In Defense of Farmers: The Future of Agriculture in the Shadow of Corporate Power

In Defense of Farmers: The Future of Agriculture in the Shadow of Corporate Power


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Industrial agriculture is generally characterized as either the salvation of a growing, hungry, global population or as socially and environmentally irresponsible. Despite elements of truth in this polarization, it fails to focus on the particular vulnerabilities and potentials of industrial agriculture. Both representations obscure individual farmers, their families, their communities, and the risks they face from unpredictable local, national, and global conditions: fluctuating and often volatile production costs and crop prices; extreme weather exacerbated by climate change; complicated and changing farm policies; new production technologies and practices; water availability; inflation and debt; and rural community decline. Yet the future of industrial agriculture depends fundamentally on farmers’ decisions.

In Defense of Farmers illuminates anew the critical role that farmers play in the future of agriculture and examines the social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities of industrial agriculture, as well as its adaptations and evolution. Contextualizing the conversations about agriculture and rural societies within the disciplines of sociology, geography, economics, and anthropology, this volume addresses specific challenges farmers face in four countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

By concentrating on countries with the most sophisticated production technologies capable of producing the largest quantities of grains, soybeans, and animal proteins in the world, this volume focuses attention on the farmers whose labors, decision-making, and risk-taking throw into relief the implications and limitations of our global industrial food system. The case studies here acknowledge the agency of farmers and offer ways forward in the direction of sustainable agriculture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496206732
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2019
Series: Our Sustainable Future Series
Pages: 444
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jane W. Gibson is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas. Sara E. Alexander is a professor of anthropology at Baylor University. John K. Hansen is president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and chairman of the Legislative Committee for the National Farmers Union. He serves on the National Farmers Union Executive Committee.

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Power, Food, and Agriculture

Implications for Farmers, Consumers, and Communities

Mary K. Hendrickson, Philip H. Howard, and Douglas H. Constance

The system by which most relatively affluent global consumers obtain their food is globalized and industrialized in the same fashion as the rest of the global capitalist system. An increasingly smaller number of actors within global supply chains make many of the decisions about the food we eat, from where and how it is grown, to how we will obtain it. While this system has produced and marketed a great many tasty and diverse calories for those who can afford to participate, the costs of this system have been borne by farmers, food workers, rural communities, and the ecology in which we are all embedded. In the way it is shaped and organized, the food system is very much like other industries, but food (and water) is unlike other consumer goods. Everyone on the planet needs to eat nutritious foods every day to live a healthy and productive life. Thus, we believe food should not be treated like other commodities, and the people who produce food, along with a stable agroecosystem, should be protected as critical to society.

The purpose of this chapter is to show how a minority of global actors make many of the decisions about what food is produced — where, how, by whom, and for whom — and highlight the implications of these decisions for farmers, consumers, communities, and their environment. The structuring of the relationship along the supply chain from farm to plate, and the globalizing of these relationships, has harmed our ecology, rural communities, and the livelihoods of farmers and food workers. We explain how farmers and consumers — who have myriad concerns about the implications of the agrifood system — are mostly excluded from decision-making through the continued consolidation of critical points of the supply chain. Decisions are increasingly made by CEOs to meet the narrow demands of shareholders of global agrifood firms, whose main concern is to increase their power more than similar firms. Still, farmers and consumers are not passive bystanders to these trends and have organized in multiple ways to stop, shape, or opt out of them.

Impacts of Social and Economic Organization in Agrifood

The organization of the agrifood system has important consequences for the life chances of farmers, farm and food workers, communities, and the environment. In the last fifty years, food and farming in the United States and across the world has been reorganized toward an industrialized system that reduces food — a physiological necessity that has important cultural and social meanings — to a commodity to be produced as cheaply as possible and sold to the highest bidder. Even the comparatively wealthy farmers in the United States, Canada, and Europe end up as relatively powerless participants in food chains over which they have little or no control. Farmers face limited choices in which inputs to use, which crops or livestock to produce, and which markets to sell their goods. Meanwhile, food and farm workers in the United States are some of the most food insecure people in a country where one in eight households may not know where their next meal is coming from (Coleman-Jensen et al. 2016). That a highly industrialized and capitalized agrifood system can produce abundant calories and still leave hungry people, many of them involved in the production of food, shows that the tradeoffs farmers, workers, and the environment are making are not worth the cost to people, communities, and the ecosystem in which we are embedded.

Let's start with the fact that fewer farmers are able to make a full-time living from farming. Just 40 percent of the two million farms in the United States list farming as the primary occupation of the farm operator. Less than 200,000 American farms are classified as "commercial" by USDA, meaning that they have gross farm sales exceeding $350,000. At first glance, this "upper 10 percent" of farm households appear to be doing well, having a median net farm income of over $146,000 in 2015 and median household income nearing $200,000 — triple the median U.S. household income (Posey 2016; USDA 2015b). Yet nearly a third of farm households listing farming as a principal occupation reported a median of just $788 in farm income in 2015, even though they had higher median household income due to off-farm income (USDA2015b).

These changes exact real tolls on farmers. In the early 2000s, when Midwestern commodity agriculture was reeling from low prices, a Missouri farmer told Hendrickson that he used to look around to see if any farmers were getting out of farming so he could get their land to farm. Now he looks around and sees that he has no neighbors. As one can see in table 1, three-fifths of U.S. farms are residential where the operator does not consider farming as their primary occupation, while about a tenth gain significant income from farming, leaving a floundering "intermediate" set of farms. Some of these farms may be considered part of the declining "Agriculture of the Middle" (Lyson, Stevenson, and Welsh 2008), defined as the decrease in the number of farms in midsized categories (USDA uses $350,000 to $999,999 in annual agricultural sales, USDA 2015a). While fewer than 6 percent of all U.S. farms, midsized farms accounted for about one-fifth of all agricultural sales and farmland, and over one quarter of net farm income. Farmers of the middle are often left out by the large commodity chains we describe in this chapter, but also find fewer other midrange businesses to cooperate with (such as processing plants, distributors, or grocers) or to supply them with inputs and right-sized equipment for planting, harvesting, storing, processing, or distributing their products (Legun and Bell 2016).

Given difficult economics, these "intermediate" sized farms may feel particular pressures to farm in ways incongruent with their values or beliefs. For instance, James and Hendrickson (2008) found evidence from Missouri farmers to suggest that financial pressures can increase a farmer's willingness to tolerate unethical conduct. Concentrated markets may cause farmers to feel financially pressured, especially as they become relatively dependent within production networks organized by transnational agrifood firms (Hendrickson, James, and Heffernan 2013). Concentrated markets for inputs or agricultural products narrow the range of choices that farmers can make about how they treat their land, animals, and workers, and even what kind of farming they decide to enter (Hendrickson and James 2005). For instance, a farmer may want to enhance soil quality by practicing multiyear rotations with three to five different crops but is prevented because he cannot find regional markets for sunflowers or wheat rather than just soybeans and corn (Roesch-McNally et al. 2017). Farmers may also want to practice diversified crop and livestock farming but cannot find available markets for smaller livestock numbers (for a summary of these agricultural practices of the middle farmers who are too large to direct market and too small to compete in global commodity chains see: Lyson, Stevenson, and Welsh 2008). For example, it is essentially impossible for Midwestern farmers who want to use non-genetically modified soybeans to access seeds that do not contain GM traits, as nearly 100 percent of soybeans now contain at least one herbicide tolerant trait. Stuart and Schewe (2016) document how seed corn contracts in Michigan constrain the choices of farmers, causing them to over-apply fertilizer to maximize yield, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, while Stuart (2009) found that farmers in California felt pressured by their buyers to use practices they felt were ecologically destructive and unethical. In short, constrained choices can force farmers into the "kinds of decisions that they otherwise would not have chosen for ethical or other reasons" (Hendrickson and James 2005, 283)

The decisions these farmers must make also impact their communities and their ecology. For example, in their meta-analysis of the relationship between agricultural structure and community well-being, Lobao and Stofferahn (2007) found detrimental effects of industrialized farming on communities, such as increased income inequality or poverty and population decline; these negative effects were reported in 82 percent of 51 studies. A more detailed exploration of community impacts can be found in Gibson and Gray, (chapter 9 of this volume). Many U.S. farmers feel forced into specialized monocultures that separate livestock from crop production both at the farm level and at larger regional geographies (Lyson 2004), with widely documented negative ecological impacts such as soil loss and degradation, changes in water quality, and the rise of herbicide resistant weeds (Eller 2014; Hendrickson 2015). Ecological and community impacts are often interdependent. For example, Monsanto's introduction of dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton as the latest measure to fight herbicide resistant weeds created new problems as dicamba drifts when applied in anything less than perfect application conditions, causing damage to a wide range of crops, including neighboring non-dicamba tolerant soybeans. In 2016 and 2017 this damage caused considerable tension in rural communities, pitting neighbor against neighbor; conflict over dicamba damage was cited in the murder of an Arkansas farmer by a neighboring Missouri farmhand. In addition, these agricultural systems both contribute to climate change and must adapt to it (explored further by Alexander in chapter 6 of this volume). The industrial agrifood system's lengthening supply chain lacks tight ecological and social feedback loops, compromising adaptive responses that promote resilience (Lamine 2015; Hendrickson 2015).

Analyzing the Structure of Food and Farming

The current structure of the agrifood system can best be thought of as a series of competing global production networks in which dependence and power are highly correlated (Carstensen, Lianos, Lombardi, and MacDonald, 2016; James, Hendrickson, and Howard, 2013; Wilkinson, 2006; Hendrickson et al. 2008). A key concept is defining power in the food system, specifically who has it, how we can document and measure it, and how it is articulated in the structure that we document. Power is a crucial element of who can make decisions in the food system, decisions that shape the life chances of farmers and workers who produce our food, the vibrancy of the communities in which they live, and the ecology on which future food production depends. Those of us involved in the Missouri School of Agrifood Studies (Bonanno 2009) have documented increasing concentration in different sectors of the U.S. agrifood industry through a series of concentration tables, reports, and articles (Constance et al. 2014a). We hoped that by documenting the market relationships in the agrifood system, we would help farmers, consumers, and communities understand the system they were part of in order to transform it.

Our approach is different from other scholarship in economics and law that has primarily addressed concerns about agricultural consolidation by studying one aspect — horizontal integration, that occurs when firms in one sector (for example, pork processing) consolidate into fewer firms — at one scale, national markets (Crespi, Saitone, and Sexton 2012; Fuglie et al. 2011; MacDonald 2016). These scholars often express little concern about increasing market consolidation, adopting the mainstream economics position that increased efficiency produced economic gains, and maintaining that firms did not use their market power to increase prices or to discriminate against producers.

We admit there are weaknesses in looking only at concentration in certain commodities, or employing monopoly-only models of the agrifood system. For instance, while firms may organize themselves into global production networks, those networks may still compete with each other while disadvantaging farmers and ecosystems (Hendrickson et al. 2008; Heffernan, Hendrickson, and Gronski 1999). Current concentration and monopoly models also do not address the issue of vertical integration and other structural issues in the agrifood value chain. To remedy these problems, some scholars have worked to differentiate between buyer and seller power, or to examine the differing levels of concentration that can harm producers, consumers, or the public good in different situations (Foer 2016; Carstensen 2008; Carstensen et al. 2016).

Following Nitzan and Bichler (2009), Howard (2016a, 11) proposed a more encompassing look at capital as power —"that corporations quantify their perceived influence through 'capitalization'" — which can be viewed as a measure of their expected future earnings, discounted for perceived risks. This means that "capitalism as a system is therefore better understood as a mode of power rather than a mode of production." Mode of production refers to the way we collectively produce what we need to survive as a society and the social relationships that form around it. Mode of power, in contrast, does not assume that capitalists are driven to increase production (nor consumption), but only their own power relative to everyone else, even if it reduces well-being. This approach highlights the need to understand the social, political, and economic relationships that structure the agrifood system. At the core of all these works is the desire to describe and understand the power relationships that arise in an industrialized, highly capitalized agrifood system in order to address their negative impacts.


The Missouri School method documents economic concentration in an accessible format that illustrates the breadth and depth of concentration in major agricultural commodities and in different sectors of the agrifood system (see figure 1). We report the market shares in major agricultural commodities, agricultural inputs, and food retailing in CR4 tables (CR4 is the concentration ratio [CR] of the combined market share of the top four [4] firms in each market). We glean the data from trade journals, company annual reports, government reports, academic journals, and financial newspapers. Sources used in this chapter include: trade journals and newspapers such as Successful Farming, Farm Futures, European Seed, Reuters, and Fortune; government reports from USDA's Economic Research Service and Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), as well as United Nations agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) and the Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); nonprofit research briefs where we agree with the methods used including from ETC Group, Food and Water Watch, and Oxfam; and academic journals in law, economics, policy, and sociology.

We are particularly interested in the top four firms in a specific market for two reasons. First, when four firms control more than 40 percent of a market the oligopolistic/oligopsonistic structure can confer market power to those firms (Breimyer 1965; Connor et al. 1984; Heffernan 2000; Hendrickson and James 2005). Second, the theory of small group behavior indicates that actors in small groups generally inform their own actions through observation of other actors, rather than through discussion (Olson 1965). As noted above, CR4 is a rather simplistic monopoly model that provides an imperfect assessment of power relationships within a particular commodity (James, Hendrickson, and Howard 2013). The utility of the CR4 tables is the snapshot of the dominant players in and across particular commodities, which helps farmers and community members understand the wide reach of corporate actors. Because we are interested in concentration issues across the agrifood system, one of our major contributions is the identification of the top firms by name to document the progress of cross-commodity integration. Reading company reports, trade journals, and financial newspapers allows us to glean information about potential strategies that different actors pursue, as well as industry insights into the implications of those strategies.

The Structure of the Agrifood System

In the following pages, we provide a snapshot of different markets across the agrifood chain (see figure 1), which starts with the inputs farmers use to produce agricultural commodities, the commodity markets into which they sell, and the food processing and food retailing sectors that have driven a large number of changes in the marketplace in the last twenty-five years. We describe each link of the chain, the way markets have changed, and the implications of those changes. But first, we provide a look at what has happened to farmers in the last fifty years.

We have lost one-third of the U.S. farms that existed in 1964, and half of the remaining two million farms produce less than $10,000 in annual sales (USDA 2012). Using the median size of crop acres or number of animals, MacDonald (2016) shows increasing consolidation at the farm level in the United States, where median farm size in cropland more than doubled between 1982 and 2012, and increased even more rapidly in livestock (see table 2). Illustrating that the "Agriculture of the Middle" is declining and perhaps facing extinction, he documents that "the number of farms with milk cows or hogs fell by about 70 percent, while those with fed cattle [steers/heifers for market] or contracts for broiler production fell by 30 percent" (MacDonald 2016, 5).


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Foreword by John K. Hansen


Introduction: A Food System Imperiled

Jane W. Gibson

1. Power, Food, and Agriculture: Implications for Farmers, Consumers, and Communities 

Mary K. Hendrickson, Philip H. Howard, and Douglas H. Constance

2. Chickenizing American Farmers

Donald D. Stull

3. Industrial Chicken Meat and the Good Life in Bolivia

Sarah Kollnig

4. Automating Agriculture: Precision Technologies, Agbots, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Jane W. Gibson

5. Water to Wine: Industrial Agriculture and Groundwater Regulation in California

Casey Walsh

6. Forecasting the Challenges of Climate Change for West Texas Wheat Farmers

Sara E. Alexander

7. From Partner to Consumer: The Changing Role of Farmers in the Public Agricultural Research Process on the Canadian Prairies

Katherine Strand

8. Transmission of the Brazil Model of Industrial Soybean Production: A Comparative Study of Two Migrant Farming Communities in the Brazilian Cerrado

Andrew Ofstehage

9. The Price of Success: Population Decline and Community Transformation in Western Kansas

Jane W. Gibson and Benjamin J. Gray

10. An Alternative Future for Food and Farming

John Ikerd

List of Contributors


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