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Cluck Corporate America

Two Books Get Inside The Big Businesses Of Corporate Farming And Poultry Production

Okan Arabacioglu
Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farm and Against Industrial Food
By George Pyle
PublicAffairs, hardcover


Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food
By Steve Striffler
Yale University Press, hardcover

By Scott Carlson | Posted 10/26/2005

You couldn’t rightly call George Pyle a conservative. In fact, Bob Dole once denounced him as “that liberal editor from Salina” when Pyle was penning op-eds for Salina Journal— work that got him nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. But Raising Less Corn, More Hell, Pyle’s diatribe against the evils of corporate farms and mega-meatpackers, clearly draws its indignation, perspective, and solutions from the fire of the red states, amid the desolation of the wasted plains.

To wit: Pyle casts the rise of corporate farming not as the marauding of heartless capitalists, but as an evil form of communism—a return of the bureaucratic, top-down Soviet-era farming. He denounces the meddling of big government as a culprit that killed the family farm, and he advocates the free market as a way to bring back small-scale, responsible farming. Sure, he quotes liberals, but he also cites the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank in Washington.

If this approach is a strategy, it’s shrewd. Agriculture is one of the biggest environmental problems today, yet most environmental tracts are aimed at Volvo-driving cubicle warmers, students at Reed and Oberlin, or suburbanites with soft spots for birds at backyard feeders. The people in the heartland are left out—the gun owners and government haters, the farmers with Bibles at their bedsides and banks on their backs. Pyle’s argument has potential to unite Left and Right.

And his argument, when boiled down to essentials, is as direct as a road through Kansas: Agricultural corporations and the federal government would have you believe that industrial farming—farming that includes massive applications of pesticides and fertilizers, that involves planting acre upon acre of monoculture crops, and that pushes farmers to “get big or get out”—is the only way to produce enough food to feed America and, more important, the famished parts of the world.

In fact, Pyle says, the world’s most hungry places cannot afford what the U.S. is selling anyway, and the overabundance of cheap American grain and other food, heavily subsidized by the government, is driving local farmers out of business in other countries. A glut of cheap food works against farmers here at home, too, driving down prices farmers can get for their food. What’s more, many farmers are caught in situations that economists call “monosopies”—where a powerful buyer (such as Cargill or Archer Daniels Midland) sets the price it will pay for food, instead of bargaining and paying what farmers want.

None of this has been good for consumers, citizens, or the environment. Big farming wreaks havoc on the land and the people who occupy it. The planting of monoculture crops, which are more susceptible to pests and disease, makes for what national-security experts would call a “target-rich environment.” Pyle says that the government should rediscover its right role: to enforce anti-trust laws and go after big agricultural companies, to stop directing the bulk of agricultural subsidies to big corporations, and to let small farmers do their work without interference.

Pyle is a good journalist: He takes complex economic, scientific, and ecological issues and breaks them down into the simplest of language. Pyle accomplishes some of this through colorful metaphors, although some are unwieldy. “Plant breeders, of course, have always faced the Pooh problem,” he writes, recounting a scene from the A.A. Milne books in which Pooh speculates that he might get a hive filled with honey, without the bees, if he plants half a honeycomb. Or, the bear realizes, he might just get bees and no honey at all. The analogy is meant to explain the risks of plant breeding, compared to more certain, yet scary, genetically modified crops. Some readers might find this kind of explication helpful or appealing—it adds a sittin’-on-the-porch style to the complicated facts. Others may find it unnecessary and distracting: The facts are enough, and Pyle hammers away at them in essay after essay.

If Pyle’s essay approach has a conservative flair, Steve Striffler’s new book Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food is the proletariat primer to U.S. meat production. Perhaps best described as the Fast Food Nation of fowl, Chicken offers the history of mass poultry production, then quickly migrates to Striffler’s account of working in chicken-processing plants, side-by-side with largely Latino and black workers.

Striffler, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, explains that the chicken industry got started in the 1920s on the Delmarva Peninsula, close enough to major cities to allow the birds to travel to urban markets, where they would be killed and dressed. Previously, chickens had been raised by farm women for extra money or food, but because of the difficulties in transporting them before refrigeration, nationwide sale was impossible.

Today, each American consumes more than 80 pounds of chicken yearly, much of it processed and packaged, which inflates its cost. As in agriculture, chicken farmers are often farmed themselves by major firms, such as Tyson. And much of the chicken they produce is slaughtered and prepared by Latino immigrants who work “the line” at various processing plants in the South. Striffler’s book takes a compelling turn in its second half when the author recounts his experience of going to a Tyson processing plant in Arkansas and filling out an application. “You want to work on the line?” a skeptical receptionist, who is white, asks Striffler, who is also white. Signs around the desk are clearly addressed to Latinos.

The work he did there gives his book an amazing and courageous peek inside the plant, the sort of place that is usually off limits to media. Striffler gets to know his co-workers and tells their stories, effectively conveying the bleak atmosphere of the plant, the work that is hell on both mind and body. “I . . . tell God that if he lets me make it to break I will never come back. I promise myself I will quit,” one of Striffler’s co-workers tells him. She has been working at the plant for 10 years. Many of his co-workers on the line have swollen wrists, chronically aching backs, and repetitive-stress injuries. While working the line, Striffler frequently wakes up in the night “with the sensation that my hands were so bloated they were going to explode.”

Striffler clearly takes sides in the book, but the righteous indignation and polemics don’t overpower the scholar’s comprehensive approach to the topic. His insight goes beyond the problems of chicken—poultry is merely a way to explore the consequences of the U.S. demand for cheap food and the ambivalence with which our society regards the immigrants that provide it. “The politicians who most vocally oppose immigration, and ride anti-immigrant sentiment to public office, are often the very same leaders who facilitate the entry of immigrant workers on behalf of corporations that require cheap labor,” he writes. “We hate food. We love food. We fear immigrants. We need immigrants.”

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