(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘agriculture

“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking”*…

A century ago, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, our workweek would be only 15 hours long. What happened? We’ve crossed all the technological thresholds Keynes identified, so why aren’t we living in the economic promised land? Well, if Keynes were here today, he’d probably blame our unshakeable instinct to work. He believed that human beings are cursed, that we have infinite desires, but there aren’t enough resources to satisfy them. As a result, everything is, by definition, scarce. Today, economists refer to this paradox as the “fundamental economic problem,” and they believe it explains our constant will to work. We make and trade resources as a way to bridge the gap between our infinite desires and our limited means.

That may sound like a reasonable theory, but there’s a problem: It doesn’t square with what we now understand about our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Until the 1960s, anthropologists believed hunter-gatherers led short, difficult lives. Only through incremental advancements in technology, the thinking went, were our ancestors able to secure greater wealth, tranquility, and free time. But when anthropologists began studying the world’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies, they came to a striking conclusion: Hunter-gatherer life wasn’t nearly as bad as everybody thought. One anthropologist, for instance, found a tribe that only spent 30 hours a week hunting and doing chores. The rest of the time, they made music, socialized, gossiped, and relaxed. They didn’t spend all their time working to satisfy their infinite desires. In fact, their desires weren’t infinite at all; they were limited, and easy to satisfy. This revelation suggests that the “fundamental economic problem” is not, as Keynes believed, the eternal struggle of the human race. It’s just an unfortunate recent development…

One of five take-aways from Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, by James Suzman (@anthrowittering), a social anthropologist based in Cambridge, England, where he directs a think tank called Anthropos that uses anthropological tools to solve economic problems. His first book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, draws on the three decades he’s spent living with the Ju/’hoansi, one of the oldest hunter-gatherer societies in the world.

More at Next Big Idea Club (@NextBigIdeaClub): “Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.”

* John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

###

As we rethink the rat race, we might send exquisitely-constructed birthday greetings to a man whose work continues to inspire and amaze, Johann Sebastian Bach; he was born on this date in 1685. Known both for instrumental compositions such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations, and for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor, he sits at the apex of the Baroque period, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

source

Written by LW

March 21, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

Wild rice

Rice is the most valuable agricultural commodity on the planet. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of it are produced every year, an amount valued at more than $300 billion every year. Billions of people around the world rely on it as a staple of their diets, and have done so for millennia all over East, Southeast, and South Asia, and beyond.

But the rice that’s so popular today has a distinct beginning as a cultivated crop, a beginning that arrived somewhere along the Yangzi River more than 10,000 years ago. (The rice traditionally grown in West Africa, and which was brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people and merchants in the early modern period, stems from a separate domestication event. It’s not as productive as its Asian cousin, and so is less widely cultivated now.)

Ten millennia in the past, rice grew a bit beyond its current range thanks to slightly warmer and wetter climatic conditions at the dawn of the Holocene. The people living around the Yangzi River, and slightly to the north of there, were quite happy to use the stands of wild rice growing in their homeland. Grasses might not seem like the most natural food source for people to exploit, because it requires a great deal of processing (grinding, cooking, etc.) to make it edible. As part of a forager’s diet, however, it offered advantages: It was plentiful, it was reliable when other food sources like wild game came up short, and if properly stored, it could last for years.

Around the Yellow River, northern China’s key waterway, rice didn’t grow. Millet, however, grew in abundant quantities. As their counterparts had done further to the south with rice, the inhabitants of northern China learned to process it. A couple of thousand years of experimentation led from simply collecting wild grasses wherever they were found to planting wild varieties in gardens and fields, then intentionally and unintentionally selecting for traits to make those grasses more productive and less likely to fall off the stalk. Farmers created their crops, the ancestors of the foods we eat today, and the increasing viability of the crops created farming as a way of life.

For a variety of reasons, successful farmers tend to have large numbers of children, who expand outward from their core areas, taking their way of life with them. This process of demic diffusion defines most centers of early agricultural innovation around the world. Farming begets more farmers, who tend to spread out. For this reason, Neolithic China – an environment home to not one but two distinct agricultural traditions – produced a stunning diversity of early farming cultures. Starting around 7000 years ago, after 5000 BC, these farming cultures exploded in numbers, scale, and complexity. They filled up new territories and built more and larger villages. Towns followed, and leaders in the form of chieftains and kings. Social hierarchies and inequality defined these new Neolithic societies, distinctions of rank that could be inherited across generations.

These were the foundations on which organized states, writing, and what we might eventually call “Chinese civilization” built, many thousands of years down the road…

Jared Diamond has argued that the advent of agriculture was “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“; in any event, it was a watershed moment. Patrick Wyman explores the dawn of agriculture and of the social complexity it spawned: “Neolithic China.”

* “Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice? One takes away a million lives, the other saves a hundred times as many.” – N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month?

###

As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2017 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 2019-2028 as the Decade of Family Farming. This program aims to serve as a framework for developing and promoting better public policies on family farming– an opportunity to contribute to an end to hunger and poverty as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Here’s something that each of us can do to help the neediest.

source

“Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you”*…

With harvest season nigh, the corn should be “as high as an elephant’s eye,” as the old Rodgers and Hammerstein song has it. Time to get that water boiling for the corn on the cob?

Sure. But most of the corn we consume isn’t on the cob, in a can, or frozen. Sweet corn is actually less than 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States. Popcorn, our third standard type of corn, is also less than 1 percent of the American corn crop.

Educators Renee Clary and James Wandersee have explored the history of corn, from the first domestication of maize about 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn.”

According to Clary and Wandersee, we should be flush with the hundreds of varieties of corn crafted by human selection over the centuries. But the United States, the world’s largest corn producer, almost exclusively grows field corn, which is also known as dent corn, or, in the futures markets, “commodity corn.” It is not delicious with butter and salt.

Commodity corn is a bit magical, however, because it can be transformed into a plethora of products. Food is still a big part of the corn equation, but indirectly. Meat, for example, is actually transmuted corn: Four-tenths of the U.S. corn crop goes to feed chicken, pigs, and cattle. And since cattle evolved as grass eaters, they have to be dosed with antibiotics because corn isn’t healthy for them.

Many processed foods are built on the back of corn. High-fructose corn syrup, much cheaper than sugar, is the most obvious of these corn-based ingredients in our food system…

Clary and Wandersee have their students survey what’s in their home pantries. There’s a lot of corn hidden in food labels. Caramel color, lecithin, citric acid, modified and unmodified starch? Corn. The same with ascorbic acid, lysine, dextrose, monoglycerides, diglycerides, maltose, maltodextrin, and MSG. Xanthan gum? Well, there’s no such thing as a xanthan gum tree.

But the corn story is even more complicated. Corn can be chemically manipulated into all sorts of unexpected uses. There’s ethanol, for instance, which is basically alcohol used as a fuel supplement.

You’ll also find corn used in the production of antibiotics; aspirin; books; charcoal briquettes; cosmetics; crayons; disposable diapers; drywall; dyes and inks; fireworks; glues; paper, and plastics. The spray cleaner Windex has at least five corn-derived components. Spark plugs, toothpaste, batteries, and running shoes can all be made with things that started out as corn, in a field, under the sun. In 2001, Goodyear introduced tires made with a starch-based filler made from corn. DuPont naturally has a corn-based synthetic fiber.

While we’re at it, Stephen King’s 1977 story “Children of the Corn” gave rise to a movie franchise starting in 1984, and there’s a new Children of the Corn movie scheduled for release next year. Corny as horror movies can be, we apparently can’t get enough of them—or of corn itself.

… all of which goes to show why, as Michael Pollan says “farmers facing lower prices have only one option if they want to be able to maintain their standard of living, pay their bills, and service their debt, and that is to produce more [corn].” Indeed, corn is the most widely grown grain crop throughout the Americas; 13 billion bushels of corn are grown in the United States alone each year (on 91.7 million acres, the largest crop in the U.S.).

The history of corn, from the domestication of maize 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn,” to teach about biodiversity… and its lack: “Corn is everywhere!

* Michael Pollan

###

As we give a shuck, we might send artificially-sweetened birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755. An engineer and one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States, he was a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling, and steam power. He created the first continuous production line (the first fully automated industrial process), the first high-pressure steam engine, and the first (albeit crude) amphibious vehicle and American automobile.

But given the subject of today’s post, we might note that he also created the automatic corn mill.

source

Written by LW

September 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Agriculture changes the landscape more than anything else we do”*…

 

agriculture

From the USDA, a (zoomable) map of which crops are grown where in the U.S.: “Cropscape.”

* Michael Pollan

###

As we contemplate cultivation, we might note that today is National Animal Crackers Day.  Small crackers/cookies baked in the shape of animals, they were imported from England to the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century. then produced domestically by a number of bakers starting in the 1870s.

But by the turn of the century, several of those bakeries had merged to become the National Biscuit Company, which began to produce a branded version, “Barnum’s Animals,” featuring animals from the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  While earlier animal cracker were sold to merchants in bulk (to be sold to customers from barrels), Nabisco’s were packaged in a colorful, circus-themed box with a string that allowed it to be hung from a Christmas tree.  Initially retailing for 5 cents a package, they were– and remain– a huge hit.

300px-Barnum's_animals_examples

Some of “Barnum’s Animals”

 

Written by LW

April 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The farmer works the soil; the agriculturist works the farmer”*…

 

agriculture

 

Like the wheat barons of the 1870s who lived on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, [Stewart] Resnick isn’t of this place. He’s never driven a tractor or opened an irrigation valve. He’s never put a dusty boot on the neck of a shovel and dug down into the soil. He wouldn’t know one of his Valencia orange groves from one of his Washington navel orange groves. The land to him isn’t real. It’s an economy of scale on a scale no one’s ever tried here. He grew up in New Jersey, where his father ran a bar. He came to California in the 1950s to remake himself. Welcome to the club. He remade himself into a graduate of the UCLA law school, a cleaner of Los Angeles buildings, a vendor of security alarms, a seller of flowers in a pot, a minter of Elvis plates and Princess Diana dolls, a bottler of Fiji Island water, a farmer of San Joaquin Valley dirt. He purchased his first 640-acre section in the late 1970s and kept adding more sections of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and citrus until he stretched the lines of agriculture like no Californian before him.

At age 81, he’s gotten so big, he doesn’t know how big. Last time he checked, he told me he owned 180,000 acres of California. That’s 281 square miles. He is irrigating 121,000 of those acres. This doesn’t count the 21,000 acres of grapefruits and limes he’s growing in Texas and Mexico. He uses more water than any other person in the West. His 15 million trees in the San Joaquin Valley consume more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, consumes 587,000 acre-feet.

Resnick’s billions rely on his ability to master water, sun, soil, and even bees. When he first planted seedless mandarins in the valley 17 years ago, the bees from the citrus orchards around him were flying into his groves, pollinating his flowers, and putting seeds into the flesh of his fruit. He told his neighbors to alter the flight of the bees or he’d sue them for trespassing. The farmers responded that the path of a bee wasn’t something they could supervise, and they threatened to sue him back. The dispute over the “no fly zone” was finally resolved by the invention of a netting that Resnick sheathes around his mandarins each spring. The plastic unfurls across the grove like a giant roll of Saran Wrap. No bee can penetrate the shield, and his mandarins remain seedless.

The control Resnick exercises inside his $4.5 billion privately held company does relinquish to one person: his wife, Lynda, vice chairman and co-owner, the “Pomegranate Queen,” as she calls herself. She is the brander of the empire, the final word on their Super Bowl ads, the creator of product marketing. There’s “Cheat Death” for their antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice [POM] and “Get Crackin’ ” for their pistachios [Wonderful] and “Untouched by Man” for their Fiji water. A husband and wife sharing the reins is rare for corporate America, rarer still for industrial agriculture. He commands his realm, and she commands hers, and he takes care to mind the line. “If he sticks even a toe onto her turf,” says a former business partner, “she gives him a look that sends him right back.”

Together, the Resnicks have wedded the valley’s hidebound farming culture with L.A.’s celebrity culture. They don’t do agribusiness. Rather, they say, they’re “harvesting health and happiness around the world through our iconic consumer brands.” Their crops aren’t crops but heart-healthy snacks and life-extending elixirs. Stewart refers to the occasional trek between Lost Hills and Beverly Hills — roughly 140 miles — as a “carpetbagger’s distance”…

Stewart Resnick’s domain is the densest planting of almonds, pistachios, and pomegranates on earth, making him the biggest “farmer” in the U.S. and the biggest irrigated “farmer” in the world: “A Kingdom from Dust.”

* Eugene Ware

###

As we contemplate concentration, we might send well-organized birthday greetings to Antoine Laurent de Jussieu; he was born on this date in 1748.  A botanist, he is best remembered as the first to publish a natural classification of flowering plants; much of his system– which was, in part, based on unpublished work by his uncle, Bernard de Jussieu— remains in use today.

220px-Jussieu_Antoine-Laurent_de_1748-1836 source

 

Written by LW

April 12, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: