Monday, November 23, 2009

National Farm-City Week

Friday, November 20th 2009 saw the following proclamation from the White House:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim the week ending on Thanksgiving Day of each year as National Farm-City Week. I call on Americans as they gather with their families and friends to reflect on the accomplishments of all who dedicate their lives to promoting our nation's agricultural abundance and environmental stewardship.

I was immediately confused by this new national week of observance. What does “farm-city” mean and exactly what are we celebrating with this observance? My attempt to parse out the President’s explanation of National Farm-City Week brought the following observations:

“Our Nation's farm and ranch families supply many of the basic necessities of our daily life. They manage a large portion of our country's fertile land base, and they are caretakers of our valuable natural resources and diverse ecosystems. Their connections with urban and suburban communities are critical to our economy and to the nourishment of our people.”

President Obama’s focus is distinctly urban. His reference to how farms supply many “necessities of our daily life” assumes that the “our” are urban people, and that urban people constitute his audience of Americans. It’s interesting to note that the value assigned to farm and ranch families by the President is based upon their supposed connection to urban and suburbanites. Why is President Obama addressing urban Americans and at least unconsciously placing farmers in the category of “other”? The 2000 census showed that 8 out of every 10 Americans live in urban areas. What’s more, as husband-and-wife sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, authors of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America report: “The rise of agribusiness has meant that there are hardly any farmers left in America's agricultural regions: Just 2 percent of Americans operate farms now.” So perhaps farmers are the “other” in the President’s prose precisely because they are such a small and peripheral portion of the American population.

Again, why then are we carving out a week of observance directed at American farmers? President Obama’s statement sets out the purported value of farm and ranch families to America at large. It is comprised of: (1) the goods they produce that are necessities to other Americans; (2) the fact that they manage much of the country’s fertile land; (3) the view that they are caretakers of natural resources and ecosystems; and (4) their central role in the U.S. economy and feeding the American people. But how true are these claims?

Surely, much of the nation’s food can be sourced back to rural areas. What of the view that the nation’s farming community manages the country’s fertile land and natural resources? It is certainly the case that most of the nation’s land area is located in rural areas, but it’s not clear to me whether we should be thanking or scolding America’s farmers and ranchers for how they are caring for the land and natural resources. One need only read the headline to this Rolling Stone article to understand the havoc that pig ranches are wreaking on the environment: Pork’s Dirty Secret: The Nation’s Top Hog Producer is also one of America’s Worst Polluters. The article discusses how the waste generated by the nation's top pig producer is destroying rivers, killing fish and poisoning the water table. This kind of environmental degradation is common to most factory ranches. The environmental degradation caused by industrial farming is also cause for serious concern. For example, lack of crop rotation results in soil depletion, heavy use of pesticides poisons not only farmworkers but the water table, and heavy water use depletes the water supply. See, for example, this article discussing the environmental harm caused by farms. The President’s words that “[w]e must ensure that farming is maintained as an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable way of life for future generations,” should perhaps be read more as a cautionary warning than a reason to celebrate America’s farms.

So it’s not clear that all farmers and ranchers are caretakers of the nation’s fertile land and resources, but are they at least feeding America? While American ranches and farms have a comparatively high volume of output, it’s still the case that much of the food consumed by Americans is imported. For example, between 2000 and 2005, 32% of fruits and nuts consumed by Americans were imported, as well as 13% of vegetables and 12% of grains and products.

While we pause to give thanks this year, the President is asking that we also “reflect on the accomplishments of all who dedicate their lives to promoting our nation’s agricultural abundance and environmental stewardship.” I’m still unsure as to the reasons behind this new week of observance (perhaps the powerful farm lobby?), but I agree nonetheless that Americans have a lot to be thankful for in the way of American bounty. Perhaps, however, as Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving dinners this year, they should also stop to consider where our food comes from and the environmental cost of our abundance. We may also think about adjusting our vision of America's "farm and ranch families" in light of modern industrial farms and ranches.


Tommy Manuel said...

Enjoyed the article very much. I've learned that not only is rural America supplying much of urban America's resources, but they are also receiving a disproportionment of urban garbage, polluted water & air, and solid hazardous materials. We certainly need more of an honest and candid dialogue on the relationship between our dense urban centers and our resource rich rural areas.

Spec said...

I think it may be traced back to American's love of the historical. We love to think that we have this long rich culture and background but really this is a fallacy. At 230 some odd years old and given the massive cultural diversity of the Country, we, as a country, are perhaps still too young to realize our own follies. The embracing of destructive aspects of our cultural past can also be seen in the deep South and the confederate flag. Society simply views farmers as a more wholesome aspect of our agrarian roots.
Farming is so intertwined it is part of the gestalt of Americana. Sorry to keep bringing in Indian law but farming was so integral to how we defined ourselves that many of the allotment act and other pieces of Indian law legislation in the late 19th and early 20th century was designed to make Indians farmers because it was thought that would civilize them. That it would make them more like us, more 'white'.

Adam W said...

I don't think that this entry is particularly troubling, in fact I agree with much if not most of it, but I cringe a little every time farmers are blamed for the destruction of rural places.

True, there are places where absentee corporations are using unsustainable and destructive practices to produce food. But consumers ultimately choose what to eat, and accordingly, which types of production practices to support. And these production decisions are made in a regulatory environment that is more than capable of instituting whatever sorts of controls and limits voters/consumers think are important/necessary/worthwhile.

Spec said...

I think the market plays a larger role in food choices than we give it credit for. People would love to eat organic, locally grown food but that food is expensive. People will only makes those choices we view as 'positive' when the economic sacrifice to do so is acceptable.

There is also a general ignorance about where our food actually comes from. I would ponder than the vast majority of Americans don't really know what goes on in the pork industry, which is one of the most environmentally destructive agro/good sectors.

As for farmer's causing environmental destruction? As just one example, one of the major causes of the 'dust bowl' during the Great Depression was poor farming techniques throughout Middle America. Over farming, disuse of fallow field planting, and other poor techniques help create the dead soil, desert conditions which typified the dust bowl.

I am not bashing farmers or farms in general...I grew up on one. But farmers and farms have been major contributors to certain types of environmental problems for quite some time.

Becky Hayes said...

After reading your post, I became curious, just as you were, what the impetus for Farm-City Week was exactly.

I found the following website:, the homepage for the National Farm-City Council. According to the website, Farm-City Week has been announced by the President of the United States annually on this week since 1955. Apparently Obama is just keeping up the tradition. That of course does not answer the question of what inspired the Presidential acknowledgement of the week in the first place, which the website does not elaborate on.

I am with you in suspecting the farm lobby likely has a hand in this. The National Farm-City Council’s headquarters are located in Washington, D.C., which, I theorize means that they are involved in lobbying to some degree.

According to their website, apparently the National Farm-City Counsel is "a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the linkages between farm families and urban residents, providing local organizations with educational programs and materials about the people who grow their food."

After that extra research and a liberal perusal of the National Farm-City Counsel’s website I’m still not sure I “get” Farm-City Week. Perhaps something has been lost in translation over these past 54 years? And perhaps the dissonance for you and I is that the simple times of the celebrated rural ideal are now behind us as the reality of environmental hazards of farming and the general ills of agribusiness come more and more to light.

Anonymous said...

What would you do if no one farmed any more. If no one went out to plant the field, milk the cows, feed and care for the cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. on the farm? Where do you think your food comes from? If you don't appreciate the farm and farmers, try going to a grocery store where there was no food to be trucked in from the farm to the store. Even if the food was imported, it came from the "farm" some where in the world. There is one thing you can't do for sure -- you can't pick a tomato or ear of corn without a seed having been planted some where by someone, whether it be in the field or in a greenhouse. Folks who don't know better need to make a trip to the country sometime and observe the hard work that goes into raising crops and livestock to feed this country. The Pilgrims sure were thankful for that little sack of corn from the Indians. I am sorry some folks don't feel the same way toward those who work from dawn to dark to produce the food that goes on our table. Someone seems to have missed the whole point behind the observance of Farm-City Week. It is simply a time for us to recognize and thank those who work so hard to put food on our table. I grew up in town, but I have enough sense to know that if it were not for a farmer somewhere, I would not eat!