With Donald Trump’s election, it seems the lines have been drawn even more firmly between the left and right, between progressives and conservatives, between the religious and the irreligious. But interestingly, another line has been quietly drawn – or rather, been quietly deepened: the line between the urban and the rural.
I’ve lived in both worlds, but I’ve never made any bones about where my allegiance lies: with rural America. Flyover country. Real America, as in the name of this column.
Sadly, more and more people are fleeing rural areas and migrating to cities. According to a recent article in the Hill, “Metro area populations surge as rural America shrinks.”
One major drawback happens as populations become more urban: They lose touch with their food sources. The farther away from the soil they get, the more demands they put upon people who work that soil. As the dichotomy becomes wider, urbanites feel themselves more qualified than ever to dictate how food should be cultivated.
But what city folks don’t get is this: There are a lot of them. A lot of people. A lot of people packed into very, very dense areas. Lots of people need lots of food. Dainty sustainable organic farms where people hand-pick dainty pieces of arugula one leaf at a time just won’t cut it when there are 330 million hungry mouths to feed.
I’m no fan of corporate farms, particularly livestock agglomerates. But these mega-farms came about for a variety of reasons, two of which stand out. One, as I said before, there are a lot of mouths to feed. And two, there aren’t many people working to feed those mouths. Once upon a time, agriculture consumed 70 percent of the workforce; now it’s down around 2 percent.
And farmers are getting older.
Farming is darned hard work. It’s also insecure. We get a taste of it, and we’re not even farmers (we’re “modern homesteaders”). But when your entire living comes from the soil, you’re vulnerable to drought, floods and other monkey wrenches from Mother Nature. Frankly, a lot of young people no longer see the need (or want to experience) the hard physical labor and financial uncertainty involved in putting food on America’s tables. They enter other fields and perform other jobs, but it means someone else then becomes responsible for providing food for the table – often corporate farms.
The elephant in the room no one wants to address is this: As farmers age and young people leave rural areas, who’s gonna grow the food?
When you’re disconnected from food sources, it’s hard to grasp the challenges farmers face. We live on the very edge of the Palouse, an area of vast fertile fields that grow enormous amounts of wheat, barley, lentils and other dryland crops. I remember a hot summer day about 15 years ago standing out our back door and watching a mysterious yellow cloud billowing from the southwest. What could it be? Within minutes, the mystery was solved as we were hit with a massive dust storm that bent trees, whipped away anything that wasn’t anchored, filled the house with grit no matter how fast we slammed windows shut and – we learned later – blew away something like 70,000 acres’ worth of lentils that had just been cut hours earlier. Within minutes, a whole year’s worth of work was gone. This is a farmer’s reality.
But city folks probably griped about the higher cost of lentils that year, without understanding the blood, sweat and tears – and enormous financial loss – of the people who grew them. Instead of appreciating the massive amounts of food produced by increasingly small numbers of farmers, urbanites feel entitled and knowledgeable enough to pass laws and regulations that make a farmer’s life a living hell of bureaucratic paperwork and government regulations.
I’m sure you’ve seen the by-now classic newspaper clipping that read: “To all you hunters who kill animals for food, shame on you; you ought to go to the store and buy the meat that was made there, where no animals were harmed.” The clipping was probably a joke; but sadly, this kind of ignorance is not uncommon as generations arise with no exposure to rural agriculture.
Somehow all those millions upon millions upon millions of urban dwellers must eat, but the gap is widening between consumers and producers. Far too many urban people think food just magically appears on grocery store shelves without considering all the channels food must take to get there. Someone has to cultivate, plant, harvest, process, transport, package and otherwise get food into a form that is both recognizable and available. Additionally, someone has to raise, care for, butcher, transport and package food from animal form into a form that is both recognizable and available. These things don’t just “happen.” Many people work tirelessly and thanklessly behind the scenes to make sure this nation is fed.
And if young people don’t do it, what will happen after the older generation retires?
The laws of this land unfairly punish the small farmer. These laws range from the insane death taxes that often force adult children to sell their family’s farm, to government goons sending SWAT teams to arrest farmers selling raw milk to willing buyers. And this is in addition to the everyday challenges farmers face from Mother Nature.
The net result? At some point, the only people left to feed the majority of America will be the massive corporate farms, with people who don’t have the heritage and love of the land that small farmers have.
“Between 2007 and 2012, agriculture gained 2,384 farmers between ages 25 and 34,” noted the Washington Post, “and lost nearly 100,000 between 45 and 54.” This article documents an encouraging movement in which younger people are drawn to the soil and enter farming, usually small-scale organic boutique farms which supply farmer’s markets, local restaurants and CSAs; but it remains to be seen if these small sustainable enterprises are enough to feed 330 million people, particularly regarding the massive amounts of grains and legumes that make up so much of America’s food.
I don’t know if there are any easy answers to this. Perhaps someday more urbanites and suburbanites might engage in small-scale agriculture such as Dacha farming or backyard homesteading, though that doesn’t solve the problem of feeding dense population centers.
But in the meantime, be grateful to farmers for every particle of food that crosses your lips. We only have to look at Venezuela to see how fast that can change.