Briefs About Rural Development in the United States and Views from California

Initial questions. Briefs About Rural Development in the United States and Views from California (full document)

By Jorge Andres Forero-Gonzalez Fulbright Humphrey Fellow, University of California, Davis & Ricardo Amon California Institute for Food and Agriculture Research, Department to Food Science and Technology, University of California, Davis.

While in Colombia it is not rare to wonder about the development of rural politics in the United States. In the memory of the Andean peasantry, as in the 1970’s, with the opening of international agricultural markets, Colombia subordinated the national production of wheat to American flour. Resulting from green revolution productivity achievements in the northern country. Following neoliberalism principles since the 1990’s, the Colombian peasantry and their local economies, were confronted with economic globalization. In 2012, the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the United States was consolidated, in retrospect is recognized as favorable in the exchange of trade for US agricultural products. 

This is how we arrived at the national agrarian strike in 2013, which gave relevance to the negative impacts on the Colombian peasantry, resulting from this treaty and other free trade agreements. The historical problems with agrarian reform efforts, the new investments and institutions that the rural areas need, and the socio-economic impact that free trade has had on the peasantry, was debated during the 2016, Peace Agreement between the Colombian State and the FARC-EP organization. The concept of Integral Rural Reform, becomes the most discussed point at the negotiations and was considered a structural pillar of the peace accord. 

Unfortunately, “rural reform is now frozen”, as recently described by former Vice-president of Colombia, Humberto de la Calle. The land conflict between socio-economic classes of people is old and permanent. In April of 2019, after the Minga in the southwest of the country, indigenous and campesino populations announced the suspension of a dialogue with the Duque government, because of lack of progress with access to land and the implementation of the peace accord. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia expressed that there were "no guarantees of NO stigmatization, accusations or judicialization of the Minga people”. 

Drawing a parallel with the United States, and what it has taken to develop their agricultural productivity, Colombia’s challenge is to build engineering infrastructure to deliver water and power, supported with research, education, and extension foundations. To deliver a wholistic national rural socio-economic and environmental development program, to meet promises made and agreements signed. A humbling reflection.

Being in the " Farmer's Market " in the central park of the City of Davis, a university town in the central valley of California and in a large food production region of the State, we asked questions such as: What is the current reality of agricultural production in the United States? What conditions the structure of land ownership? How do subsidies operate, and institutions articulate? How do farming families live? What is happening with migrant rural workers? Why this desolation in the monocultures of walnuts, almonds, and tomato fields bordering the city? 

So it was that in the framework of a Humphrey Program stay for professional and academic development at the University of California in Davis (UCD), we undertook a basic approach from secondary sources contrasted with interviews with professors and dialogue with food producers, researchers and rural youth. This text is divided into two sections, the 1st. section presents 4 characteristics of the agro-industrial model in the United States and 3 more sections to understand the scope and potential flows of the American agro-industrial complex, and the impact it has had on Colombia, and challenges for the future.

One.   Some historical premises and land conflicts in the United States.

To speak about the lands of the Americas continent or the Abya Yala, it calls to recognize historical truths. Rural politics in the United States, like that of the rest of the republics of the continent, is based on multiple social, political and environmental conflicts: 1. At the base, the dispossession of the territories of the indigenous peoples or Native Americans. 2. The relations of slavery with the African people and the impact they made on the development of capitalism in the country. 3. The relationship with migrant labor as a constant in the development and sustainability of agriculture and agro-industry. 4. The history of agricultural science and technical innovation that began with European settlers living in the United States. While this document will not delve into these issues, it presents some considerations in these regards. 

The dispossession of land from indigenous peoples is a fundamental factor to explaining the current marginalization, even in the dominant collective memory. Today despite being more than 6 million inhabitants, indigenous peoples in the United States only have 2% of the land. They were exiled from their ancestral territories, and in most cases characterized by little institutional investment. An example that shows the current conflicts over access to land was seen in the mobilization at Standing Rock in 2016, to protest the passage of an oil pipeline in the territory of the Sioux people.  It also concerned the constant demand of the indigenous people who continue to claim their right to land, based on historical documents signed with the federal government.  A parallel with similar conflicts exits with the natural preservation and ecological conservation policies of National Parks, which are denounced by the Natives as exercises of territorial dispossession in the 20th century. National Parks like Yellowstone or Glacier in the north of the country, are territories demanded by dozens of towns and tribes as sacred territories and ancestral sites, where nowadays they can’t live in and can only access with special permits.

Inquiring about historical protagonists in the rural history of the country, black people were restricted from collective access to land, even after the abolition of slavery and its protagonist participation in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), that finally consolidated the country.  Slave labor is an essential part of the economic development of cotton, sugar and tobacco.  The subsequent industrialization process provides a key to understanding the economic development of capitalism in the United States, and again the black labor is a full protagonist
In the south of the country where some black families accessed agricultural lands, today they have lost them or are unable to access more. This feature contrasts with countries such as Colombia or Brazil that, with the demand and struggle of the indigenous communities, their governments have recognized the palenques, quilombos or collective territories of black communities, as part of rural public policies providing access to land. According to leaders and activists for Afro rights in the USA, this impossibility of access to land can explain, in-part the alarming condition of racism and segregation inherited from the relations of slavery, still present in the country and across the American continent.

 In recent memory, the legacy of having been part of Mexico is still alive in California, and around the southern border of the United States.  Spanish is spoken as a symbol of difference and mention is made of conflicts arising in colonial times.  Also to inquire about agriculture is to bring to mind programs such as those of the “braceros, imported migrant labor from Mexico in the 1940’s and 50’s. These generation of Mexicans become the protagonists of the “Chicano culture.  In the sixties and seventies the agricultural worker movement comes to life with the efforts of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, creating with the support of the Filipino people, the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. The agricultural worker movement is consolidated through state legislation, granting the right to obtain collective representation in labor negotiations. Much has changed since the days of UFW; most agricultural workers are now day-hired by labor contractors delivering workers to agricultural companies.  In addition, the question of whether agricultural workers have options to obtain land seems closed.   

We recognize the creative impact on the development of agriculture and agro-industry from European families migrating to the north American continent. Focusing their talent on innovation and the commitment to productivity and efficiency, driving technological development.  From the time when they were peasants of the eighteenth century, to become farmers and agro-industrial producers. In the history of agriculture, the United States has played an undeniable leadership role. The country is still a living example of diversity and creativity, with a reservoir of cultures and practices that surely explains their leadership as an economic, military and political power.

Two.   Long-term policy, institutional infrastructure development

The development of rural policies dates to the mid-1800s, and the post-civil war period. It is impressive to see the link since the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the creation of private businesses in rural communities. With the public sector creating incentives to consolidate a robust rural private sector, focused on agricultural production and processing. In 1862, fifty percent of the 31 million population lived in the countryside and with the USDA and a long-term vision of agricultural development, public policy in the United States linked several strategies.

A significant investment in the evolution of the agricultural sector had to do with the creation of  the Land Grant Universities, at the service of agricultural development.  With the purpose to support institutional infrastructure, projecting a direct link between academic science and the rural sector. This academic development quickly turned to extension activities and began to cover large areas at the federal (national) level, and for each state. This system is built with legal precedent through 31 major legislative and institutional acts since 1862. From the origins of the Morrill Act, prioritizing innovation and competition for public resources, at the federal and state levels.  Multiple economic incentives are generated to strengthen the university system and its direct link with rural economic activities.  In 1994, the Land Grant system added more than 70 universities, articulated with the system of   Community Colleges   of higher education. The national deployment includes island territories such as Puerto Rico and Hawaii where much of the tropical agroindustry research is conducted.

Likewise, the commitment to rural development has included for more than 150 years the creation of a solid infrastructure that includes the development of hydroelectric dams, a wide rural electrification network, irrigation systems, and high-quality road interconnections with secondary and tertiary networks. Enhancing access to markets. With the adoption of the Cooperative Extension Service the farmer is empowered with information and technology, generating intangibles ranging from celebrating the " pride of feeding the United States and the world", to having important influence on public policy decisions.  With very powerful interest groups, like the sugar sector of Florida in the 1960’s, to the corn ethanol agro-industrial system, producing alternative fuels for national security. Despite these benefits, USDA data shows that farmers and food producers only receive fourteen cents per dollar sold in the consumer markets.  

After California is annexed to the United States, it begins to receive federal funds to invest in water and power development infrastructure projects in the west.  With federal and state funds, the following water and power development projects become the foundation for the state’s agricultural industries. Starting with Shasta Dam, built in the 1930’ and 1940’s, the  Federal Central Valley Project completed in 1948, and the State of California Aqueduct, started in 1963.  These projects provided regional water and electricity supply infrastructure delivering water and power to farms in the San Joaquin Valley. The Modesto Irrigation District provides an example of a public and private partnership providing water and electricity services to farms, industrial facilities and urban customers. Today, California is the largest food producer in the United States, highlighted in the globalization of markets and agribusiness, with valued experiences in organic agriculture. It represents the fifth largest economy in the world.

Three.   Importance of ecosystem conservation and rural extension.

There are important historical milestones in the development and institutional adjustments that characterize rural policy in the United States. The effects of the "great depression" in the 1930’s. In addition, the environmental and socio-economic impact of the dust bowl, that results from intensive land use creating significant erosion of the land. This phenomenon displaced millions of people and caused famine in the country.  As a response to this problem, public policy is adjusted to create the Soil Conservation Service within USDA, to develop and disseminate soil conservation practices in agricultural production. This effort starts a trend to research and develop ecological agronomic practices. Institutions attached to the USDA, like the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), are charged with balancing food production with environmental practices that sustain agricultural activities, while mitigating the impacts of climate change.   

In this balance between production and conservation are rural extension services that include a network of institutional, federal, state and local order organizations. Specialized to support agricultural producers, with the development of technologies to increase rural productivity. In the rural areas, there are federal, state and local government institutions designed to provide financial support and technical assistance to agro-producers. In states such as California, each county has a network of specialized professionals who constantly provide advice, do research and provide detailed information to increase crop yields and quality. These services are offered by public employees but over time, this technical assistance model created a demand for private sector companies offering science and technology. There are private investments to improve seeds, advance agronomic practices, develop and adopt water irrigation efficiency, and to develop methods to control weeds and pests.  Including a progressive movement to new concepts of agroecology.

Four.   Subsidies and investment policy

Another factor of relevant importance are federal policies that support agricultural producers with payments to protect and reduce production risks. Including the stabilization of prices. Since 1933, the USDA's Farm Service Agency created mechanisms to protect rural economies and rural power sectors, establishing a system of protected products (commodities) including sugar, rice, corn, wheat, soy,  cotton, milk and pigs. The aim of the Commodity Program was to stabilize price fluctuations from international markets. In this regard, agriculture and food production are understood as a matter of national security, creating synergies for the protection of the rural sector, not only agriculture as a business but also as a social component. Providing community support systems that need to be protected with public policy.  As such, agricultural products produced in the United States go to the international markets with guarantees of price stabilization, providing an advantage in the globalized economy.

The Federal Farm Bill is a large umbrella legislation that sustains public investments in the agricultural sector, with components ranging from the conservation of ecosystems, to nutrition programs for low income citizens. The Farm Bill is a public policy exercise that is presented every 5 years in the national congress, where the priorities and investments that support, subsidize and encourage the production of food in the United States are defined. The 2018, Farm Bill exceeds 867 billion dollars. In general, these investments include differentiated policies for livestock, it understands food production as part of a system that links programs with access to healthy food, allocates resources for the protection and management of water and soil, and understands the challenges of climate change.  

Five . Some criticisms of the current agro-industrial model in the United States

For organizations such as Farm Aid, which have been supporting small and medium farmers since 1985, it is urgent to recognize that despite all the institutional resources available to agriculture, there has been unequal distribution of technical resources and technologies favoring multinational corporations, investors and large-scale agribusinesses, to the detriment of small and medium family farmers.  These conglomerates have managed to appropriate the agro-industrial system via political lobbying, allowing them to benefit their businesses in different agricultural states of the country.  In the process they tend to receive the largest amount of commodity program subsidies.

In California, there is the experience of the J.G. Boswell Company.  With financial and political power, the family gained influence in the acquisition of land supplied with federally subsidized irrigation water projects, for the cultivation of cotton, a commodity also subsidized by the federal government.  As a result of private and public investigations, it is possible to document the excess power and influence of the Boswell family, obtaining more benefits than were considered fair.  As a result of these disclosures the US Congress makes legislative changes to the maximum number of acres any one person can have to receive subsidies. Despite these efforts, the Boswell family manages to find "loopholes" to continue receiving subsidies from the federal government.  

As a trend, multinational corporations have consolidated vertically integrated agro-industrial systems; to produce and distribute proprietary seeds and to develop petroleum-based chemical herbicides and pesticides.  In addition to conducting in-house research and development, corporations are an important source of research funds at public and private universities.  Large food manufacturing companies, like Campbell Soup, have also established in-house research and development centers to create proprietary crop varieties, using company expertise to transfer the technology to contract farmers.   Giving them the ability to create competitive advantage positions against competitors. These private efforts surpass public investments in agriculture, reducing publicly available cutting age technologies, to the potential detriment of medium and small-scale farmers and food manufacturers.

Other criticisms come from the farmers and producers. In the 1970s and 1980’s, the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), established a farmer network to exchange knowledge and methods, that were not being researched at public universities.  CCOF also developed protocols to establish standards to certify organic farms.  

Six. Access to land and possibilities of family farming?

Within the challenges of the globalized market and the financialization of the economy, it is key to see in perspective, issues such as the structure of land ownership and social relations around food production and consumption.  A case study from Yolo County, California, informed by the County Assessor’s office, estimated that 75 percent of the agricultural land is rented to farmers.  From interviews with farmers, is learned that in Yolo County many of the absentee landowners are descendants of previous farming families.  With younger generations not interested in farming, the families have kept the land for lease to established family farmers.  It is possible that many of these lands are enrolled in the Williamson Act, a state of California legislative rule that offers state tax exemptions, to conserve agricultural land. This measure was designed to counteract rampant urban sprawl from further negatively impacting the preservation of agricultural lands.

The Yolo County case study shows that the monetary expansion of the past ten years has motivated new investments in agricultural land, looking for higher valued crops. Data shows significant growth in acreage planted with almond and pistachio orchards.  New and replacement walnut orchards are also being planted.  Most of these new orchards are expansions or replacement of land, driven by established Yolo farm families looking for better returns on investment.  Some of these new orchards are developed by land speculators, buying Class one soils used for tomato crop rotations, costing between $5,000 to $7,000 dollars per acre.  A pistachio orchard went for sale in 2018, at $28,000 dollars per acre, after five years from the original purchase.  Large investments in equipment, materials and labor are required to establish nut orchards, increasing the value to the land. These economic multiplying effects benefit individual investors and local economies, not without increasing price barriers to entry for medium and small farmers.

There are also public lands that have an agricultural vocation for farmers and ranchers, through agencies such as the US Bureau of Land Management. Talking about agrarian reform is a closed issue and is not on the public agenda, whereas there is evidence of a housing crisis for millions of Americans.  Because of favorable weather California has among the largest homeless population in the country.  It is depressing to know the cases of thousands of active workers who live in cars and in parking lots, in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, because of the financial impossibility to pay high rent costs, much less of dreaming about owning a home.

The institutional development that supports agricultural production in the United States, has been skewed to benefit and expand agro-industrial agricultural enterprises.  There is, in northern California, a noticeable movement of people that would like to receive institutional support, to access agricultural land and start or expand eco-agrarian ventures. The issue is not simple.  In conversations with people from the UC Davis Student Farm, the topic of starting a 20 to 40-acre organic agriculture farm would require no less than one million dollars, not including land ownership.  Establishing the land would require investments in soil building practices and materials, deep wells with pumping and irrigation systems, and multiple other tools and inputs needed to operate an organic farm. Depending on climatic conditions and the selected cropping systems. To access bank loans requires business plans and loan collateral guarantees.  

Today with more than 300 million inhabitants in the United States, only 2% are living strictly in rural areas and are considered farmers.  About 60,000 of these producers are indigenous Native Americans.  Agricultural migrant people from Mexico have provided, over decades, the work force to make fruit and vegetable agriculture production and processing a viable economic enterprise.  Food processing facilities also rely on workers from Mexico and Central America.  Often the labor force is exploited by labor contractors and taken advantage of by employers due to their undocumented status.  For the past few years, the supply of farm workers has declined, challenging farmers to enforce zero tolerance policies with undocumented people, many of whom labor in agriculture.  Technological innovation, the mechanization of agriculture and the transition to agro-industrial conglomerates, will continue to reduce the number of persons needed to work in agriculture and food manufacturing.  

Seven. Protection of the rural world at risk.

Traveling from Chicago, where the first global futures market (Chicago Board of Trade) was created and the food market became speculative, to Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin, where the  Mayberry  family farms less than 40 acres.  Six acres of which are dedicated for strawberry production.  For this young Midwest family, the main challenge is the workforce.  There are no young people in the rural areas, local young left town, and abundant migrant rural workers are no longer readily available.

Local colleges and universities offer degrees in agricultural sciences, but often young people are not showing interest in the rural economy, despite the upcoming demographic generational change in agricultural production.  With most farmers aged over 65 years old.  This process is known in the world as de-agrarization. Mayberry also confirms that apart from the challenge of producing food, farmers now need to be marketing specialists, interact in social networks, create gastronomic festivals and look for the direct sale of their products in order to survive in the marketplace.

With similar circumstances in California, where there are some initiatives to face the challenge of the generational change.  In a dialogue with Sri Sethuratnam, Director of the Center for Land-Based Learning, with expertise in India, Canada and the USA; Ricardo Amon, water and energy nexus researcher with the UC Davis California Institute for Food and Agricultural Research; Marlen Navarro PHD professor of agriculture in Cuba; and Irina Mkrtchyan of Armenia, a specialist in environmental marketing, we contrasted these challenges with Colombia and other developing economies.
There is a common view: the global urge to create incentives to support and maintain the economic and environmental viability of peasantry populations.  Producing food and taking care of their indigenous and peasant territories.  As well as the importance of "creating new farmers".  Industrialization, the displacement of people to cities, the concentration of property and the financial globalization of agriculture, have generated apathy and lack of interest for young people to engage in agriculture.  Which is easy to understand, investing in agriculture as a producer or peasant is high risk, hard work, and often producing losses.

In Winters California, the Center for Land-Based Learning, California Land Academy project, leases land from Sierra Farms, to "grow farmers", as described by Sri.  The process includes up to 10 months of hands-on training, with the academy sub-leasing land to graduates, for them to test their interest and abilities in food production.  People acquire practical skills and technical knowledge, using machinery as well as understanding natural cycles in agriculture. The project wants to move from the "idea" of producing to the practice.  The center’s basic principle is to engage in agriculture by preparing the land, cultivating and harvesting crops,with field experience to complement educational training.  This process is increasingly known in the Central Valley of California and they already have several cohorts of graduates. Some who have already created new productive ventures.

By way of closure.

Thinking again about Colombia and the challenges of peacebuilding, a policy such as the Integral Rural Reform agreed to in the 2016 peace agreement, refers to the minimum infrastructure and institutional development that the country needs, to participate in global markets. Plans such as rural electrification and secondary and tertiary road access, enunciated in the peace accord, began to develop in the United States for more than 150 years. Proving successful to integrate local, regional, national and international markets. The public university system, at the service of agricultural production has also proven paramount to advance science and technology, becoming a protagonist by encouraging economic rural development.  
The United States experience shows that rural public policy was needed to establish a strong agricultural industry that supports local economies and protects the national market.  Development of rural areas results from a national dialogue on priorities, to strengthen institutions in a position to adapt.  With solid infrastructure and institutional development that favors the interests of rural communities.  Overcoming barriers of access to land is a challenge for a new breed of agriculturalists, whom may open the way to new ventures where local markets are protagonists.  Experiences like those in California demonstrate the potential of agricultural economies to generate virtuous circles and productive chains.

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