Fast Food and the Family Farm

It’s time to reform how we grow food and what we have for dinner.

Almost 30 years ago, my family bought a small farm along the Mississippi River in northwestern Illinois near the historic town of Galena. The farm has a couple of pastures where the neighbors’ black-and-white Holsteins graze, a hayfield that provides winter feed for the horses, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, and several beehives. It quickly became a cherished place to escape from the busy lives my siblings and I led three hours away in Chicago, as a young lawyer (me), doctor, and theater producer.

Our neighbors had scraped out a living in this rough, rocky landscape for generations as dairy farmers. But today, most of them either are out of farming altogether or pursue it only as a hobby. They are among the well-documented casualties of our switch to large-scale agriculture—and there are other consequences of that change.

In Illinois and elsewhere, we now produce vast amounts of corn and soybeans that become animal feed or ingredients in processed foods. As a result, the food we eat no longer comes from across the street or state, but from the other side of the country or world. It has typically traveled 1,500 miles or more before it appears on our dinner tables. Indeed, one-fifth of the country’s petroleum production goes to producing and transporting our food.

Family farms were once diverse, growing hay, oats, corn, fruits, and vegetables, and featuring a woodlot and numerous fencerows. Many plants and animals found refuge in this landscape, but since they no longer can, local populations of migratory songbirds and other species are declining.

Today’s farms also threaten aquatic systems, because they use enormous amounts of fertilizer to increase corn and soybean yields, and the leached chemicals find their way into our rivers and streams. And because the livestock production system relies on confined animal feeding operations, we have unprecedented concentrations of waste and the health challenge of disposing of it.

Not eating locally threatens our health in another way: Rather than eating whole foods straight from the ground or game from the woods, we eat mostly heavily processed foods, which have a much higher fat and calorie content because of added oils and sugars. (Our yearly per capita consumption of sugars, mostly high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugar, has gone from 128 to 158 pounds since 1985, and our average calorie intake has increased 10 percent since 1977.) Doctors categorize three out of every five Americans as overweight, and children face a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes (African-American children’s chances are two in five).

I am not so nostalgic about our agricultural past as to think we should turn back the clock 50 years; but for the good of our bodies and our planet, we must find an alternative to today’s food production and distribution system. I am not the only one who thinks so. Last year my firm, Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors, consulted experts around the world and identified 10 highimpact giving opportunities; rebuilding a local food system was one of them. Even the Nature Conservancy, the country’s largest conservation organization and champion of “the last great places,” has concluded it must pay attention to the alteration of our agricultural landscape. The conservancy believes preserving the health of rich plant and animal communities is far more difficult when those communities become islands in a sea of industrial-scale agricultural operations.

Communities across the country are rebuilding local food systems— most often by creating farmers’ markets, of which there are some 5,000 nationwide. This is a good beginning, but we must effect widespread systemic change, and we can do so by taking the following four steps.

Food Choices

The surgeon general has called obesity an epidemic that costs our health care system close to $100 billion a year, but we must go much further in educating Americans about the consequences of poor food choices. The effort deserves the same attention we gave to educating Americans about smoking’s ill effects. In that case, we launched widespread public awareness campaigns, issued government warnings, and taxed cigarettes.

It may not make sense to tax junk food, but government and others can encourage better choices. The “Buy Fresh Buy Local” campaign, coordinated by national nonprofit FoodRoutes, marks a good beginning, as do regional efforts such as the annual Expo in Chicago, which brings together local food producers, buyers, and consumers.

Green-Collar Jobs

We have a well-developed system for growing and shipping large volumes of corn and soybeans—grain elevators, warehouses, and railroads—and we must create an equally functional system for local food, which would include warehousing and shipping facilities for local produce and the capacity for processing organic meat. Those systems are being built in Northern California and a few other places, but that’s it. Worse yet, within the current crop subsidy system, farmers encounter disincentives if they want to switch from commodity production (corn and soybeans) to fruits or vegetables.

But here’s an incentive: Rebuilding a local food system presents an enormous economic opportunity. The buzz is already strong on organic, as restaurateurs and consumers increasingly demand fresh, healthy food. A study by Sustain, a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting the redevelopment of local food systems, estimates that the current demand for organic food in Chicago is more than $500 million, but that almost all of it is shipped from out of state.

The economic benefit of rebuilding a local food system would go to those who need it most: small farmers not well suited to producing corn at an industrial scale, fast-disappearing farmers on the urban fringe who work close to local markets, and people whose troubled urban neighborhoods may become warehousing and distribution districts. A 2007 study by Michael H. Shuman estimated that shifting 20 percent of metro Detroit’s food spending to food and beverages that are locally grown and processed would increase the region’s annual economic output by nearly $3.5 billion, create more than 35,000 “greencollar” jobs, and lead to a nearly $155 million gain in business taxes.

Large-Scale Green Farming

To feed a nation as crowded as ours, some large-scale farming is probably inevitable. Nevertheless, different principles can guide that production. Companies such as Cascadian Farm, Horizon Organic, and Organic Valley, for instance, are producing meat, milk, and vegetables in great volume while using organic feed (without antibiotics), organic fertilizer, and natural pesticides.

Because large organic farms suffer from some of the same problems as large-scale traditional farms—animals are confined in large numbers and products are often shipped long distances— smaller-scale local food systems should be developed to the fullest extent possible.

Green Legislation

We must use government to jumpstart the redevelopment of local food systems. In Illinois, for instance, food advocates were disturbed by the fact that less than 1,000 acres of central Illinois farmland is dedicated to fruit and vegetable production—and that’s out of 5.4 million acres of fertile farmland in 16 counties. These advocates played a leading role in the development and passage in 2007 of the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act, which provides a framework for developing infrastructure for processing, storing, and distributing locally grown foods; preserving farmland, especially on the urban fringe; retraining farmers to meet the growing demand for organic food; and establishing farmers’ markets in Chicago neighborhoods, so as to bring healthier food choices to these communities.

I’m cheered by this win, as well as by the many nonprofits (see the network) working to educate consumers or reform the food production and distribution system. I also find it encouraging that the 2007 New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year was locavore—a person who eats locally grown food. That says a lot about national awareness of the issue. Perhaps in another 20 years, as I travel the back roads near our farm, I will see a vibrant and diverse agricultural landscape—a revitalization of the neighborhood and landscape I so love.

BRUCE BOYD is a principal and managing director at Washington, D.C.–based Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors, which provides strategic philanthropy counsel to donors. Boyd worked for many years at the Nature Conservancy and was the founding board chair of Sustain, a nonprofit working to rebuild local organic food production and distribution in the Midwest.

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  • BY Som Karamchetty, PHD

    ON June 9, 2008 04:16 PM

    It is amazing to note from this article the enormous amount of fuel used in transporting food. It is reasonable to expect food to be shipped to cities from their surrounding rural areas. But moving food between rural areas to rural areas should be minimized. There is need for a rigorous analysis and for seeking solutions. Our food technology laboratories should look for ways to retain nutritional value in processed foods. The author alluded to “leached chemicals find their way into our rivers and streams.” Perhaps, our soil scientists may be able to devise containment technologies somewhat similar to those provided in municipal solid and hazardous waste sites so that these chemicals are contained and recovered for reuse. As the developing world adopts the technological successes of the US in the food production field and urban development, it is important that we provide good pointers so that the lessons are learned before mistakes are repeated.

  • David Katz's avatar

    BY David Katz

    ON June 10, 2008 11:21 AM

    Its nice that Bruce Boyd is so concerned about our food system but he is way off in his suggestions for rebuilding our food systems.  At its core the production and distribution of food is an economic activity and is largely market driven.  There is no way to get around this.  The tired old suggestions that consumer education, re-training of farmers, and farmers markets will make a difference have no basis in reality - unfornunate but true.  Farmers knoiw how to farm,  they don’t need training to use organic methods - they need economic incentives.  If you want a new food system, then change the U.S. farm bill that distorts farm prices, tax pesticides, or subsidize targeted crops, then farmers will change their farming activities.  With 75% of the world’s population in cities within 20 yrs. farmers markets don’t offer any real option for significant change.  In fact, the energy cost of moving food to farmers markets is higher per unit of food sold than that of large scale transport in huge trucks over long distances.  The biggest single impact of changing the farm system to local production from smaller farms will be greatly increased food prices.  Overall, this is a good thing but we will need a much larger social safety net and we will make large producers very rich.

  • SG Hock's avatar

    BY SG Hock

    ON August 7, 2008 05:18 PM

    Great article and comments.  Some thoughts:  Organic, nice as it may be, is less important that local. Local farmers who are responsible but not meeting the rigid standards of organic are more sustainable.  Further, re-learning the idea of seasonal production is the consumer education we need.  Local doesn’t have to mean small farms.  In Pennsylvania, agriculture is our number 1 industry but only 1% of that is produce or orchards.  Changing the economic incentives to farm more food directly for people to eat (and not just secondarily through meat or dairy), including a better wholesale system as Katz suggests, energy taxes and reducing sprawl to save farmland close to markets will go a long way towards food security.

  • BY Dr Christine James

    ON August 7, 2008 05:37 PM

    A number of small towns in Australia are changing their farming practices, starting farmers markets and by-passing the big multi-national companies. In a country with severe drought problems, bushfires and soil erosion, the large scale beef and dairy farming practices have to be stopped. Not only do they contribute to global warming, they operate outside any humane codes of practice. Cows are milked untill their udders bleed. They have their tails cut off and are proded with electric rods to get them to move. Calves are removed immediately from their mothers causing distress. A calf under 35 kilos is killed for dog food. If people knew how these animals are treated they would never buy the products.  I live next to a 600 acre dairy farm that uses so many chemicals on the land that my dam turns green. My dogs are not allowed on the grass because they get burning feet.  These chemicals get into the rivers and the water table. Almost every farmer in the area where I live has had cancer.  An international effort is needed to stop these practices and we have no time to spare.

  • Blueskyone's avatar

    BY Blueskyone

    ON August 7, 2008 07:51 PM

    A couple of comments: One, there is very little federal support for actual FAMILY farmers. Congress needs to stop delivering huge subsidies to corporate farms run by people who have no real connection to preserving their land for generations to come and just want to squeeze out every dollar, regardless of how things like overfertilizing harms land. Two, there needs to be more incentives for young people to WANT to farm. Most national media and entertainment venues stereotype farmers as dumb kids who can’t do anything else, which for anyone who actually grew up on a farm like me is total nonsense. Also, with the cost of land, fuel, supplies, etc. it is nearly impossible for any young person to become a family farmer if they have no family farm connections. Check out a cool program for the Center for Rural Affairs ( which aims to help match young people who want to be farmers with older farmers who don’t have obvious heirs to the family farm tradition. (Think about it: what other normal career besides farming pretty much requires a family connection of some kind to get started?) Three, it would be nice to see more widespread support for a country-of-origin food labeling program in the United States. Why does the government require T-shirts to be labled as “made in china” but not grocery store beef to be labled “raised in Argentina” or “Raised in Nebraska”?  Consumers can’t make educated decisions about their fresh food choices because beef is not labeled.  My father is a rancher in Nebraska on land that has been cared for and about for more than 100 years in our family. He has been focusing on the grass-fed beef market because grass-fed beef is leaner and better for people and more sustainably produced. I would like it if people could go to the store and knowingly choose beef personally raised by ranchers like my dad rather than shipped over long distances generating ghg’s, pollution, etc. from Argentina. Without labels, consumers can’t make educated choices. Fourth, I disagree with the author’s implication that family farms are only proper if they also grow fruits and vegetables. Obviously not every region has climate, weather or water supplies to grow fruits and vegetables or the labor to harvest and clean them. There is still a need for corn, wheat and soybean commodities grown in the U.S., so while some states may be better suited for corn crops or cattle ranches, others will be better suited for apple orchards and vineyards. I think the larger issue is let’s just support agriculture locally and nationally when possible, support family farmers and the family farm way of life, and provide more support/incentives for people to pursue farming/ranching/food production as careers. Otherwise we risk becoming dependent on foreign sources for food, just like we are dependent on foreign oil supplies. Family-run farms and ranches are a national resource and treasure that should be nurtured and protected.

  • Aaron Gilliam's avatar

    BY Aaron Gilliam

    ON August 8, 2008 09:48 AM

    The lack of young farmers in the US is certainly not surprising. When you consider the average hourly wage of a farmer and farm worker being unregulated in most states and often far below the minimum wage standard, its no wonder our youth don’t want to get involved, especially with our culture’s focus on monetary gain. However there are plenty of people out in the fields at this very moment who know how to make our farms function, they are the farm workers. Most of these people are minorities, often living out of a car or overcrowded housing unit without job security, health insurance or enough income to do much more than survive, let alone aspire to own and operate their own farming operation. Yes, many of these people are undocumented immigrants, but without them we would have a very different food culture. I believe that the knowledge, willingness and mass of people needed to populate the next generation of diversified farms is already out there farming, but they are being held in economic oppression. Not necessarily by the farm owner, or the consumer, or the government that is suppose to regulate the humaneness of working situations, but by all of them. If fair wages, health insurance, benefits, and more education were provided to our farm workers, we might have a massive population of people in the agricultural sector jumping to start their own local farming operations. Unfortunately, fair wages and insurance for farm laborers is very rarely proposed or discussed when it comes to organics, local or sustainably produced food, largely because no one, not even the “foodies” of the US, want to pay that kind of money for food.

  • BY Che Green

    ON August 11, 2008 03:29 PM

    This is an excellent article, but it fails to make one critical point. The “greening” of the food industry is not only about eating locally and switching to organic products. Fundamentally, it is about limiting our meat and dairy intake. Animal farming is the least efficient use of agricultural land, be it organic, free range, grass-fed, or what have you. The United Nations has acknowledged that animal farming is the world’s single largest contributor to global warming (even more than transportation).

    Switching to organic and locally grown foods is a great start, but much more substantial environmental benefits can be realized if a majority of consumers eschew animal products most of the time.

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