Family Farm Diabetes: Foodies, Farm Justice “Allies” and “The Big Hog”

(Regarding this blog, see also the recent blog by Jen Dalton, “Untimely Loss of Dairy Activist is Call to Arms,” at Civil Eats, and my comments there.)

Foodies, Farm Justice “Allies” and “The Big Hog”1

At the recent “Assembly” of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance in Oakland California, some progress was made on principles for the organization, but concrete advocacy seemed to get left out of the picture.  For example, the group was not able to take a stand against the dairy price crisis.  More generally and more centrally to the intended mission of USFSA, the group was not able to concretely advocate on behalf of La Via Campesina and other similar groups outside of the US, for specific needed changes in the US farm bill.  As we approached the end of all of this, I came to see that the “issues” we had identified were not at all “issues,” as defined in grassroots organizing.2  That is, they were not “something you can do something about,” as one participant put it.  They did not involve a specific decision by someone who has “the power to decide.”3

Late in the meeting, as I raised these issues and spent the last of my political capital, the facilitators switched to the occupy method of group decision making, where you hold up your hands.  One option is to make an X with your forearms to communicate a strong “No!” and I did so, which gave me another chance to speak about this “issue” problem.  

I had essentially the same criticisms and concerns about the farm bill sessions at the conference of the Community Food Security Coalition, which was also held in Oakland over several days preceding the Assembly.  During and after my participation in these events, there was little time to debrief people on my concerns and my apparently very different perspective and processes of participation, so I’m doing that now through a series of blogs.4  On the way home it occurred to me that to some extent I might need to turn to poetry effectively make the points I needed to make.5  That’s one reason for the symbolic communication that I’m using here.

My Farm, like Many Others, has a Serious form of “Family Farm Diabetes”

While writing my blog on “Farm Sovereignty,” a couple of symbols came to my mind.  One is that my farm has “diabetes.”  We’ve heard a lot lately about a relationship between cheap corn and the diabetes epidemic in the United States.  In diabetes a person can lose a toe, a foot, a lower leg, a whole leg, and then another leg.  Something similar has happened to our farms.

In my case, my grandfather, who lost his farm during the Great Depression, also had a bad leg, and he later lost that leg above the knee, and some years later died from causes that may be related to all of that.  I recall that, after amputation, he said that the amputated part of his leg still hurt.  I spoke about grandfather’s humiliation at losing his farm, and my Mother’s, during open mic at the CFSC conference, in expressing concerns about the history of blaming farmer-victims, and the ways that farmers today are blamed for being victims of the farm subsidy myth.6

The diabetes image is quickly reminiscent of the issue of farm accidents. Farmers can become accident prone in times of stress, times of crisis, as they struggle to make ends meet, working long hours on the farm or moonlighting, with tragic consequences. This stress can also lead to severe forms of psychological farm diabetes.  On the other hand, even the best of our activists can become victims. It’s part of the price of activism.

In writing about this I came to another image.  Over the ages farmers have known of the horror of having a severe heart attack out in the hog pen.  Those hogs, that are daily so glad to see you, will eat you alive. They’re not wild animals, or wild beasts, like Moby Dick symbolized, but this is a part of the hog’s nature.7 (Here note that the popular urbanized children’s movie, Babe (the pig), featured small children tenderly reaching into a pen where a sow lay with newborn piglets.)

It occurs to me, therefore, that the “Big Hogs” of agribusiness have infected many farms with a form “diabetes” where you lose the farm, a piece at a time, first in small ways, the toes, and later limb by limb.

That’s what has happened to our farm, to my farm. My Dad struggled to keep it afloat over the years, and in fact built it up, with help from the labor of his growing children and the 1970s price spike.  Over time the kids left home and he began dropping out of the livestock business. Then he struggled with how to retire and adapt the farming operation to the requirements of Social Security.  He explored a variety of options involving relatives, family, neighbors and various renters.  Along the way, he began to lose machinery.  

By the time I returned to the farm permanently, I faced a family farm in a sort of chronic trauma, with stressed family relationships, aging machinery, and buildings and utilities in various levels of disrepair.8  Then Dad died and we divided up the farm. I inherited about 100 out of the 350 acres Dad had been farming, including the worst land, the farmstead, and most of what was left of the machinery.  To recapitalize and to support my farm policy work, I sold off 35 acres at what seemed to be a great price.  That wasn’t enough, however, so I sold off another 35 acres, at an even higher price.  

Only in this way was I able to do 4 1/2 years of research on the food movement, and to take eight days off during the harvest season to attend the CFSC conference and related events.

“Farm Diabetes” is one way farmers have coped with agribusiness exploitation through the farm bill and free trade agreements.  It’s part of the “presence” that what we incarnate when we clash with food movement leaders over their failure to grasp our issues, the dominant historical issues of farm bill justice.

From this perspective, we’re not looking for sympathy for our lost limbs, or inspiring principles.  We’re looking for action, for leadership that actually knows the major issues, in proper historical perspective, and leads the food movement toward them.  Especially, we need correct understanding and action on the biggest issues, those of the Commodity Title,  of the Farm Bill, those that the Food Movement so hugely misunderstands.  These are the issues that La Via Campesina so needs us to act upon. All too often, over oh so many years, they’ve been laid out in the hog pen, kicking away at the big hogs that the US Farm Bill has sent out to devour them (and in their case of farm diabetes, it’s not just imagery, it’s a “diabetes” of “undernourishment,” of “underweight children,” of starvation.  

Clearly, platitudes and principles (that are sure to be misunderstood in the false paradigm of the food movement,) will not suffice.  US Food Movement and US Food Sovereignty leaders have been slow to grasp this reality.  

US family farmers, (the US farm justice movement,) are the key to fixing this US crisis of advocacy. Like the peasants in Least Developed Countries, we know something about “farm diabetes” that the food movement and the farm justice allies, (like the US Food Sovereignty Alliance,) seem too detached from.  The dairy crisis is a prime example.  Dairy farmers have been financially floored in the Big-Hog-Pen. They face rapid financial devastation, like hog farmers fell to during the 1990s with 8¢ hogs, like a huge mass of diversified and commodity farmers fell to during the 1980s Farm Crisis.  For us, it’s personal.  For us, it’s family. The family farm subgroup at the Assembly got at it best.  It’s about “survival,” “despair,” and “divorce.”  In the trauma of our experience, the “divorce” form of “farm diabetes” can be literal and legal, or it can be neighbors, siblings, parents and children that “divorce” each other.9  

Here I’ve pointed to experiences of “farm diabetes,” such as in the recent dairy “heart attack,” where farmers struggle to call for assistance to the likes of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, from their positon on the floor of the Big-Hog-Pen.  Obviously, this is a huge load to be brought into farm/food discussions, relationships, and processes.  It upsets conventions and paradigms.  On the other hand, it’s often like one of those giant a glacier stones out in the pasture, partly or entirely hidden from view. Part of my purpose here is to expose ourselves, within our various current, acute and chronic, historical traumas of family farm diabetes.

My other purpose here is to again state:  enough already!  It’s time for “allies” to take a stand, to step on board “The Farm Bill Train”10 and directly, concretely help lead US Farm Bill advocacy toward putting an end to US and global Big-Hog-Pen “Family Farm Diabetes.”

(Note: In light of a recent dairy-farming/far- activism tragedy,11 and other dairy farming tragedies, I’ve decided to post this blog today. I may edit it in the future.)

1.  This blog is a classic illustration of the central thesis in Brad Wilson, “Hog Farming and the Human Spirit:  My Sequel to Moby Dick,” which is my collected works related to farm justice issues, (unpublished).  It’s from the final volume, “My Quest to Speak our Word,” from chapter 6, ‘Beating the Big Hog: The Genius of Spirituality. For those who don’t know enough about the underlying controversy between the food movement and farm justice movement to know understand the controversy in this blog, google “Brad Wilson” and “food movement,” or find resources at:  http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/bradwilson and/or http://www.youtube.com/user/FireweedFarm#p/c/A1E706EFA90D1767.  This blog also illustrates my thesis in “Pathos in the Processes of Social Change:  Faith, Art and Organizing,” http://www.zcomm.org/pathos-in-the-processes-of-social-change-faith-art-and-organizing-by-brad-wilson, which will be expanded in future blogs in this series (footnote #4).

2. See, for example, Shel Trapp, Basics of Organizing, http://www.tenant.net/Organize/orgbas.html#I9,  

3. Brad Wilson, “How to Organize,” photo essay,

(http://www.slideshare.net/bradwilson581525/presentations, soon be here).  Brad Wilson, “How to Win: My Organizers Checklist,” http://www.zcomm.org/how-to-win-my-organizers-checklist-by-brad-wilson.

4. I’ll link future blogs through comments to this blog, such as “Bashing Farmers 101,” in footnote #6 below.  These blogs will be posted at http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/bradwilson and here at La Vida Locavore.

5.  See Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet:  “.”  See also my blog, “Pathos in the Processes of Social Change, http://www.zcomm.org/pathos-in-the-processes-of-social-change-faith-art-and-organizing-by-brad-wilson.


6.  Cf. my blog, “Bashing Farmers 101,” (forthcoming), which explores the challenges and dilemmas of fair and unfair farmer bashing.  See also the “Blue Collar, Male PR” section of my blog “Farm Sovereignty.”

7. Note the related symbolism in Jesus driving demons out of people and into hogs.  Cf. Hog Farming and the Human Spirit: vol. IV, My Quest to Speak Our Word. Cf. Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers.  Cf. Brad Wilson, “The Genius of Spirituality: An Encounter with Shel Trapp,” http://www.zcomm.org/the-genius-of-spirituality-by-brad-wilson.

8.  See Brad Wilson, Hog Farming and the Human Spirit, vol. VI, Reconciling the Drama of Delmar, (unpublished, “A Documentary Personal Case of Farm Family Crisis & Renewal”).

9. According to Richard Horsley, in Covenant Economics:  A Biblical Vision of Justice for All, these are essentially the issues of the Old Testament Covenant, including the ten commandments, (ie. ch. 3, “Mutual Support and the Protection of Economic Rights,”) and of Jesus gospel, as in the Sermon on the Mount, (ie. ch. 7, “Jesus Renewal of the Covenant,” for example, in the section “Love Your Enemies,” p. 110). Cf. Reconciling the Drama of Delmar, above in footnote #7.

10.  http://www.zcomm.org/the-farm-bill-train-by-brad-wilson.

11.  See Jen Dalton, “Untimely Loss of Dairy Activist is Call to Arms,” Civil Eats, 8/29/12, http://civileats.com/2012/08/29/untimely-loss-of-dairy-activist-is-a-call-to-arms/

Leave a comment