Thursday, February 10, 2005

Keeping Iowa's Young Folks at Home After They've Seen Minnesota? New York Times, February 9, 2005.

Interesting article. The problems of factory farms generally focus on the destructive environmental consequences or the rote animal abuse. Instead this article describes yet another way that factory farms are harmful: the decimation of rural life.

One thing that I discovered in law school was that most of my worldly, well-traveled classmates couldn't grasp the concept of rural areas or small towns. Their world was divided neatly in half: urban and suburban. I grew up seven miles from a small town (poulation: <3000) with farms as neighbors. The idea of a few hundred or thousand people living apart from a large city was confusing and horrifying to them. No wonder rural issues get ignored or misrepresented in the national discourse if the 'best and the brightest' not only haven't experienced this lifestyle, but can't even imagine it.

My first summer of law school I worked at Farmer's Legal Action Group and learned a lot about agriculture policy, USDA, subsidies, agribusiness and factory farms. The USDA and agribusiness are more than just bedfellows--it is an orgy between special interests, lobbyists, government officials and agribusiness fat cats. There is a revolving door between USDA officials and agribusiness leaders. Seriously, there are many people who jump back and forth every couple of years: one year they right the laws governing a particular segment, the next year they are executives in the businesses that reap the benefits, then back to the USDA to create policy.....and so forth. Disgusting.

What is even more appalling is the role of the small farmer in this system. Agribusiness hides behind the family farmer to rally support for subsidies. The endangered family farmer is the poster-child of the USDA: a symbol of wholesomeness, integrity and goodness. The family farmer is far more often hurt than helped by the USDA policies--the vast majority of subsidies go to huge agribusinesses that keep squeezing the family farms out of business.

Factory farms are horrible from almost every angle. They cause huge environmental damage--be it from the waste of animals or from the uni-crop planting that completely lacks biological diversity and requires vast amounts of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide. This obviously effects the quality of our food--most drastically in animal products. Factory farm animals are pumped full of chemicals and antibiotics to stay alive. This is the only way to raise animals as densely as these farms do. The lives of these animals is far from natural and their short lives are tortured. Bad. Bad. Bad.

This article was an absolute delight because it explored another important resource that factory farms destroy: rural communities. Each family farm that shuts down regretfully is a personal disaster and a loss to the the family members. These losses are not limited to the individual families, but also have an effect on communities. Factory farms replace small business owners with wage workers--mostly low-wage workers. The owners and executives of the farms do not live in the area and aren't invested in the community. They are motivated by profits and are completely willing to be an unpleasant, anti-social neighbor.

Many areas of Iowa have suffered dramatically after embracing factory farms but now are locked in with few options to improve the situation. Areas near my hometown in Wisconsin are beginning to suffer the same fate: the kids with bright futures go away to college and never come back. The people left behind are left with diminishing options as good-paying jobs disappear, leaving behind a depressing trail of crappy service jobs. This turns into a downward spiral of fewer and fewer opportunities for workers and more leverage for large corporations to abuse those same workers and degrade the communities.

Hopefully other communities will learn from Iowa's mistake and take measures to prevent factory farms from gaining a foothold. Rural life is an interesting and valuable aspect of American life that I hope doesn't disappear into rural poverty and hopelessness.

A final note: the income tax scheme certainly doesn't address the problem of rural poverty. Even if Iowa does manage to retain or even attract more young, educated workers, I can pretty much guarantee that they won't be living in rural areas. Cities are where these people will reside and the countryside will continue to rot.

2 Comments:

At 11:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know a bunch about factory farms, but I do know rural life. I grew up in one of the ruralest places in the lower 48 in Upper Michigan. It's on a long skinny peninsula on top of Lake Michigan. Being on a peninsula, there's only one road on and off. It's almost like being on an island. We were 45 miles from the nearest grocery store. Anyway, as a kid, it was a fine place to live. I could ride my bike and shoot guns and pretty much have a good time, as long as I didn't want to hang out with friends (who lived miles away) very often. Fun stuff. But now I see that it sucks. There is zero opportunity there, and most people who remain are hard-core substance abusers who have no comprehension of the outside world. The few that do have something on the ball have to drive 65 miles each way to work. There's a little town, of maybe 200 people, 10 miles from where I lived as a kid, and it is considered by some folks I know to be a "big city" since it has a 25 mph speed limit and houses close together on smallish lots. Now I live in Minneapolis, and the people I grew up with haven't the slightest comprehension of my life. As far as my relatives are concerned, my home in South Minneapolis is probably in a place that looks like Times Square on New Year's Eve. Not that they'd have any way of knowing, since they're all scared shitless to visit. While country life has it's perks, in general it is far less idyllic than I think some urban/suburban dwellers think it is. As for me, I wash my hands of it. It's too depressing.

And I agree, those young and educated Iowans won't adopt rural life either. I think the no-tax strategy that's been proposed there is flawed. What they need to do is give some sort of tax credit for having an education. It could be progressive too, so folks with PhDs and professional degrees would get a bigger credit than someone with a cosmetology certificate. Giving tax breaks to every person under 30 doesn't do anything but shrink the tax base - most who would benefit would be the uneducated saps who weren't going to leave anyway.

 
At 11:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was from me.
Jim

 

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