Sunny Sunday mornings in Springtime. For me, growing up in the 1960s in a comfortable middle class family, the most memorable Spring Sundays included dressing up in our best, sitting through a church service, and coming out to a sunny morning hearing birds chirping, then heading home to have waffles for breakfast. These were special occasions. Sometimes we would even have strawberries on our waffles, but usually only in the last weeks of Spring. They were always local strawberries – Hood and Totem and Shuksan varieties – because fifty years ago we were not into megafarms producing megacrops and shipping them around the world in airplanes. Nor had we engineered less flavorful (more shippable) varieties that produce year-round.
Many of the local crops were organic, raised by small farm families. This kept costs down, too. In stark contrast, today’s model for strawberry farming has become extremely fossil fuel intensive. Part of what makes today’s model for strawberry farming ‘work’ is the use of helicopters to do the spray applications, to protect huge monocropped areas from becoming total losses. Spray residues do typically persist on the strawberries we eat.
Another fossil fuel intensive aspect of today’s model for strawberry farming is ‘globalized’ crop marketing – including loading crops onto cargo planes or into the belly of passenger planes. Fresh produce from Chile thus graces the tables of Minnesota, even in the dead of winter. This is a luxury, in that past generations thrived (and were physically healthier!) without it. And, globalized food is a luxury with substantial environmental costs, that we are all encouraged to ignore.
And then there is the safety aspect of using helicopters to apply spray. Every year in the U.S., there are dozens of crashes involving ag operators, and some are fatal. Most fatal ag accidents are fixed wing, but many are helicopters. Blame gravity. Helicopters fall like a rock if there is an unexpected power loss; if they impact hard, the fuel tanks rupture, spray and ignite (…and the problem persists because FAA has for decades resisted/delayed mandating stronger/safer fuel tank systems, to minimize costs for manufacturers and operators). For safety, a falling helicopter needs to either hit the ground with lots of forward velocity to ‘skid to a stop’, or it needs to be high enough to allow the pilot to dampen the vertical impact speed by performing an autorotation. Thus, for each helicopter design, there is a height-velocity diagram that specifies which combinations of height-above-ground and speed are considered safe. A typical height-velocity diagram, such as this one for the Bell 206, dictates the serious risks of using helicopters in ag operations such as air-drying cherries, slinging Christmas trees, spraying grapes, etc.
Today’s farming relies heavily on helicopter spraying, and FAA continues to make no safety regulations to protect a growing list of fatalities. In fact, in the June-August window of 2015, there were six fatal ag operator crashes, including a Bell 47 helicopter crash while spraying in the Salinas, CA area on 6/20/2015. [NOTE: fatal ag helicopter crashes also occurred on 1/2/2013, 2/18/2013, 12/6/2013, 7/23/2014, 8/10/2014, and 8/12/2014]
At a time when climate change is pressing toward an ice-free Arctic and oceans are rising due to polar ice melt, it makes no sense to continue with ‘globalized’ crop marketing strategies. But, we continue nonetheless, likely because the widespread environmental ‘costs’ of this model are not balanced against the narrow ‘benefits’ that accrue to corporations.
Some people are concerned about this, but they are routinely finding the elected officials who could pass laws to re-balance the field (such as to favor local food production) are nearly all bought up and in-service to the corporate interests.
And so, in 2016, a sunny Sunday morning may include a marketed fast-food McWaffle with frankenberries brought to us by the likes of Monsanto. If we mindfully give no thought to this, we can still smile while we eat, ignoring the obvious: we are killing our one planet, and just the same, we are slowly killing ourselves.