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…
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.
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.
One of the many things I’ve learned on this trip — as I suppose reporters have been learning for years — is that people like to talk about themselves and show off their lives. For me, this has meant that as someone is showing me around their farm, they’ll say, “So, you ever seen how one of these works?,” “You even been in a combine?,” “You just gonna watch or you gonna actually milk cows?”
The right answer, obviously, is “No, show me!” And so I’ve milked cows, sat up in a combine (it was parked, but still impressive), finally understood how a silage feeder works, checked out inside grain bins, stood in the middle of beef calves coming in to feed… (And had more bad drinks than I care to admit at the Golden Ox bar at the former Kansas City Livestock Exchange, but I suppose that’s another story…) Most of the most memorable and educational experiences of this great journey have been because my host is showing off a little. I love it.
Today I got back to Jim and Rebecca’s magical farm (not its real name) just before chores. I’ve stayed here twice in the last month, and have been so looking forward to coming back at the end of my trip. Jim’s original email inviting me to stay enticed me with: “We have … plenty of quiet places, nice cows, good food and a patio behind the house that is a great place for an evening gin & tonic or a beer,” and it’s been just like that and more.
I drove past the barn while they were moving the cows in for milking; I parked at the house and walked back down the road, where Jim and Rebecca were loading their two freezers in the van for the Madison farmers’ market tomorrow. When they were done, I went with Rebecca to move the pasture fence, as I did two weeks ago.
“You ever driven an ATV?” she asked, as we walked towards the barn. Somehow I hadn’t, despite growing up in a farming community. Always too timid as a kid, maybe; not like my adventurous reporter self these days… She showed me how to turn it on and back it out of the barn, and said I was a natural as we drove through the pasture to the fence. Even after putting nearly 3,000 miles on my rented Corolla this month, bumping over clover, burdock, and cow pies at 15mph in the open air was exhilarating.
We moved the fence — if I were a cow, I’d be pretty excited about the new patch of pasture we opened up, full of flowers and tall grasses — and I drove us back to the barn. Where Jim’s regular milking help was away, and so he seemed glad to have me help prep cows for milking: dip the teats in iodine solution, milk each a few times into a discard cup, clean and dry them off for attaching the milker. The milking equipment in his barn is a little too big for me, so the prep work is easier.
After so many hours in dairy barns and around cows, even more hours talking and thinking about dairy farms, and trying my hand at milking several times, tonight I finally felt comfortable with it. Not good or fast, but comfortable with the animals, as huge as they are; with stepping confidently between two cows (they’re really very big); with kneeling on one knee and leaning my head into them while cleaning them as the farmers all do; with paying attention to their hind legs but not skittishly avoiding them; with shaking it off when their tails hit me in the face (Jim finally taught me a couple of tricks for moving tails out of the way)…
Several farmers I’ve spoken with have talked about how much they love milking. They talk about it as meditative, as a time to reflect on the day and think about what needs to be done tomorrow. I don’t want to be a dairy farmer, but I’ve been lucky enough to glimpse the peace of milking time. Tonight, the milk lines clicked, the cows rustled in their stanchions, and the fan at the open end of the barn hummed, as the cats milled around in the early evening beam of angled sunlight. The barn is clean and smells of milk, grain, hay, cows, manure, and pasture.
Dairy farming is hard work, but if you can figure out how to do it right (and I’ll be writing more about how much harder it’s getting…), it looks to be a pretty exceptional life. I’m grateful to have been shown just a little taste.
I wrote in my last post about hearing farmers’ stories from dairy country in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Today I’ve launched Real Milk Stories, a campaign to support me to travel to Wisconsin this summer to research some of those stories and write about them for a wide audience.
My friend Joel, president of Family Farm Defenders, recently sold his cows and took a job at a fruit processing plant. I’ll be spending time with him and neighboring farmers, investigating the pressures that have made so many thousands of farmers sell their cows after generations of farming. My writing will shed light on what farm and trade policy looks like at the human level, in the fields and around the kitchen table – and why it’s important to all of us who live far from the farm.
Like community supported agriculture, Real Milk Stories is community supported storytelling. My campaign will raise seed funding from friends, family, colleagues, readers for my weeks in Wisconsin for research and interviews, so that I can help these farmers tell their critical and too often untold stories.
I was on a call last week with the board and allies of Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders, a twenty-year-old progressive dairy farmer group. More than half the participants were dairy farmers, or used to be. It was a regular monthly board call to talk about business items, but conversation turned quickly to farmers’ stories. The reality of the ongoing dairy crisis — more of a hemorrhage by now; I’m not sure “crisis” is still appropriate after 25 years — is devastating. The stories, each one different and each one the same, lose none of their impact after hearing so many of them over five years of working with independent farmers — on the contrary, every year feels worse: “How is this still happening??” We know all about the “dairy crisis” by now: the numbers are there, we know that 42,500 dairy farms have closed in the last decade and that rural America is crumbling; there have been two farm bills in that time — and a noble but entirely failed investigation into consolidation in the food and ag industry, stymied by meat packers and dairy processors — and yet nothing has changed to improve the situation of the small and midsize dairy farmer.
And in dairy country across the US, those farmers are struggling every day.
On the call, a farmer in Pennsylvania told us that her family sold their cows after 47 years of dairy farming. “We got tired of throwing our money down a big dark hole,” she said. The family is now planting corn; there is usually a good market for grain from her Amish neighbors, buying for their livestock. This year, though, she’s concerned that so many of them are getting out of dairy too that she’ll have no market for her new crop. “It’s like a rural slum in some areas,” she said.
A Pennsylvania neighbor of hers was on the call too; she’s still holding on, barely. Milk prices for farmers have gone up, but the gains are eroded by high grain costs. Her last milk check was nearly a third less than her cost of production. Milk prices are slowly creeping higher, she said, but, she said, “We have so many dark holes dug by years of insolvency that it will take a long time to get out.” Our communities,” she added, “are broken.”
My friend Joel is the president of Family Farm Defenders and facilitated the call. He didn’t share that night, but we know his story: his family has been farming in his southwest Wisconsin county for 140 years; last fall, he sold his cows and got a job in a cranberry processing plant. “You shouldn’t lock a farmer in a concrete box all day,” he told me the first time we talked about the job. After spending most of his life on his fields and in his barn, with nothing but the sound of cows and the clicking of milk lines, he said the noise of the frozen cranberries pouring through the metal tubes is deafening.
The reasons behind the dairy catastrophe are many — and at first glance, a partial list is wonkish and something of a snooze: a complicated system of pricing and governmental price supports; consolidation in the industry; corporate-like coops that act more like corporations; lack of Justice Department action to enforce fairness in the market, and more. (I have come to terms with the sad reality that most people don’t get as jazzed about antitrust enforcement as I do…)
But for as arcane as the causes are, farmers’ stories of the impacts are that much more compelling. In the next few months, I aim to introduce some of these farmers here — and break down just why, at a time when so many people around the country want to get to know their farmer, dairy farmers are only barely surviving.