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The atrocious state of our industrialized food system, which is dominated by big agribusiness, is nothing new. But even for the well-educated consumer with the best of intentions, it's much easier to shake our heads, rue the way things are and say to ourselves there's no good alternative. I'm doing my best not to bury my head in the sand, but there's often a disconnect between what my stomach wants and what I know is good for my body and good for the earth.

Struggling to Buy Local and Resist Factory Farming

On Saturday, I attended the annual meeting of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a conservation and watchdog organization based here in Sheridan. The lunch speaker was Mike Callicrate, an energetic rancher and businessman who’s been an outspoken critic of big agribusiness and factory farming. Callicrate owns Ranch Foods Direct, a Colorado Springs, Colorado meat company that sells his all-natural meats directly to consumers, a feat he can accomplish because he also owns his own processing facility.

Callicrate didn’t mince words when speaking about the current state of the food industry, echoing the observations and criticisms made in the recent documentary Food Inc. Callicrate stated that big agribusiness manipulates the food industry, taking a bigger share of the profits while producers watch their share grow smaller and smaller.

“There are no rules in place and nothing to protect the independent producer,” Callicrate said. “Industrialized food is killing us. We’ve never had such a food safety problem as we have now. The question is, ‘How do you rebuild the infrastructure of a food system once it’s destroyed?’ That’s where we are right now.”

He went on to skewer everyone from Walmart to Archer Daniels Midland to Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and the USDA, which overseas meatpacking plants. Callicrate has a vision of a new future for independent ranchers, one where they collectively get together and are given an opportunity to sell their products directly to the consumer, to avoid being controlled by big agribusiness and can collect a higher percentage of what they spend raising cattle.

Callicrate’s talk is only the latest in a barrage of recent reminders of how awful the condition of our industrialized food system is these days. The New York Times recently attempted to follow the trail of a case of e-coli and revealed that the hamburger that led to a young girl’s paralysis was virtually untraceable. This was due to the mixing of sources of “slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin.” There’s no shortage of information available that will tell any interested consumer how bad things are, and some suggestions of how to not play the game. But we all know that it’s much easier to shake our heads, rue the way things are and say to ourselves there’s no good alternative.

This is where I find myself right now. I’m doing my best not to bury my head in the sand, but there’s often a disconnect between what my stomach wants and what I know is good for my body and good for the earth. I’m a proud omnivore who loves a good steak once in a while, hits the drive through sporadically and has no intention of becoming a vegetarian. Of course I’d rather buy locally and support producers directly and I’d like nothing better than to be a conscientious meat eater. The challenge comes when I look at my choices and the accompanying costs.

There are three grocery stores in Sheridan: Safeway, Albertsons and Walmart. If you’ve only got a limited amount of money and a large number of mouths to feed, you’re going to go where you get the best bang for your buck. In Sheridan, that’s going to be Walmart, which is why it’s the busiest grocery seller in town, where oversized carts overflow with prepackaged foods from factories scattered across the country.

We’ve tried to be conscientious about what we buy. Earlier this year, we decided to do our best to eliminate high fructose corn syrup from our diets. What we discovered, was that it’s easier said than done when doing your weekly shopping. Everything from dry cereal to crackers to salad dressing and juice contains the stuff. It took a lot of searching to find a cereal that both of us liked that didn’t have high fructose corn syrup. My first stop is the organic produce section, where a few wilted and depressing looking peppers are much less appealing than the shiny non-organic ones that are two dollars cheaper per pound. The organic products the stores do carry are generally produced by huge multinational corporations, making me wonder if I’m even supporting sustainable agriculture after all. For eight months of the year, there is no farmers market that allows us to purchase produce from local growers.

Because Sheridan is an agricultural area, there are a few ranchers that sell directly to the consumer, if you’re willing to buy half a side or a full side of beef at once. Not exactly the most practical meat purchase for a guy like me, whose fiancee is a vegetarian, doesn’t have a spare freezer and consumes mostly boneless, skinless chicken breasts and turkey sandwiches. Another option is to hunt game meat and eat that exclusively, an investment of time and energy that’s looking more attractive every day.

For consumers who don’t hunt or have a taste for game meat, seeking out local food options requires much greater effort and initiative than just dropping into the grocery store. It’s almost certainly going to cost a lot more. Merely purchasing organic food puts a big dent in our monthly grocery budget. It’s no surprise that for those who live near the poverty line, waistlines keep expanding, health care costs keep increasing and agribusinesses continue to roll in the cash and set market prices for food.

Callicrate emphasized to the audience that the food revolution has to start with the consumer, because there’s no sign it’s going to come from the government. I agree. At the same time, if you’re a renter without an option of growing a garden, live in a climate where the growing season is short or are simply trying to keep your household food costs from skyrocketing, the odds are stacked against you. I know it’s an important fight, and it’s one I’m willing to continue wage while understanding it’s a struggle each time we hit the grocery store.

About Michael Pearlman

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  1. By no means am I am health nut. Oddly enough, though, I don’t eat a lot of processed fiood like cereal or bottled salad dressing. Since I started reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I have paid a lot of attention to things like HFCS, and have been surprised where it turns up. Even benign ingredients like bread crumbs and shredded cheese can contain that crap.

    The big problem for me is the irresistible lure of inexpensive beef at Albertson’s. It’s tasty, and cheap enough that I can give steak to my family a couple times a week. Unfortunately, no one really knows what those steers have eaten or injected. Probably not good. Grass-fed natural beef from the Mead Ranch is great, but SPENDY.

    An even bigger problem is chicken (boneless, skinless breasts are on sale this week, by the way. $1.77 per lb. is too good to pass up). 10 years ago, chicken breasts weighed about 10-12 oz. apiece. Now, I occasionally get 20 oz. monsters. I wonder what happened.

    My 15-month old baby drinks a lot of milk. We buy organic milk, assuming it’s better. I noticed that our “organic” milk has a VERY generous shelf life, and did a Google investigation to find out why. Most of it is “ultra-pasteurized,” which renders it safe for long travel. The process also cooks most of the good stuff right out of it. It doesn’t even need to be refrigerated when it’s in the big stainless containers. UP milk won’t make cheese or yogurt. What does that tell ya?

  2. Thank you for attending our meeting and for your discussion of Callicrate’s views on local food and industrialized food production.

    I wanted to add that Sheridan also has two locally owned grocery retailers, Warehouse Market and Bino’s Grocery, which source some local foods and whose profits stay in the Sheridan community. During summer and early fall, Sheridan also has a burgeoning farmer’s market scene and the Sheridan Area Local Foods (SALF) group put out a publication (available at stores around Sheridan) cataloging many local producers who can be contacted directly. The Good Health Emporium, the Health Nut and Breckenridge Market also emphasize local, fresh and healthy foods.

    Supporting local businesses are a great way to start making Callicrate’s food system vision a reality.

  3. Thanks Ashley- I will definitely check out Warehouse and Bino’s more frequently, and we frequent the farmers market during the summer.

    I should have added that I was given a copy of the SALF publication after the meeting. I’m glad to see there’s an effort underway in Sheridan to educate residents about local food options that are available.

  4. Michael, I am glad you got a copy of the SALF is about time to update it! You are right about the quantity issue associated with meat…that is a real tough one. Though maybe we could advertise on freecycle and get a group of people to go in and split it up into a more reasonable amount than an entire beef! Good luck with your food choices!

  5. High fructose corn syrup, sugar, and several fruit juices are all nutritionally the same.

    According to the American Dietetic Association, “high fructose corn syrup…is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose. Once absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable.”

    The American Medical Association stated that, “Because the composition of high fructose corn syrup and sucrose are so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that high fructose corn syrup contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose.”

    High fructose corn syrup is used in the food supply because of its many functional benefits. For example, it retains moisture in bran cereals, helps keep breakfast and energy bars moist, maintains consistent flavors in beverages and keeps ingredients evenly dispersed in condiments. High fructose corn syrup enhances spice and fruit flavors in yogurts and marinades. In salad dressings and spaghetti sauce, it improves flavor by reducing tartness. In addition to its excellent browning characteristics for breads and baked goods, it is a highly fermentable nutritive sweetener and prolongs product freshness.

    High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s requirements for use of the term “natural.”

    As many dietitians agree, all sugars should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle.

    Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at

    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association

  6. Oh dear! You’re being poisoned by evil “factory farming” and “high fructose corn syrup” but becoming a “locavore” and eating boutique locally grown organic food is gonna save you. Or maybe you’re just following the latest fad led by the brainwashed “locavore” organic food advocates.

  7. Beg to differ with Audrae Erickson. Fructose and sucrose are not the same in the bloodstream; the insulin response is different. For way more information than you probably want, I can highly recommend Gary Taubs’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” That’s not to say that either one is good. Our family (the adults anyway) have pretty much eliminated refined carbs from our diets–that includes bread, potatoes, and rice, as well as sugar. After a year, it’s become much easier.

  8. I’d ask Ms. Erickson of the Corn Refiners, if high fructose corn syrup is safe and natural, why can’t I go to a store anywhere and buy a package of it for my own use? Could it be that pure HFC is a dangerous substance? Just curious.

  9. Back to the topic at issue for me – I want to eat healthy, would like to support local farmers/ranchers and am trying to lose weight. Problem re: all 3 issues – I barely make it paycheck to paycheck (sometimes I don’t). So what is the answer – why can’t I buy “healthy” food without going broke?

  10. Is this Sheridan, Wyoming, or Sheridan, Montana? In any case, here in Missoula, I can relate. In fact, I was just having a discussion about this on my Facebook page. A friend in New York was surprised to learn that we don’t have access to Montana-raised meat in our grocery stores. (With a few expensive exceptions, like the Good Food Store.) I told her our livestock goes to the same Midwest feedlots and slaughterhouses as everyone else’s.

    I have a friend who raises sheep on the Hi-Line, and it bothers me greatly when I see “New Zealand lamb” in the grocery store. Why ship it across continents when we have plenty right here?

    Our food system is indeed broken.

    To anyone who wants to learn more, I highly recommend the movie “Food, Inc.” and the book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.

  11. You can eat healthy without going broke. Just don’t let yourself be brainwashed into believing that you have to eat local and organic in order to be healthy. Shopping at Walmart, Albertsons or other discount grocery store will do just fine.

  12. Let’s have Audrae Erickson also discuss the egregious environmental consequences that producing all of this high fructose corn syrup have caused.. Oh wait, that’s not in the corporate brouchure is it?

  13. You gotta stop buying boneless skinless chicken breasts, for starters. You can buy a whole (organic!) chicken for the same amount of money you’d spend on cheap corporate boneless skinless. Learn how to break down the chicken and make your own stock/soup/stew/chicken salad and you’ll get six-eight meals out of it (since your fiancee isn’t having any).