One morning earlier this year, in the borderland town of Brawley, California, 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos perched on a chair in his trailer, removed a plastic bag from the well of a rubber boot, and finished dressing for work. Dawn was still an hour away, and in the wan light of the kitchen, Villalobos took off his house sandals and pulled the bag over his right foot. He bunched it at the ankle, then slipped his foot into his boot.
“These shoes aren’t made for water,” he said, adding that morning dew and irrigation keep farm fields damp—even in the desert of the Imperial Valley where he was working. Villalobos estimated that a pair of decent used boots would run him $30, almost half a day’s wages; the bags were free.
A severe drought covers about two-thirds of the country, and America's farmland states are some of the driest. Few expect this year's crops to escape undamaged, so the drought's effects will likely reach out to the entire world, and last through next year. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 55 percent of the country's pasture- and range-lands were in poor or very poor condition. Congress is set to take up a drought-relief bill Thursday. The Prospect interviewed George Naylor, a farmer and activist in Iowa, who relates below how the drought has affected him and his neighbors, and how the government is at fault.
Something happened today that, chances are, you know little about yet care about very deeply. It helps pay for the lovely farmers market you frequent every weekend. It’s behind all those corn-syrupy soft drinks you’ve been taught to avoid. It’s the reason you started hiking to that one artisanal shop for grass-fed beef after you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It helps feed America’s hungry, because it authorizes the federal food-stamp program, which feeds 46 million people. It’s the farm bill, usually the concern of only the corn, wheat, cotton, peanut, and soy-bean lobby, but it really should be called the food bill, and it has to be reauthorized every five years.
Farmland in America, particularly in the Northeast, has been disappearing for decades, ceding to suburban and industrial development, track homes, malls and McMansions. States and nonprofits have pushed back against these pressures by using tools like conservation easements, which separate development rights from the land. Some states, like New Jersey, have spent more than $1 billion on buying up development rights. This strategy doesn't necessarily keep land affordable or in active use as farmland, but it has kept a place like New Jersey from succumbing completely to sprawly houses and corporate campuses.
We don't value dirt. It's bad to be dirty. Taboo words are "dirty." An object of little to no value is "cheaper than dirt."
But dirt deserves some respect. It's incredibly valuable: Without dirt, we would not eat. And, like oil or coal, dirt is a nonrenewable resource. When topsoil disappears from erosion, it takes thousands of years for that layer of dirt to build back up. And we're running out of it.
A few days ago, I wrote about a new Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that women who work in fields are often subject to sexual harassment. The woman who spoke at the press conference, Carina Davis also mentioned that the supervisors who harassed workers sometimes sprayed them with pesticides. She and her co-workers were always getting sick, she said.
The Environmental Working Group looked at the data and found that 23 members of the 112th Congress or their families signed up to get farm subsidy payments. Six are Democrats, and the rest are Republicans.
As I wrote last week, the problem isn't subsidies per se. It's how they're distributed, who they go to, and who they benefit. The truth is, most subsidies benefit, more and more, big farmers who don't need them and the companies that process our food, because the raw materials they buy are cheaper. EWG brings this point home.
Monica Potts says immigrant farmers are flocking to the poultry industry -- only to become 21st-century sharecroppers for companies like Tyson.
Shane Tawr doesn't remember exactly why he first decided to try his hand at chicken farming. Tawr had a government job in Milwaukee but wanted relief from the city's bustle. He decided in 2004 to head down to the Ozarks, buy a chicken farm, and work for himself, just as many of his Hmong ancestors had done in Laos.
TAP alum Ezra Klein is having an interesting discussion over at his place about rural America. He made some not-at-all-inflammatory comments in a post about the value of cities, in which he noted in passing that we subsidize rural living in a lot of ways, and Tom Vilsack, America's secretary of agriculture, got peeved. "I took it as a slam on rural America," he said, and he then allowed Ezra to interview him about it.
In the past few years, one of the ways Americans have become aware of the horrible factory farm system from which they get most of their meat has been through journalists and activists sneaking onto or near farms and taking pictures or describing things in horrid detail.
The Senate just passed an overhaul of the country's food-safety laws, a long-overdue modernization that, perhaps most important, increases inspections and gives the FDA the power to enforce recalls instead of relying on companies to do them voluntarily. But the safety legislation still takes as a given a large-scale agribusiness industry and doesn't deal with the problem caused by the fact that oversight of meat and non-meat foods are conducted at separate agencies, even though the problems of food contamination often overlap.