Richard Nixon and the 2000 Mile Tomato

Dear friends, meet Earl Butz:

He’s the one on the right. You may have never heard of him but he has had a profound and lasting impact on your life. Nixon and Butz might be having a chat about Watergate in that photo and later Butz will show Nixon his wood carving of two elephants fornicating, which in all seriousness Butz was fond of doing (see below). But given the imprint Butz left behind on America’s deteriorating health and woeful agricultural system you should know a little something about this man.

In 1971 Nixon appointed Earl Butz to be Secretary of Agriculture, narrowly passing Senate confirmation by a vote of 51-44, which is worth noting because it wasn’t common for cabinet nominations to be this close in the Senate at the time. Senate democrats had reservations regarding Butz’s close ties to corporate agribusiness and as it turns out, their reservations were healthy. There is probably no single figure nor decision made that has had greater impact on our highly inefficient food system or to the physical health of our citizens than the appointment of Earl L. Butz to head the Department of Agriculture.

If you ever wonder how or why we got here:

“Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.”

Then you can point at least one finger towards Earl L. Butz (you pick the finger).

Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon and then Ford after Nixon resigned in shame and was considered the republican party’s path to wooing the farm vote (“Farmers Vote For Nixon, Save your Butz!”). He was an irascible figure, sharp tongued, and an uncompromising, forceful Secretary that had lasting impact on our agricultural system but was eventually forced to resign 1 month before the 1976 Ford/Carter election due to a racial comment Butz made. Butz wasn’t afraid to offend anyone and offend he did including Pope Paul VI, housewives that have, “such a low level of economic intelligence,” and yes, he was known to pull from his desk that wooden carving of two elephants fornicating I mentioned above to show visitors that he was in fact the GOP’s savior to the farm vote (the joke being that he was “producing” more republicans).

Classy guy.

But Butz’s lasting, and some would argue his most revile, offense was to the small family farm that was the backbone of our nation’s agricultural system for nearly 300 years. When Butz took over as Secretary of Agriculture he pushed the “get big or get out” paradigm that has had dramatic effects on the American farming landscape and on how we, as a culture and society, produce and consume our food. He took the New Deal policies created during the Great Depression to protect farmers from dramatic price drops and increasing farm foreclosures and stuck a pitchfork in it. “Plant fence row to fence row” he admonished farmers, don’t worry about the excess production, we’ll sell it to Asia. And they did (Russia to be exact), and so was born the globalization of our food system and, well, as the title of this diary suggests, the 2000 mile tomato. One immediate effect of Butz’s plant “fence row to fence row” push was environmental. Marginal land was put into production leading to loss of shelterbelts and wetlands, and erosion increased, leading to runoff and pollution of streams and waterways.

But something else would happen as a result of this mad push towards gutting the small family farm and boosting corporate mega-farms:

Urged on by Butz and buoyed by high grain prices, millions of Midwestern farmers spent the 1970s taking on debt to buy more land, bigger and more complicated machines, new seed varieties, more fertilizers and pesticides, and generally producing as much as they possibly could.Then, in the 1980s, the bubble burst. By that time, farms were cranking out much more than the market could bear, and prices fell accordingly. Meanwhile, interest rates had spiked, making all of those loans farmers had taken out in the ’70s into a paralyzing burden. Farm incomes plunged and tens of thousands of farms went under. Butz’s great policy change had given rise to the deepest rural crisis since the Depression.

Where have we heard this tune before? Seems to escape me.

As small farms went under, bigger farms gobbled them up, getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. In the 1930’s there were about 6.5 million farms in America. In 2010 there were about 2.2 million. WWII had a slight effect on the number of farms in America but just know that in 1950 we still had roughly 5.5 million farms to count on for our food. And to give you an idea how these new farms differed from the old they gobbled up, I give you this comparison:

In 1900, almost all farms – 98 percent – had chickens, 82 percent grew corn for grain, 80 percent had at least one milk cow, and a like percentage had pigs. Given those numbers, it’s obvious that most of the farms were diversified, growing all of those items.By 1992, only 4 percent of farms reported having chickens, 8 percent had milk cows, 10 percent had pigs and only 25 percent were growing corn. Most of the farmers who were producing these commodities produced only one or two crops or livestock items. Of the 17 major farm commodities, the average farm in 1900 produced five of them; in 1992, the average farm produced less than two.

Lack of diversity, in any system, be it animal species, plant species, market competition, etc., is an unhealthy situation. These bigger farms began to produce one, maybe two crops on larger and larger acreage. And I’m sure you can guess what those two crops mostly were/are: Corn and Soy. Fence row to fence row. Corn and soy. Bigger and bigger machines were developed to plant, cultivate, and harvest these crops and as the mechanization creeped in, humans got pushed out. Fewer and fewer people began to raise fewer and fewer crops on larger and larger acreage. This is mono-cropping on U.S. steroids and it’s the reason the family part of the family farm dissolved as the need for human help was replaced by machines and the younger generations left and never came back.

Now all this corn and soy has to go somewhere and the industrialized food manufacturers were all too happy to swallow it up and churn it out into something (high fructose corn syrup for one). That something is what you find on the shelves of most grocery stores in America. Go down any aisle in your grocery store and pick any random packaged “food” item off the shelf and read the ingredients.

You can thank Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (and a select few others cough-Cargill-cough cough) for that. We can probably “thank” them for a lot of our current health problems plaguing our culture right now. Butz’s dream of cheap food produced on a grand scale has been realized. But one man’s dream is another’s nightmare.

What about that tomato you mentioned?

Ah yes. The 2000 mile tomato. It is estimated that food in the U.S. now travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table. No doubt one of the great “successes” that Butz and corporate agribusiness would point to if someone were to ask them how they’ve helped improve farming in America. But, not being an economist mind you, I see this as an incredibly inefficient way of doing things.

Here, lettuce understand this more clearly:

“We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the energy we get from eating the food. A head of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives,” Halweil said.

Sound efficient to you? If you’ve eaten a tomato this week, or a canned/jarred tomato more precisely, chances are it came from the Central Valley of California. The Central Valley is the largest producer of canned tomatoes in the world. In fact, some call the Central Valley the breadbasket of the U.S. as it supplies 1/3 of all the produce grown in the country. Whether you’re in Maine, Topeka, or San Francisco, odds are you’ve eaten some food from the Central Valley this week.

This should seem amazing right? A tomato traveling 2000 (or 3000) miles to a snowy little town so that Americans can eat out of season? A testament to progress(!) I’m sure Butz would argue. And it only cost $1.29! CHEAP!

Well it’s cheap only when a whole bunch of costs are swept under the rug or ignored entirely in this grand bargain. No one factors in the carbon footprint of this little tomato shivering in the snowy northeast. No one seems to price in the fact that to ship our food such long distances and keep it so cheap we use migrant labor who 43% of our nation thinks we should send back to Mexico not realizing that Jesus really did provide their food.

And what about the oil subsidies that keep fuel unrealistically cheap, or the crop subsidies that encourage over production of commodities (corn, coy, cotton and wheat), or all of the small family farms pushed out in this mad rush towards “economies of scale for everything!” mentality that only values something if it is large, cheap, and makes a very few people very, very wealthy while the vast majority of folks keep struggling.

Or what about the fact that tomatoes for this kind of food system are now bred to work better for the machines that harvest them rather than for the humans that eat them or to be square in shape so that they stack better for transport and at the supermarket. Let’s not factor in the lack of taste and increase in water content (priced by the pound of course). And don’t worry that our own USDA’s studies have shown that our food has become less nutritious over time since the 1950’s. And don’t mention, when we’re talking about how “cheap” our food is, that tomatoes manufactured for this kind of so-called efficient food system are picked green so they ripen during transport or are sprayed with ethylene to encourage them to ripen just before display, and are most often waxed to retain moisture and prevent bruising, again, because of the long transport they endure.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like tomatoes as much as the next fella. Come to the Central Valley in summer and come see the thousands upon thousands of acres of tomatoes and you’ll know how important they are to the large farms here. And some will claim that the machines that have been developed to harvest tomatoes by the thousands (with a technological sophistication that almost rivals the Mars Rover) have actually created jobs instead of eliminate them. And indeed they have. But those jobs have moved from the farm and into the manufacturing plant where the tomatoes are processed. Think assembly line here. Shift after shift of thousands of tomatoes on conveyor belts making their way into pasta sauce, ketchup, and Chef Boyardee.

No culture in the history of our species has produced or consumed food in such a magnificent and damaging way. It is both impressive and depressing and ultimately may not be sustainable in terms of destruction of soil and water and in terms of remaining so cheap over the long-term. This kind of food system is certainly not one you should rely on in times of trouble:

“The farther we ship food, the more vulnerable our food system becomes,” said Worldwatch research associate Brian Halweil, author of “Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market.””Many major cities in the U.S. have a limited supply of food on hand,” Halweil added. “That makes those cities highly vulnerable to anything that suddenly restricts transportation, such as oil shortages or acts of terrorism.”

Richard Nixon’s legacy is deeper and more complex than some might think (hell, he signed the legislation that led to the creation of the EPA). And while some might argue that Watergate is his worst contribution to American society I would argue otherwise. For me the appointment of Earl L. Butz to Secretary of Agriculture had a more profound and devastating effect on America that lasts to this day.

But we can change it.

Buy local. No, really. Buy local. I know this is the latest rage and let’s hope it sticks but buying local is probably the single biggest thing you can do right now to reduce your carbon footprint. I know it’s hard for a lot of Americans to do this at their local grocery store but farmers markets are on the rise and CSA’s continue to grow nationwide.

Eat in season. Try it. I’ll bet you ten thousand dollars you’ll end up liking it. In my last diary I wrote about how it seems we are genetically predisposed to enjoy gathering and harvesting our own food. Well it seems the same could be said for eating in season. Long before the interstate highway system, cheap gas and Earl Butz we Americans ate in season. Of course canning and food storage techniques allowed us to extend our food well beyond its harvest but no one could argue that our lives, in many respects not just food, were more cyclical and danced with the rhythm of nature in a way we seem to have lost in our detached modern world.

Once you start eating in season you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s December and I’m enjoying squash, potatoes, turnips, beets, chard, kale, broccoli…all coming out of the earth right now and all as fresh and nourishing as can be. I’m about tomato’d out, which is good since we mowed the tomatoes a couple of weeks ago so we don’t have any right now. But I can tell you come spring I’ll be looking forward to those dry-farmed tomatoes we can get here that are packed full with flavor! Eating in season allows you to appreciate what nature has provided at the time it is provided and gives you something to look forward to just when you’ve gone long enough without something to miss it. And eating in season gives you the freshest most nutritious food you can eat. Bar none. Again, it seems nature works with us to provide us with healthy food as long as we’re willing to pay attention and listen.

Another way to eat in season and locally is to grow a garden. Don’t have the space? See if a neighbor does or maybe there is a community garden near you, or you can search here to see if there is anyone in your community with some extra yard space looking for a gardener.

Lastly, we absolutely have to do something about the inequity of farm subsidies as doled out in the farm bill. Most subsidies go to a very few, very large corporations.

“Most subsidy dollars go to the country’s largest operations in less than 50 congressional districts.”

There have been attempts to shift some of those subsidies from corn, soy, cotton and wheat over to encourage and help organic, sustainable and local agriculture but the dominance and power of corporate agribusiness ensures these efforts are stalled at every turn. Take one look at the make-up of the House Agriculture Committee and then see how much each of those members receive in contributions from Big Ag and well, enough said.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This system of “cheap” food pushed by Butz and his corporate agribusiness associates is not really cheap at all. We Americans pay the real costs of food one way or another:

As of the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, taxpayers fund 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums through a subsidy to private companies. They also cover a sizable portion of the insurance industry’s costs to run these programs. (In this drought- and heat-ravaged year of 2012, crop insurance payments alone are expected reach $20 billion to $25 billion, up from approximately $1 billion in 2000.)

Those numbers don’t include the commodity subsidies to Big Ag, totaling $6 BILLION in 2010 alone with the top 10% receiving 62% of the subsidies. And remember, commodities are things like corn, soy, cotton and wheat. Specialty crops, things like broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, etc., you know, real food, get virtually no help at all from the federal government. The commodity subsidy system is so flawed that cotton farmers in Texas who won the lottery and became millionaires still collect cotton subsidies.

Add to that the increased health costs our society has incurred as a result of high calorie, low nutrient food and you start to see that we are all paying dearly for Earl Butz’s so-called “cheap food.” We can either pay our farmers to grow fresh, nutritious, local food for our communities, or we can pay our doctor (and Big Ag). The question is, Which will it be?


J. Jason Graff


About J. Jason Graff

J. Jason Graff received an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and a Masters degree in Education from the University of Washington and began a career in teaching shortly after. He has several short stories published and his poem “On Knowing the Temple Bell” was published in Insight Journal in 2007. After teaching in the public school system for five years Jason shifted into sustainable agriculture and received organic farmer training leading to his working with undergraduate and graduate students at the University of California—Davis in organic farming and sustainable farming practices. Jason currently lives as an artist and writer in the Sierra Mountains with his wife and dog enjoying and observing the ever-shifting conditions of the mountain environment.
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