Political Corner: Hear what they’re really saying

(taking a break from gardening, stocks and travel.  Time for a mini-rant)

In the past 40 years, the United States lost more than a million farmers and fathers. Many of our farmers are aging.  Today, only nine percent of family farm income comes from farming, and more and more of our farmers are looking elsewhere for their primary source of income.” ~ Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture.

Now that, is probably a statement of fact. I came across this quote on  the quote while writing this weeks earlier article on Limoneira.  Tom Vilsack is the ex-governor of Iowa, now ag czar for the whole country.  Safe to assume he probably knows a thing or two about farming.  If not necessarily doing it, certainly about pandering to it.

Here’s what he also said, in an address to the  Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas:

“To live and work in America means you have access to a tremendous amount of food, and most of it is produced here,” he said.  (True enough. Many people also consume tremendous amounts of food, and have the ass to show for it.)  “We would not have to import anything. We are a very food-secure nation, but there are very few nations that can say that.”

Vilsack said Americans typically spend 6 to 15 cents per dollar on food compared to 10 to 20 cents per dollar in other countries, giving Americans more flexibility with their paychecks. (we might quibble about the poor nutritional content of food produced by industrial agriculture) 

He also touched on energy sources – oil, natural gas, wind and solar, and how most of that comes from rural America; that 16 percent of our population lives, works and raises its family in rural areas, but 40 percent of the nation’s military personnel come from those areas; and that 32,000 (well-subsidized corporate) farms produce 50 percent of our food. He also discussed the short-, medium- and long-term threats to agriculture.

It’s an important topic, this hollowing out of America rural heartland.  People leaving the land, living in cities, and losing a connection to their food. AgSec Vilsack has no doubt expressed these sentiments in other places and venues, since this sounds like a standard stump speech.  Familiar story, this is:  a quarter of America’s population lived and worked on farms back in the 30′s and 40′s,  millions of family farms producing the nation’s food.  Now, barely 1 or 2 percent are farmers.  And so on.

President Obama’s fight for rural America is personal. He was raised by a single mom and grandparents from Kansas.  He hails from a farming state, Illinois.” ~ Tom Vilsack

"Airport tract, near Modesto, Stanislaus County, California. Man and wife training beans in their first-year garden. Note new house self-built. Note pea hampers which denote that they have worked in the large-scale pea harvests. They come from back East, arrived in this community less than a year ago."  Dorothea Lange, 1940

“Airport tract, near Modesto, Stanislaus County, California. Man and wife training beans in their first-year garden. Note new house self-built. Note pea hampers which denote that they have worked in the large-scale pea harvests. They come from back East, arrived in this community less than a year ago.” Dorothea Lange, 1940


More from AgSec Vilsack:

“Our short-term threat is we don’t have enough people to do the work that needs to be done on farms and in processing plants,” he said. “We have had a broken immigration system for years, and it threatens the survival of agriculture. The nation needs comprehensive immigration reform that addresses agricultural jobs. We have food rotting because we don’t have the work force we need. If we don’t address this issue, we will end up seeing agribusiness moving operations elsewhere.”

That we don’t have enough migrant workers to pick lettuce and apples is a real thing, but not necessarily because we choose not to let them in the country.  It’s relatively easy (if not risk-free) to walk here.   It’s that the work is tough and doesn’t pay very well.

To catch the other meaning of the speech, it took Joel Salatin, noted revolutionary grass farmer and author, blogging about on his Facebook page, and widely re-posted elsewhere.

Are you ready? Here’s his answer: although rural America only has 16 percent of the population, it gives 40 percent of the personnel to the military. Say what? You mean when it’s all said and done, at the end of the day, the bottom line — you know all the cliches — the whole reason for increasing farms is to provide cannon fodder for American imperial might. He said rural kids grow up with a sense of wanting to give something back, and if we lose that value system, we’ll lose our military might.

So folks, it all boils down to American military muscle. It’s not about food, healing the land, stewarding precious soil and resources; it’s all about making sure we keep a steady stream of youngsters going into the military. This puts an amazing twist on things. You see, I think we should have many more farmers, and have spent a lifetime trying to encourage, empower, and educate young people to go into farming. It never occurred to me that this agenda was the key to American military power.

It plays well with audiences, this romanticizing of farm life. At the very least, it sure sells trucks:


For more on an alternate take on farming and labor, try here:

Alternative Investments: Dirt


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  1. That’s an interesting perspective that I’ll need to chew on for a while. I think the demographic shift from rural areas to cities is an old one, and will continue. I feel it’s easy to understand both why young people from rural areas move to cities and why they decide to enroll in the military: they are in search of better career opportunities than they see available at home. More &better paying jobs in agriculture might have the unintended consequence of fewer rural American youth enrolling in the armed forces.
    Done by Forty recently posted..One Case of Homelessness

    • Hi DB40 – let’s hope that better paying agricultural jobs are in our future, because right now they’re not. As that old farm saying goes, the money’s not in growing it, but selling it. Thanks for dropping in.

  2. Hm. Forty percent to the military, eh? Well…my father grew up destined to be a ranch hand or a dairyman. His oldest brother was a ranch foreman and his other brother worked for a dairy. At 16, he lied about his age and joined the Navy — specifically to get away from that life.

    For a kid with no high-school diploma, he did pretty darned well for himself: ended up a Merchant Marine captain commanding supertankers, with a license to sail any tonnage on any ocean. He used to say the best thing about being from Texas was being as far FROM it as you could get.

    So in his case, and I expect for many young people in rural areas, the military represented an escape and an opportunity. As a young man he was looking at a dreary, dead-end future. The Navy opened the doors for an interesting life that took him all over the world and paid him, eventually, a very good wage.

    That said, there are many people who love the farm life, and it’s a shame we don’t make it possible for those talented individuals to support themselves doing what they do best.

    Agribusiness, while it fills our bellies, does not produce the best of all possible food. The reason so many Americans are overweight has less to do with how much they eat than with what they eat — the toxic foodoids that we find in our grocery stores. We’re seeing the reaction to that in farmer’s markets that support urban farmers (i.e., relatively large-scale backyard gardeners) and organic micro-farmers. But I doubt that movement will ever get much traction in the face of the well-funded megalith that is industrial agriculture.
    Funny about Money recently posted..Good Ole Boys

    • Hey FaM,

      Thanks for dropping in. I’d say that your father was an outlier…what with ending up in RT and all. Then again, hard to say where life paths take us. I’ve met my share of odd ducks overseas who hailed from pretty rural backwaters, and they weren’t pining too much for the ol’ home place.

      The real food trend might eventually hit critical mass, but not yet, thankfully. The limit is 2,500 calories a day… that’s about as much as a human can eat.

  3. Think that says it all about agriculture, there really isn’t an incentive for young people to work in the industry!

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