A wall that lasts requires the right amounts of brick AND mortar.
Photo: Asten

In his December 11 New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof makes his case for renaming the United States Department of Agriculture the Department of Food.

I guess agriculture has gone out of style.

Like the mythical manufacturer whose product proved to be so durable that he went out of business when people never needed to buy more than one, American farmers and ranchers have gotten to be too good at what they do.

Supplemented with the occasional import, American consumers of food no longer worry where their next meal will come from. We have food in such abundance that virtually no one is concerned about going hungry. It’s true, the food banks do a good business feeding the hungry, and enrollment for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches in our schools is increasing as rural poverty continues and more and more city dwellers lose their jobs, but we have no photographs here of swollen malnourished children like those in Somalia or Zimbabwe. That’s because in America, we shift the burden to those who can bear it. In other words, taxpayers foot the bill.

In America we are blessed with a wealth of land and resources that allow us to build a wall between our people and the worst ravages of hunger. But only a skilled mason can build a wall that lasts. A true craftsman knows that mortar and brick must be used in the proper proportions. Using too much of one or the other weakens the structure, shortens its lifespan, and renders it useless. A brick wall without mortar is nothing more than a pile of baked clay. Mortar gives bricks shape and purpose.

Like bricks and mortar our cities are bound together by the rural areas that separate them. Rural America binds the nation and gives it shape. It provides the basics of life to what is now mostly a corporate, urban workforce.

As Kristof points out in his article, food is important. But today’s food is largely the finished product of a corporate endeavor. The rudimentary beginnings of food are the products of a shadowy enterprise called agriculture. In days past, food was simply a product of farms. But today’s farms produce raw materials destined to be refined into what we now call food. Even a simple apple must be grown, harvested, wholesaled, handled, shipped, and retailed. Corporate food manufacturers bridle at the suggestion of Country of Origin Labeling based on their own estimates of the cost of compliance, but they think nothing of placing a sticky label on every individual apple sold in every grocery store nationwide. Food corporations spend billions on advertising to convince fickle consumers that their products are tasty and good but argue endlessly that mandatory labeling telling what the food consists of and where it came from is too expensive.

Most agriculture happens in rural America. To those of us who live between towns, agriculture and rural seem almost synonymous, but for people like Mr. Kristof, agriculture has become passé.

We are told that small farms serve the economy poorly. We supposedly drain the treasury of hundred dollar bills like the ones Mr. Kristof was paid for keeping his land in timber. (The payments came courtesy of Congress and USDA.) Presumably corporations do a much better job of producing the raw ingredients of food for city dwellers living in a fantasy world of food advertising, unaware of what came from where”¦ or whom. We can assume they would do much better on a diet of imported cadmium, melamine, and lead, provided the source and cost remain obscure.

After all, who needs American agriculture when the Third World has so much food to give?

Without a mandatory change in attitude, USDA by any other name would look pretty much the same. USDA has been a revolving door employer for special interest groups for years. When Anne Veneman took office as George W. Bush’s agriculture secretary, her first action was to set aside a producer referendum that repealed pork checkoff payments. (Clinton Ag secretary Dan Glickman had approved the vote.) Meat packers had so infiltrated leadership of the groups that represented rank and file producers that hog farmers no longer had a say in how their money was being spent. Disgruntled by corporate control of what they thought were voluntary contributions, hog producers voted to end their support. But upon taking office, Veneman ruled that the checkoff couldn’t be repealed by the people who implemented it in the first place. The voluntary contribution had become a federal tax.

Anne Veneman, George W. Bush’s first Ag Secretary.

Thus the checkoff tax was born, and lives today.

Mike Johanns followed Veneman at USDA in the Bush Administration. One of his final acts as Nebraska Governor, before stepping into Veneman’s place, was to support repeal of Initiative 300, Nebraska’s family-farm-friendly, anti-corporate farming law.

In the corporate world, people are a problem. It is a familiar scenario in our nation today, that people become a cost of production too great to bear. We are told we need corporate creation of jobs, but when workers do too well they are criticized for being the root cause of high costs and profit decline. The first action by corporations when profits decline is to furlough the work force. It’s not just General Motors, but even Bank of America that must fire tens of thousands supposedly in order to protect profits. For their clear vision, CEOs are then given million dollar bonuses by the same profit-challenged companies that just fired their workers. (Note to corporate boards: There are MBA’s in Mumbai who will work for pennies on the dollar.)

Family farmers work to achieve cost effectiveness through their own investment and longer hours. We utilize our families as workforce, never giving a thought to the cost of labor. For us, the ability to work together on our own farms is not a cost at all. It is a gift. Our work ethic is second to none. We do not willfully poison our produce. Our cost of labor is as low as we can take it, and if we have health care we pay for it ourselves just as we pay for our own retirement by investing in our farms. But to corporate overseers we are inefficient and an asset only when our own assets are up for grabs.

When Dwight Eisenhower first envisioned the Interstate Highway system we were a very different America. Small farms were everywhere. Eisenhower the general saw the strategic advantage of border-to-border, coast-to-coast highways; the benefits to business of having a transportation system second-to-none were also obvious. Eisenhower would be rolling in his grave if he knew that his road system was now a source of invasion as foreign goods surge along it in every direction. Our willingness to accept foreign products at virtually every border crossing seems questionable. Why do we ignore our own rural resources, choosing instead to bypass them with tractor-trailer mounted ocean shipping containers bound for American cities on General Eisenhower’s interstate highways? Why do we not see the value of mini-refineries for cellulosic ethanol, locally produced biodiesel from our own oilseeds, or meat and dairy products, all processed by new generation farmer cooperatives and rural entrepreneurial ventures?

Sooner or later America must come to terms with the fact that the mortar in the wall is crumbling. Allowing our (disintegrating) culture of business ethics to control rural America’s food resources won’t achieve goals of food safety or availability. Only a transparent system of domestic markets enforced both by existing laws, and new ones, ensuring that competitive markets exist for all American agricultural products, can deliver what the country really needs — food that is fairly priced and produced, safe, and abundant. At the same time we must address our rural infrastructure and jobs. There is work to be done.

Neither new names for old agencies nor catch phrases that inspire without giving direction will rebuild the wall that protects us from tainted food and famine.

What is called for is a new attitude that respects agriculture and rural America more than corporate documents, agreements built with paper and cemented with carefully chosen words.

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