A confluence of opinions came my way over the past couple of days.
On Monday, the agriculture columnist Alan Guebert, whose column “The Food and Farm File” appears in my local newspaper, took note of some alarming statistics that have been largely overlooked in the national media. The statistics came from a University of Massachusetts study that found that about 30 million acres of the cultivated land in the Corn Belt (which includes all or part of eight states) has completely lost its topsoil as the result of erosion. That’s about 35 percent of the cultivated area.
This study prompted an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the Yale Environment 360 newsletter, which took note of some critical issues. Primary among them is that this shocking statistic is largely viewed in economic terms by those few who paid attention to it, as a “possible $3 billion loss to Midwestern farmers.” While that statement is true, it’s also terribly narrow, as Klinkenborg points out, because it views topsoil loss only through a short-term, economic perspective, not a systemic one. When you see an issue only as economic problem, you see only economic solutions. Losing topsoil? Add more fertilizer and ammonia. As Klinkenborg puts it, “The catastrophic loss of an irreplaceable resource — what you might call an essential part of our common earthly heritage — is construed as an annual loss of income to the farmers who operate those farms. The narrowness of these assumptions — driven by official U.S. Department of Agriculture policy and the shared economic interests of chemical and seed companies — has made it possible to farm in a way that is little more than slow strip-mining.”
Topsoil loss is not merely an economic problem, of course. It’s also a symptom of a climate catastrophe in the making, an increasing dependence on the industrial agriculture model that concentrates food production into the hands of an ever-shrinking number of mega-corporations, with the individual farmer relegated to the role of indentured contractor, as we already see in today’s chicken industry. In his previous week’s column, Guebert took note of this trend as it appeared in another form, the growing use of rural areas as dump sites for corporate waste.
Then this morning, my friend Jared Phillips, who is both a historian at the University of Arkansas and a farmer, made some observations on Facebook. He noted that 41 percent of the population of Arkansas is rural, and of its 75 counties, 62 are fully rural while the other 13 have large rural areas within them. “These areas have been losing population pretty steadily for a generation or more, and most of the jobs that remain are on average worth 14% less than urban jobs,” he wrote. “Most manufacturing has left, replaced—if it is—by service sector gigs. Small towns are emptying, the population is aging, and land is either going vacant or being bought up by absentee landlords needing a tax break (like the Walton family). Ag—one of the largest contributors to the state economy—is suffering as well, despite all the cows you might be seeing in the highlands or the soy crops in the news. Just look at dairy—milk is the state drink but the state has lost over 90% of its dairies since 1950.”
These things are connected. To corporate agriculture, the depopulation and impoverishment of rural areas is a good thing. It holds down the cost of labor, and it opens up more land for despoiling. As if to demonstrate that phenomenon, an opinion piece in the Missouri Independent today chronicled the efforts of JBS, a giant Brazilian meatpacking company (the largest in the world, in fact), to get around the environmental hazards of opening a hog factory (let’s not call it a “farm,” for God’s sake) in Livingston County that would house more than 10,000 hogs at a time, despite the presence of shallow groundwater at the site. JBS has been assisted in its efforts get around environmental regulation by none other than the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is considering a rule change that would allow the hog factory to be built despite its threat to groundwater in the area. Given that the state’s record in this area has been to comply with whatever Big Ag demands of it, I would guess that JBS will probably get its way, another giant facility will be opened, and nobody will ever want to live within a five-mile radius of the place again.
Drive through rural Missouri in any direction and you will see this pattern. Drive through any rural part of the country and you will see this pattern. Small towns emptying out, with only a Casey’s and some Section 8 senior housing as the remaining stable operations. Is there a way back from this path?
I think there is, but it’s not easy. It would require rural people to become more activist in their politics and to demand that their representatives work to make their section of the country more attractive and livable. Phillips reminds us that the rural decline has occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and has in fact become a de facto element of agricultural policy. Democrats ignore rural areas because they think of them as lost voters and they have become more focused on keeping people in the cities and suburbs happy. Republicans ignore them because they think rural voters can be bought off with continued agricultural subsidies and the usual drum-beating about gun rights and social issues. Rural people don’t need any more fake legislation guaranteeing the right to own more guns, or “freedom to farm” crap that only shields large corporations from accountability. What they need is aggressive effort on the part of government — local, state, and federal — to make rural places as prosperous and livable as urban and suburban ones. This means help to schools, hospitals, highways, broadband service, and all those other elements considered basic to a comfortable modern life. Without that effort, we will continue to see the slide of rural America into an empty, degraded landscape, dotted by the occasional monster animal feeding operation among the depopulated fields of corn and soybeans. Until the topsoil finally reaches a point where no amount of fossil-fuel fertilizer and ammonia can blast out a crop.