Brad Wilson and The Food Movement's Ouroboros

I met Brad Wilson at the Just Food Conference in NYC in 2013. I think he was the angriest man in the city that day. Definitely the angriest corn farmer from Iowa.

The conference brings together food policy advocates, non-profits, farmers, foodies, chefs to workshop new ideas for addressing all the ills of the food system. Big picture stuff. Solve world hunger, poor nutrition, economic instability, bankrupt farms all in a weekend, all while having some really nice catered lunch. Kale and figs and goat cheese to fuel the food revolution.

Brad was in a workshop with me about the 2014 Farm Bill. It was led by 2 non-profit professionals and they were discussing the importance of Food Stamps or SNAP and how Republicans wanted to cut SNAP while increasing subsidies for commodity crops like corn and soy and rice. Why should big, industrial ag get all these subsidies when poor urban people can’t afford vegetables or a gallon of milk, they asked us. This is when things got interesting. I saw a frantic hand shoot into the air, waving like a schoolchild trying to flag down a teacher for a pissbreak.

“Ah yes, you have a question sir? Something to add?”

What followed was a mile-a-minute, impassioned, prickly diatribe that honestly I could barely follow. Price floors! Ceilings! Subsidies aren’t the enemy! Rural people aren’t the enemy! You food movement people, with your conferences and your disconnect from rural people, you are unwittingly the enemy! You do agribusiness’ bidding! You are eating your own tail!

“Ah well, sir, I work with at-risk urban populations, I can’t really comment on rural, rather, I haven’t looked into how subsidies affect rural places, but SNAP dollars are essential to keeping our communities safe and healthy and ….”

“It isn’t subsidies versus SNAP! Or Rural versus Urban! Do you think subsidies keep rural communities safe and healthy? They’re bankrupting farms!”  

At this point another frantic hand shot into the air, this one from an older white lady in the crowd.

“Yes another question?”

“I’d just like to ask that we continue with the presentation and not allow this gentleman to derail what you have to share with us. I’m coming from another workshop with him and he completely and utterly derailed it.”

Brad turned in his seat and shot daggers at the woman with his glare.

The rest of the presentation played out like this. The presenters ran through a slideshow with a basic history of the farm bill and subsidies and food stamps, concluding with a call to support the urban poor, support food stamps, vote with our food dollar. Brad’s hand must of been numb from waving in the air throughout the thing, being overlooked and actively ignored by the presenters. Even during the discussion period that followed, where one young food activist chided us for being a bit “bourgie” with our discussion of poor urban people -- a phrase that brought poetry-slam snaps of approval from the younger, hipper elements of the audience -- Brad’s hand was ignored, never once called on again.

Now earlier in the conference, at the opening remarks, we were encouraged to strike up conversations with people who looked different than we did. I think this was a way for the conference leaders to say, white people talk to brown people, young people talk to old people, learn from each other’s experience. Fair play. But it struck me that most of the people at the conference, regardless of age or skin color, were from very similar backgrounds. Roughly middle-class, college educated, liberally informed and ethically concerned urban people. Brad didn’t seem like he fit that description. He was clearly from the stix, with the type of rural sensibilities in fashion and speech that can’t be faked by city people, and he was saying something that seemed to offend the sensibilities of all these well meaning city folk.

I decided to follow those opening encouragements. Here was someone truly different from me with something he really wanted to share. I approached him after the presentation and asked him what he was trying to say.

His eyes locked on me. Brad has the sort of stare that belies the urgency of his message. There is anger and pain and a frenzied desperation to get all this information out. A look that says I have something to share and the message just might be life or death.

“Let me show you!”

He took about ten minutes and showed me slides he had made about the history of price floors and ceilings and how they allowed for price stabilization of commodities, how they guaranteed a living wage for farmers and how they were systematically snuffed out by Agribusiness and the government. Most of it was way over my head, but what struck me was how Brad was really trying to be a unifier, he was saying the urban poor and the rural poor are in the same boat, both manipulated and left stranded at sea by big Ag. But why was he villainized so quickly at this conference? Why did he have so much palpable anger at the content of the conference? What led him to travel all the way from Iowa to rabble rouse in the Big Apple? Where was this man really coming from?

Price Floors, Ceilings

After our brief conversation, I decided to look into the ceilings and floors Brad was so adamant about. I gathered this much -- Congress established price floors in the 1940’s so that the price of a bushel of corn or soy or some other commodity could never drop below a certain dollar value. This allowed farmers to plan how much to grow to establish a living wage while not exhausting the productive potential of their land -- if you know you need $50,000 to live and corn will never drop below $5 per bushel, then you know you’d better produce at least 10,000 bushels. Without the guaranteed minimum price, farmers have to simply grow as much as possible, worried that the price might drop, but this overproduction actually works to lower prices because the market is flooded with product. It’s a kind of feedback loop that keeps farmers producing beyond the fertility of their land, and continuously driving prices down against their best interests.

So without price floors, the natural pressures of a free market drive prices down in the interests of corporate buyers and against the interests of farmers. Well, it should be no surprise then that Congress continually lowered these floors throughout the 60’s, up through the 90’s, eventually eliminating the program in 1996, to the thrill of Agribusiness and the agony of the family farm.

Instead of the stability offered by price floors, Congress opted to pay out subsidies, which rather than guaranteeing a living wage, simply bail out farmers when the market drops based on farmers overproduction. This keeps prices low, farmers broke, and corporate buyers rich.

So subsidies are the enemy. But then why was Brad so furious with all the food movement talk of cutting subsidies to pay for food stamps? Because it oversimplifies the issue. It paints farmers as the benefactors of subsidies instead of the prisoners they really are. It divides the movement between city and country and lets big Agribusiness sail off into the sunset, while we all stay poor and malnourished.

Ouroboros

I started thinking about all this again because of a tirade Brad went on recently on a Tuft’s University online forum called COMFOOD. Similar to the Just Food Conference, the forum is an online space where academics and activists and non-profit types share articles and encouragement about fixing the food system.

Brad was responding to an endorsement of a new book about uniting disparate elements of the Food Movement to accomplish true progress. The book is called, “Stand Together or Starve Alone” by Mark Winne. Here’s what Brad had to say, “The Food Movement cannot win as long as it does not "stand together" with the farm-side advocates of the Family Farm (Farm Justice) Movement.  And the main reason for that is that the Food Movement cannot know how to correctly advocate on the biggest issues without doing that.  That's the key question for this book.  Is it just another call for unity and equity that leaves out the majority of farmers, that, therefore, sides with agribusiness (and against farmers) on a wide range of Food Movement goals?”

Brad has been farming and working in the Farm Justice Movement for over 30 years and I imagine he has run into his share of Food Movement activists calling for unity while ignoring his perspective. The academic and non-profit activists of the movement are well meaning but they see the issues from their educated, urban perspective. The issue of rural poverty doesn’t seem to register. It’s either Food Stamps or Subsidies, help the urban or rural poor. But when subsidies are painted simply as a way of lining farmers’ pockets, when they aren’t seen as impoverishing farmers and their rural communities and making Agribusiness boom, and when a viable alternative like price floors aren’t offered, the Food Movement is unwittingly advocating to take limited resources from one impoverished community (the rural poor) and transfer it to another (urban poor) without addressing the overlying structure that keeps both these communities poor and malnourished. What might be characterized as an elitist approach to these issues stems from the fact that most of those working in the food movement are urban, educated, liberal. Those in rural poverty are not.

Here’s Brad on the COMFOODs forum again, “One point I've been emphasizing is that "farm justice farm activists, (those who have done the lions share of work on these issues over the past 60 years (and 160), have long viewed [...] the price issue as the key underlying paradigmatic issue that transforms many other major paradigms (i.e. the paradigms of sustainability & environment, of economics, policy and politics, of strategy, of research, "industrial agriculture," food aid, etc.,) both in the US and globally.”

So without addressing the cause of rural poverty, without advocating to restore the health and vibrancy of our foodshed, without working towards a living wage, the food system will remain sick. It starts in the country. In Trumpland. As long as Food Movement folks ignore this segment, they will be siding with Agribusiness against their own interests, they will be a snake eating its own tale, ensuring its own destruction.

But there is another meaning of the snake eating its own tale. That of wholeness, infinity. Perhaps if we can incorporate our rural others, advocate, listen, perhaps we can establish that wholeness. A healthy countryside and healthy cities. A healthy exchange between urban and rural, because regardless of our politics we all have to eat. Let’s let it be our own tail.