Farm Life: The Food Industrial Agricultural Complex

I will admit that I think of gardening in our culture as a solitary activity. For many households, this might be a solitary family unit, but more likely one member of the family who enjoys being outside, tending to some flower beds or summer vegetables.

But, in the USA, most gardens are contained within the property lines of those who own property (preferably in the backyard where the neighbors are not bothered by unsightly plants and trellises… or the gardener does not have to worry about said neighbors coming and harvesting without an invitation). Even on large scale farming, labor is solitary. Call this “Farming while White”.

“In the case of the hoe, it works better when many people use it together in community. In moving to tractors, we begin to relinquish community.”

– Leah Penniman

But, I think that our western conceptualization of gardening and farming as solitary goes much further in our history of monarchy and reactionary democracy, in which liberty became an individual right rather than a community relationship.

“The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the land labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to the people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of meaningful contact with the earth.”

– Wendell Berry

While plenty of white folks garden, what I observe, whether family plots or large farms is that the emphasis on controlling the growing process, short cuts become the norm. Nutrient issues? Add (chemical) fertilizers. Fungus issues? Spray a fungicide. Insects eating your leaves, vines, or vegetables? Spray a pesticide. Weeds encroaching? Spray an herbicide. Deer, groundhogs, raccoons eating your crops? Call them varmints and shoot them. Wanting to run a business? Plat fewer crops but in larger quantities with the prospects of higher yields and high profits. Need to get all of the same crop planted or harvested in a narrow window? Use a machine, the bigger the better. Get Big or Get Out.

See a trend here?

In our mountain valleys, large farms are somewhat difficult to lay out. There is a good amount of river valley acreage, but not large tracts of land that fit into nice square fields. The forest can be cut down to make for hilly hay or grazing fields, but the soil is thin, and left more so with most of the grass is cut and baled, leaving little organic material to build a layer of top-soil.

With a poultry factory in town, the trend is to raising large flocks of chickens or turkeys to supply the factory, which slaughters, processes, and send the meat of to…? That has lead to the “chicken house” in which 50,000 birds are kept for 6 to 8 weeks before heading off to processing. Farming has become more of a mining operation than a way to grow, nurture, and harvest and thank the food source for sustaining us.

Most of the poultry houses operations contain 2 to 6 houses. The farmers are then indebted to the bank with hundreds of thousands of dollars in 20+ year loans. The poultry factory requires certain standards, and regular upgrades, which consume a portion of the profits that the “operator” (notice that the word “farmer” disappears here). Inputs and outputs fill the balance sheets. More loans; longer periods of debt; more need to optimize the farming operation for maximum profits; more incentive to use short term solutions to keep the cash flow up. Most mining operations end up exhausting the land and leaving communities empty (ever visited a “ghost town” in the west or come across the remains of a mining community in coal country?)

Recently, a controversy has arising in our small farming community. First, some agricultural land was sold as housing subdivisions. Then a 95 acre parcel of hay field was authorized to put 20 chicken houses into the square boarded by three of these housing communities. You can see where this is going….

Letter to the editor,

I have recently been thinking, while harvesting our gardens, about the scriptures which recite the two greatest commandments to love God, and to love our neighbors (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Matthew 22:34-40).  I have been thinking of Dave’s comments (Unbased Opinion, 8/5/20) about how agriculture around here has changed from “patch fields” to large tracks of corn and hay, and numerous articles about meg-poultry houses operations with up to 1,000,000 birds in one place, and WV Commissioner of Agriculture, Kent A. Leonhardt’s, guest editorial (8/19/20) about the value of small farms, farmer’s markets, and community support agriculture (CSA) cooperatives feeding WV residents during the pandemic.  

I have been wondering, how do we show God our love?  How do we show our neighbors love? in regard to farming.

If we accept that nature is God’s creation, and the laws of physics, geology, biology, etc. are God’s way of running nature, are we more loving to God to grow a variety of crops for our benefit, and the benefit of the land and wildlife (as Dave describe in patch farms, which supported not only the farm families but quail, etc.).  Or, is growing acre upon acre of corn to feed livestock, and housing 50,000 chicken under one roof an act of love?

Are we more loving to our neighbor to grow acres upon acres of corn to feed livestock which will mostly be sold and sent off to feed lots, or housing 50,000 chickens under one roof before going meat processing factories, then shipped off to grocery stores and restaurants in suburban and urban areas?  Or, would re-investing some of those acres in gardens for our own pantries and freezers, for farm markets (as we see popping up in Wardensville, Moorfeild, etc), be more loving to local people?

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe in private property ownership.  Yes, we need to produce food for those who do not, will not, or cannot grow their own.  But, when our emphasis becomes how many bushels of something per acre, or how many rotations of birds or cattle we can get our in a certain number of weeks/months, rather than on how many people, households, and communities we can feed, we are looking at the wrong numbers.  

The Food Industrial Agriculture Complex puts it focus on what we can extract out of the land, without acknowledging the short term gains are at the cost of that land.  Growing the same crop on fields, year after year, exhausts the land and gets the farmer in the cycle of adding various chemicals to control weeds, insects, and short-acting feliterizlers.  Building large poultry houses takes possibly good land out of production for generations.  Mowing acres of lawn does not feed anyone.  Relying on processed food from the freezer aisle and chain restaurants on a regular basis, teaches us to not know now how to grow what we can, preserve what we can, and cook what we can.

I believe that our sense of ownership of land gives us the false impression that we can do whatever we want.  I believe that owning is merely stewardship to use the land and leave it in better condition for future owners.  We need small and large farming practices that improve soil.  We need to feed our neighbors, then feed the world.  We need to help those who do not believe that they can dig up their laws, grow a patch of garden for themselves, and to give to their neighbors in season.

When we love God’s creation, we get home grown tomatoes, thanks to God’s creation.  We when invite our neighbors to work together to plant, tend, harvest, and preserve the bounty, we build relationships.

P.S. Hey, Dave, “The Lord Helps those who help themselves” (Unbased Opinion, 8/26/20) is not actually in the Bible.  Sometime the phrase is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who had many pithy sayings to tell.  The idea actually can be found in Greek philosopher’s writings, not in any quote from Jesus that I can find.  But, the first written form of the quote is from Algernon Sydney, an English Politician in the 1600’s.  Jesus and his followers spent less time talking about taking care of ones self, and more time encouraging the wealthy to give away their assets to care fort he poor, the widows, and orphans.  With more gardens and small farms, we could do this.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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2 Responses to Farm Life: The Food Industrial Agricultural Complex

  1. A heart-felt piece about taking care of the land and the environment from a Christian point of view. Would all Christians feel this way! And after reading the part about how chickens are raise, I sure am glad I’m a vegetarian. What a system. I do eat eggs, but I make sure to get them from places that treat their hens well.

  2. K-O – One day, I hope to visit your mountain before those housing developments and chicken farms take over 😉

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