When the price paid to farmers for hogs crashed to Depression-era lows a year ago, it was nothing less than cataclysmic for independent hog growers. Already pressured by the rapid expansion of large-scale corporate hog farms, many independents were unable to absorb the losses and left farming for good.
Even if you have sworn off bacon and have never been within smelling distance of a hog farm, these events are worthy of your interest and concern. This year has brought stress, upheaval, and economic disaster to many rural communities at a pitch to match the farm crisis of the ‘80s. Weather extremes have forced more farmers out of business. But the combined effects of low prices, corporate aggression in the marketplace, and public policy that often undercuts the smaller-scale farmer has taken the more serious toll.
Droughts and floods have always been part of the farmers’ burden. However, despite rumors to the contrary, neither the market nor public policy are forces of nature. Through legislative agendas and what we put in our shopping carts, we help create the shape of farming in the United States.
A majority of Americans are suburbanites and city-dwellers, and the majority of them have uninterrupted access to abundant and affordable food despite market and natural disasters. So why should we have a problem with the current direction of farm production?
Pastorally, the prevailing trends are putting tremendous stress—psychological, social, economic, and spiritual—on rural people and their communities. When a farmer goes out of business, he or she often loses not just a livelihood, but a lifelong calling. The local economy loses an active contributor. Lack of employment alternatives in many rural areas will force some farm families to relocate entirely. In some areas, corporate farming operations offer limited job opportunities. But because they are implicated in the difficulties of independent farmers, they also often bring conflict to towns and churches, with some people gladly taking the much-needed work and others trying to hold out or even organizing against the corporate farms.
Christians are called to care for those who are traumatized by the current farm crisis, as well as to seek justice and reconciliation. As Dan Ebener of the Catholic Diocese of Davenport (Iowa) puts it, churches need to "consciously align ourselves with the small- and medium-sized family farmers out of the preferential option for the poor."
THIS IS ALSO in our self-interest. The decline of small farms has environmental, health, and economic ramifications. The relentless advance of vertical integration—in which a handful of corporations own most agriculture production from research laboratory to field to store shelf—has intensified the push for biology to fit factory standards: Seed and animal hybrids are increasingly homogenized, animals in tight industrial confinement require large doses of antibiotics, and heavy chemical use is required to offset the soil-depleting effects of concentrated monoculture production. Manure spills from large corporate livestock operations have been linked to water contamination in several states.
Megascale farming is highly efficient by some calculations, but long-term costs—not just short-term profit—must be taken into account. Much research shows that encouraging biological diversity and a controlled use of chemicals is a vital part of achieving a viable environment and a sustainable, healthy food supply.
If you eat, breathe, or wear clothes, you are affected by the state of the nation’s agriculture. And there are ways to have an effect on it, in return.
At the local level, community-supported agriculture projects enable suburban or urban neighborhoods to directly support local farms financially in return for fresh produce. Several places in the United States are organizing to contain urban and suburban sprawl, another threat to small farmers. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference has a "green ribbon campaign," encouraging the wearing of a green ribbon to raise awareness of the farm crisis and show support for farmers. Coalitions of small farmers, environmental groups, and other citizens are working to regulate corporate farming in several states. Legislation has been adopted in states including Missouri, South Dakota, and Nebraska. At the national level, groups such as the National Family Farm Coalition are working to improve federal farm legislation, reform trade regulations, and call for better enforcement of anti-trust laws within the agriculture, food processing, and retailing industries.
Last, but not least: When you say grace before a meal, remember the ones given by God to bring us our daily bread.
JULIE POLTER is associate editor of Sojourners. The Center for Rural Affairs has information on farm issues ranging from action on national legislation to resources to support farmers in crisis, along with extensive listings of pertinent organizations nationwide. Contact them at (402) 846-5428; www.cfra.org; firstname.lastname@example.org. National Catholic Rural Life Conference, (515) 270-2634; email@example.com. National Family Farm Coalition, (202) 543-5675; firstname.lastname@example.org.