Farm policy in the 1970s destroyed America’s small farms. Today, small farming—the cultivation of flavorful, health-building, life-sustaining, vitamin-rich food—is making a comeback inside cities and towns in America.
It may well be that the people 30 years from now will look back into the history of our time, shake their heads and wonder, Why did they produce and use food like that? The crisis in American farming is not big news today. The average American doesn’t even suspect a crisis in farming exists. But the crisis is real, and its effects have already been knocking on most Americans’ doors for several generations.
In the mid-1970s, United States Secretary of Agriculture Earl L. Butz implemented government policies that favored the growth of large-scale corporate farms. His radical thinking about farming and agriculture are revealed in statements he made during his tenure as secretary. Because of America’s world-renowned bountiful food harvests, he viewed America as an “agripower.” In 1975, food supplies around the world were in decline. America alone was growing nearly half of the world’s grain. Mr. Butz stated: “Food is a tool. It is a weapon in the U.S. negotiating kit.” Butz believed America should use food as a means to advance its national interests.
At that time, Russia had suffered a massive wheat crop failure. To prevent Russia’s wheat shortage problems from raiding America’s commercial wheat reserves, which would cause a rise in wheat prices, the Ford administration established a national grains-export policy, giving the federal government control over the export of wheat. For the first time in American history, food became a major part of diplomatic policy. To buy American wheat, Russia was forced to sell oil to the U.S. and not to interfere with Henry Kissinger’s negotiations on the Egyptian-Israeli accord. Essentially, the restriction of food became a weapon of leverage as powerful as the atomic bomb.
In time, other federal government policies used food as a means to curry the favor of allies. Sadly, American farming also became politicized. As author Michael Pollan points out in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Butz had helped to arrange the Russian grain sale in the hope of giving a boost to American crop prices in order to bring restive farmers who were tempted to vote for George McGovern into the Republican fold.
Get Big, or Get Out!
America’s Founding Fathers and their successors desired that settlers could come to America and own land, build a home, raise a family, and feed themselves well. They would become an independent people, building an independent nation—a model society for the world to imitate. Essentially, America’s farming communities would form the nation’s backbone.
The Homestead Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 during the Civil War, granted a huge amount of power—and a huge amount of property—to the people. The law took gigantic swaths of western land that were controlled by the federal government and gave it in 160-acre plots to homesteaders. Under the act, homesteaders claimed and settled over 270 million acres, or 10 percent of the total area of the United States.
This act paved the way for tremendous economic development. By the end of the 19th century, America had grown at a rate of about 25 percent annually—much faster than the economic boom in China. And the Americans did it by taking power away from the central government and giving it to individuals on the condition that they work the land.
Roughly a century later, it became a fact of history that as head of the usda, Butz’s policies favoring large corporate farms led to the financial ruin and decline of the small American farmer. The damage was devastating. Corporations lustfully leveraged their power and gobbled up many small farms. Other small farms, not suitable for large corporate planting and harvesting machines, were left idle and ruined from neglect.
Was this a good thing for U.S. agriculture, farms and small farmers? The usda still thinks that it was.
“Early 20th-century agriculture was labor intensive, and it took place on a large number of small, diversified farms in rural areas where more than half of the U.S. population lived,” the usda states in its 2005 publication The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy. “These farms employed close to half of the U.S. workforce, along with 22 million work animals, and produced an average of five different commodities. The agricultural sector of the 21st century, on the other hand, is concentrated on a small number of large, specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives. These highly productive and mechanized farms employ a tiny share of U.S. workers and use 5 million tractors in place of the horses and mules of earlier days.”
These stats sound really positive. Yet what is the usda not telling us? That is the even more interesting question.
Once the federal government reasserted centralized power over agriculture, it absolutely transformed it, as it proudly admitted in the 2005 publication. Butz’s famous saying at the time was “Get big, or get out!” He urged farmers to plant corn “from fencerow to fencerow.” The emphasis was on commodity crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, which can be easily grown in large quantities, stored and traded.
But all of this came with a price.
Essentially, the head of the usda turned a “food weapon” on the very people he was responsible to protect. And it wasn’t just the small farmer who was hurt by his policies.
Industrial Agriculture’s Hidden Costs
In 1977, Wendell Berry, essayist, poet and small farmer, spoke out against Butz’s farm policies. “The cost of this corporate totalitarianism in energy, land and social disruption will be enormous,” he wrote. “It will lead to the exhaustion of farmland and farm culture. Husbandry will become an extractive [nonrenewable] industry; because maintenance will entirely give way to production, the fertility of the soils will become a limited, unrenewable resource like coal or oil.” His near-prophetic insight is explained in his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Although this book is nearly 40 years old, it is current in its solutions for America’s farming dilemma. It is well worth reading.
Mr. Berry hoped the trajectory of the future of farming would change. “This may not happen. It need not happen. But it is necessary to recognize that it can happen. That it can happen is made evident not only by the words of such men as Mr. Butz, but more clearly by the large-scale industrial destruction of farmland already in progress,” he wrote in 1977.
Berry clearly saw the soil turning to sand beneath the feet of America’s once-plentiful farming culture. If you comb your local library, bookstore or the Internet, you will find hundreds of books and reports that prove Berry’s prognostications right. American farmlands are being destroyed by the use of heavy machinery, toxic herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers. Farm chemical runoff is polluting our water supplies and killing aquatic life. Even the air near large cafos (concentrated animal feeding operations) is polluted with the noxious smell wafting from mounds of animal waste from poultry and livestock.
Berry also saw America’s farming culture—the strong, healthy and civically responsible farming family—beginning to crumble. Today it is even easier to see the damage to our environment and its impact on our lives. We naturally abhor the ugliness of a spoiled environment, but it is far more difficult to see the impact of the loss of the small farmers and their families. Yet, the loss of farming families has eroded a huge swath of good American character.
Corn Made King
Berry also foresaw another huge cost and grave danger posed by the large corporate farms. “The first principle of the exploitative mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided than we are—both against each other and within ourselves. Once the revolution of exploitation is underway, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship,” he stated with searing insight. Good farmers are great businessmen who can readily detect unscrupulous business practices. Berry is a good farmer and businessman. He readily perceived that corporate farms would exploit unsuspecting Americans with food products produced by quality-damaging shortcuts (through the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers) and with foods we do not need.
That’s exactly what happened.
For example, when Mr. Butz advocated that farmers get big and grow corn, they followed his advice. The American corn surplus grew huge, and corn prices dropped. So the large corporate farms had to find ways to sell the corn. With business ingenuity and salesmanship, corn became a new ingredient in many American foods—especially fast foods.
“[A]lmost every food consumed by Americans contains corn in some way, shape or form,” said the Business Insider in 2012. “According to some estimates, about three in four supermarket products are made of the grain.” Take some time to read your food labels. You might be surprised to find corn listed as an ingredient in a food that has nothing to do with corn. There has been a lot of discussion about the negative human health effects from the use of high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup has been linked to diabetes and obesity. Of course, corn producers deny any such claims. Yet, it is the major sweetener used in most soft drinks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that childhood obesity has doubled in the last 30 years. This is approximately the same time period that high-fructose corn syrup began to be used as a sweetener in soft drinks.
The reality is, the “food weapon” is backfiring dangerously on all of us.
Getting Back to Small and Healthy
It is unrealistic to expect that America’s corporate farming system is going to get revamped or disappear any time soon. Yet creative, industrious and passionate farmers who love fresh-picked, good-tasting, locally grown, mineral-rich, vibrant, vitamin-stuffed fruits and vegetables are helping small farming make a comeback in several unique ways.
In large and small cities across America, urban farms are springing up in empty lots, in city parks and even on rooftops. Some of the best, most productive urban farms have been established in cities such as Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Seattle. The benefits and success of these farms is having an enormous impact on terribly dilapidated inner city areas. For example, over a decade ago two friends, Mary Seton Corboy and Tom Sereduk, converted a vacant, toxic industrial lot into a thriving one-acre urban farm. Today, Greensgrow Farms, near the heart of downtown Philadelphia, is an ingenious nonprofit that provides fresh local produce to city dwellers and local restaurants. Like many larger urban farms, Greensgrow also provides employment and instruction on organic farming, healthy eating, nutritious food preparation, and other farm crafts.
City Farm, located in Chicago, has developed a unique approach to urban farming. Like all urban farms, it has transformed fallow, vacant city land into productive farmland—but with a twist. To ensure that they employ full-cycle, chemical-free farming, City Farm has made agreements with local restaurants to receive their food scraps for composting. Besides building up the soil of vacant lots, the amount of waste sent to landfills is reduced. This rich method of composting allows small-plot intensive food production. City Farm produces per acre 20,000 pounds of flavorful, pesticide- and chemical-free tomatoes, arugula, beets, carrots, kale, collards, herbs and more.
There is yet another feature unique to City Farm. If the city of Chicago needs to reclaim a vacant lot, City Farm is movable. It easily relocates to other vacant lots. What it leaves behind is healthy soil easily converted to an inviting park or other beautifully landscaped showplace.
Urban farming can also be done successfully on a small scale. From its one-fifth acre plot, Rising Pheasant Farms in the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit sells sprouts, shoots and microgreens year-round to restaurants that are thrilled to have locally grown produce.
Those who are involved in these farms and gardens say they are inspired and fulfilled by getting their hands dirty and growing food for themselves and others. Perhaps you might be inspired to do the same. But even if you are not able to start your own garden plot, you may still be able to gain access to healthy, locally grown, pesticide- and chemical-free produce. How?
Consider a CSA
In rural areas, some college-educated, energetic young farmers are reviving run-down small farms and turning them into Community Supported Agriculture (csa) farms. A csa farm is an operation financially supported by shareholders within the community who share both the benefits and risks of food production. Participants contribute a fee—and oftentimes labor—in exchange for fresh produce and other agricultural products.
Many regions of the U.S. have thriving csa farms. The history of csa farming is interesting. Here’s the short version. The idea began in Japan in the 1970s around the same time America took the plunge into large corporate farming. A group of Japanese mothers became alarmed at the use of pesticides to grow food. They did not want their children to eat chemically polluted food. So they banded together to support a local farm that grew clean produce.
The idea gradually moved into Europe, and by the mid-1980s it jumped to the United States. In 1986 there were only two csa farms in the U.S.—the Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire. Today there are over 13,000 of them. The groundbreaking efforts of these csas have led to the resurgence of the small farm. Even more, all those who have chosen to financially support them are reaping a healthier, more abundant life.
However, it has not been an easy task. You can read about the difficulties of establishing a csa in the book The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball. Originally a writer from Manhattan, she relates her and her husband’s massive effort to regenerate a rundown farm in rural northeastern New York State. Today, the farm is a productive, full-cycle, full-diet, year-round csa. Their 800-acre Essex Farm now supports 52 households with all-natural produce, fruit, raw milk, meat, cheese, eggs, grains, sweeteners and more: their entire diet—for about $11 a day per adult. And they do it all with draft horses.
If you’re interested in joining a csa, generally you can locate one close to you on the Internet.
Your Own Vine and Fig Tree
Wendell Berry believes that the value of farming encompasses far more than economics. He sees farming as a way of life—a family way of life. He is right about that. There is good, solid education from living on a farm that a child can get nowhere else. Having grown up in the 1950s, I know people understood this better then. We were taught respect for farmers and farming.
In many ways, I believe my grandfather was an urban farmer. I grew up in the house he built on land he owned. Essentially, he designed our backyard into a fertile and productive place. Besides beautiful flowers and flowering bushes, we had Concord grape vines, blackberry and raspberry bushes. There were plum, apple and pear trees. Each summer we grew our own vegetables, which my mother canned. From an early age, we were taught to plant, weed and harvest the fruits of our labors. In our backyard I learned responsibility and how to work. As a kid I remember feeling very connected to my home—my yard. I felt secure. Not many feel this way today. People have lots of things, but few feel connected to any place. None feel secure.
Although most don’t know it, or believe it, Jesus Christ’s true gospel message promises that this present, evil, dying world will soon be transformed into a virtual utopia. As King of kings, Jesus Christ will establish right government that will institute right policies to truly serve the people (Isaiah 9:6-7; Luke 1:33).
Consider what Christ will do for farming.
“Take away weather problems, insect damage, blight and fungus from farmers—losses through government price controls and over flooding of markets—and what would be their lot in life?” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in his most important book, Mystery of the Ages. Christ plans to restore the Earth to the kind of place God always intended it to be (Acts 3:19-21). The farmers in the coming World Tomorrow (Hebrews 2:5) will not experience what the farmers of this generation have.
In fact, Christ will encourage a small-scale, farming lifestyle to show how bountiful this Earth can be. “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken,” stated the Prophet Micah, referring to Christ’s coming Kingdom (Micah 4:4; New International Version). God’s prophets repeat this same prophecy often in the Old Testament. This verse does not mean that there will not be some large farms at that time. What it does mean is that families will share in the responsibility of growing their own food. What a good life that will be.
In a sense, what is happening on urban and csa farms today represent very early seeds of the future of farming germinating right before our eyes.
In order to help you have a similar experience, we have provided an infographic on how you can grow a small garden in your yard, patio or even one of your sunny windows (page 18). Happy planting!