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Returning to Normal Misses the Point
Joe Biden's Secretary of Agriculture Isn't Likely to Heal Rural America
This morning, an acquaintance shared a photo on Instagram of a pile of grapes, apples, lemons and other fruits and vegetables. He runs a composting company, and the photo came from a recent load of produce he had picked up, in spite of the fact that it all looked perfectly fine. A 2017 report from the National Resources Defense Council found that 40 percent of the United States’ food ends up wasted.
At a time when food pantries across the country have seen a 60 percent increase in demand, tossing mounds of fresh produce should be more than a wake-up call. It is yet another visual and visceral reminder that President-elect Biden’s promise of returning to normalcy simply offers to wallpaper over the United States’ deep fissures.
The pandemic exposed some of them starkly: the country’s racial health and wealth disparities; the precariousness of life for millions of working Americans who rent their homes; the racial and gender trends around who does essential work and who can work from home. And, indirectly, the pandemic created the conditions for some of the largest racial justice demonstrations in the country’s history.
Despite all these disparities and hardships, tens of millions of people, many in rural America, voted for another four years of President Trump. Egged on by the president’s own false claims, thousands of his supporters believe that the election was stolen, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. And while the term for the president’s attempt to delegitimize the election and hold onto power may not be encapsulated precisely in the term “coup,” as the journalist Zeynep Tukefci pointed out weeks after the election, he was still trying to seize power.
As a resident of Wisconsin, I see something similar playing out in my backyard. President Trump’s supporters tried to overturn the election results, but that is just the latest in years of anti-democratic efforts. The state legislature went nearly six months without meeting in the midst of the pandemic. The country’s toughest voter ID law passed here in 2011 under Governor Scott Walker. The state’s gerrymander confined Democratic party representation in the state assembly to 39 of 99 seats – in spite of the fact that Democrats won more than half of the statewide vote in 2012. Despite this, the Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit contesting that the apportionment effectively gives some voters more power than others. And, in 2018, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to strip powers from the newly-elected Democratic governor and to restrict early voting. While these examples resonate with Tukefci’s interpretation, I offer an analysis of the conditions that have led to this situation, particularly in rural areas.
Wisconsin’s political battles extend into the state’s core industry: agriculture. From eliminating nearly 60 scientists’ jobs at the state’s Department of Natural Resources to expediting the permitting process for the high-capacity wells CAFO dairies demand, Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature gutted regulations aimed at ensuring things like water quality.
Meanwhile, the state’s famed dairies are being pummeled by political and economic forces that extend far beyond the legislature. America’s Dairyland has led the nation in farm foreclosures in recent years. The number of dairies has plummeted in number from more than 16,000 in 2003, to just under 7,000 now. For years, dairy farmers have consistently faced milk prices below their production costs. Organizations like Renewing the Countryside, the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Family Farm Defenders all promote policies and initiatives to ensure that farming can continue to economically viable for small and mid-sized farmers, while 40 Acres And a Mule is purchasing land for Black farmers in the state. Still, these efforts must contend with a marketplace skewed by the power of massive corporations like Walmart, Bayer/Monsanto and Cargill.
These farm bankruptcies aren’t just an economic crisis; they are fueling a human one as well. High rates of opioid addiction and suicide are plaguing rural communities, and a Journal of American Medicine article found that in 2016, counties with these markers voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
Prof. Kathy Cramer describes in her book, “The Politics of Resentment,” how a strong rural identity often comes with a feeling of being ignored politically and neglected financially. As a result, elites, people of color, and city dwellers are all targets of scorn and suspicion. Cramer warned that those feelings could be manipulated for political ends. The last two presidential elections illustrate how prescient she was.
Many Democrats have dismissed these voters as racist. In the wake of the most recent contest, some say the time for dialogue has passed. But painting entire communities with a broad brush is more likely to alienate people than it is to prompt reflection, and refusing to talk with people who hold different views does nothing to challenge or transform them.
Joe Biden did win the election, and he is promising a return to normalcy and dignity. But for whom? If “normal” in your community means seeing your neighbors shut down decades-old, family -owned businesses and kill themselves with drugs and alcohol, it hardly seems a state you’d want to return to.
Yet many of Biden’s cabinet picks seem to offer more of the same. Tom Vilsack, whom Biden has nominated to serve as the Secretary of Agriculture, served in that same position under Obama. But after leaving the Obama administration, Vilsack earned almost $1 one million dollars in his first year as the President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. As dairy farmers struggle to stay in business after years of low prices, Vilsack hardly seems positioned to take on the kind of structural reforms needed to keep smaller farmers in business. Liz Moran Stelk of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance tweeted: “As USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack failed to protect food workers, did little to combat the agency’s racist policies, and championed industrial agriculture over family farmers.”
Urban dwellers might agree with outgoing ag secretary Sonny Perdue that farmers either need to get big or get out. They might see fewer farms as a natural part of an economic shift towards a service-industry economy and think that farmers should just retrain and find something else to do. They might point to the millions of dollars in agricultural subsidies handed out by the Trump administration as evidence that farmers should be doing fine.
The problem is that, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, half of all of Trump’s Market Facilitation Program subsidies went to the 10 percent largest farms in the country, while the bottom 80 percent received an average payment of just over $5,000. When a used tractor costs at least $20,000, you get a sense of how little that subsidy will do to change things for most farmers.
Meanwhile, the food system itself not only ends up discarding massive amounts of “waste” like the dumped produce I mentioned at the start, but also devastating the environment and our bodies. Nitrate run-off causes harmful algae blooms in surface water from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, putting drinking water supplies and fish stocks in jeopardy. In western Wisconsin earlier this year, a county commission threatened to sue journalists who didn’t share water quality studies verbatim. Meanwhile, grain-fed animals show higher levels of omega-6 acids. These promote inflammation, which has been linked to cancer.
So, “Voting with your fork” isn’t enough to change the corporate systems that control agriculture, as reporter Sarah Mock has so deftly explained. In an earlier post, Bill Hogseth described some of the structural changes that could help, like taking anti-trust action against some of the big agribusiness firms. In such a context, it’s hard to see how getting back to “normal” works for anyone but the ag executives who earn salaries like Vilsack’s.