The professor walked briskly to the small lectern in the third-floor classroom where only the chalk dust had changed in fifty years. “Boys,” he announced as he settled into position, “this is Agricultural Economics 220. Farm Management. Take a minute to make sure you’re in the right place, and then we’ll begin.”
He was right; we were, in fact, all boys. There were few women studying ag economics, or even agriculture, at the University of Illinois in 1974. None of us looked like 1974, though. There were no beads, beards, or bell-bottoms anywhere. We were fresh off long summers on our home farms, so we were well-tanned, well-clothed, and well-fed. And most of us—if asked—would have admitted that we were a little uncomfortable being indoors on such a perfect August afternoon. At home, our fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and hired men were chopping corn silage, baling hay, cleaning grain bins, milking cows, feeding hogs, butchering chickens, grinding feed, repairing machinery, canning garden vegetables, or doing any number of late-summer chores to prepare for the always too-short harvest months and, soon enough, the always too-long winter months.
We, however, were in a sunny, warm classroom light-years away from the sweat, dirt, and hard sleep of the farm. Our job was to learn “agriculture,” and that was more important than any work we might have been contributing to the farm or the family’s success. Many of us already knew “farming”—when to plant, when to harvest, what ailments might strike a milk cow or fat hog. Few of us had been introduced to the ever-growing science behind all that planting, harvesting, feeding, and sweating. And ag economics? Farm management? Not a chance.
Our new leader cleared his throat. “Ready for the two most important lessons you’re going to hear this semester?”
Of course we were ready; we opened our spiral notebooks and clicked our mechanical pencils to transcribe the first two secrets of the brotherhood of farm management.
“Lesson one: You can marry more money in ten minutes than you can make farming in ten years.” Pencils paused, but the professor plowed on.
“Lesson two: Your father may not know this, but farming isn’t a way of life anymore, it’s a business, and it’s about to be a big business.”
The instructor stopped and looked at us as if measuring the ripples his two pebbles had made in our small ponds. “You following, boys?” he asked.
We did more than follow. Over the next fifty years, we remade America’s small farms and small towns into an industrial food juggernaut. Our farmers and ranchers would feed and clothe the nation—and, we would immodestly and erroneously claim, much of the world—even as the percentage of personal income spent on food by all Americans fell by 11.5 percent.
It wasn’t a miracle; it was a balancing and rebalancing of science, politics, and money. A lot of money, in fact. Mostly taxpayer money. Together, this most-American trinity built the most productive—and most unhealthy—food machine in history’s one hundred centuries of agriculture.
That ever-cheaper food carried another, even steeper price. In two short generations, as agriculture became more industrialized, most of rural America’s small towns, schools, churches, Main Streets, and factories were either consolidated, downsized, or erased. Others just dried up, drained of talent, capital, and people by the remorseless advance of heady globalization and the dictates of capitalism. The onslaught, in fact, was foreseen in 1973 by then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who urged farmers to “get big or get out.”
Butz was later forced out of the Ford administration for making a crude racist joke, but by then his go-go, feed-the-world advice to American farmers and ranchers had already elevated him to hero status among them. They worshiped him and his rock-ribbed belief in “fence row to fence row” production. For decades, he packed American Legion halls and school gymnasiums whenever he was asked to speak in rural America. Oh, he had his critics—loud ones—but old Earl’s usual reply was just a toothy grin and an exaggerated wink.
In the end, though, he got the last laugh. When he died in 2008 at the age of ninety-eight, he had lived to see his “get big or get out” vision come true. American agriculture had become more industrial, more science-reliant, and more government-dependent than ever before. Meanwhile, as people got out, communities went into decline. Bringing high-quality food to the populace was never the point.
The “F” Word
Every ag student nowadays learns about crops and livestock, soils and biochemistry, as well as economics and finance. Also, if the students don’t know it already, they will soon learn the language of farms and ranches: bushels, pounds, hundredweight, grades, dress weights, carcasses, leanness, breakeven, futures, ethanol, cash bid, “the grid,” “the matrix,” dockage, and a hundred more industry-specific terms.
There is food in these millions of acres and billions of bushels of corn, too; it’s just a long ride up the food chain before it gets to you.
What many will never learn and never talk about, however, is food—because today’s farming, what we call agriculture, is rarely about food. Even most dictionaries leave out the “f” word when defining agriculture. Most just go with some variation of “the science and art of cultivating the soil; including the gathering in of crops and the rearing of livestock.”
The “farming-is-food” construct is common, but it’s as far from the truth as Iowa is from Antarctica. For example, the number one crop grown in the United States is corn. And not sweet corn but “commercial” corn used primarily for two purposes, animal feed and alternative fuels. In 2023, U.S. farmers, according to recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), will plant ninety-four million acres of corn on land about equivalent to the size of California, or four Indianas combined. And, if Mother Nature is kind, farmers will harvest around 15.3 billion bushels of corn this year, a record.
But you won’t see one kernel of this bounty—outside a bag of birdseed perhaps—in your local grocery store. Instead, 37 percent of it, or about 5.7 billion bushels, will be used to feed livestock—mostly hogs, cattle, chickens, and turkeys. Another 5.3 billion bushels will be used to make ethanol, the alternative fuel that farmers love, environmentalists hate (it’s not seen to have any positive effects in fighting climate change), and most U.S. drivers would never buy, if not for federal blending mandates that require its use. Another 2.1 billion bushels will be exported to foreign buyers like China and Japan, where it, too, will be used mostly to fatten livestock and poultry.
The majority of the remaining 14 or so percent of the anticipated crop, or about 2.3 billion bushels, will remain as “stocks,” unsold and unused bushels to be “carried over” into next year. While that makes the U.S. corn market appear notably inefficient, the carryover serves a vital national and international function: it’s the cheapest insurance against local, national, or foreign catastrophes like drought, flood, or war that could threaten food supplies and upend social order.
None of this is left to chance. Uncle Sam’s congressionally approved five-year Farm Bills, each of which are hundreds of pages long, set the table for today’s bounty from California’s Central Valley, one of the most productive farm regions in the world, to Maine’s potato fields: two areas of the United States where farmers do actually grow food.
There is food in these millions of acres and billions of bushels of corn too; it’s just a long ride up the food chain before it gets to you. You can imagine a process beginning with the rancher (whose cow births a calf), then the feeder (the now weaned, half-grown calf), then the feedlot (here’s where the corn comes in to fatten the animal), then the meatpacker (killer and processor), the wholesaler, the retailer, and ending finally with you, in the supermarket checkout line. By the time you pay for your hamburger or steak, the farmer’s share of your dollar is well under 40 cents.
And that’s actually quite good compared to the ever-thinner, average cut earned by all other American farmers. According to the latest USDA data, “U.S. farm establishments received 14.5 cents per dollar spent on domestically produced food in 2021 . . . the lowest recorded farm share value in nearly three decades.” The “remaining portion,” which the USDA calls “the marketing share,” pays for transportation, packaging, processing, and selling.
By contrast, the farmer’s average share of the food dollar in 1974, according to the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation at the time, was between 42 and 46 cents, or three times the average most farmers operate under today.
One enormous difference between the farms of my youth—the size of farms the Farm Bureau president was referring to in 1974—and today’s farms is specialization. While I grew up on a 720-acre dairy farm where we milked a hundred cows (by machine) twice a day, we also grew corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, some oats, and, occasionally, sunflowers. To do all that, the farm was home to three full-time, non-family employees; a machinery-breaking great uncle; my tireless father; and all the labor Dad could squeeze out of his four sons when they weren’t in school. And everyone was busy. Between the cows and the crops, we consistently worked seventy hours per week. Dairying isn’t for the fainthearted; it’s a 24/7/365 black hole. Any labor thrown at it just disappears.
Today, the farm of my youth has no cows, no employees, and no member of my family on it. My father sold it shortly after he retired in the mid-1990s to two brothers who now farm untold thousands of acres (it’s considered impolite to ask any farmer exactly how many) in two states. They grow only two crops, corn and soybeans. If the weather cooperates, they are planted in a week or less every spring and harvested just as quickly every fall. During the growing months and winter months—about ten months every year—the farm is as people-empty as the Sahara Desert.
Acres and Acres
How did we get here? How did we end up with what journalist Carey McWilliams described in 1935 as “factories in the field”?
Despite my professor’s crack about our not-up-to-speed fathers, farming and ranching in the United States have always been about business. Moreover, farming was a very big business long before the United States were either united or states. Founding Father George Washington inherited five thousand acres, or about eight square miles, of Virginia land deeded to his great grandfather, John, a century earlier. Thomas Jefferson, another founder who, like Washington, was a lifelong owner of hundreds of enslaved people, also inherited a huge farm, some five thousand acres, from his father.
Every added acre lowers the overall cost of production per acre by some small amount: maybe pennies, maybe dollars. It’s the reason why big farmers are always looking to get bigger.
Historical data from the USDA paints a telling but rarely seen picture of such big farms over the last fifty years. For example, the 1974 Census of Agriculture, a comprehensive snapshot and analysis of American agriculture collected every five years, shows 2.3 million farms in the United States. Unsurprisingly, 84 percent of those 1974 farms, or nearly two million, were 499 acres in size—less than a square mile—or smaller. Conversely, only 6.7 percent of all American farms back then, or 155,000, were large enough to be at least one thousand acres (1.5 square miles) or more.
The 2021 Ag Census, however, shows America with two million farms, a loss of about three hundred thousand, mostly in the 100-to-199-acre category. That’s not a surprise either because many small parcels of farmland today are often sold to neighboring farmers, for many reasons: retirement, estate planning, heirs who don’t farm. The more shocking number, however, is the number of large, or over thousand-acre farms: in the nearly fifty years from 1974 to 2021, their number fell from 154,000 to 84,700, a stunning 45 percent decline.
And that’s exactly what happened to my home farm: a really big farm got even bigger by buying an already (for its time) big farm. The new owners then flattened or removed everything—five silos, eight grain bins, several hay and cattle sheds, dozens of trees, a house, and even an acre-sized farm pond—that hindered their ability to farm it with planting and harvesting equipment the size of a small regional jet which moves almost as fast. The machinery, while highly productive, is also highly expensive. New, their combines cost nearly $1 million apiece and their corn planters cost between $600,000 to $700,000 each, depending on add-ons like GPS-empowered steering, mapping, and seed placement. Then there’s the grain handling equipment—bins, trucks, grain drying machinery, and the like—that may set them back another $1.5 million.
Like almost every farmer from the Cotton Belt to the Corn Belt, big-acre farmers rely on two management strategies to make all their investment pay. The first is to take every opportunity to spread the variable costs of their machinery, grain handling equipment, and labor across more acres. Every added acre lowers the overall cost of production per acre by some small amount: maybe pennies, maybe dollars. In big-time farming, pennies—or dollars—per acre quickly add up to big-time money. It’s the reason why big farmers are always looking to get bigger.
The second strategy is equally important. Most farmers and ranchers maximize federal farm program benefits. Today, that means crop insurance, a heavily subsidized government program that actually insures crop revenue—the estimated value of the lost income due to any crop loss—not the physical crops. Under today’s Federal Crop Insurance Program, a farmer may opt for a policy such that if any or all of his or her federally insured revenue is lost because of a crop loss, the contracted, USDA-approved insurance seller doesn’t pay the claim in bushels or pounds. It pays the lost revenue in cash.
Crop insurance represents a huge break from past federal farm programs. At their inception during the Depression-flattened global economy, Congress and Franklin Roosevelt’s USDA enacted the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. This “farm program” was designed to reduce farm production in the hope that a smaller supply of America’s farm bounty would lift farm prices and, in turn, the rural economy. It worked modestly well until World War II lit global demand on fire and started an up-and-down cycle of overproduction/tight supply controls/higher prices/overproduction.
The USDA did little to nothing to stop these nakedly aggressive corporate moves because it has no antitrust enforcement role in ag markets.
In the mid-1990s, Congress, the USDA, and most farm groups agreed to switch from “supply control” farm theology to a new, untested religion. The idea was to send producers the taxpayer cash they’d receive anyway but through a new “decoupled” scheme that allowed them to plant whatever they believed worked best for them. The Republican-led Congress that dreamed up this radical “free market” shift in farm policy titled it “FAIR,” or the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996.
Farmers and the ag press quickly dubbed the law “Freedom to Farm,” or F2F, because it removed all former acreage restrictions required under previous farm programs. Soon, however, it became apparent why those restrictions, while modest in their success, were critical in every Farm Bill. Without acreage restrictions, called “set-asides,” farmers quickly overproduced. In turn, commodity prices collapsed, and, just as quickly, farmers began lobbying Congress for emergency assistance. In many farm policy circles, “Freedom to Farm” was renamed “Freedom to Fail.” It was estimated to have cost around $141 billion over five years, far more than was expected when President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law.
Despite F2F’s dramatic flop, the freedom-to-plant concept survived, and, over the next twenty years, it slowly morphed into today’s government-backed crop insurance program. In it, farmers have few restrictions other than that they must follow local farming practices and local planting dates to qualify for insurance subsidies of upwards of 60 percent. The USDA reported that from 2000 to 2021, the Federal Crop Insurance program “offered financial and administrative support for 133 unique agricultural commodities, covering an average of 284 million acres annually.” In 2021, the USDA estimated that the share of crops participants insured nationwide “reached an all-time high of 74 percent.”
This massive switch in farm policy carried an equally massive but largely unforeseen change in farm and agribusiness structure. Since farmers were no longer required to plant “program” crops to protect their farms’ “payment bases,” they quickly shifted to crops deemed more profitable. That movement, enhanced by an unbalanced, then still-evolving crop insurance program, saw thousands of farmers shift millions of acres away from food grains like wheat to feed grains like corn. In 1996, when Congress passed Freedom to Farm, U.S. corn acres totaled seventy-nine million; this year, corn acres are an estimated ninety-two million. Many of those “new” corn acres came from “old” base acres in wheat. In 1996, U.S. wheat acres totaled seventy-six million. This year, total wheat acres are an estimated fifty million.
That shift—the lost wheat acres equal the size of Tennessee—caused a radical change in the U.S. livestock sector. The added corn acres quickly drained domestic corn prices which, in turn, encouraged farmers and ranchers to “walk their corn off the farm” by feeding more hogs and cattle. Soon, however, that rapid expansion again proved the old farm axiom that “cheap corn makes cheap livestock.” Hog prices followed corn prices through the floor, and thousands of hog farmers quit. The USDA numbers confirm it. Since 1990, the number of U.S. hog farms has plummeted 70 percent. That’s more than two hundred thousand hog farms gone, a tidal wave that overwhelmed and forever swamped many local farm suppliers and service providers like farm equipment dealers, feed and supplement sellers, and small meatpackers.
But that exodus was hardly noticed by American consumers because the corporate sow and company cow—big agribusinesses like Cargill and Tyson Foods—quickly moved in to dominate livestock production and meatpacking. Today, for example, just thirty-seven hog producers own “68 percent of the nation’s breeding inventory” of sows, or mama hogs, according to Successful Farming magazine. The biggest of these big agbiz behemoths are unrecognizable to any grocery aisle walker: Seaboard Foods, Pipestone Management, Iowa Select, and Smithfield. Smithfield, which is the largest hog slaughterer in the United States, was bought in 2013 by the Chinese company Shuanghui, now WH Foods. A Reveal News investigation in 2015 found that the company was heavily subsidized, and essentially controlled, by the Chinese government, which is priming itself for increasing food competition as the world’s population increases.
And the mama pigs weren’t the only animals with corporate parents. In March 2023, the USDA reported that “the total number of hogs under contract owned by operations with over five thousand head, but raised by contractees, accounted for 51 percent of the total United States hog inventory.” Many, if not most, of those hogs are contract-born, contract-raised, and contract-slaughtered by their corporate owners, almost all with deep financial ties to giant meatpackers like Smithfield, Tyson Foods, and JBS S.A., the Brazilian firm that is said to be the largest meat producer in the world and was recently implicated in a vast domestic political scandal in its home country.
Much of the cattle sector, long known for its stubborn independence, has also moved toward vertical integration by big agribusiness in the last thirty years. Meatpackers, long viewed as the black-hatted enemy by cowboys, now dominate the industry from ranch gate to dinner plates. The four biggest, who control an estimated 85 percent of all cattle slaughter in the United States, are Cargill, the largest privately owned company in the United States; Tyson Foods, the huge Arkansas poultry company that is also the largest U.S. meat company; Brazilian bad boy JBS; and National Beef Packing Co., which is effectively controlled by another Brazilian company, Marfrig Global Foods.
Feeling a bit woozy knowing that nearly all the beef sold in America flows through some transnational giant’s corporate coolers before it lands on your grill? It’s only slightly less concentrated—but a still large 67 percent—for America’s other favorite meat: pork.
And, according to a June 2023 USDA report titled “Concentration and Competition in U.S. Agribusiness,” Big Meat has plenty of corporate counterparts throughout American agriculture. For example, “In 2018–20, two seed companies accounted for 72 percent of planted corn acres and 66 percent of planted soybean acres in the United States.” Worse, as these two companies were accumulating that vast market power, the USDA goes on, “prices paid by farmers for crop seed increased by an average of 270 percent, while seed prices for crops grown predominantly with genetically modified (GM) traits rose by 463 percent, substantially more than commodity output prices.”
The USDA did little to nothing to stop these nakedly aggressive corporate moves because it has no antitrust enforcement role in ag markets. That’s the job of the Department of Justice, Peter Carstensen, a professor of law emeritus and an expert on antitrust law at the University of Wisconsin, recounted recently. The DOJ is “the big villain here” who “failed to challenge, or settled on ineffective terms, the major mergers” in today’s agriculture. And this has been true in Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
He’s right, so there’s no point in closing the barn door now. The cows are long gone.
When speaking to large farm crowds over the years, I’d often ask audience members to raise their hand if they had been to Europe for work or vacation. It was a safe question; many rural ancestral roots reach back to the Old World, so many raised their hands. “What are the two best memories you have of there?” I’d then ask. Invariably, the same answers came back: “Oh, the food was incredible . . .” and “The small towns were so beautiful and all seemed to have their own butchers, cheesemakers, bakeries . . .”
When all were smiling, I’d then ask the money question: Do you think this is just a happy coincidence everywhere you went, or was it because the European Union has an agricultural policy that emphasizes both food and community? “You know: agri-cul-ture,” I’d say, emphasizing the last two syllables.
That last suggestion almost always turned their warm smiles into cold frowns. They knew they had been caught in a web of their own making, the paradox that lies at the heart of the American food system: contrary to what is often projected by rural America itself, our food doesn’t come from farms with red barns, contented cows, and straw-hatted farmers holding a pitchfork in the sun’s golden glow.
Small-acreage organic farms—the farms most Americans envision when they think “farmer”—exist in spite of the USDA’s loosening standards, not because of them.
Instead, today’s food is the product of a highly industrialized, oil-fueled, climate-changing machine built largely on lax environmental standards, loose animal welfare rules, nonexistent antitrust enforcement, and enormous government subsidies to deliver food that is plentiful, cheap, and increasingly harmful to the people who consume it and the rural communities that produce it.
And don’t look to organic farms, small farmers, or local food to slowly but surely overtake today’s industrial food juggernaut. Even with the USDA widening its formerly sacred organic standards to include such wildly nonorganic practices as hydroponic fruit and vegetable production, total organic sales in 2022 totaled only $60 billion, an almost invisible drop in food’s $2.4 trillion bucket that year. Small-acreage organic farms—the farms most Americans envision when they think “farmer”—exist in spite of the USDA’s loosening standards, not because of them.
American agriculture is shot through with contradictions. For example, every farmer knows that good weather and superb crops usually mean low prices and lean times. Another relates to how farmers dislike, discount, and dismiss “government” but rarely acknowledge it as their moneybags partner. (Uncle Sam sent U.S. farmers over $90 billion from 2018 through 2020.) Ethanol, too, is a massive paradox—some say fraud—that will claim one-third of the 2023 U.S. corn crop, at an estimated value of over $30 billion, even as one-in-four new cars sold in the United States is now electric, and at least seven states have banned the sale of gas-powered cars after 2035.
The biggest paradox in American agriculture is Congress’s Farm Bill itself. The soon-to-be-enacted five-year update, the 2023 Farm Bill, will cost an estimated $150 billion per year. Even the common term “Farm Bill” is a misnomer: over three-quarters of the bill’s budget is devoted to SNAP, the nation’s largest food assistance program, which is a poverty relief program that also benefits the food industry. The rest of the budget goes to crop insurance subsidies, federal research grants, green energy initiatives, export subsidies, soil conservation, beginning farmer loans, and hundreds of other never-heard-of giveaways. This part of the budget often helps the very well-off: large agribusinesses. The bill is never imagined as a way to reverse the concentration of control into fewer and fewer hands. Few measures, if any, will slow the demise of rural America. Few, in fact, ever have.
Most of the non-SNAP billions will underwrite modern ag’s community-killing industrialized farming and unhealthy, corporate food. Why? Because, like my old professor predicted, farming is a multimillion-dollar business run by talented managers who maximize profits given changing weather, markets, technology, capital, government programs, and labor. He warned us not to think of farming as tilling the land, caring for animals, growing a wide range of fruits and vegetables. That would not be the future of farming. He was right.