No, Your Great-Grandfather Did Not Know How to Fix Our Food System

An Open Letter to New York Times Opinion Author Gracy Olmstead

Sarah Mock
16 min readMar 26, 2021


We’ve got to unpack this recent opinion piece published in the New York Times, “My Great-Grandfather Knew How to Fix Our Food System.” (Gifs to help you make it through.)

I am going to try my best here to not be flippantly derogatory for the sake of illustrating how, the next time you see this kind of writing/speaking/ideating, you will have all the tools you need to absolutely tear this argument to smithereens with a smile.

Let’s start with the subtitle.

“In the mutual aid and stewardship of an earlier generation of American farmers, there might be hope for our own communities.”

When I read this sub-head, I was actually optimistic. Perhaps this was going to be the story of tenant-farmers, of progressive agricultural labor movements inclusive of People of Color. Alas, my hope was dashed quickly.

The pandemic revealed just how brittle our food system has become. It has also made me think a lot about my paternal great-grandfather, Walter Howard, a farmer whom I knew as Grandpa Dad.

Born in Idaho, he was 7 when the 1918 flu pandemic swept America and 18 when the Great Depression began. He was in his 90s when I knew him. When he started his own farm as a young adult, drought and economic uncertainty were ravaging Idaho — yet, somehow, he and his farm not only survived, but thrived.

I agree with Gracy, our food system is brittle. But she literally includes that single sentence, and then never really comes back around to explaining why it is so (exploitation of labor, concentration of land wealth in the hands of a few, etc.).

Then we meet Grandpa Dad, born in Idaho in 1911, who went on to “start his own farm as a young adult.” There’s no reason to mention that he’s white, because obviously he is. Now I don’t know Gracy’s great-grandfathers’ specifics, but assuming a “young adult” means under thirty, that would mean he started a farm during the Great Depression. Assuming he didn’t inherit it (which describing it “starting” if he really inherited would be insanely misleading) that means Grandpa Dad must have had…



Sarah Mock

Author of Farm (and Other F Words), buy now: Rural issues and agriculture writer/researcher. Not a cheerleader, not the enemy.