In the Heartland, a New Generation

From her bedroom window, Liz Sarno can see steam rising off the Excel slaughterhouse 10 miles down the road. When the wind blows from the east she can smell the rot in the air. She has been farming in Nebraska for 10 years — has seen family farms foreclosed; jobs demolished; communities of Guatemalans and Mexicans, desperate for work, laboring on the Excel killing floor. In 1999, concerned that pollen from her neighbor’s genetically engineered Bacillus thuringiensis corn was contaminating her organic grain, she joined a suit against the US Environmental Protection Agency, which approved the pesticidal corn plant. Last year 10 farms folded in her eastern Nebraska county alone.
“This is our life here on Earth,” she says. “How do we want to farm? Do we want to just keep farming for now — or do we want to farm for future generations?”
Liz Sarno is one of the luckier small farmers in the US.
Because of Initiative 300, Nebraska’s 1982 constitutional prohibition of corporate farming, Sarno benefits from a relatively unconcentrated livestock sector. The law allows agribusiness to operate processing plants — the giant Cargill owns the Excel slaughterhouse — but prohibits non-family corporations from operating farms and ranches. This has meant fewer, smaller livestock confinements crowding Sarno’s landscape: 22.5% of Nebraska’s hogs are in facilities of fewer than 1,000 head. Neighboring Iowa, the nation’s top hog producer and a state with a less stringent anti-corporate law, has only 15% of its hogs in facilities of fewer than 1,000 head: a small difference in quantity that makes a big difference in air quality. “It’s difficult to drive through rural Iowa these days if you want to breathe,” says Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs.
North Carolina has no anti-corporate law and the contrast is staggering. Second to Iowa in total hog production, North Carolina has more than twice the number of factory farms, those housing 5,000 or more hogs, and only 1.2% of its hogs in facilities of 1,000 head or fewer. The hog population of North Carolina’s Duplin and Sampson counties combined is nearly
4 million — more pigs than in 33 of the other 50 states combined. Nebraska’s neighbor Colorado, also without corporate regulations, has nearly 94% of its hogs in 5,000-plus facilities. Factory farms typically consist of warehouses packed with several hundred to several thousand hogs. Waste is flushed through grated floors into outdoor pits called “lagoons,” which often exceed the size of a football field and contain pathogens, hormones, heavy metals, antibiotics, nearly 400 volatile organic compounds, and sometimes the carcasses of injured pigs dumped alive into the cesspools.
This kind of abuse drove populist activists in the 1970s and 1980s to advocate bans on non-family farms [See Terrain, Spring 2001]. Nine states currently have some variation of an anti-corporate farming law: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. “The legislature finds that it is in the interest of the state to encourage and protect the family farm as a basic economic unit,” states the Minnesota law, “to insure it as the most socially desirable mode of agricultural production.”
Apparently, it is. A recent study by researchers at
Clarkson and Cornell Universities found that agriculture-dependent counties in states with anti-corporate farming laws have less poverty, lower unemployment, and more farms realizing cash gains than similar counties in other states. And Nebraska’s I-300, say lawyers surveyed for the study, is the most stringent anti-corporate law in America.
But banning agribusiness ownership of farms hasn’t stopped its ownership of the food system. “Even though we have Initiative 300,” stresses Sarno, “you’ve got a vertically integrated system, and it is not producing jobs.” Nationwide, four companies control 81% of beef processing; Tyson Foods controls nearly one-third of the nation’s poultry; the four largest firms process from 57% to 76% of our soybeans, corn, and wheat.
Cargill can’t own livestock in Nebraska. But it has operations in 70 countries — anti-corporate laws haven’t slowed them a bit. Because of NAFTA, Cargill can raise cattle on its Canadian feedlots, slaughter them in Sarno’s backyard, and package the meat for sale at National Grocers, Canada’s largest grocery chain. If they choose to buy from local ranchers, Cargill can set the prices as they please, as consolidation has stripped independent farmers of a free, fair market for processing.
Clarkson University professor Rick Welsh, an author of the study on anti-corporate regulations, agrees that such laws “don’t really promote anything as much as they restrict. We need to come behind these laws with other types of programs,” he says, with “markets and production systems that enhance farm-level decision-making and that directly link farmers and consumers.”
For Sarno, the key to change is strong community. She heads Chapter 1 of Nebraska’s Organic Crop Improvement Association; helped found Prairie Chicks, Etc., a three-member free-range poultry enterprise; and works with five other farmers in her area to share in marketing organic grain. “People used to thresh together and have to get together,” she says. “There was a whole social structure that became eroded with this modernization of farming.” If anything is going to change, Sarno insists, farmers must start trusting one another again.
Throughout most of the 20th century, that trust manifested itself in farmer cooperatives. Cooperatives, wrote rural sociologist Walter Slocum in 1962, have traditionally been “a form of economic democracy,” a method for farmers to fight for parity and power with collective strength. As the food system industrialized and the 1980s farm crisis left cooperatives scrambling to adjust, many of them allied themselves with agribusiness to remain competitive — becoming little more than “organizers” for the big companies, which found convenience in negotiating with co-op managers instead of independent growers. And because cooperatives have always been open to any farmer for a nominal fee, they are plagued by “free riders” who patronize their co-ops when conditions are favorable but have little loyalty if better prices can be found elsewhere.
Faith in traditional cooperatives has fallen dramatically — Sarno refuses to call her endeavors cooperatives — and their number is in rapid decline. In the past decade, according to the US Department of Agriculture, farmer cooperatives have disappeared at an average rate of 180 per year. Mirroring the big-farms-get-bigger, small-farms-go-broke march to monopoly that Sarno calls a “wicked system,” cooperative giants like Land O’ Lakes are consolidating while the more locally focused ones are going under. Memberships fell by one million between 1991 and 2000, attributable, says the USDA, to the “decreasing number of farms, farmers, and ranchers in the United States.”
Yet there is one cooperative philosophy in which faith and trust are growing. Squeezed out of markets, farmers are creating “value-added” and “new generation” cooperatives to process and sell their own crops. Members of new generation cooperatives (NGCs) assemble not to market raw goods to agribusiness — as traditional cooperatives do — but to buy or build end-use facilities to make sure their crops sell. They are wheat farmers buying bakeries, corn growers building ethanol plants — farmers declaring independence from vertically integrated agribusiness. “They are the future of food production in this country,” insists Bob Mailander of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. From approximately six in 1980, NGCs have grown to about 80 today, with at least 20 others in the formative stages. Value-added cooperatives — which focus on processing, but rent facilities instead of buying or building — are also on the rise, with the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Program (SARE) estimating that by 1999 they had awarded 16 grants to farmers interested in marketing cooperatives — up from four in 1995. Sarno’s Prairie Chicks, Etc., which raises organic poultry for sale at farmers’ markets, is among these endeavors.
“There’s a trust here that probably is indescribable,” says Nebraskan Jim Knopik of pork cooperative NorthStar Neighbors. “I really believe we’re going to survive. I didn’t get the privilege to ask (my sons) to stay on the farm, because of how hard it was out here . . . . But with the new generation co-op I can ask all my grandkids to stay.” Bryce Oates of Missouri cooperative Patchwork Family Farms agrees that these arrangements are a new hope for farmers. But beyond that, he sees them as a mobilizing force. “We’re not just complaining about the corporate takeover,” he says. “We’re not just challenging [Archer Daniels Midland] and Cargill and Smithfield. We’re actually promoting an alternative to the corporate system — which is family-farm, sustainably raised pork.”
That ideology is essential to understanding these cooperatives, says Mailander. As agribusiness goes global, it leaves local gaps that family farmers can transform into niches. “We’re doing products that are family-farm raised, without antibiotics and hormones, in an environmentally [sound] and humane manner,” he says, “doing what the industrial corporation factory farms can’t do.” Colorado wheat farmer Reggie Wykoff agrees that his operation, Gerard’s Bakery — the first farmer cooperative-owned bakery in the nation — depends on its reputation for grower-produced bread, or, as he says, “real farmers growing real food.”
But these cooperatives, like anti-corporate laws, are no panacea. NGCs can be expensive to join — as closed-membership models they require farmers to buy in at inception, with the average minimum investment at $5,000. And as with any small business, the risks are high. Ray Miller, whose 30-member natural meat cooperative has struggled for two years to make a connection with consumers, believes that niches, lucrative though they may be, can sustain only so many farmers. “There’s enough natural meats out there,” he says. “We’re probably two years too late.”
Yet Mailander still insists that niche marketing by family farmers is the genesis of populist reform. “Family-size farms are the future,” he says. “It’s about that family in the context of a community and the community in the context of a region and the region in the context of a state. That’s how you build a community — not on machines and capital — you build those things on people.”
Liz Sarno has worked tirelessly to build community. She has no interest in being an exotic relic. “I am not in niche marketing,” she insists. “I am in traditional farming. I am what we lived off of until chemicals were introduced about 45, 50 years ago. I am a serious farmer, I’m not a ‘niche.’ I am a methodology of farming that chooses not to use artificial inputs and use more of a biodynamic method to enhance my farm. So I refuse to be called a niche. I don’t want to be a niche. I want to become the norm.”

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