Our farmers deserve praise, not condemnation; and their efficiency should be cause for gratitude, not something for which they are penalized. – President John F. Kennedy
In Schwarz’s (2011) article, “The thin green line: The importance of America’s farmers,” he reported there are just 210,000 full-time farms in the country to support 300 million Americans and countless foreign countries (para. 4). Farmers are dwindling in numbers, but are tasked with feeding and clothing a growing national and world population (Schwarz, 2011, para. 2). Yet, these farms are facing numerous challenges such as government regulations, policy changes, taxes, a wavering economy, drastic climate changes, decreased funding, threatening industrial farms, and a loss of respect from fellow Americans. Farming in America is in crisis, and we need sustainable solutions for the future.
Challenges/ Problems for Farmers
What would happen to our food supply if we experienced a farm crisis? Who would it affect? According to the article, “The next farm crisis” (2011), America has already experienced a previous farm crisis in the 1980s. Farmland prices were high, but the market was unsustainable. During 1981-1986, an estimated one-quarter of the assessed valuation of American farmland disappeared (paras. 3- 4). Consequently, extensive losses forced farmers to foreclose on their farms; they lost their homes, and families were torn apart. Our farmers still receive little or no help from the government.
The first U.S. farm bill was passed in 1933, and fifteen more subsequently. Farm bills are used so the government can stabilize farm prices to secure food supplies. However, more than 84 percent of farm bill- related spending is used for food and nutrition programs like food stamps, not to farmers. Only 11 percent of farm bill funding is used for farm policies. “Farmers and ranchers have already lost $15 billion in funding in the name of deficit reduction. Thus, the government is proposing to cut the $33 billion in farm programs they actually put into place during the farm crisis of the 1980s to help prevent a future crisis” (“The next farm crisis,” 2011, para. 9). At present, there is not a new farm bill or policy to assist farmers with the tremendous financial cuts that are proposed. “Currently, only 2.15 percent of U.S. government spending is for agriculture, of which 1.62 percent is for nutrition, 0.19 percent for crop insurance, 0.15 percent for conservation, 0.15 percent for commodity programs, and 0.04 percent for other programs” (Brown, 2012, p. 82). Obviously, the first step toward change is for the government to recognize that farming is not only in crisis, but solutions need to be focused on the farmers.
Other challenges our farmers face are drastic climate changes. Some regions are experiencing floods, while others are experiencing severe drought. “About 80 percent of American agricultural land is experiencing drought, which makes the 2012 drought more extensive than any drought since the 1950s” (“U.S. drought 2012: Farm and food impacts,” 2012, para. 10). Changes in temperature, amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather could have significant impacts on crop yields. Grain producers have harvested shriveled corn, wheat, and soybean crops. The 2012 drought has resulted in the smallest corn harvest in six years. Drought reduces the amount of quality forage available to grazing livestock; therefore, herds are cut back to avoid the cost of rising feed prices. In McCauseland’s article, “Drought: Food prices poised to rise” (2012), she reported “the impact of this summer’s extensive drought should show up on grocery shelves at the end of the year. Pork and beef prices will increase the most. Consumers can expect to start seeing the effects near the year-end in the meat case and dairy section, spreading to the rest of the grocery store by mid-2013” (paras. 1-2).
Another emergent problem facing many farmers is the rise of industrial agriculture. There is a growing concern and movement of activists, farmers, agriculture policy makers, and common consumers against it. In Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (2002), Andrew Kimbrell claimed we will come to experience graphically the tragic consequences of how our food is produced, and that the industrial food production is indeed a fatal harvest (p. 2). For example, industrial agriculture is fatal because the massive amounts of chemicals used to grow crops increase the incidence of cancers and other diseases. The topsoil is eroded and exhausted from continuous use of fertilizers. The rivers, lakes and oceans are also polluted by excessive fertilizers and chemicals. “When confronted with the indisputable environmental and health impacts of industrial agriculture, the industry points to their technological advances and recent achievements that will solve all problems. These claims are broadcast far and wide by lobbying efforts, product promotions, and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns” (Kimbrell, 2002, p. 49).
Small farm communities are wiped out by huge corporate farms, leading to poverty and hunger. Kimbrell (2002) claimed “hunger is not created by lack of food, but by poverty and landlessness, which deny people access to food. Industrial agriculture actually increases hunger by raising the cost of farming, by forcing tens of millions of farmers off the land, and by growing primarily high-profit export and luxury crops” (p. 50). It is argued that there is not enough food produced to feed the booming population. “In reality, food production has kept pace with the population growth, but the real reason over 800 million people go hungry is food dependence. Industrial agriculture has forced the small farmers off their farmland, and their ability to grow their own food—their food independence” (p. 51).
Industrial agriculture is fatal to the genetic diversity of plants as numerous species are destroyed and replaced with genetically engineered high-yield varieties. It is fatal to the seed saving and collective ownership of seeds as seed patents are common. “Independent research has shown these genetically engineered (GE) types of seed do not actually increase overall crop yields” (Kimbrell, 2002, p. 63). There is also a decline in nutrient concentration from genetically altered plants and seeds, and they can also pose serious health risks. Currently, there are no standards of government safety testing or labeling of any genetically engineered foods.
Agricultural land is home to 75 percent of the nation’s wildlife, and many species are being forced into extinction due to pesticides and habitat destruction. “The huge, mono-cultured fields industrial farms have drastically reduced a number of wildlife populations by transforming habitats, displacing populations of native species, and introducing non-native species” (Kimbrell, 2002, p. 61). In the article, “Sustainable versus industrial” (n.d.), industrial farms have caused $34.7 billion worth of environmental damage in the U.S. each year (para. 12). Industrial agriculture is also a major culprit in ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect. Kimbrell urges us to be ‘creators,’ not consumers. He said, “We can no longer be food ‘consumers,’ destroying and wasting our lands and farm communities” (p. 3). Each action we take in deciding which foods to buy, grow, or eat, creates a very different future for ourselves and the earth.
Family Farms Matter
Why are family farms important? “In addition to producing fresh, nutritious, high-quality foods, small family farms provide a wealth of benefits for their local communities” (“Family farms,” n.d., para. 8). Family farmers are most importantly good stewards of the land by trying to preserve the environment, resources, and fertility of the land for current and future generations. Professor John Ikerd noted that, “They are committed to caring for the land, and protecting the natural environment. They fit the farm and crops to their land and climate… They farm in harmony with nature” (Ikerd, 2002, para.28). By managing diversity, farmers are able to reduce their dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals that threaten the environment. “Family farms conserve valuable resources through methods such as windbreaks, use of cover crops, continual addition of organic matter to the land, and no-tillage or low-impact tillage techniques” (“Sustainable versus industrial,” n.d., para. 16). Conservation for the future is of key importance. “The existence of family farms also guarantees the preservation of green space. Once a farm is forced out of business, the farmland is often sold for development, and the quality of land and soil for farming are lost” (“Family farms,” n.d., para. 10).
In addition to providing jobs, farmers support local businesses and rural communities who need economic growth. Family farms market to those who care about where their food comes from, and how it is produced. “They form partnerships and cooperatives to buy equipment and to market their products. Farmers help each other, and their rural communities, succeed by buying locally” (Ikerd, 2002, para. 30). “Owners of small family farms are also actively involved in their communities, boosting the level of civic participation and helping to build resilient communities. They also provide a safe working environment and treat their employees with dignity and respect” (“Sustainable versus industrial,” n.d., paras. 49- 50).
Small family farms also protect our food safety and food choices. “If we lose our family farmers, we’ll lose the diversity in our food supply, and what we eat will be dictated to us by a few large corporations” (“Family farms,” n.d., para. 13). In the article, “Why farming is important in America” (2002), Professor Ikerd observed that food equity, food integrity, and food security are also of major concerns:
Everyone has an equal right to enough food to survive, to grow, to mature, and to become a productive member of society. A corporately controlled, industrial agriculture will not provide adequate food for all—only those who are willing and able to pay. Everyone has an equal right to safe, healthful, nutritious food. The food we eat should nourish us, not make us sick, addict us, or fill our bodies with empty calories. Everyone has an equal right to a secure food supply. The current corporate struggle to gain control of the global food system is about profits and growth, not about meeting the needs of people. (paras. 37- 39).
Solutions/ Positive Approaches for Farmers
What can we do as consumers, and as fellow Americans to support the family farmers? First, buy less processed food. The “cheap” food at the supermarkets is getting more expensive because of the wasteful processing and packaging techniques that are passed on, but the increase is not going to the farmers. “Foods that are less processed tend to return more money to the farmer. For example, when buying carrots, 44 percent goes to the farmer, instead of potato chips, where only 4.5 percent does. Forty-six percent of the price of milk goes to farmers, as opposed to only 25 percent of processed cheese. The corporate middleman gets a large cut in packaging and marketing processed food items” (Farm Aid, 2010). Not to mention processed food is loaded with harmful chemicals and ingredients consumers cannot even pronounce. In the article, “Reverence for food,” Schofield stated our food comes more and more from chemical concoctions rather than the earth; we have lost our sense of connection with the very thing that sustains us. “We make the distance between life-giving nature and ourselves greater with the over-processing of our food” (Schofield, n.d., para. 5).
Second, buy locally. When buying food at farmers’ markets and farm stands, consumers are putting 100 percent of their money into the hand of the farmer who grew it. “Farmers should be encouraged to diversify their production for local and regional markets, rather than specialize in exports. The goal would not be to put an end to international food trade, but to avoid transporting food thousands of miles when it could be produced next door” (Gorelick, 2000, paras. 1-2). Local food systems would help revitalize crumbling rural economies, and the power would remain with the farmers rather than the corporate middleman. This shift would also benefit the environment by reducing energy and pollution of transporting food. “Today, the food on the typical American family’s dinner table has traveled some 1,500 miles on average” (Gorelick, 2000, para. 5).
Third, contribute to organizations that support farmers. Farm Aid is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep family farmers on their land. Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised more than $40 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture. Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. They are building a powerful movement for family farms with their annual concert event uniting farmers, artists, and concerned citizens, and their inspiring and informative television, radio, mail and web campaigns (including the HOMEGROWN.org website) (“Family farmers, good food, a better America,” 2010, paras. 1-2). Farm Aid fosters connections between farmers and eaters by growing and strengthening local and regional markets and working to get family farm food in urban neighborhoods, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and other public institutions (“Family farmers, good food, a better America,” 2010, para. 3).
Fourth, buy organically grown food. The article, “Current topics: Selected issues in American agriculture today” (2001), described how organic food differs from conventionally produced food is in the way it is grown, handled, and processed. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones; and fruits, vegetables, and grains are produced without using conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, synthetic ingredients, or bio-engineering used in production or processing (p. 9). Organic foods are often more expensive, but are said to be healthier and contain higher levels of antioxidants, vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. Although, some say there is still an uncertainty over the nutrition-related benefits to health of consuming organic foods. “With no sign of this demand slowing, converting to organic is one way for farmers to shift to new production methods, which are also of huge benefits to the environment and rural economies” (Gorelick, 2000, para. 7).
Most Americans are far removed from the agriculture industry, and they only know their food comes from the super market. Is the food grown by local American farmers or is it imported from a foreign country? Is our food grown locally or on an industrial farm? Most urban families do not have the slightest clue where or how our food is grown. Yet, 95% of Americans say it is important for the United States to produce its own food. Schofield urges us in her article, “Reverence for food” (n.d.), to get to know the farmers who grow our food, and when possible, start our own gardens. “Once we experience its creation firsthand, it is almost impossible not to have a healthy respect for all the time, effort, and hope embodied in the art of farming” (para. 11).
Americans need to be educated on the importance of buying food locally, and why supporting the small farmer is essential to our economy and food safety. Consumers should make smarter and better food choices. Local farmers have an important role in our future, and even our quest for peace. In fact, retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark preached on the importance of the “thin green line” to America’s security (Schwarz, 2011, para. 5). He was not referring to our soldiers, but our farmers. He said, “If we cannot feed, fuel and clothe ourselves, then we cannot defend ourselves. If rural America falters, we open the floodgate to even more fuel produced by nations that do not share our values and strategic interests—and our country is less secure” (Schwarz, 2011, para. 5). Farming in America is in crisis, and we need sustainable solutions for the future. Support your local American farmer—your future depends on it.
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Originally written for Palabras's official Website by LeShea Mason.