In a way, it is unfortunate that there is no farming “crisis.” Crises force themselves upon us and demand redress. Our agricultural situation is something different: Every five years Congress passes a farm bill that sets new rules and infuses new subsidies to keep the agricultural economy chugging along, and these fixes work well enough for us to forget that farm families and the land itself are left in the lurch.
The farm bill just passed and signed into law by President Trump is a mixed bag; it contains some provisions of real value and others that do more harm than good. Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, and others praised its protection of food stamps, though the Trump administration has vowed to impose work requirements for food stamp recipients that had been removed from the bill. The bigger problem is that from a long-term perspective, this law carries us deeper into social and ecological debts that have been growing for several decades. Eventually, the payment will come due.
This new bill continues to artificially maintain a marketplace that overproduces commodity crops like corn and soybeans.
This new bill continues to direct subsidies to large corporate farming operations, artificially maintaining a marketplace that overproduces commodity crops like corn and soybeans. This drives down prices so that it becomes very difficult for small farmers to turn a profit. The subsidies also encourage irresponsible use of the land by rewarding mono-crop farming that depletes the soil, increases erosion and pollutes waterways (by way of the fertilizers and pesticides needed to maintain these types of farms).
We have gotten used to these subsidies, but that does not make them right or inevitable. The latest farm bill adds to the problem by granting subsidies to extended family members. This has the effect of funneling government funds to people who have a financial stake in a farming business but may never actually set foot on a farm. These five-year bills are, in some measure, part of a vicious cycle in which the largest operations can afford to influence the lawmaking in their favor and thus can maintain the power to shape the agricultural economy to their benefit.
Again, this is not a crisis. It is true that farmers are working more and more hours for ever-diminishing returns, rural communities are hollowing out, and young people are staying away or are being boxed out from agriculture. It is also the case that farmers—exhausted, cash-strapped and with communal supports knocked out from under them—are experiencing a remarkable rise in instances of mental illness and suicide. In a great number of places, the rivers continue to grow more polluted, the soil is being depleted, and biological diversity is disappearing. Nonetheless, it is not a crisis, because food shows up with a wonderful regularity on our store shelves and on our plates, and most of us are well and happily fed. It is a fine thing to be so secure in our food. But if our patterns of production and consumption mean that we are squeezing every last drop out of the farm families and farmland only to discard them, then our priorities have become seriously, dangerously out of order.
Pope Francis, like his predecessor, has recognized that the ecological and social problems in agriculture share the same root: a failure to recognize limits. The drive for profit, while not bad in itself, must be disciplined by other considerations and respect for other goods. The family, the community and the land are not utilitarian abstractions used in the calculations of a corporate farm; they are goods with their own value, above and apart from economic exchange, and they are worth protecting in their own right.
The subsidies also encourage irresponsible use of the land by rewarding mono-crop farming that depletes the soil, increases erosion and pollutes waterways.
“The book of nature is one and indivisible,” Benedict XVI wrote. The human person and nature are part of one integral ecology, and what affects one will affect the other.
In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis wrote that “caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.” A realistic far-sightedness about the health of the land and food security was behind the effort of Wendell Berry and members of the Kansas-based Land Institute to promote a 50-year farm bill in 2009. Less a formal legislative proposal than an effort to encourage lawmakers to consider a broad framework, it is a thoroughly researched plan for gradual progress, scientifically and economically feasible, toward an agricultural economy that conserves the resources on which it depends. Their proposals include technical ideas in agronomy and legislative proposals to encourage sustainable practices.
But the most important thing about the idea is that it broadens our perspective. In considering the agricultural economy in 50 years’ time, we are forced to recognize a greater responsibility and a wider set of values than the preservation of the status quo with a nod here and there to social and environmental sustainability.
The ecological solutions are bound up with solutions to a system that likewise overworks and exploits many of the workers who keep it going. This applies to farm families in the ways suggested above but also to migrant workers who undertake in back-breaking labor for corporate farms without benefits or decent pay. Pope John Paul II, who seemed to have a special love for farmers, emphasized again and again that the dignity of work exists insofar as it helps the person engaged in it to flourish. This means fair remuneration for labor, but it also means labor that suits a human being, which requires healthy conditions and a certain ownership of the thing produced.
This is why the church has often encouraged agricultural cooperatives and similar arrangements. These respect the dignity of the worker, by giving them some ownership of and say in their work, and tend to encourage respect for the land, by keeping its management close to those who live and work with it. Whatever the practical arrangements, the church’s hope is that agriculture will respect the value of land and person and will produce profits only as it fits within the bounds of that ethical framework. This is not an ideological position; the church seeks to let prudence and ingenuity discover the best solutions and most adequate actors to carry those solutions out.
Several encouraging state-level initiatives have gained steam in recent years: cost-share programs to encourage cover-crops (which retain nutrients in the soil and prevent erosion), laws promoting riparian buffers (which protect waterways from harmful chemicals) and state planting of prairie strips (which, among other things, sequester carbon and provide habitat to wildlife). Many private efforts to encourage sustainable farming have found success, too. May their tribe increase. To respond to the sorts of entrenched problems gestured at above, though, we will need to realize at all levels that the stakes are high—our farms are in the balance. We will need to internalize, too, that each of us is affected by, and in part responsible for, the current state of affairs because everybody eats. Rather than wait for the crisis, let us take the long view and get to work.