RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Remember Al and the Facts

A couple of columns ago, I mentioned the “Green Revolution,” and how the universities figured out they could get rid of nitrogen stockpiled for bombs after the war by applying the nitrogen to farm fields. “Good grief,” wrote a reader in an e-mail, “what do you mean?”

The nitrogen buildup was during World War II, but the reader guessed that I was talking about the Vietnam War. His questions made me realize that we need a little history. That, in turn, sent me thumbing through my copy of The Corporate Reapers, the 1992 classic by Al Krebs.

Just a few days later, I learned that Krebs had just died.

So, now, a little salute to Al, and then a little history.

Al was born in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1932, son to a chief electrician for the movies and a mom who made braided rugs for film celebrities. He couldn’t have been farther from corn country and, according to farm activist Heather Gray, he began his journalism career covering the L.A. sports scene. He was one of those sports fans who knew all the statistics of every player.

Always interested in social justice, he was an active part of the Catholic church and Catholic Worker movement, and after covering sports, he began to freelance and in 1964 hooked up with Caesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. When he transferred that amazing memory for statistics to work in social justice, the payoff was phenomenal.

Before Al Krebs, nobody had really tracked the numbers of how agriculture was affecting workers as it was industrialized. Al’s work paved the way for future researchers, activists and, as he might say, Calamity Howlers. We should all howl so effectively about the calamities. Silence, to Al, in the face of injustice, is a failing.

He worked with the National Sharecroppers Fund, then with Jim Hightower’s Agribusiness Accountability Project, then with many consumer action and food policy groups. He looked at policy as it affected farmers first, then as it affected consumers. He saw the connections, even the recent affects of American policy on farmers in Iraq and in Africa who are never covered in the media.

When I first met Al, his master work had been published. The Corporate Reapers, partly written when Al worked for Ralph Nader, covers agriculture from the founding of our nation to the early 1990s, and thoroughly explains the crisis of the mid-1980s. When I included his book in my first summer reading list for this column, I suggested that one read a few pages a day. It is so packed with data that more than a few pages is overwhelming.

He followed the book with a series of muckraking articles in The Progressive Populist, starting with its premiere edition in November 1995. He developed it into the “Calamity Howler” column in February 1997. His observations always confirmed my opinions on what was happening with the hog industry, the seed and chemical industry and, finally, the fate of farmers that hitched their wagons to that industrial star.

I would see Al at FarmAid conferences, and I always asked him a question or two. He would overwhelm me with statistics and data, leave me a bit baffled, but his genius would push me to try and understand how things fit together. The last time I saw him, I asked him if the current time (autumn 2005, I think) reminded him of any other time in history.

He said that yes, the current time reminded him of the late 1920s. The amount of indebtedness of Americans would result in a crash, he said, when the loans came due.

Well, here we are.

So now, back to the question reader about war chemicals and the Green Revolution. The answer has, by the way, nothing to do with the Green Party.

As Al says on page 81, “At the conclusion of World War II the world’s and United States’s major chemical companies such as Dow, Shell and Du Pont found themselves with huge inventories of nitrogen used for making bombs during the war ... these chemicals and others …were soon packaged for agriculture.” The results were huge gains in productivity per plant and per acre. Every year, new hybrids and new chemicals have created increases in productivity, but the land, the farmers and consumers have paid a high price.

Al observes that in 1950, it took about 0.44 barrels of oil to grow a ton of grain, but in 1985 it took 1.14 barrels. And, he says, fertilizer use increased by 141% and the cost went from $868 million to $6.5 billion. At the same time, the number of providers has decreased. Therefore, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few chemical companies.

The rise in productivity has also meant that fewer farmers can raise more grain, which means that there are fewer farmers and more machines on the land. It has also meant more erosion as machines dig deeper and leave land more vulnerable.

The benefits of huge yields, especially when first introduced to a subsistence farmer, seem obvious. More to sell will bring more money. More money means the farmer can buy things to make their jobs easier. Then, they can buy out neighbors that want to retire or that have no children to stay on the land. Few farmers see the tradeoffs — debt, erosion, dependency on the corporations.

Al Krebs saw these things. To honor his memory, we must remember the facts.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2007

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