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.
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.
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.
The new “food substitute” Soylent has been around the news of late — somewhat mysteriously, as maybe best expressed by a good friend who loves food and cares about where it comes from, who emailed me, “I was starting to think I was losing my mind, not understanding why anyone is paying this soylent goop ANY MIND.” Indeed.
I had pointed her to The Soylent Revolution Will Not Be Pleasurable, the New York Times‘ appropriately skeptical and wry take. The New Yorker was much more in-depth and perhaps more credulous in Could Soylent Replace Food?, and I thought there were some significant gaps in the piece. I’m pleased that the magazine saw merit in the argument I sent, and published my letter this week. (I also loved the letter than followed mine–follow the link to read it–and tracked down its author today to thank him for making the other main point I wanted to make.)
Lizzie Widdicombe rightly points to agriculture as a leading cause of climate-warming emissions, and Rob Rhinehart, the creator of the food substitute Soylent, calls nonindustrialized farms “very inefficient factories” (“The End of Food,” May 12th). But, until Rhinehart engineers Soylent from algae, his product will depend on chemical- and fossil-fuel-reliant grains grown in monocropped fields and refined in energy-intensive processing plants—an inefficient nutrient-delivery system, from an emissions perspective, if ever there was one. Meanwhile, studies show diversified small-scale agriculture to be one of the best ways to both mitigate and adapt to a warming climate. Healthy soils built through crop rotation and organic fertilizers sequester carbon and fare dramatically better in both droughts and floods. Food production is part of the problem of global warming, but it will become part of the solution as we learn to cook and eat a wider variety of foods, instead of turning to a food substitute whose components rely entirely on climatically inefficient industrial farming.