The Bright Side of the Current Farm Crisis: An Opportunity For Change

Jim Goodman

Although family farms account for 97 percent of farms in the United States, the largest 10 percent of farms produce 75 percent of the country's agricultural output, meaning large-scale operations have an overpowering influence on farm policy. It is the 90 percent of farmers who own smaller operations that are most threatened by climate change and the current farm crisis.

JFK, as it turns out, was wrong when he not­ed 60 years ago that the word cri­sis” is a com­bi­na­tion of the Chi­nese brush strokes mean­ing dan­ger and oppor­tu­ni­ty. While he was lin­guis­ti­cal­ly incor­rect, we get what he was say­ing. A cri­sis sit­u­a­tion can be the impe­tus for change, an oppor­tu­ni­ty for soci­ety to fig­ure out bet­ter ways to move forward.

Today, the largest cri­sis in the minds of farm­ers is the over­ar­ch­ing threat of an increas­ing­ly vari­able and chang­ing cli­mate. With the added pres­sures of stark eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and the increased cost of liv­ing—up 14% over the last 4 years — the econ­o­my is decid­ed­ly not “ the great­est econ­o­my in the his­to­ry of our country.”

Most any farmer or ranch­er would nod in the affir­ma­tive if asked whether this is a clear and grow­ing cri­sis in agri­cul­ture. They see unprece­dent­ed adverse weath­er as unde­ni­able evi­dence of a chang­ing cli­mate, which is a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the cur­rent farm cri­sis. While this is tnot a uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed idea among farm­ers, none can deny, how­ev­er, that prices are his­tor­i­cal­ly unfair with 2019 farm income pre­dict­ed to be below the average.

Farm­ers and ranch­ers know the weath­er, in the past year at least, has been awful, and while many are unwill­ing to admit that we are deal­ing with a chang­ing cli­mate, not just bad weath­er, most are look­ing for answers. They are look­ing for ways to sur­vive in a chang­ing agri­cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment — no mat­ter what its cause, won­der­ing what those solu­tions to the cur­rent sys­tem might look like.

In all my 40 years of farm­ing, farm­ers have been told we need to work hard­er, get big­ger and embrace all the new tech­nol­o­gy. Whether that means mov­ing ever larg­er num­bers of live­stock into con­fine­ment, using genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied seed and its com­ple­ment of pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers, or buy­ing machin­ery some­times cost­ing more than the val­ue of my farm — no mat­ter, buy­ing the tech­nol­o­gy is our only option. In the end we are sup­posed to be thank­ful we can be a part of the glob­al mar­ket­place, even if it is con­trolled by multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions and invest­ment banks that deter­mine the cost of every­thing we buy and the price of every­thing we sell. 

So, what might a dif­fer­ent sys­tem look like? Could we have a sys­tem that allowed farm­ers of any size to be prof­itable? A sys­tem that sat­is­fied the farmer’s need for fair prices and a dig­ni­fied life? A sys­tem that pro­duced qual­i­ty food as deter­mined by a part­ner­ship between those who grow food and those who eat it? A sys­tem where every­one could afford good food, pro­duced in a man­ner that might actu­al­ly ben­e­fit the environment?

Could we estab­lish a frame­work that depend­ed less on glob­al mar­kets, more on local pro­duc­tion and healthy diets rather than con­tin­u­ing the trend of going all in a west­ern diet” and pres­sur­ing the rest of the world to fol­low? Cer­tain­ly, the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty and the envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty would sup­port these changes, but agribusi­ness and farm­ers, per­haps not so much.

Clear­ly those con­trol­ling the cur­rent food sys­tem are opposed to any changes that would cut their prof­its by a shift away from processed foods, grain fed ani­mal prod­ucts, large scale inten­sive crop mono-cul­tures and a glob­al food chain or a shift to any sort of low input sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture. Although fam­i­ly farms account for 97 per­cent of farms in the Unit­ed States, the largest 10 per­cent of farms pro­duce 75 per­cent of the coun­try’s agri­cul­tur­al out­put, mean­ing large-scale oper­a­tions have an over­pow­er­ing influ­ence on farm­ing pol­i­cy. Those enti­ties that prof­it from the cur­rent destruc­tive and frag­ile food sys­tem use their lob­by­ing efforts and cam­paign fund­ing to main­tain their exis­tence. One won­ders if those in posi­tions of polit­i­cal pow­er dis­miss the Green New Deal as a plat­form for change because they real­ly believe it is unnec­es­sary, that it is tru­ly unten­able, or, because they are uncon­cerned about envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, opposed to an econ­o­my that works for every­one, or are just unwill­ing to kill their gold­en goose.

Farm­ers are lured onto the band­wag­on of a glob­al food sup­ply with the mantra that we need to feed the world,” despite the fact that the world would rather, and could, feed itself. Sup­pos­ed­ly, pro­duc­ing more at a low­er price and expand­ing export mar­kets is the answer to our low farm prices. This will be achieved only by break­ing down trade bar­ri­ers and, in effect, forc­ing import­ing coun­tries to eat what we sell them — like it or not. Cana­di­an dairy farm­ers fear that enact­ment of the new NAF­TA (aka USM­CA) will knock the bot­tom out of their mar­ket.” Cana­da could not absorb our sur­plus even if their dairy econ­o­my were destroyed.

Seri­ous­ly, this pic­ture is wrong, and in these times of low farm prices, dev­as­tat­ing floods, mas­sive soil loss, wild­fires and peo­ple demand­ing an eth­i­cal, healthy diet, the time could be ripe to end our sys­tem of indus­tri­al farm­ing and replace it with agroe­col­o­gy.

We need to look at the prob­lem through sev­er­al lens­es, first the farm price issue. The solu­tion to low farm prices is farm jus­tice — farm­ers get­ting paid a fair price for pro­duc­ing an eth­i­cal prod­uct. Just as dur­ing the Great Depres­sion of the 1930s, we need sup­ply man­age­ment, par­i­ty pric­ing (cou­pling farm prices to pro­duc­tion costs) and farmer owned, gov­ern­ment insured grain reserves. In the process of return­ing to sen­si­ble farm pro­grams, we can end con­tro­ver­sial tax-pay­er sub­si­dies that sup­pos­ed­ly help bol­ster low farm prices.

As we have seen in real time, export mar­kets and gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies do not make farm­ers prof­itable. Plac­ing too much depen­dence on one for­eign buy­er as we did in the case of the soy export mar­ket to Chi­na is a seri­ous­ly flawed strat­e­gy. Sim­i­lar­ly, plac­ing too much empha­sis on grow­ing corn and soy as the basis for pro­duc­tion agri­cul­ture is a tick­ing time bomb for grow­ers and the envi­ron­ment. Multi­na­tion­al grain com­pa­nies prof­itably ride the mar­ket on the backs of farm­ers, whether they are in the Unit­ed States, South Amer­i­ca, or any­where else in the world — buy­ing low and sell­ing high.

Sec­ond­ly, the ques­tion of whether live­stock can be part of an eth­i­cal or envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound food sys­tem is a knot­ty issue. The fact that large num­bers of live­stock in the Unit­ed States are cur­rent­ly raised in con­fine­ment sit­u­a­tions is a major part of the prob­lem. Live­stock pro­duc­tion must be matched to a con­sumer diet with a much low­er pro­tein con­tent. This would mean rais­ing vast­ly low­er num­bers of rumi­nants (cat­tle, sheep, etc.) on pas­ture and for­age and again, low­er num­bers of pigs and poul­try on pas­ture sup­ple­ment­ed with crop waste and grain unsuit­able for the human food chain.

Manure lagoons, such as this one from North Carolina, are filled with excrement from concentrated animal feeding operations and can lethally contaminate water sources.

Manure lagoons, such as this one in North Car­oli­na, hold back the sewage from con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions (CAFOs), except dur­ing heavy rains when they over­flow their banks and con­t­a­m­i­nate local waterways.

Still, one must also remem­ber that live­stock are a vital part of inte­grat­ed agroe­co­log­i­cal farm­ing sys­tems in the Glob­al South. Gen­er­a­tions of farm­ers, espe­cial­ly organ­ic farm­ers, know the val­ue of humane­ly raised live­stock as part of a sound crop rota­tion, one that main­tains per­ma­nent grass­lands, sequesters car­bon in the soil and feeds peo­ple locally.

Log­ic would dic­tate that, yes, farm­ers need to grow less corn, soy and live­stock, and it must be of high­er qual­i­ty, and it will then bring them a high­er price. Some crop­land can go back to grass and native prairie, for­est and grow­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles. In the end, the Ogal­lala aquifer could sur­vive and the Gulf dead zone could return to a pro­duc­tive fishery.

The cur­rent agri­cul­tur­al mod­el places val­ue only on vol­ume of pro­duc­tion, not nutri­tion­al qual­i­ty of the food pro­duced, human health, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties or the envi­ron­ment. Com­mod­i­ty crop pro­duc­tion for export and ethanol pro­duc­tion feeds only the bot­tom line of cor­po­ra­tions and Wall Street investors. It pits farmer against farmer world­wide in a des­per­ate race to the bot­tom and only exac­er­bates the eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty, which, when it comes down to it, is the real dri­ver of pover­ty, poor health and envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion. For pro­duc­ers and farm work­ers to earn a fair wage and have the means to sup­port rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, every­one, no mat­ter what they do, must also earn a fair wage and have the means to sup­port fam­i­ly farm­ers, ranch­ers and fish­er­men by pay­ing a fair price for food. The time for change is here.

Jim Good­man is a retired dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wis.

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