My Great-Grandfather Knew How to Fix America’s Food System

My Great-Grandfather Knew How to Fix America’s Food System

In the mutual aid and stewardship of an earlier generation of American farmers, there might be hope for our own communities.

By Gracy Olmstead

Ms. Olmstead is the author of “Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind.”

March 19, 2021

Credit…Elena Boils

The pandemic revealed just how brittle our food system has become. It has also made me think a lot about my paternal great-grandfather, Walter Howard, a farmer whom I knew as Grandpa Dad.

Born in Idaho, he was 7 when the 1918 flu pandemic swept America and 18 when the Great Depression began. He was in his 90s when I knew him. When he started his own farm as a young adult, drought and economic uncertainty were ravaging Idaho — yet, somehow, he and his farm not only survived, but thrived

Unfortunately, the things my great-grandfather sought to foster in his lifetime — healthy land, resilient farms, a robust small-town economy — have suffered in mine. Farms and farmers have become isolated and specialized, and many rural towns have emptied out.

In this pandemic, we’ve seen some of the damaging consequences of these changes. The cost of our “efficient” meat production is revealed in the treatment of food workers: Many meat processors forced employees to continue working even as the coronavirus spread at meatpacking plants. Grocery stores struggled to keep their shelves filled while farmers were dumping milk and euthanizing hogs and chickens they could not get to market because of processing and distributing bottlenecks.

But in the patterns of local rootedness and stewardship Grandpa Dad practiced, I believe there might be hope for our own communities going forward.

We must challenge agribusiness monopolies and acknowledge the harm unchecked consolidation has had on our food system. We should aspire, when and where we can, to restore the sort of healthy local food sources and interconnectedness that my Grandpa Dad knew and that once undergirded rural communities.

Many of the problems we’re seeing in rural America today stem not just from the struggles of individual farmers but from the collapse of the larger ecosystems that once nourished them: the towns, associations, neighbors and local industry clusters that encompassed and supported them.

This is not a nostalgic desire to simply turn back the clock. It’s paying attention to history.

During the Great Depression, family incomes in Idaho dropped by as much as 50 percent, and many lost their farms to local land banks. The farmers who survived were the ones who helped one another and built a network of solidarity and rapport. Grandpa Dad aided fellow farmers, helping form a mutually supportive community. He worked with and for his neighbors during harvest seasons, lent equipment and labor to those in need, and mentored younger farming couples.

Beyond farming, Grandpa Dad also supported his regional and town economy, investing in both its agriculture-related businesses and in locally owned shops and business owners. Grandpa grew crops for the cannery and creamery in town and the sugar beet factory over the hill as well as for friends and family.

Grandpa Dad and Grandma Mom, Iva Howard, chose to buy the groceries they needed and food they didn’t grow from a mom-and-pop store in town. They served on boards for the local church, irrigation district, land bank and hospital.

Grandpa Dad’s stewardship was also a very intimate and personalized thing: He cared deeply about the health of his land and animals, and opted to keep his farm small so that he could maintain more complex, diverse rhythms of care. For example, he devised an irrigation methodology (like today’s computer-maintained surge irrigation) that helped prevent soil runoff and water waste and manually moved irrigation lines to safeguard the soil.

It wasn’t all for the good. There were many environmental choices made in Grandpa Dad’s time that harmed our climate, ecology and soil and water health. Many farm communities made up of white farmers oppressed and mistreated minority farmers and workers. And federal policy, maintained over decades, resulted in the theft of millions of acres of land, pushing Black farmers and landowners off their property.

During the pandemic, many people have become more aware of our interconnectedness and revived locally focused food habits practiced by people like my Grandpa Dad. Many planted victory gardens, sought out beef and chicken from nearby farms or signed up for a C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) share. In addition to growing vegetables, my husband and I bought a quarter-cow from a local farmer this summer and helped a family member butcher some chickens so that we could have a few in payment.

We need to foster more diversity and resilience on our nation’s farms, to have greater accountability for big agribusinesses and to better protect the rights of America’s food workers. Farm co-ops and other collaborative farming efforts have been springing up in response to the pandemic, with members pooling resources to address sales, distributing, processing or packing needs. These efforts mimic — and in many ways, improve upon — the ways Grandpa Dad and his neighbors once helped one another during harvesting seasons.

After last year’s disastrous bottlenecks, Americans across the country are fighting centralization by supporting the sorts of small, local and regional agribusinesses we’ve lost in recent decades — seed companies, slaughterhouses and other food processors. Efforts to grow a more diverse array of crops, to increase perennial agroecosystems and to conserve water through better irrigation and farming practices all build on Grandpa Dad’s efforts to care for our land and water.

Fixing many of our food system’s problems will require national policy solutions and systemic change. A bill by Senator Cory Booker aims to take on harmful agricultural monopolies. Both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission can direct antitrust officers to break up the most harmful agribusiness mergers, and the F.T.C. could also establish fair competition rules that would work to prevent corporate dominance.

Senator Booker is also lead sponsor of a Justice for Black Farmers Act that seeks to address decades of racial discrimination and land loss.

But it’s also true that community investment, ecological stewardship and local rootedness can help restore health to our food system and rural communities. I’m not a farmer. But because of Grandpa Dad, I’m on my town’s tree board, volunteer with a ministry for the food insecure and search out food from local farmers — trying to support the health of my own village, albeit in very small ways.

Grandpa Dad’s life suggests to me that these small efforts can help. When I visit my hometown in Idaho, even though he’s been dead for 13 years, local townspeople still share fond stories of Walt: the old farmer who stuck around, cared for his neighbors and loved his land for the long haul.

Gracy Olmstead is the author of “Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind.”