Photo: Dairy Farmer

People Love Local Food. Yet Local Farmers are Disappearing. What’s Going On? (Episode 65)

Date: 7 Feb 2019 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast, Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Host Stacy Mitchell speaks with Leah Douglas, a staff writer and associate editor at the Food and Environment Reporting Network. As a reporter, Leah focuses on corporate power and political economy in the food sector. Her work sheds light on alarming consolidation in the food industry and its implications for farmers and consumers.

Leah Douglas, Journalist

Although grocery stores offer an illusion of choice with many different brands lining shelves, most brands are owned by just a handful of companies. Leah and Stacy unpack how consolidation in the food industry is bad for both consumers and farmers. They explore this problem by examining the poultry industry, where vertical integration of the supply chain has rendered chicken farmers dependent on the whim of their corporate buyers, forcing farmers out of business.

Stacy and Leah also discuss the dairy sector. Dairy farms have long been the backbone of many rural towns across the nation. Leah explains why the number of dairy farms in America has dwindled from 600,000 to only 40,000 today.

Stacy and Leah discuss how a major change in U.S. farm policy in the 1970s led to the consolidation we see today and the growing debate about whether we should reverse course and return to supply management, a policy approach that’s more conducive to independent farmingThey also explore some encouraging examples of communities fighting back against giant corporate actors including the success of a small town in Missouri, which blocked a large scale livestock farm from coming to their community.

Tune in to hear how advocates, local communities, and states are taking on agriculture monopolies!

Anything you can point to in the food system has really been rolled up to the point where just a few companies are controlling 50, 60 or as much as 80 percent or more of the market.

Stacy Mitchell: Hello and welcome to building local power. I’m Stacy Mitchell of the institute for local self reliance. Today on the show we have Leah Douglas, Leah is a reporter who covers food and agriculture. Her main focus is corporate power, consolidation and political economy in the food sector. She’s a staff writer and associate editor at the food and environment reporting network. And you can find her work online at theFERN.org. She’s also a regular contributor to mother Jones. And before that, she created the website food and power, which is a project of the open markets institute. Leah, so nice to have you on the show.
Leah Douglas: Thank you so much for having me.
Stacy Mitchell: I feel like if we had done this right, we would be recording this after work over some craft beer.
Leah Douglas: That would be great. Yeah I would come up to visit in Maine and we could go to one of the many local breweries.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah it would be nice. Except these days what’s kind of challenging is that you go to reach for a craft beer only to find that maybe it’s not a craft beer anymore because ABB bev, Anheuser-Busch seems to be buying up all sorts of beers. They bought Goose Island out of Chicago. They bought another one out of Virginia, Devil’s Backbone. And now there’s this other thing called the craft brew alliance that’s going around and buying up craft beers. What’s going on?
Leah Douglas: One of my party tricks that no one else enjoys but me is I can always tell people whether the beer they’re drinking is actually a craft beer or not. And a lot of men with beards get upset when I tell them that their beer is actually owned by ABI. Yeah, we’ve seen sort of enormous consolidation in the beer industry, particularly in the past couple of years. Although it’s been going on for a while. I think the stats now is that Anheuser-Busch controls one in four beers sold across the world.
Stacy Mitchell: Wow.
Leah Douglas: And they of course bought SABMiller, which was the other sort of mega brewer, global mega brewer for $100 billion in 2016. And so ABI has really been marching forward with acquisitions in the craft sector. I think they’ve bought over a dozen really sort of prominent craft brewers just in the past couple years alone.
Stacy Mitchell: Wow, wow. This really feels like it in a way encapsulates something that’s going on in the food system, which is as an eater or as a consumer, you walk into the grocery store and there just seems to be this huge amount of choice. All kinds of different milk brands and cheeses and all these different seemingly different beers lining the supermarket shelves. And yet you read the newspaper and you see farmers going out of business in incredible numbers. And you hear these figures about consolidation in the food sector. How does that all fit together? How can those things be true at the same time?
Leah Douglas: It’s definitely as a consumer sort of hard to decode if your main interaction with food is as with most people, just sort of going to the store and shopping. It would seem as though we’re sort of living in a golden era for farmers, for food companies, for even small manufacturers. But the reality is that the vast majority of what we’re seeing on the shelves is owned by just a few companies in each sector. And those few companies are increasingly catching on that consumers are moving towards fresher products, want to know where their food is coming from. And so many of the brands that we see that we might read as being healthy or locally produced, made by a small manufacturer are in fact off shoots and brands that are owned by some of the biggest food manufacturers in the world such as Kraft or General Mills.
Stacy Mitchell: So when you’re at a party telling people what they’re really drinking for beer, what if you were to talk to somebody, what are some of the more sort of scandalous examples or more concerning examples of what’s going on in the food sector right now?
Leah Douglas: Sure. So we’ve seen pretty much any sector, anything you can point to in the food system has really been rolled up to the point where just a few companies are controlling 50, 60 as much as 80 or more percent of the market. And one of the most often pointed to examples is the meat industry where the top four processors depending on which sector control anywhere from 50 to over 80 percent of the market. And those are just a few companies that are operating in each of those sectors. So in reality, companies like JBS, a Brazilian meat packer are the largest beef company in the world. Or Smithfield’s, which is now owned by WH group, a Chinese company that’s the largest pork producer in the world. Those companies have presence in multiple meat sectors.

And so the reality is that as few as two or three companies control just an enormous percentage of the meat that we’re eating.

Stacy Mitchell: So what does that mean to take chicken for example. How does that actually play out for people who grow chickens?
Leah Douglas: Sure. So this is something that yeah, I think it’s important to explain sort of the whole impact of this consolidation on the supply chain because on it’s face it’s hard to understand why this would be an issue per se. And so I think it’s important for consumers to sort of get a sense for what consolidation actually means is happening to everyone that’s in the supply chain. Poultry is a particularly interesting example because the poultry industry is structured mostly on contract production. And by mostly I mean overwhelmingly over 95% contract production. Which means that farmers are contracted to the poultry company. And the poultry company owns all of the inputs and the chickens that the farmers are growing. So the farmer’s role has basically become to sort of babysit the chickens for the six weeks that they’re being grown in the chicken house.

And then the company, the same company owns the distribution that comes and picks up the chickens, brings it to their company owned slaughterhouse and controls their own packaging. And often even transportation to the retail store. So that consolidation is not just that they control 50% of any one of those operations. But it’s the entire supply chain has become vertically integrated. And the role of the farmer has become diminished and along with that, the power of the farmer has also become diminished where farmers are now in most of these sectors price takers rather than price makers. And are really subject to the whims of their corporate buyers.

Stacy Mitchell: It doesn’t even really seem like in that situation that you describe with chicken farmers. And I read some stats about how many chicken farmers are living in poverty. It doesn’t sound like they’re independent farmers at all. It’s more like they’re employees, but maybe even without the protection of employment with these companies. If essentially you’re being told what to grow and getting your chickens from this big company and they’re setting all of the terms and parameters for what you do, that’s not really like being an independent operator. And it’s not a market. It’s some sort of surf kind of relationship.
Leah Douglas: Yes, absolutely. And it’s so important to identify that farmers in many of these sectors in fact most, are indeed losing money and many cases living in poverty. Their costs of production are way below, way above, excuse me, the money that they’re taking in. In the case of poultry it’s quite interesting because actually federal regulators have even started to identify that poultry farmers don’t really look like independent businesses. There was actually a report last year from the office of the inspector general of the small business association that was looking at the SBA’s loan program for poultry farmers. And identified that poultry farmers are so under the control of their corporate processors that the SBA was saying why are we lending to “independent farmers” when in fact there’s such a captured relationship there that it’s hard to justify why this is independent.

And so that’s getting some attention and momentum on capital hill and certainly shores up what a lot of advocates and farmers have been saying for a long time, which is that the farmers are controlled so much by the corporate processors and sort of the end buyer that they don’t have the authority and agency that we would associate with an independent business person.

Stacy Mitchell: That’s interesting about the SBA because we’ve seen something similar with franchises. So there are franchise operators who will get small business administration back to loan similar to the poultry growers. But when you look at the terms of their contract with the franchise company, essentially the business is being run by the franchise company. The franchise company, it might be 7/11 for example, or Subway. They’re taking the lion’s share of the profit and the benefit of that business. So there’s a real question about whether there should be taxpayer loan guarantees going to those firms when it’s really the big guys that benefit the most. It sounds like it’s a very similar thing in poultry. Is there real movement to actually get to change that through something that congress might do? Or is the SBA maybe even looking at just closing that up?
 Leah Douglas: It sort of remains to be seen. Just this week there was some momentum, there were two senators who I believe it was Senator Jon Tester and Senator Chuck Grassley who signed a letter saying that they agreed with the recommendations that SBA, that this report from the office of the inspector general, excuse me, put forward about sort of SBA refining its loan giving practices to account for the fact that basically related to what you were saying that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be going towards guaranteed loans that are essentially going towards Tyson foods.

That they should reevaluate whether the loans are actually serving the farmer or if they’re serving the corporation. So there’s been a little bit of movement on it. We’ll have to see whether the SBA does move ahead with shifting its loan giving practices.

 Stacy Mitchell:  Another area in addition to chicken where there are just really a lot of disturbing headlines about what’s happening with farmers right now is the dairy sector. And that’s at least here in New England is a big deal. And we just have been seeing farmers go under left and right. And I know dairy is complicated in terms of how it works, but can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on?
 Leah Douglas:  Sure. So the dairy industry has been experiencing a price crisis for several years where farmers are now looking at prices so low that as you said, farms are really going out of business at an extremely alarming rate. I was just looking back over a story I reported last year, a little over a year ago about dairy cooperatives. And in that story I cited that the new low for dairy farms was hit in 2016, 2017 was 58,000 dairy farms in the country whereas we once had over 600,000 dairy farmers in the country.
 Stacy Mitchell:  Wow.
 Leah Douglas: And actually as of today that stat is now down to about 40,000. So that’s even just in the last year and a half, that’s another 15 up to 20,000 farms that have gone out of business.
 Stacy Mitchell: Wow.
 Leah Douglas:  It’s really staggering. And those are small businesses that are sort of the skeleton of a lot of rural towns in places that have always had sort of a relatively stable agriculture economy. Dairy farms have always been in every state and have always sort of been around to sort of keep rural communities going. And so I think it’s particularly destabilizing that dairy farms are the ones going out of business most rapidly. Now, I think that’s why part of the reason why it’s been talked about a lot because it really has a strong impact on the community. So there’s a number of reasons, but I would say that corporate consolidation is at the root of some of the problems. The dairy industry, like every other industry in the food sector has become enormously consolidated. And in particular dairy has an interesting structure because 80% of milk in the country is sold through a dairy cooperative.

And cooperatives were originally conceptualized in the sector as a means for farmers to have a bargaining power against powerful middle men. But over time the cooperatives themselves have become so powerful that now we see more like a relationship between the cooperative and the processor than the cooperative and the farmer. And so that has become a very difficult thing for many farmers to navigate. And particularly in the northeast, there is often issues trying to switch between different cooperatives. Farmers will find that other cooperatives aren’t taking on new farmers or that their cooperative has an unspoken agreement with the competitor that they won’t sort of poach each other’s farmers.

And so if farmers are struggling to make ends meet with the prices they have, basically their only option is to tough it out or to sell their cows. And that’s why we’re seeing such a dramatic drop in the number of farms.

Stacy Mitchell: It’s astonishing that there isn’t the political will to deal with that. As you said, given how much dairy farms are the backbone of rural regions of many different states. Now I guess part of it, there seems to be this sense, there’s this idea out there that maybe small farms are inefficient. They’re just sort of naturally going to go away.

I know that we’ve seen in California and Arizona these huge dairy farms with thousands and thousands of cows. Is that something that, if we can get cheaper milk through these big farms, isn’t that something that we should be in favor of even if we feel nostalgic about the lost dairy farm?

 Leah Douglas:  Yeah, I think that’s a great question to discuss, because I think a lot of people feel that way. And not necessarily from a place of malice, just from a place of not necessarily understanding the context and history. One of the things I really try to drive forward with my work, my reporting, is to show that nothing that’s happened in the past 50 years, or certainly longer than that, is the result of a “natural process,” quote, unquote. It’s all a series of decisions that are made by powerful decision-makers. And those decisions aren’t inherently good or bad, but it’s important to analyze those decisions as they come along and not see … Certainly the collapse of certain industries in rural America is the natural process of capitalism or natural process of the country’s evolution, which is something that I think a lot of people believe. So particularly in the case of dairy, I think it’s important to identify that we have had, in the past, completely different ways of regulating our dairy industry that worked for decades. And this is something that a lot of farmers have been pointing to in the wake of the current dairy crisis is particularly a set of policies known as supply management which we used to sort of build our entire agricultural economy around supply management in the first half of the 20th century, which basically involves a combination of a floor price for commodities that helps farmers keep their prices stable, a commodity reserve that helps manage how much of a supply of a certain commodity is in the market, and then conservation programs that can take agricultural land out of production if the supply gets out of wack.

And I think that that’s a set of policies that, now, is seen as antithetical to capitalism, antithetical to American values, but we forget that that was our sort of guiding agricultural philosophy for a long time. And it was only the introduction of the idea of quote “free market” agricultural economy that overturns the plan management and moved us more towards industrial production and more towards the types of farming that we see today, such as you mentioned farms in California that have hundreds of thousands of cows for dairy production. And so I think that it’s important to recognize that there was a decision to make that transition that was federal policy-makers decided that this was the way we were gonna go for a variety of reasons and incentives, and that there are other models, if we look to other countries. For instance, Canada has always had certain types of supply management in their dairy economy. And if we also just look back to our own history not so long ago.

Stacy Mitchell: That’s great to hear about the growing conversation around supply management, and I wanna come back and dig into that a little bit more and also just generally talk about the Farm Bill and public policy around agriculture. But first, we’re gonna take a short break.

You’re listening to Leah Douglas, a staff writer and associate editor and the Food and Environmental Reporting Network. I’m Stacy Mitchell, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we’ll be right back after a short break.

Hello everyone. Thanks again for listening to Building Local Power, I hope you’re enjoying today’s episode. I wanted to take just a short break today to let you know about a few of the other ways that you can get involved with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. If you like this podcast, you might also really appreciate our newsletters, and we have several. The one that I’d recommend if you’re particularly interested in following issues of corporate concentration, a growing movement around addressing monopoly power, is our Hometown Advantage newsletter. It’s got our latest writing on corporate power, companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart, plus it’s got great stories and resources on how communities are effectively fighting back.

So you can sign up for the Hometown Advantage newsletter and all of our other newsletters by going to ilsr.org, our homepage, and scrolling down to the bottom and clicking on the big, orange “newsletter” button. Thank you.

Alright, and we’re back with Leah Douglas, staff writer and editor at the Food and Environmental Reporting Network. So, just before the break, we were talking some about supply management, and I wanted to just dig in a little bit more to why that shift happened. As I understand it, in the early part of the 20th century, we used to have policies that, as you said, basically put a floor below which the prices that farmers were paid couldn’t drop. They had to get a minimum sort of price, and there was also a management on the overall supply so that the market wouldn’t become so flooded with milk, for example, that prices would crash and then farmers would be left not able to get the money they’d put in to producing milk back out of it.

My understanding, from looking at some of your reporting on this, is that that system seemed to work pretty well, that it was a pretty sustainable way to go for rural economies, pretty good for maintaining a good, affordable supply of food. Tell me a little bit about the moment when we abandoned that, and how that came about.

Leah Douglas: The sort of point that often folks look at when we’re thinking about the shift of agriculture away from regionalism and towards a national and export-oriented economy was, in the 1970s, under a Secretary of Agriculture named Earl Butz, and he’s famously known for calling on farmers to plant quote, “fence row to fence row,” which would increase the country’s commodity harvest and enable us to better participate in the global commodity economy. That was a period of time when farmers were very strongly incentivized to shift their production away from maybe what we now call “specialty crops,” which are sort of basic range of fruits and vegetables, and towards a certain set of commodities that can be introduced into commodity exchanges in the national export market. So that might include corn, soy, cotton and other types of grains.

And so, as a result, in the decades shortly after that, there was a massive shift towards producing certain types of commodities very intensively in a practice that’s now called “mono-cropping,” which means planting the same crop over hundreds and hundreds of acres without much rotation, without much regenerative soil practice. And that was a period of time where we saw this major change taking place.

Stacy Mitchell: That’s so interesting. I feel like there’s so many ways in which this country took a big wrong turn in the 1970s.
Leah Douglas: Well, I don’t think it’s coincidence that it coincides with a lot of other ways that we were starting to think about, again, quote unquote “free markets,” and moving away from certain types of regulated markets and towards another approach that emphasized high levels of production and deregulation. I think all those policies went hand-in-hand.
Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and really set up a situation where large corporations had the upper hand. From a set of policies that really structured markets to decentralized production to make sure small and mid-sized farms and companies had an opportunity to compete and to be viable, towards a system where, as you said, national … Oriented towards exports, oriented towards commodity crops, oriented towards companies that had the wherewithal to take advantage of this so-called free market that really wasn’t all that free. It was really more about letting them off the leash in terms of being able to do what they wanted to do.
Leah Douglas: Yup.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, I’ve certainly heard more people talking about supply management and seen more coverage of that as an idea, certainly in the dairy industry, with Canada as an example. People have been talking about supply management. Do you think that that’s got real legs? I mean, is it possible that we could make a wholesale shift in how we approach farm policy to go back to a system more like that?
Leah Douglas: Yeah, it’s hard to say. I think that it sort of depends on a variety of elements, politically. I think that there’s definitely momentum around the idea of at least, if not supply management per se, then at least of shifting conversations around what our national farm economy looks like and who it’s serving. I think that there’s a lot more, just in the course of my reporting, I’ve seen a lot more conversation around farmers identifying, which they have identified for decades, but particularly being unified around a message that corporations and corporate actors are, by far, the entities best served by our current regulatory system. For farmers, for rural communities, for consumers, which is everyone, that there might be more investment in creating a system where corporations aren’t the entities being best served.

Though I will say, I think that these are still controversial ideas, and I think that there’s … I’ve heard from a number of farmers that the idea of particularly drawing land out of agricultural production in order to control supply is something that’s quite controversial because farmers feel very sensitive to wanting to work and the idea that certain land would not be worked in order to maintain a certain commodity level, is very unappealing to a lot of farmers. There’s certainly a good argument to be made there, too. So I think that there’s …What’s interesting, and I think unique, about this moment is just the amount of conversation and openness to new ideas and to pushing back on this sort of system that’s become so overwhelming and so the harms of consolidation are becoming so apparent that new partnerships are being made and new bridges being built between different types of producers who can all identify that this sort of era of corporate control is not serving them.

Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s good to hear. We passed another farm bill every few years that Congress passes a big farm bill. The most recent one passed in the fall. As I understand it, it was basically the same way that the farm bill has been for quite a long time now, which has large subsidies, particularly for the biggest farms, the biggest commodity-growers, and maybe a little bit of support around the edges for family farms, but not a whole lot. But there was one significant shift in this year’s farm bill, which I know relates to an issue that’s close to your heart, that you’ve been covering a lot, which has to do with black farmers, particularly in the South, who don’t have clear title to their land and have been locked out of USDA programs, have trouble getting loans. Tell us a little bit about that issue, and what the farm bill did to solve it.
Leah Douglas: So, yes, I’ve done some reporting over the years on this issue of heir’s property, which is a type of property ownership that occurs when land has been inherited over the course of generations without a will that identifies a clear heir. What can happen, in low-income families in particular who may not have access to legal services consistently, is that over the course of generations the land maybe be owned by sort of a constellation of relatives rather than one clear heir.

This is an issue for low-income families of all races and across the country, but it’s been a particular issue for black farmers in the Southeast, where there’s a very high concentration of heir’s property-owners. And so there’s been decades of advocacy done on behalf of those farmers and by those farmers to change some of the laws and regulations in USDA, the Department of Agriculture, because if you don’t have a clear title to your land, then you’re not able to participate in most types of USDA programs, including getting loans through the Farm Service Agency, which is known as quote, “the lender of last resort,” for farmers who have trouble accessing capital through other means.

And because farming is such a loan-dependent industry, FSA loans are really essential tool that heir’s property-owners have been boxed out of. And so, this farm bill, in large part due to the work of the Congressional Black Caucus, which really took on this issue, includes some stipulations that USDA is going to provide some services to families that own heir’s property to help them figure out who might be a clear owner to the land, and help them simplify their titles, and then also to lower the bar for accessing a farm number, which is the piece of information you need to get into these USDA programs.

So this is the first time that this issue’s been taken up by the farm bill, and it’s quite exciting for many advocates who have been working on the issue for a long time.

Stacy Mitchell: That’s really good to hear. Are there, much of farm policy is at the federal level, the farm bill, what the USDA does, are there other things that people should be thinking about in terms of what their communities can do? What their state can do? Are there ways that we as eaters as citizens can take action in our own communities to address these issues and to better support a more diversified farming system?
Leah Douglas: Yes! Definitely! And that’s something that I really, it’s a big body of work for me, is looking at state and local regulations around agriculture production. Because in fact, there’s a lot of activity there and I think it’s often under reported. At least sort of in the national media, it’s hard to understand what’s going on at the state level to regulate these types of industries. But there’s a lot happening.

One area I think is really interesting is to look at certain laws that have been taken up by farm industry groups as sort of vehicles for deregulation even though on their face the laws are pitched as protections as farmers. So a couple examples of these laws would be Ag-gag laws which are laws that prevent documentation of farms, farming operations. And then some states it goes so far as to prevent even photo journalism or other types of public interest documentation of what’s happening at large scale farms.

Another bucket of laws that’s similar to this is right to farm laws which exists in every state. And are basically, were originally imagined as just protecting farmers from basic, sort of nuisance lawsuits. So if a neighbor didn’t like the smell of five pigs living next door they couldn’t sue the farm out of business. That bucket of laws has been taken up by the food industry and their perimeters have been greatly expanded through lobbying at the state level to encompass all types of restrictions on what farms can be sued for. So, and to be clear, when I’m saying farms, quote on quote, the visual is more like a contained animal feeding operation, a massive industrial scale farm, not a mom-and-pop operation.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, so you’re talking about these places where they’ve got just huge numbers of animals in confined feeding, big lagoons of waste. That’s what you’re talking about. Those industrial scale. And essentially they’ve been able to, what you’re saying, is game state law so that people who live near them may wanna be documenting what they’re doing or inhibiting, putting some limits on what they’re doing, are being impeded by these right to farm laws.
Leah Douglas: Yes, exactly. And there’s been some great momentum against, particularly Ag-gag laws and other types of state laws that state watchdog groups have been taking on to identify that this is happening and to push back on the use of these local regulations to sort of be a vehicle for deregulation of the industry. And I would say another place where there’s a lot of really exciting momentum is community fights against individual CAFO’s or other types of, particularly large scale, livestock farms. There seems like all the time a new community campaign in an agricultural state to fend off the introduction of a new mega livestock farm. And that often involves hyper local regulations and going to local town hall and board meetings to fight these types of introduction of this industry. And so there’s a lot of really exciting work happening at the very, very grassroots level to identify how state and local laws are being co-opted to pave the way for industrial production.
Stacy Mitchell: Is there a story you can think of from, I dunno, in the last year or so, of a place that stood up to a CAFO, a confined animal feeding operation, if I’ve got that right? And won?
Leah Douglas: Yes, actually! I reported a little bit on a community that is just outside the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. So kind of a peri-rural community that was facing expansion of an existing farm to go from a couple hundred head of cattle to several thousand head of cattle. And there was a lot of resistance to this from the local community. There was a nearby botanical gardens that folks were really concerned about. Tanking the tourist industry of this town or the local attractions. And they started a Facebook campaign and made lawn signs and T-shirts. They ended up defeating the CAFO. I think they’ve now been through two or three rounds of having to fend off the CAFO expansion at various types of state and local boards. But it’s been really interesting to watch because it’s just one example of something that actually is … There’s been several success stories along those lines from the past couple of years.

Unfortunately, in the case where those CAFO’s are driven by a corporate factor, what we’ve also seen is that if one community succeeds at fending off the introduction of a new CAFO the company can pick up and move to the next state over or the next community over where maybe the people there have less resources, maybe they just don’t have enough capacity to fight it off. And they can then plant the CAFO there. So that’s another way where it can be still important to think about the national context of these corporate entities. Because as long as they still have that national reach they’re still able to move their operations around and dodge some of these fights. But with that particular example of, Lone Jack is the name of the town in Missouri, is quite optimistic.

Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think that’s so true and something that we see at ILSR across our work is we’re certainly big advocates and provide a lot of resources for communities taking things into their own hands and ways that they can stand up and fight rule by corporations, and succeed in a lot of cases. But we also believe very much that we live in an environment in which it’s harder for communities to succeed because of all the federal policies because of the consolidation in the power that these monopolies have been allowed to amass. It can be an uphill fight and we have to deal with those deeper structures if we’re gonna hope to put communities really on an even playing field in terms of being able to set their own future.

Well that’s great. I have just a couple of last questions for you. I’m gonna ask you for some recommendations, both reading and drinking recommendations. But first, I was actually curious to know a little bit about how did you get into this? How did you become such a passionate advocate for food systems and so interested in reporting on it?

Leah Douglas: Well, I would say my first sort of entrée was I was a foodie 1.0 when I was a young person, a younger person, and I was really into cooking and thinking about where food came from, just purely from a consumer perspective. And when I was studying my undergrad, which I studied agricultural production and sustainable agriculture, I was really, my eyes were really opened by mentors and other work that I did in the food system around how there was really a broader system of power and control in place that I had understood as purely a consumer. And so over time, through studying and reading about these issues and working in the food system, really became drawn to this area of work around corporate control which I think it also is extremely under examined in the food system. And one of my rants that I go on after enough craft beers is about how the food industry should be covered just like any other mega industry whether it’s technology or oil production. And it’s very under examined. So I think the combination of my foodie background and then mixed with an anti-authority streak drove me to continue years of railing on about corporate power.
Stacy Mitchell: Nice. Well we often end this show by asking our guests if they have a reading or watching recommendation. And it can be related to these issues or it could be something completely not related.
Leah Douglas: My go-to book that I really love and recommend often, and I’ve been thinking about recently, that really changed the trajectory of my thinking about food systems is Weighing In by a scholar named Julie Guthman. Not a popular book per se, kind of an academic book, but written quite accessibly about how capitalism as a system has shaped our conception of food and how we interact with the food we eat. So that’s definitely one I always come back to. And next on my reading list, I’m really excited to read the book Freedom Farmers by Dr. Monica White. Just came out that’s about the legacy of black farmers in the Civil Rights Movement which is a really essential history. So those are two, an old read, and a new read.
Stacy Mitchell: Those are great recommendations and we will put links to both of those on the show page for this episode. That’s Weighing In by Julie Guthman and Freedom Farmers by Dr. Monica White. And finally, what do you like to drink for craft beers? You’re in D.C. right?
Leah Douglas: I am, I am. And we’re lucky in D.C. There’s a very vibrant craft brewery ecosystem here.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah! So what should people drink when they visit D.C.?
Leah Douglas: Well, D.C. Brau is the big, most favorite craft beer by many. And I’m also partial to Right Proper which is a local brewhouse that’s just a couple blocks from my house so that’s my local haunt.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, hyper local.
Leah Douglas: Hyper local. Yeah, exactly! Their brewery is just down the street, so I can walk there for my cravings.
Stacy Mitchell: That sounds great! Leah, thanks so much for being on the show today! It’s been great to have you!
Leah Douglas: Yeah! Thank you so much for having me Stacy, this is great.
Stacy Mitchell: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website, ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. We’ll include links to some of our favorite pieces by Leah along with her book recommendations. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. If you like this podcast please consider sharing it with your friends and leaving us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. This show is produced by the inimitable Lisa Gonzales along with Zach Freed and Hibba Meraay. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Disfunction Al. For the Institute for Local Self Reliance I’m Stacy Mitchell. I hope you tune in again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Photo Credit: Doug Calloway via Flickr

Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Hibba Meraay
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Hibba Meraay

Hibba Meraay manages communications for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies. A native New Englander, Hibba is a graduate of Boston University. Contact Hibba for media inquiries.