Little Cogs In an Industrial Ag Machine

By LaVon Griffieon

The combines are rolling through the fields in my neighborhood this week. Large tractors are pulling loaded grain carts and wagons. Straight trucks and an occasional semi roar past on the dusty gravel road outside my home. Some are headed to the grain elevator with golden shelled grain, others to a farm storage bin.

I remember hauling in my first load of corn when I was eight years old. I was proud as a peacock to be driving our John Deere A with a wooden wagon filled with ear corn trailing behind. I remember "singing" at the top of my lungs. I wanted to be sure that every neighbor in earshot would notice my new position as a tractor driver as I passed by on the road. I reflect on that as my 10-year-old daughter lounges in front of the TV. There's no room in today's agriculture for a little girl to have a role in the harvest anymore.

In 1979, US Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland initiated a study of the structure of agriculture. When Secretary Bergland's report, "A Time to Choose," was published, it warned that "… unless present policies and programs are changed so that they counter, instead of reinforce or accelerate the trends towards ever-larger farming operations, the result will be a few large farms controlling food production in only a few years."

Looking back it is evident that the warning was not heeded. In 1998 US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman initiated a study of the structure of agriculture in America. Secretary Glickman's report, "A Time to Act," stated, "The pace of industrialization of agriculture has quickened. The dominant trend is a few large, vertically integrated firms controlling the majority of food and fiber products in an increasingly global processing and distribution system. If we do not act now, we will no longer have a choice about the kind of agriculture we desire as a nation."

That statement was made nearly five years ago. What are we doing to ensure that the tradition of small farms being passed to the next generation is going to continue? I was taken aback a few weeks ago as a guest speaker at a Sunday school class. During the discussion about the decline of rural America as a key factor in rural church closings, one participant pointed out that farmers continue to buy the biggest and most modern equipment and the cost is astronomical. He questioned what motivation, besides total self-indulgence, would explain such behavior.

That was my opportunity to point out that every citizen in America has a vote, at least three times a day, as to what type of agriculture we desire as a nation. Every time we make a food purchase, whether at the grocery store, a restaurant or the school concession stand, our money is supporting some type of agriculture. If we prize industrialized agriculture and large factory farms we will continue to purchase processed convenience foods of unknown origins and questionable quality. If we value our rural communities and the folks who work the land we will make an effort to purchase food grown by individuals and processed locally.

Finding locally grown and processed food will require some research and education. Chain grocery stores and supercenters aren't going to feature locally grown foods. Taking the time to request and shop for locally grown and processed food from grocers and restaurants that you patronize is an important step. It can help local farmers establish the market they need to stay in business without having to embrace industrial agriculture. Two hundred eighty-eight million mouths in America have an opportunity to support family farms and local food systems that are environmentally sound and health promoting become an economically viable reality. Thinking about your diet over the past week can determine which type of agriculture you are presently supporting.

Industrialized agriculture was not brought to us by farmers or their lust for big shiny equipment. It was brought to us by federal agriculture policy. By naming it "The Farm Bill" the legislation seems to be targeted at the 2% of Americans living on farms. This subtly removes it from the radar screens of the other 98% who may recognize the importance of a "Food Bill." Simply because of the name, very few people know that the legislation funds school lunches, food stamps, the inspection of meat and a myriad of other programs. The bill impacts lives each day in every city and county in America. If the American public had a greater awareness of ag policy, there would be far more scrutiny about what the policy promotes. We are all, often unknowingly, little cogs in the industrial ag machine. However, each one of us has the power, three times a day, to change that grim reality.

LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa, a group that promotes responsible land use. She is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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