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

An Open Letter to New York Times Opinion Author Gracy Olmstead

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 some not insubstantial means during a time period when most Americans were waiting in breadlines or taking to the road in search of work. Being rich enough to start a farm during the Great Depression, even in Idaho, one must have been doing quite well. Even if it was initially a tenant situation — which were rapidly disappearing, the 1933 Farm Bill was the first to include farm supports that created a ton of advantages for big farmers, which means tenants were quickly evicted — he still learned the skills and gained access to equipment and other capital somewhere.

Considering all this, “drought and economic uncertainty” don’t seem to have been effecting Grandpa Dad, so not sure why it deserve a mention. And the “his farm not only survived, but thrived” is no mystery. When you have money — to buy land, to suffer mistakes — and the privilege of being a white property owner in one of the nation’s newest, and to this day, most conservative, states, you can survive just about anything.

“Unfortunately, the things my great-grandfather sought to foster in his lifetime — healthy land, resilient farms, a robust small-town economy — have suffered in mine. Farms and farmers have become isolated and specialized, and many rural towns have emptied out.”

From my perspective, it is quite a leap to say that any white farmer in Idaho in 1939 was seeking to foster “healthy land, resilient farms, a robust small-town economy.” This period in America’s agricultural history is one of the absolute worst in terms of land health. The reason the soil conservation service was written into the 1933 Farm Bill is because farmers were being so destructive of the land that the government feared there would literally be no arable land left if Big Brother didn’t intervene. I don’t see any evidence that Grandpa Dad would have broken that mold. “Resilient farms” is a bit laughable, given that, again, the 1933 Farm Bill was written explicitly because small family farms like Grandpa Dad’s were proving incredibly *un-resilient* and thus needed to be propped up with federal payments. I’ll get to the small town economy question in a moment.

Her final statement here is true, in a sense. Farmers have not “become isolated,” they have isolated themselves. They are not the helpless victims of circumstance, they are profit-seeking actors in a capitalist system, and specialization and the emptying of rural towns is a natural effect of that (again, standby for more).

In this pandemic, we’ve seen some of the damaging consequences of these changes. The cost of our “efficient” meat production is revealed in the treatment of food workers: Many meat processors forced employees to continue working even as the coronavirus spread at meatpacking plants. Grocery stores struggled to keep their shelves filled while farmers were dumping milk and euthanizing hogs and chickens they could not get to market because of processing and distributing bottlenecks.

The first sentence here is… correct? Again, the abuse of workers in the food sector are not super directly related to the fact that “farms are isolated” so putting these paragraphs in this order is misleading. But generally, these statements are true.

The fact that the above is all that’s going to be said about the fragility of our food system is true insanity. I mean I get it. I’m a reporter, I write to a word limit all the time, and I get writing for a general audience. But dear gawd.

But in the patterns of local rootedness and stewardship Grandpa Dad practiced, I believe there might be hope for our own communities going forward.

Again, no evidence yet that Grandpa Dad cares about stewardship, most farmers of his time certainly didn’t. And “local rootedness” was in no way an intentional choice that Grandpa Dad, or anyone else, made in their time. It was the 1930s and 1940s in rural Idaho. It’s not like there was a Walmart.

We must challenge agribusiness monopolies and acknowledge the harm unchecked consolidation has had on our food system. We should aspire, when and where we can, to restore the sort of healthy local food sources and interconnectedness that my Grandpa Dad knew and that once undergirded rural communities.

Listen, I’ll do a big long write up one day about how “consolidation” is a false flag in agriculture. The problem with small family farms today is not that they are being preyed on by “agribusiness monopolies,” it’s that they (light book spoilers here) literally 👏 never 👏 worked 👏 . But given that Gracy felt one sentence was enough on the subject for her article, I’ll leave it there.

The second part of this paragraph really gets to the meat of it. We could see it coming from a mile away, of course. When it comes to small family farms for white people, we’ve always got to “go back” or “restore” something.

On this subject, I have one comment only. Time does not move in that direction.

We, human beings as a species and life and Earth in general, do not travel backwards in time. There are impossibly few (I’d even argue, no) solutions in the past that would make sense in our current context, with the things we know, and with the constraints we face. Grandpa Dad did not crave “healthy local food sources,” he ate the food that was around and the food he could afford, just like everyone else in the world does. He probably also ate and drank a lot things that were quite literally poisonous, and that would absolutely not meet our modern standards for safety. In that way, each of the above words (“healthy,” “local,” and “food sources”) have such a dramatically different definition today than they did in the past that comparing them is at best a fools errand.

In other words, Grandpa Dad was not trying to “undergird his rural community,” he was spending his money in the only places he could. You don’t get a trophy for living.

Many of the problems we’re seeing in rural America today stem not just from the struggles of individual farmers but from the collapse of the larger ecosystems that once nourished them: the towns, associations, neighbors and local industry clusters that encompassed and supported them.

Enter the rural development conversation.

Gracy absolutely has this perfectly ass-backwards. Individual farmers have led to the collapse of towns, associations, neighbors and local industry, not the other way around. Farmers were the people who had the resources, the land, the money, and the political clout, to build and nurture all of these things. And instead what did they do? What the free market prodded them to do (and federal farm payments enabled). They got bigger and bigger and bigger, bloated with cheap land, low tax rates, and federal payments, and they bought their neighbors farms, driving local industry out of business by pushing customers into distant towns and cities, and whined all the time that *they* were really the victims.

So yes, rural America’s troubles do stem from the collapse of larger ecosystems. The ecosystems that farmers, and the agricultural industry writ large, collapsed around themselves. And it is non-farmer rural Americans who pay the price.

This is not a nostalgic desire to simply turn back the clock. It’s paying attention to history.

No. It absolutely is nostalgic desire. That’s why this history is so deeply incomplete and fully white washed. If we were truly paying attention to history, we would have noticed that our beloved “small family farms” have been struggling for the better part of the last 400 years. We’d notice that the early 1900s was not the pinnacle of their existence, it was the deepest trough of their despair, after which we put farmland owners completely on the taxpayers’ back so that they wouldn’t have to suffer at the hands of their beloved free markets anymore. Grandpa Dad is not the best of us. He’s the rich, acting as the leisurely rural rich have always acted.

During the Great Depression, family incomes in Idaho dropped by as much as 50 percent, and many lost their farms to local land banks. The farmers who survived were the ones who helped one another and built a network of solidarity and rapport. Grandpa Dad aided fellow farmers, helping form a mutually supportive community. He worked with and for his neighbors during harvest seasons, lent equipment and labor to those in need, and mentored younger farming couples.

The farmers who survived the Great Depression were the rich ones. The rich often help the rich. Gracy’s details are suspiciously vague here, but she does pull a lot of lib-friendly words like “network,” “solidarity,” and “mutual support” in a transparent effort to suggest that Grandpa Dad was really a secret socialist. Unlikely, just like Gracy is not.

Beyond farming, Grandpa Dad also supported his regional and town economy, investing in both its agriculture-related businesses and in locally owned shops and business owners. Grandpa grew crops for the cannery and creamery in town and the sugar beet factory over the hill as well as for friends and family.

I would be verrrrrry interested to know what “investing” looked like to Grandpa Dad, notably, it seems, it was not charitable giving or mutual aid. Grandpa Dad had spare money to invest (again, cuz rich). I’d be curious to know as well what exactly was grown on this farm and how big it was (and became). The suggested level of diversification was unusual by the mid- to late-20th century.

Grandpa Dad and Grandma Mom, Iva Howard, chose to buy the groceries they needed and food they didn’t grow from a mom-and-pop store in town. They served on boards for the local church, irrigation district, land bank and hospital.

Was there an alternative to the mom-and-pop store in town? People shouldn’t be congratulated for buying something at their only available option. Interesting too, that though Grandpa Dad grew for the cannery and creamery, he didn’t sell groceries at the grocer?

In most small towns I know of, serving on boards is not about service so much as it is about wielding political clout. Knowing all the best information, getting the best land deals and growing contracts, keeping your neighbors and employees in line, much of that work is done on various local boards and committees. So might this be civic work? Perhaps. Selfless work? No.

Grandpa Dad’s stewardship was also a very intimate and personalized thing: He cared deeply about the health of his land and animals, and opted to keep his farm small so that he could maintain more complex, diverse rhythms of care. For example, he devised an irrigation methodology (like today’s computer-maintained surge irrigation) that helped prevent soil runoff and water waste and manually moved irrigation lines to safeguard the soil.

I won’t kick the dead horse of, “this is the era of the most destructive farmers (maybe) on Earth” but I’ll add that in the drier part of Idaho, being careful about irrigation water is not about “caring for the land” or “stewardship,” it’s about not wasting a precious and expensive resource. Irrigating costs money (in terms of both equipment and electricity for pumping). In essence, though Gracy may be right this was relatively uncommon, this is not laudable or extraordinary efforts, its the bare minimum part of the job of being even a half-way good farmer.

It wasn’t all for the good. There were many environmental choices made in Grandpa Dad’s time that harmed our climate, ecology and soil and water health. Many farm communities made up of white farmers oppressed and mistreated minority farmers and workers. And federal policy, maintained over decades, resulted in the theft of millions of acres of land, pushing Black farmers and landowners off their property.

Again, a really incomplete nod to the absolute obliteration of top soil happening across North America at this time.

The second part of this paragraph is a real killer. Let me go ahead and rewrite it correctly:

“Many white farm communities committed violent acts of terror against minority farmers, stealing their land and assets and often leaving whole families and communities dead or dispossessed. These same white farm communities also, in all but name, enslaved farmworkers, a group that was predominantly made up of Black American, Indigenous people, and people of Asian descent, and in many cases grew quite wealthy on their largely-uncompensated labor. And federal policy for the entire history of the United States, stole the entire continent from its original owners, in direct violation of its own treaties, and then denied any of the stolen land to anyone besides white men, with extraordinary few exceptions, to this day.”

During the pandemic, many people have become more aware of our interconnectedness and revived locally focused food habits practiced by people like my Grandpa Dad. Many planted victory gardens, sought out beef and chicken from nearby farms or signed up for a C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) share. In addition to growing vegetables, my husband and I bought a quarter-cow from a local farmer this summer and helped a family member butcher some chickens so that we could have a few in payment.

“During the pandemic, the wealthy among us decided we finally had time to practice the super-Instagrammable conscious consumerism we’d been meaning to get around to,” would have been a more honest opening to this paragraph.

In this pandemic, tens of millions of people lost their jobs. Adults, children, whole families, are literally going hungry. People are praying that eviction moratoriums never end, because they have months and months and months of unpaid rent and their home is the only thing they really have left.

The audacity of suggesting that “many people” were able to “plant victory gardens” or buy and store quarter-cows is incredible. How out of touch can you be.

An alternative title for this whole article could have been, “How the Rich See the Food System and While They’re Not Going to Do Anything Real About It.”

We need to foster more diversity and resilience on our nation’s farms, to have greater accountability for big agribusinesses and to better protect the rights of America’s food workers. Farm co-ops and other collaborative farming efforts have been springing up in response to the pandemic, with members pooling resources to address sales, distributing, processing or packing needs. These efforts mimic — and in many ways, improve upon — the ways Grandpa Dad and his neighbors once helped one another during harvesting seasons.

WTF is going on in this first sentence. It’s all over the place. Sure, diversity (assuming that includes racial diversity? or maybe it’s safer to assume it means “diversity of crops”) and resilience are good. Our nation’s farms are neither, at all, just as Grandpa Dad’s wasn’t, per the evidence in this article. “Greater accountability for big agribusiness — ” this is out of left field at this point. It essentially hasn’t been addressed yet in this article. It’s just one of those things people say I guess. And yes, we should “protect the rights of America’s food [*and farm*] workers.” Convenient slip of the pen there, to leave out the farmworkers that dear old Grandpa Dad likely exploited.

Farm co-ops have not been “springing up,” they’ve been around for a long time. It’s just now that people are starting to notice. Grandpa Dad, in fact was likely involved with co-ops that are still around today. Again, the co-op question deserves a much longer treatment, but I’ll leave it here for now.

After last year’s disastrous bottlenecks, Americans across the country are fighting centralization by supporting the sorts of small, local and regional agribusinesses we’ve lost in recent decades — seed companies, slaughterhouses and other food processors. Efforts to grow a more diverse array of crops, to increase perennial agroecosystems and to conserve water through better irrigation and farming practices all build on Grandpa Dad’s efforts to care for our land and water.

NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.

Grandpa Dad, a white, first-generation Idaho farmer, does not get retroactive credit as the “founder” of today’s grassroots efforts around perennial agroecosystems, water conservation, increasing crop diversity, etc. It is Indigenous peoples, those who farmed the land (that Grandpa Dad stole) for 100 generations who have earned the historical credit for the work of figuring out the only resilient way to farm in North America, ever.

Nor will Grandpa Dad get credit for the grassroots efforts, often of disenfranchised communities of color, to rematriate seeds, grow alternative food systems, and build businesses and civil organizations that actually feed hungry people.

No, a white farmer in Idaho does not get credit for the work of upending the system that was built, during his lifetime, to serve farmers like him.

And if anyone ever demands you pay homage to farmers like him, you can tell them where to shove it.

Fixing many of our food system’s problems will require national policy solutions and systemic change. A bill by Senator Cory Booker aims to take on harmful agricultural monopolies. Both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission can direct antitrust officers to break up the most harmful agribusiness mergers, and the F.T.C. could also establish fair competition rules that would work to prevent corporate dominance.

I could say a lot here, but let’s leave it at, Cory Booker puts his name on a lot of things that never go anywhere. This is one of them.

Senator Booker is also lead sponsor of a Justice for Black Farmers Act that seeks to address decades of racial discrimination and land loss.

I don’t feel comfortable addressing this, but I can tell you that Chris Newman does.

But it’s also true that community investment, ecological stewardship and local rootedness can help restore health to our food system and rural communities. I’m not a farmer. But because of Grandpa Dad, I’m on my town’s tree board, volunteer with a ministry for the food insecure and search out food from local farmers — trying to support the health of my own village, albeit in very small ways.

Virtue signaling; a case study.

Grandpa Dad’s life suggests to me that these small efforts can help. When I visit my hometown in Idaho, even though he’s been dead for 13 years, local townspeople still share fond stories of Walt: the old farmer who stuck around, cared for his neighbors and loved his land for the long haul.

It’s great to be the local rich folx. I would have loved to hear a direct quote from a neighbor when no Olmsteads are around. But alas.

A Note on Gracy Olmstead

Listen. This was rough. At the end of the day, Gracy and I have a lot in common. We are from rural areas of neighboring states in the West. I grew up on a family farm (and it sounds like she grew up at least in proximity to one). She’s a reporter now — arguably, a much more successful one than myself. She wrote a book that she’s out promoting, undoubtedly why/how she got this in at the NYT.

I have no personal gripe against Gracy.

What I have is a gripe against white people who use their rural and agricultural roots to elevate they and their family’s moral standing, while trying to also say, “oh yes, and help the unfortunates!”

That’s some bullshit Gracy. Unfortunately, the history of agriculture in the United States has been a zero sum game where white people always win.

The fight to reveal and elevate these injustices has been an ongoing battle for generations. Thousands of leaders, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Cesar Chavez, from George Washington Carver to Philip Vera Cruz to the builders of the Southwest’s Acequias, and so many more, have done this work, have carried on traditions that would have otherwise been lost (and white people would have congratulated themselves for it). These leaders have fought for their communities, yes, but also for the land, for natural resources, for wild spaces, for food justice, for workers, for true democracy, and for the communities of others. And they have suffered tremendously for this work.

That people like Gracy would come in here and re-engineer her family history, and by extension, the history of white Americans in agriculture, to photoshop her grandfather at the the front of this long train of leaders, is white-washing, it’s erasure, it’s racist revisionist history, and it’s abominable.

For all the ways that Gracy and I are alike, that we are members of the same community, it is my duty to stand up and say that she does not speak for us.

Rewriting history to make our people, our white ancestors, the victors in a long battle for a more just world is not the aim of a true ally. And if Gracy truly is trying to be someone who is writing about and elevating work that leads to better outcomes for workers and for our food system writ large, she has to address the many oversights and harms she committed in this article.

If she is just here to dress up her family history to sell books, I don’t expect we’ll be hearing from Gracy again. But I genuinely hope that’s not the case. I hope that she leans in and does the work to make right the many wrongs in this article. If she did, that truly would be a powerful contribution to building a better food system.

Author of Farm (and Other F Words), pre-order now: https://bit.ly/2JTY90i. Rural issues and agriculture writer/researcher. Not a cheerleader, not the enemy.

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