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In the spring of 1997, just a year after my father died, my mother found herself and our family farm in a situation that would ultimately require her to find the courage to speak out against what she saw as an affront to family farms and a dangerous direction for agriculture. She boldly and publicly opposed a 2,800-cow dairy confinement facility proposed to be built less than two miles from our family’s Iowa farmhouse. My mother was not alone in her deep concerns with what was happening to farming. Her story reflects the struggles of family-scale farmers, defined not simply as a nuclear family but more broadly as people with diverse human relationships, farming and working with each other and closely with the synergies of nature, while building essential elements of community. Throughout this country – and around the world – the struggle to farm with this set of ethical principles continues. Corporate-dominated food and agriculture industries persists at exploiting nature and human labor. As these industries are supported by government policies, they have been able to grow at an accelerated pace. Parity is necessary to break the grip that corporations have on the ways we farm and the ways society thinks about farming.
Living on the Land and the ‘Knowledge of Doing’
Like the women and men who walk a similar path of living and working on the land to produce food, my mother had the ‘knowledge of doing.’ She helped care for the diversity of crops and animals so common and necessary to a sustainable and resilient farm, including dairy cows, beef cows, pigs, and chickens, as well as field crops, orchard, and garden. She also drew on the knowledge she had gained from her husband, parents, and neighbors – and the ancestors who came before them. This is the knowledge that she, in turn, shared with her children.
She knew that confining thousands of animals into limited spaces went against the agrarian ethic of treating animals with the care and respect they deserve. Viewing farm animals as sentient beings with natural instincts that are partners in a mutually beneficial relationship was essential to the productivity of the farm and to the welfare of the animals.
Global warming, what we now call climate change, was only beginning to be a commonly discussed issue in the late ‘90s. Now, research has confirmed that livestock on the farm play an important role in adding fertility to the crops and allowing for beneficial crop rotations in a closed-loop system, while reducing the need for off-farm inputs and sequestering carbon. Livestock raised on the land are better for the health of the animals and the soil, and for our climate.
She My mother knew that the number of animals proposed for this site would require an enormous amount of water, increasing the risks of neighboring wells running dry and of underground water and the nearby river becoming contaminated.
She knew that the price we got for the milk from our own dairy cows had been too low for years and that local creameries that bought our milk were being consolidated into larger, more distant processing facilities. By 1997, dairy cows had largely disappeared from Iowa’s family farms.
Multiple Harms of the CAFO Model
My mother knew that the labor involved with dairy cows is one of daily commitment that cannot be shirked. She could not have known that by 2021 much of the labor performed at dairies of this size and even larger would be done not by families and neighbors but largely by low-wage employees, many of them immigrants, toiling in poor working conditions for long hours.
Nor could she have foreseen that the globalized market for feed would mean that dairy, hog, and poultry confinements would be more profitable for the corporate owners than for family farmers whose only option was to compete in this free market system. She couldn’t have imagined that Iowa would eventually have millions of pigs and chickens owned by corporations and housed in inhumane confinement facilities. Nor could she have imagined that anyone would think it wise to have as many as 30,000 dairy cows in one facility, as is the reality of the dairy industry today.
Simply put, my mother had a sense deep in her bones that confining livestock into what we now call concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, would be a disaster for family-scale farms, rural communities, and the environment. She may not have been able to put these lived experiences and knowledge into words, but she understood that living close to the land was an important aspect of living. The connections between human beings and the non-human life in this world were being ripped away, tossed in the dumpster, deemed of no value with the CAFO model of livestock production.
Pitting Neighbor Against Neighbor
With strength and determination, my mother’s efforts and those of others in the county resulted in the proposed dairy moving to another Iowa county where it continues today in 2021, with 3,600 cows and 35 employees. However, just as Carolyn Johnsen wrote in her 2003 book, “Raising a Stink,” which delved into the impact of the expanding number of hog confinements on communities in Nebraska, this proposed dairy created a contentious rift between members of the community, pitting neighbor against neighbor. In fact, those in the community who saw this dairy as economic development and a provider of jobs ridiculed and shunned my mother and the others who opposed it.
Thus, it wasn’t surprising that the publisher and editor of the county seat’s newspaper wrote this stinging op-ed in June of 1997 after the dairy promoters withdrew their plans:
“Some rural residents [near the proposed dairy] … are no doubt gloating. While developers of the dairy concept were up front with their intentions, the opposition hit below the belt with an anonymous letter writing campaign and an attempt to establish a permanent residence by hauling in a camper to a field near the projected dairy site. The opposition not only dealt a couple of low blows to the developers, they gave Guthrie County two black eyes in the process. Future economic development in the county may have been irreparably damaged by the knee-jerk reaction of the opposition who closed their ears and eyes but not their mouths, not even after Brown told of his company’s decision to forsake Guthrie County. … For me, the loss of high paying jobs, new technology in the county, and a good corporate citizen are much worse than the potential smell of cattle manure.”
Jobs. Technology. Corporations as citizens. Ridicule thrown at anyone who sees things differently. All in pursuit of rural economic development. This same mantra not only continues to this day, but has intensified.
How Did We Get Here?
These notions all came from the agribusiness industry narrative and were fed by the desperation that rural communities were experiencing by the late 1990s. That desperation is far worse today as the backbone of these communities – the farm families – continue to disappear. Even so, few people, from small towns to the halls of political power, will dare to question the industry-driven narrative that has become ingrained into an unthinking acceptance of the industrial production model.
Forgotten is the fact that, in diverse cultures throughout history, family-scale farms have been the builders of communities, supporting local businesses, schools, and health clinics, while producing food for others in ecologically-sound ways. Forgotten is the social contract between farmers and non-farmers that recognizes the common good that comes from the land – when agriculture does not just produce a commodity, but when farming defines community.
The Corporate Agribusiness Narrative
The corporate agribusiness narrative, accepted and reinforced by politicians, tells us that to revitalize rural areas, we need to simply focus on jobs; technology will solve our problems; and corporate largess can be relied on to benefit our communities and our environment – and to feed us. In addition to those assertions, the agribusiness narrative tells us that to improve agriculture’s profitability, we need more exports and more uses for our products, without considering the multiple problems created by this intensive system.
Since that still isn’t enough to ensure family farms can stay in business, agribusiness now tells us that new revenue streams created through carbon markets or from payments to farmers for corporate-defined ‘regenerative’ farming practices beginning with herbicide-dependent no-till – just two of the greenwashing false solutions to climate change – will be satisfactory. In the meantime, the actual prices farmers are paid for their products remain too low, benefiting only the corporate buyers of those products.
We, all of us, are left with a dehumanizing technology-dependent method of producing, processing, and delivering food, reinforcing the idea that people are above nature rather than being one with nature.
We are clueless as multiple crises, directly and indirectly related to the high-input, chemical-intensive industrial model of agriculture that extracts wealth from nature and from human labor, affect our one precious world. Huge tracts of annual crops, livestock in confinements, and forests turned into plantations are implicated as contributors to these threats to our very existence.
Climate change and a global pandemic are at the top of our consciousness of crises, but we can’t forget other crises: species extinction, insect population collapse, diet-related diseases, systemic racism and oppression, and millions of people living in poverty and experiencing food insecurity, with wars and conflicts exacerbating all these crises.
These crises are linked to what we began calling a farm crisis in the 1980s. This farm crisis, that developed since the removal of New Deal policies that gave parity prices to farmers and was followed by the enactment of policies that pushed farmers into the free market global economy, continues. The results have been the depopulation of rural communities as farmers leave the land in Iowa and in regions around the world. Local food production is in serious decline as farmers become employees on managed farmland of industrial production or move to cities to compete with other job seekers.
To truly confront the crises of our own making, we can’t rely on the current power held by corporations – including seed, chemical, and food manufacturing companies – and by politicians to change this agriculture system. A few tweaks of the system through individual legislative actions will not be enough.
Re-Establishing Relationships of Humans and Nature
We need parity. The principles of parity are not just about fair prices for farmers. Parity, as described more fully by the essayists at DisparitytoParity.org, takes on the corporate power structure and market-based economic conditions, and redefines the purpose of government. Only then can the rules be changed to benefit humans and our one precious world. Basing the prices paid to farmers on parity recognizes that food and farming have a unique role in how people relate to each other and how we live on this planet.
We need to radically change our food and agriculture system so that it reflects the knowledge that my mother had and that many citizens of this planet still feel deep in their bones and in their souls. Family-scale farms – those built of diverse human relationships and essential elements of community, that allow for re-establishing the human relationship to nature – will be possible in a parity system that ends the stranglehold corporations have on us. Then, we will have a future in which we can reconnect with the natural world, and no longer see ourselves as separate from nature. Each and every one of us will enjoy a society based on parity, not disparity.