I've often times been accused of being anti-modern agriculture, which I don't believe is the case. I believe we need more farmers and farmers deserve to be compensated better. Therefore, I believe supporters of modern agriculture are actually anti-farmer.
I believe that by any socioeconomic indicator you choose, the consolidation of agriculture and farms has not been good for rural America. I've been accused of "not looking at the facts." I have a degree in Economics from Purdue University and there is nothing I love more than to look at facts and figures. I believe the article I have listed at the bottom of this page lays out the true facts on what consolidation of rural America has done to our rural communities. We must demand that food, fiber, and fuel policy takes into account the fact that loss of family farms is negative to rural development. Not understanding this concept is the same as re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The world is in a surplus commodity situation. We’ve always been over-producing calories. The whole world does not need to eat (or even have the possibility of having available) 200 pounds of red meat and poultry per person per year. We say we need to increase production in order to "feed the world" but is that really the case? Agriculture used to feed people. Then it fed animals. Now it feeds cars. If we flipped the food pyramid upside down, we’d have the food subsidy pyramid. We’ve got exactly what our policy predicted: a surplus of corn and soybeans and not enough items to create a healthy diet for the globe long-term.
We have a chance next year with the Farm Bill to go in a different direction. A direction that no longer perpetuates the rural degradation and decimation with the long standing policy of agriculture consolidation. Let's address market access at all sectors: contract, commodity, processing, and retail. We have a monopolistic- and/or oligopolistic-controlled industry. Food is not a product that can or should be in the hands of just a few large players. Our forefathers understood that. Let's enforce the regulations that are on the books. USDA and other enforcement agencies have no problem enforcing regulations that make it harder for the small players in the industry. Let's address the regulatory challenges that cripple the smallest players in agriculture. Let's address the health consequences associated with a subsidized food supply based on cans and bags of refined carbohydrates and hydrogenated oils. Let's address the inequity in most subsidies going to the richest and wealthiest. Let's turn the tide of preferential treatment on food labeling from the multinationals to the smallest players. Let's turn the tide of preferential treatment that favors multinationals and foreigners and give that preferential treatment to the American producers. The American consumers and taxpayers are ready for change in Rural America. We all eat. We all have a stake in a sane and reasonable food supply that brings about vibrant rural communities.
Farmer, Owner, Advocacy Worker
"A Wall Street Journal analysis shows that since the 1990s, sparsely populated counties have replaced large cities as America’s most troubled areas by key measures of socioeconomic well-being—a decline that’s accelerating." Opening paragraph of Rural America is the New 'Inner City'.
"The future we have been sold doesn’t work. Applying the principles of the factory floor to the natural world just doesn’t work. Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource. Despite the growing scale of the problem, no major mainstream politician has taken farming or food seriously for decades. With the presidential campaign over and a president in the White House whom rural Kentuckians helped elect, the new political establishment might want to think about this carefully. Suddenly, rural America matters. It matters for the whole world." Excerpt from An English Sheep Farmer's View of Rural America.
Occupation with the highest suicide rate according to the CDC in 2016...
Farming, fishing, & forestry: 84.5 suicides per 100,000 people in the occupation
The next closest industry is construction and extraction workers with 53.3 suicides per 100,000 workers. Farming takes the lead in a race that no one wants to win; not only by a few paces, but by a mile.
The real shocker. Guess what the farmer suicide rate was during the farming crisis of the 1980's? It peaked in 1982 at 58 suicides for every 100,000 farmers. A farming crisis is described as times of agricultural recession, low crop prices and low farm incomes. If you are a farmer reading this, I can't help but wonder if you shake your head reading that definition. When are crop prices and farm incomes anything but low? Are we in the midst of another farming crisis?
I relate back to hogs for my examples because the pork crisis in the 90's is what had the largest impact on my family. One generation ago, there were 600,000 hog farmers. Now there are roughly 60,000. I've often been told that these farmers who went out of business were simply bad businessmen, but can 90% of an industry be bad at business or is the industry simply impossible for businessmen to be anything but bad?
For those who aren't familiar, in the late 90's Tyson bought two hog slaughter plants with the sole intention of shutting them down. The first plant, Dakota Pork in Huron, SD, was bought and shut down in August of 1997. Their capacity was 5,000 hogs per day. Farmers in the northern part of the United States and the southern part of Canada would now have to truck their hogs as far as Iowa. Then once they got to the plant, they had to accept whatever price they were given, which was often around 5 cents per pound live weight. It was cheaper for many of these farmers to shoot and bury their hogs instead of trucking them to a slaughter plant. They literally could not afford to sell their pigs. The second plant, Thorn Apple Valley, was in Detroit, MI. This plant had a daily capacity of 14,000 hogs. When they shut their doors, Tyson was able to make $10-$15 for every $1 they spent on the deal due to the fact that they could now pay & charge whatever prices they wished to for live hogs and the resulting pork products.
Tell me again that the 90% of hog farmers who disappeared over the course of the last generation went out of business because they were bad businessmen?
The American farmer has been trampled on by the industrial agriculture industry and along with it, rural America has been destroyed. Many Americans probably agree with this after the results of the last election. Rural America cried out for something different because the same old politicians and the same old big businesses are simply not working. They put their vote with the most radical candidate who promised that he saw the desolate remains of rural America. The following paragraphs are an excerpt from An English Sheep Farmer's View of Rural America that was published in the New York Times and I think he hit the nail on the head.
"The future we have been sold doesn’t work. Applying the principles of the factory floor to the natural world just doesn’t work. Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource. Despite the growing scale of the problem, no major mainstream politician has taken farming or food seriously for decades. With the presidential campaign over and a president in the White House whom rural Kentuckians helped elect, the new political establishment might want to think about this carefully. Suddenly, rural America matters. It matters for the whole world."
Recently my dad was kicked off of some "agvocates" blog pages. My question for these "agvocates" is simple... while you are advocating for the industrial agriculture industry, who is advocating for you? Who is standing up for the actual farmer and fighting for their right to a decent wage? Who is fighting against the high suicide rates in the industry? Who is helping farmers stay in business? Who is standing up for anything other than the right to produce extremely cheap food?
If Farm Babe, the Farmer's Daughter, Tyson, Smithfield, the Pork Checkoff, etc., are not going to fight for the farmer, I will. No farmer (whether they are conventional, organic, or whatever other category they put themselves in) deserves to be walked all over, especially not by companies and individuals who are supposed to be on their side. So no matter what kind of farmer you are, know that I will fight for you. Obviously someone needs to.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The pictures below are one of the reason that farmers are pissed off at the industrial food supply and one of the reasons that we need the Humane Society to stand up for independent family farmers raising niche livestock. Its not the alternative farmers, the niche farmers, or even us granola crunchy hippy organic farmers that are creating the noise and confusion in the marketplace. Its the big players. Examples of three random labels from our local grocery store of Hormel (Jennie-O), Tyson, and Smithfield below. These are three of the biggest players in the meat and poultry industry. The other big players all have very similar labels. I could find a lot better labels. I'm challenging the "agvocates" to clean your industry up and quit blaming us for your problems. These are the companies you guys are aligned with. I just don't see anyone asking all of these commodity farmer advocates why the companies they are aligned with are using the misleading labels they are railing against.
As we are all well aware of, there will be big changes in January no matter which side of the ticket proves to be victorious in the November election. With a new President comes a new Secretary of Agriculture. Ferd Hoefner, the Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, saw an opportunity to gather valuable information to be included in the transition documents that will be given to the new Secretary of Agriculture. Yesterday, a group of some of the most well-known individuals in the sustainable agriculture and small processing industry, as well as representatives from the USDA/FSIS (Food Safety & Inspection Service) gathered at Gunthorp Farms to discuss what information shall be included in the report.
The day was scheduled to begin at 10 am with tours of our processing facility and then of our farm. Unfortunately the USDA representatives could not make it to the tour, but that did not stop all of us "industry representatives" from watching pig slaughter and hiking across the farm. All of the attendees were farmers and processors themselves, so the conversations throughout the day were so valuable to listen to. We broke at noon for lunch and anxiously awaited the USDA representatives arrival so we could begin the meeting that would be focusing on issues that small & very small processors face. Thankfully they arrived at 1 and our meeting was shortly brought to order.
The meeting was set up rather informally, with all of us sitting in a large circle in the basement of my parents' house. As the FSIS representatives took the floor first, I began wondering how beneficial this meeting was actually going to be. Did these people have any idea what a small plant even looks like, let alone what struggles they go through? After their 30 minute introduction regarding the resources and opportunities USDA has for us, I was feeling as if they were not interested in hearing what any of us industry representatives had to say at all.
Finally, Mike Callicrate took the floor. When I was growing up, many conversations centered around Mike and the challenges he was facing (and overcoming) and I have always held his name as that of a celebrity. Being able to finally meet him this week was an honor (and probably the topic of a different blog post). Anyways, Mike took the floor and laid it all on the table.
"Listen, what it comes down to is we are afraid of you all. You intimidate us. I know the USDA has a job to do and I know you are not supposed to be intimidating, but this is the reality right now." I felt the urge to stand up and clap when he finished what I would consider the description of why we all were gathered. I scribbled into my notes, "thank you Mike for saying what we are all sitting here thinking!"
There are definite issues that small plants face when obtaining and maintaining USDA inspection. We came to a consensus that intimidation/fear of retaliation is definitely one of the barriers to building the local food market. There has to be some sort of process that can verify small plants are still producing safe food without being a burden that prevents them from succeeding.
Pete Eshelman of Joseph Decuis Restaurant & Farm pointed out that Indiana alone spends $18 billion on food. Shockingly 90% of that is imported from other states or even other countries. Think of how many food dollars could be brought back to the state if more processors were able to stay in business? How many more jobs would be created in the state if even a fraction of those food dollars could come from in the state and not imports? What if we applied that thinking nation wide and created more food for Americans here in America?
The USDA realizes that creating regional food markets will be beneficial to local communities, rural development, and national food security. "In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative (KYF2) to better support the farmers, ranchers, food businesses and communities engaged in local and regional food systems." (Copied directly from a handout at the meeting yesterday.) Industry estimates show that the $1 billion that USDA has invested into local food systems have helped local food sales grow from $5 billion in 2008 to $12 billion in 2014 and it is expected to hit $20 billion by 2019. This is great news, but without reforming small processing regulation, the initiative will miss the bar. Access to legal processing is the bottleneck in this local food movement. Small processors are not asking for "easier" regulations, we are just asking for scale appropriate regulations that plants without bountiful human, financial, and capital resources can comply with.
Did we solve the whole problem during the course of the meeting yesterday? Of course not. Many issues were brought to the table and many were discussed, but many were only touched on and I know there are many more that should be brought up as well. However, there is hope. The most successful thing that came from the meeting yesterday was a plan for more meetings. Quarterly meetings, even, with the FSIS representatives and industry representatives to continue this dialogue until change happens.
Maybe someday, the local food movement and small processors will not need their own "initiatives". Maybe someday the "A" in USDA will stand for all agriculture and there will not need to be special committees to make sure that the little guys are not walked on or pushed out. We might not be there yet, but events like yesterday's meeting and the individuals who were in attendance are pushing us in the right direction.
Allow your passion to become your purpose and it will one day become your profession.
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