Thoughts of ag from across the pond

I just returned recently from a three-week trip to Europe.  My wife and I had a chance to get away with some friends.  It was a great time of sights, sounds, food, culture, planes, trains and automobiles (especially on the autobahn!).

This getaway took us to Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France.  I’ve been blessed to travel some, and I’ve always found it interesting to visit with local residents in the main cities, but also to get away from the ‘tourist’ areas and out in the country and small villages, to get a personal perspective on America, politics, agriculture, and other issues.  It also helps when you discuss agriculture or politics back home, and can speak from actual experience.

We took roundtrip trains from Pisa to Rome, and from near Oberarnbach to Paris.  We had a rental car for the rest, and a great guide in my nephew, now stationed at Ramstein Air Base, whose family has a travel bug as large as ours, and is now approaching their sixth year in Europe.  Their last venture was to Turkey for Spring Break.

This was our second visit to Europe, with an anniversary trip ten years ago to Paris and northern France, and to London and the English countryside near Althorp (my wife is a Princess Diana fan).  The point is I’ve had a chance to see some of how Europe functions, both in the city and the country, and while it’s very different in the U.S. in many ways, it’s also similar as well.

While off the train and visiting in the small hill towns of Germany, Austria, and Italy, there is certainly more ‘local’ agriculture.  Smaller farms surround these little villages, and much of at least fruits and vegetables, some milk, and a few other commodities come from the local farms nearby.  It’s a wonderful, almost fairytale existence.  While I’m sure some of these farms were ‘organic’ operations, we also saw conventional crop inputs being applied as well.  And, when you look deeper, it’s clear these family bakeries, restaurants, etc. in these towns, also must rely on conventional agriculture sources for some of their basic food items, meats, some cheeses, and much more.  Also much of this is imported.  My beef at one of these little villages came from Argentina.  Hardly the European ‘local food’ picture that is painted sometimes. In Venice, in addition to what can be found in the country, food is flown in, then shipped down the canals to local restaurants and bakeries.  Your daytime gondola ride in Venice will likely include passing boats full of vegetables and staples headed to restaurants on the Grand Canal, and also down the side canals into the deeper parts of the city.

The other thing you notice is the history that affects the agriculture.  There is nothing in the U.S. that is ‘old’ compared to much of Europe.  Where these hill towns may be a few miles or less apart, the ‘new’ U.S. can provide miles and miles of land without a residence, let alone a village.  Agriculture is different in the U.S. because the circumstances are different.  The U.S. is ahead of Europe in technology and production.  I saw many fields that would be considered marginal by U.S. standards in wheat and corn, but for them, it was an acceptable crop.  It showed that their local food process was wonderful as far as it went, but when it came to feeding the country, including not only the locals, but the large cities, food from the U.S. and other nations was absolutely necessary.

A change of agriculture to some degree was in France, where farms were generally larger, and the systems, equipment, etc. was closer to the U.S. model.  Of course, in this country, imports are a must as well.  I know living in Kansas I’m spoiled with a juicy, perfectly marbled steak available to me, but I didn’t have a really good piece of beef while in Europe.  I had some good pork in German schnitzel and Italian sausage pizza, local seafood in pasta, and the French pastry, creams and custards and Swiss chocolate are everything they’re built up to be, but speaking as a Kansas farmer and rancher, Europe could use some good Midwest beef!

The thing that struck me, with so much interest in ‘local food’ in the U.S. is that a local food effort is wonderful.  It is fresh, it’s an excellent market for local farmers, and all the other positives you want to add.  But, it’s limited, and nowhere can you feed a country, or certainly a world, with that type of system only.

As long as people are hungry, and demand choice, conventional, modern agriculture will be needed, and with increasing technology and advanced food handling, it’s consistently getting better and better.  I think most are getting the idea that there’s room for nearly every kind of agriculture, not just in the U.S., but around the world.  And places like the U.S. and the EU must feed the Middle East, Africa, and other places where a desert will not produce, no matter how hard you try, enough food for the hungry.

I’ve had a couple of primary thoughts about food production since I got home.  One, I have an even better appreciation of local food sources. Where they can work, they should be encouraged and supported.  At the same time, I have an even clearer understanding of the need for conventional, modern agriculture, and the safe, abundant, food supply it provides. These systems don’t have to be at odds.  They can work together to feed the world, with choices, necessities, and a marvelous supply of taste and nutrition we should all be thankful for.

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