the nation’s secretary of agriculture says that rural areas are
“irrelevant,” it’s time to take a long look at how we treat people in
the hinterlands and what that means for the food we are offered in our
The people can overcome the wealth and power
of the few, when they vote intelligently in the interests of all.In
the past week, Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Obama Administration’s point
man in dealing with farm and food issues, told a gathering in
Washington sponsored by the magazine Farm
that rural America is becoming “less and less relevant.” He attributed
that, to some degree, to the shrinking population of the countryside,
with people moving to cities and suburbs.
is a mass movement that has occurred over several decades, since family
farmers and other rural people have moved, looking for work. There is a
parallel in developing countries which have suffered from the
urbanization of their populations. Along with that movement have come
all the social and economic problems that are found there: not nearly
enough jobs (but that means that people will work for very low wages),
nowhere near enough decent housing that can be paid for by low-wage
workers, increase in some kinds of crime, and other social disruptions.
These conditions are especially hard on those who try to keep their
knows that for decades, the warning to family farmers has been “get big
or get out.” Now we know that they meant it. The move to industrial
agriculture at the expense of small farm agriculture has been
intentional and inexorable. The food system that has resulted is based
not on food, but on “commodities.” That is, much of what passes for
food today is from the major commodities, corn, wheat, and soybeans.
Literally, our “food scientists” can make these commodities taste like
actual food. And they do it, not by growing the food in the soil, but
in the laboratories.
They are no match for the power and money of the “energy extraction” industry.Meantime,
family farmers (and there is a growing number of them on very small
farms) are growing food and developing ways to get that food to the
eaters of the nation, in villages, suburbs, and in the big cities.
Still, they make up only a small proportion of all that is purchased
and eaten on a daily basis in the U.S. The proportion is growing every
year, but it is still small.
is a simple reason for the depopulation of rural America. The loss of
small farm agriculture has had a deleterious effect on local economies.
Small farms might have employed one or two hired hands at full time,
but their generation of economic activity in their local communities is
much greater than one would expect. Forty small farms in a rural town
were the foundation of the local economy, not only for the workers they
hired directly, but also for the implement dealers, parts stores,
hardware stores, feed stores, schools, churches, and all of the other
aspects of a healthy community. That’s gone.
35 of those small farms are forced out, some of the land they occupied
might be picked up by the remaining five farms, but not all of it. But
the remaining farms are bigger and likely use much larger equipment and
they don’t have the need for as many workers. Generally then, the local
economy declines. The reason for encouraging this kind of arrangement
is “economy of scale,” and this has been pushed over decades by many,
including federal and state governments, giant agribusiness, and the
land grant universities.
policies could have been written, and probably have been, by the giant
agricultural conglomerates in Corporate America. We live in a time when
a very few corporations control our supply of food, including dairy,
meat, pork, poultry, as well as the various grains, which the food
scientists turn into the products offered in supermarkets. It is not
just the banking and financial systems that are controlled by
monopolies; it is also the food we depend on for our daily sustenance.
The emphasis is on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, huge tracts of land, monoculture, and cheap labor.The
takeover of our food system by corporations has happened over some
decades and largely out of sight of the American people, who have been
very much urbanized or suburbanized since World War II. They have
tended to think about their lives in the cities or suburbs and very
little of that has had anything to do with farming or agriculture. So,
it has been a surprise to many to find out who controls food…and how
few are those who do the controlling. There are still millions who
haven’t gotten the word, but they are learning.
illustration of that learning process was the ballot initiative in
California, Proposition 37. The bill that would have required foods
containing any genetically modified components to be labeled as such.
It was a fight between the people who wanted GMO labeling and the
industry, which poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaign
and defeated the proposition. Agribusiness outspent proponents 5-1 and
the money came from some of the biggest corporations, in large amounts.
America is producing commodities and food (fruits and vegetables) that
are coming out of an industrial agricultural model. The emphasis is on
chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, huge tracts of land
(suitable for large machinery that is likely never fully paid for),
monoculture, and cheap labor. Farm workers are at the bottom of the
wage scale, unless they are young and can keep up a grueling piecework
pace, which doesn’t last for long in a working life.
The move to industrial agriculture at the expense of small farm agriculture has been intentional and inexorable.The
food so produced contains large amounts of corn, corn sugars, soy and
soy products, and lots of salt. And, most of the corn and soy grown in
the U.S. are genetically modified (GM), so it is hard to get food that
does not contain such products. Companies like Monsanto, the chemical
and seed giant, own patents on the GM seeds and that gives them
overwhelming power in the marketplace of food and agriculture (cotton
for cottonseed oil, canola for oil, and sugar beets also have been
genetically modified), and attempts are made every year to introduce
more plants that can be genetically manipulated and, thus, patented, so
the big corporations gain more profits and greater control of our food
there is a debate on the issue of GM foods, the debate is still quite
one-sided, with the advertising, public relations, and propaganda on
the side of the agribusiness corporations. Even the press often derides
supporters of GMO labeling as “hysterical” over the issue. The frantic
behavior of the corporations who want to keep GMOs label-free is not
termed hysteria. It should be noted that Vilsack, the former governor
of Iowa, is a long-time proponent of GMO crops and foods.
secretary in his speech to rural interests pointed out rural America’s
greatest assets: the food supply, recreation, and energy. While those
may be assets for some to celebrate, there are problems. First, there
is a struggle over the food supply and whether farmers or commodity
growers using the industrial model will produce it. Second, recreation
in rural areas is under threat by development, industrial agriculture,
and by the third asset, energy. There is a frenzy to get the remaining
oil and gas out of shale formations that occur in much of the U.S.
“energy companies” see profits and tell farmers and forest owners that
they are “sitting on a gold mine,” that their land is atop vast oil and
gas reserves. Getting it out of the ground is where the problems start.
Horizontal hydrofracturing (“fracking”) is the latest technology for
doing so. In many states, across the country, people feel the damage
has been done. There is contaminated water, toxic gases in the air,
people near drilling pads and pipelines are sickened, and there is air
pollution and disruption of community life. The drilling industry
assures the people that they are not to blame, and that gas and oil are
“clean” sources of energy. “Fracking” entails pumping millions of
gallons of potable water, mixed with a secret chemical combination and
sand, under high pressure, to break up the rock a mile or two below the
surface, in order to release the gas or oil.
of fracked communities see things very differently. They see the
complete disruption of their towns and villages and they see real
danger to their health, the health of their families, to their friends
and neighbors, and to the land and water. Their side of the story is
getting out, but they are no match for the power and money of the
“energy extraction” industry, whose advertisements show bucolic scenes
of farms and small-town life in America.
may be right about rural America no longer being relevant. In fact, it
has been made irrelevant, just as so many of American cities have been
made irrelevant and left to decay (think Detroit, the once great
industrial city that was the fourth-largest in the U.S., and all of the
smaller industrial cities in the “rust belt”). These things did not
happen by accident. They have been the products of Corporate America’s
“industrial policy,” which has been carried out by politicians, who
have done the bidding not of the people, but of a small cadre of
have been left stranded to try to survive on their own as a result of
these corporate policies (cut and run to low-wage countries for
virtually every manufactured product), but the rural areas are still
useful for some things and one of them is the exploitation of natural
resources: mountaintop removal for coal, clear cutting of forests for
toilet paper and paper towels, and destructive fracking for the oil and
gas in the shale deposits around the country. These corporations and
many politicians know this kind of extractive, unsustainable activity
must come to an end at some time in the near future. It’s either that,
or the end of life as we know it on Planet Earth.
who know what is happening are too afraid to tell the American people
that the way of life they have had since the end of World War II needs
to change profoundly. Rather, they are pretending that the wasteful and
unsustainable way of life will go on forever. It can’t and it won’t.
then, we can hear from various officials about the parts of the nation
that are “irrelevant,” which, of course, means that the people who live
there are irrelevant. Those of us who have been designated “irrelevant”
need to join together and start making the changes that need to be made.
we saw in the November presidential election, the people can overcome
the wealth and power of the few, when they vote intelligently in the
interests of all. The people are the 98 percent and, in solidarity,
they can accomplish much, even if someone thinks they don’t matter.
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter
and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State.
In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they
struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food
producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.