Derrick Jensen’s interview with Joel Dyer [“Armed and Dangerous: The Desperation of Rural America,” December 1999] was disturbing and disappointing: disturbing not because of any real issues raised, but because of its distortion of the truth; disappointing because The Sun’s editors thought that an objective account of rural America and its farmers was going to come from an urbanite liberal who hangs around with fringe, extremist groups.
The interview does contain some good points and some truth, but Dyer’s picture of poverty-stricken farmers with guns to their heads is a serious distortion, apparently based on misinterpreted suicide statistics. The main reason that “five times as many farmers now die of suicide as die from equipment accidents” is because of the vastly improved safety of equipment, not because of any significant increase in the suicide rate. Most farming is now done sitting in an air-conditioned cab manipulating levers.
I grew up on a farm in North Dakota. My parents left the farm when I was seventeen, after years of poverty and struggle. Later, as director of a non-profit agency in the San Francisco Bay Area, I became quite familiar with urban poverty and blight. What struck me on trips back to rural America to visit friends and relatives was the comparative level of prosperity.
A farm is a business like any other: you have to remain competitive in a changing marketplace. The main difference between farms and most other businesses is that farms have traditionally been protected by the government through subsidies and price-protection schemes. What other family businesses has the government bailed out when they were going under? Not the corner grocery store, nor the family-run hardware store. They have been subject to the same economies of scale as everyone else. I don’t like it. I hate those megastores (well, except for the lower prices). But that’s reality.
And, by the way, hogs on the hoof are currently about forty cents per pound, not fifteen cents, as Dyer claimed.
Joel Dyer responds:
Gietzen’s argument that farmers are not taking their own lives at a disturbing rate flies in the face of every piece of research I have seen. The suicide rate for farmers is three times that of the general population. This does not include suicides made to look like accidents, which would push that statistic even higher. While safer farming methods might affect the ratio of suicides to equipment accidents, they would have no bearing on the actual number of suicides, which has remained extremely high since the farm crisis of the 1980s.
As a retired union organizer who worked with both factory and farm workers, I agree with many of the truths Joel Dyer expressed. But the interview left me with some questions:
What if the stock market doesn’t collapse, causing a major depression? And what if the economically disadvantaged remain an “insignificant” percentage of the population and continue to eliminate themselves through suicide, violence, and prison? What happens to the wives and kids who “pick up and leave”? Are they able to find jobs and support themselves with the added burden of children in tow? If so, can their coping methods be used by or taught to men?
Waiting for another major depression is a sorry strategy for change. After all, the misery index was pretty high in the 1980s. We desperately need new strategies — but what are they?
Joel Dyer did an admirable job of describing the desperation of farmers and the causes of their frustration. But when he said farmers caught in an economic bind could either get counseling, become self-destructive, or become militant, he left out a fourth option, one that farmers all over the country are taking: becoming organic.
Organic farmers and their local and statewide associations promote land stewardship, local marketing, and a sustainable, regional food system that bypasses the corporate structure entirely. Going organic necessitates major shifts in outlook, management, and marketing techniques. It also takes courage and vision. The good news is that the market demand for organic produce continues to increase, encouraging more farmers to take this option.
In Derrick Jensen’s interview with Joel Dyer [“Armed and Dangerous,” December 1999], Dyer paints a largely accurate picture of the plight of the family farmer in a world of corporate agribusiness, but he leaves us little room for hope.
I don’t delude myself that the current power structure will be easily overhauled, but there is a small revolution happening that I feel deserves mention. “Community-sponsored agriculture” has been spreading nationwide since its introduction in the United States in 1985. In a nutshell, CSA is a beneficial partnership whereby a farmer sells advance shares in an upcoming harvest, and shareholders receive a weekly shipment of fresh, locally grown produce. This guaranteed market relieves much of the risk of small-scale farming, allowing farmers to focus on responsible growing practices that build healthy soils, minimize the use of dangerous chemicals, and save farmland from development.
The advantages to this type of farmer-consumer relationship are outlined at www.justfood.org, the website of one of a handful of organizations that help to create CSAs. I hope that readers who felt disheartened by Dyer’s otherwise useful perspective will take heart and take action.