Tom Philpott

What It's Like To Sneak Across the Border To Harvest Food

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Author Seth Holmes, second from left (standing), preparing to sneak across the US/Mexico border with Triqui migrant farm workers.

For most anthropologists, "field work" means talking to and observing a particular group. But for Seth Holmes, a medical anthropologist at the University of California-Berkeley, it also literally means working in a field: toiling alongside farm workers from the Triqui indigenous group of Oaxaca, Mexico, in a vast Washington state berry patch. It also means visiting them in their tiny home village—and making the harrowing trek back to US farm fields through a militarized and increasingly perilous border.

Holmes recounts his year and a half among the people who harvest our food in his new book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. It's a work of academic anthropology, but written vividly and without jargon. In its unvarnished view into what our easy culinary bounty means for the people burdened with generating it, Fresh Fruit/Broken Bodies has earned its place on a short shelf alongside works like Tracie McMillan's The American Way of Eating, Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, and Frank Bardacke's Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers.

I recently caught up with Holmes via phone about the view from the depths of our food system.

Mother Jones: What sparked your interest in farm workers—and how did you gain access to the workers you cover in the book? 

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Argentina Is Using More Pesticide Than Ever Before. And Now It Has Cancer Clusters.

| Wed Oct. 23, 2013 4:55 AM EDT

Argentina's agricultural transformation over the past 20 years—from prime producer of grass-finished beef to one of the globe's genetically modified crop-producing powerhouses—is often hailed as a triumph of high-tech ag. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating recently, high crop prices and various government policies inspired ranchers in the fertile Pampas and Chaco regions to plow up pasture—releasing large amounts to carbon in the process—to plant soybeans, mainly for export markets. In the mid-1990s, when Monsanto rolled out its soybean seeds engineered to resist herbicide, Argentina's new crop farmers were early adapters (see chart to the right).

Sergio H. Lence, "The Agricultural Sector in Argentina: Major Trends and Recent Developmebts," 2010

Today, Argentina is the globe's third-largest soy producer—and nearly 100 percent of its soy crop is genetically altered. The trend has certainly benefited the GMO seed and agrichemical industry—as the below charts show, herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer use has soared over the past 15 years.

But what about the people who live in the country's agricultural regions?  A recent article by Associated Press reporters Michael Warren and Natacha Pisarenko paints a grim picture of life in the farm belt in the age of industrial corn and soy:

Would GMO Labeling Jack Up Food Prices?

| Thu Oct. 17, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
How much would it raise prices if manufacturers switched to non-GMO corn for corn flakes? Likely a fraction of a penny per serving.

The push to require labels for genetically modified food, which flared up in California before drowning under a flood of industry cash last year, is now underway in Washington state. Predictably, agrichemical and organic interests are pouring money into, respectively, defeating and supporting a ballot initiative called I-522, which would require foods containing GMO ingredients to bear labels. Just as predictably, the agribusiness interests are garnering much more money to kill the effort than their organic peers are in supporting it—outspending them $17.1 million to $4.6 million, the Spokane-Review reported.

Meanwhile, in a development that broke late Wednesday, the Washington state attorney general has filed a complaint alleging that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group that donated $2 million to the effort to defeat California's labeling initiative, violated state campaign laws and "spent more than $7 million while shielding the identity of its contributors," according to its press release.

As in California, the effect on food prices is emerging as a point of contention. Opponents of labeling, pointing to a 2012 study prepared during the California fight by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, say that the new rules would cost consumers $350 to $400 annually per household. The Northbridge paper, though, was funded by the industry-dominated campaign to stop Prop 37, as the California initiative was known. Campaign records show that Northridge received a total of $97,371 in five payments during 2012. 

Why Home Economics Should Be Mandatory

| Wed Oct. 16, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

I was a rotten high school student, a shirker and smart-ass of the first rank. I even found myself purged from a typing class for bad behavior—an event I regret to this precise moment, since touch-typing is obviously a convenient skill for someone in my profession. Afterward, I had to choose another "elective." Naturally, I seized upon home economics—in which, I hoped, I'd spend my time amusing girls with wisecracks and whipping up desserts from boxed mixes. If memory serves, that's exactly how it played out—especially the bit about the just-add-water confections. Mmmm, instant cake.

In other words, I retained just as much from my home ec class as I did from my failed stint as a student of the keyboard: which is to say, nothing. Yet Ruth Graham's recent Boston Globe essay "Bring back home ec! The case for a revival of the most retro class in school" strikes me as spot on. Graham isn't talking about the home ec of my wayward '80s youth, nor that of quaint stereotypes featuring "visions of future homemakers quietly whisking white sauce or stitching rickrack onto an apron."

Good News on Salmonella Outbreak: CDC Is Back on the Job. Bad News: The Strain Is Antibiotic-Resistant.

| Wed Oct. 9, 2013 12:19 PM EDT
Salmonella bacteria

Nothing like a big, multi-state salmonella outbreak to focus the mind of a federal government partially shut down by a political crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which gathers and analyzes data on such outbreaks and helps bring them under control, was effectively crippled in that capacity by the shutdown fiasco heading into this week, as Wired's Maryn McKenna reported.

But then on Monday, the US Department of Agriculture announced that 278 people across 18 states had been sickened by salmonella from eating chicken from a West Coast poultry processor called Foster Farms. And now the CDC's outbreak-tracking team has been called back into action, Barbara Reynolds, a spokesperson for CDC, told me. Because the center had been monitoring the outbreak before the furloughs and snapped back into action after the USDA's announcement Monday, the shutdown's effect on CDC's investigation had been "minimal," she said.

About 42 percent of the people infected have had to be hospitalized—about double the normal rate.

And now that CDC team is back up and running, it has released fresh information about the outbreak, and the news is disturbing. About 42 percent of the people infected have had to be hospitalized—about double the normal rate, Reynolds said, meaning that the salmonella strains in the chicken seem to be virulent. Worse, the strain is "resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics," CDC reports. And that means "an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals." "Treatment failure," of course, is another way of saying death.

As for the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects poultry plants and investigates them when an outbreak occurs, "the shutdown has not had an impact on this investigation," USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told me. All the employees that inspect meat plants are considered essential and exempt from furloughs.

Dan Engeljohn, who directs the USDA's meat plant inspections, said that the agency began collecting samples from Foster Farms facilities on the suspicion that they were the source of the outbreak on September 9, a process that continued until September 27. By Monday, October 7, when the USDA made its announcement, the agency had finished its lab analyses and determined that the outbreak strain had emerged from three Foster Farms facilities.

When it issued the announcement Monday morning, it also gave Foster Farms 72 hours to deliver a plan to show how it planned to resolve the salmonella problem in the three plants, Engeljohn said. The USDA will then assesses whether the plan is sufficient; if not, the agency will pull its inspectors from the three plants and effectively shut down their operation, he added.

Foster Farms was responsible for another salmonella outbreak, this one peaking in 2012, that sickened 134 people in 13 states. Engeljohn said that outbreak stemmed from different plants—in Washington state and not in California—and involved a different strain of salmonella.

Curious about the antibiotic-resistant nature of the current strain—again, it's "resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics"—I checked Foster Farms' website to see if the company had a policy on the controversial practice of feeding drugs to livestock. I found this:

Foster Farms has always prioritized the care and well-being of its birds and does not use antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion. Any antibiotics used by Foster Farms for treatment are approved by the USDA and FDA for use in poultry and are prescribed by and monitored under the supervision of a veterinarian. Foster Farms observes all regulated antibiotic withdrawal times prior to processing.

Interestingly, that policy jibes perfectly with the Food and Drug Administration's April 2012 "voluntary guidance" on antibiotics in meat animals, which urges producers to use antibiotics only to treat or prevent disease under the control of a veterinarian, and not to use them to make animals grow faster.

But as I argued at the time, by allowing the industry to use antibiotics to "prevent" disease, the guidance leaves a gaping loophole. As I wrote:

[H]ow can anyone distinguish giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease from giving them small daily doses to promote growth? The industry can simply claim it's using antibiotics preventively and go on about its business—continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to menace public health by breeding resistance.

40 Percent of Your Chicken Nugget Is Meat. The Rest Is...

| Wed Oct. 9, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Marketing isn't about giving people what they want; it's about convincing people to want what you've got—that is, what you can buy cheap, spiff up, and sell at a profit. Take the chicken nugget, that staple of fast-food outlets and school lunches.

The implicit marketing pitch goes something like this: "You like fried chicken, right? How about some bite-sized fried chicken chunks, without the messy bones?" When most people think of eating chicken, they think of, say, biting into a drumstick. What they get when they do so is a mouthful of muscle—popularly known as meat.

What people are actually getting from chicken nuggets is a bit different, according to a new study by University of Mississippi medical researchers. (Abstract here; I have access to the full paper but can't upload it for copyright reasons.) They bought an order of chicken nuggets from two (unnamed) fast-food chains, plucked a nugget from each, broke them down, and analyzed them in a lab.

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In Which Top Chefs Have Their Minds Blown by Scientists

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
The future on display at Stone Barns: first-rate whole wheat bread from wheat varieties developed by plant breeders and bakers working together.

Ferran Adrià, who retired in 2011 as arguably the globe's most decorated chef since Auguste Escoffier, is mock-furious.

Looking chic and trim with his close-cropped graying hair and sporting a black jacket over a black T-shirt, he is regaling a crowd with his lilting Catalan-tinged Spanish. The intellectual father of the highly experimental, techno-centered cooking known as "molecular gastronomy," Adrià is renowned for the wild inventiveness of his cuisine at his now-closed temple El Bulli on Spain's Costa Brava—think "mango anchovy ravioli foam," or  chicken curry in which the curry is solid and the chicken is liquid. But now, with the help of a harried interpreter, he's confronting Washington State University wheat breeder Stephen Jones about the professor's apparent disdain for white flour.

Jones, you see, does something that few breeders have done in the past century or so: He develops wheat varieties specifically geared to be turned into top-quality, whole-grain bread—not 1970s-style bricks or the spongy logs of today's supermarkets, but the kind of stuff you'd find in an artisanal bakery.

Ferran Adrià, right, seen from back, confronts Washington State University wheat breeder Stephen Jones, center, over the question of white bread. Kirra Cheers

"What's wrong with a [white] baguette?" Adrià wants to know, his eyes playfully boring into those of Jones, who's looking slightly stunned. And then, making a dismissive gesture, Adrià asks: "Has anyone ever made a whole wheat croissant?"

It was a scene as surreal as one of Adrià's tapas: a radical European chef challenging a salt-of-the-earth, US land grant university professor over separating flour from bran and germ—and in a high-ceiling stone-walled room that once served as a cow barn for the Rockefeller family's country estate, no less.

I'm fairly confident when I say that last week at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture—a sprawling farm/restaurant nestled in a rural corner of Westchester County, New York, on land donated by the Rockefeller family—I witnessed the globe's first-ever meeting between a roster of renowned chefs and a set of utterly obscure, highly accomplished plant breeders, mostly from US land grant universities.

The meeting was the brainchild of the visionary US chef Dan Barber. In his revered Blue Hill restaurants (one in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, one at Stone Barns, site of the conference), Barber displays a culinary sensibility that's two parts Alice Waters (reverence for, even fetishization of, seasonal ingredients) and one part Adrià-like innovation.

Blue Hill's Dan Barber has seen the future, and it's all about farmers and breeders collaborating. Kirra Cheers

Both qualities were on display at the meeting, called "Seeds: The Future of Flavor," convened by Barber in his capacity as an advisory board member of the Basque Culinary Center, a culinary university launched in 2011 in San Sebastian, Spain, that is emerging as an emblem of Spain's emerging status as the center of the global culinary avant garde. Barber's fellow advisory board members read like a who's who of international culinary innovators, and several of them attended, including Adrià, his fellow Spaniard Joan Roca, France's Michel Bras, Mexico's Enrique Olvera, Peru's Gaston Acurio, and Brazil's Alex Atala. They were joined by a glittering group of US luminaries like New Yorkers Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), Bill Telepan (Telepan), Peter Hoffman (Back Forty West), and Charleston, South Carolina's Sean Brock (Husk).

These attendees gave the meeting an electric glamor: a food-world version of what I imagine attending the Academy Awards is like. I almost involuntarily spit out my coffee when I realized the nice young British woman I was chatting with at my assigned table was none other than April Bloomfield, of the renowned New York City restaurants The Spotted Pig and The Breslin. If I had done so, I might have soiled the shirt of the unassuming fellow sitting across from me, who turned out to be David Kinch, chef/owner of Northern California's Manresa.

In his opening remarks, Barber pointed out that for a century or so, plant breeding has been mainly focused on a few large commodity crops: corn, wheat, soy, and a smattering of widely traded fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. Moreover, increasingly dominated by agrichemical-industry interests, breeding has been geared to generating high-yielding, easily portable crop varieties, ignoring considerations like flavor, nutrition, and adaptation to diverse regional ecosystems.

Meanwhile, Barber continued, the movement to transform the US food system along healthier, more ecologically robust, and tastier lines has viewed seeds through two lenses: (1) condemning giant, patent-bearing seed companies like Monsanto; and (2) preserving heirloom seed varieties that were developed before the World War II-era rise of industrial agriculture, and which have been rapidly dying out ever since.

Chefs and breeders have already developed a winter squash variety called "honeynut"—a smaller, more intensely flavored version of the widely grown butternut.

Preserving the fast-eroding agricultural biodiversity of the past is critical, but insufficient. "We need something between Monsanto and heirlooms," Barber declared. He imagines a revitalized seed-breeding sector that answers not just to huge agribusiness companies but also to evolving demands for better-tasting, healthier, and regionally grown food. "If we could talk to the people a hundred years ago who bred the heirloom tomato varieties we love," he said, "they'd wonder, 'Why all the effort to preserve these? Why not keep going, keep breeding new varieties?'"

Cornell plant breeder Michael Mazourek, who works directly with organic farmers in the Northeast to generate  new crop varieties that thrive without pesticides, asked what must have been a provocative question to a group of chefs known for their love of experimentation: "If you consider all the produce—all the vegetables and grains—available in your kitchen, what would you change if you could?"

For breeders, the answers don't need to be guided by the conventional demands for higher yields and suitability for long-haul travel. Mazourek and a growing number of breeders use a "completely non-GMO process" called marker-assisted selection. Using genomic tools, they identify the genes that trigger particular traits in a plant species and then select for them—greatly accelerating the process of creating desirable new seed lines. "We have this great potential to customize and refine taste, flavor, size, and functionality in the kitchen," he said.

Barber and the farmers at Stone Barns have already been availing themselves of Mazourek's services. Together, they've developed a winter squash variety called "honeynut," a smaller, more intensely flavored version of the widely grown butternut.

Frank Morton, who plays the rare role of farmer/seed breeder in Oregon's Willamette Valley, spoke of his work using low-tech methods—like crossing heirloom varieties of lettuce—to create entire new lines, selected for traits like vibrant pigmentation (which also means more nutrients), crunchy texture, and sweet or spicy flavor. Farmers have been doing the same thing for centuries, but in recent decades have come to rely on seed companies, not the painstaking process of selection and seed saving. Morton, whose seed operation is part of a broader market farm operation called Gathering Together Farm, is a kind of throwback to the days of farmer-breeders. He has created new lettuce (and other vegetable) varieties that shine both in the field and on the plate.

The idea of working directly with breeders seemed to send a shiver through the crowd. In a later conversation, Bloomfield said she hoped to find a breeder to develop a tomato variety for the New York region that could match the intense flavor of those grown in Northern California.

The Latin American contingent brought a different perspective. Chefs Atala of Brazil and Acurio of Peru spoke of the stunning variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains that still flourish in indigenous-populated regions of Latin America—and how that heritage is threatened by globalization and the severe economic pressures faced by smallholder farmers. Their remarks reminded me that here in the United States, where European settlers virtually wiped out indigenous populations, we have a relatively small seed heritage to preserve—and much of it has already been obliterated by the rise of industrial farming over the past half century. Hence Barber's focus on the imperative to generate new seed lines. In Latin America, there's much more left to defend.

Washington State's Jones wrapped things up by bringing the conversation back to new varieties—in this case, wheat. Here Barber introduced Jones with an anecdote. Several years ago, he said, Jones had established himself as one of the nation's leading conventional wheat breeders, creating varieties ideal for industrial-scale growing and processing, when he was called into a meeting with his dean and found himself face to face with several Monsanto executives who wanted to breed some of their genetic modifications into his wheat—a proposition that could have made Jones "lots of money," Barber said. Instead, Jones walked out and never looked back, turning his back on commodity wheat forever.

Gaston Acurio, left, speaks about the traditional seed varieties of indigenous Peruvians. Kirra Cheers

Jones explained that most modern wheat varieties are bred to be processed into white flour, with the highly nutritious bran and germ stripped away. To make what is known as "whole wheat bread," some (but not all) of that bran and germ is mixed back in. Making true whole wheat bread from those varieties, using flour from wheat grown without separating the component parts, would result in the hard, brick-like loaves that gave whole-grain bread its bad name in the '70s.

Jones showed a photo revealing that he may be history's first wheat breeder whose lab is outfitted with a professional baking kitchen, complete with big ovens, gleaming steel tables, and tubs of freshly ground flour. His lab crew includes a full-time baker whose job is to turn Jones' novel wheat varieties into bread. And then the baker, Jonathan McDowell, emerged, bearing samples of three loaves made from distinct wheat varieties bred specifically for whole wheat bread.

Each was delicious, sporting a crunchy, blistered crust and a light, airy middle, with varying levels of sweet, nutty, and just plain wheaty flavors. They were so good that this audience was largely consuming them without butter.

Even Adrià, during his spirited defense of white bread, conceded their excellence. And I reflected that bread itself—a chunk of hard crust encasing a cottony, puffy middle—is the original Ferran Adrià project. If it hadn't been invented thousands of years ago, would even he have dreamt of creating such a wondrous thing from a bunch of rock-hard, virtually flavorless little seeds?

Anna Lappé Is Ready to Bust the Food Industry's Biggest Myths

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Who you gonna call? Food mythbuster Anna Lappé.

In her work as a critic of the food and agriculture industries, Anna Lappé is carrying on a family business. Her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, brought out the seminal Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, and its central argument, that hunger comes from an unjust allocation of resources, not a lack of food, remains relevant today. Her father, the late toxicologist Marc Lappé, was an early, persistent critic of the agrichemical industry and what its products do to the people they touch—including penning the prescient book about the threat of antibiotic resistance, Germs That Won’t Die, in 1982. Anna has emerged as a leading voice in her own right. Her 2010 book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It, was a trailblazing work that teased out the connections between our food production system and climate change.

Her latest project, Food MythBusters, is a series of videos designed to counter the vast resources marshaled by the food and agrichemical industries in food policy debates. I recently caught up with Anna on the phone from her home in Oakland, California.

Tom's Kitchen: Spaghetti With Butternut Squash, Bacon, and Chickpeas

| Sat Sep. 28, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

September in Austin is a bit like February in northern climes: months of harsh weather have turned the farmers market into a study in austerity. Here in Texas, tomatoes are mostly gone, done in by the unrelenting heat. Greens are as rare as rain. Eggplant, zucchini, and melons soldier on. And on. 

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite vegetables began to appear at farm stands: butternut squash. The trouble was, the idea of whipping up—much less eating—a butternut squash soup on a 100+ degree day had all the appeal of sporting a down parka at a swimming hole.

At a recent Sunday farmers market, I broke down and bought one of the squashes anyway, desperate for new flavors. I figured I'd find something appealing to do with it. And then, fall—or at least a preview of it—arrived in the form of a day-long rainstorm. The temperature barely cracked 80 degrees: a veritable cold front! So I decided to combine that one butternut squash with a little slab of bacon I bought from the excellent Austin butcher Dai Due into an autumnal pasta.

To bring the sweet smokiness of the squash/bacon combination to the fore, I deployed an old Mark Bittman trick: I used half the amount of spaghetti that a typical recipe would call for. If you want to feed more people, you could get away with using a full pound of pasta. Just add additional lashings of olive oil and cheese to ramp up flavor. Substitution note: Try swapping the pasta for farro—see here for more on that excellent grain.

Spaghetti With Butternut Squash, Bacon, and Chickpeas
(Yields three generous portions.)

Extra-virgin olive oil
6 oz. bacon, preferably from pastured hogs, diced into quarter-inch bits
1 large butternut squash, cut into half-inch chunks
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 oz. spaghetti
4 cloves  garlic, mashed flat, peeled, and finely chopped
A pinch or two, to taste, of crushed chili flakes
1 15 oz. can of chickpeas, drained (cannellini beans would also work well)
A wedge of Parmesan, grano padano, or other hard cheese
1 bunch parsley, chopped
 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place a large, oven-proof skillet—one big enough to hold the squash in one layer—over a medium flame. Add barely enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the skillet. When it's hot, add the bacon and cook, stirring often, until brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving the heat on.

Add the squash to the hot pan and gently toss until it's sizzling and coated in fat. (If there isn't enough fat left in the pan from cooking the bacon, add a bit of olive oil.) Add a small pinch of salt—go easy, because bacon is salty—and a generous grinding of pepper. Toss the squash one more time to make sure the pieces are laid out more or less in one layer.

Place the pan in the heated oven. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the squash is tender and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, get the pasta going. (I use Harold McGhee's low-water, high-speed method.)

When the squash is done, take the pan out of the oven and mix in the chopped garlic and crushed chili flakes. Let it sizzle for a minute or two, as the pan's residual heat cooks the garlic. Now add the drained beans, a ladle of pasta water, the cooked bacon, a good grating of cheese, and toss it all together.

When the pasta is done, drain it and combine with the squash mixture. Add the chopped parsley, and toss until well combined. Taste for seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and chili flakes as needed. If the dish seems a little dry, add a glug of olive oil.

Pass around the block of cheese and the grater as you serve. This dish goes well with a sturdy red wine—maybe one from France's Rhône region.

Why Commodity Farming Is a Tough Row to Hoe

| Thu Sep. 26, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

In yesterday's post, I explained that large agribusiness corporations largely avoid the task of actually growing food, leaving it mainly to family-owned farm enterprises. Why would they do that?

In short, it's because most farmers grow commodities—and the laws of supply and demand make it virtually impossible to earn big profits from them.

Consider the cases of corn and soy. Together, the two crops take up more than half of US farmland and serve as the raw materials for nearly our entire food industry, providing everything from livestock feed to fats, sweeteners, and a litany of ingredients. (And that's not to mention their newly prominent role in fueling our cars.)

A lot of people see the big-time corn and soy farmers of the Midwest as fat cats, harvesting big bucks from on high in their vast, high-tech combines. Yet even with crop subsidies and government-backed insurance, large-scale farming in the Corn Belt is a pretty awful business. Get a load of the below chart, recently promoted by Big Picture Agriculture and taken from a recent paper by Iowa State University economist Chad Hart. The blue line represents how much Iowa farmers get paid for their corn, while the red line tracks what it costs them to grow it: seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, land rents, etc.

From "Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective," by Chad Hart of Iowa State University

Note how, over the past 30 years, the red line often creeps above or intersects with the blue one. Each place that happens shows a time when farmers lost money or just broke even. If you want a longer view, the USDA has one for you, though note that the blue-red color coding is reversed in this one:

Maybe you think corn must be a loss leader, an off-year filler for its rotation-mate, soybeans, which rake in big profits? Not the case. Again, where the red line trends above the blue are times farmers lost money, on average:

From "Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective," by Chad Hart of Iowa State University

What gives? Hart puts the story in devastating terms (emphasis added):

Agricultural returns tend to be cyclical in nature, a few years of good returns followed by a few years of negative returns. That is the inherent nature of agriculture; it is a competitive industry. And economic theory indicates the long run profitability of a competitive industry is zero. So we should expect some negative years to balance out the recent good run.

Zero long-run profitability—that's a bracing thought when you're thinking of, say, passing a farm operation on to your kids. Farming is hypercompetitive, especially if you're operating in what economists call commodity markets—that is, producing a crop that's functionally indistinguishable from that of your competitors.

The nice woman selling you tomatoes at the farmers market has all manner of ways of distinguishing her product—she's offering such-and-such varieties, grown by this or that method, on some particular piece of land. And she has a range of customers—the teeming hordes of individuals who stream into farmers markets these days—to whom she can make her pitch. The customers may be price-conscious, but they came to the farmers market because they have more than just price in mind: Some combination of quality, locality, aversion to chemicals or what have you all factor into each buyer's decision.

Now consider the farmer with 5,000 acres of corn and soy in Iowa. His products are essentially identical to those of hundreds of thousands of similar farmers—and not just in the US corn belt, but also in places like Brazil and Argentina. Their products won't be sold to individual consumers. They'll be mixed together and processed industrially and end up as, say, livestock feed, car fuel, or cooking oil.

And there aren't a lot of large-scale buyers out there to give the farmers options. Let's say you've got a bin-busting harvest of soybeans to sell. Who are you going to turn to? This soybean-industry document has answers:

Source: "How the Global Oilseed and Grain Trade Works," 2011, prepared for the United Soybean Board and the US Soybean Export Council.

Note that just three companies control over two-thirds of US soybean processing; five control 85 percent of it. Similar conditions hold true in corn, as this document from the ace University of Missouri researcher and ag industry expert Mary Hendrickson shows.

The global trade in grain (a category that includes corn and wheat) is even more concentrated. According to a recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek, a similar set of companies—Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bunge, Louis Dreyfus, and Glencore Xstrata—"now control almost all the available grain handling assets in the world." Unlike your farmers market shopper, these massive buyers want uniformity and low prices above all else—and they have the buying power to wring what they want out of their suppliers, i.e., farmers.

As the charts up top showed, corn and soy prices stayed pretty steady until around 2005, when they began an upward swing, borne up by the government-backed corn ethanol boom. Those charts also show that around the same time, farmers' costs also began to creep higher.

Farmers have to buy all kinds of stuff to keep churning out those crops—fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, fuel. All of those make up the "production costs" line in those corn and soy charts. And as the charts show, they typically rise and fall with crop prices, keeping profit margins thin (or outright negative). If you drill down into recent prices for those major agricultural inputs, you'll see the rises that are eating away at farmers' profits.

Check out what has happened to the prices farmers pay for the synthetic nitrogen and mined phosphate and potash they use to fertilize their fields:

Again, fertilizer production is controlled by a small handful of companies. Take synthetic nitrogen—a fertilizer much beloved by most commodity corn farmers. Ammonia is the main ingredient in the nitrogen fertilizer farmers spread on fields. Four transnational companies—CF Industries, Koch Nitrogen, PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer, and Terra Industries—generate 72 percent of the ammonia produced in the United States, according to a December 2009 report from the industry research group IFDC. Another major nitrogen fertilizer product is urea, which is used both on farm fields and as a cheap protein enhancer in cow feed. For urea, those same four companies control nearly 84.8 percent of the market, IFDC figures show.

Then there's seeds. Here's the New York Times in 2010:

"Such price increases for seeds," the Times reported, "are part of an unprecedented climb that began more than a decade ago, stemming from the advent of genetically engineered crops and the rapid concentration in the seed industry that accompanied it." Biotech and agrochemical giants  DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow took over the seed market in that period—their seeds now account for more than 80 percent of corn acreage, and 70 percent of soy acreage:

 Source: Agweb.com

The great bulk of the seeds proffered by these dominant companies are engineered to withstand herbicides—which has given rise to a plague of herbicide-resistant weeds, and thus adding to farmers expenses in another way: by prompting them to use ever-more chemical herbicides. Here's a chart from Food and Water Watch showing that rise:

Food and Water Watch

Then there's fungicides, another mounting expense in corn country. As I wrote in a recent post:

While the pesticide industry doesn't release use data, the market research firm Lucintel recently estimated that the global fungicide market will increase at an annual compounded rate of 6.7 percent over the next five years. "North America witnessed the highest growth during the last five years and is expected to lead the industry during 2012 to 2017," Lucintel added.

Finally, there's land costs. When crop prices go up, farmland becomes more valuable, and landlords jack up rent. And rent is a significant cost to many farm operations. According to the USDA, 40 percent of US farmland is rented. Here's the Federal Reserve on land rents in its 7th District, which encompasses farm-heavy Iowa and similar swaths of Illinois and Wisconsin. Note that rents have nearly doubled, in inflation-adjusted terms, since the mid-2000s:

US Federal Reserve

So, while the last seven or so years have been relatively fat ones for US commodity farmers, now crop prices are coming down. Predictably, farmers—here in the United States and also in Brazil, that emerging industrial-agriculture powerhouse—have responded to high prices for corn and soy by planting more of both. As those fields fill out, the market is behaving as you'd expect: As the blue and red charts at the very top of this post show, the "price" and "cost" lines for the two crops are, once again, converging rapidly. As Iowa State's Hart puts it, "We should expect some negative years to balance out the recent good run"—and through subsidies programs, including subsidized crop insurance, taxpayers will be on the hook to make up the difference.

Commodity farming is a terrible business for farmers, but a vital one. Societies can't function without the food security represented by large stocks of shelf-stable crops like grains and oilseeds. And commodity farming, with its long-term zero profitability, can't really function without public support. These days, that public support is geared in a way that works extremely well for the input suppliers—the handful of companies that provide the ever-pricier seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. In a follow-up piece—as Congress yet again tries to cobble together the next farm bill, which governs US ag policy—I'll sketch out a way that farm policy could be used to benefit farmers, the environment, and the public at large.