Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"Mega farms" and their impacts on rural livelihoods

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 40 percent of people in rural areas lived on farms in 1950. In 2010, USDA statistics revealed that less than 10 percent of the rural population lives on farms and that only 14 percent of the rural workforce is employed in agriculture. The shift from rural to urban is attributable to many factors, including, industrialization, social preferences, demand, and costs. Whatever the cause of the shift, the traditional farms showcased in 20th century literature, art and film are being pushed to the wayside by large-scale farming activities, corporations and “industrial agriculture.”

Over the summer, National Public Radio (NPR), reported on this subject in a piece called “In the Making of Megafarms, A Mixture of Pride and Pain,” by Dan Charles. For me,The most surprising portion of the show was the statistic that: “According to the latest census of American agriculture, there are two million farms in America. But just four percent of those farms account for two-thirds of all agricultural production.” This shift is viewed with mixed feelings. There are both benefits and drawbacks to this form of production.

The benefits of large-scale farming are production efficiency, arguably food-safety, profitability, and lower costs to the consumer. For every proponent of large-scale farming, there an equal number of opponents. John Ikerd falls into the latter category. In his paper, Reclaiming Rural America from Corporate Agriculture, Prof. Ikerd writes:
Rural communities are being systematically polluted and plundered by an industrial agriculture that is increasingly under the control of large agribusiness corporations. . . . Many rural communities, desperate for jobs, are encouraged to compete for new prisons. If they can’t get a prison, they may be encouraged to settle for a landfill. . . . If they can’t get a landfill, they can probably get a toxic waste incinerator or a nuclear waste site . . . . [or] large-scale confinement animal feeding operations. The corporate world sees rural areas as empty spaces occupied by desperate people . . . . The profits go to wealthy corporate investors, while rural people are paid but a few dollars . . . .
Prof. Ikerd’s position is not atypical. Other rationales some rural residents give for being opposed to “mega farming” include foul smelling odors and other negative secondary environmental effects. The unemployment that Prof. Ikerd’s paper mentions is one of the largest concerns. In 2001, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report found that declines in farming and opposition to industrializing trends in agriculture are compelling rural areas to seek new job sources, abandoning farming, and sometimes leaving their hometown, altogether. Rural farmers, like Donn Teske, have observed a type of rural-flight: "there's nothing left but huge modern farms and boarded-up main streets of county seats. And that's really sad to see."

“Mega farming” may be necessary to facilitate a relatively cheap and plentiful source of food for America. However, this form of farming comes at a cost to the farmers and their rural way of life. Donn Teske’s home county of Jewell, has fallen victim to a large, 25 square mile farm. Since the “mega farm” took root in the 1980s, the population of Jewell County has fallen by nearly half. Daily accommodations and necessities have given way. The town of Jewell no longer has its own schools, nor are there shops where one could by a suit and shoes. This lack cannot help but impact the local rural community.

As the negative consequences of larger farms on rural livelihood continues to accumulate, one cannot help but to reflect on this trend historically. The move from rural farms to “mega farms” can be said to be somewhat analogous to Rockefeller and the oil industry: although the production is arguably more efficient and the product itself is more consistent and arguably safer, many families livelihoods are compromised in the process.


Colm Barry said...

"… just four percent of those farms account for two-thirds of all agricultural production …" - The reason for most of this are the agricultural of the US, Canada, the European Union etc. They are encouraging, by targeted subsidies, the megafarms and leave the "normal" farmer who cannot apply for all of them, in the dust. On their way, they destroy natural habitats and pollute rivers and likely make people obese, all with but the best intentions. Take away those subsidies and customs tariffs and you will once more see a moree motley picture.

Ahva said...

Before taking Professor Pruitt's Law and Rural Livelihoods course, I was under the mistaken assumption that rural communities are, by definition, agricultural communities. As you say, "less than 10 percent of the rural population lives on farms and that only 14 percent of the rural workforce is employed in agriculture" -- for some reason, these statistics still come as a surprise to someone like me who, until recently, believed that rural life and farm life were one and the same. In addition to the impacts on rural livelihoods that you outlined in your post, the rise in mega farms has made the USDA hesitant to establish consistent standards for what can be labeled "organic." In an effort to protect the mega farms that account for most of our country's agricultural production, the USDA recently refused to enforce the animal welfare standards articulated by its own advisory board, which has the practical effect of allowing the farms with the worst animal welfare practices to label their products "organic." For more on this issue, read this article:

Juliana said...

Since the NPR piece state four percent of farms makes up 2/3 of all agricultural production, it raises the question of what happens to rural knowledge -- especially because the article implies unless part of a mega farms, agricultural rural areas have become largely economically depressed. This seems to suggest that with modern agricultural technology, rural knowledge is difficult to rely on for economic sufficiency.