In the 1960s, my tiny, rural farming community in Washington State raised 100,000 Thanksgiving turkeys a year. This year, we raised less than a few dozen at most. I personally raised nine.
The turkey once supported thousands of family farms and rural, agrarian economies across the United States. But as the food and farming system focused on producing cheap food so U.S. consumers could spend their money (and build the economy) elsewhere, turkey production shifted from small family farms and regional production systems to just a few, massive producers.
Nixon’s U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) secretary Earl Butz, famously known for telling U.S. farmers to “get big or get out,” would likely herald today’s turkey production as a grand success.
But this week, we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinners in the midst of a global pandemic — a crisis that disrupted the food supply even in the United States, one of the world’s top agricultural producers. We now face a future that promises more of the same food disruptions: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for one, predicts that food security will be increasingly affected by global warming and the growing global population; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says rising temperatures may negatively affect agricultural production. In 2015, Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, implored the USDA to consider the impact of food system consolidation on food security in 2015.
The looming vulnerabilities of the consolidated food system are not something most Americans will think about when they pull out the turkey carving knife this Thanksgiving.
But maybe we should.
The modern American turkey represents everything we did right in order to produce cheap, plentiful food. It’s also a symbol of everything we did to destroy regional food systems and food security.
My 88-year-old neighbor Al Sherman’s family was once in the turkey business. They decided to expand their turkey raising operation because his father had tried his hand at…