Across the national landscape, family farmers have been for decades a declining breed. The national average age of farmers is 57, and climbing. Fertile land is diminishing. Purchasing affordable farmland for new farmers poses severe challenges. Listening to Michael Pollan, perhaps the closest this country has to a patron saint of food, during a recent Fresh Air interview, he reminds us of our earlier history where modern agricultural policy began, and its main intent.
President Richard Nixon, responding in the early 1970’s to a spike in food prices, ordered his new agricultural secretary, Earl Butz, to develop a federal plan to drive down food prices, and to avoid future price shocks. And so it began, through the instrument of the existing Federal Farm Bill, farmers were encouraged to overproduce certain commodity crops, rice, corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton, at the expense of other food crops. This insured not only lower food prices, it also led to the consolidation of the farming industry; it simply was much more profitable to become a larger farmer. Feedlots began as wheat and corn prices fell, animals could now be cheaply fed and housed in super sized pens, without the need for grass pastures, further promoting cheaper prices through increased economies of scale.
And so today, we find ourselves struggling to address a host of serious and interrelated problems threatening not only the future of the family farmer, but also posing increasing threat to our environment, public health, animal welfare, soil fertility, and climate change—all a natural consequence from Nixon’s desire to drive down food prices to the maximum extent possible.
In part two of this series, the farmers and eaters that have gathered to discuss ways of supporting local family farmers in Oregon, their plight, and the eventual solutions, extend well beyond the borders of any given State.