The president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), Bob Stallman, threw down the gauntlet on Sunday in his annual speech to his industrial cronies. What got him riled up? Not rising seed prices, superweeds, or the unpredictable weather farmers face due to climate change. Instead, the focus of his speech was the critics of synthetic agriculture: "Emotionally charged labels such as monoculture, factory farmer, industrial food, and big ag threaten to fray our edges," he said. "A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule." His strong remarks came following a letter signed by 47 scientists imploring the AFBF to enter into dialog about their denier position on climate change.
In addition to the havoc being wreaked on the environment, one of the biggest trespasses of industrial agriculture has been the elimination of millions of jobs, resulting in the emptying out of rural communities worldwide. The repercussions of the loss of opportunity for rural America has been tragic: many towns are now plagued by dilapidated schools and poor health services, and a rising epidemic of methamphetamine use and production has filled in where more beneficial small businesses used to thrive.
This emptying out was never better cataloged than in John Steinbeck's great novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Written in 1939 after Steinbeck had researched and reported for years on the plight of the American farm worker during the early industrialization of agriculture, he captured the phenomenon thusly:
And then the dispossessed were drawn west -- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless -- restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do -- to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut -- anything, any burden to bear, for food.
As our Great Recession economy continues to shed jobs -- an additional 85,000 were lost in December holding the unemployment rate at 10% -- we should be creating opportunities in sustainable farming, the original, shovel-ready green job. Reconsidering what it is to farm will require completely new thinking about agriculture, combining the best of scientific knowledge while finding a balance between scale and community. Unfortunately, those who rely on the status quo of industrialized agriculture for their bacon see farming as a linear pursuit with one end: bigger farms using technical solutions -- and thus fewer human actors.
Yet never before have we been so food insecure -- 49 million Americans are currently not eating three meals per day, and one billion people in the world are hungry. The hungry cannot afford to eat -- because there is too much labor in the world and not enough jobs. We claim to want to feed the world, but today's farmers don't even feed themselves; they make commodity products to be shipped far away and reformulated and sent back to their supermarket shelves. They do this because we've told them to, with our tax dollars and purchasing power. However, our system should not be about producing more food, but about producing better food on a human scale and cutting out the processors and the middlemen.
Stallman's arguments against this smaller approach to agriculture ignores reality. There are still migrant workers doing backbreaking labor on farms often subject to doing the same monotonous movements for hours: picking tomatoes all day in the hot sun, or hand harvesting cotton (a common occurrence in light of the epidemic of superweeds in the south resistant to herbicides). By contrast, small farms are usually owned and worked primarily by the farmer. In addition, small farms are diversified to guarantee a profit through direct sales, and to stave off risk if one crop fails -- and this just so happens to be a more worker-friendly (as the farmer gets to vary his/her work), resource efficient and an environmentally-conscious way to farm, too.
American policy makers have historically cowered in the face of the AFBF, but that organization is aging and old-fashioned. It's time for politicians to see that another way is possible and that so much is at stake, and it's time for new policies that reflect this knowledge. As the AFBF goes kicking and screaming into the 2010's, it is worth remembering that America's farmers (and most AFBF members) are on average 57 years old. We will need more farmers no matter what, however we hope to feed ourselves in the future, and newcomer farmers often do not agree with the climate change-denying AFBF. Second, we just don't know whether sustainable agriculture can feed the world, but we do know that our current system has a 'use by' date, and that smaller, diversified systems have better yields and better protect our natural resources. Isn't it worth a try? It would be unethical to continue the status quo knowing what we know about the nitrates heading downstream, topsoil loss, the fluctuating price of a barrel of oil, and of course, the fact that our children will die younger than we will because of what they eat.
It is time to revalue the farming profession and rebuild our communities again. It is time to break up the 10,000 acre farms into one hundred plots, and plant young people in the countryside who can use sustainable practices to rebuild the soil and bring it back to life.
Building a system that employs more farmers is not a step backwards, it is an acknowledgment of our respect for nature and a guarantee against future hunger. Perhaps we've lost Stallman's generation on this front, both because industry has a strong hold on the AFBF and because it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But farming is being reconsidered and changed as more and more young people realize the vital role they play in reinventing the food system and take up the challenge of doing it from scratch.
Land is a resource for the common good, and only small farms can rebuild what has been lost in rural America. This change will take the conscious effort by policy makers to go against the laissez-faire capitalism that has propelled us into industrial agriculture in the first place.
Originally published on Civil Eats