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EXCERPT | On Farms and Rural Communities by Jerry Apps

A Broken Food System


America, from its earliest settlement days, has depended

on its rural acres and their farmers to feed the nation.

As we think of the future of rural America, we must

also consider the future of agriculture because rural

America and agriculture have long been linked

together. Providing a ready supply of safe, healthy

food has long been the goal of rural America and

its many farms. But because of the mantra “bigger is

better,” and because of national and often local pol-

icies that encourage industrial-size agriculture, the

number of farms has decreased dramatically since

1935 when the number was at its highest. As noted

earlier, in 1935 the US had 6.8 million farms; in 2021

it had just over 2 million farms. With farm numbers

declining, existing farms became larger; the average

size farm in 1935 was 155 acres, in 2020 it was 444.45.


Although other job opportunities exist in rural

communities, agriculture and food production are

uniquely rural. Agricultural rural areas are largely found

in the heartland but also include much of the remainder

of the country. One of the major challenges facing agri-

culture is the concentration of production, processing,

and distribution of agricultural products in but a few

huge corporations. As a Center for American Progress

writer stated, “Bold policy solutions are needed to tackle

corporate concentration and power, empower farmers

to negotiate fair prices, and ensure that farmers receive

a fair share of the fruits of their labor.”


When Industrial-Size Agriculture Began


Starting in the 1970s, and with the encouragement of

such politicians as Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz,

who said to US farmers, “Get bigger or get out,” we

began to see the development of industrial-size agri-

culture. Farms got larger and farmers’ debts greater.

Corn and soybeans became popular crops for this

new industrial agriculture. Dairy, poultry, beef, and

hogs became part of huge industrial-size operations.

Soon mega-agribusiness firms emerged to the

point that by 2020 a high percentage of the following

agriculture sectors were controlled by as few as four

corporations: beef processing: 85 percent; soybean

processing, 80 percent; pork processing, 67 percent;

and chicken processing, 54 percent.47 Four interna-

tional firms control more than 60 percent of global

proprietary seed sales.


Food Systems and Rural America


In 2019, writer Austin Frerick interviewed an official

of the Iowa Farm Bureau, and from that interview

wrote these comments:64 On Farms and Rural Communities

The outlook for rural communities is grim. There

are fewer jobs than there were a generation ago

and the ones that remain pay lower and lower

wages. America’s agricultural system is predi-

cated on an extractive model, where more and

more of the profits flow to a few. If current trends

continue, rural America will soon be owned by

a handful of families and corporations who will

run their empires remotely with driverless trac-

tors and poorly paid staff. . . . Economic power

is more concentrated today than at any other

point in American history, and nowhere is this

power more apparent than in agriculture. The

American food supply chain—from the seeds we

plant to the peanut butter in our neighborhood

grocery stores—is concentrated in the hands of a

few multinational corporations.


Another writer, in 2021, challenged the assessment

that the natural order of things in American agri-

culture was industrial farming and that multinational

market domination would continue. Today’s agricul-

ture “didn’t grow out of consumer demand for fair and

competitive markets. Industrial agriculture is propped

up by a vulnerable business model that has publicly

failed. It owes its entire existence to individual actors—

at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), in

finance sectors, in Congress, and certainly at the White

House—all who made specific, intentional decisions

to promote it [industrial agriculture] as the future of

agriculture.”


Critics of Industrial-Size Agriculture


Critics of industrial-size agriculture have had dif-

ficulty being heard, and if heard at all, dismissed as

old-school and not up-to-date with what is happen-

ing in the world. Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer

and author, is one of those who has stood up to indus-

trial agriculture and its ultimate, negative effects

on communities, farmers, farm families, and the

environment. Berry is a proponent of agrarianism.

He writes about a fundamental difference between

industrialism and agrarianism.


“I believe that this contest between industrialism

and agrarianism defines the most fundamental human

difference, for it divides not two nearly opposite

concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two

nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves,

our fellow creatures and our world.” Berry goes on

to say, “Because industrialism cannot understand liv-

ing things except as machines, and can give them no

value that is not utilitarian, it conceives of farming

as forms of mining; it cannot use the land without

abusing it. . . . Industrialism begins with technological

invention. But agrarianism begins with givens: land,

plants, animals, weather."


I bring back Aldo Leopold, whose land ethic ap-

proach challenges industrial-size agriculture, which

appears to see money and profits as important above

all other considerations.


“Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an

economic problem. Examine each question in terms

of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as

what is economically expedient. A thing is right when

it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty

of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends

otherwise.”


Pre-order your copy of On Farms and Rural Communities: An Agricultural Ethic for the Future by Jerry Apps below.





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