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EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year Routledge publishers reissued Dirt Rich, Dirt Poor: America’s Food and Farm Crisis. This 1986 book was the work of a group of advocates from the Institute for Policy Studies, World Hunger Year (now WHY Hunger), and the Food Research and Action Center. This article is adapted from a new preface to the reissued 2019 edition.
When Dirt Rich, Dirt Poor was first published in 1986, the country was in the midst of a deep farm crisis. Much has changed in the food system of the United States since then, but much also remains the same.
Many of the problems, but also the successes, have persisted, and public policy solutions are still needed to achieve widely supported goals for food and agriculture.
Basic goals for the U.S. food system, as set out in the introduction to the original book, remain vitally important: an abundant, healthy, reasonably-priced, and nutritious food supply; adequate food aid for low-income Americans; business success and income stability for the farmer; economic justice for food industry and farm workers; farm production mainly by small- and moderate-sized family operations; agricultural and food system practices that conserve resources and protect the environment; and steps to combat world hunger and malnutrition.
In attempting to pursue these goals, both then and now, it’s crucial to recognize that political forces often seem to be aligned against needed reforms and successful programs. These forces still need to be resisted.
Farming is still a difficult business, even if your government isn’t starting tariff wars that will hurt you economically and extreme weather disruption caused by climate change is not flooding or parching your land.
As agriculture becomes more economically concentrated, the number of farms in the U.S. continues to decline – from 5.65 million in 1950 to 2.43 million in 1980, 2.15 million in 2010, and 2.04 million in 2017.
Research has shown repeatedly that rural communities and economies are healthier when they have a larger number of small-to-moderate sized family farms, as opposed to mega farms and large corporate operations. Yet federal farm programs are still oriented toward the largest producers, with weak or nonexistent limitations leading to taxpayer-subsidized consolidation and fewer new farming opportunities.
At the same time, however, sustainable agriculture and organic farming have grown in acceptance and practice. When Dirt Rich, Dirt Poor was published, organic food production and consumption with sustainable methods were emerging ideas.
But today almost every grocery chain offers organic food products. Whole Foods is a very popular and successful example. The U.S. in 2016 had over 14,000 certified organic farms, a 56 percent increase since 2011. But the nation still has fewer than 5 million certified organic farm acres, which is less than 1 percent of all acreage in agriculture.
Interest in sustainable farming is growing. When the book was first published, for instance, cover cropping and diverse rotations were primarily the domain of sustainable and organic agriculture pioneers. Fast forward to today, and while still small as a percentage of total cropland acres, interest in cover cropping has spread far into the conventional agriculture world, with a discernible trend toward greater interest in regenerative crop and livestock practices.
Food programs for low-income Americans have expanded and are more important than ever. But those programs are also under almost constant attack. The Food Stamp Program became the Special Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008. Participation in the program has grown sharply, from 19.4 million people in 1986 to 40.3 million in 2018. But that latter amount is down from a peak of 47.6 million in 2014, according to the USDA’s SNAP National Level Annual Summary of 2019.
This program – and other related programs such as school lunches and breakfasts and nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) – have been successes and are still very much needed.
Yet, before they were rebuffed, huge proposed cuts in food programs nearly doomed passage of the 2018 farm bill. This continues, with Donald Trump’s federal budget proposals for fiscal 2021 calling for SNAP spending cuts of $182 billion over the next decade.
World hunger and malnutrition also continue at crisis levels in many regions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that in 2017 there were more than 820 million people worldwide suffering from chronic hunger. Stunted growth affects an estimated 150 million children under the age of five, while at the opposite extreme more than 670 million adults are obese. The FAO also finds in its 2018 food-security report that climate change and extremes are key reasons for recent increases in global hunger. In sub-Saharan Africa about 23 percent of the population is undernourished. In Southern Asia that figure was 11.5 percent in 2016, and in Latin America it was 5.6 percent in the same year, according to the World Hunger Education Service.
Perhaps a useful reference point – and a vehicle for both good and bad policy on food and agriculture – is the “farm bill” noted above. Despite its name, this massive legislation is broader, covering most of the issues laid out in this book. First enacted in 1933 — and for the past five decades redone every four to five years — the latest farm bill was passed by Congress and signed into law in December 2018.
In the view of many experts and advocates, the legislation has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the bill included important support for beginning farmers and sustainable agriculture. The final legislation also left out controversial work requirements for SNAP recipients that had caused earlier versions of the bill to fail. The largest dollar amounts in the farm bill go to SNAP and other domestic food assistance programs.
On the negative side, the legislation failed to cap farm program payments and crop insurance subsidies to the largest producers. Instead, Congress expanded the loopholes to allow more distant family members to receive multiples of the current $125,000 payment limit while failing even to allow votes on capping crop insurance subsidies. The bill also failed completely to address the rising economic concentration that is squeezing farmers and harming rural communities.
The ink on the 2018 Farm Bill was barely dry before the administration had ramped up its tariff war, with huge negative implications to the commodity segment of the farm economy dependent on exports. In order to try to secure the continued political support of the farm sector, the White House spent an unprecedented $28 billion on farm payments and purchases, above and beyond the regular farm bill safety net programs, to bail out the farm economy from the worst effects of the trade war.
In doing so, it also disregarded the farm bill’s income test and payment limits, ensuring the further concentration of subsidy payments to the very largest commodity farms in the country.
Perhaps in reaction to these abuses and general frustrations with current policies, the farm and food policy platforms issued by candidates for the presidency in early 2020 have included some of the most far-reaching reform proposals in quite some time, promising an interesting campaign ahead.
For those wishing to follow these issues, several expert organizations are – (1) On agriculture and environmental issues, the Center for Rural Affairs (cfra.org), the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (sustainableagriculture.net). (2) On U.S. food assistance, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org) and the Food Research and Action Center (frac.org). And (3) on world hunger and international issues, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (fao.org) and WhyHunger (whyhunger.org).
Joe Belden is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C. Previously he worked for nonprofits and in government on rural and agricultural issues.
Ferd Hoefner is senior strategic advisor to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a 100+ grassroots group alliance involved in progressive farm and food policy reform where he served as national policy director for many decades.