25 Common Sense & Radical Ways to Help USA Small Farmers
by Hank Pellissier
American Farming is economically cruel and environmentally suicidal. Revolutionary change is needed now to produce food that’s healthy for the earth and human society.
The ideal future for world agriculture is small, organic (and near-organic) farms, claims a 2013 United Nations report . The UN also determined that pesticides aren’t necessary to feed the world. Despite these recommendations, the USA is headed in exactly the opposite direction. American farms with 2,000+ acres doubled in recent years and farms with less than 1,000 plummeted by 44%. Agricultural regions are devastated; more than 80% of rural counties are suffering population decline.
Pastoral villages are morphing into ghost towns encircled by monstrous mono-crop plantations, aiding Big Industrial Agriculture’s emission of one-third of greenhouse gases in the world. Small farmers, facing bankruptcy despite working 80 hours a week, are killing themselves in record numbers.
Politicians, bribed by lobbies, support small farm eradication. “Get big or get out,” scoffed Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, in the 1970s, heralding a the last half-century’s return to feudalism, i.e., vast estates controlled by corporations and billionaire landowners.
How can this catastrophe be changed? I’ve assembled 25 radical solutions to return rural American to a superior past and guide it towards a sustainable future.
1. LIMIT LAND OWNERSHIP: In Kerala state, India, a family of five can only own 10 acres. Neighboring Tamil Nadu permits 30 acres. In the larger, less populated USA, my math calculation is this: our 922 million acres of agricultural land divided equally between 60 million rural Americans results in 15 acres per person, or 75 acres for a family of five. Farmers who wish to collaborate in larger holdings can imitate the French (#18).
2. SWITCH THE SUBSIDIES: $20 billion went to farmers in 2020 subsidies, with 72% in recent years going to the top 10% largest conglomerate farms. Big Ag doesn’t need the cash — and funding them cripples small farmers, who can’t compete with the low prices the subsidies enable. Obviously, 100% of the $20 billion should, instead, be given to small farmers exclusively.
3. BANISH BIG AG INFLUENCE: Greedy farm billionaires have been bullying politicians, the media, and the public for decades, in their quest to guzzle even more swill from the tax-payers trough. Big Ag lies, pressures, and stifles the truth about nutritional harm, animal cruelty, pesticide poisons, and their environmental crimes. These palm-greasing psychopaths should be tossed out of Washington D.C., along with the other 12,000 lobbyists.
4. PRICE PARITY — Advocated by Farm Aid, this concept would set prices for all produce. This would enable small farmers to compete with Big Ag, and help guarantee they’d make a profit, remedying a horrific statistic: farmers today receive only an average 14.3 cents for every dollar consumers spend on food. Proponents claim parity pricing is similar to the notion of a “living wage.” Price parity was in effect in the 1930’s, but it was gradually rolled back; today the global market determines a price consistently lower than small farmers can survive on.
5. FOOD SOVEREIGNTY, instigated by an international peasant movement, aims to give every community the right to determine their own food and agriculture policies. For example, it could halt the set up of factory farms that threaten their livelihood and environment. Related to localism, the concept “places control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock, and fish populations into the hands of local food providers.”
6. ENFORCE ANTITRUST LAWS — Antitrust legislation is “a top priority for the National Farmers Union [because] regulators have allowed big agricultural corporations to merge together, creating even larger companies that burden small farmers.” Enforcing existing antitrust laws would suffice, but these laws are often ignored. Farm Action — a nonprofit that wants to “Revitalize Rural America” — urges state attorney generals to “assert their authority against the monopoly control in the food and agriculture sectors.” Is food production truly monopolized? YES. Farm Action notes, “Four Companies Control 85% of Beef Processing, 80% of Soybean Processing, 77% of Beer, and 67% of Pork Processing.”
7. CANNABIS CONTROL — This strategy is easy and lucrative. Cannabis sales in the USA were $18 billion in 2020, an increase of 67% from the previous year. Unfortunately, small farmers aren’t getting a fair share of profits from this cash crop. My proposal is to allow only small farmers (owners of 100 acres or less) to grow cannabis. Pot can be an escape from poverty!
8. SUPPORT ORGANIC — In 2016, the state of Sikkim in India became the world’s first 100% organic food region — all farming here is conducted without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,. In 2021, the nation of Sri Lanka also banned imports of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (this measure was later retracted). Could the USA do this? “Sure, I think 100% organic production would be great and radical but can’t happen over night,” suggests Sarah Brown of Diggin’ Roots Farm in Oregon. The government could, of course, provide more support for organic agriculture, like Denmark and Austria. The Danish government-run program also provides free certification.
9. NO-OR-LOW INTEREST LOANS: Farmers worldwide often need to borrow money before the planting season, to procure needed supplies, and they can’t pay these loans back until the harvest is realized. Beginning farmers, organic farmers, and farmers who are Black, Native Americans, Latino, or in other marginalized groups, are often unable or find it difficult to secure the advance funds — this forces them into giving up their land. Easier credit is needed, with low or no interest loans.
10. “LAND BACK” to NATIVE AMERICANS — The first people in the Western Hemisphere are consistently recognized as the “world’s premier agronomists,” because they cultivated over 300 crops, accounting for 60% of today’s food species. Today, deprived of tens of millions of acres due to 500 broken treaties, Native Americans often suffer food scarcity. The “Land Back” movement aims to reclaim lost territories. Indigenous people are also leading protectors of the environment, note frequent UN reports and climate activists.
11. 40 ACRES & A TRACTOR — On January 16, 1865, the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered land plots of 40 acres distributed to freed slaves, plus army mules. Sherman’s plan was never followed through, unfortunately, and the peak of 949,889 black farmers in 1920 has dwindled to today’s mere 45,508, principally because the black farmers were invariably denied credit. Reparations are still due. I suggest the same 40 acres, with the mule upgraded to a tractor, delivered to the previous high number of nearly one million.
12. CARBON TAX — The average American meal requires 1,491 “food miles” because fossil-fuel burning planes, trains, trucks, and boats hauled it to your produce store, spewing copious quantities of greenhouse gas. . If everyone bought their grub from local small farmers, this climate-wrecking situation would be averted. A carbon tax of one cent for every hundred miles traveled would help level the playing field, encouraging shoppers to buy from their neighbors.
13. EXPOSE THE INVADERS (ORIGIN LABELING) — Tightly related to “carbon tax” above. If all produce had labels revealing where it came from, and the food miles it traveled to appear in your view, this transparency in the food system might encourage eaters to support American farmers and ranchers. This suggestion arrived from my brother Rene, who grows chickens, sheep, pigs and goats in southern Oregon.
14. METHANE TAX — “Every animal releases methane, even me, on a chili day,” admits my friend Logan, who farms corn, beans, wheat, milo, sunflowers, alfalfa, flowers, and Christmas trees, in Missouri. Unfortunately, cattle and pigs emit dangerous quantities (mostly via burping, not farting) accounting for 14% of emissions that are heating the globe. Republican congressman Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma is presently warning the public on his website that the Democratic Party’s “Build Back Better Act” includes a “methane tax” that would charge “$6,500 per dairy cow, $2,600 per head of cattle, and $500 per swine each year.” His accusation is false, but it suggests a potentially good idea, if applied in more moderate amounts, with small farms exempt. (Disclosure: I’m a vegetarian climate change activist). Rather oddly, making seaweed 3% of a cow’s diet reduces its methane emissions by 80%.
15. POLLUTION FINES — Big Ag contaminates USA water, air, soil, and food, in multiple ways. Feces from livestock exceeds human excrement by almost 12X — its ammonia creates deadly particles in the air. Antibiotics in meat spreads antibiotic-resistant bacteria that leads to 162,000 American deaths via infection annually. Chemical runoff from fertilizers poisons major waterways like Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River draining into Gulf of Mexico. Strict guidelines need to be established, with heavy penalties. Revenue gained from offenders can be passed on to smaller farmers who maintain healthy practices.
16. GEORGISM / LAND VALUE TAX — Henry George was a late 19th century political economist who advocated a single tax on land value. If “Georgism” was established, the price of rural land would never be inflated, because wealthy speculators could not afford to purchase and hold it, waiting for a profit. Georgism would also eliminate property taxes — this helps struggling small farmers who want to make improvements, without suffering financial consequences. Georgism would also shrink urban areas, making more rural land available. Land Value Tax (LVT) was successfully implemented in New Zealand from the 1870s to the 1920s, replacing large estates with much smaller farms.
17. SMALL FARM POLITICAL ADVOCACY — After the Civil War, the Farmers Alliance organized agrarian groups to gain political influence, establishing its own left-wing “People’s Party” in the 1890’s. The movement collaborated black and white farmers in the South, Midwest, and High Plains, and included The Grange — the USA’s oldest agricultural social organization. These ancestors could be emulated, especially in states where small farms predominate, like Kentucky — average farm size here is just 170 acres (national average is 435).
18. VIVE LA FRANCE! — USA small farmers can easily envy this European nation where agriculture is socially cherished. France is food self-sufficient, a breadbasket for its continent, with its citizenry buying high-quality regional products. How did this happen? Unlike the USA, where long-term family farms predominate, French agriculture is 73% cooperatives, with the average size only 170 acres, and they’re tightly connected to their communities. French farming is also heavily subsidized by both the government and the European Union, and Paris officials offer generous tax breaks.
19. EASY ACCESS TO FARM EQUIPMENT — Scott Simpson on reddit.com/r/homestead cultivates vegetables, fruit trees, and bees. He says small farmers would be aided if the government “provided easy access grants for farm equipment. I am younger and I have no idea how anyone can afford to buy a tractor.” If Scott was Persian, he’d get his desire: Iran delivered 15,000 free tractors to its farmers last year. India also provides subsidies to farmers who want tractors; 80% discount in Jharkhand state!
20. ENCOURAGE CSA & FARMERS MARKETS — Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a USA/Canadian system where consumers subscribe (pay fees) to a local farm to regularly receive boxes of produce. Subscribers are invited to farm events like harvests, and receive weekly letters detailing events on the farm. Farmers Markets are now everywhere in the USA — over 8,600. Subscribing to a CSA and shopping at Farmers Markets are two easy and direct ways consumers can help small growers.
21. REDUCE TAXES ON SMALL FARMS — A redditor (Designer_Skirt2304) whose family grows corn in the Midwest suggests: “Exempt small farm acreage from estate taxes. No one can afford to inherit a family farm that’s been paid off for generations without an expensive refinancing or selling off part of it. Selling it off puts it in the hands of corporate farm companies.” Another redditor (MaskyOnyx) advises, “maybe something like 200 acres or less could be exempt.” This proposal reminds me of Huey Long’s reform as Governor of Louisiana advocating a “property tax exemption to lessen the burden on poor farmers.” Long’s reform is needed immediately in farm regions where property tax is escalating.
22. GARDENING 101 — My brother Rene, in Oregon, believes schools should “Teach gardening at all ages… any country concerned about providing enough food for itself should be teaching this to kids… it should be considered a national security issue. Even in cities, kids can be taught how to grow leafy vegetables, etc., in small boxes.” Sarah Brown at Diggin’ Roots Farms agrees, “we need to empower people to stop spinning their wheels in front of computers and seed some desire to get outside and do work that is tangible and restorative.” Educating the public about how food is grown can encourage interest, activism and support for neighboring agronomists.
23. NO FOREIGN OWNERSHIP? — A redditor at /homestead (JillOfAllTrades7170) informed me that “limiting land purchases to U.S. citizens” would help small farmers. She claims “A LOT of farm land is being bought by foreign investors… When property is not owned locally, profits are funneled away from the communities that support the small farms. These sales also drive up land prices and make it so that families can’t afford to purchase farms.” I checked out her concern. An NPR article reports “30 million acres of U.S. farmland are held by foreign investors. That number has doubled in the past two decades… raising alarm bells in farming communities.” In Ohio, the farm investors are primarily from Germany and Netherlands.
24. POWER IN THE HIGHEST PLACE? — The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture needs to be someone supportive of small farmers. I nominate Michael Pollan, botany author and lecturer on “Deep Agriculture.” Jennifer Taylor, associate professor at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, and coordinator of Florida’s Statewide Small Farm Program, is also an excellent candidate.
25. PEASANT REVOLT CELEBRATIONS — Establishing holidays that celebrate violent rural uprisings would serve as cautionary reminders to agricultural conglomerates to not push poor peasants past their breaking point. Possible calendar entries include Nestor Makhno Day (November 8), Diggers Day (April 1), Peasant Revolt Day (May 30), and Emiliano Zapata’s assassination day (April 10). Tamer dates to remember are Abolition of Serfdom Day (March 3), and Farmer’s Day (October 12).