Developing Farm/Food Policies for the Long Emergency

a provisional discussion

If it ain’t about food, it ain’t serious.

Farmer and former Black Panther/prisoner Gaquayla Lagrone

Just as there are material causes at work that must be taken into account in the development of agrarian policies, there are formal, agential, and final causes. Just as there exists a material ecosphere, there is a supra-material semiosphere that mediates its processes. Money is part of that semiosphere. Water and food are part of that material ecosphere, but we have allowed the money-sign to dictate the nodes and flows on behalf of the moneyed classes.

You can’t eat money.

The trajectory we are on now is that by 2050, the earth’s atmosphere will be the warmest it has been for two billion years. There is no way to completely prepare for that because many of the consequences are unpredictable. Among the most urgent problems we will encounter during what is shaping up to be a very long emergency is the question of how we (1) slow-down and stop the re-carbonization of the atmosphere and (2) ensure that everyone is fed . . . at the same time.

In the American political response to this emergency, there is talk of a Green New Deal — a term that means different things to different people, each of us projecting our own imaginations into the idea. The basic moving parts are:

Government-led investment in energy and resource efficiency, as well as reusable energies and microgeneration;

Low-carbon infrastructure redevelopment in order to create jobs;

A directed tax on the profits of oil and gas companies with proceeds being invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency;

Financial incentives for green investment and reduced energy usage, including low interest rates for green investment;

Re-regulation of international finance, including capital controls, and increased scrutiny of financial derivatives — likely along the lines of Basel II;

Curbing corporate tax evasion through compulsory financial reporting and by clamping down on tax havens;

A Global Marshall Plan Initiative using “green quantitative easing” to create money to fund the “great transition” to a society free of fossil fuels and other measures that aim to preserve the biosphere. (Wikipedia)

What leaps out of this outline is the preoccupation with energy supply-maintenance and money — by “pairing labor programs with measures to combat the climate crisis” — with a few generalizations with regard to agriculture. On inadvertent display here is that most stubborn of all socio-geographic contradictions between city and countryside — in itself a core-periphery dynamic with the urban cores taking more goods from the rural peripheries than what those cores return.

Equally urgent is the issue of climate destabilization and how to respond to it; and yet, the Green New Deal is trying to construct the entire policy response on a purely economic foundation of finance, job-creation, and redistribution. Food is considered secondary, a footnote, something we can almost take for granted. I have seen two food riots in my lifetime; and they were indescribable. It is not something we can take for granted.

This paper will argue that the Green New Deal, as currently articulated, is a necessary but insufficient response to our global emergency which has ecologic as well as social ramifications that are inextricable from one another, and that no plan can succeed without a well-informed account of agriculture as its cornerstone.

I would go so far as to say that better nomenclature — which would reach beyond those who see themselves as “green” — an Agrarian New Deal. Then the same farmers who turn their faces away from “greens” will turn around to look when they see that word. It reminds us that water and agriculture are where we begin to make the most basic changes, or every other attempt will fail. It tells those farmers that you recognize the crucial role they play, and then you can tell them: if we do this a new way, the first step, before anything else, is subsidizing a decent standard of living for those agrarians who will carry out the changes.

Water First, then Topsoil

There is no agriculture without water.

The United States as a whole uses water at staggering rates, most of it on bad practices, wasting an enormous fraction of it. Industrial agriculture and now hydraulic fracturing oil and gas wells are pumping out major US aquifers faster than they can recharge, poisoning more water every day, lowering the tables until wells go dry, drawing off rivers and streams, and destabilizing soils, all by pump-pumping away with eyes fixed on the next business cycle and not on the threatening horizon of inescapable consequence. The problem with this is that businesspeople cannot make water. What they are doing instead is abusing water, abusing others by misusing the water, and making water ever scarcer. Scarcity strengthens the potential for conflict. Water is a natural phenomenon, essential to all life, and not reducible to a mere “resource.”

More than half of the groundwater depletion around the world and 60 percent of groundwater depletion in the US is caused by agricultural mass-irrigation systems that also produce around 30 percent of the world’s food (70 percent is still grown by peasants/smallholders). And 21 out of the world’s 37 major aquifers are being drawn down faster than they can recharge. The Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to seven states and more than 40 million people, lost around 16 cubic miles of ground water between 2004–2013, or 75 percent of total water loss in the Basin.

Poor water management and ‘development’ (paved or otherwise impermeable surfaces) have contributed substantially to high storm water runoff rates, which in turn has accelerated topsoil loss.

There can be no rescue of agriculture without an integrated plan for water management. Graywater systems, composting toilets, vegetative setbacks, berm and swale systems, removal of unused pavement, runoff restrictions, etc. Graywater systems and composting toilets are generally within the purview of counties, pavement removal is generally a local issue, and berm-swale construction as well as vegetative setbacks can be incentivized by the Federal government paying growers to leave parcels of land alone.

Topsoil takes around a century to build an inch of surface mass, and in the past 150 years, half of all the topsoil in the world has been lost, and a great deal more degraded. Credible estimates are that within 60 years, at the current rate of topsoil loss, farming as we know it will come to an end . . . by its own hand, or at least by the hand of the for-profit enterprises that now control most agriculture. It takes little imagination to understand why this constitutes a century-long emergency. As we will explain further on, even the most basic agricultural reparations plan (moving from monocropped perennials to perennialized polycultures) will require fifty years for the initial phase of transition (The Fifty-Year Farm Bill is linked here.)

Water and food are prior to electricity; and yet the Green New Deal — which emphasizes conversion of energy sources to the complete exclusion of conservation (including rationing), with no acknowledgement of the physical limits to “growth” that are imposed by natural laws which already tell us that conversion is the icing, and conservation is the cake. Likewise, there is little acknowledgment by the mostly urban, white-collar, or academic activists and mavens of the centrality of agriculture for any worthwhile analysis or synthesis.

Among agricultural considerations is the fact that more than a third of all carbon emissions are from agricultural activity. And while most sectors in the US economy suffer less than 40 percent corporate concentration (ownership and control belong to absentee corporations), agriculture in the US is closer to 70 percent control by big absentee corporations.

Grower Distress and Political Tantrums

Farmers’ incomes run consistently around ten percent below non-farm averages, which does not take into account that farmers, using the additional unpaid labor of family members, work more than 60 hours a week on average, while non-farm populations work 35.8 hours a week. In effect, many growers — both conventional and alternative — are working for below minimum wage.

Around 75 percent of rural farmers in the US who voted in the 2016 General Election cast a ballot for Donald Trump.

Farmers in general want three things: to be on par with other entrepreneurs on average, to make food on healthy soil in ways that stabilize farms into the future, and to be understood, acknowledged, and respected. Among those who had the least time to understand the issues during this election, the latter was a factor.

The classist contempt in which many rural people are held by mostly urban, white-collar, or academic activists and mavens is a major contributing factor among those who voted Trump with little apprehension of his actual politics (if he has one) as a way of saying “Go to Hell!” in response to this often ill-concealed arrogance. You dismissed me; now I’ll dismiss you.

My friend Davin Heckman sums liberal contempt for working class people, which is consistently an oblique claim to the inhering superiority of the urban liberal to that dumbass redneck on the farm.

Liberals have a view of the world shaped by white collar upbringing, liberal arts education, and a steady stream of social media. No awareness of working class life beyond the stubborn insistence on the abstract idea that they are the true allies of the working class.

If you cannot see that Trump has spoken to a class of externalities that the current political system has gaslit into oblivion, then you will perpetually be surprised by the anger and resentment that is woven into the fabric of society.

The same is happening in Europe. White collar professionals who won the lottery of capitalism simply cannot believe that people could be disenchanted with a system that pays so well. They know somehow, some way, that it is too good to be true, that some people have been ‘left behind’ by progress and that the energy of the state must be spent to hire other white collar people to help the dispossessed ‘catch up.’

That cognitive stress agitates them into being suckers for every fake solution that another white collar opinion leader puts forward. But until we admit that the system is designed to create externalities . . . there will always be anger.

Humans in the periphery of power have become . . . just a resource, like oil, to be drilled and burnt and forgotten, their misery, a kind of pollution. But liberal political leadership does not want to embrace ‘the externals.’ Externals don’t believe science is real! They made bad economic decisions! They are fascists! If we don’t restore the status quo these externals will take away our utopia! So, the best they can do is filter social media feeds, hide from reality, and pray to Google that a ‘sensible’ person wins the next election. And, sadly, I doubt that attitude will change before 2020.

Externalities are those factors that are conveniently pushed outside of economic calculations. Pollution is an externality. Unequal exchange abroad is an externality. Those extra twenty hours a week (and the free family labor) on the farm are externalities. And those who are embedded in externalities to this extent become external to the calculations of the technocratic urban elites (yes, they exist and wield immense cultural power).

Trump spoke to that anger, but there were no alternatives offered by his opponent, who referred to blue collar workers and farmers as “deplorables,” and perpetuated the political-interest wars between urban and rural, instead of proposing policies that might unite them. The Democratic Party as well as Republicans are firmly in the pockets of those corporations that control the US food system — a system that is itself incapable of grasping externalities, and therefore incapable of acknowledging the more real and emergent realities of the ecosystem that is late capitalism.

Total Exposure v. Food Sovereignty

Farmers are living in what Wendell Berry called a “total exposure economy,” wherein every farmer is completely exposed to every fluctuation in the economy with little backstop. Ever since the end of World War II, the economy has “told” farmers and rural folk — of every background — that they are disposable — they are externalities — they are external to real life as defined by the urban petit bourgeois mavens of American civil society.

The rural-urban divide crosses ethnicities. One of the major disconnects I observed at meetings with the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association and many African American urban activists was that BFAA was clear that without land there is no whiff of sovereignty. Not money, land.

Urban people had really not made the connection, and they tended to be concerned with the redistribution of money above all and policies regarding money. And yet, food is ontologically prior to money; and moreover money is not intelligible without some account of food. Try eating it. Food sovereignty must be incorporated prominently into any account of injustice, because without it, all the other features of possible future methods of governance are moot.

Any Green New Deal worth its salt must incorporate agriculture into its calculations prior to any other consideration. And the introduction of some coherent constellation of policies that address sustainability and economic justice (for growers!) at the same time is a prerequisite if any future candidate is to contend for the political loyalty of those “deplorables” who work their asses off to make ends meet because they want to farm.

4 Dimensions and 5 Problems

There are four dimensions to the current situation for farmers and other growers: agronomic, social, ecological, and political. The agronomic dimension includes massive soil loss, depleted and contaminated ground water, pesticide/herbicide resistance, and soil deterioration/loss. The social dimension includes dysfunctional rural communities, loss of land, elevated health risks, wealth concentration and “McDonaldization,” and the many problems created by factory meat operations. (McDonalization is the reduction of the land-owner by corporations into a low-paid, paint-by-the-numbers store manager — created by the concentration of corporate power in agriculture) The ecological dimension includes fossil energy dependence and depletion, climate destabilization, wildlife and biodiversity destruction, and unanticipated ecologic imbalance and instability (floods, fires, superstorms, etc.). The political dimension includes some very deep questions about the definitions of property, water rights, land use regulation, infrastructure, and grower exposure to market forces.

Apart from water, the key ingredient in food production is soil. But soil loss and degradation are the result of conventional practices that use soil like a sterile sponge from which one pours in ingredients then extracts food, as opposed to a living biotic community that produces food as part of a larger, evolutionarily-proven process. The five major problems associated with soil degradation and loss are poor water management, single-crop farming, failure to return organic matter to soils, cropping systems that prioritize crops over soil (using high inputs of fossil energy and chemicals), and large-scale mechanization on very large fields. Soil remediation will require a transition from high mechanization, high-chemical-input monoculture (annual-dominant) growing to low mechanization, low-to-no-chemical-input polyculture (perennial-dominant) growing.

In any policy prescriptions, we must attend to the reality of unpredictable consequences and cascade effects. This consideration would drive research priorities, whereupon the state could flexibly direct resources at every ramification to sustain a visible increase in general social benefit, and to correct policy errors and oversights.

Support, Debt, and Jubilee

Transitional methods to convert wholesale from “conventional” agriculture to authentically sustainable and re-localized agriculture must be subsidized. Farmers need to be rewarded for best practices. The legal/policy/structural obstacles to their livelihoods must be removed. And farmers need two key supports for their families: a baseline guaranteed income and free health care.

Farmers, as a class, are deeply in debt, often terminally so; and they can’t see any way out of arrangements they are currently in with multinational corporations. Moreover, their livelihoods are dependent on a malignant foreign policy of agricultural dumping, also part of a debt machine.

Agricultural dumping is when the US subsidizes large cereal and soy monocultures, guaranteeing a barely adequate price, allowing large sales abroad at below-market value, which wipes out local growers in those other nation-states. This problem is exacerbated by the debts owed by foreign countries (mostly to Wall Street), who have to service their debts in US dollars, and thereby are forced to convert large areas of land into export monocropping (palm oil, bananas, etc) to get the dollars to service those debts. Small growers and subsistence farms are enclosed for industrial agriculture, decanting un-landed rural populations into cities with limited social infrastructure and straining whole systems. Mass migration from Latin America north has been substantially caused by this two-step: agricultural dumping and debt-service industrial monocropping. Forgiveness of those debts would be a crucial step toward any effective remedy.

Because debt factors into so many aspects of agriculture, banks and other lending institutions have to be brought under control. Debt is the single biggest economic problem facing farmers in general, forcing them into permanent serfdom to the multinationals, and because foreign debt owed by other countries, generally to the US via the IMF and Wall Street (the Dollar-Wall-Street Regime), is responsible for impoverishment of foreign farmers and their land loss, setting the stage for US agricultural dumping. Any comprehensive farm legislation should be preceded by complete nationalization of the entire banking system as a public utility.

Farmers who are in debt would have their debts forgiven, and foreign external debtors would likewise have debts forgiven.

Property and Dissolving the Urban-Rural Divide

With regard to that core-periphery relation between urban and rural, Cuba has the most successful sustainable urban agriculture model in the world, with the capital Havana producing around 90 percent of the food consumed in Havana — not the countryside. This was an historic “accident,” in a sense. Cuba’s agriculture was thoroughly industrialized prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was embargoed by the United States, and lost most of its access to fossil fuels and agricultural chemicals. Employing emergency measures to transform its agricultural system, including livestock operations and the use of draft animals inside the cities, Cuba heavily subsidized soil restoration and infrastructure for a system that now relies largely on hand-tending labor instead of farm machines. Farm machines were displaced by the introduction of 800,000 oxen that also help rehabilitate poor soils by grazing on them.

Accomplishing the same thing in the US will require an equal measure of political will, beginning with a more general abolition of loans with compound interest; and this will require the nationalization of all savings and loan institutions as public utilities, alongside the draconian repression of financial speculation.

Transition will also require the systematic state acquisition of alienated properties that are taken off the market forever, using the land under a system of property usufruct. As any and all land is acquired by the state, it would (1) be prohibited from ever going on the market again and (2) be employed by usufruct — the state owns it, but a private family can use it indefinitely for itself providing it is used correctly and does not contract for its use by private third parties, then at the end of the day the property always returns to the state. Usufruct means the grower signs a contract with the state to (1) produce food or other agricultural goods and (2) care for the land using best practices. See Cuban Agricultural Policy for details. The Cuban policy links the principle underpinning usufruct — “territoriality” — with the process of progressive decentralization.

Political Territory and Transitional Objectives

The nation-state established fixed political boundaries as the basis of modern sovereignty, surveyed and mapped based on where armies stood during establishment and what natural boundaries could be employed. Where this was most arbitrary, national boundaries, as well as sub-states in the US, sliced between watersheds and set up structural conflicts as well as internal core-periphery dynamics between upstream and downstream that simultaneously divide jurisdictions. A long term goal needs to be, at some point, the re-integration of political boundaries with watersheds and foodsheds until they are as close as possible to being the same places.

One transitional model might be to set up new agricultural programs to be administered by watershed, first federally, then state-by-state, then expanding the administrative responsibilities of watershed authorities until a new Constituent Assembly is established to write these nature-culture contradictions out of a new Constitution — one that begins with a comprehensive account of ecological concern and best practices for transitional agriculture. The prime constitutional directives contained somehow in a preamble: protect and restore water, create local/watershed authorities to protect and expand local food sovereignty and develop unique paths to reclocalization, plant more trees by weight than we cut with as many high-yielding food perennials as possible, and increase biodiversity as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

The ultimate goal of transition-agriculture is to shift from having under two percent employed in agriculture, mostly growing subsidized corn-soy-wheat monocultures and importing much food for consumers here, we need to have half the population involved in food production at some level, using smaller, more diverse parcels of land to grow more diverse annuals and steadily increase perennialization. So long as we rely on annuals for the bulk of our plant food, we will continue to degrade and exhaust soils at a higher than sustainable rate.


Large scale feedlot and CAFO operations must be phased out immediately for the remediation of watercourses, lakes, and oceans threatened by nutrient pollution. The quickest remedy to these is to combine prohibition and closing with funds for every actual local operator to be paid by the federal government to take down the operation using best practices of deconstruction, and for the remediation of the land and its conversion to local, sustainable production. High-meat diets and the environmental practices that support them are ecological catastrophes, economic catastrophes, and public health catastrophes. Ridding ourselves of them as soon as humanly possible is a win, win, win proposition . . . except for a very few very rich people who profit from it.

As a nation, we eat far too much meat; but this is not to advocate for a pure vegetarian diet. We can eat less meat, better meat, and more local meat, in smaller quantities. Permaculturists and biodynamic growers have established that, in terms of land use, optimum results require animals in the land-use mix. For small growers who produce meat without CAFOs, a first two-step will be to redesign food safety regulations to allow farmers to slaughter on site, as well as establish regional meat processing centers.

Shifting Scales, Incentives, Disincentives

We can already discern the outlines of a pseudo-contradiction: we need to re-localize and decentralize agricultural practice, but to do that we need a comprehensive, centralized governmental framework to accomplish it. The trick, it seems — and we will leave that to the lawyers to figure out — will be a multi-level approach that (1) incentivizes and-or dis-incentivizes particular practices, (2) ensures growers’ economic security through each phase-change, (3) then within the wider parameters encourage as local a solution to any given problem as possible. Conflict resolution and grievance procedures must be bottom-up, with solutions achieved as locally as possible, within the larger legal and practical parameters.

Payments would be disbursed centrally, with as local a control as possible on determining entitlements for:

“Fungi” farming on degraded land, drastically reduce fungicides and broaden the use of mycorrhizal inoculation for increased carbon sequestration and plant hardiness. This includes small-scale inoculum production facilities, proportional small-scale grassland grazing, cover cropping, vegetative setbacks around watercourses, hugelkutur instead of burning for large quantities of unused deadwood, employing smaller and smaller fields (there seems to be a fuzzy threshold at around ten acres, where the incentive to begin monocropping begins along with loss of biodiversity, a network of highly localized food hubs and market spaces (especially in places like unused and abandoned parking lots, and permanent market spaces in every town.

Disincentives would be aimed at the abolition of all absentee land owners, drastically limiting export agriculture, and an end to agricultural dumping.

Regulations need to be revisited before panels of growers to change regulations that make it impossible to prosper as, e.g., small milk and cheese vendors. One grower stated: “Raw milk can only be sold on a written recommendation from a physician for a specific person. Pasteurized milk and other dairy products (cheese particularly interests me) require a Grade A facility and inspections, so that you have to have a massive overhead investment. I know of one goat dairy in my region that has managed to do this, but generally speaking it’s prohibitive. Some folks do a ‘herd share’ system, but the legality even of this is questionable. I don’t think it’s been tested either way. There was legislation introduced in the KY legislature to legalize herd shares officially, but I don’t think it went anywhere.”

Municipalities need to permit egg production and bee-keeping inside town/city limits, and remove all zoning ordinances that disallow small urban growers from exchange in their own homes.

Public land trusts (pre-usufruct) should contribute to commons for open space for grazing and-or biodynamic food forest development.

Prohibit toxic chemical additives to all lawns.

Lease long-vacant land to urban farmers at 5 year terms with first rights of refusal.

Create commercial kitchens at community centers that encourages the creation of shelf-stable local products for home use or for legal sale.

Declare unconstitutional restrictive covenants forbidding vegetable gardens.

Support the creation of animal processing facilities spread across each state for small producers and homesteaders.

Declare unconstitutional the patenting of seed and apply 10 year limits to new variety/cultivar trademarks.

Create urban farm incubators, integrated into public schools, that educate farmers and connect them with land trusts — publicly funded.

Require schools to procure a reasonable percentage of local food, to cook it, and integrate farming and culinary arts into core curriculum.

Open school and other public land to urban farmer partnerships that funded farmers to create farms and integrate them into core curriculum and to get produce into schools (and farmers markets in the off season).

Declare trees a public utility and therefore illegal to cut down — above a determined diameter — without city approval. If approved, all tree removals must be followed with an inch for inch tree caliper replacement.

Create a Tree Corps that hires people with barriers to employment to restore urban canopy with edible or pollinator friendly trees.

Retrain all agricultural state officials and employees. Provide and require all ag extension agents, water, and forestry departments to attain a Permaculture Design Certificate.

Support the creation of edible tree nurseries that specialize in trees that work well without chemical life support.

Establish seed lending service through the public libraries (ours has this) along with regular education and training programs on permaculture, gardening, orchardry, lacto-fermenting food, water catchment, food preservation — all subsistence skills.

Mandatory municipal composting with vouchers to every citizen for a quantity of compost.

Bicycle infrastructure (bike lanes, greenways, and shops capable of equipping customers with and fixing cargo bikes) that allows people to market and share without fossil fuels.

Immigrant farmer training programs.

Well-paid, subsidized youth employment on urban farms.

Free or low cost community education to gain skills in land or small business development.

Educational and human resources about needed alternative ecological/economic models made available to city planners and neighborhood development groups.

Zoning rules that allow for small, residential wind turbines.

Subsidies for specific forms of transitional-ag that shift farmers incrementally away from industrial monocrops to organic polycultures, with a preferential option for perennials.

Mandate that all government institutions buy as locally as possible, and subsidize shortfalls.


This is a working document, and all remarks, corrections, critiques, and additions made in good faith are welcome and encouraged.



Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

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Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”