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.
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.
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.
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…
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)…
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.
A short series written for WhyHunger about activist Midwestern farmers. The research for this material was funded by the generous donors to the Real Milk Stories Indiegogo campaign.
Farmers are “in” right now. With today’s trend towards local food and sustainable agriculture, farmers are making the news, appearing on lists of most influential people and changemakers. The farmers we hear most about seem to be in or near cities, often new to the field, raising vegetables, selling at farmers markets. We’ve read the articles about rooftop farmers in Brooklyn and vegetable farmers growing heirloom varieties for Berkeley restaurants. They all deserve the recognition; because farming is hard work any way you do it.
But there are a lot of farmers we do not often hear about. Most farmers are not growing vegetables for direct markets, and most of the food Americans eat doesn’t come from farmers markets. Corn and soybean acreage is 36 times that of vegetables, while the value of the top five commodities (corn, soybeans, animal products) is 200 times that of direct sale items. Most farmers, therefore, live far from cities, raise corn and soybeans and livestock, and sell into commodity markets, not farmers markets. And (surprise!) many of them are trying to change the system they’re in—by using fewer chemicals, or planting cover crops, or making the three-year transition to growing organically or looking for a local market for their product. Even bigger surprise: some of these rural commodity farmers are outspoken activists, organizing against policies and practices that hurt the land and their communities.
It’s one thing to advocate for a sustainable food system from Brooklyn or Berkeley, but quite another in a place where your neighbors may think you’re crazy for not using genetically modified seed or for restoring a few acres of native prairie; where any change you make could cost your livelihood or your relationships; where the herbicide salesman is your nephew and everywhere you turn you are reminded that you are “feeding the world.” But organizing and changemaking are also more urgent in the heartland, when the farms being sold off belonged to your friends, or you have to drive another hour for groceries because all the stores downtown closed, or your kids are getting sick from pesticide drift. To make change in the belly of the beast—in the places most of our food comes from and where agribusiness has a strong hold—takes conviction, hope and a willingness to risk being an outsider.
The US has a strong history of agrarian-led advocacy. There have been movements for what we now call sustainable agriculture for centuries; most led not by people in urban centers, but by rural farmers. In the 1890s, farmers across the country realized that the struggles they faced were more a result of economic and social policies than personal failings, and built a broad coalition and a strong movement, Populism and the People’s Party, to change the system.
Nearly a century later, skyrocketing debt payments and a drop in exports led to the 1980s farm crisis. Hundreds of thousands of farms went into foreclosure; with fewer farmers, rural businesses failed, downtowns vacated and rural communities withered. Throughout the crisis, farmers fought back, protesting at state houses and in Washington, fighting through the courts and in the court of popular opinion, using tractorcades and white crosses marking the loss of farms to call the nation’s attention to the countryside. A Supreme Court decision eventually stopped the foreclosures, but the crisis in farm country did not end, it changed to a slow burn.
In the last thirty years, farms have gotten increasingly larger, equipment and inputs more expensive, and dramatic consolidation has shrunk farmers’ market options. The prices farmers receive for their goods dropped precipitously following the removal of all price stabilizations in the 1996 farm bill, and a patchwork of subsidies and insurance has not made up the difference. Throughout the 1990s, the fight became about confined animal operations, or factory farms. Citizen action in states like Minnesota and Missouri kept these states from being completely overrun by factory farms then and continues to be critical in demanding state enforcement of factory farm rules. Grassroots organizations such as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, (Minnesota) Land Stewardship Project, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils have rallied their farmer and rural members (along with urbanites) for decades on these and other fights, and continue to do so today. Through it all, there have also been the quiet farmers—those who may not have actively protested, but instead resisted by changing their own farming or land stewardship practices and influencing their neighbors to do the same.
The profiles in this series tell the stories of how three modern rural Midwestern farmers have carried on this legacy and are working to make change in their communities.
Denise O’Brien became an organic farmer in Iowa on her husband’s fourth generation family farm, and was soon a leader in the fight against the foreclosures of the farm crisis, focusing especially on the struggles of rural women. She has worked at many levels—grassroots advocacy, non-profits, national, international, in the soil—with common threads of feminism and caring for the land and her community running throughout.
Roger Allison raises livestock on a traditional small family farm in Missouri, and has been in the trenches fighting for small farmers for forty years. The organization he founded, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, continues to be one of the strongest grassroots voices in rural America.
Molly Breslin and her father John have been less active politically, but have created a cultural shift in their Illinois farming community as they have transitioned their family land from conventional corn and soybeans to organic heirloom grains and beans.
Leaders like these are working rural land and speaking out in small towns all across the country. Their stories have much to teach all of us working for a healthier and more just food system, whether we live in a city, in the country or somewhere in between. To learn where we have been, we must reconnect with the radical elements of this nation’s agricultural history; in shaping the future, we must listen to those carrying on that legacy.
An olive branch is a universal symbol of peace, but as the decades-long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians continues, it has become yet another source of conflict.
In the West Bank and Gaza, almost half of the arable land is planted with olive trees, from saplings to some that have produced fruit for a thousand years. Nearly 80,000 Palestinian families depend on the annual fall olive harvest for their livelihood. But in recent decades, the conflict in the region, which recently flared up once again, has taken a devastating toll: Israeli settlers and military personnel have cut down, uprooted and burned an estimated 800,000 olive trees since 1967, including approximately 49,000 in just the past five years, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Union of Agricultural Work Committees of Palestine (UAWC) wants to turn this dire situation around. Ali Hassouneh, the group’s board chair, believes that the olive groves represent a shared inheritance. “If I have an olive tree that is 1,500 years old, I think: Who planted it? How many thousands of people have eaten from it? The trees are our heritage – my heritage and [the Israelis’], too.” The UAWC, one of the oldest Palestinian NGOs, has worked with farmers in the West Bank and Gaza on water and land access since 1986. It also provides annual support with the olive harvest.
The walls separating the West Bank and Gaza from Israel cut through many Palestinian farms, separating families from their orchards and grazing lands. Farmers cannot cross the wall regularly to tend their trees and other crops; they must apply for a special permit for the olive harvest. According to the UN, as many as 42 percent of these permit requests have been denied in recent years. Those who do get a permit often face harassment and violence, and they sometimes arrive only to find their trees destroyed.
Although it has been in the works for months, the merger of Tyson Foods and Hillshire Brands went public the week before Labor Day, when the U.S. Justice Department approved the deal. The merger brings together the largest meat processing company in the U.S. (Tyson) and the 11th largest (Hillshire), for $7.7 billion. And even if you buy mainly sustainable and grassfed meat, this merger is worth watching. Here’s why:
1. You’re probably eating Tyson meat without even knowing it.
Tyson was interested in Hillshire in part for its branded products: Jimmy Dean, Ball Park Franks, and Hillshire Farms. The “frozen handheld breakfast sandwich” is one of the company’s specialties. Tyson hasn’t had similar success with its own forays into branded meat products (Day Starts frozen breakfasts, anyone?) and sees the merger as an opportunity to direct meat from its processing empire into an already successful national brand. Until now, Tyson has excelled at selling unbranded meat to restaurants and cafeterias and it is the national leader in “private label” meats–those sold as in-house supermarket brands. So when you eat bacon at a restaurant or chicken salad at the supermarket deli, if it doesn’t feature the name of the farm, there’s a pretty good chance it’s from Tyson.
2. Independent meat producers are an endangered species.
Tyson has become powerful by vertically integrating its operations: It buys up all the component parts of its supply chain, from grain dealers to breeding facilities to slaughterhouses, and incorporates them into the company to gain control over prices and production. As other companies have followed suit, encouraged by market forces and the “get big or get out” policies that prevail across agriculture, independent farmers and their supporting businesses have been bought out. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. lost about 70 percent of its hog operations–150,000 farms–between 1993 and 2012 and with them went much agricultural infrastructure. As a result, the few independent farmers producing pastured pork humanely often have to drive 200 miles each way to a slaughterhouse. By buying up so many pieces of the farm supply chain, Tyson has contributed to an environment where many of the producers working outside their system must struggle to survive.
3. Tyson has its eye on the sustainable meat sector.
If you eat “better” quality meat, you might not pay much attention to Tyson. But Tyson is paying attention to you. Organic is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food economy and even two years after Lay’s advertised its potato chips as local, corporations have not slowed their pursuit of the natural and sustainable markets. And meat is one of the biggest potential growth areas. Most of the nation does not have access to high quality, locally-raised meat in the grocery store, particularly value-added products like sausage and hot dogs. A few towns are beginning to rebuild their local slaughterhouses or sausage companies, but the infrastructure is rare. If the expanded Tyson/Hillshire sets its sights on this vast market and starts putting out greenwashed imitation products, it could block regional efforts to rebuild truly sustainable meat production.
Not photographed: A long talk with Joel’s sister and a 4-wheeler tour of her hillside beginning farm with four kids in a wagon in back; pie and rhubarb crumble from Joel’s sister and mom; a great interview with Joel’s dad about how farming has changed; and dinner back at Jim and Rebecca’s including two varieties of cheese curds, burgers, Madison farmers’ market vegetables of many kinds, and cherry pie.