain storage bin manufacturer GSI Holdings, as the Wall Street Journal (don't look for this sort of economic information in your mainstream media "news" outlets) reported recently. The headline tells the tale from the industrial viewpoint - "AgCo Buys Maker of Grain Bins in Big Deal" - but not from the grower viewpoint, which is that on-farm storage frees growers from such occasional elevator abuses as mis-grading, unauthorized sales, questionable pricing and so on, meaning that just a bit more of the wealth created when farmers grow crops with solar energy - a little physiocratic lingo, there - gets back to the actual producer and not to the multiple brokers and speculators, handlers and processors, and eventually distributors and retailers, each taking their cut between producer and consumer. A once-popular bumper sticker states the case well: Farmers Own the Food First; and that includes physical custody.

Which, of course, is one of the major strengths of the grow-your-own movement. These anecdotes show that at every size of agricultural enterprise producers need to defend themselves, not just from vandals and pirates, but from the nontypical but not-rare-either practices of the beyond-the-farmgate food industry.

The author is an architect and former farmer.