Why the Department of Agriculture no Longer Supports Actual Agriculture
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
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.
Contains many suggestions for improving our food security situation.