The Green Revolution
Today there is enough food produced to feed the entire world. Yet, an estimated 795 million people around the world go hungry. Even in the United States, where the majority of farming is industrialized, large-scale and operated on ideals that “America is feeding the world,” 1 in 6 Americans go hungry.
“The Green Revolution really set us back in terms of U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] policy,” said farmer Susan Boyd sitting at her kitchen table in Union, Oregon.
“There was a period of time when it was just known that you either get big or get out — if you’re not farming thousands of acres with huge equipment, you don’t belong in ag.”
Susan Boyd is the manager at Dora’s Garden—a certified organic, 52-acre farm in Northeastern Oregon. Susan and her husband Ira Cohen, produce organic hay and organic garden vegetables. Susan also manages 2,000 acres of additional family farm land.
“I grew up a lot of places,” said Susan. “I was born in Eastern Oregon but we lived in Chicago, Madison, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania growing up — but all of my life we always came back to the farm in the summertime.”
Susan was the only family member from her generation who was interested in the family farm.
She remembers following her uncle, around everyday, wanting to learn as much as possible.
“My uncle was my mentor. I remember riding on the combine with him and getting completely covered in soil and thinking, ‘this is just wonderful,’” said Susan.
Susan’s farm family were conventional producers.
“My grandfather was the first director of the Experiment Station here in Union — they were cutting edge, Green Revolution-minded people,” said Susan.
The work that came out of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research helped set the tune in agriculture for the next century.
“If you’re under 50 you might not know what the Green Revolution was,” said Susan. “The revolution happened right at the end of World War II when suddenly science was burgeoning with figuring out you can spray crops with chemicals and that’s going to make things a lot easier for the farmer. You don’t have to go out and plow or till or hand pull—just spray it. And that was called the Green Revolution because suddenly we could feed the world.”
The Green Revolution came in three waves. A “mechanical revolution” from the 1900s introduced tractors and equipment to farmers and farmland. This new technology changed the way farms operated. It also decreased the number of farms by over 25 percent.
The second wave, characterized by chemical and pesticide use, occured at the end of World War II. The US needed a way to repurpose bomb and chemical plants. A surplus of those chemicals and chemical plants left over from the war drove fertilizers and pesticides into the agricultural sector. From 1945-1980, synthetic fertilizer use increased by 715 percent.
The third wave, the biotechnology revolution, was introduced in the 1980s and is how the majority of Americans farm today. The biotechnology revolution preached genetic engineering, mutating and concentrating on just a few staple crops. America’s abundant growing practices of crops like corn and soy via genetically modified and pesticide-heavy products grew out of this wave of the Green Revolution.
To the public, the values of the Green Revolution are presented as a global effort to minimize world hunger by mass producing staple crops. In reality, the Green Revolution reconstructed how the US grows food at the demise of the family farmer. The Green Revolution accompanied by policy changes encouraged a “get big or get out” philosophy in American agriculture. This aided big corporate agriculture’s climb to power and decimated small-scale, family farms. Susan is fiercely committed to encouraging families in agriculture to stay in agriculture.
The median age for farmers and ranchers is 55.9 years old, which means younger generations growing up in agriculture, aren’t staying in ag. One of Susan’s current struggles is finding someone to take over her own farm for her and her husband.
“We have been looking for awhile now,” said Susan.
Over the past few weeks, Susan has come to the difficult decision that her farming days are over. She has decided to lease out her farm, and with a heavy heart she listed the remaining 1,500 acres of farmland for sale.
Susan advertises on Friends of Family Farmers’ Farm Link, and High Country News. She is hopeful she can find a couple that will continue the practices she is passionate about — practices of organics, stewardship and longevity. If you are interested in the listing, you can learn more by contacting Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The mentality of “bigger, cheaper and faster” has changed the quality of food and the way that people think about food, Susan said. “The best-tasting food is produced by small family farmers these days,” said Susan. “We need more small family farmers who grow wonderful, nutritionally dense food.”
Through the impacts of the Green Revolution, the food we most regularly eat changed significantly.
“One of the things that has happened in agriculture that I’ve watched in my lifetime — when I was a kid, the ag people were both ranchers and farmers and they did both. There was an equal importance on produce and meat.”
Today, Susan notices farmers concentrate on farming and ranchers concentrate on ranching. She said that consolidation has a lot to do with the Green Revolution and discouraging diversity in operations.
Susan also notices a stark difference in the quality, availability and value of wholesome food in rural America versus urban America. Susan said while living in Portland, Ore., she had incredible access to fresh and organic produce, whereas in rural Northeastern Ore., some of the only fresh organic produce she has available to her, is what she grows herself.
Susan says it is frustrating living in a climate where the quality of food isn’t valued as it should be.
“One of the things that I encounter here in Northeastern Oregon. — organic is not something that most people know about. It’s not like the city of Portland where the word organic has magic meaning, or people are concerned about where their food comes from. I think people here are looking for cheap rather than good food, and that is astounding.”
Susan has farmed organically for the past six years. She was certified organic by Oregon Tilth in 2012.
“I just really started to question myself about my own values and how am I going to live. I realized I wanted to be an organic farmer. I don’t want to work with toxics; I don’t want to poison the earth; I don’t want to put things in that are going to hurt the things that live here.”
Operating as a certified organic farm is a lot of work, Susan said.
“Primarily the effort of being organic is to not put toxins in the soil and in the air and the water and not put toxins in the food that you sell to other people to eat, or you eat yourself.”
Susan is hopeful that the meaning behind labels like “organic” are what strike a chord with consumers. She wants consumers to have a choice to support the earth while supporting wholesome foods.
“I hope we can latch onto something that has some attraction for everyone so that we can reach out to people and say ‘you’re gonna care about this. This is your life, your health, your kid’s health, the descendents you can’t even imagine.’”
Susan wants American ag to distance itself from ideas from the Green Revolution and look to practices that not only nourish people, but tend to the needs of the planet. Susan said the best way to do that is encourage families to get back in to sustainable farming.
Despite the differences Susan sees in food systems in different parts of the US, her main hope is that family farmers can succeed sustainably in the years to come and that consumers can choose to support ethical food systems regardless of location.
“I hope we don’t run family farmers out of business. Family farmers are dying each year, just looking at the USDA stats. I hope we realize that getting big or get out is just the wrong way to go.”