This article originally appeared on The Daily Pitchfork.
The farm-to-table movement has helped thousands of farmers sweeten the fruits of their labor. But whether or not it can sustain itself remains an open question. Barring a radical shift in the movement's general strategy, I'd say the prospects look grim.
The national effort to localize food systems has its earliest roots in the Nixon era. It was then that Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz arrogantly decreed that American farms should "get big or get out." For many Americans - even those brought up on TV dinners - this message was too much.
Fed up with industrially produced junk that systematically harmed humans and their environment, consumers articulated an agrarian alternative that espoused farming practices considered "humane," "sustainable," and "non-industrial." Small is beautiful, the saying went. Many farmers agreed.
Knowing they'd have to pony up to support this vision, Americans did their part. Between 1994 and 2014, the number of farmers' markets in the country grew from 1,755 to 8,268. Over the past decade, the number of small farms in the US increased for the first time since the 1920s. Between 1997 and 2007, farms selling locally grown produce directly to the consumer spiked by 24 percent.
So, yes, even though most small farmers continue to struggle economically, evidence supports the claim that they've benefited from farm-to-table sourcing. But can this modest progress last?
Underscoring this question is the fact that small farms routinely pursue the production of animal-based goods. From grass-fed beef to pastured eggs to free-ranged chicken to "humane" pork, they have promoted the seductive notion that consumers can choose non-industrial meat as an act of defiance against industrial agriculture.
But this is the movement's fatal flaw.
Industrial meat production rules the roost. It exists and thrives due to a fierce combination of vertical integration, animal consolidation, market expansion and government subsidies.
Since the days of Earl Butz, corporations including Tyson Foods, Hormel, and Iowa Beef Processors have achieved de facto monopolies over the nation's supply of chicken, pork, and beef. And every ounce of that meat, due to the massive scale of these corporations, is unconscionably cheap.
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