Thursday, July 16, 2009

10 U.S. food policy destinations

For people who want to know where their food comes from, Google Maps offers a profound passport to the landscape you choose to view, in place of the pastoral image that an interested party wants you to view. For most of these locations, you can explore even more using the street view feature.

10. The world's largest pork slaughterhouse, the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, NC, where workers are voting this month on a collective contract after years of company resistance to union organizing. For what it's worth, the Rolling Stone magazine doesn't think so highly of Smithfield.

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9. Center-pivot irrigated fields drawing from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being depleted by municipal and agricultural use.

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8. Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia.

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7. The largest urban community farm in the United States, 14 acres in South Central Los Angeles, topic of the documentary movie, now bulldozed this year.

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6. Phosphate strip mines and accompanying retention lagoons in the Bone Valley in Florida, generator of mountains upon mountains of slightly radioactive phosphogypsum waste that nobody knows how to dispose safely, source of 75% of phosphate used in U.S. agriculture, and hence an essential engine of agricultural industrialization.

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5. The Canada / U.S. border between Montana and Saskatchewan. What makes this view fascinating is that this border was drawn along a line of latitude, not according to the landscape, so there is no fundamental natural difference in the land on the two sides of the border. Use the left and right scroll key to range for hundreds of miles in either direction and absorb a deep lesson in how policy influences the way land is used.

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4. Farmland conversion to suburban style housing developments in eastern Pennsylvania, near the farm where my grandfather grew up and where my wife and I were married outdoors, with cows mooing nearby. Am I understanding this image correctly? Perhaps Google Maps has updated its street database more quickly than its satellite images, so that this image superimposes the names of the environmentally foolhardy cul-de-sac style subdivision streets over the slightly older satellite image of (on the left) the construction sites and (on the right) the farms that once were there?

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3. Pineapple countryside in Hawaii, just because it's pretty.

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2. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in North Carolina.

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1. In the Iowa heartland, the little 1-mile distance indicator ruler from Google Maps is redundant.

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Please contribute your own additions to this list in the comments section.


CL said...

I really enjoy the blog. Can you be more specific about the "deep lesson in how policy influences the way land is used" along the Sask/Montana border? What policy influenced this particular use of land?

usfoodpolicy said...

Hi CL. Here was my thinking. For long stretches of the border, the agricultural land use seemed to me similar on both sides, which I took to be an adaptation to environmental and economic constraints and incentives. In other stretches, one side is carved into fields while the other appears to be parkland, or reserve, or perhaps timber, which I took to reflect different land use policies in the two countries. I'd be interested to hear more on your question.

Meanwhile, Elanor Starmer sends this great link and commentary:

"Here's my fave - the Harris Ranch feedlot on I-5. You can't zoom all the way in, but you can get close enough to make out the cows. And then you zoom out and realize just how massive it is. At any point in time, there are between 70,000 and 100,000 cows on the lot."

VegnCook said...

I loved this post. Thank you! It was thought-provoking and eye-opening.

Sarah said...

Very nice! It would be great to include a map describing access to healthy foods, such as the new Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland, where there are no grocery stores, or of one of the ShopRite stores that located in Philadelphia's underserved neighborhoods thanks to the PA Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

a progressive crank said...

To turn Sarah's question around a little, is there a map that shows the "food deserts" areas of dense population that are not served by commercial grocers? that would be a conversation starter, if it doesn't exist already.

a progressive crank said...

And here's another look at center-pivot agribusiness: Moses Lake, WA, and environs. Round fields are dead easy to spot when you fly over the formerly dry western states.

Anonymous said...

Re: The Canada US Border..

It's worthwhile to note that the majority of Canada's population lives within 200 km of the border and that Canada has approximately 1/10th the population of the USA. Of course, environmental conditions dictate what crops are where, but population pressure hasn't forced a more wide spread population growth.

usfoodpolicy said...

Cool ideas. Clearly, I'm going to have to do a follow up post with some of the excellent additional suggest locations. Also, having a community thinking project about supermarket deserts using Google Maps sounds like a great idea, but will take a little longer to figure out.

Melissa Bailey said...

Great maps. Another interesting view could be of the ethanol plants that have popped up over recent years...

Lutton said... maps shows the PA countryside with the houses built, plus offers the 'birds eye view' feature which offers different views

Lutton said...

oops, that paricular area on the maps doesn't have the birds eye images, but many do

Tana Butler said...

I love this post. I'm such a map geek.

Would you mind changing my blog's name in your right navigation to "I Heart Farms"? I've got my own domain name now, and would appreciate it.

Thank you!

usfoodpolicy said...

More good ideas. Thanks, Lutton, for sharing the current view of the Pennsylvania countryside. Interesting that the lot I happened to pick differs slightly from traditional suburban development, with shared recreation space in the middle and a common parking area.

Anonymous said...

This would be a good way to illustrate your points, if you had actually written what your points are. I don't understand what you are trying to say with all the maps. For example, "Joe Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia" tells me absolutely zero about what I'm supposed to notice about the map (even after clicking through the link to the outside website).

You should put useful information with all 10, certainly beefing up 9, 8, 7, 3, 2, and 1.

user said...


Anonymous said...

I've worked in agriculture on both sides of the border and have observed that when a Canadian farmer says "down south", he means down against the border, not in the US and when a US farmer says "up north", he means up against the border, not in Canada. What is most interesting is both sets of farmers use "up north" and "down south" for the same justifications. "Down south, they can grow better corn but we are too far north for it" leads to little corn on the south side of the border and more corn on the north side. Granted, the Canadian corn doesn't look like Iowa corn, but it is there.

Unknown said...

USDA just put out a report to Congress on food deserts, impacts on nutrition & obesity, etc. Grist did a quick write-up about it - and you can access actual USDA report here:

Anonymous said...

I like western Sydney (Aust). Farm land cut out from wilderness which in turn is under threat from suburban land.,150.67955&spn=0.237386,0.742264&t=h&z=11

Anonymous said...

Again on the Canada thing. You also see major, or at least majorish, cities on the Canadian side of the border where there are only small towns on the U.S. side. I think it is more of making use of your most hospitable land issue rather than any policies.

Anonymous said...

re: the Canada thing...dense cities do not naturally form because people decide to make the best use of hospitable land. It takes smart land use planning and strong protection for the countryside to avoid sprawling development. That's policy!

Three Sigma said...

Re Canada vs US

This is from memory, but here's the basic outline of the food policy: US farmers are (were?) heavily subsidized to continue growing traditional crops, largely wheat, even when the markets were not not favorable. Canadian farmers were left to suffer the poor prices (although there were buffers) and basically decided to diversify into rapeseed, soy, and other things.

This DOES have an effect on the land. I think Time or Nat'l Geographic had an infrared satellite photo that looked similar, but even more striking as you could see how the water changed as it flowed south right after the border. The use of a single crop year after year has repercussions on how you have to fertilize and maintain the land.

But, IANAF. (I Am Not A Farmer.)

Evan said...

For the most part these are interesting. But #5 is incredibly misleading... When you follow your suggestion and scroll either way what one discovers is that you've selected on region of striking contrast.

Of course there are development differences at specific locations along the border. Towns, for instance, will have development around them, but that development will largely stop at the national border.

"Use the left and right scroll key to range for hundreds of miles in either direction"

Yes, do. For not 10 miles in either direction you'll find that the border is largely indistinguishable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Evan. And it does looks like the contrast is mostly due to natural variation in the landscape as opposed to land use policy. The variation in the landscape just happens to coincide with that small stretch of the border.

CPinHI said...

Quibbler who lives on Maui needs to quibble: Most of those fields on Maui are not pineapple, they are sugarcane--which is not actually a food (in the same way pineapple is).

Agriculture in Hawaii is actually much less profitable than it used to be. I've seen a pineapple truck coming out of Paia, so there must be some there. But that industry on the whole is dying. Sugarcane is also in trouble because of competition from the developing world. The only reason it's profitable on Maui is that they harvest by burning the fields (the sugarcanes that are full of juice won't burn, just the leaves and dead cane). This is horrible for many reasons, but mainly for the fact that the smoke makes people ill. Also: how would you like to be trapped on an island if one of those got out of control?

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ruffin said...

Use the left and right scroll key to range for hundreds of miles in either direction and absorb a deep lesson in how policy influences the way land is used.

You know, I did. The implied extrapolation doesn't seem warranted. Look over at Wild Horse Trail and nearby. Same thing reversed. Now the US is full of farms and just north isn't.

Overall, there are a few hotspots, like the one perhaps foregrounded without context here, where the old Guatamala/Mexico border issue seems to be cropping up, but a more likely logical extension here seems to be that state & local politics and landowner interests are causing situational disparities rather than systemic inter/national bias.

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