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Deesmealz’s sister organization, the Rural Assembly, held its fourth virtual gathering of rural experts, leaders, and community members last month and we’re all still thinking about the discussions we had about strengthening democracy in rural America. One space with oodles of room for improvement is in agriculture, which is why I talked with experts Kelsey Scott and Loka Ashwood about how we got to this point of mega-corporate agriculture and where we can go from here.

Ashwood is a rural sociologist and professor at the University of Kentucky who has previously been featured in this very newsletter. Kelsey Scott is a rancher who operates a direct-to-consumer beef operation on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. She’s also the director of programs with the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Enjoy our conversation about corporate agriculture, local food systems, and the regulatory approaches and grassroots efforts that can drive change, below.

Claire Carlson: Corporate agriculture has been pretty harmful to rural communities and our environment. How did the United States’ food system get to this point?

Kelsey Scott: I can get us started. I think one of the things that we have to reflect upon is that the food system at large here on this continent has been built without regard to the fact that a food system existed here. It was at the stewardship of Indigenous societies that all across this continent worked in tandem with nature and worked in a way that had a very thoughtful approach. I mean, we had these procedures like food safety standards embedded into our cultural teachings.

There’s this constant disregard for Indigenous food systems and perception that Indian communities or Indigenous communities or communities of color are food insecure, don't have access to nutrition, or have poor nutrition habits. That's all a lie. That's just us suffering from the symptoms of a poorly matched food system with this continent and with our ways of being and knowing. As we redesign and re-localize our current food systems, I think we need to look to our Indigenous models and frameworks to rebuild and reconstruct what a food system should look like and what policies and expectations should be put forth into the regulatory bodies that dictate the systems.

Loka Ashwood: That's beautifully put, Kelsey. I think I could add to that by thinking about the evolution from the way in which the democratic state itself began through forcible dispossession. So even thinking about the roots of the United States. Where does it come from? How did settlement happen? I think diaspora is an important context to think about people fleeing from other settings to come to other places and dispossessing others when they do come to those places. How can we stop continuous dispossession and repossession and dispossession so people don't have to flee, so they have a capacity to build a home in a place? I think home is a really key phrase and a key term to use when we're talking about agriculture and when we're talking about land and markets.

When did agriculture companies start merging together and what is the damage that has caused?

LA: When we think about how corporations have gained so much power over the U.S. economy and internationally, I always think back to one of the key phases of the corporate reconstruction of capitalism that was in the late 1800s. One of the primary purposes of corporations early on was to get access to eminent domain so you could forcibly take property from other dwellers in service of what you could say was the public good.

With corporate agriculture in the sense that we think about it – like the Packers and Stockyard Act – that was happening in the early 20th century. So in the early 1900s you had these sort of concerns centering more around agriculture in terms of animal production. We’ve had a resurgence of these kinds of concerns recently because the companies have gotten so powerful, like Cargill, Archer Daniels, Midland, JBS, Tyson.

These are the companies that are really attracting our attention and unfortunately, I think that kind of thinking is still rooted in thinking of a century ago where you had clear companies you could attach to sectors. You could say that it's the Ford company that has the power in this situation over automobiles. Or, for example, it's Tyson that has control over chicken. But now, we're in a completely different state of corporate control. It's so effusive that even our own government doesn't know how to track it, and they don't know how to track it because we're not even sure who those owners are.

KS: Just to build on that a little bit, I mean, we raise about 40-50% of our calves to slaughter weight, and then we cycle through a four head a day mom and pop butchery, where we process our cattle about an hour from here. So we have not at all solved and mastered this to the capacity which corporations have the power to because of their financing, but one thing to note is the corporate influence still has a direct impact on my ability to do business as a small scale producer that has invested a lot of our own money into getting into that value added food sector chain to try to promote access to more local meats here. So it's an impact that is not only felt by people who have not yet ventured into that value at a production space. It's still felt by people who are trying to heal these local food systems in a more thoughtful and community spirited way.

Kelsey, can you talk more about how corporate influence is impacting DX Beef? What are some specific examples?

KS: Yeah, I can. In one capacity, it's the messaging that I think is perceived by the consumers. A lot of times we are in a position where we're forced to either defend or uphold the integrity of our product because of something that has happened at the more corporate production scale and is not at all applicable to the methods through which we produce our product.

Another one is the price point at which we established our product, because we've started to scale up prior to Covid hitting. And then there's the regulatory end for the processing standards I'm held to. The mom and pop shop I butcher at, it's four head per day max and I have to uphold the same standardized testing protocols as the outfit in the corner of the state that does 200 head every 12 hour shift. Those four head come from one ranch. There's no possibility for cross-contamination. They never leave my ranch until they're dropped off at the butcher. Yet we have to run all of the same standardized tests as what this large outfit does, which does drive our overhead costs up in relative comparison to what they endure.

This brings us to our solutions part of the conversation. What injustices have you seen with corporate agriculture, and Kelsey, especially, how is the operation that you run is trying to solve some of those injustices?

KS: Yeah. So it's a little bit multifold for me individually, I guess. One of them is continuing to tell my story through the framing and the value system that we believe to be important. That honestly in and of itself can be a very daunting task because there is so much negative backlash or negativity that could be put out there targeting the corporate space. But then when I do that, that's informing the value system through which my business is existing, right? So it's unfortunate that there's this ideology around so much of this correction that has to happen falling on the backs of our producers. I don't think that that should have to be our responsibility. That should be something that is from a top down sort of approach.

I mean, we need justice to be upheld. Otherwise, it can't be an additional thing that our already distressed, already financially unstable, already emotionally unwell farmers and ranchers have to try to endure on top of it all. But until we address some of the symptoms that are already systemic as a result of what corporate food systems have done to our producers, we can't expect them to also carry this burden. So we have to be really cognizant of that and ensure that we are providing the appropriate resources to help to fix that.

LA: I think this change has to come from both directions because when I've seen the most successful stalling of the most egregious industrial agricultural practices, it's the communities that have gotten involved with taking on those very risky local dynamics of threats that leveraged the largest agricultural operators, political boundaries around Republican and Democrat. They collapse those, and they come together in defense of home and they've stopped the siting of some of these facilities and that gets the momentum that the regulators have to pay attention. Kelsey, I appreciate much of your initial comments that a lot of the problem began with the government, with particular kinds of governments that have created this not very resilient and faulty system. So to think that if we can have a top down effort to decentralize to go from the top down to make it no longer the top and the bottom, to make it decentralized, that's great, but I've seen the pressure is coming from the bravest people on the local level that are standing up to affront these processes.

KS: Just to tag onto that, Loka. What I was implying is that grassroots efforts have to be matched by an engagement in policy. It can't just be us out there railing against corporate food systems. We actually have to have engaged stakeholders in that policy and regulatory space.

LA: That's the perfect match.

KS: Yep, absolutely.

To listen to the full conversation, head over to the Rural Assembly's YouTube channel.

Path Finders is a weekly newsletter featuring interviews with rural thinkers, creators, and doers. In each edition, you'll hear from people doing creative work in rural settings or shedding light on some problem in rural life and suggesting solutions. Our conversations will dig into the interviewee’s work and our burning questions big and small.

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