Magazine article In These Times

Rural America Needs You

Magazine article In These Times

Rural America Needs You

Article excerpt

FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I grew up in a small Iowa town, diversified family farms were the norm, local economies were thriving and the middle class was expanding. Then a new weapon was launched in the Cold Warcheap food - and the landscape of my youth was plowed under.

The horrors of an industrialized food system already were well-known, but with Richard Nixon in the White House, "feeding the world" became our national mantra and farmers famously were told to "get big or get out." Land values rose, credit flowed, and neighbors were bought out or squeezed out of the growing global economy.

Agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland, John Deere and Cargiil were quick to seize on this new opportunity, developing a sophisticated lobbying arm with a firm grip on federal policy. Massive producers took over enormous tracts of land across the United States and around the world, requiring a new generation of outsized tractors and tons of chemicals for their vast commercial operations.

But this system of artificially high land values, enforced low prices and unmanageable debt levels was unsustainable, its collapse inevitable. By the mid-1980s, bankruptcies, foreclosures and suicides became commonplace as farmers were forced off land that often had been in their families for generations. Smallbusiness owners who counted on local producers for their bread and butter also began disappearing, shuttering Main Streets across the Midwest.

It was in this political crucible that the League of Rural Voters (www.leagueofruralvoters.org ) was formed. Building on the longstanding progressive traditions of states like Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, family-farm advocates began organizing and the effect was immediate: leaders like Tom Harkin were elected to the U.S. Senate. But operating in the shadows was right-wing radio, buttressed by the hate-filled messages of their allies on the ground. …

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