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.