The Pandemic Is Exposing the Rotten Core of Our Industrial Food System

While industrial farms have been thrown into chaos, local agriculture has proved to be a more resilient model.

Joseph Bullington August 14, 2020

The yel­low-brown com­post has been heaped into hills taller than the near­by bull­doz­ers. The piles don’t look like pigs, but that’s what they are. Pigs and woodchips. 

It’s mid-May and thou­sands of hogs have been killed and tossed in a wood­chip­per on this farm field in Nobles Coun­ty, Min­neso­ta. They rep­re­sent but a frac­tion of the num­ber of ani­mals that have met such an end here in the third-high­est hog-pro­duc­ing state in the coun­try. The Min­neso­ta Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture said on May 6 that at least 10,000 hogs were being slaugh­tered and dis­card­ed every day, but no one knows the real num­ber. The state set up the Nobles Coun­ty com­post site, but it’s not required to track all the killings due to a tech­ni­cal­i­ty, says Michael Cru­san, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the Min­neso­ta Board of Ani­mal Health. There isn’t an ani­mal dis­ease issue,” he explains. It’s just a depop­u­la­tion due to mar­ket conditions.” 

Mar­ket con­di­tions” does not mean every­one has enough to eat. In Min­neso­ta and across the coun­try, surg­ing need has over­whelmed food banks. Some super­mar­kets lim­it meat pur­chas­es to pre­vent shelves from becom­ing bare. In the Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bune, one let­ter writer pleads for hunters to be allowed to butch­er the wast­ed hogs, to save at least some of the meat from the woodchipper. 

Mar­ket con­di­tions,” in this case, means meat pro­cess­ing plants, includ­ing the JBS pork plant in near­by Wor­thing­ton, have shut down because of Covid-19 out­breaks among work­ers. The Wor­thing­ton plant alone, which pre­vi­ous­ly processed 20,000 hogs a day, has been tied to more than 700 Covid-19 cas­es.

The assem­bly line of indus­tri­al food, how­ev­er, extends far beyond the pro­cess­ing plants. The clo­sures have left many indus­tri­al pig farm­ers, who raise and ship out hogs on a reg­i­ment­ed sched­ule, with nowhere to send their mar­ket-ready ani­mals. With the next batch of hogs ready to fill the cages behind them and no oth­er way to get the meat to hun­gry peo­ple, the farm­ers have lit­tle choice but to grind the ani­mals into compost. 

The surging interest in local food has been a lifeline for many. And it just might help the country make a long-term shift toward a more sustainable, more resilient and more just food system.

Accord­ing to John Ikerd, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of agri­cul­tur­al and applied eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri, this fail­ure is not a fluke of the pan­dem­ic but a weak­ness fun­da­men­tal to the indus­tri­al food sys­tem. By extend­ing the factory’s fix­a­tion on eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy to the farm, indus­tri­al­ism has cut flex­i­bil­i­ty and diver­si­ty out of agri­cul­ture. Ikerd says a fac­to­ry can’t slaugh­ter 20,000 hogs a day, every day, with­out an inflex­i­ble sched­ule of when hogs are bred, born, fat­tened and shipped. Just as it’s more effi­cient to have work­ers each make a sin­gle repet­i­tive cut on an assem­bly line than it is to have each butch­er a whole hog, it’s more effi­cient to have a farmer raise thou­sands of hogs in a con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tion (known as a CAFO) or only grow acres of corn than it is to raise a vari­ety of live­stock, chick­ens and veg­eta­bles. Despite some obvi­ous prob­lems, the indus­tri­al food sys­tem is a mar­vel of effi­cien­cy — until some­thing goes wrong. 

Ikerd puts it this way: We’ve got a more oper­a­tional­ly effi­cient sys­tem, but it’s a very frag­ile sys­tem.” Covid-19, he says, is one of many dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios that could bring it all crash­ing down.

Across the coun­try we’ve seen chick­ens killed en masse, milk dumped, fields of veg­eta­bles plowed under. At the same time, we’ve seen the emp­ty shelves, the cars lin­ing up out­side food banks.

As the pan­dem­ic has shak­en the rick­ety scaf­fold­ing of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture, it has wok­en many of us to the fragili­ty of this sys­tem — and our depen­dence on it. 

This spring, gar­den shops across the coun­try sold out of seeds and seedlings. Local farm­ers and small-scale meat proces­sors saw a surge of inter­est as peo­ple sought alter­na­tives to indus­tri­al food. Farms that prac­tice com­mu­ni­ty-sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture (CSA) — a mod­el in which peo­ple buy shares” of a farmer’s har­vest at the begin­ning of a grow­ing sea­son and lat­er receive week­ly fresh food box­es — sold out and filled their wait­ing lists.

The surg­ing inter­est in local food may not make up all the loss­es small farms are suf­fer­ing, but it has been a life­line for many. And it just might help the coun­try make a long-term shift toward a more sus­tain­able, more resilient and more just food system.

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Shared Risk, Shared Reward

In mid-March, about a month before pork plant clo­sures left indus­tri­al hog farm­ers strand­ed, Min­neso­ta closed pub­lic schools—a cru­cial mar­ket for Open Hands Farm in North­field, Min­neso­ta. Instead of hogs, though, Ben Doher­ty and Erin John­son were left hold­ing more than 9,000 pounds of carrots.

Doher­ty and John­son grow veg­eta­bles for local mar­kets on their small organ­ic farm. Car­rot sales to schools account for a large share of their busi­ness, so they had to impro­vise. They explained their predica­ment on Face­book and offered 25-pound bags of car­rots, direct to cus­tomers, at whole­sale prices. They sold out with­in a day.

As the weath­er warmed, it remained unclear when schools would re-open, but Doher­ty and John­son had to make deci­sions about plant­i­ng. They pushed ahead with their usu­al crops, plan­ning to find alter­na­tive mar­kets if need­ed. To hedge their bets, they also increased their CSA offer­ings from 180 shares to 220

Car­rie Sed­lak, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Fair­Share CSA Coali­tion based in Madi­son, Wis., says this nim­ble­ness” makes local agri­cul­ture more resilient than indus­tri­al food sys­tems. As Covid-19 lock­downs hit, many of the coalition’s 44 mem­ber farms (scat­tered across Wis­con­sin, Min­neso­ta, Illi­nois and Iowa) lost school and restau­rant mar­kets and had to lean more heav­i­ly on the CSA side of their operations.

The CSA mod­el feels unique­ly stur­dy in the time of Covid-19. CSAs help small farm­ers, who oper­ate on thin mar­gins, adapt to shift­ing mar­kets by putting mon­ey in their pock­ets upfront, when they need it most. The farm­ers dis­trib­ute food straight to local peo­ple, who can pick up a CSA share out­doors with min­i­mal con­tact. Most impor­tant­ly, the mod­el doesn’t paper over the finan­cial risks of farm­ing — it acknowl­edges them and asks the com­mu­ni­ty to share the bur­den. If some­thing goes wrong, CSA cus­tomers might receive dif­fer­ent or few­er items than expect­ed, but their box­es wouldn’t be emp­ty, unlike store shelves dur­ing the pandemic.

In exchange for shoul­der­ing some of the risk, the par­tic­i­pant enjoys a rare kind of food secu­ri­ty. You know the farmer and you know this per­son grows food local­ly,” Sed­lak says. It feels more secure than rely­ing on this big, neb­u­lous system.”

For these rea­sons, Sed­lak thinks, CSAs have seen a surge in inter­est. This spring, all but the biggest farms in the coali­tion sold out of shares.

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Cri­sis And Opportunity

When Vir­ginia insti­tut­ed its stay-at-home order in late March, it closed not only uni­ver­si­ties, schools and restau­rants but also farm­ers mar­kets, anoth­er pil­lar of local food systems.

Those clo­sures instilled a lot of pan­ic on farms,” says Kris­ten Suokko, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Local Food Hub in Charlottesville. 

In addi­tion to hard­ship, Ikerd thinks the food dis­rup­tions are cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for sys­temic change.

Since the pan­dem­ic hit, online gro­cery sales in the Unit­ed States have soared. Ama­zon, Wal­mart and Tar­get have racked up the vast major­i­ty of cus­tomers in the past year, but when it comes to sell­ing food online, Ikerd says local pro­duc­ers enjoy sig­nif­i­cant advan­tages over food cor­po­ra­tions. For exam­ple, local farm­ers can sup­ply fresh food to local cus­tomers more effi­cient­ly than state or region­al oper­a­tions because they don’t have to spend near­ly as much mon­ey on trans­porta­tion, pack­ag­ing and mar­ket­ing. (In the cur­rent indus­tri­al food sys­tem, 85 cents of every dol­lar spent on food goes to mar­ket­ing while only 15 cents goes to the farmer, accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.) If local farm­ers could tap the bur­geon­ing online mar­ket rather than bat­tling for room in the main­stream dis­tri­b­u­tion and retail sys­tems, Ikerd says, then local pro­duc­ers and their cus­tomers could total­ly bypass the indus­tri­al food system.” 

That’s just what some local food groups have begun to do, out of neces­si­ty as much as out of a long-term vision. 

With­in days of Virginia’s stay-at-home order, Local Food Hub launched dri­ve-thru mar­kets to com­ply with Covid-19 reg­u­la­tions. Cus­tomers could order food online from a vari­ety of local farms and pick it up twice a week. 

Demand was incred­i­ble in those first two months,” Suokko says. Some farm­ers have said it was the life­line that kept them going.” 

In Wyoming, Slow Food of the Tetons found sim­i­lar suc­cess when it moved its usu­al year-round farm­ers mar­ket online. Slow Food’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, Scott Steen, says the mar­ket, based in Jack­son Hole, offers food from 28 farms and saw as many as 200 orders in a good week.

The online mar­ket has sold way more food than we would’ve sold at a win­ter farm­ers mar­ket,” Steen adds — and it’s served as an essen­tial alter­na­tive for local farm­ers who lost buy­ers dur­ing the pandemic.

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Enlylh King, coordinator with Soil Generation Philadelphia
Enlylh King, a coordinator with Soil Generation in Philadelphia, shares plant-based insights with Tiana Williams at the Garden of Kin July 16. (Photo courtesy of Enlylh King)

Self-orga­niz­ing To Feed Each Other

Not every neigh­bor­hood, how­ev­er, has a farm­ers mar­ket — or even a gro­cery store. Tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans live in food deserts, which are pri­mar­i­ly in poor neigh­bor­hoods, rur­al areas and com­mu­ni­ties of color.

Sha­nia Mor­ris sees this lack of access to food as a kind of vio­lence. Mor­ris is an orga­niz­er with Soil Gen­er­a­tion, a Black- and brown-led coali­tion of grow­ers in Philadel­phia that fights for food jus­tice and food sovereignty.

Black peo­ple are not only dying at the hands of police,” Mor­ris says. They are dying because of lack of access to healthy food and health­care, and because they’re being overworked.

Our super­mar­kets and our jobs sys­tems don’t meet the needs of every­one,” Mor­ris says. In this com­mu­ni­ty, we’re find­ing ways to do that out­side of cap­i­tal­ism.” The group works to shape urban agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy, increase access to land and help neigh­bor­hoods build gar­dens on what land they do have — work that’s become more urgent as peo­ple have lost income.

Enlylh King, a Soil Gen­er­a­tion coor­di­na­tor, lives com­mu­nal­ly and grows food for her­self, her friends and her neigh­bor­hood. King thinks the pan­dem­ic has made peo­ple more inter­est­ed in inde­pen­dence from oppres­sive sys­tems, includ­ing the indus­tri­al food chain.

We don’t want to get to the point where we’re so depen­dent on this thing that’s so far out­side of our­selves that we can’t even take care of our­selves,” King says.

Mor­ris says grow­ing food as a means of build­ing sov­er­eign­ty is noth­ing new to Black com­mu­ni­ties. In 1920, almost a mil­lion farms in the Unit­ed States were Black-owned14% of all farms. But as sys­temic racism dis­pos­sessed Black com­mu­ni­ties, that num­ber plunged. As of 2017, only 35,470 farms in the Unit­ed States were Black-oper­at­ed1.7% of all farms.

We’ve always been need­ed, we’ve always been here,” Mor­ris says of Black grow­ers. Now, this moment has shown the truth of what we’ve been say­ing for a very long time.”

In Min­neapo­lis, the Indige­nous-led non­prof­it Dream of Wild Health, which runs a 10-acre farm north of the city, part­nered with oth­er groups to deliv­er meals to the Twin Cities Native com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing this time of crisis. 

Neely Sny­der, Dream of Wild Health exec­u­tive direc­tor, says non­per­ish­able food offered by many pantries — while meet­ing some imme­di­ate needs — is not the health­i­est stuff.” She thinks that makes her group’s mis­sion to deliv­er fresh, healthy, min­i­mal­ly processed foods even more essential.

Every year, the farm dis­trib­utes more than sev­en tons of veg­eta­bles and fruits by way of youth pro­grams, farm­ers mar­kets, part­ner­ships with Indige­nous chefs and its CSA-style Indige­nous Food Share. This spring, as peo­ple lost jobs and access to food, Dream of Wild Health plant­ed ear­li­er than usu­al in antic­i­pa­tion of increased need, says farm man­ag­er Jes­si­ka Green­deer. Nor­mal­ly, parts of the farm lie fal­low, Green­deer says, but this year they plant­ed every avail­able inch with sum­mer squash, cucum­bers, corn, toma­toes, win­ter squash and beans. 

Dream of Wild Health makes its food avail­able at less than the nor­mal farm­ers mar­ket price,” Sny­der says. Oth­er local-food non­prof­its offer sim­i­lar pro­grams to make local food more acces­si­ble. The Fair­Share CSA coali­tion, for exam­ple, will pay for half a CSA share for low-income peo­ple. Slow Food of the Tetons dis­trib­utes a local­ized ver­sion of food stamps, and unlike the fed­er­al SNAP pro­gram, it’s avail­able to undoc­u­ment­ed people.

Suokko says this approach has lim­its. We’ve been huge­ly effec­tive at mak­ing local food avail­able through phil­an­thropy,” she says. We’ve not been suc­cess­ful at mak­ing it so, if you’re a low-income per­son, you can go to a local store and buy a local tomato.” 

Dream of Wild Health farm manager Jessika Greendeer gives a soil lesson to local youth
Dream of Wild Health farm manager Jessika Greendeer gives a soil lesson to local youth July 15 in Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy of Dream of Wild Health)
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The Tran­si­tion Is Already Well Underway”

For local food sys­tems to over­grow the fringes and reclaim a cen­tral role in how we eat, we need more farms grow­ing diverse crops and rais­ing ani­mals to feed peo­ple who live in their area. And the food needs to be acces­si­ble and affordable. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Sed­lak says, Cap­i­tal­ism tends toward con­sol­i­da­tion, not diversification.” 

Cap­i­tal­ism is aid­ed by fed­er­al farm pol­i­cy, which fun­nels assis­tance and sub­si­dies almost exclu­sive­ly to big, mono-crop com­mod­i­ty farms. Diver­si­fied farms that pro­duce veg­eta­bles and fruits, known to the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture as spe­cial­ty crops,” do not qual­i­fy for fed­er­al sub­si­dies or crop insur­ance.

The very fact that fruits and veg­eta­bles are labeled spe­cial­ty crops’ in USDA par­lance tells you every­thing,” Suokko says. Only 2% of U.S. farm­land grows fruits and veg­eta­bles while almost 60% grows com­modi­ties like soy­beans and corn. Some of those sprawl­ing fields will even­tu­al­ly have to be restored and diver­si­fied, unless we want to plow what lit­tle is left of the Amer­i­can grass­lands. (Which isn’t much: In Illi­nois, for exam­ple, only 2,500 acres of prairie remain, of an orig­i­nal 22 million.) 

North of Min­neapo­lis, Dream of Wild Health is scal­ing up. Before the state’s lock­down order took effect, the group pur­chased an addi­tion­al 20-acre farm. Green­deer and her team are busy restor­ing the land, which has been in mono-crop corn rota­tions the past two sea­sons. She hopes it will be ready for plant­i­ng in 2021

Accord­ing to Ikerd, the fed­er­al farm sup­port sys­tem should stop sub­si­diz­ing the indus­tri­al food sys­tem and instead sup­port small, diver­si­fied farms, along with those con­ven­tion­al farm­ers who are able to tran­si­tion. If,” he says, they still remem­ber how to man­age a farm rather than a bio­log­i­cal fac­to­ry.” We are also, Ikerd says, going to have to grow a lot of new farm­ers” and give them access to land. 

Accord­ing to Sed­lak, the main bar­ri­ers that keep peo­ple from farm­ing are a lack of access to afford­able land and a lack of cap­i­tal to start. Not all farm­ers have access to grants and dona­tions, which is how Dream of Wild Health, for exam­ple, fund­ed its expan­sion. The need is par­tic­u­lar­ly great in Black com­mu­ni­ties, Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and oth­ers that have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly deprived of access to land and sov­er­eign­ty over their food. 

We have become so depen­dent on the indus­tri­al food sys­tem that it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a world with­out it, but Ikerd takes a more opti­mistic view. The tran­si­tion to the new local, sus­tain­able food sys­tems is already well under­way,” he says. We just need gov­ern­ment poli­cies and pub­lic insti­tu­tions to sup­port it.” 

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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