Perhaps the biggest problem looming in farming and ranching is the average age of the American farmer is steadily creeping toward 60. This aging population, combined with youth flight from their rural homes, and sky-high barriers to entry have our farm economy careening toward feudalism. If current trends continue, Big Ag will join the Big Banks as too big to fail. The power that monopolies like Brazil’s JBS, China’s Smithfield, and the US’ Cargill and Tyson have over our political process has led to financial ruin for rural America and bold action is needed to reverse these trends before it’s too late.
As trends toward larger farms that rotate between 2, maybe 3, crops that are only fit for animal consumption dominate the landscape across America’s breadbasket, it would seem crazy for anyone to even consider farming. However, a desire to reconnect to our land and food runs deep in many Millenials and Zoomers but the opportunity to throw on a pair of bib overalls and produce food that humans eat is narrowing. Unless you were born expecting to inherit land or wealth, farming likely isn’t on the table. Even farming part-time is a distant dream as wages in rural areas are too low and broadband required for remote work that pays better is scarce, if available at all.
Aggressive steps need to be taken to revitalize rural areas and bring in the diversity that has helped urban areas thrive. Loans for new and beginning farmers, especially BIPOC and female farmers, need to be more accessible, student loan debt needs to be canceled, broadband must be expanded, and agribusiness giants must be shackled. And that’s just the start.
The global pandemic that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans has exposed just how weak our food system has become under corporate control. As images of heartbroken dairy farmers disposing of thousands of gallons of fresh milk as they already struggle to get by are juxtaposed with food bank lines wrapping around city blocks, a conversation has been sparked about our broken supply chains. Fixing this problem will require renewed and increased investments in local and regional food systems that support farmers and the communities they call home.
Of course, no discussion about farming should be taken seriously without at least mentioning the long-term environmental damage of industrial agriculture. I fear the lack of seriousness with which this issue is being approached stems from the lack of decision-makers who are likely to be around when the most dangerous and consequential effects of climate change occur. As our drinking water fills with pesticides and pig shit, the air we breathe poisons our lungs, and the soil we rely upon to produce a successful crop erodes. Quite frankly, the future of agriculture is bleak and there must be a changing of the guard and real support for sustainable production if we hope to have a livable future not littered by factory farms.
Sadly, help doesn’t seem to be on the way. The recent nomination of Tom Vilsack to be the next Secretary of Agriculture (again) has rallied both conservatives and progressives in a unified voice I thought the nation could no longer muster. His record of support for industry over independent producers is evident as his first stint oversaw a complete lack of intestinal fortitude when it came to standing up to corporate titans despite promises and hearings to do just that. Farmers risked their livelihoods to speak out against monopoly abuse and the lack of action has marred the Democratic brand across rural America. A return to the poisoned well is no way to water the next crop of progressives.
If we, as a nation, want a food system that feeds our communities, respects its workers, and practices good stewardship of our shared natural resources, Tom Vilsack will have to do an about-face on his first term and lead the charge for new and beginning farmers. Will he answer the call?
Cody Atkinson is the son of a long line of Missouri farmers. Cody grew up in Odessa, Missouri spending time on his family’s small cow/calf operation. Cody and his wife, Haven, hope to one day run their own farming operation raising bison and produce with a focus on sustainable development and disabled community integration.