All posts by Siena

Communities Organizing Against Big Pork

The editors at FoodPrint asked me to write a supplement to The FoodPrint of Pork (see post below), highlighting three of the dynamic rural grassroots organizations who are resisting the takeover of their communities by the pork industry. The stories of North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Missouri Rural Crisis Center are a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of rural America.

Published at FoodPrint, October 30, 2020

In the last 30 years, the shape of hog farming has transformed. It used to be that tens of thousands of small-scale farmers would raise hogs to sell at local auction houses. Today, hogs are being raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — huge barns holding thousands of animals. The auction houses (where the bidding of multiple buyers formerly ensured farmers a fair price) have been replaced by contracts, under which farmers raise animals for a large pork company according to strict specifications, and for prices they have little say in determining. In many instances, farmers no longer even own the pigs. Across the country, the number of pork farmers has declined by 75 percent over the last three decades, whereas the number of hogs being raised has increased by nearly 50 percent. Now, four companies — Smithfield, Tyson, JBS and Hormel — control two-thirds of the entire US pork market.

The loss of hog farmers has had a negative economic impact on rural communities. The proliferation of hog barns, by contrast, with their enormous amounts of waste, has led to polluted rivers and wells, toxic air and diminished property values. Industrial hog barns have also drastically affected the quality of life for people throughout rural America: in some states, the impacts are widely felt; in others, they are concentrated (with brutal precision) in low-income communities of color.

Many such communities, in Iowa, North Carolina and Missouri, have been fighting the power of Big Pork for decades, facing intimidation, massive losses, and getting outspent by millions of dollars. Their stories illustrate how the pork industry has captured state houses across the country and written laws enabling hog farms to increase in size — causing air and water pollution without restraint — and how farmers and rural residents have been able to organize to wrest back control of their communities and their environment.

The opposition to the highly consolidated, polluting and politically powerful pork industry is important in and of itself, and such valuable stories attest to the energy and tenacity of rural organizing. Agricultural economist and longtime rural resident and observer John Ikerd said, “I see the future leadership of our rural communities rising up from the people standing up and resisting the CAFOs.”

While much of rural America has been taken over by Big Meat, thousands of people across the country are resisting, and building an alternative — one that is democratic and people-centered, not based on corporate interests. For the future of all communities that are in danger of being subsumed by corporate greed, we must support them and follow their example.

Read the rest of the publication: Communities Organizing Against Big Pork

The FoodPrint of Pork

My deep dive on the pork industry for FoodPrint looks at the substantial political power that the pork industry has gained at the state and federal levels, and has used that power to trample the health, safety, and human rights of communities from the Midwest to the South to grow their own profits.

Published at FoodPrint, October 2020

Introduction

For meat eaters, bacon is a delicious staple that finds a home on breakfast, lunch and dinner plates. Yet that crispy, salty goodness hides some ugly truths about the pork industry.  Those truths were starkly revealed in April 2020 when pork processing plants temporarily shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. One of the largest to close,  a Sioux Falls, South Dakota Smithfield plant, waited more than three weeks to do so, by which time there were at least 644 positive cases and one death reported, and the town of Sioux Falls had become the single largest virus hot spot in the nation.

The closure of the Sioux Falls plant and others had ripple effects on farms and supermarkets across the country: with nowhere to send their mature hog for processing and no more space in their barns, hog farmers saw their prices collapse and chose to euthanize their animals instead, horrifying people with the cruelty and waste. As sausage and pork prices spiked at grocery stores and lines grew at food banks, Smithfield warned of potential long-term shortages.

When President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order to reopen the plants — much too quickly, according to public health experts, and with no mandated worker protections — things got even worse: by late June, just two months after the order, over 27,000 meatpacking plant workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 100 had died, while infection rates in surrounding rural communities were five times higher than the rest of rural America. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a problem with US pork supply at all: in April, the pork industry exported a record amount of pork to China.

…Download The FoodPrint of Pork report…

The Coronavirus Pandemic is Pushing Dairy Farmers to the Brink

Published at Civil Eats, April 8, 2020

Long before coronavirus upended everyone’s lives, Pennsylvania dairy farmer Brenda Cochran had been living in near-perpetual crisis. Five years of low milk prices have had the farm operating in the red, the family avoiding calls from creditors, and sometimes struggling to buy groceries. “There has never been a period of worse financial losses and … hopelessness than the past six years,” she said.

The U.S. has been losing dairy farms like the Cochran’s at a rate of nearly nine per day since 2015. Milk prices were expected to rise in 2020 for the first time since then, but the forecasts made a u-turn two weeks ago as the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic began to upend the dairy supply chain. Now, dairy prices are in freefall. Even as grocery stores struggle to keep dairy cases stocked, farmers across the country have begun dumping milk that their processors have no room for. “There’s no one who can sustain this,” said Cochran. “It’s over.”

With dairy farmers’ reserves tapped out, the year that was supposed to be a catch-up is turning into a disaster.

…Read the rest at Civil Eats

How Rural Communities Are Fighting Farm Crisis-Fueled Xenophobia

Published at FoodPrint, October 9, 2019

There is a lot of bad news coming from farm country in 2019. Farm bankruptcies are up, due to five years of low farm prices, compounded by wet spring weather and the trade war with China. As in the rest of the US, anti-immigrant and white supremacist sentiment are also on the rise in many rural areas.

For many in rural America, 2019 feels like déjà vu. In the 1980s, a farm crisis swept through the heartland, shuttering over a quarter of a million farms. The decade saw a spike in rural anti-Semitism and other racism, as struggling farmers sought explanations for the crisis wherever they could.

There is a long history of rural white communities looking to racist ideology, especially in moments of crisis; blaming hardships on someone who doesn’t look like you can feel like an easy solution to your problems. At the same time there is also a long history of rural communities fighting back against these simplistic and hateful ideas, finding strength in unity rather than in division. Recently, Farm Aid, an organization that was founded in the heart of the 1980s farm crisis, convened meetings in Wisconsin highlighting how farmer organizers in the 1980s addressed racist extremism head on. They instead worked in broad multiracial coalitions to build power to end the farm crisis. The hopeful news is that similar work is happening around the countryside today.

Read the rest at FoodPrint….

Warren and Sanders Think This Farm Policy Will Help Rural America Rebound. Does it Stand a Chance?

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale Published at Civil Eats, August 26, 2019

Since the 1970s, American farmers have been urged to produce as much as possible at all times. Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, famously ordered farmers to plant their crops “fencerow to fencerow,” and most have taken the order to heart ever since. Overproduction of grains, dairy, and other commodities has left the market perpetually flooded, causing farmer prices to plummet to well below their costs of production.

Harwood Schaffer, director of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, says that many of the crises facing rural America today—from the low prices driving farmers out of business to factory farm runoff polluting water supplies—are caused by this overproduction. Schaffer was a rural pastor in the 1970s, and says that just a few years after the order from Butz, farm prices dropped to crisis levels, demonstrating that conventional free market models of the day simply did not work on the ground for agriculture.

“In the 30 years I was in the parish, [nothing that] agricultural economists said made any sense to me. It didn’t match up with what was going on with my farmers,” he says. Schaffer, who is now an agricultural economist himself, is “absolutely delighted” as he watches the 2020 presidential campaign unfold. For the first time in over two decades, several Democratic candidates have proposed putting a stop to overproduction.

…Read the rest at Civil Eats

Is the Second Farm Crisis Upon Us?

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale

Published at Civil Eats, September 10, 2018

Joe Schroeder works as a farm advocate for Farm Aid, where he answers calls to the group’s farmer hotline. The calls, which are up 30 percent over last year, range from routine questions about navigating federal programs and exploring credit options to dire pleas for help from farmers who have run out of ways to keep their businesses solvent. He has heard from three or four suicidal farmers each month this summer.

Schroeder talks callers in crisis through Chapter 12 bankruptcy and sends out $500 checks to help them buy groceries and get the lights turned back on. One woman who called was eating nothing but frozen hamburger. Many families have had their electricity turned off, including one farmer who relies on an oxygen tank. Schroeder appealed to the electric company on his behalf, but the head of finance refused to work with them. The family could get him to the hospital if necessary, the farmer’s wife told Schroeder, because they had hidden their car in a barn nearby to keep it from being repossessed. Schroeder hasn’t been able to check in with the family since late July because their phone was disconnected.

…read the rest at Civil Eats

Want to Understand Trump’s Rise? Head to the Farm.

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scalePublished at Civil Eats, October 27, 2016

Rural America is mad. We’re hearing from people in places like West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania who are fed up with the government, the economy, the “establishment,” and taking out their anger at Trump rallies.

While the coverage is new, the anger is not. Donald Trump is today’s release valve, the latest in a line that has included the anti-government and militia movements, drug epidemics, and the Tea Party. This year’s support for Trump, of course, goes far beyond rural voters. A recent New York Times analysis finds support for Trump is strongest in places where “white identity mixes with long-simmering economic dysfunctions,” cutting across other traditional political lines.

But what has too long been overlooked is how much of that economic dysfunction—and the anger it has caused—goes back to the dissolution of the family farm.

…Read the rest at Civil Eats

At the End of the 3 Line, East New York Farms! Grows

EB-Logo-Summer_16_V2Published by Edible Brooklyn, Issue 44, Summer 2016.

Take the 3 train to the penultimate stop on a summer Saturday. The barren roofscapes you see from the elevated track don’t hint that you’re entering the neighborhood with the most community gardens in the city. But walk down Livonia Avenue under the tracks, and the scene changes: there are gardens on every block, some threatening to spill through their fences, others tamed into neat raised beds. Follow signs for the farmers market—the hand-painted signage on the fence, the tempting smells and the reggae/R&B/salsa mix. Round the corner onto Schenck and you’ve found the heart-beat of this community, in the midst of the impromptu dance party, the Caribbean breakfast specialties, the hot peppers ranging across the rainbow (and Scoville scale), and the young people proudly hawking their greens and bitter melon.

The market is run by East New York Farms!, a partnership between United Community Centers (UCC) and neighborhood residents to address food justice by promoting local sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development. Founded in 1998, almost a decade before The Omnivore’s Dilemma helped to popularize sustainable food nationally and, well before Brooklyn became synonymous with artisanal pickles, East New York Farms! was far ahead of the local food trend—because growing food together turned out to be an excellent way to organize the community.

…read the rest at Edible Brooklyn–or in the magazine, available around NYC this summer…

A Path Forward: Innovations at the Intersection of Hunger and Health

Published by WhyHunger, November 9, 2015

When it comes to hunger and health, there is a big difference between feeding and nourishing.

For decades, our nation’s emergency food providers have worked tirelessly to provide food to those in need, yet we are still in a hunger crisis. One in six Americans is food insecure—uncertain where their next meal will come from. And hunger still kills. In the U.S. in 2015, it is less often as a result of chronic food deprivation; instead hunger’s victims suffer from heart disease or diabetes or myriad other symptoms of poor health and malnutrition. With
limited capacity, food pantries and soup kitchens are often forced to provide unhealthy, processed food to their clients—food that may fill a person up but is linked to serious diet-related illnesses and long-term health consequences.

When we talk about success in addressing U.S. food insecurity, we generally use metrics that tout pounds of food distributed, with the implication that the more pounds of food we can distribute, the closer we are to ending hunger. This narrow lens hides the malnutrition that is strongly correlated with disease and morbidity. For most Americans, malnutrition is a symptom not of insufficient food but of insufficient healthy food and balanced nutrition: malnutrition is lack of nourishment.

…the rest of this publication, featuring practices and philosophies of three innovative food providers in New York and New Jersey, can be found here (PDF)…

How a Former Wall Street Worker Invested in Fresh Food for Her Community

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scalePublished at Civil Eats, May 14, 2015

Just before this past Earth Day, dozens of volunteers worked with longtime members of the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in central Brooklyn to clean beds, spread mulch, and pour concrete. The garden has been a fixture in the area for decades, but just six years ago, the abandoned half-acre lot next to it was overgrown with trees and filled with trash. Today that lot is home to a children’s garden, two chicken coops, and the Hattie Carthan Community Market in the summer. There’s also educational programming for all ages and the Hattie Carthan Urban Agriculture Corps, a paid summer apprentice program for local teenagers.

The volunteers came together that day at the request of urban farmer and social justice advocate Yonnette Fleming, the force behind the transformation of the once vacant lot. Originally from Guyana, Fleming has worked since 2003 to address food insecurity in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (or “Bed-Stuy”) neighborhood. While working on Wall Street years ago, she joined the community garden. As she became more deeply connected to the earth, she found it harder to juggle the two worlds. In 2008, she left her job to invest herself fully in the community.

…read the rest at Civil Eats