The Future of Farming: Big, Small, or Practical?

In late 2013 and early 2014, journalists, pundits, and food activists lamented the woes of the “farm bill,”that every-five-or-six years episode of Capitol Hill wrangling and handwringing over subsidies, SNAP, food stamps, and milk supports (the arcana of which almost no one understands). While it’s easy to dismiss the squabbling as Beltway insider baseball, the debate over details stands as a proxy for a struggle over the future of American agriculture.

On one side of the conflict stand the members of Team Big. They support an “industrial” model of farming that includes large scale, specialization, and the use of technologies like concentrated agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs), specialized seeds, and genetically modified organisms.

On the other side stands Team Small: Reformers who argue that industrial agriculture is bad for people, animals, and the environment. They want to replace it with small-scale, family-owned-and-operated farms that rely less on “inputs” and more on nature and are oriented to local rather than national and global markets.

I’m not a betting woman, but if someone demanded my money or my life, I’d bet on Team Big. Not because I believe that the industrial model is inherently superior, but because Team Small’s boutique-like alternative ignores the structural and historical realities that the industrial model was designed to address. Yes, in our affluent society, there’s room aplenty for the niche agriculture favored by Team Small. But as a foundation for agriculture as a whole, history shows that it cannot succeed.

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For four centuries, domestic and global demand has shaped both the form and texture of American agriculture. Even in the earliest years of the colonial period, farmers strove to produce beyond subsistence, knowing that they could sell excess crops and meat in a global market. In the wake of the American Revolution, global opportunities expanded apace but farmers confronted a monumental new task: feeding a non-food-producing urban population. In 1820, only about seven percent of Americans lived in town; a century later, more than half did.

But the twentieth century delivered challenges that baffled even the savviest farmers. Urban growth continued apace; today nearly ninety percent of us live in cities. American harvests played a crucial role in geo-politics. A number of new economic sectors depended on agricultural products, not least the behemoth “food service” industry that emerged to supply hotels, hospitals, universities, airlines, and school systems. (Today Americans spend half their food dollars eating away from home.)

Ideas and tools that served agriculture in the nineteenth century proved useless in the twentieth. Worse, the nation’s farmers, their numbers dwindling by the decade, were hobbled by chronic labor shortages, the consequence of Americans’ preference for city life. As cities grew in both size and number, farmers competed for land with developers eager to build houses, highways, and hotels. Congress cobbled together a collection of “subsidy” programs, but those were not enough to address agriculture’s structural needs.

The turmoil prompted a prolonged national discussion about how to use government, science, and technology to help farmers serve the nation and the world. That discussion led Americans to what seemed then a logical solution: farmers should adopt the industrial, factory-like mode of production employed in other sectors of the economy. That model consisted of large scale, specialization, vertical and/or horizontal integration, automation, and any and all tools that science could supply.

Farmers obliged. Livestock producers, for example, coped with shortages of labor and land by moving cattle and hogs off expensive pasture and into confinement, using automation to feed and water their animals. Short-handed crop farmers trying to coax high yields from marginal lands turned to inputs such as commercial fertilizers, hybrid seeds, combines, and mechanical irrigation systems.

In the 1950s, Harvard agricultural economist John H. Davis coined the term “agribusiness” to describe the new agriculture’s intimate relationship to the rest of the economy. As a neutral descriptive, however, that word enjoyed a short history. In the early 1970s, rural activists inspired by Ralph Nader’s crusade against corporate power commandeered the term. In their hands, agribusiness was the enemy and the target of a crusade to combat [alleged] corporate control of agriculture.

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Today’s Team Small is the grandchild of that crusade. Like their activist ancestors, they regard corporations as the enemy. They reject the industrial model on grounds that small and “natural” is better for the environment, for our diets, and for the national soul. But Team Small’s proposals fail to acknowledge the ways in which agriculture anchors the economy as a whole or that industrial agriculture was born as a solution to real problems. Eliminate the model in favor of boutique farmsteads, and the loss will ripple through not just the U. S. economy, but the lives of those around the world who rely on the products from American farms.

We Americans enjoy the wisdom of a rich agricultural past. Historically, agriculture has attracted the nation’s best minds, men and women who eager to reinvent and reimagine the agricultural ideal. Our long commitment to agricultural productivity has also shaped national identity: We were the people who supplied beef to Europe after disease wiped out most of that continent’s cattle herd in the 1870s. We were the people whose grain helped end Asian famine in the 1890s. We were the people who fed millions around the world in the dark days that followed World War II.

And our ancestors’ willingness to re-imagine agriculture freed one generation after another to focus on education, manufacturing, and science. Today we enjoy the luxury of debating agriculture in part because we need not spend our days growing and processing food.

By all means, let’s ponder agriculture’s future. But let’s make sure that the discussion addresses the practical realities that farmers must face.

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About Maureen Ogle

Historian Author Ranter Idea junkie

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