Workers on a strawberry farm in Southern California were fired last week when they became worried about smoke from a nearby wildfire and left mid-shift. After a media backlash, the farm offered the workers their jobs back, but the workers said, essentially, “Screw you.”
The strawberry pickers had taken shelter inside from choking smoke and falling ashes from the Springs Fire, defying an order from a foreman who told them to suck it up and keep on picking. From NBC4:
The ashes were falling on top of us, one of them explained, adding “it was hard to breathe.”
Air quality in the region was at dangerously poor levels and 15 workers at Crisalida Farms decided they could not handle it any longer. They left, even though their foreman warned them they would not have a job when they returned.
The workers were non-union, but United Farm Workers went in to help anyway, meeting with Crisalida Farms officials and demanding that they hire the workers back. Meanwhile, Telemundo and other news outlets began reporting on the injustice, placing the company in an awkward spotlight.
Crisalida Farms eventually relented, but only one of the 15 workers decided to return to their former job. All the others found more fruitful work elsewhere.
“Farm protection” or “ag-gag” laws aim to outlaw the kinds of undercover investigations that have resulted in massive meat recalls, plant closures, and even criminal charges.
Specifically, they’re designed to deter the kind of work done by people like Lindsay.
For two years Lindsay (not her real name) has worked for a national animal advocacy nonprofit that sends investigators to take jobs at farms and slaughterhouses across the country, each for a few weeks at a time, in an effort to root out abuses.
“I use a hidden camera to film the day-to-day activities in these facilities while I am there working. I take detailed notes on what I witness and document,” she tells me. “With such minimal [government] oversight, these industries are pretty much left to police themselves, so it’s not uncommon to find acts of abuse or negligent behavior that may violate state or federal laws.”
When Lindsay works on one of these farms, she acts like any other employee — except for the secret documentation part. Under a slew of existing and proposed ag-gag laws, Lindsay would be committing at least two crimes: fraudulent employment and secret filming. “I do not work in the states that have passed ag-gag laws already, nor do any other investigators I know,” she says. “These laws are clearly intended to stop investigations like the ones that I do, and they in fact have that effect. It feels like a desperate move by industrialized agriculture.”
Desperate or not, industrialized agriculture is certainly aware of the impact of Lindsay’s work. Videos like the ones she records have taken down whole companies and spurred the prosecution of many abusers. They have also taken a bite out of Americans’ appetite for meat. A 2010 Kansas State University study [PDF] found that, “As a whole, media attention to animal welfare has significant, negative effects on U.S. meat demand.”
Ag-gag laws are a direct and calculated response to all this. Emily Meredith, communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit industry advocacy group, admits that clandestine video has been “very effective” for advocacy organizations over the last 10 years.
“I’m not gonna deny that there are bad apples just like there are in every industry,” Meredith says. “But the majority of farm families do the right thing every day. These videos are really an unfair portrayal of the industry as a whole.”
Meredith says activist videos are edited and manipulated to appear more damning in an effort to promote a “vegan agenda” by any means necessary — even using legal practices, such as piglet castration, to shore up allegations of illegal abuse. “Those tactics have become very popular and successful for the activist community in their fundraising efforts and in spreading misinformation about the industry,” she says.
As Meredith sees it, farm protection bills are a reasonable response to such an onslaught. Plus, by giving secret filmers a small window of time to turn their damning footage over to law enforcement, the laws should please everyone, right?
“[Activists] are trying to promote this legislation as ‘gagging’ when in fact all the legislation mandates that you report the abuse, which really goes to the heart of the issue,” Meredith says. “If you really cared about animal welfare would you even wait a second to report animal abuse? In my mind you wouldn’t be waiting at all.”
Lindsay and other activists argue that these investigations often require several weeks of documentation to establish patterns of abuse or criminality. And either way, they would be criminalized under many of the laws, regardless of whether or not they turned over their footage to law enforcement. As for publicizing legal practices like piglet castration, they say that while these practices may be legal, that doesn’t mean the public is comfortable with thinking about what sorts of pain their dinner may have endured.
“As larger numbers of people see these investigation videos, we are seeing major shifts,” says Lindsay. “People are demanding companies change their practices or they are moving away from animal products altogether.”
It’s obviously not what the meat industry wants to hear. “I think where this legislation is being introduced, the legislators in those states recognize that agriculture plays an important role in our national economy and in their state economy,” says Meredith. “They respect what these farm families are doing every day and they recognize how important it is to preserve their way of life and their family businesses.”
Meredith is optimistic that farm protection or ag-gag laws will “probably strongly deter” activists like Lindsay.
Lindsay doesn’t think that’s such a good thing: “The fact that the industry is going to such great lengths to prevent people from seeing what happens on farms and at slaughterhouses further proves that they have something to hide.”
Is something always better than nothing? In the case of the farm bill extension that was buried in Tuesday’s last minute fiscal cliff deal, maybe not.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls the deal — which will provide $5 billion in subsidies to industrial-scale corn, soy, and wheat farmers while short-changing local food, organics, and beginning farmers, and decimating on-farm conservation efforts — “deeply flawed.” The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), meanwhile, has referred to it as “blatantly anti-reform,” while the Union of Concerned Scientists calls it “a giant step backward” and “a blow to farmers who want to grow healthy foods and the consumers who want to buy them.” The National Young Farmers Coalition was also “incredibly disappointed with the results.”
Even Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who led the Senate Agriculture Committee to pass its own farm bill last summer, but wasn’t involved in Tuesday’s final negotiations, has characterized the bill as a “partial extension that reforms nothing, provides no deficit reduction, and hurts many areas of our agriculture economy.”
Sure, milk prices didn’t spike like they were scheduled to if nothing was done, and lawmakers now have until late September to pass a substantial five-year bill. But this rushed, sloppy piece of policy doesn’t bode well for the year ahead in food system reform.
We all know money is tight. And both the Senate and House agriculture committees have spent the year hashing out just how and where to make cuts within the vast sphere of food and farming. What they arrived at wasn’t perfect, but both saw the value of ending direct payments to large commodity farms. (Granted, the farm lobby was pushing for a “shallow loss” crop insurance program that would have done nearly as much to prop up the biggest commodity farmers, but even that shift might have at least left a few crumbs for the little guys.) Instead, a few big farms will continue making a killing. According to EWG, the top 10 percent of farms receive 74 percent of all subsidy money, while two-thirds of farmers don’t get direct payments at all.
On the surface, the bill does include some discretionary funding for things like organic farming research and support for beginning farmers. But that’s just it. It’s discretionary, not mandatory (like the direct payments), making it highly likely that it will disappear in the annual appropriations process.
So, while Bloomberg News calls the result of the extension “back to square one,” that’s not quite accurate. If the 2008 farm bill were being extended in its entirety, then maybe farm policy would be back where we started. Instead, it’s almost like the bill has landed in quicksand or is trapped in a corn silo and is sinking under its own weight. The timing is ironic, of course, because more and more Americans now want to know where their food comes from. But most of us still have very little voice when it comes to the larger terms that control how that food is produced.
Or, as NSAC’s latest statement puts it, we’ve returned to a time when “direct commodity subsidies … are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead.” Perhaps — where national policy is concerned — we had never really left.
She may be the only boss in America who will tell you during a job interview that you really, truly, almost certainly don’t want the job. Go home and think about it, she might say. Reconsider if you need. Imagine what you’ll be doing.
The job, she’d tell you, will involve feces and dirt and animals too sick to move. It will be lonely, smelly, depressing, and exhausting. You’ll be spending weeks, perhaps months, inside an American factory farm — the kind of place that causes manure to leach into waterways and high concentrations of methane to spew into the air — witnessing alleged acts of animal cruelty and environmental degradation that you can do little, if anything, about. A hidden camera will be your only connection to the outside world, and she — your boss — will be your only confidante after you get off work, the only person who will understand if you break down, weep, or just want to quit.
Still want to be an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States? If so, Mary Beth Sweetland, the organization’s senior director of investigations, would start investigating you. From her Vermont home, she’d make sure there’s very little trace of you on the internet, that your name is not associated with any animal rights cause, and that you pass a background check. If she’s confident that the country’s largest animal welfare organization can trust you with a sensitive undercover investigation, you’d be hired.
You’d then join a small band of gutsy risk takers trying to be the eyes and ears of the public inside agricultural facilities that are very much closed to the public. Right now, and at any given moment, a handful of HSUS investigators are working undercover — not only in factory farms but in puppy mills, laboratories, and zoos — and Sweetland is their den mother.
“I admire the heck out of them,” Sweetland said recently. “I should probably tell them that more. I wish they could get the recognition that’s due to them.”
Her investigators may be anonymous, but their work is not. Policy developments that have resulted from HSUS factory-farm investigations are well-known in agricultural circles:
After mistreatment of cows was uncovered by a 2008 investigation at the Hallmark slaughter plant in Northern California, downed beef cattle — cows too sick or injured to walk — were banned from the food supply; they are now euthanized instead.
When an undercover worker at the Bushway slaughterhouse in Vermont exposed mistreatment of young bull calves, the federal government approved a tentative ban on downer calves in the meat supply; HSUS hopes the rule will be finalized soon.
A number of undercover videos taken inside industrial pig facilities has led to a cascade of corporations announcing they will no longer sell pork raised in gestation crates.
In fact, the increase in major HSUS investigations over the past few years — as well as undercover investigations by other organizations such as Mercy for Animals and Compassion Over Killing — has coincided with an increase in proposed “ag-gag” bills in various state legislatures. These bills, supported by large-scale agriculture, seek to make the photographing or videotaping of agricultural facilities a misdemeanor, or in some cases a felony. They have already passed in three states (Iowa, Missouri, and Utah) and more are expected to come up for a vote in 2013.
Although these bills may be a sign of HSUS’s success in undercover operations, the organization opposes them strongly because they could make it harder to recruit people to work undercover. Applicants would face the threat of significant fines or prison time, on top of all the other hardships that come with an undercover job. As Matt Dominguez, the HSUS public policy manager for farm animals, puts it, referring to Sweetland, “These bills could potentially make her job obsolete.”
Grainy video clips of the dank and hidden places where most American meat is raised may appear on our Facebook feeds or television screens. We may watch them, we may not. But one person who never has a choice is Sweetland. Every day, she or her assistant must review the raw video footage and written log notes sent in by her investigators via postal mail or email. She then selects video clips and notes that she thinks HSUS could build a legal case around and forwards them to lawyers and senior staff at HSUS’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
When material is coming to her steadily, Sweetland can spend half her workday or more peering into the most wretched corners of factory farms. Of course, not all industrial farms harbor employees who could be brought up on animal cruelty charges, but Sweetland reviews footage from places that potentially do. She often wrestles with when to pull an investigator out of a facility because the cruelty has gotten so bad. (She prefers that they stay as long as it takes to get adequate evidence for a case.)
At age 58, she has five dogs who comfort her when the footage is searingly sad, but she has no other coping mechanism except the will to continue.
“I still cry after all these years,” she says. “I can’t help it. But it doesn’t make me want to give up. It makes me want to put someone into the next place.”
Her investigators rarely cry. Sweetland says they’re thick-skinned individuals who are willing to take the physical risk of working with aggressive, highly stressed animals, and the psychological risk of being busted by their employer. Some of them do it for their love of animals or commitment to the animal protection movement, others do it because they’re adventurers, while others do it because it’s a paid job. All of them apply for their farm jobs using their real name, and HSUS makes sure that everything about their employment is above board.
The investigators tend to be solitary folks, too, people who can live in the middle of nowhere (where factory farms tend to be) and who can tolerate being unable to chat with fellow workers about who they really are. Sidling up to the local dive bar may be the only thing investigators can do for companionship. Sweetland tries to talk with them every day.
Yet since she was put in charge of investigations four years ago, she says none of her investigators have taken up the HSUS on its offer of free counseling.
“Overall they are different breed of person,” Sweetland says. “I look at them as not having a missing compassion gene but just able to see it, document it, and move on.”
The real workers in factory farms often can’t move on. Like most low-wage employees in rural areas, they may not have the means to leave a job, as demoralizing and disturbing as it may be. Sweetland has learned from her investigators that workers sometimes take out their personal frustration and anger on the animals they handle. Though not excusable, Sweetland says it’s understandable. She and her investigators often feel compassion for the very people who may face criminal charges as a result of their investigation.
“They have to be prosecuted,” Sweetland says. “There’s a law, they broke the law, and without prosecution there’s no deterrent.” But, she says, “Can you imagine the day-in and day-out hardships of their lives? Hearing about some of their histories, you can tell the really bad apples from those who are just caught in a never-ending cycle of despair.”
Beyond animals and workers, there’s another victim of factory farms — the environment. Sweetland foresees expanding investigations by instructing her investigators to capture environmental crimes, in addition to animal abuses. “Traditionally this issue has been approached separately by environmental and animal welfare advocates,” she says. But if a facility begins illegally pumping its waste products into nearby ditches or streams, or feathers and dust begin falling from ventilation fans like snow, her investigators will be there to capture it.
A longtime vegan, Sweetland – who speaks in a compassionate, measured tone and prefers to deflect attention from herself onto her investigators — came to the HSUS after working for 18 years at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. For much of that time she was head of their investigations unit. Before that, she didn’t want to watch undercover videos of factory farms, but when she finally did, she decided to give up meat once and for all. She realizes that some people who watch undercover videos respond by switching to humanely raised meat instead, and she believes they are an integral part of the factory farm movement.
What would she say to that large swath of the American public who prefers to change the channel or click to a different website whenever a difficult factory farm video comes into view?
“I’d say that if they consider themselves a humane and compassionate person, they must force themselves to look, not just satisfy themselves with self-assurance that they know what it’s like. They don’t know what it’s like, until they see it with their own eyes.”
Chicago’s Black Belt area, on the historic South Side, was once a hub for jazz, blues, and literature, but today is riddled with vacant lots, poverty, and blight. Now, a new plan envisions the area as a thriving urban farm district.
In the coming weeks, the city’s planning department is expected to approve the creation of a green belt with a strong focus on urban agriculture within the neighborhood of Englewood. The plan is an element of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development’s (DHE) Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, designed to shepherd and foster redevelopment in 13 square miles of the South Side. Years of disinvestment and population decline have left the area riddled with 11,000 vacant lots totaling 800 acres.
Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the DHE, says that although the plan lays out a district “with a small d,” the city has a deep history in urban planning know-how. He, along with other city officials and community organizers, hope the farm district will help stabilize the South Side by putting vacant land to use and creating entrepreneurial and job opportunities. They also expect it to become a model for other city planners as well as a tourist destination for people interested in farming and growing food.
At the core of the blueprint is the three-mile long New ERA (Englewood Re-making America) Trail, which will serve as the “spine” of the farm district, Strazzabosco says. A former railroad line, the three-mile-long trail will become a linear park with foot and bike trails and farm stands. The area designated as the district begins directly across from the trail, as that’s where an estimated 100 acres of city-owned, vacant parcels are located. Over time, they can be converted into farms and other agricultural projects.
Not only will the farms bring healthy and affordable food to the community, the hope is that they will also create jobs and attract new housing, industry, and businesses. Two half-acre job training farms already exist in the district — Growing Home’s Wood Street and Honore Street farms — as well as the 1.7-acre for-profit Perry Street Farm. All grow seasonal vegetables such as tomatoes, kale, lettuce, and beets. A fourth half-acre educational farm run by the Center for Urban Transformation and Angelic Organics Learning Center will be planted next spring.
Farms, however, are just the beginning of an overall urban planning project to rebuild the South Side from ground up. Think of it, says Brandon Johnson, “as a 21st-century community that just happens to have farms.”
Johnson, a public economist, heads the Washington Park Consortium, a neighborhood group made up of civic and business leaders who have been carefully planning the South Side’s future for the last two years.
Johnson and Strazzabosco both hope this effort differs from urban farming initiatives in both Detroit and Cleveland in that the city is not suffering from a collapsed economy.
Chicago, Johnson says, has as much land as either city, but also has transportation clout. Plus, says Orrin Williams, a community-based development strategist with the Center for Urban Transformation, “A 200-year history of outstanding urban planning makes us come at this from a position of strength. Our choice to farm is not an act of desperation.”
“This is not a pie-in-the-sky plan,” says Johnson, explaining that Chicago is not just adding a few farms and calling it a district. “It’s urban planning from the bottom up. It’s a long-range plan to turn a community filled with vacant lots into a community built around agriculture. Think of what Chicago was during the heyday of the (Union) Stockyards when it was the ‘Hog Butcher for the World.’” Only this time it will be built around local produce.
Part of the consortium’s plan is to use the South Side’s strong rail system to distribute Chicago-grown food to the rest of the nation. Johnson and Williams are in discussions with farmers throughout the Midwest as well as farm projects throughout the Rust Belt seeking ways to unify and create a food network.
Last year, the consortium leased 1.7 acres from the city to fund the Perry Street Farm. Johnson hired Ken Dunn, one of Chicago’s top urban growers, to run the farm. Dunn, founder of the recycling and composting facility called the Resource Center, says he will duplicate what he’s done with the farm there, “selling two-thirds or more to high-end restaurants to generate $140,000 of earned income per year.” Proceeds from Perry Street will go toward new farms as well as workforce development.
First, however, the Perry Street farm will feed South Side residents, and shift some portion of the $20 million they are currently spending on food outside the neighborhood to the local economy.
Johnson says the consortium is considering establishing more farms, with the earnings going towards building an urban agricultural infrastructure. Plans for a food distribution center will be unveiled early next year, he adds, and investors are being sought for a processing plant (think pickling).
To help fill the need for trained farmers, the men are working closely with Kennedy-King College and the new Washington Culinary Institute on degree programs associated with agriculture and farming. Restaurants, universities, and hospitals are all potential food and produce customers.
For Washington Park resident Erana Jackson, the shift from vacant lots to small but verdant farms would provide a steady income. Jackson recently finished a certification program in Sustainable Urban Agriculture from the Chicago Botanic Garden, and she dreams of starting a neighborhood food co-operative.
“Turning the South Side into an area centered around farming would bring people food and jobs,” Jackson says. “Most people like the idea and know that it’s about [re-]starting the community from scratch.” She wants to acquire three city lots as an incubator site and find a way to use biomass for energy creation. She hopes to create jobs that will help residents earn a decent income.
“We are living in a food desert,” Jackson says. “With fresh produce we could finally promote healthy eating. People could have their own farm stands. This is how you turn a neighborhood around.”
Of course, not everyone is welcoming the idea of an urban farm district with open arms. Some in the black community have mixed feelings about today’s urban farming.
“Urban farming is a white, liberal, hippie movement that found itself in the black community,” says Johnson. But, he adds, “the black community is seeing the opportunity.”
“Farming will lead the future of the South Side … and we’re calling everyone to the table to help plan,” Williams adds. “Architects, urban planners, soil scientists — everyone working together rebuilding the neighborhoods from scratch.”
Here we are, less than four weeks away from the election, and Mitt Romney finally has something to say about food and farming. Sort of.
In a white paper released Tuesday called “Agricultural Prosperity: Mitt Romney’s vision for a vibrant rural America,” the presidential candidate and his advisers outlined their farm agenda. But the 16-page document talks very little about actual farming; instead it uses agriculture as a lens on Romney’s preexisting tax, trade, regulation, and energy platforms. (For the record, that would be: less, more, less, and ethanol). He also promises to “strengthen our nation’s rural communities,” and “ensure that a strong farm bill is passed in a timely manner.” (This last part is especially amusing, considering the last farm bill actually expired on Sept. 30.) So … timely? No longer possible.
Romney also plays up the “family farm” element throughout, with nostalgic odes like this:
… it is not only our core values that thrive in our small towns and family farms; our economy does as well, when hardworking men and women are supported by sound policies that promote growth while minimizing unnecessary interference from Washington bureaucrats.
Translation? Romney wants to do away with the estate tax. “Inheritance plays such an important role in the preservation of family farms, tax policy can make an enormous difference in the prosperity or struggles of rural America,” the paper reads.
Obama has proposed changing the tax to a 45 percent tax rate on individual estates that are worth more than $3.5 million — down from the current $5.2 million. But at that level, Obama spokesperson Ben LaBolt told the Des Moines Register, “99.7 percent of all estates would be exempted, and just 60 small farms and businesses in the entire country would be affected.”
On the regulation front, the paper zeroes in on what it calls “overzealous efforts” to extend the Clean Water Act, the recently defeated child labor rules (which the white paper claims “would bar teenagers from working on their family farms,” but, in fact, included a parental exemption and was actually aimed at keeping farmworkers under 18 away from dangerous chemicals and equipment), and the fight over the EPA’s recent thwarted effort to fly over concentrated animal feeding operations to document their impact on nearby waterways. In other words, the nation’s biggest agribusinesses should be able to pollute the landscape and treat their workers precisely as they wish.
Romney also uses the paper to reiterate a shortened version of his energy policy, with a special focus on ethanol, the industry that has raised farm incomes to an all-time high in recent years. The paper reads: “Romney recognizes that biofuels are crucial to America’s energy future and to achieving his goal of energy independence, and he supports maintaining the Renewable Fuel Standard to guarantee producers the market access they have been promised as they continue to move forward.”
Although Romney’s white paper only briefly mentions the farm bill, the candidate used Tuesday’s event in Iowa as an opportunity to blame Obama for Congress’ failure to pass a bill this summer.
“People have been waiting a long time for a farm bill. The president has to show the leadership to get the House and Senate together,” he told the crowd.
But, as Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn), top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, told The Hill, this assertion — that Obama has somehow blocked the process from moving forward — is far from the case. He said: “… [I]t shows a complete lack of understanding of what’s going on. The problem is not between the House and the Senate, the problem is Majority Leader [Eric] Cantor [R-Va.] won’t put the farm bill on the floor.”
As veteran agriculture reporter Jerry Hagstrom reported on Obamafoodorama, the Obama campaign responded to this claim by assembling a team of experts. On a press call, former Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller said:
“Gov. Romney is not calling on the Republicans in Congress to pass new legislation, and maybe that’s because his running mate, Congressman [Paul] Ryan [R-Wisc.], and his other Republican allies in the House leadership are opposed to a new farm bill and are balking it.”
“Possibly they’re trying to just dodge the issue altogether, wait until next year in the hope that they can pass a farm bill patterned after the budget proposal that Congressman Ryan managed to push through the House of Representatives that would weaken the safety net,” Miller said.
“It would literally gut our natural resource conservation programs that benefit, not just farmers and the environment, but wildlife and those that believe in outdoor recreation and that want clean air and clean water for their families.”
Now, it’s not uncommon for political candidates to play both sides of the (corn) field like this — especially so close to an election. And it is true that the two biggest federal programs focused on food and farming (food stamps and farm subsidies) won’t be interrupted for lack of a new farm bill, so most of the biggest businesses in the equation (industrial farms and the big food retailers, who rely heavily on food stamp income) won’t be impacted yet.
What about young farmers, organic farmers, and the environment? Well, as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Ferd Hoefner pointed out recently on Civil Eats, they won’t be spared. “With the expiration of the farm bill,” he writes, “farmers will not be enrolling sensitive land in ecological restoration projects. Training opportunities for the next generation of beginning farmers will dry up. Microloans to the very small businesses that drive economic recovery in rural America will cease. Emerging farmers markets in rural and urban food deserts will not have access to startup grants. Organic farming researchers will not be able to compete for any dedicated research funds.”
In other words, the parts of the equation that are actually about food and farming — and not just big industry? They’re clearly not on Romney’s agenda.
In late 2007, Mary Swanders, Iowa’s poet laureate and a professor at Iowa State University, assigned her students a verbatim play about the challenges farmers face.
“I wanted them to learn the complexity of the farming issue, how political, how contentious it is,” she recalls.
Fanning out across the state, the students, many of whom had never set foot on a farm, conducted lengthy interviews with farmers big and small, and immersed themselves, literally, in the agrarian world of livestock, slaughter, and commodity crops, all while gingerly dancing around manure patties.
A student at the time, Rebekeah Bovenmeyer remembers donning a protective white suit so she could see the workings of a hog farmer’s farrowing house. “I never knew such a world existed only 10 miles from our campus,” she says.
Some of the farmers were still feeling the impact of the 1980s, a time when hundreds of family farms were lost to skyrocketing interest rates and corporatization. And many deplored the mantra of then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz: “Get big or get out!”
Back in the classroom, they pulled key elements from the interviews and, as playwrights, began to stitch together the dialogue. Over the winter, Swander, 61, pared it further so the exact words of the vineyard owner and the hog farmer rang true.
The final result was Farmscape: The Changing Rural Landscape, a grassroots play that takes on everything from corporate consolidation to GMOs, climate change, and the rise and fall of the family farm.
A small grant from agricultural “thought leader” Fred Kirschenmann’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University brought Farmscape to the stage. In the five years since it was written, the play has been performed all over the Midwest, at conferences, in community venues, and at large theaters. Once they even staged it in local beauty parlors.
The play is also being published this month as a book from Ice Cube Press, along with commentary on the changing rural environment by a list of prominent thinkers: Kirschenmann, Anna Lappé, Gene Logsdon, and Leigh Adcock.
Farmscape opens with an auction, the auctioneer standing to the side, calling out the names of farm equipment – Massey Ferguson 35 loaded tractor … John Deere sickle mower… Red and white Ford pickup — being sold off as small farms are shutting down. Bidders, who are the actors about to tell their stories, come on the stage one by one, and the auctioneer’s voice can be heard in moments dispersed throughout the play. It’s a stark symbol of the consolidation of farming in the Midwest, and it shapes the entire play.
At the premiere of Farmscape, the students became the actors. Student Jason Arbogast took a plaid shirt of his father’s, cut out the sleeves, and donned a seed cap. He then read the lines of the men he had interviewed.
“When I stood in front of the mirror, my wife, who is a city person, looked at me and said, ‘You look like Eddie Vedder,’” Arbogast recalls. “I told her no, I look liked Jason Arbogast would have looked like if his family had made the decision to farm.”
On stage, a white sheet often serves as the backdrop. On it flashes images captured during the farm crisis of the 1980s by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Dave Peterson. Local musicians often play during interludes and at intermission.
After the play is over, Swander encourages discussion and even courteous disagreement between small and organic farmers and their conventional counterparts. One night, a man in the audience even rose from his seat afterwards to say that the auction scene had been about his family’s farm, before he burst into tears. (Money from the sale enabled him to go to college. Now in banking and finance, he works to aid farmers.)
“Agriculture is very polarized right now,” says Swander. “Sustainable, organic people and conventional people — there’s lots of conflict and the two camps have a hard time speaking to each other,” she added. “I’ve witnessed an organic farmer and a Monsanto executive talking together in the same room.”
In many ways, Farmscape echos James Adee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 1941 classic about tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl during the New Deal. Take this snippet of dialogue from an organic farmer:
Joe: Americans expect food to be cheap but that doesn’t make sense as a producer. We don’t serve poor people because poor people can’t afford our food. It’s not quite a downside but it’s frustrating and disappointing to me that there’s not a way for more people to have access to locally grown food.
In the four years since Farmscape‘s debut, much has changed for farming, the student playwrights, and Swander. Initially sympathetic to Nate, the agribusiness executive he’d interviewed for the play, Arbogast has come to abhor companies like Monsanto.
“At first I thought his heart was in the right place. In hindsight, after learning more about Monsanto, I don’t think [the company] is in it for anything but the money,” Arbogast says. “I’ve seen enough of their practices and Nate is not someone I personally want to be associated with.”
With an additional grant from the Leopold Center, Swander launched AgArts, an organization that supports the intersection of art and agriculture, be it through chefs, photography, crafts, or other artistic means. The writer/teacher looks forward to engaging with the issues the play raises on an even deeper level in the future. And she’s optimistic about the next generation of farmers, many of whom want to grow food without growing large industrial monocultures.
She explains, “I don’t think the large farms will ever be wiped out. Instead, the new, young farmers will work alongside them, changing the landscape of the community and city.”
Virginia farmer Buff Showalter relies on federal conservation funding to help him protect nearby Chesapeake Bay waterways.
Standing on the edge of a streamside habitat he helped restore, Virginia farmer Buff Showalter interrupts himself mid-sentence to point out a pair of hummingbirds overhead, barely visible as they sketch busy circles against a blue-sky backdrop. By late August, he says, there will be hundreds of them flitting around their favorite jewelweed wildflowers in this forage-covered patch of wetlands.
The patch used to be a favorite drinking hole for Showalter’s cattle as well, before he realized that having cows near and in the waterways could contribute to pollution in the nearby Chesapeake Bay. A decade later, the stream is fenced off and teaming with wild-looking shrubs and trees that help soak up pollutants before they reach the water.
Growing up fishing and birdwatching on the fourth-generation farm where he now raises cows and chickens, Showalter watched over time as some local species declined with the water quality in streams running through the property. The bay, meanwhile, has become a receptacle for agriculture nutrients such as nitrogen and phosporous — so much so that in 2010 it contained the nation’s third-largest dead zone (an area where generations of dying algae blooms have left the water oxygen-free and inhospitable to all aquatic life).
Showalter started doing his “small part” to improve the quality of the water running off his farm in the early 2000s. Along with setting aside land for marshes, Showalter began implementing rotational grazing for his cattle, allowing the soil to rest. These days, he is far from alone in his conservation efforts as more livestock farmers in the region work to shrink their piece of the pollution pie.
Photo by Ole Bendik Kvisberg.
The area surrounding the Chesapeake is well-known for its concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which are regulated — at least in theory — by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But small- and medium-sized farms and ranches present a different set of challenges. With animals often grazing on the land, these farms are also sources of “nonpoint pollution,” which are, by definition, harder to pinpoint.
Conservation groups in the area have had success in helping these farmers make small changes to farming practices, like fencing off streams and implementing rotational grazing. But — with just under half of Chesapeake Bay’s unhealthy nitrogen load coming from farms — they still have a ways to go.
Farm bill funding?
Libby Norris works as a liaison between farmers and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has taken the lead on helping farms change their practices. She says farmers like Showalter end up taking on these projects for a host of reasons. Some see it as the right thing to do as stewards of the land, and others do it because there is money to help pay for the projects — or at least there has been in the past.
The 2008 farm bill set aside $188 million over four years specifically for conservation projects and technical assistance on farms in the watershed, which were deemed a high priority. But a repeat of that funding level in the current farm bill is highly unlikely. (Congress returns from recess in September, at which point it’s still unclear whether they’ll be able to extend the current bill or negotiate a new five-year bill.)
Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says the Senate’s version of the bill, passed in June, includes a “comparable level” of hard-fought funding for Chesapeake projects under a regional conservation program. But the House version of the bill doesn’t include that language at this point.
Meanwhile, the Clean Water Act and related directives require that measures be in place by 2017 to move the bay more than halfway toward its cleanup goals, which — along with occasional visits from environmental regulators — has driven a sense of urgency among area farmers. The act requires that measures be fully in place by 2025 to restore the Chesapeake to health in the following years.
“Our farmers are under tremendous pressure that isn’t [the same] in Illinois or Iowa or Washington state or anywhere else,” says Siglin, who’s worked with legislators for years to help fund conservation projects. “The funding for [conservation projects] and the amount of money that’s available to make the changes is important.”
‘Relationships are priceless’
Norris, who grew up on a Nebraska farm and now works with farmers in the watershed to implement better environmental practices, says each farm has its own unique needs. She can think of 15 different ways to install a watering system, for example, depending on the farm’s elevation, water source, and goals.
After more than a decade in the field, Norris has built relationships with farmers who otherwise bristle at visits from the EPA, but appreciate her help. Her position — funded by farm bill dollars — entails visiting farms to give technical advice on projects and letting farmers know about USDA and state programs that split the cost of those projects.
“Most farmers in the valley know Libby [Norris]. They respect her. Those kind of relationships are priceless,” says Showalter, who’s worked with Norris for a dozen years on various projects, only a few of which have received outside funding.
It’s also telling that Showalter — a self-described libertarian who would prefer to pay for all the projects himself — sees funding conservation funding as necessary for now.
“If we want to clean up the bay, some of the money, unfortunately, is going to have to come from the United States government,” he says.
Molly Nakahara, Paul Glowaski, and Cooper Funk. In many ways, starting a farm is like starting a band, Glowaski says. (Photo by Alix Blair.)
Like many Americans, Paul Glowaski, Molly Nakahara, and Cooper Funk have farming in their families. Nakahara’s great-grandparents, Japanese immigrants, farmed in California’s Salinas Valley until being sent to internment camps during World War II. Funk’s extended family has a 2,000-acre farm in the Central Valley. And Glowaski’s grandfather farmed in Indiana. “He raised corn in the ’70s and ’80s, and they would stir the pesticide with their hands,” Glowaski says. “He died of pancreatic cancer, and probably lots of other farmers did too.”
“We’re trying to create a real dynamic, diversified system, where the animals are working in conjunction with our vegetables, fruit, and flowers,” Glowaski says.
The 33-year-old Glowaski met Nakahara, 32, and Funk, 33, in the agroecology program at the University of California-Santa Cruz — one of the preeminent places to study organic farming in the nation. Realizing they had similar long-term goals, they began plans for what they called “Dream Farm,” a working farm that would not only feed people, but also provide education and training. They searched for land while working day jobs — Funk as a carpenter, Nakahara running a high school garden, and Glowaski at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz.
Nakahara’s family owned 10 acres of land in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada, and a few of their neighbors had adjacent property that had fallen out of use. The trio pieced together 40 acres, leased from five different landowners, including an orchard where their chickens have been roaming in the shade this hot summer. While the topsoil and terrain aren’t ideal, the availability of water at the site — something other areas they’d considered lacked — clinched the deal. So, in 2010, they started building Dinner Bell Farm.
Although Dinner Bell is a work in progress, it’s also the kind of farm that has the potential to anchor healthy local food systems at a time when the American farmer is aging, healthy farmland is disappearing, and Big Ag wields considerable political power. Some might dismiss the growth of this movement as a passing trend — back-to-the-land hipsters catering to elite urban foodies — but the passion of farmers like Glowaski, Nakahara, and Funk in the face of a food system designed, in many ways, to make them fail, suggests otherwise.
In the two years it’s been up and running, the farm has begun making a name for itself with its Naked Neck and New Hampshire chickens, heritage birds raised on organic feed and rotated heavily. Dinner Bell Farms supplies restaurants, caterers, and butchers, and the chickens are also available at local farmers markets and pickup sites in the Bay Area. At $22 for a medium bird and $27 for a large (about $5.40 to $7.50 per pound), they’re reasonably priced for such rare breeds, which grow more slowly and produce more dark meat than your typical Cornish cross chicken. “It’s a shame that all chicken is called chicken,” Glowaski says. “It’s like apples and oranges.”
Dinner Bell Farm’s commitment to organic feed has been challenged this summer, as the Midwest drought drives up the cost of grain everywhere. Glowaski says they’ve spent $15,000 more on feed this year than they would have two years ago, had they been farming at the same scale then. “That’s going to force us to change,” he says. Other idealistic producers have already succumbed to those forces: Soul Food Farm, another chicken provider well-known in the Bay Area, folded recently — even after trying to cut costs by making the tough choice to use conventional feed in order to raise the birds on pasture.
Instead of giving up on organic feed, Dinner Ball Farm is diversifying its operations; they’ve recently started raising hogs and sheep and improving their row cropping. Making their food affordable is important to Glowaski and his fellow farmers — “We don’t want to just feed the 1%,” he says — but that requires time to scale up. “The struggle for us will be the question: ‘How small is big enough?’ We don’t want to be huge, but we also want to make a living and have a salary and health insurance.”
That’s why, by necessity, this type of farming can’t be a short-lived trend — farmers have to be in it for the long haul to have any hope of turning a profit, especially if they want to provide high-quality food at a reasonable price. The Dinner Bell farmers realize this; Glowaski says part of the process of getting started has been “accepting that this is a 10-year deal until it becomes even close to what you want it to be.” That means putting plans for the education component of the farm on hold until they’ve established a sustainable business model.
“I talk to our friends who are starting restaurants or trying to be in a band, and in many ways it’s similar — you invest everything you have because you believe that it’s something unique,” Glowaski says. “There’s this sea of other farms doing amazing things, but we’re just trying to eke out a little place that allows Dinner Bell, what we believe, to exist.”
In some ways, younger farmers are an anomaly in a generation known for its aimlessness. While other millennials and young Gen X-ers cycle through low-paying jobs and unemployment, scraping together rent for studio apartments in pursuit of the new urban American dream, aspiring farmers are leaving cities behind for work that can be grueling and lonely and difficult to just abandon if things don’t go according to plan.
“Farming can be so myopic and insular; there’s a lot of time alone,” Glowaski says. “There’s a lot of those days where — it’s so cliché — but the rooster’s crowing and it’s dawn and you put on your clothes and go out and start working and you work ’til dark. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? This is insane.’”
Glowaski and friends started their farm with a lot of education, training, and preparation, but unexpected things happen every day — equipment breaks and deer destroy crops. Having mentors with years of practical experience is important, as is keeping on good terms with landowners, government agents, chefs, and other customers. “So much of our work is based on building relationships with people,” Glowaski says. “We’ve found this amazing community up here, and we’re starting to make friends.” The landowners, he adds, have been gratified to see the trio of farmers make an impact on the land they’ve invested in. “All the families are real stoked on what’s happening.”
You could say that focus on relationship-building is another thing that sets new farmers apart from their counterparts in cities, where neighbors can live cheek-by-jowl and not know each other. Farmers may spend a lot of time alone, but maybe it’s the city folks who are the loneliest.
And while those unexpected moments can be frustrating, there are positive surprises, too, that remind Glowaski of why he’s doing this work. “Some days are a real grind and it can be demoralizing. Some days are really inspiring. And you’re up so long during the day that you might have a few of those moments in one day,” he says. “It keeps you on your toes.”