Has Thanksgiving lost its luster? Sometimes it seems to take a backseat to the mad rush — and trampling by frenzied human cattle — on Black Friday. There are other traditions, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But again, this seems like a shameless celebration — a spectacle — for the cult of empty consumerism.
While gadgetry and knickknacks are an enviable first world “problem,” it’s the plentiful farm-raised bounty that sustains us. It’s a celebration of the selfless sacrifice of those who (to paraphrase JFK) “buy everything at retail, sell everything at wholesale, and pay the freight both ways.“
To me, Thanksgiving radiates a polished sheen every year. Not just due to nostalgia, but because I’m part of a community that enables it. You could argue that a multi-leg turkey trot (spanning time and space) is what allows us to partake in the yearly smorgasbord. Get out your batons for the relay!
Leg #1: The Columbian Exchange: Like variety? Very few commercial crops are native to the Americas, let alone North America. The staggering number of out-of-season selections on your dinner plate is a direct descendant of this import/export experiment between the “Old” and “New” Worlds. Should you choose a North American contemporary paleo diet, you’d have a not-so-eclectic selection of cranberries and blueberries to choose from.
Leg #2: Ag Education and Research: The goal toward ag self-sufficiency (and surplus) began with the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862*. Every state, including territories, has a university founded (at least initially) for the express purpose of teaching and research in agriculture. This includes Alaska with its three-month growing season, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, among others! One problem though: One university is hardly representative of the entirety of a state — the soil, climate, and commodities can differ significantly. The Hatch Act of 1887 sought to fix that with regional Ag Experiment Stations. These were much better attuned to the needs of the locals and could generate locally tailored information about best practices. But, like clockwork, another problem materialized. How do we decipher academic-speak and get the word out about research advancements to the public? Enter the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established the Cooperative Extension System. Their goal was to act as translators and practitioners to disseminate research findings to the end user — the public.
*In the interest of inclusivity, especially since the 1862 land grants were predictably backward post Civil War, the 2nd (1890) and 3rd (1994) Land Grant Acts (Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Native American serving institutions, respectively) were established.
Leg #3: Interdisciplinarity: Now that’s a mouthful worthy of context. You know that caricature of academics being oblivious (sometimes hostile) to anyone outside their department? That isolationist, self-imposed segregation (“siloing”) has been rampant since the first departments were spun-off for faculty. We can’t afford cliques any more. To tackle contemporary problems in ag, we need to assemble interdisciplinary dream teams that bridge different fields of study to come up with never before conceived transdisciplinary solutions. Basically, get your ignorant head out of the restrictive disciplinary box and think up holistic solutions together. This is delightfully apparent at my small liberal arts institution, where ag and environmental science faculty (historic mortal enemies) are housed in the same workspaces — with students that major in one and minor in the other.
Leg #4: NBT: Aka New Breeding Techniques, including CRISPR gene editing. The response to anti-GMO hysteria, these approaches take a page out of Microsoft Word’s playbook. No need to “cut and paste” any more, CRISPR brings “find and replace” functionality to the biological forefront. Just as precise as GMOs, keep those edits in-house. No foreign genes, sidestep the controversy (?). For now …
Leg #5: Carrying Capacity of the Farmer: We are the (ag) 1.5 percent. How are fewer and fewer farmers able to keep up with the needs of a booming population? Using some complicated equations, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that one farmer can feed 155 people, while his/her equivalent in the 1970s could only feed 73. In the 1930s, a measly 4. A mathematician’s dream, perfect and predictable linear growth. Can we keep up the pace to match peak population in 2050?
Leg #6: Truth in Labeling: Consumer right to know! Avoidance is the best strategy! Mandatory food labels don’t appear to have the effect that many of us in the ag industry feared. In fact, they’ve seemed to defuse the contentious issue of GMOs. With that said, as a consumer, I’m glad to have certain tidbits of voluntary information at my disposal — like whether something is organic (mandated USDA standards to get the label), natural, rBST free, hormone free, or any other ploy imaginable. As an educated consumer, I know these overpriced items are voluntarily showing their true marketing colors for dollars — they don’t mean squat for my health or the environment, and I can avoid them. Ironic role reversal at its finest. Bon appétit labeling junkies.
Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.