I think that the most important reason for encouraging the production and consumption of local food relates to national security. Briefly, I see a chain of connections like this:
- Local food is the best basis for successful local farming;
- Local farming is the key to preserving rural America;
- Preserving rural America is crucial to our national security.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the national agricultural establishment--secretaries of agriculture, the federal agencies, academics, and influential analysts--came to agree that the small farm was agriculturally unproductive, socially retarded, and too costly for the nation to maintain. They recommended agricultural policies that would drive the small farm out of business. They wanted agriculture to be shifted to factory farms producing commodity crops and meats, where mechanization, efficiencies of scale, and scientific capital would greatly increase productivity, measured in terms of output per acre, and keep commodity prices low.
These federal policies, including subsidization for commodity producers, were successful (see the linked chart showing the dramatic rise in farm size after 1940). Over the next several decades, small farms dramatically declined as a percentage of producers. The small farms that remained were often kept in business only by the owner-operators taking wage jobs in nearby towns and farming part-time. This unhappy story is well documented by the critics of federal agricultural policy. (See, for instance, the essays of Wendell Berry.) The demise of the small farm is popular knowledge about the history of nation and is recited regularly in news stories about American farming.
Unfortunately, it is not just small farming that is disappearing; it is also rural America. America's regional agricultural lands are being emptied of farms. The villages and towns that depend upon the small producers are also emptying and withering. Lacking livelihoods, town people move to large cities, leaving the rural life behind. The services that once made it possible to live in rural America, such as stores, doctors, and schools, lacking sufficient customers, close or leave, driving more people off the land. The lands of the small farms are purchased by a few farmers and incorporated into large commodity factory farms, such as the corn, wheat, and soy producers of the Midwest and Great Plains. Often the owners of these farms do not even live on their farms in the Winters, but go to pasturage in Florida and other sunny climates. The result of these trends is the social disintegration of rural America.
So what? Do we really need a rural America, such as existed before, say, World War I?
For me, the answer is definitely, yes!
The capability of our nation to survive a national security emergency requires the knowledge, skills, products, and services that small farming provides. Such knowledge and skills do not exist in cities and suburbs. The whole social-economic fabric of a critical mass of small farms in a region and the rural society and economy it supports must exist for the knowledge and skills we need to be preserved.
Consider the following examples.
- How to produce food, feed one's family, and feed others
- How to preserve food and seed to produce for another season
- How to manage a healthy, productive land
- How to build a sustainable, cooperative local society capable of mutual support in times of disaster
- Fixing home appliances
- Wiring a house
- Fixing a diesel engine
- Digging a well
- Testing and purifying water
- Make a sanitary outhouse
- Making a canal with water locks
- Applying first aid to a broken limb or a wound
- Taking care of sick children without modern medicine
- Living for weeks at a time without access to stores
- How to build and maintain a dirt road
- How to sew clothes
- Maintaining a forest watershed
- How to weld a tractor tread
- How to build a hoist to lift heavy objects
- How to build a shelter for animals
- How to plow a furrow when the gasoline for the tractor runs out
- How to glaze a window
- Freshest organic foods
- Preserving the genetic diversity of regional agricultural crops and animals
- Conserving heirloom varietals of regional agricultural crops and animals
What, in brief, a rural society based small farms provides is a wide distribution of practical knowledge and skills for surviving--surviving for long times on one's wits and personal assets, surviving with hope and optimism for the future, surviving with the capability to recreate the society that has been shattered in the national emergency. Small farming is built on such skills, because the small farmer depends upon his own and his family's labor. He (or she--for many small local producers today are women) does not have the money to hire laborers for each little job that farming requires; if the small farmer had to hire a skilled laborer to do each job, he or she would soon go out of business.
Alexis de Tocqueville make this observation, that independent, general farming generates intelligence, which specialized manufacturing diminishes it, in his classic work, Democracy in America (Henry Reeve translation, chapter 18):
"In America, it sometimes happens that the same person tills his field, builds his dwelling, contrives his tools, makes his shoes, and weaves the coarse stuff of which his dress is composed. This is prejudicial to the excellence of the work, but it powerfully contributes to awaken the intelligence of the workman. Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than the extreme division of labor."
Harvesting potatoes on a small farm six miles north of Caribou, Maine. October 1940. Jack Delano, photographer. Photographs from FSA-OWI, American Memory Collection, Library of Congress.
In other words, in a national security emergency, the nation will need people of practical intelligence, practical skills, and a habit of innovation by finding solutions to problems with what lies at hand.
It is not enough, however, that rural America should be conserved in one area of the nation, say the upper Midwest. Practical skills for making a living on the land and for re-creating American society are regional. Each of the nation's major climatic/geological/landscape regions needs its own rural society, with small farm agriculture best suited to the growing conditions.
The practical intelligence of its citizens is honed against the peculiarities of the region--such as its scarcity or abundance of water, its soil type, the length of its winter or summer, the distances between farms and between small towns.
My wife, who lived on a farm as a child, reminded me that the crop and animal varietals of farms are bred to each region. Beef cattle or dairy cows that do well in Arizona do not necessarily do well in New England, for instance. And it is small farms that are preserving the genetic diversity of heirloom varieties of plants and animals. As in many other aspects of life, the agricultural diversity of rural regions is the strongest foundation for America's agricultural security.
Small farm of California, Contra Costa County. Nov. 1938. Dorothea Lange, photographer. Photographs from FSA-OWI, American Memory Collection, Library of Congress.
To this line of argument, a critic will surely say, it is so unlikely as nearly to be impossible that a national security emergency would ever occur that would require the services and product a successful, vibrant rural America would provide. Perhaps. But .. think of the following scenarios:
- The seed stock for hybrid corn and other food commodities is destroyed by GMO sabotage--the major commodities, soybean, corn, rice, and wheat, are no longer in national production
- Companies producing processed foods, such as breads, using these commodities as ingredients go bankrupt and cease production, resulting in
- Bread famine
- Nuclear explosions in San Francisco and Los Angeles produce fallout that makes the California central valley--the nation's production center of commodity fruits and vegetables--uninhabitable and unfarmable
- Where will the evacuated survivors of those cities and the Valley live?
- Poisons released in the major rivers flowing into Florida destroy Florida's agriculture for five years
- Engaged in a war with us, America's enemies convince the countries from which we import winter fruits and vegetables to embargo us
- Terrorists contaminate the nation's beef and dairy cow herds with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy--ten million steers in the big herds must be destroyed, saving only isolated small farm herds, and quarantine prevents importation of beef steers and milk cows, resulting in
- Beef famine
- Milk famine
- Nuclear explosions in New York City and Washington, D.C. force the evacuation and resettlement for five years of 17 million people--where will they live but in rural America and what will they do but work in rural jobs?
- A virulent and deadly plague--smallpox?--shuts down population movement between the nation's regions for three years
- A revolutionary socialist government in Mexico closes that country's border with the US and refuses to allow 800,000 Mexican harvest laborers to enter the US to work on large farms
A critic says, in response, these situations are exactly the reason we have a federal government--to mobilize the resources of the nation as a whole to deal with an emergency. Well, you have a lot of faith in the national government! What historical instances do you have of the federal government solving an emergency of such scope?
In conclusion, one of the resources, which we would want to be available to the nation, is a prosperous rural America, settled and worked by a people of high practical IQ, available to provide food, absorb evacuees, and keep the nation or a region going while the emergency is resolved. This is why we need small farms. An American hinterland filled with five acre estates and golf courses simply won't do the job.
A nation that cannot feed itself, whose population lacks sufficient practical IQ to improvise its way out of a crisis, and whose cities are vulnerable to attack and to strangulation of their lines of commerce, is a nation not prepared to survive a national security emergency.
The Pew Foundation has released a study of the effects of factory farming on American agriculture, environment, and rural life: "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America". Basically, the study finds that concentration of livestock in industrial factory-sized farms imperils the biosafety of the animals, makes our food supply unnecessarily vulnerable to disease and disruption, pollutes the environment, and impoverishes rural life.
See my discussion on preserving rural America (11 articles).
Further information on federal awareness of problems of agricultural security:
Department of Homeland Security: Office of Mass Destruction and Biodefense
Department of Homeland Security: Proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility
Environmental Protection Agency: Federal Food and Agriculture Decontamination and Disposal Roles and Responsibilities
Purdue Homeland Security Institute: National Biosecurity Resource Center for Animal Health Emergencies
Purdue University: Rural Security Planning
Naval Postgraduate School: Multi-State Initiatives--Agriculture Security Preparedness
Revised. March 26, 29, 2008; May 7, 2008.
Updated. April 3, 2008, May 14, 2008.