That’s the Thicke
The logistics of a just, equitable and healthy agricultural landscape here in the United States would remain a problem if Michael Pollan himself, Wendell Berry, or better yet Fred Magdoff were appointed Secretary of Agriculture.
Decades-long efforts pealing back agribusiness both as paradigm and infrastructure, however successful, would require a parallel program. With what would we replace the present landscape?
As a black hole about its horizon, a poverty in imagination orbits the question stateside. The vacuum is most recently felt in the developing animus between public health officials and artisan cheesemakers. What Europe has long streamlined into amicable regulation, the U.S. has lurched into clumsy opposition: cheese wheels are increasingly treated as suitcase bombs filled with Listeria.
After 60 years of industrial production Americans have literally forgotten the logistics of real food.
There are three broad classes of alternatives floating about the small but growing food movement. Prelapsarian fantasies widely prevalent would have us return to the family farm as it never existed. On the other hand, the microgeographic localism now emerging appears as much a victim of diminished expectations, provisional classism, and the constraints imposed by a scarcity of working examples as of agribusiness’s stranglehold on the market.
If pursued to their logical, and logistical, conclusions, both options, as geographer David Harvey noted in a recent radio interview, would likely contribute to the kinds of famines that predated industrial development (as opposed to the very different famines that originate in today’s global capitalism).
There are, however, visionaries here and abroad who have blocked out broader possibilities tied to both the contours of our historical present and the globalized economy. This third class appears based on real-life experience and some intriguing, albeit often preliminary, experimentation:
1) In his campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, dairy farmer Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) described a regionalization encompassing trade policy, energy, farm structure, and environmental regulation:
Thicke wants to help farmers develop the means to process their own food, which he feels empowers them against increasingly unstable markets. Radiance is one of the few small dairies with on-farm processing equipment, and as a result, Thicke has avoided big processors and distributors who set demand, and prices. When dairy farmers were having record losses last year because of low market prices—and dairy processors were making record profits—Radiance Dairy kept selling at their standard rate, and loyal customers kept buying. “We never changed our prices,” Thicke said. “We were fully unaffected.” With access to on-farm or local farm-to-farm mobile processing equipment, Thicke feels, “more of the profits can stay with the farmer instead of being taken by middleman corporate monopolies.”…
“We import 80 to 90 percent of the food we eat. If we can grow more of what we eat in Iowa, we could have fresher, healthier, safer food. We could have more diversity on the landscape. And it would be an economic development—food dollars would stay local and circulate back into the local economy.”
2) With the support of the Mexican government, Zoptec Indians have developed a certified-sustainable, community-controlled forestry. Plain pine is sold to the state government and—shades of Thicke—finished goods, including furniture, are produced in an on-site factory. The Oaxaca cooperative, still a work in progress, plows a third of its profits back into the business, a third into forest preservation, and the rest into its workers and the local community, including pensions, a credit union, and housing for its children studying at university.
3) Dialectical biologist Richard Levins, collaborating with Cuban colleagues on ecological approaches to local agriculture and public health, summarizes some of the many adjustments a new agriculture anywhere may require:
Instead of having to decide between large-scale industrial type production and a “small is beautiful” approach a priori, we saw the scale of agriculture as dependent on natural and social conditions, with the units of planning embracing many units of production. Different scales of farming would be adjusted to the watershed, climatic zones and topography, population density, distribution of available resources, and the mobility of pests and their enemies.
The random patchwork of peasant agriculture, constrained by land tenure, and the harsh destructive landscapes of industrial farming would both be replaced by a planned mosaic of land uses in which each patch contributes its own products but also assists the production of other patches: forests give lumber, fuel, fruit, nuts, and honey but also regulate the flow of water, modulate the climate to a distance about 10 times the height of the trees, create a special microclimate downwind from the edge, offer shade for livestock and the workers, and provide a home to the natural enemies of pests and the pollinators of crops. There would no longer be specialized farms producing only one thing. Mixed enterprises would allow for recycling, a more diverse diet for the farmers, and a hedge against climatic surprises. It would have a more uniform demand for labor throughout the year.
Rather than to the expectations of an abstract neoclassical or all-too-real neoliberal model of production, the scale and practice of agriculture can be flexibly tailored to each region’s physical, social and epidemiological landscapes on the ground. Under such an arrangement not all parcels will be necessarily profitable. As Levins points out, whatever reductions in income farms accrue in protecting the rest of the region must be offset by regular redistributive mechanisms.
Levins’s radical practicality is part-and-parcel of a number of experiments under way, some now ongoing for decades.
Jules Pretty offers a list of practices that are even now already inputs and outputs of more sustainable agroecosystems, including of ‘sustainable intensification,’ in some cases producing as much food per acre as clear-cut, chemical agribusiness,
1. Integrated pest management, which uses prevention through developing ecosystem resilience and diversity for pest, disease, and weed control, and only uses pesticides when other options are ineffective.
2. Integrated nutrient management, which seeks both to balance the need to fix nitrogen within farm systems with the need to import inorganic and organic sources of nutrients, and to reduce nutrient losses through control of runoff and erosion.
3. Conservation tillage, which reduces the amount of tillage, sometimes to zero, so that soil can be conserved through reduced erosion, and available moisture is used more efficiently.
4. Cover crops, which grow in the off-season or along with main crops, help protect soil from erosion, manage nutrients and pests, maintain healthy soil, enhance water infiltration and storage in soil.
5. Agroforestry, which incorporates multifunctional trees into agricultural systems, and collectively manages nearby forest resources.
6. Aquaculture, which incorporates fish, shrimp, and other aquatic resources into farm systems, such as irrigated rice fields and fish ponds, and so leads to increases in protein production.
7. Water harvesting in dryland areas, which can mean that formerly abandoned and degraded lands can be cultivated, and additional crops can be grown on small patches of irrigated land, owing to better rainfall retention.
8. Livestock reintegration into farming systems, such as the raising of dairy cattle, pigs, and poultry, including using both grazing and zero-grazing cut-and-carry systems. Mixed crop-livestock systems provide many synergies that enhance production and allow for better nutrient cycling on farms.
An ecological agriculture, responsive to people’s needs rather than offshore margins, should, Pretty proposes, be able to feed the world’s growing population.
A number of books published in the last year (here, here and here) speak not only to this growing sophistication but to a new confidence in the food movement. There is a dawning realization that Big Ag, whatever its power and infrastructure, is, to use an ironic Texism, all hat and no cattle.
Propping up the empire is little else but a raw greed and political power turning biology—human and animal—into cash at any and all costs. The paradigm behind the food and farming—ostensibly the industry’s raison d’etre—is bankrupt to its core:
When the use value of food, of all things, is traded in for surplus value, humanity’s survival is nothing less than threatened (and the integral pleasures of eating abandoned). When most commercial-grade poultry feed is purposely laced with arsenic to keep bird flesh pink over shipment and sale, there is a seriously sociopathic denialism at work.
When U.S. livestock are stuffed with up to 28 million pounds of antibiotics annually solely to accelerate growth to a finishing weight, providing stock enough protection only until their industrial diet kills them, perversity verges on perversion. When livestock monopolies manipulate already cheap and highly subsidized prices by forcing farmers to sell their animals all at the same time, a criminality masquerades as the law of the land.
And yet even in the face of such unprecedented power and a relentless propaganda a swelling number of Americans are coming to.
Siena Chrisman’s recent dispatch from a DOJ-USDA joint national listening tour on corporate consolidation in food and agriculture markets offers a sense of the breadth of antipathy. It cuts across occupations, region, race, religion, politics, and agricultural sector,
In Iowa, the crowd chanting “bust up big ag!” was full of white farmers in their 50s wearing feed caps and faded jeans. In Colorado, it was ranchers in cowboy hats, pressed checked shirts, and big belt buckles who were on their feet calling for change. Around the country this year, it has been almost quarter of a million citizens who have signed petitions calling on DOJ and USDA to take swift action in this investigation. Similarly, in Brooklyn, New York last month, it was a diverse crowd of hundreds of mostly African-American urban and rural farmers strategizing and organizing at the first Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference–just as in cities and small towns around the country, communities of all colors, ages, and experiences are joining together to create a more just and fair food system.
Agribusiness, bringing Americans together.
It would appear, to put it wildly mildly, we live in interesting times, with all the idiom’s conflicting connotations, an era characterized by agribusiness’s dominance and, as Chrisman describes, a sharpening resistance to its excesses. We find ourselves at a true historic juncture cut in two directions. Along one path, fear and exploitation. On the other, the wonders of the possible, with the chance to literally make a new landscape.
Francis Thicke lost his race, he did. But in a state beholden to agribusiness across multiple sectors he managed 37% of the vote, a marker of a deepening, and increasingly acted upon, dissatisfaction.
Expect much more along these lines, including, and here is where it’ll get really interesting, seismic shifts in the food paradigm, found not only in plans on paper, but out there, on and in and across large swaths of American soil.