A senior official at the Iowa Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest agricultural organization, recently told me that most rural communities will soon disappear. Even though the organization’s nominal mission is to help “farm families prosper and improve their quality of life,” the official seemed accepting of this fate, even a bit happy about it. Either way, he told me that nothing could be done.
The thing is, the senior official isn’t wrong—the outlook for rural communities is grim. There are fewer jobs than there were a generation ago and the ones that remain pay lower and lower wages. America’s agricultural system is predicated on an extractive model, where more and more of the profits flow to a few. If current trends continue, rural America will soon be owned by a handful of families and corporations who will run their empires remotely with driverless tractors and poorly paid staff.
This decline occurred as a result of deliberate policy decisions made by politicians from both parties who favor multinational corporations at the expense of rural communities. But contrary to what the senior official at the Iowa Farm Bureau said, rural America can be revived. It has a future, but only if we challenge who holds power in the current system and create an agricultural system that rewards meaningful work.
Economic power is more concentrated today than at any other point in American history, and nowhere is this power more apparent than in agriculture. The American food supply chain—from the seeds we plant to the peanut butter in our neighborhood grocery stores—is concentrated in the hands of a few multinational corporations.
This concentrated power comes at the expense of farmers and workers. Because the supply, processing, distribution, and retail networks are controlled by only a handful of firms, farmers face higher costs for their inputs and lower prices for their goods. In the 1980s, 37 cents out of every dollar went back to the farmer. Today, farmers take home less than 15 cents on every dollar. This new economic reality forces farmers to survive on volume, creating a system where only the largest farms can make a living.
The nation’s meatpacking industry is now more concentrated than when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle more than a century ago. Four companies, two of which are foreign-owned, now slaughter 52 percent of all meat consumed in the United States, more than twice the market share that the four largest companies held in 2002.