Thursday, June 13, 2013

Getting Out: The Legacy of Big Policy and Small Farms

"Where people, land, and community had collaborated in prosperity, they have now been separated in competition."

In 1971 Earl Butz was appointed the Secretary of Agriculture and began telling American farmers it was time to “get big or get out”. While the policy addressed the immediate issue of rising food prices, it did not necessarily consider the transformative effect of industrial agriculture on rural communities or our perception of working lands. In the coming decades the fundamental change in agriculture would be reflected in rural communities. The decline of rural communities is just one of many negative externalities associated with modern extractive agricultural practices based on cheap fossil fuel and akin to strip mining. As the land changed, rural communities realized they too must “get big” or risk the same fate as the farmers who were deemed inefficient and unnecessary in modern agriculture.

Amongst other things the policy of “get big or get our” created the illusion of an abundance of cheap food, but in reality the true cost has been detrimental to working lands, rural communities, and local governance. First and foremost, the process of getting bigger focused policy on agribusiness. Unlike the common farmer, agribusiness is driven by monetary capital and technology, whereas the agrarian farmer is motivated by stewardship and husbandry. The farmer according to Liberty Hyde Bailey learns to “live in right relations within natural conditions”1. Agribusiness focuses on maximizing returns and utilizes practices which have made agricultural lands dependent on importing manufactured chemical fertilizer. As a consequence, this approach has eroded the connections between producer and consumer. Where people, land, and community had collaborated in prosperity, they have now been separated in competition. Land has become a resource which is required for growth, which in turn is the predominate indicator by which modern communities gauge success. By refusing to attribute any value to local knowledge, rural communities have been condemned to little more than impediments to the expansion of agribusiness. Meanwhile rural communities continue to export what little value remains one semi, one trailer, one rail car, or one value meal at a time.

According to Carl McDaniel “farms are the foundation of many rural communities and their economic well being often depends on these farms”2. The changes in agriculture that continue to this day have made it all the more obvious that the activity and structure of the farm house economy is reflected in communities. The traditional farming household economy was both diverse and inclusive. Every member participated in supporting the household by creating value through growing, raising, and preparing food. However in the 1970’s, with the advent of commodity crops being planted “fence row to fence row”, the tenants of stewardship instilled in the farm house economy were replaced outright by the exploitive tendencies of agribusiness. This change was reflected in communities big and small as the drive for efficiency permeated into the towns and eroded the value adding segments of local economies. The services which suffered didn’t so much as add value as they did retain value in a local economy. Ultimately, the few services and industries that remained primarily existed to aid the transfer of wealth away from the working lands. Judging by the health of rural communities today it is apparent that the principles of exploitive monoculture and agribusiness are not a foundation on which to grow community.

Just as control of working lands have been consolidated, so too have rural economies. There are no true winners in a paradigm where only growth can be viewed as success. Growth rarely encompasses the development of local food systems or local businesses that connect our communities to the land. Growth continues to erode local food systems and hasten our departure from the working lands. The drive for efficiency has brought about other changes aside from desolate communities and dilapidated property. Along with physical changes to community, the changes in social interactions has depleted rural communities social capital. The working lands could arguably be the foundation of the democracy we revere. According to Thomas Jefferson agriculture was not primarily a source of wealth, but of human virtues and traits congenial to popular self governance3. While working lands have provided decades of stability for untold numbers of American citizens, at best they now provide uncertainty for a relative few. We have all been forced to “get big”. Our businesses, our food system, our political system, our communities, our schools, and with this change the local knowledge and culture so vital to democratic self-governance has been marginalized.

As fence rows went untended and farm houses fell into disrepair, it became apparent that “get big or get out” would fundamentally change the role and place of rural farmers in American society. Although this approach to policy produced cheap food, it is painfully obvious that the illusion of cheap food has come at a high cost. Our asymmetrical approach to policy is reluctant to attribute any value to the quality of our food, social capital within communities, or health of the land. By limiting our measures of success to increases in sales tax, property, tax, and service area, we ignore the social consequences which impact quality of life. While we continue to await macro policy changes, there is opportunity for local innovative solutions to facilitate a change in how we perceive the land. Both the farm and the community must play a part in reinvigorating cities and towns. In the words of Wes Jackson, “rural communities must be vital enough that the family farm is as much a derivative of the community as a contributor to it4.

1. Bailey, Liberty Hyde. The Holy Earth. New York: C Scribner's Sons, 1915.

2. McDaniel, Carl. Wisdom for a Liveable Planet: the visionary work of Terri Swearingen, Dave Foreman, Wes Jackson, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Werner Fornos, Herman Daly, Stephen Schneider, and David Orr. Trinity University Press, 2005.

3. Griswold, Whitney. Farming and Democracy. Yale University Press, 1963.

4. Jackson, Wes. Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson. Counterpoint Press, 2011. 

Photos: Obtained through the Creative Commons via Flickr. 1 & 2