Rebuilding Local Food Systems
The rise of industrial agriculture has lead to the death of local agriculture and food production systems and the ruraleconomies that revolved around them. The changes in ruralcommunities are getting harder to ignore. The average ageof American farmer operators, now at 57 years old, hasbeen steadily increasing over the last 30 years, as feweryounger people are getting into farming.
Farmers cannotmake a living anymore selling their farm products, andmore than half of all farms in the United States depend onnon-farm income to cover farm expenses.
Regional food systems used to be the norm, with networksof producers, processors and distributors set up to sup-ply consumers with food produced in their region of thecountry. But in the last three decades, our food systemshave changed. Instead of regional networks, the systemsfor bringing food to markets became national. This changewasn’t simply the result of better logistical systems or thegrowth of interstate highways. The rise of agribusiness con-solidation and corporate mergers led to the loss of vital lo-cal infrastructure that was used to turn livestock and cropsinto the foods we buy at the grocery store. When networksof small-scale, independent livestock auctions, grain mills,slaughterhouses and food processing plants disappeared,they often took the economic fortunes of rural communitieswith them.Some foods like fruits and vegetables can be locally grownand distributed directly to consumers through farmers mar-kets and community-supported agriculture plans. But manyother crops, like grain, milk and livestock, need to be pro-cessed in some way before they are ready for consumers tobuy as bread, milk, butter, cheese or meat. Even fruits andvegetables need processing to be turned into “value-added”products like frozen vegetables, sauces or jam. The infra-structure that used to exist to allow smaller independentproducers to bring these products to nearby markets disap-peared when rapidly consolidating agribusiness companiesbought up processing facilities, closing those that were
duplicative or not “efcient” enough.
Meat and dairy may offer the starkest examples of how theconsolidation of agriculture has left producers with feweroptions for getting their products to market. The number of cattle and hog slaughter plants declined by about a third be-tween 1996 and 2006.
Between 1972 and 1992, the num-
ber of uid milk processing plants fell by 70 percent
Thisconsolidation is not just a matter of how many facilities thereare to process food; the entire supply chain has changed. In-stead of having multiple options for selling their agricultural
ot long ago, towns all over rural America had vibrant economies based onfarming and agriculture. There were independent grain mills and local dealersfor seeds, fertilizers and other inputs, as well as a slaughter facility to process farmers’livestock. The income from agriculture sources then circulated throughout thecommunity, providing steady jobs and stable income for a large portion of the town’spopulation. But things have changed. Now many rural downtowns lay silent, withempty buildings where locally owned business once were.