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How the Cult of the Colossal Imperils American Agriculture

April 3, 2018

The 2018 farm bill is currently at a standstill as congressmen debate proposed changes to the bill’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provisions. SNAP is a huge and important welfare program, one that reminds us that the USDA and the farm bill are not focused exclusively on farms, but are also responsible for a bevy of other rural development issues (such as rural energy programs, the rural housing service, and rural utilities service).

But this pause in the farm bill process also gives us an opportunity to talk about what this bill does not usually do well: namely care for the nation’s small to midsize farmers and incentivize sustainable farming methodologies.

This deficit in focus and care is not new. The farm bill’s bias towards bigness has existed for decades now, and was doubly reinforced during the 1970s by USDA Secretary Earl Butz (the man who notoriously told farmers to “get big or get out”). Many of the agricultural revolutions we’ve seen over the past few decades—from small family farms to large-scale factory farms, from crop diversity to commoditized homogeneity—emerged most prominently in the 1970s and 1980s under Butz’s leadership at the USDA. At the time, our understanding of agriculture and its purposes were also shifting: what had formerly been understood as a local enterprise meant to feed local inhabitants was increasingly viewed as a global enterprise meant to foster trade relations and massive corn and soybean sales overseas.

That understanding still dominates agriculture, and has transformed its processes. Today’s farmers produce gluts of goods that largely do not feed Americans, but rather get exported to countries abroad. International trade is not a bad thing: it’s important for diplomacy, economic security, and prosperity. But our emphasis on international commodity sales has increasingly distorted our local food markets, our care for the earth, and the sustainability of our production processes. What’s more, it has put an immense economic and psychological burden on American farmers: as President Donald Trump has proposed a variety of tariffs on countries such as China and has threatened to disband trade agreements with other nations like Canada and Mexico, farmers are the ones who primarily feel the heat and worry about their ability to survive. China buys upward of $14 billion in U.S. soybeans each year. Last year, they bought approximately 60 percent of the soybeans grown in the state of Iowa. What happens if those sales disappear under Trump’s leadership?

In the 1970s, Earl Butz assured American farmers that their surest plan of success was to plant from fencerow to fencerow—to invest all their vision, capital, and land in international trade.

But that promise has not paid reliable dividends. In the 1980s, largely in response to the expansion and homogenization Butz recommended, the U.S. underwent a severe farm crisis. Over the past several years, America has suffered similar slumps in the prices of corn, wheat, and other farm commodities, caused by a worldwide glut of grain. Farmers are now fearing a similar (if not more debilitating) farm crisis. The Wall Street Journal reported in early 2017 that some farms are shutting down in response, and warned that “the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.” The United States’ share of the global grain market is less than half what it was in the 1970s, and the Department of Agriculture estimated that farm incomes dropped 9 percent in 2017.

Over the past several decades, farmers who worry about making ends meet have turned to corn for a steady, assured source of income—not necessarily because the market is demanding more corn, but because government crop insurance and subsidies have assured them a steady form of return if things go badly. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, subsidies provided farmers with 49 percent of their income in the year 2000—up from 13 percent in 1996.

In his book This Blessed Earth, journalist Ted Genoways noted that in 2014, American farmers set new records for corn and soybean production: they harvested 14 billion bushels of corn, and nearly 4 billion bushels of soybeans. “With so much production, roughly three-quarters of the harvest nationwide went directly into bins, as every farmer waited and prayed for rebounding prices,” he wrote. “They never came. Instead, prices continued to slump as yields continued to grow, and whispers spread about the possibility of another Farm Crisis.”

But as the 2018 farm bill sits in Congress, we are not talking about this looming possibility—not as much as we ought to, at least. The Wall Street Journal is one of the only large U.S. newspapers to have written about the perils in agriculture’s future if things continue this way. A lot of conservative and libertarian writers have recently called for farm bill reform, but their efforts are focused on spending cuts. That is by no means a bad focus, considering the glut of taxpayer dollars that currently go to America’s largest and wealthiest farms. But the problem is much bigger than that.

The ethos we’ve built around farming in the United States is broken. Rather than encouraging farmers to eliminate risk by diversifying their crops, pursuing sustainability, and embracing a proper scale, we’ve propped up a truly unsustainable style of production with subsidies and insurance programs. When things go sour, we tell farmers to just keep following the same formula, never asking whether that formula is malfunctioning, hoping in vain that new machinery or cover-cropping initiatives can band-aid over the problem.

As Wendell Berry wrote for The Atlantic in 2012, “Industrial agriculture characteristically proceeds by single solutions to single problems: If you want the most money from your land this year, grow the crops for which the market price is highest. Though the ground is sloping, kill the standing vegetation and use a no-till planter. For weed control, plant an herbicide-resistant crop variety and use more herbicide.” But these methodologies have led to a loss of biodiversity, rampant soil depletion, and devastating water pollution—issues that are plaguing communities across the United States. Faced with the pressure to produce more, dairies and chicken farms cram their animals into cramped, stinking, and inhumane spaces.

Fixing these issues requires more than a few reforms. It requires transforming our entire mindset towards agriculture and its problems. It requires rethinking our fascination with quantity over quality, and coming to grips with the “cult of the colossal,” as it has transformed the world of farming. It requires particularizing our conversation according to geography and farm, thinking about long-term wholeness over short-term profits, and demonstrating a loyalty to local agricultural communities—their jobs, land, and families—over the profit of national and international agribusinesses.

As Wendell Berry put it in Orion Magazine, “We can no longer pretend that agriculture is a sort of economic machine with interchangeable parts, the same everywhere…. We are not farming in a specialist capsule or a professionalist department; we are farming in the world, in a webwork of dependences and influences probably more intricate than we will ever understand.”

The future of America’s farms depends on so much more than one bill. But fixing what’s broken will require that we start here and now with the resources we have—before it’s too late.


Teaser photo credit: Jurga Jot/Shutterstock

Grace Olmstead

Grace Olmstead is a journalist and author of Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. Her writing has been published in The American Conservative, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and others. A native of rural Idaho, she now lives outside Washington, DC, with her husband and three children.

Tags: industrial agriculture, rebuilding resilient food and farming systems