A new Dust Bowl faces America's farms, only this one isn't coming on the Jet Stream, like the Great One of the 1930's. It's coming from our government, threatening to bury our small farms under storms of paperwork, expenses and intervention.
In the 1930's, the expansion of American agriculture, coupled with years of drought and shifting weather patterns, buried millions of acres of American farmland under blowing clouds and settling layers of dust. The result was the loss of thousands of small farms, and with that loss, thousands of families drifted west, seeking new homes, employment and a new start. All of this happened in the heart of the Great Depression, when more than 80% of Americans lived on small farms, growing their own food.
But today, though the atmospheric climate may portend a new Dust Bowl, there is a more imminent risk, our own United States Government. In the 1930's, the government created the Civilian Conservation Corps, Youth Conservation Corps and the Soil Conservation Service, to try and anchor our nation's soil to the ground, and give hope and guidance to those wishing to remain on the land. Other government authorities were created to assist these small farmers to continue farming, such as the Farm Credit Service. Why? Because there was a need to feed the people, to create housing, and to empower people at a time when many were disparaged because of the worsening economy.
Today, while the government assists large farms to continue the very practices that damaged our environment in the first place, it has also created the National Animal Identification System, or NAIS. This program, if fully realized, will financially punish the farmer who keeps a diversified, small farm. Not only will their land be branded by a Premises Identification Number, but the value of that land may be lowered because of that very brand. Potential buyers may decide they don't want to be under the "watchful eye" of the government and they will resist paying "the real price." The growing numbers of sustainable farmers, who are answering the call of America to grow local, naturally raised food, will be ordered to permanently mark each individual livestock animal, regardless of why they are kept, or what the farmer intends to do with them. These tags may in fact cause illness to the animals that the farmer is trying to so hard to raise humanely. How? By implanting ear tags that will be ripped out, leaving injuries, scars and infections in their wake. How can a program be about "Animal Health," when it's very requirements are detrimental to the animal's health?
In this time when people are fearful of food safety, this "Food Safety Program" will endanger the healthiest protein supplies and will cost the farmer and his/her animals in both money and health.
The last component of NAIS is the reporting or tracking aspect. Every time an animal leaves its home "premises," such as going to the fair, a show, the vet, a classroom, or even meets an animal from a different farm, such as for breeding to keep genetic diversity strong, the farmer has to report that movement with 24 hours. If they fail to do so, they can be fined up to $1,000 or be incarcerated. There is no concession for not having a computer, for having religious convictions that conflict with the program, or for even having a mechanical breakdown making it impossible to return home in time to report.
While this "dust cloud" looms on the horizon for the nation's small farms, the industrial giants, who are practicing the same techniques that caused the original Dust Bowl, are exempt from individual tagging and tracking. Their confinement systems pollute their neighborhoods and their watersheds, abuse their animals through denying them proper exercise and housing conditions, and promote the very diseases that many people fear. Yet, they are given incentives to continue those practices by allowing them to tag and track their "inventory" by "lot numbers," as opposed to small farmers who identify their animals by name, and don't need a computer system to know how each one is doing.
So why invent a NAIS? It has been explained as being an answer to Terrorism, to Mad Cow Disease, to Bird Flu and to Food Safety. It is none of these things. Centralizing our food supply makes it easier for terrorists to harm us. Mad Cow Disease and Bird Flu are diseases of industrial agriculture, spread by confinement and bad practices. Food safety is an issue that is solved in the processing facility, with proper inspection, and consumer education. Sick animals are not allowed in slaughter channels now and proper enforcement will keep that from happening. The vast majority of food contamination happens inside the processing facility, not on the farm. The USDA says it needs a 48 hour traceback to be able to protect the animals, but we have existing programs, such as tattooing, branding, and other existing programs, that have already proven they are successful at doing that, without a NAIS.
Sustainable farms are part of the solution to healing the climate shift problem. Such farmers are attuned to the impact they have on their land, as they share the water supply, the air and often consume the produce of the farm themselves. They feed their neighbors, providing a sense of community and educating the next generation about how to feed themselves; they nourish the planet and grow a local economy.
When the Great Dust Bowl left, farms and towns were buried in layers of dirt. Families were uprooted and scattered to the winds and entire communities were lost. If this New Dust Bowl of government intervention is allowed to blow in, the growing population of small farms, preserving our rural landscapes and traditions, will be lost to the expense of compliance. All that will be left behind are the industrial farms who do not factor humane practices into their bottom line, and who have proven that it is their finances that matter, not their neighbors, their livestock or the land on which they operate. We will have lost the highest quality food available and will be forced to pay higher prices for our food as it will be concentrated in the hands of the agri-giants who authored this program in the first place.
Can we afford to lose our artisan cheeses? Our rural tourism? Our open space? Can we afford to have our children growing up continuing to believe that milk comes from cartons and that they are powerless to provide for themselves? Small farms create "empowerment zones" as the farmers, their neighbors and their customers have freedom of choice, availability of high quality food and a chance to make a living in small town America? Even urban planners are seeing the value of urban gardens, homesteads and community supported agriculture. Why can't the United States Dept. of Agriculture?
There is a hearing on March 11 that will discuss the animal identification system issue. There is a regulation pending in the Federal Registry, that would make NAIS mandatory for many farms, through existing animal health programs. That comment period closes on March 16, 2009. If NAIS goes through the sustainable farmer will either become an endangered species or a "pirate on the land," all in search of the freedom to raise animals in a humane, diversified, sustainable way. Please tell your elected officials that you want the tradition of the small farm to continue in America and that NAIS must not be enacted. We already face climate challenges greater than the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. We don't need a Government Dust Bowl on top of it.