I was at the Missouri State Capitol passing out information against SB 1182 and HB 1177, twin bills that remove existing regulations from Confined Animal Feeding Operations, when an aide, probably just out of college, said, "We're getting just like Russia."
A generation ago, if a kid from farming country said we're getting like Russia, kind of like comparing "us" to the AI of The Matrix, it would have meant we had too many regulations. Today, comparing us to Russia means something different.
The kid told me he wanted to raise livestock, but he hadn't inherited land or animals or a big wad of money to pay for them. The corporate farmers bought up all the land, and if he found land he couldn't get it financed anyway and if he saved enough to start out without financing he wasn't sure about markets unless he tied up with a corporation.
Signing with a corporation means putting up metal confinement buildings to corporate specifications, which puts you in a lot of debt. Then, even if you raise grains on your land, you're bound to feed the corporation's feed and use the chemicals that they send you.
One of the selling points of the corporate system is you don't have to buy animals, because the corporation owns them, but this kid had figured out that if you get on the outs with the corporation and they decide not to deliver animals, you have nothing to raise and you can't make your payments. That's happened to lots of chicken farmers already.
And, when the animals die -- and they do -- the hapless farmer has to figure out how to dispose of them, which becomes another full-time, unpleasant job.
Tying up with a corporation also means building a lagoon for the, how do we say this nicely, poo. He, this farm kid, could have gotten a 100% loan for a lagoon thanks to Missouri's Animal Waste Treatment System Loan Program, which the kid could guarantee with the money he'd hope to make. Interestingly, the longest these loans will go is 10 years, which is the expected life of the lagoons. And then, when the life of the lagoon is over, who cleans it up?
To farmers of the future, tying up with a corporation and building a CAFO means living in a stinky place where your neighbors are always mad because your place wrecked their property values. It means raising kids who have to breathe air thick with hydrogen sulfide, which can cause nausea, headaches, and irreversible brain damage.
Add to these stresses the worry of whether the lagoon is leaking into the community's ground water and whether the flies are carrying diseases that might hurt your family and you understand what this young man meant by "just like Russia."
There are kids all over rural Missouri that want to go into agriculture, like that aide I met in the capitol. In my county, I could round up a couple hundred of them. With their own land and markets, these youngsters could become good, taxpaying citizens and help provide money to run this state. CAFOs, it turns out, are tax-consumers, not tax-producers. An Iowa State study says that production spread over lots of family farms pays the state 7% more property taxes than if production is concentrated in one factory farm. It means more permanent jobs, more retail sales in the community and more local income for the future.
But instead of looking forward to this kind of future, this young man was becoming cynical. He saw the power of the market concentrated so the beginners can't get in. The guys who inherit wealth and land get big government handouts in the form of loans, rebates and subsidies. Remember the mythical welfare queens that, rumor said, kept having babies because it brought them so much welfare money? These giant farmers are real-life corporate welfare queens. Um, kings. Sorry. You can find the big winners in your county by looking at EWG.org, a website that has tied into the USDA subsidy base.
In America, land is thought of as an investment. Today's land values are based on this subsidized corporate system, but there's another way to use land, and the choice is up to the consumer -- you and me -- every time we buy food. And that means veggies, breads, fruits, sweets as well as meats.
If you think we should support agriculture that rips off farmers, taxpayers, the environment, the animals, keep buying food from the corporate sellers. Succumb to the glossy label, the logos and the slick advertisements.
If you want agriculture that supports families, buy directly from farmers you know. Go to the farmers' markets or click on the website "Localharvest.org" that lists local farms, processors and Community Supported Agriculture. We can reverse the trend and vote with our dollars for the kind of agriculture we want.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.