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The War in the Country
How the Fight to Save Rural Life Will Shape Our Future
Chapter 1: A Different Kind of Great Dying
Microcosm: a little world, a world in miniature
For at least sixty years in the industrial north of our planet, and for perhaps twenty-five or so in the rest of the world, a kind of Great Dying has been taking place—not the mass disappearance of endangered animal and plant species usually described or predicted by environmentalists, but a different kind of dying. This one, though it has had and will continue to have an ominously destructive impact on the environment, is not so much a biological phenomenon as a cultural one.
It is a uniquely human tragedy, caused by humans, and its consequences are yours, ours—everyone’s.
Our rural world is dying.
If a coroner’s inquest was looking for the cause of death, its jurors would have trouble pinning down a single one. A whole complex of factors is involved, with them playing off of each other like so many caroming pool balls at the break, or subatomic particles after colliding in a physicist’s accelerator. Even pinpointing an original impetus, some force or movement that shattered stasis and started the whole thing moving—the action to which all else is reaction—is problematic.
Perhaps that first force was simply greed, or more than that. Perhaps it was, in Cyrano de Bergerac’s immortal dying words, a multitude:
Who are you? Are you a thousand? Ah, I recognize you, all my old enemies!
And it may yet. Most urban people—and they represent the vast majority of the population (80 percent or more in most so-called developed countries)—are, if not stupid, at least ignorant of what’s happening. They don’t know because no one has bothered to tell them.
This is the fault of our news media, which we can with some justification label truly stupid, or at least truly irresponsible, because they could easily know, and report, but haven’t done so. With a few honorable exceptions, mostly in Canada (the work of André Picard of Toronto’s Globe and Mail springs to mind, along with that of tvOntario), they’re too busy chasing “pop divas,” “celebs,” and axe murderers, too focused on reporting such crucial events as the current size of Britney’s breasts, or, as one major online news site recently headlined: “How to keep your makeup from melting,” to do the job of informing and educating that is supposed to be part of journalism. Worst of all is U.S. television.
I spent two years researching and writing a book about this, called The Invisible Farm. It was aimed at journalists, trying to alert them to the situation, and was published by a well-reputed house in Chicago. But like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest with no one there to hear, it made no sound.
And what is it that people don’t know?
A Perverted System
They don’t know that a perverted system, conceived and implemented by power elites with minimal democratic process, has captured those government departments charged with supervising the countryside, turning them into little more than an enforcement arm whose practical function is to create conditions that tend to wipe out: a) the family farm, b) rural small businesses, c) the culture and vitality of rural small towns, and d) the security and autonomy of all rural landowners, including retirees, back-to-the-landers, and other refugees from city stress.
The goal appears to be simple and brutal: to clear most rural lands of their inhabitants (save for a few suburban, transplanted enclaves), to raze whatever is left of our centuries-old rural cultures, including those of indigenous or First Nations peoples, and zone the resulting vacuum as Industrial with a capital I, turning it over to “factory farm” operations whose methods hark back to the failed collectives of the old Soviet Communist Empire, to mining companies, or here and there to recreational real estate developers.
The goal also appears to be to weaken or eliminate the very basis of democracy at its roots, that is to say, at the level of local municipal government, where voters have traditionally had the greatest direct influence on and control over their communities. In Canada, as Roger Epp, professor of political studies at the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus in Camrose, Alberta, notes, federal and provincial governments “have eroded municipal decision-making authority over intensive-livestock or confined feeding operations, in order to ensure that neither local objectors nor upstart councils can stop ‘science-based’ developments or harm provincial reputations as safe havens for agri-business investment.”
Rural people are viewed as simply “in the way,” Epp writes, adding that from the perspective of governments and outside investors, the countryside is no longer understood in terms of rooted human settlement and livelihood. Rather, it is coming to serve two very different purposes. The prettiest places become upscale playgrounds: tourist resorts, golf courses, parks or weekend property with a view of the mountains. The rest—mostly out of sight, out of mind—are envisioned as either resource plantations or dumping grounds. They are ‘empty.’
This is no mere rant, or conspiracy theory, particularly where farm ownership and the targeting of small business are concerned. It has been voiced as policy by spokesmen for government as far back as the Nixon administration in the U.S., whose secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, famously snarled at American family farmers: “Get big or get out!”
For decades, corporate and government policies have pressed relentlessly toward Butz’s goal, via the infamous “cost-price squeeze.” Corporations have come to control the food production system at both ends, setting prices for everything farmers need to produce a crop—farm machinery, fuel, seed, fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides—and then setting prices at the other end as well, the “farm-gate” prices farmers are paid for their food products. So-called “input” prices have constantly risen, while output prices have dropped, till the farmer, caught in the middle, can no longer produce a crop and expect to make enough from it to cover the cost of production. Beef cattle producers today are actually getting prices lower than those paid to their predecessors at the height of the Great Depression, in 1936. The prices for feed grain such as corn have collapsed similarly, to below those earned by farmers in 1932.
The farmer is being squeezed right out of business.
And now corporate forces are taking over the middle of the system, buying up the land as farmers leave it, and consolidating it into massive factory farm operations.
Recent examples of how government sees this process were articulated in Ontario government policy papers (see chapter 8) and in publications like the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Development’s Bacon Bits, which told readers that small, independent hog producers would soon become no more than a “residual supply group” in the “New Agriculture.” Perhaps most outrageously, the mindset has been exemplified by some of the younger spokesmen for the financial side of Big Agribusiness, men like Gary Blumenthal, president and CEO of World Perspectives Inc., a Washington, D.C. consulting firm specializing in major food industry clients and investors (the firm’s former president had for thirty-six years been an executive with the agri-food mega-giant Cargill Inc., and one of the firm’s current clients is the World Bank):
Certainly the countries with the fewer number of farmers are actually better off. We tend to have this romantic view of agriculture as, you know, we want to protect the small farms because they’re nostalgic. And it may work in countries like Canada or the U.S. where you have government subsidies or consumer subsidies... there’s something to be said for that if we want to subsidize.
But we need to appreciate that this is a social policy. It’s not an industrial policy. We have Renaissance festivals. You can go to a Renaissance festival and you can romanticize about what the Medieval era was like, with castles and knights and serfs and, you know, broken-down peasant farmers. We don’t have to subsidize to romanticize about it.
Blumenthal is wrong about North American subsidies, which tend to heavily favor large industrial operations over small family farms, and the world he inaccurately dismisses as Medieval was not Medieval at all. The Medieval era lasted roughly from 700 to 1,500 ad, while most family farms in North America were wiped out between 1925 and 2000. But the rural scene he sees as merely nostalgic has, in fact, nearly disappeared. So many census reports and statistical tables have attested to this rural population decline, and to the consolidation of arable land into megafarms, and they have been reported in so many different publications (including two of my own) that repeating them is repeating a truism.
Blumenthal describes the ultimate statistical results as well as anyone:
If we just look at Canadian average farm size over the past while, your data from the government from 1981 to 2001, the farm sizes increased by 45 percent... in the U.S., over half of all commercial production comes from just 34,000 farms. Now we have two million farms, but as you can see a relatively small percentage produce most of the agriculture.
He exults in this situation, enthusing that “North American farms are in the hundreds of acres or even thousands of acres!” In other words, bigger is inevitably better. He is content that a country which, at the time Henry David Thoreau was writing Walden, saw the majority of its citizens engaged in agriculture or its subsidiary industries, now sees barely one percent of its people engaged in farming.
American poet/farmer Wendell Berry is less enthusiastic, branding the process “a work of monstrous ignorance and irresponsibility on the part of the experts and politicians, who have prescribed, encouraged and applauded the disintegration of farming communities all over the country”—a disintegration that resulted in thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of individual business failures, bankruptcies, divorces, family breakups, suicides, and community collapses.
Joseph Stalin’s purge of rural Russia’s kulaks in the 1930s had been more physically brutal—he simply shot or starved his victims—but nothing as terrible had been seen in the West since the infamous “enclosures” of Tudor Britain.
Not only did the process ruin scores of North American rural families and towns, it also resulted in the near-total destruction of the nutritional value of the food being produced by Big Agribusiness—the food that urban people, too, must eat—as well as in wholesale, widespread environmental destruction, as described in detail in my previous book, The End of Food.
Of course, the process has not gone on without opposition, and stubborn pockets of resistance are fighting back even today, in North America and around the world.
In the 1970s the so-called “back-to-the-land movement”—which was an outgrowth partly of the 1960s countercultural revolution and partly of the ideas of earlier times, such as the Great Depression era Catholic Land Movement in Britain in the 1930s—made a determined, idealistic effort to reverse the trend. Thousands of young people, individually and in groups, migrated out of the cities and into the countryside, hoping to launch small-scale commercial or at least subsistence farms.
In the U.S., they were inspired by the work of people like Helen and Scott Nearing, whose books The Good Life and Living the Good Life15 became best-sellers, while every issue of Mother Earth News magazine—whose first issue in January 1970 heralded “a new beginning”—flew off the shelves. In France, the same kinds of young people were inspired by Claudie Hunzinger’s Bambois, la vie verte, while in Japan they looked to Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution, and in Australia to the so-called “permaculture” ideas of Bill Mollison. In Canada, where I joined the movement, they read Harrowsmith magazine, whose first issue in 1976 bore the cover line “Kissing Supermarkets Goodbye.” After working a small farm in Quebec for several years, I became a Harrowsmith editor and moved to Harrowsmith, Ontario, in early 1979. Before it changed hands in the 1980s, the magazine had a Canadian circulation of some 135,000, which gives a sense of how many people were inspired by these ideas. There is no other way to know how many took part, in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. No census includes a “back-to-the-land” category.
It was a wonderful, almost heroic effort, and some of those who took part in it succeeded. Here and there, though by now isolated, they still manage to keep up their homesteads, proving that their “pie in the sky” theories could actually work in practice.
But they are few and far between. Their generation was succeeded by a new one, self-styled “yuppies” (young, upwardly mobile professionals) who bought into the trickle-down economic theories of the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney years and dreamed not of raising golden grain fields, but mostly of making pots of money on the stock market. The already destructive government policies that had caused rural decline in the first place became more pronounced, more draconian, more favorable to the multinational food corporations, and more harsh and unbending toward struggling rural families.
Typical are farm taxation policies.
It is no longer possible in Ontario to operate a “subsistence” farm, of the kind operated in the U.S. of the 1930s by the Nearings, or by me in the 1970s in Harrowsmith, without paying a heavy tax penalty. Even if a family spends most of its time working the land where they live—and produces enough grain, vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, and firewood on it to make themselves fairly self-sufficient—the government does not regard them as actually farming. They cannot claim the lower farm rate of property tax, unless they sell commercially a minimum of $7,000 worth of their produce every year. They are instead taxed at the same rate as a wealthy urban resident who purchases a lakeside cottage to use for summer holidays, and makes no effort to do anything on the property other than sunbathe.
If this rule were applied in places like Latin America, India, or Africa, where most of the large rural population engages in subsistence farming, virtually no one there could be legally classed as a “farmer.”
In Alberta, the farm property tax system was recently modified to impose a new, “split use” regime. Farmers who had for decades been paying a normal farm rate for their land are now required to pay a different rate for any part of the farm that is not actually in crop. That is, the farmhouse, any woodlots, and any ecologically sensitive plots are now taxed at the residential rate. This can result in an additional tax burden of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 or more for small family farms.
Nor is the rate of property tax the only example. Federal income tax regulations in Canada allow a full-time farmer to deduct the full amount of any farm business losses during a given year. However, if that same farmer, in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy after years of continuing losses, takes an off-farm job, or the farmer’s spouse does so, the amount of losses allowed is sharply restricted. In some cases farmers who have lost $20,000 or more due to the cost-price squeeze, bad weather, or other factors, can only deduct a maximum of $6,000 if they’ve had the poor judgement to try to help themselves by taking a second job.
In short, small family farms, subsistence farms, and ecologically minded farmers who put part of their property to use to protect the environment are systematically penalized.
Thanks to such policies, by the year 2000 the process of rural decimation, at least in North America, was so far advanced as to almost constitute a fait accompli.
But the human spirit, which seems to share an almost universal conviction that life in the country is somehow more human and natural, better for families with children, and better for the environment, refused to let rural culture expire. At the very moment when multinational corporate power and government collusion with it appeared triumphant, a new, stubbornly determined rural revival movement—made up of the ragged, struggling remnants of the remaining family farmers, of diehard back-to-the-landers, of once-urban residents who had come to the country to retire, or to start anew, and of indigenous people (in Ontario, especially, the Mohawks and the Algonquins), began once again to fight back.
Once again, there is a war in the country—perhaps this time a last stand.
© 2009 D&M Publishers Inc.
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