Corporate Agriculture's Plan for Rural America

Land-use plans for rural America are not a new idea. The Buffalo Commons was a proposal made first by Frank and Deborah Popper who argued in a 1987 essay that agricultural use of some of the drier parts of the U.S. was not sustainable. They proposed creating a vast native preserve on the Great Plains where American bison would graze the restored shortgrass prairie. The idea was largely rejected, particularly by people in the affected area. They feared a government-imposed environmental land-use plan that would force farmers, ranchers, and other rural people to abandon their homes.


The people of the Great Plains trusted the markets far more than some government plans. They argued there was nothing wrong with their agriculture. There were fewer farmers and ranchers than before because impersonal markets had rewarded those who grew larger and markets had forced those who refused to expand off the land. By defending the markets, they were unwittingly defending an even grander plan for rural America—a plan now entering a new phase of implementation.


Farmers fail to realize the extent to which markets for agricultural commodities reflect government policies. Even in the 1980s, farm policies were being shaped, if not yet dictated, by large agribusiness corporations that had their own “land-use plan” for rural America. The corporate plan was to extract the economic wealth of rural areas as efficiently and as quickly as possible. In economics, “time is money.” The soil, air, water, and living ecosystem are all seen as economic resources to be used—until they are used up. Conservation, regeneration, and renewal all take time and cost money.


Farmers, ranchers, and others in rural areas are treated as simple means of facilitating the process of extracting economic wealth from rural resources. They would be replaced by GPS-guided robots as soon as it was economically feasible to do so. Rural America is not valued as a place to live, raise a family, or be a part of a caring community—traditional rural culture has no economic value. As the economic usefulness of rural people and places is degraded and depleted, rural people are expected to move into town–where they can be economically useful again. Regardless of whether this is a conscious corporate plan, it is a natural consequence of a logical corporate strategy. The large agribusiness corporations that dominate global agriculture today are purely economic entities. Corporate profits take priority over the social and ethical values of rural people.


I have clearly documented the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of industrial agriculture in my work over the past 30 years. I have also addressed the domination of U.S. farm and food policy by industrial agriculture in numerous blogs and papers, which I need not repeat here. And, I have written about the corporate domination of U.S. agricultural policy on several other occasions.  Many others have done much the same. Growing public concern and resistance to industrial agriculture has forced corporate agriculture to become increasingly aggressive and overt in implementing their grand land-use plan for rural America.


Right-to-farm laws” (RTF) were the first overt attempt to establish a “legal right” to use industrial agricultural practices to extract the economic wealth of rural areas. The early RTF laws, beginning in the 1980s, were sold to voters as being necessary to minimize the threat of unwarranted nuisance litigation and prohibitive government regulation of “normal farming practices.” Of course, normal farming practices were carefully defined to include industrial agricultural practices. All 50 states now have some form of right-to-farm law.


More recent RTF laws go beyond earlier laws to include any future farming practices the “agriculture establishment” might choose to define as “normal farming practices,” which obviously would include the latest industrial agricultural chemical and biological technologies. An agricultural operation can still be sued by its neighbors if it creates a “legal nuisance.” However, if the neighbors win their lawsuit, the economic damages awarded by the court cannot exceed the depreciation in market values of property and medical expenses that can be linked to the agricultural operation. Punitive damages are limited to a percentage of economic damages. Even more important, once the initial nuisance suit is settled, the agricultural operation is treated as a “permanent nuisance,” meaning it can continue operating as usual and cannot be sued again.


These new RTF laws essentially give the farming operation the right of “eminent domain.” The right of eminent domain can be granted to corporations or individuals but is legal only in situations deemed necessary to provide essential “public benefits” — such as a highway or electric power line.  Also, eminent domain requires “just compensation” to be paid up-front—without requiring any legal action on the part of the parties deprived of the peaceful enjoyment of their property. New RTF laws even go beyond the controversial eminent domain powers given to corporations to displace current residents and redevelop slum areas of cities. Industrial agriculture in neither economically necessary nor socially beneficial.


The new RTF laws may well be deemed unconstitutional. So, the agribusiness corporations have now come up with another strategy to support their continued economic exploitation.  They are overtly promoting land-use planning in the form of agricultural zoning ordinances. Zoning laws are in fact needed to protect farmland from commercial and residential development. However, if such laws are to serve the long run public interest, they must ensure that farmland is used to meet the basic food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for the future—they must support and preserve the opportunity for sustainable agricultural production.


The current agenda of the corporate agricultural establishment seems to be to avoid future conflicts with neighbors concerned about industrial agricultural practices by zoning any new “non-farm” residences out of rural areas and driving existing rural residents into the cities. Counties in Missouri’s “Agri-ready” program must “not have any health or zoning ordinances that discourage, limit, or restrict agricultural operations.” Indiana’s proposed agriculture zoning ordinances would set aside agricultural zones where new residences are strictly limited to those supporting agricultural enterprises. These new land-use planning initiatives seem to be an admission that the chemical-intensive cropping systems and factory livestock operations that characterize industrial agriculture are not safe or pleasant places to live or work on or to live around.


Further expansion of these operations would make rural areas increasingly undesirable places to live and eventually would drive all the remaining independent family farmers out of their multi-generational homes. Few of their children would be willing to return. Local organic and other sustainable farming operations would be driven out of business by pesticide and GMO pollen drift and polluted irrigation and drinking water. The only people left in agriculturally zoned areas would be low-paid, hired laborers who were willing to work on industrial agricultural operations only because they were desperate for jobs. Wealthy landowners and corporate investors would live elsewhere. Our once-healthy, family farming areas would be turned into sacrifice zones, saturated with agricultural chemical and biological wastes.


Land-use planning seems to be the next logical step after the new right-to-farm laws, which essentially define agriculture as a “permanent nuisance.” This could be an important change in corporate strategy, which those of us who care about the future of rural America need to be ready to refute and combat. Farms should be pleasant and healthy places to work on, live on, and live around – not toxic factories that must be isolated from society.


We don’t need to restore the Buffalo Commons to the Great Plains or prohibit farming or ranching in other agricultural areas of the country. The new sustainable farmers know how to farm and live in harmony with nature and with neighbors. They know how to produce enough good food for everyone without degrading the quality of life, productivity, or sustainability of rural places or people. The rest of us need to help them dethrone the “corporate kings” that dictate agricultural and rural public policy. We need help to create a sustainable food system that gives the long-run well-being of people priority over the short-run profits of corporations.


John Ikerd