Don't overlook the farmers


Saturday, January 3
A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof proposed doing away with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and renaming it the "Department of Food."

"A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of American engaged in farming," wrote Kristof. "But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat."

While Kristof made many good points about the current state of agriculture -- mainly what he calls "the bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy -- all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars" -- he misses the real point: the USDA's subservience to other interests besides farmers.

American farmers and ranchers have gotten so good at what they do that far fewer of them are needed to feed the nation. We have a wealth of land and resources. We have food in such abundance that the scenes of famine and malnutrition seen in Somalia or Haiti are unknown here.

Our farmers are so good that many Americans don't think about where their food comes from. They take it for granted that the shelves of the supermarkets will be full and that the food will be healthy and reasonably priced. But food has to come from somewhere. Even the most processed and refined foods on the shelf start out as raw ingredients grown on a farm.

Creating a Department of Food would do nothing to solve the USDA's biggest problem -- that it favors agribusiness and factory farms over smaller, family-run operations. This tilt toward bigness has hurt rural infrastructure and cost many jobs, just at a time when demand for organic, minimally processed, locally grown food has provided an opening for small farms to become profitable and sustainable enterprises.

The New York Times, which managed to devote an entire issue of its Sunday magazine to food and agriculture back in October -- while failing to include an article by an actual farmer -- typifies the attitude that urban America often takes toward rural America: small towns are has-been places with no future, so why bother worrying about rural policy?

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Granted, we're not an agricultural nation anymore. According to the Brookings Institution, the 100 largest U.S. cities account for 75 percent of the gross domestic product and 65 percent of the nation's population.

But it's hard to imagine these cities continuing to prosper without the continued existence of rural America -- the place that provides the basics of life to a population totally disconnected from the sources of its food and water.

According to the American Farmland Trust, farmland is being lost to development at a rate of 2,880 acres a day. A nation that loses the ability to feed itself is a nation that is gravely compromised. If there's no land, there's no farms. No farms, no food.

And if farmers can't get a fair price for what they produce, farms can't survive. Over the past 50 years, according to the USDA, a steadily increasing percentage of the retail food bill has been taken up by marketing and by other costs added after the product has passed out of the farm gate.

At the same time, farmers have taken a smaller and smaller portion. In 1950, farms took 41 percent of the total retail cost of food. By the 1970s, it was down to 33 percent. Today, it's 20 percent.

Addressing issues like these is what the USDA ought to be doing. And it is as important an issue to urban America as it is to a farm state like Vermont.

There's no way to separate rural issues from urban issues. Both parts of America are dependent on the other, and public policy should be crafted in a way that benefits both rural communities and urban consumers.

In other words, we don't need a Department of Food. We need a real Department of Agriculture.


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