Finding Social Justice in Farming: The Importance of Local Ownership

DSC01993Being that we’re in election season, there’s quite a bit of discussion over social justice issues, namely food stamps, “welfare programs,” and an increased minimum wage. People on both sides will argue back and forth with some stating we need to decrease aid to encourage people to find better jobs, with others arguing we need to increase aid because better jobs aren’t available. What is often ignored in such discussions is that no matter what, the system is established in such a way as to fail the poor, but there is a solution: Farming.

We’ve fought to make ourselves an industrialized nation, to move beyond an agricultural nation, and for the most part we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. Even our farming is done via factory methods, attempting to achieve “efficiency.” We’ve reduced our farming populace to less than 1% of the US population. We’re told that our industrialized farming has done many things to end world hunger, that we’re just a few years away from ending it completely.

Of course, the reality is vastly different from what we’re told. Worldwide, the number of those hungry has remained relatively the same for 50 years. What is worse, according to the same source (the UN Food and Agricultural Organization) is that about 3 billion, or a little under half the world’s population, do not eat well.

Even within the United States, 14% of our population is food insecure, and that number is up since 2000 (when it was around 10%). Of course poverty is directly linked to food insecurity, especially in the United States. According to the same government study, 61% of those who are food insecure partook in the SNAP program or some other food stamp program the previous year. On a greater level, Americans are among the most malnourished people in the “rich” world, despite the average American consuming 2700 calories a day, we consume pointless calories, or food devoid of the needed nutrients to aid the body in growth and maintenance. While the United States has one of the worst hunger rates among rich countries, ironically we’re also one of the fattest; both stem from incredibly poor food practices.

All the problems we’ve had forces us to ask exactly how factory farms are efficient. They certainly aren’t efficient in protecting the environment or the soil. They’re not efficient in feeding the world or even the United States. They’re not efficient at providing healthier food. They’re not efficient at providing jobs as they’ve basically taken all the jobs in rural America, forcing farmers to move to the city to find work. The only thing factory farms seem to be efficient in is in making money. We’re told that factory farms are “efficient” simply because they’re efficient at making money; but by using an adjective to describe factory farms, we falsely imply that they’re efficient, at least more efficient than local farms, at producing food for the community or feeding the world. The truth is the only thing a factory farm can accomplish better than a local farm is it can make a bigger profit.

But what this entire conversation betrays is that we look at economics in terms of being “economical,” or “efficient,” which are all words for “Do the costs justify the results.” The better results at the lowest possible cost, the more “efficient” a system is. The question no one asks, the question it seems economists always fail to ask, is, “But is it right and good for society?” Is it good that we’re making a huge profit if such a profit comes with other costs?

The problem with economists – who are worse than weathermen for predicting the future in their respective field – is they tend to think along linear and isolated lines when it comes to the economy, especially farming. A (the producer) begins the line and B (the consumer) ends the line; in-between are costs. So long as A is cheaper than when B purchases it, the system is “efficient.” But such a system, when taken holistically and when asked, “But is it good for society?” becomes absurdly inefficient. After all, the producer could use slave labor to make a trinket, meaning the consumer purchases the trinket at a market-driven rate that is almost guaranteed to achieve a profit; but the end result (a profit) is gained through horrible means (slavery). Likewise, with factory farming, while a profit is gained in the end, the means and costs associated are actually quite horrible.

There are many reasons we ought to prefer local farms over factory farms, and here are a few:

  1. Property Ownership: A factory farm is, by default, a monopoly over capital producing property. A healthy society is one in which the majority of workers own and control (or at the very least hold heavy influence over) the means of their labor. Put another way, to quote from G.K. Chesterton, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” If three companies ultimately control 99% of the food production for a nation, it’s safe to say that their wishes hold more influence than 3 million people. A truly free society is one in which the majority of people own capital producing property (property that can make money). A prevalence of locally grown farms where 20-30% of the population owns a farm would create a society where land use is diversified and decentralized.
  2. Low Skill Labor: Farming jobs require hard work, but very low skill labor. For anyone who’s grown up in a rural area in the past 70 years, they can tell you that their first job was on a far. That’s because much of farming is so simple that a 13 year old can do it. But in factory farms such jobs just aren’t available. This means that people who would live in a rural town and contribute to the economy there must now travel into the cities and look for low-wage jobs in the city, living hand to mouth, and praying to God that the next paycheck will feed them. Of course, if they owned their own parcel of land and knew how to grow things on that land, they would be in a position to not only feed themselves, but then sell their produce for a profit. While they would by no means lead extravagant lives, they’d be in a better position. They’d live in a rural area instead of a cramped city, work on their terms, and if all else failed they’d at least have their own food to eat rather than praying for the first of the month to hurry and arrive.
  3. Meaningful Work: Along the same lines of providing jobs for low skill labor, farming labor is work. A factory farm does all it can to reduce the cost, which means they hire only what is needed and mechanize the rest of the labor. Those who work for the factory farm often do so under horrible conditions, conditions that dehumanize them and make them focus on one aspect of the job. Local farms, however, require farm hands to understand multiple aspects about the farm. A local farm would provide meaningful work for someone with low skills in other jobs. A kid or (as is more often the case today) adult down on his luck finds no meaning in flipping a burger or tossing french fries into a cardboard canister. They do find meaning, however, in growing things, in creating things, in seeing and reaping the fruits of their labor. There’s no utilitarian reason to it, no other explanation than that’s just how humans are; we’re typically okay working when we can see that our work has meaning.
  4. Reduced cost to the tax-payer: Factory farms are cheap and efficient in cost only because the government subsidizes them; remove those subsidies (especially for gas prices) and you’ll watch the cost of factory-produced food leap higher than locally grown food (even organic food).  Why? Because Farmer Fred down the road lives in the community, can deliver his goods to the community, and therefore doesn’t have a high overhead cost. Of the nearly $100 billion in subsidies we give out, 74% go to the top 10% of farms. While farm subsidies are necessary for smaller farmers, the cost drops due to the lower overhead cost of a smaller farm.
  5. Viability: Most factory farms also use GMOs, which isn’t bad in and of itself. The problem is that if the patented crop isn’t immune to a certain fungus or insect, an entire field could die instead of a percentage of that field. Under a local farmer – who lacks the equipment to engineer his food – his field holds diversity, allowing for at least some of his crop to survive. Even if a farmer loses his entire crop, the amount of diversity among the crops from all the farmers would be enough to ensure that an entire crop isn’t lost for the local community.
  6. A local economy: Local farms keep money within a community, allowing the community to grow. A local farm also needs a hardware store, a mechanic, and the list goes on and on. Some mega-factory receives all the repairs and keeps all the money. There’s a reason that as the farmable land has been eaten up by corporations people from small towns have moved into the city. Not everyone leaving a rural area is a farmer, but simply lose business because an “efficient” agribusiness has come into town. Whereas a local farm doesn’t have such a luxury due to financial constraints. Thus, they place their money in the local economy. They’re more likely to have the mechanic come out to the farm and work on the equipment, to hire local teenagers to work the fields during harvest time, to sell to the local grocer, and so on.
  7. Ecological sustainability: The hustle and bustle of modern life that we seem content to thrust humans into destroys our spirit and our connection with nature. Notice how most factory farms are also some of the biggest polluters out there, but local farmers tend to be quite the environmentalists. The reason is simple: The CEO and executive board sitting in New York and Chicago only sees numbers and profit; they don’t care one bit for the ecological consequences. Yes, the whole, “But they rely on the land for profit, so why ruin it?” might be logical, but such an argument assumes that greed allows men to be logical. There are thousands of instances where it was in a company’s best interest to be environmentally conscience, but they chose not to because it could save them a few bucks. The local farmer, however, is more connected to nature because he’s surrounded by it and works it everyday. Where a factory farm might not care if it ruins the soil – it has other soil it can plow – the local farmer deeply cares for his land because it’s all he has. He doesn’t see numbers first; he sees his livelihood first.

Ultimately, factory farms are only “efficient” if one considers profit, which is a very linear A to B way of thinking. Of course, such a type of thinking doesn’t function well in the real world where everything is connected. If we want to achieve true social justice, part of what we must do is begin returning a larger portion of our population back to farms that they own and control.