Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kicking Butz

Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's secretary of Agriculture, more than any one individual sparked creation of our current corporate-dominated food system.

Food prices spiked in the early 1970s, making them a political issue. I still remember the meat boycott of the early 1970s. Someone organized a nationwide meatless week to protest soaring prices. I remember my family eagerly signing up -- until we actually had to forgo meat for a week. We stuck to it, but it was a pretty bland and joyless week of eating.

In response, Butz introduced policies encouraging farmers to "get big or get out," undermining the family farm and encouraging the planting of commodity crops like corn fence row to fence row. That created the artificial corn and soybean surpluses which fed the explosion of agribusiness and processed food that in turn degraded our diet and jump-started our obesity epidemic.

All in day's work.

That said, like Dr. Frankenstein, Butz probably thought he was doing the right thing only to see his creation turn into a monster.

Fixing what Earl messed up is the goal of young Oregon farmers profiled in a fascinating New York Times article today. There's so much here to unpack. I will try:

YOUNG IDEALISTIC FARMERS: These young people are looking to farm the old fashioned way in rebellion against Butz's Get Huge-commodity crop philosophy, which at least theoretically ought to be the future. Our agricultural system has become so big farm-orientated, they can't find the equipment. They have to buy antique tractors because new ones are too large.

Can we really go back to this? Probably not completely. But any movement in this direction, anything that fights processed food and agribusiness is a good thing.

Even better, here are young people defining success and personal satisfaction in terms other material goods or money. That is a great thing.

LOST KNOWLEDGE: The article talks about how older farmers have forgotten basic skills and techniques. The youngsters have to search out and revive farming methods and knowledge plowed under by agribusiness.

You see the same thing in cooking. Families have forgotten how to cook basic things like mashed potatoes, cookies and pies.

I hate to be cynical, but whether Big Food did it on purpose or not, this serves their interests. If farmers don't know to farm, they are more dependent on agribusiness. If people don't how to cook, they buy mashed potatoes in a bag.

THE GRANGE: This group of young farmers has breathed new life into the local Grange as part of their effort to re-energize and reform farming.

The Grange was founded in the 19th century by small farmers fighting railroad and other monopolists who were threatening their way of life. It was key cog in the Populist Movement that helped lead the fight against moneyed power during the first Gilded Age.

How appropriate that these farmers are reviving the Grange as we try to fight our way of the second Gilded Age.

CORVALIS, OREGON: The farmers are near this town. I've never been there, but one of my friends when I lived in Reno almost 30 years ago had gone to college there and never tired of talking about what a special place it was. I'm happy to see it still is.

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