It is not easy for many small and medium-sized farmers to transition from industrial, high-input methods to sustainable, low-input methods. This transition would require expensive investments in order to revive land and soil made lifeless by industrial chemicals, to purchase new equipment, and to provide the education and knowledge-base to support alternative agriculture on a broad scale. Moving beyond the requirement of one single farmer, transforming our agricultural system will also require infrastructural investments that make an alternative system profitable for farmers. Farmers need markets to sell their produce, support during environmental catastrophes, and people to harvest their crops.
This paucity of a national infrastructure supporting alternative agriculture is highlighted by Wenonah Hauter in her new book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America when she writes that “over half of all farms that sell locally are located near metropolitan counties, compared to only a third of all U.S. farms. This illustrates the difficulty that farmers who grow corn, soy, wheat, and other feed or cereal grains for commodity markets have in converting their farming operations to direct sales to consumers” (4).
The United States spends billions of dollars each year to maintain an infrastructure that makes only one form of agriculture profitable, industrial agriculture. We have a national system of agricultural colleges that produce knowledge and disseminate it to farmers; we subsidize farmers producing cereal grasses and grains for global markets; local governments provide subsidies to maintain grain elevators and collection terminals for rural farmers; and much more. By investing only in one type of agriculture on a national scale, the United States is lining the pockets of investors in corporate agribusiness and pushing small and medium-sized farmers out of business and off the land. Why can’t we invest our money in ways that support a different kind of system?
The political and economic power of agribusiness is one part of the answer to this question, something Hauter poignantly explains. In the late 19th century and mid-20th century, U.S. farmers were organized and powerful. 19th century populist movements, such as the Granger’s, were successful in forcing state legislatures in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska to break the monopoly power of railroads and limit abusively burdensome transport rates. Franklin Roosevelt, in setting up the New Deal, was fearful that an alliance between farm labor, industrial unions, and the unemployed would lead to Socialist Revolution, and Roosevelt created a system of price guarantees and regulated storage that made farming economically sustainable for U.S. families. These advances, however, were attacked and dismantled over the next several decades as Presidents, especially Eisenhower, appointed agricultural secretaries and policy advisers from organizations representing agribusiness, such as the American Farm Bureau Administration. These individuals enacted policies that destroyed the populist power of farmers by pushing them off the land and into urban centers. With so few farmers farming, rural resistance to corporate agriculture was devastated, though now there is a growing resistance.
The solutions to this problem are beyond the abilities of one or even a small group of family farmers to implement. The current system took decades to build, and it occurred alongside a massive reorganization of our U.S. society. We are involved because we all participate, willingly or unwillingly. It is important that we all feel a sense of responsibility for the social and environmental destruction that our food system creates and use that sentiment to energize our desire for change. That does not mean ignoring the complexity and difficulty that the struggle for change will involve, nor the different costs that each of us will bear.
All of these concerns should not sway us from working to transform our food system. Changing it will require a vision of a more sustainable and just agricultural system and a collective struggle that involves small and medium-sized farmers, consumers, business owners, activists, poor people, and policy makers. In short, it requires a movement for environmental, food, and economic justice. We have no false hopes that this transformation will be immediate. It took 40 years to build a movement that dismantled the Jim Crow System of racial apartheid in the Southern United States, and the US still has a long way to go in order to achieve racial equality. The fight to transform our food system will be a long one, but it’s possible. We can do it!