Race and Apples 7: Production and Distribution

Here we are, seven steps towards the future. It’s getting close! I’ve been following the trail of the racialized beginnings of fruit growing in Cascadia, to the costs of that in our present, and the opportunities presented to us for a future of better social, spiritual and environmental health. We’re getting there. Today, a little bit of background on how the industrialization of agriculture has helped maintain some large social discrepancies, with their roots in the pre-1861 industrial agriculture of the United States, the Caribbean, Africa and New Spain. In short, this:

That’s a pretty big place. For the most part it’s apples come from 185,000 acres in Cascadia, a bit more than half of North American production, that dominate the apple market in this space. This imbalance is clear. Look at that map again:

That’s pretty roughly where most of Cascadia’s apples are grown, with 5% of the total grown north of the US-Canadian treaty line. It’s a long way from this region to anywhere. The result is a large industrial system, with automated packing, the use of vast acreages, low-cost labour and low acreage efficiency, vast cold storage systems, and integrated packaging, fertilizer, wholesale-retail, trucking and rail systems to pull it off. In short, the system supports a few things, only a few of which are deliberate yet all of which are present:

  • A seasonal Mexican work force, legal or otherwise, with low wages
  • A resulting concentration of creativity in the hands of technical managers rather than the people working with trees and land, guaranteeing the continued low wage threshold, even though it is unnecessary
  • A British Columbia held as a watershed and nature reserve rather than a developed space
  • A Mexico held behind a border, and the according loss of Mexican immigration
  • Large farms contracted to deliver patented apple varieties to specific packing houses, under the guidance of a horticultural field staff
  • Low prices to growers, preventing any other model
  • Apples stored for up to 14 months before sale. At the beginning of the season, stores will be selling year-old apples instead of the new ones
  • Apples grown for their ability to withstand industrial processes, not for their ability to nourish people
  • A vast network of giant grocery stores, with 80% or more of the price of apples paying for the packing, storage, distribution and sale of the fruit.

In other words, the result is this:

That’s $3 and $4 a pound for those ambrosias and honeycrisps! $2 a pound for the tiny, machine-bagged royal galas, and remember, please, that they are small because they are grown on weak buds unable to deliver real sweetness, flavour or nutrition:

Yet, even that $2 a pound for apples is delivering a tiny fraction to growers, who then keep these unhealthy trees because they can’t afford otherwise. The massive 1,000-acre new plantings that flooded Washington in the 1970s have also survived, not because they are productive anymore, but because they are treated as a mass crop. Production quality or yield per acre is not the issue. Low cost is. In other words, the supermarket system that delivers apples to people for more than most can afford and of lower quality than they need, subsidized by a creaking rail, highway and trucking system currently arguing that it is the backbone of food security in North America, is driving low wages, low yields, and chemical and technical fixes such as the use of drones, even for picking, which will lead to even greater private ownership of land and water and even poorer populations. The system is subsidized by workers working incredibly hard at simple, mechanized tasks, while the solutions to the equitable use of land and water and the production of healthy food and communities lies with innovation from the people actually working with the trees, based on experience and knowledge, transferred into invention, increased production and increased quality. This includes moving the workers from Mexico permanently and its integration into local communities. It includes paying local workers competitive wages commensurate with their increased skills and contributions. It also includes moving orchards away from desert areas that can’t sustain the apples and close to populations, rather than keeping them at such vast distances. There is a myth in Cascadia that it is a perfect climate for growing apples. Well, yes and no. The near desert of the shrub steppe sure isn’t.

Rattlesnake Ridge

There are huge social costs to industrial agriculture as practiced in this region. It promises food for all and profit for few, and very little profit for the land. When we talk about poverty, food banks, nutrition, food security, carbon footprints, chemical poisoning, species extinction, water security, and innovation (or the lack of it), we are talking about the apples we buy in our stores. They are ridiculously expensive, the great food gift of the Northern Hemisphere turned into the private property and profit of an elite few, at the expense of the many.

Tomorrow, the wine industry’s contribution to this mess, and then some ways forward.

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