Lift your fork to help a farmer

HOLY CROSS BROTHER DAVID ANDREWS HAS RURAL LIFE in his blood. Growing up surrounded by farms near Fall River, Massachusetts, his paper route was 40 houses—and 10 miles—long. As a Holy Cross novice, he and the other novices ran a farm that supplied meat and vegetables to more than a dozen Holy Cross houses.

Now as executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, he fights for a healthy, just way of life for those involved in bringing food to our tables. His ministry takes him all over the country, where he says he has seen farmers going out of business because they can't make a profit and farm families immersed in poverty right in the midst of the heartland where our food is grown.

What's happening to farming today that should concern us the most?
In the past an independent farmer would grow a crop or two and sell it to a wholesaler at an auction house. Then it was sold to the processor, who sold it to the retailer. But now the food system is being consolidated in the hands of very few companies. We call this "vertical integration." For each commodity—livestock, poultry, wheat, corn—four or five large companies call the shots, controlling the crop from seed to shelf. The fewer hands involved in the transaction the easier it is for the company. Instead of a system of distinct economic units interacting—the farmer, the wholesaler, the processor, and the retailer—you have one huge system where everything is owned by just a few companies.

So what does this mean for the individual farmer?
Today the largest food retailer is Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart builds about 300 new stores each year. What happens to the other retailers? Many of them go out of business. Then a company like Tyson will make a deal to supply Wal-Mart with all its beef. So as Wal-Mart continues to grow and buys all its beef from Tyson, you end up with very few retailers and processors, and Wal-Mart is able to call the shots all the way down to the farmer. The farmer gets less on the open market because the open market doesn't exist anymore.

Farmers complain that they're not getting a fair price. In every food production area—grains, livestock, vegetables, poultry—the price today is below what they would have gotten 20 or 30 years ago in today's dollars. And the spread between what the farmer and the retailer get is very wide. When the price fluctuates for the farmer, it doesn't for the retailer. Last year, for example, when hog prices collapsed, farmers got eight cents per pound, but the retailer got four dollars.

Can't the farmers get together and fight this situation?
It's difficult because of the disparity of power. The farmer becomes a price-taker instead of a price-maker. The company offers the farmer a contract that goes something like this: "You will grow chickens. I will supply you with the chicks. You have to buy my feed. You must treat the animals the way I tell you. You own the land, the buildings, and the dead animals. You are responsible for environmental cleanup. And you can't talk to anyone about the conditions of this contract."

Farmers are often unhappy about the conditions: For example, they're told to feed the animals grain that contains low levels of antibiotics. Farmers know that the humans who eat these animals are ingesting antibiotics that will in the end create germs more resistant to antibiotics.

But what can you do? You sign the contract. The problem is that the company doesn't really need you as an individual; it can always get other farmers. If you don't cooperate, you'll get sick animals to raise instead of healthy ones. Each contract is for only one year, so if you don't go along, you won't get a contract at all the next year. And the prices offered are so low that many farmers can't make a go of it. In order to make enough money, they have to expand and go into debt. Most farmers have two or three jobs off the farm, with spouses who also work, just to support their desire to stay in farming.

Why don't the companies just buy the farms themselves?
They don't want to own the farm—they want to own the farmer. A fellow I know was offered a supposedly wonderful opportunity to retire in the South with a poultry farm. The poultry company offered financing to help him get started. He took out a big loan. When he found out how he was expected to produce, he objected. Then he got sick animals from the company, and eventually no animals at all. Now he's $600,000 in debt, because he believed the line of the poultry company telling him that they'd make him a family farmer and he'd have a lovely retirement.

You see, if the farmer owns the land, the farmer is responsible for all the risks associated with that, including the environmental cleanup. The company wants to minimize any risk for itself.

Isn't this just the free market at work?
Catholics have always maintained that there are many other values to be considered beyond just the free market at work. We tend to look at agriculture as a culture, a way of life, not simply as an economic entity. Food is a human right, people need to eat, and farming is a way of life we ought to encourage for more than just a few. It has inherent value that benefits all of us.

What does the Catholic Church say about these trends?
The U.S. bishops have consistently protested what's happening. Bishops' conferences from many of the farm states have issued letters and calls to action, many explicitly stating they oppose factory farming. Recently the bishops of the South issued an important letter, Voices and Choices, on problems in the poultry industry. Also the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, day in and day out since 1923, has done advocacy and education on these concerns, applying Catholic social teaching to agricultural and environmental issues.

Farm organizations of every stripe have expressed concern about this concentration of food resources and its results: depopulated countryside, the loss of a fair price in the market, and the loss of access to the market. Rural people see its results when their schools are consolidated, their neighbors move away, and their young people look outside the local community for a more vital future.

Catholics in cities don't hear much about farm issues. Why?
The urban bias of the Catholic Church stems from its concentration in cities like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, but there has always been and still is a rather significant, unacknowledged rural population. In 1986 the Notre Dame Parish Study found that one third of Catholics lived in rural areas, and that almost half of our parishes were rural.

Another reason farm issues are often invisible is that fewer people today are involved in farming in our country. Europeans, by contrast, have determined that they want a segment of the population to provide this cultural base, so a greater proportion of the European population is in agriculture—15 to 20 percent, compared to only 1.8 percent today in the United States.

Why do Europeans think it's important to keep more of their population in farming?
Because of wars and also the smaller land masses of their countries, Europe has periodically experienced great insecurity over their food supply. Keeping their people fed has been a much more immediate and real issue to them than to us with our large land mass.

Europeans are also much fussier, if you will, about food. Food is part of their culture in a very significant way. Therefore in Europe you see more resistance to genetically altered foods and more consciousness about the care and treatment of farm animals. In the U.S. we have these huge factories turning out hogs and poultry, thousands of them cooped together, treated more like stones than like animals. Farms like this would never survive under European rules because of the European attitude toward animal husbandry: Even though we're going to eat these animals, we can't just treat them like objects.

The archbishop of Cincinnati recently wrote a letter about turtle races and rat races at parish festivals in the diocese, saying this was an abuse of animals and contrary to the position of the Catholic catechism, which says we should treat animals with dignity and respect. Well, if we suggest that turtles and rats should be treated with respect, shouldn't we say the same for pigs and chickens? If you saw their treatment in these huge factory farms, it wouldn't be long before you'd say this is contrary to Catholic teaching.

So you think Europeans have it right?
Europeans, along with many Asians, too, look at agriculture as a culture. They want to keep the landscape, the villages, the farmers on the land; they want to keep a food system that's nutritious, healthy, and safe. They invest heavily in the cultures of rural communities.

I think the way we in the U.S. maintain ties to our rural roots is through country music. The Europeans do it by way of public policy. Here in the U.S. we've valued the music but not the land or the farmers or the villages.

What is the impact of factory farms on small towns?
Factory farms depopulate small towns by a "Wal-Mart effect." The far-off company supplies all their needs and therefore dries up the demand that smaller farms and processing plants would provide for local retail stores, supply stores, and other small businesses.

As local banks close or are taken over by national banks, families lose a banker who knows their story, who knows they are a good risk. I personally know one family who, after 60 years of getting a loan from the local bank, were suddenly judged a "bad risk" when the bank went national. They had to sell their farm.

Factory farms also create unpleasant living circumstances: polluted air around the huge hog confinements, breaks in the waste lines and manure lagoons that cause fish to die by the thousands in local streams, overapplication of chemicals to the land.

Unfortunately, where factory farms use immigrant laborers, they create more costs for the town in social services and in policing because they employ, for example, only young males who have time on their hands on weekends. When families do come, they create demands on schools and public services with no assistance from the factory farm, adding thereby a social dynamic to economic and environmental dynamics.

What is the impact of factory farming on rural parishes?
Rural parishes also lose populations when factory farming comes to the area; like the pubs they close last but close nonetheless. They are also challenged to provide outreach to the low-wage workers with their meager resources. In some areas, parishes form centers of outreach and education such as has happened in Ohio, Nebraska, and Iowa. In Kansas and Missouri, parishes hosted public meetings that resulted in the factory farm not coming to the area.

Any other encouraging signs?
I think we as eaters are becoming more conscious of where our food comes from. The tremendous growth of farmers' markets is one sign of this—we're seeing a 20 percent annual increase. The growth of organic food products is another. We're beginning to insist on better labeling so people know what's in their food.

More and more we're seeing efforts to link farmers directly with food buyers. New York has an active urban agricultural program called Just Foods, which links rural farmers with farmers' markets in the city. In New Orleans, Loyola University sponsors the Crescent City Farmers' Market, which links farmers with consumers and restaurants. I could name over 100 congregations across the country that are turning their own land into community-supported agricultural programs. Some parishes organize their own links with local farmers; some have even put in commercial kitchens for food processing.

The Diocese of Cleveland has a land-use task force, figuring out how we as a church can be better stewards of the land. They have addressed urban sprawl and keeping farmland for farming, not development. Bishops all over the country have written on what's happening to our rivers and water use; in fact, in Detroit, churches monitor the water quality of the Detroit River. Increasingly the church is seeing the notion of communion not just involving humans but land, water, and animals as well.

What changes would you like to see in our legal and other systems?
We need to encourage the use of locally grown, nutritious food to support our hunger projects rather than relying on corporate castoffs for food pantries. We need parishes to move from education into legislative action, as many are already doing. In our schools we need projects such as edible gardens where children can nurture and consume healthy food they've grown themselves. I saw a wonderful program supported by the Heifer Project in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, where children grew worms to provide good soil for local gardens, and also raised fish for eating.

In addition to creative new efforts on the ground and in our institutions, we need better enforcement of antitrust and other laws that are already on the books; and better funding of regulatory efforts such as food inspection and meat inspection. We also need better funding of the Environmental Protection Act to appropriately inspect waterways. We at NCRLC have joined with Bobby Kennedy Jr. and the Water Keepers Alliance because we agree that if the current laws were enforced, the factory farms would not be able to continue their pollution of our waterways.

What can we do as individuals who buy food?
When people go shopping, they look for the cheapest food. They don't realize that their fork is a powerful lever. Change could happen if people who eat—and I don't know too many who don't—would think about how the food got to their fork, about whom they bought it from, and about what impact this food has on the environment, on farmers, on their own nutrition. Eating is a moral act.

Who pays for cheap food? We all do. Europeans are willing to pay up to 20 percent of their income on food because they care more about the food they eat. We pay 9 to 10 percent—of course poorer communities pay a lot more. Actually between our doctor bills, health clubs, and subsidies to large food companies, not to mention the taxpayer bills for environmental cleanup, we pay plenty. If we looked at our fork as a lever that can lift a culture, we'd realize our food choices carry a lot of power.

It's a hard connection to make: eating and public policy. But we made it in the early 20th century when we read Sinclair Lewis' The Jungle about the food processing industry, when Teddy Roosevelt took on big food companies and made laws regulating food processing plants. The same kind of consciousness is beginning to revive now, I think. I believe the conscientious eaters of the country would change their eating practices, their personal behavior, and public policy, if they knew what impact their use of breakfast spoons and dinner forks has on our food, our environment, our farms. 

This interview was conducted by Bob Zyskowski, associate publisher of The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Catherine O'Connell-Cahill, associate editor of U.S. Catholic.

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