Agriculture sustains us, conditions our bodies, and shapes—even manufactures—our environments. Driving the American highway system, one is easily struck by the omnipresent nature of industrial agriculture over the countryside. Simultaneously, the production and externalities of agricultural products are alienated from us when we go to a grocery store or purchase dinner from a local restaurant. As such, we find ourselves in a paradox, where our food system is both visible and hidden.
Over the two months interviewing farmers, I gathered that one step forward toward feeling less alienated from our food system is to listen to the stories of producers. “You are what you eat,” the idiom goes. Getting to hear the stories of farmers, in this sense, is a means of getting to know oneself.
The interviews each held their own set of unique characters particular to that individual and the crops or animals of their business. Their life histories, taken together, define several themes of contemporary American agriculture. They outline paths forward and pose questions that we need to answer if we are to succeed in building a new system.
Solutions With and Without Will
Across my interviews, I discussed many of the problems facing American agriculture. Whether the topic was climate change or the development of a healthier, sustainable agricultural system, all the farmers put forth solutions. Dave Bishop proposed regenerative agriculture as a means of building new relationships with the land that can restore its ecological integrity and leave our bodies healthier. Cathe Capel argued for multi-use city planning to invite agriculture into more diverse landscapes and into our communities. The result, stronger local communities and less wasteful consumption. Lisa Mileur called for governmental support in researching resilient fruit so that small orchards like hers can survive the 21st century. Jack Erisman pointed to the necessity of changing the culture of agriculture. That is, a change from viewing conventional methods as absolute and unimpeachable.
Where Does the Will Come From?
What all these solutions have in common is that they come down to will. Dave Bishop can teach you about how to run a sustainable, organic farm, but his vision competes with that of Cargill, Bayer, and Tyson. Not just in the fields, but also in the halls of congress and at the universities where regenerative agricultural programs exist alongside research sponsored by the above corporations.
However, where does the will come from? The common theme in these interviews is that it comes from people—the people who are tired of the dominant system and are ready for something different. It comes from a new generation of farmers who are ready to chart a path forward and fight the necessary uphill battle. Indeed, there is indication that the tides are turning. The “big boss,” as Dave Bishop labeled consumer demand, is changing things up. The more consumers shop at farmers markets and buy organic produce at the store, the more the wheels of capitalism move towards something new.
Is Consumer Demand Enough?
At the same time, is changing consumer demand sufficient? As my interview with Jack Erisman brought up, when consumer demand for organic products goes up, so does the corporate influence on the organic market, and with that has come dubious results. For example, the use of organic as a marketing gimmick rather than a real commitment to a sustainable future and healthier living. Consequently, the system is plagued with cheaters and poor government oversight by the USDA, which has historically been led by those close to the big ag lobby.
Dave Bishop pointed to the repeal of Citizens United to stop nearly unlimited corporate financing of US elections. However, this path resides squarely in the realm of the political. At that, in the most intractable depths of American politics in the hall of Congress and the Supreme Court. It suggests that meaningful and ultimate success in reforming the agricultural sector needs to be engendered by some type of mass politics that has the power to change these institutions. If 21st century agriculture needs to change its culture, as Jack Erisman argued, it seems so does the culture of our politics.
Interconnection and Interdependence
To say that the economy and the environment reciprocally shape one another is hardly maverick. In American history, events like the Dust Bowl reveal this in dramatic ways, but one could just as easily turn to the Gulf of Mexico where oil refinement is rapidly wasting away coastal wetlands. The relationship between the economy and the environment is both determinative and socially constructed.
Agriculture provides a forceful example of this relationship. In the case of Lisa Mileur, bad weather, the kind associated with the future of climate change, has reduced their peach crop by 87%, which decimates their profitability. However, the environment does not just shape and condition Mileur Orchard; the relationship is mutually constitutive. If farms like Lisa and Howard Mileurs’ go away, new systems and new relationships with the environment replace them. Instead of trees capturing carbon, the Mileurs’ farm becomes another tract of monoculture soybean and corn riddling the environment with pollutants and degrading the soil.
The existence of predominantly monoculture and industrial farms in the American countryside is socially constructed—it is the product of choice. To support Mileur Orchard is a consumer choice, but to not invest in the necessary infrastructure to ensure its survival is a policy choice. To lay the infrastructure for a new generation of farmers to enter the industry and succeed at doing anything but conventional agriculture is a policy choice as well. Issues like universal healthcare and student loan debt, normally not conceived as agricultural issues, become realized when these forces scare away the Lisa Mileurs, the Dave Bishops, the Jack Erismans, and the Cathe Capels of the future.
The issue of scale came up in all the interviews, but especially in those of Cathe Capel and Lisa Mileur. In Cathe’s operation, the size of her sheep farm made her dependent upon middlemen to bring her wool to market. In the case of the Mileurs, their size limits the ability for them to afford things like crop insurance and the pressure of large operations make it harder for them to stand out at farmers markets. The issue with scale is that, as Jack Erisman pointed out, this system favors the biggest and those that have the most, regardless of their quality or adherence to principles.
Thus, scale raises several problems. How does our society support and expand local farming considering the problems of scale? If society constructs a mostly organic agricultural system, how can the system avoid favoring the few instead of the many?
Necessity of Pragmatism
In my interview with Cathe Capel, she insisted that whatever solutions arise to address the manifold problems facing US agriculture, conventional farmers need to be part of the solutions. Approaching agriculture with a black and white lens will only serve to divide people when the work should be to bring everyone together. Issues like climate change, economic inequality, environmental degradation, and political corruption are such large issues that nothing short of broad, inclusive organizing will be sufficient to tackle these problems.
Some farmers, for example, may be skeptical about the science of climate change. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop them from caring deeply about their land and wanting to restructure agrarian policy in a way more favorable to people besides those who already have more than enough. It is through commonality that a necessary pragmatic approach to changing our agricultural system must proceed.
More Farmers at Large
A central lesson from the interviews is the necessity and value of hearing from farmers. Their stories, philosophies, and policy prescriptions are products of experience. They represent the perspectives of people on the ground actively shaping our food system through their ingenuity, determination, and hard work.
The argument of Farmers at Large is that more farmers at large are needed. The current model of food consumption is geared toward passivity. Creating spaces where consumers have opportunities to see production and to ask about their food leads to active and informed consumption. As all the interviews pointed to, educated consumers are a necessary ingredient for the future success of local and sustainable food systems. Discovering more about our food systems and the producers at its heart, empowers consumers with the clarity to strive for something better.
In case you missed the previous the previous parts of Farmers at Large: