August 06, 2004

Ohio & Agriculture


Nancy Williams came to Boston as a first-time delegate from Ohio's 5th Congressional District. She seemed cheered by her observation that Democrats in Ohio seem to have "discovered farm votes, small towns, and retail politicking."

Williams said there are a lot more liberal Democratic voters among farmers than you might think. They're angry, she asserts, about neglected schools, declining access to healthcare, and the unbalanced budget.

At the convention's Rural Caucus, Williams said family members had learned that of the nation's 250 poorest counties, 240 are rural. And she painted a picture of "dire" rural poverty that sounds like the description of decaying inner cities.* She described an atmosphere of hopelessness and desperation, many towns where the one plant had closed down, and where drug and alcohol problems were rampant.

Williams also said she wanted to see more vigorous enforcement of EPA standards against large factory farms. She said that each county had one, at the encouragement of the county commissioners, and that they weren't properly inspected. She said that the factory farms are "not good neighbors," and that they have the "same pollution rate of a big assembly plant."

Going into more detail, Williams said that a large concern was the pollution of groundwater in local watersheds. She said that nitrates penetrate the ground and water, runoff from concentrated amounts of manure that create a significant odor. Additionally, the truck traffic from these large concerns increase the costs of the roads that all local residents have to pay for.

Williams said these communities are ripe for Kerry's message, but that they haven't really been reached before and are often apathetic. Yet she says she's amazed at the support she's been seeing for Robin Weirauch whose running for congress in the 5th District. If Weirauch wins, the candidate would be the first Democrat in 40 years to take the seat.

* Independent support for Senate candidate Jerry Springer's suggestion that rural areas have the same issues as urban areas, and that the real problems came from poverty.


During the blogger panel with Senators Durbin and Harkin, I asked them each a question about the impact of factory farms and the support of small farmers. Ezra of Pandagon asked in response what value there was in supporting small farms.

Senator Harkin's response touched on some of the conservation aspects briefly, but it was the last question and his aides were warily eyeing the door. But it's a subject with a lot of aspects, and it deserves at least a bit more time.

Biodiversity is the first issue that comes to mind. While it doesn't seem immediately relevant to our midwestern breadbasket states, standard issue yellow bananas will probably be extinct within my lifetime. Why? They're all clones from the same seedless, and therefore sterile, hybrid. Sometime before the last of this widely grown variety succumbs to the plant disease that's slowly spreading all over the world, someone will have to go back to the wild and heirloom types and come up with another one. And those other types had better be there.

Factors that play heavily into maintaining biodiversity are the preservation of multiple varieties of a species and planting multiple crops in agricultural zones. Large farm concerns tend to prefer planting one species of one crop, often using plant cloning to maximize the predictability of the harvest. They lean towards as much unbroken land devoted to the same crop as possible. What this mean when a plant disease comes along is that it has a clean sweep of it's favorite snack as far as the eye can see, and that when new hybrids are necessary, it can be hard to find anyone who's stewarded alternate varieties.

Farm pollution is a serious concern even to people who live nowhere near a farming community. Anyone who fishes, or eats fish, from the Gulf of Mexico should be aware that "After the Mississippi River flood of 1993, the spatial extent of [a fish-killing oxygen free] zone more than doubled in size, to over 18,000 km2, and has remained about that size each year through midsummer 1997." This condition is caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi basin, and reappears every summer.

When nutrients from excess fertilizer and manure get into the water in large enough amounts, they promote the growth of algae and other microscopic organisms. These multiply quickly, have massive die-offs, and use up the dissolved oxygen in the water while they're doing it. Plus, just in case this chain of events leaves some fish, these chemicals end up in fish dinners all over the country anyway. If you're considering economic damage, I imagine the fishing industry is not thrilled.

Finally, there's the issue of preserving the land itself. By which I mean the actual dirt. Regular farming methods over the paltry couple centuries we've been farming these states have already reduced topsoil cover by as much as six inches in some areas. Every year that land is left bare and farmed without rest, more soil washes away than could be replaced in my lifetime by leaving the land to a state of natural vegetation.

Soil is complex, and good soil is very complex. Not only clay and sand, good soil is decayed plant material, earthworm casings, the hollows left by tireless ants, and a teeming cast of microorganisms. It's alive. Not metaphorically, but actually. The difference is the obvious reason why you would laugh at someone who suggested growing crops in bare sand. Factory farming methods generally involve the most damaging possible assaults on this vital part of our ecosystem; the part that grows the food we eat.

Understanding that soil is alive is crucial to understanding that it can be harmed. That it represents a living community that can be damaged by the addition of harsh chemicals, and starved by the continual removal of nutrients. Tired, dead soil does not produce truly healthy food, no matter what you pour on it.

On all these issues, the small landowner simply cares more. Perhaps one day we'll wake up in a world where Monsanto really gives a rat's bottom about these things, but I've seen no evidence. A small landholder cares more about the water that comes out of their well, whether the topsoil blows away, and whether they keep heirloom crops growing season after season.

I don't consider it silly or emotional to want to deal with people who can be more easily made to care about these issues, and whose help can most easily be won by conservation credits. These are difficult problems that affect the Earth's ability to sustain life, and the importance of making headway on them dictates that any step forward should be sought after.

Of course, beyond the soil, our food supply, and the health of the environment, are the people who live in rural America. They seem to like it well enough, and I guess somebody has to live out there, though I confess to being glad it isn't me. But if my tax dollars can subsidize the infrastructure of a large city, interstate highways, and myriad business tax breaks, they can go to support the infrastructure of the areas that grow the food I eat.

I think it's fair to say that I like food as much as the next person, and I don't think that growing it all in another country would represent a step forward.

Posted by natasha at August 6, 2004 01:33 AM | Elections | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

THANK YOU Natasha and Amen! I could not agree with you more!!

Posted by: Gwen at August 6, 2004 10:33 AM

This is one of the best distillations of this situation that I have read. Sadly it seems to be well under the radar of this election cycle. Thanks.

Posted by: Gary Armstrong at August 6, 2004 02:18 PM

Because many of the battleground states have significant farm populations, this presents an opportunity for those of us concerned with rural issues to raise questions about our problems. A good opinion piece on this issue can be found here:

Posted by: Will Fantle at August 7, 2004 08:16 AM

When are going to allow farmers to grow the greatest product in the world-HEMP? This is not cannabis, known as marijuana, but it is the similiar looking plant that is used as a textile. Clothes, oil, food, and more comes from this, and in most southwest states, it can be grown year-round, getting more than 4 crops per yr. Amazing that this is ignored in the media, and amazing that it doesn't get more attention. It would solve the world's oil problem, and provide many other benefits, too.

Posted by: Mike Smithson at August 7, 2004 01:26 PM