The First Family’s Fallow Gardens

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Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle /

This article is part of a series of articles on food and the American diet. For more, readFood Fight,In Praise of Fast Food,Waste Not, Want Not, andThe Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry. For more writing on food from the alternative press,

Morse Pitts has been cultivating the same land in New York’s Hudson Valley for 30 years. His operation, Windfall Farms, is the very picture of sustainable agriculture. From early spring to late fall, the farm’s 15 acres are luxuriant with snap peas, squash, mint, kale, and Swiss chard. Its greenhouses burst with sun gold tomatoes and baby greens. Pitts, who is in his 50s, doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any genetically modified seeds. He cultivates biodiversity, not just vegetables.

Twice a week, he hauls his produce 65 miles south to Manhattan in a biodiesel school bus to sell at the lucrative Union Square farmers market. Pitts does a brisk trade; demand for his produce is high. Since the mid-1990s the number of farmers markets has shot up 300 percent, and the organic sector has seen annual double-digit expansion.

But despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned, and the area is now industrial; if he wants to cultivate soil that isn’t surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can’t afford to.

In addition to the standard instability–bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market–that all farmers endure, holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who go the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources.

What makes Pitts’ situation untenable is that he earns just seven dollars an hour. If Pitts could boost his pay, he’d be in a more stable position, but he can’t. And he’s not alone. Small farms rely on off-farm sources of income for up to 95 percent of what they bring in. Medium-sized operations rely on off-farm resources for almost 50 percent of their income. This means that most local unconventional and organic growers don’t even come close to earning a living from being farmers.

When the ecofriendly, food-savvy Obamas rolled into D.C., they sparked hope for a renovation of the nation’s agricultural priorities. The first family promptly ripped up a plot on the White House lawn and planted an organic garden. Wholesomeness and health were the message–eating right, being environmentally responsible, enjoying nature. It looked like nonindustrial food was poised to reclaim its place at America’s dinner table.

But President Barack Obama’s Department of Agriculture, like George W. Bush’s before it, is doing little to ensure the survival of Pitts and thousands of other holistic local farmers. Obama is making some changes at the USDA, but these incremental shifts won’t be enough to ensure that farmers can stay on their land and sell their produce at reasonable rates. Neither will they clear the path for a new generation of farmers to participate in remaking the food system.

While organic advocates and the public may be wooed by feel-good photo ops, the fact is that Obama has yet to get his hands dirty and truly commit to reforming the industry. The stakes are high: Unless the administration takes immediate steps to remake oligopolistic, fossil-fuel-reliant, scorched-earth agriculture, the small farmers who are meant to lead the way will remain critically endangered.

Reforming agriculture won’t come cheap. Most consumers know they pay a premium for cleaner food–but this produce is also demanding for farmers to grow. It’s so expensive because taking care of natural systems is more labor intensive than industrial agriculture, which engineers its way to productivity. Many organic farmers must rely on hand labor to bring in crops and keep fields free of weeds and bugs; more workers mean payroll taxes and unemployment and workers’ compensation insurance. What’s more, these growers are typically located near urban markets, where high real-estate values mean hefty mortgages and taxes.

Holistic livestock farmers face similar economic strains. Factory steers finished at “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, can be fit for slaughter in just 12 months, whereas it can take 30 months before pastured cattle are ready to “harvest,” a considerably larger investment per head. On top of that, slaughtering and packing are substantially more expensive for the small farmer sending through a few animals a week than for big industrial processors that kill hundreds or thousands a day.

Aside from economies achieved with scale, operating costs are disproportionately higher for local slaughterhouses thanks to food-safety rules designed to contain dangers created by factory husbandry–E. coli, most notably. USDA meat-processing guidelines are tailored to high-volume packing plants, such as those owned by giants ConAgra and Tyson. As a result, ever more mom-and-pop houses are being forced out–and, unable to shoulder the capital costs, new ones can’t open.

Once the meat and the vegetables are ready to go, unconventional farmers must cope with an inadequate marketing and distribution system, creating inefficiencies that drive up costs. If they used industrial methods, they’d be better able to tap into the USDA’s knowledge base and resources. Instead, they’re pretty much on their own.

The grim reality for small, unconventional farmers started looking a bit brighter when Kathleen Merrigan, a veteran of sustainable agriculture, joined the USDA as deputy secretary. Merrigan played a central role in drafting the country’s organic laws in 1990, when she was an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. At the USDA, she has set out to give organics a higher profile at the agency and to beef up oversight.

After a thorough and damning audit, Merrigan is revamping the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which was neglected and corrupt during the Bush years. She signed on Miles McEvoy, an experienced proponent of clean farming, to head the program. The new USDA leadership has doubled NOP staff in the past year and increased its budget from $4 million to $7 million. McEvoy has at last exercised the office’s enforcement powers, for the first time bringing criminal charges against an organic grower who flouted the law.

Beyond overhauling the NOP, Merrigan has initiated Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, an effort to connect farmers and rural communities with consumers and to educate people about where their food comes from. In addition, food stamps are now readily accepted at farmers markets, and the first lady’s Let’s Move initiative vigorously promotes eating fresh vegetables and fruit. Today’s USDA is more receptive than ever to sustainable agriculture, but what does that really mean for unconventional farmers?

Many sustainable agriculture advocates say they must remain pragmatic; if they seek changes too forcefully too fast, Big Ag will eviscerate them. “The carrot is better than the stick” is the dominant logic. Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says the small shifts at the department have been big enough that “Big Ag is rising up, the blowback is already starting.”

No sooner had the Obamas moved into the White House than the Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as Obama’s secretary of agriculture. Vilsack is a two-term former governor of Iowa, the country’s biggest corn producer and its second-largest farm-subsidy recipient. When Vilsack got to D.C. he jackhammered a patch of concrete at USDA headquarters to plant certified organic vegetables. While it was interpreted by some as a symbol of his commitment to sustainable agriculture, the gesture was just as readily criticized as greenwashing.

Vilsack is a Big Ag man, and as head of the USDA, he commands a $135 billion annual budget that includes agriculture subsidies, the National Organic Program, and food-stamp and nutrition programs. As governor, Vilsack, a longtime ally of genetically engineered agriculture, picked a fight with biotech companies because they were not planting their untested genetically modified seeds in the state. More recently Vilsack proclaimed that rural growth must rely more heavily on expanding exports of commodity crops, agribusiness-monopolized biotech, and biofuels, most of which in the United States are refined from genetically modified corn.

Obama has assigned a slew of biotech-connected players to other key posts. Islam Siddiqui, previously vice president for science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, the U.S. agrochemical industry trade group, is now the chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Office. When Roger Beachy signed up to work for Obama, he left his job as president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit plant-research center that partners with Monsanto, and joined its board of trustees. Beachy comes with serious biotech cred: In the 1980s he worked with Monsanto to develop the world’s first genetically modified food crop (a virus-resistant tomato). Beachy, the USDA’s chief scientist, now heads the organization’s newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is charged with allocating agricultural research funding. Currently organic gets just 2 percent of all USDA research funds; the other 98 percent goes to advancing industrial methods. It’s a safe bet that Beachy won’t be changing this arrangement any time soon.

Another Monsanto-connected appointee, Michael Taylor, is a senior adviser to Food and Drug Administration commissioner Margaret Hamburg. Taylor has been a lawyer for Monsanto and more recently was its vice president for public policy. And he did a previous stint at the FDA in the early 1990s, when he helped earn approval for the use of Monsanto’s notorious genetically modified growth hormone for dairy cows, rBGH–now found in most U.S. milk–without labeling.

These appointments ensure that agribusiness, specifically biotech, stays central to U.S. policy both domestically and internationally. They also ensure that small farmers–the heroes of the sustainable-food movement, a self-proclaimed core issue for this White House–pose no real alternative to agribusiness.

When Vilsack was asked by a reporter how it was possible to extol organic and industrial farming simultaneously, he replied, “I have two sons and I love them both.” Obama and Vilsack seem to think they can nurture sustainable, small-scale farming while still giving big agribusiness their all. As Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis puts it, “Obama said he wants to double exports in the next five years–when he’s talking about ag exports, he’s talking corn, soy, commodity crops. How can you do that and still support sustainable ag? You can’t.”

Obama seems to want to boost visibility and demand for organic food, but his policies don’t offer meaningful support for the people who grow it. Doling out a few million dollars to clean up organic certification or connect local farmers with existing USDA programs is farcical and tragic–at current levels it would take 50 years of USDA organic research spending to match what it laid out for conventional ag research in 2010 alone. Meanwhile, rural farm populations continue to decline. Less than a quarter–just 15 percent–of all U.S. farmers are under the age of 45.

The transformation of the food system to a healthier enterprise for people and the planet requires far more decisive action. Imagine a USDA that poured its influence, budget, and know-how into advancing a wide range of biodiverse cultivation methods and extension programs appropriate to various regions; adopting safety rules tailored for small processing facilities; supporting energy-efficient, community-oriented distribution and marketing networks; and implementing tax structures that made it easy for sustainable growers to hire workers and maintain lasting access to good land. In theory, the Obama administration could help a new generation of holistic produce farmers get started and stay successful, and catalyze a wave of new local slaughterhouses.

Until the administration decides to step up, life will remain rough for established growers like Pitts, not to mention the next cohort of small farmers. Unconventional operators continue to rely on inherited land, free and low-cost labor, and off-farm income. And if all that fails, there’s no safety net. Pitts has been looking for a new location for Windfall Farms for more than four years. Recently he sent me a text message explaining that he sees no other option than to sell his land and transition to something else.

“Turns out,” he writes, “my dream of leaving a farm for the next farmer was kind of silly.”

Heather Rogers is the author of Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution. Excerpted from The American Prospect (July-Aug. 2010), the 2010 Utne Independent Press Award winner for political

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