During the 1980s farm crisis, an Iowa farmer asked if I knew the difference between a family farmer and a pigeon:
"A pigeon can still make a deposit on a new John Deere."
That's funny — except it really wasn't. Worse, the bitter reality of that joke remains true. The farm crisis hasn't gone away, though hundreds of thousands of farm families have. The economic devastation in farm country continues unabated as agribusiness profiteers, Wall Street speculators, urban sprawlers and corrupted political elites squeeze the life out of rural America.
During last year's presidential debates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton discussed the needs of hard-hit working-class families, veterans and coal miners, among others. But what about the multitude of producers who toil on our lands and waters to bring food to our tables? They went unmentioned, though economic and emotional depression continues to spread through their communities, thanks to bankruptcy-level prices paid by corporate middlemen. Farm income has declined steadily, plummeting 12 percent in just the last year.
The farmer has long been forgotten in America's presidential discussion. In a New York Times op-ed, Professor A. Hope Jahren reported that "Farm policy hasn't come up even once in a presidential debate for the past 16 years." She notes the monetary value of farm production alone is nearly eight times greater than coal mining, a declining industry whose voters Clinton and Trump avidly courted.
This disregard for farmers and food policy is politically inexplicable, considering food is far more than economics to people. Purchasing food has become a political act that takes into account cultural, ethical, environmental, and community values. This was confirmed last March in a national survey published by Consumer Reports, which showed huge support for local farms, reducing exposure to pesticides, protecting the environment and providing better living conditions for farm animals.
No matter what "We the People" want, most of the political class willingly surrenders farmers, and food itself, to industrial agribusiness.
The ongoing battle for our food future pits the agri-industrial model of huge-scale, corporate-run operations against the agri-cultural model of sustainable, community-based family farming. The big money is with the global goliaths of corporate ag, but the grip the giants once had on the marketplace has been slipping as consumers and farmers make clear they prefer non-industrial food.
The promised "miracle" of genetically altered crops, introduced in 1994 by Monsanto, turns out to have been ephemeral. The prices of corporate-altered seeds have skyrocketed, yields from those seeds haven't met expectations, planting GMO crops has forced farmers to buy more pesticides, and consumers overwhelmingly oppose GMO Frankenfoods. Thus, fewer farmers are using the biotech industry's product: US farmers cut their plantings of GMO crops by 5.4 million acres in 2015, and sales of GMO seeds fell by $400 million.
Not only does consumer demand for organically produced food keep going up, but such major producers as General Mills and Kellogg are switching to greater use of organic ingredients. As of last June, the number of America's certified organic farms was 14,979 (up by more than 6 percent from a year earlier), and sales of organic products rose by 11 percent to $43.3 billion in 2015, about four times more than the growth in conventional food sales.
This rise would have gone even higher, but the demand for organic is now outstripping the supply. Consumers clearly want to buy more, thus creating good opportunities for new organic farmers, and a bright future for agri-culture.