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Celebrating the Midwest drought? Wait, hear me out...

August 23, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • A tractor cuts down corn in a field designated as zero-yield in Vigo County near Terre Haute, Ind.
A tractor cuts down corn in a field designated as zero-yield in Vigo County… (Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg )

The Midwest drought may not leave you with a whole lot of sympathy for corn farmers and producers of other commodity crops. Not only has the drought driven up prices allowing them to rake in beaucoup bucks  -- NPR’s Sam Charles has posted an eye-popping chart -- but these farmers will also receive crop insurance.

But for small farmers, the drought has threatened their livelihood. Grist rounded up a handful of tweets with the hashtag #Drought12 to show how farmers are using social media to humanize their critical situation.

It's also threatened the industry as a whole. In addition to potentially scaring away young farmers, the continued change in our seasons may also force farmers to close shop. "Is that really what I want to choose for myself? Is this going to -- are we -- is this not going to happen now for 50 years? Am I safe in my career time frame, or is it going to happen again next year or the year after?” asked Royal Farms' Sara McGuire in a PBS NewsHour segment last week that focused on Michigan's "sour" cherry season.

PHOTOS: Severe U.S. drought

To add insult to injury, most farmers will never make a whole lot of money. “[I]t’s not the farmers who get most of the money we spend on food. It’s everyone who's standing past the farm gate,” writes Tracie McMillan on CNN’s Eatocracy blog. “For every dollar we spend on food, only about 16 cents goes to the farmer. The other 84 cents go [toward] what economists call ‘marketing,’ which refers not to commercials and advertising, but the entire chain that ensures food makes it from farm to plate.”

And if climate change and financial realities weren't bad enough, now robots threaten to replace workers. "[A]t Earthbound Farms in California," reports the New York Times, "four newly installed robot arms with customized suction cups swiftly place clamshell containers of organic lettuce into shipping boxes." As Food Politics' Marion Nestle writes, with a gulp: "Robots don’t call in sick, get pregnant, get into fights, have affairs with fellow workers, ask for raises, or threaten to go on strike."

For some observers, however, the drought has come with a silver lining, as a recent New York Times Op-Ed by William G. Moseley put it. "The problem is not so much the drought but our over-reliance on this single crop," he writes of corn, which he points out is "highly susceptible to drought." Given our new climate-changed reality, he argues, we ought to use this drought as a catalyst for curbing our reliance on corn in favor of a "more diverse cropping landscape” for “viable farms, healthier diets and a steadier food system." I also found a nugget of good news: Less corn, which many Americans eat in the form of processed foods and high-fructose corn syrup, could put a dent in our obesity epidemic, I wrote in a post last month.

Still the question remains: How do we successfully take a bad situation and transform it into an impetus for change?

"[W]e need real farmers who grow real food, and the will to reform a broken food system. And for that, we need not only to celebrate farmers, but also to advocate for them," argues opinionator Mark Bittman. Farmers wouldn’t be the only beneficiaries. Bittman also makes a case for "a herd of actions that will make it possible for more people to have access to real food" including "food stamps [that] are worth more at farmers’ markets."

McMillan agrees we need to institute substantial reforms. She suggests reducing distribution costs so that farmers can see more of a profit. "[W]hat that means -- sorry for the wonkery here, but it has to be said -- is coming up with an affordable infrastructure for modest American farmers and grocers so they have a fighting chance when competing against the giants."

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier. Follow Opinion L.A. on Twitter and Facebook.

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