Who Are We Dependent Upon?

The industrial mega-farms grow larger every year, gobbling up those around them.

There are 2.17 million farms in the U.S., a country with a population of over 315 million.  Only about 1.6% of Americans live on farms these days.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. According to the data from the 2007 Census of Agriculture, a mere 59,000 farms (with gross revenue of over $1 million each) account for 59% of all U.S. farm production.  That number is expected to rise when the 2012 data becomes available.

That is an unprecedented and dangerous concentration of agricultural production into very few hands.  Of course most of what these farms produce is destined to become CAFO animal feed, processed foods and ethanol.  Once the commodities leave those 59,000 farms, the stranglehold tightens even more.

In Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy he writes:

Four companies slaughter 81% of American beef.  Two control 75% of the global grain trade.  89% of American chickens are produced under contract to big companies, usually in broiler houses up to 500 feet long holding 30,000 or more chickens.  Four multinational companies control 70% of milk sales in the US.   Five companies control 75% of the global seed market.  The largest seller of food in this country (and the world) is Walmart.”

He wrote that in 2008.  Consolidation has continued steadily since then, so this too has probably worsened significantly.  Control of the food supply is being ceded to fewer and fewer corporations.

Community-based agriculture offers an alternative to this system.  Just another reason to find and support local family farms.


10 comments on “Who Are We Dependent Upon?

  1. Bill, you’re spot on. I’m in a part of the country where I personally see it happening. With the prices of farm land sky rocketing the next generation of farmers are just selling off the family farm, taking the millions, and living the life of ease. It’s kind of sad in a way what agriculture has become.

    We have talked about this before, Bill, but it’s tough to survive with agriculture business on your level let alone make a profit. You have to deal with real cost expenses but big Ag gets substantial government help. It’s definitely hard to compete with that on a cost level. When farming thousands of acres, a small percentage of profit can be huge. Not so much when only a small homestead is being farmed. This food system that we have become used to is beginning to have some cracks that will eventually cause some very harmful effects down the road. That’s just my personal thoughts about the matter.

    Have a great day on the Virginia homestead.


    • Bill says:

      I agree with you Dave. In McKibben’s book he also points out that “farmers’ profit margins dropped from 35% in 1950 to 9% today. To generate the same income as 1950 a farm has to be four times larger.” That was in 1998, before the latest wave of consolidation. I’m sure it’s even more dramatic today.

      A few people are making a lot of money, while squeezing everybody else out. The consumers share in the blame too, since as a whole we’re paying less than 10% of income for food, the lowest amount ever paid by any society in history. Consumers like that and real farmers can’t possibly match the industrial prices and still be able to pay the bills.


  2. shoreacres says:

    Concentration of power is dangerous, no matter the arena. Beyond that, there are some American theoreticians who would follow in the footsteps of some very unhappy experiements in other parts of the world, moving as many people as possible to urban centers, and assuming increasing control of agriculture.

    If corporations are in bed with the government, I would assume saying it’s not governmental action is a distinction without a difference.


    • Bill says:

      Absolutely. Community-based economies and decentralized (minimal) authority are the best guarantors of liberty.


      • Jeff says:

        That’s what the anti-Federalists thought, too. Look where it got them. I have a real big problem with Bill McKibben and his ilk. If you want to know why, read the blog The Wrong Kind of Green. 350.org, like almost every other NGO out there, has been co-opted by capitalism. Yeah, I know, the “C” word, again. My question to Bill and his buddies is this: what are you doing to put the brakes on corporate agriculture? Besides writing books and encouraging people to sign petitions, that is. Answer: nothing. Why? Follow the money.


  3. Kitchen-Counter-Culture says:

    Wanting a “Like” button!


  4. Steve says:

    The statistics feel like a big weight. Sigh.


    • Bill says:

      The big picture is ugly and getting worse. But I’m encouraged by the pockets of resistance that are robust and also growing. Planting a garden these days, or visiting the farmers market, carries a lot of significance, it seems to me.


      • The statistics are definitely depressing, but you can’t let the weight of it keep you down. Every little step we take adds up. I know that sounds cliché but it works. And every little bit of information we share with others also helps in a big way. I think McKibben is entitled to make a living selling his books, and I think he is doing something important for this cause – he is sharing a lot of knowledge, he’s getting in the news, his organization is out there helping people to sit up and take notice. If you don’t understand the problem, it’s hard to fix it. We need the people willing to gather the data and share it as much as we need the small farmers, the community gardens and the suburban and urban families that have a small backyard garden. Each of us has our own way of contributing.


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