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Why the Department of Agriculture no Longer Supports Actual Agriculture

Updated on August 31, 2012

Get Big or Get Out

It goes back to the Nixon administration, during which food prices started rising, and many homemakers actually took to the streets to protest the high prices of stuff like meat and milk. Nixon told his Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz (I'm not making this up) to fix the problem. So Butz changed the system of farm subsidies, and instituted a policy of "Get big or get out." Farmers were encouraged to plant commodity crops from fencerow to fencerow. So we got cheap(er) corn, which was fed to cows, pigs, and chickens, which made beef, milk, pork, chicken, and eggs cheaper in the grocery store. But that’s not the whole story.

What Farms Used to Look Like

The Way it Used to Be

Once upon a time, if you went to a farm, it would look more or less like you’d expect it to look. There would be chickens, cows, and pigs, all being raised for food. The pigs just gave us meat, but the chickens supplied both meat and eggs, and the cows would supply both meat and milk products. All of these critters would be grazing on pasture (and in the case of pigs, maybe in a woodlot) and not being fed any kind of grain. Grain was expensive to raise; it was reserved for people-food. The cows would eat grass on the pasture, and leave their droppings behind. The chickens would scratch in the droppings for bugs, and leave their own droppings behind. After a season of use as pasture, the farmer would plow up that field and plant grain on it, and his critters would graze another field. And so on.

In the winter, the farmer would keep his critters in the barn, and had to manage their manure by laying down wood shavings, straw, leaves, or some other fibrous substance that would absorb the pee and poo. He’d have to lay down more and more straw as the winter went on. By the spring, the manure and straw would have turned into compost, and he’d have to move all that to the fields to fertilize them. This was hard, backbreaking work. But a little after the turn of the 20th century, all this changed.

Cheap Energy = Cheap Crops

As far back as the late 1830s, some chemists had been saying that fertility is merely a question of getting enough nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous into the soil. At the same time, there was a group of biologists telling everyone that no, it’s not as simple as that. This argument might have continued for a rather long time, but then World War One happened, and the demand for explosives skyrocketed. Explosives are made of the same three chemicals that the chemists wanted us to use to fertilize crops (Remember Timothy McVey? He blew up that building with what was essentially a big bag of fertilizer.). So industry went into overdrive making the building blocks of explosives and fertilizer. By the end of the war, those chemicals were astonishingly cheap and easy to make, and much easier to spread on a field than manure-based compost. Farmers welcomed chemical fertilizer as a wonderful work-saver.

Those elements, alas, don’t occur in nature in a pure state; they have to be isolated from other elements, and this takes a lot of energy. Luckily for the chemical fertilizer industry, the petroleum industry was just getting started, and it was flooding the world with cheap energy.

See the problem?

In the early 70’s, the price of petroleum-based energy started going up, and since we needed a lot of that to make fertilizer, the price of crops started going up, too. By this time, Earl Butz was Nixon’s secretary of Agriculture. He decided that agriculture should follow an industrial model, and ought to be as efficient as possible. Each farm should raise one crop, and that crop should use all the available space. Butz wanted farmers to plant from fencerow to fencerow, and to “get big or get out.” He ended a previous subsidy program that paid farmers to let part of their land lie fallow, and created a new system that encouraged high production. The farmers had to get big if they wanted to keep farming. Many of them couldn’t get big enough, and were forced to get out.

What (Most) Farms Look Like Now

The long light-grey buildings are livestock confinements. The big dark-grey rectangles are waste lagoons.
The long light-grey buildings are livestock confinements. The big dark-grey rectangles are waste lagoons.

What Will We Do With All This Corn?

When you put chemical fertilizers on the soil, you can get away with not letting it lie fallow between plantings. Since you don’t need cows to graze (and supply manure), you can sell off your herd. Of course, now you need to buy your beef, milk, butter, cheese, etc. Since you don’t need your chickens to help break down your cows’ manure, you can sell off your flock. Of course, you now have to buy your chicken meat and eggs. You don’t need to let any of your land lie fallow, so you can plow it all and plant it all every year. And at the end of the season, you’ll have more corn than you know what to do with. Sounds great, but all of your fellow farmers have too much corn, too. Now corn prices have dropped so low as to make it nearly impossible to turn a profit, even if you sell your harvest to the people who are now raising beef, chicken, and pork at a different location. So now the government guarantees a certain price per bushel of commodity corn. If the market price drops below the threshold, the government will mail you a check for the difference. So it’s in each farmer’s immediate interest to produce more corn than can be consumed.

This keeps the price of corn artificially low, which makes it economically viable to feed it to cows, pigs, and chickens. This is great news for the farmers who decided to go into the meat business: they can now buy feed for their herds. Managed grazing is no longer necessary; the herds can move indoors. Meat farmers can get cheap corn to feed their herds, and this leads to cheap meat. Yes, crowded barns can be prone to disease, but we also have cheap antibiotics that the farmers use as a preventive measure.

Why Is This Bad for Farmers?

Well, in the short term, it’s not (as long as the farmer can produce a lot of corn or meat). But in the long run, it’ll be a disaster, because it depends on an unending supply of cheap oil.

Once upon a time, a farm could feed everyone on it plus produce enough extra food to sell in town for a profit. There was little or no waste; all the manure was reabsorbed into the land. Now, a farm can’t actually feed anyone. Commodity corn is inedible. On top of that, the fields are doused not only in chemical fertilizers (which need energy to make) but also chemical pesticides (which need energy to make). The corn itself may depend on a certain brand of pesticide to develop seeds (the part that eventually becomes food). The corn breeds that produce the highest yields are genetically engineered and patented, and it is therefore illegal for a farmer to save part of his crop to use as seed in the next season. Feed has to be transported great distances to the livestock (which requires energy), and the livestock’s highly concentrated manure must be transported (more energy) to the chemical factory to make fertilizer (more energy). On top of all this, the farmer has to feed himself and his family with food shipped in (more energy) from someplace else.

So now, rather than be as independent as it’s possible for a person to be in the modern world, the farmer is now dependent on the seed company, the chemical fertilizer company, the pesticide company, a government subsidy that keeps the price of corn artificially low, and government policies that keep the cheap oil flowing.

One very popular effect of this system is that the price of all food is kept down. But there are many less pleasant hidden side effects. These include chemical runoff from farm fields, toxic concentrations of manure, nasty smells from animal factories, antibiotic-resistant super-germs, and the need for military intervention to keep oil prices down.

If It’s So Bad, Why Doesn’t the Government Stop the Subsidies?

Well, remember how the government has been propping up the chemical companies and argi-business? Yeah, now the chemical companies and agri-businesses are incredibly wealthy. They have an army of lobbyists and make all kinds of strategic campaign contributions to keep lawmakers from doing anything to hurt their businesses. Small farmers don’t have such lobbying power.

What’s to be Done?

Well, we can do all kinds of things. We can write to our representatives in congress and tell them to oppose subsidies for commodity crops. But we can also raise gardens in our backyards. We can buy our food at our local farmers’ markets. We can refuse to buy genetically modified foods at the supermarket and insist that all GM food be clearly labeled as such. We can learn how to can vegetables from our garden. We can learn how to make our own cheese. We can learn to smoke meat. We can learn as much as we can about where our food really comes from and what happens to it along the way, and do what we can to break the cycle before we reach the point of no return.

Comments

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    • Jeff Berndt profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Berndt 

      6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Thanks for the kind words, Kitty. Most counties in the US have a farmers' market; you can get food from actual farms there. You can find the one closest to you at localharvest.org.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 

      6 years ago from Summerland

      Very interesting and true. It's very sad to see what farms have become, as they used to be such serene places. I lived on a farm for most of my life and it looked NOTHING like what most of them look like now. Thanks for writing this and keeping people aware.

    • Jeff Berndt profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Berndt 

      6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      "Even my farmer neighbors know that growing corn year after year on the same field is harming the soil yet they do it for the money. That's unfortunate."

      Indeed, especially when it's been demonstrated that it's possible to make money with a more sustainable model. But a lot of folks can't switch, because of the downtime required to convert from chemically-driven fertility to biologically-driven fertility. Make the switch and you'll probably lose money for a couple years. And then there's the fact that a biological farm requires sophisticated management--I don't think I could do it with what I know now. If I tried to start a farm, I'd certainly bollocks it up for the first few years.

      I'll have to content myself with supporting the farmers who are already doing it.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I'm old enough to remember when farms looked like the pictures of farms in children's storybooks (the only place you'll find them these days). The horrible side effects of factory farming aren't good for people or the environment.

      Unfortunately, too many consumers practice "ostrich logic" and bury their heads to avoid hearing or reading unpleasant truths about the food they consume. Lobbyists for agri-business ensure that no bills will harm their bottom line by contributing heavily to political coffers.

      It's disgusting, but you're right that there are a few things we can do. I routinely pester the hell out of my congressional reps about these issues, through writing, signing petitions and calling their offices. I search out organic farmers (too few in my state) at local farmers markets and freeze excess produce for out-of-season use. I boycott about 80% of the products in my local supermarket and continually tell the managers why I won't buy these things, so they consider me a "looney tree-hugger" and their eyes glaze over when they see me approaching, which bothers me not a whit.

      As for energy becoming more expensive, it appears to be doing that now. As this creates a crisis in food production, what will those "fools in Washington", as Davesworld calls them (and I tend to agree), do then?

    • Davesworld profile image

      Davesworld 

      6 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

      I understand the perils of monoculture. Even my farmer neighbors know that growing corn year after year on the same field is harming the soil yet they do it for the money. That's unfortunate.

      It is also something that is being encouraged by the fools in Washington - which I guess is the point of your hub. So we do not exactly disagree.

    • Jeff Berndt profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Berndt 

      6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      You're right, Davesworld, cheap energy is not in itself a bad thing. The problem is that we've allowed the cheapness of energy to let us remove livestock from the pasture (unhealthy for both the livestock and the people who eat it), and let us plant the same fields with the same crops year after year because chemical fertilizer is cheap and easy to use.

      If energy becomes more expensive (and it certainly will), we will not be able to quickly transition from the current industrial agriculture model to a more sustainable biological model because the chemically-treated fields are functionally sterile; they will need about five years to be able to produce anything like the yield that a managed pasture farm (like Joel Salatin's) can produce.

      I don't think it's a good idea to abandon all modern advances; diesel engines, electric fencing, etc are boons to agriculture. But feeding corn to cows is a bad idea for the land, the cows, and the people who eat them.

    • Davesworld profile image

      Davesworld 

      6 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

      Cheap oil is not necessarily bad when it come to agriculture. It wasn't too long ago that it took the efforts of 9 farmers to feed 10 people. Today with diesel equipment, 1 farmer can feed 100. That is a tremendous gain and not to be disparaged lightly.

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