Thursday, March 03, 2005

Mixed Feelings on Mixed Greens

The Imperial Valley, straddling Arizona and California, is an area of enormous agricultural production, and Yuma itself is known as the "Lettuce Capital of the World" for the vast quantities of leaf, red leaf, and romaine lettuce grown here.

In driving around the area, I've been able to see much more clearly how this large-scale agriculture is managed, and while I don't claim to know every detail of farm management for this area (far from it!), what I have learned leaves me with mixed feelings.

The fields are clearly laid out to promote efficiency and maximum production: square fields with perfectly spaced and aligned rows, planted in exacting succession so that one field can be fully harvested just in time to move on to the next. The rows are separated by narrow ditches into which irrigation pipes can be directed to water the crops in their early stages, after which the pipes can be moved into the next field.

At harvest time, trucks are taken directly into the field and equipment set up so that multiple rows can be cleaned out at once, and boxes and bags are brought out to speed the packaging before the produce is shipped to cooling plants and then across the country to various markets. The fields are then plowed under and reshaped/respaced, and different crops are planted (alfafa, corn, wheat, strawberries) to continue the land's productivity.

A fairly efficient process and one that results in pretty cheap produce, yes? And yet, thanks to the reading I've done recently, I have my misgivings about this method of farming.

First, given the quality of the soil around here otherwise (read: sand), I have to wonder how these fields have been fertilized. How many chemicals have been applied to make these fields produce... and then to keep the crops free of pests? And how many varieties of these vegetables are planted (and will they therefore become more susceptible to pests and disease over time)? How much water is being diverted from other uses to support this agriculture?

And then there's the question of labor. I am guessing that these fields are generally tied to corporate distributors instead of individual farmers for the most part, so who profits? And how much of the harvesting is done by migrant labor, and at what wages or with what benefits?

Once the produce leaves the fields, it goes to huge warehouses for refrigeration and then onto refrigerated eighteen-wheelers to ship all over the country. How much additional energy is consumed in this process? And is that cost truly reflected in the price you pay for lettuce at the supermarket?

A lot of questions... and I don't know the answers. Granted, that's an awful lot to consider when you sit down to eat a simple salad. Most of us don't want to think about our food in that much detail because we might never be able to eat anything again. And aside from saying that we should all eat as much locally and organically produced food as possible (easier said than done, I know), I don't know what else to say.

Is technological progress, efficiency, or cheap food worth all this? I don't know, but I have my doubts, unresolved though they are.

It's true... the more you know, the more you know that you don't know.

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