Why We Have A Food System
December 5, 2016
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This article by Amber Fields was orginally published in 2014 from UK5 of Garden Culture Magazine, where it appeared under the title How Food Became A System.
It’s not the unpredictable nature of the weather and commodity prices that are causing the median age of farmers to increase, and fewer people to make farming their career. Most people haven’t the means to become an agricultural engineer unless they inherit the farm. It’s caused by deliberate government policy, and modern farming being highly capital intensive, on top of the cost of purchasing the farm itself and maintaining the tax bill on all that land.
Many people believe that the Great Depression was the underlying cause of the shift from the US is a nation populated by independent farmers to a population working for a steady paycheck. While that did cost some people their land and homes, it wasn’t what set the stage for food to become a system instead of a lifestyle. A smooth combination of moves made by the Eisenhower administration started this evolution.
Industrialists in the developed Eastern cities needed cheap labor to fill their factories. They also needed to create a willing market for their wares, one that would just keep buying what they were making. And so, in the mid-1950s, Ezra Taft Benson, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture, pushed a soil bank law through Congress that when coupled with Eisenhower’s interstate highway plan, forced thousands off the farm, and into the big city, where the opportunity to make a steady wage beckoned.
They arrived in droves. Across the road from the Thunderbird plant in Wixom, Michigan, hundreds of displaced farmers and farm workers from the South actually lived in tents for a full year before the new Ford factory was ready for them to go to work. Even then, this particular factory was sitting in the middle of rich farmland some 30 miles from Ford’s nucleus of operations. The land to build on came at an attractive price, for the interstate was coming through the front section of the farm that owned it. This kind of thing went on all over the Rust Belt in the mid to late 1950s through the early 1960s.
The government literally removed ownership of marginal lands in the South from poor, small farmers who were black, and handed their land over to college-educated sons of the elite in an attempt to prove that higher learning had everything to do with making any soil productive. It didn’t. What this experiment did do was largely increase the populations in industrial cities. They were joined by others from far-flung rural homestead, further escalating the numbers of newly arrived people who until now had been independent, carving out an existence in any way possible. Whether they landed a good paying job that required punching a time clock or found only menial work, thousands of people now required a dependable source of food. They no longer had the land, the means, or the time to grow and preserve it themselves.
At the beginning of this induced transition period in the 1950s, the big food companies from the city went into farming communities and established a relationship with the small farms that were still operating. They did this by buying out small processing plants throughout the Heartland. Once an important part of farm towns that provided a place to sell your harvest regardless of size, find local employment, and vital social hub ceased overnight. Things changed. Either the farm invested all of its land and energy into the token crop, or the corporation would buy nothing from them. It meant a complete overhaul of the small family farm and huge injections of capital. The strategy behind turning food into a system for big profit sent more waves of farm folks into urban areas.
As it is today, the corporate profit first – producer profit last structure left many open to foreclosure of land used as collateral in the purchase of farm equipment purported to increase efficiency. Whether the bank foreclosed on the land or they simply sold out for every penny they could muster fast, it opened the doors for big pockets to snatch up huge tracts of land hither and yon. Land that would create new money faster than just about anything else they could invest in. While the people who knew nothing more than that land and the sustenance it gave them discovered the wonders of regular paychecks and benefits in exchange for the days of their lives.
Nothing like trading a world of continually renewed moneymaking possibilities to make money for others in a situation that will never allow you to get ahead. Once they bought into the system, there was no turning back. They designed the system to keep people working, and making payments.
Fifty years later… Washington runs agriculture? Agriculture runs Washington? Who knows, but it’s obvious they’re in bed together. The government continues to systematically eradicate both big and small farms who go against the grain. Cheap food chock full of synthetic, mysterious, and downright scary ingredients costs a lot. Quality long ago replaced by profit for every chink in the food system. Except, of course, the farmers, who either have to get big, adopt the factory farming system, or get out.
Today, there are few jobs available. Benefits are almost extinct. Cheap labor exists on other continents, becoming a utility in their homeland, or as immigrants – legal or illegal. And unless you’re in debt, you are judged as high risk – an unreliable person. The only way for the average person to get good food is to grow their own. It’s a broken system, but people forgot… there was life before becoming dependent on the system. As in any failure, here too lies the seeds of change.
They broke it, but we can fix it. The solution already exists. Combining past knowledge of sustainable farming with modern technology gives anyone with an interest new hope – the answer to feeding yourself, your neighborhood, and even your region. The percentage of the continental population that demands organic and locally grown food has hit about 50%. This number continues to rise as more people become truly aware of what is in the food. Coupled with the worldwide anti-GMO sentiment, change is already taking place.
More and more farms of all sizes are becoming organic. Vacant land, rooftops, balconies, basements, closets, spare rooms, and backyards everywhere are getting transformed into spaces that grow food without chemicals that are totally free of GMOs and hasn’t traveled great distances to sit on your plate.
Hope grows. It is fresh, it is the solution, and it’s green.
Read these books to learn more:
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