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"Between 2005 and 2006, the number of farms in America dropped by 9,000. There are now less than 2 million farms, 160,000 fewer than there were in 1987, according to the USDA."
–Adam Gorlick, AP, 5/16/07
Last week another farmer (Jim) and I travelled to nearby Springvale, Maine where the Three Rivers Land Trust was sponsoring a presentation. The subject was farmland preservation. Jim and I serve as board members of a local land trust and we sometimes go to events like this. As usual, it was a pleasant evening and we all carefully averted our eyes from the corpse of American agriculture slumped in the corner.
Don’t get me wrong. The industrial production of consumeable commodities is roaring along, based unfortunately on the ruin of both the producer and the land. But hey, there’s lots of stuff in the supermarket. Simply put, the 100 year run of democratized and decentralized agriculture had its day. That day is just over. That’s all.
Today we’re rapidly returning to an old model. In 1987, Mark Richie and Kevin Ristau of the League of Rural Voters Education Project wrote,
"From the earliest days of European colonization, America’s commercial agriculture (meaning food production beyond immediate family needs) was dominated by large-scale agriculture. This included the slave plantations of the South, huge Spanish haciendas in the Southwest, and the bonanza wheat and cattle farms of the West. Most of our commercial agricultural production was in the hands of wealthy individuals or foreign investors."
Richie and Ristau pointed out that by the mid-1800s, government action—-ending slavery through force of arms, the Homestead Act, (ethnic cleansing or forced removal the native population) had put "family farmers on much of the land." This and other federal government intervention over the next century then "created conditions favorable to family-farm agriculture." The culmination of this democratic intervention was the New Deal-era parity program which ushered in what was called the Golden Age of American Agriculture. "From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable." Because they could make a living farming, "the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined." In addition, between 1933 and 1952 the federal government netted $13 million for its oversight and coordination of the program. Parity was an economic management system that benefitted farmers and eaters and the land. It allowed small-scale family operations to receive a fair price for their crops. It fostered economic justice and even rural prosperity. Needless to say, it had to go.
The speakers in Springvale began on an upbeat note, observing that the number of "farmers" in Maine was increasing. What went unsaid was that the definition of "farmer" is so broad that it covers mostly people who live on off-farm-income and thus subsidize their agricultural habit. If there is a farm product out there today that generally returns its cost-of-production to the producer, I’m unaware of it. So people farm, as much as they can afford to, on the side. The truly dogged pursue the "niche" and "value added" gambits by further processing and/or retailing their harvest. Currently the extra revenue from these additional enterprises helps to mask the galloping and deadly cost/price squeeze which marks even these operations for eventual death.
As the body-count increases, the press is happy to relate hopeful and upbeat distractions apparently intent on masking the sod-busters’ death rattle with chirpy effervescence. One favorite of late is the agricultural theme-park or "day-camp" side-show. In this exercise, the farm (usually owned by a non-profit entity) invites the children of the comfortable to "see where their food comes from." A fee is charged. Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport and the Libra Foundation’s Pineland Farms are among the current practitioners. At Wolfe’s Neck, camp counselors learn how to "scatter grain for chickens," and "gather eggs." Then they show the kids.
The bucolic fantasy world presented to the day-camp children is doubtless a soothing tonic for a pixelated and chemicalized generation. But it most assuredly won’t help them figure out "where their food comes from." The eggs those kids eat for breakfast or mixed with other ingredients in their snacks weren’t laid by chickens pecking for scattered grain on a rustic farmstead somewhere. They rolled down a conveyor belt in the bowels of a reeking concrete and iron corporate "barn" somewhere. The hapless and de-beaked chickens who spend their short and tortured lives standing packed into wire cages above a manure pit—-in an orgy of nervous eating, egg laying and defacating— are tended, not by well-scrubbed college students, or farm family members, but by optionless "guest workers." Cheap food comes at a price.
Still, when I suggested a change in our ag policy and a return to something like the proven parity pricing system in Springvale last week, urging that land trusts put their collective "shoulders to the wheel" of "farmer preservation," the idea met quick rebuke from one of the guest speakers (a former farmer himself). The out-of-hand rejection was anticipated. When I’ve mentioned such concepts in other meetings they’ve met a similar fate , even among farmers who have forgotten their own history and who have lost hope.
Thus do people who require regular nourishment stumble toward a future without a democratized agriculture. The days of my youth were spent in proximity to scores of dairy farms undergirded by a parity price for milk of 40 (constant) dollars per hundred pounds. Back then, nobody had to talk about "farmland preservation" and if you wanted to know where food came from you could look out back or take a walk down the road.
Was that just a childish dream?
RICHARD RHAMES and his wife farm the ground where he grew up in Biddeford, Maine. He is a member of the Nebraska Farmers Union, the National Farmers Union, the Family Farm Defenders, and the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981).