Growing Problem

A probably unintended consequence of the mania for gas-drilling in Pennsylvania is a new focus on the struggles of family farms.

According to news accounts and the gas industry’s own propaganda, small farmers throughout the state are cheerfully signing leases to allow drilling for shale gas on their land because the bonuses and royalties are necessary, or next to it, for them to even stay on the land.

We’ve been hearing about the plight of the American family farm for so many decades now that it’s hard to believe that any remain. The first Farm Aid concerts were in the mid-1980s, but industrial-scale agricultural outfits have been eroding their numbers since World War II, farms getting fewer and bigger.

Let’s grant that these remaining small-scale vegetable-growers, dairy farmers and livestock-raisers are truly so hard up they don’t have any other choice but to risk poisoning the land, air and water we all use, simply for the money.

But there’s a more basic question: How can it be that our society offers a living to pedicurists and the makers of reality-TV shows but not to the people who grow our food? Moreover, there’s apparently plenty of profit in transporting, processing and retailing food. It’s only the most important part of the process that’s economically insupportable.

There are plenty of reasons for this, but to cite just one: Food is too cheap.

Agricultural policies like the 40-year-old subsidy for corn-growers glut the market. (That the vast majority of U.S. corn goes toward either animal feed or fuel is surely another huge problem.) In 1930, Americans spent nearly 25 percent of their incomes on food; now it’s less than 10 percent, notwithstanding the fact that people eat out much more than they did even 30 years ago.

Moreover, even blaming farmers for food prices is absurd. The USDA recently calculated that farmers themselves receive less than 12 cents on the American consumer’s food dollar.

Another issue is the very industrialization of the food supply. The agriculture that feeds most Americans is completely dependent on fossil fuels, from the natural gas feedstock for synthetic fertilizers to the diesel that runs the tractors. This is “cheaper” than organic and manual means – but only if you discount the environmental havoc the industrial approach yields, from carbon emissions to the huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico fed by fertilizer runoff.

If we don’t properly value food, we won’t properly value farmers. And they’ll keep feeling they have to risk the land they farm to save their place on it.

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