Thursday, March 4, 2010

This Is About Cows

So you know the part in, “I am a Craft Brewer” when the line, “I don’t put corn in my beer” is delivered? Well that means a lot. Yes because of tradition, yes because it’s a representative ingredient in a product that We all agree is inferior yet sold as gold, but also because it represents a downward spiral in agriculture, consumerism, moral responsibility and the reshaping of modern man the likes of which I can only really hope to comment on in this blog post.

Admittedly, I’m just a student of what I am about to go on a tour de force rant about. I know details beyond the surface level, but every fact, number, reason, and explanation aren’t something I can give you. If you are truly interested, curious, or looking for a deeper study of this I would recommend the book Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and the films Food, Inc and The Future of Food to gain a clearer understanding. From there a lot more information is available, but these are great places to start.

My introduction to this corn thing really started as I began to think more and more about the Craft Beer Drinker. What do I think the Craft Beer Drinker is, what do I think the Craft Beer Drinker does when they’re not drinking craft beer? Where do they eat? What else is in their fridge? These are just a couple of the questions that came to be, but they’re important ones. At some point somewhere in my travels something caught my eye or my ear. For all the people I’ve shared a conversation or a beer with over the past few years I’d noticed that this thing called Craft Beer was either a springboard or landing pad for a lot of other great things associated with quality in people’s lives. Some people, like me, arrived at an appreciation for great cheese through beer pairings, the work of great chefs and their approaches to cuisine through beer dinners or exciting alignments of craft brewers and great restaurants, and an alternative to the white bread, corn-fed, genetically modified groceries all around me. Other people had this great understanding of great food and in many cases wine or spirits and when craft beer came of age it only made sense for them to include it in their pursuits of quality.

This led me to the farmer’s market. That led me to talking to people who rely on their community to keep themselves and their land alive. This led me (eventually, after a couple more stops) to a golf course on the western side of Michigan and the 2009 Hatter Days Golf Outing for New Holland Brewery’s 12th Anniversary. We had a gentleman get up and speak to our impressive assortment of brewery staff, wholesale partners, retail account guests, and friends of all those mentioned afore. I’ll find out the man’s name and post it here, but he spoke to us all about the importance of supporting our communities by supporting the local folks who live and work in our communities. Michigan was hit hard by the recent economic downturn and this rally cry was heartfelt and important, but most vital for me was the following fact:

"$.68 of every dollar spent stays in your community when you buy from a local business, only $.43 stays when you spend the same dollar in a chain store*."

This was aided later when I was doing a beer tasting at Bocktown Beer & Grille in Pittsburgh when I noticed a sign on the wall with the same statistic, but issuing the following challenge, “If you spend $50 per month at a local business rather than a chain then X amount of dollars would remain in the community…now if every employed citizen in Pittsburgh did the same thing then X amount of dollars would remain in the city”. I can tell you, the number was really impressive. (UPDATE: Some coverage of the 3/50 Project with my homie Dilla HERE.)

I’ve seen the same set of facts reported a few different ways and depending on the particulars of each study the results do change slightly, but the main point is a that you’ll always be keeping more money in the community, amongst your neighbors, amongst people who have taken a chance on turning a passion into a profession, amongst people who have the same concerns as you about what goes on in the town and city that surrounds you by supporting locals. Starting to sound a bit like the explanation of why you support craft beer that you’ve undoubtedly told to a family member at dinner or an acquaintance at a party or in the office or maybe even the guy sitting next to you at the bar? I’ve done it, I’ve watched other people do it; it happens all the time. We support craft brewers because they are taking the time (and courage) to craft something that is not the zombified commercial shell of what this product used to or should be. We support them because they’re the little guy and we believe in them… and we know they can’t do it without us. We operate craft breweries for the same reasons, we are passionate about giving people a great product, keeping traditions alive while making new ones and making a statement that there is more to beer than what you see on TV and are bombarded with as marketing dollars and teams build towering displays deploying sales gimmick after sales gimmick.

So what on Earth does this have to do with corn? Well let’s take a trip to the farm right quick…As of the end of 2000 corn was being grown on 72.7 million acres of American land and was sold for about $15 billion in that calendar year (Source: EPA ). Pretty awesome for farmers right? Well there’s one small problem with that: It’s way, way, way more corn than we actually need. So much so that it drops corn prices to the point where corn is bought for less than it costs to produce it. So a lot of these farmers operate at a loss and receive government subsidies to ‘even things out’ if you will. So if we’ve got way more corn than we need how will we possibly eat it all? Well, we can turn some into ethanol and require fuel companies to use it in the gas for our cars, we can use it to make tires, toothpaste, body lotion, batteries, glue, & shoe polish, we can have scientists turn it into high fructose corn syrup and then have research teams figure out how to tap into America’s ‘elastic appetite’ and feed us way more calories than our bodies actually need (making us the fattest and unhealthiest version of humans in all of history)**.

There is another solution for all that corn, but first, more bad news: Growing that much corn is pretty bad for the land too. Traditionally crops were rotated to give the soil a chance to regain its nutrients from the sun properly, for more humus to build up in the soil to keep the land strong. No worries though, a seed company just went ahead and genetically modified seeds so that corn can be grown over and over again as long as they’ve got a steady supply of fertilizers and are kept safe by pesticides. Damn all those fossil fuels it takes to keep this part of the supply chain chugging along, damn the drinking water, damn those farmers who wanted to save their own seeds and farm traditionally (they faced lawsuits even if the genetically modified seed pollen blew onto their crops thus germinating them and making them property of the Monsanto Corporation). Granted the latter half of the damning was over soybeans, but they’re produced in just as much over abundance as corn, they just don’t bring in as much money.

So what else could we do with all that extra corn. I mean it’s not like we could take an animal whose body was never meant to eat and digest corn, whose role in the food chain involved digesting the grass that humans can’t (not until we all grow a rumen anyway) so that when we eat them we finally get those nutrients from the grass, who had a great part in naturally fertilizing land and restoring nutrients…I mean we couldn’t just feed it to that animal, right? Could we?

Of course we could. The appeal of corn-fed beef kind of seems less appealing when you realize that cows were never supposed to eat corn in the first place. It makes them sick. Here’s the upside though, it fattens them up quicker and makes for pretty marbling once they’ve been butchered so they only have to eat it for the better part of a year because they’re taken to slaughter at the age of 14 to 15 months rather than 3 or 4 or 5 years like they were when they grazed and ate grass. Oh plus, they don’t have it so bad, I mean they’re pumped full of antibiotics so they can survive the changes happening due to the completely unnatural change of diet. Them’s good eats. And people have the nerve to talk square about foie gras.

So then, before the cows there’s big piles of corn and all the fuel it takes to move them. Then there’s the cows it’s fed to who’re then made into hamburger meat and steaks for the supermarket and for the Applebee’s down in the shopping center and all the fuel it takes to move that around across the country. But hey, you can get a cheeseburger for $1 at the drive thru. As a result of this system of growing corn with fossil fuel, transporting it with fossil fuel, feeding it to cows who need antibiotics (some made with corn) just to eat it, transporting their meat with fossil fuel, etc, etc, that dollar burger actually comes at a pretty great expense, no?

Alright then, let’s wrangle this thing back in here so I can be on my way. What else can we do with the corn? Let’s use it in the beer. I mean corn liquor harkens back to great old-timey traditions, no? So why not put it in a manly beer, a beer that says “I am American” a beer with a taste as cold as a mountain (does that even makes sense? “Mmm my beer tastes as cold as a mountain range,”) a beer that can be made and sold cheaply and advertised to oblivion since people buy what they are told to buy. Corn in beer is more than just a junk ingredient going into a junk product. It’s a statement that the people who control huge sums of money (I won’t even try to tackle the political side of this corn thing) can alter the way the ground beneath us is used, alter the natural environment, diet, and quality of life of the better part of an entire species (wow, am I talking about the cows or the humans now?) and in some very distinct cases poison people (did I not mention E Coli is a major situation with these cows?) all in the name of Bigger, Faster, Cheaper.

I’m not up for that. I’m not too interested in it. Am I completely immune to it? No way. It’s bordering on impossible to cut industrial corn out of your life, however, I can make a lot of conscious decisions about who I look to when it’s time to fill my fridge. Forks Farm, Mountain View Poultry, Country Time Farm, and Backyard Bison all have amazing meats raised humanely and sell at my local farmer’s market. Birchrun Hills & Shellbark make great cheeses and Jack’s Farm, North Star Orchard, and Charlestown Farm also all sell at the market and some of these folks (many of them, and more) sell to my local natural foods grocer Kimberton Whole Foods. Some of them supply local restaurants like Alba. Other local farms will supply some up and coming bar/restaurants (more on that later) and the list of restaurants in the burbs and in the city utilizing the efforts of PASA and Buy Fresh, Buy Local are growing and growing.

The point of the story is that in some ways junk beer and junk groceries and junk habits of consuming low quality substitutes for great, fresh, local food products go hand in hand. It’s time to take ownership of this standard of quality that people hold dearly and will wax verbose about after a few tulips of big beer. Talk the talk, but finish the sentence. Walk the walk, but leave the trail in better shape than you found it. Drink good, eat good, buy good.

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