A guest blog article by J. Matthew Noonan (student, activist, world citizen)
In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of my spare time reading about food production and communities that are traditionally tied to their vocation in the fields. Obviously, this notion of the traditional farming community is no longer a reality in our country, but it is often used as a façade by corporations that no longer work the land by the sweat of their brow, but instead by the exhaust of burnt fossil fuels and the collapse of traditional farming communities.
These companies—Monsanto, ConAgra, Cargill, et al—aren’t necessarily in the business of destroying communities, but they are in the business of making money. If the small farmers that make up these farming communities are their competition, so too they must fall. Used-to-be farmers then have two choices: to join the other team (working for one of those companies), or to “seek retraining and get into another line of work.” (Karaim 1986) Wendell Berry sums up loss of traditional farming communities perfectly: “This loss of local knowledge and local memory—that is, of local culture—has been ignored, or written off as one of the cheaper ‘prices of progress.’”(Berry 1990 p.157) Essentially, small farmers have been driven out of their communities because they can no longer compete with the power and money behind industrial agriculture and have lost their traditional knowledge as a result.
The prime example of local culture falling to a more general and industrialized culture can be seen in the role played by Walmart. These super-stores are more or less a combination of all of the “ma-&-pa” shops you might find in the downtown area of a given small town and they’ve created a complete disconnect from the people and their community. While you might have traded your baker access to your thresher for bread in a more traditional community, now, you no longer own your thresher as it’s the property of Cargill, and the Walmart has cheaper bread anyways.
This doesn’t just represent a loss of culture, norms, and human relationships, but also a loss of knowledge. People no longer make the products they consume or sell, but instead earn money to go purchase premade, highly processed, products that have been shipped thousands of miles and are loaded with preservatives. In a Marxian sense, this represents the alienation of humanity from their work, but further, it is evidence of a growing gap between individuals and their local communities.
To this end, it is clear that the historical course of food production—though more generally, of industrialization—in the United States is altering the historical role and value of the local community. Members of small locally based communities are seeing their culture crumble before their eyes, and are in many cases unaware as to why. More and more people from small towns are relocating to big cities, and suicide rates among farmers are three times that of the country at large. (New Solutions 2007 p.10)
The problems in this particular demographic show a need for a more holistic analysis of the social problem by those involved. C. Wright Mills (1959) would advocate an application of the sociological imagination to this problem. A better understanding of the historical and eco-political nature of this problem would help individuals understand the role they play in this issue and what they can do to help. It is necessary that members of small communities resist the convenience of companies like Walmart and invest in local small businesses as much as possible. Consumers at large, in cities and rural towns alike, need to be more mindful of the origins of their food and chose the local option whenever possible, or at very least, not purchase the products of community-crushing Agribusinesses. And of course, since this problem is very much tied up with federal policy, citizens should pressure their representatives to invest tax dollars into small businesses rather than subsidizing industrial production of corn monocultures that are used for processed food.
A reevaluation of the state of our food production in the United States would have deep and various positive effects. A more critical look shows that not only do these companies and the ideology that underpins their actions effect local communities, but also climate change, human health, soil health, worker’s rights, and oil dependency, to name a few. Seeing the issue more holistically using Mills’ sociological imagination is a tool to help understand the depth of this issue and what we can do to change the way we eat in a manner that would benefit everyone, and preserve local wealth, monetary or otherwise.
Berry, Wendell. 1990. What Are People For? Berkeley: Counterpoint. 157.
Karaim, Reed. 1986. “Loss of million farms in 14 years projected,” Des Moines Register, March 18, 1986. p. 1A.
Mills, C. Wright. 2000 (1959). The Sociological Imagination: 40th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press.
New Solutions. 2007. “Food, Feed and Fuel.” Community Services Inc. pp. 10