Back when I was a kid, in the ’50s, our large squirming family would drive the big station wagon from Twin Falls Idaho “back east” to see our parents’ folks and sibs in Wisconsin and Minnesota. On the way we drove through the plains states, and I got to feast my eyes on all the small farms, imagine myself there, in the barn yard, feeding the animals, listening to the wind, swinging on the tire suspended from the big tree in the front yard. This was before the interstate highway system was created, signed into law in 1956. So we were often on country roads.
Four summers ago, I attended the North American Permaculture Convergence, in southern Minnesota. On the drive up from southcentral Indiana, though I was on an interstate, I still got an eyefull of small farms; but this time, something was wrong, very wrong. Although many of the barns were collapsing, most of those farms still had standing structures, even some houses that looked recently painted! But: no animals, no farm machinery, no signs of the inherent messiness of farm life. Instead, a maintained lawn, and perhaps one car in the driveway — or not. The places looked dead.
The fields around the farms were still being planted, with what I have noticed for decades now, the usual wheat, corn and soybeans.
That was my introduction to just how much rural life has changed since I was young. It freaked me out, seeing all those empty out-buildings, sheds, corrals, garages, maybe a rusted plough — reminding me of nothing so much as a discarded movie set.
I’ve learned since that Big Ag indeed does rule in the heartland. That what small farmers are left — and they are mostly very old now — rent their fields to large corporations that can afford the fancy machinery it takes to farm thousands of acres. That farmers have died off, and their family land sold to developers, who turn it into lucrative small plots, for suburban housing. And so on. Thus continuing demise of the small farm in rural America.
Meanwhile, in this final phase of my long life, I have become a permaculturist, experimenting with the integration of social and land-based permaculture practices on a small urban village farm inside a suburban neighborhood in Bloomington, Indiana. We have received lots of rain this spring, just like everybody in this part of the world. And our newly planted veggies love all the attention they are getting, managing to grow strong and green despite sun filtered through the clouds and intermittent rain.
So nothing prepared me for what I discovered on a driving trip I took to Missouri, for a weeklong Sufi camp in the Ozarks. Not that I should have been surprised. I had been hearing about all the rain received by farmers across the midwest, how the soybean and corn plantings were, as a result, way behind. But nothing prepared me for the visuals — field after muddy field, some even with pooled water, and many with no winter cover crop, just bare soil, which was, no doubt, running off with each rain. (As a permaculturist, the sight of bare soil actually makes me wince!)
Here’s an article that talks about this situation, which, by the way, is ongoing, with no end in sight:
Of course, this kind of news intersects easily with the “conspiracy theory” called Weather Wars. True? I have no idea. There are lots of articles on this possibility out there as well.
All the time I was driving across this seemingly ruined land in Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, I imagined all these gigantic farms broken up and sold as small plots, where newly minted organic and permaculture farmers use regenerative practices to bring the land into much greater resilience during any kind of weather, given intensive gardening, stacking functions, a focus on diversified food crops that go direct to table in local communities. Instead, the corn and soy, when they do manage to get it in the ground, end up passing through manufacturing plants to come out as processed “food” and/or: passing through animal bellies to make them grow fast, so they can be killed, their carved up carcasses sent near and far, just like the “processed food,” through the interstate trucking system that was brand new back in the late 1950s when farms were still small..
That’s what I kept seeing: giant farms carved up into tiny farms, or maybe even tiny farms surrounding a commons area, with local businesses, etc. I just can’t help but see this way. It’s been in my blood ever since I took that permaculture design class and realized that yes, permaculture is the hope of the future, that we can save the world through the establishment of intensively cultivated small farms everywhere. All environments can be remediated. There is no desert too dry, no mountainside too steep, to not respond to intensive permaculture practices.
But how to get from here to there? And how to realize the type and nature of the obstacles standing in our way?
It seems to me that the extreme conditions of this spring might be the “springboard” to help the greater pubic understand how important it is to actually change the way we farm, if we wish to preserve our ability to produce food, given the extremes of climate change. And that, of course, this idea goes along with the ideas of farm-to-table, local food, circular economy, and so on, all of which have come into the public consciousness over the past few years.
A facebook thread by my niece, and new northern Indiana farmer, Megan Assaf, struck me, and got me going further. Here it is in part, with her kind permission:
So, thanks to Megan’s nudge, I started investigating further, and though I’m no Corey Lynn (of coreysdigs) I did spend an hour or two digging. Came up with several very interesting perspectives.
I discovered that the major move to increase farm size came in the early 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, and his motto, “Get Big or Get Out.”
The percentage of Americans who live on a farm diminished from nearly 25% during the Great Depression to about 2% now, and only 0.1% of the United States population works full-time on a farm. As the agribusiness lobby grows to near $60 million per year, the interests of agricultural corporations remain highly represented. In recent years, farm subsidies have remained high even in times of record farm profits.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that those subsidies are going to the larger farmers more than the smaller ones, and that corn and soy and wheat are the major crops, relegating vegetables and fruit to mere “specialty crops” (!), due in part to subsidies. Here’s an informative graphic on Illinois corn put out by www.agintheclassroom.org that, at least to me, speaks volumes:
Plus, and here’s a very informative post, discussing how the farm “subsidies” are mostly laundered through insurance companies now, which means that we don’t get to see who actually is getting the subsidies!
Meanwhile, just to prove the point, Forbes counsels its wealthy readers to farm the land around their country mansions . . .
I’ m surprised to see that Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is on to this issue, and wants to Level the playing field for America’s Family Farmers Good!
Finally, here are two articles that fill me with visions of the kind of future we do want to see, where all the world’s landmasses are intensively cultivated where appropriate, in a decentralized, networked manner, by all sorts of people, helping each other and learning from Mother Nature both how to care of our planetary home and participate in her generous abundance.