From Farmer John to Factory Farms: Food in America

By Jessica Jorgensen

Once upon a time Scruffy Farmer John bought a parcel of land in the open plains of Oklahoma. He spent his life tilling the soil, digging irrigation trenches, moving rocks, weeding and sowing in the intolerable heat of that region.  His back ached and dirt always hid beneath the fingernails of his calloused hands.  He always had a scant harvest and through the winter his children would complain about the pains that pestered their hungry stomachs. It wasn’t an easy life.  Then, one year the earth fairies bestowed a magical rain on his crops. It prepped the soil for a full harvest and Scruffy Farmer John reaped a bounty that year and for all the years to come.  The end.

So what is going on here with earth fairies, Farmer John’s corny epithet, and those four opening words, “once upon a time?”  These are all characteristics of a fairy tale, but the truth is that even the content of this story is a fairy tale to most people.  Only 200 years ago, stories like these were almost everyone’s reality, so when did farming become a fantasy?  In the 1900’s urban migration physically distanced people from their food. Therefore, what was once an intimate relationship between food and people became one of apathy and ignorance.

In the United States, the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were a time of rapid technological advancement.  Factories started springing up everywhere as assembly lines made the production of goods faster and more efficient.  People flocked to the cities when they heard of opportunities for trade and entertainment and the promise of new jobs. Just ask Scruffy Farmer John, life on the farm was hard.  This urban mystery was like a get out of jail free card.  They were so optimistic when they heard about this new way of life.  Today, most of the population live in urban centers.  In these places, food is imported to sustain a large concentration of people who do not farm or garden.  People lost their appreciation for the agricultural process as they entered urban markets where food is really nothing more than a commodity.  It is something to be traded and consumed, but not necessarily valued for where it comes from or how it is produced.

As all this hubbub was happening in the city, the rural landscape became a ghost town.  The muscly and tan leather-skinned farmhands of centuries past have been replaced with machines that could perform the tasks more efficiently.  New agricultural technology and mechanization made it so that a few people could effectively manage an entire commercial farm.  The culture changed.  Farming is no longer a network of families who have been hand-cultivating their land for years.  Since the Industrial Revolution it has been about machinery and mass-production.  In the most recent years, genetically modified foods, animal hormones and antibiotics have been added to the picture.  The effects of these technologies are uncertain.  We are tampering with a food system that people have, by human instinct, had a personal relationship with for thousands of years.

Railroads were another important outcome of the Industrial Revolution.  Not only did it provide a way for people to migrate and expand west, it transported goods from city to city, thus aiding the growth of urban centers. With a reliable system of transportation, cities could specialize in the production and export of one good for the entire population and import anything they didn’t produce.  This would forever change the face of farming.  Whole states began to produce only a few commodity crops to export across the nation and internationally.  Oregon is known for its sugar beets.  The Midwest is known for its corn.  The problem is that farmers are encouraged to grow excessive amounts of these cash crops instead of growing a diversity of vegetables, grains, legumes and livestock to sell in local markets.

“Once upon a time” people ate whatever they produced on their farm with the exception of a few imported goods.  Now, not only do people seldom grow their own food, it can be extremely difficult to eat food only produced within the state or the country.  Bananas come from Ecuador, the Philippines, Columbia or Costa Rica.  Kiwi come from Argentina.  Fresh grapes from Mexico supply the U.S. market during the period when Chilean imports dwindle and before the largest volume of California grapes enter the market.  This way we can enjoy fruit year round, regardless of the environment they need to grow.

Food should be cherished and understood, but many times I don’t feel that way.  My grocery store is lined with plastic-packaged, high-fat, low-nutrition snacks that don’t even resemble food.  What are Goldfish Crackers?  The certainly don’t grow from the earth.  They are highly processed and packaged before making it to the grocery store shelf.  I can’t even tell what category of food they represent.  It could be wheat since one of the 21 ingredients is unbleached, enriched wheat flour.  However, figuring out what farm that came from or which farmer produced it is nearly impossible.  Intimacy is knowing the who, what, when, where and why of your food.

As the food system has changed and adapted to our industrialized nation, people have lost intimacy and grown apathetic toward food.  When someone is deciding where to grab a bite of food after work, do they ask themselves questions? Who produced this food? Is the meat grass-fed or is it factory farmed? What are the working conditions of the slaughterhouse? Is the produce organic? Are the farmers who cultivated this food paid enough? Am I eating something genetically modified?  We’ve been cultured to believe that it is not our job to think about where our food comes from.  We are so removed from the actual production of it, that we feel no responsibility for the environmental and social implications of how it is made.  The questions we most often ask ourselves are the ones that help us find the place that is quick, cheap, close-by and tasty.

The idea is not to place blame and point fingers.  We are all subject to the uncertainty of how to deal with this changing food system.  There are even some people who are trying to fix it.  The food movement of the 21st century revolves around farmer’s markets and local produce.  In the 2009 documentary No Impact Man, Colin Beavan tries to restore his relationship to food by eating vegetarian, buying only local food and turning off the refrigerator.  Consumers are shopping at farmers markets and restaurants are sourcing ingredients from local farms.  There is a trend to reverse this fast-food culture into something more sustainable and meaningful.

Some people might even argue that urbanization does have a place for sustainable, responsible food systems.  Martina, a digital designer in Manhattan, created a blog called to chronicle her adventures building an urban farm in a paved back alley.

She said, “My definition of farm is really just a living space that brings together home-grown vegetables, fruits, animals, flowers, trees, and concoctions that use all of these ingredients together.”  In this tiny space she is able to grow enough food to feed herself.  We even have an Urban Farm at the UO.  It is part of the School of Architecture, but anyone can take the classes or work on the farm.  Other organizations in Eugene such as the School Gardens Project or Farm to School facilitate education about food and environment with young people.

We still have a long way to come and children face an especially precarious future.  The environmental and health effects of genetically modified foods are still unknown.  Governments are still subsidizing cash crops and not local farmers.  People still live in urban centers where they don’t have access to farmable land.  Recently Congress passed a bill recognizing pizza and french fries as vegetables for state-provided school lunches.

The fairy tale we are used to is a much different one that Scruffy Farmer John’s.  The food we eat is not the food we grow, it’s the food we import.  There are probably as many middle-men as there are unpronounceable ingredients in our food.  Although we hope the story has a happy ending, the future of food is uncertain.


One thought on “From Farmer John to Factory Farms: Food in America

  1. The food system in the United States has never been worse. We have exchanged long term health degradation for short term food safety. And unfortunately there seem to be few bright spots that are overshadowed by the continual progression of the industrialization of our food supply. Solutions…….. grow as much of your own food as you can. As hard as it is, it is something that you can control. And when you can’t, support your local farmers/ranchers. Get back to basics and eat like your great-grandparents. And as much as we look for solutions from our federal, state and local governments, the system has become so warped and corrupt that I have no confidence in their ability or willingness to make changes for the benefit of our long term health. Make Thanksgiving special this year and make it from scratch!

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