In 1910, farmers earned 40 cents for every dollar in sales. Today, they only earn a penny from each dollar, the result of a drastic consolidation of farm ownership centered on a few big commodity crops such as corn and soy. More of our food is imported than ever before, says food systems analyst Ken Meter, while our agricultural system “systematically extracts wealth” from both farmers and farm communities while dividing farmers from consumers. Over time, he writes, farm policy shifted from being supportive to “compensating farmers for the fact that markets are fundamentally unfair.”
Meter has spent the past 50 years writing and working to build equitable communities and food systems. His new book, Building Community Food Webs, defines a food web as “overlapping networks of grassroots leaders and organizations working to define their own food choices. In it, he sketches out how the industrial, commodity-centered food system has drained wealth from rural communities, tells stories of food web building across the country, and draws from the lessons he’s learned to create a road map for the next generation of food systems leaders.
Meter’s father, the son of a Nebraska farmer, “did everything he could to get away from agriculture and the austere small town he grew up in.” Yet, Meter says, he missed the land and his hometown until the day he died in 1985. For this reason, rural agriculture held a mystique for Meter that set him first on a path as a journalist in 1970s rural Minnesota. He met farmers, bankers, and economic development officers fighting to set up interdependent businesses that would protect their communities from large corporate food interests—experiences that later led him to work on inner-city and rural capacity building and promoting local food systems.
Civil Eats spoke to Meter about the resilience of community food webs, how commodity farming saps resources from rural communities, and why not all local food is the same.
It’s a book I’ve been trying to write for 40 years, but I kept getting swept up in community projects. Early in my career, the farm economy turned extractive. The 1973 oil crisis had erupted, and the U.S. was shelling out billions to buy oil at high prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to recover those dollars by exporting more grain, so they told farmers to “get big or get out” of agriculture. Thousands of farms expanded but couldn’t repay the debts they took on. That led to the farm credit crisis of the mid-‘80s. I began to measure how that expansion drained money from rural communities. But when I spoke about the extractive economy, I got blank stares, people just didn’t understand. Now, the awareness is there, and my book has the numbers.
My favorite moment came when I was speaking to a group of mostly ranchers in Albuquerque, New Mexico about 15 years ago. I was on a panel and gave my spiel. Right after, a rancher stood up and said, “I have to compose myself for a minute, because Ken just told the story of my life.” He pointed to the ups and downs of federal farm policy and said he could see those peaks and valleys in his own life. One poignant moment was when a farmer in his 80s shuffled up to the mic with a cane and said, “You don’t understand, I have these debts to pay.” He believed my analysis, but as a good farmer he was stuck in the system and was going to pay his debt.
At a meeting about artisanal grains in Minnesota about three years ago, we had five farmers show up for the first time. One farmer said, “I can’t keep farming the way I have been.” The survival of his farm was in the balance. That’s pretty easy for most farmers to understand today, because 2018 farm income was lower than during the Depression. (That was before the pandemic, I haven’t a chance to analyze the data since then.) But there’s a core group of farmers whose mentality is to buy as much land as possible, have the biggest equipment possible, and produce as much as possible. Many younger farmers are eager to reach out and are making important small steps to a better future; there’s a whole crop of BIPOC farmers who are getting mobilized, reaching out in ways that may be the future of agriculture.
The key is personal relationships—getting to know people intimately, understanding the conditions they face, and working through mutual trust. I would start by learning how food webs are already being built in low-income areas and constructing a system of support to strengthen those efforts. One key for me is creating food webs in areas where people can gain skills in growing, harvesting, preparing, and eating good food, and integrate these skills into daily life. People are learning and sharing with each other constantly—but often these efforts are marginalized because they’re outside of the formal economy or small in scope.
This goes to the distinction between “local food” and “community food systems.” If our priority is to simply reduce food miles, then a confined animal operation near my home may be an important source of food for me. But that’s not an operation I want to support. Prioritizing “local” [alone] leaves me vulnerable to this type of corporate-run entity, which might want to greenwash their efforts. It’s far harder to build community by constructing healthier food systems—food webs—but these are also harder to co-opt. Food webs, to my thinking, are self-managed, democratic food systems that require farmers and consumers to be in direct contact.
The key is to build a culture of collaboration that allows it to survive across generations. This is what Indigenous cultures mostly do so much better than ours. In our extractive economy, a culture of collaboration often flourishes within the cooperative movement, in some nonprofits and universities, and among some exemplary private firms or business clusters that take a long-term view. This culture waxes and wanes over generations and through business cycles. So often the skills in collaborating get passed down from grandparent to grandchild, sometimes skipping one generation as youths rebel from their elders. Still, the values persist.
What I would most like to see implemented has not been picked up on in policy circles yet, but it is major grants, drawing on an allocation in the $500 million range, that support the growth of community-based food systems initiatives. We want to think about a food policy more than a farm policy because we can’t answer all the problems we’ve created simply by making farming better. But federal policy can compensate for the extraction of wealth. I would like to see dedicated funds that communities can leverage to strengthen the food systems they are creating.
I think people will tend to go back to whatever has been convenient in the past, so I’m concerned. But, from all the evidence, we can expect more pandemics in the future. As that awareness sinks in, we have a much better chance of developing long-term plans that are more resilient. I was heartened to get a call from an area in the Midwest I had done work for eight years ago. We got a meaningful but small response then, but farmers had a hard time convincing local policy makers to invest in food systems. This time, one of the partners in that effort contacted me because local officials were expressing strong interest in doing food planning. People realize how vulnerable we all are, especially as they see meat processing plant workers and people harvesting strawberries getting ill.
This is a question I wrestle with often. As difficult as this work can be, I don’t see any better alternative. Extractive mechanisms are inherently large-scale, based on political decisions that are large-scale. My work in food systems also tells me that there is no path to creating healthy food systems simply by focusing on farm policy in isolation from other issues such as consumer policies, health care, or tax policies. Agriculture by itself cannot solve the issues that plague agriculture.
Our society is so large and complex, yet ironically, I think the initiatives that best take this complexity into account happen at the local level—at least at first—where people can take a holistic view and build personal trust. Until we have a constituency of people operating from that foundation, it is very difficult to write effective farm, food, consumer, or tax policies. Part of the work of food systems is to build community support, so the system can survive shifting political winds. We’re getting better food and soil policy now because of food webs that went unrecognized in the 1970s, which in turn drew from food webs of the 1930s, and even earlier cycles. And now, we have a whole new diverse generation rolling up their sleeves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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