Interview: Tanya Kerssen

‘They don’t farm anymore’

Print edition : July 26, 2013

Tanya Kerssen: "There is a strong movement of young people and mid-career professionals in the U.S. who want to get into farming." Photo: scaSCsdcsdcsad

Interview with Tanya Kerssen, research coordinator of Food First, Oakland, California.

CORPORATE farming is at its apogee in the United States. Small farmers, once the backbone of U.S. agriculture, find their livelihoods increasingly dependent on large companies. A handful of companies control the farm inputs and markets in the U.S.. For example, 10 firms control almost 90 per cent of the agrochemical market, a small number of firms control the pork-processing industry and two firms (Cargill and Continental) dominate the grain market.

The response towards the corporate control of U.S. agriculture is mixed, as it was in 1973 when the process of consolidation was initially noticed. A Minneapolis Tribune survey from that year showed that while 76 per cent of those polled found family farms to be efficient, and 95 per cent wanted them preserved, 71 per cent said that it would be corporate farming that would feed them 25 years into the future—which is to say, in our time.

Vijay Prashad spoke to Tanya Kerssen, the research coordinator of Food First (Institute for Food and Development Policy), based in Oakland, California. She is the author of Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras (Food First Books, 2013). Excerpts from the interview:

U.S. government data show that there are now two million farms, down from almost seven million in 1935. The decline is dramatic, but yet there are two million farms, or should one not read too much into this number?

Agriculture is an extremely risky business. This is mostly because, despite technological advances, it is still very much dependent on nature. So, a bad drought—like the 2012 Midwest drought that affected 80 per cent of the U.S. corn crop—can be devastating. This is why corporations often stay away from direct production, leaving the farmers to bear most of the risk of an increasingly volatile climate. Instead, corporations exert tremendous control both “upstream” and “downstream”—controlling the inputs farmers purchase [seeds, chemicals] and the markets where they sell their products. So while there are roughly two million farms in the U.S., only three companies control nearly half of the proprietary seed market [Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta]. One company [Monsanto] controls 60 per cent of the corn seed market and 62 per cent of the soybean seed market. It is also a vertically integrated company, meaning it controls various steps in the production process. For example, Monsanto will sell you “Roundup Ready” soybean seed, which is genetically engineered to withstand Monsanto’s proprietary glyphosate herbicide. Another vertically integrated company, Cargill, exerts enormous power at every step in the food chain, from farm to fork: supplying seeds and fertilizers; giving out loans; making production contracts with grain farmers; processing, transporting and exporting grain; processing meat products fed with that grain; and supplying supermarkets.

Where are the farmers in all this? The debt crisis among U.S. farmers in the 1980s led to many cases of suicide and homicide as banks seized the farms. This was when the Farm Aid movement sprang up. One has not heard of the farming crisis in any dramatic way since then.

While corporate monopolies exert more and more control over how food is produced, processed, traded and sold, producers and consumers have less and less control. Drowning in debt, farmers complain about being essentially “hired hands” for agribusiness corporations, who act as a sort of mafia, controlling both input prices and product markets. As input prices go up and farm prices go down—what’s known as the cost-price squeeze—more and more farmers are forced out of the business. Over four million U.S. farmers have lost their land in the past 50 years—that is over 200 a day. Imagine its impact on our rural culture.

Could you comment on this impact on rural culture? U.S. government data suggest that only 6 per cent of farmers are under the age of 35 and that an average of 300 farmers leave the land each week. Is this because of the economics or does this have to do with a culture that has turned away from the long days of toil in the fields?

Obviously, there are many reasons why farmers leave farming, and I can’t speak about all of them. But we can see that the dramatic decline of the U.S. family farm relates to the rise of industrial agriculture, a model based on applying manufactured inputs as opposed to understanding complex agroecosystems, soil types, heirloom seeds, wildlife and pollinators, among other things. In other words, it is an agriculture that looks less and less like farming, and more like input management. There is a great quote from a Canadian farmer in Haroon Akram-Lodhi’s new book, Hungry for Change. He says, I sold my land to “a farmer who hires guys to do the farm work; he’s more of a manager than a farmer. I’m still a farmer, I just don’t farm anymore.”

This gives you an idea of how most farmers understand what farming means: it doesn’t mean hiring workers to apply a dose of agrochemicals every few months until harvest on the basis of the indications on a package or from a corporate extensionist. It means having a relationship with the land and being an expert in your local agroecosystem. There’s no doubt that farming—as opposed to industrial farm management—is labour-intensive. But we shouldn’t be surprised when we suck the soul out of agriculture and turn farmers into corporate appendages—and add to that mountains of debt—that they are leaving farming in droves. But I think it’s also important to note that there is a strong movement of young people and mid-career professionals in the U.S. who want to get into farming. They may lack the knowledge and the resources, but they have a strong sense that producing food for their communities is a deeply meaningful vocation. The “Greenhorns”, for instance, is a network dedicated to promoting, recruiting and supporting young farmers. There is also a growing urban agriculture movement in the U.S. But they’re coming up against this corporate structure, which dictates food policy and controls most of the land and resources, and they’re having to figure out how to change that structure. So, while there may be an aging farming population, and greater exit than entry into agriculture, there’s also a strong movement brewing in both the cities and the countryside. This movement is not interested in agriculture as “input management”—it’s interested in reconnecting food to values of community, sustainability, nutrition and social justice.

In India, Walmart makes out a case that it will help create efficiency in the farm-to-supermarket chain. What has been the impact of such firms in the U.S. sector?

In the sustainable food movement, we often focus on GM [genetically modified] seed purveyors such as Monsanto as enemy number one. But supermarket value chains are a huge factor that is often overlooked. The global concentration of food retail in the hands of a few supermarket giants [such as Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour] has given them enormous buying power and the ability to dictate prices, quantity and quality [meaning uniform shape, size, ripeness, etc., things that are hard to achieve on a small, non-industrial scale]. Not surprisingly, this concentration of agribusiness power translates into massive political power.

The starkest expression of this power in the U.S. is the Farm Bill, which is primarily a vehicle to subsidise chemical-intensive commodity crop production—what we call “corporate agriculture” because the perpetuation of this model directly benefits corporations [even though farmers are often caught in the middle]. These commodity crops are not really “food” so much as feed [for industrially produced livestock complexes], agro-fuels [for our gas tanks] and food additives such as the now-infamous high fructose corn syrup. Fruits and vegetables—the stuff we actually eat—are known in the Farm Bill as “specialty crops” and form a very small part of the Farm Bill pie.

The social, environmental and health impacts of this system are widely known and recorded: contamination of water and soils with agrochemicals; poisoning of farm workers and rural communities; and rising rates of obesity and diet-related disease, particularly among the working poor and communities of colour, to name only a few. Government support for the constant expansion of commodity crop production—a relic of the New Deal era—without any assessment of what we can sustainably produce is decimating our soil fertility and creating deep ecological vulnerability. This vulnerability increases as the climate gets increasingly volatile, with more intense rains, droughts, floods and hailstorms. In terms of global impacts, the U.S. overproduction has been systematically “dumped” on countries of the global South since the 1950s, first in the form of “food aid” and then as commercial imports, robbing farmers in those countries of their markets and undermining their ability to feed themselves.

What is a way out of what appears an intractable position—with corporate farming increasingly being seen as the only viable way forward given the needs of poverty and hunger, and with few alternatives that are well articulated?

Corporations claim to have the technological answer to “underproduction” [advanced as the cause of poverty and hunger] in the global South, when in fact the problem is political and economic, not technological. This is why small farmers around the world have come together to form a massive social movement known as La Vía Campesina and put forth the political project of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty seeks to recover the control farmers and other food producers [fisherfolk, pastoralists] once had over the land, seeds, water, markets, practices and knowledge that have been undermined by corporate monopolies. In the U.S., a Vía Campesina member-organisation, the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), fights for U.S. policies that plan food production around what the land can sustain, what farmers need to survive and what the country needs for a healthy food supply. This is a vision of stability and sustainability—one that is drastically opposed to the corporate vision because corporations [from agribusiness to hedge funds and financial firms] make their profits from volatility and crisis.

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